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Historical perspective on Zoroastrianism
Reproduced from "Âtaš-č Dorün - The Fire Within, Jamshid Soroush Soroushian Memorial Volume II,
1st Books Library, Bloomington, IN, 2003.


Historical Evolution


Dr. Mehrborzin

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This brief review of the evolution of the Zoroastrian religion,[1] heritage, practice and the historical developments impacting its followers from its inception to this point in history is presented based on the latest understandings of the same.[2]   Although there are certain areas subject to further research due to the antiquity of the subject, the summary below relies on the best-known conjectures.

In the aftermath of the migration of the Indo-European people southwards and separation of the Indo-Iranian branch and their settlement in the Iran-vijah, Zarathushtra the son of Spitaman was born.  Although there is no consensus on his exact place and time of birth,[3] a view is that he was born in the northeastern part of greater Iran about 37 centuries ago.

In the ancient Indo-European Gathic language (now long extinct) in poetic form, Zarathushtra formulated his thoughts as dialogue taking place in his mind between himself and Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom and Light.[4]  His succinct poetic composition constitutes a set of highly advanced moral, religious and personal thoughts[5] emphasizing moral and personal responsibility of human beings for moving creation towards perfection, and for individuals to conduct an active, productive and effective life.[6]  Life and creation were considered to be evolving and progressing towards perfection, with the progression impacting life in this world to fulfill the Will of the Ahura Mazda – path of ASHA[7] – within the material creation.  This notion is distinct from concepts of progression that includes an unseen heaven.[8]  Zarathushtra’s novel ideas came to institute a complete transformation of the old Indo-Iranian religious beliefs based on offering sacrifices to multiplicity of deities, to an enlightened vision unique in its outlook.

Zarathushtra was able to gain royal patronage for his mission in the person of King Vishtasp who ruled from his capital at Balkh resulting in a substantial following for his Faith.  In his poetic compositions, Zarathushtra complains about the opposition he encountered at the hands of wrongdoer Kavis (powerful ruling class), and Karpans (the collaborating priests) of the pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian religions.

A hand full of priests/thinkers, companions of Zarathushtra or those who came shortly after him added a few compositions to his Gathas along the same line of thought as his.  Otherwise the full extent of Zarathushtra’s philosophical thoughts does not seem to have been fully comprehended by his followers, and the rituals most of which were reminiscent of pre-Zoroastrian practices were maintained, although generally reformed. As an example animal sacrifice was no longer as rampant as before. Mazdayasna Zoroastrian religion started to spread throughout Eastern Iran.

Zoroastrian religion was already over a millennium old when the first Persian Empire was established by Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty over 25 centuries ago.

The Achaemenians introduced and adopted policies based on human rights, freedom of worship, banning of slavery, equality of man and woman.  In general the ethics emanating from Zarathushtra’s thoughts were strictly followed by the Achaemenians[9] but it is not clear to what extent the full scope of Zarathushtra’s philosophy was understood by them.  The Achaemenians showed tolerance towards the religious beliefs of all their subjects.  Zoroastrianism spread during the time of the Achaemenians and through contacts with the exiled Jewish people in Babylon freed by Cyrus, the Jewish thought was influenced by Zoroastrian concepts.  Those influences further propagated into other Abrahimic religions.  The Golden Age of Athens marked by Aristotle, Plato and Socrates also came about during the Achaemenian period while their contacts with Persia and the Near East abounded.   The peace, tranquility, security and prosperity that were afforded to the people of the Near East and Southeastern Europe proved to be a rare historical occurrence, an unparalleled period where commerce prospered, and the standard of living for all people of the region improved.[10]  The Achaemenians should also be remembered for having a lady admiral (Artemis) to head  the naval forces of the empire at the height of their naval power.  This appointment is the only such occurrence in human history.

