Zoroastrianism

We are told that one of the oldest cultures in the world produced the oldest
religion in the world. Or maybe it didn’t? The Mesopotamian region, which later
becomes the heart of the Persian Empire (modern Iran), is the birthplace of the
religion of Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) or Zoroastrianism as it is commonly
called. Scholars are completely divided on the time frame for Zarathustra. Some
place him between 1500-1100 BC while the only evidence not based on supposition
places him in the 7" century (630 B.C.). It seems that a big part of the controversy is
contingent on how committed one is to showing that Zoroastrianism was
instrumental in shaping incipient Judaism and later Christianity. Those with the
older date see the Persian prophet as the earliest Monotheistic religion, who
introduced the concepts of Heaven and Hell, a physical resurrection and other
doctrines, which later become a part of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Those with
the earlier date have more historical data on their side. Either way it is clear that
Zarathustra did teach a unique form of monotheism, although not in the sense that
Judaism, Christianity and Islam taught.

Most of what we know about the early stages of the religion is based on
supposed oral tradition and not reliable. What we do have as documentation from
other sources gives us a time frame somewhat similar to the Renouncer age of India,
which produced both Gautama Buddha and the Jains. (6 century B.C.) .

The Aryans of Persia had invaded the northern part of India prior to 1200 B.C and

the language and religious practices of both areas are quite similar. Zarathustra’s
“monotheism” was a huge influence on or was influenced by Darius and other rulers
during the Achaemenid reign of Persia. The priests of the religion at the time were
called the Magi. Cyrus IJ later suppressed them and that period of history shows a
uneven acceptance and major differences between the religion and the rulers.

Zarathustra was a priest in a culture that was committed to paganism. There
were innumerable deities for every conceivable natural phenomenon. In the midst
of this Zarathustra taught a single deity as all -powerful creator of the universe. This
being he called Ahura Mazda. A theological controversy developed over time as
Ahura Mazda was seen by some as the chief of all other deities, which included the
Amesha Spentas (Bounteous Immortals), which later are included in the nature of
Ahura Mazda as characteristics or attributes of his deity. The other creatures, which
were not ultimate but yet still worthy of worship were the Yazatas - which are often
perceived as angels. Another persistent issue is the notion of dualism within the
deity. Early outside reports talked about the dualism of the religion with Ahura
Mazda as the good God who is opposed by Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, who is evil
personified. Both are seen as eternal and many believe this dualism laid the
foundation for the later development of Manichaeism.

Another key point in development was the invasion of Persia by the Muslims
in the 7‘ century A.D. Through the sharia/dhimmitude process, the majority of the
Zoroastrians were either converted or killed. A large group of them went to India
(the Parsis) and this has been the center of the Zoroastrian world through the years.
While maintaining a presence in their ancient home, it can be seen that the more

rigid monotheism of Islam has influenced the Zoroastrian monotheism and the
deities started a slow process of dropping out of the limelight. However ideas like
reincarnation and other more overtly Hindu ideas have become a part of the religion
for some of the believers.

Zoroastrians have some unique identifying ideas and symbols. There are
numerous fire temples, which are sacred, and only the believers are allowed access
to them The priest’s role is to keep the flames lit at all times and recite prayers,
hymns and mantras to invoke Ahura Mazda’s blessing. The believer will wear a
“kusti” or cord, which has been knotted three times. The knots symbolize and
remind the believer of “Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds”. The believer
also wears a “Kadre” a sacred garment on the upper body. Since the creation of
Ahura Mazda was first spiritual and then material, the elements are seen as sacred
and should not be violated. The Towers of Silence, which are used in deposing of
dead bodies, symbolize this. The body is full of evil and disease, so to put it in the
earth pollutes Ahura Mazda’s creation. The same is seen with burning the body. So
the body is exposed and left to the ravages of animals and the weather. This is done in the Tower so that the whole process will be seen as sacred.

History and Development

Who or What is the Religious Authority?

The scriptures of Zoroastrianism are collectively called the Avesta (Book of
the Law). The primary section is the Yasna, which includes the Gathas, which are
considered to be the only section actually written by Zarathustra himself. The
Gathas are primarily hymns and liturgical readings. The other sections are the
Yashts, which are hymns to the various deities, the Vendidad which contain a

description of the evil deities and other additional collects, the Visparad, Nyaishes,
Siroze and Afringas. Many scholars believe that the current Avesta is perhaps only
one fourth of the actual writings, with much of the ancient works destroyed by
Alexander’s army and later by the Muslim colonizers. The Avestan language of most
of the texts is considered a holy language, and the Pahlavi or Middle era Persian
language was used for some of the later writings. The oldest manuscripts extant of the Avesta are dated 1288 A.D.

Who is God/Gods?

As mentioned in the development section, this is not a simple question.
Zoroastrians today will argue that theirs is the original monotheistic religion. Many
will point to a non-Zoroastrian scholar like Boyce, who has helped shape, their own
self-identity. But the evidence for an evolutionary development of the
understanding of who or what God is in the Zoroastrian faith is compelling. Like
most cultures in the world, Zoroaster was a priest in a pagan culture, similar to that
of their Vedic neighbors in India. Nature was a panoply of gods, representing
virtually everything that is, both objects in the universe and or concepts. Zoroaster
had a vision given by Ahura Mazda of the true nature of the universe, that there is
one Supreme God who created all things. But like their Hindu neighbors the
monotheism of early Zoroastrian thought was seeing Ahura Mazda as the Supreme
of all the different gods, which one could also see in Greek mythology and elsewhere
as well. The Amesha Spentas are seen as stand alone beings and represent differing
aspects of creation:

Vohu Manah - Good thought - connected to animals

Asha Vahisthta - Justice and Truth - fire and energy
Kshathra - Dominion - Metal and minerals

Spenta Armaiti - Devotion and Serenity - the earth and land
Haurvatat - Wholeness - waters

Ameretat - Immortality - plants

Spentu Mainyu - Creative Energy - humans.

Later on the Seven, which are opposed by evil and destructive spirits,
become incorporated as part of Ahura Mazda’s own attributes, but many today
would think of them as something like “archangels”. The dualism of God is also a
debatable point. Many think of Zoroastrianism as two evil “twins” both born of
Ahura Mazda - Spenta Mainyus as the good force and Angra Mainyu as the evil force.
These spirits are either the cause of ethical dualism in the heart and minds of human
beings or they are the cause of cosmic dualism in the universe. The Zoroastrian
community seems divided historically. Are the “twins” just aspects of God? Are
there really two identically powerful but polarized spirits at war in the universe and
or the human heart? The Gathas can support both. Early writings show an
antipathy between the daevas (the Sanskrit word for the gods of India) and the
Ahuras. But because of normal human syncretistic tendencies some of the gods can
be seen in both. In short the majority of Zoroastrians will say that Ahura Mazda is
the one ultimate God - but the historical reality seems to lean towards henotheism
rather than monotheism. Ahura Mazda is symbolized by Fire, but is not embodied in
fire so it is wrong to call Zoroastrians fire worshippers as some have. Ahura Mazda
is best seen symbolically in light and heat so believers will direct their prayers towards those icons of Ahura Mazda.

Who are Human Beings?

Unlike their alleged spiritual descendents the Jews and Christians,
Zoroastrians see people as having free will and the ability to choose and act without
being encumbered by something like sin nature or original sin. Not only that, but
humans like all of creation participate in some meaningful way with both the
spiritual and physical elements in the universe. This means that they in some way
share the very nature of Ahura Mazda and will some day return to that nature. Each
people group on the planet was placed in its culture and religious group by Ahura
Mazda and therefore conversion in or out is discouraged. The faithful Zoroastrian
is enjoined not to reject the world as many of their ascetic neighboring faiths had,
but rather to hold up and defend the forces of order and goodness against the tide of
disorder and falsehood. One who makes bad choices and helps spread Druj or
disorder ends up in Hell. One who makes good choices ends up in Heaven. But
these are merely temporary holding places with universal restoration being the ultimate end.

What is the problem with the world/people?

Similar in some way to the Hindu concept of dharma - the word Asha (truth)
stands for the right way of seeing the universe. Asha can also mean orderly
functioning - so to follow Ahura Mazda is to see the orderly function of good works
and thoughts and deeds in the universe and act accordingly. However Asha is
opposed by Druj (falsehood) that is perpetually put forth by the evil spirits to
disrupt the universe. These are not specifically tied to morality, but also represent

the very order of nature and the universe itself. The problem then comes because
the evil spirit, personified in Ahriman and his consort of malevolent deities /angels
seek to destroy and impede the nature and goodness of the universe. Human beings
become lazy or malevolent and thus do not participate in the active ordering of the universe. Thus the spread and influence of Ahriman’s works and ideas continues on.

What is the solution to the problem with the world/people?

Zoroastrians have a savior concept built within the system. The Saoshyant
will someday come and will come and bring Asha to the universe. Contrary to
popular mis-belief, the Saoshyant was to born of Zarathustra’s own seed and not of a
virgin. People who invoke the threefold mantra of Good works, thoughts and deeds,
help this incrementally. In the ultimate sense of things - the entire universe and all
with in it - even the evil Ahriman and other malevolent deities, will all be restored
to the presence and participation in the very nature of Ahura Mazda. Universal
salvation and reconciliation is therefore a presumption of the faith and makes the
practice of conversion in or out of the religion unnecessary.

Witnessing Tips

There are few Zoroastrians in the world today. Most place their numbers
under 200,000. To read their literature is to see both a pride at their longevity and a
frustration of the sense that they are losing their community. Much of the literature
is filled with raging tirades against conversion (primarily because of new age
adherents in the USA), and a bit of syncretism such as the idea of reincarnation or
the question of whether Zoroastrianism should seen as THE universal religion, etc.
But the largest issue within the community today seems to be a liberalizing trend

towards a lukewarm faith, with a loss of traditional identification, and this is best
exemplified in the practice of marrying outside the faith. Since the Zoroastrians
pride themselves as being a non-missionary religion, birth rates and marriages are
the primary way of keeping the community quite literally alive. But the syncretistic
nature of the postmodern world is undermining the standing of the religion within
the community itself. You can hear this complaint among many people from many,
many other religious communities as well.

