views updated Jun 08 2018


ZOROASTRIANISM . Zoroastrianism, known to its followers as the Zarathushti din (Zoroastrian religion), developed from the words, ideas, beliefs, and rituals attributed to a devotional poet named Zarathushtra (later Middle Persian or Pahlavi: Zardukhsht, Zardusht; New Persian or Farsi: Zardosht). Zarathushtra eventually came to be regarded as the founder and prophet of the devotionally monotheistic, doctrinally dualistic faith named after him. So, followers of the religion are termed Zoroastrians (New Persian: Zartoshtis, Zardoshtis; Gujarati: Jarthushtis). Zoroastrians also traditionally refer to their faith as Mazdayasna daēnā (Middle Persian: dēn ī Māzdēsn ) (religion of Mazdā) and to themselves as Mazdayasna (Middle Persian: Māzdēsn ) (worshipers of Mazdā), thus acknowledging worship of Ahura Mazdā (Wise Lord) as God and creator. The Fravarānē (Profession of faith) begins with the Avestan words: "I profess myself a worshiper of Mazdā, a follower of Zarathushtra, opposing the demons, accepting the doctrine of the Ahura."

Zoroastrianism developed into the major religiontheologically, demographically, and politicallyof Iran and Central Asia between the sixth century bce and the tenth century ce, enjoying royal patronage from various dynasties. During those centuries it influenced Hellenistic, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim beliefs through contact between members of those communities and Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians assimilated aspects of monotheism and hagiography from the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. After the Arab conquest of Iran and Central Asia in the seventh century ce, Zoroastrianism gradually lost adherents through conversion to Islam. During the tenth century, some adherents migrated to India, forming the minority Parsi (Persian) community that flourishes there into the twenty-first century but became endogamic within Hindu society. By the thirteenth century, Irani Zoroastrians also had become a confessional minority. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Zoroastrians relocated from Iran and India to other countries. Based on recent demographic assessments, the faith has a following of approximately 300,000 persons worldwide.

The Founder, His Ideas, and His Representations

The issue of Zarathushtra's image is central to Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrians. Therefore, Zarathushtra requires discussion within any overview of the religion.

Zarathushtra's dates and place

Devotees do not doubt the basic reality of Zarathushtra's existence. Yet one line of modern scholarship has been to view Zarathushtra as a legendary character. This position has resulted in suggestions that a historical Zarathushtra was not the composer of the Gāthās (Songs) central to Zoroastrian belief. Rather, some scholars attributed the Gāthās to one or more anonymous poet-worshippers who allegedly presented an epic character named Zarathushtra as the prototypical poet-sacrificer. These conclusions are based on comparing aspects of the Gathic texts with certain Vedic poems and archaic Greek epics. However, analyses of compositional style and structure indicate that the Gāthās were the product of a single devotional poet named Zarathushtra (Possessor of Old Camels) who ensured that memory of him was perpetuated through self-references within his compositions.

When and where Zarathushtra lived is another problematic issue. The traditional place and date for Zarathushtra's life found in a variety of Iranian (including Zoroastrian), Mesopotamian, Greek, and later Arab sources is in Iran two hundred and fifty-eight years before Alexander the Great's conquest of Iran and the death of the last Achaemenian king, Dārayavaush or Darius III (in 330 bce)that is, 588 bce. However, the traditional date for Zarathushtra's life seems to have been either of Greek or more probably of Babylonian origin. Moreover, it is unlikely that the Old or Gathic Avestan dialect was still spoken at that time, as evidenced by the rapid decline in use of its west Iranian cognate, Old Persian, during the Achaemenian period. So composition of the Gāthās must have predated the seventh century bce.

Another set of dates for Zarathushtra's life arose among classical writers. Diogenes Laertius (fl. third century ce), based on Xanthus of Lydia (fl. fifth century bce) and Hermodorus (fl. fourth century bce), gave two dates for Zarathushtra's lifesix thousand years before the Achaemenian king Xerxes' forces invaded Greece (in 480 bce) and from five to six thousand years before the Trojan War (early second millennium bce). Pliny the Elder (2379 ce) cited Eudoxus (fl. fourth century bce) in claiming that Zarathushtra had lived six thousand years before the death of Plato (in 348 or 347 bce), or five thousand years before the Trojan War. All those dates fall within the seventh millennium bce. Moreover, classical Greek and Roman authors regarded Zarathushtra as having been an Iranian magus. One major problem with accepting seventh millennium bce dates for Zarathushtra's life is that his words and ideas should then be present not only in the Gāthās but also within early Vedic texts of Hinduism and be part of Indo-European devotional literature generally. Because the material data indicates that Proto-Indians separated from Proto-Iranians during the late third or early second millennium bce, Zarathushtra's life cannot date to before that division.

The third possible place and date for Zarathushtra are the result of enhanced knowledge of both comparative Indo-Iranian linguistics and the archaeology of Central Asia. The linguistic data suggests that the Gāthās must have been composed after the Proto-Iranians were distinct from the Proto-Indians (that is, by the eighteenth century bce) but before the Gāthās became part of the Zoroastrian religious canon (that is, between the tenth and sixth centuries bce), following which Old Avestan fell into disuse. Descriptive reconstruction from the Avestan texts of the society in which Zarathushtra lived correlates with the archaeological remains of the Late Bronze Age in Central Asia. That Bronze Age culture extended from the Caspian Sea through Transoxiana to Afghanistan in 20001750 bce, followed by a period of societal dispersion in 17501500 bce. So, Zarathushtra probably lived and preached in Central Asia between the eighteenth and fifteenth centuries bce.

Zarathushtra's teachings

Zarathushtra's Gāthās provided the Bronze Age people of Central Asia with a vivid and engaging system whereby religious belief and ritual activity were utilized to differentiate between asha (order) and drug (confusion) (Gāthās 33.4, 34.6). Zarathushtra established mazdā (wisdom) and Ahura Mazdā (later Old Persian: Auramazdā, Middle Persian: Ohrmazd, New Persian: Hormazd) as means of distinguishing right from wrong (Gāthās 33.13, 45.6). The primordial entity Ahura Mazdā was ascribed a creative hypostasis called Spenta Mainyu (originally Spanta Manyu, Middle Persian: Spenāg Mēnōg) (Holy Spirit). Opposing order and Ahura Mazdā, Zarathushtra suggested, were confusion and the primordial entity Angra Mainyu (later Middle Persian: Ahreman, New Persian: Ahriman) (the Angry Spirit). By medieval times Zoroastrian theologians would ascribe a destructive hypostasis called Ganāg Mēnōg (Harmful Spirit) to Angra Mainyu. According to Zarathushtra, the two primordial entities were "in thought, word, and deed, the better and the worse" respectively (Gāthās 30.3). Ahura Mazdā came to be venerated as the "father of order" and the "creator of all these [beneficial] things" (Gāthās 44.3, 7).

The Gāthās also suggested that the corporeal (Avestan: gaēthya ) world be regarded as an extension of the spiritual (Avestan: mainyava ) one, explaining the differential experiences of humans in terms of struggles between order and confusion. In so doing, Zarathushtra endowed human existence with meaning during life and hope for an afterlife. Zarathushtra even articulated the notion of pious souls journeying to a paradisiacal existence in the Abode of Song.

Zarathushtra's images

As the Zoroastrians of ancient and medieval Iran interacted with other religious communities such as Jews, Christians, and eventually Muslims, a pious biography or hagiography developed around Zarathushtra. Zoroastrian writers in antiquity and the Middle Ages drew upon glimpses of his life, the names of family members and followers like Jāmāspa, and the accounts of his opponents, such as the tribal leader Bēndva in the Gāthās, combining those with biblical notions of piety, devotional quest, revelation, opposition, ministry, and violent demise. This organized hagiography began to develop after the Achaemenian conquest of Babylonia (in 538 bce) under influence of Israelite accounts of the Patriarchs, was augmented during the second through seventh centuries ce by the Christian image of Jesus' life as recounted in the Gospels, and was supplemented by images from the life of the prophet Muammad after Arab Muslims began ruling Iran in the seventh century.

According to that later hagiographic tradition, Zarathushtra's mother, Dughdōvā, was forced to flee her hometown for another village. There, she met a pious man named Pourushaspa, with whom she conceived Zarathushtra. A light supposedly shone from Dughdōvā's womb when she was pregnant, resulting in attempts by evildoers to harm mother and fetus. Upon birth, Zarathushtra's first breath apparently sounded like a laugh rather than a cry. Surviving several attacks upon his life, Zarathushtra eventually left home at the age of twenty. After a decade of wandering and contemplation, he received revelation via Vohu Manah (Middle Persian: Wahman, New Persian: Bahman) (Good Mind) and returned to preach the religion of Ahura Mazdā. Zarathushtra was opposed by the clergy of the older cults in his homeland and had to seek refuge at the court of a neighboring ruler named Vishtāspa, who accepted the religion. Here, Zarathushtra preached and gained many followers until he was assassinated by a priest of another sect at the age of seventy-seven, or so it was written. Through these stories, Zarathushtra's image was firmly established as that of a Near Eastern prophet and eventually recorded in the Zardukhsht nāmag or Zardosht nāme (Book of Zarathushtra) and other medieval texts like as the Dēnkard (Acts of the religion), written in the Middle Persian and New Persian languages. This hagiography has become increasingly popular among Zoroastrians. It is often reproduced in an assortment of pious literature from novels for adults to comics for children in which Zarathushtra is regarded as one of the earliest prophets.

There are no surviving descriptions or renditions of Zarathushtra's actual likeness. Images, however, were produced by devotees and others. Raphael Santi (14831520), the Italian Renaissance artist, depicted Zarathushtraback turned to viewers, wearing a golden robe, holding a globe of the Earth, facing a depiction of Ptolemy, and standing next to an image of the artist himselfon the lower right corner of the School of Artists fresco at the Vatican in Rome, Italy. Modern Zoroastrians have generated their own images of Zarathushtra, the most popular of which is modeled on a rock relief of Mithra commissioned by the Sasanian king Ardeshir II (r. 379383) at Taq-e Bostan in Iran. Various versions of that image adorn fire temples and homes of contemporary Zoroastrians showing Zarathushtra with rays of light emerging from a halo and, sometimes, pointing his right forefinger upward to heaven, much like the Greek philosopher Plato in Raphael's fresco.

Priests, Sects, and Lay Leaders

A Zoroastrian clergyman is termed a magus (Old Persian: magush, Middle Persian: mowbed, mowmard, New Persian and Gujarati: mobed ) and is a member of a hereditary priestly subgroup among the Zoroastrians. Over time, subgroups developed among the magi based on theological divergences. Likewise, sects arose within the Zoroastrian community itself based on differences in beliefs and praxes. At various times, certain lay members of the Zoroastrian community have also gained followers for particular tenets and traditions.

The Magi in history

Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce), the Greek author, mentioned that no devotional rituals would be conducted by Iranians unless a magus was present. He also listed practices and beliefs specific to the magi such as consanguineous marriage, exposure of human corpses to wild creatures and the environment for desiccation, nondesecration of nature, and dislike of creatures regarded as noxious or harmful, such as wild animals, reptiles, and insects (History 1.101, 132, 140). Herodotos confirms that the magi (Greek: magoi ) began as the priestly tribe among a tribal confederation known as the Medes. It appears that they appropriated the ideas of Zarathushtra after those concepts had begun to spread among the Proto-Iranians and that they were the sole clerics of the early Zoroastrians by the time the Medes had settled permanently in Iran (ninth century bce). The magi claimed, erroneously, that Zarathushtra had been a member of their group and had lived among them in northwestern Iran as noted by Plato (c. 428348 or 347 bce) Alcibiades 1.121). The magi modified Zarathushtra's message to accommodate their own practices within the framework of dualism between order and confusion. They brought with them the notion of a hereditary priesthood that followed their established praxis of never including women in the ecclesiastic membership, claiming that menstruation and childbirth resulted in the discharge of blood that, once outside the body, could pollute priests, ritual actions, and holy places.

Greek and Roman authors learned of Zarathushtra through contact with the magi. Hellenistic scholars such as Pythagoras (c. 570500 bce) came to regard Zarathushtra as a mystical figure and as the original leader of magiciansa term deriving from the Old Persian word magush borrowed into Greek as mágos and Latin as magus. The name Zoroaster, by which the devotional poet is commonly identified in Western literature, derives from classical Greek Zōroástrēs, meaning "golden star" and symbolizing his association with spirituality. The magi were introduced into Christian belief as the wise men from the east who supposedly journeyed to Bethlehem; thus, the sages of Zoroastrianism were used to legitimize the founder of another Near Eastern faith.

Ranks within the early Zoroastrian magi seem to have included that of āthravan (fire priest) and zaotar (invoker, libation offerer). During the Achaemenian Empire, magi served as seers, counselors, and tutors to Iranian noble families. Magi staffed fire temples at urban centers such as Kangavar and Istakhr. The chief priest at each temple probably was titled magupati (head magus, master magus.) Seminaries developed for training magi, as did pious foundations for meeting the expenses of temples and seminaries. The color white was reserved for magian clothing to symbolize purity. Their dress, as evidenced from artistic representations, consisted of loose pants, a long-sleeve tunic bound by a belt, and a hooded cap with side flaps for covering the mouth to prevent breath and saliva from polluting ritual items. Because they lost royal favor and state support, the magi reacted adversely to Alexander's conquest of Iran. They denounced the Macedonian conqueror by claiming that his troops slaughtered many magi and burned copies of Zoroastrian scripturea legend that became part of Iranian official history. Under the Achaemenians and, subsequently, with the Seleucids (fourth centuryfirst century bce), some magi moved to Ionia and Cappadocia (now in Turkey) where they staffed fire temples into the first century bce (as noted by Strabo, (c. 63 bce24 ce), Geography 15.3.1415).

By the Arsacid or Parthian period (238 bce224 ce), magi served in ranks bearing titles such as hērpat (later hērbed ) (theologian), magpat (ritual priest), and bagnapat (shrine master.) They were present in large provincial temples such as those for the holiest fires in IranĀdur Farrōbay, Ādur Gushnasp, and Ādur Burzēnmihrand in village chahār tāq (four-arch) fire precincts. They began working with clerics of other religious groups within Iran, such as the Jewish patriarchate, to regulate religious activity across confessional lines. They also served in the imperial judiciary. Leading magi were mentioned in Sassanid royal inscriptions and other official documents. Kirdīr, who functioned as royal hērbed under the second Sassanid ruler Shāpūr I (r. 240272) and his immediate successors, commissioned Middle Persian inscriptions in which his religious duties, visions of the afterlife, and image were recorded. Kirdīr claimed to have zealously attacked religious sects regarded as heresies. By the fourth century, magi were led by an official titled the mowbedān mowbed (chief magus of the magi), or high priestsuch as Ādurbād ī Māraspandān, who served during the reign of Shāpūr II (r. 309379)whose position was part of the royal court at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad). The title dastwar (high priest), denoting a cleric certified in both scripture and exegesis, was used as well.

When Zoroastrians lost political control of Iran and Zoroastrianism began to lose adherents to Islam, medieval magi compiled the faith's traditions and practices into the Pahlavi books. For example, Mardānfarrokh ī Ohrmazddādān (fl. ninth century) wrote the Shkand Gumānīg Wizār (Doubt dispelling exposition) to critique Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam while defending Zoroastrian tenets. Later, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, magi in Iran sent the Persian Revāyats (Treatises) to their coreligioniststhe Parsisin India to advise the latter on religious observances. As the number of Zoroastrians in Iran declined through conversion to Islam, fire temples and seminaries (Middle Persian: hērbedestān ) fell into disuse. After the Parsi Zoroastrians had settled in western India, their magi divided into five panths (ecclesiastic groups). Learned among the Indian magi was Neryōsangh Dhaval (fl. late eleventh century or early twelfth century), who translated portions of the Avesta into the Sanskrit language. According to Iranian tradition, the dastur dasturān (high priest of high priests) moved to the central Iranian village of Torkabad north of Yazd in the twelfth century and then to Yazd itself during the eighteenth century.

Contemporary magi

The present-day priesthood, whose members are still called mobeds, traces its lineage to the medieval magi of Iran. They form a class (New Persian and Gujarati: āthornān ) (members of the priestly group) distinct from the laity (New Persian and Gujarati: behdinān (members of the good religion). Within the modern magi, ranks persist, including that of ostā (teacher, an uninitiated priest), ērvad (teacher priest, a priest who has undergone the first level of induction), and dastur (high priest, usually, but not always, associated with a temple for a holy fire of the ātesh behrām [fire of Verethraghna], or highest ritual level). Two categories of lay individuals traditionally have assisted magi in Iran: the ātashband (keeper of the flames) who tends ritual fires and the dahmobed (junior priest) who serves as temple warden. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, another category of priestly assistants has been created by the Mobed Councils in Iran and North America, namely the mobedyār (lay priest), to counter the growing shortage in the number of clerics by performing basic rituals for the laity.

Magi in both Iran and India continue to wear white robes and a white turban. They don a white mouth and nose mask (Middle Persian and New Persian: padām, Gujarati: padān ) to avoid polluting implements (New Persian and Gujarati: ʿālāt ) and offerings (Avestan: myazda, Middle Persian: mēzd, New Persian and Gujarati: myazd ) during rituals. For high or inner rituals, they are required to be in a major state of ritual purity, which is obtained via the Barashnūm ī nō shab (Purification of the nine [days and] nights ceremony). During rites, an appropriately inducted and purified magus can serve in ranks including zōt (invoker, officiating priest), rāspī (assistant), and bōywalla (incense offerer). Passed from father to son, priesthood involves studying liturgies and rituals from childhood. Training usually occurs at a seminary (now known in New Persian and Gujarati as madrasah ). Presently, there are only two functioning seminaries for the magithe Athornan Boarding Madressa at Dadar in Bombay (Mumbai) and the M. F. Cama Athornan Institute at Andheri West in Bombay. Despite such training, because scripture is memorized, many magi comprehend only the gist of prayers. Clerical training may be followed by formal induction as a priest via the Nāwar and Martab (Maratib) ceremonies among the Parsis and the Navezut ceremony among Iranis. Most magi also obtain secular education and, after undergoing only the Nāwar or basic Navezut induction, serve as part-time priests or else leave the priesthood completely for secular employment that provides greater remuneration. The resulting shortage of magi has led to abbreviation of certain rites such as purificatory ones and to a focus on daily devotions. On a regular basis, magi serve lay Zoroastrians at fire temples in countries as diverse as Iran, India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, where they are employed by local congregations.

Leaders and groups

A large array of beliefs and practices seem to have been prevalent among the ancient and medieval magi. Only as the religion declined under Muslim rule in late medieval times were certain priests able to establish the more monolithic form of Zoroastrianism that is evidenced by the Middle Persian literature of the ninth through thirteenth centuries. As a result those texts, written for the most part by a handful of related clergymen, convey a false sense of uniformity in doctrine and ritual. One of the most widespread doctrinal variations was that called Zurvanism, which regarded Zurvan (Time) as a monist reconciliation of the dualism represented by Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu and as a means of explaining the evil spirit's anger. Probably arising from theological speculation during the fifth century bce, it was still subscribed to by magi such as Zādspram in the late ninth century ce. Another sect, that following Gayōmartiya and engaging in astrological and cosmological speculation, regarded Ahura Mazdā as eternal but Angra Mainyu as produced by divine doubt (in this respect perhaps drawing upon Zurvanite ideas) before waning in the ninth century.

Premodern and modern Parsis have experienced their own sectarian schisms. Disagreement relating to the calendar caused a division of the Parsi Zoroastrian community in 1746 into Kadmīs, who readopted the qadīmī (ancient) Iranian calendar, and Shenshaīs (also called Rasimīs) (traditionalists), who maintained the traditional Parsi calendar. Another group, called the Fasalīs or Faslīs, formed in 1906 to rely on a fasl (seasonal) calendar for rituals. Observance of rituals and festivals on different days because of these calendrical differences persists to the present, even among Parsis now residing in Western countries.

As priests' erudition on scripture and exegesis declined during the twentieth century, so did the Zoroastrian community's esteem for the magi, reliance on clerical learning, and acceptance of ecclesiastical authority. Contemporary dasturs still issue socioreligious injunctions on matters such as conversion to Zoroastrianism, marriage with members of other faiths, appropriate roles for women, and disposal of corpses, but by and large such rulings have only moral value for receptive laity and other magi. As a result, some magi have begun following sects established by lay Zoroastrians. One such sect arose when a Parsi named Behramshah Shroff (18581927) claimed to have been trained by spiritual sages on Mount Damavand in Iran and preached Ilm-e Khshnum (Knowledge of joy). Ilm-e Khshnum provides esoteric teachings that combine ideas of mysticism, astrology, reincarnation, and auras with the practice of vegetarianism and the compilation of new exegeses on the Avesta while granting religious authority to laypersons. One Khshnumist subgroupwhose members are identifiable by their red prayer caps and formulaic phrases of greeting such as khshnaothra ahurahe mazda (satisfaction unto Ahura Mazdā)now follows the teachings of Minochehr Pundole and so are termed the Pundolites. Among twenty-first-century Irani Zoroastrians living in the United States, a Muslim convert to Zoroastrianism named Ali Jafarey is popular. He founded the Zarathushtrian Assembly based in Anaheim, California, in 1990. Its members advocate Zoroastrianism as a universalistic faitha viewpoint rejected by mainstream Zoroastrians who do not favor unregulated proselytism.

Scripture, Exegeses, Commentaries, and Catechisms

Holy texts, interpretations of scripture, and discourses have developed and changed over the centuries. They have also been translated into a variety of languages to meet the confessional needs of linguistically diverse Zoroastrian com-munities.

The Avesta

Zoroastrian scripture, or Avesta (Middle Persian: Abestāg, probably from Old Iranian: *Upa-stāvaka, "praise"), is a collection of texts regarded as holy and central to beliefs and practices. The canon may be divided into two groups based on linguistic differences: (1) the Old or Gathic Avestan materials, which were composed orally between the eighteenth and twentieth century bce, transmitted and augmented for several centuries, then established as the main portion of the oral scriptural canon between the tenth and sixth centuries bce, and (2) and the Young or Standard Avestan materials, which were composed orally, in some cases from existing verses, between the ninth and fifth centuries bce, transmitted, augmented, then established in the oral scriptural canon by the third century bce. The written text of the Avesta originated in the fourth century ceprobably from deliberations by magi under the royal patronage of Shāpūr II. All existing Avestan manuscripts derive from a base text dating to the ninth or tenth century.

Only about one-third of the Sassanid Avesta has survived. It consists of:

  1. The Yasna (Middle Persian and New Persian: Yasn, Gujarati: Ijeshne ) (Sacrifice, worship), comprising seventy-two chapters. Yasna 2834, 4350, 51, and 53 preserve the seventeen Gāthās of Zarathushtra. Chapters 3541 comprise the Yasna Haptanghāiti (Yasna of seven chapters), composed in Old Avestan prose probably by devotional poets among the early Zoroastrian community. Four mąthras (holy words), also composed in Old Avestan perhaps by Zarathushtra himself, are preserved in the Yasna namely, Yathā Ahū Vairyō (Ahuna Vairya, Ahunawar ) (As is the Lord's will), Ashem Vohū (Order is good), Yenghē Hātąm (All the entities), and Ā Airyēmā Ishyō (May the invigorating Airyaman.) The other chapters of the Yasna were composed in the Young Avestan dialect. Because this scripture serves as the recitation for the central ritual of worship, Yasna chapter 1 invites Ahura Mazdā and other holy spiritual entities to the ritual that will be performed. Yasna chapters 7072 bring the accompanying ritual to an end with worship of those spirits.
  2. The Vīsperad (Avestan: Vīspe Ratavō) ([Prayers to] all the [spiritual] chiefs), comprising twenty-four short sections. It is a collection of supplementary materials, compiled in the Young Avestan dialect, to the Yasna. It is dedicated to Ahura Mazdā as the chief and master of all creation, and serves to extend the Yasna.
  3. The Khwurdag Abestāg (New Persian and Gujarati: Khorde Avesta ) (Concise or shorter Avesta), beginning with five prayers: Ashem Vohū; Yathā Ahū Vairyō; Nirang-e Kusti Bastan (Incantation for tying the cord), also known as Ohrmazd Khwadāy (Ahura Mazdā is the Lord); Srōsh Bāj (Recitation to Sraosha); and Hōshbām (Middle Persian: Ōshbām ) (Dawn). Next come five Niyāyishns (New Persian and Gujarati: Niyāyesh ) (Invocations of praise) to the sun, Mithra, the moon, water, and fire, in that order. Then follow prayers to the five Gāhs (periods, watches [of each day]). Siroza (Thirty days) 1 and 2 contain short invocations to thirty-three divine spirits individually. The words of four Āfrīnagāns (Blessings) are also given in the Khorde Avesta.

There are twenty-one surviving Yashts (Devotional poems) dedicated to various beneficent spirits in the Khorde Avesta. Those devotional poems are Ohrmazd (New Persian and Gujarati: Hormazd) Yasht to Ahura Mazdā; Haft Amahraspand (New Persian and Gujarati: Haft Ameshaspand, Haftān ) Yasht to the seven Amesha Spentas (Holy Immortals); Ardwahisht (New Persian and Gujarati: Ardibehesht, Ordibehesht ) Yasht to the male Amesha Spenta Asha Vahishta (Best Order, Prayer); Hordād (New Persian: Khordād, Gujarati: Awerdād ) Yasht to the female Amesha Spenta Haurvatāt (Integrity, Wholeness, Perfection); Ardwīsūr (New Persian: Ābān, Gujarati: Āwān, Āvā ) Yasht to the female water yazata (worship-worthy spirit) Aredvī Sūrā Anāhitā; Khwarshēd (New Persian and Gujarati: Khorshed ) Yasht to Hvare Khshaēta, the yazata of the Sun; Māh (Māh Bakhtār, New Persian: Māh Bokhtār, Gujarati: Mohor ) Yasht to Māh, the yazata of the Moon; Tishtar (New Persian and Gujarati: Teshtar ) Yasht to Tishtrya the star Sirius, religiously often confused with the divine spirit Tīr (beneficent stars); Druwāsp (New Persian and Gujarati: Drvāsp ) Yasht to the female yazata Drvāspā, associated with horses and cattle; Mihr (New Persian and Gujarati: Meher ) Yasht to Mithra; Srōsh (New Persian and Gujarati: Sarosh ) Yasht Hādōkht (that is, Yasht 11) or extract to Sraosha, together with Srōsh Yasht Wadī (Yasna 57) or the longer (greater) yasht to Sraosha, and Srōsh Yasht ī Keh (Yasna 56) or the shorter (lesser) yasht to Sraosha (this designation is found in Yasna manuscripts); Rashn (Gujarati: Rashna ) Yasht to Rashnu, the male yazata of justice and spiritual judgment; Frawardīn (New Persian and Gujarati: Farvardin ) Yasht to the fravashis (immortal human spirits); Wahrām (New Persian and Gujarati: Behrām ) Yasht to Verethraghna, the male yazata of victory; Rām Yasht to Vayu (Middle Persian: Way, New Persian: Bād, Gujarati: Govād), the male yazata of the good celestial wind; Dēn (New Persian and Gujarati: Din ) Yasht to the Cistā (Cisti), the female yazata of insight or religious knowledge; Ard (Ahrishwang, Ahlishwang, New Persian and Gujarati: Ashishvang ) Yasht to Ashi, the female yazata of recompense; Ashtād (Āshtād) Yasht to Arshtāt, the female yazata of rectitude and order; Zamyād (Zam ) Yasht to Khvarenah (glory); Hōm Yasht (Yasna 8.910.21) to Haoma (Parsis designate this as the Mōtī [larger, longer] Hōm Yasht ) plus an extract from Yasna 9 (Parsis designate this as the Nānī or [smaller, shorter] Hōm Yasht ); and the Wanand Yasht to Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.

  • The Vidēvdād (Middle Persian: Wendīdād, New Persian and Gujarati: Vendidād ), consisting of twenty-two prose chapters in Young Avestan. The text is largely socioreligious in content, focusing on ritual purity with rules and rites for protecting the earth, cleansing after pollution by corpses and carrion, rites for exorcizing spiritual pollution, and fines for absolution from sin. Most of the ritual stipulations in the Vidēvdād can be attributed to practices specific to magi of the Proto-Iranian, Median, Achaemenian, and Parthian periods. Like the Yasna, the Vidēvdād is scripture that functions as the basis of a high ritual. Therefore, its manuscripts contain not only doctrine and exegesis but also performative directions for the magi to follow.
  • Additional texts for daily use that are included in premodern manuscripts and modern printed versions of the Khorde Avesta. Nirangs (Avestan: nīrāngāni, Middle Persian: nērang ) (incantations, spells) are present, often as extracts from Avestan or Middle Persian passages. Pious believers regard them as highly efficacious in dispelling evil, producing good health, and fulfilling boons. The Duā Nām Setāyeshne (Nām Stāyishn; Invocation of praise to the names [of Ahura Mazdā]) and a list, One hundred and One Names of Ahura Mazdā (Sād-ō Yek Nām-e Khodā ), were incorporated so that devotees could directly display respect for their creator. The text of the Tandorosti (Health of the body) is given so that it can be recited for both maintenance and return to well-being. The Petīt [or Patēt ] Pashēmānī (Penance and repentance) also become part of many Khorde Avestas because it is believed that spiritual ailments which led to physical manifestations of illness could be expunged through regular confessionals. Eventually, monājāts (litanies) in New Persian and Gujarati (now even in English translations) were incorporated so that devotees can understand the gist of the prayers that are in languages which most individuals have not learned.
  • Several surviving Avestan texts and textual fragments, containing materials that probably were once part of scripture. A few should be mentioned. The Young Avestan Hērbedestān (Priestly code or book of religious education) and Nērangestān (Ritual code or book of ritual directions) were redacted between the sixth and ninth centuries ce. The Pursishnīhā (Questions [and answers]) on pious and sinful behaviors was redacted in the fifteenth century. The Aogemadaēcā (I profess) is a dirge that was redacted by the twelfth century. It has a Pāzand version as well. The Hādōkht Nask (Selection of scripture) provides an important synopsis of Zoroastrian notions of the afterlife.


Sassanid magi and learned laymen, writing in Middle Persian, produced a series of supplementary texts often drawing upon Avestan sources that no longer exist. Their endeavors were continued by other clergymen when Zoroastrians fell under Muslim overlordship in the seventh century. The major accomplishment of those priests was Zand (Avestan: zantish ) (exegesis) on the Avesta. The purpose of each translation with commentaryoften written interlinear with the Avestan textinto Middle Persian was to transmit the meaning of texts to members of the Zoroastrian community who no longer comprehended the Avestan language. Because of problems in determining equivalent lexical value, reconstituting the sentences, and explaining phrases, the translations often were not exact but served more as expository commentaries. Middle Persian Zand has survived to the present for the Gāthās; the Yasna; the Khwurdag Abestāg, including the Ohrmazd, Ardwahisht, Srōsh, Wahrām, Hōm, and Wanand Yashts; the Videvdād; the Hērbedestān; the Nērangestān; and a few other scriptures.

The Pahlavi books

Most of the Middle Persian or Pahlavi books were compiled and redacted by Zoroastrians in Iran between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Such compilations aimed to preserve Zoroastrian doctrine, ritual, theology, mythology, history, and mores under circumstances in which the faith was becoming a minority. An encyclopedic collection, the Dēnkard preserves selections from the collective wisdom of the medieval magi as edited by two hudēnān pēshōbāy (leaders of the members of the good religion) in Farsnamely, Ādurfarrōbay ī Farrokhzādān (fl. early ninth century) and Ādurbād ī Ēmēdān (fl. early tenth century). Cosmogonical and eschatological texts include the Bundahishn ([Book of] primal creation; major redaction in 1078) and the Wizīdagīhā (Selections), by Zādspram (fl. late ninth century), which cover Zoroastrian mythical, legendary, and factual history from creation to the end of time. The Ardā Wirāz Nāmag (Book of righteous Wirāz, based on Sassanid-era materials but redacted in the ninth or tenth century) preserves the description of a spiritual voyage through heaven, limbo, and hell. The Ardā Wirāz Nāmag proved very popular as a didactic text, and so was translated into Pāzand and Old Gujarati and illustrated for the edification of premodern Parsis. A book on apocalypticismalso found in Pāzandis the Zand ī Wahman Yasn (Exegesis on the devotional poem to Vohu Manah), an anonymous ninth-century compilation).

Among Middle Persian catechisms are the Mēnōg ī Khrad ([Book of the] spirit of wisdom, sixth century), which was composed in the form of an imaginary dialogue between the Spirit of Wisdom and a sage. A later Pāzand version of it is extant as well. The Chīdag Handarz ī Pōryōtkēshān (Select counsels of the ancient sages, ninth century), also known as the Pand Nāmag (Book of advice), provides a more basic synopsis of religious values, beliefs, and practices. Among the books providing religious guidance are Nāmagīhā (Epistles) of Manushchihr ī Juwānjamān (fl. ninth century); the Rivāyat (Treatise) of Ēmēd ī Ashawahishtān (fl. mid-tenth century); and the Pahlavi Rivāyats of Ādurfarrōbay and Farrōbaysrōsh, which contain replies by two Irani magi to questions posed by laypersons in the years 800 and 1008, respectively. Broader in theme is the Dādestān ī Dēnīg (Book of religious judgments), answers by Manushchīhr ī Juwān-jamān to ninety-two questions from laypersons on matters of doctrine, ethics, legal issues, and social problems experienced by Zoroastrians in ninth-century Iran. Religious stipulations and ritual requirements are discussed in the Shāyest nē Shāyest (The proper and the improper) and its Supplementary Texts; both compilations, although written in the ninth century, contain Sassanid period (224651 ce) rulings and mores.

Pāzand and Sanskrit versions

Magi living in Iran under Muslim rule produced Pāzand ([Text] with commentary) literature. Pāzand prayers include the Paywand nāme, or Ashirwād, which serves as the benediction for marriage ceremonies. This Pāzand tradition was continued by the Parsi priest Neryōsangh Dhaval. He transcribed select Pahlavi books into the Avestan script to make them accessible to twelfth-century magi who could not read Middle Persian. In addition to the Pāzand texts mentioned previously (in discussions of the Avesta and the Pahlavi books), there are among others the Petīts, the Dibāches (Prefatory recitations) to Āfrīnagāns, and Nirangs.

