CRAWLEY INTER FAITH NETWORK. Thursday 28 th July 2022 My Faith - Key beliefs and principles.
Jasmine Carter, Administration Officer and full time resident member of the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, The Lighthouse Retreat Centre, Worthing.
Ervad Fali Madon, full time resident Priest and Caretaker of World Zoroastrian House, Feltham Middlesex.
Ash Soni greeted all present and by way of introduction asked people to say something appropriate to describe themselves and their faith community. He gave special mention to the speakers for the evening in order that they could begin their presentations. He started with Ervad Fali Madon first, followed by Jasmine Carter. They have both agreed to address the title for the evening’s reflection : My Faith – Key beliefs and principles. He suggested that there will be time for questions and comment after the presentations.
Fali Madon offered thanks to CIFN for the invitation to present and speak. He explained the title that goes with his role as Zoroastrian Priest. The honorific ‘Ervad’, denotes his title through ordination as Parsee Priest. According to most scholars, Zoroastrianism is one of the World’s oldest active religions, it traces its origins back to ancient Iran and Central Asia and ultimately to the Prophet Zarathustra known as Zoroaster. Zarathustra, also spelled Zarathushtra, The Greeks refer to Zoroaster, (born traditionally c. 628 B.C.E, in possibly Rhages, Iran—died c. 551 B.C.E.), An Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism. This way of life has roots going back to the Third Millennium B.C.E. Linguistic studies show that the message and philosophy of the Prophet Zarathustra is written in the five sacred hymns or the Gathas and which were written around 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. His originality is seen in the injunction written in a language known as Gathic Avestan or Old Avestan. Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941), the great Bengali Indian Nobel Laureate, wrote a preface to a translation of the Gathas and summarises Zarathustra’s message and the need for it. He says Zarathustra was the greatest of all the pioneer prophets who showed the path of freedom to men, the freedom of moral choice, the freedom from blind obedience to meaningless injunctions, freedom from the multiplicity of shrines which draw all worship away from the single-minded chastity of devotion. To most of us it sounds like a truism today, when we are told that the moral goodness of a deed comes from the goodness of intention. But it is the truth which once came to a man, like a revelation of light in the darkness which has not yet reached all the obscure corners of humanity. Zarathustra stresses the three principal tenets 1. Good thoughts 2. Good words 3. Good deeds. According to Zarathustra’s message, Ahura Mazda, meaning infinite or supreme wisdom – which we personify as the Lord of all wisdom – or God, gave him a message to spread to all mankind. His message states that those who are listening should use their free will to choose their own path and be responsible for their own actions. Good and evil are understood as realities encountered in the inner mind and our own conscience, that appear to operate as twin energies equally present and both exercising a pull over us. But we must use our good mind, our own wisdom, always to seek the truth and let the positive mentality or the good energy win over the negative one. Strengthening our positive mentality brings out acts of kindness, forgiveness, charity, justice and truth which lead to an increase in happiness. Giving power to the negative mentality within us leads to acts of dishonesty, greed, lust, ignorance and avarice, which all eventually lead to a decrease in our happiness. His message stresses the need to avoid unhappiness, stating that happiness is to that man who makes others happy. In the Gathas is described the different creations around us including : man, animals, fire, the sky and minerals, the earth, the water and plants, they all represent a good moral quality that we should strive to obtain in our day-to-day lives. These qualities were later personified into the seven bounteous immortals; similar to angels and representing the following qualities: positive mentality, the good mind or wisdom, truth and righteousness, desirable strength, love and devotion, wholeness and perfection and immortality of the goodness that we will leave behind on this earth. Living by these qualities will ensure we progress towards the goal of Kshatra Vairya – the concept of an ideal and happy World.
