Saturday, March 21, 2015

People Of The Flame

Mankind has long sought the source of its existence, the grand architect of its genesis and of all creation. From a droplet of energy to a hairy gigantic ogre, a myriad of theories attempted to answer the million dollar question. For many, the answer was not a singular presence, but rather a horde of celestial authorities in charge of maintaining the balance of the universe.

However, these immortal godlike beings were not always images of purity and justice. From wanton gluttony to bestial lust, the primordial pagan gods and goddesses were often imbued with dark shades of immorality. Zeus, Hera, Vishnu, Kali, Arceus, Ra – oftentimes the figurines in consideration – were synonymous with stories of wrathful vengeance and destruction. The logic was simple: that which creates, can destroy. And although the notion endures to this day, the central deity of most predominant faiths is now honored with a sense of reverence and grace. Centuries before the birth of Christ, prophet Zoroaster presented a similar dogma, and thus Zoroastrianism was born.

Good words, good thoughts, good actions – the essence of Zoroastrianism. While early paganism went on multiplying their gods and goddesses to uncountable millions and Buddhism reduced the numbers to none, from the deserts of Iran materialized a very different philosophy of the image of god and our existence: proclaimed prophet Zarathustra that there was only one god, Ahura Mazda – the Light of Wisdom, a universal deity of whom no evil can come about. His anti-thesis was Angra Mainyu – the Spirit of Destruction.

According to the Zoroastrian credo, the purpose of one's life is as guileless as this: reject evil, accept good. The prime monotheistic religions of today would grossly be in agreement with the core beliefs of prophet Zoroaster's doctrine: God is One and God creates no malice; all that is wicked originates from a being that is in rebellion against God and wishes to corrupt his creation; life is a moral battle of ethics where mankind must exercise his free-will to choose between righteousness and sin – the ones in the path of good shall be rewarded in the afterlife with peace and eternal happiness, the sinful and malevolent shall be thrown into a pit of fire as punishment for their misdeeds.

However, during the time of Zarathustra, the idea was not only radical but considered utterly revolting. In a land dominated by polytheism such faith stood in opposition to the social theological norm, going against everything the Aryans had thus far been led to believe in. And thus, conflict was imminent. Nonetheless, confident that God Himself had appointed him to preach the truth, Zoroaster did not back down even in the face of adversity.

Pitted against the civil and religious authorities in the area in which he preached, or the Followers of the Lie (dregvant) as he called them, Zoroaster succeeded in accumulating a strong following: starting from the conversion of his cousin, Maidhyoimanha, to that of King Vishtaspa, twelve years later since the day of revelation.

Iran – the land where Adam and Eve of Biblical lore is once said to have frolicked in bountiful gardens of love, wherein dwell the warrior wrestlers of Isfahan and where the Old Man of the Mountain launched a revolution painted in blood – is currently a country chiefly dominated by Shiite Muslims with Islamic traditions and ideologies embedded deep within its veins.

Islam itself is a fiercely monotheistic religion, resolute in the principle of the One True God. However, the ruins of an arcane temple in the deserts of Isfahan remind us that Iran had accepted the idea of the One True God eons before the advent of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

It was approximately five to six centuries preceding the birth of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, an Aryan priest attending to the temple of the ancient Persian god of fire, sky, storm and lightning received a revelation while standing knee deep in a river drawing water for a religious ceremony, a revelation every bit as profound as that of Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the encounter of Moses with the Burning Bush atop the summit of Tur Sinai, and Muhammad's rendezvous with Archangel Gabriel inside Gar Hira. The revelation was this: the pantheon of Aryan gods and their ritualistic traditions were all a mistake. Human beings were not created to serve and sacrifice at the altars of created stone idols. There was a simpler, pristine truth – God was only One, Ahura Mazda the Wise Lord. Standing in rebellion against him was the great being of evil – Angra Mainyu. All the other gods and goddesses were his minions: the daevas – devils.

Drawing parallels between Zoroastrianism and Abrahamic monotheism, we come across many similarities. Aforementioned are the ideas of a One True God and a being of pure malice which can be considered similar to the God of Abraham and Satan respectively. Next, we have the concept of free-will and the luxury to choose from good and evil, a privilege first bestowed upon Adam and Eve of Biblical tradition in Abrahamic lore. Finally, we have the belief of an afterlife, the presence of Heaven for the just and Hell for the wicked, and a Day of Judgment when God shall decide who shall savor eternal joy in Paradise and who shall be damned for eternity.

Before this Final Hour there shall come a day when Ahura Mazda will ultimately prevail over the evil Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, at which point the universe will undergo a cosmic renovation and time will end. In the final renovation, all of creation — even the souls of the dead that were initially banished to "darkness" — will be reunited in the courts of Ahura Mazda, returning to life in the undead form. At the end of time, a savior-figure – Saoshyant – will bring about a final renovation of the world, in which the dead will be revived. This belief is drastically similar to that of the apocalyptic Second Coming of Jesus and the Day of Resurrection, an idea held as a core tenet of faith within the religion of Islam and Christianity.

