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80 Years Ago – The Religion of the Parsees

28 80 YEARS AGO (The foEowing article appeared in the Review of Religions dated De- cember, 1910) THE RELIGION OF THE PARSEES. The Parsees are followers of Zoroaster and believe in the Avesta as their sacred book. Zoroastrianism was the state religion when the Muslims entered Persia as conquerors, but it was swept before the rising tide of Islam. Notwithstanding the full religious liberty granted to the people by their Muslim rulers, the Zoroastrians as well as the followers of other religions, embraced the new faith with amazing eagerness. Speaking of the toleration of the Muslims, the Christian author of The Preachings of Islam says: The Zoroastrian priests had acquired an enormous influence in the state… They took advantage of their position to persecute all those religious bodies -(and they were many)- that dissented from them. Besides the numerous adherents of older forms of the Persian religion, there were Christians, Jews, Sabaeans and numerous sects in which the speculations of Gnostics, Manichaeans and Buddhists found expression… The followers of all these varied forms of faith could breathe again under a rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service on payment of a light tribute. Speaking of the rapid spread of Islam in Persia, the same writer says: That this widespread conversion was not due to force or violence is evidenced by the toleration extended to those who still clung to their ancient faith. Even to the present day, there are some small communities of fire worshippers to be found in certain districts of Persia, and though these have in later years often had to suffer persecution, their ancestors in the early centuries of the Hijra enjoyed a remarkable degree of toler- ation; their fire-temples were respected, and we even read of a Muham- madan General (in the reign of Al-Mu’tasim, 833-842 A. D.) who ordered an Imam and a Mu’azzin to be flogged because they had destroyed afire-temple in Sughd and built a mosque in its place, In the tenth century, three centuries after the conquest of the country, fire-temples were to be 80 YEARS AGO 29 found in Iraq, Kirman, Sijistan, Khurasan, Jibal, Azarbijan, and Arran, i.e., in almost every province of Persia. In Pars itself there were few cities in which fire-temples andMagians were not to be found. Ash Shahrastani also (writing as late as the twelfth century), makes mention of a fire- temple at Isfiniva, in the neighbourhood of Baghdad itself. In the face of such facts, it is surely impossible to attribute the decay ofZoroastrianism to violent conversions made by the Muslim conquerors. The number of Persians who embraced Islam in the early days of the Arab rule was probably very large from the various reasons given above, but the late survival of their ancient faith and the occasional record of conversion in the course of successive centuries, render it probable that the acceptance of ‘Islam was both peaceful and voluntary… Scanty as these notices of conversions are, yet the very fact that such can be found up to three centuries and half after the Muslim conquest is clear testimony to the toleration the Persians enjoyed, and argues that their conversion to Islam was peaceful, and to some extent at least, gradual.” The followers of Zoroaster do not, at the present day, number more than 82000 persons. In Persia, they are to be found at Kirman, Yazd and Tehran, but the greater number is found in Bombay, and in some of the cities of Gujrat. The Indian Parsees are the descendants of the ancient Persians, who emigrated to India about the year 710 and were welcomed by the Hindu Raja of Baroda. They wear a peculiar hat shaped like a horse’s hoof, which was originally assumed as a token of submission to the rulers of their adopted country. The first act a devout Parsee does after getting out of bed is his morning prayer. Then he rubs on his face and other parts of his body a little nirang or cow urine as a protection against the influence of Devas or evil spirits. They believe in two spirits, Ahura Mazda, or good, and Deva or evil, which are ever striving for supermacy, but they believe that 3000 years after Zoroaster, a prophet will be born from the seed of Zoroaster who will destroy evil, purify the world, and make Mazdaisrn supreme.” It is strange that all the great prophets of the world have independently of one another, foretold of the appearance of a great prophet in the latter ages and all describe him as coming to destroy evil, to spread peace in the world and to make the true religion supreme. Besides, all the religions represent him as coming in the latter days,” the last ages.” the end of age,” the end of time.” The Zoroastrians, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Christians and the Muslims all have been expecting the advent of this messenger. Again, it also appears that this promised messenger was to appear in the East. “Who raised the righteous man in the East?” asks Isaiah (41:2). Jesus also in his 30 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS characteristic way points to the East as the place of his advent (Matt. 24:2 7,2 8). The Holy Prophet, may peace and the blessings of Godbe upon him, pointed with his finger to the East. It is curious that the Holy Prophet describes the promised messenger to