Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Conversion in Zoroastrianism; Religion by Birth and Karma
Ali A. Jafarey
We all hear and read certain Traditionalist Zoroastrians untiringly repeat that one does not have any Choice to change his/her religion because it is against the Will of God Who alone gives one the birth in a religion of His Choice.
How have the Traditionalists come to such a VITAL conclusion? Any clear or even a hazy proof? Any precise prescription? Not that I have seen or any person else can claim he/she has read it in any of the "Zoroastrian" scriptures. It is said again and again, and the emphasis is on the Divine Will and Will only. All one has to do is to blindly accept the "unproven" statement as TRUTH or one is subjected to all insults they can hatch and hurl.
Occasionally a "moderate" Traditionalist will speak of "Karma" to explain the reason behind the predestined birth in a religion. Is it an Avestan, Pahlavi and/or Zoroastrian Persian word that defines one's religion by birth? No. It is a Sanskrit term and foreign to Iranian languages.
Let us see how it has been defined:
Literally, "karma(n)" means "act, action." In the Vedic literature, it also means "occupation, profession." It was in the later post-Vedic period, both among Hindus and the new-on-the-scene Buddhists, in which it gradually acquired the notion that the sum total of one's actions has its consequence in the status of his/her re-birth. It has acquired a central doctrinal status in Hinduism and its offshoots, Buddhism and Jainism.
In Hinduism, it is what makes a person to be born as a Brahmin (belonging to the priestly caste), Kshatriya (warrior caste), Vaishya (merchant caste) and Shudra (servile caste). The caste system has determined how each member of his/her relevant caste must pass his/her entire life within the closed community of his/her birth in the Hindu society in all walks of life - grow, work, worship, marry, socialize, live and die. It is Karma that has given him/her that status by birth and it must not be changed. Needless to say that through centuries and centuries of reform movements, particularly the last 500 years with the recent Gandhiji's Harijan drive, the caste structure is falling apart and should finally disappear. Yet Shudras are still treated as serfs in many parts of India.
It is this Hindu doctrine of predestined reincarnation that has provided the Traditionalist Parsis with the excuse that "Religion is by Birth." Some are even more "karmic" in declaring that one is only born in the Zoroastrian Religion if his/her past actions are so subtle that he/she is exceptionally raised to be born as Zarathushti! All those born in other religions are of inferior status.
Let me elaborate: While the Hindu "Karma" birth applies to every phase of one's life, the Traditionalist Parsi narrows it down to "Religion" alone. Although one is born in a family, which resides in a certain locality in a certain land and pursues a certain profession to maintain his/her living, this Divine Will does not apply to these predestined conditions. As far as the Traditionalist Parsis are concerned, the Divine Will does not apply to one's place and nationality of birth. It does not apply to one's family profession. A person born by the same Divine Will in Surat, India can migrate to another town in India or forsake India altogether, and emigrate, settle and earn the citizenship of his/her choice country. He/she can change the family profession and go for any profession he/she chooses. That is why a Traditionalist Priest, who does not believe in changing religion, is all for migration to the Western countries to change his citizenship and alliance and is also all for forsaking his sanctified class/caste/profession by birth to become a fulltime engineer, doctor or any other well-earning profession. The Divine Will in firmly fixing the birth of a person concerns religion only and nothing else for the Traditionalist Parsi, and no one else!
None of these propounders of Religion-by-Birth has ever discussed this point that HAD THIS BEEN THE DIVINE WILL, THEN WHY GOD DID NOT SEND HIS PROPHETS/MESSENGERS/AVATARS ALL AT ONE AND SAME TIME TO DIVIDE HUMANITY RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING OF CREATION INTO DIFFERENT RELIGIONS AND REGIONS. Why these founders have appeared in different times and established their religions that have caused and are causing millions and millions of people to change their religions-by-birth? If it was His Will that the "blue-blooded Aryans" were to be born as Zoroastrians, why did he send Mohammad to found a religion that overran and converted almost all of them to Islam? And how did He tolerate to see that one born as Zoroastrian had his/her children born as Muslims thereafter for generations to come? Did He predestine them to this lasting curse of the forced change in religion?
How is it that a child, born in a family of a particular religion, if orphaned or otherwise adopted by person/s of alien religion, grows up to belong to the religion of his/her fosterer/s? Why does he/she not naturally grow up in his/her religion of birth? Is Karma working justice here? And lastly, God created innumerable species of animals that cannot cross breed. THEN WHY DID HE NOT CREATE SPECIES-IN-RELIGION THAT COULD NOT INTERBREED?
Let it be made clear. The "Karma" Doctrine, the predestined birth in a particular caste, which covers every aspect of one's life and living in Hinduism (and the two offshoots, Buddhism and Jainism), is narrowed to one point, Religion-by-Birth, by the Traditionalist Parsis ALONE and no other section of Zoroastrians, Parsis and Iranians. It has no place in the Universal Message of Zarathushtra.
WHY the Traditionalist Parsis alone? Because the choice means that one would study the Good Religion first and when convinced of its doctrinal sublimity and practical superiority over the creeds he/she knows, he/she would choose the Good Religion. This would bring in well-read, open-minded and progressive persons, persons who would not follow many of the prescriptions that have become outdated and impractical. It would mean reform. It would mean the end of all impractical traditions, especially the mute, illegible rituals. The Traditionalists simply cannot afford to lose themselves in the Reform.
The Hindu Karma doctrine, by which the Parsis have survived over 1,000 years in a caste-ridden society, may help them to survive longer in face of the Reform movement, particularly the return to the Pristine Pure Good Conscience of Zarathushtra that stands firm on continuous renovation and updating of the mode of living based on the Primal Principles of the Divine Doctrine under the Gathic Guidance. Or their uproar of fabricated allegations may induce the readers to inquire and discover the TRUTH, a discovery which may strengthen the Reform movement and shorten the survival of Traditionalism and speed up their extinction.
Silly questions and simple arguments to provoke serious reflections!
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies