Zoroastrianism in the Middle East
On the Spring Equinox (20 or 21 March), people in Iran and many other countries of the Middle East, celebrate the festival, Nowruz. The picture above is a table laid ceremonially with the symbols of this festival: there are candles, plants, flowers sprouting seeds, bread, cheese, rosewater, wine, a mirror, coins. In the middle is a picture of Zoroaster, and in front of that the symbol of Zoroastrianism, a king’s head between wings similar to those of the Egyptian symbol of Horus.
This table had been arranged by Shahin Bekhradnia, a British Zoroastrian, who had come to Ashford to talk to the inter-faith society. She was born of Iranian parents and educated in London and Oxford. She explained that the Zoroastrians of Iran are a very small community, more or less oppressed by the dominant Shia Islamic government. But Zoroastrianism is one of the most ancient religions in the world, and for over 1 000 years the religion of the ancient Persian Empire.
To escape the Islamic persecution, a number of Zoroastrians fled to India in the ninth century, where they were allowed to stay on condition they did not try to convert people. In India, they were called Parsees and, in due course, became successful as business people. The British trusted them as bankers and employed them as accountants all over the British Empire. Some came to Britain, and the first Indian MP was in fact a Parsee.
Today there are estimated to be about 120 000 Zoroastrians in the world, with the largest communities in India, California, Britain and Iran. They have developed differently in the different areas where they live, with the largest population being that of the Parsees, who tend to be ritualistic. They have several fire temples in Mumbai, one of which I visited, though tourists are not allowed in the innermost sanctuary. In London, there is a temple managed by Parsees and another just opened by the more liberal adherents„ of which Shahin has been president.
The good path
She started her talk by explaining that beliefs are all in the mind. We have awareness of a choice between good and evil in everything we do. We have to choose the right way, and the consequences of that choice will make us happy. We must do good even if it brings no reward to us personally. And we must not tell lies. She said these are the basic beliefs she learned from her parents: her maternal grandfather was a Zoroastrian priest.
This results in a religion which is very keen on truth-telling (which she claims helped the Parsee thrive in business) and also doing good works, such as founding schools and hospitals. When someone dies, the most important thing is that they are well remembered for these virtues. They must have followed the good path, which she also compared to Buddhist belief about the Way.
Then she went back to the origins of the faith, probably started around 1300 BCE but in any case certainly by the sixth century BCE. Zoroaster (Zarathustra) was a faith leader who rebelled against the religious practices of his day, which were polytheistic, extremely ritualistic, and controlled by exploitative priests. He taught that the world is created and sustained by Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord) and the person who wants to find the right way must develop good thinking or mindfulness to link up with this wisdom, and be influenced by the positive energy of Spenta Mainyu, rather than the negative pull of negative thoughts (Angra Mainyju).
Zoroastrianism for over 1,000 years
Although Zoroaster did not make many converts in his own locality, once the local king accepted his philosophy, conversions started from then on until Zoroastrianism became the predominant faith of the Persian Empire for over a thousand years. Several Greek historians (Strabo) referred to it and it is highly likely that the Magi of the Christmas story were Zoroastrians, as they were known to be experts at astrology.
The ideas fundamental to the faith are found in the various hymns called Gathas, which were composed and passed down initially in Old Avestan, an ancient version of Persian. They can be compared to the Vedas of Hinduism. Sanskrit and Avestan both descend from a common Aryan proto-language in the family tree of world languages. Shahin is a passionate linguist, keen to draw attention to words with common roots.
The teachings of Zoroaster were passed down orally in many parts of the Persian Empire or Persian-influenced lands (which extend northwards to the Caucasus and eastwards along the Silk Road – all in countries which still celebrate the Spring Festival in the traditional way). It is said that the teachings were written down on ox-hide parchment and put in the royal library, which was then sacked and burned in the conquest of Alexander.
A reform version of the faith
A few centuries later, another Persian king decreed that the traditions must be collected and written down. Shahin was dubious about the authenticity of these late texts from this effort which was at least 1300 years after the original teacher. Unlike the King James Bible, she said, unfortunately there is no official version of the religion today so it is difficult to assert which of the many versions /translations are acceptable. It seems that she adheres more to a “liberal” version of the faith that, like Protestantism in Christianity, endeavours to skip the added ritual and return to the practices and beliefs of the founders.
I asked her about the fire temples. Her reply dodged any symbolic or spiritual meaning to fire and went straight to the practical point that at the time when all household heating and cooking needed fire, it was good to have an ever-burning source of fire, a fire-house, in every community, with priests whose job it was to keep it burning so that everyone could kindle their hearths from its ashes.
Down to earth talk
However she is clearly enthusiastic about religious language and liturgy, being a practitioner of one of the oldest religions in the world. She was especially keen to tell us the significance of the various objects placed on the Nowruz table at the Spring Equinox. As in proto-Science, there are the symbols of fire (the candles), earth, water, metals (the coins), the plants, the animals, and more to reflect how humans utilise the natural world, and everything displayed on the table sustains and enhances life and all are dependent on the careful tending of earth fire and water to nurture the plants that make all the table items come into existence (except the metal).
A celebration that provides for annual reflection on our host planet surely chimes in with our more recent awareness of the need to live sustainably and in sync with nature.