William Darrow. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
Zoroastrianism, established at least 3,000 years ago, is the religion of pre-Islamic Iran. It survives in Iran (where followers are called the Zardushtis) and in India (where they are called the Parsis), as well as in diaspora communities around the world. The term “Zoroastrianism” is derived from the name of the founder, Zoroaster (as he is known in Greek; his Iranian name is Zarathustra). The Fravarane, a confessional text in the ancient Iranian language of Avestan, identifies the religion as the worship of the god Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) according to the teachings of Zarathustra.
In Iran Zoroastrianism traditionally described itself as either the “Good Religion” or as Mazdeanism (from Ahura Mazda). It was the state religion of the two great pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties, the Achaemenids (550-330 B.C.E.) and the Sasanians (224-651 C.E.). After the fall of the Sasanians to the Arab Muslims who conquered Iran, the religion lost its patron but survived in the area. Members also migrated to India. In the modern period they have dispersed throughout the world, though the number of adherents has become infinitesimal; the worldwide population is only about 150,000. Even so, the impact of this tradition on the formation of Iranian culture and of other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has been enormous.
The sources for reconstructing the history of Zoroastrianism before the fall of the Sasanians are textual and archaeological. The surviving literature in Avestan (an East Iranian language that is a part of the Indo-Iranian language family) is the starting point, but even with this material almost everything about the history of the tradition is obscure and contested.
Because tradition held that Zoroaster lived 258 years before Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.), scholars once dated Zoroaster to the sixth century B.C.E. That figure has since been questioned, and scholars now believe he lived between 1800 and 1000 B.C.E. He is thus dated to the period of the Indo-Iranian migrations. There is no certainty about his homeland, though the fact that Avestan is an East Iranian language means it was somewhere in Central Asia or Eastern Iran. Zoroaster is connected by tradition to Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and in a much later period he was identified with sites in western Iran. Western scholarship is divided between two sites as Zoroaster’s original home-land—Khorezm, a historic region south of the Aral Sea (in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), and the region of Seistan in southeastern Iran.
Zoroater has often been seen as a lone monotheist reformer and devotee of Ahura Mazda who attempted to suppress cultic practices and to proclaim in their place a new ethical vision; this view was based on the model of Old Testament prophets. This is also how the Zoroastrian tradition would come to understand him, especially after the ninth century C.E., when the pervasive influence of Islam on Iranian culture began. By the twelfth century C.E. the legend of Zoroaster had been recast according to the model of Islamic prophecy. In the Greek world Zoroaster was known as an ancient wise man and sage. The only source of information about Zoroaster is the Gāthās, which are the 17 hymns, divided into five chapters, traditionally ascribed to him (his name appears in 9 of them). The small corpus and the abstractness of the Gāthās make it impossible to derive much historical information from them, though they do reflect a largely pastoral setting. The hymns were composed on behalf of a royal patron, Vishtasp, who was obviously a powerful figure who supported Zoroaster.
The followers of Zoroaster preserved his hymns for as long as a millennium, but we know next to nothing about this group. They kept material only from this one figure. They were active in the eastern Iranian territories, but at some point they took the tradition to the west, where it became triumphant as the cult of the entire Iranian plateau. Evidence suggests that a high priest—who bore the title zarathustrema (supreme Zoroaster)—headed them, and they might have functioned as a priesthood, perhaps on the model of the priestly group known as the Magi. The Magi were primarily active in western Iran under a tribe called the Medes, but some scholars have argued that they were the carriers of this Zoroastrian material.
The Gāthās are contained in the Yasna, the main liturgical text of Zoroastrianism (composed in younger Avestan, which differs from the Gathic dialect). The other main text is the Yashts, a group of hymns to Iranian deities (also composed in younger Avestan). These two texts in different ways describe the situation of the Iranians in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. The Iranians had settled on the Iranian plateau more than a millennium earlier and were closely related to the Aryan (Indo-Iranian) conquerors of India, whose earliest religious traditions are found in the Vedas (a collection of hymns).
The Vedas, in fact, show important similarities to the Iranian texts of Zoroastrianism, and the two traditions also share elements in their world outlooks: the vision of the cosmos as having an order (asha, providing a criterion for judging actions), the importance of the cow, and similar ritual practices. Central to both is the role of the religious specialist, the priest, in carrying the tradition. One difference is the position of the daevas (demons). The word has the same root as “divinity” in the Indo-European languages. At some point (possibly before Zoroaster) the Iranians demoted that category of divinities into demons. This has been called the “Iranian reform,” but it is impossible to understand exactly what the background or significance of this “reform” was. Several Vedic deities appear in the Iranian sources as demons. The reform may reflect the making of another group of divinities—the ahuras—into exclusive objects of worship. Another difference between the Vedas and the Iranian texts is the Iranian worship of a single god, Ahura Mazda. The Iranians retained elements of the Vedic polytheist system, but their focus on a single deity contrasts with the Vedas, which centers on a pantheon of divinities (the most important being the warrior god Indra, who became a demon in the Zoroastrian texts). There is no parallel to Ahura Mazda in the Vedas, but that may be because “Ahura Mazda” is not a proper name; rather, it is an epithet for an unnamed deity.
The Achaemenian empire (founded in 550 B.C.E.) brings the Iranian plateau more clearly into the light of history. The inscriptions left by the Achaemenid kings testify to the devotion of the royal house to the worship of Ahura Mazda. They suggest a struggle for truth and articulate a consciousness of Iranian identity. The empire was famed for its tolerance of other religious traditions. The founder of the empire, Cyrus the Great (c. 585-529 B.C.E.), is especially celebrated for allowing exiled Jews to return to Palestine to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. That tolerance had its limits, but what it likely indicates is that local religions were left alone in the name of maintaining social order. Rulers also under-stood their objects of worship belonged to the royal house and were not gods for the empire as a whole.
Two features of the Achaemenid inscriptions are central to reconstructing the religion of the empire. The first is that Ahura Mazda was the sole divinity invoked by the earliest rulers, Darius I (ruled 522-486 B.C.E.) and Xerxes I (ruled 486-465 B.C.E.), but the later rulers of the empire invoked three gods: Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Anahita. It is difficult to know what this development means. It need not be evidence of a return to polytheism by the royal house, because even the earliest rulers had acknowledged other, lesser gods in addition to Ahura Mazda. The second feature is that the Achaemenid inscriptions make no mention of Zoroaster. Because the inscriptions are brief and largely formulaic, this should not be overinterpreted, but it is a reminder that the Achaemenids did not proclaim their worship of Ahura Mazda in Zoroaster’s name. Because Zoroaster became known to the Greeks during the Achaemenid period, it is clear that his followers had carried knowledge of him throughout the Achaemenid empire, including Asia Minor, where the empire met the classical Greek world.
The Achaemenids rose to prominence by uniting two western Iranian tribes, the Medes and the Persians. The Magi, a hereditary priestly tribe of the Medes, played an important political role in the court of the Achaemenids. The description of Persian religious practices by the fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus serves as an invaluable—but also puzzling—testimony to the religious scene in western Iran during his time. He reported that the Persians did not erect statues, altars, or temples to their gods but worshiped instead their chief god, Zeus (undoubtedly Ahura Mazda), on the tops of mountains. He wrote that they also worshiped the sun, the moon, the earth, fire, water, and winds as their other deities.
The Achaemenids left significant archeological remains, the most important being their ceremonial center in Persepolis, near their ancestral center in the province of Fars (in present-day southwestern Iran). That site was devoted to the celebration of kingship, in which different peoples of the empire offered gifts to the king on New Year’s Day.
The Zoroastrian tradition is reflected in three additional features of the Achaemenian empire. First, the tombs of the Achaemenid kings were carved directly into cliffs. Zoroastrian rules forbid polluting the pure elements of fire and earth, so the dead were not cremated or buried. Second, archaeologists have found a large number of mortars and pestles, which might have been used to prepare haoma (a drink made from a sacred plant) in the main Zoroastrian ceremony, the yasna. Finally, the symbol of the fire altar exists in numerous reliefs at Persepolis and is also widely found on cylinder seals and other carvings throughout the region.
The subsequent history of Zoroastrianism may be broadly divided into two parts: from the fourth century B.C.E. to the coming of Islam (ninth century C.E.) and from that time to the present. After the fall of the Achaemenids (330 B.C.E.) the religion ceased to have imperial sponsorship but survived. Although Zoroastrianism may not have been the official state religion during the Seleucid empire (312 B.C.E.-64 B.C.E.) and the Parthian empire (247 B.C.E.-224 C.E.), it was widely practiced in Iran and as far west as Anatolia (Turkey), where it mixed with Greek religious beliefs. It is only with the establishment of the Sasanian empire (224-651 C.E.) that we can speak securely of a Zoroastrian church. With the rise of the Sasanian dynasty, the Zoroastrian church emerged as an ally of the royal house and embodiment of Iranian imperial ideology. The Sasanian court was interested in establishing orthodoxy as a source of its legitimacy.
The Sasanians arose in Fars province, the homeland of the Achaemenids. While historical memory of the earlier empire had dissolved into myth, the Sasanians seem to have seen themselves as the carriers of Achaemenid glory. They centralized their control of the Iranian plateau and were a threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Sasanian family was connected with a shrine to Anahita (an ancient Iranian goddess of fertility, war, and royalty) and organized a priestly hierarchy in the service of empire, which had two official titles for priests—hērbad (teaching priests) and mMbed (ritual priests), the latter apparently with higher ecclesiastical authority.
Evidence does not suggest much continuity between Achaemenid and Sasanian sponsorship of the Zoroastrian church, but the Sasanians believed the empire needed an official church given the potentially disruptive presence of other universalizing religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Manichaeism. Sasanian ideology supported the idea that a symbiotic relationship should exist between kingship and religion (that is, both must support one another if the empire is to prosper). The alliance of Zoroaster and his royal patron Vishtasp was the model for this relationship.
Zoroastrianism was still primarily the religion of the Iranians and usually did not seek converts among its conquered people. The one exception was in Armenia. Armenia was a buffer state between the Roman and Sasanian empires. The Armenians seem to have been Zoroastrian before the Sasanians, but in 314 C.E. they converted to Christianity to maintain their independence. The Sasanians attempted to reverse that under Yazdegird II (reigned 438-57), leading to war in 451 C.E., but Armenian identity remained closely tied to Christianity. Although Zoroastrianism continued to be the official religion of the Sasanian empire, the other proselytizing religions, especially Nestorian Christianity, found significant numbers of converts among the Iranian population.
Important in Zoroastrianism was the construction of fire temples, known as atashkadehs (places of fire), found in Iran as well as in non-Iranian lands (presumably to serve Iranian populations). In their simplest form, fire temples were chahar tāqs (Persian: “four arches”)—that is, single, square, domed buildings built on four arched walls. Individual sacred fires were maintained in these buildings. It is likely that state-supported priests conducted the religious life of the community, including the daily practice of the yasna. In addition, there were holy fires in shrines around the country dedicated to the different classes of society and to the royal house.
The establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy among the Zoroastrians, even if its reach into the laity was not deep, also meant the establishment of a Zoroastrian orthodoxy, which is reflected in the Pahlavi (middle Persian) texts. There is, in addition, some evidence of heterodox movements and heresies. The most important was Zurvanism, which placed the god Zurvan (time) above the combating deities Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. This move toward monism demoted the position of Ahura Mazda and promoted a rather remote figure, Zurvan, as the actual creator of the world. Scholars, however, have expressed strong reservations about this doctrine being formally a heresy rather than an interpretation of orthodox belief. There is little evidence for this teaching in the Zoroastrian sources, which are strictly dualist. Much more significant and troubling was Manichaeism (established in the third century), which shared theological concepts with Zoroastrianism. Manichaeism taught that the world was the battle-ground between good, represented by a divine light, and evil, found in the material world; it thus completely rejected the material world, arguing that good could be released from its entanglement with matter through continual purification. The founders of the Sasanian dynasty had showed some initial interest in Manichaeism but ultimately rejected it. The Sasanian monarch, at the urging of the high priest Kirdīr, had Mani, the religion’s founder, executed in 276. The church Mani founded remained active in Iranian lands, as well as in the Roman Empire, Central Asia, and China. Manichean teaching contributed to the heterodox movement of Mazdak, a Zoroastrian priest who in 494 proclaimed a social revolutionary movement against the Sasanian state with the hope of establishing an egalitarian social order. The Sasanians eventually suppressed the movement, executing Mazdak in 524.
The defeat of the last Sasanian emperor in 651 C.E. brought the Iranian plateau under Muslim rule and initiated the conversion of the area to Islam. In the first century of Islam eastern Iran became a seedbed for opposition movements to the Umayyad rule based in Damascus. In 750 the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty was achieved by Arab forces from eastern Iran that included recent Iranian converts to Islam. This led to the shift of the symbolic center of the Islamic empire to the east and to the increasing role of Persian culture in the formulation of Islamic culture and political life. Unrest continued in eastern Iran, and there were periodic local revolts, usually accompanied by Zoroastrian expectations for a messiah and Mazdak’s heterodox message.
The status of Zoroastrians under Islam rule was initially clarified by the second caliph, Umar, who declared that Zoroastrians were “People of the Book” who would therefore be protected by Islam if they abided by the rules of their status and paid the jizya (the tax levied on non-Muslims). The social position of the Zoroastrian community became increasingly difficult, however, especially as the process of Muslim conversion began to take hold.
According to legend, in 917 C.E. a group of Zoroastrians from northeastern Iran, led by a priest who was frustrated by the declining fortunes of the community, left the country. They eventually settled in the Gujarat region on the western coast of India in 936. They won the patronage of the local ruler and founded the city of Sanjan. The necessary ritual implements later arrived, and the highest level of fire temple was established. The fire was moved to Udvada, where it continues as one of the most holy fires of the tradition. This was the basis for the Parsi community that is located primarily around Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Parsis also settled in northern India in areas that are now Pakistan.
Other Zoroastrians remained in Iran, and the tradition survived, especially in the desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. The Iranian community remained the authority of the tradition through the eighteenth century, and Parsis in India consulted Zoroastrians in Iran for guidance in their religion. This relationship changed in the nineteenth century, when Parsis were able to support educational institutions to maintain the tradition. As a minority cultivated by the British imperial rulers, Parsis also became financially and politically powerful in India, allowing them to exercise greater influence on their surrounding environment.
In the twentieth century opportunities for education and the development of trade encouraged some Zoroastrians to move to other parts of the British Empire. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79, which made Iran an Islamic republic, led to a significant exodus of Zardushtis (Iranian Zorastrians), especially to western European countries, the United States, and Canada.
The primary doctrine of Zoroastrianism is worship of Ahura Mazda, the creator and chief god of the world. As such, it is a monotheistic faith and shares the common problem of monotheism: how to account for the presence of evil. An ethical dualism (in which the spirit world is divided between the forces of good and evil) pervades the Gāthā hymns and the Achaemenid inscriptions requiring a deliberate choice of the good. This dualism constitutes the Iranian contribution to the religious history of humankind; it compromises God’s omnipotence but has the benefit that the creator is blameless for the presence and power of evil in the world.
Ahura Mazda is above all connected with creation. The moment of creation established the dualistic world over which Ahura Mazda reigns. This event involved not him but two primordial spirits—the twins Spenta Mainyu (the good spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the evil spirit, who becomes Ahriman in Middle Persian)—who made diametrically opposed choices in the beginning. The language the Gāthās use to describe this event suggests that, rather than being just a moment in the past, creation is an ongoing process of dividing the world along the lines of these choices.
In response to Muslim and Christian criticisms, some contemporary Zoroastrians have wanted to deny the dualist elements of the tradition and insist that the tradition teaches a pure monotheism. To judge by the major theological statements reflecting Sasanian theology, Zoroastrian orthodoxy was characterized by a strict dualism between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. They were locked in continual combat, and it was the duty of the followers of the religion to ally themselves firmly with Ahura Mazda. This dualism was an ethical one and did not in any way suggest a rejection of the physical world. It was in fact in the physical world (getig) that this combat was fought, and the forces of good had weapons at their disposal that guaranteed their eventual victory. Ahura Mazda dwells in the menog (spiritual world) but created the getig as the arena for conflict. Those who dwell in the getig are the primary combatants against Angra Mainyu. The efforts made in the material world are valued and are the chief means for the defeat of the forces of evil. In the end Ahura Mazda will enter into the material world to lead the final yasna ceremony that will transform the world, eliminating the power of Angra Mainyu once and for all.
Important to Zoroastrianism are the divine figures who aid Ahura Mazda. In the Gāthās Ahura Mazda interacts with and works through a number of abstract entities. These are not only available to Ahura Mazda but also related to human faculties, through which Ahura Mazda and human beings connect to one another. Numerous passages in the Gāthās refer to this idea of an intermediary between divine and human. In the Gāthās these entities are not systematized or given a group name, but in the Yasna Haptanhāiti (a later prose text in the ancient Gathic dialect) they are called the Amesha Spentas (bounteous immortals). Six figures comprise the Amesha Spentas: Vohu Manah, (good thought), Asha (truth), Khshathra Vairya (desirable dominion), Spenta Armaiti (beneficent devotion), Haurvatat (wholeness), and Ameretat (immortality). A seventh figure, Spenta Mainyu (the good spirit), was later added to the others, together forming the Divine Heptad.
In their abstraction the seven good agents are best thought of as the means by which Ahura Mazda interacts with the material world. This organization of good forces is arrayed against a counter-organization of seven evil forces headed by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. To judge by the Gāthās, the male Vohu Manah and the female Spenta Armaiti (who was the daughter of Ahura Mazda and the goddess of earth) seem to have played the most important role in communicating divine speech to Zoroaster. Traditionally the Amesha Spentas came to be linked with various ritual and material elements: Vohu Manah to cattle, Asha to fire, Khshathra Vairya to metal, Spenta Armaiti to earth, Haurvatat to water, and Ameretat to plant life (including the sacred plant, haoma).
The divine world of Zoroastrianism is populated by a number of other divinities, some of whom receive worship in the other great Avestan text, the Yashts. The Yashts are 21 hymns that present a world that is consistently dualist but in which Ahura Mazda shares the divine stage with a number of other divinities (yazatas), the two most important of which are Mithra (also a Vedic god) and the river goddess Anahita (the pure one, corresponding to the Hindu goddess Saraswati). These and a number of other figures, as well as the sacred drink, haoma (which is part of the yasna service), all have separate hymns dedicated to them.
The unsolved question about these hymns is what purpose they served. They are much closer to oralformulaic poetry (poetry that is memorized and performed rather than written down) than are the Gāthās, and thus their wording was probably continually improvised. Some of them are presented as spoken to Zoroaster by Ahura Mazda. They were likely composed over an extensive period of time; some of the later Yashts were written as late as the Achaemenid period (550-330 B.C.E.). They appear to be connected with the development of the Zoroastrian liturgical calendar, a complicated daily and monthly cycle of times devoted to particular yazatas. This cycle specified the days on which particular hymns were to be recited to their associated divine beings. In contemporary Zoroastrianism, with the exception of the Yasht to the haoma, these hymns no longer have any liturgical purpose.
While each Yasht narrates incidents of an individual deity or discusses a more abstract notion—such as sraosha(obedience, the lord of prayer) or xwarnah (the kingly glory of Iran)—together they contain the outlines of a coherent epic history that features the coming of Zoroaster and predicts the unfolding of the future. This history is divided into three eras: creation, an epic history of the physical world (in which good and evil are mixed), and a period of renewal. In the first era six elements of the world (stone, water, earth, vegetation, animals, and humanity) are created. The earth is divided in seven “climes,” or regions, with Iran at the center. At the moment of creation good and evil spirits appear, and the world subsequently exists as a site of the commingling of good and evil. The two earliest creations, the ox and the first man, are both killed by the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu, but from them arise animals and humanity.
Kingship comes to be a defining feature of human society. The epic history narrates the rise of heroes and kings who vie for power and who seek to defend the central clime of Iran against its natural enemies, the Turanians. Zoroaster comes at the midpoint of that history, with a revelation that guarantees the eventual triumph of good over evil. His legend begins with the miracles connected with his birth—including the light that glowed brightly and his escape from attempts to kill him—and continues with his reception of revelation, his early preaching, and his heroic defeat of enemies. He was famous for his virtue and his kindness to animals. The conversion of the ruler Vishtasp and Zoroaster’s alliance with him are the centerpiece of the story; it lays the groundwork for the spread of the “Good Religion” throughout the world. Zoroaster is eventually killed during a Turanian attack by a priest of a rival cult. Each of the next three millennia are initiated by a savior born of Zoroaster’s semen, which is preserved in Hamun Lake in the region of Seistan (in southeastern Iran). The arrival of the last savior, Saoshyants, and the final defeat of the evil spirit achieve the promised frashkard, or renewal of the world.
Until the frashkard each soul at the end of its life arrives at Chinvat Bridge, “the bridge of the separation,” where it is judged by the divinities Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. The soul’s deeds appear to him or her in the form of a beautiful maiden or an old hag, depending on the person’s moral worth. Those who have been good cross the bridge, which has been made wide, and arrive in heaven, the realm of infinite lights. Those who have been evil fall off the bridge, which has become razor thin, making his or her demise inevitable. Those whose deeds are evenly balanced dwell in an intermediate region where there is no joy or torment. This fate exists only until the frashkard, when all evil is cleansed from the world, those suffering in hell complete their torments, and all receive the rewards of a transformed world. This structure of salvation history—with its apocalyptic expectation of a coming savior and the vision of individual judgment after death—likely influenced the development of neighboring religious traditions.
Moral Code of Conduct
The commandment “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” underlines the deeply ethical teachings of the tradition. Zoroastrians believe that the material world was created as the site of a struggle that will eventually result in the defeat of evil. The material world itself is not evil, but it requires protection from evil’s pollution and needs to be marshaled for the weapons it provides for the struggle.
A Sasanian catechism called “The Selected Counsels of the Ancient Sages,” or “The Book of Counsel of Zardusht,” summarizes what every Zoroastrian should understand of his or her faith. They need to know that they are created beings who belong to Ahura Mazda, not Angra Mainyu. They must believe that Ahura Mazda’s kingdom is infinite and pure, while the Evil Spirit will be destroyed. They must perform five duties: keeping the faith and keeping goodness and evil apart; marrying and procreating; cultivating the soil; treating livestock justly; and spending one-third of one’s time studying the religion and attending the fire temple, one-third tilling the earth, and one-third in eating, rest, and enjoyment. As this text shows, there is a special premium placed upon the cultivation of the land and the care of livestock. It could be said that peasants have the ideal Zoroastrian life, because the protection and cultivation of the pure elements water and earth lies with them.
More important is the cultivation of the individual and civic virtues that are expected of every Zoroastrian man and woman. The virtues of righteousness (asha) are central; they entail upholding the good order of the world and avoiding lying (the great opponent of order). Education and the quest for knowledge are also highly prized and expected of all. The virtues of charity and concern for the poor are important; the tradition envisioned an alliance of royalty and church to cultivate the virtues and create a good society. The values of education and charity continue to be hallmarks of contemporary Zoroastrian life.
