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Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra, in Avestan). It was probably founded some time before the 6th century BCE in Persia (Iran). The term Zoroastrianism is, in general usage, essentially synonymous with Mazdaism (the worship of Ahura Mazda, exalted by Zoroaster as the supreme divine authority).
Zoroastrianism's principle characteristic is its strongly dualistic ideology, which is based on a asha-versus-druj paradigm, which cannot be translated without significant loss of meaning but may be paraphrased as truth versus falsehood, order versus chaos, creation versus anti-creation. The two are absolute and irreconcilable antitheses, and the universal and transcendental God and Creator Ahura Mazda is purely good, and anything that is not good does not originate from the Creator.
The role and purpose of all creation is to sustain and strengthen the order, which can be achieved through voluntary "good thoughts, good words and good deeds," that is, through active - but voluntary - participation in the battle between "the better and the bad." This voluntary participation is the foundation of Zoroastrianism's tenets of free will, which is in turn arguably Zoroaster's greatest contribution to religious philosophy.
In Zoroastrianism, the Creator Ahura Mazda is all good, and no evil originates from Him. Thus, in Zoroastrianism good and evil have distinct sources, with evil (druj) trying to destroy the creation of Mazda (asha), and good trying to sustain it. Mazda is not immanent in the world, and His creation is represented by the Amesha Spentas and the host of other Yazatas, through whom the works of God are evident to humanity, and through whom worship of Mazda is ultimately directed. The most important texts of the religion are those of the Avesta, of which a significant portion has been lost, and mostly only the liturgies of which have survived. The lost portions are known of only through references and brief quotations in the later works, primarily from the 9th to 11th centuries.
Zoroastrianism is of great antiquity. In some form, it served as the national or state religion of a significant portion of the Iranian people for many centuries before it was gradually marginalized by Islam from the 7th century onwards. The political power of the pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties lent Zoroastrianism immense prestige in ancient times, and some of its leading doctrines were adopted by other religious systems. It has no major theological divisions (the only significant schism is based on calendar differences), but it is not monolithic. Modern-era influences have a significant impact on individual and local beliefs, practices, values and vocabulary, sometimes complementing tradition and enriching it, but sometimes also displacing tradition entirely.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Distinguishing characteristics
- 3 History
- 4 Relation to other religions and cultures
- 5 Religious text
- 6 The Prophet Zoroaster
- 7 Principal beliefs
- 8 Holidays
- 9 Zoroastrianism and ecology
- 10 Adherents
- 11 Mazdean-Christian Universalism
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
The term Zoroastrianism (pronounced: /zɒroʊˈæstri.ənɪzəm/) was first attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1874, in Archibald Sayce's Principles of Comparative Philology. The first surviving reference to Zoroaster in Western scholarship is attributed to Thomas Browne (1605–1682), who briefly refers to the prophet in his 1643 Religio Medici. The OED records 1743 (Warburton, Pope's Essay) as the earliest reference to Zoroaster.
The term Mazdaism (pronounced: /ˈmæzdə.ɪzəm/) is a typical 19th century construct, taking Mazda- from the name Ahura Mazda and adding the suffix -ism to suggest a belief system. The March 2001 draft edition of the OED also records an alternate form, Mazdeism, perhaps derived from the French Mazdéisme, which first appeared in 1871. The Zoroastrian name of the religion is Mazdayasna, which combines Mazda- with the Avestan language word yasna, meaning "worship, devotion".
In the English language, an adherent of the faith commonly refers to himself or herself as a Zoroastrian or, less commonly, a Zarathustrian. An older, but still widespread expression is Behdin, meaning "follower of Daena", for which "Good Religion" is one translation. In the Zoroastrian liturgy, the term Behdin is also used as a title for an individual who has been formally inducted into the religion in a Navjote ceremony.
Zoroastrians believe that there is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda. He is said to be the one uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed. Ahura Mazda's creation—evident as asha, truth and order—is the antithesis of chaos, which is evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict.
The religion states that active participation in life through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster's concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism. Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over the evil Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation—even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to "darkness"—will be reunited in Ahura Mazda, returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time, a savior-figure (a Saoshyant) will bring about a final renovation of the world (frasho.kereti), in which the dead will be revived.
In Zoroastrian tradition, the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu (also referred to as "Ahriman"), the "Destructive Principle", while the benevolent is represented through Ahura Mazda's Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or "Bounteous Principle" of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that transcendental Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the Ahuna Vairya formula, Ahura Mazda made His ultimate triumph evident to Angra Mainyu. As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated the Amesha Spentas ("Bounteous Immortals"), that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each "Worthy of Worship" and each again a hypostasis of a moral or physical aspect of creation.
In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principle act of worship constitutes a "strengthening of the waters". Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.
While the Parsees in India have traditionally been opposed to proselytizing, probably for historical reasons, and even considered it a crime for which the culprit may face expulsion, Iranian Zoroastrians have never been opposed to conversion, and the practice has been endorsed by the Council of Mobeds of Tehran. While the Iranian authorities do not permit proselytizing within Iran, Iranian Zoroastrians in exile have actively encouraged missionary activities, with The Zarathushtrian Assembly in Los Angeles, California and the International Zoroastrian Centre in Paris as two prominent centres. Iranian-American politician Trita Parsi and Swedish artist and philosopher Alexander Bard are two of the best-known modern converts.
As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. Rather, it is a creation of those in India. Some members of the Indian Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old Indian legal definition (since overruled) of Parsi. This issue is a matter of debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they were previously.
In Zoroastrian tradition, life is a temporary state in which a mortal is expected to actively participate in the continuing battle between truth and falsehood. Prior to being born, the soul (urvan) of an individual is still united with its fravashi, of which there are very many, and which have existed since Mazda created the universe. During life, the fravashi acts as a guardian and protector. On the fourth day after death, the soul is reunited with its fravashi, in which the experiences of life in the material world are collected for the continuing battle in the spiritual world. For the most part, Zoroastrianism does not have a notion of reincarnation, at least not until the final renovation of the world. Despite this, followers of Ilm-e-Kshnoom in India believe in reincarnation and practice vegetarianism, two principles unknown to Orthodox Zoroastrianism.
In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay, i.e., of druj. Consequently, scripture enjoins the "safe" disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the "good" creation. These injunctions are the doctrinal basis of the fast-fading traditional practice of "ritual exposure", most commonly identified with the so-called "Towers of Silence" for which there is no standard technical term in either scripture or tradition. The practice of ritual exposure is only practised by Zoroastrian communities of the Indian subcontinent, where it is not illegal, but where alternative disposal methods are desperately sought after diclofenac poisoning has led to the virtual extinction of scavenger birds. Other Zoroastrian communities either cremate their dead, or bury them in graves that are cased with lime mortar.
Although older (originating in the early first millennium BCE), Zoroastrianism only enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BCE. Herodotus' The Histories (completed c. 440 BCE) includes a description of Greater Iranian society with what may be recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead.
The Histories is a primary source of information on the early period of the Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE), in particular with respect to the role of the Magi. According to Herodotus i.101, the Magi were the sixth tribe of the Medians (until the unification of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great, all Iranians were referred to as "Mede" or "Mada" by the peoples of the Ancient World), who appear to have been the priestly caste of the Mesopotamian-influenced branch of Zoroastrianism today known as Zurvanism, and who wielded considerable influence at the courts of the Median emperors.
Following the unification of the Median and Persian empires in 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great and, later, his son Cambyses II curtailed the powers of the Magi after they had attempted to sow dissent following their loss of influence. In 522 BCE, the Magi revolted and set up a rival claimant to the throne. The usurper, pretending to be Cyrus' younger son Smerdis, took power shortly thereafter. Owing to the despotic rule of Cambyses and his long absence in Egypt, "the whole people, Persians, Medes and all the other nations" acknowledged the usurper, especially as he granted a remission of taxes for three years (Herodotus iii. 68).
According to the Behistun Inscription, pseudo-Smerdis ruled for seven months before being overthrown by Darius I in 521 BCE. The "Magi", though persecuted, continued to exist. A year following the death of the first pseudo-Smerdis (named Gaumata), a second pseudo-Smerdis (named Vahyazdāta) attempted a coup. The coup, though initially successful, failed.
Whether Cyrus II was a Zoroastrian is subject to debate. It did, however, influence him to the extent that it became the non-imposing religion of his empire, and its beliefs later allowed Cyrus to free the Jews and allow them to return to Judea when the emperor took Babylon in 539 BCE. Darius I was a devotee of Ahura Mazda, as attested to several times in the Behistun inscription. However, whether he was a follower of Zoroaster has not been conclusively established, since devotion to Ahura Mazda was (at the time) not necessarily an indication of an adherence to Zoroaster's teaching.
Darius I and later Achaemenid emperors, though acknowledging their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions, appear to have permitted religions to coexist. Nonetheless, it was during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism gained momentum. A number of the Zoroastrian texts that today are part of the greater compendium of the Avesta have been attributed to that period. It was also during the later Achaemenid era that many of the divinities and divine concepts of proto-Indo-Iranian religion(s) were incorporated in Zoroastrianism, in particular those to whom the days of the month of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated. This calendar is still used today, a fact that is attributed to the Achaemenid period. Additionally, the divinities, or yazatas, are present-day Zoroastrian angels (Dhalla, 1938).
