15. QA about PRIESTS

Why is priesthood hereditary?

1. King Jamshed of the Peshdadian dynasty divided society into 4 professional groups – Athornans “priests,”  Ratheshtars “warriors,” Vastriyosh “farmers” and Hutaokhsh “craftsmen/ artisans.”

2. The main reason for this fourfold division was to enhance the work quality, as the respective trades would be handed down from father to son, which would provide an opportunity to learn the trades early in life, perfecting them and then passing over the superior techniques to the following generation.

3. The Athornans had to tend the sacred fires, devote their time to prayers, invoke the blessings of divine beings and ward off evil from the kingdom. The king looked after them.

4. The four professional groups were prevalent in society till the end of the Sasanian dynasty (651 CE). After coming to India the priest group maintained their exclusivity but the other three groups merged and are referred to as Behdins “those belonging to the Good religion.”

5. The hereditary vocation of priesthood is in consonance with the ancient Mazdayasni tradition.

What is the distinction between the priestly titles Ervad, Mobed and Dastur? (22-4-12)

1. Priests in India have three titles: Dastur, Mobed and Ervad. Once a child from a priestly family undergoes the first priestly initiation of Navar, he is referred to as an Ervad, a term which is derived from the Avestan word aethrapaiti which means a teacher. A candidate who undergoes the second initiation of Maratab and performs simple ceremonies in the fire temple, is still referred to as an Ervad.

2. A priest who has undergone both Navar and Maratab initiations and regularly performs higher rituals like Yajashne and Vendidad is referred to as a Mobed. The word Mobed comes from Iranian magav-paiti which means chief of the magavs (adept priests).

3. The Dastur is a priest who is the leader of each of the five geographical priestly divisions– the Sanjana (Udvada and around), Bhagaria (Navsari and around), Godavra (Surat and around), Bharucha (Bharuch and around) and Khambatta (Cambay and around). Each priestly division had their own leader/s and hence there are as many or more Dasturs in India. Later there was a practice of some other locations or fire temple having their own Dasturs, and hence at a point of time there were about 16 Dasturs in India. At present there are 6 Dasturs in India.

4. Since some people erroneously refer to any priest as a Dasturji, nowadays Head priests are referred to as Vada Dasturjis.

5. Panthaki is a term used for priests in charge of a fire temple and who cater to a Panthak (an area or a district having a few families). 

6. Nowadays the term para mobed is used to indicate a lay person who takes some priestly training and is authorized to perform certain outer rituals for the laity like Afringan, Farokhshi, Stum and Boe of Dadgah sahebs in places where there are no priests. The term para mobed does not exactly suit this purpose, and hence alternate terms like behdin pasban are used for lay persons who partially perform priestly duties in absence of priests.

7. The titles work differently in Iran and India. The above titles are as they are used in India and its diaspora countries.

What is Navar (3 & 10-1-2016)?

1. Navar is the first initiation into priesthood of a Zoroastrian boy from an Athornan (priestly) family. After undergoing Navar, the candidate can perform all outer rituals like the Afringan, Jashan, Farokhshi and Stum. A child is required to undergo Navar before puberty. After Navar the child attains the priestly title “Ervad.”

2. The term Navar is derived from the words nav-bar which mean “a new carrier of offerings.” It signifies a new initiate to offer prayers and offerings to divine beings. 

3. For becoming full-fledged Navar, one has to learn by heart most prayers from the Khordeh Avesta, 72 chapters of the Yasna, 23 chapters of the Visparad, Afringans and Baj. Nowadays, many priestly candidates do not learn by heart all these and just read them from books. Such candidates cannot become full-fledged priests later on and are called kacchha Navar.

