Wednesday, 14 September 2011

ZOROASTER, PARSIS AND VULTURES


“He who sows the ground with care and diligence acquires a greater stock of religious merit than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers” – Zoroaster

Zoroaster (Zarathustra in Avestan) was a Persian sage who lived around 1400-1200 B.C. He is recognised as the prophet that developed a way of life and belief, and a religion known as Zoroastrianism. He is also credited with the authorship of the Yasna Haptanghaiti and the Gathas, which are hymns that form the liturgical core of Zoroastrianism.

The gods of the Persians in Zoroaster’s time were many. Zoroaster reformed the polytheistic beliefs of the Persians when he perceived that many of these deities worshipped were unworthy of adoration, being evil in character, hostile to all good. His teaching in regards to this was: “If the gods do something shameful, they are not gods.” Although Zoroastrianism is not a monotheistic faith, its highest deity is Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda is described as the most frequently invoked deity in the Yasna and is the creator and upholder of Arta (truth). Ahura Mazda is an omniscient, but not an omnipotent god. This god is thought to eventually destroy evil. Ahura Mazda’s evil counterpart is Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the “bad spirit” and the creator of evil who will be destroyed before frashokereti (the destruction of evil).

Zoroaster taught that water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of the ritual life of Zoroastrianism. Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire, and the final rite of the principal act of worship constitutes a “strengthening of the waters”. Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom. Earth is also sacred as it is fruitful and gives man his bread.

In Zoroastrian tradition, life is a temporary state in which a mortal is expected to actively participate in the continuing battle between truth and falsehood. Prior to being born, the soul (urvan) of an individual is still united with its guardian spirit (fravashi), of which there are very many, and which have existed since Mazda created the universe. During life, the fravashi acts as a guardian and protector. On the fourth day after death, the soul is reunited with its fravashi, in which the experiences of life in the material world are collected for the continuing battle in the spiritual world.

In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay (druj). Scripture stipulates the safe disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the “good” elements of creation, i.e. earth fire and water. This is the doctrinal basis of the traditional practice of “ritual exposure” of the corpse, most commonly identified with the so-called “Towers of Silence”. The practice of ritual exposure is only practised by Zoroastrian Parsi communities in India, where it is not illegal, and where traditionally vultures and other scavenger birds have disposed of the corpse. Other Zoroastrian communities either cremate their dead, or bury them in graves that are cased with lime mortar.

Zoroaster’s disciples were a nomadic people, speaking a tongue ancestral to modern Farsi, who moved south into present-day Iran. The state faith of successive Persian empires, Zoroastrianism was brought to India in 936 AD by refugees fleeing persecution by Arab Muslim conquerors. On the round-the-world trip chronicled in his book Following the Equator, Mark Twain stopped off in Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and, as part of the standard tourist circuit, he was taken to the “Towers of Silence”, where the Parsi community brought their dead. He wrote: “On lofty ground, in the midst of a paradise of tropical foliage and flowers, remote from the world and its turmoil and noise, they stood. The vultures were there. They stood close together in a great circle all around the rim of a massive low tower - waiting; stood as motionless as sculptured ornaments, and indeed almost deceived one into the belief that that was what they were.”

The scavenger birds that Twain saw are almost all gone now. The vultures have vanished from Mumbai, and populations of three vulture species have dropped all over the Indian subcontinent. This has had profound consequences for public health, as well as for Parsi funerary practices. Biologists identified an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac sodium (widely used in veterinary as well as human medicine) being the cause of the birds’ demise, as it accumulates in their bodies.

The solution for the Parsis of Mumbai (numbering 40,000 of India’s total number of 70,000) is to build a giant aviary, six stories high and bigger than football field in which scavenger birds like vultures will be bred in order to be used for the “sky burials” above the “Towers of Silence” – a sacred hilltop where the Parsi corpses are exposed since the 17th century.

Parsi |pärˈsē, ˈpärsē|(also Parsee) noun
An adherent of Zoroastrianism, esp. a descendant of those Zoroastrians who fled to India from Muslim persecution in Persia during the 7th–8th centuries.
ORIGIN from Persian pārsī ‘Persian,’ from pārs ‘Persia.’

In the illustration, some Sassanian relief work at Tagh-e-Bostan near Kermanshah, Iran, showing the Investiture of Ardashir II (r. 379-383) (centre) by the supreme God Ahuramazda (right) with Mithras (left) standing upon a lotus. Trampled beneath the feet of Ahura-Mazda and Ardashir II is an unidentified defeated enemy. Note the object being held by Mithras. This may be some sort of diadem or even a ceremonial broadsword, as Mithras appears to be engaged in some sort of “knighting”of Ardahsir II as he receives the “Farr” (Divine Glory) diadem from Ahura-Mazda.

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