ZOROASTRIANISM: A short overview
Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia. It was
founded about 3500 years ago by the prophet Zarathushtra. Arising
out of the polytheistic traditions of ancient India and Iran, he was
one of the first monotheists in human history. Zarathushtra preached
that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. Ahura
means "Lord," and Mazda means "Wise," so Zoroastrians call God
the "Wise Lord." Zarathushtra has been known in the West as
Zoroaster, from the Greek transliteration of his name; in Persia and
India he is known as Zarthosht.
No one knows exactly when Zarathushtra lived. Zoroastrian
tradition places him at around 600 B.C.E., but this date is thought
by modern scholars to be far too late. The modern estimate of
Zarathushtra's date is anywhere from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E.
The basic scripture of Zoroastrianism is a set of 5 poetic songs
called the _Gathas_, which were composed by Zarathushtra himself
and have been preserved through the millennia by Zoroastrian
priests. Over the years many other scriptures have accumulated
around these Gathas. Much of these scriptures were destroyed by
the Greek, Muslim, and Mongol invasions, but some remain. The
Gathas are still the core text of the faith.They are composed in a
very ancient language known as Avestan, which is closely related to
Sanskrit. The evidence scholars use to give a time reference to
Zarathushtra is linguistic: the language of the hymns composed by
the Prophet is similar to the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda, an ancient
Hindu text which has been dated to the period of 1500-1000 B.C.E.
In the Gathas, Zarathushtra preached that the One God,
Ahura Mazda, is transcendent, but he is in constant relationship with
human beings and the world God created through his Attributes.
These Attributes are how God reaches the world, and how the
world reaches God. Zarathushtra did not specify a fixed number of
Attributes, but soon after the Prophet they were specified into
seven. These attributes are called the _Amesha Spentas_, or
"Bounteous Immortals." Each one of these embodies an
attribute of God, as well as a human virtue. They are also symbols
for the various sectors of Creation over which God watches. They
Vohu Manah - Good Thought - connected with Animals
Asha Vahishta - Justice and Truth - Fire and Energy
Kshathra - Dominion - Metals and minerals
Spenta Armaiti - Devotion and Serenity - The earth and land
Haurvatat - Wholeness - Waters
Ameretat - Immortality - Plants
and Spenta Mainyu - Creative Energy - Human beings
In the Gathas these are sometimes personified, and
sometimes just Ideas or concepts. In later traditions, they are
personified, and become like archangels. They are never worshipped
on their own.
The "dualism" of Zoroastrianism is known in the "West," but
is mostly misunderstood. In the Gathas Spenta Mainyu, the "Holy
Creative Spirit," is opposed to Angra Mainyu, the Hostile Spirit.
This conflict takes place in the human heart and mind, not in the
material Universe. It is the constant struggle between good and evil
in human beings. This is _ethical_ dualism, the dualism of Good
and Evil. In later traditions this
changed into a dualism that took in the material world, dividing the
Universe into two camps, each ruled by the Good God or the Evil
Spirit. This is called "cosmic" dualism.
Some Zoroastrians believe in "cosmic" dualism, others in
ethical dualism. The teachings of the Gathas, the original work of
the Prophet, tend toward ethical dualism.
Zoroastrian worship involves prayers and symbolic
ceremonies said before a sacred fire. This fire, which was a God-
symbol even before Zarathushtra, was used by the Prophet and by
his followers ever after as the ideal sign of God, who is light,
warmth, energy. Zoroastrians do NOT worship fire, as some people
believe. They use Fire as a symbol, or an icon, the focus of their
Zoroastrianism does not teach or believe in reincarnation or
karma. Zoroastrians believe that after life on earth, the human soul
is judged by God as to whether it did more good or evil in its life.
Those who chose good over evil go to what Zarathushtra referred to
simply as the "best existence," or heaven, and those who chose evil
go to the "worst existence," or hell. Zoroastrianism was one of the
first religions to give the afterlife a moral dimension.
Zoroastrianism also believes in the progress of sacred time,
and the eventual end of time. The belief is that the collective good
acts of humanity will slowly transform the imperfect material world
into its heavenly ideal. This is known as the "frasho-kereti," or
"making-fresh," that is, renewal. At the end of time everything and
everyone will be purified, even the souls in hell - so hell is not
Zoroastrian ideas of moral dualism, heaven and hell, sacred
time, and angelic beings have influenced Judaism and Christianity,
during long centuries of contact between these faiths in the Middle
The most important thing about Zoroastrianism is the
dedication to ethical and moral excellence. The motto of the faith is:
GOOD THOUGHTS, GOOD WORDS, GOOD DEEDS.
This threefold path is the center of the faith. One knows what
is good through the Divine help of Vohu Manah (Good Mind) and
divinely inspired conscience (Daena).
If there is anything to remember about Zoroastrianism, it is
this threefold path. By thinking good thoughts, one is moved to
speak good words, and that leads to good deeds. This is a practical
and world-affirming faith, that does not hate the world nor dwell on
sin and guilt.
Zoroastrians are mostly of Persian origin, though the recent
breakup of the Soviet Union has revealed isolated groups of Central
Asian and Armenian Zoroastrians as well. In the 10th century A.D.
groups of Persian Zoroastrians fled an oppressive Muslim regime
and settled in Gujarat, in western India. These are the Parsis of
India, who are a major influence today. From India and Iran
Zoroastrians have spread all over the world, and there are
communities in England, Australia, Canada, the United States, and
other countries. These diaspora communites now face the problems
of how to adapt their ancient religious traditions to a modern world.
The best current book on Zoroastrianism is THE ZOROASTRIAN
TRADITION by Farhang Mehr, published by Element Books,
A widely available translation of the Gathas is by the Belgian scholar
Duchesne-Guillemin, translated from the French by Henning. This
is a little red book in the "Wisdom of the East" series, published by
Charles E. Tuttle Co, Inc., 1992.