Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Modernity’s vultures come for the Parsis

posted by Rod Dreher

Meera Subramanian writes about an unusual problem adherents to the Parsi faith (modern Zoroastrians) in India are confronting. Excerpt:

In a ritual so old it was described by Herodotus, Zoroastrians have laid out their dead atop Towers of Silence to be exposed to sun, sky and–most importantly–vultures. These massive harbingers of death with eight-foot wingspans once numbered in the millions across South Asia and could strip a corpse to the bone in hours. Yet their service has come to an abrupt end in the past decade as the vulture population plummeted due to a fatal reaction to a common painkiller given to the livestock and humans that the birds eventually feed upon. Ongoing habitat shrinkage has exacerbated the decline. With vultures virtually extinct, the Parsis are left struggling with the question of how to preserve traditions when modern forces conspire against them.
This threatened custom is just one more blow to a religion already perched on the edge of annihilation. Though tens of millions of Parsis once lived across Asia, now there are only an estimated 140,000 world-wide, with the majority in India and the next-largest group in the U.S. Most are based in Mumbai, where they own 155 pristine, park-like acres that shelter the squat stone Towers of Silence amid a dappled sunlit forest.
Vultures haven’t been seen in Mumbai for years. The Parsis have attempted to replace the service that the birds provided so seamlessly, for so long, with a series of failed technologies, including ozone machines and chemicals to accelerate decomposition. They’ve settled on solar reflectors directed at the bodies to speed up the process of decay without violating the fundamental tenet of their religion to avoid fire. The most orthodox of priests disapprove even of this, claiming that it’s tantamount to cremation.

There aren’t many Parsis left in the world, alas. What they’re having to deal with here is a de facto mandate to change their religion to adapt to modernity, or abandon it because it cannot be practiced due to factors beyond their control. The trick here is to redraw the boundaries around what constitutes religious orthodoxy, while insisting that it’s perfectly orthodox. Catholicism did this in a monumental way with the Second Vatican Council.
The situation for the Parsis is dire for reasons far more basic than the inability to perform orthodox burial rituals. As a 2003 NYTimes report points out, despite having become relatively rich — and possibly because they became rich — the Parsis, who do not proselytize, are not replacing themselves. Their priests forbid intermarriage, saying that if Parsis marry outside the community, they’re as good as dead, culturally:

The only reason the community had survived for 1,000 years was that it did not intermarry, said a high priest, Dr. Firoze M. Kotwal. He wore a priest’s white cap and white garb, and had a woolly white beard.
”We would have been absorbed in the vast ocean of Hindus and Muslims,” Dr. Kotwal said.

But the Parsi community is so small, it’s very hard to find a Parsi spouse. This can’t go on forever.



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TTT

posted April 30, 2010 at 2:18 pm


There is nothing inherently “modern” about people thoughtlessly wiping out wild creatures, in this case vultures. It has been happening for thousands of years, was optional and preventable in most cases, and is optional and preventable now. Vultures could be reintroduced to the Mumbai area, and the widespread use of vulture-killing painkillers could be combated by both public awareness campaigns and more pharmaceutical research.



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Meera Subramanian

posted April 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm


TTT –
I totally agree. Wiping out creatures is an ancient art that humans relentlessly aim to perfect! I came to this story through my interest in the catastrophic vulture decline. After spending extensive time in India researching and talking with lead biologists there, they are indeed working on a captive breeding program and with pharmaceutical companies and farmers and yes, Parsis, but it is in uphill battle, with slow-producing birds and a rampant black market. The drug has only been banned in veterinary form, so the human form is unfortunately still available and continues to be given to livestock. That remnant populations still survive is a hopeful sign that they might return, though likely never again to the massive numbers they once were.



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MMH

posted April 30, 2010 at 4:09 pm


The question of whether traditions can be kept alive in the changed conditions of the modern world is a timely one. My brother wrote an article about the Hopi (““Corn is Life”: Agriculture, Spiritual Life, and Economic Change among the Hopi,” Sacred Web, v. 22, winter 2008), whose tradition is based on a subsistence cultivation of corn. He asks whether the Hopi will be able to keep their tradition alive in a time when corn cultivation is no longer necessary to keep themselves alive, but is rather undertaken as a symbolic act–which, of course, affects the reality and impact of the symbol. In the early years of Christianity, when the Eucharistic bread was not only made by the community (this is still done in many parishes), but the grain itself came from the land where the community lived, the symbol of Christ as bread of life must have had an impact that it cannot have today, where bread is so easily come by, where it no longer needs to come from ourselves but can be bought at your local Mediterranean bakery. How much adjusting can we do and still remain within the tradition?



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Jon

posted April 30, 2010 at 6:47 pm


What are they giving people and livestock that is so lethal to vultures? Some sort of opiate?
And how many human corpses (other than the Parsis who are few in number) do vultures feed on?



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Rombald

posted May 1, 2010 at 2:36 am


Jon: I wondered about that. I’m surprised about the use of pain-killers for animals. I suppose there might be quite a lot of corpses left in the fields and so on, but my guess is that they would be very poor people, who would have been given no medical treatment. Off the top of my head, it looks like the Parsis themselves are to blame for this. Maybe Meera knows.
I remember it was only about a year ago that Rod was unaware of the existence of the Parsis!
I knew quite a few Parsis when I lived in London, although I haven’t kept in contact. Not all are as strict about intermarriage as reported, because one couple’s daughter still practised, but was married to a nominal Christian. Some groups also accept converts.
They are people who are very hard to place. I couldn’t guess where they were from, looking Middle Eastern, but with names that are neither European, Muslim nor Indian. Their religion, also, doesn’t fit into any of the categories like Abrahamic, Hindic and primal-indigenous.
The first non-white UK member of parliament was Parsi, way back in about 1850.



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Hector

posted May 1, 2010 at 8:21 am


Rombald,
Most Parsis, as far as I know, have Persian names (though some in India have English surnames derived from names of occupations- so you occasionally find people with truly hilarious names like ‘Rumi Sodabottleopenerwallah’.)
Zoroastrianism is certainly its own thing, but it has important links to both the Indian and Semitic religious traditions. It’s widely believed that Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian tradition strongly influenced each other during the period that the Jews were exiled in Babylon, and some of the Bible (the books of Esther and Daniel) is set in Persia. I’ve heard it said that Christian beliefs about the devil, angels, demons, heaven, hell, the apocalypse, and the afterlife owe a lot to Persian influence on Judaism during the exile period. Certainly the Zoroastrian tradition is much more similar to the Judeo-Christian then either of them is to Hindus, Buddhists, or Taoists: the Zoroastrian and the Christian are at least asking the same questions, even if they don’t always arrive at the same answer. Zoroastrian moral teaching is also not that dissimilar from the Judeo-Christian tradition; as far as I know, they were the only two cultures in the ancient world to categorically forbid abortion.
There are also up to 60,000 Zoroastrians in Iran, depending on whom you ask, and small populations throughout Central Asia- apparently there has been a spate of ‘conversions’ to Zoroastrianism in Tajikistan in the last few years. I have a lot of respect for Zoroastrianism and their ideas, and I think it’s frankly stupid for any religion to refrain from both conversion and to prohibit intermarriage. They need to decide if their religion is a set of true ideas that they want to share with the world, or else a cultural identity. I think they should choose the former, and if they do, then logically they should open themselves up to conversion. If you believe that your religion contains important truths, then you should be driven to share them with the wolrd.



