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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Religions of the World

Part One
Oriental Religions

Chapter 8

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University


Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest living faiths, and yet it has the smallest number of adherents. Although its ancestry is traceable to the sixth century before Christ, there are less than two hundred thousand professed Zoroastrians, only the Parsis in India and a small community in Persia (modern Iran). But their religion merits careful study because of the attention it has received in the history of Western thought, and because of the influence which many scholars believe it exercised on other religious cultures. “Christianity,” according to a modern writer, “claims to be the heir of the prophets of Israel. If there is any truth in this claim, it is no less heir to the Prophet of ancient Iran, little though most Christians are aware of the fact.” [1]

Sacred Writings and Zoroaster

The chief source of our knowledge of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta, a term of uncertain origin but most likely meaning “text” or “wisdom.” Only a fraction of the Avesta survives today. Apart from fragments, it contains three main sections. The Yasnas are prayers to be recited by the priests when offering sacrifice. Into the Yasna, the great liturgical text, are inserted a series of Gathas or hymns, seventeen in number, which are written in the first person and therefore believed to be the work of Zoroaster himself. Accordingly the Gathas are the principal, if not only, authentic source for the doctrines as actually proclaimed by the prophet.

The Vendidad, or Law against Demons, has been called the Parsi Leviticus. Composed of twenty-two chapters, all but the first two expound the rules to be observed in the various circumstances of life, in case faults have been committed, in time of sickness, death and ceremonial uncleanness. In the first two chapters the Vendidad relates the story of creation and tells about Yima, the Iranian Noah.

Similar to the Gathas are the hymns of praise or Yashts addressed to specify deities or angels. Together with some minor pieces they form the Minor Avesta, which is a collection of prayers to be used by the laity as well as by the priests.

Parsi tradition claims that two complete copies of the Avesta were destroyed in the invasion of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), and that the Avesta we have today was compiled by order of the first Sassanian king (226-240 A.D.), who reconstructed the text out of fragments that a predecessor had collected. The original language of the scriptures was Avesta, the vernacular of ancient Bactria, in eastern Persia, and closely related to the Vedic of the Hindus. They were translated into Pahlavi, spoken by the people of post-Christian Iran, but Zoroastrian commentators commonly charge that the translation is both faulty and misleading. As a result, the Pahlavi version cannot be considered reliable.

Western opinions differ on the composition and especially the date of the Iranian Bible. A favored position is to regard the older portions of the Avesta as going back to Zoroaster himself, some time within the sixth century B.C. This old Avesta suffered mutilation over the centuries until fixed into a canon under Shapur II (310-379 A.D.), or, as others believe, not until the eleventh century of our era.

At the other extreme are Iranian scholars who maintain that the whole of the ancient Avesta perished during the Alexandrian period and that the post-Christian restoration meant the composition of an entirely new book, in which a residue of the old ideas were reshaped to a new religious philosophy influenced by Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism. One of the main arguments for this theory is that the Gathas constantly speak of a kingdom whose coming is awaited by the faithful, a reflection of the Jewish Messianic Kingdom which the Iranians borrowed from the Hebrews.

In the absence of Avesta manuscripts from the early patristic age, let alone before the Christian era, it is impossible to decide for certain how much of the original Zoroastrian doctrine may now be found in the Avesta, whether in it “original” language or in subsequent translations.

By the same token, we cannot recover more than the main lines of the biography of Zoroaster, though he was certainly an historical personage. His name, which probably means “golden camel,” is the Greek form for Zarathustra, as always given in the Avesta: Greek and Latin writers assign him to dim antiquity. Pliny the Elder, following Aristotle, asserts that Zoroaster lived six thousand years before the Trojan War. Direct Zoroastrian tradition places him between 660 and 583 B.C., and describes him as a reformer who sought to change the religion of Bactria, in southwest Asia, which appears to have been primarily a worship of the forces of nature.

Against this primitive animism, Zoroaster proclaimed that there was one God alone, who was holy and almighty. Every man was faced with one supreme duty, to choose between truth and falsehood. By his own witness, Zoroaster chose truth and on this foundation built his message of conversion.

