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Zoroastrianism is a religion, one of the oldest.
According to tradition, it was founded by Zoroaster after he received a vision in which he was introduced to Ahura Mazda, and told of the great God and his adversary. He saw other radiant figures too, but could not see his shadow on the ground, a sign which convince Zoroaster his vision was authentic. This was the first of several visions in which Ahura Mazda conversed with him. The vision is alluded to in the Cathas (Y 43) and briefly described in the Pahlavi work (Zadspram XX-XXI). It was the knowledge gained from these visions which caused Zoroaster to designate Ahura Mazda as master of asha, order, righteousness, and justice; proclaiming him to be the one uncreated God, existing eternally, and Creator of all else that is good including all other beneficent divinities.
However, experience of the harsh realities of the world convinced Zoroaster that Ahura Mazda did not exist alone; and in a vision, he saw the Adversary, the Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainya, or Ahriman, who was equally uncreated, ignorant and wholly malign. Zoroaster saw in his prophetic eye the origin of these two Spirits; they were twin, primal spirits, destined to be in constant conflict; of the two, the worst Spirit had chosen to do the worst things while the good Spirit had chosen righteousness. They were the twin antagonists in thought, word and act, the good and the bad. When these Spirits first encountered they created life and not-life; and at the end the worst existence shall befall the followers of falsehood (drug) while the best dwelling is for those choosing righteousness (asha). It is speculated by some Iraniologists that the prophetic vision of these twin spirits might have been influenced by Zervanism, the religion of the Magi. Evidence of this is the mentioning of the “twin-spirits” in the Gathas. However, in the Zervanite theogony Ahura Mazda and Ahriman were associated with Light and Darkness, and were the twin sons of Zurvan, god of Infinite Time (Settegast 216).
In order to fully comprehend Zoroaster’s twin-spirit cosmogony one must perceive that the prophet’s veneration of Ahura Mazda was based upon tradition. Mazda, the oldest of the three Ahuras or guardians of asha, had been previously worshipped as the greatest of the three. However, Zoroaster independently and drastically abandoned this former teaching by making Ahura Mazda an uncreated God and Creator; and, as previously stated, experience of the harsh realities of the world convinced Zoroaster that Ahura Mazda did not solely exist, another divinity existed; this was Angra Mainya, the bad or evil Spirit. Here was the dualism; the beliefs were absolute, each spirit acted according to his nature; the good chose good, and the bad chose bad. No room way made or allowed for the belief that both good and bad could come from the same spirit; such a belief never occurred or would it have been tolerated. The reason was that Zoroaster believed like the two primal Spirits, each human would have to make the identical choice between good and evil.
Such an exercise of choice changed the inherent antagonism between the two Spirits into an active one that was expressed by the decision made by Ahura Mazda, in the creation and counter-creation, or the creation of life and not-life; that is death. Zoroaster believed that Ahura Mazda, through his wisdom, knew if he became Creator and fashioned the world, then the Hostile Spirit would attack it because it was good, and it would become a battleground for the two forces, but in the end he, God, would win the great struggle there and be able to destroy evil, and establish a universe which would be wholly good forever.
It should be noted that Zoroaster’s belief seemed based on a Persian myth of Zurvan (Time) (see Time and the Zurvan myth). From the myth Zoroaster appears to have assumed that the combative forces of good and evil always existed since since they were born in time. He further teaches that they would continue their struggle within the created world and finally good would conquer evil.
His teaching about Ahura Mazda was new; but it was based on the former cosmogony which gave basis for Zoroaster’s thought. Thus, the first act that Zoroaster envisioned Ahura Mazda performing was the evoking, through his Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu, of six lesser divinities, the radiant Beings which Zoroaster saw in his first vision. These six divinities form a heptad with Ahura Mazda, and proceeded with him to fashion the seven creations which compose the world. The evocation of the six is variously described in the works of Zoroastrian, but always in manners which suggest the essential unity of beneficent divinity. Ahura Mazda is either described as the “father,” or to have “mingled” himself with them, and in one Pahlavi text his creation of them is compared with the lighting of a torch from s torch.
Ahura Mazda, also referred to as Lord of Wisdom, is believed to be head of the divine heptad. The descriptions of the other six divinities often do not correspond to their sequential creations. Armati, as guardian of the enduring, fertile earth, and mother of all things, was the protectress of women. The other deities and their attributes are: Vohu Manah, Good Thought; Asha Vahishta, Right Order; Khsathra Vairya, Sovereign Power; Haurvatat, Immortality; and Ameretat, Wholeness or Integrity. Each worshipper could partitions the deities collectively or individually. Gradually each deity was believed to be the protector of each particular aspect of creation they were given other attributes by individuals who prayed to them; for example, Haurvatat water, and Ameretat plants; and many speculate this was the reason for Zoroastrianism becoming firmly established.
With these teachings Zoroaster began his process of separating the gods. He taught these six great Beings, who were in fact the beneficent deities of the pagan Iranian pantheon. They were, according to Zoroastrian doctrine, were direct or indirect emanations of Ahura Mazda, strived under him, performing their various duties, to promote good and defeat evil. Collectively in Zoroastrianism they are known as Yazatas, “Beings worthy of worship,” or Amesha Spentas, “Holy Immortals.” Although the latter term never in the Gathas, it is thought that Zoroaster coined it to distinguished these entities revealed to him as beneficent from the generality of the pagan gods, who were evoked as “All of the Immortals” in the Vedas; because he vigorously rejected the worship of the warlike, amoral Daevas, particularly Indra and his companions, whom he considered as being of “a race of evil purpose” (Yasna 32.3). “The Daevas chose not rightly, because the Deceiver came upon them as they consulted, so that they chose the worst purpose. Then together they betook themselves to Wrath, through whom they afflicted the life of man” (Y 30.6).
Here Zoroaster was describing the Daevas as false gods, who like Angra Mainyu, were wicked by both nature and choice, and were not to be worshipped because they represented conflict among men, luring them through their greed of offerings to bloodshed and destructive strife. A religious system which Zoroaster was instigating envisioned not only a new spiritual attitude but a cultural one as well. He not only intended to eliminate the worship of warrior gods, but the warrior too. Many Iraniologists think possibly this was the most difficult transformation the prophet attempted to make upon his society. The god Indra, the image of the ideal warrior who was pictured in the Rg Veda as being arrogant, strife-provoking, drunk on songs and soma but bountiful to his followers, from whom he demanded abundant offerings, was vivid in the minds of the people; he also was important to this warring culture. Here, a priest and prophet was trying to eliminate a powerful god; this must have caused quite a stir. Indra was not mentioned in the Gathas, but demonized as a Daeva in the Younger Avesta. His counterpart Mithra, in his warrior aspect, also is not named in the Gathas, but had a very old Yast dedicated to him, which indicates he was probably honored before Zoroaster’s time. It is recognized that Zoroaster’s objection to the natural cults of the time was because of their excessive worship of the divinities, perhaps this is the reason that Indra and Mithra was omitted from the Gathas.
Zoroaster proved that he was not just concerned with the divinities, but also with the people and the earth. His aim was to secure both the material and spiritual welfare of the “Good Creation,” to renew and preserve the sanctity of the world to restore it to a state of perfection. This hope is uttered in the prayer “May we be those who will renew this existence” (Y 30.9).
Such renovation was to occur through husbandry. Although ancient Iranian kings are claimed to have invented husbandry, Zoroaster is said to be the first to embed it into a religious system. Soil cultivation became a kind of worship to his followers, “He who cultivates corn [grain] cultivates righteousness” (Vendidad 3.1).
The previous description is of the second time in cosmic history as Zoroaster envisioned it. To him, cosmic history was divided or spaced within three times or eras. In the first time era “Creation” Ahura Mazda brought all things in a disembodied state, called in Pahlavi, “menog,” or “spiritual immaterial.” To this he added the “material” or “getig” existence, which was better because it possessed perfection that the menog state did not have. The getig state was of solid and sentient form which completed the two states that constituted the act of Creation, called in the Pahlavi “Bundahishn.” The completion of the getig state signaled the start of Angra Mainyu’s evil attack. According to the myth in Pahlavi works, he broke in violently through the lower bowl of the stone sky, thus ruining its perfection. Then he plunged upward through the water, turning much of it in salt, and attacked the earth, creating deserts. There he withered the plant, and slew the uniquely-created Bull and the first man. Finally he fell upon the seventh creation, fire, and sullied it with smoke, so that he had physically blighted all the good creation.
After this all the divine beings rekindled their forces, and the second time era occurred. In this era called the “Mixture” everything is no longer perfect as it was in the era of Creation; the assault of Angra Mainyu destroyed that perfection which could not be restored. The beneficent divinities renewed each thing as best as they could: the plant was ground up and spread over the world by cloud and rain, and sprang forth covering the earth; the seeds of Bull and Man were purified and multiplied everywhere; and where the shameful endeavor of Angra Mainyu had brought decay and death into the perfect and static world of Ahura Mazda, the Amesha Spentas, through their holy power, were able to turn his malicious acts to benefit, and knew such must be the endeavor of all good creation.
But during the Mixture Angra Mainyu, according to Zoroaster, will continue his attack along with the Daevas to destroy the world which the Mesha Spentas in cooperation with mankind are attempting to rebuild. There are three essential differences between the world of the Creation and the second world of the Mixture: first, the second world is not perfect, the original perfection could not be restored because all of the illness and evil which Angra Mainyu bestowed upon it remained; second, the Spentas restored as much of Ahura Mazda’s perfection as they could to the world; third, and they did it with the help of the people.
This final difference is a key point in Zoroastrianism; in recognizing that Angra Mainyu was still attempting to corrupt the world, Zoroaster saw that it would require the efforts of both the beneficent divinities and mankind to restore it. And, since man himself was under attack he needed the help of these divinities; therefore, it was necessary for man to steadfastly venerate the divinities to keep them in his heart so there would be no room for vice or weakness. This meant venerating all of the Yazatas, which included Ahura Mazda, the six Spentas, and the lesser Ahuras, such as the Sun and the Moon, which contributed to keeping the world strong and in accordance, with asha. Zoroaster took the vision of cosmic history a step further than it had been; the previous concept was that once the process of life was started, it was expected to continue forever, if men and the gods each bore their part; but, Zoroaster added new significance to this co-operation between the divinities and the worshippers by saying it would not just preserve the world as it is, but it would reach the ultimate goal of restoring perfection. Man was given a new dignity, he became allied with God, and together they would work toward the defeat of evil which they both sought.
This perfection occurs in the third time or era, called “Separation.” According to teaching even souls in Paradise do not experience perfect bliss during Mixture; complete happiness can only come again at Frashegird. Death was a general affliction for all humanity, Zoroaster taught; it forces individual souls to depart the getig world and return temporary to a deficient menlog state. When each soul departs it is judged on what it has done in its life during the Mixture to promote the cause of goodness. Both men and women as well as servants and masters could hope to achieve Paradise, for the physical barrier of the pagan days, the “Bridge of the Separator,” becomes a place of moral judgment. Here each soul must depend, not on power or wealth of offerings in the life it has left behind, but on its own ethical achievements. Here Mithra presides over the tribunal, flanked by Sraosh and Rashnu, who hold the scales of justice. In these are weighed the thoughts, words, and deeds of each soul, the good on one side and the bad on the other. If the good acts are heavier, then the soul is judged worthy of Paradise; and is lead by a maiden, the personification of its own conscience daena, across the broad bridge and up on high. But, when the scales sink on the bad side, the bridge contracts to the width of a blade-edge, and a horrid hag meeting the souls as it tries to cross, sieges it in her arms and plunges with it down into hell, “the dwelling place of the Worst Purpose (Y 12.13), where the wicked endure “a long age of misery, of darkness, ill food, and the crying of woe” (Y 31.20). This concept of hell, a place of torment presided over by Angra Mainyu, appears to have been Zoroaster’s own idea, shaped by his personal deep sense of a need for justice. Although a few souls “whose false (things) and what are just balance” (Y 35.1) go to the “Place of the Mixed Ones,” Misvan Gatu, where, as in the old underworld kingdom of the dead, they lead a grey existence lacking both joy and sorrow.
Zoroaster taught that there was to be a Last Judgment. The pagan Iranians like the Vedic Indians held that in Paradise each soul was reunited with the body to live a sentiment, happy life; but according to Zoroaster the blessed had to wait until the culmination of the Frashegird and the “future body” (Pahlavi “yan i pasen”), when the earth will give up the bones of the dead (Y 30.7). The Last Judgment will follow this general resurrection, which divides the righteous from the wicked, including those living until that time and those previously judged. Following this final judgment certain divinities will melt all the metal in the mountains; and this will flow in a glowing river over the earth. And all mankind must pass through this river, and as described in a Pahlavi text, “for him who is righteous it will seem like warm milk, and for him who is wicked, it will seem as if he is walking in the flesh through molten metal” (GBd 36.18-19). This was Zoroaster’s vision, based on his original teaching that strict justice should prevail, just as at each individual judgment on earth by fiery ordeal, so too at this general judgment the wicked should experience a second death and perish from the face of the earth. Further, according to teaching, the Daevas and legions of darkness have already been annihilated in the last great battle with the Yazatas; and the river of metal will flow into hell, slaying Angra Mainyu and burning the last vintage of wickedness in the universe.
Zoroaster initially instituted a religious eschatology, or the belief in the end of the world. This is seen in relation to the figure of Saoshyant, a World Savior. This savior emerged during the dark years of the religion prompted, according to Gathnic passages, by Zoroaster’s fear of an imminent end of the world which caused him to envision Ahura Mazda sending “a man who is better than a good man” (Y 43.3), the Saoshyant, literally meaning “one who bring benefit,” who will possess revealed truth and will lead humanity in the final battle against evil. It is speculated that the prophet reasoned that he would not lived to see the age of Frasho-kereti. His followers ardently clung to this expectation, coming to believe that Saoshyant would come from the prophet’s own seed, miraculously preserved in the depths of a lake (identified as Lake Kasaoya). When the end of time approaches, it is said, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, and she will in due course bear a son, named Astvat-ereta, “He who embodies righteousness” (after Zoroaster’s own words: “My righteousness embodied” Y 43.16).
Even though the Saoshyant was miraculously conceived he was to be born of natural parents since this was compatible with Zoroaster’s teachings that man would participate in the defeat of evil. Later Saoshyant was pluralized to Saoshyans to include religious and other leaders. In the Avesta this detailed is given: “When Astvat-ereta comes from the Lake Kasaoya, messenger of Ahura Mazda…the he will drive the Drug out from the world of Asha” (Boyce 42).
Following this time Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spentas will solemnized a last, spiritual yasna, offering the last sacrifice (after which death will be no more), and making a preparation of the mystical “white haoma,” which will confer immortality on the resurrected bodies of all the blessed, who will partake of it. Thereafter, men shall be like the Immortals themselves in thought, word, and deed; unaging, free from illness, without corruption, and forever joyful in the kingdom of God on the earth. The blessed have now entered the era of the “Separation,” according to Zoroaster, which is not like the remote insubstantial Paradise, but the renewal of the perfect Creation.
Almost three-fourth of the Zoroastrianism literature in presumed lost. The remaining literature consists of the Gathas, seventeen hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself and frequently addressed directly to Ahura Mazda; a group of Yasts, songs that praise archaic divinities usually associated with a particular aspect of nature; and the Vendidad, mainly a collection of religious and more precepts and purifications.
The Avesta, material memorized and transferred orally for generations, was not written down until the Sassanian period, the third to seventh centuries AD. Because the words were believed to have effective power, their verbatim preservation was considered essential; therefore, they survive relatively uncorrupted in a dead church language that poses innumerable translation problems. The Yasts and Vendidad are said to compose the Younger Avesta. The Avesta is the holy book of Zoroastrianism.
The literature appears to designate the period and condition of the church. The Gathas, the most ancient, describe Zoroaster’s followers often as depressed and endangered. Zoroaster’s denunciations of the former gods and old ways, his economic imperative to settle and farm the land, apparently were not too well received by some nomadic peoples; traces of bloody conflicts have been found in Gathic hymns. The Vendidad tells of a different time, the danger has passed, the church has been established, and the composition is of sacrifices, recitations, and purifications that require minute observance to be enacted under priestly surveillance.
Some Iraniologists also believe the literature helps to somewhat date the origins of Zoroastrianism. It is believed that the seniority of the Gathas should not detract from the antiquity of the Younger Avesta itself. The Fravadrin Yast, for example, contains references to Iranian peoples who were apparently not known to the earliest Achaemenid records of the sixth century BC. And with the one exception of “Ragha,” believed to be the ancient Rayy near Tehran, no allusion is made to any known Iranian city or village. Moreover, the practices described in sections of the Younger Avesta are only those of agriculturalists and herdsmen. Stone mortars, pestles, and the ritual flint knife were implements associated with the Neolithic times, were still being used, and bows and arrows were often flint-tipped. Events described in the Younger Avesta appear to possibly have occurred as often in the Stone Age as in the Bronze (Settegast 213-214).
Observances Zoroaster instructed his followers to pray in the presence of fire. Fire was a symbol of order and justice. An earthly fire can represent fire, by the Sun, or by the Moon. Zoroastrians must pray five times every 24 hours – sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight and dawn. They pray standing while untying and tying a sacred cord tied around their waist. There are seven communal festivals. The most important is No Ruz or Navroz – the Parsi New Year new day observed at the spring of Equinox. People took special care about the purity of fire, water and earth. They disposed of the dead by exposing the corpses in barren places or on stone towers, called Towers of Silence, where they are eaten by vultures. Zoroastrians practice a number of rites for regaining lost purity. Prayers are regularly preceded by ritual ablutions. The community is divided into lay people and priests. Boys begin to study the sacred text at the age of seven years. Some priests tend the sacred fire kept burning in the temples (see Temple fire).
The practice of leaving the dead exposed for vouchers to scavenge again suggests the possible association with the Magi, for Strabo (XV. 3. xx) noted “the Magi are not buried, but the birds are allowed to devour them.” As previously mentioned Zervanism, which also spoke of the “twin-spirits,” was the religion of the Magi. Many believe Zervanism is older than Zoroastrianism; therefore, it is speculated that either Zoroaster was or became a Magi, or the Magi were in want of reform and joined the latter religion which resulted in a combination of the two (Settegast 216).
The rise of Islam throughout the Iranian area brought the Zoroastrian imperial history to an end in the seventh century AD. Muslim forces defeated the mighty Sasarian army in 642. It became evident that a total conquest was desired; the last Zoroastrian king, Yazdegird III, was killed by one of own people in 652. After the initial conquest Islamic rule began to gradually settle over the region; actually most citizens benefited since taxes were lower than those imposed by the Magi and monarchs. But the initial attraction of the new Muslim leaders and their religion did not last long; soon taxes increased and there arose intolerance for those clinging to Zoroastrianism. Many migrated to seek new homes in India where they became known as the Parsis, or the people from Persia. The remaining Iranian Zoroastrians were defeated two more times by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century followed by the Mughals; both conquers were converted to Islam, but this did little to compensate the Zoroastrians for the terrible slaughter which they suffered. During turbulent times many Zoroastrians converted, but it is remarkable how many stayed true to their ancestral religion.
During the 20th century the conditions improved whenever the empowered government was favorable to the Zoroastrians. This trend began before 1900 with the removal of the jizya in 1882; the grinding labor which they endeared was stopped, and medical and educational facilities were provided for the oppressed people. In 1909 all minorities were represented in the government. Physical conditions again improved, the Zoroastrians were seen as part of the ancient Iranian history; they began reconsidering returning to their homeland. Under a second Pahlavi monarch who publicly proclaimed the pre-Islamic history and culture, and a Zoroastrian deputy prime minister, the people faired better and gained positions in both the armed forces and the professions. With increased opportunities in Tehran many Zoroastrians returned to the metropolis from their desert retreats. However, when the Islamic Republic took power in 1979 many Zoroastrians feared for their future and a few retreated to their homes while a greater number migrated to Australia, Canada, and the United States to loin the Parsi diaspora. Those staying in the homeland did not suffer the feared persecution but they experienced inequalities in the law, not being equal to Muslims, and decreased opportunities in education and the professions. By unconfirmed population figures there appears to have been an increase in the religion’s membership.
Faravahar is the ancient Symbol of Zoroastrianism.
Boyce, Mary, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, New York, Routledge, 2002, pp. 18-29
Settegast, Mary, Plato Prehistorian, Cambridge, MA, The Rotenberg Press, 1986, pp. 211-218
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 1070-1072