Greenbelt Interfaith News

    March 1998

    Zoroastrian Soldier and Priest Presides over Fire Festival
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    In ancient times, the empire of Persia (Iran) spread from Asia to Europe to Africa; its official religion was Zoroastrianism (Zarathushtrianism), a faith whose worship was centered on devotions toward fire, the symbol of the divine. Over a thousand years, empires rose and fell in Iran, but Zoroastrians continued their worship.

    Then, in 631 A.D., the Arabs invaded Iran. Some Zoroastrians hid in remote parts of Iran, others converted to Islam, while still others left Iran in search of a home. They fled to China, Russia, and other parts of the world; nearly all of the Zoroastrian settlements which resulted died out in the end. Only one survived.

    The story goes that a group of Zoroastrians arrived in India and asked a local ruler for refuge. He granted it, on condition that the Zoroastrians adopt several Hindu customs and keep their practice of their own religion quiet, so that prince's subjects would not be tempted to convert to the new religion. So to this day, Indian Zoroastrians Parsis, as they are now called hold their weddings at night when they will be less conspicuous, and their mobeds (priests) wear white Hindu robes.

    One such Parsi mobed, Ervad (Brig.) Behram Panthaki, stood white-robed in the auditorium of a Virginia church on February, and recited prayers in honor of a festival he had not celebrated before coming to America, for it was an Iranian festival which is no longer celebrated in India.

    "Show me, O Fire, the universal purifier," he said, "the path which leads to the bright and glorious world which is the abode of the righteous."

    No fire was present as he spoke, but a short time later, at the next-door headquarters of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, Inc., a bonfire leaped toward the sky as the Zoroastrians gathered close to it on this chilly, dark night, fifty days before the Zoroastrian new year.

    In contrast to the solemn prayers that had occurred before, the fire-lighting on Jahan-e-Sadeh was a time of merriment for the community. Yet the act of fire-lighting itself had profound symbolism, as explained by Rustom Kevala, publications chairperson of the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.

    "Sadeh signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil," he told the community beforehand. "The story behind Sadeh is given in Firdowshi's Shah-Namah. Housahng, a Peshdadian king, was out hunting with his men one day when he saw a large black snake. He shot a flint-tipped arrow at the snake, but the snake disappeared and the arrow hit a rock, which started a fire from the sparks. They celebrated that day as the day of the discovery of fire as mankind's friend."

    Among those who had come to celebrate the festivities was a Muslim who proclaimed his love for the Zoroastrian religion. "Because many Zoroastrians in Iran became Muslims, Muslims often feel that they have great ties with us," Ervad Panthaki explained. "I was very surprised by this gentleman expressing his feelings."

    He spoke in the auditorium of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Falls Church, where the crowd had returned in order to eat and dance, following the fire-lighting and the program of music and poetry and worship. Children who a short time ago had been singing, "I'm proud to be a Zarathushti," now raced around the room, showing off the white clothing they wore in honor of the festival. In the women's room, some of the girls worried over whether their giggling during the singing had been noticed by their elders.

    Ervad Panthaki's surprise extended to the fact that he was presiding over this celebration. Although, like his two brothers, he had been trained as a mobed when he was young, he had then entered the Indian army, rising eventually to the rank of brigadier general. Several years ago, for the sake of his children's education, he moved from Bombay to the Washington, D.C., area. The moment that the Washington Zoroastrians learned that he was a mobed, they begged him for his services; they had never had a mobed. "Before I came, there were no religious ceremonies," Ervad Panthaki explained.

    Now he serves as a mobed for the community on weekends; he says that he has learned as much from the community as they have from him. Because the community embraces both Parsis from India and Pakistan and Zoroastrians from Iran, he has had to learn various methods of worship. "When I visit a family's home, I say the prayers the way in which they wish: standing, sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor," he said. "Both sides are accommodating religious differences are only in the mind.

    "Many people ask me how I can have diametrically opposite roles," he said. "In the army, I taught people to kill; here, I teach people to pray. When I'm in my army uniform, that's my religion. I think I have performed both roles well."

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    © 1998 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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