Friday, June 04, 2004

The Roots of Monotheism and the Pervasiveness of Zoroaster

There once was a force so influential in philosophy and religion that any other entity that came in contact with it was influenced in a number of ways. It was such a tenuous yet highly logical belief, something so metaphysical and ahead of its time, that within a few hundred years, countless cultures, and at least 4 distinctive religions can attest to its influence. This force as we not it today was called Zoroastrianism.
When I speak of Zoroastrianism, I am not speaking of the bastardization version that the powerful Western Persian empire implemented during the first millennium BCE. This too was a force that was influenced by the original teachings of an individual named Zarathushtra, but later, due in part to Greek influence, called Zoroaster. There are many different versions of his origins and even the place of his birth, or the region of his teachings are in contention. Most of these claims are erroneous at best, and based solely on the "tourist attraction" factor.
There are generally two main schools of thought as to the exact dates of Zoroaster's existence. The first claims that Zoroaster lived during the rise of the Achaemenid Persian dynasty (Western Persia, around 700-500 BCE), while the second places him somewhere between 1300-1100 BCE. According to linguistic scholars, the most likely scenario would probably be the latter, considering some linguistic clues I will soon explain. Unlike Socrates, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, Abraham, Moses, or most any legendary religious founder, Zoroaster was actually a scholar. His written word has been passed down through the ages, and survives today in the form of the Avesta. To be more specific, the first part of the Avesta (roughly half the book) known as the Gathas. The language of the Avesta is very similar to that of an ancient Hindic script called Vedic. As with all Indo-European languages, early Persian and Hindic were related at one point. Scholarly estimates place the divergence between Persian and Hindic languages around 2000 BC. In fact, even today, Indo-Iranian/Indo-Persian is sometimes classified as one branch of the Indo-European family tree. It has also been referred to as the Aryan languages (not the same Aryan term that Hitler manipulated to fit his needs). Upon close examination, the similarity between the Vedic script and that of the Avesta is close enough, to approximately date the time of composition. As it turns out, the Avesta, especially the Gathas, can be approximately dated to about eight centuries after the divergence of the Indo-Iranian language group. Thus placing the time of Zoroaster's Gathas to about 1200 BCE, give or take a few hundred years (since linguistics isn't an exact science). Following the same train of thought, Zoroaster's origins place him in North Eastern Iran, a region called Bactria (which should ring a bell, because the two humped shaggy camels are called Bactrian camels). Bactria and Eastern India were in close proximity, and the Aryan culture spread West to East along this zone. Thus, Zoroaster's Avestan culture, and that of the Vedic Indians was closely linked.
The confusion between what I call Eastern Zoroastrianism (the original form) and the latter day Western Zoroastrianism is like night and day. In fact, Western Zoroastrianism is almost like a separate religion. Today, there are about 100,000 surviving members of the Zoroastrian religion. Half of them still live within the Western Mountains of their ancestral homeland in Iran, while most of the rest live on the Eastern Indian coast, primarily in Bombay (they call themselves Parsee). A few are scattered across the West, mainly in the US, Canada, Great Britain, and the EU. These Zoroastrians as of today, practice the Western form, and are generally oblivious to the original roots in Eastern Persia.
Zoroaster's basic assumption was that there was an all powerful and pervasive force called Ahura-Mazda/Ormizd, what we call God. In order to allow this force to permeate as much of oneself as possible, one must follow 3 main tenants in life. Good words, good thoughts, and good deeds. The struggle between good and evil was not a cosmic thing, as much as it was internal. Basically, it was a way of addressing one's struggle with their own personal demons. One must remember that Zoroaster taught this philosophy in a region that was mostly rural, divided into sects (such as priestly, orderly, etc.), and Pagan in belief. Each tribe worshipped a pantheon of deities, some familiar throughout the region, others only in certain areas. Yet, Zoroaster's persuasiveness, and reasoning, enlightened and illuminated countless groups. His teachings were not in the form of Organized Religion as we know it today, but rather as an educational and more philosophical view of life. Because of just this reason, Zoroastrian belief was tenuous at best, and although it effected almost any thought and culture it came across, the original message was lost out. Thus, Zoroastrian thought spread to Western Persia, particularly during the Achaemenid Period, when the Persian Empire rivaled that of the Greek. The Achaemenids however, were unwilling to completely alter their religious practices and thus, altered the original form of Zoroastrian thought into an organized religion. The dualism that Zoroaster taught suddenly became more pronounced and severe. Suddenly, Ahura-Mazda became associated with the solar Deity Mithra, and thus became a hybridized version of the original (he went from a metaphysical being, to object worship). This hybridized Ahura-Mazda became known as Ormizd (due to the western Dialect of the Achaemenids). The force of evil became cosmic, not just found within one's body, and was known as Ahriman (what we call the Devil). The whole purpose of Zoroastrian thought went from teaching a more productive way of life, into an organized religion. The latter form of Zoroastrian is also identified as Mazdaism. Many of the pagan deities were eventually incorporated into Ahura-Mazda, or became Angels. The deities that were feared, became associated with Ahriman, and became demonic in character. The Yannas (the second part of the Avesta), were composed during this time. The dialect and language used in the Yannas is closer to Western Persian, and the style is completely different from that of Zoroaster. The Yannas basically highlight the punishment for disobeyance and other canonical thoughts that turned Zoroastrianism into an organized religion.
Zoroaster's influence on Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism is evident upon close examination. The whole concept of Monotheism, especially the dualism, present in Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all based off of Zoroastrianism. Baptism, and the ritual use of water as a cleansing agent comes from the Zoroastrian belief that water is a purifier. Zoroastrians were very respectful of nature, particularly water, fire, mountains, and even earth. They refused to bury their dead, because they didn't want to corrupt the cleanliness of the earth. Fire and water was used ritually, and even today's Zoroastrians hold steadfast to these beliefs. Furthermore, Hinduism and Buddhism have borrowed the Zoroastrian concept of attaining perfection. Attaining Nirvana, or trying to reach "the Buddha" can trace it's origins to Zoroaster's teaching that the purpose of life is to become closer to God. Through Good Words, Good Thoughts, and Good Deeds, one becomes one with the universal creator.
Even Greek thought was heavily seeded and influenced by Zoroaster. Due to Greek contact with the Persian Empire, Zoroaster's teachings reached as far as Athens. The proof is in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If one were to read Plato's Republic, then they will be surprised to learn that unlike most of the Greek populace, Plato spoke of only one God, in singular form. Aristotle in his writings also held this belief. It's more then just mere coincidence that when the Greek and Persian Empires began to influence each other, monotheism suddenly popped out of no where and into Greek philosophical thought.
Zoroastrianism was more then just the religion it later became, but it was a school of thought. It was a philosophy and a direction on how to lead a noble life. Unlike organized religion, Zoroaster never pushed his agenda on anyone, but reasoned with almost any person he came across. Since he was most likely from a priestly sect, considering that he was literate, it was not easy for him to level with commoners, and yet, he pressed on ahead, spreading a message that later evolved into an organized from. It was a highly tenuous yet pervasive philosophy, influencing countless religions practiced today, yet remaining for the most part anonymous. Another victim of it's reasonable and generally advanced preaching. As I've mentioned before, I'm agnostic, but the original form of Zoroastrianism is so light and pervasive, that even I have a hard time completely disavowing it. Especially considering the context of it's spread, Zoroastrianism must be regarded as the most influential and pervasive thought ever present through the course of humanity. [As an interesting analogy, to make the whole concept of Zoroastrian influence more palatable, imagine if you will, a family line of very fair skinned individuals suddenly having a very dark skinned person in the mix. The resulting generations will have certain traits, such as middle skin tones, and other such influential characteristics. Eventually however, these traits will not disappear completely but become latent. Zoroaster's teachings can similarly be compared. Zoroaster is the dark skinned individual, not literally of course, and his influence initially was felt strongly, yet in a few hundred years, his true message became muddled. His teachings went the way of the dark skinned individual's children, and grandchildren, successfully generations losing more and more of the obvious features, yet, in their genomic makeup, they will forever hold the influence of these genes]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is the second essay I have read of yours. I too am an Agnostic and have enjoyed both of the essays, I read the one you wrote about religion that is right below this one I believe. You are a very good and precise writer. Most of your thoughts I can relate to and wish I could write them so elegantly. But I just wanted to tell you that I have enjoyed both.

~Fellow Agnostic