I met Rustam Abdukamilov this morning. He claims to be a Zoroastrian, a scholar of the Avesta book and language, and a teacher of Zoroastrian history in public schools around Tashkent. Rustam is 53 years old, frugally dressed and wears a blue baseball cap with an Asho Farohar (the ubiquitous winged angel) printed on it. His English is fairly good, I suspect better written than spoken. But when he talks of Ahura Mazda, he is eloquent. Not in a flashy, oratorical way, but in a simple, deeply felt, intellectual manner. From what I understood, his father was a storyteller, a kind of bard who would recite the poetry of Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh in public gatherings. Watching his father, he too memorized the 60,000-odd verses that chronicles the legends and histories of Iranian (Aryan) kings in Persian. It was through these texts that ideas about Zoroastrianism were revealed to Rustam and his family. Subsequently, Rustam undertook the study of Zoroastrianism, now completing an online PhD from Spenta University in California. Right from pre soviet to soviet times, the Abukamilov family remained ‘hidden Zoroastrians’. Even, today the State does not recognize Zoroastrianism as a religion but allows the study of Avesta language as part of the history curriculum.
Rustam claims there are 33 fire temples in and around Tashkent, most dating back to the 2nd century BC. We visited two: Ming Urik and Aktepa Yunus-Abad. Both mounds and dips of earth which some archeologists believe to be the sites of ancient Zoroastrian temples. During the journey to these sights, Rustam spoke at length about Ahura Mazda. The Avestan meanings, wisdom, creation, the universe, good versus evil, what it means to be a mazdayasni…. I asked him what he thought about Parsis not permitting conversions. He quoted from the Gathas of Zarathustra: Yasnas 30.2 and 45.1. I won’t paraphrase it here but it’s enough to say that in those passages (translated by C. Bartholomae), Zarathustra invites all people, men and women (narém, narem), from near and far, to come to him. Rustam put this question to me: Wasn’t King Vistasp a convert too? Didn’t the Zoroastrians of the ancient world belong to some other religion or cult before they became Zoroastrian?
I asked to meet a Zoroastrian family. Rustam obliged by taking me to Stanislav Kolchin and his mother Lena Kolchin. In their humble apartment, they received me with tea, sweets and biscuits. Stanislav is a handsome young man who converted from the Russian Orthodox Church to Zoroastrianism a few years ago. He converted because he felt there were gaps in the theology of the church which Zoroastrianism made whole. He considers himself Zoroastrian because, at a philosophical level, it appeals to him. It makes sense to him.
Never once in my life as a Zoroastrian have I contemplated its philosophy, mainly because I simply don’t know it. I suspect many Parsis feel this way. We know all the practices, the rituals, the prayers, the few basic tenets but what do we really understand theologically? Do we even know what our prayers mean? That’s why I was so stunned by Stanislav and how much he knew. Not just Avestan texts, he has read Mary Boyce, the Rig Veda, the Ramayanana. He quoted from Nietzsche, talked about the God Indra, Varuna, Yama. He told me that Zoroastrianism was in many ways more ‘native’ to Indo-European people. That the Russian word vedat (meaning knowledge) comes from the word veda which has Proto-Indo-European roots. Proto-Indo-European??? I don’t think I even know what that means! Stanislav, like 34 others from Tashkent, has had his navjote done. A mobed (Zoroastrian priest) from Mumbai and another from Sweden performed the ceremonies. It appears, the Tashkent Zoroastrians know the kusti prayers but know nothing of the kusti itself. As a matter of fact, they have no ritual. No temple. No priest. No special place for the dead (although there are several ancient dakhma’s (towers of silence) all over Uzbekistan). They have nothing but faith. Not born into their religion, they have consciously, with deep understanding, chosen it.
You know, we can argue their eligibility till the cows come home. Don’t we all know how good Parsis are at that? How can they be Zoroastrians… they are just fire worshippers… where is their temple… does it have a wall facing the south, what do they do with their dead… these are questions we can keep asking. The truth is, they’re not waiting for our approval. Whether we consider them Zoroastrian or not is of no concern to them. What matters is that they feel wholly accepted by Ahura Mazda, the highest wisdom. Who cares what we think?