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The Significance of Plant Life in Zarathushti Liturgy  [i]


















Fourthly He produced the Tree; first it grew up in the middle of this earth, several feet high, - without branches, without bark, without thorn, fresh and sweet; it had in its germ (seed) all kind of force of the trees; He produced the Water and Fire for the help of the Tree;…….it grew for ever with their strength.

 Bundahisn 1a.11

The book of creation, Bundahisn, an important text of later tradition, regards plants and vegetation as the fourth creation of Ahura Mazda after the heavens, the earth and the water. So important is the plant kingdom that Zarathushtrian creation myth relates the very genesis of mankind through plant kingdom. We are told that the first ‘mortal life’ (Av. Gayamaretan) in its passing emitted the seeds from which grew a rivas (rhubarb like) plant, which in turn generated the astral body (Keherpa) of the first man Mshya and his wife Mshyanag (Mashyani) which was then vested with the physical form (1). Younger Avesta associates the Divine value of Ameretat (deathlessness, immortality) with the plant kingdom.

It is a part of Magian lore that plants are the part of the good creation of Ahura Mazda to fight the counter order of evil. As Pliny says, “The Magi are crazy about this plant verbenaca. Smeared with it they gain whatever they want in prayer, they drive out fear, they cement friendship, and there is not an illness they do not cure. It has to be gathered at the rising of the Dog (constellation of Sirius) when neither sun nor moon can see it…it must be dried in the shade with its leaves, stalk and roots separate” (2).

With above as a backdrop it is not surprising that use of this good creation of Mazda has become an important part of the devotional performances in Zarathushtrian ceremonial observances. It must be kept in mind that most Zarathushti rituals in general and the memorial services in particular depict during its communion the presence of all the creations of Nature - the water, earth (metal), plant, animal and human.

The fundamental aspect of any Zarathushtrian devotion is the establishment of Connectedness, of Oneness or Harmony between the physical with the Divine to complete or to make perfect the communion. This is true, from the simplest ritual act of Padyab-Kushti, to the most complex liturgy of Yasna. A devotee, whether a performing priest or a laity primarily through ablution carries out physical cleansing, and dawns a tranquil state of mind to create around oneself an environment of sacredness. For the inner liturgical ceremonies a Pawi (pure space) represents the sacred space.

Flower Ritual in Afringan
Zarathushtrian rituals invariably depict an expression of the doctrinal information embedded in the scriptures. For example the flower exchange ceremony that one has so frequently observed, during the afringan (Jashan) ceremony, has deep theological implications. The flowers arranged in two rows imply the concept of cosmic duality of the two existence: Mainyava (ph. menog) -the celestial or spiritual- and the Gaithaya (ph. getig) -the physical or terrestrial - world.

During the ritual the principal clergy Zaotar and his associate Raspi assumes the representation of the spiritual and the corporeal existence respectively, with the sacred fire in the middle as an embodiment of Ahura Mazda. The exchange of flowers with the words of athe zamyat…. between the two priests, implies an interchange or an interaction between the two spheres of existence. The most climactic moment of the Afringan ritual is the gathering by the Zaotar, the three flowers of the vertical row. First it is done in the descending order from the right, and second time in the ascending order from the left row, and each time, handing them to the Raspi. The descending and the ascending order of picking the flowers, is believed to depict, the two way transport of those righteous souls. The souls, after their righteous earthly existence, that have returned to their spiritual abode, are glorified here.

This enactment is carried out during the recital of Humatanam prayer. It is here that we see the two priests holding paiwand (holding hands) with each other, and Raspi in contact with the spiritual entity, the consecrated Fire with one hand. This is an expression of the oneness or harmony of the two complements of creation in communion with Ahura Mazda. That is the moment that epitomizes the fulfillment of the synergy and the realization of the harmony between the physical experience and the spiritual reality for the ritual. These intonations when recited fervently emanate the divine brilliance to the participating congregation, pooling them into the sphere of reality of existential spirituality.

Plant kingdom and the Inner liturgies
The most central of the entire inner liturgical sacrament is the Yasna ceremony. The term Yasna is derived from the Avestan root yaz or Sanskrit root yaj meaning to worship or to praise. There are two major parts to this ritual. The first part is paragna ritual which by definition precedes the yasna proper. The term Paragna is composed from a mix of Avestan and Sanskrit origin (the Avestan root para meaning before or what precedes and Sanskrit yagna analogous to Avestan yasna, meaning worship).

Paragna ceremony is a ritual that involves an elaborate process of consecrating a number of apparatus needed for the yasna ritual that follows. These include metal utensils, collectively known as Alat. In addition, the ritual elaborates rites to purify and consecrate the requisites, originating from animal and plant kingdom, that are essential for the Yasna ritual. The articles derived from plant kingdom are the Barsam, the Urvaram (plant, represented by pomegranate) and Aiwiyaonghan (date palm twigs).

