Zoroastrianism: History, definition, founder & beliefs
Zoroastrianism is defined as a monotheistic pre-Islamic religion that emerged in ancient Persia around the 6th century BC. Established by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zartosht or Zarathustra), Zoroastrianism has Ahura Mazda as the supreme deity and creator of everything in the universe. The core objective of believers in this religion is to do as much good for themselves as well as for others.
What else is Zoroastrianism most known for? What’s the history behind this Persian religion? And how has it fared over the centuries?
Below WHE takes a quick look at the history, beliefs and symbol of Zoroastrianism. The article also touches on the Zoroastrian prophet Zoroaster.
Zoroastrianism is said to have taken roots in ancient Persia, which at the time was a polytheistic society, i.e. the ancient Persian religion. In that pantheon, Ahura Mazda presided over the various ancient Persian deities. The central tenet of the gods (good) fighting evil (darkness) seems to have been transferred into Zoroastrianism.
Steadily, the religion would grow and become popular across the first Persian Empire (i.e. the Achaemenid Persian Empire), which lasted from the mid-6th century BC to the 4th century BC. It also had followers in the Parthian Empire as well as the Sassanian Empire. In the latter empire, the religion was adopted as the official state religion.
With the onset of the Muslim Invasion from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-6th century AD, the followers of Zoroastrianism came under severe persecution. The Muslim invaders fought tooth and nail to quash the faith. Worship sites (i.e. fire temples) and centers of the faith were razed to the ground. Many leading figures and priests (Magi) were killed, and the few that were lucky to survive had to go into exile. In some cases Zoroastrian worship places were converted into mosques by the conquering Muslims. As result, the number of believers shrank drastically. The dwindling fortunes of Zoroastrianism was also partly due to the fact that some of the followers were forced to convert to Islam, while others went into hiding in order to practice their faith. In the rare cases that they were allowed to keep their faith, heavy taxes were levied on them by the Muslim rulers.
Regardless of those heavy persecutions, the faith somehow survived, especially among the Parsis of India. Those followers of the faith would go on to establish very successful businesses and industries. The Parsis are famed for having had a hand in the rise of financial capital market in Mumbai.
Today, the faith, like the fire lit on altars in Zoroastrian temples, remains alive around the globe, although not in large numbers as there are about 200,000 followers worldwide. In the US, the number was around 11,000 as at 2006. Six years later, in 2012, that figure almost doubled to around 21,000.
Ahura Mazda – the supreme deity
Two thousand years ago, polytheism was the order of the day among the people that inhabited what is today’s Iran. Among those many gods in the early Persian mythology, Ahura Mazda ranked supreme. He was the one who stood firmly between light and goodness and the forces of chaos and evil. He was the people’s protector. It was believed that the society could ward off evil by choosing to do good things as well as obeying the commandments of Ahura Mazda. It was said that the forces of evil were led by a dark spirit called Angra Mainyu. But how did that dark spirit come to being?
Did you know: The early polytheistic Persian religion was quite similar to Vedic rituals and tradition; the latter is what ended up becoming Hinduism?
The creation of the universe and the first humans – Mashya and Mashynag
In the early Persian mythology, it was believed that Ahura Mazda, king of the pantheon, was the supreme who created the universe. He went about it in seven stages until he ultimately created the first humans – a man and a woman called Mashya and Mashynag, respectively. He placed the couple in a safe and serene environment where they did not lack anything. However, within this paradise lurked a dark force that thrived on the negative energy of creation. Deceived by this dark force, Angra Mainyu, Mashya and Mashynag ended up straying away from the Ahura Mazda. And so Ahura Mazda cast the couple out of paradise into the harsh and chaotic world. Taking a bit of pity on them, Ahura Mazda made a pact with their descendants, promising to keep them safe and content so long as they remained true to him.
Sacred texts and communal worship services
It’s said that Zoroaster didn’t pen any of his ideas down; instead it was his followers and disciples who memorized his sermons, prayers and hymns and then passed it on in oral form to the next generation. A few centuries later, the teachings were compiled in text.
The Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, is believed to contain the prayers that Prophet Zoroaster and other priests made to Ahura Mazda. The Avesta also includes a number of hymns called Yasna-Gathas. Kind courtesy of those texts, we know that religious rituals took place outside and that the altar’s fire should be kept lit at all time.
Rituals were kept relatively simple, with offerings taking the form of food or grains and talismans most of the time. Those offerings were used to seek the gods’ intervention in the individual’s life. In addition to offering prayers and singing hymns, Zoroastrian priests (Magi) were the ones who took the offerings, making the priests very rich and powerful. As it was common in many ancient civilizations, Zoroastrian priests also wielded significant political power in Persia.
In Zoroastrianism, animal sacrifices are as much as possible avoided. Animals, especially dogs, were seen as pure creatures that deserve to be treated with love.
Who was Zoroaster?
As explained in the introduction, Zoroaster was the founder of the faith. It’s said that his parents – Pourusaspa and Dughdova – hailed from noble and relatively wealthy family in what is today northeastern Iran. In some accounts, however, he was born in what is now southwestern Afghanistan.
His father for example was probably a priest. Therefore, many of Zoroaster’s siblings ended up following in his father’s footstep and became priests.
Owing to his family’s socio-economic status, Zoroaster was able to attend school at a very young age. And by his mid-teens he had become a priest assistant. He would leave home around the age of 20 to further his career. Unfortunately, Zoroaster came to feel disturbed by the ritual of sacrificing animals by his fellow priests.
Around the age of 30, it’s said that Zoroaster, who was by then a full-fledged priest, had a powerful vision during a festival celebration. According to him, he was visited by a celestial being who called himself Vohu Mahah (i.e. “good force” or “Good Mind”). This heavenly being (Amesha Spentas) told Zoroaster that he had been sent by the Supreme Being Ahura Mazda himself to inform the people of the priests’ false worship. Vohu Mahah informed Zoroaster that the people were worshiping false gods, and that there was one true Supreme Being, and he went by the name of Ahura Mazda. This Supreme Being was not interested in the animal sacrifices that people offered, instead he was only moved by good conduct and a clean heart. Zoroaster was supposed to act as Ahura Mazda’s prophet and spread the true faith.
Zoroaster’s true faith
Typical of any new faith that emerges, Zoroaster initially struggled to convince the people to abandon animal sacrifices and their false gods. The thought of worshiping only one god was very alien to his people. And so, Zoroaster became an outcast. His preaching was perceived as a threat to the established religious structure. Zoroaster is said to have then prayed to Ahura Mazda to give him the strength and fortitude to keep on going.
Wholeheartedly believing that he was under the guidance of Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster found himself called up to King Vishtaspa’s palace, where he participated in a very charged religious debate with the king’s priests and senior court officials. Even though Zoroaster won the debate, the king simply could not accept Zoroaster’s teachings, as that would mean discarding centuries’ old polytheistic belief in favor of monotheism. Not wanting to undermine his rule, Vishtaspa had Zoroaster imprisoned.
As fate would have it, while Zoroaster was behind bars, the king’s favorite horse fell severely ill. In spite of the court priests’ sacrifices and prayers to their gods, the horse could not be healed. Zoroaster would then show to everyone the amazing power of his one true god, Ahura Mazda, by healing the King’s horse. The king subsequently gave Zoroaster his freedom. The king would then go on to accept Zoroaster’s faith and become the first convert of the religion. And so his courtiers followed suit, and soon, Zoroastrianism had become the official faith of the kingdom. It remains unclear how Zoroaster’s faith became widespread or how it gained roots in the Achaemenid Empire. The rulers of the empire became devout followers, including kings like Cyrus the Great, Xerxes the Great, and Darius the Great.
Even in his old age, Zoroaster never took a day off in preaching. He is said to have died of natural causes around the age of 77. In some accounts, however, he was assassinated by goons sent by a priest of the old faith.
Central tenets in Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, the Supreme Being Ahura Mazda is described as an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient being. In other words, he is eternal and full of only goodness and wisdom. Deities that existed in the old pantheon were stripped of some of their powers and became Amesha Spentas (“Holy Immortals”) – celestial manifestations of Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrianism is firmly supported by five main principles, which are:
- Ahura Mazda is the only Supreme Being.
- The abundant goodness of Ahura Mazda.
- Angra Mainya is evil.
- Good thoughts, good words, and good behavior produce goodness.
- Ahura Mazda gave us free will to make choices between light and darkness, or between good and evil.
The origin of evil
The question that often begs to be answered is: If Ahura Mazda, an all-good supreme deity, created everything that exists in the universe, then where did the evil force Angra Mainyu come from? None of the scriptures attempt to answer this question properly.