With the termination of Achaemenian Empire in 330 B.C. at the hand of Alexander and his invasion force from Greece, a systematic pillage of the Persian Empire and culture got underway.  As a result of the plunder and burning of Persepolis and massacre of Zarathushti priests much of the Zoroastrian texts orally transmitted and literature held at the Royal Library were lost or taken away to Greece.  Destruction and plunder of other Royal palaces and Zoroastrian temples also took a devastating toll.

The Greek control of Iran was brought to an end by the Parthians in 247 B.C, fewer than 85 years after it had started.  By the order of Valkash I, the Parthian king who ascended the throne in 51 A.C, the Zoroastrian religious literature that had survived the Greek rampage and could be found scattered throughout the empire controlled by the Parthians were collected for reconstruction. By the end of the Parthian Empire many forms of Zoroastrianism as well as Mithraism were practiced in Iran, and in some parts pre-Zoroastrian customs were back were back in practice.  Mithraism had regained popularity on its own, in addition to some of its elements having been incorporated into Zoroastrianism.

The Sasanians who overthrew the Parthians in 224 A.D, and consolidated their hold over Iran, moved towards unifying the Zoroastrian religion and made it an instrument of the State; and a unified Zoroastrian theology was adopted as the state religion.  New prayers were instituted by Adurbad MarAspand, a high priest contemporary of  King Shahpur II.  The language of the prayers was Pahlavi, from the same family of languages as Gathic.  The Gathic compositions of Zarathushtra were being recited without much linguistic comprehension of the same, although the essence of the message was known, the extent of understanding of Zarathushtra’s poetic composition by the Sasanians was questionable.  Zoroastrianism practiced by the masses was rich with rituals and based on rules documented in various religious texts of that era composed in Pahlavi such as Vendidad.  Zoroastrian priesthood exercised strong influence over the conduct of the judiciary and political systems and enjoyed protection and exclusivity within the confines of a class structure that had been instituted by the later Sasanians.

With the spread of Zoroastrianism in the Western regions of Iran during the time of the Achaemenians, the Magis who constituted the priestly class of the Medians and had lost their power base, were gradually absorbed into the ranks of the Zoroastrian priesthood.  They were instrumental in the institutionalization of the Zoroastrian priesthood and some of the orthodoxy manifested by the priesthood during the time of Sasanians can be attributed to their influence.

The folding of the Sasanian Empire at the hands of the Arab Armies waging the banner of Islam in 638 C.E., suddenly deprived Zoroastrianism of its royal patronage and the support of the State that it had held in the preceding 400 years.  As time went on Zoroastrians lost the civil rights they had enjoyed during earlier times, and found themselves degraded to second class citizens.  Those continuing to practice the ancient religion were subjected to a head tax[11] (Jaziya) that in time became a crushing burden on most of them. A multitude of unfavorable rules imposed on them made adherence to the old religion very difficult.

Three centuries into the fall of Sasanians and the imposition of Arab rule over Iran, a group of Zoroastrians from the northeastern province of Khorasan left their homeland moving South towards Persian Gulf with the goal of fleeing to hospitable shores of India in search of religious freedom.  This journey took over 37 years to complete and resulted in Zoroastrianism taking a small and peaceful foothold on the Indian subcontinent.[12]   The Parsis, as the descendent of the Zoroastrian refugees from Iran came to be known, took settlement in India and in time became leading citizens of the subcontinent.  Steadfastly, they maintained many of the practices of the religion they had inherited from the Sasanian regime.   Although, the Parsis also suffered from the political instabilities that beset India from time to time due to changing political tidings of that subcontinent, they were able to practice and maintain the religious beliefs they had brought with them from Iran.

