PARSIS AND ZOROASTRIANISM

PARSIS

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Parsi wedding portrait
The Parsis (also spelled Parsees) are an immigrant community that follows follow the religion Zoroastrianism. The are largely descendants of Persians who fled the Muslim conquests in Iran in the 8th century and afterwards. They may have originated from a region of Fars in Iran, hence their name. Parsis speak a Gujarti patois and English. Their liturgical language is Avestan—an eastern Iranian language known only from its use in Zoroastrian scripture. Some of their religious literature is in Pahlavi—a Persian language used from the end of the Persian Achaemenian dynasty (559–330 B.C.) to the advent of Islam in the A.D. 7th century.

India's 2001 Census reported 69,601 Parsi Zoroastrians. According to the 1991 census, there were 79,382 members of the Zoroastrian faith, with 79 percent of them living in Maharashtra (primarily in Bombay) and most of the rest in Gujarat. Although the number of Parsis steadily declined during the twentieth century as a result of emigration and low birth rates, their religion is significant because of the financial influence wielded by this mostly trading community and because they represent the world's largest surviving group of believers in this ancient faith. [Source: Library of Congress]

The towns of Sanjan, Nausari, and Udvada in Gujarat are of prime importance to Parsis, having long served as community centers before mass migration to Bombay in the nineteenth century. Bombay is home to 70 percent of India's Parsis, where the management of Parsi affairs rests in the hands of a panchayat, the assembly that serves as a charitable and educational organization providing a comprehensive social welfare system at the local level.

“Parsi” roughly means people of Persia. Outside of India, there are also sizable Parsi communities in the United States (11,000), Canada (5,000), Britain (4,100) and Pakistan (5,000). They are mostly descendants of Parsis that lived in India. There are also Zoroastrian communities in Iran (25,000) and Afghanistan (10,000).

See Separate Article on ZOROASTRIANISM factsanddetails.com .

Freddy Mercury and Other Famous Parsis

Famous Parsis include Zubin Mehta, the internationally-acclaimed conductor of the Israel Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic, and a number of acclaimed pianist and violinists. The Parsi composer Kaikhosrun (1892-1991) has the distinction of creating the longest classical composition known, a 500-page piece call Symphonic Variations that takes six hours to perform.

Freddie Mercury, the late singer of Queen, was born a Zoroastrian Parsi in Zanzibar and attended primary and secondary school in Bombay. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara to his parents, Bomi (1908-2003) and Jer Bulsara (1922-), Parsis from the Gujarat region of the then province of Bombay Presidency in British India. The family surname is derived from the town of Bulsar (also known as Valsad) in southern Gujarat. The Bulsara family had moved to Zanzibar so that his father could continue his job as a cashier at the British Colonial Office. Mercury spent most of his childhood in India and began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. In 1954, at the age of eight, Mercury was sent to study at St. Peter's School, a British-style boarding school for boys, in Panchgani near Bombay (now Mumbai), India. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1875-1948), the founder of Pakistan, married a Parsi. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India in the 1970s, went against her parents wishes and married a Parsi named Feroze Gandhi (no relation either to the Mahatma) even though her father told her he was "pained and surprised" by "the casual way" in which she discarded "precious traditions and heritages." The Parsi Bapsi Sidwa is a famous novelist.

Book: Family Matter, an epic but economical novel by Rohinton Mistry, offers some interesting insights into Parsi life.

Arrival of the Parsis in India

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Parsi jashan ceremony
Zoroastrians are primarily descendants of tenth-century immigrants from Persia (Iran) who preserved the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet of Iran who taught probably in the sixth century B.C. Zoroastrianism originated from Persia, and was, for many centuries, the state cult. The migration from Persia to India took place after the invasion of Muslim Arabs in Iran and the overthrow of the last Zoroastrian king, Yazdagird III, in A.D. 651. Zoroastrians that fled Iran initially followed the Silk Road into China where they established trading communities. These Zoroastrians had largely disappeared by the 10th century. Others sought refuge in a mountainous area near the Straits of Hormuz. These were eventually forced out of Iran and they are the source of the Indian community of Parsis.

The exact date of the beginning of the Zoroastrian migration from Iran to India is a matter of debate and conjecture. Some place at early as A.D. 716. Some insist the first groups were pushed into India by Alexander the Great’s armies in the 4th century B.C.. Research indicates the migration took place around A.D. 936. The story of the flight of this group and their landing at the west coast of India at Diu in Gujarat is an event that has been greatly romanticized and is the subject of numerous stories and legends.

