A Zoroastrian Educational Institute



HomeArticlesAuthorsBook ReviewCommunityLibraryProminentsRegisterStoreArticle SubmissionAbout Us




The Light of the Sacred Fire

GNOSIS Magazine, 
Summer 1994

Hannah M.G.Shapero



Related Articles:

Related Links:


The light of an ancient fire reflects into our modern world. It is the light of Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, which began in Iran more than three millennia ago. The founder of that religion was a prophet, a man chosen by God to speak the truth and bring wisdom and justice to a barbaric world. His name was Zarathushtra.

Zarathushtra, known as Zoroaster in a Greek transliteration, lived in what is now eastern Iran or Afghanistan. No one knows exactly when he lived. Zoroastrian traditions date him at around 600 BCE, but modern scholarship has placed him earlier, anywhere from 1600 to 1000 BCE. He was born into a priestly family which practiced an Indo-Iranian polytheistic tradition that was closely related to the early Hinduism of the "Rig-Veda," the earliest scriptures of India.

Zarathushtra heard his prophetic call in about his thirtieth year. The revolutionary message that he was called to speak forth was that of one God. He was among the first monotheists known to human history. Zarathushtra built his monotheistic teaching from the religious material of his time. He named the one God "Ahura," the old name for "God" or "Lord," and added to it the new epithet "Mazda," which means "wise." Forever after, the name of God for Zoroastrians (or as they are known in Iran, Zarthustis) would be Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord."

Zarathushtra's social and political preaching was as controversial as his theology. He forbade his followers to worship the old pagan gods, the "daevas," and condemned the animal sacrifices and the use of intoxicating drugs that characterized the old religion. And, as prophets have done ever since, he protested against the corrupt priests and rulers who profited from this cult.

Predictably, the Prophet was driven from his original country and wandered until he and his followers found a royal patron named Vishtaspa, who was a local king in what has sometimes been identified as Bactria, now in Afghanistan. There, in Vishtaspa's court, Zarathushtra's new teaching found its first noble followers, and the religion of Zoroastrianism (Zarthusti Din) was born.

The story of the Prophet, and his teachings, are contained in a short series of poetic songs known as the Gathas. They are the primary scriptures of Zoroastrianism, and are believed to have actually been composed by Zarathushtra. The language of the Gathas is a very difficult and ancient Indo-Iranian language known as Avestan (called Avesta by Zoroastrians), which is closely related to the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda. It is the comparison of Avestan with Vedic Sanskrit that has given modern scholars a date for Zarathushtra's work which is far earlier than the traditional Zoroastrian date of 600 BCE.

With the Gathas, more than 3000 years of Zoroastrian history begin. Hardly anything is known about the faith for the first millennium after Zarathushtra's time. Zoroastrianism first enters written history in the age of the Achaemenid kings of Persia, the rivals of classical Greece in the sixth through fourth centuries BCE. Under the Achaemenids, the Gathas and related Avestan scriptures, preserved up to that time only in oral traditions, were first put into writing. Much of the written heritage kept by the Achaemenid priests was destroyed when Alexander the Great, known to Persians as "Alexander the Accursed," burnt the great library at the Persian capital of Persepolis in 330 BCE. The Gathas and other Avestan religious texts survived because they still remained in priests' memories as ritual documents in constant use.

The Parthian state, a kingdom in which Zoroastrianism was prevalent, flourished in what is now Iran and Iraq between the second century BCE and the third century of the Christian era. Under this regime, which was one of the main rivals of the Roman Empire, another attempt was made to gather together the scattered texts of Zoroastrian religion and philosophy. But it was the resurgent Persian empire of the Sassanians, which began in the third century CE and lasted until the seventh, that saw the height of Zoroastrian sacred and secular power. In that period, Zoroastrian rule extended at times from Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia in the West to Central Asia and parts of China in the East.

Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sassanian Empire. This was an era of increasing intolerance, in which Christians, Jews, Manichaeans, and other sects were persecuted under the Zoroastrian state. This must be seen in the context of its time, in which Persia was almost constantly at war, first with the Roman and then with the Christian Byzantine Empire. From very early on in Christian history, there were aggressive Christian missionary efforts in Persia, trying to convert Zoroastrians. The state-religion needed to hold on both to power and the loyalty of its worshippers. As with most state religions, abuses of secular and priestly power increased and became oppressive. By the time of the invasion of the Islamic Arabs in the mid-seventh century CE (around 650), the Sassanian Empire was exhausted from its wars with Byzantium, and many people welcomed the new religion of Islam, which seemed to offer a simpler and less oppressive rule. Both sacred and secular powers collapsed quickly, and Iran entered the Islamic world.

