The significance of the term is complex, with a highly nuanced range of meaning. It is commonly summarized in accord with its contextual implications of 'truth' and 'right(eousness)', 'order' and 'right working'. For other connotations, see meaning below.
The word is also the proper name of the divinity Asha, the Amesha Spenta that is the hypostasis or "genius" of "Truth" or "Righteousness". In the Younger Avesta, this figure is more commonly referred to as Asha Vahishta (Aša Vahišta, Arta Vahišta), "Best Truth". The Middle Persian descendant is Ashawahist or Ardwahisht; New Persian Ardibehesht or Ordibehesht. In the Gathas, the oldest texts of Zoroastrianism and thought to have been composed by the prophet himself, it is seldom possible to distinguish between moral principle and the divinity. Later texts consistently use the 'Best' epithet when speaking of the Amesha Spenta, only once in the Gathas is 'best' an adjective of aša/arta.
It is unclear whether the variation in Avestan between aša and arta is merely orthographical. Benveniste suggested š was only a convenient way of writing rt and should not be considered phonetically relevant. According to Gray, š is a misreading, representing – not /ʃ/ - but /rr/, of uncertain phonetic value but "probably" representing a voiceless r. Miller suggested that rt was restored when a scribe was aware of the morpheme boundary between the /r/ and /t/ (that is, whether the writer maintained the –ta suffix).
Avestan druj, like its Vedic Sanskrit cousin druh, appears to derive from the PIE root *, also continued in German Trug "fraud, deception". Old Norse draugr and Middle Irish aurddrach both mean "spectre, spook". The Sanskrit cognate druh means "affliction, afflicting demon".
Benveniste suggested š was only a convenient way of writing /rt/ and should not be considered phonetically relevant. According to Gray, š is a misreading, representing /r r/, of uncertain phonetic value but "probably" representing a voiceless r.
Miller follows the older suggestion that Avestan š represents a phoneme of its own, for which he introduces the symbol "/Ř/" and identifies phonetically as [r̝̥] (a voiceless raised alveolar trill equivalent to the voiceless allophone of Czech ř). He goes on to suggest that in writing, -rt- was restored when a scribe was aware of a morpheme boundary between the /r/ and /t/.
It is, first of all, 'true statement'. This 'true statement' - because it is true - corresponds to an objective, material reality. This reality embraces all of existence. Recognized in it is a great cosmic principle since all things happen according to it. "This cosmic [...] force is imbued also with morality, as verbal Truth, 'la parole conforme', and Righteousness, action conforming with the moral order."
Another meaning of "reality" may be inferred from the component parts of the aša/arta, that is, from (root) ŗ with a substantivizing -ta suffix. The root ŗ corresponds to Old Avestan arəta- and Younger Avestan ərəta- "established", hence aša/arta "that which is established."
The synonymity of aša and "existence" overlaps with the stock identification of Ahura Mazda as the Creator (i.e. of Existence itself). Truth is existence (creation) inasmuch as falsehood is non-existence (uncreated, anti-created). And, because aša is everything that druj- is not (or vice-versa), since aša is, druj- is not. For details, see Angra Mainyu: In Zoroastrian tradition.
This notion is already expressed in the Avesta itself, for instance in the first Yasht, dedicated to Ahura Mazda, where the "fifth name is the whole good existence of Mazda, the seed of Asha" (Yasht 1.7). Similarly, in the mythology of Gandarəβa, the 'yellow-heeled' dragon of the druj- that emerges from the deep to destroy the "living world (creation) of Aša" (Yasht 19.41)
In the ethical goals of Zoroastrianism ("good thoughts, good words, good deeds"), Vohu Manah is active in good thoughts, Sraosha in good words and Aša in good deeds. (Denkard 3.13-14). Aša is thus "represented as active and effective."
These various meanings of "right" are frequently combined, for instance as "the inexorable law of righteousness," or as "the eternal fitness of things that are in accord with the divine order."
As (the hypostasis of) regularity and "right working", aša/arta- is present when Ahura Mazda fixed the course of the sun, the moon and the stars (Yasna 44.3), and it is through aša that plants grow (Yasna 48.6).
"Right working" also overlaps with both Indo-European *ár- "to (properly) join together" and also with the notion of existence and realization (to make real). The word for "established", arəta-, also means "proper". The antonymic anarəta- (or anarəθa-) means "improper." In Zoroastrian tradition, prayers must be enunciated with care for them to be effective. The Indo-Iranian formula *sātyas mantras (Yasna 31.6: haiθīm mathrem) "does not simply mean 'true Word' but formulated thought which is in conformity with the reality' or 'poetic (religious) formula with inherent fulfillment (realization).'"
The adjective corresponding to Avestan aša/arta- "truth" is haiθiia- "true". Similarly, the adjective corresponding to Vedic ŗtá- "truth" is sátya- "true". The opposite of both aša/arta- and haithya- is druj- "lie" or "false". In contrast, in the Vedas the opposite of both ŗtá- and sátya- is druj- and ánŗta-, also "lie" or "false".
However, while the Indo-Iranian concept of truth is attested throughout Zoroastrian tradition, ŗtá- disappears in post-Vedic literature and is not preserved in post-Vedic texts. On the other hand, sátya- and ánrta- both survive in classical Sanskrit.
The main theme of the Rig Veda - "the truth and the gods" - is not evident in the Gathas. Thematic parallels between aša/arta and ŗtá- do however exist, for instance in Yasht 10, the Avestan hymn to Mithra: there, Mithra, who is the hypostasis and preserver of covenant, is the protector of aša/arta. RigVedic Mitra is likewise preserver of ŗtá-.
In Yasht 17.20, Angra Mainyu clamours that Zoroaster burns him with Asha Vahishta. In Vendidad 4.54-55, speaking against the truth and violating the sanctity of promise is detected by the consumption of "water, blazing, of golden color, having the power to detect guilt."
This analogy of truth that burns and detecting truth through fire is already attested in the very earliest texts, that is, in the Gathas and in the Yasna Haptanghaiti. In Yasna 43-44, Ahura Mazda dispenses justice through radiance of His fire and the strength of aša. Fire "detects" sinners "by hand-grasping" (Yasna 34.4). An individual who has passed the fiery test (garmo-varah, ordeal by heat), has attained physical and spiritual strength, wisdom, truth and love with serenity (Yasna 30.7). Altogether, "there are said to have been some 30 kinds of fiery tests in all." According to the post-Sassanid Dadestan i denig (I.31.10), at the final judgement a river of molten metal will cover the earth. The righteous, as they wade through this river, will perceive the molten metal as a bath of warm milk. The wicked will be scorched. For details on aša's role in personal and final judgement, see aša in eschatology, below.
Fire is moreover the "auxiliary of the truth," "and not only, as in the ordeal, of justice and of truth at the same time." In Yasna 31.19, "the man who thinks of aša, [...] who uses his tongue in order to speak correctly, [does so] with the aid of brilliant fire". In Yasna 34-44 devotees "ardently desire [Mazda's] mighty fire, through aša." In Yasna 43-44, Ahura Mazda "shall come to [Zoroaster] through the splendour of [Mazda's] fire, possessing the strength of (through) aša and good mind (=Vohu Manah)." That fire "possesses strength through aša" is repeated again in Yasna 43.4. In Yasna 43.9, Zoroaster, wishing to serve fire, gives his attention to aša. In Yasna 37.1, in a list of what are otherwise all physical creations, aša takes the place of fire.
Asha Vahishta's association with atar is carried forward in the post-Gathic texts, and they are often mentioned together. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, each of the Amesha Spentas represents one aspect of creation and one of seven primordial elements that in Zoroastrian tradition are the basis of that creation. In this matrix, aša/arta is the origin of fire, Avestan atar, which permeates through all Creation. The correspondence then is that aša/arta "penetrates all ethical life, as fire penetrates all physical being."
In the liturgy Asha Vahishta is frequently invoked together with fire. (Yasna l.4, 2.4, 3.6, 4.9, 6.3, 7.6, 17.3, 22.6, 59.3, 62.3 etc). In one passage, fire is a protector of aša: "when the Evil Spirit assailed the creation of Good Truth, Good Thought and Fire intervened" (Yasht 13.77)
In later Zoroastrian tradition, Asha Vahishta is still at times identified with the fire of the household hearth.
