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.”
FOURFOLD DIVISION OF SOCIETY:
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.
AVESTAN SCRIPTURES AND THE PRIESTS:
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.
PRIESTS AFTER THE DOWNFALL OF SASANIAN EMPIRE:
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.
THE ROLE OF PRIESTS AFTER ARRIVAL IN INDIA :
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.
ECCLESIASTICAL DIVISION AMONG THE PRIESTS:
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.
LITERARY CONTRIBUTION OF PRIESTS IN INDIA:
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.
REVERED FOR THEIR PIETY:
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.
SCRIPTURAL STUDIES BY PRIESTS IN THE LAST 150 YEARS:
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.
PROBLEMS OF THE PRIESTLY CLASS:
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.