Neryōsangh Dhaval also translated portions of Avestan scripture into Sanskrit, including incomplete versions of the Yasna, the Khorde Avesta, the Mēnōg ī Khrad, and the Shkand Gumānīg Wizār. Fragments of Sanskrit translations of the Vidēvdād, perhaps also going back to Neryōsangh's efforts, have survived. His intension was to make Zoroastrian scripture and exegesis accessible to Parsis who knew the Indian language but not Avestan and Middle Persian. There are sixteen Sanskrit ślokas by Aka Adhyaru, verses dating to before the seventeenth century, dealing with miscellaneous socioreligious matters from prayer times to dress codes to purity. The Ashirwād was translated from Pāzand into Sanskrit by Dinidās Bahman (fl. early fifteenth century) prior to the year 1415.

New Persian and Gujarati texts

Many Zoroastrian religious documents were written in New Persian. Most famous is the Parsi community's founding legend, known as the Qessa-e Sanjān (Story of Sanjan) composed in 1600 ce by Bahman Kaikōbād Sanjāna, a Zoroastrian priest. Expository translations from Middle Persian texts include the late medieval Saddar Bondahesh ([Book of] primal creation [written] in one hundred chapters) and Saddar Nasr (One hundred chapters of assistance.) More original works of advice, yet drawing upon established traditions, form the Persian Revāyats, which date to between the late fifteen and late eighteenth centuries. Those treatises contain responses by learned Zoroastrians living in Yazd and Kermān to ecclesiastical questions posed by their Indian coreligionists. The Farziyāt nāme (Book of obligatory duties), by dastur Darab Pahlan (16681734), written in couplets at Navsari, India, lays out the religious duties of each individualmale and female, children and adultsthrough life and on every day of the month; it displayed Indian influence by advocating vegetarianism. It was translated and published in Gujarati for general readers about one century later. The Muslim scholar Ebrahim Pur-e Davoud (18851968) produced New Persian translations of the Gāthās and Yashts that became popular among Iranis and, upon reprint in Bombay, met with enthusiasm from educated Parsis.

In addition to translation into Gujarati of the Khorde Avesta, Zoroastrians in India wrote original tracts in the Gujarati language, which had replaced New Persian as their medium of communication. The Rehbar-e Din-e Jarthushti (Guide to the Zoroastrian religion) is a premodern catechism written by the high priest Erachji Meherjirana (18261900). That text was eventually translated into English with a commentary by the contemporary Parsi dastur Firoze Kotwal of Bombay.

English renditions

As English has become a major medium of communication among Zoroastriansthrough British colonialism, Western-style secular education, globalization, and migration to the Westtranslations of scripture have been produced in that language. Among the most commonly utilized prayer books during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuriesespecially for teaching scripture to children before their initiation into the faithwith transcription of the Avestan and Middle Persian texts into the Roman (i.e., English) script and translation of those texts into English are Daily Prayers of the Zoroastrians by the Sri Lankan lay Parsi scholar Framroz Rustomjee (18961978) and Khorde Avesta by the Irani mobed Fariborz Shahzadi, who now lives in the United States. Major discourses on Zoroastrianism, written in English, have been published by dastur Khurshed Dabu (18891979) at Bombay. Ervad Godrej Sidhwa at Karachi and mobed Behram Shahzadi at Westminster, California, among many others, have also written Zoroastrian theological works in English during the twentieth century. Basically catechisms, those books serve to disseminate knowledge of Zoroastrianismfrom a variety of perspectivesto clerical and secular Zoroastrians and to non-Zoroastrians who may not know any of their religion's traditional languages.

Doctrines and Mythology

Zoroastrian beliefs and myths were interconnected by ancient and medieval magi to provide believers with a unified explanation for the joys and sufferings of life while endowing existence with purpose. It is clear that Zarathushtra's own ideas were conjoined with the Indo-European and Indo-Iranian tenets that Zoroastrians inherited. Near Eastern millenary chronologiesbeliefs in which a new millennium was regarded as a new age, following a violent end to the old onethen reshaped Zoroastrian beliefs as did historical events.

Dualism, pantheon, and demons

As the devotional tradition was amplified slowly after Zarathushtra's lifetime, it came to be believed that Ahura Mazdā, through Spenta Mainyu, had created six Amesha Spentas to generate and protect aspects of material creation: Vohu Manah, who oversees animals; Asha Vahishta, who symbolizes fire; Khshathra Vairya (Middle Persian: Shahrewar) (Desirable dominion, power), who manifests metals; Spenta Ārmaiti (Middle Persian: Spendarmad) (Holy disposition, later understood as Holy devotion), who represents the Earth as its mother; Haurvatāt, who characterizes water; and Ameretāt (Middle Persian: Amurdād, New Persian and Gujarati: Amardād) (Immortality, rejuvenation), who exemplifies plants. After incorporation of the Yashts, which originally served as devotional poems for Indo-Iranian divinities, into the liturgy of the descendants of Zarathushtra's early followers, it was assumed that Ahura Mazdā originally had created more beneficent spirits. These included the male and female yazatas like Mithra, Sraosha, Verethraghna, Daēnā, Ashi, and Aredvī Sūrā Anāhitā to assist in protecting the material creations. Zoroastrian doctrine records that, in response, Angra Mainyu supposedly produced numerous daēvas (Middle Persian: dēws, New Persian and Gujarati: divs). The daēvas (shinning ones) had been part of Indo-Iranian belief but were demonized by Zarathushtra (Gāthās 30.6). Such malevolent daēvas include female ones like Āzi (Middle Persian: Āz), who generates concupiscence and other desires; Jahikā (Middle Persian: Jēh) the "Whore," who supposedly misleads women to lust and prostitution; and Drukhsh Nasush (Middle Persian: Druz ī Nasush), who ferments carrion and pollution. There are also male ones, like Aēshma (Middle Persian: Khēshm), who instills wrath; Aka Manah (Middle Persian: Akōman), who instigates bad thoughts; and Būti (Middle Persian: But), who spreads idolatry. Essentially, spiritual entities venerated by the earliest Iranians were assimilated into the developing Zoroastrian faith and then assigned differential valence as either agents of order or confusion during antiquity and the Middle Ages.

During the modern period, the beliefs of Zoroastrians have gradually changed under the influences of Protestant Christianityespecially due to the activities of the Reverend Dr. John Wilson (who began preaching in Bombay in 1829, eventually converting some Parsis to Anglicanism) and other British missionariesand colonial western ideas, moving from a dualism to an absolute monotheism in which Ahura Mazdā is regarded as the sole God. The Amesha Spentas and yazatas are now accorded a variety of positions, usually equivalent to archangels and angels, respectively. Angra Mainyu has come to be regarded as the Devil with his independent nature tempered by partial subservience to God. The daēvas have lost much of their demonic force, becoming minor bad spirits and ghouls. Yet most Zoroastrians living in the twenty-first century continue to believe that humans serve a vital function in the struggle between God and the Devil, representing order or good versus confusion or evil, respectively. Moreover, from the 1980s onward there has been a trend among orthodox Zoroastrians back to dualistic tenets while maintaining Ahura Mazdā's divine supremacy.

Cosmogony and sacred history

Human history is regarded as a divinely ordained, twelve-thousand-year period of finite time (Middle Persian: zamān ī kanāragōmand ) bounded at its commencement and conclusion by eternity or infinite time (Middle Persian: zamān ī akanārag ). Before finite time began, Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu supposedly were separated from each other by the void or wind of Vayu and dwelt within heaven in "infinite light" (Middle Persian: anagr rōshnīh ) and within hell in "infinite darkness" (Middle Persian: anagr tārīgīh ), respectively.

When finite time began, creation (Middle Persian: dahishn ) lasted six thousand years. The first three thousand years of creation were marked by the initial encounter between Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu and an offer of peaceful coexistence in purity and righteousness that was rejected by the evil spirit. After Angra Mainyu had spurned Ahura Mazdā's overture of peace, the Angry Spirit was temporarily defeated by the Wise Lord, who chanted the Ashem Vohū prayer. On hearing these holy words, the Angry Spirit is said to have collapsed, stupefied, back into the darkness (Wizīdagīhā 1.14). The second three thousand years passed while Angra Mainyu lay in a stupor and Ahura Mazdā prepared spiritual creationsincluding the Amesha Spentas, yazatas, and the spiritual prototypes of all living creatures. Angra Mainyu revived and generated harmful spirits. When Angra Mainyu attacked again, Ahura Mazdā repelled the adversary for another three thousand years with the Yathā Ahū Vairyō prayer (Bundahishn 1.2930). According to religious lore, Ahura Mazdā then transformed spiritual creations into the material universe by fashioning the Earth inside the sphere of the sky. That sphere, supposedly made of rock crystal, was thought to enclose the oceans, seven continents, and firmament with the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars. On the central continent called Khvaniratha (Middle Persian: Khwanirah), Ahura Mazdā apparently placed the first humanan androgyne named Gayō Maretan (Middle Persian: Gayōmard, New Persian: Gayumars, Keyumars) (Mortal life)the primordial bovine, and the first plant (Bundahishn 1A.13.24). Angra Mainyu eventually was aroused from his second stupor by the demoness Jahikā.

Corporeal existence and humanity's purpose

The second six thousand years of finite time is said to be the current age of mixture (Middle Persian: gumēzishn ) between good and evil. Angra Mainyu invaded the world, polluted it, and then slew Gayō Maretan, the primordial bovine, and the first plant with the demoness Āz's assistance, according to Zoroastrian cosmogonical accounts. Owing to Ahura Mazdā's intervention, humanity supposedly arose from the semen of the androgyne, animals and cereals from the body of the first bull, and other plants from the seed of the initial plant (Wizīdagīhā 2.122). The first human couple, Mashya (man) and Mashyāna (woman), who were born from Gayō Maretan's semen, are believed to have succumbed to lying and worshiping daēvas, resulting in their damnation (Bundahishn 14.1130). Human history passed, in this scheme of religious chronology, with the rise and fall of legendary dynasties until Zarathushtra was born in the year 8,970. Thirty years later, Zarathushtra received revelation from Ahura Mazdā and preached the Wise Lord's faiththus beginning the final three-thousand-year sequence. According to sacral history, the era of Zarathushtra and the Kayanians was followed by the Achaemenian, Seleucid, Arsacid, and Sassanid dynasties. Thereafter, the Arabs conquered Iran establishing the Umayyad (661750) and Abbasid (7501258) caliphates, succeeded by semi-independent and independent Iranian Muslim states and then by Turkish invaders (tenth to fourteenth centuries). Those conquests, triggering the reduction of Zoroastrianism to a minor faith and Zoroastrians to the status of a religious minority through conversion to Islam between the eight and thirteenth centuries ce, were incorporated into the faith's mythohistory and explained in terms of a steady increase in evil (Zand ī Wahman Yasn 1.611, 3.2029, 6.610). Thereafter, it is claimed, finite time will progress onward and Zoroastrianism will not be practiced widelya situation that allegedly heralds the advent of the final days.

For devotees, the material world came to be viewed as not merely the arena in which humans combat evil. Zoroastrians regard it as the trap into which the evil spirit was lured. Once trapped in matter, Angra Mainyu ostensibly is vanquished gradually via good thoughts, good words, and good deeds by divine spirits and devotees acting in unison. This became the faith's and each practitioner's raison d'être. Zoroastrians, then, trust that humans were created by Ahura Mazdā as allies in God's cosmic struggle against Angra Mainyu and that humans consented to assume physical form to further this battle. The reward of heaven after death is offered to the souls of believers, albeit on gender-differential bases, who have upheld righteousness and combated evil during their lifetimes.


Zoroastrians have faith that when an individual dies, the life force leaves the corporeal body, which then becomes a corpse that demonic forces attack and cause to decay so that pollution occurs. His or her mortal soul (Avestan: urvan, Middle Persian: ruwān, New Persian: ravān ) also leaves the body, remaining beside the head of the corpse for three days and nights (Mēnōg ī Khrad 2.111114). The mortal soul of a righteous person is said to chant happily Yasna 43, "According to my wish," whereas the mortal soul of a sinful person wails Yasna 46, "To what land shall I flee? " (Hādōkht Nask 2.26, 3.26). On the dawn of the fourth day, the soul is led to the Bridge of the Compiler (Avestan: Cinvat peretav, Middle Persian: Chinwad puhl). Beneath this metaphysical transit point, which connects the earthly realm to the heavenly one, is said to lie hell. Individual tribunals are convened at the bridge's earthly base to determine each mortal soul's holiness. The yazatas Mithra (who presides to appraise whether the soul has kept its covenant to do good while in the corporeal world), Rashnu, and Sraoshain some later traditions, Mithra and Sraosha are occasionally replaced by Arshtāt and Zamyādcomprise the spiritual court. Rashnu is described as weighing each soul's good and bad deeds in the pans of a scale (Mēnōg ī Khrad 2.118122, 163).

If the soul's righteous acts outweigh its evil ones, the soul is greeted by its Daēnā or conscience in the form of a "a beautiful girl" (Hādōkht Nask 2.9) who personifies those pious actions. This good Daēnā, together with the yazatas, then escort the saved mortal soul across the bridge to heaven, where the soul will dwell until the end of time in union with its immortal spirit (Avestan: fravashi, Middle Persian: frawahr, New Persian: farvarshi, Gujarati: farohar ) (Mēnōg ī Khrad 2.123). If a mortal soul's unrighteous acts outweigh its good ones, that soul is greeted by its Daēnā "in the form of an ugly naked whore" (Hādōkht Nask 3.9) who personifies the soul's evil actions. This bad Daēnā, together with other daēvas, toss the condemned mortal soul off the bridge into hell, where it will dwell and experience punishment as recompense until the end of time. In cases where a mortal soul's good and evil deeds are equal, it is consigned to limbo until the end of time.

Heaven or paradise, known as Garō-nmāna (also Garō-demāna, Middle Persian: Garōdmān ) (Abode of song) and therefore termed Wahisht (the best [place]), is depicted as a physical locationa realm of joy, peace, happiness that is full of light, warmth, and all virtuous pleasures (Hādōkht Nask 2.1518). Hell, known as Drūjō-nmāna (also Drūjō-demāna, Middle Persian: Druzmān ) (Abode of Confusion) and therefore described as Dushokh (he Worst [place]), is also depicted as a physical locationa realm of grief, conflict, despair that is filled with darkness, cold, stench, plus harmful insects and animals like scorpions and serpents (Hādōkht Nask 3.1536). Here demonic creatures, lead by Angra Mainyu, are said to gloat as they torment the impious soul together with his or her predeceased bad relatives and friends in a gloomy space. Limbo, known as Nana (different [place]), Misvana Gātav (Place of the Mixed), or Hamēstagān (Place of the Equally-Weighing Ones), is thought to be located between the Earth and heaven. It is described as a place where mortal souls are suspended, each in isolation, experiencing nothing at all.

Apocalypse and eschatology

Social strife, personal calamity, and pollution of body and soul are all viewed as originating from Angra Mainyu, whose presence in the material world is believed to increase as time passes. The present period will, in Zoroastrian belief, be followed by a time when three saviorsUkhshyatereta (Middle Persian: Ushēdar) (He who makes order flourish); Ukhshyatnemah (Middle Persian: Ushēdarmah) (He who makes reverence flourish); and Astvatereta (He who embodies order), also called Saoshyant (Middle Persian: Sōshāns) (Savior)will be born, one every thousand years, to gradually purify the world and its inhabitants (Zand ī Wahman Yasn 9.123). Eventually, during the religious year 11973, the eschaton supposedly will commence with Saoshyant resurrecting all the dead. The resurrection, performed by Saoshyant at Ahura Mazdā's command, results in each human's mortal soul and immortal spirit returning to earth from heaven, hell, or limbo and gaining a final body (Middle Persian: tan ī pasēn ). Zoroastrians claim that Ahura Mazdā then will descend to Earth with the Amesha Spentas and yazatas. Saoshyant will separate righteous individuals from evil ones at a final, universal judgment of all humans. At that assembly, called the gathering of Isatvāstra (Middle Persian: Isadwāstar) after the prophet Zarathushtra's eldest son, each person will recognize his or her relatives and friends, and the pious shall rejoice in their goodness while the sinful lament their evil deeds. It is believed that the stars will fall from space onto the Earth, leveling the mountains into molten metal. Each sinner, having already suffered in hell after death, will be purified once more of his or her transgressions and impurities by means of an ordeal involving passage through the molten metal. A mythical bovine named Hadhayash (Middle Persian: Hadhayans) will be ritually sacrificed, and its fat mixed with a legendary white haoma to produce an elixir granting immortality of body and soul to all who consume it (Bundahishn 34.1026).

Thereafter, Ahura Mazdā, the Amesha Spentas, and the yazatas will annihilate most of the daēvas and all the harmful corporeal creatures. The devil Angra Mainyu himself will be rendered innocuous and forced to scuttle out of creation back to hell. Finally, hell will supposedly be sealed shut with molten metal, safeguarding the spiritual and material worlds from evil, impurity, and pollution forever. According to Zoroastrian eschatology, once the separation (Middle Persian: wizārishn ) of confusion or evil from order or good has been accomplished, Ahura Mazdā will renovate or "make excellent" (Avestan: frasho-kereti, Middle Persian: frashagird ) the universe in the year 12000: "The renovation will take place in the world, [and the beings in] the material world will become immortal forever" (Bundahishn 34.32). Human history allegedly will then end, and eternity will recommence in absolute purity and perfection, with humanity dwelling in happiness upon a refurbished, flat earth.


Worship (Middle Persian: yazishn ) and purification (Middle Persian: yōjdahrgarīh ) are central to all aspects of Zoroastrian piety. Worship may occur at home or even outdoors, but is most regularly performed inside fire temples (New Persian: āteshkade ), where holy fires of the ātesh behrām, ātesh ādarān (fire of fires), and ādurōg ī dādgāh r (hearth fire) ranks burn upon altars in fire precincts (New Persian: āteshgāhs ). Medieval injunctions urged devotees to "go each day to the fire temple and perform worship" (Chīdag Handarz ī Pōryōtkēshān 45). Yet in order for worship to be efficacious, the devotee must have ritual purity.

Purity and pollution

Elaborate rules were established by the magi to prevent pollution of the material world on the basis that Angra Mainyu had produced various types of defilement, particularly through Drukhsh Nasush, whose ill effects could spread from humans and animals to fire, water, and earth. A series of purificatory ceremonies were developed to ensure socioreligious purity for high ceremonies and rites of passage. Most of those rituals have fallen into disuse in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, because beliefs regarding pollution have undergone modification as a consequence of modern science and have come to be regarded by many Zoroastrians as superstitious demonology.

The simplest ritual cleansing, known as the Pādyāb (Protection [preceding] water), takes only a few minutes to perform. It is undergone facing a source of light such as the Sun, Moon, stars, or lamp. After covering the head as a sign of deference, the performer dedicates his or her action to Ahura Mazdā. He or she washes the hands and forearms, the face, and the feet (if unshod), then wipes them dry. Original praxis in ancient and medieval times required that the ablution be performed first with gōmēz (urine from a bovine), or else with dust, before washing with water. Moreover, gōmēz (or else dust) and water had to be applied thrice. In modern practice, however, water is regarded as adequate for ensuring daily purity and so is applied only once due to simplification of the ritual. According to orthopractic codes, this cleansing is essential upon awakening each morning, prior to prayer and eating, after urination and excretion, and at the beginning of each period of each day. Most Zoroastrians now perform a perfunctory pādyāb only before entering a fire temple or after attending a funeral. After undergoing a pādyāb, the devotee must perform the ritual of untying and retying the kustī (see below).

More elaborate is the Sade Nāhn (Simple ritual bath). Conducted at home, fire temple, or funerary ground, it is administered during the daylight hours so that light can aid in dispelling evil. The ceremony lasts approximately half an hour. In orthodox practice, a priest who has attained the rank of purifier (Avestan: yaozhdāthrya, Middle Persian: yōjdāhrgar, New Persian: yozhdāsragar ) must officiate. After performing a Pādyāb and untying the kustī, the candidate for purification recites the Bāj ([Consecratory] recitation) used for grace before meals, then chews a pomegranate leaf as a sign of wishing for immortality, drinks three sips of nirangdin or consecrated urine from a bovine for symbolic spiritual cleansing, and recites the Pētit for absolution from sin. He or she undresses, applies gōmēz over the body, washes with water, dries the body, dons a sudre or white undershirt, dresses in clean clothes, and reties the kustī. In modern performance, ablution with gōmēz is often omitted and all actions have been reduced from thrice to once. Moreover this Nāhn is undergone by most male and female Zoroastrians only prior to initiation and marriage. Until the mid-1900s, it was undergone by mothers forty days after childbirth (serving as a simplification of an even more detailed cleansing of thirty washings) and by pious devotees on holy days.

The most complex of Zoroastrian purification rituals is the Barashnūm ī nō shab. It generally was reserved for cleansing after direct contact with human carrion or to ensure that a priest was in the highest state of ritual purity. Purification was obtained via consuming nirangdin, followed by multiple cleansings with gōmēz, dust, and water while either standing within pits (in antiquity), crouching upon stones (during the Middle Ages), or squatting on bricks (in modern times), followed by seclusion and additional ablutions for nine days and nights. The Barashnūm ī nō shab is still undergone, but with diminishing frequency, only by magi who conduct the most central Zoroastrian consecratory services.


Zoroastrian liturgical ceremonies can be divided into two categories: inner or high services that must be performed within a holy gāh (space, precinct), usually located within fire temples, and outer or regular services that can be performed at any clean location. Inner rituals include the Yasna, Vīsperad, Vendidād, Nīrangdīn (Consecration of liquids), and Bāj. Magi who conduct inner rituals have to be in high states of purity and grace. Outer rituals include the Āfrīnagān, Staomi (Stūm; Praise), Farrokhsi ([Recitation] for the Fravashis), and Jashan (Thanksgiving).

The Yasna ritual, the most fundamental of Zoroastrian devotional ceremonies, brings together fire, water, plants, animals, humans, and holy words. The Yasna liturgy has already been discussed. Originating among the Indo-Iranians, it was assimilated into Zoroastrianism and modified to remove immolation of sacrificial animals in the libation produced from the haoma (Vedic: soma) plant. In a variant form it is still present in Hinduism as the yajña ceremony. Conducted each dawn by two magi who are in the highest state of ritual purity, most of the ritual occurs within a precinct that had been made holy by demarcating and consecrating a small space from the rest of the area via furrows while reciting holy words. In ancient and medieval times, an animal regarded as beneficial, such as an ox, sheep, or goat, would be sacrificed as an offering. Since the early twentieth century, fruits, flat unleavened breads (drōn), and cooked foods have been substituted. Twigs from the haoma plant (now identified by Zoroastrians as ephedra) are purified and pounded to extract sap, which is strained and mixed with milk and water to form a libation called parāhōm. Aromas from the consecrated food and drink are believed to satisfy Ahura Mazdā, the Amesha Spentas, and yazatas to whom the worship is directed. Thereafter, the two priests and sponsoring laypersons consume the food offerings and infuse the liquid offering into a source of water, such as the temple's well.

The Vīsperad ritual's liturgy consists of the Yasna plus twenty-four additional passages from the Avesta. Dedicated to Ahura Mazdā, its performance comprises the Yasna ritual with the extended recitation. This inner ritual is performed whenever the Vendidād is conducted. It is performed at the Gāhānbārs (also pronounced Gāhāmbārs ) (Communal feasts) too.

The Vendidād ritual is often conducted by an officiating priest and an assisting priest at midnight to dispel evil. Celebration of the ritual involves recitation of the Vidēvdād text from the Avesta with interpolation of chapters from the Yasna and Vīsperad, producing a total of forty-nine selections. The ritual is conducted in the presence of a dādgāh fire and lasts approximately seven hours.

Nīrangdīn rituals are conducted to obtain consecrated liquid used to purify symbolically the souls of devotees. Having purified themselves via the Barashnūm ī nō shab and obtained religious fortitude via a Khūb (Good [ritual power]), two priests obtain bull's urine. As part of the Nīrangdīn ceremony, the prefatory rite for the Yasna and other high ritualsknown as the Paragņā (Preceding the Yasna)and the Vendidād are performed, consecrating the urine.

Bāj services involve consecration of drōn, gōshudā (animal products)now usually butterand fruits with dedication of those offerings to yazatas and fravashis. Bājs often are commissioned on death anniversaries by relatives of deceased Zoroastrians.

The Āfrīnagān, Farrokhsi, and Staomi outer rituals serve to honor the mortal souls and immortal spirits of both living and deceased Zoroastrians. For example, the Staomi (Stūm) ritual is a soliloquy of remembrance that links the present to the past and the future, uniting the living with the dead. That ritual may be conducted in any clean area where outer ceremonies are performed, such as at a Zoroastrian's house or inside a fire temple, upon a carpet or table or within a ritual precinct. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Staomi consists of five stages: a shnūman (dedicatory formula), Yasna 26 or the rite proper, a dībāca, a series of propitiatory recitations, and a Bāj that serves as a closing recitation. Because of offerings and the fragrances of those offerings that are made holy during the ritual, it is believed that asymbolic gathering together of all fravashis occurs. At such gatherings, therefore, the immortal spirits can be propitiated by the living, and in turn those spirits presumably bless the living. Most frequently performed is the Jashan ritual, which also involves consecration of food by the officiating magus or magi who recite an Āfrīnagān and Bāj. Then the food is shared by the sponsors of the ritual, often at a communal gathering.

Festivals and popular rites

Prayer services like Jashans are performed in fire temples and homes on days such as Nav Ruz, the New Year's festival (at the vernal equinox); Mihragān (also called Jash-e Mehr Ized ), the feast honoring Mithra (at the autumnal equinox), and the Gāhānbārs. The six Gāhānbārs are still celebrated by many Zoroastrians, especially those in Iran. On those occasions fruits, flowers, and cooked foods made from plantsand now less frequently from animalsare consecrated to the divinities and then consumed by the community. Originally, animals were sacrificed by Zoroastrians in both Iran and India on religious and communal festivals. But Hindu vegetarian influences on the Parsis led to the gradual phasing out of animal sacrifice, and Parsi abstention spread to Iranis in the twentieth century.

The spreading upon Sofres (clothes) of food offerings to beneficent spirits, often in conjunction with the Gāhānbārs and during pilgrimages to shrines, has become a frequent devotional practice among women, although not sanctioned by the magi. Sofres are widely performed by Zoroastrian women of all social classes in Iran. The rite serves as a locus of feminine spirituality, organized and attended mainly by women and their children.

Pilgrimages form part of the religious lives of devout Zoroastrians who are seeking favors from God or are fulfilling vows. Major shrines are located in the Iranian province of Yazd and each shrine has a founding legend associated with Zoroastrian attempts to withstand conversion to Islam. The six major pirs (shrines) are Pir-e Sabz, Pir-e Nawraki (Nāreke), Pir-e Narestan, Set-e (Se-tā) Pir, Pir-e Herisht (Hrisht), and Pir-e Bānu Pārs. Those shrines are administered by local anjomans (associations), often drawing upon funds from charitable foundations. Parsis consider the Irān Shāh ātesh behrām at the city of Udwada to be their most venerable holy fire, and so travel to worship Ahura Mazdā in its presence. In the late twentieth century, Parsis began making pilgrimages to Iran, where they visit the important functional fire temples and shrines at Yazd and Sharifabad, then view the ruins of ancient and early medieval archaeological monuments associated with the Zoroastrian dynasties of that country.

Rites of Passage

Zoroastrians past and present perform ceremonies to mark major points in their lives, much like members of other faiths. Birth, initiation into the religion, marriage, and death are important times during which religious beliefs are reaffirmed and membership in the confessional community is consolidated. Those rites of passage involve not only the Zoroastrian who is undergoing the life-altering event, but his or her family and friends as well.


Children are regarded as essential for "continuation of the corporeal lineage" to combat confusion in the material world (Chīdag Handarz ī Pōryōtkēshān 5). Therefore, abortion is discouraged (Vidēvdād 15.912). Birth rites still follow many guidelines found in medieval and premodern Zoroastrian writings, even though most births now occur in hospitals.

Once a woman conceives, an oil lamp or light is lit in her house to ward off evil. Also, the expectant mother should avoid contact with polluted items that may render her ritually unclean (Saddar Nasr 16.1, 17.2). Traditionalist Parsis mark the first days of the fifth and seventh months as auspicious, exchanging gifts between husband and wife and between each spouse's families. Upon the birth of a child, a lamp is kept lighted for between three to forty days, depending on the degree of orthopraxy in the family, so that mother and child will be protected from daēvas (Farziyāt nāme 2cd). Because haoma is regarded as "death dispelling" (Hōm Yasht or Yasna 9.7), a few drops of its libation or parāhōm followed by a few grains of sugar would be placed upon the child's tongue by the parents, grandparents, or family priest while reciting the Yathā Ahū Vairyō prayer so that the child might experience a life free of sickness and full of joy. This practice was common into the eighteenth century (Farziyāt nāme 2a). Now, after prayers of thanks to God, breast milk or milk formulas are fed to the infant. Naming of the child occurs shortly thereafter (as noted even in the Achaemenian period by Herodotos, History, 1.139). Many families still consult astrologers who determine, based on the day and time of birth, the syllable with which the child's given name should commence.

Despite the positive aspects of childbirth among Zoroastrians, the accompanying discharge of tissue and blood came to be regarded as polluting. A period of isolation was prescribed for the motherinitially twelve days during antiquity (Vidēvdād 5.4562, 7.6072), extended to forty days by the Middle Ages (Shāyest nē Shāyest 3.15). This praxis continued into premodern times, to be followed by a ritual purification via the Sade Nāhn before the mother was reintroduced to the community (Persian Revāyats 223). Isolation and purification gradually ceased to be enforced during the early twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, most Zoroastrian women simply bathe to cleanse themselves after childbirth.


Teaching of prayers to children by a magus or family elder usually begins at the age of seven years. Once the boy or girl has memorized at least the Ashem Vohū, Yathā Ahū Vairyō, Kēm Nā Mazdā, Nirang-e Kustī Bastan or Ohrmazd Khwadāy, Jasa Mē Avanghe Mazdā (Come to my aid, O [Ahura] Mazdā), and Srōsh Bāj prayers, he or she is initiated into the faith before puberty (Farziyāt nāme 2hi). Failure to be initiated is thought to expose the child to demonic forces (Vidēvdād 18.31, 54). During the ceremony that symbolizes advent to adulthood, acceptance of religio-legal responsibilities, and spiritual rebirth, each child is vested with a cord (Avestan: aiwyānghana, Middle Persian: kustīg, New Persian: koshti, Gujarati: kustī ) around the waist and a white undershirt (Middle Persian shabīg, New Persian: sedra, Gujarati: sudre ). Origin of initiation into the sectarian community may date from the Central Asian Bronze Age, for a similar cord is tied around the shoulder of each Brahman boy during the Upanayana ceremony in Hinduism. Failing to wear these holy items was regarded as a sin and equated to "scrambling around naked" (Shāyest nē Shāyest 4.10). The sudre is sown from white cloth such as cotton and serves as religious armor against evil. Its neckline has a small pocket or girehbān (girdo) where the wearer's good deeds symbolically accumulate. The kustī is woven by priests' wives from wool and its seventy-two strands are said to represent the chapters of the Yasna (Nērangestān 3.1.1121). An entire medieval text, the Chīm ī Kustīg (Meaning of the cord) discusses the kustī's theological significance.

In the twenty-first century, most Zoroastrian boys and girls undergo religious initiation between the ages of seven and fifteen. The ceremony is termed Navjote (new birth) or Sedra-Pushi (donning the white undershirt) and is conducted by one or more magi. Just before initiation, the boy or girl undergoes the Sade Nāhn to ensure that entrance into the devotional community occurs in a state of ritual purity. A dādgāh fire burns in a small altar during the ceremony; candles and oil lamps may also be lighted so that illumination drives away evil. Fruits and flowers are placed nearby as offerings to Ahura Mazdā, the yazatas, and the fravashis. Several Zoroastrians may be initiated together, irrespective of gender. Standing up, the priest(s) lead the initiate(s) in prayers while the undershirt is donned and the cord is looped around the waist thrice and tied at front and back with square knots. Family and friends gather to witness the initiation, share a festive meal, and bestow gifts upon the initiate. The initiation ceremony is still performed routinely by Zoroastrians all over the world early in the twenty-first century. Auspicious days, such as the days of each month dedicated to Ahura Mazdā and Verethraghna, often are chosen for the ceremony.

The kustī, which most Zoroastrians continue to wear, should be untied and retied after the Pādyāb purification and with the recitation of prayers at five canonical prayer timessunrise, noon, afternoon, evening, and before sunriseand prior to performing worship at fire temples (Farziyāt nāme 3). The majority of modern-day Zoroastrians wear the sudre and kustī under their clothes, but the rites of untying and retying the cord are usually performed facing the sun or another source of light by laity only upon awakening each morning, prior to sleeping at night, and for bathing. If a Zoroastrian apostate wishes to return to the community, he or she has to undergo another initiation ceremony. Admission to Zoroastrianism became patrilineal after its followers became a minority faith during the late Middle Ages. Orthodox contemporary Parsi magi initiate only children whose parents are both Zoroastrians. More liberal magi among the Parsis and Iranis initiate children whose fathers are of Zoroastrian descent. Rarely are persons whose parents were not non-Zoroastrians initiatedand such initiates still are denied entrance to Zoroastrian religious sites on the Indian subcontinent.


The family unit has long been central to Zoroastrian communal structure, and so marriage is encouraged as a religious duty and divorce is discouraged, especially after children have been born (Chīdag Handarz ī Pōryōtkēshān 5). Royal records from ancient Iran, medieval religious manuals, and premodern marriage records indicate that Zoroastrian social praxis found polygyny fully acceptable. Wives were accorded differential status within the family based on their social class prior to marriage, whether they bore children, and the stipulations of their marriage contract. Only during the twentieth century was polygyny phased out under European influence, first among the Parsis and subsequently among Iranis.

