Zartusht no-diso

[published Dec. 27, 2007]


Today former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was killed by a suicide attacker in Rawalpindi where she was attending a campaign rally. Bhutto was waving to the crowd from the sunroof of her vehicle after the rally when she was struck down by an attacker who fired shots and then set off an explosive devise. Over 20 spectators were killed.

As the government and press squabble over who was behind it and the cause of her death (by bullet, shrapnel, or by her hitting her head on the sun roof, as the government insists) and who was behind it, Zoroastrians remember the slaying of another leader.

Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, once the dominant religion of Persia, was killed just three hundred miles to the northwest in Balkh, Afghanistan.
Zarathustra, or Zoroaster as he was known to the Greeks, lived in the region of Iran and Afghanistan around 1100 BC.

He spread the idea of monotheism long before Muhammad, Buddha, or Jesus walked the earth. He may have even predated Moses.

His philosophies regarding the continuing struggle of good versus evil, and the judgment of humans at the end of their life, is thought to have inspired numerous religions including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

It is a common misconception that the Zoroastrians worship fire. They see fire and light as symbols of God. Zoroaster believed God–Ahura Mazda–communicated with humans through three things: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. But that God gave man free will to decide whether to follow these three, or to give in to evil

Once the predominant religion of what is now Iran, Zoroastrianism is now practiced by a scant 200,000 or less people, mostly in Iran and India. Zoroastrians do not accept converts. One must be born into the religion, which is one of the reasons their numbers are scarce.

One famous twentieth-century Zoroastrian was Freddie Mercury, the voice and genius behind the rock group Queen, who wrote the famous Bohemian Rhapsody:

“Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth…”

The West is familiar with Zarathustra mainly from a scattering of cultural references.

Frederich Neitzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra using a fictionalized version of the prophet who bears little resemblance to the actual man.

Richard Strauss then composed a majestic orchestral piece of the same name. This piece was then used by Stanley Kubrick in what has been called “the greatest movie opening ever” in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

In the opening the moon, Earth, and sun align. The choice of music is appropriate as Zoroastrians were keen astronomers for their time, charting the movements of the sun, moon and stars. (Astrophysicist Grant Mathews believes the three wise men in the Bible who spotted the star of Bethlehem were actually Zoroastrians tracking an unusual alignment of the planets in 6BC.) However, the Zoroastrians do not believe in reincarnation, a theme suggested by the film’s end.

Similar to Benizar Bhutto, Zoroaster was struck down by an assassin while on the alter, according to the Shahnama–the massive 10th century national epic of Persia.

Yalda: Rebirth of the Sun

(usually) December 21

Creation! Before the light of creation dazzled chaos,
Love was created — that set creation on fire…

— Hafez

On the longest night of the year Iranians around the world celebrate Yalda. It means “rebirth”, referring to the rebirth of the sun. Today is also the first day of the month of Dey.

The history of this celebration goes back almost to the dawn of civilization itself, when the ancient Aryan tribes of the central Asian steppes worshipped the sun as the source of life.

As these tribes migrated to Persia–as well as to parts of India, Europe and the Far East–they took their traditions to a new latitude. The sun-as-benefactor was a notably different view than those held by cultures of the Arabian desert, who were bombarded with the sun’s heat and thus envisioned hell to be a place of fire and flame.


The concept of the sun god Mithra solidified in what is now Iran. Thousands of years before Christ and Mohammad, Persians worshipped Mithra and held fire in great esteem as a representation of the sun’s incarnation on earth. Many Iranians still celebrate Nooruz (the Spring equinox) by jumping over fire, a practice that caused religious leaders to arrest hundreds of participants as recently as 2001. According to scholar Esmail Nooriala:

It is not an act of worshipping fire. You make a fire from bundles of thistles and thorns, then jump over them with joy and enthusiasm. You become mixed with an element of nature, dance with its flames and absorb its kind of warmth. You do not think of an abstract God who is sitting on a thrown somewhere in Heaven and expects you to suppress your joy and behave in his ever lasting and expanding presence.

As Rome moved eastward to Persia, and as Persian soldiers were captured and brought back to Rome, a curious cultural exchange occurred. The Roman army–and with it a good segment of the Roman population–were exposed to and absorbed the ideas of Persian Mithriasm. At one point the worship of Mithra reached all the way from Spain to India, although the practices in the Roman Mithraism, such as bull-related rituals and imagery, bore little in common with the Mithraism of Persia.

Persia experienced a long, slow conversion from natural pantheistic religion to abstract monotheism.

