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Zoroastrianism

9) The past and the future of the Zoroastrian religion

The devotion and the championship of Vishtaspa, the Lord of Bactria, led to the acceptance of the Religion of Zarathushtra by the whole of Iran within a very short time. If we are to believe ancient tradition, after some fighting, the Prophet had the satisfaction of seeing the Faith firmly established in Iran, when He passed away at the age of seventy-seven. The followers of the Faith increased generation by generation and we have reason to believe that in the days of Darius the Great (521-485 B.C.), perhaps even earlier, the Faith of Zoroaster had become the state-religion of Persia. Tradition has it that Darius caused all the sacred scriptures of Zoroastrianism to be collected after he was firmly established on the throne. He had them inscribed on parchment in letters of gold. The whole collection was divided according to the subject matter into 21 Books, called the Nasks. This collection was deposited in the Imperial Library at Persepolis.

Kurush (Cyrus) the Great (558-529 B.C.) and Darius were both stalwart champions of their religion and their inscriptions prove their humble faith in and devotion to Ahura Mazda. Though they are both to be reckoned among the greatest of the Rulers of the ancient world, still in their inscriptions they ascribe all their greatness to the grace of Ahuramazda. In his great Inscription at Behistun Darius says:

'What I have done, that did I all by the grace of Ahuramazda: Ahuramazda vouchsafed me help till I completed the work. May Ahuramazda protect me,....and likewise my House and these lands! For this do I pray Ahuramazda: may Ahuramazda vouchsafe me this!

'O man! this is Ahuramazda's command to thee: Think no evil; abandon not the right path; sin not!'

The later Achaemenian inscriptions show a markedly different spirit. The pure ethical worship of Ahuramazda recedes somewhat into the background and though His name is mentioned, others like Mithra and Anahita are also invoked side by side with Him. This was doubtless a sign of the weakening of the ancient faith. And side by side with this we also find the titles of the King of Kings growing more and more grandiloquent and arrogant. These inscriptions are the only relics we possess of Ancient Persian, but they eloquently indicate the pride that goeth before destructions. The true spirit of the Zoroastrian Faith had departed and the Imperial family was torn to pieces by mutual jealousies and internal factions and was becoming enfeebled by excessive luxury. So when the vigorous young Macedonian, Alexander the Great, led the armies of Greece against Persia, the whole Achaemenian power collapsed (330 B.C.)

Alexander's name has been execrated by all Iranians during all the succeeding centuries not only because he destroyed the Achaemenian power, but because he destroyed what was far more precious-the Holy Scriptures of Zarathushtra. In a drunken fit he set fire to the palace at Persepolis and the whole of the library perished in the conflagration.

For nearly two centuries after Alexander's death we have no record whatever of the Zoroastrian religion. Doubtless the learned and devoted priests, who had survived the invasion, had kept the faith alive in the hearts of the people and very likely they had also preserved in their memory the greater part of the Scriptures which had been destroyed. The religion was by no means dead; because the new rulers of Iran, the successors of Alexander, where quite tolerant in religious matters. But the religion had ceased to be the state religion for the time being and perhaps it was this very obscurity into which it had, receded that caused it to be revived with renewed vigour when the hour came.

In the days immediately following Alexander's conquest there were many and various streams of religious thought flowing through Iran after the main stream of Zoroastrianism had been driven underground. There was in the first place the Greek religion, itself influenced on the one hand by Mithraism (which had been been rising as a mystic school in Persia during the last days of the Achaemenian), and the other hand by the hoary religion of Egypt. Then again there were Buddhist missionaries who had spread far and wide all over Western Asia during the two centuries succeeding Alexander. We must not also forgey Judaism which was a considerable power in the world of tought. And by the time the revival of Zoroastrianism took place in Iran, Christianity had also arrived.

