A number of you have asked for a copy of the talk I gave on Zoroastrianism at the recent Friends of Persian Culture Conference. I therefore thought I would post it here for your enjoyment. Since it was intended as an oral presentation I did not include any footnotes.
As Baha'is we hold as one of our essential principles, the Oneness of Religion. Yet our conceptions of what a religion consists of: a Prophet bearing a Book revealed by God, consisting of the moral basis of how people ought to live, was born largely within the confines of the Middle East and forms part of religious construct Marshall Hodgson, the great Islamicist, termed the Irano-Semitic tradition.
Time and the Containment of Evil in Zoroastrianism
There are a number of common elements to be found within this overall tradition, which includes Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Babi/Baha'i Faith. They all share the belief that there is a one powerful and good Creator of the cosmos, both physical and spiritual, not reducible to any image, visible or mental, who has revealed the path for human's to follow. While God is usually conceived to be singular, the primary issue is not that there is One God, but rather that there is One Truth. When humans fail to follow this divinely revealed path they and the cosmos itself suffers from the consequences of turning away from God. Why do human beings go astray? The usual explanation within these traditions is that there lies an evil force within the cosmos which seks to draw us away from God. This evil force is often personified as the devil, Satan or Ahriman. Because of this emphasis on the singularity of Truth and the belief in the power of demonic, religions within the Irano-Semitic tradition have the less attractive reputation for being intolerant. Polytheistic system, on the other hand are quite tolerant-- I'll worship your gods if you'll worship mine. (Baha'i Faith succeeded in overcoming this *bane* of prophetic religion by 1) Asserting the universality of revelation 2) Affirming the relativity of all religious truth 3) Largely rejecting the belief in the demonic.
The world view created by these suppositions differs significantly and in some cases is directly opposed from that of the religions of South and East Asia, or even the more ancient religions of the Near East. The ancient Babylonian religions did not necessarily perceive of the gods as good at all, nor did morality automatically flow from religious beliefs. Instead the gods were much like human beings having needs and desires, and often very capricious. People were created solely in order to serve the gods and the good fortune of humanity rested in their ability to do this. Worship, therefore, was a power exchange, you do something for the gods, they do something for you. Within the Irano-Semitic traditions, the emphasis is not on taking care of God but in carrying out His Will which is identified an ethical imperative. Unlike the Eastern Religions (or even the Greek philosophical tradition) the Ultimate Reality is perceived primarily in terms of Will rather than Being. Furthermore, God cannot be identified with creation, but is transcended over it. (which is why these traditions universally conceive of God as masculine, since most cultures identify women with nature.) How then is God known? While His image may be reflected in the created world, He is primarily to be known by His act of Revelation. God chooses to reveal Himself and the moral dimension of His will to us primarily through the mediation of Prophets too whose vision of what ought to be becomes a moral challenge for which we then become responsible, on the individual level to maintain purity of life and on the community level to uphold social justice.
Another instance where the Irano-Semitic tradition departs sharply from other Asian traditions is its conception of time. Outside of the Irano-Semitic tradition time is usually conceived of as cyclical, ultimately having neither beginning or end. Rather there are cycles of life and death, which parrellel those found in nature which repeat themselves eternatlly. In contrast, the Irano-Semitic tradition viewed time as lineal, having a beginning, a middle and and end. The cosmos began at a specific moment of time and will end with eternity, a final perfect and timeless state of being. Human action and history within this unrepeatable continuium carry with it an ultimate significance which will be judged at the end of time. God Himself, acts within history to bring salvation to groups of people and to move us towards the final consumation. For this reason those religions have a strong sense of destiny and share a great interest in the "end of time" known as eschatology. Typically the end of time consists in a final restoration of the created order from the evil which has afflicted it. Commonly it is held that the dead will be raised from their graves and participate with those still living in the Final Judgement. Those who have lived in accordance with God's will are rewarded while those who do not are condemned.
We thus have the central features of the Irano-Semitic tradition; the belief in one responsible lifetime; one trascendent God, one righteous community, one true way. To assert the priority of the moral universe over nature required all of these. What I hope to do in the course of this paper is to examine what may well be the oldest religion within the Irano-Semitic family, which I would argue set the pattern which the Abrahamic religions later followed, namely Zoroastrianism. I will examine first, the circumstances under which this religion arose and how it came to take the form it did. I will further discuss those dimensions of Zoroastrianism which become paradigmatic for the entire tradition. Most especially, I will focus on the moral dimensions related to the issue of time and the end of time.