be of Persian descent. Ahmad, in whom the prophecy has been fulfilled, was actually of Persian extraction. The Hindu looks to India itself as the place of the appearance of the illustrious avatar at the end of Kaljug or iron age. A study of these prophecies shows that they all refer to one and the same personage. That prophet has already appeared and he is no other than Ahmad of Qadian. He came with all the signs and established his claim with numerous and mighty prophecies. He came like lightening and has passed away like lightning. The seed he has sown has already sprouted forth into a tender plant; it is making a steady-progress, and is destined in due time to spread over the whole world. The propaganda started by him is like the new moon which will wax into full moon in due time. Then evil will be completely destroyed and purity will reign in the earth. To return to the religion of the Parsees. According to them the life of man is divided into two parts, — the life on earth and the life beyond the grave. The latter life is the result of the deeds done in the former. All thoughts, words, and deeds of man are recorded in the book as separate items and the evil deeds are entered as debts. The evil deeds can be counterbalanced by good deeds. No one can enter paradise but he must pass over a bridge which lies on the way to heaven. If his good deeds out balance his evil deeds, he passes forthwith into heaven. If evil deeds outweigh good deeds, the torments of hell are his portion for ever. If the good and the evil are equally balanced, the soul passes into an intermediate state and his fate remains undecided until the last day of Judgment. These teachings of Zoroaster are almost identical with those of the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon them. The Holy Quran says: And just balances will We set up for the day of resurrection, so that no soul be wronged in aught; and if a work be but the weight of a grain of mustard seed, We would bring it forth to be weighed: and our reckoning will suffice.” (21,48). Again, And the weighing on that day shall be with justice; and they whose balances shall be heavy, these are they who shall be happy; and they whose balances shall be light, these are they who have lost their soul. (7.7). And again, Then as to him whose balances are heavy–h.is shall be a life that shall please him well, and as to him whose balances are light, his dwelling place shall be 7ieZI.”(101:5,6). 80 YEARS AGO 31 With regard to the evil deeds being annulled by the good actions, the Holy Quran says: “And observe prayer at each morning, at the close of the day, and at the approach of night, – verily good deeds drive away evil deeds, – This is a warning for those who reflect”. (11,116). The Holy Quran goes a step further, According to it, good deeds not only annul evil deeds, they sometimes even turn them into good deeds. Thus it says, Save those who have repented and believed and done righteous works as to them, God will change their evil things into good things, for God is Gracious, Merciful.”(25:70). This is not the only teaching of Zoroaster which is analogous to that of the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of God be upon him. He taught many things which were also taught by the Holy Prophet, but the limits of this article do not permit me to refer to them all. This remarkable similarity between the teachings of these two prophets bears out the truth of the Quranic statement that there is not a people but a warner hath been sent to it, and that the Holy Prophet is not a prophet of new doctrines. This analogy is also a convincing proof of the fact that the teachings of both these prophets emanated from one common source and that source was no other than the Divine Being Himself. This analogy is not restricted to the teachings of the Iranian and the Arabian Prophets; it is common to all the prophets of the world; but the similarity between the doctrines of these two prophets is particularly striking. This similarity is not confined to general principles, but also extends to the minutest details. For instance, they not only taught that there is a heaven and a hell beyond the grave, but even the descriptions which they gave of these places of bliss and torment correspond to the minutest details. One of these details is the teaching of the Holy Prophet, may peace and the blessings of God be upon him, with regard to the Sirat which corresponds to Zoroaster’s description of the bridge which lies on the way to heaven. This close similarity between the doctrine of the two prophets fills us with admiration for the Iranian Prophet. He truly must have been a great prophet, for there are very few prophets whose doctrines and whose personal experiences bear so marked a resemblance to those of the last and the greatest of the Prophets, may peace and the blessings of God be upon him, as those of Zoroaster do. The companions of the Holy Prophet, may peace and the blessings of God be upon him, also paid him the honour due to a prophet and they placed his followers on a par with those of Moses and Jesus, according to them the same treatment which they accorded to the followers of other prophets. The more ignorant of the Parsees worship the elements, fire, water, and earth and the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon and stars, as gods, 32 