Zoroastrianism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings ascribed to the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra, Zartosht). Mazdaism is the religion that acknowledges the divine authority of Ahura Mazda, proclaimed by Zoroaster to be the one uncreated Creator of all (God).
As demonstrated by Zoroastrian creed and articles of faith, the two terms are effectively synonymous. In a declaration of the creed the adherent states: “…I profess myself a devotee of Mazda, a follower of Zarathustra.”
Some scholars have suggested that Zoroastrianism was where the first prophet of a monotheistic faith arose, claiming Zoroastrianism as being “the oldest of the revealed credal religions, which has probably had more influence on mankind directly or indirectly, more than any other faith”.
Zoroastrianism was once the dominant religion of much of Greater Iran. As of 2007 the faith has dwindled to small numbers; some sources suggest that it is practiced by fewer than 200,000 worldwide, with its largest centers in India and Iran.
The term “Mazdaism” is a typical 19th century construct, taking Mazda- from the name Ahura Mazda and adding the suffix “ism” to suggest a belief-system. The alternate form, ‘Mazdeism’, perhaps derived from the French Mazdռisme, which first appeared in 1871. The Zoroastrian name of the religion is Mazdayasna, which combines Mazda- with the Avestan language word yasna meaning ‘worship, devotion’.
An older, but still widespread expression is Behdin, meaning “follower of Daena”, for which “[Good] Religion” is one translation. In the Zoroastrian liturgy, the term Behdin is also used as a title for an individual who has been formally inducted into the religion .
1. There is one universal and transcendental God, Ahura Mazda, the one uncreated Creator and to whom all worship is ultimately directed.
2. Ahura Mazda’s creation – evident as asha, truth and order – is the antithesis of chaos, evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict .
3. Active participation in life through good thoughts, good words and good deeds is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep the chaos at bay. This active participation is a central element in Zoroaster’s concept of free will, and Zoroastrianism rejects all forms of monasticism.
4. Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end . In the final renovation, all of creation – even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to “darkness” – will be (re)united in God.
5. In Zoroastrian tradition, the malevolent is represented by Angra Mainyu, the “Destructive Principle”, while the benevolent is represented through Ahura Mazda’s Spenta Mainyu, the instrument or “Bounteous Principle” of the act of creation. It is through Spenta Mainyu that Ahura Mazda is eminent in humankind, and through which the Creator interacts with the world. According to Zoroastrian cosmology, in articulating the Ahuna Vairya formula, Ahura Mazda made his ultimate triumph evident to Angra Mainyu.
6. As expressions and aspects of Creation, Ahura Mazda emanated seven “sparks”, the Amesha Spentas, “Bounteous Immortals” that are each the hypostasis and representative of one aspect of that Creation. These Amesha Spenta are in turn assisted by a league of lesser principles, the Yazatas, each “Worthy of Worship” and each again a hypostasis of a moral or physical aspect of Creation.
Zoroastrianism only enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BCE. Herodotus’s The Histories (completed c. 440 BCE) includes a description of Greater Iranian society with what may be recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead.
Darius I and later Achaemenid emperors, though acknowledging their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions, appear to have permitted religions to coexist. Nonetheless, it was during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism gained momentum, and a number of the Zoroastrian texts have been attributed to that period. It was also during the Achaemenid era that many of the divinities and divine concepts of proto-Indo-Iranian religion(s) were incorporated in Zoroastrianism, in particular, those to whom the days of the month of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated. That religious calendar, which is still in use today, is itself an Achaemenid-era development. Those divinities, the yazatas, are present-day Zoroastrianism’s angels.
Almost nothing is known of the status of Zoroastrianism under the Seleucids and Parthians who ruled over Persia following Alexander the Great’s invasion in 330 BCE.
When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in 228 CE, they aggressively promoted the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism and in some cases persecuted Christians and Manichaeans.
A form of Zoroastrianism was apparently also the chief religion of pre-Christian Caucasus region, or at least was prominent there. During periods of Sassanid suzerainty over the Caucasus, the Sassanids made attempts to promote the religion there as well.
Well before the 6th century, Zoroastrianism had spread to northern China via the Silk Road, gaining official status in a number of Chinese states. However, many scholars assert the influence of Zoroastrianism (as well as later Manicheism) on elements of Buddhism, especially in terms of light symbolism.
In the 7th century, the Sassanid dynasty was overthrown by the Arabs. Although some of the later rulers had Zoroastrian shrines destroyed, generally Zoroastrians were included as People of the Book and allowed to practice their religion. Mass conversions to Islam were not imposed, in accordance with Islamic law. However, there was a slow but steady movement of the population of Persia toward Islam.
Today, the number of Zoroastrians is significantly lower than it once was, but the religion is alive. Over the centuries, adherents of the faith have dispersed in all directions, but greater concentrations of Zoroastrians may still be found on the Indian subcontinent and in Iran.
The Avesta is the collection of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. Important sections of the text have been lost since then, especially after the fall of the Persian empire, after which Zoroastrianism was supplanted by Islam. The oldest existing copy of the texts dates to 1288 CE.
The use of the expression Zend-Avesta to refer to the Avesta, or the use of Zend as the name of a language or script, are relatively recent and popular mistakes. The word Zend or Zand, meaning “commentary, translation”, refers to supplementaries in Middle Persian not intended for use as theological texts by themselves but for religious instruction of the (by then) non-Avestan-speaking public. In contrast, the texts of the Avesta proper remained sacrosanct and continued to be recited in Avestan – which was considered a sacred language.
