Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Why Is The Truth About Conversion Not Told?

by Jamsheed Kanga in The Jam-e-Jamshed

In a recent book, “Breaking the spell: Religion as a national phenomenon” the author Daniel C Dennett explains by an interesting analogy how religion can indoctrinate the mind. “An ant climbs a blade of grass over and over again, seemingly without seeking food or home because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke which over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of grazing sheep or cows where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place. This is how religion works. People will sacrifice their health, their reason, their family, all in the service of an idea that has lodged in their brain. That idea is like a virus or a worm and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself.. They do this in spite of evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend”

The false belief that conversion is against the tenets of our religion has taken root in the minds of the average Parsi as the parasite has in the ants mind, and is being exploited by our preachers so much so that even a discussion on whether conversion is permitted or not, is considered heretical. This similar to what happened to poor Galileo the famous Italian astronomer. When he discovered that the earth moved round the sun and not the other way round as the Catholic church claimed, he was threatened with dire consequences if he continued his heretical belief and made to retract his claim. Thus by doing so the Church prevented any scientific discussion on this issue for decades and the truth was suppressed. Only when this ban was lifted there was true research and progress in science of astronomy. By claiming that conversion is prohibited in our scriptures, our clergy and the fundamentalist lobby has also prevented any debate on the important issue of our diminishing population as it is linked to the issue of conversion. Any one questioning this has been subjected to vile abuse by the rabid section of the Parsi press and some so called scholars.

The question of conversion tends to divide the community, to such an extent that even genuinely good Parsis, who are otherwise kind and loving are prepared to disown their sons or daughters if they get married out side the community, and are not prepared to do the navjot of their grand children, as they consider it as a conversion . Recently a new organization calling itself the WAPIZ has been formed to prevent any persons who are not pure Parsi Zorastrians from the back door and because the WZO does not restrict its membership to only Parsi-Irani Zorastrians.! Even if the community diminishes and becomes a small tribe, it must retain it pristine purity! Thus it is evident that this issue is the main reason for dividing the community as it is for allowing it to diminish in numbers. Hence getting the truth about this is vital for our future. Whether conversion is permitted or not is something that has to be clearly prescribed in the scriptures. So to set this controversy at rest we need to see the original scriptures and find out what it says. Did prophet Zarthustra prohibit conversion explicitly, or is it permitted? What is his exact direction in the Gathas or other holy books? If there is nothing said about it then can it be deemed to be prohibited, or permitted.

.When I examined the old records to see what the most eminent scholars of the 19th and 20th century have said and done , this is what I found:

.1 In 1882 the great scholar and Shenshai High Priest Dasturji Jamaspi Minochurji Jamas Asa,one of the two senior high priests of the Shensai sect had himself done the navjot of nine children of inter communal parents, 5 females and 4 males after satisfying himself that they were the progeny of Parsi males by non Parsi females. These persons were not rich persons wielding influence,but poor dock worker in Mazgaon and they had petitioned the Parsi Punchayat, that they were of Parsi ‘olad,'(seed) and were desirous of being formally admitted in the religion. About 200 leading Parsis collected a fund, and the eminent dasturji performed the ceremony, in the presence of a large gathering, not surreptitiously as is done now. Dastur Dr. Jivanji Mody himself a learned scholar and priest, stated this in his evidence in the case ‘Petit V/S Jeejibhoy and is quoted in the judgement .

2. The same High Priest Dastur Jamaspi in 1906, in front of a large gathering in Bombay performed the navjot (conversion) of Madam Suzanne Briere ,a French lady and her marriage with Mr. R. D. Tata,( father of JRD Tata) by Zorastrian rites This is a clear case of conversion from Christianity to our religion, which the eminent dastoorji obviously considered as permitted.

3, Another eminent Shenshai high priest Dastur Peshotan Sanjana also supported the navjot of children of mixed marriages(with Parsi father). He also published a pamphlet prescribing the all ceremonies to be performed before admitting juddins into the Zorastrian religion.(please note, he did not say that conversion itself was wrong!) . The pamphlet is called? ” Explanation of the ceremonies that should be performed for the admission of juddins to the Zorastrian religion..” and is in the KRCama Library.