4. In the Navar initiation, the child undergoes the following 3 stages:

a. Bareshnum – the nine days retreat for purification. For Navar, two Bareshnums have to be undergone – the first for self and second for the person who sponsors the Navar – either living or deceased. The days spent in the Bareshnum are to discipline one’s life leading to mental and spiritual evolution. One has to devote time to prayers and have a regulated diet.

 b. Gewra: This stage of the ritual, comes after the two bareshnums. In this, the two priests, who would initiate the candidate, perform the Yasna ceremony alternately for six consecutive days in the name of the person who sponsors the Navar.

c. Navar ceremony proper: It consists of four days, the first of which coincides with the sixth day of the gewra. On this day, the candidate takes bath in the morning, puts on full priestly dress, drapes a Shawl on the left arm, holds Guraj (mace with bulls face) in right hand and coconut in the left. He is taken in procession to the place where Navar is to be performed, accompanied by priests, relatives and invitees. The Guraj symbolizes the spiritual authority that will now be conferred on the priestly candidate.               

5. On the first day of Navar, the two priests who had performed the Gewra assist the candidate in performing the Yasna, Baj and Afringan rituals. On the second and third days, a Yasna is performed and on the fourth day a Visperad or Yasna is performed.

6. On the fourth and last day of the Navar ceremony proper, after the performance of rituals the candidate puts on the full priestly dress. He then performs Hamāzor, that is, ritual handshake, with the chief priest and other priests and is taken to his residence.

7. In Iran there is only one stage of priestly initiation which is called Nowzudi. It is much simpler than the priesthood initiations in India. Bareshnum is not required, there is not much of learning, the initiation takes only a few hours and it may be undergone at an adult age too.

Why do Navariyas carry the Guraj on their Navar day? (31-8-14)

1. The Guraj (gurz) is a metallic staff, about 15 inches long, with the head of a cow on one side.

2. The word Guraj is derived comes from two words – gao which means “a cow” and raz which means “a mace.”

3. The Guraj is generally placed in the Kebla of the sanctum sanctorum along with other implements used by soldiers, like the sword, the spear and the shield.

4. King Faridun of the Peshdadian dynasty had the Guraj specially made, on a much bigger scale, to commemorate the cow Purmae, which had nursed him when he was a toddler. It was to be used as a weapon to fight the evil Zohak who had the cow Purmae killed, when his soldiers were searching for child Faridun.

5. Since those times this implement has become symbolic of the victory of good over evil (Faridun over Zohak).

6. A boy becoming Navar carries the Guraj in his hand in the procession on his way to perform the first Yasna of the Navar. This is to remind him of one of his functions in his future role as a priest, which is to always be on the right side in the cosmic battle between good (spenta mainyu) and evil (angra mainyu).

Why do people sponsor a Navar – the Zoroastrian priestly initiation? (20 & 27-1-19)

1. Priests play a very important role in every religion. In a ritual intensive religion like Zoroastrianism, the role of the priest is much more magnified. A boy belonging to a priestly family can be ordained as priest after undergoing proper training. The ritual for being initiated into Zoroastrian priesthood is called Navar and it has to be undergone before puberty, that is, before the age of about 13 years.

2. The Navar initiation is an elaborate and hence expensive process, which goes on for about 25 days, and hence there is a meritorious practice of sponsoring a child to become a Navar. A Navar can be sponsored either in memory of a departed person or by a living person for the merit of his or her own soul.

3. In the Navar ritual, the child has to undergo two Bareshnums, which are purificatory rituals, each of which is for nine days and nine nights. The first Bareshnum is for one’s own self and the second is for the living/departed person who sponsors the Navar. This means that throughout the nine days and nights, the candidate prays for the sponsor. Every time when the candidate offers his personal prayers, he prays the Patet Ravān-ni for the departed sponsor, or Tandarosti for the living sponsor.

4. As part of the Navar initiation, two senior and highly proficient priests perform the Yasna ritual for 6 days, called Gewra. This is to give spiritual power to the priests who would later ordain the child. Here too, the Yasnas are performed for the benefit of the soul of the person, living or deceased, who sponsors the ritual.

