Parsis and Jews, Exile and Return

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. 

By Shai Secunda | Jewish Ideas Daily

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.

  • Jeannie Antia

    wonderful informative article!

  • Jeannie Antia

    wonderful informative article!

  • Barak Aga

    Like comparing chalk and cheese. The Jews have heroes, the parsis have zeroes. Theodor Herzl envisioned establishment of a Jewish state. No self-proclaimed High Priest or community leader has spoken of a Zoroastrian state. The Jews fought against and overthrew British rule. The Parsis connived with the British, and till date many in India view them as collaborators. Ben-Gurion established the Jewish state. The Jews fought and won several wars against the Arabs. Our Parsi braggadocios limit themselves to hunting for old women and Russians in Sanjan.

  • Barak Aga

    Like comparing chalk and cheese. The Jews have heroes, the parsis have zeroes. Theodor Herzl envisioned establishment of a Jewish state. No self-proclaimed High Priest or community leader has spoken of a Zoroastrian state. The Jews fought against and overthrew British rule. The Parsis connived with the British, and till date many in India view them as collaborators. Ben-Gurion established the Jewish state. The Jews fought and won several wars against the Arabs. Our Parsi braggadocios limit themselves to hunting for old women and Russians in Sanjan.

  • Juzer Randelia

    Why not make a start dear Barak?

  • Juzer Randelia

    Why not make a start dear Barak?

  • Barak Aga

    Juzer, it is for the Parsi arm-chair Rambos to make a start. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let those who claim to be the defenders of the faith stand up for what they believe in. Let the sissies from Mumbai who spare no opportunity to claim they are pure Iranians, and those who state that people living in Iran know nothing about Iranian culture, take the initiative. Or else, to shut up

  • Barak Aga

    Juzer, it is for the Parsi arm-chair Rambos to make a start. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let those who claim to be the defenders of the faith stand up for what they believe in. Let the sissies from Mumbai who spare no opportunity to claim they are pure Iranians, and those who state that people living in Iran know nothing about Iranian culture, take the initiative. Or else, to shut up

  • Phiroze

    Good one Juzer. But these freeloaders can’t live without Parsi charity so forget about it.

  • Phiroze

    Good one Juzer. But these freeloaders can’t live without Parsi charity so forget about it.

  • Barak Aga

    Juzer, too scared to make a start yourself?
    Those free-loaders who draw salaries from Parsi charitable organisations would be loathe to give up easy money, and their parasitic existence. Forget about fighting for a Zoroastrian homeland, and Zoroastrian pride, many couldn’t even find a job for themselves, and have to depend on Parsi charities for their livelihood.

  • Barak Aga

    Juzer, too scared to make a start yourself?
    Those free-loaders who draw salaries from Parsi charitable organisations would be loathe to give up easy money, and their parasitic existence. Forget about fighting for a Zoroastrian homeland, and Zoroastrian pride, many couldn’t even find a job for themselves, and have to depend on Parsi charities for their livelihood.

  • Barak Aga

    Juzer, too scared to make a start yourself?
    Those free-loaders who draw salaries from Parsi charitable organisations would be loathe to give up easy money, and their parasitic existence. Forget about fighting for a Zoroastrian homeland, and Zoroastrian pride, many couldn’t even find a job for themselves, and have to depend on Parsi charities for their livelihood.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze knows best as it depends on a Parsi charity for a job, and a roof over its head, and doles during the “Muktaad” days. We are still waiting for imposters from Gujarat, claiming to be Persians, to even remotely emulate the Jews. Sanjan for booze and free food is the closest they get to Iran.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze knows best as it depends on a Parsi charity for a job, and a roof over its head, and doles during the “Muktaad” days. We are still waiting for imposters from Gujarat, claiming to be Persians, to even remotely emulate the Jews. Sanjan for booze and free food is the closest they get to Iran.

  • Phiroze

    Parjats should keep out of Parsi matters

  • Phiroze

    Parjats should keep out of Parsi matters

  • gb

    Barak Aga is 100 percent parsi zoroastrian.

  • gb

    Barak Aga is 100 percent parsi zoroastrian.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze agreed. This is what even the Iranian Zarthostis and I, have been trying to explain to the likes of you, but to no avail. Glad you have seen the light of day. So now do keep out of “Parsi” matters. Iranian culture, and language is under no threat, and does not require Gujjus to stand up for Iranian pride and culture.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze agreed. This is what even the Iranian Zarthostis and I, have been trying to explain to the likes of you, but to no avail. Glad you have seen the light of day. So now do keep out of “Parsi” matters. Iranian culture, and language is under no threat, and does not require Gujjus to stand up for Iranian pride and culture.

  • Barak Aga

    Correct Phiroze, that is why you should not butt into “Parsi” matters. Now heed your advise and wamoose.

  • Barak Aga

    Correct Phiroze, that is why you should not butt into “Parsi” matters. Now heed your advise and wamoose.

  • Phiroze

    If a parjat like you who enjoys the fruits of Parsi charity housing @ Golanji hill and a Parsi school at Panchgani and still feel Parsis are zeros, relocate to Iran and give up Parsi charity. Show us that you mean what you say and not just a gasbag. And those who want to support you can do the same. Parsis do not need Iranians or their culture or language or pride for that matter.

  • Phiroze

    If a parjat like you who enjoys the fruits of Parsi charity housing @ Golanji hill and a Parsi school at Panchgani and still feel Parsis are zeros, relocate to Iran and give up Parsi charity. Show us that you mean what you say and not just a gasbag. And those who want to support you can do the same. Parsis do not need Iranians or their culture or language or pride for that matter.

  • Phiroze

    Can we see some proof please!!!

  • Phiroze

    Can we see some proof please!!!

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze it is Gujjus from Nargol such as you who are living at 669, Dadar Parsi Colony, (next to St Joseph’s School); and who are provided employment by, and draw salary from a Parsi Charitable Trust, who are living off Parsi charity. You tried to pass yourself off as a Persian, but were put in your place by Iranian Zarthostis. You have already shown us that you don’t have the courage of your conviction, and are a gasbag. You are even hare-brained when you say that “Parsis do not need Iranians or their culture or language or pride for that matter”. Shot your mouth off as usual, and shot yourself in the foot. So then why do you put up signs “Only for Parsis and Iranis”, and why are you and the dhongidox brigade from Nargol faking Persian ethnicity?

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze it is Gujjus from Nargol such as you who are living at 669, Dadar Parsi Colony, (next to St Joseph’s School); and who are provided employment by, and draw salary from a Parsi Charitable Trust, who are living off Parsi charity. You tried to pass yourself off as a Persian, but were put in your place by Iranian Zarthostis. You have already shown us that you don’t have the courage of your conviction, and are a gasbag. You are even hare-brained when you say that “Parsis do not need Iranians or their culture or language or pride for that matter”. Shot your mouth off as usual, and shot yourself in the foot. So then why do you put up signs “Only for Parsis and Iranis”, and why are you and the dhongidox brigade from Nargol faking Persian ethnicity?

  • Barak Aga

    Yes. This is true. And Phiroze is a 100% Gujarati from Nargol, but has managed to sneak in to 669 Dadar Parsi Colony.

  • Barak Aga

    Yes. This is true. And Phiroze is a 100% Gujarati from Nargol, but has managed to sneak in to 669 Dadar Parsi Colony.

  • Barak Aga

    First let Gujju Phiroze from Nargol prove that it is Parsi before having the temerity to ask proof of others. How dare a Gujju question me!

  • Barak Aga

    First let Gujju Phiroze from Nargol prove that it is Parsi before having the temerity to ask proof of others. How dare a Gujju question me!

  • Barak Aga

    Ah! The proof hare-brained Phiroze provided us long time ago. I am on the electoral rolls of the BPP, but Gujju Phiroze from Nargol is not.

  • Barak Aga

    Ah! The proof hare-brained Phiroze provided us long time ago. I am on the electoral rolls of the BPP, but Gujju Phiroze from Nargol is not.

  • Barak Aga

    How dare a Gujju from Nargol who has been exposed as an imposter by Iranian Zarthostis demand proof from a Zoroastrian?

