This is the second part of my two-part interview with Zara, the hedonistic young Parsi girl from Mumbai, and delves deeper into her Zoroastrian faith and her opinions surrounding it. For a fuller picture of the girl, read part one first.
Zoroastrianism appears to be central to your being. What's your earliest memory of the faith?
My earliest memory of the faith would be my Navjote ceremony, which is a rite of initiation into the religion. I was around 6 at the time. It is a big ceremony in every Zoroastrian child's life. I remember how excited I was, more so because my father was going to buy me a beautiful white frock to wear for the occasion. I was made to sit with an aunt who was the wife of a priest, and I had to by-heart our ancient prayers which are in the Avestan language, now mostly forgotten. It is amusing because the majority of Zoroastrians today don't really know the meaning of our prayers, including the religious clergy. Neither do they make an effort to translate or explain the prayers to our co-religionists.
On the day of my Navjote, two priests attended upon me. Having recited our ancient prayers, I was made to pray with the sacred shirt called 'sedreh' and the 'kusti', which is a cord that is tied around the waist. This is meant to protect the wearer against all evil. A priest usually helps you tie the kusti and chants the prayers with you in front of a small fire that is lit in a vessel (afargan). Another ritual involves the consumption of a white bull's urine, supposed to be sacred. I faked sipping it to be very honest. Once the required prayers are done, the child is now declared an adherent of the Zoroastrian faith.
I was mostly interested in the after-party which involved me wearing the frock and receiving presents from guests. But what a happy memory. It still makes me smile.
Do you interact with your faith in a formal, worshipful way on a regular basis (through visiting temples or shrines, or in shrines at home)?
I love my religion, there is no doubt about that. But I can't say I feel the same for the Parsi Zoroastrian community in India.
I do not visit the fire temple regularly. I don't even wear sedreh-kusti when I go out because I don't feel the need to. I do wear it at home whenever possible, and I pray after I take a shower. My prayers do not involve the regular drill of Avestan prayers. I chant two of the most important prayers, and the rest of it is mainly conversation with God (aka Ahura Mazda). We do have a small shrine at home where a lamp known as 'diva' is lit, and there are pictures of our prophet Zoroaster.
I believe in following the three golden rules of Zoroaster. His version of the religion was a very simple philosophy: Manashni, Gavashni, Kunashni. Which means: Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds. He says that in order to live a good life, those are the only three things a human being needs to follow. He said that every action also has a reaction, which is similar to karmic theory. He says that God is all-merciful and beyond human comprehension and understanding.
Zoroaster's simple yet powerful teachings have deeply inspired me to be the person I am today. To be a good person is paramount, before playing any other role. A lot of Zoroastrians today seem to have forgotten the true meaning and essence of our religion. A lot of co-religionists including the religious clergy do not hesitate to issue racist and discriminatory remarks.
The problem, according to me, is that many Parsi Zoroastrians in India today live with a big misconception: that we are racially and communally 'elite' due to ideas in our religious scriptures that suggest that Zoroastrians are the 'chosen ones' by God. This results in a superiority complex, which I find quite immature and funny. I don't understand where the belief in humanity and equality has disappeared to.
As a self-confessed libertine, do you find your faith prohibitive in any way?
Not really. But various books (not authored by the prophet Zoroaster but by unknown authors down the centuries) suggest misogyny, intolerance and a regressive/oppressive line of thought. Examples: copulation with a non-Zoroastrian is deemed a sin, marrying outside the community, etc.
My parents have been particular that I marry only a Zoroastrian, but that is mainly due to the value system and belief they have been conditioned with since their childhood. I don't blame them, but find it unfortunate that parents create such pressure on their kids due to a religious obligation, and voice their opinions rather aggressively.
Are you involved with anyone at the moment?
My current boyfriend is a fellow Zoroastrian; I've known him since I was 3. The reason why I chose to "adhere" to my parents' wish is not just because of the exclusive reason that I want to see them happy, but because I felt being with someone who shares a similar culture and value system would help maintain simplicity and ease in my life. I don't know how a mixed marriage setup would work for me, since I am a headstrong person who doesn't like accommodating too many changes in my ways of living, or even when it comes to the subject of kids and their identity, etc. However, that being said, in my case I'm glad things clicked because my boyfriend was already my life-long friend, so I guess everything kind of fit perfectly.
What 'religious restrictions' are there in the Parsi/Zoroastrian community in India?
I feel the religion has been adulterated with a lot of misogynistic, bigoted and regressive elements. I believe neither God nor the prophet would ever discriminate amongst us based on gender, sexual orientation or other such things. The religious code (books such as Vendidad) entails that a menstruating woman must not enter a fire temple; she must also stay in isolation for fear of defiling the cleanliness of the house. It also forbids homosexuality, which I think is absurd. The Vendidad also goes on to mention how women are usually to be punished more or blamed in the case of adultery, whereas the man gets away with a lesser punishment. I understand that the book was authored in medieval times, but I also believe it's high time we progress towards enlightenment, equality and goodness, rather than quote books with seemingly intolerant views and diktats.
In India, the Parsi community says that conversion into Zoroastrianism is banned. Which is again quite regressive. The prophet Zoroaster himself inducted the righteous King Vishtaspa and members of his family to Zoroastrianism, and in later times the powerful Persian empires such as the Sassanian empire established Zoroastrianism as the state religion, so I think this anti-conversion rule is, again, quite silly.
Also, inter-marriage is frowned upon but, in India at least, if a Zoroastrian man marries outside the community he is still considered a part of the community. His kids are entitled to have their Navjote ceremony as well, despite having a non-Zoroastrian mother. In the case of a Zoroastrian woman, she is labelled an outcast if she marries outside her community – and her children are not eligible for a Navjote. Such discrimination.
Conclusively, I must say, Zoroastrianism is a philosophy that guides us to live a life of goodness and balance, and not a religious commandment that assures God's approval/fury. We must remember that it is ultimately upon us to decide what path we wish to follow, as Ahura Mazda has bestowed free will upon each one of us.
With that in mind, how do you feel about your personal adherence to the Zoroastrian faith?
I strive to incorporate Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds in my everyday life. Yes, I do falter at times - sometimes frequently - but I try my best to make amends. I don't think by following religious law and codes God is going to shower me with special blessings. I respect every living creature, and consider them to be equally precious in the eyes of God.
Since this interview was conducted, Zara has become happily engaged to her boyfriend (now fiancé) and is looking forward to beginning a new chapter in her life.
Photo credit: A Davey