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Theology Thursdays: A Small But Mighty Religion: Zoroastrianism by Ruth Marvin Webster

Mehlli Bhagalia and his wife, Perin, tend a small flame in their home in Carlsbad. Bhagalia said the flame, safe in the fireplace, has been consecrated by the couple's prayers and is only extinguished when the couple go away. Just as the cross and the star of David are symbols of Christianity and Judaism, the fire is a symbol of divine light or wisdom for those of the Zoroastrian religion.

"In India there are consecrated fires that have been burning for over 1,300 years," said Bhagalia, who prays before the sacred flame or the sun several times each day and wears a special prayer girdle of wool called a kusti.

The Bhagalias are Parsis, direct descendants of a group of Zoroastrians who fled with the sacred fire to India in the 10th century as the ancient Persian Empire crumbled.

"It is the religion of my ancestors going back in an unbroken lineage for thousands of years," Bhagalia said. "This religion is therefore in my blood, flesh and bones, which enables me to understand its meaning and message and the history of my ancient race. Little is really known about our religion and race by persons outside the community. This is by both circumstance and by design."

One of the world's oldest religions, Zoroastrianism is based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra (in the ancient Avestan language) or Zoroaster (in Greek) or Zartosht (in Farsi), who was born around 1738 B.C. in northeastern Iran or southwestern Afghanistan. Possibly one of the first prophets to teach monotheism ---- the belief in one God (called Ahura-Mazda) ---- Zarathustra preached a doctrine of good, evil and retribution and was famous for the triple motto of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

But Bhagalia says it is not quite as simple as that.

"We are not capable of holding only good thoughts, words or deeds in this world," he said. "It is not possible in our present circumstances, so the only way to fulfill that (the motto) is through our prayers."

Zoroastrianism, also called Zarathustrianism or even Mazdaism, has greatly influenced other religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, according to the California Zoroastrian Center in Los Angeles. And it is generally believed by historians that the Abrahamic religions and the concepts of heaven and hell, as well as the devil, were heavily influenced by Zoroastrian belief.

The religion's holy scripture is called the Avesta and was originally in 21 volumes, or nasks. The original nasks chronicled the words spoken by Zarathustra himself; others, which are also quite ancient, were added later.

Bhagalia explains it this way: "As time went on and they (the original scriptures) were scattered when Persepolis was destroyed, they were gathered together again, and then at that time, another savior came in the line of a prophet. His name was Aderbad Maharespand, and under him the Avesta was specially regrouped for the present generation of Zoroastrian souls who would be living (as today) in the most difficult times."

While many such as the Bhagalia family hold onto ancient tradition, others have modified some of the more stringent rituals and beliefs over time.

In addition to the navjote or initiation ceremony when a child is accepted into the faith, many Zoroastrians, especially the Parsis in India, also follow the ancient ritual of laying out the dead. Traditionally, the dead were laid out in a dokma or tower of silence and left to be exposed to the sun and eaten by vultures. "The fire temples of the Zarathustrian religion are a vital institution of the religion," Bhagalia said. "We don't defile anything in Mother Earth, and to cremate or bury the dead would defile the Earth."

John (Barak) Soroushian, president of the Zoroastrian Club at UC San Diego and a Zoroastrian of Iranian descent, said that most of the Zoroastrians he knows opt for cremation or burial of their family members' bodies. "That is part of the religion, but I think it is outdated and they should get rid of it," he said. "It is very impractical; there aren't many vultures around. Just imagine one taking a finger and dropping it somewhere."

Though its main precepts are much like those of many other religions ---- equality, respect for living things, values of hard work and charity, and loyalty to family and country ---- Zoroastrianism is little known in the West.

With only about 125,000 left in the world ---- roughly 30,000 in Iran and 80,000 in India ---- it is also one of the smallest religions. The California Zoroastrian Center estimates that about 5,000 have settled in North America, of whom 1,500 are in Southern California.

The main reason for these ever-dwindling numbers is the religion's traditional prohibition against conversion, and the now somewhat divisive issue of whether to accept intermarriage and the children of intermarriage into the fold. According to a recent article in The New York Times, an effort to create a global organizing body fell apart two years ago after some priests accused the organizers of embracing "fake converts" and diluting traditions.

Soroushian says the question of conversion and intermarriage is always a lively discussion topic at meetings, with the two viewpoints usually falling along the lines of those of Iranian descent and those who are Parsi.

"It is somewhat controversial," he said, though he is Zoroastrian by birth, as both his parents are. "It is a really sad thing that our religion is dying out, and I am more flexible on the subject. I have even heard that some of the really conservative people say marrying first cousins is not a bad thing. I'm not that desperate to maintain the tradition (of only marrying within the religion)," he said.

For the Bhagalias, however, conversion and intermarriage are out of the question. Bhagalia said he would never have considered marrying outside his religion, and since his son has, the couple's grandchildren will not be Zoroastrian. "We want our children to marry within our religion," he said. "Within five or six generations, there will be no more. It is our karma.

"It is not out of any feeling of superiority or some such stupidity that we do not allow conversion," Bhagalia writes. "The reason is straightforward. ... We consider that religion divinely selected for each person is not a social club which one can join at will and resign at will."

Another topic of some debate among Zoroastrians is the concept of the religion's dualism and whether it is cosmic (opposing forces of good and evil in the entire universe) or moral (opposing forces within each person).

For Bhagalia, karma is a fundamental, natural universal law, which, he said, was also spoken by Jesus Christ in his words regarding reaping what you sow. Thus, he says, there can be no forgiveness for sins in this lifetime. "So beware of creating a karmic debt in this life," he added.

Soroushian, like many Iranian Zoroastrians, says that for him the notion of free will is one of the most appealing parts of his religion.

"The general concept of ethical dualism is one of those things we don't all agree on," he said. "Some people take good and evil and God and Satan very literally, but I would interpret it to mean that we have both inside us and we have to make the choice. It's not like an external, literal force outside us but in your conscience, and you get rewarded by good thoughts, acts and deeds."

The author Ruth Marvin Webster can be reached at This article appears in The North County Times

Ruth Marvin Webster

Thursday, April 19, 2007

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