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Zoroastrianism


1) The Aryans of old Iran
In order to understand properly the religion of Zoroaster, it is necessary to know something of the state of religion in Iran before the great Teacher appeared. New faiths have to be grafted upon old ones. All great teachers have built upon the past traditions of the race. They have to come to lead. They alter and adapt the Eternal Ancient Wisdom to the peculiar needs of that race, to the particular Message which that race is destined to leave for humanity. So also the Lord Zoroaster found a certain mass of tradition in Iran and the Message He gave to this branch of the human race was based upon what they had inherited from a dim and distant past.

The Aryans (using the word in its narrower sense, as comprising the two peoples, the Indians and the Iranians, who called themselves by that proud name) had lived together for long ages in one land, had spoken one tongue and had followed one religion. Where that ancient Motherland of the Aryans was, we have now no means of determining, but it seems to have been a region far to the North, which, according to the Iranian tradition, was overwhelmed and destroyed by ice and snow. At a later period the two main stocks of these people migrated southwards, still keeping together, and after many generations of wandering, ultimately arrived in the neighbourhood of the high mountainous region which we know as the Pamir table-land today. They spread around from that region into the lower fertile and salubrious valleys of the south, west and east. The lands called by us Afghanistan and Bactria were the regions where the Aryans had long carried on their activities.

Mobed or Priest

The language which these people spoke was the ancient tongue of which the language of the Vedic Hymns and that of the Gathic Chants of Zarathustra were both branches. The exceeding close resemblanse between the two has been noted by every student of Aryan philology. So close are these two languages that a mere phonetic change (or, to put it popularly, a slight mispronunciation) often suffices to translate a passage from the one into the other, keeping at the same time the sense absolutely intact. The differences are not greater than what are found between two 'dialects' of one original tongue.

The religious traditions inherited by these two great peoples, the Hindus and the Persians were, therefore, the common Aryan traditions. In the Avesta the great Teachers of the Paoiryotkaesha (the Ancient Faith) have been invoked, and a good many of them have been mentioned by name. This Ancient Faith has been named the Mazdayasna Faith-the Faith that worships Mazda, the Great Lord of All. The Religion of Zarathustra bears the same name, but which the epithet Zarathushtrish (i.e. taught by Zarathushtra) added to it. This confirms the statement made above that the Prophet built up His system upon the ancient traditions of the race.

We have to piece carefully together the legends and the myths of the Avesta and the Veda to get some idea of this Ancient Faith. Many names are common between the two Scriptures and what is really remarkable, several of these names are used in diametrically opposite sense. This latter fact many point to religious troubles between the two sections of the Aryan race; though as to whether these arose directly out of the advent of Zoroaster, and whether these differences were the reasons for the final splitting up of the Aryans into the two branches, it would be out of place to discuss here. The very remarkable fact remains that the opposition is there at some of the most important points. But a still more remarkable fact is that the agreements are far greater in number than the oppositions, a fact which the student often tends to ignore.

The Aryas ('the noble ones') are said in the Avesta to have had their original home in the fair land of Airyana-Vaeja (the Cradle-land of the Aryas), which had been 'the first among the lands' created by Mazda. It was at the centre of the Earth and in its very centre stood the mountain Hara-bareza ('Alborz'). This description closely corresponds with the Hindu description of 'the land of the Gods' with Mount Meru at its centre. It was far to the North, and a most remarkable point about this ancient home was that there 'the year seemed as a day'. The Hindus also say that a day of the Gods equals a year of us mortals. Both these branches of the Aryans divided the Universe into 'seven Regions', but we need not pause to inquire whether they represented climatic zones (as some scholars contend), or were geographical divisions, or had any other signification.

The Aryans were a fairly advanced people as regards material civilization; they were certainly an agricultural race. Their language was a very complex and well developed instrument capable of expressing with great nicety all subtle variations of human thought, and it shows them to have been much given to introspection. They had a well developed religious system, which had been successively taught to them by great Teachers anf by Royal-Sages from time to time. Many of these Teachers have been mentionsd by name, and a few of them, whose names are also mentioned in the Vedic Religion, have fairly detailed accounts attached to them.

One of the earliest of these Royal-Sages belonging to the common tradition is Yima (king Jamshid in shah-name) 'the King,' the son of Vivanghana. In the Avesta He is the great Ruler and Teacher of the Golden Age. He was warned by Mazda about the impending destruction of the wicked world by snow and ice, and He was commanded to build a vara, or underground enclosure, and to take there a set of specially chosen people, together, with the seeds of the finest trees, the best fruits and the most fragrant flowers, and also a pair each of the best and the most useful animals. All these details do not exactly correspond with those given in the Vedas about Yama, though there also He is "the King"; but the other details given above are associated in the later Puranas (traditional lore) of India with Manu, who, too, is the son of Vivasvan.

