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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.