ETHICS OF THE ZOROASTERS
by ALEXANDER WILDER
(Reprinted from the Journal of the American Akadêmê, November 1885)
in “Theosophical Siftings” - Volume -7-
"God is the ground of all existence, and theology is the highest
Philosophy". — Aristotle
[Page 3] SIR WILLIAM JONES, in his sixth anniversary discourse as President of the Asiatic Society in Bengâl, February 19th, 1789, making the Ancient Persians his theme, and citing the Dabistan for his authority, describes the primeval religion of Erân as identical with what Sir Isaac Newton declared to be the oldest of all religions: " A firm belief that one Supreme God made the world by his power and continually governed it by his providence; a pious fear, love, and adoration of him; a due reverence for parents and aged persons; a fraternal affection for the whole human species, and a compassionate tenderness even for the brute creation".
A faith so simple and pure is profound and ethical enough for the most exacting moralist, as well as the most philosophic schoolman. It leaves little more to be said by way of explanation or supplement. There is a saying that the learned have the same religion, but never tell what it is. We may feel very certain, however, that this brief formula affords us the solution. Yet we have no occasion to suppose that any unworthy motive inspires their silence, or even undue carefulness to refrain from bestowing treasures upon those who know not the value. Rather is it the reason of Timaios, the Lokrian, as given by Plato: "To discover the Creator and Father of this universe, as well as his work, is arduous; and having discovered him it is impossible to reveal him to the many". The apocalypse may be made only to those who understand with the heart, as well as perceive with the other senses.
Other writers have tried to show us that a simple faith, like this described by Mohsan Fani, was characteristic of the Aryan tribes of Upper Asia. Michelet would make us believe that there were no castes, no mages, no kings, among the archaic Persians; the father of each household was mage and king to all belonging to it; the fire on the family altar-hearth received their homage as being the symbol of the life-imparting spirit; the domestic animal was beloved and magnanimously treated according to its rank; the man revered himself as necessary to the universal existence. [Page 4]
When their theology was first devised goodness was the cardinal principle. The Wise One, leader of the heavenly host, carries on the conflict of ages against the Dark Intelligence, not to hurt but to save his adversary. The battles are all without bloodshed or cruel violence. Every act that beautified the earth, that extended the field of usefulness, that wrought the suppression of hatred and the predominance of goodness, was a conquest.
"Let every one this day, both man and woman, choose his faith", cries the great Zoroaster, standing before the altar. "In the beginning there were two — the Good and the Base in thought, word and deed. Choose one of these two; be good, not base. You cannot belong to both. You must choose the originator of the worst actions, or the true holy Spirit. Some may choose the worst allotment; others adore the Most High by means of faithful action".
"The clear moral note, prominent through the whole cycle of Zoroastrian religion", says Miss Frances Power Cobbe, "has here been struck. The 'choice of Scipio' was offered to the old Erânians by their prophet three thousand years ago, even as it is offered to us today. 'Choose one of the two spirits. Be good, not base' ".
A religion like this is personal and not public, a subjective living rather than an instituted mode of worship. No wonder that this noble faith, so ancient that we only guess its antiquity, maintained its life through all the centuries, passing the barriers of race and creed, to permeate all the later world-religions. We find its features in them all, its name and utterances translated into their numerous dialects, yet possessing the essential flavour of this primitive origin.
It was in the nature of things that it should meet with adversaries. This has been the history of every world-religion. The various neighbours of the early Erânians were incessantly making hostile incursions. The tillage of the earth, which was a cardinal merit in their belief, was a constant invitation for attack. We find allusions to these conflicts all through the earlier Zoroastrian scriptures. The Erânians were first brought into collision with the freebooting nomadic tribes of their own Aryan stock; and then with the Skythic and Mongol hordes, the Jins and Turanians from beyond the Oxus. Besides these came other and more dreadful foes, the Semitic conquerors from the West. Their impure rites and atrocious cruelties are still commemorated in the legend of Zohak, the Serpent-King, who required a daily sacrifice of children for his repasts. The afflicted people of Erân languished for centuries under the yoke of the detested foreigners. Then, according to the legends, there arose Thraêtaono or Feridun, a youth nurtured in the ancient faith, who called an army together and expelled the oppressors. Doubtless, however, [Page 5] this is an old mythic parable; for the Persians themselves for centuries commemorated the achievements of Gah, the blacksmith, as their emancipator, and made his apron their banner.
