Professing Faith: Traditions in the lesser-known Zoroastrian faith are familiar to a wider world

The month of December is known for a variety of religious holidays and holy days. This month, the faithful will or have observed Hanukkah, the feast days for Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, winter solstice, and perhaps the most widely known, Christmas. But there is a little known holy day sacred to the Zoroastrian faith called Zarathosht Diso, which falls on Dec. 26 in the Western calendar, which recalls the death of the Persian prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster.

The life of Zoroaster is a debated issue, and even his birth and death dates have been disputed. The best scholars can come up with is sometime between 1700-600 B.C., which is a long time. The prophet was probably born in northern Iran. He became a priest in one of the many old Persian religious traditions around the age of 15, and at 20 began wandering the earth. Around the age of 30, he had a religious experience in which he saw the Vohu Manah, or the shining spirit of Good Purpose who instructed the young man in spiritual matters. The kind spirit told Zoroaster about the supreme deity, Ahura Mazda, or the “Wise Lord.” He learned also of the two primal spirits which have always existed. These were Asha, or good order, and Druj, or deception. The prophet decided to teach people to follow Asha, that there might be order and goodness in the world.

Blessed with later revelations, Zoroaster learned of many doctrines that would be familiar to later monotheistic religions. The shining spirit told him that after this life is over, there is a heaven for the good and hell for the evildoers, a judgment day when the world will be renewed and evil destroyed. At that time, Zoroaster believed a time would come for the resurrection of the dead when souls and bodies would be reunited and meet their eternal fate. An inherent dualism exists in Zoroaster’s universe, where good and evil are always in conflict, but this dualism is what gives men and women free will to choose. However, at the end of days, he believed good would triumph but not without great struggle.

Around the age of 40, Zoroaster gained the patronage of a local queen and his newer religion began to spread. He was murdered by an evil, envious priest named Bradres at the age of 77 years and 40 days.

Zoroaster’s ideas were enshrined in a series of hymns and prayers which are recited as the central act of worship called the Yasna. This collection would take a priest who understands the archaic Persian language, Avestan, two hours to recite. A central part of this recitation consists of 17 particular hymns called the Gathas, which are attributed to Zoroaster himself. These hymns describe the attack of evil upon goodness and the goodness of Ahura Mazda. One of the Gathas opens as follows:

“With outspread hands in petition for that help, O Mazda, I will pray for the works of the holy spirit, O thou the Right, whereby I may please the will of Good Thought and the Ox-Soul. I who would serve you, O Mazda Ahura and Vohu Mano, do ye give through Asha the blessings of both worlds, the bodily and that of the Spirit, which set the faithful in felicity. I who would praise ye as never before, Right and Good Thought and Mazda Ahura, and those for whom Piety makes an imperishable Dominion to grow; come ye to me help at my call. I who have set my heart on watching over the soul, in union with Good Thought, and as knowing the rewards of Mazda Ahura for our works, will, while I have power and strength, teach men to seek after Right.”

The correct recitation of the entire Yasna ceremony is believed to reinforce the powers of goodness, order and truth in the universe, and it wards off the powers of chaos and evil. The hereditary priests are expected to have the entire ritual memorized.

Zoroaster was certainly born into a polytheistic society. He or his followers merged many of the scriptures and rituals into a flexible kind of monotheism, with Ahura Mazda as the sole god, but added other eternal angelic or demonic forces. In this he was as much a reformer of Persian religious practices as a prophet of a new religion. That said, the impact of his teachings has far-reaching consequences, if it is true that the ideas of judgment day, angels, demons and related concepts were to blossom in later Judaism and then into aspects of Christianity and Islam. With his death, supposedly on Dec. 26, these ideas were then given to posterity.

Published on Daily Bulletin