Fire, the provider of heat and light and the source of life and growth, was the center of all religious rituals of the ancient Indo-Iranians, and till this day, fire plays an important role in the religious ceremonies of the Hindus and Zoroastrians.
Since early time, human beings had seen the fire fall from the sky in the form of lightning, witnessed the volcanoes erupt and spew molten lava and had experienced the heat and light generated by these natural occurrences. But, when humans learned the art of lighting the fire they gained an upper hand in the animal kingdom; for they could now scare away the ferocious animals with whom they used to compete for food and shelter, illuminate dark and dingy caves and keep themselves warm, especially on cold winter nights. Humans soon learned to control the fire by keeping it under ashes and blazing it into flames by feeding it with wood and dry grass, and this probably led to their transition from nomads to settlers. The development of methods and tools for controlling and using fire was critical in human evolution and is believed to have allowed early humans to spread northward from the warm climates of their origins into the more severe environments of Europe and Asia. Evidence exists for deliberate fire use in the PALEOLITHIC PERIOD, beginning about 500,000 years ago; while, NEOLITHIC sites have yielded objects that may have been fire making tools: drills for producing friction heat in wood and flints for striking sparks from iron pyrites.
In those days it was a labor to light a fire so it was prudent to keep it smoldering. Fire was very precious, it required constant attention and was affectionately kept in a special place, the hearth. For the very early settlers, most activities, such as cooking, eating, socializing and sleeping, were centered around the hearth. This special place became an altar and fire became the object of veneration. Since fire played a very important part in the social and domestic life of the early settlers it was regarded as a special object of deep homage, presiding in their hearth, dispelling darkness of night and bestowing warmth in the cold and dreary winter. Fire was fed with animal fat and flesh, grains and incense which rose in smoke to reach the gods in the sky. Thus, with the ability to produce and control fire, humans could now not only create heat and light but cook foods that were difficult to eat in their raw state, drive game toward killing stands, and keep dangerous animals away from home hearths. With fire, wood could be worked to a strong, sharp point; clay pots could be baked to a stonelike hardness; and land could be cleared for planting. Eventually, the use of fire brought about the birth of civilizations based on the smelting and forming of metals.
The cult of fire can be traced back to the Indo-European period, and even today, fire in the form of lighted lamps, burning candles, incense and blazing wood adorns the places of worship of most religions. The Avestan word Athra has its equivalent Agni, in Sanskrit; and Ignis, in Latin. The cult of ever burning fire seems to have been wide spread among the Indo-Iranians. Since the sun by day and the fire by night were the only sources of illumination, the Indo-Iranians came to realize the brightness of their own hearth fires to that of the sun in the sky. The sun was also necessary for the growth of plants, just as fire was necessary to prepare the food that nourished them, and they became aware of the central role played by the sun and fire in sustaining their life. The regular pattern of the rising and setting of the sun helped them to realize the established truths within the universe and a link between sun and fire was formed. Fire came to be recognized as the symbol of Truth and Order (ASA in Avestan and RTA in Sanskrit). This in turn led to the use of fire as the tester of truth and fire ordeals were used to establish a persons innocence. According to Pahalvi texts, molten metal was poured on the chest of the accused or the person was made to drink hot fiery soogand (burning sulphur). If the person survived the ordeal it was taken as a sign of innocence. Such extreme measures, probably served as detriments to bad deeds and false testimony. Fire has played a central role in many religions. It has been a God (for example, the Indo-Iranian Agni) and recognized as a symbol of home and family (the hearth fire) in many cultures. It has also been a symbol of purification and renewal.
Zarathushtra reformed the fire cult and made it the symbol par excellence of Ahura Mazda. In his Gathas he speaks of fire as a bright and powerful creation of Ahura Mazda and prefers fire instead of idols as a symbol of divinity. In its simplest form, fire is that which burns and gives out light. Fire can consume all organic matter and is able to transform most inorganic matter. The burning may be likened to that which destroys evil by consuming or changing. The light may been seen as that which makes life possible by providing heat and energy that permeates all of Ahura Mazdas creations. Light in its various manifestations, whether it be from the fiery substance in the depths of the earth, or the glow of the sun, or the twinkle of the stars, is emblematic of Nature and Ahura Mazda. In his Gathas, Zarathushtra mentions Fire eight times in Yasna 31.3, 31.19, 34.4, 43.4, 43.9, 46.7, 47.6 and 51.9. Fire is described as bright, warm and energetic faculty of Ahura Mazda. Zarathushtra refers to the Divine Fire as the agency that derives its power form Asha (Truth, Immutable law) and rewards the righteous and the truthful. The epithet for fire in the Gathas is athro asha aojanho(the true strong fire).
Yasna 34.4, a verse in the Atash Nyaesh, says:
at tôi âtrêm ahurâ aojônghvañtem ashâ usêmahî asîshtîm êmavañtem stôi rapañtê cithrâ-avanghem at mazdâ daibishyañtê zastâishtâish dereshtâ-aênanghem. (in Avestan)
Thus, O Ahura we yearn through Asha for thy Fire, mighty, most-enduring and courageous, giving clear guidance in life to the earnest believers; but O Mazda to those with destructive tendencies, it overcomes their violence by the power of its flames.
(English translation from "The philosophical, spiritual and ethical interpretation of the Gathas of holy Zarathushtra" by Framroz Rustomjee).
