Amazing Facts about Zoroastrianism

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Zoroastrianism is an ancient religion that is associated with Iran and Afghanistan, its places of origin. It has some elements in common with Islam and Hinduism, among other religions. Zoroastrianism once had a substantial presence in the Caucasus and Armenia, and its influence can still be found in Dagestan. There remains an unused Zoroastrian fire temple in Georgia. Nowadays the most Zoroastrians are in India and Iran, although there are diaspora to be found around the world, from Kurdistan to Canada and Hong Kong. Zoroastrians today are remarkably diverse. For example, there are differences of opinion about whether or not God is omnipotent, whether or not people should worship fire, whether or not we reincarnate after we die, and whether or not there is a revealed Zoroastrian sacred law (comparable to the Islamic sharia).

Contents:

All about fire

Sacred text: the Avesta

Beings of light: the Amesha Spentas

Your beautiful self: Daena

All about fire

Fire occupies a very important place in Zoroastrianism. Historically, Zoroastrians have been known for worshiping fire. However, a significant number of modern Zoroastrians do not worship fire. In the Zoroastrian scriptures, fire is referred to as the “son of Ahura Mazda.” Fires are expected to be treated with reverence and protected from abuse or pollution. This is especially the case for the sacred fires contained in fire temples or altars, but it also applies to all fires in general.

Fire is considered to be an essentially sacred entity and a direct symbol or manifestation of divinity. Fire is particularly associated with the angelic quality or entity (depending on the interpretation) called Asha. Asha has been translated as “truth,” “righteousness,” and “order,” among other things; and Asha is also known as an archangelic entity (ameshaspenta) with a personality. Asha is revered in one of the principal Zoroastrian prayers as “the greatest good,” and similarly, fire is regarded as the most sacred element. Fire is also considered a symbol of spiritual light and the inner spiritual flame (mainyu athra) that illuminates the path of truth and righteousness.

Fire is associated with creation as well. In the historical saga Shahnameh, Zarathustra is quoted as saying “Look at the heavens and the earth. God did not make them with dust and water. Look upon the fire and witness therein how they were created.” [3]

Fire Temples

According to traditional Zoroastrianism, the most appropriate place for a fire is the altar in the fire temple, and when fires are used for worldly purposes, this is intended only to be a temporary concession. Fires used for worldly purposes are supposed to be brought back to the fire altar eventually. [1]

The fire altar in the fire temple is tended to by ordained priests. It is required to be kept burning at all times, as a symbol of the eternal flame of Asha (Truth/Righteousness). It is fed with pure fuels and protected from contaminants, as a symbol of how Zoroastrians should inwardly remain pure. Some possible historical fuels for the sacred fires are twigs and wood from Camel thorn, Juniper, and Plane trees. [2]

Although Zoroastrians may sometimes worship in fire temples, it is usual on a day-to-day basis for them to worship at home, or in an open space while facing a source of light. Some evidence, such as accounts from Greek historians Strabo and Herodotus, indicates that the Zoroastrians in their time worshiped on platforms in high places and did not have temples or altars. [2]

Types of Fire

In organized Zoroastrianism, there have historically been many types of fire. The three principal types are Atash Bahram (victorious fire), Atash Adaran (fire of fires), and Atash Dadgah (court fire). Each of these types of fire is lit, consecrated, and maintained differently. The Atash Barham needs to be maintained by a Dastur (High Priest), the Atash Adaran requires only a Mobed (Advanced Priest), and the Atash Dadgah does not require any priest. The consecration of the Atash Barham requires 32 priests and can take up to a year; the consecration of the Atash Adaran requires eight priests and may take several weeks; the consecration of the Atash Dadgah requires one or two priests and can be done in a few hours. [3]

Sacred text: the Avesta

The Avesta is the main body of Zoroastrian religious texts. Many parts of the Avesta, and sometimes the whole Avesta, are attributed directly to the prophet Zarathustra. The Avesta is divided into two parts, the Old Avesta and the Younger Avesta, which are linguistically and stylistically different, and usually held to come from different periods. The Old Avesta includes the Gathas, which are widely considered the holiest part of the Avesta by Zoroastrians, and sometimes considered the only part truly written by him. The Gathas are contained in the Yasna, which are other prayers in the Old Avestan language. The Younger Avesta is in a different, newer-seeming language, and includes diverse content such as the daily prayers recited by Zoroastrians, the Vendidad, and accounts of the afterlife.

There are different opinions among Zoroastrians as to whether the Avesta was non-participatively revealed by Ahura Mazda, or authored by Zarathustra himself, or some combination of the two. Conservative Zoroastrians more often hold the first opinion, while more liberal Zoroastrians are more likely to accept only the Gathas and believe that they were authored by Zarathustra rather than revealed to him.

