The civilisations which developed in parallel with Egypt, in the Indus valley and Mesopotamia were exposed to the pressures of external events to a greater extent than the Egyptians ever were. Climate change intervened, the area around the Indus civilisation dried and this progressive civilisation was forced to relocate. The early civilisations of the Iranian plateau and Northern India positioned either side of the Indus valley were both probably founded or infiltrated by Indus refugees.
Those in northern India became, like Egypt relatively isolated though still a part of the “known” world. Here a the distinct Buddist religion developed. Recent research has shown increasing interest in showing that Buddism is a derivative of the religion of Egypt, particularly interesting because since it has survived to the present day it gives perhaps a different more sympathetic view of what the practice of the Egyptian religion entailed.
In the Euphrates and Tigris valleys of Mesopotamia, the civilisations were forced to become warlike as their emerging cities were exposed to the envious gaze of the relatively primitive Nomads living on the receding edge of the ice cap to the north.
Hittites, Myceans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Edomites, Sythians, Medians all held sway at various times. Finally the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau were able to take control of the area. Under their leader Cyrus, they formed the Persian Empire. The Persians succeeded in unifying the whole area. At peak their territory extended from Northern India to Athens and from Egypt to modern Uzbekistan. Their empire lasted 250 years. From the Iranian plateau and possibly from the Indus valley itself they brought with them a code of ethics totally unique in the ancient world.
The description of their beliefs as a code of ethics is carefully selected. It was not strictly speaking a religion as there was no worship of a god and no attempt to personalise a god. Meditation was carried out in the presence of a fire, simply to remind participants of the power of the universe. The originator of this code, Zarathustra, taught that all men have free will and that the conflict between good and evil lies in each human being’s ability to decide whether to tell the truth or tell a lie. Each human being has the ability to move the human experience towards good or evil depending on what that decision might be.
In order to create good in the world each individual should indulge in good reflection, good words and good deeds. Zarathustra taught that all human beings react to the environment in which they live. If they experience good actions then they will display good reactions. He taught that education and study were of paramount importance. Human beings can only make good decisions if they are taught to think.
This code of ethics was applied across the whole of the Persian Empire. In order to allow this code of ethics to be applied without Zarathustra offered advice.
The wealth of a nation should be devoted to improving the lives of its citizens, not on the building of elaborate places of worship. The power behind the universe, which he called Ahura Mazda, already had a home in the heart and mind of every human being. Due to the paramount importance of Good Reflection leading to Good Words and Good Deeds, community wealth should be devoted first and foremost to education of the young.
All human beings men and women are equal and should have identical rights and responsibilities. To live in idleness taking advantage of the toils of others was a form of oppression. Again it led to bad words and bad deeds. Everyone, at every level in society should subsist by the fruits of their own labours. All stories of supernatural events are lies or the events on which they are based are trickery. There is no need for any priesthood to intervene with god, the power of the universe lies within every human being. A gift of money to someone in difficulty was good but to lend money with the expectation of repayment or interest was bad. Zarathrustra taught that debt always led to bad words and bad deeds.
He taught that there should always be consideration of other peoples beliefs but at the same time that it was permissible to ignore or disobey laws or cultural beliefs which prevented adherence to the principles of good reflection, good words and good actions. this was tested when at the height of its power Persia took over Egypt. There many features of Zarathrustra’s code which are reflected in the way the Egyptian rulers treated their subjects but there was one irreconcilable difference.
The Egyptian state was run by priests, who played a leading part in the administration of the state, claimed to represent mankind’s interests to God and spent unbelievable sums on temples and palaces. For all this they obtained a luxurious living.
The Egyptians, led by their priests, continued to opposed Persian attempts to limit their powers and re-educate the population. In 404 BC they managed to evict the Persians using Greek mercenaries but fifty years later, the Persians were back again.
Darius became the greatest Persian Emperor and a champion of Zarathrustra’s code of ethics. However in an attempt to establish the legitimacy of his rule he allowed the Magi, Priests of the Median nation, part of the Persian empire, to re-establish their prescence. The Magi immediately set about adding additional texts to the core Zarathrusrian teaching which added the reverence, if not worship, of gods to the core of ethical standards. In this way Zarathrustra’s teaching was converted into a religion.
Disapproval of wealthy priests and a scepticism for the “gods” were reinforced by this change and those attitudes lingered and spread.
Nevertheless it is reputed to be the magi who predicted the birth of Jesus and came from “the east ‘ to visit him, or is that just a supernatural fable of which Zarathrustra would have disapproved?