Zoroastrianism & the Environment by Shahin Bekhradnia


Zoroastrianism and the Environment

by Shahin Bekhradnia

 (This paper was first delivered at the 3750Z conference in Vancouver in June 2012)

Although it is likely that the majority of readers have some familiarity with the basic facts pertaining to Zoroastrianism, these have been included  for those who may not have been raised within the faith and it is hoped that this will not prove to be irksome for the specialist readers.

Exactly around the time when the Green movement began to be taken seriously in the UK 25 years ago and I became active in the Green Party, for which  a few years later I became a parliamentary candidate. I was thrilled to find the following notice published in the Independent newspaper published in London on 15 May 1990: ‘Four thousand years before the first Greens, the priest-prophet Zoroaster preached that humankind, as the seventh creation, must protect the other six and keep the earth fertile and unsullied.’

The dates surrounding Zoroaster’s (or Zarathustra’s or Zartosht’s  all of which I shall use interchangeably) life are contested but contemporary academic thinking, based on linguistic analysis of the oldest part of the religious texts (the Gathas which were embedded in the very centre of the major religious scriptures) suggests that he received his revelation from Ahura Mazda in the middle of the second millennium BC. Of course some have dated it to a little before this period but we are more or less agreed on the general era which corresponds to the time reasonably soon after the migrations into the Iranian plateau of one of the sub group of original Indo-Europeans perhaps from some location north, within the steppes of Russia.

Zoroaster’s origins are not clearly indicated anywhere and in the early years of Western academic tradition, it was suggested that he came from Azarbaijan although more credence is now being given to a birthplace in the Eastern section of Greater Iran, and perhaps as far east as the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan.

Zoroaster’s name was borrowed by  Nietsche, Strauss and others (principally in the nineteenth century) and used in their writings, reflecting a fascination with recently discovered Oriental philosophers,although they revealed little understanding of the principles taught by the Iranian prophet.

The population of the community is minute in relation to other world religions. Around the world there are probably no more than a mere 150,000 Zoroastrians, of whom about 68,000 live in India, about  12,000 in Iran, and the rest have dispersed around the globe (particularly since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when the Iranian population stood at around 35,000). The Parsee population has fallen rapidly from a peak of 125,000 a century ago, while the Iranian Zoroastrian population has grown from a mere 7,500 survivors at the end of the nineteenth century to around 50,0000 (mostly as a diaspora) in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. These figures  are based on demographic data I have collected from a range of sources.

Often described as the first of the great world religions, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic religion although those who have only a superficial understanding of it get  bogged down by the idea of dualism which became much more pronounced in the Sassanian era. Some have called Zoroastrianism a system of ethical dualism. Certainly the importance of its teachings on the subject of ritual right and wrong is known to many adherents of the Orthodox tradition, encapsulated in the Vendidad.

We derive our understanding of Zoroastrianism from the  Gathas, which are the preserved oral poetic verses ascribed to Zartosht himself. Although the translation of these verses is problematic, several scholars of international renown have worked to make sense of them, most respected among whom is Stanley Insler and to whose translations reference shall be made. In Yasna 44.3-5, questions are asked about the origins of sun,  stars,  moon, water, wind, plants and clouds, and the passage of time, thus revealing a fascination with the natural elements.and raising universal questions asked throughout the history of philosophy. More questions followed these, revealing Zartosht to be a deep and original thinker who found answers within his own internal conversation with the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda (see Y44.3).

Closely associated with the ethical dualism referred to above and the stress upon conscious choice to choose the righteous path known as asha, is the concept of independent free will and choice. According to the religion, we are all born with a conscience and we make a choice to follow either good or evil, each of which will bring its own consequences at death. In Zoroastrian tradition our souls cross the bridge of judgement (Pol e Chinvat) on the fourth day and those whose evil deeds outweigh their good deeds are condemned to an afterlife in an eternally unpleasant abode, while those with a credit of good deeds will pass over the bridge, to an abode of everlasting light or  song. This aspiration is reflected in the Tan Dorosti Avesta where a wish is expressed: sabok o khoram o shad asaneman begozaran. These eschatological ideas are of course also to be found in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but few realise that they owe their origin to Zoroastrian concepts.

