For Zoroastrians (Zarathushthrians), fire is the symbol of their religion. Almost all religious ceremonies are performed in the presence of fire, which may be a permanently consecrated fire of an Atash Behram or Atash Aderan or that which is consecrated for the occasion. Fire holds the central place in a Zoroastrian temple and the worship of God is performed in front of it. The permanently consecrated fires are objects of great reverence and the physical fire is treated as a living being and is referred to as Atash Padshah (king) by the priests in present practice.
When a physical object becomes such a powerful and respected symbol, it becomes necessary to know exactly the meaning of the symbol. For example, does the consecrated fire represent God? Does it represent a particular aspect of God? Does it represent a connection between the spiritual and physical world?
Fire as a physical object gives out heat and light. If hot enough, it can consume all organic matter, converting it into invisible gasses, and is able to transform most inorganic matter. Because of these properties fire can be a symbol of illumination with all the meanings of the word. For example, that which drives away darkness -- evil, that which enlightens with knowledge, et cetera. Or it can be a symbol of that which provides comfort (warmth) or that which makes life possible by providing energy (heat). It can also be a symbol of a power that can destroy by consuming or changing, by selectively destroying evil it can be a symbol of a purifying agency.
Long before Zarathushtra preached his message, fire was part of the religious observances of the Indo-Aryan society into which he was born. It was used during various rituals and sacrifices and was an ancient religious symbol. It is still used as part of rituals in many religions not only those arising from Indo-Aryan origins but also others. Yet only in Zoroastrianism is it such a powerful and respected symbolic object.
Whatever fire may have symbolized before Zarathushtra, for us Zoroastrians it is imperative to know what the prophet meant when he used the word fire, and what contexts he used it in. That can only be done by a study of the Gathas. The word fire, Athra or its cognate Atrem, Athre, Athras, Athro and Athri occur in the Gathas in Yasna 31.3, 31.19, 34.4, 43.4, 43.9, 46.7, 47.6, and 51.9. It is by a study of these verses that I have tried to understand the meaning of the word Athra as used by Zarathushtra.
I have relied mainly on two translations of the Gathas -- that of Dr. Irach J.Taraporewala, through which I first became familiar with the Gathas and that of Dr. Stanley Insler. Taraporewala gives a literal translation of each verse and accompanies it with a free English translation. I have generally relied on the first, since the latter is often colored (often beautifully) by the personal leanings of the author. Fortunately for this study the two translations are not very divergent in this area, and I have quoted from one or the other depending on my personal preference. Gathic words such as the names of the Amesha Spenta have no one English word to describe them fully. Previous essays in this series have been exclusively devoted to the discussion of the Amesha Spentas, so I have usually left them untranslated.
I have also used for comparison the translations of Dastur Framroz Bode & Piloo Nanavutty, of Mr. T.R. Sethna, and of Professor Christian Bartholomae as given in Dr. Taraporewala's book "The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra". Since I am not a linguist, and have not studied Avesta, I cannot comment on any translation except to say that it makes sense to me or not. This present effort therefore is to be regarded as the personal journey of a lay Zoroastrian in trying to understand from the prophet's words the meaning of a physical symbol that is identified with the religion.
Before proceeding to look at each verse in detail let us see how the word Athra is understood by the various authors. Taraporewala regards it as the Divine Inner Fire in the hearts of all mankind placed there by God. Insler associates it with truth (Asha). Bode & Nanavutty regard it as the Flaming Fire of Thought.
In every passage where it appears Zarathushtra refers to it as Thy Fire, clearly associating it with God. Thus in the Gathas, Fire appears to be an agency or faculty of Ahura Mazda. Now to understand the nature of this agency or faculty it is necessary to have a detailed look at the verses in which the word appears.
"What Thou bestowest through (thy) spiritual Fire and the bliss (attainable) through Asha Thou hast promised to both parties, (and ) what the Law (is) for (those) rich in discernment, that unto us, O Mazda, declare for our own enlightenment, with words from Thine Own mouth, so that I may ever convert the living (into the Right Path). (Taraporewala translation).