Zoroastrianism flourished and was followed in different ways by the people of the Persian Empire. The largest group in Medieval history, covered large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe, spanning three dynasties from around 500 B.C.E to 700 C.E.. and led by the original Persian Kings such as Cyrus the Great, (Cyrus II, born c. 585 B.C.E. in Media or Persis—died c. 529 B.C.E.) Darius (550 B.C.E.–486 B.C.E. was the third Persian king of the Achaemenid Empire) and Xerxes I , commonly known as Xerxes the Great, who was the fourth King of the Achaemenid Empire, ruling from 486 B.C.E. to 465 BC.E. He was the son and successor of Darius the Great. They were known for their just rule in upholding human rights. After the fall of the Persian Empire to the Arab conquest in about 740 C.E. the Zoroastrians who were then persecuted, fled to many regions around the world over the following centuries. The first group fled across the Arabian Sea and landed on the shores of Sanjan, a port in the Indian state of Gujarat. This group of people were called Parsees and thanks to the secular nature of India were able to continue to follow Zoroastrianism for the next 1500 years. Legend has it that King Jadhav Rana the good ruler of the land, told the incoming parsees that his land was already filled to the brim with his people. He showed them a full cup of milk, stating that any more milk added would cause the cup to overflow. They immediately got the message and asked for a little sugar, which they poured into the milk without spilling any. This was to show that they were peaceloving and religious people and that they would make the land and community richer and more prosperous by their good values knowledge and hard work. They said that they would mix in this land, like sugar mixed with the milk. The king was so impressed with this gesture that he granted them asylum and welcomed them with gifts that helped to settle them in the land of India. The Parsees thus became established and blended, like the sugar in the milk. There are other ethnicities which continue to follow Zoroasrianism including present day Zoroastrian Iranians, still living in Iran. Some migrated to India a few centuries after the Arab invasion and others to regions of Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and many of the former USSR states, which were originally part of the Persian Empire. Many people around the world have also started to adopt Zoroastrianism as a faith that they can connect with and have started celebrating it and its teachings. Zoroastrians are initiated into the faith community, through a ceremony called the Navjote. The term navjote, is used primarily by the Zoroastrians of India, while Sedreh Pushi is used primarily by the Zoroastrians of Iran. It is the ritual which marks the wearing of the Sedreh and Kushti. Kushti is the sacred girdle, a thread of lambs wool, wound three times around the waist. Along with the Sedreh, the Kushti is part of the ritual dress of the Zoroastrians. Sedreh is a white cotton vest. It contains a small pocket in the front, which is supposed to collect one’s good deeds. It is worn to protect the wearer from evil acts and considered a spiritual shield from evil, reminding the wearer to stay on the good path. The ceremony and wearing of these garments usually takes place in childhood or early adolescence. Normally between the ages of 7 to 12. The ceremony is accompanied by prayers.
Zoroastrianism celebrates happiness and has many feasts which have been celebrated for thousands of years. Navruz is observed each year at the vernal equinox and is the Zoroastrian New Year. It continues to be a major festival in Iran and other countries in the northern hemisphere and signals the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and righteousness over falsehood. I hope this short presentation has given you some idea of the basic beliefs and principles of Zoroastrianism and the people who belong as well as some of their customs and traditions.
Before I end, I would like to introduce the charity I am employed by, it is the World Zoroastrianism Organisation called WZO. It is a faith-based charity founded in 1980 with a worldwide membership. There are associated organisations set up in India, USA, Canada and New Zealand. It is funded entirely by donations from individuals and other charitable trusts in the UK and abroad. This charity is devoted mainly to medical, educational and poverty relief causes on Worldwide basis. Applicants are considered on case-by-case merit. WZO takes part in local interfaith activities. Our community centre has a communal hall and worship workshop room which is open to all and is situated in Feltham in Greater London. WZO’s three principal objectives are 1. Charitable donations mainly for medical, education and poverty relief causes which also considers applications for preserving Zoroastrian heritage 2. Dissemination of information about Zoroastrianism through publications seminars and interfaith groups. 3. Preserving the rights of Zoroastrians to practice their faith, worldwide. For more information on WZO, especially to arrange a visit to our Zoroastrian centre, visit https://www.w-z-o.org. Thank you very much for listening and while I’m not an academic or religious scholar in Zoroastrianism, I will do my best to answer any questions about Zorastrianism. Thank you.
