Rituals play an integral role in life and religion. The more ancient religions are generally more ritual intensive. Hence Zoroastrianism is understandably one of the most ritual intensive religions.
Since most rituals are performed by priests, the rest of the people are observers. Participants have to experience and feel the ritual and the dimension of reality created by the rituals. As participants or observers, one has to understand the dynamics of rituals. Especially, how they work and affect nature, and what lessons they give.
Unfortunately, in the last two centuries, there have been terrible attacks on Zoroastrian rituals. Whereas some termed them a dispensable shell, others referred to them as a charade invented by priests to ensure their livelihood. However, a serious student of the religion would realise that nothing could be farther from the truth.
I Antiquity of rituals
From the summary of the 21 Nasks, we find that no less than 6 Nasks – Hadokht, Pājeh, Ratu-dād-hāitig, Kaski-srub, Husparam and Sakadum – dealt extensively with rituals and related aspects like celebration of Gahambars, consecration of Syāv, performance of after death rituals and the Muktad, ritual implements and requisites of rituals like darun and barsom.
The Gathas also imply the performance of certain rituals during the time of the Prophet. The word in the Gathas for rituals is Yasna (30.1, 34.1). The word myazd appears in the Gathas. In Yasna 33.6, prophet Zarathushtra calls himself a zaotar “chief priest.”
Yasna IX.3-13 presupposes the performance of Hom ritual, probably a pre-Zoroastrian precursor of the Yasna ritual, which was even performed by Zarathushtra’s father Pourushaspa. Yasna IX.1 describes the ritual gesture of washing the fire-stand which to this day is being done by priests during the performance of the Bōe ritual in Atash Behrams.
In many of the daily prayers in the Khordeh Avesta, especially the Gehs, Nyaishnas, most of the Yashts, as also in Vidēvdād XIX.9 and Yasna LVII.22 there is a mention of ritual implements and requirements like Baresmana, Aiwyāonghana, Haoma and Zaothra. Implements used in inner rituals dating back to the Achaemenian times have been discovered by archaeologists.
Pahlavi works like the Dādistāne Denīg and Shāyast lā Shāyast mention the need of performing after death rituals.
The expectation of the souls of departed persons for performance of rituals along with offerings, especially during Muktad, and even otherwise, is outlined clearly in the following textual passage: “The guardian spirits (along with the souls) come to the families during the last five days of the year (part of Muktad days). There they pass their life for 10 days, desiring this : “Who will praise us, who will revere us, who will sing our glory, who will offer us prayers … who will invoke us by name … who will bestow gifts on us, who will unfailingly make us happy for ever an ever.”
- Requirements for a ritual:
1) Clean place and surroundings
2) Human – Zot/Raspig
3) Ritual requisites or Offerings (Myazd) represent the seven creations. Water and fruits/flowers represent Khordad and Amardad, indicating perfection and immortality of the soul.
4) Alat (ritual implements) which are conduits for spiritual power.
5) Specially created prayer – Manthravani in Avesta/Pazand. (Only in the wedding ritual is Sanskrit Manthra used optionally).
III Rules to be observed at the time of rituals:
Physical purity: Bath, clean clothes, clean place
Ritual purity: Ritually pure state
Proper dress: Decent appropriate clothes – white or of lighter shades, head covering, sadra not tucked in, preferably leather footwear
Code of behaviour: No talking, no eating, doing prayers.
IV Role of rituals:
Rituals play an important and integral role in religions. They perform important functions:
- a) Generator of energy
- b) Preservation of religious scriptures through constant ritual usage
- c) Enhancers of consciousness
- d) Markers of important events in life
- e) Link between the two worlds. (When rituals are performed well, they help men go near Ahura Mazda. Y.30.1)
- f) Link with our ancestors
- g) To seek blessings of divine beings.
- h) Remember the departed ones – fulfill an obligation towards them.
- i) Invoke and express gratitude to divine beings, which include souls, Fravashis, Yazads, Ameshaspands and Ahura Mazda.
- j) Reinforce and dramatize religious teachings in a symbolic manner. For instance:
- Belief in Ahura Mazda and the divine beings.
- Belief in the existence of material & spiritual worlds.
- Belief in the existence of two spirits:
* To preserve and nurture the good
* To fortify and fight against the evil.
- Belief in the immortality of the soul.
- Care for the environment and creations.
V Classification of rituals
Rituals may also be classified from the point of view of their purposes:
- Inner and Outer rituals, which are mainly for Thanksgiving (invocation), commemoration and Consecration.
- a) inner rituals (pāvmehel) – Yasna, Visparad, Vendidad, Bajdharna
- b) outer rituals (hoshmordi) – Afringan, Jashan, Fareshta, Farokhshi, Stum
- Purification rituals – Kushti, Nahan, Bareshnum.
- Life cycle Rituals (Rites of Passage) – Navjot; Navar, Maratab (only for priests initiations), Wedding, Death. Though the primary purpose of life cycle rituals is religious and spiritual, most life cycle rituals have a social role to play.
- Specific purposes – Boe, Nirang-din
- Some forgotten rituals – Geti-kharid, Hamast, Shahen Baj
Most of the above rituals can be further classified as:
- Jindehravan: Rituals for the living, and
- Anushehravan: Rituals for departed ones.
Each ritual has a specific purpose. For instance:
- Kashti – to protect, to cleanse, to energise
- Jashan- Togetherness; religious injunctions – kash, 7 ethics and Ameshaspands, energy-hamazor, charity; draw blessings.
- Boy – to feed the fire, to remind men of their duty, fight against negativities.
- Yasna – Hom juice, religious injunction – physical – spiritual – physical
- Baj – Purification of the person and emergence as Zarathushtra to be able to communicate with Ahura Mazda.
To sum up, rituals are an integral part, not only of our religion, but also our life. They:
- Help reinforce religious teachings.
- Invoke divine beings.
- Establish communication with the divine world.
- Fulfil a duty towards the unseen world.
Rituals have to be studied in totality, and not in isolation. They have to be understood along with the accompanying texts and gestures. Semiotics is the science of the proper study of rituals.