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  • Writer's pictureEric Cline

What About Zoroastrianism?

Updated: Jul 5, 2023


Introduction

Zoroastrianism, the dominant pre-Islamic religious tradition of the Iranian peoples, was founded by the prophetic reformer Zoroaster in the 6th or 7th century BCE (if not earlier) and has played a huge role in the study of comparative religions. Zoroaster was born in Ragha of the three races, Rai, the present-day Azerbaijan Province in Iran.[i] The religion survived into the 20th century in isolated areas of Iran and is also practiced in parts of India (particularly Bombay) by descendants of Iranian immigrants known as Parsis. For this reason, the religion as practiced in India is alternatively known as Parsiism.[ii]

Zoroastrianism originate among Aryans. Around 1500 BCE, nomadic Aryans wandered into India and Iran with their religious beliefs and practices and having many gods. Fast forward to 755 BCE, Assyrians transported Jews from the northern kingdom of Israel to Persia, present day Iran. Later, and on three different occasions, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon transported Jews from the southern kingdom of Israel to Babylon, present day Iraq, then the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The conveyance in 605 BCE included Daniel; in 597 BCE it was Ezekiel; and in 586 Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and exiled all remaining Jews to Babylon. Only Jeremiah and a handful of others got to stay behind.

The god Marduk told Cyrus the Great to conquer Babylon. Cyrus was easily victorious and become Cyrus II of Persia and commanded everyone to worship their own god. From 558-330 BCE, the region became the Achaemenid (ah-chem-in-ed) Persian Empire[iii] and was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Even though Cyrus later died as a devotee to the god Marduk, he instructed the Jews to return to Judah and build their God a temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4). The return happened over a period of time and not all Jews returned. During the influence of Jews in Persia and in Babylon, also influenced to some degree by the religious beliefs and practices of the Aryans, a young Persian priest named Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) struggled to make up his own monotheistic religion which became known as Zoroastrianism.

Alexander the Great toppled the Persian Empire in 330 BCE only for that empire to then be defeated by the Sassanid Dynasty (Iran) in 226 BCE. Zoroastrianism flourished in perhaps a slightly modified form for the next four hundred years. Animal sacrifices ceased (especially cows sacred to Indian religion), corpses were elevated to allow scavenger birds to eventually remove them rather than the bodies being burned so that the fire would remain sanctified or buried so that the sacred earth was not contaminated. Ground where the dead were buried would have to lie fallow for one year before it could be cultivated.[iv] Light and fire are symbols for God.

Zoroastrianism hatched two different religions: Zurvanism, and Manichaeism. Zurvanism fizzled out during the Sassanid period but the prophet Mani of Manichaeism further delineated the good-vs-bad dualism of Zoroastrianism to the battles between spirit (good) and matter (evil). In Manichaeism, anything physical is intrinsically evil. It is a dualistic cosmology describing the conflict between a good spiritual world and one of evil. It is a dualism between light (the good) and dark (the evil) and man's purpose is to release parts of himself that belong to the light. In a nutshell, all flesh is evil, and the battle is between the material and immaterial. Saint Augustine of Hippo was drawn to Manichaeism until his baptism and conversion to Christianity in 386 CE. This intellectual movement of Manichaeism infiltrated the Greek world and when is brushed with Christianity it was labeled "Gnosticism." Saint Augustine of Hippo practiced Manichaeism until his baptism and conversion to Christianity in 386 CE. "Anti-conversion sentiment in the Zoroastrian world comes from the Indian Parsis. Iranian Zoroastrians are much more likely to accept converts, marriages to non-Zoroastrians (who are then welcomed into the community) and people of mixed ancestry."[v]

God

Initially, many gods but one all-powerful, invisible god called Ahura Mazda, also known as Ohrmazd, the supreme and the only god worthy of worship. This marked a return to monotheism.[vi] Fire is the symbol of divinity. It is not worshipped in the Fire Temples as thought by many. The priest feeds sandalwood into the fire and worshippers come intermittently and individually. Each follower washes any exposed skin, recites a prayer, removes his shoes, and walks barefoot through the inner hall to the fire chamber. He gives the priest offerings of sandalwood and money in exchange for some of the ashes from the sacred fire. He rubs the ashes on his forehead, bows to the fire, then walks backwards to his shoes and leaves the temple. [vii]

Jesus

Not Jesus, but "eventually, a messiah known as the Saoshyant (“One Who Brings Benefit”) would come and bring the Frashokereti (End of Time) when all souls would be reunited with Ahura Mazda in bliss and Angra Mainyu and his demons would be destroyed."[viii] Whether or not the Saoshyant is the Christian Jesus is an interesting theory. Winfried Corduan writes that "Zoroaster's life and activity, for the most part, took place in the area into which the 10 tribes of Israel had been relocated under the Assyrians. In that case the idea that some Zoroastrians should look to the Jews for a coming savior becomes a possible theory." On the basis of this assumption, it is plausible, but outside of this assumption is the surrounding mythology about Saoshyant being one of three posthumous sons of Zoroaster, and that after 57 years, demonic power is defeated, the dead are resurrected, and everyone drinks white haoma (a ritual drink made from a mythological plant) which will bestow eternal perfection on the bodies.[ix]

Holy Spirit

Ahura Mazda works through Spenta Mainyu, his holy spirit. Dr. Ali Akbar Jafarey of the Zoroastrian Educational Institute seems to indicate that Western scholars of Zoroastrian studies have rendered Spenta Mainyu as an entity. Previously, belief in God, Hormazd (Ahura Mazda) and his evil adversary, Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) was sufficient without Spenta Mainyu.[x]

Trinity

Two Zoroastrians from India write that, "Ahura Mazda is depicted in the Zoroastrian scriptures as a kind of trinity: 'Praise to thee, Ahura Mazda, threefold before other creations.' From Ahura Mazda came a duality: the twin spirits of Spenta Mainyu (the Holy or Bountiful Spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the Destructive or Opposing Spirit). The twin spirits are popularly thought of as good and evil, but rather they are two principles that represent all the opposites of life."[xi] However, the sevenfold expression from Ahura Mazda seems more likely to belong to a trinity instead of the opposing spirit of Angra Mainyu. These seven are called the Amesha Spentas or Holy or Bountiful Immortals, the Highest Intelligences. They are sometimes thought of as archangels and sometimes as aspects of Ahura Mazda himself. These seven mighty intelligences along with holy spirit Spenta Mainyu are thought by some, this author included, to form a more plausible trinity of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and Amesh Spentas. For instance, in an article The Secrets of Zoroastrianism, Mark Willey writes, "This priesthood introduced many pre-Zoroastrian gods into the religion. Ahura-Mazda, the sun god Mithras, and the most important archangel, Spenta Mainyu (holy spirit), formed a holy trinity."[xii]

Incarnation

The only incarnation we acknowledge is the incarnation of evil via Angra Mainyu who stands in contrast to Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord and the highest spirit worshiped. To aid him in attacking the light (Spenta Mainyu, the good creation of Ahura Mazdā), Angra Mainyu created a horde of demons embodying envy and similar qualities.[xiii]

Bible

We do not use the Christian Bible but rather a collection of scriptures called the Avesta. The Avesta has hymns (the Gathas) probably of Zoroaster himself. The Avesta is a collection of writings from oral traditions originating in various periods of time, does not contain details of the prophet's life, and its main body is called the Yasna. Modern scholars estimate the life of Zoroaster somewhere between 1500 BCE to 1000 BCE but the later writings in the Avesta are the Pahlavi scriptures, dated 628 BCE to 551 BCE. Undoubtedly, Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion.

The last part of the Avesta, the called Videvdat, were a collection of spells to ward off evil spirits, daevas.

Baptism

It is more of an initiation than a Baptism, especially the Christian Baptism. One does not convert and become Zoroastrian; one must be born into it. Zoroastrian identity descends through the father's line. Zoroastrianism is an ethically exclusive religion. Initiations are performed using water, blood, or urine.[xiv]

Eucharist

Not blood and body but this ritual cocktail of mystic force was thought to secure the favor of heaven. Known as the Haoma ceremony, juice from the Haoma plant was extracted by the priest and it was consumed before it fermented and became intoxicating. During prayer, the priest would drink a portion and the remainder would be shared among the worshippers. It is believed that the extract had curative powers to benefit the participates. Included in this ceremony was the sacrifice by the priest of a horse, ox, sheep, or goat, consecrated by the sacred fire and then consumed.

Salvation

Zoroastrians get to heaven just by believing in Zoroastrianism, not by works. "The universal law of Zoroastrianism was asha-arta (in Vedic India, rta) 'the true prayer.' Centuries later in Greece this became Logos, or 'true sentence' and like in Persia it was associated with fire. Belief was the basis of Zoroastrianism. If one said the true prayer, one would have everlasting life."[xv]

Forgiveness

Ahura Mazda can either punish or forgive sin. From the Sacred Books of the East, "The law of Mazda indeed, O Spitama Zarathustra! takes away from him who confesses it the bonds of his sin; it takes away the sin of breach of trust; it takes away the sin of murdering one of the faithful; it takes away the sin of burying a corpse; it takes away the sin of deeds for which there is no atonement; it takes away the heaviest penalties of sin; it takes away any sin that may be sinned."[xvi]

Heaven

The soul of the pure will take three steps and on the fourth will enter the eternal light. "'The soul of the pure man goes the first step and arrives in (the Paradise) Humata; the soul of the pure man takes the second step and arrives at (the Paradise) Hûkhta; it goes the third step and arrives at (the Paradise) Hvarsta; the soul of the pure man takes the fourth step and arrives at the Eternal Lights.'"[xvii]

Hell

At death, the soul of the wicked man lies near the head of the body and runs about uttering the prayer Ké mánm. On this first of three nights, the soul sees as much displeasing as the whole living world. At the end of the third night and at first light, the soul of the wicked man goes to an impure place and is greeted by an evil-smelling wind. The wicked man takes a fourth step into the darkness without beginning. [xviii]

From the Teachings of Zoroaster, "And I saw the darkest hell, which is pernicious, dreadful, terrible, very painful, mischievous, and evil-smelling. And after further observation it appeared to me as a pit, at the bottom of which a thousand cubits would not reach; and though all the wood which is in the world were put on to the fire in this most stinking and gloomy hell, it would never emit a smell; and again also, as close as the ear to the eye, and as many as the hairs on the mane of a horse, so close and many in number the souls of the wicked stand—but they see not and hear no sound one from the other; every one thinks thus, ‘I am alone!’ And for them are the gloom of darkness and the stench and fearfulness of the torment and punishment of hell of various kinds; so that whoever is only a day in hell cries out thus, ‘Are not those nine thousand years yet completed when they should release us from this hell?'"[xix]

Angels

In addition to working through his holy spirit, Spenta Mainyu, god Ahura Mazda manifests himself through Amesha Spentas, the angel-like "holy immortals."

Death

When a pure man dies, the soul sits near the body's head for three consecutive nights reciting the Gatha Ustavaiti (psalms of Zoroaster). At first light after the third night, the soul goes forward and recollects itself at the perfume of plants. The wind blows and in the wind are three maidens to meet him with his own law. The first maiden is beautiful, shining, with shining arms. The second is powerful, well-grown, slender with large breasts, and a praiseworthy body. The third is noble, with brilliant face, fifteen years old, and as fair in her growth as the fairest creatures. This is apparently a reflection of his good words and works and he enters paradises Humata, Hȗkhta, and Hvarsta.[xx]

The naked dead are placed in what is called dakhma, a Tower of Silence which is an open pit elevated about eighteen feet high with a circumference of about 300 feet. The inner circle is for children, the next for women, and the outer row is for men. Vultures consume the body in less than an hour and the bones are left to dry before being removed to a well where they will continue to decompose along with any remaining putrefying matter.

According to Richard Foltz of Concordia University, "When a Zoroastrian dies, a four-eyed dog[xxi] must be brought in to see the corpse before the death can be considered verified.[xxii] This ritual is called sag-dīd — literally, “dog-seeing.” (Dogs are considered to be able to see into the next world. A more contemporary interpretation is that, in the absence of a qualified medical professional, a dog is better able than a human to sense whether a person is truly deceased.) A dog also accompanies the priest in the funeral procession. Moreover, dogs themselves are given funerals like those of humans."[xxiii]

Satan

We do not refer to the evil one as Satan or Lucifer but rather Angra Mainyu, an evil spirit also known as Ahriman,who seeks to divert a person from following Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism is not a dualistic religion having conflict between a good spirit and an evil spirit because dualism requires the opponents to be equal and Angra Mainyu is inferior to Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom.

Sin

The soul in the body makes choices for the good as well as choices for the bad. Ahura Mazda can either punish or forgive sin.

Blood

Zoroastrians adapted to the Indian culture with the suspension of animal sacrifices. The animal sacrifices were never intended as a blood sacrifice as in Christianity but rather of obedience to the god Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster thought animal sacrifice was repulsive and helped to terminate the ritual practice.

Eternity

Eternity is a great theological mystery, going from the known to the unknown universe. The soul remains three days with the body and for the righteous, enters the Gloria in excelsis on the fourth day. He renders his account at the gate of Chinvat Bridge where he passed over the flat sword blade into Eternity and awaits his body on the great day. The wicked soul also renders his account at the gate of Chinvat Bridge, but the sword is turned with the edge as the walkway. The wicked fall off into the abyss where it will "suffer till the last day of the Great Gathering, when everybody will be judged, the battle will end, the Evil Spirit will no more have power to play man as a pawn, and there will be everlasting peace – peace and happiness."[xxiv]

"A sinful soul need never despair of mercy and forgiveness of God. Wicked as he may have been, a due notice of any good deed done by him will be taken into consideration by the Great Merciful. One of the numerous questions asked by Zoroaster of Ahura-Mazda, was in reference to a man whose body was feeling the torments of hell, with the exception of his right foot. It was participating in the heavenly bliss and comfort. The man was a wicked king in the world below, who ruled his country with oppression, lawlessness, and violence. He was incapable of practising any known virtue. One day, when he was out hunting for his pleasure, he saw a goat, tethered to a stake, vainly trying to reach a morsel of hay. The sight of a poor hungry beast straining at the rope kindled a spark of mercy in his otherwise obdurate heart. Thus moved by a sudden impulse, he, with his right foot, kicked the morsel of hay within reach of the famished beast. The incident was duly recorded in the Book of Fate, and the foot received its reward. This legend, savouring of antiquity, and backed up by ancient authorities, reveals to a Zoroastrian the sublime doctrine of reward and punishment."[xxv]

Church

Not a church but rather a temple, a fire temple, known by the Persians as ataskada or as pyratheia by the Greeks. A place of worship where a flame is kept burning in honor of the divine Ahura Mazda. The sacred fires and worship may have began at outdoor altars but during the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) a temple enclosed the fire and the Greeks wrongly referred to the Zoroastrians as fire worshippers.

By the time of the Parthian Empire (247 BCE - 224 CE) and into the Sassanian Empire (224-651 CE), the temples were firmly established until the Muslim invasion of 651 CE when they were converted into mosques. Zoroastrian communities and fire temples exist today in Iran, India, and in parts of the United States.[xxvi]

Clergy/Organization

The Agiaries, or fire temples, are staffed with priests to maintain the fire and apparently support staff, according to the April 7, 2018 Hindustan Times which reported that teams were assembled to solve the problem of priest and staff pay. "Dasturji Khurshed K Dastur, president of Athornan Mandal, said that a fund would be set-up eventually for repairs and maintenance of religious places, to provide kathi (wood), remuneration for priests and other support staff and to make the system of Agiaries and priests self-sustaining."[xxvii] Reportedly, the fire temples are not part of the village council, Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP), which means private trusts must manage and provide financial support to the priest and staff.

Resurrection

"The soul will demand its original body out of the custody of the three known elements—the Earth, the Water, and the Fire. All the dead will rise with consciousness of their good and evil deeds. At the Great Assembly, in the presence of the righteous, they will penitently deplore their misdeeds. Then will there be the separation of the righteous from the wicked for three nights and days—the wicked, “Full in the sight of Paradise, Beholding Heaven and feeling Hell.” The reign of terror, at the end of the stipulated time, vanishes into oblivion, and its chief factor Ahriman goes to meet his doom of total extinction, whilst Ahura-Mazda the Omnipotent Victor remains the Great All in All."[xxviii]

Wrap-up

Zoroastrianism played a dominant religious role in Persia throughout its history until the Islamic conquest. Joshua Mark, co-founder, editor, and a director of Ancient History Encyclopedia. writes this about Zoroaster, "His concepts of the primacy of free will, individual responsibility for one’s choices in life and destination in the afterlife, personal judgment after death, a messiah who redeems the world, a heaven and hell, as well as a bridge between the living and the dead, would come to inform Judaism, Christianity, and Islam significantly."[xxix]

Persia was gradually converted to Islam after its conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century (651 CE). Zoroastrianism survived, however, in small communities of Gabars (a derogatory term coined by the Arabs, similar to Arabic kfir, which means infidel). Thousands of Zoroastrians, now called Parsis (Persians) live in Iran and many live in Mombai, India . They still recite from the Avesta and tend sacred fires. They prepare a nonintoxicant haoma (a sacramental drink prepared with the juice of the haoma plant, yielding a sour, milky juice), some still elevate the dead, the so-called towers of silence, to be the prey of vultures.

If examined closely, one can find similarities between two countries, two ethnicities, or two governments. The similarities between Zoroastrianism and Judaism and Christianity are striking. After the concept of a supreme ruler evolved to just one, Ahura Mazda, and having the attributes of omnipresence, eternity, and creative power, one could suggest it resembles the Old Testament Yahweh. Ahura Mazda had a holy spirit, Spenta Mainyu, and even angels, Amesha Spentas. Christianity's Satan could be likened to Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, the evil one. There is a close parallel to the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and everlasting life. Moses received the law atop Mt. Sinai, Zoroaster from "Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones." Otherwise, the contrasts are significant.

[i] Aramesh K. (2019). Perspectives of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism on abortion: a comparative study between two pro-life ancient sisters. Journal of medical ethics and history of medicine, 12, 9. https://doi.org/10.18502/jmehm.v12i9.1340 [ii] Richard C. Foltz, Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), p. 28. Also see https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/religion/zoroastrianism/essay.html [iii]Mark Willey, Secrets of Zoroastrianism http://www.iranchamber.com/religions/articles/secrets_of_zoroastrianism.php At least Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel were written originally in Aramaic, an official language of the Persian Empire, but possibly all the books of the Old Testament were. [iv] ". . . A year-long shall the ground lie fallow whereon dogs or men have died." S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, [1905], at sacred-texts.com; https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz01.htm [v] Anonymous, http://www.pyracantha.com/Z/convertz.html [vi] Corduan, p. 189 [vii] Fathi Habashi, ZOROASTER AND THE THEORY OF FOUR ELEMENTS, Bull. Hist. Chem., VOLUME 25, Number (2000) http://acshist.scs.illinois.edu/bulletin_open_access/v25-2/v25-2%20p109-115.pdf [viii] Mark, Joshua J. "Zarathustra." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 28, 2020. https://www.ancient.eu/zoroaster/. [ix] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Saoshyans, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saoshyans [x] Dr. Ali Akbar Jafarey, Zoroastrian Educational Institute, Spenta Mainyu, http://www.zoroastrian.org.uk/vohuman/Article/Spenta%20Mainyu.htm. Dr. Ali Akbar Jafarey, was born in Kerman, Iran. He received his schooling up to the University level in Karachi. He has a doctorate in Persian Language and Literature, and has self-studied thirteen living and ancient languages, and also studied linguistics, anthropology, Indo-Iranian literature, history, geology, and research methods. In Saudi Arabia, he worked as a translator/anthropologist in the Arabian Research Division of Aramco. In 1991, Dr. Jafarey, with seven other co-founders, established the Zarathushtrian Assembly in Los Angeles [xi] Dinshaw and Hutoxy Contractor, "Zoroastrianism: History, Beliefs, and Practices." Quest 91.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY 2003):4-9. Dinshaw and Hutoxy Contractor are Zoroastrians from India who have lived in the United States since they were married in 1958. Dinshaw has a Ph.D in civil engineering, and Hutoxy has a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology. They have continued the practice of their ancestral faith in this country, where they have raised a family of five children. [xii] Mark Willey, The Secrets of Zoroastrianism, Iran Chamber Society, August 23, 2020 http://www.iranchamber.com/religions/articles/secrets_of_zoroastrianism.php [xiii] Brian Duignan, Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ahriman [xiv] Willey, Iran Chamber Society. Also see Christian baptism had a Persian origin - see Le Mouvement Baptiste en Palestine at Syrie, J. Thomas, Gembloux 1935, page 417ff. [xv] Mark Willey, The Secrets of Zoroastrianism http://www.iranchamber.com/religions/articles/secrets_of_zoroastrianism.php [xvi] S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, [1905], at sacred-texts.com; https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz01.htm [xvii] Sacred Books of the East, https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz05.htm#page_80 [xviii] Sacred Books of the East, https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz05.htm#page_80, p. 64 [xix] Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), The Teachings of Zoroaster and the Philosophy of the Parsi Religion, ed. S.A. Kapadia (London: John Murray, 1905). https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1267 [xx] S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, [1905], at sacred-texts.com; https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz01.htm [xxi] Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, Zoroastrianism, A four-eyed dog, one with a spot above each eye to enhance the dog's seeing ability. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism/Iconography [xxii] Society and Animals 18 (2010) 367-378 https://www.animalsandsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/foltz.pdf [xxiii] Richard Foltz, Zoroastrian Attitudes toward Animals, https://www.animalsandsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/foltz.pdf [xxiv] S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, [1905], at sacred-texts.com; https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz01.htm [xxv] Ibid., https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz04.htm [xxvi] Joshua J. Mark, Fire Temple, Ancient History Encyclopaedia, https://www.ancient.eu/Fire_Temple/ [xxvii] Yesha Kotak, Hindustan Times, April 7, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/parsis-form-team-to-maintain-fire-temples-look-after-priests-and-staff-in-mumbai/story-4u6iuR172ykJ46oHE8meUL.html [xxviii] S.A. Kapadia, The Teachings of Zoroaster, [1905], at sacred-texts.com; https://www.sacred-texts.com/zor/toz/toz01.htm [xxix] Mark, Joshua J. "Zarathustra." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified May 28, 2020. https://www.ancient.eu/zoroaster/.

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