Zoroastrian Priests

It  gives  me  great pleasure  today,  to  present before  you the glorious tradition of Parsi  priesthood and graph the ups and downs that the Parsi priests have faced down the ages. I myself am proud to be a descendant of this illustrious line which was instrumental  in passing  down  to our present generation not  only  the religion with its customs, traditions and  institutions but  were  also solely responsible  for  salvaging  and preserving the Avestan religious scriptures.

The  position of priest is very lofty in  the  Zoroastrian  religion.  Ahura  Mazda  calls  Himself  the foremost  Athravan in the Hormazd Yasht. Prophet  Zarathushtra  is  also referred to as an  Athravan  in  the Fravardin Yasht. In the Shahnameh, King Jamshed  introduces himself with the following lines `Manam goft  baa  farrae  izadi, hamam shahryaari o ham mubadi’ that  is, “I  possess  divine  glory, I am a king  as  well  as  a priest.”


According  to  the Shahnameh  of  Firdausi  and  historian  Tabari,   King Jamshed of the Peshadadian dynasty divided society into four  professional groups:  Athornans –  priests;   Ra theshtars –  warriors; Vastriyosh – farmers; and Hutaos –  artisans.Yasna  19.17  also  classifies  these  four socio-economic classes as the four `pishtras’, that  is professions.

The  aim  of this fourfold division was  that  one would  be  proficient  in one’s profession  if  one  is initiated  into it right from childhood. , as  is  well known, in ancient times professional life was  generally intertwined  with personal life and this  is  more true  for priesthood than for any other profession.  In the ancient times, it was one of the main duties of the Athornans  to  retreat to mountains and  devote   their time  in  prayers and invocations to  Ahura  Mazda  and other spiritual beings for peace in the nation and well being of the king and his subjects.

The  fourfold division of society took firm  roots in ancient Iran before the times of prophet  Zarathushtra and was continued even after him. This practise was further re-inforcedby Ardeshir Babekan, founder of  the Sasanian  dynasty  with the aid of  Dastur  Tansar  who defended  this  practise in his letter to the  king  of Tabaristan  by considering it “a strong  guarantee  for good order in the world.”


From the Avestan scriptures and Pahlavi literature,  we come  to know that the duties of priests were  twofold. On  the one hand they had to utter prayers and  perform liturgical  ceremonies  in honour of  Ahura  Mazda  and other divinities and on the other hand to lead   people on the righteous path by virtue of their ecclesiastical authority.   High value standards were expected from  a priest.  Vendidad XIII.45 describes a good priest as  a moderate eater, contented, patient and steady. He  must always be busy and devote his time to reciting prayers, teaching  and  adding to his own  stock  of  knowledge.

According  to Vendidad XVIII.6, a priest  should  learn the religious scriptures and inquire about holy  wisdom all  through the day and night so that he  can  relieve other’s distress and ensure an easy passage for himself into the spiritual world.

The Persian Revayats mention  the following 15 virtues which are necessary for a priest:

1. Avija him – Pure disposition

2. Asnide Kherad – Innate Wisdom

3. Din aspa narangan – Restorer of religion

4. Yazdan minidar – Remembering God

5. Minoi vinishna – Spiritual sighted

6. Paak menishna – Having pure thoughts

7. Rast gowishna – Having truthful speech

8. Kherad kunishna – Taking wise actions

9. Yozdathre tan –  Maintaining purity of the  body

10. Shirin hizvan – Having a sweet tongue

11. Naram nask – Having the scriptures by heart

12. Rast avesta – Reciting Avesta scriptures  correctly

13. Padyav sajashne – Maintaining the power of Kushti

14. Hiv nirang – Knowing the nirangs well

15. Navar zivan – Living the life of a priest.


Oral tradition of transmission of Avestan scriptures:

Right  from the times of prophet Zarathushtra,  Avestan scriptures were transmitted `sina-dar-sina’, that is by oral tradition from one generation of priests to another. For centuries the Avestan scriptures were preserved in the memory of priests in this manner. In fact tradition has it that there were 21 families of priest  each having  one  `Nask’,  that is Volume  of  scripture  by heart.

