Influence of Zarathushtra in the World

Influence of Zarathushtra in the World [i]

When, a long time ago, I was pursuing my Iranian studies at the universities of Rome and Vienna, working hard to understand or to translate in German the Gathas of the Avesta and the Pahlavi writings, I would never have dreamed that an invitation of the University of Teheran would permit me, one day, to speak, on Iranian soil, of a great man from your past, Zarathushtra (1), and of his influence on other cultures. [ii]

Five years ago, your country commemorated the 2500th anniversary of the foundation of Iran by Cyrus the Achaemenid.  The attention of the entire world was thus rightly drawn to your great past, to an empire whose frontiers were once formed by India, Caucasus, the Greek Islands, the Arabian deserts and the mouth of the Danube.

At its peak, it was an empire administered according to modern principles and endowed with a centralized postal service.  The subordinate people (minorities) could conserve their cultural characteristics and develop themselves freely.

The first encounter of Iran with the Jewish religion was precisely during the time of Cyrus, when the Jewish captives in Babylon were authorized, by his personal order, to return to their homeland.  The Palestinian Jews were subject to the Persians for two centuries (539-311 B.C.).

It is the tolerance of the Achaemenids which enabled the Jewish priest Esdras to represent Jewish interests at the court of Artaxerxes.

Bearing witness to this tolerance are the ancient Christian communities of your country, some of whose documents date back to the Arsacid dynasty, and the Iranian Christian synod, who, at Ctesiphon, in the second century of the Sassanid dynasty, confessed the Credo de Nicee, which is the ancient profession of faith of the Catholic Church.  Finally, the Catholic and other Christian communities existing today in Iran are living proof of this tolerance perpetuated through the ages.

Relations between Iran and the Popes during the time of Shah Abbas the Great are incidentally the object of a historic study of great importance (2).

Perhaps I should also mention that a good number of Catholics have contributed eminently to research in the field of Iranian and Zarathushti studies: among others the Frenchman Anquetil Du Perron since the 18th century, Windishmann,  Casartelli, G. Messina, the Dominican friar J.P. de Menasce, and the Englishman R. C. Zaehner.

Western echo to Iranian religious thought.
All through its history, Iran has fascinated the European and Anglo-Saxon mind.  I would like to limit my lecture to the religious aspects of this history, which I have specially studied for many years and which are connected to the name of Zartosht (Zarathushtra in Avesta, Zoroastre in Greek).

I regret not being able to discuss, in the framework of this theme, the Zarathushti influence on Iranian thought before and during the Islamic period; if I could, I would mention Ferdowsi (dead around 1020), whose Shahnameh, one of the greatest productions of the literary world, described according to tradition the legendary heroes of the pre-Islamic period (3).

For an Austrian, living in the sphere of German language and culture, it would be tempting also to describe our interest in the Sufi influences which run through Persian poetry.  The influence of Hafiz (dead around 1390) on Goethe, von Platen and Ruckert, is well known aspect of the intellectual links woven between Iran and German literature (4).  All those themes would be appropriate, not only to increase the mutual comprehension between Europe and Iran, but to put in perspective Iran’s past and the creative impetus of other nations.  I wish however, to confine myself to the pre-Islamic period, to follow the trail of Zarathushti influences which, as shown by much research and publications, have spread to the European and Anglo-Saxon world.

Iranian studies in Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries have had many motives and origins.  One of the causes was the spread of Iranian religious beliefs, which very quickly reached ancient bordering lands such as Armenia and Iraq.

Today, it is assumed that Zarathushtra’s ideas spread from Asia Minor to Greece, and deeply influenced not only Plato but also the Gnostics.  The case of the Mandaens is similar.

Considering the geographic extent of the Zarathushti tradition and knowledge, the orientalists concentrated on exploring the Avesta, Iranian dialects and, in our time, especially of Pahlavi.

The extent and intensity of Iranian studies in Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries are shown by the big dictionary of ancient Iran produced at the beginning of the century by Bartholomae, by the wealth of specialized literature, by various periodicals which discuss in English, French and German, philological problems and the interpretation of the Gathas, by the classical editions of historically important Iranian texts, and by studies putting these texts in relationship with Sanskrit research.

One must add the great importance given to the religious and intellectual evolution of Iran by historians of the religion, particularly in our century.

