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Zoroastrianism

Faravahar, The depiction of the human soul before birth and after death.

Zoroastrianism or Zártosht (Persian: ﺖﺸﺗﺭﺯ) Is known as one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions. It once was the official religion of Sassanid Persia and played an important role in Achaemenid times.


According to internal and external histories, a prophet named Zártosht (Zoroaster) lived in Iran / Persia no earlier than 1700 BC and no later than 600 BC. He came to reform ancient Aryan / Indo-Iranian religious practices (some of which were parallel to those of ancient India). Zoroastrianism is called Mazdayasni by the Parsis and other followers of the faith, after the name for God, Ahura Mazda meaning "All Knowing Entity".


Table of contents

Overview

Zoroastrianism is a Monotheistic religion that adheres to the God Ahura Mazda and follows the Prophet Zoroaster, Many modern scholars believe that Zoroastrianism had a large influence on Judaism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, Christianity. Some of the most famous Zoroastrian rulers were King Cyrus II the Great, Darius The Great and King Xerxes.


Holy Book

The Holy Book of Zoroastrianism is called the Zend Avesta. The Zend is the commentary on the teaching and the Avesta is the original teaching in the Holy book. Before the invasion of Alexander and the Muslim Conquest there was a total of 21 Books followed by Zoroastrians called Nasks. Only one of these Nasks remains complete, called the Vendidad. The traditional explanation for the loss of most of the Nasks is that Alexander's regime persecuted the faith and destroyed its texts. This explanation is questioned by some historians. The 21 Nasks did not only contain religious literature but also included works on Medicine, Astronomy, Botany and Philosophy.


Only a portion of the Avesta, known as the Gathas (The Hymns) are attributed to the Prophet Zoroaster himself. The Yashts are smaller books for Prayer, Other books included are the Afringan, Nyayish, Gah, Sirozah which partially contain some scriptures of the lost 14th and 21st Nasks (Lost books). Other teachings are the Yasna which means Sacrifice and contains prayers for sacrificial rituals; the Visperad is a collection of doctrines that are used for exorcism and religious law. The Visperad also includes cosmological, historical and eschatological material.


Beliefs

In religious Law, called Daena, Ahura Mazda is the Beginning and the end, The creator of everything of which can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure (In good) and the only Truth. Ahura is the eternal law that is revealed to man through the Mathra-Spenta The holy word. One must follow the Kusti or Holy Path to be of the Beh-Din Good Faith, Zoroastrianism preaches with the simple yet peaceful phrase Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds, This is also evident through Persian History as the Zoroastrian rulers of Persia allowed all religions and people to co-exist in perfect harmony.


The Prophet

Since the Prophet Zoroaster is a prehistoric figure, relatively little is known about him, He started preaching before or around 1000 B.C. in a period where there was a great need for religious scholarship and theology. Following him in this would be Prophet Jeremiah, Pythagoras in Greece, Buddha and Mahavira in India, Lao Tze and Confucius in China. The prophet lived among Semi-Nomads that survived off livestock and relied on Animal husbandry. They actively travelled in Persia, places we know today as East-Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.


Zoroaster, son of Porushaspa and Dugdova was since birth seen as special. An account from Pliny the Elder relates that when the prophet was born, he was born smiling. His head shook uncontrollably to the point where he would slip out of the hands of his parents, a sign of future wisdom. Before he was six years old he was appointed a wise teacher who would take care of him; little is known about the relation between teacher and student. Many attempts were supposed to have been made to kill the child by enemies who recognised his significance.