In fact, when first exposed to the teachings of Zoroastrianism during the invasion of Persia, the Companions, or the Sahabah as they were called, of the Islamic Prophet, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, immediately entitled Zarathustra a divinely inspired prophet such as the likes of Abraham, Solomon, and Jacob, and thus they accorded the same treatment to the Zoroastrian people which they did to other "People of the Book." Though the name of Zoroaster is not mentioned in the Quran, still he was regarded as one of those prophets whose names have not been mentioned in the Quran, for there is a verse in the Quran:

"And We did send apostles before thee: there are some of them that We have mentioned to thee and there are others whom We have not mentioned to Thee."
[al-Quran 40:78]

Accordingly the Muslims treated the founder of Zoroastrianism as a true prophet and believed in his religion as they did in other inspired creeds, and thus according to the prophecy, protected the Zoroastrian religion. The Baha'i Faith also holds Zoroaster in exalted regards. Other similarities between the Abrahamic religions, specially Islam, and Zoroastrianism would be the practice of head-covering for women and the performance of prayers throughout the day.

Besides the many likenesses it shares with Abrahamic monotheism, Zoroastrianism also bears a plethora of differences. Zoroastrians are often, mistakenly and incorrectly, referred to as “fire worshippers”, hence the name “People of the Flame.” This, however, is not true. Zoroastrians do not worship the fire that is at the center of their prayers. The fire is merely a icon of God similar to the Kaaba in Islam or the Crucifix in Christianity. Zoroastrians relate to the brightness provided by the light of a flame as to that of the light of wisdom emanated by Ahura Mazda.

In contrast, Angra Mainyu is often thought of as a torrential abyss of ignorance, fear and darkness. Fire causes darkness to flee, it allows one to see, and thus it bestows the one with knowledge of what lies before him. Therefore, fire douses ignorance. Hence it can be deduced that according to the Zoroastrian creed, knowledge is the remedy to fear whereas ignorance is the source of it.

Another sacred symbol in Zoroastrianism is water. The element of water is considered a symbol of ritualistic purity as it is often used to cleanse oneself and it is seen to wield the power to support life.

Now, a crucial distinguishing feature of the Zoroastrian religion from its other monotheistic counterparts is the way Zoroastrians treat the dead. Unlike Jews, Christians or Muslims, Zoroastrians do not bury their dead. Instead, the corpse is left out in the open to be consumed by vultures – a bird considered holy by the Zoroastrian faith. As the exposed carcass turns into carrion, the soul is thought to be rid of its mortal shell and free to reach out to God for its Final Judgment.

The history of Zoroastrianism remains blurry even to this day. It is difficult, almost impossible, to pinpoint the exact date as to when Zoroastrianism emerged onto the scene as it first enters recorded history back in the mid-5th Century BCE but is obviously older than that. Approximation would put the date to somewhere back 3,500 years from now.

According to Zoroastrian tradition, the religion flourished “258 years before Alexander.” Alexander the Great conquered Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenids, a dynasty that ruled Persia from 559 to 330 BC, in 330 BC. Following this dating, Zoroaster converted Vishtaspa, most likely a king of Chorasmia (an area south of the Aral Sea in Central Asia), in 588 BC. According to tradition, he was 40 years old when this event occurred, thus indicating that his birthdate was 628 BC.

Now, there is no official testament to attest this claim but it is made clear through what little record we have of its history that Zoroastrianism first began sometime around 575 to 578 BC or something close to those numbers. What is important, though, is the rise of Zoroastrianism which took place somewhere during the regime of the great Archaemenian kings such as Cyrus and Darius, famously pious and devout Zoroastrians themselves – Zoroastrianism prospered greatly throughout the Archaemenian Era (549–331 BCE).

However, it all came to an end when the reign of the Archaemenian family over Iran was arrogated after the defeat of Darius III in battle at the hands of Alexander the Great. The war cost the Zoroastrians dearly as it claimed the lives of many priests and resulted in a cataclysmic loss of their sacred texts – the Gathas, nonetheless, survived.

After the death of Alexander came the Greek Seleucids to rule over the Persian dominion. Their reign lasted from 311 to 141 BCE. Zoroastrianism became regionally autonomous under the Seleucids. Next came the Arcasids who overthrew the Seleucids and ruled over Iran from 141 to 224 BCE. During this period, Zoroastrianism went through an era of renovation.

