Born a little over a hundred years ago in Uttar Pradesh, my grandmother was both a devout and a highly-liberal Parsi; she wrote books on Zoroastrianism for children and railed against the orthodoxy. As a student at Bombay University over half a century ago – she went back for a college education when she was in her 50s – she once told her professor that she was frustrated over just how narrow and closed the Parsi community in India had become. Her professor said that change took time; a few generations at the very least.
My grandmother died just two weeks short of her 100th birthday. I wish she had been around to see a major change last week: the inauguration of a new fire temple in Pune whose doors will be open to people of all communities. This fire temple has been funded by well-known Parsi industrialists, lawyers and philanthropists, proof that many eminent members of the community are not represented by the orthodox elements.
The fire temple will perform marriage ceremonies for Parsis marrying outside the community as well as navjots (initiation ceremonies) for children of Parsis who marry outside the community.
This represents a tectonic shift in the way Zoroastrianism is practiced in India. Fire temples in India do not allow those of other faiths, or ‘excommunicated’ Zoroastrians, a term used for the children of Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers, to enter.
As a half-Parsi growing up in Mumbai, I was completely oblivious of my own excommunication. My mother would take me to fire temples in the city. On one occasion, as a child, a young priest at a fire temple was so impressed with the gusto with which I recited a series of Zoroastrian prayers that he even brought me a chocolate. He, too, seemed to have been ignorant of my ex-communicated status. As for my large extended family I inherited on the Parsi side, it simply was not interested; it has been meeting every year for the last 99 years, and includes non-Parsi spouses and children who are half-Parsi, quarter-Parsi and with other levels of ‘dilution’.
As a child, I remember how perplexed I was when a Parsi friend patiently explained why she would not marry a non-Parsi. This, when we were both only ten years old. She said that Hindus and Muslims “were all the same”, and had similar cultures, while Parsis were very different, and had a unique culture of their own, and so it would be better to marry within the community. Such is the level of indoctrination.
While I find her views on Hindus and Muslims being the same rather delightful, its now increasingly clear that Parsis are driving themselves to extinction with their insistence on marrying within the community and their refusal to open the doors of their religion to the rest of the world. Sadly, the government of India recently funded the ‘Jiyo Parsi’ ad campaign aimed at getting young Parsi men and women to get married – to each other – and procreate to ensure the survival of the community – in the most regressive and patriarchal way.
With under 70,000 Parsis in India and a large ageing population, marrying within the community will not preserve an ancient culture; it will merely constrict the gene pool and result in diseased offspring. In-breeding is better suited to pedigree puppies. Or race-horses. It’s certainly not a good idea for human beings.
Parsis who married outside the community, as well as non-Parsis with Parsi spouses, have for long struggled to be a part of the funeral rites of their loved ones at the Towers of Silence, where bodies are eventually placed for vultures to feed on. But as the vulture population began to decline (a bit like the Parsi population), and bodies remained decomposing in the Towers, many Parsis moved away from such archaic practices and chose more sustainable ones, such as cremation and burial.
Barring non-Parsis from fire temples and funeral ceremonies will gradually be of little relevance, as there will be less and less people to bar. The community will have moved on, leaving the orthodoxy behind. Many charitable schools started for Parsi children today have barely any and welcome children from other faiths.
For years, the liberals have battled the lunatic sections of the Parsi right-wing over who can enter fire temples and who should be allowed for funeral rites. Gradually, the liberals seem to have grown weary of debating with a miniscule faction of racists and bigots, and are now fashioning a more egalitarian and open faith on their own. The opening of a new temple is part of that effort.
It’s a tad ironic that while fire temples in India have long closed their doors on non-Zoroastrians, those in Iran, where the religion originated, are open to people of all faith. I breezed into a fire temple in Tehran a few years ago with both a Hindu and a Muslim by my side. I’ve visited a fire temple in Pakistan, too, and photographed the priest and the sacred fire – there was no outcry.
While an association of Parsis in California is open to non-Parsi spouses, in Florida, a popular Parsi priest has a Catholic wife. Just the sort of flexibility that the community needs to survive. If India’s Parsis want to stave off extinction, they may want to look to the new Pune fire temple to keep the flame burning.
Anahita Mukherji is a former Assistant Editor with the Times of India is now based in the US.