What do Indian Parsis think about Iran

About the life and disappearance of the parseesSo did Zarathustra die?

When the ships with the followers of the Prophet Zarathustra reached the west Indian coast, a royal ambassador hurried to meet the refugees. The emissary of the Indian king presented the newcomers from Persia with a clay jug. The jar was filled to the top with milk - the emergency supply for the onward journey.

The message: India did not want to take in anyone - not even the Zoroastrians who had fled from the Muslims. Because strangers had no place in the Hindu caste system. And mixing was not wanted. In addition, the royal ambassador indicated that not only the jar but also the land was filled to the brim.

milk and sugar

An older man adjusted his cap. He wore a floor-length white robe, stepped forward and put a spoonful of sugar in the milk. He stirred the sugar. The priest asked if anyone present could put the sugar in the milk. All said no.

Well, just as this sugar dissolves in the milk and sweetened it, so the Zoroastrians wanted to live among their Hindu neighbors in the future - inconspicuously, but for the benefit of all.

This is what adherents of one of the world's oldest remaining religions adhere to today. They are considered so honest that every English bank in India under British colonial rule had a Zoroastrian teller.

And: Zoroastrians are considered reserved and particularly generous.

The Indian anthropologist Shernaz Cama can confirm this. She has curated a major exhibition. The subject: On the life and death of the Zoroastrians.

"The basis of our religion is anchored in our ancient scriptures. The core are three values."

Good thoughts, good words, good deeds - many of the approximately 60,000 Indian Zoroastrians take this confession of the religious community to heart. They donate libraries and museums and build hospitals, schools and apartment blocks for the poor.

“Our belief is that we must protect this earth together with our god Ahura Mazda, the epitome of light and wisdom. As parsees, we should do a good deed every day and then tuck it away in the invisible vest pocket that we all have with us carry us. "

Parsis are mostly called Indian Zoroastrians because they came to the country from Persia about a thousand years ago.

Parsees are Zoroastrians who came to India between the 8th and 10th centuries. We follow the teachings of Zoroaster, our prophet. Zarathustra was born in Persia, what is now Iran.

Who was Zarathustra?

The latter is controversial among scientists. There is insufficient evidence that Zarathustra really lived once, says Professor Alison Betts from the University of Sydney. The Australian archaeologist is a member of a scientific team that evaluates important finds of Zoroastrian images of gods and priests in Uzbekistan.

"We assume that this religion really goes back to Zarathustra. The only question is: Did he really exist? Or was he a mythological figure on which this belief is based? That has not yet been clarified. Also about the background of the We don't know much about Zoroastrianism. "

Religious scholars refer to Zoroastrianism as the "old Iranian universal religion". Zarathustra proclaimed a friend God who is called good and holy. He brought creation through his thinking. The world was well created by God. But every single person has to make constant decisions. The "Kingdom of God thought" is at the center of Zarathustra's teaching. His preaching is completely imbued with the imminent expectation of this kingdom.

Entrance of the Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, Iran, with symbol for the god Ahura Mazda (imago stock & people)

"The main deity of the Zoroastrians is Ahura Mazda. The Zoroastrians regard human existence as a constant conflict between good and evil. The followers of Zoroastra always strive to do good - evil should by no means gain the upper hand. The meaning of fire in this Religion is often misunderstood. It is not as if it were a matter of a deity. Rather, fire is a medium for those who believe in the faith, with the help of which the gods are worshiped. "

Persecuted Religion in Iran

Zarathustra is said to have lived around three and a half millennia ago. In ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism first became a state and later also a popular religion. But then in the 7th century the Arabs who had just become Muslim conquered the Sassanid Kingdom of Persia. Zoroastrianism was partially persecuted, increasingly marginalized and spread all over the world.

But their religious traditions bring Zoroastrians from all over the world together again and again: for example at the two New Year celebrations that they celebrate in spring and summer.

"Relatives who live in America, Australia or Europe fly to Tehran, Delhi or Mumbai for a week to celebrate the most important festivals of the year with their families."

Box seats in India

The temples are then brightly decorated and illuminated day and night and full to bursting. From morning to evening, adults and children hang on the lips of the priests who recite verses from the ancient scriptures, dressed in long, white robes, with a simple cotton cap on their heads.

"Large limousines are parked in the second and third rows in front of the Indian Parsi temples. Liveried drivers wait for the believers who are chauffeured to a buffet in one of the noble clubs in Mumbai or Delhi after their visit to the temple."

Today, more than a thousand years after their arrival, the refugees from Persia have reserved a box seat in Indian society. Most Parsees are educated, well-off - or simply: filthy rich. Four of the twenty largest companies in the country are owned by Parish families. The money that flows into charitable and cultural projects of the Parsees comes from the wallets of many individuals and from the bank accounts of some multimillionaires.

Christian-Zoroastrian closeness since colonial times

It is in the nature of their religion that believers are so generous. There is another reason why Parsees are particularly successful economically: The British colonial rulers gave them important posts in administration, in companies and in the railroad. This is how many Parsees became wealthy and influential.

In addition, they were closer to the Christian British than the Hindus, Sikhs or the Muslims of the country: the British and Parsees could eat and drink together. Because parsing knows no food taboos. And the consumption of alcohol is not a problem either, adds the Parsi priest Ervad Cavas Bagli from New Delhi.

A Zoroastrian woman designs a door decoration depicting the prophet Zarathustra, the Farohar angels and the holy fire (AFP / Sam Panthaky)

"Alcohol has never been a problem for us - simply because we already use alcohol at certain ceremonies. We are not vegetarians either. On the contrary: on the fourth day after someone dies, we prepare meat dishes in the deceased's house. The relatives are very eager to eat it, because: If you miss this ritual, you have to go without meat for a whole month. Up to the fourth day we are only allowed to eat fish and eggs. But then the meat comes on the table. We are definitely no vegetarians. "

Adaptation and Identity

Such statements are not well received by at least some of the Hindus. But that is outweighed by the almost proverbial adaptability of the Parsees, according to the Indian anthropologist Shernaz Cama:

When our ancestors arrived on the Indian coast with their ships, they had promised to adapt. They had promised not to marry a member of another religion, to wear the Indian sari instead of their traditional Persian clothes at the wedding and to learn the local language Gujarati. After their arrival in India, they gradually integrated themselves into the Indian social structure - and thus also into the caste system. But refugees also try to preserve their identity. And so we maintain our own culture to this day; and we are still a closed community.

Make the most of life in moderation

This is what makes this religious community particularly interesting in the eyes of Professor Alison Betts. For 30 years she has been working with the Parsees and those Zoroastrians who stayed in Tajikistan and Iran.

While around 60,000 Zoroastrians live in India, around 20,000 people in Iran still follow this belief. They are eyed with suspicion by the Iranian mullah regime. They are marginalized and cannot find work. Like other religious minorities in Iran, the Zoroastrians are not welcomed. Alison Betts:

"For me, on the other hand, Zoroastrianism is one of the most sympathetic religions that I have come to know so far. There is nothing ascetic about this belief. It encourages people to live their lives to the full and to live moderately but well. In addition, the family and the endeavor to benefit others are due help in the foreground. "

The fact that India's Parsees are family-oriented connects them with the Hindus, in whose lives the family always comes first.

Towers of Silence

Another plus point from the point of view of the Indian majority society: The Zarathustra supporters do not limit their aid projects to parsing. Everyone benefits. And so many Hindus are likely to agree when parsees confidently describe themselves as follows:

We are like a gold ring in a milk cup: We are not noticed, but we raise its value.

The gold ring in the milk cup and the sugar that sweetens the milk in the jug - all in all, Parsees are rather popular with their Indian compatriots. If anything, only their death ritual gives the overall impression a sour taste. Pandit Global:

"We Hindus are always brought home first when we die. The Parsees, on the other hand, bring their dead to the 'Towers of Silence'. That is what they call this place. And then the families come here to these 'Towers of Silence' to perish to take part in the death ceremony. "

House of the Dead and Tower of Silence in Yazd, Iran (imago stock & people)

Pandit Gopal is a Hindu priest and lives in the West Indian metropolis of Mumbai - very close to such Parish "towers of silence".

"The corpse-bearers lay the dead on the floor of these 'Towers of Silence'. There are two, sometimes up to four. And two or three priests. So while the corpse is on the floor, they sing slokas, verses from ours holy texts. And then finally they withdraw. "

The Zoroastrian religion is based on the belief that the elements of creation - air, fire, earth and water - must not be contaminated. Therefore burials or cremations are not welcome.

From the perspective of the Parsees, however, the corpse is particularly unclean because a dreaded corpse demon takes possession of the person after the last breath.

Therefore, after the ritual of the dead, the porters and priests leave the human shell behind on the "towers of silence".

Left to the vultures

In the end, says Pandit Gopal, the vultures come to eat the corpse. And if the birds of prey fail to appear, the sun will help until all that's left of the dead body is ashes and bones.

How the whole thing should be handled in the future is a matter of constant dispute. Because the number of vultures has decreased significantly due to a viral disease, we have set up solar mirrors to focus the sun's rays. There are now alternative burial methods that are not well received by everyone in the Parish community. But: to be honest - the 'Towers of Silence' are in the middle of a beautiful garden. And for anyone who has experienced that when a corpse is brought to the Towers of Silence, it is very moving. Even more so if you realize that your own ancestors have already walked this path and you may one day follow in their footsteps.

And then, says Shernaz Cama, there is another important argument in the eyes of many Parsees for keeping the traditional form of burial.

"That is the last good deed we can do - when our soul leaves the body, we leave it to other creatures so that they can survive: the vultures - a species that is disregarded and rejected by many."

Threatened with extinction?

For the future of the Parsees, however, the burial of the dead is less important than the demographic question. While the total Indian population is growing by almost 20 percent every ten years, the number of parsees decreases by more than ten percent over the same period.

So are the Parsees threatened with extinction? Also because mixed marriages are actually not allowed?

"It's not like we're disappearing. Some of us just go abroad."

Says Parse priest Ervad Cavas Bagli. He remains diplomatic. The subject is explosive. The priest is looking for reasons for the decline in the birth rate, but is not sure.

"If we can't find a suitable partner - well, what should we do? Some just let it go! I don't know. Some Parsees, on the other hand, want children, but have difficulties getting them. Or they prefer, for economic reasons, Having only one or two children - or none at all. "

"We're well on the way to extinction. And it's not like we're doing nothing. We're promoting artificial insemination and surrogacy - anything that could increase the chances when people marry late and the woman is already less fertile. Then, again on a completely different level, we started speed dating events. It's not going bad. But you have to realize that we don't even have 3,000 Parsing women of marriageable age. And even if all of these women have four children would bring it would be just a drop in the ocean. "

Like the anthropologist Shernaz Cama, most parsees see it. Regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal - they cannot imagine that the Zoroastrians could go uphill again.

"Maybe there is still hope. In Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, Zoroastrianism has been flourishing again for some time. There are a number of new Zoroastrian schools and temples. The people there have a similar religious consciousness as we do, they follow the same culture. If some of them came here - that would be something. Even if they are not Parsees, they are at least Zoroastrians! "

What if that doesn't happen? Then, says Shernaz Cama, Indian Zoroastrians would have to behave in the way that liberal Parsis recommends over and over again:

Increase yourselves, if necessary with people of different faiths - or it will have happened to us!