Significance of the YASNA ceremony

by Maneck Bhujwala

In our monthly religious class at the Daremeher, one Sunday, I talked about the "Significance of the YASNA ceremony". Following is a brief summary of the talk, that was based on a book, by Dasturji Kotwal, High Priest of the Wadiaji Ateshbehram in Bombay, India, and Prof. Boyd of the University of Colorado, Denver, Colorado:

Significance of Yasna Ceremony

Yasna (also known as Yazashne or Ijeshne) is a priestly act of worship on behalf of the whole community, that is performed by 2 qualified priests who recite 72 chapters of the Avestan Yasna prayers in a special part of a Zarthushti temple, called Dar-i Mihr or Court of the Lord of Ritual. The two and a half hour ceremony is performed with ritual purification and offering to Ahura Mazda and His spiritual creation, with the purpose of pleasing Ahura Mazda. The Yasna prayers include the five existing Gathas of His Holiness Prophet Zarathushtra, that were preserved by the priests due to their tradition of memorizing and daily recital of the most vital parts of the scriptures.

The theological vision underlying the Yasna, is that Wisdom is the ultimate source of intelligibility and all positive reality. Universal principles such as Good Mind, Righteousness, Dominion, Devotion, Health, and Life, are derived from Wisdom, and are accessible to the eye of the mind and human spirit, called in Pahlavi as the Menog realm.

Less universal forms/powers such as friendship (Mithra), victory (Bahram), obedience and protection (Srosh), and the menog prototypes of all humans also known as Fravashis, also exist in the Menog realm.

The finite world (getig) is a positive manifestation and completion of the spiritual realm of Wisdom (menog), and therefore not separate or inferior to the spiritual realm. It derives its existence, order, and meaning from the menog world.

The real dualism in Zarthushti theology is not metaphysical but ethical, a dualism between good and evil.

The goal in human life, and a major purpose of the Yasna ceremony, is to so purify our physical and mental world, that the Amesha Spentas (universal principles), Yazads, and other powers of the menog realm can become more fully manifest, both in the internal world of human thoughts and attitudes and in the external world that sustains life.

The realm of Wisdom is expressed in a personalized theological language. Wisdom is "the Lord" (Ahura Mazda), the universal principles are referred to as the Bountiful Immortals (Amesha Spentas), other menog powers are invoked as spirit beings (yazads), and human prototypical forms are revered as guardian spirits (fravashis), each a distinct creation of the creative power of Wisdom, and worthy of praise and devotion.

The Avestan "Hymn of Seven Chapters" (Y. 35-42) is an example of how the Zarthushti vision is deeply rooted in the particulars of the world. By paying reverence to the water, earth, and fire of the getig creation, the celebrant praises the Creator, for these aspects of the created world exemplify the principles and powers of the menog realm.

By celebrating the Yasna for the pleasure of Ahura Mazda and declaring that "righteousness is good" (Ashem Vohu), the participants in the Yasna also become directly involved in the cosmic struggle between the Lord of Wisdom and the lie (druj). By establishing an area of purity and righteousness, and always touching the bundle of metal wires (barsom - ancient Indo-Iranian emblem of seeking the Holy), the priests openly choose the side of righteousness (Asha) in this battle.

Exemplification is different from symbolization. A symbol is something that stands between the observer and that which is being signified. To exemplify something is to be a sample of it.

The priests strive to live righteous lives and as bearers of ritual power, they become representatives of Wisdom. The sacred fire in the Yasna ceremony is not a symbol of cosmic order and infinite light, but is a sample of those realities actually present in the ritual area, and exemplifies the cosmic principle of Right Order (Asha Vahishta). The hairs from a white bull are a sample of the good animal kingdom, and be extension, of the principle of Good Intention/Mind (Vohu Manah). The Hom and the pomegranate twigs are a sample of the plant kingdom and the principle of Life/Immortality (Ameretat). The consecrated well water exemplifies all waters of the world and the cosmic river Ardvisur which promotes all Health (Haurvatat)

The consecrated metal implements in the ritual manifest the power of Good Dominion (Khsathra Vairya). The earth and stone consecrated in the ritual area manifest the spirit of Devotion (Spenta Armaiti). The entire consecrated ritual area and all objects and events within it, become a model and exemplifies a larger reality.

The Yasna ceremony is also linked to cosmic time. It is linked to the past (zruvan akarana) through recitation of Avestan passages in Y.30.3.5, when the two spirits (the virtuous one and the deceitful one) existed in boundless time. The great differences between the two spirits led to the creation of finite time (zruvan daragho khvadhata or Gumezishn-mixture of good and evil) in which the Yasna is performed, and which serves as a bridge (paywand) to the future period of boundless time when the powers of wisdom will reign supreme.

The continued performance of the Yasna ceremony is largely responsible for advancing finite time towards the goal when evil is separated and defeated and all is made wonderful (frashegird or resurrection).

Experiential Significance of Yasna:

Besides the theological meaning discussed above, the Yasna also serves as a ritual drama of spiritual insight for the devout participant. Before starting any ritual, a qualified priest recites the Srosh Baj invoking the spirit being Srosh, so that the power and presence of Srosh manifests in the getig world and serves as protection against evil. Srosh is the name given that source of insightful wisdom (Y.57.12) that is invoked by the priest so that he may also receive the insight to see "that which is seen" with "firm intelligence".

When the priest recites manthra (the sacred word), Dastur Kotwal says, he "must recite the holy words with utter devotion and attentiveness. He must engross himself in the speech itself, not in the conceptual meanings given the Avestan words in interpretive translations (Kotwal and Boyd, 1977:37-38).

Because of the focus on saying of the word sounds, the priest's intellectual curiosity for the ideas could be slowed and the ordinary conceptual framework within which he lives could cease to dominate his consciousness, his receptivity to the sound of the manthric language could grow, with the Avestan sounds themselves becoming a vehicle of a type of meaning not bounded by the conceptual distinctions that predetermine ordinary experience, and an openness - the deep kind of receptivity that characterizes moments of insight - could occur.

The celebrants of the Yasna dedicate as a first offering all their possessions, body, life-force, vitality, consciousness, soul and guardian spirit to the Gathic hymns of Zarathushtra and to the Lord of Wisdom. Such persons are blessed with joy, for they act from the pleasure of their hearts (Y.27). By avoiding those who would destroy the spiritual life (Y.45) they approach Wisdom through good companionship, righteousness, and humility (Y.39).

The ideal priest strives to become pahrezgar (chaste, pure, virtuous), one whose conduct is disciplined and exact. Such a priest abstains from the superfluous and inessential (Kotwal and Boyd 1982:38), and through his acquired ritual power and manthric utterances, is able to establish purity, consecrate offerings, and receive bountiful blessings. Among these blessings, is the bestowal on the liturgist of a certain "radiant glory" (Pahlavi khwarrah), and emanation of the divine which shines on his face.

I have personally experienced, and many other have also experienced a certain glowing feeling when praying in front of the consecrated fire in the clean, pure atmosphere of a Zarathushti temple, when doing so with humility, faith, and total focus on Ahura Mazda through His representative, the sacred fire.


Maneck Bhujwala.

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