The pursuit of asha (which has been eloquently explained by Insler in a recent lecture summarized in Issue 1, 2012 Hamazor magazine) may be rewarded with comforting prospects for the afterlife, and yet the main tenets of the religion stress the here and now, for Zoroastrianism is a pragmatic teaching concerned with an improvement in the quality of life on earth. Thus to pursue asha brings its own immediate rewards in the form of friends, love, food, security, health and harmony. The psychological benefit from an easy conscience at peace with itself is something to be desired and which can be achieved by all who strive towards it.

To understand what asha is, Zoroastrians are taught to contemplate or meditate upon nature, to observe its beauty, the order and regularity of the natural cycles, and the harmony and interdependence of its manifestations. Through such meditation one will arrive at an awareness of God’s presence and in a peaceful and balanced state of mind one’s thinking will be clear and the choices to be made will be apparent. Meditation does not necessarily have to be achieved through a state of inactivity; and indeed Zoroastrians are exhorted to work hard and exert themselves physically on the land since a healthy body will aid balanced thinking.

We are taught that asha is practised by maintaining moral purity of thought and word as well as through some of the deeds discussed above – hence the Zoroastrian motto: ‘good thoughts, good words and good deeds’. In practical terms the pursuit of asha translates into being ordered, disciplined and reliable, as well as telling the truth and being honest in all dealings and transactions with others. While this may appear to be an essential aspiration of all religions, it is interesting that non-Zoroastrian writers, from Herodotus to French and British travellers in Iran and India from the early sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, make specific mention of the high degree of probity and integrity they encountered among Zoroastrians and therefore it is implicit that it contrasted with the standards of non-Zoroastrians. It is of note that Chardin, Della Valle, Sykes and Curzon to mention but a few of such writers commented on the honesty of the Zoroastrian people they had dealings within Iran.

Asha, which means purity, righteousness or good order  may be pursued at many different levels. On a physical level, we may strive to be pure or clean in the surroundings of the house and home, in our clothing, and in our body. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate have to be kept pure and clean in the pursuit of asha. It is taught that if we act as responsible stewards of the natural elements, we will reap the rewards of plentiful food, absence of illness and pleasant surroundings. The neglect of the environment will amount to turning our back on the pursuit of asha, resulting in a capitulation to the forces of darkness and evil in contrast to light and goodness/virtue. Again the same European travelers mentioned a minute ago commented on  the cleanliness, and the trees and gardens of the Z districts.  Asha as a principle is encapsulated in the idea of purity, and through fire and light better than by any other symbols.

Fire not only serves as a reminder of our primal principle of  asha but it  further represents the inexplicable energy that life enshrines, so we reverence and contemplate fire.  Many people, while having vaguely heard of Zoroastrianism, associate it with fire-worship. In fact this respect for fire is akin to respect for the cross amongst Christians.  By contemplating fire, Zoroastrians are reminded of the creative energy force which they call Ahura Mazda or Wise Lord, whose creation is so bounteous and perfect. The fire which radiates light also represents that perfection or purity of being and consciousness towards which Zoroastrians are exhorted to strive.

In practical environmental terms, Zoroastrians plant a tree to celebrate the birth of a new family member and do not place the dead in the ground – this would be seen as polluting the nourishing earth: the ground brings forth plants which provide food to humans and animals so placing a corpse which results in putrefaction is not considered appropriate. Zoroastrians regard  it as wrong to wash in fresh running water, but instead draw the water off to perform ablutions and clothes washing. Their ability to harness water to irrigate the earth goes back to ancient times when the famous underground water channels, qanats, were constructed to avoid evaporation and contamination and to bring fresh water to settlements. The wedding liturgy – the andarz – specifically reminds newly weds that they carry a duty to maintain the purity of running water and to bring under cultivation any abandoned land, while if there is marsh land nearby they should drain it and make it salubrious.

Because of their understanding of the relationship of human kind with earth and water, Zoroastrians became renowned gardeners and farmers, the famous gardens of Cyrus & Darius at Parsargada being the best example of such skills in antiquity. In more recent times both the Safavid and Qajar kings in the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries respectively created new capitals first in Isfahan and then in Tehran. To provide gardens fit for a king, both dynasties employed Zoroastrian gardeners to create them. Our religion teaches through the insights of Zartosht which we can read in the Gathas, that we should respect and venerate the Wise Mind – Ahura Mazda – which created  the regularity of the seasons and the harmony of the elements, through which in turn the beauty to be found within the natural world was generated. It is therefore not a coincidence but  a reflection of Zoroastrian principles that there were renowned gardens in ancient Iran in which these aspects of Zoroastrian contemplation are brought together.  This quality was recognised  by Hafez, one of the most popular Iranian poets of a much later age: The tranquillity and calming aspect of a beautiful garden brings a spiritual uplift. The garden is a sacred space where an inner voice can be heard. They are places for sacred contemplation and spiritual nourishment, a place where serenity can be reached.   In a garden, renew your Zoroastrian faith. Yes, in the sanctuary of the magi they honour us, For the fire that never dies burns strong within our hearts.  (Hafez)

As we know from the Ashem Vohu prayers, the pursuit of Happiness (Oshta) is the legitmate goal of humans during their brief lifetime.  The delivery of pleasure to every one of our senses achieves a feeling of happiness and can be experienced in a typical Persian garden.  In an arid hot environment which is typical of the Iranian plateau, a walled enclosed area could be irrigated and cultivated, but only by expending a great deal of effort, time and ingenuity. The Avestan word for a walled enclosure was pairi daeza,  a word that was used by the 4th century BC Greek Xenophon whose mouthpiece Socrates described the gardens for which the Persians had an exceptional inclination.  Inside  this walled enclosure the delights of an earthly  paradise could be found: the garden fulfilled several roles; as a place of spiritual solace, as a meeting place for friends, and as a formal adjunct to the house or palace which it surrounded

Within a delineated or walled area, it is possible to create a space where all sorts of trees can be planted, popular amongst which are the evergreen cypresses and cedars which represent continuity of life.  Fruit trees are of significance too  as their produce represents immortality through reproduction and of course provides edible produce which can be dried and stored . The welcome shade of trees can reduce the intense desert heat from  direct sunlight. Skilled engineering and understanding of water principles allows water to be brought via the ancient qanat system to cascade and flow along channels , and wherever water flows, the air is cooled and the senses are relaxed. The tinkling sound  of flowing or falling water  is a soothing sensation, and where water combines with the fertile soil of the desert, fruits and flowers of every variety abound – Iranian fruits are particularly rich in flavour and quality and  amongst others the peach and the pomegranate are native. While fruits and a multitude of nuts can delight the tongue,  the scents and perfumes of deliberately cultivated flowers such as the hyacinth, the rose, the narcissus, the lilac and the lily, are intoxicating. The eye feasts on the indescribable beauty of these flowers growing in profusion, brought together from the far corners of the country where they grow in the wild.  This is truly a heaven on earth –  an earthly paradise, a Garden of Eden.  When we are happy we can be serene;, when we are serene, we can contemplate and think wisely.

Why else would the colour green be so precious to Zoroastrians except as a symbolic reminder that everything which we find in the representation of heaven on earth, the paradise that the garden creates for our sensual souls, depends on plant life – the photosynthesis plants undergo and made possible by the felicitous conjoining  of earth, water and sunlight.  However without the sun, which in Zoroastrian symbolism represents the creative energy of the universe,  the earth and the water cannot be successful as is pointed out in a Persian proverb (found quoted in Vaux le Vicompte chateau near Paris):

“Whoever creates a garden becomes an ally of Light; no garden having ever emerged from the shadows”

Xenophon a greek writer of the late 5th century BCE clearly had great respect for the Persians and he commented (in the Economics  & the Education of Cyrus)  on the prevalence of the gardens and parks in which the kings delighted,  (particularly for hunting since the vegetation was so intensely lush  that many species found refuge there) and in which they also personally worked..  Strabo, a geographer from the later Greek period straddling the 1st centuries BCE and CE,  mentioned that tree planting was a sacred duty and formed part of the education of boys, while Plutarch provided anecdotes to demonstrate the respect for trees that all Iranians showed in antiquity.  The archaeological excavations at Parsargad, the supposed location of Cyrus’ capital centre and tomb, suggest that there was a walled garden with water channels dividing the land into 4 courts or planted areas (the origin of the Chahar Bagh principle , which some believe to represent a later view of the world) and at the top of which was a pavilion for the king to enjoy his creation of earthly heaven.   Certainly a  king  ( and later other nobles) who could create a garden out of an infertile area, creating balance and order out of a harsh and dry environment  could command respect and claim authority and legitimacy.  Persepolis is likely to have had extensive gardens surrounding or stretching in front or behind its buildings and 4000 year old patterns on Iranian pottery may represent garden design.

During the Zoroastrian Sassanian period (2-7the century AD) the importance of water was such  that a cult of Anahita developed, and  some say that the traditional love of pools and fountains probably took root in the psyche of the people at this time and has remained there ever since.  Certainly the dynasty started around the temple at Istakhr, (a pool) and King Shahpur built a new city in the south west (Bishapur) with an elaborate complex of water courses.  European landscape gardeners like Le Notre who created Versailles or Capabilty Brown may well have traced their inspiration for watery landscapes to the Persian tradition

And since the religious principles were applied so extensively and permeated everyday life for so long during the Zoroastrian era of Persian culture (almost 2000 years), it is not surprising that despite the attempted Arabisation of the country’s culture which Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh is credited with stalling, many  Zoroastrian values were completely absorbed  into the very essence of Iranian culture.  The tradition of the Persian garden is one such example which transcended the Arab conquest and the design of the Persian garden with a pavilion and water features can be found not only in all of the Unesco heritage garden sites of Iran (and particularly in the beautiful Bagh e Eram in Shiraz and Chehel Sotun in Isfahan), but also in the Persian influenced gardens of the Moghuls in India, and even in the gardens that are attributed to the spread of Islam such as that of the Alhambra. in Spain.  .

The respect for trees is maintained in Iranian Zoroastrian communities by the delightful practice upon the birth of a child which is still observed by some when a fruit bearing tree is planted in honour of the new born.  Not only does the tree grow apace with the child but is beneficial by providing its productive harvest and will normally outlive the individual  and in addition it  provides oxygen.  Some Iranians will also plant a tree in memory of a deceased loved one as the tree will go on and outlive all  contemporaries and therefore their memory will live on through the tree. This tradition of planting to remember a deceased loved one was commented on by the first American convert to Zoroastrianism, Charles Poston, who was very involved with the First Nation people of Arizona, discovered the philosophy and practices of our religion  during his visit to India in 1870.

The concept of perfection to be found in a  Persian garden  is an aspiration transported into the Persian carpet  so that within every Persian home, a paradise  is found on the ground via the carpet. One finds flowers,  trees  and very often animals.which may be incorporated as a representation of hunting  Persian carpets which have a long history give us a good idea of what early gardens were like because these are stylized representations of the gardens. The borders suggest boundary walls and paths. The interior designs are usually comprised of four quarters of equal size, each being divided into six squares. They contain alternately flowerbeds, with flowers in square and circle patterns, and plane trees located at the inner corners of the four sections..

Zoroastrians have a tradition of horticulture, arboriculture, and agriculture – they have traditionally respected the environment and worked with it to produce adequate food, and  to create sanctuaries inside which to recover from the harshness of daily life. Still today in Iran around Yazd and Kerman the Zoroastrians keep walled bagh (gardens/orchards) into which water is diverted, fruit trees flourish  and abundant flowers and vegetables provide a haven contrasting with the harshness of the deserts just outside their walls.

