Over ten centuries after coming to India, the Zorastrians are facing the challenge of assimilation in India. Many of them fear that, soon, there won’t be any Zoroastrians left behind.
The Zoroastrians were a religious community that fled to India somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries as a way to free themselves from the persecution brought upon them by the Persians. Upon reaching their “host” country, the Parsis were sent a glass filled to the brim with milk by an Indian King. This glass of milk was a sign telling the Zoroastrians that India was already full.
In his response, the King of the Zoroastrians, it is believed, sent the milk back with some sugar mixed into it. Apparently, this signaled that India had enough room for them and that the Zoroastrians would be an enriching addition to Indian Society.
Ever since then, the Zoroastrians, also commonly referred to as Parsis, became a small, but integral, part of Indian society. However, particular restrictions prevented the Parsis from interacting with the Indians on a communal and social level.
The concern is often attributed towards the younger adherents of the religion, who many believe, will be responsible for its survival in the long run. This is because, for the Parsis, marriage and relationships determine who gets to stay in the community and who doesn’t. Zoroastrianism is Patriarchal in origin and that means women who marry outside, are not considered as Zoroastrians anymore. In fact, they are even shunned by certain communities within the religion.
The men, on the other hand, enjoy a fair bit more freedom and are more likely to be accepted back into the fold, even if they choose to intermarry.
— Phiroze Edulji (@PhirozeEdulji) March 17, 2016
Demographical statistics that account for Parsis in North America are not very clear. There really is no way to determine how many Parsis exist in these parts because Zoroastrianism falls under the combined “other world religions” (that’s quite a few religions) category of the Pew Research Center. However, two surveys, which were conducted last year, imply that the only 0.3% of the U.S. Adult population is Parsi and around only 0.8% of the world population is Parsi.
According to the World Religion Database, there are only 200,000 Parsis in the entire world. However, the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) states that even that is actually a very high estimate. The federation claims that, in reality, the numbers are much lower with only 111,691 being recorded globally in 2012 according to one of its own surveys.
Now, the dilemma faced by the religion’s adherents is whether to accept intermarriage or not, especially among its women. As expected, there are those who support the change, while there are others who don’t. For instance, Dinyar Patel, an assistant professor of history at the University of South Carolina, believes strongly in passing down his religious traditions to his children. As a result, out of his own free will, he chose to marry a fellow Parsi named Parinaz, whom he met at a Zoroastrian community event. However, Dinyar isn’t completely against encouraging female intermarriage. He does believe that Parsis need to be more pragmatic about it. Nevertheless, he does also believe that the survival of Zoroastrianism is dependent on marrying within the community.
However, according to a survey by FEZANA, the trend isn’t going that way. Intermarriages within the community rose from 40 to 60 percent in the last decade or so.
So, can Zoroastrianism accommodate complete change without losing its core identity? Well, the answers are unclear. A more welcoming attitude is no guarantee that people will come back. At the same time, a strong change like that can often be encountered with hostility from some.
Some would say that a crisis such as this is part of any religion’s lifecycle. However, a crisis such as this is also, quite often, a sign of the end to come.
But, Dinyar states that “extinction” for the Parsis isn’t something that’s going to happen anytime soon, even though he does acknowledge the possibility of it. He simply chooses to believe that his people are just “asleep at the wheel.”