This much is historically true: There was an uprising through Ayraland, and the chieftains of Persia became men of war. "I march over the countries", says the sacred hymn, "triumphing over the hateful and striking down the cruel". Everywhere the temples of the Serpent-worship were destroyed, and idolatrous rites were prohibited. The Assyrians had cast the idols of other countries into the fire in the name of Asshur; the Persians melted the statues of the gods in the name of Ahura. In the wars with Greece the religion of Mazda contended for mastery over the worships of Apollo, the Assyrian Dionysos, and Dêmêter, but was arrested in its progress by the defeat at Salamis. It had, however, been more fully victorious nearer home. It displaced Bel and Assur from the Pantheon, and led the Hebrews to set aside the Hittite divinities Seth and Astartê for the purer faith of the God of Heaven. This name and its parallel, the God of Truth, are renderings of the titles of the Persian divinity. But more notable was their adoption of the designation Yâva, the occult name of Raman, the Assyrian Genius of Intellect. The completeness of the revolution among them is indicated by an unknown Hebrew prophet:
"Is there a God beside me ? Yea, there is none !
A Rock I have not known,
Framers of graven images are all of them emptiness. * * .
I am Jehovah [Yava] doing all things,
Stretching out the heavens by myself,
Spreading out the earth — * *
Who saith of Cyrus: ' My Shepherd,
And all my delight he doth perform.' * *
I am Jehovah [Yava], and there is none else,
Forming light and producing Darkness,
Making Peace and producing Evil:
I am Jehovah [Yava] doing all these things.' "
We need only to change the reading to the Persian designation of the Supreme Being, and this would be a very exact outlining of the original Zoroastrian doctrine. Every hymn chanted in the Parsi worship and every prayer is an acknowledgment of the Divine goodness and justice personified in Ahura Mazda.
It has been remarked that the whole religion of the Avesta revolved around the person of Zoroaster. The Supreme One speaks only to him out of the midst of the fire, and commands him to teach the pure doctrine to the Erânian people. We find in this a memorable revelation like that of [Page 6] Moses. The Sacred Law of Ahura Mazda inculcated the obligation to truth in speech and action, the superior merit of industry, and goodness transcending all. Words so divine could not be ascribed to a man speaking from his own understanding. The Erânian sage is therefore always represented as uttering only oracles given to him by the Divine Being, and the collection, of which we now possess but fragmentary remains, is named the Avesta, or Revealed Wisdom.
It can hardly be proper to ascribe the origin of the Mazdean worship and philosophy to any single individual. History has seldom preserved the memorials of the beginning of a religious faith. Great thoughts are afloat in the spiritual atmosphere, and so are apprehended by all who are in the suitable condition of mind. Religions are generally, more or less, outgrowths from older faiths, differentiated by the genius of the peoples and individuals by whom they are embraced. This is illustrated in the example afforded within our own historic period. The faith established by Mohammed had been already taught by the Hanyfs, and he at first only declared himself to be of their number. He was of an hysteric constitution, and the subject of powerful spiritual impressions. The religion of Islam of which he became the expositor was founded on the dogma that God is one, and that good works constituted the purest worship. A great apostasy took place after his death, which was suppressed by violent measures, but the men who had been his adversaries became the dominant party. They gave the final shape to the new faith, adding many notions from the Persian and Semitic religions. To the creed of the Erânians was given their new reading: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Apostle". The symbolic allegory of the Bridge of Judgment was plagiarised from the Avesta, also that of the existence of numerous races of jins and other superhuman beings, good and evil.
The endeavour has been made to show a Buddhistic influence in the origin of the Mazdean religion. The historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, has preserved an account of a journey into Upper India by Hystaspes, the father of Darius, and his discourses with the Brachmanes, a sect of philosophers. "He was instructed by their teaching", says this writer, "in the knowledge of the motions of the universe and of the heavenly bodies, and in pure religious rites; and, so far as he was able to collect these, he transfused a certain portion into the creed of the Mages". This account is a garbled relic of an older tradition. Gustasp or Vistaspa, an ancient king of Baktria, celebrated in the Avesta as first promulgating the Mazdean religion in his dominions, was doubtless the personage denoted. The story indicates the great confusion of opinion existing in regard to the matter. Doctor Haug, however, forcibly repudiates the notion, and [Page 7] fortifies his denial by a translation of the Fravardin-Yasht, in which the first Zoroaster is described as "that ingenious man who spoke such good words, who was the promulgator of wisdom, who was born before Gautama had a revelation".
