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Zoroastrianism

The religion of the followers of Zoroaster (Greek form of the Avestan name Zarathushtra). Other names for the religion are Zarathustraism, Mazdism (which is mentioned in the Avesta), Magism, Fire Worship, and later Bah Dīn (“Good Religion”) and Parsiism. The common assumption that it is a form of Dualism is a misunderstanding (although some Parsis do accept this interpretation).

History. There is considerable divergence between the scholarly, theological, and theosophical views about the historical background of the religion. Scholars claim that a pre-Zoroastrian religion was animistic and superstitious and that Zoroaster introduced a new religion in the 7th cent. BCE. The theosophical or occult view is that there were two Zoroasters, the first of whom lived “more than 20,000 years ago” according to Annie BESANT (Zoroastrianism, p. 7; first published in Four Great Religions, 1897), and who was a Chaldean sage and “high initiate” (idem). It was he, Besant claims, who led the Parshu tribe of Aryans into what is now Iran (formerly Persia); this started the civilization in the so-called “fertile crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The dating of this event obviously is considerably at odds with orthodox scholarship! After him there were a succession of enlightened teachers called Saoshyants (benefactors, reformers), according to the Zoroastrian scripture, the Avesta: Gayomard, Hoshang, Tehmuras, Jamshid, Faridun, and finally Zarathushtra Spitāma. While there are remnants of the original teachings in what remains of the Avesta, it is the ideas of the last Zoroaster which form what we now call Zoroastrianism. The Avesta also speaks of Saoshyants yet to come. The language of the early Parshus was related to Vedic Sanskrit and the hymns (gāthās) of the Avesta are in a meter related to the meters of the Sāma Veda, indicative of the common heritage of Vedic Hinduism and ancient Zoroastrianism. It is the third oldest extant religion, according to theosophical sources, only Jainism and Hinduism being older.

The first Zarathushtra, according to Besant, emphasized the sacred nature of fire and could invoke it directly “from the fiery ākasha,” as could other early priests (ibid., p. 36). Nowadays priests have to wait for lightning to ignite fire if the sacred fire on the altar is allowed to go out (ibid., p. 37).

The last prophet Zarathustra Spitāma (ca. 660- ca. 583 BCE) was born the third son of a wealthy, noble family in Bactria (an area in western Iran/northern Afghanistan today) on the banks of the River Darega according to Besant, or in southern Azerbaijan according to some scholars. His father’s name was Pourushaspa, his mother’s name was Dughdhova (or Dugdāv). According to the Dinkard, marvelous phenomena accompanied his birth and sorcerers tried unsuccessfully to kill him. He grew strong, intelligent, studious, handsome, patient, and with a high moral character. Sometime between the age of 15 and 20 he withdrew from the world to meditate and search for truth; he spent several years in the wilderness, often praying with upraised hands. He is depicted in the scriptures invoking the Amesha Spentas (hierarchy of gods in Zoroastrianism), especially Vohu Manah (“Good Thought”). At about the age of 30, he is said to have received a divine revelation from Vohu Manah who led him to the throne of God (i.e., Ahura Mazda). This was the first of seven such visions he had over the ensuing 10 years. In several verses of the Avesta he is depicted as asking questions of Ahura Mazda and receiving answers. The 19th chapter of the Videvdat (also called Vendīdad) tells how Angra Mainyu (the Zoroastrian Satan) attempted to dissuade him from his devotion to Ahura Mazda by revealing to him the allures of the world. Zoroaster rebuffed him, returned home, and began his ministry.

