Zoroastrianism, a religion, a Commentary

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November 30,2008

Zoroastrianism is the ancient, pre-Islamic religion of Persia (modern Iran). It survives there in isolated areas but more prosperously in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Persian immigrants are known as Parsis, or Parsees. In India the religion is called Parsiism.

Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell likely influenced the major Western religons of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Stats

Date founded:
c.6th cent. BC
Place founded:
Ancient Persia
Founder:
Zarathustra (Zoroaster)
Adherents:
150-200,000

History

Zarathustra (in Greek, Zoroaster) was a Persian prophet who at the age of 30 believed he had seen visions of God, whom he called Ahura Mazda, the creator of all that is good and who alone is worthy of worship. This was a departure from previous Indo-Persian polytheism, and Zarathustra has been termed the first non-biblical monotheist. There is disagreement among scholars as to exactly when and where Zarathustra lived, but most agree that he lived in eastern Iran around the sixth century BC.

Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian Empire, but it virtually disappeared in Persia after the Muslim invasion of 637 AD. Only about 10,000 survive in remote villages in Iran, but over the centuries many sought religious freedom in India.

The Zoroastrian sacred text is the Avesta ("Book of the Law"), a fragmentary collection of sacred writings. Compiled over many centuries, the Avesta was not completed until Persia's Sassanid dynasty (226-641 AD). It consists of: liturgical works with hymns ascribed to Zarathustra (the Gathas); invocations and rituals to be used at festivals; hymns of praise; and spells against demons and prescriptions for purification.

Beliefs

The Zoroastrian concept of God incorporates both monotheism and dualism. In his visions, Zarathustra was taken up to heaven, where Ahura Mazda revealed that he had an opponent, Aura Mainyu, the spirit and promoter of evil. Ahura Mazda charged Zarathustra with the task of inviting all human beings to choose between him (good) and Aura Mainyu (evil).

Though Zoroastrianism was never as aggressively monotheistic as Judaism or Islam, it does represent an original attempt at unifying under the worship of one supreme god a polytheistic religion comparable to those of the ancient Greeks, Latins, Indians, and other early peoples.

Its other salient feature, namely dualism, was never understood in an absolute, rigorous fashion. Good and Evil fight an unequal battle in which the former is assured of triumph. God's omnipotence is thus only temporarily limited.

Zoroaster taught that man must enlist in this cosmic struggle because of his capacity of free choice. Thus Zoroastrianism is a highly ethical religion in which the choice of good over evil has almost cosmic importance. Zarathustra taught that humans are free to choose between right and wrong, truth and lie, and light and dark, and that their choices would affect their eternity destiny.

The Zoroastrian afterlife is determined by the balance of the good and evil deeds, words, and thoughts of the whole life. For those whose good deeds outweight the bad, heaven awaits. Those who did more evil than good go to hell (which has several levels corresponding to degrees of wickedness). There is an intermediate stage for those whose deeds weight out equally.

This general principle is not absolute, however, but allows for human weakness. All faults do not have to be registered or weighed forever on the scales. There are two means of effacing them: confession and the transfer of supererogatory merits (similar to the Roman Catholic "Treasury of Merits"). The latter is the basis for Zoroastrian prayers and ceremonies for the departed.

Zoroaster invoked saviors who, like the dawns of new days, would come to the world. He hoped himself to be one of them. After his death, the belief in coming saviors developed. He also incorporated belief in angels and demons.

Zoroaster's ideas of ethical monotheism, heaven, hell, angelology, the resurrection of the body, and the messiah figure were influential on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though to what extent is not known for certain.

Practices

Today's Zoroastrians (Parsis) practice an important coming of age ritual, in which all young Parsis must be initiated when they reach the age of seven (in India) or 10 (in Persia). They receive the shirt (sadre) and the girdle (kusti), which they are to wear their whole life.

There are three types of purification, in order of increasing importance:

  • padyab, or ablution
  • nahn, or bath
  • bareshnum, a complicated ritual performed at special places with the participation of a dog (whose left ear is touched by the candidate and whose gaze puts the evil spirits to flight) and lasting several days

The Zoroastrian system of penance entails reciting the patet, the firm resolve not to sin again, and the confession of sins to a dastur or to an ordinary priest if a dastur is not obtainable.

The chief ceremony, the Yasna, essentially a sacrifice of haoma (the sacred liquor), is celebrated before the sacred fire with recitation of large parts of the Avesta. There also are offerings of bread and milk and, formerly, of meat or animal fat.

The sacred fire must be kept burning continually and has to be fed at least five times a day. Prayers also are recited five times a day. The founding of a new fire involves a very elaborate ceremony. There are also rites for purification and for regeneration of a fire.

Zoroastrian burial rites center on exposure of the dead. After death, a dog is brought before the corpse (preferably a "four-eyed" dog, i.e., with a spot above each eye, believed to increase the efficacy of its gaze). The rite is repeated five times a day. After the first one, fire is brought into the room where it is kept burning until three days after the removal of the corpse to the Tower of Silence. The removal must be done during the daytime.

The interior of the Tower of Silence is built in three concentric circles, one each for men, women, and children. The corpses are exposed there naked. The vultures do not take long—an hour or two at the most—to strip the flesh off the bones, and these, dried by the sun, are later swept into the central well. Formerly the bones were kept in an ossuary, the astodan, to preserve them from rain and animals. The morning of the fourth day is marked by the most solemn observance in the death ritual, for it is then that the departed soul reaches the next world and appears before the deities who are to pass judgment over it.

Festivals, in which worship is an essential part, are characteristic aspects of Zoroastrianism, a faith that enjoins on man the pleasant duty of being happy. The principal festivals in the Parsi year are the six seasonal festivals, Gahanbars, and the days in memory of the dead at year's end. Also, each day of the month and each of the 12 months of the year is dedicated to a deity. The day named after the month is the great feast day of that particular deity.

The New Year festival, Noruz, is the most joyous and beautiful of Zoroastrian feasts, a spring festival in honour of Rapithwin, the personification of noonday and summer. The festival to Mithra, or Mehragan, was traditionally an autumn one, as honoured as the spring feast of Noruz.