On the 27th December, Lord Bilimoria gave the opening keynote address to the World Zoroastrian Congress – held in Mumbai, India.
Under the title, “The Everlasting Flame of Zoroastrian Identity: An Unbroken Thread of Achievement from Cyrus the Great to Today,” Lord Bilimoria set out a narrative of Zoroastrianism in world history, ranging from the achievements of the largest of the ancient empires – which at its peak included for virtually half of the world’s population at the time – to today, one of the world’s smallest communities. Lord Bilimoria noted that from the Achaemenid Empire, to the British Raj, to modern India – Zoroastrians have been at the forefront of virtually every field they have put their hand to, wherever they have settled.
Vada Dasturji, it is a privilege to be speaking here today, to all of you present at the 2013 World Zoroastrian Congress on the subject of “The Everlasting Flame of Zoroastrian Identity: The Unbroken Thread of Achievement from Cyrus the Great to Today.”
Let me begin by saying that there is much to be said for the concept of a religion that is founded by a prophet speaking of the eternal truth.
In many respects, history is comprised of threads that bind memories of the distant past with the present day. What connects modern aspects of faith with the religion of Cyrus the Great and Xerxes? The British Empire is the largest Empire the world has ever known, however, in 480 BCE, it is estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire – approximately 44% of the world’s population at the time. This figure would make the Persian Empire the largest ever in world history in terms of the percentage of the world’s population at the time.
We look at Cyrus as “Cyrus the Great”, the harbinger of one of the greatest Empires of the Ancient World. He is best known for two things. The first is the Cyrus Cylinder, perhaps the first recognisable modern legal instrument. In the United Kingdom, we consider the vital role of Magna Carta. When giving tours of the Houses of Parliament, I always like to point out the facsimile of the document – which is in the ‘Content’ Voting Lobby of the House of Lords. In terms of European history, it is very august, having been sealed in 1215, in fact, I spoke in a debate in the House of Lords recently on the forthcoming 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in just over a year’s time!
People rightly consider Magna Carta to be first Bill of Rights. It sets out clear powers and authority of the Barons over the King, as well as serving a vital role in the establishment of the House of Lords and thereafter the House of Commons, a parliament free of the direct control of the monarch. However, although the British are very proud of Magna Carta, it is juvenile compared to the Cyrus Cylinder, the declaration found in the ruins of ancient Babylon that sets out the great deeds and genealogy of Emperor Cyrus the Great.
Created in around the year 530BCE, the cylinder notes the most important aspects of Cyrus’ great humility and tolerance, which form vital aspects of the entire tradition of the Zoroastrian faith. This is especially true when one considers the role that Cyrus played – not just in the protection – but also in the active promotion of many different religions and faiths that flourished in the Persian Empire during this time. It cites his building projects in territories that he had conquered;
“I rebuilt sanctuaries and chapels that lay in ruins. The deities of Sumer and Akkad that Nabonidus had, to the fury of the people, brought to Shuanna, I returned unharmed to their rightful sanctuaries. I have returned all the deities to their sanctuaries and restored their temples.
It is rightly seen as a major artefact for world history, representing the first detailed look at statecraft within a multi-ethnic society. There is a direct link between the protection and patronage of the Zoroastrian community under Cyrus, as well as the role that they enjoy in India, the United Kingdom and around the world today.
Secondly, Cyrus is also well known for his magnanimity – a specific example being that concerned with the refuge he gave to the Jews in Egypt. The Old Testament and the Torah both note this, as shown in the passage from the Book of Ezra;
Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which [is] in Judah. [Ezra 1:2]
It is important to note that neither Cyrus, nor the magi priests in his court who acted as advisors, sought to convert the people of the conquered lands to the Zoroastrian faith. As a figure, Cyrus was determined to ensure that the territories that he conquered, often lands that had been under the domination of other empires, had their traditional forms of worship and religious practices restored to the people who lived there.
Babylonians and Jews alike considered Cyrus as being on a mission from their individual concept of God. His ecumenical approach remains one that is difficult to fit into the historical paradigm. By the standards of the day, Cyrus and his fellow Persian monarchs were almost unique in the way in which they practiced one faith, whilst accepting the right of subjects and client states to practice another. To the present day, Zoroastrianism actively sets out to ensure that all individuals have a right to follow their ancestral faith, given that belief is a fundamental part of a person’s heritage and spirit.
