The Zoroastrianism religion, its beliefs and practices are covered in this summary of the eastern religion.
Zoroastrianism has a long oral tradition. Its prophet Zarathusshtra (known in the West as Zoroaster) lived before the Iranians started to use writing, and for many centuries his followers refused to use this alien art for sacred purposes. That’s the reason why there are very few written vestiges of this religion. Finally, during the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth century CE, the Zoroastrian collection of holy texts called the Avesta was set down in a specially invented alphabet. The Avesta was a massive compilation of twenty-one books. Except for the Gathas, seventeen hymns composed by Zoroaster, all parts of it are anonymous, the composite works of generations of priestly poets and scholars. Its language known simply as Avestan, is unrecorded. The very few copies made of the Avesta will later on be destroyed during the many invasions that would occur and the surviving Avesta consists of liturgies, hymns and prayers. There exist many translation of these surviving Avesta, however, some of these translation did a very poor job of precisely translating the original version.
Some evidence from the Gathas shows that Zoroaster lived before the Iranian conquered the land now named after them (and that was the place where zoroastrianism originated), that is, between 1400 and 1200 BCE. Direct evidence for Zoroastrian beliefs and practices at this time comes from Persian monuments and inscriptions, but also from Greek writings. Also some Iranian empires had Zoroastrianism as their state religion and left some vestiges of it.
During the many Arab, Turkish and Greek invasions of Iran, and during the end of the ninth century, a group of Zoroastrians traveled east in search of religious freedom and eventually settling (in 936) in India. Once in India and after being joined by other Zoroastrians, they formed the nucleus a community named “ Parsi ”. At first the Parsis prospered only modestly, as farmers and petty traders, but during the seventeenth century, with the coming of the Europeans, they started making huge amounts of money as merchants. They, therefore, reinforced and were joined by more and more people until the point when they became a predominant community in India and actually played a notable part in the development of Bombay (India). In the meantime, the mother community in Iran, was undergoing extreme poverty and oppression.
The Zoroastrians, enclosed as tiny minorities within Muslim and Hindu societies, were unknown to Western scholars until the seventeenth century. However, we ,now, have pretty good information on their beliefs and practices.
Inhabitants of vast empty steppes, the Iranian Zoroastrian priests believed in a very simple creation myth. They believe that the world has been created by the gods from formless matter. The process of creation took seven steps :
1_ The Sky of stone, a firm enclosing shell, was formed.
2_ Water filled the bottom of the shell.
3_ Then came the Earth lying on the water like a great flat dish.
4_ At its center, the original Plant was created.
5_ Near the plant, were created the unique Bull.
6_ And the first Man, Gayo-Maretan (‘mortal life’).
7_ Finally, the Sun, representing the seventh creation : Fire, stood above all of the rest.
Fire was though to be present in the other creations, as a hidden power.
Then after the seven stages of creation, the gods made sacrifice. They plucked and pounded the Plant and scattered its essence over the earth, and other plants grew from it. They, then, slew the Bull and Gayo-maretan, and from their seed grew animal and human life. Following the arising of animal and human life, a line of mountains grew up along the rim of the earth. At the center of this mountain chain rose the Peak of Hara, around which the sun began to circle, creating night and day. Rain fell, so heavily that the earth was broken into seven regions (karshvars). Man lives in the central region, cut off by a great sea and forest from the six others. The great sea, called Vourukasha, is fed by a huge river which pours down ceaselessly from the Peak of Hara.
These final details were evidently borrowed by the priestly thinkers from ancient myths reflecting the sacrifices they themselves made once. Their beliefs, it seems, was that as long as men continued pious sacrifices and worshipped the gods the world would endure, governed by the principle of Asha. This represents order in the cosmos and justice and truth among men.
As well as venerating ‘nature’ gods, the Iranian Zoroastrians worshipped three great ethical beings whom they called the Ahuras (‘Lords’): Ahura Mazda, lord of wisdom. And beneath him Mithra and Varuna, Lords of the convenient and oath which, duly kept, bound together according to Asha.
Zoroaster was himself a priest. But in his lifetime, it appears from the Gathas, that the long-established pastoral society of the Iranians was being shattered. The Bronze Age was then developing among them, and warrior-princes and their followers, equipped with new weapons and the war-chariot, were indulging in continual warfare and raiding. The prophet’s own people seem to have been victims of more advanced and predatory neighbors; and the violence and injustice which he thus saw led Zoroaster to meditate deeply on good and evil, and their origins. In due course he came to experience what he perceived as a series of divine revelations. These divine revelations led him to preach a new faith. He taught that there was only one eternal God, whom he recognized as Ahura Mazda, a being wholly wise, good and just, but not all-powerful. God had an adversary, Angra Mainyu, who is the evil spirit.
