By Jehangir Pocha
centuries, this city [Bombay] has been the citadel where
Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest religions, has
persevered in the face of overwhelming odds.
Now demographers say Zoroastrians, who live mainly in
India, where they are called Parsis, and Iran, where the
religion originated, could face eventual extinction
because of a falling birth rate and a tradition of barring
those from other faiths from converting.
The perceived threat to its existence has locked the tiny
community into an emotional debate over how to maintain
the faith and identity while also adapting with the times.
''We must become more broad-minded," said Khushroo
Madon, a self-described reformist priest in Bombay, who
noted that the Zoroastrian population in India is expected
to fall from 60,000 to 25,000 by 2020. ''We must welcome
children of mixed parents and maybe even some new converts
into our community."
With the faith losing thousands of would-be members, Madon
and some other priests have started performing the ''navjote"
an initiation ceremony for children born of Zoroastrian
mothers and non-Zoroastrian fathers.
Conservatives have reacted fiercely.
A coterie of powerful priests recently called for the
excommunication of all Zoroastrians married to
non-Zoroastrians. Although the priests backed off their
stand after its legality and practicality were questioned,
the episode emphasized the chasm within the community, and
some conservatives still cut their ties with family
members who marry outside the faith.
''Purity is more important than numbers," said
Khojeste Mistri, a Zoroastrian scholar in Bombay. ''Our
religion is interwoven with our ethnicity [and] can only
be passed on through a Zoroastrian father."
From a dignified but threadbare office in Bombay's Asiatic
Society, Mani Kamerkar, another Zoroastrian historian,
said the clash is rooted in adherents' refugee mentality.
Zoroastrianism flourished in Persia, now Iran, for more
than three millennia, greatly influencing Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam. But it was decimated by the Arab
invasion of Iran in 651.
Some Zoroastrians went underground in Iran, and some fled
to India. In both countries, the communities struggled to
rebuild their faith and did not marry outside it.
''Now Zoroastrians have become obsessed with the idea of
saving themselves, keeping apart from the Other,"
said Kamerkar, who is married to a non-Parsi man.
Yet while Parsis are generally religiously conservative,
they tend to be socially progressive. Zoroastrianism's
universalistic and rational nature melds well with
modernity, and during Britain's colonization of India the
Parsis adopted many Western ways. Most families are
socially liberal, and Parsi women often are better
educated than the men.
As a result, Parsi women tend to marry late, outside the
community, and opt for fewer children. And with Parsis
increasingly working and living abroad -- there are about
25,000 in North America -- many are also losing touch with
''I don't care if my kids don't do their 'navjote' as long
as they take in the openness of our culture," said
Dinyar Pochkhanawala, 37, a Bombay-based captain in the
Mistri said such ''over-Westernization and
oversecularization is killing our 'parseepanu,' " or
way of life.
Once, Parsis in distinctive white ''duglees,"
Nehru-type suits, and richly embroidered saris virtually
ruled Bombay's economic, political, and social life. Many
of the city's oldest mansions, industrial houses,
university buildings, schools, film studios, public
buildings, and hospitals boast statues or portraits of
Parsi founders or benefactors.
Mistri bemoans that today the community's stature is
diminished and Parsis' famous eccentricities, quirky
manner, and indelicate vocabulary have been muted by
But the community is a beloved part of Bombay. Locals like
to joke that Parsis are defined by how small they are in
numbers and how great they are in their own minds.
''[They] are a wonderful and mad lot," said Jiten
Gandhi, a stockbroker in Bombay. He added he hopes Parsis
survive because he ''could not live without Parsi jokes or
bakeries," which are famous in Bombay for grumpily
serving patrons sweet tea and hot ''brunpau," a
Wealthy Parsis have endowed several secular charities and
given their community free housing, education, health
care, and religious infrastructure worth more than $500
Zoroastrian and Conversion
In Iran, Zoroastrianism's
birthplace, theological and practical questions of
conversion are compounded by political intrigue. Iran's
Islamic leaders ''have tried for centuries to sweep away
all trace of Zoroastrianism," said Sohrab Yazdi, a
community leader in Yazd, where most of Iran's estimated
30,000 Zoroastrians live.
Pointing to the bright dome of the Jame mosque in the
city's center, Yazdi said it was built over a destroyed
''fire" temple, as Zoroastrian places of worship are
called because of the sacred fire that burns perpetually
But from outside the shattered splendor of Persepolis, the
ancient capital of Persia, Bahram Agaheri, a Muslim
teacher, talked in elegiac rhythms about the desire of
many Iranians to rediscover the faith of their
''People are tired of the mullahs," Agaheri said,
referring to the country's religious leaders. ''If we were
allowed to convert, millions would convert to
I challenge the government to allow conversion out of
Islam for even one day."
But he is unlikely to see that day. Islam bans its
adherents from converting, and a Muslim who renounces his
faith can face a death sentence.
Caught between a religion that will not allow them out and
one that will not let them in, many Iranians are thought
to practice Zoroastrianism in secret.
There is also evidence that people in Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan, and some Kurdish regions are rediscovering
their Zoroastrian and Persian roots.
A secularized version of Nowruz, the traditional
Zoroastrian New Year, is increasingly being celebrated
across the region.
These tremors of change excite many Zoroastrians, who
despite their demographers' troubling estimates, think
their religion is poised to witness a renaissance. But
such change also makes many uncomfortable.
Mistri and Yazdi agreed that Zoroastrians do not have the
wherewithal to deal with any political backlash from
Iran's radical Islamists or India's Hindu nationalists,
who also oppose religious conversions.
''You must understand our apprehension," Yazdi said.
''We are like a small, colorful fish in a big pond. One
wrong move and we will be eaten."
But Zend M. Zend, a Zoroastrian baker in Bombay famous for
entertaining his brunpau-eating clients with his homespun
philosophy, said ''all this moaning and groaning" is
''Zoroastrianism has been left for dead many times. Each
time it was simply our zest for life, our life-celebrating
attitude, that saw us through," he said. ''As long as
we have that, we'll be fine."
Mainly by Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) than Iranian
Recent study on Parsi mitochondrial DNA (matrilineal)
which was compared with that of the Iranians and
Gujaratis determined that Parsis are genetically
closer to Gujaratis than to Iranians. Taking the 2002
study into account, the authors of the 2004 study
suggested "a male-mediated migration of the
ancestors of the present-day Parsi population, where
they admixed with local females [...] leading
ultimately to the loss of mtDNA of Iranian
origin" (Quintana-Murci 2004, p. 840), and
therefore this purity claim proved to be fiction.
This is applied only to Iranian Zoroastrians, as shown
In the 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran used death
squads against converts, including major Protestant
leaders, and the situation is worsening under
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime is currently
engaged in a systematic campaign to track down and
reconvert or kill those who have changed their
religion from Islam.
article: CONVERSION IN ZOROASTRIANISM; The Truth Behind the Trumpery