by Shahin Bekhradnia
Below is the copy of a speech given by Shahin Bekhradnia, President WZO, at a function organized by AIMZ on Wednesday 21st December 2011 in Mumbai.
I would like to start by thanking my kind hosts for inviting me here to address you and for making this forum available for the open but civilized exchange of views. I would like to make it clear from the outset that I am not against rituals – indeed far from it as I adore the pomp, ceremony and pageant of ritual. However, it makes it so much more interesting and effective if they are meaningful to us.
At our temples, our doors are open for all who wish to come there. Admittedly there may be some who come with evil intent, but even in these recent years where our community have been particularly vulnerable there have been few reasons to regret this policy. The same goes for the attendance at our All Souls memorial services of Farvardigan just after Novruz and also the gahambar period just before Novruz. Our respect for the souls of the dead is not a selfish closed matter. We empathise with all who have lost their loved ones and we welcome all who with their own free choice have embraced the same way of thinking as ourselves.
In the temples we do not prostrate ourselves and kiss the step leading to the Afrignuni nor do we kiss the railings around it. This is considered as an irrational and alien way to behave, customs adopted from other cultures which surround us. Similarly placing a dab of ash on the forehead is simply not an Iranian practice, but undoubtedly echoes the Tila which has been adopted from Hindu practice.
We all know that at our initiation ceremonies we are given the sedreh and koshti to wear as the distinct emblems of belonging to our faith group. The sedreh pushi ceremony known to Parsees as Navjote is an important rite of passage and a significant milestone for a person, whenever it may be undertaken. However Iranian Zoroastrians do not suddenly lose their validity just because their parents may never have arranged the ceremony or because they may choose not to wear these emblems of their faith all the time after they have had their ceremony. It is a fact that the vast majority of Iranian Zoroastrians both in Iran as well as outside, do not wear the sedreh/koshti as faithfully as Parsees. My priestly grandfather did not regard these symbols as issues which would make or break the community's identity and indeed he was right. We may not be renewing our spiritual strength as some priests would maintain but that is to our detriment and does not affect anyone else.
Our community numbers have continued to grow and our identity has not weakened just because we do not all wear these symbolic garments. We are not shocked nor do we judge a person's worth or authenticity by whether or not they are wearing these outwards symbols. I stress this because I and a number of Iranian Zoroastrian friends were denied access to some temples in India some years ago merely because we could not persuade the doorkeeper that we were true Zoroastrians. The only thing which would have convinced him was the production of a sedreh and koshti which he demanded to see and which none of us was wearing. It may not have occurred to him that anyone could quite simply put these on and produce them for his inspection, whereas it would have been a lot more difficult for someone to learn the Avesta which we recited fluently without any success in convincing the doorman that we had every entitlement to enter the temple. Nor did our ability to converse in Dari have any effect whereas an Iranian Zoroastrian knows well that Dari is the spoken language of Yazdi and Kermani Zoroastrians.
We all know that our religion is enlightened from many perspectives, one of which is the pride we take in the equal treatment of men and women which is demonstrated in the Gathas wherein the text addresses both genders. This approach establishing women as the partners and equals of men in furthering good deeds and making the earth more bountiful was practised in domestic and political life so that we had Zoroastrian queens when there were no male heirs and sometimes women ran the household even when their men folk were not absent (as evidenced in the Herbedstan). In Iran Zoroastrian girls were the first females to attend schools, go to university, become professionals and maintain a high level of literacy among women in a country where this was far from the norm.
In keeping with this tradition it should come as no surprise although when the news broke it may have shocked the more conservative participants to learn that women used to and continue to fulfil priestly functions in the absence of adequate men. This is a living tradition and in London our recently arrived Mobed from Iran is helped by his wife when performing ceremonies. The authenticity of this tradition is confirmed by lines in the Herbedestan text in which a question is asked which makes it clear that it was quite well established that both women and men might attend priestly college. And yet there are Parsees who find the thought of a female undertaking priestly duties revolting – so much for enlightened thinking and traditions supported by historical literary sources. (at the time of writing this article recently 8 female Mobedyars were confirmed in Iran)
Notwithstanding all oppression suffered since the Arab conquest of Iran from 632 AD, ours has always been an optimistic and joyous community which has celebrated life, the wonders of nature and the goodness of humankind. We have therefore found every opportunity to make music and dance, drink and eat together. Our festivals have always allowed our communities to laugh and have fun together and the most joyous of all festivals is our spring celebration of Novruz. Among peoples of Iranian origin is understood as meaning a New Day or New Year. Yet it seems more faithfully celebrated and understood elsewhere outside Iran than among Parsees and this is both surprising and saddening. Why is it that the people of Tajikistan still prepare a Haft sheen/Haftsin table, as do the Azaris and the Kurds but our Parsee co-religionists not only do not prepare a special table in a celebration of Ahura Mazda's bounty, but fail to celebrate the significance of the arrival of spring. How could it be that that the spring equinox holds no special meaning beyond yet another visit to the temple and maybe sending cards out while they celebrate something akin to Novruz in the middle of summer.? Where is the merry making, the genuine joy and the pleasure of seeing God's good creation renewing itself through the laws of nature, of Asha when the planets are so aligned that the life of plants, birds and animals wakes up again.