Jasmine greeted the meeting, offering thanks for the opportunity to address the gathering. She expressed her delight at being able to join in the activity. Jasmine explained that she first met the Brahma Kumaris organisation in Hong Kong where she lived. She came to the U.K. and lived for a while on the Isle of Man, where incidentally there is an established Brahma Kumaris centre. Later she went to live in the large retreat centre in Oxford. For the past 18 years she has resided in the Brahma Kumaris retreat centre in Worthing, where retreats, workshops, seminars, courses and a variety of activities take place. The Brahma Kumaris was established in 1937 in Karachi, which is now the capital of Pakistan, but was at that time in India. Brahma Kumaris has now spread to approximately 110 countries throughout the World. The full name of the organisation is Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University – ‘because for us existence is an education regardless of how long we have studied, we all regard ourselves as students. We say we are a student and teacher as we become both’. Even the head of the Brahma Kumaris organisation calls herself a student.
The organisation was founded by Lekraj Kapilani, later known as Brahma, meaning respected elder or man. He had a series of visions of a better World, one of which was that everyone should be treated as equals, which in India in 1937 was very far from how things actually happen. It was not a vision from a political point of view but to the betterment of Society. Everything he saw in his vision, he put into practice. Firstly he put the name of ‘Kumaris’ next to his name as the name of the organisation, hence ‘Brahma Kumaris’ -where Kumaris signifies ‘Princess’. He saw the women in the organisation as princesses and treated them accordingly. Everyone worked equally, respecting both men and women. Men were taught to cook and women to mend cars and make shoes. There was no vision in the organisation of specific male and female duties, no recognition of caste, creed, colour, age or gender. The organisation started with probably about 300 people. It now has a million fully committed Brahmas and Kumaris. What we actually practice is Raj Yoga Meditation which literally means we connect in meditation with our higher self and The Supreme Soul. It is the connection with the Supreme Soul that enables us to strengthen our thoughts, our words and our actions in our daily lives with virtues qualities and good ethics. Our meditation is really in order to make our minds stronger, clearer and more benevolent in fact ‘Soul conscious’. We believe that everything starts with me understanding that I am a Soul and not just a body and that the Supreme Soul is my Father and the One I meditate to connect with, in order to bring benefit to myself in meditation. His power can absolve my sinful actions. By connecting with him in meditation, his purity, power and love can clean every soul, in a way that no human being can. The more I connect with the Supreme Soul in meditation on a daily basis, the more I will become light, happy, a better person. Because the whole story of human peace and happiness is the story about me with myself. I rule my life with my own opinion about myself and as I fluctuate, my opinion of myself fluctuates, I have more respect for myself if I am able to feel a quiet pride or success in my efforts, because it was my erroneous thinking that pulled me down. To perform good actions will make me feel better about myself. There is no conceit in this, but a feeling of upliftment through my own efforts. Our belief is in fact that everyone is good at their core, that we are all beings of peace, love, truth, wisdom, contentment and purity and that is our authenticity. That standard is difficult to maintain for various reasons but through Raj Yoga meditation we can come closer to the truth of ourselves. The truth is that we are beings of love, peace, contentment, purity and wisdom. So everything starts with a thought and becomes words and actions and so we start at the first level by choosing positive uplifting thoughts that benefit the self and others in meditation, in readiness to bring that into our daily living on a regular basis, being able to respond to life in a beneficial way, rather than reacting to life. This makes me happier and has a good effect on those I’m interacting with. I’m more courteous, more open to other’s point of view. I see the bigger picture and am able to express myself more and more when the situation is delicate. I realise that I make mistakes, but I try to correct my mistakes and not make the same mistake again. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not. I am a student and an effort maker and I have patience with myself and others and practice putting beliefs into practice and persevere even when I create a setback endeavouring to do better next time. I was thinking that if I spent a day with the SAS and went through their training course with flying colours, I’d be so pleased with myself about what I’d achieved, so that my own estimation of myself would go up. Equally, when I choose to do what is right rather than what is easy in situations, I would be very pleased with myself and I would increase my liking of myself. It works like this in my understanding promoting my understanding and the divine gives me the power to change. So for us it’s all about changing for the better through meditation and exercising it in our lives, making that patient effort. We have three Ps – Practice, Persevere and be Patient with ourselves. So it’s about strengthening the Soul and having awareness of being Soul, as others are Souls and that it’s the Soul that gives life to the body. It is that I am a Soul and I have a body, not that I’m a body and I have a soul. The Soul first sends impulses to the brain, the nervous system and the hormonal system and these impulses enable the body to function. The moment the Soul leaves the body, that body is no longer able to function. So in fact the Soul is the driver and the body is the car. We recognise four potentially different ways of thinking : positive thoughts, necessary thoughts, mundane thoughts and negative thoughts. In our meditation and daily lives we concentrate on positive and necessary thoughts. We don’t wear rose tinted glasses when we have positive thoughts. For us positive thoughts are thoughts of solution, completion, getting the best result from the situation for everyone or as many as possible that can benefit from the outcome.
