Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Trying to keep the faith alive

Zoroastrians face the challenge of religion becoming extinct, as only a handful choose to become priests

By Sudeshna Chowdhury | Mid-Day

Cama athornanThe list of woes for the Parsi community is long winding. In addition to their dwindling numbers, Parsis are also plagued with the problem of few opting to take up priestly studies resulting in fire temples struggling to handle religious affairs.

Located in a vast sprawling campus of Cama Park in Andheri, the MF Cama Athornan Institute, which was built to train candidates to become Parsi priests, bears a deserted look. The institute has only four students, as there are few takers for the course. "The aim of the institute was to bring out sampoorna navars (full-fledged priests) who would be learned, enlightened and capable of carrying the religion forward," says Khushru Nariman Panthaky, principal of the institute.

Recalling the past, Panthaky added that Seth Meherwanji Muncherji Cama founded the establishment in 1923. Initially, the classes were full with more than 70 students. But now, the number of students has declined to a handful. Explaining the disinterest, Panthaky elaborated, "There are several reasons. Firstly, the youth has so many more options to choose from. Much of this shortage stems from the tension between secular and religious studies — between the choice, in front of a young man, of a private-sector job in India’s booming economy and the relatively low-paying, unstable work of a priest."

Dinshaw Mehta, chairman of Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), echoed the same sentiments. "Priests within the fold are not appreciated. They are not looked after very well either. They hardly earn Rs 6,000-10,000 for their services," said Mehta.

The students, who were present at the institute preparing to become priests, provided an insight into the entire issue. For Napean Sea Road resident Farhad Sanjana (10), becoming a priest is trying to understand the true meaning of his religion. But he balances the act with his favourite pastime of cricket. "I enjoy the religious studies , but I want to become a banker," said Sanjana.

Ruzan V Daruwalla (20) and Nekshad Fatakia(20), both from Surat, pursuing commerce at Bhavan’s College, are however undecided about their career. Meanwhile, Behram Karanjia, a 14-year-old from Navsari, is sure of his priestly calling.

While the institute at Andheri has just four students, the Dadar Athornan Institute has a good flow of students. There are 22 students who are currently pursuing religious studies at the institute. "I am expecting the total number of students to touch 30 soon," says Dr Ramiyar Karanjia, principal of the institute, which was established in 1919. Panthaky explains that the declining numbers at the institute in Andheri is because the authorities stopped academic studies at the institute, which made several parents upset.

However, steps are being taken to cater to the needs of the priestly class. Said G E Engineer, secretary, Zoroastrian Building Fund (ZBF), "We are addressing the concerns of priests. Whether it is medical concerns or housing issues, they are given priority over others."

Concurred Panthaky, "Trustees at various organisations have realised that we need to provide them with various benefits to ensure that we get enough students." "If there are no priests, our religion itself will perish," said Mehta somberly.

Who can be a priest?

Any boy belonging to a priestly family can become a priest. Said Mehta, "If there are no priests for two generations in a family, the lineage dies." However, Karanjia considers this to be a misconception. "Many people think three generations need to be priests, while others think four, and still others think two. But nothing like this exists. The student just has to prove that he comes from a priestly family." However, another priest said that earlier, the rule was that the lineage would die if three generations did not become priests but because of dwindling numbers, fire temples are permitting a boy to become a priest if he can prove that he is from a priestly family.

Shying away

From better options to a declining interest in religious studies to the monetary aspect, there are plenty of reasons why the youth shy away from pursuing religious studies. Zareer K’maneck, who became a sampoorna navar at 13, says, "At that age, I did not even understand what it meant. I just knew that it was a nice thing to do, so I did it," said Zareer. He added, "It was just side income when I was in college."

Shahzad Dastoor, a Std XII student, based in Vikhroli, said it was his dad who did not want him to go to a boarding school to pursue full-time religious studies. "Where I grew up there was no facility and my dad did not want to send me to a boarding school. However, for me, an interest in religious studies always existed," said Dastoor.

Becoming a priest

In order to be a thoroughly qualified priest, one has to go through two grades of initiation and the related ceremonies. They are — the  N ¢var, and the Martab. The programme at the institution is a fulltime residential programme and couples religious studies with academic studies. Everything, including, food and lodging, is free of cost. The course is difficult as it prohibits any kind of human touch and requires an initiate to pray for six hours everyday.