Zoroastrianism and The Legacy of Zarathushtra

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by Mahbod Khanbolouki

There was a time when the philosophy of oneness, one entity and one universal power emerged out of the polytheistic teachings. The Persian words goftare nik, pendare nik, kerdare nik meaning good words, good thoughts, good deeds became the main keystones of the religion called Zoroastrianism. It is known as history’s oldest monotheistic religion and was founded by a man who became a prophet and who also was the first philosopher in history. His name was Zarathushtra. These ideas were sprung out of the place where Zarathushtra lived which is considered to be in modern day northeastern Iran and which in ancient times were one of the main geographical sites where the Aryan civilization thrived.

Birth and Early life

It all began with a man named Pourushaspa met a young woman named Dughdova. The two married and she became a part of the family of Pourushaspa named SpitamaThe two of them had two children together until a few years later, when relatives and friends received the news that Dughdova was pregnant to a third child. The legend says that while she was pregnant, she started to have apocalyptic nightmares. When she was in the fifth month of pregnancy, she dreamt that the world was destroyed and as she became deeply frightened, an angel suddenly revealed itself in the dream and told her that she was carrying a very special boy who would change the world and prevent evil from becoming victorious. Time passed by and the day of giving birth arrived. When the boy was born, family and relatives immediately noticed that this infant differed from other infants. The boy did not cry, but instead giggled and had a smile on his face. Pourushaspa and Dughdova named their newborn son Zarathushtra, meaning golden light.

While there formerly has been disagreements among historians regarding the birth date of Zarathushtra, the latest archeological and historical evidence all point to the fact that he was born between 1800 – 1700 BC. This information converges with the traditional date which states that the Zoroastrian calendar starts with the birth of Zarathushtra on 26 March 1738 BC. This date is still celebrated among modern Zoroastrians and coincides with the Persian new year celebration called Nowruz which takes place on 21 March.

As a child, Zarathushtra developed a profound curiosity for everything in nature and he often questioned life. He was an intelligent child who was very observant and wanted to have clear cut answers to every question that came to his mind. With his ability to see through the surface of things and penetrate to the depth of their cause and meaning, he often confronted local priests and teachers about the meaning of their polytheistic teachings. However, either the priests and teachers barely managed to answer his questions or Zarathushtra himself was not satisfied with the answers he received. At the age of nine, his friends arranged a meeting for him with the head priest of his town to discuss the questions he wanted to have answered. Zarathushtra and the head priest discussed for several hours but ultimately, neither side could convince the other. Many of the questions that Zarathushtra asked had however deeply affected the priest. The fact that the priest could not answer the child’s questions shocked him and made him feel miserable. The legend says that while the priest was on his way home after the meeting, troubled by the situation, he suffered a heart attack and died right on the spot.

When Zarathushtra turned 20 years old, he decided to leave his birthplace and travel to distant places in search of the Truth. He spent years philosophizing in the wilderness of the various places he visited. During his travels he also met and married a woman named Hvovi, with whom he had six children.

The Illumination

After ten years of traveling, Zarathushtra was now at the age of 30. One early morning, he went to the river to bring water back to his residence. As he stepped into the water, a divine entity named Vohu Mana meaning The Good Mind suddenly appeared to him. Vohu Mana then opened a portal to the bright divine light of God named Ahura Mazda, meaning The Wise Spirit. In his vision, he experienced the presence of Ahura Mazda and perceived him as the creator of universe. He also experienced the presence of the so called Amesha Spentas which are six divine entities that act as the protectors of the physical world and obey the decisions of Ahura Mazda. To Zarathushtra, the Amesha Spentas were perceived as abstract entities but in ancient scriptures they have been described as angels, so that one can easily grasp their abstract nature. He understood the roles of the Amesha Spentas in the world order and creation. The creation of universe was explained to him and also the importance of Truth and order. He understood that Truth and order were essential for maintaining the universe as a good place away from the evil spirit named Ahriman who always tries to implant lies in the minds of humans in order to create falsehood, misery and chaos. Zarathushtra had received illumination. The Truth which he had long searched for had suddenly appeared to him. In that split moment, all his questions were answered.

With a sense of relief and ultimate joy, Zarathushtra decided that the divine message had to be shared with the world. He went back to his home town and met his family. He gathered all the members of his family around him and told them about his illumination and ultimately asked them if they would be pleased to join in his footsteps and live by his philosophy and the divine message he had received. The first person to join was his brother Maedyoimaha, followed by his wife Hvovi and his six children.