5. For the next 4 days, the boy himself performs 3 Yasnas and a Visparad ritual, with one of the priests who has done the Gewra, again for the benefit of the soul of the person who has sponsored the ritual.

6. It is customary to remember the name of the sponsor of Navar, by the boy throughout his life, whenever he performs any ritual, as a mark of gratitude to the person, who sponsors him to become a priest. Thus sponsoring a Navar is a highly meritorious and rewarding act of bringing in a new boy into the priestly fold.

7. The Navar ritual is very similar in performance to another very high Zoroastrian ritual, called Geti-Kharid. Therefore, sponsoring a Navar is as much, or even more meritorious, than having a Geti-Kharid ritual performed.

B. What is Maratab and Samel? (JJ 17-1-2016)

1. The second initiation into priesthood of a Zoroastrian boy from an Athornan (priestly) family is known as Maratab. The term Maratab means “exalted.” Maratab is generally performed a year or two after Navar, but it can also be performed later on. As a preparation for Maratab, the candidate has to fluently read the 22 chapters of the Vendidad interspersed with Yasna and Visperad.

2. For the Maratab ritual, the candidate has to undergo one Bareshnum for nine days and nights. On the morning of the tenth day, he along with a qualified priest, performs 2 Yasnas, stays in the fire temple for the whole day with ritual procedure and after mid-night performs the Vendidad. This completes the Maratab. The candidate is now entitled to perform all Zoroastrian rituals.

3. Undergoing the Maratab is not necessary for those who have not undergone a full-fledged Navar and those who are not desirous of taking up priesthood as a vocation.

4. Samel is not a ritual, but a procedure to establish the mastery of the candidate who has undergone the Maratab. It is followed only among the Sanjana priests of Udvada. Priests belonging to the 9 priestly Sanjana families desirous of offering Boe at Iranshah Atash Behram are required to pass an exam to prove their expertise in prayer recitation and ritual practice (that is, bhantar and kriyakam). The Dasturjis of Udvada and senior priests are invited to examine the candidate’s knowledge of the intricacies of rituals and ritual texts. If they are satisfied, they give him permission to offer boe. The candidate can then enter the sanctum sanctorum along with and under the guidance of a senior priest and only thereafter he is allowed to give boe individually.

What is Para-Mobed, Mobed-yār and Behdin–Pāsbān (JJ 26-7-2015)?

1. ‘Para Mobed’ was a term introduced in the mid 1970s for a course introduced under the guidance of Dasturji Navroz D. Moncher-Homji to train lay people (behdins) and non-Navar Athornans to perform certain essential outer rituals so that they can look after the needs of people at places where priests are not available. The candidates are just given certain training and no ritual initiations are performed.

2. After some time an objection was raised for the use of the term ‘Para-Mobed’ applied to such people, since the word Mobed indicates a complete priest performing inner rituals. Later the term Para-priest and then Behdin-pasban were coined to replace the term Para-Mobed.

3. There are several guide-lines, rules and regulations which such Para-priests have to follow in India. For instance, they cannot wear the Pagdi – they must only wear white cap, they cannot wear the Padan, they cannot undergo the Navar initiation, they should not professionally perform at places where there are priests etc.

4. They can perform outer rituals like Afringan, Farokhshi, Satum and Jashan, after death rituals like Geh-sarna, Uthamnu, Sarosh no kardo and bhoi agal nu bhantar and give boe for the sacred fire of the Dadgah Sahebs.

5. In Iran such para-priests are referred to as ‘Mobed-yars.’ The word Mobed-yar literally means “assistant to priests.”  On account of almost non-existence of properly ordained priests in Iran, most of the priestly functions in Iran are performed by Mobed-yars.  The Mobed-yar training is like a certificate course and no priestly initiations are involved. In recent years, even ladies are allowed to become Mobed-yars.  On account of this, a misunderstandings arose that there are lady priests in Iran. This is not correct, as Mobed-yars cannot be considered priests.

