Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;

 

Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.

 

Foundations of Identity and Belonging

Zoroastrians believe that people are made by God (Ahura Mazda) as his fellow workers (hamkars) in the fight against evil. Humans possess five facilities: (i) mind / spirit (man), (ii) desire / discernment, (iii) conscience (daena), (iv) insight / intuition and (v) wisdom (which depends on the application of insight). There are variations of the five, but Zoroastrians believe they should all be moving in the direction of full use of these faculties. Some believe that perfection is possible in this life.

God has assigned each person a task in life (xwarr). Individuals have complete free will and may refuse to carry out that task. The soul is judged after death according to the balance of its own good and evil thoughts, words and deeds and rewarded or punished as appropriate in heaven or hell.

There is no doctrine of rebirth in the traditional religion although some Parsis in India do now believe in it. This visit to heaven or hell is temporary because there is a strong sense that the purpose of punishment (in hell) must be corrective. Therefore, at the renovation, all people are resurrected; while the resurrected body is on earth, individuals are judged both physically and spiritually ahead of reward or punishment before ultimately dwelling with God in eternal heaven.

Religious / Spiritual Identity

In Zoroastrianism a young person is initiated (naujote – meaning new birth) just before the onset of puberty not in infancy, as it is believed this must be a voluntary act.

The naujote is the same for male and female and consists of the formal investiture, by the priest, of a sacred shirt (sudre) and cord (kusti). The sudre is a white cotton garment worn at all times except when bathing. It has a small pocket at the ‘v’ of the neck interpreted as the spiritual purse in which one keeps good thoughts, words and deeds. The kusti is made of 72 threads of lamb’s wool, symbolising the 72 chapters of the sacred text. It is tied around the waist with knots at the back and front, and is regarded as a ‘sword belt of the faith’. The kusti comes from ancient Indo-Iranian practices like the Brahmin’s cord, only in Zoroastrianism it is worn by all members of the religion.

After initiation the kusti should be tied and untied 5 times each day to the accompaniment of prayers confirming commitment to God and rejecting evil. The sudre and kusti are thought to protect individuals from evil influences and, as such, are a symbol of community membership.

Only the offspring of a Zoroastrian male may be initiated. Among the Parsis in India only the offspring of two Zoroastrian parents is initiated in order to ensure gender equality. Conversion is forbidden, as conversion is associated with proselytizing which is regarded as causing more oppression and persecution than almost any other human activity. Faith is believed to be part of a person’s fundamental identity therefore conversion is viewed as psychologically dangerous. Furthermore, they believe conversion is unnecessary because the good people of any religion will go to heaven and the evil of any religion will go to hell; one should remain within the religious tradition into which one is born. One exception to this is a small California-based branch where conversion is acceptable.

Initiation is therefore into a tightly knit clearly defined, community. Intermarriage and conversion are seen as ways of diluting Zoroastrian identity. In India, for example, a low birth rate and high mortality have led to declining numbers of Zoroastrians. However, this is seen as preferable if it ensures the Zoroastrian faith remains undiluted. The Zoroastrian aim is to preserve the identity of one of the world’s oldest prophetic religions.

Zoroastrians are not required to go to a fire temple (atash), though in India where there are many temples, most Parsis choose to go regularly. Traditionally, especially in Iran, participation in the festivals is obligatory (see under ‘Celebrations’). In their daily life they are expected to practise Good Thoughts, Words and Deeds, to care for the world and for others, act honestly at all times and to reject evil in all its forms. For Parsis, more than for Iranian Zoroastrians, commitment is identified and recognised by the wearing of the sudre and kusti.

Family and Community

For most Parsis Zoroastrianism is not strictly a ‘faith tradition’; rather it is membership of a community of people who have descended from Zoroastrians and have been initiated into the faith through the naujote ceremony.

Each person is unique but has a responsibility to care for others within the family and outside. As the whole of the physical creation is the work of God each person has a duty to care for it and is to refrain from polluting earth, air, fire, water and other living creatures. To harm another person or good creature is to support the destructive work of evil.

Traditionally it is thought that cleaning the home is part of the fight against evil. Each morning the traditional Zoroastrian carries a small portable fire altar through the house to purify the air with its sweet smell. Basic prayers, the sudre / kusti prayers are said on rising and a further four times during the day, as well as after ablutions. These can said both in the home and in the temple. As with most Asian communities, extended family ties are strong, even in the Diaspora.

Among Parsis in India or Zoroastrians in modern Iran, there is a very strong sense of community, partly as a minority people. In Iran they are subject to harsh treatment being seen by Muslims as unclean infidels. People are expected to marry within the community; in India for example, marriage outside of the community often means being ostracized. In the Diaspora, intermarriage happens more often but retaining community networks is still viewed as extremely important.

Until the 19th century Zoroastrians considered the home as the place where the religious rituals were carried out. It was not until the 19th century, when Parsis became wealthy and had non-Zoroastrian servants in their homes that a large temple building program was undertaken.

Zoroastrian Diversity

There are different schools of thought with very different interpretations of Zoroaster’s teaching. Generally speaking these can be classified into two distinct groups. First, the orthodox, who accept the authority not just of the holy book the Avesta, but also the later priestly Pahlavior Middle Persian literature, vigorously oppose intermarriage and emphasize the importance of keeping the body and spirit pure. A second group is the more liberal or reforming Parsis who emphasize the words of the prophet while rejecting much of the later material, put less emphasis on physical purity, are more open to intermarriage and argue that conversion should be allowed. Iranian predominantly urbanized, Zoroastrians emphasise the teaching of Zoroaster as promoted in the Gathas and reject teaching in the later priestly Pahlavi literature.

Indian and Iranian faith communities are naturally different from those in the Diaspora. Iranian and Indian Zoroastrians continue to live in close-knit neighbourhoods (baugs) built by Parsis for Parsis, physically enhancing the sense of community. However, for the Diaspora this is less true as they are scattered around the big cities of America, Australia, Britain and Canada, making social networking more difficult. These communities arrange numerous religious and social events in order to bring followers together. By belonging to the community members inspire each other to live up to the ideals of the religion with each providing support for the other in the contemporary world.

Some of those who have migrated west have been influenced by western thought so for example, American Zoroastrians accept converts whereas in India, they do not.

Other Religions & Beliefs

When Zoroastrians first migrated to Britain they avoided interfaith activity fearing a Christian influence and conversion from its own followers. However, since the late 1980s, Zoroastrians have been actively involved in inter-faith dialogue. This has not been without its difficulties as, due to its lack of widespread knowledge, Zoroastrians became vulnerable to mockery in the media. For example, on one occasion a Sunday newspaper produced a glossy supplement on new religious cults and, despite the fact it is one of the world’s oldest prophetic religions, Zoroastrianism was included. However, the 21st century has led to greater understanding of religion as a whole, with Zoroastrians now regarded as one of the main nine ‘official’ religions in Britain. Members are invited to a diverse range of functions alongside other leaders of faith communities, including the faith area of the Millennium Dome and Commonwealth Services at Westminster Abbey. This recognition of, and active engagement in, interfaith dialogue, has ensured the identity of Zoroastrianism remains strong.

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