Followers of Zoroaster, believed to be the first monotheistic religion, exalted Ahura Mazda as the one true divinity. Mithraism and Zoroastrianism coexisted in Persia for over a millennia, often melding and merging. It wasn’t until Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion that the Persian Empire–which had rejected the idea of a state religion for over a thousand years–sought to increase its power by institutionalizing Zoroastrianism.

During the Arab invasion from the West 1400 years ago, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the religion of Persia. But Persians maintained their local languages, customs and many of their traditions.

The reemergence of Yalda is a relatively recent phenomenon. It has occurred mostly in the past 25 years, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Many Iranians, both in Iran and abroad, seek to reconnect with thousands of years of tradition and history.

These traditions include the celebration of the birth of Mithra, observed on the winter solstice. Just as the darkest hour is before dawn, the sun god is reborn precisely during the year’s longest night.

On this night many Iranians gather together, enjoy nuts and fruits of the season–pomegranate chief among them–and recite the poems of great Iranian writers like Hafez…

At dusk I woke with all my cares vanished:
in that pitch black of night I drank from the water of life.
Enraptured with the glow of the inner light:
I drank of that cup of light, glorified in nature.
What a glorious morning, what a glorious night!

— Hafez

whether he be drunk or sober
seeks the beloved.
Every place
whether it be mosque or synagogue
is the house of love.

— Hafez

Merry Yalda by Esmail Nooriala

Happy Yalda, Yuletide, Mithrakana

The Poems of Hafez

Urs of Rumi

December 17

Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.
Every wonderful sight will vanish, every sweet word will fade,
But do not be disheartened,
The source they come from is eternal, growing,
Branching out, giving new life and new joy.
Why do you weep?
The source is within you
And this whole world is springing up from it.”

December 17 is the Urs of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balhi, or as he’s known affectionately in the West, Rumi, master Persian poet and proto-founder of the Sufi Order of the Whirling Dervishes.


Urs refers to the death of a Sufi saint, but it comes from the Arabic word for “wedding” and literally means “nuptial” or “bride’s night”. In Sufism, death is viewed not as a tragedy but as a joyous union of the soul with God.

Thus, rather than mourn the anniversary of Rumi’s death, his followers celebrate jubilantly.

Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan in 1207 AD. When he was a boy, his family headed west during the Mongol invasions. He spent much of his life in the Rum area of Asia Minor (now Turkey) which is how he earned his nickname Rumi. At age 25, he became head of a madrasah, inheriting the post from his father.

Rumi’s poems speak to the oneness of the universe, a central component of Sufism, although they touch on many topics…

Once you think of me
Dead and gone
You will make up with me
You will miss me
You may even adore me
Why be a worshiper of the dead
Think of me as a goner
Come and make up now…

Rumi’s works and philosophy were spread by his followers and his son Sultan Walad, who founded the Order of Mawlawi Sufis, aka the Whirling Dervishes, the order that brought new meaning to the term “poetry in motion”

In Sufism, a branch of spiritual philosophy stemming from the Sunni tradition, one does not learn the deeper truths of God from books but from direct experience. To become a dervish, one must train for years under a master, then spend years humbly serving society.

The goal is to reach a state of fitra: separation from one’s ego to become one with Divine Unity.

Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balhi finally reached that long-awaited union 801 years ago today. Today his Urs is celebrated not just in Persia but by Sufis and poetry-lovers around the world.

If you bake bread with the wheat that grows on my grave
you’ll become drunk with joy and
even the oven will recite ecstatic poems.
If you come to pay your respects
even my gravestone will invite you to dance
so don’t come without your drum.
Don’t be sad. You have come to Gods feast.
Even death cannot stop my yearning
for the sweet kiss of my love.
Tear my shroud and wear it as a shirt,
the door will open and you’ll hear
the music of your soul fill the air.
I am created from the ecstasy of love and
when I die, my essence will be released
like the scent of crushed rose petals.
My soul wants to leap and join
the towering soul of Shams.

– Ghazal (Ode) 683
Translated by Azima Melita Kolin
and Maryam Mafi
“Rumi: Hidden Music”
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2001

Bangladesh Victory Day

December 16

In Bangladesh, December 16 marks the anniversary of the victory of Indian and Bangladesh forces over what was then West Pakistan.

Between 1955 and 1971, Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. On the other side of India, the country we know as Pakistan was West Pakistan.

Although more people lived in East Pakistan than in West Pakistan, the West controlled the country both politically and economically. Since representation was by “unit” rather than by population, East Pakistan’s potential for equal government participation was eliminated.

In the face of rising Bengali dissatisfaction, the President rescinded the “One Unit” rule in 1969, allowing East Pakistan equal representation in government based on population. However by this time many in the East considered the change “too little too late,” and the nationalist Bengali movement continued to gain steam. Tensions increased during the campaign of 1970 in anticipation of the country’s first truly democratic election.

