Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion similar to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He holds similar principles, including belief in one god and the struggle between good and evil. In fact, it is argued that Zoroastrianism may have influenced these three religions. Zoroastrianism owes its name to its founder, Zoroaster, who has the status of prophet in the Zoroastrian religion. Over time, Zoroastrianism dominated successive Persian dynasties which built vast empires. The Islamic conquest of the 7the century, however, ended the dominance of Zoroastrianism in the Persian world, although the religion is still alive to this day.
The Prophet Zoroaster
There is no universal consensus on the date of birth of Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra. According to Zoroastrian tradition, Zoroaster lived 258 years before Alexander the Great conquered Persepolis, which was the capital of Persia during the reign of the Achaemenian dynasty, in 330 BCE. But Zoroastrian tradition also says that Zoroaster was 40 when he converted Vishtaspa, possibly a Central Asian king, in 588 BCE, which would drop Zoroaster’s date of birth to 628 BCE. Some scholars, however, suggest that Zoroaster may have lived around 1200 BCE, while others argue that the founder of Zoroastrianism was alive a millennium before traditional dates.
Either way, Zoroaster was born somewhere in what is now northeastern Iran or southwestern Afghanistan. The society he was born into was largely polytheistic, meaning that people worshiped many gods. Zoroaster, however, rejected polytheism. He also rejected the class structure, which he found oppressive, as well as the power that princes and priests had over ordinary people at the time. According to Zoroastrian tradition, at the age of 30, Zoroaster had a divine vision while bathing in a river during a pagan purification ritual. He saw a “Shining Being” who revealed himself as Vohu Manah (“Good spirit”). Vohu Manah led Zoroaster to Ahura Mazda, which is the Zoroastrian name for God. Mazda Mazda was accompanied by Amesha Spentas (Holy Immortals). It was the first of several visions that Zoroaster had. During each vision he asked Mazda Mazda and the Amesha Spentas questions. The responses he received are considered by Zoroastrians to be the teachings of Zoroastrianism.
Initially, Zoroaster’s teachings were not well received, neither by the religious leaders of the time nor by ordinary people. So, after 12 years, Zoroaster decided to leave his native land in search of people who would listen to him. His journey took him to Bactria, a kingdom that included parts of present-day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The king and queen of Bactria were the first rulers persuaded by Zoroaster to convert to his new religion. These monarchs then made Zoroastrianism the official religion of their kingdom.
Principles of Zoroastrianism
At the heart of Zoroaster’s new religion is the belief in one god, the Mazda Mazda, who is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He is considered by Zoroastrians to be supreme above all else. In addition, it is Mazda Mazda who created all life. Everything he created is considered by Zoroastrians to be pure. Therefore, Zoroastrians strive not to harm the environment on Earth which Mazda Mazda created, which is why some have called Zoroastrianism the “first ecological religion”.
Another central tenet of Zoroastrianism is the belief that Zoroaster is the prophet of Mazda Mazda. Zoroaster himself is not revered, but Zoroastrians believe his visions were divine, including the previously mentioned immortal saints whom he encountered at the same time as he met God. There are six of these Holy Immortals, each representing different virtues. Vohu Mana represents a good spirit and a good goal; Asha Vahishta represents truth and justice; Spenta Ameraiti represents holy devotion, serenity and loving kindness; Khashatra Vairya represents power and the just rule; Hauravavat represents wholeness and health; and American state represents long life and immortality.
The dichotomy of good and evil is also important for Zoroastrianism. According to Zoroastrian teachings, God has an adversary called Agra Mainyu, which translates to “destructive spirit”. It is he who created death and all that is evil in the world. While Mazda Mazda reside in paradise, Agra Mainyu resides in hell. It is the acts that a person performs in their lifetime that determine which of these realms they will enter after death.
The expansion and decline of Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism spread across Asia via the historic Silk Road, a network of trade routes that stretched from China, across Asia, and into Europe. It eventually became the official religion of the powerful Achaemenid Persian Empire, an empire that stretched from Anatolia and Egypt to northern India and central Asia. Cyrus the Great, who founded the empire, was himself a devout Zoroastrian. He did not, however, attempt to impose Zoroastrianism on the peoples he conquered. In fact, his was a tolerant ruler by the standards of the time, allowing the people he conquered to continue to practice their religions. According to Jewish tradition, for example, it was Cyrus the Great who freed the Jewish people held captive in Babylon and allowed them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild Solomon’s Temple.
Zoroastrianism would continue to thrive for the next thousand years. It was the official religion of the Persian dynasties that followed the Achaemenid Empire, including the Parthian and Sassanid empires. The dominance of religion over the Persian world, however, would come to an abrupt end at the 7e century of our era. Between 633 and 651 CE, Arab Muslims invaded Persia, ultimately ending the Sassanid Empire. During the conquest of Persia, they imposed additional taxes on Zoroastrians in exchange for allowing them to continue to practice their religion, among other measures that made life difficult for practitioners of Zoroastrianism. Eventually, most Iranian Zoroastrians converted to Islam.
Today, Zoroastrianism has between 100,000 and 200,000 followers. The largest communities of Zoroastrians are found in India and Iran. In the first, there are around 60,000 Parsi, which is the name given to the followers of Zoroastrianism in India. Iran has around 25,000 Zoroastrians, but they are heavily persecuted by the country’s Shia Islamic fundamentalist regime. Other large Zoroastrian communities are found in Iraqi Kurdistan, United States, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Azerbaijan, Arab States of the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and New Zealand.