Survivors through history

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

There is an acute awareness among the world's 120,000-strong Parsi-Zoroastrian community about the serious threats to its religion and race.

IT is almost a contradiction in terms to say that the world's Parsi-Zoroastrian population, numbering about 120,000, is relaxed to events that could eventually lead to its extinction. After all, the community has a literacy rate of over 75 per cent. It i s flush with funds from innumerable trusts and properties, prides itself on sexual equality, and has survived persecutions with remarkable equanimity and resilience. But it might well be that the laid-back nature and overall prosperity of the community a re responsible for a lack of urgency in the average Parsi's concern for the future of his or her religion and race. Nevertheless, there is an acute awareness that what is accepted as one of the oldest religions in the world will soon be non-existent and the race that practises it soon extinct if something is not done.

Scholars believe that Zoroastrianism is the oldest surviving religion that was revealed by a prophet. The largest number of its followers today live in India, followed closely by Canada and the United States. Followers of the religion constitute one of t he world's smallest communities.

At the top of the list of concerns of the community is its declining population. According to the 1991 Census, there were 53,794 Parsis in Mumbai, a traditional stronghold of the community. In a survey conducted in 1999 by the Tata Institute for Social S ciences (TISS) for the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP), the Parsi population in Mumbai was estimated to be between 50,000 and 55,000. According to the TISS report, "the numerical strength of the Parsi community has been declining since India's Independence. The forces affecting their numerical strength are numerous. Few births, a very large number of deaths, late marriage and non-marriage, marriage outside the community, migration out of India, strict religious practices, apathy to adoption are among the m ain factors for their decline."

In a first-of-its-kind project, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has provided assistance to a project for the preservation of the culture and heritage of an ethno-religious community. Dr. Shernaz Cama, project consultant, says: "UNESCO is regarding this as a pilot project because there are so many angles from which the Parsi Zoroastrian community can be approached. Since this ancient community dates back to pre-history, it carries a lot of the memory of the w orld and recording such data is of interest to the world community."

The project was started with the aim of recording and reviving interest in the community. Although constituting less than 0.0001 of the Indian population, Parsis have contributed to the making of modern India, and though they have integrated into the mai nstream they retain a distinct ethnic and cultural identity.

Jehan Daruwalla, former editor of Mumbai Samachar, a newspaper that holds progressive views on the evolution of religion, believes that one of the greatest dangers to the community is "the alarming decline in population. According to demographic s tudies, in another 50 years, there will be only 20,000 Parsis in the world. We shall cease to be a community. We shall become a tribe. The solution to this life-and-death problem of the community cannot be left to obscurantists and fanatics."

There is some confusion about the words that are used interchangeably to identify people who follow this religion. They are called Parsis, Zarathushtis or Mazdayasnis. In essence all these terms are accurate but to be specific, Mazdayasni was the religio n that existed prior to the preachings of Zarathushtra, the prophet (the Greek spelling is Zoroaster) who enunciated the principles of the Mazdayasni religion. Parsis are a race from the Persian region of Pars and they are followers of Zarathustra.

The Parsis came to India about 1,200 years ago, seeking refuge from religious persecution in their native Persia which had been conquered by the Arabs. Upon landing on the shores of Gujarat, they pleaded with the king for refuge. There is an oft-repeated story of how the head priest of the Parsis persuaded Jadhav Rana, king of Gujarat in the ninth century A.D., to allow Parsis, who had fled religious persecution in Persia, to settle in India. To satisfy the king's doubts about the intentions of the refu gees, the priest took a bowl of milk filled to the brim and added sugar to it. While doing so he assured the king that just as the sugar blended into the milk without displacing any of it so too would he and his people blend into and sweeten the land. Th e king, apparently persuaded by this, gave Parsis permission to settle in Gujarat.

