It is the oldest revealed religion known to
As such, it is intimately related to most other world religions; its
doctrine lies at the very foundation of civilized society. For the next
half an hour or so, we will talk about Zoroastrianism, highlights of its
history and philosophy, its role in the present and in the future. Now,
we may be assured that any talk on Zoroastrianism is likely to provoke
some controversy. Its scriptures are unfortunately incomplete, written in
languages difficult to understand today, and its history is complicated by
sources that differ widely in their reliability and intent. My version of
the subject may be quite different from someone else’s and, quite
honestly, they might have as difficult a time disproving it as I would
have in proof of mine. But, nevertheless, dispelling the fog and peeling
through the layers, one finds doctrines that defy trivial controversy,
doctrines that have stood solidly for generation upon generation.
Drawing from the Zoroastrian scripture along
with modern history and science, we begin this story some 25,000 years
where there lived a people in a mountain valley in Asia, with a good
streams and trees, abundant game. Life was good there. The people
enjoyed living in harmony with the very Soul of the Living World.
But then, something happened, perhaps quite suddenly. Winter came with
the worst of its plagues:
“ There were ten months of winter there, and
two months of summer, and these were cold for the waters, cold for the
earth, cold for the trees.”
Relentless winter, winter that would not go
away. Disease was prevalent,
and with the land so cold, earth hardened with ice, the dead could not
often be buried easily, but had to be laid out with great care to be
consumed by the elements and scavengers.
To survive in the northern lands, if there was
no cave, then one needed to be built from whatever was at hand. Though
people had already learned the use of stone and wood to make tools to
build shelters and such, they would master another tool now, desperately
needed for their survival: fire. Fire deserved the greatest respect, for
fire was the difference between life and death in this place. The cold
persisted for a very long time. Finally, finally, after nearly 9,000
years, the land began to warm a little again. People all over began to
move again, slowly. For the first time, a few people in northern Asia
moved to the North American continent, before the ice had melted to the
point of filling the oceans again. But nature was not quite finished
tormenting humankind yet. As the ice melted, long, narrow lakes filled
the deep cavities scoured out by glaciers, but their shorelines were weak
and often gave way as torrential rains fell from thick clouds rising from
the glacier melt, resulting in terrible floods.
The people of our mountain valley moved, too.
Those who told this story moved south, away from the cold, into the lands
we know today more or less as Iran. Others went to India, to
Afghanistan, perhaps to the Caucasus, and to other lands.
In a time span covering millennia, from the makeshift caves of the ice age
came towns, and later, cities. All were lit by ﬁre, which brought light
and warmth to the home. New uses were discovered for ﬁre, including the
smelting and refining of metal. Copper, then bronze, then iron. The
cities were surrounded by farms and fields, which provided a comfortable
guarantee of food in case the perpetual winter should happen to come
again. But our people from the mountain valley remembered fire, and they
remembered a great flood, and they remembered their lovely, faraway home
before a terrible winter came.
It was about 3,800 years ago when something
else extraordinary happened among the people. By this time, populations
in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley were flourishing but,
suddenly, there was a catastrophe. We are not sure just what it was that
triggered it, but whatever it was brought out the worst in people. The
Indus Valley civilization collapsed entirely, never to recover. The great
city of Ur fell, and never regained its prominence.
The archaeologist who excavated Ur noted that every single building of
that period was ravaged with the marks of war. This time, it was neither
ice nor snow nor rain that enveloped the earth, but a period of
lamentation. It seems people had their first experience of the full
wrath, not of the gods, but of their fellow people. The Soul of the
Living World cried out to God for help
– but the answer was not quite what was expected.
In the East, in the
of Bactria, appears Zarathushtra, a descendent of those survivors of the
ice age, and it was clearly in Zarathushtra’s revelations that the answer
came. The core of the revelation said, and I quote:
“ Hear the best with your ears and ponder with
a bright mind. Then each man and woman, for his or her self, select
either of the two. Awaken to this doctrine before the great event of
choice ushers in. Now, the two foremost mentalities, known to be
imaginary twins, are the better and the bad in thoughts, words, and
deeds. Of these, the beneficent choose correctly, but not so the
Now, what did this mean? It meant each person
had free will. It also meant each person was expected to use their free
will to choose right over wrong themselves. It meant the reason for the
mess they were in was also their own problem to solve. God had nothing to
do with their pitiful situation. God had given human beings reasoning
minds, and each person was expected to use that faculty to the fullest
degree. There would be no miraculous displays here, no Deus ex machina
endings. What does Zarathushtra’s revelation mean today? Exactly the
same as it did then.
Given that reason practiced well in a
community leads to wisdom, it is not surprising that Zarathushtra elevated
Ahura Mazda, meaning the “Wise Lord,” truly the “Lord of Wisdom”
itself, to the highest level among the pantheon of early Iranian gods.
Although it is the earliest monotheistic view known to us, a view that
likely had a profound impact on later religions, Zarathushtra and his
followers were hardly concerned with intricate theologies during his
time. They had other problems to contend with, as already mentioned, so
what was to become the Zarathushtrian religion was largely practical in
They were survivors of the ice age, and fire
had played an important role in their culture for generations. With
Zarathushtra, fire would now take on a deep symbolic meaning.
Fire would symbolize
enlightenment, the illumined mind. To this day, every time we see a
candle burning in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, its flame means
much the same thing. But for most of us, we have forgotten that it was
once, literally during the ice age, the difference between life and death.
Now, with Zarathushtra’s revelation that we
have free will to choose between what is better for us and what is not,
perhaps for the first time, we see a connection now with another of the
world’s religions. Judaism, in the second chapter of Genesis, deals with
the same subject.
The version in Genesis is an archetypal story for teaching. Everything
goes fine in the Garden of Eden until people learn about good and evil:
oh boy! this good and evil thing comes along and let me tell you – we’ve
had big problems ever since. In both cases, the Zoroastrian and the
Judaic, good and evil are old concepts, but they are ethical in their
Good and evil are no
longer seen as a great clash of cosmic forces. Instead, they are seen as
subtle influences in our day-to-day decisions.
Now, underlying the
principle of free will to choose, as expressed by Zarathushtra, are some
very important concepts that apply as much today and in the future as they
did back then. The ﬁrst of these recognizes how we think. One of our
basic thought processes, and the one that can cause us the most
difficulty, is polarized thinking. That is, thinking in terms of good or
evil, the truth or the lie, light or dark, hot or cold, positive or
negative, rich or poor, and so on. Zarathushtra’s revelation presumes
that we often think this way, and this has repercussions in later
The second concept recognizes how we learn.
We learn by making choices and, given our all-too-human vulnerability,
every choice may not always be the best one. Zarathushtra’s revelation
thus expects a certain degree of failure, it predicts forgiveness among
people, it favors leading by example rather than by retribution, and thus
arrives early at the golden rule found later on in Leviticus, the Gospel,
the Hadith, and other scriptures.
The third concept
recognizes how we interact. To choose, each man and woman for his or her
self, implies freedom as a complete reality in society. This was perhaps
the most revolutionary concept to be derived from Zarathushtra’s
revelation of free will. Given that some 3,800 years has passed since the
time of Zarathushtra, it remains to this day the least developed concept,
the most difficult to put into practice.
revelation of free will thus tells us much about how we think, how we
learn, and how we interact wih each other. It is not a static statement,
but a dynamic process. As such, the concept of free will also has many
implications in Zoroastrian thought.
One implication is
purpose. In Zoroastrianism, each and every person has a purpose, and
that purpose is to help make this a better world, and that is best done by
making good choices.
Another implication is that some rare people
will do this to a far greater positive effect than usual. Thus, the hope
for a world savior was born. A savior – a person whose guiding example
was so strong that others would be compelled to likewise make good
choices. In Zoroastrianism, the thought was that not only one savior, but
perhaps many saviors, could be expected.
