“Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism” Conference held by Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago

Roshan Rivetna – Chicago: Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago (ZAC) hosted the third SSZ (Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism) Conference at the Arbab Rustom Guiv Dare Mehr, in Chicago, November 21-24.

The conference was sponsored by Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism (co-chairs Rohinton Rivetna and Pallan Ichaporia) with generous support from the World Zoroastrian Organization (WZO) and WZO-US president Keki Bhote. The mission of SSZ is to promote interaction among academicians, theologians (priests), educationists and practitioners of Zoroastrianism, through conferences and publications.  A primary goal is also to revive the tradition of scholarship within our own community and to support Zoroastrian studies and research in academia.

The 4-day program opened with a dinner reception for speakers and out-of-town guests at the Rivetna’s on Friday evening.  On Saturday, members of Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago (ZAC) presented an all-day seminar on  “Zoroastrianism 101: The Homeland, Life and Times of Zarathushtra.”  Presenters/session chairs included Naheed Vatcha, Spitaman Tata, Hoshi and Neville Vazifdar, Keikhosrow Mobed, Farida Sharyari, Persis Damkevala, Cyrus Rivetna, Shazad Mehta, Pesi Vazifdar, Burjis Sidhwa, Persis Damkevala, Tushad and Zenia Mehta, Rushna Patel, Rashna Balsara, Kristy Taylor. Jehangir Mobed presented the Life of Arbab Guiv and Jameshed Modi spoke on Diversity.

On Sunday, SSZ papers were delivered by Farrokh Vajifdar (London), Dinyar Patel (Harvard), Dr. Pallan Ichaporia (University of Mainz – in abstentia), Keki R. Bhote (Chicago), Shahin Bekhradnia (Oxford), Dastur Dr. Kersey H. Antia (High Priest, Chicago) and Prof. Jesse S. Palsetia (University of Guelph, Canada.  On Monday morning there was a Roundtable dialogue with the scholars and interested community members.

The programs opened with a Monajat by Mani Rao and ZAC choir and a Kavi Khabardar poem by Edul Udvadia; Benedictions by Hoshi and Neville Vazifdar and Bomi Damkevala; and Opening Remarks by ZAC president Hosi Mehta and Rohinton Rivetna.

Thanks to Aban Daboo, Roshan Rivetna, Dinaz Weber, Bachi Damkevala and Mani Rao and Mehroo Bhote for providing delicious food and dessert; and Registration volunteers Dinsoo Rivetna and Aban Vazifdar.

SSZ Conference Papers:

Session I was chaired by Afshan Barshan.  Farrokh Vajifdar presented “Salvation Technology:  Hellish Truths and Heavenly Lies.” Although thoroughly abstract, Zarathushtra’s teachings project a holistic view of an earthly good moral life, leaving speculations on Heaven and Hell to the formulations of Arda Wiraz and the High Pontiff Kirdir. Zarvanite aberrations and the cult of the Fravashis are examined in this light. Contrastive views are offered through the Antef Songs, Omar Khayyam’s irreligious quatrains, and the existentialist  thinking of John Milton. Good and bad priests appear and vanish, to be replaced by the forthright Gathic perspectives leading to some expectedly radical conclusions.  Bombay raised and London based, Farrokh Vajifdar comes from a high-priestly clan. His abiding interest in Indo-Iranian civilizations led to his specializing in Ancient Iranian languages and literature and the life-long attachment to Zoroastrian philosophy and spiritual teachings. He has written, lectured and broadcast (radio and television) on these subjects. As Fellow and former Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society, he referees and reviews books and articles on particular aspects of Zoroastrianism.

Session II was chaired by Minoo Press.  Dinyar Patel presented “Parsi Interactions with Iran.” This paper examines the activities of the Iran League (founded in 1922 by a group of Bombay Parsis committed to “renew and continue the connection between the old land of Iran and Hind …”) between the 1920s and 1940s in the context of Parsi relations with their Zoroastrian brethren in Iran and the imperial Iranian government.  Beginning in the 1850s, Parsis actively worked to ameliorate the conditions of the Iranian Zoroastrians, dwindling in numbers and reduced to abject poverty due to official government policies.  Iran League members built on decades of Parsi work by establishing schools and institutions as well as lobbying Tehran to consider Zoroastrian interests. Many Parsis believed that Iran in the 1930s was taking a profoundly Zoroastrian turn and began calling for the Parsi community to “return” to the Iranian motherland.  This romanticization of Iran, and the praise heaped on the supposedly “pro-Zoroastrian” Shah, was intimately linked to Parsi disillusionment with the course of Indian nationalist politics in the 1930s. Such sentiments also touched on an important issue of identity, one that remains salient amongst modern-day Parsis in both India/Pakistan and the diaspora.  Are some community members prepared to go as far as to call themselves more Iranian or Persian than they are Indian or Pakistani?  Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University.  His primary interest is modern Indian history, specifically the Indian independence movement and the development of the modern Parsi community.  He has conducted research on Parsi efforts to ameliorate the conditions of Iranian Zoroastrians in the 19th century, culminating in the work of Manakji Limji Hataria.  Over the past year, Mr. Patel has extensively studied Zoroastrian history, both ancient and modern, with Dr. Yuhan Vevaina of Harvard University.

Dr. Pallan Ichaporia’s paper on “Status of the Priesthood after the Fall of the Sasanian Empire” was not available since Dr. Ichaporia had to cancel his trip due to health reasons. Dr. Ichaporia, an elected Fellow of The Royal Asiatic Society of Gt. Britain and Ireland is an associate of Prof Helmut Humbach at Mainz University and co-authored several books. Works under progress include The Concordance of the Gathas.