If we continue the thread of history onwards, let us next consider the reign of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, who came to power well after the decline of the Zoroastrian religion saw the Parsi community forced to seek safety in India. Like Cyrus, Akbar was known by the epitaph of “the Great” and was also known for his great magnanimity and tolerance towards all religions. Akbar was beloved both during his rule and in the centuries afterwards and his religious tolerance formed a major aspect of this tradition. Indeed. In 1580 CE, he affected to establish the Din-I Illahi, (Religion of God) which was an attempt to synthesise aspects of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism into a single faith that would reconcile the in-fighting groups within his Empire.
Now, if one wishes to reflect upon the legacy of Zoroastrianism, let us consider the religion of the great ancient Western Empires. The Greeks and Romans are seen as the founders of European Culture, but their Polytheistic beliefs have died out. The Catholic Romans and Orthodox Greeks of today do not have the same thread of history going through them. Although Zoroastrianism was suppressed in Iran, it still exists there and in a diaspora ranging from India to the United Kingdom to the United States. There is an historic, unbroken link between the religion of the ancient Persians and the community that I am proud to be a part of today.
The Zoroastrian community around the world, though scattered, has survived away from its ancient homeland, yet still holds such a strong historical link and thread to the past that is arguably unsurpassed in world history.
I would like to stress that when I talk about Zoroastrian Parsis, I also include Zoroastrian Iranis.
The legend of the Milk and Sugar is apocryphal, but it retains a great historic basis. The Parsi Community has survived by preserving a racial connection through the Paternal Line in India and also by a strict preservation of the religion. This is thanks to a mutual understanding. There was a tolerance of the Indian Kings, but also the direct role that the Parsis played by not practicing an evangelising religion. They were not considered a threat to the established order.
Although the Parsis largely remained out of the historical narrative from their arrival in India over a thousand year ago, they only really adopted a prominent role after the arrival of the British. Their emergence and success with the British comes from a number of factors.
Firstly, there is the religious role of Zoroastrianism on the development of their cultural, economic and social behaviour. We must consider the position of the Gathas on this. Not least one of the great defining characteristics of the vital role that great deeds and hard work play in life. I am particularly struck by this one;
By Thy perfect Intelligence, O Mazda
Thou didst first create us having bodies and spiritual consciences,
And by Thy Thought gave ourselves the power of thought, word, and deed.
Thus leaving us free to choose our faith at our own will.
Yasna 31, 11.
I have come here from South Africa. On Monday 9th December I was one of the few Peers privileged to speak in the tributes to Nelson Mandela in the House of Lords. When imprisoned on Robben Island – Mandela often recited the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley to his fellow prisoners. The poem concludes:
“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
When we compare Zoroastrianism to the more recent Abrahamic faiths, Catholicism and Anglicanism – for example – both place great emphasis on the forgiveness of sins. In the Book of Common Prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer implores God to “Forgive our Trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a more positive attitude in Zoroastrianism. Obviously, forgiveness of sins is an essential component of other Monotheistic religions and they have evolved, but in the pure form, Zoroastrianism remains almost unique in the role that we place upon achievement in this life, as well as preparing ourselves for judgement in the next.
My wife Heather and I have just celebrated our 20th Wedding Anniversary. I proposed to her in Athens, Greece on the Acropolis, in front of the Parthenon. We went back to Athens to celebrate our anniversary last month. To go back to the concept of “threads”, is it also not incredible that when we talk about Western philosophy and political thought, we still revert back to the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle? Why shouldn’t we do the same with religion? Just as there is the school of thought that says that philosophers in the West can be called either a Platoist or an Aristotelian, can we not argue that modern religion and their practices should not be seen as a reflection of the words of Zoroaster? We must consider the vital nature of what he encouraged, not least his promotion of achieving greatness in life and nurturing the environment.
Yasna 47.1 mentions;
“Through a virtuous spirit and the best thinking, through both the action and the word befitting truth, they shall grant completeness and immortality to Him.”
