A Small but Mighty Religion; What we Believe: Zoroastrianism

Mehlli Bhagalia and his wife, Perin, tend a small flame in their home in Carlsbad. Bhagalia said the flame, safe in the fireplace, has been consecrated by the couple’s prayers and is only extinguished when the couple go away. Just as the cross and the star of David are symbols of Christianity and Judaism, the fire is a symbol of divine light or wisdom for those of the Zoroastrian religion.

“In India there are consecrated fires that have been burning for over 1,300 years,” said Bhagalia, who prays before the sacred flame or the sun several times each day and wears a special prayer girdle of wool called a kusti.

The Bhagalias are Parsis, direct descendants of a group of Zoroastrians who fled with the sacred fire to India in the 10th century as the ancient Persian Empire crumbled.

“It is the religion of my ancestors going back in an unbroken lineage for thousands of years,” Bhagalia said. “This religion is therefore in my blood, flesh and bones, which enables me to understand its meaning and message and the history of my ancient race. Little is really known about our religion and race by persons outside the community. This is by both circumstance and by design.”

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra (in the ancient Avestan language) or Zoroaster (in Greek) or Zartosht (in Farsi), who was born around 1738 B.C. in northeastern Iran or southwestern Afghanistan. Possibly one of the first prophets to teach monotheism —- the belief in one God (called Ahura-Mazda) —- Zarathustra preached a doctrine of good, evil and retribution and was famous for the triple motto of “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

But Bhagalia says it is not quite as simple as that.

“We are not capable of holding only good thoughts, words or deeds in this world,” he said. “It is not possible in our present circumstances, so the only way to fulfill that (the motto) is through our prayers.”

Zoroastrianism, also called Zarathustrianism or even Mazdaism, has greatly influenced other religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, according to the California Zoroastrian Center in Los Angeles. And it is generally believed by historians that the Abrahamic religions and the concepts of heaven and hell, as well as the devil, were heavily influenced by Zoroastrian belief.

The religion’s holy scripture is called the Avesta and was originally in 21 volumes, or nasks. The original nasks chronicled the words spoken by Zarathustra himself; others, which are also quite ancient, were added later.

Bhagalia explains it this way: “As time went on and they (the original scriptures) were scattered when Persepolis was destroyed, they were gathered together again, and then at that time, another savior came in the line of a prophet. His name was Aderbad Maharespand, and under him the Avesta was specially regrouped for the present generation of Zoroastrian souls who would be living (as today) in the most difficult times.”

While many such as the Bhagalia family hold onto ancient tradition, others have modified some of the more stringent rituals and beliefs over time.

In addition to the navjote or initiation ceremony when a child is accepted into the faith, many Zoroastrians, especially the Parsis in India, also follow the ancient ritual of laying out the dead. Traditionally, the dead were laid out in a dokma or tower of silence and left to be exposed to the sun and eaten by vultures. “The fire temples of the Zarathustrian religion are a vital institution of the religion,” Bhagalia said. “We don’t defile anything in Mother Earth, and to cremate or bury the dead would defile the Earth.”

John (Barak) Soroushian, president of the Zoroastrian Club at UC San Diego and a Zoroastrian of Iranian descent, said that most of the Zoroastrians he knows opt for cremation or burial of their family members’ bodies. “That is part of the religion, but I think it is outdated and they should get rid of it,” he said. “It is very impractical; there aren’t many vultures around. Just imagine one taking a finger and dropping it somewhere.”

Though its main precepts are much like those of many other religions —- equality, respect for living things, values of hard work and charity, and loyalty to family and country —- Zoroastrianism is little known in the West.

With only about 125,000 left in the world —- roughly 30,000 in Iran and 80,000 in India —- it is also one of the smallest religions. The California Zoroastrian Center estimates that about 5,000 have settled in North America, of whom 1,500 are in Southern California.

The main reason for these ever-dwindling numbers is the religion’s traditional prohibition against conversion, and the now somewhat divisive issue of whether to accept intermarriage and the children of intermarriage into the fold. According to a recent article in The New York Times, an effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing “fake converts” and diluting traditions.

Soroushian says the question of conversion and intermarriage is always a lively discussion topic at meetings, with the two viewpoints usually falling along the lines of those of Iranian descent and those who are Parsi.

