Introduction to Zoroastrianism

History

The origins of the Zarathushti faith (also known as Zoroastrianism or Zarathushtrianism) are lost in antiquity, but it has left a timeless legacy to world religious thought that is as relevant today as when it was revealed over 3 millennia ago.

Depiction of Zarathushtra

Asho Zarathushtra (Zoroaster to the Greeks), prophet of the world’s oldest revealed religion, lived in remote antiquity, sometime around the dawn of the Iranian bronze age, circa 1,800 – 1,100 BCE. His place of birth was in the ancient land of Airyana Vaeja in Central Asia, possibly somewhere around the Aral Sea. In his thirtieth year, Asho (righteous) Zarathushtra received the revelation and started on his mission to bring His message to mankind.

One of Zarathushtra’s first disciples was King Vistaspa, ruler of Bactria. Thereafter, the religion spread far and wide. For a thousand years (559 BCE to 651 CE) it was the dominant religion during three mighty Persian empires that stretched west towards Rome and Greece, east into India, north into Russia and south into Egypt, with followers in the millions.

Achaemenid Empire of Darius I the Great overlaid on recent region

It was the State religion of the Persian Achaemenian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 559 BCE, but suffered a setback with the conquest of Persia in 334 BCE by Alexander of Macedonia, when the magnificent Persepolis, seat of the Persian empire, was destroyed, libraries and religious texts burned, and the treasury plundered.

The Persian Empire of the Parthians (250 BCE to 227 CE) witnessed the birth of Christ and the rise of Christianity. The Zarathushti religion was rejuvenated as the Imperial religion of the Sasanian Persian Empire (226 CE to 651 CE) but reeled once again with the advent of Islam. After a crucial battle in 641 CE with the Arabs, sovereignty passed into the hands of the Islamic caliphs.

Over the ensuing dispiriting years, a large number of Zarathushtis accepted Islam, some continued to practice their faith under oppressive conditions in Persia, while a few fled in sailing vessels, landing on the western shores of India in the 10th century, and given refuge by the native Hindu ruler. Their descendants, the Parsis, still keep their faith alive in India.

Zoroastrians in Iran

Ruins of Persepolis c. 500 BCE

For centuries after the Arab invasion in 641 CE, Zoroastrians (or Zarathushtis) in Iran practiced their faith in quiet seclusion, in the face of extreme persecution. As opportunities presented them- selves in the 20th century, they moved from the rural areas towards business, the professions and industry. Zoroastrian entrepreneurs were the first to introduce English and sports in schools; modernize irrigation and agriculture; set up steel, aluminum and plastic factories; promote a small scale automobile industry; start large scale construction projects; and endow hospitals and schools. In less than a century, Zoroastrians excelled in all walks of life – government, business, industry, arts and sciences.

Zoroastrians in India – The Parsis

Despite having lived in India for over a thousand years, the Parsis have maintained their religious identity, primarily because they did not proselytize. Over the centuries they have assimilated three separate cultures – the ancient Persian, the Indian and the Western. A miniscule minority in India (less than .01% of the population), the Parsis have influenced the country well out of proportion to their numbers. Enterprising, highly literate and reputed for their honesty, they occupy a position of distinction in the business community. Under British rule in the 19th century, the Parsis became the earliest Indian industrialists and built the first great Indian industrial projects – ship building, aviation, steel, textiles, chemicals, nuclear energy, and have excelled in the arts and sciences. Noted for their integrity, philanthropy and pioneering spirit, they have founded hospitals, schools and other institutions, liberally extending their philanthropy beyond their own community.

Present Day Zoroastrians

The number of Zoroastrians in the world today is about 200,000, with the highest concentrations in the ‘homelands’ of Iran (24,000 – 90,000) and India (70,000). In the past half century, Zarathushtis have emigrated around the world, seeking higher education and better opportunities. Wherever they have settled – in USA (11,000), Canada (6,000), Great Britain (5,000), Australia and New Zealand (3,500), Persian Gulf (2,200), Pakistan (2,200), Europe (1,000), the Far East (400) and elsewhere – Zoroastrians have prospered in business and the professions and served well the countries of their adoption. Possibly, the most notable Zarathushtis in the west today are Maestro Zubin Mehta and rock star Freddie Mercury. Enterprising immigrants continue to bring with them their skills and talents, their willingness to work and determination to succeed. They also bring their faith, culture, customs, language and arts – the legacy of a centuries-old tradition that fits surprisingly well into the modern-day world.

Looking to the Future

The survival of the Zoroastrian religion over 3,500 years, is remarkable when one considers the devastations it has suffered in conquests, destruction of scriptures, annihilation of priests, persecution of believers and forced conversions, and more recent doctrinal disputes, threat of declining numbers and cultural and religious assimilation. This is compounded by the fact that Zoroastrianism is traditionally a non-proselytizing faith.

But the religion is not ready to be relegated to the history books just yet. It is perhaps its core beliefs that impel its followers to excel in all areas of human endeavor and contribute for the benefit of humankind. There has been a strong awakening in recent years. In North America, there are now eight Zoroastrian temples, twenty-four associations and one North America federation (FEZANA), providing a strong communal infrastructure. Zoroastrian presence is increasingly evident in the interfaith arena, helping to restore the religion to its rightful place as a venerable and living member of the world’s religious family.

Despite the vicissitudes of time and history, the essence of Zarathushtra’s timeless and universal message has been preserved and perpetuated, as new generations recognize the remarkable relevance of this ancient faith in today’s world.

The Zoroastrian Ethic

Zarathushtra preached the monotheistic religion of the one supreme God, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord). His message is a positive, life-affirming one, which demands not so much belief, as reason and action on the part of every individual. His was not a prescriptive ethic, based on obedience, fear or love, but rather, an ethic of personal responsibility. Zarathushtra asked his listeners to think with a clear mind, and choose a life of intelligent reflection and active benevolence.

A Zoroastrian is taught to lead an industrious, honest and charitable life. There is no place for asceticism. The generation of wealth, is part of the ethos, as long as it is achieved honestly, and used for good and charitable purposes. The quintessences of his teachings are embodied in the triad Humata (Good Thoughts), Hukhta (Good Words) and Huvarshta (Good Deeds). The loftiest ideal for man is to emulate the Amesha Spentas or attributes of Ahura Mazda:

  • Vohu Manah is the Good Mind. Man must think for himself before he can believe. He has the freedom to choose between good and evil, and the responsibility to reap the consequences.
  • Asha Vahishta is the Divine Law – It embodies Righteousness, Truth, Wisdom, Justice and Progress. Every Zarathushti strives to follow the Path of Asha in its deepest spiritual sense.
  • Kshathra Vairya is Divine Strength and Service, leading to the ideal society.
  • Spenta Armaiti, the Benevolent Spirit, is Ahura Mazda’s Purity and Devotion.
  • Haurvatat (Progression and Perfection) and Ameratat (Immortality and Everlasting Bliss) are the twin rewards of a righteous life.

Zoroastrian View of the World

The Fravahar (Farohar or Fravashi) symbolizes the “Divinity within Humanity,” the essence of God that dwells in every human being and in all of Creation (Persepolis, c. 500 BCE)

Zarathushtra presents a view of the world in which Ahura Mazda originally creates an ideal existence in accordance with the Law of Asha. As the world progresses there is conflict between the forces of Good (Spenta Mainyu) and Evil (Anghra Mainyu). In this cosmic drama, man is not a bystander, but rather, the prime agent through whose actions the ultimate triumph of good over evil is assured. Ahura Mazda gives man not only the freedom to choose between good and evil, but also the responsibility to actively promote good and vanquish evil. Through the collective good acts of humanity, the world evolves towards the final resurrection (Frashokereti), when all will be in a state of perfection (Haurvatat) and everlasting bliss (Ameratat).

Stewardship of Nature

Harmony between man and nature, respect for all of Creation – Fire, Sun, Earth and Water, and promoting a mutually beneficial existence with these elements, is central to Zoroastrian thought, placing this ancient religion well ahead of its time.

Sacred Texts

Ashem Vohu prayer in Avesta script

The corpus of Zoroastrian sacred literature is known as the Avesta, written in the ancient Avestan language. It comprises of: the Yasna, the central ritual of worship, within which are preserved the Gathas – divinely inspired and revealed poetry composed by the prophet himself; the Visperad (minor liturgical works); the Vendidad (priestly code of protection); and the Khordeh Avesta (collection of prayers for the laity including the daily Kushti prayers, Niyayesh and Yasht devotional invocations and Nirang incantations).

The Role of Fire

A mobed (priest) tends the Fire.

Zoroastrian rituals and prayers are solemnized in the presence of a Fire, which is scrupulously tended with sandalwood and frankincense and kept burning in a silver urn in the inner sanctum of every Zoroastrian ‘fire-temple’ also called a ‘Darbe Mehr’ (house of divine light). Fire is revered as a visible symbol of the Inner Light, the divine spark, that burns in each and every heart; a physical representation of the Illumined Mind, Enlightenment and Truth. It is important to note that Zoroastrians do not “worship fire,” as the religion denounces the worship of any idols or deities.

Navjote or Sedreh-Pushi (Initiation) Ceremony

A child is officially initiated into the Zoroastrian faith with the Navjote ceremony, at which time he or she is invested with the sacred Sudreh and Kushti. The Sudreh is an undershirt of white muslin with a symbolic pocket in front reminding the wearer to fill it every day with Good Thoughts. Good Words and Good Deeds. The Kushti, a woolen cord, signifies that the wearer has girded him or herself to fight evil. The child henceforth pledges to steadfastly follow the teachings of Zarathushtra, and to reaffirm his/her faith with the Kushti ritual every day.

The Marriage Ceremony

Marriage is a pious duty, a religious sacrament, a holy union of two souls, and not just a social or legal contract. The marriage pact, based on sharing, devotion, faithfulness and self-sacrifice, is considered irrevocable. A wedding is a time of great rejoicing, with feasting and dancing in the company of family and friends. At the ceremony, the priests recite passages from the Avesta, offering affirmations, admonitions and benedictions, while showering the couple with rice and rose petals.

Death and the Funeral Ceremony

Death is viewed as a transformation, a time of passing of the spiritual elements from the physical body. It is one’s soul that chooses between good and evil in this life; and it is the soul that is responsible for these actions and gets rewarded (in heaven) or retribution (in hell) after death. Ultimately, Evil shall be vanquished by Good, and all souls will be raised in a blissful state, (Frashokereti). Upon death, extensive prayers and rituals are performed, to ensure a safe passage of the soul into the spiritual realm.

Zarathushtra and the Greeks

The Greeks, who studied the philosophy of the Persian prophet, dating him “5,000 years before the Siege of Troy” [Plutarch], mistranslated his name as ‘Zoroaster’. His doctrine is mentioned by Greek writers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, who studied under the Magi (Zarathushti priests) of their times. During the Achaemenian Persian period, a number of books circulated through the Greek world in the name of Zoroaster to lend them authority. The long saga of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians is recorded in Herodotus’ History (5th century BCE).

Zarathushtra and the Romans

In Hellenistic and Roman times the image of Persia was a land of mystery, wisdom and learning. Its religious teachings appealed to the conquering Roman soldiers, who then transferred it across the empire in the form of Mithraism, an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. Mithraism flourished in the Parthian period, around the same time as Christianity. It rapidly spread as far west as England and as far east as India, until it succumbed to the rise of Christianity in the 4th century CE. Hundreds of Mithraic temples have been discovered across Europe, the latest one unearthed by construction workers in London in the 1970s.

