“Thy Name is Charity”: Zoroastrianism and the Parsi Tradition of Giving

sduncan post on February 22nd, 2016
Posted in Middle East

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.”

Works Cited

BBC, “Zoroastrianism at a Glance.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/ataglance/glance.shtml. Accessed January 31, 2012.

Chothia, Fali S. “Getting to Know the Zoroastrians.” The Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan

Washington, Inc. http://www.zamwi.org/religion/Getting.html. Accessed January 31, 2012.

BBC, “The Parsis.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/history/parsis.shtml. Accessed

January 31, 2012.

Dadrawala, Noshir H. “Parsi They Name Is Charity.” Parsis, Iranis, Zarathushtis—ALL Under One Roof.

http://zoroastrians.net/2011/08/17/parsi-charity-and-philanthropy/. Accessed January 31, 2012.

BBC, “Zoroastrian Beliefs about God.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/beliefs/god.shtml. Accessed January 31, 2012.

BBC, “Humanity in Zoroastrianism.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/beliefs/humanity.shtml. Accessed January 31, 2012.

Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. I. B. Tauris, 2011.

Wikipedia, “Shapur II.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapur_II. Accessed on

January 31, 2012.

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