Zarathushtra is asking Ahura Mazda to reveal to him exactly what the just reward will be to the two parties (truthful and deceitful), which will be delivered through the agency of His Fire and through Asha. This knowledge will help him in converting the living to the Righteous Path. According to Zarathushtra, then, God's Fire is the agency which delivers the just rewards to the two parties. Note here the association with Asha.
"Who giveth ear to and realizes Asha, (becomes) the soul-Healing Lord of Wisdom, O Ahura; (in the matter) of words regarding the true doctrine (he shall be) capable (and) eloquent of tongue; through Thy radiant Fire, O Mazda (their) destinies do Ye assign to both the parties."(Taraporewala translation).
Again in this verse Zarathushtra refers to the Divine Fire as the agency that assigns the destiny of those who are righteous and those who are not so. The last line of this verse (through thy radiant Fire...) belongs more with the next verse (Y31.20) than with the preceding lines because Yasna 31.20 specifies the rewards or destinies of the two parties.
Yasna 31.20 translates:
"Who follows the Righteous (teacher), the Light shall henceforth (be) his abode; (but to long ages of darkness, to light obscure, to words of woe, the wicked to such life indeed, their own self (Daena) shall lead through their own deeds."(Taraporewala translation).
"And for Thy Fire, O Ahura, mighty through Asha, do we yearn earnestly to be desired, possessing power, giving clear help to the Faithful constantly; but, O Mazda, as regards the Unfaithful (He) sees through the evil at the merest glance."(Taraporewala translation).(Taraporewala translation).
"Now, we wish Thy fire, Lord, which possesses strength through truth and which is the swiftest, forceful thing, to be of clear help to Thy supporter but of visible harm, with the powers in its hands, to Thy enemy, Wise One." (Insler translation).
This verse is used in the Atash Niyaesh at the end of the main Avesta portion. There are three other verses from the Gathas in the Atash Niyaesh but they do not refer to fire. Here we learn quite quickly about the power and ability of Athra as conceived by Zarathushtra. Clearly the might of Athra is derived from Asha. Athra constantly helps the Faithful. Notice the words "clear help". The kind of help Athra gives, is clear, i.e. free from impediment, restriction or hindrance; easily perceived by the eye, ear or mind; free from confusion or doubt. Thus the Divine Fire clears the path of the Faithful from impediments placed there by the Unfaithful and lights the way of the Faithful on the Right Path.
Athra also has the power of not being deceived by evil. Finally, we learn that the Divine Fire is something to be desired by mankind.
"Thus, moreover, may I recognize Thee (as) Full of Power, O Mazda, and as Divine, when through that Power which (is) Thine, Thou dost fulfill (our) longings, when Thou bestowest rewards upon the Follower of Untruth as also upon the Righteous; through the inspiration of Thy Fire, mighty through Asha, the Strength of Vohu Mano shall then come to me." (Taraporewala translation).
"Yes, I shall (truly) realize Thee to be both brave and virtuous, Wise One, if Thou shalt help me (now) with the very hand with which Thou dost hold those rewards Thou shalt give, through the heat of Thy truth-strong [Asha-strong] fire, to the deceitful and to the truthful, and also if the force of good thinking [Vohu Mano] shall come to me." (Insler translation).
Again, Athra is the agency that deriving its power from Asha gives the just rewards to the two parties. But there is a further clarification. That agency is referred to as the Hand of Ahura Mazda (Insler) and the Power of Ahura Mazda which actively works to help the Faithful, in this case Zarathushtra.
"(As) Divine indeed, O Mazda have I recognized Thee, O Ahura, when through (Vohu) Mano, Good entered within me; of him I asked, "Unto whom thou wishest (me) to pay (my) utmost worship?" Thenceforth unto Thy Fire the offering of (my) homage (I will pay) (and) I will esteem Asha above all, as long as I am able." (Taraporewala translation).
"Yes, I have already realized Thee to be virtuous, Wise Lord, when he attended me with good thinking [Vohu Mano]. To his question, "Whom dost thou wish to serve?" I then replied: "Thy fire. As long as I shall be able, I shall respect that truth [Asha] is to have a gift of reverence." (Insler translation).
