Zoroastrianism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion and the original religion of the Iranian people before Islam. Its tenets (known as the Gathas) were written 4,000 years ago. But today, its adherents are scattered all over the world and always live in societies in which theirs is not the majority faith.
Is Zoroastrianism compatible with other religions and the modern world? Does Zoroastrianism add something unique and important to the modern world? Every Zoroastrian must think about the relevance of Zoroastrianism in a modern multifaith society.
This question was the topic of an invited lecture given by Dr. Farhang Mehr at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Potomac, MD. His talk was sponsored by the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, and by the U.S. Chapter of the World Zoroastrian Organization.
Dr. Mehr is most famous for rising through the ranks of the Iranian government under the late Shah, moving through the ministries of oil, tax, insurance and finance and eventually becoming Deputy Prime Minister. He managed this in spite of constitutional restrictions prohibiting non-Muslims from holding government positions.
His public and tireless crusade for equal rights for religious minorities in Iran makes him the leading Zoroastrian authority on this question. He has also been a powerful voice for reform within the Zoroastrian faith since his early 20’s when he established a young Zoroastrian’s association in opposition to the established Zoroastrian association in Tehran.
Today, he is a professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University and just two days before gave a lecture on the impact of religion on politics in the Middle East, at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Dr. Mehr began by emphasizing to the audience that by focusing on the relevance of Zoroastrianism, he is not slighting other faiths. He went to great length to insist that polytheist religions are not inferior to monotheist religions. He could not define religion, but believes it consists of two main components:
(1) The nature and origin of creation, and
(2) The best life and how to be happy and succeed.
The first aim he feels is of secondary importance, and the realm of science has taken over answering that question today. For example, at one time religions prescribed what we should eat, but today medical science serves in that role.
The beauty of the Gathas, the sole words of Zarathustra himself, is that they ignore the first aim to concentrate on the second by providing a universal philosophy that does not go into specific details, details that are filled in by use of the rational mind. Thus the Gathas remain timeless yet relevant to society as it evolves through history.
The Gathas insist that all people have complete freedom to choose between right and wrong. This freedom of choice principle lays the groundwork for democracy and promotes dialogue and social justice.
Zoroastrianism promotes human rights via respect for other religions. Indeed, the cylinder of the Zoroastrian king Cyrus the Great declares that he has freed the people of his empire and allows them to follow their own religions. This cylinder is the first declaration of universal human rights in history.
Dr. Mehr stated that the most important fundamental principle of Zoroastrianism is Asha, the search for truth and the best actions, as well as the consequences of those actions. We are not children of God, but friends and coworkers with God, and it is our duty to advance this world by actively seeking Asha. But the consequences of our actions are fixed, and when we die there is no mercy for any misdeed we have committed.
The audience considered this to be a harsh view, especially as it led to Dr. Mehr insisting that the Iraqi people must share some of the blame for their terrible situation because they have not opposed their cruel leader strongly enough.
I could not help but feel as if Dr. Mehr was speaking to the Iranian people as well, exhorting them to resist their government if they feel that it is tyrannical.
At the end, the youth interfaith panel, chaired by Dr. Siva Subramanian of the IFC, asked questions. Consisting of Jehan Panthaki (Zoroastrian), Megan Guenther (Christian), Ahmed Hussain (Islam) and Leslie Casciato (Bahai), they posed many interesting questions.
Most notable was Megan’s question about how interfaith dialogue requires forgiveness of the past transgressions of religions upon each other and does this contradict Dr. Mehr’s belief in the lack of mercy for any bad deeds?
He was energized by this question and affirmed his faith in his belief, without disrespecting any faith that disagrees with this. He did however admit that an honest repentance is important and precedes a reconciliation brought about by a dialogue between the different faiths that convinces each other that they have harmony of mind. We must forgive when circumstances have changed and there is true goodwill between faiths, but God cannot forgive past transgressions.
When I finally met Dr. Mehr at the end of the talk, I asked him a burning question: in his youth, how did he get the courage to establish a young Zoroastrian’s association in opposition to his elders? Young Zoroastrians today continue to oppose our elders, especially on social issues such as interfaith marriage and conversion, and I was hoping for specific thoughts and guidance.
His response was simply that he thought it was the right thing to do, so he did it.
At the time, I was dissatisfied with this. But now I think it is the only possible response, and it stems from how he has lived his life: you must do what is right because you reap what you sow, but always be guided by the principles of freedom of choice and respect for humanity.
These principles are common to all religions and above the specific precepts of any, thus they provide the common ground upon which dialogue and understanding may be fostered.