When, a long time ago, I was pursuing my
Iranian studies at the universities of Rome and Vienna, working hard to
understand or to translate in German the Gathas of the Avesta and the
Pahlavi writings, I would never have dreamed that an invitation of the
University of Teheran would permit me, one day, to speak, on Iranian soil,
of a great man from your past, Zarathushtra (1), and of his influence on
Five years ago, your country commemorated the
2500th anniversary of the foundation of Iran by Cyrus the
Achaemenid. The attention of the entire world was thus rightly drawn to
your great past, to an empire whose frontiers were once formed by India,
Caucasus, the Greek Islands, the Arabian deserts and the mouth of the
At its peak, it was an empire administered
according to modern principles and endowed with a centralized postal
service. The subordinate people (minorities) could conserve their
cultural characteristics and develop themselves freely.
The first encounter of Iran with the Jewish
religion was precisely during the time of Cyrus, when the Jewish captives
in Babylon were authorized, by his personal order, to return to their
homeland. The Palestinian Jews were subject to the Persians for two
centuries (539-311 B.C.).
It is the tolerance of the Achaemenids which
enabled the Jewish priest Esdras to represent Jewish interests at the
court of Artaxerxes.
Bearing witness to this tolerance are the
ancient Christian communities of your country, some of whose documents
date back to the Arsacid dynasty, and the Iranian Christian synod, who, at
Ctesiphon, in the second century of the Sassanid dynasty, confessed the
Credo de Nicee, which is the ancient profession of faith of the Catholic
Church. Finally, the Catholic and other Christian communities existing
today in Iran are living proof of this tolerance perpetuated through the
Relations between Iran and the Popes during
the time of Shah Abbas the Great are incidentally the object of a historic
study of great importance (2).
Perhaps I should also mention that a good
number of Catholics have contributed eminently to research in the field of
Iranian and Zarathushti studies: among others the Frenchman Anquetil Du
Perron since the 18th century, Windishmann, Casartelli, G.
Messina, the Dominican friar J.P. de Menasce, and the Englishman R. C.
Western echo to
Iranian religious thought.
All through its history, Iran has fascinated the European and Anglo-Saxon
mind. I would like to limit my lecture to the religious aspects of this
history, which I have specially studied for many years and which are
connected to the name of Zartosht (Zarathushtra in Avesta, Zoroastre in
I regret not being able to discuss, in the
framework of this theme, the Zarathushti influence on Iranian thought
before and during the Islamic period; if I could, I would mention Ferdowsi
(dead around 1020), whose Shahnameh, one of the greatest productions of
the literary world, described according to tradition the legendary heroes
of the pre-Islamic period (3).
For an Austrian, living in the sphere of
German language and culture, it would be tempting also to describe our
interest in the Sufi influences which run through Persian poetry. The
influence of Hafiz (dead around 1390) on Goethe, von Platen and Ruckert,
is well known aspect of the intellectual links woven between Iran and
German literature (4). All those themes would be appropriate, not only to
increase the mutual comprehension between Europe and Iran, but to put in
perspective Iran’s past and the creative impetus of other nations. I wish
however, to confine myself to the pre-Islamic period, to follow the trail
of Zarathushti influences which, as shown by much research and
publications, have spread to the European and Anglo-Saxon world.
Iranian studies in Europe and Anglo-Saxon
countries have had many motives and origins. One of the causes was the
spread of Iranian religious beliefs, which very quickly reached ancient
bordering lands such as Armenia and Iraq.
Today, it is assumed that Zarathushtra's ideas
spread from Asia Minor to Greece, and deeply influenced not only Plato but
also the Gnostics. The case of the Mandaens is similar.
Considering the geographic extent of the
Zarathushti tradition and knowledge, the orientalists concentrated on
exploring the Avesta, Iranian dialects and, in our time, especially of
The extent and intensity of Iranian studies in
Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries are shown by the big dictionary of
ancient Iran produced at the beginning of the century by Bartholomae, by
the wealth of specialized literature, by various periodicals which discuss
in English, French and German, philological problems and the
interpretation of the Gathas, by the classical editions of historically
important Iranian texts, and by studies putting these texts in
relationship with Sanskrit research.
One must add the great importance given to the
religious and intellectual evolution of Iran by historians of the
religion, particularly in our century.
