ZOROASTRIANISM - SHIMMERING FLAME OF ETERNAL WISDOM
ZOROASTRIANISM - SHIMMERING FLAME OF ETERNAL WISDOM
In the June issue of H2H, we had a cover story on the fascinating religion and teachings of Buddhism. In continuance of our endeavour to present you with articles on the great religions of the world, we have a comprehensive cover story on Zoroastrianism, one of the ancient and important religions of the human race in this issue. Today, the followers of this great religion might have dwindled in numbers, but historically Zoroastrianism has not only held wide sway but also influenced many religions that came after it.
We spent a considerable amount of time researching for this feature and consulted many sources of information, besides many books. It turned out that while historical details were often scant, information about the philosophy and the theology of this ancient religion were more easily accessible. This uneven balance between history and theology would be reflected in what we present!
H2H has taken every possible care in preparing this article to celebrate the birthday of Zarathustra which falls in this month and we trust it is free of inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Errors present, if any, are unintentional and we trust we would be forgiven for the same!
We hope you like this article and would welcome your comments on it.
Thousands of years ago, there lived in the Northern Asian Valleys, a race of people called the Aryans. The word ‘Aryan’ means noble in character. In course of time, this Indo-European stock divided into two major sections. One went west to Europe while the other group drifted east. The eastern group itself split into two, one settling in what is now Iran while the other entered the Indian plains to settle there. In the language of those times, modern Iran or Persia was known as Aryanam Vaego, which means Land of the Aryans. The name Iran is derived from this original name. Interestingly, the Aryans who settled in what we know as India also gave a similar name to their new homeland – Arya Varta, meaning land of the Aryans.
As everyone knows, in olden times, Iran used to be known as Persia. The name Persia comes from a region in the south called Fars or Pars in the Persian language. Persis is the Greek form of Pars, based on which other European nations referred to it as Persia. The Greek writer Eratosthenes, however, refers to this region as Iran in his writings. This means that the name Iran goes back a long time.
This region was the core of all great Persian Empires. In 1935, at the specific request of the then King of Persia, the international community agreed to call this country Iran.
The religion followed by the ancient settlers in Persia was known as Mazdasyani Din. Din means faith, while Mazdasyani means the Worship of One Creator.
The Aryans who came to Persia encountered many tribes already established there. Naturally there were clashes, especially because these aboriginal tribes worshipped many gods. Eventually, the Aryans overcame the local tribes and established their hegemony.
Late Dr. Fanibanda, a great devotee of Swami and who was a Zoroastrian, says that when the clashes became serious, the Soul of the Earth, Geush Urva, cried out to the Lord, seeking His protection:
To You, the Soul of Mother Earth complained:
Passion and rapine, outrage everywhere
And violence enmesh me all round;
No other help than Yours I see, Ye Lords;
Reveal to me a strong one, who can save.”
Dr. Fanibanda says that the Divine response was as follows:
“One such, here present, is well-known to Me,
The only one who kept all our commandments,
The Holy Zarathushtra Spitama;
Eager is he and willing to proclaim
Through songs and hymns Mazda’s Eternal Law,
Sweetness of speech, therefore to him we grant.”
Thus was born the Prophet Zoroaster [sometimes referred to as Zarathushtra] who gave substance and shape to earlier concepts, leading to what we now know as Zoroastrianism. This is one of the earliest revealed religions of the world. It is also historically significant due to the influences it has had on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which came later [and in the same geographical region]. The early history of this religion is a bit obscure but after the appearance of Prophet Zoroaster, one can clearly recognise the basis for a formal religion. Further comments on this religion would be offered below.
ZOROASTER THE PROPHET
It would appear that there are two distinct periods in the history of Zoroastrianism – before the advent of the Prophet and after his advent. As already mentioned, prior to his advent, the religious faith was known as Mazdasyani Din, the core concept of which was that there was a Supreme Creator, known as Ahura Mazda. As regards the details of what Ahura wanted His children on earth to do, they appear to have been somewhat fuzzy. It was when Zoroaster was given Divine Revelation that the religion became substantially codified.