The rise of the Parthians (24 B.C.) marks a fresh era in the history of Persia. The Parthians were not Zoroastrians in the beginning and were probably not even Aryans. The founder of the dynasty is said to have been helped by the rulers of Bactria (Balkh), which land was the first to have accepted the religion of Zarathushtra. It seems that the Parthians got the religion of Zoroaster through the Bactrian Zoroastrians who had helped them, and when the Parthians power had reached its zenith we find that Zoroastrianism also began to regain its lost dominion in Iran. At one epoch we find three great Iranian (Zoroastrian) powers dominating the whole of Western Asia. These were Pontus, Armenia and Parthia. Out of their rivalries the power of Parthia ultimately emerged victorious. The later Parthian rulers were definitely Zoroastrian, and they did much to bring together the scattered remnants of the older Scriptures. The work of recompiling the Avesta Texts was definitely begun by the Parthian Valkhash (Vologeses) I. (A.D. 51-77) but the work was finally completed only under the Sasanian Shapur II (A.D. 309-379), surnamed the Great.

A new power was now arising in Persia. In the province of Pars, which earlier had given birth to the Achaemenians, there arose the family of Sasan, which rose to greatness with Artakhshathra (Ardashir), who overthrew the last Parthian Ruler (A.D. 226) and established himself upon the throne of Kurush. The new dynasty was Aryan and Parsi and Zoroastrian. Ardashir once again united the whole of Iran under his own sway, and restored the lost glories of the Achaemenian days. He was an ardent devotee of the Lord Zarathushtra, and he carried forward with great zeal the work, already begun by the later Parthian monarchs, of recompiling the Avesta Scriptures and of having them translated into the language of the people, the Pahlavi. The work was not finished during his reign and was carried on by his son and successor Shapur I (A.D. 240-271). Both the father and son were helped by great and learned men, among whom the most famous were the two Dasturs (High Priests) Adarbad Maraspand and Arda Viraf. Both these holy priests had a great share in the restoration of the ancient Faith of Iran, and in the translation of the Scriptures into the language of the people. Besides this both of them were the authors of important theological works themselves.

Zealous as were the early Sasanians about the ancient Religion of Zarathushtra, they were tolerant to members of other Faiths. All religions lived in peace side by side. Of course Zoroastrianism, being the Religion of the King of Kings, was the dominant power in the land. But there was no favouritism shown by the Rulers themselves, nor were the other Faiths persecuted. Unfortunately this policy of toleration could not last long. In the reign of Shapur I, a remarkable man, Mani, appeared upon the religious horizon of Iran. Christianity had already been established in Iran and the Assyrian Church was a considerable power in the land, second only to the Zoroastrian Church. Mani was a very remarkable person: one of the acutest intellects of his time, his views were far in advance of his age. He held very advanced views upon toleration and the brotherhood of man. His views about the organisation of the state and society were democratic in the extreme and as such were not particularly acceptable to the aristocratic Aryan polity of his age. His uncompromising asceticism as well as his view regarding life as an unmixed evil also revolted the Zoroastrian priesthood. His own life was of the most rigorous asceticism and his character was quite pure and so he was allowed to carry on his propaganda for a time. But at last his democratic teaching was represented as undermining the Aryan-Iranian polity and so he was beheaded by Behram I. (A.D. 272-275).

Soon after this the Roman Empire under Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. Consequently the Persian Christians began to regard the Emperor of Rum (Byzantium) as their spiritual head. Rome had, ever since the days of Pompey, been a formidable rival of Persia, and each of these two powers had always been ready to stir up trouble for the other. Naturally, therefore, the Persian Christians owing spiritual allegiance to Byzantium became political suspects, and the suspicion was certainly justified by actual events. Shapur II definitely took up the view that the Christians were disloyal to Persia and to the House of Sasan. So from that time onward the Christians were subject to many disabilities and they had to suffer heavily from time to time.