For the first two years his message met with rejection. His first convert was his cousin Maidhyomah (considered the “St. John” of Zoroastrianism). At the age of 42, he went to Chorasmia (now Khorasan in Iran) and to the court of King Vishtāspa (or Hystaspes, father of Darius the Great) and there is said of have healed the king’s favorite black horse by apparently miraculous means. The king and his court became converts and the faith then spread throughout Bactria. There is a strong suggestion in the scriptures (cf. Yasna 31.2) that he only intended to purify the existing religion of its animism, superstition, sorcery, and immorality, not begin a new religion. This accords well with the theosophical view that Zoroastrianism underwent several cycles of decline and revitalization over the thousands of years of its existence. Subsequently, he married Hvōvi, daughter of another wealthy nobleman, and had three sons and three daughters. He traveled widely throughout Bactria (and adjoining areas) spreading his teaching and even was once imprisoned for sorcery by adherents of the popular superstitious religion, although he preached against wonders and psychic phenomena. At the age of 77, while in prayer, he was killed during a war against the invader Arejad-aspa of Turan, a war which may have been provoked by that king’s reaction to his proselytizing the Turanians.

The subsequent history of Zoroastrianism is often divided into the Persian-Achaemenid Period (559-330 BCE), Seleucid Period (330-250 BCE), Parthian-Arsacid Period or Dark Ages of Zoroastrianism (250-226 BCE), Sassanid or Sassanian Period (226 BCE - 651 CE), and Modern Period (651-present). During the first of these, commentaries were written on the Avesta in Pahlavi, the priestly language of Persia and a great library was built at Persepholis. The second period is characterized by the destruction of that library and burning of its sacred books (many of which have never been recovered) by the invasion of Alexander the Great (known to Zoroastrians as “Alexander the Accursed”) in 334 BCE. Under the Seleucid rule of Persia, the religion underwent a gradual recovery. A decline set in again in the following period and there was another revival after that under the Sassanids whose founder monarch, Ardeshir Babegan, belonged to a family of Zoroastrian high priests. The Modern Period is dated from the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651, as a result of which most Zoroastrians (the Parsis) fled to India, settling mainly in the Gujerat and Bombay. About 10,000 (the Gabars) remained in Persia where many of them became gardeners for their Muslim conquerors.

Scriptures. Zoroastrian scriptures are collectively called the Avesta or Zend-Avesta. The term “Avesta” originally designated the ancient language in which they were written, but later came to mean “law.” Scholars translate “Zend” to mean “commentary,” but according to Besant this commentary was originally written “in a language derived from that ancient sacerdotal language . . . of signs, of symbols, of colors, of sounds . . . called the Zenzar or Zend-zar” (ibid., pp. 15-16), in other words the Senzar language of the “Stanzas of Dzyan” upon which Helena P. BLAVATSKY’s The Secret Doctrine was based. This commentary eventually became regarded as part of the original text. These scriptures are divided into four classifications: YasnaVisparad (or Vispered), Yashts, and Nasks. The Yasna is the book of hymns (gāthās), all composed by the first Zoroaster. The hymns are further divided into chapters (Hās) of varying length (10-23 verses, each verse containing 3-5 lines). The chapters are organized according to their meter. Of the original 21 books of the Yasna, only five hymns have survived Alexander’s destruction: the Ahunavaiti, Ustavaiti, Spentamainyu, Vohukhshathra, and Vaihistōisti. The Visparad is a collection of prayers and ceremonies appended to the Yasna. The Yashts comprise a collection of preparatory prayers and invocations for use by priests and also the Khordah (or “Little”) Avesta containing prayers for use by the laity. The Nasks were a collection of 21 treatises on agriculture, astronomy, medicine, botany, philosophy. law, etc., but only the Videvdad (or Vendīdād) survives today. To these was later added the Dinkard, written in Pahlavi. During the Sassanid Period all the Avesta was translated into Pahlavi (early Persian), then later into P€zend (later Persian), then into modern Persian, Gujerati, etc. Theological expositions of these texts were influenced by contact with Babylon, Lydia, Greece, Rome, India, China, Christianity, Islam, and most recently theosophy.

