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Preserving purity
To descendants of Zarthushtis, hijacking of their religion by new converts is a matter of serious concern


Maneck Bhujwala
May 4, 2005

After reading Vida Kashizadheh's article "Not that old hat again" on the website (as forwarded to me by a friend), I noticed several misconceptions about one of the world's major monotheistic religions founded by the Iranian prophet, Zarathushtra Spitaman, who is recognized as a great original and rational thinker even by Western scholars of other religions including christianity.

The late American philosopher, Joseph Campbell mentioned in one of his televised lectures (seen on Public Television stations) on Eastern Religions, that contrary to the belief that Western rational thinking originated from the ancient Greeks it was the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra who originated and preached rational thinking thousands of years ago.

Although prophet Zarathushtra is said to have lived approximately 4500 years ago by many scholars (some put him even earlier by several millenia) his religion became well-known throughout Iran after the advent of the Persian empire under Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great (whose rock inscriptions mention the name Ahuramazda, or Wise Lord, which is the name chosen by Zarathushtra for God).

The tolerance shown by Cyrus the Great, in allowing the conquered people of Babylon to continue following their own religion expresses the spirit of the religion of Zarathushtra, which is, not to force conversion or any other decision, against the will of the people, but instead to exhort people to follow a good life and fight against all forms of evil such as injustice, cruelty (even against animals), lying, cheating, discontentment, anger, etc.

Contrary to the author Vida Kashizadeh's aspersions about harassment of women, followers of holy prophet Zarathushtra's religion treat men and women equally. The matter of women being isolated during their menstrual cycle was not because women were considered a creation of Ahriman (the Devil) as the author imagines, but it was practiced for reasons of preserving cleanliness and purity for religious and practical reasons.

In ancient times, measures were taken to prevent spread of deseases which often wiped out entire villages. Blood coming out of the body was considered a medium of transmission of desease. Even male Zarthushti (Zoroastrian) priests are not allowed to perform ritual prayers, if for some reason they have a wound causing bleeding to occur.

Men and women are both creations of Ahuramazda. Zarthushti women have opportunity to obtain high education just like men and many have attained high positions in old times and new. Zarthushti women have even fought battles side by side with men when needed.

The caste system was started from prehistoric King Jamshid's time, in order to organize and provide a steady, reliable supply of different skills such as farming, weaving, blacksmith, warrior, priest, etc. In later times in India this system degenerated and was used to suppress the conquered people who formed the loWest caste. Today the followers of Zarathushtra's religion, only have two castes - priests and non-priests, and even that is not rigidly practiced, as people from the priest class can choose to follow non-priestly occupations.

Kashizadeh's opinions about Zarthushtis not encouraging conversion from outsiders is partly correct, however, she does not about all the reasons for this practice.

In Iran, for centuries after the Islamic conquest, Zarthushtis have suffered many holocaust-type massacres from various Islamic invaders - Arabs, Afghans, Mongols (after they converted to Islam), Turks, etc., and therefore it would be inviting horrible consequences for them to be an accomplice in converting Muslim Iranians (even those whose ancestors were Zarthushtis). Even today, Iran has a law that carries a death sentence for converting from Islam to another religion.

A reason why Parsi Zarthushtis in India, Pakistan, do not encourage conversion, is that this small community has prospered in those countries and their rich business people established generous charities, housing (which is very expensive in big cities), hospitals, etc., and in poor countries, some people might want to convert just in order to take advantage of the Parsi charities and subsidized housing.

Another reason why Zarthushtis of India and Iran who have migrated to America, England, etc., discourage conversions, is that new converts from the Iranian Muslim and other communities tend to change the religious practices radically and mislead the original Zarthushtis as well as the general public into believing that their brand of Zarthushti religion is the correct one. For the descendants of Zarthushtis who suffered persecution, stealing of assets, and fleeing their home and country in order to preserve their religion, this kind of hijacking of their religion by new converts is a matter of serious concern.

In America there is a group called the Zarathushtrian Assembly which consists of new converts mainly from Iranian Muslims, and is led by a former Muslim Iranian, called Ali Jafari who studied the Zarthushti religion in Pakistan while working there, and converted himself to become a Zarthushti, and is now converting other Iranians who want to leave the alien religion from Arabia and return to their original Iranian religion which is relatively simpler to follow and is very modern in concepts, such as rational choice in day to day matters and in deciding what is good and bad. [See Ali Jafari's: "An outline of the good religion of zarathusht"]

At first Mr. Jafari would just give talks on Gathas (which are the original poetic compositions of prophet Zarathushtra that were not lost to the invaders due to priestly practice of memorizing them and reciting them daily). Later, with some funding and support from other Zarthushtis, he started this group which preaches a different version of the religion, wherein only the Gathas are considered original, and all other scriptures as well as beliefs in Yazatas (analogous to angels), rituals, priesthood, etc. are to be rejected. Many traditional Zarthushtis are upset about his attempt to hijack their religion with his cultish version and claiming it to be the true version.

Furthermore, many Zarthushtis believe that Zarathushtra did not convert anyone from another religion, but that he was a reformer-prophet who spoke out against the degeneration of the original Mazdayasni (Mazda or God worshipping) religion of ancient Iranians. Zarathushtra's teachings ask followers to convert from evil life to a good life.

Contrary to Kashizadeh's claim that the ancient Iranians were pagans, the fact is that even in ancient times Iranians believed in one God and there were saint-kings who believed in struggle between good and evil. One can even see this in the accounts of ancient Iranian kings written in the epic literature of the Shahnameh.

Looking at the history of wars, massacres, persecutions and human suffering caused by religious wars, started by ambitious rulers who misused religion to expand their power, in the name of converting people to their "true" religion, one can see much wisdom in the policy of Zarthushtis that discourages conversion from one religion to another.

The "old hat" should really be referring to the old practice of prosyletizing or converting people from one good religion to another, and we should applaud the Zarthushtis for saying "Not that old hat of prosyletizing again".

Maneck Bhujwala is Co-founder of Zoroastrian Association of California (Southern California), co-founder and past president of Zarthushti Anjuman of Northern California and a member of the North American Mobed Council.

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