Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
The central belief of Zoroastrianism is that God, Ahura Mazda (The Wise Lord), is all good and he created the world which is therefore also good. All misery, disease, suffering and death are the assault of the evil one, Angra Mainyu. The history of the world is the arena for the conflict of good and evil.
Ahura Mazda appeared to the prophet Zoroaster (dated somewhere 1500-1200 BCE) in visions and taught him that the good religion of Zoroastrianism will ultimately overcome evil.
All people have free will but after death their good thoughts, words and deeds will be weighed; if the good outweighs the evil then the individual will pass safely across the bridge of judgment (the Chinvat Bridge) to dwell in heaven. However, if the evil overshadows the good, the soul will fall into hell where it will be punished according to its sins. This is not however, the final judgment, as at the end of history (frashegird) a saviour (Soshyant) will come. At this time, evil forces will be destroyed and everyone will be raised from the dead to face a second judgment.
The first judgement was clearly one of the soul because the body can be seen to remain on earth. But Ahura Mazda created both body and soul so after the resurrection everyone will be judged again for their deeds in the body and will return to heaven or hell for appropriate reward and punishment. Once wholly purified, all human beings will go to heaven to dwell with God for eternity.
The sacred text of Zoroastrians is the Avesta. It was preserved orally for some time and then written down in a specially designed alphabet. It is known from summaries in later texts (the Pahlavior Middle Persian literature) that we have only about a quarter of the original. It was collected in the third century CE and was preserved because it was liturgical material in a ritual setting.
For Zoroastrians religious authority rests fundamentally on the vision of the prophet Zoroaster contained in his hymns, known as the Gathas. These are found in the Avesta.
Some of the books in the Avesta, notably the Yasna, are the text of the liturgy of that name. At the heart of the Yasna, the Gathas (the original 17 hymns of the prophet Zoroaster), are preserved. In these, Zoroaster recounts, in poetic form, his visions of Ahura Mazda and the teaching he was given. He declares that there are two contrasting forces of good and evil in the world, and sets forth his belief in the Seven Bounteous Immortals (Amesha Spentas). These are the creative spirit, qualities of Ahura Mazda in which humans can and should share, for example Good Mind (Vohu Manah) and Righteousness (Asha). Other books in the Avesta give ritual directions, for example, on purity. Avestan is the sacred language of prayer for Zoroastrians; it is the language of visions thus making them spiritually powerful.
The Middle Persian texts were produced after the Islamic invasion of Iran in the 7th century. Some of them are basically collections or summaries of Avestan material in translation on a set theme. One, the Bundahishn, meaning creation, tells the story from the creation right to the last days. Zoroastrians do not call this the end of the world, as its end would be the defeat of Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazdin Pahlavi). They refer instead to the Renovation, (Frashegird) as creation is restored to its original perfect state once evil has been defeated and all people are raised from the dead. After this second judgment all will be punished or rewarded before finally dwelling with Ahura Mazda. The soul is judged at the bridge of judgment, the Chinvat Bridge, after death, when everyone’s good and evil thoughts, words and deeds are weighed in the balances.
Other books include exhortations to be faithful to the religion in the face of persecution, and theological expositions of key doctrinal issues such as human nature and duty. The Pahlavi (or Middle Persian) texts are taken as authoritative by most Parsis but Iranian Zoroastrians tend to look past them and turn only to the Gathas, viewing these as the word of the prophet.
It is widely thought that Zoroastrianism influenced Christianity and Judaism with the beliefs in angels, demons, heaven, hell and the resurrection of the dead.
Human religious authority rests primarily with the dasturs (high priests), although some is with the mobeds (priests). Dasturs are usually (although not exclusively) sons of dasturs, although mobeds must be sons of mobeds.
The authority of a mobed is essentially restricted to the temple, and that of the dasturs is said to ‘lie within the walls’ of their Atash Bahram (‘Cathedral’ fire temples). Both mobeds and dasturs wear white caps and long flowing robes as a sign of purity. Prayers (manthras) are recited in the Avestan language whilst standing, and are said aloud in order to remain ‘alive’; with this in mind, there is little tradition of silent prayer.
In theory Parsis see the dasturs in India as the senior religious authority; however, the Diaspora is beginning to question this, arguing that the dasturs do not fully understand life in the West. This view is more common in America than in Britain where the dasturs are still viewed with great respect.
The key figure in Zoroastrianism is the prophet Zoroaster (the Greek form of the Iranian Zarathushtra). He lived somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE in north east Iran. He was a priest, had visions of God (Ahura Mazda meaning ‘Wise Lord’) and believed he had been set apart ‘from the beginning’ to work as a prophet to his people. His teaching is contained in 17 hymns known as the Gathas which are located at the heart of the Yasna, liturgical writing found in the sacred book, the Avesta.
Zoroaster taught that Ahura Mazda created the world, but that at the centre of existence there are opposing twin spirits, the most holy of whom created life. He believed that both his message and his followers would transform the world, as humanity will choose the best above the worst.
His exhortation to practise Good Thoughts, Words and Deeds is seen as a clear moral guidance that can be followed in any age. It is the duty to care for the good and oppose all that is evil, with the source of inspiration being the visions of Ahura Mazda.
Myths and legends have grown up about him. He is said to have laughed at birth; while offering worship at the age of 30, a radiant being appeared to him and led him to heaven where he saw Ahura Mazda. His teaching was at first rejected, and jealous rival priests had him imprisoned. However, following a miracle of healing the king’s favourite horse, the religion spread through the realm.
Zoroaster is considered to be human not divine although he is more than simply a role model. He was chosen by Ahura Mazda to be the divinely inspired teacher of ‘the Good Religion’.
Zoroaster’s life came to an end at the age of 70, when he was murdered by his enemies.
There have been no other prophets as Zoroaster was unique, although later Middle Persian texts foretell the coming of other saviours as the end of history approaches.
The contemporary leaders of the community are the high priests (Dasturs) in Iran and India whose directives are followed by most in the global Zoroastrian Diaspora. There have been some mystic occult figures who command a following in India and to some extent in the Diaspora, but they are seen as interpreters of Zoroaster’s message, not as replicating him.
A popular modern leader is Behramshah N. Shroff (1858-1927). When he was 18 he had a row with his mother and left home. He moved north from Gujarat and met a group of Zoroastrians who travelled secretly and led him to an unknown paradise deep in the sacred mountain in Iran called Demavand. Once there, he was instructed into the occult mysteries of the religion and in Ayurvedic medicine. He began teaching in 1907 and moved to Bombay in 1909 where he started his group known as Ilm-i Khshnoom, ‘Path of Knowledge’. His teaching can be described as a Zoroastrian version of Theosophy and includes vegetarianism, a belief in reincarnation, the importance of occult powers and praying in the ancient sacred language of Avestan. He and his followers continued to use the existing temples and religious calendar, and his teaching continues to be popular today.
A very different inspirational modern Zoroastrian teacher is Dastur (meaning ‘Very Reverend’) Maneckji N. Dhalla (1875-1956). He was brought up in poverty in Karachi before working as a journalist, expressing strong orthodox views. Some religious leaders took him to Bombay and paid for him to study ancient Zoroastrian languages and texts. He met Prof A.V.W. Jackson from Columbia University, New York who was so impressed he took him to study in America in 1905 first for an M.A. then a Ph.D. He described himself as “arriving as an orthodox but departing America in 1909 as a reformist”. On his return, he became High Priest in Karachi. He wrote several books on the history of Zoroastrianism, and a book of devotions, both of which are widely used to. Personally, he was a quiet and devout man, and by all accounts, popular with those who met him. However, he was rejected by the orthodox with followers of Shroff accusing him of teaching a Protestant Christian version of Zoroastrianism. In America and Pakistan he continues to be revered for his life and teaching.
In Association with Amazon