The big question was to know if, and to what
extent, the Zarathushti religious concepts had influenced Christianity by
way of Judaism. In the first half of the twentieth century, the
Iranian influence on the western cultures was emphasized, and several
scholars spoke of a very great dependence of Islam and Christianity on
Zarathushti ideas. A German, E. Kornemann, said: “Whoever wishes to
understand Jesus and Mohammed ought to start with religious universe of
Zoroastre. In the history of religion, Iran plays a much greater role
than is imagined today.”
Iran and the Persians have fulfilled an
historic mission on the political and religious plane; this mission, as
also the cultural mission of the Greeks, has been fundamental in building
European man and the family of European nations with its ideas based on
government by our Godly religion (5).
The celebrated Swedish iranologue, G.
Widengren came to similar conclusions (6). According to him the spiritual
influence of Iran has not only influenced Judaism and Christianity, but
also Islam: “When one considers the history of Judaism, Christianity and
Islam – he wrote – one has the very clear impression that, particularly
since the Achaemenids, the Iranian religion has not ceased to exercise a
decisive influence on the religious life of the Orient”(7). For his part,
the Dane A. Christensen had stressed the dependence of Judaism on Iranian
thought: “The contacts with the Iranian world have notably influenced the
With dualism, the concept of demons opposed to
the sovereignty of God, Iranian eschatology, concepts of the last
judgment, of hell etc. penetrated Judaism.
The messianic belief also is strongly modeled
on Zarathushti ideas. In assuming the Jewish concept of the world,
Christianity received these derivations of the Zarathushti system (8).
Although precise modern studies may have shown that such a degree of
dependence of Christian Holy Scriptures on Zarathushti thought cannot be
proved, these few quotations show the interest of European and American
scholars in the creative intelligence of ancient Iran and the perennial
fascination of the latter.
Riddle of Zarathushtra
In the above examples, Zarathushtra is naturally considered the center and
founder of the religion and of Iranian concepts. The attraction of
Zarathushtra is due in part to the enigma which surrounds this man; his
teaching and his view of the world seem, in fact, to owe little to the
indo-European tradition. In this respect, actual Iranian research
concentrates on three problems:
First, what did Zarathushtra already find in
the Indo-Aryan tradition, the religion of his childhood, and what part was
added or revised by his own religious genius. His personality has no
parallel in the Indo-Iranian tradition. Whence the second problem:
knowing to what point the later development (the Mazdaism of the Sasanid
state religion) was faithful to the original doctrine. (What should
attach to the question of Zurvanism). Finally it remains to be seen if we
can have confidence in the sources available to us, to make us re-assert
Zarathushti ideas. These sources are the Avesta with the Gathas, the
collection of Pahlavi works (which for the most part date from the ninth
century to the present), and the accounts of Greek authors. In yet other
terms: what is the original contribution of Zarathushtra in what is
ascribed to him? What comes from his disciples and his successors? What
is the original teaching of Zarathushtra?
Naturally, these are very difficult questions,
which always demand a very thorough scientific analysis. Besides the
first two problems, the discussion of which requires long preliminary
techniques, I would like to briefly discuss the third, to know what
constitutes the very doctrine of Zarathushtra.
In our time, one generally admits that the
Gathas, a restricted but very ancient portion of the Avesta, are the work
of Zarathushtra himself. The Gathas are hymns or songs. Notwithstanding
their small size compared to the rest of the Avesta, they form part of the
most important documents which can throw light on the original thought of
But we are confronted here with new
complications, as the translation and comprehension of the Gathas present
one of the most difficult problems of all oriental philology. The
celebrated Swedish iranologue Widengren admits: “We are far from being
able to translate the Gathas with a real certitude” (9). A comparison of
some of the most recent translations confirms that (10): they differ so
much that one can hardly believe their basic text could be identical.
That is confirmed in iranology.
But the difficulty and obscurity of certain
problems serve to attract the best minds. The difficulties which the
translation and correct interpretation of the Gathas present impede our
understanding of Zarathushtra’s personality, but incidentally the mystery
which surrounds his person and his work stimulates the ambition of the
In his little book Zoroastre, politician or
sorcerer? (11), W. Henning has shown that the interpretations by
Herzfeld and Nyberg of the Zoroastrian religion (that is their
interpretations of the Gathas) not only differ on essential points, but
also refute each other.
