By Jayaram V
Zoroastrianism is one of the most ancient religions of the world.
At one time it was the dominant religion of Iran and adjoining regions.
Its popularity declined when the Islamic invaders occupied Iran
and introduced Islam. A handful few who fled from Iran, after the
fall of the Sassanid Empire, to escape persecution in the hands
of the new rules took shelter in India. They are known today in
India as Parsis, a small community that has been persistently striving
ever since to keep the tenets of the religion alive, despite hardships
and lack of following. Apart from them, a few people in Iran continue
to practice Zoroastrianism. They enjoy a minority status in Iran,
an Islamic nation, with a limited degree of freedom to practice
their religion. The total number of people practicing Zoroastrianism
in the world today would be around 250000 of whom 80% live in India
and the rest in various parts of the world including the USA. Although
Zoroastrianism lost its status as a popular world religion, its
study and knowledge are very useful for our understanding of the
development of religious thought in the ancient world and how its important beliefs and practices have parallels in other religions
such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. The following
are some of the important beliefs of Zoroastrianism.
1. Belief in Supreme and Universal God. Ahuramazda is
the supreme, omniscient and omnipotent God, who symbolizes truth,
radiance, purity, order, justice, courage, strength and patience.
He is the creator as well as sustainer. He also protects the good
from the evil and maintains order by keeping the chaotic evil at
2. Belief in the duality of existence. Zoroastrians
believe that the world is battle ground between good and evil forces.
Although the good will ultimately triumph and the evil forces would
be destroyed, Zoroastrians believe that every human has a role and
responsibility in enhancing and marinating the sanctity and purity
of our existence by staying away from evil, avoiding all possible
contact and communication with it and by enhancing the good amidst
us through religious practices and observances and adherence to
the teachings of Zoroaster.
3. Belief in the divinity of creation. Zoroastrians believe
that God created both the invisible and invisible worlds from Himself
using His astral body and His own light. His creation is therefore
very sacred and divine. It is everyone's responsibility to keep
it pure and maintain the order or asha established by Him.
4. Belief in the spiritual nature of the world and human beings.
Zoroastrians believe God created the spiritual entities and beings
before manifesting their counterparts in the material plane. The
material world consisting of fire, water, air, earth, plants, animals
and humans is very much like the body of God, while His spirit rules
supreme and pervades the whole creation in various aspects and entities.
The fravashis or guardian spirits were created in the material plane
as human beings from the primeval man, from whose seed were born
Mashye and Mashyane, the first man and first woman. All the
races of humanity descended from these two in due course of time.
3. Belief in polytheism. While Zoroastrians worship Ahura
Mazda as the highest and supreme God, they also believe in the existence
of a number of divinities who represent His good qualities and who
assist Him in containing the evil in the material world. Highest
among these are the six Immortal Beings or Amesha Spentas who personify
His good qualities individually, followed by angels, lords or ahuras
and other divinities. Sacrificial rituals called Yasnas, rituals
and prayers are used to invoke these divinities on different occasions
to sanctify the world and help the faithful in their lives.
4. Belief in the basic goodness of the humanity. Zoroastrians
believe that human beings are essentially divine in nature and share
the spiritual nature of God. So they are not born as sinners nor
there is a compulsion to be a sinful. Human beings are born pure
and have a choice either to follow the teachings of God and remain
righteous or follow the ways of the evil and be damned. Depending
upon their choices and their actions, God decides their fate in
the spiritual realm. God offers knowledge of righteous conduct and
provides instructions for the expiation of sin. Buy He does not
make a promise to take upon Himself the sins of his worshippers.
5. Belief in the sanctity of the elements. Zoroastrians
believe that God created the spiritual world before he began His
material creation. The spiritual world is beyond the power of evil
to infiltrate it and corrupt it. However the material creation of
God does not enjoy the same immunity. It is prone to attacks from
evil, who had already entered the world during the second time period
and established his presence. Human beings should therefore be aware
of the dangers that lurk in the material world and do their part
to stay away from evil. They should neither do nor encourage any
actions that would result in the tainting of the material things
and the elements. Fire, water, earth and air should be kept pure
by not allowing the evil entities to pollute them. They should do
this by leading righteous lives and avoiding physical and mental
contact with evil things such as dead and putrid matter and other
impurities. The dead bodies should neither be cremated, nor thrown
into water, nor buried in the earth. They should be allowed to disintegrate
or consumed by vultures and other birds who have been created by
God for the specific purpose.
6. Belief in the tradition of prophets. Zoroastrianism
is based on the teachings of Zoroaster or Zarathushtra, the first
prophet. According to legend God manifested Himself to him in a
vision and revealed him the secrets of creation and the religious
instructions to be followed by people on earth to pursue the path
of righteousness. The teachings of Zoroaster are available to us
in the Zend Avesta, the main scripture of Zoroastrians. Followers
of Ahura Mazda believe the birth of Zoroaster heralded the beginning
the current cycle of creation, which would last for 3000 years.
During this period a prophet would appear on earth at the end of
each millennium to preserve the teachings and guide the humanity.
The third prophet, will be a future son of Zoroaster, whose name
would be Shoshyant, who would herald the Judgment Day and the eventual
destruction of evil powers in the material world.
7. Belief in afterlife. According to Zoroastrian beliefs
death is as a result of the spirit leaving the body. The sanctity
and purity of the body is lost once the spirit leaves it. Having
left the body the soul would remain on earth for a three days and
nights, hovering near the body. Then it would depart to the spiritual
realm, led by Daena, the guardian spirit, where it would be greeted
with a vision of the thoughts, words and actions it performed when
it was inside the human body upon earth. It would then be led to
the Chinawad bridge, where an angel would assess its actions and
decide whether it should go to the heaven or hell for a temporary
residence till the Last Judgment Day. Zoroastrianism believe in
the final judgment day, on which God would resurrect all the dead
and subject to a second scrutiny. All the good souls would be given
a permanent place in heaven and the rest will be condemned into
a purgatory till eternity. Some Zoroastrians also believe that the
souls are born in the material world as per the decree of God to
overcome their defects and achieve perfection. Life upon the earth
is therefore a great opportunity for the souls to refine their character
and become perfect beings of light. Zoroastrian texts describer
heaven as a place of pure joy and happiness inundated with the light
of God and hell as a cold and dark place where the evil spirits
subject the sinners to gruesome punishments.
8. Belief in sin and expiation of sin. Zoroastrians believe
that life upon earth is fraught with dangers because of the presence
of evil. People can commit sin by not following the religious instructions
of God, by not practicing the three commandments declared by Zoroaster,
namely good thoughts, good words and good deeds, by indulging in
sinful activities such as adultery, sodomy, theft, pollution of
elements, practicing other faiths, not disposing of the dead according
to the prescribed method, touching the dead matter, not offering
prayers and rituals to God, performing sacrificial rituals for the
daevas or evil spirits, not wearing kusti, the sacred thread and
kadre, the upper garment in the prescribed manner, doing business
with malicious intention or evil thoughts, not marrying according
to the instructions given in the scriptures and so on. The scriptures
also prescribe procedures to be followed for the expiation of certain
sins, while for certain mortal sins death is recommended penalty.
Heinous sins are listed in some Zoroastrian texts such as the Menog-i
Khrad (Ch. 36)
9. Belief in the Judgment day. Zoroastrians believe that
at the end of current cycle of 3000 years, God will destroy the
evil forces in a final conflagration and herald the Judgment Day
. On that day He would resurrect the dead and subject their lives
to another scrutiny. Those who prove to be pious and obedient to
his instructions would be suitably rewarded with an eternal life
in heaven and the rest will be condemned to an eternal suffering
in a purgatory.
10. Belief in the efficacy of sacrificial rituals. Zoroastrians
believe in the performance of sacrificial rituals called Yasnas
as an important part of their religious observance and the best
means to communicate with God and His entities. The rituals constitute
an important aspect of righteous conduct. The rituals are meant
to purify the world and also the people involved in it. They are
usually performed by qualified priests, to the accompaniment of
chants from the Avesta, inside a fire temple. Zoroastrian scriptures
emphasize the importance of maintaining ritual purity while performing
the rituals for obtaining best results. Zoroastrians also offer
five prayers every day, during different times. In addition to these
they also perform an initiation ceremony called Naujote for both
boys and girls before induct them into the Zoroastrian path. They
also celebrate some popular festivals in honor of God and His entities.
11. Belief in the efficacy of sacred chants. Zoroastrians
believe in the ritual chanting as the means to establish order and
purity in the world and in the lives of the worshippers. Manthras
or sacred verses from the religious texts, usually in Avestan, a
sister language of Sanskrii, are chanted in a particular manner
to please God and the spiritual entities. Chanting mantras is considered
to be a form of practicing the three commandments, namely good thoughts,
good words and good deeds.
12. Belief in the importance of righteousness. In the
Zoroastrian world view, the material word is a battle ground between
the good and evil forces. Human beings have a sacred responsibility
to remain on the side of the good and assist God in getting rid
of evil from creation permanently. Men should therefore practice
righteousness, aim to cultivate the qualities of God as represented
by the six Immortal Beings and promote Asha or order, Truth and
righteous conduct everywhere.
Suggested Further Reading