Overview Essay

­­Zoroastrianism and Ecology

Benedikt Peschl

1 An ancient tradition and contemporary interpretive needs

The roots of Zoroastrianism date back well into the 2nd millennium BCE. Beginning in the Bronze age in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism went through several distinct phases of development. In antiquity, it was the dominant religion in several successive empires based on Iranian soil (Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian). With the advent of Islam, conditions changed as Zoroastrianism gradually became a minority religion in Iran and emigrant Zoroastrians began to establish settlements along the coast of Gujarat in Western India. Today, small Zoroastrian communities continue to exist in Iran, while a larger number of Zoroastrians are based in India (Mumbai and Gujarat) and Pakistan (Karachi). In India and Pakistan, Zoroastrians, especially those tracing their ancestry back to the medieval immigration, are commonly referred to as Parsis. In addition, the 20th century has seen a growing network of diaspora communities in Britain, Canada, the US, Australia and other parts of the world.

Throughout its history, the Zoroastrian tradition has maintained a set of core ideas that can be traced back to the early sources and continue to be upheld by the members of Zoroastrian communities today. Among the principal tenets of their religion as formulated by modern Zoroastrians are the virtue of righteousness, the freedom of choice between Good and Evil, individual responsibility, philanthropy and service to humanity. However, due to radically changing historical, geographical and socio-economic environments, Zoroastrian thinkers have time and again also been challenged to reformulate their positions with regard to the contemporary issues of their respective times and places. One may argue that ours is again such a time in which Zoroastrianism, like other religious traditions throughout the world, is being challenged to take a stand on the pressing issues of the present age. One of them, the ecological crisis and humans’ general attitude towards the natural environment, will be discussed in this essay. We will examine the rationale underlying the frequently expressed view that Zarathustra, the prophet of Zoroastrianism, was “the world’s first proponent of ecology.” 


2 The Zoroastrian Dēn (Religious Tradition) as the source of all knowledge

For Zoroastrian laypersons and theologians alike, the central point of orientation has always been the Dēn, that is, the entirety of the written and oral transmissions that have developed around the ancient corpus of the Avesta. The assumption that the Dēn in theory provides the required spiritual and practical guidance on any kind of matter is amply attested in the work of Zoroastrian theologians of the late Sasanian and early Islamic period (ca. 6th—11th century). As shown by Vevaina (2012), these exegetes regarded the Avesta and particularly its oldest part, the Gāthās, as an “omnisignificant” source, one that is open to various interpretive approaches including those concerned with contemporary issues. The tradition notably ascribes the Gāthās to Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, himself. In the same vein, Skjærvø (2012)refers to the Dēn as an “ocean” to which Sasanian and medieval exegetes freely took recourse when developing their thought with regard to contemporary concerns. Today, too, any specifically Zoroastrian way of argumentation must in one way or another proceed from the Dēn. From this perspective, arguing for an environmentalist attitude on the basis of Zoroastrianism amounts to the task of establishing links between the modern ecological discourse and traditional ideas that find their expression in the vast “ocean” of the Dēn. The ancient sources naturally do not address ecological issues in the modern sense directly — these issues simply did not exist at that time. But by adopting a similar approach as the one set out by the pre-modern Zoroastrian exegetes, we may extract additional layers of meaning from the Dēn, thus making the ancient texts resonate with the pressing concerns of our time.

3 Zoroastrian cosmology and humankind’s place in creation

The obvious starting point for addressing issues of ecology in a Zoroastrian framework lies in the cosmic role that is assigned to humankind according to the Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology. In ancient sources such as the Bundahišn, a Middle Persian (Pahlavi) text discussing the origins and structure of the world, cosmogony is conceptualized in mythological terms. According to the Bundahišn, the world was created in two stages. God (Avestan Ahura Mazdā, Middle Persian Ohrmazd) first created the world in a spiritual state (mēnōy), which, however, was subsequently attacked by the Evil Spirit (Avestan Angra Mainyu, Middle Persian Ahriman). Since Ohrmazd knew that the ensuing battle could not be won in the spiritual state, Ohrmazd tricked the Evil Spirit into a treaty that would ultimately secure Ohrmazd’s victory: Ohrmazd would additionally create the material world (gētīy), which, for a limited period of time, would serve as a battlefield between the two antagonists. Unlike Ahriman, Ohrmazd, being all-knowing, was aware that this transfer of the action from the spiritual to the material plane would eventually lead to Ahriman’s defeat. After the newly created material world had existed for 3000 years in motionless peace, Ahriman (who had at first been stunned by Ohrmazd) finally began his assault. The result of this assault is the state of mixture (gumēzišn) between good and evil that we all currently live in.


4 Humans’ role as caretakers and promoters of the cosmos

The whole purpose of the material world thus lies in its function as a tool for bringing about the ultimate defeat of Ahriman. In this framework, humans are given the special role of self-determined actors and decisive contributors to the large-scale cosmic drama. It is humanity’s designated task to help transforming the material world from its current state of mixture into an eventual state of perfection in which good will again be completely separated from evil (wizārišn ‘separation’, frašegird ‘renovation’). This restoration of the material world as it should be is expected to be completed in the eschatological future as a result of the constant efforts taking place now. Based on this eschatological view of world history, Zoroastrianism characteristically emphasizes the importance of the human contribution to the thriving of the material world rather than focussing on a world beyond.

The role as helpers of Ahura Mazdā in his struggle with the Evil Spirit is not assigned to humans by default, however. It must be consciously chosen. In doing so, humans align their choices with those of the other core constituents of God’s creation as well as with those of legendary past proponents of the religion. This is implied by an ecological reading of a well-known segment of the Avestan Yasna liturgy:

“By the same choice that the waters, the plants, the generous cow, Ahura Mazdā — who created the cow and righteous man —, Zarathustra, Kavi Vīštāspa, Frašaoštra, Jāmāspa and each of ‘those who are bound to prosper, effecting order and sustaining order’: by that choice and doctrine I am a worshiper of Mazdā.” (Yasna 12.7)

An emphatic assessment of man’s role in the world as one of both power and responsibility is found in the Middle Persian Third Book of the Dēnkard, a 9th century compendium of philosophical essays on a variety of subjects:

“Man has been created ruling over himself and (he has been created) with authority over the other creatures of the material world. And he has received power in the form of his capacity to choose, with the purpose that, by his power to act according to choice and by his rule over what belongs to him, he is able to do what pertains to thought, speech and action while governing what is not characterised by thought, speech and action. Having been saved himself, he saves from the Lie [Middle Persian Druj, the principle of evil and chaos] those over which he has authority.” (Dēnkard 3.385, after Menasce 1973: 385; Josephson 2012: 547)

The text then illustrates this abstract statement by pointing to the example of a good shepherd who makes use of a dog (whose abilities are in need of responsible guidance through man) in order to protect his sheep (over which man has authority and which depend on his care).

The role of human beings as champions of the good cosmic forces also plays into the symbolism of the Avestan inner liturgies (that is, those celebrated in a fire temple). Their best known variant is called the Yasna. According to one interpretive approach, the Yasna may be seen as a symbolic “ritual re-creation of the world” (Skjærvø 2011: 34). The climax of the liturgy is marked by a libation of Hōm, a consecrated ritual drink, into the water of the well that is attached to each fire temple (Āb Zōhr, “Libation to the Waters”). According to the interpretation of Dastur Kotwal, the renowned Zoroastrian high priest in Mumbai, the libation is equal to “connecting the offering with all the waters of the world” (Kotwal & Boyd 1991: 23). And further: “This reminds us once again that the entire liturgy enacts on a microcosmic scale a cosmic drama, which, through purification, consecrated offerings and received blessings, helps the living and the dead, in the present, past and future, and moves the world toward the end-times when all is ‘made wonderful’ [thus an Avestan expression]”. In the Bundahišn, Zarathustra’s offering of Hōm to the waters (the proto-type of all Āb Zōhrs) is said to constitute a universal cleansing of the rivers from defilements (Bundahišn 11C).

However, besides stressing humans’ potential to act as promoters of the good forces in creation, the Dēn also acknowledges their power to inflict damage on the world. In a famous hymn, the poet of the Old Avestan Gāthās declares:

“Between these two forces [i.e., the life-giving spirit of Ahura Mazdā and the Evil Spirit], the Daēvas [i.e., evil gods] in particular did not choose correctly when illusion advanced towards them while they were consulting. Because they choose worst thinking, they run together towards the fury through which the chiefs of the mortals ruin existence.” (Ahunavaitī Gāthā, Y 30.6)

In the original context, “fury through which the chiefs of the mortals ruin existence” may have specifically referred to certain violent ritual practices to which the Gāthā poet opposed (cf. Ahmadi 2015: 1). But, proceeding from one of the assumptions contained in the passage, namely that there is a destructive potential intrinsic to mankind, the original scope of the passage may be opened up to an ecological reading: the Daēvas, interpreted as personifications of human destructivity, gather wherever powerful leaders of mankind wreak environmental damage in the context of the modern industrial world.


5 The principal goodness of the natural world

In its essence, the material world is considered to be exclusively Ahura Mazdā’s (God’s) creation. This is succinctly expressed by his characterization in the Old Avestan Yasna Haptaŋhāiti:

“In this way we now worship the Wise Lord, who has created the cow and truth, (who) has created the waters and the good plants, (who) has created light and the earth and all that is good.” (Yasna 37.1, translation: Hintze 2007)

God’s ongoing active involvement with the world is directly felt in the beneficent, nourishing aspects of nature:

“Ohrmazd protects his own creation with mercifulness, care, and gloriousness. His mercifulness is nourishing his creatures; his care is generosity for his creatures.” (Bundahišn 26.1-2, translation: Agostini & Thrope 2020)

In its pure, original state (which in the future it will at some point again attain) the material world is thus regarded as wholly good. Its superficial imperfection and the destructive character of some of its components are entirely due to the perverting influence of the Evil Spirit during the current state of mixture between good and evil. In the Škand Gumānīg Wizār, a 9th century Zoroastrian apologetic work, the position of the material world in relation to Evil is briefly defined in the following words: “The existence of the Opponent is prior to the establishing of creation, and his arrival to creation is posterior to the establishing of creation.” (Škand Gumānīg Wizār 9.19-20). In other words: there was a time when creation was entirely free from the corruption of the Evil Spirit.

The goodness and beauty of the material world is a recurring motive in traditional Zoroastrian sources. In the Avestan liturgies, the core constituents of the material world carry the title of yazata- ‘venerable being’ and appear as prominent addressees of worship and recipients of sacrifice:

“We worship the sky, we worship the earth that provides good gifts.” (Yasna 16.6)

“We worship all the waters, we worship all the plants.” (Yasna 16.9)

“We worship the entire existing world of the Righteous, both the spiritual (part of the world) and the material one.” (Yasna 35.1)

In the past, outsiders have repeatedly described the impression made on them by the Zoroastrian use of natural spaces as places of worship. Carnegie (1884: 281 f.), in a somewhat romanticizing fashion, spoke of the Parsis’ use of the cosmos as a “cathedral”. His account is closely paralleled by that of another British traveller (Pratt 1915: 335), who provides a vivid description of the Parsis’ communal gatherings at the beaches of Bombay.

Contemporary Zoroastrians emphasize that the respectful attitude towards all elements of creation, far from being confined to priestly ritual expressions, forms an important part of their daily life. In the words of Parsi scholar Shernaz Cama (2019: 67), “the Zoroastrian tenet of Asha or harmony celebrates the sacred nature of all creation including Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Plant, Animal and Man. The tangible and intangible environmental traditions of the Zoroastrians strive to inculcate a sense of responsibility towards all aspects of nature. This concern and reverence through rituals and oral traditions have become, across millennia, an integral part of Zoroastrian daily life and practice.”

This attitude is also expressed by a tradition practiced among the Parsis in India: when seeing, for example, a tree, a body of water, mountains, or cattle, it is considered beneficial to recite a corresponding formula of veneration (namāz). In Iran, as pointed out by Dastur Mehraban Firouzgary, the current Zoroastrian high priest of Yazd, the same sentiments find their deepest expression in the nature symbolism of the seasonal and other annual festivals. Most importantly perhaps, this applies to the water symbolism surrounding the festival of Tirgān, which celebrated at the height of the summer heat in honour of the rain-bringing star Sirius (Rose 2015a: 384). The continued celebration of Tirgān is a feature of Iranian as compared to Indian Zoroastrianism. More generally speaking, in the words of Mary Boyce (1997: 245), the Zoroastrian faith “makes cleanliness a part of godliness” such that Zoroastrians “abhor pollution of earth or water, and maintain the strictest cleanliness in their persons and homes.”


