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Zoroastrians are not required to accept specific creeds, but broadly to follow the prophet Zoroaster, who taught a code of ‘good thoughts, good words and good deeds’.
Zoroastrians believe that people were created by Ahura Mazda (God – the Wise Lord) to be his fellow workers (hamkar) in the fight against evil. The world is the battleground between good and evil and therefore it is their duty to fight against all manifestations of evil, both in the spiritual world (seen as cruelty, violence and greed), and the material world (for example, suffering, disease and decay). Equally it is each person’s duty to care for the Good Creation (Bundahishn) whether in the form of the environment, ensuring justice or care for other people.
There is no tradition of monasticism in Zoroastrianism; to retreat from the world would be to spurn Ahura Mazda’s creation. People have a duty to get married, have children and to expand the army of Ahura Mazda.
Zoroastrians believe in the importance of charitable giving, notably in educational ventures and medicine, and this has long been a characteristic Zoroastrian duty with charity viewed as inter-communal across all faiths.
The key religious practice for Zoroastrians is to recite the sudre/kusti prayers with which each Zoroastrian is invested at initiation (naujote). The sudre is a white cotton garment worn next to the skin and a lamb’s wool cord tied around the waist (similar to a Brahmin’s cord except in Zoroastrianism this is the symbol for all believers). These are spoken of as the ‘armour of the religion in the war against evil’. When the Zoroastrian goes to temple they stand and pray before the perpetually burning sacred fire (atash), in which they believe God is physically present.
The fire temple will also have a ritual room, urvisgah, where the higher ceremonies are performed by the priests on behalf of the laity, for example in memory of the deceased. Laity may attend these ceremonies but rarely do.
The Zoroastrian scripture is a book known as the Vestal. From latter texts we know that only about a quarter of the original has survived. The surviving portion is concerned with priestly rituals and is believed to be spiritually powerful and authoritative.
Inevitably, in a religion as old as this one, there are many shades of belief and various interpretations of the faith. There are orthodox and reform groups who interpret the tradition differently, with some emphasizing the mythology and others not.
In India some Parsis have been influenced by Hindu beliefs regarding rebirth, an influence not felt in Iran. In the western Diaspora there is a greater emphasis on understanding the meaning of prayers and knowing the doctrinal teachings, whereas in India the emphasis is on identity and being a member of the community rather than on teachings. There are, of course, exceptions to this, most notably a movement called ‘Zoroastrian Studies’ led by an Oxford graduate based in Mumbai. However, the core teachings supporting the myths of creation and the end of time (Frashegird), the conflict between good and evil, care for the world, and the belief that one will be judged by the balance of good and evil thoughts, words and deeds, have continued to hold firm.
All the leading figures who followed Zoroaster in ancient and modern times have claimed only to interpret the poetic hymns of the prophet. His teaching is seen as showing the path of Righteousness to Heaven (called the House of Song).
There are no rites associated with the child at birth, though new babies are often given a special strengthening drink made from water, fermented hom tree juice and pomegranate leaves.
The first major stage in life is initiation (naujote = new birth) which should take place just before puberty when the child of Zoroastrian parents chooses to join the army of Ahura Mazda and undertake the obligations of the religion. The ceremony involves the investiture by the priest with the sacred shirt and cord (sudre and kusti) which all Zoroastrians, male or female wear next to the skin like a vest throughout life (except when bathing).
Marriage is a religious duty in order to have children and expand the Good Creation of Ahura Mazda. Not even a High Priest (Dastur) can perform the higher liturgical ceremonies until he has married, because he is not a full man. The wedding ceremony is performed by priests. Initially, the couple sit facing each other with a curtain between them; when this is lowered it is popularly thought that the first person to shower rice (a sign of fertility) over the other will dominate the marriage. A cord is passed several times round them both symbolising the marriage bond. After this the couple sit side by side, affirm that they wish to get married and are blessed by the priest(s). Parsis have their own marriage laws in India. Divorce is more common than in much of Indian society but far less than in the West. It can be instituted by women as much as men, for example for adultery, cruelty or infertility.