I who have striven for the awakening of the soul united with the Good Mind,
And who know the rewards of the Wise Lord for our deeds,
While I can and may, I will teach the seeking of Righteousness.
Knowing thee as Righteousness, thee together with the Good Mind,
Shall I see thee, and see also that the most mighty Wise Lord has a throne and a Discipline?
Through this saying, with our tongue we will convert the men of prey to the greatest things.

All the evidence indicates that Zoroaster met with little success in his reformation. He was forced to endure rejection and contempt, and the Gathas record more than one prayer begging for success. “To what land shall I flee,” he asks, “where bend my steps? I am thrust out from family and tribe; I have no favor from the village to which I belong, not from the wicked rulers of the country. How, then, O Lord, shall I obtain thy favor?” [3]

Zoroaster feels the reason for his lack of success in his poverty “in men and cattle.” Therefore he turns to the Wise Lord, as a friend to a friend. He at least will vindicate him. To those who do not put his word into practice there “should be woe at the end of life.” He prays to know what reward will be given to the wise, and what punishment to unbelievers, “that he may convert all men,” even “the robber horde” who now seek nothing but evil.

Finally he converted a certain chieftain king, Vishtaspa, and his two ministers. When defenders of the prevailing faith aroused the neighboring tribes to attack, Zoroaster urged Vishtaspa to take up arms, and in time the new religion was firmly established. Very likely Zoroastrianism was carried from Bactria to Media, from which it spread to Persia and was accepted, it seems, by the great Achaemenian kings in the Persian Empire. There is some doubt about Cyrus the Great (558-528 B.C.), but his successor Darius (521-485 B.C.) was a devoted Zoroastrian.

Iranian tradition says that Zoroaster began his ministry at the age of thirty, converted Vishtaspa twelve years later, and was slain at seventy-seven, when the Turanians successfully attached Balkh.

Concept of God

Besides the unsettled question of the historical origins of the Avesta is another unsolved problem in Zoroastrianism, namely, what was the original teaching of Zoroaster himself. The two issues are closely connected, and the most satisfactory way of handling them is simply to take the Avesta at its face value but recognize that traditional Zoroastrianism is a compound of Avestic doctrine and centuries of interpretation up to modern times.

Avesta Teaching

The concept of two ultimate principles, one of good and the other of evil, was not inherent to original Zoroastrianism. Its good deity was called Ahura-Mazdah (the God who sees all, remembers all), who is omniscient, almighty, supreme, sovereign, good and merciful. He is the creator of the ten “Immortal Holy Ones” on whom the government of the whole material world depends. He also made the angels or lesser spirits, paradise, the vault of the sky, air, fire, and water, and also man. In a passage which reminds us of the Book of Job, Zoroaster asks rhetorically who made the world.

Who was the first father of Righteousness at the birth?
Who appointed their path to sun and stars?
Who but thou is it through whom the moon waxes and wanes?
Who set the Earth in its place below, and the sky of the clouds, that it shall not fail?
Who the waters and the plants?
Who yoked the two steeds to wind and clouds?
Who, O Wise One, is the creator of the Good Mind?
What artificer made light and darkness, what artificer sleep and waking?
Who made morning, noon and night, to remind the wise man of his task?
Who created Devotion, sacred with the Dominion?
Who made the son reverential in soul towards his father?
Thus I strive to recognize in thee, O Wise One, as sacred spirit, the creator of all things.

Ahura-Mazda was the creator of all things, which contradicts the popular notion that Avestic theology is essentially dualistic because the Spirit of Evil exists independently of Ahura-Mazda. The dualism was a later development, occasioned by Zoroaster’s preoccupation with Ahura-Mazda’s rival, Anro Mainyus, whose name the Parsis simplified into Ahraman or Ahriman. In the Avesta he appears to exist coeval with Ahura-Mazda, yet not without some kind of dependence on the latter.

Throughout the Avesta is this constant refrain: truth and false-hood, justice and wickedness, good and evil, and the choice that all must make between the two constitute reality. Ahura-Mazda himself, as well as his “most sacred spirit,” must make this choice. There is no doubt that Zoroaster thus divided the world of being.

In the first of two crucial texts, he describes the two primeval Spirits who never agree. “I will speak out,” he proclaims, “concerning the two Spirits of whom, at the beginning of existence, the Holier spoke to him who is Evil. “Neither our thoughts nor our teaching, nor our wills, nor our choices, nor our words, nor our deeds, nor our convictions, nor yet our souls agree.” And his warrant for this knowledge is a revelation received, “which the Wise Lord has told me, he who knows.” [5]

In the second text, after restating the objective co-existence of the two primal Spirits, the prophet explains how all-invisible creation made a choice between the two, and how the destiny of men depends on whom they choose to follow. This passage gives the central doctrine of dualistic Mazdaism.

Now at the beginning the twin Spirits have declared
their nature, the better and the evil.
In thought and word and deed. And between the two the wise
ones choose well, not so the foolish.
And when these two Spirits came together, in the beginning
they established life and non-life.
And that at the last the worst existence shall be for the wicked,
but for the just one the Best Mind.
Of these two Spirits, the evil one chose to do the worst things;
but the most sacred spirit, clothed in the most steadfast Heavens, joined himself unto Truth.
And thus did all those who delight to please the Wise Lord by honest deeds.
Between the two, the false gods did not choose rightly; for, as
they deliberated, delusion overcame them so that they chose the Worst Mind.
Then did they, with one accord, rush headlong unto Wrath,
that they might thereby deprave the existence of mortal man.

The Evil Spirit, Ahriman, does not work alone. In India, the Devas or Shining Ones remained lesser gods, and the Asuras were degraded into demons. In Zoroastrianism the opposite takes place, and the Devas are the enemies of the good deity. Together with the Bad Spirit they “defrauded mankind of happy life and immortality.” Nomad tribes who worship them are no better than the evil gods. “All of you are the breed of Bad Mind, Evil and Pride.” [7]

Like Zoroaster, all men and even the false gods, had asked to be in the service of the Wise Lord, to be his messengers and “ward off those who are hostile to you.” But the Wise Lord, united with the major Entities, declared his choice---the Devotion of the righteous. It shall be his through his Dominion. At the same time he rejected the false gods with their followers. They belong to the Bad Mind---the opposite of the Good Mind, to Evil---the opposite of the Right, and Pride---opposite of Devotion. He reproached the false gods with having seduced man to evil and estranged him from the “will of the Wise Lord and the Right,” thus depriving him of eternal bliss because he obeyed the spirits of evil.

Zoroaster refers to the Good and Evil spirits as twins, and he calls Ahura-Mazda the father of the first of these. Logically, then, he should have made the Wise Lord also the father of the Evil Spirit. But he seems never directly to have said so. In his view Ahura-Mazda, the supreme deity, “generated” two Spirits, one of whom chose Truth and the other chose “to do the worst things.” This second Spirit, then, became evil by choice, and was not such by nature. His dualism was moral (based on freedom) rather than metaphysical (arising from nature).

The founder of Mazdaism made so much of this necessity of choice that not even Ahura-Mazda escapes it. He, too, had to make the great choice that all others are bound to, between good and evil. His relation to the Evil Spirit is clear from the passages where the “false gods” approach the supreme God in supplication, whereby they acknowledge his supremacy. However, since they had already made their decision and were deceived, their fate is fixed, and Ahura-Mazda repudiates them.

Summarily, therefore, Zoroaster recognized only one God, maker of heaven and earth and of all things. This God, in relation to the world acts through something like “faculties,” which the Avesta more than once describes as being engendered by Ahura-Mazda--his sacred Spirit, Good Mind, and Right-mindedness. He is also Master of the Kingdom, Wholeness, and Immortality, which are, as it were, aspects of the one highest deity.

Righteousness or Truth is the objective norm of right conduct, first chosen by God, contrasted with the Lie or Disorder, which is the standard chosen by the Evil Spirit at the beginning of existence and of all that militates against God ever since. Ahriman was not yet co-eternal with God, in the Avesta, as he became in later Zoroastrianism.

Later Development

Zoroaster never fully accounted for the origin of the Evil Spirit, beyond saying that he chose “to do the worst thing.” But he left the door open for his followers to a system of metaphysical dualism by stating that the sacred Spirit and the Evil Spirit are twins.

At an early date in Iranian history, the sacred Spirit became identified with God himself, that is, Ahura-Mazda. If, however, the Good Spirit and Evil Spirit are twin brothers, they must have had a common ancestor. So it came about that a dominant group of Zoroastrians concluded to a principle above Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman, which they named Infinite Time, Zurvana Akarana, and who thereby became the first principle from which the good and evil Spirits arise.

Soon the embarrassing passages in the Avesta, which teach monotheism, were either ignored or mistranslated, and the purely dualist position became stabilized, whereby Ahura-Mazda and Ahriman, God and the Evil Spirit, were ultimate and equally eternal principles, the one perfectly good and the other absolutely evil.

When Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Persia in 226 A.D., under the Sassanian emperors, the two views, monotheistic and dualistic, alternated; until the latter became the orthodox doctrine, probably under Khusraw I (531-578). In 650 A.D., the Persian Empire was completely overrun by Moslem armies, and after a while the Zoroastrians were fiercely persecuted. Most accepted Islam, others fled to India where, according to their chroniclers, they landed at Sanjan in 716, bringing with them their sacred fire; and a remnant was left in Persia.

The religion of these exiles and of the Persian remnant became rigid dualism, transmitted through the Pahlavi books of translation and commentary on the Avesta. Until fairly modern times, Zoroastrianism and dualism became almost synonymous terms. “I must have no doubt,” their doctrinal manual read, “but that there are two first principles, one the Creator and the other the Destroyer. The Creator is Ohrmazd who is all goodness and light; and the Destroyer is the accursed Ahriman who is all wickedness and full of death, a liar and a deceiver.” [8]

Each of these two principles was given a separate abode: one existing on high in the light and the other down below in the darkness. They are separated by the Void. Realizing that the Evil Spirit would attack him once he discovered Ohrmazd’s existence, the good deity created the spiritual and material worlds in self-protection. Thus classical Zoroastrianism easily “solved” the origin of evil and the problem of creation. Evil is a separate principle, so that its origin has no mystery. God created because he had to, as a means of preserving himself from the machinations of his arch-enemy. And the Evil Spirit, for all his malice in entering the world through causing sickness, pain, and death, yet finally will also destroy himself.

Zoroastrians of the old school explained the conflict with a parable. Ahura-Mazda (Ohrmazd) is like the owner of a garden, which destructive beasts are intent on spoiling by doing harm to its fruit and trees. To save himself trouble and keep the animals at bay, the gardener devises a stratagem to capture the beasts by means of cleverly designed traps. These are so made that, without killing the victim, they weaken it through its vain struggles to escape. After being thoroughly debilitated, the beasts are released from the snares but their faculties for doing harm are put out of action.

Man is not alone in this conflict with Ahriman. His allies are the hierarchy of spirits, comparable to the angels, who in later Zoroastrianism became distinct personal beings. Among these demigods, the most powerful was Mithra, who had enjoyed a remarkable career in Roman mythology.

The human contribution to this cosmic battle with the forces of evil consists mainly in thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, doing works, reproducing oneself through children, and making the earth as fruitful as possible with new and abundant life. For just as life is the creation of Ohrmazd, so death was introduced into the world by the Spirit of evil. Understandably, therefore, Zoroastrians were never fond of asceticism, which implies mortification, whereas their concept of virtue was not to deny but to increase the vital processes.

Influence on Manichaeism

Symptomatic of the extreme dualism latent in Avestic theology was the rise of Manichaeism as a Zoroastrian offshoot in the third century. Founded by Manes (215-275 A.D.), a native of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, capital of the Persian Empire, it began as a Zoroastrian sect until opposition from the monotheist party forced Manes into exile in India. When he returned, he was for a time favored by the king, but then fell from the royal favor and was put to death by being flayed alive. His Persian disciples were banished from the country. Yet Manichaeism spread to all parts of Asia, North Africa and into distant Europe. Among its most famous disciples was St. Augustine who later wrote devastating treatises against the Manichaens.

