Talk on Zoroastrianism given by Mehru Fitter at the URC on Tuesday 20th September 2011
Mehru Fitter started by explaining that she was born in Mombasa and grew up in Kenya, although her family’s roots are in Gujarat in India. She studied in Pune in India and later in Newcastle and London. She was initially a teacher in Kenya but moved to the UK and became a librarian, first in Southampton and then in Coventry. In 2003 she was honoured with an MBE for ‘Excellence in Library Provision in a Multi-cultural Society’.
To give an idea of the general ignorance of Zoroastrianism in this country she gave us a couple of anecdotes. The first was when she gave a talk on education in faiths and was introduced as a Zorastafarian; the second was when her mother was admitted to hospital and the receptionist at first insisted on knowing her religion but gave up and did not want it spelt when told it was Zoroastrianism.
Mehru explained that she does not consider herself an expert in her faith but that she would talk about her personal journey.
She said that she learned very little about her faith from her parents, but gained a huge amount in terms of the values they instilled in her and from their example of help for the community. One value was complete honesty, exemplified by an incident in Kenya when an error resulted in her salary payment containing a small fortune, which she immediately paid back, much to the disgust of some of her colleagues.
This made her mother very happy and vindicated her upbringing which included moral stories told by her mother through the medium of embroidery. Mehru showed us a lovely example of this.
Mehru started to dig deeper into her faith when she was working in Southampton and came into contact with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and many different faiths. She found that she had come to know more about these other faiths than about her own, so she started to read literature about Zoroastrianism and joined a Yahoo Group on the Internet.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic faiths, with its origin at least 3500 years ago in the revelation to the prophet Zarathustra. His name means Gold Star in ancient Persian but the Ancient Greeks had problems pronouncing it and called him Zoroaster. Very little is known about his early life but he is believed to have lived near the border between Iran (the modern name for Persia) and Afghanistan.
Zarathustra was brought up in a typical ancient society in which people lived in fear and tried to propitiate multiple gods through sacrifices. He felt that this was wrong and retreated into isolation in the mountains like so many prophets and there received his revelations. These were:
- There is one God – known as Ahura Mazda
- He is a loving God and not to be feared
- God created the spiritual world and the material world
- Good and Evil
- The two forces in the world are good and evil
- God stands above and is on the side of good
- Evil has always existed
- No one is good or evil by nature – it is our choice as to what we do and we have been gifted the ability to distinguish between them.
- Heaven and Hell
- Heaven is a house of hymns where angels live
- Hell is place of punishment but not of eternal damnation
- There is a narrow bridge between the two –passable for the pious but impossible for those without faith and goodness.
- A saviour will appear and all evil will be destroyed, but when is unknown
- Everything should be done in moderation
Zarathustra introduced a simple code of conduct:
- Good thoughts
- Good words
- Good deeds – to be done quietly and without showing off!
He said that God expects us to be honest, truthful and reliable.
Zoroastrians do not believe money is the root of all evil. Being rich is not a problem, but the wealth must have been acquired honestly and it must be used charitably. This has been evident to many who have come into contact with Zoroastrians. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Parsee, thy name is Charity”. In Mumbai where there are many Zoroastrians or Parsees (the Indian word for Persians), there are hospitals, schools, libraries and much more funded by wealthy Parsees.
The Status of Women
Theoretically men and women are completely equal, although there are some small differences, most notably in the way children of mixed marriages are treated. Those from a union between a Zoroastrian woman and a man of another faith are not always accepted for initiation, whereas the children of a Zoroastrian man can always be initiated regardless of who he marries.
At one time the tradition was that only men could be ordained as priests, but the first lot of women priests have been trained in Iran.
Zoroastrians have often been described as the world’s first environmentalists. They see God’s purpose for humans is that they should be his stewards on earth and should revere trees, plants, animals and lakes – all of God’s creation. The elements too are sacred, particularly fire.
This shows in their funeral customs. Zoroastrians should not be buried because this would pollute the earth and not burned because this would pollute fire. Instead their bodies are traditionally placed on platforms for the vultures to eat, thus avoiding pollution and also benefitting another species. However this is becoming difficult because vultures are becoming scarce. In any case, in Europe and America, cremation is being used in order to conform to local laws.
