Zoroastrianism Definition, History, Beliefs, & Lifestyle (08.06.2018)
Zoroaster (the Greek spelling of his name) lived in Persia, the name then used for the territory that is modern-day Iran. According to legend, the prophet’s birth was foretold, and the forces of evil tried to kill him when he was still a child. He preached monotheism (belief in one God) in a land with a history of aboriginal polytheism. Initially ridiculed and targeted for his teachings, Zoroaster eventually won over the king of Persia, and Zoroastrianism was the state religion of many Persian empires until the seventh century C.E.
Members of the faith are devoted to a threefold path: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” The Zoroastrian sacred text is the Zend Avesta. The Avesta includes the original teachings of Zoroaster; the Zend is the commentaries on his words.
Zoroaster’s thought is preserved in a sequence of five hymns known as the “Gathas,” the core of the religion’s text. Written in what is called the Gathic dialect of Farsi, they are abstract poetry regarding the worship of one god, morality, social justice, and the choice between good and evil. Today, the religious community is divided into those who adhere (generally or exclusively) to the teachings of the original “Gathas” and those who accept later traditions as also divinely inspired.
The remaining sections of the Avesta were added long after the “Gathas” were written. These portions deal with ritual and practice and the customs of the faith. Although Zoroastrianism is monotheistic, it is a dualist religion. Ahura-Mazda was the ultimate force for good (in old Persian the word was Aura-Mazda, since aura meant “lord,”and mazda, “wisdom”; in modern Persian, it is called Ormazd), and Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman), the evil force, who are forever locked in struggle for supremacy. Ahura-Mazda was the supreme deity of both the Zoroastrian and Mazdean religions. (The Mazdeans were ancient Persian nobles who worshipped Ahura-Mazda and believed that the deity should never be concretely represented since he is forever unknowable. It is possible that the Mazdeans inspired the Jews with the same horror for attempts to represent Yahweh concretely.) He communicates with humans through a number of aspects, called Amesha Spentas (Bounteous Immortals); in the “Gathas” these Immortals are sometimes described as ideas; at other times they are spoken of as though they are embodied individuals.
The cosmic conflict between Ahura-Mazda and Angra Mainyu engages the entire universe, humanity included, who are required to choose whether to follow good or evil. Zoroastrians believe that in the end dualism will be destroyed, and goodness will reign once again. Another strain of Zoroastrianism believes that the war between good and evil is an abstract moral dualism to be fought within the human mind.
Zoroastrians segment time into three ages: creation, the present age of good and evil, and the future. During the third and last era Ahura-Mazda will prevail, sinners will be punished, and the good will enter heaven. This view is similar to that favored by Christianity, except for the concept of hell. Among Zoroastrians, hell is a momentary, not a permanent, eternal abode, where evildoers are purified by fire.
Following death Zoroastrians believe that the urvan (“soul”) is allowed three days to contemplate on its justterminated life. The soul is then evaluated by the trinity of Sraosha, Mithra, and Rashnu. If there are more good thoughts and actions than bad thoughts and actions, the soul will be taken into heaven. If, however, the bad predominates, the soul is sent to hell to be purified by fire. The four elements-water, fire, air, and earth-are regarded as pure elements that must be preserved. For this reason Zoroastrians do not burn or bury the deceased but leave their bodies on high ground, built to serve this purpose, to be eaten by crows and hawks.
The coming of the sayoshant (“savior”) is expected to coincide with humanity’s final judgment, where the faithful will be resurrected, and evil defeated for eternity. This savior, who is expected to be of Zoroaster’s lineage, would be born of a virgin, just as Jesus was said to have been born.
Zoroastrian worship includes symbolic ceremonies and prayers. Ahura-Mazda is revered through consecrated fire, which is believed to contain the prophet’s presence. This is not to say that Zoroastrians worship fire. Rather, fire is their God’s symbol.
Origins and History
The precise date Zoroastrianism was founded is uncertain, and speculations range wildly between 10,000 and 600. Some scholars suggest the religion was founded in Persia (now Iran) sometime between 1500–1200 by the prophet Zoroaster, while others date the religion’s beginnings earlier, around the sixth century. Any dates suggested for the beginnings of Zoroastrianism depend on when it is thought Zoroaster (in modern Farsi, Zartosht) lived, which is much disputed. Plato placed him back in the sixth century, a time close to the claims of the Zoroastrian conservatives. Using his style of writing as a basis for speculation, religious scholars and historians generally date Zoroaster’s life as contemporary with the Sanskrit Rig Veda, between 1500 and 1000. In spite of this lack of agreement, some claim that Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, and that its central concepts-heaven and hell, the eternal struggle between good and evil, and a messiah who will save humanity-profoundly influenced the better known faiths Judaism and Christianity.
