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New Scope on some Aspects of Zoroasrtrian 
History and Philosophy

Wisdom of Ages


World Conference on Zoroastrian Religion,
England 1984

Professor Paul DuBreuil



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When I was invited to this congress, I wondered what topic I'd choose for the occasion. Should I deal with some of my past works on the Achaemenid symbolism of Ahura Mazda as seen on the Babylonian cylinder and its relationship with the Egyptian Pharaonic sculptures? Should I deal with the Indo-Aryan origin of the Light-sun concept of Zarathushtra, or with the analysis of the complex differences raised between the religion of the Achaemenids and the neo-Mazdean Zervanism of the Sassanids? Or on the influence of the teachings of Zarathushtra upon neo-Christianity? Or with my comparative studies on the origin of the Mexican god of fire, Xiutecutli, and so forth? At last, because of the importance of this first World Zoroastrian Congress, I decided to expose my views on some major aspects of Zoroastrian history and philosophy in scope of a new light because of a time of recollection within the whole Zoroastrian community.

Because Zoroastrianism appeared as the most interesting of all major spiritualities in the eyes of my former master of history of religions and of philosophy; because Zoroastrianism had strongly influenced my father's life; of all the religions I have studied, the religion of Zoroaster has become one of the most fascinating to my eyes as much dear to my heart. Isn't it unfair to see that Zoroaster is, by far, one of the least known religious leaders of the world, and to consider how many thousands of books are currently printed all over the world about history or philosophy of religion, but often without a single reference to Zoroastrianism.

Yet, Zoroastrianism is better known in Anglo-Saxon countries because of many published studies in England, the United States and Germany. Since the Middle Ages the Latin countries have given to Zoroastrianism the same label of heresy raised by the Roman Christian Church against Zarathushtra as the Father of Dualism and of all oriental heresies. Even in the fight of the Church against Manichaeism under the form of the Southern French Catharism, it was still Zoroaster who appeared behind the prophet Mani as the great Evil. The Church also rejected (527 AD) all the Persian doctrines and the Platonic philosophers because of the same dualism thought to be inherited from the same Zoroaster.

As late as during the French king Philippe le Bel's persecution against the Templar knights, Zoroaster was again seen as the most dreadful Evil on earth. On the contrary, since the Reform, the Protestant Churches have praised none of the usual Catholic excommunications. Moreover since the first translations of the Avesta, the Latin countries could only encounter Zoroastrian studies through the difficult academic works of the learned in ancient Iranian culture. Most of the people still know Zarathushtra only through Nietzsche. We believe that such a general attitude is very unfair and a historical injustice. It is also quite amazing to see how the title of philosopher has been refused to Zarathushtra. However, no religion appears as abstract and philosophical as his own. At least on this point most of the scholars agree if Zoroaster is not considered by Western history as a legislator as Solon or Hammurabi it is only because the ancient Iranian prophet was dealing with permanent life principles instead of unstable human rules.

However, if Zoroaster has never been seen in history as a philosopher of law, the famous French author of the 'Spirit of Laws', Montesquieu (1689-1755) truly qualified Zoroaster as a legislator. This quality of a legislator was also given to Zoroaster by the French translator of the Avesta, Anquetil Duperron (1771).

One of the main teachings of Zoroaster was the importance given to select wise sovereigns to govern rightly. The good prince is one who protects the religion of Zoroaster. He will be gratified by Ahura Mazda. The good king is liberal and feeds the poor, as was Vishtasp, the protector of Zoroaster.

