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CAIS ARCHAEOLOGICAL & CULTURAL NEWS©

 

Shrinking Population Threatens an Ancient Faith

Zoroastrians debate inviting outsiders in

 

05 September 2004

 

 

By Jehangir Pocha

For 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.[1] 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."[2]

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.[3]

''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 their faith.

''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 merchant marine.

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 modern conformity.

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 crusty bread.

Wealthy Parsis have endowed several secular charities and given their community free housing, education, health care, and religious infrastructure worth more than $500 million today.

 

Iranian 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 within.

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 forefathers.

''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 Zoroastrianism. [4] I challenge the government to allow conversion out of Islam for even one day."[5]

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 in vain.

''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."

 

 

Footnotes:


[1] Mainly by Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) than Iranian counterparts.

[2] 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.

[3] This is applied only to Iranian Zoroastrians, as shown above.

[4] 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.

[5] All of the major jurisprudential schools of traditional Islam criminalise apostasy, and all are in general accord that the punishment of death is mandated for the male, born to Muslim parents, who takes up another faith.

 

 

Relevant article: CONVERSION IN ZOROASTRIANISM; The Truth Behind the Trumpery

 

 

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