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Whenever people ask what I am this month and I answer, “Zarathushti,” their eyes usually glaze over. We’ve spoken at length thus far about what this faith teaches, who founded it, and some of the tenets…but the reason “we” know so little about this faith is due in part to their population.
About 280,000…around the world.
That’s like taking the population of Fayetteville, NC (a town about 30 minutes north of me) and scattering it across the globe. What, never heard of Fayetteville, NC? My point exactly. You may not of heard about this place because amidst the bustle and noise of larger cities and landscapes, it’s relatively insignificant.
This is why locating a Mentor for the Zarathushti faith was so difficult. The majority of Zarathushtis reside in one of two places: the original branch in Iran (about 160,000) and the first diaspora community in India called the Parsis (about 80,000). That leaves about 40,000 Zarathushtis to season the rest of the world. In the United States alone, which outside of India represent the largest community of the diaspora, there are approximately 18,000 Zarathushtis. Main population centers include New York City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, and some in Florida. My Mentor hails from Chicago.
I’m in North Carolina. I found three in my state, and none of them live anywhere near me.
So when we refer to Zarathushtis–no matter where we might find them–you are more than likely chatting with either an Iranian or Parsi. We will briefly look into who these fine folks are.
The Iranian Zarathushtis represent the old school, original branch of the faith. Zarathushtra preached the path of
Asha created by the “Wise Lord” Ahura Mazda around 1400 B.C. in the area around the Aral Sea in modern Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. These people are the descendents of the vast Persian Empires which at their height stretched from northern Greece in the West to the Indus River in the East. These are the people who sired leaders such as Cyrus the Great–a Zarathushti like the rest of the Empire–who is credited with freeing the Jews from Babylon and creating the Edict of Cyrus, considered to be the first declaration of human rights. Because of the faith’s widespread influence, it is theorized that many of the ideals that permeate the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths have their roots in Zarathushti teachings. The deathblow to Zarathushti influence came in 641 CE as Islamic armies conquered Iran and forced many Zarathushtis to choose between Islam and the sword. The persecution forced many to flee into remote plains and mountains. Some, determined to rescue the faith, fled their homeland altogether and in “seven ships,” sailed for India.
Those Zarathushtis who fled Iran landed at Diu in Gujarat on the west coast of India. Their Hindu hosts welcomed them as refuges escaping persecution, and because the Zarathushtis did not proselytize, they posed no threat to the native religion. Intent on embracing their new home, the Indian Zarathushtis (now called Parsis, a derivative of the Pars or Fars of Southern Iran) endeavoured to “sweeten the land” and become helpful citizens and neighbors. Over the next 14 centuries, Parsis consolidated their identity by keeping their faith within ethnic boundaries and adapting to the culture around them. They adopted the Gujarati language, the women all but abandoned the traditional Iranian garb (head shawls, pantaloons, and a long shirt) in exchange for the Indian sari…even a divergence in their calendar took place.
While the Zarathushti diaspora at large claim ancestry with one of these two groups, there is a so-called “fringe” element gradually rising–especially in the United States–refered to as “neo-Zarathushtis.” Traditionally one must be born into the faith because as a rule, Zarathushtis do not accept converts. These neo-Zarathushtis see themselves as a reform group who mainly use the Gathas (accepted by all to be the direct words of Zarathushtra) as their spiritual authority and argue that the teachings are for all humanity and that keeping the faith behind ethnic walls is a tragedy. Again, this is a small and relatively new movement which has no association with the traditional branches of the faith. I will explore this issue in more detail during our “Social Issues” week.