Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Zoroastrianism: The rhapsody of an ancient faith

In the Oscar-winning film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic of Freddie Mercury, his father berates him: “So now the family name is not good enough for you?”

“I changed it legally,” Mercury responds. “No looking back.”

Article by Rev. Alexander Santora | NJ.com

Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara into a Parsi family that had roots in India and was Zoroastrian by faith. I was inspired by the film to learn more.

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Seen here are Zoroastrians and Hoboken residents Sherazad Mehta, his wife, Mrinalini, and their sons Talin and Zaydan.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions; it could date back as far as 1200 BCE when its founder, Zoroaster, lived, though there are no precise dates. Many scholars say it had an influence on Christianity, Islam and Judaism because it taught that good would triumph over evil, that there is a good deity, a heaven and a hell and that human beings are endowed with free will.

Today, it is one of the smallest religions with perhaps about 110,000 followers worldwide. The closest temple of fire to us, where adherents can gather and worship, is in Pomona near Suffern, New York, right on the Jersey border with Mahwah up off Route 17. It opened in 2016 and can hold 1,000 followers.

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The new Arbab Rustam Guiv Dar-e-Mehr building, inaugurated on March 26, 2016, is a Zoroastrian religious and cultural community center in Pomona, New York, and home to the Zoroastrian Association of Greater NY and Iranian Zoroastrian Association. Designed by award-winning architect and community member, Dinyar Wadia, the building is inspired by ancient Persian and Parsi architecture of the fire temples of Iran and India, respectively. Photo: Mahafreen H. Mistry

Fire — representing light, warmth and purifying powers — is an important symbol, as is the evergreen cypress tree, representing eternal life.

Zoroastrians mark two new year celebrations, which are their big days to go to temple. One is the spring equinox on March 21 and the second is the third week of August.

Community activities and religious festivals are held in the temple two weekends a month, according to Arzan Sam Wadia, an architect and urban designer in Brooklyn. He emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1998 to go to Pratt for graduate school and stayed.

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Vada Dasturji (head priest) Khurshed Dastoor (in chair on left) from the holy place of Udvada, India, led the Jashan ceremony for the inauguration of the new building along with 29 priests from all over North America. Above them, the symbol of protection and Zoroastrianism, the Farvahar. Photo: Arzan Sam Wadia

For him, though, his daily practice is what strengthens his faith. After he showers in the morning, he ties a sacred thread, a kushti, around his waist three times over a sudreh, a white colored vest made of muslin cloth. Then he says his prayers from their Scriptures, Avesta, for about 20 minutes.

“We thank God to keep us always on the path of righteousness and to do the right thing,” Wadia said.

There is no communal worship, but Zoroastrians follow general guides for good living, he said, like leading a good and righteous life.

“It is not a list of what not to do, but more positive,” he said, adding that if believers are successful in life, ”they are encouraged to share their wealth.”

Hoboken resident Sherazad Mehta sums up Zoroastrianism as “good thoughts bring good words and good words inspire good deeds.”

He believes, he said, that we are only in this world for a short time and must ensure that we leave it in a better place than it was when we received it.

“We believe that people are created equal and I teach these basic principles to my children as these ancient truths are truer and more relevant today than ever,” he said.

Zoroastrians celebrate a special ritual that lasts 10 days of the year during which they say prayers for the departed souls and go to the temple every day. They put flowers in a family vase, a muktad, and change them daily. They will share a simple meal at breakfast, lunch or dinner and the dead are thought to return and be with them.

Zoroaster founded the religion in ancient Persia — modern-day Iran — but adherents fled religious persecution from Muslims sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries. They settled in India, where they came to be called “Parsis.”

Today, there are no conversions in India unless your parent is Zoroastrian, which may account for their smaller numbers. But in the U.S., for example, one can opt to convert, Wadia said.

 

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Zoroastrian Sherazad Mehta, left, and Mrinalini Nair of Hoboken are pictured here wearing traditional clothing. Sherazad wears a Dugli, the traditional white coat worn with white pants, and a Topi prayer cap. Mrinalini wears a traditional white sari draped in the preferred Parsi style. Photo: Mark Swaroop

For the last six years, Wadia has served as the program director of “Zoroastrian return to roots,” an initiative to teach the next generation about the roots of Zoroastrianism in India. They sponsor what are called birthright trips for 15 days for young people between the ages of 18 and 25. During the trips, travelers visit historical and religious sites and meet with scholars and business people. So, far about 80 have gone in the six years the program existed.

Wadia hopes there will be an uptick of interest in his faith.

Since the movie, every one of his friends and people who know him said, “Freddie Mercury is one of your people.” And Wadia believes that Mercury “did embrace the religious and ethnic identification in the end.”

A rhapsody, indeed.

The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, in Hoboken New Jersey, USA