Zoroastrianism: The Parsis

Defining Characteristics: Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith with a heavily dualistic perspective. It describes a constant struggle between Ahura Mazda (Ormazd), the god of light, and a dark force, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). Of all non-Mosaic faiths, it is the one most like Christianity.

Founded: 6th century BC

Founder: Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra

Brought to India: 717 AD

Range: About 120,000 Parsis in India and another 30,000 or so in Iran

Holy Book: The Zend-Avesta

The Vision

The vision of Zoroastrianism came to a Persian man, Spitoma Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) in the 6th century BC, back when Persia worshipped a pantheon of Aryan gods. He saw a supreme deity, a god of light, at war with an opposing spirit of evil.

Zoroaster began preaching about this god of light that he saw in the vision, yet it took around 10 years of preaching to gain a convert—his cousin. Then two years later, the king Kavi Vishtaspa converted, and many others followed suit. The faith was also spread through a series of holy wars. The entire Persian Empire was brought into the faith.

Over the centuries, Zoroastrianism gained ground. Many Zoroastrian kings ruled, including several of importance in Old Testament scriptures, such as

Cyrus and Darius.

The magi who came to visit Jesus in the New Testament were Zoroastrian priests and astrologers, who saw the special star and followed the map the heavens set before them.

Flight of the Zoroastrians

In the coming centuries, Zoroastrianism degenerated into a kind of polytheistic angel worship—a flaw that was somewhat remedied during a reform movement of the 3rd century AD.

It also lost followers to Christianity and Islam. Then when Muslims conquered Persia in 651 BC, many of the remaining refused to convert.

These Parsis, or Persian Zoroastrians, fled to Bombay (Mumbai), India, around 717 AD. There, they built their Towers of Silence where the dead were laid to be consumed by vultures. There they kept the sacred fires to their god of light. (These fires are meant to represent the light of their god, not to be an object of worship.)

Modern Faith on the Indian Subcontinent

Parsis keep mainly to themselves and tend not to intermarry with people of other faiths. There are only about 120,000 Parsis remaining—the largest group of them anywhere in the world. They tend to be well educated, morally strong people and are often financially well-off.

They believe:

1) Ahura Mazda (the god of light) will eventually triumph over darkness.
2) There will be a resurrection of the dead and final judgment, much as in Christianity.
3) A savior, or messiah, is coming.
4) The dead must cross a Deciding Bridge that leads to heaven. If they fall off the bridge, they go to hell.
5) The balance of a person’s good and bad works is the ultimate decider of where they spend eternity (quite different from Christianity).
6) Children can’t know right from wrong and, therefore, can’t sin. Between the ages of 7 and 9, children begin to be held accountable for their decisions and can freely choose to be initiated into the faith through a ceremony called the navjote.
7) The elements of earth, water, and the sacred fire must not be polluted, so the dead are placed atop Towers of Silence where vultures consume their decaying flesh.

This last practice has, in recent decades, been difficult to do given the virtual vanishing of the vulture population all across India due to drugs given to cattle that killed vultures when they consumed the bovine carcasses. In the interim, Parsis have attempted to speed up the process via solar generators, but it still ends up taking far longer to dispose of the flesh than it did when the vultures were in residence. They look with hope on an upcoming aviary in nearby Doongerwadi Forest to be envisioned by London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick.

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