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The Parsees, their History and contribution to the Indian Society


The Parsees, Their History, Religion And Contribution To Indian Society

By Noshir H. Dadrawala

The Parsis are followers of one of the oldest, if not the oldest revealed religion in the world - Zoroastrianism. Globally, as a community, the Parsis number barely a hundred thousand. But it is not by numbers that this community can be judged, for no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi has acknowledged: "I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy, perhaps unequalled, certainly unsurpassed."

According to the last census for 1991, the Parsis in India number 76,382 of which as many as 53,794 are concentrated in the city of Bombay (Mumbai).

The Parsis came to India sometime around the 10th century A.D. to escape Arab persecution in Persia which began in the 7th century. Their history in Persia goes back to prehistoric times when Peshdadian kings were known as the "original law givers" and worshipped Mazda, the one and only "Lord of Wisdom". After the Peshdadians came the Kayanian dynasty, during which period the blessed prophet Zarathushtra was born.

Confusion still persists amongst scholars about the exact date and place of Zarathushtra's birth. Some scholars relying upon various Greek sources push Zarathushtra's date of birth back to the 7th millennium B.C. Others place it somewhere between 1800 and 1500 B.C. Oral Zoroastrian tradition places his birth sometime around 6000 B.C.

The first recorded history of Iran begins with Cyrus the Great who laid the foundation of the mighty Achaemenian empire. Cyrus (born 599 B.C.) has been referred to by scholars and historians as "the most outstanding person of the ancient world" and architect of the first "world empire".

Despite the vastness of his empire and the strength of his army, Cyrus remained a benevolent and tolerant king. In an age seeped in cruelty, slavery and the law of "might is right", he gave humanity the first bill of "Human Rights", declaring, among others, man's right to freedom of religion, opinion, expression and free movement.

Cyrus ruled his empire wisely and justly. Law and order was so strictly observed that it gave rise to the phrase, "The Laws of the Medes and the Persians"(Daniel VI, 8) or laws that were immutable.

Cyrus liberated the Jews by conquering Babylon and even helped them to rebuild the temple of Solomon with funds from Persian coffers.

After Cyrus, Darius ascended the throne. His empire extended from the river Danube in Europe to the river Indus in India and from central Asia to the north-eastern parts of Africa, comprising 23 great nations of the ancient world.

Ages before Ferdinand de Lesseps thought of the Suez Canal, Darius connected the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea by means of a canal to stimulate trade and commerce. He pioneered the world's first postal service. In fact, Herodotus notes, "Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers."

Darius also built Persepolis which was further developed by his son Xerxes, but also destroyed in a drunken fit by Alexander whom the Persians, even today, regard as the accursed. After the fall of the Achaemenian empire, there was chaos for some time and a weak attempt was made by the Parthians to revive the ancient glory of Persia. This, however, was achieved in a large measure by the Sasanian kings, starting with its founder, Ardishir. The Sasanian king, Shapur, also defeated the Great Roman Emperor, Valerian, and the empire of Khusroo Perviz was almost as large as that of Darius the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty.

The mighty Sasanian empire fell in the seventh century A.D. when the last king Yezdagird Shehriar was defeated at the hands of the Arab hordes. The Arab Muslims began to persecute the Zoroastrians and when religious intolerance reached a head, a few pious Zoroastrians left their beloved motherland of Iran and set sail for the hospitable Indian shores to preserve their identity, religion and culture. Ever since the community has contributed to the development and growth of the nation, spreading richness and lustre just the way the leader of the Parsis who came from Iran had promised the local Indian chieftan, Jadi Rana, by dropping a gold ring in a bowl of milk symbolically placed before them.

There is hardly a discipline or human endeavour in which the Parsis have not demonstrated excellence. The armed forces, industry, science, medicine, sports, politics, philanthrophy, you name it, and a Parsi contribution will be conspicuous.

The first elected Indian member of the British Parliament in 1892 was Dr. Dadabhoy Naoroji - a Parsi. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta was elected, on several occasions, President of the Indian National Congress, the Bombay Corporation and Bombay Presidency Association. The revolutionary Madam Bhikhaiji Cama was the first Indian (and Parsi) to unfurl the Indian National flag in Germany (1907).

