The Pious Arda Viraf And His Experience Of The Spiritual World

By Noshir Dadrawala

ZARATHUSHTRIAN SAINTS AND MARTYRS series in the Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly

After the invasion of Alexander and the fall of the mighty Achaemenian Empire, the Mazdayasni Zarathushtrian religion received a setback. The Greeks tried very hard to Hellenise Iran and impose their beliefs and culture on the Iranian people. To some extent, they succeeded. However, some provinces like Pars continued to offer stiff resistance. After sometime there was the rise of the Parthian Empire and the religion of Zarathushtra began to gain some strength. However, it was under Ardashir Babagan (226-240 A.D.) the founder of the Sassanian dynasty that Zarathushtrianism really began to flourish and institutionalize into a powerful and vibrant state religion. A number of Atash Behrams were consecrated and ancient texts recompiled.

An important and historic spiritual exercise undertaken during the reign of Ardashir Babagan was to astrally transport the soul of a pious Dastur named Arda Viraf into the spiritual world.

It is said Ardashir assembled 40,000 priests and from them, he selected 4,000 short listing them further to 400 and then 40. From the 40 priests he selected 7 on the basis of their learning, wisdom and piety. Among the seven Arda Viraf was found to be the most pious and, therefore, a worthy candidate for the spiritual exercise or 'khalla-e-Badan" (astral protection of the soul into the other world).

It is said the pious Arda Viraf entered an Atash Behram called "Adar Khordad" offered prayers and drank a special consecrated wine. Thereafter he went into a spiritual trance for seven days with 40,000 priests sitting around him offering prayers and keeping a round-the-clock vigil.

It is said that with the aid of 'Bahman" and Ardibehest Ameshaspand" as also 'Sarosh Yazat" {the guardian of the souls of the living as also the dead) the pious soul of Arda Viraf was able to perceive and experience the fate of various souls in the spiritual world.

The pious Dastur's soul returned to his physical body on the eighth day after its sojourn in "wahisht" (heaven) "dozakh" (hell) and "hamtstagan" (purgatory). His experience of these worlds or "planes of existence" or "states of consciousness" if you please were recorded in a text by the name "Ardaz Wiraz Namag". Some scholars believe that this text was actually written in the 9th Century i.e. after the fall of the Sasanian dynasty. It is more likely that the existing 9th Century text is a recompilation of the original written during the reign of Ardashir Babagan.

The "Ardaz Wiraz Namag" was a very popular text both in Iran and subsequently among Parsis in India since it helped people desist from sin and distinguish the good from the bad. This ancient, text upholds the principle of 'Divine Justice" in accordance with Gathic precept i.e. -Good unto the doers of good and evil unto the doers of evil."

Arda Viraf's description of heaven, hell and purgatory is very graphic. The souls of those who follow the path of 'Asha' (righteousness) rejoice in heaven while those who follow the "lie" suffer in hell. Arda Viraf however claimed that the punishment for the soul in hell is always proportionate to the wicked deeds performed on earth. Those whose good and bad' deeds are in proportion spend time in purgatory.

According to the "Ardaz Wiraz Namag" after traversing the spiritual regions, the pious Dastur had a vision of Ahura Mazda himself. Ahura Mazda is believed to have proclaimed once again to Arda Viraf what he had proclaimed to Zarathushtra, "There is only one path, that of righteousness. All other paths are false."

It is important to note that generally trance utterances are written or caused to be written while the person is in a state of trance or higher consciousness. Arda Viraf on the other hand described his experiences after returning from his trance. This indicates a high level of spiritual development.

It is believed Arda Viraf's experience inspired Dante to write the Divine "Comedy" describing heaven, hell and purgatory.

Arda Viraf is probably the first human being to have experienced what a human soul undergoes at the time of death, traverse the different spiritual regions and return to the physical body after a long span of seven days. It was a miracle which rekindled the faith among Zarathushtrians in early Sasanian Iran.

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