In latter works, there were attempts made by some scholars to explain the origin of Angra Mainyu. Some stated that evil emerged from the negative energy and strain that accompanied creation. With time, that negative energy morphed into a very powerful being who was capable of wrecking the things Ahura Mazda had created, including humans.
Pursuits in life
In Zoroastrianism, humans have free will to make choices. Depending on those choices, one could find him/herself either full content in this life or caught in a very a painful existence. It’s said that one avoids the latter by abiding by the principles mentioned above. Behavior that is underpinned by the pursuit of truth (“asha”), showing love and kindness all go a long way in helping one become fulfilled not just in this life but also in the afterlife, where the individual will be rewarded handsomely by Ahura Mazda.
It’s said the wage of evil behavior, ignorance and lies or falsehood (“druj”) is torment and misery in the afterlife.
The afterlife in Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrians believe that after one dies, his/her soul remains close to the body for about three days. In order to safeguard the soul from being corrupted by the darkness (“daevas”), a dog is placed in the room. When the soul is ready, it will then be ferried away to a hall full of gods who determine whether the individual should be rewarded or punished. Individuals with good would have a relatively easy journey through the underworld. Unlike an evil soul, a good soul would not be met by a dog that rebukes. Their conscience would appear to them as a beautiful maiden. They would also have an easy time making it past a bridge. However, for an evil soul, the bridge would be extremely narrow, making it very difficult to cross.
If the soul is judged to be righteous by the angel Rashnu, the soul is sent to paradise, also known as the House of Song. However, for souls adjudged as unrighteous, the soul would be sent to hell. The souls in hell do not stay there for an eternity. It’s believed that those souls would be redeemed and their sins washed clean by a messiah called Saoshyant (“One Who Comes with Reward”). Saoshyant would carry all the souls to paradise, where they would live in the company of Ahura Mazda for eternity. This also means that Angra Mainyu would no longer exist.
The element of fire and its importance in Zoroastrianism
Far from what some people in the West think, Zoroastrians do not worship fire. Instead fire is seen as one of the elements created by Ahura Mazda to ward off bad spirits. Fire, which is said to be the light of Ahura Mazda, is considered a pure element. It’s believed that Ahura Mazda created fire after creating the first human couple – Mashya and Mashynag.
Yasna refers to the ritual worship of Ahura Mazda. Most often fire is a common feature in those rituals. According to the belief, fire was the last element Ahura Mazda created. Fire is therefore seen as a sacred. This is also the reason why the fire lit at the altar always remains on. Prayers are said in the presence of the sacred fire. In Zoroastrianism, the good spirits are called ahuras, while the bad spirits are called daevas. As much as possible, one must strive to remain in the light and under the guidance of Ahura Mazda.
Funeral rites in Zoroastrianism
Interring the corpse in the ground is also considered unacceptable. Instead they honored the dead with a “sky burial”. This is where the corpse is placed on a platform (Tower of Silence or dakhmas) and exposed to the elements and vultures and other scavengers. Once that was done, what is left of the corpse is then interred in ossuaries. It was believed that burial and cremation would make the elements of earth and fire unclean.
In Zoroastrianism, when someone dies, grieving too much can be seen as a bad thing. This is because death is considered a part of Ahura Mazda’s overall plan. Care is taken to not make too much noise during the funeral ceremony.
Persian rulers’ tolerance for religious diversity
Although the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire were devout followers of Zoroastrianism, they did not try to force their beliefs upon their subjects. The first ruler and founder of the dynasty, Cyrus the Great, is praised for being tolerant when it came to religion, especially in conquered territories. Cyrus and the Persian kings that followed him were guided by asha – a Zoroastrian law that espouses truth and righteousness.
In Zorvanism, what could only be described as an branch of Zorastrainism, Zorvan (Time) is rather the supreme being. Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are twin brothers of equal strength. In the end, it is Zorvan (Time) who will decide which of the brothers will be victorious. In this branch of the faith, the individual appears to lose his free will as Time was the being that dictated the outcome of everything in the universe.
Interestingly, there are no accounts of adherents to Zorvanism being punished for their belief. This further reinforces the point of ancient Persian rulers being very tolerant to diverse religious beliefs.
Persecution by the early Christians and Muslim Arab Invaders
Prior to the Muslim Arab Invasions of the 7th century AD, the early Christians of the 4th century had done considerable amount of persecution of adherents to Zoroastrianism. Regarded as a false faith, Christians in the region entered the temples (Agiary) and extinguished the fires on the altar.
