Blame Zarathustra

The story in its most simplified form goes something like this: the world has fallen into a deep state of chaos and death. All the old ways have collapsed and everyone is confused and does not know what to do, they are lost. The reason this is happening is that there is a war enveloping the cosmos.  A force of disorder, an order based upon the power of lies, has set itself against the peace and good of the world. They have launched a war for the possession of the future. Each individual must now choose sides in the great and coming battle. They can choose to join the side of evil, lies and disorder or the side of the good, truth and peace. Ultimately, the good will prevail, the unjust will be punished and the peace of the world will be restored, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  This will be the final battle, the birth of paradise.

This narrative makes for great story telling- just think of the world of J.R. Tolkien or Star Wars, and were it the case that such stories were only part of our fantasies there would be no issue, and they would remain what they should be, a great piece of childish fun.

The problem, of course, occurs when such narratives are overlain on political and social reality, for the passion and blindness these kinds of stories engender can be found behind some of the bloodiest events of human history. To name only the most prominent: the religious wars of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, including the English Civil War, the Inquisition, the Terror of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the internal terror of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Nazism, the Second World War, the Red Scare, the Cold War, Islamist terrorism, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Something about these types of stories seem to tap into a primal element in human beings, nevertheless, their origin can be traced to historical time.

Zarathustra, otherwise known as Zoroaster, was probably the person most responsible for having first created and popularized a version of this story around 1200 B.C.E. What he had discovered was a “technology” that enabled human beings to engage in a kind of mass tribalism. Dividing whole societies or even all of human-kind into two warring armies created what were in effect super-tribes joined to one another with the kind of depth of feeling and exclusiveness that was once the monopoly of extended kin-groups.  It was a passion that was able to override biological instinct and turn “brother against brother”, and allowed human beings to murder one another in “good conscience” on the grounds that they were waged in battle with an army of demons.

Zarathustra was not trying to do this. What he was seeking after was a path to peace.

The Aryan society in which he lived had gone from an age of idyllic pastoralists to one of warriors. The catalyst for this transition had been, as it has been many times since, technological transformation.  Aryans living in what is now southern Russia had come in contact with the more advanced civilizations in Armenia and Mesopotamia to the south.  From these societies the Aryans learned the art of iron weaponry and the chariot, which sparked a wave of war and banditry, as the whole of the steppe was consumed in violence. The gentle gods of the Arayans gave way to the cult of the militarized Indra- the dragon slayer.

Zarathustra, a priest of the old Aryan gods sought out an answer to the bloodshed. Dreams and visitations came to him. Nothing took place on earth which was not a reflection of the things of heaven. Perhaps Indra and his devas- the shining ones- had brought war not just upon the earth, but upon the just gods of old, the amesha- the immortals.

Then, Zarathustra was visited by the greatest of the amesha- Mazda- lord of wisdom and justice.  Lord Mazda told Zarathustra that he was to mobilize the people for a coming holy war against the forces of evil.

Who could challenge the great Lord Mazda, the most powerful of the amesha?  Zarathustra reasoned that Mazda must have a divine opposite, a god of equal power dedicated to disorder and evil- the god of the lie- Angra Mainyu.

Every human being was called to choose sides in the great and looming battle. ..

It was here that Zarathustra introduced his greatest innovation, for he abandoned the cyclical view of history that had been perhaps the only way human beings, up until then, had thought about time.  In cyclical history time spun round and round within regular cycles of birth, strength, decay and death, historical seasons to match the natural one.  Zarathustra broke free from this cycle. The world was racing toward an end of history- a climax and day of judgment. The great battle would end in the victory of Lord Mazda over the forces of the wicked. A blazing river of fire would run from the heavens into hell and destroy forever the spirit of evil. The world would become a final paradise. . .

Zarathustra crafted his tale on the eve of the Axial Age, a period of religious awakening that gave us some of the deepest, most influential, and compassionate figures of human history: the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius.  But his story lived on. It lived on in the The Book of Revelation, in the 12th Iman of the Shia branch of Islam, it lived on in the religious wars, the idea of world revolution found in communism, in Hitler’s anti-Semitic insanity… in the current apocalyptic logic behind the looming confrontation with Iran.

It is the world’s most dangerous fairy-tale, and if we do not someday soon break its spell, its dark side will come true.

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21 comments on “Blame Zarathustra

  1. Yup, dualistic opposition taken to this level is definitely dangerous. There’s no doubt that Mani, who had an enormous influence on Augustine, who effectively shaped the medieval Christian Church, perpetuated some of the most powerful elements of this tale. And he also believed in peace and harmony. Sometimes, we need to question our best intentions… without dismissing them out of fear. Thanks for the post.

