Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When Does the Zoroastrian Day Start? (Detailed)

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From: Arman Vaziri
Subject: Ushahin gah midnight to sunrise (originally perhaps the first watch)

Please provide further information (on):
"Ushahin gah - midnight to sunrise (originally perhaps the first watch) - dedicated to Sarosh"


[Note: The above excerpt within quotes (" ") was at In order to better understand my answer below, the reader may also wish to read the site's Calendar page. Briefly, the day according to Zoroastrian tradition is divided into five 'watches' called gahs or gehs, and the watch starting at daybreak is traditionally listed in prayer books as the first watch.

All six editions of the Khordeh Avesta (the Zoroastrian book of prayers) in my possession have placed the Havan gah (or geh), which begins at sunrise, as the first watch. I understand there is one editor of the Avesta who has placed the Ushahin gah - the watch that runs from midnight to daybreak, as the first watch.

Orthodox Zoroastrians pray during each watch, that is, they pray five times a day (a tradition that was also adopted by Muslims). The present orthodox tradition is that the day begins at daybreak / sunrise and ends just before daybreak.

The theory that the Ushahin gah was originally the first watch and therefore that the Zoroastrian day originally started at midnight rather than at day-break, has become a discussion topic.]

Our Response:
Dear Arman Vaziri,

I have not as yet found a direct reference in the Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures) or in classical Middle Persian Zoroastrian texts to support the theory that the Ushahin gah was originally the first watch and therefore that the Zoroastrian day originally started at midnight rather than at day-break. (If anyone is aware of such direct references, please send them to me.) The note on my web-page originally acknowledged the theory that we read on the website of the NAMC. I have reviewed the theory and as a result, modified the note. A summary of the information I have collated on this subject is as follows:

1. The Bundahishn (a thousand year-old Middle Persian Zoroastrian text) states: "It is always necessary first to count the day and afterwards the night, for first the day goes off, and then the night comes on (Bundahishn Chapter 25)."

2. "In the seven months of summer the periods (gas) of the days and nights are five, namely, Hawan the period of day-break, Rapithwan the period of midday, Uziran the period of afternoon, Aiwisruthrem the period when the stars appear in the sky until midnight, and Ushahin the period from midnight until the stars become imperceptible. In winter there are four periods, and Hawan extends from daybreak until Uziran (Rapithwan is omitted) while the rest are as previously mentioned. (Bundahishn Chapter 25) [Note: the order of the gah / geh listing is the same as that used today. We see here a distinction between sunrise / daybreak and dawn. Also note the use of 'midday' and 'midnight'. Today, we assume this means 12 o'clock noon and 12 o'clock midnight. This is not the original meaning of midday and midnight. See notes below.]

3. "The summer day is twelve hasars, the night six hasars; the winter night is twelve hasars, the day six" (Bundahishn Chapter 25). [Note: This proportional allocation of day and night hours holds true in temperate zones such as Northern Iran and Central Asia. The Zoroastrian day has 18 hours compared to the 24 hours in the modern / Western day. A Zoroastrian hour is therefore equal to 1.33 western hours or 80 minutes.]

4. The existing editions of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Avesta, overwhelmingly list the Havan gah, which starts at dawn, as the first watch or gah / geh. In doing so, they have maintained the tradition noted in the Bundahishn for the last thousand years. We also believe that the author of the Bundahishn did not invent the tradition but had recorded a long existing tradition.

Related Concepts:
1. According to Fariborz Rahnamoon, the coinciding of the start of a new day (now ruz) at sunrise with the start of the new year (sol-e now) was a particularly auspicious occasion. Rahnamoon states, "One such Nou Rouz that has been archaeologically recorded in history was in 487 BCE when the Vernal Equinox coincided with the sun rise at Takht e Jamshid (Persepolis). A square stone was placed in the central hall where the first rays of the rising sun would fall at the same time as the equinox." Rahnamoon further states that according to Middle Persian texts another such event took place on March 21, 1725 BCE when Zarathushtra inaugurated his observatory in Sistan (near the present day border between Iran and Afghanistan).