Esotericism. According to one Parsi priest-scholar, Dr. Meher Master-Moos (President of Zoroastrian College, Sanjan, India and member of The Theosophical Society) there is an esoteric tradition that all 21 books of the original Yasna were recovered from remote mountain villages which survived the Alexandrian invasion. Towards the end of the Sassanid Dynasty, the Zoroastrian Magi and Abeds, having foreknowledge of the turmoil that was to come during the 7th century CE when Islamic Arabs overran and conquered Iran, withdrew into remote mountains to preserve this ancient wisdom. According to this tradition, there existed many such esoteric groups of Zoroastrian holy Maghavs and Abeds, in the mountain regions of the Caucasus, Elburz mountains, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, and Central Asiatic Highlands. Two such spiritually developed communities are known by the names of the Abeds of Chaechast Vaar and the Abeds of Demaand Kuh. These communities preserved the ancient esoteric wisdom of Zoroastrianism, which they call the Mazdayasnie Zarathustrian Daena, or knowledge of the Divine Universal Natural Laws of Ahura Mazda. Gradually, through adoption of Indian languages (especially Gujerati), customs, and dress, most Zoroastrians in India, including the priests, lost this esoteric knowledge.

The three most striking doctrines of Zoroastrianism are its emphasis on strict morality in thought, word, and deed, its veneration of fire as sacred, and its method of disposing of the deceased (called “sky burial”). There is no separation between Ahura Mazda and his creation, including man; the universe is an immense ladder of creative intelligences. Absolutely central to Zoroastrianism is that human life is a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil. The freedom of the human will is a cardinal tenet of the faith. While there is no teaching of reincarnation in exoteric Zoroastrianism, it is a doctrine accepted in esoteric teachings.

Cosmology. According to Besant (but not mentioned in scholarly literature), Zoroastrian cosmology says that there is at the base of all existence One Unknowable Reality (Zeruan Akerna or “Boundless Time”). This gives rise to One Transcendent Being called Mazda (“All-Wise” or “Omniscient”); to this ancient name Zoroaster Spitāma added Ahura (“Governor”), i.e., the wise and beneficent creator and sustainer of the universe. (The name is sometimes stated in reverse: Mazda Ahura; in later Persian he is called Ormazd or Ormuzd.) He is also called merely “I am” in the Hormazd Tasht, reminiscent of God’s statement to Moses (Exodus 3:14). From Him, in turn, arises the duality Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu. The former means “Good Thought” or “Expansive Thought” (from span, “increase” or “prosper” and man, “mind,” “thought”). The latter means “Evil Thought” or “Constrictive Thought” (from ang, “decrease” or “destroy” + man). The latter is also called Ak¯-man (evil mind) or Dregvao-man (deceiving mind), or more commonly in modern Persian, Āhriman. He is not, like Lucifer in Christian theology, a “fallen angel,” but rather the polar opposite of Spenta Mainyu, thus an aspect of Ahura Mazda. Hā 30.4 also terms the pair Being (gaem) and Non-Being (ajyāitim), reminiscent of the ultimate manifested polarity in theosophy. In exoteric Zoroastrianism they are thought of as powers of Good and Evil, but in reality they merely signify Spirit and Matter, Life and Form, Light and Darkness. This duality is present in mankind, especially in the dual nature of the human mind (i.e. buddhi-manas and kāma-manas in theosophical terminology). In other words, “evil” comes into the world only when (and because) human beings have choice. This polar duality is considered masculine. The third being in the Zoroastrian Trinity is the feminine Ārmaiti (“Creative Wisdom”) by which the world was made. She is later identified as the Earth Goddess.

