Just this past year, Time magazine featured a cover story on the “legacy of Abraham” which suggested that, as author of the monotheistic idea and more, Abraham was responsible for “a complete departure from everything” that went before. Unmentioned in the article (and in most history books and classroom texts) is the fact that there is substantial evidence that Zarathushtra (aka Zoroaster), may really have been responsible for the “complete departure from everything” that the author attributes to Abraham. However, the road traveled by the “great religions” since this departure has had some dramatic detours from what Zarathushtra taught. Nowhere is this divergence more manifest than in the answer to the seemingly simple question: what is it that Zoroastrians worship?
There is strong basis in the historical record of religions to conclude that the idea of a single, universal, creative force came to the three “Abrahamic” religions through the influence of Zoroastrians on the Jews during the Babylonian exile. Since the traditions of those religions came to dominate so much of our world, we are in the peculiar position of examining and interpreting Zarathushtra’s concept of “Ahura Mazda” backwards in time through the lens of the Abrahamic concept of “God” as if it were one and the same thing. It is not.
The term “Ahura Mazda” has been variously translated “Wise Lord,” “Lord Wisdom,” “Supreme Wisdom,” or “Supreme Mind.” The followers of the religion called themselves “Mazdayasni,” which could loosely be interpreted as “Worshippers of Supreme Wisdom” or, perhaps more appropriately, “Worshippers of the Mind.”
The Zarathushtrian object of worship is so altogether different from the personified form of the Abrahamic religions that the very use of the term “God” to describe these divergent concepts can be confusing. Zarathushtra’s “God”—Ahura Mazda—is simply not there in a material or geographical sense. Instead, “God” is the origin and precondition of thought and of all we perceive with our senses: uncaused and eternal. Zoroastrian scholar Farhang Mehr has defined it as wisdom and truth in essence (Y28, and Y51.7) and infinitude in time and space (Y31.8) (Mehr, An Introduction to the Gathas of Zarathushtra, May 1990). The Gathas describe Ahura Mazda as “the most ancient and the youngest” or that which “has always been and always will be” or which has “no beginning and no end.” (Y31.8).
Simply put, Ahura Mazda is an idea: the mind of the universe—the origin of existence and, indeed, existence itself, infinite and eternal. There is striking similarity between Zarathushta’s concept of Ahura Mazda and the “God” described by the European philosopher Spinoza thousands of years later: “…there exists in nature an infinite power of thinking, which… contains subjectively the whole of nature, and its thoughts proceed in the same manner as nature—that is, in the sphere of ideas.” (Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg, 1665).
Ahura Mazda works as a process through a kind of “divine” law, the built in conditions of the universe and, therefore, of humanity. That law of the universe is known as “Asha,” a term which has been translated as truth, righteousness, universal order, and even justice, but which is perhaps best left untranslated. The infinite variety we experience in this fast moving world of change is the expression of Asha.
Where do human beings fit in this picture? Human intelligence is a spark of the cosmic mind: the fire of Ahura Mazda is within each of us. Again, shades of Spinoza who wrote that “the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God.” (Spinoza, Ethics). Yet human beings play a less restrained, more intense role than Spinoza may have envisioned. To Zarathushtra, we humans are co-creators of the universe. In this sense, “Zarathushtra wants every person to be godlike.” (Jafarey, “Spenta Mainyu,” Introduction to the Gathas).
The God posited by Zarathushtra is neither to be feared nor begged. Ahura Mazda does not punish or reward. Rather than trying to please God, we are enriched by acting in conformity with the nature of God and the true nature of the world. We participate in Asha in proportion to the degree to which we understand Ahura Mazda and conform our actions to the law of the universe. The saoshyants or saviors are “those who follow their knowledge of thy teaching with actions in harmony with good thinking and with truth, Wise One.” Y48.12 (Insler Tr.) There is a profound joy that comes with this experience. In words that echo Zarathushtrian sentiments, Albert Einstein described a feeling “that takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law” and is “a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world…” (Einstein, The World as I See It, 1934).
Zarathushtra’s concept of the single, universal, creative “God” has been translated through the ages into a highly personified form. Yet personification, if it has any validity, is only for the purpose of helping us comprehend the vision of “Supreme Mind” that is Ahura Mazda. As finite beings, we cannot easily grasp infinity and eternity so a degree of anthropomorphism is helpful. But Zarathushtra used such analogies sparingly and only in allegorical or poetic expressions. Indeed, he rebelled against what he called “false gods” that he condemned as unreal—manipulative tools of evil minds.
In examining Zarathushtra’s influences on philosophy and religion, his revolutionary concept of “God” as mind is only a beginning. Beyond this, the powerful, moral dimension to religious teaching, and the future-orientation of religious and political/social thought with its accompanying apocalyptic vision, can be traced directly to Zoroastrian influences. Likewise, such emblems of western religion as heaven and hell, angels, the devil, the messiah, and even resurrection have clear connections to the Good Religion. The powerful impact of Zarathushtra’s philosophy can thus be seen as much in the distortion of his teaching as in the embrace.
For example, the morality of the Abrahamic religions—the notions of “good and evil”—are derived from something quite different in Zoroastrianism: the idea of drawing distinctions that Zarathushtra understood as so important to establishing life in settled communities. What Zarathushtra taught was a pragmatic ethics, promoting that which works, that which promotes the full range of our potential. It is a philosophy of joy that relentlessly seeks truth, starting with laser sharp focus on seeking to know the world as it is and dealing with it, questioning our assumptions constantly along the way. Indeed, only as we question our beliefs do we learn to become more true to ourselves and more aligned with Asha, the way of the universe.
The apocalyptic vision—the whole idea of looking toward a "final battle" or resolution bringing on a "perfect world"—has been shown to be directly attributable to early (but post-Zarathushtra) Zoroastrianism. Indeed, this concept is really very much the same whether it is the Christian version or the Marxist/utopian version. But while Zarathushtra’s concept of the future inspired much utopian thought, it was something quite different from the apocalyptic idea it inspired. Zarathushtra offered an innovative future perspective representing an enormous shift from the then-dominant view of endless cycles controlled by the gods. His “making wonderful” is a process of continual re-invention, a constant evolution that starts anew with each life. The future offers an ever-deepening array of exciting, joy-bringing delightful (and surprising) things, if only we struggle for it. It is a process and something more—it is life itself.
There can be little doubt of the enormous impact that Zarathushtra has had on the development of civilization and ideas. Being among the first to understand the ethical requirements for settled living, Zarathustra was the original spokesman for civilization as we know it. And though many of his once innovative ideas have emerged through the millennia in almost unrecognizable form, the most powerful impact of his inspiring message surely lies ahead—in the future of civilization.