Ahura Mazda created this world to be a battleground where his forces could meet the forces of Angra Mainyu. He accomplished the creation through his holy spirit, Spenta Mainyu, and six other great beings. These great beings were called the Amesha Spentas (‘Holy Immortals’). Each of the seven Amesha Spentas fashioned one of the seven steps of creation that I described previously, and now protects and dwells within it; and each is an aspect of god and an independent divinity to be worshipped. Ahura Mazda is transcendent but through the holy spirit, he can be immanent in his own creation : man.
The Amesha Spentas themselves, evoked lesser Immortals, the Yazatas, beings ‘worthy of worship’. They were the beneficients of the gods, including the lesser Ahuras. Angra Mainyu (the evil spirit), countered by bringing evil spirits into life, including the Daevas, ancient amoral gods of war. With them, he then attacked the good creations. By Zoroastrian doctrine, it was him who destroyed the first Plant, Bull and Man, bringing at the same time death into the world while the Amesha Spentas turned evil into good by creating more life from death (they used the dead as seeds for new people and animal). This is their function : to combat evil and strengthen good.
At death, every individual will be judged. If his good thoughts, words and deeds outweigh his bad, his soul crosses a broad bridge and ascends to heaven. If not, the bridge contracts and he falls into hell with its punishments.
It is also believed that the ultimate goal of all the fighting between evil and good spirits is the salvation of this world. The last day will be marked by increasing cosmic calamities and then, the World Savior, the Saoshyant, will come in glory. He is supposed to be born of the seed of the prophet, miraculously preserved within a lake, and a virgin mother. There will, then, be a great battle between Yazatas and Daevas, good and bad, ending in victory for the good. The bodies of those who died earlier will be resurrected and reunited with their souls. Then finally, the Last judgment will occur. Metals in the mountains will melt and cover the earth in a fiery flood that will destroy all remains of evil and at the same time purge and purify hell. The saved will, then, be given food ( ambrosia ) to eat and their bodies will become as immortal as their souls. And, the kingdom of Ahura Mazda will come on an earth purified and made perfect where the blessed will rejoice everlastingly in his presence.
Now that we know about the history and the beliefs of the Zoroastrians, let’s get into the practices of this religion. A Zoroastrian has the duty to pray five times a day (sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight, dawn). But all this prayers must be done in presence of fire, the symbol of righteousness. He prays standing, and while uttering the appointed prayers unties and reties the Kusti (sacred cord that is constantly worn around the waist). However, before praying, the Zoroastrian performs all sorts of cleaning and purification because the faith makes cleanliness a part of the good and any uncleanness a part of evil. The Zoroastrian purity laws are very important to the religion. They reject all type of pollution and keep the strictest cleanliness in their persons and homes and the conviction that unbelievers are necessarily unclean still operates among Zoroastrians and prevent non-Zoroastrians from entering the fire-temples (Zoroastrian church) or even being present at Zoroastrian acts of worship.
The ancient veneration of fire among the Iranian peoples evidently centered on the ever-burning hearth fire and the temples are also centered on an ever-burning fire that is set on top of an altar pillar. There exist three grades of sacred fire: the Atash Bahram (‘victorious fire’), which is consecrated with many rites and kept blazing brightly; the Atash-1 Aduran (‘fires of fires’), more simply installed and allowed at times to lie dormant beneath its hot ashes; and the Dadgah (‘fire in an appointed place’), which is virtually a hearth fired placed in a consecrated building.
There is no obligation on a Zoroastrian to visit the fire temples since he can pray in front any ‘clean’ fire. But the sacred fires are much beloved, and in devout families, children are taken to them from an early age. Some believers pray regularly at a temple, others attend only on special occasions. Some offering is always made, usually of wood and incense for the fire.
Men and women have equal access to the temples, and boys and girls undergo the same initiation into the faith. This initiation usually takes place between the ages of seven and nine (Parsis) or twelve and fifteen (Iranis).
One occasion Naojote by the Parsis or Sedra Pushun by the Iranis is a very important family occasion. The child has already learned the Kusti prayers. On this day, he bathes, drinks a liquid for inward cleansing and puts on the sacred skirt. The priest then performs the simple ceremony of investing him with the Kusti. After that, the relatives dress him into new clothes and give him gifts. This ceremony, that represents a rite of passage, takes place either at home or at some public hall or garden, very much like marriages of Zoroastrians.
