Zoroastrianism An Ancient, Shrinking Religion
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Tomorrow, many of us will celebrate Christmas. So today, we're taking a look at a religion that predates Christianity and yet gave it some of its basic tenets: angels on high, heaven and hell, even the visit of the Magi, the three wise men, who seek out the infant Jesus. That religion is Zoroastrianism. And if you haven't heard of it, it is, in fact, the world's oldest monotheistic religion. The religion was founded by the Prophet Zarathustra. Its main symbol is light, often represented by sacred fire burning in a temple. A decade ago, I visited Yazd, Iran, 500 miles southwest of Tehran. Yazd is the spiritual capital of the religion, where I encountered children clad in white, singing, walking around the fire.
Unidentified Child: (Singing in foreign language)
LYDEN: But after the seventh-century Arab conquest, Islam supplanted Zoroastrianism. Its ban on conversion to the faith also hurt it. Today, it is estimated there are fewer than 200,000 believers worldwide, and that's a big concern. On Monday, Zoroastrians from around the world will convene in Dubai for the World Zoroastrian Congress, which takes place every five years. Earlier, we got in touch with two practicing Zoroastrians to learn more about the ancient religion and the issues it faces today.
Journalist Deena Guzder will be attending the conference and writing about it for the Washington Post. She joined us from NPR member station KUHS in Houston. And Dr. Jamsheed Choksy is an authority on Zoroastrianism. He teaches in Indiana University and joined us from NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington. I began the conversation by asking Dr. Choksy to tell us more about the tenets of the religions.
Dr.�JAMSHEED CHOKSY (Indiana University): Well, it's mainly practiced through the notion of having good thoughts, good words, good deeds, or visiting temples, these are fire temples, and of interacting well with other human beings.
LYDEN: So fire temples, these are temples people actually make processions around the fire in the temples where they gather?
Dr.�CHOKSY: They direct their prayers towards fire as a symbol, much like Christians would face a cross or Muslims would face Mecca.
LYDEN: And I right in thinking that it's also the religion that gave us separation of good and evil and the notion of angels?
Dr.�CHOKSY: Indeed. Zarathustra himself spoke about the notion of good, of evil, and that human beings have a choice to make between good and evil. Zarathustra also spoke about angels. He spoke about heaven and hell. He spoke about a judgment for each individual after death. He spoke about resurrection, and he spoke about eventually recreating the Earth so that one would have heaven on Earth at the end of time.
LYDEN: Deena, you're on your way to the conference on Zoroastrianism in Dubai. How do you practice your faith on a daily basis?
Ms.�DEENA GUZDER (The Washington Post): I think of Zoroastrianism in terms of a moral compass. So every day when I wake up, I remember the central teachings of Zoroastrianism as enshrined in the three words - (foreign language spoken) - which translates to good words, good thoughts, good deeds.
And so in my interactions with different people during my day, I try to remember these teachings, as well as following the path of what we call righteousness and living each act deliberately and remembering we have human agency to confront things in the world that disturb us, whether it's greed or hedonism or selfishness. And so Zoroastrianism to me really is a way of forming my own conscience.
LYDEN: A religion based on good words, good thoughts, good deeds - this is an attractive religion. It therefore was a surprise to me, for either of you, Deena, to learn that it's not a religion which accepts converts, which of course so many religions do. I can't really think of another one that doesn't.
Ms.�GUZDER: Yes, it's a great point. It does come as a surprise to people to learn that Zoroastrianism not only does not proselytize but also strongly discourages people from trying to convert into the faith. And as people in my generation - I'm in my 20s - often point out, this is kind of a self-annihilating practice in some sense because there are so many people who do marry out of the faith. When you're living in a small diaspora community, it's difficult to find someone who you click with in other ways and then also want to retain that religion solely through, you know, marrying within the faith.
So often what happens is people marry without, and the community then faces this kind of identity crisis because we typically don't recognize interfaith children as Zoroastrians, but I think one of the reasons that this has been done, and those theological discrepancies, if this is something that's based in the religion itself or just a preservation mechanism during years of persecution, but one of the reasons now that it's done is because people have been doing it for so long. So they're a little hesitant to say, okay, we're going to open up to outsiders because they're scared, perhaps, that it'll change the integrity of the religion or change perhaps even, like, the culture that's developed around the religion, whether that's, like, anything from the language to the kind of close-knit community that's formed around the faith.
LYDEN: It also, as I recall, is a religion that promotes gender equality, and women are encouraged to pursue education and careers. So there's another perhaps support that the religion has but also a bit of a stressor. Right, Deena?
Ms.�GUZDER: Yes. I would definitely say that Zoroastrianism has been on the forefront of promoting gender equality, and we see that in India, where a lot of famous women Zoroastrians have made it at the forefront of Indian society.
LYDEN: Humans are meant to take care of the Earth. The creator, Ahura Mazda, wants humans in this religion to take care of the Earth in its pristine, original state. I would think that would have yet another echo that has a lot of modern appeal, if you think of the Green movement.
Dr.�CHOKSY: Certainly Zoroastrianism has, shall we say, an ecological trend as well, one that requires Zoroastrians to take care of all aspects of the Earth, so the soil, water, air, all are regarded as creations of Ahura Mazda, and Zoroastrians are enjoined by their religion to look after all these.
LYDEN: So what do either of you see then as the future of this religion, either from your students, Dr.�Choksy, or your peers, Deena. I mean, people must have a lot of questions. I would imagine some people would think, well, I might like to practice this, but it's difficult if I'm not born into it.
Ms.�GUZDER: Yes, that's a great question. I think it's one that we continuously debate within the community itself because there's an older generation that seems to look at the religion more in terms of, you know, preserving a common language, a common cultural setting, a common cuisine, and these things seem less related to the actual theology of Zoroastrianism to a comfort zone, a kind of community that you can go to and be a part of this small, dwindling faith that shares the same values.
So I think a lot of my peers, especially in the age demographic in which I fall, are hoping that people will become a little more open to accepting anyone who is interested in promoting the tenets of the faith.
LYDEN: Is there anything this time of year - I know that the chief Zoroastrian holiday would be the spring holiday of Nowruz, literally meaning the new year. What about now, as other great religions - we've just celebrated the Feast of Eid in Islam, and Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza. What about with Zoroastrianism?
Dr.�CHOKSY: Well, a little bit of then a history lesson. December 24th, 25th, was both the birthday of the Roman divinity Sol, the sun god, and also an Iranian divinity called Mithra. Mithra eventually became an archangel in Zoroastrianism, and so it was partly Mithra's birthday that becomes the birthday of Jesus, and hence you have the magi present at the birth of the Christ child.
LYDEN: There we are.
Dr.�CHOKSY: There we go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LYDEN: Well, thank you. It's been a - we have harmony and good words, good thoughts and good deeds.
Dr.�CHOKSY: Excellent for this time of year, isn't it?
LYDEN: Indeed. Well, I want to wish you both a very, very happy holiday, and thank you for being with us.
Dr.�CHOKSY: The two of you too. Thank you so much.
Ms.�GUZDER: Thank you so much.
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