Friday, December 12, 2014

Zoroastrianism: First Monotheistic Religion?

As Jews observe their Festival of Lights, or Channukah, and Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, members of an ancient faith that inspired other monotheistic religions will hardly be mentioned.  Still, traditionally in December, Zoroastrians meet for regional or international celebrations of their culture and tradition.  

Zoroastrian Symbol, Temple of Yazd, Central Iran
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 300,000 believers, few people know much about ancient Persian 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 in 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” said Adi Davar, a board member of the World Zoroastrian Organization in 2003. He was addressing an international audience at the seminar titled Zarathustra's Contributions to Humanity at the Library of Congress in Washington. 

Zarathustra, or Zoroaster in Greek, taught that the world and everything in it was created by a Wise Lord, or Ahura Mazda. Before him, Persians believed in multiple deities, as did most nomadic tribes at the time.

Stanley Isler, chairman of Iranian studies at Yale University, said Zarathustra was very impressed with nature and its ability for cyclical renewal. He believed repetition was the basis of knowledge, and that 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 principles of truth that maintain their eternal design and rhythms,” said 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 that 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. 
 Zoroastrian ritual in Mumbai, India
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, said Zarathustra’s teachings were already widespread by that time.

“Nowhere in these records do we find the mention of prophet Zarathustra. 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," said Bagli. "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. These circumstances certainly invalidate this traditional date."


Scholars say that 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.  Isler believes that 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.” 

Isler noted that the hymns also explain why the prophet’s own tribe exiled him. It was not only because he preached monotheism, according to Isler.

“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 Zoroastrian holy book also contains prayers, rules of law and rituals. Until the 9th century A.D., the Avesta was probably transmitted orally and modified along the way.  Isler said 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. 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. Some 40-thousand of them live in North America and about a thousand in this (Washington) metropolitan area,” said Davar
 

 Zoroastrian organizations prevailed upon UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to proclaim the year 2003 as the 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrianism. Since then, more attention is being paid to young people who may be able to pass on their religion and culture to following generations.  The Zoroastrian Association of California is hosting the North American Zoroastrian Congress December 29-31 this year. 

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. 
A campaign urging Parsis in Mumbai, India to get married earlier and make more babies has raised eyebrows, as well as awareness that with birth-to-death ratio of 1 to 4, the community of 40,000 is dwindling.  

Scholars have acknowledged the contribution of the ancient Persian faith to the world’s religions. Zoroastrians say their prophet’s teachings are just as relevant as any religion today because deceit, violence and oppression are as prevalent as they were thousands of years ago. 

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