Iranian Themes on Priests from Pahlavi Literature: by Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia


Dear Readers: Following is for your reading pleasure.

There is a craze in vogue for denigrating the Zoroastrian priesthood and priests under the semblance of the so called "institutional" Zoroastrianism as contrasting to the unblemished "pristine' purity" of "reflective religion" etc etc, based on the sordid unsubstantiated polemics rampantly churned out from time to time with the shrill "uproar" of deafening intensity to drown and inundate the voice of reason and truth. Zarathushtra's place in the history of religions is unique, he is the only prophet who is also a priest. (Cf. Y.33.6). He proclaimed in no uncertain words in Y.45.3- Ushtavaiti Gatha:-

'yam moi vidvao mazdao vaochat ahuro
yoi im ve noit itha mathrem vareshenti
yatha im menaicha vaochacha
aeibiio angheus avoi anghat apemem'

'That which Mazda Ahura, the Knowing One, told me, (saying) "For those among you who will not practice these 'manthra' (holy words) in the way I think and pronounce it, for them 'woe' will be the last word of (their) existence" (Humbach-Ichaporia, The Heritage of Zarathushtra, 1994)

This is the clear and lucid direction to practice and strictly follow the "holy words/sayings" (manthra) as Zarathushtra conceived them as revelations from Ahura Mazda, Zarathushtra gives the strict warning of woe that will befall those who will disregard them. The question of so called, often heard "reflection" is nowhere in sight, here as well as in the whole corpus of the Gathas. The word 'reflection' does not even occur once.

As late as 800-900 CE the Pahlavi literature, testifies to the lofty qualities of the Zoroastrian priests who gave their lives to defend and preserve the religion of Zarathushtra thrice in the long checkered history of our faith, first against Alexander and then fronting the invading Arabs and much later after the fall of the Empire, facing the marauding tribes of Mongols and Tartars.

It is the historical fact that Zoroastrian scriptures came down to us from centuries of oral transmission through the 'dasturs'. Dinkard bears the witness to it. '...tak che uzvan-awasparishnik pat dastawar mand estat", "...including what had survived by oral transmission through dasturs" (Dinkard-Madon, 412.9).*

The memorizing of the sacred texts was a matter of great importance and 'priests' have phenomenal memory which makes all Zoroastrians proud. The trained memory is one the most important qualities of good 'dastawars" (dasturs).

The Pahlavi Texts (129 ff) give "Panch hem i asronan", 'the five virtues of the priests', as follows:

'as 5 hem:

  1. fratom avinasih
  2. ditikar vichin-kartarih i menishnan ut gowishnan ut kunishnan
  3. sitikar dastawar-darih chegon an i rat i danaktar i rast-gowishntat ke den akasiha amoxtet ut rastiha amocet'
  4. 'charom yazishn i yazdan rast-vachakiha [vachiha] varm-naskiha pat nirang yashtan'
  5. 'panchom rochan shapan shnayishniha andar xveshkarih estan apak xvesh hamestar hoxshishn kartan zivandak dranadh hach astavanih i den be ne vashtan ut pat xveshkarih truxshak butan'.

"These are the five (moral) virtues:

  1. First, impeccable honesty.
  2. Second, pleasant in good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
  3. Third to hold as a dastur (dastawar) he who must be the most wise leader, speaking truth, (and) who teaches according to the knowledge of the faith in true fashion."
  4. "Fourth, who worships God (yazdan) with true words, memorize the 'nasks' and who worships according to rituals"
  5. "Fifth, (he has) to be faithful in his duties to propitiate day and night, to encounter with his antagonists, not to turn away, in his whole life, from the confession of faith, and to be fervent in his own works."

The complete memorizing of the whole Avesta and Zand (exegesis) is the most ideal among all the virtues of the priests. In his first Epistle (1.4.11) to the Zoroastrians of Sirkan, Manushchir, the High Priest (of Sirkan) alludes to 'zartuhshtroktom' [Avesta: Zarathoshtrotema], the highest of Dastwars (dasturs) who is the "one who had memorized the whole Apastak (Avesta) and Zand" (hamak apastak ut zand varm). The same ideal is mentioned in Dinkerd (Madon)588.11. : 'hach hamak apastak apak zand varm' .

The good physician of the soul is described in Dinkerd (Madon) 160.15ff as:- 'ruvan bizishk zaratushtroktom den dastawar ku apechak hem ut asnutak xrat ut den vaspuhrakan ut yazdan menitarih dashtar ut menok venishn varm apastak ut vichitar zand ut akas den ut aguman rastak'

"Physician of soul, "Zaraushtrokam" (the highest among all dasturs), an educator of the faith, of pure virtue, of benevolent intelligence, alleviator of the faith, with reverent thoughts of God (Yazdan) perceiving the spiritual unseen, and who has memorized the Avesta, studied the Zand being thus familiar with the faith and induct without doubt."