According to one story, the arriving Parsis were welcomed by a Hindu ruler who gave them a bowl of milk, symbolizing there was no room for them in India. The Parsis gave the bowl back with a gold ring in it, symbolizing that they could enrich their new home without disrupting it, and were thus welcomed. Contrary to such stories, the Parsis had a tough time in their early years in India. They lived on marginal land, barely living above subsistence level and depended on their Hindu hosts. Around 1750, Parsis began migrating from small towns in Gujarat to the cities of Gujarat and to Bombay.

Parsi History

Originally, the Parsis were shipbuilders and traders located in the ports and towns of Gujarat. Their freedom from food or occupational restrictions based on caste affiliation enabled them to take advantage of the numerous commercial opportunities that accompanied the colonial expansion of trade and control. Substantial numbers moved to Bombay, which served as a base for expanding their business activities throughout India and abroad. [Source: Library of Congress]

Parsi did well after the arrival of Europeans. They often acted as intermediaries between the Europeans and the local people. A combination of Western commercial contacts and English-language education during the colonial period made the Parsis arguably the most cosmopolitan community in India. Socially, they were equally at home with Indians and Westerners; Parsi women enjoyed freedom of movement earlier than most high-caste Hindu or upper-class Muslim women. During the colonial period, Parsis became closely aligned with the the British. Some Parsis were even given noble rank by the British. Three of the four hereditary barons created in British Indian were Parsis.

Parsis were also involved in the Indian independence movement and were a driving force behind the Indian National Congress. In contemporary India, Parsis are the most urban, elite, and wealthy of any of the nation's religious groups. Their role in the development of trade, industry, finance, and philanthropy has earned them an important place in the country's social and economic life, and several have achieved high rank in government.

But Even they have lived in India for more than a thousand years, Parsis are still considered outsiders and immigrants, the same way Europeans are. They were never absorbed into the caste system. They have a reputation for being conservative and wealthy. They are disliked by many other Indians, perhaps out of envy, but are also accorded high position of authority, including high political offices, because of their education, reputation for being incorruptible and lack of caste loyalties.

Today, they have a reputation for being the most urbanized and Westernized of Indians. They have taken advantage of opportunities to get a Western education and become involved in commerce. The first Indians to become pilots, surgeons, lawyers and member of the British Parliament were all Parsis.

Parsi Religious Life

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Bombay Temple Of Silence Engraving
The source of Parsi religion is a body of texts called the Avesta , which includes a number of sections in archaic language attributed to Zoroaster himself, and which preserve the cult of the fire sacrifice as the focus of ritual life. The supreme spirit is Ahura Mazda (or Ohrmazd), whose will is manifest in the world through the actions of bountiful immortals or good spiritual attributes that support life and love. Opposing the supreme spirit is the force of evil, Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman), which is the cause of all destruction and corruption in the world. Equipped with free will, humans can choose sides in this struggle and after death will appear at the bridge of judgment. People who choose to do good deeds go to heaven, those who commit evil go to hell. The opposed cosmic forces battle through the history of the universe, until at the end of time there will be a final judgment and a resurrection of the dead to a perfect world. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The extensive ritual life of devout Parsis revolves around sacred fires, of which there are three grades dependent on extensive ceremonial preparation. The highest two grades can only be maintained in fire temples by hereditary priests, who undergo extensive purificatory rites and wear special face masks to prevent polluting the flames with breath or saliva, while the third grade of fire can exist in the household. *

The most important rite for most lay people is the Navjote, which occurs between the seventh and fifteenth year of life, and initiates the young person into the adult community. The ceremony involves purifying bathing, reciting Avesta -based scriptures, and being invested with a sacred shirt (sudrah ) and waist thread (kusti ) that should always be worn thereafter. Marriage is also an important rite, complete with scriptural recitations. At death, great care is taken to avoid pollution from the body, and funeral services usually take place within twenty-four hours. The dead are then disposed of by exposure to vultures on large, circular "towers of silence" (dakhma ). Most rituals take place in the home or in special pavilions; congregational worship at fire temples is limited to spring and autumn festivals. *

There are a number of seasonal festivals called gahambars celebrated by the community and were originally linked with the agricultural cycle.

Jashan is a ceremony of thanksgiving that ensures the well-being of the spiritual and physical worlds. The seven bountiful imoortalssky, water, earth, plants, cattle humans and fire—are symbolically represented. They are usually by a family to honor historical events such as tehd death of leader or the end of a war.

