In the past few weeks, several members of the recently formed “Disposal of the Dead with Dignity-Action Group” (DDD-AG) have expressed their views in the columns of ‘Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly’. I shall refrain from addressing any one or more of them personally. Instead, I shall respond to some of the issues that have been collectively and individually raised by them.
“The ‘Gathas’ do not prescribe rituals.”
A lady took seven columns of ‘Jame’ in her attempt to convince readers that the ‘Gathas’ of Zarathushtra do not prescribe any rituals. My response, in less than seven lines, would be, why, then, raise the issue of use of bunglis for the last rites and rituals of those who seek to be cremated or buried where dokhmas exist? If, as alleged, rituals are so alien to Asho Zarathushtra’s teachings, why insist on the four days’ ceremonies?
“There is not a single vulture at doongerwadi.”
This is incorrect. Time and again, one sees at least a few of them. Quite recently, I personally saw a few vultures preening themselves on a huge tree opposite Spenta Apartments. Unfortunately, I was not carrying a camera at that time to capture the evidence. However, the trustees of the BPP may like to consider inviting the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) to count and study the number of vultures, kites, jungle crows, common crows and other birds of prey at doongerwadi. They had, in fact, undertaken such a study, a couple of years ago.
“How can the system function without vultures?”
Let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that there is not a single vulture at doongerwadi. Let us also assume that the other birds of prey like kites have also vanished from our skies. So what? Our Avestan scriptures refer to our system as “Hvare darasya”, (Persian: ‘khurshed Nigarishni) which means exposure to the powerful and purifying rays of the sun. Agreed, vultures play an important catalytical role. However, IT IS THE SUN, WHICH PLAYS THE PRIMARY ROLE. This primary source of energy and purification, with the Grace of Dadaar Ahura Mazda, has NOT FAILED. How, then, can we say that our time-honoured system of “khurshed Nigarishni” has failed?
“Chemical powders are being applied to the bodies.”
As far as I know, the trustees of the BPP have consistently maintained that the powders used are “herbal” and not chemical and these are sprinkled only after the fifth day, (i.e., the day after chahrum). (Note: the nassesalars do NOT, with their bare hands, rub the dead bodies with these powders, nor do they touch the bodies as alleged.)
Reportedly, these powders not only control stench, but also serve as a catalyst in the speedy breakdown of physical matter. The entire process is completed in a few minutes and under supervision.
“Partially decomposed bodies are buried.”
Even a hundred years ago and more, when reportedly, there were more than a hundred vultures at doongerwadi, the contents of the “bhandar” (central well of the dokhma) had to be periodically emptied of bones and other dried remains. At no point of time, did the vultures devour even the bones.
Even today, the dried remains which are swept into the “bhandar” (central well) from the “pavis” (consecrated stone slabs) are taken out after about a year and buried in pits which are lined with stone and layers of salt and lime. The question arises, is this doctrinally tenable? The answer, happily, is in the affirmative. Our sacred texts distinguish between “lilo nasu” (green/fresh nasu, with water content, which should be exposed to the sun for purification and cannot be buried for fear of contamination) and “sukho naso” (dried nasu, which may be buried without fear of spreading pollution).
In ‘Vendidad’, Fargard VIII, 33(107), Zarathushtra questions, “O Maker of the material world, thou Holy One! Shall the man be clean who has touched a corpse that has been dried up and dead for more than a year?”
34(108) Ahura Mazda answered: “He shall. The dry mingles not with the dry. (‘Vendidad’, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, translated by James Darmesteter, pg. 103).
Introduction V (pg. XCV) of the aforesaid book states, “…wet matter is a better conductor of uncleanness than dry matter, and corpses cease to defile after a year.”
Myth no. 6:
“The system is a health hazard.”
What is being argued about today is nothing new. Decades ago, even when there were plenty of vultures, there were wealthy but religiously misguided Parsi reformists who wanted a crematorium. In fact, a leading member of the DDD-AG himself has asserted this fact of history. Today, when the vulture population has depleted, it has become a very convenient excuse.
Relatively closer to our time, Late S.R.Vakil had raised an alarm of “stench”, “bodies piling up” and, more importantly, “health hazard”, more than a quarter of a century ago. To date, there is not a single proven or documented case of an epidemic at Malabar Hill.
