Writing on Zoroastrianism this time was a great experience. Although, I had written about it and spoken about it many times, but never in such great length and depth especially about the Parsi language. Probably, because I’m now matured enough to this and write without bias, and put forward the right picture based on the research and experience I’ve gathered. The most interesting thing that I find about my religion is that we always make immense contribution to India’s welfare and progress economically, but still we are almost invisible. A community so tiny, Indians hardly notice us, except for those who have friends that are Parsis and Iranis. To conclude my series, I am digging deeper into contemporary issues that haunt the community. I hope I am not upsetting any fellow community member with this blog. If anybody is, let me admit right up front that I don’t intend to. I am just putting down my feelings and I’m entitled to do that on my blog.
The funny part that I’ve experienced as a ‘bawa’ is that people instantly think of me as a rich guy. Of course, there is no doubt that most of the Parsis and Iranis are elite class citizens, that stay in luxurious apartments and have up-market residential address to boast about, but that’s only most of, not all. There is a section which is very middle-class, that works hard to make both ends meet, and that struggle like any other Indian family. This clearly indicates that Indians at large never really know what goes on within this tiny community, which is not even 0.1% of India’s total population. Yes, you heard it right, we are around 0.006% of India’s population (as per 2001 population survey) and the numbers are rapidly declining. I’ll come to this later. What I want to say here is that many Indians perceive us as educated and classy citizens that are always ready to serve our people, our community and our country at large. However, that does not mean that we have no personal and community issues at all.
Since I just mentioned about the population of the Parsi and Irani community, let me start with that. There is no doubt that the number of Parsis and Iranis left in the country is nose-diving at the moment. The population of Zoroastrian community drops by 10% every decade and many people claim that the community is sitting on a ticking time-bomb that may explode someday and vanish forever. I agree with the fact that the population is rapidly declining, because there are more funerals in our community per day than birthday celebrations. However, I completely disagree with the fact that we are running out of time and may soon disappear from the face of the earth. The reason why I disagree is these numbers don’t count Parsis and Iranis that have married to people of other religion, especially women who have married to men of other religion. Similarly, the numbers do not count or take into consideration kids of those women, even if the women is keenly interested in allowing their kid to become a Parsi. Discounting so many women and kids certainly leaves a vacuum in the population count and considers only those who are Parsis/Iranis and married within the community.
On the other hand, while Parsis and Iranis are known for being the educated class people the community disregards certain women issues. We provide our daughters with the best of the education available that would allow them to seek better future and life, but when these young women fall in love with men of a different religion, we instantly ostracize them and their rights to be a Parsi or Irani. The concept of inter-caste marriage is not readily accepted within the community and therefore when a woman marries a Hindu or a Christian man, she is denied of her rights to visit the fire temple or even to attend a funeral of her parents and loved ones. However, when a man marries a Hindu or any other religion girl, he still continues to be a Parsi and enjoy all the rights. This is deeply rooted with the patriarchal community concept where the blood of the father gets more importance than that of a mother and probably that is why orthodox Parsis do not accept such kids are Parsis. The importance of mother’s blood get diluted and she is considered as an ‘outsider’ by the same community in which she was born and raised. This gender based discrimination is certainly at the heart of the debate between the orthodox Parsis and new age reformists that believe that such discrimination will only lead to the extinction of the community in the near future.
One of the reasons why Parsi population has been declining is also because not many are focused about getting married. This is completely my own experience, so if anybody not agreeing on this can choose to say I’m wrong. Like boys, girls get the same level of education and opportunities. Girls definitely go on to pursue higher degrees and education while boys are more focused on jobs and earning the income as quickly as possible. This means that girls are highly educated and secure better jobs than boys. Obviously, when girls want to marry, they start search for partners that at least has the same level of educational qualification, or financial capability that they seek. This process takes time and many girls cross the age of 35 and above by the time they find their well-educated and well-to-do partner. This makes it even tough for them to narrow down their search at such age. Boys, on the other hand, go ahead and marry girls from other religion and have their own family, if they don’t find a suitable Parsi girl, since they are not going to be ostracized for marrying a non-Parsi. Apart from this, in a megacity like Mumbai where majority of the Parsis and Iranis live boys and girls get the liberty to choose their partners, and therefore they are not very keen on choosing a partner from within the community. Some, who live abroad, fall in love and marry Christians abroad and get settle over there.
Keeping up with the old traditions in a modern world can be a tough challenge. Parsis and Iranis have a unique way of disposing the dead bodies. The funeral procession starts with a prayer and mourners pay their last respects and then the body is taken to a huge open well where the corpse is devoured by birds of prey – in this case, it is the vulture. Zoroastrians believe that corpse is impure, and therefore it will only pollute the elements of nature (earth, water, fire and air). For many centuries, Parsis have relied on vultures to dispose the dead body in a natural way giving the body back to the nature. However, over a period of time, the number of vultures have declined drastically. While the vultures are quick at eating the flesh, less number of vultures mean more corpses lying in the well before being devoured and that can be emotionally very disturbing. Solar concentrators have been proposed by sections of the society, but solar concentrators do not work efficiently on a cloudy day. There is another section of the society that is focusing on reviving the population of vultures through sanctuary that can help the community to resolve this major and controversial issue.
These issues continue to haunt the community and the battle between the orthodox section and the new age reformists is still on, both firmly taking their own stand. I think it works very much like the battle between the good and the evil forces that are mentioned in the holy books. It ultimately depends on our choices that we make and whom we side with in this epic battle. It is the community that has to come together and take the right decision for the community that will lead to a better future and continue to survive and pass on the knowledge of Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds to the next generation who will be the torchbearers of one of the oldest religions in the world.