Weddings are another example of things done differently. Our wedding celebration does not consist of much reciting of prayers in a language that is pretty much incomprehensible to most Farsi/Dari speaking Zoroastrians. Of course the preservation of the ritual language has its place but it is not interminable. Instead the majority of time is spent by the celebrant of the wedding giving prescribed advice (andarz) to the young couple in an intelligible language so that their lives may be lived according to true Zoroastrian values and principles. It is a truly inspiring liturgy which is lost on those who cannot understand the language and therefore it has now been translated noy just into Farsi but also into English and French and is used for ceremonies where the couples (usually living in Britain or North America) no longer speak Farsi as fluently as they do English or for mixed weddings.
There is nothing reprehensible about updating the liturgy so that it can be really meaningful and communicate an important message as it was intended to do. We do not see it as a cardinal principle to remain entrenched in the past and not change. Our religion is supposed to be based on rational enlightened thinking and we need to take sensible steps to ensure that the dynamic message of the Gathas is not lost through sticking to languages and practices that were developed for different times and different conditions. After all much of the Avesta that we recite is actually merely a translation or commentary on an older language – eg in our koshti prayer. Humata hukhta hvaresta, meneshni govenshni koneshni but here the second triad is merely a translation of the older first triad, and then we have tani ravani giti mainyu where the first pair are the more modern version of the second
Another example of difference is minor but some may find it interesting to know that in Iranian weddings we don't sprinkle rice upon or hold a coconut over the couple but a green scented herb similar to oregano – obshan - which conveys the concepts of fertility, health sustaining and fragrant happiness. We do have in common the symbolism of tying the thread but we represent it differently and so on. We certainly do not ever use the SEJ(?) tray.
The principle of dynamic evolution can also be seen at work in discussing the use of dakhma and cremation. In Iran the use of dakhma or the Tower of Silence was given up as a result of social change in the late first half of the 20th century. As cremation became available, many Iranians opted for this sort of disposal rather than purification within the earth which was seen as un –Zoroastrian since the earth was provided to give forth life-sustaining crops and flowers etc. There was no question of defilement of fire as nothing can defile something which is inherently self purifying by its very nature. However where cremation is not an option, then burial has to be the alternative.
The change from dakhma to other forms of funerary rite was not resisted by the majority of the population and clearly did not cause major traumas for the community.
Iranians do not get very excited about whether the fire in their temples is fed by natural gas or sandalwood and recognise that if there is shortage of one material, then a sensible rational solution must be sought through a new channel of thinking. Indeed judging by the large logs of sandal wood I have seen here ready for the holy fire, I would think the environmentalists among us would have plenty to worry about, although the natural gas solution also poses its own environmental issues. Replacement planting at the ratio of 1:10 cut down trees would be a way forward of course. Meanwhile, there are no messages being put out by any Iranian priests or sages to the effect that we will be condemned to hell for not using sandalwood again as I have heard claimed by some Parsee scholars?
Some Parsees appear to be very passionate about the use of Nirang, or consecrated bulls urine whose use in Iran was referred to in the Rivayat texts about which I will speak shortly.. In fact it was still in use at the time of my grandfather and even my mother's childhood. So there was no loss of tradition during the downtrodden period of our history. . There was however a re-thinking of its real function ( which at a certain époque acted as a disinfectant) and it was agreed that it was not perhaps no longer as essential in keeping the religion alive. Some priests now use pomegranate juice instead for ritual symbolic purposes.