History of the Avesta

The date of the authoring and/or revelation of the Avesta is disputed. Estimates for the age of the oldest part, the Gathas, have ranged from 7000 B.C. to 200 B.C. One Zoroastrian scholar, J.M. Chatterji, claimed that the Gathas were originally part of the Vedas.

The original Avesta was said by Pliny to have had two million verses. Others say that approximately a fourth of the Avesta has survived. According to Zoroastrian tradition, the original Avesta contained 21 volumes. Each volume is said to correspond to a word of the Ahuna Vairya, the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer, which has 21 words. Three of the lost volumes are said to have been commentaries on the Gathas. The content of the lost volumes has been summarized in medieval Pahlavi texts, notably the Dinkard and the Bundahishn.

Most of the original Avesta is believed to have been lost during the invasions of Alexander the Great, the medieval Arabs, and possibly the later Turks and Mongols. Only the 19th volume, the Vendidad, is considered fully preserved by some Zoroastrians, while others consider it a fabrication.

In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Zoroastrian tradition says that there were two full manuscripts of the Avesta at that time; one was destroyed by Alexander, and he took the other to disseminate among the Greeks. After the Zoroastrians regained Persia, they began compiling the Avesta again from fragments that had been written down or memorized.

During the Arab conquest of Iran, one story says that the Caliph Umar ordered all the books from the Library of Ctesiphon to be destroyed. However, some scholars think that the Avesta was not destroyed at that time because detailed summaries of the Avesta were written centuries after the Arab conquest.

Whatever remained of the Avesta following the Arab conquests may have been destroyed during the extremely destructive Mongol conquests, in which the Library of Baghdad was destroyed and Iran as a whole experienced unprecedented devastation.

Translations of the Gathas

The Gathas have been translated much more often than the rest of the Avesta. Translations have been very diverse depending on the approach used. Some methodologies include the Western philological approach, the mystical approach of the Ilk-e-Khshnoom school, and the traditional approach based largely on Pahlavi texts. Some translators rely more on similarities between Avestan and Sanskrit, which are sister languages, while other rely more on medieval Pahlavi texts or original reasoning. Many words that are interpreted as simple pastoral terms by Western translators are given a wider meaning by Zoroastrian translators. For example, the same phrase may translated as either “soul of the bull” or “soul of the world”; other such pairs include “milk” and “prosperity”, “butter” and “knowledge”, and so on.

Notable Western translations include those of Arthur Bleeck, Stanley Insler, Helmut Humbach, M.L. West, Christian Bartholomae, and Kenneth Guthrie. Notable Zoroastrian translations have been made by J.M. Chatterji, Ali Jafarey, Firouz Azargoshasb, Piloo Nanavutty, and D. J. Irani.

Beings of Light: Amesha Spentas

In Zoroastrian doctrine, the Amesha Spentas are the seven first creations and the holiest beings after (or sometimes including) Ahura Mazda. The word ‘ameshaspenta’ has been translated as ‘bounteous immortal’, ‘Essence of God’, ‘Divine Spark’, ‘Divine Attribute’, and ‘Archangel’. The name of each Amesha Spenta can be interpreted as designating an attribute of Ahura Mazda, an archangel corresponding to that attribute, and a quality of ordinary beings like humans which is to be cultivated. The Amesha Spentas are named Vohu Mana, Asha, Kshathra, Armaiti, Haurvetat, Ameretat, and Ahura Mazda. The term ‘ameshaçpenta’ is sometimes used to refer to only the six Amesha Spentas other than Ahura Mazda, sometimes to refer to all seven, and sometimes it is used as a broad term for all of the Yazatas (“Archangels”).

The Amesha Spentas are divided into male and female. This is done according to their linguistic gender. Vohu Mana, Asha, and Kshathra are linguistically neuter and therefore male, while Armaiti, Haurvetat, and Ameretat are linguistically feminine and therefore female. The name Ahura Mazda is both masculine and feminine, since Ahura is masculine and Mazda is feminine.

Some of the Amesha Spentas are described as Ahura Mazda’s offspring. For example, Vohu Mana is said to be his son and Armaiti is said to be his daughter.

Vohu Mana

Vohu Mana may designate a human faculty of intelligence, a higher state of being which is to be reached by means of this faculty, the metaphysical space within which the faculty exists, and a specific archangelical entity with a personality. Vohu means good, and Mana has been translated variously as thought, mind, mindedness, thinking, intention, and disposition. One translator has Vohu Mana as ’’conscience’’, and others have rendered it as ‘’reason’’.

Asha

Asha is usually translated as truth, right, righteousness, or justice. Other translations include law, reality, order, beauty, purity, holiness, freedom, superb brilliance and excellence, and artistic ingenuity. According to the Ashem Vohu (the second most important Zoroastrian prayer) Asha is the greatest good in existence, and a supreme source of happiness for all who possess it. Asha is symbolized by fire, which is the most important and revered physical element for Zoroastrians.

