Special Report: University of London study on Zoroastrians worldwide reveals Parsis comprise more than half them

Parsi Fire Temple Entrance in Fort, Mumbai displaying a Lamassu.Photo : Courtesy Around the Globe, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

A recent clinical study has concluded that the Zoroastrian population is diminishing in the world and can perhaps be rescued from extinction by taking certain measures to preserve the culture. Results of the Survey Research titled ‘Gen Z and Beyond: A Survey for Every Generation’ have been published recently to confirm this.

The survey research was undertaken by the Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zotoastrian Studies (SOAS), at the University of London by the Principle Investigator Dr Sarah Stewart with Dr Nazneen Engineer as Project Manager and Joe Turtle as the Administrator and data analyst, and  Sheherazad Pavri as a part time researcher in India.

With questionnaire approved by the SOAS Research Ethics Panel (Internal Review Board or IRB in the U.S.) in October 2019, data began collecting in different countries from July 1, 2021 to April 19, 2023. The study aimed to yield demographic, behavioural and attitudinal data.

The questionnaire was designed specifically to study the religious identity of Zoroastrians including their belief systems and religious practices, social habits of engaging with the community and dissemination of information, and the main challenges faced by the Zoroastrian community and manners in which they can be met.

More than 5,000 respondents, between the ages of 18 and 86, included Zoroastrians from South Asia, Middle East, South East Asia and the North American regions. Some of the key findings are as follows.

Decline of the Zoroastrian Family and Causes :

The survey attributes the decline of Zoroastrian population to the decline of the family system in the recent times due to the following reasons.

 1.Migration: Migration of the younger generation to different countries for education and careers, with parents left behind, is listed as one of the causes.

2.Late or No Marriages: Most young Zoroastrians remain single till late age, or do not marry at all for lack of suitable partners, resulting in the dwindling numbers of the population.

  1. Low Fertility Rates: Late marriages and low fertility levels also contribute to the decline in Zoroastrian population.

Marriage, Relationships and Children :

As with other cultures, the Zoroastrian community also viewed marriage and children as an important aspect of life. Although the young people between the ages of 18 and 25 wanted to find a Zoroastrian partner, almost half of the young population (49.5%) were either married to or were in a relationship with Non-Zoroastrian partners, according to the survey.

  1. Raise Children as Zoroastrians: Of those who were married to Non-Zoroastrian partners, only 6.8% showed any interest in raising their children with Zoroastrian religious and cultural knowledge.
  1. Role of Mothers in Zoroastrian Upbringing of Children: The survey found both Zoroastrian mothers (57.9%) and Non-Zoroastrian mothers (52.8%) of intermarriages played a major and important role in raising children according to the Zoroastrian traditions.                                                                                                         Commnity Acceptance of Intermarriages:

Gender bias was clearly visible in the responses to the questions on acceptance of intermarriages across the regions of the survey. Women seemed to score over men in being more accepting and in-keeping with change. Acceptance of intermarriages also varied according to the regions.

More women (81.1%) than men (73.7%) said they would accept intermarriages of Zoroastrian men, women and also their children. A very small percent of women (1.8%) and men (3.9%) said they accepted intermarriages of only Zoroastrian men and their children. These were from the global aggregate responses.

A majority of the respondents in the U.K. (92.1%) said they accepted intermarriages of both Zoroastrian men and women. In North America, a majority (91.6%) said they accepted both intermarried men and women. South Asian respondents came third with 65.0% accepting of both intermarried men and women.

The survey results attribute this gender bias in acceptance of intermarriages to instances of non-Zoroastrian spouses not being accepted into the community.  Actor Sonya Balsara playing Jasmine in the Broadway musical ‘Aladdin’ shared the story of her grandmother in her recent interview with News India Times. Balsara spoke about her practicing lawyer grandmother who was shunned and threatened for marrying outside of the community. 

Knowledge of Zoroastrian Religious Texts:

The survey used questions regarding knowledge of traditional religious texts. These included the epic Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, which goes back to pre-Islamic times and draws on the ancient ZoroastrianYashts (hymns), and the Qisseh-ye Sanjan, Story of Sanjan, of the Parsis.

Younger respondents of the survey between the ages of 18 and 25 years had never heard of the Qisseh-ye-Sanjan (22.1%) or the Shahnameh (44.2%).

Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian) Identity and Sense of Belonging :

According to the survey, Zoroastrians adapt very well to new circumstances and different host communities, especially with some having migrated several times for educational or professional reasons.

Answers to the survey questions on what respondents called home, whether it was their place of domicile or their place of birth, revealed that for most of the Zoroastrians (76.3% of migrants), the country or place they lived currently was their home where they belonged.