2. Havan gah is dedicated to Mithra as an angel and all the values of which Mithra is a guardian.

3. The use of midnight as the start of the day is a relatively modern concept that was first formally at the The International Meridian Conference held in Washington DC, USA on October 1884. At that conference, the following resolutions were passed: "4. That the Conference proposes the adoption of a universal day for all purposes for which it may be found convenient and which shall not interfere with the use of local or standard time where desirable. 5. That this universal day is to be a mean solar day is to begin for all the world at the moment of mean midnight of the initial meridian, coinciding with the beginning of the civil day and date of that meridian and is to be counted from zero up to twenty-four hours. 6. That the Conference expresses the hope that us soon as may be practicable the astronomical and nautical days will be arranged everywhere begin at midnight" (Germany, San Domingo voted against 4., while Austria-Hungary and Spain voted against the resolution 5.) [Of interest is resolution 7. "That the Conference expresses the hope that the technical studies designed to regulate and extend the application of the decimal system to the division of angular space and of time shall be resumed, so as to permit he extension of this application to all cases in which it presents real advantages."] Dr Louis Strous at Astronomical Institute, Utrecht University states, "In the western calendars it is nowadays customary to begin a new calendar day at midnight. Various sources say that this custom began only in the 19th century, but they do not explain why. It became necessary to standardize times when transportation by trains began from about 1840, because the train schedules would become very complicated if they had to take the local times of all stations into account." Given that most British trains travelled during the day, changing the day at noon would have introduced scheduling complexities avoided by starting the day at midnight. [Note: the reference to 'local times of all stations.' It was common for different communities to use different local times - and this who have involved the start of the day - even within one country (say, England). According to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich "Before this (the international agreement), almost every town in the world kept its own local time. There were no national or international conventions to set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what the length of an hour might be."]

4. Noon Greenwich Mean Time is not always the moment when the sun crosses the Greenwich meridian (and reaches its highest point in the sky in Greenwich) at noon. This is because of the earth's uneven speed in its elliptic orbit together with its axial tilt. The sun's meridian crossing can occur up to 16 minutes from noon GMT, a discrepancy known as the equation of time. Noon GMT is a fictitious 'mean', an annual average that necessitates the inclusion of 'mean' in Greenwich Mean Time. 12 midnight is calculated from 12 noon.

5. While the Meridian Conference established midnight i.e. 12 midnight as the start of the civil day i.e. 0:00 hours, the astronomical day used midday i.e. 12 noon as the start of the day - a practice that continued until January 1, 1925.

6. The Islamic and Jewish religions start their day at sunset (sundown). Their day therefore starts with the twilight and night hours. The Vedic Hindu tradition starts its day at sunrise.

7. The Avestan word ushah is similar to the Rig-Vedic word usha / usas, translated as dawn. In the Vedas, hymns to Usha can be found in Samhita section of the RgVeda.
Verse 48.5 reads "Like a good matron Usas comes carefully tending everything: rousing all life she stirs all creatures that have feet, and makes the birds of air fly up."
48.9: "Shine on us with your radiant light, O Usas, Daughter of the Sky... ."
48.15 "Usas, as you with light to day have opened the twin doors of heaven... ."
49.3: "Bright Usas, when your times return, all quadrupeds and bipeds stir, and round about flock winged birds from all the boundaries of heaven."
49.4 "Your dawning with your beams of light illumines all the radiant realm."
92.5 "We have beheld the brightness of her shining; it spreads and drives away the dark horned monster."
113.3 "Common, unending is the Sisters' pathway; taught by the Gods, alternately they travel. Fair-formed, of different hues and yet one-minded, Night and Dawn clash not, neither do they travel."
113.8 "She first of endless morns to come hereafter, follows the path of morns that have departed."
113.9 "As you, Dawn, has caused Agni to be kindled, and with the Sun's eye has revealed creation."
113.14 "In the sky's borders had she shone in splendour: the Goddess had thrown off the veil of darkness."
113.16 "Arise! the breath, the life, again has reached us: darkness has passed away and light approaches. She for the Sun had left a path to travel we have arrived where men prolong existence."
113.20 "Whatever splendid wealth the Dawns bring with them to bless the man who offers praise and worship, Even that may Mitra, Varuna grant us a boon, and Aditi and Sindhu, Earth and Heaven."
123.5 "Sister of Varuna, sister of Bhaga, first among all sing forth, O joyous Morning."
123.6 "The far-refulgent Mornings make apparent the lovely treasures which the darkness had covered."
123.7 "The one departs and the other arrives: unlike in hue days, the halves march on successively."
124.11 "She will beam forth, the light will hasten her and Agni will be present in each dwelling."

