This page contains a minimum of essential Zoroastrian terms or names and no references.
For an expanded version of this page with a greater number of Zoroastrian words and references,
please see our Overview-Expanded page.
Words in red are links.
What is Zoroastrianism?
- Zoroastrianism is an ancient Iranian (Persian)*-Central Asian religion founded by Zoroaster.
- Zoroaster is the western version of the name Zarathushtra (also spelt Zarathustra).
- Zoroastrianism is possibly the oldest religion based on a belief in one God (commonly called monotheism) practiced today.
- Zoroastrian scriptures are called the Avesta.
- [* See Iran and Persia, Are They The Same? The page also introduces Zoroastrianism's Central Asian connections.]
What is the Zoroastrian Ethical Creed?
- The Zoroastrian creed is to commit to a life based on good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
What are Zoroastrian Beliefs and Philosophy?
Creation, Existence & Coexistence
- Creation consists of a spiritual and material (physical) existence.
- The spiritual existence was created before the material existence.
- The spiritual existence consists of two primordial spiritual entities.
- At creation, the two spiritual entities were manifested in the material (physical) existence as being and not being.
- Every element of creation can be described as an entity of being and its negation that is simultaneously opposite and complementary.
- Examples of the duality of existence are light and not-light (darkness); hot and not-hot (cold). In human beings, this duality is manifest as wisdom and not-wisdom (ignorance) and in human actions as beneficence and not-beneficent (harm) - actions that stem from a human spirit that is good (beneficent or righteous) or not-good (harmful or bad).
- The primordial cosmic fire was a transition between the spiritual and material existences.
- In the Iranian poet Ferdowsi's (935-1020 ACE) epic Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, Zarathushtra tells King Vishtasp "Look upon the heavens and the earth. God, Ahura Mazda, created them not with dust and water. Look upon the fire and behold therein how they were created".
- The universal laws of asha govern and bring order to the spiritual and material existences.
- Human beings are constituted from both, the spiritual and material existences.
- Human beings also have two conscious selves: the thinking and corporeal (physical) selves.
- Consciousness enables us to think, speak and act and in so doing, make conscious choices.
- The universal laws of Asha are available, through individual choice, to bring order and goodness to human thoughts, words and deeds.
- In human beings the moral and ethical opposites of good and bad, right and wrong, form dichotomies - mutually exclusive opposites that require a choice between one or the other.
- These moral and ethical opposites are asha (principled, honest, beneficent, ordered, lawful living), and druj (unprincipled, dishonest, harmful, chaotic, unlawful living and living by the lie - deceiving and deluding others).
- Human beings have the ability to choose between the two, and when they do, they choose their path in life and display the nature of their spirit.
- Those who live by asha are called the ashavan and those who live by druj / dreg are the dregvant.
- The guiding principle for many life-style choices (not moral or ethical choices) is moderation between the extremes of too much and too little.
- Applying the principle of moderation does not preclude the need to apply the tests of goodness to every choice (for instance if something is helpful or harmful).
Understanding & Wisdom
- Understanding the difference and then deciding between coexistence, choosing or moderation, requires listening with open minds, seeking knowledge and gaining wisdom.
- Correct choices and reasoned decisions are the hallmark and product of wisdom.
- Good thoughts, words and deeds follow as a natural, intuitive outcome. Goodness does not come from dogma. Goodness is grounded in wisdom.
Free Will, Reason & Choice
- Within the limits of circumstance, human beings are endowed with free will, the freedom to make choices, the ability to separate good from bad, the ability to separate right from wrong, and the ability to reason.
- The ability to reason, see differences and make choices from available options, enables us to make choices in our thoughts, words and deeds.
Age of Reason
- Parents and other early childhood caregivers have an important role in guiding young people in the basic choice of spirit they make before the time they reach the age of reason - fifteen years of age - and in the development of a conscience.