Zoroastrianism in Iran, in the centuries following the Islamic conquest, became a minority religion much like Judaism, sometimes tolerated by the Islamic rulers, and sometimes brutally persecuted. The invasion of Iran by the Arabs and, later, by the Mongols destroyed still more of the Zoroastrian sacred texts that had been re-gathered and re-edited by the high priests of the Sassanian Empire. In the ninth century, groups of Iranian and Central Asian Zoroastrians fled their oppressive Muslim rulers and settled in Gujarat in western India. These pilgrims, accommodated by the Hindu rulers of the region, became the Parsis, an ethnic group that is still influential in India today. While a remnant of Zoroastrians stayed behind in Iran, especially in the cities of Yazd and Kerman, over the long years of diaspora many believers have emigrated to all parts of the globe. There are now Zoroastrian communities in Pakistan, South Africa, England, Canada, and the United States, although their numbers are not large even compared to other minority religions such as Judaism.

This long historical account is necessary for any understanding of Zoroastrian belief and thought. Theology cannot be explained without a historical context. What Zoroastrians believe and practice today is a result of history as well as the inspiration of Zarathushtra. And in the past century, Zoroastrian history has been very much influenced by Western scholarship.

Knowledge of the Avestan language became lost in the centuries after the Prophet, and the meaning of the Gathas and their related Avestan texts was known only through translation, re-translation, and commentary. The original texts were carefully preserved by rote in the memory of priests who recited a language they could not understand, much as some medieval Catholic priests recited the Latin liturgy. The Avestan sacred texts and the Gathas were preserved in a sort of linguistic amber until the twentieth century, when pioneering scholars cracked the texts' Indo-European code by comparing it to the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda. For the first time in three millennia, the voice of Zarathushtra could speak directly through the newly re-translated Gathas.

Despite more than 3000 years of history and the transformations and additions wrought by the priests and scholars of various empires, the essence of Zarathushtra's message has been preserved throughout the ages. But without direct contact with the Gathas, religious changes did occur, so that the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanian era, while mostly in agreement with Zarathushtra's teachings, differs in many details from the faith and practice of the earliest years of the religion. But it is the theology of the Gathas that is original to Zarathushtra, and this forms the continuity of the Zoroastrian religion.

In the Gathas, Ahura Mazda is transcendent and impersonal, though he is not beyond relationship with the human spirit. Zarathushtra addresses the Wise Lord intimately as "friend to friend." But the Lord is also immanent, present in all creation, though not identical with it. Ahura Mazda manifests in creation through seven divine Attributes. In the Gathas these Attributes are sometimes abstractions and sometimes personifications. In later Zoroastrian traditions, these Attributes are fully personified as a group of entities named the "Amesha Spentas", the "Bounteous Immortals."

Each Immortal represents a quality of the Divine as well as a specific sector of the created world. Together, the seven Amesha Spentas form a divine set of seven; in the words of Iranian Zoroastrian author Farhang Mehr, they constitute "plurality in oneness." They are arranged in no fixed hierarchy, though Zarathushtra mentions some more than others. The connections between the Immortals and the seven sectors of Creation is alluded to in the Gathas and is clearly identified in later writings.

The first of these Immortals is "Spenta Mainyu," meaning "Holy Creative Spirit." This is the prime emanation of Ahura Mazda, God's energy in manifestation. The realm of creation represented by Spenta Mainyu is that of human beings, who are called to be creative co-workers with God in the world. The next Immortal is "Vohu Manah," or "Good Mind," who is the divine gift of intelligence and reason. Vohu Manah's creation is that of animals, especially cattle, which were essential to the ancient Iranian way of life. The third Amesha Spenta is "Asha," meaning "Righteousness and Truth." Asha includes the concept of cosmic order and right action in accordance with it: Asha is process as well as goal. Asha's creation is fire.

The fourth Immortal is "Khshathra," or "Dominion," embodying right rulership and social justice. Khshathra's sector of creation is that of metals, which symbolize both economic power, as in gold and silver, and military power, as in bronze or iron. The fifth Immortal is "Spenta Armaiti," or "Devotion and Serenity." She represents the land, the earth, and the fertile soil. The last two Bounteous Immortals are always mentioned together. They are "Haurvatat," or "Wholeness," and "Ameretat," or "Immortality." Haurvatat's creation is that of water, and Ameretat's is the world of plants.

