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Zoroaster and Zoroastrians in Iran
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Last Updated: October, 2009
Partition

First taught amongst nomads on the Asian steppes around 3500 years ago, Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest revealed religions and is of enormous importance in the history of religions. It has links with the ancient Vedic beliefs of India and even possibly to a remote Indo-European past. It has influenced northern Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and was the state religion in Iran from the 6th century BC to 7th century AD. Most information about Prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra, Zardosht), son of Pourushaspa, of the Spitaman family comes from the Gathas, 17 hymns which were composed by the prophet and were preserved over the centuries by the Zoroastrian community. Gathas are inspired passionate utterances many addressed directly to God and their poetic form is the most ancient in Iranian literary works. The language is traced back to Indo-European times through Norse parallels. His teachings were handed down orally from generation to generation. They might have been written down since the Parthian period (3rd century BC – 3rd century AD) but all that is left is from the Sasanian times (7th century), in Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi.

In the Gathas he calls himself a "zaotar" a fully qualified priest, one able to compose "manthra" (Sanskrit mantra), inspired utterances of power. Training for the priesthood started around age seven and maturity was reached at fifteen and he was probably made a priest at this age. He also calls himself a "vaedemna" or "one who knows" and spent years in a wandering quest for truth. The language of Gathas is archaic and is related to the Indian Rigveda (about 1700 BC). The best educated guess for Zoroaster"s date, based on linguistic evidence is between 1700 - 1500 BC. In Gathas and in later Pahlavi works it is mentioned that he was thirty when revelation came to him. "He went down to a river to fetch water. There he encountered a radiant figure introducing himself as Vohu Manah "Good Purpose". The light led him to "Ahura Mazda" the Lord of Wisdom and five other radiant figures, before which he did not see his own shadow upon the earth, and it was then that he received his revelation".

Zoroaster made changes in the existing believes and practices. The ancient Ahura Mazda, the guardian of "asha" (the cosmic order) became an uncreated God who had existed eternally and was the creator of all else that is good, including all other beneficent divinities created by him. Zoroaster came to the understanding that wisdom, justice and goodness were utterly separate by nature from wickedness and cruelty. The forces of evil manifested as Angra Mainyu (the Hostile Spirit) equally uncreated but ignorant and malign became Ahura Mazda"s archenemy. The two primal beings made deliberate choices to be good or evil, men should do the same and preferably chose the better one. Such teachings were new; people were actually given a choice to choose between good and evil. This principle remained with all the other great religions of the area that was followed, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the archaic religions what mattered most was how to maintain the cosmic/natural order, now the concept of cosmic justice was also added on. There was an afterlife in which the good was rewarded and the bad would be punished according to their deeds.

Ahura Mazda created the world and knew that the Hostile spirit would attack it and the two would have to fight. He also knew that at the end he would be the victorious one and as a result of his victory the universe would be wholly good forever. This was his reason for creating the world in both its spiritual and material forms. The old cosmology and the creation of the world in seven stages found a different meaning. Ahura Mazda"s first act was evocation through his Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu, of six lesser divinities (Amesha Spenta), which formed a heptad with the wise God. Each represented or symbolized one of the seven creations. The six deities in turn evoked other beneficial divinities that are in fact the beneficent gods of the pagan Iranian pantheon. He also evokes other divinities such as Mithra, Apam Napat, Sraosha, Asha and Geush Urvan. The six work and act collectively with Ahura Mazda to defeat the forces of evil and are called "yazatas", (eyzad in modern Persian) meaning "beings worthy of worship" and they function as "Holy Immortals".

The doctrine of holy immortals is central to understanding Zoroastrianism. The six manifest the qualities and attributes of Ahura Mazda and can bestow these qualities upon righteous humans. Vohu Manah (Bahman) represents "Good Purpose", Asha Vahishta (Ordibehesht) means "Best Righteousness" and Spenta Armaiti (Espand) personifies "Holy Devotion". Khshathra Vairya (Shahrevar) is "Desirable Dominion" and represents the power each person needs to exert righteousness in life. The final pair are Haurvatat and Ameretat, heath and long life (Khordad and Amordad). The six are the names of six of the months in modern Persian calendar. Not only they represent different aspects of the Wise God but each one is also responsible for protecting one of the creations. Shahrevar is lord of the sky, and Espand protects mother earth. Khordad protects water and health and plants belong to Amordad. Bahman guarded all animals and was a powerful symbol of creative goodness while Ordibehesht became guardian of fire. Finally man with his intelligence and power of choice, belongs to Ahura Mazda.

Afterlife existed and all mortal souls would be resurrected and then judged. They would be punished or rewarded depending on actions during their lifetime. Departed souls crossed a bridge (Chinvat Bridge in Avesta, Sarat Bridge in Quran) and were questioned by divinities to see if they were worthy of entering Paradise, a sunlit place where all imaginable delights were possible. The sinful and the guilty would fall off the bridge and end in the subterranean kingdom of Hell. The concepts of Hell, a place of torment presided over by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman, Shaytan in Koran); Heaven, resurrection and individual judgement are Zoroaster"s own. These doctrines deeply influenced the later religious developments in the area, i.e. Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

Attaining paradise was possible for all. Women as well as men, priests warriors servants and masters could all go to heaven. Chinvat Bridge becomes a place for moral judgment. People are judged not only on the basis of their offerings, prayers and sacrifices, but also on their ethical achievements. Mithra presides over the tribunal; accompanied by Sraosha (Soroush) and Rashnu (Eyzad of Justice), who holds the scales of justice. In the Indian Veda the spirits are brought in by two dogs (messengers of Yama / Jam, Jamshid in Persian). In Avesta the two dogs await the spirits at the Chinvat Bridge. Dogs are still venerated by Zoroastrians and if possible are present at their funerals.

