Today, Zoroastrianism is a foreign concept to most people around the world. Thousands of years ago, however, it was the biggest religion in the world. Find more about this ancient faith’s roots, beliefs, practices, and influence in the paragraphs to come.
Zoroastrianism is a religion that appeared around 3500 years ago, founded by the Prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra). It emerged in Ancient Iran and for over a thousand of years it was the dominant religion of Persia, as well as one of the biggest faiths in the world. Zoroastrianism’s reign as the official religion in Persia lasted from 600 BCE until 650 CE. Followers of this religion still exist today, particularly in Iran and India, but their number has greatly diminished in the past few centuries. Today, there are less than 200,000 total followers all over the world, 60,000 of which reside in India, the biggest center of the faith today.
Worshippers try to abide by a triad of moral principles which are meant to help purify the world when followed:
- Humata, “Good Thoughts” – Any intention or resolution to pursue a life of righteousness.
- Hukhata, “Good Words” – Communicating these intentions.
- Havarashta, “Good Deeds” – The way this resolution is actually enacted.
Zoroastrians refer to a scripture called the Avesta, written in the ancient Avestan language and translated in several others.
The faith depicts a set of characteristics which are very reminiscent of the general traits of today’s biggest religions. Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheist religions in history. Followers worship a deity known as Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord” and their Supreme Being. Zoroaster’s faith also introduced the concepts of messianism and free will. The latter is extremely valued in the religion, which doesn’t require its followers to abide by a set of rules and regulations. Compared to modern religions, Zoroastrianism only encourages worshippers to lead lives filled with goodness without the threat of punishment.
Speaking of punishments, duality is yet another notion picked up by many common religions today. Just like Christians have Heaven and Hell, Zoroastrians believe in an afterlife judgment too. Their equivalents are the Excellent Abode, for the good, and the Worst Existence, for the evil respectively.
These notions can be found today in the core of many “younger” religions such as Christianity, Islam, Gnosticism, and Second Temple Judaism.
It’s important to note that Zoroastrianism isn’t a radical or perfect monotheist faith compared to, say, Islam or Judaism. At the center of the belief system stands Ahura Mazda “and his other gods.” Ahura Mazda is depicted as the source of two other conceptual twin deities: the Spenta Mainyu (Holy or Bountiful Spirit) and the Angra Mainyu (the Destructive or Opposing Spirit). These twin deities are the embodiment of the strong belief in dualism that essentially represents the foundation of Zoroastrianism cosmology.
Under the trinity we will find the Amesha Spentas, which represent a sevenfold expression of reality and divinization. They aren’t considered deities in the rightful sense of the word, but rather symbolic archangels for the concepts which drive the moral code of Zoroastrianism.
The concept of dualism is fundamental in Zoroastrianism and it’s one of the most debated angles of the faith. In short words, followers believe strongly that the universe functions based around forces existing in a relationship of dualism. More respectively, they believe that to any good, there must be an evil. However, the Zoroastrian dualism can be approached from two perspectives:
- Cosmic Dualism: Which represents the dualism of divine forces and of universal forces.
- Moral Dualism: Which represents the conflicting nature of the human mind, constantly torn between good and evil.
According to Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda created a perfect world. However, this world is getting constantly attacked by the destructive forces of Angra Mainyu (the aforementioned Destructive Spirit). Through this concept, we can understand better that Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu aren’t necessarily sentient deities. Rather, they’re Ahura Mazda’s extensions and they represent his divine forces.
As such, cosmic dualism believes in the fact that the world is a constant battlefield between Ahura Mazda’s divine forces – the good of Spenta Mainyu and the evil of Angra Mainyu. Symbols of duality are very important in Zoroastrianism. This doesn’t only refer to good and evil, but to other important universal concepts too (life and death or day and night).
Moral dualism is much more personal and particular, referring to the human nature and its tendency to constantly fluctuate between good and evil. Since Zoroastrianism values free will, followers can either pursue a life in asha (truth) or in druj (deceit) to end up either in the Excellent Abode or the Worst Existence.
Using these notions, Zoroastrianism managed to create an ultimate goal for its worshippers to follow and a relatively optimist outlook. Zoroastrians believe that if all of humankind will choose the path of good, Angra Mainyu’s forces will be defeated and there world will finally be as pure as it was meant to be.
The same relations of dualism between concepts apply here as well. We’re talking about happiness and sadness, love and hatred, success and failure, all of which must coexist in anyone’s life.
Practices & Symbols
Zoroastrianism showcases several particular rituals and symbols, some of which are pretty controversial. This would explain why modern followers have been struggling to adapt to the social requirements of contemporary times.
Zoroastrians believed that humankind needed to steer away from Ahura Mazda’s creations and not intervene with them. As such, they didn’t bury or cremate their dead. Instead, they took them to a specially designated place called the Tower of Silence where they would lay the dead out in the sun. After a while, eagles would devour the corpses.
Needless to say, this is one practice that they needed to adapt to the social constructs of today.
Fire is a crucial element of the faith as followers believe the light and warmth it generates to be signs of purity. Zoroastrianism values individual worship over collective worship, which is why most followers pray from their homes. However, there are still some temples called Fire Temples. Inside, a flame is burning day and night, being kept alit with sandalwood and frankincense.
Unfortunately, Zoroastrianism is a dying religion which loses about 10% of its followers every decade. There might come a time when we’ll be referring to this ancient religion using strictly the past tense. Regardless, whatever the outcome will be, nothing will be able to erase the impact this fascinating faith had on the development of the religions currently ruling the world.