ERVAD DR. RAMIYAR PARVEZ KARANJIA, is the Principal of the Dadar Athornan Institute and the Sir J. J. Z. and Mullan Feroze Madressas (Institute for Indo-Iranian Studies). He has obtained his Masters and Doctorate in Avesta-Pahlavi from Bombay University. He conducts courses, classes, gives talks, organises seminars and presents papers on the Zoroastrian religion, spirituality and Iranian history all over the world, for children, youth and adults. He has authored various books and papers and has worked as a research scholar with several prestigious Universities and Institutes in Germany and Moscow.
Here, he explains why Parsi/Irani Zoroastrians need to follow the ordained practice of Dokhmenashini, and abstain from alternate methods of disposal after death.
Q. What is the significance of Dokhmenishini?
A. Dokhmenishini, the Zoroastrian mode of the disposal of the dead, is designed to ensure theological correctness, ecological safeguards and spiritual fortification. It also harnesses the powers of disinfection of the sun and the wind. Exposure of the body is very essential from a spiritual point of view, as it’s through the rays of the sun that the spirit is drawn upwards.
Q. Perhaps our ancestors weren’t aware of cremation, hence the present reservation against it?
A. Our ancestors were well aware of the method of disposal of the dead by burning. They were even aware that it is the worst form of defiling fire and, that is why, among the 16 fires comprising an Atash Behram, the fire called ‘murde-suz’ (or fire from a burning corpse) is used after purifying and consecrating it the most number of times.
Q. Is even electric cremation considered incorrect?
A. Cremation, or burning the body, either through the traditional mode or electric mode, is considered incorrect in the Zoroastrian tradition for several reasons. Fire is given great reverence in the Zoroastrian religion, and so is air. Cremation (even electric cremation) is responsible for polluting fire as well as air. The Avesta talks about at least six different fires. Latent energy in all matter is considered as fire – hence, electricity is also a form of fire.
People argue that electric cremation isn’t ‘fire’. Then by what process is the body reduced to ashes within a few minutes? Moreover, after the body reaches a temperature of 600 degrees centigrade, it actually bursts out in flames. Oxford Dictionary (p.193) defines meaning of Cremation: Burning as method of disposing of corpses. Incinerate (p.408): Consume by fire.
Q. Are there specific religious injunctions against cremation?
A. The following are the references from Zoroastrian scriptures against burning of Nasu – that is human dead matter – in any form. Nasu not only creates physical pollution and putridity, it is also responsible for creating spiritual imbalance – referred to in our religion as Druji-i-Nasu – for the following reasons:
1. A corpse is the greatest source of Nasa (putrefaction) in the world. Burning a corpse desecrates fire, which we worship as the living representative of Ahura Mazda. Putting any putrefying matter on fire is a sin.
2. One of the chapters of the Husparam Nask deals with the sin of throwing bodily refuse in the fire.
3. Burning Nasu is considered to be a ‘margarjan’ sin, i.e., a sin worthy of being punished by death. Burning of the hair on the body is also considered a ‘margarjan’ sin, as hair and nail are also nasa.
4. A man burning matter is considered worthy of contempt, as the religion considers such an act partly responsible for natural calamities like climate fluctuations. It is further stated that imbalances in ecology like extremely severe winters are due to burning Nasu.
5. Wood contaminated by Nasu is also forbidden to be taken to fire. Fire is to be kept at least three paces away from Nasu.
6. It is meritorious for a person to prevent a corpse from burning. (Vd.VIII.81)
7. It is a sin to either take dead matter/Nasu near fire or water or vice-versa (Patet Pashemani V).
8. The soul of the person who takes Nasu to the fire is never liberated from hell.
9. Fires at three different places – where the person dies, where the body was kept after Sachkar, and at Sagdi – protects the soul for the first three days from the demon Vizaresh.
10. The tenth chapter of the Sudkar Nask deals with the complaint of fire to Ahura Mazda. When fire is used to burn even a blister or corn, or hair and filth falls on fire, or a child burns itself by fire due to the carelessness of the parents, or when fire is blown upon, it becomes unhappy.
Q. Some Parsis feel cremation is more dignified. Would you agree?
A. Each method of disposal is as ‘dignified’ as you deem it to be. It’s a fact that while being burnt the skull bursts, and faeces comes out of the mouth and rectum. Scientifically, too, burning a corpse is a health hazard as it gives rise to air pollution through the release of carbon and nitrogenous gases and other bone ash and protein residues emitted by the burning body. Those who live near an electric crematorium face this problem.
Q. If cremation is unacceptable in Mumbai, why is it acceptable in other cities/countries?
A. Cremation is unacceptable, according to our Zoroastrian religion, anywhere in the world. Wherever there are no Dakhmas, one has to avail other modes of disposal to dispose the corpse. However, where Dakhmas are available it’s a part of our religious requirement to consign the body therein. It’s pertinent to note here that when our ancestors came to India, and later in India when they settled at different places, the first thing they would do is construct a Dakhma and consecrate it, because they considered it paramount to the well-being of their soul and spiritual evolution after death.
Q. Why deny Parsis their prayers for four days (in case they opt cremation), and then start prayers thereafter?
A. Parsis started having second thoughts and doubts about their Dokhmenishini system, especially after coming in touch with Western culture, which looked down upon it as “barbaric” – in Iran due to the close proximity of the Shah with the Europeans and in India with that of the British.
In India, the elders of the religion realised this trend long ago and, therefore, to set discipline among their flock decreed that wherever there were Dakhmas Zoroastrians needed to confine their dead bodies to them. If they do not do so, then to show them that they are wrong and that their after-death prayers will not be effective enough, it was decided that priests be informed not to perform the four-day death rituals for such people who select a mode of disposal, which is not acceptable to the religion – even though the correct mode is available to them.
Q. But yet, when Parsis die in places where there are no Dakhmas, the four-day prayers are performed for all alternate disposals?
A. If a body is disposed in other ways, where Dokhmenishini is not available, they are not willingly choosing the mode. It is out of compulsion of circumstance, which the religious elders understood. Hence, no such restrictions were kept for places where Dakhmas are not available.
Q. Surely people have freedom of choice and can choose their mode of disposal?
A. Freedom of choice is a much-maligned term. Freedom, too, has its limits. When we are part of a larger body or society, we have to adhere to its discipline and laws. In civil society, we cannot roam without our clothes on. In the same way, we cannot go to a school without a uniform, at least in India. Similarly, a house has its own rules and so does a country. A religion, likewise, has certain requirements of its adherents – one of which is the mode of disposal of the dead.
Q. Is it right to penalise priests who offer to perform last rights for cremations?
A. Consigning bodies to cremation is considered wrong, as explained earlier. Priests who knowingly assist community members in pursuing the wrong path are, hence, wrong too. They’re accomplices to a wrong-doing, and are going against the wishes of the religious elders who have very valid reasons for guiding the community along the right path – a path that will ensure our progress and preservation. The larger good must always prevail over personal will and fancy.
Q. Is the present system of Dokhmenishini functioning optimally in Mumbai?
A. The physical (I will not talk of the Astral and spiritual aspects here) system of Dokhmenishini works on 3 main principles, according to the Vendidad:
a. It should be on an elevated place
b. It should be exposed to the rays of the sun (both the heat and light giving ones, as well as infra)
c. It should be exposed to carrion (preferable vultures; kites, eagles and crows also work, albeit slowly and less effectively)
Of the 3 above, a. and b. are there and c. has slowed down – b. is not optimal during monsoons. In spite of the above short comings, Dokhmenashini works. It has not failed. A bit slowed down, yes, but highly functional anyway. Even in its less-than-perfectly-optimal state, it’s still the best system for us.
Q. Is it fair that inter-married family members/friends cannot be part of traditional Zoroastrian last rites?
A. On account of certain spiritual requirements no Zoroastrian prayers and rituals can be performed in the presence of non-Zoroastrians, or even Zoroastrians who are in a certain ritually impure state. The same rule applies for entry to Fire-Temples as also for rituals and ceremonies pertaining to the deceased. It’s not on account of discrimination or high-handedness that non-Zoroastrian family members and friends are requested not to be part of these rituals. These rules are for the betterment of the soul of the deceased, as well as for the well-being of the living. One should not have hard-feelings on account of these rules.
Q. Finally, how important is Dokhmenishini for the Zoroastrian soul and what happens to those souls who don’t opt for it?
A. In spiritual matters, one has to go by the wisdom of the scriptures (given by the Prophet and other spiritually advanced souls) as well as the traditions laid down by our worthy and noble ancestors. Both the above sources regard Dokhmenishini as essential for the speedy release of the soul and its Astral components from the material world and the subsequent judgment and progress of the soul. For the unfortunate souls who do not get the benefit of Dokhmenishini, this process is evidently much slower and more painful.
Bibliography of Sources for this interview:
1. Bharucha, S.D., Rististan, Bombay, 1917.
2. Boyce Mary, ZOROASTRIANS Their religious beliefs and practices, London, 1979.
3. Darmesteter James, The Sacred Books of the East, The Zend Avesta Part I, Oxford, 1895.
4. Dhabhar Bamanji N., The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Frmarz, Bombay, 1932
5. Jamasp Asa Dastur Kaikhushru J., Arda Viraf Nameh, Bombay 1902.
6. Kanga Kavasji E., Vendidad, Bombay 1874.
7. West E.W., The Sacred Books of the East, Pahlavi Texts Part XXIV, Oxford, 1885.
8. West E.W., The Sacred Books of the East, Pahlavi Texts Part XXXVII, Oxford, 1892
* This interview appeared in the October ’09 issue of The BPP Review of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet