Zoroastrianism - Some Important Beliefs and Practices of Zoroastrian Religion

Zarathushtra or Zoroaster, the Founder of Zoroastrianism

by Jayaram V

Balance and Moderation

In Zoroastrianism there is a great deal of emphasis on leading a balanced life. The body is susceptible to evil where as the spirit is immune from it. But both are deemed important for practicing righteousness and doing what is desirable for the creator. While living upon earth one should aim to "seek the maintenance and prosperity of the body without injury to soul and preservation of the soul without injury to the body," (Menog-i-Khrad).

One should avoid excesses of all kinds, such as covetousness, lustfulness and unseasonable chatter. The body and soul should be well maintained by practicing the three commandments preached by Zoroaster: good thoughts, good words and good actions. Actions should be guided by the principle of moderation for the greater good of oneself and others. The body should not be subjected to extreme harshness but kept strong so that it would be immune to the the evil forces. Whether it is drinking wine or eating food, the guiding principle is whether such acts are impairing one's ability to think good thoughts, speak good words and do good actions.

Performance of sacrificial rituals, paying visits to the fire temple, offering prayers, following the teachings of Zoroaster and reciting the sacred verses are the recommended methods to live righteously in this world. Fasting is not a recommended religious practice. Zoroastrianism does not find any virtue in renouncing the world or becoming a monk. There is no place for asceticism or renunciation either. It does not entertain the concept of spiritual liberation. The souls are already liberated. They are in the material world, for a specific purpose, as per God's decree, who commanded them to be upon earth and wait for end of the world. Man's duty is to fulfill that purpose, not escape from it. Monkhood and monastic orders are therefore not recognized institutions in Zoroastrianism. Followers are advised to lead normal and healthy lives safeguarding themselves against the dangers posed evil forces. They should live righteously, doing their part, get married and beget children, cultivate the good qualities represented by the six Amesha Spentas and keep the good in them alive and active.

Sudre and Kusti

Zoroastrian wear, Sudre, a white upper garment, as a symbol of purity, and kusti, a sacred thread, around their waists. They are worn for protection. It is believed that those who do not wear these are mysteriously harmed by the evil forces. They are also used to profess one's faith in the religion. According to Denkard, those who do not wear kusti or Sudre are "equal to men of alien religion and not considered to belong to the true faith." In Zoroastrianism it is "a sinful act to keep the body unclothed with the Sudre and to wear Sudre without the girdle of the kusti." The kusti is made of 72 strands of lamb's wool. Each strand symbolizes a chapter in the Yasna. It is wound three times around the waist, signifying the three great commandments, namely, humata (good thoughts), hukta (good words) and harshvata (good deeds). A sacred mantra is chanted while tying or untying the kusti. Tradition demands that the kusti is worn in the middle of the body to signify the importance of balance and moderation in human life.

Naujote

In Zoroastrianism, young boys and girls are admitted into the community through an initiation ceremony called Naujote. It is usually performed when a child is of seven or nine years age. In exceptional cases the maximum prescribed age is 15. Age is important because a child is initiated into the religions only when he has enough awareness and maturity to make an intelligent decision to become a follower of God and live a life of righteousness. Unlike in Vedic religion, in Zoroastrianism the initiation ceremony is performed for both boys and girls without any discrimination. During the ceremony, the initiate is given a sacred bath and made to wear Sudre (white garment) and kusti (sacred thread) to signify the beginning of their lives on the spiritual path.

Yasna

Like the yajna of the Vedic people, yasna is a sacrificial ritual, performed daily in the morning hours by two qualified Zoroastrian priests at a designated sacred place in a fire temple. In Zoroastrianism rituals are an important aspect of religious practice. Apart from the material gains that may accrue, they are performed to enhance and invigorate the purity and righteousness of the world in general and people in particular, so that they remain immune to the forces of evil. In a yasna, the priests usually chant the sacred manthras and make sacrificial offerings symbolically to the sacred fire, which is a symbol of god and seek His blessings. The Yasna is therefore is a tool of righteousness, the practice of which is equal to the practice of the three commandments of God, namely to practice as well as live in the company of good thoughts, good words and good actions.

Apart from its ethical implications, the yasna has a symbolic significance. The various sacrificial items used in the yasna symbolically represent some aspects of God's invisible creation. The fire used in the sacrifice represents God Himself as a symbol of light and recipient of the offerings, and also Asha Vahishta or the spirit of Purity and Righteousness. The barsom, the twigs or the metal wire, used in the sacrifice, represents the connecting link between the visible and the invisible aspects of creation. The metal implements used in the ritual such as the cups, saucers and the stands represent the sky and Kshatra Virya, the creative power of God. The earth and the stones used in the construction of the ritual place represent the earth and Aramaiti, the spirit of devotion. Milk, butter and the hair from a white bull represent the animal kingdom and spirit of Good Mind. The fruit, haoma (wine or a sacred drink) and pomegranate twigs represent plant kingdom and the spirit of Ameretat or Immortality. Consecrated water represent the waters of the world and Haurvatat or the spirit of Purity and Wholeness. The priests themselves through their righteous conduct represent humans as a part of the divine force.