On good and bad kings and on the necessity to be ruled by wise princes in the Gathas, see Y:28(7:9), 31(22), 44(9:20), 46(8:14), 48(5:10), 48(11), sr(r6) and 53(2) For Zoroaster, the necessity to see countries ruled by wise men preceded the idea of Plato in his Republic to have statesmen who are philosophers or philosophers to be called on the political stage. On this point the philosopher Werner Jaeger said clearly:

In his dialogue on Philosophy. . . Aristotle united the Greek philosophy with the oriental religious Systems, as that of the Magians, under the denomination of wisdom (sophia) which is quoted by him as the metaphysical knowledge of the highest principles of theology'. Now, a long time before Plato and Aristotle Zarathushtra had united God with wisdom and into the nature of the Wise Lord (Ahura Mazda) and VohuMan. Even for Aristotle, any philosophical step seeking the 'highest principles' included a part of divine wisdom known as theosophia. Such a higher philosophical step involves the whole philosopher's life. The great difference between Western Philosophy and Eastern systems of thought is that our philosophers, scholars and learned wish to be only informed to the best. It is purely intellectual knowledge. On the contrary, inmost of the Oriental philosophies, such as Hinduism with Vedanta, Buddhism and in the Zoroastrian Gathas, knowledge is only good to transform the learner, student or disciple. And they are right, because if Western philosophy is only good to be informed, an ordinary computer will soon do better than our human brains.

This Philosophia has nothing in common with the only intellectual seeking of the peripatetic and purely dialectical philosophers whose works often deny the original meaning of the word philosophy itself. Thus we must emphasize the Zoroastrian features dealing with the history of philosophy and that of a philosophy of law in the complete moral freedom according to the widest spiritual citizenship of Man, as an active and responsible cooperator of the Wise Lord. Zoroastrian as well as Christian principles look for God's perfection which stands far above any human government.

Unfortunately each time that men tried to establish an image of the Kingdom of God on Earth, they fell into a pitiful copy of it. This degeneration is illustrated by Plato's Republic, Marcus Aurelius's City of Jupiter and St Augustine's glorious City of God. They all point out the contrast between human government and any Political Church with the true Kingdom of God. And perhaps the same can be said about Zoroaster's ethic compared to that of the epoch of the Sassanian theocracy.

In Florence during the 15th century AD, Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher, wanted to superimpose a universal religion over Judaism, Christianity and Islam, uniting them into a higher philosophy of Zoroaster's wisdom which itself came through Pythagoras, Plato and the neo-Platonic school. Gemistus Plethon's work greatly contributed to the foundation of the famous Platonic Academy of Florence. After his death, the Cardinal Bessarion wrote that as Plato was considered the continuation of Zoroaster, so Gemistus Plethon is the continuation of them both . . . as Plato had been seen 19 centuries before. Five centuries ago Gemistus Plethon had already discovered the universalism of Zoroastrian philosophy. But Gemistus Plethon's works were judged as sacrilegious for proposing a new worship to reflect the Neo-Platonic and Zoroastrian religious system.

On the other hand, both the political philosophers Niccolo Machiavelli of the Florentine Renaissance and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) are close to the Zoroastrian ethic of transformation of the world. Berdyaev, the Russian author, illustrates this closeness when he writes: 'It is necessary to put as a principle that laws are unable to transform human nature and that they cannot answer to any problems of the individual morality.'

In his fight against evil and darkness, Zoroaster has not given specific rules. He gave a scheme of the cosmic battle and showed the great lines of a universal ethic, based on the worship of Truth (Arta) and on the new pre-eminence of wisdom (Ahura Mazda) seen by him as a perfect archetype above humanity. But the spiritual revolution operated by Zoroaster is that human laws will no more be dictated by anthropomorphic gods through ritualistic superstitions.

This is why Zoroaster looks for a personal deep transformation of man, not compelled from outside factors but expecting it from one's own profound ethical choice, to build a deeper and wider selection of ever better thoughts, words, and deeds. Such a new status given to personal responsibility confers to Man the rank of a spiritual adult able to transform his world above precarious human laws.