To the Zoroastrian apologist (most likely a non-Zoroastrian atheistic or other
anti-Christian skeptic - as seen in the internet movie “Zeitgeist”, etc) the notion that
Judaism and Christianity borrowed heavily from and are therefore dependent upon
Zoroastrianism is a very controversial notion at best. There is no literature showing
this at all. Boyce and others depend on language similarities between the Indo-
Aryan languages (Avesta and Sanskrit) and thus date the Avesta within the time
frame of the Rg Veda (1500 - 1000 B.C.) but the dating link is weak and there are
numerous scholars within the field of Persian religion who disagree. One might also
add that the Hindu scriptures are notoriously hard to date as well. So one weak
strand being connected to another weak strand does not necessitate a strong cord at
all in this case. This view is also contingent upon the late dating of Hebrew accounts
of Abraham, Moses, and so on. Most conservative scholars think that Abraham
probably lived around 1800 B.C. approximately and therefore Moses would have
lived around 1400 B.C. or so. If this were the case then even an earlier date for
Zoroaster himself would not be early enough to be an influence upon the Jewish

religion. One could make a better case that early Jewish thought influenced Persian
thought. But either way there would have to be an actual fact driven case made and
the evidence for Zoroastrian influence on Judaism is non-existent.

But the response to a layperson would not need to dwell upon this, unless it
came up. The average layperson believes that there is one God, who created
everything, who loves good over evil and order over chaos. These are all good
starting points for fruitful discussion. The modern monotheistic belief of the
average Zoroastrian is quite helpful here. Both the Zoroastrian and the Christian
believe that God desires what is good. Both believe that God has called us to do
what is good. Yet the Zoroastrian is stuck with the dilemma of seeing the human
capacity of free will as the testing ground for the ultimate war between evil and
good. But itis the overwhelming sense of evil and disobedience where the Christian
parts company with the Zoroastrian. How is it that we can know what is good and
what is right, yet still choose to do what is destructive? This points to something
more dramatic than disorder or evil spiritual influence - it points to the failure and
rebellion of the human heart and mind. The Zoroastrian like others knows adultery
is wrong, knows it is destructive, knows that Ahura Mazda has condemned it - and
yet still chooses to do so. This can lead again to a discussion of the need for a Savior.
The Savior concept in Zoroastrianism is a rather irrelevant notion. At the end of the
age the savior will come and usher in the final reconciliation of Ahura Mazda and its
creation. But the concept of personal salvation is missing. If the human will is truly
good and free, then it follows that there would be need for a personal savior.
Conversely if the problem with the human heart/mind is right at the center of the

problem - then the need for a personal savior is paramount. This is where the
Christian can introduce Jesus as the only solution to the problem of the fallen human
heart. The atonement of Jesus on the cross is a shining example of the creator God’s
holiness and love all in the same place and at the same time.
Another potential witnessing point is the concept of ultimate reconciliation. If this is
the case then our alleged free willis just an illusion. It means that our choices to do
good works, thoughts and deeds are ultimately no different than any contrary
actions. The unrepentant murderer is just as reconciled as the one who takes care
of the poor. So all the effort the Zoroastrian puts in does not make any real
difference in the longrun. This undermines what they truly believe about a real
difference between good and evil. They know there is a real distinction yet in the
end it all washes out. So while not as vacuous as the Hindu notion of Maya which
makes the world an illusory dream, the Zoroastrian eschatology amounts to the
same end. The Christian can respond by bringing up the eternal nature of God and
therefore the eternal characteristic of holiness and sin/rebellion. If good and evil
truly are eternal, then they cannot be dismissed but rather are upheld by God’s
eternal character. This means there must be something different brought in to
reconcile the dilemma - which again points us back to the atonement.

As with all the other religions - one must love and prayer for our Zoroastrian friends and neighbors.

Bibliography

Bach, Marcus. Major Religions of the World. Abindon Press. New York, NY 1959
Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians. Routledge & Kegan Paul. London, UK. 1979

Boyce, Mary. Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism. Rowland & Littlefield.
London, UK. 1984

Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrianism: A Shadowy but Powerful Presence in the Judaea-
Christian World. Friends of Dr. Williams. UK. 1987

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism. An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Sussex Academic
Press. Suffolk, UK. 1998

Kotwal, Firoze M., Boyd, James W. A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion. Scholars
Press. Atlanta, GA 1982

Malandra, William W. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion. Readings from the
Avesta and Achaemenid Inscriptions. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis,

MN 1983

Mather, George A. Nichols, Larry A. Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions And The
Occult. Zondervan Publishing House. Grand Rapids, MI 1993

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition. Boston, MA Element Books. 1991

Moulton, James H. The Treasury of the Magi: A Study of Modern Zoroastrianism.
Oxford University Press. London, England. 1917

Parrinder, Geoffery. Ed. World Religions From Ancient History to the Present. Facts
on File Publications. New York, NY 1971

Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Harper San Francisco. San Francisco, CA.
1991

Zaehner, Robert C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. Phoenix Press.
London, UK. 1961

Brad Jones

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