Sunday, 19 May 2013
It had been my intention to relate events that occurred after Paul Brunton left India. But on reflection I now feel that, for the time being, sufficient information has been provided for any serious re-evaluation of Brunton’s critical chapters on Meher Baba in A Search in Secret India. I have simply offered a wider perspective in attempt to set the record straight. Time will tell how successful this has been. Doubtless there are scholars out there who can do a far better job, and I would be the first to invite them to do so.
The fact is Meher Baba did make avatar claims. Yet Charles Purdom reports: “When I was with [Meher Baba] at Poona in 1954, he said to me unexpectedly, ‘You are bothered about the idea of Avatar. There is no need to be, for we are all Avatars.…’ He followed this remark ten days later by a declaration which read as follows:
When I say I am the Avatar, there are few who feel happy, some who feel shocked, and many who take me for a hypocrite, a fraud, a supreme egotist, or just mad. If I were to say every one of you is Avatar, a few would be tickled and many would consider it blasphemy or a joke. The fact that God being One, indivisible and equally in us all, we can be nought else but one, is too much for the duality-conscious mind. Yet each of us is what the other is. I know I am the Avatar in every sense of the word, and that each one of you is an Avatar in one sense or another.…”
Purdom comments: “What we are intended to understand is that if it be granted that men contain the principle of divinity then the Avatar as such and men as such are essentially one. The difference between the Avatar and other men is that he is conscious of ‘descent’, while they … become conscious of ascent” (Purdom, 1994: 391–92).
According to Charles Haynes: “The starting point for any discussion of Meher Baba is his declaration that he is the Avatar, the manifestation of God in human form who comes age after age to awaken all life to the love of God” (1993: 11). But that is a devotee statement. Kevin Shepherd states more realistically: “To define whether or not Meher Baba was a literal avatar is beyond my range of competence, and I have seldom seen this done satisfactorily even one fraction. I must leave that subject for theologians to argue over” (1988: 5).
A much-needed neutral and objective assessment of Meher Baba requires an interdisciplinary approach—a scholarly appraisal not influenced by belief or disbelief. I can only conclude by again quoting from Shepherd, an independent scholar whose books and contributions to studies related to Meher Baba (see for example. http://www.citizenthought.net/Meher_Baba_Movement.html) have been a significant inspiration for this blog:
“Meher Baba definitely did claim to be the avatar. An inspection of various statements he made on this subject leaves no room for doubt. He also used the Persian term sahib-e-zaman, but that was not popular amongst Hindu devotees. The term avatar is variously interpreted in India; Meher Baba employed the Sanskrit word to denote a cosmic spiritual function occurring at cyclical intervals of time. Reactions to this are usually very hostile from religious parties, while his devotees defend this claim rather enthusiastically, sometimes adding things that he never said. It is surely possible to discuss [Meher Baba] more rationally, outside the very rigid ‘I believe it/don’t believe it’ biases attendant upon messianism. The ethnographic, sociological, and mystical material contained in Meher Baba’s case history can be studied without becoming a dogmatic spokesperson for or against” (2005: 139).
Investigating Meher Baba in “Secret India”
Meher Baba and Paul Brunton
Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan (Pashtun) Sufi
Hazrat Babajan, Faqir of Poona
Agostini, Louis (1985). Glow International, February, pp. 14–16
Booth, Martin (2000). A Magick Life: A Biography of Aleister Crowley (London: Hodder and Stoughton).
Brunton, Paul (1934, repr. 1985). A Search in Secret India (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc.).
Brunton, Paul (1987). Reflections on My Life and Writings: The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Volume 8 (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications).
Brunton, Paul (1987). The Sensitives: The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Volume 11 (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications).
Cahn Fung, Annie (2004). Paul Brunton: A Bridge Between India and the West (Doctoral thesis, Sorbonne, 1992).
Campbell, John Oman (1905). The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (London: T. Fisher Unwin).
Friesen, J. Glenn (2005). Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi, online at
Harper, Marvin Henry (1972). Gurus, Swamis, & Avataras: Spiritual Masters & Their American Disciples (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press).
Haynes, Charles (1993). Meher Baba, the Awakener (North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: The Avatar Foundation, Inc.).
Hopkinson, Tom (1974, repr. 1983). Much Silence: Meher Baba, His Life and Work (Bombay: Meher House Publications).
Hurst, Kenneth Thurston (1989). Paul Brunton: A Personal View (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications).
Kalchuri, Bhau (1986, 1988, 1989, 1990). Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher, the Biography of the Avatar of the Age, Meher Baba—Volumes 1–5 (North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Manifestation Inc.).
King, Francis (1977). The Magical World of Aleister Crowley (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Knight, G. E. O. (1930, repr. 2007). Intimate Glimpses of Mysterious Tibet & Neighbouring Countries (Varansai: Pilgrims Publishing).
Masson, Jeffrey (1993). My Father’s Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion (London: Harper Collins Publishers).
McGovern, William (1924). To Lhasa in Disguise: A Secret Expedition through 1920s Tibet (New York: The Century Co).
Newman, Paul (2005). The Tregerthen Horror: Aleister Crowley, D. H. Lawrence & Peter Warlock in Cornwall (Abraxas Editions & DGR Books).
Parks, Ward (2009). Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West: The 1932–1935 Western Tours (North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Sheriar Foundation).
Purdom, Charles (1964). The God-Man: The life, journeys and work of Meher Baba with an interpretation of his silence and spiritual teaching (North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Sheriar Foundation).
Rawlinson, Andrew (1997). The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions (Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court).
Shepherd, Kevin R D (1986). A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications).
Shepherd, Kevin R D (2005). Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism (Dorchester, Dorset: Citizen Initiative).
Shepherd, Kevin R D (1988). Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications).
Storr, Anthony (1996). Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (London: Harper Collins Publishers).
Saturday, 23 March 2013
In A Search in Secret India, Paul Brunton wants the reader to believe that he is a journalist simply intent upon discovering the “real facts” about the Yogis of India (1934: 16):
“I wanted gather the real facts about the Yogis of to-day by the method of first-hand investigation. I prided myself that experience as a journalist fitted me to draw out, with the least possible delay, much of the information which I sought; that sitting at the editorial desk and curtly wielding the blue pencil had trained me to become ruthlessly critical in separating wheat from chaff; and that the contact with men and women in every grade of life which the profession generally gives, with ragged mendicants as well as well-fed millionaires, would help me move a little more smoothly though the variegated masses of India, among whom I searched for those strange men, the Yogis.”
Let us here briefly review some of the real facts Brunton omitted to mention in Secret India:
- Probable contact with Meredith Starr, a follower of Meher Baba who at the time ran a retreat in Devonshire, England, dedicated to Baba.
- Reading an article about Meher Baba in the Occult Review.
- Correspondence with Khaikhushru J Dastur, who had written the above article along with a booklet in English about the subject, and also edited the Meher Message.
- “… became one of Baba’s ardent enthusiasts, and … filled several pages of the Meher Message with encomiums” (Ward Parks, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West, 2009: 223).
- The intention to write a book about Meher Baba.
Then, having arrived in India:
- Was provided with an itinerary of places to visit by Meher Baba. (1)
- Accommodated for the large part of his brief tour by Meher Baba’s followers.
- Undertook two tasks of service (donations for the proposed Academy and new members for the Meher League) connected with Meher Baba.
- Was an honoured guest at a meeting of the Meher League; welcomed as the founder of the Meher League in England; and spoke of his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in relation to Meher Baba.
- Spent just several weeks touring India after leaving the Saidapet Asramam in Madras.
- Complained about the heat, the food, and his inability to meditate in a letter to Meher Baba.
Brunton’s Secret India cannot be compared to, say, a book that was published nearly thirty years earlier, The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India: A Study of Sadhuism, with an Account of the Yogis, Sanyasis, Bairagris, and other strange Hindu Sectarians, by John Campbell Oman. Unlike the academic author of that work, Brunton was merely a ‘freelance journalist’ who not only exhibited a phantasy prone personality throughout his life, but also had a background of interest in the occult and paranormal. He even claimed to have possessed ‘psychic’ powers (see post Paul Brunton: Early Years). He had travelled to India engaged in a personal spiritual quest and not for academic research, despite the later fictitious claim that he held a doctorate of philosophy. In his posthumously published Notebooks he acknowledges (1997: 234, 6:214): “the bulk of my writing is only journalism in book form.” But can Secret India even be accepted credibly as journalism? In a new Preface to that book in 1967, Brunton wrote “… I still fully affirm the fundamental truth of this work.” Yet there are plainly fictional embellishments to be found in Secret India along with the intent to deceive the reader. Certainly, the chapters on Meher Baba now appear to be a hatchet job written by an affronted ex-enthusiast. (2)
Secret India: 3
Not satisfied with his (real or imaginary) personal ‘telepathic’ encounters with Meher Baba, Brunton clearly wanted something far more tangible. When he left the Meherabad ashram to embark on his brief tour, he informs the reader (1934: 61): “I have imbibed sufficient pious wisdom and prophetic forebodings to suffice me for the time. I have not wandered to distant parts of the world merely to hear religious assertions or declarations of grandeur. I want facts, even if they are to be facts of a strange, uncommon kind. And I want reliable evidence; better still, something personal, something to which I can testify for my own satisfaction”—in effect, Brunton wanted a miracle, a demonstration of paranormal powers.
