Watch the trailer for Zoroastrians Today
Watch the trailer for "Zoroastrians Today"
What are the basics of Zoroastrian beliefs?
 
It's a very liberating religion, I think, because there's such a stress on the individual, right. Each individual has a spark of spirituality or God in him or herself. And basically, the beliefs are good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.  

As a Zoroastrian, you use your mind, the Vahu-Manah or the good mind, to make the right choices in your life. And by doing this and by making the right choices, you create heaven for yourself on earth.

So, there's no fire and brimstone, and you're not going to suffer, and there are no Ten Commandments. It's not a very prescriptive religion. It's very much upon individuals to use their mind, which Zarathushtra described as the greatest of all creations, the good mind.
Use your mind, make the right choices, and by doing that and by good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, you will lead a beautiful life and you will have heaven on earth. That's Zoroastrianism in very simplistic terms.
 
In terms of our afterlife beliefs, there is this sense of after you die, it takes four days for the soul to leave the body and in those four days, no one else is judging you. You yourself will judge your soul and say, okay, do I cross over or do I not kind of thing. And then, if you do cross over, your soul reaches a place of eternal happiness.
 
Is Ahura Mazda a personal god?
 
I think that varies upon how enlightened an individual is and how much theological study they've done. As kids, we're taught some prayers--the Ashem Vohu, the Yatha Ahu Vairyo. Then, we're taught our Navjote prayers. And there really isn't theological discussion going on about how you perceive God. It's more like, “These are the prayers. You need to learn them.” In terms of Ahura Mazda himself, Ahura Mazda means the wise being.
 
So again, Zarathushtra, stresses the whole concept of the Seven Archangels really came from the Seven Amesha Spentas, the Seven Creations that Zarathushtra--or Ahura Mazda came up with these Seven Creations and Zarathushtra recognized them.
There's earth, water, fire, air, and then, of course, human beings, represented by the Vahu-Manah or the good mind.
 
And basically, when you think of Ahura Mazda, Zarathushtra refers to him as the wise being or sort of the enlightened super-intellect. So, the relationship is that of Zarathushtra being a prophet and tapping into the universal consciousness.
 
How about the evil force in Zoroastrianism?
 
Within Zoroastrian theology, there's never agreement, which is an interesting thing about Zoroastrians. But, some people believe that Angra Mainyu is evil and Spenta Mainyu is good. So, there's the evil mentality and the good mentality. And these mentalities exist out there in the world. And as a Zoroastrian, it is your duty to use your good mind, the Vahu-Manah, tap into the super-intellect or super-consciousness and pick good over evil. And you intuitively know what is good and what is evil.
 
If you trip someone or if you're doing something at work just to get ahead, you know that this is a mean spirit and that you're doing something wrong. There's a dualistic mentality. But, what Zoroastrian scholars don't agree on is that some perceive Ahura Mazda as ultimately in charge. Some say that there are the good forces, and the evil forces, but God is ultimately in charge, while other Zoroastrians look at it more as a relationship of equals, so that there's Ahura Mazda, which represents everything good and then, there's Anra Mainyu, which represents everything evil.
I think what's more important is to recognize that there's good out there and there's evil out there and as a good, practicing Zoroastrian, you need to tap into good.
 
Why have Iran’s Muslims targeted Zoroastrians for persecution?
 
In this fundamentalist culture that we see in Iran, anyone who is non-Muslim is treated differently than Muslims. And I have to say that Zoroastrians are treated better than other minorities, like the Baha’is, because Zoroastrians predated Islam.
 
If you look at the Muslim faith if you read the Qur’an, it’s a beautiful religion. It’s a very egalitarian religion. But, I think what happens is people practice it in such a way that it can somehow, turned into a fundamentalist thing, which is, unfortunately, what's happening.
 
The first time I went to Iran was in 2000 to work on my first film and I wanted to hire a Zoroastrian camera-person, because I said it would be nice to give a local Zoroastrian person a chance. And when I tried to do this, I was told, no Zoroastrians in Iran are camera-people. They're just farmers. They're not allowed to be doctors or camera-people or lawyers--that's reserved for Muslims. And this was a huge revelation for me, coming from India, where the Zoroastrians are just the crème de la crème and are treated so well and are respected, to come to Iran and to be told that, oh, you're not going to find a Zoroastrian camera-person was a bit of an eye opener.
 
