Thursday, March 15, 2007

Universalism and All That - Closing the Coffin of Conversion - Part 6 - by Roni K Khan

From: TZML Eductn & Information Committee <>
Date: Mar 15, 2007 12:25 PM
Subject: Universalism and All That - Closing the Coffin of Conversion - Part 6 - by Roni K Khan

Fellow Zarathushtis,
this is a continuation of late Roni Khan's excellent analysis on how the over-reliance on Gathas as the sole texts of the Zarathushti religion can create confusion.
The same scientific analysis is employed here by Roni to show us the limitations of the western philological studies of our Scriptures. We understand that there are limitations, huge limitations, to the philological interpretation of our holy books. Then also, we have the Gathas in 50+ translations - which of these is the true one!
In reality, all transalations are to be taken with a bit of caution and a huge pinch of salt, since the translations are done taking into account the prejudicies, temparements and religious backgrounds of the translators. At best, they are approximate attempts by the translator. The Gathas are primarily religious prayers to be intoned by us Zarathushtis, and their maanthric effect is more important than its meaning, which as we have seen varies from one translator to another.
Fellow Zarathustis, be vigilant about western studies and those scholars who tell us to shun rituals.
All religions have rituals and it is in the correct performance of rituals that an individual and a community progresses spiritually.
Let us catch up with Roni in this 6th part.
Incidentally, all the 8 parts along with other writings of Roni, and other traditional Zoroastrian articles can be found on
With best wishes,
from the TZML Education & Information Committee

Universalism and All That - Closing the Coffin of Conversion - Part 6
by Roni K Khan



"Dismantle The Three R's" [continued]

There is one matter of enormous importance that must be brought to light, to disprove once and for all the mischievous hypothesis of the "Gatha-Alone-Cult" that the five holy Gathas, which are essentially philosophic and hence non-ritualistic in nature, are the only authentic compositions of Asho Zarathushtra.

It may be recalled that it was the western philology of the last century which had sowed the seeds of this misconception. The wheel has now turned, and the latest western philology has demonstrated that such is indeed not the case. Serious scholarly rethinking gained impetus with Gershevitch's proposals (Old Iranian Literature, Leiden 1968). And the further researches of the noted German philologist, Prof. Johanna Narten (Der Yasna Haptanhaiti, Weisbaden 1986) , indicate with superbly marshalled evidence that the Yasna Haptanhaaiti is also to be regarded, like the Gathas, as entirely and genuinely the authentic composition of the Prophet HIMSELF. This has since been formally accepted by one no less than Prof. Mary Boyce.

The implications of this latest philological "discovery" are enormous, also for the reason that the Yasna Haptanhaaiti happens to be a RITUALISTIC text. Prof. Boyce accurately particularizes this Yasna as "referring to rituals," and points out that "Zoroaster's subtle doctrines thus became assimilable, through regular, repetitive, significant acts, by the simplest of his followers." She explains that "the Gathas are profoundly personal utterances, whereas the Yasna Haptanhaiti is intended for use at a regular act of formal worship," and describes the latter as a "fixed liturgy for the service," declaring that it "can also be attributed with all reasonable certainty to the Prophet himself." Prof. Boyce has the intellectual courage and integrity to use the word "prejudices" and admit to "certain Western preconceptions [which] had become widely accepted academic dogma, namely that Zoroaster's own teachings represented an `enlightened,' almost solely rational, faith with virtually no rituals other than prayer in the presence of Fire."

Some other selected facts from Yasna Haptanhaaiti are worth mentioning. That it is a structured liturgical service is also clear from the presence of the Zaotar (the officiating priest) and the Raaspi (the responding priest). In fact, even a ritual as specific as the "jamvaani baaj" (the saying of "grace" before eating and drinking) is apparently included in the proceedings. The very term "yazata" (as "yazatem") occurs in the text, indicating, as Prof. Boyce says, that this term was "evolved by Zoroaster himself for a beneficent divine being in contra-distinction to the Daevas."

In fact, the Prophet actually mentions about a dozen Yazatas by direct name or description, in addition to all the Amesha Spentas. The text is composed in a high order of maanthric language, and is "liberally sprinkled with otherwise unknown words, forty-three in all, or almost an average of one to each verse," as Prof. Boyce notes. In fact, the celebrants refer to themselves as "maanthrans," and the "Yaatu zi Zarathushtra" stanza is a "fshusho" maanthra of such complexity that it is hardly capable of meaningful translation. The rite takes place in the physical presence of Fire, as is evident from the words uttered by the celebrant: "In community with this Fire here, we first approach Thee, Mazda Ahura." (Note: All quotations of Prof. Mary Boyce from Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Costa Mesa 1992.)

So much for the canard that the holy Gathas are the "only" authentic work of Asho Zarathushtra. So much for the canard about Asho Zarathushtra's "aversion" to rituals. So much for the canard that the Yazatas are "non-Zarathushtrian." So much for the canard about Aathravan Zarathushtra's "opposition" to "murmuring incantations" and "smoking rituals." Doubtless, all this is going to prove extremely embarrassing and inexpedient to the "Gatha-Alone-Cult," andequally doubtless, we are going to witness some incredible twists, turns and somersaults in the predictable attempts to resist these latest fruits of the best western scholarship.

Already, one GAC ally has started hedging that though he is "sympathetic to the arguments," he finds it all, as yet, "too difficult to accept"!

The significance of the research breakthrough on the Yasna Haptanhaaiti can hardly be overestimated. It authenticates the ritualistic side of our religion, and is a step towards the age-old traditional position that the whole Avesta is genuinely the work of Asho Zarathushtra himself, dating from his own remote era . One wonders whether the meticulous but slow march of western philological scholarship will converge with this viewpoint, even if it takes another century or two.

Although the various heterodox arguments against rites, rituals and rules stand exposed, the reasons and motives underlying the general heterodox animosity towards the "Three R's" remain to be explored.

First, we must recognize the compulsions of modern times, where the pace and style of living are hardly conducive to the full and proper practice of religion, and neither is the necessary infrastructural wherewithal available to the desired degree. These constraints are far greater in the West, though they are by no means wholly absent in the East either. Consider, for example, what the situation must be like in western countries where there is not a single proper Agiari, when even in India, with its eight Atash Beherams, its fifty or more Agiaris, and its institutionalized priesthood and ritual accoutrements, it is with great difficulty that an intricate but essential ceremony like Nirangdeen can be conducted at all -- for about ten years, this great Pav-Mahel kriyaa could not be performed even at Pak Iranshah in Udwada! At a more individual level, is it reasonable to expect that in the hectic work environment of today, along with the long commuting times and distances involved, the typical white-collar employee can perform Padiyaab-Kashti five times a day after the change of each Geh? Or, that in today's sardine-tin residential accommodations, the rules of purity pertaining to menstruation can be fully observed?

Admittedly, there are some practical limitations in the real world that cannot be ignored, denied or overcome. There is therefore no substance to the favourite heterodox gibe that even the orthodox do not properly practise all the customs and usages they hold dear. Indeed, the difficulties faced by us today have been accurately predicted and realistically assessed in the Pazend Behman Yasht, which reassures the faithful that in the draconian fourteenth century after Yazdegard (viz., the twentieth century AD), a single Ashem Vohu, properly recited, would have the same merit as an entire Ijashne ceremony performed in the more congenial days of yore.

But does all this mean that the mighty Nirangdeen kriyaa, Padiyaab-Kashti in the correct manner, or the scientific rules of purity during menses, for example, suddenly lose their intrinsic validity and should be written off? Of course not! Sadly, in their mindless haste to doubt, deny, denigrate and destroy, this is exactly what the heterodox would like us all to believe. But how can the inclement conditions of a transient day and age ever justify the wholesale condemnation and obliteration of hallowed religious rites, rituals and rules that are rooted in timeless spiritual verities?

