Zoroastrianism: History, Beliefs, and Practices
Originally printed in the January – February 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Contractor, Dinshaw and Hutoxy. “Zoroastrianism: History, Beliefs, and Practices.” Quest 91.1 (JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2003):4-9.
By Dinshaw and Hutoxy Contractor
Zoroastrianism, although the smallest of the major religions of the world in the number of its adherents, is historically one of the most important. Its roots are in the proto-Indo-European spirituality that also produced the religions of India. It was the first of the world’s religions to be founded by an inspired prophetic reformer. It was influential on Mahayana Buddhism and especially on the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To the latter three, Zoroastrianism bequeathed such concepts as a cosmic struggle between right and wrong, the primacy of ethical choice in human life, monotheism, a celestial hierarchy of spiritual beings (angels, archangels) that mediate between God and humanity, a judgment for each individual after death, the coming of a Messiah at the end of this creation, and an apocalypse culminating in the final triumph of Good at the end of the historical cycle. —Editor
ZOROASTER WAS THE PERSIAN PROPHET on whose teachings the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is based.The name by which he is commonly known in the West is from the Greek form of his original name,Zarathushtra, which means “Shining Light.”
Date of Zoroaster
Scholars differ considerably about the date of Zoroaster’s birth. Greek sources place Zoroaster at 6000 years before the death of Plato, that is, about 6350 B.C. Archeological remains in Turfan, China, state that Zoroaster was born “2715 years after the Great Storm,” placing his birth at 1767 B.C. The latest dates for his life come from Persian writings that place him 258 years before Alexander, that is, about 600 years B.C. Many other scholars place Zoroaster’s birth between 1500 and 1200 B.C.
According to Annie Besant in her lectures on Four Great Religions, the Esoteric Tradition dates the beginning of Zoroastrian teachings far earlier than any of those dates. That Tradition is based on two kinds of records. First, the Great Brotherhood has preserved the ancient writings, stored in underground temples and libraries. There are people today and have been those in the past who have been permitted to set eyes on these ancient writings. Second, there are the imperishable records of the Akasha itself.
According to these records, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism are the two oldest religions of our modern humanity. The Iranians, in their first migration into Iran, were led by the great teacher Zoroaster, who belonged to the same mighty Brotherhood as Manu of the Indic tradition and was a high Initiate of the same Great Lodge, taught by the same primordial Teachers, called the Sons of the Fire. From this great teacher came down a line of prophets, who superintended the early development of the Iranian peoples and all of whom bore the name Zoroaster. The Zoroaster the Greeks refer to may have been the seventh Zoroaster in this line of prophets.
Birthplace of Zoroaster
Scholars are equally divergent about the birthplace of Zoroaster. They suggest such locations aseastern Iran, Azerbaijan (south of the Caspian Sea), Balkh (the capital of Bactria, in present dayAfghanistan), Chorasmia and Sogdia (in present-day Tajikhistan), or near the Aral Sea (in present-day Khazakhstan).
Zoroastrianism flourished during three great Persian Empires. The first was the Achaemenian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great (ca. 585 –529 B.C.). He established an empire that extended from Asia Minor in the west to India in the east and from Armenia in the north to Egypt in the south. Cyrus showed great respect for the nations he had conquered. He allowed them to govern themselves and to follow their own religious beliefs. When he invaded Babylon, he set the Jewish captives free to return to their country, Judea, and even provided them with resources to rebuild the Temple of Solomon, which had been razed by the Babylonians. For these deeds, Cyrus is mentioned in the Old Testament (Isaiah 45.1 -3) as a savior and as “the Anointed One.”
The Achaemenians had constant conflict with the Greeks in the west of their empire. Darius, a successor of Cyrus, dispatched 600 ships and a large land force to capture Athens. The Achaemenians were on the Plain of Marathon, and their ships were to sneak towards Athens and surprise the city. When the Greeks heard of the Persians’ plan, they sent one of their runners, Phillippe, to Athens to warn the citizens there. The distance from Marathon to Athens was 26 miles and this run has been immortalized in the Marathon races held all over the world. The Persians had to withdraw from that battle.
The Achaemenian Empire came to a close with the rise of Alexander, who in 334 B.C. conquered Persia, plundered the treasury, and burned the libraries in Persepolis. Many of the priests were killed, and these priests were considered to be the living libraries of the religion, since they had committed to memory most of the sacred texts. Alexander is thought of as “the Great” by the Greeks, Egyptians, and others but is known as “the Accursed” by the Persians. Alexander died young, and the Greek-based Seleucid Empire, which succeeded him, lasted a relatively short time.
