Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Diaspora: A Talk by Khojeste Mistree

What the Diaspora can do for India and what India can do for the Diaspora

A talk given by Khojeste P Mistree at the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress, Dubai on 31st December 2009

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to give you a short presentation on a theme titled, “What the Diaspora can do for India and India can do for the Diaspora.” This paper is based upon over 30 years of my studies and experience and so consider it as a point of view. Take from it what you think merits consideration and reject what you do not like, but at least allow me the courtesy to express my observations freely and frankly based upon years of scholarship and research.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “Diaspora” means the dispersion of a group of people or a community to different parts of the world. In our case, it refers to the dispersion from India, Pakistan and Iran of pockets of our Parsi Irani Zoroastrians, who have mainly in the last 50 years, moved and settled in different areas of the world. Although India may be seen as part of the earliest Diaspora, by virtue of over a 1000-year period of history, during which the Zoroastrians of Iran, i.e. the Parsis, settled here, India has nevertheless, over the centuries, become the institutional home of Zoroastrianism, while Iran is the land of our ancestors where our faith began and our recorded history unfolded, and where today a sizeable number of the Iranian Zoroastrians continue to live.

It is noteworthy that only in Iran, India and Pakistan; we continue to have consecrated Fire Temples and other religious institutions, such as Towers of Silence and priestly schools. From this observable fact, a need arises to preserve, perpetuate and safeguard these institutions and the practices of the faith, if the power bases of the religion, both in India and Iran, are to continue to give sustenance to those in the Diaspora.

When a young child from America or the UK comes to do his Navar or navjote ceremony in India, it is in recognition of the fact, that India has nurtured such religious institutions. Such an act can be seen as a responsive Diasporic move; to perpetuate a tradition comprising of a sacred ritual through which the celebrant, re-establishes one’s religious bond with the home country. This act strengthens not just the community in the Diaspora but the mother base as well. Therefore, there is an umbilical connection between India and Iran on the one hand and the modern Diaspora on the other. This umbilical connection must be sustained, nurtured and passed on, by recognizing the importance of receiving spiritual and community inputs from India, or for that matter, from Iran.

It is worth while to note, that during the 1000 years of settlement in India, strong religious and community institutions were created, making India and Mumbai in particular, a power centre of religious and community affairs. The community’s dispersion over the recent years, in contrast to the earlier Indian settlement has been mainly due to a quest for better education and economic benefit, owing to which, thousands of Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians have settled abroad; probably today falling broadly into a category of being second or even third generation migrants. Today host countries such as the UK, Europe, Canada, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have gladly accepted our community members and so there has been a genuine redistribution of our community’s population over the last five decades. Much has been said about our dwindling numbers, in India, Pakistan and Iran, but let us see whether this drop is as significant, as it is made out to be.

The Parsi Iranian Zoroastrian Population

According to the Indian census figure of 1961, the Parsi population in India was 100,772. The total Parsi and Irani Zoroastrian population the world over in 1961 was not much more than 140,772 individuals comprising of 100,772 in India, 29,000 in Iran, 5,000 in Pakistan, 3,000 in the UK, 2,000 in the USA and Canada and 2,000 elsewhere in the world.

What is the guestimate figure today? As per the Indian census figure of 2001, the Parsi population is estimated to be 69,601; And the total Parsi Irani Zoroastrian population worldwide is presently estimated to be around 126,000. However, if I take some new figures given to me at the Congress, by M/s. Bomi Patel, President of FEZANA and Dorab Mistry former President, ZTFE – UK then our population goes up to nearly 142,000 which is more than the 1961 figure.

In 2001 the Parsi Irani population in India as per the census is 69,601, North America 33,000, Iran 25,000, UK/Europe 6,000, Australia / New Zealand 3,500, Middle East 2,000, Pakistan 1,700, elsewhere 1,000, this total should come to 141,801 individuals. I had taken the figure of 20,000 in North America, 4,500 for UK / Europe, bringing my total figure to 126,301 Zoroastrians with the other population figures remaining the same.

Clearly, I am not including converts or neo-Zoroastrians, whose numbers are claimed to be far in excess to that of the Parsi Iranian Zarthoshti population, globally; for example, on the website the population figure given for Zoroastrians is 2.6 million and the World Christian Encyclopaedia edited by David Barrett, a figure of 2.54 million has been given by the publishers. If we, in any way accept these converts, we must understand clearly, that as a consequence we will over a period of time, be weakening our ethnic identity and fall into a hopeless minority.