Another sect arose about A.D. 487 and spread with wonderful rapidity all over Persia and Armenia. This was the sect founded by Mazdak. On the spiritual side Mazdak taught devotion and the sacredness of animal life, but on the social side his views would be advanced even for a modern Bolshevik. He maintained the perfect equality of all men, not merely at birth but through-out life, and so he taught that property as well as wives should be held in common. The extreme rapidity with which these revolutionary doctrines spread indicate clearly that something was fundamentally wrong at the very heart of Sasanian polity. Revolutionary doctrines do not, indeed cannot spread where the aristocracy, the natural leaders of the people remember their motto-noblesse oblige-and fulfil their duty by those from whom they expect obedience and submission. Ultimately the Mazdakites were put down with relentless cruelty and there were wholesale massacres of these people which began in A.D. 523.

Khusrav I, better known as Noshiravan the Just, ruled from A.D. 531-578, and in his time the Sasanian empire attained the zenith of its outward power and glory. It was in his time that the Prophet of Arabia was born (A.D. 570). Indeed, the Prophet is reported to have referred with pride to the fact that He was born in the days of that great monarch. Nothing seemed more improbable than that this mighty Sasanian Empire would crumble away within less than three quarters of a century after the passing away of the greatest of the Sasanians, and that too at the first onset of the desert power whom all Iranians had heretofore despised. This was emphatically not a miracle, as many are apt to imagine; it was not the 'misfortune' of Iran, for such things do not happen in a world ruled by the just Ahuramazda. All that happened was the inevitable result of what had been going on for many generations in Iran, for
The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,
Though with patience He stand waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

The great founders of the House of Sasan and the great Dasturs who helped them were true men of God and deeply in earnest as devotees of the Prophet of Iran. Among the last of this line we also find such a glorious figure as Noshiravan. But we must frankly admit that from among the masses the true spirit of the ancient message was disappearing, for the simple reason that there was none to guide them along the right path after the first two centuries of Sasanian rule had passed. Noshiravan represents the last ficker of a dying cause, and when he passed away there was none else to take his place. The unfortunate thing is that there are no direct records left of the change of the masses of Iran during the last one hundred and fifty years of Zoroastrian rule. The eminent success of Mazdak and of Mani even earlier, seems to indicate that things were not as well as might have been with Zoroastrianism for some considerable time. Besides, in the religious literature of the period we find a certain amount of internal evidence. The Vendidad (a very important work on social customs and on ritual) though in the Avesta language, belongs to this period. In its language even it bears the stamp of having been a much later composition than the hymns of the Yasna or the Yashts. And though it does contain a core of very ancient tradition still the spirit of the whole Book is as different from that of the Yasna as it is possible to be. We cannot be sure that everything that is contained in the present recension of the Vendidad dates from an earlier period. There are some traditions of great and undoubted antiquity and there are also some very ancient customs described, but still the greater part of the book deals with the impurity surrounding the dead body, and the woman during her natural physiological periods of sickness and childbearing. The impurities arising from these sources and the endless baths and penances to cleanse these constitute the greater bulk of the book and make it extremely uninteresting uninspiring reading. Added to these are the innumerable punishments and mortifications to be undergone for such 'sins' as injuring a dog or an otter in its various limbs and for a variety of miscellaneous offences against human beings and others. Contrasted with the lofty idealism of Zarathushtra's Message or even with the later hymns of the Yasna and the Yashts, the Vendidad clearly indicates a lowering of ideals. And the amount of detail given seems to indicate that all these penances and purifications were actually practised.

No nation can maintain its spiritual life upon such washings and mortifications and upon such an obsession of 'the Demon of the Corpse', and of the other demons, such as we read of in the Vendidad. The human heart needs the bread of Divine Love and Grace, and the Vendidad offers merely a stone instead. It is not denied that the older Yashts and the Yasna and the Gathas with their far more satisfying ideas did also exist at that period, but even with these their Pahlavi interpretations seem to have been largely tinged by the spirit of the Vendidad. The compilers of the Vendidad no doubt aimed at having the greater possible degree of physical purity, but they erred in their very zeal and carried the matter to the point of obsession.

