Lessons for Parsis from the Ebola epidemic

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Roj Bahman Mah Tir, 1384 Yz.

As the Ebola virus wreaks havoc throughout Africa, a peculiar news item caught my attention. The Ugandan President called upon residents of his country to stop shaking hands with each other as a measure to prevent the spread of the epidemic and professed each one of the residents to get an n95 mask for sale.


This odd remark immediately took my mind back to an old story of the Parsis of Surat in the 17th century. At that time, Surat was the mercantile capital of the western coast and many Parsis became very rich trading with the East India Company. Along with the traders, came the missionaries. Many Parsi Dasturs interacted with the missionaries and gave them some manuscripts of the Avesta to study and take back home.

But there was one old Priest in Surat who not only spoke very reluctantly with the missionaries, but refused to ever shake hands with them. This caused great embarrassment to the other priests as well as the missionaries and they would often make fun of him. When the pressure grew too much, one day, the old priest asked a group of missionaries and Parsis to get a pomegranate from the bazaar and to lay it in front of him. He then picked up the pomegranate, held it in his hand and prayed for a few seconds. The Dasturji then put the fruit down again and said in a calm voice: ‘Please cut open the pomegranate and count the number of seeds inside. It will be x number.’ The group did as told and their faces turned ashen as the counting revealed exactly the same number of seeds in the fruit as had been stated by the priest.

Smiling, the priest said: ‘this is the power of Amal – the spiritual potency arising out of the might of our Avesta prayers. Had I shaken my hands with you, this Amal would have lapsed. Please do not ask me to do so ever again.’ With a slight bow of the head, he turned and walked away.

In our religion, purity has been accorded the highest importance. The rules relating to ‘chokkhai’ are very minute, specially so in case of practicing priests. It is the adherence to these rules that saw the miracles associated with Dasturji Kukadaru or Dastur Pesuji, whose story I will recount in another column. But today, these rules are being given a go-by, in the name of modernity and forward thinking. Parsis laugh at the Tarikat of taking Taro or Ab-e-Zar in the morning, by saying that they use soap instead. True, soap will cleanse the body much better than Taro. But can soap cleanse the spiritual filth that attaches to our body through the night or the spiritual pollution that seeps through the pores and manifests itself as the oily residue on our skin? No. That is why we have the Baj prayer of Shekasteh shekasteh Shaitan and the whole Tarikat of applying Taro before the bath.

The same reasons are inherent in our Tarikat of non-contact with a women in her periods or a lady who has given birth. But today, these Tarikats are ridiculed. I see women just 20 days after delivery even attending weddings, Navjotes and birthday receptions, saying: ‘ema su thayu?’ Other members of the family encourage such behaviour and themselves become party to the spread of spiritual contagion. After thoroughly vitiating the atmosphere, the family then summons a priest to give them a Nahn. But what about the contagion that has stuck in their houses because of such behaviour? This cannot be removed by a Nahn. Yet the very next day these members put on a show of piety and troop into Agiaries and Atash Behrams, causing untold damage to our spiritual infrastructure.

In this atmosphere of overpowering spiritual pollution, how does a conscientious priest live his life? How can he follow the Tarikats of his religion when even his own family members or neighbours do not give support? How many priests does the community have today who they can look up to, who can cure illnesses by their prayers or their piety? Where are the miracles? There are none, because we have systematically destroyed the spiritual infrastructure that enabled our religious institutions to thrive and produce great priests.

As the days go by, science ‘discovers’ things that were followed by our ancestors thousands of years ago. Today they have asked us to be careful while shaking hands. Maybe one day they will issue warnings regarding the other issues of purity that I have raised above. Readers of Jame, our religion needs no validation from science. But one cannot marvel at the beauty and greatness of our faith that revealed thousands of years ago that merely raising the right hand as a ‘salaam’ or ‘Saheb Ji!’ is the more hygienic way of greeting someone that shaking hands. Awake, Parsis, to your faith!

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram



  1. Mahrukh Dadabhoy  November 17, 2014

    Excellent. Thank you.

  2. amy hormazdiyar turel  November 17, 2014

    i have full faith and believe your every written word BUT it is really tough to follow when we are traveling in buses or train where our full body touches each other in the crowds

  3. amy hormazdiyar turel  November 17, 2014

    i completely agree and have full faith in all that is put up in this mail BUT it is really tough to follow. Things are worst when we travel in crowded bus and train and our full body is touched

  4. k  November 18, 2014

    @amy hormazdiyar turel

    it is for this reason “amaldar bareshnoomn” Priest do not travel in Public Transport (trains, bus,..).

  5. Aspy  November 18, 2014

    I remember years ago, that my elderly ‘mamas & kakas’ never shook hands but always did a ‘Salaam/Saahebji’ raising their right hand when coming across an acquaintance or an other Parsi.
    This was late 1950s/thru’ early to mid 1960s, when I use to go out with them.
    Out of curiosity whenever I asked if the person was known to them, they always said it was a polite gesture & proper etiquette for one Parsi to acknowledge another, known or unknown.
    This, greeting another Parsi, known or unknown, is now totally forgotten, even deliberately avoided if I may say so. What a pity that it has come to this……..total loss of ‘Parsi panu.’

  6. Khushru  September 18, 2015

    Very nicely said. Yes in todays world things are totally opposite.

  7. Roshni Roeinton Shroff  August 19, 2016

    Very correct. Very few people bother to read only those who have interest in religion. I suggest, such lectures be given on weekly basis by some learned priests where people can also ask questions.

    It is true that the essence of chokhai is no more understood by the community. Very lately one of our relative from a hospital travels to the agiari in a car for the machi kept by his daughter with the catheter and the urinary bag intact w/o. even taking bath [no chokhai pakhai]. Luckily he happened to talk to me when he was heading towards the agiari. I got the shock of my life & immediately told him to go back to the hospital as it will do more harm than good & will pollute the agiari

    So, if in general people have some knowledge of this, they can prevent such kinds of incidents from happening.