|While browsing through the ancient Persian history, I was
struck and fascinated by another subject – Zoroastrianism.
Zoroastrianism has not only made a major contribution to the ancient
philosophical thought but has also had a deep imprint on the Persian
history and culture. Since ages, man has been striving to search for the
meaning and purpose of life. Two ancient philosophies threw up answers
to this eternal quest.
One came out of the Vedic thought of re-incarnation (samsara) which
believed in perpetual cycles of life, death and re-birth. It believed
that soul (atma) finally got liberated (moksha) based on man’s good
deeds (Karma). Originally from Santana Dharma, the philosophy was
followed by Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism with some internal
The other ancient philosophy emanated from Zoroastrianism which
explained that a man’s life is a struggle between the good and the
evil. Its monotheistic concept included a satan, a messiah, death,
resurrection, day of judgment, heaven and hell. Originally from
Zoroastrianism, this philosophy was followed by Judaism, Christianity
and Islam with their own other internal differences.
Zoroastrianism was the first revealed monotheistic faith founded by
the Prophet Spenta Zarathustra. Exact period of birth of Zarathustra has
not been determined but the conservative Zoroastrians believe it to be
around 4000 BC, or even earlier. Zoroastrianism took roots in Southern
Persia at a place known as Fars which the Greeks pronounced as Pars. The
Pars gave the further derivatives like Persia, Persians and the Parsees.
Persia was renamed Iran as late as 1935 by Emperor Raza Shah Pehelvi.
It was Cyrus the great who united Persia in 559 BC and Zoroastrianism
was established as a state religion. When Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539
BC, the Jews were freed from slavery. The Jews regarded him as their
messiah and this led to a 500 years of peaceful co-existence between the
Persians and the Jews. Zoroastrianism greatly influenced Judaism; and
consequently, Christianity and Islam. The words `Satan’, `Paradise’
and `Amen’ originated from Aveshtha, the Zoroastrian language.
The Zoroastrians belief is of one Supreme Entity, the Wise Lord,
Ahura Mazd, who is invisible and formless, is a source of goodness,
energy and light. While Ahura Mazda is the source of wisdom and
goodness, Angra Mainyu is Satan, a source of evil and darkness. A man
has the freedom to choose between the virtue and the vice. There is a
concept of the body and soul. After death, the soul crosses a bridge (Chinvato
Paretu), where the good deeds are weighed against the bad deeds. Either
the person falls into a hell or crosses the bridge to reach the heaven.
The savior or sayoshant plays its part on the day of judgment.
Eventually, everyone is expected to be purified and the occupants of the
hell will also be released.
Contrary to the general perception, the Zoroastrians do not worship
Fire. Fire is used in the temple as a point of focus like the Cross or
Kaaba. The Fire, which is radiant, pure and life sustaining, symbolizes
the Wise Lord, Ahura mazda.
Another custom of leaving the dead body to be cleaned by the birds is
also misunderstood. This is more of a social custom rather than a
religious ritual. Zoroastrianism considers that once the soul (urvan)
leaves the body, the body is no more than a useless waste. Instead of
leaving it to decompose and cause disease, it felt it preferable to let
it be cleaned away by the birds in an organized manner in the `Towers of
Silence’ (Dokhma). The bones are subsequently bleached to let them
crumble down to dust. The departed soul is left behind to remain in the
hearts and minds of people rather than in the shape of body remains.
Zoroastrianism is a simple compact faith with the right mix of
spirituality, ethics and environment, a subject in which it was far
ahead of its times. Its religious scripture, Avesta, has five parts -
Yasna (religious ceremonies), Videvdad (laws), Yashts (worship), Khordeh
Aveshta (prayers). The holy book includes the original five Gathas
containing 17 hymns revealed to Spenta Zarathustra. There are five
prayers in a day preceded by ablutions. A sacred cord called Kushti,
made of wool, is tied around the waist to practice any teaching of
Zarathustra. A Topee is also worn like most other faiths. All religious
rituals are performed before a sacred fire, the living flame being the
symbol of the faith. A constant sacred fire is kept lit in the temples
in a silver urn fuelled by frankincense.
