The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 2: Zoroastrianism

As you might know already, this month has been totally dedicated to the study of religious history. So far everything that has been covered, was closely linked with the Christian traditions and belief throughout time. This made me think about the situation of religious belief in general in the UK, and so I did some research on census and polls on religious practices of the British people. It was interesting though to find out that the second largest group of the population of the Uk according to the survey results is the one corresponding to those that consider to not have a religious affiliation whatsoever. Interesting, yes, but not surprising. What did surprise me and interested my, due to my own ignorance, is that almost 500,000 people in the Isles are part of religions that most of the people have not even heard about, and yet they are quite significant and outstanding in the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East. For this reason today, I am introducing you to these four faiths: Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and the Baha’i Faith. In this brief introduction I will present you some of the basic details about their beliefs and practices, places of worship, rituals and their place in the modern world.

Zoroastrianism

This religion is meant to be one of the oldest in the history of mankind. Presumably it was originated about 3500 years ago, during the Bronze Age in the Asian steppes. It had a huge impact in the Iranian culture, as well as in some parts of india, especially in the northern lands of the country. Also it has influenced many later faiths such as Mahayana Buddhism. In the west the religion was spread and known thanks to Greek knowledge on the founder of the religion: Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. The scripture that compiles their beliefs and practices is known as the Yasna.

Zoroaster’s religion was an adaptation of old pagan Iranian pastoral beliefs. The ancient cult was dedicated to the worship of nature gods, especially of water and fire, which were the main needs for these semi-nomadic agriculturists and farmers. They also believed in something called asha: the natural force that ensured existence. Through worship men not only benefited from the gifts nature provided them with, but they also became part of the process and connected with the divine. These ancient beliefs were incorporated into Zoroaster’s idea of one only god called Ahura Mazda, who functioned with the help of the Holy Immortals (which were spiritual attainments of god based on the old deities). In addition Zarathustra incorporated the “bad guy” of the religion, Angra Manyu, a being opposite to Mazda. In this way the faith imbued itself with a sense of dualism. There were good qualities that god portrayed and that human beings should attempt to develop, such as virtue, honesty, truth and courage. These concepts formed the ashavan, while everything of a chaotic nature was attached to the concept of druh, related to Angrra Manyu.

In the first days of the religion’s existence, and due to the nature of its worshippers, the places dedicated for praying needed to be simple and mobile. For this reason, the Iranian nomads used something called pavi: a small rectangular altar slightly elevated from the ground level, which they created from whatever they could find. Once the belief adopted its more developed form, prayers and other ceremonies started to take place in temples, usually identified as fire temples. Although there is not much known about these sites, Parsi legends tell us that there are many Zoroastrian fires still burning in their places of worship, but the most significant one is perhaps the Udvada Atash-Behram. About their ritual practices it is known that the Zoroastrians celebrate the Khordad Sal, or Zoroaster’s birthday. For this festivity they get together in their fire temples and make perform communal prayers, which is something unusual as the Zoroastrian practices and prayers are meant to be individual. They also have an initiation ritual called Navjote, and they perform weddings and funerary rites.

What is the place of Zoroastrianism in the Modern World?

In 2006 there were registered on a world scale 190,000 followers of Zoroaster’s faith. However, their beliefs had to undergo a process (or rather I should say the process to a certain degree is still undergoing) to adapt themselves to the changing new times. Since the 19th century western scholars and religious figures have been attacking the doctrine. On top of that the Zoroastrians found themselves in an uncomfortable situation, where different followers had different opinions on what Zoroaster’s actual teachings were or how they should be applied. In addition, one of the largest groups of the believers, the Parsi, introduced some changes in their actual practices, allowing a reasonable degree of syncretism and assimilation of other religious practices, mainly Christianity, Hinduism and Guru teachings.

One could consider then that Zoroastrianism is under threat. The dispersion of the Parsi community to other parts of the world, mainly overseas to the areas that used to belong to the British Empire, and great Britain itself, has not contributed to the situation and debate about how the religion should be regulated and organised is still ongoing. Nonetheless, this one is not the only practice with such a problem. Nowadays, there is not one single religious belief that is not under threat due to the changes in mankind’s way of life and sociopolitical affairs. For the population of the 21st century being religious, of any kind can become a stigma. Hopefully, through the understanding of religious practices, and the different faiths tolerance would spread and take over, and put an end to such madness.

In the meantime, I hope I have not confuse you too much with the Zoroastrian practices and that you have learned to appreciate the uniqueness of their ideas. To know more about the teachings of Zoroaster you can check the following resources:

Boyce, N., Zoroastrians: their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New york, 1979)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/- BBC website on this faith

AND TO KNOW ABOUT THE JAINS AND FOLLOWERS OF THE BAHA’I FAITH KEEP AN EYE ON THE FOLLOWING UPDATES FOR TOMORROW AND WEDNESDAY!

 

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