About 250 B.C., the Parthian tribe from northeast Iran overthrew the Greeks and established an empire that was just as extensive as the Achaemenian Empire. The Parthians were also Zoroastrians and were also tolerant of the religious beliefs of conquered lands. During the approximately five hundred years of the Parthian Empire, there were continuous battles with the Romans. The Roman Empire extended to Scotland in the west. However, in the east, they were stopped by the Parthians. The Romans never took to Zoroastrianism but instead practiced Mithraism, in which the deities Mithra and Anahita were worshipped. The Romans established Mithraic temples throughout the western part of their empire, many of which are still standing today. During the five hundred years of the Parthian Empire, Zoroastrianism was quite unregulated, and hence differing forms of the religion developed.
To counteract the resulting chaotic state of the religion, the Sasanians (who were also Zoroastrians) rose up against the Parthians and overthrew them in 225 A.D. The Sasanians wanted to unify Zoroastrianism and to establish rules about what Zoroastrianism was and what it was not. A High Priest was established, who was next to the King in authority. Zoroastrianism was made the state religion of the Empire, and conversions were actively made to counteract the proselytizing zeal of Christians. This missionary activity shows that Zoroastrianism was really a universal religion and not an ethnic religion, limited to one people.
The Sasanian Empire lasted till 641 A.D., when the Arabs invaded Persia and established Islam in the land. The new regime gave the local population three choices: conversion to Islam, payment of a heavy tax imposed on nonbelievers (called the Jizya tax), or death. The Arabs mistreated the Zoroastrians in many ways and made life very difficult for those who chose not to convert. Consequently, in 936 A.D., a group of Zoroastrians from the town of Sanjan in the Khorasan Province of Iran made their way south to the port of Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, from where they set sail for India. They spent nineteen years on the island of Div before making final landfall on the western coast of Gujerat.
These immigrants to India became known as the Parsis (that is, “those from the Persian province of Pars”). The Parsis prospered in Gujerat and later on began to move out to other parts of India. They particularly excelled and prospered when the British established themselves in India.
Meanwhile, the Zoroastrians left behind in Iran continued to suffer under very adverse conditions. When the prosperous Parsis in India heard of the woeful plight of their coreligionists, they dispatched emissaries to Iran, notably Maneckji Hataria in 1854. He spent many years in Iran, rebuilding educational and religious institutions and helping the Zoroastrian community there to regain its social strength. In 1882, he was successful in persuading the Islamic Qajar King to abolish the burden of the Jizya tax.
Today, the Zoroastrian community in Iran is doing well and has an unusually high number of successful people. Within the past few decades, there has been an emigration of Zoroastrians from Iran and India to the Western world. These two communities, the Iranian and Indian, are now united, go to the same fire temples, intermarry, and prosper in harmony.
In Zoroastrian cosmology, the head of the manifested universe is Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord.” He is the universal and pervasive source and fountain of all life. But behind or beyond Ahura Mazda is Zarvan Akarana, Boundless Time and Boundless Space, the unmanifested absolute from which the manifested Logos, Ahura Mazda, came forth.
Ahura Mazda is depicted in the Zoroastrian scriptures as a kind of trinity: “Praise to thee, Ahura Mazda, threefold before other creations.” From Ahura Mazda came a duality: the twin spirits of Spenta Mainyu (the Holy or Bountiful Spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the Destructive or Opposing Spirit). The twin spirits are popularly thought of as good and evil, but rather they are two principles that represent all the opposites of life. In her lecture on “Zoroastrianism,” Annie Besant has this to say of them:
Good and evil may be said to only come into existence when man in his evolution develops the power of knowledge and of choice; the original duality is not of good and evil, but is of spirit and matter, of reality and non-reality, of light and darkness, of construction and destruction, the two poles between which the universe is woven and without which no universe can be. . . . There are two names again that give us the clue to the secret, the “increaser” and the “destroyer,” the one from whom the life is ever pouring forth, and the other the material side which belongs to form, and which is ever breaking up in order that life may go on into higher expression.
After the trinity of Ahura Mazda and the twin spirits that emanated from him is a sevenfold expression of the divine reality. These seven are called the Amesha Spentas or Holy or Bountiful Immortals, the Highest Intelligences. They are sometimes thought of as archangels and sometimes as aspects of Ahura Mazda himself. These seven mighty intelligences are also guardians of various kingdoms of nature. They are as follows:
- Ahura Mazda himself. Just as the One Wise Lord is part of a trinity including also the twin spirits of bountiful increase and of destructive opposition, so too is he one of the sevenfold intelligences. The One Lord is present everywhere.