Brunton’s tour of India had so far taken just eights weeks to accomplish, several of which were spent based at the Saidapet Asramam in Madras, home of the Meher League. Bemoaning the heat, the food, and the inability to meditate in his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, the representative of the Meher League, who had talked publicly about his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in connection with Baba, arrived at Nasik during the first week of February 1931. In his letter, Brunton had written: “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands …” But the retrospective narrative of Secret India presents the reader with a quite different attitude (1934: 253):
“Once again I am to see Meher Baba, the Parsee holy man and self-styled ‘new messiah’.
It is with no keen desire that I return to him. The cold serpents of doubt have firmly coiled themselves around my mind, and a strong inner feeling tells me that my proposed stay near him will be a waste of time, and that Meher Baba, though a good man and one living an ascetic life, is unfortunately suffering from colossal delusions about his own greatness.”
He states that on arrival Meher Baba had asked him: “What are you thinking about?” To which the “tired and travel-worn” visitor replies (1934: 254):
“I am thinking of the dozen or more messiahs whom I have discovered in India since I have been here.”
“Meher Baba does not seem surprised.
‘Yes,’ he rejoins with fingers moving slickly across his alphabet board, ‘I also have heard of some of them.’
‘How do you explain it?’ I ask innocently.
His forehead contracts into wrinkles, but his mouth smiles in a superior sort of way.
‘If they are honest, then they are mistaken. If they are dishonest, then they are deceiving others. There are holy men who make good progress and then develop spiritual swelled-head. Such a sad state of affairs usually arrives when they have no proper master to advise and guide them. There is a point which is midway along the mystical path which is most difficult to cross; it often happens that the person whose devotions have brought him to this point foolishly believes that he has reached the highest goal. It takes little more for him to imagine himself a messiah!’”
Brunton then turns that explanation around in his narrative and applies it critically to Meher Baba throughout the rest of the chapter derisively titled ‘At the Parsee Messiah’s Headquarters’. The term ‘messiah’ would not have been in use at either the Meherabad or Nasik ashrams, and nor indeed recognized among the various yogis and sadhus that Brunton had encountered on his tour. At the time in question Meher Baba was viewed by his devotees as a sadguru or satguru, a Sanskrit term which means literally: true teacher, a title given specifically to a spiritually enlightened teacher. There is no sensationalism implied, but rather realism based on the Hindu philosophical understanding of the importance of knowledge and that the teacher, guru, is the sacred conduit to self-realization for the disciple. This was apparently lost on Brunton, who would later in a mood of pique introduce the element of sensationalism.
[In the record (see Secret India: 2) of the meeting between Brunton and Prajnananda with Ramana Maharshi, published in the September 1931 monthly magazine, Peace, the journal of the Swami Omkar Shanti Ashrama in Andhra Pradesh, Prajnananda states in relation to Baba: “He says he will become an Avatar in a few years.” If the transcript that talk can be trusted as being a verbatim report then it may well be that on rare occasions, either explicitly or implicitly, Meher Baba had used the term avatar in reference to himself.
But during the brief time Paul Brunton stayed at the Meherabad and Nasik ashrams in late 1930 and early 1931, the term avatar would certainly not have been in general use; Meher Baba was accepted by devotees as a sadguru. Even among Western enthusiasts in the 1930s Meher Baba was simply referred to as the ‘Perfect Master’. The articles and publications of the period confirm this. In 1931, Charles Purdom, then the literary editor of Everyman, wrote an article titled “A Perfect Master.” He would later write a book, published in 1937: The Perfect Master. In an interview with James Douglas, a leading writer and religious editor for the Daily Express in London, on April 9, 1932, Meher Baba is addressed as “Shri Sadguru Meher Baba.” There were two booklets of sayings published in 1933: Shri Meher Baba, the Perfect Master: Questions and Answers and The Sayings of Shri Meher Baba. And even K J Dastur, known for his pompous style of writing, used the heading “Sayings of His Divine Majesty Sadguru Meher Baba” in the pages of the Meher Message.]
In his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, Brunton had written: “It is difficult to find time to meditate on this tour, so I trust to make up for this omission.” But he does not use the opportunity to do so at the Nasik ashram. Instead, he becomes increasingly affronted and resentful.
Bhau Kalchuri writes (Meher Prabhu, Vol. 4, 1973: 1358–59): “Brunton was invited to stay with the men at the ashram in Nasik.… however, Baba usually kept aloof from him. Although Brunton questioned the Master every day, Baba was cool in his reception and their meetings were deliberately kept brief in contrast to the lengthy interviews Baba had granted him at Meherabad.” He was given the extensive diaries of two of Baba’s devotees to read, comprising nearly two thousand pages of loosely written manuscript, mostly composed in English. According to Louis Agostini, who for a three-year period during the 1960s served as Brunton’s mail secretary “… when Paul Brunton first met Meher Baba at Meherabad, he told Baba that he wanted to write a book about him.” Baba is said to have replied “that it was not the time to write anything about him” (Glow International, Feb. 1985). Were the diaries now produced at Nasik because of that request, or was it in order to gauge where his real interests lay?
Brunton was unimpressed and critical of the material that had been presented to him (1934: 255–56):
“The diaries have clearly been compiled in a spirit of blind faith … The two disciples who have kept these diaries are young men with only a fragmentary experience of life beyond their extremely limited circle, but their very naïveté and complete trust in their master have caused them to place on record things which are really uncomplimentary to him.…
I find enough matter, therefore, to feed the doubts which live repressed existences in my mind. I find also that Meher Baba is a fallible authority, a man subject to constantly changing moods, and an egotist who demands complete enslavement on the part of his brain-stupefied followers.”
In that critical frame of mind, he then laments: “Meher Baba seems to be avoiding contacts with me … I wait for the wonderful experiences he promised me, though I never expect them to arrive.… Nothing unusual happens nor do I see anything unusual happening to the other men” (1934: 257). Baba no longer appeared interested in him, was no longer amenable to his questions. This amounted to a rebuff in the mind of Brunton. The disciple of telepathic prowess who arrived at Nasik with the expectation of receiving wonderful experiences was now dwarfed into a mere tiresome and resentful visitor. Deflated, affronted, and minus the desired experiences, Brunton states in his book, “with the passing of the month I announce my impending departure.” In actual fact, contrary to the impression given in Secret India, Paul Brunton had stayed at the Nasik ashram for only a week. Despite his pledge to stay a month, he left Nasik on 8 February, 1931, travelling to Bombay, intending to return to England.
Kevin Shepherd notes (Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, 1988: 154): “[Brunton] would have regarded the Nasik ashram as the climax of his itinerary, not as the damp squib he later wished his readers to think.” It is hardly surprising then, on reaching Bombay, Brunton describes his condition thus (1934: 269, 270):
“When I succeed in arriving there and installing myself in a hotel, I succeed also in falling ill. Cooped up between four walls, tired in mind and sick in body, I begin to develop, for the first time, a pessimistic outlook.… My body is now a weary burden flung on a bed of pain.… I wonder how much longer I can stave off a breakdown.… If my physical and mental condition is bad, my spiritual state is little better. I am disheartened by a sense of failure. True, I have met some men of remarkable attainments and fine character, as well as others who can do amazing things, but I have not settled down to any positive inward recognition that here is the spiritual superman of my quest, the master who appeals to my rationalistic make-up and to whom I can gladly attach myself.… it is a living, first-hand, personal experience which I seek, a spiritual illumination entirely my own and not someone else’s.”
Just before his ship sailed, he received a letter from a follower of Ramana Maharshi, suggesting that he revisit the latter’s ashram. Brunton did not want to return to England bereft of consolation, and so he made the journey to Tiruvannamalai before later returning to England.
It was not “spiritual illumination” but a demonstration by Meher Baba of siddhis (paranormal powers) that Brunton required. He doubtless also hoped to have such ‘powers’ bestowed upon him. According to Charles Purdom, then editor of the Everyman magazine, a literary weekly for the publisher J M Dent: “When the writer, then known as Raphael Hurst, came to see me in London some time after his visit [to India] he said he had no doubt Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hurst, had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not” (The God-Man, 1969: 128).
