The Wondrous Circle of Life 9: The meaning of Zoroastrian rituals

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Roj Meher Mah Fravardin, 1383 Yz.

We continue our series on the Wondrous Circle of Life. Readers are advised to read the last part 8 to refresh their memories before reading this post.

Readers of Frashogard, who can help the Ruvan in the state of Seshab? Who can lessen its pain and suffering? Who can lead the Ruvan out of its personal hell and deliver it into the state of Anushehi? It is the relatives of the deceased who are still residing on earth. How can they do this? By the performance of Zoroastrian ceremonies. It is an immeasurable good deed to have the prayers recited for our deceased relatives. The benefits – both to the Ruvan and to those who spend their money on these ceremonies – are beyond calculation. But are the Zoroastrians of today interested in doing so? What are these ceremonies and how do they help the Ruvan in its state of Seshab?

Perhaps no other institution of the Zoroastrian religion has been treated so unfairly, or so much abuse heaped upon it, than the institution of Zoroastrian rituals. The very word rituals or ceremonies seems to set off, in some people’s minds, a chain of negative thoughts. These thoughts, which have no logical basis keep on being repeated ad nauseam. But our Master, Ustad Saheb explained that the Zoroastrian ritual is the bedrock on which the entire edifice of our religion is based. There can be no Zoroastrianism without Zoroastrian ritual.

What is the reason for the negativity, or even hatred, in some people’s minds regarding rituals? This ill feeling for ritual (both Zoroastrian and of other religious systems) arises out of a lack of understanding as to the real reason or rationale for the institution. Some persons consider ritual to be purely ‘symbolic’ in nature. Some of our eager priests conduct ‘practicals’ of these rituals in front of scholars who then write papers in international Journals, full of intellectual leaps and conjectures. The irony of a non-Zoroastrian trying to explain a Zoroastrian ritual which is not understood even by most Zoroastrians seems to be lost on them. Some try to apply the principles of anthropology to study rituals trying to show the ‘progress’ of man from cannibalism to ‘nature worship’ and on to modernism, making a further mess of an already confused field.

Then of course we have the famous Gathas-only cheer leaders. These enlightened people feel that the true essence of Zoroastrianism is found only in the Gathas. Since there is no mention (as per their understanding) of ceremonies or rituals in the extant Gathas, they do not consider them to be of Zoroastrian origin. But strangely, these same people push for doing ‘Navjotes’ and ‘Sudreh-pushis’ of any and every gullible westerner. When asked, where in the Gathas is the injunction found for performing a Navjote, they get most annoyed.

Finally, a large number of people believe, mistakenly, that Zoroastrian rituals are a ‘later addition’ or ‘interpolation’. According to their understanding, Prophet Zarathushtra was a ‘reformer’ who threw out all the old corrupt practices of the Mazdayasni faith and established the pure Zoroastrian faith. While establishing the faith, as per these people, Zarathushtra said:  ‘listen with your ears to what I am saying, think with an enlightened mind, and then do as you please!’ [The total irony and idiocy of that statement is lost on them.] However, a few years after the death of the Prophet, the very thoughts and processes which Holy Zarathushtra had allegedly ‘banished’, were re-introduced by the powerful Magi and brought back into the pure and sublime religion established by Zarathushtra, to ensure that the earnings and livelihood of the priests was safeguarded.

I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow Zoroastrian, who resides in America since over 30 years. He too, was part of this brigade which believed in the arguments quoted above. Now it so happened that the parents of my friend passed away within a few days of each other, and since both the parents were God fearing and ritual loving Parsis, they had ensured that their ceremonies would be performed by me. My friend had flown down from America before the death occurred, in order to spend the last few days with his parents. As he sat through the intensive first four days ceremonies which were performed both at the Dungerwadi and at our Daremeher, he was amazed at the number of hours being spent by the priests (including me), including the major part of the night as we went about preparing the Ruvan for its Great Flight on the fourth day.

Finally after the Chaharum prayers got over and we relaxed a bit, we sat down together for a cup of tea. His very first act was to thank me profusely for doing the ceremonies and also remarking that it must take some amount of stamina to go through the entire three nights and days, praying almost throughout the period to ensure that the Ruvan comes under the protection of Sarosh Yazad and reaches its destination safely.

The morning Stum

The morning Stum

As we sipped our strong tea and ate the sweets forming part of the morning Stum, I could not resist gently asking him one question. “Dinshaw (not his real name), you have seen the efforts we took to ensure the safe onward journey of your parents. I know you believe that the ritual is a later interpolation brought into the sublime religion by my ancestors to ensure their livelihood, but let me tell you, I think they were all fools, I roundly curse and abuse my ancestors for doing so!”

Some of my ancestors

Some of my ancestors

As he looked amazed at my strong words I explained: “If my ancestors wanted to ensure that their livelihood was maintained, they might have introduced all kinds of rituals, but what was the need for them to time these rituals in the middle of the night, when any sane, normal person would be enjoying his sleep? Did my ancestors suffer from sleep apnea that they devised the majority of rituals to take place in the night? And whose bright idea was it to sit crossed legged on a carpet or a stone platform for hours together? Could they not have used tables and chairs? And this dreadful smoke! Could they have not substituted the fire with just a small Divo and avoided all this mess? And look at us, their descendants, how we have to suffer for that – losing our sleep, going in for knee replacements by the age of fifty, cataracts and glaucoma, lung problems and cancer, some of us being burnt alive by embers falling on our Jamas, the high dhobi bills, being kept away from our families, just to earn a few Rupees? Arre ai kai reet che, jivvani ne paisa kamavani? It does not seem right to me, Dinshaw!”

disease collage

My friend looked at me strangely and for a long time he did not say anything. He looked down into his cup of tea and I could feel the confusion and intensity of his thoughts and emotions as he tried to make sense of what I had just said. Finally he smiled a little and replied: ‘I know you very well Marzban, to even think that you would have such thoughts about your ancestors. I think that you are leading me on to something else. Forget about you, I got exhausted just sitting through all the ceremonies. I lost track of how many times my parents’ names were called out, and how many times my own name was called out! So what you say makes some sense and at the same times it does not make sense. I feel you are trying to trap me! Now come on, tell me. Explain to me what your famous Ustad Saheb has to say about this?’

Even though I was dead tired and had a whole day of work and Boi ahead of me, I could not miss this chance. So here’s a paraphrase of what I explained to my friend.

[to be continued…]

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram



  1. Percy  December 3, 2013

    When to be human and when to be priest….its within you Marazban… that this is how well you preach……..hahahahahahaha