Conscience & Intuitive Wisdom - Sarosh
- A developed conscience enables growth in wisdom and makes choices grounded in wisdom intuitive. Intuitive wisdom is the inner voice of wisdom within us, and one which Zoroastrianism assists in attaining. Intuitive wise words and actions flow from intuitive wisdom.
Spiritual Components in Nature & Human Beings
The Spirit - Mainyu
- The spiritual existence is the co-existent dual opposite of the physical existence . It is the non-physical or non-material existence that exists side-by-side with the physical existence. It is what the material existence is not.
- The spiritual existence is beyond our senses, though perhaps not beyond our feelings and intuition.
- Human beings are constituted from both the material and spiritual existences.
- Our spirit shapes and determines the nature of our attitude, our mentality and every thought, word and deed.
Spenta & Angra Mainyu
- A brilliant, positive, constructive, and beneficent spirit that seeks wisdom is called a spenta mainyu.
- The archetype and embodiment of spenta mainyu is called ratush, the righteous leader.
- A gloomy, negative, destructive, and harmful spirit that wishes to remain ignorant is called an angra mainyu.
- The archetype and embodiment of angra mainyu is called ahriman, the devil incarnate.
Spirit & Attitude - Fundamental Choice
- The fundamental choice we make is the nature of our spirit and attitude.
- Because our choice can change and because a spenta mainyu is particularly vulnerable, we need to periodically and continuously reassess and reaffirm our choice of spirit. For orthodox Zoroastrians, this is done through daily prayers.
- This fundamental choice in spirit determines the nature of our character, which is also the character of our soul.
- Depending on the spirit we choose, we become cheerful or angry, constructive or destructive, helpful or harmful, honest or dishonest, loyal or unfaithful, healthy or unhealthy, serene or agitated, peaceful or conflicted, holistic or imbalanced.
The Soul, Urvan - Fate of the Soul
- All living creatures have a soul.
- With human beings, a person's character and that of their soul is built on the spirit a person chooses and is within that person's control through free will.
- With free will and free choice come responsibility and accountability.
- Human beings are responsible for their choices and therefore accountable in this life and in the after-life.
- The fate of the human soul depends on its store of thoughts, words and deeds. The human soul receives in the afterlife what it has given out in this life.
- The soul creates its heaven or hell, both of which are a state of spiritual existence and not places.
- All souls come from God. At the end of time, all souls will be cleansed and will return to God.
(Also see After Life, Body and Soul)
- There is another spiritual component that resides in all of creation, living and not living, called the fravashi (later farvard).
- An aspect of the fravashi, sometimes called the divine spark, gives every part and particle of creation the laws of asha - the laws that govern the spiritual and material universe.
- This aspect of the fravashi maintains, sustains and helps creation progressively move or evolve towards vahishtem anghuim and frasho-kereti, an ultimate and ideal future existence (also see reference in Khvarenah below).
- The fravashi can be thought of as the hand of God in all of creation, or perhaps, the means by which God's plan resides in all of creation. Since God's law and plan are in every part and particle of creation from the very beginning, there is no need for God to intervene in the evolution of creation from time to time.
- While the soul is personal, the fravashi is universal.
- The fravashi gives a person intuitive access to the moral and ethical laws of Asha, and allows a person to gain insights into the nature of creation through introspection.
- The khvarenah is the archetype of the person one can grow to if allowed to grow to the limit of her or his capacity in grace, that is, in keeping with the fravashi. Alternatively, it is a person's higher calling - their meaning in life.
- Every human being is endowed with natural talents that can be harnessed and developed to achieve one's highest potential, one's latent destiny in life, or one's higher calling. Alternatively, through choice, these talents can be employed to acheive base ambitions.
- A spenta mainyu - a brilliant, positive, constructive, and beneficent spirit - allows a person to perceive their higher calling.
- An angra mainyu - a gloomy, negative, destructive, and harmful spirit - leaves a person vulnerable to base ambitions.
