Rayomand Coins

To ask or not to ask

Our Editorial Viewpoint column titled "Mirza’s mantle” (Parsiana, February 21-March 6, 2024) referring to the new Iranshah high priest’s refusal to answer Parsiana’s questionnaire pertaining to the priesthood drew several critical comments from readers. Aside from adverse, anonymous comments on social media, even some thoughtful and responsible members of the community felt we had been unfair to the newly appointed dastur. A priest from Udvada, in a letter to a third party with a request that his letter be forwarded to Parsiana, termed the editorial, "Prima facie mischievous, motivated and meaningless… A futile attempt to draw the Dasturji in an absolutely needless controversy.” Another person involved with the community termed the editorial "very one- sided — one cannot pressure anyone for an interview.”
Reader and occasional Parsiana contributor Armin Wandrewala wrote "to register my protest at and disagreement with the editorial... Putting such questions…is trying to put the high priest in a spot” (see "Mirza’s mantle,”    Readers’ Forum, pg 6). Some of the anonymous comments on social media betrayed the writers’ underlying racial and misogynistic beliefs: "Parsiana…is run by a dubra (dark skinned, half breed)… forwarding a reformist agenda;” "Imagine asking whether women mobeds are correct!” and so on. 
A publication is written for its readers; their views, feedback, likes, dislikes, and so on are crucial in shaping content. So did we cross some red line in our editorial? Perhaps we should have published the questions to better acquaint our readers with what was asked. Of the 22 queries raised by us, only five dealt with issues that could be considered contentious. These were: 
What are your views on women becoming mobedyars in Iran and North America? Should women be permitted to become mobedyars in India? If not, why not? 
Around 50% of marriages in Bombay are between a Parsi and non-Parsi. How do you view this development? Should we accept the couple and their children or keep them at a distance? 
Should the marriage blessings be conferred on interfaith couples? 
Around 10-15% of Parsi corpses in Bombay are cremated. Should their funerary prayers be recited in fire temples? 
Should non-Parsis be permitted to attend a jashan or a gahanbar? Or be allowed to attend funeral ceremonies of their family members, friends, etc?
The question of women serving as mobedyars had earlier been put to Dastur (Dr) Firoze Kotwal and Ervad (Dr) Ramiyar Karanjia (see "Not permissible in India,” Parsiana, Editorial Viewpoint, May 21-June 6, 2023). They took no offense at the question nor did they shy away from answering. The questions pertaining to the presence of non Parsis in fire temples, funerals, etc have been raised and responded to by priests in question-and-answer columns in the Parsi Press. The priests have willingly shared their knowledge, interpretation and opinions when asked by Parsiana and others. 
Another criticism leveled was that as Dastur Tehemton Mirza is new to the position we should have allowed him time to settle in. But the responsibility was not thrust on him overnight. The gaddi (seat) was kept pending for eight years. He debated whether to take up the position or not. He had time to think things through. He had already granted a spoken or written interview to mid-day ("Udvada gets dual high priests after eight years,” February 12, 2024) hence we were emboldened to ask. On February 12 we requested for a face-to-face interview and were told instead to send written questions, which we did. So there is no question of pressuring him. If Mirza found some questions objectionable or of doubtful merit or feared his answers may be misinterpreted, he could have avoided those with a "No comment,” or stated he would consult with his co-dasturs and then answer.
The point also arises: When is the right time to raise compelling questions? The answer is: A long time ago. People are moving away from the faith. If 50% of marriages are to non-Parsis and the non-Parsi spouse and family are not permitted to be present for the funeral prayers they may opt for cremation. If the non-Parsi spouse or his/her children are forbidden from entering a fire temple, would the Parsi spouse continue to frequent an agiary? 
If sons of priests shy away from mobedi and behdins are not interested in taking up the profession, should one not examine a practice well established in Iran, North America and other pockets, and permit women to assist? In our March 7-20 issue we carried an article, "Mission mobedyar,” by a UK based mobedyar who as a child wondered why no women priests performed her navjote. If high priests shy away from answering these questions, who else should one ask?
The other queries asked of Mirza included:  Will your new responsibilities as a dastur differ from what you were doing earlier? Will you create a forum to bring all the dasturs together? If dasturs give differing opinions, how will these be resolved? What made you opt for the priesthood? Do you have any regrets about taking up mobedi? Would you counsel/advise youngsters to take up mobedi?  If the number of full-time priests lessens how will the 50+ agiaries in Bombay manage? Without devotees how will the agiaries supplement their income? Is it possible to induce more Parsis to visit fire temples? At a conclave held on October 8, 2023 at the Banaji Atash Behram hall one priest remarked that pav mahal ceremonies would cease to exist in 15 years unless we act now. What action can the priesthood and the community take to remedy this? Why are youngsters from athornan families not taking up mobedi? Should behdins be allowed to become full-fledged mobeds? What Zoroastrian text do you consider the most sacred? What according to you are the basic tenets of the religion? How will you inspire Zoroastrians who: do not believe in rituals, do not wear sudreh and kusti and do not go to fire temples?
Mirza’s refusal to answer the questions raises the issue of the role of the high priests in the community. Is their primary function to maintain the status quo? To oversee the functioning of fire temples? To offer religious guidance? To resolve disputes or differences between the clergy? Between the clergy and the laity? To inspire the community to follow the faith?
Pope Francis initiated several reforms within the Catholic Church to keep his flock together. On December 18, 2023 he permitted the Church to bless same sex married couples "under certain conditions as long as they do not resemble marriage and are not part of Church rituals.” Terming such unions "irregular” and "clouded by sin,” the couple nonetheless "can always ask for a blessing,” notes Vatican News, the news portal of the Holy See. It was a practical and timely approach, one that is needed by the Parsis also. Most priests refuse to bless even interfaith marriages, leave aside same sex marriages which any way are not legal in India.
In Bombay, three weeks ago one dissident priest wryly commented: We forbid funerary services to be held in agiaries for those opting for cremation but permit thanksgiving jashans for the inauguration of a Ram mandir!
These seeming incongruities need to be examined. We can’t wish them away.


Villoo Poonawalla