This brief review of the evolution of the
heritage, practice and the historical developments impacting its followers
from its inception to this point in history is presented based on the
latest understandings of the same.
Although there are certain areas subject to further research due to the
antiquity of the subject, the summary below relies on the best-known
In the aftermath of the migration of the
Indo-European people southwards and separation of the Indo-Iranian branch
and their settlement in the Iran-vijah, Zarathushtra the son of Spitaman
was born. Although there is no consensus on his exact place and time of
a view is that he was born in the northeastern part of greater Iran about
37 centuries ago.
In the ancient Indo-European Gathic
language (now long extinct) in poetic form, Zarathushtra formulated his
thoughts as dialogue taking place in his mind between himself and Ahura
Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom and Light.
His succinct poetic composition constitutes a set of highly advanced
moral, religious and personal thoughts
emphasizing moral and personal responsibility of human beings for moving
creation towards perfection, and for individuals to conduct an active,
productive and effective life.
Life and creation were considered to be evolving and progressing towards
perfection, with the progression impacting life in this world to fulfill
the Will of the Ahura Mazda – path of ASHA
– within the material creation. This notion is distinct from concepts of
progression that includes an unseen heaven.
Zarathushtra’s novel ideas came to institute a complete transformation of
the old Indo-Iranian religious beliefs based on offering sacrifices to
multiplicity of deities, to an enlightened vision unique in its outlook.
Zarathushtra was able to gain royal patronage
for his mission in the person of King Vishtasp who ruled from his capital
at Balkh resulting in a substantial following for his Faith. In his
poetic compositions, Zarathushtra complains about the opposition he
encountered at the hands of wrongdoer Kavis (powerful ruling class), and
Karpans (the collaborating priests) of the pre-Zoroastrian Indo-Iranian
A hand full of
priests/thinkers, companions of Zarathushtra or those who came shortly
after him added a few compositions to his Gathas along the same line of
thought as his. Otherwise the full extent of Zarathushtra’s philosophical
thoughts does not seem to have been fully comprehended by his followers,
and the rituals most of which were reminiscent of pre-Zoroastrian
practices were maintained, although generally reformed. As an example
animal sacrifice was no longer as rampant as before. Mazdayasna
Zoroastrian religion started to spread throughout Eastern Iran.
Zoroastrian religion was already over a
millennium old when the first Persian Empire was established by Cyrus the
Great of the Achaemenian dynasty over 25 centuries ago.
The Achaemenians introduced and adopted
policies based on human rights, freedom of worship, banning of slavery,
equality of man and woman. In general the ethics emanating from
Zarathushtra’s thoughts were strictly followed by the Achaemenians
but it is not clear to what extent the full scope of Zarathushtra’s
philosophy was understood by them. The Achaemenians showed tolerance
towards the religious beliefs of all their subjects. Zoroastrianism
spread during the time of the Achaemenians and through contacts with the
exiled Jewish people in Babylon freed by Cyrus, the Jewish thought was
influenced by Zoroastrian concepts. Those influences further propagated
into other Abrahimic religions. The Golden Age of Athens marked by
Aristotle, Plato and Socrates also came about during the Achaemenian
period while their contacts with Persia and the Near East abounded. The
peace, tranquility, security and prosperity that were afforded to the
people of the Near East and Southeastern Europe proved to be a rare
historical occurrence, an unparalleled period where commerce prospered,
and the standard of living for all people of the region improved.
The Achaemenians should also be remembered for having a lady admiral
(Artemis) to head the naval forces of the empire at the height of their
naval power. This appointment is the only such occurrence in human
With the termination of Achaemenian Empire in
330 B.C. at the hand of Alexander and his invasion force from Greece, a
systematic pillage of the Persian Empire and culture got underway. As a
result of the plunder and burning of Persepolis and massacre of
Zarathushti priests much of the Zoroastrian texts orally transmitted and
literature held at the Royal Library were lost or taken away to Greece.
Destruction and plunder of other Royal palaces and Zoroastrian temples
also took a devastating toll.
The Greek control of Iran was brought to an
end by the Parthians in 247 B.C, fewer than 85 years after it had
started. By the order of Valkash I, the Parthian king who ascended the
throne in 51 A.C, the Zoroastrian religious literature that had survived
the Greek rampage and could be found scattered throughout the empire
controlled by the Parthians were collected for reconstruction. By the end
of the Parthian Empire many forms of Zoroastrianism as well as Mithraism
were practiced in Iran, and in some parts pre-Zoroastrian customs were
back were back in practice. Mithraism had regained popularity on its own,
in addition to some of its elements having been incorporated into
The Sasanians who overthrew the Parthians in
224 A.D, and consolidated their hold over Iran, moved towards unifying the
Zoroastrian religion and made it an instrument of the State; and a unified
Zoroastrian theology was adopted as the state religion. New prayers were
instituted by Adurbad MarAspand, a high priest contemporary of King
Shahpur II. The language of the prayers was Pahlavi, from the same family
of languages as Gathic. The Gathic compositions of Zarathushtra were
being recited without much linguistic comprehension of the same, although
the essence of the message was known, the extent of understanding of
Zarathushtra’s poetic composition by the Sasanians was questionable.
Zoroastrianism practiced by the masses was rich with rituals and based on
rules documented in various religious texts of that era composed in
Pahlavi such as Vendidad. Zoroastrian priesthood exercised strong
influence over the conduct of the judiciary and political systems and
enjoyed protection and exclusivity within the confines of a class
structure that had been instituted by the later Sasanians.
With the spread of Zoroastrianism in the
Western regions of Iran during the time of the Achaemenians, the Magis who
constituted the priestly class of the Medians and had lost their power
base, were gradually absorbed into the ranks of the Zoroastrian
priesthood. They were instrumental in the institutionalization of the
Zoroastrian priesthood and some of the orthodoxy manifested by the
priesthood during the time of Sasanians can be attributed to their
The folding of the Sasanian Empire at
the hands of the Arab Armies waging the banner of Islam in 638 C.E.,
suddenly deprived Zoroastrianism of its royal patronage and the support of
the State that it had held in the preceding 400 years. As time went on
Zoroastrians lost the civil rights they had enjoyed during earlier times,
and found themselves degraded to second class citizens. Those continuing
to practice the ancient religion were subjected to a head tax (Jaziya)
that in time became a crushing burden on most of them. A multitude of
unfavorable rules imposed on them made adherence to the old religion very
Three centuries into the fall of
Sasanians and the imposition of Arab rule over Iran, a group of
Zoroastrians from the northeastern province of Khorasan left their
homeland moving South towards Persian Gulf with the goal of fleeing to
hospitable shores of India in search of religious freedom. This journey
took over 37 years to complete and resulted in Zoroastrianism taking a
small and peaceful foothold on the Indian subcontinent.
The Parsis, as the descendent of the Zoroastrian refugees from Iran came
to be known, took settlement in India and in time became leading citizens
of the subcontinent. Steadfastly, they maintained many of the practices
of the religion they had inherited from the Sasanian regime. Although,
the Parsis also suffered from the political instabilities that beset India
from time to time due to changing political tidings of that subcontinent,
they were able to practice and maintain the religious beliefs they had
brought with them from Iran.
The course of events in Iran for the
followers of the old religion deteriorated with passing years.
By mid-13th century, six centuries into the fall of
Zoroastrianism from State grace in its land of origin, and the invasion of
near East by Genghiz Khan and his lineage and the execution of the last
Arab Caliph in Baghdad, the Arab rule over Iran came to an end. In the
aftermath devastation brought on the nation by Timur Leng and his invading
forces, an Iranian dynasty, the Safavids gained prominence and
consolidated power over much of Iran at the turn of the 16th
century. At that time about 40% of the population of Iran, numbering
upwards of 4 million, were still practicing Zoroastrians. By 1722,
marking the end of that dynasty systematic genocide and imposition of
unfavorable rules had diminished the Zoroastrian followers to the status
of a battered community of about 200,000 mostly concentrated in and around
Yazd and Kerman, both situated on the rim of the central desert of Iran.
By mid-19th century where more precise recordings have been
made, this number had reached an all-time low of about 7000. Heavy Jizya
payment and systematic discrimination had decimated the once-proud, pure
As the prospects for the Iranian
Zarathushties were dimming due to unfavorable conditions they encountered,
the fortune of the Parsis in the Indian subcontinent was on the rise in
the context of that British colony. The Parsis were able to seize the
opportunities presented and became leading citizens of India’’
and the vanguards in building India into an industrialized democracy of
the 20th century.
Led by visionary and charismatic national, community and industrial
leaders such as Dr. Dadabhai Naoroji,
Sir Dinshah Petit,
Sir Jamshiji Tata,
and Dr. Jivenji Modi, the Zarathushties of India were able to yield
influence well out of proportion to their small community numbers.
