Scene from my Navjote. Note: I adopted the Sudre and Kusti when I was fifteen, and started practising the kusti ritual and observing other Zoroastrian customs at that time. It was not until years later that I met any other Zoroastrians, and consequently my Navjote was not performed until 1983.
Among Iranian Zoroastrians, the initiation ceremony is known as Sudre-Pooshi.
The following pamphlet was prepared by the prolific Parsi (Indian) Zoroastrian author J.J. Modi. See also his account in RCC.
by Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, B.A., Ph.D.
"The sacred thread is a token of the service of the Yazatas and a sign of following the commandments of Religion"
Second Edition. Bombay. 1914.
This paper is the result of a short study for a monograph on the subject of Navjote. Many a Parsi, nowadays, invites non-Parsi guests to witness the ceremony; and so, a small brochure of this kind explaining the ceremony, is in demand. It is especially the second part of the paper that will be of some use for the purpose.
The initiation of a Parsi child into the fold of the Zoroastrian religion is known as Navjote. The ceremony of the initiation consists of the investiture of the child with a sacred shirt called sudre and a sacred thread called kusti. A Zoroastrian may put on any dress he likes, but he must put on the sacred shirt and the thread as the symbol and badge of his religion.
The word Navjote is made up of two words Nav (Avesta, nava; Sans. nava; Lat. novus) new and Zote (Avesta zaotar from zu, Sans hu to offer prayers) one who offers prayers. Hence, the word would mean a new initiate to offer Zoroastrian prayers. The ceremony is so named, because it is after its performance that a Zoroastrian child is said to be responsible for the duty of offering prayers and observing religious customs and rites as a Zoroastrian. The ceremony of Navjote among the Parsis, corresponds to that of 'Confirmation' among the Christians.
Seven is the age, at which it is enjoined to initiate a child. According to Herodotus (Bk. I, 136) and Strabo (Bk. XV, Chap. III, 18), the ancient Iranians commenced the education of their children at the age of five. It seems, that a part of that education was religious education, which prepared them for the ceremony of the investiture. Plato (First Alcibiades, 37) gives the age of education as seven. This, then, must be the regular age of the commencement of secular education after the Navjote ceremony. The Vendidad (Chap. 15.45) and the Denkard (Vol. 4, Chap. 170) support Plato's statement.
In case a child is not sufficiently intelligent to understand the ceremony and to know its responsibilities, and in the case of some other unavoidable causes, it is permitted, that the ceremony may be postponed to any age up to fifteen, at which age the investiture must take place. A Zoroastrian without the sacred shirt and thread after the age of fifteen is supposed to be out of the fold and likely to fall into evil paths (Vendidad 18.54).[ S.B.E. (The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. IV (1880), p. 199.] The Saddar (Chap. 10.1) says that "It is incumbent on all those of the good religion, women and men, everyone who attains to fifteen years, to wear the sacred thread girdle, because the sacred thread-girdle is to be a girding of the loins and to preserve obedience to the Lord." [S.B.E. Vol. XXIV, p. 268. Vide also Chap. XLVI, 1. Ibid. p. 309. Shayast Na-Shayast, Chap. X. 13. (S.B.E. Vol. V, p. 321).] If one does not put; on the sacred shirt and thread by the age of fifteen, he is said to commit the sin of kushad davarashni (i.e. running about improperly clothed). [Menog-i Khrad ("The Spirit of Wisdom") chap. 2, 35, (S.B.E. Vol. XXIV, p.11). The Book of Arda Viraf, chap. 25, 6. Patet 10.]
With the age, at which the child must be invested with the sacred shirt and thread, begins the responsibility of the parents to give further good religious and moral education to their children. The parents are held morally responsible, if they fail in this duty, and if, in consequence, the child, commits a wrongful act. On the other hand, the parents are believed to have a share in the meritoriousness of the child's act, if by virtue of the religious and moral education imparted to it, it does a righteous act.
As the occasion is an important one, and, as it marks an important stage in the life of the child, it is looked at with all solemnity. A little before the time of the ceremony proper, the child is made to go through a sacred bath or a kind of purification, known as Nahan (Sans. snan i.e. a bath). The sacred ceremonial bath with consecrated water in the Navjote and marriage ceremonies, has the same signification among the Parsis, as that, which the bath with the sacred water of the spring of Calirhoe (or Enneacrunos) had among the ancient Athenians, or that which the bath with the sacred water of Ismenus had among the Thebans.
After the bath, the child is taken to a room, where the parents, their relations and friends, and the officiating priest with one or more priests have assembled. The part of the child's body, which is to be covered with the sacred shirt by the officiating priest, carries a sheet of cloth which can be easily removed. The child is made to sit before the officiating priest.
The following things are placed in the room before the officiating priest.
