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Prayers in the pandemic

The coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has focused largely on the health of citizens, the disastrous economic consequences and social isolation. As far as the religious aspects are concerned, not much has been written, aside from stating that all houses of worship must remain closed, burial grounds should accept corpses of those who have succumbed to the virus, Ganpati idols be restricted to four feet or less, various religious events should be cancelled, and so on.

For regular visitors to fire temples, the closure to the public of all houses of worship has denied them their daily/weekly outings. They forego kneeling or lying prostrate before the consecrated fire, hearing the ringing of the bell when the gah changes five times in 24 hours, the sonorous voice of the mobed reciting prayers, greetings from fellow worshippers (if any), purchasing of sandalwood, placing ash on the forehead, the undisturbed solitude, the break from the routine of daily chores and worries.

While most believers perforce pray at home, priests face economic hardships. For those who are dependent on the laity for their income, these are troubling times. Mobeds attached to fire temples usually receive a monthly stipend; their major income is derived from performing religious ceremonies and/or the recitation of prayers. If the religious institution/trust provides for the wellbeing of the priests and their families, they fare better.

The muktads are one time of the year when the agiaries/panthakies stand to earn substantial income. Depending on the number of the laity seeking blessings for and from the souls of the deceased, the services of part-time priests employed in secular offices and professions are engaged to supplement the fire temples’ full-time mobeds. The part-timers pray at the muktads to stay in touch with mobedi as well as supplement their income.

Regarding the Shahenshahi muktads, two of the high priests who responded to Parsiana’s queries regarding performing of ceremonies during the pandemic and lockdown (see "Muktad measures," Parsiana, July 7-20, 2020) emphatically stated the ceremonies had to be held on schedule, but left it to the priests to decide the modalities. But even here a mischievous WhatsApp circulated, alleging that "Dasturji Phiroze (sic) Kotawal (sic) has strongly adviced (sic) not to have muktad this year..." Usually in such perverse texts the spelling and grammar is not as atrocious, though the deep rooted thinking and motivation is. As per custom, the Kadmi muktads were performed prior to their New Year on July 17, 2020.

The recommendations made at a meeting of priests included curtailing the number of attendees and limiting the flower arrangements and chasni (consecrated food). The former is to ensure social distancing to safeguard the priests, the agiary personnel and the laity. Some fire temples intend to totally bar attendance. Live streaming from a fire temple was reportedly not suggested though the practice is adopted in some places abroad. Even if permitted, technology is for those who know how to work it, can afford the equipment and have WiFi connectivity (however erratic it may be). Thus those confined to their homes cannot view the ceremonies being performed. As it is the laity are often absent when prayers are recited because they are elderly, or at office or have other responsibilities or are indifferent.

When the lockdowns end and the virus threat recedes, will the number of devotees returning to fire temples be the same as in the pre-Covid-19 days? As it is the tally of visitors is minimal. Barring a few fire temples most see few footfalls. Even the once popular Aslaji Agiary off Lamington Road and Banaji Atash Behram on Charni Road see fewer devotees in attendance even on days considered auspicious.

For elderly Zoroastrians mobility is a major problem. If one is living on the higher floors of buildings with no lifts, exiting the flat is a major operation. Public transport is not disabled-user friendly. For the elderly, the jerks, sudden braking, steep steps and far too brief halts at bus stops can be daunting. For most, enduring loneliness and boredom is the norm. Staying indoors means not building immunity. Stepping out increases the risk of exposure to the virus.

The limited number of younger people in the community may be put off by the racial profiling determining who is permitted to enter a fire temple. With 45% of interfaith marriages in Bombay in 2019 would these families be inclined to enter a place of worship that treats their non-Parsi spouses, and possibly their children, as unacceptable? Other religions, cults and spiritual leaders welcome all. Parsis could easily be attracted elsewhere. Many do veer to other faiths and spiritual teachers.

With 50 or so fire temples in Bombay, few devotees, fewer priests, aging and often ineffectual trustees and limited financial resources, many fire temples eventually will have to close. The Christian churches face a similar problem. In the Netflix movie The Two Popes, one of the cardinals tells another he would vote for the liberal Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Catholics were deserting the churches due to its intransigence on major issues (opposition to birth control, divorces and same sex marriages, the protection extended to pedophile priests, etc). Bergoglio won the election and became the visionary and revolutionary Pope Francis. His policies are designed to draw disillusioned Catholics back into the fold.

Even where the clergy may be willing to liberalize, trustees may object. If they both agree, the traditionalists will oppose the move. Any small alteration, amendment or revision of a religious practice or custom is viewed by them as an insidious portent of further, future liberalization. Instead of entering into a public debate or possible litigation, the easier option for all is to maintain the status quo, however ruinous that may be. Of the 100 or so fire temples in India, only Delhi officially permits admission to the children of Parsi women married to non-Parsis. So much for religious reform.

Should one thereby give up on religious establishments? Or is the question irrelevant as many have foresaken them anyway? Can the situation be salvaged? That is for the trustees, priests and the laity to determine, before these institutions further vanish from mind and sight.


Villoo Poonawalla