Environmentalism is shown in recycling of flowers and the planting of trees undertaken by Fire Temples in India; and also in the encouragement from the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe to use environmentally efficient transport and to be aware of green issues.
Fire is very holy and has a place in all Zoroastrian ceremonies. Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers as some think, but see fire as a symbol of purity and knowledge.
The Zoroastrian scriptures were originally written in Avestan, the language of ancient Persia, but have been transliterated into Gujarati script and commentaries provided in Gujarati and English.
The original 25 volumes of parchment, written after it became the state religion of Persia, were kept in the library at Persepolis, but were all destroyed when Alexander of Macedon had it burned in 334BC. Priests laboriously reconstructed them from memory and other fragments, but the library was again destroyed during the Islamic invasion in the 7th century AD and all but five were lost forever. Zoroastrianism rests on these five volumes.
This symbol of Zoroastrianism is known as the Faravahar and is half human, half bird. It shows the Egyptian influence on Persia.
The human face stands for wisdom and the human soul. One hand is held up in blessing and is also an encouragement to aim high. The hand holding a ring stands for a promise to hold true. The larger ring is a circle signifying the eternality of the universe. The two streamers are the choices of good or evil, and the human face is shown rejecting the wrong path. The two wings and the tail feathers represent the three principles – good thoughts, good words and good deeds.
Zoroastrians have a number of festivals, the most important being the spring festival on 21st March and one marking the birth of the prophet. However there is a difficulty with dates because the calendar used in Iran is out of kilter with the one used in Mumbai and by the Zoroastrian diaspora. This is usually resolved by celebrating both dates!
After the Islamic invasion of Persia most Zoroastrians were forced to convert. Some remained and there are estimated to be 30,000 people in Iran who still practise it. In the 9th century some thousands left Iran and most went to Gujarat on the west coast of India. The local ruler, Jadi Rana, initially rejected their request to settle there, asking how anything could be added to something already full. To illustrate this he sent them a full bowl of milk. The leader of the Zoroastrians added a sweetening agent and sent it back, signifying that the Zoroastrians could add quality rather than quantity. Jadi Rana let them stay providing they accepted some conditions, such as the adoption of Gujarati, the wearing of saris by the women and that they should not proselytise or convert . They accepted the conditions and the community lived quietly there for many centuries. With the coming of the British they thrived and some of the very first Indians who came England were Parsees. The first Indian to become an MP (in 1892) was Zoroastrian, and two more followed. There is now one Zoroastrian in the House of Lords.
Many Zoroastrians have also gone to the United States and Canada, and there are now estimated to be about 140,000 in the world.
Mehru said that she is proud to be a Zoroastrian and to have rediscovered her faith. She showed us a couple of examples of clothing – part of her mother’s bridal dress with beautiful (and heavy) gold braided decoration and an embroidered tunic she wore at the age of five which shows Chinese influence.
She also showed some objects used in worship – a joss stick holder, a holder for red powder, a silver oil lamp, a jar of rose water and a silver cone containing sugar crystals (symbolic of a mountain of goodness).
Mehru was asked about the form of Zoroastrian worship. She described prayers (at home with the head covered) and the wearing of a special muslin vest which has an empty pocket at the top signifying that we bring nothing into the world but that we can fill our lives with good thoughts, good words and good deeds. This is tied with a sacred thread which is wound three times around the waist – again signifying the three principles.
She was asked about temples. There is a Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow and this can be converted into a temple with the addition of a fire.
She was asked about the function of priests. She said they officiate at initiations, marriages, and funerals; that they can be called upon to provide a blessing such as for a new home; and that they can provide guidance. There are not enough trained priests in the UK, but a new program in the U.S and Canada has resulted in there being 93 priests there.
She was asked about the Initiation Ceremony. It consists of a ceremonial bath, prayers said by the priest and the repetition of the prayers by the initiate, investment with the sacred vest and thread, and closing prayers.
She was asked about conversion and told us that traditionally there has been none – a child has to be born into Zoroastrianism. However she feels this could be relaxed.
She was asked whether there are any dietary restrictions and she said there are no formal restrictions, but traditionally non-vegetable food is not eaten within four days of a death. Some families are known to abstain from meat on a Tuesday.