How Zoroastrianism influences my life

A religion for the 21st century. What being a Zoroastrian means in day-to-day life.

I feel privileged to be a Zoroastrian. This is not only because I am part of a living tradition that is over three thousand years old, but also because it is a such a modern and dynamic religion with an ethical system that still offers sound values for the 21st century.

Many of the things that I have become or do are the unconscious result of values and knowledge instilled in me from my childhood. I am green! I was a general election candidate and still believe that one of our core concerns which has been woefully neglected is our abuse of the environment.

And one of the things that may have caused this and still means a lot in my life is celebration of the arrival of Spring. For in the Zoroastrian calendar, the first day of spring marks the arrival of the New Year or Nowruz, which is also still celebrated by all Iranian peoples who in the distant past had a Zoroastrian culture, including the Kurds, the Tajiks and the Afghans.

A ceremonial table on which we display 7 life sustaining examples of God’s creation each Nowruz day (which begin with the sound “Sh” or in the case of Iranian Muslims “S”) has deep resonances within my soul and which I find aesthetically enriching.

I do this still each year as does my brother because we still love this ritual and also in the hope that our children, although the product of non Zoroastrian spouses, will absorb the beauty and meaning of such a ritual and retain memories of their Zoroastrian heritage also.

I was brought up to be green by my dad who almost daily gave homilies about the need to respect the environment, not polluting water nor the air nor the earth.

As I have grown older, I have begun to understand why it was my parents were so concerned to pass on what they could to myself and my brother. As a result of my early upbringing, slightly aware as a child that there was something different in our home life from my other English classmates, my curiousity and interest was certainly kindled, and offered a little insight into what I discovered later to be an amazingly rich religious/cultural background.

I was brought up by parents who were strongly aware that they were passing to me a very ancient torch whose flame was still burning with the light that had been passed down through millennia. This awareness was instilled by rituals as well as being spoken about. Therefore I grew up in a home environment where I saw my parents reciting their prayers each morning facing either the window where the English sun was usually woefully absent or a sometimes a light. I remember that each evening when it was dark enough to put on the light, it was greeted with a special little phrase.

Such daily rituals along side the 4 special days in each month when meat was not consumed in respect to animals who used to be treated with special attention and care on these days back in my parents’ home context of Yazd in Iran, made me realise that mine was not just a run of the mill background.

I and my brother were taught our prayers by my father and were taken to Iran for our first visit which was the occasion of our initiation ceremony known as Sedreh Pushi or putting on the Sedreh. In fact it should be called Koshti pushi as the most important symbol of becoming an initiate is the tying of the sacred cord or koshti which is subsequently supposed to be done each day, thus repeating the commitment to the faith on a daily basis. The fact is that neither of my parents nor any other Iranian Zoroastrians that I have come across do this in contrast to the many Parsees we know. The exception was always those Iranian Zoroastrians who had spent any considerably length of time in India where they invariably Parseefied and came back more devout in the observation of such and other rituals.

The Zoroastrian Work Ethic is something which I have learnt from my parents and see reflected throughout our community. I suppose it is something that has become ingrained in us partly as a result of our social history of virtual extermination, and economic hardship. Therefore everyone works hard to better their prospects and that of their children. It is also true that we have been told that we carry the responsibility to maintain the reputation Zoroastrians appear to have earned for honesty and integrity from centuries back as attested by European commentators in Iran and certainly as attested in India by those employing Parsees such as the British. Thus we have learnt that the greatest pleasure is to enjoy the money that has been earned through honest labour, and intelligent use.

My parents who arrived in the UK as immigrants with nothing but their own brains – no family network to sustain them through the hard times in post war Britain – lived very modestly and our childhood was loving but hardly full of luxuries. Hard work and thrift were the key qualities that allowed them to educate us well, stressing that education was the route to achievement of material benefits as well as status. And yet despite their evident modest lifestyle, they always set aside a modest amount of money annually to donate to charities in the UK telling us that Zoroastrians have always been charitable. Indeed there is plenty of evidence of this among Parsee charitable institutions in India. It is part of our ethic. However wretched we may think our own plight, there are always others who can be identified as even more desperate.

As for me, I like to think that this aspect of Zoroastrian ethics has been reflected in how I live. It is not right merely to take from society, but also to return back, to remember those less fortunate than ourselves. For this reason I have helped to co-found a skills foundation for our community members and offer such advice and support as I can to those who seek assistance to me.

One final thing that I feel important to mention that I have learnt from my faith is the importance of joy and celebration. We have many festivals which provide the occasion to meet eat and be merry. We dance and sing together and try to generate a positive joyous supportive feeling in company with each other. My parents’ home was always a sanctuary where visiting Zoroastrians would gather to celebrate festivals and I try to continue this tradition by opening my home specially to those with young children who have no family to support and provide comfort.

Shahin Bakhradnia is the grand daughter of a renown Yazdi priest/poet of 19th century. She grew up in England, and has published and lectured on Zoroastrianism.
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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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