The big question was to know if, and to what extent, the Zarathushti religious concepts had influenced Christianity by way of Judaism.  In the first half of the twentieth century, the Iranian influence on the western cultures was emphasized, and several scholars spoke of a very great dependence of Islam and Christianity on Zarathushti ideas.  A German, E. Kornemann, said: “Whoever wishes to understand Jesus and Mohammed ought to start with religious universe of Zoroastre.  In the history of religion, Iran plays a much greater role than is imagined today.”

Iran and the Persians have fulfilled an historic mission on the political and religious plane; this mission, as also the cultural mission of the Greeks, has been fundamental in building European man and the family of European nations with its ideas based on government by our Godly religion (5).

The celebrated Swedish iranologue, G. Widengren came to similar conclusions (6).  According to him the spiritual influence of Iran has not only influenced Judaism and Christianity, but also Islam: “When one considers the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – he wrote – one has the very clear impression that, particularly since the Achaemenids, the Iranian religion has not ceased to exercise a decisive influence on the religious life of the Orient”(7).  For his part, the Dane A. Christensen had stressed the dependence of Judaism on Iranian thought: “The contacts with the Iranian world have notably influenced the Jewish religion.”

With dualism, the concept of demons opposed to the sovereignty of God, Iranian eschatology, concepts of the last judgment, of hell etc. penetrated Judaism.

The messianic belief also is strongly modeled on Zarathushti ideas.  In assuming the Jewish concept of the world, Christianity received these derivations of the Zarathushti system (8).  Although precise modern studies may have shown that such a degree of dependence of Christian Holy Scriptures on Zarathushti thought cannot be proved, these few quotations show the interest of European and American scholars in the creative intelligence of ancient Iran and the perennial fascination of the latter.

The Riddle of Zarathushtra
In the above examples, Zarathushtra is naturally considered the center and founder of the religion and of Iranian concepts.  The attraction of Zarathushtra is due in part to the enigma which surrounds this man; his teaching and his view of the world seem, in fact, to owe little to the indo-European tradition. In this respect, actual Iranian research concentrates on three problems:

First, what did Zarathushtra already find in the Indo-Aryan tradition, the religion of his childhood, and what part was added or revised by his own religious genius.  His personality has no parallel in the Indo-Iranian tradition.  Whence the second problem: knowing to what point the later development (the Mazdaism of the Sasanid state religion) was faithful to the original doctrine.  (What should attach to the question of Zurvanism).  Finally it remains to be seen if we can have confidence in the sources available to us, to make us re-assert Zarathushti ideas.  These sources are the Avesta with the Gathas, the collection of Pahlavi works (which for the most part date from the ninth century to the present), and the accounts of Greek authors.  In yet other terms: what is the original contribution of Zarathushtra in what is ascribed to him?  What comes from his disciples and his successors?  What is the original teaching of Zarathushtra?

Naturally, these are very difficult questions, which always demand a very thorough scientific analysis.  Besides the first two problems, the discussion of which requires long preliminary techniques, I would like to briefly discuss the third, to know what constitutes the very doctrine of Zarathushtra.

In our time, one generally admits that the Gathas, a restricted but very ancient portion of the Avesta, are the work of Zarathushtra himself.  The Gathas are hymns or songs.  Notwithstanding their small size compared to the rest of the Avesta, they form part of the most important documents which can throw light on the original thought of Zarathushtra.

But we are confronted here with new complications, as the translation and comprehension of the Gathas present one of the most difficult problems of all oriental philology.  The celebrated Swedish iranologue Widengren admits: “We are far from being able to translate the Gathas with a real certitude” (9).  A comparison of some of the most recent translations confirms that (10): they differ so much that one can hardly believe their basic text could be identical.  That is confirmed in iranology.

But the difficulty and obscurity of certain problems serve to attract the best minds.  The difficulties which the translation and correct interpretation of the Gathas present impede our understanding of Zarathushtra’s personality, but incidentally the mystery which surrounds his person and his work stimulates the ambition of the researchers.

In his little book Zoroastre, politician or sorcerer? (11), W. Henning has shown that the interpretations by Herzfeld and Nyberg of the Zoroastrian religion (that is their interpretations of the Gathas) not only differ on essential points, but also refute each other.

