By Roni K. Khan

There must hardly be a Parsi who has not asked — or heard — these twin posers: "Is the holy Fire only a ‘symbol’? Are we ‘Fire-worshippers’?" Various conflicting answers are offered from time to time and the issue continues to remain elusive and contentious. Part of the problem seems to be semantic, because we are dealing here with English words like ‘symbol’ and ‘worship’ whose meanings may not be understood by everyone in the same way. This calls for care in defining our terms of reference when applying these words to the discussion. Another part of the problem seems to arise from taking too restricted or diluted a view of Fire. This calls for care in paying due regard to what is revealed to us in the sacred Zarathushtrian scriptures about the nature and role of the holy Fire, rather than banking on our own opinions. If we bear these considerations in mind we will hopefully be able to narrow down the gap between the sharply divergent positions that presently prevail.

What Is A "Symbol"?

The ‘Cambridge International Dictionary’ informs us that a "symbol" is a sign, shape or object which is used to represent something else, and that it can be used to represent a quality or idea. For example, "The lighting of the Olympic Torch symbolizes (represents) peace and friendship among the nations of the world," or "The heart shape is a symbol of love."

"Symbolism" is the use of symbols to represent ideas, and an action or object is said to be "symbolic" if it expresses an intention or feeling although it has little practical influence on a situation. Consider, for instance, the Symbolist movement in modern art and literature which is a reaction against naturalism and realism: it is an attempt to express states of mind rather than actually affect reality, using the power of words and images to produce ideas in the imagination.

Thus, the Olympic Torch does not have the ability, in and of itself as a physical object, to bestow international peace and goodwill. It is merely a symbol which represents the idea of friendship among nations. Similarly, the heart shape, in and of itself, does not physically have the power to bestow love. It merely symbolizes or represents the idea of love. Take another example: the Param Vir Chakra medal, a national award for bravery in time of war. The medal itself is just a lump of metal which has no power to do anything by itself. But it is a symbol which represents the idea of bravery and patriotism.

In other words, a symbol does not possess any inherent or direct power of its own to practically influence a situation or to act by itself to change reality. The reality is not contained within the symbol; it lies outside the symbol. In that sense, a symbol is lifeless or inert. Although a symbol can act strongly on the imagination and inspire us intensely, it does so only by reminding us about some other real thing which it merely represents.

Is Fire A Symbol?

When the question in put like this — "Is Fire A Symbol?" — the answer is YES.

Fire is the most sublime and subtle of all the ancient Natural elements or "anaasars." There is nothing on this Earth which better symbolizes or represents Ahura Mazda and His divine scheme of creation, as will readily be seen from the attributes of Fire enumerated below. Moreover, this symbolism is lifted up to new heights in our mind’s eye when we gaze upon the Fires housed in our Fire-temples and reflect that they have been purified to the nth degree through unimaginably exacting processes of purification.

These peerless qualities exalt the devotee’s consciousness. They instantly and graphically remind him of the lustrous, purity-perfect Supreme Being and His creation. In this sense, Fire is certainly the symbol par excellence of Ahura Mazda.

Is Fire Only A Symbol?

When the question is put like this — "Is Fire Only A Symbol?" — the answer is NO.

The consecrated Fire, which observant Parsis reverentially treat as a spiritual monarch and appropriately call the "Atash Padshah," is much more than just an identifying symbol. We will see this a little later from the testimony of our sacred religious texts, but first we must briefly sketch out a bit of essential background.

Ahura Mazda is a vast and limitless ocean of Light, as declared by the saints and sages of all religions. Our own Dastur Arda Viraf had this to say: "When I approached Ahura Mazda I saw the Light ("roshni dit"); I did not see His body ("tan la dit")." Since Ahura Mazda is the supreme spirit in the spiritual world (‘minoan mino’) He is a Being of pure Light with no material body, and it is this spiritual Light which we oftentimes refer to as the Divine Light or the Cosmic Fire.

The secret of how this creation sprang into existence, in what scientists now call the Big Bang, is disclosed by Asho Zarathushtra in the Gathas (G.Y. 31:7): "He (i.e., Ahura Mazda) through His holy Word did in the Beginning declare that His LIGHT (‘Khvathra’ = Light, Fire) shall stream forth through all the Lights on high." Both Sound and Light travel in wavelengths which set up vibrations. Verily, the two building blocks of the entire universe are the vibratory wavelengths of Sound and Light! In this article, however, we need to deal only with Light. Haven’t we all heard the expression "The Fires of Creation"? Well, that’s exactly what we are talking about here.

