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What is the difference between a Parsi and a Zarathushtrian?

Simply put, Parsi refers to being a member of a community of people who left Iran circa 716 AD and settled in Gujrat, India. The local Indian population, referring to the Iranian province of Pars where these people originally lived, called them Parsi. It is a cultural definition, with the inference that a Parsi is also a Zarathushtrian. This is not necessarily true anymore. A person born a Parsi (i.e. of Parsi parentage) may choose to be a practicing Christian or a Hindu. However, his Parsi status does not change.

A Zarathushtrian is one who follows the principles of life as prescribed by Asho Zarathushtra. You can be a Zarathushtrian and not be a Parsi, as are the Irani Zarathushtrians.

Being a Parsi is a matter of birth. You cannot choose to be Parsi because it depends on your parentage. Can you choose to be a Zarathushtrian? Well, that is the pivot on which the whole issue of intermarriage, acceptance and conversion revolves. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion in this matter, as there are valid reasons for and against the issue of acceptance and conversion. Both sides can quote scriptures and historic practice to further their case. One's opinion depends on one's own experience, value system and perspective, and one school of thought should not stoop to denounce the other. What most of us need to do is learn to agree to disagree.

arrow 3  What is the difference between acceptance and conversion?

Many Zarathushtrians agree with the premise that Zarathushtrians should not actively proselytise, but they feel that children born of a marriage between a Zarathushtrian and a non-Zarathushtrian should be "accepted" into the fold.

There are still others who are also against active proselytising, but feel that any person who knowledgeably accepts the message of Asho Zarathushtra out of free choice should be accepted into the faith.

arrow 3  What is the role of women in the Parsi community?

During Zarathushtra's era, the treatment of women vacillated between respect and bigotry. Although granted great economic and social freedom, and seen as a central figure in the household, they were not valued intrinsically. For instance, it was believed that Paradise was reserved for men as only their deeds on earth were of any account. Also, the payment to a physician for treating a man was an ox, a prized animal, while for a woman it was a she-ass. And as was common with the primitive people of that time, the men feared women during their menstrual cycle and isolated them.

Asho Zarathushtra in his Divine Gathas does not discriminate against women in any way. In fact, in one of his most famous verses he exhorts each individual - man and woman - to think with their own good mind and choose the right path. This illustrates that he credited women with the ability to make their own decisions. In the Yengeh Hatam prayer the words "…tascha taoscha yazamaide.." say that all men and women who are righteous are deserving of respect. The only criterion for homage was righteousness, not caste, not status, not gender. This effectively put paid to the belief that only men were worthy of Paradise.

The Farvardin Yasht lists the names of 250 men and women who are worthy of being venerated because of their righteousness.

Women in the early civilizations ruled by Zarathushtrians enjoyed social, legal and religious rights unknown to women in other parts of the world. The ancient Zarathushtri women did not wear the veil; they owned and managed property; they accompanied men to religious and social events; they could be witnesses as well as judges in court. Women acted as officiating priestesses. Females had the same Navjote (initiation) ritual as the males and wore the same badges of the religion - the sudreh and kusti.

In a marriage, the woman's consent was essential. The father could not arrange a marriage for his daughter without her consent and that of her mother. Asho Zarathushtra promoted monogamy and in those days the common people had only one wife. However, there are instances recorded of kings and warriors having more than one wife. But then the rulers and leaders throughout time and throughout the world have always followed their own laws!

When the Zarathushtris fled Iran because of religious upheaval thirteen hundred years ago and settled in Gujrat, India they came to be known as Parsis or people of Pars, the province in Iran from which many of them had emigrated. To a great extent the Parsis adopted the mores of the Gujrati Hindu culture. This included social inequalities like disassociating widows from celebrations, child marriages and dowry. The British influence eliminated these practices showing that these elements were assimilated superficially. One of the more colourful customs still prevalent is the tilli (the red powder mark on the forehead). Few realise that the symbolism is gender biased - men have a vertical stroke representing the rays of the sun, and women have the red dot signifying the moon that shines in the light of the sun. Another glaring oversight is the prayer for male offspring in the Ashirwad (Blessings) given to the bride and groom.

After the community's prolonged stay in a country where the general status of women is low, Parsi women too had taken on a docile and unassuming role - a far cry from the positive role they had played in ancient Iran. The major factor responsible for changing the status of women in the Parsi community was education. In the 1840s, Sir Jamshedji Jeejibhoy and Framji Cowasji Banaji educated their daughters. But they did this in the utmost secrecy to avoid criticism from the community for their revolutionary ideas. Within a generation, however, secondary education for girls had become a norm. By 1870, over 1000 Parsi girls had already had the benefit of secondary education. The major reason why the education of women became so popular so rapidly was that there was no religious opposition to it.

Reformers like Dadabhai Naoroji, Kharshedji Cama and Sohrabji Bengalee were pioneers in the emancipation of women. In the mid-nineteenth century they created quite a storm in the local community when they started taking their wives and daughters to public functions and let them mingle with the British. After that, there was no looking back as Parsi women came into their own. They participated in all walks of life, including the national movement for swaraj (independence). The first Parsi woman to carve for herself a niche in the freedom movement was Bhikaji Cama. She took every opportunity to make fiery speeches against the British and even edited a revolutionary paper Vandemataram. In the 1920s, the first Indian woman to qualify as a Barrister at Law from London was Mithan Jamshed Lara. She helped to draft the Hindu Code Bill and various Acts that became Indian law in the 1950s. In 1962, she was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the government of India. In Pakistan too, several Parsi women have been honoured by the government for their services including Gool Minwalla for education; Meher Marker for social service; and Goshpi Avari for yachting.

