Roni K. Khan's Famous Article "Universalism and all that"

Part IV

* Closing the Coffin of Conversion *

This is Part IV of the famous article "Universalism and All that" by the Zoroastrian scholar RONI KHAN of India, published in the Jam-e-Jamshed paper in Bombay, India in 1995. The article is reproduced with kind permission, and great encouragement, from the Author as well as the newspaper.


Closing the Coffin of Conversion

by Roni K. Khan




The Great Heterodox Fallacy is the lack of understanding that the Zarathushtrian religion, like all religions, has to be, and indeed is, more than only a philosophy dealing with the abstract metaphysical concepts of Hakikat. It is this fallacious premise which gives rise to faulty perceptions of "universalism," and which lies at the bottom of the entire three point heterodox agenda of conversion, cremation and mixed marriages.

We can demolish the Fallacy in one stroke and end the discussion here and now by recalling that a fully functional religion, intended for coherent practice by ordinary mortals like you and me, is a complete spiritual system with the four inseparable and integrated components of Hakikat, Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat. To briefly recap these four essentials, "Hakikat" = philosophical expositions of universal truths, "Marefat" = channels or agencies for spiritual communion, "Tarikat" = ritualized spiritual disciplines, and "Shariat" = religious rules and injunctions.

The philosophy of Zarathushtra is certainly a vital component of the religion of Zarathushtra, even its fountainhead -- but it is not its sum total. If a philosophy could be equated with a religion, the world would be inundated with "religions" of Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche and any number of other philosophers. On this one ground alone, the Fallacy crumbles: a religion is more than a philosophers' club.

But let us not call it a day as yet; it is an education in itself to take a peek into the workings of the heterodox mind. Let us therefore proceed to take a closer look at FIVE MAJOR ASPECTS of the Great Heterodox Fallacy.

(1) "The Three H's Only"

In heterodox hands, even the overall philosophy of a righteous life, as enshrined in the great ethical triad of "Humata - Hukhta - Hvarshta" ("Good thoughts - Good words - Good deeds"), the superbly pithy portrayal of the immutable law of Asha or Righteousness, is not spared the ignominy of becoming a pawn in the conversion game.

It is correctly postulated that since the grand philosophy of Asha is the founding revelation of our religion, leading a righteous life in tune with the "Three H's" is the real criterion for being a good Zarathushtrian. Nobody can dispute that. So far so good. But then comes the typical heterodox twist, subtle and plausible as ever. Almost imperceptibly, the original proposition is skilfully manipulated to plant the inference that leading a righteous life is the criterion for being a Zarathushtrian. It is one thing to say that righteous living determines whether you are a good, bad or mediocre Zarathushtrian, but quite another to insinuate that righteous living qualifies you to be a Zarathushtrian!

We increasingly encounter the mistreatment of the "Three H's" nowadays. The way it is handled by the editor of a "progressive" journal goes like this:- "Whether [they] profess the Zoroastrian faith is not as material as whether they live righteously. If they do, they are Zoroastrians regardless of whether they profess the faith or not" (emphasis mine). He was referring to certain born Zoroastrians now practising other faiths. From the stepping stone of this trite premise, it doesn't require an Einstein to figure out that the "General Theory of Convertibility" would go like this:- If those who are committed to good thoughts, good words and good deeds are already real Zoroastrians unofficially, it is merely a procedural formality to regularize this reality and "accept" them as Zoroastrians officially!

Sounds plausible, doesn't it? Lucid and logical? Simple and clear-cut? But please take the trouble to give the "Theory" a deeper look. You should be able to discern that the argument is as simplistic as it is simple, as glib as it is plausible. Though our holy Prophet was the first to bring the message of Asha to mankind, may we ask whether righteousness is the spiritual monopoly of the Zarathushtrian religion?

The "Three H's" of Asha are expressed differently in different religions, and it violates the Zarathushtrian ethos of respect for all religions to imply that these virtues are the private preserve of the Zarathushtrian faith, and to demean other religions by insinuating that they are deficient in these fundamental requirements for a Good life.

To live righteously is not the sole prerogative of Zarathushtrians. The other great religions do not teach "Dushmata - Duzukhta - Duzvarshta"! The metaphysical law of Asha or Righteousness, the Eternal Law of Truth, is known to the philosophy of all true religions of the world, and each religion has its own unique code of Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat to make it actionable for its adherents.

The Sanskrit term "Rita" is the exact philological equivalent of the Avestan word "Ereta" (= "Asha"), and the Vedas proclaim that Rita supports and upholds all creation. The very title of an article by the late G. K. Nariman speaks for itself: "Buddhist Parallels to Humata Hukhta Hvarshta." And who can ever forget Lord Jesus' words:- "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5-6), and "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for their's is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5-10)? The kingdom of heaven, through righteousness, is not exclusively for Zarathushtrians, and the sacred scriptures of all religions revere righteousness. There are 111 passages extolling righteousness and righteous living in the holy Bible alone -- what would we have to say if a Christian were to hold up the Bible and tell us, "Those who live righteously are Christians, regardless of whether they profess the faith or not"? Aggrandizing one's own faith at the expense of others is a risky business.

It is also a risky business, as we have repeatedly warned, to take the myopic view and perceive the Hakikat component alone as the whole religion. HOW does one translate the "Three H's" into action? Since the partial view of religion doesn't tell us "how," we naturally find ourselves out on a limb when seeking to put the "Three H's" into practice. Unless, of course, we think we have the spiritual mastery to work it all out on a "do-it-yourself" basis, or feel we have the "freedom" to pick out whatever practices take our fancy, while rejecting the rest -- both normal heterodox procedures.

One recalls the instance of the journalist, who, while commenting on Asha during a book review, correctly recognizes that "Asha is an esoteric concept." But then, he immediately goes on to wish that the book had sought to "elaborate on the way in which righteousness can be translated into action"! This rather naive suggestion seems to convey a certain lack of appreciation that the way in which righteousness can be translated into action is already elaborated for us in the actionable mandates of Marefat, Tarikat and Shariat. What are these more specific components of our religion, if not the concretized, practical expressions of Asha and the "Three H's," preserved and practised across the ages by uncounted generations of our righteous forebears? A partial view of the religion naturally leads to a need for elaboration in order to "fill in the blanks," while the whole view taken with faith and discipline finds that everything is already in place. The translation of Asha into action is not a "do-it-yourself" exercise in personal creativity. It is a pre-packaged code of behaviour already spelt out for us.

The "Three H's" of Asha are embroidered into every principle, precept, prescription, proscription, tenet, teaching, canon, custom, usage, tradition and institution of our religion. The Zarathushtrian religion is a mandated practice, not only an abstract theory, in righteousness. It is an itemized Way of Life.

(2) "The Gathas Alone"

A highlight of the Great Heterodox Fallacy is the paradigm that the holy Gathas are the only authentic Zarathushtrian scripture. All else, including our other sacred scriptures and especially our time-tested usages and practices, is dismissed as "later," "adulterated," "deviant," and "disposable." In one fell swoop, this "purges" the religion of the "worthless paraphernalia" and "unauthentic accretions" under which we poor mixed-up Zarathushtrians have mindlessly laboured for thousands of years! Thus are the decks sought to be cleared of the "debris of the ages" to make way for the "restoration" of "pure" Zarathushtrian ideals like conversion, mixed marriages, and other such lofty conceptions.

