OUR ANCIENT CUSTOMS - ARE THEY RELEVANT TODAY ?
From the Youths' Page
I received the last two issues of 'Deen Parast' through a friend and enjoyed reading them - particularly the Youths' Page. I would like to ask the following four questions which have always bothered me, since I was in school. My thinking is rational an d I would appreciate if you will answer these questions, as rationally and logically as possible.
a) Why don't we allow non-Parsis to enter Agiaries and Atash Behrams? Aren't all human beings one in the eyes of God?
b) Why must we pray in a dead language which we don't understand and mumble without knowledge or devotion?
c) Why should we cover our head while praying? Do prayers offered by a person who keeps his head uncovered, become unacceptable to God?
d) Why can't women in their menses enter Agiaries or Atash Behrams? It is a perfectly natural biological process which women undergo, every month. I personally think the prohibition is out of tune with modern times, unscientific and outright sexist.
- an interested reader from Bombay
a) The custom of not permitting non-Parsis to enter places of worship has to be considered both from the legal and religious points of view.
If you study the constitution or trust deeds of our various Agiaries and Atash Behrams in India, you will observe that the founders established these places of worship for the exclusive use of Parsi Zoroastrians. (A 'Parsi', by legal definition, includes an Iranian Zoroastrian, also.) This has been the will and direction of the founding fathers and no trustee, beneficiary or court of law can sit in judgement over it.
From the religious point of view, the custom is not unique to the Parsis only. A non-Muslim is not permitted to enter the holy city of Mecca in order to see the Ka'aba, nor a non- Hindu allowed into the inner precincts of certain temples in North and Sout h India. The Jagannathan temple in Orissa is a good example. Non-Christians are not allowed to enter the Coptic orthodox churches in Ethiopia and only a confirmed Catholic may partake of the Holy Communion. Similarly, non-Jews are forbidden to enter an orthodox Hessidic synagogue.
In short, all over the world, in religious traditions where rituals and the laws of purity have been retained, the entry of non-faith members in their respective houses of worship has been generally prohibited.
Yes, all human beings are one in the eyes of God. And although God is One, human beings perceive Him differently, according to the religion they have been born into. As a common analogy, your parents may refer to you as a "child", your children may call you mummy", your friends and husband may call you by your first name, your boss may call you by your last name. Each of these individuals call you by a different name and each of them have different expectations of you, and you have specific and different duties and obligations towards them all. Yet, you are one and the same human being. In like manner, God is One but has many names and human beings perceive Him and reach Him in different ways. The important point is to perceive God from the vantage point (religion) you find yourself in and work your way towards Him by walking on the road that lies ahead of you. All religions are true and lead to the same goal, ie., God, but that doesn't mean you can change tracks, every now and then.
To draw another analogy, take the case of an university student. The final aim of an university student is to obtain a degree. If he has an aptitude for science, he will naturally find himself in the science stream. If he wants to do well for himself in t he stream meant for him, he should be focussing all his energies on subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. However, if he decides to also indulge in economics, book-keeping, literature, logic, philosophy and psychology, he will find th at he is getting simply nowhere. A smattering here and a smattering there, but nowhere close to perfection or attainment of the final goal.
So when a non-faith member passes the house of worship of another, let him/her bow his/her head in reverence from outside the precincts of the temple, for it is, indeed, a holy place and deserves respect. But if he desires to actually pray and offer worsh ip for his spiritual upliftment, then let him go only to the place of worship of his own religion and to no other.
b) What you erroneously, and rather disrespectfully, refer to as a "dead" language, is the language of revelation. Parsis have always offered worship to Ahura Mazda in the language Zarathushtra received his revelation. For it is within the language of revelation that the strength, authenticity and continuity of the Zoroastrian faith are founded. Prayers recited in the language of revelation are extremely powerful for they contain the power and strength of the Truth, which can easily vanquish the Lie a nd the Evil One. However, if one changes the language of revelation, then the spirit of the revelation and its esoteric quality changes.
It certainly helps if you know the meaning of what you are praying - and today, there are any number of good books available, explaining the meaning of our prayers. (In case you are interested, we can even send you a list of religious books meant spec ially for beginners and where they are available. Do let us know). But worship, in order to be effective, should be offered in the form it has been handed down to us, over the centuries, by our devout and sagacious forefathers.