The same Gatha talks of these so-called “divine sparks” which are as follows;
Vohu Manah, – “Good Purpose”
Asa Vahista – Best Truth/Righteousness”
Xsathra Vairya – “Desirable Dominion”
Spanta Armaiti -”Holy Devotion”
Amaratat – “Immortality”
As Zoroastrians, we were all brought up to learn our prayers by heart, but not understand their meaning. I only gained a proper understanding of our prayers when Kathleen Raine – the famous poet and close friend of the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles – presented me with a book by her very close friend, Piloo Nanavaty-Jungalwalla, called “The Gathas of Zarathustra.”
So many Zoroastrians have lived their entire lives reciting by rote and listening to prayers without understanding a word of the dead languages that the Gathas were originally written in, and yet the practices and entrenched behaviours have led to their community becoming one of massive achievers and a tradition of serving the wider community. One could argue that this concept of being part of a wider social entity in India could have arisen out of necessity – given the Parsis having to find a safe haven after their persecution in Persia – but I believe that it predominantly comes from their inherent religious beliefs and practices. The threads of history continue to demonstrate this. Cyrus was magnanimous when he didn’t have to be and later, Zoroastrians were allowed to flourish under the Mughal Emperors and the British Raj by the same aspect of tolerance.
I was with Nobel Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu last week in Cape Town – when I asked him what was most special about Nelson Mandela, he replied by saying how he was magnanimous. Mandela was the embodiment of the African concept of the world ‘Ubuntu.’ Nelson Mandela said that Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. He used the term in a speech and said, “the question therefore is: are you going to do so to enrich yourself in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” Ubuntu is about human nature, it is about humility, it is about human kindness and it is about community. The Parsis demonstrate this so well.
Of course, Nelson Mandela was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi , who had a great influence on Mandela. Gandhi famously said, “In numbers Parsis are beneath contempt, but in contribution, beyond compare.” Parsis have always been renowned for their magnanimity.
When I was appointed, ten years ago, as the first person of Indian origin to be the UK Co-Chair of the Indo-British Partnership, now the UK-India Business Council, the Indian Co-Chair was Narayana Murthy of Infosys and the first thing he said to me when we met was “I have never met a bad Parsi”!
Most importantly, Parsis are seen as people who are trusted – this comes back from the founding origins of their faith. Parsis are respected by others – they have flourished and have continued to do so in India and the UK. Britain’s secular and multicultural nature has been a traditional source of sanctuary for persecuted people for centuries, starting since the time of the French Huguenots. Today, the United Kingdom allows people of all religion – not just Zoroastrians – to succeed. The Zoroastrian Trusts Funds of Europe, of which I am proud to be Patron, was founded in 1861, making it the first and the oldest of the Asian Faith-Based Organisations in the UK. Dadabhai Naoroji was a founding member and Mahatma Gandhi used to attend its events in the late 19th Century.
In mark of that, I would now like to thank everyone at the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe (ZTFE) – but especially Malcolm Deboo, Dorab Mistry and Rusi Dalal, all of whom have done so much for the Zoroastrian community this year, and indeed, every year! Also a thank you to so many; my cousin Sherry Cama and the amazing work done by her at Parzor, the organisers of this conference and the BPP, as well as all the sponsors of this conference, especially Cyrus Poonawalla and Nadir Godrej and the Godrej family as well as Maneck Davar and Homai Modi for all their hard work.
Last year, I was very proud to have led the first debate on Zoroastrianism in the House of Lords on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the ZTFE.
Next year we commemorate the centenary of the First World War – my grandmother, Rati Bilimoria, who is 99 years old says she is a war baby, as she was born after the start of WW1 in 1914. Last November, for the first time in history, given the Zoroastrian community’s important contributions to the armed forces over the years, I represented the Zoroastrian community at the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen.
This year the ZTFE, with the help of sponsors like Cyrus Poonawala and the Tatas, helped the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London stage the wonderful Everlasting Flame exhibition which had record turnouts. Full credit to the amazing curators who included Pheroza Godrej, Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Sarah Stewart and Almut Hintze.
However, tolerance has not always been ubiquitous. For example in British India, there is the example of the discrimination that Jamsetji Tata found while establishing the vast conglomerate that takes his family name. When he was not allowed to enter a leading hotel in India because he was a native, he then decided to build the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, which eventually opened in 1903, to become the best hotel in India and today, it is one of the best hotels in the world! When Dadabhai Naoroji – the first Indian to sit in the House of Commons in 1892 – first decided to contest a seat in parliament, he found himself being attacked from representatives of all parties because of his ethnicity and background. The Prime Minister at the time, the Marquess of Salisbury, said,
“However great the progress of mankind has been, and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to the point where a British constituency will elect a black man to represent them.”