Death is believed to be ultimately unnatural as Ahura Mazda created the first human being immortal. The death of a righteous person is a greater victory for evil than that of a wicked person and so the corpse is more polluting, though all dead bodies are regarded as unclean. The body, therefore, has to be treated in a special manner. It is taken to the funeral ground where professionals wash it. The corpse is then laid on a slab and a circle is drawn around it. No-one except the corpse bearers should enter the circle. A priest prays beside the body until the time of the funeral which should be the same day if possible.
At the time of the funeral the body is taken into a Tower of Silence (dokhma) and exposed to be consumed by vultures which dispose of the body in half an hour during which time the bereaved pray in a nearby hall. After the bones have dried in the sun they are then cast into a central pit where acid is poured. There are strong religious reasons for this mode of disposal. Zoroastrians believe that the earth, waters and fire are sacred so the body cannot be buried, cast into the sea or cremated. Ahura Mazda created everything for a purpose and the purpose of vultures is to consume dead matter to stop it polluting creation. Parsis also argue that it is the most hygienic form of funeral as it does not waste land. Everyone is treated in this manner, whether they are rich or poor, man or woman. Where there is no dokhma the dead may be buried in a stone coffin to save polluting the earth or, as in the western Diaspora, they are cremated and the ashes buried in their own cemeteries. The family prays either in the temple or at home to aid the soul on its way to judgment. On the 4th day after death there is the uthumna ceremony when charitable gifts are announced which Zoroastrians see as a better memorial than an elaborate tomb or gravestone.
Ceremonies are a time for people to gather; jashans can be celebrations with the wording changed to suit the occasion. These include, a blessing for a new home (in which case it is held in the home), to celebrate an important event or as a petition, for example, for rain. For these there should be at least 4 priests with any number of devotees from few to several hundred. However, worship remains individual as worshippers gain spiritual sustenance through watching the priestly rituals.
The main Zoroastrian liturgy is the Yasna, which may be attended only by Zoroastrian initiates. The Yasna, which consists of 72 chapters of text, is performed as the sun rises in order to symbolise the fire of asha (the empowering force of Ashura Mazda) scattering light and heat over creation and dispelling the darkness of ignorance and evil.
There are six seasonal festivals which probably predate Zoroaster which are known as the gahambars when it is customary for Zoroastrians to gather in worship (celebrate a rite known as the jashan, with many layers of symbolism including the priestly exchange of flowers symbolising the passage of the soul (urvan) from one life to the next) and in joyous fellowship over food. These were originally agricultural festivals but have acquired a very Zoroastrian symbolism representing together with No Ruz the seven creations sky, water, earth, plants, cattle, man and No Ruz celebrating fire (see symbols).
No Ruz is the Iranian New Year (Jamshedi No Ruz March 21st) celebrated by all Iranians, Zoroastrian or Muslim and is observed by many Parsis.
The gahambars have been celebrated in Iran for centuries as obligatory festivals but they largely died out among the Parsis in India as the community became highly urbanised in Bombay/Mumbai thereby losing the agricultural roots. In the diaspora, however, under Iranian Zoroastrian influence, they have again become important and popular community festivals, though there are three different calendars among Zoroastrians. Shenshai, is the most common in India (their No Ruz is in August), Kadmi, the minority reformed calendar, and the twentieth-century Fasli which seeks harmony with the Gregorian calendar.
A popular festival is Khordad Sal, the birthday of Zoroaster (mid-August for the Shenshai); Zartusht-no-diso remembers the death of Zoroaster (Shenshai late May) and particularly holy are what the Iranians know as Farvardigan (Parsis Muktad, Shenshai mid August) the last 10 days of the year when the souls of the departed are welcomed and entertained and during which time the Gathas of Zoroaster are recited.
Zoroastrians recite their prayers in the sacred language of Avestan believing that the words have spiritual power, that is true of the festival prayers but they are also joyous times of coming together as a community be that in Iran or the Diaspora.
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