In the midst of this political storm, a real storm struck.

1970 Bhola Cyclone

The Bhola Cyclone of November 1970 was the deadliest hurricane ever recorded. The people of East Pakistan had just recovered from an October cyclone that destroyed 200 villages, when Bhola touched down on November 12.

Even deadlier than the 2004 Tsunami that swept through Indonesia and Thailand, the Bhola Cyclone killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people, mostly in what is now Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). The storm struck during high tide. Tazumuddin, a community of over 160,000 people, lost nearly half its population. Islands were entirely wiped out, and millions of survivors were left homeless. West Pakistan’s underestimation of the disaster and their perceived slow response to send aid ignited the East.

In the December 7, 1970 election, East Pakistan’s Awami party won a landslide victory, taking all but two of East Pakistan’s alloted 169 seats in the National Assembly, and gaining for the first time a majority in the Assembly.

Rather than allow the Awami party to form a new government, the sitting government refused to acknowledge the election results and suggested a compromise: two Prime Ministers.

The suggestion outraged the East, which had been effectively ruled by West Pakistan for decades. When peace talks failed, violence broke out in East Pakistan. On March 26, 1971, the East declared independence as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Millions of refugees fled from Bangladesh to India during the 8-month war. In December, India entered the war on the side of Bangladesh; within two weeks Indian and Bangladesh forces surrounded the Pakistani army. The Pakistan army surrendered on December 16, 1971, a day still celebrated in Bangladesh as Victory Day.

Birthday of His Highness the Aga Khan

December 13

His Highness the Aga Khan has been the Imam of the Shia Ismaili for over fifty years. The Ismaili are the second largest group of Shia in the world. At age 20 he was chosen by his grandfather to succeed him rather than his father or uncle. Wrote his grandfather, Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan:

“In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years due to the great changes that have taken place, including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Muslim Ismaili community that I should be succeeded by a young man who has been brought up and developed during recent years and in the midst of the new age, and who brings a new outlook on life to his office.”

Five years before 9/11 the Aga Khan gave a foretelling speech to a group of young people, mostly Americans, about to enter “the real world.” Excerpts are below.

“Today in the occident, the Muslim world is deeply misunderstood by most.

“The Muslim world is noted in the West, North America and Europe, more for the violence of certain minorities than for the peacefulness of its faith and the vast majority of its people…And the Muslim world has, consequently, become something that the West may not want to think about, does not understand, and will associate with only when it is inevitable…

“…the historical process of secularisation which occurred in the West, never took place in Muslim societies. What we are witnessing today, in certain Islamic countries, is exactly the opposite evolution…

“The news-capturing power of this trend contributes to the Western tendency to perceive all Muslims or their societies as a homogeneous mass of people living in some undefined theocratic space, a single “other” evolving elsewhere. And yet with a Muslim majority in some 44 countries and nearly a quarter of the globe’s population, it should be evident that our world cannot be made up of identical people, sharing identical goals, motivations, or interpretations of the faith…

“…Concepts such as meritocracy, free-world economics, or multi-party democracy, honed and tested in the West may generally have proven their worth. But valid though they may be, responsible leadership in the Islamic world must ask if they can be adapted to their cultures which may not have the traditions or infra-structure to assimilate them: There is a real risk that political pluralism could harden latent ethnic or religious divisions into existing or new political structures…

“Although the modern page of human history was written in the West, you should not expect or desire for that page to be photocopied by the Muslim world.”

Full speech at

I was in the large church room when the Aga Khan delivered this address. Like others of my young age I did not understand the importance of his words, every one of which came true in the years that followed.

More words of the Aga Khan at:

Aga Khan’s 70th Birthday Today

Diwali – Deepavali

October 26, 2011

November 5, 2010

October 17, 2009

October 28, 2008

“Since the light of intelligence (Varhamana Mahavira) is gone,
let us make an illumination of the material matter.”

On the darkest evening in the month of Ashvin (October/November), Hindus around the world fill the night with candles, lamps and firecrackers to celebrate the Festival of Lights known as Diwali.

Diwali, or Deepavali, means literally, a row of lamps. Deep meaning lamp or light, avali meaning array.)

These lights are ubiquitous during Diwali, symbolizing the victory of Inner Light over Darkness.

The third and most auspicious day of the five-day celebration falls on the new moon of the month of Ashvin.

The legends that different regions cite as the origin of Diwali are too various to recount them all.

