Religion and Priesthood

Ervad Rumi Sanjana of the Bardoli Fire Temple enjoys his profession. He is a highly respected member of a small
Parsi community engaged mainly in agriculture.

The Zoroastrian priesthood has been the repository of ancient wisdom and the Sacred Word of Power, the Manthravani. Many esoteric symbols and actions are a part of their oral training and traditions. Although the common ceremonies pertaining to the initiation Navjote, wedding and funeral ceremonies are performed regularly, the higher religious ceremonies are likely to die out with an aging priesthood. It has to be remembered that most of the prayers and accompanying rituals are part of an oral tradition and are recited from memory. Zoroastrianism, the world oldest revealed religion was preached in remote antiquity, by Prophet Zarathushtra who claimed divine revelation by the one true God Ahura Mazda, Lord of Light and Wisdom. While Zoroastrianism “has probably had more influence on mankind, directly and indirectly than any other single faith”, it is an irony of history that most persons even today know nothing of Zoroastrianism. Once State Religion of the ancient world’s greatest conquerors it survives in small pockets across its original homelands and primarily through refugees who, fleeing religious persecution found sanctuary in India around 936 A.D.Zoroaster, in the thirteenth century text, the Zarathust Nama, is said to have travelled from his unnamed homeland outside Iran to Balkh to reach the court of King “Gustasp” i.e. King Vistaspa. All this proves that this entire region of Central Asia has been associated with the ancient faith. Zoroastrianism developed among the Eastern Iranian peoples before moving to the western areas of the Medes and Persians. By the time it reached these imperial peoples, most likely in the seventh century B.C., it was already venerable, and this agrees with the fact that by the time the Greeks learnt of Zoroaster, through Western Iran, he was to them a figure of immense antiquity.The Greeks mention the Zoroastrian reverence towards fire, water and the elements repeatedly while biographical details regarding Zoroaster’s life are found in Pliny The Neo-Platonists looked to Zoroastrianism as the origin of the Mithraic mysteries. Zoroastrian influence on the post-exilic Jewish religion is now seen as decisive.

 

A priest paying his respects to the holy fire at the end of the Yasna Ceremony

The Greeks mention the Zoroastrian reverence towards fire, water and the elements repeatedly while biographical details regarding Zoroaster’s life are found in Pliny The Neo-Platonists looked to Zoroastrianism as the origin of the Mithraic mysteries. Zoroastrian influence on the post-exilic Jewish religion is now seen as decisive.The physical and social background shared by the Indo-Iranian people shaped the beliefs and observances of the Old Iranian and Vedic religions. They conceived of their Gods as cosmic not local divinities and believed in a universal principle of order, righteousness and truth, which provided the harmony of the cosmos. The Avestan tradition calls this “Asha”, in Sanskrit it is Rta. This principle is believed to govern everything, from the working of nature to human law and the spiritual world. Zoroaster’s great contribution to the development of monotheism was that he saw one Being, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light and Wisdom as the source for this cosmic law and for all creation.The Gathas belong to an ancient esoteric tradition of mantic poetry where the poet Prophet invests his words with layers of meaning and appeals directly to those who have understood and reached a level of spirituality. Despite the complexities of the Gathas, they have shaped the lives of Zoroastrians throughout the history of the faith. They have to be understood in relation to oral traditions, practices and beliefs of his community for these five Gathas constitute a very small body of a once vast literature. The customs and usage of the oral tradition explicate the philosophy of the Gathas. In a Bronze Age setting, where the manifestations of nature were feared and therefore worshipped, Zoroaster celebrates every aspect of nature in the Gathas. The linguistic and philosophical complexities of the Prophet’s words were difficult. Oral tradition, especially the legends by which children were introduced to the faith and its philosophy explained the same concepts but in a story form. Animals were not to be feared for the baby Zoroaster was protected from evil by the good cow and horse, even fierce wolves were safer than evil man. When Durasarun threw him into the fire, the fire refusing to burn the baby, turned into a bed of rose petals.

 

The training programme for child priests is rigorous. They learn by rote the 72 Has of the Yasna Text. Dadar
Athornan Madressa, Mumbai.

