Ways of Expressing Meaning

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.


Stories of Faith

The key stories for Zoroastrians are the myths surrounding the life of the prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrians highlight his visions, his call by Ahura Mazda, the fact that he could perform miracles due to divine support and his mortality because he was murdered.

An epic work both in literary nature and size, is the Shah Nama, translating as the Book of the Kings. It was written by an Iranian poet under the pseudonym ‘Firdausi’ (the paradisal) in Persian in the 11th century CE, but drew extensively on much earlier Zoroastrian texts. It tells the story of Iran from creation until the Islamic conquest of the country, by transforming ancient Zoroastrian myths into legends, and relating the bravery and prowess of heroes and the evil deeds of tyrants and enemies. These provide stories enjoyed by adults and used for bed time reading by young Zoroastrians. Many Zoroastrian first or personal names are from figures in the Shah Nama, for example Rustam, a legendary hero, who fought many Iranian enemies and has become a role model for many.

Among Parsis, a much loved story is the Qesse ye Sanjan, The Tale of Sanjan. It was written in Persian couplets in 1599 by a Parsi priest and relates the story of the arrival of the Parsis as refugees from Islamic persecution in the Iranian homeland. It tells of how their ship was threatened by a storm at sea and, following prayer, a gentle breeze and guidance of priests with knowledge of astrology, they were brought safely to the port of Sanjan on the west coast of India. This is interpreted as the settlement in India being an answer to prayer, and ‘written in the stars’ as their destiny. The tale continues to tell the story of the consecration of the first Atash Bahram (a ‘cathedral’ or royal fire temple) and the travails of the Parsis as they protected the Atash Bahran when they were attacked by Muslim invaders of India. Woven into the story are historical details behind customs with the whole reflecting positively the Parsi attitude to India, a land where the Parsis have gained religious freedom and security.

Symbols of Faith

For many Zoroastrians, the living flame of the sacred fire (Atash) is the greatest symbol of ‘He who is pure undefiled light’. However, orthodox Parsis believe that Ahura Mazda is physically present in the sacred flame, and therefore take a more sacramental interpretation. Therefore, if a Zoroastrian cannot pray before a flame he may pray before a light, ideally the sun.

Other important symbols include the sudre and kusti (sacred shirt and cord respectively), which represent the spiritual ‘armour’ of the religion, and a portrait of the prophet Zoroaster often found with a lighted oil lamp in front of it to symbolise the sacred fire.

There are no anthropomorphic symbols of Ahura Mazda. A symbol of Ahura Mazda that decorates many Zoroastrian religious buildings, homes and worn as a broach or necklace is what is known as the winged symbol. It was historically derived from Babylonian art but was used as a common motif in the magnificent Achaemenid dynasty (6th to 4th century BCE) palace.

Other motifs and figures from the sculptures at Persepolis decorate the walls of temples to express the great antiquity of the religion of which all Zoroastrians are proud.

An ancient and common symbol of evil is the fly as it is associated with rotting, decaying and dead matter and therefore seen as a pollutant. Other animals are viewed as natural killers and thought to represent evil, for example, snakes and scorpions, lions and wolves. The ancient texts say these were invisible forces of evil created by Ahriman (the evil one) but Ohrmazd made them visible so that humans could see them and thus avoid their deadly work.

Other creatures represent the Good Creation, with the cow being a particularly good example as it is peaceable and gives of itself through its milk, its hide, its dung (used like coal for fires) and its body as food. Traditionally, the most holy animal is the dog as it embodies the virtues of loyalty, devotion and obedience. Zoroastrians see the animal world as powerful symbols of, and participants in, the conflict between the bounty of the Good Creation and the destructive forces of evil.

The common Zoroastrian emblems and their expression in art and architecture are sometimes reflected in language, with, for example, Zoroastrian references to the living flame within all good living things. Similarly, the military connotations of the sudre and kusti (the sacred shirt and cord worn next to the skin by all Zoroastrians after initiation) have led to these being regarded as the ‘armour’ of the religion, with Zoroastrians often describing themselves as the ‘army of Ahura Mazda’ in the war with the forces of evil’.

Expressing Faith through Worship

Zoroastrians worship, in the sense of praying, anywhere facing Ahura Mazda’s creation, fire, light or water. The sudre kusti prayers are the key form of daily worship. There is no compulsion to visit the fire temple (Dar-i Mihr, Persian for Court of Mithra, or Agiary, Gujarati for House of Fire), nor any special day of the week.

In practice most Parsis in India visit the temple often as part of their daily routine, calling on the way to work. At the entrance to the temple there is a place to wash the exposed parts of the body and say the sudre kusti prayers to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually. Outside shoes are removed.

In India, only Parsis or Iranian Zoroastrians may enter, whereas in Iran there is more open access. There is usually a hall inside the entrance with pictures of the heroes of the faith such as the prophet Zoroaster, the benefactor who built the temple and revered priests of former times. These meant to inspire the worshipper. The prayer room is oblong in shape with one wall forming the sanctuary and surrounded by other walls, and including a doorway through which the officiating priest (Mobed) enters. The Mobed feeds the fire with sweet smelling sandalwood five times a day. The priest wears clothes with a cap and a mask over his mouth (padan) and nose in order to ensure he does not defile the fire with his impure breath. The worshipper kneels and bows his or her head before the fire, having previously left an offering of sandalwood in the doorway for the priest to lie on the fire. The worshipper takes a pinch of ash from a metal ‘spoon’ and puts it on his forehead in order to unite himself with the fire. (S)he then stands reciting prayers before the sacred fire (Atash) in which Ahura Mazda is thought to be physically present . Prayer is individual, and not congregational, with the worshipper approaching Ahura Mazda alone even when in the company of others.

Temples and Pilgrimage

There are two grades of fire temple according to the category of fire within (there is also a third grade of fire which can be set by any Zoroastrian at home). The grade is determined by the type of consecration.

The highest grade of temple is the Atash Bahram sometimes referred to as ‘Cathedral’ Fire Temples. These are often the foci of pilgrimage. The Fire Temple in the small Indian village of Udwada contains a fire which continues to burn following its consecration after the Parsis arrived in India (probably eighth century CE) and which has been tended by teams of priests ever since. It is popularly known as Iranshah- the King of Iran.

In recent times, a custom has developed of trying to visit all eight Indian Atash Bahrams in one day (all located in Mumbai and Gujarat) to derive spiritual power from all the most sacred fires.

The ‘ordinary’ Dar-i Mihrs or agiaris have the second grade of fire – Adaran. They might aptly be called spiritual power houses as one stands in the presence of the divine. There is no set architectural style although most are decorated with motifs from the ancient royal Iranian palace of Persepolis dating from the sixth century BCE