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FAQ: Zoroastrian Religion


 

 

By Dr. Gianpaolo Savoia-Vizzini

 

Statue of Prophet Zoroaster.PNG (2350486 bytes)

Appellate Court Building Persian Law, Zoroaster Sculpture by Edward C. Potter

(Click to enlarge)

 

Who was Zarathushtra?

Zarathushtra was born in Iran, probably in the region of the Sry Darya or Oxus River in Central Asia of Eastern Iranian stock.

 

There is controversy about the time when Zarathushtra lived. At one time western scholars believed that he lived around 6th century BCE, but today most scholars believe that he lived around 1700 BCE. This would make Zoroastrianism the oldest of the prophetic and monistic religions.

 

 

What are the principal teachings of Zarathushtra?

The moral and physical purity is central to all aspects of Zarathushtra's message, which are:

     - stress on ethics,

- positive approach to life,

- optimism about the future of the world,

- emphasis on freedom of choice and will

 

According to prophet Zarathushtra, the human mind is the battleground between the forces of good and evil. Ultimately, good will prevail over evil. Our mission in life is to so conduct ourselves that this ultimate victory is achieved. He urged his followers to live a full and useful life in this world, to appreciate all things that are good and beautiful in creation, not only to do good and desist from evil but also to fight evil, and to make others happy. He assured his followers that the strength of God would be given to those who fought evil, and stressed that an evil deed could be offset by a good one. As for happiness, the way to seek happiness was by making others happy.

 

He pointed out that in each of us there is a divine spark. It is up to us to recognise this divine spark or essence within us, to understand its capabilities and to try and so conduct ourselves that we reach the state of perfection in this world. As a practical guide in daily life, his prescription was very simple:

- Think good thoughts (Vohumana).

- Speak good words (Huxata).

- Do good deeds (Hvarashta).

 

Zarathushtra emphasised freedom of choice. In one his first sermons he preached: 

"You, who seek knowledge, please listen carefully to what I say, and perceive the truth in the light of reason, because it is possible for each man to have a separate creed."

 

He also taught that one should be liberal in thinking and to respect all that is good, true and beautiful. Here is a passage that brings home this point:  

"We reserve and love all good thoughts, words and deeds that may have been presented here or else- where, now or at any future period. because we are on the side of goodness."

 

Some scholars believe that some of the important concepts found in other religions – such as the concepts of monotheism, of heaven and hell, of the end of the world, of the resurrection of the dead, and of the coming of the Saviour – influenced by Zoroastrian religion.

 


What are the most important Zoroastrian values?

Every religion puts more importance on some aspects than others. It is important to know the values stressed in Zoroastrianism because these values influence the daily life of the Zoroastrians.

 

Truth: Zoroastrianism stresses truth more than anything else. The very first prayer a Zoroastrian child learns is devoted to truth. A free translation of that prayer--called Ashem Vohu – is: "Truth is the greatest virtue. It is happiness. Happy is who is truthful for the sake of truth".

 

According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, every young man in ancient Iran was instructed in three things – to ride a horse, to shoot with bow and arrow, and to speak the truth. Lying was considered the greatest disgrace.

 

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Zoroastrians have earned a reputation for honesty.

 

Charity: Another cherished value is charity. In the very second prayer a Zoroastrian child learns – the "Yatha Ahu Vairyo" --there is a line which says: "He who give assistance to the poor acknowledges the kingdom of God."

 

Purity: Zoroastrianism also puts value on purity – purity of the mind as well as that of the body.

 

Dignity of labour: Zoroastrianism also stresses hard work and dignity of labour. In the "Gathas" which are a record of the prophet's conversations with God, we find this passage. To the question: 

"What is the way of furthering the Mazdayasni religion?" Ahura Mazda replies: "Incessant cultivation of corn, O Spitama Zarathushtra. Who cultivates corn cultivates righteousness."

 

 

What are the sacred books of the Zoroastrians?

All the existing scriptures propounded by Zarathushtra as well as the religious writings of his followers are collectively known as the Avesta. The etymology of the term Avesta itself is uncertain, but a derivation from Middle-Persian abestāg, meaning praise, is a frequently noted possibility.

 

Traditionally Avesta compendium are organised as six groups of texts:

Gathas (hymns): composed by prophet Zarathushtra himself. They are the oldest and most sacred texts of the Zoroastrian canon. Pliny states that the great philosopher Hermippus, who flourished in the early part of 3rd century BCE, had studied some 2,000,000 verses composed by Zarathushtra.

Yasna (oblation or worship): is the name of the primary liturgical collection of texts of the Avesta as well as the name of the principal Zoroastrian act of worship at which those verses are recited.

Yasht (yešti "worship by praise"): collection of twenty-one hymns in Younger Avestan language. Each of these hymns invokes a specific Zoroastrian divinity or concept.

Visperad (vispe.ratavo, "prayer to all patrons"): is a particular Zoroastrian religious ceremony.

