It is the oldest
revealed religion known to us. 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 ago, where there lived a
people in a mountain valley in Asia, with a good river, 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 quiet 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
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 ciy 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
In the East, in the land 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
" 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 maleficent. "
Now, what did this mean? It meant each person had free will. It also meant
each person was expeced to use his/her 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 its outlook.
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: the concept of
discerning good from evil comes along, and we have had nothing but
problems ever since. In both cases, the Zoroastrian and the Judaic, good
and evil are old concepts, but they are ethical in their dimension now.
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
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.
Thus, Zarathushtra's revelation of free will thus tells us much about how
we think, how we learn, and how we interact with 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 worldwide.
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 fire - there's fire again - and from this
metaphor comes a concept of hell being a very hot place.
However, in the Zoroastrian view, God is given a lot of credit, a lot of
power, and no soul is really beyond God'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 God'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 some 6.3 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 Zoroastrian
Islam shares not only monotheism with Zoroastrianism, but also a deep
concern for the relationship between actions of individuals within a
community. Both the Zoroastrian scriptures and the Qur'an teach equality
and tolerance among the whole of humankind, and we cannot forget that both
have at special times in their histories created high civilizations that
greatly advanced the knowledge of science and philosophy. Very little in
the way of constructive systematic study has been performed on the
relationship of Islam and Zoroastrian religious philosophy.
Virtually no study whatsover has been performed on the relationship of
Zoroastrianism to the indigenous religions of China such as Taoism. Lao
Tzu 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 their happiness. 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
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 Rebecca Cain for her generous invitation; San
Josť State University for graciously hosting this event; and my many
guides and friends interested in Zoroastrian thoughts and studies,
including Dariush Irani, Kaikhosrov Irani, Ali Jafarey,
Parviz Koupai, Dina McIntyre, Farhang Mehr, Yezdi Rustomji, Shahriar
Shahriari, Mehrborzin Soroushian, Karen Torjesen, and Mehraban Zartoshty.
May radiant happiness be yours.
given at San Josť State University, Northern California
on February 13, 2004