The Role of Fire
The Zoroastrian religion regards fire with great respect and reverence. It considers fire as a living, breathing representative of Ahura Mazda and hence figuratively refers to it as “son of Ahura Mazda.”
The Avestan word for fire is ātar. The original meaning the word ātar is heat, motion, energy. It comes from the Indo-Aryan root at- “to diminish, to transform” Heat and motion have the ability to transfer matter into energy.
In Zoroastrian texts, 6 types of Fires are described:
Berezi Savangh: The highest form of fire energy which permeates all creations.
Vohu Frayan: The fire in the bodies of humans and animals. It gives them warmth, and departs at the time of death.
Urvazisht: The fire in plants, which prevents sap from freezing in cold temperatures.
Vazisht : The fire in clouds, atmosphere and lightening. It purifies the atmosphere. Scientifically, when lightening strikes, it changes oxygen gas to ozone and thus maintains the ozone cover. It also oxidizes other gases and makes them harmless. .
Spenisht: The fire burning in this world for domestic, industrial and commercial purposes. After consecration it is established as Atash Adarans and Atash Behrams.
Nairyosangh: The fire that carries guidance and intuition, especially to kings.
Myths about fire
On account of the immense reverence to fire, two myths have plagued Zoroastrians in connection with fire, as Zoroastrianism was generally viewed through the eyes of Westerners. Non-Zoroastrian writers often wrote that Zoroastrians venerated fire as it was a useful tool, valuable weapon, cooked food and gave heat. Some writers went as far as to say that Zoroastrians worshipped fire because primitive man was afraid of fire.
The first myth is that fire is just a symbol of the religion. This is not correct as Zoroastrians do not consider fire as a mere symbol, but a living, breathing REPRESETATIVE and the best agent to represent Ahura Mazda in the material world.
The second myth is that the Zoroastrians are fire worshippers. Though Zoroastrians always pray before the fire, and consider it as a representative of God, they have never given fire the status of a God. It is just an agent to reach God. Just as talking through the phone does not mean we are talking to the phone, praying before the fire, does not necessarily mean praying to the fire.
Zoroastrians see fire as an omnipresent form of Ahura Mazda. A living, breathing entity, which is necessary for our spiritual evolution, a spiritual agent which takes our prayers to the celestial world and brings down “divine energy.”
Universal Reverence To Fire
Though reverence to fire is a universal phenomena, Zoroastrians have taken the practice of exalting fire to a special level.
Among the Hindus, Agni is considered a major God in Rig Veda. The entire 9th Mandala of Rigveda is dedicated to Agni. The Hindus light lamps called DIYAS during Diwali. They also have fires burning in their YAGNA rituals. Some of their priests are referred to as the AGNIHOTRI priests.
Greeks had the fire of HESTIA burning in every house. Romans had the Fire of VESTA burning 24 hours in the Vesta temples in the middle of the city. This fire was looked after by special priestesses referred to as Vestal virgins.
The Jews have a very potent symbolization of fire. God appeared to MOSES on Mt. Sinai in the form of a burning bush. The Christians are known to use fumigation as part of their religious practices, a fact recorded in Leviticus, a book of the Bible. Moreover, CANDLES in Churches represent the Purification of Virgin Mother Mary.
The Muslims too have the practice of FUMIGATION. According to Ain-i-Akbari, The Mughal emperor Akbar instructed his minister Abul Fazal to keep a fire burning in the palace for 24 hours as a representative of Allah.
A Zoroastrian overview
Throughout history, even before the time of prophet Zarathushtra, fire has been venerated not only as a symbol of the divine, but having a divinity of its own. Throughout the five main Mazdayasni /Zoroastrian dynasties in ancient Iran, fire has been given an eminent position in the religious life.
There were special spiritual fires in ancient Iran, which we do not have now. These spiritually burning fires are associated with Khvarenah “divine energy.” There were different fires for open congregational worship, especially at the time of festivals and thanksgiving.
Hushang, the Peshdadian king initiated the practice of revering fire as a divine being. It is said that he accidentally came across the divine brilliance residing in fire when he had gone hunting. His stone weapon, instead of striking an animal, hit another stone and the ensuing friction lit up the dry grass, resulting in a huge blaze. On seeing this fire, he exclaimed. “This is the effulgence of God, if you are wise you should revere it.”
King Hushang asked the Mazdayasnis to make a Kibla (object of focus) of fire and pray before it. He celebrated Jashane Sadeh to commemorate the discovery of the idea that there is divinity in fire. This fire was then established as Adar Khurdad, the first spiritual fire to be thus established.
Jamshed, another great Peshdadian king established a fire popularly known as Adar Khoreh, Adar Frah or Farnbagh on Mt. Gadmand-homand. Jamshed specially had a class of professionals termed as Athravans “tenders of fire” to look after it. This fire burned in Iran till the 9th century A. C. It is stated that this fire prevented the evil Zohak from taking the Khvarenah of Jamshed. King Minocheher of the Peshdadian dynasty established the Nav Bahar Atash Kadeh.
The Kayanian king Kae Khushru established Fire Gushnasp on Mt. Asnavant. The Sasanian kings Ardeshir I, Behramgur, Khushru Parviz and Yazdegard III went on foot to pay respect to this fire. In 610, when Heraclitas destroyed Azar Baizan, the fire was taken on a mountain and was again brought down when peace was established.
Even before Zarathushtra was recognised as a prophet, he offered reverence to fire. Later, he proclaimed fire to be the representative of Ahura Mazda. He declared Asha Vahishta (Ardibahesht Ameshaspand) to be its guardian divinity. He gifted his patron king Kae Gushtasp the spiritually burning fire Adar Burzin Meher, which did not require fuel and burnt without fumes.
In reliefs of the Achaemenian period (556 – 330 B. C.), we see kings Darius I and Xerxes I standing before the fire in a gesture of reverence and offering prayers. In another relief, an attendant of Darius I stands before fire with a hand on his face. Some Achaemenian seals and coins too depict kings tending fire.
Coins of Vologeses VI of the Parthian dynasty (247 B. C.- 224 A.C), depict a fire altar. Another seal depicts a fire altar with an attendant. A sculpture near Bahistun shows a Parthian nobleman offering incense to fire.
There is ample evidence from the Sasanian times (224 A.C.- 651 A.C.) to show that many Kings established Fire Temples. King Ardashir, the founder of the dynasty, himself had established three. On one of the coins of Hormaz I, the king is seen tending the fire with the help of an attendant. A coin of Shapur III has an image of a divine being emerging from fire. On a coin of king Narseh, he himself is shown tending the fire.
Role of Fire in Zoroastrianism
Son of Ahura Mazda – made in His image: As a son carries on the work of his father, fire furthers the mission of Ahura Mazda. Some of the qualities which fire shares with Ahura Mazda are: Brilliance, effulgence, life-giver, warrior against evil, warmth giver, a store house of Khvarenah (Divine Energy) and a destroyer of impurities. Like Ahura Mazda, fire is omnipresent, as it permeates in the cells and atoms of all creations as motion and energy.
A link to reach Ahura Mazda: Fire is the best medium and link between the material and spiritual worlds, as it is the best representative of Ahura Mazda in this world.
Representative in rituals: All Zoroastrian rituals are performed in the presence of natural light. In all rituals there is an inevitable need for fire. In most rituals there are two priests, the chief priest and the assistant priest. One of the terms used for the assistant priest is ātarvakhshi “one who tends the fire.”
Fire as divine judge: In the past, in ancient Iran, innocence of people was often judged by making them undergo the fire ordeal. In the Shahnameh, prince Siyavaksh had to pass from between burning piles of wood.
Keeps evil away: It is a practice among Zoroastrians to have embers burning in the house, generally in the kitchen, which are maintained continuously. Ritual purity is maintained especially around the place where the embers are kept. It is believed that if embers are kept in the house, divine blessing are drawn towards the house and house-holders, does not allow evil near the house and protects the inhabitants of the house. Not only while living, but even after death, fire protects the soul from the demon Vizaresh.
Consecrated fire as a King : In ancient Iran, there were three main divine fires– Adar Khordad, Adar Gushasp and Adar Burzin Meher. As these fires were spiritually manifested, they did not need consecration. From Zoroastrian scriptures as well as Rig Veda we learn that consecrating fires and installing them in sanctified places is a very old Indo-Iranian practice. The consecrated fires in fire temples are specially made. A consecrated fire has a body and consciousness (baodh). It has its own eyes and ears. It carries our prayers, brings boons and connects us with the divine. It is capable of bestowing gifts and rewards and giving retributions to the guilty.
Fire and man: Apart from the fact that both fire and human beings have to depend on each other for their physical and spiritual survival, there is a striking similarity between the two. The uncanny similarities can be established from the following:
- Both are living and breathing – both need fuel, oxygen, and depend on the sun for survival.
- Both have hierarchical status.
- Both are made of physical and spiritual constituents.
- Both serve as links between physical and spiritual worlds.
- No two are ever the same.
- Both can procreate another similar organism, which though similar is unique in itself.
- Both can be used either for good or for evil.
- Both have to be warriors (Av. rathaeshtāra) against evil forces.
- Both have to bring about an end of evil so that Frashkereti can happen.
Duties towards fire:
As Zoroastrian is expected to approach any type of fire with respect and love. If the fire is consecrated and sacred the reverence has to be all the more. When Zoroastrians approach fire, they are expected to take gift of dry, scented and pure wood which should be righteously earned. In Atash Nyaishna it is stated that the silent, sitting friend (fire) expects gifts from the walking friend (man).
A Zoroastrian is supposed to maintain physical and mental purity before approaching fire. A person who is ritually unclean is not supposed to approach a sacred fire. A Zoroastrian has to observe certain rules before approaching the sacred consecrated fire.
He has to take a bath for physical cleanliness.
He has to wear proper clothes befitting the dignity of the sacred fire.
He has to perform the Kasti ritual in the fire temple before approaching the fire.
Zoroastrians do not encourage smoking, not only because it is injurious to health, but also because the fire is abused by the act of smoking, as the saliva, considered “polluted matter” comes in indirect contact with fire.
Atash Nyaish is the beautiful Avestan Hymn to the fire which tells us how the fire should be respected, what we can ask from the fire and what the fires blesses those devotees with blessings who offer proper fuel. The blessings are for heaven, wealth, prosperity, alertness, fluent tongue, children with innate wisdom, health, consciousness for the soul. The fire expects clean, dry fuel, carried with prayer.” The person who offers fuel and tends the fire should be righteous, mature and pious.
When one is standing silently before a fire, one receives several silent admonitions
The ash of the fire, applied to the forehead by devotees in the fire temple, gives the message of equality and humility. Just as wood burns and turns to ash, men have to return to their basic elements. Thus in the end all mankind are equal.
One needs to be humble like the wood, which after giving fragrance, heat and light to mankind still maintains its simplicity in the form of ash. From this, man has to learn to serve mankind, even at the cost of self.
One needs to purify the self, since the process of burning purifies the environment, we should keep the element of purity in our minds while living.
Fire also gives the teaching for constant evolution in its act of always moving upwards. It tells man to be aware of the soul when it points upwards to the ultimate divine destiny.
Fire teaches man to be constantly linked between physical and spiritual worlds.
Fire as a source of light, symbolises knowledge which dispels ignorance of darkness.