Spring, reflecting fertility and growth, is regarded as an auspicious time for weddings. So are nights of the full and new moons. Nav Ruz, the "New Year's" festival day, is favored too. In India the monsoon seasons are avoided. Traditionally, weddings occur in the evening. Parsis conduct the service after nightfall owing to a legendary agreement with the first Hindu king whom their ancestors encountered in Gujarat. Iranis would conduct both the betrothal and wedding services at midnight, a practice now modified to early evening so that celebrations can be held with family and friends at a dinner reception. A white jacket (Gujarati: dugli ) and trousers plus an ornate hat (Gujarati: fethā, paghi ) are worn by Parsi grooms. White saris, with the trail draped over the head, are worn by Parsi brides. White jacket and trousers, with a simple green prayer cap, are worn by Irani grooms, although recently Western-style suits have become popular. White or green robes and shawl are worn by Irani brides, although in the twentieth and twenty first centuries Western-style wedding gowns have become popular. Symbolic items at an Irani wedding include a candelabra with candles to cast light upon the service, a tray with sweets (known as lurk ) made of seven types of fruits and nuts representing Ahura Mazdā and the Amesha Spentas, a pomegranate and an egg symbolizing fertility, decorated sugar cones representing the sweetness of married life, a mirror for self reflection, a prayer book to provide guidance, and a needle with thread and scissors indicating domesticity. Symbolic items present at Parsi weddings include trays with coconuts and rice grains representing fertility and a censer or fire brazier. Parsi brides and grooms wear flower garlands and hold flower bouquets as well. The religious service for a wedding is conducted by one or more priests. Irani and Parsi wedding ceremonies display variations that reflect cultural differences between the two communities of Zoroastrians.

Among Iranis, the wedding service begins when Ahura Mazdā is invoked by the officiating magus. Recitations include andarz (advice) relating to the gava giri (marriage contract). Bride and groom are asked if they accept each other as partners. A wedding sermon by the priest on the benevolence of the Amesha Spentas follows. Selections from the Srōsh Bāj and Yasna 52 (which recounts a wedding homily by Zarathushtra) are chanted by the magus. Finally, the Tandorosti is recited. Then the couple is sprinkled with flower petals and rice symbolically to bring them good luck. Among Parsis, the Āchu Michu rite of Indian originin which eggs, leaves, nuts, sugar, coconut, rose petals and other flowers, water, and coins are utilized to symbolize aspects of creation and reproduction coupled with hopes of joy and wealthis performed upon groom and bride by the bride's mother and the groom's mother. The officiating priest inquires from the bride and groom whether they consent to marrying each other. The bride and groom sit facing each other and the Hathēvāro (hand fastening) rite is performed: a white cotton sheet separates the seated bride and groom, while their right hands are bound together by the magus using white thread to indicate their holy union. The thread is then wrapped around them seven times in a clockwise manner while seven Yathā Ahū Vairyō prayers are recited. The sheet is then removed, the bride and groom toss rice at each other, the thread is removed as well, and the fire brazier brought close to the couple so that they may worship God in its presence. Next, with the couple seated side by side facing east, the Pāzand and Sanskrit versions of the Ashirwād are narrated by the officiating magus in the name of Ahura Mazdā, and the couple's oral consents are obtained for the marriage. Finally, Tandarosti is intoned to bless the newlyweds. A celebratory meal usually follows, hosted by the couple's parents, for their families and friends.

Death and funerary practices

If a Zoroastrian is known to be in the final hours of his or her life, the dying individual is supposed to recite the Petīt Pashēmānīh (also called Patēt-e Vidardegān [Penance for the deceased] by Iranis and Patēt Ravān-ni [Penance for the soul] by Parsis) in repentance for prior evil deeds, followed by several Ashem Vohū prayers. After the deceased's eyes are closed, the corpse is given a ritual cleaning (termed sachkār by the Parsis) either by professional corpse bearers (New Persian and Gujarati: nasā sālārs ) and corpse cleaners (New Persian and Gujarati: pākshus ) or by relatives or friends of the same sex, all of whom should be Zoroastrians. The chest is draped in a sudre and a kustī is tied around its waist. Thereafter, the deceased's body is dressed in white clothes, his or her hands are crossed over the chest, the legs are crossed by Iranian Zoroastrians but not by Parsi Zoroastrians, and the entire body is covered with a white shroud. The face remains exposed. If possible, handling of corpses is left to professional Zoroastrian corpse cleaners and bearers. Until the funeral service commences, a prayer vigil is maintained to safeguard the deceased's body and soul from demonic forces thought to be lurking in the vicinity. At the commencement of each period of the day, a rite known as sagdīd ([ritually] seen by the dog) is performed. The actual funeral service, termed Gēh Sārnā (Chanting of the Gāthās) by Parsis, occurs within twenty-four hours, during the three daylight periods, or morning, afternoon, and evening but not after sunset or after midnight. The body is placed upon a metal (which like stone is believe to withstand pollution) bier. The funeral service is followed by sezdo (sijdā ) (last respects). Then the deceased's face is covered with the shroud. The bier may be carried to the funerary site with mourners following, after having recited the Srōsh Bāj and formed gender-specific pairs. Mourners must be led by a pair of priests or one priest plus a dog to ward off evil and pollution. Most often in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the corpse is placed in a hearse, which is followed to the funerary site by relatives and friends in a motorcade.

In the early history of Zoroastrianism, human corpses were buried under the floors of disused buildings, following a practice prevalent among the Late Bronze Age people of Central Asia. Later, interment took place in village cemeteries. Achaemenian monarchs and their families were interred in rock sepulchers in the belief that the stone prevented the spread of pollution created by corpses' decay. Yet as praxis changed between the sixth and third centuries bce, the original Avestan term dakhma for a grave or tomb came to designate a place for exposure of corpses. As initially remote locales came to be inhabited because of demographic growth, dakhmas developed into walled enclosures or funerary towers that came to be called "Towers of Silence" in popular parlance. The practice of exposure prior to gathering and disposal of the bones appears to have been introduced by the ancient magi in order to prevent pollution of the earth, fire, and water.

Further variations in Zoroastrian funerary practices occurred during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Exposure of corpses was gradually phased out in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) during the late 1800s and in Iran during the 1970s. Iranis now bury their dead in graves walled with cement slabs to prevent the corpse from polluting earth and water. Parsis in India and Pakistan continue the tradition of exposing bodies to vultures in funerary towers, particularly at Bombay and Karachi, laying the bodies in specific areas or rows according to gender and age. However, in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, Sri Lanka, and even some locales in India and Pakistan, Zoroastrianslike their coreligionists in Iranbury the dead irrespective of gender and age in rows of graves within graveyards known as aramgāhs (places of rest, cemeteries). In Western countries, deceased non-Zoroastrian spouses may also be buried in those graveyards.

Historical Aspects

Zoroastrianism was brought onto the Iranian plateau by tribes migrating southward from Central Asia around 1500 bce. It became established as the dominant faith among the Medes, Persians, Scythians, and other Iranian groups who took up residence in various locations on that plateau. Through the Persians, Zoroastrianism spread to the indigenous Elamites of southwestern Iran as evidenced by renditions of the names of Ahura Mazdā and various yazatas preserved in Elamite ritual documents.

Ancient Iran

Median practice of Zoroastrianism is known from archaeological remains. At the citadel of Tepe Nush-e Jan (c. mid-eighth century to sixth century bce), south of the northwest Iranian city of Hamadan, two rooms with ritual fire precincts have been excavated. Likewise, the capital city of Hagmatāna (Ecbatana, now Hamadan) had at least one small, open-sided building with four corner columns supporting a domed ceiling that seems to be a precursor of the chahār tāq style of fire precinct. A relief carved above the entrance to a late Median or early Achaemenian rock tomb located at Qyzqapan in Iraqi Kurdistan depicts a priest on the left and a warrior on the right, both in Median garb appropriate to their occupations, flanking a fire altar with a stylized, semicircular flame.

Some modern scholars have questioned whether the Achaemenian rulers followed Zoroastrianism. Kūrush or Cyrus II (r. 550530 bce), who founded the dynasty, had magi at his royal court, according to classical writers. An open-air ritual precinct with stone fire plinths has been excavated at Parsarga (Pasargadae), the royal capital. The plinths' function is indicated by reliefs carved above the rock cliff tombs of seven subsequent Achaemenian rulers, including that of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rostam and that of Artakhshaçā or Artaxerxes III (r. 359338 bce) at Persepolis. The king or a magus climbed to the top of the southern plinth, faced the northern plinth, which bore a fire altar with flame, and performed devotions before Zoroastrianism's main icon. Implements such as mortars and pestles, whose dedicatory inscriptions confirm their ritual usage for pounding of haoma during the Yasna ritual, have been excavated at Persepolis. While Zarathushtra was not mentioned in imperial inscriptions, Ahura Mazdā was routinely praised in those writings. For instance, Darius I noted: "Ahura Mazdā is the great God who created this earth, who created that sky, who created humans, who created happiness for humanity, who made Darius king" (Naqsh-e Rostam inscription A 15). Following Egyptian depictions of Ra and Assyrian ones of Ashshur, Ahura Mazdā seems to have been depicted on Achaemenian royal reliefs standing within a disk which had a bird's wings, tail, and talons, although some scholars consider the symbol to represent Khvarenah (glory) and modern Parsis regard it as a farohar. Artaxerxes II (r. 404359 bce) and Artaxerxes III honored Mithra and Anāhitā in conjunction with Ahura Mazdāa practice that parallels Zoroastrian liturgiesas evidenced by their official Old Persian inscriptions (Susa inscriptions A 45, D 34; Hamadan inscriptions A 56, B; and Persepolis inscription A 25). No form of Mazdā worship other than Zoroastrianism has ever been identified. It is safe, therefore, to regard the Achaemenian rulers and many of their Iranian subjects as Zoroastrians, even though a range of other religionssuch as Judaism and Babylonian cultswere practiced within the empire and Cyrus II honored other divinities like Yahweh and Marduk when he was among their followers.

Religiosity during the Seleucid period was characterized by an amalgamation of Greek, Mesopotamian, and Iranian divinities. On the Iranian plateau and in Armenia, Anāhitāwhose name was Hellenized as Anaitis and whose attributes were augmented by those of other feminine divinities, such as Artemis and Inanna-Ishtarbecame the focus of an extensive temple cult with statuary and votive offerings. Among the residents of Commagene in southeastern Anatolia, Ahura Mazdā was fused with Zeus as Zeus Oromasdes. Mithra was fused with Apollo Helios Hermes, and Verethraghna (called Artagnes by the people of Anatolia) was conjoined with Hercules Ares. Colossal images of all those composite divinities were placed on a platform in an open air Zoroastrian temple at the site of Nimrud Dagh in southeastern Anatolia during the reign of Antiochus I (c. 6934 bce), a king of the regional Orontid dynasty (c. 163 bcece 72) who had descended from Achaemenian satraps. Antiochus also had images carved of him clasping the hands of divinities (Greek: dekhiōsis ).

Such syncretism continued during the Parthian period. Women, for example, served as professional mourners at funerals. Augmentation of the ritual role of fire occurred between middle Achaemenian and early Parthian times with the construction of monumental temples. Holy fires of the highest ritual grade, called the fires of Verethraghna, (Parthian: ādar warahrān, Middle Persian: ātakhsh wahrām, New Persian and Parsi Gujarati: ātesh behrām ) the yazata of victory, were placed in fire temples. The most famous ādar warahrān of antiquity were founded during that time: Ādur Farrōbay, considered the ādar warahrān of clergy and nobility, at the site of Kariyan; Ādur Gushnasp, linked to rulers as the ādar warahrān of warriors, at the site of Takht-e Sulayman southeast of Lake Urmiya (now in Iranian Azerbaijan); and Ādur Burzēnmihr, regarded as the holy fire of farmers and pastoralists, on Revand mountain northwest of Nishapur in Parthia (now Khorasan).

Advent of the Sassanid dynasty witnessed Zoroastrianism becoming the official religion of Iran. In addition to supporting the faith financially, Sassanid monarchs are credited by the magi as having commanded codification of the Avesta. Sacral kingship based on Zoroastrianism became normative. So Sassanid rulers like Ardeshīr I (r. 224240), Shāpūr I (r. 240272), and Khusrō II (r. 591628) had themselves depicted on monumental rock reliefs at Naqsh-e Rostam, Naqsh-e Rajab, and Taq-e Bostan receiving diadems of kingship from anthropomorphized images of Ahura Mazdā and Anāhitā. Every Sassanid monarch referred to himself or herself as māzdēsn bay (Mazdā-worshipping Lord) on their coins. That coinage routinely depicted monarchsfor example, Hormizd II (r. 302309)performing worship in front of fire altars. Magian ranks were regularized. Fire temples and seminaries were funded by the state and by private foundations. Committing apostasy was forbidden. As a result, under the Sassanian dynasty, Zoroastrianism became the politically and demographically dominant faith on the Iranian plateau and in western Central Asia.

Conversion to Christianity and Islam

Yet as Christian missionaries began proselytizing among Zoroastrians, and individuals from the latter groups began to adopt Christianity, Zoroastrian fire temples were transformed into churches at locales like Ejmiacin and Dvin in Armenia after the year 300. In Sassanid Iran itself, converts to Nestorianism deliberately extinguished holy fires on occasion while refusing to return to Zoroastrianismresulting in their martyrdom at the hands of magi as documented in the Syriac martyrologies.

Confessional realignment gained momentum with the Arab Muslim conquest of the Sassanid Empire during the seventh century. The Arab conquest came to be associated with prophetic and apocalyptic expectations. It gave rise to literature that presented claims of propitious birth, flourishing of a new religion and its followers, and disintegration of older dynasties and faiths. Islamic prophecy alluded to triumph, Zoroastrian apocalypticism to doom. The prophet Muammad and the Muslim caliphs were presented as successors to Zarathushtra and the Sassanid monarchs. These stories were construed to cast a veil of mystery over ordinary events involving the fall of one empire with its state religion and the rise of another empire with its new faith. Since people believed these statements, they acted on those beliefs. Many despondent Zoroastrians, concluding that a true deity would not have forsaken their religion or them, eventually chose to accept the new Islamic faith, which they felt had demonstrated its ascendance through political victory. Urban Irani Zoroastrians adopted Islam from the eighth through tenth centuries, and that faith spread among rural folk from the tenth through thirteenth centuries. Most Zoroastrian ecclesiastical institutions were either transformed into Islamic mosques and Sunni madrasahs or else destroyed or abandoned by the fourteenth century. The chahār tāq style of fire precinct with its domed roof was assimilated into Muslim religious architecture as domed mosques. Moreover, as residents' confessional alliance shifted to Islam, there was gradual diminishment in contributions to pious foundations that supported the magi.

Zoroastrian leaders turned to canon law in a futile attempt to circumscribe contact of their followers with Muslims, for they rightly perceived interaction as a conveyor of religious and social changes that threatened their traditional way of life. The magi outlawed marriage, sexual intercourse, and procreation with Muslims, encouraging all Zoroastrians to ostracize those who violated these bans. Muslim elites were, however, often in positions to stifle such endeavors and encourage conversion to Islam by the people whom they referred to generically as the māgūs (so named by Muslims after the priesthood).

Medieval migrations

The Arab Muslim occupation of Iran triggered migrations by Zoroastrians. Zoroastrianism had already reached China during the early sixth century, where the religion came to be known as Hsien. During and after the seventh century, there were many small, poorly documented migrations away from Iran over both land and sea. Some Zoroastrians, especially Sassanid nobles and military personnel, immigrated eastward through Central Asia to northern China. Other groups of Zoroastrians probably sailed from Iran to join expatriate communities already present in southern Chinese port cities like Canton. From China, small groups even relocated to Japan. From fifteen to eighteen fire temples functioned in China until Zoroastrianism, together with other foreign faiths, was proscribed there in 845. However, Zoroastrians survived in China as late as the mid-fourteenth century, after which they were completely assimilated into the local population. The situation proved different for other groups of immigrants, specifically those who went to India and formed the Parsi (Persian) community that flourishes into the twenty-first century. Those Zoroastrians who remained in Iran sought refuge from Muslim lifestyles by moving to out-of-the-way locales within Fars, Yazd, and Kermān provinces.

Medieval and premodern minorities in Iran

Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lives of Zoroastrians as a dhimmī (minority) community were governed by religious tenets and a sectarian society dominated by Muslim men. All followers of Zoroastrianism had to pay the jizya (poll tax) to the Sunni Muslim authorities, and the Zoroastrians' standing under Islamic law was secondary to members of the new confessional majority. Invasion and rule of Iran by the Mongols (12191256), Ilkhanids (12561335), and Timurids (13701507) resulted in violence against Zoroastrians producing even further conversion to Islam.

Institutionalization of Shiism under the Safavids (15011722) did little to strengthen relations between the Muslim and Zoroastrian communities, for the latter increasingly feared the specter of forced conversion to Islam under the religious zealousness of specific Shī˓ī clerics or mollās. Zoroastrians living in the Yazd and Kermān areas bore the brunt of religious persecution, resulting in adoption of Shiism by some villagers, the transformation of associated fire temples into mosques, and desecration or even demolishment of nearby funerary towers. A New Persian designation, gabr (hollow, empty), hence "one lacking faith, infidel," came to be used by Muslims to scorn Zoroastrians as nonbelievers in God despite the claim of the latter that the Avesta was a holy book just like the Qurʾān. Likewise, the term ātashparast (fire worshipper) became a slur directed against Zoroastrians by Shī˓ī Iranians, despite the former's protestations that they worshipped God and not fire. Forcible relocation of Zoroastrians occurred during the reign of Shāh ʿAbbās I (r. 15871629) from Yazd and Kermān to the capital city, Isfahan, as laborers. In other cities of Safavid Iran, they also served as manual workers and textile weavers. Outside the cities, they toiled on farmland owned by Muslims.

European eyewitness accounts suggest that the Zoroastrian community of Iran was at its nadir during the Qajar period (17791921). Since Zoroastrians were considered najes (unclean) by the Shīʿah, they experienced hostility from the Muslim majority populace. Conversion to Islam was enforced periodically with transformation of fire temples to mosques. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Zoroastrians feared that their homes would be raided and religious texts burned. Religious rites were performed indoors, out of view of Muslims, so as not to attract the latter's attention. Only after intercession by Parsi Zoroastrians from British India was religious freedom enhanced and the jizya abolished by Qajar royal decree in 1882. Zoroastrian anjomans (associations) were established thereafter, as were women's societies and orphanages. More than three dozen schools for Zoroastrian boys and girls were founded with Parsi and Irani money. The curricula at such institutions combined Western secular knowledge and traditional religious instruction, stressing English as a language for societal advancement. Irani magi began traveling to and residing in India for clerical traininga trend that lasted until the latter part of the twentieth century, when the priesthood within Iran was able to strengthen its organizational and didactic bases. Zoroastrians, hoping for more equitable treatment under a secular national government, participated actively in the Constitutional Reform movement. Eventually, the community was allocated its own seat in the majles (national consultative assembly, parliament). Although the 1906 Constitution claimed "all citizens are equal before the law," the legal standing of Zoroastrians vis-à-vis Muslims remained unequal as evidenced by Article 8 of that Constitution, where Zoroastrians were assigned a legal status no different from that which they held previously as a dhimmī community. Therefore, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more Zoroastrians relocated from Iran to British India to live amidst the Parsis. Carving out a distinctive economic niche in India, they became restaurateurs and liquor merchants.

Modern Iran

A brief period of respite for Zoroastrians in Iran from socioeconomic hardship and pressure to adopt Islam was experienced under the Pahlavi dynasty (19251979). Attempts to secularize and westernize Iranian society resulted in citizens generally being regarded as equal under the law. The ʿAyn nāme (Uniform Legal Code) for Zoroastrians was put into practice during the mid-1930s, establishing a nationally approved framework for their rights in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The Family Protection Law of 1967 and its revisions of 1975 were another central part of the restructuring of the community's legal relationship with the nation. Glorification of Iran's pre-Islamic past for sociopolitical reasons by the state, including introduction into the official calendar in 1925 of Zoroastrian names for the months, also raised the status of Zoroastrians in the eyes of many Muslim Iranians. The Pahlavi era was marked by rapid urbanization and reform for the Zoroastrian community as educational, employment, and business opportunities burgeoned. Westernization, urbanization, and secular education led to religious change, spread in part through elementary, middle, and high schools founded by Irani Zoroastrians for edification of their children during the Pahlavi period plus those schools that had been established earlier. Irani Zoroastrian communal leaders championed their religion as an early form of monotheism, brought about calendrical reform, and simplified or replaced rites deemed antiquated in favor of ones regarded as more suitable for a community with newfound societal and economic aspirations. Even conversion to Zoroastrianism by Muslims was tacitly permitted. Reform gradually spread from the community in Tehran to other urban settings such as the cities of Kermān and Yazd. Due to state pressure on behalf of its secularization program, access to most fire temples in Iran was opened in the 1960s to members of all faithsalthough they were requested (but not required) to cover their heads and remove footwear as signs of respect for the holy fires. Together with open access, yet another change occurred wherein the Pādyāb purificatory ritual and koshti (cord rite) came to be ever-less-frequently performed prior to entering the presence of a holy fire. Thus, an attenuation in notions of purity and pollution took place. By the mid-1970s, the community was finally confident that its lot had genuinely changed for the better in a secularizing Iranian state. Hence, leading members of the community at Tehran, Yazd, and Kermān still recount that Iran's reversal in 1979 to a political system in which Islam predominated once more deeply shook the foundational psyche of the Zoroastrian community and brought back a collective, multigenerational memory of harsh times from centuries past.

The advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran witnessed a return to strict socioreligious minority status for Zoroastrians. Technically protected under Article 13 of the 1979 Constitution, the community is allocated one elected representative position among the two hundred and seventy members or national representatives of the legislative branch of government, the majles. Despite being officially recognized as a minority and represented in public settings, Zoroastrians in Iran often are offered only limited protection on a daily basis from their Muslim neighbors. As a result, they sporadically have been targets for persecution. Community records list cases of Zoroastrian women being compelled to marry Muslim men in the presence of Shī˓ī clerics or mollās and to publicly adopt Islam. On a daily basis, more important are the legal distinctions between Muslims and Zoroastrians, which echo, in large part, ordinances that Zoroastrians have experienced under many Islamic regimes since the middle of the seventh century. Thus, for instance, a Zoroastrian who converts to Islam is regarded by Iranian law as the sole inheritor of his or her family's assets. Likewise, a Zoroastrian who even accidentally causes the demise of a Muslim faces the possibility of capital punishment, but not vice versa. The concept that Zoroastrians are najes has been revived, affecting their socioeconomic lives in daily interactions with Muslims, since items the former touch, especially food, may be regarded as unclean by the latter. The insults gabr and ātashparast have once again been used against them. Chronic unemployment has become prevalent among members of both genders. One major cause appears to be discrimination by the government in access to state jobs. While employment opportunities are withheld, Zoroastrians feel they have been targeted for especially hazardous assignments when performing the military service required of all young men in Iran. Therefore, yet again Zoroastrians have begun leaving Iran.

Globalization of the faith

The initial modern exodus from Iran was during the 1980s by elite families who had been associated with the Pahlavi state and therefore feared retribution. Relocations since then have been by young men and women who are growing increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of a viable socioeconomic future for their families and themselves in Iran. Some of the migrants, fleeing Iran overland to Turkey, Pakistan, and India, then spending many months or a few years in refugee camps or under the protective welfare of Parsi communities, eventually settle in North America and in Europe. Globalization of the Zoroastrian community has also occurred through emigration of Parsis from the Indian subcontinent. During the British Raj, Parsi trading families settled in Burma (now Myanmar); Singapore; Malaysia; Hong Kong (now united with the People's Republic of China) and mainland China; Taiwan; the Seychelles; and African countries such as Zaire, Tanzania (on the island of Zanzibar), and South Africa. Some Parsis relocated to England, Scotland, and Wales during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seeking better educational and economic opportunities. Beginning in the 1960s, yet other Parsis left to unite with relatives in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and North America as a consequence of nationalism and religious fundamentalism in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Since the 1970s, Parsi immigrants have settled in the United States and Canada after gaining education and employment there.

Many among the first generation of recent Irani immigrants have settled in ethnic clustersforming large communities in cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, and Londonwhere they continue many of their native customs and speak New Persian. However, their children, the second generation, being born in Western countries, have tended to become better acculturated as native speakers of the English language. For them, Iran is a cultural legacy of their parents. While the first generation of Parsi immigrants remains bilingual in the Gujarati and English languages, maintaining customs from the Indian subcontinent, their children have limited facility in Gujarati and have integrated fully with local Western populations. Differences of language and custom still present challenges to the cultural and religious unity of the first generations of Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians in the West. Despite such divergences, they have worked together raising funds to establish community centers, fire temples, and cemeteries in most major cities in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia.

As Zoroastrians have spread globally, many issues have come to the fore. They include intermarriage between them and followers of other faiths and the religious identity of children from such unions; conversion to Zoroastrianism of persons who wish to adopt the religion; access to fire temples by non-Zoroastrians, including those who are the spouses and children of Zoroastrians; and ways in which the bodies of deceased Zoroastrians may be disposed, including inhumation and cremation. By and large the Parsis of India tend to be the most conservative and orthopractic. Theocratic positions taken by Zoroastrians in India are not uniformly accepted by lay and clerical Zoroastrians elsewhere, however. Occasionally, individuals who wish to join Zoroastrianism are initiated by magi outside the Indian subcontinent, but magi in the Indian subcontinent do not accept converts. Likewise, the frequency of marriage across confessional boundaries is on the rise; this is the case even among the Parsis of India. Outside the Indian subcontinent, Zoroastrians routinely permit non-Zoroastrian spouses to attend rituals at fire temples and cemeteries. Zoroastrian women, while still not part of the priesthood, now participate fully in community activities and governance.

In the late twentieth century, Zoroastrian organizations in countries around the globe began establishing and maintaining regular contact with one another. Recent demographic studies, national censuses, and community association membership rosters yield the following approximate population figures for ZoroastriansIranis, Parsis, and recent convertsworldwide in the early twenty-first century: 28,000 in Iran; 69,600 in India; 20,100 in the United States; 10,000 in Canada; 7,500 in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; 4,500 in the other countries of the European Union; 2,800 in Pakistan; 2,100 in Australia; 1,200 in the United Arab Emirates; 250 in New Zealand; 190 in Hong Kong; 150 in Singapore; 130 in Bahrain; 110 in Zaire; 75 in South Africa; 70 in Sri Lanka; 50 in Myanmar; 30 in Japan; 30 in Malaysia; 30 in the Seychelles; 20 in Bermuda; 10 in Venezuela; 10 in the Peoples Republic of China; and even smaller numbers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Yemen, Tanzania (on the island of Zanzibar), Zambia, Mozambique, Mexico, and Brazil.

See Also

Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu; Ahuras; Airyana Vaējah; Amesha Spentas; Anāhitā; Ateshgah; Avesta; Chinvat Bridge; Daivas; Frashokereti; Fravashis; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Zoroastrianism; Haoma; Khvarenah; Magi; Parsis; Saoshyant; Yazatas; Zarathushtra; Zurvanism.


Amighi, Janet K. The Zoroastrians of Iran: Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence. New York, 1990.

Bailey, Harold W. Zoroastrian Problems in the Ninth-Century Books. 2d ed. Oxford, 1971.

Bartholomae, Christian. Altiranisches Wörterbuch. Strasbourg, France, 1904; reprint, Berlin, 1979.

Benveniste, Emile. The Persian Religion according to the Chief Greek Texts. Paris, 1929.

Bidez, Joseph, and Franz Cumont. Le Mages hellénisés: Zoroastre, Ostanès, et Hystaspe d'après la tradition grecque. 2 vols. Paris, 1938; reprint Paris, 1973.

Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford, U.K., 1977; reprint, Lanham, Md., 1989.

Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Beliefs and Practices. London, U.K., 1979; reprint, Chicago, 1984.

Boyce, Mary. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. Manchester, U.K., 1984.

Boyce, Mary et al. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3 vols. Leiden, 19751991.

Boyd, James W., and Firoze M. Kotwal. "Worship in a Zoroastrian Fire Temple." Indo-Iranian Journal 26 (1983): 293318.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin, Tex., 1989.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Doctrinal Variation within Zoroastrianism: The Notion of Dualism." In K. R. Cama Oriental Institute: Second International Congress Proceedings, pp. 96110. Bombay, 1996.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Conflict and Cooperation: Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society. New York, 1997.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Aging, Death, and the Afterlife in Zoroastrianism." In How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, edited by Christopher J. Johnson and Marsha G. McGee, pp. 246263. 2d ed. Philadelphia, 1998.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Sarnevesht-e Zartoshtiyān-e Irān moruri tārikhi (The Fate of the Zoroastrians of Iran over Time)." Iran Nameh 19 (2001): 6178.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. New York, 2002.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Hagiography and Monotheism in History: Doctrinal Encounters between Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity." Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 14 (2003): 407415.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. "Incorporation of Medieval Science into Zoroastrian Scripture and Exegesis: Some Evidence from Dēnkard Book 4." In The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli, edited by Touraj Daryaee and Mahmoud Omidsalar, pp. 5863. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2004.

Christensen, Arthur. Essai sur la démonologie iranienne. Copenhagen, Denmark, 1941.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Sussex, U.K., 1998.

Darmesteter, James, trans. The Zend-Avesta, pts. 12. 2 vols. Oxford, 18841895; reprint, Delhi, 1981.

Darmesteter, James, trans. Le Zend-Avesta. 3 vols. Paris, 18921893; reprint Paris, 1960.

Daryaee, Touraj. "The Mazdean Sect of Gayōmartiya." In Ātash-e DorunThe Fire Within: Jamshid Soroush Soroushian Memorial Volumes, vol. 2, edited by Carlo G. Cereti and Farrokh J. Vajifdar, pp. 131137. Bloomington, Ind., 2003.

Dhabhar, Bamanji N., trans. The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and Others: Their Version with Introduction and Notes. Bombay, 1932.

Dhabhar, Bamanji N., trans. Zand-i Khūrtak Avistāk. Bombay, 1963.

Dhalla, Maneckji N., ed. and trans. The Nyaishes or Zoroastrian Litanies: Avestan Text with the Pahlavi, Sanskrit, Persian, and Gujarati Versions. New York, 1908; reprint New York, 1965.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. The Western Response to Zoroaster. Oxford, 1958.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. Symbolik des Parsismus. Stuttgart, 1961.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. La religion de l'Iran ancien. Paris, 1962.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. Symbols and Values in Zoroastrianism: Their Survival and Renewal. New York, 1966.

Dumézil, Georges. Naissance d'archanges. Paris, 1945.

Eduljee, Homi E. "The Date of Zoroaster." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 48 (1980): 103160.

Fox, W. Sherwood, and R. E. K. Pemberton. "Passages in Greek and Latin Literature Relating to Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism Rendered into English." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 14 (1929): 1145.

Geiger, Wilhelm. Civilization of the Eastern Iranians in Ancient Times. Translated by Peshotan Sanjana. 2 vols. London, 1882; reprint London, 18851886.

Gershevitch, Ilya. "Approaches to Zoroaster's Gathas." Iran 33 (1995): 129.

Gignoux, M. Philippe. "L'apocalyptique iranienne est-elle vraiment la source d'autres apocalypses?" Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 31 (19851988): 6778.

Gignoux, M. Philippe. "Nouveaux regards sur l'apocalyptique iranienne." Comptes rendus de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (1986): 334346.

Gnoli, Gherardo. Zoroaster in History. New York, 2000.

Godrej, Pheroza P., and Firoza P. Mistree, eds. A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion, and Culture. Bombay, 2002.

Gray, Louis H. The Foundations of the Iranian Religions. Bombay, 1929.

Haug, Martin. Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings, and Religion of the Parsis, 4th ed. London, 1907; reprint, Amsterdam, 1971.

Henning, Walter B. Zoroaster: Politician or Witch-Doctor? Oxford, 1951.

Herzfeld, Ernest. Zoroaster and His World. 2 vols. New York, 1947; reprint New York, 1973.

Hinnells, John. "Zoroastrian Influence on the Judeo-Christian Tradition." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 45 (1976): 123.

Hinnells, John. "Zoroastrian Influence on Judaism and Christianity: Some Further Reflections." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53 (1985): 202235.

Hinnells, John R. Zoroastrians in Britain. Oxford, 1996.

Hinnells, John. "The Zoroastrian Diasporas." In South Asians in the Diaspora: Histories and Religious Traditions, edited by Knut A. Jacobsen and P. Pratap Kumar, pp. 313336. Leiden, Netherlands, 2004.

Hintze, Almut. "On the Literary Structure of the Old Avesta." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 65 (2002): 3151.

Hodivala, Shapurji K. Indo-Iranian Religion. Bombay, 1925.

Humbach, Helmut, and Pallan R. Ichaporia, eds. and trans. The Heritage of Zarathushtra: A New Translation of His Gathas. Heidelberg, 1994.

Insler, Stanley, ed. and trans. The Gathas of Zarathustra. Leiden, 1975.

Jackson, A. V. Williams. Zoroaster: The Prophet of Ancient Iran. New York, 1898.

Jamzadeh, Laal, and Margaret Mills."Iranian Sofreh: From Collective to Female Ritual." In Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, edited by Caroline W. Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman, pp. 2365. Boston, 1986.

Jong, Albert de. Traditions of the Magi: Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.

Kellens, Jean. Le panthéon de l'Avesta ancien. Wiesbaden, 1994.

Kellens, Jean. Essays on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. Translated by P. Oktor Skjærvø. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2000.

Kellens, Jean, and Eric Pirart, eds. and trans. Les textes vieil-avestiques. 3 vols. Wiesbaden, 19881991.

Kotwal, Firoze M., and James W. Boyd. A Persian Offering, The Yasna: A Zoroastrian High Liturgy. Paris, 1991.

Kreyenbroek, Philip G. "The Zoroastrian Priesthood after the Fall of the Sasanian Empire." In Transition Periods in Iranian History, pp. 151166. Louvain, 1987.

Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World. London, 2002; reprint, New York, 2003.

Kuiper, Franciscus B. J. "The Bliss of Asha." Indo-Iranian Journal 8 (1964): 96129.

Langer, Robert. "From Private Shrine to Pilgrimage Center: The Spectrum of Zoroastrian Shrines in Iran." In Zoroastrian Rituals in Context, edited by Michael Stausberg, pp. 563592. Leiden, 2004.

Leslie, Donald D. "Persian Temples in T'ang China." Monumenta Serica 35 (19811983): 275303.

Lommel, Herman, trans. Die Yäsht's des Awesta. Göttingen, Germany, 1927.

Malandra, William W. An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and Achaemenid Inscriptions. Minneapolis, 1983.

Meherjirana, Erachji S. A Guide to the Zoroastrian Religion: A Nineteenth-Century Catechism with Modern Commentary. Translated by Firoze M. Kotwal and James W. Boyd. Chico, Calif., 1982.

Mehr, Farhang. "Zoroastrians in Twentieth-Century Iran." In A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion, and Culture, edited by Pheroza P. Godrej and Firoza P. Mistree, pp. 278299. Bombay, India, 2002.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathustra. 2d ed. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2003.

Menasce, Jean de. "L'Église mazdéene dans l'empire sassanide." Cahiers d'histoire mondaile 2 (1955): 554565.

Menasce, Jean de. "Problèmes des mazdéens dans l'Iran musulman." In Festschrift für Wilhelm Eilers, edited by Gernot Wiessner, pp. 220230. Wiesbaden, 1967.

Menasce, Jean de. "Zoroastrian Literature after the Muslim Conquest." In Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 4, edited by Richard N. Frye, pp. 543565. Cambridge, U.K., 1975.

Menasce, Jean de. "Zoroastrian Pahlavi Writings." In Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, pt. 2, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, pp. 11661195. Cambridge, U.K., 1975.

Mills, Lawrence H., trans. The Zend-Avesta, pt. 3. Oxford, 1887; reprint, Delhi, India, 1981.

Mistree, Khojeste P. Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective. Bombay, 1982.

Mistree, Khojeste P. "The Breakdown of the Zoroastrian Tradition as Viewed from a Contemporary Perspective." In Irano-Judaica, vol. 2, edited by Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer, pp. 227254. Jerusalem, 1990.

Modi, Jivanji J. The Social Life of the Ancient Iranians as Presented by the Avesta. Poona, 1923.

Modi, Jivanji J. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees. 2d ed. Bombay, 1937.

Molé, Marijan. Culte, mythe, et cosmologie dans l'Iran ancien: Le problème zoroastrien et la tradition mazdéene. Paris, 1963.

Molé, Marijan., ed. and trans. La légende de Zoroastre: Selon les textes pehlevis. Paris, 1967.

Moreen, Vera B. "The Status of Religious Minorities in Safavid Iran." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 40 (1981): 119134.

Munshi, Shehnaz N., and Sarah Stewart. "Observances of the Faithful." In A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion, and Culture, edited by Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza P. Mistree, pp. 384397. Bombay, 2002.

Narten, Johanna. Die Amesha Spentas im Avesta. Wiesbaden, 1982.

Nigosian, Solomon A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal, 1993; reprint Montreal, 1999.

Nyberg, Henrik S. "Sassanid Mazdaism according to Moslem Sources." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 39 (1958): 163.

Nyberg, Henrik S. Die Religionen des alten Iran. 2d ed. Osnabrück, Germany, 1966.

Oshidari, Timsar. Tārikh-e Zartoshtiyān (History of Zoroastrianism). Tehran, 1976.

Pangborn, Cyrus R. Zoroastrianism: A Beleaguered Faith. New York, 1983.

Pavry, Cursetji. The Zoroastrian Doctrine of a Future Life. 2d ed. New York, 1929.

Rose, Jenny. The Image of Zoroaster: The Persian Mage through European Eyes. New York, 2000.

Russell, James R. Zoroastrianism in Armenia. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

Russell, James R. "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians." Iranian Studies 26 (1993): 7394.

Rustomjee, Framroz. Daily Prayers of the Zoroastrians. 2 pts. Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1967.

Sanasarian, Eliz. Religious Minorities in Iran. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Sarianidi, Victor. Margiana and Protozoroastrianism. Translated by Inna Sarianidi. Athens, 1998.

Schmidt, Hanns-Peter. "Zaraθuštra and His Patrons." In Ātash-e DorunThe Fire Within: Jamshid Soroush Soroushian Memorial Volumes, vol. 2, edited by Carlo G. Cereti and Farrokh J. Vajifdar, pp. 357376. Bloomington, Ind., 2003.

Schwartz, Martin. "The Religion of Achaemenian Iran." In Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2, edited by Ilya Gershevitch, pp. 664697. Cambridge, U.K., 1985.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. "Recent Speculations on the 'Traditional Date of Zoroaster.'" Studia Iranica 31 (2002): 745.

Shahzadi, Fariborz S., with Khojeste P. Mistree. The Zarathushti Religion: A Basic Text. Hinsdale, Ill., 1998.

Shaked, Shaul. "The Notions Mēnōg and Gētīg in the Pahlavi Texts and Their Relation to Eschatology." Acta Orientalia 33 (1971): 59107.

Shaked, Shaul. Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran. London, 1994.

Skjærvø, P. Oktor. "The Literature of the Most Ancient Iranians." In Proceedings of the Second North American Gatha Conference, edited by Sarosh J. H. Manekshaw and Pallan R. Ichaporia, pp. 221235. Womelsdorf, Pa., 1996.

Skjærvø, P. Oktor. "The State of Old Avestan Scholarship." Journal of the American Oriental Society 117 (1997): 103114.

Skjærvø, P. Oktor. "Zarathustra: First Poet-Sacrificer." In Paitimāna: Essays in Iranian, Indo-European, and Indian Studies in Honor of Hanns-Peter Schmidt, edited by Siamak Adhami, pp. 157194. Costa Mesa, Calif., 2003.

Soroushian, Jamshid S. Farhang-e behdinān (Dictionary of the Members of the Good Religion). Tehran, 1956.

Soroushian, Jamshid S. Tārikh-e Zartoshtiyān-e Kermān dar in chand sad sāle (History of the Zoroastrians of Kerman in Recent Centuries). Tehran, 1992.

Stausberg, Michael. Faszination Zarathushtra: Zoroaster und die Europäische Religionsgeschichte der Frühen Neuzeit. 2 vols. Berlin, 1998.

Stausberg, Michael, ed. Zoroastrian Rituals in Context. Leiden, 2004.

West, Edward W., trans. Pahlavi Texts. 5 vols. Oxford, 18821901; reprint, Delhi, 1994.

Williams, Ron G., and James W. Boyd. Ritual Art and Knowledge: Aesthetic Theory and Zoroastrian Ritual. Columbia, S.C., 1993.

Windfuhr, Gernot L. "The Logic of the Holy Immortals in Zoroastrianism." In Proceedings of the Second North American Gatha Conference, edited by Sarosh J. H. Manekshaw and Pallan R. Ichaporia, pp. 237274. Womelsdorf, Pa., 1996.

Windfuhr, Gernot. "A Note on Aryaman's Social and Cosmic Setting." In Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia: Evidence, Interpretation, and Ideology, edited by Johannes Bronkhorst and Madhav M. Deshpande, pp. 295336. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.

Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, Md., 1994.

Zaehner, Robert C. The Teachings of the Magi: A Compendium of Zoroastrian Beliefs. London, 1956; reprint, New York, 1976.

Zaehner, Robert C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. London, 1961; reprint, New York, 2003.

Jamsheed K. Choksy (2005)


views updated May 11 2018


FOUNDED: Second millennium b.c.e.


Zoroastrianism, established at least 3,000 years ago, is the religion of pre-Islamic Iran. It survives in Iran (where followers are called the Zardushtis) and in India (where they are called the Parsis), as well as in diaspora communities around the world. The term "Zoroastrianism" is derived from the name of the founder, Zoroaster (as he is known in Greek; his Iranian name is Zarathustra). The Fravarane, a confessional text in the ancient Iranian language of Avestan, identifies the religion as the worship of the god Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) according to the teachings of Zarathustra.

In Iran Zoroastrianism traditionally described itself as either the "Good Religion" or as Mazdeanism (from Ahura Mazda). It was the state religion of the two great pre-Islamic Iranian dynasties, the Achaemenids (550–330 b.c.e.) and the Sasanians (224–651 c.e.). After the fall of the Sasanians to the Arab Muslims who conquered Iran, the religion lost its patron but survived in the area. Members also migrated to India. In the modern period they have dispersed throughout the world, though the number of adherents has become infinitesimal; the worldwide population is only about 150,000. Even so, the impact of this tradition on the formation of Iranian culture and of other religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has been enormous.


The sources for reconstructing the history of Zoroastrianism before the fall of the Sasanians are textual and archaeological. The surviving literature in Avestan (an East Iranian language that is a part of the Indo-Iranian language family) is the starting point, but even with this material almost everything about the history of the tradition is obscure and contested.

Because tradition held that Zoroaster lived 258 years before Alexander the Great (356–323 b.c.e.), scholars once dated Zoroaster to the sixth century b.c.e. That figure has since been questioned, and scholars now believe he lived between 1800 and 1000 b.c.e. He is thus dated to the period of the Indo-Iranian migrations. There is no certainty about his homeland, though the fact that Avestan is an East Iranian language means it was somewhere in Central Asia or Eastern Iran. Zoroaster is connected by tradition to Balkh, in northern Afghanistan, and in a much later period he was identified with sites in western Iran. Western scholarship is divided between two sites as Zoroaster's original home-land—Khorezm, a historic region south of the Aral Sea (in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), and the region of Seistan in southeastern Iran.

Zoroater has often been seen as a lone monotheist reformer and devotee of Ahura Mazda who attempted to suppress cultic practices and to proclaim in their place a new ethical vision; this view was based on the model of Old Testament prophets. This is also how the Zoroastrian tradition would come to understand him, especially after the ninth century c.e., when the pervasive influence of Islam on Iranian culture began. By the twelfth century c.e. the legend of Zoroaster had been recast according to the model of Islamic prophecy. In the Greek world Zoroaster was known as an ancient wise man and sage. The only source of information about Zoroaster is the Gāthās, which are the 17 hymns, divided into five chapters, traditionally ascribed to him (his name appears in 9 of them). The small corpus and the abstractness of the Gāthās make it impossible to derive much historical information from them, though they do reflect a largely pastoral setting. The hymns were composed on behalf of a royal patron, Vishtasp, who was obviously a powerful figure who supported Zoroaster.

The followers of Zoroaster preserved his hymns for as long as a millennium, but we know next to nothing about this group. They kept material only from this one figure. They were active in the eastern Iranian territories, but at some point they took the tradition to the west, where it became triumphant as the cult of the entire Iranian plateau. Evidence suggests that a high priest—who bore the title zarathustrema (supreme Zoroaster)—headed them, and they might have functioned as a priesthood, perhaps on the model of the priestly group known as the Magi. The Magi were primarily active in western Iran under a tribe called the Medes, but some scholars have argued that they were the carriers of this Zoroastrian material.

The Gāthās are contained in the Yasna, the main liturgical text of Zoroastrianism (composed in younger Avestan, which differs from the Gathic dialect). The other main text is the Yashts, a group of hymns to Iranian deities (also composed in younger Avestan). These two texts in different ways describe the situation of the Iranians in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e. The Iranians had settled on the Iranian plateau more than a millennium earlier and were closely related to the Aryan (Indo-Iranian) conquerors of India, whose earliest religious traditions are found in the Vedas (a collection of hymns).

The Vedas, in fact, show important similarities to the Iranian texts of Zoroastrianism, and the two traditions also share elements in their world outlooks: the vision of the cosmos as having an order (asha, providing a criterion for judging actions), the importance of the cow, and similar ritual practices. Central to both is the role of the religious specialist, the priest, in carrying the tradition. One difference is the position of the daevas (demons). The word has the same root as "divinity" in the Indo-European languages. At some point (possibly before Zoroaster) the Iranians demoted that category of divinities into demons. This has been called the "Iranian reform," but it is impossible to understand exactly what the background or significance of this "reform" was. Several Vedic deities appear in the Iranian sources as demons. The reform may reflect the making of another group of divinities—the ahuras—into exclusive objects of worship. Another difference between the Vedas and the Iranian texts is the Iranian worship of a single god, Ahura Mazda. The Iranians retained elements of the Vedic polytheist system, but their focus on a single deity contrasts with the Vedas, which centers on a pantheon of divinities (the most important being the warrior god Indra, who became a demon in the Zoroastrian texts). There is no parallel to Ahura Mazda in the Vedas, but that may be because "Ahura Mazda" is not a proper name; rather, it is an epithet for an unnamed deity.


The Guardian Spirit, or Fravahar, is the most important symbol of Zoroastrianism. The figure, facing to the left and encircled in a ring that represents the soul, depicts Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. The three wing sections represent the three pillars of the Zoroastrian faith: good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.

The Achaemenian empire (founded in 550 b.c.e.) brings the Iranian plateau more clearly into the light of history. The inscriptions left by the Achaemenid kings testify to the devotion of the royal house to the worship of Ahura Mazda. They suggest a struggle for truth and articulate a consciousness of Iranian identity. The empire was famed for its tolerance of other religious traditions. The founder of the empire, Cyrus the Great (c. 585–529 b.c.e.), is especially celebrated for allowing exiled Jews to return to Palestine to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. That tolerance had its limits, but what it likely indicates is that local religions were left alone in the name of maintaining social order. Rulers also under-stood their objects of worship belonged to the royal house and were not gods for the empire as a whole.

Two features of the Achaemenid inscriptions are central to reconstructing the religion of the empire. The first is that Ahura Mazda was the sole divinity invoked by the earliest rulers, Darius I (ruled 522–486 b.c.e.) and Xerxes I (ruled 486–465 b.c.e.), but the later rulers of the empire invoked three gods: Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and Anahita. It is difficult to know what this development means. It need not be evidence of a return to polytheism by the royal house, because even the earliest rulers had acknowledged other, lesser gods in addition to Ahura Mazda. The second feature is that the Achaemenid inscriptions make no mention of Zoroaster. Because the inscriptions are brief and largely formulaic, this should not be overinterpreted, but it is a reminder that the Achaemenids did not proclaim their worship of Ahura Mazda in Zoroaster's name. Because Zoroaster became known to the Greeks during the Achaemenid period, it is clear that his followers had carried knowledge of him throughout the Achaemenid empire, including Asia Minor, where the empire met the classical Greek world.

The Achaemenids rose to prominence by uniting two western Iranian tribes, the Medes and the Persians. The Magi, a hereditary priestly tribe of the Medes, played an important political role in the court of the Achaemenids. The description of Persian religious practices by the fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus serves as an invaluable—but also puzzling—testimony to the religious scene in western Iran during his time. He reported that the Persians did not erect statues, altars, or temples to their gods but worshiped instead their chief god, Zeus (undoubtedly Ahura Mazda), on the tops of mountains. He wrote that they also worshiped the sun, the moon, the earth, fire, water, and winds as their other deities.

The Achaemenids left significant archeological remains, the most important being their ceremonial center in Persepolis, near their ancestral center in the province of Fars (in present-day southwestern Iran). That site was devoted to the celebration of kingship, in which different peoples of the empire offered gifts to the king on New Year's Day.

The Zoroastrian tradition is reflected in three additional features of the Achaemenian empire. First, the tombs of the Achaemenid kings were carved directly into cliffs. Zoroastrian rules forbid polluting the pure elements of fire and earth, so the dead were not cremated or buried. Second, archaeologists have found a large number of mortars and pestles, which might have been used to prepare haoma (a drink made from a sacred plant) in the main Zoroastrian ceremony, the yasna. Finally, the symbol of the fire altar exists in numerous reliefs at Persepolis and is also widely found on cylinder seals and other carvings throughout the region.

The subsequent history of Zoroastrianism may be broadly divided into two parts: from the fourth century b.c.e. to the coming of Islam (ninth century c.e.) and from that time to the present. After the fall of the Achaemenids (330 b.c.e.) the religion ceased to have imperial sponsorship but survived. Although Zoroastrianism may not have been the official state religion during the Seleucid empire (312 b.c.e.–64 b.c.e.) and the Parthian empire (247 b.c.e.–224 c.e.), it was widely practiced in Iran and as far west as Anatolia (Turkey), where it mixed with Greek religious beliefs. It is only with the establishment of the Sasanian empire (224–651 c.e.) that we can speak securely of a Zoroastrian church. With the rise of the Sasanian dynasty, the Zoroastrian church emerged as an ally of the royal house and embodiment of Iranian imperial ideology. The Sasanian court was interested in establishing orthodoxy as a source of its legitimacy.

The Sasanians arose in Fars province, the homeland of the Achaemenids. While historical memory of the earlier empire had dissolved into myth, the Sasanians seem to have seen themselves as the carriers of Achaemenid glory. They centralized their control of the Iranian plateau and were a threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Sasanian family was connected with a shrine to Anahita (an ancient Iranian goddess of fertility, war, and royalty) and organized a priestly hierarchy in the service of empire, which had two official titles for priests—hērbad (teaching priests) and mMbed (ritual priests), the latter apparently with higher ecclesiastical authority.

Evidence does not suggest much continuity between Achaemenid and Sasanian sponsorship of the Zoroastrian church, but the Sasanians believed the empire needed an official church given the potentially disruptive presence of other universalizing religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Manichaeism. Sasanian ideology supported the idea that a symbiotic relationship should exist between kingship and religion (that is, both must support one another if the empire is to prosper). The alliance of Zoroaster and his royal patron Vishtasp was the model for this relationship.

Zoroastrianism was still primarily the religion of the Iranians and usually did not seek converts among its conquered people. The one exception was in Armenia. Armenia was a buffer state between the Roman and Sasanian empires. The Armenians seem to have been Zoroastrian before the Sasanians, but in 314 c.e. they converted to Christianity to maintain their independence. The Sasanians attempted to reverse that under Yazdegird II (reigned 438–57), leading to war in 451 c.e., but Armenian identity remained closely tied to Christianity. Although Zoroastrianism continued to be the official religion of the Sasanian empire, the other proselytizing religions, especially Nestorian Christianity, found significant numbers of converts among the Iranian population.

Important in Zoroastrianism was the construction of fire temples, known as atashkadehs (places of fire), found in Iran as well as in non-Iranian lands (presumably to serve Iranian populations). In their simplest form, fire temples were chahar tāqs (Persian: "four arches")—that is, single, square, domed buildings built on four arched walls. Individual sacred fires were maintained in these buildings. It is likely that state-supported priests conducted the religious life of the community, including the daily practice of the yasna. In addition, there were holy fires in shrines around the country dedicated to the different classes of society and to the royal house.

The establishment of an ecclesiastical hierarchy among the Zoroastrians, even if its reach into the laity was not deep, also meant the establishment of a Zoroastrian orthodoxy, which is reflected in the Pahlavi (middle Persian) texts. There is, in addition, some evidence of heterodox movements and heresies. The most important was Zurvanism, which placed the god Zurvan (time) above the combating deities Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. This move toward monism demoted the position of Ahura Mazda and promoted a rather remote figure, Zurvan, as the actual creator of the world. Scholars, however, have expressed strong reservations about this doctrine being formally a heresy rather than an interpretation of orthodox belief. There is little evidence for this teaching in the Zoroastrian sources, which are strictly dualist. Much more significant and troubling was Manichaeism (established in the third century), which shared theological concepts with Zoroastrianism. Manichaeism taught that the world was the battle-ground between good, represented by a divine light, and evil, found in the material world; it thus completely rejected the material world, arguing that good could be released from its entanglement with matter through continual purification. The founders of the Sasanian dynasty had showed some initial interest in Manichaeism but ultimately rejected it. The Sasanian monarch, at the urging of the high priest Kirdīr, had Mani, the religion's founder, executed in 276. The church Mani founded remained active in Iranian lands, as well as in the Roman Empire, Central Asia, and China. Manichean teaching contributed to the heterodox movement of Mazdak, a Zoroastrian priest who in 494 proclaimed a social revolutionary movement against the Sasanian state with the hope of establishing an egalitarian social order. The Sasanians eventually suppressed the movement, executing Mazdak in 524.

The defeat of the last Sasanian emperor in 651 c.e. brought the Iranian plateau under Muslim rule and initiated the conversion of the area to Islam. In the first century of Islam eastern Iran became a seedbed for opposition movements to the Umayyad rule based in Damascus. In 750 the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty was achieved by Arab forces from eastern Iran that included recent Iranian converts to Islam. This led to the shift of the symbolic center of the Islamic empire to the east and to the increasing role of Persian culture in the formulation of Islamic culture and political life. Unrest continued in eastern Iran, and there were periodic local revolts, usually accompanied by Zoroastrian expectations for a messiah and Mazdak's heterodox message.

The status of Zoroastrians under Islam rule was initially clarified by the second caliph, Umar, who declared that Zoroastrians were "People of the Book" who would therefore be protected by Islam if they abided by the rules of their status and paid the jizya (the tax levied on non-Muslims). The social position of the Zoroastrian community became increasingly difficult, however, especially as the process of Muslim conversion began to take hold.

According to legend, in 917 c.e. a group of Zoroastrians from northeastern Iran, led by a priest who was frustrated by the declining fortunes of the community, left the country. They eventually settled in the Gujarat region on the western coast of India in 936. They won the patronage of the local ruler and founded the city of Sanjan. The necessary ritual implements later arrived, and the highest level of fire temple was established. The fire was moved to Udvada, where it continues as one of the most holy fires of the tradition. This was the basis for the Parsi community that is located primarily around Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Parsis also settled in northern India in areas that are now Pakistan.

Other Zoroastrians remained in Iran, and the tradition survived, especially in the desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. The Iranian community remained the authority of the tradition through the eighteenth century, and Parsis in India consulted Zoroastrians in Iran for guidance in their religion. This relationship changed in the nineteenth century, when Parsis were able to support educational institutions to maintain the tradition. As a minority cultivated by the British imperial rulers, Parsis also became financially and politically powerful in India, allowing them to exercise greater influence on their surrounding environment.


Achaemenian dynasty
dynasty that ruled Iran from 550 to 330 b.c.e.
Zoroastrian ceremony involving the distribution of blessings
Ahura Mazda
supreme deity of Zoroastrianism; likely an honorific title meaning "Wise Lord" rather than a proper name
Amesha Spentas
the six entities that aid Ahura Mazda, sometimes with an additional figure, Spenta Mainyu, to compose the divine heptad (group of seven)
Angra Mainyu
primordial evil spirit, twin of Spenta Mainyu
truth; righteousness
"place of fire"; fire temple; more narrowly, the enclosed chamber in a fire temple that contains a fire continuously fed by the priests
ancient East Iranian language
Zoroastrian purification ceremony used primarily by priests to prepare for their ordination
"tower of silence"; a tower in which a corpse is traditionally exposed
dar-i Mihr
"the court of Mithra"; the room in a fire temple where the yasna is performed
"master"; honorific title for a Zoroastrian priest
seasonal calendar that places New Year's Day in March; compare with qadimi
the renewal of the world at the end of history
older Avestan dialect
form; physical world
one of six five-day Zoroastrian festivals
one of the 17 hymns traditionally ascribed to Zoroaster
sacred drink, now pressed from ephedra and pomegranate twigs
sacred cord worn around the torso by Zoroastrians and tied and untied during prayer
priestly group that was initially active in western Iran under the Medes
middle Persian language of the Sasanian period; also the name of an Iranian dynasty (twentieth century)
sacred drink prepared during the yasna; a mixture of haoma and milk
member of a Zoroastrian group living mainly in western India and centered around Mumbai (Bombay)
"old" Zoroastrian calendar, which has New Year's Day in late July; compare with fasli
assistant priest, who feeds the fire during the yasna
sacred shirt; a thin, white, cotton garment worn that is worn under clothes and should never be removed
Sasanian dynasty
dynasty that ruled Iran from 224 to 651 c.e.
Spenta Mainyu
primordial good spirit, twin of Angra Mainyu
one of a group of hymns to Iranian deities
main Zoroastrian ritual; also the name of the main liturgical text, which is recited during the ritual
any of a number of Zoroastrian divinities, the two most important of which are Mithra and the river goddess Anahita
name for the Zoroastrian tradition in Iran
founder of the Zoroastrian tradition; his Iranian name is Zarathustra
religion of pre-Islamic Iran; now represented by two communities, Parsi (Indian) and Zardushti (Iranian)
chief priest who performs the yasna

In the twentieth century opportunities for education and the development of trade encouraged some Zoroastrians to move to other parts of the British Empire. The Iranian revolution of 1978–79, which made Iran an Islamic republic, led to a significant exodus of Zardushtis (Iranian Zorastrians), especially to western European countries, the United States, and Canada.


The primary doctrine of Zoroastrianism is worship of Ahura Mazda, the creator and chief god of the world. As such, it is a monotheistic faith and shares the common problem of monotheism: how to account for the presence of evil. An ethical dualism (in which the spirit world is divided between the forces of good and evil) pervades the Gāthā hymns and the Achaemenid inscriptions requiring a deliberate choice of the good. This dualism constitutes the Iranian contribution to the religious history of humankind; it compromises God's omnipotence but has the benefit that the creator is blameless for the presence and power of evil in the world.

Ahura Mazda is above all connected with creation. The moment of creation established the dualistic world over which Ahura Mazda reigns. This event involved not him but two primordial spirits—the twins Spenta Mainyu (the good spirit) and Angra Mainyu (the evil spirit, who becomes Ahriman in Middle Persian)—who made diametrically opposed choices in the beginning. The language the Gāthās use to describe this event suggests that, rather than being just a moment in the past, creation is an ongoing process of dividing the world along the lines of these choices.

In response to Muslim and Christian criticisms, some contemporary Zoroastrians have wanted to deny the dualist elements of the tradition and insist that the tradition teaches a pure monotheism. To judge by the major theological statements reflecting Sasanian theology, Zoroastrian orthodoxy was characterized by a strict dualism between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. They were locked in continual combat, and it was the duty of the followers of the religion to ally themselves firmly with Ahura Mazda. This dualism was an ethical one and did not in any way suggest a rejection of the physical world. It was in fact in the physical world (getig) that this combat was fought, and the forces of good had weapons at their disposal that guaranteed their eventual victory. Ahura Mazda dwells in the menog (spiritual world) but created the getig as the arena for conflict. Those who dwell in the getig are the primary combatants against Angra Mainyu. The efforts made in the material world are valued and are the chief means for the defeat of the forces of evil. In the end Ahura Mazda will enter into the material world to lead the final yasna ceremony that will transform the world, eliminating the power of Angra Mainyu once and for all.

Important to Zoroastrianism are the divine figures who aid Ahura Mazda. In the Gāthās Ahura Mazda interacts with and works through a number of abstract entities. These are not only available to Ahura Mazda but also related to human faculties, through which Ahura Mazda and human beings connect to one another. Numerous passages in the Gāthās refer to this idea of an intermediary between divine and human. In the Gāthās these entities are not systematized or given a group name, but in the Yasna Haptanhāiti (a later prose text in the ancient Gathic dialect) they are called the Amesha Spentas (bounteous immortals). Six figures comprise the Amesha Spentas: Vohu Manah, (good thought), Asha (truth), Khshathra Vairya (desirable dominion), Spenta Armaiti (beneficent devotion), Haurvatat (wholeness), and Ameretat (immortality). A seventh figure, Spenta Mainyu (the good spirit), was later added to the others, together forming the Divine Heptad.

In their abstraction the seven good agents are best thought of as the means by which Ahura Mazda interacts with the material world. This organization of good forces is arrayed against a counter-organization of seven evil forces headed by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. To judge by the Gāthās, the male Vohu Manah and the female Spenta Armaiti (who was the daughter of Ahura Mazda and the goddess of earth) seem to have played the most important role in communicating divine speech to Zoroaster. Traditionally the Amesha Spentas came to be linked with various ritual and material elements: Vohu Manah to cattle, Asha to fire, Khshathra Vairya to metal, Spenta Armaiti to earth, Haurvatat to water, and Ameretat to plant life (including the sacred plant, haoma).

The divine world of Zoroastrianism is populated by a number of other divinities, some of whom receive worship in the other great Avestan text, the Yashts. The Yashts are 21 hymns that present a world that is consistently dualist but in which Ahura Mazda shares the divine stage with a number of other divinities (yazatas), the two most important of which are Mithra (also a Vedic god) and the river goddess Anahita (the pure one, corresponding to the Hindu goddess Saraswati). These and a number of other figures, as well as the sacred drink, haoma (which is part of the yasna service), all have separate hymns dedicated to them.

The unsolved question about these hymns is what purpose they served. They are much closer to oralformulaic poetry (poetry that is memorized and performed rather than written down) than are the Gāthās, and thus their wording was probably continually improvised. Some of them are presented as spoken to Zoroaster by Ahura Mazda. They were likely composed over an extensive period of time; some of the later Yashts were written as late as the Achaemenid period (550–330 b.c.e.). They appear to be connected with the development of the Zoroastrian liturgical calendar, a complicated daily and monthly cycle of times devoted to particular yazatas. This cycle specified the days on which particular hymns were to be recited to their associated divine beings. In contemporary Zoroastrianism, with the exception of the Yasht to the haoma, these hymns no longer have any liturgical purpose.

While each Yasht narrates incidents of an individual deity or discusses a more abstract notion—such as sraosha (obedience, the lord of prayer) or xwarnah (the kingly glory of Iran)—together they contain the outlines of a coherent epic history that features the coming of Zoroaster and predicts the unfolding of the future. This history is divided into three eras: creation, an epic history of the physical world (in which good and evil are mixed), and a period of renewal. In the first era six elements of the world (stone, water, earth, vegetation, animals, and humanity) are created. The earth is divided in seven "climes," or regions, with Iran at the center. At the moment of creation good and evil spirits appear, and the world subsequently exists as a site of the commingling of good and evil. The two earliest creations, the ox and the first man, are both killed by the evil spirit, Angra Mainyu, but from them arise animals and humanity.

Kingship comes to be a defining feature of human society. The epic history narrates the rise of heroes and kings who vie for power and who seek to defend the central clime of Iran against its natural enemies, the Turanians. Zoroaster comes at the midpoint of that history, with a revelation that guarantees the eventual triumph of good over evil. His legend begins with the miracles connected with his birth—including the light that glowed brightly and his escape from attempts to kill him—and continues with his reception of revelation, his early preaching, and his heroic defeat of enemies. He was famous for his virtue and his kindness to animals. The conversion of the ruler Vishtasp and Zoroaster's alliance with him are the centerpiece of the story; it lays the groundwork for the spread of the "Good Religion" throughout the world. Zoroaster is eventually killed during a Turanian attack by a priest of a rival cult. Each of the next three millennia are initiated by a savior born of Zoroaster's semen, which is preserved in Hamun Lake in the region of Seistan (in southeastern Iran). The arrival of the last savior, Saoshyants, and the final defeat of the evil spirit achieve the promised frashkard, or renewal of the world.

Until the frashkard each soul at the end of its life arrives at Chinvat Bridge, "the bridge of the separation," where it is judged by the divinities Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. The soul's deeds appear to him or her in the form of a beautiful maiden or an old hag, depending on the person's moral worth. Those who have been good cross the bridge, which has been made wide, and arrive in heaven, the realm of infinite lights. Those who have been evil fall off the bridge, which has become razor thin, making his or her demise inevitable. Those whose deeds are evenly balanced dwell in an intermediate region where there is no joy or torment. This fate exists only until the frashkard, when all evil is cleansed from the world, those suffering in hell complete their torments, and all receive the rewards of a transformed world. This structure of salvation history—with its apocalyptic expectation of a coming savior and the vision of individual judgment after death—likely influenced the development of neighboring religious traditions.


The commandment "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" underlines the deeply ethical teachings of the tradition. Zoroastrians believe that the material world was created as the site of a struggle that will eventually result in the defeat of evil. The material world itself is not evil, but it requires protection from evil's pollution and needs to be marshaled for the weapons it provides for the struggle.

A Sasanian catechism called "The Selected Counsels of the Ancient Sages," or "The Book of Counsel of Zardusht," summarizes what every Zoroastrian should understand of his or her faith. They need to know that they are created beings who belong to Ahura Mazda, not Angra Mainyu. They must believe that Ahura Mazda's kingdom is infinite and pure, while the Evil Spirit will be destroyed. They must perform five duties: keeping the faith and keeping goodness and evil apart; marrying and procreating; cultivating the soil; treating livestock justly; and spending one-third of one's time studying the religion and attending the fire temple, one-third tilling the earth, and one-third in eating, rest, and enjoyment. As this text shows, there is a special premium placed upon the cultivation of the land and the care of livestock. It could be said that peasants have the ideal Zoroastrian life, because the protection and cultivation of the pure elements water and earth lies with them.

More important is the cultivation of the individual and civic virtues that are expected of every Zoroastrian man and woman. The virtues of righteousness (asha) are central; they entail upholding the good order of the world and avoiding lying (the great opponent of order). Education and the quest for knowledge are also highly prized and expected of all. The virtues of charity and concern for the poor are important; the tradition envisioned an alliance of royalty and church to cultivate the virtues and create a good society. The values of education and charity continue to be hallmarks of contemporary Zoroastrian life.


The holy language of the tradition is Avestan. Sacred texts exist in two dialects: older (Gathic) Avestan and younger Avestan.

The main surviving texts are collected in the Yasna, which is used in the daily liturgy. The Yasna contains the Gāthās, 17 hymns in older Avestan that are honored as the most sacred utterances of Zoroaster. The hymns were composed on behalf of a royal patron, Vishtasp; other figures, including priests of opposing cults, also appear in the hymns. The remainder of the Yasna, totaling 72 chapters, contains materials in younger Avestan. There are two other large texts in younger Avestan: the Yashts, hymns to deities or divine entities, and the Vidēvdād (also known as the Vendidad), a collection of legends and purity rules that is recited during one occasionally performed ritual. There are also a number of smaller texts that function as liturgical guides for the priesthood and laity.

