Can Zoroastrians save their faith?

By Deena Guzder Many of us recently finished celebrating Christmas, Eid, and Hanukkah; however, few of us have heard of … Continued

By Deena Guzder

Many of us recently finished celebrating Christmas, Eid, and Hanukkah; however, few of us have heard of the religion that deeply influenced those traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. As the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism introduced ideas of a single deity, a dualistic universe of good versus evil, and a final day of reckoning. The three wise men who visited the infant Jesus were Zoroastrian magi.

Last week, a tiny but devout group of Zoroastrians convened in Dubai for the 9th quadriennal World Zoroastrian Congress to discuss the uncertain future of their ancient faith. With 750 believers in attendance, roughly 1 out of every remaining 187 Zoroastrians worldwide attended the four-day conference. Once the religion of millions in pre-Islamic Persia, Zoroastrianism now boasts fewer than 140,000 adherents, with a third over the age of 60.

At the conference, Zoroastrians spoke about religious preservation with the same zeal as zoologists speak about protecting an endangered animal. Speakers touted myriad proposals to reverse the current community trends of late marriages and few children. They proposed speed-dating events to encourage young Zoroastrians to fall in love; Web sites to facilitate matrimony across borders; and monthly subsidies to Zoroastrian parents willing to have more than one child. Nothing short of “Facebook for Zoroastrians” was proposed to save the 3,500-year-old religion from the brink of extinction.

While the most precipitous decline in the community’s numbers came from the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 10th century, the community’s current existential crisis is a result of its own insistence on endogamy. Despite their shrinking population, Zoroastrians remain fiercely divided over whether to recognize interfaith families, let alone accept converts. Khojeste Mistree, a self-proclaimed conservative member of the community, spoke in Dubai about retaining Zoroastrianism’s “ethnic-religious-identity” and warned coreligionist against “radical” ideas of accepting foreigners into the fold. On the other hand, internationally acclaimed screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala urged delegates to embrace children of interfaith couples as well as “spread the beautiful fragrance of our religion across the world.”

Zoroastrian theology professes that humankind is designed to evolve toward perfection if each human being cultivates a “good conscience” to combat greed, lust, hatred, and other evil forces that threaten to thwart this natural progression. A good conscience is formed by nurturing good thoughts, speaking good words, and practicing good deeds.

Community leaders attending the Dubai conference spoke of Zoroastrianism’s proud history of safeguarding human rights, promoting women’s rights, and protecting the environment. Cyrus the Great–the Zoroastrian Persian emperor of ca.600 – 529 BCE–was responsible for the world’s first human rights document, the Cyrus Cylinder. The religion’s sacred texts urge both genders to equally share responsibilities, which may explain why many Zoroastrian women excel in their professions and delay marriage. Zoroastrianism is also regarded as the world’s first eco-religion since it strictly forbids polluting the earth. In India, Zoroastrians are known for their unique practice of sky burials, in which corpses are exposed to natural elements such as wind, rain, and vultures in open-topped “Towers of Silence” as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation.

Despite Zoroastrians progressive past, today’s community seems reluctant to reform its stance on conversion despite its declining population. Many Zoroastrians insist their religion regards conversion as inherently disrespectful because it devalues other faiths by suggesting Zoroastrianism is superior. Some Zoroastrians claim years of religious persecution led to self-isolation, so the community’s ban on conversion was a survival mechanism–rather than a religious duty–that is no longer imperative.

Anxieties about community survival are not, of course, restricted to Zoroastrians. The American Jewish community has conflicted views on interfaith marriage; however, there are still roughly 128 times as many Jews worldwide than there are Zoroastrians. On the polemical issue of conversion, conservative Zoroastrians maintain religion is inherited the same way one inherits her eye color. Liberal Zoroastrians reject exclusionary practices and propose following the example of reform Jews who selectively allow conversion.

When Zoroastrians fled Persia during the Islamic incursions in the 10th Century, they were granted refuge in India. The refugee community retained its religious traditions and social fabric in “baags”–gated communities–where youngsters intermingled, intermarried, and perpetuated their faith. During the second-wave of the Diaspora, from the 1960s onwards, many Zoroastrians sought educational opportunities and job security in Western Countries. Scattered on distant shores, the community struggled to rebuild community centers and fire temples (Zoroastrians regard fire as a symbol of God’s light and wisdom). Highly educated and upwardly mobile, Zoroastrians increasingly study, work and marry outside the community.

Today, India is still home to the majority of Zoroastrians, but the community is declining by about 10% every decennial census, according to a report released by UNESCO. Mahatma Gandhi once declared, “I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed.” Many of India’s chief industrialists–including Ratan Tata of the vast Tata conglomerate–are Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsees) who gave considerable sums to medical, educational, and housing initiatives for the indigent. Other notable members of the Parsee community have included Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) of the rock band Queen and Rohinton Mistry who authored “A Fine Balance,” which was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize.

For Zoroastrians, six degrees of separation is reduced to one. The closeness of the Zoroastrian community was captured as delegates greeted each other in Dubai. One exclaimed, “Your uncle was the doctor who delivered my first child!” Another reminisced, “Do you remember me? I use to give your mother sewing lessons. Membership in a tight-knit community has many benefits–although some of those benefits veer uncomfortably close to nepotism–but marrying within an increasingly narrow gene pool is risky. Doctors attending the Dubai conference devoted entire lectures to warning their coreligionists about troublingly high levels of breast cancer and multiple sclerosis in their community.

In some ways, Dubai was an unlikely choice for the jubilee year of the World Zoroastrian Congress given the region’s historical animosity towards religious minorities. Indeed, rumors abounded that discussions on Zoroastrian theology were censored since the conference was branded as an “Invest in Dubai” event to make the conference palatable to the ruling powers. Yet, in more nuanced ways, Dubai was the perfect symbolic destination for a community struggling to survive. Dubai’s past glory and precarious future–seen in its airports clamoring with emigrating foreigners–is an imperfect but useful parallel for the Zoroastrian community whose heyday has past and whose future remains tentative.

Watch a recent video about Zoroastrianism.

Deena Guzder is freelance journalist who recently spoke about Zoroastrianism on NPR.

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  • persiflage

    Congratulations on a well-written article. It’s unfortunate that due to the peculiarities of a mindset that insists on religious ‘purity’, an ancient religion is about to go extinct. Another problem mentioned is access to a limited gene pool, and a higher rate of serious genetic anomalies. One is reminded of the American Shakers, whose splendid wooden artifacts are the only thing left of this quaint 19th century group. They of course forbade sex among the faithful, including converted married couples. Zoroastrians of the conservative persuasion are condemning themselves to the same fate by virtue of their endogamous ways. This is a shame all around, because as a religion it seems far superior to Islam in many ways – and of course this tiny homogeneous group is severely persecuted in Iran by the ruling majority of Muslims –

  • ThishowIseeit

    Renowned conductur Zubin Mehta is a Zoroastrian.

  • ccnl1

    Another fortune teller-based religion. No wonder zorasterism is going extinct.”Zoroastrianism is a religion that takes its name from the late second millennium BCE Iranian prophet (fortune teller) Zarathustra, traditionally called Zoroaster (see Zoroaster) by people in the West. Believing that he had spoken to the ancient Iranian high god Ahura Mazda (see Ahura Mazda), Zoroaster undertook a reform of the old Indo-Iranian religion (see Vedism, Mazdaism) of the Aryan (see Aryans) invaders of India and Iran. At the center of his reformation is an essential dualism, which opposes the good Ahura Mazda and his heavenly followers, the asuras (see Asuras), to the evil Angra Mainyu (see Angra Mainyu) and the daevas, who in their old Indo-Iranian context were not particularly evil but who in Zoroastrianism become demons, bent on war and destruction (see Zoroastrian Mythology, Zoroastrian Cosmogony). After long years of struggle against the followers of the old religion, Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Iran under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BCE and remained so until the rise of Islam (see Islam) in the seventh century CE. Important aspects of Zoroastrianism are the belief in the prophet (Zoroaster), a past and future savior (see Saoshyant), an afterlife (see Zoroastrian Afterlife), a Last Judgment (see Zoroastrian Apocalypse, Zoroastrian Flood), and the resurrection of the body. An important aspect of Zoroastrian ritual is fire and fire temples (see Zoroastrian Apocalypse, Parsis), an aspect that dates back to ancient Indo-Iranian roots (see Vedic Mythology) and the centrality of fire sacrifice. An offshoot or “heresy” of Zoroastrianism is Zurvanism (see Zurvan), in which Zurvan, or Time, supplants Ahura Mazda as ultimate reality.”Reads like a sixth century BCE version of Christianity and Islam without any angel/pretty wingie thingie connections?

  • ccnl1

    How about that, there is a strong angel/”pretty, wingie thingie” connection:”Angels in ZoroastrianismZoroastrianism recognizes various classes of spiritual beings besides the Supreme Being (Ahura Mazda): The Amesha Spentas, Yazatas, and Fravashis. In practice (cf. Sad Dar, chapter 26), Zoroastrians pick a patron angel for their protection, and throughout their lives are careful to observe prayers dedicated to that angel. See also information on the religious calendar. Amesha Spentas (Phl. Amahraspandan) (“Archangels”) Vohu Mano (Phl. Vohuman): lit. Good Mind. Presides over cattle. Asha Vahishta (Phl. Ardwahisht): lit. Highest Asha, the Amahraspand presiding over Asha and fire. Khshathra Vairya (Phl. Shahrewar): lit. ‘Desirable Dominion’, the Amahraspand presiding over metals. Spenta Armaiti (Phl. Spandarmad): lit. ‘Holy Devotion’, the Amahraspand presiding over the earth Haurvatat (Phl. Hordad): lit. ‘Perfection or Health’. Presides over water. Ameretat (Phl. Amurdad): lit. ‘Immortality’, the Amahraspand presiding over the Earth. Fravashis (Phl. Farohars) (“Guardian Angels”):Also known as Arda Fravash (“Holy Guardian Angels”). Each person is accompanied by a guardian angel (Y26.4, 55.1), which acts as a guide throughout life. They originally patrolled the boundaries of the ramparts of heaven (Bd6.3, Zs5.2), but volunteer to descend to earth to stand by individuals to the end of their days. Ahura Mazda advises Zarathushtra to invoke them for help whenever he finds himself in danger (Yt13.19-20). If not for their guardianship, animals and people could not have continued to exist, because the wicked Druj would have destroyed them all (Yt13.12-13). The Fravashi also serves as an ideal which the soul has to strive for and emulate, and ultimately becomes one with after death (Y16.7, 26.7, 26.11, 71.23, Yt22.39) (See Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism, pg 232-243, 375-378) “

