Not my god

Berjis Desai

n 1876, a semi-literate, stammering lad from downtown Surat was said to have been persuaded to join a caravan of spiritually advanced Masters in Peshawar who reportedly appeared from nowhere. According to legend, he stayed with them in an invisible, all-vegetarian township near Mount Damavand in Iran for three years where he imbibed occult knowledge about Zoroastrianism. He remained silent for 30 years until 1910 when he started to deliver numerous lectures and penned treatises revealing esoteric knowledge called Ilm-e-Khshnoom (IeK) which he was said to have had acquired from the hidden Masters. Behramsha Naoroji Shroff thus emerged as leader of a small but highly vocal cult of IeK, ultra-orthodox Parsis for whom extra-religious worship was the ultimate sacrilege.

Shroff’s teachings about reincarnation, karma, vegetarianism and spiritual vibrations of mantras in Zoroastrianism did not appeal at all to the mainstream Parsis. The uncharitable dubbed Shroff’s saga as a post dhansak hallucination. Those days Madame Helena Blavatsky (a Russian mystic) and Dr Annie Besant’s (British socialist) theosophy movement had made a huge impact on several Parsis. Shroff’s critics termed his teachings as a rehashed version of theosophy, with extracts lifted from a tome called The Secret Doctrine penned by Blavatsky. The critics missed one important difference.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


While theosophy was based on universal love and preached equality of all faiths, IeK unabashedly asserted the supremacy of Zoroastrianism over all other religions and was stridently xenophobic. It did not stop there. Preserving racial/genetic purity of the Parsi stock — tokham ni jalavani né boond ni paasbaani — was central to its credo, with interfaith marriage, blood transfusion, kidney or organ donation, even cosmetic surgery, as cardinal sins. Reciting a non-Zoroastrian prayer meant serious traffic problems on the Chinvat bridge (which Parsi Zoroastrian souls have to cross on the fourth day after death). Extra-religious worship was, of course, eternal damnation.

Liberals dismissed IeK as a joke. The mainstream orthodox were however enraged. No religion of the Book could deviate from the principle of all souls being collectively judged on the Day of Judgment; and therefore, on the face of it, reincarnation was heresy. They disbelieved Shroff’s Peshawar abduction story and dubbed IeK as a cult. Intellectuals feared that IeK and its Third Reich-like talk of racial supremacy would alienate the young.

Shroff, who became a forceful public speaker without any stammer, was said to have miraculously displayed a mastery of languages (including French) other than his native Gujarati. He preferred to ignore his critics. His prime disciples like the Chiniwalla brothers, one an ophthalmologist and the other a rent control lawyer, breathed fire and brimstone against all who disagreed with Shroff’s divine revelations.

While the practicing Zoroastrians were near unanimous in condemning those who dared to convert (see "Faith and frenzy," Editorial Viewpoint, Parsiana, August 21-September 6, 2022), most saw nothing wrong in extra-religious worship. Regular fire temple devotees, who deplored interfaith marriages and cremation, happily trudged to Shirdi in rural Maharashtra to pray to spiritual master Sai Baba; Sufi saints; or to distant Ajmer to prostrate themselves before the Dargah of Sheikh Moinuddin Chisti; or an hour away, at the temple at Pushkar dedicated to Brahma, one of the Hindu Trinity (the other two being Vishnu and Shiva). Parsis install the auspicious elephant god Ganesha in their homes during the Ganesha festival, and attend mass on Wednesdays at the Mahim Church. Wearing amulets sanctified at the mausoleum of the revered Sufi saint Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur, alongside the kusti, does not raise eyebrows.

Extra-religious worship was not seen as a vote of no confidence in the efficacy of Zoroastrian prayers or rituals but simply as a booster dose to receive extra blessings. The hardcore orthodox however termed it as a betrayal of the faith. Reciting the sacred Gayatri mantra at dawn with the Ahunavar prayer became taboo. The Khshnoomists, while often discussing interactions with other religious leaders or even dissecting the significance of non-Zoroastrian religious practices, sometimes bordering on reverence, were nevertheless quick to condemn the slightest foray by a Zoroastrian into practices of other faiths.

The practicing Parsis simultaneously flirting with other faiths disregard such religious injunctions. Unlike other major religions whose adherents are increasingly xenophobic and have the means to enforce their diktats, Zoroastrianism is seemingly unable to do anything about its followers who brazenly ignore the commands of the high priests and fundamentalists.

For children of interfaith marriages this often leads to confusion. Like the five-year-old girl of a Parsi father and a Maharashtrian mother suddenly shouting Ganpati Bapa Morya before the Iranshah in Udvada, much to the consternation of an old bearded priest reciting the Tandarosti prayer.


Berjis Desai, lawyer and author of Oh! Those Parsis, and recently Towers of Silence, is a chronicler of the community.