Someone has rather scorchingly dubbed this school of thought the "Gatha-Alone-Cult" or "GAC" for short -- but it can hardly be denied that this salty label is an apt description of this hotbed of heterodoxy. The GAC leadership is comprised of professors, jurists, Ph.D's in various fields, and other such professionals and intellectuals. After all, it does take a certain professional expertise and intellectual ability to turn a religion topsy-turvy. And lest we forget, they even choose, train and install "ratus" in order to "restore the Gathic form of leadership." "Ratu," by the way, means saviour or prophet in the holy Gathas, and is the term reserved there for Lord Zarathushtra and divine entities like Spenta Armaiti (see Gatha Yasna 29-2, etc.)!

The origin of the "Gathas alone" syndrome may be traced to the nineteenth century, with the import into India of the philological "discovery" by the great western scholars that the holy Gathas comprise Asho Zarathushtra's personal poetic utterances. This understandably stimulated a renewed interest in this sublime scripture among Parsis, and much worthwhile scholarly effort and attention was paid to Gathic studies by eminent Parsi scholars like Irach Taraporewala, Ardeshir Khabardar and Behramgore Anklesaria -- without, as yet, a balanced view of the whole Zarathushtrian scriptural catalogue and the whole religion being lost by default.

Furthermore, some of these earlier western scholars and translators, like Prof. A. V. W. Jackson of Columbia, influenced, no doubt, by the proselytizing traditions and practices of their own religion, proposed the idea that conversion was to be "seen" in the Gathas too. (Without depreciating their many pioneering and valuable contributions to knowledge, it may nonetheless be remembered, in passing, that these scholars were also able to "see" a menagerie of horses, cows and other quadrupeds in the Gathas, along with fodder and meadows, suggesting that the theme of this exalted spiritual text might well be animal husbandry and the pastoral culture of a primitive society!) As with virtually everything emanating from the ruling West at that time, this too was readily imported and accepted by some Parsi modernists, including certain Dasturs, even against their own traditions. The power of western influence in all fields, during India's colonial period, can hardly be underestimated.

Thus was the germ of conversion, misconstrued from early Gathic studies by western scholars, first implanted into some Parsi circles around the turn of this century, and it germinated with attempts from wealthy and influential quarters to "Zarathushtrianize" mixed marriages through the conversion of non-Parsi spouses.

Later on, with the extensive emigration of Indian and Iranian Zarathushtrians to western countries from the 1960's onwards, the interest in the holy Gathas was exported to the new Zarathushtrian communities of the West. There, for a variety of environmental, psychological, sociological and economic reasons, legitimate interest and reverence turned into obsession, as it came to be realized that the purely philosophical nature of the Gathas was more conveniently suited to the non-ritualistic lifestyles of the new emigrants in their intensely materialistic, hedonistic and fast-paced new environments. It is relevant to note, in passing, that most of these emigrants have sought out their new homelands from exclusively materialistic or personal motives, in complete contrast to their ancestors who had emigrated from Iran to India over a thousand years earlier with the exclusively religious motive of preserving their faith for posterity, at any personal cost -- this significant difference of motive between the two emigrant groups helps to explain a number of things.

As the "Gathas alone" obsession has developed into the functioning GAC of the 1990's, it has assumed grotesque proportions, as with anything that is carried to an extreme. Even the holy Gathas themselves, on which such exclusive reliance is placed, are blatantly twisted and misinterpreted to suit or justify heterodox practices, and established "asho" usages and practices, held sacrosanct from time immemorial, are wantonly attacked and ridiculed. For instance, GAC functionaries preach that the consecrated Nirang is "devil's brew," that the holy Fire is but a "symbol," that Sudreh-Kashti are just for outward "identification" and not mandatory, that conversion as an "original" element of the religion is to be encouraged, that mixed marriages and conversion are supported by "freedom of choice," that the maanthric nature of our prayers is a figment of the imagination of superstitious "vibrationists," that the so-called younger Avesta, and especially the Pahlavi scriptures, are "ungenuine" texts, that the Yazatas are non-Zarathushtrian "facsimiles" of Vedic gods and goddesses, that the Dokhmas are filthy places where "demons gather" -- the list is endless.

Such are the history and beliefs of the GAC, which has struck fertile soil in the worldly West -- all in the name of the holy Gathas and our holy Prophet.

And now, as once before, the breeze blows from the West, with bold "missionary" attempts being made to export the fully developed and persuasively packaged GAC doctrine from the West, to help enlighten us misguided natives in India -- "O Wild West Wind"! The import-export trade between East and West in the "rediscovery" of the holy Gathas, which has been going on for well over a century and had started out in such a promising way, has ended up as an instrument of sabotage, with the balance of payments position going deeply into the red for the Din-e Zarathushtra.

Just what are the holy Gathas? The five Gathas (root "ga," to sing, + "tha," nominative suffix), are Asho Zarathushtra's intensely personal devotional outpourings in the form of metrical chants or poetic songs. Duncan Greenlees calls them "a sort of autobiographical hymn-book." In just 239 pithy cantos, enshrined in seventeen Haa's or chapters of the book of Yasna, they present the most dazzling metaphysical revelations of transcendental divinity, breathtaking cosmology and supreme ethics, all at the highest esoteric and philosophical levels, and are replete with technical terms and expressions, spiritual metaphors, and layer upon layer of mystical meaning. For instance: the immutable primordial law of Asha; other universal natural laws like the law of "karma" or "kerdaar"; the monotheistic Creator and His dualistic creation; the cosmological and ethical significance of the twin Mainyus; the origin of Evil; the holy Fire; the supreme spiritual principles personified by the Amesha Spentas; eternal aphorisms, maxims and axioms for righteous living; man's role and responsibilities in the divine scheme and under the laws of Nature; the origin and purpose of creation.

The five Gathas, as the sublimest and most direct expression of the fundamental philosophical and metaphysical truths revealed by our Prophet, are the foremost repository of the Hakikat component of the Zarathushtrian religion. Thus, they are the very fountainhead and foundation of the religion of Zarathushtra, venerated since ancient times as evidenced from the fact that three entire volumes of the original 21 "Nasks" were devoted to their explication. But in and of themselves, the holy Gathas do not, and cannot, comprise the whole religion of Zarathushtra.

It is naive to profess that the holy Gathas are easy to understand. They are not, and their inner secrets can never be unlocked by any number of Gatha colloquiums, workshops and conferences. The mysteries of the ultimate truths of God and His creation can be fully penetrated only in the temple of the purified soul -- not in the temples of worldly academe at Oxford or Columbia. No doubt, the scientific techniques and methodologies of high scholarship are very valuable, but they can take us only thus far and no farther. There is a world of difference between the "rational mind" and the "illumined mind" ("soochaa mananghaa"; GathaYasna 30-2).

Moreover, it must always be remembered that the holy Gathas are composed in maanthric "cipher" language of the highest possible order, where the "staotic" vibrations of the words and syntax are given at least as much importance as the apparent outer meanings. The holy Gathas are maanthras (Skt. mantra), whose mystical inner meanings and effects can be fully fathomed only by adepts who are versed in the divine science of "mantra shaastra" or "staota yesnya." Asho Zarathushtra twice describes himself as a maanthran or maanthra-master (GathaYasna 32-13, 50-5), and he also twice declares that he is actually "weaving" his surpassing chants, stitch by stitch like an intricate piece of tapestry, as it were:

"Yay Vaa, Ashaa, ufyaani Manas-chaa Vohoo apaourveem, Mazdaanm-chaa Ahurem"

= I verily unto Thee, O Asha, shall weave my hymns and unto Vohu Mano as never before, and unto Mazdaa Ahura" (Gatha Yasna 28-3; see also 43-8).

