Zoroastrianism is commonly known to its followers as “the good religion.” In Avesta, this term is daenaam vanghuhim. But what is it about Zoroastrianism that makes this so? That is what we’ll be taking a look at here.
IntroductionSo earlier, like a couple of years ago, I wrote a short post on the basics of the religion. I’m pretty much going to expand on all of that here.
For starters, Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in all of recorded history. It was founded (or reformed, depending on your view) over 3000 years ago in the land once known as ancient Iran or Iranshahr by a man named Zarathustra. The Greeks called him Zoroaster, and so today the name of the religion he started is known worldwide as Zoroastrianism.
Zarathustra and the Good Religion
Zarathustra was an extremely unique individual in an age when conformity to the old order was the norm. One could even say that he was a revolutionary. It is believed that he was born into a priestly family of the old Indo-Iranian religion. The religion of Indo-Iranians at that time was polytheistic and contained many rituals. Unlike the vast majority of those within his society, Zarathustra rejected the polytheistic beliefs of his people. Instead, he preached that there was only one supreme God and Creator named Ahura Mazda. Unlike the gods and goddesses of the old polytheistic religion, Ahura Mazda did not demand elaborate rituals and sacrifices like many of the despotic deities of the time. He was a loving God who cared for his creations, especially human beings.
In fact, all Ahura Mazda requested was for mankind to live righteous lives and work for the betterment of the world. Zarathustra’s religion was an ethical one that put man and women against the forces of evil and deceit. In order to defeat these forces, humans should be righteous in thought, word and deed. At the end of time, those who followed the path of righteous, commonly referred to as asha, would be rewarded in the afterlife. Those who were wicked would be condemned to the punishment of Hell. However, Zarathustra foretold that eventually, all evil would be defeated and that the forces of goodness would prevail. After this final victory, all souls would be judged on a special day (day of judgement) where the wicked would be cleansed of their sins and be allowed to join with the righteous in the “House of Song” or Heaven/Paradise.
In the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, these concepts may seem quiet commonplace, however as mentioned earlier, they were truly revolutionary in Zarathustra’s time.
Building on the Old
Like all religions, Zoroastrianism didn’t just appear out of a vacuum. It had its roots in the religious ideas that came before it. In fact, many of its concepts and rituals were already quite developed well before Zarathustra came unto the scene. For example, there was a plethora of deities, including Ahura Mazda, who were worshiped by the ancient Indo-Iranian people. Most of these gods and goddesses had elaborate rituals and sacrifices that were performed by special priests whose knowledge of spiritual matters gave them considerable power over the people of their ancient society.
What Zarathustra did was to take the elements of the old religion and reconstruct them into a monotheistic faith and way of life that could be practiced by any man, woman or child. Many aspects of the old religion, for example hymns (called yashts ) to various angels and heroes of old were still recited. However, many of these were reinterpreted by Zarathustra and his later followers through a monotheist worldview. Those who were once mighty gods and goddesses became angels or spiritual helpers of both mankind and the all-powerful Ahura Mazda. Some of these beings even turned from deities into demons. Thus, the old order wasn’t completely eradicated as much as reformed.
Core Zoroastrian TenetsSome people think that due to it’s age and what seem to be an elaborate set of rituals, the Zoroastrian religion is quite complicated. This is actually not the case, at least not according to what we believe Zarathustra taught.
Ahura Mazda, the One Supreme God
Probably the core tenet of the Zoroastrian religion is the declaration that there is only one God, Ahura Mazda. There are a few translations/interpretations of his name. One is simply “Wise Lord.” Another is “Lord of Light and Wisdom.” Whatever the translation may be, Zarathustra taught that Ahura Mazda is the creator of the universe and all of things within it. He is both all-good and all-wise. Some would also interpret him to be all-love (we’ll get to this concept in a later post). Unlike many ancient deities, especially those of Mesopotamia, Ahura Mazda is not a God to be feared.
Along with the material world, Ahura Mazda also created what is known as Spenta Mainyu, the good or bounteous spirit. In classical Zoroastrian cosmogony, good and evil spirits have been at odds with each other since the beginning of time. The name of this evil spirit or mentality is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. Angra Mainyu represents all that is evil and is the direct opposite of Spenta Mainyu. Think of him as like the Devil in the three Abrahamic religions (also believed to be a Zoroastrian concept which we’ll touch up upon later). Though Ahura Mazda is the creator of all, He did not create the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu.
So if God is the source of all that is good, where then does Angra Mainyu and evil come from? This is explained by the Zoroastrian concept of free will.
Free Will in Zoroastrianism
While Ahura Mazda is the creator of the universe and its laws, his creation of mankind is unique. Men and women have been given a mind, and not just any at that. Unlike the mind of most animals, mankind can reason and think in terms of right and wrong. Humans capable of making their own judgments and conclusions by using their minds. With the mind, one can freely choose how they wish to shape their own life and destiny. This essentially is freewill.
However just because one has free will to commit certain actions doesn’t mean that they’re not accountable for those actions. You can’t just be like “I’m gonna be a $@&% to everyone” and get away with it. Zoroastrianism is a religion of truth and justice. If you do good works, are kind and just with others, you’ll be rewarded with the same. If you do the opposite, you’ll suffer detrimental consequences, if not in this life, then in the one to come. As mentioned earlier, there is a such thing as an afterlife in Zoroastrianism where the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished.
“Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”
So then, how does one use their free will to live a life according to the daenaam vanghuhim. i.e. the “good religion”? This also is quite easy. One should live a life of good thoughts (Humata), good words (Hukhta) and good deeds (Huvarshta). Good thoughts are probably the most important of the three, since one’s words and deeds spring from them. If your thoughts are good, your speech and actions naturally will be too. It is these good actions that will help the world and society to progress to perfection, a concept in Zoroastrianism called Frashokereti.
A Religion that Promotes Happiness
I was reading a book not too long ago about the Englishman Edward G. Browne and his travels to the Iranian city of Yazd in the late 19th century. He basically describes the horrible treatment, intolerable suffering and abject poverty of the Zoroastrians in that city specifically and Iran in general. And yet despite all this, he writes that they are among the happiest and most joyful people that he’s ever encountered. This probably has to do a lot with the tenets of the Zoroastrian religion itself.
Zoroastrianism is a religion that promotes happiness and an optimistic view of life. To be pessimistic is considered to be under the influence of Angra Mainyu. Joy can come through many means, but the quickest way is by bringing happiness to others. This can be done by fighting evil in the form of injustice, ignorance, poverty and the like. Zoroastrianism espouses action and not asceticism. This is because the world is made better by continuous good actions and not by withdrawing from society and the service of mankind.
Stay tuned for more Zoroastrian religion and history.
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