The Arcasids generally kept to the tradition of tolerance towards other faiths and were known to govern within the Zoroastrian Law of Asha (truth and righteousness) – similar to the Islamic Sharia and the Judaic Mitzvot – like the Archaemenians. Hence, their reign allowed the Zoroastrians a great deal of freedom to practise the faith of Zarathustra at liberty once more. The gathering of multiple Zoroastrian texts from the provinces started under the Arcasids, including that of the Vendidad – a book used to exorcise daevas, which is said to have been compiled sometime during this era.

Zoroastrianism’s final epoch of glory came during the reign of the Sassanids over Iran lasting from 226 to 651 CE. The regime came to power when Ardashir the Sasanian succeeded the usurped throne of a Persian vassal king. He rebelled and overthrew the Arcasids. This caused shock and resentment throughout Iran. However, Ardashir was a great politician and used religious propaganda to assert his authority. He cleverly based one of his claims to the throne on Zoroastrian orthodoxy, stating that the Arcasids were not orthodox Zoroastrians. During this period, Zoroastrianism experienced a vast upsurge in power as it became the state religion of Iran.

A single Zoroastrian church was created under the control of Persia and a single canon of Avestan texts was compiled by Ardashir's chief priest and religious propagandist, Tansar. This transition is very similar to Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the state religion of Rome and the establishment of the Council of Nicea to oversee the compilation and canon of the Christian Bible.

Along with that came the development of the Avestan alphabet and an extension of liturgies. Fire Temples were promoted and traditional tolerance towards other religions that was long practiced by the Iranians was utterly abandoned resulting in the persecution of residential Jews and Christians living within the region.

By the end of the Sassanian period the authoritarian Zoroastrian church-state was immensely wealthy but at the same time more ritualized and oppressive. The umbrella of the Persian church kept Zoroastrianism dominant in Persia. This meant Zoroastrianism stayed free from the influence of other religions becoming popular at the time such as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. However, Zoroastrianism, under this church, had also become so abusive and power-hungry that, at the end of the Sassanian period, it was considered to have been as ripe for reform as Christianity was in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Sassanid Empire lasted in power for over 400 years, routinely handing losses to the Romans while simultaneously maintaining trading relationships with Constantinople and Beijing. Their fall, along with that of Zoroastrianism, commenced during the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Regardless, the reign of the Sassanian still influences Persian identity to this day.

The Arab Conquest of Persia, also known as Tajavoz-e Arab meaning “Attack of the Arabs” or Zohur-e Islam meaning “Dawn of Islam”, was the prime driving force that led to the end of Sassanid Empire in 644, and the fall of the Sassanid Dynasty in 651 and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran.

The incursions took place in a series of three bouts: the first led by general Khalid ibn Waleed in the year 633 CE, the second led by commander Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas in 636 CE, and the third and final one led by the second and most celebrated Caliph of Sunni Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab in 642 CE. By end of 651 CE, the Islamic Arab invaders had succesfully won the war and taken over all of Iran.

The disastrous effect this had on Zoroastrianism surpassed that of Alexander. Many libraries were burned and much cultural heritage was lost.

The Islamic invaders treated the Zoroastrians as dhimmis (People of the Book). This meant that, like Jews and Christians, they could retain their religious practices, but must pay jizyah – a per capita tax levied on a section of an Islamic state's non-Muslim citizens who meet certain criteria. There were also many other laws and social humiliations implemented to make life difficult for the Zoroastrians in the hopes that the people would convert to Islam. Over time many Iranians did convert and Zoroastrianism became a minority religion in Iran.

Later on, Zoroastrianism suffered yet another savage blow, this time at the hands of the invading Turks. This was followed by the exceedingly more damaging Mongol invasions which destroyed further religious texts and scriptures. This time the Islamic foundation also suffered irreparable loss.

Within half a century of the conquest, Gazan Khan converted to Islam and Zoroastrianism dwindled even further through renewed persecution.

Three centuries after the Islamic Conquest, many Zoroastrians fled Iran in search of a new land to practice their faith freely. They ended up on the shores of Gujarat and founded the Indian Parsi community.

Over the next few centuries, Zoroastrianism found a foothold in India and survived throughout the years with very few cultural reforms. All of that changed, however, due to the formulaic doctrinal attacks of the Christian missionaries in the 19th Century. Soon, the Zoroastrians were forced to undergo yet another period of rectification.

The Parsi priesthood, put under pressure and confusion due to the Christian campaigns, re-examined themselves and revamped their teachings utilizing re-interpretations of the Avesta indoctrinating elements of mainstream Hinduism into the faith, the effects of which soon trickled all the way back to Iran.

In consequence, Zoroastrianism, and its followers, adapted themselves to the rapid urbanization of the world around with unprecedented flexibility and integrity. And although, Zoroastrianism stands a dying creed today, the readiness of the Zoroastrians to hold on to their faith and prevail against extreme hardship allow the devotees to persevere against the Spirit of Destruction and reach out with renewed strength towards the Light of Wisdom.

— Fahim Ferdous Promi

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