A man carrying hot coals emitting a fragrant smoke entered a small café early one morning in Baroda (Vadodara). He was offering blessings in exchange for a small financial donation. Without displaying any disappointment, he left without having been given any money.
In many religions, fragrant smoke provides a suggestion of holiness.
Many women of Indian origin, most but not all of them Hindus, wear a red dot (bindi or tikka) on their foreheads.
Many Indians have migrated to the USA. Some have them have met resentment and even violence against them by their ‘white’ neighbours. From the mid 1980s until 1993, a gang known as the “Dotbusters” operated in New Jersey. They attacked and sometimes murdered anyone, who, in their ignorant eyes, looked “Indian”. Wearing a bindi helped these thugs identify their female victims.
In 2001, some Muslim terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. This fuelled anti-Muslim sentiments in the USA. Ignorant people assumed that anyone who looked Indian might well be an Islamic foe of the USA. However, many people knew that anyone wearing a bindi was likely to be Hindu rather than Moslem.
In the last few decades, there have been serious inter-communal riots in Gujarat, in which members of one community have massacred members of the other. Although many Hindus have been victims of these disturbances, Moslems have suffered even more.
No Moslem woman would normally wear a bindi. Therefore, anti Moslem rioters can easily recognise a woman bearing a bindi as not being a Moslem, and therefore not one of their potential victims.
Recently, we met an Indian woman in a Gujarati city, which has suffered anti Moslem attacks. We knew she was neither Hindu nor Moslem. However, she wore a very large bindi. I wondered whether she wore this as a fashion statement or for cultural solidarity, or to make it clear that she was not Moslem, to protect herself from becoming a target of anti-Islamic violence.
All over Gujarat (and in other parts of India that I have visited), I have seen wild creatures being fed in urban areas. Wild dogs are offered biscuits and other scraps. Pigeons and crows are given grain and water, often in special feeding and drinking vessels. Cattle are fed foliage at Hindu temples, and so on.
When I asked someone about this very prevalent public animal feeding, he told me that all of it was due to members of the Jain communities. I was unsure about the accuracy of this response. So, I asked other people about it. One autorickshaw driver in Ahmedabad, a Muslim, assured us that it was not just the Jains who care for the untamed creatures in the city; everyone cared for these animals.
Recently, when visiting a mosque in the centre of Ahmedabad, I spotted three bowls filled with clean water in front of the 15th century masjid. I asked a caretaker what purpose these bowls served. He pointed at the pigeons roosting high up in niches and balconies on the facade of the mosque.
Now, a fanciful idea entered our minds. If you believe in reincarnation, then there is every reason to care for all creatures. For example, that pigeon enjoying grain on one of the many pigeon coops, which can be seen in Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat, might be a reincarnation of your great aunt. More worryingly, it might be you or me, who will be reincarnated as a wild dog or maybe a wild pussy cat.
If you do believe in reincarnation or do not totally disbelieve in it, it is best to play safe and look after the urban wildlife around you. You never know, but it might be you one day!
Now, you might object to the above by saying that Muslims and Christians do not believe in reincarnation. And, you will not be wrong. Now I will make a wild conjecture. Many of today’s Indian Muslims and Christians had Hindu ancestors, all of whom believed in reincarnation. Is it not faintly possible that a trace of this belief might not have been inherited by their non Hindu descendants? And, if I am right, might this help to explain the care for animals that is exhibited by members of all of the great religions of India? I am only “thinking aloud”, as my late father in law used to say when he was suggesting something that did not meet with the family’s approval.
Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and a Zoroastrian, ended the Jews’ long captivity in Babylon, and commanded them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem
The places of worship of two of India’s minority religions face each other at one end of a small street in central Ahmedabad, not far from the busy market-place by the Bhadra Fortress. One building is the Magen Abraham Synagogue. Opposite, is a Parsi Fire Temple (‘agiari’). Both the Parsis and the Jewish people settled in India long ago and have lived there peacefully ever since. In proportion to their small numbers compared with the rest of India’s huge population, both communities, especially the Parsis, have made a disproportionately large positive contribution to the success of the country. In view of the great benefits they have provided to the country, some say that the Parsis are the ‘Jews of India’. Is this a fair description?
The Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Anthony Monserrate visited India in the early 1580s. After meeting Parsis in Navsari, he commented that they were: “…in colour they are white but are extremely similar to the Jews in the rest of their physical and mental characteristics, in their dress and in their religion.” This illustrates the priest’s poor understanding of the Parsis’ religion but does hint at his feeling that they had some similarities to Jewish people. Other travellers since the 16th century have remarked on similarities in the ways of life and public spiritedness of Jews and Parsis.
The Parsis, followers of the Zoroastrian religion, fled to India from Persia during the 7th century AD to escape the Arab invaders, who wished to impose Islam on their home land. They began settling in Gujarat, where they have thrived for many years without suffering any more oppression than their Hindu neighbours. During various episodes of Islamic rule in India, both the Parsis and the Hindus suffered at the hands of their rulers.
Nobody is sure when Jewish people first settled in India. Likewise, no one is certain why they did. It might have been, like the Parsis, to escape oppression or, maybe, for commercial reasons. There were Jewish people in Kerala when St Thomas first landed there soon after the death of Jesus Christ. Other Jews arrived on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts later. They were refugees from the persecution of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula following the expulsion of the Moors. Later, others arrived from Iraq. The Jews of Kerala, who have had a largely successful history, and have now mostly emigrated, are different from the Jews, the more indigenous Bene Israel, who settled the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The small congregation of the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad is Bene Israeli. Their origins are quite unknown. In my new book about Gujarat, I wrote: “Ahmedabad’s small Jewish congregation are Bene Israel Jews, whose origin is totally obscure, but the subject of much speculation. One of these is that the ancestors of Bene Israel Jews were originally sailors in King Solomon’s fleet, who got wrecked at Navgaon near Alibag. However, Benjamin Israel, author of ‘The Bene Israel of India’, wrote that there is no evidence for this. Nor is there any good evidence about when the Bene Israel began living in India.”
The numbers of both Parsis and Jews in India are declining. Like many other Indians with economic and other ambitions, both Parsis and Jews have emigrated to ‘improve’ their lives. Parsi numbers in India and beyond its borders are decreasing because of lowered birth-rate. Sayeed Unisa, RB Bhagat, and TK Roy wrote in their paper “Demographic Predicament of Parsis in India” (see: http://iussp2009.princeton.edu/papers/91429) : “Parsis are a small but prosperous religious community of India, which reached a peak of population of about 114 thousand in 1941. The recent census enumerated Parsi population about 69 thousand in 2001.” They concluded that based on available statistics, the population will continue to decline by between 0.6% and 1% per year.
In contrast, the decline in India’s Jewish population is far less to do with birth rates than with emigration. Jewish people have not left India because of persecution. It is safe to say that Jews in India have never been persecuted by Indians or their Islamic invaders. The Portuguese, who began occupying seaports on the coast of India in the 15th century, were almost the only people to persecute the Jews they encountered. Many of them were victims of the Inquisition in Goa. The main reasons for Jewish migration from India are to do with the establishment of the State of Israel and seeking economic betterment.
Many centuries have passed since both the Parsis and the various Jewish communities first settled in India. None of them have encountered as much persecution as the Parsis in 7th century Persia and the Jews in most of Europe. India provided these minorities with a safe haven. In return, both Jews and Parsis have given much to India.
Is it reasonable to consider the Parsis as the ‘Jews of India’?
In terms of religious beliefs and customs, apart from monotheism, there are many differences. Like many of the Jews, the Parsis arrived in India as refugees, fleeing from persecution. Considered from the vantage point of what they have done for the greater good of India, the charitable Parsi communities have contributed to the well-being of India in a magnitude that is infinitely greater than their tiny population is in comparison with that of the country. In this respect, the Parsis resemble the successful Jewish communities of, say, Germany (formerly!), Great Britain, and the USA.
Adam Yamey’s new book about Gujarat, Daman, and Diu