Faithful few embrace Zoroastrian ideals


November 7, 2007

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Culture | New York

CHICAGO — When a group of young Zoroastrian people gathered around a bonfire in a Chicago suburb to pray for their religion’s survival, they sang a modern hymn of their adopted homeland with a sentiment at the heart of their ancient faith.

“Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above,” their voices rang out.

Thousands of years before Irving Berlin composed “God Bless America,” Zoroastrians were praying for divine guidance and symbolizing their hope for heavenly enlightenment with fire.

Once, the Zoroastrian community numbered in the millions, from Greece through the Middle East to India. Now there are fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians — known in India and Pakistan as Parsis — and about 10,000 in the United States.

Jamshed Irani of Albany recalled that around 1961 a member of his family came from their home in Bombay, India, to work at St. Peter’s Hospital as a physician. Over the years, relatives emigrated, including Irani himself in 1987. He said the local Zoroastrian community consists of about 20 family members, including 10 children born in this country, living in Albany County. They belong to the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York, whose temple in Pomona, Rockland County, has about 1,000 members from across the New York metropolitan area.

Zoroastrianism is a faith with a straightforward ethic: “Think good thoughts, say good words, do good deeds.”

Such was the teaching of the prophet Zarathustra. Exactly when and where Zarathustra lived is uncertain, and modern scholarly opinion varies, dating him to between 1500 and 600 B.C. His birthplace is thought to be on the borderlands of Persia. The faith he founded was already old when rabbinical Judaism was young.

The hymns Zarathustra composed and subsequent elaborations on his teaching answer a theological question perplexing to many faiths: If God is good, why does evil exist?

The Zoroastrians’ answer is that there is an evil divinity as well as a good one at work in the universe. Scholars of religion characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism, contrasting it with the monotheism of some other faiths.

When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylonia in the 6th century B.C., he found the Jews living there in exile. Not only did he allow them to return to the Holy Land, he provided funds to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

The Jews also brought back to their ancient homeland concepts of Persian Zoroastrianism. The idea of a judgment day, heaven as the reward for those who live a life of righteousness, an underworld for those who don’t, angels and evil spirits — all were incorporated into Judaic thinking and passed on to Judaism’s daughter religions, Christianity and Islam.

Mithraism, a variant form of Zoroastrianism, was popular among the Romans until the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity in the 4th century.

With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, the Zoroastrians’ fortunes turned. After the Arab conquest of Persia, a group fled to India, hoping to escape persecution and forced conversion to Islam.

Given refuge by a Hindu ruler, the Zoroastrians adopted a policy of not proselytizing or recognizing mixed marriages.

Now, that rule against conversion poses an unresolved problem for Zoroastrianism. Conservative Zoroastrians want to keep ancient practices in force; liberals think that, to survive, the faith has to change with the times.