Zoroastrian Rituals and Geh Saarnaa Prayer

By Firoze Jungalwala and Farhad Panthaki

Audio recording by Ervad Soli P. Dastur

Death is considered to be the temporary triumph of the evil spirit Ahriman, whose inherent nature is to destroy the good creations of Ahura Mazda (Zarathushti's name for God). There is a separatiori of the spiritual (Soul) from the physical (body). At this point, the Soul is timid and fearful as it has entered an unknown dimension.Therefore, in orderto provide peace and reassurance to the Soul at this time, it is customary to recite the Ashem Vohu prayer near the head of the body and to light a deevo (oil lamp) and keep it near the head until the disposal of the body is completed.The light (signifying good) from the oil lamp symbolizes the elimination of darkness (signifying evil), thus providing solace to the Soul at this time. For the first three days and nights, it is believed that the Soul stays in the vicinity of the physical world. On the dawn of the fourth day, the Soul enters the spiritual world at an allegorical bridge (Bridge of Judgement, referred to as Chinvad Pul in Gujarati).

According to the holy book Vendidad,"the Soul goes to the holy Chinvat Bridge created by Ahura Mazda, which is an old path of immemorial times and which is for the wicked as well for the righteous. There the Soul is asked to account for its deed done in the material world." The bridge is guarded by the angel Mithra or Meher (considered the Judge) who is assisted by Rashna, the angel of Justice and Ashtad, the angel of Truth. At this point, the Soul is judged for all the good and bad that it has performed during its lifetime. If the good thoughts, words and deeds outweigh the bad ones, the Soul is allowed to pass over the bridge into Heaven and stays there until the End of Time. If the Soul's good deeds are equal to bad deeds, the Soul goes to Hameshta - gehan or Purgatory. If the bad deeds outweigh the good deeds, it is cast down into Hell through the wrath of its own evil nature. Zoroastrians believe that all Evil will be eradicated at the End of Time (Freshokerti). All Souls from heaven and hell will be made perfect by passing through an allegorical river of molten metal and reunited with their resurrected original bodies to be with Ahura Mazda.

According to Parsi custom, the body is given a final ceremonial bath with water by the family and close friends. After drying the body, it is clothed with a clean used Sudreh and used, white clothes.This ritual is followed by tying the Kushti around the waist with the appropriate Kushti prayers recited by family members. The body is then covered with a clean white cotton sheet up to the neck with arms positioned across the chest. It is suggested that at least two people sit close to the body reciting the Ashem Vohu prayer. In India, the body is generally put on slabs of stone in a comer of the front room, in a position which would avoid the head pointing towards the North. After placing thebody on the stone, three circles are drawn around the body with a metallic bar or nail to show that the ground within the circle is temporarily set apart from the corpse; however in the US, the body is generally laid in a casket. The body devoid of life is considered to be a source of decay that violates the principies of cleanliness and purity. Therefore, at this time, family and friends bid a final farewell and physical contact with the body is broken at this point.

Once the body is made ready for disposal, family members or a priest may recite prayers dedicated to Sarosh, such as Sarosh Baaj or Sarosh Yasht Vadi (after sunset), by the body's side until the funeral ceremony. These prayers must precede the Kushti and Farajyat (obligatory) prayers. The divinity of Sarosh is considered the guardian and protector of the Soul both in the material andspiritual world.

Funeral (Geh Saania) Ceremony:

At the service and while at the funeral home, a table holding a Iit deevo, the picture of Zarathustra, and flowers may be kept. On a separate table or area, photographs of the deceased during his/her UK time may be appropriate. Some may also prefer playing somber music during the wake or before the funeral service begins.The main part of the ritual of the funeral ceremony is known as Geh Saarna meaning chanting of the Gathas. The Gathas are a set of live divinely inspired hymns composed by prophet Zarathustra.They contain the simple and universal teachings of the Zarathushti religion. The main content of the Geh Saarna prayer is the chanting of the Ahunavaiti Gatha (first of the five Gathas in the ancient language of Avesta.The Ahunavaiti Gatha is recited to comfort and soothe the Soul in the initial stage of its journey to the spiritual world. A Iit deevo (oil lump) or candle is kept on a table near the head side of the casket. Two priests generally perform this ceremony: however if priests are not available, the ceremony can be performed by any Zarathushti. The two people performing the ceremony cleanse their hands and face with water and complete the Kushti ritual.They then stand a few feet from the body holding two ends of a clean piece of white cloth to maintain paiwand. This implies a close spiritual connection between them and symbolizes a Joint effort with increased strength of the recitation of the prayers.

