By Noshir H. Dadrawala

Recently, some members of a group which believes in disposing their dead with dignity have been tossing a few 'red herrings' with a view to misguide unsuspecting members of the community. How undignified!

And speaking of 'dignity', the manner in which some members of the dignity group have been conducting themselves in the BPP boardroom, one would think the group is not just attempting to re-define Zoroastrian religion, custom, practice and usage but also the meaning and essence of the term 'dignity'.

Let us place some of the red herrings under scrutiny.

Red Herring No. 1:

"The 'Vendidad' requires dakhmas to be pulled down every 50 years."

Scrutiny Report:

A casual reading of the Avestan 'Vendidad' by a non-scholarly person is bound to create the impression that this sacred text contradicts itself in its opinion about dakhmas. In fact, 'Vendidad' VII: 56, 57, 58 warns that dakhmas are breeding grounds for vice, disease and impurity and 'Vendidad' III: 13 and VII: 50 & 51 calls for their eradication. So what is the truth?

The truth is that the Avestan term Dakhma, in a general sense, simply means a "structure". The 'Vendidad' refers to several specific funerary structures. For example, 'Vendidad' III: 9 refers to a specific funerary structure that is completely built-up, (i.e., enclosed all around, including from above and therefore not exposed to the sun). Such a structure (dakhma uzdaeza) is a tomb and therefore, the 'Vendidad' calls for its eradication.

But what about the "50 years" expiry (pun intended) date?

The truth is the 'Vendidad' simply states that the ground in which a corpse has been buried remains unclean for 50 years. The reference is not with regard to a dakhma, which is open to the sky, but to a "burial ground".

Just the way only a trained and experienced lawyer or solicitor can correctly interpret a complex legal document, only a trained and experienced religious scholar can correctly interpret a complex, classical religious text like the 'Vendidad'. Left to our "spin doctors", this sacred text can only be a tool for sowing doubt and propagating misinformation.

Red Herring No. 2:

"Several customs recommended in the 'Vendidad' like segregation during menses, proper disposal of pared nails, etc. are no longer being observed."

Scrutiny Result:

No doubt, as a consequence of urbanization and small dwelling units, some of these customs are not being followed in toto. However, despite these adverse conditions of time, it is to the credit of a majority of devout Parsis that they observe these customs to the extent possible. For example, our ladies may no longer observe complete segregation during menses, but most of them during their menses (barring a few cussed and defiant "liberated" ones) still refrain from visiting an agiary or atash behram or even lighting a prayer lamp (divo) at home.

Parsis living in flats in multistoried buildings with concrete compounds and roads may no longer be able to dispose pared nails in the manner prescribed by the 'Vendidad'. But a majority of devout Parsis still continue to pare their nails just before a bath and most Parsis consider it desirable to have a bath after a haircut or shave. What is important is the fact that the principle of "ritual purity" remains undiluted in the minds and hearts of devout Parsis, though the actual practice due to compelling force of circumstances may have been diluted.

Also, our clever by-the-half "spin doctors" need to understand that customs regarding segregation during menses and paring of nails, etc., are at a micro or personal level, while customs regarding disposal of the dead, etc., are at a macro or community level. It is not proper (or, shall we say, "not dignified") to fudge these issues.

Red Herring No. 3:

"How can fire be defiled?"

Scrutiny Result:

It is often argued that fire is a great purifier and cannot be polluted. This is not true. Fire simply transforms a polluting substance from one state to another. Perform a simple experiment at home. Try offering fragrant wood, agar or frankincense to the fire and see how it lifts your spirits and soothes your body and mind. (Remember aroma therapy?) Now, go to a place where a person may be offering dead matter or something polluted to the fire and see how it will make you run away with symptoms of choking, dizziness, nausea and a sunken spirit.

The fact is the output depends on the input. Certain inputs to the fire help cleanse and fumigate; others pollute and cause harm. Burning dead bodies leads to the latter.

Red Herring No 4:

The sight inside a dakhma is terrible, "with corpses lying helter-skelter or in rows on the dakhma floor."

Scrutiny Report:

So what exactly does one expect to see in a dakhma, other than corpses? A rose garden? An English tea party? A swan lake? Come, come, one would have expected something better from this dignified group! But seriously, what would these people expect to witness if a corpse was exhumed from a grave even after many years. Would the rotting corpse throw up perfumes of the Orient or a stench that would revolt all senses? Would the corpse be covered with flowers or thousands of creepy crawlies? And does the electric oven (crematorium) throw up perfumes of the Orient when the hair and other wastes of the corpse burn or does it throw up a stench with fly-ash, forcing local residents to shut their windows?

The fact is the sight inside a dakhma is less unpleasant as compared to the sight one would experience if a buried corpse is exhumed or if one could look at a corpse being baked/barbecued in a crematorium. The point is no one but the Nassesalas have the right to go into a dakhma. What business has any one else to look inside a dakhma and take photographs? And that too when photography is strictly prohibited at doongerwadi and even under The Aircraft Act, 1934 "no person shall fly or assist in flying an aircraft over the area included within a radius of one mile from the Towers of Silence on Malabar Hills, Bombay".

One needs to seriously consider the following facts:

1) The sight inside an abattoir/slaughter house is not pleasant and in India, far from hygienic. How many members of the Dignity Group have turned vegetarian as a consequence?

The sight of a person being operated for a major heart or abdominal surgery is not pleasant. How many members of the Dignity Group will avoid surgery as a consequence?

We cannot allow misplaced emotions and sentiments to cloud our reason. Indeed, the conflict in the minds of members of DDD-AG is not between "Reason and Religion" but "misplaced emotions/sentiments and Reason".

While concluding, one cannot but help quote Nobel Laureates Will and Ariel Durant:

"No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations, after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history." (From 'The Lessons of History')

Article by Noshir H. Dadrawala

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