The other caveats to Jadhav Rana's munificence are unfortunately not as well-recorded as this incident, with the result that there are doubts about matters pertaining to conversion and intermarriage with other faiths. Some scholars say the current ban on conversion goes further back and is integral to the religion while others say it was one of the conditions for granting refuge in India. Explaining the precepts of the religion, Dr. R. Karanjia, principal of the Dadar Athornan Madressa, a school that im parts religious education, says that conversion is a non-issue. "Zoroastrianism is an ethnic religion. We believe that religion is decided by birth."

Reformists want to change the diktat that one has to be born a Parsi. This rule of the faith is relaxed for childern born of Parsi fathers and non-Parsi mothers. But the rule is rigidly adhered to if the opposite is the case. Reformists advocate the foll owing: a Parsi woman either married to or divorced from a non-Parsi man be allowed to practise her faith; a child born of a marriage between a non-Parsi man and a Parsi woman be accepted into the faith; the community accept conversion to Zoroastrianism.

Students of the Athornan madressa.

The issue of conversion first came to a head in the early part of the 20th century when industrialist J.R.D. Tata's father (Ratan) asked for a naojote (initiation) ceremony for his French wife (Suzanne, who changed her name to Sooni after the n aojote). This was granted but when the newly converted lady attempted to enter a fire temple she was denied entry by the very priests who had agreed to her naojote. Following this, a suit was filed in the Bombay High Court in 1907 by the BPP. The BPP contended that Zoroastrians had never carried out religious conversions in India in accordance with the promise given to the ruler who gave refuge to the first Zoroastrians. Justices Davar and Beamon, who presided over the case, traced the histor y of Parsis and came to the conclusion that the ban on conversion was not integral to the religion. The verdict was strongly disputed by the orthodoxy, who never really accepted the woman as a Parsi.

In the past, contradictory positions have been taken on the issue of readmitting or providing facilities to Parsis who had married outside the community. One such high-profile controversy concerned the BPP's refusal to allow a Parsi woman who had married a Hindu Gujarati to be given the last rites at the Tower of Silence. It was only after a great din was created by the community that the BPP rescinded its decision and allowed the rites on the basis of an affidavit by the next of kin swearing that the d eceased had been a practising Zoroastrian. In 1994 an almost complete turnaround of this attitude was seen when even the orthodoxy welcomed the naojote of Neville Wadia (father of Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing fame). The octogenarian Wadia was a Ch ristian by birth because his father had renounced Zoroastrianism to become a Christian after marrying an Englishwoman.

The subtle practice of social excommunication against people who married outside the community lessened greatly with the introduction of the Special Marriages Act, 1954, which permits persons marrying outside the community to continue practising their re ligion.

The issue of conversions evokes strong opinions. The late Dastur Peshotan Peer, a hardliner, said that Parsis who married outside the community were "living in adultery". The choice, he said, was clear: if Parsis marry non-Parsis, they should no longer c onsider themselves part of the community. Peer was firm in his conviction that conversion is forbidden by the religious texts. He said: "Zoroastrians left Iran to preserve their religion and to preserve the purity of their blood and race. To marry into o ther faiths is to betray our ancestors."

The Association of Inter-Married Zoroastrians (AMZ) was formed to "protect and safeguard the rights, privileges and benefits of Parsi Zoroastrians married outside their group". With regard to the rights of children born to Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fat hers, the AMZ asks that children of such a marriage be allowed to have their naojotes openly in baugs (traditional areas for ceremonies, often in the compound of a fire temple) and that they be accepted as Zoroastrians. The AMZ contends that if th e spouse has no objection to this arrangement, there is no reason why anyone should object.

Sanjan Stambh, the pillar that marks the arrival of Parsis in Sanjan, Gujarat, 1,200 years ago.

Jurist Nani Palkivala observes: "One of the wonders of Zoroastrianism is that it places great emphasis on the freedom to choose. And apart from this, both the Constitution of India and the Special Marriages Act, 1954 ensure equality between the sexes. Ye t there is a marked discrimination between intermarried males and females among Parsis."

While the reformists argue that they are not bent on changing the precepts of the religion but are merely trying to ensure its continuance, the orthodoxy sees these changes as sacrilege. Dastur Dr. Firoze Kotwal, one of the seven high priests, said: "We have to preserve the identity and purity of our race. I say this entirely from a religious perspective and not from any contempt towards other races or peoples."

There is one argument in favour of preserving the racial stock. Another opinion is that racial purity should be secondary to the continuance of the religion. Noshir Dadrawalla, who edits a pamphlet called Deen Parast (The Faithful), disputes the a rgument that the religion is dying. He says: "We have survived Alexander, we have survived the Arabs. We have lost empires. We have lost the status of being a state religion but we have always risen from the ashes. There is absolutely no reason why we ca nnot survive." Dadrawalla believes that the parameter for this survival is religion. "It is religion that gives a well-defined code of living and regulates the community's social life. Unless we see Zoroastrianism as a vital factor in our daily lives, ou r survival is endangered. We must strengthen our sense of community and set aside individualism." Dadrawalla has no hesitation in identifying intermarriage as "the greatest threat to the community". His comment is also a reference to the late age at whic h most Parsis marry and to the prevalence of single-child families.

The community places a high premium on education, viewing marriage as secondary to it. Its members postpone marriage until they can afford housing. The result is late marriage and fewer children. Statistics available with Parsiana, a community mag azine with a balanced perspective, show that of every 100 women between the ages of 19 and 45, roughly 30 per cent do not marry at all, 20 per cent marry outside the religion, and of the remaining 50 per cent (who do marry and do so within the community) , the total number of children borne do not exceed their own numbers.

A naojote ceremony in progress. This is the initiation rite for Parsi girls and boys, who undergo some months of religious training prior to the ceremony.

But the debate on whether or not to convert is something of a smokescreen as far as the future of the community is concerned. At the heart of the matter is the sad truth that the Parsi community lacks leadership and has no single body responsible to guid e its secular and religious affairs. In fact, Karanjia believes that numbers have never really been a matter of concern to the community. "I have cuttings from decades-old newspapers that raise these issues of conversion and intermarriage as being a thre at to the community. Ever since we left Persia we have never exceeded 1,30,000 or so in number. So to say that intermarriage and conversion are solutions to a declining population is not only misleading but also dangerous. I say dangerous because of the loss of identity this could bring to the community. We know some Parsis fled to Europe, China and North India 1,200 years ago. You never hear of them now. They are totally integrated with the local population whereas we have maintained our identity."

Karanjia believes that the community lacks leadership. He says: "We need an independent body funded by the community or by a philanthropist, which will ensure that our children are made aware of their religion and culture." At present there are punchayat s (various regions or cities have separate punchayats) that are empowered to look into the well-being of the community, mostly into pressing but non-controversial issues such as housing and education.

Some people believe that the community has seen a decline in quality rather than in numbers. Deen Parast recently wrote: "It is a privilege to belong to a community that has given more to the country than it has taken." Indeed Parsis have set up c haritable trusts, hospitals, scholarships and other enterprises for the benefit of all communities. But with the exception of a few large businesses houses, the creed of giving has almost died within the community. Previous generations made huge donation s frequently. Religion and community meant much to earlier generations and their sense of identity was strongly linked to the pride of giving. Both have now came down to dismal levels, leaving a vaccuum in the fields of religious education and philanthro py.

The seething controversies inside the community are best expressed by the thrust and parry in print between the orthodox and the progressive points of view. Articles in community publications range from lively discussions to vituperative accusations to p onderous academia.

The final word on the community's affairs should go to the New York-based physicist Dr. K.D. Irani, who supports voluntary conversion. He says: "The religion is at a critical juncture. It must restructure and reorient itself. The community should not be negatively bigoted on this issue. If you just look at numbers, then I guess it is a dying religion. We are facing a conflict between scientific views of social judgments. We're not a genuine society, we've gone back to tribalism by believing we have to b e born Zoroastrian and thereby eliminating the whole enlightened point of view of choice."

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