Zoroaster, Zoroastrian History and Ritual in Iran
We know nothing for certain about the life and time of Zarathushtra/Zoroaster. The best-educated guess regarding Zoroaster, based on linguistic evidence, dates his life as between 1500-1300 BC. Some have claimed Azerbaijan as his birthplace, but it seems to be more probable that he was born either in eastern Iran or in the steppes of Central Asia. In the Gathas and later Pahlavi works it is mentioned that he was thirty when the revelation came to him. “The Prophet seems to have gained his ﬁrst convert only after ten years of indefatigable mission works which he was encouraged to continue by visions from heaven.
Success came when Zoroaster converted Goshtasp, the legendary Iranian king. Following this, his word spread rapidly throughout Iran and its neighbors. Goshtasp may have found Zoroaster’s uniting theories better suited to the exercise of power than the more disconnected social structure of polytheism, and entrusted the Magi with the safekeeping of the new religion. Zoroaster ﬁrst rejected, and then perhaps allowed in a modiﬁed form the drinking of a plant juice, a natural intoxicant. This had been an ancient practice of the haoma cult. He condemned the practice of animal sacriﬁce, and he elevated the importance of reverence for ﬁre.
Zoroaster was killed, reportedly by Tatar hordes, during the inauguration of a ﬁre temple. His death, however, gave an impetus rather than a check to his doctrines. Zoroaster was an ethical prophet of the highest rank, stressing constantly the need to act righteously to speak the truth and abhor lying. His ideas are best expressed in the Gathas, which he composed, and of which sixteen have been preserved. The Gathas are inspired, passionate utterances, many addressed directly to God. Their poetic form is the most ancient in Iranian literary works.
From the establishment of the Median Empire until the advent of Islam, except for a relatively short lapse during the Seleucid period. The Zoroastrian religion was an inseparable part of the social and political life of the Iranians. Beginning with Darius I, the Achaemenid dynasty seems to be Zoroastrian. Darius and his successor, however, refused to create political difﬁculties by attempting to eradicate the old beliefs still dear to the heart of many nobles. Thus, the religion of Zoroaster was gradually contaminated with elements of the old, polytheistic worship.
Zoroastrianism gained special importance during the Sasanid rule when it was raised to the rank of the ofﬁcial religion. The evolution of Zoroastrianism as an organized religion into something resembling its modern form can be regarded as having begun in this period. At this time, the entire” body of Zoroastrian doctrines, which had been handed down orally from generation to generation, were ﬁnally committed to writing.
In sharp contrast to the peoples of the Middle East, the Iranians did not make images of their deities, nor did they build temples to house them. Plain ﬁre altars, however, existed at all the major sites, and are depicted on the reverse sides of Sasanid coins. The three main sacred ﬁres, Azar Farnbagh, Azar Goshnasp, and Azar Barzinmehr were particularly venerated and were connected, respectively, with the priests, the king, and the warriors, and the farmers.
The Farnbagh ﬁre temple was at ﬁrst in Kharazrn, until in the 6th century BC, when according to tradition, Goshtasp, Zoroaster’s protector, transported it to Kabolestan. Then Khosrow I transported it to the ancient sanctuary of Karian. The Goshnasp ﬁre, located in Shiz (in modern Khuzestan), was the ancient ﬁre temple of the Magi but came to be a symbol of monarchic and religious unity. The Barzinmehr ﬁre temple never ranked as high as the other two, because the farmers never possessed any status of authority such as the kings and the clergy did.
After the advent of Islam, the fortunes of Zoroastrianism drastically changed. The Muslims officially tolerated the Zoroastrian faith, though persecution was not unknown. The Zoroastrian religion has survived in India (chieﬂy concentrated in Mumbai) and in small enclaves in Iran (with the main center in Yazd), and it is still practiced in various places throughout the world.
The ﬁrst, World Zoroastrian Congress was held in Tehran in 1960. The two major communities in Iran and India sought to reform and modernization, and some aspects of the ancient doctrines were revised and modernized. Under the Constitution of 1979, Zoroastrians in the Islamic Republic of Iran are recognized as an official religious minority and are permitted to elect one representative to the Majles (Parliament).
Throughout centuries, the Zoroastrian rites have been extended and given a deﬁnite order by the priestly class. They fall into two categories: those performed inside ﬁre temples, and those performed anywhere. One of the most important rituals is the initiation ceremony (for 7-year-old in India and 10-year-olds in Iran) called Navjote. It is accompanied by a festive meal and the recitation of large parts of the Avesta.“Contrary to common presumptions, Zoroastrians do not worship the ﬁre itself.
The ﬁre is kept in Zoroastrian temples as a symbol of purity, eternal life, and the inner light that burns in each person. The sacred ﬁre must be kept burning continually and has to be fed at least ﬁve times a day. Prayers are also recited ﬁve times a day. The founding of a new ﬁre involves a very elaborate ceremony. There are also rites for puriﬁcation and the regeneration of a ﬁre.
Festivals, in which worship is an essential part, are characteristic aspects of Zoroastrianism, a faith that imposes upon man the pleasant duty of being happy. The principal festivals are the six seasonal festivals of Gahanbars and the celebrations in memory of the dead at the year’s end. Also, each day of the month, and each of the twelve months of the year is dedicated to a deity. The day that bears the name of the month is the great feast day of that particular deity. The New Year festival, Nowruz, is the most beautiful of Zoroastrian feasts.
The festival to Mithra, or Mehregan, was traditionally an autumn one, as signiﬁcant as the spring feast of Nowruz. One of the most intriguing aspects of Zoroastrianism is its way of disposing of the dead, called Dakhma-Neshini.
According to the Zoroastrian beliefs, the evil spirit of putrefaction rushes upon the dead body within about three hours after death. After that time, the body cannot be touched by anybody except special corpse-bearers, who live apart from the rest of the society. These wash the body and dress it in special garments, with a wool cord tied around the waist, and place it on a marble stone. A Zoroastrian priest then intones prayers in the Avestan language (a sister language of Vedic Sanskrit), helping the soul to proceed on its way. (The soul is believed to wander near the body for the ﬁrst three days, and is very susceptible to evil spirits at this time.) It is said that because of these strengthening invocations, Zoroastrian souls never return to the earth as ghosts. The members of the family then say their ﬁnal goodbye to the departed. ‘The ﬁre that has been burning beside the body is kept alive for three days after the corpse has been removed.
The removal must be done during the daytime. Formerly, presuming that stone and iron” remain free from pollution, the corpse-bearers used to carry the corpse on a special iron bier and expose it naked in a stone tower, called Dakhmeh (“a tower of silence”), near which lived the vultures which performed the next part of the funerary rites. The vultures worked systematically to strip the ﬂesh off the bones. The clean bones were then kept in an ossuary to preserve them from rain and animals.
Today this ceremony has been generally abandoned, and the body is buried in the earth. The soil where it is buried, however, remains polluted for ﬁfty years and cannot be cultivated, which is considered a great sin, because cultivation is seen as the greatest worship of God.
Mourning ceremonies go on until the fourth day when the soul of the departed person is thought to reach the Chinvat Bridge that separates the spiritual world from the material. Either before crossing the bridge or after, the soul meets its Daena, which is an embodiment of the sum of its deeds during life, manifested as a beautiful damsel if a person has lived justly, or a hideous
hag if not. (Daena means “the spiritual twin and, according to Zoroastrian beliefs, is one of the ﬁve immortal parts in man, the other four being Ahu “life”, Baodah “knowledge”, Urvan “soul”, and Farvarti “protective spirit”.)
Finally, the soul is judged by Mithra and then passes either to heaven or to hell.