A statement like the one above is usually received with a blank look almost everywhere outside India; in Europe and America. Zoroaster is the Anglicized name of the Prophet Zarathustra. Now a few more bells start ringing. The more well read and erudite recall that masterly tome by Nietzsche "Thus Spake Zarathustra", where he expounds the theme of Man as Superman. Aficionados of Classical music identify with Richard Strauss' opus of the same name. Movie buffs have heard it too; only they would recognize it as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" – and perhaps as the music that used to open live Elvis concerts.
So who is this Zoroaster? He was arguably the very first prophet who preached the concept of a monotheistic religion; of one God. He exposed the pagan gods of the Egyptians and Romans and Greeks for the soulless idols they were.
Zoroaster walked the earth a long time ago; so long ago, in fact, that historians cannot even agree on the date; or even the century. Estimates of his date of birth range from 4000 BC to 1000 BC. Zoroastrianism, the monotheistic religion he founded, is the oldest in recorded history. Zoroastrianism predates Christianity and Islam, and many historians say it influenced those faiths and cross-fertilized Judaism as well, with its doctrines of one God, a dualistic universe of good and evil and a final day of judgment. The holy scriptures of Zoroastrianism, known as the Avesta, speak of individual judgment, heaven and hell, the future resurrection of the body and life everlasting for the soul.
Zoroastrianism was the state religion during the thirteen centuries of the Persian Empire (559 BC to 651 AD) that pre-dated Alexander the Great and outlasted him by almost a thousand years. It, along with Judaism, was the most prominent world religion at the time of Jesus. Many historians have deduced that the Magi, who anointed Jesus at his birth, were Zoroastrian priests.
Zoroaster lived and preached in the Inner Asian steppes, a region encompassing the Western part of Iran and the Eastern part of Afghanistan. He is said to have received his divine revelations directly from the one God, whom he referred to as Ahura Mazda; and his archangels, known as Amesha Spentas. The holy scriptures, collectively known as the Gathas are revered by Zoroastrians as the Word of God, directly revealed to His Prophet.
Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda is "all-good", that He created the world and all good things, including mankind. He is opposed by Anghra Mainyu, the "destructive spirit" (or the devil), who is the embodiment of evil. Zoroaster exhorted his followers to constantly fight against evil in any form. He revealed that a cosmic battle is waging between Ahura Mazda and Anghra Mainyu, that will ultimately result in the destruction of evil. Shades of Armageddon and Judgment Day, perhaps? His followers live by three simple tenets: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
Zoroastrians once dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia; and their numbers were between 40 and 50 million. Soon after the advent of Mohammed, the mighty Persian Empire was finally toppled, 1400 years ago, by the invading Arab armies. The Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and conversions to Islam. Seven boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees fled Iran and landed on the coast of India in 936 AD. Their descendants, known as Parsis, built Mumbai, formerly Bombay, into the world capital of Zoroastrianism. Bombay is the place of my birth. Those refugees are my ancestors.
There is an interesting story (fable?) about that first landfall on the West coast of India. Apparently, the local Hindu king was less than pleased – and not a little alarmed – at the sudden advent of these tall, fair Aryans. The leader of the refugees, a High Priest, assured the king that his people would not harm, or interfere with the native population. To illustrate his point, he asked for a glass of milk and a few spoonfuls of sugar. As the sugar dissolved, he explained that – in the same manner – his followers would be unobtrusive and blend into the local population.
The Zoroastrian religion is full of joy. A short daily prayer, Ashem Vohu, says happiness comes to those who give happiness to others. One main reason I happily embrace the faith I was born in is that it has very few strictures or taboos. Unlike the Torah and the Koran, the Avesta is not a detailed guide laying down rigid rules for daily living – rules which can be manipulated to suit and justify a certain ideology, as the terrorists are tragically doing today with their perverted version of Islam. Essentially, the Avesta exhorts Zoroastrinas to be the best they can be; do minimum harm to others; give to charity whatever they can afford; and, most importantly, fight evil – whatever form it takes – wherever they encounter it. Unlike the fundamental strain of Islam and some puritanical sects of Christianity, it does not frown on healthy enjoyment; it actively encourages it. There are no dress codes. Zoroastrianism does not subscribe to the view that lustful feelings in men are so uncontrollable that the mere sight of an unveiled woman would let them loose. There are hardly any dietary restrictions.