- Vohu Manah, Good Mind. It is divine wisdom, illumination, and love—the mental capacity to comprehend the next one of the Amesha Spentas, Asha Vahishta. Vohu Manah is associated especially with the animal kingdom.
- Asha Vahishta, Highest Truth. Often translated as “righteousness,” the word asha is etymologically the same as the Sanskrit term rta, and thus is the dharma or Plan by which the world exists. Asha Vahishta is the order of the cosmos, the ideal form of the universe. It is associated with the element of fire.
- Khshathra Vairya, Desirable Dominion, is divine strength and the power of Ahura Mazda’s kingdom. In theological terms, it represents the Kingdom of Heaven; in human terms, it represents the ideal society. Khshathra Vairya is associated with the sky and with the mineral kingdom. Human beings can realize the power of Khshathra Vairya when they are guided by Good Mind and Highest Truth.
- Spenta Armaiti, Holy or Bountiful Devotion, theologically is the attitude of piety and devotion; ethically, it is the attitude of benevolence. It is associated with the element of earth.
- Haurvatat, Wholeness, is the state of perfection, complete well-being, spiritual and physical integrity. It is associated with the element of water.
- Ameretat, Immortality, is the state of immortal bliss. It is associated with the plant kingdom.
These seven can be thought of either as cosmic principles or as human principles (the macrocosm-microcosm). It is through our use of a good mind (Vohu Manah), practicing love and devotion (Spenta Armaiti), and following the path of righteousness (Asha Vahishta) that we can bring about the ideal state of things (Khshathra Vairya), in which ultimately perfection (Haurvatat) and immortality (Ameretat) will prevail. Human beings are not bystanders in life. We are the prime agents through whose actions the promise of Ahura Mazda will be fulfilled. With Ahura Mazda, we are co-creators of the ideal world.
Under the Amesha Spentas are other intelligences called Yazatas, sometimes compared to angels. Together with human beings, the Yazatas are the hamkars or helpers of Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrianism views the world as having been created by Ahura Mazda and as meant to evolve to perfection according to the law or plan of Asha, the divine order of things. The law of Asha is the principle of righteousness or “rightness” by which all things are exactly what they should be. In their most basic prayer, the “Ashem Vohu,” repeated every day, Zoroastrians affirm this law of Asha: “Righteousness is the highest virtue. Happiness to him who is righteous for the sake of righteousness.” This is the central concept in the Zoroastrian religion: Asha is the ultimate Truth, the ideal of what life and existence should be.
Duality exists as part of manifestation, but human beings also have freewill to choose between the dual opposites. As they have the power of choice, they have also the personal responsibility of choosing well. Spenta Mainyu, the Bountiful Spirit, promotes the realization of Asha. Angra Mainyu, the Destructive Spirit, violates Asha. We have a choice between them, between spirit and matter, between the real and the unreal.
Personal salvation is attained through making the right choice. And the salvation of the world, called “Frashokereti,” is the restoration of the world to its perfect state, one that is in complete accord with Asha. As human beings make the right choices in their lives, they are furthering the realization of Frashokereti.
Life after Death
What happens after death? According to the Zoroastrian tradition, after the death of the body, the soul remains in this world for three days and nights, in the care of Sraosha, one of the Yazatas or angels. During this period, prayers are said and rituals performed to assure a safe passage of the soul into the spiritual realm. On the dawn of the fourth day, the spirit is believed to have crossed over to the other world, where it arrives at the allegorical Chinvat Bridge.
At the Chinvat Bridge, the soul meets a maiden who is the embodiment of all the good words, thoughts, and deeds of its preceding life. If the soul has led a righteous life (one in accord with the divine Plan), the maiden appears in a beautiful form. If not, she appears as an ugly hag. This image, fair or foul, confronts the soul, and the soul acknowledges that the image is an embodiment of its own actions and thereby judges itself, knowing whether it is worthy to cross over the bridge to the other side or must return to earth to learn further lessons.
By another account, after the soul meets its own image, it appears before a heavenly tribunal, where divine justice is administered. Good souls go to a heaven called Vahishta Ahu, the Excellent Abode. Evil souls are consigned to a hell called Achista Ahu, the Worst Existence. One account reflects a belief in reincarnation; the other does not.