The Wadias were master-builders, while the Tatas gave India not just its first steel industry, but also hydro-electricity. Most of these families who generated wealth through industrial development put back the wealth in trust for the welfare of the people. The Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, for example, gave India its first Institute of Science in Bangalore, the first cancer hospital in Bombay, the first institute of social sciences, the first institute of fundamental research and a National Centre for the Performing Arts.

The British Government granted Baronetcy and knighthood on three Parsis - Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Sir Dinshaw M. Petit and Sir Cowasjee Jehangir, an honour which has no parallel in Indian history. Dr. K.N. Bahadurjee was the first Indian to pass the M.D. examination in London and worked tirelessly during the plague in Bombay, laying down his life at the age of 38. Dr. Rustom Jal Vakil has been referred to, in international journals, as "the father of Indian cardiology".

India's first and only Field Marshal has been Sam Maneckshaw. Admiral Jal Cursetji has also been Chief of Naval Staff, while Air-Marshal Minoo Engineer was the most highly decorated air-marshal in Indian air-force history.

India's first Atomic Research Centre is named after Dr. Homi Bhabha - a brilliant Parsi scientist, while Zubin Mehta is a household name all over the world as far as Western classical music is concerned.

The list is almost endless. It may be rightly questioned - what makes the Parsi community tick? The answer is simple - their religious philosophy towards life and ethos for industry and hard work.

A true Zoroastrian does not have to go into seclusion in search of salvation. He does not have to relinquish life and become a wandering monk to subdue his senses and emotion. He does not have to withdraw into isolation, contemplating or meditating upon the knowledge that could gain freedom for his soul. He does not have to fast or perform penance or torture his body in order to conquer illusion and ignorance. On the contrary, he must put into practice, the philosophy of life that his beloved prophet Zarathushtra has taught, i.e., to fight evil, to fashion his character amidst the everyday experiences of joy and sorrow, goodness and evil, to destroy Satan's sway and to establish Ahura Mazda's Kingdom on earth.

A Zoroastrian does not consider life as maya or an illusion. If he considers himself apart from Ahura Mazda, he does not believe this is due to his ignorance or sin. The link that binds him to Ahura Mazda is similar to that which binds a father to his son. The son enjoys the same independent existence that the father enjoys. The ultimate aim of a Zoroastrian is not to seek salvation of his own soul through knowledge, but through the spiritual knowledge bequeathed by his great prophet, he has to strengthen himself for the victory of the spirit and the conquest over evil. He has to live in the world and work for the welfare of humanity. If he were to meditate with folded arms and attain the highest spiritual enlightenment but fail to cultivate the quality of diligence for the welfare of this temporal world, he is not the beloved of Ahura Mazda.

If Christ asked his followers to love their neighbours, Zarathushtra asked his followers to attain happiness by making others happy.

Many religions have looked down upon wealth and believed that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" or that wealth is maya or illusion and creates bondage. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, considers wealth to be fundamentally positive, provided it is put to judicious use and used for the well-being of others.

In fact, no other quality has brought so much fame to the Parsis as their charities - cosmopolitan as well as communal. Renowned researcher, Dr. E. Kulke, in 'The Parsis in India' (1974) writes, "This charity system was made possible and furthered by the basic attitude of the Parsis motivated by their religion, that wealth is fundamentally positive, that it brings, however, certain social obligations along with it."

Zarathushtra's teachings are mainly enshrined in his divine hymns called the 'Gathas'. These hymns are in a language known as Gathic Avestan or Old Avestan and were orally transmitted, for many centuries, and only at a later date, were they written down.

Asha, which has been variously translated as Truth, Righteousness, Purity, occupies a pivotal position in the 'Gathas' and forms the cornerstone of Zoroastrianism. According to Zoroastrianism, Truth should be affirmed for its own sake. Mankind is taught the lofty precept that righteous acts should be performed only because they are righteous and not out of any ulterior motive of gaining a reward. Virtue is its own reward. The Ashem Vohu prayer, one of the most important prayers of Zoroastrianism, expresses this succinctly: "Righteousness is the best good (and it) is happiness. Happiness (is) to him who (is) righteous for the sake of the best righteousness."