The holy language of the tradition is Avestan. Sacred texts exist in two dialects: older (Gathic) Avestan and younger Avestan.
The main surviving texts are collected in the Yasna, which is used in the daily liturgy. The Yasna contains the Gāthās, 17 hymns in older Avestan that are honored as the most sacred utterances of Zoroaster. The hymns were composed on behalf of a royal patron, Vishtasp; other figures, including priests of opposing cults, also appear in the hymns. The remainder of the Yasna, totaling 72 chapters, contains materials in younger Avestan. There are two other large texts in younger Avestan: the Yashts, hymns to deities or divine entities, and the Vidēvdād (also known as the Vendidad), a collection of legends and purity rules that is recited during one occasionally performed ritual. There are also a number of smaller texts that function as liturgical guides for the priesthood and laity.
The tradition holds that the these sacred texts, known as the Avesta, originally contained 21 books. All but one, theVidēvdād, were lost during the conquest of Iran by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E. Remnants were kept in oral circulation for as long as a millennium. They were finally written down in the Avestan alphabet (based on Aramaic), which was likely invented in the Sasanian period (224-651 C.E.), occurring after Avestan had ceased to be a living language. The contents of the remaining 20 books, though lost, were generally known and summarized.
In the nineteenth century an emblem of Persian royal glory, a winged disk with the torso of a bearded man, was found at the site of Persepolis. Called the Fravahar, it has since been adopted as a key Zoroastrian symbol. The emblem is often used to decorate fire temples, and along with the fire altar, it is used as a general symbol of the religion. Many interpret it as a symbol of Ahura Mazda, though originally it likely referred to the royal glory of the Achaemenids.
Early and Modern Leaders
The priesthood has been the primary source of leadership for the tradition. During the Sasanian period two priests seem to have played a crucial role in reorganizing the tradition. The first is Tansar (or Tosar), head of the priestly establishment under Ardashir (died in 240 C.E.), who was first ruler of the dynasty. Tansar is known for advising an interdependent relationship between royalty and religion; he believed both are necessary, and each must reinforce the other for prosperity and peace to reign. He is also said to have organized and edited the Avesta, helping the early Sasanians establish orthodoxy.
Tansar’s putative successor was Kirdīr (or Kartir), who rose to prominence under Shapur I (240-72 C.E.) and continued to be prominent into the reign of Varahan II (276-93 C.E.). Kirdīr is known from a self-promoting rock inscription, which exists in four versions. In this inscription he tells of his rise to power, his governance of the state church, and his persecution of foreign religions in the Sasanian realm—including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Nasoreans (a baptismal sect), and Christians. It was under his influence that the Sasanian court turned against Mani (founder of Manichaeism) and executed him. The names of a number of priests from the Sasanian period survive in commentaries on the Avesta, suggesting the intellectual vitality of Zoroastrianism during that period. The authors of the Pahlavi texts written in the ninth century are evidence of the survival of the tradition under Muslim rule.
While priests have retained their status as leaders and interpreters of the tradition, modernity has seen a number of lay leaders who have played essential roles in their community. Four particularly prominent Parsis and Zardushtis illustrate the range of their activities. Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-90) was a Parsi and an early delegate of the Society for the Amelioration of the Zarathustrians of Persia. He traveled twice to Iran investigating and documenting the state of the Zardushti community throughout Iran. He helped facilitate a number of charitable efforts for education and the rebuilding of fire temples and dakhmas (funerary towers), and he convinced the Shah to relieve the burdensome jizya tax on the Zarathustrian community. K.R. Cama (1831-1909) was a Parsi businessman from a distinguished family in Europe. He established contact with leading European scholars and was instrumental in bringing their research back to India, where he established the K.R. Cama Society, the leading center for the study of the Zoroastrian tradition. Bhikaji Rustom Cama (1861-1936), the daughter-in-law of K.R. Cama, was a leading Indian nationalist. She was a strong critic of the British colonization of India and a leader in the movement for Indian independence. She famously unfurled the first Indian flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart in 1907. Arbab Rustam Guiv (1888-1980) was a businessman from Yazd who eventually settled in Tehran. He was leader of the Tehran Zoroastrian Anjuman (association) from 1940 and a member of parliament representing the Zardushtis in 1942. He supervised the repair and construction of fire temples and led many charitable and educational initiatives for the community in Iran. He established a Zoroastrian center, the Arbab Rustam Guiv Darbe-Mehr, in New Rochelle, New York, in 1977, and he was involved in the construction of temples in Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and Anaheim, California.
Major Theologians and Authors
The history of Zoroastrian thought since the fall of the Sasanians (seventh century C.E.) can be divided into three parts. Each developed in conversation with a powerful culture, to which Zoroastrians looked with a combination of uncertainty and respect.
The first period was the early centuries of Islam. The great works of that era, written in the ninth century, include theDenkard (“Acts of the Religion”), edited finally by Adurbad Emedan; the Bundahishn (“Creation”), edited by Farrobay i Ashawahishtan; and Wizidagiha (“Selections”) of Zadspram. All are encyclopedic collections designed to regularize and preserve the tradition. Another ninth-century text, the Shkand-gumānīg Wizār (“Doubt-Dispelling Exposition”) by Mardanfarrokh i Ohrmazddad, is a fascinating handbook justifying the Zoroastrian faith and answering attacks on the faith by Jews, Christians, Manichaeans, and Muslims. The various collections of Zoroastrian legal decisions mirror a community wrestling with the problems of conversion and the tradition’s diminished status. These include theDadistan-i Denig (“Religious Decisions,” by the priest Manushchihr), the Sad Dar (“A Hundred Subjects”), and theShayast ne Shayast (“Proper and Improper”), each reflecting the deteriorating condition of the Zoroastrian community under Muslim rule.