The translations of some selected verses from the Ahunavaiti Gatha are presented below:

(From the book titled The Teachings of Zarathushtra The Prophet of Iran on How to Think and Succeed in life by T.R. Sethna)

Ha (Chapter) 28 Verse 1:

With uplifted hands and deep humility. I beseech, O Mazda, first and foremost this, the abiding joy of Spenta Mainyu, your holy mind. Grant that I perform all actions in harmony with righteousness (Your Divine Law), and acquire the wisdom of the good mind so that I may bring happiness to the Soul of the Universe.

(The above verse is recited at the start of the first Ha and at the end of each of the seven Has of the Ahunavad Gatha).

Ha (Chapter) 28 Verse 2:

O Ahura Mazda, may I reach you in fullness of knowledge. through good mind, to be graced with realization of both the selves, the physical (lower) self and the mental (higher) self which comes from following your divine law, through which you lead all devotees into the abode of light (Heaven).

Ha (Chapter) 28 Verse 3:

I shall weave songs of adoration, as was never done before for you O Righteousness, and for you O Good Mind, and for you O Mazda Ahura, for through you flourishes divine wisdom and the never waning moral courage. So descend. O Powers, in answer to these invocations and grant us Perfect Bliss.

Ha (Chapter) 28 Verse 4:<.H4>

In truth when singing your praise. I shall attune my Soul to good thoughts and become aware of the blessings which flow from holy deeds undertaken for Mazda Ahura's sake. As long as I have the will and strength, so long I will teach mankind to strive for righteousness.

Ha (Chapter) 29 Verse 11:

When would I attain righteousness, good thoughts and moral courage? O Mazda, on account of equity, ennoble this great brotherhood. O Ahura, we need your blessings for our protection.

Ha (Chapter) 30 Verse 1:

Now I shall proclaim to those who have assembled here, all that is to be learned from Mazda, viz., the hymns of the Lord, the praises of good mind and what noble principled righteousness is, which by its light points out the real bliss.

Ha (Chapter) 30 Verse 2:

Hear the best (Truth) with your ears and decide by your pure mind. Let everybody judge for his own self and find out what he ought to do. Before the great trial let all wake up to this my counsel.

Ha (Chapter) 30 Verse 9:

And may we be like those who have prospered the world, chosen righteousness and the brotherhood of Ahura Mazda. May mind and heart turn in unison to You whenever our reason is overwhelmed with doubt.

Ha (Chapter) 31 Verse 4:

Ahura Mazda, in order that righteousness may be ideal to live for. I desire the excellent divine wisdom, the best of good thoughts and the mighty moral courage with whose help I would overcome untruth.

Ha (Chapter) 33 Verse 12:

Reveal yourself within me. O Ahura, and through divine wisdom grant me desire for perfection through your devotion, O Mazda, grant me goodness as reward for prayers, through righteousness the full vigor of Soul and all embracing love through good thoughts.

Ha (Chapter) 34 Verse 15:

Therefore, O Mazda, you teach me the noblest words and deeds by which I may in truth fulfill my earnest desire of my prayers, achieving it through the good mind and righteousness, O Ahura, through your power (Moral Strength) regenerate my life as you wish it is true.

At the conclusion of the prayers, family members or friends may address the congregation if the family so desires. The congregation pays their last respects and the casket is removed to the disposal site. In North America, cremation is the preferred mode of disposal of the body. The mode of burial is considered to contaminate the earth, is therefore deemed undesirable. It is customary to consign the ashes from the cremation back to nature. In the US, after the funeral service the body in the casket is carried by Funeral Personnel or by family members and friends to the hearse and driven to the cremation site. A funeral procession with cars (head lights on) follows the hearse. At the crematorium the person is given his/her last respects and the priests pray final Kusti prayers and Sarosh Baj. The body is then handed over to the crematorium personnel who then process it for cremation. In the USA close relatives and friends return to the home of the deceased to comfort the family. Before entering the house, Parsis wash their hands and sprinkle water as a ceremonial bath and do their Kusti prayers.

Refreshments may be served for the guests attending the services. According to Parsi customs, relatives and friends avoid eating meal for three days. On the fourth day, the Uthamna ceremony is performed when the Soul is judged and passes over to the other world.

Additional Prayer Services:

Prayer services may also he performed at the home of the family on the fourth, tenth and thirtieth days and on the annual death anniversary. These prayers are specifically in remembrance of the Soul of the departed, his believed that the Souls of our dear departed have the ability to impart blessings upon the living. Therefore, paying respects to the Soul heips the family attain inner peace and tranquility. It is incumbent upon the family members to remember all the goodness that the person performed throughout his/her life and emulate those ideals through good actions during their lives. For those who desire additional information on what ceremonies and rituals are performed after death, please refer to the book "The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees" by Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Mody. This book is available on the website avesta.org. Remember, there are variations of these last rites depending on what the Decedent's family and/or friends feel comfortable doing and appropriate for the person they are honoring. As with this whole process, there is no specific ritual or practice, social or religious, that you have to do you should do what you feel will honor the memory of your loved one and what will help you cope best.