The historic Navsari Samast Parsi Zarthoshti General Fund (NSPZGF) vote on January 8 this year to create an aramgah on land adjacent to the south Gujarat city’s Doongerwadi was a momentous victory for the laity. But for the five high priests it was an ignominious defeat, a rebuff of epic proportions. Had the vote been taken by some other anjuman, the clergy could have dismissed the decision as the work of heretic city dwellers swayed by decadent urban and western ideas, ignorant of their religious traditions and customs. But the balloting took place in Navsari, the dharam ni tékri (seat of the religion) as Dastur (Dr) Firoze Kotwal referred to the place, and that too by a count of 156 to six. Kotwal had termed the 163 residents who called for the meeting "misguided." But, in retrospect, it is the clergy who appear to be so, being unaware of the sentiments of the laity.
A few complained that many of the 2,200 or so Parsis in Navsari were not aware of the meeting or its raison d’être. But there was substantial coverage given to the meet. The Jam-e-Jamshed carried a front page article highlighting the five high priests’ opposition to the aramgah and the Parsiana Facebook page on January 6 had headlined a post "An aramgah for Navsari?" mentioning the meet would be held two days later.
There were some heated exchanges at the gathering but that was to be expected. A few traditionalists complained about women not being permitted to attend, forget voting. But this is the norm in Gujarat. Women are second rate citizens; many anjumans do not permit women to become trustees or sometimes even vote. This gender bias is generally upheld by the traditionalists, so it is ironic to see them now lamenting this sorry state of affairs. The clergy have seldom spoken out against gender injustice. When met privately, the high priests are pragmatic. But when on the public stage they enunciate a hard-line.
The lay leadership in places like Bombay continually pledge their allegiance to the dasturs. The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India (FPZAI) president and Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) chairman Yazdi Desai even went so far as to publicly state at a West Zone B meet of the FPZAI that we should follow the diktats of the high priests "blindly."
The Navsari laity fortunately refused to wear blindfolds. Perhaps other anjumans will take courage and emulate their example but one should not underestimate the degree of faintheartedness of elected and nominated leaders and trustees.
In a secular, constitutional democracy, citizens have a measure of freedom. The priests have to govern by persuasion, discussion, dialog and most importantly, give and take. The word compromise may be distasteful to the clergy but they have compromised for centuries. For example the Vendidad explicitly prohibits the carrying of a corpse during the rains. In chapter seven, para seven of Behramgore Anklesaria’s translation it is stated, "They shall not carry the dead body in rain and they shall not carry during the fear of rain" (italics by the author).
In Iran, which has a hot, dry climate, observing this custom may be practical; but in Bombay and southern Gujarat with rains falling continuously during the monsoons, Parsi corpses would have to be stored elsewhere till the rains ceased and the dark clouds dispersed. Thus the priests have not insisted on this requirement. So why do they oppose other changes? The Navsari Parsis did not ask for dakhmenashini, with all its failings, to be stopped. They wanted an aramgah in addition to the dakhmas. Why would anyone wish to deny them this request?
Similarly in Bombay when a section of the laity asked for a bungli at Doongerwadi to be kept aside for the funeral ceremonies of those opting to be cremated at some municipal electric crematorium, the BPP trustees initially agreed but then developed cold feet. As a result a new prayer hall had to be set up in Worli. The 11 bunglis in Doongerwadi meanwhile lie idle over 80% of the time. Two funerals on an average take place daily and most families opt to have the subsequent two/three days’ prayers at agiaries closer to their place of residence.
Dastur (Dr) Maneckji Dhalla, the respected high priest of the Karachi Parsis, in his autobiography states he started out following and believing in all the customs and traditions of the faith. He kept his head covered at all times, even when sleeping and would "apply...taro (consecrated bull’s urine) three times religiously on my face, hands and feet early in the morning." Yet, while studying at Columbia University in New York he found he had been "enlightened by scientific study. My thinking, my outlook and my philosophy of life changed...everything changed." Among the realizations was that dakhmenashini "would be impractical and impossible in large cities like New York and London."
Other high priests have studied abroad but have not wavered in their beliefs. But they have to be equally respectful of the views of others. What is at stake is the future of the religion in India. If due to their adamancy many are turned away from Zoroastrianism as enunciated by them, who will visit the fire temples and consign their corpses to the towers of silence? The family of a deceased Parsi woman married to a non-Parsi has to provide an affidavit stating she had a civil marriage and that she continued to follow the Zoroastrian faith if she wants her body consigned to the towers of silence. Her non-Parsi spouse and children cannot attend the funeral or the subsequent ceremonies. Who would opt to follow a religion that separates a family, especially in grief? Most of our fire temples are bereft of devotees. Still, some houses of worship bar entry to women married out of the faith as well as their offspring. While Christian churches lean over backward to attract worshippers, we specialize in driving them out. Pope Francis is reforming the Catholic Church to make the institution more inclusive and liberal. We should follow his example.