- A spenta mainyu enables a person to choose asha, the path of goodness, and pursue her or his calling without expectation of reward.
- The khvarenah is specific to a person and is different for each person.
- When all human beings realize their calling or full potential in grace, the world will attain vahishtem anghuim & frasho-kereti - the ultimate and ideal future existence, a heaven on earth. (Also see the section on Airyana Vaeja, the Aryan homeland, as paradise.)
- Human beings often limit or loose themselves. In either case, they do not achieve their full potential or capacity.
- While to some extent, a person's lot in life is determined by birth and circumstance, a person can find her or his latent khvarenah or calling by envisioning the person one aspires to become in grace, and then taking steps to realize the khvarenah despite daunting obstacles and adversity.
- To loose oneself is to loose one's khvarenah.
- In mythology, the khvarenah is like a bird that hovers over a person, and one that can fly away. If grace is replaced by evil ambitions, the bird is replaced by serpents growing out of that person's shoulders.
- A person's realization of her or his khvarenah is evidenced by a halo (farr in Persian), glowing brightly over her or his head. (See portrait of Zarathushtra at the top of the page - a physical representation of something perceived by the spiritual eye and senses.) The opposite of the light of a halo is darkness - like a dark cloud hanging over someone.
- A person's realization of her or his khvarenah cloaks that person with the aura of charisma and grace, the kind possessed by Zarathushtra and King Cyrus the Great.
- Khvarenah and the resulting charisma enable leadership that does not rely on authority.
- A person's spiritual components, that is, the person's urvan (soul), mainyu (spirit), fravashi and khvarenah can come together to form a united fravashi.
- If the spirit, soul and khvarenah are in harmony with asha, they come together to form a united fravashi. If they are not in harmony with asha, then there is separation from the fravashi in this life, and by extension in the after life.
- The united soul and fravashi of the departed can be thought of as a spiritual soul, while the soul of the living - a living soul.
- The united fravashi of the righteous have the ability to become guardian angels.
Farohar or Fravahar
|Farohar / Fravahar|
- The rock engraved image to the right is called a fravahar or farohar (also spelt faravahar).
- It is an image found on rock inscriptions and carvings commissioned by the ancient Persian Achaemenian kings. The image is usually portrayed above the image of a king, and the figure in the farohar is identical to the king below.
- In 1925, J. M. Unvala, a Parsi scholar, identified the image as a representation of the fravashi of the king or king's ancestor, and in 1928, Dr. Irach Taraporewala identified the image as a representation of the king's khvarenah or farr.
- Since then, the farohar has become the principle symbol of the Zoroastrian faith and is displayed on the facade of most fire temples
- The symbol of the fravahar or farohar therefore has three meanings nowadays:
- As a general symbol of the Zoroastrian faith: a symbol of belonging to the Zoroastrian community and of being a Zoroastrian (a symbol in a manner similar to the Christian cross).
- As a fravahar or farohar: a general symbol of the united fravashi or a guardian angel.
- As a symbol used by a Persian Achaemenian king: a personal symbol of the king's khvarenah or farr, his kingship in grace, or his fravashi.
Based on the hymns of Zarathushtra - the Gathas including Chapters 30 and 48:
- A person's quest for spiritual awareness, growth, or realization is an individual quest.
- The path to spiritual realization is through an open mind, a good mind, reason, wisdom, goodness, security and serenity.
- Spiritual awareness and connection comes through introspection, reflection and meditation while reciting a manthra preferably facing a source of light such as a flame.
- Spiritual understanding comes from an open mind, listening, and then deciding person by person, each one for herself or himself, that person's individual path to spiritual realization.
[Keeping an open mind and listening does not mean blindly following others or unquestioned faith. Blind faith leads to delusion (Gatha 48.10).]
- Spiritual development comes through possessing the six Amesha Spenta qualities (developing the spirit, mind, body and indeed all aspect of one's life) and simultaneously being in tune with each element of nature, thereby being in harmony with God's work.
