Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Zoroastrian Heritage and Healing

Restoration, Well-being and Wellness
Zoroastrian heritage contains a hidden treasure of the ancient science of healing, a treasure waiting to be discovered. It is a treasure that would have been lost entirely, save for the dedication and sacrifice of generations of Zoroastrians who preserved as best as they could, parts of a vast body of knowledge that had been accumulated over eons. While most of this treasure has been lost, clues have been left for us in our texts, rituals and traditions. These clues can help us reconstruct and revive a great part of a unique and very special approach to healing.

The spectrum of healing methods prescribed by Zoroastrianism form a holist and natural approach to healing. The methods include the spiritual efficacy and serenity of the manthra and accompanying meditation; the health and healing powers of the haoma plants; surgery; cleanliness and purity; the benefit of righteous, healthy, active living; the connection with nature in orchard-like gardens; the healing power of personal care; pilgrimage (to the Pirs in Yazd and Udvada in India); living in a fair and just society without fear. We have space here to discuss one method – the discipline of the healing plants of haoma (Middle and Modern Persian hom).

Five Healers
In Yasht 3.6 (also see Vendidad 7.44) five healers are mentioned: ‘One who heals with goodness and care (righteous and healthy living), one who heals with justice, one who heals with surgery, one who heals with plants, and one who heals with the manthra.’ The verse goes on to say that ‘The most efficacious is the one who heals with the manthra. The righteous who help rejuvenate the body are healers – they who provide restorative healing.’ In our discussion on healing we will include restoration, well-being and wellness.

The Healing Manthra
Specific manthra or verses of the Avesta are recited when Zoroastrians seek healing restoration, well-being and wellness. These include: Ashem Vohu, Yatha Ahu Variyo, Ahmai Raeshca, Gatha Ahunavaiti - Yasna 31.21, Airyaman Ishyo, Doa Tandorosti, and Hazangrem.

Healing the Body & Spirit
In Zoroastrianism, being has spiritual (the mainyu) and material / physical (the gaetha) aspects. Therefore, in order for wellness or healing to be complete and effective, both aspects need to be addressed. Further, since the spiritual existence infuses the physical, spiritual wellness or healing empowers the physical body to maintain or heal itself.

Restorative Healing - An Ancient Science
We read in scripture, that the science of restorative healing that is so central to Zoroastrianism, in fact preceded Zoroastrianism – making it a very ancient science. Yasna 9.4 states that Vivanghvant, father of Yima (King Jamshid) was the first person to prepare the plant-based health giving and healing haoma juice. The tradition was eventually passed down to Zarathushtra’s father (Y. 9.13). In between these two events, the Vendidad (20.2) credits Thrita (Also Thraetaona identified as legendary Pishdadian King Feridoon) as being the first holistic physician.

Ancient Surgery & Surgical Knives
For surgery, Thrita developed a surgical knife whose ‘top and bottom… be bound with gold’* or ‘of which the point and the base were set in gold.’** (Gold is a stainless metal better suited for surgery and sterilization than ancient iron or steel. We may surmise that gold being soft, the gold edge was set in a steel knife.)

[* Pahlavi Vendidad 20.3(12), Martin Haug translation in Essays on the Sacred Writings of the Parsees 1878, p. 392.
** James Darmesteter 1880. The Vendidad p. 220, note 6.]

Figure 1. Rudabeh gives birth to Rustam
by caesarean section through her side.
The man in the image is a mobed, a Zoroastrian priest,
physician and surgeon (cf. magus)
Caesarean Section
In the Shahnameh , Ferdowsi mentions a mobed, a Zoroastrian priest or magus (cf. magi, plural), using a knife of blue steel to deliver the legendary Rustam by caesarean section (figure 1 at right), and his mother Rudabeh being given a healing drink of milk and plants (cf. haoma below) with the dried residue placed on the stitched cut as a dressing. The verse from the Shahnameh reads:

Simorgh’s (the mythical giant bird) advice to Zal:
“Bring a blue-steel dagger and
Seek an accomplished surgeon.
Calm the lady first with wine to ease her pain and fear,
Then let the physician ply his craft
And take the lion from its lair
By piercing her waist while she is unconscious.
Then to stop the bleeding, stitch up the cut.
Put trouble, care, and fear aside, and
Rub with milk and musk a plant that I will show you
And dry them in the shade.
Dress and anoint Rudaba's wound and
Watch her come to life.”

