What is Zoroastrianism?

Faravahar, a symbol of Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion that continues to be practiced today. The prophet Zoroaster founded the religion which was named after him in ancient Iran (Persia) around 3,500 years ago. That date has been set through archaeological discoveries and linguistic comparisons with the Hindu scriptures named the Rig Veda. For more than a thousand years, Zoroastrianism was the most popular and powerful religion in the world. Zoroaster rejected the paganism and animal sacrifices of the people of his Persian homeland. When he was thirty years old, Zoroaster had a divine vision. He saw a "shining being" who introduced himself as Vohu Manah (Good Mind). Vohu Manah led Zoroaster to Ahura Mazda, the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism. There were five other radiant divinities as well, which are the Amesha Spentas, or the Holy Immortals. He had subsequent and similar visions, during which he asked God many questions. The answers he received form the basis of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster then started preaching the doctrine of a single God, and taught against over-ritualistic ceremonies. He pointed out that some of the pagan divinities, or Daevas, reveled in war, which a true God would not do. Zoroaster called them 'evil spirits' working for God’s enemy, which they called Angra Mainyu, essetially the Zoroastrian Satan. Of course, Persian religious authorities opposed his theories, as they felt threatened by them. After twelve years, Zoroaster left Persia to find a place which would be more welcoming of his religious views. He found it in Bactria (in modern Afghanistan.

There, King Vishtaspa and his Queen Hutosa were impressed by Zoroaster’s debates with the spiritual authorities of their land. Subsequently, they made Zoroastrianism the state’s official religion. It is not known exactly how, why, and when Zoroastrianism returned to Persia, but it was well established there by the time Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire around 550 B.C. Zoroastrianism flourished under Cyrus and his descendants, but received a blow after Alexander the Great conquered Persia. The Seleucids who ruled following Alexander's conquests tolerated Zoroastrianism, but it was not until the Parthian Arcasids overthrew the Seleucids from Persia in 141 B.C. that Zoroaster’s religion regained its past place of prominence. The succeeding Sassanids continued to follow the religion, though it became quite authoritarian and oppressive to the common man. Jews and Christians were also persecuted. With the rapid spread of Islam, Zoroastrians automatically became second class citizens, and had to pay extra taxes. The religion received major setbacks with the coming to power of the Turks and Mongols in Persia, and many followers fled from persecution to other lands, most notably the Parsis ( Parsi is Gujarati for Persian) who settled in India.

4. Beliefs and Sacred Texts

Zoroastrianism can be best summed up by its three core values: Good thoughts. Good words. Good deeds. Zoroastrians believe there is only one God, called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), and that he created the world. They also believe in the absolute of the natural elements, particularly fire, which represents God’s light (wisdom). Zoroastrians worship in a Fire Temple, or Agiary. Dualism is the core concept of the religion. Dualism is the mutually exclusive co-existence of good and evil. Cosmically, it is recognized as the opposing physical forces of the universe, represented by Ahura Mazda versus the Zoroastrian devil, Angra Mainyu. Moral dualism is the eternal conflict between the good and bad thoughts in our minds. Zoroastrians believe in the purity and sanctity of nature.

Traditionally, Zoroastrians are conservationists, and refrain from polluting rivers and the atmosphere. This has resulted in the Zoroastrianism being called “The first ecological religion”. Another central aspect of Zoroastrianism is the belief in the ‘Holy Immortals’, or Amesha Spentas, who appeared in Zoroaster’s visions. There are six Holy Immortals who helped Ahura Mazda in creating the world, and each of these look after a particular aspect of the human realm. They are Vohu Manah (Good mind and good purpose), Asha Vahishta (Truth and righteousness), Spenta Ameraiti (Holy devotion, serenity, and loving kindness), Khashathra Vairya (Power and just rule), Hauravatat (Wholeness and health), and Ameretat (Long life and immortality). The Avesta is the holy book of the Zoroastrians, and contains the religion's sacred scriptures. It is divided into two main sections: At the heart of Avesta’s scriptural core are the Gathas. These are seventeen hymns considered to have been composed by Zoroaster himself. This is the Older Avesta. The second section is the Younger Avesta. It contains commentaries on the Older Avesta, and was written in later years. The Younger Avesta also contains myths and details of rituals to be followed.

3. Influence on Other Religions

Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheistic religion still in existence today. It is generally thought that the later Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have borrowed many of their key concepts from Zoroastrianism. Monotheism is central to all of these, and the twin concepts of God and Satan are nearly identical to those in all three major Abrahamic faiths. The beliefs that god lives in Heaven and the devil rules over hell and that people go to heaven or hell after they die depending on worldly deeds are other concepts shared by all four monotheistic religions. Some scholars have drawn further parallels between the Amesha Spentas and the Christian Archangels. Several aspects of Zoroastrianism are extant in the culture and mythology of Greater Iranians. After all, the religion was the cultural anchor of these people for 1,500 years. Even as Islam came to dominate the religious mindscape of the Persian region, the cultural aspects of Zoroastrianism remained as a heritage of the Iranian language speakers in their customs and festivals. In the epic 10th Century poem Shahname, which is vital to Iranian identity, the Persian poet Firdausi had incorporated many figures and stories from the Avesta.

2. Contemporary Diaspora and Famous Zoroastrians

Today, Zoroastrians are classified into two main groups: these are the Iranis and Indian Parsis. The worldwide population of Zoroastrians has been reduced to around 190,000 per most estimates. Iran is home to 30,000 practicing Zoroastrians, while the Indian Parsis, especially those around Mumbai and Gujarat, number around 60,000. Many Zoroastrians left Iran and India to settle elsewhere, mainly in Western countries. According to the Fezana Journal Survey of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America, there are around 11,000 Zoroastrians in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, and 2,700 in New Zealand. 2,200 followers live in the Persian Gulf states, while around 1,400 are to be found in Pakistan. Individual Zoroastrian communities are thriving economically and socially. However, their dwindling of numbers is a matter of great concern to them, as their ancient religion appears to be on the brink of extinction. Zoroastrianism does not allow other people to convert to their faith, as they consider their religion to be ethnic in nature and not universal, and it has to be kept within the ‘tribe’.

Many Zoroastrians have made great contributions in such areas as business, literature, arts, sports, and science. Dadabhoy Navroji was the co-founder of modern India and the founder of the Tata group of businesses. Homi Jehangir Bhabha was the founder of India’s nuclear program, while the 8th Chief of Staff of the Indian Army was Sam Manekshaw, who was also a national hero of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 which created Bangladesh. Other noted Zoroastrian celebrities include the legendary Freddie Mercury and Zubin Mehta, conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, apart from others. Another prominent musician is the Swedish Alexander Bard, who also happens to be a philosopher. Prominent Zoroastrian writers include Rohinton Mistry and Firdaus Kanga. The latter also starred in the movie Sixth Happiness. Speaking of movies, John Abraham, a popular Bollywood star, is also a Parsi, as is actress Persis Khambatta, who portrayed the bald Deltan in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Prominent Parsi sportsmen include Farokh Engineer, a leading batsman and captain of the Indian National Cricket Team, and Bayram Avari, the world-class yachtsman. Shapurji Saklatvala was Britain’s 3rd Asian Minister of Parliament of Asian origins from 1922 to 1929, and Bejan Daruwala, the famous astrologer who now lives in Washington D.C., is also an Indian Parsi.

1. Threats, and Persecution

After the Persian defeat at the hands of Alexander, Zoroastrianism received a severe blow. The Greeks killed many priests and destroyed the sacred literature. Fortunately, the core of the religion, the Gathas, survived. Zoroastrianism returned to normalcy for several decades under the reigns of the Seleucids, Arcasids, and the succeeding Sassanians, though Zoroastrianism came under strict control under the latter. The disaster that the Arab Muslims wrought on the religion surpassed that of Alexander’s Greeks. Entire libraries were burned, and a veritable treasure trove of Zoroastrianism’s cultural heritage was destroyed. Religious persecution came in the way of a dhimmi identity (People of the Book). Like Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians retained their religious freedom, but had to pay extra taxes for the privilege. Like all non-Muslims, they were subjected to humiliating social laws in hopes that they would convert to Islam to avoid such. Many did convert, and Zoroastrianism became a minority religion in the place of its birth. Further difficulties came with the rise of the Turks and the Mongols in Persia, with more destruction of sacred texts. Conditions became so unbearable for Zoroastrians that boatloads of Parsis fled the religious persecution in the 10th Century and sailed to Gujarat in India. They were granted permission to stay, and these were the founders of today’s thriving Parsi communities in Mumbai and Gujarat. Today, ongoing persecution of Zoroastrianism continues, especially in its now Muslim-dominated places of origin.


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