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Who owns the good religion?

Those acquainted with Zoroastrianism, at times called the Good Religion, and the Parsi community know of the heated debate that surrounds conversion. People often believe that today’s Zoroastrianism or the Parsi community do not allow or frown upon conversion into the religion. Another fiercely debated issue is the acceptance into the Parsi community of children from mixed marriages, particularly when the father is not a Zoroastrian.

In contemporary Zoroastrianism, children that are of a certain age and born into the religion—this often means born to two Zoroastrian parents—undergo a religious ceremony known as Navjote in India. Through this ritual a child accepts the religion or is formally admitted into the religion or the Parsi community and starts to wear the Sedreh and Kusti. The ceremony is performed for girls and boys. The MumbaiMirror has a short report on a controversial Navjote of apparently two children that recently took place in Mumbai.

Those opposing the admission of children from non-Zoroastrian fathers often rely on law and the perceived orthodoxy of certain customs. In this case, for instance, one of the objections cited ‘sections of the Indian Penal Code for hurting the religious sentiments of the community’. Another is quoted as follows: ‘Further, as part of the ceremony the child is required to undergo a spiritual ablution (nahan), which a non-Parsi child is unqualified to undergo. Besides, a navjote is not an initiation ceremony to admit any person into the faith’. While the business man, who had requested the Navjote for his niece and nephew, and the Seth Jeejeebhoy Dadabhoy Agiary, where the ceremony was supposed to be conducted, received several complaints, the ceremony was ultimately performed for the two children, even though at an apparently undisclosed location.

When it comes to this debate, I stand nowhere, as I am not a practitioner. But as an observer, I cannot help but notice that the public perception of this debate, like so many other things nowadays, is mostly shaped by the noise made on social media. A second observation is that the ceremony requires the presence of a priest. Thus, if the Navjote was conducted, most likely it was acceptable to the priest to admit children of a mixed marriage. Thirdly, we all know that the debate is not only about orthodoxy and accepted practice, but these days also one about gender. At the heart of the issues seems to lie the fight for mothers to be able to pass down their ancestral religion to their children, even if the father is not a Zoroastrian.