In Yasna 41.5, we recite, "O God, I do your bandagi (worship) with the manthra (holy Avestan spells)." One must also take into account the soothing, uplifting and healing effect that the vibrations caused by the chanting of our manthras (prayers) have on the reciter. In Yoga, the correct chanting of the "Om" rekindles certain psychic energies and activates the various chakras (centres of psychic energy) in the body. In like manner, the proper chanting of our Avestan manthras rekindles certain psychic energies within the reciter and helps bring about a spiritual transformation.
So please put in an effort to understand the meaning of what you pray. But pray you must only in the language of revelation.
c) While answering the previous question, we had referred to the chanting of Avestan manthras activating various chakras in the reciter. The highest chakra is located in the region that devout Parsis cover with a prayer cap, turban or scarf.
Prayers are recited by a Zoroastrian mainly for his spiritual development and that of the universe. The point is not whether prayers offered bare-headed are acceptable to God or not, but whether the prayers offered without following the prescribed rules w ill have any effect on the reciter. For example, if the doctor prescribes that a pill should be taken on an empty stomach, but you, in your wisdom, decide it won't matter if it is taken after a plate of Dhansak, then the loss is not the doctor's, but your own.
It may interest you to know that in ancient times, in all oriental countries and even in Rome and Greece, slaves had to go about bare-headed and bare-footed, reflecting their status in society. When a kind master would decide to free a slave, he would sym bolically place a cap on his (i.e. the slave's) head and restore his freedom and respectability in society. Wearing a cap, therefore, is not only a mark of respectability, but also offering respect to another. The Western custom of doffing one 's hat is a symbol of humility, as if to express, "I am your slave." On formal parade duties, however, the salute is generally offered with hats on.
d) Observing the laws of purity is a sacred duty for every Zoroastrian. A Zoroastrian woman in her menses is doctrinally held to be in a state of impurity. This is not an indictment against women alone for even a priest who has a bleeding sore or a festering wound is not permitted to enter the precincts of a fire temple until he undergoes ritual purification. Your charge regarding this custom being sexist, therefore, is untenable.
The Greek author, Pliny, in his Natural History (Book 7, chapter 13) states, "On the approach of a woman in this state (i.e., menses), wine will become sour, seeds which are touched by her will become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits." In Book 28, chapter 23, he continues, "... bees, it is a well-known fact, will forsake their wives if touched by a menstruating woman .... fire itself, an element which triumphs over every other substance, is unable to conquer this. "
We gather from the 'Vendidad' (16.2) that the observance of seclusion during menses in a separate place has been in vogue, since times immemorial. This custom, again, is not unique to the Parsi community alone. A Hindu lady, in her menses, abstains generally from worship, cooking and remains aloof from other members of the family. The Jews believe Moses had interdicted Jewish women from going near rivers, wells, fire or kitchen, grain fields, gardens and cattle. The Arabs also observed similar customs and women stayed in separate huts or tents. In the New Testament, there is a reference to an incident where a woman in her menses, touches the cloak of Jesus and he cries out, "Who touched me? My Glory is gone out of me."
Indian housewives, for ages, have known that pickle and other preserved foods handled by them during menses, spoil easily. So is there a scientific explanation for this? Indeed, there is! Critical investigations by Drs. Macht and Lobin at Johns Hopkins Un iversity Laboratory have found a certain toxin (appropriately called "Menotoxin") in the various body fluids of a menstruating woman. This toxin is believed to manifest itself in large quantities, just before and during the first few days of the onset of the monthly period. Research has revealed that Menotoxin has an inhibitory effect on the growth of roots, stems, living seedlings, yeast and affects the geotropic properties of seedlings. Is there any wonder our sagacious forefathers recommended seclusion?
We accept the fact that in today's times, especially in large cities like Bombay, it may not be possible to observe complete seclusion. Yet one must make a conscious effort to keep away from all sacred objects in the house or items like clothes which one normally reserves for visits to Agiaries and Atash behrams. Doctrinally, prayers recited by a woman in her menses, are invalid in nature.
According to the Vendidad' 16.4) a woman in her menses "should keep 15 paces from fire, 15 from water and 15 from barsam and 3 paces from a holy man". It has also been observed with the aid of Kirlian photography that the aura or personal atmosphere of a woman in her menses becomes dark, dense and putrid. Visiting a holy place like a consecrated Agiary or Atash Behram during menses is, therefore, preposterous and tantamount to an unforgivable sin in nature.
Written by the General Editor
Published in the Deen Parast, Bombay, India
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