“It is somewhat controversial,” he said, though he is Zoroastrian by birth, as both his parents are. “It is a really sad thing that our religion is dying out, and I am more flexible on the subject. I have even heard that some of the really conservative people say marrying first cousins is not a bad thing. I’m not that desperate to maintain the tradition (of only marrying within the religion),” he said.

For the Bhagalias, however, conversion and intermarriage are out of the question. Bhagalia said he would never have considered marrying outside his religion, and since his son has, the couple’s grandchildren will not be Zoroastrian. “We want our children to marry within our religion,” he said. “Within five or six generations, there will be no more. It is our karma.

“It is not out of any feeling of superiority or some such stupidity that we do not allow conversion,” Bhagalia writes. “The reason is straightforward. … We consider that religion divinely selected for each person is not a social club which one can join at will and resign at will.”

Another topic of some debate among Zoroastrians is the concept of the religion’s dualism and whether it is cosmic (opposing forces of good and evil in the entire universe) or moral (opposing forces within each person).

For Bhagalia, karma is a fundamental, natural universal law, which, he said, was also spoken by Jesus Christ in his words regarding reaping what you sow. Thus, he says, there can be no forgiveness for sins in this lifetime. “So beware of creating a karmic debt in this life,” he added.

Soroushian, like many Iranian Zoroastrians, says that for him the notion of free will is one of the most appealing parts of his religion.

“The general concept of ethical dualism is one of those things we don’t all agree on,” he said. “Some people take good and evil and God and Satan very literally, but I would interpret it to mean that we have both inside us and we have to make the choice. It’s not like an external, literal force outside us but in your conscience, and you get rewarded by good thoughts, acts and deeds.”

— Contact staff writer Ruth Marvin Webster at (760) 740-3527 or rwebster@nctimes.com.

Mahatma Gandhi is said to have described the Parsis thus: “In numbers —- ridiculous. But in their contributions to the world and India —- immeasurable.”

The three magi who visited Jesus are believed to have been Zoroastrians. Other famous Zoroastrians, according to www.adherents.com and wikipedia, include conductor Zubin Mehta, rock singer Freddie Mercury, nuclear scientist Homi J. Bhabha, first field marshal of India Sam Manekshaw, author and screenwriter of “Salaam Bombay” and “Mississippi Masala” Sooni Taraporevala, and authors Rohinton Mistry and Bapsi Sidhwa.

.Original article here

  • rustom jamasji

    Funny how people with ignorance sit in the chair of Judgement.

    John (Barak) Soroushian, president of the Zoroastrian Club at UC San Diego and a Zoroastrian of Iranian descent, says according to the article on top “It is very impractical; there aren’t many vultures around. Just imagine one taking a finger and dropping it somewhere’.
    Now could someone let the president know that vultures do not carry food in their beaks and fly..They simply cannot.
    As far as the dwindling population of the vulture,there are a number of aviaries set up in India and the world. Also the tibetans follow the same mode.The world ecological body wants to help in vulture conservation.
    Another things of changing and impracticallity is that his and my forfathers wud have found it highly practical to convert to either Christianity and Islam. They also wud have found it much easier to adapt to hinduism and its practises on arrival in gujrat , it wud be easier to just pray to the fire on the gas whislt heating up food , though then the ceremonies and mystism and the knowlege and procedueres of certain rituals wud be lost forever.
    So Please Mr President Mr Barak or John, be proud of your race , be proud that ure lineage isnt deae yet because ure forfathers didnt take the easier way out and please study facts before preaching to give up.
    The last of the Zoroastrians of the Persian Empire wud then atleast be remembered as the only community that gave back to nature what was nearly extinct and thats a bird without which the whole of Africa and other parts of the world wud miss.

  • ERUCH SURKARI.

