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  The prophet Zarathustra, better known by the Greek version of his name Zoroaster, gave his name to Zoroastrianism. He is usually said to have lived in the north-eastern part of Persia (Iran) c.588-541  BCE, but recent research has suggested an earlier date within the period 1700-1400  BCE. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persian dynasties for 1,000 years, until in  CE 644 Muslim Arabs conquered Persia and enforced adherence to Islam. In the 10th century a considerable number of Zoroastrians emigrated to the west coast of India, where they became known as Parsees or Persis. The largest modern community of Parsees is found in and around Bombay, but there are small settlements even as far inland as Madurai. Some 17,000 live in Iran, and about 4,000 in the UK.

Although Zarathustra was a monotheist, he is chiefly remembered for the dualism of his theology, ‘a dualism of spirit, postulating two principles, two twin-spirits at the origin of the universe: the spirit of truth or Spenta Mainyu, and the spirit of the lie, or Angra Mainyu’. In later Zoroastrianism the spiritual battle in the universe is waged by Ahura Mazda on the one hand and by Ahriman, his opponent, on the other. In Zarathustra\'s teaching Ahura Mazda, though father of both twins, is not responsible for Angra Mainyu. The spirits exercised complete freedom of choice and the outcome was entirely due to their choice. Men and women likewise cannot escape, he taught, from making moral choices, and by virtue of their choice and conduct they identify themselves with one of the two spirits in the universe, light or darkness, truth or lie, order or chaos, good or evil.

The Gathas also reveal Zarathustra as a fiery prophet, indignantly rejecting the enemies of truth. Initially he expressed hope for the victory of the forces of good over evil and the establishment of the kingdom of righteousness on Earth. The concept of kingdom or dominion (Xshathra) is one of the six attributes of Ahura Mazda\'s divine power. The others are: good mind, good order, devotion, welfare and immortality. Together they form the Amesha Spentas, which are either Ahura Mazda\'s divine attributes or companion spirits. The notion of angels and archangels in later Zoroastrianism, also adopted in post-exilic Judaism and hence Christianity, may have developed from the idea of these spirits.

Another ancient Iranian concept, of Indo-European origin, used by Zarathustra in his theology is the principle of cosmic order as opposed to chaos. This principle is at work in the natural world, in the regular rhythm of night and day, in the flow of rivers from their source to the sea, and in the movement of the stars. There was order in the service of the gods through liturgy while the moral law created order in human affairs.

Towards the end of Zarathustra\'s ministry, he developed the supernatural dimension of immortality. His idea of the ‘bridge of the separator’ over which each individual\'s soul must pass before he or she can enter eternal life was taken from earlier times, but he gave it a distinctive moral significance. Ahura Mazda, he said, had designed the bridge as an instrument of divine judgement of the dead. It represents a dreadful ordeal for the wicked: the followers of the lie will fall off the bridge into a pit of everlasting torment, whereas, assisted by Zarathustra\'s presence, ‘powerful in immortality shall be the souls of the followers of truth’. Life beyond death was seen essentially as life in the body. Zarathustra\'s teaching, therefore, included a doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In later Zoroastrianism the concept of a restored physical world appears, a world ‘most excellent, unaging, undecaying, neither passing away nor falling into corruption’. Associated with this was the doctrine of the coming of a saviour, Soashyant, who would appear at the end of time when all the evil forces in the universe would finally be overcome.

Zoroastrians today are also known as ‘fire-worshippers’. This practice goes back also to ancient Indo-Aryan times when fire was worshipped as the god Agni (see Vedic religion). Today temples provide the shrine, the sanctuary for the sacred fire which signifies the presence of God, and there are two such temples in Iran and eight in India.

Another distinctive feature of later Zoroastrianism is the elaborate cult of the dead, still practised today. The practice of burial or cremation of the dead is rejected by the Parsis on theological grounds: the purity of the earth and of fire must be strictly preserved from the pollution of death. Instead the corpse is exposed to vultures and birds of carrion on the top of ‘towers of silence’, with accompanying rituals.

Zoroastrians share with the Indo-Aryans the god Mithra, who was popular in Vedic times. The Mithra cult, as the champion fighting for the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, was taken up by Roman soldiers and brought to Britain. The image of the triumph of light over darkness clearly appealed in northern lands, and was taken up in Christian hymns and prayers. RW

Further reading S.G.F. Brandon, Man and His Destiny in the Great Religions.



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