Many of us recently finished celebrating Christmas, Eid, and Hanukkah; however, few of us have heard of the religion that deeply influenced those traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. As the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism introduced ideas of a single deity, a dualistic universe of good versus evil, and a final day of reckoning. The three wise men who visited the infant Jesus were Zoroastrian magi.
Last week, a tiny but devout group of Zoroastrians convened in Dubai for the 9th quadriennal World Zoroastrian Congress to discuss the uncertain future of their ancient faith. With 750 believers in attendance, roughly 1 out of every remaining 187 Zoroastrians worldwide attended the four-day conference. Once the religion of millions in pre-Islamic Persia, Zoroastrianism now boasts fewer than 140,000 adherents, with a third over the age of 60.
At the conference, Zoroastrians spoke about religious preservation with the same zeal as zoologists speak about protecting an endangered animal. Speakers touted myriad proposals to reverse the current community trends of late marriages and few children. They proposed speed-dating events to encourage young Zoroastrians to fall in love; Web sites to facilitate matrimony across borders; and monthly subsidies to Zoroastrian parents willing to have more than one child. Nothing short of “Facebook for Zoroastrians” was proposed to save the 3,500-year-old religion from the brink of extinction.
While the most precipitous decline in the community’s numbers came from the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 10th century, the community’s current existential crisis is a result of its own insistence on endogamy. Despite their shrinking population, Zoroastrians remain fiercely divided over whether to recognize interfaith families, let alone accept converts. Khojeste Mistree, a self-proclaimed conservative member of the community, spoke in Dubai about retaining Zoroastrianism’s “ethnic-religious-identity” and warned coreligionist against “radical” ideas of accepting foreigners into the fold. On the other hand, internationally acclaimed screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala urged delegates to embrace children of interfaith couples as well as “spread the beautiful fragrance of our religion across the world.”
Zoroastrian theology professes that humankind is designed to evolve toward perfection if each human being cultivates a “good conscience” to combat greed, lust, hatred, and other evil forces that threaten to thwart this natural progression. A good conscience is formed by nurturing good thoughts, speaking good words, and practicing good deeds.
Community leaders attending the Dubai conference spoke of Zoroastrianism’s proud history of safeguarding human rights, promoting women’s rights, and protecting the environment. Cyrus the Great–the Zoroastrian Persian emperor of ca.600 – 529 BCE–was responsible for the world’s first human rights document, the Cyrus Cylinder. The religion’s sacred texts urge both genders to equally share responsibilities, which may explain why many Zoroastrian women excel in their professions and delay marriage. Zoroastrianism is also regarded as the world’s first eco-religion since it strictly forbids polluting the earth. In India, Zoroastrians are known for their unique practice of sky burials, in which corpses are exposed to natural elements such as wind, rain, and vultures in open-topped “Towers of Silence” as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation.
Despite Zoroastrians progressive past, today’s community seems reluctant to reform its stance on conversion despite its declining population. Many Zoroastrians insist their religion regards conversion as inherently disrespectful because it devalues other faiths by suggesting Zoroastrianism is superior. Some Zoroastrians claim years of religious persecution led to self-isolation, so the community’s ban on conversion was a survival mechanism–rather than a religious duty–that is no longer imperative.
Anxieties about community survival are not, of course, restricted to Zoroastrians. The American Jewish community has conflicted views on interfaith marriage; however, there are still roughly 128 times as many Jews worldwide than there are Zoroastrians. On the polemical issue of conversion, conservative Zoroastrians maintain religion is inherited the same way one inherits her eye color. Liberal Zoroastrians reject exclusionary practices and propose following the example of reform Jews who selectively allow conversion.
When Zoroastrians fled Persia during the Islamic incursions in the 10th Century, they were granted refuge in India. The refugee community retained its religious traditions and social fabric in “baags”–gated communities–where youngsters intermingled, intermarried, and perpetuated their faith. During the second-wave of the Diaspora, from the 1960s onwards, many Zoroastrians sought educational opportunities and job security in Western Countries. Scattered on distant shores, the community struggled to rebuild community centers and fire temples (Zoroastrians regard fire as a symbol of God’s light and wisdom). Highly educated and upwardly mobile, Zoroastrians increasingly study, work and marry outside the community.
Today, India is still home to the majority of Zoroastrians, but the community is declining by about 10% every decennial census, according to a report released by UNESCO. Mahatma Gandhi once declared, “I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy perhaps unequalled and certainly unsurpassed.” Many of India’s chief industrialists–including Ratan Tata of the vast Tata conglomerate–are Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsees) who gave considerable sums to medical, educational, and housing initiatives for the indigent. Other notable members of the Parsee community have included Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara) of the rock band Queen and Rohinton Mistry who authored “A Fine Balance,” which was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize.
For Zoroastrians, six degrees of separation is reduced to one. The closeness of the Zoroastrian community was captured as delegates greeted each other in Dubai. One exclaimed, “Your uncle was the doctor who delivered my first child!” Another reminisced, “Do you remember me? I use to give your mother sewing lessons. Membership in a tight-knit community has many benefits–although some of those benefits veer uncomfortably close to nepotism–but marrying within an increasingly narrow gene pool is risky. Doctors attending the Dubai conference devoted entire lectures to warning their coreligionists about troublingly high levels of breast cancer and multiple sclerosis in their community.
In some ways, Dubai was an unlikely choice for the jubilee year of the World Zoroastrian Congress given the region’s historical animosity towards religious minorities. Indeed, rumors abounded that discussions on Zoroastrian theology were censored since the conference was branded as an “Invest in Dubai” event to make the conference palatable to the ruling powers. Yet, in more nuanced ways, Dubai was the perfect symbolic destination for a community struggling to survive. Dubai’s past glory and precarious future–seen in its airports clamoring with emigrating foreigners–is an imperfect but useful parallel for the Zoroastrian community whose heyday has past and whose future remains tentative.
Watch a recent video about Zoroastrianism.
Deena Guzder is freelance journalist who recently spoke about Zoroastrianism on NPR.