A Zoroastrian Educational Institute



HomeArticlesAuthorsBook ReviewCommunityLibraryProminentsRegisterStoreArticle SubmissionAbout Us




Zarathushtra’s Vision In Institutions of Higher Education, Arts, Culture, Society
in North America


















PART 1. Introduction, Background & Statistics
Today we are all challenged to claim for a new age the very principles of religious freedom that shape our North American Zarathushti community. The framers of The Constitution and The Bill of Rights of USA and Canada could not have envisioned the vast scope of religious diversity in North America at the beginning of the 21st century. Religious tolerance has bred religious pluralism. Prof. Diane L. Eck, Harvard University and Director of The Pluralism Project declares, “the religious landscape of America has changed radically in the past thirty years, but most of us have not yet begun to see the dimensions and scope of that change, so gradual has it been and yet so colossal”. She maintains that exposure to religious pluralism should be viewed not as a threat to one’s own religious identity but as an opportunity to broaden and deepen one’s own religiosity by interactions with other faiths.

On June 25, 1991, a Muslim imam stood in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives and offered brief prayers as the chaplain of the day. The day a Zarathushti mobed proudly recites verses from the Gathas on such an occasion is the day we will surely have arrived.

Zarathushtra’s Vision
We have demonstrated degrees of reservation when it comes to revealing fundamental doctrinal aspects to those who earnestly inquire about our faith. Is it fear of conveying the wrong information? Is it fear of unwelcome conversion to our religion? Or is it simply our lack of knowledge or interest? This hesitancy has created a mystique around us as a community and around Zarathushtra’s message: Can the North American society appreciate who we are and our rich heritage if we do not remove this confusing mystique?

Our ancient faith has an astoundingly rich history and tradition, but the non-proselytizing aspect has held us back from talking, discussing and dialoguing with our non-Zarathushti neighbors. We readily adopt the history and traditions of our American neighbors, but do we offer the same reciprocity when teaching them about Zarathushtra’s Vision?

During the 1999 Parliament of World’s Religions meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, I was approached by the Leader of the Witches delegation from Upstate New York, inquiring, “I am amazed at the similarity between our two religions. We worship in secret, pray in a secret language and practice rituals such as worshipping the fire, and exclude non-believers from participating”. I was amazed at this total misconception of our religion and lost no time explaining the facts.

Political Perspective of Zarathushtra’s Vision
Some political leaders voiced opinions similar to Senator Edward M. Kennedy when he commented to the author, “in my interactions with Zoroastrians in US and elsewhere I am struck by their zeal to better themselves and those around them while maintaining the highest standards of ethics in work and social interactions. I perceive the practice of the Zoroastrian religion as a pure enrichment of the mind and soul”. Both Senator Kennedy and current US Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci strongly urge the community to take a more active role in the socio-political causes of their states and nations, and stand for political offices, as Cellucci put it, “your high code of ethics can provide a refreshing impetus to the current political system”.

Understanding of Zarathushtra’s Vision by Arts & Cultural Bodies.
Dr. Susan Bean, Curator of the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, voiced the opinion of most arts and cultural entities about lack of artifacts, literature, art, music, and dance material for displays and promotion; also noting, “a strong adherence to the moral tenets of the faith by its practitioners, which distinguishes them for their willingness to accommodate without compromising their values”. [The museum has ample displays of cultural and trade interactions of the Parsis with westerners].

Institutes of Higher Learning in North America
Many universities that were founded and funded by religious groups in times prior to the 19th century made a strong case for religion to be part of the daily campus environment of the time. Those that did not have an ecclesiastical foundation showed a reluctance to emphasize the study of religion, citing separation of state and religion till the early 1920s.

In time universities and colleges such as Harvard University (1926), Columbia University (1924), Wellesley College (1928) began to take a more overt approach to the study of Christian and non-Christian religions, particularly the philosophies. The study of the Zarathushti doctrine was initially explored as part of Iranian Studies at Harvard and Columbia Universities. Gradually the study of comparative and nascent religions made its way into institutes of higher learning nationwide.