We see from the prophet’s own words, uttered over 3000 years ago, ideas that have great relevance even today. In the Gathas (Ys. 29) Gaush Urva, the Soul of Creation, calls out in anguish for a saviour. Zarathushtra, comes to earth to ensure total justice and righteousness for all creation. He preaches the divine law of Asha or Cosmic Truth, which is not just for human beings, but for every aspect of creation. Every aspect of being must be treated with justice, such justice ensures harmony. Harmony can only be possible when there is no exploitation or degradation of creation. In the 21st century, we are still struggling to achieve human rights. In the Bronze Age, prophet Zarathushtra, spoke in the Gathas, of the rights of plant and animal, mineral and waters, of reverence and nurture of all Spenta (Bounteous) Creation.Zoroaster was the Ratu, the enlightened Guide, whose teachings would lead all being to salvation. His belief in a cosmic law led him to create a theology by which he ensured that all his followers would treat nature with reverence and fight pollution, degradation and disorder.The philosophy of the religion stresses choice and human responsibility in processes of all life cycle rituals from birth to death. Complete freedom is given to the individual. The path of Asha exists, but each individual has to choose the path he wants to follow. There are no cycles of rebirth in Zoroastrianism by which a man can work out his karma, nor is there a Saviour who will bear the cross for the sins of humankind. According to Zoroastrian theology each human being has within himself an Urvan, often translated as “soul”, but whose literal meaning “The Chooser”, conveys its significance much accurately. The Prophet tells each man, when he first proclaims his message.Thus, it is seen that in all the life cycle rituals care of creation plays a constant and vital role. It is through this that the philosophy and theology of the unity of all creation becomes a part of the living Zoroastrian tradition.The Zoroastrian is conscious of serving the Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spenta in daily actions. There is a religious element behind the culture of care and concerned in their dealings with water and earth, plants and animals. In Iran, it was this, which made the Zoroastrians renowned as good gardeners, farmers and stockmen. Thrift in using nature’s gifts and charity to all life is combined. Trees are venerated, to destroy a tree is a sin and water is reverenced, kept pure and never wasted. Zoroastrian respect for the environment always has the final aim of veneration of Ahura Mazda, the creator of all life.

 

A young boy preparing for priesthood.

The Char Disha-No-Namaskar, (Salutation to the four directions) the Jamvani Baj, (Grace before meals) the Kutra no Buk, (the Morsel for the dog) and other daily actions are celebrations of the unity of the web of life. Traditionally, even before planting a seedling in the earth, man held the plant in both hands and slowly turned to the four directions, offering the plant to sun and shadow, wind and rain, moonlight and the birds and animals. The words recited were “Nemo Ve Urvaro, Mazdadathe Ashone”, “Homage to you O’ Good and sacred plant created by Mazda” and were followed by the Ashem Vohu prayer.The six Gahambars, seasonal festivals of the pastoral and farming year that invoke the blessings of all aspects of creation are linked with the seventh festival, Navroze of the Zoroastrian New Year. The Navroze or Haft Seen table, gathers in one sacred space aspects of nature in joyous welcoming of the New Year. The Gahambars with Navroze create a chain of seven feasts in honour of the Amesha Spenta and the seven creations. The importance of these feasts is that they remain Zoroastrian holy days of obligations. Their celebration was considered meritorious; the failure to observe them was a sin.

 

Like the Sudreh and Kusti these holy days have sustained the traditions of the community. Everyone was expected to contribute something, the rich and the poor alike attended the banquet and this was a time of great faith and communal bonding.As Ahura Mazda’s own creation, man has a special duty to the six lesser creations. The ethical code, which the doctrine embodies, gives man a unique sense of responsibility towards the earth and all created being. The duties enjoined on Zoroastrians to protect the environment, nurture trees and plants, care for animals, enrich the soil and keep earth, water and fire unpolluted can all be seen stemming from respect for the Amesha Spenta, protectors of all creations. Therefore, a comprehensive system of ethics and philosophy combines with the need for physical well being and responsibility to the environment. Zoroastrianism is regarded as a unique ecological religion.In January 2004 Parzor released a movie “Asha – The Law of Harmony” in VCD format. In “Asha: The Law of Harmony” the Bronze Age ritual of the Yasna and the Jashan ceremony are enacted and their environmental significance explained. “Glimpses” which is also available in this VCD explains the unique features of the UNESCO Parzor Project, which seeks to document for the first time in history a community in all its possible aspects. To obtain this VCD from the Parzor foundation Click here for our contact details. 

During the life cycle rituals, from birth to death all aspects of creation are invoked in rituals. In childhood, at the Navjote a child chooses to be a Hamkar or fellow worker of God, a soldier of truth accepting responsibility for actions and decisions. He is invested with the white Sudreh, the shirt of the right path and the Kusti or sacred thread, the girdle, which becomes part of his armour as a soldier of Truth or Asha fighting the Lie or Druj. Fire is present at the initiation and the child receives the blessings of the plant world when rice, pomegranate seeds, rose petals are showered upon him to bless him with long life, good health and happiness. Green the color of new life is used in Iran for the Navjote cap and again calls upon nature to give its blessings to the child. (Please see The Kusti).

 

The bond between the material and spiritual worlds is maintained in all Zoroastrian life cycle rituals even continuing beyond into the spirit world. In the ten days before the New Year, when it is believed that the spirits of the dead descend to their family homes, (Muktad among the Gujarati speaking Zoroastrians and the festival of All Souls or Fravardigan, the Avestan Hamaspathmaedaya among the Iranian peoples), the spirits are welcomed by the scent of incense and sweet flowers, by fire and ritual offerings of food. Special silver vases each inscribed with the name of the dead family member are filled with flowers during these days of observance. On the last night of the festival, the Fravashis or spiritual essences, are bidden a formal farewell by their living relatives and are sent to their heavenly abode with prayers, burning incense and in Iran specially lighted fires on roof tops to guide them on their journey.

 

Front cover of Parzor’s VCD “Asha: The Law of Harmony”

In daily life, purity is to be carefully maintained all impurity, nasu must be disposed of with care even hair trimmings and nail parings are contaminating and are disposed of with care so as to not pollute the earth. White lime Chalk is used at the doorstep of the house and the Parsis of India have created elaborate designs with which they decorate their homes. It is traditionally believed that white lime welcomes the spirits of Fravashis and guides them to the Zoroastrian hearth and home. In Iran lime is sprinkled from the doorstep till the hearth fire or place of the Afarganyu fire vase on ritual occasions. Thus purity and cleanliness become not just domestic virtues but acquire religious significance, thus at both levels ensuring care for the environment.

 

The Zoroastrian Calendar its rites and rituals, then stress environmental awareness and teach a holistic approach to daily life through the interweaving of all aspects of Ahura Mazda’s Good Creation. Reverence, care and compassion for the earth is inculcated primarily through the theology of the Amesha Spenta and Yazatas, divinities after whom each day of the month and each month of the year is dedicated.In the calendar, Ava Parab, the birthday of the waters celebrates the sanctity and importance of water. A concrete example of the transmission of Oral culture can be seen in the water harvesting system called the Tanka system of Bharuch in Gujarat. Zoroastrians there still able to harvest and store rain water in such a pure form as to meet WHO drinking water criteria. The practitioners follow the ritual prayers to Ava Yazata -the guardian of waters. In Iran the water harvesting and wind towers of the Zoroastrian settlements continue ancient traditions. (See The Tanka System). Myth and legends of the Oral tradition come together on the occasion of Tirgan, in praise of Tir Yazata who brings rain, at the time of the heat of summer. Adar Roj, honouring fire, Bahman Mahino, paying respect to the animal world are just a few examples of the interconnectedness of all being. The festivals, rituals and texts of Zoroastrianism thus exemplify Zoroaster’s holistic vision and environmental consciousness.Recording of priests is a part of oral tradition recordings. A study of the core ceremony of the Yasna & Jashan has been conducted and comparative studies with Iran have begun.

 

Recording of some aspects of priestly training has also been carried out by PARZOR. Click here to read the Navroze Prayer Book assembled by Ervad Soli P. Dastoor, with the FEZANA Naurooz Planning Committee, the first ever book with prayers transliterated in English, Farsi and Gujarati, with interpretations alongside