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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee

Contents

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Zoroastrian
Worship

Introduction

Act of Worship - Prayers and Praying

The Eternal Flame

Prayer and the Manthra

Early Zoroastrian Worship

No Temples or Altars
Worshipping on High Places


Further reading:
» Zoroastrian Places of Worship
» Zoroastrian Priesthood


Introduction

Fire Sanctum
Sanctum in a Fire Temple

Zoroastrian worship practices have evolved from ancient times to the present day. Traditionally, Zoroastrians worship individually at home, or in the open, facing a source of light. Zoroastrian scriptures do not prescribe worshipping in a temple and make no mention of Zoroastrian places of worship.

In ancient times, historical records state than when the community gathered together for a religious event, they did so in open air gathering areas around a podium where a fire was lit. The gathering areas were on hillsides and hilltops.

Over time, Zoroastrians developed the concept of worshipping in temples, sometimes called fire temples. The temples contain an inner sanctum (pavi) or platform where a fire is maintained or placed. This is because Zoroastrians face a source of light when they pray. In temples the source of light is a flame maintained in a fire urn. In certain temples, this fire is kept burning continuously, representing an eternal flame.


Act of Worship - Prayers and Praying

Nowadays, even with the advent of temples, worship or praying for Zoroastrians is primarily an individual endeavour at home or in the open, by the sea, on hill tops, or in some other suitable open setting.

Parsi Zoroastrians worhsip beside the sea near the Gateway to India, Mumbai, in the early morning hours on Ava (Aban) roj (ruz, day), Ava (Aban) mah (month), a day dedicated to the reverence of water as an element of creation. Photo credit: Sue Darlow in a complied by Phil Masters, 2002.
Parsi Zoroastrians worship beside the sea near the Gateway to India, Mumbai,
in the early morning hours on Ava (Aban) roj (ruz, day), Ava (Aban) mah (month),
Abangan, a day dedicated to the reverence of water as an element of creation (see calendar).
Photo credit: Sue Darlow.

Zoroastrians worship together on special occasions often called a jashne or jashan (also jashn / jasan), words that evolved from yasna (Avestan), which later became yazishn (Middle Persian) and then izeshne or ijeshne.

Prayers offered by a congregation during the death anniversary of Zarathushtra. Khorsheed ruz (day), Dae mah (month). In the foreground: Aflatoon Sohrabi, Director of Shiraz Zoroastrian Anjuman
Prayers offered by a congregation during the death anniversary of Zarathushtra
Khorsheed ruz (day), Dae mah (month), (see calendar)
In the foreground: Aflatoon Sohrabi, Director of Shiraz Zoroastrian Anjuman
Photo credit; Shahram Poordehi at AmordadNews.com
Prayers offered by a congregation during the death anniversary of Zarathushtra. Khorsheed ruz (day), Dae mah (month). In the foreground: Aflatoon Sohrabi, Director of Shiraz Zoroastrian Anjuman Prayers offered by a congregation during the death anniversary of Zarathushtra. Khorsheed ruz (day), Dae mah (month). In the foreground: Aflatoon Sohrabi, Director of Shiraz Zoroastrian Anjuman
Devotees young and old at pilgrimage site Pir-e Sabz / Chak-Chak, Yazd, Iran.
Woman is holding her kushti in her hands. Photo credits: Left Berasad. Right AmordadNews.com

The orthodox will pray during each of the five divisions of the day (see our page on the Zoroastrian calendar) or gahs (see our page on the Avesta, scriptures) including reciting a special set of prayers before and after bathing.

Zoroastrians hold that the effectiveness of a person's beliefs is demonstrated in that person's deeds. While praying helps to reaffirm beliefs, a life based on good deeds is prayer in action. Our lives are the temples of our souls. This is a natural progression of the ethical creed of good thoughts, words and deeds, where good deeds are held to be most meritorious.

[Note: The word namaz or namaaz is used in modern Persian to mean prayer. It is derived from namazh, in turn derived from the Middle Persian namaach, a word with roots in the Avestan nemangh. Interestingly, in Avestan nemase-te means 'reverence to you'. Compare with Hindi namaste from Vedic Sanskrit namas-te meaning 'honouring-you'. The word namaz is now also used by Persian and Indo-Pakistani Muslims to mean prayer. Muslims have also taken the concept of praying five times a day and using a prayer cap or head-covering while praying from Zoroastrianism.]


The Eternal Flame

Fire - a Zoroastrian symbol
The Eternal Flame
in a Fire Chalice

Zoroastrians turn towards a flame (atarsh/athra/atash) or a source of light while praying. At the heart of a Zoroastrian place of worship burns a fire - and where possible the fire burns continuously symbolizing an eternal flame.

The temporal fire represents the spiritual flame (mainyu athra) within us and the ethical values of Asha: order, beneficence, honesty, fairness and justice.