Strange as this may seem, the scientific/medical reality defies conventional logic. According to a press release of the World Health Organisation (WHO), “The health hazard associated with dead bodies is negligible.” (Press Release WHO/42:20-8-1999, “W.H.O. warns against Health Misconceptions in the wake of Turkish Earthquake”)
W.H.O. (Dept. of Emergency and Humanitarian Action) in its Technical Briefing Note (Geneva, 18-8-1999) states, “A RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CADAVERS AND EPIDEMICS HAS NEVER BEEN SCIENTIFICALLY DEMONSTRATED OR REPORTED.”
States Dr. Rodger Doran of W.H.O. in Geneva, “The commonly propagated myth is that corpses are sources of disease. There has never been a disease outbreak attributed to not disposing of bodies of people killed in a natural disaster. Since dead bodies are immobile, they cannot cause enough new cases each day to sustain outbreak, no matter how many there are.” (‘Asian Disaster News’, Vol.6, No. 2, April-June 2000).
“Fire is incorruptible.”
It is argued, “Fire is a great purifier and nothing ever can pollute fire.” This is incorrect. Fire simply transforms polluting matter from one state to another. Try offering fragrant wood or frankincense to fire and see how it lifts your spirit and soothes your body and mind. Now think, for a moment, what would happen if, to this same fire, rubber, garbage or dead putrefying matter was offered. You would suffer 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.
Have you ever wondered why Parsis use the fire of a burning corpse to consecrate an Atash Behram (the highest grade fire)? There are 16 fires used for consecrating an Atash Behram, including the fire of lightning (which may have struck a tree). But WHY use the fire of a burning corpse? Is it considered holy?
The answer is simple. The fire of a burning corpse is physically purified ninety-one times and the maximum number of ceremonies are performed over it, with a view to purify it and lift the dross with which the fire of a burning corpse is doctrinally considered to be burdened with.
“In an electric crematorium, no fire is used.”
Many Parsis seem to think there is no fire used in an electric crematorium. Nothing could be further from the truth. Electricity is itself a form of fire. But, more than that, the process in an electric crematorium involves raising the temperature inside the furnace to more than 700 degrees centigrade – a point at which the hydrocarbons of the body catch fire or self-ignite. Use of fire in an electric crematorium is definitely NOT ELIMINATED.
Also, contrary to popular belief, electric crematorium is not such a hygienic system. All over the world, especially in advanced countries, people are concerned about the environmental pollution caused by electric crematoriums. “Scrubbers and high chimneys may, only to a very limited extent, reduce, but not eliminate stench and fly ash.
Closer to home, ask those who live around Chandanwadi in Bombay and Vaikunth in Poona, how they are forced to shut their windows each time the crematorium s turned on and a layer of soot forms over water buckets and linen put out to dry. Residents of these areas also complain of chronic respiratory problems, headaches and nausea.
To claim that electric crematorium is an efficient and hygienic alternative is a myth. It can neither be acceptable from a religious nor an environmental point of view. And, at this point, we are not even referring to the phenomenal cost of maintaining an electric crematorium.
Did you know that cremation contributes to greenhouse gases?
According to ‘USA Today’, in 1998, a record 5,53,000 Americans were cremated. According to this American publication, “nearly 25 per cent of U.S. deaths are followed by cremation; that number is expected to rise to 40 per cent by 2010.” This has caused considerable alarm at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
States another publication, “The Toronto Star”, (June 4, 2000), with an air of sarcasm, “Cremation, now the choice of some 53 per cent of people in the Greater Toronto area – is widely regarded as an eco-friendly gesture, notwithstanding smoggy evidence to the contrary…The green movement in Europe has grown increasingly concerned about cremation, which it considers to be an unnecessary and wasteful contributor to greenhouse gases…”
Anyone with green pretensions should think twice about cremation – 4,37,000 wooden coffins are wastefully burned in the U.K. each year, polluting the atmosphere with dioxin, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide.”
It appears “disposal of the dead” is not just a community problem for Parsis, but a “global problem” as well.