The course of events in Iran for the followers of the old religion deteriorated with passing years.[13]  By mid-13th century, six centuries into the fall of Zoroastrianism from State grace in its land of origin, and the invasion of near East by Genghiz Khan and his lineage and the execution of the last Arab Caliph in Baghdad, the Arab rule over Iran came to an end.  In the aftermath devastation brought on the nation by Timur Leng and his invading forces, an Iranian dynasty, the Safavids gained prominence and consolidated power over much of Iran at the turn of the 16th century.  At that time about 40% of the population of Iran, numbering upwards of 4 million, were still practicing Zoroastrians.  By 1722, marking the end of that dynasty systematic genocide and imposition of unfavorable rules had diminished the Zoroastrian followers to the status of a battered community of about 200,000 mostly concentrated in and around Yazd and Kerman, both situated on the rim of the central desert of Iran.[14]  By mid-19th century where more precise recordings have been made, this number had reached an all-time low of about 7000.  Heavy Jizya payment and systematic discrimination had decimated the once-proud, pure Iranian stock.

As the prospects for the Iranian Zarathushties were dimming due to unfavorable conditions they encountered, the fortune of the Parsis in the Indian subcontinent was on the rise in the context of that British colony.  The Parsis were able to seize the opportunities presented and became leading citizens of India[15][16][17] and the vanguards in building India into an industrialized democracy of the 20th century.[18] Led by visionary and charismatic national, community and industrial leaders such as Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji,[19] Dinshah Irani,[20] Sir Dinshah Petit,[21] Sir Jamshiji Tata,[22] and Dr. Jivenji Modi, the Zarathushties of India were able to yield influence well out of proportion to their small community numbers.

In time, the Parsis were able to provide support for the amelioration of the conditions of the few remaining Zartoshties in their homeland.  Manekji Limji Hataria,[23] born in 1813 in Surat, India arrived in Iran in 1854 during the reign of Nassir-ul-DinShah Qajar, and through his tireless efforts to the last day of his life (1890), he was able to stem the tide of untold prejudice, abuse, suffering and denial of their basic civic rights, that could have otherwise extinguished the remaining Zoroastrian community of Iran.  The resilient community was able to spring back[24] in a short span of time since Manekji’s arrival and became a progressive force in moving their motherland towards modernization and progress from helping establish a representative system of government[25] to developing the natural resources of their nation[26] to establishing banking[27] and commercial enterprises that would lift their nation from its depressed state.  In doing so, the Zoroastrian community of Iran became the vanguard of building their ancestral land.[28] 

Shortly after Manekji succeeded in obtaining a Royal consent for the Zoroastrian and other minorities of Iran to establish schools, more than 30 schools for boys and girls were established in the localities where the Zartoshties resided.  As such there was one school for every 334 Zartoshties compared to one school for every 15,000 persons nationally.[29]  The large number of educators, medical doctors, engineers and other professionals produced by the Zoroastrian community of Iran enabled this small community to make contributions well beyond its scope and size.[30]

The banning of Pahlavi language by the ruling Arabs and the systematic burning and destruction of much of the Zoroastrian religious and other literary texts of Iran proved to be an immense cultural loss. The practice of religion had become very ritualistic. The Gathic verses were recited in their original language of composition (by then extinct) without any in-depth understanding.  The course of events that led to the deciphering of the message of Zarathushtra, from which an understanding of its deep philosophical message emerged involved the efforts of many linguists, theologians, philosophers and other scholars.  These events started by a trip from Kerman by Dastur Jamsab Velayati to Surat, India in first half of the 18th century. While there, Dastur Velayati instructed three of the Parsi mobeds in Zoroastrian religious texts he was familiar with.  In the second half of the 18th century the French scholar, Anquetil Duperron, keen to gain information on Zarathusthra’s religion undertook a perilous trip to Surat, India and was instructed by Dastur Darab Kumana in the knowledge he had gained from Jamasb Velayati.  Upon Duperron's return to France, he published his findings in a book entitled “Zend-Avesta”.  The publication of his book and many others by scholars mostly in 18th- and 19th-century Europe led to production of significant amount of literature and during the same period into the 20th century, much progress was made towards understanding the original message of Zarathushtra. 

Prior to the initiative of Anquetil Duperron, Zarathushtra’s name in Northern Europe had aroused curiosity amongst intellectuals.  With more factual knowledge about Zarathushtra’s Vision starting to emerge, European intellectuals such as Voltaire and Goethe (indirectly through discerning Hafez’s philosophical outlook) seem to have been inspired in their philosophical formulations by their understanding of Zarathushtra’s vision, and Nietsche by the personality and attitude of the Prophet.

Scholarly work to further our understanding of Zarathushtra’s message and the evolution of the religious practices over the years and ancient Iranian studies is progressing with great rigor at a number of universities in North America, and Europe. Many of the prominent scholars involved with that work at the entrance to the third millennium are contributors to this volume, and their papers published here are representative of the state of scholarship at this juncture in history.

Although various aspects of Zarathushtra’s humanistic message were never lost to many of the Iranian poets and intellectuals such as Ferdowsi,[31] Sorwardi, Hafez, Saadi, Omar Khayam, Aaraf Ghazvini, Sadeq Hedayat, Akhavan Salas after the fall of Sasanians,  the effort to reintroduce ancient Iranian studies in Iran was only started in the second quarter of the 20th century. Professor Ibrahim PourDavoud,[32] an Iranian pioneer in that field became the first to occupy the newly established chair of ancient Iranian studies at Tehran University. Pour-Davoud’s close acquaintance with Sadeq Hedayat in Paris and with Dinshah Irani in Bombay was a great influence on his life.  Many of the other scholars affiliated with Pour-Davoud such as Ehsan Yarshtar, AbdulHosein Spenta, Jalil Dostkhah, Bahram Faravashi, and Dr. Ahmed Tafazoly were able to continue the tradition of reintroducing knowledge of ancient Iran amongst all Iranians.

The population of Zoroastrians in the whole world at the beginning of the third millennium remains small compared to followings of many other religions. The best estimate is just over two hundred thousand, concentrated in India, Iran, North America, United Kingdom, Australia, and Pakistan.  Smaller pockets can be found in Northern Europe, Southern and Eastern Africa, Persian Gulf States, and Southeast Asians countries. These are mainly generations of Zartoshties originating from Iran with many of them being the Parsis who have moved and settled in other countries. In addition there is renewed interest in the practice of Zoroastrianism in many of the former Southern republics of the Soviet Union (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan) as well as small pockets in Russia itself. 

The revelation and dissemination of philosophy of Zarathushtra is also appealing to a steadily increasing number of people in many parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, and Latin America. Many cite its uniqueness in empowering individuals to assume moral responsibility for being an integral part of the force needed to move creation towards perfection, a recognition lacking by other traditions.  

The quality of knowledge of Zarathushtra’s philosophy amongst the generation of mainstream Zartoshties is also improving. At the entrance to the 21st century there are a few splinter groups in India adhering to practices that bear minimal resemblance to the message of Zarathushtra. Amongst such groups one can include Ilm-e-Khushnoom (1908 vintage) and Pundol groups (1970s vintage).  These two are closed groups with notions very alien to the ideas expressed in the Gathas.[33] In the course of its history there were other splinter groups from the main body of Zoroastrianism. In the first millennium during the Sasanian period, movements such as Zurvanism, Manichaeism, and Mazdakism can be counted in that group, none of which have survived the calamities of history. The fatalistic notions of Zurvanism that had crept into main stream Zoroastrianism are believed to be the main reason the resistance put up against the invading Arab armies at some of the Iranian Satrapies was minimal.

The Zoroastrian priesthood of the 19th and 20th centuries was enriched by knowledgeable Parsi and Iranian stalwarts. To name a few - K.R. Cama,[34] Maneckji Dhalla,[35] Framroze Bode,[36] Nawrooz D. Michoher Homji, Firoze Azargushasp and Rostam Shahzadi[37] have left their mark. Many others are still serving the community and its theological needs at the entrance to the 3rd millennium.

The main challenge for Zoroastrianism in the 3rd millennium will be whether it will revert to the vision that was formulated by its founder as being a universal faith whose focus on the role of the individuals is meant to uplift and bring salvation to humanity,[38] or whether it will continue in its diminished form as a historical evolution brought on it in the wake of its fall from grace due to the folding of the Sasanian Empire.

