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Why Zarathushtrianism?

Personal Perspective

Antonius Karasulas



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"Zoroaster". I had heard the name before somewhere. Didn’t mean anything to me of course, but I was pretty sure that he was an ancient Persian, or something similar (actually, my grandfather often told me about him when I was young, but I never really listened). How I came to know about his message, his writings and legacy, is a convoluted story. Oddly enough it started in Rome, a couple of thousand years ago.

I have been a student of antiquity for about as long as I can remember, some of my investigations performed under the guidance of the university system. In recent years my interests have drifted firmly into the so-called ‘classical’ world, especially Rome. Always having had an interest in religions I naturally found Roman religions of most particular interest, though of course Rome as a military power is no less an absorbing subject. And many of you will realize already where this is heading. The premier religion with strong connections to the military was of course Mithraism. So I studied Mithraism in great depth for several years, puzzled over the many unknowns and the mysterious ‘tauroctony’ (the ubiquitous bull-killing scene) and traced the development of the faith as it accompanied Rome’s military expansion.  

There are a number of obvious Persian features to Mithraism, but not having a particular interest in ancient Persia I did not pursue this line of investigation, satisfying myself with the notion that the Persian elements represented the earliest form of the religion, but were largely unimportant to an understanding of the Roman experience of Mithraism. It seemed that the cult of Mithras had percolated in ancient Commagene, along with a number of Near and Middle Eastern schools of thought and mystery religions, and that the Romans had borrowed it, in their almost voracious capacity to assimilate new religious practices into their culture. They had Romanised it very thoroughly of course, so the Persian elements were extremely peripheral, I thought. I was of course quite wrong, although many Mithraic scholars today would probably not agree with me – just how Persian were the ‘Persian mysteries’ of Mithras is very much an open debate. 

One day the name ‘Zoroaster’ popped up, for the umpteenth time, as I read with undying appetite everything I could find on the Romans and Mithraism. I knew I had heard the name before, of course, but it was a kind of ‘critical mass’ situation – I suddenly had an urgent need to know who this person was, and why he had been slowly creeping into my consciousness. The internet is a wonderful tool, and it was in cyberspace that I first met Zarathushtra. I told you it was a convoluted story. 

It is important to me to say, before going on, that I was not in search of some religious or spiritual path, at least not consciously. I have not drifted in and out of churches, temples and cults. I have not belonged to any mainline nor any fringe religious groups. Though I have dabbled in yoga meditation, Zen philosophy and even spent a week on a weird ‘new age’ commune once, as a teenager, I have not been a ‘religious’ person by any stretch of the imagination.  Spiritual perhaps, but certainly not religious. It had always seemed to me that God, about the existence of whom I have never had the least doubt, was approachable directly, and did not require any intermediaries. I sought, therefore, God within myself, and within the world around me. Then I bumped into Zarathushtra. 

As I searched the ‘net’ for information I was at first quite intrigued by the historical aspects of the Zoroaster story, how he is believed to have lived as early as the second millennium BC. It was especially intriguing to find that his own words have apparently been preserved until the present, certainly a unique scenario among all the known prophets of any major religion. It was no less exciting to think that his words have survived until today by the word-of-mouth transmission, via oral-tradition memory, of large tracts of material in an unintelligible ‘sacred’ language – a time capsule awaiting modern scholarly decipherment, and preserving a message of enormous consequence to everyone. 

I very soon ended up with a growing library of books about the religion founded by this somewhat enigmatic Zarathushtra. It took me a while before I realized that the Gatha component of the texts I now had access to were the essential core of the whole religion. Before long I had accumulated quite a number of translations, some exceptional and some quite horrible and un-academic. As I sorted through the available material, and sought out more, I very slowly found myself drawn to this ancient teacher, from a land I knew almost nothing about.  

I would guess that it is over two years since I realized that I had been ‘converted’ to Zarathustrianism. It had happened almost when I wasn’t looking. I know, however, that Ahura Mazda has always been looking, and I had simply, finally, found a clear vision of Him. If I may paraphrase an Islamic saying, it was now clear to me that ‘there is only one God, Ahura Mazda, and Zarathushtra is his prophet’. Having been so against structured religion all my adult life I was now too embarrassed to tell any of my family and friends what was happening to me. Two years later and I am still ‘coming out’, by degrees. 