In the Avesta, the "radiant quarters" of aša is "the best existence", i.e. Paradise (cf. Vendidad 19.36), entry to which is restricted to those who are recognized as "possessing truth" (ašavan). The key to this doctrine is Yasna 16.7: "We worship the radiant quarters of Aša in which dwell the souls of the dead, the Fravašis of the ašavans; the best existence (=Paradise) of the ašavans we worship, (which is) light and according all comforts."
'Aša' derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root as 'Airyaman', the divinity of healing who is closely associated with Asha Vahishta. At the last judgement, the common noun airyaman is an epithet of the saoshyans, the saviours that bring about the final renovation of the world. The standing epithet of these saviour figures is 'astvatәrәta', which likewise has arta as an element of the name. These saviours are those who follow Ahura Mazda's teaching "with acts inspired by aša" (Yasna 48.12). Both Airyaman and Asha Vahishta (as also Atar) are closely associated with Sraosha "[Voice of] Conscience" and guardian of the Chinvat bridge across which souls must pass.
According to a lost Avestan passage that is only preserved in a later (9th century) Pahlavi text, towards the end of time and the final renovation, Aša and Airyaman will together come upon the earth to do battle with the Az, the demon of greed (Zatspram 34.38-39).
The third Yasht, which is nominally addressed to Asha Vahishta, is in fact mostly devoted to the praise of the airyaman ishya (airyәmā īšyo, "Longed-for airyaman"), the fourth of the four great Gathic prayers. In present-day Zoroastrianism it is considered to invoke Airyaman just as the Ashem Vohu, is the second of the four great Gathic prayers, is dedicated to Aša. All four prayers (the first is the Ahuna Vairya, the third is the Yenghe Hatam) have judgement and/or salvation as a theme, and all four call on the Truth.
It is Airyaman that – together with fire – will "melt the metal in the hills and mountains, and it will be upon the earth like a river" (Bundahishn 34.18). In Zoroastrian tradition, metal is the domain of Xshathra [Vairya], the Amesha Spenta of "[Desirable] Dominion", with whom Aša is again frequently identified. Dominion is moreover "a form of truth and results from truth."
In Denkard 8.37.13, Asha Vahishta actually takes over Airyaman's healer role as the healer of all spiritual ills and Airyaman then only retains the role of healer of corporeal ills. Although Airyaman has no dedication in the Siroza, the invocations to the divinities of the Zoroastrian calendar, Airyaman is twice invoked together with Aša. (Siroza 1.3 and 2.3)
Aogemadaecha 41-47 prototypes death as a journey that has to be properly prepared for: As mortals acquires material goods as they go through life, so also should they furnish themselves with spiritual stores of righteousness. They will then be well provisioned when they embark on the journey from which they will not return.
Aša's role is not limited to judgement: In Bundahishn 26.35, Aša prevents demons from exacting too great a punishment to souls consigned to hell. Here, Aša occupies the position that other texts assign to Mithra, who is traditionally identified with fairness.
Although there are numerous eschatological parallels between Aša and Aši "recompense, reward" (most notably their respective associations with Sraosha and Vohu Manah), and are on occasion even mentioned together (Yasna 51.10), the two are not etymologically related. The feminine abstract noun aši/arti derives from ar-, "to allot, to grant." Aši also has no Vedic equivalent.
In addition to Asha Vahishta's role as an Amesha Spenta and hence one of the primordial creations through which all other creation was realized, Truth is one of the "organs, aspects or emanations" of Ahura Mazda through which the Creator acts and is immanent in the world.
Although Vohu Manah regularly stands first in the list of the Amesha Spenta (and of Ahura Mazda's creations), in the Gathas Asha Vahishta is the most evident of the six, and also the most commonly associated with Wisdom (Mazda). In the 238 verses of these hymns, Aša appears 157 times. Of the other concepts, only Vohu Manah "Good Purpose" appears nearly as often (136 occurrences). In comparison, the remaining four of the great sextet appear only 121 times altogether.
Although a formal hierarchy is not evident in the Gathas, the group of six "divides naturally into three dyads." In this arrangement, Aša is paired with Vohu Manah. This reflects the frequency in which the two appear (together) in the Gathas and is in turn reflected in Zoroastrian tradition. In Bundahishn 26.8, Vohu Manah stands at the left hand of God, while Aša stands at the right.
A special service to aša and Aša, known as the 'Jashan of Ardavisht', is held on the day on which month-name and day-name dedications intersect. In the Fasli and Bastani variants of the Zoroastrian calendar, this falls on April 22nd.
Rapithwin, one of the five gahs (watches) of the day, under the protection of Aša. (Bundahishn 3.22) This implies that all prayers recited between noon and three invoke Aša. Noon is considered to be the "perfect" time, at which instant the world was created and at which instant time will stop on the day of the final renovation of the world.
In the winter months, the daevic time of year, Rapithwin is known as the Second Havan (the first Havan being from dawn to noon), and with the first day of spring, March 21st, Rapithwin symbolically returns. This day, March 21st, is Nowruz.
Nowruz, the holiest of all Zoroastrian festivals is dedicated to Aša. It follows immediately after Pateti, the day of introspection and the Zoroastrian equivalent of All-Souls Day. Nowruz, Zoroastrianism's New Year's Day, is celebrated on the first day of spring, traditionally understood to be the day of rebirth, and literally translated means "New Day". The first month of the year of the Zoroastrian calendar is Farvadin, which is dedicated to and named after the Fravašis, the guardian spirits of the dead.
"The underlying idea of the dedication" of the second month of the year to Asha Vahishta "may be revivification of the earth after the death of winter."
Hellenized/Latinized names include:
Other names include:
|a)||Middle Iranian ard- denoting aša-/arta- should not be confused with another ard-, denoting "fortune." The latter derives from Avestan aši- or arti-, which has a different gender.|
|b)||Avestan vahišta (as in Asha Vahishta) is a superlative of the adjective vohu- "good", hence "vahišta" "best". As a noun however, "vohu-" means "possession".|
|c)||Aside from its use in proper names, Old Persian ạrta is only attested in one source, Xerxes' "daiva inscription" (XPh). In this one text, the word appears in two forms: One form is as adjectival ạrtavan-, which corresponds to Avestan ašavan-. The other form is in a thrice-repeated phrase ạrtācā brazmaniya, the reading/meaning of which is not conclusively established. For a review of various interpretations, see Kent, 1945 and Skjærvø, 1987.|
|d)||This meaning of ašavan was not considered in some translations of other texts, leading to the assumption that the Avesta did not preserve all nuances of Indo-Iranian *ŗtávan.|
|e)||The doctrinal basis for this extension of meaning is uncertain, but is "probably" due to the polar opposition of ašavan to drəgvant "liar" (YAv. drvant). It could then also be a continuation of the principle that ašavan is not only an intrinsic property of divinities, but also applies to everything that pertains to the domain of Ahura Mazda and/or Aša, and thus everything that is not drəgvant/drvant.|
|f)||Aša appears as "holy" in Darmesteter's 1883 translation of Yasht 1 (in SBE 23).|
|g)||Saoshyant may have been a term originally applied to Zoroaster himself (e.g. Yasna 46.3)|
|h)||Miller maintains "/Ř/ is the normal phonological reflex of *-rt-, and that rt has been restored according to Kuryłowicz's 'Fourth Law of Analogy' in motivating categories where there was still awareness of a morpheme boundary between the /r/ and the /t/." That is, "rt passes to š by a regular phonological law, and š was then replaced morphologically by rt when the morpheme cut was still evident."|
|j)||The source reads: "We can conclude, without entering into more detail, that Iran, as India, presents us with a term which has had to signify first of all 'true statement'; that this statement, because it was true, had to correspond to an objective, material reality; and that, as the discourse did, this reality must embrace all things; and, finally that one recognized in it a great cosmic principle since all things happen according to it."|