However, Asha also carries a higher spiritual import. It is the Law Immutable, the Law Eternal, the Cosmic Law of Order and Harmony, on which the entire Universe is based. It is through Asha that Ahura Mazda created the Universe and it is through Asha that mankind will attain perfection and be one with Ahura Mazda. The Hoshbam prayer states, "Through the best Asha, through the highest Asha, may we catch sight of Thee (Ahura), may we approach Thee, may we be in perfect union with Thee!"

Asha, in fact, forms the very being of Ahura Mazda and He is also "Asha hazaosh", i.e., "of one will with Asha". In the 'Gathas', Zarathushtra talks of "the righteous paths wherein dwells Mazda Ahura" and in the Havan Geh prayer, it is stated, "We worship the Supreme Lord, Ahura Mazda, who is the Foremost in Righteousness, who hath advanced furthest in Righteousness."

It is only by walking on the path of Asha that man can attain union with his Maker. The Colophon to the Yasna is absolutely explicit on this point. "There is but one Path, that of Asha, all other paths are false paths."

But it is only with the help of Vohu Manah or the Good Mind that man can tread the path of Asha. It is the Good Mind which helps us discern the Truth. It is through the Good Mind that Zarathushtra awakes to the beneficent nature of Ahura Mazda. "Beneficent then did I think Thee, Oh Omniscient Lord! When the Good Divine Intelligence encircled me." (Y 43.9)

In Zoroastriansim, stress is laid on the Good Mind because thought, after all, is the seed of action. The three-fold triad of Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta or good thoughts, good words, good deeds is an interdependent one for it is the thought which results in the word which, in turn, gives rise to the deed.

Zarathushtra preached that thought is great but action is greater. Zoroastrianism is primarily a religion of action. Action is the key word of the religion and supreme emphasis is placed on it. In this connection, Visperad (Karda 15.1) says: "Hold ready, O Mazdayasnian Zoroastrians, your feet, your hands and your intellect, in order to perform good deeds, according to the Law and at the right time."

Again, a Zoroastrian, while performing the Kushti ritual, ties the two front knots on uttering the word "shyaothananam" which means "working". A Zoroastrian, by this act, is pledging to work for Ahura Mazda, pledging to perform good deeds for the sake of Ahura Mazda. For it is only by performing good actions that the "druj" or Lie can be kept at bay. For it is stated in the texts that whoever causes goodness injures, at the same time, the Evil Spirit.

According to Zoroastrianism, it is the sum total of a man's thoughts, words and deeds which will determine the fate of his soul in the next world - it is these thoughts, words and deeds, good or bad, which will lead his soul either to the gates of Heaven or to the pathway of Hell.

However, it is important to note that in Zoroastrianism, there is no eternal Hell. Hell is only a temporary abode for the wicked soul. At the time of the Final Judgement, all souls will pass through a river of molten metal and become cleansed and purified.

Even a cursory look at Zoroastrian theology would not be complete without a mention of the 7 Amesha Spentas or the Bounteous Immortals. These are the attributes of Ahura Mazda, aspects of His nature. At the physical level, the Amesha Spentas are represented as protectors of God's creations, e.g., the Amesha Spenta Asha Vahishta looks after Fire and the Amesha Spenta Spenta Armaiti looks after the Earth. However, at the abstract or metaphysical level, the Amesha Spentas form the "ethical infrastructure" whereby man can attain immortality.

According to the 'Zadspram', Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda several questions, one of them being, "Which thing is good, which better and which is the best of all habits?"

Ahura Mazda replied thus: "The title of the Amesha Spentas is good, the sight of them is better, and carrying out their commands is the best of all habits." ('Zadspram' 21.15-18)

In simple terms, it means that being aware of them and recognising them is good, paying them obeisance is better and actualizing them in our daily lives (by performing as many good deeds as possible and thereby spreading goodness everywhere) is best of all.

