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Zoroastrianism (as it's mainly known in the West) is more properly called Zarathushtrianism or the Zarathushtri religion, after its founder, Zarathushtra. One of the oldest living faiths on Earth, the religion came out of Persia four thousand years ago. Its quarter-million adherents are mainly Parsis, originally from Iran, living today also in India and Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Europe, and North and South America.
Although the numbers of Zarathushtris dwindled steadily during the past one-and-a-half millennia, the religion has recently gained new favor and its numbers are increasing.
Through this interview with Zarathushtri scholar Dr. Ardeshir Anoshiravani, we may begin to understand the modern appeal of this ancient faith. (See also On Being Zarathushtri.)
Susan: How do Zarathushtris see God? Philosphically, what is God?
Dr. Anoshiravani: God is called Ahura Mazda, meaning "All-Knowing Creator." This indicates what we consider the central attribute of the Creator, or God, that He is the possessor of all the knowledge in the Universe.
Just as if you want to make a TV set you have to have all the knowledge that is within the TV set, if you want to create the Universe, the foremost requirement is that you be the possessor of all knowledge in the Universe.
Therefore, according to Zarathushtra, Ahura Mazda is the possessor of the entire knowledge that has been encoded in the Universe. And although nobody else has that ability nobody else ever will we may try by our scientific endeavor to understand the creations of God, becoming more in tune with what He has created. And the more we do that, the closer we become to our God. So according to Zarathushtra, knowledge, science, and wisdom Divine Wisdom go hand in hand in promoting the world and the entire Universe.
Susan: Where does Mankind fit into this Universe?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Man, according to Zarathushtra, definitely is a creation of Ahura Mazda, like everything else, but he alone has been given the freedom to choose between two paths. In his message, called Gathas, Zarathushtra speaks over and over about choice. He states that every man and woman has the ability to choose between the path to the truth and the path to darkness or destruction. So men or human beings, men and women are creations who have been given the attribute of choice.
The two paths are called Spenta Mainyu and Agra Mainyu. Spenta means "anything that expands," and Mainyu refers to our mentality. So Spenta Mainyu means "progressive mentality." Angra refers to "anything that contracts, falls inside, destroys, or becomes smaller," so Angra Mainyu means "destructive mentality."
For Zarathushtris, people are either of destructive mentality or progressive mentality. And according to these two mentalities, or spirits, they choose their course of action. Plants, trees, and animals, which do not have these two spirits, cannot exercise that choice as freely and completely as human beings can.
Four thousand years ago, Zarathushtra said about choice: "Listen with your ears the highest truth, consider them with illumined minds carefully and decide each man and woman personally between the two paths, good and evil. Before ushering in of the great day, or the day of judgment, arise all of you and try to spread Ahura's words." (Gathas, Yasna 30.2)
Susan: And what is God's relationship to humanity? What do we owe to Ahura Mazda?
Dr. Anoshiravani: The relationship of God to man is the same as the connection between two friends.
God has chosen human beings to be his friends and co-workers. When we act in alignment with Spenta Mainyu, this has the effect of "refreshing" creation. So doing these kinds of acts is called Frasho Krati, "performing the act of refreshing the world." Every time we do something that is righteous and according to the will of the Creator pure, progressive, well-intentioned, and simple it becomes Frasho Krati.
Human beings are considered to be Ahura Mazda's friends because He actually needs us to perform Frasho Krati, to do what he intends to be done on the face of this Earth. For when Ahura Mazda created the world, he created everything that exists, including the universal rules of consequences and the Divine Order. And even Ahura Mazda will not deviate from His own rules. So we are responsible for learning the rules of Creation in order to have the knowledge and wisdom to perform Frasho Krati.
Susan: Could you give us an example of how that principle of knowing the rules applies in a practical way to the Zarathushtrian practice?
Dr. Anoshiravani: For instance, if a man built his house on an earthquake fault because of his lack of knowledge or wisdom, and the house was destroyed by an earthquake, it would be laughable for a Zarathushtri to then say to Ahura Mazda, "I was a good person, why did you destroy my house?"
No, sir, Ahura Mazda would say, go improve your knowledge, go improve your wisdom, and then these things will not happen to you. And no amount of sterile prayers or any sort of sacrifice sacrifice doesn't even exist in the religion of Zarathushtra will rebuild that house.
Zarathushtra encourages us to increase our knowledge of Nature, what's called Asha Divine or Universal Order and use it with wisdom. You cannot sow something and expect to harvest something different, that's not according to the Universal Divine Order.
According to the teachings of Zarathushtra, the best service to God is to understand the path of Asha. The motto of the religion is "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds." You will see those words on top of any Zarathushtri house of worship.