    I do agree absolutely with Mr Bhagalia. Conversion to or from any religion just doesn’t make any sense. If one cannot remain true to one’s religion of birth ,I am not sure you will be true to any other.PARSI IRANI ZATHOSTI’S OF INDIA should be very proud of their achievements and should continue that legacy,instead of focussing on conversions to increase our numbers. ZARTHOSTI’s in the West and western minded one’s, should seriously look at giving their children the religious education and Pride in this Heritage which I proudly term,…” THE PARSI WAY ”

  • Cyrus Kandawalla

    How ridiculous. Please stop prattling on about “remaining true to a religion” while our beliefs die in a cloud of insignificance and inbreeding. This is progress? Let’s be honest please. Zarathustra CONVERTED Cyrus to the religion, and obviously other people converted after him. Please be honest and admit that PARSIs didn’t want converts because they didn’t want to poorer classes of India’s ridiculous caste system converting to Zoroastrianism to benefit from our internal system of charity. As far as “John’s” idea about the vultures, he is right, towers would be nice but how many vultures are there in states? Our people have always adapted – that is how we have lasted this long. Parsis and Zoroastrians must get of their high horse (oh I know you say that it isn’t, but it is) and start performing some GOOD DEEDS (remember that?) by letting others enjoy the most progressive and altruistic religion ever known.

  • rustom jamasji

    Cyrus,on what basis do you think Zarathushtra converted Cyrus the great?
    Cyrus was a mazda worshipper or a Mazdayasni which predates Zarathushtra. Again Zarathushtra never invented the sudreh and kusti but was already having it since he was a mazdayasni himslef. Zarathushtra repreached mazdayasnism to mazdayasni as they were like today;s Parsi’s being impressed by devyasni.
    If you mean King Vistasapa was converted as most of the noe zoroastrian philisophers do , then it may waken you up but vistasapa himself was a mazdayasni , belonging to the Kayanian dynasty and a decendent of Shah Lohrasp. Infact he impresoned Zarathushtra thinking he was spreading devyasni’s spiritual concept which was against Mazdayasni spiritual concepts.
    As far as convertions , Zoroastrians and other ancient religions like hinduism do not have an ideology to convert.Also if you are accusing of Zooastrianism being racist so that it cannot distribute its wealth with others , please waken up, the sindhi’s Muslims , catholics all of them have trusts specifically to benefit only their community members.I think Zoroastrians have outdone anyone else in charity.Also it sounds stupid and hypocratical if someone converts since he wants to share our wealth. I think the govt of T.Nadu has banned convertions due to catholic an islamic missoneries converting on the same lines .i.e monetory benefit and also banned convertions to avoid hurting the majority sentiments.

    During riots Zoroastrian colonies an agairies were the ONLY SAFE place of residence and the ONLY place of worship left untouched by rioteers. This was purely due to the majority not feeling threathened by the Parsi community. At that time the first ones to close all the doors to outsiders were the ones who now act ‘hollier than thou’now. The intermarried Parsi now wants to change Parsi trust laws governing our lans tp suit their foreign spouces. Why do they not have courage to do the same with the trust deeds of their spouces colonies?
    Let me also tell you , like we Zoroastrian preserve our identity, a state in secular INDIA has passed a bill to adapt Shariat LAw .This is to maintain their culture in the lands where they have a mojority.
    Also would you term all Islamic countires as racist since all of them have islamic law prevailing to non muslims anf tourists also!
    Also would you argue with Islam or call them ‘being on high Horses since they do not allow non muslims in a radius of 100kms around Mecca! Or wud u call a hindu racist because you wouldnt be allowed in temples which are concecrated in Puri , bubaneshwar and elsewhere. Would you say the same to Christians when you will not be given the holy communion in a church.You will not be able to get a flat in a jain colony if you are a non veg.You also wont get a flat in catholic colonies and bori /muslim residential colonies.You also might be pleased to know that even though many poor have converted to christianity , in Tamil Nadu they have different graveyards for DALIT Christians!

    As far as how many vultures are there in the state , it might please you to know that International agencies and nationally the Govt of India helps to set up aviaries. 6 Aviaries have come up SUCESSFULLY IN INDIA ALONE. In then Singapore night safari they show the vulture as their 1st display. They are doing brilliantly in captive breeding programe according to one of their officials there.