The word Barsam is derived from the Avestan word Baresman which comes from the root barez meaning to grow. In earlier times Barsam was prepared from the twigs of any suitable plant (3,4). Yasna XXV appears to associate Barsam with the twigs of Haoma plant (5). Dadestan-I-Dinik refers (6) to Barsam as ‘vegetable sacred twigs’. According to Darmesteter in ancient times the twigs could have been of the pomegranate, date, tamarind or any tree that are plucked with ceremonial observances (7). Since the exodus of Zarathushtis to India, use of plant twigs as Barsam was modified and replaced with metal wires.

The number of twigs or wires used varies with different ceremonies. During the performance of Yasna ritual, a bundle of 21 twigs/wires are tied together with a cord made from date palm leaves and is supported on the crescent shaped stand called Mah-rui (moon face). The number 21 relates to the 21 words of Ahuna Vairya and in turn commands the reverence of original twenty one Nasks of the Zarathushtrian scripture. In the ritual, the barsam symbolically serves as a channel through which the material creation Getig unifies with the spiritual realm of Menog. It also symbolizes homage to the creation of plant kingdom. To a question addressed (8) to Ahura Mazda, “how shall we further the creation”, the Divinity responds “go towards that tree that is beautiful, high growing …let the faithful man cut a twig of Barsam…”

Accordingly, the ceremony for the collection of the date palm leaf (Aiwiyaonghan) and pomegranate twigs (Urvaram) is performed by a priest with highest order of ritual purity. The date palm tree historically (9) has been recognized as a tree of life, and an emblem of immortality. For the ceremonial collection of the date palm leaf priest enters the yard with a pot of consecrated water and a knife. After selecting a leaf, the priest makes Pav (pure) his hand and knife with the consecrated water, reciting the holy mantra, cuts the leaf carefully, washes it one more time, puts it into the pot of water and returns to the sacred space of Yasna-gah. Here the leaf is cut into three narrow strips and braided into a cord, and the loose ends tied to prevent unraveling. The date palm cord is now ready for tying the Barsam. Tying of the cord around Barsam is a symbolic gesture that portrays unification or oneness of the creation. This is also analogous to the tying of Kusti which is a symbolic circle that unites (10) those who wear it.

The term urvaram is derived from Avestan Urvara meaning the tree. Pomegranate tree has been held sacred by the Babylonians. Traditionally in the Middle Eastern culture pomegranate is accepted as the symbol of fertility, and fecundity in nature, and an emblem of prosperity (11). The pomegranate leaves are traditionally chewed by the candidate to affect ritual purification of mind and body, during the sade Nahn before the Navzote ritual. The ritual for collection of the pomegranate twigs is analogous to that for the date palm leaves. These twigs are collected traditionally for the explicit purpose of preparation of parahaoma a preparation that is a mix of consecrated water, crushed twigs of pomegranate and of haoma plants.

This brings us to one of the most controversial and debated ritual that forms the central sacrament of the yasna; the Haoma ritual. The Haoma plant has a checkered history associated with it. Although the original identity of the plant has obliterated through the antiquity, the plant is generally regarded as one of ephedra species. It is clearly evident from the Haoma yasht that the consecration of Haoma is a pre-Zarathushtrian ritual. However history has evolved it as a central sacrament in the Zarathushtrian traditional ritual. The twigs of haoma plant are ceremonially consecrated for use in the preparation of parahaoma. It is the enactment of straining of the crushed haoma and the pomegranate twigs with consecrated water that constitutes the ritual of parahaoma. The symbolism (12) of the pounding and filtering of the juice through the recital of four Ahunavar is explained as the birth of the four apostles: Zarathusht and his followers to be Hushedar, Husheder-mah, and Soshyos bringing the Good Daena to the humanity.

Vegetative kingdom - as per the myth of the later tradition (13,14) – originated, when Ameretat pounded dried plant small, mixed it with water, and Tistar rained the water on earth to sprout a hundred thousand species. This first animate creation of Wise Lord thus continues to play a central role in the Zarathushtrian ritual and justifies its crucial presence in the Creation as a whole.


(The numbers in bracket refer to the references)
1. Bd ( B.T.Anklesaria) XIV.6-10.
M. Boyce, HZ III, pg 533
Modi, The Religious Ceremonies, pg 261
Yasna XXV.36. SBE XVIII, pg165
SBE, Vol. V, pg 22 note 2.
Vd. XIX, 18,19
Modi ibid, pg 273
Modi ibid, pg 275
Modi ibid, pg 276/7
Dadistan-I-Dinik Ch XLVIII.30-33
Bd ( BTA) VID, 1-6
Zad-Sparam selections VI

[i] This article was featured in the Spring 2005 issue of the FEZANA journal, and was posted on vohuman.org on July 4, 2005 courtesy of its author Dr. Jehan Bagli and the guest editor of the FEZANA journal, Dr. Sam Kerr.