Zoroaster and the GathasAlthough Zoroastrianism is today a minuscule religion, consistenting of no more than a couple of hundred thousand adherents, Zoroastrianism may well be the oldest of living religions and has probably had more influence on religious history directly and indirectly, than any other single faith. It was the state religion of three great Iranian empires in antiquity. Debates continue to rage over the age of Zoroastrianism but most scholars tend to regard the period between 1700 B.C and 1000 B.C. as the most likely. Zoroastrianism appears to date from the period in which the Aryans, a nomadic steppe people from whom the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-Europeans derive, had only recently domesticated the horse which was used to pull war-chariots which they invented. This lead to turbulent period in which these people sought to capitalize on their technological advantage by raiding and pillaging. In India, this may have led to the destruction of the Indus Civilization. The Gathas, that portion of the Zoroastrian scripture or Avesta, thought to be hymns associated with Zoroaster Himself, is composed in a very archaic dialect closest to the Rig Veda (also thought to be composed about 1700 B.C.) Since the Gathas are the only surviving text written in this dialect, interpreting it presents some problems. It would seem, however, that in many ways the Rig Veda and the Gathas represented two competing world views represented by two separate cosmologies, the ahuras (ashuras) and the devas. The devas appear to intimately related in character to the gods of Mesopotamia and were probably derived from them. In the Rig Veda Indra, the god of thunder and war brings creation into being in the same manner as the Babylonian diety Marduk, by slaying the primordial serpent. The ahuras (of whom there were chiefly three Varuna, Mitra, and Mazda) were hgihly ethical beings connected with truth, justice and wisdom. According to the Rig Veda, a cosmic war was waged in which the devas defeated the ashuras and the ashuras supsequently became regarded as demons, which is how the term is used in Hinduism to this day. (Aitreya Brahman I. 23 of the Rigveda cited in Haug, p. 270). Zoroaster, as a result of the revelation He received at the age of thirty, bodly proclaimed Ahura Mazda to be the one uncreated God, existing eternally and Creator of all else that is good. Among His chief creations were six great beings or Amesha Spentas who serve as guardians over all created being. Zoroaster utterly rejected the worship of the warlike, amoral devas, including Indra and his companions, condemning them as a "race of evil purpose." (Y. 32.2) The devas were condemned, not so much because the compromised God's unity but because Zoroaster saw the very nature attributed to them and the deeds done in their name as evil. "The Daevas chose not rightly, because the Deceiver came upon them as they consulted, so that they chose the worst purpose. Then together they betook themselves to Wrath, through whom they afflicted the life of man." (Y. 30.6) The Prophet held that wisdom, justice and goodness were utterly sparate by nature from wickedness and cruelty. He held there existed two primordial beings Angra Mainyu (the Evil Mind, later known as Ahriman) and Spenta Mainyu (the Good Mind, whether He is Ahura Mazda Himself is a matter of debate.) The Gathas state: "I will speak of the two spirits, of whom the holier said unto the destroyer at the beginning of existence: `Neither our thoughts nor our doctriness nor our minds' forces, neither our choices nor our words nor our deeds, neither our consciences nor our souls agree.'
DualismThis idea of the opposition of two forces becomes so well developed in later Zoroastrianism that two distinct vocabularies were developed for referring to good and evil. For instance while the good have heads and hands, and may speak or ascend when they die, the evil have skulls, claws, and they howl and perish. This dualistic speech effects modern Persian to this day and finds reflection in the Baha'i texts such as God Passes By or the works of Abid Taherzadeh.
Another passage from the Gathas states: "Truly there are two primal Spirits, twins, renowned to be in conflict. In thought and word and deed, they are two, the good and the bad. . . . And when these two Spirits first encountered one another, they created life and non-life, and that at the end the worst existence shall be for the followers of the lie, but the best dwelling for those who possess righteousness. Of the two Spirits, the one who follows falsehood chose doing the worst things, the Holiest Spirit, who is clad in the hardest stone chose righteousness, and so shall they all who will statisfy Ahura Mazda continually with just actions."
