Followers debate faith's fade


Zoroastrianism: Falling birthrate and refusal to accept converts point to the extinction of ancient religion that influenced monotheism.

April 20, 2004|By Jehangir Pocha | Jehangir Pocha,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BOMBAY, India - For centuries this city has been the citadel where Zoroastrianism, the world's oldest prophetic religion, has preserved itself and prospered in the face of overwhelming odds.

Now, demographers say, Zoroastrians in Bombay and elsewhere face extinction, with a falling birthrate magnified by a tradition of not accepting converts. The threat has locked the tiny community into an emotional debate over how to maintain its faith and identity, while also moving with the times.

"We must become more broadminded," says Khushroo Madon, a self-described reformist priest in Bombay where the Zoroastrian population is expected to slide from 60,000 to 25,000 by 2020. "We must welcome children of mixed parents [and] maybe even some new converts into our community."

To Zoroastrian conservatives this is heresy.

"Purity is more important than numbers," says Khojeste Mistri, a Zoroastrian scholar in Bombay. "Our religion is interwoven with our ethnicity [and] can only be passed on through a Zoroastrian father."

Sita Mani, 36, the daughter of a Zoroastrian mother and Hindu father, says this isn't fair or sensible.

"I would have looked seriously at Zoroastrianism when I was choosing my spiritual path," says Mani. "Its basic tenets - good thoughts, good words and good deeds - are so sound."

But since Mani was prohibited from even entering a Zoroastrian fire temple (fire is considered sacred), her interest in the religion waned, and she now practices Buddhism.

With the Zoroastrian community losing thousands of would-be members like Mani, Madon says he has started performing the navjote (a bar mitzvah-like initiation ceremony) of children born of Zoroastrian mothers and non-Zoroastrian fathers.

Zoroastrians self-deprecatingly admit they squabble over most things, but this dispute has become exceedingly fierce.

A coterie of powerful conservative priests recently called for the excommunication of all Zoroastrians married to non-Zoroastrians. Though the priests backed away from their stand after its legality and practicality were questioned, the episode emphasized the chasm within the community.

From a dignified and fraying office in Bombay's Asiatic Society, Mani Kamerkar, a Zoroastrian historian, says the problem is rooted in Zoroastrians' refugee mentality.

Though Zoroastrianism was developed in the sixth century B.C. and flourished in Persia (modern-day Iran) - greatly influencing Judaism, Christianity and Islam - it was destroyed by the Arab invasion of Persia in 651 AD.

Some Zoroastrians went underground in Iran and some fled to India, where they came to be called Parsees. In both countries the communities struggled to maintain their faith and did not intermarry with local communities.

"Zoroastrians have become obsessed with the idea of saving themselves, keeping apart from the Other," says Kamerkar, who is married to a non-Parsee.

While Parsees 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 Parsees adopted many Western ways. Cartoonists commonly caricature the Parsees as dressed in colonial-era garb, spouting Shakespearean prose and swaying to Strauss waltzes.

Most families are socially liberal and Parsee women are often better educated than the men. As a result Parsee women tend to marry late, outside the community and have fewer children. And with Parsees 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," says Dinyar Pochkhanawala, 37, a captain in the merchant marine.

Mistri argues that such "over-westernization and over-secularization is killing our Parsee panu," or way of life.

Once, Parsees, with men wearing distinctive white clothing called daglis and women in richly embroidered saris, ruled Bombay's economic, political and social life.

Many of Bombay's oldest mansions, industrial houses, university buildings, schools, film studios, public buildings and hospitals boast statues or portraits of Parsee founders or benefactors.

Even as the community is shrinking, it remains a much-beloved part of Bombay, where citizens like to joke that Parsees are defined by how small they are in numbers and how great they are in their minds.

"[They] are a wonderful and mad lot," says Jiten Gandhi, a stockbroker. Gandhi says he hopes Parsees survive because he "could not live without Parsee jokes or bakeries," which are famous for grumpily serving patrons sweet tea and hot brun pau, a crusty bread. Like many Indians, Gandhi also lauds Parsees for their industriousness and munificence.

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