Often, during first-time meetings with non-Zoroastrians, when I identify myself as a ‘Zoroastrian’, I get a puzzled look in response. When I say ‘Parsi’, they ease up and smile and promptly quote a list of friends expecting me to know them or be somehow related to them. The impression everyone is under is that ‘everyone knows everyone in the community’ because we are so few in number and live in tightly-knit communities. As a result, for instant acknowledgement from the world, many of us have come to use the words interchangeably, which has not only further encouraged this misunderstanding but will eventually make the world forget who we truly are.
A recent example is the identification of one of our brightest young minds, Nergis Mavalvala, in local publications. The scientist who was part of a team responsible for the recent detection of gravitational waves belongs to the illustrious Zoroastrian community, but she was first identified as a Parsi. Have you ever come across an article on a celebrated Pakistani Muslim or for that matter even a Christian or Hindu whose sect or denomination took centre-stage as their religious identity? Nergis Mavalvala is indeed a Parsi, but we all fall under the larger umbrella of Zoroastrians.
To get to the root of the problem, let me now indulge you in a history lesson. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia or modern-day Iran and adherents of the faith are called Zoroastrians. After the Arab invasion of the country in 630 AD, a vast majority were massacred and those who survived were forced into slavery or converted. To escape persecution, many Zoroastrians fled Persia for the safety of the Indian subcontinent and that’s where the chapter on Parsis begins: the Zoroastrians of Persia who settled in India became known as Parsis.
It really irks me when I read entries such as ‘Parsiism’ or ‘Parseeism’ in the online encyclopaedia Britannica, which describes it as how the religion came to be known in India. Indian Zoroastrians (Parsis), and those who later migrated from India to other countries, might identify themselves as Parsis, but if you ask them about their faith, the chance of them saying ‘Parsiism’ is as good as Indian-occupied Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan. Although it is true that during the process of assimilation, Indian Zoroastrians adopted many of the traits of the dominant culture, such as wearing a sari and making a rangoli to mark a festive occasion, they still recite the same prayers and bow down before the same God. At the World Zoroastrian Congress, which is held almost every year, Zoroastrians from across the globe gather under a single roof and participate in discussions to extend knowledge about one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. We celebrate the traditions we adopted in India and we also pay tribute to our Persian heritage. Many of us are proud Parsis, but all of us are zealous Zoroastrians.
Today, Zoroastrians are scattered across the globe. We are perhaps the world’s smallest stateless religious minority and face imminent extinction, yet we have left an indelible mark upon this planet. Since our endless contributions to society will be the only legacy we leave behind, all I ask is when the world fondly remembers the likes of Nergis Mavalvala for being part of important breakthroughs and advancements, we would like to be celebrated as Zoroastrians. If every Zoroastrian is first identified as a Parsi, Google will deceive entire generations long after us into believing that ‘Parsiism’ was actually a religion.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 17th, 2016.