Immediately below this Trinity are the Amesha Spentas (called Amshaspands in later Persian). They are living intelligences or creative hierarchies who shape and sustain the world. Their name means Immortal (amesha) Beneficent Ones (spenta, “bountiful,” “holy,” “profitable,” etc.). Since Zoroaster emphasized monotheism, these are considered workings of the Divine in manifestation. In fact, their structure is somewhat reminiscent of the septenary nature of the manifested world in theosophy; although many Zoroastrian scholars give them as six (cf. Fravardin Yasht 22.82-83), others include a seventh. In fact, there is some discrepancy between the lists of them in different sources. Three — Vohu Manah or Vohūman (“Pure Thought” or “Good Mind”), Asha Vahishta (“Best Righteousness” or “Highest Order”), and Khshathra Vairya or Kshatraver (“Sovereign Power,” “Desired Kingdom,” or “Kingdom of Heaven”) — are depicted as masculine (though grammatically neuters) and sitting on the right hand of Ahura Mazda and three others — Spenta Ārmaiti or Spendarmad (“Bountiful Devotion,” “Great Love,” or “High-mindedness”), Haurvatāt (“Wholeness” or “Health”) and Ameretāt or Ameritāt (“Immortality”[cf. Sk. amṛtatāt, “immortality”]) — are depicted as feminine and sitting on his left hand. The last two are identified as twins. To bring the number up to seven, some include Ahura Mazda (cf. A. V. Williams Jackson, Zoroastrian Studies) and some include a member of the next category, the Yazatas (cf. Besant, loc. cit. and Rustom Masani, Zoroastrianism: the Religion of the Good Life).

If Ahura Mazda is equivalent to the Logos, therefore representative of the ātmic plane in theosophical cosmology, Vohu Manah would be equivalent to the buddhic plane. Asha Vahishta is guardian of the sacred fire in Zoroastrian cosmology; if one equates this with the theosophical concept of fohat, it suggests ordered creativity, which is certainly consistent with Zoroastrianism. Khshathra Vairya is invoked to help man along the path of righteousness and is also the spirit presiding over mental and earthly wealth; possibly he is equivalent to manas in theosophical terminology. Spentā Ārmaiti, sometimes named just Ārmaiti, is a spirit who sanctfies one’s heart, and is the mother of Ashi Vanguhi (“Spirit of Good Reward or Purity”); at death one goes to her abode. Possibly she is equivalent to the Astral Plane in theosophy. Haurvatāt is very suggestive of the Hindu (and theosophical) concept of prāṇa, associated with vitality or health. Ameretāt would not seem, at first glance, to fit into the theosophical scheme of things, but Masani points out that “immortality” here does not mean living bodily forever, but merely attaining “complete happiness of body and soul, begun in this life and continued in an exalted degree in the next” (loc. cit., p. 47). In any event, these parallels are merely meant as suggestions or possibilities, not certainties.

Consistent with its emphasis on polarity in the manifested world, Zoroastrian cosmology states that each of these Amesha Spentas has its corresponding “evil” opposite, descended from Angra Mainyu: Āka Manah (“Vile Thought” or “Discord”), Indra (“Spirit of Apostasy”), Saurava or Sauru (“Anarchy” or “Misgovernment”), Nāonghaithya or Taromad (“Discontent,” “Disobedience,” or “Insubordination”), and the twins Tauru (“Decay”) and Zairicha (“Old Age”). These evil spirits (and their progeny) are termed daevas, which is linguistically related to the Sanskrit term devas, indicating that Zoroastrianism can often be seen as just the reverse in its terminology from that of Hinduism. This is also seen in its identification of Indra as a “demon” whereas he is one of the chief Vedic gods in Hinduism. And the Avestan term ahura (“ruler,” “governor”) is linguistically related to the Hindu asūra (“darkness”), one of the generic names for their demons.