4. In order to determine whether the religion permitted conversion or not, at a meeting of the Samast anjuman held at Albless Bagh in 1906 an expert committee was appointed consisting of 11 of the the leading expert and scholars, and including one of the most eminent Avasta scholar of the day scholar, Dr. K R Cama and many others including the two high priests, ,to advise whether conversion was permitted in the scriptures and if so what ceremonies were to be performed for this. After extensive research and deliberations the committee came to the unanimous conclusion that “they did not find any thing in the scriptures to show conversions was prohibited but that it was actually enjoined.” On the questions posed to the expert committee regarding the ceremonies that should be performed for conversion, to quote Justice Davar,”We find that seven out of ten experts in the report relied upon by the plantiffs, including both the high priests deliberately lay down that the three ceremonies including the burushunum are essential for the proper admission of a juddin to the Zorastrian faith.” Does this not lead to the undeniable conclusion that conversion after proper ceremonies is permitted?

5. In the famous case Petit v/s Jeejibhoy, filed by Sir Dinshaw Petit against the Parsi Panchayat , claiming all the rights of a Parsi to a person converted to the religion, in this case Mrs R. D. Tata. the evidence of over 200 persons was painstakingly recorded and they were cross examined by the most eminent barristers of the day These witnesses included the leading scholars and high priests of that time and , for the the eminent judges also concluded that conversion was not prohibited but enjoined in the Zorastrian religion. Further more the judgement stated that Parsis ceased to practice conversion, in the interest of self preservation, after coming to India, not because it was prohibited in the scriptures, Only in the cases of children of Parsi fathers by non Parsi mothers conversions took place. However as there were no cases of children of Parsi mothers by non Parsi fathers the question of their navjots taking place did not arise.

This is clear from the evidence of high priest Dastoorji Dorab P Sanjana who states “There was no conversion because at first there were difficulties in the way of the emigrants who found a safe refuge in India, as Jadav Rana gave them refuge under certain conditions. Those conditions were not favorable to converting his subjects, or anyone else in India?.it would have been ingratitude towards the Rana who had given them refuge to try to convert his subjects.” According to Justice Davar, “If the truth is told, they made no attempt because they knew not only the utter hopelessness of any attempt, but they knew further that any such attempt would have been so seriously resented that it would have resulted in ruin to the community?.:” One can find a detailed account of the case and the various committees in a Gujrati book by Ervad Nadirsha Hormazdji Sukhia printed in 1905 which is at the KRK library.

6. A very clear exposition of this issue is given byDr K R Cama one of the most learned and honourable scholars the community has ever known, in a letter to Seth Rustomji Dosabhai Sethna the then vice chairman of the Anjuman Atash Behram, as follows. “In reply to your letter and the question asked therein , I take leave to briefly state that, if any juddin by his understanding, or being convinced by any Zarthusti, gets to know the deficiency of his own religion and, by his own free will admits this in public, and openly wants to be a Zarthustrian, and just for this gets his navjot done ,and by his desire to be identified as one belonging to the Zorastrian faith, and as a symbol thereof wants to wear a sudreh and kashti, there is no prohibition in admitting such a person to the Zorastrian faith. Not only that but it is the duty of every true Zorastrian to accept such person in the Zorastrian faith, and thus to spread the Zorastrian religion.”

I can not find a more categorical statement about the permissibility of conversion, from any scholar . and can not imagine how such a statement could have been made without evidence of conversion being permitted in our scriptures These are a few of the examples where the most eminent scholars and dasturs have openly admitted that conversion is permitted and actully performed it, not selectively for rich persons only but even for the dock worker of Mazgaon! Iam sure there must be more examples, but the persons mentioned above were all without exception the most learned and revered scholars of Avasta of that day and are still held in veneration.hence their actions and words are more relevant. To realize how learned these persons were see their brief biographies.

Dastur Jamaspi Muncherji Jamas Asa(1830 -1889 ) came from a line of illustrious Bhagaria priests from Navsari. Appointed high priest of Shenshai sect in 1861 .He was the President of the Society for the Promotion of Research in Zorastrian religion. for 23 years. A member of the Royal Asiatic Society, a fellow of Bombay University, and on whom the honor of a Doctor of Civil laws ( DCL)honraris causa was conferred by the Oxford University. The trustees of the Bodelian Library in Oxford had commissioned his oil painting by a famous artist, which is on display at the library. Several fire temples were consecrated under his guidance. He published . many books including a Pahalvi Dictionary in 4 parts. and laid the foundation for the Anjuman Atash Behram in 1897.Obviously he was held in high regard in his life time. The book ” Zorastrian Tapestry ” edited by Firoza Godrej and Firoza Mistree describes him as one of our illustrious scholar priests and has the above mentioned painting..