Another Sage belonging to this common tradition may also be mentioned. He is Kava-Ushan, who is one of the Royal-Sages of the Avesta. He was a holy King who overcame the forces of evil by His prayers, and He was specially famed for the glorious halo that surrounded Him, whence He is also known by the epithet ash-varecao (of full radiance). He is also said to have acquired miraculous powers of flying through the air, with the help of a heavenly bird. The Veda mentions Him mostly as Kavya, and He is mostly associated with Indra and in one place He is said to have established the Sacred Fire. But in the Epics of India He is mentioned as the Teacher of the Asuras (the followers of Ahura), and he is also known by His other name of Shukracharya (the radiant Teacher), probably on account of His remarkable halo.

A third Royal-Sage may also be mentioned. He is Thrae-taona (Faridun in Shah-name). He seems to be specially associated with the curing of diseases with the help of 'spells' (mantras), and is the great physician and healer. These points are also associated with Him in the Atharva-Veda, where He is called Trita. In both traditions He bears the patronymic name of Athwya and is closely associated in both with Haoma and the preparation of the Drink of Immortality. In the Yajur-Veda He is mentioned as granting immortality. The Vedic tradition also mentions Traitana (which is nearer the Avestan name Traetaona) who had slain a mighty three-headed monster who had for ages opressed the world. The same tradition, in almost the same words, is found in the Avesta; and in the later Persian 'Epic of the Kings' (the Shah-name) this three headed demon becomes the Semitic tyrant Zohak (Av. Azhi-Dahaka) from whose opression Iran was freed by the Royal Faridun.

Coming now to the Deities worshipped by the Aryas we get a really formidable list of names, which are the common property of both the branches. Only a few of these may be considered here. These may be divided into two classes: the first containing those names which came to signify diametrically opposed powers among the two communities, and the second which contains names of Deities who are regarded as beneficient by both. The older scholars seemed to think that Zoroaster came as a reformer, and that out of a host of Gods He put forward only Ahura as the One Supreme God. This, they said, caused a schism and a religious conflict which led to the inversion of some of the ancient Deities into Demons among the Iranians, and that the Hindus also repaid the compliment. Apparently there was a religious conflict, but the origin of it could by no means be ascribed to Zoroaster with any degree of certainty. And moreover this view fails to explain how the older Deities (at any rate many of them) came to regain their sway in Iran during the later ages. Whatever the cause of this partial inversion of the Pantheon, the facts are quite interesting.

The very first name that occurs to the student in this connection is that of the Supreme Lord Himself-Ahura-which in the Sanskrit from Asura signifies 'a demon'. The name originally signifies 'the Lord of Life' (from Av. ahu, Skt. asu, life), or the One Life from Whom all proceed. The Sanskrit Asura also signified originally the One Eternal Life, and in the Rig-Veda (in its oldest portions) it is not used in its later degraded signification. In classical Sanskrit the name Purva-devah (earlier Gods) is also used for the Asuras; and the legend has grown up in India that it was these Asuras who had once ruled the Earth, till in later ages they were ousted from their positions by the comparatively more modern Devas (Gods). In the earlier Vedas the epithet Asura is used especially for Varuna, the Ruler of the endless Heavenly Sphere, refulgent by day and shining with innumerable stars at night. Varuna is also the All-pervading Life which ensouls the Creation. He is the Ruler of the Universe, the Lord of Righteousness, the One Being Who has laid down the Law and Order of Nature, and is the Father of All. The one important point to note in this conception of the Vedic Varuna is the great emphasis laid therein on the moral and ethical aspect of this God. Varuna is pre-eminently the Lord of Righteousness. This grand concept of Asura Varuna agrees closely with that of Ahura-Mazda of the earlier Avesta; and very probably the legends in the Brahmanas and in the Epics of the Hindus about conflicts between 'the Gods and the Demons' are but echoes of some religious and national strifes between the two branches of the Aryans in the prehistoric days.

The Avestic Daeva is the natural complement of Ahura. Originally 'the Shining One', this word retain its pristine purity practically throughout the history of Indian languages. But in the Avesta the word is never used in its old signification of 'Deity', even in the earliest portions, and in the later Avesta it invariably means 'Demon'. In the Veda however, we find the word used a couple of times as an epithet of the demons.

