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The Simplicity of Zoroastrian Religion[i]


















Religion has been defined as a system of doctrine and worship, which its adherents regard as having divine authority [Bettany]. Some religious scholars of the late ninetieth and early twentieth centuries believed that religion began with animism (belief in spirits), then evolved into polytheism (belief in many gods) and ultimately emerged as monotheism (belief in one god). Other scholars held that religion began with a sense of awe at the impressive activities of nature, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, or in a feeling of reverence for the spirits of the dead, or in an attempt to overcome mortality [Encarta]. Most religions teach systems of morality in order to encourage conformity and cooperation and to discourage nonconformity and cheating. In some religions, ethic of self-sacrifice has functioned to encourage loyalty to a group, thereby tactically promoting human survival. All religions teach virtues, such as love, self-control, compassion, nonviolence, and wisdom, but differences in belief systems can give varying significance to these virtues.

Zoroastrian religion can be termed as ‘natural’, which is the innate capacity of all human beings to arrive at a belief in the existence of a supreme being. Charles Townes, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, Life Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and a Nobel Laureate in physics, recently won the 1.5 million dollar Templeton Prize for progress in spiritual knowledge. He said that, “The fact that the universe had a beginning is a very striking thing. How do you explain that unique event without God? " Natural religion has compared favorably with the supernatural religions that deem mystical union with the divine. Zoroastrian religion is liberal, comforting, egalitarian and contemplative, and encourages reliance on personal responsibility. A Zoroastrian cannot achieve deliverance either through states of trance, dreams, visions and healings, or through special signs and miracles, mystical experiences, offerings and sacrifices, purification and penance. In some religions, possession of the human body by a mystical entity is a common form of interchange with the spiritual world. However, for every Zoroastrian, relationship with God can only be expressed in terms of moral behavior because each individual has the capability to contribute and improve the quality of human life and thus renew this world.

More than 3000 years ago, Zarathushtra revealed to mankind that there is only One God whom he referred to as Ahura Mazda, literally meaning, “A Being having Super-Wisdom”.  According to Zarathushtra, Ahura Mazda created the universe in space and time through his creative faculty Spenta Mainyu (Best Mentality), perhaps by causing the Big Bang. Ahura Mazda not only let the universe evolve into inanimate objects such as the sun, moon, stars and planets but also into living species such as the plants, animals and human beings. The physical laws, such as the principles of gravity and electromagnetism came into existence, and natural selection which can weed out potentially dangerous genetic mutations govern the evolution of the universe to this day. 

The Gathas, composed by Zarathushtra, refer to Ahura Mazda as “Tashô” (Yasna 31-11), which signifies a designer and conveys the idea of improvement, progress and evolution. Ahura Mazda is not only the creator but also the maintainer and promoter of his creations. In the Gathas, Zarathushtra also describes other attributes of Ahura Mazda. These are Vohu Manah (intelligent and good thinking), Asha (truth and righteousness), Khshathra (benevolent power and rule of goodness), Armaiti (tranquility and serenity), Haurvatat (perfection and completeness) and Ameratat (immortality). 

Zarathushtra introduced the unique idea that the purpose for human life is to emulate the attributes of Ahura Mazda and help move His creation towards perfection. Ahura Mazda is intelligent and full of wisdom and has vouchsafed every human being with Vohu Manah, a good mind, so that we can think and discern what is good and bad, and rationally choose our own path in life. The human mind is the best gift that has been bestowed on us by Ahura Mazda and we are the only species in the animal kingdom capable of assessing rationally and discriminating good from evil. By employing our mind we can be creative, constructive and progressive or unimaginative, destructive and ignorant. The freedom to choose between, good and evil is the underlying principle of Zarathushtra’s religion (Y 30.2):

sraotâ gęushâish vahishtâ avaęnatâ sűcâ mananghâ âvarenĺ vîcithahyâ naręm narem hvah'yâi tanuyę parâ mazę ýĺnghô ahmâi nę sazdyâi baodańtô paitî.

Hear with your ears the best things; look upon them with clear-seeing thought, for decision between the two Beliefs, each man for himself before the Great consummation, bethinking you that it be accomplished to our pleasure.

[English translation by Chatterjee]

We should make our choices only after listening and reflecting and not make decisions based on popularity or because we are coerced to do so. Recently, a team of neuroscientists at Imperial College of London used MRI to study the response of the brain to the decision making process. To their surprise they discovered that only the medial frontal cortex was active when people freely made choices, but other parts of the brain became active when people were forced to make certain decisions. Their study was recently published in the journal Current Biology. Human beings are co-workers of Ahura Mazda, but not his slaves because Zarathushtra does not implore blind faith but a reflective philosophy based on knowledge and learning.

The dualism reflected in the Gathas is not cosmic but moral; for good and evil are confined to the human mind, and thoughts, when translated into words and actions can produce good or bad results. Zoroastrianism is an ethical religion and teaches that mortals can achieve spiritual completeness by fighting evil with Humata, Hukhta and Havarashtra (good thoughts, good words and good deeds).

According to Zarathushtra the universe is regulated through Asha or Arta, the old Indo-Iranian law of "truth and precision". At the physical level Asha represents the laws in the universe and scientists try to understand these laws of physics, chemistry and biology. On the psychological level Asha is the powerful force of truth while at the spiritual level Asha is the fusion of order and truth leading us to the path of righteousness. Goodness, benevolence and knowledge are an integral part of what is right, and Asha represents not only law and social order but also scientific, philosophical and spiritual truth. Asha is doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place with the right means to achieve the right purpose [Dhalla]. The Ashem Vohu prayer declares that happiness comes to the one who is virtuous and performs good deeds for the sake of virtue:

ashem vohű; vahishtem astî;
ushtâ astî;
ushtâ ahmâi hyat ashâi vahishtâi ashem

Virtue is good; it is the best
it is everlasting happiness;
everlasting happiness comes to him who is virtuous for the sake of virtue, which is the best.

[English translation by Rustomjee].

Ahura Mazda is in accord with Asha and he wants us to promote this path of righteousness, which stands for order, evolution and progress. According to this law good deeds produce good rewards and evil deeds have bad consequences. Zarathushtra emphasized respect for the elements of nature, such as, fire, sun, moon, earth, water, and the seasons. If we do not live in harmony with nature it would lead to catastrophic consequences. By following the path of Asha we can make this world a better place, not only for this generation but also for the generations to come.

The death and destruction caused by the Tsunami in December 2004 made many people question as to why God would create such havoc. However, we must realize that natural disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves and tsunamis have been occurring since the earth was born and we humans have not yet learned to stay out of harm’s way. These are not God’s wrath to test or punish us or make us submissive to him. As science and technology progress and we acquire more knowledge, we will be able to predict such natural occurrences with precision and that would help us take precautions, avoid the havoc and prevent misery. 

Zoroastrians do not believe that good things in life are detrimental to the spiritual life or that we should denigrate the material world. For a Zoroastrian life has to be lived to it’s fullest by making the right choices in order to bring about Frashokeriti, the final renovation of the world. Zarathushtra did not promote the ideas of repudiation, celibacy and withdrawal of any form, because life is a true celebration to be lived with honesty in order to bring happiness and fulfillment both within oneself and to others. Humans are ultimately responsible for their choices and reap the consequences of their actions. The law of consequences is fashioned and delivered with wisdom and benevolence, and is not intended to punish but to deliver enlightenment and understanding for what is true and right. Evil can be eliminated by making the wrongful become righteous, and by changing their minds through knowledge and understanding.

Zarathustra described Ahura Mazda’s attribute, Khshatra Vairya, as the rule of goodness, the divine power that guides all creations towards Asha. People who are wise and sincere can establish an ideal state that promotes physical, material and spiritual progress of human beings and the world towards Frashokeriti. Âramaiti is Ahura Mazda’s devotion to all his creations. It also represents harmony that exists in nature. Each person can strive to bring serenity to this world to promote happiness. If we live our lives with goodness towards all creations, then it can also influence others to goodness, and this in turn would set in motion a cycle of good deeds that goes on forever. Haurvatât, perfection, and Ameretât, immortality, are the rewards of a righteous life. Khshatra and Âramaiti can lead human beings to live in eternal bliss, the ultimate goal of the Zoroastrian doctrine.

Zoroastrian religion is simple because it is positive and life affirming, and the Zoroastrian way of life can be lead by moral perception and decision. The religion does not demand blind belief but reason and action on the part of every individual. It is not a prescriptive ethic, based on obedience and fear, but rather an ethic of personal responsibility. The Gathas provide guidance for human beings to reflect upon and act using their own good mind and clear conscience. Each person has an inherent right as well as responsibility to choose the path of Asha, for Zoroastrians do not believe in predestination that God has decreed everything that will happen. The freedom to act goes hand in hand with responsibility for the consequences of such actions. The mind of human beings can accept to follow Asha, and through good thoughts, good words and good deeds, create bliss or deviate from it and create havoc. Those who follow the path of Asha walk on the path of righteousness and goodness, out of which comes happiness.

Each and every one of us can resist evil, follow the path of righteousness and enlightenment and help to lead this world to Frashokereti. Zarathustra says in Yasna 30.9 of the Gathas: “atcâ tôi vaęm h'yâmâ ýôi îm ferashęm kerenâun ahűm”; which means, may we be like those who make this world advance.

Bettany, G.T., Encyclopedia of World Religions, Dorset Press, NY, 1988.

Chatterji, J.M., “The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathushtra”, 1967.
Dhalla, M.K.,
"History of Zoroastrianism", published by K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai, India, 1963.
Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005, “http://encarta.msn.com
F., "Daily Prayers of the Zoroastrians", publisher: S.H. Kotwal, Mumbai, India, 3rd edition, 1976.

[i] This article was posted on vohuman.org on April 1, 2005.