Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Disposal of Organic Waste - Environmental Protection

From: E.De-Haes

Dear Sir, Madam,

I am writing to you as a Mature Student in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Winchester, in the UK.

We are presently studying Integrated Spirituality, a module that examines how the body and soul are related in the different world religions. This entails examining whether these are considered separate or unified in each tradition.

We are presently studying Zoroastrianism.

We have learned about the death rituals and much about the complex and ancient body purification rituals. An intriguing question has arisen, however, regarding how cut nails and cut hair are disposed of, since they cannot be allowed to pollute the earth, water nor fire. We wondered whether perhaps a special lead container exists for this purpose and if so, what it is called, where it is kept in the home, and how the items in it are ultimately disposed of.

I would be very interested to receive your response regarding this question, if you are willing to provide it. If not, I shall not take offence and shall understand that, for whatever reasons, you wish not to reply to this question.

Yours respectfully,

Elizabeth de Haes

Dear Elizabeth de Haes,

The short answer to your question regarding the disposal of hair and nails is that today, the vast majority of Zoroastrians dispose of hair and nails in the same manner as anyone else, that is, with household garbage.

Rather than being preoccupied with the specific issue of hairs and nails, Zoroastrians today are more concerned with general environmental protection, and use as a guiding principle, a desire to minimize any harmful impact of human and household waste on the environment. The first guiding principle is to generate as little household waste as possible. Then, if there is a method of disposing waste available that will have the least harmful impact (and perhaps even a beneficial impact), on the environment, Zoroastrians are guided by their ethical tradition to choose that option. The ethical imperative is beneficence over harm. The method of waste disposal is therefore dynamic and various generations of Zoroastrians have used different approaches. There are also regional differences.

In the old days - when independent Zoroastrian communities existed - all organic human waste was deposited in stone lined pits where it naturally degraded aided by a bleaching action of the sun (khursheed nigerishn) and often with the addition of lime. This worked especially well in the drier rocky areas where Zoroastrianism originated. The intent here was not to dispose of the waste in rivers, in land where pollutants could leach into the ground, or by burning, into the air. For domestic wastes, houses had adjacent pits (see Vendidad 17.2.1). Community waste and bodies were placed in separate designated areas.

Since it would have been difficult for nomads or otherwise unsettled peoples to implement this system, a settled "civilized" life was considered the ideal.

Today, with Zoroastrians scattered as minorities throughout the world, the tradition of waste disposal in stone or stone-lined pits is, sadly, seldom implemented.

Please understand that Zoroastrians by and large do not refer to the scriptures for prescriptions and prohibitions. Zoroastrianism is for the main part a religion based on traditions - traditions that are transmitted through the family, elders and collective community wisdom.

The translation of Zoroastrian religious texts into a language that can be understood by the laity is a relatively recent phenomenon. A couple of hundred years ago, even the priesthood had a vague, but not precise knowledge of the meaning of the scriptures. Nevertheless, before the scriptures were committed to written texts, the priests faithfully memorized the scriptures and we are indebted to them for preserving these scriptures.

Our understanding of the Zoroastrian scriptures is based on various translations. Please do not assume that these translations are accurate. While there is consensus that certain translated sections effectively convey the intended meaning, there is considerable dispute over other sections. Some translations of certain parts of the Vendidad are disputed.

The text that prohibits the improper disposal of hair and nails is Chapter 17 of the Vendidad. This section is one of the most recently written of all the Zoroastrian scriptures. The language in which it was composed is of "a late and degenerate state of the (Avestan) language" (Dr. Pallan Ichaporia).

The focus of the so-called purity laws of the Vendidad is cleanliness and prevention of the spread of disease. Zoroastrian priests, who also functioned as health providers, wore white clothing and masks over their faces long before this tradition was adopted by doctors throughout the world. Organic waste was seen as a breeding ground for disease that could lead to death. Therefore, improperly disposed organic waste was seen as an agent of disease and possibly death. Death-promoting is viewed as the antithesis of life-nurturing. Tradition tells us that in ancient times, Zoroastrian communities were the cleanest, most sanitary and healthiest from amongst surrounding communities. Together with a system of civic order and just laws, they were one of the most desirable places to live.

With the modern availability of translated texts, Zoroastrians have developed a diversity of ideas from liberal to reformist to traditional - and the texts are interpreted from these points of view. However, there is one common denominator (or an element of consistency) that pervades all these differences - the ethical imperative to be beneficent and a respect, indeed a reverence, for the environment.

We hope this helps you in your studies and we will be interested to hear your response.

All the best in your studies,


K. E. Eduljee

On April 29, 2010, Shirinmai J. Mistry wrote on

Mr K. E. Eduljee always writes so lucidly and well. His researches are exemplary and I hope he continues with enlightening the world in his sane and sensible style!

(Added in a followup post:) one of Professor Mary Boyce's books, she mentions how the villagers in Iran would gather their cut nails, tie them in a little bundle and send them off to a designated place. I seem to recall one had to climb a small ladder and thrust the remains into a hole as if down a chimney. Perhaps the male youngsters did their solemn duty by being entrusted with this task.
Thanks Cy, for this transmition.

On July 7, 2010, Elizabeth de Haes wrote:

Dear K.E. Eduljee,

I want to thank you heartily for the trouble you took to provide me with such useful information regarding your religion. It gave me a subtle insight and an understanding of Zoroastrianism that I had not been able to obtain from books. I hope you don't mind if I posted your comments on a special 'Wiki' (a sort of internal website, specific to my university and to my course) to share with my classmates. Both my lecturer and my classmates found the information helpful and enlightening for it gave us the means to argue that Zoroastrianism is probably, in many ways, the most 'ecological' religion of all. Many thanks for providing us all with the information to make such observations possible. I greatly appreciated the fact that you took so much time to answer my initial question.

I understand that for various reasons Zoroastrianism is slowly declining. I find that this is a loss for our world, for Zoroastrianism appears to me to be one of the most beautiful and intelligent religions.

With best regards,

Elizabeth de Haes

Visit our page at:

No comments:

Post a Comment