Zoroastrians regard fire with great reverence. They consider it a living, breathing representative of Ahura Mazda and hence figuratively refer to it as “son of Ahura Mazda.”
The Avestan word for fire is ātar, which literally means “heat, motion, energy.” It is derived from root at– “to diminish, to transform.” Heat and motion have the ability to transfer matter into energy.
Myths about fire:
On account of their immense reverence to fire, some myths have plagued to explain its unique place in the Zoroastrian religion:
1. Fire was a tool: Zoroastrians venerated fire as it was a useful tool, valuable weapon, cooked food and gave heat, and also possibly because primitive man was afraid of fire. This is not true as king Hoshang had discovered the effulgence of Ahura Mazda in fire.
2. Fire is just a symbol of the religion: This is not correct as Zoroastrians consider fire as a living, breathing representative of Ahura Mazda in the material world (Ys.36.5). Whereas ‘a symbol’ is an inert sign, shape or object used to represent a quality or an idea, like the Olympic torch which symbolises peace and friendship, fire is a living entity.
3. Zoroastrians are fire worshippers: Though Zoroastrians pray before the fire, they do not worship it. They just consider it as a means to reach God.
These myths were propagated by people who did not understand the spirit of the religion. Wise men like Firdausi Toosi, Bishop Murin and G.R.Mackay have maintained that Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers.
Firdausi in the Shahnameh cautions people against calling the Parsees Fire-worshippers in the following words: Ma gui ke ātash parastā budand, Parastande-e pāk yazdān budand. “Do not call them fire worshippers, Through fire they are worshippers of God.”
In Zoroastrian religion fire is seen as the omnipresent energy of Ahura Mazda. A living entity, which is invariable for our spiritual development, and a spiritual implement which takes prayers to the spiritual world and brings Khoreh “divine energy” to us.
Atar (Fire) is Energy:
When the term ātar is used in Zoroastrian religion, it does not just mean the physical fire, but it refers to the different forms of energy. Zoroastrian religion refers to the following 6 types of Fire energies:
a) Berezi Savangh: The highest form of fire energy which permeates all creations. It reaches humans through luminescent creations, especially the sun, and through fires.
b) Vohu Frayan: The energy in the bodies of humans and animals to give them warmth. It departs at the time of death. In humans it is transported through the Ushtan.
c. Urvazisht: The energy in plants, which prevents the sap from freezing.
d. Vazisht: The energy in clouds, atmosphere and lightening. It purifies the atmosphere. Scientifically, when lightening strikes, it changes oxygen gas to ozone and thus maintains the ozone cover. It also oxidizes other gases and makes them harmless. .
e. Spenisht: The fire burning in this world for domestic, industrial and commercial purposes. After consecration it is established as Atash Adarans and Atash Behrams.
f. Nairyosangh: The energy which carries guidance and intuition, especially to kings and holy people.
Universal Reverence to Fire
The reverence to fire is universal, across different civilizations and religions.
Hindus: Agni is considered a major God in Rig Veda. The 9th Mandala of Rigveda is dedicated to Agni. The Hindus light diyā (lamps) during Diwali. They also have fires burning in their YAGNA rituals. Some of their priests are referred to as the AGNIHOTRI “fire tenders.”
Greeks: Theyhad the HESTIA fire burning in every house.
Romans: They had the VESTA fire burning 24 hours in Vesta temples, which were tended by priestesses called Vestal virgins.
Jews: In Judaism, God appeared to MOSES on Mt. Sinai in the form of a burning bush. This fire is said to manifest even today, once every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Orthodox Easter, and spontaneously ignites 33 candles.
Christians: According to the Leviticus, the Christians use fumigation as part of their religious practices. Candles in Churches represent the Purification of Mother Mary.
Sikhs: An oil lamp is burnt in Sikh Gurudwaras.
Islam: Muslims have the practice of fumigation. According to Ain-i-Akbari, Mughal emperor Akbar instructed his minister Abul Fazal to have a fire burning in the palace for 24 hours as a representative of Allah.
