1. Introduction, Background & Statistics
Today we are all challenged to claim for a new age the very principles
of religious freedom that shape our North American Zarathushti
community. The framers of The Constitution and The Bill of
Rights of USA and Canada could not have envisioned the vast scope of
religious diversity in North America at the beginning of the 21st
century. Religious tolerance has bred religious pluralism. Prof. Diane
L. Eck, Harvard University and Director of The Pluralism Project
declares, “the religious landscape of America has changed radically in
the past thirty years, but most of us have not yet begun to see the
dimensions and scope of that change, so gradual has it been and yet so
colossal”. She maintains that exposure to religious pluralism should be
viewed not as a threat to one’s own religious identity but as an
opportunity to broaden and deepen one’s own religiosity by interactions
with other faiths.
On June 25, 1991, a
Muslim imam stood in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives
and offered brief prayers as the chaplain of the day. The day a
Zarathushti mobed proudly recites verses from the Gathas on such an
occasion is the day we will surely have arrived.
We have demonstrated degrees of
reservation when it comes to revealing fundamental doctrinal aspects to
those who earnestly inquire about our faith. Is it fear of conveying the
wrong information? Is it fear of unwelcome conversion to our religion?
Or is it simply our lack of knowledge or interest? This hesitancy has
created a mystique around us as a community and around Zarathushtra’s
message: Can the North American society appreciate who we are and our
rich heritage if we do not remove this confusing mystique?
Our ancient faith
has an astoundingly rich history and tradition, but the
non-proselytizing aspect has held us back from talking, discussing and
dialoguing with our non-Zarathushti neighbors. We readily adopt the
history and traditions of our American neighbors, but do we offer the
same reciprocity when teaching them about Zarathushtra’s Vision?
During the 1999
Parliament of World’s Religions meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, I
was approached by the Leader of the Witches delegation from Upstate New
York, inquiring, “I am amazed at the similarity between our two
religions. We worship in secret, pray in a secret language and practice
rituals such as worshipping the fire, and exclude non-believers from
participating”. I was amazed at this total misconception of our religion
and lost no time explaining the facts.
Political Perspective of Zarathushtra’s Vision
Some political leaders voiced
opinions similar to Senator Edward M. Kennedy when he commented to the
author, “in my interactions with Zoroastrians in US and elsewhere I am
struck by their zeal to better themselves and those around them while
maintaining the highest standards of ethics in work and social
interactions. I perceive the practice of the Zoroastrian religion as a
pure enrichment of the mind and soul”. Both Senator Kennedy and current
US Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci strongly urge the community to
take a more active role in the socio-political causes of their states
and nations, and stand for political offices, as Cellucci put it, “your
high code of ethics can provide a refreshing impetus to the current
Zarathushtra’s Vision by Arts & Cultural Bodies.
Dr. Susan Bean, Curator of the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem,
Massachusetts, voiced the opinion of most arts and cultural entities
about lack of artifacts, literature, art, music, and dance material for
displays and promotion; also noting, “a strong adherence to the moral
tenets of the faith by its practitioners, which distinguishes them for
their willingness to accommodate without compromising their values”.
[The museum has ample displays of cultural and trade interactions of the
Parsis with westerners].
Higher Learning in North America
Many universities that were founded
and funded by religious groups in times prior to the 19th century made a
strong case for religion to be part of the daily campus environment of
the time. Those that did not have an ecclesiastical foundation showed a
reluctance to emphasize the study of religion, citing separation of
state and religion till the early 1920s.
In time universities
and colleges such as Harvard University (1926), Columbia University
(1924), Wellesley College (1928) began to take a more overt approach to
the study of Christian and non-Christian religions, particularly the
philosophies. The study of the Zarathushti doctrine was initially
explored as part of Iranian Studies at Harvard and Columbia
Universities. Gradually the study of comparative and nascent religions
made its way into institutes of higher learning nationwide.
universities and 42 colleges have undergraduate courses in varying
degrees in the study of the Zarathushti faith; 15 universities and 37
colleges have graduate courses; and 9 universities and 7 colleges have
doctorate or post-doctorate studies. Zoroastrian faith. Of the students
of religious studies at 22 universities and 42 colleges about .04%
specialize in Indo-Iranian. More than 97% of the researchers and
students in the study are non-Zoroastrians. Very little subject
concentration at all levels is doctrinal. As of today, there is no Chair
established in any institute of higher learning in North America
strictly for study and research of the Zarathushti faith.