Brunton had displayed typical Western misconceptions about what constitutes spirituality in the East. And even in later life the lesson he should have learnt from Nasik had still not sunk in. On the subject of yogis and paranormal powers, in 1937 Meher Baba is said to have communicated:
“The West differs from the East in its ideal of spiritual perfection. The West believes perfection to signify the possession and use of psychic powers.
A yogi can do all the jugglery by using psychic powers. He can abstain from food, go without sleep, leave the body at will, or stop his breathing, et cetera. Spiritually considered, a moral, good man who works in the world selflessly for others is much better and stands higher than many yogis with all their occult powers of performing miracles, which are nothing but jugglery without any spiritual importance at all; because whatever a yogi does is for his own individual self, and hence he is not selfless. He overcomes one illusion by creating another, which differs fundamentally from the teaching and work of a Sadguru …” (see Meher Prahbu, 1994, Vol. 6: 2232).
Shepherd observes: “[Brunton’s] search after paranormal demonstrations had not brought him any fulfilment. Though he does not give the due context, it is evident that the deflation he had experienced at Nasik had made its mark, and was not by any means as casual as the more superficial readers might have thought.… The deflation caused Brunton to turn against his mentor with distinctive venom.… To psychologists, it is quite evident that Brunton had set much store on the possibility of miracles, and that he was acutely piqued when these were not forthcoming. Two major features of his psychology after that time were (a) to cover up the fact that he had been an admirer of Meher Baba to a pronounced degree (b) to give a much lower rating to miraculous elements and instead to assume a critical stance, though not invariably” (1988: 157, 156).
Brunton returned to England in the spring of 1931, but due to “nearly two years which were needed to get rid of the blackwater fever which India dragged me down” he did not start work on A Search in Secret India until early 1933. The events surrounding Meher Baba’s visits to the West in 1931 and 1932; the defection of Khaikhushru J Dastur in 1932, who became one of Baba’s “fiercest public critics”; and the sensationalist Press headlines ‘Indian Messiah’ were to play a decisive part in how Brunton would later express his criticism of Meher Baba in Secret India. (3)
- According to Bhau Kalchuri (Meher Prabhu, Vol. 5, 1990: 1610), Meher Baba “told [Paul Brunton] to go on pilgrimage to certain places in India. He did not do that …” The places suggested appear to have had a specific connection to events in Meher Baba’s life and travels. The intent was that Brunton remained mindful and focused on Meher Baba, and not go chasing after various yogis, sadhus and fakirs. It is doubtful that Tiruvannamalai, a small town near to which was the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, would have been part of that itinerary. In his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, Brunton writes: “First the Bhikkhu Prajnananda become ill and irritable and had to have doctor’s attention. He is fairly well now again, but it was the travelling which does not suit him: he wants to rest since he came all the way from Burma. So at his request I wrote 2 letters to you to ask permission to leave out some of the places on our list, so he should have less journeys to make. You were away so Dastur said I should act as seemed best. So I omitted going to the extreme South … we did however visit Tiruvannamalai instead.” There is no mention in the letter of the meeting with Ramana Maharshi.
- Included in Paul Brunton’s posthumously published Notebooks is the following: “To become a disciple is to become an enthusiast, one who exaggerates, distorts, or overlooks the real facts. He will grossly misrepresent the true state of affairs because his guide is no longer reason but emotion.” (Notebooks, Vol. 11, 1987: 133, 6:13). Ironically, the above words of the ex-enthusiast can be used to provide a most fitting and truthful review of the chapters he wrote on Meher Baba in Secret India.
- Louis Agostini relates: in the “very last letter which [Paul Brunton] wrote to me from Auckland, New Zealand … he stated that he felt that his original statements about Meher Baba had been written by another person and that certainly if he had to do it over again, he would write differently ((Glow International, Feb. 1985). But Brunton never did publicly rectify his misrepresentation of Meher Baba in Secret India. His distorted portrait of Meher Baba remains influential to this day.
Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro
Sunday, 24 February 2013
Secret India: 2
The three travellers, Meher Baba’s brother Jal Irani, Bhikkhu Prajnananda and Paul Brunton left Meherabad late November to visit the places suggested by Baba. En route to Poona in order to meet Hazrat Babajan the trio made a brief stop at Bombay, where Brunton recounts in his book Secret India (1934: 62–63) that he met an elderly Parsi known as Khandalawalla, a former Judge, who provided him with a brief background regarding Babajan’s life. She “is a native of Baluchistan, that vague territory situated between Afghanistan and India, and she ran away from home quite early. After long and adventurous wanderings afoot, she arrived at Poona about the beginning of this century and has never moved from the city since. At first, she made her home under a neem tree, where she insisted on remaining in all seasons. Her reputation and sanctity and strange powers spread throughout the Muhammedan people in the vicinity, until even the Hindus came to treat her with great reverence. Some Muhammedans eventually built a wooden shelter under the tree for her, since she refused to live in a proper house. This gives her the semblance of a home and provides some protection against the inclemencies of the monsoon season. I ask the Judge for his personal opinion. He replies that he does not doubt that Hazrat Babajan is a genuine faqueer.”
During the meeting with Khandalawalla, the latter had informed Brunton that he had known Hazrat Babajan “for fifty years, and that her age is really about ninety-five,” which was in contrast to the higher estimates. According to Kevin Shepherd (A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan, 1986: 77–78, nn. 52, 54): “That Khandalawalla had known Babajan for as long as fifty years is questionable; though it need not be doubted that he had encountered her by the time of her second visit to Bombay c. 1900 … The general computation of her age was about 120 years, though some maintained that it was in excess of this. [Charles] Purdom cited an approximate date of 1790 for her birth, though Dr [Abdul] Ghani was of the view that she was born later than this. Ghani’s estimate of her age was 125, based on general reminiscences and his own contact with her. In deference to critical tendencies which find the higher estimates indigestible, there seems every ground to believe that the subject was over a hundred by the time of her death.” (1)
Khandalawalla told Brunton he felt that Meher Baba “is honest and really believes in his spiritual attainment.” But he was less enthusiastic about Upasni Maharaj, whom he debunked. Upasni is said to have told the Judge’s son-in-law, who was thinking of going on the Bombay Stock Exchange, that such a move would prove extremely fortunate for him. Acting on his advice Khandalawalla’s son-in-law was almost ruined. Doubtless the austere and ascetic Upasni, who possessed nothing but the gunny sack he used to cover his lower body with, would have considered the financial loss a most fortunate and important lesson for the young man. But this was lost on the affluent Khandalawalla whose son-in-law had sought from Upasni Maharaj of Sakori, whom Brunton states Meher Baba had described as “one of the greatest spiritual personalities of this age,” advice about financial gain.
Though Brunton had included the brief meeting with Hazrat Babajan in Secret India, he excluded references to other localities specified by Meher Baba. After leaving Poona, and following Baba’s itinerary of places to visit, the trio were warmly received by various devotees of Baba at Panchgani, Kolhapur, and Bijapur. At Hubli, Jal Irani parted company with the two Englishmen, being under instruction to rejoin Baba at Meherabad. Brunton and Prajnananda continued on to Madras, where they had made arrangements to stay with more followers of Meher Baba.
Arriving in Madras on 2 December, 1930, the two travellers became guests of the Meher Asramam in Saidapet, home of the Meher League. Here they received the same warm hospitality which previous devotees had accorded them. Their hosts were C V Sampath Aiyengar and his daughter V T Laksmi, both of them well-educated Hindus who accomplished humanitarian work under Baba’s auspices. An article by K J Dastur in the Meher Message, published in 1931 before the defection of Brother Raphael Hurst (Paul Brunton) became known, provides a revealing insight into what occurred during Brunton’s stay at the ashram. It is evident that he was considered a follower of Meher Baba, and on the afternoon of 7 December the members of the League held a meeting under the chairmanship of Aiyengar. At four pm an address was given at the ashram in honour of the two English guests:
“To Raphael Hurst Esq., Bhikkhu Prajnananda.
We, the members of Meher League, approach you with feelings of fellowship, and offer our heart-felt welcome to you in our midst. We look upon this, your first visit to this place, as a unique event in the history of this asramam which was opened by our master [Meher Baba] …
We welcome you, brother Raphael Hurst, as the founder of the Meher League in England. Your sincere words, ‘Our hearts are with every one of you who are serving the master’s cause [i.e., Baba’s cause] in India. Brotherly greetings to every devotee,’ are ringing in our ears … We earnestly request you convey our fraternal greetings to our comrades in the West. We pray that under the benign care and guidance of the master and with your co-operation, that influences for good may unceasingly flow from this asramam … May the master give you long life to accomplish this work.”