And the question of the segregation of menstruating women had an equally practical reason which no longer applies today – women are no longer in need of a well deserved break from the heavy lifting and carrying work they used to do in the villages of Iran (e.g carrying pitchers of water up dozens of steps, carrying heavy wood, iron implements and cooking vessels, sweeping and cleaning etc ), nor are they likely to experience embarrassing situations in a public space. I do not say that some people do not still observe the custom of not entering sanctified areas at a certain time of month but on questioning my friends, family and acquaintances, I can say that it is rare.
The point is that such matters were not spelt out in the Gathas, but became the obsession of a priestly caste that wished to keep the people in its thrall, ironically exactly what Zartosht himself denounced in the Gathas when Karapans (priests) were using their powers to get a hold over people How do we know what is or was the message of our founding prophet? Well, apart from oral transmission and handing down of tradition through families, some texts were secretly preserved. These were usually among priestly families such as my own which yielded a chest full of faithfully copied manuscripts, saved despite the many public burnings in front of the priests' eyes in Islamic Iran. Textual specialists have translated both the oral and written texts. Having spoken with some Parsee priests, I was informed that in their madressa training, they did not study the meanings of the texts but were merely taught the correct recitals and rituals pertaining to them. Interestingly, the primacy of the Gathic texts were not discussed either. Now this is a critical matter because any serious student of Zoroastrianism is well aware that the Gathas constitute the fundamental core of Zoroastrian philosophy. They are admittedly difficult for several reasons : language, content, dating. Nevertheless the maybe 20 different translations (among which Stanley Insler's is considered the most authoritative and from which Dastur Kotwal has quoted - on account of his outstanding linguistic competence and his deep empathy with Zoroastrian values), all reveal consistently that Zoroaster believes he must spread the message he has had revealed to him by Ahura Mazda. His mission is therefore to extend the community of Ashavan ie those who want to become happy by making others happy – propagating good and overcoming negative energies – encapsulated in the Ashem Vohu prayer.
The Videvdat which developed the purity laws and which was the precursor of the Vendidad only appeared towards the end of the fist millennium about one thousand years after the divine revelation of our prophet. Later, at the time of the fall of the Sassanian dynasty (closely associated with the priesthood), there was certainly an unhealthy concern among priests about retaining the power they wielded through the further imposition of a whole host of religious dogma and ritual introduced by Kartir a couple of centuries earlier. Among the many theories for the success of Islam in Iran, is one that states that many people gladly gave up the overbearing ritual requirements made on the laity by the priests which involved economic demands , and sadly there are still some similar ego obsessed priests in our midst even today who impose their views on the laity as to what is or is not correct practice and belief.
It may be a little known fact to most Zoroastrians that with the passing of several centuries after their arrival in India, the Parsees had lost a lot of their knowledge about the practice and beliefs within the religion. It is nevertheless a fact that cannot be challenged. Furthermore there is good written evidence of all of this in documents known as the Rivayats which are accessible to all of us translated into English in 1932 by B N Dhabhar. The Parsee communities of Surat and of Navsari sent envoys to Iran to ask for guidance because they had lost confidence. They first sent out a brave Parsee named Nariman Hoshang over to Iran twice in 1478 and 1487 to seek advice on the correctness or otherwise of a number of issues.
The questions asked on behalf of the Parsee community included the right to recognition of Zoroastrians who had converted into the faith or who have been forced to espouse Islam but want to return. The responses from the Iranian priests on these occasions and all future exchanges right up till the last visit in the late 18th century constantly confirm the views of the Zoroastrian clergy of Iran that it is right, proper and meritorious and fully in the spirit of the message of Zoroaster that our faith should welcome those who have chosen of their own free will to heed the message of our religion.
"If slave-boys and girls have faith in the Good Religion, then it is proper that kusti should be (given to them to be) tied [that is, they should be converted to Zoroastrianism], and when they become intelligent, attentive to religion and steadfast, they should give them barashnum and it is also proper and allowable to eat anything out of their hands"!
They went further by expressing disapproval of the hypocritical Parsee tendency to treat their servants as if of the faith when it suited them and to deny them appropriate funerary rites. We also have the 1599 Kaus Mahyar Rivayat whose question includes categories from even lower-deemed persons:
"Can a grave-digger, a corpse-burner and a darvand become Behdins (i.e. be converted to the Mazdayasnian religion)?" gives as an answer: "If they observe the rules of religion steadfastly and (keep) connection with the religion, and if no harm comes on the Behdins (thereby), it is proper and allowable"!
