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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

An Introduction to Daenā Vanuhi

The Good Religion of Asho Zarathushtra


 

Edited by Shapour Suren-Pahlav

2000

 

"Zoroastrianism is the oldest of the revealed world-religions, and it has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith." 

- Mary Boyce

 

 

Asho Zarathushtra (artist impression - Oil Painting by Shapour Suren-Pahlav)

(Click to enlarge)

THE FIRST PROPHET

'Zarathushtra Spitama' was the first prophet to teach monotheism, the belief in one God. With his Divine revelation he preached the doctrine of goodness and retribution - and gave the world the triple motto of "Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds".

Prophet Zarathushtra's complete name was 'Zarathushtra Haechataspa Spitama', and "Zoroaster" is the most current of various Greek forms of his first name.  He was born in the late bronze age around 1767[1] BCE somewhere in the North or North-Eastern part of the Iranian world, possibly in the East of Caspian sea or Bactria.

  

PROCLAMATION AND DIVINE TEACHINGS
Prophet Zarathushtra proclaimed one omniscient - Omnipotent God as the creator, sustainer and promoter of the universe. His divine teachings explain how God's divine attributes are reflected in the universe and in our living world. He advises people to acquire and cultivate divine attributes, particularly "good mind" and righteousness; to elevate themselves in harmony with God and to listen to God's loving and guiding voice within them; to be creative and progressive; to work in harmony with nature in creating an ever-better world; to establish a universal fellowship in an ideal society chosen by the people for peace and prosperity; to attain perfection and immortality; and to become godlike and live in divine happiness for ever after.

Zarathushtra called the religion he founded the "Daena Vanuhi" (Good religion). A person, when initiated as a Zarathushtrian and thereafter when praying, declares:

"I, with my appreciation and convictions choose for myself to be a worshipper of Omniscient God and a Zarathushtrian.  I appreciate Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.  I appreciate the Good Religion of worshipping Omniscient God, which overthrow yokes yet sheaths swords, teaches self-reliance and is righteous." 

 

This declaration, which is part of a larger creed, provides an outline of what a Zarathushtrian is; Men and women enjoy truly equal status. A person is free to choose for him or herself, after sufficient learning and reasoning, the religion he or she considers the best. Therefore a Zarathushtrian does not abhor or denounce other religions. In his or her eyes, other religions, too, are great, good and beautiful.

 

Zarathushtrian religion is a revealed faith and rejects polytheistic or many-god cults, magic rites, mysterious rituals and irrational ceremonies and superstitions. It condemns violent crime and treachery; upholds freedom of thoughts, speech and action in a healthy society; and protects and promotes the environment in which we live. Zarathushtrian religion strives to be precise and righteous in every act of life. Such conduct, however, requires a fair knowledge of past and present beliefs, religions, societies and above all, nature. A follower of Zarathushtra should be wise, vigilant, self-reliant, active, creative, progressive, peaceful, honourable, tolerant and above all, kind and loving. A Zarathushtrian loves God and God's creation.

Just as the Cross, the Star of David and Mecca serve as altar symbols for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Light (fire) is to the Zarathushtrians a blazing symbol of divine illumination, enlightenment, warmth, love, purity and energy. A Zarathushtrian says his or her prayers before a lighted incense burner, a candle or a lamp. He or she may face other luminaries, the sun, the moon and the stars when praying to Omniscient God. A perpetual fire is kept in a special vase in the house of worship. And so is a light in a Zarathushtrian house.

 


INFLUENCE ON OTHER RELIGIONS
Scholars of comparative religion assert that the Zarathushtrian religion, which was the state religion of a dominant but tolerant empire for over 1000 years, greatly influenced the religions of its neighbours, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Close contact was made between Zarathushtrians and Biblical peoples when Cyrus the Great, who was a Zarathushtrian, freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity in 539 BCE. Since then and until recently, Iran has been a haven for Jews in Diaspora and for the persecuted Christian denominations.

 


HISTORY
The Divine message was revealed and taught in North-Eastern Iran in 1738 BCE, the Zarathushtrian religion and spread all over the Iranian Plateau by the 6th century BCE. It was instrumental in the founding of the world's first universal empire by the Achaemenids under Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE. The empire was not bound by linguistic or ethnic frontiers. While earlier conquests had meant the total destruction of the vanquished, the Achaemenids' tolerance was not only political, but also religious and ethnic.

