Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by the Iranian prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), who lived probably between 1500-1000 BCE. While Zoroastrians today number just 150 000 or so worldwide, their religion was once dominant in the middle east, being the state religion of the Achaemenid Persian empire—the largest empire in history by percentage of world population. It has furthermore been vital in influencing other religions such as Christianity, Manichaeism, the Gnostics, and Islam.
Often referred to by its adherents as the ‘Good Religion,’ Zoroastrianism is first and foremost an ethical religion. Its precepts, cosmology, and traditions all stem from and are infused with the basic idea of goodness, as opposed to wickedness. The One Supreme God, whose name is Ahura Mazda, meaning ‘Wise Lord,’ is the source of all that is good, true, light, and pure. Angra Mainyu, meaning ‘Destructive Spirit,’ is the negative force which introduces evil, lies, darkness, and corruption. Good thoughts, good words, good actions—these are the basic goals for the individual follower. A special importance is placed on good actions however, as Zoroastrianism is foremost a religion of active struggle against evil. Zoroastrians must not only live a good life themselves, but also dutifully combat evil wherever it may lie.
While it is not the place of the True Left to prescribe any specific cosmology or metaphysics, the real world tenets and implications of Zoroastrianism—absolute ethics, active struggle, and noble sacrifice—are in accordance with our ideals and are to be commended. Being so old a creed however, much of the original Avesta, the sacred collection of Zoroastrian scriptures, has been lost, and the remaining texts were likely subject to corruption. This being the case, there is some inconsistency in doctrine and commentary. The basic principles are mostly uniform though, and where there is controversy we will give Zarathustra the benefit of the doubt.
Zoroastrianism arose not as an entirely novel religion, but more as a critique of the old rituals and pantheon then present on the Iranian plateau. Zarathustra condemned the excesses of ritual and intoxication used by warrior tribes to appease angry gods, and procure good fortune in their raids. The prophet also found abhorrent their practice of animal sacrifice and condemned it likewise, as well as the eating of flesh (though some scholars disagree). These gods of the old religion, the Daevas as they are called, were revealed by Zarathustra to be malevolent inferior deities not at all worthy of worship. Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman later on), the Evil or Foul Spirit, is sometimes interpreted as the father of the Daevas, but according to most scholars and commentators this is incorrect. Angra Mainyu is simply the spirit that corrupts the Daeva, as the latter “did not discriminate straight between the two [Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda], as deception would come over them while consulting, so they would choose the worst thought. Thus they would scramble to Wrath, with which mortals sicken this existence.”(Yasna 30, 6) Thus the Daeva were not born wicked of Angra Mainyu but were deceived, and so too mankind is not born wicked but is deceived by wickedness—Zoroastrianism has no concept of ‘original sin,’ but rather original purity.
It is of course remarkable that many of the old Iranian gods, the shunned Daeva in Zoroastrian cosmology, are equivalent with the praised gods of the Vedic religion of India, which are also called by no coincidence ‘Deva.’ Indra, Sarva (Rudra), and Nanghaithya (Vedic Nasatya) are three of the six principle Daeva in Zoroastrianism.
While Ahura Mazda was already a deity in the old pantheon nominally, Zarathustra’s reform vested Him with the epithet of ‘Uncreated Creator,’ and saw him as the Supreme God. In one interpretation of Zoroastrian cosmogony, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are twin spirits, both co-eternal, each residing in their own spheres of light and darkness respectively. As remarked previously, Angra Mainyu does not create the Daeva but only corrupts them. This is because Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are said to be absolute opposites, and so the former being the creator God, the latter is thus neither creator nor god (or God). A sect called the Zurvanites reconciled the two by making the ‘twins’ both born of Zurvan, who is the First Principle infinite time and space. Zurvan is therefore not a god higher than Ahura Mazda, but merely a principle or process which is morally neutral. In this schema, Ahura Mazda was to be the ‘first-born’ of Zurvan and so given supremacy over the cosmos, but Angra Mainyu, aware of the arrangement, tore open the womb to emerge first. Thus because Angra Mainyu swindled his way into being born first, Zurvan was forced to give him the advantage. However Zurvan limited Angra Mainyu’s rule to 9 000 Years, after which Ahura Mazda would retake his rightful ascendency for all eternity. Zurvanism, although providing an explanation for the twin spirit enigma, nonetheless goes against the moral imperative so central to Zarathustra’s message because of its fatalistic implications.
Although Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are explicitly described as ‘twins’ in the original Gathic texts, there is much reason to suppose that the two are not commensurate. The main contra-indication being the so-called ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Bounteous Force’ of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, who is also Truth. It is not Ahura Mazda himself but Spenta Mainyu who leads the battle against Angra Mainyu, who is the Lie. Unlike Zurvanism, the traditional Pahlavi texts tell us that Angra Mainyu is not destined to rule for a period, but is rather confined by Ahura Mazda to the lower third of the universe so as to be contained. The Wise Lord then created the Fravashis, or ‘Pre-Souls,’ who would incarnate into the middle third of the universe as living beings and fight the battle against evil. In the upper third, the realm of goodness and light, reside the Amesha Spentas, or Beneficent Immortals.
