Life and Teachings of Prophet Zarathustra

A Glimpse into the Life and Teachings of Prophet Zarathustra

By Noshir H. Dadrawala

Asho Zarathushtra is universally regarded as the First Prophet.  He was the first to receive Dadaar Ahura Mazda’s message.  And yet, there is so little that his followers, who call themselves Zarathushtis, know about him.  Half the time, they don’t even spell or pronounce his name correctly.  A majority do not know the names of his parents, though the same majority would readily know the names of the parents of Jesus Christ or, for that matter, the names of the parents of Shri Ram and Shri Krishna.

The teachings of the Prophet are often over-simplified. Ask the average Parsi in the street and he/she will blurt out the stereotype, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.  Agreed, these principles are the main pillars of the faith and perhaps no other religion has articulated or emphasised this more than Zarathushtrianism.  However, can one possibly imply that other faiths are not based on these three principles?  To cut a long story short, there is more to Zarathushtrianism than the cliched, “Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds”. The trouble is most Parsis don’t know about it and to be honest, some don’t even want to know.

This article, however, is for those who care. For those who are thirsting to know more and for those who believe there is more to Zarathushtrianism than Humata, Hukhta, Huvrashta”.

The Persian word for ‘Prophet’ is Paigambar or wakshur (derived from the Pahlavi word, wakshwar which means “one who carries the Word of God”). The Avestan term for Prophet is Manthrano or “One with the tongue of the manthra (Holy Word) or “One who brings the Holy Word from God”.

In Zarathushtrian tradition, Asho Zarathushtra is recognised as a Yazata – a Divine Being. Little wonder there is a Khshnuman (dedicatory formula) in his honour.

Asho Zarathushtra belonged to the family of “Spitama” (spitama = very holy). His father’s name was Pourushasp, while his mother’s name was Dogdo. His paternal grandfather was Peterasp, while his maternal grandfather was Framirava. His lineage goes back to Shah Faridoon – a saintly King of Peshdadian Iran and one who brought the evil Zohak under control.

Scholars have interpreted the name “Zarathushtra” in many ways. The interpretation we like best is Zaratha = golden and Ushtra = Light (from Ush = to shine) or “Zarathushtra” – The Golden Light (or Golden Star).

The period of Asho Zarathushtra’s birth is shrouded in mystery. Greek sources place him as far back as 6,000 to 7,000 B.C., while modern scholars place his birth between 1,500 to 1,800 B.C. Oral tradition among Parsis places him between 4,000 to 5,000 B.C.

When Asho Zarathushtra was born, Shah Lohrasp Bin Arvand (a mighty spiritual King whose image adorns the walls of many Parsi homes and places of worship) was the King of Iran. The Governor of Rae (the city where Asho Zarathushtra is believed to have been born) was the evil Durasrun.

The life and miracles associated with Asho Zarathushtra’s birth are narrated in a Pahlavi work known as “Zarathosht Nama”.

Asho Zarathushtra is said to have laughed, instead of cried at birth. It was a sign of His Divinity and the fact that at birth, he was neither confused nor scared.

As many as seven attempts were made on the life of this Divine child by the evil Durasrun.

The evil Durasrun first tried to stab the Holy Child. But, instead, his arm got twisted backward. When the baby Zarathushtra was thrown to the flames, the hot coals turned into a bed of roses. When put in the path of a herd of cattle and horses, respectively, a cow and a mare, respectively, stood over the Holy Child to protect him from harm. When thrown into a den of hungry wolves, the animals found their jaws sealed. Attempts to poison him and throw an evil spell also failed miserably.

Asho Zarathushtra remained engrossed in prayers from the age of 15 to 30 years. He left his father’s home at the age of 30 in search of the Truth.

According to the ‘Dadestan-i-denig’, Asho Zarathushtra had the first Vision of Ahura Mazda on Roj Dae-pa Meher, Mah Ardibehest. His first question to Dadaar Ahura Mazda was “Who is the best man among all people in this world?” In Dadaar Ahura Mazda’s response to this very first query, one finds a summary of the Zarathushtrian ethics of living”. Dadaar Ahura Mazda is believed to have said, “The best man among all people in this world is one who walks the Right Path, He who gives charity, who is just, reveres fire, reveres the waters and is kind to animals.”.

Asho Zarathushtra is said to have received the Revelation for ten years and had seven Conferences with Dadaar Ahura Mazda. All the mysteries and secrets of the universe were revealed to him.

When the Revelation was complete, the Amesha Spentas showered special blessings on the Prophet and each one of them asked Asho Zarathushtra to carry a special message.

Bahman Ameshaspand urged that his followers should be kind to animals.

Ardibehest Ameshaspand urged that fire should be revered.

Shehrevar Ameshaspand desired that metals should be used wisely.

Spendarmard Ameshaspand desired that the earth should be revered.

Khordad Ameshaspand wanted the waters to be revered.

Amardad Ameshaspand wanted the plant kingdom to be cared for.

In the message of the Amesha Spentas, we have the entire concept of what we recognise today as striking the ecological balance and living in harmony with Nature. Think about it – issues so relevant to us today were addressed by Asho Zarathushtra thousands of years ago in pre-historic times.

Asho Zarathushtra’s spiritual strength can be gauged from Yasna 19.15, “O Zarathushtra, you made all evil doers hide underground.”

According to the ‘Sharestan’, Zarathushtra received from Dadaar Ahura Mazda the following gifts:

  1. Twenty-one Nasks (volumes) each titled according to the twenty-one words of the Ahunavar (or the Yatha Ahu Vairyo) and loaded with all the wisdom and secrets of the universe.

  2. The spiritual Fire of Adar Burzin which burned without fuel and did not emit any smoke.

  3. A Cypress tree.

By the time Asho Zarathushtra received the revelation and was ready to begin his spiritual work among the  Mazdayasnis  (worshippers of Dadaar Ahura Mazda), Shah Lohrasp had stepped down from the throne to devote his life to prayer and meditation. Kae Vistasp had succeeded Shah Lohrasp.

Asho Zarathushtra came to the court of Kae Vistasp, blessed the King and declared that he was a Prophet. Vistasp was initially hesitant to accept Asho Zarathushtra’s statement.

Asho Zarathushtra held discussions with the wise men of the court for three days and satisfied all their queries. He then gave the Fire of Adar Burzin to Vistasp to hold in his bare hands. He also gave him the Cypress tree (each leaf of the Cypress tree is believed to have said, “Vistasp, accept the Word of Zarathushtra.”)

The grand seer, Jamasp, is said to have tested Asho Zarathushtra even further by pouring molten bronze four times on Zarathushtra’s chest. Asho Zarathushtra passed this ordeal without any harm to himself.

Asho Zarathushtra was hereafter accepted as a true Prophet and Messenger of Dadaar Ahura Mazda.

One day, Kae Vistasp asked Asho Zarathushtra for four boons:

  1. to see and know more about the other world

  2. to live forever

  3. to become invincible in battle and

  4. to be able to see into the future.

Asho Zarathushtra explained to Vistasp that all four boons cannot be granted to any one individual. Hence, he proceeded go perform the dron ceremony, consecrating i) wine, ii) milk, iii) flowers and iv) pomegranate. 

Asho Zarathushtra gave the consecrated wine to Vistasp to drink and the latter’s soul travelled to the ‘other world’ and saw his place in it.  The consecrated milk was given to Peshotan who, on consuming it, became immortal.  When Jamasp was asked to smell the flowers, he became a clairvoyant and could look into the future. The ‘Jamaspi’ is said to be the work of this sage.

When Asfandiar ate the consecrated pomegranate, he became bronze-bodied (Rooyintan) and thus invincible in battle.

The Mazdayasni King, Vistasp, and his Mazdayasni courtiers, on accepting Asho Zarathushtra as a Prophet, came to be known as “Mazdayasni Zarathushti” (Believers in Dadaar Ahura Mazda who accept Asho Zarathushtra as a Prophet). It is said Kae Vistasp built 24,000 Atash Behrams all over Iran.

According to the ‘Dasatir’, wise men from faraway lands also came to meet and test Zarathushtra. It is said when the sages from India, Changraghach and Vyas, came to the court, Asho Zarathushtra answered their questions even before they could put forth their questions. Tutianus of Greece concluded, “This man (Zarathushtra) cannot be a speaker of falsehood.”

Zarathushtra’s teachings are essentially embodied in the Five Gatha which form seventeen of the seventy-two chapters of the Yasna.

The five Gatha are as follows:

  1. Ahunavad (Yasna 28 – 34) (possessing the power of the Ahunavar)

  2. Ushtavad (Yasna 43 – 46) (possessing Divine Happiness)

  3. Spentomad (Yasna 47 – 50) (possessing piety/devotion)

  4. Vohu Khshatra (Yasna 51) (possessing Good Power)

  5. Vahishtoist (Yasna 53) (possessing Best Spiritual Riches)

So holy are the Gatha that Yasna 55.2 asserts: “The Gatha are the Lords of our Soul, protectors and providers of spiritual food and clothing.”

Asho Zarathushtra essentially saw life as a struggle between the forces of “good” and “evil”. Man’s duty is that of a spiritual warrior (Rathestrar) always being on the side of good and fighting evil at the physical, social, ethical and metaphysical level.  At the physical level, all forms of impurity and pollution are seen as a manifestation of evil. A good Zarathushtrian, therefore, always aims for purity and cleanliness.

At the social level, all forms of poverty, want, human suffering and ignorance are seen as an affliction of evil.

At an ethical level, every good Zarathushti must guard himself/herself against the demons of wrath, greed, envy, etc.

Finally, every good Zarathushti battles the forces of evil at a metaphysical level through the power of Avestan manthras and special rituals.

If one were to sum up Asho Zarathushtra’s teachings in just one word, it would be ASHA (Piety/Holiness).

Asha, at its most simplistic level, stands for Truth (as opposed to falsehood). It also stands for ‘righteous conduct’. At a more universal level, it stands for Divine Order (and man’s duty to live in “harmony” with that Order).  It also stands for purity (in thought, word and deed).

The colophon to the Yasna asserts, “Aevo pantao yo Ashahe, Vispe anyaesham apantam” (“There is but One Path, that of Asha. All other paths are false.”).

In the ‘Hoshbam’ we pray, “Through the best Asha, through the highest Asha, may we catch sight of Thee (Dadaar Ahura Mazda), may we approach Thee, may we be in perfect union with Thee.”

Asho Zarathushtra’s message is one of happiness. We pray in the Ushtavaiti Gatha, “Ushta ahmai yahmai ushta Kahmai chit.” [“Happiness (be) to him through whom happiness (is caused) to another”].

There is much more to Zarathushtrian philosophy and thought than the over- simplified and much cliched, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”. In conclusion, we, Zarathushtis, can truly affirm, “Fortunate are we that the Teacher/Priest was born, Spitama Zarathushtra” (“Ushta-no zato Athrava, yo spitamo Zarathushtra.”)