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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Old Iranian Religion and Zoroastrian Reforms


By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 3 - 3rd November1998



In Lecture Two we discussed the establishment of the Median Empire, and also briefly mentioned Persians. These two great Western Iranian imperial dynasties who later became Zoroastrians, represented peoples whose languages were very different from the Avestan. These people, before their conversion in the West to the eastern faith, worshipped the old pre-Zoroastrian gods. Their westerly migration, therefore, must have taken place before the spread of Zoroastrianism in eastern Iran.


This lecture should logically chart the westward expansion of the faith by filling the gap between the time and place of the prophet and the establishment of his faith in western Iran. There is, however, no valid archaeological and documentary evidence to bridge this gap. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the religion was born in the East, and did spread to the West. This process is, therefore, examined by highlighting, first the main aspects of the Old Iranian religion, secondly the principal elements of the Zoroastrian reforms, and finally the first signs of the appearance of these reforms in western Iran. We shall now briefly examine the first two elements of this process.




The strong parallelism between the old religion of Iran and those of other Indo-European peoples, such as Indians, Greeks and Germans, indicates a common origin in the distant millennia. Any close scrutiny and comparison, however, is only possible with the religion of the ancient Indians. Indeed such are the similarities between these two cultures that they are assumed to derive from a single sub-division called Indo-Iranian. 


The closely-knit pantheons of India and Iran share several principal gods, some of whom embodying the unprecedented concept of "abstract deities”. Each pantheon, moreover, possessed three Ahuras (Sanskrit Asura), meaning "Lord". The first two Iranian Ahuras were Mithra, and *Vouruna who may have become the Iranian Apem Napet. The first two Indian Asuras are Mitra, and Varuna who is also associated with the Indian Apem Napet. The third Lord was Ahura Mazdah, "The Wise Lord" in Iran, and Asura *Medhe in India. Not all these Ahuric (Asuric) gods were supreme deities. Indeed, some like the Iranian Apm Nap~t and Indian *Medhe seem very obscure, who hardly merit a mention in the surviving literature. The Iranian Mithra and the Indian Varuna, however, were regarded as chief deities. The only other high ranking gods were the Daevas (modern divs) represented by Inder in Iran, and the Devas (modern devs) represented by Indra and his followers in India (The term "Daeva/Daiva", meaning "heavenly one" may have originally described gods in general). The two pantheons also shared many other gods, some of which are summarised as follows:






The first two Lords in both traditions are so closely linked that they are called by Sanskrit grammarians a DVANDVA, i.e., a pair. This means that they usually function together, and are commonly invoked as Mitravaruna in India, and were probably addressed as *Mithra-Apem Napet by the ancient Iranians.   

The Daevas/Devas stood for war, conquest, military power, killing and devastation. The first two Ahuras/Asuras, on the other hand, were the joint guardians of contract, covenant, oath, and above all, the Cosmic Order, called "ÎTA" in India and "ASHA" in Iran (NP Arda). The Ahuras/Asuras moreover, were bound by law unlike other Indo-Iranian gods who did as they pleased. It seems that this Ahuric Doctrine (ahura tkasha) had been a dominant element in the old Iranian religion in both East and West.


Aryaman and Ashi (Āti) in both traditions stood respectively for friendship and fertility. Verethraδna, meaning "overcoming resistance" was the god of victory in Iran, while Vetrahan, in India, meaning "dragon slayer" is an epithet of Indra. Baga, meaning "dispenser" in Iran, was the deity of gifts; he later became associated with *Vouruna (Apem Napet). In India, however, (also in Slavonic languages) it is a generic term for god. Several old Iranian deities are also linked with a divine fire & water concept called "xvarenah".


The old Iranian religion, indeed any pre-Zoroastrian faith throughout the world, acted as the guiding principle for keeping the world going as it was. The world was considered to be static, and people were fascinated with what it was and how it was. It was the great Iranian prophet who changed all this. He saw the world as dynamic not static, and he dismissed the notion of "how the world was", in favour of "how it ought to be".





A). The Dualism of the new pantheon and pandemonium


1.        An abstract phenomenon, called by the prophet "Angra Mainyu" (hostile spirit) became omnipotent in the Iranian pandemonium. Hence, he was given the supreme power over everything evil.


2.        the Daevas were removed, once and for all, from the Iranian pantheon, and placed in the pandemonium (Ever since, all Iranian languages, even the modern ones, have been the only members of the Indo-European group where the Daevas mean devils rather than gods). They were second only to the Angra Mainyu, but far above all other demons.


3.        Ahuras and he rest of the old pantheon were maintained, but Ahura Mazdah became the supreme deity with unlimited (define) power over everything good.


4.        Seven other abstract deities, the "Amesha Spentas" (bounteous immortals), were now added to the old pantheon; these are the famous heptad, the most important divinities after the Wise Lord.



B) The doctrine of the good and evil</B>


1.        The first member of the heptad, the Spenta Mainyu (bounteous spirit), became the alter ego of Ahura Mazdah. He single handedly created the man.


2.        The other six were chosen to replace the now demonised Daevas.


3.        They took some of the old gods from the pantheon as helpers (hamkers), and fashioned the rest of the good creations under the direction of the Wise Lord.




The list of the Zoroastrian heptad, their good creations and some of their hamkars are as follows:



C) The cosmic duel and the dynamic theory


1.        A universal battle was then ensued between Ahura Mazdah and the Angra Mainyu lasting for another 3000 years. This period is called Gumezishn, the mixture.


2.        The Angra Mainyu attacked and wreaked havoc with all the good creations. He killed the man, slew the cattle, polluted the fire with smoke and darkened the sun, pierced the sky, made the earth uneven, polluted the water with brine, and withered the plants.


3.        After the attack the living creatures began to multiply, grow and die; the sun started to rotate, creating day and night and different seasons; the water evaporated, the clouds were formed and it rained for the first time. In other word, the old static world became an active one.


4.        This state of affair gave rise to the dynamic theory, i.e., the process of universal destruction and renovation, and cosmic extinction and resurrection. This theory is attested in other Indo-European cultures, the closest one being the Germanic Götterdämmerung. Nonetheless, the credit for being the first thinker to present it as a philosophical doctrine must undoubtedly go to the great Iranian prophet.



D) The principle of morality


Zoroaster's concept of dualism and dynamic theory are closely linked with (or even gave rise to) his most far-reaching doctrine, which has shaped the faith of mankind ever since. In order to appreciate the significance of this awesome statement one needn't go any further than looking up the word "morality" in a modern dictionary, any where in the world. There, one would find that the definition given for this word is a virtual quotation from the divine revelation of a prehistoric Iranian. It is also significant to remember that not only was Zoroaster non-literate, but his message was not reduced to writing for at lest 2000 years after his time. The principle of morality concerns only the man, and is formulated as follows:


1.        During the Gumezishn, when dualism and the dynamic upheaval is the order of the day, only the man is given the freedom to chose between the good and evil.


2.        Moreover, the Wise Lord cannot succeed in his cosmic duel with the Angra Mainyu unless he is helped by the mortals (Mard).


3.        If man is righteous through good deeds, words, and thoughts, then the Wise Lord will vanquish the Angra Mainyu.


4.        However, if man is wicked, then the Angra mainyu will succeed.


5.        There is, therefore, no predestination. The man is the master of his own destiny (Luther), and the only instrument to ensure the ultimate victory of good over evil. This will destroy, once and for all, the pandemonium and, therefore, everything evil; it will bring about the end of time; the dynamic world would become once more an everlasting static one.


6.        This glorious moment is called by the prophet " Frashe-Kerei" (making wonderful).



E) Zoroastrian eschatology


Zoroaster, being a practical seer, gave man an irresistible encouragement to chose the path of righteousness. The Gumezishn was going to last for 3000 years, and no body was going to live that long to see the eventual outcome of the cosmic duel. Then, why should they suppress their desire and not yield to temptation when, to put it mildly, there is nothing in it for them.


Zoroaster solved this problem by yet another one of his master-strokes, a set of laws governing death and hereafter, again the first ever in any religion. This highly original concept seems less ethical than his principle of morality, as it impairs the noble virtue of the "Superiority of the Individual Conscience" (Luther). Nonetheless, it too has shaped all our spiritual existence, and left a profound and indelible impression on our lives. The three popular Semitic religions of the west, for example, have adopted the Zoroastrian eschatology, principal points of which are as follows: 


1.        During the Gumezishn, there will be an individual Day of Judgment for the dead.


2.        When a man dies, his soul will undergo this trial at the Bridge of Separation, (Pul-i Chinvat) where his good and bad deeds will be weighed.


3.        The righteous will spend the rest of the Gumezishn in a novel place called Paradise.


4.        The wicked will do that in another novel place called hell.


5.        Whenever the good and the bad deeds are equal, the soul shall be suspended in a state of limbo.


6.        At the Frashe-Krereti (see above, D6), a Messianic Saviour, called by the prophet "Saoshyant", will usher in his principle of cosmic resurrection (see above, C4). This would also apply to all the dead, who regardless of their deeds, will rise and live happily ever after.




Further reading:


Mary Boyce, "Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism", Manchester University Press, 1984.  



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