In the tenth century, after fleeing Iran for India, the Parsis began a second period of Zoroastrian thought, influenced by Indo-Muslim culture. The Parsis attempted to address both the doctrinal and the practical concerns of their Indian rulers. Under Mughal rule (1525-1748) Indian Muslim rulers took a wide interest in the religions of their territories. In 1573 the emperor Akbar called the learned priest Meherji Rana to his court to testify about Zoroastrian beliefs. Akbar’s attempt to integrate all religions into a new faith, Dīn-e Ilāhī (“Divine Religion”), bore the mark of Zoroastrian influence.
Interaction with the West—above all with the British, who established rule over most of India in the nineteenth century—marked the third period. Intellectually the British presented three trends to which the Parsis responded. There was first the missionary effort begun in 1829 by the Anglican John Wilson, who criticized the tradition’s dualism, ritualism, superstition, and focus on pollution. In response, there emerged a kind of “Protestant” defense of the tradition, represented by M.N. Dhalla (1875-1956), who viewed the tradition as an ethical monotheism and underplayed the role of ritual; he became known as the “Protestant Dastur” (dastur is the term for a high priest). The second trend was occultism, promoted by the Theosophical Society; the most important figure in this trend was Behramshah Naoroji Shroff (1858-1927). Claiming special initiation by Iranian masters, Shroff presented a highly spiritualized view of the tradition that focused on the occult significance and power of Avestan. He considered Zoroastrianism as the highest stage of religious evolution. He founded a movement known as Ilm-i Kshnoom (the science of spiritual satisfaction), invoking a word that appears once in the Gāthās. Deeply influenced by Hindu teachings, he also taught vegetarianism. The third trend was the rediscovery of the tradition’s historical complexity through the philological study of Zoroastrian texts; Western scholars began this work, but a number of Zoroastrian scholars have also made significant contributions. This scholarship has tended to support a more traditional view of Zoroastrianism, emphasizing, for example, the importance of ritual. Many in this camp have been priests, including Darab Dastur Peshotan Sanjana (1857-1931), J. J. Modi (1854-1933), and, in the contemporary period, H. D. K. Mirza, F. M. Kotwal, and K. M. Jamasp Asa. Lay thinkers such as K. Mistree and R. R. Motafram have made this more traditional view widely available to the laity.
Urbanized Zoroastrians in Iran and India have governed themselves by councils of notables—partly hereditary and partly elected. The most significant in India is the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, established in 1728. These councils have managed all the affairs of the community, providing charity to those in need, encouraging education, and maintaining the priesthood. Zoroastrians elsewhere have organized local organizations throughout Europe, North America, Pakistan, Singapore, and Australia. The Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America coordinates the work of 24 such associations in the United States and Canada. The World Zoroastrian Organization, founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, serves the entire world community.
Priesthood is hereditary. Only men are priests, and they exist at two levels. The navar are able to perform the lesser ceremonies, and the martab can perform the yasna as well. Training for the priesthood, which begins at a young age with the mastery of the sacred texts, includes extensive language training in both Avestan and middle Persian.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
In Zoroastrianism the primary religious activity is the daily maintenance of a sacred fire. There are various levels of fires, some of which may even be in the possession of an individual. Most sacred fires are in a fire temple, where priests maintain them. To allow the fire to be extinguished would be a catastrophic sin. Some of the major fires have survived for centuries.
Every temple has an atashkadeh (“place of fire”), an enclosed chamber that contains a continuously burning fire on a metal grate or vase (atashdan). The fire receives continual tending. In addition to the atashkadeh there is also an area called the dar-i Mihr (“court of Mithra”; Mithra is the most important divinity, or yazata, in the tradition and is connected especially with the sun and the maintenance of covenants). This is a room that contains one or more pawi,rectangular consecrated spaces marked off by furrows. Each pawi contains a fire vase and two platforms; on one the priest sits, and on the other the priest prepares the offerings that are consecrated during the yasna.
These temples often contain schools for training priests. Both Iranian and Indian communities have sacred sites (connected either with legends or with historical memory) that are the object of popular pilgrimage. The main act of worship, prayer five times a day, is not performed at the temple but rather anywhere before a fire or the sun by all Zoroastrians.
What is Sacred?
Because of the importance of fire in Zoroastrianism, the religion was erroneously characterized as “fire worship.” Fire, however, is the highest kind of material; it is getig (physical world) connected to asha (truth). It is seen as animate, as a living creature that makes physically present the divine light of Ahura Mazda. Connected to one of the Amesha Spentas (entities that aid Ahura Mazda), fire is Ahura Mazda’s most potent weapon in the material world. Other material elements connected to the Amesha Spentas—the cow, earth, and water—are also considered sacred. The fear of polluting these sacred elements dictates the special honor they receive.
Holidays and Festivals
The Zoroastrian calendar is composed of 12 months of 30 days; each month and day bears the name of a divinity or concept. In addition, there are five Gatha days at the end of the year that are named after the five chapters of the Gāthās.
There are six Gahambars (five-day festivals) spread throughout the year: Maidhyõizarêmaya (mid-spring feast), Maidhyõishêma (mid-summer feast), Paitishaya (feast of “bringing in the harvest”), Ayathrima (“bringing home the herds”), Maidhyaiya (mid-year/winter feast), and Hamaspathmaêdaya (feast of All Souls). The last one is held during the Gatha days. Each Gahambar is a period to focus on worship and do only necessary work. Originally these festivals appear to have marked the change of seasons, and they came to be connected with the six elements of creation: stone, water, earth, vegetation, animals, and humanity.
The first day of spring, naw ruz (new day), is the pan-Iranian festival that begins the new year. It is the most importantjashan (festival) of the year. There are 18 other jashans (a word derived from yasna); 12 of them occur when the name of the day and name of the month coincide. These are all periods for family gatherings and the sponsorship of ceremonies in the home. Another important jashan is Mehregan, a day in honor of the god Mithra.