The healthy attitude is to recognize our limitations under certain unavoidable environmental constraints of our dark times, while also remembering that where there's a will there's a way. After doing our best to practise whatever lies in our power, we may, with a clear conscience, reverentially place the rest on the shelf, to await the dawn of a brighter day. "Shayast-la-Shayast"! The Almighty understands and excuses our involuntary lapses under compelling circumstances, as the perceptive reassurance of the Pazend Behman Yasht indicates.

But the attitude of the heterodox towards the "Three R's" in these difficult times is a world apart. Typically, their irreverent and egocentric posture is like this: If we can't do it, the practice itself must be wrong or outdated, and it deserves to be consigned to the dustbin for ever.

Second, quite apart from unavoidable environment constraints, there is the question of personal volition. Characteristically lacking sufficient faith, knowledge and discipline in religious matters, the heterodox treat rules and rituals as a matter of personal convenience, to be governed by their own judgments, likes and dislikes, and whims and fancies. "Freedom of choice" indeed! If a certain practice happens not to suit them personally, for whatever reason, out it goes through the window, and the pricks of conscience that often follow are rationalized away by running down the practice itself. Even more odious is the increasing tendency to boast about it openly -- like the unforgettable spectacle of a "phoren-returned" young buck at a cocktail party, glass of Scotch in hand and all-knowing smile on face, bragging to the world that he has done away with Sudreh and Kashti.

Third, there is the deep practical and emotional need to justify heterodox actions already performed. People who find themselves stranded or insecure after having wilfully flouted community rules, usually tend to be the most rabid opponents of the "Three R's." After the event, the only way left to "legitimize" the action and avoid the consequences is to bend or change the rule itself. Few and far between are those with the courage and integrity to say: he who makes his bed must lie on it! Self-interest is a powerful motivator, and self-justification its instrument.

Fourth, the dismantling of the "Three R's" is of great practical importance to the heterodox leadership, because of the opportunity to fill the vacuum left behind with the un-Zarathushtrian trio of conversion, cremation and mixed marriages. The doors would be thrown wide open for such practices to enter unobstructed, for once the discipline maintained by rites, rituals and rules is done away with, no restraining influence worth the name is left. Heterodoxy thrives on indiscipline.

Just think of the endless Orwellian possibilities! For example, if the cumbersome Navjote kriyaa were eliminated, anybody could walk into the Zarathushtrian faith merely by declaring himself to be a Zarathushtrian, a la Napoleon placing the crown on his own head. If the "inhumane" scriptural rules against mixed marriages were eliminated along with the superstitious nuptial sacraments, a Siloo Sodabottleopenerwalla could wed a Chou Ching without the bat of an eyelid, aqualm of conscience, or a squeak of protest, and the future little Chings could be considered automatic Zarathushtrians without even having to bother about a confirmatory ceremony behind closed doors. And if the barbaric textual injunction for Dokhmenashini were eliminated along with the demon infested Dokhmas, a departing Zarathushtrian could unhesitatingly opt to be barbecued, with not a squawk of regret to be heard, save from the famished raven quothing "never more." A heterodox paradise!

But seriously speaking, it should be recalled that the broad expression "rites, rituals and rules," or the "Three R's" for short, is just a convenient way of referring to the Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat components of religion. It is these that make a religion concrete, tangible and practical, so that it can be put into practice in a specific and specified way by the average follower. Ordinary people like you and I would usually be perplexed and at a loose end, if a religion were to offer us only the abstract and metaphysical philosophies of Hakikat, to the exclusion of the other three.

The major differences that exist between religions are mainly attributable to the Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat components -- the "Three R's." The metaphysical Hakikat component deals with the fundamental truths underlying all creation, which, despite variations in treatment, emphasis and scope, are more or less common to all religions. To illustrate, the eternal verities and Natural laws pertaining to the Godhead, to Ethics, to the Soul, to Reward and Retribution, to Duality, to Polarity, to Good and Evil, to Faith, to Service, to Devotion, and so on, are usually shared by all religions -- but the Christian has his own church and altar, the Hindu his own mandir and idol, the Muslim his own mosque and pulpit, and the Parsi his own atash-kadeh and fire. The cloth is of the same weave across religions, but the cut of the cloth varies widely from one religion to another; the goal is the same across religions, but the path leading to it varies widely from one religion to another.