According  to the Pahlavi book Denkart, a copy  of the Avestan scriptures written on cow hides were deposited  in the Royal Library called  the  `Dez-i-Nipisht’ which  through  the passage of time came to  the  Royal archives  at  Persepolis where they were  destroyed  by Alexander the Macedonian in fourth century B.C. Were it not  for the oral tradition of the  priestly  families, the Avestan scriptures may had been lost forever in the mayhem that followed after the downfall of the Achaemenian empire.

Recollection of the Avestan scriptures: The  Arshkanian Emperor  Vologeses I (51 – 77 A.D.) made an attempt  to collect the scattered Avestan scriptures but his  noble attempt did not meet with much success.

The second quarter of the third century saw resurgence of Zoroastrian religion under the  Sasanian  empire. It  was  the time  when  Zoroastrian  priesthood commanded a position of honour and respect unprecedented  in the history of Zoroastrian religion.  The  state and the judiciary were virtually run under the guidance of  Mobeds and Dasturs. Important positions like  those of Ministers, Judges and Advisors to the king were held by priests.

The  first Sasanian Emperor Ardeshir  Babekan(226-241 A.D.) entrusted the task of collecting and  collating  the Avestan scriptures to Dastur Tansar, who  with the help of priests started the task of collecting  the scattered Avestan scriptures of the original 21  Nasks. This  work went on till after about a hundred years  it was successfully completed by Dastur Adarbad Mahraspand under  Emperor Shahpur II(309-379 A.D.). The  collected Avestan  scriptures were once again gathered as the  21 Nasks  and  also translated into  Pahlavi,  the  lingua franca of those times, as Avesta was already becoming a forgotten  language  for  all  except  a  few   learned priests. These Pahlavi translations were further interspersed by explanatory glosses by learned priests like Roshan, Maidyomah, Aparg and Mah-Vindat. Dastur Adarbad Mahraspand also compiled the Khordeh Avesta as the book of daily prayers and in it are many Pazand prayers like the  Doa  Tandarosti and Patet  Pashemani  composed  by Adarbad Mahraspand himself, who was the last Dastur  of our  times  of the stature of a  `Raenidar’, having  the piety,  Dastur  Adarbad Mahraspand  also  performed  an Ordeal  by pouring nine tonnes of molten brass  on  his chest and came out unscathed by power of his prayers to re-inforce  the  faith of  Mazdayasni  Zoroastrians  of those times into the lofty teachings of their  religion and the efficacy of Avestan prayers.

PROMINENT  PRIESTS OF THE SASANIAN TIMES: Another  well-known  priest of the Sasanian times was Arda Viraf  who was  selected  from among 40,000 able mobeds of  those times,  to  visit the spiritual world by going  into  a trance with the aid of religious prayers. The purpose of this visit was to ascertain the place of good and  evil souls in the other world and at the same time to verify whether  religious ceremonies like the Yasna,  Afringan and Baj performed in memory of departed souls do  actually  reach them or not.  Arda Viraf successfully  completed his 7 day sojourn to the spiritual world and had a scribe take down his travelogue, which we still  have with  us in the form of the Pahlavi  book  `Arda-Viraf-Nameh’.

So  great is the contribution of these  two  great priests  towards  the revival of Zoroastrian  religion that  one shudders at the thought of the state  of  Zoroastrian religion  amongst the  persuasive  Christian missionaries  backed  by strong Roman support  of  the Church to which many Iranian noblemen too were drawn.

Another  priest of the Sasanian times who  reached the  pinnacle of glory is  Buzorg-che-Meher  Bokhtagan, the renowned minister of Khushru I(531-579 A.D.) better known  as Noshirwan Adel. As a small  boy  Buzorg-che-Meher was  studying in a Madressa(priestly school)  when an emissary of the King came to the head of the Madressa to know whether he could interpret a dream the  King had. The head of the Madressa was not able to interpret the  dream, however, the young Buzorg-che-Meher  volunteered to do so only if he was taken to the King. Thereafter the King summoned him and was highly impressed by his  outstanding  intelligence and innate  wisdom  with

which he interpreted the dream. He was educated by  the King  and went on to serve the King as his trusted  and wise minister. Many are the astounding stories  associated  about the wisdom of the minister. One such  well-known story is about the priests in the Atash-kadeh who did not bow down to the emperor when he visited it. The king  was furious at this apparent disrespect  and  was about to  have the priests punished  when Buzorg-che-Meher intervened  and explained to the king  that  the priests  did  not bow to him as they  were  engaged  in prayers  to Dadar Ahura Mazda, the spiritual sovereign of the Universe, and they did not deem it fit to salute their worldly emperor at that time. Emperor  Noshirwan Adel, renowned for his justice, was highly impressed by this explanation and not only forgave them but appreciated their steadfastness in spiritual matters.

Another  notable priest, more noted  by  tradition than by history, was Dastur Dinyar, popularly known  as Salman-i-Fars  who  was  ousted from Iran  due  to  his attempts at peace when infighting was at its peak among the royalties. He fled from Iran and thereafter  served Prophet Mohammed and helped him in committing the Quran to writing.

Not  just  Dasturs and learned  priests,  but  all priests  were highly respected in Sasanian Iran.  There was  a very good practise of appointing parish  priests by the government who were called Dah-Mubeds. They were assigned  to each Parsi `moholla'(area) and acted as  a friend,  philosopher and guide of the families  in  his parish. He acted as a teacher, preacher and advisor and on  festive as well as solemn occasions he  was  always present wherever he was needed as member of the family.


The glorious Sasanian Empire ended in 641 A.D. and the  Arabs brought `evil times’ and `wicked  rule’  and subjected the Zoroastrians in Iran to great  hardships, so they had to secretly profess the religion.

However,  the  beginning of  9th  century  brought greater  freedom  for the Zoroastrians in Iran   and  so religious  and secular literature  flourished.  Dasturs and  priests composed and compiled books and  treatises in  Pahlavi  on religion, historical, legal and  other secular subjects.

The Dasturs in those times were known as `hu-denan peshopay’ “leaders of the Good Religion”. Notable among such  Dasturs was High Priest Aturfarnbag son  of Farrokhzad who co-authored the encyclopedic Pahlavi  work `Denkart’  along  with  Aturpat son of Emet.  He  also entered  into a religious discussion with a heretic  in the  court  of Caliph Al-Mamun (813-833 A.D.)  which  is recorded in the Pahlavi book `Gajastak Aballish’.

Manusheher  Goshnazam was the High Priest of  Pars  and Kerman  and author of many Pahlavi books  of  repute. He wrote a  series of letters to his  brother  Zatsparam, a priest  of  Sirkan  on the subject  of  a  controversy arising out of the Bareshnum ritual. Zatsparam was also a  well-known priest of the post-Sasanian  era who  compiled a  book called `Vichitakiha i  Zatsparam’  which contains  selections  from  various  Pahlavi  works  on assorted topics like cosmogony, astrology,  eschatology and  life of prophet Zarathushtra.  We have many  other Pahlavi texts on religious and secular subjects written around  9th  century, the authorship of  which  is  not ascertained.  After  the end of the  10th  century  the Pahlavi literary works of the priests started diminishing.