If our ethno-religious identity, which our people have carried with them from their home countries to the Diaspora, is for whatever reason dropped, then it follows that the value system and respect or “brand image” which the Parsis and Iranis as a religious community have enjoyed for centuries will be substantially weakened, if not dissolved or entirely lost. The ultimate real value of our community is in the substantive ethical obligation which a Parsi or Irani adheres to and importantly to the community’s self identification with its ethnic core. This is what our people take with them when they settle in the Diaspora. This ethos comes from an expansion of an individual’s moral capacity achieved and absorbed through an adherence to the religious precepts of the faith. For it is this ethos, emerging from the religion, which best serves the interests of our people in which ever country we choose to live in.

The Importance of Identity

Clearly, many of you by now may have understood where I am coming from. Ladies and Gentlemen, our ethnic identity is the key to our survival in the Diaspora as well as in India and Iran. If you were to ask me, as the title of my talk suggests, what India can do for the Diaspora and in return what the Diaspora can do for India, the answer lies in strengthening and nurturing our transnational Parsi Irani identity. If we weaken our ethnic identity, particularly in the Diaspora, then I foresee a major community crisis emerging in the next 50 years.

As a student of World Religions and History, I have yet to find an encouraging historical signpost to show that the religion, in our case, Zoroastrianism, has in any way or form survived, successfully, without its all-important ethnic or community identity. Let us even assume for a moment, that some non-Parsi and non-Iranians became Zoroastrians at some point in their respective histories, there is no evidence today of their Zoroastrian beliefs and practices having survived, in a sustained, institutionalised way even for a hundred years after their alleged conversion.

When, as a Parsi or Irani, one speaks of being a “Zarthoshti,” one is automatically referring to our ethnic status which in turn links us to the religion.

A few days ago, some of my Iranian friends wanted to remove the Parsi Irani nomenclature by declaring that we are all Zarthoshtis without stating that we are also Parsi Irani as of ethnic identity: I would like to remind them that our great Iranian Zoroastrian leader the illustrious Kaikhushrow Sharokh in a letter addressed to the Parsi Anjuman in London, described himself some 80 years ago, as a “Pure Parsi from Kerman.” It would seem that he understood the term Parsi in its right context and so was proud to call himself a Parsi. Therefore, let us not get carried away by wanting to weaken or remove our ethnic identity which must always remain as one part of our identity complimented of course by being Zoroastrian, as well.

So, when we use the word “Parsi” or “Irani,” this is in reference to an important collective community identity and it represents a certain understanding of a specific culture and group of people and by extension, its faith. In the minds of others it defines, especially in India, a standard of high ethical values and a certain expected measure of behavioural response cultivated, projected and presented over the years as the natural face of the community.

This point has been reiterated, during this Congress, by many a speaker before me. Why then ladies and gentlemen should we shy away from this important ethno-cultural identity?

In today’s world of pressing globalization, our success in ensuring the continuity of the Parsi Irani identity will inevitably be measured by the endurance and survival of the community in the centuries to come. There is little use in measuring industrial and entrepreneurial success if our Parsi and Iranian identity vanishes over a period of time. In fact, our Iranian Zoroastrian counterparts have clearly understood the importance of this identity and take great pride in being called Iranians or Iranis, thus consciously or unconsciously preserving their ancient Iranian ethnic identity. In fact, the Iranian Zoroastrians further micro-filter their ethnic identity by calling themselves a Zeinabadi or Yazdi or Kermani as the case may be, thereby giving an ethno-geographical community allegiance, as well.

Any attempt, in my opinion, to disconnect the Parsi Irani identity from the religious aspirations of the community, is a retrograde step. In defining oneself as a cohesive group, despite Diasporic circumstances, it is incumbent to establish the reality of the present, on a base built upon the historical past. One must understand clearly that a failure to do so, will precipitate the delinking of the community from its historical context in the past and turn us into a faceless religious group with no true discernable roots or history.

Our scientists and doctors in their presentations at the Congress have all referred to the Parsi Irani DNA in their researches showing them as a cohesive whole, different from other racial groups. Does this not clearly suggest an ethnic difference between us and the others?

Another point to take on board is the fact of inter-marriage which I believe is a key factor which is weakening our ethno-religious identity. Only one in a hundred of mixed marriage progeny marries within the fold, as the statistics have shown. In other words, in the first generation a child born of mixed parentage is 50% Parsi or Irani, as the case may be. As 99 out of 100 will marry out in the second generation, the Parsi Irani ethnicity goes down to 25% due to the continued process of inter-marriage, in the second generation. In the third generation, when again only one in hundred will marry within the fold, the Parsi ethnicity will go down even further to a mere 12½%. Clearly, in the fourth generation, some 80 to 100 years from today, there will be no ethnicity left. And if that happens, I do not believe that the religion will survive minus its deep rooted ethnicity going back thousands of years.

Zoroastrianism I have always held is linked to the Parsi-Iranian ethnic lineage, as of recorded history. This is where I believe that, the Diaspora comes into the picture. With these reflections in mind the question arises, what can the Diaspora do for India?

