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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

The Zoroastrian Foundations of Human Civilization[1]


 

By Timothy R. Smith

October 5, 2003

Paper Presented on Patitish-hahya Gahanbar,

at the Zartoshti Council Meeting at Claremont Graduate University.

 

 

 

  Prophet Zarathushtra - Artist impression (Oil Painting by Shapour Suren-Pahlav)

Click to enlarge

 

It is the oldest revealed religion known to us.[2]  As such, it is intimately related to most other world religions; its doctrine lies at the very foundation of civilized society.   For the next half an hour or so, we will talk about Zoroastrianism, highlights of its history and philosophy, its role in the present and in the future.  Now, we may be assured that any talk on Zoroastrianism is likely to provoke some controversy.  Its scriptures are unfortunately incomplete, written in languages difficult to understand today, and its history is complicated by sources that differ widely in their reliability and intent.  My version of the subject may be quite different from someone else’s and, quite honestly, they might have as difficult a time disproving it as I would have in proof of mine.  But, nevertheless, dispelling the fog and peeling through the layers, one finds doctrines that defy trivial controversy, doctrines that have stood solidly for generation upon generation. 

Drawing from the Zoroastrian scripture along with modern history and science, we begin this story some 3,500 years ago,[3] where there lived a people in a mountain valley in Asia, with a good river,[4] streams and trees, abundant game.  Life was good there.  The people enjoyed living in harmony with the very Soul of the Living World.[5]  But then, something happened, perhaps quite suddenly.  Winter came with the worst of its plagues:

“ There were ten months of winter there, and two months of summer, and these were cold for the waters, cold for the earth, cold for the trees.” [6]

Relentless winter, winter that would not go away.  Disease was prevalent,[7] and with the land so cold, earth hardened with ice, the dead could not often be buried easily, but had to be laid out with great care to be consumed by the elements and scavengers.[8]    

To survive in the northern lands, if there was no cave, then one needed to be built from whatever was at hand.  Though people had already learned the use of stone and wood to make tools to build shelters and such, they would master another tool now, desperately needed for their survival:  fire.  Fire deserved the greatest respect, for fire was the difference between life and death in this place.  The cold persisted for a very long time.  Finally, finally, after nearly 9,000 years, the land began to warm a little again.  People all over began to move again, slowly.  For the first time, a few people in northern Asia moved to the North American continent, before the ice had melted to the point of filling the oceans again.  But nature was not quite finished tormenting humankind yet.  As the ice melted, long, narrow lakes filled the deep cavities scoured out by glaciers, but their shorelines were weak and often gave way as torrential rains fell from thick clouds rising from the glacier melt, resulting in terrible floods.[9]   

The people of our mountain valley moved, too.  Those who told this story moved south, away from the cold, into the lands we know today more or less as Iran.    Others went to India, to Afghanistan, perhaps to the Caucasus, and to other lands.[10]  In a time span covering millennia, from the makeshift caves of the ice age came towns, and later, cities.  All were lit by fire, which brought light and warmth to the home.  New uses were discovered for fire, including the smelting and refining of metal.  Copper, then bronze, then iron.  The cities were surrounded by farms and fields, which provided a comfortable guarantee of food in case the perpetual winter should happen to come again.  But our people from the mountain valley remembered fire, and they remembered a great flood, and they remembered their lovely, faraway home before a terrible winter came. 

It was about 3,800 years ago when something else extraordinary happened among the people.  By this time, populations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley were flourishing but, suddenly, there was a catastrophe.  We are not sure just what it was that triggered it, but whatever it was brought out the worst in people.  The Indus Valley civilization collapsed entirely, never to recover.  The great city of Ur fell, and never regained its prominence.[11]  The archaeologist who excavated Ur noted that every single building of that period was ravaged with the marks of war.  This time, it was neither ice nor snow nor rain that enveloped the earth, but a period of  lamentation.  It seems people had their first experience of the full wrath, not of the gods, but of their fellow people.  The Soul of the Living World cried out to God for help[12] – but the answer was not quite what was expected. 

In the East, in the land of Bactria, appears Zarathushtra, a descendent of those survivors of the ice age, and it was clearly in Zarathushtra’s revelations that the answer came.  The core of the revelation said, and I quote:

“ Hear the best with your ears and ponder with a bright mind.  Then each man and woman, for his or her self, select either of the two.  Awaken to this doctrine before the great event of choice ushers in.  Now, the two foremost mentalities, known to be imaginary twins, are the better and the bad in thoughts, words, and deeds.  Of these, the beneficent choose correctly, but not so the maleficent. ”  [13] 

Now, what did this mean?  It meant each person had free will.  It also meant each person was expected to use their free will to choose right over wrong themselves.  It meant the reason for the mess they were in was also their own problem to solve.  God had nothing to do with their pitiful situation.  God had given human beings reasoning minds, and each person was expected to use that faculty to the fullest degree.  There would be no miraculous displays here, no Deus ex machina endings.  What does Zarathushtra’s revelation mean today?  Exactly the same as it did then.

Given that reason practiced well in a community leads to wisdom, it is not surprising that Zarathushtra elevated Ahura Mazda, meaning the “Wise Lord,” truly the “Lord of Wisdom” itself, to the highest level among the pantheon of early Iranian gods.[14]  Although it is the earliest monotheistic view known to us, a view that likely had a profound impact on later religions, Zarathushtra and his followers were hardly concerned with intricate theologies during his time.  They had other problems to contend with, as already mentioned, so what was to become the Zarathushtrian religion was largely practical in its outlook.

They were survivors of the ice age, and fire had played an important role in their culture for generations.  With Zarathushtra, fire would now take on a deep symbolic meaning.[15]

Fire would symbolize enlightenment, the illumined mind.  To this day, every time we see a candle burning in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, its flame means much the same thing.  But for most of us, we have forgotten that it was once, literally during the ice age, the difference between life and death.

Now, with Zarathushtra’s revelation that we have free will to choose between what is better for us and what is not, perhaps for the first time, we see a connection now with another of the world’s religions.  Judaism, in the second chapter of Genesis, deals with the same subject.[16]  The version in Genesis is an archetypal story for teaching.  Everything goes fine in the Garden of Eden until people learn about good and evil:  oh boy! this good and evil thing comes along and let me tell you – we’ve had big problems ever since.  In both cases, the Zoroastrian and the Judaic, good and evil are old concepts, but they are ethical in their dimension now.[17]

Good and evil are no longer seen as a great clash of cosmic forces.  Instead, they are seen as subtle influences in our day-to-day decisions.

Now, underlying the principle of free will to choose, as expressed by Zarathushtra, are some very important concepts that apply as much today and in the future as they did back then.  The first of these recognizes how we think.  One of our basic thought processes, and the one that can cause us the most difficulty, is polarized thinking.  That is, thinking in terms of good or evil, the truth or the lie, light or dark, hot or cold, positive or negative, rich or poor, and so on.  Zarathushtra’s revelation presumes that we often think this way, and this has repercussions in later philosophical development. 

The second concept recognizes how we learn.  We learn by making choices and, given our all-too-human vulnerability, every choice may not always be the best one.  Zarathushtra’s revelation thus expects a certain degree of failure, it predicts forgiveness among people, it favors leading by example rather than by retribution, and thus arrives early at the golden rule found later on in Leviticus, the Gospel, the Hadith, and other scriptures.[18] 

The third concept recognizes how we interact.  To choose, each man and woman for his or her self, implies freedom as a complete reality in society.  This was perhaps the most revolutionary concept to be derived from Zarathushtra’s revelation of free will.  Given that some 3,800 years has passed since the time of Zarathushtra, it remains to this day the least developed concept, the most difficult to put into practice.

Thus, Zarathushtra’s revelation of free will thus tells us much about how we think, how we learn, and how we interact wih each other.  It is not a static statement, but a dynamic process.  As such, the concept of free will also has many implications in Zoroastrian thought.