For more than one third (36.9%), the place of birth was where they belonged, whereas a little more than one fourth of the respondents (26.3%), home was the place of their nationality. Many respondents felt they belonged to a number of places.

Parsi Entrepreneurship:

The Parsi community in India is well known for their entrepreneurship and philanthropy which grew rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries, to become the standard by which the later generations measured their own efforts.

Survey responses revealed lack of funding as the main deterrent to entrepreneurship in modern times. Almost one third of the respondents (70%) between the ages of 18 and 45 said lack of funds hindered their efforts at entrepreneurship, while more than half of the respondents (55%) listed lack of knowledge and other resources as a deterrent.

Parsi Philanthropy:

Parsis believe that an individual also has a duty towards society which he can carry out through good actions. As such, religious charity plays a very important role for Parsis.

Parsi Agyari at Dadar Matunga Parsi Colony, Mumbai. Photo : Courtesy Atmalinga, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Parsi religious and social charities have created places of worship and civil facilities through pious foundations, endowed family memorials or religious institutions. Chief among these are the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy Parsee Benevolent Institution, the Tata Charities, and, of course, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP) itself.

Based in Belief System: Questions of the Survey focused on whether ‘good thoughts, good words and good deeds’ belief still existed among Zoroastrians

A majority of the respondents (49.4%) said they held the traditional belief of the judgment of the soul after death. In total, more than half of the respondents (63.,4%)  held traditional beliefs.

Philanthropy in the Diaspora :  The Parsi respondents of the survey were mainly of older generation from India and of younger generation from the U.S. A close connection with the religious beliefs and philanthropy was found in responses of both.

More than half of the respondents said they volunteer (54.8%) and donate money (60.2%) occasionally. Less than one fourth (20.2%) said they volunteered regularly, and about one third (29.6%) said they donated money regularly.  More than half of the respondents (72.5%) said they give to both Zoroastrian and non-Zoroastrian causes. A sizable percent of the respondents (12.5%) said they give to non-Zoroastrian causes alone.

Challenges and Threats to the Parsi/Irani Identity:

It is a well known fact that Zoroastrian religion and the Parsi and Irani identity are at risk of extinction. The survey confirmed this.

More than half of the respondents (59.5%) said the main threat to Zoroastrian religion was a small and ageing population.

Almost half of the respondents (45.1%) attributed the decline to an unwillingness to reform issues of intermarriage and full acceptance of the children of intermarriages.

One third of the respondents (35.6%) said the lack of knowledge and understanding about the religion and rituals was also responsible.

Ways to Overcome the Threats:

Almost half of the respondents (49.1%) said teaching the next generation about Zoroastrian religion and culture would help combat the threat. A small percentage (13.2%) chose vocational and scientific higher education and retraining to meet the challenges. Even smaller percentage (11.3%) said adding economic, social and intellectual value to the community in the form of entrepreneurship was the answer.

Indian Parsis Make More Than Half Of Global Zoroastrians

By Archana Adalja

Gen.Z and Beyond screenshot
 Photo: Courtesy Gen. Z and Beyond Report

Although Parsis comprise sixty percent of the global Zoroastrians, when it comes to distinguishing them for their tremendous contributions, there seems to be a general lethargy.

Concerns over the decline in the numbers of the population have been voiced for many years, along with solutions towards ‘preserving’ the population. The recent survey by the University of London does not reveal anything new.

Parsis in Mumbai :

The presence of Parsis and Irani Zoroastrians in everyday affairs of Mumbai’s life, and of India’s life in general, cannot be ignored. Growing up in the 60s or 70s in Mumbai, one stopped at the ‘Parsi Dairy’ on Marine Lines for a ‘Kulfi’. Or one sat at the table of an Irani restaurant, sipping Irani Tea and munching Muska Pav, holding intellectual debates. One had at least one Parsi professor in college. For birthdays and other celebrations, one usually went to the ‘Mazda’ bakeries to pick up cakes and savories.

Mumbaikars in particular and Indians in general can hardly be unaware of the Parsis’ contributions to politics, industrialization, Gujarati journalism, English literature, education, science, healthcare, theater, cinema, and to Mumbai’s cultural life. Some of the names which come up in this context are Dadabhai Navroji, Madam Cama, Jamsetji Tata, Ratan Tata, Behramji Malabari, Homi Bhabha, J.N. Petit, Aleque Padamsee, Sohrab Modi, Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Rohinton Mistry, and many more.

Decline of the Parsi Identity :

Parsis comprise more than 60% (60,000 of the total of 100,000) of the global  Zoroastrians, according to the current survey. Of that, about 40% or 40,000 live in Mumbai, and the rest elsewhere in India, according to Porus Cooper. Cooper is a noted Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist from Philadelphia Inquirer, now retired.

