The Vision of Ardai Viraf

By Eloise Hart
Happiness comes to him, through whom happiness goes out to others. — Ushtavaiti Gastha

Alexander's conquest of the 4th century BC brought with it a soul-shattering invasion of ideas which swept into even the most devout Zoroastrian communities. Alien interpretations were given to their teachings, and rites and sacrifices instituted which not only polluted but threatened to terminate the flow of divine revelation. Several centuries later, King Ardeshir Babagan, greatly concerned, called together forty thousand scholars and priests to decide what could be done to again "bring intelligence from the spirits." After deliberation the assembly selected seven of their wisest and purest, and asked them to choose from among themselves the one best qualified to enter the supernatural worlds and to receive the inspiration that would purify and invigorate their religion.

These seven unanimously chose Ardai Viraf, an upright and respected priest from Persepolis, for the perilous journey. However, his seven sisters, "who were to him as wives," feared for his life and begged the assembly to consider another. But the desturs spoke to them calmly and promised that Viraf would return healthy and safe after seven days. The meaning of "sisters who were to him as wives" may be drawn from an old Mesrobian manuscript which advises a would-be initiant: "He who would penetrate the secrets of (sacred) Fire, and unite with it must first unite himself soul and body to the Earth, his mother, to Humanity, his sister, and to Science, his daughter." In this instance, Viraf's sisters could symbolize the candidate's own attainments that guard and protect his body and soul as he undergoes the trials of spiritual initiation.
The "Vision of Ardai Viraf" is related in the Pahlavi texts, smuggled into India when the Moslems conquered Persia, which synthesize the mystical teachings of the ancient Zoroastrian prophets and priests. It is found in The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, 7:185-207; in Moshan Fani, The Dabistan, translated by David Shea and Anthony Troyer, pp. 144-154; and is also discussed in Henry S. Olcott's Theosophy, Religion and Occult Science, pp. 301-48.

The story tells how Ardai Viraf on entering the holy fire-temple of Azar Khurdad drank three cups of "hallowed wine" and lay down on a golden couch. As his body "slept" entranced, his soul arose fully conscious and traveled into the ethereal realms of the heavens and hells. All the while his sisters and the desturs and mobads guarded his body, tended the ever-burning flames on the altar, and recited verses from the Avesta. On the eighth day he awoke and related to a scribe and to those present the extraordinary experiences he had just had.
At first, he told them, he was welcomed by angels: by the sublime Ataro and the pious Srosh who watches and protects the world from the demons at night. Although he had "come when it is not [his] time," they took his hands and led him upwards three steps to the Chinvat Bridge of Judgment, and there paused so he could watch the progress of the souls of the dead. Good men and women, whose goodness had benefited others, found the Bridge broad and strong, and for three days and nights they tasted "as much of pleasure as the whole of the living world can taste." (Yasht 22, 1, 2, The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 23, trans. James Darmesteter). Whereupon each of these souls was approached by a beautiful maiden, personifying the totality of his thoughts, words and deeds since his maturity, who evaluated the good he had accomplished, the destiny met and made, and then pronounced judgment on his life. If worthy, she escorted him onwards to Paradise, "the bright House of Song," where roses bloom and hummingbirds shine like rubies. But the souls of the wicked, of the greedy and cruel, found the Bridge sharp and razor thin, the maiden a hideous hag, and the three days and nights like nine thousand years of anguish.

Viraf described the agony of these souls with such feeling that even today men and women weep unashamed when his words are read to the congregation. He told, for example, of a miser who had so corrupted his soul that in death it suffered greatly, mourning the loss of the wealth coveted on earth. "I saw it creep along in fear and trembling, and presently a wind came sweeping along, laden with the most pestilential vapors, even as it were from the boundaries of hell. In the midst of this wind appeared a form of the most demoniacal appearance." The soul of the miser tried to escape but in vain and, terrified, it cried out, "Who art thou, than whom I never saw anyone uglier, or filthier, or more stinking?" She replied, "I am thy bad actions, O youth of evil thoughts, of evil words, of evil religion. It is on account of thy will and actions that I am hideous and vile, . . ."

Ardai told also of the anguish of a husband and wife who at death were to be parted: the husband's soul destined for heaven, the wife's for hell. But the wife clung to her husband, imploring his help: "What is it that tears us apart?" When the husband reminded her that she had neglected her religious duties, she reproached him for not teaching her of them. Her soul was filled with repentance, and although in hell she suffered no more than from "darkness and stench," her husband, in the midst of the righteous in heaven, was agonized with shame for having failed to instruct, and thus share with his wife the benefits he could easily have provided had he not been so intent on acquiring for himself spiritual attainments. (Bundahish, ch. 30, 11, The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 5, trans. E. W.. West, p. 124n.)

Every spirit, Ardai continued, after crossing the Chinvat Bridge was drawn into realms appropriate to its nature. Those whose good and evil thoughts and deeds were equal, and those who, because of some physical or mental infirmity, had remained secluded or inactive, remained in the joyless, sorrowless shadowland of Hammestagan, the "Ever-Stationary," until the time of their future existence. However, "if they possessed an additional particle of virtue, equal in weight to one of the hairs of the eyelash, they would be relieved from this calamity." (Dabistan, p. 146.)

