Why Do Zoroastrian Families Go Vegetarian For Three Days After Death?
Noshir Dadrawala, scholar in Zoroastrian religion and culture, responds to queries sent in by readers seeking answers to various religious and cultural queries
Query From Parsi Times reader, Hutokshi Driver:
“When there is death in a Zoroastrian family, why do family members abstain from eating meat but mandatorily eat mutton Dhansak with kebabs and kachumber on the fourth day?”
Noshir Dadrawala responds: Zoroastrians believe that death is a temporary triumph of evil. Upon death, the corpse is seen as a source of contamination and therefore not even the closest relative or the priest is allowed to touch it or even go too close to it after the sachkar ceremony.
Until not too long-ago funeral ceremonies were conducted at home. I was witness to my own father’s funeral conducted at my maternal grandmother’s home at Mota Parsi Wad in Bulsar, in 1980. The paidust (funeral) ceremony was conducted at home and the mortal remains were carried from the mohalla to the Dokhma located at quite some distance. The place where the sachkar was performed at home was cordoned off till the dawn of the fourth day (chahrum) and a diva (oil lamp) was placed there for three days and three nights. Relatives informed me that in earlier times the Bhoi (ground where sachkar is performed) at home would be cordoned off for one full year and an oil lamp would be lit there every single day and night in memory of the dear departed.
Why Must We Abstain From Eating Meat?
As explained earlier, death is seen as the triumph of evil and the family would be in grief. Earlier when the community lived in Parsi Mohallas, neighbours would bring simple food for the bereaved family who would not be in the proper frame of mind to cook or even want to eat. Meat was seen as an indulgence for happier times and not during times of grief. Mora daar chawal or khichri would be the usual fare for three days. Even the threshold of the house would have no chalk decoration for three days.
The house would be deemed as unclean till the dawn of the fourth day. Hence, bringing any meat home during this period would be considered as adding to the druj (pollution). Vendidad chapter 8.22 specifically forbids cooking meat at home where death has occurred for three days and three nights.
However, on the dawn of the fourth day the relatives come to terms with the loss of their dear one and believe that the soul has now left the physical world and stands at the gates of chinvat pool or ‘separator bridge’ and the living must now move on.
Hence, on the fourth day the house gets properly cleaned and the floor is thoroughly scrubbed. The threshold is once again decorated with chalk and now it is the turn of the relatives to repay their neighbours with a solemn feast of dhansak which is a complete meal with lentils, vegetables, and rice. Mutton or chicken can now be brought home for cooking and added to the dhansak ni daar. In the past, this meal was not just consumed by the family but also shared with neighbours.
Eating dhansak on the fourth day is symbolic of reconciliation or acceptance of what has happened and moving on in life with the ‘wholeness’ of the meal. The scriptures do not mandate what one must eat on the fourth day after death. It is all a matter of common sense, being practical and keeping a long standing custom alive. Dhansak is a wholesome meal by itself. Mutton simply adds to the richness and flavour. However, adding mutton is optional. Same is the case with kebab and kachumber. It is all a matter of taste and personal preference.
Is It Mandatory To Eat Meat On The Fourth Day?
No, it is not mandatory to eat meat on the fourth day, after death. What one chooses to eat or not eat is a matter of individual choice. According to Vendidad Pargarad (chapter) 8.22: “For three days and nights after the death it is forbidden to cook meat in the house. The worshippers of Mazda may afterwards prepare meals with meat and wine in that house.” In other words, while the Vendidad prohibits cooking meat in a house where death has occurred, for three days and three nights, it permits survivors on the fourth day to bring meat at home, cook it and eat it, if they so desire.
What one chooses to eat is a matter of individual choice. There are Parsis who prefer only eating red meat (mutton) while others prefer only white meat (chicken). There are some who eat neither mutton nor chicken, but eat fish. There are some who are vegetarian but eat eggs (arguing that they eat only unfertilised eggs). There is also a growing tribe of vegan Parsis who abstain from even animal products like milk and honey. We respect them all, as long as they also respect other people’s choices, don’t get too preachy in their missionary zeal to convert others to their dietary fold or worse, condemn and call them names.
Historically, Zoroastrians do not seem to have been a vegetarian community. In fact, one of the strongest arguments supporting the non-vegetarian theory is the observance of Bahman Mah. It is often argued that if Zoroastrians are mandated by religious tradition to be vegetarian all year round, why is a devotee required to be vegetarian for this month? It is the same with chahrum, if Zoroastrians are supposed to be vegetarians why does the Vendidad permit bringing meat home on the fourth day after death?
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