Thoughts on Admissions To Fire Temples: by Cyrus D. Mehta

After reading several recent postings on the admissions of non-Zoroastrians to our places of worship, I am reminded of my visit to the Native American settlement in Taos, in New Mexico, about a little over a year ago.

Taos, nestled in the lofty mountains of New Mexico, has a Native American settlement that has remained intact over centurires. People still live in the adobe structures that have been around for a millenium. UNESCO has designated Taos as an international cultural monument. The Native Americans in Toas converted to Christianity - specifically Catholicism - about two centuries ago due to the Spanish missionary influence in the region. Although they may officially be Catholics, the inhabitants of Taos also practice their native religion. The settlement contains both a church and a "kiwa" - the native place of worship. While visitors could enter the church, the kiwa was kept out of bounds for non-Native Americans. Also an adobe structure, the kiwa was devoid of doors or windows. One had to climb a rope ladder to enter from the top.

As a Zoroastrian, I knew at once why outsiders were precluded from entering the kiwa. For that matter everyone else also respected the wishes of the Taos people. Even UNESCO officials must have recognized this aspect when designating Taos as an international monument. It seems that almost every group excludes outsiders from its most sacred and elaborate places. Non-muslims, I am told, cannot go near the Kaaba in Mecca. Non-Catholics cannot partake in the communion during mass and certain Hindu temples in India also exclude outsiders.

Yezdi ... has called the Parsee practice of excluding non-Zoroastrians from its places of worship as "evil". Such a sweeping characterization from a sociologist is surprising, to say the least. In order not to sound too disingenuous, he would also need to characterize the exclusionary practices of the Native Americans, aboriginees and others as evil, though I doubt whether his discipline would permit its practitioner to makes such sweeping value judgements.

I believe the exclusionary practices of a tribe, group or community have to be examined within the context of the elaborateness of the ritual and the equally elaborate observances and acts of devotion that are expected from the worshipper. When the group perceives that the non-member would not be able to meet these onerous demands, it excludes non-members from its inner most sanctums. In Zoroastrianism, the consecration of an "agiary" is an elaborate ritual and the consecration of an atash bahram is monumental. Worshippers also need to observe various rituals before they enter the inner sanctum which houses the fire.

It is unfortunate that a few non-Zoroastrians may be prevented from entering a fire temple, but the present policy, if examined in the above context as well as from a comparative religion perspective, is rational and not "evil". This reminds me of another trip I made to the Vatican a few years ago. As I set foot into St. Peter's Cathedral I was completely astounded by the beauty of the building and the artefacts. Likewise there were hundreds of tourists also in admiration of the place. Very few individuals were actually praying, meditating or contemplating. While this may be "grudgingly" acceptable in Christianity, it would be impermissible in a Zoroastrian fire temple for curious tourists to gape at the fire without going through the necessary rituals. It would also be out of place in a Native American kiwa. Just as the hundreds of visitors respected the wishes of the native Americans in Taos, they must also respect the wishes of the majority of the Parsee and Irani Zoroastrians of India.

Cyrus Mehta.

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