As one of world’s foremost philosophers,[39] social reformers, moral teachers, and environmentalists, Zarathushtra’s lasting legacy is his contribution to the development of human thought and humanity.[40] A few examples of the fundamental impact of his contributions include:

  • His idea that life is to be lived to its fullest and that there must be upwards movement and progress as we go through life, rather than static and cyclic repetition of existence in any form or shape has given humanity a sense of future as an end goal.

  • His other point of heavenly and hellish existence being a conception of our mind and a direct consequence of our action in this world rather than a reward in the afterlife stands as a shining example of his contribution to giving humanity a sense of reality and to save it from superstition and vulnerability.

  • His overwhelming emphasis on the importance of seeking and championing the righteous and truthful order, and such quests being the foundation for defining one’s relation with others, including divinity, is what sets Zarathushtra’s vision so far apart from that of others. His articulation of the need for individuals to divorce themselves from self-interest ─ when self-interest is at variance with the righteous order ─ to determine what the righteous order is in every situation, is of particular significance.[41]

  • Zarathushtra’s emphasis on individuals making life-promoting and righteous choices and being agents for bringing about goodness and progress rather than scapegoating a supernatural and all-powerful God that has so often been peddled by most institutionalized religions as responsible for all occurrences in this world, is the ultimate tribute to an enlightened world-view meant to liberate humanity from the yolk of superstition ─ an ongoing drain on man’s spirituality. 

  • His dismissal of an imaginary god whose acts of love or vengeance are hawked as being responsible for bringing about solace, or playing havoc in people’s lives is very noteworthy. The logical explanation of natural occurrences following statistical and scientifically explainable patterns means humanity no longer needs to fear an all powerful God and to be victim of spiritual exploitation.

  • His emphasis on positive thinking, positive and life-promoting morals, and his shunning of negative thoughts and actions is the ingredient for a healthy mind-set and outlook so much needed by humanity to reach its full potential.

  • Zarathushtra’s world view, emphasizing an action-oriented life, based on active promotion of the righteous order, can lead the way to a cohesive human existence in stark contrast to the fractionalization and tribalization of humanity that self-serving institutionalized religion bodies have re-enforced.

[1] The distinction to be made between Zarathushtrianism and Zoroastrianism is that the former refers to contribution directly from Zarathushtra and the latter focuses on the historical evolution of the religion.

[2] The author expresses his appreciation to  Ervard Dr. Jehan Bagli, Professor Kaikhosrov Dinshah Irani, Dr. Daryoush Ardeshir Jahanian, Mrs. Dina McIntyre and Mr. Farrokh Vajifdar for their input to the development of this document.

[3] Gnoli, Gherardo, Zoroaster in History, Bibliotheca Persia Press, New York, 2000, pps. 15-79.

[4] Irani, Dinshah, Zarathushtra's Reflections on his mission - Yasna 46

[5] Irani, Keikhosrow, The vision of Zarathushtra

[6] Insler, Stanley, Zarathushtra's vision.

[7] Dhalla, Maneckji N., History of Zoroastrianism, C.S Ubhayaker at Ubsons Printers, Bombay, 1985, pps. 46-55.

[8] Pearlstein, Arthur, The Future as a Zarathushtrian Invention

[9] Insler, Stanley, The Love of Truth in Ancient Iran

[10] Hicks, James, The Persians, Time-Life Books,  1975, pps. 4849, 7084.

[11] Boyce, Mary, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge & Kegan Paul publishers, 1979, pps. 146, 148, 169, 182, 186, 187, 191, 210.

[12] Mirza, Dastur Hormazdyar K., Outlines of Parsi History, Amalgamated Enterprises Printers, Bombay, 1987, pps 230271.

[13] Choksy, Jamsheed K, Conflict and Cooperation - Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society, Columbia University Press, NY, 1997, pps. 89, 106.

[14] Soroushian, Mehrborzin, Ganj Ali Khan

[15] Mrs. Bhikaiji Rustom Cama

[16] Dotivala, Godrej N., Sir Pherozshah Mehta Memorial Volume, Nikhil Enterprises printers, Bombay, 1990; Dotivala, Godrej N., Sir Pherozshah Mehta: The uncrowned King of Mumbai.   

[17] The Jamsed Memorial Volume Committeee, Jamshed Nusserwanjee: A Memorial, Mashhoor Offset Press, Karachi, 1987; Dadachanji, Feriedon, In remembrance of Jamshid Nusserwanji Mehta: The Maker of Modern Karachi.

[18] Jungalwala, Khorshed, The Wadias of India: Then and Now.

[19] Vajifdar, Farrokh, The twist in the rope, R.P Chinoy at Union Press, Bombay, 1992;  http://www.vohuman.org/Articles/Dr.%20Dadabhai%20Naoroji.htm

[20] Coyajee, Sir Jehangir, A noble son of Iranian tradition, "Dinshah Irani, solicitor".

[21] Giara, Marzban, Sir Dinshah Manockjee Petit, first Baronet.

[22] Lala, R.M., The creation of wealth, IBH Publishers  PVT. Ltd, India, 1981.

[23] Soroushian, Mehrborzin, Manekji Limji Hataria: A man who made the difference,

[24] Kestenberg Amighi, Janet, The Zoroastrians of Iran: Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence, AMS Press, New York, 1990, pps. 83-103.

[25] Shahrokh, Shahrokh  & Writer, Rashna,  The Memoirs of Keikhosrow Shahrokh, The Edwin Mellen Press, UK, 1994; Mehrfar, Khosro, Keikhosrow Shahrokh; Shuster, W. Morgan, The Strangling of Persia, Mage Publishers, Washington, D.C. 1986, pps. 16, 98, 244.

[26] Mehrfar, Khosro, Esfendiar Bahram Yeganegi.

[27] Mehrfar, Khosro, Jamshid Bahman Jamshidian

[28] Mehrfar, Khosro, Manijeh (Kermani) Shahrokh.

[29] Soroushian, Jamshid, Savad Amoozi va Dabirri dar Deene Zatosht, Fountain Valley printing, California, 1988, pp. 274276.

[30] Alphone, Lylah M., Triumph over Discrimination, Regal Press Canada, Ltd. 2000.

[31] Shahbazi, Shapur, Ferdowsi: A Critical Biography, Mazda Publishers, 1991, pp 4962.

[32] Mehrfar, Khosro, Professor Ibrahim Pour-e-Davoud, a biography,

[33] Both these groups attempt to impose the caste-class limiting view of humanity implied by the Hindu-Karamic notions on Zoroastrianism. Such notions are in contradiction to Zarathushtra's view for humanity.

[34] Daruwala, Jehan,  A Salute to the "Lay Dastur" Khurshedji Rustomji Cama. 

[35] Rivetna, Roshan, Dastur Dhalla, The Man.

[36] Bode, Dasturji Framroze A., Zarathushtrianism: An Ancient Faith for Modern Man,

[37] Mehrfar, Khosro, Mobedan Mobed Rostom Dinyar Shahzadi.

[38] Kennedy, Edward (United States Senator from Massachusetts), "In my Interactions with Zarathushrians in US and elsewhere I am struck by their zeal to better themselves and those around them while maintaining the highest standards of ethics in work and social interactions. I perceive the practice of the Zarathushtrian religion as a pure enrichment of the mind and the soul." Reported in FEZANA journal, Winter 2002, pp. 44 (based on an interview with Mrs. Khorshed Jungalwala of Boston).

[39] Kriwaczek, Paul, In Search of Zarathushtra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that changed the World, Knopf, New York, 2003, pps. 28-41.

[40] Sakhai, Kambiz, Communicative Reason and Medieval Iranian Thought, 1st Books Library, Bloomington, IN, 2000.

41] This concept by itself is the basis for the ideal judiciary system conceived by man.