The Hebrew prophets, too, saw the coming of a messiah, a savior.
Given the time period during which Zarathushtra and the Hebrew prophets
lived, it is quite possible the idea was originally one and the same.
Another implication that comes from the
Zoroastrian version of free will is a difficult one – the consideration of
social justice and of undeserved suffering. Freewill, and freedom itself,
comes with a deep sense of responsibility. Social justice has but a
single axiom: that society is responsible for the undeserved suffering of
its members. Put another way, it is an ideal condition in which no one’s
happiness depends on the suffering of another.
In the strictest interpretation, it is up to each person to make that a
reality through the choices they make in their lives. This is easiest to
comprehend when we are talking about problems that are obviously our
fault. Slavery, servitude, caste, hate, racism, prejudice, bigotry,
poverty, starvation, hunger, substance abuse, apathy, indifference,
corruption, misuse of power, licentiousness, gross immorality, oppression,
excessive law, war, strife, fear – all are conditions that can be created
by human beings for other human beings.
The idea of undeserved
suffering is much more difficult to accept when we are talking about
problems that seem outside of our control. Allow me to give an example of
just how difficult this is. Prior to the year 1796, about a third of all
children born into the world died from smallpox. Having a child die from
smallpox must have been very hard for families to bear. Today, a few
hundred years later, smallpox has been successfully eradicated from the
face of the earth. It is a bright and shining example of what we can do
with the rational, reasoning minds God has given us. Before 1796, the
suffering was undeserved because we had not yet looked hard enough to find
some answers. If a child were to contract smallpox today, it would be
truly undeserved; and while we may be doing great with smallpox, there is
still undeserved suffering on a massive scale that needs to be addressed
Still another logical implication of free will
is that of judgment. The notion of a day of Judgment is a clear
acknowledgment that free will ultimately determines the outcome of our
lives, not destiny or fate. If it were otherwise, judgment would really
make no sense. Zoroastrianism has contemplated judgment from many
perspectives over its long history. One of the most interesting is a
metaphor that one’s soul is purified much like the refining of metal with
– there’s fire again – and from this metaphor comes a concept of hell
being a very hot place.
However, in the Zoroastrian view, Ahura-Mazda
is given a lot of credit, a lot of power, and no soul is really beyond
Mazda’s wisdom to purify. So, while judgment is a natural outcome of
Zoroastrian thought, the idea of an eternal hell is usually not. A kind
of purgatory, and heaven, perhaps, but not hell.
We may very well create our own hell on earth as a result of poor choices,
but to imagine any human transgressions are beyond Mazda’s capability to
set straight is quite unimaginable to the Zoroastrian sense.
So, judgment is implied, and knowing we might
all be judged, a great deal of tolerance, and to a large degree
acceptance, is implicit in Zoroastrian thought. Following the time in
which Zarathushtra lived, there is quite a long gap before Zoroastrianism
catches on, but it appears brightest in the Achaemenid, Cyrus, the Great
king, king of kings of the Persian empire, known among the Hebrew Prophets
as the anointed of God.
To this day, Cyrus, the Zoroastrian, is remembered in history as one whose
benevolence, tolerance, humility and wisdom won the hearts of people
everywhere and, during his reign, brought some happiness to the Soul of
the Living World.
Today, those who profess
the Zoroastrian faith number only a few hundred thousand out of six
billion people. But the legacy of Zarathushtra’s revelation has touched
every corner of the globe, and likewise, Zoroastrianism has also been
influenced by other religions. Indeed, today it is quite a challenge to
study Zoroastrianism outside of the context of our modern views on
religion. We have talked a little about its relation with Judaism,
because the Tanakh shares many remarkably similar, if not exactly the
same, revelations, and the history of the Jewish people was closely
interwoven with the Zoroastrian in early times. Zoroastrianism is also
closely related to Hinduism, with whom its scriptures share a closely
related language, and many customs, names, and the like are related.
Because of is great antiquity, it can be argued that Zoroastrianism laid
the groundwork for the great family of monotheistic religions, including
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, along with most of Hinduism, and others that
share a monotheistic view.
With a little knowledge about Zoroastrianism,
it is not too difficult to see that the author of the Gospel of Matthew
tries to persuade not only Jews that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah
foretold by the Hebrew prophets, but also the savior promised by
Zoroastrianism. Hence, in Christianity, we ﬁnd not only the magi
(Zoroastrian priests) recognizing the birth of Jesus,
but there is also the deduction proclaimed by the Apostle’s Creed: that
“Jesus died, and was buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose
again from the dead.” It happens to be a sequence that is virtually
identical to an ancient Zoroastrian metaphor.
Today, Christianity’s deep sense of love ﬁnds a welcome home in
Islam shares not only
monotheism with Zoroastrianism, but also a deep concern for the
relationship between actions of individuals within a community. Very
little in the way of constructive systematic study has been performed on
the relationship of Islam and Zoroastrian religious philosophy.
Virtually no study whatsoever has been
performed on the relationship of Zoroastrianism to the indigenous
religions of China such as Taoism. Lao Tsu lived long after Zarathushtra,
yet the Tao Te Ching offers considerable guidance on how to govern a free
people – a free people who did not yet exist on the face of the earth
except in people’s minds and, at the time, mostly Zoroastrian minds. A
central idea of Taoism is for those who would lead others to lead by
example rather than through dogma, to trust that people will ﬁnd their
way, and that their thinking can be shaped in a way which will help assure
Contrary to popular myth about Taoism, that does not mean to stop thinking
altogether, but to clear one’s mind of thought patterns that lead
nowhere. All of this can be considered an offshoot of Zoroastrian
thought, yet it lacks systematic study.
Native Americans laid out their dead to the
elements, much as Zoroastrians did for thousands of years
and as people in the Asiatic highlands still do to the present day. Thus,
there is at least one cultural relationship among the ancient peoples of
Asia and the Americas, and probably a great many more, that may help
better interpret the proto-Zoroastrian culture, or vice-versa. Ten
thousand years ago, all came from the same part of the world, and they
knew each other then. More study.
Zoroastrianism today is a
vibrant, living religion, its doctrines live on in other religions
worldwide, and are at the foundation of civilized societies everywhere.
The world today faces grave challenges posed by huge increases in
population, great economic inequity and social deprivation, and serious
environmental destruction. Yet the Zoroastrian view is an ever-optimistic
one. It reminds us that we already have the great gift needed to solve
our problems today and in the future. We have the ability to reason. If
we choose to do so, we can think good thoughts, speak good words, do good
deeds. We can positively change the world in which we live. Hope is with
us always, until the end of time.
The author warmly thanks for
his generous invitation; Karen Jo Torjesen, Dean of the Claremont Graduate
University School of Religion and visionary educator; and my many mentors,
guides, and friends in the Zoroastrian community, including Dariush Irani,
Kaikhosrov Irani, Ali Jafarey, Parviz Koupai, Dina McIntyre, Farhang Mehr,
Yezdi Rustomji, Shahriar Shahriari, Mehrborzin Soroushian, and Mehraban
Zartoshty. May radiant happiness be yours.
Presented on October 5, 2003,
at the Zartoshti
Council Meeting at Claremont Graduate University.
cf. Boyce, M.,
Their Religious Beliefs and
(London: Routledge, 2001); p. 1.
cf. Burenhult, G., The First Humans: Human Origins and History
to 10,000 BC, vol. 1 (American Museum of Natural History Publications,
New York: Harper, SanFrancisco, 1993), p. 93. This is the approximate
time that the last ice age began. Very cold conditions and the peak of
its glacirization occurred about 20,000 years ago. Then, about 15,000
years ago, the earth became increasingly warmer again.
cf. Darmesteter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:3 (Originally
published by Oxford University Press, 1887, in Müller, F. M., Sacred
Books of the East; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1980).