In the oldest Zoroastrian scriptures, heaven and hell are not places, but states of mind that result from right or wrong choices. Zoroaster spoke of the “drujo demana” or “House of Lies” and the “garo demana”or “House of Song,” to which souls are sent. Some say that the fall of the soul into the House of Lies means a return of the soul to earth, the realm of unreality or lies.
Zoroastrianism places great emphasis on purity and not defiling any of the elements of Ahura Mazda’screation. For that reason, traditionally, neither burial nor cremation were practiced by Zoroastrians. Instead, dead bodies were taken to a Tower of Silence and laid out under the sun, where vultures devoured them. At the present time, there is great controversy about this practice.
Fire is the major symbol in Zoroastrianism and has a central role in the most important religious ceremonies. It has a special significance, being the supreme symbol of God and the divine Life. In Zoroastrian scriptures, Ahura Mazda is described as “full of luster, full of glory,” and hence his luminous creations—fire, sun, stars, and light—are regarded as visible tokens of the divine and of the inner light. That inner light is the divine spark that burns within each of us. Fire is also a physical representation of the illumined mind.
Zoroastrian places of worship are called Fire Temples. In them an eternal flame is kept burning with sandalwood and frankincense. The first fire to be lit upon an altar is said to have been brought down from heaven by Zoroaster with a rod.
When the Parsis fled from Iran and settled in India, fire was again brought down from heaven by lightning to create the sacred symbol of Ahura Mazda. The fire altar where that historic fire is still burning is an important pilgrimage site for the Parsis. Because the fire is such a sacred and holy symbol, the fire temples are open only to Zoroastrians.
Today, Zoroastrians do not proselytize, and consequently Zoroastrians are born to the faith. If a Parsi woman marries outside the religion, her children cannot be Zoroastrians, but if a man marries outside, his children can become Zoroastrians, although his wife cannot. No doubt these restrictions are later aberrations not befitting the lofty ideals and teachings of the religion.
The Zoroastrian scriptures are called the Avesta, and the ancient language in which they are written is called Avestan. That language is closely related to the Sanskrit of the ancient Vedic hymns. The term Zend Avesta refers to the commentaries made by the successors of Zoroaster on his writings. Later, commentaries to the commentaries were written in the Persian language of the Sasanian Empire, which is called Pahlavi. So the Zoroastrian scriptures are in several languages and their composition spans vast periods of time. Yet they are fragmentary because of the destruction of written texts and the persecution of priest-scholars by foreign invaders.
The oldest part of the Zoroastrian scriptures are the Gathas, which are the direct teachings of Zoroaster and his conversations with Ahura Mazda in a series of visions. The Gathas are part of a major section of the Avesta called the Yasna, a term literally meaning “sacrifice,” consisting of texts recited by priests during ceremonies. The Vendidad is a manual in the form of a catechism giving rules of purification and for preventing sins of both commission and omission. The Khordeh Avesta or “Little Avesta” includes invocations with beautiful descriptions of the Yazatas or angelic intelligences.
Fundamental Moral Practices
The basic moral principles that guide the life of a Zoroastrian are three:
Humata, “Good Thoughts,” the intention or moral resolution to abide by Asha, the right order of things.
Hukhata, “Good Words,” the communication of that intention.
Havarashta, “Good Deeds,” the realization in action of that intention.
Living these three principles is the way we exercise our freewill by following the law of Asha. These three principles are included in many Zoroastrian prayers, and children commit themselves to abide by them at their initiation ceremony, marking their responsible entry into the faith as practicing Zoroastrians. They are the moral code by which a Zoroastrian lives.
References and Further Reading
|Besant,||Annie. “Zoroastrianism.” In Four Great Religions, 41 –70. Chicago: TheosophicalPress, 1897. And in Seven Great Religions, 41 –80. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1978.|
|Boyce,||Mary, ed. and trans. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.|
|Boyce,||Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 2001.|
|Masani,||Sir Rustom. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life. New York: Macmillan, 1968.|
|Rivetna,||Roshan, ed. The Legacy of Zarathushtra: An Introduction to the Religion, History, andCulture of the Zarathushtis (Zoroastrians). Hinsdale, IL: Federation of Zoroastrian Associations ofNorth America (FEZANA), 5750 South Jackson Street, www.fezana.org, 2002.|
|Tarapore||wala, Irach Jehengir Sorabji. The Religion of Zarathushtra. Adyar, Madras:Theosophical Publishing House, 1926.|