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS but the more intelligent among them reverence them merely as the holy gifts of God. They stoutly deny that they are fire-worshippers. The original emigrants from Persia brought the embers of the sacred fire from Central Asia, and the sacred fires that are now burning in the Parsee temples at Bombay are said to have been kindled about 3000 years ago. The Parsee custom of exposing their dead to be devoured by birds and beasts seems to have originated in their reverence for the elements. They hold the body, from which the soul has departed, as impure and unclean; hence they will not allow the sacred elements of fire, water, and earth to be defiled by contact with a dead body. Fire must not bum it, the earth must not take it in its bosom, and waters must not drown it. Hence the practice of exposing the dead bodies to be feasted on by the winged creatures of the air, or the dogs of the streets. This practice has now been partly shorn of its hideousness by the erection of dakhmas or Towers of Silence the last resting place for the departed Parsee. Mr. Frederick J. Haskin gives the following description of these towers in a Californian paper:- The Towers of Silence in Bombay are the most interesting things to be seen in that interesting city. They stand at the top of Malabar Hill, the highest point of ground on Bombay Island. There are five circular towers of from 200 to 300 feet in circumference and about thirty feet in height. Permission to visit the tower compound is easily obtained, but no one is allowed to go nearer than the flower garden which surrounds the House of Prayer at the gate. Even the mourners in a funeral train may not approach nearer than this. Men set apart for the purpose, despised by their co-religionists as unclean, take the body from the House of Prayer, where the mourners stand with their clothes linked together in token of united grief. They bear the body on a litter up the inclined plane which leads to an iron door, a little more than half way up the side of the tower. Only these bearded carriers of the dead are permitted to enter the towers. If any other person should see one of the bodies or skeletons inside he would be cursed with eternal perdition and his descendants would share his woe. Inside the tower is wholly occupied by a circular gridiron, sloping toward a central well and having three concentric rows of niches for bodes. The inside circle is for children, the next for women and the outer circle for men. The body carriers place their burden in one of the niches, remove the shroud and leave the body quite naked. 80 YEARS AGO 33 Then the waiting vultures swoop down from the sides of the tower and from every neighbouring tree. In less than an hour nothing is left but cleanly picked skeleton. That is permitted to remainforseveraldays, when the body carriers again enter and throw the bones into the great well at the canter, where they are left to await the slow operation of the trans- formation of dust to dust. The tower is roofless, of course, and for that reason receives the rain. The rain water is polluted by contact with the corpses and decaying bones, and being one of the sacred elements it must be purified. The towers are drained into the central well and from thence conduits run out in four directions. Under the tower walls the water is filtered through several feet of charcoal and again, at the end of the drain, through a filter of sand and gravel. Thus purified, the water is permitted to return again into the earth and the sea. Of the five Towers of Silence at Bombay one is reserved for the private use of the great Jeejebhoy family, who built it, and another for the use of the bodies of those who have committed suicide or who have died unnatural deaths. Western opinion concerning this method of disposing of corpses is divided, some persons advocating it because of its undoubted sanitary perfection, but most foreign visitors look upon it with repugnance. Even the burning of the dead on open pyres, as is done by the Hindus, seems less revolting. The white towers themselves suggest nothing half so gruesome as the serried grave rows of a western cemetery; the house of prayer is a simple platform open at the sides and roofed over; the garden is beautiful with the flowers of the tropic and the temperate zones, and there is nothing in the appearance of the place to suggest anything unusual. But there is always the whir of wings above, a sound which banishes forgetfulness and insists upon constant consciousness of the purpose of this dread place. Hundreds of hideous vultures sit around the rims of the towers, forming a living border of black to the pure white of the structures. The trees are alive with the great, ugly birds, and as far as the eye can see they are circling, circling, circling. When the familiar cortege is seen winding up the long road that leads to the top of the hill the vultures circle closer and closer, so that when the procession has arrived within the compound the whole tribe of greedy scavengers is present, The moment the body carriers deposit the corpse within and remove the shroud there is a mighty rush of wings and the swift work of destruction is begun. Strange and gruesome as it may seem, it is even more pronounced when one drives about the streets of the city and sees here and there a marble continued on page 40…,