  • clearthinking1

    THANK YOU HINDUSThe tolerance and pluralism that defines Hinduism and its profound monistic philosophy of Unity, Vedanta, is the most important lesson for humanity.Zoroastrians, Bahais, Bohra muslims, Buddhists (like Dalai Lama) have all found refuge only among Hindus for thousands of years. Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroatrians, & Brahmo Samaj have all been given equal rights in India and have been accepted for thousands of years. Why? Explore, understand, and learn how a people can be spiritual and peaceful.Everyone can have their mythologies and narratives as they need, but we all need to understand monism as expressed in the Upanishads, especially today in the modern scientific world.Thanks to Hindus,

  • jailkkhosla

    I grew up in India and can always remember how Zoroastrians kept their distance from us darker hued Indians. When a Paris married a white skinned European or American, Parsis celebrated. If a Parsi married a darkie, especially a Hindu, the marriage was boycotted. The children of JRD Tata, even though they have a Christian French mother, are welcome in the Parsi fold.I had a colleague who was a Parsi. We both worked and still work in the USA. he spared no efforts to tell his white friends that he was one of them and not one of us.Much of the Parsis’ ban on interfaith marriage has one goal in India, that is to keep the darkies out.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Anxieties about community survival are not, of course, restricted to Zoroastrians. The American Jewish community has conflicted views on interfaith marriage; however, there are still roughly 128 times as many Jews worldwide than there are ZoroastriansUnlike Islam and Christianity, however, Judaism is not conversionistic. It has not covered the globe “explaining” the superiority of its theology to others. It holds that Hashem (= the Name = God) has a covenant with all peoples.That said, I agree wholeheartedly with those Jews who argue that Judaism should undertake conversion efforts, along the lines that many Muslims do, that is, by explaining the religion to others.With the tribal world what it is, there is strength, in one thing, and that is numbers.As a refugee from Iran, I can attest to that.Mark ye, Zoroastrians.

  • PSolus

    Bear in mind that in the ~200,000 years that we humans have been in existence, we have invented thousands, if not tens of thousands, of religions.The vast majority of them (perhaps 99%) have become extinct.This one is simply one more that is becoming extinct.In the future, there will likely be many more becoming extinct, and, unfortunately, many more created.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Liberal Zoroastrians reject exclusionary practices and propose following the example of reform Jews who selectively allow conversion.ALL BRANCHES of JUDAISM WELCOME CONVERTS. And I mean ALL. There is nothing “selective” in the acceptance. Moreover, once someone becomes a Jew, it is absolutely forbidden to refer to her/him as a “convert.”What on earth are you up to here? Or are you just earth-shatteringly ignorant?

  • Martial

    Most have heard of the religion’s influence; but where can one find the sacred texts? Perhaps the religion suffers most from benign neglect. Were the texts more accessible to all, there might be more Zoroatrians. The situation is similar to that of the Druze in Lebanon.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, Ruth of the Torah?? Did she really exist or was she simply another mythical character invented by the Jewish scribes akin to the mythical characters Abraham, Moses, Noah et al????

  • Schaum

    Persiflage:”One is reminded of the American Shakers, whose splendid wooden artifacts are the only thing left of this quaint 19th century group.”Actually, in the United States, there is one remaining active Shaker community, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which as of December 2009 has only three members left. The Sabbathday Lake community still accepts new recruits, as it has since its founding. Shakers are no longer allowed to adopt orphan children after new laws were passed in 1960 denying control of adoption to religious groups, but adults who wish to embrace Shaker life are welcome.This community holds regular Sunday services, which are open to the public, and also, I think, operate a museum. I don’t know whether there are any Shakers left in England.

  • samxstreampools

    “The tendency to turn human judgments into divine commands makes religion one of the most dangerous forces in the world.” “God has no religion” “The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example” “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” “Many have quarreled about religion that never practiced it” “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” “Religion is what keeps the poor man from murdering the rich” “Priests are no more necessary to religion than politicians to patriotism” “A soul you say? Give my pocketwatch to a savage and he’ll think it has a soul.” “All Bibles are man-made” “I won’t take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.” “Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think.” “My feeling is religious insofar as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand more deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as “laws of nature” “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”