Zoroastrianism - An Overview Of Zoroastrian Religion

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

Zoroastrianism derives its names from its founder Zoroaster, the Persian prophet, who is also known as Zarathushtra. Zoroastrianism also goes by other names such as Mazdesianism, after Ahura Mazda, the highest god of Zoroastrians; and Parsiism, a name derived after Parsis, a group of ancient Iranians, who migrated to India in the 7th century AD after the fall of Sassanid dynasty to escape persecution in the hands of Islamic invaders. A small but vibrant community of Parsis continue to practice this ancient religion in India and contribute richly to the country's cultural, religious and ethnic diversity.

History of Zoroastrianism

We do not have much historical information about Zoroaster. His date is uncertain. Historians tend to places him at different time periods ranging from 1200 BC to 500 BC, with no certainty about any of the arguments. Although Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of Zoroaster, according to the revelations he received, we cannot say that he introduced an entirely new religion. The many pastoral communities of ancient Iran used to practice a primitive religion that was closer to the early Vedic tradition of India and rooted in nature worship. sacrificial rituals and invocations to various divinities. Zoroaster superimposed several new concepts on the prevailing traditions, discarding those that contradicted his new teachings and retaining those that fitted into the new dogma. He also shifted the focus of the religion from ritual purity to ethical purity and from polytheism to monotheism, without discarding the polytheistic elements. As a result Zoroastrianism developed into a complex religion with a rich diversity of traditions, beliefs and practices integrating into itself the best of the past and the teachings of Zoroaster. Although in the initial phases Zoroaster faced resistance from the local rules in accepting the new religion, over a period of time Zoroastrianism became the dominant religion of ancient Iran and some adjoining countries northwest of the Indian subcontinent. It remained the dominant religion of the region, till Iran was occupied by the Islamic invaders who replaced it with Islam.

Main Beliefs of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of Zoroaster, which are preserved in the Zend Avesta, the main scripture of Zoroastrianism. In addition to it, there are some ancillary texts known as the Pahalavi texts, which contain translations and commentaries in middle-Persian language of ancient and lost texts. Although they are not the original texts, they provide valuable information and guidance on the principles and practice of the religion. Some of the important beliefs we find in these texts are summarized below.

1. Belief in Ahura Mazda as the highest and supreme lord of the universe.

2. Belief in the Prophet Zoroaster and His teachings

2. Belief in the existence of six Immortal Beings and many divinities who are part of God's force.

3. Belief in an ongoing conflict between God and evil in which God will ultimately destroy evil.

4. Belief in worshipping God through sacrificial rituals such as Yasna, Haoma, prayers and mantras for the purification of the world and human beings.

5. Belief in the sanctity of fire as a symbol of God in the material plane.

6. Belief in Asha or Universal Order.

7. Belief in the creation of God in the spiritual and material planes

8. Belief in the spiritual nature of man

9. Belief in heaven and hell and divine justice

10. Belief in future prophets

11. Belief in the ending of the world in a violent conflagration

12. Belief in the resurrection of the dead and last judgment day.

Main Practices of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrians believe in the importance of righteous conduct and ethical purity in their lives in order to obtain heavenly life and avoid punishment. Zoroastrianism is a puritanical religion which is difficult to follow because of the emphasis on righteousness, truthfulness and moral integrity and the need to maintain distance from all things perceived to be impure, evil and immoral. Following are some of the important practices of Zoroastrianism.

1. Practice of three commandments. Every Zoroastrian should practice the three commandments of Zoraster, namely good thoughts, good words and good deeds.

2. Practice of moderation and balance. There is no place for ascetic practices in Zoroastrianism. People are advised to lead ethical, balanced and harmonious lives.

3. Kusti and Sudre. Every follower should wear kusti a sacred thread and sudreh, a white garment.

4. Naujote or initiation ceremony is prescribed for both boys and girls when they are are inducted into the religion.

5. Worship of God. God is worshipped both at home and in fire temples through prayers and sacrificial rituals in which verses from the Avesta are recited.

6. Fire worship. In Zoroastrianism, fire is a sacred symbol of God in the material plane. Every Zoroastrian is expected to preserve the purity of Fire through prayers and proper conduct.

7. Disposal of the dead. Zoroastrians neither cremate nor bury their dead. They place the dead in open round structures called dakhmas and allow the bodies to be consumed by vultures and other flesh eating birds and animals.

8. Prohibition of inter religious marriages. Marriage outside their religion is not allowed by the religious scriptures both for ethical and spiritual reasons.

