Literary Shelf

Tracing Philosophical Foundations of

Zoroastrianism and Hinduism in Literary Texts

Religion is the fundamental guiding principle of a human being’s life. As per Gandhian thought even atheists can’t be called non-believers. They also have some values to guide their actions. There are circumstances or phases in the individual lives where faith dominates. This faith can be in some particular religious sect, inter-religious or humanistic and the individual delves into doubt when s/he undergoes some deeper suffering or pain and seeks to reaffirm faith in some philosophy that guides one to face struggling factors in life.

The present paper is an attempt to trace these religious or philosophical influences on an individual that are intrinsic as a part of one’s ethnicity, culture and upbringing or are acquired in one’s quest for the knowledge of the supreme. It will also take up how faith leads to superstitions and taboo formation at times that gets perpetuated into other generations and how this faith or doubt is a phenomenon both individual and collective. The literary texts taken here are ‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry and ‘The Death of Vishnu’ by Manil Suri. Both the authors expound their relative philosophies in the texts viz. Zoroastrianism and Hinduism but being the writers of the diaspora and the part of cosmopolitan culture of Bombay and west, their texts also offer space to inter-faith relationships. The works selected here portray anguish and angularities of two different ways of life whereas the former author appears more ethnic than the latter still significant and symbolic depictions of ancient wisdom of various religions is eminently discernible in the two. There is ample scope to analyse influences of different religious foundations, clashes among individuals within a family, sect or geographic area due to their fanatic or fundamental beliefs and resultant cocoons of some sensitive souls.

Such a Long Journey is the story of Gustad Noble, a Parsi who seeks divine grace to cure his ailing daughter Roshan and guide his elder son Sohrab. In his filial concern he explores supernatural powers of various religions while maintaining faith in Zoroastrianism at the same time. His discussions with friends, relations and others not only shadow the ethnicity of the author but present real life situations where faith gets shaken when someone dear is at stake. The novel presents such situations when wavering minds refuse to live with reason and in fact take refuge under the illusive shade of superstitions. Dilnavaz, Gustad’s wife, in order to cure her children acts at the advice of Ms. Kutpitia, her neighbour and tries some substances that ultimately take the life of another human being.

Both the novels have characters obsessed with the idea of God or better who are in the search of one. They explore various religions to get a theological experience demarcating them from fellow human beings in their quest to know the ultimate. A close reading of the texts suggests that this quest ultimately reaches the level of obsessional neurosis in some cases and the characters are either segregated by society, or become alienated even from their own families, show abnormal behaviour and are sacrificed at the altar of religion for their over involvement or blasphemy by entering the realms of other religions they were not born into.

 Freud describes ‘neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis’ (39). He says that there is an underlying renunciation of instincts which spring from egoistic sources in religion and therefore religion demands sacrifice and instinctual pleasure to the deity.  Most of the primitive religions believe in sacrifice of creatures but here it is to do away with some instincts that are peculiar to a religion and therefore lead to variation in customs.  Whether these customs were primitive or creations or additions in later scriptures by religious thinkers to suppress their subjects, maintain supremacy over them, subjugate them to their personal needs and accord punishment for disobedience or raising voice against any religious order or the demand of society during various historical epochs has been much debated upon by philosophers through the ages. A few sects got established just to bring out reforms in these customs that got popularised with some religion as its dictums sanctified by God and faced mixed response from the masses and many were charged with treason or poisoned or humiliated by their own followers. No one can classify them as neurotics, misunderstood prophets or bringers of profanity.