Goal in Life - Ushta
- The goal in life is to achieve ushta: abiding spiritual resplendence, happiness, and peace - an individual at peace with oneself and humanity at peace with itself. Spiritual resplendence gives a person the light of wisdom, a sense of spiritual confidence that the path a person has chosen will lead to a meaningful and fulfilling life. It is inner enlightenment of the spiritual self and a beacon that lights the path ahead.
- As with the Amesha Spentas, ushta is a conceptual word rather than a word with a single meaning. Realization of ushta follows as an outcome of leading a life based on the Amesha Spentas of which two have a special connection: asha and armaiti. While a person's spiritual quest is an individual one, achieving ushta requires living the life of an ashavan - a life of beneficent goodness towards all. One cannot achieve ushta by isolating oneself or being self-centred. A manifestation of abiding peace is serenity or armaiti.
- Ushta is a spiritual state and a state of being.
- Avestan (scriptural) selections:
- Happiness comes to them who bring happiness to others.
- Abiding happiness and peace is theirs who choose goodness for its own sake.
- Metaphorically speaking, if individuals in their spiritual quest journey to a mountain-top seeking quietude and the space for the inner voice to be heard; the space for introspection, reflection and meditation while occasionally reciting a mantra when facing a source of light, the spiritual resplendence of ushta will be found on their return - in the toils of their labour, in selflessly serving God's creation, in the happiness and peace they bring to others, and at the end of the day in the secure knowledge of knowing that theirs, no matter how humble, was a life well spent.
The Nature of God, Ahura Mazda
- God in the language of the older Zoroastrian scriptures is Ahura Mazda.
- There are no Zoroastrian images or representations of God.
- The Zoroastrian concept of God is that:
- Understanding the true nature of God is beyond human comprehension.
- God is not of human form i.e. non-anthropomorphic and without gender. God is formless and invisible. God has no human frailties or emotions. God shows no anger and no favour.
- God is without duality.
- God is uncreated and without end, without cause, the great cause, the cause of all causes, and the root of all creation.
- One text states that while the eye cannot behold God, and while the mind cannot conceive God, God is nearer to us than our own corporeal selves.
- Another text states that except God, who can comprehend God? Entity, unity, identity are inseparable properties of this original essence.
- The closest we can come to understanding the nature of God, Ahura Mazda, is through six abstract attributes called Amesha Spentas (see below).
- Writing from the perspective of Greeks who worshipped multiple anthropomorphic gods during his time, Herodotus (c. 430 BCE) says: "They (the Persians) have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine."
- God's relationship with creation is understood, as best as is possible, through the very nature, beauty and grandeur of God's creation, and through God's six transcendental, creation-related, abstract attributes called Amesha Spentas.
Amesha Spentas - Eternal Beneficent Brilliance
The Amesha Spentas (amesha meaning eternal & spenta meaning brilliance and beneficence) as attributes of God are:
- Vohu Mano, the high mind (creation was caused by a divine thought)
- Asha, cosmic order and universal laws
- Khshathra, dominion
- Armaiti, equanimity
- Haurvatat, ultimate wholeness
- Amertat, immortality
- In a further attempt to understand God and how God interfaces with God's creation, the six qualities and attributes, the Amesha Spentas, were thought of as archangels - abstract extensions of God - each associated with an aspect of creation.
Zoroastrian Way of Life & Ethos
Amesha Spentas - Eternal Enlightenment, Ageless Wisdom
The Amesha Spentas (amesha meaning eternal or ageless & spenta meaning brilliance, enlightenment and beneficence) are also ideals to which humans can aspire (also see Way of Life in the Home Page and Spenta Mainyu above). Possessing Amesha Spenta qualities does not make humans god-like. Possessing these qualities means being in harmony with God's work.
- Vohu Mano in human beings is the good mind.
- Asha is principled, honest, beneficent, ordered, lawful living - for some, righteousness and piety.
- Khshathra is having dominion and sovereignty over one's life.
- Armaiti is serenity.
- Haurvatat is being holistic and healthy. It is also seeking excellence in all we do.
- Amertat is transcending mortal limitations through good health, by handing down the spiritual flame or mainyu athra, and by building an enduring, undying spirit, the united fravashi.
Incorporating the Amesha Spentas into one's way of life, leads to a shared sets of traits by which Zoroastrians have been recognized throughout history.
In the Vaetha Nask, a Zoroastrian text, a question is asked about how a person can be recognized as a Zoroastrian. The answer given is through that person's good mind, intellect without deceitfulness, good speech and good actions. Middle Persian texts and travellers' observations about the shared characteristics of the Zoroastrians they encountered, provide us with additional information. The following are some traits and qualities that contributed to the reputation of Zoroastrians:
- Persona: Grace, generosity of spirit, good manners.
- Traits: Wisdom in thought, measured speech, and beneficent action.
- Possessing six virtues: Reason, self-control, modesty, trustworthiness, gratitude, and hope.
- Without six vices: Malice, anger, arrogance, deceitfulness, greed, and despair.
The Zoroastrian ethos was developed into a list of guiding principles that is read out during a Zoroastrian marriage ceremony. A condensed list of these guiding principles are provided in our page on marriages.
Amongst travellers' records are the observations of Johan Albrecht de Mandelslo, a German adventurer from 1638 CE, and those of an Anglican chaplain John Ovington in 1689 CE.
In the chronicles of his travels through Persia and India, Mandelslo writes that he saw the Zoroastrians of India, the Parsees, as 'diligent', 'conscientious' and 'skilful' in their work ethic.
John Ovington, a chaplain in the Royal Navy, reported in his work, Voyage to Surat published in 1696 CE, that in the Indian Gujerati city of Surat, Zoroastrians "assist the poor and are ready to provide for the sustenance and comfort of such as want it. Their universal kindness, either employing such as are ready and able to work, or bestowing a seasonable bounteous charity to such as are infirm and miserable, leave no man destitute of relief, nor suffer a beggar in all their tribe."
More recently, after a visit to Yazd Iran, Karl Vick wrote in a June 18, 2006 article in the Washington Post: "Zoroastrians appear to enjoy the most respect (by the majority Muslims from amongst the other religious minorities) inside Iran... Zoroastrians enjoy a vivid reputation for honesty. Prices in a shop owned by a Zoroastrian are regarded as the benchmark that competing shops are compared against. Children are told that when arriving in a strange town near dark, seek out a Zoroastrian home to spend the night in. 'I'm sorry to say it and it might sound offensive, but these Zoroastrians are better Muslims than we are,' said Mohammad Pardehbaff, a Yazd driver."
The Relationship of Human Beings to Nature and the Environment
- Living in harmony with nature and the environment is working in harmony with God's creation.
- Nature is God's creation and therefore sacred.
- Defiling the environment is working in opposition to God's creation.
- The Zoroastrian approach to the environment is guided by the ethical imperative to be beneficent and a respect, indeed a reverence, for the environment.
- The approach towards the environment is balanced between preserving the environment and enhancing the environment. Where needed to sustain human life, the principle is to make barren or desolate land fertile and productive.
- Ancient Zoroastrians developed elaborate techniques to avoid polluting the environment in a harmful manner. Some examples:
- Waste was disposed in impervious stone-lined pits where it degraded naturally through exposure to the sun (sometimes aided by lime) without polluting the surrounding land and water.
- Household waste was disposed in stone or stone-lined pits adjacent to a home.
- Community waste was placed in stone or stone-lined pits in designated areas.
- Settlements were constructed away from the banks of streams.