Conversion, or "acceptance," as the heterodox now euphemistically call it in a rather naive ploy to sugar the pill, is a tough and weighty decision when it comes to leaving the familiar practices, the "Three R's," of one's own religion, to embrace those of another for ever. For instance, for the Hindu, it would be a huge upheaval togo from the Idol to the Fire, or from Cremation to Dokhmenashini; and for the Christian, from Holy Water to Bull's Urine, or from prayers in plain English to chants in Avesta. These are not small matters when it comes to the crunch. Change is always difficult. And the more drastic the change required, away from set behavioural patterns, the greater the mental and emotional trauma.

But take away the rites, rituals and rules, and it's roses, roses all the way. Conversion becomes painless. No trauma. No bull's urine or vultures in sight. Nothing drastic. No nonsense, no mumbo-jumbo. No obscurantist procedures like outdated vests, pieces of string and murmured incantations. Everything straight and simple. "High thinking" only. Just "one God" and "one Truth." So what if He's called by another name? How enlightened these Zarathushtrians are! How comfortable they make the transition for us! It actually feels like we are only embracing a new philosophy that isn't all that different from our old one! Yes indeed, the autobahn of conversion to the heterodox utopia.

But the autobahn will never be built so long as there are enough faithful Parsis and Iranis who understand the value of the "Three R's" as well as Prof. Russell does: "Rituals and doctrine are related to such an extent that one is meaningless without the other. Rituals bring both the presence of God and purification into the natural world, and this helps man to fight evil, as well as rituals also sanctify man. By leading a ritual life, man is putting his faith into action. He is making it a part of his physical being. It affects his physical being, his body and his mind. At the same time it is an act of remembrance -- and an act of affirmation. It is a way of making his religious beliefs part of his everyday life and not merely some separate compartment of his thought which has no real relevance to anything else. Rituals help to purify the natural world, to fight evil, to bring the Frasho-kereiti closer. Rituals protect man from impurity. All these things are in itself useful, but the ultimate usefulness ofrituals is that the doctrine tells one that one has to do them. So that an act of ritual is a bandagi. It is an act of being bound, an act of obedience, so that fulfilling rituals is fulfilling a covenant with Ahura Mazda -- it is in fact, affirming Him and His teachings." (Ibid.)

The storm-troopers of heterodoxy will be powerless to drive our religion to rack and ruin with their whims and fancies, if we adopt the stand taken by Prof. Russell: "Are we supposed to accept opinions of people who would have us abandon rituals, and who do not know what rituals are in the first place?" (Ibid.)

It only remains to be added that the more irreverent, faithless and spiritually benighted the age, the greater than ever is the importance of rites, rituals and rules. The "Three R's" are like the bark of a tree -- strip off the bark and the tree dies. They are the front-line defences that protect the great philosophical revelations of religion from being corrupted or lost, for "Ritual is in fact concretized philosophy," in the memorable words of Swami Vivekananda. It is fashionable nowadays to try to run down or dismantle the "Three R's," but this is perilous for individual spiritual progress as well as for the security of our religion and the survival of our community. On the other hand, those who treat the "Three R's" as an end in themselves and mechanically go through the motions without knowing or caring what lies behind them, or those who commercialize our religion in the name of rites and rituals, are just as foolish and guilty.

At the risk of repetition, it has to be emphasized that a religion is a Complete Spiritual System composed of the four interrelated and interacting components of Hakikat, Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat. The failure to understand or appreciate this truism is a sure recipe for disorder, and fertile soil for misconceptions like conversion. A partial view of religion is bound to lead to confusion and chaos, and sadly reminds one of the blind men who mistook the trunk or tail or leg of the elephant for the whole elephant.

End of Part VI


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