Such are the finest qualities of the Highest of the High Priests of Zoroastrian faith commencing from the ancient times. Dinkerd (Madon) 720.13-14, asserts for the Zoroastrian priests to: 'gasan ut hadoxt varm kartam' memeorize the Gathas and the Hadokht. Hence prior to deprecating and maligning the Priests and Priesthood one must give thoughts to their outstanding achievements of keeping the religion of Zarathushtra alive through the trials and tribulations.

The defending of the faith against the onslaughts of alien religions, fell on the shoulders of the learned high priests, and the following outstanding example is worth noting:

A Christian (Pahlavi: tarsak) priest 'Boxt-m'l' (Boxt-mahray) raised a very critical question among the several others as alluded in Dinkerd (Madon) 455.100ff :-

Question:- 'yazd en den che radh pat evach-e i anashnak i nihuftak i apastak nam guft ut ave radh pat nipishtak ne bavandak hangart be pat gowishn varm kartan framut'

(Question from Boxt-m'l. a Christian priest): "Why did God proclaim this faith in the unknown mysterious language known as Avesta, for it did not excogitate a complete written text, but ordained to memorize by oral tradition?"

(Ans): (Henceforth Dinkard Madon is DkM, 459 8ff) 'en mansr ut den apastak harvisp-akasih veh menoken nazdbrahmiatar.....'.

"These 'manthras' (mansr) and the Avesta of faith are entirely (harvisp), spiritual knowledge......"

(cont) '......apastak vazurk daxshak hast pat awurt i Zartusht hach Ohrmazd ech drog ut halakih ut devan-kamakih patish ne hamak rast mas-datastaniha ut yazdan inayenitarih guft estet'.

"The Avesta itself is a great portent brought by Zarathushtra from Ohrmazd. (Ahura Mazda). In these (i.e.Avesta) there is neither falsehood nor folly, nor delight for demons (devan). It is wholly truth, expressing great opinions proclaimed for propitiation (gratification) of God."

'andar ech avach i druzan ne dast estet kas-ich ne vasht ut ne devan ech adhmet awish ne darend ut harv chegon gowihet druz hachish sizdikih ut yazdan patis urvahmanih bavet'

"Within (Avesta) there is no utterance of the "druj" (falsehood/evil). It has perverted no one. There is no hope for demons in it. From whatever said (in Avesta) the "druz" (lie and deceit) have anguish but God (Ahura Mazda) has veneration."

'..... den mansr ut hamak i uzvanik nipistan ogon framut o bunik nipishtak nun-ich frahist pat-ich nipetkiha pat estet chegon andar akasan paidhakbe varm kartan sut vas ut-ash sutakih pat izishn stayishn akasenishn i ave raman evak tak-ash danast i cishan hachish oh-ich ogon zufriha saxvan ut adhven rastiha ut avasht-rangiha awspartan shyast i datastan ut afrin bun-gowishnih freh hach nipesishnik vasiha ut patich aparik vas chim zivandak gowishnik saxvan hach an i pat nipist matakvartar hangartan chimik'

"These (Holy words/sayings) 'manthras' of faith (den mansr) and all the oral matters were organized by His will (i.e.God's will) to be written in a basic text. Indeed now mostly it is preserved in actual books as is known among the those knowing the facts. But to memorize is a great advantage. Its advantage lies in passing the knowledge of worship and praise to the people, so the people know how to benefit (from these manthras- to live good life). In this way it is possible to transmit profound words and true customs, unperverted. Such are the ways to transmitt basic utterances, decisions and blessings far beyond the written form, for the living spoken words are more alive than the written texts."

Although one witnesses pervading baneful, alien and adverse forces waiting anxiously to write a final requiem of our faith, the learned Zoroastrian priests and scholars are there in flesh and blood to confront such 'ahremanic' forces of destruction and despair, ever eager to shelter the religion in the community of the faithful. Our learned scholar priests are the living encyclopedia of our faith, having memorized the whole corpus of Avesta. An average 'Martab' priest generally memorizes 72 chapters (Has) of Yasna needed for Ijishne (yasna) ceremony, they are known as "(Gj) Bohateria". These are the proficient ones who have kept and will keep the flame of Zoroastrianism burning for all time.

I hope I have given sufficient references and citations so that the Mazdayasnians can truly appreciate their priests and priesthood.

"frajaft pavan darut ut shatih ut ramishnih" Accomplished with peace and delight and tranquillity.


Dr. Pallan R. Ichaporia.

(P.S. *All the cited translations of the Pahlavi Dinkard are from the forthcoming book: "The New Translation of Dinkard -Book II to V" by H. Humbach & P.Ichaporia, Germany. -the text is from Dinkard-Madon.)

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