The tradition holds that the these sacred texts, known as the Avesta, originally contained 21 books. All but one, the Vidēvdād, were lost during the conquest of Iran by Alexander the Great in the fourth century b.c.e. Remnants were kept in oral circulation for as long as a millennium. They were finally written down in the Avestan alphabet (based on Aramaic), which was likely invented in the Sasanian period (224–651 c.e.), occurring after Avestan had ceased to be a living language. The contents of the remaining 20 books, though lost, were generally known and summarized.


In the nineteenth century an emblem of Persian royal glory, a winged disk with the torso of a bearded man, was found at the site of Persepolis. Called the Fravahar, it has since been adopted as a key Zoroastrian symbol. The emblem is often used to decorate fire temples, and along with the fire altar, it is used as a general symbol of the religion. Many interpret it as a symbol of Ahura Mazda, though originally it likely referred to the royal glory of the Achaemenids.


The priesthood has been the primary source of leadership for the tradition. During the Sasanian period two priests seem to have played a crucial role in reorganizing the tradition. The first is Tansar (or Tosar), head of the priestly establishment under Ardashir (died in 240 c.e.), who was first ruler of the dynasty. Tansar is known for advising an interdependent relationship between royalty and religion; he believed both are necessary, and each must reinforce the other for prosperity and peace to reign. He is also said to have organized and edited the Avesta, helping the early Sasanians establish orthodoxy.

Tansar's putative successor was Kirdīr (or Kartir), who rose to prominence under Shapur I (240–72 c.e.) and continued to be prominent into the reign of Varahan II (276–93 c.e.). Kirdīr is known from a self-promoting rock inscription, which exists in four versions. In this inscription he tells of his rise to power, his governance of the state church, and his persecution of foreign religions in the Sasanian realm—including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Nasoreans (a baptismal sect), and Christians. It was under his influence that the Sasanian court turned against Mani (founder of Manichaeism) and executed him. The names of a number of priests from the Sasanian period survive in commentaries on the Avesta, suggesting the intellectual vitality of Zoroastrianism during that period. The authors of the Pahlavi texts written in the ninth century are evidence of the survival of the tradition under Muslim rule.

The Impact of
Zoroastrianism on Major

As the ancient faith of Iran, Zoroastrianism extended its influence on neighboring religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is reflected in the Old Testament by the Achaemenian king Cyrus the Great (as the "Lord's Anointed"; Isaiah 45:1); in the New Testament by the story of the Magi at Jesu's birth (Matthew 2:1–12); and in the Koran by the appearance of the Magi (22:17). Zoroastrianism gained prominence by being the state religion of two Iranian dynasties—the Achaemenid (550–330 b.c.e.), which controlled Israel, and the Sasanian (224–651 c.e.), under which rabbis dwelling in Babylonia produced the Babylonian Talmud. Zoroastrianism remained a vibrant and influential undercurrent after Islam became the dominant religion of the Iranian Plateau during the ninth century c.e.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all embrace Zoroastrianism ideas: a single god as the creator of the world, the development of an agent of evil, the judgment of the dead, and the promises of a coming savior, the renewal of the world, and bodily resurrection. They also share elements of Zoroastrian ecclesiastical organization and ritual practice. Historians cannot be certain whether surrounding religions borrowed Zoroastrian ideas or whether they merely came to recognize affinities between Zoroastrian ideas and their own internally generated beliefs. It is likely that both occurred.

While priests have retained their status as leaders and interpreters of the tradition, modernity has seen a number of lay leaders who have played essential roles in their community. Four particularly prominent Parsis and Zardushtis illustrate the range of their activities. Manekji Limji Hataria (1813–90) was a Parsi and an early delegate of the Society for the Amelioration of the Zarathustrians of Persia. He traveled twice to Iran investigating and documenting the state of the Zardushti community throughout Iran. He helped facilitate a number of charitable efforts for education and the rebuilding of fire temples and dakhmas (funerary towers), and he convinced the Shah to relieve the burdensome jizya tax on the Zarathustrian community. K.R. Cama (1831–1909) was a Parsi businessman from a distinguished family in Europe. He established contact with leading European scholars and was instrumental in bringing their research back to India, where he established the K.R. Cama Society, the leading center for the study of the Zoroastrian tradition. Bhikaji Rustom Cama (1861–1936), the daughter-in-law of K.R. Cama, was a leading Indian nationalist. She was a strong critic of the British colonization of India and a leader in the movement for Indian independence. She famously unfurled the first Indian flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart in 1907. Arbab Rustam Guiv (1888–1980) was a businessman from Yazd who eventually settled in Tehran. He was leader of the Tehran Zoroastrian Anjuman (association) from 1940 and a member of parliament representing the Zardushtis in 1942. He supervised the repair and construction of fire temples and led many charitable and educational initiatives for the community in Iran. He established a Zoroastrian center, the Arbab Rustam Guiv Darbe-Mehr, in New Rochelle, New York, in 1977, and he was involved in the construction of temples in Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and Anaheim, California.


The history of Zoroastrian thought since the fall of the Sasanians (seventh century c.e.) can be divided into three parts. Each developed in conversation with a powerful culture, to which Zoroastrians looked with a combination of uncertainty and respect.

The first period was the early centuries of Islam. The great works of that era, written in the ninth century, include the Denkard ("Acts of the Religion"), edited finally by Adurbad Emedan; the Bundahishn ("Creation"), edited by Farrobay i Ashawahishtan; and Wizidagiha ("Selections") of Zadspram. All are encyclopedic collections designed to regularize and preserve the tradition. Another ninth-century text, the Shkand-gumānīg Wizār ("Doubt-Dispelling Exposition") by Mardanfarrokh i Ohrmazddad, is a fascinating handbook justifying the Zoroastrian faith and answering attacks on the faith by Jews, Christians, Manichaeans, and Muslims. The various collections of Zoroastrian legal decisions mirror a community wrestling with the problems of conversion and the tradition's diminished status. These include the Dadistan-i Denig ("Religious Decisions," by the priest Manushchihr), the Sad Dar ("A Hundred Subjects"), and the Shayast ne Shayast ("Proper and Improper"), each reflecting the deteriorating condition of the Zoroastrian community under Muslim rule.

In the tenth century, after fleeing Iran for India, the Parsis began a second period of Zoroastrian thought, influenced by Indo-Muslim culture. The Parsis attempted to address both the doctrinal and the practical concerns of their Indian rulers. Under Mughal rule (1525–1748) Indian Muslim rulers took a wide interest in the religions of their territories. In 1573 the emperor Akbar called the learned priest Meherji Rana to his court to testify about Zoroastrian beliefs. Akbar's attempt to integrate all religions into a new faith, Dīn-e Ilāhī ("Divine Religion"), bore the mark of Zoroastrian influence.

Interaction with the West—above all with the British, who established rule over most of India in the nineteenth century—marked the third period. Intellectually the British presented three trends to which the Parsis responded. There was first the missionary effort begun in 1829 by the Anglican John Wilson, who criticized the tradition's dualism, ritualism, superstition, and focus on pollution. In response, there emerged a kind of "Protestant" defense of the tradition, represented by M.N. Dhalla (1875–1956), who viewed the tradition as an ethical monotheism and underplayed the role of ritual; he became known as the "Protestant Dastur" (dastur is the term for a high priest). The second trend was occultism, promoted by the Theosophical Society; the most important figure in this trend was Behramshah Naoroji Shroff (1858–1927). Claiming special initiation by Iranian masters, Shroff presented a highly spiritualized view of the tradition that focused on the occult significance and power of Avestan. He considered Zoroastrianism as the highest stage of religious evolution. He founded a movement known as Ilm-i Kshnoom (the science of spiritual satisfaction), invoking a word that appears once in the Gāthās. Deeply influenced by Hindu teachings, he also taught vegetarianism. The third trend was the rediscovery of the tradition's historical complexity through the philological study of Zoroastrian texts; Western scholars began this work, but a number of Zoroastrian scholars have also made significant contributions. This scholarship has tended to support a more traditional view of Zoroastrianism, emphasizing, for example, the importance of ritual. Many in this camp have been priests, including Darab Dastur Peshotan Sanjana (1857–1931), J. J. Modi (1854–1933), and, in the contemporary period, H. D. K. Mirza, F. M. Kotwal, and K. M. Jamasp Asa. Lay thinkers such as K. Mistree and R. R. Motafram have made this more traditional view widely available to the laity.


Urbanized Zoroastrians in Iran and India have governed themselves by councils of notables—partly hereditary and partly elected. The most significant in India is the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, established in 1728. These councils have managed all the affairs of the community, providing charity to those in need, encouraging education, and maintaining the priesthood. Zoroastrians elsewhere have organized local organizations throughout Europe, North America, Pakistan, Singapore, and Australia. The Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America coordinates the work of 24 such associations in the United States and Canada. The World Zoroastrian Organization, founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, serves the entire world community.

Priesthood is hereditary. Only men are priests, and they exist at two levels. The navar are able to perform the lesser ceremonies, and the martab can perform the yasna as well. Training for the priesthood, which begins at a young age with the mastery of the sacred texts, includes extensive language training in both Avestan and middle Persian.


In Zoroastrianism the primary religious activity is the daily maintenance of a sacred fire. There are various levels of fires, some of which may even be in the possession of an individual. Most sacred fires are in a fire temple, where priests maintain them. To allow the fire to be extinguished would be a catastrophic sin. Some of the major fires have survived for centuries.

Every temple has an atashkadeh ("place of fire"), an enclosed chamber that contains a continuously burning fire on a metal grate or vase (atashdan). The fire receives continual tending. In addition to the atashkadeh there is also an area called the dar-i Mihr ("court of Mithra"; Mithra is the most important divinity, or yazata, in the tradition and is connected especially with the sun and the maintenance of covenants). This is a room that contains one or more pawi, rectangular consecrated spaces marked off by furrows. Each pawi contains a fire vase and two platforms; on one the priest sits, and on the other the priest prepares the offerings that are consecrated during the yasna.

These temples often contain schools for training priests. Both Iranian and Indian communities have sacred sites (connected either with legends or with historical memory) that are the object of popular pilgrimage. The main act of worship, prayer five times a day, is not performed at the temple but rather anywhere before a fire or the sun by all Zoroastrians.


Because of the importance of fire in Zoroastrianism, the religion was erroneously characterized as "fire worship." Fire, however, is the highest kind of material; it is getig (physical world) connected to asha (truth). It is seen as animate, as a living creature that makes physically present the divine light of Ahura Mazda. Connected to one of the Amesha Spentas (entities that aid Ahura Mazda), fire is Ahura Mazda's most potent weapon in the material world. Other material elements connected to the Amesha Spentas—the cow, earth, and water—are also considered sacred. The fear of polluting these sacred elements dictates the special honor they receive.


The Zoroastrian calendar is composed of 12 months of 30 days; each month and day bears the name of a divinity or concept. In addition, there are five Gatha days at the end of the year that are named after the five chapters of the Gāthās.

There are six Gahambars (five-day festivals) spread throughout the year: Maidhyõizarêmaya (mid-spring feast), Maidhyõishêma (mid-summer feast), Paitishaya (feast of "bringing in the harvest"), Ayathrima ("bringing home the herds"), Maidhyaiya (mid-year/winter feast), and Hamaspathmaêdaya (feast of All Souls). The last one is held during the Gatha days. Each Gahambar is a period to focus on worship and do only necessary work. Originally these festivals appear to have marked the change of seasons, and they came to be connected with the six elements of creation: stone, water, earth, vegetation, animals, and humanity.

The first day of spring, naw ruz (new day), is the pan-Iranian festival that begins the new year. It is the most important jashan (festival) of the year. There are 18 other jashans (a word derived from yasna); 12 of them occur when the name of the day and name of the month coincide. These are all periods for family gatherings and the sponsorship of ceremonies in the home. Another important jashan is Mehregan, a day in honor of the god Mithra.

The 365-day calendar has gradually lost its seasonal connection. As a result, it has become an object of major debate. Presently there are two calendars used in Iran. The fasli, or seasonal calendar, places naw ruz, or New Year's Day, in March. It was adopted in 1939 in Tehran, but it was rejected in more traditional Yazd, which follows the qadimi (old calendar) and has naw ruz in late July. Parsis observe three calendars: the two already mentioned, as well as the Shenshai calendar, which places naw ruz in August.


There are two pieces of dress that every Zoroastrian is expected to wear after being initiated. The sadre is the sacred cotton shirt, a thin white garment that is worn under clothes and should never be removed. The kusti is a sacred cord, woven from wool, which traditionally was composed of 72 threads in recollection of the 72 chapters of the Yasna. It is wrapped around the body three times as a reminder of the commandment "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." It is tied and untied during the five daily prayers; the retying marks an intensification of commitment.


Zoroastrians are permitted to eat anything edible in the good part of creation. It is meritorious to kill animals of the evil creation (such as snakes, insects, and frogs), but those are not to be eaten. Silence is maintained while eating so as not to confuse the two functions of the mouth, eating and speaking. Eating or drinking at night is discouraged, because that is when demons might be able to steal some of what is consumed. There are no formal rules for slaughtering an animal, though a portion of what is killed should be consecrated. As a result of Hindu influences, some Parsis practice vegetarianism.


It is often argued that the Gāthās denounce ritual, especially extreme forms of ritual connected with the preparation and consumption of haoma (a hallucinogenic drink, which is now pressed from ephedra and pomegranate twigs) and with sacrifice. Because Zoroaster was engaged in the religious practices of his community, it is more likely that the ritual of opponents, rather than ritual itself, was being denounced.

Priests are responsible for the ritual life of the community. Rituals are of two kinds—those that take place in the sanctified space of a fire temple (the inner ceremonies in the dar-i Mihr, or court of Mithra) and those that occur outside. The key inner ceremony is the yasna, which is performed daily by two priests. In the ceremony, which lasts about two hours, the 72 chapters of the Yasna text are recited. The yasna takes place before a fire, with water at the right hand of the zot, the chief priest who performs the ceremony. The assistant priest, the raspi, feeds the fire during the ceremony.

The ceremony progresses with both ritual action and words. The heart of the ritual action consists of the sanctification of bread and butter (representing the vegetable and the animal worlds) and the preparation of parahom, a sacred drink made by adding milk to haoma. The bread and butter are distributed to the sponsors of the ceremony and other laity, so that they may be nourished by the sacred forces that have been concentrated in the food. Sponsors may also consume a portion of the drink, but the bulk of it is poured into a well to strengthen the water's power to remain pure and to sustain life.

The Diminishing Population
of Zoroastrians

Population decline is the most pressing issue for the future of Zoroastrianism. In India, where most Zoroastrians, or Parsis, live, a demographic study predicted that the number of Parsis there would drop by more than half between 2003 and 2020. This decline is partially the result of low reproduction rates. Moreover, almost one in four Parsi women marry outside the community, and almost as many do not marry at all. Conversion to Zoroastrianism, even by spouses, is prohibited in most places, and children of intermarriages are not allowed to undergo a navjote (initiation) or to enter a fire temple.

Appeals have been made to increase the family size of Parsis, and cash incentives have been offered to Parsi families to have a third child. Neither has had much success, as having a larger family conflicts with the predominantly middle-class interests of most Parsis. Also unsuccessful have been calls to recognize the children of intermarriage as Zoroastrian.

The purpose of the ritual is to strengthen the material world and its inhabitants with concentrations of divine power. The six elements of creation, as part of the material world, are represented in the ceremony. Zoroastrians believe that the world was created in a primordial yasna conducted by a much larger number of officiants. At the end of the material era, Ahura Mazda will perform a final yasna, which will herald the frashkard, or renewal of the world, marking evil's defeat.

Priests also conduct the outer ceremonies, which may be performed outside the fire temple and may be witnessed by both Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians. The most important such ritual is the afrinagan, the distribution of blessings. In this ceremony fruit, wine, milk, eggs, flowers, and water are placed on a cloth on the floor before a fire vase, and the zot blesses them. The primary ritual in the ceremony is the exchange of flowers between the zot and the raspi, which is understood to be an exchange between the getig (physical world) and the menog (spiritual world). The ritual results in a concentration of sacred power, which is then funneled out through blessings to the assembled community.

The main act of worship required of all Zoroastrians is daily prayer. Five times a day the Ahunvar—the holiest prayer of the tradition, taught by Zoroaster—is recited anywhere before a fire or the sun. The meaning of the "Ahunvar" is obscure; it functions more like a mantra. It invokes two human agents who serve Asha (truth) and Vohu Manah (good thought), and it promises Ahura Mazda's special protection of the poor.

After initiation, discussed below, the two other lifecycle rituals are for marriage and death. There is a preference for performing the wedding in the bride's home in the evening, but that is not always possible. The ceremony is preceded by a ritual bath by both the bride and groom. The ceremony itself takes place before a fire, with a priest officiating.

The custom surrounding death are perhaps the best-known feature of Zoroastrianism. Death is the ultimate form of pollution and the most important sign of the continuing power of the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Because it is forbidden to pollute fire or earth with a corpse, the body cannot be burned or buried. A special group of Zoroastrians is responsible for transporting a corpse, and they take on the inevitable pollution such work entails. The corpse is first taken to a special site and washed with bull's urine (thought to be a powerful antiseptic). Then it is laid out for three days, during which it is watched over by a dog, who was traditionally thought to be able to discern life and death and to be an especially effective slayer of demons. After three days the corpse is taken to the dakhma, (tower of silence), a large, round tower open to the elements. There the corpse is devoured by birds. The remaining bones are then gathered in a common container in the dakhma, where they will be reassembled into the individual resurrection bodies formed during the frashkard. Although an ancient custom, it has recently encountered opposition in urban areas. As a result, there has been a trend to replace exposure with cremation, done with the use of electricity rather than fire, or with above-ground burial. The practice of exposure, however, continues in some South Asian cities.

Another ritual practice to eliminate pollution is called the barashnum. This nine-day ceremony is composed of three ritual baths in a carefully laid out area, where the candidate will wash himself 18 times with bull's urine. A dog will also be presented to him 13 times. Traditionally all orthodox Zoroastrians sought to undergo this ceremony at least once, but now it is almost exclusively restricted to priests. A priest will likely undergo this ritual upon his initial consecration and at further points in his life as is needed.


During the fifth month of a woman's pregnancy, a lamp is lit, representing the divine light that Zoroaster's mother displayed during her pregnancy. Shortly after birth a newborn is given a taste of parahom (a mixture of haoma and milk) if it is available. After delivery the mother traditionally was isolated for 40 days to allow the impurities of birth to diminish. The twentieth century has seen a decline of these practices.

The primary ritual for a child is initiation. The Parsis call the initiation navjote (new birth), while the Zardushtis call it sudra-pushun (the wearing of the sadre, or sacred shirt). The age of initiation varies, but the child cannot be younger than seven years old. The child must learn prayers and the rudiments of the faith. In the ceremony he or she is given the sadre and the kusti (sacred cord). The child then receives the blessings of a priest and is sprinkled with rice. A large party celebrating the boy or girl follows.


Both Iranian and Parsi communities disapprove of conversion, as do most (but not all) diaspora communities. Because Zoroastrian identity is so strongly connected with Iranian descent, most feel that only those born to Zoroastrian parents can be Zoroastrian. Some more liberal diaspora communities have allowed conversion of non-Zoroastrian spouses.

The contemporary Zoroastrian community is defined by two important factors—their small numbers and the historical divisions maintained by the surviving remnant. The most important division is between the Iranian and Parsi communities. These two traditions developed independently, despite periodic contact since the arrival of the Parsis in India. Since the mid-twentieth century thousands of Zoroastrians have immigrated to Europe, Australia, and North America. In the diaspora members of the Parsi and Iranian communities have come together and learned about what they share and where they differ. For both communities the most significant issues are the survival of the tradition and what should be passed on to the next generation.


As a minority group in the last millennium, Zoroastrians have regularly experienced discrimination and persecution. This has encouraged Zoroastrians to work for religious tolerance, both for themselves within the wider community and between members of their own tradition.

The view that Zoroastrians are part of an exclusive, hereditary religion has also contributed to their tolerance of others. Most Zoroastrians believe that not only their tradition but all religions are founded on the highest insights and principles. They have no need to insist that Zoroastrianism is in exclusive possession of the truth, since their religion is not available to those born outside the tradition.


A commitment to education and charity has characterized the Zoroastrian community. In both Iran and India education has been the path to economic security, and both communities are highly educated.

The Parsi community in India has been dedicated to charitable work, both for poorer Parsis and for society in general; Parsis have established medical, educational, and social services. It has been argued that the generosity of the Parsi community has helped prevent resentment toward them within India. In poor Iranian communities charity also has played and important role, endowing festivals, temples, and other projects.

The strong ethical orientation of the tradition has inspired the Zoroastrian community to seek social justice for all. The Parsi community has provided leaders to a number of political and social reform movements in India, including the movement for independence from British rule (1917–47). Under the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran (1926–79), Zardushtis supported development efforts and played a special role in the formulation of Iranian nationalist ideology. That ideology—stressing modernization, social development, and the glories of the pre-Islamic Iranian period—drew upon the country's Zoroastrian past.


In the modern era Zoroastrian women have risen to prominence in many fields, though they have confronted social obstacles common in their countries. Family is a central value, so it is incumbent upon all Zoroastrians to marry and produce offspring. Among more conservative Zoroastrians there is a strong movement to encourage marriage only within the community. Social sanctions have occasionally been taken toward those, especially women, who marry non-Zoroastrians. For example, Parsi women who have married outside the community have been denied Zoroastrian funerals. In the name of gender equality, this rule has been increasingly extended to men.


The issue of conversion remains highly controversial. Orthodox Zoroastrians are convinced that Zoroastrianism has never accepted converts (history is largely on their side). The argument against conversion has been mixed with troubling claims to racial purity, which proponents of conversion find particularly offensive. Proponents also point out that prohibiting conversion implicitly denies freedom of choice.

The Parsi and Iranian communities tend to resist conversion for different reasons. Parsi self-identity has been influenced by the Indian caste system, supporting a strong sense of endogamy and exclusiveness. The Iranian community, on the other hand, is more concerned that it might violate the Islamic prohibition on proselytizing. Individual cases of conversion, either by a spouse or by anyone else, are generally not recognized, except by a few communities in the diaspora.

The controversy over conversion has tended to pit the clergy (who are more conservative) against the laity. This has led to a larger question concerning the identity of the religion. Some see Zoroastrianism as primarily characterized by the priests, who serve the community but who are cut off in many ways from modern life. Others view Zoroastrianism primarily as an ethical value system that provides direction to all its members and encourages them to apply those values in the modern world.


Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest religions, with a proud history and cultural influence dating back more than 3,000 years. As the religion of an ancient empire in Iran, it had a notable influence on the culture of classical Greece, a competing power. The interaction between Greek and Iranian culture is seen in the relief sculpture at Persepolis, which appears to contain ancient Near Eastern themes interpreted by Greek craftsmen. This is significant because the Zoroastrian tradition otherwise seems not to have made pictorial representations or sculptures, though there are occasional references to statues, especially of the goddess Anahita.

The chahar tāq,—the square, domed fire temple with four arched walls developed during the Sasanian period—has survived as a fundamental form of Iranian architecture. The significance of the dome as symbol of the cosmos has had an impact on Christian and Muslim architecture, and it has been argued that it also played a role in the development of the Buddhist stupa (a shrine with a dome).

The opulent style and art of the Zoroastrian Sasanian court also had a legacy in the Islamic world, particularly in caliphal palaces and royal symbolism. The reemergence of the Persian language—beginning in the ninth century c.e. in northeastern Iran—helped preserve Zoroastrian epic history, with its interdependence of royalty and religion and its epic hero defending the Iranian realm. Persian poetic and musical forms later drew upon this history.

Contemporary Zoroastrians—such as Zubin Mehta (former conductor of the New York Philharmonic), the postmodern theorist Homi Bhabha, the Indian-born Canadian author Rohinton Mistry (whose fiction deals with themes of Parsi identity and Zoroastrian faith), and the Pakistani-born author Bapsi Sidhwa—have made major cultural contributions.

William Darrow


Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3 vols. to date. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975–.

——. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge, 1979.

——, ed. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Conflict and Cooperation: Zoroastrian Subalterns and Muslim Elites in Medieval Iranian Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

——. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002.

——. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

Dhalla, M.N. A History of Zoroastrianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Godrej, Pheroza, and Firoza P. Mistree, eds. A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion, and Culture. Mumbai: Mapin Publishing, 2002.

Hinnells, John. Zoroastrians in Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Insler, Stanley. The Gathas of Zarathustra. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975.

Kellens, Jean. Essays on Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism. Translated by Prods Oktor Skjærvø. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Press, 2000.

Luhrmann, T.M. The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathustra. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Press, 2003.

Mirza, H.D.K. Outlines of Parsi History. Bombay: The Industrial Press, 1974.

Mistree, K. Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective. Bombay: Zoroastrian Studies, 1982.

Modi, J.J. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees. 1922. Reprint, New York: Garland, 1979.

Motafram, R.R. Mysticism, Mystic Sects among the Jews, Mohmedans and the Zoroastrians: A Comparative Study. Mumbai: H.J.M. Desai and H.N. Modi, 1996.

Shaked, Shaul. Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1994.

——. From Zoroastrian Iran to Islam. Aldershot, England: VARIORUM, Ashgate Publishing, 1995.

West, Edward William. Pahlavi Texts. 5 vols. The Sacred Books of the East. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879–1910.

Zaehner, Robert C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. New York: Putnam, 1961.

——. The Teachings of the Magi: A Compendium of Zoroastrian Beliefs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.

——. Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma. New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972.


views updated May 18 2018


Historians remain uncertain about when Zoroastrianism first developed, but many believe that it is older than Judaism. If that belief is correct, then Zoroastrianism is the world's first major monotheistic religion (a religion that worships one god). Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet, Zarathushtra (also spelled Zarathustra), often referred to by the ancient Greek version of his name, Zoroaster. The core of Zoroastrian belief is that God, Ahura Mazda, is the supreme creator and the source of all truth. Zoroastrians see life as a battleground between the forces of good and evil. The good is represented by an aspect, or side, of Ahura Mazda called Spenta Mainyu, who exists in ongoing conflict with his evil opponent, another aspect of Ahura Mazda called Angra Mainyu. Within this ongoing battle between good and evil, humans have free moral choice. The goal of human existence is to create a social order that is morally perfect.

An alternative name for the religion is Mazdayasna, meaning "Worship of Wisdom." In modern Persian the religion is often called Behdin, which means "Good Religion" or "Good Law." Zoroastrians often call themselves Zartoshti, which simply means "Zoroastrian," Behdini ("Followers of the Good Religion"), or Mazdayasni ("Worshippers of Wisdom").

Zoroastrianism's historical roots are in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran). Over time the religion spread throughout the Middle East and eastward into India. In the twenty-first century a distinction is made between Indian Zoroastrians, called Parsis (or Parsees), and Iranian Zoroastrians, who maintain communities in such cities as Tehran, Yazd, and Kerman. In other countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, many people have shown interest in rediscovering their Zoroastrian heritage. The religion is also practiced in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The number of Zoroastrians in the world is relatively small, though how small is difficult to calculate. Until about 2002 most sources gave estimates of the number of Zoroastrians that were as low as 100,000 to 140,000. Some sources declared the religion to be on the verge of extinction. After 2002, though, many sources began to report much higher numbers, as many as 2 million to 3.5 million worldwide, with estimates of the number in North America ranging from 18,000 to 25,000. Many sources, however, continue to report the earlier figures rather than the more recent estimates.


adur aduran:
The "fire of fires" that burns in Zoroastrian temples.
Ahura Mazda:
The supreme God of Zoroastrianism.
Amesha Spentas:
The "Bounteous Immortals," aspects, or sides, of Ahura Mazda.
Righteousness that derives from natural law.
The chief sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism.
Ancient Persian deities.
A figure of a bird with its wings spread that is a chief symbol of Zoroastrianism.
Seasonal festivals.
A portion of the Avesta that contains holy songs; believed to be the words of Zarathushtra himself.
The sacred cord, or belt, that Zoroastrians wear.
The "holy path" one has to follow to be a Zoroastrian.
Parsis (Parsees):
Zoroastrians who live in India.
The Zoroastrian initiation rite.
The soul.
Guardian angel.

These more recent, higher numbers are not the result of a sudden explosion in the number of Zoroastrians. Historically, Zoroastrians have been persecuted (harassed or even injured), especially in Iran, but in the early years of the twenty-first century more people became willing to openly acknowledge their belief in this ancient faith. The Indian government has supported Zoroastrianism, encouraging its followers to identify it as their religious affiliation. Thus, the number of Zoroastrians may not have actually increased. Rather, the number of people who acknowledge the faith has increased. Using an estimate of 2.6 million, one source ranks Zoroastrianism as the seventeenth-largest religion in the world. Still, it is generally believed that the number of Zoroastrians is shrinking, largely because many traditional Zoroastrians believe that one cannot convert to the religion but rather has to be born into it.

History and development

Little is known about the life of Zarathushtra, the founder of Zoroastrianism. His name is composed of two words in the Avestan language of ancient Persia (a language related to Sanskrit). The name means something like "Keeper of Old Camels," though different translations have been suggested. The modern Persian version of his name is Zartosht. Although he was an actual historical figure, historians cannot agree on when he lived. Some of the earliest dates put his life as far back as 10,000 bce, but Persian tradition and the writings of many ancient Greek and Roman historians put the date later, at around 7,000 bce. (This is the date that most Parsis accept.) Some archeological evidence suggests a date of about 2,000 bce.

Most modern historians, however, have argued for later dates, somewhere roughly between 1500 and 1000 bce (although a very few put the dates even later, around the middle of the first millennium bce). These historians base their estimate on the language of the Gathas, a Zoroastrian sacred text believed to record the actual words of Zarathushtra. By comparing the Gathas to other Sanskrit writings of the same period, especially the Rig Veda of Hinduism, they find similarities in the language that suggest a date around 1200 bce. In addition, the Gathas contain references to social customs that were followed roughly around this same time.

These dates are uncertain because many of the religion's texts were destroyed. They either no longer exist or exist only in fragments. Some were destroyed by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) in 330 bce; others, by Arab and Mongol invaders beginning in 650 ce. With the destruction of these texts, the religion was left with few written records.

The life of Zarathushtra

Most of what is known about Zarathushtra's life is found in Zoroastrian scripture, histories written by ancient Greeks, and oral tradition. He was probably born and lived in northwestern Persia. Throughout his childhood he was unnaturally wise. By age fifteen he had decided to devote himself to religion. Traditional accounts say that when Zarathusthra was just seven years old, he was the target of an assassination plot at the hands of Iranians who recognized that he was the prophet of a new religion that would threaten their established way of life. At age twenty he left his parents' house and lived for seven years in a cave, where he meditated. When he returned, Zarathushtra was prepared to preach a new religion, one that placed less emphasis on ritual and more on thought and intellect.

About Zoroastrianism

  • Belief. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion that worships a Supreme God and sees the world as engaged in an ongoing struggle between good and evil. A key belief is that people have free will and can choose good over evil.
  • Followers. The number of Zoroastrians, who live primarily in Iran and India, is difficult to calculate. Many sources give numbers in the low hundreds of thousands, while other sources estimate that Zoroastrianism has as many as 3.5 million followers.
  • Name of God. The name of the Supreme God of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda, a name that means "Wise Lord."
  • Symbols. Zoroastrians have three primary symbols. Fire represents the wisdom and creative energy of Ahura Mazda. White is a symbol of purity. The Faravahar is a bird with its wings spread that symbolizes the human connection with Ahura Mazda.
  • Worship. Much Zoroastrian worship takes place individually and consists of prayers. Zoroastrians worship in temples, often called fire temples because a sacred flame is maintained inside.
  • Dress. Zoroastrians do wear two items of symbolic clothing. One is the kushti, a woolen cord, or belt, that symbolically binds them to their religion and their community. The other is a kudreh, a white muslin vest or undershirt that has a small pocket in front that serves as a reminder to "fill" it each day with good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.
  • Texts. The sacred text of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta, which contains the Gathas. The Gathas are believed to be the actual words of the religion's prophet, Zarathushtra.
  • Sites. A holy site for Zoroastrians is a group of six shrines near Yadz, Iran. Chief among them is the Pir-e-Sabz shrine, which many Zoroastrians visit on pilgrimage.
  • Observances. Zoroastrians celebrate six seasonal festivals called Gahambars. Additionally, they celebrate a number of other holy days, including the presumed dates of Zarathushtra's birth and death.
  • Phrases. The motto of Zoroastrianism is Pendar-e Nik, Goftar-e Nik, and Kerdar-e Nik," which means "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

At first Zarathushtra met with little success. His first and only convert, other than members of his immediate family, was a cousin (some sources say a nephew). Many people in his community thought that he was insane and distanced themselves from him. The people rejected his beliefs because he reduced the daevas, or evil spirits of Iranian religion, from gods to mere workers on behalf of Angra Mainyu, the aspect, or side, of god that represents evil. At one point Zarathushtra was imprisoned, but he escaped.

After twelve years of trying to find acceptance for his beliefs, Zarathushtra left his community and found refuge in Bactria, an ancient kingdom in modern-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There King Vishtaspa and his queen, Hutosa, heard Zarathushtra debate local religious leaders and decided to adopt his ideas. The king and queen made Zoroastrianism the official religion of the kingdom and gave their daughter's hand to Zarathushtra in marriage. At first Zoroastrianism had a military, or aggressive, quality as its members fought persecution and fended off attacks. During a battle with a group called the Turanians, Zarathushtra was killed as he tended the sacred fire in a temple. In time, however, the religion spread rapidly, and this militant defiance against the established religious order was no longer necessary.

Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire

Zoroastrianism became the dominant religion of the Persian Empire. It was the favored religion in the empire during the Achaemenid Dynasty (529–323 bce). A dynasty is the period of reign by a particular ruling family. The Achaemenid Dynasty reached the peak of its power in about 500 bce and ruled over the entire region, from eastern Europe through the Middle East and into central Asia and south-southwest into North Africa. After Alexander the Great overthrew the Achaemenids in the 330s bce, the empire was ruled by the Seleucid and Parthian dynasties, but few records remain from this time. It is believed, however, that the Three Wise Men, or Magi, who in Christian tradition brought gifts to the infant Jesus, were Zoroastrians from Parthia. Also during this period a sect, or group, derived from Zoroastrianism, called Mithraism, began to worship Mitra, a sun-god. Mithraism gained some popularity in the Roman Empire (c. 31 bce–476 ce), particularly among members of the Roman army.