Little is known about Prophet Zoroaster himself and indeed, there is much dispute even about when he was born and when he lived. According to tradition, he was born in Bactria during the reign of King Vishtasp. The language spoken at that time was Avesta. Zoroaster was born to Pourushaspa and Dugdhova and was regarded as special, right from birth. Legend has it that Zoroaster was born laughing and that his brain throbbed so powerfully that if a person placed his hand on the head of the child, the hand would be thrown off!
We do not know by what name Zoroaster was known as a child but this much can be said: In the Avesta language, zarathushtra = zara [golden] + thush [shining] + stra [star]. It is said that he actually illumined the place he was born. In English, his name has been rendered as “He of the Golden Light,” just as Prince Siddhartha came to be known as the Buddha [The Enlightened One] and Jesus as the Christ [the Anointed One].
At the age of six, the young boy was placed under the care of a wise man, who was to teach and guide the lad. It is said that many attempts were made to kill the boy by evil-minded people who recognised his importance to humanity.
At the age of fifteen, Zoroaster/Zarathushtra took seriously to religion and when he turned twenty, he left home for the mountains where he spent ten years in a cave, devoting himself to meditation and contemplation on spiritual matters. He wrestled with ancient questions, as reflected in the following passages:
'This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Mazda Ahura,
Who upholds the earth beneath and the firmament from falling?
Who the waters and the planets?
Who yoked swiftness to winds and clouds?
Who is, O Mazda, creator of Good Thought?'
'This I ask Thee, tell me truly, Ahura,
What artist made light and darkness?
What artist made sleep and waking?
Who made morning, noon and night,
That call the understanding man to his duty?'
After this year long period of isolation, Zoroaster emerged enlightened, ready to teach the masses about righteousness and the revelations made to him by Ahura. That is when Zoroastrianism may be said to have been formally born.
Initially, Zoroaster had very few followers but about a decade after he emerged from his withdrawal, King Vishtaspa in Bactria wanted Zoroaster to enter into debates to prove that his new message was superior to the old one. This was done by Zoroaster. Vishtaspa then demanded for some miraculous signals to prove that Zoroaster was a messenger of God. In response, Zoroaster created a ball of fire that glowed without any fuel and did not burn anyone when held in the palm. A live plant was also produced, whose leaves contained a command to the King to patronise the new faith. Vishtaspa then demanded that God must speak to him through angels. Angels then appeared in his dream and reassured the King.
Around this time, the enemies of Zoroaster plotted to place putrid articles under his bed. They then told the King that Zoroaster was actually practicing black magic, and though he advised that only pure articles ought to be used for worship, putrid articles would be found under his bed because he secretly worshipped evil forces.
A search was ordered by the King and the false evidence planted by the plotters was duly found. The King then threw Zoroaster into prison.
Meanwhile, the King’s favourite horse was stricken by palsy and none could cure it. Zoroaster was asked to cure the horse, and was told that if he healed the horse, the King and his family would help Zoroaster to spread his message far and wide. The horse was cured, and thereafter, King Vishtaspa willingly aided Zoroaster.
Sometime later, a neighbouring ruler invaded the kingdom to protest the new faith. While armed conflict was raging outside, Zoroaster was in a temple, absorbed in his devotion. A solider of the attacking forces entered the temple and stabbed Zoroaster to death. At that time, Zoroaster was 77 years old.
THE THEOLOGY OF ZOROASTRIANISM
Theology of a religion essentially means what that particular religion has to say about God. Presently, we shall briefly discuss the theology underlying Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is the first monotheistic religion, that is to say it holds that there is only ONE God. Zoroaster named this God Aura Mazda, or MAZDA AHURA meaning WISE LORD.
