After 1300 years of its existence, the Parsis in Mumbai are at crossroads, with a strange question mark staring at them. Whether to accept conversion of anyone not ethnically a Parsi-Irani into the Zoroastrian faith.
It all started in February this year when a Russian Zoroastrian named Michael Chistyakov came to Gujarat to become a religious priest. He returned to Russia almost immediately, but left behind a community divided more vehemently on questions of conversion and ethnicity than ever before.
The so far well-knit community now stands vertically divided on the issue with one group, led by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP), vociferously rejecting the conversion of anyone not ethnically a Parsi-Irani into the Zoroastrian faith and the other smaller group of reformists maintaining that religion must be kept separate from race.
President of the Zoroastrian College in Sanjan, Gujarat, where Chistyakov was to perform his priesthood initiation rites, Meher Master-Moos is of the view that the claim that only Parsis from India and Iran can belong to this religion is flawed. His argument is based on the fact that when Zoroastrians escaped from Iran over a thousand years ago, there were groups that went to other regions such as China, Russia and Central Asia.
As the two groups could not come to a compromise, Moos and Chistyakov filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court accusing several trustees and members of the BPP of breaking into the College on February 19 and violently disrupting the Russian’s initiation ceremony. The case is expected to be admitted in court any time now.
According to Chistyakov, there are hundreds of people in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine who consider themselves Zoroastrian. While some claim Zoroastrian ancestry, many were drawn to the faith in the religious revival of the 1990s, after a long period of State-enforced atheism. Arguing that Zarathustra brought religion to all, not just to Parsis, who are people of a specific nationality, Chistyakov questions that nobody has a monopoly over truth or religion and if anybody want to become Zoroastrians, how can Parsis stop them.
However, BPP trustee Khojeste Mistree argues that their objection has always been to conversions taking place in India as ‘we cannot police the world. People seek our religion because of its wonderful philosophy, but ethnicity is important so we cannot recognise them’.
BPP leaders such as Mistree and chairman Dinshaw Mehta insist that Parsis have managed to live in non-violent harmony with other Indian communities only because of their 1,300-year tradition of maintaining racial purity and to allow conversions now would go against the ethos of the country.
However, most reformist Parsis, such as Jehangir Patel, editor of the reformist community magazine Parsiana, strongly dismiss such claims and say that in most democracies, such an attitude would be recognised as racism.
Meanwhile, the Parsi youth in Mumbai too is divided on the issue of conversions. While popular youth forums such as the Zoroastrian Youth for the Next Generation have intensified their focus on marrying within the ethnic community by organising monthly speed-dating events, there are some who sympathise with the reformists.