During the Sassanid Dynasty (224–651 ce) Zoroastrianism spread aggressively throughout the Persian Empire. By the sixth century ce it had moved into northern China, though it died out there by the thirteenth century. In the seventh century the Persian Sassanid Dynasty was overthrown by Arab Muslims. Because of persecution, particularly in Iran, Zoroastrianism began to lose influence. During the eighth and ninth centuries large numbers of Zoroastrians fled Iran for India, where they were given refuge and protection under two conditions: that they not proselytize, or try to win converts, and that they marry only other Zoroastrians. Some twenty-first century Parsis continue to follow these restrictions, though many do not. In Iran, where Zoroastrianism continues to be persecuted and its members are called Gabars, or infidels (unbelievers), the government strongly encourages Zoroastrians to marry within their faith as a way of keeping membership in the religion from growing. Even in Iran, however, Zoroastrianism is idealized as representative of the nation's cultural and historical roots.

Sects and schisms

Seven different sects, or groups, have been identified in the history of Zoroastrianism. Some of these sects continue to exist, while others no longer have any followers. In addition to Orthodox Zoroastrianism, which emphasizes the traditional doctrines, or principles, of the religion. The seven sects include the following:

  1. Zurvanism: Zurvanism emerged late in the Achaemenid period (700–331 bce). It was based on the belief that because Ahura Mazda did not create the evil Angra Mainyu (called Ahriman by Zurvans), the two must have been the sons of a third figure, Zurvan, whose name means "time." Zurvanism was a pessimistic cult because it believed that Zurvan had given Ahriman dominion over the world, so the world was inherently evil. Zurvanism died out by the seventh century.
  2. Kshnoon: This movement was begun in India in the early twentieth century by Behramshah Shroff (1857–1927), and it retains a few members, mostly in Mumbai (previously called Bombay), India. Kshnoon believes in reincarnation, meaning that when a person dies, the soul inhabits another body. Through the cycle of death and rebirth, a soul can achieve spiritual purity. Members also believe that Shroff was able to extract hidden, secret knowledge from Zoroastrian scripture.
  3. Parsi Reform Movement: The Parsi Reform Movement began in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its adherents believe that Zoroastrian beliefs have to be updated to remain relevant in the modern world. Members of this movement believe that one way to do so is to absorb Western knowledge through education. The Parsi Reform Movement also calls for less emphasis on rituals. Its teachings are at odds with traditional Zoroastrianism in several ways. The followers of this movement believe that death is a release from bondage and that the world is not essentially good.
  4. Parsi Theosophy: Theosophy is a philosophical approach to religion based on spiritual insight. As a worldwide movement theosophy began in the nineteenth century in New York with the foundation of the Theosophical Society. Parsi theosophists believe that the Zoroastrian scriptures, particularly in the original language, are a source of this mystical, or spiritual, insight. Further, this sect believes that Zoroastrian scripture must be interpreted metaphorically (that is, symbolically) rather than literally and that Zoroastrian doctrines have to be reinterpreted in light of modern science.
  5. "Typical" Parsi Zoroastrianism: This movement avoids theological (religious) debates and attempts to emphasize the ethical side of the religion as a way of making it more relevant for younger people.
  6. Mazdaznan Movement: The Mazdaznan movement, founded in the early twentieth century by Rev. Dr. Otoman Zar-Adhusht Hanish (d. 1936), included the first Zoroastrians in the United States. This movement incorporates elements of Christianity and Hinduism. It continues to believe in a monotheistic God, but it also believes in a Father (the male creative principle), a Mother (the female creative principle), and the Child (representing salvation, or deliverance from sin, and faith in the future). Members of this movement practice rhythmic praying and chanting, follow a strict vegetarian diet, and are urged to lead a simple life. The movement eventually spread to Mexico and to several countries in Europe.
  7. The Lovers of Meher Baba: This movement has only very loose links with Zoroastrianism. It was founded by Meher Baba (1894–1969), who declared himself the last avatars in the current cycle of time. (An avatar is an incarnation of a god and is usually associated with the god Vishnu of Hinduism.) Baba, whose name means "Compassionate Father," preached that the goal of life was to become one with God through love. It is believed that this sect has hundreds of thousands of believers.

Darius the Great

One of the most famous Zoroastrians in history was Darius I, also called Darius the Great (d. 486 bce), who ruled the Persian Empire for more than thirty years. Darius was a member of a high-ranking Persian family. After Darius's predecessor, Cambyses II (ruled 529–522 bce), committed suicide, the Persian throne was seized by a man named Gaumata, who ruled under the name Smerdis (sixth century). Darius, however, believed that Smerdis had seized the throne illegally because he was not a member of the royal family (though later historians believe that he was). Darius gathered about him a number of Persian nobles, marched against the king, and put him to death.

Darius was a strong believer in Zoroastrianism. He said that he was able to take his legitimate place as the hereditary ruler of Persia "with the help of Ahura Mazda." He was also a strong king and an effective administrator. When the leaders of a number of outlying kingdoms in the empire rebelled, thinking that they, too, had legitimate claims to the throne, Darius quickly put the rebellions down and secured the empire. He launched a number of building projects, introduced a monetary (money) system based on gold and silver, developed a system of law, standardized weights and measures, appointed administrators to the empire's various provinces, and encouraged trade with other nations. His only real setback occurred near the end of his reign, when his forces were defeated by the Greeks at the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 bce.

Basic beliefs

The supreme God of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda (often written in English as one word, Ahuramazda). This name comes from the words ahura, meaning "divinity" or "lord," and mazda, meaning "wisdom," so Ahura Mazda is usually translated as "Wise Lord" or "Lord of Wisdom." In addition to Ahura Mazda are a number of Amesha Spentas, or Bounteous Immortals (sometimes called Holy Immortals). These figures, which were developed from ancient Persian deities called daevas, are thought of as various aspects, or sides, of Ahura Mazda. Chief among them is Spenta Mainyu, similar to the Christian "Holy Spirit." Zoroastrianism recognizes six more the Amesha Spentas:

  1. Vohu Manah, who represents good mind and purpose;
  2. Asha Vahishta, or truth and righteousness;
  3. Spenta Ameraiti, or devotion, serenity, and kindness;
  4. Khashathra Vairya, or power and just rule;
  5. Hauravatat, or wholeness and health; and
  6. Ameretat, or long life and immortality.

It is believed that Vohu Manah appeared to Zarathushtra when he was in seclusion in the cave and revealed to him that Ahura Mazda was the one true God.

Good and evil

Some Zoroastrians also believe that Angra Mainyu is not an aspect, or side, of Ahura Mazda, but a separate spirit involved in an ongoing battle between good and evil. They believe that in time Ahura Mazda will prevail and that the principle of goodness will reign supreme. Other Zoroastrians believe that the battle between good and evil exists only in the human mind. Either way, it is through the existence of Angra Mainyu, whether as a being or as a concept, that Zoroastrians account for the existence of evil in the world. This "problem of evil" is a problem with which monotheistic religions have long dealt. The puzzle is this: If God is all powerful and all good, why does evil exist in the world?

In Zoroastrianism this puzzle remains unresolved. Historically, Zoroastrian theologians, or religious scholars, have argued that Ahura Mazda, as a kind God, could not have created Angra Mainyu. If such is the case, however, then the religion cannot be said to be monotheistic, for Angra Mainyu would have an existence independent from Ahura Mazda. On the other hand, Ahura Mazda created people who are capable of doing evil, so this leaves open the possibility that he also created Angra Mainyu. Ultimately Zoroastrianism does not offer a clear answer to this problem. What is clear is that a core belief of Zoroastrianism is free will: that people can choose good over evil, or evil over good.

Zoroastrianism had a great deal of influence on Judaism and Christianity, giving rise to such concepts as the soul, heaven and hell, the savior, resurrection, final judgment, guardian angels (called yazatas by Zoroastrians), and others. Zoroastrians believe that the soul, or urvan, is given three days to meditate after death as it passes along the Path to Judgment, called Chinvat Peretum. If good thoughts outweigh the bad, the soul is admitted to heaven. If the bad outweighs the good, the soul is sent to hell.

Zoroastrians also believe that the world passes through three phases. The first phase is creation. The second phase is the present world. During this phase good and evil are mixed, but people's good actions and thoughts are helping to lead the world to a heavenly ideal. In the final stage, good and evil will be separated, all will be pure and good, and even the souls that were sent to hell will be freed. Another strong similarity between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that a savior, a descendant of Zarathushtra called Saoshyant, will be born of a virgin. He will raise the dead and pass judgment on everyone in the final judgment.

Ordinary members of the faith do not dwell on these theological concepts. Rather, they concern themselves with their everyday conduct as part of the ongoing battle between good and evil. They dedicate themselves to a "threefold path," which is stated simply in the Zoroastrian motto: "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds" (in modern-day Persian, Pendar-e Nik, Goftar-e Nik, and Kerdar-e Nik). This goal is expressed by the term asha, a form of righteousness that comes from natural law (law derived from the way the universe operates rather than from human sources) and includes truth, order, discipline, and progress.


Zoroastrianism is a religion that is remarkably free of dogma, or principles regarded by the religion as true and authoritative, and commandments, or laws. It instead emphasizes an ethical life. Zarathushtra, who believed in the power of human reason, taught that each person was capable of knowing the difference between good and evil and following the good. A person endowed with Vohu Manah, or "good mind," will follow the path of righteousness in conformity with the law of asha. Such a person follows the Kusti, or "Holy Path," to become a Behdini, or "Follower of the Good Religion." It should be noted that the Persian word that is often translated as "religion" can also be translated as "law." The Zoroastrian concept of law is that of a divine order, a rightness to things, that people naturally follow.

Sacred writings

The main scripture of Zoroastrianism is called the Avesta. Originally a twenty-one-volume work, many of the volumes are now lost. The term avesta is thought to come from an Iranian word that means "shelter" or "support." Sometimes the title Zend (or Zand) Avesta is used to refer to the Zoroastrian scripture, but this title refers more specifically to a compilation of Zoroastrian writings made in the ninth century. The Avesta was compiled over a long period of time, ranging from 1700 bce to 400 ce. Like many scriptures, or holy texts, it was originally transmitted orally.

Within the Avesta is a seventy-two-chapter ritual text called the Yasna, which means "reverence" or "veneration." In turn, within the Yasna are the Gathas, a collection of divine songs totaling about 6,000 words and 241 verses arranged in 17 chapters. The Gathas are the core of the Avesta, for they are believed to have been composed by Zarathushtra himself more than three thousand years ago. They record the sermons he gave at the court of King Vishtaspa.

Scholarship (research) shows that the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism are, in fact, very old. Much of the Avesta is written in a language called Avestan, sometimes referred to as Gathic Avestan. This is one of the oldest surviving Indo-European languages (a class of languages related to English, Latin, ancient Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit, among others). Some Zoroastrian writings are preserved in Pahlavi, a Middle Persian language used between 300 bce and 950 ce. The Avesta had to be reconstructed from scattered texts, some of them in Greek translations. One effort to do so was made by Vologeses I (died c. 80 ce), the king of Parthia, a kingdom in the northeast of modern-day Iran, from 51 to 77 ce. The effort was not completed, however, until the reign of the Sassanian king Shapur I (240-271). In the twenty-first century many Zoroastrians continue to recite the Avesta in the Avestan language, although most people do not understand the words. Often the original Avestan is recited, and then the text is repeated in the local language.

In addition to the Gathas are a number of other texts that are part of the Avesta. The Vendidad contains laws about becoming and remaining pure and also includes myths, or stories, and religious observances. The Khorda Avesta, which contains a number of ritual prayers, includes the Yashts, which are individual hymns to Ahura Mazda and to the guardian angels. The Visperad contains a service dedicated to Ahura Mazda.

Sacred symbols

The most common symbol of Zoroastrianism is fire. For this reason, Zoroastrians have sometimes been mistakenly characterized as "fire worshippers," but this is incorrect. Rather, they see fire as a symbol of the creative power of Ahura Mazda. It is also a symbol of truth and righteousness, an element that purifies and provides light and that cannot be corrupted. Zoroastrian places of worship are called fire temples. Here, a fire called Adur Aduran ("fire of fires") is kept constantly burning to represent the light of God. The fire is the focal point of worship services. At only ten Zoroastrian temples, two in Iran and eight in India that represent the religion's most sacred places, a more sacred fire called the Atash Bahram ("fire of victory") burns. Fires also burn in homes and temporary places of worship.

The color white, representing purity, bears special significance for Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians wear a white cord, or belt, called a kushti (or koshti). It is made of seventy-two strands of lamb's wool, and symbolically binds worshippers to their religion and their community. Further, most Zoroastrians a white undershirt or vest called a kudreh, which also serves as a reminder of the need for purity in their lives. The kudreh has a small symbolic pocket in front as a reminder to the wearer to fill it each day with "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

The Faravahar

The most prominent symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Faravahar, sometimes spelled Farohar. The name comes from an Avestan word, fravarane, meaning "I choose," suggesting the idea that a person chooses to follow the religion. The Faravahar depicts a bird with its wings spread and a human figure sitting atop it. The symbolism of the Faravahar is interpreted in many ways, but generally the meaning is as follows:

The human figure represents the Zoroastrian's connection with humankind. Some efforts have been made to show that the figure represents either Ahura Mazda or Zarathushtra. Zoroastrians, however, generally do not give Ahura Mazda any kind of human shape or form, and evidence that it represents Zarathushtra is not clear. Many religious historians believe that it likely represents the Persian king.

Each of the two wings has three major feathers, which represent the three mainstays of the Zoroastrian ethical code: good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

The three lower parts of the figure represent the opposite: bad thoughts, bad words, bad deeds, which cause misfortune and unhappiness.

The two loops at the sides of the Faravahar represent the two opposing forces in the universe, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu, the forces of good and evil. The human face is turned in the direction of the good.

The circle in the middle of the figure represents eternity, a suggestion that the human spirit is immortal.

One of the human figure's hands points upward, suggesting the need to struggle upward to achieve salvation, or freedom from sin. The other hand holds a ring. Similar to a wedding ring, this band represents a covenant, or promise, between Ahura Mazda and humanity.


Zoroastrians often worship privately in the home. For example, the names of some of the more important yazatas (guardian angels) are given to the days of the week and the months of the year. On a day or month that bears the name of a yazata, individuals may choose to recite one of the Yashts in honor of that yazata. When Zoroastrians pray, they generally face either the sun or another source of light, which is symbolic of the energy and goodness of Ahura Mazda. To face the sun, many will pray at a window in the home.

In addition, many individual acts of worship consist of prayers from the Avesta that are recited at five different times during the day. These prayer times are called Hawan (between sunrise to noon), Rapithwin (between noon and 3:00 pm), Uzerin (between 3:00 pm and sunset), Aiwisruthrem (between sunset and midnight), and Ushahin (between midnight and sunrise). Zoroastrians are known for being hard workers and early risers, so the Ushahin prayers are generally recited early in the morning, before sunrise. One prayer is a confirmation of faith. Before and during this prayer, the worshipper unties and reties the knots of the kushti, or sacred cord worn a symbol of the Zoroastrian's commitment to the faith. Individual worship also takes place when the faithful visit a temple. Another common individual ritual is lighting a fire in an urn, then feeding the fire with sandal-wood, incense, and myrrh.

Communal worship

In addition to individual worship, Zoroastrians take part in communal worship. Communal worship takes place around a fire urn, which a priest called a Raspi tends throughout the ritual. The fire ritual typically consists of recited prayers, often followed by a communal meal. Zoroastrians take part in a large number of communal rituals, many of them connected with specific feast days. One of the most common rituals is called the Afrinagan, a ceremony of blessing that honors both living participants and ancestors who have died.

Khorshed Niyaesh

Each day devout Zoroastrians are required to recite standard prayers. One of these prayers is called the Khorshed Niyaesh, a prayer in praise of Ahura Mazda. Devout Zoroastrians recite this prayer during each of the three daytime prayer times, when the sun is in the sky. A portion of the prayer is as follows:

May there be the rejoicing of Ahura Mazda. I commence this recital in the name of the Creator. I praise and invoke Ahura Mazda, who is the keeper of treasures, Glorious, Omniscient [All-Knowing], the Perfector of all deeds, the Lord of Lords, King over all Kings, the Protector, the Creator, of all things created, the Giver of the daily bread, the Natural, and the Powerful, without beginning or end, the Bestower [Giver] of good things, the Forgiver of sins, the Loving, Omnipotent [All-Powerful], Wise, and the Nourisher of all creation.

The Afrinagan can take many forms, which vary depending on the time of the year, but typically the ritual follows a set format. It is led by a chief priest, called a Zoti, and it incorporates elements of creation, including plants (which, during the ceremony, are represented by flowers), animals (represented by milk), fire, water, the earth, and the sky. The ritual consists of a number of preliminary prayers, including a prayer for the tying of the sacred cord, a prayer to obedience, a fire ritual, and a prayer in praise of Ahura Mazda. These prayers are followed by an introduction to the service itself. This introduction consists of a number of prayers and makes use of ayat, or ritual implements, including the fire urn; a tray with sandalwood, incense, and myrrh; a tray containing milk, fruit, wine, water, and other items; and, especially, a tray holding flowers, usually five but sometimes three or eight. The flowers all have to be of the same length and, traditionally, have come from either a jujuba tree or a myrtle tree. The five flowers, which are arranged in a specified manner on the tray, symbolize the five prayer times of the day. The ritual ends with additional prayers.

Observances and pilgrimages

The Zoroastrian religious calendar is complicated because three different calendars are used. The first and oldest of these, called the Fasli calendar, is tied to the seasons of the year. The Shahanshahi calendar, used primarily by Parsis in India, is also tied to the seasons, but it requires the addition of a month every 120 years. Over a period of some hundreds of years, this extra month was not added, so the calendar remains off by many months. Finally, the Qadimi calendar was adopted in Iran and is one month ahead of the Shahanshahi calendar. Efforts have been made to reform and unify the Zoroastrian calendar, but the different calendars cause confusion about the dates on which religious festivals and observances are held. For example, in Iran the new year is celebrated in March-April, but in India it is celebrated in August-September. In all the calendars, however, each month and each day are presided over by a Zoroastrian spirit and are marked by prayers to that spirit.


Zoroastrian religious festivals are of two major types: Gahambars (Gahambar means "in time") are seasonal festivals, and Jashans are other festivals that are not associated with the seasons. The six Gahambars reflect the roots of Zoroastrianism in an agricultural society. Because the calendars have not been corrected in centuries, the seasons each Gahambar represents often do not match the common calendar. Each Gahambar corresponds to one of the six days of creation. The six Gahambars are:

  1. Maidyozarem: the midspring festival, held in early October and commemorating the creation of heaven.
  2. Maidyoshahem: the midsummer festival, held in early December and commemorating the creation of water.
  1. Paitishahem: the harvest festival, held in mid-February and commemorating the creation of Earth.
  2. Ayathrem: a festival celebrating the bringing in of herds, held in mid-March and commemorating the creation of plants.
  3. Maidyarem: the midwinter festival, held in early June and commemorating the creation of animals.
  4. Hamaspathmaidyem, or Muktad: the Festival of All Souls, commemorating the creation of humankind.

In addition to the seasonal festivals are a number of other important festivals (Jashans) and holidays:

Pateti: New Year's, celebrated in August-September by the Parsis and in spring by Iranians.

Jamshed-e Navroz: New Year's Day (Norouz), celebrated in August-September by Parsis and in spring by Iranians.

Jashan-e Sadeh: the Festival of Fire, celebrated on the one-hundredth day before Navroz (New Year's).

Jashan-e Mehragan: Festival of Mihr, a day of thanksgiving dedicated to the highest angel, Mithra.

Jashan-e Tirigan: Festival of Tir, a day dedicated to Tishtrya, the angel of the star Sirius and of rain.

Farvardigan: Festival of the Guardian Angels.

Khordad Sal: The birthday of Zarathushtra.

Zartosht No-Diso: The traditional anniversary of the death of Zarathushtra.


Zoroastrianism originated in ancient Persia, a country roughly corresponding to modern-day Iran, so most of the religion's holy sites and places of pilgrimage are located in Iran. Early Zoroastrians built many fire temples in the caves, mountains, rocks, and deserts of the region. Many of these temples were abandoned in the seventh and eighth centuries ce, when Islam became the dominant religion, but many survive. In the modern era, Zoroastrians, both from Iran and from India, travel back to these ancient sites as a way of discovering their religious roots.

One of the major places of pilgrimage is a group of six shrines in the Yadz region of Iran. While many pilgrims visit these shrines individually, more often they visit as part of communal celebrations, with feasting, dancing, and music. The most important of the six shrines is the Pir-e-Sabz shrine, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) from Yazd. (The word pir, meaning "saint," is used to refer to these shrines.) Surrounding the shrine is a legend that the daughter of a Sassanian ruler was being pursued by a Muslim army. She stopped at the site of the shrine, where she prayed to Ahura Mazda for help. Miraculously, the rocks of the mountain opened and provided her with protection. Near the shrine are a holy spring and a huge tree traditionally thought to have taken root from the Sassanian daughter's cane. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the site each year on June 14 through 18. Throughout June, July, and August, pilgrims also visit the other nearby shrines, including Seti Pir, Pir-e Narestuneh, Pir-e Banu-Pars, Pir-e Naraki, and Pir-e Herisht.

Everyday living

Much of Zoroastrian life is rooted in the religion's motto: "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds." Devout Zoroastrians begin their day with a prayer to Asha Vahishta, or righteousness, as a reminder to practice the principles of Zoroastrianism throughout the day. A devout Zoroastrian also begins the day by lighting a fire, the sacred symbol of Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrians are known primarily for two beliefs that influence their daily lives: respect for the environment and an emphasis on industry and hard work. Zoroastrianism has been called "the world's first ecological (or environmental) religion." Based on the idea that Ahura Mazda represents all that is good and pure, Zoroastrians believe that the natural environment is sacred. Thus, devout Zoroastrians try to avoid any activity that pollutes the air, water, or soil, including burial of the dead. Related to this is the belief that all creatures are sacred. Thus, Zoroastrians avoid any type of violence, discrimination (mistreatment), and persecution, and they show great respect for people of other religious traditions. Many are vegetarians, meaning they avoid eating meat and foods that come from animals. Zoroastrians also promote equality of men and women.

Zoroastrians place considerable emphasis on hard work and industry. Any kind of laziness is frowned on by members of the community. For this reason, especially in India, Zoroastrians tend to be successful in business and are regarded as honest in all their business dealings. Many of the nation's business leaders are Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians often share the fruits of their industry with those who are less fortunate. In general, they contribute a great deal of their income to charity.

Rites of passage

An important ritual for Zoroastrians is the Sedreh-pushi Ceremony, when a Zoroastrian child is initiated into the faith. The ceremony is also called the Navjote. At this time the child is given a sedreh (vest) and koshti (sacred cord). By wearing the koshti, the child signifies that he or she is bound to the teachings of Zarathushtra. During the ceremony the child, usually between the ages of seven and twelve, recites prayers and takes part in a ritual washing.

Marriage, another important ritual, is preceded by the signing of a marriage contract. The wedding ceremony itself is a time of great celebration and is typically accompanied by feasting that lasts from three to seven days. Traditionally, both the bride and the groom are dressed in white, and during the wedding service, married female relatives of the bride and groom hold a white scarf over the couple's heads. Sugar cones are rubbed together to symbolize sweetness in the couple's married life. Then the ends of the scarf are sewn together to symbolize the unity of the couple.

Funeral services for Zoroastrians might be regarded as unusual in the West, and indeed Zoroastrians have had to adapt their beliefs to modern life. Traditionally Zoroastrians allowed the dead to remain exposed until vultures and other scavenger birds consumed the flesh and the bones were bleached. They believed that burying a body would pollute Ahura Mazda's Earth. In India, so-called Towers of Silence were constructed as places where bodies could be exposed to the birds. Unfortunately, the vulture population has declined significantly, making the practice impractical in modern life, so Zoroastrians are rethinking the practice. In other parts of the world, Zoroastrians do bury or cremate the dead.

Modern issues

One of the issues facing modern Zoroastrianism is the possibility that the religion could die out. The religion does not seek converts, and traditional Zoroastrians believe that one has to be born into the faith and cannot adopt it in later life. This limits the number of followers. Further, traditional Zoroastrians believe that one is obliged to marry only another Zoroastrian. A woman (and her children) who marries a non-Zoroastrian is no longer a member of the religion, though a Zoroastrian man who marries a non-Zoroastrian woman does remain a member.

These views are not universally accepted, particularly by Zoroastrian clergy, or priesthood, because they contradict Zoroastrians' professed belief in the equality of the sexes. Yet these beliefs continue to influence people's behavior. The issue becomes a particular problem with Zoroastrians who live outside of India or Iran, where Zoroastrians are few and suitable spouses may not be readily available.

Zoroastrianism's influences

One of the fascinations of historical religious studies is the religious activity that took place in Asia and the Middle East in the centuries before and after the start of the Common Era. During these centuries the countries of the Middle East and surrounding areas successively fell under the rule of various empires, including the Persians and the Romans. As a result, religions tended to intermix. The official religion of empires frequently changed, and one religion could exercise a marked influence on the thought and development of another. Such is the case with Zoroastrianism.

Scholars continue to debate the influences that Zoroastrianism had. One factor that sustains the debate is the uncertainty about dates. Conventionally, Zoroastrianism is regarded as the first monotheistic religion, but that holds true only if it predated Judaism. Scholars are by no means unanimous in their belief that it did. Many historians believe that because the ancient region of Babylon was part of the Persian Empire, some of the beliefs of Zoroastrianism were transferred to Judaism during the time of the Jews' Babylonian captivity. Additionally, because Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, it indirectly influenced Christianity, which developed out of Judaism. Some of these beliefs include belief in angels and devils, a life after death, a system of punishments and rewards for immoral and moral behavior, the immortality of the soul, and the Last Judgment. Other scholars, however, argue just the opposite: that Judaism predated Zoroastrianism and therefore Zoroastrians absorbed these beliefs from Judaism. Still others believe that the two religions developed entirely independently. Either way, Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian tradition have striking similarities.

In the modern world, Zoroastrians have had an impact on industry, government (in both India and England), and the arts. It is a small religion, but one that has had great historical impact and one whose roots are among the most ancient of the religions practiced in the modern world. It members are highly regarded in India, where they are leaders in society. The challenge for modern-day Zoroastrians is sustaining the religion and finding ways to adapt their beliefs to the changes of modern life.

For More Information


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to Ancient Faith. Sussex, England: Sussex Academic Press, 1999.

Hartz, Paula. Zoroastrianism, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2004.

Mehr, Farheng. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2003.

Nanavutty, Piloo. The Gathas of Zarathushtra: Hymns in Praise of Wisdom. Middletown, NJ: Grantha Corporation, 1999.


Gray, Martin. "Zoroastrian Sacred Sites." http://www.sacredsites.com/middle_east/iran/zoroastrian.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Religion and Ethics: Zoroastrianism." British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/index.shtml (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Religions in Canada: Zoroastrianism." Zoroastrian Society of Ontario. http://www.forces.gc.ca/hr/religions/engraph/religions38_e.asp (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Zoroastrianism." Religioustolerance.org. http://www.religioustolerance.org/zoroastr.htm (accessed on June 2, 2006).


views updated Jun 11 2018


The religion of Zoroastrianism arose from the preaching of a devotional poet named Zarathushtra (one who leads old camels), who lived around 1750 to 1500 bce in central Asia among proto-Iranian tribal people. As these people settled on the Iranian plateau between 1500 and 800 bce, they took their beliefs with them. In Iran, influenced by near Eastern stereotypes of holy men, Zarathushtra's image was revised posthumously to depict him as a prophet who established a faith. Contact between the Iranians and classical Greeks produced the Europeanized name of Zoroaster.

Devotees term their religion the Zarathushti din, or Zoroastrian religion. They refer to themselves as Zartoshtis, Zardoshtis, or Jarthushtis, namely, Zoroastrians. Other phrases used include one to denote the faith as Mazdayasna daena, or the religion of Mazda, and one to designate followers as Mazdayasna, or worshipers of Mazda. In the early twenty-first century Zoroastrianism has a largely hereditary global following, with estimates of adherents ranging from 137,250 to 208,000 (including anywhere from 10,800 to 17,700 in North America and approximately 6,350 in the European Union). Zoroastrian subgroups include Iranis (or Zoroastrians of Iran), Parsis (or Zoroastrians of India), immigrants from the latter groups to other countries, and a few recent converts.


Zoroastrian doctrine is based on two opposing concepts: asha, or order, which is grammatically neuter and is regarded as good, and drug, or confusion, which is grammatically feminine and is regarded as evil. The supreme divinity or god of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd, the wise lord and creator, whose hypostasis, or principle essence, is Spenta Mainyu or Spenag Menog, the holy spirit. Ahura Mazda is believed to uphold order. The supreme demon of Zoroastrianism is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman (also called Ganag Menog), the angry spirit or destroyer. Angra Mainyu is believed to have chosen the path of confusion. The grammatical gen-ders of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were transformed into biological gender as male during the personification of these two spirits. So, in Zoroastrianism the primary creative and destructive spirits are male, the force of order is neuter, and the force that causes problems is female.

Zoroastrian doctrine envisions Amesha Spentas, or holy immortals (comparable to archangels), created by Ahura Mazda. Among these immortals Spenta Armaiti or Spandarmad (also Aspandarmad), representing holy devotion, was regarded as the earth spirit, the mother of life, and a granter of fertility. In ninth-century ce texts she was evoked in the corporeal "form of a woman wearing a luminous garment" who would lay in Ahura Mazda's embrace as the masculine creator's "daughter and mistress" (Wizidagiha [Selections] 4:4-8; Pahlavi Rivayat Accompanying the Dadestan i Denig [Book of religious judgments] 84). Veneration of Spenta Armaiti continues to be important for Zoroastrians of both genders and of all ages and socioeconomic levels, but she is especially dear to women, who turn to her for boons, good health, and happy family life.

Likewise, many of the yazatas, or worship-worthy spirits, which were created by Ahura Mazda, are either masculine or feminine in grammatical gender and male or female in biological gender. Most prominent are Mithra, or Mehr, and Aredvi Sura Anahita, or Anahid. Mithra is believed to enforce covenants and contracts between god and humans and between individuals. He is said, in scripture, to punish persons who violate contracts, while rewarding individuals who fulfill obligations with wealth, success, and happy families. He came to be associated with the sacral coronation of ancient Iranian, Zoroastrian monarchs who upheld god's laws and precepts. Not surprisingly, Mithra is still venerated by Zoroastrians as a yazata associated with success and wealth. Anahita, by contrast, is a more complex spirit. Her physical descriptions in prayers focus on sexuality and fertility with phrases such as "her breasts are well-shaped and prominent" (Aban Yasht [Hymn to Anahita] 5:126-129). Female devotees are still expected to invoke her to ensure easy childbirth and an adequate flow of breast milk. Yet, because she had been syncretized with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar during the Achaemenian period (550–330 bce), Anahita came to be regarded as a yazata who dispensed success and glory—including kingship and other leadership roles—from Ahura Mazda to worthy individuals.

The daevas or divs are believed to oppose Ahura Mazda, the Amesha Spentas, and the yazatas, as demonic spirits who side with Angra Mainyu. One important harmful spirit was Drukhsh Nasush, or Druz i Nasush, the female ghoul of corpses and carrion whose corporeal shape was described in Zoroastrian scripture as "a fly, disgusting, with crooked knees, protruding buttocks, [covered with] numerous spots, the most horrible, noxious creature" (Videvdad [Code for abjuring demons], composed around 300 bce, 7:2, 9:26). Zoroastrians from antiquity to premodern times regarded her as preying upon humans, polluting their corpses, and spreading impurity and pollution from the dead to the living. Only after the eighteenth century did fear of Drukhsh Nasush wane as modern science replaced diabology. Another female daeva is Azi, or Az, who represents concupiscence and lust. Although bearing a grammatically masculine epithet demon-spawned in the Avesta [Praise] Scriptures, Azi was considered by medieval times to be the mistress of demonic hordes who ravage humanity beginning with the primeval androgyne Gayo Maretan, or Gayomard, who embodied mortal life. Again, only after the advent of modern scientific knowledge did fear of Azi diminish.

The Zoroastrian story about the first human couple, Mashya, or man, and Mashyana, or woman, who were born from Gayo Maretan's seed, reflects the tension between order and confusion, good and evil, and god and devil. The first couple experience a fall from grace, much as in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic creation story. In Zoroastrianism the fall occurs as a consequence of worshiping evil and from action in which Mashyana is said to have taken the lead: "Mashyana sprang forth, milked a cow, and offered [the milk] toward the north [the direction of hell]" (Bundahishn [Book of primal creation] 14:11-30). In a series of events involving infertility, sexual intercourse, and childbirth that culminate in cannibalism by the parents of their initial offspring, the effects of evil and gender are magnified. Words of admonishment by Ahura Mazda are said to have resulted, aimed at all women: "If I had found another vessel from which to produce man, I would never have created you … because sexual intercourse is for you like the taste of the sweetest food" (Bundahishn 14A:1). So, medieval and premodern Zoroastrian theologians and moralists would urge women to be "chaste, of solid faith, and modest" (Pahlavi Texts 117).

Even Zoroastrian notions of the afterlife were shaped by denunciations of female sexuality and glorification of female physicality. Descriptions of death, judgment, and the hereafter in Zoroastrian scriptures, such as the Hadokht Nask [Extracted section], have the souls of righteous Zoroastrian men led into paradise by a religious daena or din (conscience) in the form of "a beautiful girl, glorious, well-shaped, statuesque, with prominent breasts" (2:9). However, the souls of sinful Zoroastrian men are tossed into hell by a daena resembling the Drukhsh Nasush demoness "in the form of a naked whore … disgusting, with crooked knees, protruding buttocks, and [covered with] numerous spots" (Hadokht Nask 3:9). The faith's theology claims that beauty and sensuality are the heavenly rewards, together with gardens, pavilions, and music for those men who uphold asha while alive, whereas pain and suffering await those men who have committed evil. However, no premodern scriptural or exegetical passages refer to women encountering daenas upon death. Only in modern times, with the transformation of gender-specific notions of the afterlife into more abstract notions of spirituality, has the vision of daenas as sexy or ugly female spirits waned. Zoroastrian women, too, are now believed to have full access to heaven. But until the twentieth century, the image of women as prone to sin led to the feminine gender being suspected of sexual profligacy, sorcery, strife, and, as a result, religious impurity, and viewed as more likely to experience the retribution of hell.