In time, the Parsis were able to provide
support for the amelioration of the conditions of the few remaining
Zartoshties in their homeland. Manekji Limji Hataria,
born in 1813 in Surat, India arrived in Iran in 1854 during the reign of
Nassir-ul-DinShah Qajar, and through his tireless efforts to the last day
of his life (1890), he was able to stem the tide of untold prejudice,
abuse, suffering and denial of their basic civic rights, that could have
otherwise extinguished the remaining Zoroastrian community of Iran. The
resilient community was able to spring back
in a short span of time since Manekji’s arrival and became a progressive
force in moving their motherland towards modernization and progress
─ from helping
establish a representative system of government
to developing the natural resources of their nation
to establishing banking
and commercial enterprises that would lift their nation from its depressed
state. In doing so, the Zoroastrian community of Iran became the vanguard
of building their ancestral land.
Shortly after Manekji succeeded in
obtaining a Royal consent for the Zoroastrian and other minorities of Iran
to establish schools, more than 30 schools for boys and girls were
established in the localities where the Zartoshties resided. As such
there was one school for every 334 Zartoshties compared to one school for
every 15,000 persons nationally.
The large number of educators, medical doctors, engineers and other
professionals produced by the Zoroastrian community of Iran enabled this
small community to make contributions well beyond its scope and size.
The banning of Pahlavi language by the ruling
Arabs and the systematic burning and destruction of much of the
Zoroastrian religious and other literary texts of Iran proved to be an
immense cultural loss. The practice of religion had become very
ritualistic. The Gathic verses were recited in their original language of
composition (by then extinct) without any in-depth understanding. The
course of events that led to the deciphering of the message of
Zarathushtra, from which an understanding of its deep philosophical
message emerged involved the efforts of many linguists, theologians,
philosophers and other scholars. These events started by a trip from
Kerman by Dastur Jamsab Velayati to Surat, India in first half of the 18th
century. While there, Dastur Velayati instructed three of the Parsi mobeds
in Zoroastrian religious texts he was familiar with. In the second half
of the 18th century the French scholar, Anquetil Duperron, keen
to gain information on Zarathusthra’s religion undertook a perilous trip
to Surat, India and was instructed by Dastur Darab Kumana in the knowledge
he had gained from Jamasb Velayati. Upon Duperron's return to France, he
published his findings in a book entitled “Zend-Avesta”. The publication
of his book and many others by scholars mostly in 18th- and 19th-century
Europe led to production of significant amount of literature and during
the same period into the 20th century, much progress was made
towards understanding the original message of Zarathushtra.
Prior to the initiative of Anquetil Duperron,
Zarathushtra’s name in Northern Europe had aroused curiosity amongst
intellectuals. With more factual knowledge about Zarathushtra’s Vision
starting to emerge, European intellectuals such as Voltaire and Goethe
(indirectly through discerning Hafez’s philosophical outlook) seem to have
been inspired in their philosophical formulations by their understanding
of Zarathushtra’s vision, and Nietsche by the personality and attitude of
Scholarly work to further our understanding of
Zarathushtra’s message and the evolution of the religious practices over
the years and ancient Iranian studies is progressing with great rigor at a
number of universities in North America, and Europe. Many of the prominent
scholars involved with that work at the entrance to the third millennium
are contributors to this volume, and their papers published here are
representative of the state of scholarship at this juncture in history.
Although various aspects of
Zarathushtra’s humanistic message were never lost to many of the Iranian
poets and intellectuals ─
such as Ferdowsi,
Sorwardi, Hafez, Saadi, Omar Khayam, Aaraf Ghazvini, Sadeq Hedayat,
Akhavan Salas ─
after the fall of Sasanians, the effort to reintroduce ancient Iranian
studies in Iran was only started in the second quarter of the 20th
century. Professor Ibrahim PourDavoud,
an Iranian pioneer in that field became the first to occupy the newly
established chair of ancient Iranian studies at Tehran University. Pour-Davoud’s
close acquaintance with Sadeq Hedayat in Paris and with Dinshah Irani in
Bombay was a great influence on his life. Many of the other scholars
affiliated with Pour-Davoud such as Ehsan Yarshtar, AbdulHosein Spenta,
Jalil Dostkhah, Bahram Faravashi, and Dr. Ahmed Tafazoly were able to
continue the tradition of reintroducing knowledge of ancient Iran amongst
The population of Zoroastrians in the whole
world at the beginning of the third millennium remains small compared to
followings of many other religions. The best estimate is just over two
hundred thousand, concentrated in India, Iran, North America, United
Kingdom, Australia, and Pakistan. Smaller pockets can be found in
Northern Europe, Southern and Eastern Africa, Persian Gulf States, and
Southeast Asians countries. These are mainly generations of Zartoshties
originating from Iran with many of them being the Parsis who have moved
and settled in other countries. In addition there is renewed interest in
the practice of Zoroastrianism in many of the former Southern republics of
the Soviet Union (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan) as well as small
pockets in Russia itself.