Of individual deities there are but few that have suffered this inversion. The most notable of these is Indra, one of the greatest Deities in the Vedic Pantheon. In the Avesta he is the chief helpmate of the Evil One. It is very remarkable that of two of the most important Gods of the Vedas-Varuna and Indra-one should have become in Iran the supreme Being, Ahura, while the other became the most important lieutenant of the Evil One.

But what is still more remarkable is that one of Indra's epithets-Vrtrahan (Bahram, the Slayer of the Demon-foe)- an epithet which is pre-eminently his-should have continued all through the history of Iranian Religion to be the name of one of the greatest of the Deities, Verethraghna (later Bahram). The Bahram Yasht (Yasht, xiv) where his deeds are recorded is a fine epic, and some of the achievements therein recorded remind us of the deeds of Indra mentioned in the Veda.

Vayu (the Wind, a name which is identically the same in both the languages) is another of the ancient Aryan deities. Haug says that 'he is the only Vedic Deity who is mentioned by name in the Gathas', a rare distinction indeed, if Haug's interpretation be true; but modern scholars like Bartholomae have cast a doubt upon Haug's rendering of that passage.

Nairyosangha is the Messenger of the Supreme Ahuramazda to mankind. He appears before the Great Saviours when the time has arrived for their manifestation in the world. One of his special tasks is 'the guarding of the seed of Zarathushtra' from which the future Redeemers of mankind are to be born. He is also said to have helped at the creation of the first human pair, the Mashyo-Mashyoi. These last two functions of his seem to have come into prominence during the Pahlavi period, but in the Avesta he represents some kind of Divine Fire, and in the Veda, under the name Narashamsa (he who is praised of mankind) he also represents the Sacred Fire.

Armaiti is the Spirit of the Earth, and also of Divine Wisdom and Grace, both in the Avesta and in the Veda. She has the rank of an Amesha-Spenta (a Holy Immortal, corresponding to an Archangel in Christianity) in the Zoroastrian Hierarchy. In the Avesta she also represents the Spirit of Obedience to the Eternal Law of God and also in a few passages in the Rig-Veda she represents the same idea. But on the whole her position in the Veda is much humbler than in the Avesta, for in the latter she is represented as the Guardian of the Faith of Zarathushtra.

Baga (corresponding to the Vedic Bhaga) is an epithet of the Supreme Being Ahuramazda in the Achaemenian inscriptions at Persepolis and elsewhere. In the Veda he is a special Deity who is later identified with the Sun.

Airyaman is also one of the ancient Aryan Deities, and in the Veda his name is mainly associated with those of the great Twin-Brethren Mithra and Varuna. To both the nations the name implies 'friend' or 'comrade' and so he is specially the God presiding over marriage. A similar position is accorded to him in the Veda where he is invoked during the marriage ceremony, and among the Parsis to-day a short hymn dedicated to him, and called the Airyema-ishyo, is still used as an essential part of the wedding service.

But the most important of the ancient Indo-Iranian Deities in many ways is mithra, who represents the Sun. In the Veda He is very intimately associated with Asura Varuna. In the Avesta, however, He is associated more with the two Guardian-Judges of departed souls than with Ahuramazda. He awaits the Souls on the other side of death and sits in Judgment over them by the side of Sraosha and Rashnu. He dwells on the top of the Hara-Bareza (Alborz) Mountain. In the Avesta He is the Great Being who is the Wise Ruler, the Loving Guardian and the Impartial Judge of humanity, a conception which is essentially ethical. In the Veda too His position is similar. In later days the cult of Mithra attained great importance esoteric school of occultism, which in its turn profoundly influenced the later Roman thought as well as earlier Christianity.

Haoma is another Indo-Iranian Deity, being the Vedic Soma. In the Avesta He is not a mere personification of the Soma-plant, but a great Teacher who appeared in the very early days to lead forward our infant humanity; and He is represented in the Avesta as being adored by the great Teachers of ancient Iran themselves. In Yasna, ix, He is represented as appearing before Zarathushtra and telling Him in broad outline the history of the Sacred Teaching in Iran in the ages gone by. Some scholars believe that it was He who introduced the Haoma-(soma-) Cult among the Aryans and thus gave His own name to the plant and its juice which formed an important item of the Indo-Iranian ritual. The Hindu and Zoroastrian rituals turn entirely upon the offering of the juice of this plant; and two priests called the Zaota (Hota) and the Rathwi (corresponding to the Hindu Adhvaryu) officiate at that ceremony.

