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Zoroaster (Zarathustra) (c. 628–c. 551 B.C.E.)

Zoroaster, ancient Persian religious teacher and prophet, is derived from the Greek form of Zarathustra (or Zarathustra), his Persian name.

The First Monotheists

Ancient Persia’s Avesta or the Zend Avesta describes Zoroaster’s monotheistic god, Ahura Mazdah (also Ormadzd, or Ormuzd, supreme knowledge). In his time, Zoroaster taught that Mazdah headed the good spirits. He was assisted by six deities, the Amesha Spentas, who were as follows:

Vohu Manah (good thought);
Asha Vahista (highest righteousness);
Khshathra Vairya (divine kingdom);
Spenta Amaiti (pious devotion);
Haurvatat (salvation); and
Ameretat (immortality).

The six eventually became archangelic.


Their opposite was Ahriman, who led the evil spirits known as daevas, or divs. Zoroastrianism describes the war between these two supernatural forces.

Upon an individual’s death, he crosses the Chinvato Peretav (bridge of the separator), which spans a kind of Hell. If the bridge narrows, he has been adjudged a reprobate and falls to perdition; if, however, the bridge widens, he enters the realm of light. Saoshyant, the savior, will one day appear, the dead will rise to be rewarded or punished, and the good will reign eternally - this concept has proven so popular that much of it has been “borrowed” by other religions.


Until the 6th Century B.C.E., Mithra (called Mitra in India) was a minor Zoroastrian figure, but by the 5th Century .B.C.E. Mithra was the principal Persian deity, the good of light and wisdom and associated with the sun. In the 2nd Century of the Christian Era, Mithraism was popular with the Roman legions, inasmuch as he was an ideal fighter and comrade. Zoroastrianism’s main aspect was that of describing the struggle between good and bad forces. The Good God was not omnipotent, so if the ideal world was to be won it would be necessary that all creatures help. Devotees were given hope of blessed immortality, and rituals such as the sacred banquet and baptism eventually were adopted by other religions.

By the 3rd Century of the Christian Era, it was superseded mainly by Christianity which by this time, remarkably, had similar theological ideas.

Although at one time as many as 50,000,000 Zoroastrians dominated an area stretching from what is now Rome and Greece to India and Russia, in 2006 that figure has dwindled to 124,000, 190,000 at the most according to a 2004 by Fezana Journal. That journal estimates that 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.

In Iran, after the Muslims rose to power in the 7th century, historians say the Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution, and conversions to Islam. Seven boatloads of refugees fled Iran and landed on the coast of India in 936 - their descendants are known as Parsis, and they built Mumbai into the world capital of Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastsrian Beliefs

Their beliefs include free will, and they do not proselytize - in Iran and India, because of their view that spouses should not be compelled to convert, priests often will refuse to accept converts for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. They pray anywhere, at home or in a temple. There are no priests, no hierarchy. Their basic doctrine is a universal ethical precept: good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

In her research to supply information about the Zoroastrians, Goodstein found many who assume that 100 years hence their numbers will have decreased even more.

Dr. Bahram Varza, who points out that the Zoroastrian religion is the fist universal and monotheist religion in history, laments that when some Iranians are asked, they cite Sura 9 Ayah 28 of the Koran, describing the Zoroastrians as fire worshipers and - like Jews, pagans, and Christians - unclean people. However, Varza points out many other misunderstandings of the religion:

  • Zarathustra, never assumed prophethood. He never claimed he had associated with the Lord of the Cosmos whose wide galaxy extends more than 36 milliard (36 thousand million) light years, something we cannot imagination. Zarathustra never ordered his followers to perform certain activities, but he recommended that they try to know the creator of the earth and heaven and adopt good manners on the basis of their wisdom. He never claimed that he had a mission to bring any message from God to human beings.

Nietzsche's Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche used the name of Zarathustra in his 1885 seminal book, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). Nietzsche fictionalizes and dramatizes Zarathustra toward his own literary and philosophical aims, presenting him as a returning visionary who repudiates the designation of good and evil and thus marks the observation of the death of God. Nietzsche asserted that he had chosen to put his ideas into the mouth of Zarathustra because the historical prophet had been the first to proclaim the manicheic opposition between "good" and "evil" by rejecting the Daēva (representing natural forces) in favor of a moral order represented by the Ahuras. It was this act that Nietzsche proposed to invert. Beyond Good and Evil, however, does not mean "beyond good and bad," as he warned in this work.

Zoroastrians and the Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'ís believe that Zoroaster was a "Manifestation of God," or one in a line of prophets who have revealed the Word of God progressively for a gradually maturing humanity. In this way, Zoroaster shares an exalted station with Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'u'lláh. However, the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith caution believers that, as is the case with many Manifestations, few if any teachings of Zoroaster that have survived to the modern age can be authenticated, and any contradictions between the teachings of the Manifestations are ascribed to later corruptions or the differing needs of the age and culture.

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Faith, wrote that Bahá'u'lláh fulfilled the Zoroastrian prophecy of the return of the Sháh-Bahrám: "To Him [Bahá'u'lláh] Zoroaster must have alluded when, according to tradition, He foretold that a period of three thousand years of conflict and contention must needs precede the advent of the World-Savior Sháh-Bahrám, Who would triumph over Ahriman and usher in an era of blessedness and peace." `Abdu'l-Bahá, one of the Bahá'í Faith's Central Figures, said that Zoroaster lived roughly 1,000 years before Jesus.

(See Ninian Smart’s entry on Zoroaster in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8.)

{CE; ER; Laurie Goodstein, "Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling," The New York Times, 6 September 2006}