The effort to clarify the remaining
obscurities will continue however in the future to keep alive the interest
in Zarathushtra and his religion, an interest which has continued for
almost two centuries since Anquetil du Perron introduced the Avesta in
Europe and began to pioneer his research.
The difficulties are hardly less for the later
sources of the Gathas, and particularly the Pahlavi sources. In his book
The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrainism, R.C.Zachner has shown how much
Pahlavi material is yet to be explored for a better understanding of
The Gathas tell us that there is a supreme god, Ahura Mazda, “the Wise
Lord”. He is the creator of the Heavens and the Earth, of the material
and spiritual world; he is the source of light and darkness; he puts order
in nature; he is the ruling center of all. In vain would one look for
polytheistic traits such as are found in the connection to Vedas of
India. Ahura Mazda has no partner, nor ties to subordinate gods, such as
are seen in myths. He is surrounded by the Amesha Spentas, the six or
seven benevolent immortals of whom he is the father or creator.
The Good Mind, good thought and truth,
salvation and immortality are qualities belonging to Ahura Mazda and also
ought to be acquired by his followers.
Monotheism, manifest at first, is limited
however by Ahriman, the adversary of the Wise Lord. Ahriman is the source
of evil. But in the end, the Wise Lord will vanquish Ahriman and his
followers, and will establish the final triumph of justice. To consider
Mazdaism as involved in dualism would then be false. In one of his most
recent works, Ugo Bianchi describes this state of things by the original
term “dualistic monotheism”.
According to the Zarathushti concept,[iii]
the world is divided between the truth and the lie. The truth or justice
(asha) created by the Wise Lord, is symbolized by fire: hence the central
importance given to the fire altar by the sect. Like the other Amesha
Spentas, truth has a double function. On the one hand, it is the
expression of the will of the Wise Lord, an attribute of divine action: in
this sense Ahura Mazda is the father of Asha. On the other, humanity must
accept the divine order of truth (or justice) in submitting to the latter.
In the Gathas, Zarathushtra continuously
exhorts men to become adherents of the divine truth (ashavan). That is how
one arrives face to face with the Wise Lord: “Having learnt to recognize
just thought, when shall I see you as justice, and attain the abode of the
all-powerful Wise Lord?” (12)
Opposed, there is falsehood and its
terrestrial power. It is an emanation of Ahriman and in his domain plays
the same role as truth in that of the Wise Lord. This dualism
characterizes the entire structure of Mazdaen teaching, of Zarathushti
thought. Man must choose between the two worlds and thus choose between
Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. One does not find in India or in any other
neighboring culture, such a forceful accent on the struggle which governs
the world of the mind as well as the body.
Man is free, and should freely choose between
Ahura Mazda and Ahriman. This applies not only to man, but for all other
spiritual beings; those also are good or bad according to their free
choice. And since man is free, he is also responsible for his final
destiny. The good actions of the just (ashavan) will deserve an eternal
reward i.e. salvation and immortality. But if a man chooses the lie, he
becomes an evil-doer, condemned equally by his own conscience and by the
judgment of the wise Lord, and should expect the worst state of existence,
that Christianity would call “hell”.
The division of humanity on earth in two
hostile camps is another consequence of free choice. Men belong to two
The ideal type of man who sides with the Wise
Lord, is the settled shepherd or peasant who is busy with cattle and lives
in a stable social order. The followers of the lie (drugvan) are the
nomadic bandits, enemies of agriculture and cattle breeding, and who get
intoxicated on haoma (13).
Another element of Mazdaism is eschatological
thought included in the Gathas. Almost each Gathic stanza mentions the
hereafter which awaits man. Each action, word and thought is viewed in
its connection to a future life, to which earthly existence is very
naturally tied: the good actions desired by the Wise Lord, are rewarded in
the world to come, and the wicked actions punished. This theme seems to
have been at the center of the Zarathushti message.
After death, each man’s soul (Deana) crosses
the Separator’s bridge (Chinvat), that is considered with fear and
trembling. The Pahlavi books indicate that this is particularly true of
the soul of liars, for whom the bridge towards the hereafter becomes a
sort of judgment lane. The soul of the liar (drugvan) is lead to the
house of darkness, the abode of Ahriman, to exist there in the worst
possible state. Other sources place the seat of judgment on or after the
bridge. Later versions of Zarathushti religion, tell of a resurrection of
the dead, and this could be founded on certain indications already
contained in the Gathas. Eschatologically, the resurrection opens the
ultimate drama, to know not only the final and permanent triumph of the
Wise Lord and the corresponding destruction of the followers of Ahriman,
but also the transfiguration and reorganization of the world, and also the
end of dualism and complete establishment of the rule of Ahura Mazda.