Interactions with Judaism and Christianity

The edict of Cyrus written in cuneiform on a clay cylinder (British Museum & a replica at the United Nations)

Zarathushti ideas have played a vital role in the development of western religious thought. Some theological concepts shared by Zoroastrianism with Judaism and Christianity are:

  • Belief in one supreme and loving God.
  • Heaven and Hell, and individual judgment.
  • Ultimate triumph of Good over Evil.
  • Strict moral and ethical code.
  • The Messiah to come for the final restoration.
  • The concepts of resurrection, final judgment and life everlasting.
  • The words ‘satan’, ‘paradise’ and ‘amen’ are of Zoroastrian origin.

The interchange of Zoroastrian thought with Judeo-Christian ideology first took place when Cyrus the Great defeated the Assyrians and released the Jews from Babylonian captivity. They heralded Cyrus as their Messiah, as prophesied in the Bible, [Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1-31]. The Old Testament is replete with references to the Persian emperors Darius, Cyrus and Xerxes.

The commemoration of December 25th as the birthday of Christ has its origins in early Mithraic observances. This was the date of a Roman festival to celebrate natalis solis invicti, the “birthday of the unconquered Sun,” which, following the winter solstice, once again begins to show an increase in light. Around 336 CE, the church in Rome established the commemoration of the birthday of Christ on this same date.

The earliest depiction of the magi (6th century mosaic in the basilica in Ravenna, Italy)

Zoroastrians had a belief in the coming of a savior, born of a virgin mother, who would bring the revelation from God. It is of interest to note that the Three Wise Men (magi) who heralded the infant Christ were Zoroastrian priests. To this day, frankincense and myrrh are offered at the altars of Zoroastrian fire temples.

Dr. Mary Boyce [Zoroastrians, 1979] writes: “So it was out of a Judaism enriched by five centuries of contact with Zoroastrianism, that Christianity arose in the Parthian period, a new religion with roots thus in two ancient faiths, one Semitic, the other Persian. Doctrines taught perhaps a millennium and a half earlier by Zoroaster began in this way to reach fresh hearers.”

Interactions with Hinduism1

Having come from the same Indo-Iranian roots, in remote antiquity, Hindus and ancient Persians shared a common pre-Zarathushti Mazdayasni faith.  They practiced reverence for the fire and other natural elements.  Both, in the Zarathushti Avesta and in the Hindu Vedic hymns, Mithra (Mitra) is invoked as the Lord of Heavenly Light.  The Avesta language of the Gathic scriptures and Sanskrit of the Vedas originated from the same Indo-Iranian philological family and bear some striking similarities.  The Zarathushti belief of the world moving towards perfection (haurvatat) and the final renovation (frashokereti) is very well explained in the Upanishads of the Hindus.  In the Vedas the word Rita has the same significance (truth, righteousness) as the word Asha in the Avesta.  After the Islamic conquest of ancient Persia (Iran) a group of Zarathushtis migrated to India in search of a safe haven to practice their religion without the fear of persecution.  After a millennium of living in Hindu India, a number of ceremonial aspects of Hindu culture have been integrated into the Parsi Zarathushti tradition.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation (one soul entering innumerable different bodies) and Zarathushti resurrection (the same soul re-uniting with the same body at the end of time) are incompatible.  Through detachment and renunciation of this corporeal world or body, the Hindu strives to escape from the cycle of birth, life and death so the soul may be freed to ultimately become one with the Absolute.  To a Zarathushti, however, life is to be lived to the fullest in this world.  One seeks salvation through an ethic of personal responsibility.  Every good thought, word and action of a person furthers, cumulatively, the cosmic goal of moving towards frashokereti.

– by Rohinton M. Rivetna (1st edition 1983).  Edited by FEZANA Publication Committee (2nd edition 2005)

1 The Legacy of Zarathustra: an Introduction to the Religion, History and Culture of the Zarathushtis (Zoroastrians), Ed. Roshan Rivetna. FEZANA, 2002