Reflections on Ethics: From Avesta to Shahnameh

This article discusses the nature and meaning of ethical principles in Avesta and Iranian mythology and their relevance to the ethical concepts embodied in Shahnameh. According to the author, Avesta, as other divince books, sets forth a moral mission. However, at the time of its emergence an ethical code of behavior was not yet in existence. Nevertheless, Avesta contained the idea of good and evil that had from the beginning informed the genesis of the world.

Shahnameh, Iran’s greatest epic of the Islamic period, embodies many of Iran’s ancient ethical beliefs that have survived in Iranians’ collective consciousness. Avesta’s moral worldview was an integral part of this system of believes. Shahnameh, however, contains its own ethical frame of reference, and, above all, is the embodiment of the belief in man’s free will and the imperative of resisting all that stands against its realization. While man’s mere life and death is beyond his will, the quality of his existence, in honor or in disgrace, depends solely on his own will. Indeed, notwithstanding the common belief that a strain of determinism runs through Shahnameh’s epic tales, its deterministic bent is not divine but human. The whole epic reflects man’s never-ending struggle to escape the snare of fate. It displays a permanent negation of the ordained through the power of the will. In a sense, according to the author, Shahnameh is the story of the glorious defeat of the valiant seekers of freedom.

During the Sassanid period, when Zoroastrianism turned into the state religion, the religious leaders defined the parameters of good and evil and determined the exact nature of every sin and its retributions. Thus, religious sanctions turned moral codes of behavior into a set of enforceable religious commandments.

With the advent of the totalitarian state, the writer argues, the imposition of the ruling elite’s ideological and dogmatic norms of thought and behavior overwhelmed purely ethical principles, which can only be tested in the presence of individual’s free will to determine good and evil.

* Abstract prepared by Iran Nameh.

Shahrokh Meskoob
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