Today, 22 universities and 42 colleges have undergraduate courses in varying degrees in the study of the Zarathushti faith; 15 universities and 37 colleges have graduate courses; and 9 universities and 7 colleges have doctorate or post-doctorate studies. Zoroastrian faith. Of the students of religious studies at 22 universities and 42 colleges about .04% specialize in Indo-Iranian. More than 97% of the researchers and students in the study are non-Zoroastrians. Very little subject concentration at all levels is doctrinal. As of today, there is no Chair established in any institute of higher learning in North America strictly for study and research of the Zarathushti faith.

Zarathushtra’s Vision in Higher Education & Cultural Organizations
The general understanding of Zarathushtra’s Vision of most of the Top Officials of Higher Education and Cultural Bodies (museums, arts councils, libraries, etc.) interviewed, seemed to be based on the importance given to the highest standards of morality, ethics, hard work, and charity.

Their observations of the concept, status and promotion of Zarathushtra’s Vision are summarized as follows:

Doctrine – Rituals – Traditions & Cultural Heritage

  • The fundamental ‘reflective’ element of the message of the prophet;

  • the freedom to think and act without the encumbrance of a set of rigid rules;

  • its relevance to society today;

  • the ease of adjusting the ceremonial aspects to suit the exigencies of life in the new world;

  • the doctrinal and ritualistic perspective of the religion is mainly tied to Indo-Iranian traditions and cultures, and the non-proselytizing stance of the faith’s practitioners discourages a potentially larger number of people interested in Zarathushtra’s message.

  • The community in North America should establish trusts that give scholarships for undergraduate, graduate and doctorate students; grants for research; establish chairs in institutes of higher learning; facilitate the availability of informational manuscripts, books, articles, art, literature and significant artifacts; make information available in all learning institutes, libraries, museums and  art councils. This priority groundwork is essential for institutes of higher learning and cultural organizations to find further resources.

  • The grassroots community itself has to make concentrated efforts to supplement the efforts of its organizational body – FEZANA should promote the understanding of our heritage at all levels. Display artifacts and distribute information at local town and county affairs and facilitate the usage of authentic data in schools, libraries and museums.

Two Presidents of ivy-league universities have given a positive indication of a substantial increase in the courses offered currently relating to Zarathushtra’s Vision within their Middle Eastern Studies Department. Twelve heads of departments and 17 professors for Middle Eastern and Comparative Religion Studies have volunteered to prioritize this study for a period varying from 1 to 8 semesters as a starting approach.

Past President of Brown University and currently President of Carnegie Foundation, NY, Prof. Vartan Garabedian found few Zarathushties or non-Zarathushties applying for loans or scholarships for Zarathushti studies.

A cursory study of comments by Zarathushti and non-Zarathushti students who have taken up Zarathushti studies as part of their course or research program pointed out lack of scholarships and grants as incentives for pursuing studies in the field. Some young mobeds and Zoroastrian students were disheartened by the rejection they faced when they approached funding organizations for further studies in religion.

The governing bodies of our two nations in North America do not profess to favor certain faiths to the exclusion of others. We Zarathushties, have an obligation to ourselves and to our respective countries to continue educating ourselves, as we venture to educate our children, our neighbors, our community, and our fellow human beings.

Forthcoming work will center on comments, critiques & suggestions from leaders of institutions of higher learning and cultural organizations. We will continue to evaluate our standing in today’s American community and plan for the future. The suggestions to us should give us a basis to work towards a strong and viable plan for presenting Zarathushtra’s Vision to all Americans – Zarathushti and Non-Zarathusti.

Cultivating a Good Mind coheres with the Greek playwright Ovid’s thought that, "A faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel" [Ovid, Epistolae ex Ponto, c. A.D. 10]. We see the reflective concerns of a Youth making her way in the liberal arts.

[i] This article posted on vohuman.org on January 13, 2006 first appeared in the FEZANA journal of Winter 2002.  It was included as a part of a series articles featured under the theme “Zarathushtra’s Vision in a lifetime’s Learning.” That issue of the FEZANA journal was guest edited by Dr. Mehrborzin Soroushian and Dr. Natalie Vania, courtesy of whom this article has been made available for posting on vohuman.