ZOROASTRIAN RITUALS AND CEREMONIES
Rituals play an integral role in life and religion. The older religions are more ritual intensive, and hence Zoroastrianism being the oldest revealed religion is understandably one of the most ritual intensive. The main purpose of rituals is to enshrine, display and enable the automatic practise of the teachings of the religion.
Rituals have been mentioned in the oldest of Zoroastrian texts. In the summary of the 21 Nasks in the Pahlavi Denkard, we find that no less than 6 Nasks – Hadokht, Pajeh, Ratu dad haitig, Kaski-srub, Husparam and Sakadum – dealt extensively with rituals and ritual aspects like celebration of Gahambars, consecration of ritual clothes (Syav), performance of after death rituals and Muktad, and a description of ritual implements and requisites like dron and barsom.
The Gathas of Zarathushtra also imply the performance of certain rituals. The word in the Gathas for rituals is Yasna (30.1, 34.1). The word myazd also appears in the Gathas. Yasna performed with Asha and Vohu Manah help man to go near Ahura Mazda. In Yasna XXXIII.6, Zarathushtra calls himself a zaotar “chief priest.”
Yasna IX.3-13 presupposes the performance of Hom ritual, performed even by Zarathushtra’s father Pourushaspa. Yasna IX.1 describes the ritual of washing the fire-stand which to this day is being performed by priests in inner rituals and while performing the Bōy ritual, especially in Atash Behrams.
Vendidad XIX.9 and Yasna LVII.22 give names of several ritual requisites and implements which indicate that rituals were performed during and perhaps even before the Avestan times. Texts like the Gehs, Nyaishnas and Yashts too mention ritual implements and requirements like Baresmana, Aiwyāonghana, Haoma and Zaothra. Implements used in inner rituals dating back to the Achaemenian times have been discovered by archaeologists. Pahlavi works like the Dadistane Denig and Shayast la Shayast talk about the need of performing after death rituals.
In Zoroastrian rituals, priests are generally the performers and lay people are observers. However, the participants benefit from the rituals, as observing them performed not only provide necessary theological guidance through dramatisatios, but also provide the experience and feel of a different dimension of reality beyond space and time, created by the rituals.
Rituals as part of the practices of religion, constitute and reflect the living religion, as they are based on the doctrines and principles of that religion.
Though the terms rituals and ceremonies are often used loosely, one can distinguish between them: Ceremonies are predominantly for invocations and seeking blessings, where there is a greater emphasis on offerings. Rituals have specific roles to perform, like initiation or purification. Though there is no emphasis on offerings, certain basic ritual implements are necessary.
A Zoroastrian ritual requires the minimum requirements of a ritually clean place, a priest or a pair of priests (Zot and Raspig), ritual requisites (Myazd) often representing the seven creations, Alat, which are ritual implements serving as conduits for spiritual energy, specially created prayers (Manthra), in Avesta or Pazand languages.
On the basis of their purposes and functions, rituals can be divided into the following groups. Some rituals are performed for more than one purpose:
1. Thanksgiving Rituals invoking divine beings: Jashan, Fareshta
2. Commemoration rituals: Afringan, Farokhshsi, Stum, Baj-dharna, Yasna, Visperad, Videvdad
3. Consecration rituals – Baj-dharna Yasna, Visperad , Videvdad, Nirang-din
4. Purification rituals – Kasti, Nahan, bareshnum
5. Rites of Passage (For life-cycle events):
a. Initiations – Navjot, Navar & Maratab
The above rituals can also be classified as: A. Outer & Inner rituals.
They can be performed by priests who have undergone just the first initiation. They can be performed in any clean and ritually pure place. Most of the outer rituals can be performed by non-priests for their family after taking proper training.
i) Jashan /Afringan:
This are rituals in which Ahura Mazda, Fravashis, Sarosh Yazad and the divine being presiding over the day are invoked by the recitation of certain prayers accompanied by ritual gestures, followed by a prayer of blessings for living ones. They are short rituals lasting for about an hour and which can be performed at any ritually clean place.
Generally the Jashans are performed for festive occasions like birthday, house-warming, thanksgiving and celebrating important historical events which had taken place in ancient Iran. Afringan is performed in memory of departed souls.
