Doubt: Descartes and the Gathas

René Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher considered by many to be one of the founders of modern European rationalism, was troubled by doubt.  What if, he wondered, everything that I see, hear and touch is not fundamentally, really real?  What if everything I know, or think I know is false and even the truths of mathematics and physics, which seem entirely unshakeable, are clever lies and not universal laws?  Descartes confronts his doubt in a book he called Meditations on First Philosophy, composed in 1640.  At the beginning of the First Meditation, Descartes lays out his program:

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.  I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.

Descartes begins his demolition work by acknowledging the ways in which the senses can be deceived while awake and the impossible visions that come to people when they sleep.  However, even if one’s perception can be called into doubt in these particular circumstances, the fundamental truths of the universe—meaning arithmetic, geometry, the laws of physics and the like—would still hold.  Even while asleep and dreaming, Decartes writes, two plus three makes five, never four or six.

However, the meditation goes further.  For who is to say if these laws, the world, the sky and the sun, the whole universe, do not really exist but that it is God who makes them appear to exist?  How can one know for certain that God himself does not contrive things so that one goes wrong every time one adds two and three?  God’s good nature renders unlikely this kind of malicious trickery and makes Decartes’ doubts themselves doubtful.  In order to reach his desired state of radical doubt, in which he can call into question everything he accepted, by habit, to be reality, Descartes makes use of a convenient fiction:

I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some evil demon (sed genium aliquem malignum) of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me.  I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement.  I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, flesh or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things.  I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know the truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree.

From this position of radical doubt, in which he presumes that an evil force has directed all his energies merely in order to trick him, Descartes ultimately arrives at bedrock that he knows must be true.  This is the famous dictum cogito, ergo sum, I think therefore I am.  Whatever else happens, even if all his thoughts are false delusions, the fact that he is thinking cannot itself be wrong.  The evil demon is directing his energies at deceiving something and that something is him, Descartes.  The thought I exist can, therefore, never be false, however much the demon applies his energies.

What interests us here, though, is not the rationalist method Decartes builds from that moment of radical doubt.  To a Zoroastrian ear, the notion of an evil demon has a familiar ring.    Is Decartes not, somehow, reflecting the belief in the existence of the evil spirit, whose existence is entirely opposed to the good and who corrupts the world and deludes people’s beliefs and senses?  The parallel is not entirely accurate of course: Descartes’ evil demon is more reminiscent of the gnostic demiurge, that evil being who created the world solely in order to torment human beings, while the good, true God stands outside and beyond the world.  In the Zoroastrian conception, the world itself is inherently good, it exists (as do we) and our perception of it is to be trusted.  The evil spirit corrupted the world in his attack on it, evil and good have become mixed but the tradition does not embrace an ontologically dualist vision of the world itself and humans’ mortal lives as inherently delusions.

Nevertheless, doubt is linked with the evil spirit in the Zoroastrian tradition.  Doubt is not only the result of the meddling of the evil spirit but the cause of the revelation of his existence.  As in Descartes’ Meditations, doubt is productive.  In my previous post I mentioned the role that doubt plays in launching the theological quest in the Shkand Gumanig Wizar and the Dadestan i Menog i Xrad.  However, doubt plays this role in the Gathas as well.  We can take, for example, the opening section of Yasna 29.  In the first stanza of the poem, the soul of the Cow complains to Ahura Mazda (in Martin Schwartz‘s translation in his article “Gathic Compositional History, Y 29, and Bovine Symbolism):

To you the Cow’s soul complained: “For whom

did You shape me?  Who fashioned me?  Fury

with force, violence with brazen vice have gripped

me with might; I have no pastor other than You,

so appear to me with good pastur(ag)e.”

The soul of the Cow, that ideal manifestation of bovinity in the heavenly sphere, is troubled by violence and without a protector.  In its pain, the soul of the Cow calls out for aid.  This plea is repeated by the members of the divine panoply: the Fashioner of the Cow asks Rightness (Asha) who he will appoint as the lord and protector of the Cow.  The Fashioner of the Cow replies that no champion is to be found (29:3): “there is no liberator, free of malice, on behalf of the Cow.”

Only Lord Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) can provide a protector.  In stanza five, the Soul of the Cow and the soul of Zarathushtra himself are described as standing with hands outstretched in supplication, asking:

“Is there no

hope for the right-living person, none for the

cattleman surrounded by wrongful ones?”

Ahura Mazda’s answer is, it seems at first, negative: no hope has been found in the world, no judgement in accord with Rightness.  But in next stanza Lord Widsom asks his own question.  Having created the “mantra of poured butter and milk for the Cow,” he asks Good Mind (Vohu Mana) if he has found someone who can deliver this beneficent mantra to mortals on earth.  Vohu Mana replies that indeed he has; as 29:8 reveals, the revealer of the mantra is none other than Spitama Zarathushtra himself.

But the Soul of the Cow is unsatisfied.  Is this the champion he pleaded for?

“I who have

(thus) gotten (on my behalf merely) the mightless

voice of a powerless man instead, (I) who wish

for someone who is dominant with might!  When

will there ever be someone to give him help of hands?”

In the final stanza, the poet answers this lament.  Zarathushtra’s hands are helped by the divine triad of Rightness, Good Mind and Lord Wisdom.  Through his revelation, the Prophet aids mortals, including the long-suffering cows, more than any herculean strong man.  “Take account of me,” he says to them, “come down to us here.”  It is Zarathushtra’s ability to channel and call upon the divine that settles the Soul of the Cow’s complaint.

There are two species of doubt in Yasna 29.  The first is the doubt exhibited by the Soul of the Cow.  We might call this kind of doubt existential: it is closer to worry or anxiety, doubt about the safety of cows and pasturage, about protection against marauding raiders.  This is of a different order than Decartes’ posulation of the evil demon.  The Soul of the Cow’s doubt is existential while Descartes is epistemological: he doubts not his own life and safety but his perception and understanding of the world.

What of Zarathushtra’s doubt?  When Zarathushtra portrays his spiritual self as standing with his hands outstretched beside the Soul of the Cow, he does not ask Ahura Mazda for his own protection.  Zarathushtra’s question is one with deep ethical implications: can there be justice?  Is there no recourse for wrongdoing?  The poet’s doubt is global, addressing the foundation of the order of the universe.  It is to his doubt that Ahura Mazda responds – and the Soul of the Cow expresses its dissatisfaction –  granting Zarathushtra his ritual and poetic mission.  Like Descartes, Zarathushtra’s doubt is the catalyst for revelation.

A Different Passage to India

As is well known, Parsis first came to India by boat.  The tale of the journey and the founding of the new community in Gujarat is told in the New Persian poem Qiṣṣa-ye Sanjan, a new English translation of which was recently published by Alan Williams.
However, this is not the only account of Zoroastrian travel to the subcontinent.

A ninth century theological work written in Middle Persian called the Shkand Gumanig Wizar, or Doubt-Breaking Treatise, also describes the author’s travels beyond the borders of Iran.  Mardanfarrox the son of Ohrmazddad, the otherwise unknown author of the Shkand, dedicated his work to founding Zoroastrianism on a firm rational basis.  He argues that clear observation of and reflection on human existence and world leads inevitably to one conclusion: God exists, as does his evil adversary, and the creation of the world is a trap by which good overcomes evil.  In other words, reason confirms the truth revealed in the holy scriptures.  Furthermore, Mardanfarrox applies his reason to critical readings of rival religious traditions, especially Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Manichaeism.  Here too, reason proves Zoroastrianism triumphant.  The rival doctrines are little more than a series of contradictions, tall tales and impossible theologies.

The impetus for Mardanfarrox’s book, as he describes it in an autobiographical passage, was a crisis of doubt.  He searched for a faith that was confirmed by reason, rather than simply accepting blindly the religion of his youth.  These travels led him outside Iran, to discuss questions of religion with all kinds of men.  India is the only named destination and it is clear that its mention is meant to indicate the length of his quest and the seriousness of his devotion to it.  We can imagine him: resting at a bend in the road among the pilgrims, merchants and fellow travelers, and the awe on their faces when he says: “How far have I gone? As far as India.”

During Mardanfarrox’s time, there was certainly commerce and traffic between India and Iran.  It is well established that, as they did in the later Middle Ages, traders plied the sea route between the Persian Gulf and the western coast of India.  One of the pieces of evidence that Iranians were engaged in this trade is an engraving on copper plates from Quilon in Kerala, South India.  The plates record grants to the traders of various communities by the local king and contain signatures written in, among other scripts, the alphabet particular to Pahlavi Zoroastrian Middle Persian.

However, scholars have called Mardanfarrox’s account of his journey into question.  First of all, while the Shkand is rich with descriptions of rival religions, Manichaeism in particular, Indian religions go unmentioned.  If Mardanfarrox did make it to India he would surely have encountered Buddhist or Hindu teachers and sages, as others had before him.  The absence of any reference to these faiths does detract from the believability of his story.

Moreover, the trope of a spiritual quest prompted by doubt can be found elsewhere in Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian.  The Dadestan i Menog i Xrad is a book of advice, wise sayings and religious instruction in the form of a questions put by an unnamed sage to the Menog i Xrad, the Spirit of Wisdom.  There too, the sage describes the doubt that led him to journey to the provinces and districts of the empire investigating the beliefs of the inhabitants; on the basis of the mutual opposition of these sects, he comes to the conclusion that only the Zoroastrian religion is true.  The righteous sage Arda Wiraz, as is told in the book that bears his name, attempts a different kind of journey.  To assuage the community’s doubt surround correct ritual practice, Arda Wiraz enters a trance-like state and, in his spiritual form, visits heaven and hell and receives an audience with Ohrmazd himself.

Outside of Zoroastrian literature, Mani, the third century founder of the dualistic religion Manichaeism, is also said to have travelled to India on an overland route through today’s Afghanistan or Central Asia.  Mani’s own journey is hard to question, as he clearly incorporated elements of Buddhist teaching and terminology into his own syncretic faith.  Though the evidence of contact with Indian doctrines in the Shkand itself is slim, it remains conceivable that Mardanfarrox followed Mani, about whom he knew so much, on an Indian adventure.

What is important, though, in not the historical reality of Mardanfarrox’s journey but its symbolic value.  To travel t o India, even if only in words, is a measure of the seriousness of the author’s quest and his dedication to reason.  At the same time, this journey, fictional or not, is also a testimony to the challenge of the adversary: doubt.  It was doubt, and the danger doubt poses to unravel the truth of revelation, that prompted Mardanfarrox, Arda Wiraz and the sage of the Menog i Xrad to undertake their adventures.  India, just like the Heaven visited by Arda Wiraz, represents that other world, that place beyond the borders of our confusing, everyday reality, where the truth that vanquishes doubt is stored up and preserved.