Roni K. Khan's Famous Article "Universalism and all that"

Part V

* Closing the Coffin of Conversion *

This is Part V of the famous article "Universalism and All that" by the Zoroastrian scholar RONI KHAN of India, published in the Jam-e-Jamshed paper in Bombay, India in 1995. The article is reproduced with kind permission, and great encouragement, from the Author as well as the newspaper.


Closing the Coffin of Conversion

by Roni K. Khan



Dismantle The Three R's

As a natural corollary to the Great Heterodox Fallacy which presumes that the Zarathushtrian religion is not much more than the philosophy contained in its Hakikat component, heterodoxy is generally allergic to almost anything that gives a more concrete, structured or institutionalized shape to the religion.

The more the specifics in a religion, and the more disciplined, legislated or cut and dried that things are, the less is the scope for heterodox activists to manoeuvre. This cramps their free-wheeling style, provides less elbow room, and all in all restricts their "freedom." Heterodoxy finds itself trapped in a structured atmosphere, and feels a desperate need to lift these dark, oppressive clouds of discipline to let the sun shine through. After all, how else would the "ratus" and reformers be able to discharge their divinely ordained mission of chopping and changing, tinkering and tampering, ditching and discarding the obsolete and obscurantist flotsam and jetsam of countless centuries, including the Parsi race, in order for the religion to move with the changing times? How else could the religion of Zarathushtra be rescued and restored for a grand entrance into the twenty-first century with multitudes of new converts and mixed-race youths waving the flag of the universal religion in the face of the world?

Such are the issues that bedevil the heterodox mind. No wonder, then, that heterodoxy is all out to dismantle the present scheme of things, with special reference to the more structured or formalized aspects of the Zarathushtrian religion. To be told what to do, or how to do it, is anathema to the "liberated" heterodox mind. The targets of attack, therefore, are naturally the Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat components of the religion, in ascending order of virulence. For convenience, let us style them as "rites, rituals and rules" -- the "Three R's."

The heterodox allergy cannot be better expressed than in the words of wisdom offered by a certain solicitor for the consumption of enlightened Zarathushtrians: "The meaningless rituals invented by the babblers-for-money and its paraphernalia may not survive. It never deserved to." We less enlightened Zarathushtrians may dare to disagree, especially when recalling that these "meaningless rituals" have been treasured for thousands of years by untold generations of our ancestors, including "babblers" like Kookadaru, Behramshah Shroff, Meherji Rana, Neiryosang Dhaval, Adarbad Marespand and Tansar. But then, the luminary's views fall into perspective when we note that his noble-minded vision and wisdom also extend to afervent wish for the death, damnation and destruction of the Parsi community. "No civilized and decent human ought to shed tears on its inevitable end," is his civilized conclusion. Would you believe that this well-wisher is actually a Parsi, and a Navar to boot?

Although the "Three R's," comprising the structured components of the religion, go strongly against the grain of most heterodox individuals and institutions, the degree of the allergy varies from issue to issue and from occasion to occasion. This should not sound too strange when we remember that heterodoxy is no stranger to contradictions, confusions and paradoxes, being habitually engaged in the intellectual acrobatics and mental contortions required for twisting the truth in order to promote un-Zarathushtrian causes like conversion and mixed marriages, and to justify similar kinds of unsanctioned and self-centred behaviour. The philosophy behind this code of mutable conduct has been perfectly unveiled by a senior spokesperson: "Consistency is the bugbear of little minds."

Examples abound, but just one will be sufficient to illustrate. Take the formal spiritual initiation into the Zarathushtrian religion through Navjote and Sudreh-Kashti. Why do the heterodox, with their aversion towards the "Three R's," embrace this most conspicuous of Zarathushtrian ceremonials? Shouldn't Navjote be the first item on the heterodox black-list? Besides, what real value can the Navjote have for them, when, especially in the West, youngsters are "educated" that the Sudreh and Kashti are symbolic devices merely for identification purposes, and therefore dispensable? In fact, some erudite "educators" have even gone to the ludicrous length of "educating" their youthful audiences that the Sudreh and Kashti are not visible on the famed bas-reliefs of Darius and others at Persepolis! In spite of all that, illicit Navjotes for ineligible candidates are openly performed in North America by renegade priests and even by lay scholars, while in India, such so-called Navjotes are performed in a hush-hush manner, through the back door, by the likes of the solicitor referred to earlier.