Next in the order of the spiritual hierarchy are the Yazatas (“Adorable Ones”), called Izads in later texts. Only three are mentioned in the Gāthās: Sraosha, Ātar, and Ashi. In fact, Sraosha (“Obedience”), identified as masculine and mediator between heaven and earth, is often called the seventh of the Amesha Spentas. His “evil” counterpart is Aeshma (“Wrath” or “Rapine”). Annie Besant, on the other hand, has Ātar or Āthrā (“Fire”; cf. Vedic Agni; note also that athar is an obsolete Vedic word for “fire”) as the seventh. He is also identified as masculine and “the most helpful” of the Amesha Spentas according to Yasna 1.6. Sraosha is also called “guardian spirit of humanity,” “the embodiment of divine service,” and “viceregent of God on earth.” He is depicted as a youth who never sleeps and who drives a heavenly chariot drawn by four white, shining horses. He is the protector of the material world from the onslaughts of Aeshma, “the prime originator of all disturbance and disorder, chaos and anarchy” (Masani, loc. cit., p. 49). It is also he, along with Mithra and Rashnu, who oversees judging the souls of the dead. Sraosha’s sister, Ashi Vanguhi, is “guardian of the sanctity of married life” and is said to grieve at the sight of unmarried or childless women and to abhor adultery and prostitution (Masani, loc. cit., pp. 50-51). Different authorities list the number of Yazatas as 24, 28, 33, or 40, sometimes including the Amesha Spentas in their enumeration. Besant calls them “mighty intelligences of nature.” Offerings of milk, wheat bread, and haoma (cf. Vedic soma) are made to them; meat offerings are repugnant in Zoroastrianism. Since everything (below Ahura Mazda) has a polar opposite, these too have their “evil” counterparts including demons, spooks, and enchantresses, whose names are personifications of bad thoughts or actions (e.g., lust, gossip, etc.). But these legions of “evil” are not well organized, are conceived in rather vague terms, and are inferior in prowess to the spiritual powers, so they can be overcome by our own efforts. We require no external savior to do that for us. Note also that “evil,” as personified by Angra Mainyu or Āhriman, is seen as just a fact of human nature, not a Being co-equal with Ahura Mazda. According to Hā 30.6 it is caused by “anger.” So also with the various daevas, although the descriptions of some of them sound like at least some are what theosophy calls “elementals.”

The four elements — fire, water, air, earth — all have deities connected with them and are held to be sacred, not to be defiled in any way. Thus, burning or burying dead bodies or disposing of them at sea is forbidden. Fire is called “the son of Ahura Mazda,” the messenger between earth and heaven (just as in Hinduism), and is considered the most sacred element; the Videvdad (or Vendīdād) enjoins capital punishment for anyone burning or cooking dead matter. Any fire thus polluted has to undergo a purification ritual. All Zoroastrian temples and homes have a fire altar; it is considered a capital offense for a priest to allow the sacred fire to go out. The priest in attendance at the sacred fire wears a cloth over his mouth to prevent polluting the fire with his breath. According to Masani, “Zarathustra mentions Atar more in the sense of the divine spark, a spark of the divine flame that glows in the heart of every human being . . .” (loc. cit., p. 54). In this respect, it would be similar to the Hindu concept of ātman. But fire is not worshiped; it, along with the other elements, is merely venerated. So also are prayers of veneration made to the sun and to bodies of water (wells, springs, rivers, lakes, seas, etc.). In later Zoroastrianism, the goddess Aredvi Sura Anahita was venerated as the presiding deity of a mythical river and also as present in actual rivers and other bodies of water on earth. She is depicted as a beautiful maiden, clothed in a golden garment and wearing various golden ornaments. She rides in a chariot drawn by four white horses (representing wind, rain, clouds, and sleet). Since water is purifying, it is a common sight to see Parsis in Bombay standing along the beach, dipping their fingers in the water of the Indian Ocean, and applying the water to their eyes and forehead. (cf. Masani, p. 62). But, as Masani also observes, there is a deeper “esoteric meaning” behind the Parsi veneration of the elements, since fire and water “are but symbols of the spiritual Fire and Water which he holds in the mind’s eye” (loc. cit., p. 64). And since early Zoroastrians were farmers, the earth was important for producing life and was not to be polluted by putting dead bodies in it.

The first Zoroaster is depicted as an astute student of astronomy and astrology (cf. Besant, loc. cit., p. 11). It is, therefore, no accident that the planets are thought to have an influence on human affairs. But the planets are given both beneficent and deleterious qualities, suggestive again of the polar nature of manifestation and that their influence is neither invariably good nor bad but dependent upon how we respond to that influence.