Parsis and Irani share a common ceremony of marriage, in which words are spoken by the officiated priest in the presence of assenting witnesses from the two families. Both communities have in addition a wealth of popular customs, and the festivities last several days.
A birth is also naturally celebrated but since there is concern for purity, some family keeps the mother segregated for 40 days. The baby’s naming is a simple matter of declaration by parent or priest.
Ceremonies at death are far more important for Zoroastrians and have a double aim : The isolation of the impurity of the dead body and give help to the soul. The body is given to a professional, who live segregated as an unclean person. Then the professional wraps the body into a cotton shroud and carries it on an iron bier. After due prayers by priests, the body is laid on top of a stone tower (Dakhma), where the impure, polluting flesh will be devorated by vultures and the bones bleached by sun and winds.
Mourners follow the bier at a distance, two by two, and afterward make ablutions. Some families now prefer cremation (by electrical means), or burial, with the coffin set in cement to protect the good earth. The funeral should take place within twenty-four hours; but the soul is held to linger on earth for three days, while priests say prayers and perform ceremonies to help it. Before dawn on the fourth day family and friends gather to bid it farewell. They pray and undertake meritorious acts for its sake, for example say extra prayers or give gifts to charity. Religious ceremonies are performed for the departed soul monthly during the first year, and then annually for thirty years. After that it is held to have joined the great company of all souls, and is remembered by name at the annual feast in their honor, called by Parsis Muktad, by Iranis Farvardigan or Panie. All these ceremonies for the dead go back to before Zoroaster’s day, and are only uneasily reconciled with his teaching of each man’s own accountability at Judgment Day. Muktad is observed on the last five days of the year. In Irani villages the festival is still celebrated in the home, with the family priest going from house to house eto bless the offerings. In urban communities the offerings are usually sent to the fire-temple, where the people gather. Zoroastrianism has ‘outer’ ceremonies, which can be performed in any clean place, and ‘inner’ ones, which can be solemnized only in ritual precinct (usually attached to the fire-temple). To be able to perform the ‘inner’ ceremonies priest undergo an ancient purification rite (the barashnom), followed by a nine days retreat. Some Irani villages also still try to undergo this great cleaning at least once in their lives, and this used at one time to be the general practice.
Zoroastrianism has many holy days, joyfully celebrated. There are seven obligatory ones, traditionally founded by Zoroaster himself, in honor of Ahura Mazda and creations. These are now known as the six Gahambars and No Ruz (‘New Day’), which, celebrating the seventh creation, fire, looks forward to the final triumph of good. It is the greatest festival of the year (see figure below) , with communal and family celebrations, religious services, feasting and present giving. . The Gahambars are now only fully kept in Irani villages, with everyone joining in five-day festivals. Among holy days which it is meritorious to keep are those of the Water (Aban Jashan) and Fire (Adar Jashan), when many people go to pray at river-bank or the sea-shore, or at fire-temples. Through a series of calendars of holy days. In Iran an ancient tradition is maintained of seasonal pilgrimages to sacred places in the mountains, where large reunions take place for worship and festivities. In India pilgrimages are regularly made to the oldest Parsi sacred fire at Udwada, a village on the coast.
Priest and laity remain two distinct groups, Though they intermarry. Priests wear white, the color of purity, and some Parsi laymen also do so on religious occasions. Parsi women wear the sari. In Iran Zoroastrian village women keep a distinctive traditional dress, but in towns all Zoroastrians have now adopted standard clothing. No Zoroastrian women have ever worn the veil. In dietary matters their religion gives Zoroastrians great freedom, in that they are required only to refrain from anything that might belong to the evil countercreation (e.g. a hideous fish). Under Muslim and Hindu pressures many now refrain, however, from pork and beef, some Parsis are vegetarians by choice.
Even though, the Zoroastrian’s beliefs are still very much the same nowadays, there has been many changes and modifications in the practices of this religion. These changes were due to the evolution of the Zoroastian’s societies and also to the modernization that happened all around the world during the last centuries.
Finally, I must add that while I was writing this paper, I was surprised to found many little similarities to the Islamic religion such as : praying five times a day, the hours of the praying, the belief that the world was created by god from formless mater, ect. . And since Islam originally comes from western Asia, I believe that there must be some kind of influence between this two religions.