Religious Beliefs. Parsis follow the religion of Zoroaster, a prophet of the seventh century B . C . from the region between the Hindu Kush and Seistan. Their belief system includes ideas about a creator god, good and evil forces, individual choice, Heaven and Hell, the Last Judgment, and eternal life. These ideas are found in sacred texts that are fragmentary, Including the Avesta dating from the fourth or sixth century A . D . and attributed to the Prophet himself. This is supplemented by later Pahlavi texts written in Middle Persian, from around the ninth century A . D ., which consist mostly of commentaries, interpretations, and selections. More modern sources are from India, written in Gujarati and English, beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century. Zoroastrianism may be viewed as one of the earliest monotheisms, since it postulates as First Cause Ahura Mazda, the Creator. It then introduces a radical dualism in the form of two opposing spirits who are both the offspring of Ahura Mazda. The presence of Spenta Mainyu, the beneficent spirit, and Angra Mainyu, the hostile spirit, explains the origins of good and evil; they are the prototypes of the choices between truth and lies that each individual must face in his or her own life. Human History then becomes a working out of these two antithetical principles in creation. Humans aid the victory of good over evil by the pursuit of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. At the end of temporal existence evil will be completely vanquished, and only truth and happiness will prevail. To this basic tenet were added elements from the past, and we find other spiritual beings as well as ritual and magical practices incorporated into the original basic monotheistic belief.
Besides the above-mentioned Creator and his two off-spring, there are seven beneficent immortals, which are entities as well as representations of Ahura Mazda’s virtues, such as “best truth” and “immortality.” Furthermore, Zoroastrianism absorbed some of the earlier Indo-Iranian gods who became Yazatas. The more important of these are seen to preside over aspects of the material world. Also considered worthy of reverence are the Fravashis or spirits of the soul, Together with deceased mortals who led exemplary lives. Fire is the main symbol of Zoroastrianism: it receives the offerings of the priests and the prayers of individuals. Every ritual and ceremony involves the presence of the sacred fire. The fire in the place of worship called the fire temple is ritually consecrated and installed. Non-Zoroastrians are not permitted to set eyes on such a fire. Offerings of sandalwood and frankincense are made to it at least five times a day by ordained priests. It represents God’s splendor and divine grace. A smaller ritual fire is also found in every Zoroastrian’s home.
Religious Practitioners. The hereditary clergy is divided into Dasturs (high priests) and Mobeds. There are no monastic orders, nor are there women functionaries. Priests can marry. Becoming a priest is a long and arduous process involving several purification rituals and the memorization of texts. Sons of priests today prefer to enter the modern Economy, and the community is facing a critical shortage of qualified functionaries.
Ceremonies. The major events of the life cycle that are Ritually celebrated are birth, initiation, and marriage. Of these, the initiation or naojot is of special importance. It is performed for both boys and girls at about the age of 7, and consists of the investiture of the child with the sacred and symbolic shirt, sadre, and thread, kasti, which is tied around the waist. A Zoroastrian must always wear these two things, and the thread is to be untied and retied many times during the day as a prelude to prayers and meals and after bodily functions. The sadre is a shirt made of white muslin; its two halves, back and front, symbolize past and future, respectively. It is the earthly version of the garment made of light worn by the first creation of Ahura Mazda. The sadre has a small fold at the front neckline that forms a pocket. A Parsi child is exhorted to fill this purse with righteousness and good deeds. The kasti, made of undyed wool, is a hollow tube made up of seventy-two threads, ending in several tassels, their numbers either symbolizing religious precepts or referring to the liturgical texts. Wearing it is a sign of consent and obedience to Ahura Mazda. Once a child has had the naojot performed, he or she is spiritually responsible for his or her own salvation through an observance of the morality and rituals of the religion. The marriage ceremony is important in a Religious sense because it leads to procreation, which will increase the number of soldiers in the cause of good. The Ceremony shows a number of borrowings from Sanskritic Hinduism, as in the tying of the hands of the bride and groom and the recital of Sanskrit shlokas (blessings) at the end of the ceremony. Certain purification rituals and the segregation of impure persons and things echo the strict Hindu dichotomy of pure and impure. Bodily substances like saliva, urine, and menstrual blood are considered to be defiling, while death and corpses are considered impure as well as spiritually Dangerous. The practice of segregating menstruating and parturient females is falling into disuse in the urban setting, where space is at a premium. Daily worship involves recital of the basic credo while untying and retying the kasti. There are seasonal festivals known as gahambars celebrated by the Community as a whole, which were originally tied to the agricultural cycle. Commemorative ceremonies called jashans may be held for family events or such historic occurrences as the death of a leader or the end of a war.
Arts. Parsi literature is to be found in languages that have been adopted, namely Gujarati and English. There are no indigenous visual or performing arts, although some modern artists follow Western models. Parsis have in recent years made serious contributions to Western classical music. In addition to numerous pianists and violinists of professional caliber, the community has produced Zubin Mehta, the internationally acclaimed conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and other orchestras. The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1991) may also be mentioned, if only because his 500-page piano composition, Symphonie Variations, which takes six hours to perform, holds the distinction of being the longest classical composition known.
Medicine. There is no distinct Parsi medical system.
Death and Afterlife. Parsis expose their dead to vultures on Towers of Silence ( dokhma ), although if a person dies where no such tower exists, then burial or cremation is practiced. Usually built on a hilltop, the dokhma is a round stone or brick structure about 15 meters high and perhaps 100 meters across, with an internal platform on which sit three ranks of stone slabs, for the bodies of men, women, and children, sloping down toward a central dry well. The bearers place a body there and within an hour or so vultures reduce it to bones. Some days later the corpse bearers return and throw the bones down the central well. It has sand and charcoal in it, the purpose of the charcoal being to protect the earth from the pollution of death. Zoroastrians believe in the immortality of the soul. It remains around the dead body for three days, during which time ceremonies are performed for the dead. At the beginning of the third night the soul will be judged by the Spiritual judge Mitra at the Chinvat Bridge between this world and the next. If one’s good actions outweigh one’s evil actions one will proceed to Heaven; if they are equally weighted one will proceed to a place like Purgatory; and if one has been an evil person one will be cast down into Hell. At the end of time Zoroastrians believe that there will be a Last Judgment mediated by a future Savior, leading to the Transfiguration of the Dead, who will be resurrected in bodies clad in glory. The eschatological faith of this doctrine is one component of Zoroastrianism that has exercised a widespread and deep influence on other world religions.
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