Bible indebted to Iran?
This quick summary permits strange resemblances to be seen between
Zarathushti religion and Christianity, which raises the question of
possible historic connections between the two religions.
On this question, and in order to explain the
similarities, different responses have indeed been given, none of which
accept the possibility of a simple coincidence.
During the first centuries of our era, at the
time of the Church Fathers, we already find diverse mentions of the
teachings of Zarathushtra, especially his concept of God.
St. Justin, among others, reports several
facts concerning the Zarathushti religion. Because of Mazdaen parallels
to the Christian doctrine, Zarathushtra was considered as a witness of the
Gospel among the heathens. J Duschesne-Guillemin (14) makes a good
inventory of the different authors who are interested in the founder of
the Persian religion since the beginning of Christianity. Among them, an
Oxford scholar named Hyde, around 1700, collected all knowledge about
Zarathushtra in his De velere religione Persarum. Hyde affirms
that Zarathushtra was the teacher of Pythagoras, had several ideas
borrowed by the Jewish priests, and had foretold the coming of Christ.
But the question that interests him the most is this: “cur Deus Persas
prae aliis gentibus dignatus est favore tantae religionis?” that is to
say: “why did God judge the Persians more worthy than other nations to
receive the favor of such a religion?” He replies that the Persians are
the only ones who, in their dealings with the Jews and since the
beginning, have conserved their knowledge of the true God. The disciples
of Zarathushtra were monotheists, and this would explain the striking
resemblance of their religion to Christianity.
It is interesting also that Hyde mentions
Zurvan. Other authors thought that Zarathushtra had derived his ideas
from Elijah, Esdras, Daniel (15); others, in order to explain the
diversity of opinions ascribed to Zarathushtra, conjectured that there
could have been at least two men of that name. Voltaire accepted the
ideas of his time about Zarathushtra. He wished to show that Moses had
not been the sole prophet, and that one could find the truth of traditions
exterior to Christianity. He finally made this wise remark: “They speak a
lot of Zoroastre, and they will speak of him again.” (16)
Since the end of the 19th century,
that is since the study of comparative history of religions began, the
current has turned around. It is held now that Zarathushtra could not
have drawn his ideas from some original revelation of the prophets of the
Old Testament, but on the contrary Christianity had assimilated certain
elements of Zarathushti ideas, through the Old Testament. Schools of
religious history, particularly in Germany, have developed this thesis,
and tried to prove point by point that Christianity derives from Iran.
In this regard, I have no intention to discuss
the Anglo-Saxons T.K.Cheyne and L.H.Mills, whose theses have not been
The well-known German historian Eduard Meyer
is more representative of the hypotheses of the Old Testament’s dependence
on Iran, which were current during the twenties in Europe. In the second
volume of his great work on the origins and beginning of Christianity,
Meyer attempts to explain the religion of the Old Testament by an analysis
in terms of history of religions.
He considers as established that the new
religious concepts whose origin is not explainable starting from an
established religious thought, must have been received from a foreign
religion; hence his reasoning, as below. The experiences of the
Babylonian captivity and the contacts (part known, part assumed) with the
disciples of Zarathushtra led the Jews to deepen their personal ethics.
They began to consider the power of evil and the undeniable persecution of
the innocents as incompatible with the idea of God as a just judge. This
would present a problem which could not be solved in the context of the
Jewish tradition and which in turn would push the Jews of the Captivity to
search for a solution and at the same time would mature their thinking.
The response to the problem could only be
based in a doctrine where good and evil are face to face as independent
and separate powers. Such a belief had not appeared in the previous
biblical books. Since then, writes the historian, “the religion of
Zoroastre had opened the road to exercise an important influence on
Judaism, which gave it a historic importance of worldwide dimensions.”