Susan: In the quote, it mentions the "great day, or the day of judgment"? What does that refer to?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Zarathushtra is vague about that. This verse is the extent to which he refers to it. The end of a life? Before it's too late? We all have a period of usefulness in life. Beyond that we cannot do anything. So I think he's encouraging us to make our choices in a timely fashion before it is too late.
There are very many beautiful, symbolic, and meaningful phrases in the Gathas. Of people who make the right choices, Zarathushtra says:
The Abode of Songs where Ahura Mazda was the first presence
Is the Blessed Reward, designated by me, Zarathushtra
For the supporters of the Great Cause!
It shall be bestowed upon you
If you accept the enlightenment of the Good Mind,
If you tread the path of Truth." (Yasna 51.15)
In other words, the ones who make all the right choices and follow the path of Asha in their life will reach the Abode of Songs. The ones who do not follow the path of Asha reach the house of darkness. And Zarathushtra does not describe what is meant by the Abode of Songs, but in context of the other things he talks about, you get the idea that when someone has all the good thoughts and performs all the good deeds, and says all the good words, his life becomes the peaceful, tranquil, and proud existence that Zarathushtra calls the Abode of Songs.
It's like something Buddha said: "The journey is its own reward." Zarathushtra says that the best reward of doing the right thing or following the path of Asha is just that. There is a pleasure, a source of happiness, in doing the right things and following the path of Asha. When you do that, you live in the Abode of Songs.
I remember when we were watching the memorial ceremonies for Princess Diana of England, broadcast from Westminster Abbey. There was a choir of young boys singing, and it was a very tranquil and beautiful scene. At that moment, the newscaster, Tom Brocaw, said he imagined that now princess Diana was experiencing that beauty and tranquility, that she was now in the "abode of songs." I doubt if he had any familiarity with the religion of Zarathushtra, but what he said was so striking.
Susan: How do Zarathushtris feel about other religions. Do they believe in tolerance for people of other faiths?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Zarathushtra called upon all the people of the world to live in harmony with Nature, to conduct themselves according to the Divine Order (Asha), the dictates of their good minds (Vohu Mana), and the progressive spirit (Spenta Mainyu). He never preached that by believing in him anybody would get any special appeasement or privileges from God. Anybody can perform Frasho Krati, can be someone who refreshes the world. Anyone can be included in that group.
And Zarathushtra never claimed that God chose him. Instead, he said, "I chose God as the only Creator, maintainer, and promoter of the Creation."
So during our daily prayers we pray for "All the Good People of the World." We have been using those words in our daily prayers for thousands of years. King Koresh of Persia, known to Westerners as Cyrus the Great, is admired because he freed the Jews of Babylon from bondage.
Zarathushtra has been called the first environmentalist, because he advocated four thousand years ago to respect and keep clean the Four Elements: the soil, water, air, and fire. According to Zarathushtri tradition, the best shortcut to understanding our Creator is to understand and respect the Creation.
We also must increase our wisdom. If we use our knowledge unwisely, we can cause much damage and destruction in this world. But if we mix our knowledge with Divine Wisdom, then we cause much progress for all human beings, the world, and the Universe. So as long as we do that, I think we can be considered the best children of God.
Susan: How many Zarathushtris are there today?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Our numbers steadily dwindled after the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire about 1400 years ago. We were subjected to genocide then, and again as recently as 400 years ago by Muslims. The Arabs in our own land of Iran attacked and killed people or converted them to Islam by force of the sword.
But today, a lot of new people all over Europe, South America, and the United States are rediscovering this religion. For the first time, the number of Zarathushtris is increasing.
Susan: How do Zarathushtris feel about obligations to other peoples of the world, to solving world problems like hunger and poverty?
Dr. Anoshiravani: From that point of view, we are idealists. But I must admit that, due to our dwindling numbers and being spread so thin all over the world, we have not been able to approach our ideals.
One group who have done great good is the Parsis who fled their homeland about a millennium ago and found a haven in India. These Parsis have been a source of tremendous contributions to the Indian nation. The Zarathushtris in India have never numbered more than about one hundred thousand less than a drop in that ocean of humanity called India.
There have been a greatly disproportionate number of politicians, educators, physicians, musicians, artists, and so on, from the ranks of the Zarathushtris of India. In Mumbai alone, in various prominent locations of the city, there are five statues of famous Parsis.
Susan: Is it true that Gandhi's ideas were strongly influenced by the Parsis?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Some of the closest people to Gandhi during the Indian revolution were Parsis, and Gandhi himself had a very high regard for them.
Susan: Who were some other famous Zarathushtris?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Zubin Mehta, the famous symphony conductor, is a Parsi, as was Homi Baba, who has been called the father of India's nuclear power, and General Manek Shaw, the first field marshall of India. He commanded India's armies during the Indo-Chinese War.
