By Puloma Mukherjee
“What if, in another generation or so, we, the Zoroastrians, are extinct like the dinosaurs?” is what Tenaz Dubash is trying to say, and almost literally does, in her hour long documentary about Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient religion founded by Zarathustra.
Legend has it, that thousands of years ago a small group of immigrants sailed to India to flee religious persecution in Iran, and landed in Gujarat to seek refuge. When the King was informed of their arrival and plea, he sent them a big bowl of milk (strange as the laws of immigration were then). The leader of the group mixed sugar in the bowl of milk and sent it back to the King to signify that we will become part of your community while sweetening it. The King granted them refuge in his kingdom, and the Zoroastrian community in India was born. Today, India has the largest population of Zoroastrians in the world- I might add here, we just redefined ‘large’-the number isn’t even in millions, we are still talking under a 100,000 in India.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the followers of this religion, called Parsees (comes from Persian) in India. Initially it was their light skin and attractive features and the crush that I had on a Parsee fellow in school. Eventually I also began to appreciate the fact that theirs was a peaceful and prosperous community - folks that did not seem to make such a big deal out of their faith, never imposed their beliefs on anyone and consequently didn’t need to bring down temples or mosques, burn people, or do anything other damage of the sort in the name of “safeguarding” their religion. And yet, some of the most successful businessmen in India belonged to this community. To me, it seemed that these were the only people who got it right.
As one of the characters in Tenaz’s documentary says “ Religion is your communion with God, its personal. It shouldn’t be imposed on anyone.” But that isn’t the only reason for this community to be small- as Tenaz highlights in her documentary, traditionally Zoroastrians don’t really believe in conversion as they feel conversion would ‘contaminate’ their population and that a true Zoroastrian is the one born to Zoroastrian parents- a rather unique school of thought among modern day religions. If their ever-dwindling numbers is anything to go by, it appears that the Zoroastrians have loyally held on to this belief for centuries now, as theirs happens to be among the oldest religions in the world. Especially since conversion into the religion does not seem to be a very involved process- it is pretty much about just walking up to a liberal priest who is willing to do a ‘Navjot’ – a ceremony that marks the initiation into the Zoroastrian community. As she tries to investigate reasons for their shrinking community, she also alludes to the wealth of the Zoroastrians in India as one of the reasons. Perhaps the influential, affluent Zoroastrians don’t want too many people to share the Multi Million dollar exclusive Zoroastrian fund- a plausible but unsubstantiated assertion.
Present day liberal Zoroastrians like Tenaz and many of people she interviewed for her documentary, however, are more open to the idea of conversion and in fact see it as necessary for the religion to survive. Tenaz also interviews in her documentary a more conservative, powerful Indian Zoroastrian (Khojeste Mistry) who staunchly advocates ‘purity’ of their race in order to qualify as Zoroastrian. So, while the Jews and Muslims fight over Palestine, Hindus and Muslims kill each other over the temple and the Mosque in India (Ayodhya) and over Kashmir and countless other issues, and while Christianity is fraught with its generous share of disputes, the Zoroastrians are faced with a completely different dilemma. Should they preserve their race or their religion?
Tenaz Dubash’s documentary certainly covers a lot of ground across Zoroastrians from all over the world within her independent film budget and time, however, one cant help feeling that the documentary could have more impact with a little more editing.
As I watched the documentary, I wondered if we had a bigger question staring us in the face. Do the followers of any religion need to be fundamentalist mass murderers to survive in our world of myriad religions? Is the fear of extinction our only other option?
I was disappointed to see a rift quietly develop among these peaceful, progressive people, for an age old issue-Religion. Is this rift justified? Well, if preserving the religion is a priority, perhaps. Although somewhere, I secretly wished that things were different and preserving the religion or spreading it wasn’t an issue. Not among Zoroastrians, not among followers of any other religion. History has witnessed countless occasions, where the threat of conversion, or the zeal to preserve some religion or another has led to nothing but strife and bloodshed-precisely what the Zoroastrians fled from years ago. Maybe unknowingly, the Zoroastrians have a better understanding of the purpose of religion than any of us- that religion is just so that one follows a righteous way of life, a set of rules that keep you from doing wrong. It’s interesting to see that there is no such entity as a ‘Zoroastrian Pope’, no governing body, and that the religion is not intertwined with politics or law. It exists, as it should, in its purest form in the lives of the followers. If their community is anything to go by, they seem to have let religion play its own part in their life while focusing more on development and progress, of individuals within their community which just happens to be defined by their religion, and then even beyond their community (the likes of Ratan Tata and the Godrej family in India are known for their charity work). Wouldn’t things be a lot different in the world if people of other religions had the same approach? Maybe small and prosperous is better than large and contentious?
To choose between race or their religion is up to the Zoroastrians for now, but lets hope that one way or another the Zoroastrians learn from the history of other religions and set an example to those who notice even when it comes to spreading their religion. Well educated, and established as many Zoroastrians are, maybe they will be more innovative and peaceful about spreading their religion in ways that won’t involve mass bloodshed or door-to-door marketing! More independent films and follow up reviews, hopefully, may not be unwelcome.
Images courtesy Tenaz Dubash