Although Zoroastrianism is still practiced today, it has only a few thousand adherents, of whom the best known may be the conductor Zubin Mehta. But this tradition, which developed in Iran, or Persia, during the first millennium before Christ, had an enormous influence on the monotheistic teachings of Judaism and Christianity, and, by extension, Islam as well. Some religious historians credit Zoroastrianism, and the Persian cult of Mithras that derived from it, with introducing to Western religion the concept of the immortality of the soul; the Last Judgment; belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, and a heavenly book in which human actions are written down; the coming of the Messiah, called the Saoshyant, who would be born of a virgin; the transformation of the earth after a millennium of struggle; the concept of paradise on earth or in heaven; and hell, including even the figure of Satan, originally appointed by God as His prosecutor.
And yet this influential monotheistic religion appears to have been developed by Indo-Iranian peoples related to the Aryans who invaded northern India and began the tradition that came to be known as Hinduism. As those Aryan tribes were moving from Central Asia into India, other groups of Aryans made their way south into what is now Iran. (The name Iran is itself derived from Aryan.) The tradition these other Aryans developed bore some similarities to that of Vedic India, but they developed in a different way. Their language and terminology echoed the Sanskrit of the Vedas, and they divided the spirit world between ahuras and daevas, roughly equivalent to Hindu asuras and devas. In their early sacrificial liturgies, the Iranians shared an intoxicating sacred drink called haoma or homa, a clear relative of soma.
It is not clear how the Iranian religion evolved into something so different from the Hinduism of India, although the presence of an indigenous culture different from the Shiva-worshiping yogis of the Indus Valley is one possible explanation. In both cases, it seems that the local inhabitants belonged to an agricultural, sedentary culture that interacted with the more violent, nomadic culture of the invading Aryans to produce a religious synthesis. In this regard, the major formative influence on Iranian religion was the appearance of the mystical prophet Zoroaster sometime around the first millennium BCE. Scholars cannot agree on exactly when he lived. Some give his dates as 628 to 551 BCE, but others insist on a much earlier date, close to 1200 BCE. Zoroaster, whose Iranian name was Zarathustra, was credited by the Greeks and Romans with having founded the wisdom of the Magi — a class of sorcerer priests skilled in dream interpretation, prophecy, and astrology — although some authorities believe that the Magi predate Zoroaster.
Legend holds that at age 30, Zoroaster had a heavenly vision in which an angel brought him to the deity Ahura Mazda, who instructed him to found a new religion to supersede the cruder beliefs of the Indo-Iranians. The visions continued over a 10-year period, but Zarathustra met with stiff resistance to his attacks on the traditional priests. He rejected many of the ritual practices of the Aryan-derived religion that surrounded him, especially the sacrificial slaughter of cattle and the drinking of intoxicating haoma. (At that time, an aristocratic warrior class of Iranians participated in initiatory brotherhoods, working themselves into states of violent frenzy after consuming haoma.) Zoroaster was forced to flee, seeking refuge at the court of King Vishtaspa of Bactria — north of the Hindu Kush Mountains that separate India from Central Asia, corresponding to Balkh in modern Afghanistan. After first being imprisoned for teaching his radical new religion, Zoroaster converted the King and his family to his beliefs. According to tradition, Zoroaster was slain by unbelievers at the age of 77.
The basic element of Zoroaster’s belief system is the duality between good and evil. This separation is the result of a choice initiated by Ahura Mazda, the world’s creator. According to Zoroastrian cosmogony, one of the twin spirits engendered by Ahura Mazda, named Spenta Mainyu (“Beneficent Spirit”) chose good and life, while the other, Angra Mainyu (“Destroying Spirit,” or Ahriman, as he is known in the later documents) chose evil and death. As a result, humans must make the same choice, and will be judged accordingly upon their death, the just rewarded with entrance into paradise, or the “House of Song,” the wicked condemned to the “House of Evil.” In an ancient hymn, Zoroaster declares,
“Truly, there are two primal Spirits, twins renowned to be in conflict. In thought and word, in act they are two: the better and the bad. And those who act well have chosen rightly between these two, not so the evildoers.” (Yasna 30:3).
Zoroaster was not a strict monotheist. He posited a Divine Heptad consisting of Ahura Mazda and six lesser deities whom he created to help him, called the Amesha Spentas (“Holy Immortals”). These subordinate divinities Zoroaster associated with the idealization of Right Law, Good Thought or Purpose, Noble Power or Government, Health, Devotion, and Immortality, all of which he saw as embodiments of aspects of God’s nature.
The Zoroastrian duality between good and evil should not be confused with the opposition of matter and spirit that drives Christian theology and plays a role in the later stages of Hinduism as well. Nor is it the same duality as that of Manichaeism, a Gnostic-influenced religion initiated in the 3rd century CE by the Persian prophet and ecstatic Mani, who saw spirit as good and matter as evil. Fasting and celibacy, for instance, are forbidden in Zoroastrianism, except during the rituals of purification that all young members must go through, and are actually condemned as evil.
Of the various Zoroastrian systems that developed since the founder’s death, including Zurvanism, the only coherent one is called Mazdaism. According to its teachings, history, which consists of the ongoing struggle between good and evil in which overmatched evil will lose, is divided into four 3,000-year periods. The first was a period of creation; during the second and third, Mazda and Ahriman ruled in succession. In the final period, which began with Zarathustra’s ministry and in which we still find ourselves, good and evil do battle. With the help of the Messiah, or Saoshyant (“He who will save the world”), the God of Light will be victorious. According to this plan, history will end in 2401 CE, and Ahura Mazda will reign in bliss forever on a perfected earth.
Zoroaster’s moral code, similar to those of all the great religions, forswears robbery, plunder, and murder, “not even to avenge life or limb.” His saying, “I confess good thoughts, good words, good deeds,” became the motto of his religion. Like so many other founders, Zoroaster left precepts and beliefs but no rites or rituals, which were created entirely by his followers after his death. The Avestan priests eventually reinstated the animal sacrifice and haoma orgies that Zoroaster had reformed and elevated the Amesha Spentas to gods on a level with Ahura Mazda.