The opening bars of Richard Strauss’ composition “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” became famous as the theme for Stanle Kubrick’s 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But apart from academics and some 300-thosuand believers, few people know much about ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra and his teaching.
“Yet only one thousand years ago, millions, millions espoused Zarathustra’s monotheistic percepts in nations which stretched from (the ancient Chinese city of) Sian (western China) to the Eastern China across central Asia, northern India, Iran, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia up Greece in the west and Arabia, north Africa and Ethiopia in the south,” says Adi Davar, a board member of the World Zoroastrian Organization. Mr. Davar spoke at a recent seminar on Zoroastrian religion at the Library of Congress in Washington.
Zoroastrianism is based on the revelations of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster in Greek. He taught that the world and everything in it was created by a Wise Lord, or Ahura Mazda. Before Zarathustra, Persians believed in multiple deities, as did most nomadic tribes at the time.
Stanley Isler, chairman of Iranian studies at Yale University, says Zarathustra was very impressed with nature and its ability for cyclical renewal. He believed repetition was the basis of knowledge, and people could learn everything from nature.
“Surely, only a being of great power and wisdom was capable of fashioning the element of the cosmos and equally capable of creating the principle of truth that maintain their eternal design and rhythms,” cites Professor Isler.
Creator Ahura Mazda is symbolized by light and fire, nature’s sources of life and energy. That is why Zoroastrians usually pray before a source of light, and an urn containing fire is a prominent feature of their place of worship. The good and wise lord Ahura Mazda is opposed by dark forces of evil. Zoroastrians believe truth is the source of all good and must be pursued in order to fight deceit, the source of evil. Since humans are created by a wise lord, they have an innate ability to discern good from evil. Zarathustra preaches three basic virtues: good thoughts, good words and good deeds. He says: "Happiness unto him who gives happiness unto others.” Thus Zoroastrians value education and philanthropy. Lying, or deceit, represents a violation of basic Zoroastrian beliefs.
Cleanliness of the body as well as of the spirit is also very important. Dead and decaying bodies are considered extremely impure and so they must not contaminate water, air or earth, which are sources of life. Traditionally, Zoroastrians do not bury or burn dead bodies or throw them into water, but expose them to vultures. However, there is less emphasis on religious rites than there is on lifestyle choices.
Marriage is a lifelong commitment, often postponed for the sake of education. Inter-faith marriages and conversions have long been avoided, contributing to the decline in population. The conquest of Persia and spread of Islam, which started in the 7th century, dealt the first serious blow to Zoroastrians.
No one knows exactly when Zarathustra lived, but his origins are traditionally placed in the 6th century B.C. in the area of what is today north-eastern Iran. This would make him a contemporary of the Persians kings Cyrus or Darius. Many scholars think he lived earlier than that. Jehan Bagli, president of the North American Zoroastrian Council, says Zarathustra’s teachings were already widespread by that time.
“Nowhere in these records do we find the mention of prophet Zarathustra,” says Mr. Bagli. “If the prophet was born 569 BCE and lived, as we know from the tradition, a little over 77 years, he would be contemporary with Darius the Great. It is inconceivable that the founder of the first monotheistic faith, who lived during the same time as these renowned monarchs, whose religion was spread across their vast empire and who was a mentor of the father of Darius, be so trivially overlooked.” Mr Bagli adds: “These circumstances certainly invalidate the traditional date.”
Scholars say historic records of Zarathustra’s life may have been destroyed during two major invasions of Persia: one by Alexander the Great in 4th century B.C. and the other by Islamic tribes in the 7th century A.D. On both occasions fire temples and religious texts were burnt and many priests killed.
But there is evidence that the Avesta, the Zoroastrian equivalent of the Bible, contains Zarathustra’s original thoughts. Stanley Isler says the prophet’s hymns to God, or “gathas,” reveal much about his life and time: “He tells us that he was a priest and a master of sacred words, a manthran – someone who has power over the mantras, a word that’s familiar to many. Yet, Zarathustra goes on to say he was rejected from his tribe and his community and driven from his land, forcing him to wander far and wide under great hardship and despair until finally he was accepted by a noble prince named Vishtaspa, who became his patron and ally.”
Professor Isler notes the hymns also explain why the prophet’s own tribe exiled him. It was not only because he preached monotheism: “He bitterly complains that evil rulers attacked just and innocent people, that the rich robbed the poor, that judges produced false decisions in order to aid their benefactors. And Zarathustra goes on to say that fury and violence terrorized the peoples on all fronts and that everywhere deceit and deception seemed to hold the upper hand.”
The holy book also contains Zoroastrian prayers, rules of law and rituals. Until the 9th century AD, the Avesta was probably transmitted orally and modified along the way. Professor Isler says this makes it hard to discern truth from myth about the prophet. The 10th century persecution of Zoroastrians in Persia forced many either to convert or seek another place to live. A significant group settled in north-western India where they became known as Parsis, meaning Persians.
For a while, Parsis were growing in number and power. The city of Bombay became the center of Zoroastrianism, somewhat like Rome in the Catholic Church. But in the second half of the 20th century, the population of the Parsi-Zoroastrians fell by one third, from a peak of 114,000 in 1941 to 76,000 in 1991. In recent decades, Zoroastrians worldwide began forming local and international organizations and events to help fight their extinction. Adi Davar helped form one of these in 1980.
“The World Zoroastrian Organization is an international organization of the global community of some 300-thousand Zoroastrians,” says Mr. Davar and adds: “Some 40-thousand of them live in North America and about a thousand in this metropolitan area.”
Zoroastrian organizations prevailed upon UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to proclaim the year 2003 as the 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrianism. More attention is paid to young people who may be able to pass on their religion and culture to following generations. The Third World Zoroastrian Youth Congress is to take place in Pune, India, from December 27 to December 31.
Conversion, once rejected by the Zoroastrian faith, is now believed to be legitimate and indeed necessary by some adherents, who also approve marriage with members of other faiths.
Scholars have acknowledged the contribution of this ancient Persian faith to the world’s religions. Zoroastrians say their prophet’s teachings are just as relevant today since deceit, violence and oppression are as prevalent as they were thousands of years ago.