The scripture, in the form of sacred poetry, speaks about the worship
of God, understanding of the right path, the promotion of social
justice, the individual choice between the good and evil and a universal
vision of harmony. Zoroastrianism believes in gender equality,
cleanliness, hard work and charity. Cruelty to the animals is not liked
and all elements of nature like fire, sun, air, earth and water are to
After Cyrus, Zoroastrianism continued to flourish for the next 1500
years (600 BC-1000 AD) right through the Achaemenian, Parthian and
Sassani Empires. The only interruption came in the form of Alexander the
great who conquered Persia in 330 BC and the Greeks ruled Persia for
about 200 years and introduced the Persian culture to the West. Both the
Greeks and the Romans respected the Persian culture.
But the real upheaval came when the Arabs (Umayyads) conquered Persia
in 7 AD and a new religion and culture was imposed. The Zoroastrians
were driven to remote areas like Yazd and Kerman where they barely
managed to preserve their religion and culture. After Umayyads,
Abbasids, Seljuk Turks (1037 AD) and the Mongols (1219-1500 AD) followed
in the shape of Genghis Khan, Halague and Timur who also did not give
any breathing space to Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism lay waste and the
Persians opted for their own version of Islam, the Shia sect.
In a relative sense, it appears that the Arabs (Umayyads and
Abbasids) treated the Zoroastrians comparatively better than the later
Central Asian conquerors. Caliph Omar recognized the Zoroastrians as the
`people of book’. The Zoroastrians had begun migrating since 8 AD but
the major migration took place around 10 AD from Khorasan to the West
coast of India. A Hindu Raja, Jaday Rama of Gujrat gave them the refuge.
Subsequently, the East India Company invited them to Bombay as ship
builders, cotton kings, international traders and brokers. Due to their
integrity, loyalty and charity, the Indian Zoroastrians, commonly known
as Parsees, have left a deep imprint on India far greater then their
Dababhai Naoroji served as president of Indian National Congress in
1886, 1893 and 1906. Some other well known Parsees include Naoroji
Furdonji, Homi Bhaba, Zubin Mehta, Rahumtan Mistry, Tatas, Wadias and
Godrej. Some well known Pakistani Parsees are Behram Avery, Bapsi Sidhwa,
Jamshed Marker, M P Bhandara and Cowasjee. They established charitable
hospitals, schools, colleges and orphanages. They also did well as
lawyers, solicitors, doctors and administrators.
The Parsees adopted the Indian dress with their own modifications.
Women wore long sleeved blouses and sarees with reverse pallu. Men wore
trousers (not dhoti) with long coats and tall cornered black caps. They
have fair complexion and sharp features. The Parsee cuisine has a
liberal use of eggs. Their vegetable, meat, pulse and rice potpourri (dhanshakh)
and fish stuffed with spice rolled in banana leaves (patrani machchi) is
The Parsees carry out a Sadreh-pushi or an initiation ceremony (Navjat)
for both young boys and girls to admit them to the faith. Sadreh is an
undershirt of pure white muslin with a small pocket in front to fill it
with good deeds every day. One has to be born inside the faith and there
is no preaching to convert others. There is a Yalda festival where
families sit together in long winter nights and eat melon which is
thought to protect against illness. New Year is celebrated by the No Ruz
festival. To the consternation of the Iranian Government, and even the
Arabs, the No Ruz festival is widely followed by the Iranians.
According to one estimate, there are only around 200,000 followers of
Zoroastrianism in the world. Their number has drastically dwindled
because like Judaism, they do not marry outside the faith and do not
carry out conversions. The largest number, around 70,000, lives in
India, about 60,000 in Iran and rest are spread all over the world.
UNESCO declared 2003 as the Year of 3000 Anniversary of the Zoroastrian
culture. Zoroastrians need to begin marrying outside the faith so that
this great heritage of mankind is not reduced only to the pages of
And whether one is a believer of re-incarnation (Samsara) or the day
of Judgment (Qiamat), no one can have an objection to the central theme
of Zoroastrianism – Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta.
Which means ``Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds’’.