Dr. Fanibanda explains that Ahura means the Creator of Life and Mazda means the Creator of Matter. Thus, says Dr. Fanibanda, Ahura is identical with Lord Siva while Mazda is identical with Mother Parvathi, in the Hindu tradition.
Although there is only one God, in the world created by Him, there are evil forces. It is not clear wherefrom these evil forces emerged, although one might say evil surfaces when man forgets God. In any case, Zoroaster, says Dr. Fanibanda, asks man to lend his ears to the highest Righteousness/Truth, and, using one’s own illuminated mind, make a choice between the path of Good and the path of Evil.
Good and Evil are represented by separate spirits which are “Twins”. They are opposite to each other in thought, word and deed. One is the Increasing Spirit and the other is the Decreasing Spirit. One is Good and the other is Bad. Only the Wise are capable of fostering the right one. Duality is the very nature of the Universe and as the human body is a part of the Universe, it also must experience these Twin opposites.
By the way, it is interesting to note that the two kinds of spirits are named ahuras and daevas. One cannot missing seeing the similarity to the asuras and devas of Hindu mythology; only, in Zoroastrianism, the ahuras are the good spirits and the daevas are the evil ones.
Dr. Fanibanda sums it all crisply as follows: “While Zoroastrian theology is monotheistic, its philosophy is dualistic and the ethics are based on the trilogy of good thoughts, good words and good deeds.” Love, Wisdom & Knowledge and Service are the anchors of Zoroastrian philosophy.
Zoroastrian scholar Dastur Dabu reduces the essence of the teachings to some simple rules as follows:
- A Zoroastrian must always be good and never harm others.
He should see unity in the midst of apparent diversity. He should lead a life of self-abnegation, by selfless conduct and service to the world at large. He should never force his belief on others – in other words, he should practice religious tolerance.
Are these not amazingly similar to Swami’s teachings?!
The Zoroastrian scripture is called the Avesta. Thanks to the forces of history, it consists of fragmentary and sometimes corrupted texts. It is written in old Iranian, a language similar to Sanskrit.
The major sections of the Avesta are:
Gathas, the holy hymns of Zarathustra, are his own words and were preserved in oral tradition for many centuries as there was no written script in Zarathustra’s times.
Yasna, a liturgical work that deals with worship, ceremonies, and offerings. The Yasna includes texts called the Gathas, believed to be sung by Zoroaster himself.
Vispered, a supplement to the Yasna.
Yashts, containing mostly hymns of praise.
Videvad, a detailed code of ritual purification.
Zoroaster taught that humans bear responsibility for all their actions. Good befalls those who do good, those who engage in evil, have only themselves to blame when they suffer later. This is nothing but the Law of Karma, which Swami refers to as the Law of Reflection, Reaction, Resound. In the scriptures, there are clear references to this law as follows:
“God has the best memory of all acts of men and demons – even foresight with regard to what might happen later on.” Gatha [29-4].
“Evil plight for those who are evil, add good reward to those who are righteous. This is to be Thy regulation, O God, till the end of the Universe.” Gatha [43-5].
“God has fixed two great laws for the education of men. O Men! You get happiness or misery in accordance with the laws, namely: Bliss for the righteous, and a long drawn out suffering for the evil-doer.” Gatha [30-11].
“God has the knowledge of every living being who is good in self-sacrifice, through his righteousness.” Yasna [7-27].
“All good thoughts, words and deeds, done through wisdom, lead to the heavenly condition. All evil thoughts, words and deeds, done through the absence of wisdom, lead to the worst plight.” Vispa Humata
Interestingly, chanting the Divine Name finds an important place in Zoroastrianism also. Zoroaster asks Ahura Mazda, “Reveal unto me that Name of Thine that is the greatest, best, fairest, most effective, best healing, that which destroyeth best the malice of men and demons.”
Ahura Mazda then replied: [extracted from: The Religion Of Good Life, Zoroastrianism, P.P. Masani, George Allen and Unwin, LONDON , 1938]
O Holy Zoroaster, My first Name is, “I am”.
