Some Basic Facts
Religion named after the founder, Zoroaster
Zarathustra, called Zoroaster by the Greeks (around 1500 BC)
Place of Origin:
Steppe lands to the east of the Caspian Sea (Iran)
Zend Avesta (The Law and Commentaries)
Yazd and Kerman, in Iran;
Udwada, in India
Muktad – the festival of all souls
Khordad Sal – celebration marking the birth of Zoroaster
Zarthosht no diso – celebration marking the death of Zoroaster
Zoroaster was born in the area east of the Caspian Sea. At the time of his birth this area was in north east Persia, but now it lies in southern USSR. The Indo Iranian race living in that part of the world used to worship many nature gods such as the Rain god, the Sun god, the Fertility god, and so on.
According to legend, Zoroaster used to meditate a great deal. One time he went up to the top of Mount Sabalan to live in isolation. There, in a flash of enlightenment, he found what he was seeking:
“From good must come good; and from evil, evil”
The good cannot create evil, and the evil cannot create good.
According to Zoroastrianism, there are two forces in the world: one is the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda), and the other is the Destructive Spirit (Angra Mainyu). The two great forces or beings have no contact with each other. Men must choose between the two spirits because there can’t be any compromise. Ahura Mazda is the Supreme God in the Zoroastrian religion and, therefore, worthy of absolute worship.
The Zoroastrians believe that Zoroaster was a prophet through whom the Divine revelation was given to mankind. Zoroaster forbade the worship of idols and instead instituted the worship of Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord. He also told the people that on a Day of Judgment, good will overcome evil.
History of Zoroastrianism
The first 1,000 years of Zoroastrian religion are shrouded in mystery. Persia at the time was just emerging out of the stone age and writing was not known to the people. No records, therefore, exist of this early period.
Then in 599 BC, Cyrus came to power in a small Persian kingdom and, in a matter of twenty years, conquered all of Persia and the mighty Babylonian Empire. After the fall of Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. These Jews had been exiled since Babylon conquered the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, during the time of Prophet Jeremiah.
Cyrus founded the Achaemenid dynasty which ruled the greatest empire the world had then known. He adopted Zoroastrianism as the state religion, spreading it in the entire kingdom. Some of the great kings of this dynasty include Darius (522 486 BC), Xerxes (486 465 BC), and Artaxerxes (465 424 BC). The Achaemenid Empire was eventually brought to an end in 331 BC by Alexander the Great or, as he is known in the Persian history, Alexander the Vandal.
After the death of Alexander, the descendents of one of his generals, the Seleucids, ruled Persia for many years until a new Persian dynasty by the name of Parthians grew powerful enough to expel them. The Parthians ruled Iran for nearly 500 years and continuously fought with the Roman Empire in the west. It was during the Parthian rule that the teachings of Zoroaster began to be compiled in the form of a holy book, the Avesta.
Around 224 AD, a ruler of a south western province in Persia rebelled against the Parthians and established the Sasanid Empire, named after a legendary ancestor, Sasan. The Sasanids ruled Persia for over four centuries till the Muslim armies defeated their kingdom in 642 AD, in the battle of Nihawand. In 652 AD, the last Zoroastrian king of the Sasanid Empire, Yazdigard III, died. It is from his coronation, held in 632 AD, that the Zoroastrians date their calendar using the convention AY, for After Yazdigard.
After the fall of the Sasanid Empire, a majority of the population of Iran accepted Islam and the number of Zoroastrians started to decline rapidly. In the tenth century AD, a small group of Zoroastrians left their Persian homeland and emigrated to India where they began to be called Parsis meaning Persians. Although the religion of Zoroastrianism originated and flourished in Persia, today there are more followers of this ancient faith living in India than in their original homeland.
Essential Beliefs of Zoroastrianism
- Zoroastrians believe that there are two independent and rival forces in nature: the good force in the form of Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) and the evil force in the form of Angra Mainyu.
- Man has the free will to choose either good or evil.
- Man must stay on the side of Ahura Mazda so that on the Day of Judgment the good may overcome evil.
- To properly ally himself with Ahura Mazda, man must acquire the following virtues:
– Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.
- A man should pray to Ahura Mazda for all his needs.
- When a man dies, his soul crosses a narrow bridge over hell. The good man crosses over safely and is welcomed by a beautiful maiden. But for the evil man, the bridge becomes narrow until he falls down in hell.
- Hell and heaven are not eternal in Zoroastrian belief. The purpose of all punishment is to reform.
- At the end of time there will appear a saviour who will revive the dead, reward the good and punish the bad.
Worship in Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrians say their daily prayers five times each day. Before saying their prayer, they perform ablution. The prayers are always said facing a light (sun, fire or lamp). All prayers are said while standing and in the sacred language of the Avesta.
Many stages in the life of a person are marked by religious ceremonies. These include:
- Birth rites
- Initiation, around the age of ten
The Zoroastrians neither bury their dead nor cremate them. The dead body is first washed, then wrapped in clean clothes, and finally placed in the Towers of Silence to decompose naturally and to be consumed by birds.
The fire is considered sacred in this religion and plays an important role in all their worships and ceremonies.
Zoroastrianism is a very ancient religion going back to about the time of Moses. But while Judaism was blessed by a series of Israelite prophets who came after Moses, no such successors seem to have come in Persia after Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism, therefore, maintained much of its early primitive features and teachings and its religious philosophy did not keep pace with the times.
Both Judaism and Zoroastrianism appeared in the world around the same time and in areas not too distant from each other. Over the years, the two faiths influenced not only each other but also the religions of India and China. Some of the religious concepts that are common to both Judaism and Zoroastrianism are;
- concept of One God
- concept of Angels
- concept of devil or swan
- concept of hell and heaven
- concept of a day of judgment
- concept of a latter day Messiah
Because of the discontinuation of revelation in the Zoroastrian religion, this faith started to become outdated and by the time Islam came, a majority of the Zoroastrians adopted the new religion. It is interesting to note that of the three pre Islamic religions of the Near East Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism only the followers of Zoroaster embraced Islam in large numbers.
Today, Zoroastrianism is gradually becoming extinct from the world; there are less than 100,000 followers remaining, mostly in India. One reason for this gradual decline is the fact that Zoroastrianism is a strongly ethnic religion and conversions are not possible. People can get out of this faith but no new converts can enter it. A faith meant for a people, therefore, dies with the people!