Expected retribution is carried over from this
life to a life after death; the judgment of God is no longer carried out
on entire nations but on individuals, and Jewish prophetic eschatology is
replaced by Zoroastrian style eschatology. (18)
These few examples suffice to show that Iran
has, by the religion of Zarathushtra, influenced different cultures of the
world. By dint of this religion, the history of proto-historic and
Achaemenid Iran has exercised a triple fascination. First, the person of
Zarathushtra and his ideas spread across the world; next, the still
flourishing Zarathushti communities of Iran and India (the Parsis), whose
roots go deep into the Zarathushti inheritance with its customs and its
ethics (19); finally, Iranology which, has furnished an abundance of
themes to the European schools of religious history, for interpretation of
the Bible,. To be sure we are inclined now to treat historical
connections between the Christian Bible and the writings of Zarathushtra
with more prudence than at the beginning of comparative religious
history. Nevertheless it remains certain that Zarathushti influence is
widely understood in space and time, and that the ideas of Zarathushtra
have made important contributions to shape European thought.
One sees thereby confirmation that the history
of the world is essentially fashioned by men of faith and by the force of
[Translated by J.R.Udvadia (of Lansing,
Michigan) into English from a French translation of the original by G.
(1) “Zartosht” :
abbreviated form of the Persian name Zarathushtra
(Note by translator.)
(2) A Chronicle of the Cormelites in Persia
and the Papal Mission of the XVIIth centuries; London 1939
(3) Two Germans, Rückert
et Hansen, have made a profound study of this great poet in their work Das
iranische Königsbuch, paru en ¹955
(4) Another important
result of our research on the mystic poetry of Iran has been the
translation of Pand Nāmé de Farîd al-Din Attār (mort en 1230) by G.H.F.
Nesschnan (Pendnâmeh, Das Buch des Guten Rates ; Kœnigsberg, 1871)
Weltgeschichte des Mittelmeer-Raumes, vol I (München,
1948), pp. 58 et 61.
(6) Stand und Aufgaben der
iranischen Religionsgeschichte, dans Numen,
(Leide,1954). Pp. 16-83; 2(1955), pp. 47-134.
(7) Numen, 2 (1955), p. 131
(8) Handbuch der
Altertumswissenschaft, 1933, III, 1,3, p, 306
(9). Op. cit., dans
Numen, 2 (1955), p. 58
(10) For example those of E.E. Herzfeld
(Zoroaster and his World; Princeton, 1947).
(Die Religionen des Alten Iran; Leipzig, 1938),H. Hūmbach
(die Gathas des Zardothustra; Heidelberg, 1959), J. Duchesne-Guillemin
(Zoroastre. Etude critique avec une traduction commentée des Gâthâs;
Paris, 1948),R.C. Zaehner (The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism;
Politician or Witch-doctor?
(12) Approximation of a Gatha
( Yasna, 28, 5).
(13) Haoma : a plant, the
fermented juice of which seemed to produce ritual intoxication asscoiated
with the blood sacrifice of an ox in the Iranian culture prior to
Zarathushtra. Homa akin to soma (both plant and God) of the Indian Vedas
and symbolizes immortality.
(14) The Western Response to
Zoroaster. Oxford, 1958
(15) H. Prideaux, History of the Jews, 5
(16) Cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin. Op. cit., p
(17) Ed. Meyer, Ursprung
und Anfänge des Christentums, II: “Die Entwicklung
Judentums und Jesus von Nazareth“ (Cotta, 1923), p. 51
(18) Ibid., p.114. A. von
Gall follows these conjectures in his book Basileia tu theu, Heidelberg,
1926 (cf. p. 159), where he writes that reading Persain scriptures was
easy for the Jews who knew Amenian, the language in which these books were
(19) Miss Boyce Smith,
who teaches at the “School of Oriental and African
Studies” in London, has spent a winter in the Zarathushti community of
Kermân (S.E. Iran) and has extracted interesting artilces from Eastern
Translated by Jamshed R. Udvadia (of Lansing, Michigan) in March 2004
into English from a French translation of the original by G. Monnol,
Based on a lecture given at the University of Tehran, Iran in 1968.
Vohuman Editorial Note: There is no concept of cosmic duality
according to Zarathushtra’s world-view. Zarathushtra points to
ethical duality each person faces. Cosmic duality is of Zurvanite
origin and is contrary to Zarathushtra’s thought. Unfortunately some
authors have failed to differentiate between various schools of
thoughts such as the Zurvanite prevalent in Ancient Iran, and have
considered all of that to be a part of Zoroastrianism.