History Of Zoroastrianism

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Classical Antiquity
Although older (9th/10th century BCE, see Zoroaster), Zoroastrianism only enters recorded history in the mid-5th century BCE. Herodotus’ The Histories (completed c. 440 BCE) includes a description of Greater Iranian society with what may be recognizably Zoroastrian features, including exposure of the dead. (See Towers of Silence).

Perhaps more importantly, The Histories is a primary source of information on the early period of the Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE), in particular with respect to the role of the Magi. According to Herodotus i.101, the Magi were the sixth tribe of the Medians (until the unification of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great, all Iranians were referred to as Mede or Mada by the peoples of the Ancient World), who appear to have been the priestly caste of the Mesopotamian-influenced branch of Zoroastrianism today known as Zurvanism, and who wielded considerable influence at the courts of the Median emperors.

Following the unification of the Median and Persian empires in 550 BCE Cyrus II and later his son Cambyses II curtailed the powers of the Magi after they had attempted to seed dissent following their loss of influence. In 522 BCE the Magi revolted and set up a rival claimant to the throne. The usurper, pretending to be Cyrus’ younger son Smerdis, took power shortly thereafter. Owing to the despotic rule of Cambyses and his long absence in Egypt, “the whole people, Persians, Medes and all the other nations” acknowledged the usurper, especially as he granted a remission of taxes for three years (Herodotus iii. 68).

The Behistun Inscription.According to the Behistun Inscription pseudo-Smerdis ruled for seven months before being overthrown by Darius I in 521 BCE. The “Magi”, though persecuted, continued to exist. A year following the death of the first pseudo-Smerdis (named Gaumata), a second pseudo-Smerdis (named Vahyazdāta) attempted a coup. The coup, though initially successful, failed.

Whether Cyrus II was a Zoroastrian is subject to debate. It did however influence him to the extent that it became the non-imposing religion of his empire, and its beliefs would later allow Cyrus to free the Jews from captivity and allow them to return to Judea when the emperor took Babylon in 539 BCE. Darius I was certainly a devotee of Ahura Mazda, as attested to several times in the Behistun inscription. But whether he was a follower of Zoroaster has not been conclusively established, since devotion to Ahura Mazda was (at the time) not necessarily an indication of an adherence to Zoroaster’s teaching.

Darius I and later Achaemenid emperors, though acknowledging their devotion to Ahura Mazda in inscriptions, appear to have permitted religions to coexist. Nonetheless, it was during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism gained momentum. A number of the Zoroastrian texts that today are part of the greater compendium of the Avesta have been attributed to that period. It was also during the later Achaemenid era that many of the divinities and divine concepts of proto-Indo-Iranian religion(s) were incorporated in Zoroastrianism, in particular those to whom the days of the month of the Zoroastrian calendar are dedicated. This calendar is still used today, a fact that is attributed to the Achaemenid period. Additionally, the divinities, or yazatas, are present-day Zoroastrian angels. (Dhalla, 1938).

Almost nothing is known of the status of Zoroastrianism under the Seleucids and Parthians who ruled over Persia following Alexander the Great’s invasion in 330 BCE. According to later Zoroastrian legend (Denkard, Book of Arda Viraf), many sacred texts were lost when Alexander’s troops invaded Persepolis and subsequently destroyed the royal library there. Diodorus Siculus’s Bibliotheca historia completed c. 60 BCE, which is to a great extent an encapsulation of earlier works, appears to substantiate Zoroastrian legend (Diod. 17.72.2–17.72.6). According to one archaeological examination, the ruins of the palace of Xerxes bear traces of having been burned (Stolze, 1882). Whether a vast collection of (semi-)religious texts “written on parchment in gold ink”, as suggested by the Denkard, actually existed remains a matter of speculation, but is unlikely. Given that many of the Denkards statements-as-fact have since been refuted among scholars, the tale of the library is widely accepted to be fictional. (Kellens, 2002)

Zoroastrianism had a significant influence on Greek and Roman philosophy. Several ancient Greek writers such as Eudoxus of Cnidus and Latin writers such as Pliny the Elder praised Zoroastrian philosophy as “the most famous and most useful”. Plato learned of Zoroastrian philosophy through Eudoxus and incorporated some of its teachings into his own Platonic realism.[1] In the 3rd century BC, however, Colotes accused Plato’s The Republic of plagiarizing parts of Zoroaster’s On Nature, such as the Myth of Er.[2][3] Plato’s contemporary, Heraclides Ponticus, wrote a text called Zoroaster based on Zoroaster’s philosophy in order to express his disagreement with Plato on natural philosophy.[4]

[edit] Late antiquity
When the Sassanid dynasty came into power in 228 CE, they aggressively promoted the Zurvanite form of Zoroastrianism and in some cases persecuted Christians and Manichaeans. When the Sassanids captured territory, they often built fire temples there to promote their religion. The Sassanids were suspicious of Christians not least because of their perceived ties to the Christian Roman Empire. Thus, those Christians loyal to the Patriarchate of Babylon — which had broken with Roman Christianity when the latter condemned Nestorianism — were tolerated and even sometimes favored by the Sassanids. Nestorians lived in large numbers in Mesopotamia and Khuzestan during this period.

A form of Zoroastrianism was apparently also the chief religion of pre-Christian Caucasus region, or at least was prominent there. During periods of Sassanid suzerainty over the Caucasus the Sassanids made attempts to promote the religion there as well.

Well before the 6th century Zoroastrianism had spread to northern China via the Silk Road, gaining official status in a number of Chinese states. Remains of Zoroastrian temples have been found in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang, and according to some scholars,[who?] remained as late as the 1130s, but by the 13th century the religion had faded from prominence in China. However, many scholars[who?] assert the influence of Zoroastrianism (as well as later Manicheism) on elements of Buddhism, especially in terms of light symbolism.

[edit] Middle Ages
In the 7th century the Sassanid dynasty was overthrown by the Arabs. Although some of the later rulers had Zoroastrian shrines destroyed, generally Zoroastrians were included as People of the Book and allowed to practice their religion. Mass conversions to Islam were not imposed,[5] in accordance with Islamic law, though some scholars debate the validity of these claims.[6] However, there was a slow but steady social pressure to convert.[7] The nobility and city-dwellers were the first to convert, with Islam more slowly being accepted among the peasantry and landed gentry.[8]

Many Zoroastrians fled, among them several groups who eventually migrated to the western shores of the Indian subcontinent where they finally settled. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan “Story of Sanjan”, the only existing account of the early years of Zoroastrian refugees in India, the immigrants originated from (greater) Khorasan. The descendants of those and other settlers, who are today known as the Parsis, founded the Indian cities of Sanjan and Navsari, which are said to have been named after the cities of their origin: Sanjan (near Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan) and the eponymous Sari (in modern Mazandaran, Iran). (Kotwal, 2004)

Zoroastrian school children in Kerman, 1903.In the centuries following the fall of the Sassanid Empire Zoroastrianism began to gradually return to the form it had had under the Achaemenids, and no evidence of what is today called the “Zurvan Heresy” exists beyond the 10th century. (Boyce, 2002) Ironically, it was Zurvanism and Zurvan-influenced texts that first reached the west, leading to the supposition that Zoroastrianism was a religion with two deities: Zurvan and Ahura Mazda (the latter being opposed by Angra Mainyu).

[edit] Modern era
Today there are significantly fewer Zoroastrians than there once were. Over the centuries adherents of the faith have dispersed in all directions, but greater concentrations of Zoroastrians may still be found on the Indian subcontinent and in Iran.

[edit] Relation to other religions and cultures
Zoroastrianism is uniquely important in the history of religion because of its possible formative links to both Western and Eastern religious traditions. As “the oldest of the revealed credal religions”, Zoroastrianism “probably had more influence on mankind [sic] directly or indirectly than any other faith”.[9]

It has been asserted[10][11] that key concepts of Zoroastrian eschatology and demonology had influence on the Abrahamic religions. However, Boyce[12] and other Iranists also note that Zoroastrianism itself inherited ideas from other belief systems and, like other practiced religions, accommodates some degree of syncretism. For example, one of the popular strains within Zoroastrianism considers (the representation of) evil to have been one of God’s creations (that subsequently turned from God). This idea of a unity of a creative principle is a relatively recent development and directly attributed to influence from Christianity, specifically, the impact of Protestant missionaries on the Indian subcontinent during the 19th century (see Angra Mainyu in present-day Zoroastrianism for details).

Many traits of Zoroastrianism can be traced back to the culture and beliefs of the prehistorical Indo-Iranian period, that is, to the time before the migrations that led to the (North-)Indians and Iranians becoming distinct peoples. Zoroastrianism consequently shares elements with the historical Vedic religion that also has its origins in that era. However, Zoroastrianism was also strongly affected by the later culture of the Iranian Heroic Age (1500 BCE onwards), an influence that the Indic religions were not subject to. Moreover, the other culture groups that the respective peoples came to interact with were different, for instance in 6th-4th century BCE Western Iran with Fertile Crescent culture, with each side absorbing ideas from the other. Such inter-cultural influences notwithstanding, Zoroastrian scripture is essentially a product of (Indo)Iranian culture, and—representing the oldest and largest corpus pre-Islamic Iranian ideology—is considered a reflection of that culture. Then, together with the Vedas, which represent the oldest texts of the Indian branch of Indo-Iranian culture, it is possible to reconstruct some facets of prototypical Indo-Iranian beliefs. Since these two groups of sources also represent the oldest non-fragmentary evidence of Indo-European languages, the analysis of them also motivated attempts to characterise an even earlier Proto-Indo-European religion, and in turn influenced various unifying hypotheses like those of Carl Gustav Jung or James George Frazer. Although these unifying notions deeply influenced the modernists of the late 19th- and early 20th century, they have not fared well under the scrutiny of more recent interdisciplinary peer review. The study of pre-Islamic Iran has itself undergone a radical change in direction since the 1950s, and the field is today disinclined to speculation.

Zoroastrianism is often compared with the Manichaeism, which is nominally an Iranian religion but has its origins in the Middle-Eastern Gnosticism. Superficially, such a comparison may be apt as both are uncompromisingly dualistic and Manichaeism nominally adopted many of the Yazatas for its own pantheon. As religious types they are however poles apart:[13] Manichaeism equated evil with matter and good with spirit, and was therefore particularly suitable as a doctrinal basis for every form of asceticism and many forms of mysticism. Zoroastrianism on the other hand rejects every form of asceticism, has no dualism of matter and spirit (only of good and evil), and sees the spiritual world as not very different from the natural one and the word “paradise” (via Latin and Greek from Avestan pairi.daeza, literally “stone-bounded enclosure”) applies equally to both. Manichaeism’s basic doctrine was that the world and all corporeal bodies were constructed from the substance of Satan, an idea that is fundamentally at odds with the Zoroastrian notion of a world that was created by God and that is all good, and any corruption of it is an effect of the bad. From what may be inferred from many Manichean texts and a few Zoroastrian sources, the adherents of the two religions (or at least their respective priesthoods) despised each other intensely.

Many aspects of Zoroastrianism are present in the culture and mythologies of the peoples of the Greater Iran, not least because Zoroastrianism, was a dominant influence on the people of the cultural continent for a thousand years. Even after the rise of Islam and the loss of direct influence Zoroastrianism remained part of the cultural heritage of the Iranian language-speaking world, in part as festivals and customs, but also because Ferdowsi incorporated a number of the figures and stories from the Avesta in his epic Shāhnāme, which in turn is pivotal to Iranian identity.

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