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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Something else I've been meaning to talk about: inspiration.

I'm thinking here not of artistic inspiration, particularly, but of inspiration in general, as defined thus in Webster's:

1 a: a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation; b: the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

What we call artistic inspiration, of course, is a stepped-down version of this divine influence.

I got thinking about it while reading the book Zoroastrians by Mary Boyce. Early in the book she sketches the revelation of the ancient Iranian prophet (around 1500 BC) whom the Greeks called Zoroaster, contrasting his teaching with the previously existing beliefs of the Indo-Iranians who at that time still lived on the steppes east of the Caspian Sea--before the migrations that would split this group into the peoples we now call Indians and Iranians. As I read, I found myself becoming inspired by Zoroaster's message.

The Indo-Iranians had many gods. They were a pastoral people whose nomadic lifestyle allowed only a simple, mobile cult. They regarded the elements of earth, water, and fire as sacred, and their rituals included simple representations of these things. Also sacred to them was what they termed asha--the natural order of the world. Asha manifested itself in human society mainly as justice and as truth in speech, something the Indo-Iranians took very seriously. Being true to one's word was especially important in two actions: in making an oath, and in making an agreement with another person. The god who oversaw oaths was Varuna; the god who oversaw contracts was Mithra. Whoever violated an oath or a contract could expect punishment from the god in question.

As the Bronze Age unfolded, the invention of the war chariot revolutionized warfare in much the same way that gasoline-powered vehicles revolutionized it in the 20th century, by making it mobile. A single war chariot could wreak havoc on a large contingent of foot soldiers at that time. The charioteer, dashing, bold, powerful, and wealthy, became a new icon--the prototype of the knight and cavalryman, or even our modern race-car driver. The Indo-Iranians tamed horses on the steppes, and had access to rich deposits of copper and tin that enabled them to make weapons. A new caste of mercenaries and brigands was born.

A charioteer didn't want a life of herding sheep or cattle; he could take whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. So began an era of systematic domination of humble pastoralists by aggressive warriors.

This was the era into which Zoroaster was born. Apparently he looked around him, saw violence and injustice, and one day, while fetching water in a river to perform a rite, had a vision of the supreme god Ahura Mazda ("Lord Wisdom"), who gave him a new understanding of the world and his mission in it.

Ahura Mazda, the lord of goodness and truth, upholder of asha in the universe, had an opponent, Angra Mainyu ("Hostile Spirit"), who like Ahura Mazda had always been, but who was bent on upsetting the order of the world. He was the source of injustice, lies, and evil in the world. Most of the other gods of the Indo-Iranian pantheon, including all those worshipped by the warrior caste, were on the side of Angra Mainyu, not Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster learned that the whole universe was a struggle between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between justice and injustice, and the mission being given him was to educate his fellow people about this, and get them working on the side of Ahura Mazda--bringing good and order into the world.

To make a long story short, Zoroaster was indeed able to convince enough people of his message to launch a major world religion--the world's first revealed religion, and eventually the official religion of the mighty Persian empire, and a major influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His teachings followed the migrations of the Indo-Iranians into what we now call India and Iran; Zoroastrianism was one of the influences on the northern Mahayana Buddhism of India just before and after the time of Christ.

Zoroaster preached goodness and truth. And he stressed that each individual human, man and woman, young and old, mighty and humble, matters in the cosmic struggle against evil. Every word, deed, and thought that we have counts. At every moment of our lives it makes a difference, to the universe as a whole, what we think, say, and do. We need to decide whose team we're on, and then play our part to the fullest.

When I read this I was inspired. I no difficulty seeing why Zoroaster could find followers with this message. It was a categorical summons to what was highest and best in people, presented in a myth, a story, they could believe. I was reminded of how I have been inspired, again and again, by the teachings of Buddhism, for much the same reason: it was, is, a summons to what is highest and best in us, to apply ourselves to our lives with attention and diligence--to do the right thing.

I venture to suppose that inspiration is the most powerful force in the human psyche and in the shaping of world events. And I can see why Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda, Lord Wisdom, must and would eventually win this cosmic struggle--it was inevitable. Angra Mainyu would be finally and permanently defeated, because while greed and power-lust can motivate people, they can never inspire them. Somehow Zoroaster was tapping into this difference in motivating forces in the human psyche, which must in turn of course be related to reality, the structure of the universe after all. His message was meaningful, fulfilling, and optimistic. If everyone must live by some set of beliefs, why not these?

The wind of inspiration blew through me. I recalled the times--many times, I'm glad to say--I've felt in my life that there are good, important, worthwhile things for us--all of us--to do in the world.

Ideally, artistic inspiration can be part of that.

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