What Manes borrowed from Zoroastrianism was its approach to the problem of evil, by postulating two eternal and ultimate principles, and two completely disparate kingdoms, that of Light (physical and moral goodness), which is governed by God, and that of Darkness (physical and moral). Satan comes forth from the darkness, invades the realms of light and declares war on God.

In Manichaean theory, man was indeed created by God with pure elements, but he was made a prisoner by Satan who plants in him the seeds of darkness. Since that time, man has become the subject of struggle between God and the evil Spirit. The only hope for man is by the practice of severe asceticism, which comprises the three seals or mortifications of the mouth, the hands, and the passions.

What Manichaeism had in common with Zoroastrianism was a preoccupation with evil and attempting to save the goodness of God by depriving Him of absolute sovereignty. It was tolerated for a while as sectarian Mazdaism, and would likely have entered the stream of Zoroastrianism tradition with no further impact on history; except that Manes absorbed enough of Christianity to make his teachings attractive far beyond the intrinsic merits of the dualistic philosophy that lay beneath.

The followers of Manes developed his main ideas to which they added Gnostic speculations, claiming, as the Gnostics did, to a special gnosis or divine insight. They explained the Zoroastrian dualism by saying that from the good principle there emanated, in the first place, primeval man, who was the first to enter into the struggle with evil; in the next place the Spirit of Life, who rescued primeval man from the powers of darkness; finally the World-Soul, Christ, the Son of primeval man, who restored to man the light he had lost in the conflict with darkness. They distinguished in man two souls---the soul that animates the body, and the soul of light, which is part of the World-Soul, Christ. The former is the creation of the powers of darkness; the latter is an emanation from light itself. Thus, man’s soul is a battlefield on which light and darkness are at war, as they are in the universe at large. Human action depends on the outcome of the contest; there is no freedom of choice. All material things are evil and the cause of evil.

The object of the practice of religion, according to Manichaeism, was to release the particles of light which Satan had stolen from the world of Light and imprisoned in man’s brain; and that Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Manes had been sent to help in the task. Unlike its parent Zoroastrianism, the Manichaean sect spread rapidly. It was established in Egypt before the end of the third century, and at Rome early in the fourth. In the later fourth century Manichaeans were numerous in North Africa, where they were combated by Augustine, Serapion and others. Their spirit influenced such anti-social movements as the Albigenses, Bogomiles, and the Paulicians. They held their ground in China till the fourteenth century, and recent excavations in Middle Egypt uncovered several papyri books (equivalent to two-thousand pages) in the Coptic dialect containing works by Manes and his first disciples.

Return to Monotheism

Numerous factors contributed to a reversal of thought in Zoroastrianism, away from extreme dualistic theology and back to what appears to have been the monotheism of the original Avesta. Pressure from a militant Islam, which still brands the Zoroastrians in Persia as Guebres, from the Arabic Kafir (unbeliever), was perhaps the single largest element. The influence of Christianity on the Parsis in India has also been recognized.

In its present form, Parsiism can best be described as monotheism modified by a physical and moral dualism, which admits sin and physical evil, together with an ethical system based on what is believed to be a divinely revealed moral code and human free will. If anything, the monotheism of today’s Parsi is more rigid and determined than in the Avesta, due to centuries of contact with Islam.

Moral Code and Worship

Zoroastrian morality may be summed up in the two statements professed by every believing Mazdean. “I praise good thoughts, good words, and good deeds,” he says, and “I praise the sound Mazdayasnian religion which allays dissensions and which realizes brotherhood.” This preoccupation with goodness is simply corollary to its identification of God with goodness to the point of questioning even His permissive responsibility of evil. Accordingly right-mindedness in Zoroastrian terms came to signify becoming like Ahura-Mazda, and the idea is still vital in the Parsi religion.

On the ethical side, however, righteousness was interpreted by borrowing from the Greeks, notably Aristotle, and calling it the “mean.” Ignoring the Hellenic ancestry, Parsi apologists say the idea is all their own. “Iran has always commended the mean, and censured excess and deficiency.” In the Byzantine Empire the philosophers, in India the learned, and elsewhere the specialists have in general commended the man whose argument showed subtlety, “but the Kingdom of Iran has shown approval of the truly wise,” who avoided all extremes.

Since Zoroastrian ethics developed in the period when the Avesta was the basis of the Persian state religion, it acquired an aristocratic stamp that is still familiar. Some have described Parsi morality as essentially urbanity or gentlemanliness, an ethic of moderation. But this is an oversimplification.

The duties of the Ashavan or righteous are especially honesty and straightforwardness. He is required to observe scrupulous personal purity, which consists not only in abstinence from unnatural crimes, but in all manner of ritual performances, often relating to the sexual relations, and to all contact with ceremonially unclean persons or objects, including corpses. Charity toward the poor, hospitality to the stranger, are likewise enjoined and practiced. Among social functions, the duty of tilling the soil is exalted to the rank of a primary virtue. To cut a tree becomes a sin. The tenderest care surrounds the ox and the dog.

There is a curious mixture of sublimity and triviality in Zoroastrian ethics that is hard for the Western mind to reconcile. The ethical ideal may be seen in the marriage hymn of a believing Parsi for his daughter. Bride and groom are exhorted to seek the good pleasure of Mazda “in thought, word and action. Let each of you strive to excel the other in the Right, for it will be a prize for that one. Happiness shall flee from those who despise righteousness. In this way you destroy for yourselves the spiritual life.” Always the stress on life as a great conflict between good and evil, in which every believer must play his role with courage and unwavering fidelity.

At the same time, this plain moral teaching is burdened with prohibitions that remind one of the Pharisees in the time of Christ. An elaborate scale of stripes has been worked out for varying kinds of fault. Ceremonial transgressions are placed on a par with moral offenses. A typical case is the penalty of death for letting the combings of one’s hair or paring of the nails to fall to the ground, unless these are carefully buried in a hole in the ground with appropriate ritual ceremony. Failure to carry out the prescription increases the evil strength of the Devas or demons as much as if the hair and nails were offered to these evil spirits.

Particularly grievous is the crime of defiling the pure elements of earth and fire. Therefore to bury in the earth the corpse of a dog or a man is punishable by “thousands of stripes,” unless the evildoer repents and disinters the cadaver within the end of the second year. Negligence to carry out this precept is a sin “for which there is no atonement, for ever and ever.”

Supporting the moral obligations is an elaborate theology of the future life. For three days after death, the soul haunts a man’s home and then takes wing for the judgment tribunal, where it presents itself before Mithra, Sraosha and Rashnu, three lesser deities. Merits and demerits are carefully weighed in the balance. If neither side sinks, so that good and bad actions during life are equal, the soul proceeds to a “place of equilibrium,” where it will have nothing to suffer except from heat and cold. Otherwise the destiny is bliss or damnation.

Paradise, for which the Persian word is Behesht (the most excellent), is the home of eternal light, the lovely dwelling place of Vohu-Manah, or Good Thought, a progeny of Ahura-Mazda, the good God. Damnation means being hurled into infernal darkness so thick that the hand can feel it. The Persian Dane, Arda Viraf, in a celebrated vision waxes eloquent over the horrors of the damned, where the soul after one day cries out, “Alas! Are they not over, the nine thousand years that are to pass before hell shall be opened.” For all it terror, then, the Mazdean hell is not eternal. A General Resurrection will renew the entire world. After countless years, there will be one final trial, out of which every one comes out pure and sanctified, and all men shall thereupon enter a life of “infinite time,” in a world wherein evil has disappeared.

Parsi worship is based on a hereditary priesthood, although the priestly right lapses if, for the third generation, a family has refrained from qualifying for the priesthood. Most priests belong to the lower order, called Ervad. When twenty years old, an Ervad may become a Mobed, priest of a Fire-temple. One condition is to know the Yasna by heart. High priests are the Dasturs, whose office usually passes from father to son.