Added to this spiritual dissatisfaction there was the political self-seeking among the aristocracy, especially visible after the strong hand of rulers like Noshiravan had been withdrawn. The history of the last Sasanians is a continuous struggle for aggrandisement now by the monarch, now by the nobles. The people were not satisfied with their lot either spiritual or political. And consequently we see that at the very first shock with fresh and vigorous Islam the power of the old Iran simply melted away. There were practically only two hard fought battles, Qadisiyya (A.D. 636) and Nahavand (A.D. 642).

As soon as the Arabs had established their power over the country, the masses flocked to their side and embraced the new religion of Islam. There were several good points about the new religion as contrasted with the old religion as it had been practised during the latter days of the Sasanian rule. In the first place the rites and ceremonies were much simpler to observe and hence seemed much more satisfactory to their yearning hearts. And above all, the greatest thing which Islam taught and which Islam practised in those days was the real living brotherhood, which was also in marked contrast with the proud aristocratic aloofness both of the nobility and of the priesthood of the Sasanian days.

Thus the vast empire founded by Ardashir, nourished by the two Shapurs and carried to its zenith by Khusrav Noshiravan, perished almost without a struggle before the onslaught of the nomad Arabs from the desert. Thus was the hoary religion of Zarathushtra replaced in the land of its birth by the new Gospel of Arabia. In the early days of Islamic rule in Persia the Zoroastrians were not persecuted on account of their faith nor were they forcibly converted. Though zealous and eager to spread their own faith the Arab leaders did possess a great deal of toleration and their inborn spirit of democracy undoubtedly helped them to accord to others the same religious liberty they themselves wished to enjoy. There was besides a very sound economic reason for this toleration. According to the earlier Islamic law only non-Islamic subjects paid the taxes; and as the Empire of Islam extended its boundaries, it became a question of vital importance to the state to possess a large number of non-Islamic subjects who could contribute to its upkeep. This certainly curbed for a long time their zeal for proselytising.

The real persecution of the Zoroastrians of Persia began after the removal of the Arab domination. It began about the end of the ninth century of the Christian era, and for quite nine hundred years they remained a downtrodden and a heavily tried community. Still they clung to the Faith of their Fathers, even though they were a mere handful-a few thousand all told. When there seemed to be danger threatening the Sacred Texts at the hands of Moslem fanatics, they sent away to India those precious manuscripts that could be saved. And it was in India that the remains of the ancient literature of Iran were preserved during the past eight or nine centuries. But the greater part of the ancient texts have perished utterly, beyond all hope of recovery. The things that have remained are those parts of the Avesta which are used either for daily worship or for the frequent ceremonies, and hence were remembered by the priests. Of the remainder only some very brief fragments have survived. In Persia itself the community was fiercely persecuted and they were so deliberately crushed down that they could find no chance whatever to revive their old religion. They soon fell into a state of ignorance and poverty, because they had been habitually downtrodden and persecuted. So the modern Zoroastrian of Persia is as a rule ignorant and superstitious. They have, however, preserved some of the ancient traditions and customs better than have the Parsis of India.

Only about a century or so ago the Persian Government began to remove the disabilities under which the Zoroastrians had been suffering, and many of the laws from which they had been suffering were either repealed or were relaxed. And quite recently the former Ruler of Persia, Reza Shah Pahlavi, threw open all military appointments also to the Zoroastrians, thus putting them on terms of almost complete quality equality with the Muslims.

