Zarathustra


 

When we recall names and events in history, the associated dates and years are not always very precise, especially when dealing with the ancient world. Aside from the multiplicity of eras and calendars and changes in these, not all ancients kept log books and precise notes. Even if they did, few  of those have survived. In such contexts, we rely n the vague memories of those who spoke or wrote generations later, and on tradition. Sometimes we calculate for convenience.

No one knows when or where precisely Zarathustra lived. There is some scholarly consensus  that he lived well before 600 BCE.  In ancient times it used to be thought, with more imagination than evidence, that Zarathustra lived as far back as 5000 BCE, or even earlier.

His name is mentioned by ancient Greek and Latin writers, including Plato, Pliny and Plutarch, who transformed his Persian appellation into something like Zoroaster. Tradition says that the sage laughed when he was born, and this frightened away the naughty spirits in the neighborhood. Though some modern interpreters speak of Zoroaster as only a philosopher, according to another tradition, Zoroaster announced that he had been asked by God to purify religion, by which was meant the worship modes and symbols of the people among whom he was born. So he rebelled against the religion of his time and place. This was Mithraism which   included worship of  the bull, and the drinking of its blood. Zoroaster had a different vision of God. His vision of the creator of earth and heaven was as Ahura Mazda or Lord of Light.

He perpetuated, if not originated, the notion of good and evil spirits, of man being torn by the two, of life being a struggle between the two opposing forces. Depending on which side we take, we are in the army of God or of the Devil.

This notion is etched in the cultural psyche of many peoples to this day. It probably has its roots dating back to even more ancient times. Zoroaster also spelled out our most basic duties: to convert an enemy into a friend, to transform the wicked into the righteous, and to bring knowledge to the ignorant. These are the fuels of any proselytizing religion.

Zoroaster was a thinker who believed in causal connections between events in the real world. He was among the earliest  to apply the physical principle of cause and effect to the moral realm: good actions result in good results for the individual and bad actions in bad results, a notion that is implicit in the Hindu law of Karma and in the doomsday idea of later Middle-Eastern religions.

Whether Zoroaster intended to do so or not, he did found a religion: or rather, a religion grew around his name. Like Confucius and Gautama Buddha, he may have been only a wise and awakened thinker, and as happened with the other two, in the long run a religion emerged with an -ism appended to his name.

Zarathustra’s  wisdom and sayings were compiled into what came called the Avesta, which is the Zoroastrian scripture. It has hymns and stories and inspirational thoughts. Passages in the compendium have remarkable similarities with the Hindu Rig Veda, but it also has world views not unlike the Babylonian. After all, the regions (the Indian subcontinent and Iraq) are geographically contiguous to Iran.

Zoroaster’s  followers survive to this day as Zoroastrians. Driven away from their Persian homeland by Islam, they sought and found refuge in India where they came to be known as Parsees. Many of them have now migrated to other countries as well, practicing their ancient religion peacefully with non-intrusive success.

October 24, 2013

 

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