The 365-day calendar has gradually lost its seasonal connection. As a result, it has become an object of major debate. Presently there are two calendars used in Iran. The fasli, or seasonal calendar, places naw ruz, or New Year’s Day, in March. It was adopted in 1939 in Tehran, but it was rejected in more traditional Yazd, which follows the qadimi (old calendar) and has naw ruz in late July. Parsis observe three calendars: the two already mentioned, as well as the Shenshai calendar, which places naw ruz in August.
Mode of Dress
There are two pieces of dress that every Zoroastrian is expected to wear after being initiated. The sadre is the sacred cotton shirt, a thin white garment that is worn under clothes and should never be removed. The kusti is a sacred cord, woven from wool, which traditionally was composed of 72 threads in recollection of the 72 chapters of the Yasna. It is wrapped around the body three times as a reminder of the commandment “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” It is tied and untied during the five daily prayers; the retying marks an intensification of commitment.
Zoroastrians are permitted to eat anything edible in the good part of creation. It is meritorious to kill animals of the evil creation (such as snakes, insects, and frogs), but those are not to be eaten. Silence is maintained while eating so as not to confuse the two functions of the mouth, eating and speaking. Eating or drinking at night is discouraged, because that is when demons might be able to steal some of what is consumed. There are no formal rules for slaughtering an animal, though a portion of what is killed should be consecrated. As a result of Hindu influences, some Parsis practice vegetarianism.
It is often argued that the Gāthās denounce ritual, especially extreme forms of ritual connected with the preparation and consumption of haoma (a hallucinogenic drink, which is now pressed from ephedra and pomegranate twigs) and with sacrifice. Because Zoroaster was engaged in the religious practices of his community, it is more likely that the ritual of opponents, rather than ritual itself, was being denounced.
Priests are responsible for the ritual life of the community. Rituals are of two kinds—those that take place in the sanctified space of a fire temple (the inner ceremonies in the dar-i Mihr, or court of Mithra) and those that occur outside. The key inner ceremony is the yasna, which is performed daily by two priests. In the ceremony, which lasts about two hours, the 72 chapters of the Yasna text are recited. The yasna takes place before a fire, with water at the right hand of the zot, the chief priest who performs the ceremony. The assistant priest, the raspi, feeds the fire during the ceremony.
The ceremony progresses with both ritual action and words. The heart of the ritual action consists of the sanctification of bread and butter (representing the vegetable and the animal worlds) and the preparation of parahom, a sacred drink made by adding milk to haoma. The bread and butter are distributed to the sponsors of the ceremony and other laity, so that they may be nourished by the sacred forces that have been concentrated in the food. Sponsors may also consume a portion of the drink, but the bulk of it is poured into a well to strengthen the water’s power to remain pure and to sustain life.
The purpose of the ritual is to strengthen the material world and its inhabitants with concentrations of divine power. The six elements of creation, as part of the material world, are represented in the ceremony. Zoroastrians believe that the world was created in a primordial yasna conducted by a much larger number of officiants. At the end of the material era, Ahura Mazda will perform a final yasna, which will herald the frashkard, or renewal of the world, marking evil’s defeat.
Priests also conduct the outer ceremonies, which may be performed outside the fire temple and may be witnessed by both Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians. The most important such ritual is the afrinagan, the distribution of blessings. In this ceremony fruit, wine, milk, eggs, flowers, and water are placed on a cloth on the floor before a fire vase, and the zotblesses them. The primary ritual in the ceremony is the exchange of flowers between the zot and the raspi, which is understood to be an exchange between the getig (physical world) and the menog (spiritual world). The ritual results in a concentration of sacred power, which is then funneled out through blessings to the assembled community.
The main act of worship required of all Zoroastrians is daily prayer. Five times a day the Ahunvar—the holiest prayer of the tradition, taught by Zoroaster—is recited anywhere before a fire or the sun. The meaning of the “Ahunvar” is obscure; it functions more like a mantra. It invokes two human agents who serve Asha (truth) and Vohu Manah (good thought), and it promises Ahura Mazda’s special protection of the poor.
After initiation, discussed below, the two other lifecycle rituals are for marriage and death. There is a preference for performing the wedding in the bride’s home in the evening, but that is not always possible. The ceremony is preceded by a ritual bath by both the bride and groom. The ceremony itself takes place before a fire, with a priest officiating.
The custom surrounding death are perhaps the best-known feature of Zoroastrianism. Death is the ultimate form of pollution and the most important sign of the continuing power of the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Because it is forbidden to pollute fire or earth with a corpse, the body cannot be burned or buried. A special group of Zoroastrians is responsible for transporting a corpse, and they take on the inevitable pollution such work entails. The corpse is first taken to a special site and washed with bull’s urine (thought to be a powerful antiseptic). Then it is laid out for three days, during which it is watched over by a dog, who was traditionally thought to be able to discern life and death and to be an especially effective slayer of demons. After three days the corpse is taken to the dakhma, (tower of silence), a large, round tower open to the elements. There the corpse is devoured by birds. The remaining bones are then gathered in a common container in the dakhma, where they will be reassembled into the individual resurrection bodies formed during thefrashkard. Although an ancient custom, it has recently encountered opposition in urban areas. As a result, there has been a trend to replace exposure with cremation, done with the use of electricity rather than fire, or with above-ground burial. The practice of exposure, however, continues in some South Asian cities.
Another ritual practice to eliminate pollution is called the barashnum. This nine-day ceremony is composed of three ritual baths in a carefully laid out area, where the candidate will wash himself 18 times with bull’s urine. A dog will also be presented to him 13 times. Traditionally all orthodox Zoroastrians sought to undergo this ceremony at least once, but now it is almost exclusively restricted to priests. A priest will likely undergo this ritual upon his initial consecration and at further points in his life as is needed.