Susan: What are the advantages in your mind to following the precepts of Zarathushtra?
Dr. Anoshiravani: Actually, it's a difficult religion. It does not promise you any immediate rewards just by opening your heart to Zarathushtra or believing in his god. In some other religions, you can follow certain rituals and you will be forgiven, but that is not in accordance with Zarathushtra's precepts. All that's promised is hard work on the path to increasing your knowledge, making the right choices, performing good deeds, and believing in the right things for the sake of righteousness alone.
Susan: Aren't there any principles of "right action"?
Dr. Anoshiravani: In the Gathas there is no command about how to conduct your life. The Gathas contains no instruction regarding such things as the dietary or social behavior of individuals. Those simple matters seem to have been left to the informed decision of each person according to the state of knowledge and other conditions of time.
The emphasis is on doing the right thing. And we have to find out for ourselves what the right things are. But if you read the entire Gathas, you get the general impression that there are certain things that cause profound happiness, and also cause the refreshing of the world and everything in it.
Therefore, one gradually becomes aware of the kinds of actions that are righteous and consistent with Ahura Mazda's will. And this way of living leads us to the Abode of Songs.
On Being Zarathushtri
with Shahriar Shahriari
The following is based upon an interview with Shahriar Shahriari, author of two books on Zarathushtrian practice. Although he was born a Parsi, he came to it as a matter of faith in adulthood. Here, he talks about what happened, and why the teachings of Zarathushtra are so meaningful to him now.
Shahriar, as you said, for someone born to the religion of the Zarathushtra, you're really enthusiastic about it. Would you like to tell us why?
It's a guide. It gives direction. It gives a sense of purpose and a sense of sanity and validity to the world that we live in. Especially right now, when we look at the world around us it seems insane. And the teachings give us a sense of existential reality. They move us away from the nihilism that prevails, particularly in the younger generation.
More realistically, it is that no matter what happens in life, no matter what one faces, the teachings actually give a sense of how to deal with it and still keep our sense of composure and our sense of Godliness.
Can you give me an example of what you mean?
One of the most basic teachings, and one of the most basic prayers, says, "May we be among those who renew the world." Now that sentence alone tells me a few things. First of all, it tells me that this world is about renewal. Secondly, that no matter how bad things get, there can still be renewal. Thirdly, it gives me a sense of choice. May we not be among those who renew the world? We're not helpless in the face of things, we can always choose how it is that we want to react. And the fourth thing is basically that to be alive with my soul purpose is to be alive with renewal.
Where does renewal come from? There, you are basically in the realm of intuition, inspiration.
Another example of how the teachings help me to live is in another of our basic prayers that tells us to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. The implication is that goals purpose, reward, achievement, recognition, or even retribution are all immaterial. We choose to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. We're not looking for reward or to avoid punishment, trying to get into heaven and avoid hell. It's about the very present moment. It's being in the Now.
This teaching also means that we need to participate in life. We can't just sit back and say, "I think it's the right thing to do, so I hope somebody does it." If you see garbage on the side of the road, the right thing to do is to pick it up.
So you become extremely aware, and you participate in life in the Now, not in the "someday I will, or maybe I won't."
And you don't need reasons to do the right thing. You don't turn the light off to "save electricity" you do it because it's just the right thing to do.
I think many of our readers also are interested in learning to live in the Now. What was it that brought the truth and value of the teachings home to you so deeply?
First of all, I went through all the phases of rebellion and denial and agnosticism and atheism. In my search for "What is life?" I was searching in a lot of different places. And then finally one day I happened to be at a lecture given by Dr. Keikhaosrov Irani, professor of ancient thought at City University in New York. His lecture was on the basics of the teachings of Zarathushtra, and it was an amazing experience for me. I'd been looking for things in the world of physicists and mathematics, and I realized that all the answers had been sitting here at home.
That's when I began meditating on the teachings, and not paying attention to what was going on in the religion itself. And the more I did that, the more it made sense.
I think of a quote by T.S. Eliot: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."* The end of my exploring brought me to where I started, only to understand it for the first time.
* From T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding," the last of his Four Quartets.
Dr. Ardeshir Anoshiravani
suggests that if you have questions regarding the religion of Zarathushtra, you may contact Dr. Jafarey, a Zarathushtri scholar, at Jafarey@aol.com
, mentioning Dr. Anoshiravani's name.
We found Shahriar Shahriari
through his beautiful and informative website at Zarathushtra.com
. He is author of The Z Factor
and Thus Spake
the Real Zarathushtra,
both available at his website.
- Also sometimes referred to as "Zarathushti," without the final "r."
- The Gathas consists of less than six thousand words that have been passed down the last four thousand years almost intact. According to Dr. Anoshirivani, only about 10 words in the entire text are in dispute.