At first, Zarathushtra preached among ordinary people on the streets but met harsh resistance from the conservative priesthood, and his teachings were dismissed. For twelve years he refused to give up and was highly determined to spread the divine message but ultimately he was only able to convert fourteen people other than his family members. This resulted in him taking the decision of leaving his home town together with his family and his followers and travelling to places where he had formerly travelled in order to gain more followers. The rulers and priests of the new places to which Zarathushtra and his followers travelled, refused to accept his philosophy due to the fear of losing authority and power over people. Many were ignorant and did not take the time to think about what was preached or they did not believe his words.

Time went by and Zarathushtra was now 42 years old. One day Zarathushtra received news that gave him hope. He had heard about a wise and just king named Vishtaspa who ruled in a nearby land. Zarathushtra thought that the king would be wise enough to listen to him and therefore, he and his followers did not hesitate to visit this king. Once again, they were on their way.

When they reached the royal court of king Vishtaspa, he accepted Zarathushtra’s visit and invited him to his residence. The king had granted Zarathushtra an audience with priests and counselors to listen to his philosophy and if necessary, initiate a debate. As expected, Zarathushtra received numerous questions from the audience and he had convincing answers for all of them. King Vishtaspa became very impressed by the wisdom of Zarathushtra and after a few days of thinking, he decided to convert. He advised his subjects, priests and counselors to do the same but to first think thoroughly and choose wisely. This was a breakthrough for Zarathushtra. Even though Zarathushtra had convinced many about his philosophy, his popularity in the royal court created enemies. Little did Zarathushtra know that a few priests had planned a plot against him. The priests had placed objects related to black magic in Zarathushtra’s room at the king’s residence and they then told Vishtaspa to search his room. When Vishtaspa found the objects, he accused Zarathushtra of blasphemy and imprisoned him while denying him food and water.

One day, the beloved black horse of Vishtaspa caught an incurable disease and no physician could cure the horse. While in prison, Zarathushtra heard about the dying horse and he offered his help. Vishtaspa reluctantly gave Zarathushtra the opportunity and by his surprise, Zarathushtra managed to cure the horse. This event caused Vishtaspa to realize that he had been wrong and he fully accepted the Zoroastrian faith. He punished the subjects who had plotted against Zarathushtra and he made Zoroastrianism the state religion of his land. This turning point resulted in the spreading of Zoroastrianism to neighboring lands and the establishment of Zoroastrianism as a world religion during ancient times. At the royal court of Vishtaspa, Zarathushtra wrote parts of the holy Zoroastrian book called Avesta which is some of the oldest literature of mankind. The seventeen hymns of Avesta which are called the Gathas are still considered to be written by Zarathushtra himself. Zarathushtra spent 35 years at the royal court of Vishtaspa before he passed away at the age of 77.

Vishtaspa established the sacred fire which is still used by Zoroastrians as a symbol of pureness and light. He also planted a cypress tree in memory of Zarathushtra called the Cypress of Kashmar,which thrived in the land for more than two millennia until the Arabs invaded Persia in the 7th century and cut down the tree. Today stands another cypress tree named the Cypress of Abarkuh in the city of Yazd in Iran, which the Arabs did not manage to cut down due to resistance from local people. This tree is about 4,500 years old and is the oldest tree in Asia and the second oldest tree in the world.

The Legacy of Zarathushtra

Zarathushtra’s Iranian philosophy and the Zoroastrian religion profoundly inspired and influenced mankind for millennia up until today. Zoroastrianism greatly influenced religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. It also influenced Greek philosophy. The core of Zarathushtra’s message was that he emphasized free will, the freedom of choices. He considered man to be intelligent enough to distinguish between right and wrong, that all the responsibilities of one’s deeds are given to the individual and God cannot be blamed. He meant that nobody is the servant of God, but one can choose to work in harmony with God and to choose the right and loving way of living in order to gain knowledge and wisdom, both spiritually and scientifically. He also meant that an enlightened person can make choices in the nature of their spirit. According to Zarathushtra, God is not a dealer, neither is he a buyer nor a seller, and does not need to be flattered by man. He emphasized the fact that regardless of gender and ethnicity, good words, good thoughts and good deeds, which are the three keystones of the Zoroastrian religion, ultimately defines you. He thus meant that regardless of gender and ethnicity, all deserve equality when following the Truth.

About the author: Mahbod Khanbolouki was born in Helsingborg, Sweden. During his teenage years, he found a profound interest in Archeology and History, in particular Iranian and Mesopotamian Archeology before studying Molecular Biology at Lund University. In the summer of 2013 he made an internship in Hamburg, Germany and in spring 2014 he moved to Stockholm and started to work on his Master’s degree project regarding Alzheimer’s Disease at Karolinska Institutet. This resulted in a Master’s degree in Molecular Biology with specialization in Medical Biology.

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