All Zoroastrian boys and girls undergo initiation into the faith between the ages of seven and fifteen. The initiation ceremony, denoting a spiritual rebirth, is termed navjote, or new birth, and alternately termed the rite of sedrapushun, or donning the holy undershirt. During the ritual, overseen by priests, initiates don a sedra, or sudre, which is a white undershirt symbolizing purity, then tie around their waist a kusti, or koshti, which is a white cord intended in part to separate the sexual portion of the body from the mental part. Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, individuals are regarded as full members of the religious community and are held accountable for their good and bad thoughts, words, and deeds. Yet, despite the seemingly equitable entry into the faith, only men from hereditary ecclesiastic families can undergo training and acceptance into the priesthood. The priests, called mobeds, or magi, oversee most Zoroastrian rites. The magi originally formed a priestly clan among the Medes, an ancient Iranian tribe. They adopted Zoroastrianism after the religion spread widely among the ancient Iranians. Magi entered Christian belief as the wise men from the East who journeyed to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. In the early twenty-first century, the office of priest still passes from father to son. A son who inherits the priesthood begins studying Zoroastrian liturgies and rituals in childhood, followed by a two-stage investiture.

Reasons for the exclusion of most men and all women from the clergy are found in the doctrine, theology, and mythology shaped by beliefs about evil, sex, and gender. One major concern among the clergy is maintenance of ritual purity. Zoroastrians believe that death occurs when a person's body is overwhelmed by evil's onslaught. Moreover, until modern times, they concluded that whenever a human died, his or her corpse was polluted by Drukhsh Nasush, whose presence caused decay (Videvdad 5:28, 35-38). Demons were also believed to turn impure all tissue and fluid severed, discharged, or expelled by living Zoroastrians. So skin, hair, nails, saliva, blood, semen, urine, feces, and even breath could make impure anyone else having contact with it. Contact with these substances was regarded as making a Zoroastrian unfit for rituals and making rituals lose efficacy. Additionally, impure persons could spread their ritual impurity to others through contact. Therefore, purificatory rites developed to ensure socioreligious purity for high rituals and rites of passage, and especially for the magi who conducted such rites.

Because blood discharged from bodies was regarded as unclean, the origin of menstruation was explained through diabology rather than physiology. Menstruation, it had been claimed by the clergy, began when Jahika, or Jeh, the demoness of lust, revived Angra Mainyu in hell after the devil had been initially defeated by Ahura Mazda. The devil "arose from his stupor, kissed her face, and the pollution called menstruation appeared on her" (Bundahishn 4:5). Using lust as a tool Jahika supposedly transferred menstruation to Mashyana and all subsequent generations of women. Consequently, menses became in religious terms a periodic sign of women's affliction by evil, one capable of polluting men who had any physical contact with a menstruating woman. Blood and afterbirth tissue expelled from a woman's body also were feared as falling under Drukhsh Nasush's control and becoming pollutants. To prevent women from having any contact with men or religious places during menstruation and after childbirth, they were isolated in separate buildings or rooms at those times and made to undergo purificatory ablutions thereafter before being reintegrated with their families and the rest of their community. These customs have largely fallen into disuse, but many Zoroastrian women still refrain from visiting fire temples and participating in religious rites during menses and after childbirth until they have undergone ritual purification.

As a result the most dramatic consequence of associating female physiology with demonology was the exclusion of women from all ranks of the magi to remove the potential for pollution of ritual sites and practitioners. The barrier against ordination into the clergy remains firm. Instead, women have been urged to perform domestic duties for parents, husbands, and children with religious fervor. Women's religiosity has been channeled into female-specific rites such as the ever-popular visiting of pirs, or shrines, and making of sofres, or votive offerings, in Iran. Among the Parsis of India, women religious leaders have emerged within mystically oriented sects such as Ilm-e Khshnoom. Other rites that have become mainstream for female devotees include the veneration of Anahita beside oceanfronts, riverbanks, and wells in Iran and India, because water symbolizes both female fertility generally and the fertility conferred by that female yazata upon women specifically.

Sexuality associated with fertility and domesticity continues to serve as a religious motif. One prominent example is the image of the yazata Ashi, or Ard, representing recompense and fortune. Ashi was anthropomorphized as a "slim-waisted, fair-bodied, long-fingered" woman who was so "beautiful in form as to delight beholders" (Ashi Yasht [Hymn to Ashi] 17:11). Male Zoroastrians who met her expectations could reap the benefits of beautiful wives, adorned with jewelry, lying on couches in homes located on large estates. Many contemporary Zoroastrians still set aside one day each month to honor Ashi, praying to her for the benefits of socioeconomic success. Yet, sexuality was linked to evil as well. One feminine spiritual embodiment of lust was the previously mentioned daeva known as Jahika. She was not merely a handmaiden of the devil but the mistress of Angra Mainyu. Sex, created by god for procreation, was thought to have been transformed by her on behalf of the devil into a means of polluting male Zoroastrians who would thereby be unfit for rituals and other duties until purification. So, once more, the magi generated prayers and rites to ensure spiritual safety and physical purification after sex.

Owing to the impurity associated with evil through the demoness Drukhsh Nasush, and because Zoroastrians regard earth, fire, and water as the holy creations of Ahura Mazda, human corpses could not be buried at land or sea nor cremated. Therefore, the magi ensured that corpses would be given final rites, including purification, and then exposed—during antiquity in remote areas and by the Middle Ages (476–1350) in funerary towers open to the sky—until the flesh had been desiccated or consumed by wild animals (as even recorded in the fifth century bce by the Greek historian Herodotus). Exposure was segregated by gender within each funerary tower. The practice of exposure persisted in most Zoroastrian communities until the eighteenth century. By the early twenty-first century, as a consequence of being regarded as based on myth and superstition, exposure had been replaced for the most part by inhumation sans any separation of graves based on the gender of the deceased. Yet, exposure of corpses and segregation in death still persists among orthodox communities of Zoroastrians in major cities of the Indian subcontinent such as Mumbai (Bombay) and Karachi. Inexplicably, this funerary practice contradicts the situation in life when women are neither segregated nor veiled from men (other than among orthodox women who are separated in menses and childbirth as noted previously). Veiling as a social behavior was present among elite men and women during the ancient Iran empires, but as a marker of hierarchy rather than as a symbol of religiosity.


Women were and, in many Zoroastrian communities, still are expected to remain virgins until marriage. Marriage involved obtaining the consent of a woman's parents and at least technically her own consent; now, each spouse's consent is mandatory. Marriage was and still is regarded by Zoroastrians as both a religious duty and a legal contract. In ancient and medieval times a wife's legal standing within her husband's household depended on her own social class prior to marriage, the stipulations of the marriage contract, and her giving birth to sons. Through marriage, women were expected to follow the positive features of Mashyana and to duplicate the holy attributes of Spenta Armaiti. Having children is encouraged, and so induced abortions are forbidden because children are regarded as new devotees of the faith.

Polygyny as a religiously sanctioned practice was attested among Zoroastrians from ancient times onward. The evidence for polyandry, on the other hand, is very meager. Polygyny was phased out by the faith's leaders during the early twentieth century when they concluded that the practice was not in conformity with modernity. Consanguineous marriage, justified as preserving ethnic, familial, and confessional bonds, was practiced by Zoroastrian royalty in Iran—as it had been among Egyptian pharaohs and their families—from approximately 600 bce to 700 ce. Consanguinity, or incest, does not, however, appear to have been as routine or widespread among Zoroastrian commoners as it was among the general population of Roman Egypt. Its occurrence ended in the Middle Ages when the practice was deemed no longer socially acceptable.

Doctrinal, ritual, and attitudinal changes have occurred within Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India—and in other Asian countries and in the European and North American societies to which some of them immigrated—because of European and North American education and science bringing about secularization. Traditionally, girls had been educated at home by tutors; boys had attended schools. School-level education became widespread for both genders in India by the early twentieth century, then extended to the university level. English became the language of rapidly urbanizing and secularizing Parsi families. By 1931, 73 percent of Parsi women were literate. During the 1980s, 68 percent of Parsi women held university degrees. Educated Parsi women entered the public workforce, alongside Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians. Similar processes took place among Iranis during the twentieth century. Women began opting for professional careers, and by the 1980s approximately 25 percent of them were choosing to remain unmarried and childless.

Migration to Europe and North America began from India in the mid-twentieth century and from Iran in the 1980s for economic enhancement and religious freedom, respectively. As an urbane, highly educated, religious minority, Zoroastrian men and women intermingle freely across gender boundaries professionally and personally in the early twenty-first century. In the traditional homelands of Zoroastrianism, that is, Iran and India, and within the new diaspora communities of Europe and North America, studies indicate that women predominate as sustainers and transmitters of religion from one generation to the next. For instance, more Zoroastrian women (75%) practice religious rites daily and teach them to their children than do men (60%). Even though not part of the clergy, women have taken on many prominent roles in the lay leadership of communal centers. Increasingly, women rather than men are directing attention to socioreligious issues impacting on both genders, such as female responsibilities in orthodox devotional settings and the status of children born to Zoroastrian mothers from non-Zoroastrian fathers, and in championing religious reform.

see also Goddess Worship; Jeh; Menstruation; Witchcraft.


Bartholomae, Christian. 1924. Die Frau im sasanidischen Recht [Women in Sasanian law]. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter.

Billimoria, H. M. 1991. Attitude of Parsi Women to Marriage. Bombay: Himalaya Publishing House.

Brosius, Maria. 1996. Women in Ancient Persia, 559–331 b.c. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. 1989. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. 2002. Evil, Good, and Gender: Facets of the Feminine in Zoroastrian Religious History. New York: Peter Lang.

Culpepper, Emily E. 1974. "Zoroastrian Menstruation Taboos: A Women's Studies Perspective." In Women and Religion: Papers of the Working Group on Women and Religion, 1972–1973, eds. Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero. Chambersburg, PA: American Academy of Religion.

Hjerrild, Bodil. 1988. "Zoroastrian Divorce." In A Green Leaf: Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen, eds. Werner Sundermann, Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, and Faridun Vahman. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Jamzadeh, Laal, and Margaret Mills. 1986. "Iranian Sofreh: From Collective to Female Ritual." In Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, eds. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Katrak, Jamshed Cawasji. 1965. Marriage in Ancient Iran. Bombay: Author.

Rose, Jenny. 1989. "The Traditional Role of Women in the Iranian and Indian (Parsi) Zoroastrian Communities from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century." Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 56: 1-103.

Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen. 1993. "Exit Atossa: Images of Women in Greek Historiography on Persia." In Images of Women in Antiquity, eds. Averil Cameron and Amélie Kuhrt. Rev. edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.

Stausberg, Michael. 2002–2004. Die Religion Zarathushtras, Vol. 2. Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer.

                                        Jamsheed K. Choksy


views updated May 29 2018


The phenomenon of death, or nonlife as it is called in the Zoroastrian holy scripture the Gathas, is a concept accompanying the advent of creation. At the dawn of creation, twin primal spirits manifested themselves. They were spontaneously active and through encounter with each other established life and nonlife. So it shall be until the end of the world. These two primal spirits, Good ( Vahyo ) and Bad ( Akem ), are opposed in thought, word, and deed. No coexistence between them is possible. This constitutes the concepts of cosmic/moral dualism in Zoroastrianism. In his spiritual vision, Zarathushtra also conceived of two kinds of existence and consequently two worlds ( Ahva ): the spiritual ( Manhaya ) and corporeal ( Astavat ).

In the seventh century, after the Arab invasion of Iran and in order to avoid persecution, a significant number of Zoroastrians migrated to India where they became known as "Parsees." Although Iran and India continue to be the main strongholds of Zoroastrians, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many migrated and are scattered throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. These Zoroastrians continue to preserve and practice their religion; however, expediency has compelled them to adapt certain practices and rituals, particularly those related to death and disposal of the corpse, to the requirement of their adopted country of residence.

Zoroastrianism is based on seven main precepts: (1) theological monotheism; (2) moral/ cosmic dualism; (3) prevalence of the eternal law of truth; (4) existence of the bounteous good spirit; (5) operation of the law of consequences; (6) immortality of the soul or afterlife; and (7) final triumph of good over evil.

Zarathushtra designates the universal supreme creator, who is transcendent, immanent, and a-personal, Ahura Mazda (literally, "the lord of life and wisdom"). Ahura Mazda is defined by six cardinal attributes: (1) sublime wisdom ( Vahishta Manah ); (2) truth, justice, and righteousness ( Asha Vahishta ); (3) boundless constructive power ( Khshatra Vairya ); (4) universal love, tranquility, and peace ( Spenta Armaity ); (5) wholeness and perfection ( Haurvatat ); and (6) immortality ( Ameretat ). Ahura Mazda is described in the Gathas as the giver ( Datar ) and the shaper ( Tasha ). Thus He (although in the Gathas the pronoun referring to Ahura Mazda is gender neutral) has not created the world, ex nihilio, but from His own existence. The Bounteous Good Spirit ( Spenta Mainyu ) that is in Ahura Mazda unfolds His immanence in its fullness, in His creation. Thus there is a unity of existence in Zoroastriansim. The teachings of Ahura Mazda, revealed to Zarathushtra, appear in the Gathas as holy hymns or mantra ( Manthra ), meaning thought-provoking words.

Immortality of the Soul

The Gathas describes the main constituents of a human being as body ( Tanu ) and soul ( Urvan ), which live for only a limited time in the world. At the time of death, the body transforms (or perishes) and the soul goes on to live its second existence. Death has always been an enigma. From extant unearthed records, the Egyptians were perhaps the first civilized people to conjecture that after death, human beings existed somewhere and somehow. However, there is consensus that Zarathushtra was the first to introduce the idea of an afterlife that was based on morality, with rewards for the good and suffering for the evil. In the biblical period the Jews believed that the dead would continue to exist in a shadowy form in sheol, the abyss of the earth. After their liberation from captivity by Cyrus the Great in Babylon and their contact with Zoroastrians, the Jews gradually adopted the eschatological divine plan of salvation. This concept eventually appeared in Christianity and Islam.

Eastern religions differ drastically from Zoroastrianism in their notion of life after death. They generally believe in rebirth as a corollary of karma. So long as the karmic force (ignorance, desire, and attachment), which is the root cause of life, exists, the life process continues. Cessation of the life stream constitutes the ideal, at which point the purified self is nirvanized and immortalized. Immortalization means the merger into cosmic nirvana. In this sense, nonlife is eternal.

According to Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda first created the spiritual world. In His wisdom, He then created the corporeal world to manifest the spiritual world. Ahura Mazda created the universe in His Sublime Mind, shaped it in His Conscience ( Daena ), manifested it through His Benevolent Spirit, and set it into motion in accordance with the Eternal Law of Asha. He created human beings in his own spiritual image as His coworkers and friends and sparked them with God-like attributes to assist them in achieving self-realization, perfection, and immortality. He also granted them with faculties to discern between right and wrong in order to work for the progress of humanity and the advancement of the world. These faculties are the mind ( Manah ) or the ability to reason and think logically, the conscience ( Daena ), and intuition ( Baoda ).

Ahura Mazda vouchsafed human beings with freedom of choice, His greatest and most significant gift. Hence individuals have the right to choose between Good and Bad. In his justice, Ahura Mazda forewarned individuals of the happiness or the suffering that results from their choices, all in accordance with the Law of Asha. Although human beings are endowed with the potential for goodness, in the end the decision between right and wrong and good and evil is the individual's alone. As a result of this right of freedom, the material world did not remain harmonious like the spiritual world.

When life manifested itself, by definition, so did its twin nonlife or death. Similarly, with light came darkness; with truth, dishonesty; with wisdom came ignorance; and so on. The good creations (i.e., truth, wisdom, health, and peace) are manifestations of the Benevolent Spirit of Ahura Mazda ( Spenta Mainyu ) while their twins are the display of opposition to the Benevolent Spirit. The opposing twins are collectively designated "Evil or Destructive Spirit" ( Angra Mainyu, or later as Ahriman ).

In Zarathusthra's vision, life and nonlife, truth and lies, light and darkness, all exist and are real, as with two kinds of time: boundless time ( Zrvan Akarana ) and limited time ( Zrvan Daregho Khvadhata ). In Zarathushtra's view, time and space condition existence in the world within the ambit of the Eternal Law of Asha. The outcome of the ethical struggle between Good and Bad is positive, evolutionary, and optimistic. The Zoroastrian doctrine envisages perpetuation of creation and creativity (the result of dynamism of the Benevolent Spirit) and progressive change (the result of dynamism of the Eternal Law of Asha).

Theodicy: The Origin of Evil

Theodicy, the explanation of the origin of evil without undermining the goodness and omnipotence of God, presents unsolvable problems in many religions. Doctrinal adversaries of the concept of theodicy, however, admit that the Zoroastrian doctrine offers the most rational explanation for the concept of evil. The appearance of evil is an inevitable phenomenon in the process in which the Benevolent Spirit of Goodness manifests itself. Nevertheless, the topic has aroused many debates, and consequently two opposing schools have emerged. One school, believing in moral dualism, considers evil as the creation of individuals who opt to oppose the Benevolent Spirit. In other words, evil is the negation of good and does not exist as an independent eternal force.

The other school, believing in cosmic dualism, maintains that both the Benevolent and the Evil Spirits are primordial. Accordingly, the evil acts of individuals are driven by an evil force and the conflict and clash continues up to the time when Good finally prevails. A subschool, a corollary of moral dualism, maintains that although Evil is no more than the negation of Good, it assumes an independent existence when it manifests itself alongside the Good and starts functioning independently ( Farhang Mehr ). Both cosmic and moral dualists hold that Good ultimately prevails over Evil and that at that time, the world is renovated or " refreshed" and characterized by peace and harmony. The two schools also agree that regardless of the origin of evil individuals ultimately decide whether to commit evil and as such will have to requite.

The Principle of Consequences and Divine Judgment

The Gathas does not speak of death, but rather of life ( Gaya ) and nonlife ( Aiyaiti ). The body, which is made of matter, may be alive or dead; the soul, however, never dies, experiencing one form of life in this corporeal world and another in the spiritual world. Zoroastrians believe in the survival of the soul after bodily death. The nature of the individual's other life is determined by the Law of Consequences, a corollary of the Law of Asha. The Law of Consequences is generally known as the principle of reward and punishment, whereby righteous acts in the world are rewarded with sustained happiness and evil acts, with misery.

In Zoroastrianism, the Eternal Law of Asha determines the consequences of an individual's acts and the fate of the soul after the individual's physical death. Asha is God's will. The individual's thoughts, words, and deeds in this world, through the exercise of one's free choice, set the consequences ( Mizhdem ) into motion and condition one's life and future according to the Law of Asha. Hence there is no predestined fate; the acts have predestined consequences.

Human beings seek happiness ( Ushta ) in life. Happiness originates in the Law of Asha, which prescribes a life of joy for the pious and eternal woe for the wicked. The Gathas warns individuals not to be deceived by ostensible or temporary victories that are illusory, nor to be disheartened by temporary defeats brought about by blows or condemnations from evil ears. In the end, the evil doers will pay for their arrogance and unjust acts.

The Nature of Consequences

The Gathas does not specify particulars on the nature of consequences nor does it mention specific rewards or punishment. Life in the hereafter is the continuation of life in the world. In this world, the righteous people ( Ashavan ) create the realm of righteousness ( Ashahya Gaeta ) that continues in the next existence. The concepts are indescribable in detailed terms, rather the terms refer to the best existence, defined as everlasting joy, tranquility, and peace as against the worst existence, defined as everlasting woe and anxiety.

According to the Gathas, the souls of the righteous people go in a state of perfect happiness, referred to as the Abode of the Song ( Garo Demana ), also called the Abode of the Good Mind ( Vangheush Demana Manangho ) or the Abode of Endless Light ( Anghra Raosha ). The souls of the evildoers go to the Abode of Wickedness ( Druji Demana ), also referred to as the Abode of the Worst Mind ( Aschishtahya Daena Manengho ) and Worst Existence ( Achishta Ahu ). These terms confirm that in Zoroastrianism heaven and hell are states of consciousness and not concrete geographical regions.

The Crossing Bridge: Chinavat

The Gathas alludes to a dividing line, a crossing boundary or bridge ( Chinavat ) between the two existences or the two worlds. No particulars about the shape or the locality of the bridge are provided. The term may have been used metaphorically indicating the end of one state of existence and the commencement of another or it may be a reference to a point of time when the final judgment is effected. According to the Gathas, the judgment takes place at death and before the deceased's true self or conscience ( Daena ) attempts to cross the bridge. On that occasion, the prophet will be present. This does not, however, imply the likelihood of any mediation on his part because there is no possibility of mediation or redemption by anyone. The predestined Law of Asha will run its course. The prophet's presence is simply a matter of good leadership; the soul of the pious will have an easy crossing and will be ushered into the next existence by his or her happy conscience as well as the prophet. The soul of the wicked will be led by his or her conscience to the worst existence.

The Intermediary Place between Heaven and Hell

It is not the Gathas, but the Younger Avesta, composed centuries after the prophet, which addresses the concept of human beings having a record with an equal number of good and evil acts; the Younger Avesta refers to an intermediary place called Misvana Gatu, where the souls of such persons reside. The reason the Gathas does not incorporate this concept is logically coherent. In Zoroastrianism each act has its own reward: potential happiness or suffering. The good and bad deeds are not added in the end of one's life to determine the level of reward or punishment. Recompense or retribution is not based on the excess of good deeds over bad deeds or the reverse. The concept of an intermediary place cannot be rationalized with the gathic doctrine.

Practices and Rituals Related to Death and the Dispoal of the Dead

The method of the disposal of the dead is a controversial subject among Zoroastrians in the twentyfirst century. The methods used are the system of the Dakhma ("Tower of Silence" as it is called by Westerners), the burial system, and, less frequently, cremation.

Dakhma is a stone-surfaced tower, built on an elevated earth outside town, on which the corpse is exposed to be devoured by vultures. The heavy bones left behind are either buried or placed in a drain beneath the surface of the Dakhma where they are destroyed with chemicals. No Dakhma dating before the Arab conquest of Iran has been unearthed. Historians suggest that this practice started later in the Arab period to avoid desecration of the dead by the Muslims and that the low walls of the Dakhma increased during the period of the Turk and Mongol invasions. If the practice of using the Dakhma existed at all in the pre-Islamic period, as it is insisted by the Parsees in India, it must have been in order to preserve the environment, a concept Zoroastrians diligently observed; the Dakhma was used to prevent the pollution of soil and water and to avoid making land unusable for agriculture.

In 1937 the Zoroastrians in Iran started using the burial system along with the old system of Dakhma, but currently they use the latter almost to the exclusion of Dakhma. In contrast, the Zoraostrians of India still rely solely on the Dakhma. In the West, with some exceptions, the burial system and cremation are used.

Tradition requires the performance of certain rituals for the departure of the soul. According to traditional belief (not specified in the Gathas ), the soul of a dead person lingers on earth for three days and nights following the death and stays near the place where the head of the dead was resting immediately before death, recounting all the acts the person had done in his or her life. The righteous soul chants the sacred hymns, experiencing great joy while the wicked soul recalls the evil acts, experiencing great sorrow. At the dawn of the fourth day, the soul starts its journey to the next existence or world. At the Chinavat bridge, it is met with his or her conscience ( Daena ) that accompanies the soul to its final destination.

Certain prayers and rites are performed during the three days and at the morning of the fourth day. Remembrance ceremonies are performed on the tenth day following the death, thereafter on each thirtieth day of the month for one year and finally annually for thirty years. Jews also believed that the soul fluttered in the neighborhood of his or her house for three days.

Renovation of the World: Frasho-Kereti

The Gathas refers to the end of time. The Haptanhaiti, the immediate sequel to the Gathas, composed by Zarathushtra's immediate disciples, speaks of boundless time ( Zrvan Akarana ) and limited time ( Zrvan Daregho Khvadhata ). Thus the reference to the "end of time" in the Gathas should be a reference to the latterthe end of the limited span of time one lives in this world and the transition into the other existence. That constitutes a turning point in life. For the righteous individuals this is the Great Turning Point that marks the attainment of their goal. Throughout their lives the righteous use their constructive power to advance the world, serve others, and work for the cause of peace. In doing so they seek to attain perfection ( Haurvatat ) and embrace eternity ( Ameratat ). At the Great Turning Point the righteous are ushered into the eternal spiritual existence. The righteous, through both individual and collective efforts, look to that event, which is the result of a long process of gradual progress toward perfection and immortalization. That event is called Refreshment of the World ( Frasho-Kereti) and according to the Law of Asha this goal will be reached. That event will represent the final triumph of Good ( Spenta Mainyu ) over Evil ( Angra Mainyu ) and, as such, display the omnipotence of Ahura Mazda.

The Refreshment of the World is related to the concept of the Savior ( Saoshyant ). In the Gathas, the word Saoshyant is used in the generic sense, meaning "a group of saintly workers." They do not appear at set intervals but exist and operate at all times, in different capacities and with different effectiveness. Saoshyants are not of the same rank in righteousness or the role that they play in the perfection of the world. The Gathic Refreshment process is a gradual process resulting from the contributions of the righteous and the operation of the Law of Asha. Refreshment of the World is the apex of perfection of the existing world in its evolutionary process. The Younger Avesta has, however, changed the concept of Saoshyant, and thus Refreshment of the World, referring to three distinct saviors, who at given periods, arise and with big strides lead the world toward Refreshment. The last one is Soshyos, the Saoshyant proper, who gives the final touch to an almost-perfected world, heralding the final triumph of Good over Evil.

See also: African Religions; Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Chinese Beliefs


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Dhalla, Maneckji Nusservanji. History of Zoroastrianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. The Western Response to Zoroaster. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1956.

Henning, W. B. Zoroaster. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Irani, D. J. The Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra. Boston: The Center for Ancient Iranian Studies, 1998.

Jackson, William. Zoroaster: The Prophet of Ancient Iran 1899. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1965.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra. Rockport, MA: Element Inc., 1991.

Pavry, Jal C. The Zoroastrian Doctrine of Future Life from Death to the Individual Judgment. New York: Columbia University Press, 1929.

Taraporewalla, Irach J. C. The Divine Songs of Zarahushtra. Bombay: Hukhta Foundation, 1993.

Zaehner, R. C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. London: Winfield & Nicolson, 1961.



views updated Jun 11 2018


ZOROASTRIANISM. The prophet Zarathushtra (known to the Greeks as Zoroaster) founded Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest living religions, in northeastern Iran, probably between 1800 to 1000 b.c.e. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the first Persian Empire in the sixth century b.c.e. after which its influence waxed and waned until finally it was supplanted by Islam in the seventh century C.E. In the tenth century b.c.e. a small group of Zoroastrians migrated to the Gujurat region of northwest India where they became known as Parsis (Persians). Today, the number of adherents is estimated at 274,000 worldwide with the largest community centered around Bombay and a smaller number in the Iranian homeland. Zoroastrians follow the creed of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" and uphold virtues of honesty, charity and hospitality.

Role of Food in Zoroastrian Tradition

Dietary laws and food proscriptions are not part of original Zoroastrian teachings. Nevertheless certain ritual and symbolic uses of food have evolved over time, based on later Zoroastrian writings and as a consequence of interaction with other cultures and religions. For example, Zoroaster abolished the tribal custom of animal sacrifice, though it quickly reemerged and became incorporated in Zoroastrian rituals. Today it survives only amongst Iranian Zoroastrians during the festival of Mehregan, when meat and bread are distributed. Generally all foods are permitted and are consumed according to personal preference and local custom. For example, Zoroastrians often forgo pork and beef in deference to their Hindu and Moslem neighbors, or are vegetarian by choice. Certain foods may still be avoided because they belong to the evil counter creation. These include birds of prey and "hideous fish." Carrion is regarded as impure as is any food coming into contact with it.

The concept of purity versus impurity is central to Zoroastrianism. Cleanliness is highly regarded and purification rites are a part of most ceremonies. Formerly there were elaborate codes to preserve food from impurities such as skin, nail clippings, sweat, blood, and excreta. It was forbidden to eat or drink from a common cup, and priests would not accept food from non-Zoroastrians. Although cleanliness and purity remain as important values, ritual practices have declined amongst ordinary Zoroastrians. Constraints of contemporary urban life, and differing interpretations by orthodox and reform groups within the faith also contribute to variations in actual practice. It is also notable that fastinga common religious disciplineplays no part in the faith. Asceticism and renunciation, of which fasting is an integral part, are forbidden.

Symbolism and Sacred Foods

Rituals are important in Zoroastrianism. They establish a connection between the material and spiritual universes. Food plays a part in rituals, as a thanksgiving to God and as a symbol of fellowship created through sharing of material bounty. There are certain foods that are symbolic of the various creations of Ahura Mazda and are therefore regarded as being superior and thus suitable for use in religious rituals and ceremonies. These include bread (dron ), milk, water, ghee, rice, dates, and pomegranates. Dron is an unleavened bread made from wheat flour and ghee. It may be prepared only by a member of a priestly family. During the preparation of the bread the words humata, hukhta, hvarshta (good thoughts, good words, good deeds) are intoned three times, accompanied by placing a mark on the bread, for a total of nine marks. This bread of life is a source of spiritual strength. Haoma (hom ) juice extracted from the haoma plant is used in a number of rituals. It contains a mild narcotic.

The pomegranate, being an evergreen, is a symbol of everlasting life and of the fecundity of nature. It is also a symbol of prosperity and plenty because of its numerous seeds. Pomegranate leaves are chewed during purification rituals at initiation ceremonies, marriages, after childbirth and by those who have come into contact with corpses. (There has been a modern decline in the latter practice). Rice, as in the Hindu tradition, represents happiness and prosperity.

Ceremonies and Ritual

Yasna is the most important of the Zoroastrian ceremonies. It is celebrated daily, but only in Iranian and Indian fire temples and only by qualified priests. Yasna is an "inner" ceremony, which only Zoroastrians may attend and is often specially commissioned by community members. Ritual materials used include haoma with pomegranate twigs, goat's milk, dron with ghee, water, and a presanctified mixture known as parahom. The water signifies health and wellbeing, while the milk represents the presence of Vohu Manah, the protector of the animal kingdom. The haoma twigs and pomegranate leaves are pounded with consecrated water and milk is

Zoroastrian festivals
Name Season Description Creation link Dates
Maidh-yo-zarem mid-spring Fresh vegetables in plenty Sky April 30May 4
Maidh-yo-shema mid-summer Time for harvesting corn Water June 29July 3
Paiti-Shahem early autumn Harvesting of fruit Earth September 1216
Aya-threm mid-autumn Sowing of winter crops Plants October 1317
Maidh-ya-rem mid-winter Period of perfect rest Cattle January 15
Hamas-path-maedern pre-spring Equality of heat and cold Man March 1620
Nou Rouz spring Renewal of life Fire March 21
The Zoroastrian year is based on a solar calendar and starts at the exact time of the vernal equinox.
source: Adapted from the website of the Ancient Iranian Cultural and Religious Research and Development Centre (www.ancientiran.com).

added to the mixture, some of which is then poured out into a well from whence it will flow out to strengthen the whole of creation. The remainder of the mixture is offered first to those present who endowed the ceremony and then to other observers.

One of the main Zoroastrian "outer" ceremonies, Afrinagan, may be performed in any suitable clean place and can be witnessed by Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians alike. Its purpose is to praise the bounty of Ahura Mazda and to request His blessings on members of the community. Ritual objects include a tray of food, usually fruit, wine, eggs, milk and water, which serves as a visible sign of Ahura Mazda's generosity and care for the wellbeing of his people. The main feature of the ritual is a threefold exchange of flowers between the officiating priests.

After giving birth, a woman should be confined with her baby for a period of forty days in order to allow the impurities she has contacted to dissipate. For modern urban Zoroastrian women this requirement not to leave the house for nearly six weeks is extremely difficult to fulfill. As a compromise the woman eats separately from the rest of the family. After forty days she takes a ritual bath that allows her to rejoin the wider community. The new baby may be given a drop of consecrated hom from a Yasna ceremony as a "strengthening drink." If this is not possible a drink may be made from hom twigs, pomegranate leaves and water.

Children are initiated into the Zoroastrian faith at age seven to eleven years (Parsi) or twelve to fifteen years (Iranian), at which time they become responsible for fully observing Zoroastrian practices. At the initiation ceremony (Naojote) the child receives a sacred white shirt (sudra ) and a sacred cord (kushti ). A ceremonial tray prepared for the ceremony contains a mix of rice, pomegranate, raisins, almonds, and slices of coconut. The officiating priest who blesses the child pours these over the head of the child. A banquet for family and friends follows the initiation ceremony.

Marriage ceremonies take place at the house of the bride or in public places where large crowds can congregate. Prior to the actual marriage ceremony the bridegroom, with family friends and priests, arrives at the bride's house. While the others enter the house the groom remains on the threshold where he is greeted with traditional symbols of welcome. An egg, a coconut, and a dish of water are successively passed around his head, then dashed to the floor. The groom may then enter the house and the marriage ceremony commences. During the ceremony the priest sprinkles rice on the bride and groom who also sprinkle each other with rice. A feast for family and friends follows the marriage ceremony.

After a death, consecrated food, such as dron or eggs is offered to sustain the soul of the newly departed. The family of the deceased may not eat meat for three days, a practice that may be linked to fear over impurities or to the idea that flesh food is more suitable for celebratory occasions. On the anniversary of a death the souls of the departed are offered cooked foods, milk, water, and fresh fruit. This food is subsequently given to charity. These observances, like others, may be in decline.

