“We were taught all of our life to think good, speak good and do good,” say in unison Bakhtavar and Fred Desai, both Indian descendants of Parsi Zoroastrian priests, ancient Iranians who fled Iran after the Arab Invasion and the subsequent Islamic conquest of Persia in the mid 7th century, and who resettled in India.
“India is a melting pot; and we grew up with people of all religions, free and respectful of each other, in good relations with all,” they add.
Partners in life and in faith, both Bakhtavar and Fred, growing up, were nurtured by their peaceful religion and by the Non-Violence ideals of Gandhi, also taught by their parents, at school, and through society to live peacefully together and to never look down at anyone else because of their different appearance, religion, race, socio-economic status…
Bakhtavar grew up in Nagpur, Central India, and attended a private secular school for girls founded more than a hundred years ago by a group of philanthropic Zoroastrian industrialists, the Tata family, at the request of the wife of one of their founding members, as she wanted to provide education and literacy to women equal to men. The school was open to all girls, irrespective of their religion, and they all had to attend classes on moral standing which taught them general values and good principles on which to base their life. Fred attended a similar school for boys but in Mumbay where he was raised.
Growing up, both celebrated with their family Zoroastrian religious events and festivals, and participated also in feasts and holidays of the other religions of their city, in particular Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Nowruz, the Persian new year celebrated every 21st of March, was a Holy Day for them and marked the respect of their religious community for the creation of God, the birth of the spiritual and material world, the elements of earth, sky, water, air, plants and animals.The festivities included visits to the Zoroastrian fire temple, prayers, reunions and meals with family and friends. They also participated, among others, in “gahambars”, festivals that marked seasonal changes centered around agriculture and farming activities, and that expressed their appreciation to God.
The Desai’s childhood and teen age were quiet and with no strife. Both, however, were critical of the Hindu cast system prevalent in their society and which gave less importance to the low cast poor “servants”, the “Untouchables”, than to the Brahman priests.
“We were revolting among ourselves why would someone be called “Untouchable” and we would not miss an opportunity to befriend the workers at school, in residential settings, in public areas,” says Bakhtavar.
“And my parents would pay for the education of our maid’s children and facilitate employment for her relatives, in order to help them climb the ladder,” adds Fred.
After High School, Bakhtavar joined the local university of her town and studied business graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. And after working for a while and earning some money, she put it toward her personal interest pursuing degrees in English Literature.
Fred graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Mumbay, then with a PhD from the University of Akron, OH, in the US. In the meantime and according to the religious tradition of his family he had also studied to become a Zoroastrian priest, a function he practices until now, leading prayers and officiating at weddings and christenings.
While a student Fred would also participate in various activities helping others, such as, for instance, raising money for earthquake victims, helping Indian fellow students adjust to their new condition in the US and insuring some of their basic needs, meeting with congressmen in Columbus in support of minority rights…
After obtaining his doctorate degree Fred returned to India, married Bakhtavar and both resettled right after in Ann Arbor for 4 years, Fred pursuing a post doctoral research fellowship.
“Ann Arbor was very multicultural. We interacted with people from all over the world, learned about their culture and developed friendships,” they say. “People in Ann Arbor also had strong concerns for the environment, for nature and the earth, and this resonated with us and our religion,” they add.
The Desai’s started recycling, reusing, avoiding disposable and non recyclable materials such as plastic bags and bottles, aluminum products, etc. They continue doing so now, and have engrained this ecological notion in their three daughters and in the youth they interact with. Recently, in an effort to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, they installed solar panels on the roof of their house.
In 1993, the Desai’s moved to Cincinnati where Fred had secured a job at Procter and Gamble. This prompted Bakhtavar’s regular involvement with the Fairfield City Schools system that her daughters attended. For many years she volunteered her time every day from 9am to noon helping elementary level kids improve their reading, writing and math skills, raising their general literacy.
To increase cultural awareness and foster understanding and tolerance the Desai’s also contributed to the creation of a yearly “Celebration of Diversity” day at the various schools of Fairfield, at which more than 20 different nationalities and spoken languages are generally represented.
