Zoroastrianism, the oldest of the world’s revealed religions, is little known today. Once the State Religion of the mightiest empire of the ancient world, it now survives primarily through a group of refugees who found safety in tolerant and hospitable India. Yet its legacy is as relevant today as when it was preached in the Bronze Age in Iran, by Prophet Zarathushtra, around 1600 BC. He was the first prophet to proclaim that there is only one God, Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light and Wisdom, who made our bountiful universe. Zoroaster, as the Greeks called him, preached an eminently practicable religion, which, very simply, is a religion of good moral conduct.
The Zoroastrian scriptures collectively known as the Avesta include the Gathas or Hymns of Zarathushtra. Gathic Avestan is close to the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda. There is also a body of later Old Avestan Scriptures, Younger Avestan, Pahlavi and Pazand literature as well as Rivayats and literature in Old Gujarati. The Zand is the commentary alongside the texts and therefore Zoroastrian scriptures are sometimes called the Zand Avesta. The Gathas of Zarathushtra belong to the oral tradition and these five Gathas were put into writing many centuries after the Prophet’s death.
The Yasna is the main liturgical text of 72 chapters in which we find the Gathas embedded. The Yashts are hymns of praise and the Khordeh Avesta or little Avesta is the small compilation of prayers for daily use. It includes the daily kusti prayers and hymns to nature.
The texts teach men and women to use their Vohu Manah or good mind in this life so that all Spenta (good) Creation can move to vanquish evil. Zoroastrianism is a religion of freedom of choice and therefore gives great responsibility to man. Its maxims, ethical and moral, are summed up by three words: Humata, Hukata, Huvarashta, Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, the creed that is taught to every child.
Zoroastrianism is a religion of action, “Happiness unto him who gives happiness unto others”. The divinity Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light and Wisdom, created a perfect world of Asha in space and time but his bountiful spirit Spenta Mainyu was attacked by the opposite spirit of frustration and negativity, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the spirit of evil. Ahura Mazda is omniscient not omnipotent and needs the help of humanity, his Hamkars or fellow workers, to help defeat evil and bring about the ultimate renovation of goodness at the end of time i.e. the Frashokereti. Man’s mission is to establish righteousness and harmony on Earth. Evil is not to be avoided but actively opposed.
The world is then in moral conflict. To recreate cosmic harmony man must choose correctly between good and evil. Good thoughts and good words must be substantiated by good deeds. Each Zoroastrian should be a soldier on the path of truth. There is no concept of a redeemer bearing the sins of human kind, man’s salvation lies in his own actions. In the struggle that is life, an individual builds up positive traits of courage truthfulness and hard work. It is man’s duty to actively cultivate these virtues and share with all not just material goods but knowledge, art, wisdom and skill. Hence the Zoroastrian stress on an all-embracing Charity.
While great responsibility is thus placed on man the religion celebrates joy and the bounty of nature. There is no belief in asceticism, renunciation, celibacy or fasts. Life is to be enjoyed; marriage is a sacred duty and the family a very important social unit. Animals especially the dog are an integral part of the Zoroastrian family. Care for each aspect of creation is inculcated through the concept of the Amesha Spenta or Bountiful Immortals. To live by the law of Asha – Cosmic harmony – is a duty and this stress on protecting all good Creation has led to Zoroastrianism being called the world’s first ecological religion.
In a Zoroastrian temple is a sanctum sanctorum with fire enthroned in a silver censer. Zoroastrians do not worship fire but concentrate on its light and warmth as a path to the everlasting light of Ahura Mazda. There are three grades of fire – the Atash Behram, the Atash Adaran and the Atash Dadgah. These fires are kept burning as a symbol of enlightenment. These places of worship attract members to come together for prayer, festivals and celebrations as well as community bonding. The priests tend the fires. The Zoroastrian priesthood dates back even before the time of Zarathushtra and it is believed that Zarathushtra himself came from a priestly family. The Magi, a priestly tribe from Media, are believed to be Zoroastrian priests who came bearing gifts to welcome the Christ child. To this day, Frankincense and Myrrh, the gifts of the Magi, are offered at the altars of Zoroastrian temples.