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
Tuesday, 1 January 2013
The brief biography of Meher Baba’s early life below is simply intended, as with the previous posting ‘Paul Brunton: Early Life’, to set the scene, so to speak. Both entries function as a necessary background for the understanding of events to be later recounted. In addition I have focused on Hazrat Babajan in the text because she was such a pivotal figure in Meher Baba’s early life. Also, during Paul Brunton’s stay in India he was clearly emotionally affected following his brief meeting with her, and had reflected afterwards in his hotel room (1934: 64–65): “That some deep psychological attainment really resides in the depths of her being, I am certain. Respect rises unbidden within me. I find that the contact has diverted my normal thought currents and raised up an inexplicable sense of that element of mystery which surrounds our earthy lives, despite all the discoveries and speculations of the scientists. I see with unexpected clarity that those scientific writers who profess to reveal the fundamental secrets of the great world puzzle, profess what is nothing more than surface scratching. But I cannot understand why a brief contact with the woman faqeer should so sap at the very base of my confident mental certainties.” Brunton’s critique of Meher Baba hinges on his ‘hypothesis’ that “Hazrat Babajan, did really create an upheaval in Meher Baba’s character that upset his equilibrium … I believe that Meher Baba has not yet recovered from the first intoxication of his exalted mood, and a lack of balance still exists as a result of the tremendous derangement which occurred to his mental faculties at such an early age.… He shows on the one hand, all the qualities of a mystic—love, gentleness, religious intuition, and so on, but on the other hand he shows signs of the mental disease of paranoia. He exaggerates everything which pertains to his own self” (1934: 258, 259). That of course is what Brunton wanted his readers to believe. This was ironic coming from a man who exhibited a phantasy prone personality throughout his life. During the 1950s, Brunton had spoken of the likelihood of World War III occurring in 1962. At the time he let it be known verbally to his close friends that plunged in a 'yogic trance' he had received a vision of a terrible calamity resulting from nuclear fallout that would befall the world, affecting mostly the Northern Hemisphere. A few chosen disciples were warned to wind up their business affairs in the United States and flee to a safer location. South America was deemed the closest refuge. After getting the prediction embarrassingly wrong, many of his followers “felt abandoned, some even tricked … They had turned their lives upside-down for him, they had destroyed themselves financially to follow his instructions to move to South America” (Masson, 1993: 132). Brunton wrote informing them that he could no longer “get involved in correspondence or answering personal or spiritual questions. He has to be outwardly away and free to attend to his personal assignment which involves the fate of millions. He cannot allow himself to be distracted by the few and they [his followers] should not be so selfish to expect him to” (Hurst, 1989: 153). It is interesting to note that during Brunton’s meeting with Babajan he had asked no questions about Meher Baba, even though it was the latter who had suggested he visit her. And yet according to Bhau Kalchuri, she would openly state: “He is my son, my beloved son. He is the reason why I am here in Poona …” (1986: Vol. 1, 246). The fact is, Brunton merely scratched the surface of Babajan’s “deep psychological attainment” and shows no depth of understanding regarding her association with Meher Baba.
Meher Baba: Early Life
In contrast to Paul Brunton, Meher Baba’s early life is well documented, although there are few biographies written or published outside of the Meher Baba movement. I have therefore chosen to follow the independent scholarly account by the British writer Kevin Shepherd, from his Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications, 1988), rather than rely on published devotee versions. The exceptions being Charles Purdom’s The God-Man (1964) and Tom Hopkinson’s Much Silence (1974). Both writers were British and devotees of Meher Baba, but their books avoid devotional idioms and personality cult emphasis on the ‘Avatar’ theme to be found in the majority of Indian and American accounts of Meher Baba’s life.
Meher Baba was born in Poona (now known as Pune) on February 25, 1894. His name at birth was Merwan Sheriar Irani. His parents were Irani Zoroastrians who had emigrated to India, where they had become part of the Parsi community of Zoroastrians centred in the Bombay-Surat area. His father, Sheriar Mundegar Irani, had been an itinerant dervish for eighteen years, travelling widely in both Iran and (later) India before adopting a sedentary life and marrying. Starting from poverty, he had become a prosperous tea shop proprietor by the time of Merwan’s birth. As a child he had received no education, but later learned to read and write Persian and Arabic, and maintained an outlook on life that was saturated with Sufi ideas and perspectives. Merwan was his second eldest son, and benefited from his father’s acquaintance with Persian classical literature.
