In this article we will look at the dualism presented by the Zoroastrian religion and its primary texts.
Zoroastrianism is the religion founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia. It is not clear when Zoroaster lived historically: in one priestly tradition, the date of Zoroaster’s activity is said to be “258 years before Alexander.” But this is open to interpretation: either Zoroaster was active around 589 BCE if “before Alexander” means before Alexander’s conquest of Persia or, alternatively, it could have been in 570 BCE if it means before the Seleucid era. There have also been strong reasons forwarded for thinking the sixth century is much too late for the Prophet’s activity. Zoroastrianism is also a religion in which we find a great dualism between two opposing and conflicting forces in the visible and the invisible world.
What we do know is that Zoroastrianism was adopted as the state religion of the Achaemenid empire. This was likely by the time of Darius (r. 521-486 BCE) and it regained the status of an imperial religion under the Arsacid and Sasanian emperors. It was only after the Sasanians defeat to the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century CE that Zoroastrianism diminished and Islam became the dominant religion in Persia. Nonetheless, some Zoroastrians still exist today in small communities in Persia and India.
It is easier to examine the dualism of Zoroastrianism because we learn about it from sources, namely the Avesta that provides information on the central tenets to the religion. In these there is a conflict between two opposing forces, namely the forces of cosmic order and those of chaos and destruction. This conflict dominates the visible world just as it dominates the invisible and spiritual domains. This battle will end with the defeat of evil and the emergence of a paradise on Earth.
These texts depict these forces in various ways on different planes. In particular, antagonistic forces are depicted in two opposing groups of supernatural beings: the ahuras and the daeuuas. Foremost among the former is the god Ahura Mazda who is the creator of the world. On a second plane, the two groups are represented by the two mainiiu, or “spirits”. The Avestan mainiiu is probably more appropriately called “intention, impulse” that the Gathas contrast with the angra-mainiiu (“destructive impulse”). It is taught that Ahura Mazda created the world through the “beneficial impulse” and that human beings must choose between which of the two impulses that will follow. There is also a passage (Yasna 33, 3) that refers to the two impulses as twins. As twins, the impulses are members of a pair of cosmic opposites and are similar in the sense of one being an impulse for creation and the other an impulse for destruction. On the third plane there is the conflict between cosmic order and justice and deceit. The one who follows the destructive impulse is referred to as “deceitful”; the one who follows the beneficial impulse is “the upholder of cosmic order, righteous.” The deceitful are taught to undermine the orderly functioning of the universe.
In the Vendidad of the Avesta, this dualistic battle occurs between the supreme god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Ahriman. Ahura Mazda creates a pantheon of righteous spiritual beings, the Beneficial Immortals. Equally, Ahriman creates destructive spiritual beings. This dualism also occurs in material creation: Ahura Mazda creates useful animals like dogs, but Ahriman creates harmful animals like reptiles; Ahura Mazda creates countries of the Earth, but Ahriman curses each one with a specific ailment like long winters, swarms of locusts, and moral defects in its inhabitants.
The dualism posited by the Zoroastrian texts seek to provide coherent answers to questions around the problem of evil: Why is there evil in the world? Indeed this has been a perennial question that religions try to answer. The classical Zoroastrian worldview certainly does not reject evil; to the contrary, it presents evil and chaos as real ontological forces operating within the universe and in the spiritual realm. Good and evil are so real that humans are to partake in this cosmic battle by selecting sides. One can choose to side with the good god Ahura Mazda; alternatively, one can side with the evil god Ahriman. But there is salvatory hope permeating the Zoroastrian worldview because it teaches that at the end Ahura Mazda will win the cosmic battle against evil. Ahura Mazda will destroy Ahriman and the forces of evil, and create a paradise on Earth in which the departed souls will enjoy eternal bliss.
Ambalu, Shumalit., et al. 2013. The Religions Book. London: DK.
Blois, François de. 2000. “Dualism in Iranian and Christian Traditions.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series 10(1):1-19.