  • Barak Aga

    How dare a Gujju from Nargol who has been exposed as an imposter by Iranian Zarthostis demand proof from a Zoroastrian?

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, unlike you and your family, I do not exist on doles from BPP, hence I chose not to enroll for the electoral rolls of BPP. I do not need to give proof but I can understand your predicament and need for proof to be called a parsi considering where you came from.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, I have dared before and again and you can’t doing anything about it. You are and always will be a parjat.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, I have stayed here for 45 years and paid for it and a parjat like you can’t do anything about it

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, I have dared before and dare again and a parjat like you can’t do anything about it. Once a parjat always a parjat.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, proof that you cannot survive without Parsi charity and is a gasbag zero is getting yourself enrolled on the rolls of BPP. Thanks for exposing your twofaced self.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, proof that you cannot survive without Parsi charity and is a gasbag zero is getting yourself enrolled on the rolls of BPP. Thanks for exposing your twofaced self.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, unlike you I do not spit in the tray I eat from. I am an out and out Indian and proud to be one. I am also proud to be a Parsi and am contributing to the community from my 25 years of corporate expierence. What is your contribution besides calling Parsis zeroes? If you claim to be Persian you should give up Parsi charity and relocate to Iran ASAP with your family. But you are just a gasbag with no courage or conviction so you shall live of Parsi charity and call them zeroes too. What else can Parsis expect from traditional freeloaders? As a Parsi I do not need any certificate from Iranians.

  • Phiroze

    @bakra, unlike you I do not spit in the tray I eat from. I am an out and out Indian and proud to be one. I am also proud to be a Parsi and am contributing to the community from my 25 years of corporate expierence. What is your contribution besides calling Parsis zeroes? If you claim to be Persian you should give up Parsi charity and relocate to Iran ASAP with your family. But you are just a gasbag with no courage or conviction so you shall live of Parsi charity and call them zeroes too. What else can Parsis expect from traditional freeloaders? As a Parsi I do not need any certificate from Iranians.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze Zoroastrians are known for their charity and generosity, that is why a parjat Gujju like you has been tolerated for 45 years. And a freebooter like you is too inconsequential for us to be disturbed by your presence in our midst

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze Zoroastrians are known for their charity and generosity, that is why a parjat Gujju like you has been tolerated for 45 years. And a freebooter like you is too inconsequential for us to be disturbed by your presence in our midst

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze you are a parjat and a coward, so don’t dare anybody. You depend on a charitable institute for your monthly salary, and doles from Zoroastrians during the “Muktad” days. Now mend your freebooting ways and learn to slog the way Zoroastrians do.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze you are a parjat and a coward, so don’t dare anybody. You depend on a charitable institute for your monthly salary, and doles from Zoroastrians during the “Muktad” days. Now mend your freebooting ways and learn to slog the way Zoroastrians do.

  • Barak Aga

    Cowardly parjat Phiroze, you cannot survive outside that charitable institute whom you fleece every month. You are not a Zoroastrian, that is why the BPP refused you on their rolls.

  • Barak Aga

    Cowardly parjat Phiroze, you cannot survive outside that charitable institute whom you fleece every month. You are not a Zoroastrian, that is why the BPP refused you on their rolls.

  • Barak Aga

    Cowardly parjat Phiroze, you depend on doles from that poor charitable institution which has employed you on compassionate grounds. The entire community knows the shameful circumstances under which you and your ilk were brought within the Zoroastrian fold. You are the “son of Vandsa”. Shame!

  • Barak Aga

    Cowardly parjat Phiroze, you depend on doles from that poor charitable institution which has employed you on compassionate grounds. The entire community knows the shameful circumstances under which you and your ilk were brought within the Zoroastrian fold. You are the “son of Vandsa”. Shame!

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze you are a coward and a parjat, so don’t dare anyone. Yes, you will always be a parjat.

  • Barak Aga

    Phiroze you are a coward and a parjat, so don’t dare anyone. Yes, you will always be a parjat.

  • gb

    669 and golanji, please stop this infighting. Let us all communicate peacefully and bring the community up.

  • gb

    669 and golanji, please stop this infighting. Let us all communicate peacefully and bring the community up.