In fact we don’t make a charge for anything we do. Everything is offered free of charge, our expenses actually are low and most centres are people’s own private homes. They meet the expenses themselves and give the courses and talks in the evening and weekends for free. Brahma Kumaris have about 50 centres in the UK alone and only own eight buildings themselves. One of them is the retreat centre here in Worthing where I live. We are all volunteers doing what we enjoy, that is telling people about the teachings of Brahma Kumaris.
A few words about my journey. You know 30 years ago people in the United Kingdom that I came across didn’t know anything about Soul. I didn’t either, because of that I grew up in a materialistic World. I became an air hostess in the early 70s there at the start of everything and went to live in Hong Kong which is as you know very materialistic and I got to the stage when I knew there was something I didn’t know, that was very important. I started searching for that but I wasn’t able to find it. Eventually I decided to give up searching. It was then that I met a neighbour on moving to a new apartment, he knocked on my door and I happened to be in. He handed me a Brahma Kumaris leaflet and as soon as I saw the cover, it caught my interest. I sat down and read the whole leaflet. There was a number to ring on the leaflet and this was on a Friday. There was a course starting on the Monday and my neighbour said he would come with me, so we both went. When I got there I was greeted by these people from the West, they were dressed all in white. It didn’t strike me as strange, but looking back that surprises me. I went in and it was when they told me that I was a soul that everything changed for me, changed my whole understanding of myself. It was an incredible experience which gave me a sense of self-respect. The idea that I am a soul and not a body, just flooded my mind. I remember feeling that my responses to everything suddenly changed and that feeling lasted for a while but I didn’t maintain it or sustain it. I now know that our being is a study and we have to keep practising and studying every day to really keep up the teaching, to keep them fresh and active in our lives, because there are so many pulls that could so easily take us in other directions. After four years I came back to the Brahma Kumaris and I’ve been an active member of the organisation since then. That was in 1995, I never lost interest. I went to a general class once a week for those four years to learn more. The time wasn’t right for my full commitment, but the time came when it was right.
You will have seen you know, that the new President of India Draupadi Murmu is a Brahma Kumaris. It was made public that she has just ordered a large picture of our founder Brahma, to be displayed in her space. Jasmine was thanked for her presentation and both speakers were applauded by those present.
Questions, comments or issues to explore further:
Dr Sheikh Ramsay introduced himself and inquired regarding the location of the Brahma Kumaris Centre in Oxford.
Jasmine Carter explained it is situated in Nuneham Courtney, a few miles south of Oxford, at the end of a mile long lane in the village. The retreat centre is a beautiful Georgian mansion which sleeps 60 people.
Iyad Daoud requested further information concerning the language in which Zoroastrian Scriptures are written.
Fali Madden explained that the language is referred to as Gathic Avestan or Old Avestan. It is from approximately 400 – 300 years B.C.E. It is considered to be the mother of Arabic, including Urdu and other south asian tongues, in the same way that Sanskrit is the mother language from which Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, and Punjabi are derived. It is written dextrosinistral i.e. right to left. Many translations of prayer books and other resources into English and other languages have been made.
Iyad Daoud asked in which country the highest number of Zoroastrians reside ?
Answer : Currently India. According to the census of 2011, 57, 000 Parsee and Irani Zoroastrians exist. The largest number is concentrated in India but there are Zoroastrians spread across the World. In the U.K. there are approximately 4,500 to 5,000 practising Zoroastrians. Including the former USSR there must be about 500,000 in the World.
Question for Jasmine : Can you explain how you deal with any distraction that might interfere with your meditation? I’m sure that your experience would be useful and helpful to share.
