For Zoroastrians, A Luminous Home

N.Va. Temple to Unite Followers of Faith in Which Fire Plays Sacred Role
Washington Post, May 10, 2003
By Bill Broadway, Washington Post Staff Writer

Washington’s small but growing Zoroastrian community will add to the area’s array of international religious buildings with a Persian-style temple located beyond an alley of cedar trees just off Hunter Mill Road in Vienna.

The benefactor who purchased and donated the property for temple use said the entrance reminded him of cypress trees leading to an ancient fire temple in Shiraz, Iran, said Farhad Shahryary, who will oversee construction of the $3 million facility.

At long last, more than 150 Zoroastrian families will have a permanent place for worship, religious education, initiation ceremonies, funerals and weddings, Shahryary said. No more moving about from borrowed or rented spaces used for liturgical and educational functions, as they have done since they founded the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington 24 years ago.

Just the idea of having their own sanctuary has gotten the community excited, Shahryary said as he pointed this week to the empty field where the temple will be built. As soon as the bulldozers move in, they’ll say, ” ‘My God, it’s actually under construction,’ ” he said.

That day is still a ways off, perhaps a year or more until enough funds are raised. But a recent ground-breaking ceremony was a huge step toward the reality, said association President Behram Pastakia.

“My hope is that one day, we will build not only the temple but be able to hire a priest and build a bungalow for him and his family,” said Pastakia, a radiologist who emigrated from India nearly 20 years ago. He added that he would like the temple to be the first in North America or Europe to have an eternal flame representing the ultimate victory of good over evil.

“That’s not likely, given [local] fire codes,” Jimmy Dholoo, an engineer and association spokesman, told him.

“I can hope, can’t I?” Pastakia responded.

Fire is a central symbol of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion founded in Persia centuries before the Christian era in a region that is probably Iran. Zoroastrians honor fire and other elements — water, air and earth and the animal and vegetative kingdoms — but only, adherents say, as a means of communing with Ahura Mazda, the Supreme Creator and Wise Lord.

“We don’t worship fire,” several insisted, correcting a misconception that still pops up in news accounts of their faith.

Unlike religions that use fire or lights to displace darkness only at certain times, such as Christians do with candles and lights at Christmas or Easter, Zoroastrians light fires throughout the year in temples and homes, said Ervad Behram Panthaki, the association’s priest.

Fire symbolizes not only the purity of light and the divine spirit. It represents “the spark in every human being,” said Panthaki, a retired brigadier general in the Indian army who has volunteered his services since he immigrated here nine years ago.

Each person “has to ignite that spark and keep that fire burning,” the priest said. “That’s what it means to ‘have fire in the belly.’ A man who has no spark is lazy.”

The main idea in Zorastrianism is that “if you follow the path of truth, you really achieve all the attributes of God,” said Jamshid Goshtasbi, a lifelong Zoroastrian and native of Iran who teaches engineering at Howard University.

The ideal path is summarized in the Zoroastrian motto: Good Thoughts, Good Words and Good Deeds.

Zoroastrians adhere to principles that seem surprisingly modern for a religion many historians believe is 3,700 years old: stewardship of nature, the equality of men and women, an emphasis on reason as well as faith, morality based on individual choice rather than doctrine, flexible worship practices and the salvation of each person who does more good than evil in life.

Zoroastrianism is small compared with other old religions — from 200,000 to 275,000 adherents worldwide, according to various sources. In Iran, where Zoroastrianism had millions of followers as the state religion under Persian rulers, beginning with Cyrus in the 6th century B.C., estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000. About 75,000 Zoroastrians live in Pakistan and India, where their ancestors migrated after the Muslim takeover of Persia in the 10th century, with 7,000 in Britain.

About 15,000 live in the United States, with 600 to 1,000 in the Washington-Baltimore area, Panthaki said. The largest U.S. centers are in San Jose, Houston, Chicago and New York. The temple in Vienna — Panthaki prefers to call it a church — will be one of only a half-dozen or so in the United States built specifically for Zoroastrian worship and meetings.

Some biblical scholars believe that one or more of the Magi who visited the infant Jesus were Zoroastrians. Perhaps the most famous modern-day Zoroastrian is Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those who don’t recognize the word “Zoroastrianism” might recognize the name of its founder, Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), made famous by the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in his work “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and Richard Strauss’s musical composition of the same name. Strauss’s orchestral work, in which Zarathustra invokes the rising sun, became the iconic theme for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Beyond the use of the prophet’s name, there’s little of Zorastrianism to be found in Nietzsche’s book, said Goshtasbi, the Howard professor. Nietzsche used the work to promote his concepts of the “death of God” and the Ubermensch (superman), but neither concept is found in Zarathustra’s teachings, compiled after his death as Ganthas, or hymns, he said.

Prayer is emphasized at the individual level more than the communal level, with some Zoroastrians praying five times a day and reciting scriptures, always facing the sun wherever it is in the sky, or a candle or other light at night, Goshtasbi said.

Worship is different from that of most faiths because there is no specified time in the daily or weekly calendar for communal gatherings. Festivals called ghambars take place six times annually, but dates vary from year to year and often within the same year according to different religious calendars used by the two primary immigrant groups: Indian-Pakistani and Iranian.

A permanent sanctuary will help remove such differences, as Zoroastrians from varied cultures come together in a way they haven’t been able to do before. “Apart from being a place of worship, it will act as a home, a meeting place for all of us,” Panthaki said.

The local Zoroastrian community is growing through immigration from the Middle East and South Asia and through births. Unlike many priests in India and Iran, North American priests do not require that a person be born to Zoroastrian parents to be considered a Zorastrian, the priest said.

That means new members can be born into mixed-religion marriages or come from the ranks of those for whom the ancient traditions are foreign.

Zoroastrians do not evangelize, but they will welcome to membership anyone “who believes in the teachings of our prophet Zarathustra and follows and studies them,” he said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday May 11, 2003.
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