The “Gathas,” the poetic heart of the Zend Avesta, were written in Gathic, a dialect of Persian belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch of the IndoEuropean languages, which is similar to the language of the Rig Veda, (in Sanskrit rig means “praise” and veda, “knowledge”). The Rig Veda is the earliest of the four Hindu scriptures the Vedas.
Scholars date the Rig Veda to the second millennium based primarily on its references to late Bronze Age culture (for example, horse-drawn chariots), so it is commonly held to have been completed between 1500 and 1200.
When he was 15, Zoroaster decided to devote his life to religious pursuits and, when he was 20, he withdrew to a cave where he meditated for seven years. When he was 30, during a ritual purification rite Zoroaster had a vision of God. The vision drastically changed his view on the world, and he set out to teach the same perspective to others. Zoroaster taught that there was only one creator God and only he was worthy of being revered. Of the deities worshipped by ancient religions, especially those that appeared to enjoy war and discord, Zoroaster declared them to be evil spirits and the servants of Angra Mainyu, one of God’s adversaries.
In 549 Cyrus the Great (c. 585–c. 529) of the Archaemenian family led the Persians to overthrow the Median Court in western Iran. Cyrus was thus responsible for creating the first Persian Empire.
The Archaemenian kings were devout Zoroastrians and attempted to rule the land justly and in accord with Asha, the virtuous, all-inclusive law of nature.
When Alexander the Great of Macedonia (356–23) overcame Darius III (c. 380–30), the last king of the Achaemenid Dynasty, in 331 the faith suffered greatly. In a span of merely five years, Alexander conquered most of the Persian territory, many Zoroastrian priests died, and the sacred texts were destroyed. Most of Zoroastrian literature was lost forever, but the heart of the doctrine-contained in the “Gathas”-was untouched.
When the Arabs attacked Persia in 650 a number of Zoroastrians escaped to India. Those who remained were subjected to centuries of harassment, slaughter, forced conversion, unbearable taxes, and other persecutions. By the beginning of the 21st century, they numbered fewer than 20,000 and resided primarily in Tehran, Yazd, and Kernan.
Holidays and Religious Observances
Zoroastrianism has a well-earned reputation as a joyous religion, and its calendars (there are three in use) are full of holy days and festivals. Many of the festivals associated with the religion are connected with the cycle of the seasons, while the origin of others, like the six gahanbars, which go back to preZoroastrian times, are unknown; some festivals, Navruz, for example, the Iranian New Year, have found their way into other cultures. In addition to special rituals, such as marriage and funerals, there is the daily ritual of Kusti, which must be performed each time an individual washes his or her hands, there are seven obligatory festival observances: the six gahanbars and Navruz.
The gahanbars, the six major seasonal festivals, originated among the farmers of the Iranian Plateau: Maidyozarem is the mid-spring festival; Maidyoshahem is the mid-summer observance; Paitishahem is a harvest festival, celebrating the bringing in of the corn; Ayathrem is the time when cattle are brought back to the homestead; Maidyarem is the mid-winter festival; and Hamaspathmaidyem celebrates the gathering of all the farohars.
(Farohars are guardian angels who look after the living and the dead.) These religious observances are happy festivals celebrated with much feasting and merriment. Navruz, or Noruz, the seventh required feast, is observed on the vernal equinox. Although not a required religious observance, Zoroaster’s birthday, called the “Greater Navruz” because it is celebrated six days after that holiday, is still an important holiday. Zoroastrians go to their temple for prayer and then gather for huge feasts. (Like December 25, celebrated in Western Christian churches as Jesus’ birthday, Zoroaster was probably not born at this time.) Mihragan (Jashan-e Mihragan), among the most ancient festivals known, goes back at least to the earliest Indo-Europeans, was connected with the worship of one of the oldest Aryan dieties (Baga-Mithra, the Sun god), and traces related to this deity have been found as far back as the 14th century B.C.E. Mihragan may be the survival of an earlier Iranian New Year’s festival from some prehistoric phase of the Indo-Iranian calendar, when the year began at the autumnal equinox. The month was called Bagayadi or Bagayadish, probably the first month of the Old Persian year, and has its parallel in the seventh Babylonian month, Tishritu, the patron of which was also Shamash, the Babylonian Sun god. Nowadays Mihragan retains its place in the Zoroastrian calendar, and is observed on the 16th day of the seventh month, the name day of Mithra, October 1 in the Gregorian calendar.
