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Zoroastrians

ZoroastrianZoroastrianism emerged in Iran around the 6th century BC. The Zoroastricians believe in one God (Ahura Mazda), and worship the sacred fire (Atash Bahram) and the humble fires (Dadgah) in fire temples. The prophet Zoroaster taught that there was one God, that evil spirits were fighting against the good, and that humans should choose good by performing daena (good thoughts, good words, good deeds). Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian Empire with Darius I (521 BC), and continued through the Achaemenid and Sassanid Empires, which ruled over Iran for approximately four centuries before being destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th century AD.

It is possible that Zarathushtra was born as late as ca. 600 BC, but his dates are utterly uncertain and on linguistic grounds some specialists have placed him before the middle of the second millennium BC, an improbably early date. Linguistic evidence from the Gatha, the prophet's hymns, in a part of the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, suggests a close link with the ancient Indian hymns, the Rigveda of c. 1700 BC. This is the period prior to the migration of nomadic tribes into Iran and India. The original Avesta, written in Avestan, an east-Iranian language, dates from between 1400 and 1200 BC. If more weight is placed on Zarathushtra’s religious teachings than on his language, he would be dated after 1000 BC.

Zoroaster was the legislator and prophet of the ancient Bactrians, out of whose doctrines the modern religion of the Parsees has been developed. The name of this great reformer is always spelled in the Zendavesta as Zarathustra; with which is often coupled Spitama; this, Haug says, was the family name, while the former was his surname, and hence both he and Bunsen designate him as Zarathustra Spitama. The Greeks corrupted Zarathustra into Zaraslrades and Zoroastres, and the Romans into Zoroaster, by which name he has always, until recently, been known to Europeans. His home was in Bactria, an ancient country of Asia between the Oxus River on the north and the Caucasian range of mountains on the south, and in the immediate vicinity, therefore, of the primal seat of the Aryan race, one of whose first emigrations, indeed, was into Bactria.

In ancient Persia, Zarathustra spoke of a single universal god, the battle between good and evil, the devil, heaven and hell, and an eventual end to the world—foreshadowing the core beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Iran underwent profound changes with the birth of Persia's religion, Zoroastrianism, in the 7th century BC. The ancient faith is the basis for many of modern Iran's most cherished traditions. Astronomy at the time was the dominion of Zoroastrian priests known as magi (the origin of the term magician) and the holy book of the Zoroastrian faith, the Avesta, has many references to astronomical observations. Zoroaster himself is said to have been an astronomer who established an observatory that produced a zij, a set of astronomical tables.

Zarathustra was one of humanity's seminal thinkers, whose concepts have long since been adopted as the ethical and philosophical base of many faiths embraced by humanity today. Zoroaster divided the empire of the universe between two semi-omnipotent beings, Ormuzd and Ahriman, the former supremely good, the latter utterly evil and malignant. Some sects of his followers maintained that Ormuzd created the soul of man; Aliriman, the human body and the material universe. Some modern scholars of Zoroastrianism are convinced that the doctrines of post-exilic Judaism and Christianity concerning monotheism, righteousness, and the final judgment and resurrection have roots in this ancient religion. In the sect of the Essenes this philosophy took shape among the later Jews, and in the form of Gnosticism it found its way into the Christian Church.

The Avesta, like the Bible, the Rig Veda, and other very ancient books, is a collection of documents of widely different ages. The Gathas, the Haptanghiiti, the other parts of the Yasna, the Vendidad and the Yashts, the Afrlnagan, etc., were composed at different periods. But all stand differentiated from the Gathas, which are totally distinct in character from the rest of the Avesta, and from the Veda. There is no nature-worship in them, but, on the contrary, the worship of the Creator of nature. These two stages of the Zoroastrian religion which are as distinct as Quakerism is from Ultramontane Roman Catholicism. As many different religions are included in Christianity, so there are many in Zoroastrian ism, and they should be carefully distinguished. To mix up the purity of the Gathas with the ceremonial of the Vendidad mars the effect of each.

Due to centuries of oppression of the Zoroastrians, known as the Zardushtis in Iran and the Parsis in India, the priests have only recently begun to cooperate with scholars, to produce their prayers and rituals in written form, and to publish other manuscripts that enable researchers to comprehend Zoroastrian dogma. Additionally, through the linguistic study of ancient Persian dialects, in which are written the Avesta, the Gathas, and the Pahlavi literature, the translations of Vedic and Pahlavi (Middle Persian) are revealing the true teachings of Zoroaster which are based on: (1) God as the supreme being; (2) the ardent pursuit of righteousness; and (3) a final judgment and resurrection.

Iranian Religious Groups

After Iran's incorporation into the Islamic empire, the majority of its population was gradually converted from Zoroastrianism to Islam, a process that was probably completed by the tenth century. Following centuries of oppression under Muslim rule in Iran, the adherents are known as the Zardushtis in Iran and the Parsis in India. The largest population of Zoroastrians are the 70,000 Parsis in West India, the second is the USA (20,000) and the third is in Central Iran.

During the Qajar era there was considerable prejudice against Zoroastrians. In the mid-nineteenth century, several thousand Zoroastrians emigrated from Iran to British-ruled India to improve their economic and social status. Many eventually acquired wealth in India and subsequently expended part of their fortunes on upgrading conditions in the Zoroastrian communities of Iran. The emphasis placed on Iran's pre-Islamic heritage by the Pahlavis also helped Zoroastrians to achieve a more respected position in society. Many of them migrated from Kerman and Yazd to Tehran, where they accumulated significant wealth as merchants and in real estate. By the 1970s, younger Zoroastrians were entering the professions.

In 1986 there were an estimated 32,000 Zoroastrians in Iran. By and large, they spoke Persian (Farsi) and were concentrated in Tehran, Kerman, and Yazd. Like the Christians and Jews, the Zoroastrians have been recognized as an official religious minority under the Constitution of 1979. They were permitted to elect one representative to the Majlis and, like the other legally accepted minorities, could seek employment in the government (though not run for President). They generally enjoyed the same civil liberties as Muslims. Although Zoroastrians probably have encountered individual instances of prejudice, they have not historically been persecuted because of their religious beliefs to the degree other religious minorities have.




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