In the north of India, Hindus celebrate Diwali as the return of the ancient King Rama to his home in Ayodhya after 14 years in exile. The Prince Rama had been forced into exile by his stepmother, Queen Keykayee, who wanted her own son to inherit the throne.

In exile, Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by the ten-headed demon Ravana, who took her back to his kingdom in Sri Lanka. Rama built a bridge from the tip of India to Sri Lanka, slayed Ravana, and returned with his wife to their homeland. The people of Ayodhya were so anxious for his return, lamps were lit all across the nation to welcome him home.

In the South, Hindus recall the defeat of the powerful Narakasura by Lord Krishna and his wife Sathyabhama, as recorded in the Puranas.

Diwali is associated with the rice harvest. One of the most popular Diwali treats is a pounded semi-cooked rice dish known as Poha.

The second and third days are traditional times to invoke the goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort and the goddess of light, beauty, and prosperity. Women sweep and clean the house to allow Lakshmi a clear path of access. One staple of Diwali is the lighting of firecrackers, but Hindus are careful not to do so during aarti, (ie. invoking the goddess). For Lakshmi prefers tranquility and peace, so a small bell works better than the a loud clap preferred by other gods.

Lakshmi, Goddess of Good Fortune
Lakshmi, Goddess of Good Fortune

Diwali is considered the New Year and one of the holiest days in the Jain religion. It’s known as Maharvira Nirvana, in honor of the moment the great Mahavira reached Nirvana at age 71.

Celebrants take ritual oil-baths during the festival, symbolic of the cleansing of the soul, in the hopes of a prosperous new year.

“…On this day of Dipavali we worship the Supreme God who is the source of all conceivable virtues, goodness and prosperity, which is symbolised in illumination, lighting and worship in the form of Arati and gay joyous attitude and feeling in every respect.”

Swami Krishnananda

Regional Names and Traditions of Diwali in India

Lakshmi Puja

Lord Mahavira’s Nirvana

Navami & Dashami

October 5-6, 2011

Maha Navami

According to an 1815 French text…

“Maha-navami, known also under the name of Dasara, [is] specially dedicated to the memory of ancestors. This feast is considered to be so obligatory that it has become a proverb that anybody who has not the means of celebrating it should sell one of his children in order to do so.”

Okay—celebrants don’t actually sell off the kids to honor to celebrate, but the holiday is a big deal in India (especially Bengal) as well as parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and other countries with Bengal populations.

Also, Maha-navami isn’t the name of the whole celebration. Navami means ninth day, and refers to the ninth and penultimate day of the Durga Puja festival. It’s observed in different ways throughout the subcontinent.

Maha-navami falls right after Maha-ashtami (eighth day) and opens with Sandhi Puja, the ritual that recalls Durga’s defeat over Mahishasura’s two generals, Mundo and Chando.


The following day, Dashami, is a sadder occasion, as worshippers of Durga try to postpone the inevitable.

Dashami is the day when Goddess Durga accompaning her children sets for Kailash, her husband’s abode. With a heavy heart the Bengalis immerse the clay idol of Durga in the sacred Ganges bidding her goodbye and earnestly waiting to see her again the next year…

Durga Puja – the Morning After (The Ecological Impact)

Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami

The seventh and eighth days of Durga Puja are two of the most auspicious days of the great Bengali festival. (You’ll notice a lot of ‘Maha’ in Hindu festivals. It’s a prefix meaning ‘great’.)

Maha Saptami

According to

The morning of maha saptami (seventh day) is taken up with the worship of the deity, followed by anjali when a devotee offers prayers and flowers on an empty stomach, amidst the chanting of mantras to the Goddess. Only then can one make a beeline for the prasad (sweetmeat offered to the deity).

The lunchtime meal is called Bhog. By evening, the streets pulse with the sounds of the dhaki drums and the pandals buzz with anticipation of Maha Ashtami.

Maha Ashtami

The eighth day of Durga Puja actually begins at 8:30 tonight. On this day the priest (purahi) offers prayers (aradhana) and breathes life into the idol of the goddess Durga’s.

During the Puja week, the entire state of West Bengal as well as in large societies of Bengalis everywhere, life comes to a complete standstill. In traffic circles, playgrounds, ponds, wherever space is available — elaborate structures called Pandals ‘are set up, many with nearly a year’s worth of planning behind them.

These pandals aren’t tents. They can be massive and ornate structures, and come in all varieties. Recently, a legal furor arose over one such pandal that bore an uncanny resemblance to Harry Potter’s Alma Mater, Hogwarts:

Harry Pandal?

Maha Ashtami is the most venerated day of the festival because it celebrates the victory of Durga over the demon Mahishasura. (See Durga Puja.)