With Navruz and Mihragan, the festival of Tiragan (Jashan-e Tiragan) is one of the most widely observed feasts of ancient Iran (Persia). Tiragan is celebrated on July 1 and is primarily a rain festival. Tir, or more properly Teshtar (Avestan Tishtrya), is the Yazad (“spiritual being”) who governs the Star Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and controls the rain. Teshtar Yazad is invoked to guarantee a bountiful harvest and to protect the crops against drought.
Among Zoroastrians, marriage is an event that must be celebrated publicly before an assembly (Anjoman), which can bear witness to the event.
The bridegroom’s ceremonial dress is the Jamapichori, or sayah, a loose, flowing dress that is always white. The bride’s sari is also white. The groom’s forehead has a long vertical mark in red, and the bride has a circle of red pigment on hers. Both wear garlands of flowers around their necks. The bridegroom is called var-raja, “husband king,” and the bride is called kanya. The bride and the bridegroom each have a marriage witness, usually their closest relatives.
The bridegroom is the first to take his seat in the room where the marriage is to be celebrated, while the bride comes in after him. The bridegroom sits on the right hand of the bride, a place of respect.
On each side of the couple two trays of rice sit on two stands. The stand by the bride has a small metal pot containing ghee (clarified butter) and molasses.
Two candles also burn on the stands near the bride and the bridegroom. An attendant holds a censer with a burning fire in one hand and a little frankincense in the other.
The ceremony starts when the bride and the groom are seated opposite each other, separated by a piece of cloth between them held up by two people, so that they are unable to see each other. Their hands are joined and the cloth is held over the hands. It is dropped after the hand-fastening ceremony, which means that they are no longer separate and have become one in matrimony.
As long as the cloth is held up between them, they sit opposite each other; once it has been removed, they are made to sit side by side, which also signifies that they are now united.
After the senior officiating priest has fastened their right hands together, both are given a few grains of rice in their left hands, and the attendant places some frankincense on the fire in the censer, a sign for the couple to throw their rice over one another. This process is often watched with great interest by the couple’s friends because the one who throws rice first over the other “wins.” “Who won, the bridegroom or the bride?” is a question often asked at this point.
The one who throws rice first indicates that he or she will be foremost in loving and respecting the other.
Throwing the rice is followed by applause from the gathered friends, expressing their approval and goodwill for the union. Then follows the marriage ceremony proper (Asirvad), when each is asked whether he or she has consented to the marriage. To be certain, the question (and answers) must be repeated three times. The priests then offer practical advice about life, ask God to give the couple moral and social virtues, and call upon renowned spirits of the dead of ancient Iran to bless them. The ceremony ends with a benediction.
Although there is no mention of rites or ceremonies to be performed during pregnancy, allusions to women’s prayers for an easy delivery and a good supply of milk for breast-feeding her child, suggest that there may once have been such rituals that have since been lost. After a woman becomes pregnant, a small fire can be kept inside the house to ward off evil spirits, and she must be carefully attended to. She must not touch anything dead or decomposing, lest she catch a disease, and her husband is forbidden to have intercourse with her after the fourth month.
While the woman is pregnant, two days are celebrated, Panch masiun and Agharni, the days of the fifth and seventh months, respectively, when both the woman and her husband are given new clothes by both families and the husband’s relatives send sweets to the bride’s parents and other friends and relations.
After the child is born, a lamp is lit and kept burning for at least three days to protect the child from harm and evil influences. In some cases, the lamp remains lit for 10, or even 40 days; the latter is the length of time a woman must remain in isolation after giving birth. First deliveries often take place in the home of the woman’s parents.
During her required 40 days of confinement, the woman is forbidden to leave her place of confinement, and she cannot come into contact with other people, fire, water, or the furnishings in the home, especially wood and linens. Others must bring her her food. Also, looking at a hill is supposed to be bad for the menstrual cycle.
Zoroastrianism does not accept converts; to be a member of the religion, one must be born into it.
Navjote is the initiation of a child into the Zoroastrian religion. Children are deemed to be old enough for initiation and the responsibility of offering prayers when they turn seven. During Navjote, “new one who offers prayers,” the child is given two symbols of the religion, the sudre, a sacred shirt, and the kusti, the sacred thread-girdle, a string long enough to pass three times around the waist, to be tied twice in a double knot, and to leave the short ends hanging behind. It is made of 72 fine, white, woollen threads.