You’re obviously here because you’re curious and want to known something about Zoroastrianism or just who the Zoroastrians are. You’re in luck! Consider this your short introduction to the world of Zoroastrianism.
Introduction to Zoroastrianism
A long time ago in a land far, far away and before the birth of the Buddha, Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad, there lived a man who would go on to found (or as some scholars say, “reform”) a religion among the ancient Iranian tribes that would one day shape the course of history and mankind’s beliefs with regard to God, man’s purpose on earth, the afterlife and much more. His message was extremely unique in a tribal society where many gods and goddesses were worshiped and those who had power exploited the weak and underprivileged. The man of whom we speak is Zarathushtra, also known as Zardosht in Iran and Zoroaster in the West (a name given to him by the Greeks). The teachings and the religion that espouses them are collectively known as Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism was one of the dominant religions of the world for several hundred (possibly thousand) years before Christianity and remained so up until the spread of Islam throughout the region. The religion’s influence can be seen on Judaism and the other Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam as well as various aspects of western Buddhism. After the Arab conquest of Persia (or Iran as the country is known today), Zoroastrianism began to decline due to centuries of repression and persecution under Muslim rule. Many Zoroastrians left their native Persia and found refuge among the Hindus of India where they became known as Parsis (also spelled Parsees).
Despite it’s long and glorious history, few people outside the realm of world history or comparative religious studies actually know much about Zoroastrianism and its founder Zarathushtra. Those who are familiar with works of classical European literature may have heard of a prominent Magi named Zoroaster from Greek and Roman sources of from the famous work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra (translated as “Thus Spoke Zarathushtra”). However outside such circles, Zarathushtra is little known in the West. This is strange given the profound influence that both he and Zoroastrianism have had on the world:
“Although largely unknown now, Persia’s Zoroaster was as influential as the other prophets, holy men and philosophers in shaping the religious legacies that live on today. Zoroastrianism was among the earliest faiths to believe in one God; its role in shaping Judeo-Christian thought is widely acknowledged by Biblical scholars. Its ideas about the devil, hell, a future savior and the worldly struggle between good and evil ending with a day of judgement, the resurrection of the dead and an afterlife had a great impact on all monotheistic faiths, even Buddhism.” 1
Though primarily a religion of the Iranian and Persian-speaking peoples, Zoroastrianism and its adherents at one time lived in many parts of the ancient world including India, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Anatolia and even parts of southeastern Europe.
Early History of Zoroastrianism
To understand the religion that we currently refer to as Zoroastrianism, it’s important to know about the society in which the religion was founded in. Essentially, we have to know something about the world in which the Prophet Zarathushtra lived in.
The World Before Zarathushtra
The people who we refer to as Persians or Iranians have a long history and are the descendants of one of the branches of the Indo-European family of peoples known as the Aryans. In fact, the Iranians did not always occupy the land that today bears their name (Iran means land of the Aryans), but migrated to the Iranian plateau over multiple generations from the southern Russian and Central Asian steppes. Sometime during the 2nd millennium BCE, a branch of the Aryans moved into what is today northern India and brought with them a philosophy that became the basis of today’s Hinduism. Another branch of the Aryans, which initially also had a similar religion, language and culture, migrated onto the Iranian plateau.
Being nomadic peoples, the ancient Iranians were always on the move. The oldest Zoroastrian scriptures believed to be dated from the time of the Aryan migration southward tell of a society in which there was much lawlessness and oppression. The strong abused their power and oppressed the weak and less fortunate.
It was into such a society that Zarathushtra was born.
The Life of Zarathustra, the Laughing Prophet
One tradition has it that Zarathushra was born on the 6th of the Iranian month of Farvardin in 1768 BCE. How this exact date has been determined has not been established (for example, there are no books from the time or birth certificate that chronicle this). Modern scholars on the subject also don’t agree on a particular date for the Prophet’s birth. Some place Zarathushtra’s birth as far back as 3000 BCE while others claim that he lived much later, around 600 BCE. Due to the linguistic similarities between the Gathas, the part of the Zoroastrian holy texts that are believed to have been the actual words of Zarathushtra himself, and the Sanskrit language of the Hindu Vedas (which is an Indo-European language very similar to Avesta, the language of the Gathas), it is likely that Zarathushtra lived sometime around 1500 – 1000 BCE. The version of Avesta which Zarathushtra spoke came from Central Asia, more specifically from around the Aral Sea in present-day Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan (the Tajiks believe that Zarathushtra was born somewhere on their soil, but again, there is little historical evidence to corroborate this).
The land of Bactria, now the modern province of Balkh in Afghanistan, is another possibility for Zarathushtra’s birthplace as this is where he is believed to have made his first major convert to his religion, King Vistasp (we’re getting to that, see below).
What we do know from the ancient Zoroastrian texts and other sources is that his mother’s name was Doghdhova and his father’s was Pourushaspa. The latter is believed to have been a priest of the old, polytheistic Persian religion. As the priesthood was hereditary, it’s very likely that Zarathushtra also was such a priest, at least initially. However, he was extremely dissatisfied in such a role and yearned for something deeper as well as finding a way to alleviate the human suffering that surrounded him.