People in the western world began to opt for cremation because burial locks up useful land and burial plots are frightfully expensive. It now turns out that CREMATION HARMS THE ATMOSPHERE AND CONTRIBUTES TO GREENHOUSE GASES. And, remember, these are countries that use “state-of-the-art crematoriums” with sophisticated scrubbers and high chimneys.
Myth no. 9:
“Flies and insects sit on the bodies in the dokhmas.”
A fear psychosis is intentionally sought to be created in the minds of gullible Parsis. It is rumoured, “Flies and insects sit on the bodies in the dokhmas and then on the food tables at homes in Malabar Hill.” One is made to believe flies in other parts of the city only sit on rose petals and marigolds! Come, come, we would have expected a better argument from leaders of the DDD-AG. The fact is, in Bombay, and, indeed, all over India and elsewhere, flies sit over all sorts of filth (it is their natural tendency to do so), including excreta, garbage, etc. Sensible people cover their food properly and use insect repellents.
“Municipal authorities will make us close down the dokhmas.”
If there is a health hazard, as alleged, the onus of proof is not on the Parsi community. The fact is the dokhmas have been in existence for the past more than 300 years and to date, there is not a singly proven recorded case of an epidemic arising as a consequence of the dokhmas.
It is interesting that DDD-AG, “in the interest of peace” (?), has agreed that if facility for a bunglee is provided at doongerwadi, it would not raise the “bogey of health hazard”. Reminds us of a spoilt child who would keep quiet if a lollipop is given to him/her.
Myth no. 11:
“Rodents feed on the corpses.”
We wonder if the persons who have spread this rumour have themselves seen rats or other rodents inside the towers. The fact is one finds more rat holes in Parsi colonies in Bombay than at doongerwadi. Have mourners at doongerwadi ever seen rats scampering around the dokhmas? At least, I have, never!
Myth no. 12:
“Zarathushtris bury their dead in other towns.”
According to our scriptures, “Spenta Armaity” (the spirit/essence of our earth) feels “the sorest grief” when corpses are buried under the ground. In fact, doctrinally, it is considered an act of spiritual merit to exhume a buried corpse and throw it open to the purifying rays of the sun. Not for a moment am I advocating exhuming buried bodies. The point I am trying to make is the abhorrence and contempt with which our sacred texts view the system of burial.
Agreed, in places where there are no dokhmas, Parsis do bury their dead in Aramgahs (place of rest). But this is an exception, rather than the rule. Where a dokhma does not exist, burial may be condoned, under force of circumstances. However, where a dokhma does exist, where is the need for burial or cremation?
It is argued, “The four days’ ceremonies are performed for those who die in places where dokhmas do not exist.” Yes, indeed, they are performed because if the person dies in a place where the facility of a dokhma does not exist, Nature cannot hold the person responsible. However, when a person knowingly and willfully chooses to be cremated or buried where a dokhma exists, it tantamounts to intentional disregard of the religious injunction despite the full knowledge and availability of the facility of the dokhma. To draw a parallel, when trying an accused, a judge tries to establish whether there has been “mens rea” (criminal intent). Nature, of course, is the Judge Supreme.
WHAT THE REFORMISTS FAIL TO UNDERSTAND:
Members of the DDD-AG seem to be only obsessed with the issue of the “disposal of dead bodies”. What traditional Parsis are more concerned about is the spiritual progress of the soul. This is, of course, a matter of “faith” and “belief”. The “faith” and “belief” of the Parsi community is that the dokhma is not merely a stone tower for the physical disposal of the dead body but a “launch pad” (to use modern terminology) for the spiritual progress of the soul. The “dokhma”, as most Parsis know, is first consecrated before use. In the “tana” ceremony, 301 iron nails weighing four maunds (the number “four” having numerological connectivity with the four elements – fire, water, air and earth) are struck in the ground at specific points. A cotton thread with 101 strands is passed around these 301 nails, three times, forming a complex circuit. All this is performed by qualified priests who later perform many other ceremonies. The stone slab in the dokhma where the dead body is laid to rest is called “Pavi” (from the word, “Pav” meaning “ritually pure”).
