Cultural Zoroastrianism: The Commonality amongst the South-Central-West Asians
by David Rahni
Tue 14th Apr 2015
The people of Zoroastrian faith, ethnically Persian, can be traced back in history for over 4,000 years. Currently, they mainly reside in Iran and India with sporadic clusters in the Western diaspora, especially in the UK and in the US. Although conservative estimates put the dwindling number of Zoroastrians worldwide at ~150,000, one might reckon their population to be well above a million if the Izadis aka Yazidi’ s or Yazdanis of northern Iraq, whose roots are Zoroastrians of Irano-Kurdish stock, are also included. As on seven prior occasions over the past 700 years, the Izadis are once again harshly persecuted, jailed, tortured and raped, killed and exiled by the self-declared and illegitimate ISIS Baghdadi Caliphate. ISIS is financed, indoctrinated and instigated by the Wahhabi-Salafi Sunni royal families of Saudi Arabia and their genocide committed against humanity is witnessed with pathetic ambivalent silence by the international community.
The number of Zoroastrians in south-central-West Asia may even amount to several hundred million, if we do not solely focus on the strict adherence to the religion itself per se, but instead consider Zoroastrian cultural rituals such as the observance of Nowruz and other festivities that tie together these seemingly diverse communities. After all, who could argue against the appreciation of Mother Nature and its bounties and not subscribe to the Zoroastrian three tenets of life: good thoughts, good words and good deeds?! Post Islamisation of Iran in the 7 thcentury, the Zoroastrians became rather insular, in essence avoiding inter-marriage especially in the Gujarat and Mumbai provinces of India where the Parsi ancestors left Iran due to religious persecution in the 10 thcentury. The Izadis were also persecuted during the same era, when they modified their religion to embrace a degree of Islam and other faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Persian mysticism) for acclimated protection. The above notwithstanding, the Zoroastrians are continually revered as trustworthy, industrious and honourable by their compatriots in India, Iran and elsewhere.
Certain beliefs in the supernatural and ceremonial rites allude to the surmised inception of a crude form of religion as far back as 300 thousand years ago . Practices such as burial ceremonies and mourning melancholy hymns, orally passed on from generation to generation, go back 40,000 years whilst recorded religion is a mere 5,000 years old. Zoroastrianism , an Indo-Iranian monotheistic religion, culture and philosophy of life, anchored on its precursor Mithraism (the later embraced by the Romans as Sols Invictus ) and with key elements from Hinduism , was first conceived by Zarathustra in the 2 ndmillennium BCE. This religion was followed by Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all of which, especially Judaism, drew many of their principles from Zoroastrianism. Zarathustra’s teaching, guidance and scriptures: Gathas , Yasna , Vendidad , Visperad , Yashts , Khordeh Avesta , Ab-Zohr , the Ahuna Vairya Invocation and the F ire Temples rituals and prayers, were subsequently compiled in the Book Avesta in 650 BCE. The Zoroastrian religion at the time was considered progressive in that it codified rules and laws and brought order and justice to the emerging city-states and gave citizens responsibilities that governed their daily lives in south/central/west Asia.
In fact, many historians have substantiated Avesta the book of the Zoroastrians as the basis in part for the Torah which was subsequently chronicled and used as the source for the Bible and the Quran. The eternal duel on theological or mythological dualism (e.g., good vs. evil, heaven vs. hell, light vs. dark) in all religions is said to have derived from Zoroastrian faith. The Zoroastrians believe by closely following their three mottos in life as cited earlier. With assistance from the angel Faravahar , they yearn to ascend to the ultimate wisdom as only known by the highest supreme spirit, the Lord Ahura Mazda . Notwithstanding, there has existed for generations a treasure trove of ideas, religious beliefs, arts and rhapsody fables amongst all peoples in the China-India-Persia-Mesopotamia-Egypt corridor for the past ten thousand years. Modern science has further confirmed the key genetic biomarker commonalities among all peoples living in the said corridor that makes them alike rather than distinct.
Over a span of one thousand years, and as Zoroastrianism was structured and gradually became the official religion of the Persian Empires, namely, the Achaemenid, Partian and especially the Sassanid dynasties, the social caste system and the heavy taxations especially imposed on non-Zoroastrians were implemented. Amongst the caste systems, the priests (mobadan), the kings and royalty (shahzadegan), and the merchants and artisans (pishevaran) had exclusive privileges. The majority populace then fell into a subservient serf caste who could not own lands. Such inequalities led to two major reformation egalitarian faiths: Mazdakism and Manichaeism . The repressive implication of Zoroastrianism as a socio-political tool imposed by the Sassanid dynasty, and the ongoing skirmishes and battles between the Persian and Jewish alliance and some Arab tribes against the rapidly emerging Byzantium Empire depleted the Persian Empire's defence. This, combined with a degree of popular dissent, ultimately paved the way for a much easier invasion of Iran in the 7 thcentury by a new Islamic caliphate and the 200 year long gradual occupation of Iran by the new Islamic Arab tribes, some of whom were said to be Byzantine mercenaries. What is most intriguing is that the Iranian system of governance, trade and culture remained alive and even thrived in certain areas during this period.
Most people in Iran became and remained Muslim from the 7 thcentury onwards. Nonetheless, their Zoroastrian and other pre-Islamic cultural rituals were safeguarded and eternally passed on to future generations. For instance, Nowruz around the birth of Zarathustra , aka the solar New Year celebrated at spring vernal equinox, has remained stronger than ever in Iran and a dozen neighbouring countries that are comprised of nearly 300 million inhabitants.
The Zoroastrians, similar to people of other faith, have varying levels of devotion to their congenital religion and culture which spans from (ultra) orthodox, conservative, reformist, spiritualist, and humanist, culturist to agnostics or atheists. The observance of pre-Islamic cultural rituals that are encoded in Zoroastrianism, is also common to the modern countries (once part of the greater Persian/Iranian federation spanning across three continents) of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan and the southern Russian Republics. Hence, there has emerged a regional consensus reawakening to nurture, support and rejoice the propagation of common cultural heritage, e.g. Nowruz, in south-central and west Asia.
D. N. Rahni Copyright © New York April 2015. The author was born and raised in Iran. He has been Professor of chemistry and environmental science in New York for three decades and has increasingly fulfilled his scholastic passion through his prolific writing on human rights and justice, reformed modernization and history, and global cultural heritage.