The effort to clarify the remaining obscurities will continue however in the future to keep alive the interest in Zarathushtra and his religion, an interest which has continued for almost two centuries since Anquetil du Perron introduced the Avesta in Europe and began to pioneer his research.

The difficulties are hardly less for the later sources of the Gathas, and particularly the Pahlavi sources.  In his book The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrainism, R.C.Zachner has shown how much Pahlavi material is yet to be explored for a better understanding of Zoroastrainism.

The Zarathushti Doctrine
The Gathas tell us that there is a supreme god, Ahura Mazda, “the Wise Lord”.  He is the creator of the Heavens and the Earth, of the material and spiritual world; he is the source of light and darkness; he puts order in nature; he is the ruling center of all.  In vain would one look for polytheistic traits such as are found in the connection to Vedas of India.  Ahura Mazda has no partner, nor ties to subordinate gods, such as are seen in myths.  He is surrounded by the Amesha Spentas, the six or seven benevolent immortals of whom he is the father or creator.

The Good Mind, good thought and truth, salvation and immortality are qualities belonging to Ahura Mazda and also ought to be acquired by his followers.

Monotheism, manifest at first, is limited however by Ahriman, the adversary of the Wise Lord.  Ahriman is the source of evil.  But in the end, the Wise Lord will vanquish Ahriman and his followers, and will establish the final triumph of justice.  To consider Mazdaism as involved in dualism would then be false.  In one of his most recent works, Ugo Bianchi describes this state of things by the original term “dualistic monotheism”.

According to the Zarathushti concept,[iii] the world is divided between the truth and the lie.  The truth or justice (asha) created by the Wise Lord, is symbolized by fire: hence the central importance given to the fire altar by the sect.  Like the other Amesha Spentas, truth has a double function.  On the one hand, it is the expression of the will of the Wise Lord, an attribute of divine action: in this sense Ahura Mazda is the father of Asha.  On the other, humanity must accept the divine order of truth (or justice) in submitting to the latter.

In the Gathas, Zarathushtra continuously exhorts men to become adherents of the divine truth (ashavan). That is how one arrives face to face with the Wise Lord: “Having learnt to recognize just thought, when shall I see you as justice, and attain the abode of the all-powerful Wise Lord?” (12)

Opposed, there is falsehood and its terrestrial power.  It is an emanation of Ahriman and in his domain plays the same role as truth in that of the Wise Lord.  This dualism characterizes the entire structure of Mazdaen teaching, of Zarathushti thought.  Man must choose between the two worlds and thus choose between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.  One does not find in India or in any other neighboring culture, such a forceful accent on the struggle which governs the world of the mind as well as the body.

Man is free, and should freely choose between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.  This applies not only to man, but for all other spiritual beings; those also are good or bad according to their free choice.  And since man is free, he is also responsible for his final destiny.  The good actions of the just (ashavan) will deserve an eternal reward i.e. salvation and immortality.  But if a man chooses the lie, he becomes an evil-doer, condemned equally by his own conscience and by the judgment of the wise Lord, and should expect the worst state of existence, that Christianity would call “hell”.

The division of humanity on earth in two hostile camps is another consequence of free choice.  Men belong to two warring factions.

The ideal type of man who sides with the Wise Lord, is the settled shepherd or peasant who is busy with cattle and lives in a stable social order.  The followers of the lie (drugvan) are the nomadic bandits, enemies of agriculture and cattle breeding, and who get intoxicated on haoma (13).

Another element of Mazdaism is eschatological thought included in the Gathas.  Almost each Gathic stanza mentions the hereafter which awaits man.  Each action, word and thought is viewed in its connection to a future life, to which earthly existence is very naturally tied: the good actions desired by the Wise Lord, are rewarded in the world to come, and the wicked actions punished. This theme seems to have been at the center of the Zarathushti message.

After death, each man’s soul (Deana) crosses the Separator’s bridge (Chinvat), that is considered with fear and trembling.  The Pahlavi books indicate that this is particularly true of the soul of liars, for whom the bridge towards the hereafter becomes a sort of judgment lane.  The soul of the liar (drugvan) is lead to the house of darkness, the abode of Ahriman, to exist there in the worst possible state.  Other sources place the seat of judgment on or after the bridge.  Later versions of Zarathushti religion, tell of a resurrection of the dead, and this could be founded on certain indications already contained in the Gathas.  Eschatologically, the resurrection opens the ultimate drama, to know not only the final and permanent triumph of the Wise Lord and the corresponding destruction of the followers of Ahriman, but also the transfiguration and reorganization of the world, and also the end of dualism and complete establishment of the rule of Ahura Mazda.