For the past 10 years, both also have been volunteering as Girl Scout Troop Leaders, helping girls discover their strengths and empowering them to change the world. To raise funds, the girls would sell cookies; they would then be encouraged to use part of the money they earned to benefit others and local organizations. They have bought, for instance, a refrigerator for a local homeless shelter; contributed money to “Global Giving,” the non-profit organization that provides crowdfunding platform for grassroots charitable projects worldwide.They have also collected to be-thrown-away aluminum products and sold them to an aluminum recycler, instead of seeing them in landfills polluting the earth.
Bakhtavar serves as a trustee on the board of the local Fairfield food pantry and, thanks to her experience as a CPA acquired in the US, helps find/raise funds for its operation. Each year, the pantry provides food to close to 10 000 residents of the city, out of a population of 45 000.
Prompted by questions from their children about their religion and their cultural heritage, the Desai’s founded the non profit Zoroastrian Association of KY, OH and IN in order to share knowledge about their religion and keep it and its ancient history alive in the region. They lead their tri-state community through various activities, including regional gatherings, teachings, social encounters and community building, summer camps for the children… Bakhtavar presides the association.
Learning about the Amos Project’s efforts for Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio, the Desai’s collected signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. In this doing, they talked personally to potential voters, raised their awareness about the issue, explained how a needed Criminal Justice Reform would bring more justice and peace to our society.
For Fred, two issues are of great importance: the protection of the environment; and righteousness and truthfulness. He engages all his friends and colleagues on these issues, providing educational information when appropriate and correcting false news and wrong data whenever he encounters them.
“We need to counter the negative and rely on correct information that leads to the right choice,” he states, “and education, especially of the youth, in that respect, is primordial.”
In fact, the Desai’s would like to remain involved in promoting the literacy of young children and to continue serving as mentors in their city schools. They want also to get more involved in the Cincinnati community at large, expand their encounters and work for secular issues.
“I am an activist by heart,” says Bakhtavar. “I strive to do every day what I think is right for my family, my community and the world.” And they both add: “Our religion is a constant reminder and an inspiration to us to be the best possible persons we can be, to lead selfless lives and help advance the efforts of others who want to make this our world a better place for all.”
Zoroastrianism, the Desai’s religion, teaches them the brotherhood of mankind, and both Bakhtavar and Fred realize that in order to achieve it they need to be peacemakers and activists for a more just and fair society. And this is what dictates their daily actions and intentions.
What is the Zoroastrian religion (aka Zoroastrianism) Zoroastrianism is one of the world's oldest existing religions, with roots possibly dating back to the second millennium BCE. Zoroastrianism which entered recorded history in the 5th-century BCE, served as the state religion of the pre-Islamic Iranian empires for more than a millennium, from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. It was suppressed from the 7th century onwards following the Muslim conquest of Persia of 633–654. Zoroastrianism is ascribed to the teachings of the Iranian speaking prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra), and exalts a deity of wisdom, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), as its Supreme Being. It is monotheistic, with a single creator god, dualistic in cosmology with the concept of good and evil, and eschatologic, predicting the ultimate destruction of evil. Some of its major features such as messianism, judgment after death, heaven and hell, and free will have influenced other religious systems, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Zoroastrianism's purpose in life is to "be among those who renew the world... to make the world progress towards perfection". Its basic tenets include:
Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta, which mean: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
The existence of only one path which is the path of Truth.
The need to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and that all beneficial rewards will follow.
Central to Zoroastrianism is the emphasis on moral choice, to choose the responsibility and duty for which one is in the mortal world. Predestination is rejected and humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in, and in the way they act toward one another. Reward, punishment, happiness, and grief all depend on how individuals live their lives. The number of Zoroastrians in the world is low and in decline. It is currently estimated at around 200,000, with most living in India and in Iran. In the Greater Cincinnati area they are close to 150.
Religious Peacemakers is a regular column published in Streetvibes; it highlights Greater Cincinnati individuals who use their faith and religious beliefs for peace and justice and for a better world.
It is authored by Saad Ghosn, founder and president of SOS (Save Our Souls) ART.