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SHERIAR  MUNDEGAR  IRANI  AND  ZOROASTRIANISM

Sheriar  Mundegar  Irani, Poona, circa 1893

CONTENTS KEY

1.    The  Background  at  Yazd

2.    Zoroastrianism

3.    Early  Years  at  the Tower  of  Silence

4.    The  Dervish  Phase

5.    The  Ascetic  in  India

6.    Adaptation  at  Poona

7.    Hazrat  Babajan

       Appendice: Wikipedia  Biases  and  Sectarian  Strategies

       Annotations

1.   The  Background  at  Yazd

Shahriyar (Sheriar) Mundegar Khorramshahi (1853-1932) was a Zoroastrian born at Khorramshah, a village on the Yazd plain in Central Iran. (1) This was during the reign of the Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah. Sheriar was a member of the afflicted Zoroastrian minority, representing the oldest religion in Iran. The Zoroastrian heritage is still largely neglected. The nationwide Zoroastrian religion of Sassanian times had steadily contracted during the medieval era under Islamic rule. By the nineteenth century, Zoroastrians were concentrated almost exclusively in the neighbourhoods of Yazd and Kirman. Emigrants to India were known as Iranis, a collective description used to differentiate them from the Parsi Zoroastrians. See Iranis and Parsis.

The city of Yazd dates back to the first millenium BCE, and was a Zoroastrian centre during the Sassanian era (224-651 CE). After the Islamic conquest, the Zoroastrian inhabitants survived as tolerated "people of a [sacred] Book." A penalty was nevertheless incurred. The victorious Arab army imposed a burdensome poll tax (jizya) on all those who did not convert to Islam. The city gradually became an Islamic citadel, transiting from Sunni Muslim rulership to Shia Islam during the Safavid era. The subsequent rule of the Afshar chieftain Nadir Shah (1736-47) resulted in many Yazdi Zoroastrians being killed by his intolerant soldiers.

Desert  and  mountains  of  Yazd

Geographically, Yazd province is well known for deserts, including the Ardakan, situated between two mountains. The province has been described as an extensive salt desert region. Yazd city is located on a desert plain noted for hot summers and limited water supply due to low rainfall. That plain is surrounded by mountains, and dotted with numerous villages. There are some oases and patches of greenery. Many Zoroastrians lived in these villages, and a substantial number persisted in the city of Yazd during the nineteenth century. The afflicting poll tax was exacted and increased by the governors at both Yazd and Kirman, and only about two hundred Zoroastrians are said to have been able to pay this without difficulty, while some were incapable of doing so. The tax collectors are reported to have made a habit of looting Zoroastrian houses and subjecting the victims to a beating.

"Life on the Yazd plain was much the same as it had been in the early Middle Ages, even for the Muslim inhabitants. The more far-flung the village, the more exclusively Zoroastrian it was, immaculately preserved from a bygone age." (Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom, p. 9)

The Zoroastrian minority were a unique survival from the past, differing substantially from the far more affluent Parsi Zoroastrian community in India, the latter comprising a migrant trend from Iran occurring over many centuries. A serious problem for Zoroastrians in Iran was the degree of oppression they faced as religious and social underdogs. They were were largely limited to manual work, being prohibited entry to the trades and professions. This was because Muslims wanted no contact with the infidel (guebre). Most Zoroastrians on the Yazd plain were engaged in agriculture, and their poverty was acute. They were forbidden to engage in open trade, and instead maintained a commercial network from their cellars. The ban on open trade was not lifted until the mid-nineteeenth century, and the detested poll-tax (jizya) continued until 1882, when influential Parsis of Bombay were successful in their persuasion to the Shah for a repeal.

The villages of the Yazd plain were afflicted with poverty and illiteracy. These remained basically independent until the mid-twentieth century, when many people moved out, leaving some precincts desolate. In Sheriar's time, each village (deh) kept goats. The vista was one of narrow lanes with houses made of mud brick. The village of Khorramshah was many centuries old. When Sheriar Irani was born here in 1853, numerous inhabitants remained Zoroastrians. Khorramshah had some Muslim inhabitants, the percentage being uncertain.

A Zoroastrian priest at a fire ritual

One of the oldest villages, and further north, was Sharifabad, which gained orthodox associations due to priestly activity. In earlier times, the distant high priest of Fars had moved to Yazd in the face of encroaching dangers. This was perhaps during the thirteenth century. He and his retinue brought with them precious manuscripts and two sacred fires (kept perpetually burning). These heritages were installed at Sharifabad, while the high priest himself settled at the nearby village of Torkabad, remaining inconspicuous and placating the Muslim authorities and clerics (mullas) with gifts. This high priest was known as the Dasturan Dastur (or mobedan mobad, priest of priests). Sometime after 1681, this cleric moved to Yazd city, apparently because the rulers wished to maintain close surveillance. (2) There was a high priest at Kirman also, but he acknowledged the supremacy of the Yazd functionary.

This internal ascendancy meant nothing to Islam. The social barriers were severe, and dramatically worsened during the eighteenth century. The Shia Muslims contemptuously referred to Zoroastrians as "fire worshippers." Fire was sacred to the Zoroastrian priests, who preserved archaic practices. "Zoroastrian veneration of fire plainly has its origin in an Indo-Iranian cult of the hearth fire" (Mary Boyce, Atas). The ancient Greeks had a similar cult. Zoroastrian fire temples seem to have been innovated in the late Achaemenid era, and in Sassanian times, were concentrated in West Iran, especially Pars (Fars).

The transferred atash bahram (temple fire, actually two of them) had to be accommodated in simple mud brick structures at Sharifabad, to avoid the risk of vandalism. The minority were despised as unbelievers. For rural Zoroastrians, the city of Yazd represented religious bigotry, where Muslim governors, clerics, and tax-collectors reigned over the older religion. The majority customarily prevented the underdogs from repairing any buildings.

Maneckji Limji Hataria

A significant Parsi visitor to Yazd was Maneckji Limji Hataria (1813-1890). He arrived in 1854, as the representative of benefactors in Bombay, who had created the Society for the Amelioration of the Conditions of the Zoroastrians in Persia. This intervention was urgently needed. Hataria was appalled at the prevailing conditions of oppression exerted by the Qajar rulers and religious leaders. He was pledged to assist his fellow religionists, but the going was uphill. He was threatened with death, and had to travel well armed. Hataria early wrote the book Travels in Iran: A Parsi Mission to Iran (1865). See translation. He proved tireless in persuading the monarch of Iran to abolish the jizya tax, which occurred in 1882.

Hataria lamented the prevalent illiteracy, and set about furthering education, introducing primary schools based on the Parsi model (influenced to some extent by European trends). In his reports to the Society, and in his book, he observed many afflictions. He refers to belief in a saviour who would assist the minority. A generation earlier, an astrologer had forecast the birth of a saviour, and many men are reputed to have searched for him; they became lost in the desert, never returning. The desert remained a fear, survival being so difficult in the sands. (3)

In the streets of Yazd, and indeed in the villages also, Zoroastrians were obliged to walk, and never to ride. Even in the surrounding desert, the minority could only ride donkeys, not horses. Zoroastrians had to dismount upon meeting any Muslim, no matter what social rank the latter might possess. If a Zoroastrian lost patience under such circumstances, he was courting danger. "It has been said that if a Zoroastrian was murdered, nobody was punished; converts to Islam were a cause of great rejoicing on the part of the majority, and other Zoroastrian property was sometimes confiscated for the use of the proselytes." (4)

Until 1898, the Zoroastrians had to wear regulation clothing in brown, grey, and yellow, along with a compulsory girdle of rough canvas. Until 1885, they had to wear torn caps, nothing splendid. Prior to 1882, no Zoroastrian was permitted to build an upper storey on his house; the official decree was that no Zoroastrian abode could extend higher than the upstretched arm of a Muslim.

"Sporadic but vindictive harassments occurred, with mob mood causing forced conversions. This kind of pressure tended to come about if Muslim families moved into a village and gained strength of numbers. Yet there were some villages where members of both religions lived amicably enough, if at arm's length. Muslim converts often retained a basic sympathy for their old faith, and it was these who seem to have acted as a kind of cultural bridge." (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 10-11)

Travellers to Yazd: Edward G. Browne, Abraham V. Williams Jackson

The orientalist scholar Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926) visited Yazd in 1887-8, and left a record of the oppression. For instance, he relates that a Zoroastrian was bastinadoed for accidentally touching with his infidel garment some fruit that was for sale in the bazaar. (5) The fruit was considered unclean for Muslims to eat. A code of untouchability was effectively in force. This was after the 1882 repeal, when conditions became comparatively relaxed. Browne also relates that about twelve years prior to his visit, the Muslims of Yazd had threatened to sack the Zoroastrian quarter and kill all those infidels who would not embrace Islam. This incident arose because a Muslim was allegedly killed by a Zoroastrian. The governor of Yazd professed himself powerless to protect the minority. Peace was restored when the majority were in shock that a Muslim was executed for killing a Zoroastrian woman. (6)

Going back a little earlier in time, in 1848, and during a period of turbulence following the death of a Qajar monarch, many Zoroastrians "were at that time robbed, beaten, and threatened with death unless they became converts to Islam; a large number were killed." (7) Much of the brutality on such occasions seems to have been perpetrated by the roughnecks known as lutis, who were part of a diverse urban phenomenon in Qajar Iran, varying from ideals of justice to violent behaviour. (8)

In view of the general hazards and hardships they faced, it is really not surprising that "a few Zoroastrians seem to have left their homes and hereditary holdings to seek a rugged shelter in the mountains surrounding the Yazd plain." (9) According to Hataria, many Zoroastrians lived in mountain caves and forests. The statistics are elusive.

In 1903, another traveller to Yazd was Abraham V. Williams Jackson (1862-1937), the pioneering Iranist scholar in America. In his Persia Past and Present (1906), Jackson records that, despite improved conditions, the oppressed minority were still not permitted to ride in the streets, and were still subject to many petty annoyances. He says there were now over 8,000 Zoroastrians in Yazd.

By Jackson's time, the Zoroastrians in Yazd city looked like Muslims, wearing turbans. He describes the "low rolled turban which is characteristic of the Persian Zoroastrians." This apparel was not favoured by Parsis in India. Jackson also describes in his book how the Zoroastrian leader at Yazd had servants and fine Persian rugs. Such luxuries were not enjoyed by rural Zoroastrians.