Is the Bible indebted to Iran?
This quick summary permits strange resemblances to be seen between Zarathushti religion and Christianity, which raises the question of possible historic connections between the two religions.

On this question, and in order to explain the similarities, different responses have indeed been given, none of which accept the possibility of a simple coincidence.

During the first centuries of our era, at the time of the Church Fathers, we already find diverse mentions of the teachings of Zarathushtra, especially his concept of God.

St. Justin, among others, reports several facts concerning the Zarathushti religion.  Because of Mazdaen parallels to the Christian doctrine, Zarathushtra was considered as a witness of the Gospel among the heathens.  J Duschesne-Guillemin (14) makes a good inventory of the different authors who are interested in the founder of the Persian religion since the beginning of Christianity.  Among them, an Oxford scholar named Hyde, around 1700, collected all knowledge about Zarathushtra in his De velere religione Persarum.  Hyde affirms that Zarathushtra was the teacher of Pythagoras, had several ideas borrowed by the Jewish priests, and had foretold the coming of Christ.  But the question that interests him the most is this: “cur Deus Persas prae aliis gentibus dignatus est favore tantae religionis?” that is to say: “why did God judge the Persians more worthy than other nations to receive the favor of such a religion?”   He replies that the Persians are the only ones who, in their dealings with the Jews and since the beginning, have conserved their knowledge of the true God.  The disciples of Zarathushtra were monotheists, and this would explain the striking resemblance of their religion to Christianity.

It is interesting also that Hyde mentions Zurvan.  Other authors thought that Zarathushtra had derived his ideas from Elijah, Esdras, Daniel (15); others, in order to explain the diversity of opinions ascribed to Zarathushtra, conjectured that there could have been at least two men of that name.  Voltaire accepted the ideas of his time about Zarathushtra.  He wished to show that Moses had not been the sole prophet, and that one could find the truth of traditions exterior to Christianity.  He finally made this wise remark: “They speak a lot of Zoroastre, and they will speak of him again.” (16)

Since the end of the 19th century, that is since the study of comparative history of religions began, the current has turned around.  It is held now that Zarathushtra could not have drawn his ideas from some original revelation of the prophets of the Old Testament, but on the contrary Christianity had assimilated certain elements of Zarathushti ideas, through the Old Testament.  Schools of religious history, particularly in Germany, have developed this thesis, and tried to prove point by point that Christianity derives from Iran.

In this regard, I have no intention to discuss the Anglo-Saxons T.K.Cheyne and L.H.Mills, whose theses have not been favorably accepted.

The well-known German historian Eduard Meyer is more representative of the hypotheses of the Old Testament’s dependence on Iran, which were current during the twenties in Europe.  In the second volume of his great work on the origins and beginning of Christianity, Meyer attempts to explain the religion of the Old Testament by an analysis in terms of history of religions.

He considers as established that the new religious concepts whose origin is not explainable starting from an established religious thought, must have been received from a foreign religion; hence his reasoning, as below.  The experiences of the Babylonian captivity and the contacts (part known, part assumed) with the disciples of Zarathushtra led the Jews to deepen their personal ethics.  They began to consider the power of evil and the undeniable persecution of the innocents as incompatible with the idea of God as a just judge.   This would present a problem which could not be solved in the context of the Jewish tradition and which in turn would push the Jews of the Captivity to search for a solution and at the same time would mature their thinking.

The response to the problem could only be based in a doctrine where good and evil are face to face as independent and separate powers.  Such a belief had not appeared in the previous biblical books.  Since then, writes the historian, “the religion of Zoroastre had opened the road to exercise an important influence on Judaism, which gave it a historic importance of worldwide dimensions.” (17)

Expected retribution is carried over from this life to a life after death; the judgment of God is no longer carried out on entire nations but on individuals, and Jewish prophetic eschatology is replaced by Zoroastrian style eschatology. (18)