Like many of the Prophets and sages of other religions (think the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad), Zarathushtra went on a quest in search of “Truth” and would retreat into the wilderness to mediate and contemplate the meaning of life. Tradition has it that he embarked on this spiritual journey at the age of twenty and continued to live his monastic life for a decade until one day God, Ahura Mazda, revealed himself and taught Zarathushtra the laws of asha, or Truth and Righteousness. It was this and following revelations that formed the foundations for what we today call the Zoroastrian religion.
Zarathushtra took this message and began to preach that only the one true God, Ahura Mazda, was worthy of worship. This at the time was truly revolutionary message, though not very well received by his society, most of whom still clung to their old polytheistic religion. The priests especially didn’t take too kindly to Zarathushtra’s message, which is understandable since they made their living in interpreting the will of the gods and performing various sacrifices, many which Zarathushtra criticized. There were many threats made against his life, but Zarathushtra kept on preaching his message of monotheism and good ethical conduct. Things changed when he converted a Bactrian king named Vistasp to his new creed. After that, the religion is believed to have spread throughout the land until over many generations, it became the faith of the vast majority of the Iranian and Persian-speaking peoples (for a more in depth summary of some of the key events in the life of Zarathushtra, check out the Zarathushtra, God’s Messenger From Ancient Persia comic book.).
Zarathushtra’s Difference: the Loving and Just God, Ahura Mazda
There have been countless religions throughout human history with countless gods, goddesses and other beings who differ from men; Iranian society in this regard was little different than others of the ancient world. In fact, they worshiped many things such as animals, the spirits of their ancestors, the sun, stars and the pantheon of local and foreign deities that were somehow linked or responsible for all of these. Even Ahura Mazda, though the head and most powerful of the ancient Iranian gods, was still one god in a universe of many. It is true that Zarathushtra declared Ahura Mazda to be the sole God, Creator and Ruler of the universe, but this in itself isn’t what makes his message so unique. In fact, many ancient people had affinities toward their own personal god or deity and only worshiped him or her. Simply focusing attention on one deity doesn’t necessarily do much for the progress of a society.
The real difference with Zarathushtra’s teachings and those of the older, established religions was man’s relationship to that one true God. You see, the gods and goddesses of the ancient world were at best a fickle bunch, generally toying with humans and needing constant attention and devotion from them in the form of various rituals and sacrifices. If you ticked them off, they were often believed to have responded with famines, loss in battle against one’s enemies, disease and plenty of other human afflictions.
Rather than being a cruel and narcissistic deity who needed to be feared and pleased at all times, Zarathushtra’s God, Ahura Mazda, was loving and a friend to both men and women. Zarathushtra taught that Ahura Mazda is a God of compassionate who is kind and loving towards all of His creations, especially mankind, which is considered to be chief among them. Though He is kind and merciful, God is also just and demands that mankind also be. As one author writes, “the faith holds high the concept of social justice, propagating the belief that the whole purpose of man’s engagement with good against evil is the betterment of society. Consequently, Zoroastrianism carries a powerful social content.” 2
Instead of preaching blind obedience and the mindless practice of rituals to please this god or that, Zarathushtra taught that men and women were ultimately responsible for their own fate and that of the world around them. Unlike what was generally believed at that time, Zarathushtra taught that an individual actually had a choice in the matter: they could side with Ahura Mazda and the forces of righteousness or follow the path of falsehood and evil, the path of Ahriman, who in Zoroastrianism is equated with the devil. Though God is perfect in his wisdom and his being, the material world that has been created is not. In order to bring the world closer to perfection, humans are asked to help defeat evil and promote progress by engaging in “good thoughts, good words and good deeds,” a phrase that has become something of a motto among Zoroastrians today. It is through the practice of these three things that the world moves closer to perfection or Frashokereti, the final renovation of the universe when evil is wiped out and everything is make pure and new.
Depending on which side men or women choose (righteous or asha vs. falsehood or druj), there would be either a reward or punishment for an individual’s soul. If one were honest and just in their dealings with others, they would be rewarded in the afterlife by gaining entrance into Heaven. The opposite would be the case for those who were wicked; they would be punished by falling into the depths of Hell. At the end of linear time, all souls would be called upon for a final judgement in which their bodies would be resurrected and pass though fire where all, regardless of their sins in the material world, would become purified and enter the abode of Heaven. The fact that the wicked could eventually join the good in Heaven (after purification) is just one demonstration of the compassion of God.
What is Righteousness
What in Zoroastrianism makes one righteous? It may be easy to say that one should just practice “good thoughts, good words and good deeds,” but there is more to it that this. Though there are many interpretations of the religion and what it advises for its followers, those that most Zoroastrians generally believe, regardless of their level of orthodoxy, consist of the following:
1.) Believe in One God (monotheism)
Ahura Mazda, the name of God in Zoroastrianism, roughly translates as “Lord of Light and Wisdom” or simply “Wise Lord.” He is the Creator of the universe and the source of all that is good. As such, he is the only Being worthy of being worshipped.
2.) Belief in an afterlife, namely Heaven, Hell and a Day of Resurrection or Judgement
Many religious scholars believe that these concepts entered into Judaism, Christianity and Islam from Zoroastrianism.
3.) Divine Justice
Ultimately, the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished, both in this life and in the next.
4.) To speak the Truth and be honest in one’s dealings with others
Truth forms the ethical core of the Zoroastrian religion.
Of course, this is as very simple description. There is more that will be explored in later posts.
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