A question is asked by Vohu Mano of Zarathushtra (Taraporewala) or by Zarathushtra of Spenta Mainyu (Insler) as to whom Zarathushtra should pay his homage. The answer is, to the Divine Fire. Following that is a line that again couples Asha with Athra.
Insler in a note to this line says:
"Fire was considered to be a manifestation of truth [Asha]. Therefore worship of the fire was worship of truth." Insler, The Gathas of Zarathushtra, page 63, footnote 9.
Taraporewala, also with reference to the same line says:
"The Physical fire has always represented symbolically the Inner Spiritual Fire, the son of Ahura Mazda (Atars puthra Ahurahe Mazda, Yasna 62.1). In later Pahlavi Theology the Holy Immortal Asha Vahishta (Ardibehest) is identified with the Sacred Fire. In fact among the Parsi Zoroastrians of India today the name Ardibehest is used as a synonym for Fire. This passage clearly shows how this idea originated." Taraporewala, The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra, page 433.
Both translators essentially give the same explanation that homage to Athra is homage to Asha.
"Whom, O Mazda, hast Thou appointed Protector over one like me, when the follower of Untruth sets himself against me with violence, (whom) other than Thy Fire and (Thy Vohu) Mano? Through the working of these two (Thy) Eternal Law is fulfilled, O Ahura; this sacred lore do Thou declare to me for (my) Inner Self." (Taraporewala translation).
This verse is the beginning of the Kemna Mazda prayer familiar to all Zoroastrians as part of the Kushti ritual. In the Gathas this verse is addressed by Zarathushtra to Ahura Mazda at a time of his life when he had been rejected by all levels of his society and had to flee to escape physical harm by one of the deceitful ones. It is fairly obvious from this passage that Zarathushtra regards Athra, the Divine Fire, along with Vohu Mano as his protector from physical harm. We see one more dimension of Athra here i.e. the ability to prevent physical harm to the Faithful.
Yet another idea appears here. We have seen before that Athra is mighty through Asha (the Eternal Law), i.e. Athra works towards the ultimate destiny of creation, which is the final and total destruction of evil. Here we see two complementary and interacting agencies in the Gathas, that has been pointed out in earlier essays in this series. Thus Ahura Mazda's Fire is an agency that is complementary to Asha, deriving power from Asha and working towards the fulfillment of Asha.
"These (things), O Mazda Ahura, dost Thou grant through (Thy) Holy Spirit, through (Thy) Fire shall be determined the destiny of the two parties; through the advancement of Aramaiti and Asha, She Herself shall draw (into her fold) many Seekers."(Taraporewala translation).
If we read this verse alone then what it says as regards Athra is the same as what we have seen in the previous verses, i.e. Athra delivers the just rewards to the two parties, in fact Zarathushtra uses here almost exactly the same words used in Yasna 31.19. However if we see the preceding verse we see that the two are complementary and a further understanding of Athra is possible.
Yasna 47.5 is as follows:
"And those (things) through (Thy) Holy Spirit, O Mazda Ahura, hast Thou promised to the Righteous, even all those (things) that (are) the Best; the follower of Untruth shall partake of (his) reward (removed) from Thy Love, absorbed by his own actions inspired by the Evil Mind."(Taraporewala translation).(Taraporewala translation).
The above verse indicates that Ahura Mazda has promised through His Holy Spirit the proper rewards for the two parties. What has been promised must be granted at the proper time and in Yasna 47.6 we see that the agency that does the granting is Ahura Mazda 's fire, Athra. Thus Athra is Ahura Mazda (Asha, Vohu Mano, and/or Spenta Mainyu) in action in the world of man, helping him to fulfill the true destiny of creation and meeting out the proper rewards for those who help fulfill and those who hinder fulfillment.
"The reward which Thou bestowest on both parties through Thy blazing fire, O Mazda, through the Fiery Test (this) doth lead to (Thy) granting an indication for (our inner) Lives; that the Untruthful shall have frustration and the Truthful shall have blessings." (Taraporewala translation).