According to Kevin Shepherd’s account (Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, 1988: 149–150): “Nor was this all.… Bhikkhu Prajnananda then delivered a lecture on ‘Sri Meher Baba and his Work.’ This [alleged] ex-Major of the British Army possessed something of an oratorical eloquence, and spoke of the depth of Baba’s inner activity which the latter was silently engaged upon. Prajnananda said that his personal contact with Baba had convinced him that the world would eventually be bettered by Baba’s influence, and that his present followers were fortunate to be connected with him. Prajnananda appealed to the audience to accomplish their part of the ‘work’ with one-pointedness.
Not to be outdone, Raphael Hurst, alias Paul Brunton, then lectured on the meaning of life. The Meher Message specifically states that he related a few of his ‘personal telepathic experiences’ in connection with Meher Baba. These were emphasized as contacts transcendent of normal consciousness. Further, Brunton said that Baba was immersed in the highest state of God-consciousness every moment, and that he functioned in all invisible worlds.”
After about a fortnight at the ashram Brunton and Prajnananda left Madras. At some point they made a brief excursion from Madras to nearby Tiruvannamalai, a small town near to which was the ashram of Ramana Maharshi (d. 1950), a figure who did not, during that first meeting, loom large upon Brunton’s horizons. A record of the meeting of Brunton and Prajnananda with Ramana Maharshi was published in the September 1931 monthly magazine, Peace, the journal of the Swami Omkar Shanti Ashrama in Andhra Pradesh, which I include below:
“It was half past four in the afternoon and the disciples were sitting before the Maharshi in the hall and were talking about a notification that had appeared in the dailies [newspapers] to the effect that a Mr. Hurst and a Buddhist Bhikshu were intending to visit the Ashrama. The clock struck five and there entered the hall a man in European costume, bearing a plate of sweets and followed by a Buddhist monk. The visitors offered the sweets to the Maharshi and then, after making obeisance in the Eastern way, they both squatted on the floor before him. These were the visitors of whom the disciples had been talking. The man in English clothes was H Raphael Hurst [Paul Brunton], a London journalist who was then on a visit to India. He was keenly interested in the spiritual teaching of the East and thought that by an intelligent study and appreciation of it the cause of cooperation between East and West might be greatly promoted. He came to Sri Ramanasramam after visiting many other ashramas. The Bhikshu who came with him was also an Englishman by birth. He was formerly a military officer but was known as Swami Prajnananda. He was the founder of the English Ashrama in Rangoon. Both visitors sat spellbound before Maharshi and there was pin-drop silence. The silence was broken by the person who had brought the visitors, asking them if they would like to ask any questions.
They were, however, not in a mood to do so, and thus an hour and a half passed. Mr Hurst then stated the purpose of his visit. In a voice of intense earnestness he said that he had come to India for spiritual enlightenment. ‘Not only myself,’ he added, ‘but many others also in the West are longing for the Light from the East.’ The Maharshi sat completely indrawn and paid no attention. One of those who were sitting there asked them if they had come to the East for a study of comparative religions. ‘No,’ the Bhikshu replied, ‘we could get that better in Europe. We want to find Truth; we want the Light. Can we know Truth? Is it possible to get Enlightenment?’ The Maharshi still remained silent and indrawn, and as the visitors wanted to take a walk, the conversation ended and all dispersed. Early next morning the visitors entered the hall and put some questions to the Maharshi with great earnestness. The conversation reproduced below is from rough notes taken while it was going on.
Bhikshu: We have travelled far and wide in search of Enlightenment. How can we get it?
Maharshi: Through deep enquiry and confident meditation.
Hurst: Many people do meditate in the West but show no signs of progress.
Maharshi: How do you know that they don't make progress? Spiritual progress is not easily discernible.
Hurst: A few years ago I got some glimpses of the Bliss but in the years that followed I lost it again. Then last year I again got it. Why is that?
Maharshi: You lost it because your meditation had not become natural (sahaja). When you become habitually inturned the enjoyment of spiritual beatitude becomes a normal experience.
Hurst: Might it be due to the lack of a Guru?
Maharshi: Yes, but the Guru is within; that Guru who is within is identical with your Self.
Hurst: What is the way to God-realization?
Maharshi: Vichara, asking yourself the ‘Who am I?’ enquiry into the nature of your Self.
Bhikshu: The world is in a state of degeneration. It is getting constantly worse, spiritually, morally, intellectually and in every way. Will a spiritual teacher come to save it from chaos?
Maharshi: Inevitably, when goodness declines and wrong prevails He comes to reinstate goodness. The world is neither too good nor too bad; it is a mixture of the two. Unmixed happiness and unmixed sorrow are not found in the world. The world always needs God and God always comes.
Bhikshu: Will He be born in the East or the West?
The Maharshi laughed at the question but did not answer it.
Hurst: Does the Maharshi know whether an Avatar already exists in the physical body?
Maharshi: He might.
Hurst: What is the best way to attain Godhood?
Maharshi: Self-enquiry leads to Self-realization.
Hurst: Is a Guru necessary for spiritual progress?
Hurst: Is it possible for the Guru to help the disciple forward on the path?
Hurst: What are the conditions for discipleship?
Maharshi: Intense desire for Self-realization, earnestness and purity of mind.
Hurst: Is it necessary to surrender one's life to the Guru?
Maharshi: Yes. One should surrender everything to the Dispeller of Darkness. One should surrender the ego that binds one to this world. Giving up body-consciousness is the true surrender.
Hurst: Does a Guru want to take control of the disciple's worldly affairs also?
Maharshi: Yes, everything.
Hurst: Can he give the disciple the spiritual spark that he needs?
Maharshi: He can give him all that he needs. This can be seen from experience.
Hurst: Is it necessary to be in physical contact with the Guru, and if so, for how long?
Maharshi: It depends on the maturity of the disciple. Gunpowder catches fire in an instant, while it takes time to ignite coal.
Hurst: Is it possible to develop along the path of the Spirit while leading a life of work?
Maharshi: There is no conflict between work and wisdom. On the contrary, selfless work paves the way to Self-knowledge.
Hurst: If a person is engaged in work it will leave him little time for meditation.
Maharshi: It is only spiritual novices who need to set aside a special time for meditation. A more advanced person always enjoys the Beatitude whether he is engaged in work or not. While his hands are in society he can keep his head cool in solitude.
Bhikshu: Have you heard of Meher Baba?
Bhikshu: He says that he will become an Avatar in a few years.
Maharshi: Everyone is an Avatar of God. ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, all are in you. One who knows the Truth sees everyone else as a manifestation of God.
Bhikshu: Will the Maharshi make a statement about Meher Baba?
Maharshi: What statement? That (the existence of an outer Avatar) is a question which seekers of Truth need not consider.
Bhikshu: Will the world be rejuvenated?
Maharshi: There is One who governs the world and it is His business to look after it. He who has created the world knows how to guide it also.
Bhikshu: Does the world progress now?
Maharshi: If we progress the world progresses. As you are, so is the world.
Without understanding the Self what is the use of understanding the world?
Without Self-knowledge, knowledge of the world is of no use. Dive inward and find the treasure hidden there. Open your heart and see the world through the eyes of the true Self. Tear aside the veils and see the divine majesty of your own Self.” See http://bhagavan-ramana.org/brunton.html
It is worth noting, having only recently spoken of his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in connection with Meher Baba to fellow members of the Meher League, in Secret India Brunton now claims (1934: 162–63) that during a further meeting with Ramana Maharshi before leaving the ashram to continue his tour:
“There comes a perceptible change in the telepathic current which plays between us, the while my eyes blink frequently but his remain without the least tremor. I become aware that he is definitely linking my own mind with his, that he is provoking my heart into that state of starry calm which he seems perpetually to enjoy. In this extraordinary peace, I find a sense of exaltation and lightness. Time seems to stand still.…What is this man’s gaze but a thaumaturgic wand … Suddenly, my body seems to disappear, and we are both out in space!”
Paul Brunton would of course later become associated with Sri Ramana, and is described by the Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology as “one of the first Europeans to draw attention to Sri Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai, South India.” Yet, following the publication in 1934 of Brunton’s Secret India, he was subsequently banned in March 1939 by Sri Ramana’s brother from visiting the ashram. This was apparently because Brunton had not obtained permission to write about Ramana Maharshi, nor had he given any profits from the book to the ashram. Though there appear to have been other issues involved. According to David Godman, the original version of the manuscript for the book Talks with Ramana Maharshi, first published in three volumes beginning in 1935 up through 1939, contained a record of Brunton getting banned. However, the whole subject surrounding Brunton being banned was deleted prior to publication. Godman has now published the original transcripts that show the undeleted version on pages 191-94 in his Living by the Words of Bhagavan. Brunton would later comment that he had used Sri Ramana in his books simply as a ‘peg’ for his own theories of meditation. For a useful analysis of the controversial relationship between Brunton and Sri Ramana, see Part Three of the excellent ‘Studies Related to Paul Brunton’ by Dr J Glenn Friesen at http://www.members.shaw.ca/abhishiktananda/Brunton3.html.
