Religions of the World


by Stan Griffin

One of the least-known religions in the world is also one of the oldest of all "revealed world religions" and likely the first to be "monotheistic" (recognize a single god). Zoroastrians believe that "Ahura Mazda" (translated from AvestanĖan ancient Iranian language--it means "Lord of Wisdom") is supreme and creator of the universe. A case can be made for the statement that Zoroastrianism "probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other faith."

Some of its principles which showed up in later doctrines were: God; Satan; the soul; heaven and hell; savior; resurrection; and final judgment.

Worldwide, there are 140-000-250,000 believers (estimates vary). Most of them live in India and Iran. It is believed that U. S. followers number about 10,000.

Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. In Greek he was called "Zoroaster," and in India and Persia his name was "Zarthosht.") Conservatives assign a date of 6,000 B.C. to their beginnings. Others estimate a much later "start." (600 B.C.) In general, historians and scholars date his life somewhere between 1500 B.C. and 1000 B.C.; based on the style of writing found in their holy book.

Zarathustra spent his life in Persia (today the nation of Iran). Legends say: (1) his birth was predicted; and (2) evil forces tried to kill him as a child. His teachings went against the more traditional polytheistic religions of the day, most of which worshipped many gods. He was widely criticized until he won the support of Persian kings. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of many Persian empires up until the 7th Century A.D.

Followers of Islam invaded Persia in 650 A.D. A few Zoroastrians left the country and fled to India where their descendants still live. Those who stayed behind suffered centuries of persecution, slaughter, and forced conversions. Today in Iran they number only 18,000.

The Zoroastrian holy book, the "Avesta," includes the original words of their founder organized in a series of five hymns called the "Gathas." This is the core text of their religion: poetry directed toward: (1) worship of One God; (2) understanding of righteousness and cosmic order; (3) promotion of social justice; and (4) individual choice between good and evil.

Centuries later the remainder of the "Avesta" was written. It dealt with: (1) ritual and practices; and (2) traditions of the faith. There is currently a split among the followers. One side insists the faithful follow the original "Gathas" while others feel the later traditions are equally divinely inspired.

Opposing Ahura Mazda is an Evil Spirit of violence and death named "Angra Mainyu"; the two exist in a "cosmic dualism." Their conflict involves the entire universe including humanity who are required to choose between them. At the end of time, Angra Mainyu will be completely surpassed, the dualism will come to an end, and "goodness will be all in all."

LEGENDS: (1) After death, the urvan (soul) gets three days to meditate on its past life. Judging the soul is a trio: Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. If the good thoughts, good words, and good deeds outweigh the bad, the soul is taken to heaven. If not, itís led to hell.

(2) The universe will go through three eras: A. Creation; B. The present world- Ėa mixture of good and evil; peoplesí good works are seen as gradually transforming the world towards heavenly ideals; C. The final state when good and evil will be separated. Eventually, everything will be purified; even hellís occupants will get out.

(3) A saoshyant (savior) will be born of a virgin, of the lineage of the Prophet Zarathustra, who will raise the dead and perform the final judgment.

PRACTICES: (1) Members are dedicated to a three-fold path. They combat evil by achieving these principles: A. Good thoughts; B. Good words; C. Good deeds

(2) Rituals are conducted before a sacred fire. Followers are not actually worshipping the fire; it is regarded as a symbol of their god. "It is much like the cross in Christianity."

(3) They do not generally accept converts to their religion. You must be "born into it." There is some disagreement among followers on this point.

(4) Priests are called "mobeds." They must be men with priests somewhere in their fatherís "family tree." This limits the number of available prospects. They are allowed to marry. Making a living as a Zoroastrian priest is practically impossible (due to the small number of worshippers), so many are professionals doing priestly duties "part-time." It is becoming more common to see them leave the priesthood entirely.

(5) Assistant priests are known as "mobedyars." There are only four in the U. S. and Canada.

(6) Followers wear a special white undershirt secured with a sacred cord wrapped around the body three times. Each ring reminds them of their daily ambition, the lifelong goal of all faithful Zoroastrians: good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

(7) In the U. S. there are six sacred buildings called prayer halls.

(8) They do not have weekly observances like other religions. Ceremonies are held for "life-cycle" events such as weddings, funerals, and special religious festivals.

Besides a shortage of priests, other factors threatening Zoroastrianism are followers marrying outside the faith and less participation by young people " . . . as they assert their independence and pursue careers . . . " Of course, other religions are looking at the same problems.

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