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alt.religion.zoroastrianism FAQ


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ZOROASTRIANISM: A  short overview
          

          Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia. It was 
founded about 3500 years ago by the prophet Zarathushtra. Arising 
out of the polytheistic traditions of ancient India and Iran, he was 
one of the first monotheists in human history. Zarathushtra preached 
that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. Ahura 
means "Lord," and Mazda means "Wise," so Zoroastrians call God 
the "Wise Lord." Zarathushtra has been known in the West as 
Zoroaster, from the Greek transliteration of his name; in Persia and 
India he is known as Zarthosht. 
          No one knows exactly when Zarathushtra lived. Zoroastrian 
tradition places him at around 600 B.C.E., but this date is thought 
by modern scholars to be far too late. The modern estimate of 
Zarathushtra's date is anywhere from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E. 
         The basic scripture of Zoroastrianism is a set of 5 poetic songs 
called the _Gathas_, which were composed by Zarathushtra himself 
and have been preserved through the millennia by Zoroastrian 
priests. Over the years many other scriptures have accumulated 
around these Gathas. Much of these scriptures were destroyed by 
the Greek, Muslim, and Mongol invasions, but some remain. The 
Gathas are still the core text of the faith.They are composed in a 
very ancient language known as Avestan, which is closely related to 
Sanskrit. The evidence scholars use to give a time reference to 
Zarathushtra is linguistic: the language of the hymns composed by 
the Prophet is similar to the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda, an ancient 
Hindu text which has been dated to the period of 1500-1000 B.C.E.   
           In the Gathas, Zarathushtra preached that the One God, 
Ahura Mazda, is transcendent, but he is in constant relationship with 
human beings and the world God created through his Attributes. 
These Attributes are how God reaches the world, and how the 
world reaches God. Zarathushtra did not specify a fixed number of 
Attributes, but soon after the Prophet they were specified into 
seven. These attributes are called the _Amesha Spentas_, or 
"Bounteous Immortals." Each one of these embodies an 
attribute of God, as well as a human virtue. They are also symbols 
for the various sectors of Creation over which God watches. They 
are: 
       Vohu Manah - Good Thought - connected with Animals
       Asha Vahishta - Justice and Truth - Fire and Energy
       Kshathra  - Dominion - Metals and minerals
       Spenta Armaiti - Devotion and Serenity - The earth and land
       Haurvatat - Wholeness - Waters
       Ameretat - Immortality - Plants
 and   Spenta Mainyu - Creative Energy - Human beings

          In the Gathas these are sometimes personified, and 
sometimes just Ideas or concepts. In later traditions, they are 
personified, and become like archangels. They are never worshipped 
on their own.
          The "dualism" of Zoroastrianism is known in the "West," but 
is mostly misunderstood. In the Gathas Spenta Mainyu, the "Holy 
Creative Spirit," is opposed to Angra Mainyu, the Hostile Spirit. 
This conflict takes place in the human heart and mind, not in the 
material Universe. It is the constant struggle between good and evil 
in human beings. This is _ethical_ dualism, the dualism of Good 
and Evil. In later traditions this 
changed into a dualism that took in the material world, dividing the 
Universe into two camps, each ruled by the Good God or the Evil 
Spirit. This is called "cosmic" dualism.
            Some Zoroastrians believe in "cosmic" dualism, others in 
ethical dualism. The teachings of the Gathas, the original work of
the Prophet, tend toward ethical dualism.
            Zoroastrian worship involves prayers and symbolic 
ceremonies said before a sacred fire. This fire, which was a God-
symbol even before Zarathushtra, was used by the Prophet and by 
his followers ever after as the ideal sign of God, who is light, 
warmth, energy. Zoroastrians do NOT worship fire, as some people 
believe. They use Fire as a symbol, or an icon, the focus of their 
worship.
	Zoroastrianism does not teach or believe in reincarnation or 
karma. Zoroastrians believe that after life on earth, the human soul 
is judged by God as to whether it did more good or evil in its life. 
Those who chose good over evil go to what Zarathushtra referred to 
simply as the "best existence," or heaven, and those who chose evil 
go to the "worst existence," or hell. Zoroastrianism was one of the 
first religions to give the afterlife a moral dimension.
	Zoroastrianism also believes in the progress of sacred time, 
and the eventual end of time. The belief is that the collective good 
acts of humanity will slowly transform the imperfect material world 
into its heavenly ideal. This is known as the "frasho-kereti," or 
"making-fresh," that is, renewal. At the end of time everything and 
everyone will be purified, even the souls in hell - so hell is not 
eternal.
	Zoroastrian ideas of moral dualism, heaven and hell, sacred 
time, and angelic beings have influenced Judaism and Christianity, 
during long centuries of contact between these faiths in the Middle 
East.
     
          The most important thing about Zoroastrianism is the 
dedication to ethical and moral excellence. The motto of the faith is:
          GOOD THOUGHTS, GOOD WORDS, GOOD DEEDS. 
          This threefold path is the center of the faith. One knows what 
is good through the Divine help of Vohu Manah (Good Mind) and 
divinely inspired conscience (Daena). 
          If there is anything to remember about Zoroastrianism, it is 
this threefold path. By thinking good thoughts, one is moved to 
speak good words, and that leads to good deeds. This is a practical 
and world-affirming faith, that does not hate the world nor dwell on 
sin and guilt. 
          Zoroastrians are mostly of Persian origin, though the recent 
breakup of the Soviet Union has revealed isolated groups of Central 
Asian and Armenian Zoroastrians as well.  In the 10th century A.D. 
groups of Persian Zoroastrians fled an oppressive Muslim regime 
and settled in Gujarat, in western India. These are the Parsis of 
India, who are a major influence today. From India and Iran 
Zoroastrians have spread all over the world, and there are 
communities in England, Australia, Canada, the United States, and 
other countries. These diaspora communites now face the problems 
of how to adapt their ancient religious traditions to a modern world.

The best current book on Zoroastrianism is THE ZOROASTRIAN 
TRADITION by Farhang Mehr, published by Element Books, 
1991.
A widely available translation of the Gathas is by the Belgian scholar 
Duchesne-Guillemin, translated from the French by Henning. This 
is a little red book in the "Wisdom of the East" series, published by 
Charles E. Tuttle Co, Inc., 1992.


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