One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism, also known as Mazdaism, originated in Persia (now known as Iran) through the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (this is the Greek version of his name; in Avestan it is Zarathustra). Historians do not agree as to when Zoroaster lived: some indicate that he flourished as early as 1200 BCE, while others simply indicate that it was sometime prior to the sixth century BCE. Archaeologist David Anthony, in his book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, writes:
“Zarathustra was a religious reformer who lived in eastern Iran, judging from the places he named, probably between 1200 and 1000 BCE. His theology was partly a reaction against the glorification of war and blood sacrifice by the poets of the Rig Veda.”
By the time he was 30, Zoroaster had had a number of visions. Following the revelations received in these visions, he began to preach that there was only one god: Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord) who was the creator of all things and the source of goodness. Only good emanates from Ahura Mazda, thus evil is seen as having a different source.
According to Zoroastrian beliefs there is a struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu who is seen as a destructive force. The ancient Persian deities, known as daewas, were described by Zoroaster as not being worthy of worship as they are spirits of destruction.
Zoroastrianism envisions a great struggle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu after the creation of the world. Angra Mainyu defiled Ahura Mazda’s creation by bringing earthquakes which created deep valleys in the once beautiful, unscarred surface of the earth. Angra Mainyu forced the sun away from its ideal position so that today it only reaches this position once each day at noon. After the prophet Zoroaster was born, the struggle between these forces began to turn in favor of goodness.
Ahura Mazda created humanity so that they could take part in the great struggle between good and evil. For this purpose, the people were given free will. Each individual has a moral responsibility for each action taken and every person has the opportunity to reinforce goodness in the world. When all humans choose good (asha) over evil (druj), then Ahura Mazda will triumph over Angra Mainyu and with this Heaven and Earth will unite.
The Zoroastrian creed can be summed up as: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. There is an initiation ceremony at the age of seven in which Zoroastrians are given a shirt (sudreh) and a cord (kusti). They wrap the cord around the shirt three times to remind themselves of this creed.
During a person’s life there are winged guardians—fravashis—that watch over each individual, offering guidance throughout the person’s life. Each person is judged twice: once when they die and once at the Last Judgment. Judgment addresses the morality of thought and the morality of action. Moral failings are punished in Hell, but these punishments last only until the person corrects their moral failing in the afterlife.
Zoroastrianism is seen as egalitarian in that men and women, rich and poor, and young and old are viewed as equal. Humans are seen as God’s helpers.
Worship is not prescriptive: Zoroastrians can choose whether they wish to pray and how. There is less emphasis on ritual worship as the focus is on the ethics of Good Words, Good Thoughts, Good Deeds.
Rituals often focus on purification, on keeping the mind, the body, and the environment pure in the quest to defeat evil. Fire is the symbol of purity and sacred fires are maintained in Fire Temples (Agiaries). The fires represent the light of Ahura Mazda and are never extinguished.
Death is seen as the work of Angra Mainyu, thus the body is impure. Contaminating the elements—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—with a corpse is considered a sacrilege. Thus a corpse cannot be buried, cremated, and disposed of in the sea or a river. Instead, Zoroastrians have a special tower—the dokhma or Tower of Silence—where the corpse can be exposed to the sun and eaten by birds of prey.
While there are some who feel that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion, it should be remembered that the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten attempted to force monotheism on his people from 1352 to 1336 BCE. The monotheistic cult of the god Aten did not, however, last and Egyptians returned to their traditional polytheism following Akhenaten’s death.
Zoroaster gained a few followers in northeastern Persia. He converted King Vishtaspa who made Zoroastrianism his kingdom’s official religion.
In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus came to power in Persia. His dynasty, the Archaemenids, was Zoroastrian and spread the religion throughout its vast empire which included Babylon, Turkey, and Persia. Royal priests, known as Magi, travelled with the emperors on both military campaigns and diplomatic missions. The powerful Magi helped spread Zoroastrianism throughout western Asia.
Cyrus ruled according to Zoroastrian beliefs, but he made no attempt to impose the religion on the people within his empire. Cyrus also allowed the Jews who had been in exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. This act had an impact on Judaism and many scholars feel that Zoroastrian philosophy had a powerful influence on Judaism following the Babylonian exile.
In the second century BCE, the Parthian dynasty came to power in Persia. Under the dynasty, the teachings of Zoroaster as well as other teachings related to the religion were gathered together in the sacred book known as the Avesta. Originally, the Avesta had been recorded orally. There are two main sections of the Avesta: the Gathas which are seventeen hymns composed by Zoroaster, and the Younger Avesta which includes myths, stories, and details of ritual observances.
The language of the Avesta is Avestan, which functioned as a sacred language similar to Latin the Catholic Church and Sanskrit among the Hindus.
The Avesta was written in an alphabet which was specifically designed for that purpose. Only a fragment of the original text remains today as much of it was lost during the Islamic persecution of Zoroastrianism.
In 224 BCE, the Sassanians came to power. They viewed the church and state as being unified. This helped promote Zoroastrianism and provided its priests with a great deal of power.
In the seventh century CE, Islam began to spread across Persia and soon Zoroastrians found themselves as a minority which often faced persecution. In order to freely practice their religion, many Zoroastrians left their homeland. Those who settled in Gujarat in northwestern India became known as the Parsis.