Zoroastrians are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "fire worshipers". It is true that the focal point of our temples is a large urn containing a big fire that is kept continually burning by feeding it sticks of sandalwood. It is said that the original refugees, during the exodus to India – lasting several weeks – kept the sacred fire continuously burning through the power of their prayers alone. Fire is regarded as a great purifier and a means of communicating with Ahura Mazda; the fire itself is not an object of worship. In fact, Zoroastrians have enormous respect for the environment and the elements: earth, wind, fire and water.
It is this respect for the elements which leads to the Zoroastrian ritual for disposal of the dead. It is a practice unique to the religion; and one some may consider a little barbaric. But there is a method to the apparent madness. Zoroastrians believe the physical body, after death, is an empty shell devoid of a soul; and one that, hopefully, will be resurrected in the next life. The dead body is, in fact, subject to decay and, therefore, a source of pollution. Burying it would pollute the earth: similarly, cremating it would pollute the sacred fire. Hence, the ancients came up with their own eco-friendly system. They left their dead, uncovered, on the slopes of mountains; to be devoured by wild animals and vultures. That way, the body did not pollute any of the elements and, in its terminal phase, was of some use to living creatures. Nowadays, with most Zoroastrians living in cities, the old ritual has had to adapt itself. Wild animals are hard to find. The modern practice is to leave the bodies in large open wells, popularly known as Towers of Silence; there for the flesh to be picked clean by vultures and the rays of the sun. The bones are periodically removed and buried.
Zoroastrian priests are not required to be celibate. In fact, a normal family life is encouraged. Neither are they expected to immerse themselves in the holy scriptures, 24 hours a day. Remember, Zoroastrianism is a very free religion. Actually, most Zoroastrian priests also have a day job. A typical case would resemble that of Kersy Antia, a psychologist practicing in Illinois. In his private life, Mr. Antia dons a long white robe, slips a veil over his face and goes to work as a Zoroastrian priest, performing weddings and ceremonies initiating seven to nine year-old Zoroastrians into the faith (something like a Bar Mitzvah or a Communion).
There is a palpable panic among Zoroastrians today —in India, the United States and around the world — that they are fighting the extinction of their faith. From a peak of almost 50 million at the heyday of the Persian Empire, their global population has dwindled to 190,000 at most, and perhaps as few as 124,000. The majority of Zoroastrians still reside in India, but about 11,000 Zoroastrians live in the United States , 6,000 in Canada , 5,000 in England , 2,700 in Australia and 2,200 in the Persian Gulf nations. The Zoroastrians' mobility and adaptability has contributed to their demographic crisis. They assimilate and intermarry, virtually disappearing into their adopted cultures. And since the faith encourages opportunities for women, many Zoroastrian women are working professionals who, like many other professional women, have few children or none.
Despite their shrinking numbers, Zoroastrians are divided over whether to accept intermarried families and converts; and what defines a Zoroastrian. An effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing "fake converts" and diluting traditions. The orthodox elements within the community feel that the religion is not universal and is ethnic in nature, and that it should be kept within the tribe. The very tenets of Zoroastrianism could be feeding its demise. Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion. They do not proselytize. They can pray at home instead of going to a temple. While there are priests, there is no hierarchy to set policy, although some conservative elements take it upon themselves, rather pompously, to dictate what is good for the religion. Fortunately, they are in a minority. Moreover, despite, or because of, the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian.
Although the collective picture is bleak, most individual Zoroastrians appear to be thriving. They are well-educated and well-traveled professionals, earning incomes that place them in the middle and upper classes of the countries they reside in.
So are people of my faith doomed to become extinct as the dodo within the next 200 years? It is possible, of course, but I have not lost hope. Those seven boatloads who arrived in India probably thought they wouldn't last long either – they were only a few hundred, after all. But, 1400 years later, we are still around and thriving – albeit in reduced numbers. Zoroastrianism is a happy religion; and happiness is what makes life worth living. I believe we will prevail.