Following his stay at the Sri Ramanasramam, Brunton returned to Madras, and then left for Calcutta intent on visiting the Ramakrishna Math, where he was fortunate to meet the aged Mahendranath Gupta (Mahasaya), who was one of the few surviving pupils of Ramakrishna (d. 1886). He went alone, as Prajnananda had become unwell and could not accompany him. From Calcutta, Brunton wrote the following letter to Meher Baba on 30 December, 1930, which has now been made public by the Avatar Meher Baba Trust Archives:
I received a telegram from Vishnu [a disciple and secretary for Meher Baba] on my arrival here yesterday and hear you want me to write about the tour. Well I sent an account to [K J ] Dastur 2 weeks ago, and no doubt he will show it to you, if you ask him. Since then I left Madras and went South and later returned to Madras and so on to here.
Now I am camping on with the tour but had to make alterations.
First the Bhikkhu Prajnananda become ill and irritable and had to have doctor’s attention. He is fairly well now again, but it was the travelling which does not suit him: he wants to rest since he came all the way from Burma. So at his request I wrote 2 letters to you to ask permission to leave out some of the places on our list, so he should have less journeys to make. You were away so Dastur said I should act as seemed best. So I omitted going to the extreme South (viz Rameswarm, Madural and Mysore), we did however visit Tiruvannamalai instead. Then the Bhikkhu asked me if I could finish the tour myself, and I agreed that I was now so accustomed to Indian travelling conditions that I could quite easily carry on myself henceforth. So at his request I left him at Madras, just before I left for Calcutta 2 or 3 days ago. I gave him sufficient money for all his needs and he has gone to some place near Tiruvannamalai until I complete my tour when he will come later to Nasik.
At Madras we were very kindly treated by all the friends there. We did what we could there also, and 12 new members joined the Meher League as a result. Also I interested certain people in you and they will visit you when you next come to Saidapet: They include the Assistant Editor of the Hindu newspaper: K S Venkatapamani, the author: The Principal of Government College, Kumakonam and others.
As regards the academy: I was unable to do anything for this until we reached Madras owing to the hurry. Here I broached the matter and it was brought to the attention of the public meeting of 100 people we addressed there. Mr Aiyenger [Sampath] also said he would see about getting them all to contribute a little each one, so I have left it to him.
[The ‘academy’ had been advertised in the Meher Message, and refers to a proposed Spiritual Academy “for young spiritual aspirants of all castes, creeds and colours.” It was intended for “spiritually-minded youths who are not less than eighteen and not more than thirty years of age, and who are not married.”]
My experience shows me the following: that it is difficult to approach anyone who is not a devotee of your Holiness. They are not going to support financially any such academy unless they are your followers. So it limits my efforts down to your own devotees. Again among these the poor can contribute very little if at all. So again one is narrowed down to the narrow circle of well-off devotees. But as I do not know their names I am unable to find them out. I wrote to Dastur and asked for a few names I could call on during the tour but he forgot to send them.
So you see I am rather pessimistic about raising the money in India. In the west it would be naturally be easier for me, as I am known there, but here I am a stranger. However I have written to Max Gysi [who knew Meredith Starr and had visited the Devonshire retreat in 1929 or 1930] and made a proposition to him. When I saw him last he was going to spend 1,350 rupees on a certain object which I regarded as foolish so I have written in such a manner as to try to convince him to spend the money on the spiritual academy. I believe he will very likely agree to this. I am waiting for his answer which I suppose will arrive from America, just before I reach Nasik. Western Subscribers, it is necessary for me to go to them personally, so I must leave that until I return to Europe. I am thinking that it will be difficult for me to bear the heat if I stay in India so long as I first intended and perhaps it will be necessary for me to go back not later than April 1st. Somehow the food does not agree with me also. However I must leave all that for later on.
As I am only just arrived in Calcutta I do not know the possibilities here but shall stay a few days.
I want to ask whether it would be possible for me to be permitted to arrive at Nasik one week earlier than we first arranged: that is instead of Feb 1st I arrive January 21st or 22nd. Please let me know and I will act accordingly. In this case I would omit one or 2 purely sightseeing places on my remaining trip.
It is difficult to find time to meditate on this tour, so I trust to make up for this omission.
I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands; I need it if I am to go back to the West with any message for their materialistic minds.
Will you please write to me at the Calcutta address. The letter will reach me even if I leave but I shall stay till the end of this week certain.
In humble devotion
The above letter makes plain that Brunton was not only following an itinerary of places to visit suggested by Meher Baba, but was also engaged in specific tasks of requested service such as raising funds for the proposed Academy and seeking new, and possibly influential, members for the Meher League. How Brunton approached those tasks would have been important. It is not clear whether or not he was asked to visit Tiruvannamalai, where the Sri Ramanasramam was located. According to Bhau Kalchuri, Meher Baba never met Ramana Maharshi nor had any communication with him, though Baba once commented that he was a genuine saint” (Meher Prabhu, 1986: 1359, note).
In Secret India Brunton recounts that during his stay at the Meherabad ashram, Meher Baba “informs me that within a few months he will be in residence at his central headquarters, which are situated near the town of Nasik. He suggests that I should visit him there and stay a month.” According to Brunton, Baba communicated: “Do this. Come when you can. I will give you wonderful spiritual experiences and enable you to know the real truth about me. You will be shown my inner powers. After that, you will have no more doubts” (1934: 62). In the letter from Brunton to Baba quoted above, he writes, “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands.” The implication being that he took Baba’s words literally as he deemed himself a suitable candidate for enlightenment. Earlier, Baba is said to have stated, “Go to the West as my representative! Spread my name as that of the coming divine messenger. Work for me and my influence, and you will be working for the good of mankind.” But Brunton’s response was, “nothing short of working a series of miracles will convince the West that anyone is a spiritual superman, let alone a messiah, and since I cannot perform miracles I cannot undertake the job of being his herald.” Baba replied: “Stay with me and I shall confer great powers on you … I will help you to obtain advanced powers, so that you will render services in the West” (1934: 61). This encounter is said to have occurred at Meherabad prior to Brunton’s stay at the Meher Asramam in Saidapet as a distinguished guest who had formed (or was arranging to form) the Meher League in England. Brunton had already presented himself to the Meher League as a representative of Meher Baba, and also claimed personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in relation to Baba. It was clearly the talk of “wonderful spiritual experiences” and “powers” which was to lure him to Nasik, and not service to Meher Baba, or the promotion of the Meher League’s ideal of universal brotherhood.
It has been astutely observed by Kevin Shepherd (1988: 152–153): “There is little doubt from the overall body of facts on Brunton at this stage in his career that he was very preoccupied with ‘telepathic messages’ of Meher Baba and other extra-dimensional occurrences. His contacts with yogis and faqirs attest Brunton’s fascination with paranormal phenomena, and he clearly believed that it was possible to gain ‘powers,’ known in India as siddhis, a customary yogic preoccupation. Brunton was quite ready to talk about his telepathic experiences in a way that caused devotees of Meher Baba to exalt him accordingly. It is worth observing here that Baba is known to have frequently expressed a low rating of persons disposed to seek ‘wonders’ among the sadhu population of India, since the attendant overload of superstition and cultivation of siddhis were deemed by him as harmful to serious aspirants.… If Meher Baba was anything of a psychologist (as the evidence does strongly indicate), then he would have perceived typical traits in Brunton of the ‘siddhis’ mentality, i.e., a desire for occult powers and attributes of greatness. Since such people are in general unfit for discipleship, he would have done the next best thing possible: teach the candidate for honours a necessary lesson.”
In Secret India Brunton wants the reader to believe that he left for Nasik with doubts in his mind (1934: 253): “I do not believe the Parsee messiah can keep the extraordinary promises of wonderful experiences which he has made to me; but because I have agreed to spend a month near him, I think my pledge is not to be lightly broken. So, against every instinct and all judgement, I take train for Nasik, that he may not accuse me of never having given him the chance to prove his alleged powers.”