The myth of creation already existing was developed further. The Pahlavi text of the Sasanian period, "Bundahishn", "Foundation of Creation" contains most of the Zoroastrian myths. First everything was created in an state called in Pahlavi "menog"(menoee in modern Persian), meaning "spiritual immaterial". This world was perfect and was not as yet invaded by the forces of evil. Once attacked by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) Ahura Mazda created the material world or "getig" (geete in modern Persian). It was here in the material world that the battle with the forces of evil was fought. The divine beings rallied their forces and fought back and sacrifices were made. Ameretat took the first plant and pounded it and made the sacred extract haoma and scattered the essence over the earth with help from rain and the cloud. The bull and the first man were sacrificed too and from them originated all animals and the first couple.

Creation was the first of three times into which the drama of cosmic history is divided. The second is called the time of mixture (gumezian), during which the world is a blend of good and evil. Angra Mainyu keeps attacking with his associates "Daevas" (Deev in modern Persian) and all the other forces of darkness. Humans have a share too and are asked to help the good forces in their fight against the army of evil. The third time is called "Separation" (wizarishn), when good and bad are separated forever and the world is restored back to its original perfect state. Zoroaster offered humans a purpose in life (defeating the forces of evil) and a reasoned explanation for their sorrow and hardship in life. All these bad things, was brought on them by the Hostile Spirit and helping the forces of goodness and accepting the will of an all-powerful creator would eradicate the vil and as a result human suffering. Their Universe had a beginning and an end, at the end of the year 12000 the forces of evil would be for once and all defeated by forces of goodness.

Prayer times were increased to five times and two new divisions were added. A new division, Rapithwa started at noon, the ideal moment at which time stood still at creation and continued into the first part of the afternoon. The other one started at midnight and continued till sunrise and Mithra protected the first ray of light at sunrise. Asha Vahishta, lord of fire and of noontime heat protected Rapithwa, the spirit of the noon. In wintertime Rapithwa retreated beneath the earth to protect the roots of plants and springs of water. The daily prayers to Mithra started at sunrise and remained very much part of the Iranian daily prayer rituals ever since. The Iranian literature of the Islamic period is full of references to early morning prayers "da aye verd e sobhgahi", original prayers to Mithra.

The seven creations and their protectors including Ahura Mazda were celebrated during the six feasts of obligation, known as "gahambars" with No Ruz being the most important. They were originally pastoral and farming festivals and started by early morning prayers and continued into joyful assemblies with food, wine, music and dance. Eventually they became a lot more elaborate with plays and actors re-enacting the ancient myths. More festivals were celebrated in honor of other deities and 12 eyzads became venerated by naming each month of the year after them and 12 festivals emerged celebrating each one of these deities.

Zoroastrianism existed in Iran by the time Medes and Persians were established. They both treated it and received it as a long-established faith, with its doctrines and observances already defined and a canon of works in the Avestan tongue. There is no evidence that the literature was written down at this time and it was orally transferred from one generation to the next. The claim by the later Iranians that Alexander the Great destroyed the massive texts has not been substantiated. Persian Kings refer to Ahura Mazda many times in their proclamations and inscriptions but Zoroaster is not mentioned. However, Greek sources mention that Cyrus"s daughter was called Atoosa, Iranian "Hutaosa" same name as King Vishtaspa"s Queen, Zoroaster"s royal patron in Avesta.

Fires and altars existed at all the major sites and there are many portraits depicting kings and other dignitaries facing altars and fires. An important change was assimilation of an alien goddess, presumably Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar, the Lady of the planet Venus and of love and war. Greeks refereed to her as "Aphrodite Anaitis", Persian Anahita (Nahid). She became a major cult and along with Mithra, Ahura Mazda and Verethraghna, yazata of victory the four became the most venerated deities in the country. Anahita"s worship introduced a major change. The mother-goddesses in the ancient east were venerated with statues and Artaxerxes II was the first Persian king to introduce an image cult of Anahita. By the end of the Achaemenid period dynastic/ temple fires and image sanctuary both had a recognized place in Zoroastrian worship. It was also from this time and with the growth of Zoroastrianism as a great imperial faith that an increasing number of priests with different hierarchies appeared and grew stronger as time went by.

Another development, which can be assigned to the Achaemenian period, concerned the belief in the world Saviour, the Saoshyant. This happened in three stages, each ending with coming of a saviour to be born of the prophet"s seed by a virgin mother. The last one was the most important one and the doctrine allowed the scholars to fuse Zoroaster"s message of hope with the ancient Iranian traditions of Humanity"s descent from the golden age of Yima (Jam/Jamshid) to the pitiful state of the present. The Zurvanite Heresy was also a new development that happened in late Achaemenian period and though did not succeed at the time it made an impact in Sasanian period. Zurvanites believed that Zurvan (time) did not merely provide the framework for cosmic events but was actually in control of them. In Sassanian period the concept was unsuccessfully used to introduce monotheism into the faith by making Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu twin brothers born from Zurvan.

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