Vendidad (vî-Daêvô-Dāta, "Given Against the Demons"): collection of texts of an ecclesiastical code, not a liturgical manual.

Khordeh Avesta (little Avesta): is the prayer book for general lay use.

 

The "Avesta" consists of two parts--the older Avesta and the later or younger Avesta. The most important part of the scriptures is the "Gathas" or Divine Songs. These are dialogues between the prophet and God, and they are ascribed to prophet himself. The "Gathas" were written in a language that is known as Gathic Avestan or Old Avestan and date linguistically to around 1500 to 2000 BCE

 

Later scriptures were written in the younger-Avestan language. The liturgical texts of the Yasna, which includes the Gathas, is partially in Older and partially in Younger Avestan. Yasna are organised into 72 chapters, also known as hāds or hās (from Avestan ha'iti, 'cut'). The 72 threads of the Zoroastrian Kushti - the sacred girdle worn around the waist - represent the 72 chapters of the Yasna. The collection includes the 17 chapters of the Gathas.

 

The various Yashts are are a collection of twenty-one hymns in Younger Avestan and thought to date to the Achaemenid era (550–330 BCE). Each of these hymns invokes a specific Zoroastrian divinity or concept. There are some Yashts known as the 'hidden Yashts', which are: the Barsom Yasht (Yasna 2); Hom Yasht in Yasna 9-11; the Bhagan Yasht of Yasna 19-21; a hymn to Ashi in Yasna 52, another Sarosh Yasht in Yasna 57, the praise of the (hypostasis of) "prayer" in Yasna 58, and a hymn to the Ahurani in Yasna 68. Since these are a part of the primary liturgy, they do not count among the twenty-one hymns of the Yasht collection.

 

Althought the language of Yashts are much younger than Gathas, but these are adapted from pre-Zarathushtrian hymns to the various Indo-Iranian deities.

 

The Visperad which are also in Younger Avestan, were probably composed even later but this is not certain. The Visperad "consists of the rituals of the Yasna, virtually unchanged, but with a liturgy extended by twenty-three supplementary sections." These supplementary sections (kardag) are then – from a philological perspective – the passages that make up the Visperad collection. 

 

Vendidad, composed in Younger Avestan is a 9th century text, which includes all of the 19th nask, that is then the only nask that has survived in its entirety. The Vendidad, unlike the Yasna and the Visparad, is a book of laws rather than the record of a liturgical ceremony. However, there is a ceremony called the Vendidad, in which the Yasna is recited with all the chapters of both the Visparad and the Vendidad inserted at appropriate points. This ceremony is only performed at night.

 

The Khordeh Avesta is both a selection of verses from the other collections, as well as three sub-collections that do not appear elsewhere. Taken together, the Khordeh Avesta is considered the prayer book for general lay use. In a wider sense, the term Khordeh Avesta includes all material other than the Yasna, the Visparad and the Vendidad, as it is only the ceremonies contained in these three books that are reserved for the priests.

 

Some Zoroastrians known as the 'Gathic Zoroastrians' believe the Gathas is the only Zoroastrian holy scripture and they discard other texts, particularly the Vendidad. They believe Vendidad texts are corrupt and in contradiction with Zoroastrian's doctrine.

 

However, what exists today is only a fraction of the original scriptures, many of which were burned when Alexander of Macedon destroyed Persepolis.

 

The Zoroastrians still recite their prayers in the original language in which the scriptures were written. Some reformers argue that they should be recited in the language of the believer so that the person offering the prayers can understand what he or she is praying. Others, who want to continue the old practice, prefer to "keep with tradition."

 


Do Zoroastrians believe in 'one' God?

YES. There is a mistaken belief among some western scholars that Zoroastrians believe in two Gods – a God of good and a God of evil. This is not true. In fact Zarathushtra was the first prophet to preach monotheism, the concept of one God.

 

Zarathushtra talked about two opposing forces – the forces of good personified by 'Hormuzd' and the forces of evil personified by 'Ahriman'. According to Zarathushtra the forces of good will ultimately prevail over the forces of evil, and the purpose of life is to help this process.

 


Do they believe in life after death?

YES. Besides one day in each month, the last ten days of the Zoroastrian calendar are set aside for remembering the dead. There is also a special day each year when the departed are supposed to visit the earth. This corresponds to the ‘All Souls Day’ observed by Christians. It is also believed that the soul hovers over the dead body for three days after death.

 


Do they believe in heaven or hell?

YES. In the "Gathas" Zarathushtra often refers to life after death, and to the "Chinwat Bridge" where the good deeds done on earth are weighed against the evil deeds. Many Zoroastrian scholars believe that the descriptions of heaven and hell in Zoroastrian scriptures are purely allegorical, that heaven and hell are not places but conditions. Some Zoroastrians believe that the reward or punishment for good or bad deeds is often given in this world itself rather than in the next.

 


Do they believe in reincarnation?

No.

Do they believe in the coming of the Final Saviour?

YES. Most scholars believe that the concept of the Final Saviour originated with Zoroastrianism.

 


What is the Zoroastrian view of the nature of human beings?

Zoroastrians do not believe that human beings are born in sin. They believe that there is potential for good as well as evil in every human being. There is a divine spark or essence in each of us. We should recognise it and utilise it to its fullest potential. This divine spark ("Fravashi" or "Fravahar") is depicted in visual arts as a man with outstretched wings.

 


Are Zoroastrians "fire worshippers?"

NO. The fire is a symbol of the Zoroastrian faith just as the cross is a symbol of Christianity. In a Zoroastrian temple the only symbol before which prayers are said is the fire which is tended by a priest five times a day.

 

The fire stands for a number of things. It is a symbol of purity, for fire purifies everything. It also stands for the "inner fire" or divine spark in a human being. The fire burning in the Zoroastrian temple or at home is a constant reminder that we should always keep our "inner fire" alive.

 

There are three "grades" of temples, depending upon the process of consecration and who is allowed to tend the fire. The first and second grades of fire can only be tended by the priests, whereas the last can be tended even by laymen.

 


Are there any other symbols of faith?

There are two symbols that Zoroastrians wear. One is the "Sedreh", a white, muslin shirt. In the centre of the front neck opening is a small "pocket" into which all good deeds are "inserted". This is, of course a daily reminder that one must perform good deeds. The garment's colour is white, because white is a symbol of purity.

 

The other symbol is the "Kushti" a sacred thread tied three times around the waist while saying a prayer. It is tied three times to remind one of the three basic principles of the faith--good thoughts, good words, good deeds. The "kushti" is woven out of 72 threads of sheep's wool. These threads symbolise the 72 chapters of the scriptures, called the "Yasna", which include the "Gathas".

 

The first time a Zoroastrian wears the "sedra" and the "kushti" is when he or she is formally inducted into the faith, usually between the ages of 7 and 11.

 


What is the "Sedreh-Pushi" ceremony?

The "Sedreh Pushi" (modern navjote) is the name of the ceremony during which a Zoroastrian is formally initiated into the religion.

 

Tradition says it should be an odd number, and the ceremony must be done before the onset of puberty. It is usually performed at the age of 7, 9 or 11. 

 

After a bath (to signify purity of body), the boy or girl is made to ware the "Sedreh" for the first time. After a short prayer he or she ties the "kushti" around the waist. During the ceremony the child recites a few simple prayers, receives benedictions from the priest, and declares his or her acceptance of the Zoroastrians religion in the following words (freely translated):  

"I follow the Mazdayasni religion, the religion of Zarathushtra. I love and accept this religion. I love and accept the very mind of good thought. I love and accept the very utterance of the good word. I love and accept the very action of the good deed. I love and accept the good and true Mazdayasni religion which stops all quarrels and wars, teaches us to die for others, and leads us to Asha, the truth of God. The Mazdayasni religion is for me the greatest, the best and the finest of all religions which are or which shall be, because it is God's religion shown to us by Zarathushtra. I believe all things good come from Ahura Mazda. Such are the boons of those who follow the Mazdayasni religion".

 

Is it correct to address all Zoroastrians as Parsis?

NO. It is incorrect since Parsi is an ethno-religious designator. Parsi is a person who is directly descended from the original Persian refugees living in India and has been formally admitted into the Zoroastrian religion.

 

 

What is the difference between Parsism and Zoroastrianism?

Parsism is another term for Zoroastrian religion but solely to designate the followers of Zoroastrian religion in Indian. 

 

Nonetheless, Parsis as the result of living in India for well over 1000 years have adopted some of the India's indigenous customs and traditions, which have been incorporated into their faith. Therefore, there are some differences in the religious practice, ceremonies and traditions with of the Zoroastrian community in Iran.

 

 

Can one become a Zoroastrian or Parsi?

YES anyone can become Zoroastrian -- but NOT Parsi. Parsi as discussed above is not a religion but an ethno-religious group and therefore one must be born into a Parsi family.

 

Zoroastrian religion belongs to the world and the divine message is for the whole of humanity, regardless of their race, color, or creed. The Zoroastrian Holy Scriptures, particularly many passages in the Gathas, where the Prophet explicitly states that the ‘good religion’ is for everyone who seeks the truth, salvation and wants the establishment of Strong Families, a Just Society and a World blessed with Love and Righteousness. Zarathushtra says, in Yasna 49, Verse 6:

"I beseech you, O Mazda, reveal to me your Holy Plan,
 Let Truth declare your Divine Wisdom,
 So that we may choose rightly,
 And spread the Truths of your Religion to the World."

 

The strict ban on conversion (indirectly 'reversion' too) imposed by Indian-Zoroastrians (Parsis) only dates from the 19th century. However some orthodox Zoroastrians believe you have to born into the faith, while some claim that it only belongs to the Indo-Iranian peoples.

 

 

 

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