The very name ‘Ahura’ means "giver of the breath of life" — derived from ‘ah’ (Skt. ‘as’) = to be, to exist, to breathe + ‘ra’ (Skt. ‘ra’) = to give, to bestow. As revealed to us by Asho Zarathushtra, mighty waves of Divine Light or Cosmic Fire streamed forth at the inception of creation. This is why we have a living universe. The fiery energies of Light involve heat and motion, which are the basis of all life. The life-giving energy of this Cosmic Fire is lodged in the soul (‘urvan’) and circulates in the ‘ushta-tanu’ (= the body of Light) which lies adjacent to the gross physical body (‘tanu’), shedding a radiance that is viewable as the aura. The instant the soul departs, the material body falls lifeless. Observe that the minutest constituent of matter, the atom itself, is electrically neutral — it is only upon the application of Heat or Light ("radiant energy") that it becomes electrically active. Also observe that the letters ‘I.N.R.I.’ on the Cross of Jesus stand for "Igne Natura Renovatur Integra" in the original Latin — meaning "Fire renovates the entire Nature." Fire is the fuel of Existence! Light is Life!

Fire is Ahura’s Light-energy which animates the universe. It is His own direct creational agent, and this is the reason why our scriptures call it His SON — "Athro Ahurahay Mazdao Puthra" or "Atarsh Puthra Ahurahay Mazda" = the Son of Ahura Mazda. A son is not merely the symbol of his father! A son is the legitimate heir and direct deputy of his father! When the father is all-powerful, can the son be powerless?

All objects in the universe must bear a physical vesture, and the combination of spirit and matter characterizes all living phenomena. The soul itself is made up of tissues of Light and is one of the three immortal constituents of our being, but it is encased in a physical body which is mortal. Similarly, when the purely spiritual (matter-less) Divine Light or Cosmic Fire manifests on the earthly plane, it necessarily takes on a material body to become the self-illuminating, self-purifying Natural element visible to our eyes as Fire. Fire is Ahura’s Light in a physical form on Earth. I sometimes like to think of it as "concretized Divine Light."

What we see with physical eyes is the body of the holy Fire; but what we should try to see with spiritual eyes is its soul. It is clearly stated in the Iranian Bundaheshn (18:15) that "Pak Atash Behrams have souls in addition to physical bodies," and that "if they are destroyed their bodies merge in the Earth and their souls in God." And incidentally, this is the reason why two consecrated Fires, each having its own independent soul, cannot ever be merged together.

Anything that has a soul has to be a sentient living being. Mark well that the holy Fires we Parsis install are CONSCIOUS LIVING ENTITIES, sanctified to such a pinnacle of purity that they are fully worthy of being assigned the epithet "Son of Ahura Mazda." The consecrated Fire is more than just a "symbol" which only reminds us of Ahura Mazda — it is a living expression in physical form on the earthly plane of Ahura Mazda, of Him who is Eternal Light. Suffice it to recollect from the Bible that when the Lord God physically appeared before Moses on the slopes of Mount Sinai and revealed the Ten Commandments, He expressed Himself in the form of Fire on a burning bush and not as a wise old man with a flowing white beard!

Sixteen "minoi" (invisible) Fire-energies of Ahura Mazda’s Divine Light function on the various celestial planes of existence, and are named in our scriptures as Adar Mino-karko, Adar Burzin Meher, Adar Khordad, etc., where ‘adar’ means "fire." The Atash Behram (lit. "the Fire Victorious") is the highest grade of consecrated Fire on the worldly plane and is composed of sixteen different types of earthly Fires which are said to reflect the Light-energies of the sixteen "minoi" Cosmic Fires. As the old Iranian adage goes: "As above, so below." The Atash Behram thus embodies the macrocosm in the microcosm, and is a mighty powerhouse with the ability to defray all types of karma. To uncover and activate their latent divine essence, each of the sixteen raw Fires is cleansed of physical dross by the most stringent purificatory procedures known to man, to be finally amalgamated into this one glorious Flame which may then rightly be considered the purest and most potent substance existing on Earth.

Now, dear reader, please take a pause and consider. After this background, would you consider our consecrated holy Fires to be just symbols? Or would you consider them to be something more than that? Well, in case you are still undecided, let us take a look at a few references from our scriptures to see in which direction they point.

Dear reader, I trust no doubt remains that although the holy Fire is a symbol, it is not only a symbol. More importantly, it is a conscious living entity invested with spiritual authority. To draw an analogy, if Ahura Mazda is the King of the universe, the holy Fire is His Viceroy on Earth. Certainly, the various outer trappings of pomp and circumstance that surround a viceroy serve as symbolic reminders of the glorious nature of his king. But a viceroy is no dummy, inert and powerless. He wields executive authority, derived directly from his king, which can vitally influence situations and change reality. So is it with our Atash Padshah, the Son of Ahura Mazda.

Finally, a word of caution. The "symbol-only" line is being promoted by "progressive" elements not only for Fire but also for Sudreh-Kashti. After all, if something is taken to be only a symbol which merely expresses states of mind rather than affecting reality, it makes it that much easier to treat it with less importance and reverence or even to discard it! Beware!

+ With that, we now go on to answer the SECOND of our ‘two perennial questions’ — it is right to say that we Parsis are "Fire-worshippers"?

"Athravan" Zarathushtra

Fire is absolutely central to the practice of the Zarathushtrian religion, and the one and only installed object of veneration before which the Parsi bows is the enthroned holy Fire. Indeed, Asho Zarathushtra himself was a Fire-priest, an "Athravan" (= guardian of the Fire): "Bliss, that the Athravan, Spitama Zarathushtra, is born for our sake!" (Yasht 13:94). Moreover, he is rightly called the "paoiryo Athravan" = the foremost Athravan (Yasht 13:89). In passing, note that the Avesta term ‘athravan’ becomes ‘atharvan’ in Sanskrit, and that the pioneering personage referred to in the Rig Veda simply as "the Atharvan" is believed to be Zarathushtra: "The Atharvan first chalked out the way of worship … " (RV 1:83:5).

Athravan Zarathushtra refers to Fire no less than seven times in the holy Gathas, and his enormous reverence for it cannot be missed, as is evident from this stirring declaration: "As long as I have strength I will indeed consider precious the offering of righteousness and homage unto Thy Fire" (G.Y. 43:9).

And yet … no matter how great our Prophet’s reverence for Fire, for him Ahura Mazda always stands first and foremost: "As Divine, indeed, O Mazda, have I realized Thee, O Ahura, when I recognized Thee as the FIRST at the birth of Life … " (G.Y. 43:5).

Strict Monotheism

To Zarathushtra, Ahura Mazda is "vispanam Datarem" = CREATOR OF ALL (G.Y. 44:7), and hence the sole and supreme master of ALL that exists. Undoubtedly, MONOTHEISM is the first article of faith in the revelation of Zarathushtra. The manifested creation is dualistic, but the Godhead is monotheistic. All the sacred Zarathushtrian religious texts live, breathe and preach the strictest monotheism. Ahura Mazda is described as the One And Only Creator (‘Boon-e Stih’), the Lord Of All (‘Harveshp-Khuda’), the End Of All (‘Frakhtan-teh’), the Cause Of All Causes (‘Jamag’), the Causeless (‘A-chem’), Without Any Partner (‘Aekh-tan’), One Alone (‘A-dui’), and the Master Of The Universe (‘Khudavand’).

In the religion of Zarathushtrian there is absolutely nothing which does not unerringly refer back to Ahura Mazda. Everything that exists is a CREATION of Ahura Mazda who stands solitary and supreme at the apex of the universe. Even the angelic beings known as Yazatas, exalted though they are, are but the creations of Ahura Mazda, directly owing to Him their existence and power. At the start of every Niyaesh and Yasht addressed to these divinities Ahura Mazda is remembered first in the dedicatory formula: "Khshnaothra Ahurahe Mazdao!" = To the glory of Ahura Mazda! And this is quickly followed up by: "Pa name Yazdan Ahuramazda Khodae awazuni, gorje khoreh awazayad!" = I pray in the name of Yazdan, the Lord God Ahura Mazda, the Beneficent; may His glory and His radiance be ever increased! It is only after these introductory expressions of fidelity and devotion to Ahura Mazda that the main body of the prayer addressed to the Yazata concerned commences.

Fire Is A "Marefat"

It is no different with Fire, even though Atarsh is designated not just as a Yazata but as the "mazishta Yazata" = the greatest Yazata. The very first line of the Atarsh Niyaesh states: "Khshnaothra Ahurahe Mazdao!" It is only after paying our deep respects to Ahura Mazda in this way that we proceed to say: "Nemase-te, Atarsh Mazdao Ahurahe hudhao mazishta yazata" = Salutation unto thee, O Fire of Ahura Mazda, thou well-created and greatest Yazata. Please look at this line carefully and you will find that there is no doubt about who’s the boss. Notice the word ‘hudhao’ which means "well-created" and unambiguously indicates that Fire is Ahura Mazda’s creation. Also notice the phrase ‘Atarsh Mazdao Ahurahe’ which clearly indicates that Fire is sourced from Ahura Mazda. All this is completely consistent with the famous expression "Atarsh Puthra Ahurahay Mazdao" = Fire, Son of Ahura Mazda. After all, it is the father who begets the son — not the other way around!

The Cosmic Fire is Ahura Mazda’s AGENT for creating a living universe. Reciprocally, its embodied earthly expression is the only authorized Marefat (agency, medium or channel) for Zarathushtis to commune with the higher spiritual realms and finally reach Ahura Mazda. Our scriptures attest that Ahura Mazda can indeed be reached on the wings of Fire. "Through the agency of this Fire, O most beneficent Spirit Ahura Mazda, we first approach Thee and Thee only" (Yasht 2:2-1). "In community with this Fire here we first approach Thee, Mazda Ahura" (Yasht 2:2-2). Moreover, the consecrated Fire is not only an agent to channel our worship heavenwards. It is also a spiritual magnet for drawing divine forces earthwards. As is plainly described in the Dinkard (VI:301), "The Yazads, when they come to the physical plane from the spiritual planes, first arrive in Atash Behrams and then elsewhere." Thus, Fire serves as a divine agency in both directions. The point we are trying to establish here is that Fire, in spite of its extremely close, even filial, relationship with Ahura Mazda, is but a means towards an end and not an end in itself. The End, and the Beginning, is AHURA MAZDA.

The aim of all these explanations is to show that even Fire, the greatest Yazata, is not considered a self-subsisting or self-empowered entity in our scriptures. Nothing in the created universe has any independent existence, function or power of its own. All things derive from Ahura Mazda and exist wholly and solely at His wish and will. It is worth repeating that the Cosmic Fire is the emanation of Ahura Mazda’s own Divine Light which He unleashes at the inception of creation to animate the cosmos. Fire is Ahura’s life-giving Light-energy which He uses as His creational agent, and if He were to choose to withdraw this Energy back into Himself, the universe would collapse!

Legitimate Apprehension

If the expression ‘Fire-worship’ suggests and encourages the worship of Fire as an independent entity sufficient unto itself and without due reference back to Ahura Mazda, it should be considered mischievous and strongly resisted. Our Atash Padshah is NOT an idol, and idol-worship is thoroughly alien to the Zarathushtrian conception. Everything that exists refers back to only One Divine Source — Ahura Mazda.

Since we human beings function through the physical senses, there is always a built-in risk that any installed physical object — even the holy Fire in our Fire-temples — might be misperceived by ignorant or over-enthusiastic devotees as the ultimate reality and mistakenly worshipped as God! This is a legitimate apprehension, and the risk of it happening increases if we allow ourselves to believe that we are ‘Fire-worshippers’.

Two Crucial Terms

The ‘Cambridge International Dictionary’ (1995) states: "Worship is the strong feeling of respect and admiration for God or a god." The ‘Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary’ (1960) similarly states: "Adoration paid, as to a god." These are the first or prime meanings given by both these standard English dictionaries under the head 'worship'. In other words, in the religious context the English term ‘worship’ intrinsically signifies the worship of God, and hence, the expression ‘Fire-worship’ immediately suggests that Fire is God or a god — which, as we have seen, is totally incongruous with the doctrines of the Zarathushtrian religion.

In Avesta, we frequently encounter another extremely important word yazamaide’ (Skt. ‘yajamahe’), used in relation to Ahura Mazda as well as to various other lesser spiritual entities like the Yazatas (Skt. ‘yajata’). The root here is ‘yaz’ (Skt. ‘yaj’), which means "to worship," "to praise," "to revere," "to venerate," "to invoke," "to call on for assistance," "to pay homage," "to attune with".

As you will notice, "to worship" is one of the attested meanings of this root, and in this connection it is necessary to offer a few relevant comments and clarifications, as follows:

These linguistic considerations are not mere semantic hair-splitting. The meanings of key Avesta words, especially when subjected to English translation, have a great influence on how we understand important concepts. Purity of meaning leads to purity of understanding. With the addition of this linguistic analysis to our doctrinal explanations, there should now be no difficulty in fully appreciating the truth of what the peerless poet Firdausi Tusi had to say in the famous ‘Shahnameh’ about the Zarathushtis: "Do not say that they are Fire-worshippers. They are the worshippers of Yazdan (i.e., Ahura Mazda)."


[Published in The Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly of 19 April 1998]

Traditional Zoroastrianism Home Page

Chapters of the Saga

Saga of the Aryans Home Page

How to get the Saga in book form