The contribution of Zoroastrianism to world history, culture, and philosophy could hardly be overestimated, suffice it to recall one of the most outstanding musicians of all times, Freddy Mercury, who was born and raised in Zoroastrian environment. There is a great deal to be said about Zoroastrianism as a religious system since it has gone a long historical way and has changed its appearance time after time. In this paper, we will try to touch briefly on a variety of topics and aspects that the concept of “Zoroastrianism” can encompass.
What is Zoroastrianism?
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the history of mankind. The roots of this religion go back to prehistoric Central Asia of the second millennium when the Iranian people, also called Indo-Iranians, separated from their relatives, the Indo-Aryan fellow tribesmen, and started continuously inhabiting the Iranian plateau. In order to get the picture of Zoroastrianism as a distinct religious system, one has to take into consideration that this religious movement emerged from a rebellious idea bucking the ideological foundations of the time. The idea is that the world and everything that embraces our entire existence has been created by the good and evil spirits of equal divine might (in the Zoroastrian liturgy they are mentioned as being twins). The good principle is represented by the chief god Ahura Mazdā, who is also the maintainer of order and peace. Zoroastrianism, named after its prophet Zarathustra or Zoroaster, is alternatively called Mazdeism, which comes from Ahura Mazdā’s name and literally means “sacrificing to Mazdā”. Ahura Mazdā’s adversary is the Evil Spirit, Angra Manyu or Ahriman, who is in control of the horde of the malevolent gods, demons, and other evil entities. Тhe world is plunged in a permanent battle between the good and evil forces and the core idea is that only the human beings are capable of tipping the scales in favor of the good by following the principles of the faith.
What do Zoroastrians Believe?
Talking about the present, the common understanding of Zoroastrianism comes with the realization of the fact that we deal with “Varieties” of the religion and a distinction must be made between "Official" and "Popular" religions or the two-tier system of "Religion as practiced" and "Religion as lived". Noshir H. Dadrawala justly notes that if one asks an average Zoroastrian in the street what it means to be a Zoroastrian, he or she will probably hear the cliché words "Good thoughts, good words and Good Deeds”. This message, as well as wearing a certain piece of cloth or reciting the daily prayers, all constitute what Charles Long defined as "pervasive beliefs, rituals and values of a society, a kind of civil religion of the public", in the "Popular Religion" entry of the Encyclopedia of Religion (p.445). On the other hand, when considering Zoroastrianism as a complete system of beliefs, tradition with a certain historical authenticity, scholars primarily rely on the sacred writings that come to be known with a collective name, Avesta. Thus, it can be said that Zoroastrianism in universum is the axis where these two traditions are intermingled.
Coming back to one of the key concepts "Good thoughts, good words and Good Deeds" a question can arise "Is it based on textual-sacred tradition?". The answer is yes.
And we find the earliest account of it in one of the oldest texts of Avesta, Yasna Haptaŋhāiti (35.2), which declares (translation is based on A. Hintze's edition) :
"Of good thoughts, good words, good deeds both here and elsewhere both here and elsewhere being done...".The principle is also reiterated in the Fravarānē (Yasna chapter 12), which is a formulaic utterance of confession and embodies the concept of Zoroastrian creed in a broad sense. Fravarānē (translation by J.H Peterson) runs as follows:
"I declare myself a Mazdā-worshiper, a supporter of Zarathushtra, hostile to the Daevas, fond of Ahura's teaching, a praiser of the Amesha Spentas, a worshiper of the Amesha Spentas. I ascribe all good to Ahura Mazdā, 'and all the best,' Asha-endowed, splendid, xwarena-endowed, whose is the cow, whose is Asha, whose is the light, 'may whose blissful areas be filled with light".
So who are the divinities cited in the passage? We are going to learn about it in the next section.
Zoroastrian Gods and Deities
The Zoroastrian theology is based on an established hierarchy of gods, deities and other divine entities. There's a consistent pattern, the more we "go back in time" the more abstract the deities are deemed. By saying "going back in time" we refer to the older stratum of the textual tradition, which is termed as "Old Avesta". The most crucial point is, however, that Zoroastrianism has a strong hold on the Dualistic concept of the world and yet, the Zoroastrian dualism must not be understood as an antithesis between the "physical" and "mental", it is well described as an opposition between the Good and Evil and may be referred as “ethical dualism”. The myriad of the Good divine entities is headed by the great god Ahura Mazdā, who created the universe and is considered to be the maintainer of the cosmic order (aša). The first composite of the name, Ahura corresponds to the Vedic word Ásura(h) and means "lord", Mazdā, which means "wisdom" is equivalent to Rigvedic médhirā. So the name can be translated as "Wise Lord". Ahura Mazdā’s counterpart is Aŋra Mainyu “evil spirit”, the most powerful demon who is commanding the forces of Evil. He is in charge of countless daevas (demons), witches and other evil entities that cause harm to humankind.
Zoroastrian pantheon of gods and deities is quite complex and there are lots of deities inhabiting the Zoroastrian mythological space. We will touch only briefly on some of them here.
“The group of Seven”
Allegorically speaking, in Zoroastrianism, the "One in essence, Three in Person" formula can be modified into "One in essence, Seven in Person" in the view of the fact that the act of creation was followed by the act of emanating 6 inferior deities, called Amǝša Spǝntas (Middle Pers. Amešāspand, Amahraspand, lit. Holy Immortals). There is a concept of "the group of 7" in Zoroastrian tradition, called Haptad, which includes Ahura Mazdā himself and the 6 divinities created by him. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the first 7 days of the calendar are named after the Heptad. Each Amešāspand has a special month and is attributed to one of the natural elements. These 6 emanations are:
Vohu Manah "Good thought", Middle Pers. Wahman, New Pers. Bahman
Etymology: vohu "good"< PIE *h₁wésus, c.f. Vedic vásu + manah "mind" < PIE ménos, the English word mind comes from the same root.
Merits: Advising, protection of cattle
Month: 11, Bahman
Aṣ̌a Vahišta "Best Righteousness", MP Ardwahisht, NP Ardībehešt, Ordībehešt
Etymology: Aṣ̌a "truth" < PIE *h2r-to, c.f. Vedic ṛtá, Old Persian arta (rt > ṣ̌ sound change is regular in Avestan language) + Vahišta "the best" superlative of the same root vohu.
Merits: Providence of cosmic Order, Protection of humans
Month: 2, Ardibehesht
Interesting facts: One of the holiest prayers in Zoroastrianism, called aṣ̌əm vohū is dedicated to Aṣ̌a.
