The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
and the Zoroastrian Ethos of Caring
Dr. Homi Dhalla
presented at an Interfaith Seminar on “Religion
as a resource for fighting HIV Aids”
in Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly, June 22, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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
Zoroastrian Ethos of Sharing and Caring
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.
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.
Zoroastrian Approach to AIDS
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
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
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.
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.
Students Discover Spirituality
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.
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.
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”.
Approach of the House of Godrej
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.
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.
Hospital and Sanatorium
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.
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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