Exemplars of Faith
The contemporary leaders of the community are the high priests (Dasturs) in Iran and India whose directives are followed by most in the global Zoroastrian Diaspora. There have been some mystic occult figures who command a following in India and to some extent in the Diaspora, but they are seen as interpreters of Zoroaster’s message, not as replicating him.
A popular modern leader is Behramshah N. Shroff (1858-1927). When he was 18 he had a row with his mother and left home. He moved north from Gujarat and met a group of Zoroastrians who travelled secretly and led him to an unknown paradise deep in the sacred mountain in Iran called Demavand. Once there, he was instructed into the occult mysteries of the religion and in Ayurvedic medicine. He began teaching in 1907 and moved to Bombay in 1909 where he started his group known as Ilm-i Khshnoom, ‘Path of Knowledge’. His teaching can be described as a Zoroastrian version of Theosophy and includes vegetarianism, a belief in reincarnation, the importance of occult powers and praying in the ancient sacred language of Avestan. He and his followers continued to use the existing temples and religious calendar, and his teaching continues to be popular today.
A very different inspirational modern Zoroastrian teacher is Dastur (meaning ‘Very Reverend’) Maneckji N. Dhalla (1875-1956). He was brought up in poverty in Karachi before working as a journalist, expressing strong orthodox views. Some religious leaders took him to Bombay and paid for him to study ancient Zoroastrian languages and texts. He met Prof A.V.W. Jackson from Columbia University, New York who was so impressed he took him to study in America in 1905 first for an M.A. then a Ph.D. He described himself as “arriving as an orthodox but departing America in 1909 as a reformist”. On his return, he became High Priest in Karachi. He wrote several books on the history of Zoroastrianism, and a book of devotions, both of which are widely used to. Personally, he was a quiet and devout man, and by all accounts, popular with those who met him. However, he was rejected by the orthodox with followers of Shroff accusing him of teaching a Protestant Christian version of Zoroastrianism. In America and Pakistan he continues to be revered for his life and teaching.