The result of successful agricultural husbandry, which includes the care and protection of animals, is a surplus of food produce. As another dimension of asha, Zoroastrians are expected to share the benefit of their success and prosperity within the community. Hence great importance is attached to charitable acts which may take the form of communal feasts, or traditional gahambar based on the proceeds of the produce of specially dedicated lands,  and in more contemporary circumstances,   the foundation and endowments of schools, orphanages and hospitals and other beneficial deeds. So success in working in harmony with the environment benefits the whole community through charitable deeds.

The significance of the natural world pervades all aspects of Zoroastrian culture, so that all rituals and practices reflect this. For example each of the twelve months of the year carries associations with one of God’s creations such as the earth, the water, the sun, the wind, the animals, and the plants and each of the thirty days within each month also carry the names of one aspect of God’s creation. When the name of the month and the name of the day coincide, it is considered a holy day and feasting and prayers take place. On four days each month there are meat fasting days, nabor (lit: no cutting), which are particularly associated with animals. In the past some people would, throughout the month of Bahman, specifically associated with animals, give their animals greater rest and pampering, and others would do the same on the monthly day name of the same Bahman, a contraction of Vohu Manah.

Nowruz, the Iranian national New Year on the first day of spring is celebrated by all people of Zoroastrian origin, in Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and in Iran. Significantly it is the only Zoroastrian festival to survive Islamisation and the traditional ceremonial table of haft s(h)in on which seven of God’s nourishing creations are displayed is still faithfully maintained in every household throughout the Persian speaking world.

The festival of water, Tirgan, is a joyous celebration of water in the height of summer, while the fire festival, Sadeh, in the middle of winter, is a thanksgiving for the discovery of fire and for the approaching new year at spring. The festival of Mehr or Mithra in autumn (Mehrgan)  consists of communal eating and praise-giving, while the six annual festivals known as gahambar are five day-long occasions when feasts are held in memory of deceased people who have endowed land and its produce to benefit the community. The whole community is expected to partake of such feasts.

At these gahambar, at weddings, initiations and at the death anniversary memorial (sal), a fire urn burns fragrances such as sandalwood, incense and myrrh. A cloth is set out, decked with evergreens, a collection of dried fruits and nuts, fresh green sprouting grain or lentils and opened fruits. Often the cloth will be green, the cover of the book of prayers, the Avesta, will be green. Green is the colour favoured alongside red for the traditional female costumes and certainly for bridal costumes; emeralds as a dowry have been popular for some time. Green, the symbol of fertility and abundance, is thus represented through many dimensions of cultural practice.

The importance of abundance and fertility is reflected in a section within the Avesta (Vendidad 3:32 & 3:4): ‘agriculture is one of the noblest of all employments because he who sows grain, sows righteousness’, and ‘one of the most joyous spots on earth is the place where one of the faithful sows grain and grass and fruit bearing trees, or where he waters ground that is too dry and dries ground that is too wet’ (quoted in Williams Jackson 1906: 373-4).

The practice and teachings of Zoroaster place the respect for and stewardship of the environment in a central position. It has thus been culturally absorbed and is deeply embedded in all aspects of life. The ritual practices, the prayers and the festivals which members of the Zoroastrian community share, all reflect and give thanks for the creation of the natural elements on which life depends. This ideology has been passed down through parental practice and has been reinforced by community values and formal education. It has indeed been  as much a religion that is practised as it is one that is professed. Now that the majority of the Zoroastrian community is located outside Iran, and since the world has woken up to the primacy of environmental  protection, it seems to me that Zoroastrians could really make their mark outside the homeland by practising  and flagging up the environmental wisdoms  that were taught in the religion.  Why not revive those practices that are practical and possible such as tree planting at birth and death, of water conservation, of preservation and respect for natural resources, of recycling and of campaigning to clean up the air and water. In this way Zoroastrians could be truly such, practising what is preached visibly by pursuing the path of asha.