Xšaθra Vairya "Well-chosen Rule", MP/ NP Šahrewar
Etymology: Xšaθra "kingdom, rule"< PIE *tek c.f. Sanskrit kṣatrá, Old Persian xšaça "realm"+ vairya- "desirable choice" < PIE u̯el-, from where we have English will and well.
Merits: Legitimate command, guarding the men, protection of metals.
Month: 6, Šahrewar
Interesting facts: In the Zoroastrian eschatology (MP Frašegird, Avestan Frašō.Kǝrǝti)) it is believed that during the apocalypse Šahrewar will melt the metal of all mountains.
Spənta Ārmaiti "Holy humility" NP Isfandārmaḏ, Arm. Spandaramet
Etymology: Spənta means "bounteous, holy" in Avestan + Ārmaiti, which according to P.O Skjærvø is derived from Avestan arim man "thinking in the correct measure, balanced thinking" (Ahura Mazdā and Ārmaiti, heaven and Earth, in the old Avesta. Am Orient Soc 122, p. 403), c.f. Vedic goddess Arámati
Merits: Nurturing, Protection of the earth, purification of mortal women after birth
Month: 12, Spendārmad
- Spənta Ārmaiti is believed to be Ahura Mazdā’s daughter and is rendered in Greek by Hera's name, who was Zeus' wife
- There are two festivals celebrated on the 5th day of the Spandarmad month, the Festival of farmers (Pers. ǰašn-e barzegarān, also a now extinct festival called Esbandi was held in Kashan area, which much resembled the Nowruz) and Sepandārmazgān/ Esfandegān, ancient Iranian day of Women and widely known as "Day of Love".
Haurvatāt "Wholeness" and Amərətāt "Immortality" are dual deities.
Etymology: Haurvatāt < PIE *solo-/ *sóluo- "whole", c.f. Latin salvus "whole, undamaged", Amərətāt < PIE *an+mer-, which means “undying”.
Merits: Protecting the plants and water
Day: 6; 7
Month: 3, Xordād; 5 Mordād
- Initially, Haurvatāt and Amərətatāt were considered to be female deities, but in the Middle Iranian period they appeared as male twins.
- Together with Amərətatāt they were transferred into the Koranic mythology and are known as Babylonian demons Hārut and Mārut.
- In Armenian horot-morot means 1. tuberose flower 2. “Beautiful, neat”
- One of the contemporary Zoroastrian News Agencies, “Amordadnews”, is named after Amərətāt.
Sun and Water
Besides the Amešāspands, there were other major deities mentioned in Avesta that constitute another class of divine beings, known as yazatas (from PIE *yeh₂ǵ- “to worship”). The word can be translated as “worthy of worship”. By the late Achaemenid period, we see two major yazatas mentioned alongside Ahura Mazdā in the inscription of Artaxerxes II at Susa, which reads as follows.
“Let Ahura Mazdā, Mithra and Anahita protect me against all evil” (A2Sa 3.1-6)
Mithra (Middle Pers. mihr) is the god of the treaty. His name comes from the Indo-Iranian common noun mitrá, meaning “contract, agreement”. Besides being the personification of the idea of “treaty”, he was also associated with the sun-worship (among the Greeks he was identified with the sun god Helios). In the Western world Mithra’s name is closely related to Mithraism, a religious cult practiced in the Roman Empire from the first to the 4th c. AD. The question whether the cult of Mithra had been borrowed directly from the Iranian pantheon, is still open to debate.
The other deity mentioned in the inscription is Anāhitā (Middle Pers. Ardwī-sūr-Anāhīd, New Pers. Nāhīd). She is the goddess of waters and representation of the Indo-Iranian concept of the Heavenly River. In Zoroastrianism, Anāhitā is considered to be Ahura Mazdā’s daughter and is generally identified with the planet Venus.
Over time the goddess had undergone many transformations and acquired other functions, such as the warrior aspect. As an illustration, the Armenian goddess Anahit (borrowed from Anāhitā) is only connected to the worship of water. Consequently, the warrior aspect, present in Iranian Anāhitā, might be explained by the influence from another cultural domain.
Zarathustra (or Zoroaster) - The Founder of Zoroastrianism?
Having talked about major Zoroastrian deities we will now proceed to some general questions concerning the prophet of the religion.
Who was Zarathustra?
Zarathustra or Zoroaster is generally thought to be an ancient Iranian prophet and the alleged founder of the religion under discussion. Zarathustra’s date is subject to many controversies. We will not dive deeper into details of this quite lengthy scientific issue and narrowing down the wide range of possibilities we will restrict ourselves to note that considering all possibilities Zarathustra’s date lies somewhere within the range of the second millennium to the 6th century BC.
Where Zarathustra lived is also an open question, since there is no evidence in the textual sources where he lived and conducted his religious activities and we should mainly rely on the geographical references in Avesta (see in the section below).
Prophet’s name: Etymologizing Zarathustra
There has been much debate about Zarathustra’s name and some renowned orientalists such as H. Bailey, J. Markwart, M. Mayrhofer, B. Schlerath, R.Schmitt and others have endeavored to understand its meaning. There is general agreement among researchers that the second composite, uštra- means “camel”, but various interpretations have been proposed for the first compound, such as
< *zarat-, meaning “moving”, thus the suggested meaning is “driving camels”. (H. Bailey)
< *zarant- “yellow”, accordingly the name means “having yellow camels” (Ch. Werba)
< *zarat- “desiring, longing”, thus the name is interpreted as “longing for camels” (M. Mayrhofer).
The most probable version is however the one deriving from *zarant- “old”, hence the whole name can be interpreted as “with old camels” (R. Schmitt).
Zarathustra or Zoroaster?
You might be wondering: Why when talking about the religion we often refer to it as "Zoroastrianism", but the prophet himself is generally called "Zarathustra"? As it happens in Nietzsche's well-renowned work "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" (germ. Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen) we find the second form. But at the same time F.M. Crawford’s novel is called Zoroaster (London/New York, 1894). Where does this duality come from?.
To make things clear, we are dealing with two major sources, where these standard forms have been attested
- Greek: Zōroástrēs (In Xanthus the Lydian, Plato, Plutarch)
- Iranian: generally represented by the Gathic Avestan Zaraθuštra-.We find reflexes of this lexeme all around the region including Armenian Zradašt.
It can be noticed that the main difference between these two forms is the absence of -θ- in the Greek source, which was the main subject of the discussions among the scholars. The proposed solution is that it was loaned into the Greek through a reconstructed and so far unattested form *Zara-uštra-, that can be the Northwest. Iranian phonological variant (with zara-) of the standard form Zaraθuštra-. This assumption gives rise to many arguments as to whether the reconstruction based on the Greek source is acceptable or what kind of compound are we dealing with. So the question of the Greek form is still open for discussion.