The tray, containing the suit of clothes for the child, also contains some betel leaves, betel nuts, a few pieces of sugar candy, a few grains of rice, a garland of flowers, a metallic cup containing kanku or a kind of red powder and a few Rupees. All these things have nothing to do with the religious ceremony, but, being considered in India as emblems of good luck, are handed to the child, later on, by the officiating priest.
Now we will describe the ceremony itself as performed by the officiating priest.
The officiating priest places in the hand of the child seated before him, the sacred shirt with which he is shortly to invest the child. He then recites the Patet or the repentance prayer. The child also recites the prayer or its special sections. If it does not know these by heart it recites several times the Ahunwar, which is a short sacred formula, corresponding, to some extent, to the Pater-noster of the Christians. At the conclusion of the Patet, the officiating priest gets up from his seat and makes the child stand before him. Now follows the investiture proper.
The investiture proper is made up of four parts.
The child is asked by the priest to make a Declaration of Faith as follows:
"Praised be the most righteous, the wisest, the most holy and the best Mazdayasnian Law, which is the gift of Mazda. The good, true, and perfect religion, which God has sent to this world, is that which Prophet Zoroaster has brought in here. That religion is the religion of Zoroaster, the religion of Ahura Mazda communicated to holy Zoroaster."
This declaration ends with the short prayer formula of Ashem Vohu, which says that "Righteousness is the best gift and happiness. Happiness to him who is righteous for the (sake of) the best righteousness."
When the child finishes the declaration, the officiating priest, with the recital of an Ahunwar prayer, puts on the child the sacred shirt.
The officiating priest now stands behind the child, both facing the east, if it is morning, and the west if it is evening. He now recites a prayer, in the recital of a part of which the child joins him. The substance of the prayer which is recited by the priest and the child together runs thus:
"The Omniscient God is the greatest Lord. Ahriman is the evil spirit, that keeps back the advancement of the world. May that Evil Spirit with all his accomplices remain fallen and dejected. O Omniscient Lord! I repent of all my sins. I repent of all the evil thoughts that I may have entertained in my mind, of all the evil words that I may have spoken, of all the evil actions that I may have performed. May Ahura Mazda be praised. May Ahriman, the evil spirit, be condemned. The will of the righteous is the most praiseworthy."
During the recital of this prayer, the priest invests the child with the sacred thread.
The child, being thus invested with the sacred shirt and thread, now announces, with the priest, the articles of the Zoroastrian faith, which run thus:
"O Almighty! Come to my help. I am a worshiper of God. I am a Zoroastrian worshiper of God. I agree to praise the Zoroastrian religion, and to believe in that religion. I praise good thoughts, good words, and good actions. I praise the good Mazdayasnian religion which curtails discussions and quarrels, which brings about kinship or brotherhood, which is holy, and which, of all the religions that have yet flourished and are likely to flourish in the future, is the greatest, the best, and the most excellent, and which is the religion given by God to Zoroaster. I believe that all good things proceed from God. May the Mazdayasnian religion be thus praised."
The most important part of these Articles of Faith is that wherein the child is made to believe in the efficacy of one's own good thoughts, good words, and good acts. A Parsi has to believe, that for the salvation of his soul he has to look to nobody else, but to himself. Nobody -- no priest, or no prophet -- will intercede for him. For his salvation he has only to look to the purity of his own thoughts, words, and actions. The pivot, on which the whole of the moral structure of Zoroastrianism turns, rests upon this triad of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Think of nothing but the truth, speak nothing but the truth, and do nothing but what is proper, and you are saved.
The investiture of the sacred shirt and thread, and the declaration of the Articles of Faith by the child, finish the ceremony proper. There only remains now the recital of the Tan-dorosti (lit. health of the body) or the Benediction by the officiating priest, invoking the blessings of God upon the new initiate. The purport of what he says in this recital is this : "May you enjoy health, long life, and splendor of piety. May the Yazatas and the Amesha Spentas come to your help. May the religion of Zoroaster flourish. O Almighty God! May you bestow long life joy and health upon the ruler of our land, upon the whole community and upon this [here he names the child]. May he (or she) live long to help the virtuous. May his days be auspicious, his months be auspicious, his years be auspicious. May he live for a good number of years to lead a holy charitable and religious life. May he perform righteous deeds. May health, virtue, and goodness be his lot. May all his good wishes be fulfilled like those of the immortal angels. Amen!"
This finishes the whole ceremony. The officiating priest and the other priests are then paid their fees and the assembled guests have flowers presented to them.
We now come to the third part of our subject. We will now see what the symbolism of the sacred shirt and thread is. It is not to the Avesta, but to later books, that we have to look to, for an explanation of this symbolism.
The sacred shirt is called sudre or sudrah. The word is variously derived. Anquetil Du Perron says that the word sudre comes from Avestan 'setehr paesehenghge' which means 'useful clothing'.["Tapis (ètoffe) utile." Zend Avesta, Tome II. p.529.] Anquetil's derivation is that of the old Dasturs of Surat under whom he learnt. Dastur Edalji D. Sanjana also derives the word similarly,[Mojijat-i-Zarthushti.] and says further that the word Sudre means an advantageous path. Dr. West [S.B.E. Vol. V, p. 286.] takes the word to be Persian 'sud-rah', meaning an advantageous path. Some derive the word from Avestan 'vastra' meaning 'clothing', and say, that the word 'sadreh' is formed by dropping the first letter v from it. [The Zend Avesta par Darmesteter II, p. 243, n. 13.] The late Mr. K. E. Kanga said that the word was the same as Arabic sdrh i.e. "anything which covers or protect (the body)."
The sacred shirt is symbolic in its structure. It is made of white cambric. White color is symbolic of innocence and purity, and, as such, is the symbol of the Mazdayasnian or Zoroastrian religion (Yasht 10.126). It must be made up of two pieces of cloth sewn together on the sides, so that one seam may be on the right hand side, and the other on the left hand side, thus dividing the shirt into two parts, the front part and the back part. These two parts -- the front and the back -- are said to be symbolic of the past and the future, both related to each other through the present.
The front part must remind a Zoroastrian of his duty to persons and institutions of the past ages. We owe a duty towards those who have gone before us -- to our ancestors, our forefathers, our departed dear ones, all who have preceded us. We also owe a duty to our superiors, who have been in the front before us.
The second or the back part of the shirt must remind us of our duty to the future -- to our children, to future generations. It must also remind us of our duty to our inferiors who are still to rise to our position. In short, these two parts of the shirt -- the front and the back -- are said to indicate and to say to us, as it were: "Look straight in the front, bearing in mind that it is the past that has come up to the present and will lead to the future."
The most important part of the shirt is the Giriban (lit. that which preserves the knot) which signifies loyalty to or faith in the religion. The Giriban is also called the kisseh-i kerfeh i.e. the purse or the bag of righteousness. It is put up, in the form of a bag or a purse a little below the portion of the shirt which covers the part of the body below the throat. It indicates symbolically that a man has to be industrious and has not only to fill his bag or purse with money but has to fill it up with righteousness.
Thus the sudre is symbolic of purity of life and action of righteousness.
The Avesta word for the sacred thread is "aiwyaongana." Kusti is its later Pahlavi rendering.
It is variously derived.
(a) Some derive it from Pahlavi kosht meaning direction. So, the word may mean "that which points out to us the proper direction or path." Sudre (the sacred shirt) indicates "advantageous path" and kusti indicates the proper direction of that path.
(b) Some derive the word from kosht i.e. waist, and say that it is so called because it is put on, on the waist.
(c) Some take this word to be Persian 'kishti' i.e. a ship, and say that it symbolizes the way that carries us to the safe harbor of righteousness.
(d) But the probable derivation seems to be kost i.e. limit or boundary. Kusti then is that which keeps us, or reminds us to keep ourselves within proper limits or boundaries. Sudre or the sacred shirt symbolizes, "the path of righteousness" and kusti symbolizes one's duty to confine himself within the proper limit of the path of righteousness. It indicates a direction in the path of morality. The Avesta word for kusti is, as said above, "aiwiyaonghana", which literally means "to sit round about or to limit." This word then suggests that this last one is the probable derivation of the word 'kusti'.
The kusti is made of lamb's wool. The wool is at first combed and then spun into a fine thread. Two such threads are prepared on two spindles (chatri). These two threads are then twisted into one thread. The thread thus twisted or doubled is woven into a knot on a hand loom (jantar). Seventy-two threads go to make up the kusti. The seventy-two threads are at first separated or divided into six parts or strands, each of twelve threads. It is considered to be the privilege of the women of the priestly class to weave the kusti and it is the privilege of priests to finally consecrate it before its ends are woven and finished. In the end, the kusti, which is hollow, is turned inside out by means of a needle, and then the remaining unwoven part of the threads are knit together. Three laris or string-ends in the form of tassels, each of 24 threads, are formed at each end of the woven thread. So, at both the ends there are, in all, six laris.
The kusti, being prepared from the wool of a lamb, which is, in all ages, considered to be the emblem of innocence and purity, is held to be a badge reminding a Zoroastrian of the purity of life and action which he has always to observe. The seventy-two threads, which make up the Kusti, symbolize the seventy-two chapters of the Yasna which forms an important part of the liturgical prayers of the Parsis. The twenty-four threads which make up each of the three tassel-like laris or string-ends of the Kusti, symbolize the twenty-four sections, which were believed to make up the Visparad, another liturgical prayer. The six parts or strands, each of twelve threads, into which the seventy-two threads of the Kusti are divided at the time of weaving, are said to symbolize the six religious or ceremonial duties of a Zoroastrian. The twelve threads in each of the above twelve parts and strands symbolize the twelve months of the year. The six laris or tassel-like string ends, three at each end of the kusti, symbolize the six Gahambars or the six season festivals of a Zoroastrian year. The hollow of the thread symbolizes the space between the earth and the heaven, between this world and the next. The doubling or the twisting of the thread in the beginning symbolizes the connection between the present corporeal world and the future spiritual world. The two worlds are so connected that what you will sow in this world you will reap in the other. The turning of the kusti inside out has a somewhat similar signification. It symbolizes the passage of the soul from this corporeal to that spiritual world The weaving or the uniting together of all the threads into one, symbolizes Universal union or Brotherhood. Though the explanation of the symbolism rests, not on any old Avesta books, but on later books, still it is clear, that the structure of the kusti had some symbolic signification like that of the cord worn by the Franciscan fathers on their waist.
Just as the cross is said to have existed as a symbol at times anterior to Christ, though Christ's crucifixion added to its signification, so, though Zoroastrianism added further significance to it, the kusti is said to have existed as a symbol prior to Zoroaster.
It is enjoined that, except at the time of bathing, a Zoroastrian must always have the sacred shirt and thread on his body. Again, the thread is to be untied and regirded several times during the day. The times are the following:
(1) Immediately on leaving bed in the morning.
(2) After ablutions and answering the calls of nature.
(3) Before saying prayers.
(4) After bath.
(5) Before meals.
A modern Parsi, sometimes neglects to do so on the first and fifth occasions out of the above five, but he generally observes the enjoinment on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th occasions.
When performing the ceremony, one always turns toward, light.[Dadestan-i Denig ("Religious Decisions"), Chap. 39.] In the morning, he turns towards the east. In the afternoon and in the evening, towards the west. At night, towards a lamp or towards the moon
A Parsi has to perform ablutions when he performs the Kusti ceremony on the above occasions. Having done so, he repeats a short prayer, unties it; and then re-girds it with another short prayer known as Nirang-i kusti described above. It is passed round the waist; three times with two knots, one in the front and another at the back.
The knots are said to symbolize certain religious and moral thoughts. While forming the first half of the first knot in the front, a Zoroastrian must think that Ahura Mazda (God) exists, that He is one, is holy and is matchless. While forming the second half of the first knot, he must remember that the Zoroastrian religion is the Word of God and that he must have full faith in it. While forming the first half of the second knot at the back, he is to remember that Zoroaster is the prophet of God, that he is his guide and that he shows the proper path of worship. While forming the second half of the second knot, he is to bear in mind that he has always to attend to "Good thoughts, good words and good deeds."[Sad Dar ("a hundred subjects"), Chap. 10.] A knot symbolizes a resolution. So these knots of the sacred thread symbolize resolutions for the abovesaid thoughts.
The Kusti is a kind of belt. Kamar-bastan, i.e. to tie the waist, or to put on the belt, is a phrase which has come to mean "to be ready for work." So, according to the Dadestan, the putting on of the kusti on the waist, signifies that the Zoroastrian who puts it on, thereby symbolizes his readiness to serve God. A person stands before his superior with his waist girded with a belt, to show, that he is ready to obey the orders of his master or superior. So, a Zoroastrian with waist girded by the belt of a kusti shows his obedience to his Great Master.
The Dadestan-i Denig dwells at some length on the signification of tying the kusti. The purport of what it says is this:
(1) Firstly, God wishes that Man should serve Him and follow His path. So, kusti is a symbol which, being tied on the waist, symbolizes, a man's readiness to serve God. It serves as a kind of kamar-band or belt, which, being put on, in a solemn way with religious meditation and prayer, reminds a person of his perpetual obligation to stand in the service of God.
(2) Secondly, a person puts on the badge of his office or a belt, when he stands before his superiors to receive orders. So, this sacred badge reminds a Zoroastrian to stand with all humiliation before his God to receive his orders to do his duty in the world.
(3) Thirdly, the knot is a kind of band (Persian band) i.e. a
kind of shutter. A shutter shuts a thing, so that no outside influence
may affect it nor its own influence affect an outside thing. The
kusti as a band, being tied on the waist, divides his self into
two halves as it were, the lower half and the upper half. This
division is looked at from a spiritual point of view, and it signifies,
that the kusti, as a symbol, must suggest to a Zoroastrian the
propriety of not permitting his lower passions, vices, and desires
to get a mastery over him and to subdue his upper or higher self.
He must keep down, below his belt, as it were, his unworthy thoughts
and desires, and not let them have a mastery over his higher and