Zoroastrianism is a universal faith and welcomes all, says former advocate-general

Parsi priests often approach actor Boman Irani and ask him to do something about the community’s dwindling numbers. “Uh su karu? (What should I do?),” he asks perplexed. “I can’t go on people’s honeymoons and supervise, can I?”

Article by Nergish Sunavala | Times of India

At the Iranshah Udvada Utsav, the narrative of the Parsis’ dwindling numbers provided such moments of hilarity, while exposing the rift between orthodox and liberal sections of the community. Irani, who was the Utsav’s chief guest on Saturday, elicited chuckles as he said, “Damn the Bengal tiger, save the Parsis.”

But Maharashtra’s former advocate-general, Darius Khambata’s more unorthodox solution to the problem of inter-marriage – open up fire temples to anyone who has been initiated into the Zoroastrian faith with a navjote ceremony- provoked heated responses. The fact that the head priest graciously felicitated him with a shawl after his talk, created even more ripples. “Is this the Iranshah (sacred Parsi fire) preservation festival or the Iranshah destruction utsav?” TOI overheard one livid audience member saying.

Community magazine Parsiana, which compiles statistics on the community, pegs the number of intermarriages at 38%. In his talk, Khambata cited various sources to explain that the religion does not forbid conversion. “Every source tells us Zoroastrianism is universal,” he said. “Anybody can convert to Zoroastrianism. There is no bar in our religion.” In fact, he took this a step further and said religious texts like the Gathas enjoin Zoroastrians to spread the faith.

He also criticized the community’s obsession with race. “You can’t endeavour to save our ethnicity at the cost of our religion,” he said. “I am seeing an attempt today to distort our great religion, an attempt to suggest that it belongs only to racial Parsis.” While liberal Parsis have long lobbied for the children of Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers to be accepted into the fold, Khambata’s opinion was that anyone interested in the faith be welcomed.

One incensed audience member, Gordafrid Aresh stood up and objected to the contents of Khambata’s speech while other delegates booed and cheered. “If the gentleman is of the view that we should open our agiaries and atash behrams, I would recommend that he makes his own agiaries and atash behrams,” said Aresh. “Someone who wants to follow Zoroastrianism is most welcome to do that in the privacy of their home but entering a place of worship, which has been consecrated for Zarthustis, I – and many other Zoroastrians – find that intolerable.” If Parsis had opened their doors to other religions, she told TOI, their unique identity would have vanished long ago.

Many felt that Udvada, the home of the Iranshah, wasn’t an appropriate place for Khambata to express such radical views. They were horrified that his speech wasn’t cut short by the head priest or organizers.

However, Udvada head priest Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor shrugged off the criticism pointing out that Khambata had based all his opinions on reputed sources. “His opinions don’t make him less of a Parsi. He spoke at the World Zoroastrian Congress and got a standing ovation,” he said. “We can’t hide from the fact that intermarriage is taking place. Why should we shy away from the problem?” Dastoor also condemned the hypocrisy of allowing children of Parsi men, who marry non-Parsi women, into the faith. “Many parents have come to me and cried, ‘I have only one daughter and she’s marrying outside’,” said Dastoor, adding, “I say, ‘Well what can you do? Is the boy nice? Is she happy? Then go ahead’.”

About 30 delegates have traveled to the Utsav from abroad. British delegate, Malcolm Deboo, president of the World Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, had a nuanced take on Khambata’s speech. “The world is saturated with religions,” he said. “We need to move away from the notion that everyone wants to be a Zoroastrian. If we were really to open our doors, we’d be in for a rude shock,” he said.

As for whether the move would benefit the community, Deboo quipped, “That’s a question only Bejan Daruwalla (the octogenarian Parsi astrologer) can answer.”

As the day drew to a close, delegates forgot their differences and cheered for the Hormuzd Khambatta troupe, garba and salsa performances, and community ditties sung to the tune of Do Re Mi.

“Fa for Fali Fatfatyu (breaking wind), So for Soli Sursuryu (tippler), La for Lovjee Lafangyu (flirt),” sang a group of youngsters, as the audience erupted in laughter.