Almost nothing is known of the status of Zoroastrianism under the Seleucids and Parthians, who ruled over Persia following Alexander the Great's invasion in 330 BCE. According to later Zoroastrian legend (Denkard and the Book of Arda Viraf), many sacred texts were lost when Alexander's troops invaded Persepolis and subsequently destroyed the royal library there. Diodorus Siculus's Bibliotheca historica, which was completed c. 60 BCE, appears to substantiate this Zoroastrian legend (Diod. 17.72.2–17.72.6). According to one archaeological examination, the ruins of the palace of Xerxes bear traces of having been burned (Stolze, 1882). Whether a vast collection of (semi-)religious texts "written on parchment in gold ink", as suggested by the Denkard, actually existed remains a matter of speculation, but is unlikely. Given that many of the Denkards statements-as-fact have since been refuted among scholars, the tale of the library is widely accepted to be fictional (Kellens, 2002)
When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in 228 CE, they aggressively promoted the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism and, in some cases, persecuted Christians. When the Sassanids captured territory, they often built fire temples there to promote their religion. After Constantine, the Sassanids were suspicious of Christians, not least because of their perceived ties to the Christian Roman Empire. Thus, those Christians loyal to the Patriarchate of the Church of the East—which broke with Roman Christianity in the Nestorian schism—were tolerated and even sometimes favored by the Sassanids.
A form of Zoroastrianism was also prominent in the pre-Christian Caucasus region (especially modern-day Azerbaijan). During the periods of their suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote the religion there as well.
Well before the 6th century CE, Zoroastrianism had spread to northern China via the Silk Road, gaining official status in a number of Chinese states. Remains of Zoroastrian temples have been found in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang, and according to some scholars, remained as late as the 1130s. By the 13th century, the religion had faded from prominence in China. However, many scholars assert the influence of Zoroastrianism (as well as later Manichaeism) on elements of Buddhism, especially in terms of light symbolism.
In the 7th century, and over the course of at least 16 years (several decades in the case of some provinces), the Sassanid Empire was overthrown by the Arabs. Although the administration of the state was rapidly Islamicized and subsumed under the Umayyad Caliphate, "there was little serious pressure" exerted on newly subjected people to adopt Islam. Islamic jurists considered only Muslims to be perfectly moral, and "unbelievers might as well be left to their inequities, so long as these did not vex their overlords."
There were also practical considerations: "because of their sheer numbers, the conquered Zoroastrians had to be treated as dhimmis (despite doubts [of the validity of this identification] that persisted down the centuries)," which made them eligible for protection. Thus, in the main, once the conquest was over and "local terms were agreed on", the Arab governors protected the local populations in exchange for tribute. The Arabs adopted the Sassanid tax-system, both the land-tax levied on land owners and the poll-tax levied on individuals. This is called jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims living in Muslim Caliphates (i.e., the dhimmis). In time, this poll-tax came to be used as a means to humble the non-Muslims, and a number of laws and restrictions evolved to emphasize their inferior status. Under the early orthodox caliphs, as long as the non-Muslims paid their taxes and adhered to the dhimmi laws, administrators were enjoined to leave non-Muslims "in their religion and their land." (Caliph Abu Bakr, qtd. in Boyce 1979, p. 146).
Thus, though subject to a new leadership and harassed, once the horrors of conquest were over, the Zoroastrians were able to continue in their former ways. There was, however, a slow but steady social and economic pressure to convert. The nobility and city-dwellers were the first to convert, with Islam more slowly being accepted among the peasantry and landed gentry. "Power and worldly-advantage" now lay with followers of Islam, and although the "official policy was one of aloof contempt, there were individual Muslims eager to proselytize and ready to use all sorts of means to do so."
In time, a tradition evolved by which Islam was made to appear as a partly Iranian religion. One example of this was a legend that Husayn, son of the fourth caliph Ali and grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad, had married a captive Sassanid princess named Shahrbanu. This "wholly fictitious figure" was said to have borne Husayn a son, the historical fourth Shi'a imam, who claimed that the caliphate rightly belonged to him and his descendants, and that the Umayyads had wrongfully wrested it from him. The alleged descent from the Sassanid house counterbalanced the Arab nationalism of the Umayyads, and the Iranian national association with a Zoroastrian past was disarmed. Thus, according to scholar Mary Boyce, “it was no longer the Zoroastrians alone who stood for patriotism and loyalty to the past." The "damning indictment" that becoming Muslim was equivalent to becoming Un-Iranian only remained an idiom in Zoroastrian texts.
With Iranian (especially Persian) support, the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750, and in the subsequent caliphate government—that nominally lasted until 1258—Muslim Iranians received marked favor in the new government, both in Iran and at the capital in Baghdad. This mitigated the antagonism between Arabs and Iranians, but sharpened the distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Abbasids zealously persecuted heretics, and although this was directed mainly at Muslim sectarians, it also created a harsher climate for non-Muslims. Although the Abbasids were deadly foes of Zoroastrianism, the brand of Islam they propagated throughout Iran became in turn ever more "Zoroastrianized", making it easier for Iranians to embrace Islam.
