The Zarathushtra Effect

Meet the followers of a dwindling ancient faith which they claim influenced Christianity

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His admirers claim he was the first to teach monotheism, the existence of heaven and hell and the final triumph of good over evil. Plato and Aristotle revered his wisdom. Raphael included him among the world’s greatest philosophers in his The School of Athens fresco. Some scholars insist that he had more influence on Western religion than any single man. Who was he? Moses? Mohammed? Christ? No.

His name was Zarathushtra, and he lived over 3,500 years ago, but his followers still honor him today while fearful for their faith’s survival over the next decades.

“We don’t seek converts,” insists Jamsheb Ravji, a Zoroastrian priest in Chicago. Ravji says converts would compromise the purity of the faith by not living up to its strict rules.

But Kersey Antia, 73, a Zoroastrian high priest in Chicago, says: “If we reject converts, then we reject the faith and philosophy of Zoroastrianism and jeopardize our own future.”

This battle over converts is set against the backdrop of a religion that has been in decline for centuries. Ravji, 48, says less than 200,000 Zoroastrians remain in the world — 7,000 to 11,000 of which live in America — with half marrying outside the faith in this country and Europe. With trends like these, Ravji says, there could be no more practicing Zoroastrians within a few generations.

“That would be tragic,” says Scott Nelson, who teaches comparative religion at Wentworth College in Lexington, Missouri. Nelson argues that if we lose Zoroastrianism, we lose not only a faith that has had a major influence on Christianity but also one that offers important insights into its origins.

Scholars such as Nelson say that some of these Zoroastrian influences on Christianity include the ideas of a final judgment, free will and eternal life for the reunited soul and body.  Mary Boyce, professor emeritus of Iranian studies at the University of London and author of Zoroastrians, writes: “These doctrines were to become familiar articles of faith to much of mankind, through borrowings by Judaism, Christianity and Islam; yet it is in Zoroastrianism itself that they have their fullest logical coherence… [Zoroastrianism] has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly, than any other single faith.”

“If more knew how much of Judaism and Christianity were impacted by Zoroastrianism, our faith would be better valued.” — a Chicago Zoroastrian

Zoroastrians teach that Zarathushtra lived somewhere between 1500 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. in Persia or Afghanistan. He taught the existence of one God, Ahura Mazda, and the need of humanity to strive to do good works to help evolve the world toward its spiritual potential of frashokereti, being a place of peace, joy and harmony where evil is vanquished.

The Great Debate

Cyrus Kanga prostrates in front of a large cauldron of fire in a Chicago Zoroastrian temple. Concentration wrinkles his forehead and furrows his eyebrows. Whispers of an ancient prayer escape through taut lips. Straightening up, he grasps a stick of frankincense and drops it into the cauldron’s orange-yellow flickering flames. A sweet-spicy aroma floods the temple room.

Kanga, thirtyish, who asked that his real name not be used, says that accepting converts or intermarried families is not the solution to dwindling Zoroastrian numbers. “Those who want to do so will cheapen and slowly pollute the faith,” he says, dusting off his unsoiled white overshirt. And there is no guarantee that changing those things will increase the faith’s numbers, he argues.

Kanga says the solution is to remind Zoroastrians about the religious contributions of their faith, such as ethical dualism. “Ahura Mazda, which is God, represents truth and order (asha), but Angra Mainyu represents evil or falsehood and chaos (druji),” Kanga says.

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While Ahura Mazda encourages us to do good deeds — helping and being considerate of others — Angra Mainyu tempts us to be selfish, envious and angry, he says. What Christianity did was take this Zoroastrian idea of evil (Angra Mainyu) and turn it into a personal entity called Satan, Kanga says. “If more knew how much of Judaism and Christianity were impacted by Zoroastrianism, our faith would be better valued.”

But David Allgire, a Protestant pastor in Savannah, Georgia and an expert in Christian apologetics, warns against any claims that Zoroastrianism impacted Christianity. Allgire says that we don’t have any definitive evidence that Zoroastrianism existed in any authoritative way early enough to have impacted Judaism or Christianity.

In fact, Allgire argues that it makes more sense that Judaism influenced Zoroastrianism because Jewish dogma was settled earlier and more strictly protected against outside influences than Zoroastrian beliefs.

Nevertheless, Zoroastrians don’t want to pick a fight with Christians. “Every faith has value in our tradition,” says a Los Angeles Zoroastrian.

Zoroastrians even teach that Jesus was a prophet, that the three Magi who visited him were Zoroastrian priests, and that Zarathushtra even predicted that there would be other saviors, of which they believe Christ to be one.

In support of the Zoroastrian-Magi theory, Ken R. Vincent, religious scholar and author of The Magi: From Zoroaster to the Three Wise Men, writes that Zoroastrians were the “next-door neighbors” of Palestine during the time of Christ’s birth, and that  “their main language was Aramaic, which was the language of Jesus. Some Magi even resided in pre-Islamic Southern Arabia where the frankincense and myrrh were grown and traded.”

Common Ground

Antia, who is also a psychologist, says that among the many accomplishments of Zarathushtra was his recognition of the relationship between thoughts and actions.

A fundamental tenet of Zoroastrianism is that “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” lead one closer to God and also help move the world closer to frashokereti or world harmony.

The Zoroastrian creed of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” is something that all Catholics can embrace, says Jason Renken, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs.

Though the Catholic Church has different theological and historical interpretations of the influence that Zoroastrianism had on Christianity, Renken says the Church, like Zarathushtra, agrees that spirituality begins within.

Antia says that Christ, too, knew the power of thoughts when he told the people he healed that it was their faith that restored them. Like Zarathushtra, Antia says, Christ understood that how we think affects how we behave and what we can achieve.

The Zoroastrian creed of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” is something that all Catholics can embrace, says Jason Renken, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs.

Though the Catholic Church has different theological and historical interpretations of the influence that Zoroastrianism had on Christianity, Renken says the Church, like Zarathushtra, agrees that spirituality begins within. “Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-38 that we should love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind,” he says. “Catholics can find value in other faiths, including Zoroastrianism.”

Agreeing with Renken, Nelson, a Protestant, says even if Christianity borrowed from Zarathushtra, that doesn’t take anything away from Christianity.

Nelson asks, If there are truths that both Christianity and Zoroastrianism agree on — the existence of one God, the final victory of good over evil — then why couldn’t these truths have been revealed earlier to Zarathushtra, an earnest, holy man who lived before Christ?

For the average Zoroastrian, Nelson says the answer is obvious: “Both men came from God.”

Four Thousand Years Already

Rashna Booniwala, 43, enjoying a traditional Indian meal of rice and curry with friends at the Zoroastrian Center of Chicago, is not interested in stuffy theological debates between Zoroastrians and Christians on who influenced whom. “It’s the same God to me,” she says with a shrug.

And she is also not too worried about Zoroastrians dying out. “They’re always saying, ‘In the next ten years we’ll be gone.’ But then the next ten years come and go, and we’re still here,” she says. “We’ve been ‘still here’ for almost four thousand years already.”


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