The Jashan Ceremony is one of the Zoroastrian liturgies which can be performed outside the confines of a fire temple. Thus it is possible to have jashans for Zoroastrian communities in the diaspora beyond India and Iran. The word "Jashan" is Middle Persian and derives from the Avestan yasna or "worship ceremony." A jashan is done to celebrate major passages in peoples' lives, whether seasonal or within the community, such as births or marriages; it can also be done to celebrate other new beginnings, such as a new house or organization. Another situation calling for a jashan is more solemn: the remembrance of the souls of departed members of the family or community.
A jashan can be held in any clean place; it is done in Zoroastrian meeting-houses, rented halls, or even in private homes. The ceremony is usually conducted by two or more priests, though it can be done by just one. If two are celebrating, they take the roles of "senior" and "junior" or a chief celebrant and his assistant. Traditionally these roles can be fulfilled by a father and son, as this was the way priesthood and rituals were passed on in earlier times.
The space for a jashan is set in the center of a large room, with chairs for the people attending it arranged around it in rows. All the objects used in a jashan ceremony are symbolic and represent Zoroastrian theological concepts. These sacred items make a symbolic connection with each of the Seven Creations, which in turn are linked to the Amesha Spentas, the seven great emanations of Ahura Mazda.
The jashan materials are laid out on the floor, over a pad or rug covered with a white cloth. This cloth represents sacred space, and is connected with Spenta Armaiti, the guardian spirit of the Earth, or land. On this cloth are set out the implements for the jashan. In the center is a fire vessel, an urn usually made out of a pewter-like metal called "German silver." On top of the urn is a dish on which the Sacred Fire is built. Fire is the symbol of ASHA, or Truth and Divine Order, and is the central icon, or divine image- symbol, of the Zoroastrian faith. Around the fire vessel are vases and trays of flowers, along with fresh and dried fruits and nuts, which represent the Plant World and the guardianship of the Amesha Spenta Ameretat.
On a tray next to the fire vessel are smaller dishes and vessels. There is a little flame, a floating wick in a small container of oil, called a "diva" light; this flame is there to re-light the main fire when it smolders out. There is an ewer full of water, which represents the creation of Water, guarded by Haurvatat. There is a glass full of milk, which represents the Animal Creation, guarded over by Vohu Manah, the guardian spirit of Good Mind. The metal implements themselves are the creation of Metals, watched over by Kshathra. And finally, the priests themselves, as human beings, are the Creation guarded by Spenta Mainyu, the prime emanation of God. (Most of these symbolic attributions are cited by Mary Boyce in her book ZOROASTRIANS).
Other things arranged around the jashan materials are containers of sandalwood twigs and incense to feed the Fire, and metal tools such as tongs to place twigs on the fire and a spatula to pour incense and arrange ashes. Also near the fire are wrapped cakes and sweets. One sweet which is always at a jashan is a delicious almond-wheat pudding called malido. All the tasty edible offerings, including the fruits, nuts, and sweets, become blessed by the ceremony.
The priests, when celebrating, wear snow-white vestments; for Zoroastrians, white is the color of purity and holiness. These consist of white pants and shirt, and over that a long white tunic called a jama, belted with a thick sash. The priests wear cylindrical white caps, reminiscent of an old sailor's hat. When chanting, the priests wear a mask-cloth in front of their faces, a very ancient custom which prevents breath and saliva, which are regarded as ritually impure, from defiling the fire. The celebrants wear white socks and no shoes when in the sacred area.
A fully-prepared jashan is a beautiful sight, with its vases of colorful flowers, the polished metal implements, the golden flickering fire, and the priest, sitting cross-legged with his wide tunic arranged around him, looking like a great white flower among the other colorful ones. This setting just described is a Parsi jashan; Iranians perform the ceremony somewhat differently, with the sacred objects on a table rather than on the floor.
