The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
.Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
RELIGION & TRADITION
By Dr Ali A. Ja'fary
BELIEF AND BEHAVIOUR
as defined by Webster's Dictionary, is, among other things, "any specific
system of belief, worship, conduct, etc., often involving a code of ethics and a
philosophy; an institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and
practices"; and also "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held
with ardor and faith". It is derived from the Latin "religio",
meaning "reverence", which in turn is derived from "religare",
to bind back. It is, in fact, a bond. Tradition is defined to be "the
delivery of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites, and customs from generation
to generation by oral communication. It is an inherited, established, or
customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a
social custom)". It is in theology, an unwritten saying, action or a code
of laws attributed to the founder and the earlier promoters of a religion. It is
derived from the Latin "traditio", meaning "action of handing
over", from "tradere", to deliver.
difference between a religious practice and a social custom is rather a new
concept. In ancient times - times, during which most of the existing religions
were founded -- every social custom was, sooner or later, accepted as a
religious practice. Therefore, Religion and Tradition are almost taken to belong
to each other, so much so that some would take the two as synonyms. That
explains why the zealous are so zealous to maintain traditions as a religious
obligation. To them, every tradition is but a religious tenet.
to the Zarathushtrian religion, the conscientious term, most probably coined and
used first by the founder, Zarathushtra, is "Daênâ". It is derived
from the Avestan root "di" or "dai" (Sanskrit "dhyai"),
meaning to "see, view, perceive, contemplate, ponder, mediate" with a
participle suffix "na". Daênâ means "conscience, discernment,
insight", and of course, "religion". It is according to
Zarathushtra, one's discerning insight that forms one's religion, in fact,
conviction. The Indian term "dhyâna", focusing of thoughts to
comprehend a fact, meditation, is a cognate.
while the Indian dhyana helps an individual to concentrate to promote his or her
own individual mental faculty, the Zarathushtrian Daena unites all those who
think, discern, and choose alike in one great fellowship of conviction -- the
religion of Good Conscience, Daênâ Vanguhi-- founded, preached and promoted by
Zarathushtra. Zarathushtra uses the term Daena for a total of 26 times in his
sublime songs, the Divine Gathas.
gist: Daena is thinking and awakening. It goes with one's intellect. It is
wisdom and enlightenment. It is proper knowledge. It promotes precision and
righteousness. It encourages one to turn to work to make a better life. It
grants true happiness. It gives peace and stability. It purifies one's mind; so
much so that one engaged in good thoughts, words, and deeds, becomes godlike --
creative, maintainer, and promoter of the world one lives in. Says Zarathushtra:
That religion (Daena) is the best for the living, which promotes the world
through righteousness, and polishes words and actions in serenity. (Song 9.10 =
Yasna 44.10) Daena or religion to Zarathushtra is the straight path of truth
that takes coordinating people ever forward to improvement in their mental and
physical, spiritual and material life until they reach their ultimate goal Ahura
Mazda, God Wise. Daena is a conscious forward march to perfection. It is the
march of a perfecting life to eternity and divinity.
on the other hand, is an inherited religious practice or a social custom, which
was, in the near or far past, introduced first by certain circumstances and then
perpetuated by following generations. An urgent need to meet an exceptional
event may linger long, a human experience over a length of time may turn into a
custom, a social behavior in face of a particular event may continue, and a
practice, born of a belief in an abnormal occurrence or an extraordinary
experience, may turn into a tradition with the passage of time. Alien invasion,
conquest, occupation, captivity, slavery, forced labor, forced marriage, and
socialization as well inter religious rivalry also help to introduce, innovate,
change, transform, hinder, stop, erase, or kill a tradition. It has many a cause
to fall into a firm form. Created, adopted, borrowed, or imposed, once it
becomes a tradition, people practicing it develop a kind of attachment to it.
