Last week’s column on the ordainment of two deacons in Mumbai’s Catholic Church attracted a lot of interest among Parsi-Zoroastrians. Unlike members of the clergy, who need to be celibate, deacons can be married men. Ranking next to bishops and priests in the hierarchy, these trained theologians perform many religious services and can be standbys, especially in areas where there are not enough priests.
Zoroastrians in Mumbai – nearly half of them live in the city and there are more than 40 fire temples – had started a programme where men who are not priests were trained to perform religious services. These men can lead prayers at homes, but cannot conduct certain rituals such as funeral rites or some services at fire temples. They can attend to holy fires in lower-ranking shrines though. While only members from a small group of families can train to be priests, any Zoroastrian man can train as a paramobed – the term for a Zoroastrian priest is mobed.
The scheme, unlike the one at the Catholic Church, has not been a success. “Paramobed scheme does not attract many, though a modest payment is made for services,” said Jehangir Patel, editor of a Parsiana weekly, in a message to this correspondent. “No seminaries or ashrams for training.”
Dinshaw Mehta, former chairperson of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, the community’s largest representative body, which also runs fire temples, said that when the paramobed scheme started a few decades ago, the community was looking for substitutes who could fill in for mobeds. “Especially in mofussil areas, where there is a shortage of priests,” said Mehta. “But the idea has not caught on as expected.”
Ramiyar Karanjia, priest and principal of Dadar Athornan Institute, a religious school, said that the concept of paramobeds started in Mumbai in the 70s. “At that time, there was an objection to the term and it fizzled out,” said Karanjia. “It was revived 10 years ago under a new term – Behdin Pasbaans – and there are five or six active paramobeds in Mumbai who go to places like Jhansi, Ratlam and others (where there are Zoroastrians but no priests).”
Like the Catholic Church, Zoroastrians are struggling to find enough priests. The shortage is accentuated by the community’s shrinking numbers and also by the rule that priesthood is restricted to members of a few families. Framroze Mirza, who has been a priest for nearly five decades, said that in the 1960s, when he started assisting his father with his work at Udvada’s Atash Behram – the holiest of the fire temples – the main hall would be filled with praying priests. “There would be no room to stand. There were so many priests that each one got a turn at duties after several days; there are only two priests now,” said Mirza. “When I retire – which happens in five years – we will have to look for priests.”
“Paramobeds are paid by fire temples and families for their services, but many feel that the remuneration is too meagre to attract young people. It is not a paying profession,” said a member of the community.
“It is a secondary occupation, so people do it out of interest,” said Karanjia, adding that the next batch of paramobeds would be trained in May.
Our system of priesthood is based on caste and career instead of a “calling” to serve. The caste based system worked in old times when the kings patronized them and children of priests could not have other careers. After Parsis became prosperous in India, rich businessmen patronized priests so the supply of priests again increased. Today, there is not enough compensation so children of priests choose other careers or serve part-time. The problem of shortage can be mitigated if priesthood is opened up for all regardless of caste, and Behdins who choose to be priests either full-fledged Mobeds or Behdin Pasbans are treated with equal respect, allowed to sit with hereditary priests at community Jashans, etc., at least for outer liturgical ceremonies. Compensation will then be a secondary motive if at all, and only spiritual satisfaction will attract them to serve God and community and keep our traditional prayer ceremonies. Otherwise, the community will get used to not performing ritual prayer ceremonies due to shortage of hereditary priests who are not always available when needed, and our traditions will be lost forever, especially with the new generation that is more materialistic and can see the hypocrisy of so-called religious people (priests and laity).