8. In the Islamic tradition, the five watches start with dawn and are: 1. Fajr - dawn to sunrise, 2. Dhuhr - afternoon (noon to the mid point between noon and sunset e.g. 3:30 pm for a 7:00 pm sunset), 3. Asr - mid-afternoon to sunset, 4. Maghrib - dusk, sunset to night, 5. 'Isha - night (to dawn?). The Islamic tradition of praying five times a day during five watches is similar to the Zoroastrian tradition.

1. During the grand festival of Nowruz, the new-day (now-ruz) of the New Year (sol-e now), celebrated by the Achaemenians at Persepolis (cf. Fariborz Rahnammon above) occured at sunrise on March 21, 487 BCE. The new-day (now-ruz) did not start at midnight.

2. The Zoroastrian tradition (see note on Yalda above) intuitively tells us that night and darkness are associated with evil, while light and brightness are associated with good. It is counter-intuitive to think that Zoroastrians would have instituted the new day (now-ruz) to begin at midnight - a point in time that would have been difficult to measure by the common person in ancient times.

3. While the Vedic verses are not precise about the distinction between dawn and sunrise, the Vedic day nevertheless begins with sunrise. The Vedic and Zoroastrian concepts of dawn and the start of the day bear parallels. In addition, the Rig-Vedic verses to Usha frequently refer to chariots reminiscent of the chariots of Mithra.

4. The traditional semetic (Jewish and Islamic) start of the day is sunset. The traditional Aryan (Zoroastrian and Vedic Hindu) start of the day is sunrise. The present international start of the day at midnight is a modern innovation motivated initially by maritime and railway interests.

5. In the era before the common use of clocks that could measure the hour and minute, sunrise and sunset were respectively the start of the day and night. They were and are natural observable events. These were most likely the primitive divisions of the day. Dawn (just before sunrise) and dusk (just after sunset) were also naturally observable events. In nature, a large number of animals began to 'stir' during dawn and bed-down during dusk. The next divisions that required some form of basic calculation or measurement were likely midday and midnight. They were precisely what the words state - the (variable) mid points of the day (between sunrise and sunset) and night (between sunset and sunrise) and not the fixed clock-based 0:00 and 12:00 hours of today.

6. Continuing the process of determining intervals during the day, Zoroastrians divided the day into eighteen hisars and they would have had to have some method of measuring the passage of a hisar. The first hisar would have started at sunrise. While this may sound strange today, a moveable start for the day was quite common until just some two hundred years ago. Using sunrise / daybreak as the start of the day is far more intuitive than midnight. Even today, the expressions "It's a new day" or "Tomorrow is a new day" use the word 'day'. Regardless of what a day means technically, in common usage, our day starts when we get up from our sleep.

7. When Zoroastrianism developed five divisions of the day, the indicators for the purposes of knowing when a geh / gah started, in urban areas, the ringing of a bell by priests who might have access to some method of time-keeping could have informed the neighbourhood within ear-shot of the change in watch. In remote areas, especially in ancient times, expecting each household to have a time-keeping mechanism that could consistently and accurately measure minutes including signaling 0:00 hours at midnight, is unrealistic. Before the invention of mechanical devices, we can expect that the ancients would have used natural indicators of the passage of time such as sunrise, changing shadow lengths and direction, sunset and the movement of stars. A more sophisticated method of using natural indicators to measure the passage of time would have been an observatory (known examples of old Indo-Iranian observatories are a collection of structures that observed and measured various natural events) and as Fariborz Rahnamoon states, Zarathushtra is reputed to have built one such observatory.