My Second Name is the Giver of Herds.
My Third Name is the Strong One.
My Fourth Name is Perfect Holiness.
My Fifth Name is the All-Good created by Mazda, the offering of the Holy Principle.
My Sixth Name is Understanding.
My Seventh Name is He that possesses Understanding.
My Eighth Name is Knowledge.
My Ninth Name is He that possesses Knowledge.
My Tenth Name is Blessing.
My Eleventh Name is He that grants Blessing.
My Twelfth Name is Ahura, the All-wise.
My Thirteenth Name is the Most Beneficent.
My Fourteenth Name is He in whom there is no harm.
My Fifteenth Name is Unconquerable.
My Sixteenth Name is He that maketh the true account.
My Seventeenth Name is the All-seeing.
My Eighteenth Name is the Healer.
My Nineteenth Name is the Creator.
My Twentieth Name is Mazda [Omniscient].
Compilations exist listing many more Names. 101 names of Ahura Mazda form a part of a Zoroastrian’s daily prayers. What is one supposed to do with these Names? Masani has the answer: “Whoever takes it [the Name] on his lips and is engaged in meditation of His attributes, armours to protect himself against the inroads of evil. Even the Prophet himself is asked by Ahura Mazda to repeat His Names.
“If thou wilt, O Zarathushtra,
Vanquish all that hate malignant,
Hate of demons, hate of mortals,
Of Faith’s perverse oppressors,
Two-foot heretics and liars,
Four foot wolves, wide fronted armies,
Bearing on the bloodstained banner,
Then these Names repeat bemuttering,
All the day and all the night time.”
So we see that Namasmaranam, or chanting of the Name that Swami prescribes to us, ever so often finds a place in Zoroastrianism also. By the way, it finds a place in Islam too, but we shall deal with that matter elsewhere.
We must now make a reference to an aspect of Zoroastrianism often referred to as Mithraism. Scholar R. P. Masani notes that though the Vedas speak of the Supreme Lord and the One Truth, the Vedic liturgy allowed room for many minor deities.
In the same way, says Masani, although Zoroaster held Ahura Mazda to be Supreme, in due course, many celestial beings came to be worshipped. Thus many angels known as Yazata came to be worshipped. It was believed that the worship of these angels would confer various benefits and rewards. Among the Yazata, a prominent one was Mithra. This is very interesting because Mithra figures prominently in Vedic rituals and worship also, which testifies to the strong similarities between ancient religious practices in Iran and in India.
Masani says that of all the celestial beings that ruled the earth, Mithra was regarded as the strongest of the strong, the sturdiest of the sturdy, the most diligent and intelligent among the deities, the most victorious and glorious. Masani adds, “In the scriptures, Mithra and Ahura are often invoked together. Their union is actually pre-Zoroastrian and corresponds to Vedic Mithra Varuna.” Mithraism which pre-dates Zoroaster, regained popularity for a while after him.
Incidentally, Mithraism is of some interest because it penetrated the Roman Empire. It is said that it was quite popular among Roman garrisons, and was also a rival to Christianity. Some are of the view that a few Mithraic rituals and even beliefs became incorporated into Christianity. The twenty-fifth of December, for example, was actually the date on which the Romans celebrated the birthday of Mithra, and was adopted as a convenience by the early Christians as the birthday of Jesus since it was a public holiday in the Roman Empire.
There has been quite a lot of discussion amongst scholars concerning the relationship between Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity. This is not surprising, given the historical fact that all these religions originated in the same geographical region. For a while, the belief prevailed that Zoroastrianism had borrowed form Judaism and even Christianity but later scholars who have thoroughly analysed this question have rejected this view.
It now appears that around six hundred BC, a large number of Jews were carried away to Babylon as captives. Contact with Iranians during the long period of exile made the exiles absorb many doctrines from Zoroastrianism, such as the immortality of the Soul, the resurrection of the body, and reward and punishment in acco