Whatever happened to those garish avowals about "meaningless rituals invented by the babblers-for-money and its paraphernalia"? Whither convictions and constancy? Gone with the wind -- blown away by that golden guide to heterodox conduct: "Consistency is the bugbear of little minds."

Despite such chronic inconsistencies, it would be foolish to underestimate or disregard the deadly seriousness of the heterodox assault on the rites, rituals and rules of our religion. The "Gatha-Alone-Cult" (GAC) radicals, positioned at the extreme edge of heterodoxy, will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. In fact, there even seem to be early indications, as yet camouflaged in scholarly garb and careful wording, of a future strike at the very heart of our religion -- the holy Fire itself.

Press reports indicate that as things already stand, the holy Fire does not have the same exalted status in the West that it has been accorded through the ages in the earlier homelands of the Zarathushtrians, as is evidenced to this day in India. As one visitor has observed (see What is a Darbe Meher in America? by K. N. Dastoor, Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly of 15 August 1993), the few Darbe Mehers set up at some places in North America are "the poorest of the poor substitutes for an Agiari," where devices like a gas flame or an electric bulb are substituted for the consecrated, ever-burning Atash Padshah. A detailed expose, by a Parsi resident, of the amazingly irreverential and inadequate state of affairs at the Darbe Meher in Toronto, makes for very sad reading (see American Darbe Mehers -- Whither Sanctity? by Pervin J. Mistry, Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly of 03 April 1994).

But what can be expected from those who wish to believe that the Fire is merely an inert "symbol," having chosen to forget the teachings of our scriptures that Atash is a conscious living entity full of divine glory, the holy warrior against the forces of evil, the giver of health, the bestower of boons, the "son of Ahura Mazda" ("Aathro Ahurahay Mazdaao puthra") and the "greatest Yazata" ("mazishta yazata")? In the holy Gathas (Yasna 43-9), Asho Zarathushtra asks Ahura Mazda, "Unto whom Thou wishest me to pay my utmost worship?" And directly thereafter, our Prophet declares, "Thenceforth unto Thy Fire (`Aathre') the offering of my homage I will pay." Were it not for this, and for the saving grace of six other Gathic references to the Fire, one suspects that even the gas flames and electric bulbs might not be there.

It is worth recalling that up to about just three or four generations ago, the establishment of an Atash-Kadeh was considered a major priority in any new place where ten or more families of Parsis had settled. Today, many thousands of our people have settled on the green grass of distant shores for several decades, but what is there to show for the veneration of Fire save for a few gas flames and electric bulbs? May it not be said in a few generations' time that even that much was worthy.

We had warned a little earlier that in their headlong haste to do away with the "Three R's," the GAC "ratus" seem to be inching dangerously close to cooking up a "case" for doing away with the Fire altogether.

As yet, this latest manoeuvre is under camouflage, but it is not difficult to see through the game by reading between the lines of "scholarly" declamations like: "Exhilarated by haoma/soma drink, the zaotar of pre-Zarathushtrian times invoked gods and goddesses before a fire by feeding it with animal and plant oblations that went up in smoke. It is against such a smoking ritual that Zarathushtra makes his contrasting statement, `I shall invoke seraosha, Your Inspiring Voice, the greatest of all voices to reach my final goal ... .'" The GAC scholar who penned these evocative lines thereby arrives, in a stupendous leap of the imagination, at the shattering conclusion that Zarathushtra was "not a professional priest who fed the fire with oblations in an elaborate rite of `murmuring' incantations"!