Rites of Passage
During the fifth month of a woman’s pregnancy, a lamp is lit, representing the divine light that Zoroaster’s mother displayed during her pregnancy. Shortly after birth a newborn is given a taste of parahom (a mixture of haoma and milk) if it is available. After delivery the mother traditionally was isolated for 40 days to allow the impurities of birth to diminish. The twentieth century has seen a decline of these practices.
The primary ritual for a child is initiation. The Parsis call the initiation navjote (new birth), while the Zardushtis call itsudra-pushun (the wearing of the sadre, or sacred shirt). The age of initiation varies, but the child cannot be younger than seven years old. The child must learn prayers and the rudiments of the faith. In the ceremony he or she is given thesadre and the kusti (sacred cord). The child then receives the blessings of a priest and is sprinkled with rice. A large party celebrating the boy or girl follows.
Both Iranian and Parsi communities disapprove of conversion, as do most (but not all) diaspora communities. Because Zoroastrian identity is so strongly connected with Iranian descent, most feel that only those born to Zoroastrian parents can be Zoroastrian. Some more liberal diaspora communities have allowed conversion of non-Zoroastrian spouses.
The contemporary Zoroastrian community is defined by two important factors—their small numbers and the historical divisions maintained by the surviving remnant. The most important division is between the Iranian and Parsi communities. These two traditions developed independently, despite periodic contact since the arrival of the Parsis in India. Since the mid-twentieth century thousands of Zoroastrians have immigrated to Europe, Australia, and North America. In the diaspora members of the Parsi and Iranian communities have come together and learned about what they share and where they differ. For both communities the most significant issues are the survival of the tradition and what should be passed on to the next generation.
As a minority group in the last millennium, Zoroastrians have regularly experienced discrimination and persecution. This has encouraged Zoroastrians to work for religious tolerance, both for themselves within the wider community and between members of their own tradition.
The view that Zoroastrians are part of an exclusive, hereditary religion has also contributed to their tolerance of others. Most Zoroastrians believe that not only their tradition but all religions are founded on the highest insights and principles. They have no need to insist that Zoroastrianism is in exclusive possession of the truth, since their religion is not available to those born outside the tradition.
A commitment to education and charity has characterized the Zoroastrian community. In both Iran and India education has been the path to economic security, and both communities are highly educated.
The Parsi community in India has been dedicated to charitable work, both for poorer Parsis and for society in general; Parsis have established medical, educational, and social services. It has been argued that the generosity of the Parsi community has helped prevent resentment toward them within India. In poor Iranian communities charity also has played and important role, endowing festivals, temples, and other projects.
The strong ethical orientation of the tradition has inspired the Zoroastrian community to seek social justice for all. The Parsi community has provided leaders to a number of political and social reform movements in India, including the movement for independence from British rule (1917-47). Under the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran (1926-79), Zardushtis supported development efforts and played a special role in the formulation of Iranian nationalist ideology. That ideology—stressing modernization, social development, and the glories of the pre-Islamic Iranian period—drew upon the country’s Zoroastrian past.
In the modern era Zoroastrian women have risen to prominence in many fields, though they have confronted social obstacles common in their countries. Family is a central value, so it is incumbent upon all Zoroastrians to marry and produce offspring. Among more conservative Zoroastrians there is a strong movement to encourage marriage only within the community. Social sanctions have occasionally been taken toward those, especially women, who marry non-Zoroastrians. For example, Parsi women who have married outside the community have been denied Zoroastrian funerals. In the name of gender equality, this rule has been increasingly extended to men.
The issue of conversion remains highly controversial. Orthodox Zoroastrians are convinced that Zoroastrianism has never accepted converts (history is largely on their side). The argument against conversion has been mixed with troubling claims to racial purity, which proponents of conversion find particularly offensive. Proponents also point out that prohibiting conversion implicitly denies freedom of choice.
The Parsi and Iranian communities tend to resist conversion for different reasons. Parsi self-identity has been influenced by the Indian caste system, supporting a strong sense of endogamy and exclusiveness. The Iranian community, on the other hand, is more concerned that it might violate the Islamic prohibition on proselytizing. Individual cases of conversion, either by a spouse or by anyone else, are generally not recognized, except by a few communities in the diaspora.
The controversy over conversion has tended to pit the clergy (who are more conservative) against the laity. This has led to a larger question concerning the identity of the religion. Some see Zoroastrianism as primarily characterized by the priests, who serve the community but who are cut off in many ways from modern life. Others view Zoroastrianism primarily as an ethical value system that provides direction to all its members and encourages them to apply those values in the modern world.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, with a proud history and cultural influence dating back more than 3,000 years. As the religion of an ancient empire in Iran, it had a notable influence on the culture of classical Greece, a competing power. The interaction between Greek and Iranian culture is seen in the relief sculpture at Persepolis, which appears to contain ancient Near Eastern themes interpreted by Greek craftsmen. This is significant because the Zoroastrian tradition otherwise seems not to have made pictorial representations or sculptures, though there are occasional references to statues, especially of the goddess Anahita.
The chahar tāq,—the square, domed fire temple with four arched walls developed during the Sasanian period—has survived as a fundamental form of Iranian architecture. The significance of the dome as symbol of the cosmos has had an impact on Christian and Muslim architecture, and it has been argued that it also played a role in the development of the Buddhist stupa (a shrine with a dome).
The opulent style and art of the Zoroastrian Sasanian court also had a legacy in the Islamic world, particularly in caliphal palaces and royal symbolism. The reemergence of the Persian language—beginning in the ninth century C.E. in northeastern Iran—helped preserve Zoroastrian epic history, with its interdependence of royalty and religion and its epic hero defending the Iranian realm. Persian poetic and musical forms later drew upon this history.
Contemporary Zoroastrians—such as Zubin Mehta (former conductor of the New York Philharmonic), the postmodern theorist Homi Bhabha, the Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry (whose fiction deals with themes of Parsi identity and Zoroastrian faith), and the Pakistani-born author Bapsi Sidhwa—have made major cultural contributions.