As with Buddhism, Christianity, and Mohammedism, Zoroasterism is based upon the teaching of one person, Zoroaster, a prophet of unknown date from Iran, whose revelations are found in sacred writings, i.e. the Avesta, comprised of the Yasna, or liturgy, and the Gathas, or hymns. These hymns are attributed to Zoroaster. The Avesta is dated as around 1000 B. C., and is written in the Avestan language. It is the oldest of the revealed credal religions, and is associated with Iran (Persia).
Zoroaster emphasizes deeds and actions, for it is only through “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” that order can be maintained, and in Zoroaster’s revelation indeed the purpose of humankind is to assist in maintaining the order. In Yasna 45.9, Ahura Mazda “has left to men’s wills” to choose between doing good (that is, good thoughts, good words and good deeds) and doing evil (bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds). This concept of a free will is perhaps Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy.
Ahura Mazda is the “uncreated creator”, i.e. “God”, and as such created the other divinities in his teachings. He is worshiped by the adherents of Zoroasterism. Basic beliefs are:
- There is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, the one Uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed.
- Ahura Mazda’s creation — evident as asha, truth and order — is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict.
- Active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism.
* Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end (cf: Zoroastrian eschatology). In the final renovation, all of creation — even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness” — will be reunited in Ahura Mazda. At the end of time a savior-figure [a Saoshyant] will bring about a final renovation of the world, and in which the dead will be revived.
- There will then be a final purgation of evil from the Earth (through a tidal wave of molten metal) and a purgation of evil from the heavens (through a cosmic battle of spiritual forces). In the end good will triumph, and each person will find himself or herself transformed into a spiritualized body and soul. Those who died as adults will be transformed into healthy adults of forty years of age, and those who died young will find themselves permanently youthful, about age fifteen. In these new spiritual bodies, humans will live without food, without hunger or thirst, and without weapons (or possibility of bodily injury). The material substance of the bodies will be so light as to cast no shadow. All humanity will speak a single language and belong to a single nation without borders. All will experience immortality (Ameretat) and will share a single purpose and goal, joining with the divine for a perpetual exaltation of God’s glory.
- In Zoroastrian tradition the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu, the “Destructive Principle”, while the benevolent is represented through Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that transcendental Ahura Mazda is immanent in humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the Ahuna Vairya formula Ahura Mazda made His ultimate triumph evident to Angra Mainyu.
- As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated seven “sparks”, the Amesha Spentas (“Bounteous Immortals”), that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each “Worthy of Worship” and each again a hypostasis o * Water and fire: In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principal act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters” (see Ab-Zohr). Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom.
- Proselytizing and conversion: Zoroastrians do not proselytize and living Zoroastrianism has no missionaries. There may be historical reasons for this (in Islamic Iran proselytizing was/is a capital crime), but in recent years, and with the exception of the Indian priesthood, Zoroastrian communities are generally supportive of conversion.
- Inter-faith marriages: As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. Some members of the Indian Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old legal definition (since overruled) of ‘Parsi’. This issue is a matter of great debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they were previously.
* Life, death and reincarnation: In Zoroastrian tradition, life is a temporary state in which a mortal is expected to actively participate in the continuing battle between truth and falsehood. Prior to being born, the soul (urvan) of an individual is still united with its fravashi, of which there are as very many, and which have existed since Mazda created the universe. During life, the fravashi acts as a guardian and protector. On the fourth day after death, the soul is reunited with its fravashi, and in which the experiences of life in the material world are collected for the continuing battle in the spiritual world. In general, Zoroastrianism does not have a notion of reincarnation, at least not until the final renovation of the world.
- Disposal of the dead: In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay, i.e. of druj. Consequently, scripture enjoins the “safe” disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the “good” creation. These injunctions are the doctrinal basis of the fast-fading traditional practice of ritual exposure, most commonly identified with the so-called “Towers of Silence” for which there is no standard technical term in either scripture or tradition. The practice of ritual exposure is only practiced by Zoroastrian communities of the Indian subcontinent, where it is not illegal, but where alternative disposal methods are desperately sought after diclofenac poisoning has led to the virtual extinction of scavenger birds. Other Zoroastrian communities either cremate their dead, or bury them in graves that are cased with lime mortar.
They worship in what are called “fire temples”.
Most notable of the surviving groups are the Parsis of India, particularly in Bombay, with a world famous “Tower of Silence” on Malabar Hill. Famous members and families are Zubin Mehta, the Wadias, the Tatas, and the Godrejs.
There are between 125-200,000 adherents world-wide; 20,000 in Iran; 70,000 Parsis in India, notably around Bombay; 5,000 in Karachi, Pakistan;
5,000 in Sydney, Australia; and 20,00 in the U.S. and Canada.