— LETTER TO OUR YOUTH # 1 —
DOES THE "FREEDOM OF CHOICE" APPLY TO INTERMARRIAGE?
Congratulations on successfully pulling off the IXth All India Zoroastrian Youth Seminar/Festival at Surat in January of this year! Per the report in the ‘Fed Newsletter’ (July 1996), a highlight of the event was a debate on "INTERFAITH MARRIAGES — A CURSE OR A BOON?" I’m glad you had a chance to discuss this most vital issue which will determine whether we Parsis will continue to exist as Parsis. But the wording of the topic seems a bit odd, don’t you think? How can anything that leads to the disappearance of our precious Parsi/Irani community ever be considered a "BOON"?!
Please let me share some thoughts with you on the celebrated FREEDOM OF CHOICE revealed by our holy Prophet in the Gathas, since this matter was raised by one of the speakers in the debate. This pristine revelation has long been twisted out of shape to justify intermarriages, and so it’ll be useful to learn about its authentic scriptural significance.
Here’s the reported statement that I read: "Zarathushtra gave his followers the freedom to use their ‘Vohu Manah’ to make choices in their day to day lives; why then can we not use the freedom of choice to marry an individual of another religion?"
Obviously, the first step is to find out what Asho Zarathushtra himself has to say about this Freedom of Choice — in general. I urge you to study the whole of Yasna chapter 30 for yourselves. But let’s make it easy for now by highlighting, below, the key parts of the first three verses of this Gathic chapter (word-by-word literal translations by that great scholar, the late Dr. Irach Taraporewala). This will more than suffice to make the whole idea very clear.
(1) "Now to those eager shall I speak of THE TWO, who are created by Mazda — all this teaching is for the wise ….. " (Yasna 30:1).
Explanation: In these introductory lines of the first verse, Asho Zarathushtra indicates that the scope and context of chapter 30 is about the Two Mainyus. What are these Two Mainyus? They are the two opposing spirits, forces or energies of creation which appeared in the very Beginning, right at the birth of the universe. Because Spanyaa Mainyu is the GOOD spirit and Angra Mainyu the EVIL spirit, these Two set the stage for ethics in the field of human conduct. They represent the opposite poles of good and bad, right and wrong, and are thus the whole basis for morality in life.
(2) "Listen with your ears to the highest Truths, consider them with your MIND ILLUMINED (‘soochaa mananghaa’) BEFORE DECIDING (‘veechithahyaa’) between the TWO PATHS — man by man, each for his own self ….. . " (Yasna 30:2).
Explanation: This is the famous Gathic Freedom of Choice. Embedded entirely in the ethical context of the Two Mainyus, it is a freedom of MORAL choice between the two contrary paths of goodness and wickedness. Thus, it applies when there is a moral decision to be made between any two alternatives, one being GOOD and the other EVIL. It is NOT to be mistaken for a "carte blanche" to go ahead and do whatever we please just as it suits our convenience and serves our interests! It is NOT a free ticket to take as many rides as we like on the roller-coaster of our personal likes and dislikes, whims and fancies! It is a freedom, NOT a licence!
And that’s exactly why Asho Zarathushtra takes care to attach to the Freedom of Choice a very important CAUTION. He warns us that BEFORE we exercise our freedom of choice we should first have an ILLUMINED mind (‘soochaa mananghaa’). The inference is obvious: If we don’t have this, how would we ever be able to properly determine (‘veechithahyaa’) what’s right and what’s wrong in the first place? Without that, our choices could well go haywire! We’ll talk more about this a little later on, so please tuck away these Avesta words in your memory for now.
(3) "Now, in the Beginning were these TWO SPIRITS ... these Two show themselves as GOOD and BAD; and of these Two the WISE (‘hudaaongho’) RIGHTLY (‘eresh’) do choose, but not so the Unwise" (Yasna 30:3).
Explanation: Our Prophet’s shining words are so lucid that there is hardly anything I need to explain to you here: It’s pretty much what we have covered in the earlier two points. But especially note how he says that it is the WISE ONES (‘hudaaongho’) who choose RIGHTLY (‘eresh’). Please also tuck away this word ‘hudaaongho’ in your memory, because we shall be talking more about it in a minute.