Unfortunately, under the influence of the Magian priests, the neo-Mazdean religion of the Sassanids introduced a legislative reform of the Zoroastrian religion edicting thousands of very complex dogmatic rules. This important historical fact has been noticed by great scholars. Among them let us quote Christensen who wrote:

'Zervanism has been the deadly poison of the old spirit of Mazdeism'; Antoine Meillet: 'On the contrary of the Gathas, the religion of the late Avesta has a syncretic character; it comes from a compromise between pure Zoroastrianism and an old ritualistic religion'; John Murphy: 'Thus, under its late Persian form, Zoroastrianism let Magian ritual of the Sassanian clergy gain the advantage over the highest spirituality of the Gathas'; Geo Widengren has also clearly resumed the psychology of the Sassanian Mazdeism: 'The religious character of that period appears as a very specific one and is at the least Zoroastrian. Of course, the further Zoroastrian tradition tried to forget the non-Zoroastrian features of that time'. . . However, it is difficult to establish a strict division between the Gatha and what many call the second Avesta, because some later texts include parts written in full accordance with the spirit of the Gatha. Thus an accurate selection should be made. It is clear that if the spirit of the original message is betrayed by the later tradition, it is necessary to follow the first and to reject the second.

As a matter of fact, the case of the Avesta is not unique in history of religion. Most religions have once altered the original message because it is far easier to follow the popular tradition and to stick to mechanical repetition of rites acting as intermediary between men and God than to follow the difficult daily spiritual way preached by the Prophet. Moreover, how does one follow a theocracy which claims to hold the universal truth and, at the same time, displays such dramatic errors as did the Catholic Church a few centuries ago when it asserted that the Earth was flat and did not turn around the sun.

Thus, the same historical degradation happened in Christianity between the spirit of the Gospels and the canons of the Catholic Church. Even if the Gospels were shorter in quantity such as the original Gathas are, and if Christians had to appraise their religion choosing between the hundred words of Jesus Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and the numerous canonic rules of the Roman Church of the Inquisition period, what should the believers choose? For Zoroaster as well the good law was very clear and simple: 'My law is that of honest workers and of righteous people, of those who like waters, plants, animals, of those who love wisdom and the Saoshyants, the saviours and benefactors of the countries, just as King Vishhtasp was . . . '(Frastuye, Y12:7).

Likewise, when Jesus who refused to observe the Sabbath and the Jewish rituals, was questioned by the teachers of Israel about the greatest commandment, he merely replied: 'To love the Lord your God with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all offerings and sacrifices' (Mark 12).

The ethic of the Gatha is the least ritualistic. The only sacrifice required is that of good deeds. Besides it is only through our thoughts, words and deeds that we prepare our post-mortem (after life) destiny, likewise Hinduism and Buddhism with karma, though in a different manner. Indeed our daena or spiritual double becomes ugly or beautiful according to our life deeds.

In every religion there are always two kinds of believers: those who look for the Spirit and those who follow the letter, the letter which, according to the Gospels, kills the Spirit. . . As stated by John Locke, nothing is more dangerous than dogmatic sectarianism. Let us be assured that there is no harmless sectarianism and dangerous fanaticism. Every dogmatic intolerance, every frozen truth, once it gets the power may give rise to fanaticism, as happened to the fourth-century Christians themselves when emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Islam and Christianity in power have often been very tough with those of other faiths.

So the question is: to those who learn about Iran through the sad events of this country; to the people who learn about Zoroastrianism for the first time, what kind of image will they have of what they see? What are the Zoroastrians themselves going to present as image of their true civilization as the original Iranians? The Zoroastrian community ought to oppose today's fanaticism with a bright image of Zarathushtra's ethics, and to convince people by their common noble behavior wherever they are.

In the fear of losing their cultural identity, it's fair that Zoroastrians save their religious tradition as part of their heritage. But to the eyes of Humanity, priority must be given to the highest thought of Zoroaster. If someone were to ask the Zoroastrians what they are doing for the betterment of humanity, will they answer with the practical meaning of Yasna 30 (Let us be among those who work for the transfiguration of the world'), or with the renovation ritual of Frashokereti? (Frashkart)?

We must be aware that a neo-Zoroastrian philosophy may rise from Zoroastrianism just like the Theosophical Movement in 1875 issued from the discovery of Hinduism and Buddhism through Western people like Annie Besant. Zoroastrians have also something to teach to the occident. Indeed, we feel that a religion which taught that God was wise and good, the friend of man, while every other religion was teaching the fear of a choleric and terrific God; a religion which taught that the human spiritual destiny depends on our good thoughts, words and deeds, while other religions were still looking for divine omens out of animal guts; a religion which considered women as equal to men while so many others, as well as most of the Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, denied that women even had a soul; what can such a religion tell us nowadays in a world torn by the evil powers of political domination, of the atomic weapons race able to destroy the whole of humanity and its planet; a world of increasing technocracy ruling the whole society like a cybernetic system and putting a dangerous end to any personal moral free will. Before any other spiritual Guide, Zoroaster condemned all forms of exploitation of man by man, and of persecution of animals. In the Gatha, the defense of cattle, especially the ox, of which the Prophet knows the soul and hears the complaint (Y.29), comes back as a leit-motiv as a permanent and major theme of Zoroaster's teaching. We cannot ignore it. The is ox also the prototype of all animals (Y.13; Y.39.2). Cattle, precious for milk and for ploughing of the land, have been created in order to fertilize the feeding.

While he condemned immolating sacrifices of oxen, so much in honor among the Aryan religion of the kavi and the karapan, was the Prophet not blaming as well the slaughter of animals for eating, since he accused Yima of murder? Y32:8

This would support the Greek tradition about Zoroaster's vegetarianism (see Scholia, Plato, Pliny the Elder) as well as the prohibition at Sassanian times to eat beef (gav) and mutton (gospand) on certain days (see Widengren & Zaener).

Under Islam, where Zoroastrians could not hold lands, they are called dehqan (cultivators), or baghban (gardeners) and did no cattle breeding. If not total vegetarianism as among certain Indian sects, we find however some kind of restriction of meat eating in the Mazdean tradition. Herodotus (Book 71) and Xenophon (Cyropedia 1.2) testify that the daily food of Persians of their time was of bread, cress and water. Porphyry confirms that among the Magi eating of meat is sternly controlled: 'The highest class and the wisest do not eat meat nor kill any living being and abstain as well from sex' (De Abstinentia IV. 16). Sotio and Clement of Alexandria corroborate and extend the same restriction to all the Magi: 'They dress in white clothes, sleep on straw and feed on vegetables, cheese and black bread'.

Abstinence of cattle meat goes with the expansion of agriculture which is blessed in the Avesta where the best blessing of Ahura Mazda is a good crop, especially of wheat and barley, and nowhere do we find cattle-breeding praised. As well Zoroastrians saw the Arab and Turkish people as Zarathushtra saw the Turanians because of their herds destroying the fields, gardens and irrigation canals.

It is also interesting to quote that Denkart and Bundahishn predict that human beings will become vegetarians before feeding only on water, itself preceding the spiritual food of the last times (Dk VII, IO.II; Bdh XXX)

Respect of life and animal welfare have just become a new victory of Western conscience thanks to great thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, yet it was preached by Zarathushtra some 3000 years ago!

The same can be said about Zarathushtra's fight against lying and liars. Likewise the Greeks were amazed to notice how the Persians were attached to telling the truth and avoiding lies. Now, lying and hypocrisy are permanent sins in our modern world: in business, advertising, politics, and so forth.

Then, has not such a wonderful foreknowledge still something to teach our desperate world?

The most interesting Zoroastrian teaching to apply to our modern society is certainly that of the world's necessary transformation. It goes far beyond the religious Mesopotamian concept of renovation of the world. It is praised in yasna 30 and in the ideal of Saoshyant (Soshyans).

It seems that Karl Marx did not know Zarathushtra's work when he said 'Until now philosophers have merely interpreted the world, it is now time to transform it'. . . This assertion ignores the great change in the Greek and Roman societies by the Classic philosophers' work, as it does not consider the fantastic changes which occurred in Europe because of the great ideas of the Encyclopaedists. Now, what thinker has been so willing to radically change the world other than Zoroaster himself? But he understood that this metamorphosis of Man has more profound roots than economical ones and holding to man's selfishness. The world transformation must not only be based upon social progress but also on an enlightened faith, as Zoroaster taught wise kings to do. As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno noted: 'He who pretends to rule his fellowmen, and says that he does not care about spiritual things, does not deserve to hold the power' The opposed dialectical materialism has declared the death of God, because that kind of old concept of an anthropomorphic divinity was seen by nihilism as the main obstacle to human progress. But, now materialism leaves men without any spiritual hope and abolishes any human transcendental dimension.

Since Nietzsche's 'death of God', we think that if God is dead devils are still alive, as well the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: 'The Devil's greatest trick would certainly be to make us believe that he does not exist'. Now, Evil powers seem to be more and more at work in a world in which technical progress improves much faster than the development of human conscience.

Modern Zoroastrians have the huge responsibility to prove to the world that 'eternal' Iran is not what we see today, that they are still worthy of the fame that ancient Persians had in the eyes of the Greeks and the great Western thinkers. Remember that yasna Astuye (Y2.8) says: 'the religion of Mazda restrains quarrels and puts weapons down.' Voltaire wrote that the best expression of morality he had ever known stands in this Zoroastrian precept of the Saddar. 'When you are not sure if an action is right or wrong, just abstain from doing it, i.e. when in doubt, don't.' This brings us to make this statement: If religions and nations had followed the contrary of the proverb: 'The end justifies the means' which conducted many powers to think that killings and persecutions were permitted to reach their political goals, the opposite would be that the nobility of any goal depends on the means used to reach it. Thus, we could be sure that many dreadful slaughters, cruelties and persecutions of all kinds may have been avoided and the world would have known far less misfortune. This ethic comes from the close Zoroastrian conjugation of doing good deeds that are in full agreement with good thoughts and words (and is also suggested in yasna 31).

If Nietzsche saw in Zarathushtra 'the Superman', the original Zarathushtra was expecting his followers to be no less than a kind of supermen, preaching a rigorous ethic that Yasht 13(74) and yasna 70(4) call 'the religion of Soshyans', a religion of saviours (saosyanto dahyunam) likewise the Christian Apostle St Paul called the first Christians to follow a religion of saints. Who is the more religious? He who practices the most rites, nirang, kusti, ceremonies etc, or he who tries to practice daily better thoughts, words and deeds? Who was the better Christian? Emperor Charlemagne who forced the Saxons to receive baptism or death, or a humble man full of charity and love like Francis of Assisi who followed Christ's example?

I would not like my listeners to believe that I am definitely against all rituals. On the contrary, I feel that rituals may have a part in many people's lives, such as in daily prayers and important events. The Zoroastrian veneration of sacred Fire remains in the whole world the last living evidence of the original victory of the Palaeolithic Man over Nature in learning how to keep natural fire and afterwards how to light it. It remains too the last evidence of the prehistoric veneration of Man for the first Universal cosmic element.

But ritual must always be the means and not the end to reach a better spiritual life. Let us take care that in considering the label more than the inside spirituality of a religion we may fall into complete nonsense. If we consider as only Zoroastrians those who have received navjote we must also face the fact that there is not one historical evidence that the Achaemenid emperors have ever been introduced into the Zoroastrian faith by navjote. I'd say that it does not matter if one is Protestant or Catholic but a true Christian, a Parsee or a Zarthoshti but a true Zoroastrian, and above all to merit the universal title of Man as homo spiritus, spiritual Being.

Zoroastrians meet today the most important crossroad in their history. For the second time they are facing barbarism in their ancestral land. For the second time they are spreading out into foreign countries in a huge diaspora, split into two branches. They have the duty to show they belong to the same religion in spite of different ethnological features.

It seems that there is confusion made between the Zoroastrian eschatology (religious destiny and end) and the Jewish one. While Jehovah, the Hebraic God requested Prophet Abraham's People to return and settle forever on the Promised Land (i.e. the Canaan country - Gen. 12.7), and that Moses' people is nothing less than Jehovah’s selected humanity (predestined for the grace of salvation); on the contrary Zarathushtra’s 'wish was to see the whole Universe following the good Law of Ahura Mazda. On this point, see Y.31;44;45. Also Yt XIII, 94, 99, 100, 143; YtLI, 19 and Dk VII.10.10; IX 38.8; X.5.14. It is a grave confusion, because prophetism happens in History for an elected People, and is opposed to the concept of eschatology which means the coming of a totally different world, Kingdom of God, Kshatra – one is future but material (getig) it was the ideal of ancient Judaism – the other one is transcendental and spiritual (menok) and was the ideal of Jesus Christ. This is why it is more universal, because it breaks our physic limits and its apocalyptic Christian eschatology (which we believe to be inherited from the Mazdean one) was likewise opened to the non-Jews, i.e. the Gentiles.

Zoroastrians' lot is not separated from the destiny of humanity. Every day's events show that the world will only get out of its present crisis with the dawn of a new spiritual conscience. Two philosophers have pointed this out: Henri Bergson wrote: "The enlarged body of humanity needs a soul supplement", and Andre Malraux wrote these terrific words: "he 21st century will be religious or it will not be". But who will show the way if not the spiritual minorities?

Being a most sincere admirer of Zoroastrianism, I feel confident that the future of Zoroastrianism is dependent upon a Greater understanding of the spirit of Gatha and the moral virtues praised throughout history as permanent features of Zoroaster's noble character. I feel certain that the future of Zoroastrianism will depend upon the delicate matter of conversions. Not being a Zoroastrian I feel I should offer no advice on this point, but it is clear that one-day or another the community will have to face the inescapable facts of History.

Spirituality goes beyond the concept of time and space. A religion has always its prophetic dimension. Thus, a religion cannot be stuck to its past, it Is also present and is turned towards the future in its highest ambitions.

Let us have behind us the painful division of conservative and progressive believers. 0n one hand Zoroastrianism is certainly the religion of a People. This people must keep its own cultural and religious identity as a token of respect to its ancestors. But, on the other hand, this people also keeps the greatest and the brightest concept of religious universalism ever edicted in history of religion. It is the idea that beyond human religions ruled by tradition and ritual, there is a metaphysical and universal community acting as an ecumenical and invisible Church of all righteous Fravartis of men and women having the best thoughts, words and deeds. They cannot be known as direct followers of Zarathushtra, yet they are praised in Fravardin Yasht (Yasht 13) chapters 17, 21, 94,143. They are those who fight against evil powers and whose sacrifices bring on Earth a fire of new light and hope. They are those who work for the transfiguration of the world as requested by Zarathusthra. The faithfulness of Irani Zarthoshtis and of Parsees to their cultural identity, to preserve and protect it as such, is not incompatible with a wholesome though selective opening of their religion to the world as an example of human dignity, of courage and of universal ethics.

This is not a mere dream. From their long and troubled history, Zoroastrians have been the first oriental People choosing to follow the Western mirage. Now they have come to the point of no return. They have nonetheless to face a decisive evolution. It is not only a challenge for survival. Because, for a People holding such an ethical faith there is no other choice than to merely survive as a forgotten archaeological human community, interesting only the scientists, or to forsake every fatalism and to rise to the true universal dimension expected by Zarathushtra’s pressing spiritual request. Then, to take the word of the Gospels, 'You will be among the true salt of the Earth if you let your Light shine before men that they may see your good deeds . . .’