Zoroastrian  elders  at  Yazd, 1903

  The above photograph appeared in the book by Jackson

 

In the 1960s, Professor Mary Boyce (1920-2006) conducted fieldwork on the Yazd plain. (10) This Iranist scholar emphasised the constrictions upon Zoroastrian freedom that were in evidence. The gloomy mud-brick houses, lasting over centuries, were built like fortresses. The builders had been greatly concerned with defence in the face of persecution. There were no windows. The gloom was generally alleviated only by a small courtyard (rikda), and in some houses, even that feature had been covered completely to prevent intruders gaining access through the roof. The front doors opened off narrow lanes just wide enough to allow the passage of a fully laden donkey. The Islamic law-enforcers decreed that the door of a Zoroastrian home could only be secured by a single hinge. The afflicted minority therefore resorted to a series of doors to prevent forced entry.

Furthermore, the prohibition on building upward meant that the Zoroastrians could only build downwards. This meant a complex of subterranean rooms with mud walls. Boyce reports that Zoroastrians were generally bigger in physique than the Muslim oppressors, but the penalty for killing a Muslim was certain death. The death of a Zoroastrian merely meant a fine, usually waived by the fanatical clerics in charge of legalism. "The judges were mullas and all property of the Zoroastrians was heavily taxed so that the mullas could have a fifth of its value." (11)

Some reports deriving from the nineteenth century divulge that torture and kidnapping of Zoroastrian children was one of the evils that occurred. Muslims would trick a Zoroastrian boy to enter their house. Behind locked doors, the prisoner would be surrounded by a circle of savage attackers who would stick needles into him until he died. The corpse would then be deposited in Zoroastrian streets, the murderers not being identifiable. (12)

Hataria refers to such afflictions as arson and the kidnapping of women. When Muslims broke into the houses of Zoroastrians, they were often seeking to kidnap the girls. This problem has been mentioned in other accounts. "The abductors would either get them married to Muslims in other areas or sell them as concubines; the girls would often be sent to Arabia." (13)

The Zoroastrians spoke Persian (Farsi), and also a dialect called Dari that only they could understand. According to Hataria, many of them only knew Dari in their illiterate state. Dari developed over centuries, and could not be decoded by (Muslim) Farsi-speakers. E. G. Browne relays that even Yazdi Muslims could not understand Dari, save perhaps very imperfectly. The advantages are obvious enough. All the main villages on the Yazd plain evolved their own version of Dari, eventually totalling over twenty variants. Browne also reports that he formed a high opinion of Zoroastrian integrity and honesty, inspired by the code of "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."

Liberal Muslims recognised the Zoroastrian trait of honesty. "Muslims were very ready to employ Zoroastrians as gardeners, not only because of their skill and industry, but also because of their honesty; and stories are told of Muslims going on a journey and leaving their savings in safekeeping with a Zoroastrian neighbour." (14) Under changed social conditions in later decades, Zoroastrians became the leading bankers of Iran, assisted by their repute for integrity.

2.  Zoroastrianism

The Zoroastrian religion dates back to an archaic period, but the history and prehistory is attended by many uncertainties. (15) Long before the Sassanian era of imperial associations, there were centuries that remain only very partially charted. The ancient prophet Zarathushtra (Greek: Zoroastres, hence Zoroaster) was reputedly a reformer, confronting an existing religion lost in antiquity. Different theories exist about his dating and homeland. One dateline is circa 1,000 BCE. Central Asia is thought by many scholars to be the probable sector of origin. Zarathushtra is traditionally credited with authorship of the Gathas, archaic compositions in the Old Avestan language which are not straightforward to interpret. These "hymns" became inset into a liturgy, and are part of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The Gathas are not an easy read, and feature:

"meaning densely packed into subtle and allusive words; and in form they belong, it seems, to an ancient and learned tradition of religious poetry composed by priestly seers who sought through study and meditation to reach direct communion with the divine. However, they are the only examples of this tradition to survive in Iran; and this literary isolation, together with their great antiquity, means that they contain many words of unknown or uncertain meaning.... Only a few verses can be understood by themselves in a wholly unambiguous way." (Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, p. 1)

Persepolis, winged symbol associated with Ahura Mazda

The Gathas are addressed to Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrian studies are replete with obscure subjects little known outside specialist scholarship. Rather visible are the remains of Persepolis, near Shiraz in Fars, a royal centre of the Achaemenian monarchs some two and a half thousand years ago. Even that tourist site is difficult to interpret in certain respects, the attendant history of Zoroastrianism being so imperfectly known.

The early formation of the Zoroastrian priesthood is obscure, and attended by contradictory scholarly opinions about these magi. "From at least the time of Darius I onwards, the Magi were the official priests of the Achaemenid kings.... From the royal warehouses they received grain, flour, rams, wine, beer, and fruit destined for the requirements of the cult and personal provision" (M. A. Dandamayev, Magi).

By the nineteenth century, the priestly knowledge of sources had deteriorated. The Zoroastrian priests had many texts, frequently ritualistic in nature. European scholars became interested in the Avestan heritage, as with the Indian scriptures in Sanskrit. A more intensive study of texts developed. Many priests believed that Zarathushtra had authored many texts, but this was inaccurate. The texts and rituals accumulated over centuries, part of a process tied to political developments.

3.  Early  Years  at  the Tower  of  Silence

Unlike many other Zoroastrians of their locale, Sheriar's father Mundegar Khorramshahi was not an agricultural worker. Instead he performed the role of nasa-salar (corpse guardian) at the dakhma, or place of the dead, several miles away. Today, the ruins of at least four dakhmas survive on the Yazd plain, located on hillocks, having become obsolete when cemeteries became the rule during the twentieth century. The well known phrase "tower of silence" was a British innovation of the early nineteenth century, and is not a translation of dakhma.

One of the Twin Towers near Yazd, identified with Mundegar Khorramshahi

The most well known dakhma location is that of the "Twin Towers" south of Yazd, in Safaieh district. They are now a tourist attraction, existing on separate hillocks in very close proximity. A 1970's investigation identified one of these towers as the site supervised by Mundegar Khorramshahi. (16) The village of Khorramshah is easily accessible to the north. Mundegar probably used a donkey for the journey.

The dakhma site associated with Mundegar exhibited two towers during his lifetime, one very old and of uncertain date. Maneckji Hataria refers to the site in his book Travels in Iran (1865). He says that the old tower was in a ruinous condition, and so the Parsi benefactors in Bombay had a new one constructed at this period. However, the priests (mobeds) were not happy at this innovation, objecting to the new stone walls copied from European buildings. The old tower had mud brick walls, and the priests believed that any replacement would need to be built of identical materials. Hataria describes the priests as "uneducated." Eventually the priests gave in, and both towers were used.

We do not know how Mundegar viewed the new tower, but the detail survives that he gained only a pittance from his employment under the priests. Although he was not himself a priest, his role entrusted him with funerary ritualism of the Zoroastrian religion.

Tower of Silence near Yazd

Sheriar's mother died when he was only five years old. He had two brothers and an elder sister Piroja. He would daily accompany his father to the tower of silence, situated on a gaunt hill overlooking the desert wastes. The squat circular tower, open to the sky, was in a condition of decay, being centuries old. Below were related buildings, including a mud brick oven used for baking bread by relatives of the deceased. The Yazd dakhma has a range of disused buildings at the foot of the hillock, and these are mistakenly called a "village" by many tourists. Feasts were customarily held here, intended to comfort the departed; relatives would bring food and wine, and offer prayers. Funeral rites varied between Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India. The funeral procession involved a bier carried by corpse-bearers from villages and city locales to the dakhma site.

"Mundegar Irani's main duty was to mark out a consecrated line with a stick around any corpse that was brought to him, and read out prayers from the Zend-Avesta as a sanction for the corpse-bearers to carry the body up to the platform inside the tower for consequent disposal." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 16)

The disposal meant that corpses were devoured by vultures, who left only the bones. Rich and poor alike met the same fate, with no tombstones to proclaim status. The bones were left to dry in the sun, and then placed in the communal ossuary pit at the centre of the dakhma. The nasa-salar (corpse guardian) observed a set of special rules, being considered contaminated by Zoroastrian society. He was nevertheless regarded with respect, almost like a priest. He had sole jurisdiction of the dakhma precincts. His designation became contracted to salar. Mundegar led a strict life of ritual purity. His young son Sheriar stayed with him all day long, joining him in prayer, and talking with him in lieu of an education.

The word dakhma can be traced to the Avestan language, and probably originally meant "grave." The priestly ritual text known as Videvdat prohibited burial, instead stipulating exposure of corpses to flesh-eating animals. Sporadic reversions to burial nevertheless occurred during the Sassanian era. See Burial Practices in Ancient Iran. The towers are not attested until the Islamic period. In the Sassanian period, "places of exposure of the dead were probably not enclosed, being merely waste tracts at a prescribed distance from dwellings, roads, and cultivated fields, but under Muslim rule enclosures became necessary" (James R. Russell, Burial in Zoroastrianism). Vandalism was then a hazard. Reports of the dakhma by European travellers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not always accurate. Confronting Christians tended to interpret the dakhma phenomenon in terms of a bizarre element in pagan religion.

The Zoroastrian priests knew that decaying flesh was the potential carrier of disease. They invented a lore of the corpse demon (nasu.daeva), meaning "the creature of the Lie called Corpse-matter," believed to be a source of contamination; rules were elaborated in the Videvdat (of uncertain date). Earth and fire had to be protected from pollution; burial and cremation were thus ruled out. The known corpse rites were a product of Sassanian and early Islamic era activities of the priests. Two priests often accompanied two salars in the dakhma ritual (see Mary Boyce, Corpse).

The ritualism has offput some investigators, but the fact is that analysis of ecological factors has served to cast a more favourable light upon the practice of corpse exposure. For instance, cremation using fire can pollute the air and sometimes river water also. In the dry climate existing at places like Yazd, the bleached bones of the dead quickly disintegrated to a powder, and to the extent that a dakhma pit (or well) contained only five feet of accumulated bone powder after forty years.

"The method is ecologically sound, especially in drier and rocky regions where fertile land is scarce and cemeteries can result in pollution and occupation of land more suitable for agricultural or residential purposes. In such regions scarce ground water sources are especially fragile and susceptible to pollution.... Burial in desert or rocky mountainous regions can be particularly troublesome, and shallow graves are often exposed by the elements. The method was the best system ancient Zoroastrians could use that acknowledged the sacredness of the elements of land, water, air and fire, and the attendant imperatives not to pollute or defile these elements" (K. E. Eduljee, Towers of Silence).