    Cyrus have you heard about the Aden fire temple.The fire from Aden was shifted from that continent to India in an Air India plane and then put in the agiary at lonavala.This was the spirit and will of Zoroastrians a 1oo years ago , do you think with even more modern technoliogy available now , we would have the will to do it? When more than 50 aviaries have come up in the world using modern technology , the so called modern Parsi talks of giving it up.
    As far as good deeds are concerned, let us not put social science on the same level as Zoroastrianism. The good deeds, thoguhts and words refer to the words of the avesta, then one pondering over it and thus perfroming deeds accordingly.
    Zoroastrians have adapted and maybe varied their language and social appeareance to suit local population But do you know that Dokhma’s were fist conecrated and then agiaries by Zoroastrian arriving in India. Nver in History have zoroastrian changed their customs in such a way that Zoroastrianism has changed. Because then Zoroastrianism would case to exist and with that Zoroastrians.

    Preservation is the most modern mantra, The pyramids, extinct flora and fauna, the mummies , ancient languages are all being preserved. The sindhi’s have taken upon themselves to rekindle the fire of the sindi language amongst their youngsters.Latin or hebrew is not dead , yet the modern Parsi wants to give up that is his heritage and culture.The ones who islamisised Persia and even in the last century Tax’d Zoroasrians unlawfully today claim that Persian heritage beliongs to them. Its only because the pARSI’S in their fervor to change , have changed rudderlessly forgeting their culture and heritage.
    ABout inbreeding, muslims prefer to marry within relations , so do people in Kerala. The tribes of arunachal pradesh , andamans ect have more inbreeding than us.

    Zoroastrian are devoid of hisotrical facts, do not want to listen to history from those who are welcomed in global universities an are affilited to institutions such as the Mainz and Harward but follow a warped funda propogated by a few to suit their taste.
    Its a case of personel disgrunt and these Parsi’s whose personal taste is not met by Zoroastrianism are spitting in the plate they eat.

  • Cyrus Kandawalla

    Rustom, thank you for the reply. One of the problems with your argument is that you keep bringing up other religions and saying “see, they do this” why aren’t you calling that racist?

    Well that’s not the point – first of all, I wouldn’t call it racism, but it is akin to it. In any case, the practices of those other religions may be ignorant and backwards, but its really not my place to concern myself with their practices. If I did, I would agree with you that they are backwards and ignorant (if not actually racist).

    My concern is with our religion, and understanding that other people want to participate in it BECAUSE we don’t have policies like those others. Unfortunately, by this ridiculous prohibition on conversion, completely defeats the whole concept of out openess and ACCEPTANCE. Why on earth would we want to be like those other religions? And to justify our ignorant policies based on theirs is childish – something that is becoming all to common among Parsi men.

    I understand that maybe we didn’t allow converts as well because it would keep the Muslims off our backs since they wouldn’t feel threatened, but at this pointm especially for those of us in the west, where we don’t face persecution for our religion, the practice is no longer practical and, in fact, a form of internal genocide.

    It’s time for the respected Parsi elders to admit that denying converts has no basis in the actual Zoroastrian religion, that it was a policy taken up for the benefit of survival, but it is now infact aiding our demise.

    If nothing else, the fact that spouses and the freaking children of intermarriage are not allowed is INTOLERABLE and backwards. Not allowing others is equally backwards but at least there can be some minimal, though extremely weak and stupid argument against it.

    Also, I think you miss the point about the towers. John was not saying to end the practice back in India, Pakistan or Iran – he was saying it is impractical here in the west where we don’t actually have vultures and the practice would probably not be tolerated by the local population.

  • rustom

    Cyrus your point that its somewhat different in the west than in India, lets see if it really is different.

    As of 11th April 2007 , hindus are on a wining spree in relation to a legal battle for a want of a open cremation ground. The hindus claim that since the soul’s progress is based on it being layed in the open they should be permited to do so.

    As of 7th April 2007 , an methodist chruch in U.K is gonna have different symbol since its now going to be used as a mosque.
    Even in Rome , streets are closed on Fridays.

    The chruch’s in the U.K AND THE U.S had a couple of years back banned christians from doing yoga. They said that with the exercise comes the hymns and a culture that may push christians towards hinduism. Now we have westerners doing yoga on english music. Last year A Cardinal Dias was appointed to over see the spread of christianity in asia. Do u think asia and in perticular, we need a religion? It shows they want to convert others.

    If you are in tune with politics , you will be aware that china had a tiff with vatican since china to oppose the menace of christian missoneries blatantly converting, it appointed its own cardinal against the wishes of the vatican, since the vatican has a control of who is who around the world. Surprisingly the cardinal appointed by the chinese is Cardinal Sin!