For all these reasons, perhaps one can now better understand why certain spiritual howlers and conceptual confusions, like the idea of conversion, can be encountered in conventional philological translations or interpretations of the Gathas, why some Gathic words and lines are almost unintelligible and untranslatable, why not one of the dozens of available Gatha translations fully agrees with another -- and why a few, only a very few, translations stand out as more successful, because, in addition to employing modern philological methods, their authors have also been able to bring some measure of spiritual insight to bear on the supremely spiritual Gathas. The others, which rely on mechanical scholarship alone, give themselves away at a glance -- they are as dry as dust. One cannot help calling to mind the golden maxim: "Read the things of the flesh with the eyes of the Spirit, not the things of the Spirit with the eyes of the flesh."

GAC gurus find that the Gathas can be made to suit their purposes very well. With so many different translations and interpretations already available, it is easy to slip in one more version -- the GAC version -- suitably doctored to "prove" heterodox ideas like conversion, and professionally packaged and marketed as "the real thing" to an innocent public thirsting for knowledge.

Hence, with an almost imperceptible sleight of hand, the famous Freedom of Moral Choice becomes a freedom of "religious" choice, the spotless GathaYasna 31-3 is loudly declared, with brazen misquoting of Dr. Irach Taraporewala's acclaimed translation, to be the direct, definitive "proof" of our holy Prophet's "proselytizing intentions," and verse after verse from our holiest scripture is deftly plucked out of context and tortured into confessing to "conversion."

But there is absolutely nothing in the holy Gathas, not a single canto, line or word, to attest to conversion from religion to religion. Since this is the plain truth, and since truth always speaks with a power of its own, it is not difficult to shoot down the high-flying clay pigeon of conversion and see it shatter as it hits terra firma.

Characteristically, when confronted, exposed and thwarted by Gathic truth, GAC strategists discreetly retreat to their fall-back position, at least till the dust settles. All the bombastic propaganda about "positive evidence" for conversion from the Gathas is smoothly replaced by anemic negative arguments that defy all logic. Judge for yourself, please: a couple of examples follow.

Checked in an effort to chisel Gatha Yasna 31-3 into a crutch for conversion, and also in an attempt to blow up an alleged Avestan fragment into some sort of "22nd.Nask" ratifying conversion (promptly booted out by a scholar-Dastur as "a fabrication of recent centuries, most probably the last"), a heterodox researcher had to subside to the bland position that "one would not find a single passage, I repeat, a single passage that prohibits the propagation of the religion to others or bars the acceptance of non-Zoroastrians into the fold." A fine negative argument indeed! But pray tell, if something is not prohibited, does that necessarily mean that it is permitted? Since when does logic teach us to base theories on the absence of a statement?

The next example is just as entertaining. While making a number of foggy points in trying to rescue the previous researcher, another heterodox spokesperson, inspite of conceding that "nowhere did the Gathas tell us to convert," persists in taking pot-shots at the Gathas on the negative grounds that "what I have failed to discover is a single line or verse which indicates that we must not convert." Once again, pray tell, where is the logic in inferring that if something isn't a straight "No," it must be a "Yes"?

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Sorry, but we can't live in a fantasy world of conjecture based on bizarre reasoning, twisted interpretations, or plain fabrications, which strain to support preconceived notions at any cost and with no holds barred. What scholarly discussion can there be on that basis?

All said and done, we can only repeat the caution we gave earlier: it is a risky business to take a partial view of a religion. When the "Gatha-Alone-Cult" myopically mistakes only the Hakikat component for the whole Zarathushtrian religion, pandemonium is the inevitable result. Though the private nature of our correspondence precludes me from naming the very eminent western scholar who wrote the following memorable words with reference to the GAC syndrome, they hit the nail right on the head and are well worth bearing in mind:- "I would imagine that your opponents tend simply to reject all evidence but that of the Gathas ... It is a radical position which seems to make all serious discussion impossible."

End of Part IV

Written by Roni Khan

Published in the JAM-E-JAMSHED Weekly, Bombay, India

Part V of Roni K. Khan's "Universalism and all that"

Part III of Roni K. Khan's "Universalism and all that"

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