My student teacher pointed this article from 2012 out to me today, as we were discussing Zoroastrian rituals in class. Seems that environmental factors were killing off the vultures that usually fed at the Towers of Silence in the Zoroastrian tradition. Just another example of the challenges in adapting ancient practices to the modern world. I wonder how the vulture population is doing today?
Lately I’ve been trying to teach my World Religions class about Zoroastrianism. I say trying because in the past two weeks we’ve had only 1.5 days of class, meaning I have only seen my WR students once. So what is typically a short unit on Zoroastrianism, an introduction and/or foundation for the ethical monotheistic faiths that will follow, has now been drawn out over sixteen days. I think they will hardly remember anything about this faith when we get to day 2.
But, I’ll persist for two main reasons: in Zoroastrianism, we get a sense of important beginnings and get to explore the fears that surround possible endings. By beginnings, I mean the basic ideas of monotheism, heaven and hell, and human free will that exist within Zoroastrianism and are seen in later monotheistic faiths. Studying Zoroastrianism gives us a chance to talk about these ideas in an unfamiliar context, and maybe consider them more objectively. But the number of adherents to faith is also dwindling, and by looking at the contemporary state of Zoroastrianism, we get to think about how religions grow and fade, and what factors might lead to their demise.
On day one, we focused on the beginnings and the basics of the faith, via some videos, a lecture, and readings. I try to emphasize those foundational ideas that I mentioned earlier: monotheism, good vs. evil, Heaven, Hell, and free will. The ideas are incredibly familiar to the students but the names of the god (Ahura Mazda) and the force of evil (Angra Mainyu–best name ever), the use of water and fire in practice, and the locations and traditions all make it something different and intriguing.
On day 2, whenever that happens, I hope to have students complete a webquest reviewing the practices of Zoroastrianism as well as investigating the question of intermarriage. As a rule, the practice of marriage outside of the faith has been discouraged, but not barred, and so the numbers of children born into the faith are dropping over time. In response, old-fashioned Zoroastrian matchmakers and more new-fangled singles Zoroastrian websites have emerged.
Intermarriage is one factor, but there is also the simple struggle of practicing a minority faith far from home. This video from the NYT captures this challenge and the efforts made by current generations to maintain the practices and traditions (there is an accompanying article, too). So, in this small religion (less than 200,000 adherents today), we witness the advantages and disadvantages of a faith readily adapting to new countries and new eras, and we also learn about the big ideas in religion and philosophy that began to dramatically change the world 3,000 years ago. Here’s hoping I actually get to teach this lesson Monday!
“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.
The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:
When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.
Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.
When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.