That the Parsi identity is being wiped out is a truth, said Dr. Nilufer Bharucha to News India Times, in agreement with the survey results. “It is happening especially among the younger generation and it is happening in Mumbai,” she said. Bharucha is the Co-Director of Mumbai Munster Institute of Advanced Studies, a member of the English Advisory Board of Sahitya Akademi, and on the visiting faculty list of universities in Germany, Canada and the U.S..

Bharucha said a majority of the 60,000 Zoroastrians in India are in their 50s and 60s, and  they are the only ones left who even today relate to the Parsi identity. Parsi population has been declining, and with it, the sense of a Parsi identity.

That there are very few Parsis left in the rest of the world, is true. Bharucha recounted her experience of talking with  an Iranian taxi driver in Germany who had never heard of Parsis. “He understood when I mentioned Zarthrusti,” she said.

Causes of Decline :

The survey connects the decline of Parsi identity with the decline of the Parsi extended family. But this seems to be not an entirely true assumption. “Parsi extended family had already broken into nuclear families in cities like Mumbai. The grandparents did not live with us; we visited them,” Bharucha said.

Parsi Fire Temple in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Photo: Courtesy Emmanuel DYAN from Paris, France, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The survey identifies lack of knowledge of religious texts and interest in Zoroastrianism among the young as contributing factors impacting the decline of Zoroastrian community. Whether such knowledge would have kept the Zoroastrian identity cemented is debatable. This is a universal problem among all culture groups. If natural curiosity is encouraged, at some point one would have curiosity to know what actually was said in the ancient texts, perhaps at an advanced age. “I learned both the Shahnama and Qissa-e-Sanjan’ from the Gujarati Children’s Periodical, Amar Chitra Katha,” she said. So lack of knowledge about the religious texts is not irreversible and its existence cannot be said to contribute to the declining belief in Zoroastrian religious identity.

Religions have always been evolving. The strict Zoroastrian religious beliefs and practices have also undergone many changes over the years, Bharucha said. The consecrated fire temples or ‘agyaris’ today remain the only religious places where entry is allowed only by Parsis with Navjot. The religious rites of ‘Dakhmu’, the ‘Tower of Silence’, have gone out in Mumbai, with close to 50% of Parsis now choosing cremation. Even as early as the 19th century, also there were Parsi burial grounds. Today in Mumbai, the Tower of Silence is used only for certain rites before cremation, such as paying the last respects and holding prayers at the special prayer hall, Bharucha informed.

Parsi Intermarriages and their Acceptance :

Intermarriages have always been the norm in Mumbai. Parsi intermarriages have generally been accepted well by the Parsi community in modern times. Although, in other parts of the country, a Parsi intermarriage would be noticed immediately. It does not negate the fact that in older times, the community opposed such intermarriages and also debarred them.

According to the survey, women are more accepting than men, in general, of intermarriages of anyone. It also claims a very low percentage acceptance of intermarriages of men alone. The data here seem to create some confusion, and does not strike true, according to Cooper. “There is a much wider acceptance of intermarried men and women both,” he said.

Bharucha said her own intermarriage with Dr. Sridhar Rajeswaran did not stop any of her cousins or neighbors in Mumbai’s Tardeo Parsi Colony from accepting her and her husband or being their friends. “More than me, he was the one to have ‘balcony conversations’ with the ladies,” Bharucha said. Societal acceptance has never been a problem with non-Parsi spouses of her two sisters either. Bharucha said the only place where access was denied to non-Parsi partners was in the fire temple. Cooper observed that he had found that Zoroastrians from Iran were more accepting of changes and mingling of community in marriages.

Male Dominance:

The survey data regarding general male dominance seem warped. Parsi priesthood was male dominated erstwhile. Today, priests are not necessarily from hereditary priestly families, Cooper informed. Non-ordained priests can now direct certain religious ceremonies. Male dominance within families also appears to be a thing of the old times. Cooper said he had seen in his own family the important and commanding position of his grandmother. Only a small Parsi community in Kolkata is still patriarchal, according to Bharucha. Even there, the only male dominated entity is the Parsi Panchayat.

Conclusion :

It seems the survey could have yielded different results if the questionnaire was designed differently. The declining Parsi community can perhaps have some hope if there is a clear division between identifying with the Parsi identity, as opposed to being born a Parsi. Pride in the Parsi identity would come from putting it in context of India’s development, and bringing awareness of its tremendous contributions.

Perhaps Parsis can become less inward looking, and less confined to general media. In the U.S., FEZANA has been apprising the community of all the activities undertaken by local Zoroastrian organizations. But one hardly sees such news in any other media. A systematic attempt to publish Parsi news and activities in the Indian media in the U.S. would lead to more pride in the Parsi heritage among the young, perhaps.



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