All manifested things (both animate and inanimate) have an innate spiritual nature, called fravashi (or farohar in Persian), therefore are capable of manifesting in ever greater degree the divine life within them. The term fravashi may possibly be related to Sanskrit pra-vart-ti in the sense of “pre-existence” or to pra- (forward) + vakhsh (grow, increase, promote), suggestive of evolution. As Masani puts it, “[T]he entire creation forges its way towards the goal of perfection, and it is man’s mission in this world to contribute towards the attainment of that goal” (loc. cit., pp. 7-8). This, too, is consistent with a cardinal tenet of theosophy. The first fravashi (the progenitor of the Aryan race according to Besant) was Gayomard, possibly equivalent to the Hindu (and theosophical) concept of Manu, though more mythological in its further development, since he is said to have given birth to seven twins, one male and one female (again suggestive of the polar nature of Zoroastrian concepts). Gayomard’s seed also gave rise to two trees, one good and one accursed, reminiscent of the two trees in Eden mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 2.9).

Zoroastrian cosmology is seen as a cycle of 12,000 years, divided into four great periods, each thousand years of which is presided over by a Zodiacal sign. In the first great period, identified as “Spiritual Creation,” Angra Mainyu (or Āhriman) remains inactive. In the second, “Material Creation,” first atoms are created, then sky, water, earth, plants, animals, and finally humans, very suggestive of the modern theory of cosmogenesis and evolution. During this period, Angra Mainyu creates “demons” to oppose Spenta Mainyu, the fravashis voluntarily assisting in these creations, finally electing to be born as humans to overcome the effects of Angra Mainyu. During the third period, called the “Early Human Period,” Angra Mainyu is at first dominant, then partly overcome by the forces of goodness. The “Final Period” begins with the advent of Zarathushtra Spit€ma and is said to end with the Day of Judgement at which time the forces of Ahura Mazda will triumph completely over Angra Mainyu (i.e., 2340 CE if one dates it from his birth at 660 BCE; 2471 CE if one dates it from his death at 583 BCE). Except for the very constricted time frame involved and the idea of a final Judgment Day, this is very similar to theosophical teachings.

The universe is conceived as having seven regions or zones (keshvars) and man’s constitution is also thought of as seven-fold, although organized as tri-partite. This, again, is consistent with theosophy. The basic three are the “guardian spirit” (fravashi), the soul or vital principle (urvan), and the physical body (tanu). The soul is composed of consciousness (baodhas), mind (manas), wilfulness (kāma), and conscience (ahu). Except for the latter this analysis of the soul sounds very much like the theosophical division of the psyche of man into buddhi, manas, kāma, and prāṇa (cf. Besant, loc. cit., p. 41).

Social Theory. In their social theory, Zoroastrians consider humans as social beings (as in Confucianism). All behavior (monasticism, celibacy, mortification of the flesh, asceticism, begging, fasting) which removes humans from family, economic, political, or social life are discouraged. The family unit is central to the religion and child-bearing is its primary function. Abortion is considered a serious sin. Although polygamy and next of kin marriage were practiced in ancient times, marriage is now monogamous and next of kin marriage has not been tolerated for many centuries. Divorce is condemned. The ancient social system was organized into four classes — priest, warrior, farmer, and artisan — reminiscent of the Hindu varṇa system, though probably not hereditary. Although the religion is patriarchal, women have an important place in it. Religion is not to be kept separate from civil affairs.

