Small in number but big in spirit,
Zoroastrians lay claim as the original greens
December 27, 2007
IT IS one of the world's oldest major religions, and certainly the smallest, but according to its followers its impeccable "green" credentials make it the ideal religion for the 21st century.
About 300 young Zoroastrians — followers of the prophet Spitama Zarathushtra, who died about 1200BC — gather in Ballarat tomorrow for the fourth world youth congress, titled Back to the Future.
Zarathushtra's call to look after the environment 3200 years ago makes him the world's first ecologically conscious prophet, Zoroastrians say.
According to Bombay-based teacher Khojeste Mistree, Zoroastrians believe they are on earth to maximise general happiness and minimise pain by spreading harmony in the environment.
"This is what modern man calls ecology. We are life-affirming and are custodians of creation. For example, we celebrate the birthday of the waters (one of the religion's seven "creations")," Mr Mistree said in Melbourne yesterday.
"We are careful with water because it is the great purifier of the world. We worship wisdom, which is again very modern in a knowledge-based society."
Young delegates are coming from India, Iran, England, Pakistan, Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, the United States, New Zealand and around Australia. According to organiser Shirin Mistry, the week-long congress brings the Zoroastrian diaspora together to learn about their faith and community, have fun and see a slice of Australia.
Mrs Mistry said the congress was in Melbourne simply because her son, Shiraz, was asked to organise it at the last congress in Pune, India, in 2003. It has been partly funded by wealthy donors.
Today there are only 125,000 Zoroastrians worldwide, with about 3000 in Australia. Mr Mistree admits there is something of an ulterior motive in bringing together young people from such a small community.
"They become boyfriends and girlfriends, and we hope they will marry. We have to keep tabs on everyone: three people living in Oslo, seven in Mexico, two in Greenland."
Zoroastrianism dominated the area around Iran and Iraq for nearly 1000 years before it was displaced by Muslim invaders. Some followers fled to India, now its second stronghold, about AD936, and are known as Parsis.
Cyrus the Great, king of the Medes and Persians who overthrew the Babylonian empire in 539BC, was a Zoroastrian. He freed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem, and his edict on human rights, rediscovered in 1879, helped shape the UN declaration nearly 2500 years later. The religion is thought to have influenced Judaism and, through it, Christianity and Islam.
It had a purely oral tradition until about AD500, when the sacred poetry was committed to writing, and the religion was threatened when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and massacred Zoroastrian priests.
"The priests are living textbooks," Mrs Mistry said. "We still call Alexander the accursed, not the great. If a child won't go to sleep, the mother will say 'Alexander is coming to get you'."
Zoroastrianism was known in the ancient world partly for how it disposed of the dead. Believing that fire and earth are sacred and would be contaminated by corpses, followers placed the bodies on circular towers open to the sky, exposing them to the weather and carrion birds.