Back in 1999, when Internet was a new term for me, I started my online writing journey on Yahoo! Geocities that allows subscribers to create their own Web pages through their online software. At that point of time, I was not a blog writer, ghostwriter or a content writer that I am now, but now when I take a look back, I realize that writing was somewhere deep in my DNA and I had this urge to write and communicate with the people. Anyways, since I was not that smart enough then, I wrote my first blog about my religion. I can’t reproduce that page, so I am going with the all-new fresh version.
So, why am I writing about my religion all of sudden? Two reasons. One I always meet new people in India who practically have no information, very less information or false information about it, so they end up asking me more about its background. Second, it has been a long time I wrote anything on it. Most Indians only know that we are fire-worshippers, but a lot remains under the carpet. Earlier, I had thought of writing a one single blog on it, but I think it will be too long to read. So, I will break it up into smaller segments. I will start this series with the history and then blog-by-blog I will jump on to other segments like food, contemporary issues and so on that I want people to know. I hope I do justice to it, if anybody feels my content is inappropriate or not completely true, please feel free to comment below.
Zoroastrianism is the actual word for the religion that I am born into, but majority of the Indian people call us “Parsis”. I will explain that in a minute, but globally Zoroastrianism is also known as Mazdaism and Zarthustraism. With the roots in eastern region of ancient Persian Empire, Zoroastrianism is considered to be one of the oldest monotheistic Iranian religions and we have historic data that proves that we were on top of our game in the Persian Empire during the 6th Century BC. Historians claim that Zoroastrianism has influenced other religions across the globe like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Before I move forward, let me answer the “Parsi” terminology thing. The word “Parsi” comes from the word “Persian”. We are Persian immigrants in India and therefore in India, we are called as Parsis or Parsees.
Founded by Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster or Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism is not as aggressively monotheistic as Judaism and Islam, but it does represent the idea of worshipping of one Supreme God (Ahura Mazda). It also gave out the concept of ever-lasting battle between the Good and the Bad, where the Good will ultimately win the battle. However, it does focus on human effort to overcome the challenges mentally, spiritually and physically that we later on see in many religions where it is said that man has to resist temptations of all kinds and fight a battle in the mind to overcome certain challenges to stay pure. Zoroastrianism is an optimistic religion because the focus is always on hard work, focus, dedication, discipline and human effort. The first ever records of Zoroastrianism enter written records in 5th Century BC Herodotus’ The Histories.
Zoroaster was a priest who strongly believed in the power of Almighty Ahura Mazda. He believed in the concept of all men worshipping one Supreme God – Ahura Mazda, but at that time the religion of the Achaemenids was divided into tribes and Magi (followers of Zoroaster). It was under the Cyrus the Great (590 – 529 BC) that unification of all tribes happened. In the Bible, Cyrus the Great is also been credited for freeing the Jewish captives in Babylonia and allowing them to return to their homeland. Cyrus the Great was tolerant and he allowed people to follow their religion while on the parallel side, Zoroastrianism flourished. Zoroastrianism’s holy books are called the Avesta, which contains sacred texts initially passed down orally from one generation to the next before they were converted into writing. The books have 17 chapters known as “Gathas”; Zoroastrian hymns attributed to the prophet himself.
In 522 BC, Darius, son of Cyrus the Great seized power and faced many challenges to keep up the empire of his father. He also had to restore the religious chaos across the Persian Empire as there were many people following their own pagan Gods. Darius decided to bring the entire Persian Empire under one single religion and he adopted Zoroastrianism to unify his empire.
Xerxes, son and successor of Darius is best known for his massive invasion of Greece from across the Hellespont. It was his defeating campaign that marked the beginning of the Achaemenian Empire. Thereafter, Alexander the Great invaded the Persepolis and subsequently destroyed and burned the entire city including the royal library that had sacred texts, many of the texts were later rewritten by the scholars and high profile men.
After this, the Persian Empire saw the rise and fall of the Sassanian dynasty in 224 BC, but was overthrown by the Arabs. The Empire was quickly Islamicized under the Umayyad Caliphate. Zoroastrians came under some serious social pressures to convert to Islam. It was at this time that Zoroastrians decided to look for another safe haven and resulted in a large-scale migration. Zoroastrians left their homeland and harbored their ships in “Sanjan” located in Gujarat, western coast of India.
The Story of Sanjan or Qissa-e-Sanjan text focuses on what happened to the early Zoroastrian settlers when they tried entering India. The story is signed by a high priest named Bahman Kaikobad. It claims that when Zoroastrians tried entering the western coast of India, they were not permitted access. The high priest visited the local Hindu King, Jadi Rana requesting them to allow access and in return they would follow their rules. The Hindu King lifted a bowl of milk and said to the high priest that – “Do you see this bowl? My kingdom is already filled with too many people and there is no place”. In reply, the Zoroastrian high priest took a spoonful of sugar and added the sugar to the bowl. He said, “we will be like the sugar. We will not take much space and will make your kingdom sweeter than ever before”. Zoroastrians got the access and Zoroastrians became Parsis in India.
However, there are many studies and excavation materials that indicate that Zoroastrians were settled in India before this story was documented. Recent excavations claim that early Zoroastrians were traders and they chose Gujarat not because they were persecuted in Iran by the Muslim rulers, but because Gujarat had many ports beneficial for trade. The excavations also revealed many Iranian and Chinese wares date back to 8th to 13th Century. During the rise of the Sassanian dynasty many Zoroastrian traders might have contacted traders in India and would have been trading across the Arabian Sea. It is also debated that the Hindu King allowed access to Zoroastrians knowing the trading capabilities and benefits that it will bring to the local land. The concept of “sugar to the milk” is often related with adding “money to the economy”, but that is debatable.
To wrap it up, I would like to share that the most important ethical principal of Zoroastrianism is Humata – Hukhta – Huvereshta which translates as Good Thoughts – Good Words – Good Deeds. This hasn’t changed for all these years and that sums up the core of any Zoroastrian follower not just in India, but across the globe.
In my next blog, I will cover the journey of Zoroastrians after their settlement across India, their role in British India and the development of Mumbai and Gujarat.