Rayomand Coins

Faith and frenzy

Whether a non Parsi wishes to convert to Zoroastrianism or a Parsi wishes to choose another faith, the community’s response is the same: hysteria. Be it the baptism of Dhanjibhai Nauroji in May 1839 or that of Shapurji Eduljee in February 1857, the conversion of 27-year-old Joseph Peterson to Zoroastrianism in Chicago in March 1983, the navar ceremony in Sanjan of a Russian Zoroastrian, Mikhail Chistyakov in February 2010 or the navjote of interfaith married Roshni Maloo’s two children in April 2010, the ramifications were immediate and, in two cases, violent. A third likelihood of foul play at the Maloo navjote reception was stymied by the police issuing a warning to the ringleaders of the vigilantes: should "they assemble at the Bandra venue or create any ruckus they would be arrested for disturbing the peace” (see "The nightmare and the navjotes,” Parsiana, May 7, 2010).
One can understand the repugnance towards people leaving the faith. Few want to see their numbers depleted or their wealth dissipated. In India, several states have passed laws persecuting couples who marry outside their faith, alleging it is an excuse for converting one of the two people involved (mostly Hindu brides) to the other’s (read Muslim) religion. The Parsis on the other hand denigrate the non-Parsi spouses and deny them acceptance. The Parsi spouses are viewed as a traitors. Those community members who follow the teachings of other faiths and spiritual leaders without publicly renouncing their faith are looked at with disdain. But should there be a public renunciation of Zoroastrianism, the response may be explosive, as occurred 183 years ago.
    Nauroji, who claimed to be 16 years old, had come from Gujarat to Bombay five years earlier on the death of his father for his education. He was converted to Christianity under the tutelage of Rev (Dr) John Wilson at his Mission School at Fort on May 1, 1839. A day later, another 18-year-old, Hormusji Pestonji was baptised. "So agitated was the Parsi community of Bombay… that the leadership of the Parsi Punchayet in cooperation with Heerjeebhoy Dadabhoy, the uncle and guardian of Dhanjibhai sought the return of Dhanjibhai on a writ of habeas corpus and the prosecution of Dr Wilson before the Supreme Court of Judicature at Bombay” on May 3, 1839, writes scholar Jesse Palsetia in his book The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City (2001, Brill’s Indological Library).
On May 16, the day of the final hearing, Nauroji described the scene that greeted him on his arrival at the court: "When our carriage reached the courthouse, numbers of Parsis sprang forward and surrounded us; some seized the wheels of the carriage; some laid hold of the horses; and one violently wrenched open the carriage window and began to try and drag me out. On seeing this, some of the gentlemen who were with us quickly got out of their carriages and ran to our assistance. The police constables hastened up also and saved us from the violence that was threatened… It was with the utmost difficulty that we succeeded in reaching the room where the trial was to be held.”  Heerjeebhoy lost the case and Nauroji was permitted to convert. Even the allurement of Rs 1,00,000 by Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy to reconvert, found no favor with the proselyte, states Palsetia. Pestonji continued to face flak for some time after the trial.
Nauroji went on to be "ordained by the Free Presbyterian Church of Edinburgh and returned to lecture and tour in India as a missionary,” notes Palsetia. He, however, avowed, "I was born a Parsi and am still a Parsi… I am one with my brethren according to the flesh. Whatever touches them, touches me.”
In Chistyakov’s case, about 171 years later, the reaction was also extreme. "Around 11.30 a.m. on February 19, 2010 half a dozen cars pulled up in front of Mazdayasnie Monasterie (MM) Zoroastrian College in Sanjan. Confronted with closed gates, the crowd of around 45 managed to enter through a side wicket door and barged into the premises,” noted a report in Parsiana (March 7, 2010). A "shocked president of the MM, Meher Master-Moos challenged the intruders…but her objections were brushed aside as the mob ran into the building searching for… Chistyakov… who was undergoing the bareshnum nahan ceremony as part of the liturgical rituals to ordain a priest. ‘Mikhail was inside his room,’ noted Moos. ‘They forced open the door and started hitting and beating him.’ The soft-spoken Chistyakov stated he was hit in the groin and his shirt and sudreh torn. The mob attempted to remove his trousers to ascertain whether he was circumcised.” Moos rushed into the room to protect him.
Peterson being ensconced in the USA (in the pre-Trump era) and the Parsis there being more civilized and restrained, escaped physical assault. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet, however, did pass a resolution objecting to his initiation while the Indian high priests also disapproved of the navjote.
In her book, The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Edalji and the Case of the Foreigner in the English Village (Bloomsbury Publishing 2021), Shrabani Basu states the problem "started in June 1856 when a few Parsee students at Elphinstone College declared that they had been born into a ‘false religion.’” Four students [Behramji Eersasji (18), Darasha Rattonji (17), Bhikaiji Ardaserji (17) and Nassarwanji Babjobji (sic) (19)] "arrived at the Mission House with some clothes and books.” The four signed a legal document stating "they wished to be baptised and admitted into the ‘Visible Church of Christ.’ The (declaration) caused a storm. The families of the students accused the staff of converting their children and laid siege to the Mission House in Ambroli which was headed by Wilson.” Three of the students were persuaded to return home. "Only Behramji remained firm. Three months later he was admitted into the Church on 31 August, 1856.
  "The conversion of Behramji had a deep influence on 15-year-old Shapurji,” wrote Basu. The lad had accessed books on Christianity but when these were denied to him, he visited Wilson who gave him a copy of his Sermon to the Parsees. When his family finally confined Shapurji to his home in Colaba, he "daringly escaped (and) made his way secretly to Wilson’s house.” He and a Muslim friend, Sayyad Hussain, were baptised on February 8, 1857.
   Shapurji sailed to England in 1866 at the age of 25 to qualify as a priest with the intention of returning to India. But the realization that his chances of obtaining a senior position in a church in India were slim as there was "no precedent of a brown priest leading the service,” he remained in England. He married Charlotte Stoneham, the daughter of a vicar. Shapurji was appointed the vicar of the Great Wryley parish. The couple had three children, one of whom was George, who was later convicted for crimes he never committed and subsequently exonerated through the efforts of Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes (see "Goolrookh, Arthur and George,” Editorial Viewpoint, Parsiana, August 7, 2013, and "Blot on British justice,” Books, Parsiana, November 21, 2021). But George who was always viewed as an outsider, never received compensation for his wrongful incarceration. 
The conversions spurred Parsis to adopt a more scholarly approach to Zoroastrianism in the hope that a greater understanding of the tenets may persuade  Parsis to remain in the faith. Public conversions have since diminished though privately the loyalties of several Parsis rest with other faiths. Today the effort is not to keep Parsis in the religion but to stop non-Parsis from entering. In India, barring Delhi and unofficially at a few other places, the victimization of children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis continues unabated. Knowledge of the religion has not changed the deep-seated prejudices of the Indian Parsis. The recourse for equality no longer vests with education. It sadly rests with the courts of law.


Villoo Poonawalla