According to these narrations, when Zoroaster became seven years old, he was the target of an assassination plot in which men tried to poison him with black magic. As Zoroaster turned fifteen, he gained understanding and determination, and it was then when he chose the Kusti or Holy Path: meaning he voluntarily submitted himself to religion. When Zoroaster turned twenty years of age he left his guardians house and according to Chrysostomus spent seven years on a mountain in a cave. During these seven years Zoroaster devoted himself to meditation and religious understanding. It was at this time he struggled with the problems concerning the relations of man and cosmos and came to the conclusion which the following Gathas reveal:


"This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura – whether at the beginning of the Best Existence the recompenses shall bring blessedness to him that meets with them. Surely he, O Right, the holy one, who watches in his spirit the transgression of all, if himself the benefactor of all that lives, O Mazda." (44.2)


"This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura. Who upholds the earth beneath and the firmament from falling? Who the waters and the plants? Who yoked swiftness to winds and clouds? Who is, O Mazda, creator of Good Thought?" (44.4)


"This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura. What artist made light and darkness? What artist made sleep and waking? Who made morning, noon, and night, that call the understanding man to his duty?" (44.5)


After his seven year meditation and devotion to worship he was enlightened with spiritual knowledge and felt the time was ripe to teach the masses about the righteousness and guidance of Ahura Mazda, at this point the teaching of Zoroaster as a Prophet began. We see Zoroaster in a society which is corrupt and repressive and where the pre-Zoroastrian priests rule with an iron fist through Theocracy. The people craved for change:


"Which savior will free us from the old (conservative understanding of) scripture, Who with the wisdom, simplicity (of teaching), who with the enlightenment?"


Zoroaster proceeded by preaching:


"I will speak of that which (he), the Holiest declared to me as the word that is best for mortals to obey; while he said: "they who for my sake render him obedience, shall all attain unto Welfare and Immortality by the actions of the Good Spirit [Spenta Mainyu -JHP]" – (he) Mazda Ahura." (45.5)


It becomes clear that Zoroaster had accomplished the complete devotion to Ahura Mazda, His first attempt at reaching the masses was no success, those who heard him ridiculed him by saying: How can this worthless being save us?. Eventually his family and servants distanced themselves from him, evil powers plotted to silence him, His open revelation brought many enemies who were eager to see his downfall. Nothing however stopped Zoroaster and his determination. The first and favorite convert to Zoroastrianism became his Nephew. He was then imprisoned and mysteriously escaped. After escaping from prison he cured the horse of King Vishtaspa. It was then when the very same King that put him in prison converted to the faith along with his wife. After the conversion of the king many in the kingdom followed. Due to repression in the early stages the first group of converts were a defiant military group in order to defend themselves but Zoroastrianism spread in such an incredibly fast pace and soon this was no longer needed.


When the Vizier of the King converted he gave his daughter, Hvgovi to be the wife of Zoroaster and were married. Jamaspa, the wise advisor and cherisher of the kings riches wich gave Zoroaster his daughter and that was the brother of king Frashaoshtra was a devout follower of Zoroaster and when Zoroaster came to die it was Jamaspa that was appointed his successor. It was also Jamaspa that later on wrote the Gathas and continued/encouraged conversions among Persians including Hindus and Greeks

Zoroastrian Concepts

Zoroastrianism teaches many concepts we today find in the major Abrahamic faiths, concepts of Heaven, Hell, Day of judgement, the concept of Satan, the prophecy and coming of the Messiah and the extensive teaching of Angels and Evil spirits. According to the Gathas humans are free and responsible beings. Predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in and in the way they act to one another. Nothing in the Heavens and Earth has the power to force a being to do evil. Reward, Punishment, Happiness and Grief all depend on how the individual lives his life. Good befalls the people that do righteous deeds, those that do Evil have themselves to blame for their evil-doing. Humans possess a great power. They can improve their way of living and the living conditions of others. This power is called the Charitas. After death, the person must walk through the Path to Judgement or Chinvat Peretum to bear responsibility for his actions when he was alive.


The Prophet Zoroaster acknowledged no other God besides Ahura Mazda, The concept of Dualism plays a role when speaking of the Holy Spirit or Spenta Mainyu and the Evil Spirit or Angra Mainyu these two have an eternal battle at the end of which the Holy Spirit will eventually prevail by the power of Ahura Mazda. Metaphysical Dualism is rejected in orthodox traditions and beliefs when it comes to worship. The belief that Good prevails over Evil and Gods supremacy over all is similar to that of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in which Satan is in no way the equal of the Abrahamic God and is a creation of God.


