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A Salute to the "Lay Dastur" Khurshedji Rustomji Cama

Religion & Science


Daruwala, Jehan



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The microscopic Parsi community has given India men of light and leading in every walk of human endeavor. One such man was Khurshedji Rustomji Cama whose hundred and seventieth birth anniversary was celebrated by his co-religionists on November 10, 2000.

Born in an aristocratic family Khurshedji Cama like his two contemporaries Dadabhai Navroji and Behramji Malbari was an ardent and life long advocate of education and social reform. He believed in the magic of education and maintained that education was the salvation of his nation.

He however, concentrated all his energy and efforts on religious education of the Parsi priests and social and religious reforms.

In their long history of nearly four thousand years the Zarathushtrians have suffered untold calamity. Invaders like Alexander, the Arabs and Changis Khan, Halaku Khan and Timur the Lame devastated Iran and destroyed its religious temples and literature. Time and again, the genocide was complete. So much so that almost all religious books, men who knew and spoke the Pahlavi language were put to the sword. Even the Persian language became a thing of the hut. For several thousand years the Zarathushtrians preserved their scripture in memory and passed them down from heart to heart.

The Parsis left Iran, leaving behind all their earthly possessions to save their religion. Naturally, their interpretation and understanding of their great religion left a great deal to be desired. Khurshedji Cama was quick to realize this fact, and set out to clean this Augean stable. How he accomplished this Herculean task can be understood by a birdís eye view of his life.

In the 18th century, French scholar Anquitel Du Perrom traveled to India and stayed in Surat. He collected available manuscripts of all scriptures and carried them to France. Scholars and savants of France and Germany interpreted and translated them with the help of comparative grammar of Sanskrit and Avesta, Philology, Etymology.

Khurshedji Cama who was running his own business in London and Liverpool visited France and Germany mastered those languages and interpreted our scriptures with the magic key of the new sciences. He studied with profound scholars of Europe. Equipped with this knowledge and learning, he returned to India. Thus, the ancient lore of our scriptures went to Europe. There it was interpreted and translated with the new sciences. Destiny had ordained that this ancient knowledge should come back to India and enlighten the followers of Spitman Zarathushtra.

Khurshedji Cama, was that man destined to preach and propagate that knowledge to Zarathushtrian priests in India.

This was no easy task, the Parsis, living for centuries according to old customs and tradition and scanty knowledge of their scriptures put up serious opposition. Khurshedji Cama was undeterred by this reaction. With saintly spirit of forbearance and forgiveness, he overlooked opposition, criticism and even insults.

He introduced study classes in Mulla Feroze Madressa and other institutions, trained young priests who responded readily and heartily and joined Khurshedji Cama in his noble mission. This in brief is the account of Cama's great mission. Those who came to cavil remained to pray.

Khurshedji Cama's great achievement is aptly summed up by the famed German scholar and savant Prof. Darmesterer, when he dubbed him as "Lay Dastur".

Cama knew nearly a dozen languages, oriental and occidental, ancient and modern. He was an eloquent and impressive orator in English and Gujarati. He had to his credit nearly a dozen learned books, a number of treatises. His Zarathustra Namch is a masterly piece of research, which throws new light on the subjects. Scholars of the West, who looked askance at other works on the subject unanimously and readily acclaimed his book as a masterpiece.

Cama was a great reformer in matters of education and religion. He was neither a sectarian nor an orthodox. He had an open mind. He welcomed criticism and answered it with facts and figures.

K.R. Cama Institute building houses one of the most extensive collections of Zarathushtrian literature old and new; it is a center dedicated to  research and learning, Mumbai, India.

If modern science seemed to run counter to our scriptures and the orthodox were reluctant about accepting it, Khurshedji Cama tackled the problem systematically and convincingly. An example would not come amiss. In 1897-98, plague ravaged India, Prof. Haffkine prepared anti-plague serum. The orthodox and particularly the priestly class hesitated to use it. Their problem was that the serum was perhaps not mentioned in the Vendidad. Cama studied the problem in its entirety. He interviewed the scientist in charge of preparing the serum at Haffkine Institute and questioned him at length about the method of preparing the serum. Equipped with these details and his masterly knowledge of the Vendidad, he addressed a meeting convened by the Trustees of the B.P.P. (Bombay Parsi Panchayat) at Dadi Seth Agiary in Fort Bombay. He convinced the gathering that the use of the serum was life saving and in no way infringed the commandments of the Vendidad. He never subscribed to the notion of forcing any idea upon persons. Facts and figures, convincing arguments did the trick for him.

Khurshedji Cama was opposed to the excesses and extravagance that were committed in the name of religion. He pointed out that the notion that such ceremonies enhanced the status of the departed ones in the next world was false, misleading and against original concept. He pointed out in his lectures and writings that these ceremonies were meant to recall the memories of the dear departed ones, to remember and respect them and to show our gratitude to them. The status of the departed one in the other world be judged and decided by his life in this world. This controversy went on relentlessly for some time.

Just then the government declared that trusts created for performing such ceremonies aimed at perpetuating them, and so such trusts were not legally valid. A meeting was convened to urge the government to give relief to the Parsis in the matter. Cama knew fully well that such a relief would not be granted. He himself was a bitter opponent of this practice because it had deviated and deteriorated from its original purpose.

All the same, at the meeting, to the astonishment of his friends, Cama stood up to move the first resolution urging the government to give relief. He explained that the original Avestan edict was noble and laudable. If by same via media suggested by the government itself, it could be salvaged and restricted and it justified its purpose, we should work for it.

Here was a man who had an open mind and adherence to our ancient customs and yet he was always for removing rust accumulated by time and requesting blind following of a custom, which had deteriorated. He was a reformist with a difference.

It is well said that there are sermons in some lives. Cama's life was one such. As a true Zarathushtrian, he was an optimist, Difficulties never daunted or dithered him. With complete self-confidence he faced and overcame them all. He instilled hope and courage into those who were dejected and despaired. He always cheered them with "You will survive all that".

The spirit of tolerance and forgiveness formulated his life. He never bore a grudge nor ever stood on dignity. He was always ready to join hands with his opponents on points of agreement. It was the cause that mattered, and to serve it, he was always ready to sink his ego.

For the invaluable services rendered by him to the correct interpretation and understanding of our religion epithets like Asho Nar, Ratu or Rainidar come to our mind. But K.R. Cama himself would have depreciated and forbidden the use of such words. Prof. Darmesteter called him the "Lay Dastur" and he said so much in awarding the accolade. That about sums up the man and his great services to the community and the religion.