written by Programming Intern, Michaela Wolf
Can you describe to me the relationship of fire, sunlight and light to Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism?
Asho (righteous) Zarathushtra called God by the name Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord or Lord of Wisdom). A consecrated Fire is considered the physical manifestation of Ahura Mazda and the focal point of worship for Zarathushtis. It should be noted that Zarathushtis do not worship fire in and of itself; rather, fire is revered as a physical symbol of the Enlightened Mind and Truth. Since ancient times, fire has provided sustenance for humans in the form of providing warmth and comfort as well as light (synonymous with knowledge & wisdom) by dispelling darkness (synonymous with ignorance). In the absence of a consecrated fire, Zarathushtis pray facing towards the direction of grandest light of Ahura Mazda’s creation, the sun.
Many of your angels are also related to agriculture. Is there a prevailing land ethic in Zoroastrianism, and if so, can you explain it?
I am not sure what you mean by angels related to agriculture. The prevailing occupation of the time when the religion originated was farming and agriculture. Therefore, allegorical descriptions and metaphors in the teachings often utilize references from nature and the agricultural society of that time. The teaching for reverence of the land is no more or less than that for the other creations on Earth, and Zarathushtis are enjoined to value and take care of all the creations.
Can you speak about the six gahambars (or gahambars) and how you celebrate them?
The Zarathushtis traditionally celebrated six gahambars or seasonal feasts spread throughout the year in honor of the Skies, Waters, Earth, Plants, Animals & Humans. They were traditionally celebrated over a period of five days each with prayers followed by a communal feast during the different seasons. Over time, the practice of celebrating each gahambar has reduced substantially. Locally, we celebrate the Ayathrem Gahambar in October of each year with a thanksgiving Jashan prayer ceremony followed by a communal dinner.
Is there one gahambar or an aspect of the gahambars that you enjoy most?
The aspect of the Gahambars that I enjoy the most is the feeling of togetherness and community that is generated by the participation of the community members in numerous ways. Everyone tries to help in any way they can, by cooking, or bringing items for the prayer ceremony, or helping with the setting, serving and cleaning up after the dinner. Another aspect of the Gahambars that I enjoy on a personal level is during the Hamaspathmaedhem Gahambar, the last Gahambar preceding the Zarathushti New Year. During this time, it is customary to chant the Gathas and also offer our prayers and remembrance to the souls of our dear departed loved ones. The Gathas are divinely inspired hymns composed by Prophet Zarathushtra. When I chant the Gathas and read the English translations, it gives me a strong sense of peace and oneness with Asho Zarathushtra and my faith because it reminds me that I am chanting the very words chanted by Asho Zarathushtra himself thousands of years ago followed by Zarathushtis throughout the ages.
Has there been a time in your life when you felt the presence of this belief in a personal experience in your life, like an a-ha moment, or an unique experience of yours when you really felt a strong connection to your identity as a Zoroastrian?
My full time profession is engineering. However, I have been fortunate enough to have been ordained in India as a Zarathushti priest. This gives me the opportunity to provide services part-time as needed by our local Zarathushti community. These service experiences give me a true sense of peace and satisfaction and a strong connection to my identity as a Zarathushti. In addition, my role as one of the teachers in our monthly Sunday School program gives me the chance to interface with young minds to help them understand and internalize the teachings, values and traditions of our faith so that they can think about and apply them on a daily basis in everything they do. For me the connection is truly made when students or their parents tell me how something they learnt at Sunday School has helped them through difficulties or provided them with an important perspective.
What are successes and challenges you experience as a Zoroastrian in the USA?
Growing up in India, we took our religion, practices and customs for granted and did not necessarily make an effort to learn about them, since most people around us were already familiar with Parsees. The biggest challenge as a Zoroastrian in the US is being able to clearly explain our faith to a person usually unfamiliar with it, in a manner that is relevant to the everyday person. For me, ironically, the biggest success I have experienced has been borne out of the biggest challenge, that is the on-going process of discovery that has unfolded as I have learned and continue to learn more about the history, customs and practices of my faith.
How do practice these beliefs? What are some challenges you experience practicing in an urban US city? Do you see unique opportunities to being a Zoroastrian in a US city?
We practice these beliefs at many levels. On an individual and family level, we perform our daily kushti prayer along with other prayers. The kushti is a sacred cord woven from 72 strands of lamb’s wool which is tied with three loops around the waist to always remind a Zarathushti about the threefold Zarathushti ethic of Humata, Hukhta & Huvareshta (Good thoughts, good words and good deeds). The 72 strands symbolize the 72 chapters recited during the Yasna ceremony performed in the inner precincts of a Zarathushti Fire Temple. The core teachings of the faith, the 17 chapters of the Gathas, form the spiritual core of the Yasna. The kushti is worn over a sacred vest, the sudreh, a specially stitched cotton vest, white in color to represent purity and cleanliness of mind and body. The kushti and sudreh are first worn by a child at their Navjote (initiation ceremony). At a community level, we (ZAGBA) celebrate important days by gathering together as a community to celebrate days such as the New Year, Gahambars etc. with prayer and feasting.
Do you think social attitudes and policies are moving nearer to or further from the elements of respect for environment your faith holds? Do you feel especially invested in some public policy issues because of your faith or do you view them as unrelated?
Generally, I think that at a grassroots level, the awareness of respect for the environment may be increasing, with the recycling programs in many communities being a prime example. However, I am not so sure about the corporate/industry level, where profits usually drive the decision making process. I do not necessarily view public policy issues as related to my faith.
Can you please describe the role of cheerfulness and joyfulness in your religion?
The basic Ashem Vohu prayer in its essence describes the path to happiness as “Righteousness & Truth is good, it is the best, it is happiness; Happiness to the one who practices Righteousness & Truth for its own sake.” Therefore, true happiness is linked to making the right ethical and moral choices just because that is the right thing to do.
Look for the third of this four part series next week!
Michaela Wolf is the program intern at Project Interfaith. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies with a focus in Biology and a minor in Sociology from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. She currently attends Clarkson College, pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Her interests include reading, writing, running, the outdoors and art.