The beliefs of Zoroastrianism

This week, newstatesman.com's faith column is focusing on Zoroastrianism. Shahin Bekhradnia uses the

Zoroastrians are those who follow the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (Zarathushtra). His teachings are immortalised in the texts known as the Divine Songs or Gathas which are his account of the divine revelations he experienced. From these it is clear that he believed in a Creator Energy which embodied the positive attributes we associate with God. This entity was named by him as Ahura Mazda which is variously translated as the Wise Lord, The Intelligent Spirit etc.

Zoroastrians are taught that there is one God who is all good and whose creation is visible in the natural world around. The order and regularity of the orbiting planets, the moon, the tides, and the seasons all testify to a superior organising mind – all the work of Ahura Mazda. Within this natural world, just as there are physical opposites such as dark and light, night and day or positive or negative energies in magnets, so too in the moral sphere diametrically opposed forces are at work.

Zoroastrians are therefore alerted to the existence of the negative forces which exist within nature but also within the human mind and about which they need to be consciously vigilant.

Zoroastrians are therefore taught to fight against being drawn in by the negative forces which are manifested in deceit and dishonesty. For this reason Zoroastrians encapsulate their ideal aspirations in the motto Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds and are reputed to be honest, straightforward and charitable

Zoroastrians are encouraged to base their lives on the principle of Asha or Right Behaviour which can be achieved by right thinking or Vohu Manah. This state of thinking can be achieved through through working within or contemplation of nature, or through chanting songs of praise, both a form of meditation.

Zoroaster makes it clear that each human is capable of making choices and thus responsibility for any action comes down to the individual. There is no compulsion to accept the message that Zoroaster has received and gives expression to in the Gathas, but he states that every Zoroastrian should share this philosophy of truth and righteousness with others and give them the opportunity to join the community of the Good Religion.

In the Divine Songs, Zoroaster addresses both men and women and makes it clear that his respect for humans extends to both genders equally. Thus throughout the social history of the community, women have always enjoyed an elevated status and have been able to participate in all activities that men might undertake.

While there are some notions of what happens at death, the primary concern of a Zoroastrian is with life on this earth rather than with the afterlife. The most fundamental prayer known as Ashem Vohu, makes it clear that it is on this earth that happiness is bestowed upon the person who does good for its own sake, rather than in the hope of reward. It is therefore clear that doing good brings happiness which is the ultimate blessing upon every person. It is the Zoroastrian’s duty to leave the earth a better place through the efforts and results of each individual throughout his/her lifetime.

In terms of death, it is thought that the soul leaves the body and crosses a bridge where one’s good deeds are weighed against one’s bad deeds. If the balance of good is greater, the soul will begin its journey to the abode of everlasting light and bliss and be reunited with the cosmic energy. Beyond this, there is no elaboration. If good does not prevail, then the soul is left lingering in limbo. In traditional practice, the dead body is not left to pollute the earth which supports life.

Instead it serves the living by providing nourishment to the carrion birds that visit the final resting place of the bodies on high inaccessible mountain plateaux surrounded by man-built walls. Nowadays many prefer cremation although in Iran this is not allowed by the present authorities so burial is the only possibility, however distatsteful it may be to orthodox Zoroastrians.

Later Zoroastrianism has developed more elaborate notions of hell, and a final day of judgement when a Saviour will appear and Good will triumph ultimately over Evil.

The concern with truth, and purity of thought, word and deed together with the recognition of one god whose presence cannot be seen but can be felt, is symbolised through light or fire. .

In temples therefore an eternal flame is maintained in an urn and constantly kept alight and in private homes, prayers are recited facing the source of light. This does not mean that fire is worshipped but it is seen as a reminder of the intangible energy of the creator spirit who provides warmth and light for plants and animals to live and which represents purity of thought word and deed.