Original article published in the TOI
He is a man of peace. But whenever he dwells upon the crisis that has begun to loom large over the Zoroastrian community in terms of their dwindling numbers, the reactions he evokes are just short of extreme rage.
That’s because Dasturji Dr Kersey Antia is of the firm view that children of Zoroastrian women who marry outside the community must be accepted by the faith.
“If children of Zoroastrian men marrying women from outside the community are accepted, why shouldn’t it be so the other way around too?” he asks. It’s a question not being looked upon too kindly by those who staunchly believe that inter-community marriages “dilute the gene pool”.
Based in the United States, Antia has been the Zoroastrian high priest in Chicago since 1977. He was ordained a priest at the age of 13 after attending the M.F. Cama Athornan Institute in Bombay for nine years. He then went to serve as a volunteer priest even while working at his first job as an officer with the Tata Group.
Antia has done his Master’s in psychology from the North Carolina State University and has obtained a doctorate in the subject from the Indiana Northern University. He is known for talk shows on the radio and television and has also made videos on Zoroastrianism, apart from having studied the Gathas (religious scriptures) for many years.
In Pune to deliver a lecture on ‘Acceptance in Zoroastrianism’, Antia, in the course of an exclusive interview with the TOI, says that the resistance to allow members from outside the faith become a part of the community is mainly because there is a great amount of misunderstanding.
“There are some who are of the point of the view that ‘outsiders’ will start demanding the benefits provided by Zoroastrian trusts. It’s a very orthodox mindset that is causing great harm to the community. As it is, there are only about 90,000 Zoroastrians left in the world. We need to broaden our perspectives if we have to survive,” he noted.
However, if the elders refuse to budge, Antia suggests an alternate plan. “Zoroastrians must be encouraged to marry early. There should be more social gatherings so that young people meet each other. The problem with us is that we are spread too far and wide, right from Alaska to New Zealand and there are very few occasions for those of marriageable age to mingle and know each other. Also, a stronger attempt has to be made to impart religious knowledge to the young generation. In the US, we have regular Sunday schools to do so,” he informs.
Recently, during a similar lecture that Antia delivered in Mumbai, the audience walked out in a huff to express their disagreement. “This,” he opines, “is largely due to their inability to change.” The core issue – that of trying to save the community – is being twisted, he feels.
For Antia, this mission of sorts has been not of his own doing. “It all began after I conducted a navjyot ceremony for an American person called Joseph Peterson who wanted to accept the Zoroastrian faith because he could identify with its principles and teachings. This was reported in our newspaper ‘Jam-E-Jamshed’ and snowballed into a controversy. I was then forced to present evidence from the scriptures that allows for such a conversion. Something not being practised does not mean that it is not allowed,” he states.
For all the opposition to his views, however, Antia remains optimistic. “The change will happen, gradually. The younger generation is more understanding. They have been exposed to many more things in the world today than our forefathers and so the shift in views will definitely take place,” he hopes.