Present challenges

As a minority community in various parts of the world, especially in India and Iran, whose total population may not exceed a few hundred thousand, the Zoroastrians today face many challenges that threaten to destroy their identity and survival as a religious community. The Zoroastrians who live in India have many questions and concerns, especially in a community whose younger generation does not view the problems of duality between God and evil as seriously as the religion emphasizes. The major challenges faced by them today are:

1. Modern life presents its own challenges to maintain the purity and sanctity of our lives amidst the people we meet, places we visit and live.

2. Unfamiliarity with the tradition often results in the misinterpretation of the Zoroastrian beliefs and practices by people who are brought up with a different set of values. One glaring example is the way the Zoroastrian practice of the disposal of the dead is dramatized and presented to the general public for the shocking effect it produces.

2. Difficulties in disposing off the dead. The method and the manner in which the dead bodies are disposed of poses its own challenges for the community in the modern world.

3. Difficulties in enforcing the code of conduct and religious observance due to lack of enforcing authority, which used to be the state backed priestly community in ancient times.

4. Difficulties in practicing good thought, good words and good actions due to the invasion of TV, radio and other communication channels, which keep transmitting negative content day and day out. From a Zoroastrian perspective, these communication tools project evil, glorify evil and transmit evil.

5. Difficulties in preventing inter religious marriages.

Similarities with other religions

Being an important religion of the ancient world, in an area crisscrossed with ancient trade routes, connecting the east with the west, Zoroastrianism finds itself in a fragmentary form in almost all the major religions of the world today. While we are not sure of the reasons behind these similarities, from a historical perspective they offer an important insight into the development of religious thought in the ancient world. Following are some of the similarities between Zoroastrianism and other major religions of the world.

Similarities with Hinduism

1. Sacrificial rituals known as Yasnas in Zoroastrianism and Yajna in Hinduism.

2. Worship of gods bearing identical names such as Mithra and Yama or Yima.

3. Elements of both polytheism and monotheism.

4. Ritual chanting of manthra or mantras during religious ceremonies.

5. A three tier universe consisting of upper, middle and lower regions.

6. The concept of divine moral order called Arta or Asha in Zoroastrianism and Rta in Hinduism.

7. The conflict between good and evil forces with God on the side of the good forces.

8. The division of time into four periods in which good will progressively decline and evil would ascend to a point where God's intervention would become necessary.

9. God as protector and upholder of righteousness.

10. The concept of heaven and hell.

11. Death being viewed as the cause of impurities.

Similarities with Judaism

1. The concept of God as the protector and creator who punishes the sinners and rewards the righteous.

2. Belief and emphasis on prayers as the best means to communicate with God.

3. Belief in the tradition of prophets.

4. The idea of covenant or agreement between God and people.

5. Emphasis on righteous conduct by following the commandments of God.

6. Prohibition of idol worship.

7. Belief in the impurity of the dead.

7. Belief in the final coming of a future prophet.

The following passage from the Denkard (Bk.3-Chp.310) derides the Jewish religion in the following words:

"Be it known that all good qualities continue to arise in this world from the Mazdayasnian faith; and all wickedness has been known to arise through the devilish faith of the Jews. Thus the world becomes better through the Mazdayasnians and gets ruined through the Jewish abomination.

"Men acquire contentment, diligence, zeal, obedience to God, modesty, dignity, power of cherishing, morality, wisdom, courtesy, magnanimity, charity, truth, faithfulness, good intentions and other good qualities by the divine wisdom of the Mazdayasnian faith. And a man possessing this improves the world.

"Avarice, revengefulness, slothfulness, idleness, pride, obstinacy, insolence, envy, immorality, ignorance, selfishness, disobedience, indifference to religion, miserliness, falsehood, ingratitude, evil intentions and other vices arise through the Jewish abomination which by its false knowledge and weakness injures the world."

Similarities with Christianity

1. Belief in God as creator and protector

2. Belief in the coming of a savior

3. Belief in the conflict between God and evil

4. Belief in heaven and hell

5. Belief in the resurrection of the dead

6. Belief in the last judgment day

7. Belief in the end of the world through a conflagration.

8. Belief in the spirit as an aspect of God.

Similarities with Islam

1. Belief in one supreme just and formless creator God

2. The practice of offering five daily prayers.

3. Prohibition of idol worship

4. Belief in a future prophet

5. Belief in heaven and hell

7. Belief in the efficacy of prayers in reaching to God

8. Belief in the Resurrection of the dead

9. Belief in last judgment.

10. Belief in the conflict between good and evil.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Image Attribution: The image of Zoroaster used for this essay has been adapted with alterations from Wikimedia Commons under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or later

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