The other incident that happened in Iran happened when we were drinking water out of a tap. We were each wearing a little pendant around our neck, sort of like a Catholic would maybe wear a cross or a Jew would wear a Star of David. Our symbol is the Fravashi; it's a guardian angel. Anyone who knows anything about Zoroastrianism recognizes it. So, we were drinking water out of a tap and some of the local villagers noticed that we had these necklaces on and so concluded that we were Zoroastrian and said, “Hey, you're not allowed to drink water out of that tap, that's just for Muslims. Zoroastrians use this other tap.”
 
All of us [on the filmmaking team] were college-educated and savvy and aware of our rights, and this was an eye opener: Who knew that our communities would be like this in Iran? So, that was the motivating factor. If Zoroastrians themselves don't know how Zoroastrians are treated in Iran, definitely the rest of the world doesn't know.
 
Have most of the Zoroastrians in the United States come from India?
 
There's definitely a mix. A large number of Iranians who came directly to North America, did so after the revolution in Iran, in the '70s when the Shah was deposed. There's a very large congregation of them in the West Coast, in the Los Angeles area.
 
There are also the Parsis, who came from India over the generations for study, for better opportunities economically and so forth.
 
Watching your film, I saw parallels with Jewish experience--intermarriage, the temptations of assimilationism, the desire to go back to  religious and ethnic roots, and a history of persecution. Do Zoroastrians feel kinship to the Jewish experience?
 
Absolutely. And besides, both the groups sharing a history of persecution and the fact that they're both very small groups. Zoroastrians in India are called the “Jews of India” in a very complimentary way. It’s alluding to the fact that it's a very small, close-knit community, education is hugely important. Something like 99.9 percent of Zoroastrian women in India are educated. Zoroastrians in India make up less than 1 percent of the population. But, at one point, the head of the army, navy, and air force were all Zoroastrians.
 
When the British ruled India, they wanted a community to assist them that wasn't numerically going to challenge them, and the Hindus and Muslims were too numerous. So they chose the Zoroastrians, this tiny little group and really educated them and made them the civil servants and gave them all the opportunities and, Zoroastrians, being the nomads that we are, grabbed this opportunity and really, really did well in India.
 
Jewish relief agencies gave aid to Zoroastrians in Iran who were being persecuted. How did that came about?
 
After I came back from Iran where I learned that this persecution is happening, I started asking questions and doing some research.
Because I'm a Parsi--my family is from India--I didn't know too many Zoroastrians who left Iran because of the persecution and came here. I started reaching out to people and doing some research and, while talking to a professor in California, he mentioned HIAS, Hebrew Immigration Aid Society and said that they're doing some really good work not just for Zoroastrians, but other minorities in Iran who are not being treated correctly. I reached out to HIAS, told them what I was doing. They do terrific work.
 
About 200 individuals have been helped. If you're not allowed access to higher education or cannot practice your religion--if your basic human rights are being denied--you can apply to HIAS and you're brought to Vienna. To come to the States, the individual needs a sponsor. And then, once they come here, they go through refugee resettlement groups where they get training and they get vocational training and jobs and make their new home in America.
 
Do you have a favorite prayer?
 
Yes, I do. It's the prayer called the Ashem Vohu and it's fairly short:
Ashem vohu. Vahishtem asti. Ushta asti. Ushta ahmai hyat ashai vahishtai ashem.
And it means choose right in the world and make the right decisions, not because you're going to be rewarded, but make the right decision simply because that's the right thing to do and that will--that's what will lead to ultimate happiness for you and sort of renovation of the world at large.
 
When do Zoroastrians recite this prayer?
 
It depends how devout you are. Some Zoroastrians pray five times a day. And that again is sort of interesting, because when you look at Islam right now, they pray the same five times a day. It originated in Zoroastrianism; Zoroastrians used to divide the day into five parts. There are Zoroastrians who still pray five times a day and who recite the Ashem Vohu or the Yatha Ahu Vairyo and different prayers, depending on what time of the day it was. And then, there are Zoroastrians like me, who just have a few favorite prayers.
 
This little prayer is my stress relief. If I'm upset or in a situation where I'm not doing too well or there's too much going on, I'll step back and say this quietly to myself. It grounds me and reminds me as to what I need to do to resolve the situation.