Three of the Immortals, Vohu Manah, Khshathra, and Asha, are considered male (though linguistically their names are neuter) and three are female: Spenta Armaiti, Haurvatat, and Ameretat. Spenta Mainyu is seen as being beyond gender. From the beginning Zoroastrians have recognized the female aspect of the Divine. It is also remarkable that in the Gathas, Zarathushtra explicitly addresses both male and female disciples, and he expects equal participation from both men and women in his faith.

The religion as preached by Zarathushtra himself is a rather abstract ethical monotheism, even with the stately procession of the Divine Attributes described in the Gathas. But abstract religions are hard to follow, especially for a population still used to a polytheistic culture. In the centuries after Zarathushtra, the religion returned in a limited way to the use of myths, forms, and rituals. This assimilation of an earlier religion's material is a part of the evolution of every religion; Zoroastrianism is in this respect no different from any other great religion such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.

Most scholars assume that the re-assimilation of older Indo-Iranian religious material was the work of the Magi, who were an Iranian priestly caste originally responsible for the ceremonies of the old Iranian polytheism. Under the Magi, some of the old Indo-Iranian gods were allowed back into the realm of monotheistic Zoroastrian religion, provided that they were relegated to the created world and not worshipped as gods in their own right.

Thus the old images and god-forms were invested with new theological meanings. Old gods such as Mithra, lord of the sun and of contracts, and Atar, lord of fire, were transformed into the "yazatas" or "adorable ones." Mithra later became the focus of the cult of Mithraism, which derived not from Zoroastrianism but from Hellenistic mystery-religions and astronomical symbolism. The Amesha Spentas came to be the analogue of archangels, while the yazatas became lesser spirits similar to angels. But they are not precisely "angels" in the Western meaning of the word; the word "angel" means "messenger," and the yazatas do not necessarily carry messages between God and humans. They are more like personified intermediate divine spirits, created non-physical beings who guard and watch and protect and sometimes grant favors.

There is a true "angel" figure in Zoroastrianism, though, and that is "Sraosha," or "Divine Hearing and Obedience." Sraosha, though not an Amesha Spenta, is almost as important in Zoroastrian theology. Sraosha is the personification of God's calling and will for humankind, and the communication that takes place between humans and God. If there is a divine messenger in Zoroastrianism, it is this spiritual figure, who was known to Zarathushtra and is named in the Gathas.

The stress on the presence of the Divine in the created world, as symbolized by these divine personifications of natural and human phenomena, means that for Zoroastrianism there is no strict separation between the physical and the spiritual, the divine and the material. What is done in the material world affects the spiritual world, and vice versa. This interplay includes nature as well as humanity. "It is not surprising," writes Farhang Mehr in his book THE ZOROASTRIAN TRADITION, "that Mazdaism is called the first ecological religion.."

The consciousness of God's immanence in nature obliges Zoroastrians to maintain the purity of the elements and to protect nature against pollution. Neither earth, air, water, or fire should be polluted. In ancient times this impulse resulted in a strict code of purity laws similar to those found in the biblical book of Leviticus and originally hygienic and practical in intent. In later centuries this code became a matter of ritual observance and lost its direct relationship with ecological needs.

It is this concern for maintaining the purity of natural elements that is the source of the Zoroastrian custom which is so shocking to the West: leaving the dead on the "Towers of Silence" (called "dakhma" in Avestan) to be eaten by vultures and other scavengers. In this way the sacred earth is not polluted by corpses, and the body is returned to nature in the quickest way possible. This practice is illegal in the USA, and American Zoroastrians must be buried in carefully sealed containers.

Zoroastrian ethics, which are at the center of the religion, can be summed up in a great threefold principle: "good thoughts, good words, and good deeds" - in Avestan, "humata, hukhta, huvarshta." The indwelling wisdom of God, Vohu Manah, helps human beings discern moral choice in the Zoroastrian path. Free will and choice are extremely important in Zoroastrianism, which has no concept of original sin nor a Fall. All must make moral choices for themselves, not once, but in every moment. No flawed spiritual ancestor has prejudiced the Divine against the human, and no predestination or fate rules over human life.

In the ongoing way of Asha, humans' choices for good and evil bring their own rewards and punishments, if not in this world, then in the next. Zoroastrianism was one of the earliest religions in history to link the afterlife with morality rather than envisioning it as an empty Hades or an otherworldly continuation of earthly life. In the Gathas, Heaven and Hell are simply described as spiritual states, "the best existence" and "the worst existence." In later traditions, the afterlife is vividly and imaginatively described.

It is this moral choice that constitutes the original Zoroastrian dualism. In the Gathas, Spenta Mainyu, the Holy Creative Spirit, is opposed to Angra Mainyu, the "Evil Spirit." The word "mainyu," "spirit," can also be translated as "mentality," which makes this teaching clearer. The dualism of good and evil spirits is a moral dualism, existing not in nature or in the Divine, but in the human heart and mind. Where there is pollution, crime, oppression, abuse, or any other human evil, there is the work of the Evil Spirit. There is, in the original conception of Zarathushtra, no evil in nature or in God; Ahura Mazda is all good. Zoroastrians throughout history have been appalled at the idea of a God who directly punishes sinners, takes vengeance, and condemns His own creation.

And yet the cliche of "Zoroastrian dualism" is common even among educated people. The western conception of Zoroastrianism is that of a faith that believes in a "Good God" versus an "Evil God," two co-eternal, conflicting principles. This misconception is due to historical circumstance. During the Sassanian Empire, under ideological pressure from competing religions such as Christianity and Manichaeism, the moral dualism of the Two Spirits became a cosmic dualism that imposed good and evil on the created world, dividing it into sectors at war with each other. The Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu, originally an emanation of God, was combined with the One God, Ahura Mazda, to form a being now known as "Ohrmazd." Ohrmazd was now in direct conflict with Angra Mainyu, now known as "Ahriman." It is this historical development, with its "cosmic" dualism, which became known in the West through Greek and Christian authors. Adding to this confusion was the extreme dualism of Manichaeism, a religion derived not only from Zoroastrianism but from Buddhism and semi-Christian Gnosticism. Manichaeism regarded the created world as evil and human beings as prisoners who must escape the world through ever-increasing self-denial and asceticism.

But once the original message of the Gathas was rediscovered through modern scholarship, the true teaching of Zarathushtra was again revealed, and Zoroastrians now have the choice of believing in either the cosmic dualism of their Sassanian forebears, or the more fundamental moral dualism of the Gathas.

Western religions owe a great deal to Zoroastrianism. It was under the Achaemenid King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from their exile in Babylon, that Judaism first encountered Zoroastrianism in the sixth century BCE. This contact, which continued for hundreds of years in the mixed societies of the Near East, was to be a source of inspiration for both the Jewish and the Christian worlds.

Even the best scholarship cannot pinpoint just how or when Zoroastrian influences entered Jewish religious thought. But most scholars admit that the influence is definitely there. The Zoroastrian vision of the seven Bounteous Immortals has been suggested as the source for the seven Jewish archangels. The Zoroastrian moralization of the afterlife also left its influence on Jewish belief. Before the exile, Hebrew writings spoke only of "Sheol," a Hades-like afterlife without reward or punishment. It was only in post-exilic writings (dating after 538 BCE) that concepts of heaven and hell appeared in Jewish thought. There are echoes of the Two Spirits and moral dualism in the Judeo-Christian idea of Satan, and both in the Gathas and in Christian doctrine, the Evil Spirit is not created evil, but chooses to be so.

Zoroastrianism also lent to the West its ideas of eschatology and messianism. The Gathas refer to an end of time and a final judgement. In Zarathushtra's conception, the world evolves, through the collective good acts of humanity, towards "renovation," an eschatological goal of cosmic regeneration and bliss. The final judgement is one of purification rather than punishment, even of the "damned." The leaders of this collective effort are known as "Saoshyants," or "saviors."

In later Zoroastrianism this concept is mythologized, and the savior figures are identified as specific cultural heroes who will be born in the fullness of time. This idea may have influenced Jewish messianism. In the Old Testament, the word "Messiah" described an ideal political ruler - a concept which later took on a spiritual and eschatological quality. It is perhaps in this context that the legend of the Three Magi should be explained. The Magi of the New Testament story (see Matthew 2:1-12) may indeed have been Hellenized Zoroastrians practicing in a mixed religious tradition that included astrology and magic derived from Mesopotamia. These legendary Magi (they are most probably characters in a story, not real people) may have been following the Zoroastrian concept of the expected "Saoshyant" when they followed their star to Bethlehem.

Zoroastrianism also was a strong influence in the more esoteric sects of Judaism, such as the Essenes. There are passages in the Essene documents found in the "Dead Sea Scrolls" which seem to be directly borrowed from Zoroastrian sources. These texts describe the spirit of truth in conflict with the spirit of error, and a battle of the "sons of light" against the "sons of darkness." This scenario later became part of Christian mythology and cosmic battles of this type appear in many apocalyptic texts such as the Book of Revelation.

Despite its antiquity, Zoroastrianism is not a historical relic, but a living tradition practiced from Tehran to Mumbai to Los Angeles. Though the whole Zoroastrian "remnant" numbers no more than 150,000 people, this microcosm includes a spectrum of beliefs and practices analogous to those in a large religion like Christianity or Islam. One may find "conservative" believers who hold to the cosmic dualism and ancient purity laws promulgated by the Magi of the Sassanian era, as well as "reform" or "modernist" believers who, inspired by the modern translation of the Gathas, have adapted their ancient practices and beliefs to life in a Western technological society. There are also what might be called "Gathic universalists," who interpret the Gathas as a universal teaching that could inspire Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians alike, rather like a humanist ethical philosophy more than a religion. Some creative Zoroastrian thinkers are attempting to relate ancient doctrines such as moral dualism, the Bounteous Immortals, and the Seven Creations to an ecological and social vision that would apply to the modern era.

Zoroastrian religious ceremonies consist of prayers in Avestan and other old Persian dialects, changed by two or more priests over a sacred fire. Some more elaborate rituals, such as the great "Yasna" ceremony, last for hours and involve symbolic work with sacred fire, food, drink, and purifying actions. The sacred fire, which was common to Indian and Iranian traditions even before Zarathushtra, is the central icon of the faith. Zoroastrians are not fire-worshippers, as they are sometimes called. They no more worship the fire than Christians worship the Cross or Jews worship the Torah scroll. To a Zoroastrian, a sacred fire is a living, glowing image of the energy and presence of God. As such, it is worthy of reverence, but it is never worshipped in its own right. Most sacred fires burn only for the duration of the service, but fire temples exist in Iran and India in which a sacred flame is maintained at all times. Some of these flames have been kept burning continuously for centuries.

Around the sacred fire various symbolic foods, flowers, and other objects are arrayed, each representing one of the aspects of creation. After a celebratory service, the foods are joyously consumed by the community. The Zoroastrian response to God is not fear, sorrow, tears, self-accusation, or self-abasement, but joy. Human beings are co-workers with God, not slaves or children who must be coaxed or coerced into obedience.

Zoroastrianism is not an otherworldly religion, though it does have its own ideas about interior or mystical life. The Zoroastrian religion forbids mortification, fasting, and other practices that imply that the good things of the material world are detrimental to the spiritual life. All Zoroastrians are encouraged to marry and have children; celibacy is frowned upon, and there is no monasticism in the tradition. Zoroastrian mysticism is one of immanence and the indwelling of the Divine Attributes in the world and in the human spirit; it is a rational spirituality not usually given to trances, visions, or ecstasies.

The Zoroastrian faith has survived 3500 years despite invasions, the loss of its scriptures, doctrinal conflicts, oppression, and attrition. It has not in general been a proselytizing religion. The question of conversion to Zoroastrianism has been a source of great controversy. Traditional Zoroastrians, especially the Parsis of India, do not admit the possibility of conversion and only recognize the children of two Zoroastrian parents as proper members of the community. Other believers, inspired by their universalist interpretation of the Gathas, note that Zarathushtra invited new followers to join him whether they were Iranian or not. These "liberal" Zoroastrians believe that converts should be accepted.

Zoroastrians, following the Divine Attribute of "Good Mind," stress learning, and many Zoroastrians have reached high positions in education, government, medicine, science, industry, and the arts. Zubin Mehta, the well-known orchestra conductor, is a Parsi, as is Rohinton Mistry, the well-known novelist. The Parsis of Bombay are famous for their philanthropy and charitable activities. In the educated world of the West, Zoroastrianism has reached places far beyond the original home of Prophet Zarathushtra. For instance, some of the research for this article was done on the Internet, where Zoroastrian wisdom is shared in electronic mail, newsgroups, and many World Wide Web sites.

Zoroastrianism will most probably remain a small minority religion, but it is not likely to die out. Conscientious believers have created associations in many of their homes to teach both children and adults, and Zoroastrians have participated fully in interfaith gatherings such as the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. The hope is that improved communications will bring the message of Zarathushtra and the words of the Gathas to a wider world, dispelling old misconceptions and restoring Zoroastrianism to its place as a venerable and living member of the world's religious family.