Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest known monotheistic religion, ie they believe in One God, in the world being founded by the prophet, Zarathustra (Zoroaster) 3,500 years ago in what is now Iran (Persia). Even though it has only 200,000 followers in the world today, it has been the inspiration, and perhaps the source, of many of the concepts of the major monotheistic religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mainly due to persecution over the centuries by Islamic governments in Iran, Zoroastrians are scattered over the world. 75% of Zoroastrians live in India where they are known as Parsees, and most of the remainder are in Iran where they are known as Gabars. There are about 3,000 Zoroastrians in Britain, and most of the others are scattered around the world including Australia but mainly in the USA and Canada, especially in Toronto.

History and Beliefs: Zoroaster was a prophet living in northern Iran, but very little is known of his life. He wrote their sacred book the Avesta which contains the Gathas or sacred hymns. Zoroastrianism believes in a single God, Ahura Mazda (‘Wise Lord’), also known as Ohrmazd. He controls the force of Goodness and Balance in the Universe known as, Asha. There are a number of other subordinate Gods such as Mithra, a group of seven divine attributes known as the Amesha Spentas, (‘Holy Immortals’): Good Mind, Order, Dominion, Devotion, Wholeness, Immortality, and the Holy Spirit. They combat the opposite force the Druj, and the evil spirit who controls it, Angira Mainyuor Ahriman. Asha is symbolized by Fire and Light and Druj by darkness. Therefore, Zoroastrianism is a Dualistic religion. From creation through the present age to the final judgement and reordering of the universe, the events of this world are seen as a contest between the powers of Good and Evil. It is incumbent upon the faithful to choose the Right, not only that they may individually achieve the reward of the righteous after death, but so that Good may eventually triumph in the world. They believe in free will, good deeds and good thoughts which bring you closer to God. There is no prescribed moral behaviour and there is an emphasis on non-violence and positivity. Upon Death, the soul crosses a bridge, the Chinvat Bridge (the Bridge of the Separator) that widens for the good but narrows for the evil who fall into a Hell below. Zoroastrian ethical teachings place a great stress upon personal honesty and on striving for the harmony of all creatures both in the world of nature and human society. The world is seen as a place to be enjoyed so there is little place for Asceticism in Zoroastrianism. At the same time there is always the danger of being polluted by worldliness, so that elaborate steps are taken in Zoroastrian ritual and practice to maintain purity.

Zarathustra founded the religion in the mountains of northern Iran 3,500 years ago. Three separate Middle Eastern empires had it as their predominant or official religion – the Archaeminid Empire (550-330BC) when Zoroastrianism was spread throughout the empire to Egypt, Pakistan and Greece. Alexander the great defeated this empire and Zorastrianism lost favour until the Parthian Empire (247BC to 226AD) was established which advocated the cult of Mithras honoured by Zoroastrians; then the Sassanid Empire (226-651AD) followed which promoted Zoroastrianism as the official religion until the Muslim invasion in the 7th century and the widespread persecution of Zoroastrians led to them fleeing to India as the Parsee, or gathering in small clustered fragments throughout the old empire.

Rituals and Priesthood: The is no requirement to congregate in groups for worship besides their own homes; but there are Fire Temples, used widely for public worship. These Temples were introduced long after the religion started and feature a central altar with an eternal fire representing the Asha or the force of Goodness. The Fire Temple is not like a church for ceremonies at stated times but rather like a shrine which the individual lay person may approach at any time. Prayers are said only by priests who must be males and are allowed to be married and raise families. Practicing priests wear only white and there is no central governing body, just local hierarchies.

There are three levels of priests: Ervad: the lowest level who can only work in the outer courtyard; Mobed: the intermediate level, who perform greater rituals in the fire temples; and Dastur: who have expert knowledge of The Avesta, perform any ritual, are the administrators and religious leaders managing the law and code of the fire temples. Every Zoroastrian child is initiated into the duties of the religion before puberty in a ceremony called Navjote,  or, ‘New Birth’, all Zoroastrians from then on wear two items of clothing  a white undershirt called the Sudreth, and a hollow woven wool cord called the Kusti, which is wound three times around the waist. Disposal of the dead is by exposure to scavenging birds on the Dakhma (Tower of Silence) as they believe a dead body is possessed by evil and that continued contact with humans, their homes, or holy items such as fire must be avoided. On the third and fourth days after death, prayers are offered for the safe passage of the soul over the Chinvat Bridge, to face judgement for the actions done during life on the earth. There are two holidays: Naw-Ruz: new year’s celebration on March 21st and Yalda: celebrated on the Winter Solstice December 21st when the long nights (evil) are conquered by the return of long days (Good). Their holiest city is Yazd in Iran and pilgrimages to this city and its fire temples are undertaken.

Influence on Other Religions: Zoroastrianism has had a profound influence on the three most important monotheistic religions of the modern world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam – but the evidence remains fragmentary and circumstantial rather than proved conclusively. They all believe in a Single God; a Dualistic Universe; and a Final Judgement Day. The notion of Satan as God’s rival, the notion of life after death, and the sequence of world ages and a final judgement and redemption are teachings that seem to have been elaborated in Judaism only after the Archaeminid Persian Empire (Zoroastian) conquered Israel. Prayer in the fire temple 5 times per day looks very much like the prayer pattern of Islam, called the Salat. The Kusti, or sacred thread, is reminiscent of the thread worn by upper-caste Hindus.

Zoroastrianism in Decline: Zoroastrianism has about 200,000 followers throughout the world now but is rapidly declining, for example, Zoroastrian schools in India note an approximately 10% decline in numbers each decade. Reasons for this include:

  • Persecution by Muslim fundamentalists in Iran;  
  • Zoroastrians do not accept converts aside from their own children who pass the Navjote ceremony;
  • Zoroastrians can only marry other Zoroastrians so this means that many marry outside the religion and convert to the religion of their partner.

Zoroastrianism was one of the first monotheistic religions but is unlikely to last another thousand years of present trends continue.