The 9th century was the last in which Zoroastrians had the means to engage in creative work on a great scale, and the 9th century has come to define the great number of Zoroastrian texts that were composed or re-written during the 8th to 10th centuries (excluding copying and lesser amendments, which continue for some time thereafter). All of these works are in the Middle Persian dialect of that period (free of Arabic words), and written in the difficult Pahlavi script (hence the adoption of the term "Pahlavi" as the name of the variant of the language, and of the genre, of those Zoroastrian books). If read aloud, these books would still have been understandable to the laity. Many of these texts are responses to the tribulations of the time, and all of them include exhortations to stand fast in their religious beliefs. Some, such as the "Denkard", are doctrinal defenses of the religion, while others are explanations of theological aspects (such as the Bundahishn's) or practical aspects (e.g., explanation of rituals) of it. About sixty such works are known to have existed, of which some are known only from references to them in other works.
Two decrees in particular encouraged the transition to a preponderantly Islamic society. The first edict, adapted from an Arsacid and Sassanid one (but in those to the advantage of Zoroastrians), was that only a Muslim could own Muslim slaves or indentured servants. Thus, a bonded individual owned by a Zoroastrian could automatically become a freeman by converting to Islam. The other edict was that if one male member of a Zoroastrian family converted to Islam, he instantly inherited all its property.
Under Abbasid rule, Muslim Iranians (who by then were in the majority) increasingly found ways to taunt Zoroastrians, and distressing them became a popular sport. For example, in the 9th century, a deeply venerated cypress tree in Khorasan (which Parthian-era legend supposed had been planted by Zoroaster himself) was felled for the construction of a palace in Baghdad, 2000 miles away. In the 10th century, on the day that a Tower of Silence had been completed at much trouble and expense, a Muslim official contrived to get up onto it, and to call the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) from its walls. This was made a pretext to annex the building. Another popular means to distress Zoroastrians was to maltreat dogs, as these animals are sacred in Zoroastrianism. Such baiting, which was to continue down the centuries, was indulged in by all; not only by high officials, but by the general uneducated population as well.
Despite these economic and social incentives to convert, Zoroastrianism remained strong in some regions, particularly in those furthest away from the Caliphate capital at Baghdad. In Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), resistance to Islam required the 9th century Arab commander Qutaiba to convert his province four times. The first three times the citizens reverted to their old religion. Finally, the governor made their religion "difficult for them in every way", turned the local fire temple into a mosque, and encouraged the local population to attend Friday prayers by paying each attendee two dirhams. The cities where Arab governors resided were particularly vulnerable to such pressures, and in these cases the Zoroastrians were left with no choice but to either conform or migrate to regions that had a more amicable administration.
Among these migrations were those to cities in (or on the margins of) the great salt deserts, in particular to Yazd and Kerman, which remain centers of Iranian Zoroastrianism to this day. Yazd became the seat of the Iranian high priests during Mongol Il-Khanate rule, when the "best hope for survival [for a non-Muslim] was to be inconspicuous." Crucial to the present-day survival of Zoroastrianism was a migration from the northeastern Iranian town of "Sanjan in south-western Khorasan", to Gujarat, in western India. The descendants of that group are today known as the Parsis—"as the Gujaratis, from long tradition, called anyone from Iran"—who today represent the larger of the two groups of Zoroastrians.
Also in Khorasan in the northeastern Iran, a 10th-century Iranian nobleman brought together four Zoroastrian priests to transcribe a Sassanid-era Middle Persian work titled Book of the Lord (Khwaday Namag) from Pahlavi script into Arabic script. This transcription, which remained in Middle Persian prose (an Arabic version, by Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa, also exists), was completed in 957 and subsequently became the basis for Firdausi's Book of Kings. It became enormously popular among both Zoroastrians and Muslims, and also served to propagate the Sassanid justification for overthrowing the Arsacids (i.e., that the Sassanids had restored the faith to its "orthodox" form after the Hellenistic Arsacids had allowed Zoroastrianism to become corrupt).
The struggle between Zoroastrianism and Islam declined in the 10th and 11th centuries, as, by then, most of the country was Islamic. Local Iranian dynasties, "all vigorously Muslim," had emerged as largely independent vassals of the Caliphs. In the 16th century, in one of the early letters between Iranian Zoroastrians and their co-religionists in India, the priests of Yazd lamented that "no period [in human history], not even that of Alexander, had been more grievous or troublesome for the faithful than 'this millennium of the demon of Wrath'."
Relation to other religions and cultures
It is believed that key concepts of Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology have had influence on the Abrahamic religions. On the other hand, Zoroastrianism itself inherited ideas from other belief systems and, like other "practiced" religions, accommodates some degree of syncretism.