“He divided the well-made sky into three thirds, one above, connected to Endless Light, in which is the Treasure containing eternal profit; one below, attached to the Darkness in the Depth, in which dwells the Lie full of evil: one below and above the two other thirds.
Then he made the uppermost third, called Garodman, into a stronghold of purity, all light and happiness, so that the Lie cannot reach them.
He equipped that third so that the pure Amahrspands [Amesha Spentas] might be invoked without fear of the Adversary by the Righteous Ones who performed service to the gods, who, like noble heroes set against an unprepared opponent, fight with all they have in the battle and overcome the opponent . . .
With his divine wonder-power and Fortune, he separated out the opposite matter and contamination and placed it in the lower-most third, so that the lie-demon of un-goodness might come and fill that third with darkness and demons and make it horrible. In that hardship, when the Millenium comes about, it will be a prison providing a way for the demons to do penitence, as well as for the wicked whom the demons deceived and who fled from the fighting, in which they will be made responsible for their sins. Patiently, they will let no lie-demon in through the enclosure of the lights until . . . the punishment of the demons and the remorse of the wicked are completed.
Then he fashioned the creation of this world and placed in it the middle third to be the front line (radag) of this world and that world. Among those creatures, he set in place man, who can organize, as the master of the creatures; discerning wisdom as a tool for mankind; and the true Tradition of those who possess the best knowledge.
He built the world of the living as the place where the battle would be fought between the two with opposite essences.” (Dādestān ī dēnīg 36)
It is said in another passage that:
“As the Foul Spirit rushed in and saw the purpose for which the creations had been set in place—the supremacy of the deities, and his own impotence—he wished to rush back . .
He [Ahura Mazda] appointed the warrior pre-souls of the sustainers of the Order, with valiant horses and spears in the hands, around that stronghold, numerous as the hairs on the heads of the soldiers who mount the guard of a stronghold. That stronghold, which the Righteous are in, they call the Awareness-of-the-Righteous.
When the Foul Spirit found no passage to rush back through, he saw how the demons would be cut off and he himself undone as clearly as Ahura Mazda did his future victory and the Perfectioning for ever and ever.” (Bundahishn 6a)
Other commentators posit that first Ahura Mazda existed alone in the cosmos. He created the Spirit of Truth, or Spenta Mainyu, along with the other Amesha Spentas, and the Fravashis of all living things. The Fravashis then wanted physical bodies, and Ahura Mazda warned them that if he created physicality they would no longer be perfect and Evil would enter the creation. The Fravashis would have to fight a long and hard battle to defeat it. They agreed, and so Ahura Mazda sent Spenta Mainyu, the Truth, to guide the Fravashis and to lead the battle against Angra Mainyu. In this manner, and also in accordance with the Pahlavi cosmology, Zoroastrianism differs from Manichaeism and the Gnostic sects. The material world itself is not seen as a wholly evil creation, but is the least perfect creation that has the most evil in it. Furthermore, Angra Mainyu cannot be classified as a Demiurge per se because, he is not a creating force.
Such are the cosmologies set forth in the Avesta and Pahlavi scriptures. The central concept of a struggle to defeat Angra Mainyu is common to all though. And the imperative for this struggle is based on Zarathustra’s absolute, explicit moral recognition and distinction between Good and Evil. The latter although being inferior, will continue to pollute the universe indefinitely until we as free agents on the world stage actively defeat it. It is for this reason that Zarathustra heavily criticized monasticism, and considered withdrawal from the world sinful.
Angra Mainyu may be defeated by following the ideals of the Amesha Spentas, both within ourselves (good thoughts) and in the external world (good actions). The six Amesha Spentas may be considered both as divine beings and as divine aspects in every person. Vohu Mana is the spirit of the Good Mind, from which follows good thoughts. Asha Vahista is the spirit of Truth and Righteousness: to follow it is the highest ideal of Zoroastrianism—being righteous. Khshathra Vairya is the spirit of Ideal Authority or Dominion, the power of Ahura Mazda as a wise ruler: in this spirit humans promote good and fight evil in the world. Spenta Armaity is the spirit of Love and Benevolence: through Spenta Armaity comes charity and grace. Haurvatat is the spirit of Perfection and Well-being in this life; and Ameratat is the spirit of Immortality and eternal bliss.
While Zoroastrianism is concerned with cosmic struggle, it also has a noted focus on the personal afterlife, and the rewards of Heaven or Paradise and the punishments of Hell. While this is somewhat downplayed in the older scriptures, which merely say “The man who behaves according to the law which Ahura Mazda set down and sacrifices to Ahura Mazda according to the Order up on high, he will be both blessed while alive and one with Order when dead,” (From the Old Persian Inscriptions) it is too often in the later writings that good actions are supported solely by the rewards of heaven, and these rewards are described in great detail. Rewards of the afterlife may be fine to describe, but ideally it should be primarily out of compassion and a sense of profound injustice that we fight against Evil in this world and within ourselves.
That being said, Zoroastrianism on the whole, and perhaps stripped of some of its later, more selfish connotations, is a religion worthy of salvage and support due to its clear moral teachings and noble ideals.