Mundegar the salar was not a typical Zoroastrian. He was much less conservative than the priests, and had become the follower of a local Muslim saint who lived in Khorramshah, and whom he often visited. This saint was evidently not insular towards Zoroastrians. As a result of this allegiance, Mundegar would also observe some Islamic festivals. He was accordingly tolerated by the Muslims, who did not persecute him and his children. (17) Sheriar later emulated this trait of affiliation with Islam.

Young Sheriar Khorramshahi grew up in the intense solitude of the dakhma; he was immune to the sight of corpses. His father sometimes left him in charge for several hours while going into town on errands. On one occasion, the parent could not return by nightfall, and the boy was left alone in pitch darkness without a lamp. His only companion was the corpse of a child recently deposited in the compound. When he began to feel sleepy, he tied the corpse to his foot with a piece of string, thereby preventing vultures from dragging away the body. He is reported to have been "barely seven years old" at the time. (18)

"Childhood was a stark experience for Sheriar Irani.... He grew up on stories, or rather facts, of theft, arson and rape committed by the brutish element amongst the opposing community. The towers of silence were liable to be desecrated, raids were occasionally made on fire temples to snuff out the sacred flame. Gangs of [Muslim] youths might bully someone if they got the opportunity, jibing that the gabrs [infidels] must be wrong in their beliefs since there were far fewer of them than Muslims." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 17)

This was during the oppressive years prior to the 1882 repeal. The tensions could easily lead to forms of reprisal. Sheriar knew a Zoroastrian "who threw an insolent Muslim youth down a well-shaft when no other Muslim was in sight." (19) The retaliator apparently took the next steamship to Bombay with the help of friends. A very graphic reminiscence of Sheriar concerned the daily round of Zoroastrian men:

"They would keep a pole embedded in the ground at the entrance to their homes. Before going out to work in the mornings, they would assault these poles with what amounted to a fit of violence: kicking, spitting, and even showering abuse upon these inanimate objects. These poles represented Muslim aggressors, and supplied an outlet for retaliation feelings which placed them [Zoroastrians] in danger if expressed in any other manner." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 17)

Sheriar was witness to a disturbing episode. When sitting one day near the dakhma, he saw a figure running towards him along the cobbled path. This transpired to be a young Zoroastrian woman in a state of exhaustion and terror. She explained that some Muslims were chasing her, and begged Sheriar to save her. The aggressors had tried to kidnap her at her home, but she had escaped. Thinking quickly, the boy took her to the bakery nearby, and helped her to get into the large oven, which was unused that day. He placed the lid on top, so that she could not be seen. Soon after, a group of Muslims arrived on horseback, and asked if he had seen a girl pass by. Choosing his words carefully, Sheriar said that he had not seen a dog pass by, and that no girl had run from this place. They galloped off, and he had not told any lie, thus preserving the Zoroastrian code of truthfulness. He let the woman out of the oven and afterwards escorted her home. (20)

Sheriar Khorramshahi was illiterate, but developed a contemplative capacity. Every day he looked out from the hill-top to the distant mountains across the desert. He wondered what lay beyond those peaks. His community were afraid to go beyond the plain, where they at least eked a livelihood. Parsi India sounded like a fable to them.

In 1865-6, when he was only twelve or thirteen years old, Sheriar decided to leave, and said goodbye to his family. He "walked away from the grim tower of silence, going down the hill and into the sandy wastes towards the mountains. He knew that there were no guarantees of survival. He boldly departed into the unknown, never to return" (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 19).

4.   The  Dervish  Phase

From the later reminiscences of Sheriar Khorramshahi, (21) it is evident that the first four years of his wanderings were extremely difficult, entailing much hardship. He had to evade sandstorms, murderous brigands, and other drawbacks. As he grew older, he was better able to survive. He learned to sleep rough almost anywhere, but his main problem was acquiring food. Sheriar is known to have visited Shiraz.

"He travelled widely throughout Iran, and his later references were strewn with tales of deserts, mountains, and long treks on foot. These stories became largely amorphous in the minds of his listeners, who were unacquainted with the terrain and way of life he spoke of, and who were unfamiliar with the attitude of mind underlying the anecdotes.... He contacted fairly large numbers of persons known as dervishes and sufis." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 19)

Qajar era portrait Nimatullahi dervish Mushtaq Ali Shah, killed by a mob in 1794; Iranian dervish

The dervishes were ascetics, often mendicant, and in Iran tended to favour long hair. The term Sufi gained different applications, and was loosely employed in general, signifying a mystic. The English version "dervish" is a derivative (via Turkish) of Persian darvish, which in the early centuries of Islam became associated with the Arabic word faqir, having connotations of poverty and ascetic detachment. The Persian word eventually covered a wide variety of orders, groups, and solitary wanderers, including the antinomian qalandar role. Organised Sufism was only part of this picture. Sheriar existed on the fringe of this phenomenon as a mendicant. He wore a dervish robe and was suitably unobtrusive, not advertising his native religion.

The young Zoroastrian encountered frequent ridicule from Muslims. When requesting food or shelter, he was sometimes given a beating by aggressive Muslims. He had to be tough to survive, and became a rugged trekker vigilant for troublespots. He preferred rural towns to the cities, where roughneck lutis abounded. From some dervishes he learned the popular subjects of astrology and palmistry, but decided against becoming a practitioner, subsequently losing interest. There was much superstition in the alternative subculture, which he needed to evaluate.

He learned that even the Muslim dervishes could be in danger of persecution from the clerics of Shia Islam, a situation commencing in the Safavid era (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). A less well defined conflict existed between some dervishes and organised Sufi orders. "Hafez [Hafiz] also found dervishes admirable, in sharp contrast to the Sufis, whom he appears to have regarded as hypocrites and formalists" (Hamid Algar, Darvish). The famed Persian poet Hafez (d. 1390) has been the subject of rather different interpretations. He elevated the eccentric qalandar role above the ascetic piety associated with Sufis. "While it is clear that Hafez distinguishes sincere, self-effacing, and godly mystics from the false ones, he does not belong to any Sufi school of thought" (Ehsan Yarshater, Hafez: Overview). As for Sheriar, he visited the tomb of Hafez, in addition to many other shrines, and became familiar with the output of that poet; Sheriar seems to have been influenced by the Sufistic interpretation of Hafez, but poetry was only one of his interests.

He was not a Sufi, but a Zoroastrian renunciate who fostered an empathy with Sufism and some dervish ways. In Iran, Sufis were Shi'ite Muslims and generally affiliated to prestigious orders like the Nimatullahiyya. By the end of the nineteenth century, this organisation divided into three rival branches, the most widespread being the Gunabadi, popular with tradesmen and working class people, who were Shi'ites of Qajar Iran. One of the Gunabadi leaders commendably prohibited opium in a book that he wrote. Addiction to opium (and cannabis) had become popular in dervish sectors; the sufferers confused their drug experiences with spiritual states. Sheriar was strongly resistant to drug use all his life.

In other respects also, the Zoroastrian traveller learned to distinguish intrinsics from the formalism and exhibitionism that flourished in the dervish landscape. Proud "Sufis" and dervishes would seek the public limelight, and their attitude to the young Zoroastrian ascetic was often censorious. In his later years, he would relate one of these episodes with his typical sense of humour. Arriving at the town of Baft Badanjan, he approached a baker and requested alms in the accepted mendicant manner. The baker was about to give him a loaf of bread when a local Muslim dervish appeared, requesting the daily loaf that he was accustomed to receiving. The baker declined, and said that the bread would go to the young newcomer that day (perhaps because the latter looked far more hungry). The local dervish strongly objected, and looked contemptuously at Sheriar, saying to the baker: "How dare you call such an urchin a dervish!"

The proud local challenged the newcomer to answer his questions. Sheriar was wary of such an encounter. However, a crowd had gathered, and wanted him to agree. So he consented, and was able to hold his ground, to the extent that the complacent senior retreated in defeat, the spectators jeering. (22) The language employed would have been Persian, which Zoroastrians could speak. Sheriar had learned dervish customs and teachings, which must have been the key to his success. He also had the ability to make friends with liberal Muslims, and perhaps even concealed his Zoroastrian identity.

"While taking his cue from the oral tradition, and journeying in search of clues to contemporary sages, Sheriar learnt a great deal about his country and its people. He saw above his childhood hatred of the Muslims for their oppression; the plight of many poor Muslims deeply moved him. He was amazed at the ruins of past cultures which he encountered along his routes. Even many of the inhabited towns and cities through which he passed were largely crumbling and deserted, acute testimony to the wars of the previous century and the economic problem current in Qajar times.... He willingly passed through the solitudes of vast desert wastes and mountain fastnesses where awesome silence reigned, a silence which might produce madness in the over-civilised, but which gave him a deep peace regardless of the accompanying privations. He learnt how even in the desert one can live, finding solace in grim nature after the oppression and confusion of human society. He often slept in the open with rocks or trees as his only shelter." (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 26-7)

In the same work (pp. 20ff.), I suggested that Sheriar Khorramshahi may have encountered Babis, of the Bahai type who became sympathetic to Zoroastrians. Maneckji Limji Hataria is known to have become interested in the Bahai sector, though likewise remaining a Zoroastrian.

Nasir al-Din Shah

Babism was created by the Bab (Sayed Ali Muhammad Shirazi), who opposed the monarchy and the Shi'ite ulama (clerics); he lost the struggle, being executed at Tabriz in 1850. Babi regional sects developed during the next two decades, but faced severe persecution. Babis were critical of the Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah (rgd 1848-96), and tried to assassinate him in 1852.

Originally a Babi, the upper class Iranian Baha-Allah (1817-1892) imparted a new orientation to this movement. In 1863, while exiled in Baghdad, he privately declared that he was the messianic figure promised by the Bab. During the late 1860s/early 1870s, most of the Babis in Iran became Bahais, followers of Baha-Allah (Mirza Hosayn Ali Nuri). The latter entity replaced Babi militancy with an emphasis upon communal harmony and "internal personal transformation, similar to Sufi ethics and mysticism" (Juan Cole, Baha-Allah). However, he rejected the Sufi monistic (and gnostic) doctrine of wahdat al-wujud. In 1868, the cordoned Baha-Allah stated in a letter to the Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah that Babis under his leadership were not militant, and he requested an end to their persecution. The absolutist monarch responded by having the emissary of this letter tortured and killed.

