Nothing governs as much devotion as religion and its invocation of emotion can be both awe-inspiring and terrible. Across the world, through untold millennia, human beings have looked to the skies and within themselves to find answers to questions such as “where did we came from?”, “what we are meant to do?”, and “why things are the way they are?”. The resulting religions have taken on many diverse ideas and structures. Studying these religions can provide a tremendous insight into not only history but the nature of humanity itself.
This article provides a brief introduction to the Zoroastrianism religion, which beginnings date back to at least early Judaism, if not long before, and yet still lives on today. Its followers are small in number, yet it remains present and continues to stir an ancient fervor in the hearts of its people.
A Brief History
Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion which began in Persia. Most scholars place the founding prophet, Zarathustra (or, Zoroaster in Greek), to about the sixth century B.C.E, but some believe he may have lived at an earlier date, possibly 1400-1000 B.C.E. Zoroastrian scriptures are call the Avesta and were in their canonical fixed state by 325 C.E., but there are other Zoroastrian literary works which speak of scriptures lost during the conquest of Alexander the Great. Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism, was worshipped by the Achaemenid kings of the Persian Empire, including the illustrious and powerful Cyrus the Great. Ahura Mazda was represented by the winged sun disc. After the Greek conquest by Alexander the Great, Zoroastrianism revived itself in the Parthians and then under the Sassanids. The Sassanid period (651-224 B.C.E) of Iran introduced Zoroastrianism as the offical religion of the Persian people. Zoroastrianism was the state religion from the 3rd century C.E. until the Muslim invaders of the 7th century C.E came.
By 2013, there were less than 20,000 still in Iran and, as a minority, they struggle with oppression; however, they do receive better treatment now than in the past 14 centuries and are allowed to participate in social taboos that Muslims are not allowed to, such as dancing and drinking alcohol. Zoroastrians were involved with the Constitutional movement in the early 20th century, were represented in the first Parliament, and acknowledged as part of Iran's heritage, yet still mostly they are marginalized and oppressed. In ancient times, Zoroastrians held high positions in the court. However, today Zoroastrians face opposition in the workforce and are often blocked by a "glass ceiling". In recent times, Zoroastrians are not forced into Islam, but many convert because of the possible social advantages and the loss of state support for the Zoroastrian priesthood, and that mixed marriages require children to be raises as Muslims. Zoroastrianism is possibly facing extinction.
Although still experiencing "localized persecution of non-Muslims by members of the Muslim majority", the rural Zoroastrians in Iran experienced an increase in prosperity in the 20th century. (Foltz, 2011) Their rising social status influenced the practice of their religion, including focusing less on ritual. "Many Iranian Zoroastrians no longer even wear the sedreh-koshti, the sacred cord and undershirt which since ancient times have defined Zoroastrian identity and been a precondition for participation in religious rituals." (Foltz, 2011) However, this change did not occur in Zoroastrian communities in South Asia. Interestingly, there is a growing Zoroastrian population in the United States. There is also a large percentage of Zoroastrians in India.
Zoroaster (Zarathustra) grew up in a religion which had many gods, called daevas. Some of these gods seem to correspond to the gods (the devas) of the Vedic Indians and there are even possible linguistic and thematic connections between the part of the Zoroastrian scriptures called the Gathas and the Vedic Rig Vedas scriptures. Zoroaster departed from his native polytheism and created a new religion which worships one God, Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd), and religious practice is defined by “good thoughts, words, and deeds". Zoroastrians believe there are two opposing forces in the world: the good spirit spenta mainyu (life, order, perfection, health, happiness, etc.) and the evil spirit angra mainya (chaos, imperfection, disease, sorrow, destruction, etc.) This dualism is a foundational aspect of Zoroastrianism and a major focus of the religion is the battle between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman (a being that could be considered the Zoroastrian version of the Devil or Satan). A person's good and bad deeds will determine whether they will go to the Kingdom of Light (parallel to Heaven) or a House of the Lie (parallel to Hell). However, they believe eventually spenta mainyu will overcome all evil and even those in the House of the Lie will be redeemed. This end of time era is call the Frashokereti (the "refreshment") and "all of creation is resurrected into perfected immortality". (Fisher, 2008, p. 234)
Examples of Rituals
As with most religions, the practice of the Zoroastrian religion is complex with many aspects and rituals. Water and fire are both used to represent ritual purification, something of great importance to Zoroastrians. Fire is an especially important aspect in the religion and represents God. Priests tend to perpetual fires that burn in fire temples. These sacred fires are “fed” sacrifices of haoma (a sacred liquor), bread, and milk at least five times a day.
Nature is very respected and children are raised to not pollute it. In order not to pollute the earth, dead bodies are placed in the open air inside of a dakhma (“tower of death”) for vultures to eat. Death anniversaries are observed and the eternal principle and guide (the fravashi) of the deceased is invoked.
One of the key rituals in Zoroastrianism is the tying of the sacred cord which is made of 72 threads presenting the 72 chapters of the text of Yasna (the principle act of worship). This is a rite of passage ceremony, after which a pre-teen boy will be considered a man and will wear the cord for the rest of his life, except for bathing and sleeping. The cord is repeatedly untied and tied again during prayers. There is also a daily ritual of tying a sacred cord (kusti) around the mid-section for both male and females, done fives times per day.
There are relatively few divisions among Zoroastrians, but there is one reform movement. Traditionally, the "Avestan language used in formal worship and in the traditional main prayers of the faithful is largely unknown to some priests and to most laypersons. Thus, Zoroastrians typically have had little knowledge of what their scriptures actually ‘teach’”. (Van Voorst, 2011, p. 196) However, at the end of the nineteenth century, influenced by Western religion and European scholarship, some sought to change this tradition. They began to focus on moral teachings rather than rituals and believe only the Gathas (part of the Avesta scriptures) is authentic.
The religiosity of Zoroastrianism is a little difficult to assess because participation is more subjective since the main form of worship is "good thoughts, words, and deeds". Obviously, this criteria for worship is hard to measure. Additionally, early Zoroastrian worship did not include going to a temple so there could be a question as to how much attending a temple service should be considered in measuring religiosity. Perhaps a different way to measure religiosity for Zoroastrianism could be to take into account individuals' feelings about their life as it relates to Zoroastrian goals. For example, some of their goals are serenity, healthy and holistic living, honesty, and independence. These are things in which people can report as to whether they feel they are achieving these goals. This obviously has some academic weakness to it in that the measures are subjective, but they are important aspects not to be overlooked. A religion's success (or lack of success) at accomplishing its goals is both fascinating and illuminating.
Today, conversion is allowed by the Zoroastrian faith, but Muslim law, which rules in Iran, prohibits proselytizing. The Parsi communities in and from India, tend to be less open to converts. Although the reason is not completely known for sure, some believe it may stem from the original prohibition of Zoroastrians proselytizing the native Indian population. There has been in recent times a new surge of people in the United States converting to Zoroastrianism, possibly up to 3 million, but in Iran these "re-verts" typically are either not discussed or are claimed to not be "real Zoroastrians". Despite this, conversion, emigration, and intermarriage are increasing Zoroastrian numbers in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
It is interesting to note that Zoroastrianism may have had an influence on Judaism. Before the Persian period, no biblical literature gave names to angels or demons; it was only after Zoroastrian influence that these were incorporated into Judaism. The Greek conquest of the Persian empire and Judea also had an influence on Judaism. But after 100 CE, in an effort to get rid of these outside influences, most of the texts affected by the Persians and Greeks were not allowed in the Tanakh (the canonized Hebrew Bible). However, these influences still managed to remain at least in part and concepts of an "end of time cosmic battle between good and evil" and hierarchies of angels and demons linger in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Harris, 2011, p. 227) Concepts of immortal souls, good and bad being rewarded and punished in the afterlife, and the physical resurrection of the dead were all new to Judaism after its exposure to Zoroastrianism. The term "kingdom of God" is mentioned in the Gathas which is also a major theme of Jewish scriptures. The Jewish belief that after death the soul hovers above the body for three days also has a counterpart in Zoroastrianism.
Written by April Lynn Downey
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