The Great Divide-Parsi-ism vs. Zoroastrian-ism? By Kersee Kabraji

An attempt has been made in this article to understand the great divide in thinking and beliefs amongst the Parsi community members mainly in India and to a much lesser extent outside India.

 The author is an avid reader of history books and religious literature and is a staunch believer of the way of life as proclaimed by Asho Zarathushtra in his Gathas. He is an engineer by training and has an experience of over 45 years as a professional manager and as a management consultant.

 In this article, putting on his cap of a professional manager, he has tried to find the root cause of present controversies amongst Parsis and suggest some options as possible solutions. He has tried to be totally rational and objective and least emotional or sentimental.

 When one reads community publications like Parsiana, Jame-Jamshed, Mumbai Samachar etc; and when one discusses community matters with other Parsis, one thing comes across very clearly is that the root cause of the controversies is due to a good number of Parsis suffering from a ‘mind-set’.

A ‘mind-set’ can be defined as a deep-seated belief not based on reason, logic or rational thinking. For an example, in ancient times people believed that the earth was flat like a table. This was their ‘mind-set’. When Copernicus (or was it Galileo?) came forth that the earth must be round like a ball, people did not want to listen to his reasoning or logic and he was even prosecuted!

Amongst Hindus about 100 years ago, a widow could not get married again –she had to shave off her hair, wear black clothes and do all the menial work in the house. The entire community suffered from this mind-set, namely, ‘A widow just can not marry again’—no reason, no logic to support this was provided--the subject of her re-marriage was not even open for discussion! These are just two examples to describe the ‘mind-set’.

The mind-set that a good number of Parsis and their high priests seem to be suffering from is: ‘A Parsi is a Zarathosti and a Zarathosti is a Parsi—one has to be born through Parsi parents only to be a Zarathosti.’

What needs to be understood clearly by all of us is that Parsi is a sub-race of Aryans and Zoroastrianism is a religion, a way or philosophy of life. The two are totally separate things. If a Parsi can become a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist if he so desires, why can not anyone else follow Zoroastrian religion, if he / she wishes to? The race (or the community based on race) on one side, and the religion (a way or philosophy of life) on the other side, are two separate things. This is not being understood by those having the ‘Parsi mind-set’. They seem to overlook the fact that there are Zoroastrians elsewhere in the world including South America, Russia, Tajikistan, parts of Europe and amongst Kurds who are not born through Parsi parents.

Now let us explore the possible reason behind this mind-set:

When our fore-fathers came to India in about 9 th or 10 th century AD, it was not for the first time that people from Iran were coming into this country. People from Iran had been coming into India by land route for centuries before our fore-fathers came by sea route. History tells us that King Cyrus had his empire spread up to Punjab.  King Shapoor I also had his empire spread up to Taxila in North West of Punjab.     Pahelwas, Parthavas, came from Iran in to India in 3 rd and 4 thcentury AD by land route. It is reasonable to guess that not all of them would have returned back and whoever stayed behind must have got sucked into the mainstream of the prevailing major religion i.e.” Hinduism.”

Our fore-fathers, who came in 9 th/10 th century, were surely conscious of this fact and since they had only one mission in mind, which was to save and preserve our religion, they realized that unless they maintained their community identity, they will not be able to save and maintain their religion. So, in their wisdom they very rightly decided not to allow inter-caste marriages. As this would result in their identity being lost and also their becoming idol-worshippers. Thus, ‘maintaining the community identity’ attained a very high position in our thinking and can be seen as the root-cause of the ‘Parsi Mind-Set’. (The promise given to Jadiv Rana seems to be a made up story later on –in fact the identity of Jadiv Rana and the authenticity of the story of ‘Kisse-Sanjan’ are being questioned by history students–but we will skip over this at the moment).

One can easily infer that they were a very small group of people and also in a defensive mode. Therefore, the idea of accepting / converting others into our faith was totally out of question. Though it is a fact that Navjotes of the children of Parsi father through a non-Parsi mother had been performed for centuries.

Thus the concept or the mind-set that ‘loyalty to Parsi community is equal to loyalty to the religion’ seems to have taken root against this historical background. (Our religious scriptures, however, do not prohibit accepting people of other caste, community or race as is given in the appendix ‘A’.)