In a general sense, all the secondary texts are also included in the Zend rubric since they too often include commentaries on the Avesta and on the religion.
Ahura Mazda is the beginning and the end, the creator of everything which can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth.
Daena (din in modern Persian) is the eternal Law, whose order was revealed to humanity through the Mathra-Spenta ‘Holy Words’. Daena has been used to mean religion, faith, law, even as a translation for the Hindu and Buddhist term Dharma, religious duty, but which can also mean social order, right conduct, or simply virtue. The metaphor of the ‘path’ of Daena is represented by the ‘Good/Holy Path’, the ‘Pathfinder’.
Central to Zoroastrianism is the emphasis on moral choice, to choose between the responsibility and duty for which one is in the mortal world, or to give up this duty and so facilitate the work of druj. Similarly, predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in, and in the way they act to one another. Reward, punishment, happiness and grief all depend on how individuals live their life.
In Zoroastrianism, good transpires for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Zoroastrian morality is then to be summed up in the simple phrase, “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” (Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta in Avestan), for it is through these that asha is maintained and druj is kept in check.
Although the worship of images would eventually fall out of favour ,the Amesha Spenta, the six originally abstract terms that were regarded as direct emanations or aspects or ‘divine sparks’ of Ahura Mazda, came to be personified as an archangel retinue.
Some Zoroastrians believe in the future coming of a Messiah-like figure known as the Peshotan. This too is a modern syncretic development, and is frowned upon by more conservative Zoroastrians.
* Equalism: Equality of all, irrespective of gender, race, or religion.
* Respect and kindness towards all living things. Condemnation of the oppression of human beings, cruelty against animals and sacrifice of animals.
* Environmentalism: Nature is central to the practice of Zoroastrianism and many important Zoroastrian annual festivals are in celebration of nature: new year on the first day of spring, the water festival in summer, the autumn festival at the end of the season, and the mid-winter fire festival.
* Hard work and charity: Laziness and sloth are frowned upon. Zoroastrians are encouraged to part with a little of what would otherwise be their own.
* Loyalty and faithfulness to “family, settlement, tribe, and countries.”
Other distinguishing characteristics
* The symbol of fire: The energy of the creator is represented in Zoroastrianism by fire and the sun which are both enduring, radiant, pure and life sustaining. Zoroastrians usually pray in front of some form of fire (or any source of light). (It is important to note that fire is not worshipped by Zoroastrians, but is used simply as symbol and a point of focus, much like the crucifix in Christianity.)
* Proselytizing and conversion: Parsi Zoroastrians do not proselytize. In recent years, however, Zoroastrian communities in both Iran, Europe and the Americas have been more tolerant towards conversion.
* Inter-faith marriages: As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. However, to this day, some priests will not perform the Navjote ceremony – i.e. the rites of admission into the religion – for children of mixed-marriages, irrespective of which parent is a non-Parsi. This issue is a matter of great debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they previously were.
* Death and burial: Religious rituals related to death are all concerned with the person’s soul and not the body. Zoroastrians believe that on the fourth day after death, the human soul leaves the body and the body remains as an empty shell. Traditionally, Zoroastrians disposed of their dead by leaving them atop open-topped enclosures, called Towers of Silence, or Dokhmas. Vultures and the weather would clean the flesh off the bones, which were then placed into an ossuary at the center of the Tower. Fire and Earth were considered too sacred for the dead to be placed in them.
Small Zoroastrian communities are found in India, Pakistan, Iran, as well as major urban areas in United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and a worldwide diaspora. Zoroastrian communities comprise two main groups of people: those of Indian Zoroastrian background, who are known as Parsis (or Parsees), and those of Iranian background.
In 1996, the number of Zoroastrians worldwide was estimated to be “at most 200,000” . India’s 2001 Census found 69,601 Parsi Zoroastrians. In Pakistan they number 5000, mostly living in Karachi. North America is thought to be home to 18,000-25,000 Zoroastrians of both South Asian and Iranian background. Iran’s figures of Zoroastrians have ranged widely; the last census (1974) before the revolution of 1979 revealed 21,400 Zoroastrians
Yazdanism collectively denotes a group of native Kurdish monotheistic religions: Alevism, Yarsan and Yazidism. The Yazdani faiths were the primary religion of the Kurds until their Islamisation in the 16th century. Yazdanism continues to be practiced in relatively isolated communities, however not always. The adherents of Yazdanism are estimated to constitute about 1/3 of the Kurds. Yazdanism has however strongly influenced the kurdish form of islam.
The name ‘Yazdanism’ derives from Kurdish yazdan, literally meaning “worthy of worship” and referring to a belief in a great heptad (seven) of divine beings . The three Yazdani traditions are therefore also known as the Cult of Angels.
Adherents themselves refer to the faith as rae haq, a reference to the primary deity or “universal spirit”.
The principal feature of the Yazdani faiths is the belief in seven benevolent divine beings that defend the world from an equal number of malign entities. Another important feature of the religions is a doctrine of incarnation.
The adherents of the faith were referred to as the “Sabians of Harran” (of Carrhae) in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. The Sabians are also mentioned in Bahո’վ writings and in the Qur’an.
The distribution of the three Yazdani religions follows geographic boundaries:
* the Alevites may be found in northwestern Kurdistan, Turkey and along the Syrian coast.
* the Yarsanis are located in southernmost part of Kurdistan and in western Iran.
* the Yazidi come from central Kurdistan.
Mutual exchange and contacts between these branches are infrequent.