Zoroastrians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In Zoroastrianism, moderation, truthfulness, honest dealing, and charity are stressed. Having to capacity to select between good (Ohrmazd) and evil (Ahriman), individuals bear responsibility for their own souls. The Zend-Avesta is the Zoroastrian sacred book. Only a small portion of it, the Gathas , is considered to be the work of the Prophet. Their chief cult objects are fire and water. Water made life possible, and fire was the source of warmth and the means of cooking meat. Zoroaster saw divinity in its flames and called it Atar. Fire thus became the symbol of the religion and of righteousness. The holy fire is kept in their place of worship, which is a fire temple ( atesh kadeh ). Five times a day the mobed (priest) sprinkles perfumes on the fire. The lower part of his face is covered with a veil to keep his breath from polluting the sacred fire. Every Zoroastrian has a sacred fire in his own house. Today not many followers participate in templecentered ceremonies. They usually participate twice yearly at festivals during early spring and autumn. Other ceremonies related to initiation, marriage, death, and the seasons are conducted at home.

Religious Practitioners. The priesthood is hereditary. Any male descendant of a priest (mobed/ dostur ) to the fifth generation may take up the profession. In the 1970s there were only fifteen active priests in all of Iran. Offerings are part of the required daily priestly activities (see "Ceremonies"). Pav, or "the pure place," is where all the high rituals are performed. This area consists of a small piece of ground, rectangular in shape, its boundaries marked off by prayers to exclude all evil influences. It is also purified with water and prayers. The primary duty of the priest is to keep himself in a state of purity and to pray and perform daily prayers. The rituals must be performed and attended only by those who are spiritually and physically clean. Non-Zoroastrians are usually not allowed to enter the temple because they do not observe the rules of cleanliness prescribed by the religion. The minimum age for the initiation of the priests is 12. The life of the priest is strongly linked with that of the temple. Major ceremonies are performed by a group of priests, the dastur-nishin, who reside near the fire temple.

Ceremonies. The chief ritual is the Yasna, or sacrifice, which includes the offering of haoma, the intoxicating juice of a plant, together with water and milk, presented before the fire and drunk by the priest in honor of Ahura Mazda and lesser deities and for the benefit of the dead and the living. The Yasna, a life rite, strengthens the forces of good against those of evil. In former days, the slaughtering of animals was part of the ritual; this practice survived into medieval times but is now extinct. The two main principles that form the basis of Zoroastrian ethics are the maintenance of life and the struggle against evil. There is a devotion to purity, physical as well as spiritual. The chief feasts are New Year (Nouroz); the equinox between seasons, which is consecrated to Mithra; the days of the dead at the end of the year; and the days of the full moon and new moon. Three offerings, which involve two elements from the plant world and one element from the animal world, are made to the fire. The offering usually consists of dried leaves of herbs and animal fat.

Medicine. Many Zoroastrians have access to modern medical facilities. (It is required that Iranian medical students serve four years as residents in the provinces.) Among the elderly, herbal medicines are used. Some of the traditional medical practices are accompanied with prayers.

Death and Afterlife. The traditional system of disposing of the corpse is the use of the towers of silence, which are technically cemeteries. Three main reasons have been given for their use. First, the corpse is considered to be the most polluting element in the world. The stone platform where the body is placed used to be built away from the area of habitation and the corpse was exposed to sun and vultures. Second, the body was given as a gift of nourishment to the birds. Third was the sub rosa, which is the speed with which a body is disposed of. This is taken as a symbol of the progress of the soul into the other world, and it is a signal for intensification of death ceremonies among the living. Because they live among Muslims, the Zoroastrians were forced to make certain adjustments. The towers of silence are no longer used. The body is now placed on a metal stretcher, the legs of which keep the body away from the ground. The bed of the stretcher is made of strips of metal so that a body, while supported, is also open to surrounding elements. The metal is nonporous, so as not to conduct pollution or disease-bearing microbes. The sides of the grave are cemented and a cement cover is placed on top so that dirt does not fall on the body (Fischer 1973, 63-65). It is believed that for three days the soul haunts the home. On the morning following the third night, the soul is taken by the angel Sorush, who has been protecting it on earth for three nights, to the judgment tribunal ( aka ). The soul is judged by using a balance and must cross the Chinvat bridge. If the soul is righteous, the bridge will be wide and will lead the individual to paradise. Good deeds are personified by a beautiful young woman or a handsome man, depending on the gender of the deceased, who will accompany the soul. If the soul was sinful, the bridge will narrow to a razor-sharp edge; the soul will eventually fall into hell and be accompanied by an old and unattractive individual. During the Farvardegan, which is the time to remember the dead, seven kinds of greens (wheat, barley, beans, etc.) are sown, to welcome the spirits with freshness. Most believe that the world of the souls coexists with the world of the living, and dreaming is a method of communication between the two worlds. It is also strongly believed that the soul wanders from the body during the dream state. The sites of visions of saints and angels and of communication from God are often made into shrines. Memorials are held on the tenth day, the thirtieth day, and each month thereafter until the anniversary, and each year until the thirtieth. The ritual setting of these memorials is in the ja-pak (clean place) of the pesgam. It must include four items: wine, milk, pomegranate, and quince. The cult of the ancestral spirit remains very strong among the Zoroastrians.

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