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the-south-asian.com                               April  2001

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Page  3  of  11

Zarathusthra.jpg (31353 bytes)
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

 

Parsis - the Zoroastrians of India

by

Sooni Taraporevala

 

The story of the Ancestors (cntd)

Two hundred years after Cyrus the Great first took the world by storm and the world at large learnt of Ahura Mazda, a young prince in Macedonia who was addicted to reading, carried two favourite books around with him wherever he went. The first was by Homer, the second, The Upbringing of Cyrus by Xenophon. Xenophon's image of Cyrus as a brilliant conqueror, powerful and merciful, making friends of enemies, hailed as a father by the conquered, made a profound impression on him.

Inspired by Cyrus' meteoric rise, from minor chieftain to ruler of the world, this young man followed in his footsteps and proceeded to place his own imprint on the world stage. Supported by Greece, their avenging angel marched against the Persian Empire with crusader-like zeal, wrested the sceptre from Darius 111 and proclaimed himself his successor. Darius fled and the mighty Achaemenian Empire fell, as all empires do.

The world knows him as Alexander the Great, but to Zoroastrians he is Alexander the Accursed (guzastag). His soldiers plundered temples and sanctuaries, destroyed religious texts and massacred the priests. At the end of his four-month-stay in the magnificent royal city of Persepolis, built by Darius the Great, he burned the city to the ground in a drunken orgy. He threw the first torch himself, then had second thoughts but it was too late. It is said that when it got too hot inside, the party drunkenly trooped outside to watch the spectacle of Persepolis going up in flames. Legend also has it that Alexander wept. While Iran eventually recovered political autonomy, the religion never regained what Alexander had so wantonly destroyed.

Five and a half centuries after Darius III lost his empire to Alexander, there arose from the province of Pars, earlier home to the Achaemenians, Ardeshir from the Sassan family, who was to become the founder of the second Persian Empire. The Persians quickly re-established their power and though the Sassanian Empire was not as vast as the Achaemenian, between Zoroastrian Persia and its arch-enemy, Christian Rome, they had the entire known world carved up.

Under the Sassanian dynasty, (226AD-641AD) Zoroastrianism became for the first and last time, an official State Religion. The priesthood was invested with importance and power. The Achaemenians had kept a strict separation between the Church and the State, but under the Sassanians, for the first time, there was a Zoroastrian 'Church'. The religion became intertwined with the State and thrived. There was a revival. Many of the scattered texts which had been preserved orally were written down, translated and compiled. Though the early Sassanians were zealous about their own religion, they were tolerant of other faiths.

In contrast, the last years of the Sassanian dynasty seem to be a period of extremes and ironies. It was at once a brilliant society, a cultured and luxurious civilisation, an open society that was receptive to foreign influences, yet was also fiercely nationalistic. The Sassanian proclaimed Zoroastrianism as the only good and true religion.

Between the lower classes and the nobility existed an unbridgeable gulf. On one side there was unbridled luxury and a feverish pursuit of pleasure. On the other, famines and plagues. In addition to this spiritual and economic dissatisfaction was political instability. Power-hungry kings and queens ascended the throne and were plotted against and assassinated in quick succession.

It was into this society, ripe for revolution, that the conquerors came - this time not from the west, but from where it was leas texpected: they came riding from the south, from the deserts of Arabia.

In 632AD, Yazdegard III, a hastily crowned twenty-year-old boy, fated to be the last of the illustrious house of Sassan, sat on his tottering throne, granting a hearing to a deputation of fourteen Arabs who had come to visit him in his capital, Madayn. All around the young king was chaos. His two army generals who had placed him on the throne had been feuding amongst themselves. On the outskirts of the empire, Arab tribes were engaged in marauding expeditions. Though they had been repelled and could never really be a threat, their existence was a source of some worry.

The leader of the expedition asked Yazdegard to choose either Islam, or tribute, or war unto death. Yazdegard opted for war and so completely was Zoroastrianism routed out from the country of its birth, that in current popular thinking, the thought of an Iran that was not always Islamic, is inconceivable.

After the Arab conquest, tens of thousands embraced Islam. Many went over to the new faith because it allowed them to preserve their power and influence. Others converted to avoid the payment of poll-tax and to find relief from the persecution that raged around them. A small band of devoted Zoroastrians, however set sail and landed in Diu, an island on the west coast of India, off the state of Gujarat.

Extracted  from the book
'Zoroastrians of India: Parsis: A Photographic Journey' 
by Sooni Taraporevala.
 
c 2000 Sooni Taraporevala. 
Reproduced with permission of Good Books, Mumbai, India.

 

next page

 

Parsis - The Zoroastrians of India

The story of the Ancestors

Arrival in India and the beginnings of a new life

The Early Entrepreneurs of Bombay

Pioneers of Modern India

Eminent Parsis of India

What is Zoroastrianism?

Who was Zarathustra?

Rituals, Customs & Manners

 

 

 


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