6 Ritual purity and ecological purity

A dominant feature of ancient and medieval Zoroastrianism as represented in the traditional sources is a strong focus on the concepts of ritual purity and pollution. According to some scholars, the distinctive idea that the elements (water, fire, earth, metal) must at all cost be kept pure is, in the context of ancient Zoroastrianism, linked mainly to this ritual definition of purity and pollution. Especially in view of the function of Zoroastrian purification rituals, it has been argued that, though overtly directed at the cleansing of the material world, these in fact rather aim to produce a “symbolic religious state of virtue and purity and not merely to achieve physical purity, though this may be an actual result of the rites” (Choksy 1986: 184). Similarly, Foltz & Saadi-nejad (2008)state that “while the tradition does indeed enjoin Zoroastrians to respect and protect many aspects of nature, pollution is seen in ritual terms, not ecological ones.” Indeed, even if one does not subscribe to an exclusive version of the ritualistic interpretation put forth by Choksy, it is evident that ancient concepts of purity and pollution are grounded in a world-view vastly different from that underlying contemporary ecological debates. However, in the vein of the generalizing interpretive approach that was outlined at the beginning of this essay, one may nevertheless establish a link between both types of purity by way of analogy.

As is the case with the concept of purity, ancient and modern ideas of pollution are likewise built on different premises. A pervasive topic in the Avesta and in Pahlavi literature is a grave concern regarding any sort of pollution that could afflict the elements through contact with dead matter. As Foltz & Saadi-nejad (2008)point out, this abhorrence of dead matter is hardly reconcilable with an ecological view in the modern scientific sense: dead matter is, after all, instrumental in the natural cycle of organic growth and decay and functions as the very source of new life. However, it again requires just a slight twist to the overall conceptual framework if one wishes to re-interpret the Zoroastrian abhorrence of pollution in environmentalist terms.

Proceeding from the idea that the elements are sacred and need to be kept clean, the vastly altered environmental conditions that have been created by humanity must naturally lead to an extension or  transformation of traditional views on purity and pollution. Whereas, for instance, dead matter and excrement may have been the worst imaginable source of water pollution in ancient times, the potential sources of water pollution in the modern world may be looked at as equally representative of the Evil Spirit’s destructive impact on the world.


7 The Aməša Spəntas “Life-giving Immortals”

Among the various subordinate divine beings that surround the supreme deity Ahura Mazdā, a special place is attributed to the six beings who, together with Ahura Mazdā, are collectively referred to as the Aməša Spəntas “Life-giving Immortals”. Having been created “from his own light” (thus said in the Bundahišn), they acted as aids in Ahura Mazdā’s creative activities and continue to watch over those parts of creation over which they preside. I give them here both with their Avestan and Middle Persian (Pahlavi) names:

Vohu Manah (Wahman) “Good Thinking” — cattle, (beneficent) animals

Aša Vahišta (Ašawahišt) “Best Order” — fire

Xšaθra Vairya (Šahrewar) “Desirable Dominion” — metals

Spənta Ārmaiti (Spandarmad) “Life-giving Right-mindedness” — earth

Haurvatāt (Hordād) “Wholeness” — water

Amərətāt (Amurdād) “Absence of Death” — plants

Complementing the areas of responsibility of the other six, Ahura Mazdā functions as the protector of mankind, the seventh core constituent of his creation. The role of the Aməša Spəntas is clearly expressed in the Young Avestan Zamyād Yašt (Yašt 19), where they are referred to as the “creators and shapers, carpenters and overseers, protectors and preservers of these creations of Ahura Mazdā” (Yašt 19.18).

Any harm done to one of the “elements” is regarded as equal to harming the respective divine guardian presiding over that element. This close association between the elements and the corresponding Aməša Spəntas is repeatedly expressed in the Bundahišn (26.18-19, 85, 88, 109 — translation by Agostini & Thrope 2020):

“Of all the deities, Wahman is closest to the creator. In the material creation, cattle and white garments belong to him. If someone comforts or harms them, then Wahman will also be comforted or harmed.”

“Her [Spandarmad’s] generosity means that all creatures live because of her.”

“If someone comforts or harms the earth, then Spandarmad is also comforted or harmed.”

“If someone comforts or harms water, then Hordād is also comforted or harmed.”

