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.


Previous Posts
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus