Ahura Mazda is the supreme divinity of the Zoroastrian faith, which is called by its adherents Mazdayasna (meaning "the worship of Mazda"). Ahura Mazda is the Avestan name for an exalted divinity of ancient proto-Indo-Iranian origin. It was Ahura Mazda (or Ormazd, in its shortened Pahlavi transliteration) that was declared by Zoroaster (the central prophet of Zoroastrianism) to be the one uncreated creator of all. Ahura Mazda thus represents what some lines of evidence suggest to be among the first examples of monotheism, akin to the conceptualization of God in the Abrahamic traditions. At the same time, with its roots in Vedic religion, it anticipates the development of monotheistic currents within later Hinduism.
Mazda, or rather the Avestan stem-form Mazdā- (nominative Mazdå), derives from the Proto-Iranian word *Mazdāh. Both the Avestan and Sanskrit languages subsumed the root word *mn̩sdʰeh1, which literally means "placing one's mind (mn̩-s)," or "wise." Thus, Mazda means "intelligence" or "wisdom." Ahura, meanwhile, refers to a class of 'right' divinities, which exist in relation to the devas, who are considered evil in Persian mythology. Thus, when combined together, the terms Ahura-Mazda mean "Wise Lord."
In the Gathas (Gāθās), the Avestan hymns thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself, the two halves of the name are not necessarily used together. They may be used interchangeably, or occasionally in reverse order. However, in later texts of the Avesta, both "Ahura" and "Mazda" are integral parts of the name for God, which were conjoined as Ahuramazda in western Iran. In Old Persian the name had the form Auramazdāh. The alternate theonym Ohrmazd, meanwhile, is the Pahlavi name for Ahura Mazda, and is the title by which he is referred to in the Bundahishen, a ninth-century text which provides an account of the creation of the universe.
In Zoroaster's religious teachings, Ahura Mazda is recognized as the supreme Creator God of the universe who was not created himself (Yasna 30.3, 45.2). Ahura Mazda seems to represent an amalgamation of various previous Indo-Iranian deities into one all-encompassing deity. Zoroaster's assertion that divinity was essentially One (rather than a multiplicity) was most likely an attempt to differentiate his religious movement from the polytheistic Persian cults of his time.
Central to Zoroaster's view of Ahura Mazda was the concept of asha (the Persian equivalent of the Vedic rta), literally, "truth." In the extended sense, asha refers to the equitable law of the universe, which governed the life of Zoroaster's people, the nomadic herdsmen of the Central Asian steppes. Asha was the course of everything observable: the motion of the planets and astral bodies, the progression of the seasons, the pattern of daily nomadic herdsman life, and governor of metronomic events such as sunrise and sunset. All physical creation (geti) was created and maintained according to a larger divine plan attributed to Ahura Mazda. Violations of the order (druj) were violations against creation, and thus transgressions against Ahura Mazda. In Zoroaster's original teachings, Ahura Mazda was the transcendent entity which actually existed above the opposed forces of asha and druj; in Zoroaster's formulation these antipodes were personified by two spirits who represented good (Spenta Mainyu) and evil (Angra Mainyu).
This concept of asha versus the druj should not be confused with the good-versus-evil battle evident in western religions. Although both forms of dualism express moral conflict, the asha versus druj concept is more subtle and nuanced, representing, for instance, chaos (that opposes order) or "uncreation" (evident as natural decay; Avestan: nasu) that opposes creation. According to Zoroaster's teachings, while Ahura Mazda is seen as the one uncreated Creator of all, He is not also seen as the creator of druj, for as anti-creation, the druj are not created (or not creatable, and therefore, like Ahura Mazda, uncreated). "All" is therefore the "supreme benevolent providence" (Yasna 43.11), and Ahura Mazda as the benevolent Creator of all is consequently the Creator of only the good (Yasna 31.4). In Zoroaster's revelation, Ahura Mazda will ultimately triumph (Yasna 48.1), but cannot (or will not) control the druj in the here and now. As such, Zoroaster did not perceive Ahura Mazda to be the root of evil, nor was he considered wholly omnipotent.