When Cyrus the Great, himself a Zarathushtrian, entered Babylon in 539 BCE, he freed all captive people, including the Jews who had remained in bondage for 70 years. He helped restore all the temples destroyed by the Babylonians. That is whey the Bible calls him the Lord's "shepherd and anointed... whose right hand I have holden..." (Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1). A description of how Cyrus helped the returning Jews to rebuild their ruined temple is found in Ezra 6:34 and 6:14-15. Cyrus was the first ruler to declare what we call today "Human Rights". Cyrus's successors Darius the Great, Artaxerxes and other great rulers are known for their respect and tolerance for different religious and racial groups.[2]

The Achaemenian dynastic empire was put to an end by Alexander, the Macedonian warlord in 330 BCE. The Iranians regained their independence under the Parthian dynasty in 248 BCE. The Parthian dynastic Empire, also Zarathushtrians, are also known for their religious tolerance. Christ was born when the Parthian empire was at its peak and was an apprehend rival of the pagan Roman Empire, which persecuted the Jews and still later the Christians. 

 

The Sasanian dynasty in 224 CE succeeded the Parthians. The Sasanians, themselves of the priestly class made the Zarathushtrian religion their state religion. Yet Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus found a place in their realm, which rivalled the Roman Empire.

In 651 CE, the Arabs fired by the zeal of their new religion-Islam-conquered Iran, and Zarathushtrian Iran ceased to exist.[3] Mass conversions, largely through force[4] and concessions have eroded the number of Zarathushtrians, who once had the greatest number of followers of any religion in the civilised world.

 

Today there are only about 120,000 Zarathushtrians left in the world - 30,000 are in Iran[5], and 80,000 are in India, where they are known as Parsis,[6] or people from Pars/Persia, and 10,000 in North America, Europe and other countries.


Notes:


[1] The Zoroastrians of Iran based on studying Manichean texts found in Turfan have calculated and accepted the dates 1767 BCE as the year of birth, 1738 BCE as the year of Divine Revelation, and 1690 BCE as the year of passing away of Prophet Zarathushtra.

[2] See the Book of Esther for the story of Ahasuerus and Mordecai. Also see the Books of Chronicles II, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel for further references on Medes and Persians.

[3] After the defeat of Sasanian imperial forces by Arabs at Nahavand in 641-42, Iran left open to the invaders. The Arab invaders gave Iranians three options: convert to Islam; keep the faith and pay the poll; or death.

[4] Force conversion was rapid among the urban population, than the peasantry and the dihqān class.

[5] By some accounts not more than 25,000 -- 6,000 of whom are in Yazd province. Since 1979 revolution in Iran, and the rise of the totalitarian-theocratic regime to power, large number of Zoroastrians have sought refugee in West, especially in the US, under an officially backed programme to help Iranian religious minorities. There are currently more Zoroastrians settled in Los Angeles since 1979, than in Iran. -- Officially, Zoroastrians - along with Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians - are a constitutionally protected religious minority with guaranteed parliamentary representation. In practice, complaints of discrimination are widespread. Access to high-level posts in the government and armed forces is blocked. Some Zoroastrians say they are pressured to change their religion. Members of religious minorities are generally barred from becoming school principals. Applicants for public sector employment are screened for their adherence to Islam. Despite legislation decreeing that all religions are entitled to equal blood money (compensation) awards, Zoroastrians say that, in reality, they still receive only half the sums given to Muslims, and their lives considered worth half of their Muslim compatriots. Nor do they feel wholly free in a land where their faith was the majority denomination until the forced mass conversions to Islam that followed the seventh century Arab invasion. Muslim men are free to marry non-Muslim women, but the opposite does not apply. Marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are not recognized. A law awarding Zoroastrians who convert to Islam their entire families' inheritance at the expense of non-converted relatives has caused misery and bitter resentment.

[6] A small band of Zarathushtrians migrated from Iran to India in the 9th century to escape Muslim persecution.

 

 

 

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