The Role of the Diaspora

As a Diaspora, most importantly, I urge you to maintain a distinct and discernable ethno-religious identity. The term Parsi and / or Irani, (which includes Iranians of course), is our ancestral-ethnic nomenclature, which should not be dropped in the Diaspora for quasi-social reasons, or as a gesture made to facilitate acceptance amongst the host culture. This is a trend that we in India have observed, that most of our migrant communities have for convenience, chosen to de-link themselves from this important ethnic identity, the label of being a Parsi Irani or Iranian Zoroastrian.

Even a few days ago, some Iranian delegates to this Congress suggested that we should drop our Parsi Irani identity and call ourselves Zarthoshtis. This non-compliance of the ethnic identity is based primarily upon a Christian paradigm, in which ancestry and lineage are not seen to be important, as Christianity is spread through conversions and therefore the basis of identity in such cases, comes only from one’s religious allegiance. Unlike Christianity, in our case our community is linked both to a religious and to an ethnic identity.

The question therefore arises, as to whether in the Diaspora one wishes to build a community based upon a foundation such as the one our ancestors built in India and Iran, or should one leave behind a legacy of an amorphous form of Zoroastrianism, with no discernable ethnic community identity, or link, or brand image of a community with its historical past?

In my view, the community in the Diaspora must understand the consequences and seek to strengthen this ethnicity by maintaining strong bonds with its ancestral home in India or Iran as the case may be. It is this link and continuity which the Diaspora can give us in India. After all, the great high rituals of the Mazdayasni religion are largely now performed only in India by the Shenshai and Kadmi priests. There is a need for the Parsi Diaspora to establish a strong ritual tradition abroad, if they wish to retain and leave behind by way of a lasting legacy, a distinct ethno-religious identity. Our youth needs to be given a strong ritual base in our Diaspora in order to experience Zoroastrian spirituality.

If Zoroastrianism is promoted merely as a religion of good thoughts, words and deeds, devoid of its rich ritual and spiritual traditions, as is often done, then there is little difference between Zoroastrianism and the other world religions which I submit also encourages its followers to follow the path of good thoughts, words and deeds. Surely, every religion seeks to promote good thoughts, words and deeds amongst its followers and therefore declaring that our religion is seated doctrinally upon good thoughts, words and deeds, in my view is misleading and quite meaningless.

The question arises as to what is so special or exclusive about being a Parsi Irani Zarthoshti? The speciality or exclusivity lies in the fact that we have a unique culture, a historicity, a public or brand image of being a dynamic, honest and industrious community. Why then should this accolade be sacrificed upon the altar of modernity?

If the Diaspora is to serve as a homogenous whole with strong links to India and Iran, it must strive to strengthen its Parsi Irani identity in order to withstand the multiplicity of pressures created by the process of globalisation. Our children growing up in the Diaspora, should be made to feel proud of being Parsi Irani or Iranian Zoroastrians and not just proud Zoroastrians, for the latter as I understand it, has never survived on its own, without first being linked to the vehicle of ethnicity.

The young of our community should be encouraged to visit India and Iran as often as possible, so that they can interact and mingle with their own community, on a larger scale. In fact, it is invaluable to build this bridge as early as possible, in other words to bring children from an early age regularly to visit India and Iran. Yes, the cultural values may be different, but an exposure to a Parsi Irani way of life can be a very positive and an enriching experience, particularly for a small community like ours, trying to survive with the increasing pressures of a secular world.

Our youth interaction across the world can only yield positive results, of not only getting to know each other better, but even working towards marrying within the community, which I think should be rated as a very important priority within our community’s wish list.

The recently formed Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation (ZYNG), launched earlier this month, in Mumbai, is a very important vehicle or agent to promote community togetherness and through that, strengthen our identity on a global basis. We should encourage our youth living in the Diaspora to become members of ZYNG and thereby work towards forging a global togetherness of the youth.

The Importance of Priestly Education

Of the young boys from Athornan families seeking to become priests most of them from the Diaspora come to Mumbai for their Navar – Martab initiations. However I would like to say here, that a much greater effort should be made by parents, for these young boys to learn their prayers and ritual practices much better. Their sons must learn more H?s or Chapters of the Yasna ceremony and not just one or two Chapters, as is often the case.

They need to spend time familiarizing the young boys with the Yasna ritual, understanding it, learning the theology of the faith, our history and particularly noting sacrifices which our priests have made in the past. Only then, will we have a cadre of priests who will be able to take the time tested traditions and practices of the faith forward and be committed to serve the community even better, as priests.

The Give and Take of the Diaspora

It is very clear that our members in the Diaspora have done remarkably well on the economic front. Our first generation youngsters, born in the Diaspora, have taken advantage of the educational diversity offered to them in their country of residence and thereby have become a highly trained work force giving them a powerful economic base. Today, we have more millionaires in our Diaspora than at any given time of our history. Pro-rata, we are the richest community in the world, but sadly we have become a community of takers as versus our forebears who were known for their unstinting charity and benevolence. This ladies and gentlemen must change. We must learn to give, for the more one gives in charity, one earns greater merit for one’s soul.