Answer : When we start, concentration levels are very short. I gather from statistics that at six years old, concentration levels are very high, but as we advance into adulthood it reduces considerably. Which is really surprising. It does take time to increase our concentration on different levels. One of the main things about meditation is the importance of increasing our capacity to concentrate, it is a very important part of the development in meditation. There is the realisation that I continually need to bring my mind back to what I’m thinking of. In Raj Yoga meditation we actually choose thoughts which become a strengthening factor in meditation, we don’t just think of anything, but actually choose thoughts, which is conquering the mind in a way, making the mind stronger. Keeping my mind on that thought, sometimes I just have to say to myself when I am wondering off, come back, think about that later, just come back. Otherwise, I just become aware that I’ve gone off track and come back on again and this is why we need so much patience with ourselves and so much willingness to persevere and so much need to practice daily. We can train our minds more and more to keep to the thought that I have chosen to think about. So essentially, it is the practice that is most important.
Question can you ever attain ultimate concentration where you are completely in control.?
Answer : Surprisingly yes it is possible. Our very senior people and especially the leader of the organisation -they have such control, it is amazing and they are pretty unshakeable. You know when you have that sort of control over your mind, it’s very interesting just how stable you become. One of the deputy heads of the organisation came here on one occasion, and this is perhaps a trivial example, but something I witnessed first hand. We took her onto the pebble beach here in Worthing, when she suddenly realised she had lost one of her hearing aids. We were very busy looking all over for it, attempting to find such a small thing on a pebble beach is difficult. We were doing all we could to find it. But I have never seen so much calm in all my life, it was amazing. She didn’t bat an eyelid. It was found where it dropped out of her ear, in the car, but she was so unflustered and stable. Her attitude contributed to the positive outcome. She knew we were doing all we could and it didn’t bother her. It Is just an example that it is possible to to exercise and control the mind.
Question. : Having achieved that level and strength of mind – What would be her next objective in the process of meditation development technique ?
Answer :Just to really maintain what has been achieved. Because unless you keep practising, you will lose it. Sustaining it and enjoying it. What they are actually stabilising on, is a connection with the supreme soul and so they want to keep it, they want to go on doing it. They are getting so much happiness from that stability, from the connection because it is so real.
Sheikh Ramsay commented on the presentation by Fali Madon concerning the role of prophet Zarathustra and the authenticity of his mission. He recognised the distinction that can be made in religious circles concerning personalities especially historical figures. He maintained that he believed that Zarathustra was one of the prophets of Almighty God.
Answer: Fali Madon responded by agreeing that Zarathustra came from the Lord Ahua Mazda Lord of all and Supreme Wisdom .
Question for Fali Madon : In Zoroastrianism is there a place to visit on pilgrimage and do you have fasting ? Zoroastrians visit the Fire Temples which we have. In India there are 48 Fire Temples. In London there are 2, in Harrow and Feltham. The main Fire Temple is situated in Udvada on the shores of the west coast of Gujarat. Zoroastrians from throughout the World, go to worship there. It is like a global spot for Zoroastrians to worship. To answer the second question, there is no fasting. Although we do have one month called Bahman month or the 11th month, where people abstain from meat. It is a celebration month in which a number of vegetarian dishes are eaten. We try to be ecological which includes advocating vegetarianism, in order to create a balance.
Question : Jasmine why is your community called Brahma Kumaris.
Answer : The reason it was called Brahma Kumaris is because men were already represented by the word Brahma – a woman can’t be Brahma. Brahma was the founder, who wanted to indicate how his vision established equality in every way by putting the word, Kumaris next to his name which was masculine. By this gesture he showed he was uplifting men and women equally.
Question : Are children required to practice in a Brahma Kumaris family or is it only for adults .
Answer : it is practised openly in families so that the children meditate with their parents if they choose. Sometimes, amazingly we have children whose parents are not meditating, but who want to meditate with their children. We have been asked to provide a retreat by the Leicester B.K. Centre for 7 – 14 year olds. They have asked to come in a group with adults who can look after them. Certainly, we have youth retreats for groups of youngsters up to 18 years and another group up to 25 years. Most are children of practising Brahma Kumaris families. We do encourage children who wish to undertake a course of Raja Yoga Meditation to wait until they are about 14 years old before undertaking the course. Others will learn Ra Yogaj Meditation with their parents, in a less formal way.