Holidays and Festivals

Zoroaster established a series of holy days and also assimilated existing traditional festivals and celebrations. There are six seasonal festivals known as Gahambars, which celebrate the six creations of Sky, Water, Earth, Plants, Cattle, and Man. Traditionally each lasted for five days, though now much curtailed, and included feasting, prayer and rejoicing. The most important festival is that of Nou Rouzthe New Year. Held at the spring equinox it celebrates the rejuvenation of nature and the beginning of new life, and is linked to firethe seventh and most sacred creation of Ahura Mazda. It is marked by family and community gatherings, religious services, feasting, and gift giving. The ten days prior to Nou Ruz are for commemoration of the departed. A variety of grains and lentils are soaked so that they will germinate in time for the holiday. These green sprouts are added to a thanksgiving table that also holds a variety of other symbolic objects and foods such as bread, fruit, fresh vegetables, sugar cones, and decorated eggs.

Each day in the Zoroastrian calendar is dedicated to a particular divine being or important event, twelve of which also has its own month. Name-day feasts are held when month name and day name coincide. Adar, the ninth day of the ninth month, is celebrated as the birthday of fire and is a time to give thanks for warmth and light. Traditionally food is not cooked in the home, to give the fire a rest. Other festivals include the birth and death anniversary of the prophet and the feast of all souls (Muktad) for remembrance of departed family members.

See also Death and Burial ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; India: Northern India ; Iran ; Middle East ; Religion and Food .


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism. An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

Dhalla, Homi B. "Social Dimensions of the Zoroastrian Jashan Ceremony." Dialogue and Alliance 4, no. 11 (1990): 2736.

Nigosian, Solomon A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993.

Paul Fieldhouse


views updated May 14 2018


"Zoroastrianism," for more than a thousand years the dominant religion of Persia, is founded on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. (Zoroaster is an often used version of his name, and from it the name of the religion is derived; this version reflects ancient Greek transliteration.) Four main stages in the religion's history can be distinguished: the early faith as promulgated by Zarathustra himself; the religion of the Persian Empire under Darius I (who ruled 521486 BCE) and his Achaemenid successors; its renewal under the Arsacid (250 BCE226 CE) and Sassanian (226641) dynasties; and the late period, when the religion was swamped by Islam but continued as the faith of a minority, some of whom settled in India and are known as Parsis (literally "Persians").


The scriptures are known as the Avesta (or Zend-Avesta) and consist of various hymns, treatises, and poems. They comprise the Yasna, a collection of liturgical writings that contains the important Gāthās (literally "songs"), possibly written by Zarathustra himself; the Yashts, hymns to various divinities; and the Vendidād, which contains prescriptions for rituals of purification and so on. Many of these writings belong to a period when Zoroastrianism had become overlaid by polytheistic elements; some may date from as late as the fourth century, although the majority were composed much earlier. From the fourth century a further and extensive set of writings, which expressed the reformed theology of the Sassanian period, was compiled in the later language of Pahlavi.

Zarathustra and his Teaching

There is considerable dispute and uncertainty about the date and place of the prophet's life. Although Greek sources mention dates of up to several thousand years BCE, the most plausible theories are that he lived in the tenth or ninth century BCE or in the sixth or fifth. Although certain evidence points to his having lived in eastern Iran, the language of the Gāthās has been found to belong to northwest Iran. According to the traditions surrounding Zarathustra's life, he converted King Vishtaspa (Hystaspes in Greek transliteration), which proved decisive for the spread of the new religion. Vishtaspa ruled parts of eastern Iran and was the father of Darius the Great, a strong exponent and protector of the faith. These facts lend some support to the hypothesis that Zarathustra lived at the later date and in eastern Iran.

Although traditional accounts of Zarathustra's life are heavily overlaid by legend, it is probable that he was the son of a pagan priest of a pastoral tribe. At the age of thirty or a little later, he had a powerful religious experience, probably of a prophetic nature, analogous to the inaugural visions of such Old Testament prophets as Isaiah. He is reported to have encountered the angel Vohu Manah ("Good Thought"), who took him to the great spirit Ahura-Mazda ("The Wise Lord"), Zarathustra's name for God. Other revelations combined to induce him to preach a purified religion, combating the existing Persian polytheism, which had similarities to the Vedic religion of India. At first he met with considerable opposition, but the conversion of Vishtaspa paved the way for Zarathustra's wide influence, despite the king's later defeat in war and the occupation of his capital. Zarathustra is said to have been killed at the age of seventy-seven during Vishtaspa's defeat, but according to later accounts, he died while performing the fire sacrifice, an important element in the new cultus.

Zarathustra's God had the attributes of a sky god, like the Indian god Varuna. Both were ethical and celestial and were worshiped by the Indo-European Mitanni of the mountainous region to the north of the Mesopotamian plain during the latter part of the second millennium BCE. Zarathustra strongly denounced the cult of the gods of popular religion, equating such beings with evil spirits who seduced men from the worship of the one Spirit. The belief in the malicious opposition to the purified religion that he preached and the incompatibility of Ahura-Mazda's goodness with the creation of evil led Zarathustra to conceive of a cosmic opposition to God. He mentions Drūj ("The Lie"), an evil force waging war against Ahura-Mazda. From this early concept developed the later Zoroastrian theology of dualism.

Although Zarathustra attacked the existing religion, he also compromised with it. A slight concession to polytheism was involved in the doctrine of the Amesha-Spentas ("Immortal Holy Ones"), such as Dominion and Immortality, which were personified qualities of Ahura-Mazda. It is probable that Zarathustra was making use of certain aspects of the existing mythology and transforming them into attributes and powers of God. He seems to have used the fire sacrifice, a prominent feature of later and modern Zoroastrianism, transforming what had previously been part of the fabric of the polytheistic cultus. Zarathustra's fire sacrifice was also related in origin to the ritual surrounding the figure of Agni (Fire) in ancient Indian religion.

He preached an ethic based on the social life of the husbandman, the good man being one who tends his cattle and tills the soil in a spirit of peace and neighborliness. The good man must also resist worshipers of the daevas (gods), who, together with the evil spirit opposed to Ahura-Mazda, threaten the farmer's livelihood. These ideas probably reflected the social conditions of Zarathustra's time and country, when there was a transition from the nomadic to the pastoral life. The daeva -worshipers would then represent bands of nomadic raiders, and the new purified religion would be a means of cementing a settled, pastoral fabric of society. One of the Gāthās is a dialogue in which there figures a mysterious being called the Ox Soul, who complains of the bad treatment meted out to cattle upon the earth. The angel Vohu Manah promises that they will be protected by Zarathustra, who prays earnestly to Ahura-Mazda for assistance. These connections between the new religion and a settled cattle-raising society later became obscured when Zoroastrianism became the religion of the Persian Empire and when they were no longer relevant.

The moral life, however, was not confined to neighborliness and resistance to evil daeva -worshipers. It was part of a much wider cosmic struggle, in which the good man participates in the battle of Ahura-Mazda against the evil Angra Mainyu, the chief agent of The Lie (in later language, these were called, respectively, Ormazd and Ahriman). The battle will consummate in a final judgment, involving the resurrection of the dead and the banishment of the wicked to the regions of punishment. This notion of a general judgment was supplemented by a dramatic picture of the individual's judgment. He must cross to Ahura-Mazda's paradise over the narrow bridge called Chinvat. If his bad deeds outweigh his good ones, he will topple into the dreadful, yawning abyss. Some of this Zoroastrian eschatology came to influence Jewish eschatology, partly through the contact with Persia consequent to the Exile and partly because of the succeeding Persian suzerainty over Israel. Zoroastrianism, therefore, indirectly influenced Christianity.

Development of Ritual

When Zoroastrianism came to be the dominant religion of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid dynasty, there was an increasing trend toward restoring the cult of lesser deities. This was a partial consequence of the adoption of Zoroastrianism as the state cult. Artaxerxes II, for instance, caused images of the goddess Anahita (connected in origin to Ishtar, the Babylonian fertility deity) to be set up in the chief cities of the empire. The cultus came to be administered, in some areas at least, by the priestly class known as the Magi, from which term the word magic is derived; the Magi also came to figure in Christian legend about the birth of Christ. This priestly class was probably of Median origin. At first, the Magi had opposed the new faith, but after having adopted it, they began to change its character by importing extensive magical and ritual practices into it. Thus, the later portions of the Avesta contain spells and incantations. Further, the Gāthās were no longer treated simply as expressing Zarathustra's religion and teachings but as having intrinsic magical powers. Their proper repetition could combat the evil powers by which men were beset. However, the full history of the development of Zoroastrianism toward a ritualistic cult has never been fully disentangled, partly because of the intervening changes brought about in the late fourth century BCE by Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire and its subsequent division among Greek dynasties. This Hellenistic period, lasting until the Parthian era in the second century BCE (begun by Mithridates I of the Arsacid dynasty), saw further syncretism, an offshoot of which was Mithraism, the cult of Mithra or Mithras, which later became important in the Roman Empire as a mystery religion.

Development of Cosmology

While Zarathustra had stressed the ethical dimension of religion and the Mazdaism, as Zoroastrianism was later called, of the Achaemenid period had emphasized its ritual dimension, the reformed Zoroastrianism established in the Sassanian period displayed a strong interest in the doctrinal dimension of the faith. It is chiefly in this phase of Zoroastrianism that we discover a speculative interest in the workings of the universe. A theory of history was worked out that divided historical time into four eras, each lasting 3,000 years. In the first era, God brings into existence the angelic spirits and fravashis, which are the eternal prototypes of creatures (and, preeminently, of human beings). Since Ahura-Mazda creates by means of thought and since he foresees Angra Mainyu, the latter comes into existence. During the second period, the primeval man, Gayomard, and the primeval Ox (the prototype of the animal realm) exist undisturbed, but at the beginning of the third epoch the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu, succeeds in attacking and destroying them. From the seed of these two primeval beings men and animals arise, and there is a mixture of good and evil in the world. The last era begins with Zarathustra's mission; it will culminate in the final divine victory, which will occur partly through the agency of Soshyans, a semidivine savior. The universe will then be restored to an everlasting purified state in which the saved, now immortal, sing the praises of Ahura-Mazda. In this theory of history, the individual's life is linked to the unfolding cosmic drama.

The theory, while assigning the final victory to God, allows the nature and scale of the Evil One's operations to be alarming. Further, if Angra Mainyu arises through the thought of Ahura-Mazda, then evil comes from the Creator. This put the Zoroastrian theologians in a dilemma, and so attempts were made to work out doctrines that would more consistently explain the existence of evil. For instance, the movement known as Zurvanism held that both Ahura-Mazda and Angra Mainyu issued from a first principle, Zurvān (Infinite Time). Zurvān is beyond good and evil; only with the realm of finite time is the contrast between good and evil meaningful. On the other hand, Zurvān, the Supreme Being, dwells in an eternal state, raised beyond the conflicts and contrasts that exist in the temporal world.

Influence and Survival

Elements of Zoroastrian teaching and mythology entered into Mithraism and Manichaeanism, and its eschatology had a marked influence on the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century largely destroyed the religion in its home country. Its survival in India was due to the Zoroastrians who emigrated in order to escape Muslim persecution. This Parsi community, centered chiefly on the west coast in and around Bombay, has maintained the cultus and interprets the faith in a strictly monotheistic sense. Their emphasis on education has given them an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

See also Cosmology; Dualism in the Philosophy of Mind; Evil, The Problem of; Freud, Sigmund; Mani and Manichaeism.


Duchesne-Guillemin, J. Zoroastre. Paris: Maisonneuve, 1948.

Ghirshman, R. Iran. Baltimore, 1954.

Modi, J. J. Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsis, 2nd ed. London, 1954.

Zaehner, R. C. The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961.

Zaehner, R. C. Zurvān: A Zoroastrian Dilemma. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Zend-Avesta. Translated by J. Darmesteter in Sacred Books of the East, edited by F. Max Müller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1883.

recommended reading

Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3 vols. Leiden: Brill, 19751982.

Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians, Their Beliefs and Practices, reprint edition. London: Routledge, 2001.

Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Brighton, UK, and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

Hinnells, John. Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies: Selected Works of John Hinnells. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.

Insler, S. H. The Gāthās of Zarathustra. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

Kriwaczek, Paul. In Search of Zarathustra: The First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Mahalingam, Indira, and Brian Carr, eds. Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1997.

Ninian Smart (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 29 2018



Lovers of Meher Baba

℅ Meher Spiritual Center
10200 Hwy. 17 N.
Myrtle Beach, SC 29572

Meher Baba (1894-1969) was an Indian spiritual master born Merwan Sheriar Irani of Zoroastrian parents living in Poona, India. Baba is believed by his followers to be the Avatar of the age. As a young man, he met Hazrat Babajan, a Muslim woman considered by some to be "one of the five Perfect Masters of the Age." From her he received what he described as self-realization. According to Baba, the five Perfect Masters are always responsible for unveiling the Avatar when he comes. Thus, in 1921, the last Master, Upasani Maharaj, folded his hands and said, "Merwan, you are the Avatar. I salute you."

That same year he gathered his first disciples, who began to call him "Meher Baba," which means "Compassionate Father." In 1924 he opened a permanent colony near Ahmednagar, India, called Meherabad. There he established a free hospital and clinic for the poor, and a free school for students of all creeds and castes. In 1925, he began observing silence, which he maintained for the rest of his life. For many years he communicated by pointing to the letters of the alphabet painted on a wooden board. In the last period of his life, he relied on hand gestures alone. Baba asserted that he kept silent in order to speak the "Word" of God in every heart. He also said that enough words had been given and it was now time to live God's words.

Baba came to the West, including the United States, for the first time in 1931. Some of the westerners he met on this and subsequent trips became disciples and went to live and work with him in India. The number of followers in the West grew steadily, spurred by his occasional visits (he made a total of six trips during his lifetime).

Baba said that he had not come to establish a new religion or sect, but rather to awaken people to the love of God. He declared himself the Avatar, the same "Ancient One" who has come age after age as Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, to renew Divine Love in the world. He also indicated that his advent required that he shed blood in both the East and the West, which, it is claimed, occurred in two automobile accidents, one in the United States (1952) and one in India (1956). He stated that suffering was a necessary part of his mission as Avatar to bring about what he called a "new humanity." He spent much of his life in service to others, especially the poor, the lepers, and those he termed masts or God-intoxicated. He considered these activities to be outward manifestations of his real work of transforming consciousness by awakening humanity to the oneness of all life. According to Baba, God was with in every living thing and the goal of all life was to become one with God through love.

Because Baba said that his only message was of Divine Love, people who follow him are often called "lovers of Meher Baba." Over the years many have been inspired to become Meher Baba lovers though there is no formal organization or membership. In the 1950s, many Americans came in contact with Meher Baba during his three visits to Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a place he called "my home in the West." Today, the center and his tomb shrine in Meherabad have become places of pilgrimage for thousands of Meher Baba lovers each year. Groups of followers gather informally throughout North America, India, Europe, and Australia. There are no set practices or creeds, and no formal organization to join. Meetings usually consist of sharing Meher Baba's love through film, music, discussion, and readings from his Discourses.

Membership: Since there is no formal membership, estimates of the number of Meher Baba's followers varies widely. The number of newsletters and centers suggest that there may be some 10,000 in the United States, Europe, and Australia, and hundreds of thousands in India.

Periodicals: Glow International. Send orders to Meher Baba Work, Box 10, New York, NY 10185.

Remarks: With in the larger body of Baba lovers, there is one special closeknit group called Sufism Reoriented. This group derives from the original Sufi groups organized early in the century by Hazrat Inayat Khan, founder of the Sufi Order. Khan appointed Rabia Martin of San Francisco his successor, an appointment not recognized by members in Europe, in large part because Martin was female. Toward the end of her life, Martin heard of Meher Baba and began to correspond with him. She became convinced that he was the Qutb, in Sufi understanding, the hub of the spiritual universe. Though Martin never met Baba, her successor, Ivy Oneita Duce, did. He confirmed her succession, but more importantly, in 1952 during a trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Meher Baba presented the group with a new plan contained in a document, "Chartered guidance from Meher Baba for the Reorientation of Sufism as the Highway to the Ultimate Universalized."

Within Sufism Reoriented, the Sufi path begins in submission and obedience to the murshid as the arm of Baba. For the student, there must be a need to know that God exists, to be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal, to be indifferent to externals, and to be ready to gain the six mental attitudes (control over thoughts, outward control, tolerance, endurance, faith, and balance).


Baba, Meher. Discourses. Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1987.

——. God Speaks. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1973.

Davy, Kitty. Love Alone Prevails. Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1981.

Duce, Ivy Oneita. How a Master Works. Walnut Creek, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1971.

Hopkinson, Tom, and Dorothy Hopkinson. Much Silence. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975.


Mazdaznan Movement

Current address not obtained for this edition.

The first, and for many years the only, Zoroastrian group in the United States was the Mazdaznan Movement founded by the Rev. Dr. Otoman Zar-Adhusht Hanish (d. 1936). Dr. Hanish claimed to have been sent by the Inner Temple Community of El Khaman to bring Mazdaznan to the world. He began teaching around the turn of the century and formally inaugurated the movement in New York in 1902. Headquarters were established in Chicago where he began a periodical, The Mazdaznan, published by the Sun Worshippers Press (later the Mazdaznan Press). Headquarters were moved to Los Angeles in 1916, and to Encinitas, California in the 1980s.

Mazdaznan emphasizes the monotheistic faith in the Lord God Mazda, the creator. Man is in God and God in him. God is expressed as the Holy Family of Father (male creative principle), Mother (procreative female principle) and Child (destiny/ salvation). Man is on earth to reclaim the earth and to turn it into a paradise suitable for God to dwell therein. The means to reclaim the material, the body, and make it as perfect as our spirit, is the power of breath. Mazdaznan teaches a discipline of breathing, rhythmic prayers and chants. These are supplemented by a recommended vegetarian diet and exercises.

Mazdaznan spread across America into Europe in its first decade. By the time Hanish died centers could be found in most urban centers. During the 1970s, centers were active in England(13), as well as Mexico, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. In the mid-1980s, the longtime Los Angeles headquarters were abandoned for a new headquarters building which had been constructed in Encinitas, California. The movement is led by the international elector, Alfonso R. Calderon.

Membership: There is no formal membership.

Periodicals: Mazdaznan—Master Thot.


Mazdaznan, What It Teaches. Los Angeles: Mazdaznan Press, 1969.

Hanish, O. Z. A. The Power of Breath. Los Angeles: Mazdaznan Press, 1970.

Hanish, O. Z., and O Rauth. God and Man United. Santa Fe Springs, CA: Stockton Trade Press, 1975.

Hanish, Otoman Zar-Adhusht. Health and Breath Culture. Chicago: Sun Worshipper Publishing Co., 1902.

——. Inner Studies. Mokelumne Hill, CA: Health Research, 1963.

——. The Philosophy of Mazdaznan. Los Angeles: Mazdaznan Press, 1960.


Zoroastrian Associations in North America

5750 S. Jackson St.
Hinsdale, IL 60521

Followers of the Zoroastrian faith began to migrate to North America from their native Iran and India, where they had been prominent in the business community in the 1950s. As their numbers have grown, they have spread across the continent.

The Zoroastrian faith is monotheistic. Its founder, Zarathrustra, taught of Ahura Mazda, the one Supreme God. Ahura Mazda created an ideal existence but as the world progressed, conflict between the opposing forces of good and evil emerged. Ahura Mazda gave humans the opportunity to choose between good and the evil, as well as the responsibility to promote the good, vanquish evil, and move the world toward the final resurrection when all will be in a state of bliss and perfection.

Individual Zoroastrians are called to an ethical life based on good thoughts, words, and deeds. Humans should emulate the attributes of Ahura Mazda: Vohu Manah (Good Mind) is the freedom to choose the good. Asha (Divine Law) embodies truth, wisdom, justice, and progress. Kshathra (Divine Majesty) call humans to militantly promote good and fight evil. Armaity (Benevolent Spirit) elevates purity and devotion. The devout Zoroastrian can look forward to Haurvatat and Ameratat (perfection and immortality). The Zoroastrian is taught to lead an industrious active life characterized by honesty and charity. There is little room for asceticism. The generation of wealth is extolled as long as it is done honestly and used for charitable purposes. These teachings are contained in The Avesta, the ancient Zoroastrian texts, which include The Gathas (hymns) written by Zarathrustra.

The life of the Zoroastrian is marked by three important ceremonies. A child is initiated into the faith through the Navjote ceremony in which the child is given a sudreh, an undershirt made of white muslin with a pocket to remind the wearer to fill his/her life with good thoughts, words, and deeds, and a kusti, a cord by which the wearer girds himself or herself to practice the teachings of Zarathrustra. Wedding is a second blessed occasion. The death of a Zoroastrian is marked with extensive prayers that center upon the soul rather than the body. Each ceremony includes reading from The Avesta.

In the United States, Zoroastrians organized associations wherever a community of the faithful was located. In 1987, these associations created the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America as an authorized body to represent Zoroastrians.

The organizations's Internet site is at http://www.fezana.org.

Membership: As of 2002, there were approximately 200,000 Zoroastrians in the world, 20,000 of them residing in North America. There are 22 local Zoroastrian associations (in major cities) in the United States and four in Canada. There are approximately 72,000 Zoroastrians in India, 90,000 in Iran, and lesser numbers in Europe, Pakistan, Africa, and Australia.

Educational Facilities: Cama Oriental Institute, Bombay, India.

Periodicals: Fezana Journal.

Remarks: The Center for Zoroastrian Research in Bloomington, Indiana, has been actively gathering information on the American Zoroastrian community as well as actively participating in its ongoing self-examination.


views updated Jun 11 2018


ZOROASTRIANISM A religion founded on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, who lived in ancient Persia (now Iran), Zoroastrianism is practiced by about 100,000 people worldwide. Most of its adherents live in India (and are also called Parsis). A smaller number are in Iran; and many Indian and Iranian Zoroastrians migrated to and now live in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and other countries. One of the world's oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism has influenced other monotheistic religions. Its main tenets are rather simple—it espouses three virtues of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, realization of which enables one to win the battle between good and evil.

Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, is believed to have lived around 1500 b.c. in eastern Iran, in what is now the Russian steppes. Like the Buddha after him, Zoroaster sought to understand the reasons for death and suffering and the origin of evil. He had a deep longing for justice and for a moral law that would allow humankind to lead a good life in peace. In search of answers, he meditated in a mountain cave for ten years. When he received enlightenment, he descended from the mountain and sought to promote a new way of life among his tribesmen. He preached monotheism in a land that followed an aboriginal polytheistic religion, and he was therefore attacked for his teaching. Zoroaster eventually gained the royal patronage of King Vishtasp, resulting in a substantial following for his faith. Zoroastrianism was already over a millennium old when the first Persian Empire was established by Cyrus of the Achaemenid dynasty. It was propagated in various Persian empires by the Achaemenids, then the Parthians who ruled from 247 b.c. onward, and the Sassanians who overthrew the Parthians in a.d. 224. When Muslim invaders entered Persia around a.d. 650, a small number of Zoroastrians fled to India. Zoroastrians were free to practice their religion in India and, though small in number, made important contributions to Indian society.

The sacred text of the Zoroastrians is the Zend-e-Avesta. One part of the Avesta consists of the Gathas, which are songs or hymns composed by Zoroaster. The Gathas are abstract sacred poetry, directed toward the worship of the one God, the understanding of righteousness and cosmic order, the promotion of social justice, and individual choice between good and evil. The Gathas have a general, even universal vision. The remaining parts of the Avestas were written perhaps centuries after the Gathas, and they deal with laws of ritual and practice and with the traditions of the faith.

One central theme in Zoroastrianism is the battle between good and evil in human life. In nature, there exist two opposing forces—spenta-mainyu (the good mind) and angre-mainyu (the wicked mind)—which are in continuous conflict. A person's soul is caught between them and is pulled by each side. To help the soul balance itself between these two forces, it is given a rudder in the form of a tail. This tail has three layers of feathers, which reminds one of the path of good thoughts, words, and deeds, by which the soul is able to make spiritual progress. Every soul has a free will to choose either to obey divine universal natural laws or to disobey them. If these divine laws are obeyed, the soul will be able to attain union with God. This remote event, toward which all creation moves, is called frasho-kereti.

In short, every individual has the twin spirits of good and evil in his or her mind, forming a dual nature. When individuals exercise the better mind, they create life and draw God and his divine powers toward themselves. When they choose to use the evil mind, they enter a state of spiritual death. Confusion descends upon them and they rush toward wrath and bloodlust. An individual's duty is to play his or her part in this great cosmic battle between good and evil, with each individual's life serving as the battlefield. Every decision made and every choice of thought, word, and deed, is weighed in the balance.

Upon physical death (which is seen as the temporary triumph of evil), the soul will be judged at the "Bridge of the Separator," where the soul, it is believed, will receive either its reward or punishment, based upon the balance of its thoughts, words, and deeds. If found righteous, the soul will ascend to the abode of joy and light. If wicked, it will descend into the depths of darkness and gloom. The latter state, however, is a temporary one, as there is no eternal damnation in Zoroastrianism. Thereafter, there is a promise of a series of saviors who will appear in the world to complete the triumph of good over evil. Evil will be rendered ineffective. There will then be a general last judgment of all the souls awaiting redemption, followed by the resurrection of the physical body, which will once again meet its spiritual counterpart, the soul. Time, as we know it, will cease to exist, and life, it is believed, will remain in a perfect state of joy.

Individual responsibility is another key theme in Zoroastrianism. Salvation for the individual depends on the sum of his or her thoughts, words, and deeds, and no intervention by any divine being may alter this. No costly material sacrifices or rituals will change the way the individual is judged. Making their own choices, individuals alone must bear responsibility for their souls. A life of active good toward others (people, animals, nature) is critical, giving individuals a simple creed to follow—good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.

Further, adherents are encouraged to lead a good and prosperous life, and monasticism, celibacy, fasting, and the mortification of the body are anathema to the Zoroastrian faith. Such practices are believed to weaken the individual and thereby lessen his or her power to fight evil. Zoroaster saw pessimism and despair as sins, in fact, as a submission to evil. In his teachings, the individual is encouraged to lead an active, industrious, honest, and above all, a happy and charitable life. Since this world created by God (Ahura Mazda) is essentially good, the individual should live well and enjoy its bountiful gifts, though always in moderation (as the states of excess and deficiency are deemed to be the workings of a hostile spirit).

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the originality and courage of Zoroaster's thought today. Many prophets have appeared in later times with similar proclamations. But Zoroaster's religion was radically different from anything humankind had previously believed. Instead of a religion based on fear, Zoroaster's religion exalted the free and rational mind. Later religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all borrowed from Zoroaster's teachings. They all grew to attract millions of believers, while Zoroastrianism declined. Today, the Zoroastrian religion is probably familiar only to scholars of religion and to its adherents in South Asia, Iran, and the West.

In terms of customs, Zoroastrians have been incorrectly called fire worshipers. They do not worship fire, but fire has special significance. It is regarded as giving light, warmth, and energy and is therefore vital to life. Parsi places of worship (temples) have altars that contain fire and are called fire-temples. Eight principal fire-temples in India include four in Mumbai and four in the State of Gujarat (two in Surat, one in Udwada, one in Navsari). There are no caste divisions and no religious restrictions concerning food for Zoroastrians. A Zoroastrian child is formally initiated into the religion at a navjote or thread ceremony, which takes place between the ages of seven and nine. Zoroastrians continue to debate whether a child with one non-Zoroastrian parent can be initiated into the religion—orthodox members oppose this, while reformists favor the issue. Conversion is not practiced, and though some reformists suggest allowing children of non-Zoroastrian parents to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion, this issue has not been seriously considered.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest religions, and the influence of its core tenets may be detected in all three Abrahamic religions. Though Zoroastrians (Parsis) have been prominent in Indian society, the number of Zoroastrians has been declining at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Dinshaw Mistry

See alsoParsis


Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge, 1979.

Boyce, Mary, and Frantz Grenet. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

——. A History of Zoroastrianism. 3rd ed. Leiden and New York: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America. Zoroastrians: Followers of an Ancient Faith in a Modern World. Hinsdale, Ill.: Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.

Hinnells, John. Zoroastrianism and the Parsis. London: Ward Lock Educational, 1981.

Mehr, Farhang. The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda, 2003.

Mistree, K. P. Zoroastrianism: An Ethnic Perspective. Mumbai: Zoroastrian Studies, 1982.

Nigosian, S. A. The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unconstructed Nation. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.

Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York. The Good Life: An Introduction to the Religion of Zarathushtra. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York, 1994.


views updated May 29 2018


Pre-Islamic religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster).

Founded as early as 1400 to 1200 b.c.e., Zoroastrianism spread from central Asia to Iran around the ninth century b.c.e., where it was propagated by priests called the magi, or mobeds. Zoroastrianism remained the major faith in Iran until the Sassanian state fell to the Arabs in 651 c.e. Thereafter, the religion lost many followers through conversion to Islam between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. Zoroastrianism reached India in the tenth century, when some Zoroastrians migrated from Iran to avoid adopting Islam. Descendants of these immigrants are called the Parsis (Parsees). Those who remained behind sought refuge from Islam by moving to sparsely populated regions in central Iran. By the thirteenth century, extensive contact between Parsis and Persian Zoroastrians had recommenced. In 1854, when the Parsis sent an emissary to the Qajar court, the poll tax levied on Iranian Zoroastrians by the Muslim state was abolished. The community in India flourished, and in the mid-1990s it numbered around 72,000.

Zoroastrians in Iran encountered less success, though there was a respite from financial hardship and pressure to practice Islam during the Pahlavi dynasty (19251979). Since the Iranian Revolution, despite being recognized as an official minority of about 30,000, Zoroastrians are offered little protection from their Muslim neighbors, and many have fled Iran. International dispersion during the twentieth century has produced Zoroastrian communities in Pakistan (3,700), England (7,000), Australia (1,000), the United States and Canada (10,000), and other countries. By the early 1990s, low birthrates together with widespread nonacceptance of converts contributed to an overall decline in the number of Zoroastrians.

The faith's central canon is the Avesta (Pure instruction), a scripture that includes the Gathas (Songs), which were probably composed by Zarathushtra himself. Prayers recited by the laity in daily religious observances are compiled in a text known as the Khorde Avesta (Shorter Avesta). Next in importance are religious exegeses written in Pahlavi, a Middle Iranian language; among these are the Zand, a commentary on the Avesta, and the Bundahishn (Book of creation). There are more recent Zoroastrian texts in the New Persian, Gujarati, and English languages that transmit tenets of the faith and the meanings of rituals to believers who no longer understand the Avestan and Pahlavi languages.

The religion proposes an ethical dualismwhich later became a cosmic dualismbetween righteousness and falsehood, personified by a pair of primal spirits: Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), the Lord Wisdom, and Angra Mainyu (Ahreman), the Destructive Spirit. Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity, is believed to have created the spiritual and material worlds completely pure. Evil, disease, pollution, and death are attributed to Angra Mainyu, the devil. According to Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda created six amesha spentas, or beneficent spiritual beings, and other minor good spirits to assist him in protecting the material creations. Angra Mainyu produced numerous daevas, or demons, to defile the spiritual and material worlds. Zoroastrian texts claim that human beings were created by Ahura Mazda as allies in the struggle against Angra Mainyu, and that humans entered into a covenant with their creator to combat the forces of evil through daily good deeds.

Between the ages of seven and twelve, each Zoroastrian child undergoes initiation into the religion. %
The ritual, which symbolizes a spiritual rebirth, is termed sedra pushun in Iran and navjote in India. Every initiate dons a white undershirt called the sedra, or sudra, and ties a sacred girdle known as the kashti, or kusti, around the waist. The girdle, which most Zoroastrians continue to wear, should be untied and retied with the recitation of prayers on awakening each morning, and prior to performing worship. Many rituals, such as the jashan, or thanksgiving ceremony, are conducted within buildings known as fire temples. Fire is one of the seven sacred creations; the others are water, earth, metal, plants, animals, and human beings. Moreover, fire is believed to destroy evil, and thus it became the religion's icon. Sacred fires burn constantly in altars at major temples at Sharifabad, near Yazd, in Iran and at Surat, Navsari, and Bombay in India. Smaller temples in Iran and India and elsewhere do not maintain constantly burning fires; rather, a fire is lit in an altar prior to acts of worship. Because impurity is thought to arise from evil, Zoroastrians undergo elaborate rituals to ensure their spiritual purity. In addition to rituals of worship and purification, other acts of devotion include seven feasts, such as that celebrating Nav Ruz, the new year.

Zoroastrian doctrine holds that earth, fire, and water are polluted if a corpse is buried, cremated, or placed in water. Consequently, corpses are washed, then placed in a dakhma (funerary tower), which is open to the sky and accessible to birds of prey. Thereafter, the bones are collected and disposed of. Exposure of corpses has been phased out in Iran since the 1940s, replaced with interment (burial), but many Parsis in India and Pakistan continue the tradition of exposing bodies in funerary towers, particularly at Bombay and Karachi. Most Zoroastrians elsewhere follow their Iranian coreligionists' adaptation. Certain Zoroastrian communities, particularly those in North America, now perform cremation. Zoroastrians believe that after death each individual's soul is judged by a triad of godsMithra, the keeper of covenants; Rashnu, the judge; and Sraosha, the messengerat the Bridge of the Separator, which connects earth to heaven over the pit of hell. If the soul's good deeds are greater than its evil deeds, it is led across the bridge into paradise. When its evil deeds outweigh the good, the soul is cast into hell until the day of universal judgment. In cases where a soul's good and evil deeds are equal, it is consigned to limbo. The faithful believe that at the end of time a savior (saoshyant) will resurrect the dead. Thereafter, Ahura Mazda will descend to earth and separate the righteous individuals from the evil ones. Each sinner will be purified of his or her transgressions and granted immortality. Then Angra Mainyu will be forced back into hell, and the world will become free of evil and impurity forever.


Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1977. Reprint edition, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

Choksy, Jamsheed K. Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph over Evil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Writer, Rashna. Contemporary Zoroastrians: An Unstructured Nation. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

Zaehner, Robert C. The Teachings of the Magi: A Compendium of Zoroastrian Beliefs. New York: Macmillan; London: Allen and Unwin, 1956. Reprint, London: Sheldon, 1975.

jamsheed k. choksy
updated by eric hooglund

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic