What does Freddie Mercury have in common with the founder of the Indian nuclear programme or Israel Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta? The answer is that all are or were adherents of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that probably exerted a deep influence on Judaism, Mithraism and Christianity. Yet far from belonging to the distant archaeological past, Zoroastrianism is winning new believers and establishing new and active communities all over the world.
The significance of today is that 26 March marks the birthdate of Zoroaster, the religion’s chief prophet, who occupies a theological position similar to that of Mohammed in Islam. Contrary to some beliefs and even some reference books, he is not its deity. That is Ahura Mazda, the god of light.
Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion and Mazda wages a constant war with Angra Mainyu, the evil spirit of darkness, violence and death. Zoroastrians are required to follow the path of goodness – “Asha” – which leads to happiness, or “Ushta”. Like Christians, Zoroastrians believe that the world will end with the final vanquishing of evil, when the earth will be flooded with molten metal.
There are three main obstacles to wider understanding of Zorastrianism. One is the prejudice that adherents are fire-worshippers, and thus irredeemably pagan. Zoroastrians do pray in front of fire, or more usually a source of light like a candle or lamp. The second is the name, better known in the form Zarathustra. This is how the logic runs: Zarathustra suggests Nietzsche, Nietzsche suggests Hitler. Or it suggests Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, for a time the favoured theme tune of the space programme and something of a blind alley in terms of understanding what Zoroastrianism is about. The final obstacle is that, unlike most other major world religions, Zoroastrians do not proselytise. It is assumed that one is born into a Zorastrian family, either in Persia or among the Parsis of India, and that one will marry within the community.
If the Prince of Wales is determined to become Defender of Faith (rather than “the Faith”) when/if he ascends the throne, it may be that he will find himself drawn closer to a religion that strongly reflects his own ethical concerns.
For the moment Zoroastrianism’s influence is still below the cultural horizon for most people. Popular figures such as Freddie Mercury and cricketer Farokh Engineer made no particular case of their beliefs; the novelist Rohinton Mistry and the Channel 4 editor and writer Farrukh Dhondy arguably slightly more so. But there can be no doubt that elements of Zoroastrian thinking pervaded the socialism of Britain’s first three Asian MPs, Dadabhai Naoroji (Finsbury,1892-95), Mancherjee Bhownagree (Bethnal Green, 1895-1905) and Shapurji Saklatvala (Battersea, 1922-29). Something worth considering in an election year.