Apologies to you all for taking so long to do a new post. I’ve recently had to make a lot of changes in my personal life, as a result of which I will only be able to post no more than once a month. Nevertheless please enjoy as I still have many post ideas, and if there are any subjects you’d like me to write about please share with me in the comments.
Now on with the post:
- Founder/s: Zarathustra (sometimes spelt Zarathushtra) Spitara, more commonly known in the West as Zoroaster
- Approximate age: 3500-4000 years, definitely preceded Judaism
- Place of origin: Persia (Iran & western Afghanistan)
- Holy book/s: Avesta
- Original language of holy book/s: Avestan Persian, aka. Zend
- Demonym of adherents: Zoroastrians/ Zarathustrians
- Approximate number of current global adherents: 124-190,000
- Place of worship name/s: dar-e-mehr, fire temple, fire house, atash gah, agiyari
Note: other names of this religion are Mazdayasna, Zarathustraism, Mazdaism, Magianism & Behdin.
Since this is one of the lesser-known faiths I’ll sum up its beliefs first:
At the age of 30, Zarathushtra was bathing in a river as part of a pagan purification ritual when he suddenly had a vision. This vision was of a shiny spirit called Vohu Manah (good mind), who led him to the presence of the one and only god Ahura Mazda and the 5 other Amesha Spentas (holy immortals, emanations and attributes of Ahura Mazda). Throughout his life after that Zarathushtra had many other visions, during which he asked the spirits questions. The answers (summed up as “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds”) became what is now Zoroastrianism.
While spiritual entities and realms cannot be polluted by evil, the material world & beings can. Hence followers take care to not allow the elements (fire, water, air & earth) to be polluted by decaying matter, even to the extent that corpses must not be buried (in the ground or at sea) or cremated, but left in the open for scavenger animals like vultures to eat. Prayers, rituals and hymns are done to maintain such purity in the world at large.
One of the more confusing aspects of this religion is its belief about the origin of evil. According to Wikipedia, the faith doesn’t believe in a personified force or being that causes evil per se. Ahura Mazda (God) is OMNIBENEVOLENT. However, it does recognise an aspect of Ahura Mazda that represents druj (chaos/ disorder/ deception). This aspect is called Angra Mainyu, literally translated as angry spirit or destructive principle, as opposed to his benevolent bounteous aspect called Spenta Mainyu. This destructive spirit is blamed for everything bad: illness, aging, famine, natural disasters, death and nighttime, and it’s all a violation of Ahura Mazda’s plan for the world which is based on asha (truth/ righteousness/ order). Eventually Ahura Mazda is expected to overcome his Angra Mainyu aspect, which will bring into existence an age of universal peace which will signal the end of the world. Meanwhile humans are expected to actively oppose druj through their actions in life until then.
Ahura Mazda has his own “dark side” that he needs to overcome, so how is he not the cause of evil?!? And if druj isn’t evil, why are we expected to oppose it?!?
According to this source, Angra Mainyu became personified in later texts as a being called Ahriman. So again, since Ahriman is Angra Mainyu which is an aspect of God, how is God not the cause of evil?!?
And might this be why the Bible equivocates Satan’s power with God’s (Job 1, whole chapter)? It stands to reason, considering all the Abrahamic religions (and arguably Hinduism too) were heavily influenced by it.
Further on that point, Zoroastrianism seems to defy the distinction between monotheism and polytheism. According to the Theospohical Society and Iran Chamber Society, even before the Angra & Spenta Mainyus came into existence Ahura Mazda was a tripartite god. He’s specifically referred to as “threefold before other creations.” However, the jury’s still out on whether this makes him one being with various aspects (or emanations?) or just a load of separate gods.
One thing I like about this faith is its insistence on free will, personal responsibility and the value of taking action. To Zarathustra choice is one of the most important aspects of morality, and predestination is a lie. With that inspiration, though Zoroastrianism wasn’t yet the national religion, various later Persians during the Persian empires secured freedom of religion for conquered people. One example was Kurush (Cyrus “the great”) after invading Babylon. He not only allowed the Jewish captives to go home to Judea, he even gave them building materials to reconstruct their temple! He’s even referred to in the Bible as one of God’s anointed (Isaiah 45:1-3), despite not being Jewish.
Interestingly, the origin of free will seems either to be rooted in or is linked to the conflict between the two primordial spirits – Angra Mainyu & Spenta Mainyu!
So again, how is God not the cause of evil?!?!?!?!?
Anyway, I also like Zarathushtra’s stance on asceticism. He was against it, as ascetics flee from worldly experiences but as created beings it’s our duty to accumulate such experiences for our urvan (soul).
Other aspects of this religion, which gave rise to many tenets in Hinduism & the Abrahamic creeds, are:
- Cosmic forces of good v. evil
- A saviour to come before world’s end
- Afterlife, complete with resurrection and Judgment Day
- Recreation of the world after Judgment Day
However, modern Zoroastrians are quick to point out the internal psychological side of this system:
Which to my ears sounds like the old “not meant to be taken literally” argument but whatever.
All in all, though the cosmic/ supernatural stuff suffers from the same weaknesses as always (i.e. scientifically unverifiable), I admit it seems a lot more dedicated to its own principles than later religions. It also seems to inspire violence a lot less.
However, if you’ll notice the stats at the top of the post there are less than 200,000 followers today. That’s a weirdly low number for such an old religion. And that’s because of the concept of purity, which effectively makes it a hereditary religion. Conversion to other faiths is forbidden, and they’re very sceptical about taking converts or having children with non-Parsis. Yep, now the similarity to Hinduism and early Judaism is showing through. They’re not racist or xenophobic per se (according to some), they just feel that outsiders would alter the faith to the point of non-existence. Regardless, they’re feeling the pinch of their dwindling numbers. What will they do?
Intriguingly, according to this page Zoroastrianism itself has done something akin to this post series, i.e. created its own list of what constitutes good & bad religions! Though it can’t comment on most contemporary religions (because they didn’t exist back then), it gives general guidelines that may be worth bearing in mind next time I compare religions.
Please see this link for the downloadable text of the Zend Avesta.
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