A caring attitude towards the elements is considered to be not only a value in itself, but acknowledged to result eventually also in advantages for humans. The Pahlavi treatise Šāyest nē Šāyest (“It is proper, it is improper”) points out the benefits that humans may draw from pleasing the Aməša Spəntas (Middle Persian Amahraspands):

“Whoever teaches care for all these seven creations does well and pleases the Amahraspands. Then his soul will never arrive at kinship with Ahriman [the Evil Spirit]. When he has cared for the creations, the care of these Amahraspands is to his benefit, and he must teach this to all mankind in the material world.” (Šāyest nē Šāyest 15.6, translated after Kotwal 1969)


8 Animals

A deeply respectful attitude towards the animal world finds expression in the veneration of the Aməša Spənta Vohu Manah (Middle Persian Wahman, Modern Persian Bahman). As a sign of this, Parsis refrain from eating meat either on each 2nd day of the month (which is dedicated to Bahman) or during the entire 11th month (likewise dedicated to Bahman) or at least on the 2nd day of the 11th month, when the day Bahman and the month Bahman coincide (Kreyenbroek 2001: 24).

The kind treatment of animals, particularly those living with or serving humankind, is frequently stipulated in the texts. The Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, a Middle Persian compendium of material gathered from older layers of the Dēn, records an anecdote illustrating Zarathustra’s kind-hearted attitude towards animals:

“About his [i.e., Zarathustra’s] compassion not only towards mankind but also towards the other creatures, this, too, is revealed: that he once saw a bitch who had given birth to seven puppies and had not obtained any food for three days. She advanced her mouth toward whatever she saw and was, as it were, stunned. Zarathustra took measures to quickly bring about bread, but when he brought it to her, she had already died.” (Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram 17)

One aspect of the traditional Zoroastrian view of the animal world may be considered somewhat problematic from a modern ecological perspective and should not remain unmentioned here. As a result of the cosmological ideas outlined above, pre-modern Zoroastrian sources strongly encourage a hostile attitude against certain detrimental species of animals and plants, including flies, snakes, worms and scorpions, but also ants, lizards, locusts, tortoises, frogs and others (see Moazami 2005for more details). All of these were considered results of Ahriman’s influence on Ohrmazd’s creation and their killing was therefore regarded as a religiously meritorious act.

This is obviously at odds with contemporary ecological theories, according to which natural systems should be seen as self-contained and worth preserving as a whole, including those elements which, from a human perspective, may seem detrimental (Foltz 2010). However, it is interesting to observe how the traditional attitude towards noxious creatures, in itself a logical consequence of the Zoroastrian cosmogonic myth, has been widely reinterpreted in course of the last century. For example, in an early–20th century Parsi catechism (Modi 1911: 29 f.), we are provided with a considerably softened view on how to treat harmful animals:

“Question — In the creation round about us, who draws our attention next to our fellow-men?

Answer — All animals and living creatures. We should treat all animals with kindness.

Question — What about noxious creatures or harmful animals?

Answer — As for the animals or beasts of prey which harass men and harmless beasts of burden, such a state of existence should be produced for them as would not permit of their doing harm.”

Boyce (1977: 263 f.)in her description of Zoroastrian rural life near Yazd (Iran) in the 1960s records a similarly softened attitude at least towards those Ahrimanic animals that do not pose an immediate threat to humans.


9 Water

Among the natural elements, water (personified as the goddess Anāhitā in the Avesta) perhaps holds the central, most symbolically expressive position in Zoroastrianism. The great care given to the adequate treatment of the waters is manifest in myth, ritual and daily religious practice alike. According to a legend preserved in the Pahlavi books (Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram, 21.1), Zarathustra is said to have encountered the Aməša Spənta Vohu Manah (Wahman) at a river bank. As a result of this encounter, Zarathustra became the initiator of the Zoroastrian religion.

An important ritual act in Zoroastrianism is the Āb Zohr “Libation to the Waters”. Both its performance as part of the greater priestly ceremonies (such as the Yasna) and its independent celebration, typically performed by laywomen (Rose 2015b: 279), function as means of strengthening the vitalizing powers of the waters. In the litanies of worship that dominate large portions of the Yasna, the waters are given particularly rich sets of attributes:

“We worship the tasty and sap-providing waters, the lordly ones who move swiftly by the Lord’s skill. (We worship) you, who are easy to cross, smoothly flowing and with good places for bathing, (you who are) a gift for both existences.” (Yasna 38.3, translation: Hintze 2007)

“We call upon you as the waters, (we call upon) you as dairy cows, (we call upon) you as mother-cows, O prize cows, who care for the destitute, provide drink for everyone, O best, most beautiful ones! Enjoying far-reaching achievements because of your generosity, O good ones, I want to facilitate your pleasant distributions, O living mothers!” (Yasna 38.5, translation after Hintze 2007)

Finding ways to keep the waters clean from all sorts of pollution — especially from the polluting effects of dead matter (ultimately an impossible task) — is a matter of great concern for the Pahlavi authors (Boyce 1992). But the cleansing and ultimately self-cleansing power of the waters by way of the natural water cycle is also hinted at (Vīdēvdād 21, Bundahišn 11C).

