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Zoroaster (Avestan: Zarathushtra, IPA: zæræθʊʃtræ), the progenitor of the Zoroastrian religion, and his philosophy have long been manipulated. Zoroaster’s status as one of the earliest known thinkers has made his personage open to tampering.

Indeed, one factor that has contributed to the multiple interpretations of Zoroaster is the fact that not much is known about his life. Both Alexander the Great and the invading Arab-Islamic armies damaged Zoroastrianism along with their devastation of Iran. The burning of the original Avesta, the collection of Zoroastrian writings and philosophy, is attributed by the Arab historian Al-Tabari and earlier Sassanid sources to Alexander. After Alexander burned the Avesta, what few manuscripts remained were pooled together and organized. Beginning under the Parthian dynasty, these efforts continued, finishing in the Sassanid dynasty. It is widely believed that the modern Avestan alphabet that the Avesta is transcribed in was developed during the Sassanid era from Aramaic. The alphabet the Avesta was written in before the Sassanid era is unknown. During the Arab-Islamic invasion of Iran, much more of the Avesta was lost as the Arabs were advised to burn all books of learning, particularly those contradictory to the Quran. Al-Biruni, the Persian astronomer and mathematician recounts the turmoil the invading Arabs caused in Khwarezm. Similar accounts are given by Al-Tabari, Mohammad Balkhi, and others. Zoroastrianism continued to be damaged as time went on. Today what is left has been salvaged by the Zoroastrians of Iran and those who fled to India as well as researchers.

Due to the large amount of destruction inflicted on Zoroastrianism and the Avesta, not much is known about Zoroaster’s life. Estimates of his time vary greatly from around 600 BCE to as early as 2000BCE. Those supporting the later dates cite the fact that Zoroaster is supposed to have taken refuge with King Vishtaspa. Vishtaspa was the father of Darayawaush (Darius) the Great whose reign began in the 500’s BCE, making the later date plausible. However, the Vishtaspa of Zoroaster’s time may have been a much older Vishtaspa. Mythological evidence dates the doctrines of Zoroastrianism to a much older date. Archaeological evidence, such as ruins found in the eastern Iranian lands, seems to agree that Zoroaster would have lived earlier than 1000BCE. Linguistic evidence supports the notion that Zoroaster lived in a time near 1000BCE. The Gathas, attributed to Zoroaster himself, are written in the archaic Old Avestan. The complexity of the grammar has led linguists like Bartholomea to place the date of the Zoroaster’s time around 1000BCE.

No definitive answer can be given on the historical Zoroaster; however, different sources offer varied insights into who he may have been. In later writings, Zoroaster takes on mythical proportions. These texts are not from his era and are creations of later priests or writers. Early Avestan texts, like the Spəna Nask, where supposed to have given accounts of Zoroaster’s life. Unfortunately, these texts were among those destroyed over time. The Shahnameh, a poetic epic on Iran’s mythology and history which contains sections on Zoroaster’s life, is supposedly based off of these earlier texts. Zoroaster’s family name was Spitama, thought to be the name of a warrior who founded his clan. Some think Zoroaster was his first name, others think it may have been a nickname or a title given to him. The name is an Avestan compound meaning “having golden camels.” Many have developed other interpretations, such as “golden dawn” or “golden light” out of embarrassment over the name’s original meaning. To do so is to take from the name’s original meaning: namely that just like a camel one can prevail under the harshest of conditions. Sources are vague and conflict over his birthplace. Greek sources claim he was Bactrian, born in the Afghanistan/Eastern Iran/Southern Turkmenistan region. Avestan is also classified as an “East Iranian” language. However, the fact that Avestan is an ancient language has led linguists like Kellens to speculate that it may predate the East/West divide of Iranian languages. The fact that Ossetian, one of the geographically western-most Iranian languages, is classified as “Eastern” demonstrates that the “East/West” divide of Iranian language is not entirely geographic in nature. Furthermore, Avestan texts point to Northwest Iran as the homeland of Zoroaster. There are various accounts of Zoroaster having been a hermitic or having a miraculous childhood. Many of these are factually unreliable and most do not originate in Iran or from Zoroaster’s time. It is thought that Zoroaster reached a point of illumination and understanding. After this the Avesta tells of the great hardship Zoroaster faced in teaching others and expressing his ideas. Zoroaster was then exiled from his native land by the priest class. He and his followers took refugee, first in Ray and then in Eastern Iran with king Vishtaspa. Vishtaspa was open to Zoroaster’s ideas. Zoroaster is thought to have had 6 children. Most accounts say he had a single wife; however, some accounts state that he had multiple wives. Nothing is mentioned in the surviving Avesta about Zoroaster’s death. According to the Shahnameh, Vishtaspa’s kingdom went to war with Turanian tribesmen from beyond the Oxus River. During this war, Zoroaster was slain by Turanians storming the land. Though much can be inferred about Zoroaster’s life, little is known with certainty.

Zoroaster’s ideas have been misinterpreted and misunderstood by western academics. Many attempt to portray his conception of God as anthropomorphic. In addition, many ideas, such as universal duality, which are the products of later thinkers, have been attributed to Zoroaster. His ideas have influenced many philosophies. In addition to his metaphysical thoughts, Zoroaster is noted for his work in poetry, mathematics, and astronomy. He calculated the time of the equinox and solstice and set his own meridian in Southeastern Iran called Nimruz. Today a province in Southwest Afghanistan retains this name. Zoroaster’s academic and intellectual achievements came in large part from his philosophical ideology.

Zoroaster’s philosophy centered on the importance of personal growth and development of wisdom. Zoroaster begins his inquiry into the nature of things not through a list of commandments, but through a series of questions. Zoroaster never claimed prophethood or that his word was the word of God. He saw himself as a product of the universal consciousness he termed Ahura Mazda striving to understand itself. According to Zoroaster, the universe can be divided into two spheres: that of the corporeal and that of the consciousness. Everything in the physical world is an expression of consciousness. Likewise the things humanity creates and the society humanity embodies are the aggregate of its consciousness. By keeping the mind healthy and by making use of creative forces, individuals can find satisfaction and passion in what they do. This is critical to the fulfillment of human potential, for the same creative forces utilized by a mind in disarray can be used for degenerate purposes. The Avestan word Zoroaster uses for conscious power, mainyu, is seen in both the term for positive consciousness, spənta mainyu, and malefic consciousness, angra mainyu. This is manifest today, where the power of an atom can be construed to create clean, efficient energy or unleashed to bombard civilians with unimaginable destruction. Society’s behaviors, actions, and creations originate with the thoughts and states of consciousness of its members. By manipulating states of being and trying to remain in-tune with the unconscious mind, one can affect the outer, corporeal reality and its perception. Zoroaster’s teachings culminate in the Zoroastrian creed “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta” (good thoughts, good words, good deeds). Accordingly, worship of an anthropomorphic God was not practiced; the only way to influence the world and establish a connection to higher consciousness was through conscious thought and effort. To allow everyone to achieve this, free will and free thought were supplemental beliefs. In the end, Zoroaster thought it most important was for humanity to continue to inquire into the nature of things and thus continue humanity’s growth.

For further reading, the following website is one of the best I have yet seen on Zoroastrianism. Fariborz Rahnamoon clearly documents Zoroastrianism with an open mind. I am glad someone is working to preserve this part of human heritage.

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