It is apparent, however, that early Buddhism was also of remote antiquity. Its tenets embrace the Sankhyan philosophy ascribed to Kapila; and they can be traced, Mr. Brian Hodgson declares, into far ages and realms. Indeed the Jaina sect was older than Gautama and its last great teacher Vardhamana was his preceptor. The disciple became more distinguished than his master, and established a system of propagandism which has had nowhere a parallel in history.
Opinion is curiously divided in regard to Zoroaster. The accounts given of him in the Avesta are many times apparently allegorical. The dispute relates to his actual existence, to the age and country in which he lived, and the source of the Mazdean doctrine. Modern scholars assign him a period somewhat exceeding thirty centuries ago; but Aristotle and others date him back six thousand years before their own time. He is called a Baktrian, and yet is represented as a native of Rhaga, in Media, and even to have flourished at Babylon. His name is given in numerous forms and meaning. We commonly write it as Zoro-Aster, which would seem to denote the son or rather priest of the goddess Istar. Tradition has likewise set him forth as the inventor of the Magian rites, and also as an investigator of the origin of the universe and an observer of the planetary revolutions. Another account represents him in a contest with Nin or Ninip, the divine representative of the early Semitic religion; the one employing the philosophic knowledge of the Far East, and the other the Mystic learning of the Chaldaeans.
Clement of Alexandria seeks to identify Zoroaster with Eros, the son of Arminios, whom Plato describes in the Tenth Book of The Republic as having been slain in battle, but as reviving again after some days, and giving an account of the destinies of certain noble souls as he had himself witnessed the allotment. This was probably a current tale among the later Persians. The Parsis have a book entitled: The Revelations of Ardhâ-Viraf, which was probably written at the time of the restoration of the Persian monarchy in the third century. It is a detailed account of scenes in heaven and hell as beheld by Ardhâ-Viraf during the visit of a week, which his soul — leaving his body for that length of time — paid to those regions.
Ammianus Marcellinus has also given an opinion as from the great philosopher. "Plato, that greatest authority upon famous doctrines, states that the Magian religion, known by the mystic name of Machagistia, is the most uncorrupted form of worship in things divine; to the philosophy of [Page 8] which, in primitive ages, Zoroaster the Baktrian made many additions, drawn from the Mysteries of the Chaldaeans". This account appears to have been inspired from some attempt to identify that form of Parsism in which the Magian system had become interblended, with the older mystic worship of Assyria and other countries. It is entirely invalidated, however, by the inscriptions of Darius at Behistun. These utterly denounce Magism as false, apparently ignore the existence even of Angra-mainyas, the Evil Intelligence, and simply acknowledge Ahura Mazda. This would seem to indicate that no fusion or amalgamation of worships had as yet taken place.
What little is known of the Zoroastrian religion is derived from the Sacred Books of the Avesta [There were 21 nasks or divisions, each of which was marked with a corresponding word of the Ahuna-Vairya. They were burned by Alexander at Persepolis, but collected anew under the Sassanide monarchs, and again scattered by the Moslems. The Vendidat and a few fragments of the others, together with the Yasna, Vispered, and Gathas or Hymns, are all that remain] These show the early existence of an irreconcilable animosity between the Aryan peoples of Upper Asia. They had lived together in harmony till after the first migration, when the Erânians adopted fixed habitations and agricultural pursuits. This was followed by estrangement, and change of worship. The daevas appear henceforth as the deities of the Hindu Aryans, and as the evil demons of the Erânians.
This dissension has been compared not inaptly to that of the two brothers Cain and Abel. The latter we are told was a keeper of sheep; the former a tiller of the ground, the builder of a city, and the originator of the arts of civilised life. The analogy of the story is further confirmed by the universal fact that the agriculturist uproots the shepherd; and a more curious apparent coincidence is found in the fact that a dynasty in ancient Erân was designated the Kaianean or Cainite. Perhaps the Semitic nomads have since changed the narrative to suit their case; the chief Assyrian divinity was Bel or Abelios, and the country of Assyria fell before the armies of Persia.
This conflict of the remote ages was at its height when the movement began, which should permanently change the usages and the traditions of the Erânian people. The name of the man who carried it forward to success, is utterly lost in the mists of archaic time. We do not know the century or even the millennium in which he was born. He is characterised in the Yasna as "famous in the Aryan Home-Country", where both Hindus and Erânians had their first abodes. "The few philosophic ideas which may be discovered in his sayings", says Dr. Haug, "show that he was a great and deep thinker, who stood above his contemporaries, and even the most enlightened men of many subsequent centuries".
The Sacred Writings always speak of him as possessing rare spiritual [Page 9] endowments, and living in intimate communion with divine natures. His utterances have been denominated Magic, but only in the sense of a Wisdom-religion. He never ceased to denounce the arts of sorcery and the incantations employed in the rites of the Daeva-worshippers. At that time the latter consisted of wandering Aryan tribes addicted to freebooting, and having no permanent residence. They worshipped the gods and pitris or ancestral spirits, regarding Indra and Varuna as superior divinities. The Erânians had discarded these, but themselves paid homage to the Ahuras or spirits of the eternal world.
The first Zoroaster began his reformation by introducing the Mazda, the Supremely Wise, as the chief Ahura, the "primeval spirit", the Creator of the Universe, the "loving Father", "God who is the One that always was, is and will be". In the original Zoroastrian doctrine the seven archangels or Amshaspands are not enumerated. Ahura Mazda is the source of both the Light and Dark Intelligences. "In his wisdom", says the Yasna, "he produced the Good and the Negative Mind. * * * Thou art he, O Mazda, in whom the last cause of both these is hidden".
There is in every one, Zoroaster declared, a good and holy will, a positive will of righteousness. The reflection of this good mind is its negative evil mind, the lower nature following its instincts and incapable of choosing aright. Sôkrates in Theaitetos, has expounded the problem of Evil after a similar manner. The earlier Mazdeans thus included the Positive and Negative principles in their concept of the Divine Nature, and did not thereby impair their perception of the Divine Goodness. It was natural, however, to speak of these attributes as personal essences, and this doubtless led the latter Zoroasters to treat of them as so many distinct beings.
We therefore do not find the sevenfold group of Ameshaspentas at this earlier period of Erânian development, but only modes of Divine operation. Indeed, after they had been promulgated at a later period, but two or three of them seem to have progressed beyond the simple personification of qualities. In an ancient hymn we find several of them enumerated according to this idea. "He gives us by his most holy spirits the good mind which springs from good thoughts, words and actions — also fullness, long-life, prosperity and understanding". In like manner, the evil spirits or daevas were chiefly regarded as moral qualities or conditions, though mentioned as individuated existences. They have their origin in the errant thoughts of men. "These bad men", says the Yasna, "produce the daevas by their pernicious thoughts". The upright, on the other hand, destroy them by good action.
Always before the mind like a beautiful and sublime prospect was the vision of the Life Eternal. A spiritual and invisible world preceded and [Page 10] remained about this visible and material world as its origin, prototype, and upholding energy. Innumerable myriads of spiritual essences were distributed through the universe. These were the Frohars or Fravashis, the ideal or typical forms of all living things, in heaven and earth. In the earlier periods they were designated as psychic beings, and venerated as ancestral and guardian spirits. "This doctrine", says Professor Tielé, "recurring in one shape or another among all nations of antiquity, received among the Erânians a special development, and in a higher form was adapted into the Zarathustrian system from the very beginning". Through the Frohars, says the hymn, the Divine Being upholds the sky, supports the earth, and keeps pure and vivific the waters of preexistent life. They are the energies in all things, and each of them led by Mithras, is associated in its time and order with a human body. Everything, therefore, which is created or will be created, has its Frohar, which contains the cause and reason of its existence. They are stationed everywhere to keep the universe in order and protect it against all the potencies of evil. Thus they are allied to everything in nature; they are ancestral spirits and guardian angels, attracting all human beings to the right and seeking to avert from them every deadly peril. They are the immortal souls, living before our birth as human beings and surviving after death. Thus, in the Mazdean philosophy, the eternal world is an ocean of living intelligences, a milky sea of very life, from which all mortals are generated, sustained and afforded purification from evil.
The human soul coming into this world of time and sense, has always its guardian, its own law or spiritual essence, in the invisible region. In fact, it is never really separated. When its term of existence in this world is over, it abides for three days and nights around the body from which it has withdrawn, and then sets out on its journey. It meets its spiritual counterpart in the form of a beautiful maiden, and is conducted over the Bridge of Judgment to the celestial paradises and into the Everlasting Light. Conversely to this, the wicked soul remains three days at the head of the corpse inhaling the hateful odour of the charnel and then goes forth into scenes of an opposite character, entering finally into the presence of the Evil One in the world of Darkness, there to abide till the final redemption and restitution. [This account is preserved in a fragment of the Hadokht-Nask, one of the twenty lost books, and also in the Minokhird, or book of Wisdom]. It is predicted in the Zamyad-Yasht that the Good Spirit will overcome the Evil Intelligence and deprive him of his dominion.
The later Zoroasters enlarged and transformed the simpler Mazdean theology into a more complex structure. They were doubtless led to this through the influence of the Magian sacerdotal caste of Media and [Page 11] Assyria. Taking the analogy of the seven planets they devised a College of Seven Amshaspands or Benefices. Of these they made Ahura-Mazda first and chief. Added to these was the assemblage of Yazatas or angels, having Mithras for their lord. The Frohars or guardian spirits seem to have been included in this number, and were assigned to habitations in the stars. [It was a Pythagorean doctrine that souls came from the galaxy into the sublunary world to take up their abode in bodies]
In the Bundahish, a later composition, these were supplemented and antagonised by a Council of Daevas also seven in number, analogous to the seven evil gods or angels in the lower part of the sky, of the Assyrian Tablets. They are Aeshma Deva or Asmodeus, the three Hindu gods Indra, Saurva or Agni, and Nayonhatya, and two others, the personifications of Thirst and Penury, with Angra-mainyas, the Dark Intelligence, as their Prince. There were also an infinitude of daevas of lower grade, and drujas, an order of female spirits whose chief pursuit was the alluring of good men from rectitude.
As both the good and bad angels, the arch-daevas, and Amshaspands generally were spiritual essences rather than beings existing objectively, at least during the earlier periods, they pervaded all things as the inhering elements of their nature. Good works drove away and destroyed the daevas, and the prayer Ahuna-Vairya mastered even Angra-manyas himself. The character of Evil is simply opposition; the Dark Intelligence only follows the creative operations of Ahura Mazda, producing whatever may work them injury.
Behind this twofold classification, the Bundahish places the sole Divine Being, Zervan, "the Ancient of Days". This Divinity appears to be the personification of Eternity itself. A religious faction introduced him into the Parsi religion in order to meet hard metaphysic problems, and it is now the orthodox doctrine.
The Zoroastrian teachings were essentially ethical, and inculcate, with pious earnestness, veneration for the pure law. By this is denoted homage to the Supreme Being, to good spirits, the guardians and benefactors, and especially to the personal protector of the worshipper. Prayer was the hearty renouncing of evil and complete harmony with the Divine mind. "To attain to prayer", says the Yasna, "is to attain to a perfect conscience. The good seed of prayer is virtuous conscience, virtuous thoughts, and virtuous deeds". It is recorded that Zoroaster enquired of Ahura Mazda: "What form of invocation expresses every good thing? He replied: "The prayer Ashem". [The Ashem-Vohu] Zoroaster asked again: "What" Purity is the highest good; Happy he whose purity is mast complete". [Page 12] prayer equals in greatness, goodness and fitness all things beneath the heaven, the starry universe and all things pure ?" The Holy One responded: "That one, O Spitaman Zarathustra, in which all evil thoughts, words and works are renounced".
Every Mazdean was required to follow a useful calling. The most meritorious was the subduing and tilling of the soil. The man must marry, but only a single wife; and by preference she should be of kindred blood. It was impious to foul a stream of water. It was a cardinal doctrine of the Zoroastrian religion that individual worthiness is not the gain and advantage solely of the one possessing it, but an addition to the whole power and volume of goodness in the universe.
The Ahuna-Vairya, the prayer of prayers, delineates the most perfect completeness of the philosophic life. It adds to the total renunciation the entire affiliation of the soul with the Divine.
Lord Supreme, he is to be adored,
As Master in righteousness,
Inspiring the holy purpose
And the actions of life
Which join the Soul to Wisdom.
So is the kingdom made Ahura's
By succouring all who are in need."
Grecian writers state that Zoroaster wrote many books. This is doubtless incorrect; for such men seldom write. lamblichos has told us that the priests of Egypt ascribed all their books upon Science and Wisdom to Hermês. This ancient practice of ascribing works to distinguished personages renders it impossible to know the real author by the name on the book. The primitive writings of the Erânians have the title of Avesta or Wisdom. Appended to the Nasks was a Zend or Commentary; much of which was finally wrought into the text. The sacred literature of many different peoples and ancient faiths has thus been corrupted.
The authorship of the Avesta will be better comprehended when we bear in mind that the designation Zarathustra was a title of rank, belonging to the spiritual lords of the Erânian peoples. Every high priest was styled the Zarathustratema, or chief Zarathustra, and was considered as the successor of the great Spitama, and so inheriting his spirit and authority. He was superior in rank to the head of the family, the chief of the village, the lord of the tribe, and the ruler of the province. What he uttered and wrote might therefore be included in the Sacred Writings under the name of the great Sage himself. The Avesta as we now have it, is therefore the remains of a compilation made during many centuries, which had been destroyed and scattered under the Macedonian rulers and partially collected again in [Page 13] a more or less corrupted form in the third century. The Gathas or hymns and the older Yasna are the most genuine.
The conquest of Babylon and its dependencies brought Mazdaism into direct contact with the various Semitic religions. The gross worships of the East were superseded, and the influence of Zoroastrianism became so prevalent that many writers have supposed the great Erânian teacher to have been a Chaldaean Magus. Yet there was more or less amalgamation of the two worships.
The establishment of the Judaean colony in Palestine was distinctly set forth as an enterprise inspired by the God of Heaven, Ahura-Mazda. The decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes recognise the same source of authority. The uprising of the Jewish people, when the Macedonian kings had suspended the customary worship at the temple and introduced the Bacchic orgies instead, indicates the same ruling motive. Never before had they exhibited a like earnest purpose for monotheistic religion. Their own historians depict the change as radical. "From a reckless, godless populace", says Emanuel Deutsch,"they were transformed into a band of puritans". They had their schools of philosophy; the Pharisees and Essenès being the most celebrated. The former resembled the Stoics, the latter the Pythagoreans. They had their seminaries in Babylon and Alexandria. Following their Persian exemplars, the Pharisees now made a collection of Sacred Writings, and the works of their sages and prophets, and the Essenès compiled another to be read and expounded in their secret assemblies. Angels and evil spirits now became conspicuous in Rabbinic tradition.. "The Jews", Maimonides declares, "derived all their knowledge about the angels from the Persians, during their captivity". We have the assurance of Dean Milman that the Avesta was "by no means an improbable source in which we ought to discover the origin of those traditional notions of the Jews, which were extraneous to their earlier system, and which do not appear to rest on their sacred records".
Herodotos has declared that no nation adopted foreign customs so readily as the Persians. Perhaps we should attribute many of the changes made by their kings to this versatility of disposition. While Darius and Xerxes acknowledged only Ahura-Mazda and the "pure religion". Antaxerxes Mnemôn proclaimed the worship of Mithras and Anahid; the one the personified fountain of living spirit from whom flowed the currents of life to the universe, and the other the chief of spirits and director of the ever-active fructifying energies of nature. Babylon was doubtless the mother of this new cultus. It was carried into Asia Minor and flourished there for centuries as an arcane religion. After the conquest of Pontos and the pirate empire by Pompey, it was introduced into the Roman [Page 14] metropolis, "where", says the Rev. C. W. King, "it became so popular, as with the earlier-imported Serapis-worship, to have entirely usurped the place of the ancient Hellenic and Italian divinities. “In fact", he further declares, “during the second and third centuries of the Empire, Serapis and Mithras may be said to have become the sole objects of worship even in the remote corners of the Roman world. It was the theology of Zoroaster in its origin, but greatly simplified, so as to assimilate it to the previously-existing systems of the West. Under this form it took the name of Mithras, who in the Zoroastrian creed is not the Supreme Being Ormuzd, but the chief of the subordinate powers. Mithras is the Zend title of the Sun, the peculiar domain of this Spirit, and hence he was admitted by the Greeks as their former Phoebus and Hyperion. In the same character he was identified with Dionysus and Liber, or Phanaces the Sun-god of the Asiatics, and his Mysteries replaced the ancient Dionysia. How important the Mithraica had become in the second century appears from the fact recorded by Lampridius, that Commodus the Emperor condescended to be initiated into them. With their penances and tests of the courage of the candidate for admission they have been maintained by a constant transition through the secret societies of the Middle Ages and the Rosicrucians, down the modern faint reflex of the latter, the Freemasons".
It may be remarked in this connection that reference to the Mithraic rites abound in the Book of Revelation. The rewards of those that overcome are generally like those of the successful candidates in the secret rites. The fiery dragon with seven heads and ten horns or rays of light forming a halo around them was a simulacrum of the seven-headed Serpent of Akkad and Assyria, which the Zoroastrian believers were destined to destroy. There appears to have been but little difference between the several religions in the earlier centuries of our era. Augustin of Hippo quoted the assertion of the Mithraic priests that their divinity " himself was Christian". The copper coins of Constantine bore the symbol and acknowledgment — the "image and superscription" — of the Unconquered Sun, the Comes or soldier; and everybody knows that the 25th of December was from time immemorial celebrated as the Birthday of Mithras. Chrysostom, speaking of the appointing of Christmas at the same time, thus explains the reason: "It was so fixed at Rome in order that while the heathen were busied at their profane ceremonies, the Christians might perform their holy rites undisturbed".
Indeed, as Mr. King remarks, "there is very good reason to believe, that as in the East the worship of Serapis was at first combined with Christianity, and gradually merged into it with an entire change of name, not substance, carrying with it many of its ancient notions and rites; so, [Page 15] in the West, a similar influence was exerted by the Mithraic religion." Afterward the arbitrary decree of Theodosius I prohibited the further observance of the worship, and the Roman pontiffs in their turn denounced it as sorcery and actual compact with the powers of Evil. Yet it continued for many centuries among the pagans, or country-people.
In another direction the Zoroastrian influence accomplished nobler results. Even before the conquest of Babylon, the dominion of Persia had been extended from India to the Hellespont. There appeared from this very time a new energy in speculative thinking. Wherever the Zoroastrian doctrine was introduced philosophy began a career. The Ionic and other schools dated from this historic period.
The criticism has sometimes been made that there was little of a philosophic nature in the Zoroastrian literature. We are not required to be so nice in our distinctions. The Avesta is everywhere ethical, and like all ancient writings essentially religious. All philosophy takes religious veneration for its starting-point. We are free, likewise, to define religion as Cicero did, to be a profounder reading of the truth. But it was held anciently to include the entire domain of knowledge. Even here, the Avesta was not deficient. The Nasks treated of religion, morals, civil government, political economy, medicine, botany, astronomy, and other sciences. The students of the Zoroastrian lore were therefore proficient scholars. Dêmokritos, of Abdera, who was educated by Persians and professed their religion, was distinguished as a physician and philosopher. He became no less advanced in later years in the Egyptian learning, which he endeavoured to show was similar to the Wisdom of the East.
It is stated, that Thalês, the founder of the Ionian philosophy, spent much time in Egypt and was admitted to familiar converse with the priests of Memphis. Yet his utterances are clearly Zoroastrian, Water, he declared, is the first principle of things: and God is the Intelligence that formed all things out of water. "God is the most ancient", said he, "for he had no genesis: the universe is the most beautiful, because it is the workmanship of God". He taught also that spiritual essences, intelligent and immortal, like the Frohars of the Avesta, pervaded the universe. Anaximenês represented the first principle as aether or divine air possessing consciousness that animated all things. All souls were of the divine substance and the body was evolved therefrom. Pythagoras elaborated the system that bears his name. He had been instructed by the Egyptian priests; yet his doctrines were essentially Zoroastrian. His biographers declared that he learned them of the sage Zaratas at Babylon. He established the first school of philosophy at Samos, and then at Krotôn, in Italy, with the peculiar characteristics of a secret brotherhood.
Hêrakleitos denominated the elemental principle FIRE; which, however, [Page 16] was a spiritual and intellectual essence, and not a gross corporeal flame. From it all things emanate and into it they return. This is evidently the cardinal principle of fire-worship as inculcated by the Zoroastrians. The light of Ahur-Mazd, says the hymn, is hidden under all that shines. Hêrakleitos also taught that the soul possesses the power to cognise the real truth, while the senses can only perceive that which is variable and particular. The living on earth is a dying from the life of the eternal world, and death is a returning thither. Two other lonians, Xenophanes and Parmenidês, inculcated the identity of "real being" with thought and knowledge. The perceiving of truth is by intellection; the knowledge obtained by the senses is only apparent. They also taught the existence of two principles, Light and Darkness, the former of which was the essential fire, positive, real, and intellectual; the other cold, negative, and a limitation of the other. After all these great thinkers had fulfilled their mission, Plato rose and placed the cope-stone on their work. He gathered up all that had been taught by those before him, both Ionian and Oriental, including the under meanings of the Mysteries, and presented it in a new form and rendering. The Dialectic of Plato has been the textbook of scholars in the Western World, as the Dialogues of Zoroaster with Ahura-Mazda constituted the sacred literature of the Wise Men of the Far East.
A melancholy interest hangs about the later history of the Mazdean religion. The fine gold became dim. The centuries of Parthian rule enabled the Magians to realise the dream of Gomata and make themselves the exponents of the Zoroastrian doctrine; and when the restoration took place, the change had been made permanent. For centuries their influence penetrated far into the Christian world. The armies of Mohammed, however, arrested its triumphal progress, and overthrew it in its own native seats. Persecution and massacres have reduced the numbers of the adherents to a few thousands, living in Kirman and Bombay. Yet the leaven of truth which it carries has sufficed to preserve it from utter extinction, and it bids fair to continue for centuries.
This grand religious system has been little known and studied. Its magnitude and influence has been underrated. Yet ages have proved unequal to the effort for its overthrow. It has survived the torch of Alexander and the cimiter of the Moslem. Millions upon millions have been put to death for their adhesion to the "pure religion”; yet wherever it survives it is manifest as the wisdom justified by her children. The moral virtues, truth, chastity, industry and universal beneficence, which are found inculcated in the earliest fragments of' the Avesta, and which were characteristic of the Persians of the age of Cyrus, are even now the peculiarities of this remarkable people. "No nation deserves better", says [Page 17] Miss Cobbe, "that we should regard their religion with respect, and examine its sacred literature with interest, than the 120,000 Parsis of India — the remnant of the once imperial race of Cyrus and Darius".
Enough, that the ethics and philosophy of Mazdean religion have been wholesome in their influence and a potent leaven to promote the fermentation of thought. Even to our own day we know and feel it. "So much is there in this old creed of Persia in harmony with our popular belief today," Miss Cobbe remarks, "that we inevitably learn to regard it with a sort of hereditary interest, as a step in the pedigree of thought much more direct in our mental ancestry than the actual faith of our Odin-worshipping ancestors according to the flesh".
This conviction is founded on a firm ground-work. Zoroastrianism has mingled with the deepest thoughts of the centuries, purifying wherever it was present. The current from that fountain has flowed for thousands of years, fertilising as it went. Everywhere, in whatever form it has appeared, it had always the same idea foremost, the overcoming of evil with good, the triumph of right over wrong.
Go to Top of this page
Back to our On Line Documents
Back to our Main Page
A free sample copy of our bilingual magazine can be sent to you. This
offer is only good for a mailing to a Canadian address. You have to supply a mailing address.
The Canadian membership of $25.00 includes the receipt of four seasonal issues of our magazine "The Light Bearer" . If you are a resident of Canada send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org requesting a packet of information and your free copy of our magazine
For membership outside of Canada send a message to the International Secretary in Adyar, India email@example.com
For a problem viewing one of our documents — or to report an error in a document — send
a note to the webmaster at firstname.lastname@example.org
We will try to answer any other query — if you would send a note to email@example.com
This document is a publication of the
Canadian Theosophical Association (a regional association of the Theosophical Society in Adyar)
89 Promenade Riverside,
St-Lambert, QC J4R 1A3
To reach the President — Pierre Laflamme dial 450-672-8577
or Toll Free — from all of Canada 866-277-0074
or you can telephone the national secretary at 905-455-7325