"The satisfaction which Thou shalt give to both factions through Thy pure fire and the molten iron, Wise One, is to be given as a sign among living beings, in order to destroy the deceitful and to save the truthful."(Insler translation).(Insler translation).
In this the last verse in the Gathas where Athra appears, Zarathushtra again repeats the now familiar statement regarding Athra. That it is the agency through which Ahura Mazda bestows the rewards (satisfaction) to the two parties. In this verse alone is it coupled with the molten metal or fiery test, which according to later theology is supposed to purify creation and rid it of all evil at the final judgment. The fact that the just rewards will be bestowed and evil (the deceitful) will be destroyed is to be held as a warning to all the living.
We have now finished looking at all instances where Athra is mentioned in the Gathas and we will try and summarize what we have gathered.
First, Athra is an agency or faculty or aspect of Ahura Mazda, moreover it is an active agency, unlike the Amesha Spentas which are ideas or desirable qualities. The most obvious action of Athra is to bestow the just rewards to the deceitful and the truthful, at the time of the judgment of the soul. In this activity Athra is undeceivable by those who are evil, in other words the evil cannot escape the consequences of their action. Athra derives power from Asha (right and truth) and works with Vohu Mano towards the fulfillment of Asha (order) and therefore the final victory of good over evil. Athra gives constant and clear help to the faithful, this help is always there and it is a clear guidance, easily perceived by the truthful, in that sense Athra illuminates or reveals the path of Asha. Not only does Athra give guidance and help to the truthful, it also protects them from physical harm that is intended or caused by the deceitful. In Yasna 46.7 Zarathushtra specifically says so. Again in Yasna 43.4 Athra is referred to as the power or hand of Ahura Mazda, and Zarathushtra asks for help from this very hand. In Yasna 34.4 we learn that Athra is to be earnestly desired and in Yasna 43.9 we learn that Athra is worthy of homage (great respect or honor, Webster's II) as is Asha.
What then is the concept of Athra, God's Fire? To me it is God in action in the world of man, guiding, illuminating, protecting those who use their good thinking to understand Asha then work towards its fulfillment and also meeting out the true rewards to those who promote Asha and those who frustrate Asha. Athra is God meeting out justice, that is, ensuring the just consequences of man's action in this world. Athra is also God bringing about the final purification at the time of final judgment, at Frashokereti. Athra is God, actively helping man to fulfil his good destiny.
We often state that Zoroastrianism is a difficult religion to follow, because so great is man's responsibility in the scheme of things. In Zoroastrianism man is the co-worker with God. Not only does his personal salvation depend on his understanding and his actions but so does the salvation of the entire creation. That is a fairly tall order for an individual who can be weak at times and can be threatened, and who may need help. In spite of a person being good and trying his best to live the good life, there will be times when evil will threaten, when forces clearly out of a person's control will try to destroy or hurt. It is at such times that man looks for help from God. It is a comfort to know that in Zarathushtra's scheme of things, God does help, and that help is Athra.
Zarathushtra himself invokes it in Yasna 46.7. Yet one point needs to be clarified, the nature of the help and how it is given. We are told that Athra is mighty through Asha (Y34.4) and Athra works with Vohu Mano to fulfill Asha and together they will protect against the machinations of the evil (Y46.7). First it seems that the help that Athra gives is reserved for the person who acts in accordance with Asha, I would even say that it is proportional to the extent that a person acts that way. This is my understanding of the statement that Athra is mighty through Asha. Secondly the help that comes through Athra has to be in accordance with Asha, i.e. it cannot violate the natural order. Thus one cannot expect miracles. Neither can Athra help protect the person who acts without Vohu Mano, i.e. irrationally.
If in Zoroastrianism Athra is God in action in the world of man, then the physical consecrated fire, which is the object of reverence, must be regarded as a symbol of the presence of God in our world. It would then make sense to keep the fire ever-burning because extinguishing it would be a symbolic denial of God's presence in our world. Worship in front of it would be acknowledging that one is worshipping God. Reverence and respect to fire in a temple would be the logical consequence of realizing what it stands for.