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Phiroz Dorabji Mehta (1902–1994)

By Robert Mehta

Phiroz Mehta was born on 1st October, 1902, in Cambay, India. There were five generations of the family in the house where he was born at the time. His father was the chief superintendent of the Ceylon Wharfage Company in Ceylon, as it was then known. At the time he was well known throughout Colombo as Mr. Mehta.

At age 3 or 4 Phiroz had lessons with a tutor and he used to go to these lessons by rickshaw. One day, already possessing some authority, he ordered the rickshaw driver to take him to Royal College, as he had met one of the older pupils from this school and decided that he wanted to go there. The rickshaw driver took him there and his friend took him to the headmistress. “I want to come to this school,” he said, and henceforth that was where his schooling continued.

Phiroz’s mother had become a Theosophist and so Phiroz was not only brought up as a Zoroastrian but also learned about Theosophy. At age 9 or 10 he was reading Aristotle and Plato and later went on visits with his mother to Annie Besant’s Theosophical Centre at Adyar near Madras. At age 16 he was helping to run the Theosophical group in Colombo.

Phiroz had started piano lessons at school and was quite rapidly becoming a competent pianist and performer. He also had a great love of cricket as do most Indians to this day.

At 18 years Phiroz not only came top in the chemistry exams on the island but also came top in his music exams and was offered a place at the Royal College of Music in London. He offered his place to the student who came second in music and opted instead for a science degree at Trinity College, Cambridge. Since Phiroz had no birth certificate he could not get a grant and although the appeal was taken as far as the House of Lords, he had no luck. Eventually private sponsorship was found and he was able to take his place.

Throughout his early years Phiroz was intensely interested in religion and he is reputed to have often run alongside the Zoroastrian priest who was riding his bicycle, asking deep philosophical questions.

While still retaining his deep interest in theosophy and the religions of the world, Phiroz immersed himself in his studies of physics, chemistry and botany at Trinity College. It was an exciting period of scientific development, with Rutherford and Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory concerned with defining the structure of the atom. At the same time, following in the footsteps of Sir Phirozshah Mehta (a cousin of his father’s), he concurrently studied law at Gray’s Inn in London. After passing his exams in Criminal Law he decided to stop his law studies on the grounds that if a good barrister could convict an innocent man or free a guilty person this was unethical.

After two years of study in a foreign culture and environment, Phiroz became ill and couldn’t complete his science degree. However, he was still playing the piano to a very high standard and through a friend he was introduced to Solomon who was acknowledged as one of the world-class pianists of the day. After hearing Phiroz play, Solomon agreed to give Phiroz piano lessons and these continued for eight years. Their friendship lasted until Solomon’s death.

Phiroz continued to study the world’s religions and began to express his own understanding and interpretation of what he read. He also studied astrology, nutrition and yoga, and in the 1930’s he developed his own method of physical education in which he gave classes, based on rhythmic movement and yogic breathing.

He gave relatively few piano concerts in Britain, but in 1934 he did a successful major concert tour in India, which met with much praise.

In 1938 on board ship on a visit to India he met Silvia Shaxby, daughter of a Cardiff University lecturer, and they were married in July 1939.

After the outbreak of war, Phiroz applied to join the RAF. Partly due to severe vitamin deficiency he had developed quite serious neuritis, which meant that he was neither fit enough to join the forces nor to carry on with his career as a pianist. Friends of his father-in-law suggested he could fulfil a useful role in the war by lecturing to the troops on ‘Race, Religion and Politics in India’. This was the beginning of his lecturing career, which continued after the war under the auspices of the Central Office of Information.

Having successfully completed part of his degree at Cambridge in the early 1920’s Phiroz then decided it would be good to finish it. After consultation with the university, in 1950 he undertook a ten week intensive study in history, sat the exams, and was awarded his degree. In 1954 Phiroz took up school teaching which continued for the rest of his working life, and the last decade of that was teaching his favourite science of chemistry in South East London comprehensive schools.

From the late 1950’s until the 1980’s Phiroz would give talks at the Buddhist Society Summer Schools and in 1961/62 the Venerable Panhavaddho suggested that many people could benefit from his wisdom and he should start having meetings with groups of interested people. After an initial hesitation he started these group meetings in February 1962. From then on he held regular meetings in his house in Forest Hill, South East London, and these continued for over 25 years.

In 1956 Phiroz published his first book, Early Indian Religious Thought, and, as he had done through all his life since childhood, he continued his study and research into world religions. He was privileged to spend four days in 1963 with the Dalai Lama in Dharamasala learning more about Mahayana Buddhism.

His second book, published in 1976, was titled The Heart of Religion, which he felt to be common to all of the great world religions.

Books to follow were Zarathushtra: The Transcendental Vision (1985), Buddhahood (1988) and Holistic Consciousness (1989).

Phiroz gave his last lecture on his 90th birthday.

He died on 2nd May, 1994, and his funeral at Gloucester Crematorium was conducted in the traditional way by Zoroastrian priests.

A recorded movement from one of Beethoven’s last quartets was played, at Phiroz’s request, alongside a recorded talk by Phiroz himself on the meaning of death, as he understood it.


Tim Surtell
Website Developer and Archivist

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