After Life. Zoroastrians believe that after death, the soul sits outside the body for three days while it reviews its thoughts, words, and deeds (one for each day). On the dawn of the fourth day, it leaves the world and arrives at the Judgment (Chinvat) Bridge where it is met by the Yazatas and one of three women (representative of their conscience). For the righteous, it is a beautiful maiden who leads them amid perfumed air across a wide bridge into Heaven (lit. “Abode of Best Mind”). For the person who is neither very righteous nor basically unrighteous, it is a plain woman who leads them on a plain-scented, somewhat narrow bridge to a region of Purgatory (Hamestagan). For the unrighteous, it is an ugly hag who leads them across a foul-smelling bridge narrow as a razor from which they fall into the bowels of the earth, into a realm so dark that each thinks he or she is alone there (lit. “Abode of Worst Mind”). In other words, we are approved or condemned by our own conscience. Heaven is conceived as a place of continuing growth and also a place from which the souls of the departed watch over the living and respond to their prayers. But Zoroastrians do not believe these souls ever manifest themselves as ghosts, in poltergeist activity, or in seances, etc. Hell or “Abode of Worst Mind” is depicted in terms of terrible suffering and in later texts is said to be everlasting, but Hā 31.20 only says it is for “a long time.” Purgatory is conceived as a place of repentance where souls vow sincerely to do good, whereupon they go to Heaven.

As already indicated, Zoroastrians believe in a Judgment Day. At that time, the last Saoshyant will appear accompanied by fifteen young men and fifteen young women to establish a holy kingdom on earth. He will live 57 years, after which the world will be cleansed by a flood of molten metal. All people will be resurrected and made to walk through the flood. According to one tradition, the righteous will pass through it as though it were warm milk and will be given an immortal body; the unrighteous will suffer and be banished forever from the earth. According to another tradition, the flood of molten metal will purify the unrighteous who will then join the righteous on a purified earth. In any event, the forces of evil will be forever banished to the interior of the earth and the world will be everlasting and immortal thereafter.

Moral Teachings. The Zoroastrian moral code can be summed up in one phrase, which is repeated thrice daily as part of a prayer: “Right thought, right speech, right action” (vispa humata, vispa hūkhta, vispa hvarshta). The antithesis of these is bad thought (dushmata), bad speech (duzukhta), and bad deeds (duzvarshta). This, too, shows its common heritage with ancient Hinduism, since the Sanskrit prefix su- (cognate with Avestan hu-) means “good” and the prefix dus- or duś- means “bad.” The world for humans is a battleground between spiritual thinking (spenta mainyu) and evil or unspiritual thinking (angra mainyu) within our dual nature. Zoroastrian metaphysics, like theosophy, identifies mainyu of an order transcending matter, the only order in which self-consciousness, therefore free will, has a place. (Animals have a fravashi and an urvan, but not mainyu so they cannot act freely and, therefore, cannot sin; also children up to the age of seven — some say 15 — cannot sin.) It is by actions (words and deeds) that we make or fail to make an advance in holiness; but since actions are guided by thought, control of thought is of paramount importance. We need moral teaching to awaken our inherent spiritual nature, but since Ahura Mazda has implanted in our soul knowledge of the moral law (dīn), that teaching is more in the nature of education (i.e., drawing out our latent goodness) than it is in externally imposed training. It also means that we have an innate power to seek help from Ahura Mazda, other humans, and even nature. But it is said that all our actions, good, bad, or indifferent, are recorded in an Account Book, which sounds very reminiscent of the theosophical concept of the ākāshic records.

Honesty, truthfulness, and justice are paramount virtues. As Masani puts it, “To utter untruth is the most heinous sin. All human evil is collectively summed up in the Avesta as the Druj, or lie. Of all the vices, lying is detested the most” (loc. cit., p. 53). But other important virtues are charity toward the “helpless poor,” obedience toward parents and political authorities, fidelity in marriage, hospitality, industriousness, kindness toward useful animals, compassion, love of learning, education of children (both male and female), social reform, ministering to the spiritual needs of humanity, and personal hygiene. In earlier agrarian times, tending to agriculture and proper care of domestic animals (especially cattle) were extolled as virtues. Indebtedness is considered unvirtuous; suicide and murder are said to meet with severe punishment after death. Although drinking wine is not forbidden, drunkenness is condemned.