  2. This is very interesting piece. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Haxaya says:

    How does making people aware of the good and bad choices in life make for the impending doom that you have suggested? Zarathustra did not invent the notion of the existence of evil in the world. Good vs bad existed in the polytheistic societies long before Zarathustra. He gave us the philosophy of human empowerment, in that people have the choice to pick one over another. He also gave us the idea that for every action there is a reaction; reward for good deeds and punishment for bad deeds.

    You have taken the teachings of Zarathustra out of context and ended up with a Tolkienesque conclusion! This is not how the true scholars and academics in the field of Zoroastrian Studies view the principles of this most important of human philosophies. He laid down the foundations of what our existing societies see as the basic principles of civility. If in your attempt at understanding the world you have arrived at a fantastical conclusion, then you can only blame yourself for not having grasped the tenets not Zarathustra in his attempt to enlighten you!

    • Rick Searle says:

      Dear Reader:

      Thank you for your insightful criticism of my post. I in no way consider myself a scholar regarding Zarathustra, but my portrait of him I drew pretty much directly from the one given by the prominent religious scholar, Karen Armstrong, who saw similar dangers in the dualism that can be found in his vision.
      These views are found in her book The Great Transformation- a link to which is found in my post under “Axial Age”.

      Of course, as I mentioned in my post, Zarathustra was struggling to find a way to bring peace to his society, not create a basis for super-tribalism.
      Nor do I think he invented the idea of evil as you suggest. What I got from Armstrong is the understanding that he was the first to imagine the whole of human history as a WAR between the forces of good and evil that would end in a final climax.

      What I most was most trying to bring to light in my post is that ideas held deeply by religious persons, especially certain sects of Christianity and Shia Islam, regarding the apocalypse or end time have a clear origin in another tradition and thus should be subject to scrutiny and doubt.

      It is clear that you have a deep passion for Zoroaster and his faith, and I certainly did not intend to disparage the holy man- the title was intended to be tong and cheek. Given your knowledge of the subject you could indeed enlighten both me and my readers if you could answer 2 questions regarding his philosophy:

      1) Is Armstrong incorrect in asserting that he was the first to come up with this vision of history as a battle of good vs. evil?
      2) Is Armstrong incorrect in asserting that he was the first to break with the cyclical view of history and imagine history as a linear story with a climax and final state?

      Thank you again for your insight.

      Rick Searle

      • Haxaya says:

        Dear Rick

        Thank you for your response and apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Below, I will try to answer some of your queries to the best of my knowledge.

        Zarathustra described that there is a cosmic battle between good and evil, between light and dark, truth and lie. This is not the same as a continuous war in human history. In his view, evil is always trying to create chaos in an otherwise perfect world. As such, evil brings about sickness, death, anger, darkness, misery, disasters, violence, etc. Evil is ignorant and ignorance is evil. Evil is the absence of light – not just the physical light, but an illuminated mind, the absence of anger, lie, etc. Hence the symbolic presence of a burning flame in Zoroastrian temples as a sign of god – what has been erroneously described by Christians, Romans and Muslims as a sign of fire worship!

        Zoroastrianism, unlike the Abrahamic religions, is not a prescriptive religion. Ahura Mazda does not demand absolute submission from his subjects. Ahura Mazda does not have subjects. In the Zoroastrian tradition, God has not created human beings so that they may worship him. There is no such notion as the original sin. Human beings are not the cursed creatures banished from heaven. On the contrary, human beings are seen as “God’s helpers”; man is a powerful creature with perceptive powers and capable of making ethical decisions. Man is not under obligation to do what has been prescribed, or else he would for ever be damned and punished in hell. Quite the opposite, man has the choice to do what he wishes – this was developed by Nietzsche in his idea of superman. Zarathustra suggested that by making the correct choices in life, man “helps” god in this battle between good and evil so that by making these correct choices evil can be defeated. Please note my definition of evil given above. This cosmic battle does not equate with a physical holy war between believers and non-believers!! The conflict is a philosophical and not a physical one. In a simplistic way, one battles evil by gaining knowledge (ie defeating ignorance). Sheepishly following the rulings of a religious / political ruler is a great sin in Zoroastrianism. It is the duty of every Zoroastrian to question every situation arising in life. The greatest gift to mankind is our mind. It is sinful not to use it to judge situations. Every turn in life is an ethical question and it is our duty to weigh the good vs bad in all our actions. If one does not know which way to choose, it is one’s duty to gain the knowledge in order to make the best informed decisions. This is in direct contrast to what Abrahamic religions preach; Abrahamic god knows the mysteries of life and man is not wise enough to understand these, so man should do what he is told. This is not the case in Zoroastrianism. So, in answer to your first question, yes Armstrong is correct in her view that Zarathustra was the first to suggest a battle between good and evil, but not in the way that you have understood. Over the millennia, this idea, as well as many others, have been taken up by other religions and altered to fit their philosophies. As such, in the Abrahamic tradition, Shiism being an example, this idea has been taken up to mean a holy jihad to suit the purposes of one sect of people. This could not be any further from the Zoroastrian truth! At no time did Zarathustra ever say that one is either with him or against him.

        Zoroastrian scriptures are known as Avesta. It is made up of several books, some of which are pre-Zoroastrian texts and involved with prayers to ancient deities, various other post-Zoroastrian texts and prayers written over a long period of over 1000 years after Zarathustra’s time, some of which are explanations of mythological and eschatological stories, and a very small part called the Gathas which are the only surviving texts composed by Zarathustra himself. Nowhere in the Gathas are there any references to the end of time and a final rapture!! Zarathustra talks about the renovations in life; the following of night by day, revival of nature with the arrival of spring, etc. Over the millennia since his time, some have explained this in terms of a finite period in history. Rather similar to the Judaic tradition, some have tried to explain that history of creation spreads over 12,000 years, divided into 4 periods of 3,000 years – the perfect creation, arrival of evil, battle of evil vs good, defeat of evil by good and return to the perfection!!! There is no justification in these claims based on the Gathas or indeed most of the Avesta and, in fact, based on Zarathustra’s opposition to ignorance, we know that such claims are completely unscientific, unjustified and, as such, un-Zoroastrian! In Zoroastrianism there is a notion of the final judgment day, when people are judged for the good or bad that they have done throughout their lives. Those who have done good are sent to heaven and those who have done done bad are sent to hell for a finite period, so that their impure souls can be purified before returning to their creator. Again, none of these, as far as we know, are what Zarathustra taught – there is certainly no mention of such concepts in the Gathas. Equally to such ideas, many Zoroastrians also believe that the heaven and hell that has been promised exists in this life; we create our own destinies and heaven or hell – rather similar to the Hindu idea of karma. To return to the idea of linearity of history, Zarathustra does say that by following the good principles in life, evil will ultimately be defeated. But please note that this does not mean that there will be a final apocalypse and rapture but the exact opposite – that would be the ultimate evil act by creating the chaos that ahriman or evil would so wish! The defeat of evil occurs by the striving for betterment of our existing thoughts, words and deeds, not by destroying what we think to be wrong. Education and wisdom are the Zoroastrians weapons of choice, not apocalyptic destruction.

        As a whole, Zoroastrians are more concerned with their earthly lives. They strive to be better human beings, better members of the society, friends, partners, etc. Based on Zoroastrian teachings, people do not live their lives on the promise of an afterlife. Life is to be treasured and enjoyed – it is the only one we have. Wasting it is sinful. asceticism is unacceptable. Fasting, flagellations and such activities do not exist in Zoroastrianism. Equally important are the care given to our more unfortunate fellow human beings and charity.

        Finally, I want to say a word or three about the duality that you have mentioned. Unlike what many people have written, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion. There is only one god worthy of reverence and that is Ahura Mazda. The dualism that is said about the faith is to do with the good vs evil. This is exactly the same as the Abrahamic god vs satan. Zoroastrianism is no more dualistic than Christianity or Islam. The only difference is that in the later Abrahamic tradition, evil is seen to be indirectly derived from god, by banishment of satan from god’s court, whereas in Zoroastrianism evil is a separate independent entity with no connection to Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is purely good; it does not test people by creating misery, pestilence to measure their strength of faith, etc. It does not punish people. There is no such thing as “the wrath of god”! Ahura Mazda is not concerned with how we live our lives. We are encouraged to choose his way for the sake of a better life for ourselves and those that come after us. The duality that is so much talked about is an ethical one, and it exists in most faiths.

        What I have tried to explain in this long post is that, as I said previously, most of your comments about Zarathustra were correct. But I hope I have been able to show you that taken out of context, and applying Abrahamic views to those notions, completely distorts the teachings of Zarathustra to the point that they come to mean the exact opposite to their original message.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Dear Haxaya:

        Thank you for your detailed response. People will be able to see your description of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism in the comments section of my blog, but it is so detailed and interesting that I would like to be able to use it in a future post amending my initial comments on Zarathustra. I can send you the post before hand by email or put the post in the comments section. What do you think?

      • Thanks for such a great post, Rick. Most of the blogging is relatively light. Good to see some geniuine heavy duty intellectual exchange and learning going on. Good luck with it. Maybe you can get to the bottom of the meaning of life and why the Brits are unable to go fully metric. I think the latter is harder. Cheers.

      • Haxaya says:

        Dear Rick

        I’m glad that you found my post interesting and useful. Please feel free to use it for your future posts; there is no copyright on my words, nor those of Zarathustra’s! There is no need to email me your future posts beforehand. I think your readers may benefit more from any future discussions that are carried out in an open forum. I will keep a beady eye out for comments posted under this thread. However, I will be grateful if you could send me a link to any other threads that you may create under this topic. If you are interested in reading more about Zoroastrianism, I recommend Prof Mary Boyce, the most eminent researcher in the field, Nigosian, who has written a very readable book on the faith, and Foltz, who has produced a book on the influence of the faith on all the major religions. Translations of the Gathas are available for free on line; I recommend those by Prof Insler; Irani, which has useful additional notes; Azargoshasp; and Jafarey whose controversial works get some very hot under the collar!

  4. There is another level to this – you omitted the English Civil/Revolutonary war, which people here think of as an uprising of the proles against a corrupt king.

    But with the Restoration of the monarchy, the non conformists realised their dreams for civil and religious freedoms were doomed, so they had to find ways to express themselves. They turned to belief in justice in the afterlife, of revenge against their oppressors. They aligned themselves with the early Christian martyrs.

    They had to invent new language to discuss their views – they selectively quoted from the bible, their funerals were occasions for mass meetings, which were illegal and sometimes led to arrests. Their pulpits were silenced, so they became prolific writers and publishers. They wrote in rich metaphors, in code, they spread their ideas under the radar of the official church and government.

    This happened after the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which tried to restore order after the civil war by enforcing codes of worship. but some 2,000 ministers refused, ie about 1/5 of the total, so lost their livelihoods, facing years of persecution and imprisonment if they continued.

    This is the time that many people left England for the Americas; many left for the new land to practice their own beliefs. Much of what we see in America – the ideas of freedom, but also dreams of apocalypse, and one of the greatest gifts to the world – popular music, esp gospel and the blues, come from this. I’m not sure what Zarathustra had to do with this.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for the catch Barb. I was including the English Civil Wars under the religious wars and wars of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. But I should have specifically named the civil war in England. Correction made.

  5. psriblog says:

    Rick, this is a thought-provoking hypothesis – thank you for posting it. I would merely call to question the priority of Zoroaster in the ‘you are either with me or against me’ story-line. It is clearly one of the few stories of that time to have come down to our age, but that doesn’t mean it was the first to have come up with it. Also, the Mahabharata (which was only written down in the 2nd century AD but was an oral tradition from much longer ago) involves a similar polarization into Good and Bad armies duking it out…of course I cannot be certain if it originated after 1200 BCE, or was influenced by Zoroastrianism (both of which is possible).

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks for you comment, and especially for turning my attention to the Mahabharata. I was largely basing my argument regarding Zoroaster based on the profile in Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation, so if you ever come across any contradictory information, please let me know and I’ll post something about it. It seems that the Mahabharata dates from around the 9th century which makes it later than Zarathustra. Perhaps there was influence, or perhaps the idea was developed in Hinduism separately. It certainly seems like an idea that would be “out there” just waiting for the right person and social environment for it to be articulated after which it become a highly effective meme that can be used in vastly different circumstances. I was trying to bring attention to the fact that it is an historical idea, riveting as drama, but deadly as a basis for politics.

      • psriblog says:

        Oh, I totally agree. Coincidentally, I briefly described the same polarizing effect a few months ago in my review of a Cold War-era US foreign policy book : http://psriblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/the-book-of-history-lessons/. In fact, it is precisely this deadly idea that led to and sustained the Cold War for decades. It is also, sadly, the same idea that could bring death and destruction back to Zoroaster’s own land in the near future – though I fervently hope not. One of history’s little twisted ironies?

  6. Sammy Bhiwandiwalla says:

    Misconceptions abound or are created by those who have limited knowledge and understanding.
    Zarathustra’s message was in essence a simple one, to strive for spiritual and intellectual enrichment through self-appraisement. Good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
    You can shoot the messenger but not the message.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hello Sammy:

      Thank you for your comment. I have received a lot of feedback on my post regarding Zarathustra, including an extensive critique from a student of Zoroastrianism. I intend to post this critique as a correction to my initial account of Zarathustra in the very near future. Please stay tuned…

  7. duanetoops says:

    I couldn’t agree with your assessment more! These are excellent observations that really gets to the heart of the danger in the socio-religious and socio-political overlap. I allude to a similar stance in a blog that I have scheduled to publish today. When ideology, whether religious or secular, is posited upon history or especially the presumption of a particular historical culmination, it becomes amalgamated force of immense proportions bent entirely upon legitimating an ideological identity, preserving its presence in the public sphere, and propagating its position into a place of homogenic predominance.

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