Discover the rich history of Zoroastrianism. Explore the beliefs, practices, and cultural influences that have shaped this fascinating religion over time.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that originated in Iran and has undergone a complex evolution throughout history. Recent scholarship has shed light on the diverse and contradictory nature of Zoroastrian beliefs and practices, challenging previous understandings and emphasizing the multiplicity of interpretations and appropriations of the religion over time. However, the historical narration and appropriation of Zoroastrianism by both insiders and outsiders have further complicated the matter, leading to a plurality of approaches and divergent opinions both within scholarly literature and among Zoroastrian communities.
From its origins among the Iranians and Indo-Aryans to its interaction with Greek culture under Alexander of Macedon, Zoroastrianism’s original elements emerge. Despite challenges from rival religions, Zoroastrianism thrived during the Seleucid and Parthian periods, showing continuity and development. It influenced apocalyptic ideologies in the Near East, left imprints on Jewish, Gnostic, Christian, and Buddhist beliefs, and flourished during the Sasanian period. As Arab Muslims rose to power, Zoroastrian rule in Iran came to an end, but its cultural heritage continued to shape Islam. Zoroastrians spread across Central Asia, China, and India, maintaining their faith and rituals.
Read About: Zoroaster’s Enduring Influence on Philosophy
The Divergence and Migration of Iranian and Indo-Aryan Groups
The Iranian and Indo-Aryan language groups separated at some point in the late third millennium BCE. Over time, the Indo-Aryans migrated to the present-day Indian subcontinent, while the Iranians traveled through western Central Asia towards the Iranian plateau. Later Avestan texts, such as the Videvdad and Yashts (praise hymns), offer geographical references to an Iranian migration path located northeast of Iran. These texts are believed to have reached their current form around the middle of the first millennium BCE. Avestan, along with later Middle Iranian languages like Sogdian, Bactrian, and more recently Pashto, belongs to the eastern Iranian language family. The Avestan texts mention place names that can be positively associated with regions situated east or northeast of modern-day Iran.
According to Zoroastrian textual tradition, the “Aryan expanse” (Airyana Vaejah) is a place, which is considered the center of the world, a paradise and axis mundi where significant historical events occurred. It is mentioned that Zarathushtra was renowned in Airyana Vaejah (Yt 9.14) and made offerings there (Yt 5.104). The Videvdad describes Airyana Vaejah as the original homeland of the Iranians, depicted as the “best of places” created by Ahura Mazda (the one true God in the religion). However, it was afflicted by harsh winters lasting ten cold months, with only two months of summer (Vd 1.2-3). This description aligns with a location in the southern part of the Central Asian Steppe. The Videvdad also mentions 15 other lands inhabited by Iranians, including regions settled by Sogdians (corresponding roughly to eastern Uzbekistan/western Tajikistan), Marghu (Merv in Turkmenistan), and Baxdhi. Some of these regions are also named in a Young Avestan hymn, which indicates that from the summit of “high Mt. Hara,” the entire domain inhabited by Iranians, characterized by vast and fertile river valleys and grassy pastures, could be seen (Yt 10.13-14).
Read About: Zoroaster’s Enduring Influence on Philosophy
Gahambars – Festivals in Zoroastrian Religion
Gahambars are seasonal festivals known as “proper season,” which take place six times a year based on the Zoroastrian calendar. These festivals are celebrated several months in advance, reflecting the six “primordial creations” of Ahura Mazda, also known as the Amesha Spentas. Each festival is observed over a span of five days.
These successive gahanbars mark the celebration of the mid-spring season, traditionally known as Maidhyoi-zaremaya, an ancient Avestan term meaning ‘mid-greening,’ which refers to the growth of crops planted in late winter or early spring. The endurance of pastoral references for over 2,500 years is confirmed in the farmers’ calendar found in Old Persian (OP) inscriptions. A Middle Persian (MP) text from the sixth century CE emphasizes the significance of observing gahanbars as an integral part of “the ordered existence.” Later, a New Persian (NP) text recommends these celebrations as one of the prescribed duties for all Zoroastrians.
Participation in these community festivals instills a sense of belonging and continuity, acting to revitalize not only the natural elements of the world but also the participating individuals. This holistic perception of humans as agents of healing is an ancient concept expressed in the Gathas, the earliest texts of the Zoroastrian religion, and it remains a fundamental aspect of the Zoroastrian ethos.
Initiation in Zoroastrianism
Most Zoroastrian practices can be seen through this lens – as activities aimed at strengthening both the adherents and the cosmos. A Middle Persian text suggests that each person’s thoughts, words, and actions have profound consequences in the broader world. At an initiation ceremony, individuals are formally acknowledged as participants in the work of rejuvenating the world when they choose to embrace the ethical principles of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” For many Parsi (Indian) Zoroastrians, the post-initiation practice of wearing the sudreh (a white cotton shirt worn beneath clothing) and kusti (a cord tied around the waist over the shirt) serves as a constant reminder of this ethical imperative. The sudreh features a small pocket at the front, encouraging the accumulation of good deeds, while the kusti is wrapped around the waist three times, reminding the wearer to generate good thoughts, words, and deeds at all times.
It is believed that humans are a microcosmic representation of the larger universe. The three tassels on each end of the kusti serve as a reminder of the six gahanbars, the seasonal festivals that celebrate the cycle of growth and the order of the year. Thus, the person who wears the kusti affirms their role in sustaining this growth and order. Interestingly, the kusti may be linked to the same ancient tradition as the sacred thread in Hindu initiation ceremonies.
Aromatic Offering Ritual
One essential practice exemplifying Zoroastrian tradition is perfuming the house with fragrant herbs or incense. This ritual is regularly observed by Zoroastrians in Iran, India, and to a lesser extent, the diaspora community.
In Iran, rue or marjoram is commonly used by Zoroastrians, while Parsis in India utilize sandalwood and loban, a resin derived from trees. The bond between scent and spirituality is timeless and profound. Scent uplifts the spirit and brings color to life, while the spirit acknowledges and appreciates the enchantment of scent.
Fragrance holds a central place in various religious and spiritual traditions across the globe, recognized by wise individuals and practitioners. Zoroastrianism and Judaism, in particular, consider fragrance as a precious gift that enhances worship in their unique ways.
Zoroastrian rituals are ancient and intricate, often conducted in fire temples, known as “Agiyaari” in Gujarati. Priests perform prayer ceremonies in the presence of the sacred fire, the “Atash.” Sandalwood, or “chandan,” is a significant offering made during these rituals, reminiscent of the Vedic Havan ceremony.
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