In Search of Zarathustra: the First Prophet and the Ideas that Changed the World by Paul Kriwaczek. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003. $25.00 hardback.
I've known composer Richard Strauss' very strong and emphatic symphonic tone poem, "Thus Spake Zarathustra." It's a romantic classical standard. And some of you may know it from the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Richard Strauss adapted his music from a book of the same name by the German philsopher, Nietzsche. And I'd read that Nietzche and this book provided the ideas behind Adolph Hitler. But I hadn't read Nietzche, and I had no idea who Zarathustra was.
I'd also read references to Zoroasterism as a compelling sun-worshipping religion practiced by the Roman Legions spread throughout the empire, and to their sun-god, Mithra. (They had seven initiations: one for each planet.) There are still signs of it extant in Britain. But I didn't know about Zoroasterism, either, except that it originated in mysterious, exotic Persia.
Paul Kriwaczek fled Austria in 1939 with his parents to escape the Nazis. He became a one-time dentist, worked two years in Kabul, then became a specialist in Central and South Asian Affairs at BBC, and then joined BBC television as a producer.
His contacts with Asia made Paul especially intrigued by Zarathustra, and he went searching for evidence of the prophet, not only in central Asia, but in Europe and the Middle East as well. Everywhere he found traces of Zarathustra's ideas, his "worship," called Zoroasterism, and the sun-god Mithra, mediator between heaven and earth. He found that indeed Zarathustra was still very much alive in people's traditions.
Paul takes us on a fascinating multi-level journey, through space and time and history. He interweaves past and present in a lively and erudite way, perhaps just as the threads of Zarathustra have been woven into the tapestry of history and religion. We literally follow Paul through Europe, the central Asian highlands, and the Holy Land, stopping at highlights to look at what remains of ruins, and to reflect on the history of that location, and what it tells us about Zoroasterism, as well as Paul's related associations, memories, and experiences.
Eventually we learn that Zarathustra lived about 3000 years ago, during the late Bronze Age. He left no extensive revelation, and his disciples bequeathed no detailed accounts of his life. At the time he came on the central Asian scene, most of the people were nomads who worshipped ancestral deities, the gods of sky and earth, the gods of sun and moon, Mithra and Mah, the god of war Indra, and hosts of devas and demons.
Zarathustra didn't threaten his people with supernatural powers that must be propitiated. He proclaimed that there is only one true god, Ahura Mazda, and he identified the source of all evil in the world as the Lie. He reduced and rejected other divinities, and taught that the spirits of war, destruction, greed, and acquisition were mere reflections of the amoral aspect of humanity.
The prophet taught that each person had a free choice between good and evil, and that following the path of righteousness would lead to salvation, even for laypeople. (Until then, only the elite had souls.) He condemned animal sacrifice as cruel. He did not preach the adoration of fire. His basic doctrine was rational, anti-ritual and anti-sacrifice. He encouraged his followers to come to personal terms with their god.
Even after the Muslim conquest, many of the threads of Zorasterism remained in different areas, and gave rise to varying branches of Islam. This variety was especially true in Afghanistan, perhaps because of the isolation created by the mountainous land.
Even in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we find ideas from Zoroasterism, including the idea of Armageddon:
"The God of Knowledge has created man to govern the world, and has appointed for him two spirits in which to walk until the time of visitation: the spirits of truth and falsehood."
"The End of Time will be marked by a War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, when affliction will come on earth and great carnage among the nations."
As among the Zoroasterians, good will be victorious. "It will be a time for the salvation of the people of God."
In reading the book it became obvious that Zarathustra was the first prophet for all the monotheistic religions, and that his words live stillalthough made complex and codified by various rulers and priesthoods. It was even Zorasterism that introduced named angels to us.
Zarathustra saw in the workings of the world a clear sign that evil was an independent force (the Lie) which must be combated. Nietzsche's contribution was to say that Zarathustra's "invention of morality" was the greatest philosophical error in human history. Hitler used Nietzsche's backing to throw out morality and the idea of evil.
The author points out that Jews, Christians and Muslims all agree on some basic beliefsgood and evil, angels, the Devil, heaven and hell, the coming of a Messiah, and an eventual end of the world. Every one of these ideas first appeared in Zarathustra's teaching, even before recorded history.
And there are still groups of practicing Zoroasterians, particularly in Asia. Interestingly, I just read in David Ovason's book that one of the leading esoterists of the U.S., Freemason leader Albert Pike, celebrated Zoroasterism.
This is a profound, enlightening, lively, and very interesting book. History writing can be dull, but Mr. Kriwazek brings the immediacy of a broadcast consciousness into his descriptions, along with the excitement of his personal discoveries along the trail of his life.
I highly recommend it. The high Asian origins of Zarathustra are particularly relevant as background to understanding the moving forces of our times.