Since the Twin Spirits are both pre-existent, and neither is therefore Omnipotent what advantage does the Good have over the Evil One? Later Zoroastrian texts written in Pahlavi make this clear. In Zoroastrianism it is wisdom which gives Ahura Mazda the advantage. Wisdom is God's chief distinguishing attribute and hence His name: Wise Lord. But within Zoroastrianism, wisdom has a particular connotation of foresight (which I have argued in my most recent publication was carried over into the Baha'i Faith.) God, by virtue of His Wisdom which is Foresight, is able to foresee the ultimate end and consequence of all things. Evil lacks foresight and is endowed instead only with hindsight. It is by this means that God knows that by utilizing creation as the battleground between good and evil, the victory of good will be ultimately be assured.
Here time plays a key role. When Ahriman encountered Ahura Mazda he immediately wished to destroy him. Ahura Mazda offers the Evil One peace, but when it is rejected Ahura Mazda proposed a fixed period for the battle, for in His Wisdom, God knew that if a limit were set then evil would be contained within it. Ahriman, being ignorant and stupid, agreed to these terms. Once the contract was made lineal time came into being, thereby insuring the ultimate defeat of Ahriman. Zoroastrianism posits two types of time. The first is time without bounds. Then there is time-within-bounds (lineal time) designed to contain the forces of evil. The purpose then of both time and physical creation is the containment and ultimate defeat of evil.
The period set for the battle is nine thousand years. These nine thousand years will be divided into three categoies, Creation, Mixture and Separation. At the beginning of the first three thousand year period Ahura Mazda chants the Ahunavar, the most sacred of Zoroastrian prayers which reveals to Ahriman his ultimate defeat. Ahriman is then faints and lies unconscious for the next three thousand years, during which Ahura Mazda proceeds to create the physical world to combat the forthcoming onslaught of evil. He creates the six Amesha Spentas, or Beneficient Immortals out of His own being. And He also created the the primordial cow, symbol of the plant and animal kingdom, as well as Gayomard, the primordial man.
After three thousand years, Ahriman awakened and began his attack on the physical world. He pierced the sky as a serpent, seeking to drag the sky below the earth to break it. He attacked the waters and polluted them. "He let loose Greed, Needfulness, Disease, Hunger, Illness, Vice and Lethargy upon the primordial cow. The soul of the dying cow pleads for a redeemer to resotre peace and happiness in the world. But from the dead cow the rest of the plant and animal kingdom comes into being. Gayomard the primordial man is also attacked and killed but from his seed the first man and woman come into existence. Ahriman decieves the first man and woman persuading them that the world was created by the Evil One. Attributing the origins of the physical world to evil thus becomes the original sin, and the gravest one. Considering the material creation to be thus evil, they fail to have intercourse for fifty years. When then they finally do produce offspring they they devoured them until the Wise Lord took away the sweetness of children.
For the next three thousand years, the period of the Mixture of good and evil, the world lies in a chaotic state caused by the havoc wrought by Ahriman. This period comes to an end six thousand years into the battle with the birth of Zoroaster, the redeemer hoped for by the primordial cow. It is said that when Zoroaster was born, he laughed, for unlike other babies who weep, he had wisdom and could forsee that the time for the ultimate defeat of evil had become. The birth of Zoroaster marks the turning point in history when the forces of good begin to get the upper hand. This initiates the period of Separation between good and evil which will end with the Final Restoration of good. Through Zoroaster's teachings humanity comes to share in the responsibility for defeating the forces of evil and restoring the world to its original purity. Man's purpose therefore is to join as partners with God in the battle against evil.
We should not imagine that all of Zoroastrian mythology is entirely consistent with this overall picture. For instance, a former golden age is described wherein a king named Jamshid ruled for a thousand years, during which there was no death and demons held no sway. He was said to have been offered the mantle of prophethood as well as kingship but he refused the former. This was his fatal mistake, for by it the political and religious spheres were torn asunder. Zoroaster would be a prophet but not a king. Not until the end of time, would prophethood and kingship again be reunited. Jamshid is also credited with establishing Naw Ruz, the great Persian New Year.
Tradition has it that during the final 3000 years after Zoroaster three Sayoshants or Benefactors will be born at 1000 year intervals. The origins of this belief is unclear but passages in the Gathas themselves do suggest that He taught that after Him would come "the man who is better than a good man- the one who will teach us for the physical existence and for that of the mind, the straight paths of salvation to the true things with which Ahura Mazda dwells-- who is faithful and resembles You, O Mazda." But later legends spoke of this series of three saviors who would each be born of virgins, miraculously impregnated with the seed of Zoroaster which has been preserved in Lake Kasaoya.