That makes them bound to it so much so that sometimes it becomes hard to
introduce a change in it, leave aside abandoning it. In the ancient past, this
attachment generally gave the tradition a religious hue, a hue that made it a
part and parcel of religion.
a part and parcel of religion, the origin of the tradition is, often with a
touch of miracle, attributed to a popular religious celebrity. It is here that
all practices concerning various phases of life, from birth through initiation
into the society, marriage, parentage, and death, take a religious form. Even
eating, clothing, waking, walking, working, running, resting, sleeping, and
socializing have their religious ways of performing them. Tradition, religious
or not, is present in every movement one makes, private, personal or otherwise.
It becomes the *prescription* for life. The terms religion and tradition are, as
earlier stated, used not only as cognates but also as synonyms.
tradition, when originally born, could have been fully justified and useful. But
the passing time brings changes into a society. Furthermore, a tradition,
however simple in origin, is generally elaborated, supplemented, and even
complicated by the following generations practicing it. With the social changes
on the one hand and the elaborations on the other, the gap between the practical
social life and the complicated, often mute, religious practices widen. In other
words, every tradition does not go hand in hand with the changes in society.
arises a conflict in adhering to the tradition or keeping pace with the changes.
The conflict hinders the smooth running of the social order. And if the conflict
takes a sad turn, those hotly involved in it hardly think that it is the gap of
time between the tradition and the progress made by the society that started the
conflict. The conflict divides the society between those in favor of maintaining
the tradition and those in favor of a change.
are labeled: Orthodox, traditionalist, fundamentalist, liberal, reformist,
progressive, etc. Some are used in a sarcastic, derogatory, or on the contrary,
in a dignified, respectful, or complimentary way. Even disrespectful words and
abusive language is used. Those attached to a tradition, which appears to have
outdated itself, try their best to justify its continuance. They generally turn
to interpretations, which turn an ordinary old custom into a highly symbolized,
rather mystified rite. Some go to extremes to show that the practices introduced
by ancient "sages" are much more advanced than the present practical
changes, and therefore are incomprehensible for modern minds. Occult definitions
may not confound every intellectual, but they do make many a layman feel too
simple to comprehend the "transcendental" interpretations.
Interpretations, particularly by vociferous zealots, work -- sometimes with
miraculous effects among the laity.
zeal shown by the traditionalists is quite understandable. It is religious
ardor, rooted religiosity. But what is surprising is that nowadays one comes
across persons outside a religious order who favor not only the adherence of
traditions by its followers, but advocate strict observations of traditional
rites even under unfavorable and unpractical circumstances. Scholars of
religion, although themselves professing another religion or following their own
schools of thought, write treatises and give lectures on the importance of
keeping the customs they feel are in danger of extinction. The smaller a
community and the older the customs, the more the emphasis on turning the
"endangered" community into a closed-door "reservation" in
order to help the faithful to preserve and practice their traditional rites.
scholars would go to great lengths in explaining the highly "symbolic"
values of the practices, which they see as being abandoned by younger
generations because the youth, rightly or not, consider them outdated and
therefore, unwanted. It is odd enough to witness a person, who personally does
not believe at all in a doctrine, take quite an interest in indoctrinating the
believers in preserving the doctrine. An unconscious faith, a latent belief, a
hidden love, an elderly advice, a scholarly sympathy, an anthropological
interest, a disparaging intention, a mischievous motive?
this does not mean in the least that every custom or practice outdates itself
and therefore, becomes unwanted. Those attached to humanity appear eternal.
Worship, festivity, initiation, matrimony, fellowship, hospitality and other
occasions warrant traditional customs. They have their places in a society. And
they have their true values.
uses Daena for 26 times but does not mention tradition even for once. The
reason: That divine foreseer knew well that while Daena is a living truth,
tradition is but a custom, always subject to changes under changing
circumstances. It is obvious that he wanted the religion to last. Binding it
with the customs and practices of his days would have numbered the days of the
religion too. He had to choose between the two for the survival of his message.
And quite naturally and of course dutifully, he chose to perpetuate his message.
