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AIDS and the Zoroastrian Ethos of Caring


By Dr. Homi Dhalla

Paper presented at an Interfaith Seminar on “Religion as a resource for fighting HIV Aids”

Published in Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly, June 22, 2008


Exactly 25 years ago, on May 20, 1983, a path breaking paper was published in the US journal Science.  A team from the prestigious Pasteur Institute of France, spearheaded by Luc Montagnier described a suspect virus in a patient who had succumbed to AIDS.  This crucial investigation led to the determination by US researcher Robert Gallo that the virus was certainly the cause of AIDS.  A probable solution had been found in unraveling the mysterious immune-ravaging disease – the “gay plague” as termed by the British press.  In 1983, the number of known cases was about 3000 – today the number stands at an astounding 25 million dead, claiming more lives than were lost in World War I.  Moreover, those infected by this global tragedy today is a staggering 33 million.


Although a quarter of a century has passed since the AIDS virus was identified and a billion dollars spent globally on research annually, modern medicine has not found an effective AIDS vaccine.


The AIDS epidemic has been spreading throughout the world claiming about 5 million new infections every year.  In India, itself we have 2.5 million people infected with the disease out of which 39 % are women.  It is an affliction, which has affected the whole human family, a condition with which we all ought to empathize.  I am reminded here of the words of Pope John Paul II who had invited the religious leaders of the world on October 27, 1986, to the Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi.  On that occasion he aptly stated that ‘the very fact that we have come to Assisi from various parts of the world is in itself a sign of this common path which humanity is called to tread.  Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others.’  This meeting was a reminder that the problems of the world are so serious that we cannot solve them alone.  Therefore, there is an urgent need for interreligious collaboration. Since AIDS continues to plague mankind, the religions of the world have to unitedly use their resources in combating it.  In this context, it is pertinent to note that the various Christian sects have been doing incredible work in different parts of the world especially in Africa and India in the treatment and prevention of AIDS.


On the other hand, it is unfortunate that certain religious leaders proclaim that AIDS is a punishment for sin and for which God condemns a man.  This stigma leads to depression and low-esteem.  Unfortunately, the discrimination and stigma have in some measure accompanied this epidemic.  But fortunately, this trend is gradually changing.  Besides this, from the previous attitude of ignorance and denial there has been growing family support for AIDS patients.  On World AIDS Day, besides various awareness programmes that were held in the month of May, 75 civil society organizations from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka displayed their ideas in Mumbai on how to change the attitudes and practices that undermine effective AIDS programmes.


The Zoroastrian Ethos of Sharing and Caring

The Zoroastrian religion has influenced the ethos of sharing and caring amongst the members of the community.  Whilst reciting his prayers, a Zoroastrian prays for the good of all living creatures (Afrin-i-haft Ameshapandan 15-17).  Standing before the holy Fire, which is an inspiring symbol of divinity, a devotee earnestly prays, “Grant me a child…who would relieve distress” (Atash Nyaish 5).  And in the Gathas, which are the teachings of Prophet Zarathushtra, he extols “Joy comes to the one who brings joy unto others” (Yasna 43.1).  The propensity towards philanthropy was motivated by Zoroastrianism, where accumulation of wealth by honest means is considered fundamentally positive.  This, however, in turn brings with it a social obligation to share one’s wealth with the less fortunate.  Perhaps the one characteristic which is usually attributed to a Zoroastrian is his large-heartedness or philanthropy – Parsi, thy name is charity.  This is considered a sacred duty.  There are several references in the scriptures, which extols this cardinal virtue; one of these is from the Menok Xrat, which states, “The first best act of righteousness is charity” (Chap.IV, 2,4).  Hence, Parsi history is replete with examples of how this miniscule community of barely 70,000 in a burgeoning population of over a billion has been endowing schools, colleges, parks, hospitals, dharamshalas etc. for the benefit of all communities, including hospitals for animals.


It is relevant to mention here that some of the most prominent Parsis who have contributed to national life in the field pf politics, industry, social reform and philanthropy all came from priestly families.  The most prominent were Dadabhai Naoroji, Jamsetjee Tata and Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy.  They were undoubtedly influenced by their religious tradition.


The Zoroastrian Approach to AIDS

It is a well known fact that due to the population explosion in India, there is poverty as well as unemployment.  In such a scenario, all three, viz., poverty, unemployment and AIDS are linked.  There are many who advocate abstinence as being the most ideal way for prevention of AIDS.  But this may not always be feasible for everyone.  The Zoroastrian ideals of self-control, moderation and kindness would be useful guideposts for its prevention and care.  Zoroastrianism lays down certain norms for self-discipline, which would be helpful in prevention of AIDS.  It forbids illegitimate sex, homosexuality, adultery etc.  It admonishes a sound family life where marriage is considered a sacred union.


Since Ahura Mazda is the Supreme Judge, who are we to judge and condemn?  Instead of rejecting these individuals, they should not only be accepted but shown great compassion.  Love and sensitivity towards them are other important values, which Zoroastrianism teaches.  It is imperative to reform and help one to evaluate his actions, instead of denigrating.


Hence, the vital question is, that once a person has contracted the disease, how should one deal with these patients.  They ought to be treated with compassion, love and understanding.  He is a brother who is in need of our help.  A positive attitude shall give him a ray of hope when his entire life seems shattered – he has also to be healed psychologically.  The ancient Zoroastrian text, Denkard states, “Apart from the salvation for one’s soul, it is best to strive for saving other people’s souls”.  Hence, even if one member of the human family has fallen prey to this disease, we all suffer.  All who are afflicted by this pandemic regardless of their race, religion or colour have access to non-judgmental and compassionate care, support and respect.  An attempt should also be made to transform the attitude of the public towards this ailment through AIDS education and prevention programmes.  We condemn intolerance and bigotry against these patients.


According to researchers, there is a positive connection between people who have a spiritual outlook and the strength of their immune system.  In the Zoroastrian tradition, there are certain prayers, termed ‘nirangs’ which are meant to be efficacious in healing certain ailments.  We ought to recite these prayers with these patients and also encourage them to meditate.


Medical Students Discover Spirituality

Dr. Christina M. Puchalski was a bit of a pioneer when she created a spirituality and health course in 1992 at George Washington University, School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.  The course, offered as an elective, covered spiritual practices, including meditation, as well as topics such as humor and alternative medicine.


When Dr. Puchalski first began teaching her course, 2% of medical schools offered course work in spirituality.  By 2004, the figure was 67%.  Now 100 of the approximately 150 U.S. medical schools offer some variation of spirituality-in-medicine course work.  And 75 of those 100 require their students to take at least one course on the topic.


Dr. Puchalski can take some credit for the change.  She and a colleague developed a program in spirituality and health at the National Institute for Healthcare Research.  Funding by the John Templeton Foundation – an organization that makes grants to research projects – has given medical schools the opportunity to develop a spirituality curriculum of their own.  “Spirituality is a part of caring for patients,” said Dr. Puchalski, who is presently the Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health.  “It goes to the very root of who we are”.


Proactive Approach of the House of Godrej

It was in 1897 that Ardeshir Godrej, a dynamic Parsi industrialist, established the House of Godrej.  Today, Godrej has become a household name in India.  Being a benevolent management, over the years it has launched a number of welfare programs for its workers and their families.


The initiative towards HIV/AIDS commenced in 1993.  A multi-pronged strategy has been adopted to contain this disease.  One of these is to focus on the awareness and prevention fronts by organizing street plays, poster exhibitions and free tests to screen people for HIV.  Secondly, to actively get involved in the rehabilitation of those who are positive and counselling the families on how to protect those who are negative.  Patients are given free antiretroviral treatment.  Thirdly, by bringing those who are well enough back into the mainstream.  Doctors and counsellors are requested to maintain a positive, non-judgemental and objective attitude to a patient and empathic with the family as they have been innocent victims.  What they need is love, understanding, acceptance and support.  We have to fight AIDS – not people with AIDS.


Bel-Air Hospital and Sanatorium

It was the altruism and nobility of a Parsi gentleman, by the name of Dr. Rustomji Billimoria, which inspired him to establish Bel-Air Hospital and Sanatorium for TB patients at Panchgani in 1912.  This sprawling 44-acre verdurous facility was the largest centre for TB patients in India.  For many decades it was run as a private medical institution, but in 1964, the family of the founder transferred the management to the Indian Red Cross Society of Maharashtra State.  Today, it is one of the leading centres in India for the treatment of TB patients.  In 1994, the management and administration of Bel-Air was entrusted to a Catholic Missionary Organization called Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (MCBS) who agreed to manage the hospital as a Red Cross project to serve the large rural population.  Today Bel-Air is being run most effectively due to the unstinted devotion and ceaseless efforts of Ms. Homai Modi, Jt. Hon. Secretary of the Indian Red Cross Society, Maharashtra State, together with Fr. Tony and his team.


Since 1995, Bel-Air has launched a very effective project for AIDS patients.  In order to ensure its effectiveness, many allied activities have also been launched viz., a training programme for about 200 doctors in HIV management, AIDS Awareness Programmes during the World AIDS Week and starting a Bel-Air College of Nursing in 2006 with special focus on AIDS.  Moreover, the Bel-Air Ayurvedic and Naturopathy Centre forms part of the well established allopathic hospital.  Prayer sessions are held every Sunday together with yoga and meditation classes.




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Source/Extracted From: Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly


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