10 Earth and the responsible use of its resources

Zoroastrianism does not encourage humans to withdraw into passive contemplation, leaving the world, as it were, to itself. Rather, the Avesta depicts as ideal a responsible engagement in the cultivation of nature, particularly in the sense that land that lies barren should be made fertile. The Vīdēvdād (“Law against the Demons”), an Avestan collection of purity rules framed in a grand vision of world history, identifies as “most happy” those places where “one sows most barley, grass and food-bearing plants” and where “one waters ground that is dry or drains ground that is wet” (Vīdēvdād 3.4).

The encouragement to engage with agriculture is embedded in the context of the large-scale opposition between the ordering forces of good and the destructive forces of evil. The Third Book of the Dēnkard contrasts those who “make the material world grow” with those whose lifestyle consists in “destroying creatures” (Dēnkard 3.27, cf. Cantera 2015: 325 f.). Historically, this juxtaposition has its roots in competitive models of life-subsistence that seem to have clashed in archaic Iranian society (farming vs. nomadism combined with cattle-raiding). But the same idea may also be further developed along the lines of modern environmentalist thinking, encouraging a responsible, sustainable rather than an exploitive use of the natural resources.

The most poignant expression of the universal endeavour to keep the earth clean is found in the traditional Zoroastrian method of disposing of dead bodies. According to Zoroastrian practice as described in the Avesta and still maintained in India and Pakistan today, the bodies of the deceased must on no account be disposed of in ways that would pollute the earth, the waters or fire. Hence, the bodies are laid out on dry stone on elevated structures called dakhme (funerary towers or “Towers of Silence”), where vultures and other carrion birds reintroduce them into the cycle of nature. The ecological aspects of this method have often been pointed out. For example, Ervad Ramyar Karanjia, head of the Dadar Athornan Institute (Zoroastrian priestly school) in Mumbai, calls the dakhmes “an economical as well as ecological method. It does not use any resource from the ecosystem and also safeguards the environment.”[1] In Iran, the usage of dakhmes was abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s and replaced by burials (Choksy 2015: 406). In India and Pakistan, the continuation of the ancient practice has recently become endangered due to an environmental issue: since the 1990s, the omnipresent residues of Diclofenac have heavily decimated the vulture populations. The resulting decrease in the efficiency of the method is now partly counterbalanced by the use of solar concentrators.[2]

11 The fragility of the natural cycles

Due to the challenging climatic conditions in which the early, semi-nomadic Iranian tribes lived, the ancient texts also attest to a strong awareness of the fragile nature of a beneficent climate. Good living conditions are by no means taken for granted. A passage from the Avesta that may be interpreted along these lines is the description of the Eastern Iranian lands and their various climatic deficiencies in the first chapter of the Vīdēvdād. The memory of a climatic catastrophe in mythical times is encoded in the second chapter of the same text: in a myth similar to that of Noah’s ark in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the mythical king Yima is said to have prepared for an upcoming Great Winter by building some sort of underground dome (vara) as a shelter for one pair of each species.

In a passage of the Bundahišn, the Evil Spirit incites his demons to do damage to the “wind” (air, atmosphere) in order to inflict destruction on all of creation, thereby implying that damaging one part of the natural world may have universal effects on all the others:

“The Evil Spirit snarled to the demons: ‘Destroy this wind, brave and swift, created by Ohrmazd. For when you destroy the wind, then you will have destroyed all creation.’” (Bundahišn 21A.4, translation: Agostini & Thrope 2020)

The attention paid by ancient Zoroastrians to issues of climate, agricultural fertility and water resources, again has its roots in the specific conditions under which Zoroastrianism throve in the ancient period. As succinctly summarized by Cama (2019: 68), “the Iranian plateau […] was essentially a cold desert. However, it was a region of contrasts; wherever water was available, this dry region would yield abundantly. […] Therefore, the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau were aware since early historic times about the beneficence of the element of water, and developed a wide network of artificial irrigation through canals and the systems which later became the qanat or karez […].“ As Cama argues, a renewed appreciation for the complex water harvesting systems so perfectly developed in ancient Iran would be of great benefit to a world in which shortage of water is becoming an increasingly widespread problem.