Mardanfarrokh, a Zoroastrian theologian in the 9th century AD, posited, "If God is perfect in goodness and wisdom, then ignorance and evil cannot come from Him. If they could come from Him, He would not be perfect; and if He were not perfect, He should not be praised as God and perfectly good..." (117–123 from For students and novices Complete Pazand and Sanskrit texts published by H.J. Jamasp-Asana and E.W. West; pioneer English translation by E.W. West, SBE. XXIV; transcribed Pazand text with French translation by P.J. de Menasce. From Textual sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism by Mary Boyce. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1984.)

History

The fire temple for Zoroastrians of Iran in the city Yazd

Zoroastrianism was the favored religion of the two great dynasties of ancient Persia, the Achaemenids and Sassanids. However, because we have virtually no contemporary Persian written sources from these periods, it is difficult to describe the nature of ancient Zoroastrianism in much detail.

Herodotus's description of Persian religion includes some recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead and divination. The Achaemenid kings acknowledge their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions; however, they also participated in local religious rituals in Babylon and Egypt, and helped the Jews to return to Canaan, so apparently no attempt was made to enforce religious orthodoxy on their subjects. According to later traditions, many of the Zoroastrian sacred texts were lost when Alexander the Great destroyed Persepolis and overthrew the Achaemenids in the 320s BC. The status of Zoroastrianism under the Seleucids and Parthians is unclear; however, it is widely believed that the Three Wise Men said to have come from the Parthian empire bearing gifts for Jesus of Nazareth were Zoroastrian Magi. It was also during the Parthian period that Mithraism, a Zoroastrian-derived faith particularly focused on the Aryan god of the sun, Mithra, began to become popular within the Roman Empire. The Mithra cult reached the peak of its popularity in the second and third centuries CE, and was particularly popular in the Roman army.

When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in Iran in 228 AD, they aggressively promoted their Zoroastrian religion. Many historians believe that the Sassanids were primarily opposed to the Catholic (Orthodox) Christian church because of its ties to the Roman Empire, and thus during this time the Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and even sometimes favored by the Sassanids. During periods when the Sassanids captured provinces held by the Romans, they often built fire temples there. Also during the Sassanid era, the belief that Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were the two sons of the time-god Zurvan became popular.

A form of Zoroastrianism was apparently also the chief religion of pre-Christian Armenia, or at least was prominent there. During periods of Sassanid suzernity over Armenia, the Persians made attempts to promote the religion there as well.

By the 6th century, Zoroastrianism had spread to northern China via the Silk Road, gaining official status in a number of Chinese states. Zoroastrian temples still remained in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang as late as the 1130s, but by the 13th century the religion had faded from prominence in China.

In the 7th century, the Sassanid dynasty was conquered by Muslim Arabs. Zoroastrianism, which was once dominant in a region stretching from Anatolia to Persian Gulf and Central Asia, did not have a powerful foreign champion as Christianity did in the Byzantine Empire, and so steadily lost influence and adherents in Iran under Muslim rule.

In the 8th century, Iranian Zoroastrians had fled to India in large numbers, where they were offered refuge by Jadav Rana, a Hindu king of Sanjan (the modern-day province of Gujarat) on condition that they abstain from missionary activities and marry only in their community. Although these strictures are centuries old, Parsis of the 21st century still do not accept converts and are endogamous (though see below for further discussion). The Parsis of India speak a dialect of Gujarati.

Zoroastrians in Iran are still persecuted by that nation's theocratic rulers. Even today, however, one can find Zoroastrian communities living and practicing their faith there.

The earliest English references to Zoroaster and the Zoroastrian religion occur in the writings of the encyclopaedist Sir Thomas Browne.

