Suggestion to open fire temples to all sparks row

Wednesday 06th January 2016 05:32 EST

At the Iranshah Udvada Utsav, the narrative of the Parsis' dwindling numbers provided moments of hilarity, while also exposing the deep rift between the orthodox and liberal sections of the community. Boman Irani, who was the Utsav's chief guest on Saturday, elicited chuckles when he cussed “Damn the Bengal tiger, save the Parsis.”

But Maharashtra's former advocate-general, Darius Khambata's more unorthodox solution to the problem of intermarriage - throwing open fire temples to Zoroastrian converts - provoked heated responses. The fact that the head priest graciously felicitated him with a shawl after his talk, created even more ripples. “Is this the Iranshah (sacred Parsi fire) preservation festival or the Iranshah destruction utsav?”one livid member of the audience was heard saying.

Community magazine Parsiana, which compiles statistics on the community, pegs the number of intermarriages at 38%. In his talk, Khambata cited various sources to explain that religion does not forbid conversion. “Every source tells us that Zoroastrianism is universal,” he said. “Anybody can convert to Zoroastrianism. There is no bar in our religion.” In fact, he took this a step further and said religious texts like the Gathas enjoin Zoroastrians to spread the faith.

He also criticized the community's obsession with race. “You cannot endeavour to save our ethnicity at the cost of our religion,” he said. “I am seeing an attempt today to distort our great religion, an attempt to suggest that it belongs only to racial Parsis.” While liberal Parsis have long lobbied for the children of Parsi mothers and non-Parsi fathers be accepted into the fold, Khambata's opinion was that anyone interested in the faith be welcomed.

One incensed audience member, Gordafrid Aresh stood up and objected to the contents of Khambata's speech while other delegates booed and cheered. “If the gentleman is of the view that we should open our agiaries and atash behrams, I would recommend that he makes his own agiaries and atash behrams,” said Aresh. “Someone who wants to follow Zoroastrianism is most welcome to do that in the privacy of their home but entering a place of worship, which has been consecrated for Zarthustis, I and many other Zoroastrians find that intolerable.” If Parsis had opened their doors to other religions and integrated, she said, their unique identity would have vanished long ago.

However, Udvada head priest Dasturji Khurshed Dastoor shrugged off the criticism pointing out that Khambata had based all his opinions on reputed sources. “His opinions don't make him less of a Parsi. He spoke at the World Zoroastrian Congress and got a standing ovation,” he said. “We cannot hide from the fact that intermarriage is taking place Why should we shy away from the problem?” Dastoor also condemned the hypocrisy of allowing children of Parsi men, who've married non-Parsi women, into the faith. “I have lots of parents who have come to me and cried, `I have only one daughter and she's marrying outside',” said Dastoor, adding, “I say, `Well what can you do? Is the boy nice? Is she happy? Then go ahead'.”

About 30 delegates have travelled to the Utsav from abroad. British delegate, Malcolm Deboo, who is the president of the World Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, had a nuanced take on Khambata's speech. “The world is saturated with religions,” he said. “We need to move away from the notion that everyone wants to be Zoroastrian. If we were really to open our doors, we'd be in for a rude shock,” he said. As for whether the move would benefit the community, Deboo quipped, “That's a question only Bejan Daruwalla (the octogenarian Parsi astrologer) can answer.”

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