Ancient links, modern lessons

The recently concluded exhibitions in New Delhi on Zoroastrianism and the story of the Parsis in India were eye openers on many fronts. Sadly, these excellent collections of what can be called Parsiana—including the pre-Indian Zoroastrian heritage—will not be travelling to other cities. Mumbai and Kolkata, both have a considerable Parsi history.

Article by Reshmi R. Dasgupta | Ecoomic Times

Probably every Parsi resident in Delhi—and any who were in the Capital while the exhibition was on—had a dekko of the marvellous artefacts. But apart from them and the mandatory schoolchildren marshalled through the halls, how many other Indians were drawn to learn more about this ancient faith and its followers?

Had more gone, they would have emerged amazed at the similarities between the teachings of Zarathustra rituals of ancient Zoroastrianism and India’s Sanatan Dharma that was dubbed Hinduism somewhere down the “trackless centuries” as Jawaharlal Nehru described them. Even the titles of the two exhibitions are pointers.

The first, at the National Museum was called Flame, and the other, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, was Threads of Continuity. Fire and threads—and indeed water, the other important element not mentioned in the title but very prominent in the exhibits— are equally revered in Hindu rituals and life today.

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The similarities at the deepest philosophical level may not be apparent or even appealing to many. But the ritualistic and lay links are more evocative. Like say the cone of sugar – now represented in silver -on the Parsi wedding “ses” platter led a visitor to happily exclaim that Tamil weddings have the same – paruppu thengai. A forgotten link?

Photographs of fires lit in ancient and contemporary Parsi habitations, images of white clad priests chanting oddly familiar mantras over crackling flames, holy vessels and grasses, the harking back to the cosmos and circle of life have an ineffable Vedic air. Long before the Puranic traditions took over, Sanatan Dharma may not have been dissimilar.

Lines at the start of the Flame exhibition also have an air of familiarity: “Oh wise one, you who fashioned the cow, the waters and the plants, grant me immortality and wholeness through your most life giving force, power and youth together with good thought at the pronouncement.”

Avesta or the Veda? And don’t these two words sound similar too? Even the holy Kushti thread – 72 strands of fine handspun wool Zoroastrians wear wound thrice around the waist, tied in two double knots on in the front and back and ends hanging have echoes of the janeu thread of the Hindus. And of course the Yasna or fire ceremonies are hugely reminiscent of the yagnas of yore and today’s havans and homams….

So the threads that bind ancient Zoroastrianiam and the Sanatan Dharma in its oldest, purest form are distinct even if the philosophies have diverged down the millennia. The phrase often

seen in history books – Indo-Iranian – becomes so much clearer when seen through the prism of these every day rites and rituals of two antique religions.

The fact that the Parsis arrived in India some over 2000 years after Zarathustra seemed almost predestined, given the undeniable commonalities in the two philosophies, including the intriguing reverence for cattle and herders. Sheep and shepherds have a similar link in the Semitic religions, it may be recalled.

The “Indianisation” of the Parsis after their flight to India to escape Muslim persecution in Iran is amazing too, for it happened without diluting their faith. They entered into a covenant over a thousand years ago to lay down arms, dress, speak and eat like the locals of Sanjan in Gujarat, but have survived peacefully as a distinct ethnic-religious entity.

In this age where identity politics rules the day, the ability of the early medieval Zoroastrians to sift what really matters to themselves and their faith from the inessentials or plain ego, is a lesson for us all. This should be as good a reason as any for these exhibitions be re-commissioned – maybe amalgamated – and taken around India.