The form of the jashan as it exists today was probably completed during the Sassanian period (250-650 AD), since much of the text of the jashan prayers is in Middle Persian, or its priestly form Pazand, languages used in that era.
I am greatly indebted in this section to an article on the Jashan written by Ervad (priest) Behram Panthaki, which was distributed to those attending a jashan at the Parsi New Year. I also wish to thank Dastur (high priest) Kersey Antia for some of the translations of jashan prayers.
The jashan as it is usually performed consists of three parts, a "preface" or dibache, the main, central section, the "blessing" or afringan, and a concluding benediction. The whole recitation and ritual takes about an hour to perform. The first section begins with identifications of the circumstances of the jashan: the type of blessing offered, the time of day it is offered, the guardian spirit (yazata) to be specially reverenced during the ceremony, mention of the persons honored by the ceremony and those sponsoring it, and invocations of the souls of the Prophet and his family. There are also remembrances of the heroes, kings, and sages of ancient Iran, as well as great benefactors of the Zoroastrian faith. The priest chants, in a clear, loud voice, invoking all of these worthies, gathering history and sacred story together in this sacred space, with this chant as a repeating refrain:
anaosheh ravan, ravan-i hama asho frohar, aedar yaad baad! which means, "of all the immortal souls, all holy souls, here let there be remembrance!"
Let there be remembrance, continues the priest, of all holy souls, from Gayomard (in Zoroastrian sacred story the first human being) to Saoshyos (in Zoroastrian sacred story, the Savior to come at the end of time).
The middle section is the Afringan proper; there can be more than one Afringan in a jashan. In this section are more invocations of great souls, and an invocation of the holy times and places of the Zoroastrian faith. During these central Afringans the most characteristic and dramatic ritual of a jashan is done, that is, the Flower Ceremony.
The priest takes eight flowers, specially selected and trimmed to just the flower-head, and lays them out in a pattern of two vertical rows of four. He picks up the two flowers at the bottom of each row and chants prayers while holding one flower in each hand. Then, as he recites another holy refrain, he picks up each flower in the vertical rows in turn; up one row and down the other, chanting all the while. Thus, as he is chanting, the priest's hands are full of flowers. Usually these are carnations, chrysanthemums, or even roses; they are always fresh and colorful.
What does this flower ceremony signify? According to Ervad Panthaki, the picking up of flowers in the two rows in two directions signifies the movement of the soul in this world and then away from this world toward heaven. The three flowers in the rows each stand for "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds," the great Threefold Path of the Zoroastrian faith. This symbolism is supported by the words the priest chants while he is handling the flowers:
humatanam, hukhtanam, hvarshtanam, yada-cha anyada-cha,
"Of all the good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, those here, and in any other place, those that have already been performed, and those that are yet to be performed..."
When the priest is done with the flowers for that section of the prayers, he hands them to his assistant; their hands meet at a safe distance over the sacred fire, where the flowers are exchanged. There are some traditions which interpret this gesture as symbolizing the passage of souls into heaven.
After the flower ceremony, the priest continues to recite Avestan prayers while touching the different metal vessels with his metal fire-tongs. He touches the vessels in a pattern representing the Four Directions, North South East West, and then again in the directions Northeast, Southwest, Northwest, and Southeast. This gesture to the eight Directions, signifies the sacredness of all space as well as the passage of the Sun through the sky and through the seasons. Other traditions, cited by Zoroastrian universalists, also say that this indicates a wish for the message of Zarathushtra to spread throughout the whole world.
This flower ceremony is repeated for each set of Afringan prayers recited; usually twice. Throughout the jashan, the priest, or his assistant, must continually maintain the fire, adding twigs of sandalwood and incense to it, and reanimating it with tinder lit from the small "diva" flame. There is a rhythm of fire, blazing up, dwindling, smoldering, pouring forth incense smoke, and then, attended by the priest, blazing up again. Similarly, there is a structure of refrains and repetitions to the jashan chants, as the priests return again and again to recitals of the Yatha Ahu prayer and the Ashem Vohu in prescribed cycles and numbers.
One Afringan used in most jashans, the "Names of the Great ones," contains blessings for those attending the ceremony, and benedictions for the people, that they should have the noble and courageous character traits of the great men and women of ancient Iran. Many of the heroes of the Shah-nameh, the national epic of Iran, are mentioned here, bringing the richness of Iranian history and myth into the religious world of the jashan.
When the Afringan prayers are finished, the senior priest chants a final blessing, called the "Tandarosti," a prayer for strength, health, and well-being. Blessings are invoked for all present, and especially for those people for whom the jashan was performed. Nowadays at the end of a jashan ceremony, the priest asks the congregation to stand, and they recite prayers together, holding hands to signify a united community. These prayers are usually two Yatha Ahus and one Ashem Vohu, but they may also include a recital of the "Fravarane," the Zoroastrian "credo," as well as other short prayers.
It is interesting to a Christian observer that the basic three- fold pattern for the jashan has structures in common with the Catholic Mass, or the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. There is, as in the Mass, a preliminary section in which people are invited to gather their attention, and in which the intermediate divine beings and great souls (saints) are invoked. Then there is the middle section, the Afringan with its symbolic ritual, which roughly corresponds to the place of the Christian Eucharist, the consecration of the holy bread and wine, though of course the religious and ritual content of the Afringan is completely different. And the third and final section of the jashan corresponds to the benedictions and blessings of the Christian liturgy after communion. But the jashan, unlike Christian and Jewish worship services, does not contain any readings from Scripture, nor does it have a sermon or preaching. There is no evidence that there is any influence between the Christian and Zoroastrian ceremonies, though the Eastern Christian liturgy and the jashan both date from about the same era.
Yet it is also interesting that flowers are always present on or near the altar at Catholic services, and that flowers, both whole and crushed, are used during the Eastern Orthodox Easter ceremonies to symbolize events in the life and death of Christ. The Zoroastrian jashan, in contrast, is timeless; though it contains remembrances of historical greatness, it has no ritual re-enacting sacred history.
Since the prayers of the jashan are in Avestan and Pazand, not too many people understand them. No translations into modern languages are used during a jashan, as the ancient ritual formulas are believed to be holy and effective prayers, even if they are not understood by the majority. Conscientious priests, especially in the diaspora, often give a short talk in English or Persian after the ceremony to the assembled worshippers, giving them a summary of what was chanted and why the various ritual actions were done. There have been attempts to put together a "missal" or a prayer- book with translations for the jashan, but since the prayers of the jashan change according to the day and hour, it would be difficult to include all the texts needed.
When the priests withdraw, the sacred fire is now accessible to the worshippers. Many people express their devotion by adding sandalwood twigs and incense to the fire, or whispering prayers while kneeling. Some worshipers take a pinch of the ashes from the fire dish and touch it to their foreheads in reverence. Because the people are not priests chanting loudly near the fire, they do not need to wear masks on their faces. At all times, however, while the Fire is burning, both men and women cover their heads in respect; the men wear velvet or silk caps, and the women wear scarves. The fire is allowed to burn out on its own; no observant Zoroastrian would ever blow out a fire.
After the rituals are over, the people share the foods which were placed around the altar. This sharing is part of the ceremony, as the community partakes in the good things blessed by the ritual. The bowls of dried fruits and nuts are passed around, and everyone enjoys a few spoonfuls of the sweets.
Thus a jashan, like any good religious ceremony, expresses sacredness in every human sense: the pleasing sight of flowers, flame, and vestments, the sound of chanting, the warmth of sacred fire and physical movement of ritual, the fragrance of incense and sandalwood, and the taste of the sanctified foods. This way, a ceremony of relationship with God and blessings for humankind is made vivid, living, and memorable.
Hannah M.G. Shapero