Principles of modern-day Zoroastrianism

Some major Zoroastrian concepts:

  1. Equality of sex. Men and women are equal in all manners within society.
  2. Cleanliness of the environment. Nature is central to the practice of Zoroastrianism and many important Zoroastrian annual festivals are in celebration of nature: new year on the first day of spring, the water festival in summer, the autumn festival at the end of the season, and the mid-winter fire festival.
  3. Hard work and charity. Laziness and sloth are frowned on. Charity is regarded as a good deed, where Zoroastrians part with a little of what would otherwise be their own.
  4. Condemnation of oppression toward human beings, cruelty against animals and sacrifice of animals. Equality of all humans regardless of race or religion and respect of everything on Earth and in the world is central to the religion.
  5. The symbol of fire. The energy of the creator is represented in Zoroastrianism by fire and the sun which are both enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining. Zoroastrians usually pray in front of some form of fire (or any source of light). It's important to note that fire is not worshipped by Zoroastrians, but is used simply as symbology and a point of focus, much like the wooden cross in Christianity.

Other concepts:

  • Inter-religious marriages and recruiting. Zoroastrians do not proselytize. It is generally thought in the Parsi traditions that the only way to become a Zoroastrian is to be born within a Zoroastrian family and while some Iranian Zoroastrians would agree with this position others would not. However this tradition is also debated quite often. In recent years Zoroastrianism has seen the rise of western converts within a "Gathas only" tradtion. As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith. However, in India, as a result of historical needs not to proselytize, there have emerged "rules" that say that women (and their children) who marry followers of other religions are no longer considered Zoroastrians (although men and their children are). In Iran, because of still-existing discrimination, inter-faith marriage is officially not encouraged by the government. With the globalization of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, these rules are being enforced increasingly less often, especially in the diaspora.
  • Death and burial. Religious rituals related to death are all concerned with the person's soul and not the body. Upon death, a person's soul leaves the body after three days and the body becomes just an empty shell. Traditionally, Zoroastrians disposed of their dead by leaving them atop open-topped enclosures, called Towers of Silence. Vultures and the weather would clean the flesh of the bones, which were then placed into an ossuary at the center of the Tower. While this practice is continued in India by some Parsis, it had ended by the beginning of the twentieth century in Iran. In India, burial and cremation are becoming increasingly popular alternatives.

Adherents

Small but thriving Zoroastrian communities are found in India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, and throughout a worldwide diaspora. Zoroastrian communities in the diaspora comprise two main groups of people: those of South Asian Zoroastrian background, who are known as Parsis (or Parsees), and those of Iranian background.

Zoroastrians in Iran have, like other religious minorities, survived centuries of persecution. Communities exist in Tehran, as well as in Yazd and Kerman, where many still speak an Iranian language distinct from Persian. They call their language Dari (not to be confused with the Dari of Afghanistan). Their language is also called Gabri or Behdinan. Sometimes their language is named for the cities in which it is spoken, Yazdi or Kermani.

Parsis in South Asia have, by contrast, enjoyed relative tolerance. While the communities there are socioeconomically diverse, Parsis have gained a reputation for their education and widespread influence in all aspects of (especially Indian) society.

In addition, there is a growing interest among Kurdish people of various national backgrounds, as well as peoples in various Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, in their ancient Zoroastrian heritage; many people in these countries now consider themselves Zoroastrian. In fact, UNESCO (at the instigation of the government of Tajikistan) declared 2003 a year to celebrate the "3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrian Culture," with special events throughout the world.

Small but fast growing Zoroastrian communities exist in major urban areas in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and other countries.

The worldwide population figures for Zoroastrians have been estimated at anywhere between 180,000 and 250,000. NOTE: diaspora or worldwide population figures include both Parsis and Iranians; there is no way to estimate numbers of Parsis alone except when referring only to India. India's 2001 Census found 69,601 Parsi Zoroastrians. North America is thought to be home to 18,000–25,000 Zoroastrians of both Parsi and Iranian background. Iran's figures of Zoroastrians have ranged widely.

Famous Zoroastrians

One of the most famous Zoroastrians in the diaspora is the late Freddie Mercury, the frontman of the group Queen. He was given a traditional Parsi Zoroastrian funeral after he died of AIDS on 24 November 1991. Other famous South Asian Parsis include symphonic conductor Zubin Mehta, the philosopher Homi K. Bhabha, the similarly-named nuclear scientist Homi J. Bhabha, screenwiter Sooni Taraporevala (of the films Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala, both directed by Mira Nair, as well as author of a photography book on the Parsi community entitled Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India: a Photographic Journey), authors Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidhwa.








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