Zarathushtra’s Vision in Higher Education & Cultural Organizations
The general understanding of
Zarathushtra’s Vision of most of the Top Officials of Higher Education
and Cultural Bodies (museums, arts councils, libraries, etc.)
interviewed, seemed to be based on the importance given to the highest
standards of morality, ethics, hard work, and charity.
of the concept, status and promotion of Zarathushtra’s Vision are
summarized as follows:
Doctrine – Rituals – Traditions & Cultural Heritage
‘reflective’ element of the message of the prophet;
the freedom to
think and act without the encumbrance of a set of rigid rules;
its relevance to
the ease of
adjusting the ceremonial aspects to suit the exigencies of life in
the new world;
and ritualistic perspective of the religion is mainly tied to
Indo-Iranian traditions and cultures, and the non-proselytizing
stance of the faith’s practitioners discourages a potentially larger
number of people interested in Zarathushtra’s message.
The community in
North America should establish trusts that give scholarships for
undergraduate, graduate and doctorate students; grants for research;
establish chairs in institutes of higher learning; facilitate the
availability of informational manuscripts, books, articles, art,
literature and significant artifacts; make information available in
all learning institutes, libraries, museums and art councils. This
priority groundwork is essential for institutes of higher learning
and cultural organizations to find further resources.
community itself has to make concentrated efforts to supplement the
efforts of its organizational body – FEZANA should promote the
understanding of our heritage at all levels. Display artifacts and
distribute information at local town and county
affairs and facilitate the usage of authentic data in schools,
libraries and museums.
Two Presidents of
ivy-league universities have given a positive indication of a
substantial increase in the courses offered currently relating to
Zarathushtra’s Vision within their Middle Eastern Studies Department.
Twelve heads of departments and 17 professors for Middle Eastern and
Comparative Religion Studies have volunteered to prioritize this study
for a period varying from 1 to 8 semesters as a starting approach.
Past President of
Brown University and currently President of Carnegie Foundation, NY,
Prof. Vartan Garabedian found few Zarathushties or non-Zarathushties
applying for loans or scholarships for Zarathushti studies.
A cursory study of
comments by Zarathushti and non-Zarathushti students who have taken up
Zarathushti studies as part of their course or research program pointed
out lack of scholarships and grants as incentives for pursuing studies
in the field. Some young mobeds and Zoroastrian students were
disheartened by the rejection they faced when they approached funding
organizations for further studies in religion.
The governing bodies
of our two nations in North America do not profess to favor certain
faiths to the exclusion of others. We Zarathushties, have an obligation
to ourselves and to our respective countries to continue educating
ourselves, as we venture to educate our children, our neighbors, our
community, and our fellow human beings.
Forthcoming work will center on comments, critiques & suggestions from
leaders of institutions of higher learning and cultural organizations.
We will continue to evaluate our standing in today’s American community
and plan for the future. The suggestions to us should give us a basis to
work towards a strong and viable plan for presenting Zarathushtra’s
Vision to all Americans – Zarathushti and Non-Zarathusti.
Cultivating a Good
Mind coheres with the Greek playwright Ovid’s thought that, "A faithful
study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be
cruel" [Ovid, Epistolae ex Ponto, c. A.D. 10]. We see the reflective
concerns of a Youth making her way in the liberal arts.
This article posted on vohuman.org on January 13, 2006 first
appeared in the FEZANA journal of Winter 2002. It was included
as a part of a series articles featured under the theme
“Zarathushtra’s Vision in a lifetime’s Learning.” That issue of
the FEZANA journal was guest edited by Dr. Mehrborzin Soroushian
and Dr. Natalie Vania, courtesy of whom this article has been
made available for posting on vohuman.