Zoroastrianism: A Short Overview
by Hannah M.G. Shapero
Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia. It was founded about 3500 years ago by the prophet Zarathushtra. Arising out of the polytheistic traditions of ancient India and Iran, he was one of the first monotheists in human history. Zarathushtra preached that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. Ahura means "Lord," and Mazda means "Wise," so Zoroastrians call God the "Wise Lord." Zarathushtra has been known in the West as Zoroaster, from the Greek transliteration of his name; in Persia and India he is known as Zarthosht.
No one knows exactly when Zarathushtra lived. Zoroastrian tradition places him at around 600 B.C.E., but this date is thought by modern scholars to be far too late. The modern estimate of Zarathushtra's date is anywhere from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E.
The basic scripture of Zoroastrianism is a set of 5 poetic songs called the Gathas, which were composed by Zarathushtra himself and have been preserved through the millennia by Zoroastrian priests. Over the years many other scriptures have accumulated around these Gathas. Much of these scriptures were destroyed by the Greek, Muslim, and Mongol invasions, but some remain. The Gathas are still the core text of the faith.They are composed in a very ancient language known as Avestan, which is closely related to Sanskrit. The evidence scholars use to give a time reference to Zarathushtra is linguistic: the language of the hymns composed by the Prophet is similar to the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda, an ancient Hindu text which has been dated to the period of 1500-1000 B.C.E.
In the Gathas, Zarathushtra preached that the One God, Ahura Mazda, is transcendent, but he is in constant relationship with human beings and the world God created through his Attributes. These Attributes are how God reaches the world, and how the world reaches God. Zarathushtra did not specify a fixed number of Attributes, but soon after the Prophet they were specified into seven. These attributes are called the Amesha Spentas, or "Bounteous Immortals." Each one of these embodies an attribute of God, as well as a human virtue.
They are also symbols for the various sectors of Creation over which God watches. They are:
- Vohu Manah - Good Thought - connected with Animals
- Asha Vahishta - Justice and Truth - Fire and Energy
- Kshathra - Dominion - Metals and minerals
- Spenta Armaiti - Devotion and Serenity - The earth and land
- Haurvatat - Wholeness - Waters
- Ameretat - Immortality - Plants
- Spenta Mainyu - Creative Energy - Human beings
In the Gathas these are sometimes personified, and sometimes just Ideas or concepts. In later traditions, they are personified, and become like archangels. They are never worshipped on their own.
The "dualism" of Zoroastrianism is known in the "West," but is mostly misunderstood. In the Gathas Spenta Mainyu, the "Holy Creative Spirit," is opposed to Angra Mainyu, the Hostile Spirit. This conflict takes place in the human heart and mind, not in the material Universe. It is the constant struggle between good and evil in human beings. This is ethical dualism, the dualism of Good and Evil. In later traditions this changed into a dualism that took in the material world, dividing the Universe into two camps, each ruled by the Good God or the Evil Spirit. This is called "cosmic" dualism.
Some Zoroastrians believe in "cosmic" dualism, others in ethical dualism. The teachings of the Gathas, the original work of the Prophet, tend toward ethical dualism.
Zoroastrian worship involves prayers and symbolic ceremonies said before a sacred fire. This fire, which was a God- symbol even before Zarathushtra, was used by the Prophet and by his followers ever after as the ideal sign of God, who is light, warmth, energy. Zoroastrians do NOT worship fire, as some people believe. They use Fire as a symbol, or an icon, the focus of their worship.
Zoroastrianism does not teach or believe in reincarnation or karma. Zoroastrians believe that after life on earth, the human soul is judged by God as to whether it did more good or evil in its life. Those who chose good over evil go to what Zarathushtra referred to simply as the "best existence," or heaven, and those who chose evil go to the "worst existence," or hell. Zoroastrianism was one of the first religions to give the afterlife a moral dimension.
Zoroastrianism also believes in the progress of sacred time, and the eventual end of time. The belief is that the collective good acts of humanity will slowly transform the imperfect material world into its heavenly ideal. This is known as the "frasho-kereti," or "making-fresh," that is, renewal. At the end of time everything and everyone will be purified, even the souls in hell - so hell is not eternal.
Zoroastrian ideas of moral dualism, heaven and hell, sacred time, and angelic beings have influenced Judaism and Christianity, during long centuries of contact between these faiths in the Middle East.
The most important thing about Zoroastrianism is the dedication to ethical and moral excellence. The motto of the faith is:
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
This threefold path is the center of the faith. One knows what is good through the Divine help of Vohu Manah (Good Mind) and divinely inspired conscience (Daena).
If there is anything to remember about Zoroastrianism, it is this threefold path. By thinking good thoughts, one is moved to speak good words, and that leads to good deeds. This is a practical and world-affirming faith, that does not hate the world nor dwell on sin and guilt.
Zoroastrians are mostly of Persian origin, though the recent breakup of the Soviet Union has revealed isolated groups of Central Asian and Armenian Zoroastrians as well. In the 10th century A.D. groups of Persian Zoroastrians fled an oppressive Muslim regime and settled in Gujarat, in western India. These are the Parsis of India, who are a major influence today. From India and Iran Zoroastrians have spread all over the world, and there are communities in England, Australia, Canada, the United States, and other countries. These diaspora communites now face the problems of how to adapt their ancient religious traditions to a modern world.
The best current book on Zoroastrianism is The Zoroastran Tradition by Farhang Mehr, published by Element Books, 1991.
I highly recommend the English translation of the Gathas by Dr. Ali A. Jafarey.
The best and most available book on Zoroastrian history is: Zoroastrians by Mary Boyce, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1987.