Well, well! Thanks to GAC "research," it is now at last revealed unto the benighted Zarathushtrian people who have been wandering in the dark forests of misconception for many millennia, that Aathravan Zarathushtra's ancient Avestan title of "aathravan" (= guardian of the Fire), synonymous with certain corroborative Vedic references to him simply as "the Atharvana," is nothing but an ignorant misnomer, since our Prophet took a "contrasting" approach and never "fed the fire" while "murmuring incantations" in the primitive mumbo-jumbo of a "smoking ritual"!

But wait! There is more to learn! For those of us who are still too dense or cussed to admit our age-old error and accept this wonderful discovery, the GAC"ratu" wraps up the point with masterly evidence, drawing on references from the holy Gathas where Asho Zarathushtra indicates that he prays to the Almighty with "raised hands, uplifted arms" ("ustaana-zasto"; Yasna 28-1, 50-8). Wielding this Gathic sword with devilish dexterity, the GAC sage delivers the coup de grace to all us deluded fire-worshipping ritual-mongers, with the amazing logic of this ace deduction: "In fact, he prayed with `a bow and uplifted arms' and could not handle ritual utensils used by institutional priests"!

We are compelled to confess that we find ourselves tongue-tied and awe-struck at arguments of such flawless logic and penetrating scholarship. Yet, when the GAC guru lets the cat out of the bag with his pontifical proclamation, "The Zarathushtrian Doctrine wants the whole system out," all the camouflage goes up in smoke that gets into the eyes and unties our tongues to cry out the warning: Beware ye Zarathushtrians! Beware!

Though it is beyond our present scope to attempt a full psycho-analysis of the deep destructive desire to want "the whole system out," we do not feel free to leave the field without some investigation, at least, into the heterodox mind's obsessive objection to the "Three R's" of rites, rituals and rules.

One objection, which should be quite obvious by now, is the familiar GAC refrain: if it isn't there in the Gathas, it isn't there in the Zarathushtrian religion. But it should also be just as obvious by now that although the holy Gathas are the philosophical fountainhead, they are not the whole of the Zarathushtrian religion. Is it reasonable to expect that a pithy collection of soaring metaphysical and mystical songs, the intensely personal, devotional outpourings of a prophet to his Creator on subjects like cosmology and ethics, would involve a dotting of the "i's" and acrossing of the "t's" with rituals, religious procedures or operational particulars that properly belong in other scriptural texts designed for them? There is a time and a place for everything -- the Gathas are not, and could never be, the vehicle for such affairs. As my eminent but unnamed western scholar puts it very aptly in a single line, "The Gathas are not the sort of texts to touch on such matters."

Prof. James R. Russell, lately of Columbia and now at Harvard, states it so well in an interview in the Zoroastrian Studies Newsletter of March 1984, that we can hardly do better than borrow a few comments from him: "Yes, sadly there is a group of people who feel that the Gathas are the beginning and the end of Zoroastrianism, and that is of course absurd as [it is] based on untenable theories. The fact that Zarathushtra does not mention rituals in the Gathas does not mean that they are not there. Zarathushtra was under no obligation in the Gathas to provide details ... ."

Another standard objection is notable for its shallow, almost peevish, reasoning, though expressed by a learned Doctor of Jurisprudence. This legal luminary appears to be another exponent of the "Gathas alone" school, with the attendant GAC allergy to the "Three R's," but all the same, waxes eloquent, almost poetical, on the quaint but rather inconsequential ritual of "ses" only! The objection is this: "If the Vendidad is religious authority (as distinguished from a historical footnote), we should be following ALL its injunctions. But we don't."

Since the Vendidad is the bte noire for the heterodox, and the prime target for the assault on the "Three R's," we should remind readers what this ancient text is. Pak Vendidad is the nineteenth volume in the sacred series of our Prophet's original 21 Nasks, and is the only one preserved in almost complete form to this day. It is our Shariat or religious code of rites, rituals and rules, including various behavioural prescriptions and proscriptions -- all laying down the concrete and specialized requirements for the unique Zarathushtrian way of life. Naturally, this is enough to rouse the heterodox ire, which is fanned to fury by the prohibition on mixed marriages and the injunction for the disposal of the dead through Dokhmenashini, both also contained in this ancient Avestan scripture. The smear campaign, designed to debunkand discard Pak Vendidad as irrelevant and unauthentic, has recently reached hysterical heights of fanaticism, and will ever remain a blot on our fair name. It is a shame that it has to take a non-Zarathushtrian to educate some Parsis and Iranis on the value and authenticity of their own scriptural legacy -- here's Prof. Russell again: "The Avesta is a divinely revealed corpus of texts including the Vendidad ... ."(Ibid.)

