Oh! What an 'Enlightened' Community We Are!

by Noshir H. Dadrawalla

There was a time in history when Zoroastrianism was the State Religion of Iran and the High Priest enjoyed the status of Prime Minister in the Royal Court. Today the community has reduced its High Priests to a cipher. The Parsis must be the only 'enlightened' community in the world to treats its priests so shabbily.

Among the Roman Catholics the Pope is not just the spiritual head but also the Head of the Vatican State. For the Bohra community, His Holiness, Dr. Sayedna is the Vice Regent of God. For the Ismailis, His Holiness, The Aga Khan is God's direct representative on earth. These Spiritual Heads are not just treated with utmost respect but also entrusted with the control of immense wealth and power. And here, when a High Priest loses his temporary employment flat and is given alternate accommodation in a Parsi colony there is a hue and cry. Prelates of other communities have a fleet of fancy cars at their disposal. Our poor Parsi High Priests have to walk or depend on the generosity of a rich behdin to chauffeur them.

As a community we have become so 'enlightened' that instead of the High Priests guiding us in matters of religion, we the 'enlightened laity' have started to guide them with a generous helping of 'law' and 'politics'. Some have threatened to drag them to court while others have dreamed of throwing them in prison! Oh! What an 'enlightened' community we are!

Asho Zarathushtra in the Gatha (Yasna XLVI: 6) has cautioned, "Who lets untruth exist without protest, himself becomes supporter of untruth." All that the High Priests have tried to do with the aid of their "Resolution" was protest against certain untruths and dangerous trends prevailing in the community. But what a heavy price they paid for exercising religious leadership. Can we now blame them for living in ivory towers all these years?

Let's face it, the High Priests neither have the clout nor the infrastructure to excise the malignant tumour gnawing into the very vitals of the community. But as prelates is it not their 'spiritual right' or 'religious duty' to guide their flock and when things get out of hand, even chide the community? Surly they can. But at a price - public humiliation, intemperate outbursts and threats of legal prosecution. Oh! What an 'enlightened' community we are!

A question of 'self-preservation'

The Parsi aversion for mixed marriages should not be confused with "racial superiority" or "communal prejudice". For Parsis, marrying within the community is important from the point of view of "self-preservation". Parsis are a historic, religious and ethnic community perpetuating an unique ethic and culture of living. They are torchbearers of a rich culture and heritage.

Parsis do not claim racial superiority. But as Maritn Luther King said, "I want the white man to be my brother, not my brother-in-law". Parsis treat all Indians as their brothers, but would prefer not to have them as their brothers-in-law.

Noted researcher, Dr. Huzan Davar, had studied the problem of inter-marriages among Parsis for three years for the Victoria University of Manchester. Some of her observations are quite pertinent. She states: "Although a large percentage of intermarried women stated that most Zoroastrian girls had difficulty finding eligible (educated) Zoroastrian men, when they were asked whether they personally had any difficulties finding a Zoroastrian spouse, the majority (75%) said, "no", because they had never made an effort to find a Zoroastrian spouse.

"The other important factor that has promoted intermarriages is a change of attitude where young people do not think it is important to marry within the fold. The change of attitude has occurred for a number of reasons: westernisation, secularization, higher education and, above all, all lack of religious education and religious identity which has facilitated assimilation into the host society."

Regarding the issue of accepting the children of inter-married parents, Davar has observed, "I have observed through my research work that even though a large number of children of intermarried men and women are being 'navjoted' today, more often than not, being a Zoroastrian is usually a temporary, often a 24-hour phenomenon for them - more for the emotional satisfaction and comfort of the children's parents and grandparents. Due to a lack of religious education, our children seldom end up as full-fledged enduring and contributing members of the Zoroastrian religion and our community."

Does Davar offer a solution to the problem of mixed marriages? Indeed, she does. She recommends: "If the community is to survive in the 21st century, the first thing we need to do is get our priority straight. Our first priority should be religious and ethnic education, not just for children, but for all interested individuals."

The Davar-Beamon Obiter

While it is true that Justices Dinshaw Davar and Frank Beamon, (as reported in (1909) 33 ILR 509 and 11Bom.L.R. 85) have observed that the Parsi community consists of: (a) Parsis who are descended from the original Persian emigrants and who are born of both Zoroastrian parents and who profess the Zoroastrian religion; (b) the Iranis from Persia professing the Zoroastrian religion; (c) the children of Parsi fathers by alien mothers who have been duly and properly admitted into the religion. I am of the view that this so-called definition is an obiter dictum (i.e., a collateral opinion/observation of the judge, which is not binding).

In 1948, an Irani Zoroastrian, in order to escape from the purview of the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, declared that Iranis professing the Zoroastrian religion are not Parsis and therefore, not governed by the aforesaid Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act. Justice Coyaji who was presiding over the Parsi Matrimonial Court upheld the Irani Zoroastrians' contention. The contention was again upheld in Appeal by Justices Chagla and Gajendragadkar [(1950) 52 B.L.R. 876).

Now, if the definition of a Parsi, as given in the Davar-Beamon judgement, which includes "Iranis from Persia professing the Zoroastrian religion" was a valid legal definition having the force of law, why did Justice Coyaji and later, Justices Chagla and Gajendragadkar uphold the contention of the Irani Zoroastrian who declared that Iranis professing the Zoroastrian religion are not Parsis? The answer in Justice Chagla's words: "Now, in the first place this observation of Sir Dinshaw Davar, undoubtedly a very great authority on Parsi law, is an obiter because the question he and Mr. Beamon had to consider in that case was whether by conversion to the Zoroastrian faith, a person could become a Parsi."

Note here, Justice Chagla's use of the key words, "observation of Sir Dinshaw Davar" as opposed to the use of the word "held" or "judgement". In fact, he clearly states that Davar's observation "is an obiter".

A similar issue in the case of Jamshed Irani vs. Banu Irani [(1966) 68 B.L.R. 794] came up before Justice Mody. Justice Mody also concurred with the views held by Justice Chagla, "Now so far as that part of the Judgement is concerned, Chagla C.J. has pointed out that it was obiter....."

It was only after recording fresh evidence of four eminent scholars (one of whom was Dastur Dr. H.K. Mirza) that Justice Mody held that Irani Zoroastrians are Parsis.

No less than three eminent sitting Judges have observed that the so-called definition of Parsi Zoroastrian arrived at by Justices Davar and Beamon in the Parsi Punchayet case is "an obiter".

It's a "mad-mad" world

It is said, those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first turn mad. Inter-marriage among Parsis now seems to border around insanity. And some of the inter-married ones even have the cheek to say that there is high mental illness among Parsis due to inbreeding. For centuries the Parsis living in a parochial Hindu society married within the community and flourished. It did not require "new or fresh blood" to create a Jamsetji Tata or a Jamshedji Jejeebhoy or a Dadabhoy Naoroji. But now suddenly there is a felt need for "new or fresh blood" to arrest mental illness in the community! Oh! What an enlightened community we are!

The fact is, there is no statistical data for arriving at any scientific or rational conclusion on this 'bogey'. This 'high incidence of mental illness' seems more apparent than real. Being a microscopic community our shortcomings become more obvious than those of major communities. Also, Parsis being more 'progressive' and 'enlightened' avail more of psychiatric facilities than other communities. In the Western world if one is depressed one runs to the family shrink. In India, if one as much as talks to a shrink he or she is labeled as a 'mental case'. As Confucius would have said, "Man who leaps off cliff jumps to conclusion."

Indeed, we are truly an 'enlightened' community!

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