This ritual is similar to that of Jashan in terms of composition, prayers and rites. However it is a much longer ritual, as in it all the thirty three divine beings associated with the Zoroastrian calendar are invoked. The ritual takes about two hours to perform and requires two sets of priests. The corresponding Baj-dharna ritual is mandatory along with this ritual. The Fareshta is performed for happy occasions like birthday, house-warming and thanksgiving.
This ritual is performed to invoke the Fravashis. It is a combination of two prayers – the Stum and the Fravarden Yasht. It takes about 45 minutes and involves minimal ritual gestures.
In it a prayer is recited over cooked food. Milk, water and fruit are used if cooked food is not available. It is a short ritual of about 15 minutes
Inner rituals :
They can be performed by priests who have undergone both their initiations. They have to performed in specially designated places surrounded by furrows in the ground.
It is the simplest of the inner ritual. It is performed for commemorating departed persons, invocation of divine beings and for consecration. The main ritual implement is a Barsom. In this ritual Dron, the sacred bread is consecrated and partaken, first by the priest and then by the laity.
ii) Yasna :
It is a ritual performed by two priests in which the Avestan text of Yasna consisting 72 chapters is recited. The Yasna is central to all other inner rituals. By itself, it is especially performed in honor of the souls of departed ones and for priestly initiations.
An important aspect of this ritual is the preparation of Homjuice, in which a twig from the Hom tree is pounded along with water, goat’s milk and pomegranate twigs. The chief priest himself first sips this juice while the ritual is in progress. The laity rest partakes the rest after the completion of the ritual.
Visparad is performed by two priests in which the Avestan text of Visparad consisting 23 chapters is recited interspersed along with the 72 chapters of Yasna. It is especially performed to celebrate the seasonal festivals called Gahambar.
Vendidad is performed by two priests. It starts after midnight and lasts uptil sunrise. In this ritual, the Avestan text of Vendidad consisting 22 chapters is recited along with the chapters of Yasna and Visparad. The text of Vendidad is read our by the priests
D. Life cycle rituals
– Initiations (Navjot, Navar, Maratab), Marriage, Death.
The word Navjot is derived from two words Nav and Zot, “a new offerer of prayers.” Navjot ceremony is performed of Parsee Zoroastrian children – both boys and girls, generally between the ages of 7 to 9. However, in rare and unavoidable cases, this age limit is pushed backed to about 15 years.
The Navjot ritual involves three stages – purification, presentation and benedictions. In it the child affirms its faith in Ahura Mazda, prophet Zarathushtra and Mazdayasni Zarthoshti religion by reciting the Din no Kalmo prayer.
The main purpose of the Navjot is to invest the child withSadra “the sacred shirt” and Kasti “the sacred girdle.” From this day a child has to put on these sacred vestments throughout life, as they are the spiritual implements necessary for offering prayers.
After the Navjot, a child is enjoined to perform the Kasti ritual at specified times and for specified purposes by untying and re-tying the Kasti over the Sadra while reciting the requisite prayers. This practice helps to keep in mind the basic tenets of the religion as well as give a sense of security of being protected by payers and spiritual beings.
is the initiation of son of a priestly family into priesthood. The term NAVAR is generally rendered as “a new carrier of offerings.” A Zoroastrian child only from a priestly family may undergo NAVAR before puberty, since in Zoroastrianism priesthood is hereditary. For becoming full-fledged Navar, one has to learn by heart prayers several daily prayers as well as 72 chapters of Yasna, 23 chapters of Visparad and other priesthood related scriptures. Nowadays, some boys learn only a few important ritually intensive chapters and fluently read the rest of the text from books in the Navar ritual.
In the first stage of Navar two Bareshnums, each of nine days, have to be undergone, In the second stage, the Yasna ritual is performed for 6 days of by officiating priests. These six days are known as Gewra. They give the requisite power to the initiators. The third stage is the 4 days of Navar ritual proper.
c. The Maratab:
The second initiation for priesthood is known as Maratab. It entitles a priest to perform inner rituals like Yasna, Visparad and Vendidad. For the Maratab, the candidate has to fluently read the Vendidad and learn how to inter-connectedly pray it with the Yasna and Visparad accompanied by rituals.