With that, we return to our Doctor of Jurisprudence who sings the praises of "ses," but burns with hate and spits venom at the hallowed nineteenth Nask. (Something seems to be amiss: could it be that some personal nerve, something to do with inter-marriage, perhaps, has been pinched by this forthright Nask?) "If the Vendidad is religious authority, we should be following ALL its injunctions. But we don't." So goes the specious argument -- not to mention other calumnies, even plain fabrications, sought to be hung around the neck of Pak Vendidad. But do tell, since when does a scripture's intrinsic authority become null and void just because we, by dint of disinterest, selfishness, convenience, ignorance or compelling circumstances, fail to follow "ALL its injunctions"? Would the very same Vendidad-baiter have ever dared to suggest that the obvious failure of most of us to follow "ALL" that is called for by Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta, likewise cancels the intrinsic authority of that immutable scriptural injunction? Or, for that matter, does our failure to follow, or even to comprehend, "ALL" that is in the holy Gathas, make that Holy Writ null and void? Waging war on a scripture is a base pastime, and those who would so engage, especially learned legal luminaries, should try to remember that sophistic arguments are thrown out in even the lowest court of law.

And then, there is the "alien" objection against the "Three R's," which creates the impression that a significant chunk of our customs and traditions is of Hindu or Muslim origin -- hence unauthentic and dispensable. It is a fact that some outside practices did inevitably creep into our lifestyle. But please, let's cut out the exaggerations! These alien intrusions have been the exception rather than the rule -- even a cursory knowledge of our post-exilic history demonstrates the tremendous tenacity and faith with which the doughty Zarathushtrians have clung to their own "Three R's," at incalculable cost and against enormous odds. This is noted with open admiration by non-Parsi scholars, but is underplayed by some of our own prodigals. It seems to be necessary to jog the heterodox memory. The ancestors of the Parsis fled to hospitable Hindusthan, just as their compatriots who remained behind in Iran fled to inhospitable deserts -- precisely in order to minimize alien influences and preserve their identity, their religion, and their unique Zarathushtrian lifestyle for posterity.

That they succeeded in this is historical fact: all the fundamental tenets, customs and practices of the Zarathushtrian religion remain certifiably Zarathushtrian. While it must be recognized that no society can remain completely insulated from outside influences, the few alien usages that happened to be adopted by our ancestors in Iran and in India after the Arab holocaust, whether through force, for reasons of survival, or through lapses of vigilance, are generally innocuous and peripheral, belong more to the social than to the religious arena, and have already been mostly eliminated through the efforts of great and genuine Parsi reformers of the turn of this century. To spread the story that the core Zarathushtrian tradition is riddled with Hindu and Muslim borrowings, is a feeble and transparent ploy to get rid of those rites, rituals and rules that do not fall in line with the preconceived whims and fancies of heterodoxy -- it is a gross distortion, and a calculated slur on the sacrifices and successes of our righteous forebears.

If our so-called reformers of today are so anxious to make sure that purely Zarathushtrian practices are to be retained, let them first come forward to demonstrate their good faith by calling off their un-Zarathushtrian propaganda promoting mixed marriages and condemning Dokhmenashini -- since nothing can be more Zarathushtrian than the Zarathushtrian religion's position on these two practices, engraved as it is into the very letter of the Zarathushtrian scriptures.

End of Part V

Written by Roni Khan

Published in the JAM-E-JAMSHED Weekly, Bombay, India

Part VI of Roni K. Khan's "Universalism and all that"

Part IV of Roni K. Khan's "Universalism and all that"

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