Zoroastrianism (or Mazdaism) refers to the religion developed from the teachings of the Persian prophet Zarathushtra (c. tenth century B.C.E.), who is commonly known in the West as Zoroaster. Zoroastrians most commonly refer to themselves as Zartoshti ("Zoroastrians"), Mazdayasni ("Wisdom-Worshippers"), and Behdini ("Followers of the Good Religion"). In India, they are known as Parsis ("People from Pars," which refers to the Persian heritage of the group).
Due to its great antiquity, Zoroastrianism was tremendously influential on the history, culture, and art of Persia, as well as on the development of the Abrahamic religions. According to scholars, Zoroastrianism was the first religion to believe in angels, a day of judgment, a Satan figure, and an ongoing battle between forces of light and darkness in the cosmos. These ideas later influenced the theological development of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity and Islam).
The tendency of the Abrahamic traditions to use of light as a symbol of goodness may be partially derived from Zoroastrian rituals associated with reverence for fire and purity. Likewise, the concept of the Halo, still commonly associated with saints and holy figures in art today, first originated in Zoroastrianism. However, the Zoroastrians most explicitly recognized in the Western world are the Magi, whose visit to the infant Jesus is described in the Christian New Testament.
At one time, Zoroastrianism was the most powerful religion in the world; today it is on the decline, at least partially due to its insistence on intermarriage within its shrinking number of followers. Populations of Zoroastrians live in India, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.
Relatively little is known about the Prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster). According to internal and external histories, Zarathushtra lived in Persia sometime between the eighteenth and the sixth centuries B.C.E., with the consensus of scholars placing him roughly around 1000 B.C.E.
According to tradition, Zarathushtra was the son of Pourushaspa and Dugdhova, and was spiritually precocious since birth. At the age of six, he was placed under the tutelage of a wise teacher. When Zarathushtra turned 15, he felt he had gained sufficient spiritual understanding and discipline, and he voluntarily dedicated himself to religion. However, people who recognized his potential as a religious leader made many attempts on his life. At 20, Zarathushtra left his guardian's house for the solitude of a mountain cave, where he devoted himself to meditation and understanding, and attempted to craft a set of religious precepts that differed from the prevalent ritualistic polytheism that was common in Persia at the time. In the Gathas, a series of deeply personal hymns, Zarathushtra expressed discontent with Indo-Aryan polytheistic rituals.
After seven years in the cave, Zarathushtra concluded he had accomplished complete devotion to God (Ahura Mazda) and felt the time was ripe to teach the masses about his own understanding of God. At this point, the role of Zarathushtra as a prophet began. However, Zarathushtra's first attempt at reaching the masses was not successful, and his teachings were highly ridiculed. Eventually, even his family and servants distanced themselves from him, and it is said that evil powers plotted to silence him. By order of King Vishtaspa, he was eventually placed in a prison, although through his faith he was able to miraculously escape. After fleeing the prison, he cured the horse of King Vishtaspa, which convinced the monarch to convert to Zoroastrianism along with his wife and caused many in the kingdom to follow suit. The circumstances of Zoroaster's death are unknown for the original biographical texts have been lost.