In as much as the spiritual fire - the mainyu athra - is to be fed the fuel of good thoughts and a life led according to the principles of Asha (scriptural reference: Gatha 31.3), the temporal fire is fed pure fuels so that it too may burn with vigour and brightness. Further, as the spiritual fire will be diminished with bad or negative thoughts, the temporal fire is kept free from anything that will sully the flame.

The temporal fire also represents the fire of creation. In Ferdowsi's Shahnameh Zarathushtra held up a censer containing a flame and said to King Vishtasp "Look upon the heavens and the earth. God made them not with dust and water. Look upon the fire and behold therein how they were created."

Fire represents many ideas and ideals of the faith. Fire is a source of light and light represents wisdom while darkness represents ignorance. Ignorance and darkness are the absence of wisdom and light.

The passing of Zoroastrian ideas and values from one person to the next is symbolized by a new flame being lit from an existing one. When these ideas and values are passed from one generation to another without interruption, we have the notion of an 'eternal' flame, one that will endure the passage of time.

Standing before an eternal flame reciting a manthra is one way to contemplate the nature of God's creation and how to work in concert with God's creation - an act of piety and worship.

[Also see our page on Fire as well as athra / atash in our Overview page.

There are indications that dried shrubs, twigs and wood from Camel Thorn, Juniper and Plane (Chenar) trees were traditionally used for the atash-gah fires.]


Prayer and the Manthra / Mathra

In the Zoroastrian scriptures is a section called the Gathas or hymns. These hymns are believed to be the original words of Zarathushtra, faithfully preserved as an oral tradition through the generations. Zarathushtra, and later tradition, refer to the Gathas as mathra (later called a manthra).

Mantras are insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation on God's work, personal spiritual growth, introspection and commitment to the principles of the faith as well as personal goals. Even when the ancient words of a manthra are poorly understood, reciting a manthra has a calming, soothing effect that allows the mind to refocus itself.

The Scripture Selection page provides some verses from the Gathas and their translations.

Reciting a manthra is one form of prayer. Our good deeds are also a prayer in action. Our bodies are the temples of the spiritual flame - the mainyu athra that resides within us - and our lives are the temples of our souls.


Early Zoroastrian Worship

No Temples or Altars. Worshipping on High Places

Open Air Fire Altars(also thought to be ossuaries) at Naqsh-e-Rustam
Open Air Fire Platform
(also thought to be ossuaries)
at Naqsh-e-Rustam, Iran
Reign of Darius 522-486 BCE

Greek historian and visitor to ancient Persia, Herodotus, described (c. 430 BCE) the worship customs of the Persian Zoroastrians of his day as follows: "The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following: they have no images of the gods (a Greek manner of speaking), no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains..."

In addition to Herodotus' observations, there is evidence of early western (Persian and Median) open air places of worship in the higher reaches of the foothills of the Zagros and Bakhtiyari mountains (the western mountains of Iran, adjacent to the present Iran-Iraq border) dated to a few hundred years before Herodotus. Staircases led up to the terraces that had a podium on which fire containers were built or fire urns placed.

In the eastern (and perhaps original) regions of the Zoroastrian homeland, there are older (3,000 BCE?) outdoor worship sites in Tajikistan (see photo at the right).

The pages on Tajikistan
contain additional photographs of early worship sites.

Outdoor Zoroastrian worship platform overlooking Vrang village & Panj (Amu Darya) River, Tajikistan - 3000 BCE (?)
Outdoor Zoroastrian worship platform
overlooking Vrang village & Panj (Amu Darya) River,
Tajikistan - 3000 BCE (?)

In his epic, the Shahnameh, Ferdowsi states that legendary King Jamshid created four professional guilds of which the priesthood was the first. The Shahnameh goes on to state that King Jamshid:

"... separated the priesthood from other folk
and made its place of service in the mountains,
that God be adored in quietude."

Strabo, a Greek writer from the first century ACE, confirms the observations of Herodotus and other writers that "the Persians do not erect statues or altars, but 'offer sacrifice' (worship) on a high place," and that the worship ceremonies were officiated by the Magi, (the legendary Zoroastrian priests discussed further in the Priesthood Page).

Despite this early tradition, Zoroastrians did develop the concept of worshipping in temples. This development is discussed in our page on places of worship.

4th century CE, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus makes the following observations in his Rerum gestarum libri 23.6.31-32: "They have also as many cities as Media, and villages as strongly built as towns in other countries, inhabited by large bodies of citizens. In short, it is the richest residence of the kings. In these districts the lands of the Magi are fertile; and it may be as well to give a short account of that sect and their studies, since we have occasion to mention their name. Plato (our note: at Ax. 371D; Isoc. II.28, 227A), that most learned deliverer of wise opinions, teaches us that Magić (Magism) is by a mystic name Machagistia (Mazdayasni? If so, one of the few Western references to this name), that is to say, the purest worship of divine beings (cf. Pak Yazdan, the purest Divinity)."

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Further reading:
» Zoroastrian Places of Worship
» Zoroastrian Priesthood


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