An Introduction to Zoroastrianism
Dr. Meredith Sprunger
Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Free Will Choice Between Good and Evil
Zoroastrianism is closely related to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Concepts of Satan, angelology, demonology, a deliverer, future life, Paradise and judgment in these religions may have been directly or indirectly derived from Zoroastrianism. Although it started with the intent of being a voluntarily accepted and universally adopted religion, today it is largely a hereditary faith reporting (1982) 271,000 followers living mostly in India and Iran.
The origins of Zoroastrian religion are shrouded in mystery. ‘ The ancient inhabitants of the Persian region were Aryan nature worshipers who venerated a series of deities known as daevas. Above these minor deities were higher gods among which the most important and popular was Mitra, the god of light, benefactor of cattle and upholder of loyalty and obedience. Part of these Aryans migrated into India which explains why many of the gods and practices of Vedic Hinduism and the ancient Persians are the same.
Zoroaster’s birth date in uncertain. Tradition says he was pre-existent and born of a fifteen year old virgin in 660 B.C. Many marvels accompanied his birth. His name, Zarathustra Spitama, indicates he was born into a warrior clan that was connected with the royal family of ancient Persia. At fifteen he put on the kusti, a sacred string belt symbolic of his passage into manhood as a member of his religion. He spent years, partially in solitude, searching for answers to religious questions. At the age of thirty Zoroaster had a vision of the angel Vohu Mana,, who appeared nine times the size of a man. The angel told him there was only one true God, Ahura Mazda, and that he was to become the prophet of Ahura Mazda. During the next ten years Zoroaster had other visions in which each of the archangels of Ahura Mazda appeared and revealed further truth to him.
He began preaching this new revelation but with no success. In ten years the only convert he won was a cousin. The turning point came when he met the Aryan King Vishtaspa. In a struggle with local priests he was thrown in jail but after two years won Vishtaspa to his faith, tradition says, by his wondrous cure of Vishtaspa’s favorite black horse. The king put all of his power behind the propagation of the faith. Zoroaster became a leader in the nation and married three wives and was the father of six children.
The next twenty years was spent vigorously promulgating the faith among Persians and fighting two holy wars in its defense. During a war with the Turanians an enemy soldier found the seventy-seven year old prophet tending the sacred flame in a fire temple and killed him.
Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda (Who is also given many other names) was the one true God and the nature gods or daevas (devils) his people worshipped were false gods. Ahura Mazda reveals himself to man through six modes (called archangels by Western scholars). Three were masculine and three were feminine in nature. Together with Ahura Mazda they compose seven sources of reality. The masculine immortals are Asha (knowledge of the law of God), Vohu-Mana (love), and Kshathra (loving service). The three feminine immortals are Armaiti (piety), Haurvatat (wholeness or perfection) and Ameretat (immortality).
The inclusive name of Zoroastrian scriptures is Avesta (knowledge) and it is divided into five main parts: Yasna (worship) Gathas (Psalms), Vendidad (law agains demons), Yashts (worship hymns), and the Khorda-Avesta (litanies and prayers). In Zoroastrianism there are a limitless number of angels. Two angels are said to record each person’s good and evil deeds. Mithra is the strongest of these heavenly beings and the ideal of soldiers. Zoroaster approached the problem of evil more systematically than do other world religions. His position is often referred to as a dualism but this is incorrect. He taught there were two spirits emanating from Ahura Mazda. One is Spenta Mainyu, the Beneficent Spirit; the other is Angra Mainyu, the Evil Spirit (sometimes known as Ahriman or Satan). These spirits or forces exist and operate much like the yin and yang of Taoism.
Zoroaster saw the forces of good struggling with the forces of evil in the world. Man is born in a pure and sinless state and has complete freedom of will to co-operate with good or evil and shape his destiny. It is possible for man to choose the path of righteousness and achieve perfection in this life. He believed in a law of retribution which is called kanna in Hinduism and is stated by St. Paul as, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.” Man is entirely responsible for his destiny
In Zoroaster’s eschatology the soul stays with the body for three days. On the fourth day the soul journeys to the place of judgment. If the preponderance of his life has been good the soul goes to Paradise; if evil it is sentenced to hell. The descriptions of hell by Zoroastrianism is suited to the sins of the person and filled with revolting horrors. These souls will abide in heaven or in hell until the final consummation of the world established by Ahura Mazda. Before the end of the world there will be three saviors who will come at intervals of one thousand years. At the end of the age Ahura Mazda will wipe out every trace of the evil work of Angra Mainyu. The souls from hell will be brought up and purified and will join the resurrected souls of the righteous and the world will enter a new cycle of perfection where no one will grow old or decay and Ahura Mazda will reign supreme.
Zoroastrianism teaches concern for good thought, good word, and good deed as expressed in truthfulness, chastity, justice, compassion, care of the soil and natural elements,, charity, education, and service. Their worship consists mainly in prayers requesting assistance in living righteous lives. They may offer sandalwood to be burned in the sacred fire which burns eternally in their temples. At the age of seven in India and ten in Iran the young Zoroastrian is received into his faith with the investiture of a sacred shirt (sade) and the sacred thread (kusti) and he must wear them the rest of his life except when bathing. There are ceremonies for all of the important points of life. At death the body dare not contaminate ground, fire, or water so it is placed in a Dakhma (tower of silence) where it is eaten by vultures or beasts of prey–or may be buried in a stone casket lined with lead.
The Persian empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B. C. Mithraic cults were established throughout the entire Mediterranean world and were a major rival of early Christianity. There was a revival of Zoroastrianism in the third century A. D. under the Sassanid rulers of Persia. When they were conquered by Muslim warriors in the seventh century followers of Zoroastrianism were eventually forced to convert to Islam or flee the country. Many followed their ancient kinsmen to India where they were known as Parsees. When the British arrived they favored the Parsee because they were not encumbered with the caste system or food taboos and because they valued education. The Parsee became leaders in education, business, and finance. Today they make up a small minority in India and an even smaller minority in Iran known as Gabars (infidels).
Index to the Full Series
I. Hinduism: The Religion of Divine Immanence and an Hereditary Graded Social Structure
II. Jainism: The Religion of Asceticism
III. Buddhism: The Religion of Peaceful, Ethical Self-culture
IV. Sikhism: The Religion of Syncretism
V. Taoism: The Religion of the Divine Way
VI. Confucianism: The Religion of Social Propriety
VII. Shinto: The Religion of Nature Worship, Emperor Worship and Purity
VIII. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Free Will Choice Between Good and Evil
IX. Judaism: The Religion of Ethical Monotheism
X. Christianity: The Religion of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man Mediated by Jesus Christ
XI. Islam: The Religion of Submission to God