Under the leadership of a devout priest Dastur  Neryosang  Dhawal a band of Zoroastrians set sail for  India which would  give them greater  freedom  to  safeguard their religion and religious institutions, customs  and traditions.  After securing safe refuge in Sanjan,  one of the first tasks undertaken by them was to set up  an Atash Behram, `alaat'(spiritual implements) for  which were  specially sent for from Iran by priests via  land route.  With great care 16 types of fires  were  consecrated  and the Atash Behram was installed in 790  A.D. and  it remained in Sanjan for almost 600  years  till 1490  A.D. When the safety of the fire was in  question during the attack of Sultan Mahmud, the priests shifted the fire to the cave mountains of Bansda at the risk of their lives and amidst great difficulty tended the fire there for 12 long years till 1502 A.D. Thereafter  the Holy  Fire was shifted to a more comfortable locale  in Bansda  for  14 years from where it was  taken  to  the prosperous  town of Navsari in 1516 A.D. at the  behest of a wealthy Parsi gentleman Changa Asa. There the Fire was  enshrined and remained for more than  two  hundred years but when the priest feared desecration of fire by the  raids  of the Pindharas(robbers) it was  taken  to Surat in 1733 A.D. where it was kept for 3  years  and again brought back to Navsari. Thereafter it was  kept there for  4  years when due to  some  difference   of opinion among priests about the right to tend the  fire the  fire  was shifted to Bulsar from where,  within  a year  it was shifted to Udvada in 1742 A.D. where  the holy  Fire  rests  till  date and  looked  after  by  9 priestly families called the Sanjanas who were with the fire  throughout   its  travails  to seven   different places. The great exertions taken by our forefathers to preserve  this sacred  religious  Institution   proves beyond  any  doubt that the importance of  this divine spiritual  institutions and the exalted esteem in  which our forefathers held.


In the thirteenth century an  important  event  took Parsi priesthood. There was  a division  among  the priests of Gujerat  into  5  divisions called  Panthaks which were spheres for  ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The main reason for this fivefold division was  to ensure that priests from one  area  does  not perform rituals and ceremonies in territories of other priests.  This practise ensured peace and  amity  among priests  of different areas. The five-fold division was executed on the basis of rivers as under:

Group               Territorial  area

1.Sanjana        From river Dantora to river Paar.         

2.Godavra          ”    ”   Paar     ”   ”   Taapi.

3.Bhagaria         ”    ”   Taapi    ”   ”   Narmada.

4.Bharucha         ”    ”   Narmada  ”   ”   Mahi.

5.Khambata         ”    ”   Mahi     ”   ”   Sabarmati.

These divisions have now almost disappeared due to the scarcity of priests. Presently only the Sanjana priests strictly adhere to this division.


As  in Iran, so in India, apart from  their  religious duties, priests were mostly engaged in  literary activities,  especially of copying old and  rare  manuscripts  of Avesta, Pahlavi, Pazand, Sanskrit,  Persian and Gujerati. The manuscripts that have survived belong to the period between 14th and 18th centuries and were written  by  priests like Jiva  Vika  Ardeshir,  Rustom Gustasp  Ardeshir and Kawasji Sohrabji Meherjirana. We know of two priests Rustom Meherwan and Meherwan  Kaekhushru  who especially came from Iran to India in  1269 and  1321  respectively  to write  Avesta and  Pahlavi manuscripts.

The  tradition  among  priests  of  writing  manuscripts  continued uptil the beginning of this  century and  priests  are known to have engaged  themselves  in copying  manuscripts during the long duration  of  time they  had to spend as Rathwi(assistant priest) in  certain ceremonies.

The  priests were so renowned  for their  scholarship in Avesta and Pahlavi languages, that when in 1754 a  Frenchman  by the name Anquetil du  Perron   came  to India with a desire of studying the Avesta language, he was  directed to a Parsi priest Darab Daru Kumana in Surat from  whom  Anquetil learnt the  basics  of  the Avesta language for two years and returned to France to publish  the fruits of his labour. In a  way,  Anquetil was the pioneer of systematic philological study of the Avesta language.

There were priests who distinguished themselves in studies other than Iranian languages, like Mobed Neryosang  Dhawal in the 12th century who translated many  of our Avestan scriptures into Sanskrit.

Mobed Kaus Rustom, an ancestor of the Mirza family of Udwada, stayed in Delhi for 20 years between 1741 to 1761 in the court of the Moghul Emperor Mohammadshah as the  head  of the Royal Library and was  conferred  the title Mirza Khushro Beg by the mperor for  his  services.

In  1846  a Parsi priest of Bharuch Adhyaru  Shri Ardhasera  caused  to be written the Sanskrit  text  of Ashtanga Yoga Hridaya for the study of his son.

In the 16th century Mobed Chanda composed Sanskrit Shlokas on Parsi, Hindu and Islamic calendar.

The pioneering work of starting the first Gujarati printing press was done by Mobed Fardunji Marzbanji in 1812. The same press started the first Gujarati  Newspaper `Shri Mumbai na samachar’ in 1821 which is  still current  under the name `Mumbai Samachar’.  Mobed  Fardunji even studied Indian medicine and published a book on physical welfare and health in 1841.


Between  the  period 1478 to 1766,  Parsi  priests sent  emissaries  like Darab  Hormazdiyar,  Hormazdiyar Faramroz,  Cama  Vohra, Kaus Cama and  Shahpur  Bharuch from Inidia to priest in Iran with questions pertaining to  religion, rituals, rules of adoption and  marriage, performance of ceremonies and other customs and  usages of the Zoroastrian religion. These questions along with their answers are there with us today in the form of 26 Revayats which give us an insight in the manner in which the religion was practiced in Iran and India in those times.


Parsi priests are expected to lead a life of discipline and temperance,  and our priests were renowned for their highly  dedicated  lives  and also  for  the  spiritual powers they  developed by virtue of  their  piety  and prayers. Several priests have adorned the Parsi Community and glorified the name of Zoroastrian religion in recent times by their spiritual caliber.

The First Dasturji Meherjirana of Navsari is renowned to have expounded the Zoroastrian religion in the court of  the Mughal Emperor Akbar between 1576 to 1579  when the Emperor held religious discussions among  representatives of various religions. So impressed was Akbar by the Dasturji’s exposition of the Zoroastrian  religion that he ordered to have fire burning in his palace  24 hours of  the day. He granted Dasturji a fief  of  200 bighas of land as a token of his appreciation. Dasturji Meherjirana  is  also  reported to  have  challenged  a sorcerer  who had created the illusion of a second  sun by  putting up a metallic plate in the sky. When  everybody else failed, Dasturji Meherjirana is said to  have brought  down  the  plate by the power  of  his  Avesta prayers,  and the sorcerer had confessed of  the  helplessness of his black magic before the Avesta prayers.

Dastur  Ardeshar Noshirwan Kermani who is said to  have performed  startling  miracles in  Iran  by  performing certain  religious  rituals, was also a  great  Persian scholar. He was invited by Emperor Akbar to participate in the work of compilation of a Persian lexicon.

Dastur Azar Kaewan (1533-1628) was a well-known priest with great mystic powers. He was also well versed in Zoroastrian religion, Iranian traditions, Sufism, Greek philosophy and Persian language. He came to India from Iran in 1616 A.D. and breathed his last in Patna.  A Sufi mystic has equated the life of Dastur Azar  Kaewan with that of Guru Nanak and Kabir.

Of  late, Dasturji Jamshed  Sohrab  Kookadaru (1831-1900)  demonstrated through his life that one can attain a  high spiritual stature by leading a life  of  piety, purity, simplicity and righteousness according to  the standards laid down by our religion. Dasturji  Kookadaru,  with  his spiritual powers  cured  illnesses  like jaundice  and  performed certain  seemingly  impossible miracles.  He  also had pre-cognitive powers  which  he used  to  avert forthcoming misfortunes. He led  a  very active  life giving public lectures, taking open  stands on controversial issues and by being a member of several  Parsi associations. He was also a profound  scholar of the Pahlavi language and a Panthaki and later Dastur of the old Kapawala Fire Temple.

The  lives  of  these great  priests  are   living testaments  of  the effectiveness of the  teachings  and practises  of  our  religion and the  efficacy  of  the Avesta prayers in this day and age.


The  priests  have  a tradition  of  understanding  and expounding the Avestan scriptures in the language of the times,  Pahlavi  in Iran and  thereafter  Sanskrit  and Gujarati  after coming to India. However  this  understanding was different from a scientific and systematic study of the Avesta language.