12 More radical environmentalist interpretations of Zoroastrianism

In recent decades, both insiders and outsiders of the Zoroastrian community have repeatedly pushed for interpretations of Zoroastrian core ideas along the trajectory of contemporary environmental thought. Some of these efforts aim even further than the cautious “quote mining” from the Dēn on which the present essay is built. The proponents of such more radical approaches see foreshadowed in the Dēn not only certain environmentalist ideas, but indeed the outlines of modern ecological theory as a whole. Three examples shall be given here to illustrate these vibrant debates.

The Parsi scholar Dr. Homi Dhalla, who has been an active contributor to the interfaith activities for many years, has repeatedly emphasised the environmentalist inspiration that can be drawn from traditional Zoroastrian views of the natural world (e.g., in Dhalla 1991). More recently, Soroosh Sorooshian, the Zoroastrian Director of the Center for Hydrometeorology & Remote Sensing at UC Irvine, has argued that ancient Zoroastrianism already encapsulates basic scientific insights into the functioning of the great natural cycles and also into evolutionary theory (see Sorooshian & Sorooshian 2017). Representing an outsider perspective, the Belgian philosopher Anne Van Sevenant (2020)has developed a consciously personal vision of Zarathustra’s message (as far as retrievable from the Gāthās) as one of proto-philosophy and proto-ecology. A central interpretation from which her vision proceeds is that of the frequent Gāthic motif of the “cow” (or “soul of the cow”) as a symbol for “mother earth”. A similar principle of “exegesis by identification” may already be observed in the Avesta (cf. section 7 of this essay), even though the particular identification of the “cow” with “mother earth” is probably not among those that are explicitly made in the Avesta (cf. section 5 above for the excerpt from Yasna 37.1, which mentions the cow and earth as separate creations).

Radically ecological interpretations of Zoroastrianism such as those mentioned above typically focus on the oldest part of the Avesta, the Gāthās. Being particularly complex and allusive texts that evidently operate with multiple layers of meaning, the Gāthās are indeed widely open to innovative kinds of interpretations. As argued in section ‎2of this essay, the extraction of new layers of meaning from the Gāthās also finds a certain legitimization from within the older strata of the tradition: the interpretive approaches of pre-modern Zoroastrian exegetes already imply the omnisignificance of these foundational texts.

13 Outlook

As shown in this essay, the Zoroastrian tradition (Dēn) and authoritative interpretations thereof provide plenty of ideas that may be taken up in the context of modern ecological discourses. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, Zoroastrianism is unique in offering a strongly optimistic view regarding the capacity of humans to make a tangible change in this world. The tasks laying ahead for humankind are arduous, but Zoroastrianism has much to contribute to the optimistic and pro-active mind-set that is necessary to tackle them.


About the Author: 

Benedikt Peschl holds a BA in General and Indo-European linguistics from the University of Munich, an MA Religions of Asia and Africa from SOAS University London, and a PhD in Study of Religions, likewise from SOAS. He now works as a postdoc at Free University of Berlin. He is the recipient of the 2020 Rising Scholars of Zoroastrianism Award presented by the Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism (SSZ). The focus of his research lies on the use of Avestan texts in Zoroastrian rituals, the interpretation of the Avesta in Middle Persian (Pahlavi) literature, and the languages of Iran and neighboring areas in antiquity.



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Cantera, Alberto. 2015. Ethics. In Stausberg, Michael & Vevaina, Yuhan Sohrab-Dinshaw (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, 315–332. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

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Skjærvø, Prods Oktor. 2012. The Zoroastrian Oral Tradition as Reflected in the Texts. In Cantera, Alberto (ed.), The Transmission of the Avesta (Iranica 20), 3–48. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Sorooshian, Soroosh & Sorooshian, Armin. 2017. Spirituality through the understanding of science: Science and current understanding of our planet’s climate and ecosystem. FEZANA Journal 31(3). 23–27.

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Header image: Ateshgah Fire Temple. Surakhani, Azerbaijan; LukaKikinna/Shutterstock