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Revisiting the Rivayats

Ancient scriptures can shed much light on contemporary customs and traditions. The texts are accessible for free on the internet, and at an affordable price in print. Lay persons can easily turn to them for enlightenment. But the few who do, refer to them selectively, to bolster a particular point of view. Material is often quoted out of context.

One has to approach the texts with an open and inquiring mind. Everything is not clear-cut. Contradictory statements are made. From the 15th to the 18th century AC the priests in Navsari corresponded with their counterparts in Iran to lessen the ambiguity and to try and conform Indian practices with those in the motherland. The letters back and forth comprise the 19 or so Rivayats and are the most authentic documents we have of ancient times. The Qissa-i Sanjan written around the 16th century is regarded more as a literary, rather than historic, work. Some scholars allege the purpose of the text was to bolster the standing of the Sanjan priests against their Navsari counterparts!

Passages in the Rivayats contradict some of the practices we follow in India. For example in India people believe the kusti should be made from sheep’s wool, but in Iran a "Kusti may be made from wool and hair of the woolly goat or the woolly camel… cotton is allowed. As regards raw silk and prepared silk, there have been divided opinions." The approach to the issue is practical. If one raw material is not a available, another may be used.

As for the age for performing the navjote, Ervad Bamanji Nusserwanji Dhabhar in his translation of the Rivayats notes, "All Rivayat writers agree… that the proper age for investiture...is 14 or 15 years... there is no sin in walking without a sudreh and kusti for 15 years, and thereafter it is a sin." The minimum age for performing the initiation ceremony is seven years and three months. In India, the navjote is usually performed before the child is nine years old.

Some Rivayat passages state that fire from lightning be should be included when consecrating an atash behram fire; others say it should not. "The fire of lightning holds a high rank, but it is not ascertained from any authority that the behram fire has been prepared therefrom. It can be utilized for the preparation of an atash adaran," Dhabhar notes while pointing out that "in India all the atash behrams have been consecrated with the fire of lightning among other fires."

The Riyavats categorically state, "In every village, one atash adaran should be established. Men of the good religion should collect the fires of their houses every three days or every seven days and carry it near the fire (of adaran) and this (last) fire should be picked up every year, or every three years and should be carried (and placed near) the behram fire (so that it may be extinguished)." With time, this custom fell into disuse in Iran. Whether it was ever followed in India is unknown.

As in the Vendidad — the religious code of laws believed to be written over several centuries — the Rivayats equivocally stated water should not come in contact with a corpse. This would contaminate the water. Furthermore the bones of the deceased are not to be buried as this pollutes the earth. When raining, the bodies are to be stored in some enclosure and consigned to the Towers of Silence only when the the season/monsoon is over. This injunction was possible in a country like Iran where rainfall is scanty. But in places like Western and coastal Maharashtra and south Gujarat, the monsoon lasts three to four months. Where would one store hundreds of corpses till the rains stop? The practical solution was to consign bodies to the dakhmas and later bury the dehydrated corpses, bones and all, in mass graves.

"One Rivayat specifies that a dead body should never be washed with water. If necessary, when one is on the point of death, one should be bathed...the injunction is that water should not come in contact with Nasa (naso — impure matter, often pertaining to corpses)." This custom too is not followed in India.

These changes must have been introduced by the high priests and trustees of the various anjumans and trusts centuries ago.

The relations to be observed with juddins (non-Zoroastrians) is also specified in the Rivayats. One passage states, "a contract made with a juddin should be carried out. Nothing should be extorted from them, but if they turn inimical, then only violence should be used...if a juddin shows signs of enmity, it is allowable to rob him of his possessions. If a juddin commits any misdeed and does not follow the advice of behdins and quarrels with them, even if he is put to death, the behdins are not responsible for the crime.The evidence of juddins is accepted for (the greatest good of the greatest number) if they are found reliable. Juddins may be converted to Zoroastrianism if they so wish it and it is found that thereby there will be no harm to the religion."

The text of the Vendidad as well as some of the Rivayats are available on avesta.org, a website created by Joseph Peterson who converted to Zoroastrianism in 1983. The K. R. Cama Oriental Institute has also reprinted translations of the Vendidad and Dhabhar’s translation of the Riyavats.

From even a cursory reading of the ancient texts, one can cull much knowledge. By studying the scriptures and observing modern-day practices, it is possible to arrive at practical solutions. When the priests cited in the Rivayats differed with one another, they held consultations and arrived at a consensus. They even recommended priests from India visit Iran to learn more of the religion and the customs. "The way by land is nearer," the Iranian priests pointed out. "From Candhar to Sistan is the nearest way and that there is no danger on the road from Sistan to Yazd." There is no mention of traveling by sea as referred to in the Qissa.

The Rivayats reflect the consultative approach to resolve issues. That flexibility and willingness to learn from one another and the laity is what one has to emulate if the religion is to survive.

 



 

Villoo Poonawalla