By Maneck Bhujwala
Prophet Zarathushtra (known as Zoroaster by Greek philosophers like Plato who studied his teachings) lived approximately 4,500 years ago in eastern Iranian lands, according to scholars, and based on descriptions mentioned in the holy Gathas (sacred songs, poetic compositions of the prophet containing his teachings). Roman and Greek historians put him at a much earlier time, 6000 years ago, which is supported by archaeologist Mary Settegast in her book, ‘When Spoke Zarathushtra’.
The religion of Prophet Zarathushtra eventually spread towards western Iran, and was the majority religion of three Persian empires for over a thousand years, from sixth century B.C.E. through seventh century C.E.
The Zoroastrian king Cyrus the Great, who established the first Persian empire, did not massacre or force the conquered Babylonians to convert, instead allowing them to practice their religion and customs. He freed the Jews from captivity and pledged money for them to rebuild their temple in their homeland. He is the only non-Jew mentioned in the Old Testament as a savior of the Jews. He had clay cylinders inscribed with the oldest known declaration of human rights; one of them is in the British Museum and a copy of it is displayed in the United Nations building.
The Arab Muslim invasion in the seventh century C.E., and the resulting genocide, forced conversions, persecution, and heavy taxation for non-Muslims, which continued in some form over many centuries from successive Muslim rulers, eventually reduced the religion to a small minority.
A group of Zoroastrians migrated to India, where they were allowed to practice their religion freely, and where they eventually became leaders of modern industries, banks, airlines, arts and drama. They shared their prosperity with other Indians by establishing hospitals, schools, research institutions, and charities for the public. In the nineteenth century, they also helped their co-religionists in Iran with financial, medical, and political assistance to come out of their depressed condition. Zoroastrians are well respected in India and Iran for their honesty and philanthropy.
During British rule of India, Zoroastrians were among the founders of the Indian National Congress. One Zoroastrian, Dadabhai Naoroji served as president of the Congress and later became a member of the British Parliament in England, continuing to fight for the rights of Indians. He also advised Mahatma Gandhi on his visit to England. Some Zoroastrians migrated to England, and later many migrated to Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
Zoroastrians believe in one supreme God, Ahuramazda (Wise Lord), who has created everything with wisdom, and maintains creation with a law of righteousness, justice, mercy, love, and kindness. God is considered as a friend of mankind who was given freedom to choose.
Prophet Zarathushtra, taught his followers to listen to his guiding principles about right and wrong, the twin and opposite mentalities of good and evil, meditation to understand his teachings, to decide with rational thinking (instead of blind faith) on choosing the righteous actions in life, and to face the consequences of their choices. He taught about equality of men and women, taking good care of God’s creations and preserving their purity, and resurrection of all creations to a perfect state at the end of time.
A Zoroastrian child is formally initiated into the religion, at a public ceremony attended by relatives and invited guests, at the age of 9 to 11 years normally, after learning to recite basic prayers and understanding the basic teachings of the religion.
At the initiation, the child undergoes a ritual bath, and is then vested with a white cotton under-shirt, and together with the priests ties a woolen thread around the waist while reciting a prayer of affirmation of belief in Ahuramazda, repentance for wrong thoughts, words, and actions, asking for the good attributes of Ahuramazda, and declaring admiration for good thoughts, words, and actions, the good religion which promotes peace and makes one self-reliant. After the initiation, new clothes are put on the child, and the guests are invited to a sumptuous lunch or dinner with music. From that day on, the child is required to untie and retie the thread around the waist with recitation of the prayer, five times a day. Other prayers in praise of Ahuramazda, and the great creations, are also recited facing a source of light such as the sun, moon, a candle, wood fire, or electric light.
Marriage is encouraged in the religion, and partners are found within the Zoroastrian community. Both partners take a ritual bath and put on wedding dresses before entering the wedding stage. Priests who perform the wedding ceremony, in the presence of witnesses who are parents or relatives of the couple, ask the couple if they consent to the wedding, and then shower the couple with rice, while reciting prayers and blessings for a long, happy married life, loyal to each other. The wedding is followed by dinner and music with invited guests.
In the event of death, a candle or oil lamp is placed near the body, and a special prayer is recited, before the body is taken away for disposal. In the traditional belief that the spirit hovers on earth for three days and nights, prayers are recited with invocation of Ahuramazda and the angel protecting the soul. On the dawn of the fourth day, when the soul is expected to be travelling towards the spiritual world and be judged for its actions, another set of prayers are recited, followed by more prayers after sunrise.
Zoroastrians celebrate several seasonal festivals throughout the year, starting with the New Year in the beginning of spring, Prophet Zaratushtra’s birthday, agriculture related events when the community gathers and has prayers of thanksgiving to Ahuramazda, with distribution of food and necessities to the poor people, and celebration with food and entertainment.
At the end of the year, prayers are recited in honor and memory of departed relatives, and for repentance of wrong thoughts, words and actions performed during the year. The five sacred songs composed by Prophet Zarathushtra are each recited on the last five days of the year.