Session III was chaired by Bomi Damkevala.  Keki R. Bhote presented a paper on “The Great Unknown Civilizations in Central Asia.”   Since the 1970’s there has been a veritable explosion of archeological excavations in Central Asia and Iran. Many of them date back to ancient aryan times – both pre-Zoroastrian and Zoroastrian. (1).  Arkaim, on the Kazakhstan and Russian border,  a spectacular Aryan city going back to 5000 BC.  (2)   Gonur, in south Turkmenistan, one of the five most ancient civilizations of the world dated around 7000 BCE.  (3) Tash Karim in north Uzbekistan, that existed since Zarasthushtra’s time and flourished as a Zoroastrian kingdom up to 1300 CE.  (4) Elam, in south east Iran, that was called the cradle of civilization and where writing was  first invented.  These excavations and others represent a proud heritage for us Zoroastrians. Mr. Bhote is a pioneer in furthering Zoroastrianism in North America, a founder (in 1965) and president of the Zoroastrian Association of America, the first in North America, a founder and trustee of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago and president of the World Zoroastrian Organization, US Region.

Shahin Bekhradnia presented a paper on  “Zoroastrians in Tajikistan.”  She spoke of her travels and her work in Tajikistan, (the poorest republic of the ex- Soviet Union) where she and fellow trustees of Vararoud ( a registered UK charity designed to aid Tajikistan)  have taken up sponsorship of children’s facilities in the national eye hospital. She has also helped set up a village sewing project where it is hoped that end products such as hats will be sold at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum gift shop.   Shahin Bekhradnia is a graduate from Oxford University.  Her thesis was on Identity and Change in the 20th Century among Iranian Zoroastrians. She has lectured regularly on various aspects of the religion, its ethics and the community and has also published many articles.  She has also played an active part in InterFaith relations in the UK.  She co-founded a school in Oxford, being an interpreter for the Immigration Appellate, a legal advisor to a travel company and currently a teacher of Ancient History, Latin, Russian and French.  She is also a magistrate on the North Oxfordshire bench and the Oxfordshire Youth Panel, and a trustee of SMART (Substance Misuse Arrest Referral Team).  She is on the Executive Committee of the World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO) and is their Religious Affairs Spokesperson.  One of her main duties is to support Zoroastrian refugees from Iran.   In Iran she has set up a skills academy in Yazd teaching young Zoroastrians to earn their own independent livelihoods and helped  establish a Senior Citizens Day Centre.  She is also a long standing  concerned environmentalist and participated as a candidate in the General Election for the Green Party some years ago.

Session IV was chaired by Cyrus Rivetna.  Dastur Dr. Kersey Antia presented a paper on “Zoroastrian and pre-Zoroastrian Iranians in Georgia, Trans-Caucasia and Europe.”  Mr. Bhote is a pioneer in furthering Zoroastrianism in North America, a founder (in 1965) and president of the Zoroastrian Association of America, the first in North America, a founder and trustee of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Chicago and president of the World Zoroastrian Organization, US Region.  Dastur Dr. Kersey H. Antia is the high priest of the Zarathushti community in Chicago since 1977, and has served as an honorary priest for over half a century.  A fully-ordained priest, from the M. F. Cama Athornan Institute in Mumbai, Dr. Antia studied religion and Avesta-Pahlavi under Dasturji Dabu, Mirza and other learned priests. A clinical and management psychologist in private solo practice in Illinois, he is also affiliated with several hospitals.

Jesse S. Palsetia presented a paper on “Partners in Empire: Parsi-British Relations in Colonial India Assessed”. The paper examines the growth and consolidation of Parsi-British relations in colonial India. It highlights how the Parsis and British came into economic and socio-political collaboration, and details the benefits and disadvantages Parsis encountered through their interactions with the British. The presentation is meant to provide context to perceptions of the Parsis’ situation under British imperialism.  Prof. Palsetia is Associate Professor of History at the University of Guelph, Canada. He is a historian of South Asia in the ancient, medieval and modern periods. He has written extensively on the Parsis, Bombay city, and Indian history. He is the author of The Parsis of India (1st publication, 2001, Brill Publishers of Leiden), and (reprint, 2008, Manohar Publishers of New Delhi). He is presently writing a history of the Parsi businessman and philanthropist, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy.

The closing session was a workshop, chaired by Keki R. Bhote, with panelists Farrokh Vazifdar and Shahin Bekhradnia.  The topics of discussion included:  Zoroastrianism in North America, Zoroastrians in Central Asia;  and Recognition for Dadabhai Naoroji.

The SSZ papers will also be available on the SSZ website. SSZ points of contact are  Pallan Ichaporia and Rohinton Rivetna.

Followng photos were taken by Roshan Rivetna from the SSZ conference in Chicago.

Dinyar Patel (Ph.D. candidate in History at Harvard University)  presented “Parsi Interactions with Iran.”

Shahin Bekhradnia presented a paper on  “Zoroastrians in Tajikistan.”

Dastur Dr. Kersey Antia presented a paper on “Zoroastrian and pre-Zoroastrian Iranians in Georgia, Trans-Caucasia and Europe.”

Farrokh Vajifdar from London, presented “Salvation Technology:  Hellish Truths and Heavenly Lies.”

Group of “Society of Scholars of Zoroastrianism” conference speakers and organizers

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