time of myth and legend, before recorded history, we are told that there was
a cruel tyrant called Zohak, under whose rule, the people suffered greatly
and lived in fear as to what terrors each new day might bring. Zohak’s
cruelty and injustice became so intolerable, that he was finally overthrown
under the leadership of Kaveh the blacksmith, and the legendary hero
Faridoon, who became king in his place.
the defeat of Zohak, Faridoon decreed that a great festival be held, and,
according to Zoroastrian tradition, this is the festival which came to be
known as Mehrgan.
widely held, however, that the origins of Mehrgan pre-dated Zoroastrianism
and the feast was originally celebrated to honor Mithra, a pre-Zoroastrian
deity of the Indo-European tribes. It is interesting that in the centuries
following Zarathushtra, instead of persecuting this religion, the
Zoroastrians simply absorbed it, Zoroastrianized it, and included it within
word mithra means contract, keeping one's word. It governs relationships.
In later Sassanian times, the word evolved into mehr.1 In
addition to contracts and keeping one’s word, it’s meaning included good
relationship or friendship.2 And its symbol was light. So in
essence, Mehrgan is a festival to celebrate the victory of goodness, and is
also a festival of friendship and light.
it is interesting to know how Mehrgan originated, the question I have is:
Why has it survived for so many thousands of years? Why was this festival
embraced by our monotheistic Zoroastrian ancestors before recorded history,
as the celebration of goodness over evil. Why is this festival still
remembered and celebrated today, when the ancient Indo-European deity who
started it all has been forgotten for centuries? Why has it survived?
the answer to that question is that there is, and always will be, a hunger
in human hearts for the good guys to win. This is what Mehrgan represents –
that darkness and evil will be overcome, that goodness, integrity,
friendship, and light will win – all fundaments of the Zoroastrian religion
– small wonder that ancient Zoroastrians embraced this festival and made it
we tend to intellectualize our religion – to concentrate on the fact that it
values intelligence and righteousness, which it does, and it is good that we
should remember that. But we tend to forget the central role that goodness
and friendship play in our religion. In ancient times, our religion was
called the Good Religion, because a commitment to goodness is at its very
core. Even the divine characteristic, vohu mano, is not just intelligence,
but good thinking (vohu mano) – intelligence committed to goodness.
Friendship also is a central concept of our religion. Zarathushtra
describes the relationship between man and God, not as that of a father to a
child, or a master to a servant, but as that of a friend to a friend, or a
beloved to a beloved.
all know the role that light plays in our religion. Being human, it is
easier to remember abstract things when we tie them to material symbols.
But, as human beings tend to do, we sometimes fixate on the symbol, and
forget the meaning behind it.
Gathas, Zarathushtra uses light as an adjective, or symbol, to describe
Ahura Mazda and His divine values – truth and good thinking. For example, he
speaks of “sunlike truth” (Y32.2)3,
and “the sun like gain of good thinking”
(Y53.4)4. He describes Ahura Mazda as sun like and glorious:
“…Him who has
the appearance of the sun. …..” (Y43.16).5
“…May the Wise
Lord listen, in whose glory I have taken counsel with good thinking…..”
declare to you in verse…the glories of Him who offers solicitude, the Wise
later Avestan literature too frequently speaks of the Wise Lord as radiant
and glorious (Y1.1, Sirozah 1.1, Ormazd Yasht verse 12, to list a few
known was this symbolism in the ancient world, that the philosopher,
Porphyry, who lived around 300 AD described the God worshipped by the
Iranians as follows. He said:
“The body of Oromazdes is
like light and his soul like truth.”6
short, Zarathushtra uses light as a symbol to describe the divine. If you
think about it, this is a very lovely idea. Because Zarathushtra’s idea of
the divine, is not some patriarch with a long beard, sitting up in the
clouds somewhere. He teaches that the divine lives within each one of us.
So as we increase the divine in ourselves, by bringing God’s attributes to
life with our thoughts, words and actions, we become more filled with
light. In ancient Iranian paintings, this idea was depicted as a flaming
halo, or glory around the head of such a person.
Persian poet, Jami, expresses the same thought, but in a different way. He
“Each essence is a separate
Through which the Sun of Being’s Light is passed,
Each tinted fragment sparkles with the Sun,
A thousand colors, but the Light is One.”7
light of our Beloved Friend lives in each one of us, we begin to understand
why, in Zarathushtra’s view, we must treat each other with friendship, with
respect, with goodness, with love, in short, with mehr.8
interesting how this symbolism has found expression in different ways in
Zoroastian traditions. For example, the fire for an atash behram is created
by mixing many different fires – the household fire, the fires from many
different trades, a shepherd’s fire, a military fire, fire from lightning,
fire from a neighbor’s hearth, fire from a burning corpse, and fire from
burning trash.9 What does this tell us? It tells me that the
person who invented this ritual was trying demonstrate that the sacred comes
from all aspects of life. I find that incredibly beautiful.
