Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism, just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is a monotheistic religion. Zoroastrians call their deity Ahura Mazda, translated as “enlightened wisdom.” Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who founded the faith, was born northeast of the Caspian Sea most probably some time 1,200 BCE. After the fourth-century CE, Zoroastrianism was the official and publicly supported religion of the Sasanian empire, located in today’s Iran.
Zoroaster was the author of the Yazna, a book of hymns and incantations. The religion taught in the Yazna makes a sharp distinction between good and evil. The task of the faithful is to learn to distinguish the two and to choose the good. Like other monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism grapples with the question of how the belief in one god can be combined with the existence of evil in the world. The Zoroastrian answer is that good and evil are choices which confront human beings, not entities that compete for power. Questions of correct conduct are consequently a crucial part of the faith. Zoroastrian rituals rely heavily on fire which is regarded as a holy force. Fire temples, attended by priests, were constructed and officially sponsored throughout the Sasanian empire.
Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the other monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Many of its themes – questions of the afterlife and the end of the world, issues of judgment and salvation – feature prominently in Judaism, Christianity and Islam too. These religions too have the same obsession with questions of good conduct. Moreover, Zoroastrianism was the first religion which regarded people as equals before god, and gave every believer the opportunity to attain salvation.
Although the conversion took several centuries to accomplish, some 95 percent of Zoroastrians eventually switched to Islam. There are still Zoroastrians today, but not many. In Iran an official census has counted less than 30,000. There are more of them in India, but even here there are no more than perhaps 70,000. Yet the Persian new year, Nouruz, which was central to the Zoroastrian faith, is still the most important holiday in Iran. On occasions when the mandatory fasting required during Ramadan has come into conflict with the 18 days of festive celebrations required by Nouruz, the Zoroastrian tradition has prevailed.
In Our Time, “Zoroastrianism”