These few examples suffice to show that Iran has, by the religion of Zarathushtra, influenced different cultures of the world.  By dint of this religion, the history of proto-historic and Achaemenid Iran has exercised a triple fascination.  First, the person of Zarathushtra and his ideas spread across the world; next, the still flourishing Zarathushti communities of Iran and India (the Parsis), whose roots go deep into the Zarathushti inheritance with its customs and its ethics (19); finally, Iranology which, has furnished an abundance of themes to the European schools of religious history, for interpretation of the Bible,.  To be sure we are inclined now to treat historical connections between the Christian Bible and the writings of Zarathushtra with more prudence than at the beginning of comparative religious history.  Nevertheless it remains certain that Zarathushti influence is widely understood in space and time, and that the ideas of Zarathushtra have made important contributions to shape European thought.

One sees thereby confirmation that the history of the world is essentially fashioned by men of faith and by the force of religious ideas.

[Translated by J.R.Udvadia (of Lansing, Michigan) into English from a French translation of the original by G. Monnol, o.p.]


(1) “Zartosht” : abbreviated form of the Persian name Zarathushtra
(Note by translator

(2) A Chronicle of the Cormelites in Persia and the Papal Mission of the XVIIth centuries; London 1939

(3) Two Germans, Rückert et Hansen, have made a profound study of this great poet in their work Das iranische Königsbuch, paru en ¹955

(4) Another important result of our research on the mystic poetry of Iran has been the translation of Pand Nāmé de Farîd al-Din Attār (mort en 1230) by  G.H.F. Nesschnan (Pendnâmeh, Das Buch des Guten Rates ; Kœnigsberg, 1871)

(5) Weltgeschichte des Mittelmeer-Raumes, vol I (München, 1948), pp. 58 et 61.

(6) Stand und Aufgaben der iranischen Religionsgeschichte, dans Numen,(Leide,1954). Pp. 16-83; 2(1955), pp. 47-134.

(7) Numen, 2 (1955), p. 131

(8) Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, 1933, III, 1,3, p, 306

(9). Op. cit., dans Numen, 2 (1955), p. 58

(10) For example those of  E.E. Herzfeld (Zoroaster and his World; Princeton, 1947).

 H.S Nyberg (Die Religionen des Alten Iran; Leipzig, 1938),H. Hūmbach (die Gathas des Zardothustra; Heidelberg, 1959), J. Duchesne-Guillemin (Zoroastre. Etude critique avec une traduction commentée des Gâthâs; Paris, 1948),R.C. Zaehner (The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism; London, 1961

(11) Zoroastre, Politician or Witch-doctor? Oxford, 1951

 (12) Approximation of a Gatha ( Yasna, 28, 5).

(13)  Haoma : a plant, the fermented juice of which seemed to produce ritual intoxication asscoiated with the blood sacrifice of an ox in the Iranian culture prior to Zarathushtra. Homa akin to soma (both plant and God) of the Indian Vedas and symbolizes immortality.

(14) The Western Response to Zoroaster. Oxford, 1958

(15) H. Prideaux, History of the Jews, 5 vol., 1715-1718.

(16) Cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin. Op. cit., p 15

(17) Ed. Meyer, Ursprung und Anfänge des Christentums, II: “Die Entwicklung des Judentums und Jesus von Nazareth“ (Cotta, 1923), p. 51

(18) Ibid., p.114. A. von Gall follows these conjectures in his book Basileia tu theu, Heidelberg, 1926 (cf. p. 159), where he writes that reading Persain scriptures was easy for the Jews who knew Amenian, the language in which these books were written.

(19) Miss Boyce Smith, who teaches at the “School of Oriental and African Studies” in London, has spent a winter in the Zarathushti community of Kermân (S.E. Iran) and has extracted  interesting artilces  from Eastern publications.

[i] Translated by Jamshed R. Udvadia (of Lansing, Michigan) in March 2004 into English from a French translation of the original by G. Monnol, o.p.

[ii] Based on a lecture given at the University of Tehran, Iran in 1968.

[iii] Vohuman Editorial Note: There is no concept of cosmic duality according to Zarathushtra’s world-view.  Zarathushtra points to ethical duality each person faces.  Cosmic duality is of Zurvanite origin and is contrary to Zarathushtra’s thought. Unfortunately some authors have failed to differentiate between various schools of thoughts such as the Zurvanite prevalent in Ancient Iran, and have considered all of that to be a part of Zoroastrianism.

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