After circa 1873, Bahaism spread widely, not only among Iranian Shi'ites, but also among the Zoroastrians at Yazd and the Jews of Kashan and Hamadan. From 1865-6, Sheriar was travelling around Iran at the period of transition for the Babi/Bahai sects. He regarded the Qajar monarch as an oppressor; Zoroastrians were callously subjugated by the prevailing regime. Nasr al-Din Shah gained a repute for indulgence; he wore clothing studded with diamonds, and acquired a harem of eighty-four wives. The Shah's political exploits have been variously assessed. (23) It was not until 1882 that, under strong persuasion, this monarch issued a royal decree resulting in the jizya tax being abolished for religious minorities in Iran.

5.  The  Ascetic  in  India

When he was about twenty, Sheriar Khorramshahi recontacted his brother Khododad (full name Khododad Mundegar Ardeshir Khorramshahi). This reunion may have occurred at Tehran, the capital of Iran, where a new Zoroastrian community had taken root under the guidance of benevolent and wealthy Parsis in India. Tehran was the most likely destination for Khododad, who was keen to emigrate to India and copy the Parsi lifestyle. Sheriar was also thinking of emigrating, but for very different reasons. Indeed, he was very disconcerted by the materialistic attitude of his brother, who was solely concerned with making money. On his own part, Khododad could not fathom what motivated the ascetic, whose habits seemed lunatic to him.

The consequence of this reunion was that the brothers agreed to combine their initiative in a voyage to India. Sheriar and Khododad made a tedious crossing to Bombay (now Mumbai) circa 1874. The sprawling city of Bombay represented high prosperity to the Parsis of West India and the emigrant Iranis. Khododad quickly found employment for both himself and his brother at a shop. Yet Sheriar was reluctant to adopt the life of a wage-earner; this was not his objective, a matter which remained baffling to Khododad.

Sheriar eventually agreed with the proposal, apparently because he was concerned about Khododad and wished to educate him for the better. "It seems that he wanted to prove to his brother that one could successfully acquit oneself at a mundane occupation without becoming a slave to the average impulses of greed and pleasure-seeking" (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 34). Sheriar was a teetotaller and vegetarian, and strictly maintained these habits, while spending his leisure hours in contemplative solitude. Khododad remained resistant to these ideals. Sheriar even retained his white dervish robe and his long hair, which amazed Khododad and annoyed their Parsi employer.

The employer's manager was another man averse to an exemplary life. After five months he picked a quarrel with Sheriar, who would not conform with the secularising Parsi role model for success. Sheriar now decided to leave, and received his final wages from the employer. To the horror of Khododad, he distributed all the money to servants at his lodging-house. Sheriar only retained the paltry sum of two rupees, and with this he acquired a wooden begging bowl and a simple staff. In this state of renewed poverty, he started off on foot from Bombay to continue his ascetic life.

This episode tells us a great deal about Sheriar Irani. He was a thoroughgoing idealist, and a virtual alien to the thriving Parsi community who valued economic assets and Western ways. Sheriar's form of discipline was distinctive by dervish standards. A vegetarian diet was not favoured by Muslims, but is strongly associated with a Zoroastrian version of mysticism, meaning the tradition of Azar Kaivan (d. 1618), a Zoroastrian sage with an ecumenical outlook, and whose circle of disciples had emigrated to Mughal India from Fars. The Kaivan school promoted ishraqi philosophy deriving from Suhrawardi (d. 1191).

The "Zoroastrian ishraqi" tradition had become well known amongst literate Parsis during the nineteenth century, and various adventures of interpretation had occurred. Sheriar was perhaps still largely illiterate, (24) but must have heard something of the Kaivani teaching by the time he emigrated. This teaching attracted Zoroastrians, providing a contemplative orientation, and a liberal outlook as found in the Dabistan, a seventeenth century work profiling the Kaivan circle and diverse religions, and also employing some idiosyncratic flourishes. The more controversial Dasatir (Desatir), an associated work, became celebrated amongst Theosophists.

A Wikipedia article on Sheriar Irani has stated "there are no mystic, mendicant, or ascetic traditions in Zoroastrianism" (accessed 05/03/2013). The contention is misleading, and ignores the Zoroastrian extension of ishraq (illuminism), and also the more recent Khshnoomi tradition. The Wikipedia article has excised a book relating to "Zoroastrian ishraq" that does not suit canonical refrains of the Meher Baba movement in America, but the more complete data is not for that reason to be so easily negated by devotional preferences. See below the Appendice entitled Wikipedia Biases. Wikipedia pseudonymous editorship (frequently American) has resembled the intolerance associated with nineteenth century Yazd. The pursuit of "from oppression to freedom" will require to negotiate the contemporary trolls and sectarian lutis.

"When Sheriar Irani was in Bombay during the mid-1870s, he may well have encountered Parsi enthusiasts who were collecting anything resembling a Kaivani text; some of these enthusiasts were probably future candidates for the high-flown interpretations of European and American Theosophy." (25) Leaving Bombay, Sheriar trekked north to distant Karachi, another Parsi centre, via Surat. He slept under trees and stopped at pilgrimage spots. He reached his destination after about four months, staying in Karachi for a month or so before disappearing again, this time moving into the inhospitable desert of Sind. He reputedly maintained a habit of walking barefoot, and was apparently in search of enlightened saints.

"It was the beginning of ten long years of extensive wandering in India, an itinerary which he later said involved the endurance of hardships more severe than those he had experienced in Iran. These wanderings in India are very largely a blank; the actual extent of his journeys remains vague, and their experiential content almost entirely limited to fragmentary reminiscences that appear either to have lost context or were perhaps even intended to be instructional." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 35)

He encountered many Hindu and other ascetics during these travels. He credited that some of these men were saints, but he did not become a disciple, always moving on. During the tenth and last year of his Indian travels, in 1884, he reached a point of psychological crisis. Sheriar was afflicted by the realisation that he had not reached his spiritual goal. He then decided upon a desperate measure, involving forty days of meditation without either solid food or sleep, and subsisting on water only. The location was a forest in Gujarat.

This event has been described in terms of a Sufi chilla or penance; there was a Hindu version of the discipline, which has caused confusion. Realistically, the inspiration came from a practice known in Qajar Iran. The scholar and traveller E. G. Browne met dervish types in Iran who regarded this discipline as a means to gain magical powers. Practitioners were reported to experience horrifying hallucinations by gradually reducing their food intake to nil. Sheriar's version was not undertaken for the acquisition of powers, which he regarded with aversion.

His effort lasted for thirty days according to his later report. The sensory deprivation produced some alarming "occult" experiences, and his body was emaciated from the fasting. He felt very disheartened at his failure, and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. He had a vivid dream which strongly influenced him.

"I am by no means certain that we have the full report of this episode, and nor do we have his exact words on the subject as reported. In this dream he was told by some entity that he would not be able to achieve what he sought, that he should return home, that he would have a son who would achieve the objective.... this experience as a whole made a deep impact upon him. It later provided a rationale of precedent for the devotional movement centering upon his famous son Merwan Sheriar (alias Meher Baba), whose fame totally eclipsed that of his father. In the process, the forbear's life was inordinately simplified." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 54)

6.  Adaptation  at  Poona

The emaciated Sheriar Irani made his way to Bombay, the place from where he had started his Indian journeys. There he expected to find his sister Piroja, whom he knew to have emigrated from Yazd. She transpired to be living in Poona, a name I will retain here, despite the modern name of Pune. The word Poona appears in all the old reports, which do not recognise the modern name (similar to the situation with Bombay). Piroja had lost all hope of seeing him again, and was delighted at the reunion. He stayed with her for some length of time, while leading a withdrawn and meditative existence that she could not understand. She continually pleaded with him to marry and settle down. He was adamant that he intended to return to his vocation as a wandering ascetic.

"He was like a fish out of water amongst the increasingly Westernised Parsi community in which his sister lived. Piroja and others had no interest in the higher reaches of the mind.... His sister lived on domestic talk, and to her Sufis were merely something vaguely connected with the detestable Muslims whom she had learned to abhor on the distant Yazd plain. She may well have heard of Kaivanis, but to her even this subject would have meant nothing but old books. Sheriar felt suspended in a social void; how could he live with all this small talk for the rest of his life?" (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 55-6)

Sheriar resolved to depart, and this caused Piroja to exert more persuasion. At this juncture, the six year old daughter of Irani Zoroastrian neighbours walked past the front door on her way to school. Sheriar said that if he had to marry, he would marry that little girl; he believed that he was suggesting something impossible, to which the parents of the girl would never agree. Yet Piroja proved so influential that she arranged a future marriage via her friendship with the girl's mother Golendoon. The girl's father exploded with anger when he heard of this arrangement. This was Dorab Khorramshahi, another emigrant from the Yazd plain, and the owner of a tea shop. Dorab thought the plan was preposterous, involving a husband with no assets who was abstracted from the mundane world. When his temper cooled, Dorab felt that a word of honour could not be broken, and so he reluctantly agreed to the marrriage. Sheriar himself was stunned, but felt that he could not withdraw after having given his promise to Piroja. The Zoroastrian code of integrity was at stake.

The girl was Shirin Dorab Khooramshahi (1878-1943), born a few days after her parents arrived in Bombay from Iran. It was agreed that the marriage would occur when she came of age. Now Sheriar had to prepare for a provider lifestyle, and so he became a gardener. This was a fairly frequent occupation amongst the Yazd Iranis, but Sheriar was now an employee of the British elite, not the Muslims. Poona was a centre of the British Raj, and famous for well-cultivated gardens.

Sheriar Irani (top left) with friends in Poona, circa 1893; enlargement to right

Possessing a sturdy physique, and working hard, the ex-dervish eventually became head gardener at a number of mansions. He also worked as a chef. Sheriar earned well and after a time, he became a businessman, acquiring a tea shop. By now he knew that a business role was not necessarily an impediment to a spiritual development. Significantly perhaps, some of the early Zoroastrian Kaivanis (and their affiliates) were merchants.

There was another dimension to his existence. His new life caused him to become literate. He may already have learned to write his native Persian; reports are contradictory. If so, he was not widely read in that language. Now Sheriar mastered Persian, and also the Gujarati script used by Parsis.