Basically a Parsi community has two ritual requirements, a Fire-temple for the living and a Tower of Silence for the dead. The most sacred Fire-temples are the Atesh Behram, of which there are several in India. Though simple in construction, the temples can be expensive commodities because of the combination of different fires they demand, each with an elaborate ceremonial. Sixteen fires are amalgamated in the Atesh Behram, four in temples of the second class, and an ordinary house fire in temples of the lowest grade. Faithful Parsis go often to the Fire-temple to recite their prayers before the fire, but they are not fire worshipers. They direct their worship not to the flames, but to sacred truth which the fire signifies.

The Tower of Silence (Dakhma) is the necessary receptacle for the bodies of the dead, on the theory that burying would defile the earth and burning would pollute the flames. Instead, the dead are laid on the floor of a circular tower, and the vultures swoop down and remove the flesh. After some days, professional corpse bearers return and throw the dried bones into a central well, since by then their power to contaminate is passed.

A private ceremony in childhood illustrates the deep religious sentiment of the modern Zoroastrians. In the initiation rite, the boy or girl (between the ages of seven and fifteen) puts on the sacred shirt, cord and cap, which are symbolic of a “second” or “new” birth. Thenceforward the shirt must always be worn, except at night.

Before investiture with the sacred shirt (sudreh), the young neophyte repeats the Mazdean creed.

Praised be the most righteous, the wisest, the most holy and the best Mazdayasnian Law, which is the gift of Mazda. The good, true, and perfect religion, which God has sent to this world, is that which the prophet Zoroaster has brought in here. That religion is the religion of Zoroaster, the religion of Ahura Mazda, communicated to holy Zoroaster. Righteousness is the best gift and happiness. Happiness to him who is righteous, for the sake of the best righteousness. [9]

Later the candidate joins with the priest in a solemn prayer to God, clearly recognized as superior to the Evil One.

The Omniscient God is the greatest Lord; Ahriman is the evil spirit that keeps back the advancement of the world. May that evil spirit with all his accomplices remain fallen and dejected. Omniscient Lord, I repent of all my sins. I repent of all the evil deeds that I may have entertained in my mind, of all the evil words that I may have performed. May Ahura-Mazda be praised. May Ahriman, the evil spirit, be condemned. The will of the righteous is the most praiseworthy.

This prayer, together with another Mazdean creed, are commonly repeated three or four times a day. Public worship only rarely includes a sermon or instruction; its function is exclusively to give praise to God.

The liturgy includes the daily recitation of a few verses of the Avesta, which is conveniently divided into small portions, arranged according to the date to be recited. While the priest recites the prayers, he holds in his hands the baresman or bundle of twigs.

Each day and every month has its patron. The principal feasts are the New Year, which has since become also the greatest holiday of Islamic Persia; the spring and fall equinoxes consecrated to Mithra; the gahambars at the change of one season to another; the Days of the Dead at the end of each year; the Days of the Fall and the New Moon. Normal sacrifices consist in offering bread and myazda which means meat but has come to be used for milk. Another sacrifice, the haoma, is that of an intoxicating plant, of which the stems are crushed in a mortar and the juice drained off. Offered before the fire, the drink is taken by the priest and his assistants, and at birth a child has his lips seeped in haoma, but he does not become a full Zoroastrian until the initiation ceremony.

With such a tradition, it is no wonder the Parsis have become a distinctive people at once separated from the others among whom they live, and superior to their neighbors in religious principles. In India, no community is more advanced, or has gained more from Western civilization. Their philanthropy is world famous, and pride of race has made them conscious of a heritage that some have called the highest religious result to which human reason, unaided by revelation, can attain.

Chapter 8 - Zoroastrianism


[1] R. C. Zaehner, Living Faiths (Zoroastrianism), 1959, p. 209.

[2] Yasna, XXVIII, 4.

[3] Yasna, XLVI, 1.

[4] Yasna, XLIV, 3-7.

[5] Yasna, XLV, 2-3.

[6] Yasna, XXXIII, 3-6.

[7] Yasna, XXXII, 3.

[8] The Teachings of the Magi (R.C. Zaehner), 1956, pp. 22-23.

[9] The Treasure of the Magi (J. H. Moulton), 1917, p. 162.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
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