Today's Parsi woman in India and Pakistan is a breed apart from her counterparts from other communities. The problems of inequality in family laws such as divorce, or dowry are not her problems. Forced marriages and inadequate reproductive health are not her problems.

The Parsi woman's problems are, in fact, unique to her, a result of Western influence. Women's education, independence and earning power makes their expectations of marriage, and marriage partners, too high. This has led to delayed marriages or not getting married at all. In the Parsi community, there is no social stigma attached to a single woman. Elders of the community fear that delayed marriages and working women will result in a declining community. Parsiana a widely read community magazine had a picture of the Bengal tiger and a Parsi on one of their covers with the caption "Endangered Species." The community leaders are now trying to instill having children as a civic duty. So, ironically, where in most communities the woman is held responsible for giving unwanted multiple births and she has no say in the matter of contraception, in the Parsi community she is held responsible for having too much say in the matter, and not giving enough births!

Another issue of discrimination that has raised its head since the emancipation of women is acceptance of children born to Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers. Traditionally the Parsis have been a patriarchal community and over the years, offspring of Parsi fathers and non-Parsi mothers have been accepted if not wholly welcomed into the fold. Increasingly, women are chafing against the discrimination. The issue has several complexities not easily explained to a non-Parsi. Suffice to say that the matter has not yet been resolved.

Why do Zarathushtrians have three calendars?

We have three calendars because of a mistake made hundreds of years ago. Now this mistake is so much a part of tradition that to rectify it with good grace would be a Herculean task. This matter is unlikely to be resolved unless Zarathushtrians the world over unite and take a collective decision to adopt one calendar.

At the time of Asho Zarathushtra the people followed the agricultural seasons and celebrated gahambhars as a mark of the changing seasons. The vernal equinox (20-21 March) was treated as the beginning of spring, and hence the beginning of the new year. This is why this calendar is referred to as Fasli as it follows the fasls (crop) seasons. Names of the months of this calendar are not known.

Later, the Shahanshahi (or royal) calendar was adopted. The Shahanshahi calendar marked the monarch's accession to the throne as the first year of the period. Therefore you may have year one of the reign of Khusro, year two of the reign of Khusro and so on, till a new monarch came on the throne and the whole process started again. Currently, contrary to common sense, we are in the 1368h year of Yazdegard III, the last Sassanian king.

The Zarathushtrian calendar had 12 months of 30 days each, totalling to 360 days. The five extra days were named after the five Gathas. Every 120 years they would add an extra month. This kept the calendar in place and March 21 was still celebrated as Navroz.

Then in the eighth century AD, the Sassanian Empire collapsed. The Parsis in India were cut off from the Zarathushtrians still living in Iran. As years went by the people forgot to add those extra months every 120 years and soon the Navroz drifted away from March 21. In 1745, the Parsis realised that they had forgotten to add the month and proceeded to do so. This caused the one month difference between the Qadimi (ancient) calendar being followed by the Irani Zarathushtrians, and the Shahanshai calendar followed by the Parsis. Currently (in 2005) the Qadimi navroze falls in July and the Shahanshai navroz falls in August.

In the last few decades, there has been a movement to revert to the Fasli calendar as the present Qadimi and Shahnshai calendar celebrate the main festivals in all the wrong months. For example, the Farvardin Yasht tells us that Asho Zarathushtra was born in spring, yet we celebrate his birth anniversary in August. However, entrenched traditionalism has not allowed this movement to gain momentum.

arrow 3  You think of Parsis and you think of dhansaak. Why is this so?

Cuisine forms an intrinsic part of peoples' identity. For instance, you think of lasagna and you think of Italians, or you think of sorpital and you think of the Goans. In the same way, dhansaak is particular to the food that Parsis eat.

Dhansaak is traditionally associated with gahambars and chahrams, in all likelihood for the same reason - it is served when community members gather together.

Gahambars were festivals in ancient Iran, held to mark the various agricultural seasons (sowing, harvesting). Time was precious during these periods because weather was unpredictable. Therefore, every able community member was expected to chip in and help with the work. For convenience sake the food for all the workers was cooked together. Each family gave a little of what they could - grain , vegetables, meat - and all of it was mixed together and left to simmer. The whole community then shared the resulting stew. This promoted fellowship and strengthened ties. The Parsis continued the tradition in India, but because the grains are different the saag tasted unlike what the Iranians used to have. Also, the Parsis ate it with dhan (rice).

It is likely that dhansaak is served on chahram (the fourth day after the death of a family member) because in the past on such occasions people travelled from far flung villages, and the bereaved hosts, faced with feeding large numbers of well wishers, cooked a substantial meal that was not too bothersome to prepare. Also, as this was the first meat dish to be eaten after the death of a family member, it suited the pockets of all economic levels because it could contain as much or as little meat as they could afford.

By the way, practicality rather than any religious significance was the motivating reason why the tradition of eating vegetarian food for the first three days after a death in the family. Besides the fact that vegetarian food is quicker to cook, and easier to digest, host families could rarely afford to sacrifice their livestock to feed the hordes of visitors who came to stay. The story that evil spirits would attack those who ate meat during the first three days after the death of a relative probably evolved to justify the vegetarian menu.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions.  It was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran approximately 3500 years ago

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Ontario Zoroastrian Community Foundation
1187 Burnhamthorpe Road, E
Oakville, ON L6H 7B3

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