Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The curse of the Bawa, and amending religions

An interesting article over at rediff. Talks about how the Parsis are dwindling in population. Having one good Parsi friend (from whom I have a lot of inside dope on the issue), this did make for a good read.

An important point (that at least I wasn't aware of) raised in this article is the difference between religion and ethnicity. Parsis are Zoroastrians, but all Zoroastrians are not Parsees. Complicated? Kind of. With these being synonymous in India (like Punjabis and Sikhism for most people south of the Vindhyas) , it's easy to make the mistake.

For those who come in late, Zoroastrianism is very rigid. Women who marry outside the religion, 'leave' the religion, and if men marry outside, the wife is never inducted into the religion. The children of a woman marrying outside can never take up the religion, though children of men can.

A non-Parsi is not allowed in fire-temples. This means that a woman marrying a Parsi will be effectively excluded from all religious rites involving her children, from the baptism to the funeral. Obviously, a woman married to a Parsee may not necessarily be very enthusiastic about allowing her children to take up a religion she won't be part of. There have been attempts to change this, but this has divided Parsi society right down the middle, with many people both for and against such reform. That there may not be much left to reform in a couple of generations is an entirely different issue.

This does make for a bigger philosophical question. Are religions rigid, strictly defined by the Holy Books as they stood maybe a few centuries ago, or can/should be they adopted to meet the needs of the time?

The whole gay marriage issue in the US, shifting social norms over the world, and a stronger awareness and assertion of women's rights make this question all the more relevant.

If the US has painted itself red and blue over same-sex marriage and abortion, India too has a strong debate over the Uniform Civil Code and rights for women in poorer, less educated societies, both Hindu and Muslim. Ridiculous cases like this beg the question: is faith an artifact of our mind, or is it ordained from above, something that is 'there', strong, unassailable, unchangeable? I personally think the answer will vary with religion too. In fact, interpretations of religions themselves may give you different answers to this high-level question.

Arguments may never end, and what is sinful and 'out there' today is normal tomorrow, but these are questions that need to be addressed. The answers may not be to everyone's liking, but they're important.


Harish Kumar said...

I remember an article in Sunday Times when it was still readable - on how the Parsi population is shrinking because of its strict rules on not allowing a non-parsi wedded into the community to become a part of the parsidom.It also talked about the biological aspect - restricted gene pool.
I read this article sometime in early nineties..I still hear the same rumblings about the religion.I wonder why nobody-bigots or otherwise, is doing anything about it.

Ajay said...

Well, the issue probably comes up every time the census is analyzed, as it is noticed that this is a problem. Another interesting thing I forgot to note here is the high prevalence of singles in the comminity.There are an unnaturally high number of single men and women among Parsis - people who do not marry their whole lives.