Bye bye, sali boti

Berjis Desai

Adarbad Marespand, demi prophet, widely attributed to be the composer of most post Gatha scriptures, reportedly unscathed after molten lava was poured on his bare chest, said to have a spiritual status next only to Zarathushtra, asserted that it was a cardinal sin for Zoroastrians to eat flesh. The sage is quoted to have said: "Abstain vigorously from eating the flesh of domestic animals, lest you be made to face a strict reckoning in this world and the next (The Teachings of the Magi by R. C. Zaehner, London, 1956, pg 111).”
The Masani brothers, Dr Phiroze and Dinshaw, founded the Parsi Vegetarian and Temperance Society (PVTS) in 1907 and often cited Marespand to preach that the faith demands its adherents to observe strict vegetarianism. Dead matter is naso, that horrid pollutant, the eating of which contaminates body and soul; cooking it defiles the holy fire. If a corpse is the ultimate naso, so are slaughtered animals, including birds and fish as well. Lobster Thermidor, there you go.
According to the Vendidad, the 19th nask out of the sacred 21 nasks which comprise the holy Avesta says any dead body, whether it be the corpse of a human or animal, is considered putrid. On the other hand, the anti-vegetarian brigade also cites the Vendidad to show that Zoroastrianism enjoins eating flesh. This sounds akin to the famous words of Bombay High Court Justice Dinshaw Davar in Petit vs Jeejeebhoy: "Zoroastrianism enjoins conversion.”

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


The Prophet too was a strict vegetarian and teetotaller, the ultras say. A self-styled scholar, Behramgor Anklesaria, wrote in the Jam-e-Jamshed of February 12, 1909 that "Zarathushtra’s parents did not partake of meat of any kind, and subsisted on milk and vegetables. Therefore, the Prophet’s body was pure.”
Sometime in the 18th century Dastur Darab of Navsari, a scholar of Pahlavi and Persian, wrote a book called Faraziyat Nameh stating that "one who eats meat is worthy of punishment and after death he will be tormented by evil spirits in hell.”
The repentance prayer, Patet Pashemaani, expressly lists the eating of flesh as a sin, say the Ilm-e-Khshnoomists, brethren of the PVTS. Their leader, Behramsha Shroff, claimed that he lived for three-and-a-half years in a hidden township of advanced Zoroastrian Masters whose diet was strictly fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Animals were milked (including camels) but never slaughtered. Most of the town’s inhabitants were, as a result, robust centenarians, claimed Shroff.
Bahman Ameshaspanda, the most exalted celestial being in Zoroastrian cosmology after Ahura Mazda himself, who has a month and day dedicated to him in all the three Zoroastrian calendars, is the guardian angel of gospand, cattle. During Bahman mahino (month) therefore, even those Zoroastrians who are not vegetarians abstain from eating meat. Fish and eggs though are permissible. Then there are the humkaras, days in every month where similar abstinence is required. Interestingly, the Bahman parav (corrupted version of the Sanskrit, parva, meaning special day of religious significance) that is Bahman mahino and Bahman roz, is the equivalent of the Parsi Halloween. In Navsari and other Gujarat towns, boys and girls used to sell lemon grass jelly from door to door; and most households cooked khichri patio (rice cooked with dal and turmeric  along with a tangy aubergine-tomato dish) and roasted papad as an accompaniment.
The proponents of vegetarianism cite such selective abstinence as evidence of their theological position being correct. Further, they contend, rather convincingly, that for three days after death Zoroastrians abstain from meat as they have come in contact with dead matter whose contamination lingers for 72 hours. After this period the family consumes mutton dhansak on the fourth day, the proverbial chaharum nu botu (sworn enemies abused each other saying "hun taaru chaharam nu botu khadha pachhij maras (I  will perish only after eating meat served on the fourth day after your demise).” This is ample proof that on the most solemn occasions even the diehard carnivores eat ghaas phoos, the deregatory term used to describe insipid veggies.
Ervad (Dr) Peshotan Peer, in his book Vegetarianism — from Zoroastrian religious point of view, argues that originally man was fruitarian. Ahriman the evil, disguised as a cook named Iblis, served the tyrannical King Zohak a dish made from the flesh of birds and animals with the intent to stop divinity being achieved. Two serpents grew from Zohak’s shoulders and were fed two human brains daily; according to Peer, that’s how humanity started consuming flesh.
The mainstream orthodox however assert that the Prophet detested abstinence of any kind. No fasting, no celibacy… All that matters is good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Dastur (Dr) Maneckji Dhalla and other reformists of yesteryear contended that the Avestan scriptures speak of animal sacrifice to propitiate the angels and archangels (stallions, oxen and goats were offered to Anahité, the boon granting Sea Goddess). Blasphemy, counter the green brigade. Slaughtering hens and goats at dawn on the day of the navjote or marriage is a terrible way to mark an auspicious occasion.
An overwhelming majority of practicing Zoroastrians dismiss the PVTS and Khshnoomists as barmy. Rather uncharitably, they say that some brains ought to be fed to persons other than the two serpents on Zohak’s fertile shoulders. The advocacy of the ultraorthodox for vegetarianism sits uncomfortably with their teachings of racial purity and superior spermatozoa, argue the traditionalists. The reformists, for once, agree with the orthodox that Hitler too was a vegetarian and butchered millions. So are these neo-Nazi sounding ultraorthodox Parsis vegetarians?
The carnivores though are on the back foot while explaining why the stum or satum offerings to the souls of the departed in the fire temples are mostly vegetarian, though a few agiaries, particularly on the final day of the muktad, do place chicken and fish on the plate. We recollect Ervad Framroze Panthaki of the oldest agiary in Bombay — the Banaji Limji — talk about a client bitterly complaining that her beloved Tehmul must have been sorely disappointed with the odd shaped piece of chicken in his stum, as he ate only drumsticks. The PVTS and the Khshnoomists are simply aghast at temple offerings containing flesh. Damnation is certain for all who sponsor such sacrilege. Panthakis beware!
Vegetarianism does make strange bedfellows. Parsi vegans are a growing tribe even amongst the agnostic liberals who are nevertheless shocked at the doctrines of racial purity spouted by the ultraorthodox vegetarians (who are never vegan, as milk forms an important part of their rituals). As they say, there is a thin dividing line between the extreme right and the extreme left. For the few Khshnoomists who marry, and the few who celebrate the occasion, here is a suggested lagan nu paatru: avocado steak, asparagus in white sauce, mushroom pullao and bharuchi broccoli. Salvation is guaranteed. Saas ni machhi be damned.

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