The features of Zarathushtra’s vision of God that compelled me to consciously choose The Good Religion are several, but all are simple and clear. The first being that very simplicity itself. Zarathushtra speaks, in his Gathas, of God in a way that is both logical and at once spiritually satisfying. God as an indescribable, unknowable, all-pervading, all-good force is a view of God that fits comfortably in my world-view. The Christian attempts to humanize the image of God had never struck a cord with me – how could I possibly believe in a personal God, one with characteristics so much like humanity, in whose image He, it seemed to me, had been ‘made’. Surely, I thought, God could not be just a bigger version of myself. Zarathushtra said the same thing, in his own way and words, and I realized that his words might have real value to me. Then I discovered the second critical aspect of the Zarathustrian message – the absolute incompatibility between Good and Bad.  

Certainly, Christians in the society within which I have lived most of my life have had a somewhat similar view, but they never quite gave it the simple and plainly true aspect that Zarathushtra did. For the first time I knew that doing ‘bad’ was counter to God’s plan for the universe, and that a sin was not a sin because it was called a sin but rather because it was incompatible with the vision of reality that God had, a vision which I wanted to add too and not detract from. It might seem to Christians that I am talking about the same thing as they tried to tell me often, but I think the nuance is different. In Gathic Zarathustrianism I found no absolute concept of ‘sin’, rather a way to understand what a sin is. Instead of lists of dos and don’ts I found a simple method for understanding what was ‘good’ and what was ‘bad’.  Intellectually, I have always thought that the best way to help anyone is not to give them food but to give them the means to grow it themselves. Zarathushtra does this in his Gathas – he gives the tools for understanding how to live properly, for knowing what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. The premier ‘tool’, of course, is Vohuman. 

The Christians talk about ‘conscience’. In many respects I found the concept of Vohuman to be very similar. But not the same. For the first time I read that in fact it is spiritually advantageous to use one’s god-given brains in understanding the difficulties inherent in a spiritual life. The Christian idea of ‘faith’, which just never really worked for me, was very readily supplanted by Vohuman (I could never understand why I had been given intelligence and a capacity for reason by God if I should then ignore these gifts and have blind faith instead). And on top of this crystal clear explanation of method Zarathushtra also gave a simple and clear idea of the purpose – Asha. By explaining that there is a clearly defined plan of creation, an absolute baseline to reality, Zarathushtra made it easy to see the purpose in trying to live a good life. ‘Good’ suddenly, for me, had clear definition. 

Zarathushtra, with his words, filled me with a great sense of having a real choice in the progress of not only my own life but of the development of God’s unfolding and perfect plan. I determined that I would try my best to follow the example set by Zarathushtra – I too would vote for a progressive and wholly good universe. 

The phrase that resounds in my head still, even after quite a long time has passed since I first began to digest the concept, is Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. I feel sure that many ‘born’ Zardushti give this little real consideration, it being something they have always heard. Equally, most non-Zardushti reading about the triple injunctions of Zarathushtra probably give it about as much thought as they do about the ten commandments of the Hebrew bible – a nice piece of pious philosophy, but hardly earth- shattering revelation. I am sure, however, that never has a simpler, more concise and more impossible guide ever been given by any prophet in any religion. Suddenly ten or any number of commandments could be easily dropped in preference to three. Every choice that we can ever be asked to make will rely on these three ‘rules’ for a positive outcome. Every single choice. How simple, how clear!  But oh, how impossible. What a thing to ask – unfaltering perfection in even our every thought!? The excitement I have felt ever since I realized what Zarathushtra was asking has not dimmed by even a fraction. In this small sentence, with its three innocent looking demands, is the entire ‘secret’ to living a good life, fulfilling one’s role in God’s plan and finding purpose in existence.  

I have recently finally come into contact with a number of Zardushti and am very pleased to see that the light is shining brightly in their hearts and minds – I do not know if they are a unique group of people, or if they represent the wider Zarathushtrian community. I hope the latter. I have always been impressed with the concept of Fire as a symbol of Ahura Mazda, and I see in my new friends and co-religionists the way that that fire can burn inside mankind. I have no doubt that there are many, many good and dedicated people in the world, within whom the same fire burns, but who are not Zardushti. There is no contradiction here for me, for Zarathushtra never left any impression that only he knew the way to God and that only his way was correct. Clearly God is within everything and everyone, and there are many ways to realization – perhaps as many as there are people. In ‘converting’ to Mazdayasna I have simply done what Zarathushtra said – I have made a choice, an informed and deeply felt choice. I was struck by his suggestion that the choice of religion is the single most important decision anyone can make. But in the end I have to say that, in fact, I think the religion chose me, and I just didn’t struggle an awful lot to get away.  

When I have been asked how it is that I now consider myself to be a Zardushti I have a great deal of difficulty in answering. I feel that I am where I need to be, and that all the events that lead me here were not in any way coincidental or accidental. When I looked with an open mind Asha looked back.