The most interesting part of the discussion constitutes the way Zoroaster's character was perceived by the Greeks and the metamorphoses it has undergone in Greek culture because the more you dive into the works of Greeks historians, the more "Zoroasters" you can probably discover. We find one of these "Zoroasters" in the "Lives of Eminent Philosophers' ' written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD), in which it is stated.
"With the art of magic they were wholly unacquainted, according to Aristotle in his Magicus and Dinon in the fifth book of his History Dinon tells us that the name Zoroaster, literally interpreted, means "star-worshiper" (astrothútēs); and Hermodorus agrees with him in this". Here one can find the link between the Greek form of the name Zōro-ástrēs and the rumored stellar(ástrēs) theology of Zoroaster, and a putative explanation of re-evaluation of Zoroaster's character as being a "star-worshiper" was made by the Greeks because of the misunderstanding of the last composite of his name.
Coming back to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, one must note that the name in the form of “Zoroaster” is also present in philosopher’s works, but the acquaintance with “Zarathustra” took place at the home of Herman Brockhause (1806-1877), a specialist in eastern languages, who also presented an edition of one of the Zoroastrian texts, Vendidad Sade (Brockhaus, H. Vendidad Sade: die heiligen Schriften Yaçna, Vispered und Vendidad. Leipzig, 1850).
Zarathustra: A historical figure or a legend?
To begin with, we would like to note that the core of our approach is best defined by the following statement: "There is more than one Zoroaster ''. Thus we will attempt to shed light on "various Zarathustras” that existed on the time-culture axis. As you may have noticed the word "culture" is substituted for "space" here, due to the reason that in case of Iran, for instance, even though there have been relatively little border changes and the political heartland (Fars) remains the same, the country has undergone many cultural changes throughout history.
Zoroaster of the Greeks
Zarathustra as perceived by Greek historians can be summarized as follows:
Prophet, sage, founder of the religion (Plutarch (46-119 AD, Isis and Osiris, 46); Agathias (536-582 AD) Histories,23.5)
Practitioner and inventor of magic and sorcery, magician (Trogus Pompeius (first c. BC), Philippic Histories, book 1; Pliny the Elder (first c. AD), The Natural History 30.2.3)
Lawgiver (Diodorus Siculus (first c. BC), The Library of History 1.94)
Philosopher, discoverer of wisdom (Synesius (IV c. AD, philosopher), Dio 9; Suda, Antisthenes entry)
Zarathustra in Avesta
Zarathustra is believed to be the author of the Gāthās, 17 hymns that constitute linguistically the oldest part of Avesta. He is said to be created to be a herdsman (Yasna 29.6) and the one who denounced the bloody sacrifice (Yasna 32.14). Zarathustra is also the first of all humans to ritually perform sacrifice in order to maintain the good existence created by Ahura Mazdā (Yasna 18).
In the texts written in Young Avestan, Zarathustra is presented as Ahura Mazdā’s favorite, who was the first to condemn the cult of daēvas (c.f, Lat. deus and dīvus, Greek Zeus), the ancient Indo-Aryan gods (Yasht 13.89). As in the Old Avesta he sacrifices to Ahura Mazdā and fights against evil.
Zarathustra in the Pahlavi Books
Pahlavi literature refers to Zoroastrian writings in Middle Persian. A detailed story about the life of Zarathustra is contained in the 7th book of Dēnkard where it is told that being born he laughed (Dēnkard 7.2). The book narrates about Zarathustra’ birth, childhood, his life and persecution by daevic priests (Av. karapan, Middle Pers. karb), his audience with Ahura Mazdā, prophecy revealed to men and so on. The story is greatly influenced by Christian tradition and shows universal patterns of “the Prophetical stories''.
The traditional view on Zarathustra
Western scientific knowledge has played an essential role in forming the personality, whom we refer to as “traditional Zrarthustra” here. Starting from M.Haug, who was one of the first scholars to study the text of Gāθās, up to this point it has been generally agreed that the Gāθās were composed by Zarathustra himself and that he was the founder of the religion. Some radically different and opposing views were expressed on Zarathustra’s figure. According to E. Herzfeld, he was a historical figure and Cyrus’s grandson, who also backed Darius in his ascension to the throne but preferred to remain incognito (because Darius didn’t mention Zoroaster’s name anywhere). H. Nyberg, on the contrary, portrayed Zoroaster as a shaman and leader of a religious group. It seems that the Western concept of Zarathustra is based on the later tradition as presented in the 7th book of Dēkard, and “cutting with Occam’s razor” there is no historical evidence to confirm Zarathustra's historical authenticity, nor is there any ground to refute it. This was the main reason why scholars like J.Baldick prefered to use the term “Mazdean” and “Mazdaism” rather than “Zoroastrianism”(“Mazdaism (‘Zoroastrianism’),”: The World’s Religions, Routledge, 1988).
It appears to us that Zoroaster’s case is analogous to that of Pythagoras, who is now remembered as a mathematician and after whom the famous theorem is named. Few have any clue, however, that in ancient times he was better known as a mystic and the leader of a religious group.
Was Zoroaster a historical figure? No one can answer this question, but the fact remains that at some point in time he started to be recognized as the prophet of the religion, and now every single person who is a part of the community has great love and reverence for him.
Is Zoroastrianism Monotheistic? The Evolution of Zoroastrianism.
Talking about Contemporary Zoroastrianism, the answer to this question will be affirmative, owing to the fact that Zoroastrians and their leaders play it safe positioning themselves as monotheists to avoid any discriminatory attitudes towards the community and keep themselves away from conflicts with the Islamic state.
Speaking about the past, however, a more complicated picture emerges. Here we will give a brief state of the religion throughout the four stages of its evolution.
1. Post-Rigvedic > Gathic state
There are 33 gods or devas in Rigveda, so the evolution of the Iranian religion started from a polytheistic environment. It is traditionally believed that Zarathustra made a religious reform, a kind of an inversion, thus demonizing devas (Iranian daevas) and promoting Ahura Mazdā, one of the asuras (devas' adversaries) to the position of the high god. It seems more likely that this opposition was a natural evolution of the Iranian beliefs.
For the Gathic period dualism is generally denied by some renowned scholars because no god other than Ahura Mazdā is mentioned in the Gathas.
Also it is believed that Zarathustra introduced the new concept of sacrifice through libation (it was a common phenomenon in ancient cultures). But what was really new is the idea that each man can have his own contribution to the victory of the Good principle by performing sacrifice and reciting sacred songs.
2. Post-Gathic, Young Avestan period
The Young Avestan period can be characterized by a strong polytheism since we encounter lots of gods and deities in the texts written in this language or dialect of Avestan.
3. Achaemenid Period
There is no information about the religion of the Medes. The only thing we know about this period is that the Magi were a part of the Median tribe confederation (as stated by Herodotus 1.101). It's not known if the first kings of the Achaemenid dynasty were familiar with Gathas, but it is certain that the antagonism of ahura and daeva already existed at that time. During the reign of 3 successive monarchs Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, the religion of the Empire's heartland was monotheistic because only Ahura Mazdā's name is mentioned in the royal inscriptions.
Starting from Artaxerxes II’s reign (404-359 BC), however, the cults of Anāhitā and Mithra were reintroduced, for this reason, this period can be considered polytheistic.
4. Sasanian Zoroastrianism / Zoroastrianism as registered in Middle Persian books
Despite some heresies and theological controversies the Sasanian period
was marked by religious uniformity and standardization of the Zoroastrian norms, so
The Sasanian rule can be described as the “age of Zoroastrian orthodoxy”.
Summing up what has been said before we have to note that what is remaining unchanged through the ages is Zoroastrianism’s dualistic essence. As accurately stated by Sh. Shaked in his “Dualism in Transformation: Varieties of Religion in Sasanian Iran (London 1994, p.8)”: “Dualism cuts vertically through all the layers of existence”. Zoroastrianism indeed can be viewed as a vertical axis on which Zoroastrian identity is formed and undergoes metamorphosis over time. This vertical axis is Dualism which has permeated nearly every aspect of religious activity. A good illustration of this is the differentiation between good (ahuraic, attributed to Ahura Mazdā) and bad (demonic or ahrimanic, from Ahriman’s name) words, when one concept could be represented with two terms, e.g. for the concept of “arm” there are two terms in Avestan, zasta- (good and ahuraic) and gav- (bad/ ahrimanic).
You can come across some Iranians wearing tattoos, rings, pendants, and other pieces of jewelry, as well as clothing, with a symbol that at first sight might seem very strange and unusual. The symbol, known as Faravahar or Forouhar, depicts a male figure seated inside a winged disc or sun circle. By wearing this symbol modern Iranians show their respect towards their glorious past. It is best illustrated in the following dialog: “Long before, during my first trip to Iran after being away for ten years, I had purchased a faravahar necklace that I have worn since then. She noticed it and asked, rhetorically, “Are you a Zoroastrian? Why are you wearing the faravahar?” The man interposed, “He is interested.” I replied, “Many Iranians wear the faravahar nowadays; it has become a symbol of Iranianness.” (Navid Fozi, Reclaiming the Faravahar: Zoroastrian Survival in Contemporary Tehran, Leiden, 2014, p. 42).
The etymology of Faravahar/ Farōhar is a much-debated issue and there is no consensus about the exact meaning of the word. Here we will cite all the lexemes related to the name of the symbol.
Farr(ah), Xvarenah “glory”, widely attested in Middle Iranian languages, Median/ Old Persian personal names etc.
Av. fravaši < *fra-vart- (“to turn”) Old Persian Fravartiš, Middle Persian fravard/ fravahr, probably through metathesis (<*fravatr(i)), like the Middle Pers. Wahram < Vereθraγna. Fravashis are “guardian souls'' of men in Zoroastrianism and the 13th Yašt (called Frawardīn Yašt) of Avesta is dedicated to t
Fravarānē, lit. “I choose”, the sacred creed of Zoroastrians.
Deviation from the form fravahr < *fra-varta- and existence of different forms like farohar, frohar, forouhar can be explained by the absence of vowels in the Arabo-Persian alphabet and different readings of this sporadically used word.
History of the Symbol
The most widely known representation of the symbol and also the one that has been the main source of inspiration of modern versions of the Faravahar symbol is the relief in the ancient city of Persepolis. This version together with the ones we encounter in Behistun Inscription and Susa, were probably borrowed from Neo-Assyrian reliefs by Darius the Great and reintroduced as a representation of Ahura Mazdā, who according to the Behistun inscription was the benefactor of Darius.
After the fall of the Achaemenid empire we can mark the presence of the symbol on some coins, minted by the governors of Pars (known as fratarakas). From there on no records of the use of Faravahar have been found, therefore it’s a relatively new phenomenon.
The Faravahar symbol was retrieved and widely used during the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The symbol was presented on bank notes, Imperial Iranian Air Force Pilot Logo, Imperial Coat of Arms of Iran, Police badges, etc.
Some Other Famous Faravahars
The Statue of Faravahar in Balaji Temple, Birmingham, partly dedicated to Freddie Mercury.
Faravahar carved on the Fire Temple of Yazd
On the front façade of the Tomb of Ferdowsi
Where was Zoroastrianism an official religion?
Zoroastrianism is strongly linked to the Iranian world, that is why Zoroastrianism and "Iranianness" are to a certain extent synonymous. It is a well-known fact that someone who was converted to another religion was referred to as anēr (In Middle Pers. literally "non-Iranian"). As a state religion, however, Zoroastrianism is associated with the Sasanian Empire where it was established as an official religion at the national-Iranian level.
Avesta - The Holy Book of Zoroastrianism
Avesta is a collective name of the corpus of Zoroastrian sacred texts, composed in one of the two attested Old Iranian languages. The Middle Persian form of the word is abestāg, which probably comes from an Old Iranian composite *upa-stāvaka- “praise”.
Compared to Old Persian, when dealing with Avesta we are faced with lots of problems that can be summarized in the following questions: "Who?" How? "Where?" and "When?". We will leave aside the first question, which is essentially related to Zoroaster, whose personality and historicity are under the question. In the section below we will try to answer the last three questions.
When was Avesta composed?
Gathering all the existing opinions about the dating of the Avesta, we can say that the "terminus post quem" i.e the latest possible date will be the IV c. BC and the "terminus ante quem" i.e. the earliest dating going back to the beginning of the first millennium BC. However, the oldest manuscript dates from the 13th century AD.
How were Avestan texts gathered?
The Zoroastrian tradition as reflected in some Middle Persian texts tells us that initially, the Avesta included 21 books, called nasks. These books were created by the highest god Ahura Mazdā and were handed over to Vištāspa by Zaraθuštra. It was believed that the Avesta was destroyed by Alexander, that’s why in the Zoroastrian tradition Alexander is demonized and is known by the Middle Pers. epithet gizistag, meaning “accursed”. According to one of the texts, namely the 4th book of the Dēnkard, the parthian king, Walaxš(Vologeses I), was the first person to gather together all the religious texts scattered around the region. The work was continued in the reign of the Sasanian king, Ardašir I Pāpagān (ca. 224-240) later to include an extended religious material under Shapur I (241-72). Probably the translation of the Avesta into Middle Persian and the establishment of the religious canon were parallel processes. According to Dēnkard, Avesta was a subject of a special study during the reign of Khosrow I (531-579), and the above-mentioned 21 books were collected and put together during his reign. However much of the Sasanian Avesta was lost and the only part completely preserved is Vidēvdād. Therefore the Avestan texts known today are the remnants of the oral tradition, written down in the Sasanian period (III-VII centuries).
Avestan Script and Alphabet
The invention of a new writing system that could represent all the sounds of the Avestan language, was an achievement to be proud of. Those who are familiar with Middle Persian can note the difficulties in studying the script where each letter can represent two or even more sounds. For example, there were two words in Middle Persian, azg, meaning “branch” and azd, which means “known” (both are extinct in Contemporary New Persian, but are used in Armenian) and both of them were written in the same way. Eventually some diacritics (dots or circumflex) were added by manuscript writers to identify the word. Thus the Pahlavi script like Arabo-Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, is a kind of “impure” abjad, and in order to read the text written in that script one has to rely basically on the semantic memory, in other words, the linguistic unit here, speaking in Saussure’s language, is a combination of a sound + image + the “written shape” of the word, which must be memorized.
Avestan alphabet, also known as “religious script” (Middle Pers. dēn-dibīrīh) bypasses the difficulties mentioned above, since being an alphabetic script, each grapheme here represents one phoneme of the language. It was primarily based on the cursive Pahlavi script, to which some other letters were added from Aramaic, the Psalter Pahlavi script, the Greek cursive script.
General Information about the Avestan script
- There are 51 letters in the Avestan alphabet, 3 of which are ligatures.
- Writing direction is Right-to-left
- Compared to the Pahlavi script letters rarely merge
Avestan alphabet was so practical that it was also used for the Middle Persian language. This process was known as Pāzand, probably from *apa.āzaintī (an etymology proposed by Albert de Jong).
Where did the Avesta or the sacred hymns of Zoroastrianism come from?
When dealing with this problem a partial solution can be suggested by answering a somewhat reverse question: "What Avesta can not be and where it could not originate?". And the answers to this question lead to the conclusion that
- It can not be localized in southwest Iran since this territory was the homeland of the Achaemenid sovereigns, whose native language was Old Persian.
- It can not be attributed to the "Scythian" (within a broad definition of the term) or Saka group of tribes for two reasons
1. Skythian linguistic features that can not be traced in Avestan (*p >f, *ti > *tsi sound changes, etc.)
2. Sedentary lifestyle described in Avesta stands at odds with the nomadic culture of the Skythians and Sarmatians
It is important to recall that there are some geographical names mentioned in Avesta. The main text containing geographical information is the first chapter (Fargard) of the Vidēvdād where a list of sixteen districts created by Ahura Mazdā is presented. This can be paralleled with Ṣoḍaśa mahājanapada (lit. "Sixteen great Nations" mentioned in Buddhist Nikayas and some Jainist sources). A few of these place-names are known from historical and religious documents (e.g. Hapta Həndu corresponds to the Sapta Sindhavaḥ in Vedic geography), and some names made it through the challenges of history and survived up to now (one example is Bāxδī that can be safely identified with the modern Balx, in northern Afghanistan). Avesta's geographical horizon is primarily limited to Eastern Iran and today there is a consensus among orientalists that the Avestan texts have been the product of eastern Iranians. An exception among the western scholars is P. Tedesco, who based on some linguistic similarities came forward with an idea that Avesta originated in northwestern Iran (“Dialektologie der westiranischen Turfantexte,” Le Monde Oriental 15, 1921). This idea found support among Russian scholars. One of the prominent avestologists, V. Sokolova holds the idea that localizing Avesta in eastern Iran doesn't necessarily mean that the languages spoken in the eastern part of the Iranian world, including Margiana, Bactria, Arachosia could have no affinities to the northwestern branch of Iranian dialects. Notoriously the borders of Parthian were extended as far as Ashkhabad, then what holds us back to assume that northwestern iranian dialects could reach up to Margiana.
There are two types of Avestan texts: “Old Avestan” (also called Gathic Avestan) and “Young Avestan”. The distinction between these two is primarily based on the linguistic study of the texts.
Old Avestan texts represent the older stratum of the textual tradition, and include
The Gāθās: 17 hymns believed to be composed by Zarathustra himself. They are incorporated in the Yasna liturgy. The word gāθā comes from the PIE root *gaH- “to sing”
Yasna Haptaŋhāiti: lit. “Worship in Seven Chapters”, the hymns were composed in an archaic kind of prose.
Young Avestan texts are the follows
The Yasna (from yas- “to worship”, cognate with Sanskrit yaj-): Comprises various texts used during the Yasna ritual. There are 72 sections in the Yasna liturgy.
Visprad (from Av. vīspe ratawō lit. “all the sages”): Supplementary sections for the Yasna, with invocations. Consists of 24 chapters, called kardag.
Xorda Avesta “little Avesta”: some ritual texts dedicated to the worship of the sun, which include
o The Niyāyišn: “prayers” to the
o The Āfrīnagān (from *ā- frā(i) meaning “to bless, praise”): some texts recited on special occasions: in honor of the dead, at the beginning of the summer, etc.
o The Sīrōzas (from Si-rōz, lit. “30 days”): as its name says, invocation to the deities that represent the days of the month
Vīdēvdād/vendīdād (widaēwa-dāta-, rendered in Middle Pers. as jud-dēw-dād “The Law keeping the Demons away”): ritual texts focusing on the purification rituals. The robustness of the text and the fact that it is the best preserved part of Avesta can be explained by its wide use and ritualistic significance.
Hādōxt nask: text about the afterlife of the soul (Av. uruuan)
Hērbedestān and Nīrangestān: traditionally considered to be part of Huspāram Nask. In the text religious matters are discussed.
Zoroastrian Fire Temples and Sacred Places
Fire kindled outside
The worship of fire has played a pivotal role in the life of Zoroastrians throughout history. That is the main reason they are sometimes called “fire-worshippers”. Sacred fires are installed in special fire temples. The most striking fact however is that we find absolutely no evidence about fire temples in Avesta. At first sight, it may seem that this fact goes well with Herodotus’ account (430 BC) on the customs of Persians, who states that “The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following: they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly.” (Herodotus 1.131-2). Nonetheless, one should bear in mind, that Herodotus’ statements can not be taken as an absolute truth owing to the following reasons
1. The collective identity of “Persians” is primarily built through contrasting the culture of Persians with that of Greeks
2. Darius the Great tells in his Behistun inscription that he made the places of worship which Gaumata the magus had destroyed (DB 1.61-1.64). The places of warships are designated by the Old Persian term āyadana, the exact meaning of which, however, remains obscure.
3. Existence of Rock-reliefs in Naqsh-e Rostam and Persepolis, as well as some cylinder seals depicting a special fire ceremony.
Having said that, we must note that Herodotus’ passage contains a seed of truth. Two stone plinths, found at Pasargadae are considered to be fire altars, though it is not known if they were fire altars or plinths on which movable fire altars were placed, like one of those that, according to Curtius Rufus, Darius III’s army was carrying when facing Alexander’s soldiers. In this regard, Y. Yamamoto rightly notes: “... these plinths do not prove that Herodotus was wrong when he wrote about the Persian practice not “to make and set up statues and temples and altars”. We can only assume from these monuments that the kings appointed this special place for their occasional sacrifices to make the cult more dignified, and it seems likely that the practice of having an ever-burning fire in a consecrated place was not yet known to the early Achaemenians and that they still restricted the fire cult to the simple Indo-Iranian custom of maintaining an ever-burning hearth fire in each house” (The Zoroastrian Temple Cult of Fire in Archaeology and Literature (I)”, Orient, XVII, 1981, p. 20). Thus to summarize we can say that early Zoroastrian fire worship was initially:
The continuation of the custom of maintaining the hearth fire
Moving from Outside to Inside
By the Parthian rule, the temple-cult had already crossed the borders of Iran to spread as far as Asia Minor.
Strabo (63 BC-24 AD) states that In Cappadocia (for in this country there is a great body of Magi, called Pyræthi (fire-kindler), and there are many temples dedicated to the Persian deities) (Geography 15.3.15).
According to another Greek geographer, who lived in the second c. AD, Pausanias. “The Lydians surnamed Persian have sanctuaries in the city named Hierocaesareia and at Hypaepa '' (Description of Greece 5.27.3).
Isidore of Charax (I c. AD) a Greco-Roman geographer, who traveled to Parthia, writes: “…and the city of Asaac, in which Arsaces was first proclaimed king; and an everlasting fire is guarded there” (Parthian stations, 11)
So we have considerable evidence to state that during the Parthian rule over Iran many fire temples were existing throughout the country as well as outside Persia. According to Strabo, even the vassal kings of the Parthians were allowed to have dynastic fires (Geographies 15.1.36). All this evidence makes us believe that either following the Greeks, who were especially fond of building various kinds of temples, or because of the difficulties in pertaining the fire outside, starting probably from the late Achaemenid period, fire houses were constructed to maintain the fire, and in this manner, the Fire moved from outside to inside.
Sassanids and the temple-cult
Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Sassanid empire and the presence of fire temples is extensively documented through the archaeological data and literary works. According to some Muslim historians (Tabari, Hamza Al-Isfahānī, and others), numerous fire temples were built by Ardashir, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty. After the fall of the Sassanid empire, all the temples were destroyed and some of them have been built into mosques. About 50 ruins have been found from Pārs and adjacent are, that have been identified as fire-temples belonging to the Sasanian period.
Fire Temples and the concept of the “ritual space”
Every fire temple has an inner room where the fire is preserved and venerated. This constitutes the most sacred part of the temple and is separated from the surrounding area by 3 lines or furrows (Av. karša-, Middle Pers. kīš). The sacred area is referred to as pāvī, which comes from Old Iranian *pāvaka, meaning “pure”, c.f. New Persian pāk. To better understand the religious significance and cognitive aspect of the “sanctum sanctorum”, we will try to approach the topic through a semantic comparison between the word “temple” and Avestan karša-, which, as already noted, signifies the furrows or lines, separating the sacred space.
The English word “temple” derives from Latin templum < PIE *tem- “to cut, shape”, c.f. Greek temenos, “separated place”. Avestan karša- in turn, comes from the root kar-, which has the same meaning as the above-mentioned *tem-, that is “to cut off”. On this account, we are probably dealing with a cross-cultural phenomenon and the concept of “temple” is thus formed by separating a particular space from the exterior area.
Three categories of Fires
In order of importance, the fire temples are classified into three categories Ātaš Bahrām, Ādarān and Dādgāh. This classification, perhaps already existing in the Sasanian period, is based on the methods of enshrining and maintaining the fire. Here we will give a brief description of each type of fire and list the high-grade fires existing nowadays.
Dādgāh (lit. “court” in Persian) is the third and low-grade fire. Тhis kind of fire is not necessarily consecrated. Every type of fire that is not consecrated is customarily referred to by this term. Among the Iranian Zoroastrians and those who are called Fasli (those who follow the Fasili or Fasli calendar model) the third-grade fire is known as Dar-e Mehr (lit. “door of Mithra” or “door of love”) or alternatively dar be-mehr. The latter is considered to be a dialectal form of Zoroastrians living in Iran and the fact that Zoroastrians settled in North America call their fire buildings “dar be-mehr”, can be explained by the dialectal background of the community.
For the consecration of the second grade fire, known as Ātaš Ādarān (lit. “fire of fires”), 4 kinds of fires are selected. These fires represent four social classes, namely priests, soldiers, farmers, and artisans. The consecration process starts with Yasna and Vendīdād ceremonies, performed for each fire for two days. After that four kinds of fires are put together and on the third day, another Yasna and Vendīdād are performed. The fire is placed in a fire house, known as Agiary in India and Ātaškade in Iran.
The 8th chapter (Av. fragard) of Vendīdād lists 16 kinds of fires. Ātaš Bahrām is considered to be the first-grade fire since it is formed from purification and fusion of all 16 kinds. The most interesting fact is that fires taken to be put together must be initially impure and the higher the degree of impurity, the more meritorious is the act of purification. Therefore purification of the fire that burned a dead matter (nasā) is more praiseworthy than that of the goldsmith for example. So the key idea here is to rescue the fire that was once made impure. Purification is performed by a high priest and all the fires are put together in a vessel.
Ātaš Bahrāms existing today are listed below:
Zoroastrian Fire Temples Today
Yazd Ātaš Bahrām (also known as Ātaškade-ye Yazd)
Construction date: 1934
Location: Kashani St., Yazd, Iran
Other Information: It was opened to non-Zoroastrian visitors in the 1960s, however, only Zoroastrians are permitted to enter the shrine of the fire. A plaque says that the fire “been burning since about 470 ACE and was transferred from Nahid-e-Pars temple to Ardakan, then to Yazd and to its present site."
Location: Shohada St., Kerman, Iran
Construction/ Consecration date: 1924
Other Information: The building is also home to the lone anthropology museum of Zoroastrianism in the world. One of the oldest items of the museum is a manuscript of Gathas.
Irānšāh Ātaš Bahrām
Location:FVQC+367, Udvada, Gujarat 396180, India
Construction/ Consecration date:1742
Other Information: The fire of Irānšāh Ātaš Bahrām has come a long way. Originally the fire of the Udvada Ātaš Bahrāms was venerated in Sanjan, one of the first settlements of Parsis in the Indian subcontinent. After the devastation of Sanjan by the forces of Sultan Mahmud, the Zoroastrians took the sacred fire with them and moved to Barhot hills, and subsequently to Navsari (where the fire stayed for more than 3 centuries), Surat, Valsad. The final destination was Udvada, where a new temple was built by Motlibai Wadia and consecrated in 1742 AD. The building was renovated in December 2021.
Desai / Bhagarsath Ātaš Bahrām
Location: Tarota Bazar, Navsari, Gujarat.
Construction/ Consecration date: December 2, 1765
Dadiseth Ātaš Bahrām
Location:Dadiseth Agiary Lane, Mumbai
Construction/ Consecration date: September 29, 1783
Banaji Ātaš Bahrām (Cawasjee Byramjee)
Location:Thakurdwar Road, Charni Rd, Mumbai.
Construction/ Consecration date: December 13, 1845
Other Information: The temple is called after its benefactor, Framji Cowasjee Banaji, who was a great philanthropist.
Vakil Ātaš Bahrām
Location:Shahpore Sayad, 113, Lokmanya Tilak Rd, Jahangir Pura, Sayedpura, Surat, Gujarat 395003, India
Construction/ Consecration date: December 5, 1823
Modi Ātaš Bahrām
Location: Sayedpura, Bhagol, Surat, India
Construction/ Consecration date: November 19, 1823
Wadia Ātaš Bahrām
Location: Princess St, Dhobi Talao, Marine Lines, Mumbai
Construction/ Consecration date: November 17, 1830
Anjuman Ātaš Bahrām
Location: J. Shankarsheth Road, Dhobi Talao, Marine Lines, Mumbai
Construction/ Consecration date: October 17, 1897
Zoroastrian Rituals and Ceremonies
There's a great variety of ceremonies, rituals, social practices of different types and significance among the Parsis. From birth to death, every aspect of life of a devout Parsi has been ritualized in a scrupulous way. However one must take into consideration that due to tendentious globalization, assimilation processes, and most importantly- diminishing number of adherents and priesthood, traditional practices tend to cease and alter. As K. Daruwalla rightly notes "Changes have taken different forms, but have generally followed a pattern of moving from strict adherence in the past to a slightly symbolic or lenient interpretation in the present'' (Evolution of the Zoroastrian Priestly Rituals in Iran, p.101).
Prayer and recitation play the central role in daily life of both priests and laity.
Various prayers are recited by the Parsis during the 5 divisions of the day, which are called gāhs. This is accompanied by a purification or ablution ritual called Pādyāb-kusti (< Av. paiti-apa), which involves untying and tying kusti, a sacred thread put after the Initiation (called Navjote). When praying, Zoroastrians will look towards the source of light, thus when reciting the morning prayers they will look towards the sunrise.
To put it briefly there are two types of ceremonies:
Ceremonies of the outer circle that can be performed outside of the pāvī area. These involve Āfrīnagān, Bāj and Drōn ceremonies.
Ceremonies of the Inner circle, those that are performed within the inner sanctuary include the most important ceremonies of liturgical type: Yasna with its extensions, Visperad and Vendīdād.
Yasna is the most important ceremony in Zoroastrianism, aiming to vitalize the cosmic order, created by Ahura Mazdā. It is performed in the morning, the period of the day called Havan gah (Av. Havani ratu, lit. "time of pressing") in the worship room (Yazishn-khana) by two priests (in old times the number of priests was eight), Zaoti (senior priest) and Rathvi/ Raspi (assistant priest), later known as zōd and rāspīg, who are dressed in white and cover up their mouths with mask (a piece of white cloth called padām in Middle Pers. and panām in New Persian) in order to keep their breath from reaching the fire. During the Yasna ceremony, all the 72 chapters of the book of Yasna are recited. The elements required for the ceremony are enumerated in the chapters of the Yasna. After collecting all the materials the priest enters the place of worship. In traditional temples, the priest would cut a leaf from the plant, purify it with water and make a thread out of the strips, which is called barsom (Av. barəsman). Today metal wires (usually the number of twigs is 21) are used instead of the plant.
The central part of the Yasna ceremony is “water offering”, āb-zōhr (Av. Ape zaoθra), which consists of two phases:
Preparation of Parahōm (Av. para-haoma, lit. “before haoma”). The assistant priest prepares a liquid mixture of ephedra and pomegranate twigs and water. During the recitation of Yasna 25, Raspi pours a few drops of parahōm on barsom twigs. The remnants of twigs and leaves are placed close to the fire to dry.
Preparation of Hōm (Av. Haoma). During this phase, between the recitation of Yasna 22 and 28, the second liquid is prepared. The main difference from parahōm, is that hōm is prepared using milk instead of water.
During the recitation of Yasna 62, Raspi offers the remnants of twigs to the fire. After the recitation of the final 72nd chapter of Yasna, the hom mixture is poured into the stream three times. The significance of the ritual is that all the elements, that represent plants, animals (milk), and water, are returned to the nature that has given birth to them.
Zoroastrianism in Iran
The Zoroastrian communities of Iran are quite small and the number of followers is estimated to be less than 20000. According to official data from the Statistical Center of Iran in 2016, the number of adherents of Zoroastrianism was 23109. An interesting survey was conducted in 2020 by the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) using online polling to find out Iranians’ attitude toward religion. As it turned out 7.7 % of 50000 participants residing in Iran identified themselves as being Zoroastrian, which as reported by P. Tamimi Arab and A. Maleki can be interpreted as an expression of "Persian nationalism" and not adherence to Zoroastrianism in a strict sense.
The Zoroastrian identity in Iran is formed based on two main concepts
- being a part of a special community and a tradition that has the most ancient roots in Iranian history. Zoroastrians call themselves Behdin, which means "adherent of a good religion" (from Middle Pers. vēhdēn). The center of the Zoroastrian orthodoxy is Sharifabad, a village in Yazd Province (Ardakan county) where after the fall of the Sassanid Empire the sacred fires of Ādur Farnbāg and Istaxr were moved and venerated.
- Building the identity of Iranianness, demonstrating to the Muslim Iranians their link to ancient Iranian history and the coherence of Zoroastrianism and Iraniannness.
The Zoroastrian community in Iran has the longest history of survival and continuation of the tradition. During the four centuries of Sasanian rule, the bastion of Zoroastrianism was Pārs province (modern Fārs) and it resumed the role of "Zoroastrian nucleus" for a somewhat long time. Before the Mongol invasion of Iran, several Zoroastrian communities existed in different parts of Iran. At a later time, however, these communities were brought together under one roof or to be more precise, "two roofs", Yazd and Kerman cities with adjacent areas. These two cities together with Tehran, the capital city, are 3 major centers of the Zoroastrian population of Iran.
Presumably, Zoroastrians in Kerman came from Khorasan region, as is shown in Kāmdin Šāpur's letter from 1559 AD that gives a list of Zoroastrians of Khorasan who were currently in Kerman and in the letter of Frēdōn, from a famous Marzbān family, who states that his pedigree stretches back to Khorasan. The evidence concerning the origin of Zoroastrians from Yazd is non-existent and the question whether any Zoroastrian population existed in Yazd and Kerman before the arrival of the groups of Zoroastrians, still remains open. The Zoroastrian community of Tehran is quite new and begins its history in the 19th century. Nevertheless half of the Zoroastrian population is now residing in Tehran and there are various social organizations, schools, and Zoroastrian institutions still operating in the capital city.
Despite the marginalization of the community during history and dozens of problems of social, cultural, and predominantly financial character that Zoroastrians of Iran are facing nowadays and notwithstanding some major demographic challenges such as low fertility rate, the shift of the population from rural to major cities, intermarriages, emigration, Zoroastrianism is still alive in Iran. The picture for the future of the community in Iran is quite bleak, but the future of Zoroastrianism is yet to be written.
Zoroastrianism in India
Zoroastrians or Parsis living in the Indian subcontinent make up the largest community in the world. There are approximately 50000-60000 Zoroastrians living in modern India. However, the communities vary greatly, from small rustic districts in Gujarat to some big and authoritative centers in Delhi. The most surprising fact about this community is that among the Zoroastrian diaspora this one has the longest history. So how did it happen that Zoroastrians settled in India?
The fall of the Sasanid Empire and the disintegration of the state administration system were principally equivalent to the end of Zoroastrianism as an official religion. The Muslim conquest of Persia has entailed not only a profound social-cultural outbreak but also led to major demographic changes. The exodus of a group of Zoroastrians later to be known as Parsees (or Parsis) from Iran as a consequence of multiple oppressions and unbearable social conditions can be considered a good example. Supposedly the route of departure passed through the southern regions of the Iranian Plateau, namely Makran (Balochistan) and Sistan. The Iranians were constantly followed by Arab troops who after the fall of Makran forced them to move towards Sindh (modern Pakistan) and Gujarat. The events of this journey are described in the "Story of Sanjan'' (Qesṣ e-ye Sanjān, from the Arabo-Persian qesṣ ẹ "history, narration, tale") chronicle, written in 1599 by Bahman Kay Qobād Sanjāna. An illustrious comparison is made by Alan Williams in his study called "The Zoroastrian Myth of Migration from Iran and Settlement in the Indian Diaspora", where the author notes.
"Just as Iranian identity, national pride and ethos are reflected in the Shāhnāme, so the QS reflects Parsi identity, pride and ethos." (p 218). Although the narrative itself can by no means be considered a historical work, it is of exceptional importance in forming the Identity of the Zoroastrians in India. Besides, it contains crucial information about the chronology of the gradual movement of the Parsee groups from Diu island to the continent of India.
Looking at history through the lens of Parsi tradition, we can say that after the Parsee groups arrived in India, the most significant occasion was the veneration of the Ātash Bahrām fire (later called Iran Shah), the holy ash of which was brought from Khorasan. The day of the veneration is still celebrated by the Zoroastrians of India.
In course of time, new settlements were established by the Parsis throughout Gujarat, in
Sanjan, Broach, Anklesvar, Kathiavar, Navsari and other regions. Simultaneously the priesthood set up the process of organizing the clerical districts (called panthaks), thus laying the religious foundations of the community. The first step taken by the Parsis in the integration process into the Indian culture and realm was the adoption of the language. Persian was eventually forgotten so that nowadays the mother language of the majority of Zoroastrians is the dialect of Gujarat (Gujarati).
Zoroastrianism in the World
The number of Zoroastrians worldwide is less than 200000. Besides Iran and India, Zoroastrian communities can be found in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and elsewhere (you can learn more about Zoroastrian demographics here). The emergence of a new Zoroastrian community in Iraqi Kurdistan as a result of apostasy from Islam and conversions to Zoroastrianism happening on a massive level among Kurds must be treated as a special case. Needless to say that people convert to religion for a variety of reasons, but a fly in the ointment in the contemporary Zoroastrian revival by Kurds is that the movement is mostly nationalist and postmodern in nature. This does not imply that “Kurdish Zoroastrianism”, which exhibits significant differences from the Zoroastrianism practiced in Iran and India, is not legitimate. Be that as it may, one should refrain from arrogant and unscientific claims, like the one made by K. Surieni, a Kurdish publicist, who states that Zarathustra was born in “eastern Kurdistan” and spoke a dialect of Kurdish (Sureni, K. (2011), Kurdistan and the Kurds, Erbil, pp. 49-50).
Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India are confronted with the problems of a diminishing number of members, conversions to other religions, intermarriages, etc. Some argue that by prohibiting other people from joining the religion, the Parsis in India erected another “glass wall” that has inhibited the growth of the community. Outside of Iran and India however, there are no obstacles for foreigners to convert to the religion and there is a large number of converts from Iranian exiles in the world, who choose the faith of their forefathers. Even so, being in a different cultural environment the religion absorbs alien elements and gradually loses its “ritualistic” nature, metamorphosing into a philosophical doctrine that centers around the idea of “good words, good thoughts and good deeds”. The transformation process is still ongoing and what the Zoroastrian communities will look like in the future is completely unpredictable.
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