The final quote I wish to bring to your attention comes from the last rivayat exchange known as the Ittoter Rivayat of 1773 Mulla Kaus was sent from India and asked 78 questions among them: "Concerning the acquisition of young men and women who are juddins as servants, the mobeds and behdins must first of all show care for their own religion, for their own rituals, for their personal property, and for their own soul so as not to face losses. TEACHING THE AVESTA TO THE SONS OF THE JUDDINS WHO HAVE BEEN ACQUIRED AND CONVERTING THEM TO THE DIN-I VEH-I MAZDAYASNAN EARNS ONE GREAT MERIT"
It is apparent when today comparing the varying complexions of Parsees, that some interbreeding with local indigenous people certainly did take place, since there were few women accompanying the courageous pioneers immortalized in the Qissa Sanjan and even as late as the 18th century since the question was posed then, it is evident that it was going on. The message is that all our welcome within our community, provided they have had proper instruction.
The fact that the Parsee community continued to send envoys to Iran over 3 centuries to seek guidance is adequate indication that they must have accepted the Iranian tradition as both correct and acceptable.
Knowing about this long background of toleration helps explain how Iranian Zoroastrians have kept this true Gathic spirit alive throughout the centuries. Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that our late High Priest, Mobed Ardeshir Azargoshasb whose erudition and authority as Head of the Iranian Mobed's council is indisputable despite efforts to undermine our High Priests' learning and knowledge, published a newspaper statement in 1991 in Parsiana (despite the evident dangers of doing so) "WE MUST PERSEVERE TO PROPAGATE OUR RELIGION AND ACCEPT PERSONS WHO WANT TO EMBRACE IT."
Naturally he could not say this in Iran, and today because of the prevailing circumstances our mobeds still cannot publicly condone this stance officially. Interestingly this Iranian perspective was shared by Parsee mobeds as recently as in the 20th century when a number of eminent Parsee dasturs (Ervads Bharucha, Modi and Kangaji) who held a similar view, stated publicly and unambiguously that our initiation ceremony contains a declaration of faith including the statement that Zartosht came for the propagation of God's message. Other eminent Parsee Dasturs who shared the same view were Dasturs Framroze Bode, Anklesaria and Kaikhosro Jamaspji.
The choice to propagate the religious message of Asho Zartosht has continued even despite the severe hardships which have been the unfortunate experience of Iranian Zoroastrians to undergo in the years following the Islamic revolution. Working with the Home Office and Immigration Appellate in the UK I have been surprised and impressed by the Zoroastrians who have had to flee Iran because they have chosen to continue the tradition of propagating our religion to those who seek information. They have chosen this path despite the obvious personal danger they put themselves into because they are clear about the several explicit verses in the Gathas which exhort followers to undertake this mission which can be found explicitly in Yasna 31.3 and 47.6.
This Gathic message was echoed in the inscriptions of both Darius and Xerxes with clear indications that they both felt a compulsion to spread the religion, even by force if need be, by eliminating competing religions in the lands they conquered. The same attitude was practised by a number of Sassanian monarchs and well attested. This willingness to spread the religion whenever possible is a consistent approach which has continued unabated within the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition when opportunities have arisen.
In keeping with the Zoroastrian Iranian authorities referred to earlier which in turn have their reference from the Gathas, we have always welcomed into our community a spouse from a different background and naturally the children of such unions. A similarly welcoming approach applies to children who are adopted of non-zoroastrian birth and who are raised within a Zoroastrian household to go on to marry within the community. Our priests have never had a difficulty with this matter and have only refused to conduct such marriages if it is evident that problems will arise from such a union – a view voiced back in 1599 in the Mahyar Kaus Rivayat. We certainly find it quite inhumane and unnatural that some Parsees are so dogmatic as to prefer to reject their own children and grandchildren by cutting off relations with them rather than using the Zoroastrian qualities of wise thinking to accommodate them into the community. And what is worse, to differentiate in the acceptance of offspring between sons and daughters.
In ignoring our history reflected in textual sources, and by reference simply to what has been done in living memory, and by failing to bring clarity of rational thinking to the debates, and instead relying on mindless dogma, certain priests do us all a disservice in misrepresenting our beautiful forward thinking philosophy which uplifts the soul and offers a way forward with gender equality, environmental concern and positive philanthropic messages for all humanity. How then could we justify restricting it only to those who think they have some superior genetic/racial composition? They are the backward thinking benighted souls of our community and yet their voices have held sway and bullied us just as they did in Sassanian times, and even recently, much to our shame, they have resorted to violence as we read and hear. . They should not be allowed to prevail as they corrupt the really radical optimism of our religion.
KHSHNAOTHRE AHURAHE MAZDAO