Fire in Zoroastrian History
Even before Zarathushtra, fire was venerated in Iranian Zoroastrian history throughout the five dynasties. In ancient Iran, there were 4 spiritually burning fires:
1.Adar Khurdad 2. Adar Farnbagh, 3. Adar Gushnasp and 4. Adar Birzin-Meher, associated with different historical persons.
Hushang, the Peshdadian king started the practice of revering fire as a divine being. He accidentally came across the divine brilliance in fire when his stone weapon, hit another stone lighting up the dry grass, resulting in a huge blaze. On seeing this fire, he said. “This is the effulgence of God, if you are wise you should revere it.” He asked the Mazdayasnis to make a Kibla (object of focus for worship) of the fire and pray before it. He celebrated Jashane Sadeh to commemorate the discovery of divinity in fire. This fire was established as Adar Khurdad.
Jamshed, another great Peshdadian king established Adar Frah / Farnbagh on Mt. Khvarehomand. He created a class of professionals called Athravans “tenders of fire” to look after it. This fire burned till the 9th century AC. It prevented evil Zohak from taking the Khvarenah of Jamshed. King Minocheher of the Peshdadian dynasty established it at the Nav Bahar Atash Kadeh.
The Kayanian king Kae Khushru established Adar Gushnasp on Mt. Asnavant. The Sasanian kings Ardeshir I, Behramgur, Khushru Parviz and Yazdegard III went on foot to pay respect to it. When Heraclius, the Roman emperor, destroyed Azar Baizan in 610 AC, the fire was taken on a mountain and again brought down when peace was established.
Zarathushtra, offered reverence to fire (Y.9). He proclaimed fire to be the representative of Ahura Mazda, and made Ardibahesht Ameshaspand its guardian. He presented Adar Burzin Meher, to Kae Gushtasp, which he then established on Mt. Raevant. This fire was without fumes and did not require fuel.
On Achaemenian reliefs, kings Darius I and Xerxes I are seen standing before the fire in a gesture of reverence. On another relief, an attendant stands before fire with a hand on his face. Some Achaemenian seals and coins depict kings tending fire.
Parthian king Vologeses VI’s coins depict a fire altar. Another seal depicts a fire altar with an attendant. A sculpture near Mount Bahistun shows a Parthian nobleman offering incense to fire.
Sasanian king Ardashir I established several Atash Behrams. On a coin of Hormaz I, he is seen tending a fire. A coin of Shapur III has an image of a divine being emerging from fire. A coin of Narseh, shows the king himself tending a fire.
Different Roles of Fire
1. In image of God: Fire is made in the image of God, hence referred to as “son of Ahura Mazda.” Like a son, fire furthers Ahura Mazda’s work. In qualities too both are alike. Like Ahura Mazda, fire is light giving, life giving, warmth giving, a fighter against evil, store house of Divine Energy and impurity destroying. Like Ahura Mazda, fire is Omnipresent as it permeates all creations. Fire as motion and energy, is present in every atom. It is the best representative of Ahura Mazda in the material world, and His visible symbol through which one can reach Him (Y. 36).”
2. A medium /link: Fire is the best medium between the two worlds. It carries our prayers, brings boons and energy and connects us with the divine.
3. Fire and Energy: Fire is the store-house and distributor of Khvarenah, the Divine energy. The divine being Adar presides over both. The Khvarenah of Zarathushtra was transferred to him through the hearth fire in the house of his mother Dogdo banu.
4. Representative in ceremonies: All Zoroastrian ceremonies are performed in the presence of fire. The assistant priest is referred to as ātarvakhshi “one who tends the fire.”
5. Divine judge: In ancient Iran, innocence of people was often judged by the fire ordeal. In the Shahnameh prince Siyavaksh had to pass a burning pyre. Ordeal through molten metal or sulphuric liquid are mentioned in the Avesta.
6. A warrior: Fire is referred to as a ratheshtār “a warrior” who keeps evil away. It is an ancient Mazdayasni tradition to keep embers in the house with ritual purity, as they draw divine energy, keep away evil and protect the inhabitants. In the Atash Nyaishna, the devotee expresses the desire to keep fire burning in the house. Even after death, fire protects a man’s soul from the demon Vizaresh.