At the time of the Arab conquest though the greater part of the people and the country were willing enough to accept to change, still there was very stubborn resistance offered by certain bands and in certain localities. Though the masses were ready to embrace Islam, still there did exist a small but staunch body of Zoroastrians who where inspired with the ancient Message of Zarathushtra, and in whom the flame of religious fervour was burning bright and clear. These were strong in their adherence to the ancient Faith of Iran, and they were also staunch upholders of the Zoroastrian dynasty. They took refuge among the hills of Kohistan in the Province of Khorasan, carrying with them the Holy Fire of Iran. From there, for nearly a century they defied the Arab conquerors and lost no opportunity of harassing them. They were sturdy patriots and lovers of freedom, fervent worshippers of Ahuramazda, and devotees of their Master, Zarathushtra. They were at last hunted out of their mountain retreats and took refuge in the island of Ormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Hard pressed even here they ultimately set sail eastwards, to India. They were well aware that India was the land of brother Aryans, who had religious customs and beliefs very similar to their own. So on account of the love they bore to their religion, and because they wished to be allowed to worship their own God in their own way in complete freedom, these sturdy 'Pilgrim Fathers' deliberately accepted exile in the friendly land of Ind. At first they stayed for a few years in the island of Div, off the coast of Kathiawar. But they found the place inconvenient and therefore they left it and arrived at the port to which they gave the name of Sanjan, in South Gujerat on the western coast of India. Here they were welcomed by the Yadava Prince of that land, who gave them some land to settle down and to build their Fire-temple for the Iran-Shah. This was about one hundred and fifty years after the Arab conquest. In return for this kindness of the Hindu prince the Zoroastrians promised to live at peace with the people of the land, to help the Prince and his successors in time of war, to adopt the dress and the language of the people, and to introduce certain changes in the marriage ceremony. These conditions the Parsis have observed faithfully to this day. When Gujerat was invaded in the beginning of the fourteenth century by the King of Delhi, and Sanjan was attacked, Parsis fought and died for their adopted motherland by the side of their Hindu brothers.

These 'Pilgrim Fathers' had left their country for the sake of their conscience, and for the freedom of worship, and unto them the promise of God-made to all people and at all times, that He would never forsake the true worshipper-has been amply fulfilled. The Parsis have prospered all though their stay in India and have made their mark in Western India, even though their numbers are but a minute portion of the immense population of the land. They have faithfully carried out the promise made by their Fathers to the Yadava Prince of Sanjan nearly twelve centuries ago, and they have by the blessings of Ahuramazda gained a place, an honoured place, in the life of this great country. They have shared the life of the people, have stood by them in their joys and in their woes, they have spoken their language, and have lived side by side with them as brothers. They have learnt to love India as their very own, as their second mother.

When Western learning first came to India, the Parsis were among the first of her peoples to acquire it. They soon found themselves, by reason of this western culture, in the position of leaders of the new movement and of the new modern life of India. During the last century every great movement for the social, intellectual and political uplift of India, especially in the former Bombay Presidency, had been led by Parsis. The first founder and inspirer of the Indian National movement was Dadabhai Naoroji who won for himself the affectionate title of the 'Dada (grandsire) of Hind.' He was also the pioneer of women's education on western lines in India. And he was one of the truest of Zoroastrians. The leader of industrial revival in India, the establisher of iron and steel industry in this land was another Parsi Zoroastrian, Jamshedji N. Tata. He also founded the Indian Research Institute for Science at Bangalore to help the scientific investigation of India's resources. Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, another Zoroastrian won for himself and his community universal respect all over India by his princely and catholic charities, and by his truely dignified yet modest bearing.

With western learning came also a wave of materialism and a rush for mere worldly pleasure and enjoyment. But there is reason to believe that the tide is now turning. Too much of the Western spirit in the outlook upon life, too great a zeal for dropping all 'superstition', was responsible for a most appalling state of affairs during the latter end of the nineteenth century. With 'superstition' a great deal of true religion was also dropped, and at any rate for a considerable while to be religious was regarded as 'superstitious'. But there are sure signs now that things are changing and that the community is coming back into its precious age-long heritage. And this time it is with understanding, and not with mere blind belief, that the ancient religion is being loved and followed. Thus both the head and the heart have now combined in the service of the Religion of Zarathushtra. The heart of the race had always been true to its Master, but in the early (and somewhat ill-directed) enthusiasm for Western Science the head had felt strangely puzzled, and the community at one time seemed in real danger of drifting helplessly to destruction. Now that danger seems to be past. And even though little outward change is visible in the community, there has occurred an inner change of outlook, of the heart among the rising generation, which is the most hopeful sign. Instead of utter indifference to religion, or at best a sort of neutrality which just tolerated the outer tokens of the ancient Faith, which characterised the communal outlook at the end of the last century, there is today a distinct and growing feeling for Religion. And religion today means more the essentials than mere ceremonial observances. It is a subtle change, hardly yet visible on the surface, but yet most hopeful. The rising generation is beginning to realise, as all the world over, the need of an ideal to guide one's life. And this ideal is the message of SERVICE OF HUMANITY preached by Lord Zarathushtra in Iran. This message is stirring Zoroastrian hearts once again and their heads are once again beginning to respond to this ancient message; and with the blessings of their Prophet they hope that their Religion shall once again get its proper place among the great religions of the world, as a Power for the uplift and the progress of humanity.

The renaissance in Persia is another hopeful sign. Into Islam the genius of Iran had infused a fresh vigour and vitality, and Islamic culture is very largely Iranian in spirit. In the course of ages, however, the vigour of Islam too waned in Persia, and it seemed to have fallen into the hands of a more or less ignorant priesthood, who held sway over the hearts of a superstitious and even more ignorant multitude. Like the other nations of Asia, Iran too had been steeped in a deep slumber till the end of the last century. But she has shaken herself awake now. The first sign of the awakening came in 1850, when the Bab proclaimed His new Gospel of toleration and Human Brotherhood. This gave the first direct blow to the fanatical Islamic clergy of Persia. The Bab Himself and thousands of His followers sealed their faith in God with their blood. And out of the blood of these martyrs has sprung up to-day the rich hravest of toleration and of religious freedom, without which Iran could have had no future at all. Iran is rapidly waking up from her age-long sleep, and Moslem and Jew and Babi and Christian and Zoroastrian, are all thrilling with the dreams of a future for their beloved Iran more glorious than any in her past. For this all Iranians are looking back to their past-the pre-Islamic past-to the great Rulers of the ages gone by, to Noshiravan and Shapur and Ardashir, to Darius and to Kurush as living ideals to inspire them with zeal and fervour. Above all they see in Zarathushtra one of the greatest of mankind and the greatest Iranian; and they are livining to realise that His Message, reinterpreted in mother tongue, is to be Iran's gift to Humanity. The Message of Zarathushtra, the Prophet of God has today a new meaning to the Iranian. In it he sees the hope of his land, in it he sees the future of Iran. And the Persian Nation has begun to look to the Parsis of India to help them in this coming achievement of Iran's great destiny. They are inviting the Parsis back to the land of their great Fathers to help them to put her once again in her rightful place as one of the leaders of humanity.

In Asia there have been three mighty centres of human achievement and culture-China, India and Iran. All these three are just waking up after their long sleep of close upon one thousand years and are trying to get back into their own glorious heritage. Ishqi, one of the finest of modern Persian poets has seen a glorious vision of the future:

Reddens again the sky in Eastern lands
O East arise, and teach anew the West
What mean Humanity and Righteousness.
Let's hope and pray, when East is wide awake,
And strong again, her new-found strength she'll use
To bring our sore-tried Earth the gift of Peace,
Of Goodwill and of Brotherhood of Man.
Henceforth no people should in boundage be;
All Nations are from God: His workers must be free!

In the past Iran gave to the world the great message of ASHA, and the three commandments of God to all mankind-Humata (Good Thought), Hukhta (Good Word) and Huvarshta (Good Deed). The world today needs the Message once again; and it is the hope of every follower of Zarathushtra, and of every son of the land of the Prophet, that a New Iran and a revived Zoroastrianism be privileged to give this Message of God's Love, of the Brotherhood of Man and of the Path of Asha once again to the world. Such is our hope.
'Let the Lord interpret as He will'.

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

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