    A report that appeared in several papers. which i copy and paste

    February 2000
    INTERFAITH

    Pope: ‘Convert all Hindus’
    The pope really did Hindus a favor with his November visit to India. He united Hindus and Buddhists in opposition to conversion, he put Indian Christians in India on the defensive (especially Catholics), and he galvanized the world press in sympathy for Hinduism, giving rise to some clear explanations in the media as to why missionaries are held in suspect by Hindus. CNN/Time said the pope’s conversion call was “appalling manners.”

    Another article of europe joining hands by a treaty states that European leaders have tried to build a united Europe on a secular foundation of treaties and economic regulations. These efforts, however, have not been adequate to do the job. Now the efforts will include another factor—religion. Chancellor Merkel “has spoken out in favor of a reference to God in the constitution… It is the first time Berlin has spoken out in favor of a Christian reference in the EU constitution” (euobserver.com, May 26, 2006). Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, reiterated her views after a summer audience with German-born Pope Benedict XVI: “I underlined my opinion that we need a European identity in the form of a constitutional treaty and I think it should be connected to Christianity and God, as Christianity has forged Europe in a decisive way” (euobserver, August 29, 2006). Germany should find support in this endeavor from predominantly Roman Catholic countries like Spain, Italy and Poland, which backed an earlier attempt to refer to Christianity and God in the constitution.

    It adds’European Union Commissioner Jan Figel told a group of 60 European church leaders, “European Institutions need to be in constant dialogue with churches, communities of faith and civil society” (christiantoday.com). European bishops have set up a high-profile group—consisting entirely of Roman Catholics—to urge the inclusion of a reference to Christianity and influence “a political declaration of the EU’s values and ambitions” in Berlin on March 25, 2007—the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which laid the foundation of the present E.U. (euobserver.com, September 11, 2006).
    Now lets forget that europe had a weaker religious link.If it did , it is going on a rebound and its fervor to convert is going to get stronger with masses imigrating there and its social structure changing.

    Again this is a lesson for us few Zoroastrians. Europe has more temple going or namaz praying british now than chruch going, due to THE POPULATION INCLUDED ferom elsewhere!The same happened in Parthain Persia and so the sassanians had to overthrow then to protect Persian identity as Zoroastrian.
    Why not study what happened to zoroastrians that went to europe and china , There are excavations in China that shows of a dokhma there!
    Again vulture is just a catalyst in the dokhmenishini system which again is not difficult to harness.

    Have you studies how the children of mixed parentage affect Zoroastrianism. At best they are navjoted! (I am talking of percentages here , dont give me examples of a mr smith!)In agiaries if you allow everyone , in a span of a decade you will have idols and even things banal to zoroastrianism as the people who will want then will outnumber the real zoroastrians.And to add to that we have warped funda’s of Zoroastriaanism going around.

    I will give you 2 classic examples of warped fundas getting zoroastrianism weaker

    1) In the U.S a mexican couple claimed that they were Zoroastrians and had to take marijiuana. The case is going on. The same Zoroastrians who are fighting against the so called Zoroastrians were warned not to give any credence to warped ideas preached by a so called ‘ratu’ who claimed all sorts of degrees in persian and avesta and starting converting everyone to zoroastrianism.

    And why is it that in the last 15 years, all this sudden change is demanded.Is it because whom we refer to as elderly outdated people who thru their historical knowledge of zoroastrianism and wisdom cried out hoarse to the younger gen to study our religion, our history and philosophy and to stay away from intermarriage, which we did not and now do not have any knowledge of our roots.

    Also to claim that other religions are doing it since they are back wards and the orthodox Zoroastrians not accepting others is equally backwards makes one ponder that how is that you claim everyone else is backward except those few Zoroastrians who want to change zoroastrainism.

    As for a change to benefit Zoroastrianism a debate which is necessary and has to be on an intellectual platform is not happening as Chaos as empowered zoroastrianism and the pendulam is swaying..at each ends.The Chaos stems from Zoroastrian quoting history that suits oneself.Even the arabs mutilated history and schorhed our books to suit islam and not their persoanl tastes!

  • Crazy Mama

    Is this Cyrus Kandawalla from Worthington? If so, e-mail me at ireland_33@hotmail.com.

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