Decline of the Parsi Population in India

The number of Parsis gets smaller every year. A census counted Around 94,000 Parsis in 1901. Their numbers rose until about the middle of the 20th century and peaked ay around 115,000 in 1941 then began decreasing by as much as 10 percent a year as a result of a higher death rate than birth rate and emigration. In 1976, the population was 82,000. In 2004 it was less than 70,000.

Every year there around 1,000 Parsi deaths but only 300 to 400 births. If the trend continues there will only be 20,000 Parsis in country with over 1.5 a billion people in the year 2025. In 1900 one in 50 Parsis were over 65; now 1 in 6 are. More Parsis in Bombay are older than 60 than under 16. A Parsi seminary in Bombay had only 27 students in 1997. One Parsi journalist told AP, "If they make a movie about us, they'll call it Four Funerals and a Wedding." One Indian newspaper called them the Sparsees.

The number of Parsis is declining as a result of strict rules against conversion, an increasing number of mixed marriages, a ban on offspring of mixed marriages becoming Farsis and late marriages. The Parsi identity has been preserved with the help of their schools but now their schools are open to anyone.

When the Parsis arrived in India it is said they promised never to proselytize. There is no record of such a promise but they never did and their ban on conversion has lasted to this day. Under Indian law, only children born to a Parsi father qualify as Parsis regardless of their mother’s origin.

Especially in Bombay, where Parsi tend to be highly educated and well off, Parsis tend to marry late and have few children. Many marry outside their faith because there are so few Parsis available to marry. Women who marry outside the religion—along with their children—are excommunicated.. Half of Parsis that marry outside the religion are women and thus their children do not qualify as Parsis.

Increasing the Number of Parsis

There is a debate within the Parsi community on whether or not to allow offspring of mixed marriages and Parsi mothers and Zoroastrian converts into the community. Overseas Parsis and many India Parsis support a more liberal membership policy. Some priests are ignoring the traditional policies and restrictions and conducting marriages and initiation ceremonies for “half-Parsis.”

Hardline Parsis oppose the changes on the grounds it will pollute the purity of the Parsi race. One notorious hardliner said, “You can only preserve the community if you forbid marrying out. Those who do so are doing something against nature, against the law of religion. God has looked after us for thousands of years. He will look after us again.”

Hardline Parsis insist that if Parsis had not maintained their insular policy in the past they would have been absorbed by Hindus or Muslims. Hardliners also talk about genetic distinctiveness and purity. Liberals wonder if there are not racist overtones to such arguments and have doubts about the results of generations of inbreeding . The hardliners are a minority, but a powerful one because they control access to the places of worship.

In an effort to increase the number of Parsis in the early 2000s, the Parsi Council offered couples who had a third child $21 a month ever month until the child reached 18. As of 2003 there were about 100 families receiving these payments. Many feel the money isn’t enough to cause lifestyle changes.

A website nicknamed “Facebook for Parsees” has been set up for young people to get them to interact and learn about the culture with a strong emphasis on matrimonial matters. One of the Parsis behind the project told the Times of London, “The matrimonial part is important if we want too preserve our ethnicity...That we are a small community means that every individual matters.”

Parsi Marriage and Gender and Family Relations

Parsis have traditionally been strictly monogamous within the group. Given the community’s small size and the strict rules about marriage and membership to the Parsi community it is not surprising that people who are relatively closely related are married to one another. Marriages between cousins are not uncommon. Marriage between uncles and nieces sometimes occur but not nearly as often as they used to be.

The Parsi wedding ceremony has many similarities with the Hindu ceremony. The hands of the bride and groom are tied together and they recite Sanskrit shlokas (“blessings”). Parsi women who marry non-Parsis are strictly excluded from the Parsi community along with their offspring. Divorce rates are higher among Parsis than among other Indian communities, in part because it is relatively easy to get a divorce. Parsi women used to get married in their 20s and have 4 to 5 children. Now they get married later and have fewer children.

The nuclear family is the most basic social unit. Parsis used to live more in extended family households but space concerns related to living in cities has made nuclear family household more practical. Many elderly Parsis live alone. Adoptions are relatively common within the Parsi community.

Women are highly educated and many have careers. Wealth from both parents can be inherited by both sons and daughters. Children are taught from an early about generosity and responsibility and made aware of their difference from other Indians. Among overseas Parsis, Zoroastrian organizations have been set up to instill the Parsi identity among young people.

Parsi Character, Society and Life

Parsis are taught from an early age to live by the Zoroastrian motto: “Good thoughts, good words, good deed.” Highly valued virtues include honesty, charity, and cleanliness. Failure to abide by the moral code reflects negatively not only on an individual but the community as a whole. Children are inducted into the Parsi moral code through the naojot ceremony. Parsis have an elaborate code of purity and ritual.

About 95 percent of Parsis live in urban areas. The are often found in Parsi housing estates that are funded by a Parsi charitable trusts. Descent is patrilineal. There are no large kin-based groups such as lineages and clans. There is a strong emphasis on generosity, communal responsibility, tolerance, justice and helping the weak and poor. Parsis are known for giving large amounts of money to charities and redistributing wealth from the rich to poor. Many Parsis leave their entire estates to charities. This money has endowed schools, hospitals and fire temples.

Parsi organizations known as panchayats oversee matters related to religious practices, the distribution of community funds, welfare and questions of Parsi membership. Comprised of wealthy lay people and priests, they used to make judgments on legal matters but these powers have largely been turned over to Indian state. Most policy for the group has been handled by elders almost to the point of the community’ demise. Jimmy Mistry, a prominent Parsi in Mumbai, told the Times of London, “It’s crazy but for years this religion had not cared for the views of anybody under 75. The young had been driven away.”

Parsis wear special clothes like Hindus and Sikhs. They wear a special shirt called a sadre, symbolizing their religion and kuskti with seventy-two threads, each representing a chapter in their sacred book The Yasna. The kushti is untied and reknotted several times each day as an expression of both their morality and religion. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Parsi Politics, Health and Education

Parsis have traditionally been very active in local politics and have played a dominant role in the local government in Bombay. They hold high positions in the national government and are well represented in the judiciary. Parsis have traditionally been very supportive of the people in power and the ruling government in part because since they are such as small minority they rely on the government to protect them. Indira Gandhi married a Parsi.

The Mumbai-based Bombay Parsee Panchayat (BPP) is one of the most important and influential Parsi political and economic groups in India. It was founded about 480 years ago to maintain the group’s Towers of Silence. It owns land worth billions of dollars in central Mumbai, where land prices can rival those of Manhatta and exclusive neighborhoods in London.

Parsi realized early the value of a Western education and have traditionally supported education for females. They traditionally have had very high literacy rates. Children are encouraged to direct themselves towards a particular career at an early age. Large numbers of Parsis graduate from university are receive advanced degrees in medicine, engineering and law. The first three Asian members of parliament in Britain were Zoroastrians.

The preservation of the Parsi identity is closely associated with Parsi schools. Parsi children have traditionally attended Parsi schools endowed by Parsi charities and staffed by Parsi teachers. In the 1950s the Indian government outlawed sectarian education. Now that Parsi schools are open to anyone. Without the Parsi schools there are concerns that the Parsi identity will be more difficult to maintain and preserve.

Zoroastrians oppose organ donations.

Parsi Economics, Wealth and Generosity

Zoroastrianism is arguably the world’s wealthiest faith in part because they are so few of them and some of them are very rich. Parsi are famous for the trading skills and business acumen. They have found success in the business world and are known for their charitable acts. Parsi success is partly attributed to their exclusion from the caste system. Because they were not limited by caste taboos, they could chose any profession they wanted and thus often chose professions and trades which yielded the greatest profit.

Parsis did quite well in business under the East India Company and played a key role in the growth of Bombay and its establishment as a business center under the British. Following Zoroaster’s instructions to “bring happiness to theirs” Parsis are well known for their generosity and philanthropy. They funded India’s first cancer hospital and established schools, other hospitals and housing projects for the poor all over Bombay.

Parsis have traditionally worked as entrepreneurs (in everything from liquor stores to steel mills), as traders (primarily with China) and as bureaucrats. Parsis were major forces in India’s industrial development. Some made fortunes in the opium trade with China and then used that money to launch huge corporations, particularly in transportation and manufacturing. A decline in the Parsi community and their wealth and investment capital has led some high-educated Parsis to seek their fortune outside of India.

The Tatas, Godrejs, Wadias and the Petots—some of India's great industrial families—are Parsis. They have owned some of the largest industries in India. The Tata family established Air India and a car company and steel company that bear their name and founded India's largest conglomerate. Ratan Tata is a billionaire and regarded as India’s most prominent businessman and the head of the Tata conglomerate.

See Rich

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015


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