Religious Rites. Zoroastrian religious rites are classified into five types: socio-religious, purification, initiation, consecration, and liturgical. Of these, the first is related to birth, marriage, and death. It is the latter of these three which is probably of greatest interest to most people. When a person dies, his or her body is kept in the family home in a separate room (to prevent the spread of infectious disease) for three days. Prayers are offered by family and friends during this time. On the afternoon of the third day a special uthama ceremony is performed. On the morning of the fourth day the body is wrapped in white cloth and conveyed either to an isolated high hill (if such is available) or to a Tower of Silence. After special purification, it is unwrapped and left exposed for carrion birds to dispose of. In this way, Zoroastrians help feed another kingdom of nature and avoid polluting any of the four elements — as well as avoid spreading any infectious disease. There are different types of purification rites, the simplest of which involves washing (padyab, lit. “throwing water over”) one’s face, hands, arms, legs, and feet at different times of the day. Aside from the lengthy and elaborate ceremonies for initiation into the priesthood (which is hereditary), there is also the Nazot in which a seven year old child is initiated into the Zoroastrian religion by being clothed with a sacred white shirt (sudreh) and invested with a sacred thread (kusti) tied around his waist. Consecration ceremonies are for purification of the sacred fire and the Towers of Silence. Liturgical ceremonies are of two types: those performed in a temple (“inner”) and those which can be performed at home (outer”). All these ceremonies are described in considerable detail by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi in his book The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsis.

Although Parsis are few in number, as Dr. John McKenzie observes in his introduction to Masani’s book, “they have an importance that is out of all proportion to their numbers. They are the best educated community in the whole of Asia. In trade, commerce, and industry they have proved themselves among the most active and enterprising of the peoples of the world. In public spirit and philanthropy they have set a notable example to all men. Exiled for many centuries from their own land [Persia, Iran], they have maintained their identity as a race, and they have not ceased to take pride in their long and wonderful history” (Masani, loc. cit., p. 5). It is also obvious that their ideas have considerable similarity to theosophy.

During the late 17th century to mid 20th century C.E. due to the influence of the British in India first as traders through the British East India Co., and then in the 19th century as sovereign rulers, since Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India, historically the Parsees in India enjoyed their heyday and saw a revival of the faith under the protection and patronage of British rulers. Many Fire Temples, Behi-ams and Aderans (i.e., “Cathedrals” and “Parish Churches” equivalents) were built in India during the period and also Dokhmas (Towers of Silence for the Disposal of the Dead). At present 8 “Atash Behrams” and about 150 “Aderans” for holy consecrated purified fires exist in India.

Educated Parsis during the 19th century were craving for a spiritual awakening to gain an awareness of the esoteric truths contained in the Mazdayasnie Zarathustrian Daena. This the Parsi priests could not provide. When Helena Petrovna Blavatsky tried to bring about a spiritual awakening in English language based on the esoteric ancient wisdom contained in the Sanskrit Hindu Aryan Scriptures and from the teachings of her spiritual Masters, directly communicated to her, aided by fearless Englishmen and women such as Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant, the esoteric awareness that came through the Theosophical Society naturally attracted many English-speaking educated Parsis as it assuaged their spiritual hunger, which the Parsi Priests had failed to do. Many prominent Parsis of the end of the 19th century and early 20th century in British India were the mainsprings of the Theosophical Society such as Jamshedji Nusserwanji Mehta — the 12 times Mayor and uncrowned “King of Karachi” in Bombay Presidency, now part of Pakistan.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Besant, Annie. Zoroastrianism. (first printed as part of Four Great  :Religions, 1897; reprinted in a booklet form by TPH 1935, 1959, 1963, 1987).

Jackson, A. V. Williams. Zoroastrian Studies. New York: AMS Press, 1965; first ed. Pub. Columbia University Press, 1928.

Masani, Rustom. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life. New York: Macmillan,1968.

Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsis. Bombay, British India Press, 1922; facsimile copy made by Garland Publishing, Inc. 1979.

Sanjana, Rastamji Edulji Dastoor Peshotan (head priest in Bombay in 1924). Parsi Book of Books: The Zend Avesta. (Bombay, 1924).

R.W.B.

 

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