Zoroastrianism is thought to be one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. It is believed to stem from a common Indo-Iranian religious system that was developed in about 1300 BCE. It was officially founded by the prophet Zoroaster sometime between 500 BCE when it was first recorded and 900 BCE. It quickly became one of the largest religions of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, and it was prevalent until the introduction of Islam in the 700s CE. It is credited to influencing most other major religions, though it declined through the medieval era. Now, there are less than 200,000 Zoroastrians remaining. This is due to the fact that in areas like Iran where the religion was once prevalent, conversion to Zoroastrianism is now illegal.
Zoroastrians worship the god Ahura Mazda (“wise Lord”), who they believe is a universal, transcendent, omnibenevolent, supreme deity. The prophet Zoroaster was the main individual to disseminate information about the attributes of Ahura Mazda. He claimed that Ahura Mazda was omniscient but not omnipotent, and in the holy texts of the Gathas notes that he works through emanations known as the Amesha Spenta and through other “ahuras,” which are divine entities.
It is debated as to whether Zoroastrianism should be classified as monotheistic or pantheistic due to this concept. Zoroastrians believe that the antithesis of chaos, named Asha, is the main spiritual force that comes from Ahura Mazda. Asha is in a conflict with Druj, which embodies falsehood and disorder. This cosmic conflict creates both happiness and suffering in all of humanity through both mental and spiritual ways. Due to this, Zoroastrians believe that the universe is self-creating.
According to Zoroastrians, Druj comes from the destructive representative Angra Mainyu, while Asha is represented by Spenta Mainyu. Ahura Mazda is immanent in humanity and interacts with people through the Amesha Spenta, which are immortal entities that represent a different aspect of creation and the ideal personality. Along with Amesha Spenta, there are also Yazatas, which represent a moral or physical aspect of creation.
Ahura Mazda deemed that the Spenta Mainyu would eventually defeat the Angra Mainyu and that the universe would undergo a complete shift where the universe becomes eternal and the souls of the dead would be reunited with Ahura Mazda in a perfect realm called Kshatra Vairya. Some Persian literature suggests that Zoroastrians believed a savior known as Saoshyant would bring about the defeat.
In common actions, Zoroastrians believe in an idea called the Threefold Path of Asha that encourages good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. People are encouraged to spread happiness through charity, respect spiritual equality of all humanity, and protect nature, making it the first ecological religion. They also place an emphasis on moral choice and absolute free will, rejecting the ideas of predestination. They teach that even divine beings have choice, but that humanity must choose their actions carefully because they affect their levels of happiness, grief, reward, and punishment.
Zoroastrians view life as an active participation in the battle between Asha and Druj. They believe that before birth, a soul is united with its higher spirit that has existed since Ahura Mazda created the universe. Their higher spirit inspires them to commit good deeds during their life and is their spiritual protector, similar to the idea of a conscience. The spirits of an individual’s ancestors can also be called upon to assist the living. They believe that four days after an individual dies, their soul is reunited with its higher spirit, and they use their experiences on earth to continue the battle for the spiritual world.
Zoroastrians also hold many purification ceremonies, believing that water and fire are the agents of purity. They believe that both are necessary to sustain life, and so therefore they are both contained within their fire temples that Zoroastrians worship within. Zoroastrians will typically pray within the presence of fire, and most of their worship centers around strengthening the waters. Fire is believed to provide spiritual insight and wisdom, and water is considered the source of that wisdom. They also have many hymns and litanies dedicated to them.
When somebody dies, they are considered a host of Druj. Zoroastrians scriptures require the safe disposal of a corpse so they do not pollute the goodness in the world. Some Zoroastrians cremate their dead, bury them in graves cased in lime mortar, or practice the fading tradition of ritual exposure.
The main religious texts of Zoroastrianism are the Avesta, written in an old Iranian dialect. The history of its creation is debated, but according to tradition, Ahura Mazda created the original twenty-one “Nasks” in the original Avesta that Zoroaster brought to one of his followers. They created two copies that were placed in the House of Archives and Imperial Treasury. During the conquest of Alexander the Great in Persia, most of the Avesta was burned, and the scientific sections of it were kept by Greek scholars.
Under the reign of King Valax, it was said that people attempted to restore the Avesta. Under the next ruler, a high priest was ordered to finish collecting parts of the Avesta. They restored the scientific portions that were captured by the Greeks and revised the canon to ensure that it maintained its character.
Along with the Avesta, there is also a prayer book called the Khordeh Avesta, which contains hymns, prayers, and rituals. There are also Avestan fragments that are incomplete but have been discovered over time. Most writers and copyists in Persia through the 9th and 10th century were Zoroastrians, so there are also many books that were created during this time that are significant to current practitioners, though they are considered secondary works rather than scriptures.
In the 500s BCE, Zoroastrians were recorded to worship on hills and mounds underneath open skies, where they lit fires. As they and their kingdoms expanded, they constructed temples and shrines that are now sites of pilgrimage for modern-day Zoroastrians. These shrines influenced the creation of hymns, local deities, and culture-heroes. Today, many Zoroastrians worship with their community at what they call “fire temples.” Inside these buildings, various-sized fires are maintained by clergy that work for the temple.