Dastur Shaams -ul-Ulema Dr. Pestonjee B Sanjana the other high priest was renowned in India and Europe for his efforts in spreading knowledge of Pehlvi by publishing books in Gujrati and English translations. After his death a memorial volume was published in his honor contributed by eminent Indian and European scholars. His son Dartur Dorab Sanjana was an equally distinguished scholar and succeeded him as high priest. In his pamphlet entitled “Explanation of the ceremonies to be performed for admission of juddins to the Zorastrian religion” he explains all the ceremonies necessary to be done before a conversion can be deemed valid.,

Dr K R Camas reputation as an eminent scholar is well known. His biography has been written by the eminent scholar Sham -ul -Ulema Dr Jivanji Mody, himself an outstanding Avasta scholar who was his pupil, and also by Mr. S.M. Edwards a very famous historian of Bombay. Jivanji Mody write,”I admire Mr. Cama for his Iranian and other learning, for his services as a teacher, a preacher, and a reformer, and for his other public services in all directions , but I admire him more for his upright character, his good disposition, his affable manners which led him to behave well even with his enemies in the true spirit of the Zorastrian benediction? ” Behave well with your enemies” He was one of the few leaders of thought in the community. In many questions affecting the good of the community, people liked to know the views of Mr. Cama??Though he was unpopular amongst the orthodox in his young days for his advanced views, as if he were a kind of heretic, those very gentlemen later on sought his views . We often across great men but rare that we come across great and good men. .Mr. Cama was a great and good man? His work both as a social and religious reformer was very useful.. He was a reformer of the constructive type and not of a destructive type(Some of our present day so called scholars who believe in abuse and vilification of those who disagree with them could learn a lesson from him!).”

Can the fundamentalists explain this paradox of such distinguished scholars and learned high priests openly disregarding an express prohibition against conversion, in our scriptures ,by performing conversions, and by writing pamphlets stating that conversion is permitted Or an expert committee unanimously deciding to disregard an explicit injunction forbidding conversion . Is this not what is being implied by the present lot of high priests and pseudo scholars when they are stating that conversion is against the tenets of our religion, there by implying that these eminent persons have misled the community and done wrong. Are they prepared to say so openly. Have any new scriptures been discovered in some caves in Iran( like the Dead Sea Scrolls) which say that conversion is barred? Is it in the Gathas which is the word of the prophet? Or are these later misinterpretations by priests To quote Justice Jal Vimadalal an eminent scholar and jurist, unlike the Catholic church where the Pope can prescribe under cannon law there is nothing like cannon law for us and hence no one can dictate their views as the only truth. Can we disregard the interpretations of persons of such eminence and reliability based on the true interpretation of our scriptures in favour of half baked scholars, who are not even prepared to produce evidence? Gentlemen and ladies I leave it to you to judge whose evidence is more reliable.

How can one explain that conversion was permitted and practiced by the most learned and eminent high priests and scholars in the past when Parsis were more orthodox and devout, and is forbidden in this more liberal era of today? It is my belief that while the priest and scholars of the 19th century were men of integrity, and were world renowned scholars like K R Cama, knew that the scriptures did not prohibit conversion, and were not afraid to say so publicly, the lay public did want conversions to be permitted .They felt that the lower caste persons such as ‘dubras’ and ‘lalias’ would get converted to raise their own status as Parsis and grab the assets in Parsi trusts and their housing. My belief is that when the present lot of high priests and scholars realized that the lay public would object to the correct interpretation of the religion about the permissibility of conversion, they did not have the courage to go against the orthodoxy which is their logical constituency and the only way they could do this was by asserting that our scriptures prohibit conversion. Those who had the courage to openly state and practice conversion like Dasturj Bode were ridiculed and ostracised. Since the average Parsi can not read the original scriptures, they accepted what the high priests and pseudo scholars told them..