beautiful symbolism is worth re-creating in our lives, to remind us of its
meaning. I hope that some day, our community centers will do a mini-adaption
of that ancient symbolism, by having each family that attends a
celebration, contribute a flame to create a community fire. As we do, I
hope we will look behind the symbolism to what it represents, that we are
using the divine within each of us to create a community of friendship and
goodness and light.
in Pennsylvania, as you know, where the winters are long, and dark, and
cold, not unlike the winters in Iran. I like to think of Mehrgan is an act
of defiance. In the face of winter, with its long nights, we celebrate a
festival of light, an affirmation of belief that the darkness will not win.
worth keeping this festival of Mehrgan alive today? Well, the ways in which
ancient Zoroastrians dressed, their language, their diets, their habits,
their sports, their institutions, all are very different from the way we
live our lives today. But the values they cherished, the things of the
spirit that flamed their souls, and gave meaning to their lives, are equally
relevant to us. We just need to re-invent the material expressions of these
things of the spirit.
think the festival of Mehrgan is worth keeping alive, to remind us of these
spiritual values, I’d like to make a suggestion. Zarathushtra was very
wise. He taught that the material and the spiritual are inextricably
linked. Material things, without the spiritual, are empty. By the same
token, as wonderful as things of the spirit may be, how do they find
expression except through the material – through words and actions. The
happiest outcome is when material things are infused with a good spirit.
And when things of the spirit are effectively expressed in material words
our Mehrgan celebrations, I suggest the following: Several months before
the festival, get all of your kids together as a group. Explain to them the
values which the festival promotes. You may even tell them the activities
with which Mehrgan has been practiced in the past, to give them ideas. Then
ask them to come up with ways of celebrating it, which will symbolize or
express the meaning of Mehrgan in ways that they can relate to, and also
have a lot of fun with. Try to remember that our kids have in them the
divine characteristic, vohu mano, good thinking. Give them a chance to use
it. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
role of the adults be purely supportive. Resist the temptation to tell your
kids how they should do it.
whatever the kids eventually come up with, in the spirit of Mehrgan, treat
their views with respect. Even though you may feel that your ideas were a
lot better. The objective here is meaningful participation. If the kids
come up with something impractical, as kids sometimes do, show them the
problems in a friendly way, and let them use their own good thinking (their
vohu mano) to work around the problems.
knows, like that ancient Zoroastrian, who invented the symbolism of the
atash behram fire, maybe the children of our communities will start a whole
new Mehrgan tradition, and have a lot of fun doing it.
are to preserve the spirit of Zarathushtra's teachings, we need to re-invent
ways of expressing them that are in keeping with today's world – just as our
ancestors did in their world. And our children are the most valuable
resource we have for that process.
closing, I would like to suggest an adaptation of another lovely tradition.
In the jashan ceremony, there is a part where the priests join hands with
each other and say “hamaazor, hamaa asho béd” It means, "Let us join
together, let us be one with asha."10 Notice, this is a double
joining: -- a joining with each other, and a joining with asha, which is
truth, goodness, what's right. I cannot think of a more perfect definition
of friendship. I suggest that we adapt this ashavan gesture of friendship
to our celebration of Mehrgan, the festival of friendship and integrity, by
starting our celebrations with turning to the person on your right, on your
left, in front of you, behind you, and any one else you can conveniently
reach. With each such person, join hands, and say "friendship in asha," or
if you prefer, “hamaazor, hamaa asho béd.”
According to Dr. Esmail Nooriala, the word “mehr” is a
derived from the Aryan word “mei” meaning relationship. See Nooriala,
A Brief Description of Mithra, Mehr, Mehrgan and Yalda, a talk given
in Denver, and obtained from the Internet.
“…He who is allied with good thinking and the good
companion of sunlike truth…..” (Y32.2). All quotations from the Gathas are
from Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, (Brill, 1975).
“…the Wise Lord shall grant (to her) the sunlike gain of
good thinking….” (Y53.4).
All quotations from the Gathas in this paper are from the
translation by Professor Insler, as it appears in The Gathas of
Zarathushtra, (Brill, 1975).
Quoted in Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, Lecture 2,
page 67 (AMS Press NY reprint). See also, T. R. Sethna, Book of
Instructions on Zoroastrian Religion, page 17 (published by Informal
Religious Meetings Trust Fund, Karachi, 1980).
I am indebted to Dr. Daryoush Jahanian for this
A contemporary Iranian poet, Akhavan Saales, laments that:
“We have surpassed the orbit of the moon, but we are yet far, far, from
the domain of Mehr.” Quoted from the paper of Dr. Esmail Nooriala,
referred to above.
J. J. Modi, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the
Parsees, 2d ed. 1986 reprint, pages 200-201.
I am indebted to Dr. Kersey Antia for this explanation.