If they do not produce more children, Zoroastrian Parsis may be heading for slow extinction, officials warned after releasing the results of India’s religious census. Indo-Asian News Service reported on Sept. 7 that there were 69,601 Parsis in India (33,949 males and 35,652 females), nearly 7,000 less than 10 years earlier.
The death rate has overtaken the birth rate; there are more old than young members of this affluent, well-educated, largely endogamous community of Persian origin, which settled in India from the 8th century and is predominantly concentrated in the area of Mumbai (Bombay). Challenges to the future of Zoroastrianism were also discussed at meetings and workshops organized by Zoroastrians at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona last July, which RW attended.
Beside the Parsis in India, there are an estimated number of 40,000 to 60,000 Zoroastrians in Iran, although it is difficult to get accurate figures: some suggest the number or Iranian Zoroastrians might be as low as 28,000, while governmental statistics offer figures as high as 93,000.
Another important factor is the growing Zoroastrian presence in the diaspora. There are reported to be 18,000 to 20,000 Zoroastrians living in North America, and smaller numbers in other places around the globe. This has led to adjustments within some of the diaspora communities, especially on the American continent, which can create tensions in the fold, since not everybody agrees about how far these adaptations can go. For instance, since bodies cannot be left to be eaten by birds of prey in the West (as is done in the famous “towers of silence” in India), this means that a number of Zoroastrians in the West come to accept cremation or burial, although this contradicts theological tenets.
There are now also assistant priests in North America who are permitted to perform simple rituals, although this is not accepted by other, more conservative Zoroastrian communities. In addition, modern life has challenged the traditional Zoroastrian practice of marrying only within the community. All of this means that both demographic challenges and new circumstances have been introducing a number of changes and developments within the community, but they also give rise to internal tensions, since more conservative members are extremely reluctant to accept some of the innovations.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer