General Essay on Zoroastrianism

As probably the oldest revealed religion in the world, Zoroastrianism has a fascinating and significant place in the study of the world's religious traditions. Historically significant due to its undoubted influences on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the religion of Zoroaster remains little known and numerically insignificant. Although its early history is obscure, following its establishment by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra (known in the West as Zoroaster), from the 6th century BCE to the 7th century CE Zoroastrianism was the most important religion in three successive Iranian empires. Persistent persecutions followed the Arab invasions in Iran and resulted in a small group establishing a community in north-west India in the 10th century CE, where they became known as 'Parsis' (Persians).

The distinctiveness of Zoroastrianism lies in its insight that all of creation, including humanity, is involved in the cosmic struggle between the good God, Ahura Mazda, and the evil of Angra Mainyu. At both the individual and cosmic levels, the good or evil nature of life is the result of free will. Zoroastrians also believe in the concepts of heaven and hell, the resurrection of the dead, and a final judgement when evil will be overthrown.

Referring to the chart, a vertical line has been drawn to Zurvanism, a Zoroastrian heresy of the pre-Islamic period, about which has survived very little historical evidence. The central myth of Zurvanism is centred on the fatalistic belief that rulership of the world is held by the god Zurvan's son Ahriman, the manifestation of doubt; a belief directly contradictory to Zoroaster's stress on free will.

The history of Zoroastrianism in the twentieth century has been concerned with issues surrounding community identity, especially in response to western religious thought and scholarly criticism. The reactions of the majority Zoroastrian community, the Parsis of India, to western interpretations of their beliefs have been diverse. Scholarly developments first began to impact on the Parsi community in the middle of the nineteenth century when community authority, traditionally held in the institutions of the Panchayat and the priesthood, failed to provide a decisive lead for the community and new Zoroastrian schools of thought emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century as a response to both this new thinking and to each other. The chart illustrates the development of these schools of thought.

Many Parsis began to seek a synthesis between their ancient religion and the rational 'enlightened' thinking of the 19th century. These Parsi reformists responded to Christian charges of polytheism and dualism by criticising various aspects of Zoroastrian ritual and by turning away from traditional Zoroastrian doctrines. Contemporary Parsi reformists continue this process of reinterpretation begun by the early influential reformists.

As a reaction to the pro-Western and rationalist position of the reformists, many Parsis were also attracted to theosophy and a Parsi theosophical movement emerged. This movement emphasises the occult significance of the ancient traditions, especially the use of the Avestan language in ritual and prayer. New symbolic rites have been created as a result of this movement.

A similar reaction to that of Parsi theosophy took the form of an exclusively Zoroastrian occult movement known as Ilm-i Kshnoom. In this movement ritual significance is also emphasised; salvation coming through an esoteric knowledge of the universe, made effective through the reciting of prayers in Avestan.

Apart from these extreme reactions to the modern world many Parsis continue to hold more central positions as regards doctrinal and ritual matters. The orthodox position is the least vociferous and the least radical and so there is a tendency to overlook its importance. In the main, this position is expounded through the continuation of traditional ritual observances and the emphasis on orthodox doctrines such as the belief in a righteous personal God and the belief in both a spiritual and bodily resurrection.

In recent years a number of Parsi scholars have attempted to present a more popular understanding of Zoroastrianism in what Hinnells has termed 'typical' Parsi-Zoroastrianism (Hinnells, 1978). This more typical understanding of what it means to be a Zoroastrian emphasizes the ethical qualities of the religion whilst attempting to remain neutral in the orthodox versus liberal debates.

Finally, mention must also be made of two more distinct movements which have emerged in this century. The Mazdaznan movement was the first Zoroastrian group to be formed in the United States and can also be seen as an attempt to understand Zoroaster's teaching in the light of Christian influences. In contrast, The Lovers of Meher Baba is a new religious movement which has no prescribed doctrines but which offers a variety of ways to gain spiritual salvation. Referring to the chart, a dotted line to the movement shows that it has only tenuous links to Zoroastrianism, due to the founder's biological birth to Zoroastrian parents.

The continuing religious debates which concern the Zoroastrian community are perhaps more keenly experienced due to the need to maintain and define the distinctive nature of its doctrines and practices if the religion is not to die out completely. Statistics reveal how desperate the situation is; since 1951 there has been a ten per cent per decade decrease in the Parsi population of India. In order to address the issue of the preservation of community identity, the Parsis have established both Parsi schools and subsidised housing colonies. However the two issues which continue to be debated throughout the Zoroastrian community are the traditional banning of the conversion of non-Parsis to Zoroastrianism and the active discouragement of intermarriage. In contrast to the Parsi situation, the numbers of Iranian Zoroastrians are said to have increased dramatically since the Islamic revolution.


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