With this economic strength, our community members in the Diaspora, should with renewed vigour support the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), our religious institutions, such as our Fire Temples and the Towers of Silence and other community organizations in India and strengthen the religious base within the community by way of charity, much like the Jokhi family of Hong Kong and the Zarthoshty Brothers of Iran who have been outstanding philanthropists over the past 40 years. After all, many of us have been recipients of some form of charity or help given by the BPP or other community based institutions in one’s country of origin.

The BPP and the Diaspora

The BPP is a 350-year old institution and is seen as the premier body of the community, globally. We have a Constitution drafted by our wise forebears, wherein the nomenclature of Parsi Irani Zoroastrian is sacrosanct. It is the Bombay Parsi Punchayet not the Bombay Zoroastrian Punchayet. The BPP from India wants to liaise with the Diaspora in all possible ways in order to develop a bond of friendship and amity amongst all our fellow Parsi Irani Zoroastrians, globally.

The present Board has a number of new ideas and we would like to network with members of the Diaspora and share a common agenda of preserving and indeed strengthening the Parsi Irani Zoroastrian identity. We, in the BPP, would like to offer to arrange a socio-religious get-together, as a pilot project for a group of young community members to visit India, on perhaps through an invitation given by the BPP Youth Group, ZYNG. We would like to organize a 10-day tour of religious sites and fire temples in India, so that our youth may experience the traditions and practices as followed in India as well as imbibe the Parsi Irani way of life and through it interact with our youth. The same sort of “roots tour” should be undertaken in Iran, by our youth and the older generation as well by both our young and old.

What The BPP Can Offer the Diaspora

The BPP can offer the Diaspora a whole host of social services as well as help the community living abroad to maintain a continuous link with India and through it to their history and the past. The BPP has a fine collection of books on community issues and the religion; we would welcome young people to earn degrees in Zoroastrian studies inclusive of research on the Parsi Irani community and avail themselves of the resources available at our end.

We have a community museum, The Alpaiwalla Museum, which houses wonderful treasures and artefacts, some going back to the pre-Achaemenian period. We in turn would like help from the Diaspora to reorganize and revamp the museum and bring it to a professional level, so that we can be proud of our ancient heritage.

For the elderly who may wish to return to India on a permanent basis, the BPP is thinking of creating facilities for returning migrants to live in India on the lines of a community centre for senior citizens.

The BPP would welcome emails by way of questions and news of your associations and personal achievements, as we now also have a website.

The BPP also publishes a newly formatted “BPP Review” distributed yesterday under the able consultant Editorship of the well-known Mumbai based journalist, Shernaaz Engineer who is here with us, today.

The BPP Trustees want to project a new and dynamic BPP, keen to liaise with the Diaspora, more than ever before, providing that members of the Diaspora in turn realize that the Parsi Irani identity is non-negotiable and is to be fostered and strengthened at all times. Hence, the BPP plans to host the 10th World Zoroastrian Congress in Mumbai, in December 201 3and show case the community in a way that all of you will feel justifiably proud to participate in.

In conclusion, between the BPP and the Diaspora, there is a mutually beneficial path that we can embark upon, together.

Importantly, we must remember:

1. To always maintain our Parsi Irani identity, for if this becomes a “Diaspora focal point,” then it will strengthen our community the world over.

2. Strengthening one’s community ethnic identity will in turn fortify the religious base in India and Iran and will bring about greater religious awareness by way of upholding our traditional ritual practices, which in turn will give us the security and comfort of being linked to our spiritual heritage as well as to one’s historical origin.

3. There is a need for the younger generation to bear witness to and experience the rituals of the faith and visit our sacred places of worship, be it Mumbai, Udwada, Navsari or Surat in India or Yazd, Kerman or Sharifabad in Iran. There is also a need to maintain the language link for us Parsis to speak Gujarati and for the Iranians to speak non-Arabicised Persian and Dari.

Finally, in Book VI of the Denkard it is beautifully summed up:

“From knowledge of the religion there comes about the consideration of the sacred word (or prayer), from consideration of the sacred word, there comes about an increase in one’s calling of the religion (and from it comes) the elimination of the demons of the world; from the elimination of the demons of the world there comes about immortality, the Renovation of the community and the Resurrection”.

(Denkard Book VI, vs. 75, trans. By S. Shaked p. 171).

I thank you all for being here today and being such a patient audience. May 2010 be a year full of Light, Happiness and Peace for you and your families and please always recognize the wonderful privilege of being a Parsi Irani Zarthoshti.

Thank you