The concerns of a community

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Of a controversial edict on the religious status of children born in marriages between Parsis and non-Parsis.

in Mumbai

THE high priests of the Indian Zoroastrian community, the members of which are better known as Parsis, have issued what is seen as a backward-looking edict. It invalidates all marriages between Parsis and non-Parsis and rules that children born of such marriages cannot be initiated into Zoroastrianism. There is also some talk of excommunication. Earlier, children born to a couple where the man was a Parsi were accepted into the religion. While the edict is a triumph for the orthodox sections of the community, it has been condemned by the majority of Parsis, who see it as a step backward and an interference by the clergy in matters beyond their jurisdiction.

The Parsi community is facing the problem of a dwindling population, and it is feared that the stand taken by the authorities, in the name of maintaining the purity of the community, will only serve to reduce further the number of practitioners of the world's oldest organised religion.

The 1991 Census put the number of Parsis in India at 76,382. An estimate made by the community suggests that there are about 20,000 Parsis living in other parts of the world, taking the total number to about 1,00,000. In the 1991 Census report, data relating to population distribution by marital status and age showed that over 70 per cent of Parsi males and over 40 per cent of females in the high-fertility age group of 25 to 29 were `never married'. Naturally, this has affected the birth rate. In the 45 to 49 age group, about 20 per cent of males and 10 per cent of females fell in the `never married' group.

The decline in the Parsi population is marked by an excess of deaths over births and a falling birth rate. An age structure analysis showed that the percentage of the population below 15 years of age was 10.4, as compared to about 35 in India as a whole. On the other hand, persons above the age of 65 constitute about 29 per cent, compared with 5 per cent for the national population. That is, the number of children is four times fewer while the number of the aged is 4.5 times more among Parsis than the national average.

Concerns about the diminishing numbers have been growing and have prompted modifications in social norms. The Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936, and its amendments state that children born to a Parsi man and non-Parsi woman can be admitted into the religion provided their thread ceremonies are performed. But children of a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man would not be admitted. However, over the past few decades a section of the community has been accepting such children too, provided the mother had continued to be a practising Zoroastrian after her marriage.

The new edict summarily discards all these progressive changes, saying that they are against the tenets of the religion. The high priests, however, do not substantiate this claim. In fact there is proof to the contrary. In 1908 there was a celebrated case in which it was argued successfully, on the basis of available literature, that Zoroastrianism permits conversion into the religion of persons born to non-Zoroastrian parents. The judgment is known as the Beaman-Davar judgment, after the jurists who passed it.

The flexibility with which thread ceremonies are conducted nowadays is notable. It is not uncommon for children from mixed marriages to have their thread ceremonies done, especially when their parents live abroad. Progressive priests have performed such `outlawed' marriages and ceremonies in Mumbai.

One example is that involving Neville and Nusli Wadia, father and son, scions of the Bombay Dyeing company. Neville Wadia was born a Zoroastrian but converted to Christianity when he married because his wife was a Christian. Later, at a venerable age, Neville Wadia decided that he and Nusli would become Parsis. The thread ceremonies were performed. At that time there was a controversy over what was called a conversion (Nusli Wadia was considered a Christian because both his parents were Christians). However, then the ceremony had the approval of one of the priests who has sanctioned the recent edict. The Wadias were accepted as Parsis even by the orthodox section of the community.

However, the issue here is not that of conversion. If it is permissible for a person of non-Parsi parentage to be included in the religion, then there is no basis for the priests to refuse to perform the thread ceremony of a child in whose case at least one parent is a Parsi. Neither is there any basis to prevent a Parsi man or woman who marries out of the community from continuing to practise the religion. In fact, the Special Marriages Act of 1952 gives them the right to continue practising the religion in the same manner as other Parsis. Although excommunication has not been mentioned in the edict for those Parsis who marry outside the community, people are worried that it will be put into practice.

The community is governed more by a set of social norms than by religious rules. Many practices that exist stem from the oral tradition since most texts were destroyed when Alexander the Great razed to the ground the great libraries of Persepolis (in ancient Iran). Some of the social and religious customs were adapted to suit local customs when Zoroastrians came to the Indian shores from Iran as refugees and accepted the terms of residence set down by Raja Jadi Rana of Gujarat. This flexibility has become something of a community trademark with Parsis developing a reputation for being a part of the mainstream and yet managing a distinctive identity.

It is to be expected that the norms will evolve according to needs. And the need of the moment is to stem the erosion of numbers. To that extent, admitting children of inter-faith marriages into the community was a positive step. The ban on admitting a child who has a Parsi father and a non-Parsi mother is particularly baffling considering that one of the pet theories of the orthodoxy is the concept of `bonuk', or the seed that carries the essence of being Zoroastrian. This is believed to be transmitted by the male. The belief is clearly an orthodox one and yet it is being discarded now.

Among Parsis, neither men nor women generally marry at an early age. They aspire to get higher education and establish themselves in a profession before considering marriage. The average age of marriage is the mid-30s.

The Parsi panchayat - a body responsible for the economic well-being of the community - has been trying to counter the falling birth rate by means of incentive schemes. It offers Rs.1,000 a month to couples who have a third child. At present more and more Parsi couples opt for a single child owing to the belief that it would help them give the child the best possible upbringing. Most members of the community live in Mumbai where the cost of housing is prohibitive. Since fewer couples are open to the joint family system, such concerns also prompt a delayed marriage.

Interestingly, in a socio-demographic profile commissioned by the panchayat, youngsters of the community are quoted as having said that lack of accommodation prevented them from getting married. The report recommends that "marriage outside the community may be one of the solutions to come out of the negative effects of consanguineous [relations]" but concedes that this "will not retain the purity of the race".

The report goes so far as to suggest that a serious dialogue needs to be undertaken to consider the possibility of allowing children of non-Zoroastrian parents (both male and female) to be initiated into the Zoroastrian religion. Whether serious concerns like this will be addressed or whether the community's elders will try and evade their responsibilities by making issues out of non-issues remains to be seen.

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