The revelation and dissemination of philosophy
of Zarathushtra is also appealing to a steadily increasing number of
people in many parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, and
Latin America. Many cite its uniqueness in empowering individuals to
assume moral responsibility for being an integral part of the force needed
to move creation towards perfection, a recognition lacking by other
The quality of knowledge of
Zarathushtra’s philosophy amongst the generation of mainstream Zartoshties
is also improving. At the entrance to the 21st century there
are a few splinter groups in India adhering to practices that bear minimal
resemblance to the message of Zarathushtra. Amongst such groups one can
include Ilm-e-Khushnoom (1908 vintage) and Pundol groups (1970s vintage).
These two are closed groups with notions very alien to the ideas expressed
in the Gathas.
In the course of its history there were other splinter groups from the
main body of Zoroastrianism. In the first millennium during the Sasanian
period, movements such as Zurvanism, Manichaeism, and Mazdakism can be
counted in that group, none of which have survived the calamities of
history. The fatalistic notions of Zurvanism that had crept into main
stream Zoroastrianism are believed to be the main reason the resistance
put up against the invading Arab armies at some of the Iranian Satrapies
The Zoroastrian priesthood of the 19th
and 20th centuries was enriched by knowledgeable Parsi and
Iranian stalwarts. To name a few - K.R. Cama,
Nawrooz D. Michoher Homji, Firoze Azargushasp and Rostam Shahzadi
have left their mark. Many others are still serving the community and its
theological needs at the entrance to the 3rd millennium.
The main challenge for Zoroastrianism in
the 3rd millennium will be whether it will revert to the vision
that was formulated by its founder as being a universal faith whose focus
on the role of the individuals is meant to uplift and bring salvation to
or whether it will continue in its diminished form as a historical
evolution brought on it in the wake of its fall from grace due to the
folding of the Sasanian Empire.
As one of world’s foremost
social reformers, moral teachers, and environmentalists, Zarathushtra’s
lasting legacy is his contribution to the development of human thought and
A few examples of the fundamental impact of his contributions include:
His idea that
life is to be lived to its fullest and that there must be upwards
movement and progress as we go through life, rather than static and
cyclic repetition of existence in any form or shape has given humanity a
sense of future as an end goal.
point of heavenly and hellish existence being a conception of our mind
and a direct consequence of our action in this world rather than a
reward in the afterlife stands as a shining example of his contribution
to giving humanity a sense of reality and to save it from superstition
overwhelming emphasis on the importance of seeking and championing the
righteous and truthful order, and such quests being the foundation for
defining one’s relation with others, including divinity, is what sets
Zarathushtra’s vision so far apart from that of others. His articulation
of the need for individuals to divorce themselves from self-interest ─
when self-interest is at variance with the righteous order ─ to
determine what the righteous order is in every situation, is of
Zarathushtra’s emphasis on
individuals making life-promoting and righteous choices and being agents
for bringing about goodness and progress rather than scapegoating a
supernatural and all-powerful God that has so often been peddled by most
institutionalized religions as responsible for all occurrences in this
world, is the ultimate tribute to an enlightened world-view meant to
liberate humanity from the yolk of superstition ─ an ongoing drain on
His dismissal of an imaginary god whose acts
of love or vengeance are hawked as being responsible for bringing about
solace, or playing havoc in people’s lives is very noteworthy. The
logical explanation of natural occurrences following statistical and
scientifically explainable patterns means humanity no longer needs to
fear an all powerful God and to be victim of spiritual exploitation.
His emphasis on positive
thinking, positive and life-promoting morals, and his shunning of
negative thoughts and actions is the ingredient for a healthy mind-set
and outlook so much needed by humanity to reach its full potential.
Zarathushtra’s world view,
emphasizing an action-oriented life, based on active promotion of the
righteous order, can lead the way to a cohesive human existence in stark
contrast to the fractionalization and tribalization of humanity that
self-serving institutionalized religion bodies have re-enforced.
The distinction to be made between Zarathushtrianism and Zoroastrianism is
that the former refers to contribution directly from Zarathushtra and the
latter focuses on the historical evolution of the religion.
The author expresses his appreciation to Ervard Dr. Jehan Bagli,
Professor Kaikhosrov Dinshah Irani, Dr. Daryoush Ardeshir Jahanian, Mrs.
