Roj Asishvangh Mah Ardibehesht, 1379 Yz.
The change of century – from 1899 to 1900 brought far reaching changes all around the world. It was a time of great scientific and medical progress, ‘rationalism’, becoming ‘modern’ and throwing out all that was considered ‘old fashioned’. The English Raj was at its peak and India was being systematically bled by the British who used their divide and rule tactic to take over all of India. At the same time, a more sinister movement was afoot. Hordes of Christian missionaries of all kinds – Catholics, Protestants, Presbyterians, Irish and many more were descending in the cities and villages of India with a single purpose – to rid India of her ‘pagan’ religions, to ‘redeem’ Indian souls and send them to heaven by the only way possible – by making them Christian! In their unholy haste to convert India, the missionaries used many tricks and tools – education, literacy campaigns, medical help, welfare societies and good old ‘scholarly studies’. The Hindu scriptures were ‘studied’, faults found and then compared to the pristine Bible. How could anybody reach heaven without accepting that Christ was the only Saviour?
Within the Parsi community also, there were great changes happening. Always at the forefront to adopt anything from the British, the leading Parsi families of that time began aping the British at all levels. Fancy mansions, non-Parsi cooks and butlers, giving up the practice of segregation, abandoning the Parsi dress and wearing the British coat and tie – all these and more were being picked up by members of our community. The British, known for the shrewd behavior, encouraged this aping, heaping awards and titles of Rao Bahadur and Khan Bahadur on prominent Parsis, the walls of whose houses were adorned with the photographs of the King and Queen Victoria!
But there was a more serious problem. The Western scholars had started the study of Avesta and Pahlavi scriptures some decades ago and this was causing tremendous problems. The study of the Avesta language was based on Sanskrit grammar, since the original Avesta grammar had been lost. This, coupled with wild assumptions, the scholars’ own (Christian) prejudices and the absolute difficulty in understanding the very difficult Pahlavi texts resulted in some translations of Avesta scriptures which threatened to break the centuries old faith of the normal Parsi. Suddenly there were vicious attacks on our scriptures, especially the Vandidad, which was considered a corrupt and totally anti-Zoroastrian text! The scholars conveniently ignored the thousands of years of tradition – the Vandidad forming the core of the Zoroastrian ritual! Following the European scholars were some of our own half baked scholars (including some so-called Dastoors), who in their haste to appear more European than the Europeans themselves ridiculed their own scriptures and traditions.
Seeing this absurd scenario and understanding that this did not bode well for the future, a handful of Parsi scholars got together and using all the means at their end started coming out with somewhat reasonable translations of the scriptures. Prominent amongst these were K.R. Cama and his student Ervad Kavasji Edulji Kanga, whose translations of the Khordeh Avesta, Gathas and Vandidad are still treated as authoritative, over 100 years after his passing away. But even these translations were still based on the incomplete and inaccurate study of Avesta language through the borrowed Sanskrit grammar.
Meanwhile, western civilization and Christian missionaries were attacking at a different level – through the setting up of ‘Mission schools’ and ‘convents’. As more and more Parsis started sending their children to these schools in preference to the vernacular schools, the youngster’s minds were indoctrinated with Christian thoughts and the so-called superiority of western civilization over our own. This situation was found not only in Mumbai, but also the towns having large Parsi populations like Surat, Navsari and Bharuch.
That the effects of this western oriented education and the subtle pushing of Christianity were not good for the future of the Parsi community was evident to very few people, the majority being blissfully ignorant. One such Parsi, who was very concerned about the effects of this education and indoctrination, was a man called Manchersha Pallonji Kekobad, known more commonly and popularly in Surat as ‘Manchersha Master’. Manchersha was a very ordinary Parsi, who had grown up in very poor conditions. By dint of hard work and a naturally gifted brain, Manchersha finished school and college and joined his own alma mater, the Mission Presbyterian school in Surat first as a teacher, and soon progressed to Head Master.
Manchersha was a humble and quiet man, always very rational and logical, not easily swayed by any show or pomp. In his youth he was very fond of physical exercise and wrestling and had a superb tall and muscular body. He had a natural knack of teaching and students were always drawn to him by his gentle and calm behavior as well as easy accessibility. In his job as the headmaster of the mission school, Manchersha came in close contact with the Christian fathers and their missionary activities. A voracious reader, Manchersha would scour all books on history and culture as well as religion and would always analyze and ponder over what he had read before coming to any conclusions.
As a naturally gifted person, Manchersha, although possessing faith in his religion, had certain questions which none of the books could answer. He tried to talk to other Parsis but found that none could answer his queries. In his mind, these questions raised doubts and soon the chain of doubts formed in which he began to believe that there was nothing much to distinguish between his own religion and the religion which the school Fathers tried so hard to convert everyone into. Parsis called Fire the son of God, whereas Christians called Christ the son of God. In his mind, Manchersha thought, what is the difference – if both are the sons of god, how does it matter if I choose one or the other?
These doubts preyed on his mind for a long time until finally Manchersha decided that he would convert and become a Christian. He reasoned with his wife and after many discussions and arguments, one evening they decided that the next day they would approach the school Father and indicate their desire to become Christians. That night as Manchersha performed his last Kusti before going off to bed, he prayed to the One God, for an answer to his troubled mind. He implored to God that he did not want to change his faith just for any reason – he genuinely wanted to become a better human being. After a very troubled few hours, Manchersha finally dozed off to sleep. As the early dawn approached, Manchersha had a dream. A very tall, pious looking man, with a flowing white beard and spotless white clothes appeared and spoke to him in Gujarati: ‘you want to become a Christian, please do so. But first read the Old Testament, and study it in your normal thorough manner. If you find it answers the questions which have troubled your mind for so long, then go ahead and convert to Christianity.’
The next morning, Manchersha finished his morning duties and then hurried off to the library, searching for the Old Testament. As he looked here and there, the school Father, a man called Rev. Forrest came up to him and asked: ‘what are you looking for, Mr. Manchersha?’ Manchersha replied that he was looking for the Old Testament. The reverend Father looked uncomfortable and told Manchersha: ‘we don’t have the Old Testament here! We don’t keep it! I suggest you don’t read it since it will confuse your mind!’ Manchersha laughed and replied: ‘I am looking for it precisely to clear my mind!’ Finally, Manchersha managed to get a copy of the Old Testament and studied it thoroughly for a few weeks. The more he studied it, the more he realized that rather than clearing his mind of the doubts which plagued him, the Old Testament added to his doubts! It was then that Manchersha realized his mistake and from that day gave up his plan to convert to Christianity.
Of course the doubts which resided in Manchersha’s mind never went away. He renewed his study of the religion, reading whatever literature he could lay his hands on. In addition, he continued his daily prayers, and at the end of his prayers always pleaded with God to give him an answer to his queries. After many months of this study and prayer, one night Manchersha had another dream, in which he was visited by that same saintly man in the white dress. He spoke to Manchersha: ‘soon you will find your Ustad, a man who will answer all the queries of your mind, and take you in to the deep mysteries of your religion.’ As he awoke the next day, Manchersha thought long and hard about what he had seen in the dream. But being the logical and calm person he was, he did not attach too much importance to what he had seen.
Meanwhile, Manchersha was disturbed by the subtle methods used by the missionaries to brainwash the young students at the school. He realized that unless something was done, the impressionable Parsi boys would fall prey to the wiles of the missionaries. One day, as he was passing by a street in Surat, he saw a group of young Parsi boys in a house, practicing some recitals. As he passed by, the boys wished their respected teacher. Manchersha asked them what they were up to and the boys replied that they had started a debating society so that they could speak better English and improve their grades. Immediately the wise Manchersha saw this as an opportunity. He congratulated the boys, but requested them that three times a month they should practice debating, and once a month they should discuss their own religion and history and culture. The boys agreed and soon their society was functioning under the name ‘Bazm-e-Ruz-e-Ahura Mazda.’
Over a period of time, some 150 boys and youngsters would meet every week. As agreed, three times they would practice their English speaking skills, and once a month they would discuss their religion and culture. At these times, Manchersha would remain present and through his deep reading and study he would give talks on Iranian history, and various aspects of the religion. After his talk, the boys would ask a range of questions which Manchersha would try to answer to the best of his ability. There were some times when the questions were such that even Manchersha could not answer them. At these times he would stand up and accept that he had no answer to the queries. But he would always tell the boys: ‘whenever I stand here and am unable to answer you, I hear a voice behind me, telling me that soon there will come to this meeting a man who will answer all our questions. My friends let us wait and pray that this man comes to us soon.’ The boys would of course take all this with a pinch of salt. But Manchersha was not a man easily swayed and he remained optimistic that there would be someone who would answer their questions. Little did they all know, that the man was living less than a kilometer from where they were meeting!
Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram