- 1 Beliefs and Practices
- 2 History
- 3 Religious Texts
- 4 Angelology and Demonology
- 5 Worship & Rituals
- 6 Funeral ceremonies
- 7 Similarities to other faiths & influence on others
- 8 Festivals
- 9 Zurvanism
- 10 Famous Zoroastrians
- 11 Further reading
- 12 Notes
Zoroastrianism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings ascribed to the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra, Zartosht). Mazdaism is the religion which recognises Ahura Mazda's supreme authority as the one God. The Zoroastrian name of the religion is Mazdayasna.
According to the teachings of Zoroaster, the universe is in a struggle between good and evil. The forces of good are led by Ahura Mazda, the wise Lord, and the forces of evil are led by Angra Mainyu, the destructive principle.
Beliefs and Practices
- Ahura Mazda is the one universal and transcendental God, the uncreated creator, to whom all worship is directed.
- Ahura Mazda's creation — evident as asha (truth and order) is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj (falsehood and disorder). The whole universe is involved in the resulting conflict. Humanity plays an important role in the conflict.
- Ahura Mazda will prevail. All souls, including those initially banished, will be reunited with Ahura Mazda.
- The malevolent are represented by Angra Mainyu, the "destructive principle".
- The benevolent are represented by Ahura Mazda's Spenta Mainyu, the "bounteous principle".
- Ahura Mazda emanated six divine "sparks", the Amesha Spentas ("Bounteous Immortals"), as expressions and aspects of creation, that are each representative of one aspect of that creation. A league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each "Worthy of Worship" and each again a representative of a moral or physical aspect of creation, in turn assist the Amesha Spentas.
- Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds result in happiness and prevent chaos. Free will to choose between good and evil is an important aspect.
- Fire represents Ahura Mazda's purity. All prayer is directed to a source of fire.
- Monasticism in all forms is rejected.
- Zoroastrians do not proselytize.
- The traditional wing of Zoroastrianism discourages and does not recognize inter-faith marriages. A child must have two Zoroastrian parents for the initiation ceremony to take place.
- The majority of Zoroastrians, particularly the Parsis of India, do not accept converts. However, the council of Mobeds in Tehran, Iran, allows conversion.
Founding & life of Zoroaster
The religion was founded by Zarathushtra (Zoroaster in Greek; Zarthosht in India and Persia). Conservative Zoroastrians assign a date of 6000 BCE to the founding of the religion; other followers estimate 600 BCE. Historians and religious scholars generally date his life sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE on the basis of his style of writing. The date of birth of Zoroaster is very controversial. It is known that after Alexander's conquest of the Achaemenid Empire, the Greeks imposed an "age of Alexander" calendar, which Zoroastrian priests replaced with an "age of Zoroaster" calendar. It was estimated that he was born 258 years before Alexander, hence the date of 600 BCE was accepted.
Yasna 9 & 17 state that Zoroaster's home was near the river Ditya in Airyanəm Vaējah, speculated to be in Central Asia, which was at that time dominated by Iranian tribes. He was born into a Bronze Age culture with a polytheistic religion, which included animal sacrifice and the ritual use of intoxicants. This religion was quite similar to the early forms of Hinduism of the Indus Valley. Zoroaster's birth and early life are little documented. What is known is recorded in the Gathas - the core of the Avesta, which contains hymns thought to be composed by Zoroaster himself. Born into the Spitama clan, he worked as a priest. He was a family man, with a wife, three sons and three daughters. Zoroaster rejected the religion of the Bronze Age Iranians with their many gods and oppressive class structure, in which the Karvis and Karapans (princes and priests) controlled the ordinary people. According to western scholars until recently, he also opposed animal sacrifices and the use of the hallucinogenic Haoma plant (possibly a species of ephedra) in rituals. However, as the drink is a central part of the faith, this opinion has been thoroughly revised.
Zoroaster was initially unsuccessful in gaining converts apart from his cousin, but later he successfully converted the King, who made it the official religion. His death is not mentioned in the Avesta. In Ferdowsi's Shahnameh he is said to have been murdered at the altar by the Turanians in the storming of Balkh. Some Zoroastrians believe that Balkh is his final resting place, based on Ferdowsi's epic.
Although Zoroastrianism is much older, there are no significant sources mentioning the faith prior to the fifth century BCE. Herodotus was the first to write about Persian society, in his account of researches Histories. He mentions similarities to the Zoroastrian faith, including exposure of the dead.
Herodotus names the tribes of Media - Busae, Parataceni, Struchates, Arizanti, Budii, Magi, and the tribes of Persia - Pasargadae, Maraphii, and Maspii, upon who'm all tribes are dependant upon. The most important tribe was the Pasargadae, of which the Achaemenid clan ruled over Persia. The Magi of Media, a priestly class, used to have considerable power over the courts of the Median Kings.
Cyrus the Great and his son Cambyses II, after the unification of Persia and Media, were responsible for reducing the power of the Magi class. In revolt, the Magi placed an usurper, pretending to be Cyrus's son Smerdis. The usurper was accepted by most people, as he had waived taxes for three years. According to the Behistun inscription, pseudo-Smerdis ruled for seven months, before being overthrown by Darius I. The Magi were persecuted, but continued to exist.
It is unknown if Cyrus II was Zoroastrian, however, it was the non-imposing religion of the Empire. It influenced him to the extent that he freed the Jews, who were exiled. Darius I and later Emperors were Zoroastrians.
Darius I and later Achaemenid Emperors permitted other religions to coexist, and exercised perfect religious tolerance. It was in the later Achaemenid era that proto-indo-Iranian religious elements were incorporated into the faith. The days of the months of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated to them.
Many books on the Zoroastrian faith were destroyed by Alexander the Great's army after the siege of Persepolis. After that, there are no sources about Zoroastrianism during the rule of the Seleucid Empire and the Parthian Empire. After Alexander's conquest, he imposed many restrictions on the Zoroastrians, particularly by closing the Towers of silence, as the Greeks considered the act of leaving the dead to be devoured by vultures to be appalling.
The Sassanid Empire came into power in 228 CE. They aggressively promoted the Zurivanite sect of Zoroastrianism, and were well known for building Fire Temples in every area they conquered. Other religions, particularly Manichaenism and Christianity, were persecuted, apart from those loyal to the Patriarchate of Babylon.
Zoroastrianism spread throughout this period in different forms from the Caucasus to China. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, Zoroastrianism founded its roots in the city states of the Silkroad. The spread of Zoroastrianism by missionaries was prohibited, and in the years following 841 A.D all foreign religions were prohibited although some parishes could survive until the Song period. Zoroastrianism soon lost its ground and vanished in this region.
Islamic Invasion and decline
With the Rashidun Caliphate invasion of the Sassanid Empire in 650 CE, the religion started to decline, with the nobility and rich converting to Islam. Later on, the rural peasants converted to Islam. Although as per Sharia forced conversion was not imposed, there was a heavy pressure to convert. Once the dominant religion in Central Asia, there are now less than 200,000 Zoroastrians left.
Many centuries later, a small number of Zoroastrians known as the Parsis fled to Gujarat, India where most are concentrated today. According to the census of India, 2001, they number 69,601, making up 0.006% of the total population. There's a heavy concentration of Parsis in and around the city of Mumbai. Due a low birth rate and high rate of emigration, it is speculated that by 2020, they will number approximately 23,000, cease to be labeled as a community, and will be called a tribe.
The Zoroastrians in Iran, known as Iranis have survived centuries of persecution and heavy taxes. They reside chiefly in Yazd, Kerman and Tehran in what is now Iran, numbering 19,800 - 25,500, speaking a dialect of Persian very different from modern Persian called Dari. Many have migrated to India & Pakistan, preserving their language, heritage, and culture. They are easily distinguishable from the Parsi community.
There are 3,190 Zoroastrians in Canada, however, the actual number is believed to be much higher. There are about 11,000 Zoroastrians in the United States, 6,000 in Canada, 5,000 in England, 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations. There are also thousands more spread all around the world.
The Gathas are the most sacred texts of the Zoroastrian faith, consisting of 17 hymns composed by Zoroaster himself. They were later incorporated into the Yasna, and are identifiable by their chapter names.
|Chapter numbers||Name of Gatha||Number of stanzas||Number of verses & syllable metres|
|28-34||Ahunavaiti Gatha (cf Ahuna Vairya)||100||3 verses, 7+9 syllable metre|
|43-45||Ushtavaiti Gatha 'Having Happiness'||66||5 verses, 4+7 syllable metre|
|47-50||Spenta Mainyu Gatha 'Bounteous Spirit'||41||4 verses, 4+7 syllable metre|
|51||Vohu Khshathra Gatha 'Good Dominion'||22||3 verses, 7+7 syllable metre|
|53||Vahisto Ishti Gatha 'Best Beloved'||9||4 verses, two of 7+5 and two of 7+5+5 syllables|
The Zend-Avesta, called Avesta in short, is the prayer-book of Zoroastrians. It is divided into five parts, the Yasna, the Vispered, Vendidad, Yashts, and Khordah Avesta. The prose suggests that it was written after Zoroaster's death.
The Yasna, the principal liturgical book of the Parsees, in 72 chapters (hait-i, ha), contains the texts that are read by the priests at the solemn yasna (Izeshne) ceremony, or the general sacrifice. The Vispered, a minor liturgical work in 24 chapters (karde), is alike in form and substance completely dependent on the Yasna, to which it is a liturgical appendix. Its separate chapters are interpolated in the Yasna in order to produce a modified - or expanded - Yasna ceremony. The Vendidad, the priestly code of the Parsees, contains in 22 chapters (fargard) a kind of dualistic account of the creation, the legend of Yima and the golden age , and in the bulk of the remaining chapters the precepts of religion with regard to the cultivation of the earth, the care of useful animals, the protection of the sacred elements, such as earth, fire and water, the keeping of a man's body from defilement, together with the requisite measures of precaution, elaborate ceremonies of purification, atonements, ecclesiastical expiations ,and so forth. The Yashts, i.e. " songs of praise," in so far as they have not been received already into the Yasna, form a collection by themselves. They contain invocations of separate Izads, or angels, number 21 in all, and are of widely divergent extent and antiquity. The Khordah Avesta, i.e. the Little Avesta, comprises a collection of shorter prayers designed for all believers - the laity included - and adapted for the various occurrences of ordinary life.
There are other texts which are of religious or semi-religious nature. They were all compiled many centuries later, after the 9th century, with the youngest created in the 17th century. Some claim to contain lost chapters of the Avesta.
The texts in Middle Persian are:
- The Dēnkard ("Acts of Religion")
- The Bundahishn ("Primordial Creation")
- The Mēnog-ī Khirad ("Spirit of Wisdom")
- The Arda Viraf Nāmag ("Book of Arda Viraf")
The Sad Dar ("Hundred Doors or Chapters") is in Mordern Persian and The Rivayats (Traditional Treatises) are in Middle as well as Mordern Persian.
Angelology and Demonology
There are certain types of Angels, Demons, and other supernatural entities in the faith. Daevas, Yazatas, Amensha Spentas, and Ahuras are these types of entities.
Spenta Mainyu is the spirit who's in direct antagonism with Angra Mainyu. Considered an Amesha Spenta, the relation between Ahura Mazda and Spenta Mainyu remains subtle and elusive, in the Avesta as well as the Gathas. Ahura Mazda is replaced with Spenta Mainyu in the Gathas, which regard him as Angra Mainyu's twin, both representing the good and evil aspects of nature respectively. An analysis of the Gathas and the Avesta conclude that Spenta Mainyu is not to be considered as a separate being, but as a divine attribute of Ahura Mazda. Therefore, Spenta Mainyu is either used along with Ahura Mazda as his epithet, or presented alone to represent him, such as his majesty is used to represent a King.
Sevaral passages in the Avesta speak of good creations belonging to Spenta Mainyu, such as the stars. Unlike Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spentas, Spenta Mainyu does not receive homage or invocation.
For more information, see the catalogs subpage
Amesha Spentas are a particular type of divine class known as "Bounteous Immortals". They're the divine "sparks" created by Ahura Mazda, as expressions and aspects of creation, that are each representative of one aspect of that creation. The Yazatas, who are lesser in league, in turn, assist the Amesha Spentas. The Amesha Spentas are each responsible for a special domain. They're often compared to Christian archangels, and fight for truth and justice. Each Amesha Spenta has an archenemy, one of the Daevas.
The Amesha Spentas are -
- Asha vahishta
- Khshathra vairya
- Vohu Manah
For more information, see the catalogs subpage
Yazata is the Avestan term for an entity that is worthy of worship. The Yazatas are collectively represent the good powers of Ahura Mazda, who is the greatest of the Yazatas.
The Yazatas have different powers and characteristics. For instance, Aredvi Sura Anahita is a divinity of waters. Sarosh, Mithra, and Rashnu are the guardians of the Chivnat bridge, through which all souls must pass.
The Yazatas are often compared to Christian angels.
Ahuras are a class of divinities, similar to the Vedic concept of Asura. Of these, three divinities are repeatedly identified as Ahuric. These three are Ahura Mazda, Mithra and Apam Napat, and hence known as the "Ahuric triad", of which Ahura Mazda is the mightiest of all (Yasna 33.11).
Daeva is the Avestan term for supernatural entities with disagreeable characteristics. Daevas used to be the Gods worshiped by the pre-Zoroastrian Persians, in their polytheistic faith. After Zoroaster preached his revelations, their status was diminished to that of evil entities, possibly during the Achaemenid era. In the Gathas, they're termed as false Gods. In the Avesta, Deavas are noxious characters that promote chaos. Each Daeva fights a particular Amesha Spenta.
The Daevas are -
- Aesma Daeva
- Aka Manah
- Indra (not to be confused with the Vedic Indra)
Worship & Rituals
The Zoroastrians have often been described as 'fire worshipers'. However, this is quite false, as Zoroastrians use fire as a purifying agent, which signifies Ahura Mazda's purity. Use of fire as a purifying agent is central to Zoroastrianism. Worship usually takes place inside a Fire Temple, five times a day. Mordern Zoroastrians continue to maintain the fire ritually, and the fire is centrally placed in the temple. Priests cover their mouths with cloth in order to avoid contaminating the fire. Worshipers wash themselves before entering the temple, bringing offerings of sandalwood and money, in turn, they receive ashes which they rub on their faces.
The inner ceremonies
The most important inner ceremony is the Yasna. The Yasna can only be performed by ritually purified priests in Iran and India. It contains 72 chapters of text and can only be performed in the morning when the sun is rising. The ceremony takes place in the inner sanctuary, the pawi, and only ritually purified priests may enter the pawi. The whole ceremony takes two hours to celebrate. The Zoroastrian priesthood is adamant that without the Yasna, the whole world would collapse, and Angra Mainyu's forces would be victorious.
The other two important Zoroastrian ceremonies are the Vendidad and Visperad. The Vendidad is a nocturnal version of the Yasna with additional material added from the Zend-Avesta book of the same name. The Visperad is a combination of the Yasna and Vendidad.
Afrinagan - The outer ceremony
The Afrinagan is open to all audiences. It is suitably performed in a clean area (such as a house). In the Afrinagan, Ahura Mazda is praised for his blessings upon the world. Fruit, wine, milk, eggs, flowers, and water form part of the ritual, as well as the ever-present fire. The Afrinagan is generally performed by two priests, zot and raspi, but other qualified priests may also perform. It is appropriate to wash and dress before reciting the prayers. The Afrinagan is not restricted to Fire Temples in Iran and India.
There funeral ceremonies are divided into two types: Those that relate to disposal of the body, and those that relate to the good of the soul. For a proper appreciation of the ceremonies of the first kind, one has to look to the Zoroastrian ideas of sanitation, segregation, purification, and cleanliness, as expressed in the Vendidad.
When a person appears to be close to death, the family members call for two or more priests, who make the dying person recite the Patete, which is for repentance of all sins. If the dying person is unable to do so, the priests may recite it, although it is preferable for the dying person to recite it without the help of priests. A short while before death, the dying person is sometimes administered a few drops of Haoma. The clothes are washed and destroyed by the family members, after the death. The corpse then enters the stage of Druj-i Nasu, when it is forbidden to touch the corpse. Two purified members of the family then cover the corpse with sheets (except the face). A dog (preferably with a spot on top of each eye) is made to see the corpse. A priest then recites the Avesta, as the family members proceed to take the corpse to the Towers of Silence, where vultures proceed to devour the corpse. It is essential that the corpse be exposed to the sun, and it is forbidden to carry it to the Towers of silence during the night.
It is believed that the soul remains in the world for around three days. In this state it sees before itself a picture of its past deeds. If it is the soul of a pious person, it sees a beautiful picture of its deeds in the past life and feels happy and joyful. If it is the soul of a wicked person, it sees a horrible picture of its past deeds and shudders and feels unhappy at the sight and feels at a loss where to go. Hence, ceremonies for the good of the soul are performed. Srosh is the angel who guides a soul to the afterlife. The Srosh Baj is recited, to guide the soul. An Afrinagan ceremony is performed by two priests in honour of Srosh. The Yasna and Vendidad are recited in nearby fire temples. These ceremonies, and more, continue for three days, until the soul has departed from the world.
Similarities to other faiths & influence on others
Zoroastrianism has many striking similarities to faiths around it. It incorporates many features of both Abrahamic as well as Dharmaic faiths. It incorporates a high degree of syncretism. For instance, it's been speculated that Zoroastrian concepts of eschatology and demonology had influence on Abrahamic religions. Zoroastrianism has many concepts similar to the ancient Vedic religion, such as the veneration of fire. The similarities between the yasna and the Hindu yajna are striking, as both rituals are performed during sunrise, and both have similar names.
A mystery religion developed in the Roman Empire, influenced heavily by Zoroastrianism. Roman soldiers syncretised worship of Mithra with their rituals, and this developed into the Mithraic mysteries. The worship of Mithras became popular all over the Roman Empire, and temples dedicated to Mithras have been discovered across the European continent, including England. Mithraism was so popular that Mithra was eventually declared as Sol Invictus - The Unconquered Sun God. After the edicts of Theodosius I banning paganism, the religion slowly declined and eventually vanished.
Some scholars maintain that the Zoroastrian ritual of praying five times daily influenced Islam, while Muslims state that all existing and extinct religions were similar to Islam initially, created by prophets similar to Zoroaster and Muhammad.
The most important Zoroastrian festivals celebrated are - Nouruz and Khodad Sal.
The New Year - Nouruz is celebrated on the day of the Spring equinox around March 20/21. Nouruz is still celebrated in Iran, by the Shi'a Muslim Persians. Traditionally in Iran a table is set up with a display of the seven creations.
Khodad Sal is the celebration of the birthday of the prophet Zoroaster.
Other important days of devotion and festivity are:
- Parab of Aban (to venerate water)
- Adur (to venerate fire)
- Other prominent festivals and celebrations are Yalda (commemorating of the longest night) and death anniversary (Zarathust no diso) of Zarathushtra.
- Gahambars - 6 seasonal festivals
Zurvanism is considered to be the biggest heresy within Zoroastrianism. Zurvanism was a sect of Zoroastrianism which acknowledged a superior deity to Ahura Mazda, Zurvan. According to the belief, Zurvan was the first being in the universe, who gave birth to two sons, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. Zurvan promised to give his firstborn, Ahura Mazda, sovereignty over the world for 9,000 years, and Angra Mainyu sovereignty for the next 9,000 years. Ahura Mazda stood in the light, while Angra Mainyu reeked of darkness. From there onwards, the normal history of Zoroastrianism takes place.
Zurvanism was the sect promoted by the Sassanid Empire of Persia, and it's believed that Zurvan was the chief polytheistic deity of the Royal family of the Empire, prior to their conversion to Zoroastrianism. Evidence suggests that Zurvanism was very popular in the western half of Iran during the height of the Sassanid Empire. Most references on Zurvanism have been purged, and Zurvan followers were the first to convert to Islam after the conquest of Persia.
- For more information, see the catalogs subpage.
- Farhang Mehr - Former Deputy Prime Minister of Iran
- Jamshid Bahman Jamshidian - Pioneer of modern banking in Iran
- Keikhosrow Shahrokh - Proponent of the Iranian civil calendar and designer of the Ferdowsi mausoleum.
Parsis in and from the Indian subcontinent
- Bhikaiji Cama - Political activist
- Dadabhai Naoroji - Political activist
- Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara) - Rock star
- Jamshedji Tata - Industrialist & philanthropist
- J.R.D. Tata - Industrialist & founder of Indian Civil Aviation
- Perizaad Zorabian - Actress
- Pherozeshah Mehta - Political activist
See the longer guide at the Bibliography subpage
- Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. (1985). 252 pp. excerpt and text search
- Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith, (1998) ISBN 1898723788
- Hartman, Sven S. Parsism: The Religion of Zoroaster, (1980) ISBN 9004062084
- The term Zoroastrianism was first attested by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1874 in Archibald Sayce's Principles of Comparative Philology
- Mazdaism is a 19th century construct, taking Mazda- from the name Ahura Mazda and adding the suffix -ism
- The term Mazdayasna is a combination of Mazda with the Avestan language word Yasna, meaning worship or devotion
- The term Parsi was universally applied for all Iranians, regardless of faith, by all Indians. Similarly, Iranians applied the universal term Hindu for everyone from the subcontinent.
- Shahbazi, A. Shapur (1977), "The 'Traditional Date of Zoroaster' Explained", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40 (1): 25-35
- Boyce, Mary & Grenet, Frantz - A History of Zoroastrianism, ISBN 9004104747
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition - Zoroaster
- Herodotus - Histories
- Denkard - Book of Arda Viraf
- Rawlinson, H.G. - Bactria, The History Of A Forgotten Empire, ISBN 8120616154
- Hartman, Sven S. - Parsism: The Religion of Zoroaster, page 7, ISBN 9004062084
- ChinaKnowledge.de - Religions in China - Zoroastrianism
- Census of India, 2001
- Census of Iran, 2006
- Iran Statistical Centre, 2007
- Census of Canada, 1991
- Fezana Journal survey
- Humbach, Helmut (2001). Gathas: The texts. Encyclopedia Iranica 10.
- Malandra, William (2001). Gathas: Translations. Encyclopedia Iranica 10.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition - Zend-Avesta
- Boyce, Mary, "Aməša Spənta", Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 1, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Boyce, Mary (1969), "On Mithra's Part in Zoroastrianism", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 32 (1): 10-34.
- * Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. (1985). 252 pp. ISBN 0415239028
- Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji - Zoroastrian Civilization: From the Earliest Times to the Downfall of the Last Zoroastrian Empire 651 A.D., ISBN 1430493119
- Brodd, Jefferey - World Religions: A Voyage of Discovery, ISBN 0884897257
- Clark, Peter - Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith, ISBN 1898723788
- Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji, The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees - Their origin and explanation (fourth edition)
- Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques (1988), "Zoroastrianism", Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 29, Danbury: Grolier pages 813–815
- Beck, Roger, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire, London: Oxford University Press
- Jong, Albert de - Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature, page 330, ISBN 9004108440