Zoroastrianism, is a religion begun in Iran by the prophet Zarathustra. Its followers worship only one God, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism teaches that the world is the site of a struggle between good and EVIL. It also maintains that there will be a ﬁ nal judgment after death.
No one knows when Zarathustra lived. Some date him close to 1000 B.C.E. Others date him in the sixth century B.C.E. In any case, he lived in eastern Iran and reformed the traditional Iranian religion. He advocated the worship of Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom) as the one true God. He also conceived of the traditional daevas—a word related to the English word “deity”—not as gods but as evil spirits. He eliminated the SACRIFICES that the daevas originally received.
Zoroastrianism ﬂourished under the Persian emperors known as the Achaemenids. The emperors Darius (ruled, 522–486 B.C.E. and Xerxes (ruled, 486–465 B.C.E.) made it the ofﬁ cial religion of their empire. The precise relations between Zoroastrianism and the traditional Persian priests known as MAGI are disputed.
After the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.E.), Zoroastrianism adopted a very low proﬁ le. Little was heard of it again until the Sassanids came to power in Persia (ruled, 224–636 C.E.). At that time, Ahura Mazda became known as Ormazd; the evil spirit opposing him became Ahriman. Several offshoots of Zoroastrianism also appeared. These included MANICHAEISM, a once prominent religion whose adherents were spread from the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa all the way to the Paciﬁ c coast of China.
Beginning about 635 C.E. Muslim armies invaded and then conquered Persia. The vast majority of Persians converted to Islam. As a result, perhaps only 25,000 Zoroastrians, known as Gabars, remain in Iran today. They are concentrated in the remote cities of Yazd and Kerman.
By 1000 C.E. Zoroastrians from Persia began settling in the western Indian region of Gujarat. There they are known as PARSEES, because they came from Persia. For centuries the Parsees practiced agriculture, but under British rule in the 19th century they entered business, education, and the professions and became very inﬂ uential. In the 19th century Parsees began to leave India and settle in trading outposts of the British Empire. In the period after Indian independence in 1947 signiﬁ cant Parsee communities were established in London and Toronto.
The sacred collection of writings of the Zoroastrians is known as the Avesta or ZEND AVESTA. Among other writings it contains hymns by Zarathustra known as Gathas. Because Zoroastrianism has suffered throughout its history, only part of the Avesta survives today.
The central ﬁ gure of Zoroastrian worship is Ahura Mazda, also known as Ormazd. He is eternal and uncreated and is said to have seven heavenly attendants, led by Spenta Mainyu, sometimes translated as “Holy Spirit.” Opposed to Ahura Mazda is Angra Mainyu, “Evil Spirit,” also known as Ahriman.
Zoroastrians think of the world as a battleground between these two sides. The heavenly attendants of Ahura Mazda have chosen to follow Truth. Angra Mainyu and the daevas have chosen to follow the Lie. Human beings are now called upon to choose Truth over the Lie, goodness over evil.
Zoroastrians also teach that there will be a ﬁ nal battle at the end of time. In that battle Ahura Mazda will defeat Angra Mainyu once and for all. They also teach that human beings are judged after death. They must walk across the Bridge of Recompense, which traverses an abyss. For a deceased person who has followed the Truth, the Bridge is wide. He or she crosses easily and enters the presence of Ahura Mazda. But if the deceased has followed the Lie, the Bridge becomes as narrow as a razor’s edge, and he or she falls into the abyss.
The most common symbol of Zoroastrianism is ﬁ re, for Zoroastrians think that ﬁ re is supremely pure. Indeed, Zoroastrian temples are known as ﬁ re temples. They contain ﬁ res that burn continuously in large metal vessels. Five times a day priests tend the ﬁres. They add fuel and recite prayers from the Avesta.
Observant Zoroastrians bathe ritually for purposes of purity. Their daily life is also divided into ﬁ ve different PRAYER periods. The most important Zoroastrian festival is New Year’s. Known as No Ruz or “New Day,” it is a joyous celebration held around the time of the spring equinox.
At the age of seven for Parsees, 10 for Gabars, boys and girls become members of the community through a ritual known as navjot, “new birth.” On this occasion they receive a white shirt and a sacred thread. They wear them for the rest of their lives.
The Zoroastrian practice best known to outsiders is probably the funeral, although it is simply one facet of a rich religious life. Zoroastrians believe that it is wrong to pollute any of the four elements, earth, air, ﬁ re, or water. Therefore, they have traditionally not buried or cremated their dead. Instead, they have placed the corpses in specially constructed wells known as “towers of silence.” Relatively quickly, vultures eat the ﬂ eshy parts of the corpse. The bones are then dried by the sun and gathered into special holding areas or ossuaries.
In recent decades this practice has been the subject of some discussion within Zoroastrian communities. Those who live in areas where there is not a large concentration of Zoroastrians ﬁ nd it difﬁ cult to maintain the tradition. Some bury the dead. Others advocate electric cremation as a viable alternative to exposure.
One can be a Zoroastrian only if one’s father is a Zoroastrian. The community does not accept converts. Parsees say that they had to agree not to accept converts in order to gain permission to live in India.
A man may become a priest if his father was a priest. He receives special instruction, traditionally from his father. He also undergoes special RITUALS to invest him with the ofﬁ ce of the priesthood.
The number of Zoroastrians in the world is not large, perhaps 150,000. Nevertheless, Zoroastrianism is a major and ancient religion. In addition, signiﬁ cant elements of JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, and ISLAM may be of Zoroastrian origin. These elements include beliefs in ANGELS, in the devil, in a ﬁ nal judgment, and in a RESURRECTION of the dead.