The definition of prayer in Zoroastrianism seems a bit confusing since the prophet Zoroaster probably thought of prayer. And it is uncertain that he ever used the word, as a conversation with God (Ahura Mazdah). Since most of his extent words are in a very direct and personal style, expressing questions and doubts, affirmations of faith and devotion, in what was for the prophet the vernacular.
However, he was a practicing priest who was learned in the Indo-Iranian practice, such as the Rg Veda (see Vedas). That tradition, and later Zoroastrian practice, especially that of the Parsis, developed a different prospective of prayer, namely, that the recitation of sacred words in the powerful holy language, provided that they are offered in both moral and physical purity and with devotion, links people directly to God and therefore generates ritual power (amal). Understanding the meaning of the words, it is reasoned, can inhibit the mystical experience because by thinking about the meaning the worshippers limit themselves to human conceptual thought.
Types of Zoroastrian prayer
There a two types of Zoroastrian prayer, private and public liturgies. Every Zoroastrian is expected to recite the kusti prayers (naujote) at least five times a day having first cleansed himself, or herself, by washing. The duty of prayers is common to all, high or low, male or female. Prayers are offered on many occasions, at meal times, before major undertakings, in the temple, and at major turning points in life such as birth, marriage, and death.
There are a series of Avestan prayers that each Zoroastrian is expected to learn by heart,
- The Yatha Ahu Vairyo (Pahlavi, Ahunavar), thought to have been composed by Zoroaster himself, as the greatest of all Zoroastrian prayers, which can, when necessary, replace all acts of devotion;
- Asem Vohu, in praise of truth and righteousness;
- The Yenhe hatam, in praise of the holy beings that is recited at the end of litanies;
- and the Airyema ishyo especially recited at weddings and which will be recited by the saviors at Frasokereti.
These prayers are almost untranslatable, because of the antiquity of their language and poetic allusions. Another important examples of such prayers are the Kenma Mazda, a part of the Kusti prayers, which seek divine protection and repudiating evil; Hormazd Khodae, again rejecting evil, and seeking forgiveness for all sins and ending with a vow to for truth and to promote the world of Ahura Mazda; the Fravarane, almost a creed, affirming commitment to the Zoroastrian religion.
Also, there are formal liturgies that are performed in the temple, and which can perform in the home as well. These are divided into “Higher or Inner” and “Lower or Outer” ceremonies. The former can only be performed in a pure place apart, generally in a fire temple, by a priest, The latter may be performed in a temple (Atas), or in any private house and require less strict observance of the highest purity laws, in which case the priest does not have to be observing the Baresnum, Purity.
The obvious example of the inner ceremonies is the Yasna (cf. Vedic, yajna, sacrifice), developed in Zoroastrianism as the Yasna Haptaghaiti, the worship of the even sections, the liturgy enshrined within the two blocks of the Gathas in the Avesta. The yasna, like other acts of worship, is concerned to make present the spiritual forces, notably the Amesa Spentras, whose creations are physically present in the act of worship. In earlier times, animal sacrifice was a part of the yasna, but in modern times this has been, not simply dropped, but even denied by Parsis, though the practice continued in Iran, where Islam also practices animal sacrifice.
The ancient rite, including the pounding and concentration of the haoma plant, is thought to strengthen the material world by making the divine forces present. Inevitably, such a powerful ritual requires the strictest purity in the location where it is performed, and in the priests offering it. The laity may be present, though it is common for them simply to “commission” the performance on their behalf, such as a part of the ceremonies for the dead. Other notable temple-based ceremonies include the baresnum, investitures for priests (Magi); and the Nirangdin, whe the urine (Gomez) from the sacred bull (vaisya) is concentrated and thereafter is known as nirang, believe to cleanse not just physically (urine has a high ammonia content and thus can be use as an antiseptic on cuts), but spiritually as well.
Although laymen can worship in temple seeking the spiritual benefits which the liturgies offer, they also may obtain the holy life by worshipping before their household fires (Atas) through the prayers and practices of the Sudre/Kusti, and through the duties involved in the feasts (gahambars), and by living up to the high ideals of Zoroastrianism. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 763-764