Now let’s dig a bit deeper into the few Avesta words I have asked you to keep in mind. And please do remember that since the holy Gathas are profoundly spiritual, we should always try to assign the profoundest meanings to the words we find there. Here goes!
First let’s go back to the expression ‘soochaa mananghaa.’ ‘Mananghaa’ signifies "mind." And the adjective ‘soochaa’ is derived from the root ‘such’ (Skt. ‘shuch’) = "to shine forth." Therefore, what Asho Zarathushtra is talking about here is a mind that is spiritually illumined, a mind that is pure and unswayed by the lures of the senses. Only such a mind can truly reflect ‘Vohu Manah.’ Since we keep hearing about ‘Vohu Manah’ every so often, let us also touch upon what this means. ‘Vohu’ = "good, holy, noble" and ‘Manah’ = "mind." Hence, ‘Vohu Manah’ literally means "Good Mind." This signifies nothing less than the sublime Divine Intelligence, the Holy Mind of Ahura Mazda Himself! Indeed, ‘Vohu Manah’ (Bahman Ameshaspand) is personified as one of the seven archangels.
Next, we look at the word ‘veechithahyaa.’ This is derived from the root ‘vee-chi,’ where ‘vee’ = "to separate" and ‘chi’ = "to consider." More than a mundane act of deciding is meant here. Discernment is involved, which calls for sifting the wheat from the chaff. What is really indicated, therefore, is the power of discrimination (Skt. ‘vivek-buddhi’). The faculty of reasoning differentiates human beings from beasts, but it is the higher faculty of reasoning with piercing spiritual discrimination that sets apart advanced souls from ordinary folk.
And finally, ‘hudaaongho’ (Skt. ‘sudaasas’). The reference is to wise people — but "wise" only in a high spiritual sense, and not in any lower sense like having a string of theological degrees attached to one’s name! The term refers to the "good knowers of God" who are spiritually wise.
üWhat all this amounts to is that every Tom, Dick and Roni can hardly be expected to exercise the Freedom of Choice rightly all of the time. It is only the spiritually wise with illumined minds who are capable of discriminating perfectly and always choosing rightly.
Now please don’t misunderstand Asho Zarathushtra’s message. He is certainly not saying that we don’t have the freedom to choose, or that we’re always bound to go wrong. The Freedom of Choice is inalienable, and we’d never grow spiritually if we didn’t learn to use it properly even at the cost of our mistakes. But he’s certainly warning us that if we MISUSE OR MISAPPLY this God-given gift, the risk is ours! He spells this out clearly in the Gathas: "All acts and all words shall bear fruit — evil to the Evil and good blessings to the Good" (Yasna 43-5). Good choices, good acts, good results. Bad choices, bad acts, bad results. Rights always go with responsibilities, and our right to choose goes hand in hand with the responsibility for shouldering the consequences of our choices. No easy way out! We make our own bed and we must lie on it.
Let’s face it: Ordinary non-saintly people like you and me have a DUAL MENTALITY, where the potentiality of ‘Vohu Manah’ (Good Mind) co-exists with the opposite potentiality of ‘Aka Manah’ (Bad Mind); and our Prophet speaks of both these in the Gathas. Of course, we must try to cultivate ‘Vohu Manah’ and make the right moral choices in our day to day lives; and sometimes we do. But let’s be totally honest and ask ourselves: How often do we succeed in doing that, given all the permissive temptations that we’re bombarded with all the time in this super-materialistic "anything goes" age?
How often do we heed ‘Vohu Manah,’ and how often do we succumb to ‘Aka Manah’? Let the honest answer to this come as a sobering thought when some of us puny mortals make it seem like we have ‘Vohu Manah’ in our pockets, available at our every beck and call to guarantee that we make the right choices! Man is made in the image of God, but man is not yet God! One look at the daily newspaper serves to demonstrate how many right choices we human beings make. Just see the state of the world — everything from AIDS to child-sex, from genocide to mass-suicides. We’re even all set to destroy the life-support systems of our own planet! Need anything more be said?
It is precisely in order to save us from the disaster of faulty choices that our lofty Religion lays down various edicts and commandments, prescriptions and proscriptions, rules and regulations — as READYMADE GUIDELINES to help us make the right choices in key areas of life. These "do’s and don’ts" are not curbs on our freedom to choose! On the contrary, they ENHANCE it by pointing us in the RIGHT direction when we are faced with difficult choices. For our part, we need only have the faith, discipline and humility to allow ourselves to be led correctly by the wisdom of the ages.
With that, we end our sketch of the Gathic Freedom of Choice — in general. Let’s just say that this is not a toy to be played around with for catering to self-indulgent behaviour. It is a precious spiritual right accompanied by a very solemn moral responsibility.
And now, we’re ready to consider whether this Freedom of Choice can justify INTERMARRIAGE — in particular.
The single most important thing we’ve first got to know is that THE ZARATHUSHTRIAN RELIGION ITSELF PROHIBITS MIXED MARRIAGES AND ENJOINS US TO MARRY EXCLUSIVELY WITHIN THE FOLD. Every single one of us is aware from childhood, by strong oral tradition, that marrying outside the fold is a "taboo." But how many of us know that there are half-a-dozen or more injunctions to this effect in our SACRED RELIGIOUS TEXTS THEMSELVES, ranging all the way from the Gathas to the Rivayats?
It is a frequent misconception that our community’s opposition to intermarriage merely reflects an anachronistic custom originating in some social or environmental compulsions of long ago which are not relevant any longer. Nothing could be further from the truth! It originates in nothing less than the sacred Zarathushtrian texts. And the Zarathushtrian scriptures are not opportunistic or tactical responses to time-specific compulsions of a particular day or age! They are timeless expositions of timeless spiritual truths translated into the timeless and unique Zarathushtrian way of life for the evolution of our souls towards ‘Frasho-kereti.’
ü Intermarriage is governed by ZARATHUSHTRIAN RELIGIOUS LAW, and NOT by social factors or by our personal opinions and inclinations. This single piece of knowledge throws such a powerful light on the whole issue that it can be resolved straight off in just the two points that follow.
(1) When marriage within the fold is a COMMANDMENT of the Zarathushtrian Religion as enshrined in the Zarathushtrian scriptures, how can there be any freedom of choice about it for Zarathushtrians? The question doesn’t arise — the right choice has ALREADY BEEN MADE for us by the "supreme court" of our own Religion! How can we profess to be followers of Zarathushtra and in the same breath question the Holy Writ of the Religion of Zarathushtra? No way! The Gathic Freedom of Choice simply cannot apply to Zarathushtrians on intermarriage. It has all already been decided by an authority higher than ourselves! Hence, the ONLY freedom of choice we have is the choice of being faithful, or not faithful, to our Zarathushtrian Religion.
(2) The attempt to pin intermarriage to the Freedom of Choice falls to pieces when we recall that this Gathic freedom is embedded in the ethical context of the Two Mainyus and is exclusively a MORAL choice between two alternatives, one of the alternatives having to be good and the other evil. So, if this Freedom is somehow presumed to be an argument for justifying mixed marriages, it would necessarily mean that the option of intermarriage is the right choice and the GOOD alternative, whilst the other option of marrying within the community is the wrong choice and the EVIL alternative!! This is the warped deduction that flows from (mis)applying the Freedom of Choice in trying to defend intermarriages. I ask you: Can anything be more ABSURD? Can any true Zarathushtrian ever consider as EVIL his own Religion’s explicit commandment to marry within his own community? See what a tangled web we weave if we insist on thrusting a pristine piece of scripture like the Freedom of Choice upon a scripturally prohibited practice like intermarriage!
A parting word, my dear young friends. Please beware of all the misinformation and disinformation floating around on the subject of intermarriage. Don’t fall for it!
RONI K. KHAN
[Published in ‘The Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly’ on 29 September 1996.]
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