Reports of the reaction to this speech were mixed, with some noting “laughter” and others “cries of shame.” However, it was certainly controversial. Isn’t it ironic that Naoroji was fairer in complexion than the notoriously ruddy-faced Salisbury was! The Prime Minister never apologised for the remark, although he would later invite Naoroji to become a member of the governing body of the Imperial Institute.
Despite these problems, Naoroji was eventually elected MP for Central Finsbury, by a narrow margin, gaining him the nick name, Narrrowmarginjee! In his maiden speech, he talks of his thanks at being elected,
“Central Finsbury has earned the everlasting gratitude of the millions of India, and has made itself famous in the history of the British Empire, by electing an Indian to represent it. Its name will never be forgotten by India. This event has strengthened the British power and the loyalty and attachment of India to it ten times more than the sending out of one hundred thousand European soldiers would have done. […] I thank you, Sir, for allowing me to say these few words and the House for so indulgently listening to me, and I hope that the connection between England and India – which forms five-sixths of the British Empire – may continue long with benefit to both countries.”
Before I made my own maiden speech in the House of Lords, I referenced the Zoroastrian community and I also read Naroroji’s maiden speech, which I keep every day on my desk in my House of Lords Office. In my speech I spoke about the Zoroastrian community when I became the first Zoroastrian Parsi to sit in the Upper Chamber in 2006. Again, the thread of history connected me with Naroroji, with the Zoroastrian Parsi members of Akbar’s court and the Zoroastrians at the time of Cyrus the Great. I noted the role played by this community – some people fail because of, others succeed in spite of – in spite of our tiny size, I am so proud of what our tiny community has achieved, not only in India but also by producing the first and only three Indian MPs in Britain before India’s independence.
This year, I was proud to launch, for the first time in history, the Zoroastrian All Party Parliamentary Group in the British Parliament. There is no way that our first three Zoroastrian MPs Dadabbai Naoroji, Sir Mancherjee Bhownagiri and Shapoorji Sakhlatwala would have been allowed to do this a century ago!
When I was introduced to take my seat the House of Lords 7 1/2 years ago, a life appointment as an Independent Crossbench Peer, the House of Lords officials asked me if I would be happy to swear my oath in front of the whole House using the Bible; I said I didn’t mind, but I asked why couldn’t I use my own Zoroastrian prayer book – they said as I was the first Zoroastrian in history to sit in the House of Lords they didn’t have a Zoroastrian prayer book; so I presented them with one given to me by our senior Dasturji in the UK, Rusi Bhedwar, and I am proud to say that today our Zoroastrian prayer book sits alongside the other prayer books, the Bible, the Old Testament, the Bhagvad Gita and the Koran in the despatch box in the chamber of the House of Lords every day forever on!
My great grandfather, DD Italia, came from the city of Hyderabad in India, where I was born. He was an entrepreneur and a Member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House in India, and he was a man in whose footsteps I am proud to follow in the Upper House of the UK, the House of Lords. I am also proud to have been inspired by his motto, “To aspire and achieve”. My company, Cobra Beer, and I have adopted this as our vision and added, “To aspire and achieve against all odds, with integrity”.
I am so proud that the Zoroastrian community has been able to succeed in such a rounded way, but also in such an impressive way – which beguiles our tiny size – we range from great industrialists like Jamsetji Tata to one of the modern world’s most famous musicians, Freddie Mercury.
For example, we create great lawyers – a few years ago, both the Chief Justice of the Indian Supreme Court and Solicitor General were Zoroastrians. We can be great military leaders, my own father; Lt. General Faridoon Bilimoria was Commander-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army. Other Parsis have risen to the top in the Armed Forces, including my uncle, Lt. General Adi Setnha, who was Vice-Chief of the Indian Army and my relative, Admiral Jal Cursetji, who was the first Zoroastrian Parsi to be appointed Chief of the Indian Naval Staff. Air Chief Marshal Aspi Engineer served as the Chief of the Indian Air Staff, followed by Air Chief Marshal Falli Major. There was, of course, Field Marshal Manekshaw, who was Chief of the Indian Army. There were influential politicians, including Indira Gandhi’s husband Feroze Gandhi and the prominent parliamentarian Minoo Masani. The Parsis have always been great philanthropists – I have already mentioned the Tata family; I have spoken about Cyrus the Great, we have our very own Cyrus the Great here today, Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, one of the major sponsors of the Everlasting Flame Exhibition at SOAS and of this conference and we are of course very grateful to him, the Godrej family and the Pallonji Mistry family.
