The Role of the High Priests of Parsis in India By Kersee Kabraji

This article is written, trying to find out the structure and the management of our religion and religious institutions. I have tried to be totally rational. There is no hidden agenda or any motive. The idea is to make the community members aware of the situation and hopefully generate a healthy dialogue which should result in a better future for the community and the religion.

To start with we asked a few questions and got the answers from the fellow community members (which may or may not be 100% correct and are open to corrections) as given below:

Q 1 . Who appoints the high priests ? How does one become a high priest ?

A1 . Generally the Dasturjis of the Atash Behrams (there are 6 of them) are considered as a high priests. Also understand that any Anjuman can present a shawl and appoint the Dastur as the high priest (as it happened in Bangalore)—perhaps with the consent of the other high priests. This position is hereditary and the son of the high Priest can automatically become the high priest.

Q2 . Is it necessary that one must have proven record of having studied religious literature or published essays, books on the religion etc. to qualify for being a high priest ?

A2 . It appears no such requirements are mandatory.

Q3 . Do other priests ‘report’ to the high priests and are bound to follow their diktat ?

A3 . All the priests are independent and are supposed to follow the diktat of their conscience.

Q4. Whom do the high priests ‘report’ to ?

A4 . Again, to no one in particular. It appears that they are like ‘un-crowned kings’ .They can decide for the community what is right or wrong. Their decision may or may not be based on our religious scriptures. They are supposed to be responsible to the community but no one can ‘sack’ them or de-throne them. Appears to be a case of all authority without any responsibility. They are also free to make exceptions. For example, a few years back, a high priest, Dasturji Kotwal performed Navjote of Nusli and Neville Wadia, who had been Christians. The grandfather of present Dastur Jamasp Asa, who was also a high priest, preformed Navjote as well as the wedding of a French lady Susan. This was done even though all high priests have jointly proclaimed that this is not allowed as per our religion !—cases of practicing double standards.

Q5 . Are they the high priests of the community or the high priests of Zoroastrianism? Is it not a case of lack of ‘clarity of role’ ?

A5 . It appears they serve the community and take their stand based on the interest of community—as per their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The interest of religion seems secondary.

For example on two burning issues facing the community :

  • In absence of scavenging birds, adopting an alternate method of the disposal of the dead,
  • Performing Navjotes of children of inter-married couples,

the stand taken by them is neither based on any religious scriptures nor on common sense-- which is seen as ‘fatwa’s’ by some of the community members.

Q6. It is said that they are responsible for dividing the community between ‘the orthodox’ and ‘the reformists’. Is this a justifiable statement?

A.6 Depends on how a community member looks at this statement. Based on the reality of the situation and based on scriptures, if they were to come out openly and state;

  • That it is not proper to deny anyone the right to follow our religion and we will perform the Navjotes, as accepted in all our religious scriptures (please see appendix A).
  • Since there are no scavenging birds, any alternate method can be adopted and we will perform all the required ceremonies. In any case, in towns where there are no dokhmas, an alternate method is used and the priest performs all the ceremonies—why should we have double standards ? And actually Vendidad prohibits the use of Dokhma in absence of birds (see appendix B).

Their stand will certainly result in fostering the unity and harmony in the community.

Q7 . Why are they not doing it?

A7 . Difficult to answer. The possible reasons could be:

  • Though unlikely, but perhaps, they have not studied our religious scriptures,
  • They genuinely believe in what they are saying, not withstanding double standards,
  • Why should they worry about the community being divided—how does it affect their income or bother them?
  • Having taken the opposite stand earlier, it may be difficult for them to take back their spit?  

Q8 . Do the High priests and other priests work towards educating the ‘behdins’ about our religion—do they give series of lectures or run the religious classes ?

A8 . Nothing seems to be done in this area –such activity is rather thin.

Q9 . Do the high priests and other priests explain the meaning of the prayers chanted by them, either before or after the ceremony?

A9. A big flat No. How can they, when they themselves do not know the meaning of what they are praying? 

Q10. Does this not amount to following some kind of ‘blind faith’—whereas Zarathushtra’s proclamation as seen in his Gathas is an ‘enlightened way of life’?

A10. Which high priest or other priest knows about Gathas or is bothered about knowing them? It is a sad situation that the only Holy Scripture that has come directly from Zarathushtra’s mouth is perhaps un-known to our priests, put aside the community members !

Q11 . If the situation requires to be changed, what can be done and who will do it?

A11 . Perhaps to start with, the education being imparted whilst grooming the would-be dasturs in Madaresa’s, needs to be drastically changed. Instead of churning out ‘commercial prayer chanters’, as they are doing now, they have to groom a priest based on:

  • Selecting a person genuinely desirous of serving the religion, he need not be from priest family,
  • Understanding and spreading the religion of Zarathushtra as given in his Gathas, should be his life’s mission,
  • Understanding that the priest has to be self-less person, dedicating his life in furtherance of the religion, to work not for money but for the love of the religion—that he has to be a friend-in-need of his clients in their difficulties,
  • That he has to be a religious teacher to the laymen, conduct religious classes etc.

 Q12 . Some of these seem to be interesting ideas. Is there no forum for discussions on this subject? Why not organize one, where such matters can be discussed, deliberated and resolved?

A.12 Who will call for such a meeting and provide a forum for a healthy dialogue and expression of views? Doubt even Ahura Mazda can help this community which refuses to help themselves.

Kersee Kabraji,

Appendix A

 Re: Acceptance into Zoroastrianism

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 and in Jam-E-Jamshed some time ago but failed to invoke any response from any of our high priests! What does one infer from their silence?

Kersee Kabraji

 Appendix B




4(11). O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! If in the house of the worshipper of Mazda, a dog or a man happens to die, and it is raining, or snowing, or blowing, or it is dark, or the day is at its end, when flocks and men lose their way, what shall the worshipper of Mazda do?

5(14). Ahura Mazda answered: ‘The place in that house whereof the ground is the cleanest and the driest, and the least passed through by flocks and herds, by the fire of Ahura Mazda, by the consecrated bundles of Baresma, and by the faithful; --

8(18). ‘On that place they shall dig a grave, half a foot deep if the earth be hard, half the height of a man if it be soft; [ they shall cover the surface of the grave with the ashes or cowdung]; they shall cover the surface of it with dust of bricks, of stones, or of dry earth.

9(21). ‘And they shall let the lifeless body lie there, for two nights, or three nights, or a month long, until the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the hidden floods to flow, and the winds to dry up the earth.

10(23). ‘And when the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the hidden floods to flow, and the wind to dry up the earth, then the worshippers of Mazda shall make a breach in the house, and two men strong and skillful, having stripped their clothes off, shall take up the body from the clay or the stones, or from the plastered house, and they shall lay it down on a place where they know there are always corpse-eating dogs and corpse-eating birds.’

Our community members believe that according to our scriptures the only way to dispose off the dead body is by dokhma system. This is half the truth.

The other half of the truth is that our scriptures prohibit the use of dokhma system when there are no corpse-eating dogs and corpse-eating birds. It recommends that a special temporary grave be made and the dead body kept there till one is sure of the scavenging animals and birds are present to eat up the body.

Will our High Priests, the Trustees of Panchayets and Anjumans and Parsis at large take note of the full Truth as given in the scriptures and stop this most unhygienic practice under the absence of scavenging birds? When will they stop defaming the religious scriptures to justify this most anti-social practice ?

Kersee Kabraji