This does not mean that he did not favor maintaining useful traditions. His
guiding Gathas and other texts in the Gathic dialect composed by his companions
and immediate successors as well as other parts of the later Avesta provide us
with good hints on traditions.
discovery of igniting and maintaining fire was the prime cause that separated
man from other animals and firmly put man on the express road to progress. Fire
was, but naturally, worshipped as a deity by many peoples, including the Aryans.
As an altar for worship, many religious orders and cults offered their
sacrifices to it. Solid and liquid foods were fed to fire to turn them into
smoke and send them up for the "beings on high."
purified it of all its smoking and seething elements -- meat, fat, butter,
grain, fruit and other eatable sacrifices. He turned it into a bright blaze
(Song 4.19, 15.9 = Yasna 31.19, 51.9) to face and concentrate his thoughts on
Mazda. (The story of him carrying a smokeless fire vase to King Vishtaspa need
not be a legend.) For him fire, much more mental than physical, symbolized
light, warmth and energy for a good guidance to steer clear through difficulties
to peace and progress in soul and body. (Song 4.4, 7.4, 8.4 & 9, 11.7, 12.6
= Yasna 31.3, 34.4, 43.4 & 9, 46.7, 47.6).
companions had an open fire enclosure, much as the later Achaemenians did, for
congregational prayers where they worshipped only and only God Wise. (Haptanghaiti:
Song 2 = Yasna 36) Still later, in an older part of Atash Nyaish, we learn that
all the "hearth fire", called divine, expected as an offering was
words of praise, greeting, and triumph and no fuming food. In the Gathas,
Zarathushtra prays with his head bowed in homage and hands raised in request to
God. He composes fresh songs to adore God and pour his love for Him. He has the
brightly burning and warming fire on the altar; sun, moon, and stars in the sky;
and water and any other inspiring objects in the beautiful nature around him to
face and break into devotional songs to perform his prayers. Haptanghaiti and
other sections of Yasna show, as already said, that congregational prayers were
held in communal enclosures and the Gathas by Zarathushtra and the supplement
songs composed by his companions were sung in solemn company.
Iranian Plateau, situated between 25 and 55 latitudes north of the equator, had
and has all the four seasons. As farmers and cattle raisers, the Iranians had
their agricultural seasons -- six of them. They celebrated the end of each
season. The Vispered shows that the early Zarathushtrians -- most probably since
the days of Zarathushtra -- turned tfour seasons. As farmers and cattle raisers,
the Iranians had their agricultural seasons -- six of them. They celebrated the
end of each season. The Vispered shows that the early Zarathushtrians -- most
probably since the days of Zarathushtra -- turned the six festivals into
thanksgiving occasions. They are, what we call, the "Gahanbars," each
lasting for five days.
or Navjote is another tradition kept alive and lively by Zarathushtra. He speaks
about it as the great event of decision (Song 3.2 = Yasna 30.2), and mentions
the initiation of King Vishtaspa, Ferashaushtra, Jamaspa, and his own cousin
Maidyoi-maha. (Song 11.14 & 15, 14.9, 16.16-19 = Yasna 46.14 & 15, 49.9,
51.16 19). His companions have an initiation ceremony in their fire enclosure
and call it the greatest event. (Haptanghaiti Song 2 = Yasna 36). Fravarti (Yasna
11.17 to 12.9) provides a vivid description of early initiation of adults into
the Good Religion. Nirangistan supplies us with more information on Navjote,
koshti, and sadreh. (Book III, Chapters 1 6). The Initiation ceremony's
"Choice of Religion" formula -- Mazdayasno ahmi...and other pieces in
the Gathic dialect -- supply the core of the koshti prayers.
marriage of Pouruchista, Zarathushtra's youngest daughter, forms a touching
scene and a future marriage guide in Gatha Vahishta Ishti. The tradition of
having marriages solemnized in the language spoken by the bride and the
bridegroom as long as Persian remained the common language of the population in
Iranian and Indian regions, shows that it beautifully changed its languages from
the Gathic dialect of 3700 years ago to Neo Persian almost 200 years ago. Today
it is again because of tradition that marriages are performed in an archaic,
unintelligible language, although some do augment it with a translation in the
language the marrying couple and the audience understand.
