It is the Holy month of Avan according to the Shehenshahi calendar. Avan (Persian Aban) is the Divinity or Energy of Ahura Mazda presiding over the Waters. The name Avan is derived from the word Aap or Aapo. It is a Divine Cosmic Force that purifies and sustains the entire cosmos. In the Avesta, this Divinity is called Ardvisura Anahita – the Pure and Immaculate.
According to Zoroastrian theology, Avan is a ‘Purifying Force’. Fire is also a purifying force. However, fire, at a physical level, destroys in the process of purifying or alchemizing the impure into the pure. However, water purifies without destroying. In that sense water is a Benevolent and Gentle Purifier. Interestingly, Adar, the Divinity of Fire, is masculine whereas Avan, the Divinity of Water is feminine.
Avan also ‘Bestows Life’ – just a few drops of rain could bring life to a barren desert. Almost seventy per cent of our body is made of water. We owe so much of our health to the water in our body. Interestingly, almost seventy per cent of the surface of the Earth is also occupied by water. The environment on planet Earth is maintained by the water circulating in various forms. If it had not been for water, life would not have been created on planet Earth. This is a scientific fact.
Zoroastrians are known to revere Fire. However, in ancient Iran there were also several temples dedicated to the Water Divinity. To this day, one can find ruins of an ancient ‘Temple of Anahita’ at a place which is even today known as Kangavar, in North Western Iran.
At a physical level, fire and water are seemingly incompatible. However, the energy of fire is also present in water and according to Zoroastrian ritual tradition, no fire temple can be consecrated without first having a well in the fire temple complex.
In the Ijashne ceremony, the priest draws fresh water from the well, performs the Ijashne ceremony and pours it back into well. To the uninitiated, this may appear to be a mindless ritual. However, for the priest it is an active form of meditation wherein he realizes that the small quantity of water that he has drawn comes from an infinite source through the well and although what he has drawn out is a minuscule part of it, it is still the very same.
One is a vast and infinite source while the other is only a tiny part of it. One is called a well, and the other, a pot of water. But the contents are the same. The difference is only in the measure. The infinite source of water sustains a multitude of life, even untold filth and turbulence, and yet, a deep silence and calm beneath. The infinite source of water itself is not affected by any of this. It remains pure and clear within itself, full of energy and yet at peace.
When the priest pours the water back into the well it disappears and becomes one with the infinite source. The priest realizes that he, too, is a part of that infinite source. Just as the water he pours back merges with the infinite, his consciousness, too, merges with Divinity.
The Avan Niyaesh and the Avan Yasht should only be prayed during daylight hours and never at night. Allegorically it is believed that the waters rest during the hours of darkness and therefore should not be disturbed or invoked at night. More esoterically, Avan is the Guardian of Divine Knowledge and Wisdom and during the hours of darkness, she allegorically takes all Divine Wisdom into her own Divine Being, in order to protect it from the dark forces of evil.
Avan is the equivalent of Saraswati – the Hindu Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. In the Indian tradition, most rivers are named after goddesses and revered as a mother. Devout Hindus believe that one can learn many valuable lessons from the rivers. Rivers teach us how to give and give without expectations. The river never discriminates; she gives of herself to one and all. She purifies and quenches the thirst of the rich and the poor alike. Rivers also teach us that the course of life is laid with obstacles and impediments. However, ultimately, just as the river merges with the ocean, our own life merges with Divinity.
Water, like air, is necessary for all life. Without water, humans and other beings would die and the earth’s systems would shut down. Modern society has lost its reverence for water’s sacred place in the cycle of life as well as its centrality to the realm of the spirit. This loss of reverence for water has allowed humans to abuse it. Only by redefining our relationship with water and recognizing its essential and sacred place in nature, can we begin to right the wrongs we have done.
In the desert of Yazd, in Iran, there is a mountain oasis called ‘Pir-e-Sabz’ which means the ‘Ancient Green (Shrine)’. Nothing grows within a radius of about thirty-five kilometers from where the shrine is. But there, on the mountain top, is a natural – almost miraculous – source of water that sustains life. Iranians have dedicated this shrine to Hayaat Banu which literally means the ‘Lady of Life’.
