Last week I attended a lecture at OASIS in San Diego on Zoroastrianism. I worried that there might not be enough interest in the topic for the lecture to be held. I hadn’t preregistered because I am on call for jury duty this month so I couldn’t commit to attending.
When I arrived, I was delighted to discover more than two dozen people had registered. My assumption that few people in the area knew anything about the subject–or were interested in learning more–was banished.
My interest stems from having arrived in Tehran, Iran, in April of 1975, at the tail end of the ten days of celebration for Nowruz, the Persian new year. And I learned that the observation of Nowruz goes back to the time of Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra.
I thought I already knew a lot about Zoroastrianism, having not only observed Nowruz celebrations in Iran but also having visited the sites of some of the earliest Persian fire temples near Persepolis in southwestern Iran. Fire serves as a symbol of the religion, perhaps because the underground natural gas reserves made it possible for flames to continue burning without the need to add fuel.
Also I could recognize, for example, the farvahar, a symbol of Zoroastrianism carved into the rocks near those same sites, as seen in the image at the top of this post. I knew–or thought I did–that Zoroastrianism is (there are still followers around the world) a dualistic, not monotheistic, religion in which two gods, Ahura Mazda, the god of good, and Angra Mainyu, the god of evil, are in a constant struggle. Okay, I only remembered the name of Ahura Mazda, but I knew there is also a name of the force of evil, and I looked forward to being reminded of it. Many scholars believe the dualist aspect of Zoroastrianism was imposed later, that originally Ahura Mazda was the only god, as in monotheistic religions, with Angra Mainyu serving as an opposing, but not equal, force. This is the opinion of the lecturer.
I also knew that Iranians consider Zoroastrians among the people of the book, a term used in Islamic literature to identify those non-Muslims who were to be protected under Islam because they also follow a monotheistic belief system including an end-of-day’s judgment that will separate the good from the evil and that the belief system has been written down into a sacred text. But I thought the dualism I understood to be part of Zoroastrianism wouldn’t qualify. I also knew nothing about a Zoroastrian sacred text.
I learned that what I didn’t know about Zoroastrianism would fill volumes while what I knew that was accurate would fit on a the back of a postage stamp. Let me explain some of the surprising aspects of Zoroastrianism I learned from the lecture.
First, I learned the basic principles of Zoroastrianism: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. I recognize them as consistent with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and perhaps a few East Asian religions.
Second, I learned the the symbolism of the farvahar and was reminded of how important a role symbolism plays in my 21st century Christian life.
The three bands of feathers in the wings of the farvahar represent the three principles: good thoughts, good words, good deeds. The three bands in the skirt of the human depicted on the farvahar represent the contrasting ideas: bad thoughts, bad words, bad deeds. The challenge is to keep them in balance. The circle the figure appears almost to be riding on represents the immortality of the spirit. The two sashes that end in loops or claws below the circle represent good and evil with the representation of good on the side the figure is facing and evil behind it. One of the figure’s hands points upward, representing struggle. The other hand holds a ring which may represent loyalty and faithfulness.
Third, the lecturer pointed out that Jews during the Babylonian captivity would have encountered Zoroastrianism and its rituals and traditions, many of which may have been adopted when they returned to Judah after the Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and released the captive Judeans. I knew that not all the Judeans returned since a remnant of those who stayed behind made up the Iranian Jewish population I met while I was in Iran. There I learned that Esther of the eponymous Biblical book married Xerxes I, the fourth ruler of Persia after Cyrus the Great, a reflection that Jews remained in Persia for many generations after they were permitted to return.
Some of those traditions include the expectation that a messiah will come to the earth, that people will face judgment after death, the concept of heaven and hell, and free will.
Fourth, Zoroastrians referred to their priests as magi. Therefore, the three kings who traveled from the east to visit the baby Jesus were likely Zoroastrians.
Fifth, the Zoroastrian scripture is the Avesta which contains four segments:
- the Yasna (liturgy and hymns recited every day),
- Khorda Avesta (book of common prayer),
- Visperad (hymns), and
- Vendidad (myths and religious requirements).
While the above may be interesting, they are all just details from the lecture.
The more important lesson is that history goes back further than we sometimes want. We can’t just draw a line in our past and claim anything that happened before that date is no longer important. We cannot simply reset history.
If we stop studying history from the earliest point at which the conditions are consistent with what we believe is right or ideal, we will not understand how interrelated we all are, how our ideas have antecedents that we should understand before we insist we are right and everyone else is wrong. If we want to understand others, we should go back in history to find what we share, what we have in common, in order to bring those ideas forward.
Happy Nowruz which falls this year on March 20. Saale no mobaark.