Sheriar Mundegar Irani (March 21, 1853 - April 30, 1932) was a mystic and the father of Meher Baba.
Sheriar was born into a poor Zoroastrian family in the village of Khorramshahr, near Yazd, Iran. His mother died when he was aged five, and he was then raised by his father Mundegar, caretaker of the local Zoroastrian funeral site. The Tower of Silence (dakhma) was a place where the dead were left exposed to the elements and to birds of prey, and Sheriar was often left in charge in these eerie surroundings while still a boy. Alienated from his peers by his occupation, oppressed by the Muslim majority because of his religion, unschooled and illiterate, he left his birthplace at the age of twelve. For the next eight years he adopted the life of a solitary wandering dervish.
Dervishes in Iran, turn of the century
In 1874 he emigrated from Iran with his brother to India, in search of economic opportunities among the long-established Parsi community. After brief employment in Bombay, he gave away most of the money he had saved and resumed his mystical quest. He wandered through Gujarat and Sindh among other places for another ten years, begging only when he was hungry. Disappointed that nearly two decades of dervishi had not led him to spiritual realization, he returned to Bombay where his sister Piroja now lived. Slowly integrating into conventional life, he reluctantly became betrothed to a young girl, Shireen Khuramshahi, whose family had also immigrated from his birthplace. The marriage took place 8 years later in 1892 when Shireen came of age: she was 14 and Sheriar 39. To support his new lifestyle he became first a gardener and later the owner of a successful palm wine business in Poona (present-day Pune) where the couple moved in 1893. In all Sheriar and Shireen had nine children – seven sons and two daughters. Of these, three died in childhood: one son Shirmund at seven months, a second Jehangir at two years, and a daughter Freiny who died of plague at age six in 1902.
In his spare time he learned to read and write his native Persian, as well as the Gujarati, Arabic and Marathi languages. This allowed him to continue his mystical studies in the textual realm, where he became recognized as an able scholar. The circle of savants associated with Kayvan combined Zoroastrian, Sufi, Neoplatonic and other gnostic beliefs with a nonsectarian approach to the study of comparative religion.
Sheriar and his wife Shireen
Sheriar and Shireen's son Merwan who grew up to be named Meher Baba
Religion and mysticism
There is an apparent dichotomy in the fact that Sheriar is referred to in biographical sources as both a Zoroastrian and a Sufi dervish, as Sufism is a branch of Islam and not a part of Zoroastrianism. However, this fact is explained in Bhau Kalchuri's Lord Meher. Sheriar's personal philosophy incorporated elements from both Zoroastrianism and Sufi mysticism, a characteristic that he adopted from his father Moondegar who was an enigma to his Iranian Muslim neighbors because as a Zoroastrian he participated in both Muslim and Zoroastrian festivals and was a devout follower of a Muslim saint. Zoroastrian and Sufi practices are not wholly dissimilar as evidenced by Azar Kayvan, and the Zoroastrian ishraqiyyun. After his marriage, arranged by his sister Piroja to a Zoroastrian girl Shireen in India, Sheriar rejoined his Irani community in Poona, was a householder and followed Zoroastrian practices, abandoning his vegetarianism whilst retaining a group of spiritually minded friends of all religions.
The general claim by Meher Baba's devotees that Sheriar's famous son was also Zoroastrian is supported by the fact that Meher Baba wore the Zoroastrian sudra (a muslin undershirt) and the 72-thread kusti girdle all his life. 'Meher' is a Zoroastrian theophoric name that reflects his father's devotion to the Yazata Mithra. Also Meher Baba always signed his name 'M. S. Irani' and never 'Meher Baba'. Considering his teachings, which often included Sufi references, it seems plausible then that Meher Baba acknowledged both Zoroastrian and Sufi philosophies like his father.
The surname 'Irani' was adopted by the Zoroastrian immigrants in the 18th century and later, and only by them, for legal and communal reasons. Sheriar was then not born with 'Irani' as a last name, and would originally have had his father's first name as a surname; thus his birth name was probably Sheriar Moondegar. Inversely, in Indian Zoroastrian tradition, which goes back to the days before family names were introduced by the British colonial government, the middle name is always the father's first name, so if one knows a person's middle name, one knows the name of the father. For instance, Meher Baba's full legal name was Merwan Sheriar Irani.