Thus we have some Parsis with the above mind-set on one side and there are some, though in a smaller number, who believe that the community and the religion are two separate identities. On this basis, we seem to have developed two separate groups of people in our community—those primarily loyal to the community (practicing, shall we say, ‘Parsi-ism’) and those primarily loyal to the religion (practicing, shall we say, Zoroastrian-ism) creating this great divide.

A follower of ‘Parsi-ism’ believes:

1. We have to follow practices laid down by our ancestors and do not deviate from it. These are our holy traditions (including use of non-functional dokhma system).

2. Zoroastrian religion is our ‘property’, which we have to protect and we can not admit others into it. On all issues relating to the religion, our high priests only can decide.

3. We are a pure race from Iran and we should not marry outside our caste. (However, a man marrying outside can retain his religion, his children can be initiated into the religion but a woman marrying outside the community will forsake her right of admission to Fire Temples etc. and her children will not be initiated into the religion. No reason is necessary for these double-standards—our high priests have decided this.)

4. Our way of life, ‘rehni-karni’ (can not find a suitable word in English), is very dear to us and we do not want it to be diluted or lost by accepting others into our community.

5. We have huge charity trusts, the benefit of which will go away to ‘others’ –who are actually non-Parsis, if we start accepting outsiders into our religion.

6. It is true that our numbers are dwindling, but we have no solution to this problem.

A follower of Zoroastrian-ism believes:

1. That the times and situations have changed considerably in the last century and it is not proper or correct to cling on to the ideas and practices of the past which were perhaps right for those times and situations. These ideas and practices do not become ‘holy’ by calling them ‘traditions’.

2. Zoroastrianism is no ones ‘personal property’—any one who believes in the teachings of Asho Zarathushtra should be free to follow the religion and should not be denied initiation into the religion—perhaps with proper screens / filters—the details of which can be separately worked out.

3. In matters relating to the religion, there are learned scholars who must be consulted. The high priests in India do not seem to be fair and just in their opinions and do not support their views with valid reasons or quoting religious scriptures. They seem to be supporting Parsi-sm (or are they the cause of it?)

4. Inter-caste marriages between two adults are becoming a normal thing in the present times and it is not correct to deny any of the spouses, an initiation into the religion of the other if he or she so desires. Off-springs of such inter-cast married couples should be initiated into our religion if so desired by the parents.

5. We have to build ‘Universal’ Fire Temples and places of worship for such non-Parsi followers of the religion. We follow teachings of Zarathushtra as a pure religion, an ethical philosophy of life and consider it as our bounden duty to spread it into all corners of the world by accepting all those who believe in these teachings. We consider denying initiation into the religion, to anyone voluntarily wanting to follow our religion, as a great sin.

6. Our ‘rehni-karni’ will continue to change as per the environment we are living in. It is not possible to cling on to it and make it a major focus in life.

7. There is no fear of the benefit of the charity trusts going away to others as almost all of these, are meant for ‘Parsi Zoroastrians’. The newly accepted persons will not be Parsis and hence not eligible for the benefit of these Charities.

(Parsis should also think that one day, when there are no Parsis left, what will happen to these funds?)

8. Whilst accepting others into our faith, we are fulfilling the mission of our fore-fathers who primarily came to India to save and preserve our religion.

So, this is ‘the great divide’ –one hears arguments and sees letters from both the sides, arguing and counter-arguing against each other. Both sides seem hell-bent on convincing the other that ‘they’ are wrong and ‘we’ are right! Hardly anyone seems to suggest any solution.

Having understood the problem and the background under which it is created, let us look at some possible solutions:

  • Do nothing: Time will solve the problem, if at all,—let the debates and arguments continue—ultimately it will be ‘the survival of the fittest’—the law of nature will take over.
(A question remains whether we will survive that long.)
  • Work toward bridging the divide: Call meetings (perhaps a series of them) of both the groups to try and make each side understand the other’s view point. This could be done under Chairmanship of a neutral person, perhaps a retired Chief Justice of a High Court or the Supreme Court.
  • Arrange a Panel comprising of Priests (essentially scholars of our religion—the position of the so-called high Priests being hereditary, not all of them may be real scholars), social scientists, and prominent members of the community to discuss and resolve the issue in a time-bound program.
  • Separate Out: It is suggested that those of the second group start calling themselves as ‘Neo-Zoroastrians’ or ‘Gathic Zoroastrians’ or some such name to distinguish themselves from ‘Parsi-Zoroastrians’, thus respecting their sentiments. Some of the Parsis and their families, who do not need charities and who consider religion more precious than the ‘community-purity’, can also join this group. This group will have their own Fire Temples and places of worship open to all (including the Parsis).

