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Zoroastrianism -- A vanishing Faith?

Gathic Illustration



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In South Central Asia around the 7th / 6th century BCE lived and taught the Iranian-speaking prophet Zarathushtra of the Spitama clan. He was later to be known to the Greeks and the Latins as Zoroaster. The settled society of his time was composed of priests, warrior-nobles and pastoralists; its wealth was based on cattle and, secondarily, on agriculture. That society, in common with others of that vast region, was in turmoil. Inequality and injustice were rife, and the precarious existence of the pastoralists was constantly threatened by the inroads of nomads and warring tribes in search of grazing land for their wandering herds and indeed of more animal wealth. Their acquisition of others' domesticated cattle was through stealth and theft, and cattle-rustling was then considered not as a felony but a special kind of profession.

For Zarathushtra, himself a priest by vocation of the old religion, this turbulent state of affairs was unsustainable. It was self-destructive, therefore non-progressive. The gods and goddesses of the ancient pantheon were representative of cosmic and nature forces, broadly divided into the class of creator-gods or asuras and, in keeping with their war-like requirements, of warrior deities or devas. Whereas in India the former were deemed to have become aloof and had been demonized, in the Iranian world it was to be the latter class of the devas who were to suffer that fate. It was Zarathushtra who brought about this major theological reversal.

The Iranian prophet selected one, and one alone, from among the Indo-Aryan asura divinities to dignify the sole deity Mazda. Mazda means wisdom, and it was this abstract concept, compounded of Knowledge, Experience, Understanding, Common Sense and Insight, which had declared itself to Zarathushtra' s inner vision. He was to exalt this sole deity with the title of Ahura, Lord or Master. This new concept of the divine was henceforth to be Mazda the Ahura or Ahura Mazda: Lord Wisdom. Nowhere in his religious poetry ─ for Zarathushtra was a highly skilled composer of sacred verse ─ do we find the common word for god, baga, nor even yazata or worshipful being. For him Mazda would suffice, for the name meant also the Creator of Thought, and the Giver of Thought. Mazda had created through Thought his chief aspects of asha, Truth-Order-Justice, and vohu-mana, Good Mind. Other aspects were Right-mindedness, Supreme Power, and the integrating forces of Wholeness (of Mind and Body) and Un-dying-ness (of the union of Body and Spirit). All these aspects of divinity are as facets of a diamond, inseparable from the gem, and therefore integral parts of his being. Later Zoroastrianism counted seven such aspects, and the magical seven, it is recalled, has had a strangely powerful universal appeal throughout history.

The term prophet in connection with the person of Zarathushtra is best understood as forth-teller, not fore-teller. indeed he prophesied nothing, but through the intense and penetrating spiritual experience accorded him by his consistent religious vision taught that through Mazda, as Supreme Wisdom, mankind too could share in the divine and aspire to the godhead inherent in every being. It was nothing less than a program for man's perfection towards a perfected society and on to a perfected world - an ideal existence in this world when all manifestations of evil would cease, and where an eternity of goodness would prevail throughout. Here it must be emphasized that all references to man and mankind denote the human species and do not designate gender differences. Zarathushtra's message is to every man and woman and for all Human-kind, as even casual study of his sacred verse makes abundantly clear.

Also clear is man's duty towards the animal kingdom. Amongst his sacred chants we find a very striking set of verses dedicated to the Soul of the Kine, exemplifying the domesticated herds and flocks on which the economy of the ancient Aryan societies was based. The Kine-Soul questions Truth and Good Mind -Why its suffering? Why was it created -was it for wantonness or for well-being? Who has been appointed its protector? We have noted the depredations of wild nomadic raiders and cattle thieves. Such theft was accompanied by hostility, mindless violence, brute force and suffering: it occasioned Zarathushtra's vehement opposition to all forms of animal cruelty.  Through this metaphysical poem he powerfully formulated the first known Animal Rights Charter

The question of evil in Zoroastrianism has evoked some curious answers through ignorance of its precepts and ensuing misunderstanding. What the prophet actually taught is well worth repeating: there are two original Principles, one of which elected to ally itself to Goodness and Progress (Spenta mainyu); the other chose to do the worst things and fell into the ways of Deceit and Stagnation (Angra mainyu). As a concept Good Cannot exist, and is meaningless, without its necessary foil of Evil: indeed the two are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. The Good Principle attached itself to Mazda and became empowered to declare itself through Wisdom. Both Principles manifest themselves as mainyu,5 (modes of thought) in the mind of man, resulting in every individual's choice of good or evil in thought, speech, and activity. This in turn became the good Zoroastrian's motto: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Works. It is all-important to realize that Ahura Mazda stands above and beyond the two wholly opposed Principles. He is not directly opposed by the Evil Principle. The prophet was concerned less with explaining evil than with fighting it. Later Zoroastrianism, unable to sustain the prophet's high level of abstract thinking in theological and ethical matters, made Ahura Mazda the direct opponent of the Evil Principle, and is the work of priestly commentators who continued the difficult teaching through a necessary simplification, that of Ormazd (Ahura Mazda) versus Ahriman (Angra Mainyu). Mankind, we have seen it in our own times, has shown great capacity for good as also for the most unspeakable acts of evil. In Zoroastrianism there are several gradations between the two extremes of action, yet it teaches the optimistic truth that good will finally overcome evil only through awareness of Wisdom and the active participation of mankind. It happens to be the only religious system where Man is seen as a co-worker with the Supreme Deity, and Zarathushtra addressed Mazda ''as friend to Friend". Unfortunately its priesthood's wel1-intended simplification, meant for the grasp of the popular mind, soon gave rise to the charge of Dualism.

Closer inspection of this uninformed misrepresentation of Zoroastrianism reveals that its detractors from the Abrahamic systems failed to declare that they too harbored their respective devils, whether as has satan ("the Adversary"), diabololic ("enemy", "accuser", "slanderer"), or iblis (exactly derived from the Greek) and shaitan. It clearly behoves them not to impute their own obvious dualistic tendencies to supposed influences from

Zoroastrianism, and in the interest of Inter-faith Truth and Harmony, would urge them to rectify their own theological defects before needlessly adding confusion to the knowledge of the Faith of Ancient Iran whose teachings have been described as "a veritable emancipation for devil-ridden souls".

Yet another canard which needs dispelling is the mischievous imputation of Zoroastrianism simply being fire-worship and its followers accused of being fire-worshippers. To be sure there a1-e distinct references to Fire in Zarathushtra's sacred poetry. On examination, these too prove to be tendentious, for whilst it is quite true that some low forms of worship display a noticeable cultic zeal towards all forms of ritual fire, the prophet had intended reverence towards Fire as the visible symbol of Ahura Mazda's Truth. Truth, he sings, is the strengthener of this bright focus which unites the spiritual and the physical in man and dispels the darkness of elTor. It is this union of the immaterial and material spheres, a true integrity of spiritual and physical which singles out Zoroastrianism as a practical psychology expressed in the precisely worded inspired utterances or mathras of the complex philosophy that is inherent in his Gathas or sacred chants- These were never intended to be mere spells.

Originally Zoroastrianism had strictly confined its savior imagery to the spiritualization of man's religious quest- With its stress on salvation or damnation being the direct result of each individual's development through

activity, and full accountability and responsibility for one's deeds, it is obvious that each man and woman should be seen as savior. Great emphasis is laid on each one to ponder the truth, recognize its justice and act accordingly through careful choice of the right course. The aim was the perfection of this world, as noted above, and a pious prayer composed by the prophet himself entreats: "May we be those who shall bring about the regeneration of this world!" But because the result fell short of the design, and that it had not been achieved within the prophet's own lifetime, human good activity within Tune was of the essence. Such activity was based on reflective, not prescriptive teachings. Later Zoroastrianism, aware that this world's perfection was yet far from realization, brought in the concept of three millennial Saviors who would each accomplish a major share in the eradication of evil from this world. It is of interest to note that some half millennium before the advent of the Messiah of the Christians, Zoroastrianism had already taught that each Savior was to be born of a virgin mother impregnated with the miraculously preserved seed of Zarathushtra- 'The prophet would been bemused!

The notions of Heaven and Hell or Paradise and Purgatory in Zoroastrianism took their departure point from the prophet's very different teaching that these were earthly mental states that affected each person through his spiritual evolution and religious views. John Milton in l7th century England had acquired some grasp of this when he wrote, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven or Hell, a Hell of Heaven"

(Paradise Lost, 1.254/5). Later notions were to diminish this vital truth by suggesting that these were other-worldly locations, but which failed to live up-to the prophet's vivid earth-bound imagery by, in fact, visualizing the future existence not as reform of the Self in this world for one's foremost existence here, but as idealized replications in the Hereafter of the present physical life. These pointless copies were to penetrate the thinking of the future religions that took up this later Zoroastrian imagery for their particular needs for redemption and salvation.

The forces of History were to play their part in the changes, development and eventual diminution of Zoroastrianism- Today, it is thought, there are a mere 150,000 souls who profess this ancient faith which once served as the official religion of three successive Iranian empires from 550 BCE to 650 CE. For all its diminished numbers of followers, Zoroastrianism as a faith had never vanished. Its great ideas lived on with continued vigor in various Greek philosophical systems which ultimately came to fertilize the thinking of the Renaissance and well beyond, and to this day still challenge certain long-held but outworn theological concepts of some later religions.

May all its goodness continue to benefit this world and all Humankind!