Rayomand Coins

Fending the faith

The premise that without qualified priests and consecrated fire temples the Zoroastrian religion cannot survive — "No priests, no Parsis” — needs to be reviewed. When the first Zoroastrians made their perilous trek to India over 1,300 years ago there were no full-time practicing mobeds or agiaries to offer religious succor. But the early travelers did not forsake their faith. Seven hundred years after their arrival in India they sent priestly emissaries to Iran to seek information on the religion, its rituals, customs and practices. They wanted to replicate the ancient practices in their new homeland.
The oldest existing fire temples in India are said to be over 800 years. How did Parsis manage in places where none existed? They mostly prayed before home fires. In smaller cities and towns bereft of community institutions, the religion and daily rituals continued. Religious, political, social and cultural establishments came later as the community congregated in a particular neighborhood, village, town or city. When they prospered, philanthropic individuals came forth to finance religious entities.
When the first Parsis and Zoroastrians went to North America there were no community institutions, no anjumans, no seminaries, no colonies nor even community centers. Navroz functions were held in each others’ homes, rented halls, restaurants and even churches. Only when a sufficient number of Zoroastrians had settled in one place were associations formed. Once they prospered, community halls were, and are, bought, constructed or expanded. As of date there are no consecrated fires or full-time practicing mobeds. Still the North American Zoroastrians have held 17 North American Zoroastrian congresses and hosted two world Zoroastrian congresses. They have an active and inclusive federation of Zoroastrian associations and a mobeds’ council whose policies are in tandem with their congregations’ requirements, aspirations and beliefs. As in Iran, they permit women to join the clergy.
In contrast, India has not held even a single countrywide congress, leave aside any including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Federation of the Parsi Zoroastrian Anjumans of India which is supposed to hold two meetings a year has held only one in the past four years. And that too was basically attended by the anjumans of south Gujarat; the north, south and east zones of India were almost unrepresented.
At a half day seminar organized by the once vibrant and now usually dormant Athornan Mandal (association of priests) on October 8, 2023 several priests, fire temple trustees and other lay people voiced their apprehension at the dearth of mobeds and the absence of devotees at fire temples in Bombay. They opined that without priests and fire temples there would be no Zarathushti deen (religion). They discussed the issue dispassionately, without the usual rancor, polemics, demagoguery, chest thumping and attacks on liberals that mar such symposia. In fact one of the most respected high priests called for reforms, clarifying that reform meant removing the negative aspects that hamper community development and replacing them with positive attributes.
Amongst the tentative solutions voiced to stem the loss of mobeds and to attract newcomers was to raise the remuneration of priests. One lay speaker mooted a minimum monthly remuneration of Rs 1,00,000 (USD 1,200) to draw Parsis to the profession/calling and suggested a corpus be created to make this a reality. There was even talk of shifting (not merging) fires from agiaries that had few or almost no footfalls to the better frequented and more prosperous ones. The money earned by disposing the unused premises could fund the enhanced emoluments of priests. In another imaginative and bold step the organizers permitted Mazda Multimedia (MM) to record the event and even upload edited sections on YouTube. Several of the speakers alluded to the initiative and efforts of MM’s Sarosh Daruwalla in organizing the meeting. All parties are to be commended on attending a thoughtful and much needed get-together. It’s the closest the community has come to forming a think tank to tackle contentious yet crucial issues.
Could the steps outlined at the meet stem the drop in number of priests? The incentives suggested would certainly serve to improve the financial well-being and quality of life of existing, full-time priests. And that is reason enough to take such a step. But whether enhanced compensation would draw new entrants to the priesthood is questionable. One mother asked her son who does part-time mobedi whether he would take up the profession full-time if he were paid a lakh of rupees per month.  He replied in the negative. The priesthood was not a profession he was inclined to follow. Even the sons of high priests often spurn the allurement of taking up the hereditary gaadi (post).
This reluctance is not unique to the Parsis and Zoroastrians. Members of other faiths also face a similar situation. With newcomers to the Society of Jesus declining, lay people are now appointed as heads of educational institutions that once were managed by Jesuits. To qualify as a full-fledged Jesuit, a candidate may train for over a decade. The neophyte swears a vow of poverty. He cannot marry. If at any time he is found unsuitable, he has to leave the order. Jesuits are highly regarded and influential. The present Pope is from that order. The Church looks after them from the date of entry to the Society till the day they die. To qualify to be a Christian priest one does not have to be born in a priestly family. Any Catholic, born or converted, can qualify. If the Church finds it difficult to entice newcomers, what chance do Parsis have? The Dadar Athornan Institute has 14 students. Despite monetary incentives to join the Institute, the number continues to decline.
Years ago the community believed that to reverse the decline in numbers, more housing was required. "No houses, no spouses,” was the refrain. After building over 1,000 flats, the Parsi population continued to dwindle. From the 1941 government of India census to 2011, the number of Parsis in India halved (from 1,14,890 to 57,264). The subsidized housing improved the quality of life and was therefore a boon. But it did not achieve the much touted objective of increasing community numbers.
The priesthood issue has to be looked at anew. The old models will not hold. Already they have been discarded in communities that do not have full-time priests to tend the agiaries. We must prepare for a future with few fire temples, less than five bois a day being offered, a small number of part-time priests, lay caretakers and a handful of devotees visiting occasionally. Similar models have worked in the past and exist in India and abroad. We have to keep adapting if we want both priests and Parsis to survive. 

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One of the finest editorials I have read in the Parsiana
- Rati Y Kapadia
- 27-Nov-2023

Excellent editorial. It reflects good research you have done on our community's past, good observations about our community's present, and good thinking about our community's future. -- Jamshed A. Modi
- and Mrs Jamshed A Modi
- 21-Nov-2023


Villoo Poonawalla