Thus departed Zarathustra

The ancient and formerly sizable religion of Zoroastrianism is facing dwindling numbers. Followers of the prophet Zarathustra — and devotees of the divine being Ahura Mazda — are worried about the survival of their Persian religion.

While Zoroastrians population declines from a heyday thousands of years ago are notable, even the decline in their numbers and importance over the last century is notable. At the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 it was considered one of the top ten religions. Now, other than the late Freddie Mercury (a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara), how many Zoroastrians do you know of?

TIME reporter Deena Guzder, reporting from Yazd, Iran, writes about the issue here. She begins by introducing a tower where tens of thousands of corpses have been placed:

Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsis) regard sky burials, in which the bodies are exposed to natural elements including vultures in open-topped “Towers of Silence,” as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation, consistent with their religion’s reverence for the earth. A Zoroastrian priest clad in a long, cotton robe explains: “Death is considered to be the work of Angra Mainyu, the embodiment of all that is evil, whereas the earth and all that is beautiful is considered to be the pure work of God. We must not pollute the earth with our remains.”

The priest believes that open burials are a fulfillment of the central tenet of his religion, which is to practice good deeds. With a forlorn expression, he notes that, 3,000 years after the tradition of open burials began, there are not enough Zoroastrians left alive to keep the tower in Yazd open. Instead, today’s Zoroastrians who want to observe traditional burial practices must request in their will that their body is sent to a forested suburb in Mumbai, India, where the last Tower of Silence still operates.

The story isn’t long but packs in quite a bit of doctrine. The reader learns about various rites and accoutrement of the religion. We also learn a bit about what has dispersed believers from the region as well as the fierce debate over how to respond to the decline in numbers:

Despite their shrinking population, Zoroastrians remain fiercely divided over whether to recognize interfaith families, let alone accept non-generational Zoroastrians. Tens of thousands fled Persia during the Islamic incursions in the 10th Century and were granted refuge in India under the condition they did not marry outside their faith or proselytize to the Hindu majority. Ramiyar P. Karanjia, principal of a Zoroastrian religious school in Mumbai, India, insists, “Conversion is not part of our religion.” Yet, in India, home to the majority of Zoroastrians, the community is declining by about 10% every decennial census, according to a report released by UNESCO. Today, Zoroastrians remain a tight-knit and self-secluded community that strongly encourages marriage within the faith.

Perhaps I’m alone in my ignorance here, but I’m unsure what “non-generational Zoroastrians” are. It may have been a good idea to explain that a bit more.

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  • Satchel

    “non-generational” = converts, non-cradle-Zoroastrians?

  • Tim of Angle

    That would make sense to me — “non-generational” suggests “people who weren’t born that way”.

  • Dale

    I suppose the writer has to call them “non-generational” because she has just been told by a cleric that conversion is not part of the Zoroastrian religion. On the other hand, the writer could have asked the cleric more specifically what he meant when he said conversion wasn’t part of the religion, when there are Zoroastrians who weren’t born into Zoroastrian families.

  • Jerry

    I think it’s worth nothing that many consider the “three wise men” who visited the baby Jesus to have been Zoroastrian priests based at least partly on the word “magi”:

  • deena

    Thanks for posting! Satchel is correct that “non-generational” means those who were not born into the faith. Here’s a longer article on Zoroastrians for those interested:

  • David Ahmanson

    It’s true that Zoroastrians historically haven’t been open to converts, and still aren’t in India, so non-generational probably means “converted”.

  • Julia

    how many Zoroastrians do you know of?

    I met a Zoroastrian young woman a few years ago – she was a student at Indiana U and a Christmas vacation guest of my nephew. She is a Parsi and was shocked that I knew what that meant.

    It sounds like they have passed the point where they can retain, much less increase their numbers. That’s tragic.

  • bob

    I once saw a website on Zoroastrian communities. It was simply shocking how close the comments were to those I have heard for 25 years about Eastern Orthodox Christian congregations. Rather than evangelize, they have whined for years that the youth don’t want to learn the “Mother Tongue” (Which they never hear, and never read). They don’t want to maintain a parallel existence with some country across the world (Particularly Greeks have this difficulty)and wind up marrying a Protestant (Or Jewish spouse, see Michael Dukakis). Converts to the actual *Faith* of these immigrant groups have until fairly recently been a complete curiosity. I’m not comparing the truth of Orthodoxy to Zoroastrianism, just pointing out that when the actual beliefs are seen as trivial, you lose the people and their hearts in one efficient act of inertia.

  • Copper Stewart

    I’m wondering about excursive phenomena, like the large Parsi following of Meher Baba. Of Irani ancestry and Zoroastrian parentage and doing most of his work in Maharashtra, Meher Baba’s Parsi following must be at least 10-20% of the number of orthodox Zoroastrians.