Many traits of Zoroastrianism can be traced back to the culture and beliefs of the prehistorical Indo-Iranian period, that is, to the time before the migrations that led to the Indians and Iranians becoming distinct peoples. Zoroastrianism consequently shares elements with the historical Vedic religion that also has its origins in that era. An example is the relation of the Zoroastrian word Ahura (Ahura Mazda) and the Vedic word Asura (meaning demon). They are therefore thought to have descended from a common Proto-Indo-Iranian religion. However, Zoroastrianism was also strongly affected by the later culture of the Iranian Heroic Age (1500 BCE onwards), an influence to which the Indic religions were not subject. Moreover, the other culture groups that the respective peoples came to interact with were different, for instance in 6th–4th century BCE Western Iran with Fertile Crescent culture, with each side absorbing ideas from the other. Such inter-cultural influences notwithstanding, Zoroastrian "scripture" is essentially a product of (Indo-)Iranian culture, and—representing the oldest and largest corpus pre-Islamic Iranian ideology—is considered a reflection of that culture. Then, together with the Vedas, which represent the oldest texts of the Indian branch of Indo-Iranian culture, it is possible to reconstruct some facets of prototypical Indo-Iranian beliefs. Since these two groups of sources also represent the oldest non-fragmentary evidence of Indo-European languages, the analysis of them also motivated attempts to characterize an even earlier Proto-Indo-European religion, and in turn influenced various unifying hypotheses like those of Carl Gustav Jung or James George Frazer. Although these unifying notions deeply influenced the modernists of the late 19th and early 20th century, they have not fared well under the scrutiny of more recent interdisciplinary peer review. The study of pre-Islamic Iran has itself undergone a radical change in direction since the 1950s, and the field is today disinclined to speculation.
Zoroastrianism is often compared with the Manichaeism, which is nominally an Iranian religion but has its origins in the Middle Eastern Gnosticism. Superficially, such a comparison may be apt, as both are uncompromisingly dualistic, and Manichaeism nominally adopted many of the Yazatas for its own pantheon. Gherardo Gnoli, in The Encyclopaedia of Religion says that, "we can assert that Manichaeism has its roots in the Iranian religious tradition and that its relationship to Mazdaism, or Zoroastrianism, is more or less like that of Christianity to Judaism". As religious types, they are, however, quite different: Manichaeism equated evil with matter and good with spirit, and was therefore particularly suitable as a doctrinal basis for every form of asceticism and many forms of mysticism. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, rejects every form of asceticism, has no dualism of matter and spirit (only of good and evil), and sees the spiritual world as not very different from the natural one, and the word "paradise" (via Latin and Greek from Avestan pairi.daeza, literally "stone-bounded enclosure") applies equally to both. Manichaeism's basic doctrine was that the world and all corporeal bodies were constructed from the substance of Satan, an idea that is fundamentally at odds with the Zoroastrian notion of a world that was created by God and that is all good, and any corruption of it is an effect of the bad. From what may be inferred from many Manichean texts and a few Zoroastrian sources, the adherents of the two religions (or at least their respective priesthoods) despised each other intensely.
Many aspects of Zoroastrianism are present in the culture and mythologies of the peoples of the Greater Iran, not least because Zoroastrianism was a dominant influence on the people of the cultural continent for a thousand years. Even after the rise of Islam and the loss of direct influence, Zoroastrianism remained part of the cultural heritage of the Iranian language-speaking world, in part as festivals and customs, but also because Ferdowsi incorporated a number of the figures and stories from the Avesta in his epic Shāhnāme, which in turn is pivotal to Iranian identity.
The Avesta is the religious book of Zoroastrians that contains a collection of sacred texts. The history of the Avesta is found in many Pahlavi texts. The twenty-one nasks were created by Ahura Mazda and brought by Zoroaster to Vishtaspa. Here, two copies were created, one which was put in the house of archives, and the other put in the Imperial treasury. During Alexander's conquest of Persia, the Avesta was burned, and the scientific sections that the Greeks could use were dispersed among themselves. Under the reign of King Valax of the Arsacis Dynasty, an attempt was made to restore the Avesta. During the Sassanid Empire, Ardeshir ordered Tansar, his high priest]], to finish the work that King Valax had started. Shapur I sent priests to locate the scientific text portions of the Avesta that were in the possession of the Greeks. Under Shapur II, Arderbad Mahrespandand revised the canon to ensure its orthodox character, while under Khosrow I, the Avesta was translated into Pahlavi.
The compilation of these ancient texts was successfully established underneath the Mazdean priesthood and the Sassanian emperors. Only a fraction of the texts survive today. The later manuscripts all date from this millennium, the latest being from 1288, 590 years after the fall of the Sassanian Empire. The texts that remain today are the Gathas, Yasna, Visperad and the Vendidad. Along with these texts is the communal household prayer book called the Khordeh Avesta, which contains the Yashts and the Siroza. The rest of the materials from the Avesta are called "Avestan fragments".
Middle Persian and Pahlavi works created in the 9th and 10th century contain many religious Zoroastrian books, as most of the writers and copyists were part of the Zoroastrian clergy. The most significant and important books of this era include the Denkard, Bundahishn, Menog-i Khrad, Selections of Zadspram, Jamasp Namag, Epistles of Manucher, Rivayats, Dadestan-i-Denig and Arda Viraf Namag. All Middle Persian texts written on Zoroastrianism during this time period are considered secondary works on the religion, and not scripture. Nonetheless, these texts have a strong influence on the religion.
The Prophet Zoroaster
Zoroastrianism was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Iran. However, it is debated to exactly when he lived, as estimates range from 1700 BCE to 500 BCE. The precise date of the founding of Zoroastrianism is uncertain. An approximate date of 1500–1200 BCE has been established through archaeological evidence and linguistic comparisons with the Hindu text, the Rig Veda. However, there is no way of knowing exactly when Zoroaster lived, as he lived in what, to his people, were prehistoric times.
Zoroaster was born in either Northeast Iran or Southwest Afghanistan. He was born into a Bronze Age culture with a polytheistic religion, which included animal sacrifice and the ritual use of intoxicants. This religion was quite similar to the early forms of Hinduism in India. The name Zoroaster is a Greek rendering of the name Zarathustra. He is known as Zarathusti in Persian and Zaratosht in Gujarati. Zoroaster's birth and early life are little documented. What is known is recorded in the Gathas—the core of the Avesta, which contains hymns thought to be composed by Zoroaster himself. Born into the Spitama clan, he worked as a priest. He had a wife, three sons, and three daughters. Zoroaster rejected the religion of the Bronze Age Iranians, with their many gods and oppressive class structure, in which the Karvis and Karapans (princes and priests) controlled the ordinary people. He also opposed animal sacrifices and the use of the hallucinogenic Haoma plant (possibly a species of ephedra) in rituals.
The vision of Zoroaster
According to Zoroastrian belief, when Zoroaster was 30 years old, he went into the Daiti river to draw water for a Haoma ceremony; when he emerged, he received a vision of Vohu Manah. After this, Vohu Manah took him to the other six Amesha Spentas, where he received the completion of his vision. This vision radically transformed his view of the world, and he tried to teach this view to others. Zoroaster believed in one creator God, teaching that only one God was worthy of worship. Furthermore, some of the deities of the old religion, the Daevas (Devas in Sanskrit), appeared to delight in war and strife. Zoroaster said that these were evil spirits and were workers of Angra Mainyu, God's adversary.
Zoroaster's ideas did not take off quickly, and, at first, he only had one convert: his cousin Maidhyoimanha. The local religious authorities opposed his ideas. They felt their own faiths, power, and particularly their rituals, were threatened because Zoroaster taught against over-ritualising religious ceremonies. Many ordinary people did not like Zoroaster's downgrading of the Daevas to evil spirits. After 12 years, Zoroaster left his home to find somewhere more open to new ideas. He found such a place in the country of King Vishtaspa (in Bactria). The King and his queen, Hutosa, heard Zoroaster debating with the religious leaders of his land, and decided to accept Zoroaster's ideas and make them the official religion of their kingdom. Zoroaster died in his late 70s. Very little is known of the time between Zoroaster and the Achaemenian period, except that, during this period, Zoroastrianism spread to Western Iran. By the time of the founding of the Achaemenid Empire, Zoroastrianism was already a well-established religion.
In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is the beginning and the end, the creator of everything that can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth. In the Gathas, the most sacred texts of Zoroastrianism thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself, the prophet acknowledged devotion to no other divinity besides Ahura Mazda.
Daena (din in modern Persian) is the eternal Law, whose order was revealed to humanity through the Mathra-Spenta ("Holy Words"). Daena has been used to mean religion, faith, law, and even as a translation for the Hindu and Buddhist term Dharma. The latter is often interpreted as "duty" but can also mean social order, right conduct, or virtue. The metaphor of the "path" of Daena is represented in Zoroastrianism by the muslin undershirt Sudra, the 'Good/Holy Path', and the 72-thread Kushti girdle, the "Pathfinder".
Daena should not be confused with the fundamental principle asha (Vedic rta), the equitable law of the universe, which governed the life of the ancient Indo-Iranians. For these, asha was the course of everything observable—the motion of the planets and astral bodies; the progression of the seasons; and the pattern of daily nomadic herdsman life, governed by regular metronomic events such as sunrise and sunset. All physical creation (geti) was thus determined to run according to a master plan—inherent to Ahura Mazda—and violations of the order (druj) were violations against creation, and thus violations against Ahura Mazda. This concept of asha versus the druj should not be confused with the good-versus-evil battle evident in western religions, for although both forms of opposition express moral conflict, the asha versus druj concept is more systemic and less personal, representing, for instance, chaos (that opposes order); or "uncreation", evident as natural decay (that opposes creation); or more simply "the lie" (that opposes truth and righteousness). Moreover, in his role as the one uncreated creator of all, Ahura Mazda is not the creator of druj, which is "nothing", anti-creation, and thus (likewise) uncreated. Thus, in Zoroaster's revelation, Ahura Mazda was perceived to be the creator of only the good (Yasna 31.4), the "supreme benevolent providence" (Yasna 43.11), that will ultimately triumph (Yasna 48.1).