Compared to the Muslim Arab Invasions, the Christians’ persecution of Zoroastrian’s were not that damaging. This was because the Christians did not have the numbers or the power to effectively carry out their persecution of Zoroastrians.
The Parsis were Zoroastrian adherents that fled persecution (via the Arabian Sea) during the Muslim conquest of Persia that began in the mid-seventh century A.D. The Parsis would settle in Gujarat in western India. By not discarding their beliefs and religious practices, they were able to keep Zoroastrianism alive.
Some important statistics and facts about Zoroastrianism
Some scholars state that a similar religion to Zoroastrianism may have sprouted up as far back as 1,500 BC or 2,000 BC. If this assertion were true, this would make it one of the oldest monotheistic faiths in human history. The fact that it still has adherents to this day makes it even more amazing. It’s been estimated there are about 120,000 to 200,000 worshippers across the world, many of them in India and Iran.
There are some scholars, however, that believe that Zoroaster existed around the same time as Cyrus the Great, the mid-6th century BC founding-ruler of the Achaemenid Dynasty.
Although some of Zoroaster’s prayers and sermons survive to this day, it remains unclear as to the exact year Zoroaster lived. It’s been proposed that Zoroaster lived in the same era as Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty in the sixth century BC.
The famous Silk Road network is credited with facilitating the spread of Zoroastrianism across Asia.
German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) kind of made Zoroastrianism popular in Europe. This was due to the German’s famous novel titled Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It’s worth mentioning that Nietzsche was an atheist.
Ever heard of the Japanese automaker Mazda? Well, it turns out that the name of the brand was influenced by Ahura Mazda.
Demographic crisis in the faith
Zoroastrianism, a religion that was once the most dominant religion in the world, is today considered a small religion, as the total number of adherents worldwide is less than a quarter of a million.
Some say the demographic crisis the Zoroastrian faith faces has to do with its core tenet of free will. What this means is that they try as much as possible not to force people into their faith. Zoroastrian in an interfaith marriage does not believe in compulsion. Others say it has to do with the restrictions conservatives place on interfaith marriages.
A Parsi descendant, British legendary musician Freddie Mercury was an adherent of Zoroastrianism. Even after his death, a Zoroastrian funeral arrangement was made for him. The front man of the famous English band Queen was born Farrokh Bulsara. Apparently his Parsi family had roots in India.
The Parsis community in India can boast of successful Indian businessmen and industrialists such as the Tata, Poonawalla and Godrej families. According to The Economic Times of India, Poonawalla is the founder of the Serum Institute of India, a leading vaccine-maker in the world.
No other symbol in Zoroastrianism is as popular as the Faravahar. In the symbol, a bearded man, with one hand raised forward, is seen standing above a pair of wings. The circle in the image is said to symbolize eternity.
The second most important symbol is fire. Zoroastrians consider fire as sacred symbol. It’s is believed that fire has the ability to cleans one’s soul as it represents light (or Ahura Mazda). It’s even believed that at the beginning of time, Ahura Mazda provided great fires for three temples.
Water is also an important element in rituals in Zoroastrianism. It’s believed that water is used to cleanse the individual and the world in general. The religion also calls on adherents to cherish and respect nature.
The impact Zoroastrianism had on Abrahamic religions
Many of the concepts that exist in the Abrahamic religions of today were derived from Zoroastrianism. For example, the concept of heaven and hell, free will, individual responsibility and salvation, day of reckoning after one dies, the messiah, and the end of time. Take the case of Judaism (i.e. from the Kingdom of Judea), it’s said that the Jews picked up some of Zoroastrian concepts while being held in captivity in Babylonia. After the Jews were liberated by Cyrus the Great, who had conquered the Babylonian Empire, they returned to Jerusalem, carrying along with them the concepts they observed in Zoroastrianism.
Read More: 12 Major Events in Ancient Persia
Interesting facts about Zoroastrianism
- Zoroastrianism has sometimes gone by the name Mazdayasna, which means “devotion to Mazda”. Ahura Mazda or simply Mazda, the supreme deity and creator of the universe in Zoroastrianism, is described as the deity who sustains everything in the universe; he’s also been called Lord of Wisdom or Lord of the Universe.
- In Zoroastrianism, praying several times a day helps one stay on the path of righteousness.
- The founder and leading prophet, Zoroaster, in the religion is called Zarathustra in ancient Persian. Zoroaster is actually the Greek name for the prophet.