For undergoing the Maratab, the candidate has to go through one bareshnum. On the following day, he, along with another qualified priest, perform the Yasna with the Mino Navar invocation. The next day he performs another Yasna in honor of Sarosh, and at mid-night he performs the Vendidad ritual. After the Maratab, a priest can perform any Zoroastrian ritual.
Zoroastrianism considers marriage as a pious duty, a religious sacrament, a holy union of two souls, and not just a social, legal or contractual bonding between two persons. The marriage pact was considered irrevocable. Marriage is based on the virtues of sharing, devotion, faithfulness and self sacrifice. It is incumbent on all able-bodied Zoroastrians to marry, establish a home, and live happily with wife and children.
The Zoroastrian ideal of marriage is enshrined in Gatha Vahishtoishti (Yasna 53.4), which is largely regarded as ‘a wedding hymn.’ It states that a happy married life depends on virtue, duty, and devotion to each other. Zoroastrian texts show their preference of a married life over an unmarried life.
The marriage ceremony can be divided into four parts:
a) The Nahan: The sacred bath administered to both the bride and the groom
b) Arantar: A symbolic tableau of union of two persons, in which the bride and the groom are made to sit facing each other with a curtain between them and their right hands clasped below it. A cotton thread is passed around them seven times amidst the chanting of the Ahunavar prayer.
c) Sacred Affirmation: The couple pledgeacceptance of each other before the priests and witnesses.
d) Ashirwad: Benedictions and admonitions by the priests. The divine being Airyaman, who presides over joy, peace, friendship and nobility (qualities necessary for a successful marriage), is invoked in these benedictions.
The mode of disposal of the dead body of Zoroastrians is called Dokhmenashini which means exposing the body in special circular structures open to the sun and scavenger birds. It is a natural, ecological, economical and fast mode of disposal. It does not pollute the natural elements, and from a Zoroastrian theological viewpoint allows the merging of physical and semi spiritual constituents with the elements and release of the soul from worldly bonds.
The main after-death rituals are Gāh Sarna, 4 Baj of Srosh, Uthamna and Afringan-e-Sarosh (Also known as Sarosh no Kardo or Sarosh nu Patru).
C. The purification rituals
– Kasti, Nahan and Bareshnum.
i) The Kasti:
The ritual washing of the uncovered parts of the body, and untying and re-tying the Kasti over the Sadra while reciting the requisite prayers is the simplest of the purification rituals. Without it, no prayer can be formally offered. It is also one of the pre-requisite conditions for a Zoroastrian to enter a fire-temple or attend other Zoroastrian ceremonies.
: The word Nahan comes from the Sanskrit word Snan“bath.” Nahan is a ceremonial bath given before Navjot, Wedding or any other time when higher ritual purification is required. It is administered by a priest.
It imparts the highest level type of purity. In it the candidate has to maintain seclusion for a period of nine days and nights during which he has to maintain the highest degree of purity and piety and spend his time in prayers.
To sum up, Zoroastrian rituals fulfill the following purposes:
a) Provide a link with the unseen world,
b) Symbolically represent religious doctrines like the existence of two worlds, presence of two cosmic forces and ultimate triumph of good over evil through the agency of man.
c) Invoke the presence of divine beings, and
d) Express gratitude to divine beings.
People in pre-modern and modern times have developed the tendency to blame the priests for inventing rituals to suit their needs and earn their livelihood. Rituals had been attacked in the past and termed as dispensable shells. However, a serious study would indicate that rituals are not only an integral part of any religion, they are indispensable to the survival of the religion.
(For a detailed account of individual Zoroastrian rituals see the link Courses>General courses>Rituals on this website.)
Select Bibliography of Books on Zoroastrian Rituals:
* Rististan, S.D. Bharucha, Mumbai, 1924.
* Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees, J.J. Modi, Mumbai, 1922.
* Baj dharnane lagti pavitra kriyao, HM Pavri, Mumbai, 1938.
* Yazashne ba Nirang, Intoduction by H.K.Mirza, Mumbai, 1957.
* Pursesh Pasokh, E. Meherjirana, Mumbai, 1941.