7. A King: When a consecrated fire is ceremoniously enthroned, it is given the status of a King (Guj. pādshāh). It is enthroned on the stone hindholā which is regarded as its throne. The dome of the sanctum sanctorum signifying the sky, symbolises the jurisdiction of the king. The metallic canopy is its crown. The fire is brought to its throne in a procession, followed by priests in their priesthood regalia with weapons like spears, swords and gurz (mace) in their hands.
8. Fire in Fire temples: The consecrated fires in fire temples, which are the focus of worship, are specially made. They are collected from different sources (16 for Atash Behram, 4 for Atash Adaran), purified and consecrated, thus transferring their status from ordinary to sublime.
One of the first tasks performed by Zoroastrians after landing at Sanjan from Diu was to consecrate an Atash Behram, later known as Iranshāh “the king of Iran.” After settling in Bombay, one of their first acts was to install consecrated fires.
A consecrated fire unites the physical fire with Ahura Mazda’s Khvarenah. Such a fire draws divine energy from the spiritual world. A consecrated fire has a physical body, consciousness and the power of hearing and seeing. It carries our prayers to the divine world and divine beings, brings boons and energy from the divine world and thus connects humans with the divine. It is capable of bestowing gifts and rewards and gives retributions to the wrong-doers.
Zoroastrians are required to stay in the vicinity of fire temples and visit them regularly as it invigorates them spiritually and have the presence of divine beings in them.
9. Fire as a co-worker of man
Fire and human beings depend on each other for their physical and spiritual survival. There are several other striking similarities between the two. Priests are referred to as Athravan “Protectors of fire.” Their main work is to tend fires. There are uncanny similarities between the two:
* Both are alive, breathe and need oxygen for survival.
* Both need food (fire needs fuel) to survive.
* Both have hierarchical status.
* Both have physical and spiritual constituents.
* Both are links between physical and spiritual worlds.
* No two are ever the same.
* Both are able to create another like them, which though similar is unique.
* Both can be used for good or evil.
* Both have to be warriors (Av. rathaeshtāra) against evil.
* Both have to work towards bringing about Frashokereti.
Duties towards fire:
Zoroastrians approach fire with great dignity and respect, especially if the fire is consecrated. When approaching a fire, Zoroastrians are expected to take gifts of dry, fragrant and pure wood with honestly earned money.
Physical and ritual purity is to be maintained before approaching fire. The rules include taking a bath, wearing appropriate clothes and doing the Kasti.
Zoroastrianism is against smoking, since fire is abused by the act of smoking. While smoking, fire comes in indirect contact with saliva, and when saliva is out of the mouth, it is considered “polluted matter”. Smoking is anti-religion, also because it is injurious to health.
The Atash Nyash prayer relates how the fire should be venerated, what we can ask from the fire and how the fires blesses its devotees. Fire gives blessings of heaven, wealth, prosperity, alertness, fluent tongue, brilliant children, health and soul consciousness to those who offer proper fuel.
Admonitions of fire:
When standing before a fire, one receives several silent admonitions
1. Equality: The ash of the fire is applied to the forehead by devotees in the fire temple gives the message of equality. Just as wood burns and turns to ash, men have to return to their basic elements. Thus in their final outcome all men are equal.
2. Sacrifice: One needs to be sacrificing like wood, which, in the process of giving fragrance, heat and light to mankind turns itself into ash.
3. Purity: Fire purifies the environment, reminding men to be pure.
4. Spiritual Evolution: Fire always moves upwards, reminding man to evolve in life. It points upwards making man aware of the soul’s ultimate destiny.
5. Link: Fire teaches man to keep connected between physical and spiritual worlds.
6. Symbolises knowledge: Fire as a source of light, symbolises knowledge which dispels ignorance, symbolized by darkness.Conclusion: The Zoroastrian concept of fire is unique and lofty. In Zoroastrianism, the term fire has a very different perspective and connotation. It gives a completely new meaning to the word fire, as it indicates the all permeating light and energy. Physically burning fire is regarded as a living representation of Ahura Mazda, and a co-worker of mankind in the universal battle against evil.