Other souls rose to the realms of the "star tracks," of the "moon tracks," or "sun tracks." He then described the various heavens and hells: the joys experienced by the good, the bliss enjoyed by the best in Garodman, the all-glorious "heaven of heavens"; and he told of the descent of the wicked who sank beneath the sphere of the moon and were self-impelled into worlds of purgation.

At one point in his journey, Viraf's angel-guide complimented him on the purity of his soul that enabled him to pass unharmed through both the perishable, evil regions and the luminous spheres of Ahura and of the guardian angels of the prophets. At these regions and at the "stations" of the planets, the regents of each revealed to him the laws and conditions of life in their system so that on returning to earth, he could inform mankind. Finally, after showing and explaining to him the nature of the manifold planes and of the spheres thereon, Srosh the pious and Ataro the angel brought Ardai's soul back to his body and bade him farewell.
This story, of course, is not unique with the Persians. The Egyptian "Vision of Hermes," Dante's Divine Comedy, the writings of Plato, Bruno, Swedenborg and others also follow the soul's exploration of invisible worlds during the "drugged" trance of initiation into the Greater Mysteries

The term "drugged" was used symbolically by the Zoroastrians, as were the words "entombed" and "crucified" by the Christians. It signified the death-like, inert state of the candidate's body when his soul arose fully conscious. Equipoised, as it were, at the focus between acquiring for matter and spirit, the soul was illumined, and able to "see" in both worlds. Henceforth with eyes open it could travel the course taken heretofore unconsciously during the darkness of night and of death. The "hallowed wine" or juice of the haoma plant was not a drug — the Mazdeans condemned and strictly forbade the use of narcotics — but a transformation of consciousness enabling one to perceive higher and lower and inner ranges of being.

This "vision" popularized and clarified the archaic Mazdean traditions regarding the three phases of death. The first stage is the physical demise when the soul, man's "image of the highest," divests itself both of its "body of bones," which disintegrates into the elements of the earth, and of its ushtanas, or vitality, which returns to the winds. To hasten this disintegration, the ancient Zoroastrians placed the corpse of the dead in a vessel of aqua-fortis, which so effectively dissolved the body that it could be buried or poured into a designated place far from habitation. Later, the dead were exposed in Towers of Silence to the rays of the sun, which drew the souls upward in the path of its light, a process called khorshed nigaresh, "beholding by the sun." Even today they allow no odor or contagion to pollute the air, fire, water or earth when their dead are exposed in these towers. Vultures quickly denude the bones, and the tropical Indian sun dries them to a powder which is then placed in a mountain cave, a niche, or dropped into special wells and covered with charcoal and sand.

The second phase consists of the succeeding "three days and nights" when the soul, now having entered ethereal worlds, sees with the understanding of its higher awareness the panoramic review of the life just completed. It sees the justice and value of every experience, understands the real conquests and failures, which during life may have been erroneously judged because perceived with the senses and faculties of the lower mind and emotions. Now the thoughts and acts of the past are evaluated in relation both to its spiritual and terrestrial evolution, and how they contribute to future endeavor.

The third stage of death occurs when the spiritual soul, divesting itself of the psychological body it had built during life — the fears, desires and memories of its animal-human components — enters the heaven, hell or intermediate realm it had "gained by affinity" when alive. These various heavens and hells are delineated as having each its appropriate location, characteristics, inhabitants, quality of pleasure or pain, and as being subject to a particular planetary influence. None, however, is eternal. Zoroaster himself declared that evil-doers will not abide "in hell forever; when their sins are expiated, they are delivered out of it" (Dabistan, p. 139) — out even of the "hell of hells," the "dwelling place of Worst Purpose" (Yasna 32:13), which consists of the human soul's entry into the bodies of beasts, of vegetables, and on rare occasions into mineral forms. For by the end of this Grand Period of manifestation the souls of all creatures on earth shall have reascended to higher spheres and regained their original goodness and splendor.

The Desatir and Avesta especially elaborate these ages-long peregrinations as the soul migrates "from body to body in a state of progressive improvement." The soul of the good, they relate, passes out of one lower body after another, finally rising, emancipated from attractions of matter, to the celestial abodes of the Amesha Spentas who preside over the planets, and then on to the fixed stars and to union with God. And because, as seems evident, each of these bodies contains and is built of the thoughts, deeds and religious beliefs sown by the soul at that stellar station in a previous visit, it there enjoys or suffers consequences of its own past making.
These teachings evince remarkable knowledge of man's spiritual nature and destiny. They also carry dramatic moral implication. If life is continuous — if, as the heroic Rust declared: "the death of the body is to the spirit the bestowing of life; . . . when the cloud of the body is removed, the sun of spirit shines more resplendently" (Dabistan, p. 104) — then the course of our future is being charted here now. Whether we, as souls, shall travel to one or another of the heavens or hells, and where we shall then continue, depends upon our conduct today. And as conduct is guided by knowledge the Zoroastrians placed great emphasis on the attaining of wisdom. Ardai Viraf's "intelligence from the spirits," while reviving the teachings of their ancient prophets and seers, continues today to awaken men's souls to the truths that exist in all ages for those pure of heart to discover. Humata, hukhta, huvarshta, the Mazdean priests proclaim: "purity of thought, purity of word, purity of deed." This is the kindling which nurtures the "Fire" within — that Fire which burns undiminished in the scriptures and symbols of this oldest and most mystical of religions.

(From Sunrise magazine, July/July 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)


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