Question : for Fali Madon. Do you have the temple fire in your temple in Feltham and does it continually burn 24 /7?
Answer : Yes normally the fire burns 24 / 7. We have the 48 fire temples in India and the fires burn in those temples consistently. There are three types of fire a). The House fire known as the Dadgah or Court fire which is extinguished after it has been used in the ceremony. As in our temples in Feltham and Harrow. b). The temple fire or Agiary which is an amalgamation of 17 fires, a mixture of fires from : lightning, the Sun’s rays, the blacksmith fire, the goldsmith’s fire, funeral fire and other such sources. c).Atash Bahram which is the highest grade of fire. We have 8 Atash Bahrams in temples in India which burn continually and is a compound of around 24 fires. We believe there are still at least 2 Atash Bahrams in Iran.
Question : What material is burned in the fire?
Fires are lit with babul wood, that is logs of hard wood mixed together with sandal wood, that is known to burn longest.
Question : Please explain the Zoroastrian burial customs.
Answer : In Zoroastrianism, when a person dies there is no burial or creation. The body is offered for the vultures. The towers of silence or Dukma Nashini are structures on which the bodies are placed, called Dakhma.This is still practised in India. The British forces observed this in India, which they regarded as ecologically friendly, an ecological and scientific way of disposing of dead bodies without polluting the earth with the bodies or the atmosphere with fire.
The Towers of silence are set out in levels. The first level is for children, the second for ladies, and the third and largest level for gentlemen. There is a big round pit called the phandar. The idea is that the towers prevent contact of the dead body with the soil. The flesh of the bodies is consumed by the vultures. The remains of the bodies are collected in the phandar over a period of time, after they are decomposed. Over time this has led to a depletion of a large percentage of the vulture population. Because human beings use the drug diclofenac in skin preparations, it is passed on to the vultures, through ointments used on the skin, containing the diclofenac drug. The vultures eat the flesh of the bodies are thus affected. Parsee Zoroastrians in India and Iran and other parts of the world are now allowed burial or cremation.
Question : In Islam the Imam or Mufti is empowered to provide a ruling on religious matters called a Fatwa. What is the title of the senior priest in the Parsee Zoroastrian community .
Answer : There are currently 6 to 7 High Priests of the Zoroastrian community in India. The priesthood is hereditary, so when a father dies or even if the father / grandfather is still alive, so the son or grandson will become a priest. The High Priests act as the World body and their responsibility is to decide on religious affairs. They are referred to as Vada Dastur. So as you said they have the title and right to pronounce their view to be followed by those who belong to the faith community. There is no election or selection the family is the established order through which they will govern.
Question for Jasmine: Are members of the Brahma Kumaris allowed to get married, to have a family or must they remain celibate?
Answer : We are a celibate organisation. Most Brahma Kumaris tend to come to the organisation later in life and so most are or have been married and have children, but once they become Brahma Kumaris they are celibate. Even if you live in a family, and so yes, that is the full fact of the organisation.
Question : Is there an inauguration ceremony to belong to Brahma Kumaris and is it a choice for life?
Answer : No, it is simply a matter of an individual’s personal choice. Once you have taken it it can be rescinded. Membership is only valid because we see and feel the benefit of it.
Question : Suppose a family presents for membership, does that mean a couple can no longer sleep together.
Answer : As fully fledged Brahma Kumaris, you can share a bed, but the arrangement is celibate. It is a choice, if you didn’t agree with it, you wouldn’t have become Brahma Kumaris.
Question : Is Brahma Kumaris’ first language English ?
Answer : No it is Hindi but a great deal of the literature is translated into many different languages.
Question : Where is the largest and main Brahma Kumaris Centre ?
Answer : Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, West India.
Ash Sony thanked the presenters and those who attended for their valued contributions. He asked that it might be possible to remain in contact with Jasmine Carter and Ervad Fali Madden in the future. He looked forward to the possibility that CIFN might visit the Brahma Kumaris Centre and World Zoroastrian House respectively. He suggested that all should only their microphones in order to greet one another and wish each other a pleasant evening.
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