Zoroastrianism is the ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran that survives there in isolated areas and, more prosperously, in India, where the descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants are known as Parses, or Pareses. In India the religion is call Parsiism. Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, the religion contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. It influenced the other major Western religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The ancient Greeks saw in Zoroastrianism the archetype of the dualistic view of the world and of man’s destiny. Zoroaster was supposed to have instructed Pythagoras in Babylon and to have inspired the Chaldean doctrines of astrology and magic, could be considered the arch-heretic. In more recent times the study of Zorastrianism has played a decisive part in reconstructing the religion and social structure of the Indo-European peoples. Though Zoroastrianism was never, even in the thinking of its founder, as aggressively monotheistic as, for instance, Judaism or Islam, it does represent an original attempt at unifying under the worship of one supreme god a polytheistic religion comparable to those of the ancient Greeks, Latins, Indians and other early peoples.
Its other salient feature, namely dualism, was never understood in an absolute, rigorous fashion. Good and Evil fight an unequal battle in which the former is assured of triumph. God’s omnipotence is thus only temporarily limited. In this struggle man must enlist because of his capacity of free choice. He does so with his soul and body, not against his body, for the opposition between good and evil is not the same as the one between spirit and matter. Contrary to the Christian or Manichaean attitude, fasting and celibacy are proscribed, except as part of the purifacatory ritual. Man’s fight has a negative aspect, nonetheless: he must keep himself pure; i.e., avoid defilement by the forces of death, contact with dead matter, etc. Thus Zoroastrian ethics, although in itself lofty and rational, has a ritual aspect that is all percading. On the whole, Zoroastrianism is optimistic and has remained so even though the hardship and oppression of its believers.
The religion of Iran before the time of Zoroaster is not directly accessible, for there are no reliable sources more ancient than the prophet himself. It has to be studied indirectly on the basis of later documents and by a comparative approach. The language of Iran is closely akin to that of northern India, and hence the people of the two lands probably had common ancestors – the Indo-Iranians, or Aryans. The religion of the latter has been reconstructed by means of common elements contained in the sacred books of Iran and India: mainly the Acesta and the Vedas. Both collections exhibit the4 same kind of polytheism, with many of the same gods, notably the Indian Mitra, the cult of fire, sacrifice by means of a sacred liquor and other parallels. There is, moreover, a list of Aryan gods in a treaty concluded about 1380 BC between the Hittite emperor and the king of Mitanni. The list includes Mitra and Cruna, Indra, and the two Nasatyas. All of these gods also are found in the Vedas, but only the first one in the Avesta, except that Indra and Nahaithya apperar in the Avesta as demons; Varuna may have survived under another name. Important changes, then, must have taken place on the Iranian side, not all of which can be attributed to the prophet. The Indo-Iranians appear to have distinguished, from among their gods, the daiva, meaning “heavenly,” and the asura, a special class with occult powers. This situation was reflected in Vedic India; later on, asura came to signify, in Sanskrit, a kind of demon, because of the baleful aspect of the asura’s invisible power. In Iran the evolution must have been different: the ahuras were extolled, to the exclusion of the daevas, who were reduced to the rank of demons.
Zoroaster was a priest of a certain ahura with the epithet mazda, “wise,” whom Zoroaster mentions once in his hymns with other ahuras. Darius and his successors worshipped the Mazda and the other gods who exist. The two historically related facts are evidently parallel: on both sides the rudiments of monotheism are present, though in a more elaborate form with the prophet Zoroaster.
It has not yet been possible to place Zoroaster’s hymns, the Fathas, in their historical context. Not a single place or person mentioned in them is known from any other source. Vishtaspa, the prophet’s protector, can only be the namesake of the father of Darius. All that may safely be said is that Zoraster lived somewhere in eastern Iran, far from the civilized world of western Asia, before Iran became unified under Cyrus the Great. If the Achaemenids ever heard of him, they did not see fit to mention his name in their inscriptions nor did they allude to the beings who surrounded the great god and were later to be called the amesha spentas, or “bountenous immortals” an essential feature of Zoroaster’s doctrine.
Religion under the Achaemenids was in the hands of the Magi, whom Herodotus describes as a Median tribe with special customs, such as exposing the dead, fighting evil animals, and interpreting dreams. Again, the historical connection with Zoroaster is a hazy one. It is not known when Zoroaster’s doctrine reached western Iran, but it must have been before the time of Aristotle who alludes to its dualism.
Darius, when he seized power in 522, had to fight a usurper, Gaumata the Magian, who pretended to be Bardiya, the son of Cyrus the great and brother of the king Camyses. This Magian had destroyed cultic shrines, ayadanas, which Darius restored. One possible explanation of these events is that Guamata had adopted Zoroastrianism, a doctrine that relied on the allegiance of the common people, and therefore destroyed temples or altars to deities of the nobility. Darius, who owed his throne to the support of some noblement, could not help favoring their cult, although he adoped Auramazda as a means of unifying his empire.
Xerxes, successor to Darius, mentioned in one of his inscriptions how at the a certain place he substituted the worship of Auramazda for that of the daivas, which does not mean he opposed the dava cult as such, as a true Zoroastrian would have done, but only that he eradicated somewhere, probably in babylon, the cult of deiteies alien to the religion of the ahuras. It points to a change of attitude, compared with Cyrs’ tolerance of aline religions, such as the Babylonian or the Jewish religions.
Only the hymns, or Gathas, are attributable to Zoroaster. They are written in carious metres and in a dialect different from the rest of the Acesta, except for seven chapters, chiefly in prose, that appear to have been composed shortly after the prophet’s demis. All these texts are embedded in the Yasna, which is one of the main division of the Acest and is recited by the priests during the ceremony of the same name, meaning sacrifice. The Visp-rat is a Yasna augmented here and there by additional invocations and offerings to the ratus of the different classes of beings. The Vedecdat consists of two introductory sections recounting how the law was given to man, followed by 18 sections of rules. The Siroza enumerates the deities presiding addressed to one of 21 deiteies such as Mithra, Anahita, or Verethraghna.
The Avesta is, therefore, a collection of texts compiled in successive stages until it was completed under the Sasanians. It was then about fours times larger than what has survived. A summary of its 21 books is given in one of the main treatises written during the brief renascence under Islam in the 9th century. Finally there are books written in Persian, either in verse or in prose. The latter include the correspondence exchanged between the Aoroastirians of Iran and India and the teatise.
Zoroastrianism is not the purely ethical religion it may at first seem. In practice, despite the doctrine of free choice, a Zoroastrian is so constantly involved in a meticulous struggle against the contamination of death and the thousand causes of defilement, and against the threat, even in his sleep, of ever present demons, that he does not often believe that he is leading his life freely and morally.
Apart from this attitude, the belief in the power of destiny sometimes culminates in fatalism. The latter is easily associated with Zurvanism, itself sometimes tainted with materialism. In the it is stated that though one be armed with the valor and strength of wisdom and knowledge, yet it is not possible to strive against the fate. On the whole, however, as RC Zeahner notes, the theological premisses of Zorastrianism are based on an essentially moralistic view of life.