"More remarkable was his determination to master Arabic, a venture in which he was also successful. Most literate Parsis never studied Arabic, and many of them were not well-read in Persian, which they did not require for either religious or mundane purposes. Sheriar was clearly following a Kaivani precedent, which had exhibited a high standard of learning and specifically incorporated Arabic....Sheriar was not merely desirous of reading Zoroastrian religious works, but also wanted to research diverse Sufi classics and related treatises. He did in fact become something of a scholar in both Persian and Arabic, and would certainly have been able to hold his own in educated circles save in the more elite echelon of manuscript scholars." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 58)

Most of Sheriar's friends and family could not follow the range of his interests. He accepted this, and rarely pressed his own beliefs (which included reincarnation, though not in the standard Hindu context). He had a strong sense of humour, and his equanimity was appealing.

"Orthodox Zoroastrian texts in Gujarati were now easy to obtain, and classical Persian Sufi books were not difficult to seek out in Bombay. Not a few Parsis were fascinated by the Kaivani works, and since the mid-nineteenth century, these works had been eagerly sought after and translated by Parsis who were encouraged by Sir Jamshetji Jejeebhoy, a well known Parsi philanthropist who was liberal with funds." (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 58-9)

Sheriar composed hymns in Gujarati for use by the Parsi community. He also wrote poetry in Persian, which revealed more of his Sufi affinities. He appears to have been a proficient poet in this language. Some of his monajat were quoted in books of that day. He became fluent in four languages, but did not learn English. (26) He was often known as Sheriarji, the suffix here reflecting a standard Parsi assimilation from Hinduism. However, his real origin was indicated by the cognomen of Irani, generally applying to emigrants from Iran. Some of his friends were Iranis, while others were Parsis. In India, social conditions under British rule were very different to those in Qajar Iran. Reformist movements and Western economic influence were strong ingredients of the prosperous Parsi milieu.

Sheriar Irani and his wife Shirin, Poona

Sheriar married Shirin in 1892, when she was fourteen. Shirin's mother Golendoon liked Sheriar, but Dorab continued to resist the match, and refused to attend the wedding. One interpretation is that Dorab still reacted to the ascetic background of his son-in-law, who was very different in temperament to most Iranis and Parsis. Even though Sheriar had successfully adapted to ordinary life, he was often considered to remain "a dervish at heart," and this element of other-worldliness was not always welcome. However, he did not advertise his deepest interests.

One of Sheriar's habits that others found difficult to understand was his vegetarian diet, which he had maintained for many years, and treated as an absolute commitment never to be compromised. This feature was quite contrary to the diet of Irani and Parsi families, who all favoured meat. His friends thought this was a peculiar habit reminiscent of Hindus. He stoically endured all the objections and queries. Separate vegetarian food had always to be prepared for him by Golendoon and Shirin. Eventually these two conspired to put small pieces of mutton in his vegetable dahl, believing that he would not notice. But Sheriar knew the difference when he tasted the food, and expressed horror that his vow had been broken. Shirin had a nightmare, and Golendoon repented. Sheriar then relinquished his strict observance, and from then on, ate whatever was prepared for him. (27)

The marriage was successful. Living in Poona, Sheriar acquired a small terraced house from his hard-earned savings; his personal expenses were very low. He expanded his business to include a toddy shop. Toddy denotes palm wine. Some Parsi villages cultivated the toddy-palm, used to make a drink that was low in alcohol content. In the course of time, his wife bore nine children, although three died in childhood. Of the survivors, five were sons, and one a daughter. The second son, namely Merwan, became famous as Meher Baba (1894-1969), and gained an inter-religious following during the 1920s. (28) Meher Baba visited Yazd in 1929, his Zoroastrian background now being of some interest.

The Theosophical Society gained much influence amongst Parsis in the late nineteenth century. Sheriar was not a subscriber, despite his affinity with vegetarianism and reincarnation beliefs. He derived inspiration from an earlier tradition, and this means the Kaivan school. One of his contemporaries was Behramshah Nauroji Shroff (1858-1927), a Parsi born in Bombay who started the movement called Ilm-i-Khshnoom (path of knowledge). "His [Shroff's] teaching can be summarised as a Zoroastrianised form of Theosophy" (J. R. Hinnells, Behramshah N. Shroff). The emphases of Shroff included astrology, reincarnation, vegetarianism, occult powers, and the value of traditional rituals. Shroff was active in Surat and Bombay, and taught an esoteric version of the Avesta. Sheriar Irani was not part of this new movement in any way.

Rather fantastically, Shroff claimed to have gained esoteric knowledge from Zoroastrian masters living in a secret colony at Mount Demavand in Iran. He is believed to have lived in that colony, or paradise, for three years. This fabled community numbered about 2,000 members and were led by 72 magi. (29) More tangibly, Shroff started to give public lectures at Bombay in 1909 under the auspices of the Parsi Vegetarian and Temperance Society. He gained a following restricted to Zoroastrians. His claims have been interpreted as a response to Theosophy; he was effectively a rival to the Theosophical Society.

In contrast, Sheriar Irani was averse to Theosophical and Khshnoomi concepts of hidden masters. He did not believe in the agricultural paradise of magians at Demavand, having seen at firsthand the realistic situation on the Yazd plain. Another problem for current assessors is that the Khshnoomi attitude differed radically from the cosmopolitan orientation of the Kaivan school, which had cultivated Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu affiliates (and also one known Christian). (30) The Ilm-i Khshnoom was exclusively Zoroastrian. The astrological conceptualism of Shroff facilitated a disapproval of inter-faith (or "inter-caste") marriages, contributing to a sense of religious insularity. (31) Parsi vegetarianism is a different subject. (32)

Sheriar remained a Zoroastrian and believed in the ethical dimensions of his native religion, frequently invoking the sacred name Yazdan (a Persian word deriving from Pahlavi, evocative of Ohrmazd or light, and meaning "God"). Yet he regarded many priestly rites as accretions. In this respect however, he was not a campaigning "reformist," and was altogether more discreet in his approach. More to the point perhaps, he remained cautious of the tendency amongst his co-religionists to exalt material prowess. For instance, his father-in-law Dorab exhibited the "tea shop proprietor" approach in many matters. Sheriar preferred to remain "a dervish at heart," analysing events from a different perspective.

Most of his acquaintances did not possess his inclination to study, his linguistic range, and his underlying philosophy. Sheriar did not preach any sectarian message, believing that the highest course in life had to be found in experience, not in dogma. In his view, the application to a psycho-spiritual development was of primary importance, though ignored by priests and businessmen alike. Sheriar had forebodings about the ancient code of Zoroastrian integrity (good thoughts, good words, good deeds) being undermined by the pursuit of wealth fostered amongst Parsis. He was proven correct when a calculating young business partner cheated him via a deceptive document, thereby gaining ownership of his toddy business. Sheriar survived this disruption (in the 1920s) with accustomed poise. Being a teetotaller, he had never actually wanted a palm wine business; this resort had been in the interests of maintaining his family. He often gave money to the poor, and disliked the hoarding of money.

7.  Hazrat  Babajan

In his earlier days, Sheriar Irani "had sought hard for a [spiritual] teacher, but found all potential entities for this role as either inaccessible, of partial qualification only, or downright frauds" (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 72). After living many years at Poona, he encountered an entity of a type he had never met before.

Sheriar  Irani, Poona 1920s; Hazrat  Babajan, Poona

In the early years of the twentieth century, Sheriar became aware of a distinctive new inhabitant of the nearby cantonment area. An old Pathan woman had installed herself beneath a tree, where she lived year after year, despite exposure to all weathers. She was venerated as a holy person, and gained numerous followers, mainly Muslims, but also some Hindus and Zoroastrians. She was known as Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931). She gained repute as a Sufi, but there was no trace of any doctrine, and no dervish practices advocated. (33) She broke through all religious barriers with an approach that could be considered eccentric but benevolent.

"Her method of speech seemed peculiarly fitting for the intercultural focus that she became in Poona; it was almost unintelligble to casual hearing (the British were puzzled by her statements), a mixture of different languages which mingled highly abstract references with aphorisms of a more obvious wisdom. There was no doctrine conveyed, not the slightest attempt at persuasion to any dogma or teaching. But personal instructions she did give on occasion." (From Oppression to Freedom, p. 71)

For over twenty years, Sheriar lived near the Sufi matriarch as an informed contact. She died six months before he did. He must often have reflected upon a basic irony. He had travelled all over Iran and India, often in search of a mystical teacher, undergoing laborious journeys on foot and extreme privations. He had seen many pretenders and many exhibitionists. Eventually, he had believed that he would never find the ideal gnostic. In the end, he could afford "several mature smiles over the irony that the matriarch came to him, almost on his doorstep, in the same cantonment purlieus" (Oppression to Freedom, p. 73).

Strangely enough, his link with Hazrat Babajan is missing from devotional reports contributed by the Meher Baba movement. (34) Sheriar Irani might easily have commented, in the way he sometimes did: "They (the followers) always forget significant things; what is missing in the texts is often something that occurs on a different level to what the followers can appreciate."

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

March 2013 (later slightly modified)

 

APPENDICE:  WIKIPEDIA  BIASES  AND  SECTARIAN  STRATEGIES

The original version of the Wikipedia article on Sheriar Mundegar Irani was posted in 2006 by Dr. M. Emmans Dean (editor Jedermann), a British academic who made noticeable reference to my book From Oppression to Freedom (1988). This academic was in correspondence with me at that period, acknowledging the inspiration of my book. He cordially invited me to improve the article if I so wished. I declined, having no desire to do so, especially as I was not even a computer user (another editor called Fullstop subsequently made an error relating to the province of Sheriar's birthplace, naming Khuzestan instead of Yazd; this error was added after a print-out was sent to me). I have never been a Wikipedia editor.

Dr. Dean soon expressed concern when his article was subject to interference from an American devotee of Meher Baba, namely Christopher Ott. However, at first Dr. Dean was reassured when Ott sent him communications that were conciliatory. Ott included the statements: "I'm not a scholar in sects of Zoroastrianism and their practices as Shepherd is.... I think he does great important work that no one else is doing" (quoted in letter of Dean dated 2nd January, 2007). The only referenced name in the original article text was mine. Ott expanded the original text. Bhau Kalchuri's Lord Meher was prominently added, i.e., "this fact is well explained in Bhau Kalchuri's Lord Meher and in Kevin Shepherd's From Oppression to Freedom, though from differing perspectives." The addition related to the matter of Sheriar being described in some sources as both a Zoroastrian and a Sufi dervish. Dr. Dean was not particularly keen on the Meher Baba literature, not being a devotee. Lord Meher is a devotional work, though informative.

