By Arzan Sam Wadia
My earliest memories of going to a fire temple are of seeing a bearded man dressed in all white sitting all alone, greeting us when we entered. Feeling awed and scared at the same time, it took a while to understand why this man looked so similar to the ones in photographs on the wall. It took patience and effort on my late grandfather’s part to make me understand that this was “aapra dastoorji.” The man in question was the revered head priest Dasturji Hormazdji of the Batliwala Agiary in Tardeo all those years ago. Since then I have had numerous friends and relatives who are priests and that has led to a deeper understanding of what they stand for and what they mean to our ancient religion.
In a religion as ancient as ours, the center of our spiritual physical being lies with these very priests. The dasturs, as they are known, are the custodians and implementers of all matters pertaining to religion, customs, ceremonies and the overall conscience of the religion. Zarathusti priests have over the centuries been the guiding force in the interpretation of our ancient texts, performing ceremonies of happiness and sadness, and being the silent custodians and arbitrators of our religious ethos.
However in today’s day and age, one of the many issues facing Zarathustis both in the Old Country and in the new lands is the scarcity and access to these priests. Parsi priesthood is by familial lineage and whichever way you dice it, the numbers of priests are dwindling. In cities like Bombay, it is not as endemic a problem as it in other cities with smaller Zarathusti populations. And in North America it is even more evident. Larger centers of Zarathusti population like the Greater New York or Metropolitan Chicago have a reasonable number of priests, however; away from these few centers the priests are few and far in between.
All Zarathusti priests, even those born and brought up in North America, are ordained into priesthood back in India and Iran. This is because of the lack of a consecrated fire in North America, one of the major prerequisites in the ordaining process. Fathers who are themselves priests get their sons ordained as priests at a young age. However with the other social structure lacking in North America, especially the Atash Kadeh, young priests find it very difficult to understand the symbolism of their role as priests and the special position they now have in their own religion. Jimmy Antia and his brother Mazda, both born in USA, were ordained priests in the footsteps of their father Kersy. For Jimmy, “Being a mobed means continuing in the tradition of family and my ancestors. It is a way to connect spiritually to the community. “
One of the biggest challenges to these youngsters is to find the real meaning and role of this newly ordained priesthood. When this question was posted to Dr. Jehan Bagli, one of the senior most priests in North America, he says “To me being a priest is a commitment. It is an assignment to do all the things that help perpetuate the Religion of Zarathustra. A Zarathusti priest is duty bound to fill the spiritual needs of the members of Zarathushti community. It is incumbent upon the priest to find time to learn and understand the prayers that he recites. It is the responsibility of a priest to impart the knowledge of the Zarathushti tradition to the laity and to participate whenever possible in the ritual performances for the community and for individual family when requested.” This is indeed a monumental task for a youngster usually no older than 12 or 14 years at the time of ordainment.
The social structure exists in Bombay for priests to ease into their roles. Young priests are regularly under the tutelage of senior priests at the local Agiaries and Atash Behrams. They perform prayer ceremonies, especially during the Muktad prayers just before the Parsi New Year. However the days of full time priesthood are all but gone. The income they generate is in most cases not sufficient to take up priesthood as a full time profession and raise a family. To a young boy, all the pressures of school, college, and other things compete with the time they would spend in their priestly duties. And in most cases the latter takes a back seat — and this is in Bombay, with one of the largest concentration of Zarathusti populations in the world.
In North America it is a different story all together. Being a priest here is even more challenging. Most priests here perform a few jashans and even fewer other prayers. The difficulty quotient of being a priest in North America is many fold. And the meaning of what it means to be a priest also differs. Kobad Zarolia, a very senior priest in North America, feels that the meaning of priesthood also changes with age. He writes “…being a priest means different things at different age to me. When I became a priest it was to keep the family tradition going. To keep my parents happy. When I came to Canada it was helping other Zarathusti to keep up with our rituals. At my older age it is more dispersing religious knowledge to the community and to non Zarathusti community.”
Priests in North America have also been the major force behind the prayer classes that local Zarathusti Associations hold. Generations of children have learnt what it means to be a Zarathusti at these classes taught by priests and parents. Children learn their prayers for their navjote ceremonies and later on about the values of their religion.
Beyond that, the involvement of priests within the religion in the traditional sense is limited. This may primarily be due to the lack of Zarathusti population to sustain priesthood symbolically. Dr. Kersy Antia, a senior priest from Chicago, says that in the future the traditional role of priests as knowledge-bearers may be lost forever. Dr. Antia feels the ever increasing need for priests to answer the enormous amount of questions that face our religion today. Dr. Bagli sees two possibilities for priests in the coming years. “There are two ways one practices the religion (a) through living it and (b) through devotional practices. In my view, the two are inextricably intertwined. I have noticed young members of the community sincerely trying to practice the Faith by living it, but are not always party to devotional and ritual practices.”
The future of the Zarathusti community in North America is very much dependent on the active participation and guidance of its priests. Kobad Zarolia sees “a bright future for Zoroastrian community if we follow our fore fathers example when they started establishing in India. They built Fire Temples first when 20 to 30 families got established in a village or city. Building of wedding halls always took back seat to Fire temples. In North America we have reversed the trend and that what worries me. “
The onus of the success of the priesthood lies primarily with the parents and the community in general. Parents need to take the extra step in making their children understand their religion and culture beyond just the prayers they recite and the ceremonies they perform. As they grow older, a wider understanding of theology, rites and ceremonies, and the deeper meaning of our scriptures. And the community in general needs to give the respect and encouragement due to the priests to do what they do best. Dr. Bagli is optimistic in his outlook on this issue. “I see a long of young talent coming up as lawyers, doctors and social workers, and also in the extracurricular fields. However somewhere along the line people have to come to grip with the fact that Spirituality is a reality and making it a part of their life can only bring greater benevolence to the community.
There is a need for a deeper awakening and understanding of our religion. The will and knowledge to tackle the problems and issues of a modern diaspora can lead to the ultimate redefining of the role of priests as the keepers of this most ancient religion. This will be the challenge and the legacy of the coming generation of young priests in North America.
Atha Zamyat yatha Afrinami (May it be so as I say it ).
Arzan Sam Wadia is an architect and urban designer currently residing in New York City with his wife Shirrin. He runs Parsi Khabar (www.parsikhabar.net) an online portal about Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India. Arzan is an avid blogger, motorcyclist and an active member of the Sethna’s 18th West Bombay Scout Group.