Bahai News - Wishing you happy Naw-Ruz Mar. 17, 2001. 01:43 AM

Wishing you happy Naw-Ruz

For Zoroastrians and Baha'is, March 21 is New Year's day

Ron Csillag
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Naw-Ruz is good news. It heralds fresh beginnings, a new start, the renewal of the spirit.

For thousands of Zoroastrians and members of the Baha'i faith in and around Toronto, Naw-Ruz is the first day of the new year, a time to reawaken the soul from its winter blahs. The holiday for both faiths is Wednesday, right after the first day of spring. That's no accident.

Spring, after all, is a special time for many religions, be it the Lenten period, Passover, or the Hindu festival of Holi. The vernal equinox has long been regarded as a powerful time for rejuvenation, both in the agricultural and spiritual sense.

For the 4,000 or so Zoroastrians in the Greater Toronto Area, Naw-Ruz, which means "new day" in Farsi, is the most important day of the year, says Nozer Kotwal, a Zoroastrian priest. The festival will mark day one of the year 1370 - also the day on which the religion's founder, the prophet Zarathustra, received his revelation.

Toronto's only free-standing Zoroastrian temple, hidden in a thicket of trees at the corners of Bayview and Steeles Aves., will see a steady stream of worshippers on Naw-Ruz. Before the central altar of fire, which symbolizes God, they will recite a new year prayer known as Jashan, contained in the Zoroaster holy book, the Avesta. That's followed by visits to friends and loved ones, beginning with the most elderly.

In Iran, where Zoroastrianism originated between 1500 and 1000 B.C., Naw-Ruz is celebrated for 13 days. In the West, it is March 21 only, Kotwal explains. Other aspects of the holiday are dispensed with here, he adds, such as jumping over a bonfire to show spiritual reinvigoration.

Following the prayer service, "we hug and kiss and exchange gifts," Kotwal says. "Rich foods are eaten, such as steamed rice with herbs and fried fish."

In Zoroastrian homes, which undergo a thorough cleaning, a special table is prepared. Families light a candle or oil lamp, set near a mirror and a portrait of Zarathustra. A variety of fruits, nuts and coloured eggs are also displayed. Among the best known customs of Naw-Ruz is the "Seven S's," seven objects beginning with the letter "S" in Farsi - hyacinths, apples, greens, garlic, vinegar, sumac and olives - are all decoratively arranged on a table. Some homes may also display a goldfish in a bowl to symbolize an active life. Zoroastrianism is a small religion, with about 140,000 members worldwide. Yet its importance to humanity has often been described as much greater than its numbers suggest.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a Kingston-based group that runs a much-visited Web site, describes Zoroastrian theology as having had a vital impact on Christianity and other later religions in its teachings on God and Satan, the soul, heaven and hell, a messiah, resurrection, and final judgment. It is one of the oldest religions still in existence, and to some, vies with Judaism as the first monotheistic faith.

Some scholars believe the three wise men who visited the newborn Jesus may have been Zoroastrians.

Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek) preached monotheism in a land that followed an aboriginal, polytheistic religion. He was attacked for his teaching, but finally won the support of the king. Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the vast Persian empire until 650 A.D., when Muslims invaded Persia. Most followers fled to India, where they are concentrated today, and are usually called Parsis.

Adherents believe in a single, all-powerful God known as Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord"), heaven and hell, and a constant struggle between good and evil (with good ultimately prevailing). All rituals and rites are performed before the sacred fire.

Baha'is use both the term Baha'i New Year and Naw-Ruz to designate the celebration, explains Gerald Filson, director of external affairs for the Baha'i Community of Canada, headquartered in Thornhill. On Tuesday evening at sunset (the beginning of the Baha'i day), the roughly 3,000 followers of the faith in the GTA will mark the start of the year 158, counting from the day the religion was founded, also in Persia.

It was in 1844 that the founder of the Babi movement, a breakaway Islamic sect, announced that the purpose of his mission was to herald the arrival of "one greater" than himself, who would fulfill the prophetic expectations of all the great religions. The Bab ("the Gate"), as he was known, was seen as a threat to Islam, and executed in 1850.

His prophesied successor revealed himself after a mystical experience while in jail, and took the title Baha'u'llah, meaning "the Glory of God." Baha'u'llah laid the foundations of the Baha'i faith with his teaching that all the great prophets - Noah, Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab - were servants of the same transcendent, unknowable, single God. While their messages were different, they sprang from the same source.


Baha'u'llah taught that all the great prophets were servants of the same God

Baha'u'llah was an early advocate of religious unity and women's rights, and he preached the abolition of all forms of inequality and prejudice. Scientific inquiry is seen as essential to expand human knowledge and deepen members' faith.

As with all Baha'i holy days, there are few fixed rules for observing the new year. It's one of nine days on the Baha'i calendar when work should be suspended, Filson says. It's also welcome as the close of the annual 19-day fasting period that began March 2, when Baha'is neither eat nor drink from dawn to dusk.

The Baha'i faith has no clergy, sacraments or rituals. There's one main house of worship per continent; the temple nearest Toronto is in Wilmette, Ill.

But on Tuesday evening and Wednesday, the faithful will gather in homes, schools and the Toronto Baha'i Centre at Bloor and Huron Sts. to recite scriptures, including a new year's prayer in which worshippers submit to God's will. Other than that, the event is largely social.

"We are encouraged to explore our own ritual," says Filson, "and that varies according to the creativity of each community, from singing to dance to music."

With 6 million multi-ethnic followers, Baha'is have established more communities worldwide than any other religion except Christianity. In Iran, the 350,000-strong community is still persecuted as heretical and Baha'is accused of being Zionists because their global headquarters are in Haifa, Israel, Filson notes.

But there's a happy confluence: Baha'i New Year falls on the same day as the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.


Ron Csillag is a Toronto writer who specializes in religion. He can be reached at csillag@home.com.


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