SLJ has Malcolm, a Christian believing in supremacy of his god and DV has Jalal who after reading poetry of Surdas wants to attain salvation just like him through suffering and penance. Malcolm tells the story of advent of Christianity in India, ‘but our prophet Zarathustra lived more than fifteen hundred years before your son of god was even born, a thousand years before the Buddha, two hundred years before Moses’ (Mistry, 24). Jalal admired Akbar the emperor who gave up Islam to unify his people and ruled wonderfully through his newly found religion Din Ilahi. He was so much obsessed that he renunciated bed for sleep, read philosophies of other religions , started believing in that the protagonist Vishnu, like the Hindu god of the same name stands revealed to him in his divine form with innumerable heads and a form reaching the infinite. ‘He had always assumed it was a flaw in people, a human failing that created this need to believe in something beyond the ordinary’. Religion existed to control society, to monitor those without the capacity to think things through for themselves, to provide promises and shimmering images in the sky, so that the urges of the masses could be calmed and regulated. What, after all, did the word ‘faith’ connote, except a willing blindness to the lack of actual proof?” (Suri, 143). Even Arifa could see defeat of rationality and reason before a primitive force as faith.

The first novel finds the pavement artist who draws figures of gods, prophets and places of worship belonging to all major religions of the world and seeks permanence of his works or religious views. He is in sharp contrast with the central protagonist Gustad who visits places associated with other religions to save his family members. Though he says at one place, “all religions were equal, he was taught; nevertheless, one had to remain true to one’s own because religions were not like garment styles that could be changed at whim or to follow fashion” (Mistry, 24). He continues with his kusti prayers, holds firm faith in Ahura Mazda, burns loban, visits fire temples and shows reverence for dustoorjis. He ‘loved peaceful mystery and serenity that prevailed in the fire temple’. He hires the pavement artist to paint the pictures of gods on the wall who believes that “using assorted religions and their gods, saints and prophets: makes me feel I am doing something to promote tolerance and understanding in the world” (Mistry, 182). He leaves his oil paints in the end because the wall gets demolished and his creation depicting his knowledge of comparative religions and his roadside temple of all religions fails to get permanence.

Superstitions have an important place in the societal matrix as alternative of religion though these are peculiar to places and resemble a lot in amongst people belonging to different religions. Freud believes that taboos and superstitions are prohibitions directed against liberty of enjoyment and against freedom of movement and communication. He further believes magic is exercised to obtain mastery over men, beasts and things and rather over their spirits.  We find how it is used to protect dear ones from dangers and enemies in both the works. Ms. Kutpitia (SLJ) uses absurd things such as nails, lime, lizard’s tail, mouse droppings etc. to cure Roshan of the evil spell and Nafeesa (DV) takes Arifa to the shrine of Amira Ma renowned for powers of exorcism to ward off the evil eye against her husband Jalal.

SLJ opens with epitaphs taken from Firdausi’s Shah-nama and Eliot’s Journey of the Magi shadowing Zoroastrianism and its advent in past. It is replete with Parsi customs from the cradle to grave like celebration of Navjote, orisons to Ahura Mazda, tying kusti around the waist and burning loban at the fire place, suchkaar, sponging the corpse with Gomez, ritual of the char-chassam dog and above all the towers of silence. The novel contains a debate between vulturists and reformists over the proper method of treating dead bodies. Whereas the formers considered it a pure method that didn’t defile air or soil, the latter were in favour of cremation against this inhuman tradition. The motif of suffering and death is common to both the novels. Sharma finds tower as the central symbol of the Parsi culture.

DV revolves around the myth of Lord Vishnu and his ten incarnations including the Kalki that is yet to arrive. Vishnu remembers his mother expounding the Hindu philosophy of multiple births till we are purified and achieve salvation. “We all start as insects’, she is saying, ’every one of us. That’s why there are so many more insects than people’ (Suri, 53). He recognises theses words — ‘it is the tale of the yogi, the yogi — spirit named Jeev, the yogi spirit born 90,090,000 times’. There are references to lines from Gita. Even the revelation of Vishnu as a god with thousands of heads and limbs has been taken from the same scripture that also contains the gist of Hindu philosophy, ‘each creature has its own karma to follow’  —  a reminiscent of the message given to the Pandava warrior Arjuna by Lord Krishna. Assuming himself to be the Supreme power, Vishnu chants: “I am the aging of time, the beginning and the end of the universe. As each day ends, all creatures are destroyed and renewed in me” (Suri, 156) .