Kshathra

Kshathra has been translated as dominion, power, control, and sovereignty. Sometimes the word is used to refer to the ‘’Kingdom of Heaven’’, sometimes to speak of benevolent political rulership, and sometimes to speak of a person’s benevolent sovereignty over their own self.

Armaiti

Armaiti is translated very diversely. These translations include faith, piety, devotion, love, service, peace, serenity, tranquility, divine wisdom, and contemplation.

Haurvetat and Ameretat

Haurvetat means perfection, integrity, completeness and wholeness. It’s almost always paired with Ameretat, which means immortality. These two are translated more consistently than the other Amesha Spentas.

Amesha Spentas and Elements

The order the Amesha Spentas are presented in above is the order they are said to have been created in. Each of the Amesha Spentas symbolically corresponds to an element or class of living beings. The correspondence normally given is:

  • Vohu Mana corresponds to Animal Life.
  • Asha corresponds to Ether and Fire.
  • Kshasthra corresponds to Minerals and Metal.
  • Armaiti corresponds to Earth,
  • Haurvetat corresponds to Water, and the Ambrosia of Paradise.
  • Ameretat corresponds to Plants, and the Nectar of Paradise.
  • Ahura Mazda corresponds to Man.

It is worth noting that the order of the production of the elements is different from the order of the creation of the Amesha Spentas. The elements and associated Amesha Spentas are celebrated during the six Gahambar festivals throughout the year, which are timed according to the seasons and represent the development of matter and its final return to the Spirit. The same elements and Amesha Spentas are also celebrated on the six Jashan days every month, which are done in the order of the creation of the Amesha Spentas.

Your beautiful self: Daena

The word Daena designates several concepts within Zoroastrianism. It can designate a person’s words, actions, thoughts, and intentions, especially envisioned from a moral perspective. It can also mean religion or conscience in a general sense. Daena also designates the Fravashi, which is the innermost angelical soul and also a sort of guardian angel. According to some schools of thought, the Daena is not uniquely possessed by human beings; everything is said to have a Daena, including the supreme deity Ahura Mazda. Daena is also considered to be a specific archangel (yazata). The Daena is notably described as sometimes appearing in the form of a beautiful young maiden.

Daena in the Gathas

The Gathas are widely considered the most significant and sacred Zoroastrian text. The word Daena is used more than thirty times in the Gathas, with various meanings. It generally designates the doctrine and teachings of Zarathustra, but the word is also used to designate religions or ways of living in general, and thus there is mention of the Daena of the evil person. The Daena appears as something abstract or manifested in a person’s choices, which benefits, honors, and helps the righteous, yet leads the evil to destruction. In the Gathas the idea of the Daena as a distinct individual entity with a physical appearance is not elaborated, unlike in later texts.

Daena as Soul or Guardian Angel

In later Zoroastrian texts the word Fravashi is often used to designate the Daena in the sense of guardian angel or innermost soul. According to the Zoroastrian doctrines, a person’s original innermost essence is the Daena or Fravashi, a heavenly being of light that chose to descend into the darkness of this world and do battle with evil. The individual soul in this world is a battleground between the Daena and demonic forces; so a righteous person is protected by their Daena and becomes one with it again after death, whereas the evil person is distanced from their original Daena and is lost in darkness.

Appearance of the Daena after Death

In various Zoroastrian texts, excluding the Gathas, the Daena is portrayed taking on a physical form when she meets a man after his death. The most commonly mentioned form is that of a beautiful fifteen-year-old virgin. This description is found in Zoroastrian texts such as Hadokht Nask, the Bundahishn, and the Book of Arda Viraf. Hadokht Nask of the Avesta describes the Daena of the righteous man as “beautiful, bright, with rosy [or white] arms, strong, majestic, with an upright and slender form, an admirable body, noble, of illustrious race, fifteen years of age, with a body brighter than the brightest of creatures.”

In the Bundahishn, other forms of the Daena are mentioned: the form of a fat cow, and the form of a garden. The Bundahishn also mentions the Daena as she appears to the evil man after his death: in the form of a weak and sickly cow, then a hideous and ugly young woman, then a dry and barren garden. Thus, the forms perceived depend on the moral qualities of the person.

In the narrative of the Bundahishn, the man asks the forms of the Daena who they are, and they all respond, “I am your Deen” (‘Deen’ being a later form of the word ‘Daena’). In the Hadokht Nask, the man asks “What maiden are you, most beautiful of all maidens I have ever seen?”, and the Daena responds, “I am your good thoughts, your good words and your good actions, the very nature [Daena] of your own body.”

References

“Translating the Holy Gathas of Zarathustra Spitama”, from Expressing the Inexpressible (Thesis for Marlboro College, 2014), by Zebulon Goertzel

Content taken from Lunyr articles written by me.