Between  the years 1858 to 1860, the  great  Parsi savant  Khurshedji  Rustomji  Cama went to  Paris  and Erlangen and studied Avesta and Pahlavi languages in  a scientific  and systematic manner under Mohl and  Spiegel.  From there he brought this method of  philological study of  the ancient Iranian languages to  India  and started classes to teach the same to desirous students. Among his first batch of students were priests who  are remembered  even  today for their contribution  to  the Avesta, Pahlavi and Pazand languages. Four of his first batch of students are mentioned hereunder  whose  linguistic  works are quoted even today.

Ervad Kavaji  Edulji Kanga is fondly  remembered  with respect  for  his  momentous work  of  translating  the entire Avestan scriptures into Gujarati. His dictionary of Avesta into Gujarati and English to Avesta and  his book  of Avesta Grammar are still regarded as  standard works in this field.

Ervad Tehmurasp  Dinshaw Anklesaria  laboured  in  the field of Pahlavi and translated many Pahlavi texts.

Ervad Edulji Kersasji Antia excelled in the  study  of Pazand  language  and he edited and  translated  Pazand texts.

Ervad Sheriarji  Dadabhai Bharucha worked in  all  the three ancient  Iranian languages Avesta,  Pahlavi  and Pazand.  He  also wrote books and essays  on  religious customs and traditions.

Many  other priests made significant  contribution  towards the study of ancient Iranian languages and  better understanding of the scriptures, some of whom are Ervad Bamanji  N.Dhabhar, Dastur Minocheher Jamasp Asa,  Dasturs Darab and Peshotan Sanjana, Dastur Hoshang Jamasp, Ervad Dr.Peshotan   Anklesaria,  Ervad  Dr.   Minocheher Karkhanawalla,  Ervad Phirze and Rustom Masani,  Dastur Kaekhushrroo  Kutar, Dastur Maneckji Dhalla and  Dastur Khurshedji Dabu. From this it is clear that the priests held  the mantle of religious, scriptural and  literary studies  down  the ages. Even today there  are  erudite priests  who  silently devote their time  to  religious scholastic works.


To come to the stark reality of the present times, today the priests in general are not the same as  those we  had in the past. Priesthood as  a  profession  and priests  in general are not looked up to with  respect. In fact, not just Parsi priests, but even Christian and Hindu priests  are facing this problem.

The  deterioration  in Parsi priesthood  seems  to have started about 50 years back, due to the change  in the  value  system of the 20th  century  where  instant materialistic returns are considered the main criterion for  which people exert themselves. So  naturally  the exalted  profession of priesthood which  requires  much dedication, sacrifice and self-discipline, and in  which returns were measured more in terms of satisfaction and personal spiritual progress suffered a setback.

There arose a rift between the priests and  laity on  intellectual  as well as economical  grounds.  Gone were the days when the native knowledge of the  priests was respected. With the higher education enjoyed by the laity, the priests were considered ignorant and had  to endure sarcasm and mockery. As their reputation  diminished so did their self-respect and a sense  of  purpose and  a  vicious circle started which can be  seen  even today. The more intelligent among the priestly families left priesthood and went in for other professions,  and once  parents  who  proudly admonished  their  son  to continue  their noble profession,  started  encouraging their children  to  serve  elsewhere.  Consequently   a brain-drain occurred  among the priests with the  intelligent ones going into other professions, so  naturally the quality of priests started deteriorating.  Further, because  of  the  meagre  education  of  the  remaining priests,  they were unable to satiate the  intellectual appetite  of the Community members and were  unable  to check the reform movement which had gained  ground  in the  beginning  of this century.  Justifiably,  priests also  concentrated on earning more money, which was  by now considered a mark of respectability.

As  the socio-economic changes took  place  as  a result  of Westernisation, the original purpose of  different  grades of priests,  – that of a  religious preceptor;   – that of a performer of high  liturgies  and  Dastur – that of a head and  leader  of  the Community lost their significance and became mere nomenclatures for members of the priestly class.

Presently an encouraging trend is  seen in  India with  emoluments of the priests  getting comparatively better and youngsters joining this profession. The need of the day is to help the priestly class regain their  self-respect and only then can  they  once again be the real friends, philosophers, guides  and upholders of the religion in future.