Praying the Avan Niyaesh and the Avan Yasht regularly bestows the devotee with not just wisdom, but also the power to fight all forces of evil. Various Kings and Paladins of ancient Iran used to invoke Avan before going into battle. However, according to Zoroastrian Scriptures, Avan granted boons only to those who were Righteous in thoughts, words and deeds. Avan is not known to grant boons to the wicked.
Praying the Avan Niyaesh or, better still, the Avan Yasht during the Holy month of Avan is considered to be highly meritorious. To the righteous who pray with faith and sincerity, Avan grants wisdom, good health, strength, wealth and fertility. According to Zoroastrian Scriptures, Avan is a Divine Force of Fertility and blesses childless women not just with children but also ease in delivering them and abundance of milk to nurse them.
According to the Bundahishn (The Zoroastrian Book of Genesis – probably an 11th or 12th Century AD text), water is the Second Good Creation of Ahura Mazda and for which devout Zoroastrians offer thanks by observing the Maidioshahem Gahambar. This is a Mid-Summer Gahambar (seasonal feast) celebrated in the month of Tir from Roj Khorshed to Daepmeher. Incidentally, Tir is the Yazata or Divinity who brings rain and respite from the mid-summer heat.
Zoroastrians observe Roj (day) Avan, Mah (month) Avan as the Birthday of the waters. They pray before any natural and pure body of water such as wells, rivers and the sea. They offer prayers during the day and light oil lamps near wells just before dusk.
Just as sandalwood is offered to the Holy Fire, devotees offer flowers (particularly fresh rose petals) and natural rock sugar (khari sakar) to Avan. Some devotees enthusiastically, but erroneously, also throw coconuts and Dar-ni-poli (stuffed red-gram, wheat and rice cake) into the sea. This only pollutes the waters. Ideally, the offering of Dar-ni-poli should be left at the dry sea-shore or bank of a river for dogs, birds and urchins to feast on.
The best offering that one can make to Avan is that of Manthravani (Divine Chants from the Holy Avesta) and a firm resolve to lead an immaculate life by practising purity of thoughts, words and deeds. After all, Avan is the very embodiment of purity!
In Mumbai, Parsis observe the Parab of Avan mostly at the Gateway of India and the Radio Club situated at Colaba. Other popular venues include the ‘Parsi Steps’ on Marine Drive, Bhikha Behram well at Churchgate and the wells at various Agyaris – particularly the well at the Thuthi Agyari on Malabar Hill, which according to folk lore, did not yield water till the old lady who founded the Agyari went down into the well and prayed the Avan Yasht.
Decades ago, the great American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, witnessed Parsis praying in Mumbai and wrote: “This evening we were surprised to see, as we strolled along the beach, more Parsees than ever before, and more Parsee ladies, richly dressed, all wending their way towards the sea. Here on the shore of the ocean, as the sun was sinking in the sea, and the slender silver thread of the crescent moon was faintly shining on the horizon, they congregated to perform their religious rites. Fire was there in its grandest form, the setting sun, and water in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean outstretched before them. The earth was under their feet, and, wafted across the sea, the air came laden with the perfumes of ‘Araby the Blest’. Surely, no time or place could be more fitly chosen than this for lifting up the soul to the realms beyond seas.”
Carnegie added, “I could not but participate with these worshippers in what was so grandly beautiful. There was no music save the solemn moan of the waves as they broke into foam on the beach. But where shall we find so mighty an organ, or so grand an anthem? How inexpressibly sublime the scene appeared to me and how insignificant and unworthy of the unknown seemed even our cathedrals made with human hands, when compared with this looking up through nature unto natures God! I stood and drank in the serene happiness, which seemed to fill the air. I have seen many modes and forms of worship – some disgusting, others saddening, a few elevating when the organ pealed forth its tones, but all poor in comparison with this. Nor do I expect in all my life to witness a religious ceremony which will so powerfully affect me as that of the Parsees on the beach of Bombay.”