Throughout the Gathas scriptures, Zoroaster emphasizes deeds and actions, for it is only through "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" that order can be maintained. In Zoroaster's revelation it is indeed the paramount purpose of mankind to assist in maintaining the order Ahura Mazda has created. In Yasna 45.9, Ahura Mazda "has left to people's wills" to choose between doing good (that is, living under a regimen of good thoughts, good words and good deeds) and doing evil (living with bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds). This concept of a free will is perhaps Zoroaster's greatest contribution to Persian religious philosophy.
Although the Yasna ritual, involving the fire sacrifice of a beverage called haoma, is held for the benefit of all menog beings, it is primarily directed toward Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is foremost among the spiritual beings who are invited to partake in the ceremony. The Yasna's primary purpose is to create an ideal environment for the cohesion of the spiritual and material worlds through a series of ritual purifications. In the process, praise is given to Ahura Mazda for the good menog which he has created. During the undertaking of the ceremony, the glorious purity of Ahura Mazda is cultivated so that it shines through the priest performing the ritual, allowing those present to obtain a glimpse of the world as it will appear in its renewed state following eschaton.
The Afrinigan liturgy offers direct praise to Ahura Mazda for the bounty he has bestowed upon the world. Offerings made to Ahura Mazda during this ceremony include trays containing fruit, eggs, water, and milk, as well as three cups of wine and eight flowers. These items symbolize the blessings Ahura Mazda bestows upon humanity. In addition to strengthening the bond between menog and getig, the ritual also requests further blessing of Ahura Mazda upon the larger community of Zoroastrians.
Due to the fact that many contemporary Zoroastrians do not have access to public ritual observance given their dwindling numbers, private remembrance of Ahura Mazda has become an indispensable part of their religious exercise. This occurs mainly through prayer. One of the most sacred prayers dedicated to Ahura Mazda is the ahuna vairya, which reads as follows:
- Since He is (the One) to be chosen by the world
- therefore the judgment emanating from truth himself
- (to be passed) on the deeds of good thought of the world
- as well as the power, is committed to Mazda Ahura whom (people)
- assign as a shepherd to the poor.
These lines occupy a status in Zoroastrianism comparable to that of the Lord's prayer in Christianity. In addition to prayer, Zoroastrians can remember Ahura Mazda in all elements of creation, since he is the progenitor of all that exists. For instance, it is considered part of one's religious duty to maintain their own physical and mental health, as healthiness of body and mind also honors creation and therefore Ahura Mazda himself.
The Greek historian Herodotus (484–c. 425 B.C.E.) reported that the Persians generally did not use statues as a part of their religious activities. This statement has been confirmed by archaeological records, and no doubt explains why there are so few known images of Ahura Mazda. The earliest reference to the use of an image accompanying devotion to Ahura Mazda is from the 39th year of the reign of Artaxerxes Mnemon (c. 365 B.C.E.) in which a Satrap of Lydia raised a statue (according to the Greek commentator) to "Zeus" the Lawgiver. From the reign of Cyrus the Great (sixth century B.C.E.) down to Darius III (fourth century B.C.E.), it was apparently customary for an empty chariot drawn by white horses to accompany the Persian army. According to Herodotus, who first described the practice, this chariot was sacred to a supreme god also referred to as "Zeus" who was presumably believed to position himself at the head of the army. This supreme deity referred to in these examples is most likely Ahura Mazda, as Greek authors frequently used the term for their supreme deity Zeus in order to refer to gods who served a similar function in other cultures.
The worship of Ahura Mazda with accompanying images is also known to have occurred during the Parthian era (250 B.C.E.–226 C.E.) of Persian history, but by the beginning of the Sassanid period (226–651), the custom appears to have fallen out of favor. Several images from Sassanid times do exist however. Some torsos depict Ahura Mazda emerging from a disk or a winged ring accompanied by paws and a bird's tail. Although there are various opinions as to the meaning of such images, most scholars agree that the winged disk represents Ahura Mazda himself. Other images claiming to depict "Ohrmazd" reveal a male figure wearing a high crown. However, rejection of anthropomorphic images of divine entities including Ahura Mazda became common in later Zoroastrianism, which is largely aniconic.
Although Zoroaster described Ahura Mazda to be essentially one, Zoroastrian tradition eventually inherited some ideas from the polytheistic traditions surrounding them. Thus, Ahura Mazda has been accredited with a number of emanations that are referred to as Amesha Spentas (or "Holy Immortals"). These six primeval creations mentioned in Yasna 47.1 of the Gathas are: Vohu Manah (Good Mind), Asha Vahistah (Truth), Khshatra Vairya (Good Dominion), Spenta Armaiti (Devotion), Haurvatat (Wholeness and Health), Ameretat (Immortality). These powers exist as a function of Ahura Mazda's divine will, personifying attributes of his character and manifesting them within the physical world. Amesha Spentas are considered to be divine powers, although they are ultimately subordinate to Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda dwells within each of these deities since they are part of his creation, though he cannot be said to be any one of the members at a given time. In some ways, they may also represent attributes of some of the polytheistic gods from other Persian religions which Ahura Mazda subsumed. Each of these beings are considered to be worthy of worship in their own right, not in a direct fashion, but rather as a means for communicating with Ahura Mazda. They are typically represented in iconography as human beings dressed in traditional Zoroastrian attire of cloak and cap, and often they feature symbols which are related to the particular Amesha Spenta. For example, Asha Vahistah is accompanied by fire, a conventional Zoroastrian symbol for truth.
Later Zurvanite Views
The dualism which is evident in Zoroaster's original writings became even more explicitly developed within the movement known as Zurvanism, a cult which arose out of the greater Zoroastrian establishment during the Achaemenid period (between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C.E.). Here, Ahura Mazda was not considered to be the transcendental God, taking a subordinate position to Zurvan, a deification of time. Instead, Ahura Mazda was one of two equal-but-opposite divinities under Zurvan's supremacy along with Angra Mainyu. According to Zurvan mythology, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are twin sons of Zurvan who have co-existed since the genesis of the universe. The antipodes of good and evil were no longer considered to be spirits but were the creator god Ahura Mazda himself and his archenemy Angra Mainyu. Due to the fact that Ahura Mazda had been reduced to a role of the opponent of evil, he became identified with Spenta Mainyu, the personification of good. This interpretation rests in large part on an interpretation of Yasna 30.3, which refers to Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu as twin brothers that have co-existed for all time.
Despite the scriptural evidence, from the viewpoint of mainstream Zoroastrianism the Zurvanite beliefs are considered to be an apostasy. Although Zurvanism was officially supported during the Sassanid era (226–651), no traces of it remain beyond the tenth century C.E. because of the spread of Islam. However, it was this Zurvanite dualism which was recorded in the Greek sources concerning Zoroastrianism, as well as Pahlavi literature from the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. and later Christian sources. These accounts were the first traces of Zoroastrianism to reach the west, which misled European scholars to conclude that Zoroastrianism was primarily a dualist faith, and that Ahura Mazda was merely an emanation of the oneness of the greater divine essence.
In 1884, Martin Haug proposed a new interpretation of Yasna 30.3 that provided an escape from the dualism that was often considered implicit in the Gathas. According to Haug's interpretation, the "Twin spirits" of 30.3 were Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu, the former being the “Destructive Emanation” of Ahura Mazda and the latter being his “Creative Emanation.” In effect, this proposed dualism of Angra Mainyu and Spenta Mainyu was simply a rediscovery of the precepts of Zurvanism, with the difference being that Angra Mainyu was no longer Ahura Mazda's equal, but rather one of his many emanations. Haug developed the idea even further, interpreting the concept of a free will discussed in Yasna 45.9 as an accommodation which served to solve problems of theodicy concerning Ahura Mazda. The free will of Angra Mainyu, Haug claimed, made it possible for him to choose to defect from Ahura Mazda and become evil, thereby taking responsibility for the existence of evil off of Ahura Mazda, who was said to create only good.