The Avestan Airyanem Vaęjah (Pahlavi Iranvej in later
Zoroastrian literature), was the ancestral homeland of the Iranian people.
The people of the Avesta period advanced many unique concepts, but
gęush urvâ was not among them; this particular concept is far more
ancient, its object being variously interpreted in recent works as the
“Living World,” “Mother Earth,” “Kine,” “Ox-Soul,” or “humankind.” In the
context of the Gathas, the words evokes the sense of a unified spirit of
life present in a balanced, natural, fertile community of which humankind
is a part. Most cultures have few such phrases in their pallette today,
so the concept itself has largely faded from everyday experience in the
Darmesteter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:4. This verse appears to be a
direct reference to the onset of the ice age. Note the Judaic scriptures
in Tanakh, Kethuvim, Job 38:29-30. (Philadelphia, Jewish
Publication Society, 1999).
ibid, e.g., 7:6-22
Vendîdâd infers that corpses were significant vectors of contagious
ibid, e.g., 3:36-42, 5:10, etc. Also, see an
important discussion on this subject by Frye, R. N., The Heritage of
Central Asia: From Antiquity to the Turkish Expansion (Princeton, New
Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers), p. 61-62.
cf. Darmeseter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 2:22 ff.; see
also Tanakh, Torah, Genesis 6:12-8-20, and The Epic of
Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, in Pritchard, J. B., The Ancient Near East,
vol. 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 65-70.
cf. Darmeseter, J., transl., Vendîdâd 1:1-21.
cf. Frye, R. N., The Heritage of Central Asia, pp. 53-54; see also
Woolley, C. W., The Sumerians (New York: Norton Library, 1965),
Jafarey, Ali A., The Gathas, Our Guide (Cypress, California:
Ushta, Inc., 1989); Yasna 29:1. Though sill a subject of some
debate, the situation of a sudden, drastic decline described above and in
note 10, the linguistic placement of the Gâthic Avesan language with the
Vedic Sanskrit of the Rg Veda, the lamentation of this Gâthâ, and
the settled lifestyle generally presumed in the Ahunavaiti Gâthâs, taken
together are sufficient to logically place the historical Zarathushtra in
this place and time in history.
ibid., Yasna 30:2-3; philosophically one of the most important
passages in all of Zoroastrian scripture.
cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism (Bombay: The
K. R. Cama Oriental Institute, 1985), pp. 27-35.
ibid., pp. 62-64.
cf. Tanakh, Torah, Genesis 2:8-9, 16-17
cf. Mehr, F., The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the
Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra (Cosa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers,
2003); and Sarna, N. M., The
JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis
(Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 16.
cf. Tanakh, Torah, Leviticus 19:18; New Testament,
22:39; Hadith, Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism, pp. 108-109
cf. Tanakh, Nevi’im, e.g., Isaiah 40-55; Jeremiah
31:31-34; Ezekiel 34:23, etc.
Irani, K. D., The Idea of Social Justice in the Ancient World (Wesport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), p. 5.
cf. West, E. W., transl., Pahlavi Texts, Part I; Bundahishn
30:18-20 (Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1880, in Müller,
F. M., Sacred Books of the East; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass,
Delhi, 1987); also see Tanakh, Nevi’im, Malachi 3:2.
cf. Dhalla, M. N., History of Zoroastrianism, pp. 106-107.
Tanakh, Nevi’im, Isaiah 44:28, 45:1 ff.
New Testament, Matthew 2:1-12.
cf. Dhalla, M. N., Hisory of Zoroastrianism, pp. 282-283.
cf. Mitchell, S., transl., Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu: An Illustrated
Journey (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), e.g., vs.
cf. Note 7 on Zoroastrian practices on this topic.