Dina McIntyre and Mr. Farrokh Vajifdar for their input to the development
of this document.
Gnoli, Gherardo, Zoroaster in History, Bibliotheca Persia Press,
New York, 2000, pps. 15-79.
Zarathushtra's Reflections on his mission - Yasna 46
Irani, Keikhosrow, The
vision of Zarathushtra.
Insler, Stanley, Zarathushtra's
Dhalla, Maneckji N., History of Zoroastrianism, C.S Ubhayaker at
Ubsons Printers, Bombay, 1985, pps. 46-55.
Future as a Zarathushtrian Invention.
The Love of
Truth in Ancient Iran.
Hicks, James, The Persians, Time-Life Books, 1975, pps. 4849,
Boyce, Mary, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices,
Routledge & Kegan Paul publishers, 1979, pps. 146, 148, 169, 182, 186,
187, 191, 210.
Mirza, Dastur Hormazdyar K., Outlines of Parsi
History, Amalgamated Enterprises Printers, Bombay, 1987, pps 230271.
Choksy, Jamsheed K, Conflict and Cooperation - Zoroastrian Subalterns
and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society, Columbia University
Press, NY, 1997, pps. 89, 106.
Soroushian, Mehrborzin, Ganj Ali Khan.
Mrs. Bhikaiji Rustom Cama
Dotivala, Godrej N., Sir Pherozshah Mehta Memorial Volume, Nikhil
Enterprises printers, Bombay, 1990; Dotivala, Godrej N.,
Sir Pherozshah Mehta: The uncrowned
King of Mumbai.
The Jamsed Memorial Volume Committeee, Jamshed Nusserwanjee: A Memorial,
Mashhoor Offset Press, Karachi, 1987; Dadachanji, Feriedon,
remembrance of Jamshid Nusserwanji Mehta: The Maker of Modern Karachi.
The Wadias of India: Then and Now.
Vajifdar, Farrokh, The twist in the rope, R.P Chinoy at Union
Press, Bombay, 1992; http://www.vohuman.org/Articles/Dr.%20Dadabhai%20Naoroji.htm
Coyajee, Sir Jehangir,
noble son of Iranian tradition, "Dinshah Irani, solicitor".
Sir Dinshah Manockjee
Petit, first Baronet.
Lala, R.M., The creation of wealth, IBH Publishers PVT. Ltd,
Soroushian, Mehrborzin, Manekji
Limji Hataria: A man who made the difference,
Kestenberg Amighi, Janet, The Zoroastrians of
Iran: Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence,
AMS Press, New York, 1990, pps. 83-103.
Shahrokh, Shahrokh & Writer, Rashna, The Memoirs of Keikhosrow
Shahrokh, The Edwin Mellen Press, UK, 1994; Mehrfar, Khosro,
Keikhosrow Shahrokh; Shuster,
W. Morgan, The Strangling of Persia, Mage Publishers, Washington,
D.C. 1986, pps. 16, 98, 244.
Mehrfar, Khosro, Esfendiar Bahram
Mehrfar, Khosro, Jamshid
Mehrfar, Khosro, Manijeh
Soroushian, Jamshid, Savad Amoozi va Dabirri dar Deene Zatosht,
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Professor Ibrahim Pour-e-Davoud, a biography,
Both these groups attempt to impose the caste-class limiting view of
humanity implied by the Hindu-Karamic notions on Zoroastrianism. Such
notions are in contradiction to Zarathushtra's view for humanity.
A Salute to the "Lay Dastur" Khurshedji Rustomji Cama.
Dastur Dhalla, The Man.
Bode, Dasturji Framroze A.,
Zarathushtrianism: An Ancient Faith for Modern Man,
Mehrfar, Khosro, Mobedan Mobed Rostom
Kennedy, Edward (United States Senator from Massachusetts), "In my
Interactions with Zarathushrians in US and elsewhere I am struck by their
zeal to better themselves and those around them while maintaining the
highest standards of ethics in work and social interactions. I perceive
the practice of the Zarathushtrian religion as a pure enrichment of the
mind and the soul." Reported in FEZANA journal, Winter 2002, pp. 44
(based on an interview with Mrs. Khorshed Jungalwala of Boston).
Kriwaczek, Paul, In Search of Zarathushtra: The First Prophet and the
Ideas that changed the World, Knopf, New York, 2003, pps. 28-41.
Sakhai, Kambiz, Communicative Reason and Medieval Iranian Thought,
1st Books Library, Bloomington, IN, 2000.
This concept by itself is the basis for the ideal judiciary system
conceived by man.