of a child is hailed in the Avesta but no rite is mentioned. However, the
Farvardin Yasht shows that Zarathushtra's birth anniversary was eulogized for
celebration. (stanzas 93-94) Greek historian Herodotus speaks of Persians
celebrating their birthdays at a time when other nations are not reported to do
so, a sign that birthday celebration is an Iranian innovation and a contribution
to world festivity. The names given to early new Zarathushtrian-by-Choice and
their children -- Paourutkaesha and Nabanazdishta -- in the Farvardin Yasht have
none of the old deities, not even those who later emerged as Yazatas, attached
to them. This significant point reveals that good care was taken to rename
newcomers and name children in the spirit of the dynamic message of Zarathushtra
void of older traditions. At the same time, it shows that there was a birth and
introduced the practice of eulogizing people during their lifetime and after
their death. He venerates them by mentioning their names and by "lovingly
encircling them." (Song 16.22 = Yasna 51.22) The remembrance of the good is
echoed in the "Yenghe Hatam" prayer in which respects are paid to men
and women for their righteous services. The Farvardin Yasht is an outstanding
tribute to the memory of those who chose and served the Good Religion in its
initial stages, from Zarathushtra and companions to three or more generations
after. The Gathas and supplements do not mention any funeral rites, but pay full
respects to the memory of the departed. It is the memorial service they
*emphasize* and not the method of disposal of the dead body.
these and yet we do not see the Gathas prescribe: "What to eat and what to
reject. What to wear and what to tear. What to build and what to burn. What
pollutes and what cleans. How to wash and how to dry. When to work and when to
retire. When to celebrate and when to mourn. What is the disease and what the
cure. What the dead and what the corpse. . . . "
Zarathushtra unconcerned with the daily life? No, never! Could he not prescribe
in detail all walks of life? Could he not put taboos? Of course, he could. But
he lived a physical life of his age - almost 4,000 years ago. He divinely knew
well the changing world. Any prescription on daily living would grow old and
out-of-date, and if it became a tradition to be adhered to, it would prove an
obstruction. Zarathushtra believe in continuous and constant renovation of life.
Says he: "May we be among those who make this life fresh! You lords of
wisdom, and you, who bring happiness through righteousness, come let us be
single-minded in the realm of inner intellect." (Song 3.9 = Yasna 30.9) He
has left the job to the "lords of wisdom" of every age to unite in
mind through righteousness and inner intelligence and continue refreshing and
renovating the life on earth. Time does not stop, why should "social
life" stop and stagnate.
we see that all the good traditions were kept by the earliest of Zarathushtrians.
Some were simplified, some streamlined, and some changed to suit the new spirit.
It was only the magical, superstitious, superficial, superfluous, intoxicating,
and bloody rituals performed in the names of gods and goddesses, which were
totally renounced and discarded. (Yasna 12) Later, as always has been the case,
all the ceremonies, performed by the early generations and many more introduced
by following generations, were elaborated. Institutionalization of a practice
constitutes a part of the process of a tradition. In fact, traditions are
maintained by their institutionalized forms.
Daena as religion has its own place in the Gathas. It is the guiding insight to
a progressing life. While the sublime songs mention worship with a bowed head
and raised hands, and a blazing fire, and allude to initiation, marriage and
memorial ceremonies, other Avestan texts describe various rituals maintained as
tradition in the forms given to them by the Good Religion during the early
Avestan period. The difference between the eternal principles of Daena and the
temporal customs of tradition are evident. In no place in the Avesta, rituals
and other practices have been termed as the "principles" of the
religion. Traditions live and leave, practices veer and vary, and rituals wax
and wane, but Daena, the religion of insight, the conviction by reason, lasts
and lasts -- "ever gaining, ever winning."
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)