8. The practice of praying during the end and start of the day appears to have been as follows (also see Mary Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. I, page 259, note 36): The laity would have said the Aiwisruthrem gah (sunset to midnight) prayers just before going sleep and the Ushahin gah (midnight to sunrise) prayers upon waking up - just before dawn (usah / usha) i.e., when the skies begin to lighten and the stars fade from view. We can attest to this tradition from personal experience. The hours of sleep would have been the eight hours (six hasars) from dusk to dawn in winter.

9. The laity upon awakening would have recited the Ushahin gah prayers before the stars become imperceptible in the lightening skies of dawn. The Havan gah is ushered in by the first rays of the rising sun shining through - the light of Mithra. The two sets of prayers associated with the Ushahin and Havan gah appear to form a continuum. For instance, the Ushahin gah prayers list of the first four Amesha Spentas (vohu mano yazamaide, ashem vahishtem yazamaide, khshathrem vairim yazamaide, spentam vanguhim armaitim yazamaide) and the Havan gah prayers appear to continue and conclude the listing (haurvatatem ashavanem ashahe ratum yazamaide, ameretatatem ashavanem ashahe ratum yazamaide). Perhaps the continuum can be compared to that of dawn and sunrise at daybreak. However, while the Ushahin gah prayers are recited when one awakes at the break of dawn (when the skies begin to lighten but before the first rays of the sun are observed), the gah and dawn are still a part of the previous night. The new day (now ruz) does not begin at dawn - it begins when the sun casts its first rays at sunrise. If we may be permitted an analogy, we can compare this concept to the blooming of the first spring flowers a few days before New Year's day at the spring equinox. While they are the new year's spring flowers, they nevertheless started to bloom at a time when it was still winter in the Zoroastrian calendar's previous year.

10. In verse 44.5 of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathushtra, rhetorically asks God:
"This of You I ask; tell me truly Lord,
Which artisan made light and darkness?
Which artisan made sleep and wakefulness?
Who at dawn, noon and dusk
Instills the discerning person with purpose?"
'Dawn, noon and dusk' is also translated as 'dawn, day and night'. Some feel that this sequence demonstrates that Zarathushtra intended there to be three divisions in a day with the day starting with dawn which they extrapolate to mean midnight since the Ushahin gah starts at midnight. All this amounts to a huge stretch of logic laden with extra words, assumptions, and bias. By the same logic system, the first sequence i.e. light and darkness can be used indicate that Zarathushtra intended the day to start with daylight followed by darkness. The verse is a rhetorical questioning about the cause of creation, its different manifestations, and understanding the purpose of life. An attempt to extract too much from the verse can lead to errors and a detraction from the verse's central message which is far deeper. We do not read this hymn as establishing the watches or gahs / gehs.

11. In the Islamic tradition of the five watches and prayers (see Related Concepts #8 above), even though their day starts at sunset, in the listing of the watches, the first watch starts with dawn. The Islamic tradition is close to the Zoroastrian tradition causing some to believe the former was adopted by the latter. In the Islamic tradition, however, dawn is separated from the nighttime watch and placed as a separate watch while the morning watch is omitted.

12. We can contrast the old Zoroastrian time / calendar tradition with the modern Western system in the following manner: The Zoroastrian tradition starts the day at sunrise (a fresh start to a new day) and ends the day at dawn. The Zoroastrian tradition also starts the New Year at the beginning of spring (metaphorically a fresh start to a new year when nature 'awakes') and ends the year at the end of winter (cf. the end of nature's sleep-time). In contrast, the Western system starts the 'day' in the middle of the night and similarly celebrates New Year's day in the midst of winter.


K. E. Eduljee

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