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Your Name

posted May 1, 2010 at 10:44 am


The Iranian Zoroastrians are known as “Iranis” (obvious, huh?), and the Indian Zoroastrians are known as Parsis (“Persians”) since that’s what the Indians called them. They’re there because they fled Iran after the invasion by the Arabs resulted in the Islamization of the country.
In principle, Zoroastrianism is a proselytizing religion, and sees itself as universal. However, part of the criteria under which the Parsis were allowed to settle was that they would not interfere with the Hinduism of the majority. They agreed, and became in essence another separate endogamous caste. This is the ultimate reason for the prohibition against intermarriage, enforced by centuries of habit.
The Iranis didn’t proselytize because under the Islamic regimes in Iran, all proselytism to any faith besides Islam was forbidden. Islamic rules on intermarriage (OK for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, with the understanding that the children would be Muslims; but not OK for a Muslim woman to marry outside the faith) resulted in a de facto policy of enforced endogamy there, too.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, as part of the renewal of religion in general, many Central Asian peoples have had a renewed interest in Zoroastrianism, the religion of many of their forebears before the Islamic incursions, and as Hector pointed out, many have converted “back” to their ancestral faith. In general, Iranis have been more open both to conversion and to intermarriage than the Parsis have.
There are also some groups, such as the Zoroastrian Assembly, which have been formed as convert-friendly. They have also, however, tended to go for a “pure” form of the religion, based only on the Gathas, the latter scriptures being seen as encrustations that accumulated over the millennia. Thus, they tend to be viewed as heterodox by other Zoroastrian groups.
In any case, it is very unfortunate, both ecologically and culturally, that the vultures have died off, and it will be interesting to see in the long run how the Parsi community deals with this.
In the Islamic context here, it’s interesting that the CAPTCHA is “after sheik”. Hmmmm….



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Turmarion

posted May 1, 2010 at 10:45 am


Agghh!! Your Name at 10:44 AM is me!



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Hector

posted May 1, 2010 at 11:10 am


Re: (OK for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman, with the understanding that the children would be Muslims; but not OK for a Muslim woman to marry outside the faith)
My understanding is that (at least for some Muslims) this is considerably narrower. Muslim men are allowed to marry Christian or Jewish women, but not members of other religions like Hindus, Buddhists, etc. I know a Muslim guy in India who wanted to marry a Hindu, she had to convert to Christianity (?) in order to marry him. I might be wrong though.
Re: and it will be interesting to see in the long run how the Parsi community deals with this.
Ultimately I think it will have to depend on whether they see their religion as a set of ideas (as I tend to see religion) or as an inherited cultural identity. I hope they go for the former. Zoroastrianism is a fascinating religion, strictly on the level of ideas, and it would be a sad thing if it were to vanish entirely.
Of course, inasmuch as religions are sets of abstract ideas, it’s possible for them to disappear entirely from the world, and then be picked up centuries later. Arianism vanished more or less entirely from the Christian world for a thousand years, before being resurrected in the seventeenth century in the form of Unitarianism. Albigensianism was the revival of ideas that were popular among the Manichaeans, though there was no direct inherited tradition. Pentecostalism can be seen as a revival of Montanism. It’s not impossible something of the sort could happen with Zoroastrianism.



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MH

posted May 2, 2010 at 7:25 am


Any religion that doesn’t proselytize or allow some form of out group marrige is likely to wind up on the demographic rocks eventually. The Parsis are in much better shape than the Samaritans who were eventually forced to allow intermarrige.



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Steve Bodio

posted May 2, 2010 at 11:33 am


For details of the vulture crisis see here.



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James Kabala

posted May 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm


Freddie Mercury was the twentieth century’s most famous Parsee (ethnically speaking; I doubt if he practiced as an adult), in case anyone wants to know what they look like. According to Wikipedia his real name was Farrokh Bulsara.



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Hector

posted May 2, 2010 at 7:42 pm


James Kabala,
I would think that the writer Rohinton Mistry, the atomic physicist Homi J. Bhabha, the politician Feroze Gandhi (who was the husband of one Indian Prime Minister and the father of another), and the business tycoon Jamsetji Tata (founder of the giant Tata business empire) are at least as famous as Mr. Mercury. Not to mention many others- the Parsis have contributed to science, medicine, business, politics, and the arts in India out of proportion to their numbers.



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