While every one looked on amazedly
With wounded spirit and with bloodshot eyes.
Sindukht, the royal maid,
Wept tears of blood in torrents, asking:
“How can the infant come forth through the side?”
There came a mobed, one deft of hand,
Who made the moon-faced lady bemused with wine,
Then pierced her side while she was all unconscious,
And having turned the infant's head aright
Delivered her enormous babe uninjured.
None had seen a thing so strange.

A day and night the mother lay asleep,
Bemused, and unconscious.
The cut on her side had been sown up
And her anguish relieved by the dressing.

Healing Plants of Haoma/Hom
Further, during Thrita’s time many hundreds and thousands of healing plants – centred on the Gaokerena (white haoma plant in the Pahlavi Vendidad) – were identified and cures found for numerous ailments and diseases that caused untimely death (V. 20.4).

The few aliments that were treated with these healing plants and which can be identified are the general conditions of pain, fever, rot, and infection. The other information is lost to us.

Figure 2. Stalks of an ephedra plant
Haoma or hom has three meanings:

1. It is the name of the ephedra family of plants (see figure 2 and the explanation below).

2. It is also the name of the entire family of healing plants. The Greater Bundahishn (9.4) informs us that at the time of creation, many thousands of healing plants grew to counteract thousands of diseases. The family of healing plants is therefore vast (cf. Vendidad 20.4 above).

3. Its is the name given to the juice extracts of the healing plants. The defining feature of the haoma family of plants is not just their health and healing properties, but also their ability to yield a juice when pounded. The Lesser Bundahishn (24.18) states that, ‘haoma which is out-squeezed is the chief of medicinal plants.’ Implied is the ability of the haoma family of plants to work together with the central haoma plant, ephedra. The strained juice from the plants is then consumed in small quantities (12 to 15 drops) to promote health or healing.

For the sake of simplicity, we will use haoma when referring to the plant and hom when referring to the juice.

Synergy in Pairing Other Healing Plants with Ephedra
While ephedra is the pivotal plant used in preparing healing extracts, it is according to tradition not used alone but in conjunction with other healing plants.

Preparation of the Juice Extracts. The Yasna & Ab-Zohr Ceremonies
The ancient method of preparing the healing juice extracts called ab-zohr, meaning strength to water, is the central rite of the Yasna ceremony performed by priests in the inner sanctum of fire temples. During the rite, two extracts called parahom and hom are prepared (we will use the more modern Middle Persian name for the Avestan haoma for the juice extracts). The parahom extract is made by pounding of a mixture of three small twigs of ephedra, one pomegranate twig, pomegranate leaves and water. Cow's milk in Iran, or goat's milk in India, replaces some of the water in a hom preparation (cf. wound dressing and healing drink given to Rudabeh after birth of Rustam above).

That the Yasna ceremony is the highest of the inner circle ceremonies indicates the importance of restorative spiritual and physical healing in Zoroastrianism.

[The culmination of Jashan / Jashne ceremony of the outer circle, a ceremony performed outside the temple’s inner sanctum is the Doa Tandorosti, meaning blessings for well-being. As we see from the Yasna and Jashne ceremonies, a great deal of Zoroastrian practice preserved in ritual is devoted towards spiritual and physical well-being and healing.]

Invoking Spiritual Healing
The preparation of the hom extract affords natural cures while simultaneously invoking spiritual healing. The entire ritual seeks to remove imbalances and restore harmony between the physical and spiritual aspects of an individual’s being. The few drops of hom that are consumed during the Yasna ceremony act mainly as a health tonic. Together with the spiritual efficacy of the manthra and the meditation afforded by its recital, the entire process helps also to revitalize the body and spirit and improve body functions and circulation.

While there is ample testing of the extracts from the individual plants used in the Yasna’s ab-zohr rite, we know of no tests of the extracts prepared from the mixture of ephedra stalks, pomegranate twigs and leaves, and milk. We can expect the mixture to have a better healing and health properties than the individual components consumed separately, since otherwise the ancients wouldn’t have gone through so much trouble to make a mixture.

Ephedra is said to be the world's oldest medicine and has reportedly been found buried in a 60,000 year old Middle Eastern Neolithic grave. It functions as an anti-viral (particularly against influenza), a diaphoretic, a blood purifier, a diuretic, a tonic and a stimulant. It helps to body burn fat. It has been used to treat colds, flu, coughing, wheezing, nasal congestion, fever, hay fever, chills, headaches, edema, hyperhydrosis, and bone pains. It also works as an antispasmodic and as a treatment for asthma. Ephedra reportedly acts as a sexual stimulant - especially for women. In larger quantities, ephedra’s constricts the blood vessels and speeds up the heart and nervous system, a property that enhances performance by athletes and warriors also helping them to stay alert and aggressive over longer periods than normal. It has been applied externally to treat allergic skin irritations, cuts, insect bites and stings as it was after Rudabeh’s caesarean delivery.

Unlike using isolated or synthetic ephedrine, using the ephedra plant, with its many constituents, judiciously and with care, is far more effective and rarely gives rise to serious side-effects. This is true of most plant medicine and especially true of ephedra where other plant constituents help buffer or improve the actions of the main or active ingredient. Nevertheless, ephedra / ephedrine can be fatal or cause hyper-stimulation if taken in excess or incorrectly. (Warnings: See: Care Group & Amazing Nature).

Pomegranate has been used to treat ailments from dysentery to diseases of the mouth and gums. The seeds and peel of the fruit are rich in antioxidant tannins and flavonoids. The dried seeds produce unique oil, about 80% of which is a very rare 18-carbon fatty acid, punicic acid. Also present in the oil is the isoflavone genistein, the phytoestrogen coumestrol, and the sex steroid estrone.

Magi & the Baresman Bundle
Figure 3. Rock carving at Museum
for Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara.
Possibly a magus carrying a baresman
bundle and haoma mortar/cup.
Strabo (15.3.14) describes the magi
of Anatolia as "holding in their
hands a bundle of slender myrtle wands."
The Vendidad (3.1) adds also holding
the havana or mortar.
Zoroastrian priests of old (as the magi) had a reputation of being accomplished physicians throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. They were known for their wisdom, healing knowledge and ability, caring, selfless devotion, and spiritual healing powers. They carried with them the baresman bundle as well as the haoma mortar (see figure 3 to the right). The baresman bundle consisted on twigs and it is this author's contention that the twigs were from those plants from  which came the healing hom extracts.

In the discourses called the Rivayats , the baresman bundle included twigs from the pomegranate (Av. hadhanaepata Yasna 25.2). In this writer’s research, he has identified myrtle, laurel, jujube, tamarisk, mulberry, willow and juniper twigs in addition to ephedra and pomegranate twigs. The wide range of ailments relieved by the extracts from these few plants’ extracts is amazing (see individual plant properties here). As a single example, willow, known for treating headache and fever, is a source of salicin whose modern isolation led to the synthesis of acetyl salicylic acid (ASA), the main component of aspirin. The added advantage of plant cures is that their active chemicals come surrounded by a multitude of surrounding and supportive chemicals, a feature that is impossible to replicate with modern medicine.

We need to keep in mind that Zoroastrian texts say that there were (and hopefully, are) thousands of healing plants to treat thousands of aliments. Here we mention but a handful. We can only conclude that the knowledge of the vast number of healing plants as well as their wellness and healing properties, was destroyed with the destruction of Zoroastrian texts along with the murderous persecution of Zoroastrian priests.

Today, if we wish to preserve and revive the ancient art of haoma healing, we need to ensure that the Yasna ceremony continues to be practiced in the original manner. Zoroastrians through the ages gave their lives and suffered great humiliation and degradation in order to preserve these rites and traditions. If, because of neglect or misinformation, the Yasna ceremony and its ab-zohr rite stop being practiced today, Zoroastrians will be doing to themselves what generations of oppressors failed to do.

There is much wisdom and beauty in our heritage and much from which we can all benefit. Our heritage holds treasures waiting to be discovered.

We have been very brief here. For further details please see the Zoroastrian Heritage page on Haoma.


Glossary of Avestan words associated with restoration, well-being, wellness and healing:
  • baêshaza / baeshaza, baêshazanãm / baeshazanam, baêshazem / baeshazem, baêshazemca / baeshazem-cha - a remedy, a restorative, medicine, physician, healer, health, art of healing, medicine, physician
  • baêshazya / baeshazya, baêshazyãm / baeshazyam, baêshazyô / baeshazyo - healing, curative, generative, restorative, health-giving, healthy (cf. Sanskrit bhishaj and bheshaja)
  • bish - twice, double, remedy
  • bishazyât / (bishaz) bishazyat - to heal someone (cf. Sanskrit bhishaj and bheshaja)
  • drvatâtem (drvatât) / drvatatem (drvatat), drvatãm (drvañt) / drvatam (drvant), drvatô / drvato - soundness, health
  • haurvata (haurvatât / haurvatat, haurvat, khordad), haurvatâtem/ haurvatate, haurvatâtô / haurvatato, haurvâtâ/ haurvata, haurvãm/ haurvam - wholeness, fullness, completeness, excellence, abundance, health, comfort, ease; 5th Amesha Spenta
  • pouru-baêshaza / pouru-baeshaza - full of healing
  • thamanaghvat - physician
  • ushta - peace; health; happiness; prosperity, good fortune
  • vimadhagh - curing (Vd. 7.38)
Hormazd Yasht
(Names / attributes of God)
1.8 ashtadasa baêshazya - Eighteenth, the Healing One

7.36-40 competence of a surgeon

7.38 vimadhagh - curing

7.44 Three kinds of healing: surgery with the cutting instrument, healing with plants, and healing with manthras / prayers.

10.5, 10.9, 10.13 prayers for healing and cleansing listed in the

20 Thrita and the origins of medicine

22 Countering disease with the manthra and airyaman

3.6 (also see Vendidad 7:44: The five healers and methods:  ashô-baêshazô dâtô-baêshazô karetô-baêshazô urvarô-baêshazô mãthrô-baêshazô.

Yasht 3.6 One who heals with goodness and care, one who heals with justice, one who heals with surgery, one who heals with herbs, one who heals with the manthra.

In Persian, the corresponding disciplines: Ashoo Pezeshk, Daad Pezeshk, Kard Pezeshk, Gyaah Pezeshk, Mantreh Pezeshk.

Yasna (Hom Yasht)
9.16 Thereupon spake Zarathushtra: Praise to Haoma. Good is Haoma, and the well-endowed, exact and righteous in its nature, and good inherently, and healing, beautiful of form, and good in deed, and most successful in its working, golden-hued, with bending sprouts. As it is the best for drinking, so (through its sacred stimulus) is it the most nutritious for the soul.

9.17 I make my claim on thee, O yellow one! for inspiration. I make my claim on thee for strength; I make my claim on thee for victory; I make my claim on thee for health and healing

9.19 This second blessing I beseech of thee, O Haoma, thou that drivest death afar! this body's health (before that blest life is attained).
This third blessing I beseech of thee, O Haoma, thou that drivest death afar! the long vitality of life.

10.7 Wasting doth vanish from that house, and-with it foulness, whither in verity they bear thee, and where thy praise in truth is sung, the drink of Haoma, famed, health-bringing (as thou art)

10.8 Who as a tender son caresses Haoma, forth to the bodies of such persons Haoma comes to heal.
10.9 Of all the healing virtues, Haoma, whereby thou art a healer, grant me some.

10.12 There, Haoma, on the ranges dost thou grow of many kinds. Now thou growest of milky whiteness, and now thou growest golden; and forth thine healing liquors flow for the inspiring of the pious

10.18 imåse-tê haoma gâthå imå heñti staomâyô imå heñti cîcashânå ime heñti arshuxdha vâcô dâsmainish vârethrakhnish paiti-bishish baêshazya.
These are thy Gathas, holy Haoma, these thy songs, and these thy teachings, and these thy truthful ritual words, health-imparting, victory-giving, from harmful hatred healing giving.

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