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Come all ye faithful

Last month, in a span of two days Parsiana interviewed a Swede who had converted to Zoroastrianism and a Parsi who had turned to Buddhism. Two weeks prior we spoke to a Parsi woman who grew disillusioned with the bigotry she witnessed in the community and found solace in Meher Baba (MB). Both Buddhism and the MB movement welcomed the newcomers. The Buddhist set up a part-time home about two kilometers from Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh and gives talks on the religion founded by Gautama Buddha. He has met the Dalal Lama. The woman has visited the MB Ashram in Ahmednagar and was extended hospitality, as was the Parsiana representative when researching the article several years earlier. Followers of MB may continue to practice the religion of their choice along with their belief in the teachings of their Irani religious master.

The Swedish convert has never entered a fire temple in India, save a visit to Asha Vahishta —The Zoroastrian Centre in Poona set up by the Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism. He is otherwise unwelcome in a community which places race above religion. He accepts the predicament but it does not deter him from continuing to follow the faith of Zoroaster. He believes Parsis should accept those who have studied and believe in the religion and respect the community.

While people joining or shifting religious allegiance is not unusual, barring entry to those who wish to enter a faith is rare. The justification made for non-acceptance is that Parsis want "quality, not quantity." The two Parsis who turned elsewhere further deplete the community stock of both "quantity and quality." By barring entry to non Parsis we cut off the only alternate source for replenishing both numbers and excellence.

As Bombay High Court Justice Dinshaw Davar noted in the historic Petit vs Jeejeebhoy judgment of 1908, "Who are the people most likely to seek admission? Generations may elapse before a well-born, educated and cultured person like the French lady (Suzanne Briere, wife of Ratan Tata) would ask for admission; but throw the door open and thousands of undesirable aliens — such as Bhangis, Mahars, Kahars and Dubras — will seek admission." Davar’s colleague on the bench, Justice Frank Beaman asked rhetorically who could "profess the faith? Can it be said that only those who are born in it profess it? Certainly not. For we can easily prove (and this has been admitted over and over again before us) that the Zoroastrian religion was originally a proselytizing religion; that its tenets not only permit but energetically enjoin the making of converts."

The issue was over the usage of trust benefits. But these are today marginal. The Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority builds thousands of houses at subsidized rates mainly for the economically and socially weaker sections. Reservations in prestigious educational institutions and preferences in jobs are granted to scheduled caste and tribals along with many others. Christians get quotas in educational institutions founded and managed by them. The Bhendi Bazaar Project for Dawoodi Bohra Muslims is said to occupy 16.5 acres of land, rehouse 3,200 families and build 1,250 shops.

In contrast, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet has a housing waiting list of several hundred; Parsi students face an uphill task in obtaining admission to reputed schools and colleges; government jobs are not that easy to come by. Most fire temples are bereft of devotees, hospital beds are empty, baugs booked to celebrate festivities remain idle around 80% of the time, all the Parsi schools have become cosmopolitan due to a dearth of Parsi students, not to mention teachers and administrative staff.

In her Master’s thesis from Bombay University submitted this March on Parsi women married to non-Parsis, Behnaz Mogrelia notes of the 50 such women she interviewed, "70% have experienced discrimination in three broad areas: family, society and religion." As a result of this bigotry and their children not being considered Parsis, "79% of the respondents had not brought their children into the faith."

Thus, while all demographic data shows a decline in the Parsi population, the actual numbers are even lower. The two converts to other faiths may be listed in the government of India census as Parsis, but they are not practicing Zoroastrians. The Swede will not figure in the Indian census; the women’s children are largely lost to the community. Maro (die) Parsi rather than Jiyo (live) Parsi appears to be the community’s catchphrase.

To return to the question of quality, is this requirement unique to the Parsis? Do other communities not seek to create a meritocracy? Do they not establish centers of excellence, world class universities, research facilities, libraries? How many Parsi Nobel Prize recipients or Olympic gold medal winners are there? Sadly, none. So to thump our chests and proclaim we have maintained quality is a myth, very much like the sugar in the milk saga.

No doubt, Parsis have done well, excelled. But others have done as well, if not better. The two great superpowers, USA and China are principally Christian and Buddhist, though the Communist Party of China espouses "state atheism." No Parsi fire temple can compete with the grandeur of a European cathedral or the monumental mosques of the Middle East and elsewhere. Our funds and resources are a minuscule fraction of theirs. Parsis may have been once highly regarded for their industry and integrity but today they are often viewed as fractious and eccentric. They are more likely to be featured in the media, entertainment and lifestyle sections than elsewhere.

When comparing the North American Zoroastrians with their co-religionists in India, one always marvels at the former’s capacity to create new institutions where none existed. They ventured forth with only their education and the skills they had. Within 50 years they built on these sufficiently to win the admiration of Iranian Zoroastrian philanthropists to assist them in establishing dar-e-mehers, open to all Zoroastrians. Now other donors are also stepping forward to help.

In India we struggle to maintain our institutions while several are curtailing their services or closing down. Why such disparity between Parsis in different locales? One possible reason is, in North America there is inclusion and acceptance. Instead of frittering away time, money and energy keeping people out of the community, they opt to draw them in. So their numbers do not deplete as fast and they also have an infusion of outside thinking. The non-Parsi spouses contribute considerably to the associations and sometimes take more interest than the Parsi spouse does. In India, "No entry" boards need to be replaced with "All are welcome."

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This is a very thoughtful editorial and covers the essential steps to sustain and grow Zoroastrianism in the 21st century and beyond.<br><br>I hope Parsiana will make an exception to its policy and post this full editorial on Facebook. It will help us to share and send it out widely. It may even encourage some individuals to become subscribers!
- Yezdyar Kaoosji
- 20-Dec-2019

Brilliant article. Alas! This " No Entry " embargo has frightened off our next generation forever.
- Homee J Wadia
- 07-Dec-2019


Villoo Poonawalla