It can be justifiably argued that we Parsis have preserved our seperate racial identity over the centuries , and have distinguished ourselves in so many spheres that we are proud to be identified as Parsis . We should not allow our identity to be diluted or submerged in this vast country by allowing open conversion. This is a credible argument and there will be many takers for this. The second fear is that if conversion is permitted openly, our communities assets such as housing, funds etc will have to be shared with the new converts. While these argument are worth considering, the fear that if conversion takes place, the new converts will be able to share our assets is totally misplaced and false. This issue was considered in great detail by Justice Davar in his judgment and this was his conclusion. “For the reasons I have recorded above, I have come to the conclusion that even if an entire alien- a juddin is duely admitted to the Zorastrian religion after satisfying all conditions, and undergoing all necessary ceremonies, he or she would not as a matter of right, be entitled to the use and benefit of the Funds and Institutions now under the defendants management and control.; that these were founded and endowed only for the members of the Parsi community” Thus it is clear that the fears that the community would be swamped by Africans and Brazilians as Khojeste’s fertile imagination predicts is unfounded and there would be no sharing of our assets which are safe from converts.

. Once that is clear that our religion does not prohibit conversion then the debate becomes one of the desirability for conversion from the social stand point. Even if it is permitted should we encourage it. This is a legitimate point of view and I would have more respect for our high priests if they had said that though permitted it should not be done for certain reasons. To say that it is prohibited untrue and mis leading. Now this issue needs to be examined from the pure social aspect, viz the issue of the survival of the community as its numbers are diminishing rapidly and hence what measures including selective conversion should be considered.. The debate should be among sociologists and demographers and medical experts and not amongst priests and religious scholars, as it has been so far.

In my opinion there is a strong case for selective entry into the religion , starting with children of Parsi mothers , and their spouses. This right can not be denied to the children of Parsi mothers by the priests refusing to give them service But this can be debated from the social angle and not by barring it as against the tenets of our religion. A good beginning has been made by the ARZ where as per the true interpretation of our religion children of Parsi women of mixed marriages as well as the spouces can participate in ceremonies. More Parsis should support them and eventually there should be consecrated agiaries for such functions.

My only intention in writing this piece and inviting the abuse of the fundamentalist is because I feel that as an intelligent community we should to bring out in the open the question of conversion, and to encourage a healthy debate . We are a lazy lot and will not do our own research to discover the truth but believe what we are told. I am extremely happy that Parsiana has published a recent book, “Judgments” which covers the entire issue of conversion , by reproducing in full the judgments of Petit v/s Jeejibhoy (1906),and Bella v/s Saklat, (1915) It also has extracts from two relatively recent judgments on this issue viz Yazdiar v/s Yazdiar(1950) and Irani V/S Irani (1960) Thus in one slim volume all that one needs to know is now available., and I urge all my friends who are interested in the truth but. did not have access to the true fact about conversion to read this bookAs an educated and intelligent community let us therefore at least read what has been painstakingly assembled for our guidance on this subject in this book “Judgement”. It is also necessary for intelligent Parsis to question our high priest and those who claim that conversion is against the tenets of our religion to produce hard evidence and to contradict the facts stated above. Surely we have many courageous persons who will seek the truth as even our Gathas urge us to think for ourselves and not be mislead by others

. “Listen well with your ears to my best teaching/Consider with enlightened mind all ye before reaching/ a decision on choice between two paths shown./ Each man to himself, .. The decision his own./ Well before the ushering- in of the great event/ Wake ye all, and spread well this message I have sent’ ( Yasna 30.1-2).

It is sad that an enlightened community we can not discuss and solve our differences in a civilized manner, since the truth can not be hidden for ever. The only persons to benefit from this are ambitious preacher and pseudo scholars who want to become leaders by preaching divisive ideologies, and claiming to save the religion!, I would also urge the many eminent persons who have joined WAPIZ, to persuade its founders to try and emulate K R Cama and as stated above be constructive in your dialogue and do not indulge in abuse and vilification of those who do not agree with you and win them over. If despite the evidence quoted above you wish to hold on to your views do so, but at least have the honesty to explain why you reject the evidence of such eminent scholars !

I feel that it is very necessary for the educated Parsis who realize how are community is declining in numbers to start to consider how we can go beyond the traditional remedies to slow down the decline in our population Eminent sociologist and demographers like Dr Armaity Desai as well as fertility and medical experts and intelligent leaders should discuss the problem as a social and medical issue , not as a religious issue. It is not in our interest to allow the community to gets wiped out just to satisfy the ego of bigots and false scholars. We need out of box thinking for our survival. Wake up as it is already late, and try to save our community from extinction.