Talk given at the 11th World Zoroastrian Congress in Perth, Australia, June 2, 2018 by Maneck Nawroji Bhujwala
Importance of Priesthood
Why do we need priests?
We all have two aspects – the physical and the spiritual. This is also reflected in the Fravahar symbol. For meeting our physical needs, we have professionals like doctors, engineers, accountants, businessmen, etc. And, for our spiritual needs we have priests.
Zarathushti priests have faithfully preserved the teachings of Asho Zarathushtra and his followers, and the ritual ceremonies and prayers through good and bad times for thousands of years. They have passed on their knowledge to the community at large by teaching prayers to children before their formal initiation (Navjote) and through lectures and books of scholar priests. They have performed prayer ceremonies on various occasions, including initiation, marriage, funerals, seasonal festivals (Ghahambars). They are an integral part of the Zarathushti religion and culture, and therefore it is essential to support the priesthood in order to preserve our religion for future generations.
Problems facing Priesthood
Today, we face the reality of a growing shortage of priests, both in India and globally. Even though many children of priests have undergone some level of training in order to be formally classified as Ervads, a large number of them have decided to pursue other professions or businesses which offer a much more lucrative future. As a result, there are a growing number of instances where priests are not available when needed to perform ceremonies. Even some of our consecrated temples in India are having difficulty hiring priests. In order to get priests from out of town, private families have to spend more money for transportation and lodging for the priests. This growing non-availability of local priests and the resulting reduction in Jashans performed at private homes, takes away the opportunity for children and youth to experience them, and may eventually cause community members to do without traditional prayers and ceremonies altogether.
Efforts to overcome Problems
Plans to create amelioration funds to provide better compensation for priests have not succeeded in attracting enough of the younger generation to pursue priesthood. Members of the non-priestly community are not allowed to become Ervads. A few programs for training members of the community to perform basic ritual prayers like Jashans for different occasions, with titles of Paramobeds, Mobedyars, or Behdin Pasban have faced resistance from some practicing Ervads who fear competition to their business. Considering the fact that practicing Ervads outside India have other careers and only do priestly work on an as needed part-time basis, it is hard to understand their concern. And, some of the handful of qualified Mobedyars continue to face restrictions, exclusion, and lack of adequate recognition for their volunteering and service, which can discourage future generations of interested individuals from opting for such training and service.
What Needs to be done
We need to pursue a holistic approach, which includes improved education, compensation, and respect for full-time practicing Ervads in India, education of the Zarathushti community about the past history of priests in Iran which included qualified Behdins, and welcoming acceptance and equal respect for members of non-priestly families who wish to become priests and serve the community as a calling rather than just as a career.
For a compensation scheme that would be sufficient and continuously available to attract full time priests, we should create an endowment fund. Our High Priests and managers of our temples can help to arrive at the amount needed to be raised. One or more fund raising events should be held, at which the rich members of our community are invited, educated about the urgent need for this fund, and motivated to pledge generously.
For better education of practicing priests, which is critical for their earning the respect of our community, it should be made a requirement for ordainment of future priests, and refresher courses should be given to current priests. Collaboration between Athornan Madressas, Zoroastrian Studies, and Zarathushti scholars would help draw up the curricula and commitment of teachers.
For education of the community about the past history of priests in Iran, to justify opening up priesthood to individuals from non-priestly families who are drawn to it as a calling, there should be organized a series of lectures, articles in Parsi newspapers, magazines, and on the internet, referencing books like “The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees” by Ervad, Shams-ul-Ulema, Dr. Sir, Jivanji Jamshedji Modi.
Denial about the growing shortage of practicing priests globally, and its consequences of growing difficulty for community members to get ritual prayers performed when needed for private and community events, and eventual loss of the tradition of ritual prayers over time, is contrary to our religious teachings. Asho Zarathushtra emphasized rational thinking, keeping the core values in mind, to make informed decisions about what is right and wrong. Reluctance to face changes in today’s society, is unbecoming of a progressive community that in the past has survived through adaptation to new situations. We have to be proactive before it is too late, with effective and innovative approaches to preserve Zarathushti priesthood and religion. Our community and religious leaders need to bravely put the good of the community’s future before narrow individual and group interests.