Dr. Dean was soon very disgruntled by the situation, and wrote: "Chris Ott appears to have assumed overall responsibility for any article connected with Meher Baba.... He is more devotional in outlook than he originally gave me to understand" (letter dated 31st January, 2007). The British academic had reacted to a sidebar interposed in his article, a feature strongly representing a denominational viewpoint attaching to American Meher Baba Centres. A week later, Dr. Dean referred to "Ott's extensive decorations," and added that he was thinking of moving his original article to Citizendium. He achieved this transition in March 2007, supplying his real name. On Citizendium he stated that his article was "rescued from Wikipedia and edited back to the original state I left it in before followers of Meher Baba adopted it and turned it into a devotional exercise."

This episode evidently amounted to a conflict between two opposing viewpoints (a) that a Wikipedia article should be based on documentary and informational considerations only (b) that a sectarian representation should gain priority. The fact that the latter incentive proved victorious has caused observers to wonder at the state of some Wikipedia articles on religious subjects.

Afterwards, my name disappeared from the text of the Sheriar Irani article, though my book was still represented in the bibliography. The strongly edited article now stated: "This fact is explained in Bhau Kalchuri's Lord Meher." Nothing could match the devotee account in Kalchuri's book, composed in Hindi and without reference to sects of Zoroastrianism. Only the Meher Baba sect counted. The Ott editing from 2006 was clandestine; I only knew about it because Dr. Dean told me. When I eventually looked at the article online, I concluded that Wikipedia had invisible editors. There followed the notorious episode when an "Equalizer" (G. J. Moreno) attack blog was promoted on the discussion page of the same article; the hostile and mocking editor commentary insinuated that I was the author of the Sheriar Irani article (composed and edited by Dean and Ott) because a book of mine was cited. The disputed commentary was deleted by Wikipedia manager Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales at a later date, when he learned of realistic details showing on Citizendium.

In 2009, a Meher Baba affiliate called Dazedbythebell was eager to have the Kevin R.D. Shepherd article removed from Wikipedia. This editor employed the libellous blogs of a Sathya Sai Baba supporter (and cyberstalker) as supposed proof of my aberrancy. Those notorious blogs were again Pro-Sai attacks of Equalizer alias Gerald Joe Moreno, who was thus championed in Meher Baba ranks, despite his militant defence of Sathya Sai Baba abuses. Not content with taking over the Sheriar Irani article, the Meher Baba camp were now trying to defame and eliminate me. They were thus supporting the Pro-Sai lobby in censoring criticisms of sexual abuse and "miracles" performed by Sathya Sai Baba. Dazedbythebell was one of the Wikipedia editors attaching to the Meher Baba article, as also was Hoverfish, who in early 2012 prominently figured in a Noticeboard attack on my books, an attack masquerading as NPOV (neutral point of view). Hoverfish made a misleading accusation that clearly originated from the Meher Baba supporters in America. This event confirmed the underlying bias in operation. I responded to the slander with Meher Baba Movement.

The sectarian molesters were evidently gratified when my books were misrepresented and prohibited on Wikipedia by resulting troll activity, despite the detailed defence by real name academic editor Simon Kidd, who was evidently familiar with my books. Observers have commented on the negative profile invited by the Meher Baba supporters on Wikipedia; the latter do not always observe the courtesies found elsewhere. See Wikipedia Cult Tendencies. My book From Oppression to Freedom, the original inspiration for the Sheriar Mundegar Irani article, was completely deleted from that article in 2012, with no record made on the discussion page, and in defiance of the recent Jimbo Wales operation in my favour on that discussion page [in 2014, the same book was reinstated in the Further Reading section of the Sheriar article; see Wikipedia matters].

An academic investigator has identified Hoverfish with the real name entity Stelios Karavias, whose Facebook page includes contacts and links revealing him to be a Meher Baba devotee. That devotee is strongly linked to Christopher Ott, being portrayed as a close affiliate on the Ott website (accessed 08/03/2013, and since screened from open view at Google Sites). The Ott website URL is http://sites.google.com/site/ottsessays/credits. Karavias is there profiled as an editorial collaborator and co-writer with Ott. The suggestion has been made that Christopher Ott is the same entity as Dazedbythebell, but this remains conjectural; a colleague may be involved. Ott's Bio (accessed 08/03/2013) claims a "vast knowledge of Meher Baba," and informs that he and his Dutch associate Frank Landsman (aka Frankie Paradiso) wrote an entry on Meher Baba for the Dutch version of Wikipedia. This industry obviously implies a variation in personnel (see problems).

The current Sheriar Mundegar Irani article (accessed 08/03/2013) shows only three sources, all favoured by the Meher Baba movement, namely Purdom's brief (and partly inaccurate) notice, Kalchuri's Lord Meher, and a derivative article by Maud Kennedy (a deceased devotee of Meher Baba) entitled Sheriarji: The Wandering Dervish (1985). Kennedy does not explain that the suffix -ji is of Hindu derivation, and represents a Parsi assimilation. The Kennedy article has no notes, and shows no sources. The truth is that an earlier devotee item by Jal S. Irani was a strong contributory factor here. The Jal S. Irani version has been described as reductionist, because rather a lot is missing. Kennedy ends with: "He [Sheriar] was the honoured father of Meher Baba, the Avatar of the age." Anyone who does not join in this repetitive celebration is a potential subject for defamation and elimination, please note or be warned [in January 2014, my book From Oppression to Freedom reappeared in the article under discussion].

The Meher Baba sidebar applied by Christopher Ott later became a panel at the bottom of the article under discussion. This seven tier commemoration shows many links to a network of related entries on Wikipedia. The seven tiers comprise publications, traditions, organisations, "centers and retreats," terms and concepts, major figures, contacted masters (accessed 12/03/2013). Sheriar Irani is here listed as one of the major figures. However, he was not a devotee and antedated the Meher Baba movement in America. Sheriar did not promote any sect or religion, excepting his native Zoroastrianism via the hymns he composed. The list of centres includes the Myrtle Beach Center, here called the Meher Spiritual Center, which does not tolerate alternative formats of reference, instead favouring suppression. These are some of the reasons why critics refer to this movement as a sect, favouring as it does a separatist entity concerned to proclaim an avatar message, while being intolerant of any alternative approaches.

It is well known that sectarian doctrinal formats attempt to suppress non-canonical elements. This tendency is sometimes defined by academic experts in terms of cult behaviour, and is certainly a form of religious dogmatism. The active suppression of relevant materials is not highly regarded by the academic community, who are largely independent of Wikipedia. Articles on Wikipedia do not have a high academic rating, and even more so when denominational interferences and excisions are evident. There are a number of Wikipedia articles on religious subjects that are in the questionable category. See also Wikipedia Misinformation.

The fact that fifty photographs of Meher Baba, his family, disciples, and associated sites are contained in my book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005) has evoked due remarks at the extremist bias demonstrated by American devotees, whose insularity contrasts with the more progressive attitudes of Indian and Iranian devotees. Incidentally, there are two photos of Sheriar Irani included in the sixteen pages of illustrations to that book, totally ignored to date by American devotees.

Observers have noticed the explicit Wikipedia category of "Wikipedians who follow Meher Baba," associated with the Meher Baba article. The User page of editor Nemonoman states "I have been a follower of Meher Baba for many years," and pronouncedly declares, via a caption box, his belief that Meher Baba was Indian (accessed 22/03/2013). This has been interpreted as an adverse reflection upon the title of my book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, suppressed by the Wikipedia sectarian editors who programme the Meher Baba article. The fact is that Meher Baba's parents were both Iranis from the Yazd plain, and the Indian Parsis themselves have very frequently deferred to the vintage Iranian blood of their Irani co-religionists. Irani Zoroastrians in India are also noted for preserving Iranian linguistic elements, i.e., Dari. The title "Irani(an) Liberal" is favourable to the subject, but one should perhaps remember the popular American aversion to Iranians in the current political scenario.

Wikipedia graffiti are not authoritative guides to ethnic classification or cultural background, especially in view of such "follower" User page mandates as: "scholarship must not interfere with opinions held by members of this group" (accessed 22/03/2013). The dividing line is clearly drawn between followership and scholarship. NPOV (neutral point of view) is a very deceptive myth on Wikipedia, via articles and talkpages created by members of a sectarian in-group promoting their preferred opinions.

 

SELECTED  BIBLIOGRAPHY

Boyce, Mary, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (Oxford University Press, 1977)

------- Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 1979)

Boyce, Mary, ed. and trans., Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Manchester University Press, 1984)

------- Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 1992)

Browne, Edward G., A Year Amongst the Persians (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1893)

Encyclopaedia Iranica online

Jackson, A. V. Williams, Persia Past and Present: A Book of Travel and Research (New York: Macmillan, 1906).

Kalchuri, Bhau, Lord Meher Vol. One (North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Manifestation, 1986)

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986)

------- From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia,   1988)

------- Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988)

------- Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005)

------- Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 2014)

 

ANNOTATIONS

(1)    An early report was Charles B. Purdom, The Perfect Master (London 1937) p. 14, referring to Khooramshah, and giving the date of birth as 1840. Purdom retained the same spelling in The God Man (London 1964), but changed the birthdate to 1858. In his brief notice, he maintained the error of describing Sheriar as "a dervish, wearing the ochre robe" (p. 16). This represents a confusion with the garb of Hindu ascetics. I also used the name Khooramshah in From Oppression to Freedom (1988), and gave the birthdate as 1853 (the full date is March 21st, 1853). Naosherwan Anzar, who visited the Yazd plain in the 1970s, opted for the name Khooramshar, as did Bhau Kalchuri, who was the cue for Wikipedia, which has employed Khorramshahr (accessed 21/03/2013). As a consequence of the Wikipedia article, the Yazdi village has been confused with an Iranian port town. See also the Appendice above for the disputed Wikipedia article. The name Sheriar reflects the Parsi usage in India, and represents a contraction of the original Iranian name of birth, which can be differently verbalised (e.g., Shehriar, Shahr-yar).

(2)    Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (1992), pp. 156-7, 161 note 29. Different interpretations have been applied to this event. According to Boyce, the high priest moved to Yazd with his priests "either voluntarily or by order of the Muslim authorities." The priestly activity certainly contributed to a strong conservatism amongst the Yazd communities (especially Sharifabad and Taft), lasting into the twentieth century, in contrast to the reformist movements developing amongst the Parsis of India (see further Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, pp. 199ff.).

(3)   Hataria's version of historical phase has been superseded. He complains about Arab domination, but does refer to "Muslims of the Shia sect." He does not mention that the Qajar dynasty (1786-1925) was Turkish, and followed on from the period when Iran was ruled by Afghans, Afshars, and Zands. He states that the Zoroastrian population of Iran was now no more than ten thousand. Vegetables and bread were the common diet of the minority, few being able to obtain meat or fish; only the rich could afford dried fruits. The Zoroastrians mainly grew wheat and vegetables on their fields, but "the Arab hordes could pounce upon the fields at any moment," stealing the crops. Hataria also reports that Zoroastrian labourers worked on Muslim land.

(4)    Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom (1988), p. 10. Part One of this work covers the life of Sheriar Mundegar Irani, while Part Two is a study of the Kaivan school, active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

(5)    Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (1893; third edn, Cambridge University Press, 1950), pp. 403ff.

(6)    Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (second edn, Cambridge University Press, 1926), pp. 405-6. Edward G. Browne became Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, and wrote A Literary History of Persia (4 vols, 1902-24). He is also well known for researches on the Babis, and was the only Western scholar to meet Baha-Allah, and via four interviews. This event occurred in 1890, while the latter was still in detention at Akka, Palestine. Yet Browne early took the Azali side against the Bahais, the former being a Babist group in friction with the Bahais. See Moojan Momen, Browne, Edward Granville. From 1890, Browne was influenced by the anti-Bahai treatise Hasht-Behesht. His notes to a pro-Bahai account "betray an implicit belief that even late Azali accounts of Babi history are somehow more authentic than Bahai accounts, whereas in fact both represent evolution away from the original ideas of pristine Babism" (Juan Cole, Browne on Babism and Bahaism). See also Moojan Momen, Selections from the Writings of E. G. Browne on the Babi and Bahai Religions (George Ronald, 1987). Also relevant is Hasan Balyuzi, E. G. Browne and the Bahai Faith (Oxford: George Ronald, 1970). See also note 23 below.

(7)   Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom, p. 12, relaying Browne. This was the period of unrest prior to the accession of the Qajar monarch Nasir al-Din Shah. Browne met an old Zoroastrian who had survived several pistol shots, incurred as a consequence of his refusal to change religion. According to Boyce, "the last known instance of a forcible mass conversion of Zoroastrians" occurred at the village of Torkabad in the mid-nineteenth century (Antiquity and Constant Vigour, p. 158; A Persian Stronghold, p. 7).

(8)   Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 13-14; Willem M. Floor, "The Lutis - A Social Phenomenon in Qajar Persia," Die Welt des Islams (Leiden 1971) 13:102-120. Floor has distinguished different elements in the luti phenomenon, including "the type who actually tried to live up to the ideal... i.e. to be a javanmard, meaning an exemplary chivalrous person in both spiritual and material matters....These lutis were known for their lutigari or chivalry" (W. Floor, Luti). However, things had been going wrong for centuries, and many lutis acted like thugs. The word luti gained immoral connotations, apparently as a consequence of association with dervishes and entertainers at the fringe of society. Extremist qalandars and others "had a reputation for loose, immoral living (drinking wine, pederasty, using opium, and untrustworthiness)" (art. cit.) The nineteenth century urban lutis favoured wrestling in the gymnasium (zurkana), and were partial to drinking and gambling. Fights could break out amongst them in the streets. "Because of their fighting skills and local connections, lutis were utilised by secular and religious leaders in their towns. These leaders often vied for power using the lutis as proxies.... Lutis sometimes took control of a city, which led to chaos and anarchy" (art. cit.). In 1841, a religious leader in Isfahan "unleashed his lutis to oust his political rival" (art. cit.). The Shah and his army had to quell the resultant turmoil, and many lutis were hanged. The luti problem was attended by a factor of mutually hostile divisions in urban life since Safavid times, i.e., the Haydari versus Nemati conflict. Many young lutis and others were prominent in this conflict, being "members of the bands of flagellants or actors" (J. R. Perry, Haydari and Nemati). They participated in Shi'ite mourning rituals, processions, and plays. The emotions created by religious events apparently contributed to the conflict, local battles occurring between the two contingents.

(9)     Shepherd, op. cit., p. 14, and observing that the nearest cities (Kirman, Isfahan, and Shiraz) were separated from Yazd by over a week of laborious travel. "The Yazd plain was to all practical purposes an island." The capital of Tehran could take three weeks to reach, and only fifty Zoroastrians lived there in 1854. The roads were afflicted by brigands and lethal sandstorms.

(10)   Mary Boyce, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (1977), and giving much attention to Sharifabad. The archaeological aspect of the Yazd plain has continued to arouse interest.

(11)    Naosherwan Anzar, "In Search of God's Ancestry," The Glow Quarterly (Dehra Dun, 1976) 11(3):3-10, p. 4, and reporting the recent words of a Meher Baba devotee at Khorramshah whose father had been a friend of Sheriar Irani. This informant also stated: "If a Zoroastrian was murdered, no one was punished."

(12)    Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. One (1986),  p. 119. This work was translated from Hindi, and includes reminiscences of Zoroastrians amongst the following of Meher Baba, including his sister Mani S. Irani.

(13)    Kalchuri, op. cit., endnote to p. 121.

(14)    Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, p. 177.

(15)    Many scholars have tackled the texts and archives during the past century and more. One version is Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism (3 vols, Wiesbaden, 1975-91). The various erudite theories are evocative of names like Henrik S. Nyberg, W. B. Henning, R. C. Zaehner, G. Widengren, Marijan Mole, Gherardo Gnoli, and James R. Russell. Discussions about Zarathushtra are noted for differences. My own amateur commentary was expressed in Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge 1995).

(16)    Anzar, art. cit., p. 5, and providing a photograph which confirms identification. Anzar refers to three dakhmas on the same hillock. "Atop the hill are three towers, two of them 132 and 40 years old respectively, while the one with the broken wall is a thousand years old, which was tended for a number of years by Mundegar" (ibid.). A local informant told Anzar (a Parsi) that the place was known as Kasimabad. This was apparently a confusion with the neighbouring district of that name, also spelt as Qasemabad, not far to the north, and south of Khorramshah. I employed that name in From Oppression to Freedom. The other two major dakhma sites are located near Cham (further south of Yazd) and near Zarch. The latter is well to the north of Khorramshah, and strongly associated with villages like Sharifabad.

(17)   Kalchuri, op. cit., p. 120. This detail does not appear in earlier sources. Kalchuri comments (p. 122) that Sheriar must have met the Muslim wali (saint) with his father, which is surely possible. No details survive of the saint, not even his name. The factor of potential mystical affinity between Zoroastrians and Muslims was earlier demonstrated by the Kaivan school, originating at Shiraz in the sixteenth century.

(18)    Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom, p. 16. The corpse was brought to the dakhma by men having the role of corpse-bearers, who carried a heavy bier. There were several designations in Iran for these bearers, including pish-gahanan. The Parsi term (in Gujarati) for the bearer was khandia, which is the most well known description. Mundegar Khorramshahi does not appear to have been involved in the funeral processions, though elsewhere, the nasa-salar could function as a corpse-bearer. The Twin Towers of Yazd were a major site, and the explanation for these two adjoining dakhmas is that an alternation occurred between them when an ossuary pit quickly filled up with bones prior to dissolution.

(19)    Ibid., p. 17; Anzar, art. cit., p. 3, and reporting the version of Sheriar's daughter Mani S. Irani. Attendant details are that the Muslim youth ordered the Zoroastrian to dismount from his donkey and to salute him. This imposition precipitated the violence. The Muslims of that area afterwards kept quiet about the episode, preserving their local sense of pride.

(20)    Anzar, art. cit., p. 5; Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. One, pp. 121-2. At Khorramshah, Anzar was able to locate the home of Sheriar Irani, which had collapsed and been rebuilt some forty years before. Only a mud-brick oven and the cellar remained intact. The house was occupied by the wife of Sheriar's nephew. Her name is given as Paridukh Faredoon Rodi. She related that the old oven had been used by Sheriar's sister Piroja to bake bread (Anzar, pp. 6-7). Anzar is diligent in his reporting, and provides photographs, though he does give the wrong date of 1873 for Sheriar's departure from Khorramshah (art. cit., p. 3).

(21)    I first became familiar with the life of Sheriar in 1965, and had the advantage of being in contact with Sheriar's son Adi S. Irani, who was a prolific source of information about his famous brother Meher Baba. Adi spoke much less of his father, and did not fully understand Sheriar's deepest interests. Nevertheless, he has to be regarded as a primary oral source on that subject. Adi was a businessman who lived in London from 1956 onwards. I first met him in 1965, and last saw him in 1973. In his later years, Adi resembled Sheriar far more closely than his brothers Beheram and Jal (all are now deceased). Adi was handsome, and bigger in stature than Meher Baba, who was also Irani in appearance. His command of English was very capable, and he was a fluent narrator when in the mood. Adi indicated a more dynamic version of events than was provided in the biography of Sheriar by the former's brother Jal S. Irani, featuring in the devotee journal Divya Vani (Hyderabad, 1965). Adi did not regard his brother as a great writer, although he himself wrote nothing. Jal was a businessman in Poona, and did not write very much, indeed very little, and only brief items. I was familiar with Jal's version of Sheriar at the time of publication, and soon formulated various questions about missing factors.

(22)   From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 25-6. The original version of this episode was recorded (in English) at an early date by Khaikhushru J. Dastur, a Parsi devotee of Meher Baba who edited The Meher Message during 1929-31. Sheriar was then still alive. The English translation of Kalchuri says that "the boy had now become recognised as a Sufi dervish" (Lord Meher Vol. One, p. 123). This amounts to a gloss, as the dervish role did not necessarily connote a Sufi vocation. If Sheriar concealed his Zoroastrian identity, some Muslims might have considered him a Sufi, but Zoroastrianism was a separate sector to Islamic Sufism.

(23)   See further Abbas Amanat, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831-1896 (University of California Press, 1997). See also Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: the Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Cornell University Press, 1989; new edn, Los Angeles: Kalimat, 2005). In the new preface (2005), Professor Amanat writes: "The Babi ideas and loyalties were the first and the most enduring form of dissent in nineteenth century Iran to stand against the Shi'ite establishment and the political order" (p. ix). Elsewhere, I have commented that "the young Merwan Irani [Meher Baba] probably heard much about the Bab from his father Sheriar Mundegar Irani" (Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, p. 206 note 313).

(24)  The general impression conveyed in the sources is that Sheriar did not become literate until he settled at Poona in the 1880s. However, there is an element of doubt. Kalchuri reports the claim that "while he was a young dervish he wrote two books in Persian before he left Iran" (Lord Meher Vol. One, p. 140). That factor may link with his known studies in astrology at that early period, studies which might suggest a basic literacy. My own informant (Adi S. Irani) gave no indication on this matter.

(25)   From Oppression to Freedom, p. 43. Sheriar "may well have believed that the Kaivani tradition had not died out" (ibid., p. 38), but he was not a mere armchair enthusiast, as many were at that time. "It is my contention that he was an effective Kaivani, or the nearest sequel to the prototype that one can find in nineteenth century Parsi annals" (ibid., p. 43). The Kaivan school advocated a solitary meditation, and were believers in a form of reincarnation. We know that Sheriar also believed in reincarnation. A Western scholar reported the assessment of Azar Kaivan (d. 1618) by a learned Irani of Yazd in 1903. Khodabaksh Rais thought of Kaivan as a "half Brahman, half Zoroastrian, a believer in metempsychosis" (ibid., p. 59, and citing A. V. Williams Jackson, Persia Past and Present, 1906, pp. 353ff.). Kaivan was definitely not a brahman, but neither was he an orthodox Zoroastrian. Various misconceptions still persist.

(26)   Kalchuri credits Sheriar with a knowledge of Hebrew (Lord Meher Vol. One, p. 140). Other reports mention Marathi. If Kalchuri is correct, then this detail might serve to confirm a Kaivani orientation, in view of associations with certain Jewish participants in early Kaivan school activity (Oppression to Freedom, p. 115, referring to two rabbis). Kalchuri does not evidence any knowledge of the Kaivan school; however, he was not a Zoroastrian, but a Hindu. His translated account says that Sheriar "suddenly gained knowledge of reading and writing Persian, Arabic and Hebrew." A hagiological touch has been suspected, but Kalchuri had no bias towards Hebrew, and therefore some truth could be credited without the sudden element. Even Sheriar's son Adi (who was more clever than his brother Jal) could not fully assess his father's extent of learning, largely because this was outside his own range of experience. As to whether Sheriar might have been in contact with Jews, that is not impossible. Jewish communities existed in many urban areas of Iran; in 1903/4 the biggest of those communities were at Shiraz, Isfahan, Hamadan, Tehran, Kermanshah, and Yazd. The numbers varied from 7,000 at Shiraz to 2,500 at Yazd. See Judeo-Persian Communities: Qajar Period.

(27)   Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. One, p. 140. The editors of Kalchuri have dated a well known photograph of Sheriar Irani to the early 1900s (ibid., p. 138). I should record here that in 1965, Sheriar's son Jal S. Irani described this photo in terms of his father being forty years old. I acquired an enlargement of the Sheriar image that same year, with the details showing on a folder supplied by Jal. I have accordingly ventured the date circa 1893 for the image showing at the top of this article.

(28)   For a non-sectarian version, see Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988). Sheriar Irani there gains 13 references in the index (p. 302). One of those reads: "Although Meher Baba can be aligned in several respects with the Kaivani tradition of Mughal India, there are also certain differences. He definitely departed from the disposition of his father Sheriar Mundegar, who by comparison was a 'Junaydi,' to use a term denoting esoteric caution in early Sufi annals. Meher Baba was very much more in the 'Hallajian' tradition of more overt communications" (ibid., p. 10). See also Shepherd, Meher Baba and Paul Brunton. Cf. S. Castro, Critics of Meher Baba.

(29)   See also my From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 62-4. A basic commemoration is Nanabhoy F. Mama, A Mazdaznan Mystic (Bombay, 1944), written by a follower of Shroff who believed in the Mount Demavand colony known as Firdaws (Firdos), which he elaborates. Mama refers to 72 magavs, seven feet tall, whose milieu is agricultural. Both the poet Hafez and Azar Kaivan are explicitly associated with the excelling Firdaws community, especially Kaivan, who is viewed as an emissary. "The belief in such a place seems to be derived from the legend, in the ninth book of the [Pahlavi] Denkard, about the seven palaces of diverse precious stones and metals belonging to Kavi Usan; those who succeed in reaching the place, which is in the Alborz range, are rewarded with rejuvenation." The quote is from James R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," Journal of the Society for Iranian Studies (1993) 26(1-2): 73-94, p. 83 note 26. Professor Russell also reports the Khshnoomi belief "that yet another secret community of initiates very much larger than the one in Firdaws" dwells beneath the waters of the Caspian Sea, which was identified by Sassanian priests with the Avestan Chaechasta. This led to the Khshnoomi speculation that "once a year, Damavand and Chaechasta open and their respective denizens behold each other" (art. cit., p. 84).

(30)   There have been some associations ventured between Shroff and the Kaivan school. It is evident that influences from this Mughal era school were numerous during the nineteenth century. Shroff no doubt assimilated some of those influences, which he heavily admixed with Theosophy and his own improvisations. More disputable is the lore that one of Shroff's teachers was Azar Kaivan. The latter entity lived three centuries earlier, in a very different ideological milieu. The Kaivan school literature, whatever flaws may be apparent in terms of religio-mystical lore and linguistic artifice, does attest (via the Dabistan) to an unusual inter-religious disposition that moved far outside the canons of orthodox Zoroastrian observance (From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 85-154). The associated text Dasatir excited much repudiation from European scholars, but has also received more sympathetic assessments (e.g., From Oppression to Freedom, pp. 155ff.) "The Dasatir is dismissed by many as a forgery, but many of the texts cited by the author of the Zohar to prove the antiquity and authenticity of his views were non-existent as well" (Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism," p. 87 note 38). The same scholar informs that "the Kayvani mystics came from various backgrounds and walks of life, but they adhered to Azar Kayvan's teachings, which were essentially Sufi Muslim with a strong emphasis on light and on Iranian cultural values" (ibid., p. 87). It is logical to view "Sufi Muslim" in terms of Zoroastrian ishraq, a philosophy linked to, but diverging from, the Ibn Sinan tradition of philosophy influential in Iran, a tradition to which Suhrawardi applied new accents.

(31)    Professor James R. Russell has referred to Khshnoomi (Khshnumi) doctrines in "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," Jnl of the Society for Iranian Studies (1993) 26(1-2): 73-94. He observes that "Hinduism looms fairly large in Khshnumist explanations of the Avesta" (p. 90 note 45). Yet a partisan informant in Bombay stated that "the Khshnumists consider people of different faiths as born under the influences of different planets; they should not intermarry, any more than one planet ought to risk collision with another by entering its orbit" (pp. 91-2 note 50). Russell links this belief to the ideology of Sassanian Iran, where Zoroastrianism "was largely limited to those of Iranian origin" (p. 91). A theological rationale was then provided for the rival religions. "Their relative misfortune had to be viewed as a matter of predetermined fate, a view the Khshnumists maintain" (ibid.) According to Russell, the astrology theory "corresponds to the ancient Near Eastern belief that each nation is under the influence of a particular sign of the zodiac" (p. 92 note 50).

(32)   Vegetarianism amongst Parsis is associated with Theosophy. Henry Olcott arrived in Bombay in 1885, creating a branch of the Theosophical Society in which both Parsis and Hindus participated. Prior to that date, vegetarian observance amongst Zoroastrians is far more rare. Olcott favoured the Dasatir as "occult science," and many Parsis assimilated his version of that text rather than anything Kaivani-oriented (see "Ishraqis and Theosophists," pp. 178-81, in From Oppression to Freedom). Recent scholarly investigations have shifted the angle of focus. One version is reproduced here: "The 17th century Persian treatise Dabestan-e mazaheb, which describes the Zoroastrian Eshraqiyan [ishraqis] and anticipates many of the doctrines espoused by the modern Khshnumists, cautions against eating the flesh of animals which are zendebar, 'life-bearing.' i.e., domesticated and useful to the livelihood of men, like the cow or the horse. It seems most unlikely that the author knew the De Abstinentia [of Porphyry], so this detail may be independent confirmation of an authentic practice of Zoroastrian esotericists which survived in some form down the centuries in Iran.... One senses also in the Zoroastrian tradition a certain hesitation to kill and eat domestic animals. In Yasna 29 the cosmic drama of the Gathas shifts to earth with the cry of the Cow for help; and in the third book of the Denkard, the slaughter of young animals by the Jews is regarded with such extreme repugnance - Zoroastrians sacrificing only a mature animal, never a firstling.... The sixth book of the Denkard contains an anecdote describing two aged mobadan [priests] who live in seclusion and simplicity - much as Zoroaster is alleged in Greek tradition to have lived - chanting the Avesta and eating only vegetable food" (J. R. Russell, "On Mysticism and Esotericism among the Zoroastrians," pp. 88-9). The same scholar writes: "The Kayvanis, and now the Khshnumists, recite the Persian mantra, Nist hasti be-joz yazdan, 'There is no being but God,' which may perhaps be seen as a philosophical extension, and a calque in its phrasing, of the Muslim credo, La ilaha illa Allah, 'There is no god but God' " (art. cit., pp. 92-3). The Pahlavi text Denkard has been called a Zoroastrian encyclopaedia, and also "a summary of 10th century knowledge of the Mazdean [Zoroastrian] religion" (Philippe Gignoux, Denkard). Sassanian era sources are implied for this text.

(33)   See Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (1986), which is a compact coverage. A longer treatment, using more extensive sources, is my Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi, 2014). See also the online supplement at Faqir of Poona.

(34)   Further details about Sheriar Irani can be found in From Oppression to Freedom. Also in an unpublished manuscript entitled Life of Meher Baba. I have elsewhere remarked that "most devotees [of Meher Baba] knew very little about the ex-dervish parent of Meher Baba" (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, p. 302).