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If you’ve followed along, you saw this coming. Conversion within the Zarathushti Faith is a hotly contested issue and as we observed so far this month, not even I was able to escape its grip. In a nutshell, many (if not most) ethnic Zarathushtis (Iranian and Parsi) do not believe in nor recognize conversion to their religion. On the other side of the picket line, many so-called “neo-Zarathushtis” have returned to that ol’ time religion by focusing on the Gathas, the words of Zarathushtra himself, and found solace in the fact that he never limits conversion; in fact, he worked toward growing the faithful.
Today we will hear a personal story from Dan Jensen, a new friend and American Zarathushti:
Happy Norooz! I’m a Zarathushti, which means that I live according to the religion of Zarathushtra; or perhaps I should clarify: I live according to my understanding of the religion of Zarathushtra. Honestly, I’m not certain that a man named Zarathushtra ever lived, but the story that I have been told is enough of a light for me to live by. It’s just as well: I’d rather not put my faith in a man. I was raised in a religion that puts great stock in the words of certain men, so I developed an aversion to that practice as a young adult.
That’s right. I have not always been a Zarathushti, though my parents’ religion recognizes Zarathushtra as a “Manifestation of God,” so I suppose I always have been a Zarathushti of sorts. Be that as it may, I have undergone a profound conversion, for my religion is quite unlike the religion of my upbringing. I was raised to worship the Almighty, but lately I worship the Good. You might say there’s no difference, but there is to me, and it’s a crucial distinction: the difference between might and right. I cannot permit myself to worship God just because he’s the boss. This, I believe, is why Zarathustra rebelled against the Gods (the Daevas).
You may not agree with me about God or Zarathustra, but I think it’s more likely you’ll agree that I’m a convert.
No priest was involved in my conversion. No priest was necessary. But don’t get me wrong: a priest might be helpful. That’s because I’m a social animal and I recognize that there’s a social dimension to religion. Also, I might visit Mumbai some day, in which case I’d want to worship at the fire temples there. According to present regulations, that’s not allowed, because I wasn’t born a Parsee or an Iranian Zartushti. That’s disappointing, but I’m not upset about it, especially since my Zartushti neighbors let me worship at their fire temple here in San Jose, California. They might even give me a conversion ceremony if I asked for it, but the Parsees in Mumbai still wouldn’t let me into the temple to worship before the ancient fire, because they’d know I’m an impostor by the color of my skin.
I take no offense. It’s the Parsees that I’m worried for, because this restriction hurts them much more than it hurts me. It tells the world that their faith is fundamentally about race; it tells their children whom to marry, and it tells them that if they do not obey, their half-breed children may not be able to enter the temple. This is not good medicine for an ailing community, and I grieve for them. I wish they would look beyond their Parsee heritage to their more ancient, more open Iranian heritage, but I am not angry with them. I wish them the best.
Thanks for sharing your story, Dan. I sent invitations to folks from the traditional side of the issue to share their opinions but alas, no one replied. So to strike balance to the issue I will play devil’s advocate tomorrow and present the traditionalist point of view on conversion. For more information on the reformist Zarathushti movement taking place here in the U.S., visit this site. Within you will find links to related websites.