In the above verse, Zarathushtra tells us that Athra (Fire) gives clear guidance and help to the faithful by illuminating the path of Asha which is easily perceived by the truthful. The help that Athra gives is reserved for the person whose actions are in accordance with Asha for the help itself is in accordance with Asha and cannot violate the natural law, nor can it protect those who are lazy, irrational or evil. Thus, Athra is the faculty of Ahura Mazda that guides, illuminates and protects those who use their Vohu Mano (Good Thinking) to understand Asha and can only help those who work to promote Asha. Zarathushtra made fire the symbol of his religion, a symbol which in terms of sublimity, grandeur and purity is unequal by any of its kind in this world. He did not enjoin the worship of fire but only of Ahura Mazda whose very nature is eternal light.
The zest for fire in Zoroastrianism became the quest for truth. In the Atash Nyaesh, fire is figuratively mentioned as tava atarsh puthra Ahurae Mazda (thou fire son of Ahura Mazda). This is similar to the methaphors 'Father of Truth' (Yasna 44.4 and 47.3) and 'Father of Good Thought' (Yasna 31.8 and 45.4) that Zarathushtra uses in his Gathas to refer to Ahura Mazda. The Avesta tells us that just as fire can burn and destroy physical impurity in the same way it can remove spiritual uncleanliness or sin. The fire of Ahura Mazda is mighty through Asha and will bring manifest joy unto the righteous but a visible harm unto the wicked (Yasna 43.4). At Frasho Kereti it is through fire that profit will be bestowed upon righteous and the wicked will be destroyed (Yasna 51.9). According to the creation story in Bundahishm, when Ahura Mazda fashioned the seventh creation, Fire, it permeated into the other six creations, made them dynamic and brought them to life. The Amesha Spenta, Asha Vahista, who represents Best Truth is the protector of fire and is assisted by the Yazatas Adur, Srosh and Behram.
For almost a thousand years after the advent of Zarathushtra, only the hearth fire in every home called Dadgah, was venerated and propitiated. Sometime before the Achaemenian era, permanent fire altars appear to have been adopted for the veneration of fire. These were the kings personal fires of worship and were dedicated to the Yazata of Victory, Verethragna. This Avestan term literally means defeater of the enemy. It became corrupted into Pahalvi as Varharan and subsequently into modern Persian as Behram. The late Pahalvi texts show that all fires were regarded as warriors fighting for the Spenta creation, not only on the physical plane, against darkness and cold, but also on the spiritual one, against the forces of vice and ignorance. Hence, all great fires were dedicated to Victory, in a spirit of courage and hope. It was customary to carry burning embers from these fires in front of a Zoroastrian army when it advanced to combat the infidel. The Behram fires were kept burning day and night by priests appointed by their kings. It was during this period that the priesthood became very powerful and the priests began to elaborate the rituals of purification for establishing such fires. In the late Achaemenian period, Zoroastrian priests introduced temple worship of fire in opposition to the then prevalent image worship of the divinity Anahita. Another class of fire called Atash Adaran, meaning Fire of different Fires, was developed. This fire was considered to have a lower grade than the Atash Behram fire because it was formed of embers from hearth fires of priests, warriors, farmers and artisans, the four classes of the Iranian society of that time. Eventually, there came into existence the Behram, Adaran and Dadgah fires.
A Zoroastrian is not a fire worshiper but through the veneration of fire is able to generate an intimate communion with Ahura Mazda. When Zoroastrians stand in devotion before a sacred fire they believe that they are standing in the presence of the radiating power of Ahura Mazda. When they pray before a fire they pay homage to the creation that represents life and the inherent nature of Ahura Mazda -- total goodness.
In his immortal epic, the Shahnameh, Firdosi repels the charge of fire-worship often hurled against the Zoroastrians by his words: Na gui ke atash-parasta budand Parastanda a pak yazda budand, which means, do not say they (Zoroastrians) are fire worshipers, for they worship only God, the Holy.
The Avesta also describes sixteen types of fires: Adar Shaidan, Adar Khoreh, Adar Mino Karko, Adar Farnbag, Adar Farah (glourious), Adar Gushpasp, Adar Khorda, Adar Burzen Meher, Atash Dara, Atash Berezo-Savangh, Atash Vohu Fryana, Atash Urvazishta, Atash Vazishta, Atash Spenishta, Atash Nairoghanga.
Berezo-Savangh means great benefit. This fire is described as the one which glitters and gives energy to all of Ahura Mazdas creations.
Vohu Fryana means loving the good. This fire is described as the life-force residing in the bodies of men and women. This is the fire that reflects the emotional light that manifests through love, compassion, righteousness and justice in every person.
Urvazishta means most joyful. This fire is described as the life-force in plants. It symbolically represents happiness and joy within the world.
Vazishta means swiftest. This is the fire of lightning and it reminds us of the vast power and swiftness that lies within the creator.
Spenishta means most beneficent. It is the fire which is kept in use in the material world. It comes from Endless light and it reflects the inherent nature of Ahura Mazda who is total goodness.
In the Avesta FIRE expresses multi-dimensional ideas for it helps humans through enlightment that truth can bring in terms of knowledge and understanding, it bestows just rewards to the truthful and deceitful at the time of judgement and works towards the fulfillement of Asha and therefore the final victory of good over evil. To a Zoroastrian FIRE has various meanings, such as the fire of inspiration, the fire of love, the fire of righteousness, the fire of emotion, the fire of compassion, the fire of devotion, the fire of the life giving force in all of Ahura Mazda's creations.