Can Zoroastrian Law Change? Some Believe that the Future Depends on It

 

AHMEDABAD -- Chatter fills the Zoroastrian Hall in Ahmedabad on a balmy Friday night. The mood is merry as the Parsis community convenes to share stories and a meal--spicy chicken wings and khichri--while catching up on the latest news. There’s little ritual here. It’s a relaxed, jovial atmosphere; the community is gathering to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the construction of the local fire temple, the central place of worship for Zoroastrians.

The night also serves as a way for young Zoroastrian men and women to meet each other, socialize, date and eventually, the community hopes, get married. Young men pace through the aisles of the banquet hall with darting eyes, surveying the guests. The women, dressed to the nines, congregate in small, insular groups. There are far more men than women, and this is contributing to a problem the community is facing: the need to marry outsiders, a step that many see as threatening to the religion. In the face of this crisis, many Zoroastrians are asking: Is it time that the community update age-old marriage laws and tradition?

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The Zoroastrian faith is widely known as one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, monotheistic religion. Thought to have been founded nearly 4,000 years ago in modern day Iran, the community today is tiny, with a population now believed to total fewer than 200,000, according to a survey published in the Fezana Journal in 2004. The majority lives in India, where they are also known as Parsis.

The religion has strict guidelines against conversion; only those born into the faith may be considered Zoroastrians. In the past, the community held that only those born to two Zoroastrian parents were considered members of the faith. But there is a growing trend to accept children of even one Zoroastrian parent as members of the faith.

Many single Zoroastrians, both in India and around the world, feel the weight of the tradition. They recognize that their decisions about marriage will impact their community. Edwin Pithawala, a Ph.D. candidate at Gujarat University, summarizes the question, this way: “Youthful Zoroastrians are confronting double weights: finding a satisfactory mate keeping in mind the end goal to maintain the religion and save their way of life.”

Within the Zoroastrian community, the opinions on marriages outside the faith largely fall along the age line. Palaash Tarapore, 22, grew up in Ahmedabad and then went to college in America. There were few Zoroastrians in his extended community, and none in his immediate community, in the US. He says the elders of the community are the ones who are most likely to “pass a snide remark,” based on their stronger dogmatic beliefs. The youth of the faith are more open-minded, he says. While the elder gentlemen in the community are wearing suits and kurtas at the Zoroastrian get-together, Tarapore sports a tee and a modern haircut.

“I have no issues with marrying outside the religion, and I know my parents will be very accepting of that decision,” Tarapore says. But other parents aren’t as welcoming of outsiders, he says.

He notes that he has never dated a Zoroastrian girl, and his brother is “happily engaged” to a Christian woman and has never faced any negative response.

Edwin explains that under Zoroastrian law, the non-Zoroastrian who marries a Zoroastrian is still not permitted to enter the fire temple or participate in sacred rituals. The children born to this couple, however, are considered Zoroastrian and are able to enter the temples.

He adds that many in the community think the status of these children is impure.

“A few Zoroastrians don't… feel that the offspring of just a single Zoroastrian parent [is] not genuinely some portion of the religion,” says Pithawala.

He goes on to say that these resultant generations are “deductively not an immaculate strain [of]… the blood of a Zoroastrian.”

The laws that govern marriage and status of children are strict and difficult to change. Pithawala believes that this is because there is no central authority in Zoroastrianism, such as a pope. In this case, such questions are answered by local experts for their immediate community.

 

For those who do enter the community through marriage, Tarapore says that Zoroastrian communities provide a type of safety net, as well as an educational aid. He says that the family will ensure that they educate the new addition and adds that there are occasionally workshops put on to teach outsiders the “stories and doctrines” of the faith at this particular Zoroastrian hall.

“We do not differentiate Zoroastrians and non-Zoroastrians,” Tarapore says. “Basically, as a Zoroastrian, we are made to believe that each moment is meant to be a celebration and enjoyed to the fullest. If my non-Zoroastrian wife attends a dinner with me, she will be treated as one of our own.”

Though there is considerable controversy today within the faith over the status of “true” marriages and children as accepted by the elders, the future of the community may well depend on the ability of young Zoroastrians to start families with individuals outside of their community. The question then raised is, will this necessity finally force the laws of the religion to change?

When discussing the reason for keeping non-Zoroastrians out of the fire temple, Tarapore laments that the old rules based on ancient problems still carry so much weight.

At the communal anniversary dinner, children usually stay with their families. Although it’s encouraged, boys and girls rarely mingle. Perhaps it’s typical teenage shyness, or perhaps it’s the forced nature of the interaction, but at this anniversary dinner, there is little mingling between the sexes.

Tarapore is confident that he will find a wife outside of the community. He believes that, with time, the community will accommodate and accept her.

“Alas, it is not a problem [for non-Zoroastrians to enter] anymore, but the rule still holds,” he says. “The fire temple that I build will not have any such rules.”


Daily Dispatch 10: Lessons Learned on the Sabarmati

AHMEDABAD – To cover religion in India is to come as close to the core of the nation itself.

That much seems evident to us after 10 days of traveling and reporting on religion issues in India. But even with that certainty, ambiguity rules: Lines are often blurry, dualism doesn’t mean two distinct opposites, views are fluid and often changing. Still, journalism is the best tool that we have to solidify and explain these amorphous ideas.

These were among the notions that emerged from a spirited panel discussion that Professor Trivedi convened this morning in our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. One of the panelists, Rohit Bansal, group communications director of the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries, put it this way:

“India operates on multiple levels. The opposite could always be true.”

Also on the panel were the editors of two Gujarati newspapers. They were Ajay Umat, editor of NavGujarat Samay, and Nirmam Shah, publisher of Gujarat Samachar. The panelists explored how religion touches every single aspect of Indian society, and how covering -- and fully understanding

-- the subject is absolutely paramount to helping the public digest the entire story.

With India following the global right-wing shift, who would act as the voice of the people? Who would keep the politicians in check?

The truth is sacrosanct, no matter what continent we’re reporting from.

Mr. Umat shared some wise words he once received from a mentor. He asked the students to always think in terms of “So what and what’s next?”

When it comes to covering religion in India, the so what is clear. But what comes next is anyone’s guess, and this is why understanding the religious landscape of the nation is paving the way forward for future journalists.

Saturday was our last full day in India. After the morning panel, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Gathering there was like stepping back in time. The property was built in 1924 for a wealthy textile mogul, Mangaldas Girdhardas, and it retains an element of old world charm that spurs the imagination. Looking around the room, it’s easy to picture a seasoned foreign correspondent sitting with a minister sipping a cup of chai masala discussing the finer points of religious and cultural context in a world vastly different from today.

If these imaginary characters had known a group of 14 students would be doing the exact same thing almost 100 years later, they surely would have smiled and offered encouraging words.

And encouraging words were exactly what Professor Goldman and Professor Trivedi offered the students as the trip drew to a close. We shared our favorite moments of the trip; we laughed, we sympathized, we expressed gratitude.

Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.

And, aside from holi in Vrindavan, that’s why we came to India.

 

Photo by Ana Singh