In the opinion of this author, the last one is the best option, though it may sound a bit radical. Let us not waste any more time on arguing and counter-arguing against each other—nothing new, which has not been said so far, will come out of it. It takes many years to change the ‘mind-set’ and we have sufficient number of mad ‘bawas’ and ‘bawis’ on both the sides to continue fighting for ever!

Lastly, did we not have in the past factions like ‘Kadmi’, ‘Shenshai’, ‘Fasli’ etc? One more faction will not make our community weaker but only stronger (in all respects, including genetically) and who knows, ultimately, may be we will be left with just two factions?

With best wishes to all my hamdins,

Kersee Kabraji

 Appendix A

The following extracts from our religious scriptures throw light on the subject of acceptance into Zoroastrianism.

The first two are from Zoroastrian Theology by Dr. Maneckji N. Dhalla, the late High Priest of the Parsis of the North Western India and a very eminent scholar of our religious scriptures. Both extracts pertain to Avesta Period i.e. around 800 BC. (pg 74, 75)

1. “These Zoroastrian missionaries travelled to distant lands for the purpose of promulgating the religion, and their homeward return from their sacred mission is celebrated by the faithful (Yasna 42.6)”

2. “The Fravardin Yasht commemorates the Fravashi of Saena, an illustrious convert to Zoroastrianism. We learn from the Pahlavi works that this apostle of faith left behind him 100 disciples who preached Mazdayasnian faith in the land of Siestan. Armenia came under the Zoroastrian influence at a very early date and a corrupt form of Zoroastrianism prevailed in the country for several centuries. Cappadocia, Lydia and Lucia was the scene of active Zoroastrian propaganda………..The proselytizing work on the part of Zoroastrian ministers of the faith was carried on with a considerable amount of success.”

Let us see the extracts from the Pahlavi scriptures (pg198).

3. “Zarathushtra first preached his new religion to the people of Iran where he was born; but Ormazd has commanded that the excellent religion should be spread among all the races of mankind throughout the world (Dinkard Vol 10, bk.5.14, pg 12)

4. “It is said that the act of highest merit that a non-believer can perform in his life is to renounce his religion and embrace the Mazdayasnian faith (Sacred Books of the east, Vol.18, appendix, pg 415)”

4. “The great Sassanian monarch Shapoor II zealously worked for the restoration and promulgation of the faith among the un-believers with the aid of his illustrious Dastur Adarbad (Dinkard, Vol.9, pg 579).”

5. “The Dinkard sanctions even the use of force for the conversion of the aliens. (Sacred Books of the East, Vol.37, bk.8.26 pg 88, 89)”

6. “A Pahlavi Treatise devoted mostly to the Zoroastrian rituals attests the practice of admitting outsiders into the Zoroastrian fold (Nirangistan ed.Sanjana folio 16a, 17a)”

7. “Another Pahlavi tractate treating of the social and legal practices of the Sassanians lays down that if a Christian slave embraces the faith of his Zoroastrian master, he should be given freedom”

8. According to Fargard IV, 40(137) and 41(142) of Vendidad, the grave sins committed by a non-believer are pardoned if he accepts the religion of Mazda and resolves not to commit such deeds again.

Coming closer, we have the Rivayats or the codes of usages and rituals compiled between 1478 to 1766 AD. These are in Persian and in question and answer form. These provide a wealth of information on liturgical and social matters. Let us see what they have to say on this subject.

9. “ 237. On peaceful and forcible conversion:

Kaus Mahiar:

Q: Can a grave-digger, a corpse-burner and a darvand (one of foreign faith) become Behdin (i.e. be converted to Mazdayasnian religion) ?

A: “If they observe the rules of the religion steadfastly and (keep) connection with the religion, and if no harm comes on the Behdins (thereby), it is proper and allowable.”

Nariman Hoshang:

“If slave –boys and girls have faith in the good religion, then it is proper that Kusti should be (given to them to be) tied, and when they become intelligent, attentive to religion and steadfast, they should give them Barashnom and it is also proper and allowable to eat anything out of their hands.

All the above extracts show that there is simply no bar against acceptance / conversion in our religious scriptures.

It is a matter of interest that these extracts were published in Parsiana some months ago but failed to invoke any response from any of our high priests! What does one infer from their silence?