The Parsi Zoroastrian religion was the religion of the rulers of the Parsi-Persian Empire in the days of Queen Esther. Now there are none left in Iran, their numbers in India are down to 61,000, and they are diminishing by the day. Another 40,000 are scattered across the world where it is an even greater struggle to retain their distinctive Zoroastrian identity. Jews need to learn from the crisis facing this ‘going extinct’ ancient community.
In a provocative speech to 4,000 Zoroastrians at the Udvada Utsav festival (Udvada, in India’s western Gujarat state, houses the holiest fire of India’s Parsi community), eminent lawyer Darius Khambata said, “You can’t endeavor to save our ethnicity at the cost of our religion.” adding that Zoroastrianism, being a universal religion, should be opened to anyone seeking to join.
But most Parsis fiercely believe that being a Parsi is their exclusive birth right, and oppose allowing anyone non-Parsis to convert.
Yet, the “burning issue” at the festival was not the 1,200 year old ancient fire; but the modern solution offered to tackle the existential crisis faced by this distinctive community.
Activist are concerned about the aging Parsi population in India. Parsi numbers have declined by 12% every census decade. Parsis are projected to plummet to 23,000 in the near future, reducing this sophisticated, urbane community to a “tiny tribe”.
An infusion of fresh blood is desperately needed because cousin marriages are common, and so are the diseases of inbreeding. Yet, with a combination of racial pride and xenophobia, community leaders have resisted any efforts to include children of mixed marriages or converts..
“No conversions” they argue was among the conditions laid down by the ruler of Gujarat who had given asylum to a group of Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in Muslim Iran, and arrived on India’s west coast twelve centuries ago.
Indeed, a 1908 judgement in the Bombay High Court reiterated that “Parsi” is an ethnic entity restricted to the descendants of those Persian refugees. The judges had added that the child of a mixed marriage could be included in this definition only when the father is Parsi. (One is born Parsi, but becomes Zoroastrian after an initiating “navjot” ceremony).
Scholars, liberals, and intermarried Parsi women have protested this gender discrimination, and claim that nullifying it would improve Parsi numbers and refresh their gene pool. But the argument has always been rejected, by the orthodox and even the general population.
“Reform” is a dirty, even treacherous, word among the very orthodox for reasons that are often more self-serving than sacred. Parsis fear that their envied communal wealth legacy will be appropriated by “half castes” because intermarriage now accounts for 38% or all marriages, and is growing.
Parsi philanthropy is as fabled as their fortunes. Apart from spacious community housing, wealthy families endowed scholarships, hospitals and fire temples. All these benefits have become factors in the insistence on exclusivity since the charitable trust deeds allow only born Parsi-Zoroastrians to access them.
In 2012, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, which controls the vast trust funds, stated that a “poor Parsi eligible for subsidized housing is someone earning less than 90,000 rupees ($1,351) a month”; while the urban poverty line in India is one percent of that at 870 rupees ($13).
But the community has also been a victim of its own wealth. Lavish charities weaken the ambition of the younger generation to succeed. Parsi women who are uniformly well educated scorn “unsuitable” lazy, unambitious grooms.
One in every 10 women and one in every five men remains unmarried by age 50. Fertility rates have fallen below viable levels; only one in nine, both parents born Parsi families, has a child under age 10.
In 2013, there were 735 deaths and only 174 births in the Parsi community. Even couples who can, don’t have children according to Bachi Karkaria, a Mumbai based senior journalist, in the BBC Jan 9, 2016 issue.
With close to half the community is now scattered across the world where intermarriage is inevitable, admitting and welcoming the children of all mixed marriages, who want to be active Zoroastrians, would substantially improve the statistics, but will also dilute and transform, a very distinctive ethnic identity.
Secular, ethnic only, and liberal religious Jews who would deeply regret if ultra-Orthodox Jews were to be all that is left of the Jewish People; need to strongly support Jewish outreach activities financially; and to personally encourage unaffiliated people they know to study Judaism.