Zoroastrianism is the name given to a religion practiced by several hundred thousand people. While there are few Zoroastrians now, it once was the official religion of Sassanid Persia and played an important role in Achaemenid times as well.
According to internal and external histories, a prophet named Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), who by general consensus lived between 600-1000 BC, appeared in Persia. He came to reform ancient religious practices (some of which were parallel to those of ancient India). Zoroastrianism is sometimes also called Mazdaism after the name for God, Ahura Mazda "Lord Wisdom".
Zoroastrianism combines elements of monotheism and dualism. Many modern scholars believe that Zoroastrianism had a large influence on Judaism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, Christianity. There is evidence that Cyrus the Great, himself a Zoroastrian, helped foster Judaism and other monotheistic religions as a way of spreading his ideas.
The holy book of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta. Of the Avesta, only the Gathas (the hymns) are attributed to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself.
Central to Zoroastrianism is the world's constant struggle between Good and Evil. In the beginning of creation, the Supreme God ("Ahura Mazda") (meaning wise God and characterized by endless light, omniscience, and goodness) opposed Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) an evil spirit of darkness, violence and death. This cosmic dualism between good and evil stands in marked contrast to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in which Satan is in no way the equal of 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.)
The resulting cosmic conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which is required to choose one of the two paths to follow. Evil, and the Spirit of Evil, will be completely destroyed at the end of time. Dualism will come to an end and Goodness will be all in all. Men are free to choose the path of either spirit. The path of good or righteousness ("Asha ") will lead to happiness ("Ushta "), whereas the path of evil will lead to unhappiness, enmity, and war. Therefore, it's strongly encouraged that one chooses Asha. This philosophy is symbolized in one of the religion's main mottos: "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds."
With the duality of good and evil comes the concepts of Heaven, Hell and the Final Day. After death, a person's soul crosses a bridge ("Chinvato Peretu ") on which its good deeds are weighed against its bad deeds. The soul reaches heaven or falls to hell based on the outcome. When evil is finally defeated on the Final Day, the world will be purified by a bath of molten metal and the souls of sinners will be released from hell.
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. 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 their homeland and rebuild the Temple of Solomon, 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.
When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in Iran in 228 AD, they aggressively promoted their Zoroastrian religion. Many Persian Christian sources during this period claim that the Sassanid kings persecuted Christians within Persia. Christianity never seems to have been banned outright during this period. 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, a large number of Iranian Zoroastrians fled to India in large numbers, where they were given 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:
- Equality of sex. Men and women are equal in all manners within society.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Inter-religious marriages and recruiting. Zoroastrians do not proselytize. It is thought that the only way to become a Zoroastrian is to be born within a Zoroastrian family. However this tradition is also debated quite often. Like 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. Now, many Zoroastrians dispose of their dead through burial or cremation.
Small but thriving Zoroastrian communities are found in India, Pakistan and Iran, 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.
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), author Rohinton Mistry of books including Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance, all in the diaspora; as well as the Tata, Godrej and Wadia industrial families in India itself. The Tata group is one of India's oldest industrial houses and is currently the second largest conglomerate in India. Famous Zoroastrians from Indian history include Phirozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji and Bhikaiji Cama.
The most famous Iranian Zoroastrian is Dr. Farhang Mehr, former deputy prime minister of Iran, Boston University professor emeritus, longtime activist for religious freedom, and subject of the biography Triumph Over Discrimination by Lylah M. Alphonse.
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