By Noshir Dadrawala

ZARATHUSHTRIAN SAINTS AND MARTYRS series in the Jam-e-Jamshed Weekly

The first Dastur Meherji Rana was the undisputed spiritual leader of the Parsi community in India during the sixteenth century. He was renowned not just among the Parsis but also other communities on account of his piety, vast knowledge and spiritual powers.

Dastur Meherji was born in a priestly family at Navsari, in 1514 A.D. His father's name was Rana Jesung (thus the name Meherji Rana). India at that time was under the rule of the Mughals.

According to one school of thought Dastur Meherji was a disciple of the mystic saint Dastur Azar Kaiwan whose seat was in Patna. Dastur Azar Kaiwan's disciples were called 'yaar' (i.e. spiritual friend / spiritual helper). Thus Dastur Meherji is sometimes referred as Dastur Mahiyaar ('Mahi' being the fish that can see the smallest piece of object even when it Is dark).

Dastur Meherji was adopted by his paternal Uncle Vaccha Jesung as a 'palak'. It is for this reason that in our ceremonies his name is invoked as "Dastur Meherji, Ervad Vaccha",'

It appears the behdins of Navsari presented a piece of land near 'Piplla Wadi' in 1573 to Dastur Meherji in recognition of his service to the religion and community. Dastur Meherji Rana is a renowned name in Parsi history and religious tradition mainly because of his very positive influence on the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great. Akbar was born in 1542 and ascended the throne in 1556 at the age of fourteen. Akbar had great love for matters spiritual and philosophical. Although a Muslim by birth, he was very secular in his outlook and loved to discuss and understand other religious traditions. Hindu Brahmins and Christian priests would often be invited to his court for religious discussion.

It appears, however, that Dastur Meherji had a deep and lasting influence on Akbar. It is believed Akbar first met Dastur Meherji in 1573 when the former laid siege on Surat. They appear to have met at a place near Kankrakhadi (present day Rustompura in Surat). Impressed with Dastur Meherji's knowledge and personality the Emperor invited Dasturji to his court in Delhi. Accordingly Dastur Meherji appears to have visited the Royal Court of Akbar in Delhi off Roj Hormazd, Mah Khordod 947 Y.Z. (1578 AD). Akbar's Prime Minister Abu Fazal and historian Badaoqi also have written about Parsi Priests from Navsari visiting the Royal Court around 1577-78 AD.

Pleased as the Emperor was with Dastur Meherji's erudition and piety he gifted 200 vighas of land near 'Gelkhari' in Gujarat, (free of all taxes) for Meherji Rana and his family's sustenance. It was called "Madad-e-Maash".

Akbar was a Sufi at heart and liked to absorb the good traditions and beliefs of all religions. He also attempted to popularize a new faith called 'Din-e-Illahi', drawing from the beliefs and traditions of various faiths including Zarathushtrianism.

It is said Akbar had a fire burning 24 hours at his court and his Prime Minister Abu Fazal was put in charge of maintaining the fire.

Dastur Meherji Rana's prominence and close affinity to the Emperor gave the Parsis as a community national visibility and lame.

In 1579, the priests of Navsari signed a document acknowledging Meherji Rana as their leader and declaring that all religious ceremonies would hence forth be performed only after obtaining his permission. This was the origin of the 'gaadi' (seat) of the High Priest of Navsari. The present High Priest Meherji Kaikobad Meherji Rana is the sixteenth heir to this famous 'gaadi'.

Legend has it that during Dastur Meherji's stay in Delhi a Hindu Tantrik (magician) claimed that with his occult powers he would make two suns shine in the sky. He challenged all holy men in Akbar's kingdom to respond to this 'miracle'. It appears that the magician with the aid of certain spells had launched a metal plate in the sky and the sun's reflection made it appear as If there were two suns in the sky.

Nobody was aware of this trick and attempts by many holy men to thwart the magician failed. However, Dasturjee Meherji Rana arrived, prayed the sacred Kusti prayers and took the name of God. The plate came crashing down, confounding the magician and amazing the whole court.

Inspired by the drama that unfolded the famous musician Tansen composed a song in 'Raag Sarang' which had the lines "Elahi Parsee Padhe Sho Kabool" (i.e. By God the prayers of Parsees are accepted). Tansen refers to Dasturjee Meherji with the words "Lambi lambi dahadee Shah Mehreyari (Mahiyaar ( Meherji)) tere mukh pi barshat noor" (i.e. Shah Mehriyar, your beard is long, your face is radiant with fame). Tansen in his time was the "Sangeet Samrat" (King of Classical Music) and one of the jewels (ratna) at the Royal Court.

There is no dire historical reference to the encounter Dastur Meherji had with the magician. However, this has been part of the oral tradition for more than four centuries.

Dastur Meherji passed away at a ripe old age on Roj Daepadar Mah Asfandarmad 960 Y.Z. (1591 A.D.). Today even after four centuries since his passing away the priests in Navsari perform his "baj" ceremony every year on Roj Daepadar, Mah Asfandarmad.

At the Atashbehram in Navsari there is a natural formation in the marble slab on the wall facing the Holy Fire, bearing an amazing resemblance to Dastur Meherji. The turban long beard and uplifted hands are quite clear. Sceptics may dismiss this nature formation as a flight of imagination. For the mystic however, this is Nature's imprint of a Zarathushtrian saint who influenced many lives.

It appears four years after Dastur Meherji's passing away, Akbar granted an additional 300 vighas of land to Dastur Meherji's son Kaikobad. This was in addition to the 200 vighas of land gifted earlier "Madad-e-Maash".

May Dastur Meherji's Fravashi bless us all with the gift of deeper knowledge wisdom and spiritual bliss.

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