And of course, we have the Zartoshty Brothers, benefactors of SOAS and the Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow, London, whose amazing benefaction is legendary and inspirational.
Dr Homi J. Bhabha, the founder of the Indian nuclear power industry, was a Zoroastrian Parsi. HMS Trincomalee, which was launched in 1817 and remains afloat in Hartlepool, was built by the Wadia Group, a Zoroastrian Parsi family of shipbuilders. I remember being taken on board the vessel as a young boy by my great aunt, Sheroo Wadia. And of course, Farokh Engineer remains the greatest wicketkeeper batsmen of all time. I was in touch with him before the Congress and he has conveyed his best wishes to all of you here today.
None of our achievements would have been possible without the opportunities this wonderful country, India, has given to us.
Indeed, I could go on and on about Zoroastrians reaching the top and excelling in just about every field. In my own experience, it is not purely because of encouragement from the family, but because we are part of an entire community of achievers. Zoroastrian Parsis are fortunate in that we are constantly inspired by being part of an exceptional community. I would go so far as to say that ‘the Zoroastrian Parsis are the most successful community in the world in terms of per capita of achievement’!
My great-grandfather was a major inspiration to me, as was my father, a senior army officer, but I have also received, by a sort of cultural osmosis, inspiration from our ancient history. There is a certain irony that all this goes back in an unbroken thread from a community that was almost destroyed to one that remains tiny even to this day. Parsis are the smallest recognised religious group in the United Kingdom of under 6,000 people out of a population of over 60 million, but we retain a sense of pride in our achievements, even to the present day. In India, we are just 69,000 out on 1.2 billion people!
My friend, the Nobel Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen has written at great length about identity. He believes that we have multiple identities. In my case, I am proud to be an Indian; I am proud to be an Asian living in Britain; I am proud to be British and I am very proud to be a Zoroastrian Parsi.
Parsis in India are proud to be Indians as well as being Zoroastrians.
Adam Grant, Professor of Management at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has recently authored a book entitled – “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.” Professor Grant says that there are three types of people in the world – givers, takers and matchers. Although he finds that the majority of givers don’t exceed the accomplishments of takers and matchers, he concludes that even if givers don’t always get the same outcome, when they do rise, they make friends, rather than enemies. When I read that, I immediately thought of the Zoroastrian Community.
To me, the Zoroastrian community is the living embodiment of the aspiration and achievement of this ancient religion – good values lead to the everlasting flame of the Zoroastrian community. It is a wonderful combination of identity and pride. In October 2010, Rowan Williams became the first ever Archbishop of Canterbury to visit the Zoroastrian Centre in Harrow. He responded to a speech I had made welcoming him. He said that, Lord Bilimoria has used the word integrity twice in his speech, and he then explained that integrity, the word itself, comes from the Latin word integer, integrum, meaning ‘wholeness’. Integrity is the ability to hold your life together, not to let it be fragmented, broken up, with parts of it hidden and parts of it revealed, but rather to be able to stand in the light, in the truth without fear. You cannot practice integrity unless you are whole.
Many misuse the word, but the Zoroastrian community are a living embodiment of the term integrity. We have gained integrity through proper action and via a strong sense of heritage, identity and instinctive, un-arrogant humility and confidence, without hubris over the generations.
It is this aspect of us that represents the thread of history and the everlasting flame. I am the founder of the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce in the UK. Our slogan is “Industry and Integrity.” Asha and Righteousness are at the heart of all that we set out to achieve.
If you would allow me to use a business analogy – “Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right thing”; Zoroastrianism is about always doing the right thing.
To conclude, my favourite saying of Mahatma Gandhi’s applies no better than to the Zoroastrian community. If I may paraphrase it;
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits form your character, and your character determines your destiny.”
From Cyrus the Great to today, our beliefs have determined our destiny. May the Zoroastrian Community worldwide, go from strength to strength, aspiring and achieving against all odds, always with integrity!
Embedded is a recording of Lord Bilimoria’s speech.