One implication is purpose.  In Zoroastrianism, each and every person has a purpose, and that purpose is to help make this a better world, and that is best done by making good choices.

Another implication is that some rare people will do this to a far greater positive effect than usual. Thus, the hope for a world savior was born.  A savior – a person whose guiding example was so strong that others would be compelled to likewise make good choices.  In Zoroastrianism, the thought was that not only one savior, but perhaps many saviors, could be expected.[19]  The Hebrew prophets, too, saw the coming of a messiah, a savior.[20]  Given the time period during which Zarathushtra and the Hebrew prophets lived, it is quite possible the idea was originally one and the same.

Another implication that comes from the Zoroastrian version of free will is a difficult one – the consideration of social justice and of undeserved suffering.  Freewill, and freedom itself, comes with a deep sense of responsibility.  Social justice has but a single axiom:  that society is responsible for the undeserved suffering of its members.  Put another way, it is an ideal condition in which no one’s happiness depends on the suffering of another.[21]  In the strictest interpretation, it is up to each person to make that a reality through the choices they make in their lives.  This is easiest to comprehend when we are talking about problems that are obviously our fault.  Slavery, servitude, caste, hate, racism, prejudice, bigotry, poverty, starvation, hunger, substance abuse, apathy, indifference, corruption, misuse of power, licentiousness, gross immorality, oppression, excessive law, war, strife, fear – all are conditions that can be created by human beings for other human beings.  

The idea of undeserved suffering is much more difficult to accept when we are talking about problems that seem outside of our control.  Allow me to give an example of just how difficult this is.  Prior to the year 1796, about a third of all children born into the world died from smallpox. Having a child die from smallpox must have been very hard for families to bear.  Today, a few hundred years later, smallpox has been successfully eradicated from the face of the earth.  It is a bright and shining example of what we can do with the rational, reasoning minds God has given us.  Before 1796, the suffering was undeserved because we had not yet looked hard enough to find some answers.  If a child were to contract smallpox today, it would be truly undeserved; and while we may be doing great with smallpox, there is still undeserved suffering on a massive scale that needs to be addressed worldwide.   

Still another logical implication of free will is that of judgment. The notion of a day of Judgment is a clear acknowledgment that free will ultimately determines the outcome of our lives, not destiny or fate.  If it were otherwise, judgment would really make no sense.  Zoroastrianism has contemplated judgment from many perspectives over its long history.  One of the most interesting is a metaphor that one’s soul is purified much like the refining of metal with fire[22] – there’s fire again – and from this metaphor comes a concept of hell being a very hot place. 

However, in the Zoroastrian view, Ahura-Mazda is given a lot of credit, a lot of power, and no soul is really beyond Mazda’s wisdom to purify.  So, while judgment is a natural outcome of Zoroastrian thought, the idea of an eternal hell is usually not.  A kind of purgatory, and heaven, perhaps, but not hell.[23]  We may very well create our own hell on earth as a result of poor choices, but to imagine any human transgressions are beyond Mazda’s capability to set straight is quite unimaginable to the Zoroastrian sense.

So, judgment is implied, and knowing we might all be judged, a great deal of tolerance, and to a large degree  acceptance, is implicit in Zoroastrian thought.  Following the time in which Zarathushtra lived, there is quite a long gap before Zoroastrianism catches on, but it appears brightest in the Achaemenid, Cyrus, the Great king, king of kings of the Persian empire, known among the Hebrew Prophets as the anointed of God.[24]  To this day, Cyrus, the Zoroastrian, is remembered in history as one whose benevolence, tolerance, humility and wisdom won the hearts of people everywhere and, during his reign, brought some happiness to the Soul of the Living World.

Today, those who profess the Zoroastrian faith number only a few hundred thousand out of six billion people.  But the legacy of Zarathushtra’s revelation has touched every corner of the globe, and likewise, Zoroastrianism has also been influenced by other religions.  Indeed, today it is quite a challenge to study Zoroastrianism outside of the context of our modern views on religion.  We have talked a little about its relation with Judaism, because the Tanakh shares many remarkably similar, if not exactly the same, revelations, and the history of the Jewish people was closely interwoven with the Zoroastrian in early times.  Zoroastrianism is also closely related to Hinduism, with whom its scriptures share a closely related language, and many customs, names, and the like are related.  Because of is great antiquity, it can be argued that Zoroastrianism laid the groundwork for the great family of monotheistic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, along with most of Hinduism, and others that share a monotheistic view. 

With a little knowledge about Zoroastrianism, it is not too difficult to see that the author of the Gospel of Matthew tries to persuade not only Jews that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah foretold by the Hebrew prophets, but also the savior promised by Zoroastrianism.  Hence, in Christianity, we find not only the magi (Zoroastrian priests) recognizing the birth of Jesus,[25] but there is also the deduction proclaimed by the Apostle’s Creed:  that “Jesus died, and was buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.”  It happens to be a sequence that is virtually identical to an ancient Zoroastrian metaphor.[26]  Today, Christianity’s deep sense of love finds a welcome home in Zoroastrian thought.

Islam shares not only monotheism with Zoroastrianism, but also a deep concern for the relationship between actions of individuals within a community. Very little in the way of constructive systematic study has been performed on the relationship of Islam and Zoroastrian religious philosophy.

Virtually no study whatsoever has been performed on the relationship of Zoroastrianism to the indigenous religions of China such as Taoism.  Lao Tsu lived long after Zarathushtra, yet the Tao Te Ching offers considerable guidance on how to govern a free people – a free people who did not yet exist on the face of the earth except in people’s minds and, at the time, mostly Zoroastrian minds.  A central idea of Taoism is for those who would lead others to lead by example rather than through dogma, to trust that people will find their way, and that their thinking can be shaped in a way which will help assure their happiness.[27]  Contrary to popular myth about Taoism, that does not mean to stop thinking altogether, but to clear one’s mind of thought patterns that lead nowhere.  All of this can be considered an offshoot of Zoroastrian thought, yet it lacks systematic study. 

Native Americans laid out their dead to the elements, much as Zoroastrians did for thousands of years[28] and as people in the Asiatic highlands still do to the present day.  Thus, there is at least one cultural relationship among the ancient peoples of Asia and the Americas, and probably a great many more, that may help better interpret the proto-Zoroastrian culture, or vice-versa.  Ten thousand years ago, all came from the same part of the world, and they knew each other then.  More study.

Zoroastrianism today is a vibrant, living religion, its doctrines live on in other religions worldwide, and are at the foundation of civilized societies everywhere.  The world today faces grave challenges posed by huge increases in population, great economic inequity and social deprivation, and serious environmental destruction.  Yet the Zoroastrian view is an ever-optimistic one.  It reminds us that we already have the great gift needed to solve our problems today and in the future.  We have the ability to reason.  If we choose to do so, we can think good thoughts, speak good words, do good deeds.  We can positively change the world in which we live.  Hope is with us always, until the end of time. 

 

Acknowledgments

The author warmly thanks Arman Ariane for his generous invitation; Karen Jo Torjesen, Dean of the Claremont Graduate University School of Religion and visionary educator; and my many mentors, guides, and friends in the Zoroastrian community, including Dariush Irani, Kaikhosrov Irani, Ali Jafarey, Parviz Koupai, Dina McIntyre, Farhang Mehr, Yezdi Rustomji, Shahriar Shahriari, Mehrborzin Soroushian, and Mehraban Zartoshty.  May radiant happiness be yours.


[1] Presented on October 5, 2003, Patitish-hahya Gahanbar, at the Zartoshti Council Meeting at Claremont Graduate University.

[2] cf. Boyce, M., Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London:  Routledge, 2001); p. 1.

[3] cf. Burenhult, G., The First Humans:  Human Origins and History to 10,000 BC, vol. 1 (American Museum of Natural History Publications, New York:  Harper, SanFrancisco, 1993), p. 93.  This is the approximate time that the last ice age began.  Very cold conditions and the peak of its glacirization occurred about 20,000 years ago.  Then, about 15,000 years ago, the earth became increasingly warmer again.

[4] cf. Darmesteter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:3 (Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1887, in Müller, F. M., Sacred Books of the East; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1980).  The Avestan Airyanem Vaêjah (Pahlavi Iranvej in later Zoroastrian literature), was the ancestral homeland of the Iranian people.

[5] The people of the Avesta period advanced many unique concepts, but gêush urvâ was not among them; this particular concept is far more ancient, its object being variously interpreted in recent works as the “Living World,” “Mother Earth,” “Kine,” “Ox-Soul,” or “humankind.”  In the context of the Gathas, the words evokes the sense of a unified spirit of life present in a balanced, natural, fertile community of which humankind is a part.  Most cultures have few such phrases in their pallette today, so the concept itself has largely faded from everyday experience in the modern world.

[6] Darmesteter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:4.  This verse appears to be a direct reference to the onset of the ice age.  Note the Judaic scriptures in Tanakh, Kethuvim, Job 38:29-30.  (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

[7] ibid, e.g., 7:6-22 .;  The Vendîdâd infers that corpses were significant vectors of contagious diseases.

[8] ibid, e.g., 3:36-42, 5:10, etc.  Also, see an important discussion on this subject by Frye, R. N., The Heritage of Central Asia:  From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion (Princeton, New Jersey:  Markus Wiener Publishers), p. 61-62.

[9] cf. Darmeseter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 2:22 ff.; see also Tanakh, Torah, Genesis 6:12-8-20, and The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, in Pritchard, J. B., The Ancient Near East, vol. 1:  An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 65-70.

[10] cf. Darmeseter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:1-21.

[11] cf. Frye, R. N., The Heritage of Central Asia, pp. 53-54; see also Woolley, C. W., The Sumerians (New York:  Norton Library, 1965), pp. 168-169.

[12] Jafarey, Ali A.,  The Gathas, Our Guide (Cypress, California:  Ushta, Inc., 1989); Yasna 29:1.  Though sill a subject of some debate, the situation of a sudden, drastic decline described above and in note 10, the linguistic placement of the Gâthic Avesan language with the Vedic Sanskrit of the Rg Veda, the lamentation of this Gâthâ, and the settled lifestyle generally presumed in the Ahunavaiti Gâthâs, taken together are sufficient to logically place the historical Zarathushtra in this place and time in history.

[13] ibid., Yasna 30:2-3; philosophically one of the most important passages in all of Zoroastrian scripture.

[14] cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism (Bombay:  The K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1985), pp. 27-35.

[15] ibid., pp. 62-64.

[16] cf. Tanakh, Torah, Genesis 2:8-9, 16-17 ff.

[17] cf. Mehr, F., The Zoroastrian Tradition:  An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra (Cosa Mesa, CA:  Mazda Publishers, 2003); and Sarna, N. M.,  The JPS Torah Commentary:  Genesis (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 16.

[18] cf. Tanakh, Torah, Leviticus 19:18; New Testament, Matthew 22:39; Hadith, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.

[19] cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism, pp. 108-109 ff.

[20] cf. Tanakh, Nevi’im, e.g., Isaiah 40-55; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 34:23, etc.

[21] Irani, K. D., The Idea of Social Justice in the Ancient World (Wesport, Connecticut:  Greenwood Press, 1995), p. 5.

[22] cf. West, E. W., transl., Pahlavi Texts, Part I; Bundahishn 30:18-20 (Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1880, in Müller, F. M., Sacred Books of the East; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1987); also see Tanakh, Nevi’im, Malachi 3:2.

[23] cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism, pp. 106-107.

[24] Tanakh, Nevi’im, Isaiah 44:28, 45:1 ff.

[25] New Testament, Matthew 2:1-12.

[26] cf. Dhalla, M. N., Hisory of Zoroastrianism, pp. 282-283.

[27] cf. Mitchell, S., transl., Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu:  An Illustrated Journey (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), e.g., vs. 57-61.

[28] cf. Note 7 on Zoroastrian practices on this topic.

 

 

 

 

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