But that statement is contrary to the letter he wrote to Meher Baba from Calcutta on 30 December, 1930, where he writes optimistically: “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands; I need it if I am to go back to the West with any message for their materialistic minds.” As Shepherd rightly suggests (1988: 152):
“The real ‘secret’ of Brunton’s sojourn in India was locked up in the Nasik ashram, and left padlocked by journalistic preferences of retrospect. (2)
To be continued …
1. Hazrat Babajan died in the Char Bawdi area of Poona on 21 September, 1931. On Wednesday, 23 September, the Evening News of India reported ‘Poona’s Homage to Famous Muslim Woman Saint’: “The Muslim community in Poona has been greatly moved by the death of the famous saint Babajan. It is claimed that she was 125 years of age, and the possessor of magical powers in addition to her powers of insight into the future. Her funeral yesterday … was very largely attended with thousands of people both Muslim and Hindus taking part in the procession.” According to one account: “Her funeral procession was a tremendous affair, never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona” (Ghani, 1939: 38). On hearing of her death, Meher Baba, who was then in England, sent a telegram to Dr Abdul Ghani directing him to donate four thousand rupees on his behalf toward erecting Babajan’s marble tomb. The small one roomed marble dargah (shrine) was built alongside the neem tree under which she sat for so many years, by the roadside which is now a busy and noisy thoroughfare.
2. Brunton’s record of the interviews he had with Meher Baba cannot be regarded as a verbatim report, but simply as a retrospective narrative influenced by subsequent events, i.e., according to Shepherd (1988: 241, n. 212): “In April 1932, English reporters dubbed Baba in the British newspapers as the ‘Indian Messiah’, which seems to have lent accentuation to the journalism in Secret India, since Baba was commonly accepted in India only as a sadguru.” The term ‘Messiah’ used by Brunton in Secret India would therefore not have been current at either the Meherabad or Nasik ashrams during his stay. Brunton confirms in his posthumously published Notebooks (1987: 226, 6:171) that he did not start work on Secret India until around early 1933: “It was only after nearly two years which were needed to get rid of the blackwater fever which India dragged me down that I was able to begin work on A Search in Secret India.”
Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro
Sunday, 27 January 2013
Secret India: 1
In the autumn of 1930 Paul Brunton embarked upon his voyage to India, intending primarily to see Meher Baba, but also to seek out and penetrate the ‘secrets’ of the holy men, yogis and fakirs of that country. But Brunton’s stay in India included secrets of quite another kind, and it was these he chose not to disclose to his readers.
Prior to leaving for India, by 1929 Paul Brunton already knew of the existence of Meher Baba, probably as a consequence of the activities of Meredith Starr, one of the earliest Western pupils of Baba. Born as Herbert H Close (1890–1971) at Prestbury House, in Hampton, Richmond, Surrey, he was the son of a wealthy industrialist and his wife. Under the pen name [Roland] Meredith Starr he later became a minor poet with an interest in occultism, aromatherapy and homeopathy, describing himself as a ‘constructive psychologist’. He was also a regular contributor to the Occult Review, a British illustrated monthly magazine published by Rider & Co under different names between 1905 and 1951 which contained articles, reviews and correspondence by well-known occultists and spiritual authors of the day. Starr’s interest in occultism led him to join, on June 6, 1910, the infamous Aleister Crowley’s Order of the Silver Star, taking the motto Superna Sequor (‘I follow the gods’). He began experiments with various drugs, including Crowley’s drug of choice, the hallucinogen, peyote. After a drug-induced ‘astral journey’ Starr was convinced he had attained a high occult grade, but Crowley was dismissive of the claim. He later married the Honourable Mary Grey, daughter of the 8th Earl of Stamford, a man otherwise known as the Rev Harry Grey. Oxford educated, a scholar of the Classics, including Latin, Greek, Theology and Philosophy, Rev Grey developed a serious drink and gambling problem and ended up before his preferment to the title (due to the unexpected death of the living heir) at the Cape in South Africa—an alcoholic drifter and colonial remittance man working first as a miner and later as a farm labourer. After his second wife died he married his housekeeper, Martha Solomon, who was a black woman. With her he had three children, one of which was Mary, the only legitimate child.
In 1917, at Paddington Registry Office, the British poet-occultist married Lady Mary. The two set out with a plan to found an artists’ colony in West Cornwall, and lived in a cottage at Treveal near St Ives. It was in Cornwall that Starr and his wife were introduced to D H Lawrence and his partner Frieda, who were then renting a sizable farmhouse cottage near Gurnard’s Head. Lawrence’s associates at that time included the composer Cecil Grey and musician the Nigel Heseltine. While Heseltine regarded Starr as an occult adept, his Cambridge friend, the poet Robert Nicols, reacted less warmly, and wrote: “‘a fellow with long hair, bulbous rings etc, & an infernal gasbag’” and attributed Heseltine’s interest in ‘black magic’ to the deleterious influence of Starr. As for Lady Mary, she was described as “‘a bedizened wife or concubine prophetess, all black and bilious complexion & muddleheadedness.’” Lawrence thought Starr was rather odd, and did not like him much. But, “Lawrence, half-wary, half-intrigued, availed himself of Starr’s esoteric book collection.… In September 1917, Lawrence described Starr and his wife to Lady Cynthia Asquith: ‘a pair of herb-eating occultists: they fast, or eat nettles: they descend naked into old mine-shafts, and there meditate for hours and hours, upon their own transcendent infinitude: they descend on us like a swarm of locusts, and devour all the food on shelf or board: they even gave a concert, and made most dreadful fools of themselves, in St Ives: violent correspondence in the St Ives Times’” (Newman, 2005: 24, 25). Grey and Heseltine later became involved with Aleister Crowley, and with drugs, and performed magical rituals with the expectation that the music they composed would achieve everlasting recognition.
In March 1928, Meher Baba sent one of his Indian Parsi disciples, Rustom Irani, to London in search of pupils to attend the multi-national, multi-faith school for boys attached to Baba’s ashram in Meherabad. At the time no British boys could be found to attend the school, but in the course of his search Rustom Irani met Meredith Starr, who along with his mistress, Margaret Ross, and her sister, Esther Ross, became interested in Baba, with Starr selling all his belongings before going to India, expecting to live in Meher Baba’s ashram permanently. But he only spent six months at the Meherashram at Toka. According to Bhal Kalchuri (1988: Vol. 3, 1071), during his stay Meher Baba told him: “‘I will work through you in the West. You will work for me directly. I have drawn you here and will make you perfect in this life.’ Thinking himself to be someone important, Starr was of course pleased to hear this.” As a consequence Starr remained aloof and meditated during much of the day. He would narrate his experiences during meditation to Baba, saying he had experienced bliss. But due to his overbearing behaviour, along with the temptation of adultery, a ruse was devised to send him back to England. After Starr returned to England he established a retreat centre in Devonshire, where a small number of westerners became devotees of Baba. Starr is credited with introducing Meher Baba to the West, though he did not remain a follower for very long, becoming critical of his former guru. He was divorced from his wife Lady Mary by decree nisi 10 April 1930, on his admission of an adulterous relationship of four years’ duration with Margaret Ross.
Brunton had also been in correspondence with another of Meher Baba’s followers (and later critic) Khaikhushru J Dastur, a Parsi devotee who had been employed as a teacher at the Meherashram School (for boys), and from 1929 to 1931 edited the Meher Message, the first monthly periodical dedicated to Meher Baba. Brunton had contributed a poem, “Born Again,” to the Meher Message, which was published in February 1930. According to Charles Purdom, “The first number of the Meher Message appeared on the first month of January 1929. It contained forty pages, with articles by the editor … the motto on the cover being ‘Mastery in Servitude’. There were extracts from Baba’s writings, extracts from the editor’s diary, and other contributions. Baba was referred to by the editor as ‘His Holiness’, and Dastur described himself as ‘The Disciple of his Divine Majesty’, which was objected to by the mandali; but the editor did not listen to them, and Baba, as usual was indifferent to such matters.” After the December 1930 number, Dastur was obliged to drop the phrase ‘His Divine Majesty’ from all future issues of the Meher Message, and Purdom further comments: “It appears from the pages of the magazine that the controversy between the editor and other disciples had been developing, for the expression of excessive devotion was objected to, everything being acerbated by the activities of the editor in connection with India politics, for Baba and his disciples had no part in politics” (1964: 77, 93).
Dastur had also written the earliest independent publication about Meher Baba in the English language, published in March 1928 as a booklet titled His Holiness Meher Baba and the Meherashram. A second edition was released in June of that year, and a third edition in August, under the more ostentatious title His Divine Majesty Meher Baba and the Meherashram Institute. A year after his booklet had been published, an article by Dastur, ‘His Holiness Sadguru Meher Baba’, appeared in the Occult Review, the first article about Meher Baba in the Western press. Following the publication of that article, correspondence from Meredith Starr, headed ‘Shri Sadguru Meher Baba’ appeared in the October 1929 edition of the Occult Review. As a fellow contributor to that magazine, Brunton would certainly have been aware of Dastur’s article and also Starr’s letter.
With a bachelor’s degree in law, Dastur was one of the more educated of Meher Baba’s followers, and in addition to his literary activities he had been elected a co-president of the Meher League, officially formed on 21 April, 1930, with the objective of promoting Meher Baba and universal brotherhood. His fellow co-president was retired Judge of Kurnaul, C V Sampath Aiyengar (Madras Judicial Service), who was one of the earliest Hindu followers of Baba from Madras. Aiyengar had bequeathed his property in Saidapet, Madras, for Meher Baba’s cause and requested that Baba open it as a ‘Meher Asramam’, which subsequently occurred. His daughter, V T Lakshmi, charitably conducted a Baby Welfare Centre, and was approved by Baba as editor of the League’s quarterly publication the Meher Gazette, much to Dastur’s annoyance. It certainly appears that Brunton had previously been in contact with the Meher League (probably via Dastur), and perhaps considered a representative. It has been noted (Rawlinson, 1997: 197, n. 1) that he had formed the Meher League in Britain before departing for India, and indeed the Meher Message (Vol. 2, No. 8, Aug 1930) contains an article in which Brunton writes: “The West needs Meher Baba. It needs him even more than does the East…. We who follow Shri Meher Baba believe … our beloved Master will come not only as a Light to the West, but as the Light of the whole world.” In December 1930, it was Bro H Raphael Hurst, alias Paul Brunton, who stayed at the Meher Asramam as an honoured guest for more than a fortnight.
Brunton arrived in India late November 1930, docking at Bombay, where he was met by Adi K Irani and Jal Irani, two of Meher Baba’s Parsi mandali, and following Baba’s instruction he was charitably lodged in a hotel. Yet in Secret India his account omits the above and instead presents the reader with a colourful display of storytelling that could have come straight out of Brunton’s favourite boyhood occult novel, Zanoni, and which sets the tone for the rest of the book. In the chapter ‘A Magician out of Egypt’, Brunton conjures a tale about how on arriving at the ‘Hotel Majestic’ he made a starling discovery, this being a fellow guest of the hotel, “a member of the magician’s fraternity, a weaver of strange spells, in short, a wonder-worker in the flesh!” The narrative continues:
“Not that he is one of those juggling fellows, mind you, who make their own and theatres’ fortunes by bewildering jaded audiences. He is not some clever individual attempting to emulate the feats of Maskelyne and Devant in a less prosaic environment than that of Regent Street. No! This man belongs to the line of medieval sorcerers. He engages daily in his commerce with mysterious beings, invisible to normal human eyes, but plain enough to his own! Such, at least, is the peculiar reputation which he has created. The hotel staff regard him with fearful looks and speak of him with bated breath. Whenever he passes by, the other guests instinctively break off conversation and a puzzled, questioning look comes into their eyes. He makes no overtures to them and usually insists on dining alone. What makes him even more intriguing in our eyes is that he bears neither European nor Indian nationality; he is a traveller from the country of the Nile; in very sooth, a magician out of Egypt!” (1934: 35).
The mysterious ‘wonder-worker’ from Egypt then performs his art in response to the westerner’s request. This involved Brunton writing a question on a piece of paper and the magician, named as ‘Mahmoud Bey’, providing the answer without looking at the written question. Bey then informs Brunton how as a young man a “Jew took me with him to a society in Cairo, which conducted practical investigations into magic, spiritualism, theosophy and occult …” and he had “studied the musty old books which the Jew lent me, and practised the magical rituals and other exercises which he taught me.… At length, I became acknowledged as an expert in these arts.” The feats that clearly impressed Brunton related to the magician’s command over the jinns (fabled magical spirits, elementals), of which he had “as many as thirty” at his command. Afterwards, throughout the night Brunton says his mind sought to find a logical explanation for what had occurred, and confides to the reader: “I know my own experience and what I have witnessed with my own eyes. I must accept the genuineness of the performance, even if I reserve its explanation. Yes, Mahmoud Bey is a magician, a twentieth-century wizard. My discovery of him soon after landing in Indian earth seems to herald, apt and prophetic, of even stranger discoveries yet. Metaphorically, I have cut the first notch in my stick of Indian experience. Actually, I have put down the first note on the virgin white sheets of my note-book” (1934: 41, 43, 45).
Meher Baba is known to have frequently expressed a low rating of the mentality of those who sought occult powers (siddhis) and wonders. Yet Brunton clearly demonstrates a fascination for such experiences, and was doubtless anticipating that Baba would provide further occult wonders to jot down in his untrustworthy notebook.
The following day Adi K Irani and Jal Irani escorted Brunton to the Meherabad ashram. He had arrived whilst Baba was still in seclusion in the ‘Panchvati Cave’. Nevertheless, over the next three days he was allowed to interview Baba, who communicated via an alphabet board, interpreted by a disciple. Brunton was not allowed to take notes. The interviews, observations, and summarized version of Baba’s life form the substance of the chapter controversially headed ‘I Meet a Messiah’ in A Search in Secret India. After staying for three days, Baba provided Brunton with a travel itinerary of places to visit in India, and directed him to meet Hazrat Babajan in Poona, to see the Tiger Valley Cave in Panchgani, then Kolhapur High School and the Madras Centre, among other stipulated places to visit. In Secret India Brunton gives the impression that he departed alone and was merely intent upon seeking out yogis and fakirs. In actual fact he travelled with two men, one of whom was the Meher Baba’s brother Jal. The other was Frederick Fletcher, an alleged ex-major of the British Army who was now a Buddhist monk, and known as Bhikkhu Prajnananda.
Prior to meeting Frederick Fletcher in 1930, Brunton had previously been acquainted with him in London. He had been a fellow Theosophist, and according Brunton’s son, Kenneth Hurst (1989: 45): “At the time I was born in 1923 Michael Juste and my father belonged to a small group of Bohemians who met regularly and were interested in spiritual matters. Among them was a colourful character known as ‘Bud’ [Frederick Fletcher]. He was the scion of an aristocratic family, and had served with gallantry in the First World War, but was regarded by his relatives as a black sheep and was paid a retainer to keep away from his ancestral home. Bud was easily provoked to anger and possessed a vocabulary more suited to a military barracks than to a drawing room. For a while Bud came to live with my parents at their small flat. But his colourful language and indolent habits brought my mother to the point where she decided he had to go.… Later when he became a Buddhist monk and went to live in Burma, my mother continued to correspond with him.”
It may not just have been Fletcher’s language that was colourful, but also the tale he told to a newspaper reporter regarding his life. According to the short article ‘British Major, Buddhist Monk: Strange Career of Frederick Fletcher’ (The Age, Saturday, December 6, 1941, p. 6) by ‘WGB’:
“Born in London 61 years ago, he was a graduate of Oxford University.… [and] in 1913 had been made associate member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The First World War found him in the British Army with the rank of major. He fought in the great battles at Ypres and on the Somme …
In 1922, in company with Dr McGovern, and under the patronage of Annie Besant’s Theosophist Society, he left to try to penetrate the forbidden land of Tibet, and got within 60 miles of the Holy City of Lhasa, but they were prevented from going further. McGovern, with a good knowledge of the language, disguised himself as a coolie and pushed on to Lhasa, while Frederick Fletcher entered the great Tibetan Monastery at Shigatse—monastic home of 5000 monks. For 12 months he stayed there, living the life of a simple monk, spending his hours in meditation, and learning the Tibetan language; while McGovern, whose identity had quickly been discovered, lay in goal in Lhasa. Riots broke out in the sacred city, and the monks urged Fletcher to flee back to India before the trouble reached Shigatse and he became involved.
To flee was not easy, but with nothing but his begging bowl and robes he tracked back across the rugged mountains, across rocky passes 16,000 feet high, 400 miles back to India, staying for some months at Darjeeling under the shadow of Mt Everest.
Arrived at Calcutta, he set out on the most strenuous task of his career. He tramped from Calcutta, across to Bombay and down to Ceylon, his only possessions staff, robe and begging bowl. Sometimes he never even had robes. For several months during the 3-year-long pilgrimage he lived with the sect of the Digambara Sadhus, who went about stark naked with ashes rubbed on their bodies, He visited the great pundits and oracles, living for nearly 18 months with the Yogi, and studied under Sri Ramana Maharshi, the most famous living Yogi.”
But Fletcher’s alleged British Army officer rank, his stay at Shigatse as a monk and, according to another story (1) his ordination in 1922 at Shigatse in the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist tradition under the name of Lama Dorje Prajnananda, is questionable in the light of other, more reliable, published sources.
In a brief book of 79 pages, Intimate Glimpses of Mysterious Tibet & Neighbouring Countries (1930), the author George E O Knight, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, informs the reader (1930: 9, 10):
“A casual ride on a bus in London 1921 not only culminated in one of the biggest and most daring adventures in Tibet, but it was also instrumental in introducing to the notice of the British and American publics the first moving pictures of [Lhasa].
A lecturing engagement had taken us to Bloomsbury. The night was damp and foggy, so we occupied a seat inside the bus. A discarded copy of a trade journal caught our eye, and quite casually we turned over its leaves. In a rather obscure corner of the publication was a paragraph that ran to this effect: ‘What a splendid opportunity now exists for securing the first motion pictures of Lhasa, the Forbidden City of Tibet!’
… In this manner five male Europeans set out for the ‘Roof of the World,’ to the accompaniment of questions in the House of Commons as to the military nature of the Expedition, and the jeers and chuckles of the London and provincial Press, who one and all declared that the task the Expedition had set itself was impossible of realisation.”
There were originally only four members of the expedition, but at the last minute they were joined by Dr William M McGovern (1897–1964), who had knowledge of Buddhism, Tibetan language and customs, and would famously write an account of his more successful solo journey, To Lhasa in Disguise (1924). He later became famous for his travel exploits, and has been described as a prototype for the fictional film hero ‘Indiana Jones’.
There is no mention in McGovern’s book of being under the patronage of the Theosophical Society. According to McGovern, the expedition was assisted by William Dederich, F.R.G.S., who had been a friend of the late Sir Ernest Shackleton and helped in the organization of Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition: “By his aid the idea was soon placed on a stable basis, and active steps could be taken toward sending out the exploring party” (1924: 11).
Along with McGovern, who would act as scientific adviser, the expedition comprised of Mr Fredrick Fletcher, who was to act as geologist and transport officer; Mr George E O Knight, the leader, who would look after botanical and zoological research; Captain J E Ellam, the co-leader, who was to devote himself to the study of the political and religious institutions of Tibet; and Mr William Harcourt, the appointed cinematographer. In July, 1922, the party set sail for India with the intent to penetrate Tibet, take the first moving pictures of the Lhasa, and meet the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.
McGovern confirms (1924: 11) Frederick Fletcher was part of the expedition. He is not mentioned by name in Knight’s book, but there is an interesting reference to him (1930: 24):
“Snow began to fall in places, riders and mules found themselves in an occasional bog, from which they had to be extricated. Once we were up to our necks in mud and slime … a mule disappeared over the precipice several thousands of feet beneath us, and we nearly lost our Transport Officer in much the same manner. But he was a Sergeant-Major, and just knew how to pull himself together and address the mule in terms only Sergeant-Majors know how.”
It appears that Fletcher did not in fact hold the British Army officer rank of Major. As to the alleged stay at a monastery at Shigatse, this would doubtless have been in reference to the Tashilhunpo Monastery. The historic and culturally important monastery is next to Shigatse, the second-largest city in Tibet, the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, and home to around 4,000 monks. But the chances of a westerner gaining admittance at the Tashilhunpo Monastery, staying there for a year, and also obtaining ordination, are doubtful. Neither Knight nor McGovern (the latter of whom had knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and culture, and at the age of 20 earned a divinity degree from a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, Japan) mention that Fletcher had done so. The Panchen Lama, (2) the second highest dignitary in Tibet, would not have been impressed by Mr Fletcher, nor by the fact that the expedition team, on reaching the city of Gyangste, were declined permission to enter Lhasa and ordered to return to India. The mission was a failure—though the enterprising McGovern later managed to enter the ‘forbidden city’ through the back door, so to speak, and also visited Shigatse along the way. (3) McGovern states (1924: 59): “Consequently Knight, Fletcher, and Harcourt immediately returned to India by the same way by which we had come …” McGovern and Ellam “remained in Gyangtse a short time longer in order to send in a further petition to the Lhasa authorities, asking that they reconsider their decision and allow us to come to the Forbidden City or, failing this, that we be permitted to visit Shigatse.” But the requests were declined and both men returned to India.
Once back in Darjeeling, William McGovern revealed to his four English friends his plans to enter Tibet alone. “This led to tremendous discussion, but in the end the proposition won favour of all … At first it was proposed that I be accompanied by one of the other members of the late mission, but eventually it was unanimously agreed that I should attempt the task of getting to Lhasa alone, insomuch as I was the only one who could speak Tibetan at all fluently. This meant that I was forced to spend some time in learning from Harcourt the act of cinematography, as I was anxious to secure a film of the Sacred City (1924: 64). Note that Fletcher did not travel with McGovern, who left Darjeeling on January 1923, and he therefore never actually visited the city of Shigatse, let alone remained there for a year as an ordained monk. McGovern again confirms this on his return (1924: 462): “… The next day, April 17, was a most memorable one, because it was then that I reached Darjeeling and rejoined my good friends, Knight, Ellam, and Fletcher.”
Given the above, I am inclined to conclude that Fletcher’s title of ‘Lama Dorje Prajnananda’ is sham. He was certainly not ordained at Shigatse. The likelihood is that Frederick Fletcher returned to England shortly after McGovern arrived back from his solo journey to Lhasa, which confirms Kenneth Hurst’s account of him staying with his parents sometime in 1923. But certainly, in 1926 (some say, 1924) Fletcher was in Burma, where he received Theravada ordination. He had entered a monastery at Mandalay, later transferring to Rangoon. He probably thereafter travelled in India (was this the ‘3-year-long pilgrimage’ referred to in The Age?) where he met Brunton again in 1930. Apart from one lecture tour to England, Canada, and America in 1931, Bhikkhu Prajnananda is said to have lived in Burma as a monk until his death.
It is evident that Brunton had kept in contact with Fletcher, and had arranged to meet him in India, where the latter acted as guide for his friend, and introduced him to Ramana Maharshi. Yet Brunton failed to acknowledge Bhikkhu Prajnananda in his book Secret India, instead preferring to use the character of: a “yellow robed Yogi” called ‘Subrahmanya’, who for seven years was a soldier of “His Majesty the King Emperor,” had “served with the ranks in the Indian Army during the Military campaign,” and who tells Brunton that after the war he was “put into the Military Accounts Department because of my superior intelligence” (1934: 117). Perhaps Brunton was aware that his friend, like himself, was not all that he pretended to be.
To be continued …
1. See Graeme Lyall: “Buddhism and the Future of Humanity”, who states that:
“In 1922, a British expedition set out for Tibet in order to study Tibetan Buddhism. They reached the southern Tibetan city of Shigatse but were refused permission to proceed to the capital Lhasa where they had hoped to meet the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. However, one of their number, Frederic[k] Fletcher, ordained in the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat tradition under the name of Lama Dorje Prajnananda.”
2. In 1924 the 9th Panchen Lama, Thubten Choekyi Nyima, departed for China “after a dispute with the thirteenth Dalai Lama when he sensed that he might face a threat after his own monastery’s monks were prohibited from holding any office in the Central Tibetan government and his officials were locked up in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama was attempting to collect revenue from the Panchen Lama’s estate to cover a fourth of Tibet's military expenses, and to reduce the power of the Panchen Lama, who at the time enjoyed rule over an effectively autonomous region around Shigatse” (Wikipedia).
3. The real star of the expedition was American born William McGovern. The original expedition had succeeded in entering Tibet, but was prevented from going to the sacred city of Lhasa. They all, including Frederick Fletcher, returned to India, arriving in Darjeeling before January 1923. A few weeks afterwards, the intrepid McGovern, who had good knowledge of Tibetan language, customs and Buddhism, ventured again to Tibet, this time alone disguised as a native porter, and succeeded in entering Lhasa. According to Peter Hopkirk (Trespassers on the Roof of the World, 1982: 227–28): “… Dr William Montgomery McGovern of the School of Oriental Studies, in London, disguised as a native caravan porter, had entered Tibet from India and successfully got to Lhasa. He had to sleep in infested cowsheds with other caravan men, live off raw meat, and at times struggle chest-deep through snowdrifts. But in Lhasa illness forced him to drop his disguise and confess his presence to the authorities. While they were deciding on his fate, word got around that there was a trespasser in town. Soon a large crowd had gathered outside the house whhe was lodging, shouting ‘death to the foreigner’ and hurling sticks and stones at the windows. Fortunately none of the mob knew what he looked like, so before they could force their way into the house he managed to escape, still disguised, through a side door. Making his way to the back of the crowd, he tells us in his book To Lhasa in Disguise, he joined it for a while. ‘Not to be outdone by the others, I occasionally let out a yell myself, and to make things very realistic picked up a small stone and threw it at my own window.’ By now the authorities had troops positioned to rescue him if the crowd broke into the house, but by evening the mob had drifted away and he was able to return home from the Tibetan official’s house where he had found shelter.… McGovern was allowed to remain in the holy city under house arrest for the best part of a month while he recovered from dysentery and what appears to have been pneumonia.… Finally, after an audience with the Dalai Lama, and being pardoned by the authorities, he left for India with an armed escort.” William McGovern states (1924: 8) it was the “Lhasa monks” who lead the riot against him, “and the civil government, in an attempt to protect my person, was forced to declare me a prisoner of the state until the popular clamour had subsided.”
Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro