Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
from "Zoroastrians, Followers of an ancient faith in a modern world"
Zarathushtra - Artist impression (Oil
Painting by Shapour Suren-Pahlav)
The History of Zoroastrian religion begins on the ancient Iranian homelands of
the Steppes of Central Asia with the
advent of the Prophet Zarathushtra (or Zoroaster, as he was called in the Greek
literature). Scholars place Zarathushtra at 1768 BCE i.e. the time he
revealed his divine message.
flourished through the rise and fall of many civilizations. For a thousand years
(558 BCE to 652 CE) it was the court religion of three Iranian Empires, those
of the Achaemenians, the Parthians and the Sasanians, and stretched across Asia
from Greece in the west to the Hindu Kush in the east, up into Southern Russia,
and down into Egypt. Its followers numbered in the millions.
Zarathushtra's first disciples was Iranian King Vistashpa, ruler of Bactria. The religion
then spread through Persia, and became the State religion of the Achaemenian
Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in 558 BCE It suffered a setback during the
reign of Darius III, when Alexander conquered Persia in 330 BCE. At this time the
seat of the Empire at Persepolis was destroyed. After a revival during the
Parthian (248 BCE to 224 CE) and Sasanian (224 To 652 CE) periods, it reeled
once again with the Muslim invasion of Persia in 652 CE. At this time, a large
number accepted Islam but others remained with theirs old faith going through a
lot of troubles. Meanwhile a few shiploads of devotees fled and landed on the
western shores of India where the native Hindu ruler gave them refuge. Their
descendants, the Parsees, still keep their faith alive, in India.
PRESENT DAY ZOROASTRIANS
Today, the total number of Zoroastrians in the world is about 200,000, with
60,000 in India, 90,000 in Iran, 15,000 in the U.S.A. and Canada,
and smaller pockets in Europe, Pakistan, Africa and Australia. Wherever they
have settled, Zoroastrians have served well the countries of their adoption.
For centuries after the Muslim invasion in 652CEZoroastrians in Iran practiced
their faith in quiet seclusion. As opportunities presented themselves in the
20th century, Zoroastrians moved from the rural areas towards business, the
professions and industry.
entrepreneurs were the first to: introduce English and sports in schools;
modernize; irrigation and agriculture; found steel aluminium and plastic
factories; promote a small scale automobile industry; start large scale
construction projects; and endow hospitals and schools. In a short span of 50
years, Zoroastrians excelled in all walks of life-government, business,
industry, arts and sciences.
Indian Zoroastrians the Parsees
The Parsees, despite having lived in India for over 12 centuries and marriages
with native Indians, they have maintained their religious distinctiveness,
possibly because Zoroastrians do not proselytize. Over the years they have
assimilated three separate cultures. The old Persian, Indian and western, or
what is really the British heritage. A miniscule minority in India (less than
.01% of the population), the Parsees have influenced the country well out of
proportion to their numbers. Prosperous, enterprising, literate, they dominate
the business community of Bombay. Under British rule in the 19th century, the
Parsees became the earliest Indian industrialists and built the first great
Indian industrial projects-shipbuilding, aviation, steel, textiles, chemicals
and nuclear energy, and have excelled in the arts and sciences. Noted for their
integrity, philanthropy and pioneering spirit, they have founded hospitals,
schools and other institutions, liberally extending their philanthropy to others
as well as their people.
North American Zoroastrians Zoroastrians began migrating to North America in the
1950s and 1960s, seeking higher education and better opportunities. They have
settled well and prospered in business and the professions. Possibly the most
notable Zoroastrian in the U.S.A. today is Zubin Mehta, former conductor of the
New York Philharmonic Orchestra. These immigrants brought with them more than
their skills and talents, their willingness to work and determination to
succeed. They also brought their faith, culture and customs, their language and
literature-the legacy of a centuries-old tradition that fits surprisingly well
into i the modern North American milieu.
THE ZOROASTRIAN ETHIC
Zarathushtra preached the monotheistic religion of the One Supreme God, Ahura
Mazda (Wise Lord) His message is a positive, life-affirming, active principled
one, which demands not so much belief, as reason and action on the part of every
individual. His was not a prescriptive ethic based on obedience, fear or love,
but rather, an ethic of personal responsibility. A Zoroastrian is taught to lead
an industrious, honest and, above all, charitable life. There is no place for
asceticism. The generation of wealth is part of the ethos, as long as it is
achieved honestly, and used for charitable purposes. Zarathushtra asked his
listeners to attend to his teachings, and with care and clear mind, choose a
life of intelligent reflection and active benevolence. The quintessence of
Zoroaster's teachings are embodied in the triad:
The loftiest ideal for man is
to emulate the Amesha Spentas or attributes of
Ahura Mazda, which are The Primal Principle of Life.
ZOROASTRIAN VIEW OF THE
Zarathushtra presents a view of the world in which Ahura Mazda originally creates
an ideal existence in accordance with the Law of Asha. As the world progresses,
there is Conflict between the opposing forces of Good (Spenta Mainyu) and Evil (Angra
Mainyu). In this ethical drama, Ahura Mazda gives man not only the freedom to
Choose between Good and Evil, but also the responsibility to actively promote
Good, vanquish evil, and move not only himself, but the whole world towards
frashokereti, the final resurrection, When all will be in a state of perfection
and everlasting bliss. This commitment to a life of bringing about a happy,
harmonious, morally perfect social order, is what the Prophet offered as the
RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Veneration of the elements of nature (Fire, the Sun, the Earth and the Waters)
and promoting a mutually beneficial existence with these elements, is central to
Zoroastrian thought, placing this ancient religion well ahead of its time.
The scriptures of Zarathushtra are contained in the ancient texts, The Avesta,
written in the Avestan lanquage. Of these, the divine
hymns, the Gathas, are the words of Prophet Zarathushtra himself.
THE ETERNAL FLAME
Zoroastrian rituals and prayers are solemnized in the presence of an eternal
flame, which is scrupulously tended with sandalwood and frankincense and kept
burning in a silver urn in the inner sanctum of every Zoroastrian temple. Fire
is revered as a visible symbol of the Inner Light, the inner flame that burns
within each person. It is a physical representation of the Illumined Mind, Light
and Truth, all highly regarded in the Zoroastrian doctrine. Despite its
pre-historic origins, Zoroastrianism has vehemently denounced idolatry in any
shape or form.
Sedreh-pushi (Initiation) Ceremony Every Zoroastrian child is officially
initiated into the faith with the sedreh-pushi (navjote) ceremony, at which time
he or she is invested with the sacred Sedreh and Koshti, accompanied with
recitation from the Avesta. The Sedreh is an undershirt of pure white muslin
with a small symbolic pocket in front reminding the wearer to fill it every day
with Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds. The Koshti, a woolen cord,
signifies that the wearer has girded him- or herself to practice the teachings
The wedding ceremony is a time of rejoicing. A happily married man and woman
with progeny are God's best soldiers on this earth, and held in the highest
regard. The wedding is performed by priests who recite passages from the Avesta
and bless the couple, showering them with rice and rose petals. The ceremony is
followed by a banquet for family and friends.
The Zoroastrian regards the soul of the dead more important than the physical
remains and extensive prayers for the dead are an integral part of Zoroastrian
rituals. In India the body, after due reverence, is placed in the "Towers
of Silence", located on hilltops open to the sky and given free access to
birds of prey. The bones are bleached and crumble to dust over time. No monument
is erected for it is hoped that the departed will live on in the hearts and
prayers of their loved ones. In other parts of the world, burial or cremation is
ZOROASTER AND THE GREEKS
The name "Zoroaster" was given to Zarathushtra by the Greeks, who
venerated the Persian "philosopher" dating him "5,000 years
before the Siege of Troy" (Plutarch, 46 - 120 A.C.). Zoroastrian doctrine
is mentioned by Greek writers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, who studied under
the Magi of their times. During the Achaemenian period, a number of books
circulated through the Greek world in the name of Zoroaster to lend them
authority. The long saga of the wars between the Greeks and Iranians is recorded
in Herodotus's History, (5th century BCE).
ZOROASTER AND THE ROMANS
In Hellenistic and Roman times the image of Iran was a land of mystery, wisdom
and learning. Its religious teachings appealed to the conquering Roman soldiers,
who then transferred it across the empire in the form of Mithraism, an offshoot
of Zoroastrianism. Woven around the Aryan (Iranian) deity Mithra, God of Light,
Mithraism arose about the same time as Christianity. It quickly spread as far
west as England and as far east as India, until the spread of Christianity.
Hundreds of Mithraic temples have been discovered across Europe, the latest one
unearthed by construction workers in London a few years ago.
INTERACTIONS WITH JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY
Zoroastrian ideas have played a vital role in the development of western
religious thought. Some theological concepts shared by Zoroastrianism with
Judaism and Christianity are:
in one supreme and loving God.
and Hell, and individual judgement.
triumph of good over evil.
moral and ethical code.
Messiah to come for the final restoration.
concepts of resurrection, final judgement and life everlasting.
words "Satan", "paradise" and "amen" are of
interchange of Zoroastrian thought with the Judeo-Christian ideology first took
place when Cyrus the Great defeated the Assyrians and released the Jews from
Babylonian captivity. They heralded Cyrus as their Messiah, as prophesied two
centuries earlier in Isaiah 45:1-3. The Old Testament is replete with references
to the Persian emperors Darius, Cyrus and Xerxes.
The commemoration of December 25th as the birthday of Christ has its origins in
early Mithraic observances. This was the date of a festival in Rome, chosen by
the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274CEto celebrate natalis solis invicti, the
birthday of the unconquered sun, which, following the winter solstice, once
again begins to show an increase in light. At some time prior to 336CEthe
church in Rome established the commemoration of the birthday of Christ on this
same date. It is of interest to note that the three Wise Men (Magi) that
heralded the infant Christ, were Zoroastrians. To this day, frankincense and
myrrh are offered at the altars of Zoroastrian temples.
As Dr. Mary Boyce (Zoroastrians, 1979) writes: "So it was out of a Judaism
enriched by five centuries of contact with Zoroastrianism that Christianity
arose in the Parthian period, a new religion with roots thus in two ancient
faiths, one Semitic, the other Persian. Doctrines taught perhaps a millennium
and a halt earlier by Zoroaster began in this way to reach fresh hearers."
LOOKING TO FUTURE
Today, the Zoroastrians of the world face a very real and imminent threat - loss
of identity through assimilation. This is compounded by the rise in the number
of inter-religious marriages, since the spouses and children of these marriages
are not traditionally welcomed into the faith. But the Zoroastrians are not
ready to be relegated to the history books just yet. There has been a very
strong awakening in recent years. In North America, there are now eight
Zoroastrian temples over 20 Associations and one North American Federation,
providing a strong communal infrastructure. As Professor James Whitehurst of
Indiana University wrote (The Christian Century, 1983) in reference to the
inauguration of the Chicago temple in 1983:
"For a community that scholars were treating as almost extinct,
Zoroastrians are proving themselves to be far from a historical fossil. The
community can still produce its surprises, as shown by this new center in
Hinsdale. Christian and Jewish scholars who realize their historical
indebtedness to the faith of Zoroaster can rejoice with this community in its
latest achievement and be grateful that the flame has been fanned ablaze once
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies