Ancient Persian faith perseveres today despite declining populations, limited presence on campus
In an effort to further understand UTD’s diverse population, what follows is part one in a four-part series exploring lesser-known religious communities, their traditions and their presence on campus.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s most ancient religions over 3,500 years old. Originating in ancient Persia, or modern-day Iran, it was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, and it was once the official religion of both Persian Empires from roughly 550 B.C.E. to 330 B.C.E. and 220 C.E. to 650 C.E.
Although she isn’t religious today, pre-law advisor Anne Dutia said she was raised in a Zoroastrian household.
“It was the world’s first monotheistic religion,” Dutia said. ”The ideas of heaven and hell and the concepts of good and evil rooted from Zoroastrianism.”
It is now one of the smallest practiced religions in the world with an estimated 200,000 followers worldwide, according to the World Religion Database.
Among the small number of sources found at UTD, all agreed: There is no organized Zoroastrian community on campus, but a small and active community exists in the DFW area.
As a monotheistic faith, Zoroastrians believe in Ahura Mazda, meaning Lord of Wisdom, who created the world. Followers of the faith believe fire represents God’s light and wisdom.
Present-day believers are broadly split up into two groups: the Iranians and the Parsis. But, Zoroastrians are in their second diaspora with significant communities in North America, Europe and Australia.
Zoroastrians believe that the religion was revealed to Zoroaster by Ahura Mazda, and the prophet’s words were recorded in five songs known as the Gathas.
The complete Zoroastrian scripture is sometimes referred to as the Avesta, after the language they are written in.
Zoroastrians do not worship Zoroaster himself but they do follow his teachings.
It is said that, in his teachings, Zoroaster let the people hear him first and then choose their own path . This approach to religion was a new idea, said electrical engineering professor and ordained Zoroastrian priest Poras T. Balsara.
Other religions had prescribed a ritual or compensation to be performed for bad deeds. Some even used threats, but Zoroaster emphasized the path of good should be followed by a person’s own free will.
Shailaja Masarwala, an information technology and management graduate student, grew up in India with many Zoroastrian friends. From an outsiders view, it is a very peaceful and loving religion, she said.
Zoroastrians have many seasonal festivals where communal worship occurs. The biggest celebration is the NouRouz, or new day, which is the celebration of the New Year that occurs on March 21, the first day of spring. This is to celebrate the new life and the new plants.
Zoroastrians begin to pray at the age of seven when they are given a “sudreh,” a shirt, and a “kusti,” a cord, as part of their initiation into the religion.
In prayer, the kusti is wrapped around the sudreh three times to represent the three parts of the creed: good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Devout Zoroastrians pray this way several times a day.
The prayers are in an ancient language, Avesta, which even some of the lay priests do not understand, and the most devout pray five times a day, Dutia said.
A misconception about Zoroastrians is that they worship fire.
“Fire is to Zoroastrianism as the stone is to Islam and the cross is to Christianity,” Balsara said.
Another misconception is that Angra Mainyu, the entity of evil in Zoroastrianism, is a god, he said.
“He was not a fallen angel. He is like Ahura Mazda. He is uncreated,” Balsara said. “But, he is destined to be destroyed where Ahura Mazda is eternal.”
Unlike other religions, people cannot simply choose to be Zoroastrian. Traditionally, both parents must come from Zoroastrian descent, although mixed couples, where one parent is of Zoroastrian descent, are now being welcomed into the community.
Zoroastrians do not place a lot of emphasis on ritual worship, Balsara said.
“It is a reflective religion,” he said. “You are supposed to think about any action you are about to take — think about it, meditate about it, contemplate and then take action — and then any consequences that occur are your responsibility. The religion is therefore not prescriptive, there are no rules, and you are responsible for your own actions.”