The Bombay High Court’s recent verdict in the Parsi Priests’ case is historic. It recognises the generosity of the Parsi community and condemns a narrow, sectarian religious perspective
Civilization’s future, EM Forster wrote in his July 1941 essay, originally broadcast on BBC, demands something less dramatic and emotional than prattle about love. “Tolerance,” he said, “is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”
The Bombay High Court’s judgement will now be taken to the Supreme Court, where it will hopefully be left untouched because this is a judgement that India both needs and deserves
Seventy years have passed since, and it seems clear that in that time we have grown more intolerant not less. Whether it is books, writing, art, religion, complexion, dress, headgear, worship or diet we seem now only to be defined by hate.
The Bombay High Court’s decision of 11 March 2011 in what I will call, for want of a better phrase, the Parsi Priests’ case has been described as ‘historic’ and ‘landmark’. It is both, and not only because it is so exceptionally well-written by Justice Chandrachud, but because of its profound impact that reaches far beyond the litigation itself. Jamshyd Kanga, a former IAS officer, and Homi Khusrokhan, a highly regarded professional who served as the MD of various companies (Glaxo, Tata Tea, Tata Chemicals), both Parsis, sought the court’s interpretation of the 1884 Parsi Panchayat Trust Deed.
The immediate cause for the case was the trustees’ ban on two priests from performing religious ceremonies at the Towers of Silences and at two agiaries. These priests had, it was alleged, conducted ‘irreligious’ ceremonies: funeral rites for Parsis who were cremated; navjots for children of mixed parentage; and marriages of Parsis marrying non-Parsis. The petitioners claimed that management of Panchayat properties — including the Towers of Silence and agiaries — is a secular function, and the trustees cannot ban priests from performing religious ceremonies there. The defence argued that the court was really being asked to determine what is or is not an acceptable Zoroastrian religious ceremony; essentially, that the ‘purity’ of the religion demanded the ban.
The context is an ancient religion, 3,500 years old, one whose vast influences are found in unlikely places. Paul Kriwaczek’s excellent book In Search of Zarathustra tells of a journey through Central Asia to discover the roots of a faith which speaks of a single universal god and the tension between good and evil; teachings that presaged the teachings of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In modern writing, the most immediate example of the religion’s influence is, of course, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, in which, following an epiphany, he attempted to reinterpret the religion.
Nietzsche’s book itself had many influences: from Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler to Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. After pulling off a two-paragraph summary of Nietzsche’s book, Kriwaczek gives us this astonishing passage:
“On a damp and gloomy morning … on the other side of the square, in front of the imposing National Library [in Turin], a carter was savagely beating his horse. The horse fell to its knees. The austere philosopher, who had uncompromisingly condemned pity as a debilitating weakness, sped across the road and flung his arms about the horse’s neck — a gesture of sympathy and solidarity with another living being. It was his last sane and human act. He would never return to his senses again. He had finally passed beyond good and evil.”
Good and evil, sanity, what it means to be human, to be humane; it is but a short hop from Nietzche to Forster, for there are precepts in Zoroastrianism, as in all other religions, which are universal and not bound to dogma. Yet, doctrinaire views — inflexible attachments to practice or theory without regard to practicality — are the favoured weapons of fundamentalists everywhere. In their hands even the most moderate views can be deformed. As Forster also said, “it’s very easy to see fanaticism in other people, but difficult to spot in oneself.”
The Parsi community is unique, and uniquely Indian. It has many great qualities, perhaps the greatest of which is its remarkable generosity of spirit. It is this spirit that the judgement recognizes when it condemns a narrow, sectarian religious perspective: “At least the Court cannot be a party to encouraging religious obscurantism.”
This judgement of the Bombay High Court will now be taken to the Supreme Court. There, hopefully, it will be left untouched, for this is a judgement that India both needs and deserves. In a country which claims to be truly secular by law but which displays every indication to the contrary, this judgement is a reaffirmation of one of our most cardinal Constitutional principles. In it, we hear the distinct echo of Forster’s recommendation for temperance. And we hear, too, the equally distinct voice of Nietzsche calling from the past: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”