By James John
Zoroastrianism is thought by many scholars to be the world’s oldest monotheistic religion.
Founded by Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) in approximately 1500 BCE, Zoroastrianism was
the principle faith of the ancient Persian empire, which, while centered on the territory now
occupied by modern-day Iran, stretched at its acme from northern Africa and the Middle East to
China. In the 10th century CE, as Islam swept central Asia, many Iranian Zoroastrians fled to India,
where they settled in Gujarat. These Indian Zoroastrians became known as the Parsis. (“Parsi” is
Gujarati for Persian.)
The Parsis are renowned over the world for their robust philanthropic tradition. Indeed,
“Parsi, thy name is charity” is a common saying in India which dates back to the British Raj. Parsi
philanthropy encompasses individual giving as well as institutional giving, and the tradition is
rooted in the tenets of the Parsis’ Zoroastrian faith as well as in the unique set of social forces that
influenced the early development of their community in India.
Zoroastrians worship one God they call Ahura Mazda, a being they take to be all-knowing,
all-powerful, and perfectly good. Zoroastrians believe that Zoroaster was Ahura Mazda’s prophet
and that his, Zoroaster’s, central teaching can be summarized as follows: “Think good thoughts,
speak good words, and do good deeds.” Thus, charity is one of the religion’s fundamental tenets.
There are at least two reasons for this, both stemming from Zoroastrian views of good and evil.
First, Zoroastrians hold that poverty and suffering are evil at work in the world. While humans are
taken to be children or servants of God in other monotheistic faiths, Zoroastrians believe that
humanity must work in active partnership with God to remove these evils. Second, while other
religions often deplore wealth and its pursuit—think of the Christian Gospels on how difficult it is
for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!—Zoroastrianism regards wealth as a good, so long
as it is acquired fairly and used righteously. The view that we must work with God to eliminate
evil thus comes together with a positive outlook on wealth to encourage a philanthropic
commitment on the part of Parsis.
Social factors have also played a role in Parsi philanthropy. Christian missionaries in India
began building schools in the 1800s. Seeking to ensure a place for their children outside of these
missionary schools, the Parsis responded with an ambitious, charity-driven program of school
construction. The Parsi Benevolent Association, founded by Jamsetjee Jeejeeboy in 1849, built 21
schools. So successful were these efforts that by 1901 the literacy rate for Parsi males was almost
88 percent and for females was 63 percent (p.213). This tradition continued with the work of Parsi
industrialist Jamsetji Tata, who established the J. N. Tata Endowment Scheme for Higher Education
in 1892 as well as a host of other philanthropic ventures. The business enterprises Tata founded
play to this day a leading role in Indian and global philanthropy.
The roots of Parsi giving go back a long way. Just how long can be guessed by the
distinction between three kinds of charity drawn by Aturput Mahraspand, High Priest to Shapur II,
King of the Sasanian Persian empire from 309 to 379 CE: giving without being asked; giving
immediately on being asked or required; and giving when one has promised one would give. He
stressed, too, that charity is good when one expects nothing in return, certainly not personal gain or
fame. Even today one of the first prayers a Zoroastrian child learns is the Yatha Ahu Vairyo: “He
who gives assistance to the poor acknowledges the kingdom of God.”
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