At the turn of the 16th century, the Portuguese discovered an eastern passage to India that afforded them easy access to well-priced goods and to India’s natural wonders and human curiosities.
In the Gujarat region, Portuguese fleets found textiles for trading in the East Indies—and encountered a community, exiled hundreds of years earlier, that many mistook for Jews. In a 16th-century treatise on Indian pharmacology, Garcia da Orta, a Portuguese physician born to a Spanish Jew, attempted to correct this mistake:
"There are also merchants called COARIS, and in the kingdom of Cambaia they are known as Esparcis (or Parsis). We Portuguese call them Jews, but they are not so. They are Gentios who came from Persia, and have special letters of their own and many peculiar superstitions . . . They do not circumcise nor are they forbidden pork. Beef is prohibited. By these things we see that they are not Jews."
In fact, the Parsis were Zoroastrians from Iran. They immigrated to India at some time during the eighth century, in the tumultuous period following the Arab conquest that ended nearly a millennium of Iranian rule and Zoroastrian supremacy in the Near East. The story of their journey to India is told in a long Persian epic poem titled the Qe??a-ye Sanj?n or The Story of Sanj?n, the first place in Gujarat in which the Parsis settled permanently. The tale is complete with a storm-tossed sea, a miraculous rescue, and a benevolent king who welcomed the refugees. Although parts of it can be confirmed historically, the poem’s real function is to provide a mythical account of a community’s passage to a Diaspora—similar to the medieval story, recorded by Abraham ibn Daud, of four great rabbis who journeyed by sea from the great academies of Babylonia to found Jewish communities from North Africa to Spain.
Da Orta’s effort notwithstanding, the association between Parsis and Jews has remained strong from the Early Modern period to contemporary times. Parsis are still sometimes called the “Jews of India”—a peculiar moniker, since Jews themselves have lived in India perhaps for millennia and at least since the Middle Ages.
The equation of Jews and Parsis often begins as a “comparative religions” analysis of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. As modern talmudists emphasize, Babylonian Jews were the subjects of successive Iranian dynasties for a thousand years, including the period that produced Judaism’s central text, the Babylonian Talmud. Scholars argue that because of this long co-existence, Judaism and Zoroastrianism came to include similar practices and beliefs. The two ritually-minded religions thought along similar lines about issues of purity and impurity and had similar concerns with numerous divine commandments and prohibitions. Not long after da Orta’s visit to India, a Jesuit priest named Father Anthony Monserrate noted that Parsis, like Jews, were obsessed with matters related to the impurity of corpses and wore ritual garments reminiscent of the Jews’ fringed ritual garments:
The peculiar mark, by which [Parsis] are conveniently distinguished from other races, as if it were a token of religion, is a garment made of line or cotton or muslin, which hangs down to the thigh. The edges of this garment are stitched together, and its two ends are sewn up. It covers the head and the ends are tied together over the chest, leaving a square-shaped fold about four inches wide, which seems to correspond to the Therapis, as it is called, of the Jews.
Such comparisons, however, could just as easily have been made about Jews and Zoroastrians remaining in Iran. The more tantalizing juxtaposition between Jews and Parsis has to do with exile, Diaspora, and an apparently unswerving allegiance to an idealized homeland. Jews and Parsis both fled conquered home territories, exhibited impressive fealty to their communal and religious traditions, and became famously successful when they came into contact with modernity—in the form of emancipation, with the Jews, and British colonialism, with the Parsis.
But do the Parsis retain memory of Iran and a yearning for return, a crucial component of Jewish Diaspora experience?
Throughout history, peoples have been exiled from their homelands; but Jews, for better or worse, have had first dibs on the term “Diaspora.” It first gained currency after the Greek translation of verses like Deuteronomy 28:5, predicting that Jews would be “dispersed into all the kingdoms of the earth.” Only in the 19th century was the term applied to other exiled peoples, including the Parsis; and the criteria for inclusion in the fellowship of diasporic communities are hotly contested among scholars.
Understandably, this discussion sometimes reflects particularities of Jewish history. For example, both William Safran and Robin Cohen have argued that the Parsis do not constitute a Diaspora because they have “no myth of return to their original homeland” or “idealization of a homeland.”
It is actually hard to believe that Parsis did not idealize Iran, given the extreme veneration of Iran found in some of their religious and poetical texts. Dinyar Patel, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is himself a Parsi, has begun research on a group of intriguing late 19th- and early 20th-century Parsi societies in Bombay that promoted emotional, tourist, economic, and political ties with Iran. One group, the Iran League, was particularly successful in galvanizing Parsis to support, visit, and even contemplate returning to Iran. This Parsi analogue of Zionism was spurred partly by the Parsis’ growing unease about their future in the coming post-colonial India. It also intersected in fascinating ways with the nationalism and idealization of ancient Iran on the part of the two Pahlavi Shahs, who ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979; both of them officially welcomed and supported pilgrimages and the idea of resettlement. But the movement came to an unsurprising halt in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution and the sudden shift in the status of Zoroastrians and Zoroastrianism in Iran’s Islamic Republic.
The Bible, particularly in the Later Prophets, is filled with narratives of exile and return involving nations that are not part of Jewish history. This fact has mystified some traditional biblical exegetes who think of the Bible as a book about God and the Jews. On second thought, however, perhaps it is time to defy Balaam’s prophecy—that the Jews would not be “reckoned among the nations”—and count ourselves among the world’s peoples after all.
Shai Secunda is a Mandel Fellow at the Scholion Center for Interdisciplinary Jewish Research, and a lecturer in the Talmud department at Hebrew University. He blogs at the Talmud Blog, which he founded and now co-edits.