It is the pious belief of Parsis that if “Sachkar”, “Sagdid”, “Geh Sarna” and “Dokhmenashini” is received by the departed, no matter what sort of a life the person may have led, Nature is bound to ensure that the soul of the person at least reaches the threshold of “Chinvat” (“Awal manjal” or first destination) on the dawn of the fourth day. To draw a parallel, if a person, whether saint or criminal buys a train ticket from one destination to another, the railway system is bound to transport him on the strength of the valid ticket, regardless of the person’s holy or criminal background.
It is the belief of Parsis that if one takes “dokmenashini” out (i.e., eliminates dokhmenashini altogether) from the total spiritual package of “Sachkar”, “Sagdid”, “Geh-Sarna” and “Dokhmenashini”, the validity of the package stands VITIATED OR NULLIFIED.
In the case of Ratilal Panachand vs. State of Bombay, the Supreme Court has observed, “A religion undoubtedly has its basis in a system of beliefs and doctrines which are regarded by those who profess that religion to be conducive to their spiritual well-being, but it would not be correct to say that matters of religion are nothing but matters of religious faith and religious belief. A religion is not merely an opinion, doctrine or belief. It has the outward expression in acts as well.”
In other words, the COMPLETE after-death spiritual package of Sachkar, Sagdid, Geh-Sarna AND DOKHMENASHINI is a fundamental right of the Parsis, which NO LEGISLATURE CAN TAKE AWAY.
WHY USE OF BUNGLEES CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT BE GIVEN TO DDD-AG:
Members of the DDD-AG who seek cremation or burial where dokhmas exist and then insist that it is their right (???) to use the bunglees at doongerwadi for the four days’ obsequies are making an unnecessary and avoidable nuisance of themselves.
If they choose to burn or bury their dead outside doongerwadi, what prevents them from having the ceremonies performed at any other place? What prevents them from having the “Zindeh Ravani” performed (i.e., all the obsequies performed during their lifetime)? If ceremonies are so important to them (though ironically, most of them are followers of the “Gatha Only Cult” which considers religious ceremonies as unnecessary, useless and unZoroastrian), why can’t they exercise the freedom to have the ceremonies of their near and dear ones performed far away from doongerwadi which, according to them, is a place marked as a potential heath hazard?
Reportedly, DDD-AG is planning to buy a plot of land near Walkeshwar for an electric crematorium. If they can buy land for putting up an electric furnace, why can’t they also have a bunglee at the same place? DDD-AG’s argument is, “We want to have the ceremonies performed where ceremonies for the Parsis are traditionally performed.” In other words, DDD-AG chooses a non-traditional way of disposal of their near and dear ones, but wants their ceremonies performed at a traditional place. It wants to have its cake and eat it too! Cool!
It is also argued “every Parsi has a right to have obsequies performed at doongerwadi.” Sure. That is cent percent correct, PROVIDED every Parsi also follows the long-established custom and usage of having the body placed in the dokhma at the same doongerwadi complex. One cannot say, “ I will study at a medical college but want a law degree from the same institution.” One has several rights. But rights always carry qualifications and, more importantly, RESPONSIBILITIES.
Assuming, for the sake of argument that a piece of land is carved out at doongerwadi for DDD-AG to put up its own bunglee. The consequence of such a step would be potentially dangerous. A few years down the line, the next demand would be for a chunk of land to be carved out for an “aramgah” and/or a furnace. Where do we draw the line?
Also, by providing a facility to those who choose cremation or burial, are not the trustees of the BPP morally and spiritually guilty of indirectly encouraging a non-Zoroastrian way of disposal at a place where the Zoroastrian mode is available?
BPP trustees, however, argue that they may consider DDD-AG’s request in the interest of peace and safeguarding the lands. After all, DDD-AG has threatened to take the BPP to court if their demands are not met with. This is nothing short of bullying tactics.
Members of DDD-AG, please, by all means, dispose your Dead with Dignity wherever you like and in whatever manner you like. But also please respect the Dignity of those who choose to remain faithful to tradition. The only Dignified solution to this controversy is for DDD-AG to find/create its own facility and leave Parsis who wish to follow the tradition, in peace, without the indignity of threats of law suits, complaints to the government, surreptitiously taken photographs, rumours, etc. Live and let live (and, if one may add, with Dignity on both sides, to the dead as also the living.)
May members of the DDD-AG (many of whom happen to be my friends and colleagues) endeavor to respect the Dignity of the “living tradition”.
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