- According to Herodotus (c. 430 BCE): "They (the Persians) never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers." Strabo, Book XV, Chapter 3.16, (written 17-23 ACE) states: "For the Persians neither urinate, nor wash themselves, in a river; nor yet bathe therein nor cast therein anything dead or any other thing that is considered unclean."
- Fires were made from selected dried woods and other materials that produced the least amount of smoke. It helped that neighbourhoods maintained central continuously burning fires in a fire-house, the atash-gah, tended by a fire-keeper, an athravan. In the west of Iran, this task was performed by the Magi. According to Strabo: "They (the Persians in Cappadocia - present day Turkey) also have Pyraetheia (fire-houses), noteworthy enclosures; and in the midst of these there is a container, on which there is a large quantity of ashes and where the Magi keep the fire ever burning." The fire container was a deep urn which contained the ashes and hot coals produced by the fire. The system allowed the base of the fire to remain very hot resulting in a fire that produced the least amount of smoke and pollution. Every evening, the fire keepers would carefully cover the fire with its ashes so that it would continue smouldering throughout the night while saving fuel, ready to resume when the ashes were removed in the morning. While not perfect, it was a system, in those ancient times, that best adhered to the principles of the faith. Householders would come to this central place to light their home fires when needed. Maintaining fires continuously in homes would have denuded a fragile environment of trees and the smoke would have greatly polluted the air. There are indications that woods from Juniper and Plane (Chenar) trees were traditionally used for the atash-gah fires. (Also see our page on Fire.)
- In order to prevent rotting flesh from contacting the soil, dead bodies were either placed in stone tombs above ground level, or exposed to birds (in towers placed on hill tops or surrounded by lush gardens) who ate the flesh, after which the bones disintegrated to a harmless powder.
Lush Gardens - Paradise
Bagh - Pairidaeza
- Zoroastrians have a reputation for creating lush gardens or baghs. The word paradise comes from the Old Iranian word for exceptional gardens, pairi-daeza, which in later years was shortened to parideiza and then to paridiz. Also see our page Persian Gardens.
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world according to Greek writers Alexander Polyhistor quoting Berossus, were reputed to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BCE) to placate his Median wife, Amytis, daughter of Cyaxares, the King of the Medes. Nebuchadnezzar made for Amytis, a vast terraced garden full of trees and exotic plants of every description with cool glades, fountains, and bubbling streams. By copying the lush gardens from her childhood home on the slopes of the Zagros mountains, he hoped that she would not miss her Iranian homeland and think of the palace as home.
Zoroastrian Religious Texts - the Avesta and Zand
- The Zoroastrian scriptures are called the Avesta.
- The hymns of Zarathushtra called the Gathas are part of the book of Yasna contained in the Avesta.
- The classical explanations, interpretations and commentaries are called the Zend or Zand.
- An old edition of the Avesta with Zand interspersed is called the Zend Avesta or Zand Avesta.
- The Avesta contains books composed in various related old Iranian languages, broadly called the Avestan languages.
- The Zand was composed in Middle Persian and written in the Pahlavi script.
- Among Middle Persian religious texts is a 9th century CE group of books called the Dinkard / Denkard meaning 'Acts of Religion'.
- The books of the Dinkard cover a variety of topics, provide answers to questions and provide a listing and summary of the 21 books of the recompiled Sassanian Avesta (see Size and Extent below).
- Another Middle Persian religious text considered to be part of the Zand is an 8th and 9th cent. CE book called the Bundahishn meaning 'Creation'. It is sometime sub-titled Zand-Akasih/Agahih meaning 'Knowledge of (or from) the Zand.
- The Bundahishn is available in two recensions or versions: the shorter or Lesser (Indian) Bundahishn and the longer or Greater (Iranian) Bundahishn
- While the poet Ferdowsi's (935-1020 CE) Persian epic, the Shahnameh or Book of Kings is not a Zoroastrian religious text, it is widely quoted by Zoroastrians many of who believe that Ferdowsi's information is based on Zoroastrian sources.