Not only this there are references to Agni purana, Rig Veda and other famous Hindu deities like Yama, Radha, Rukmani, Lakshmi, Ananta – the snake etc. and the famous teaching: “And there will come a day, when all attachment is relinquished, when there is no memory of desire, of hunger, of pain, and then only then, will he know what true freedom is”. The same message is propounded by the other text. ‘Yearning for permanence’ is the cause of human sorrow. But the death motif projected through Dinshawji’s death and subsequent journey to the tower of silence belittles all claims of staying forever. In the larger political context of the novel, even Indra Gandhi or her secret helper Billimoria could not win over death.

On the whole, the novels set against the backdrop of Bombay demand religious toleration amongst people especially in the context of multicultural and cosmopolitan culture of that city and focus on strengthening inter-faith relationships where anybody can get treated at the church of Mother Mary, Mahalakshmi Temple or at the shrines or ashramas provided people show faith there. It is just as Malcolm says: ‘Miracle, magic, mechanical trick, coincidence — does it matter what it is, as long as it helps’ (Mistry, 289).

There is also a flash light thrown on the bitterness in inter-faith relationships that often end up in blood-shed and enmity when people turn fanatic and consider themselves far better than other human beings because they consider they belong to the supreme religion. Somebody from the crowd yells at Jalal, ‘what have you come here to do, you Muslim bastard, reveal Krishna to us” (Suri, 268). There are indications of solidarity among minorities of Bombay against the hegemony of Hindus in SLJ and the novel also hints that in a city in clutches of political and criminal mafia the future of minorities is uncertain.

It is quite evident that SLJ deliberates more on customs than any deep philosophy. It can be due to the rootlessness of this community in India or their struggle for ethnic identity or their belief to equate with the main stream by migrating to the west. The author tries to project the difference through typical rituals and delivers the message of religious harmony whereas Suri delves deep into the mythological well and ends his work on Krishna’s flute that blows incessantly attracting more people to yearn for the Almighty.

Works Cited
Bharucha, Nilufer E. Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures and Transcultural Spaces. Jaipur & New Delhi: Rawat, 2003.
Freud, Sigmund. The Origins of Religion. New Delhi: Shrijee, 2003.
Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. Noida: Penguin, 2002.
Sharma, N P. Parsi Culture and vision in Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow in The Fiction of Rohinton Mistry. Ed. Jaydipsinh Dodiya. New Delhi: Prestige, 1998.
Suri, Manil. The Death of Vishnu. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.


More by :  Sarika Goyal

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Views: 3495      Comments: 4

Comment to rdashby,
as I was uncertain about this id I would like to know more about the spirits you are talking about. would you please tell me who is the proponent of such an idea?


23-Jul-2014 07:44 AM

Comment thanks mr. Mouli for your encouraging comment.

sarika goyal
23-Jul-2014 07:41 AM

Comment Any modern - and by modern read scientific - observation of religion will restrict the source of its ideas to the mind of man. Since man is evident as to his physical form, the ideas that occur in his mind can only appear to come from within that framework, and spirits as distinct influences do not figure in that. Thus when Freud talks of superstition, of totem or taboo, it is originated in idea form in the minds of people by those minds. It never occurs to postulate ideas as communicated to the human mind by entities called spirits, though the latter are understood as key influences within all primitive religions. Science, the applied truth to observed natural processes, eliminates the existence or mention of spirits in nature, include with that all superstitious notions that veer away from scientifically defined reality. The danger is that in denying spirits we deny their continuing influence over minds, both good and evil. If primitive man could be deceived in the scientific terms we proudly reckon today as superstition, why, despite science cannot we be like deceived - as appears apparent in our separate often conflicting beliefs in what should be a scientifically ordered world? Where is the source of these latter conflicts if not from overwhelming spirit influences that only truth can dispel?

23-Jun-2014 21:54 PM

Comment Thanks for an interesting paper enriching comparative studies.Texts and topic chosen are very apt, to say the least.
More power to your pen, Sarika ji!

T.S.Chandra Mouli
22-Jun-2014 14:35 PM

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