What do really pious Zoroastrians do? Well, one of the things they do is that both males and females wear a sacred garment and a sacred cincture (tie-around-belt) under their clothing. This practice is quite ancient, and shares some features with sacred thread worn by Hindus - the practice originally was the same, but the garment was limited to a thread by the Hindus as the two cultures diverged.
The shirt is called a sudreh from a word which may have meant "nightgown." It is made out of white cotton, and is kept scrupulously clean. A man's version is like a T-shirt with a V-neck. At the point of the V, over the chest, is a symbolic "pocket" which is about an inch long. This is called "the pocket of good deeds" and is the symbolic place where you stash the good deeds you have done throughout the day. There are also symbolic seams in the shirt pattern. A woman's version is more like a "camisole" with no sleeves. In India, where this garment would show under the sari top, it is often made of white lace so it will look nice.
Over the sudreh, tied around the waist, is a cincture called the "kushti." The whole outfit is usually referred to together, as a "sudreh-kushti." The kushti, again a very old custom, is a flattened tube of white wool about 1/4 inch in width. It has 72 strands interwoven in it, each strand standing for a chapter in the Yasna, the high liturgy of Zoroastrianism.
The symbolism of this outfit is plentiful. The white stands for purity and light and goodness. The cotton is a reminder of the sacredness of the plant sector of Creation. The wool of the Kushti is a reminder of the sacredness of the animal sector of Creation. The whole together is a symbol of the "armor of God," worn by the spiritual warriors of the Light.
Sudrehs are made by Parsi and Irani ladies and imported into the U.S. Kushtis are supposed to be made (spun) by women of priestly families.
The tying of the Kushti is one of the most important prayers for a Zoroastrian. It is supposed to be done 5 times a day, but usually only is done twice, in the morning on arising and in the evening on retiring. Elders, who have more time, might observe 5 times a day, and priests, who must keep ritually pure and centered on God, also observe 5 times a day, or even more.
This prayer involves physical gesture, with the Kushti, and vocal prayer, co-ordinated with the gestures. The prayers are slightly different for Parsis from India and Iranis.
When a Z. does this prayer, he/she unties the kushti from around his/her waist and holds it up, the strand doubled over, in both hands. The person should be facing a light, or the sun, to do this, in honor of the light of God. He lifts the kushti to touch forehead and eyes, and may add other movements such as "cracking" (lightly, like a symbolic whip) the kushti, to ward off evil. Meanwhile, the person will be saying prayers in Gathic Avestan, "Younger" Avestan, and Pazand, which is a later form considered early modern Persian. The prayers include the ones I have presented before, the _Yatha ahu vairyo_ and the _Ashem vohu_, and also a "credo," some inspiring verses from the Gathas, and a warding prayer against evil.
Undoubling the kushti, the pray-er then winds the belt around his/her waist and brings it around to the front, where he/she ties a square knot, while saying the Yatha Ahu. Then, bringing the ends around to the back again, he/she ties another square knot, while saying the Ashem Vohu. The two ends, which in fancy kushtis have tassels, hang down a few inches in back.
The kushti will thus have three windings around the waist, which is symbolic of the great Threefold Path of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds." The tassels also come in threes, for the same reason.
When the prayer is done, our good Zoroastrian puts on his/her clothes and goes about the business of the day.
Why do the Zoroastrians do this? The first reason is to remind one of the religion by a very physical object and gesture, which may go deeper than just saying or thinking prayers. The second reason is that it is a very old Indo-Iranian custom, honored since even before the time of Zarathushtra, and is a statement of one's heritage. Thirdly, it is a sign to other Zoroastrians of solidarity, even if one is in the diaspora and nowhere near Persia or India.
The sudreh-kushti is worn at all times - even at night. They take it off while bathing, swimming, or engaging in athletic events where it would show under an outfit. I have it on good authority that they also take it off while making love, though afterwards the couple will bathe and put their sudreh-kushtis back on. It does not get grubby, since someone who is committed to wearing it all the time will own numbers of them, which go in the wash just like any undershirt which is changed daily.
This type of garment is similar to the sacred undergarments of other religions, such as the tallit katan of Orthodox Jews, the Temple Garments of Mormons, and the sacred shirt of the Sikhs. The reasons for wearing are mostly the same, but in the case of the Jewish practice, only men are required to wear it.
The sudreh-kushti is given to a child during his/her initiation (naojote) which can take place around the eighth birthday, or in the early teen years. Some Z's, having missed out, take initiation in adulthood. After the initiation, one is expected to wear it full-time - but many, perhaps most Z's, don't.
How many Zoroastrians really wear this? And if you don't wear one, are you still a good Zoroastrian? In Iran, due to persecution, Iranian Zoroastrians had to stop wearing it; if one was caught wearing it, the persecuting majority would know immediately that this was an infidel and take action. Iranians in the diaspora are free to take up wearing it, and some of them do, mostly older people. In India, where Parsis were not persecuted, they are much more likely to wear it. It is also more likely that emigrant Parsis will wear it in their new countries. More older people wear the sudreh-kushti than younger people; it is rare to find it on someone younger than fifty, but there are some younger people who are very conscious of their faith and heritage and choose to wear their sacred garments proudly. The general policy in the community is to recommend wearing it, but not to ostracize anyone who doesn't. You don't need to wear a sudreh-kushti to be a good Zoroastrian, but it helps.
Ashem vohu vahishtem asti