A great deal of the ceremonial of both the branches of the Aryan race goes back to a very remote antiquity, as also some of the social and other customs. The religious ceremonies depended upon the yearly change of seasons. Hence the yearly Gahambars, six in number, which the Iranians celebrated in the ancient days and which are even to-day observed by the Parsis. These corresponded pretty closely to the annual sacrificial cycle observed in the Veda. The chief objects of popular worship among these two nations were the Elements-Fire, Water, Earth and Air-and the Lights of Heaven-the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. These were invoked as Heavenly Beings, but above and beyond them all was the idea of the Supreme God, which is seen in the Vedas and which was far more strongly emphasised by Zarathushtra. This emphasis which He laid upon the Supremacy of Ahura has coloured the whole of the subsequent development of Iranian religious thought.

Society in the Avesta shows the division into the three classes: the Athravan or Priests, the Rathaeshtar or warrior, and the Vastryosh or Husbandman, corresponding to the first three 'castes' of India, in other words 'the Twice-born' classes. To these three was added at a much later period (just as was the case in India) a fourth class the Hutokhsha or Manual-worker. The king belonged to the warrior or the Ruler class, and held supreme power in the land; but the Religious Teacher was his equal in every way 'verily by reason of his Righteousness'. The name of the Priestly class, Athravan, indicates the cult of Fire, which the Great Teacher had definitely established in Iran.

The worship 'Ancestors' (the Pitris) was another very marked feature of the ancient Aryan Faith, which both the branches inherited in common. The ritual pertaining to this worship consists of the 'cake-offering' (the darun among the Parsis and the Purodasha among the Hindus) and the libation of 'a product of the cow', which latter was milk in Iran and ghi (clarified butter) in India. But in Iran ancestor-worship developed into the deeper and the more philosophical idea of the Fravashi, which is lacking in the Indian branch. The Fravashi is the Eternal principle in man which persists through all time and seemingly progresses throughout the ages. As a writer (himself a Zoroastrian) has well put it: 'The Fravashis of men are archetypal souls clothed in ethereal forms, after whose model each human being is formed on earth....The body of each man with its peculiar physical, mental, moral and spiritual capacities, is shaped and formed after the model which each particular Fravashi presents'. Each being, right up to Ahura Himself, possesses a Fravashi which exists through all eternity.

Another interesting Indo-Iranian ceremonial was the sacrament of Initiation-the Zoroastrian Navjot (literally, 'New-birth') which corresponds to the Upanayana ceremony of the Hindus. Like the Hindus of the Vedic period all children among the Zoroastrians, both boys and girls, get this 'new-birth'. After this ceremony they are regarded as fully responsible members of the Zoroastrian fold. And as outward signs they put on the Sacred Shirt (the Sudreh) the Sacred Girdle (the Kusti) and they should also have a covering to their heads (at least during prayers), generally a small skull-cap. These three outward symbols correspond very closely to the Hindu Yajnopavita (the Sacred Thread), the Mekhala (the Girdle) and the Shikha (the tuft of hair on the top of the head) respectively. The first of these among the Hindus was originally a full upper garment as can be seen from ancient statues and from the dress of the Buddhist priests even to-day. The second, the Girdle, was originally the most important part of the dress of 'the twice-born'. In the Avesta it was Haoma for whom Ahuramazda first brought the 'sacred girdle, star-begemmed, woven by the two Spirits'. The cap was intended to protect the vital parts of the head, and the tonsure of the Roman Catholic priests seems to have had a similar significance.

Such are some of the ancient Aryan traditions and ceremonials which these two great peoples, the Iranian and the Indian, had inherited. In Iran, however, the dominating influence of their Teacher, Zarathushtra, has completely overshadowed all later development. His philosophy and His solution of the riddle of life has been at the root of all Iranian, and particularly Zoroastrian, thought ever since. He made use of these traditions, but He laid the greatest emphasis upon the moral concept of Ahura and of the grand Indo-Iranian idea of Asha (Vedic Rita), and made the latter the keystone of His World-Religion.

Abstracted from : The religion of Zarathushtra, I.J.S. Taraporewala, Madras, 1926

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"I am Darius, the Great King, the King of Kings,....the son of Vishtaspa, the Achaemenid, a Parsi, the son of a Parsi, an Arya of Aryan lineage."
(Inscription of Darius the Great at Naksh-i-Rustam.)

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