Books of the Avesta
The original Avesta has been destroyed (see destruction below) and some portions survive. The surviving reconstituted Avesta can be organized in various ways. One way is to organize them as five books:
- the Yasna - service and prayers. The Gathas of Zarathushtra are part of the book of Yasna.
- Yashts - hymns to concepts and angels.
- Visperad - liturgy used to solemnize Gahambars (seasonal gatherings and feasts) and Nowruz (New Year's Day).
- Vendidad - purification laws.
- Khordeh Avesta - Concise Avesta & selections for daily prayers.
- Various fragments.
Size and Extent of the Original Avesta
- According to Martin Haug, Hermippus, the philosopher of Smyrna (ca. 250 BCE), "is reported by Pliny (Historia Naturalis XXX., 1) to have made very laborious investigations in to all Zoroastrian texts, which were said to comprise two million verses, and to have stated the contents of each book separately." Hermippus' work has been lost.
• The first reported written texts complied during the Persian Achaemenian dynasty (c. 600 - 300 BCE) were written on 12,000 hides.
- The written Avestan texts during reign of Sassanian king, Khosrow Anoshirvan (531 - 579 AC) the Just, consisted of twenty-one nasks or books.
- The nasks were encyclopaedic in nature and dealt with philosophy, theology, rituals, prayers, hygiene, medicine and the medicinal properties of a thousand plants and herbs, history, astronomy, geography and other forms of knowledge.
- The religious texts have repeatedly been destroyed by Alexander, the Arabs and the Mongols (see below). As a result, only five books and some fragments survive.
- The Zand and other Pahlavi texts contain summaries and translations (as understood at that time) of the lost texts.
How Zarathushtra's Teachings Were Preserved and Destroyed
Composition, Transmission & Preservation
Zarathushtra (also spelt Zarathustra) memorized and conveyed his ideas and teaching through hymns called the Gathas. It is probable that writing was not known during Zarathushtra's time. The verses of the Gathas were memorized and sung by his followers, thereby in turn conveying the ideas to others and subsequent generations. When priests, the Magi, were introduced to the religion, their task was to memorize the hymns. The method proved very effective in preserving the teachings - so effective that the hymns continued to be faithfully memorized, shared and transmitted even when the language of the people reciting the verses changed and the meaning of the verses was lost. (Also see Compilation & Destruction of the Avesta)
Destruction of the Avesta
Successive invasions of Persia (Iran) resulted in the destruction of the bulk of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta. The first was Alexander of Macedonia's invasion in 330 BCE accompanied by senseless devastation and the mass killing of priests who carried the verbal tradition. Between 640-650 CE came the Arab invasion bent on mass conversions and the burning of the Avesta. What fragments were left or secreted away were further destroyed by the extremely violent Mongol and Turkic invasions with the extermination of entire communities.
Today, out of the twenty one books of the Sassanian era Avesta, only one complete book and fragments of others survive. The surviving texts are nevertheless one and a half times the size of the Koran, and are and arranged as five books plus fragments.
For further details, see Compilation & Destruction of the Avesta.
Mathra / Manthra
A verse of the Avesta, and more specifically a verse of the Gathas, was called a mathra or manthra - insightful thoughts (thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation). Reciting a manthra today, even when the ancient words are poorly understood, has a calming, soothing effect that allows the mind to refocus itself.
Traditional Name of the Religion
Daena Vanguhi Mazdayasni / Behdin Mazdayasna
Zoroastrianism is a name given to the religion by the west. The traditional names of the religion are Behdin meaning Good Religion and Mazdayasna / Mazdayasni meaning worship of God - used separately or together.
A more complete Avestan name is found in the Fravarane, the pledge of faith, namely, Daenam Vanghuhim Mazdayasnim or, Daena Vanguhi Mazdayasni (further modernized as Behdin Mazdayasna), meaning the highest discerning belief in worship of God.