Haug's interpretation was gratefully accepted by some modern Zoroastrians living in India (Parsis) since it provided a defense against Christian missionaries who attacked Zoroastrian doctrines. These missionaries claimed that the idea of an uncreated evil force parallel to God established an unsatisfying dualism. Notwithstanding the oversight that Zoroastrianism did not hypostatize good and evil as the Abrahamic religions did, Haug's ideas were subsequently disseminated as a Parsi interpretation, thus corroborating the theories. Haug's ideas were so popular that they are now almost universally accepted as doctrine by Zoroastrians worldwide.
The Zoroastrian worship of Ahura Mazda is significant in the history of religions for two reasons. First, Ahura Mazda and the closely-related Amesha Spentas provide a looking glass into the beliefs of the ancient proto-Indo-Iranian-Aryans from which Zoroastrianism developed. Secondly, Ahura Mazda is one of the most important influences upon some of the most widespread perspectives on God that exist today. Ahura Mazda represents what some lines of evidence suggest to be among the first examples of monotheism, a conceptualization of God which is at the root of the Abrahamic traditions.
Origins in Vedic Religion
The origins of Ahura Mazda seem to be tied to the early beliefs of the proto-Indo-Iranian-Aryans. Scholarly consensus identifies a connection between Ahura Mazda and the Hindu Vedic gods Varuna and Mitra. For instance, Kuiper (1983) puts forth the view that the proto-Indo-Iranian divinity is the nameless "Father Ahura," that is, Varuna of the Rigveda. In this view, the Zoroastrian mazda is the equivalent of the Vedic medhira, described in Rigveda 8.6.10 as the "(revealed) insight into the cosmic order" that Varuna grants his devotees. Just as Ahura Mazda maintains asha, the ubiquitous principle of truth, Varuna keeps rta, its Vedic equivalent. Kuiper also suggested that Ahura Mazda may be an Iranian development of the dvandvah expression *mitra-*vouruna, with *mitra being the otherwise nameless 'Lord' (Ahura) and *vouruna being mazda/medhira. Just as the Vedic Mitra is virtually inseperable from Varuna throughout the Vedas, Mithra is closely linked with Ahura Mazda in the Avesta. This suggests that Ahura Mazda is then a compound divinity in which the favorable characteristics of *mitra negate the unfavorable qualities of *vouruna.
Another view propounded by Boyce and Schlerath (1983), among others, conceives Ahura Mazda to be the Ahura par excellence, superior to both *vouruna and *mitra. In their view, the dvandvah expression *mitra-*vouruna is none other than the archaic 'Mithra-Baga', an older Iranian god mentioned in the Avesta. For instance, Boyce notes that on Persepolis fortification tablet No. 337, Ahura Mazda is distinguished from both Mithra and the Baga.
With its roots in Vedic religion, the Zoroastrian insight into the unity of the Godhead as Ahura Mazda anticipates the later development of monotheistic currents within Hinduism.
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- Boyce, Mary. History of Zoroastrianism: Vol. I, The early period. Leiden: Brill, 1975.
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- Boyce, Mary. "Ahura Mazda." In Encyclopaedia Iranica (volume 1). Cosa Mesa: Mazda Publishing, 1983. 684–687.
- Boyce, Mary. "Mithra the King and Varuna the Master." In Festschrift für Helmut Humbach zum 80. Trier: WWT, 2001. 239–257.
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- Humbach, Helmut. The Gathas of Zarathushtra and the other Old Avestan texts. Heidelberg: Winter, 1991.
- Kuiper, Bernardus Franciscus Jacobus. "Ahura." In Encyclopaedia Iranica (volume 1). Cosa Mesa: Mazda Publishing, 1983. 682–683.
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