With the appearance of the first Sayoshant , the sun will stand still for ten days. For three years the creations will flourish and the wolf species will disappear. But then a bitter winter will set in and many will perish. When the second Sayoshant comes the sun will stand still for twenty days and the creation will flourish for six years and snakes will disappear. Humanity will become vegetarian and drink only water. But evil will arise once again in the form of a demon which will devour men and beast, and spread pollution everywhere. But an ancient hero Keresaspa will rise from the dead to rid the world of this evil being.
The final savior will bring the complete and final victory of good over evil. This time the sun will stand still for thirty days. All disease and death will be overcome. The dead (both man and beast) will be raised and proceed to the last judgement where everyone will see his good and evil deeds. The metal of the mountains will be melted, leveling the mountains (symbolizing that which divides us) and making a river of metal flow upon the earth. Everyone will be made to pass through this river, which will feel like warm milk to the righteous but will bring anguish and pain on the wicked. It is from purifying properties associated with molten metals in Zoroastrianism that the conception of hell as a place of burning torment was derived. But while the torment is real, its purpose is purification not punishment. Thus purified, all will be given the gift of immoratlity, forever uniting body and soul. Ahriman will be utterly destroyed, having been consumed by his own demon, rage. Note that within this system there is no eternal hell. If Ahura Mazda is to win the final victory *all* of His creation must be ultimately redeemed. The continued existence of hell would infer the continued existence of evil.
In this final three thousand years, lineal time has become somewhat of a spiral, there is sense of what Windengren termed "cylic revelation." The messenger comes, things get better for a time, but until the coming of the last Sayoshant they again start to decline. While these cycles appear similiar to those common in other religious traditions, note that there remains a directionality to all this. We are not spinning our wheels going nowhere. This spiral conception of time and revelation will be echoed in Ismaeli Shi'ism as well as the Baha'i concept of progressive revelation.
Abdu'l-Baha interpretated this prophecy:"the first Dispensation to which it refers is the Muhammadan Dispensation during which the Sun of Truth stood still for ten days. Each day is reckoned as one centry. The Muhammadan Dispensation must have, therefore, lasted no less than one thousand years, which is precisely the period that has elapsed from the setting of the Star of the Imamate to the advent of the Dispensation proclaimed by the Bab. The second Dispensation referred to in this prophesy is the one inaugurated by the Bab Himself, which began in the year 1260 A.H. and was brought to a close in the year 1280 A.H. As to the third Dispensation--the Revelation proclaimed by Baha'u'llah--inasmuch as the Sun of Truth when attaining that station shineth in the plenitude of its meridian splendor its duration hath been fixed for a period of one whole month, which is the maxiumum time taken by the suns to pass through a sign of the Zodiac. From this thou cants imagine the magnitude of the Baha'i cycle--a cycle that must extend over a period of at least five hundered thousand years." WOB pp. 101-102.After Iran fell under Islamic domination, the expectation of the Final Renovation came to be replaced by hopes of a liberator who would re-establish the "Good religion" and the political autonomy of Iran. This figure came to be known as Shah Bahram, said to be a descendent of the last Sassanian king, Yazdigird. Since the remnant of the Sassanian house was said to have fled eastward the popular belief was that he would come from China or India to restablish Iran's independence and reunite the spheres of prophethood and kingship which had been split asunder at the time of Jamshid. Eventually the figure of Shah Bahram came to eclipse all other images of the Sayoshants. By the time of Baha'u'llah Shah Bahram came to be equated with Sayoshant.
ConclusionThe Zoroastrian conception of time, whether lineal or spiral, gave value to the present unrepeatable moment and endowed every act of humanity in history with ultimate meaning. More importantly, it gave hope for the future of the final defeat of the forces are darkness and the Renovation of the world in which we live. Where Zoroastrianism did not spread as a religion, these ideas came none-the-less to penetrate the entire Abrahamic traditions. Even Christianity, which was more inclined to devalue the physical world and hope for a heavenly reward, carried forward this vision in their prayers, "Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven." Within the Baha'i Faith we see the culmination of these hopes as we endeavor to carry out that Final Renovation foretold so long ago.