In this schema of asha versus druj, mortal beings (both humans and animals) play a critical role, for they too are created. Here, in their lives, they are active participants in the conflict, and it is their duty to defend order, which would decay without counteraction. Throughout the Gathas, Zoroaster emphasizes deeds and actions, and accordingly asceticism is frowned upon in Zoroastrianism. In later Zoroastrianism, this was explained as fleeing from the experiences of life, which was the very purpose that the urvan (most commonly translated as the "soul") was sent into the mortal world to collect. The avoidance of any aspect of life, which includes the avoidance of the pleasures of life, is a shirking of the responsibility and duty to oneself, one's urvan, and one's family and social obligations.
Central to Zoroastrianism is the emphasis on moral choice, to choose the responsibility and duty for which one is in the mortal world, or to give up this duty and so facilitate the work of druj. Similarly, predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in, and in the way they act toward one another. Reward, punishment, happiness, and grief all depend on how individuals live their lives.
In Zoroastrianism, good transpires for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Zoroastrian morality is then to be summed up in the simple phrase, "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" (Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta in Avestan), for it is through these that asha is maintained and druj is kept in check.
Through accumulation, several other beliefs were introduced to the religion that, in some instances, supersede those expressed in the Gathas. In the late 19th century, the moral and immoral forces came to be represented by Spenta Mainyu and its antithesis Angra Mainyu, the "good spirit" and "evil spirit" emanations of Ahura Mazda, respectively. Although the names are old, this opposition is a modern Western-influenced development popularized by Martin Haug in the 1880s, and was, in effect, a realignment of the precepts of Zurvanism (Zurvanite Zoroastrianism), which had invented a third deity, Zurvan, to explain a mention of twinship (Yasna 30.3) between the moral and immoral. Although Zurvanism had died out by the 10th century, the critical question of the "twin brothers" mentioned in Yasna 30.3 remained, and Haug's explanation provided a convenient defence against Christian missionaries, who disparaged the Parsis for their "dualism". Haug's concept was subsequently disseminated as a Parsi interpretation, thus corroborating Haug's theory, and the idea became so popular that it is now almost universally accepted as doctrine.
Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE) Zoroastrianism developed the abstract concepts of heaven and hell, as well as personal and final judgment, all of which are only alluded to in the Gathas. Yasna 19 (which has only survived in a Sassanid era ([–650 AD] Zend commentary on the Ahuna Vairya invocation), prescribes a Path to Judgment known as the Chinvat Peretum or Chinvat bridge (cf: As-Sirāt in Islam), which all souls had to cross, and judgment (over thoughts, words, and deeds performed during a lifetime) was passed as they were doing so. However, the Zoroastrian personal judgment is not final. At the end of time, when evil is finally defeated, all souls will be ultimately reunited with their Fravashi. Thus, Zoroastrianism can be said to be a universalist religion with respect to salvation.
In addition, and strongly influenced by Babylonian and Akkadian practices, the Achaemenids popularized shrines and temples, hitherto alien forms of worship. In the wake of Achaemenid expansion, shrines were constructed throughout the empire and particularly influenced the role of Mithra, Aredvi Sura Anahita, Vahram|Verethregna and Tishtrya, all of which, in addition to their original (proto-)Indo-Iranian functions, now also received Perso-Babylonian functions.
Zoroastrianism and ecology
The Zoroastrian faith enjoins caring for the physical world not merely to seek spiritual salvation. Human beings, as the purposeful creation of God, are seen as the natural motivators or overseers of the Seven Creations. As the only conscious creation, it is humanity's ultimate task to care for the universe.
The faith endorses the care of Seven Creations (sky, water, earth, plant, animal, human, and fire), as part of a symbiotic relationship. Zoroastrianism sees the physical world as a natural matrix of Seven Creations, in which life and growth are inter-dependent if harmony and perfection is to be the final goal.
The sacredness of the creations demands a greater awareness on the part of Zoroastrians, for at the end of time humanity must give to Ahura Mazda a world of "purity", a world in its original perfect state. As an example of their concern, it is a tradition that Zoroastrians never enter a river, to wash in it or pollute it in any way. Purity of nature in their tradition is seen as the greatest good.
Zoroastrians in India remembered their traditional story of The Crisis: how, once upon a time, Mother Earth was in trouble. She asked God (Ahura Mazda) if He could send her a prince, with warriors, to use force to stop the people from hurting her. Ahura Mazda said he could not. Instead he sent Her a holy man, to stop the people from hurting her, using words and inspirational ideas instead. Thus was born the prophet, Zoroaster.
India is considered to be home to the largest Zoroastrian population in the world. When the Islamic armies, under the first Caliphs, invaded Persia, those locals who were unwilling to convert to Islam sought refuge, first in the mountains of northern Iran, then the regions of Yazd and its surrounding villages. Later, in the ninth century CE, a group sought refuge in the western coastal region of India, and also scattered to other regions of the world. In recent years, the United States has become a significant destination of Zoroastrian populations, holding the second largest population of Zoroastrians after India.
Small Zoroastrian communities may be found all over the world, with a continuing concentration in Western India, Central Iran, and Southern Pakistan. Zoroastrians of the diaspora are primarily located in England and the former British colonies—in particular Canada and Australia. Zoroastrian communities comprised two main groups of people: those of South Asian Zoroastrian background known as Parsis (or Parsees), and those of Central Asian background.
Iran and Central Asia
Communities exist in Tehran, as well as in Yazd, Kerman and Kermanshah, where many still speak an Iranian language distinct from the usual Persian. They call their language Dari (not to be confused with the Dari language of Afghanistan). Their language is also called Gabri or Bahdinan (also the name of a modern Kurdish dialect), literally "of the Good Religion". Sometimes their language is named for the cities in which it is spoken, such as Yazdi or Kermani. Iranian Zoroastrians were historically called Gabrs, originally without a pejorative connotation but in the present-day derogatorily applied to all non-Muslims.
There is some interest among Iranians, as well as people in various Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in their ancient Zoroastrian heritage; some people in these countries take notice of their Zoroastrian past. At the instigation of the government of Tajikistan, UNESCO declared 2003 a year to celebrate the "3000th anniversary of Zoroastrian culture", with special events throughout the world.
In South Asia
Following the fall of the Sassanid Empire in 651 CE, many Zoroastrians migrated. Among them were several groups who ventured to Gujarat on the western shores of the Indian subcontinent, where they finally settled. The descendants of those refugees are today known as the Parsis. The year of arrival on the subcontinent cannot be precisely established, and Parsi legend and tradition assigns various dates to the event.
In the Indian subcontinent, these Zoroastrians enjoyed tolerance and even admiration from other religious communities. From the 19th century onward, the Parsis gained a reputation for their education and widespread influence in all aspects of society, partly due to the divisive strategy of British colonialism, which favored certain minorities. Parsis are generally more affluent than other Indians and are stereotypically viewed as among the most Anglicised and "Westernised" of the various minority groups. They have also played an instrumental role in the economic development of the region over many decades; several of the best-known business conglomerates of India are run by Parsi-Zoroastrians, including Cawas Jehangirji Bardoliwalla, Tata, Godrej, and Wadia families.
In 2004, the number of Zoroastrians worldwide was estimated at between 145,000 and 210,000. India's 2001 Census found 69,601 Parsi Zoroastrians. In Pakistan, they number 5,000, mostly living in Karachi; they have been reinforced in recent years with a number of Zoroastrian refugees from Iran. The United States and Canada are thought to be home to 18,000–25,000 Zoroastrians of both South Asian and Iranian background. A further 3,500 live in Australia (mainly in Sydney). Iran's figures of Zoroastrians have ranged widely; the last census (1974) before the revolution of 1979 revealed 21,400 Zoroastrians.
Some 10,000 adherents remain in the Central Asian regions that were once considered the traditional stronghold of Zoroastrianism, i.e., Bactria, which is in northern Afghanistan; Sogdiana; Margiana; and other areas close to Zoroaster's homeland.
In the Indian census of 2001, the Parsis numbered 69,601, representing about 0.006% of the total population of India, with a concentration in and around the city of Mumbai. Due to a low birth rate and high rate of emigration, demographic trends project that by 2020 the Parsis will number only about 23,000 or 0.002% of the total population of India. The Parsis would then cease to be called a community and will be labeled a "tribe". By 2008, the birth-to-death ratio was 1:5—200 births per year to 1,000 deaths.
In the last decade of the 20th century, a group of American and Italian members of the Universalist Church of America, dissatisfied with the liberal trends which had taken over the denomination in the USA after the merger with the Unitarians and basing their researches on the findings of the German school of history of religions headed by Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), started asserting that the essence of Christianity is to be found in the injection of Zoroastrian ideas (a benevolent vision of God, the presence of an evil agency in the world, etc.) into the Jewish religion. A Mazdean-Christian theology was developed, which was first exposed in the columns of the Brooklyn Universalist Christian and then in a book, Il Mazdeismo Universale, written by the Italian scholar Michele Moramarco. A Mazdean-Christian Alliance was formed in March 2010.
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