Zoroastrianism for Today
by English Zoroastrian
The World Today
Today we live in a world which appears to many to be full of chaos. Things don't seem to be going right. Many people find their lives are filled with work and chores - but that they are not really happy. Others find themselves with nothing to do all day - and cannot seem to get into the kind of rewarding activities they seek. Relations between people seem to be strained or broken. Many may find it hard to meet a life partner - and face many pressures staying together if they do. Parents don't see enough of their children. Grandparents and other relatives may be excluded altogether. The children feel the lack of adult attention. Those of any age who get into difficulties of one kind or another may find that there is no one they can turn to for help. It seems everybody has to go it alone without any wider community to help.
Those who look out at the wider world can feel it is all going downhill as well. Threats of war and actual war seems to be on the increase. New diseases or the risk of them seem to be on the increase as well. The economic system seems to be out of kilter. The order of society seems to be under strain. Political authorities can seem more intrusive than they used to be.
In addition some people in the world are already suffering exceptionally - whether they are the casualties of violence or conflict, of ill health, of lack of food or shelter, or are held captive by some institution that has no concern for their welfare. Non-human creatures are also suffering at human hands - whether through destruction or poisoning of their habitat - or by being held captive in terrible conditions for use as food or otherwise.
The reaction of many people is that this is 'just the way things are' - and that there is probably not much that can be done about it. Certainly they don't expect that there is anything that they can do about it themselves. In the past many people would have looked to religion to provide some answers. Sometimes they might have got them - other times they might have been fobbed off with explanations that encouraged passivity. Today however for many religion is discredited. It is seen as either a tool of authoritarian rulers or else as just a bag of ridiculous tales that no reasonable person could take seriously.
Zoroastrianism for Today
So is there anything to be done? Should people just try and muddle through with whatever life throws at them, or can they step back and try and get some control of their lives and the way the world is going in general? Is it actually possible to really understand the world - or is its working beyond human grasping?
The message of Zoroaster - a teacher who lived over 3000 years ago - is that yes, the world does actually work according to simple principles that we can understand. If we orientate ourselves correctly then we begin the process of making sense of life. The more we make sense of the world then the better able we will be to influence it in directions that are good for us and for everybody. The fact that the world seems to be getting worse now is simply because not enough people are doing the right things. If we do the right things and enough other people join us then the world will get better.
Zoroaster began his explanation of the world with the concept of Asha and the Soul of Creation. The Soul of Creation is the Universal Soul - the combined souls of all the living creatures of the world. The soul is what can be happy or sad, be joyful or in pain, be dancing exhileratingly or stuck in distress. Our purpose in life is to aid this Soul by working for a world order that suits it. Such a world order is one which is in tune with Asha - the Truth of the nature of existence.
Zoroaster also introduced the concept of a single creative agent or being. This he called Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord or Lord Wisdom). This being is simply what causes the movement that is in tune with Asha. Everything that is created in the world is a result of this force which acts with the grain of reality to bring new beings and movements into existence.
Zoroaster believed that the way the world unfolds is the consequence of all the individual actions of all the creatures of the world. So if enough individuals change their own actions then this will change the world. In addition Zoroaster said that a person's deeds start with that person's mind. Thus if we want to change behaviour we must consider the nature of the mind. He introduced the concept of Vohu Manah (later Humanah) - the Good Mind - the Mind that seeks the Good. This concept has been profoundly important in history and the word Zoroaster used might even be the origin of the English word humane.
Zoroaster taught other concepts - such as Spenta Mainyu - the agent or spirit of a Life-promoting mind, Arta Vahishta - literally the Best Rightness - the righteous impulse, Spenta Armaity - literally service to life - the righteous action, Vohu Khsatra - the good governance or influence over others, Haurvatat - wholeness - the soul in harmony and Ameretat - literally immortality - taken to mean the accrued status of the soul as a result of its actions.
Zoroaster wrote down his thoughts in the form of a series of short prayers or songs which are known to Zoroastrians as the Gathas. Zoroastrians along with non-Zoroastrian scholars believe that the Gathas have been faithfully preserved and have come down to us unchanged.
Starting with these Gathas a new religious tradition developed among the Iranian-speaking people into which Zoroaster was born. Stories and prayers from the old pagan religion were modified to fit into the new theology. New stories and prayers were written. Together these were collected together into scriptures known as the Avesta.
Many centuries later Zoroastrianism (also known as Mazdaism or Mazdayasna) became the religion of the Persians and the Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC. As an imperial religion its influence stretched throughout the known world - affecting the other religious traditions of the time and later - especially Christianity and Islam. To the East also Zoroastrianism interacted with Buddhism to create the Mahayana variety of that tradition.
The later religions however proved more rigorous than the variety of Zoroastrianism practiced then which had become a state religion with a decreased ability to inspire the individual. First Christianity and then Islam made inroads into previously Zoroastrian areas. However the process was never fully completed and small numbers of Zoroastrians have survived to modern times in Iran, and more prosperously in India as the Parsis.
Today however there is growing interest in Zoroastrianism again. The rationalistic Zoroastrian teachings suit the inclinations of a modern man who is suspicious or traditional religious imagery and doctrines. Of course Zoroastrianism does have its mythology, mysticism and ritual but they are not essential to its message. If you want to start with a rational ideological framework you can.
Ushta Te! (May you be blessed with Radiant Happiness!)
January 2009 CE, (slightly amended 2016 & 2023)