Zoroastrianism has a long history, and its presence in India dates back over a millennium. The followers of Zoroastrianism are known as Zoroastrians or Parsis. Here is a brief overview of the history of Zoroastrianism in India.
Zoroastrianism originated in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) in the 6th or 7th century BCE, founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra).
Around the 8th century CE, due to various reasons such as the Arab-Muslim conquest of Persia and the ensuing persecution of non-Muslims, a group of Zoroastrians migrated to the Indian subcontinent.
It is arguably the world’s first monotheistic faith, it’s one of the oldest religions still in existence. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of three Persian dynasties.
Zoroastrianism now has an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 worshipers worldwide and is practiced today as a minority religion in parts of Iran and India.
Origin of Zoroastrianism
Zoroaster is traditionally believed to have lived around the 6th or 7th century BCE, though the dating is not entirely precise. His life is shrouded in some mystery, and there are debates among scholars about the exact historical period in which he lived.
According to tradition, Zoroaster received revelations from the divine entity Ahura Mazda, who is considered the supreme god in Zoroastrianism.
Some scholars believe he was a contemporary of Cyrus the Great, a king of the Persian Empire in the sixth century BCE, though most linguistic and archaeological evidence points to an earlier date sometime between 1500 and 1200 BCE.
Zoroaster’s teachings, hymns, and prayers were compiled into a collection known as the Gathas, which are part of the larger holy scripture called the Avesta. The Avesta consists of hymns, rituals, and philosophical discussions that form the foundation of Zoroastrian beliefs.
Central to Zoroastrianism is the belief in Ahura Mazda as the supreme and benevolent deity.
- Zoroastrianism also introduces the concept of dualism, with Ahura Mazda representing the force of good and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) as the force of evil. The struggle between these two forces is a key aspect of Zoroastrian cosmology.
Spread of Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism shaped one of the ancient world’s largest empires mighty Persian Empire. It was the state religion of three major Persian dynasties.
- Zoroastrianism became the official religion of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty (6th to 4th centuries BCE) through the efforts of rulers like Cyrus the Great and Darius I.
- The religion continued to flourish under subsequent Persian empires, including the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties.
The Achaemenid Persian Empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great, was a devoted Zoroastrian.
- According to most accounts, Cyrus was a liberal king who permitted his subjects who were not Persians to follow their faiths.
- He did not force Zoroastrianism on the inhabitants of Persia’s acquired lands; instead, he governed according to the Zoroastrian code of asha (truth and justice).
The Silk Road, a network of trade routes that extended from China to the Middle East and into Europe, is credited for spreading Zoroastrian ideas throughout Asia.
The Jewish population of Babylonia, where inhabitants from the Kingdom of Judea had been held captive for decades, may have been the first to adopt Zoroastrian ideas, such as the concept of a single deity, heaven, hell, and a day of judgment.
- Cyrus freed the Babylonian Jews upon his conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE. Numerous of them went back to Jerusalem, where their progeny contributed to the composition of the Hebrew Bible.
Zoroastrianism would rule over two more Persian dynasties, the Parthian and Sassanian Empires, throughout the ensuing millennia, until the Muslim invasion of Persia in the seventh century CE.
Some academics contend that Zoroastrian principles, influenced by the Persian Empire, influenced the development of the main Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Decline and Islamization
With the Arab-Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century CE, Zoroastrianism began to decline in its place of origin. Many Zoroastrians faced persecution, and the religion lost its status as the state religion.
- The Muslim conquest of Persia between 633 and 651 CE led to the fall of the Sassanian Persian Empire and the decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran.
- The Arab invaders charged Zoroastrians living in Persia taxes for retaining their religious practices and implemented laws to make life difficult for them. Over time, most Iranian Zoroastrians converted to Islam.
However, a significant number of Zoroastrians sought refuge in regions like Gujarat in western India, where they continued to practice their faith.
Survival in India
The migration of Zoroastrians to India played a crucial role in the survival and continuation of Zoroastrianism. The community that settled in India became known as the Parsis.
- According to Parsi tradition, a group of Iranian Zoroastrians emigrated from Persia to escape religious persecution by the Muslim majority after the Arab conquest.
- Experts speculate that the group sailed across the Arabian Sea and landed in Gujarat, a state in western India, sometime between 785 and 936.
The majority of Zoroastrians who migrated to India settled in the western state of Gujarat. They arrived on the shores of Gujarat in the 8th and 10th centuries, seeking refuge from religious persecution.
- The town of Sanjan is traditionally believed to be the first settlement of Zoroastrians in India.
Over the centuries, Zoroastrians in India, known as Parsis, integrated into Indian society while maintaining their distinct identity. They contributed significantly to trade, industry, and philanthropy in India.
- Zoroastrians worship in fire temples, and several such temples were constructed in India. The fire in these temples is considered sacred and represents the divine presence. The most famous fire temple in India is the Iranshah Atash Behram in Udvada, Gujarat.
Parsis have made notable contributions to various fields in India, including business, education, science, and the arts. Prominent Parsi figures like Jamsetji Tata, the founder of the Tata Group, and Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian to be elected to the British Parliament, Bhikaiji Cama played significant roles in shaping India’s development.
Zoroastrian Symbols and beliefs
The Faravahar is an ancient symbol of the Zoroastrian faith. It depicts a bearded man with one hand reaching forward. He stands above a pair of wings that are outstretched from a circle representing eternity.
Fire is another important symbol of Zoroastrianism, as it represents light, and warmth and has purifying powers. Some Zoroastrians also recognize the evergreen cypress tree as a symbol of eternal life.
Fire along with water are seen as symbols of purity in Zoroastrian religion.
Zoroastrian places of worship are sometimes called fire temples. Each fire temple contains an altar with an eternal flame that burns continuously and is never extinguished.
- According to legend, three ancient Zoroastrian fire temples, known as the great fires, were said to have come directly from the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, at the beginning of time.
Zoroastrians gave their dead “sky burials.” They built circular, flat-topped towers called dakhmas, or towers of silence. Their corpses were exposed to the elements and local vultures until the bones were picked clean and bleached. Then they were collected and placed in lime pits called ossuaries.
- Dakhmas have been illegal in Iran since the 1970s. Many Zoroastrians today bury their dead beneath concrete slabs, though some Parsi in India still practice sky burials. A dakhma remains in operation near Mumbai, India, for example.
Despite their contributions, the Parsi community in India has faced challenges, including a declining population. Factors such as low birth rates, inter-community marriages, and emigration have contributed to a decrease in the Parsi population.
Efforts have been made within the community to address the declining population, including initiatives to encourage marriage and family planning. Additionally, there are ongoing endeavors to preserve Zoroastrian heritage, traditions, and religious practices.
Zoroastrianism in India continues to be a vibrant community with a rich cultural and historical legacy. While the population may be small, the Parsis have left an indelible mark on the social, economic, and cultural landscape of India.
-Article by Swathi Satish