Ancient faith seeks good to balance the bad

Zoroastrianism puts the onus for morality on the individual

Every morning, Farhad Mistry wraps a kastri, a small rope made up of 72 strings, around his waist like a belt while saying his morning prayers. Then he puts on a sadre, which is essentially a muslin undershirt affixed with two very meaningful patches.

Article by Pat Johnson | Vancouver Courier

farhad-mistry

The belt-like kastri is a reminder of his daily obligations to be a positive force in the world. The sadre emphasizes an even more direct reminder of the need to do good and the burden of doing otherwise.

“The patch in the front is meant to symbolize all the good deeds that I’ve done throughout my life and the patch on the back is kind of like a burden: all the bad things I’ve done in my life,” says Mistry. “At the end of the day, anything that I’ve done wrong, whether it’s me being angry at someone, me being lustful, me hurting somebody, me being cunning, rude — all those bad things are my burdens and they’re on my back and the only way I can repent for them is to do goodness for the sake of goodness.”

While his religious beliefs are ancient and complex, they are succinctly epitomized by the garment and its meaning.

Mistry is a Parsi. That is, a follower of the prophet Zoroaster, who lived about 2,700 years ago. In Iran, where the religion began and still holds much cultural sway even in the strictly Muslim republic, his co-religionists are known as Zoroastrians. Parsis are Zoroastrians, too, but they are descended from those who left the area that is now Iran’s Pars province at the time of the Islamic conquest of Persia 1,400 years ago. They made their way to India and, while clinging to the ancient religious rites, have nevertheless pointedly adopted cultural characteristics of their subcontinental neighbors, adopting Hindu-style dress, food and ceremonial features.

Because many Zoroastrians live in Iran, where their numbers are not defined, estimates of adherents range wildly. But numbers are small — and declining. The guesstimate is that about 150,000 Zoroastrians remain worldwide, the remnants of a tradition that was once dominant from Egypt to Central Asia. (The most famous Zoroastrians in history are probably the Three Wise Men, of the Christian nativity narrative, and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.) About 800 Zoroastrians die every month and the number of births are in the “low two digits,” he says.

Yet Zoroastrianism’s impact on the world has been immense. It was probably the first monotheistic religion, predating and influencing Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But it rejects the “ethical monotheism” of the later three — the idea that not only is there a single deity, but that God is watching and judging individual human actions. Zoroastrianism puts the onus on the follower. There is no one to answer to but oneself.

Purity is important — purity of mind, of spirit, of word and deed — and it is represented with fire. At the ancient fire temple in Gujarat, India, where Mistry was married and has visited often, the same family of priests has tended the same fire for thousands of years.

“The fire is important not because we pray to the fire but basically the fire is representative of the elements and the elements are considered to be pure,” he says. “The fire is not God but it is the symbol of God and truth.”

While the fire temples in India are sacred destinations, and a Zoroastrian place of worship exists in Burnaby, it is a very home-based religion, says Mistry, who was born in Mumbai, raised in the Gulf States and came with his family to Canada, where he finished high school and obtained his CGA designation.

“It’s not prescriptive,” he says. “It’s not very structured. A lot of prayers take place at home.” There is no Sabbath when adherents gather together, but specific rituals will take place during a person’s lifecycle, from the moment a baby first sits up unaided, through an initiation ceremony for girls at age seven and boys at nine, through marriage, pregnancy and the end of life. Historically, to preserve the purity of the world, Zoroastrian dead were left to the elements — as in Mumbai’s Tower of Silence — where they were consumed by vultures. This is largely impractical now — vultures have declined in part due to poisoning — and most Zoroastrians opt for cremation.

The ideas of good and evil, or of God and devil, which are common in other faiths, are not viewed so tangibly in Zoroastrianism.

“God made the world perfect, but there is a dualism in the religion. There’s a cosmic dualism and there’s a moral dualism,” says Mistry. The moral dualism is the reality of people choosing to do good or bad in everyday choices. The cosmic dualism is the belief that the accumulated good deeds (or bad actions) of individuals influence the state of the world.

While purity and self-improvement are crucial, the ultimate goal is happiness in life, which is not necessarily the case in all religions.

“Truth and righteousness bring happiness,” says Mistry. “Happiness is the goal — happiness for everyone and everything.”