[For a further discussion, see the section on Mazda Worship in the page on Aryan Religions.]
In ancient inscriptions there is scant use of Zarathushtra's name. Since other religions are commonly ascribed to a person, non-Zoroastrians are puzzled by the lack of use of Zoroaster's name. The covenants made by Zoroastrians in prayer are to a belief and to a way of life - not to a person. Zoroastrians hold that a religion focused on a person is a cult rather than a religion based on spiritual, personal and societal development. Zoroastrianism is a way of being and is not focused on the personage of Zarathushtra (also spelt Zarathustra).
We will use the name 'Zoroastrianism' in these pages since it is the common English language name for the religion.
Labels Placed on Zoroastrianism
The name Zoroastrianism and labels such as monotheism, monism, dualism, pantheism and panentheism have been imposed on the Daenam Vanghuhim Mazdayasnim by those seeing or seeking to understand the religion through western frames of reference. However, these labels have become value laden, and can cause misunderstandings and confusion about the religion. In addition, the labels produce a confirmation bias on the part of those who wish to prove their understanding of 'Zoroastrianism' must necessarily fit one of the models. This invariably leads to divisiveness and a change in focus from what Zoroastrianism means in every thought, word and deed, towards the need to prove someone's point of view embedded in a label.
The Daenam Vanghuhim Mazdayasnim has its own philosophical and belief system which is unique and for which western labels do not apply.
Zoroastrians have always been known and recognized not by the labels imposed on them or their religion, but by their upright character, generous community spirit, and their reverence for all of creation. The efficacy of their beliefs is not found in thoughts relegated to a life of philosophical enlightenment in seclusion, or words consumed by futile and divisive debates, but rather by beneficent and constructive deeds.
We suggest that the reader suspend assumptions and prejudgments while seeking to understand Zoroastrianism for what it is - a religion understood by its adherents not by what is found in books or philosophical arguments, but by the way of life and principles passed down through the generations as a heritage. The Zoroastrianism that has lived from its inception, and, which lives in the heart of its adherents is a way of being and living. It is quite different, indeed alien, from the supposed 'Zoroastrianism' that is labelled and debated in western literature. The former is authentic. The latter is manufactured.
The Eternal Flame
Zoroastrians turn towards a flame or a source of light when they worship. At the heart of a Zoroastrian place of worship burns a fire - and where possible the fire burns continuously as an ever-burning flame symbolizing an eternal spiritual flame.
The temporal fire represents the spiritual flame within us, the divine fire of creation, and the undying ethical values of Asha: honesty, order, beneficence, fairness and justice. The symbolism of the eternal flame in Zoroastrianism can be compared to the symbolism of the Olympic flame - it symbolizes core ethical values and principles. The ritual in lighting the Olympic flame and in its installation, the reverence with which the flame is treated, and the awe the flame inspires, are all very Zoroastrian-like. While it is the values behind the flame that are at the core of its symbolism, the flame in this context acquires an aura of sacredness, for to harm or sully the flame means harm to the values represented (in a fashion similar to the manner in which a nation's flag acquires an aura of sacredness. Desecrating such a flag can cause great offense for it is not the cloth of the flag being desecrated but everything the flag represents).
In Zoroastrianism, light represents wisdom while darkness represents ignorance. Ignorance and darkness are the absence of wisdom and light. Indeed, a contemplation of the fire reveals all the values and principles at the heart of Zoroastrianism.
For a further discussion, please see our pages on Fire and the Olympic Flame.
The passing of Zoroastrian ideas and values from one person to the next is symbolized by a new flame being lit from an existing one. When these ideas and values are passed from one generation to another without interruption, we have the notion of an ever-burning 'eternal' flame, one that will endure the passage of time and our mortal lives.
The concept of an eternal flame is now widely used throughout the world - as are other Zoroastrian concepts and ideas.