For it is only when every individual lives his life consistently according to this ethical Amesha Spenta infrastructure that evil will be vanquished and Frashokereti or the "Making Wonderful" will be ushered in and Time will cease to exist.

Zoroastrians not only respect but revere the four fundamental elements of Nature, viz., Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Polluting any one of them is considered a cardinal sin. Conversely, Ahura Mazda is pleased when a Zoroastrian protects these elements and offers them worship. In fact, scholars have referred to Zoroastrianism as the world's first ecologically conscious religion.

Fire, in particular, is regarded as a symbol of the Best Righteousness (Asha Vahishta) and doctrinally regarded as the "Son of Ahura Mazda", because there is a strong affinity between Truth (represented by Fire) and Wisdom (Mazda). To a Zoroastrian, fire is a visible link with Ahura Mazda Who is not visible to us, ordinary mortals. Besides fire, Zoroastrians also revere the other elements of Nature. There is nothing pagan about it. Rather, it is a spontaneous and natural way of looking up through Nature, to Nature's God. Parsis, as a community, believe that each of the higher religions is a true vision and a right way and all of them alike are indispensable to mankind, because each gives a different glimpse of the same divine truth and each leads by a different route to the same goal of human endeavour. Each, therefore, has a special spiritual value of its own which is not to be found in any of the others. Religion is like food which we consume not merely for its nutritive value, but also for its agreeability.

God in His Wisdom has willed the many religions and beliefs to suit the diverse needs of different souls. It's like the five fingers of our hand - they function best since they are not uniform. Every religion has something of its own to give to its followers, which need not necessarily harmonize with the prescription of other religions and faiths. Take, for example, fasting. For a Hindu, it is a religious act of merit. However, for a Zoroastrian, it is an act of denial and, therefore, a sin. Yet both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are true and lead their followers in their own way to God.

Says Coomara-Swamy, "There are many paths that lead to the same mountain; their differences will be more apparent the lower down we are, but they vanish at the peak; each will naturally take the one that starts from the point at which he finds himself; he who goes round about looking for another is not climbing. Never let us approach another believer to ask him to become one of us, but approach him with respect as one who is already one of his, who is, and from whose invariable beauty all contingent being depends."

A hundred years ago, Swami Vivekanand said at the Parliament of the World's Religions, "The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the other and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth."

This is exactly what conservative Parsis in India have been propagating and practising, for the past ten centuries in India. The Parsis, by a very large majority in India and to a certain extent, also in the West, are against conversion, for they sincerely believe that Truth is not the monopoly of the Zoroastrian religion only. A change over from one religion to another must mean the other is lacking either in quality or content. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "All religions are branches of the same mighty tree, but one must not change from one branch to another for the sake of expediency. By doing so, one cuts the very branch on which he sits."

Yes, the fundamental principles of the Zoroastrian religion, like any other, are universal in nature and it is open for anyone to walk the path of Asha or imbibe in one's life, the moral and ethical code of truth, justice, charity and love as propounded by Zarathushtra. But one need not necessarily renounce one's own religion in order to incorporate these values in one's daily life.

By the middle of the 6th century B.C., the Empire of Cyrus the Great stretched from the Iranian plateau to Asia Minor and parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the Achaemenid dynasty he founded was renowned for its religious tolerance and peace. Cyrus liberated the Jews from their exile in Babylon, giving them the resources to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, he is therefore hailed as the Lord's Anointed (Messiah), a unique reference to a foreign king in Jewish literature.

In the 6th century A.C., the Sasanian monarch, Hormazd IV decreed that Christians and other groups should not be persecuted. He is believed to have said, "Even as our royal throne cannot stand upon its two front legs without the back ones, so also our government cannot stand and be secure, if we incense the Christians and the adherents of other religions who are not of our faith." (Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices" by Dr. Mary Boyce, London, 1979)

In conclusion, we can do no better than quote Tryon Edwards: "What we need in religion is not new light, but new sight; not new paths, but new strength to walk in the old ones; not new duties but new strength from on high to fulfill those that are plain before us."

Zoroastrians followers of Prophet Zarathushtra in Western Australia

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