Adventures in Humility

News, Views, and Chews on spiritual issues.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Zoroastrian Insights

I'm enjoying my book very much. I was curious to find out about Zoroastrianism because I had heard little bits and pieces about it from here and there, but was never properly introduced to clear and systemtic knowledge of the religion itself. This book doesn't provide that so my search will still continue, but it does provide some pretty interesting insights.

The general idea is this; Iran, formely Persia, has a very long and very rich history that abounds in culture, art, literature, drama and so on, and these pre-Islamic influences still exist in modern-day Iran despite the Islamisation of the country. This subject has such magnitude that it deserves to be the subject of a doctoral thesis instead of a blog, but I'll try to describe as best as I can.

A general understanding that is overtaking my current view on religion and spirituality is the influence of surrounding culture on religious evolution. This was the subject of many a discussion (and argument) on the erstwhile Gaudiya Discussions; although I could never understand or appreciate such points due to my faith and loyalty in remaining true to the orthodox principles, I do not feel intellectually honest if I dimiss the very possibility of cultural and timely influences on the reinterpretation and renewal of faith. These are the things that Jagat and Nitai used to talk about or insinuate, but I could never understand or appreciate. Perhaps as I grow in my own spiritual understandings I may have something to speak on this matter in the future. In any case, the principles hold true for pre-Islamic Persia which followed the Zoroastrian religion. Kriwaczek's book is a "personal odyssey" and his travels to research the influences of Zoroastrianism are very interesting to read. The basic premise is thus:

"Every country I had ever visisted in the area was overwhelmigly Muslim - in the case of Afghanistan and Iran, Islam was the official state religion even back in the sixties. Yet nobody could have helped noticing an undercurrent of something else - hints and indications that behind the sincere dedication to the Qur`an there lay a hidden stratum of belief, something understood but never mentioned and certainly not to be admitted to an outsider - the spirit of Zarathustra, still powerful after thirteen hundred years of Islam." (Prologue)

Fascinating, huh? The first chapter among other things dicusses a trip to a local Iranian market where souvenirs and general chintz have sun-symbols on the, which apparently appears to be a cultural icon. Asing the vendors what the solar representation stood for was useless, "It's just a sun." Seeing a similar solar insignia above the entrance of a well-known Islamic college - symmetrical tigers chasing deer with a pair of suns above each tiger - provoked a fascination of how such isignia exists in a country following a religion that abhors the representation of living things! Guides explained that the tigers were actually lions who represented Hazrat Ali (whom the Shias believe to be the true successor of Prophet Muhummad) aka the 'Lion of Allah'. The truth is that the sun is a symbol of Mithra who is viewed in Zoroastrianism as an intermediary between man and God. This is probably why solar symbols are present on other Iranian sovenir memorabilia too; Kriwaczek describes it as "yet another sign that Islam in the Iranian world is like a woman's plain chador worn over party finery, a cloak that covers, disguises, or incorporates much traditionally Iranian, pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian belief."

Fascinating stuff! Although I've read a bit further and uncovered even more fascinating stuff, I couldn't help wondering how this stands in the face of today's Iran. In the grand scheme of things, the reign of the Ayatollahs and their Islamic Revolution right down to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be seen in the light of history as "blips". Kriwaczek uncovers things that are true on many levels. Leopards do not change their spots so easily; several hundred (thousand?) years of Zoroastrianism cannot easily be done away with to follow a new religion called Islam, which is characterised as Muhummad's "desert faith". There are so many interesting elemets to this odyssey of Kriwaczek's that I cannot help but continue to read eagerly. I haven't described a pinch of the stuff I've read so far!


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