On September 19, 2018, Global Ministries, through its Mission Theology Desk, invited one of the eminent Zoroastrian teachers in Atlanta to teach in a Mission Dialogue Forum. Mrs. Nairika Kotwal Cornett, the President of Atlanta Zarathushti Association (AZA), presented an introductory session for the staff of Global Ministries on Zoroastrianism as a living faith in the world and in the US. Mrs. Cornett made a very comprehensive and interactive presentation, and the following is a synopsis of the presentation from my notes and reflections.
Some may remember the historical documentary film “Iran: The Forgotten Glory,” directed by Makan Karandish, which was released in Los Angeles, California in October 2008 at the Bogota Film Festival. According to Karandish, “This film has been in production for more than five years and was shot in over 60 locations throughout the province of FARS. It is an attempt to re-capture the glory of the ancient Persian empires and their influence on world history, art, and culture”. Persian culture is essentially and symbiotically connected with Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism, sometimes referred to by its adherents as “the Good Religion,” is one of the world’s oldest living religious faiths, already well-established by the time of the Achaemenid dynasty of the Persian Empire. It is also one of the most innovative faiths in human history, pioneering concepts of monotheism and moral dualism that have influenced the development of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
According to the Parliament of World Religions, the number of Zoroastrians in the world today is about 200,000, with the highest concentrations in the 'homelands' of Iran (then Persia) (24,000 - 90,000) and India (70,000). In the past half century, Zarathushtis have emigrated around the world. They are currently in USA (11,000), Canada (6,000), Great Britain (5,000), Australia and New Zealand (3,500), the Persian Gulf (2,200), Pakistan (2,200), continental Europe (1,000), the Far East (400) and elsewhere.
Genesis and Diaspora
The very roots of the Zoroastrians go back to Central Asia in the 2nd millennium BCE. According to their own tradition, the ‘Mazda-worshipping religion’ was revealed to Prophet Zarathustra. Later, the Greeks turned his Persian/Iranian name into Zoroaster, from which the name Zoroastrian derives, denoting a follower of the religion of Zoroaster.
Zoroastrianism flourished for over a thousand years as the state religion of the three great Iranian Empires: the Achaemenids, the Parthians and the Sasanians. In its heyday, it was the dominant religion of imperial Persia and was practiced throughout central Asia and the Middle-east until it was supplanted by Islam during the Arab conquest of Iran in 651 CE. The Islamisation of Iran was a slow but persistent process and led to the eventual erosion of Zoroastrianism in its birthplace.
Emigration proved vital for the survival of the religion. Following the Arab conquest, Zoroastrians migrated to India in search of religious freedom and better living conditions and, coming from Persia, they became known there as Parsis. The presence of a current small yet important Parsi community in Sri Lanka is evidence to the fact that there was Zoroastrian movement in early stages to Serendib (Sri Lanka) as well.
Zoroastrians believe in one God, called Ahura Mazda (meaning 'Wise Lord'). God is compassionate, just, and is the creator of the entire universe. Ahura Mazda is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, impossible for humans to conceive and unchanging. God is the Creator of life and source of all goodness, happiness and joy.
God is worshiped as supreme. Zoroastrians believe that everything God created is pure and should be treated with love and respect. This includes the natural environment, so Zoroastrians by virtue of their religious faith do not pollute the rivers, land or atmosphere. Thus, Zoroastrianism is an ecological religion.
Dualism is central to Zoroastrian teachings. Dualism at the cosmic level refers to the ongoing battle between Good (Ahura Mazda) and Evil (Angra Mainyu) within the universe. It is important to understand that Angra Mainyu is not God's equal opposite, rather that Angra Mainyu is the destructive energy that opposes God's creative energy. This creative energy is called Spenta Mainyu. God created a pure world through his creative energy, which Angra Mainyu continues to attack, making it impure. Aging, sickness, famine, natural disasters, death and so on are attributed to this. With cosmic dualism we have life and death, day and night, good and evil. One cannot be understood without the other. Life is a mixture of these two opposing forces.
When it comes to humanity there is moral dualism that refers to the opposition of good and evil in the mind of humankind. God's gift to humans is free will; therefore, humans have the choice to follow the path of evil (druj - deceit) or the path of righteousness (asha - truth). The path of evil leads to misery and ultimately hell. The path of righteousness and justice leads to peace and everlasting blessedness in heaven. However, in Zoroastrianism, because there is no concept of ‘original sin,’ misery and negativity are short-lived. The power of righteousness always wins over negative forces. In Zoroastrianism, the concept of heaven is not a physical location but rather a state of blissful and complete wisdom.
The Relationship of God and Humans
Unlike some religions where humans are God's children or servants, in Zoroastrianism men and women are considered more as God's helpers. Through positive choices and actions of humanity, evil will be eradicated and removed, and finally God's Paradise on Earth will be established. Men and women, rich and poor, and young and old are all seen as equal. One only surpasses the other through their righteousness.
Symbolism of Fire
Zoroastrians are not fire-worshippers, as some people wrongly believe. Zoroastrians believe that the elements are pure, and that fire represents God's light, wisdom and justice. Zoroastrians worship communally in a Fire Temple or Agiary. Prayer is often done in front of a fire, and consecrated fires are kept perpetually burning in the major temples.
The Zoroastrian book of holy scriptures is called The Avesta. The Avesta can be roughly split into two main sections:
- The Avesta is the oldest and core part of the scriptures, which contains the Gathas. The Gathas are seventeen hymns thought to be composed by Zoroaster himself.
- The Younger Avesta contains commentaries on the older Avestan written in later years. It also contains myths, stories and details of ritual observances.
Daily Prayers and Daily Life
Zoroastrian beliefs in a nutshell can be synthesized up by the maxim: Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds. Zoroastrians try to live their daily lives by this creed. Before puberty, Zoroastrians are given a sudreh (muslin shirt) and kusti (cord) as part of an initiation ceremony (Navjote ceremony). These garments are considered sacred. They tie the kusti around the sudreh three times to remind themselves of 'Good Words, Good Thoughts, and Good Deeds'.
Family and Community
Zoroastrianism is a family and community-oriented religion. Zoroaster himself was a family man and most worship happens in the family. There is no tradition of monasticism or celibacy. Zoroastrianism is also about social action. Zoroastrians work towards improving the local community and society in general and work for peace and harmony. They tend to give generously to charities and are often focused on educational, environmental and social initiatives.
According to the Hebrew Bible, evincing God’s sovereignty over all nations, God says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please” (Isaiah 44:28). Cyrus was instrumental in the returning of the exiled Jews and letting them build their Temple. Dr. Mary Boyce of London University, who is regarded as the living authority on Zoroastrianism in our times, has to say regarding King Cyrus freeing the Jews from the Babylonian captivity: “This was only one of many liberal acts recorded of Cyrus, but it was of particular moment for the religious history of humankind.” (Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, 1984, p. 51).
Scholars have studied how Zoroastrianism has influenced later Jewish thought, Christian thought and Islamic thought as one of the oldest significant spiritual forces in the central Asia; some have given special attention on its influence on Biblical apocalypticism and eschatology of early pre-Christian and Christian teachings and writings.
I believe if Christians are serious of interfaith friendships, that will lead to a positive engagement and dialogue with our Zoroastrian neighbors and friends everywhere for building a better word of peace, love, joy and harmony and integrity of creation.
"Happiness comes to them who bring happiness to others. Abiding happiness and peace are theirs who choose goodness for its own sake - without expectation of any reward.” - Gathas