Ahuna Vairya Mantra

Just as the Hindus chant Gayatri mantra and consider it as very sacred, the Parsis chant Ahuna Vairya Mantra which is considered to be very sacred by them. according to the scriptures of Zorastrianism, Ahura Mazda uttered this manthra at the time creation and manifested the whole creation. He also used it to drive away Angra Mainyu when he tried to invade the kingdom of God. According to the Zoroastrian texts, Angra Mainyu was so terried upon hearing the manthra that he fell back into the abyss and remained their stupefied for 3000 years. The significance of this mantra is such that chanting of it is considered to be equivalent to chanting of all the sacred texts. By chanting it continuously, the Parsis believe that one can drive away forces of darkness both within and without. The mantra is reproduced below both in the Avestan and English

Avestan:

ýathâ ahû vairyô

athâ ratush ashâtcît hacâ

vanghêush dazdâ mananghô

shyaothananãm anghêush mazdâi

xshathremcâ ahurâi â

ýim drigubyô dadat vâstârem!!

English:

The will of the Lord is the law of righteousness.

The gifts of Vohu-mano to the deeds done in this world for Mazda.

He who relieves the poor makes Ahura king.

The first line of the verse says that just as a ahu (king) is powerful on earth, a ratu (a seer or a great soul ) is powerful everywhere because of his Asha. The second line of the verse says that the gifts of Vahumano are for those who work for the Lord of life. It means that Vahumano bestows his boons (love and purity of thought) upon those who indulge in good thoughts and good actions according to the divine will of God. The third line of the verse says that the Supreme power of God is bestowed upon him who considers himself as the helper of the meek and the lowly. The third line thus lays special emphasis on the concept of Sraosha or service.

The three great Commandments

According to Zoroastrian tenets men of faith should live upon earth doing what is desirable for the Creator. Through wisdom they should come to know what God wants and do it for His sake. The best way to accomplish it is by practicing righteousness through the three commandments given to them through Zoroaster. The three commandments are humata (good thought), hukhta (good word), and havarshta (good deeds). According to Zoroastrian beliefs, good thoughts keep the mind free from impurities. Holy thoughts are the source of good words and good deeds. Through good thoughts, good works and good deeds one can communicate with Vohu Mano and other divine entities. They enhance the power of the good forces in the world and increase their numbers. They also weaken and slow down the influx of evil forces. Men should be aware of how evil works in the world, how they make the thoughts, words and deeds of men contaminated with destructive vices. When men think evil thoughts, they attract evil into themselves. When Ahirman enters a person, Vohuman departs from there, leaving him entirely to the evil. What awaits such a fallen and contaminated person is agonizing suffering in the hell.

The following is a passage from the Denkard (Bk.3-Chp.275)

Be it known that, it is the duty of man to be always grateful in thought, word, and deed, especially towards the following four: (1) Towards Ohrmazd, principally for His having created him. (2) Towards the sovereign, chiefly for his having given him protection in this world. (3) Towards the parents, especially for their having brought him up with care. (4) Towards the moral teacher, chiefly for his instruction (that enables him) to recognize these four kinds of obligations.

Social Divisions - The four social classes

Ancient Zoroastrian society was organized more or less like the Vedic society into four classes consisting of priests, warriors, husbandmen and artisans. The duty of the priestly class was to maintain the religious purity by performing the religious rituals and invocations according to established procedures and preserving their purity and sanctity, practicing righteousness and keeping themselves free from heresy, greed, trafficking, attention to trifles and non-belief. The duty of the warriors was to defeat the enemy and keep their country well protected. safeguarding themselves against violence, dishonesty, cruelty, ostentation, pride and arrogance. The duty of the husbandmen was to cultivate the lands and keep the world invigorated and populous, staying away from ignorance, envy, ill-will and maliciousness. The duty of the artisan class was to do labor using their skills and charge fair wages for the work rendered and protecting themselves from vices such as unbelief, ingratitude, improper recitation of prayers, laziness and abusiveness.

An echo of the Purushasukta in a Zoroastrian Scripture

We find an echo of the Purushasukta of the Rigveda in the following verse from the Denkard:

"The dignity of the head in the human body is (allotted) to the profession of Athornan; of the hand, to the profession Arthestar; of the belly, to the profession of Vastariush; and of feet, to the profession of Hutokhsh: thus, it is symbolically shown, that in rank and dignity, the profession of Athornan is as the head of the world; the profession of Arthestar is as the hands of the world; the profession of Vastariush is as the belly of the world; and, the profession of Hutokhsh is as the feet of the world.

Vices of the four classes

The following vices of the four classes are listed in the Menog-i Khrad (Chp.59)

  • The vices of priests are heresy, covetousness, negligence, trafficking (sudakih), attention to trifles, and unbelief in the religion.
  • The vices of warriors are oppression, violence, promise-breaking, unmercifulness (an-avokhshaga-vandih), ostentation (dakhshih), haughtiness, and arrogance.
  • The vices of husbandmen are ignorance, enviousness, ill-will, and maliciousness.
  • And the vices of artisans are unbelief, want of thanksgiving, improper muttering of prayers, moroseness, and abusiveness.'

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