Why women cannot be ordained as priests in Zoroastrianism? (July/Aug 2012 & 13)

1. In Zoroastrianism, priesthood is hereditary for male members belonging to the priestly family. Historically, there are no concrete evidences to indicate that women had ever been priests.  However on account of some stray indirect references, it has been claimed that in the past women had functioned in certain priestly capacities.

2. Men and women are created equal and have equal position in the eyes of God. However, women and men have different functions to perform biologically, and in some cases also socially. Biologically a man is not designed to carry or nurse a child. That is the special and unique prerogative of a woman. By virtue of her biological uniqueness, necessary to conceive and nurture a child, a woman has to pass through the monthly menstrual cycle, which renders her incapable of performing certain ritual related religious functions for certain days during the month. Such ladies are regarded in a ritually unclean state (one should note that this is different from a physically unclean state).

3. The Zoroastrian practice of not initiating and ordaining ladies as priests, may be on account of their monthly menstrual cycle. When a lady undergoes her menstrual periods she has to keep away from prayers, as well as ritual observances, performances and implements.  Every month, she would not be able to serve for about a week. Sometimes the cycle is uneven and the periods may come abruptly leading to uncertainty in ritual work.

4. Ladies who are in a state of ritual purity, especially after menopause, can perform certain outer rituals like Afringan, Farokhshi and Stum for their own selves and family, as well as tend household Dadgah fire, after taking due training. They do not need to be ordained as priests. Ladies can also help priests in preparing for rituals, as was being done in the past when rituals were performed in houses, where the priests would just go and pray. She can also teach religious knowledge and prayers, which are generally regarded as a priest’s duties.

5. Some time back, it was reported that a few ladies in Iran were made Mobed-yars (lit. priest assistants). This was a certificate course where almost all their duties were such that any lay lady could do with proper training. The concept and duties of priest are different in Iran and India. The concept of higher rituals is presently non-existent in Iran. In fact, no priestly initiations are performed in Iran since the past several years, as is done in India.

6. The discrimination in performance of rituals, in no way diminishes the spiritual position of woman. She is as high spiritually as any man. As noted above, she can perform several priestly and semi-priestly duties which are within her bounds. However, the prerogative of functioning as a fully functional priest, especially for the performance of higher rituals is not ordained for a lady in Zoroastrianism.

Is it true that Zoroastrian priests have a very good memory? (6-10-19)

1. It has been traditionally believed that Zoroastrian priests, and especially children from Zoroastrian priestly families, have a good memory. This is generally true, though there are some exceptions to this general tradition.

2. The good memory of children from Zoroastrian priest’s family is partly on account of heredity and partly on account of constant memorisation of Avestan texts right since a very young age.

3. It is scientifically proven that memorisation is a mental exercise which greatly enhances the powers of the brain. It has been attested by Neuroscience that regular memorizing helps keep the brain active and agile. Recently, neuroscientist Dr. James Hartzell, studied 21 professionally qualified Sanskrit scholars who had memorised Sanskrit texts. He discovered that memorising Vedic mantras increased the size of brain regions associated with cognitive functions, including short and long-term memory. This finding corroborates with the Zoroastrian tradition that memorising and reciting sacred manthras enhances memory and mental powers.

4. Dr Hartzell’s recent study raises the question whether this kind of memorisation of ancient texts could be helpful in reducing the devastating illness of Alzheimer’s and other memory affecting diseases. Apparently, Ayurvedic doctors from India suggest that this may be possible. Future studies are expected to throw more light on this. 5. In modern times, on the one hand we are flooded with information, and on the other hand the attention spans are shrinking. At such times, practices of memorisation have a potential to rectify the present day problems related to attention deficit disorders. Even introducing small amounts of memorisation and chanting into the daily routine are proven to have an amazing effect on the brains of people from all ages.