Merwan Irani was an intelligent boy and was ensured a good education by his father. According to Purdom (1964: 17), “When five years old he was taken to the Dastur Girls’ School, where he learned to read and write the Gujarati language and the rudiments of arithmetic. At the age of nine he went to the Camp Government English School, where he remained five years. Then he went to St Vincent’s High School (Roman Catholic), considered the best school in Poona.” He had learnt English in accordance with the general Parsi vogue, but did not neglect other languages. He was not only proficient in Persian and Gujarati, but also Urdu, which is related to Persian and spoken by Indian Muslims.
After matriculating successfully from St Vincent’s, Merwan became a university undergraduate at the Deccan College in 1911, at which “Sir Edwin Arnold and other distinguished men had been professors. The finest educational institution in the province, it was one of the few which already, in the days before the First World War, allowed some liberty to its students” (Hopkinson, 1974: 26). He showed a flair for English literature, which was his academic speciality, but his main interests were in Persian and Indian literature. He was familiar with the Sufi works of Rumi and Hafiz, and modelled his own poetic style upon the latter. He wrote much poetry in Persian and vernacular languages. Some of the poems were published in a popular Gujarati newspaper in Bombay under the pseudonym of Huma. He also delighted in music, loved to sing, and was an eager conversationalist.
In addition to athletic capacities at school and college (in particular hockey and cricket), Merwan also exhibited a contemplative disposition, and spent solitary hours at the local Zoroastrian tower of silence and also Muslim cemeteries. In this he was clearly following his father’s precedent, who was the son of the keeper of the Zoroastrian tower of silence, which belonged to his native village and as a boy “spent his days with his father looking after the place to which human corpses are brought to be devoured by vultures” (Purdom, 1964: 15). Sheriar’s influence upon him seems to have been a strong one, and certainly underestimated by most devotees. A useful study of Sheriar Mundegar Irani can be found in Kevin Shepherd’s From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics, Part One: The Life of a Dervish (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications, 1988).
During his college studies, Merwan became strongly linked to Hazrat Babajan. This Muslim woman was reputed to be about a hundred years old, and then had the beginnings of what transpired to be a substantial following in the local area. Of strong Sufi associations, she lived in the same cantonment zone in Poona as Merwan’s family. It has been stated that few within the Meher Baba movement regard her as much more than a ‘curious influence’, but in actual fact Babajan’s influence was a key event in the young man’s life. She would later state that Merwan was the reason why she had come to Poona.
Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931) was a female Pathan (Pastun) Muslim faqir who, after years of travel, finally became resident in Poona around 1905, later becoming a famous and revered figure in the area. According to Dr Abdul Ghani Munsiff (1939: 31), who had known Babajan: “The information gleaned from different sources is meagre, since Babajan herself was never communicative to anyone with regard to her life story.” The accounts of her early life before arriving in Poona should be viewed as largely hagiographic, and read with caution. The sparse documented reports occur after her arrival in Poona.
The earliest recorded account of Babajan’s life available occurred in 1927, when Meher Baba gave a discourse on the ‘Duty of Women’ for about an hour to an audience predominantly comprised of women. This was, perhaps, the first time publicly that he told the story of Hazrat Babajan’s early life, intended as a moral of spiritual aspiration for those present:
“Hazrat Babajan was the daughter of one of the then responsible and chief ministers of the Amir of Afghanistan at Kabul. From her very childhood she had a natural inclination toward spirituality and the realization of Truth. When Babajan was fifteen years of age her parents began to arrange for her marriage … at this juncture she made bold to leave the family home. For fifty years thereafter she led a life of complete resignation and renunciation.
After wandering from place to place for fifty long years she at last came across her Master, and became God-Realized at the age of about sixty-five. After being God-Realized Babajan lived for some time … in the Punjab. During this stay many people began to respect her as a saint. Her occasional remarks, declaring to be God (Ana’l-Haqq, “I am the Truth”) is said to have upset the Muslim population, and some fanatical Baluchi soldiers (sepoys) of a local military regiment buried her alive. But she survived the ordeal and made her way to Bombay.
After a lapse of many years, during the First World War a Punjab regiment was transferred to Poona, along with the same Baluchi sepoys who had buried Babajan. In that city the solders came face-to-face with Babajan sitting under a neem tree at Char Bawdi. Their fanaticism was transformed into devotion, and as long as the regiment remained stationed at Poona, the soldiers came to pay their respects to her.”
Without discounting the component in the narrative regarding the alleged burial, more convincing perhaps is the fact that during the 19th century in India there arose among Muslim soldiers what has been academically termed as ‘barracks Islam’. The soldiers were for the main part rooted in rural cultures but had to spend their lives away from their villages and families in the restricted cantonment. In order to escape the perils of the war, and the insecurities and monotony of the cantonment, they sought the company and protection of faqirs such as Hazrat Babajan, who in turn became patron saints for the soldiers, achieving personality cult status. The shrines of saints became centres for get-togethers, where tea-drinking, along with dancing and singing, proved popular forms of recreation and entertainment for the soldiers and onlookers. During their free time Pathan soldiers would sit near Babajan and virtually guarded her at all hours. See Nile Green, Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion in the Service of the Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
The ‘get-togethers’ are confirmed by an eyewitness account (Ghani, 1939: 34), which mentions that within a decade of Babajan taking residence in Poona “… the [Char Bawdi] locality underwent a metamorphosis surpassing all expectations. What with the featural changes in the buildings all around, electrified tea-shops ringing with the clatter of cups and saucers, a concourse of peoples consisting of all ranks and creeds waiting for Babajan’s darshana, a street bard entertaining the crowd with his music, the beggars clamouring for alms, easy-going idlers standing indiscriminately hampering vehicular traffic and the whole atmosphere heavily laden with sweet burning incense perpetually kept burning near Babajan, presented a scene typically Indian, leaving an indelible impression on one’s memory.”
Following the biography A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications, 1986), by Kevin Shepherd, and also revisions I made some time ago to the Wikipedia article on the subject of Hazrat Babajan (that is, before that article was zealously and ridiculously purged of all references to Kevin Shepherd’s books, see http://www.kevinrdshepherd.info/hazrat_babajan.html), I provide a brief sketch of Babajan’s life up until her residence in Poona:
Hazrat (‘The Presence’) Baba (father) Jan (soul) was born to a Muslim family of ‘noble’ lineage in the early nineteenth century, and named at birth Gulrukh (‘rose-faced’). Her exact date of birth is unknown. Biographical variants range from 1790 to 1820. According to Shepherd (see web page link above): “The earliest accounts differ in describing her geographical origin; Afghanistan and Baluchistan are the two contenders. Perhaps she was born on the Afghan borders near Quetta; the issue is not certain.” Her education was in keeping with her family’s social status, and well-educated, she was fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, in addition to her native Pashtu. Contemplative and religious as a child, she is said to have become a hafiz, one who has learnt the Qur’an by heart.
Following the conventions of that period, Babajan was reared under the strict purdah tradition, in which women were secluded from the outside world, and also subservient to a custom of arranged marriages. She opposed an unwelcome marriage planned for her, and ran away from home on her wedding day. She journeyed to Peshawar, a frontier city at the foot of the Khyber Pass, but nothing is known about her life until her subsequent move to Rawalpindi many years later. It is possible that due to her contemplative disposition she may have attached herself to various Sufi communities, though she does not appear to be linked to any specific orthodox Sufi order, but instead adopted a free and independent itinerant existence.
It was in or near the city of Rawalpindi that she is said to have led an ascetic life for some years, “and may well have ventured into Kashmir to more remote sites that were favoured by dervishes and others” (Shepherd, 1986: 33). She eventually came into contact with a Hindu spiritual guide, and following his instruction went into seclusion in a nearby mountain outside Rawalpindi where she underwent spiritual austerities for what is said to have been seventeen months. Thereafter she came down to the Punjab and stayed a few months in Multan, and here (at the age of thirty-seven) met with a Muslim Sufi adept who further refined her consciousness. After that experience she returned to Rawalpindi to reconnect with the Hindu guide who, after several years, helped her return to normal consciousness. We can speculate here that Babajan was perhaps undergoing the fana-baqa spiritual process whereby the annihilation of ‘self’ (fana) is followed by stabilization (baqa) into a greater reality. Tradition attributes Shaykh Abu Sa’id Ahamd al-Kharraz of Baghdad (d. 899) as “the first Sufi to explain and elaborate the theories of ‘fana’, or the soul’s annihilation in God, and ‘baqa’, or the soul’s subsistence in God. According to this school of thought, soul’s annihilation means the mystic’s obliteration from every kind of knowledge of his phenomenal existence and individual qualities. Subsistence of the soul denotes knowledge of eternal existence and the seeker’s abiding in God” (Bhatnagar, 1973: 240–41). There are various stages of refinement and Babajan “is said to have been perfected in the (fana-baqa) process of realization at the age of sixty-five. This would mean that twenty-eight years had elapsed since her achievement of fana at Multan” (Shepherd, 1986: 39).
Again, there is a blank in the record as to where Babajan next travelled after the second stay at Rawalpindi. “She is known to have visited Bombay at some unrecorded date, but after only a few months stay she returned once again to the Punjab, residing a number of years at different places in North India. It is evident that she lived as a mendicant” (Shepherd, 1986: 40–41). By around 1900 she was seen again in Bombay, in the Chunna Bhatti locality near Byculla. “She did not remain sedentary, but moved around the teeming metropolis. She made occasional visits to two leading Sufi figureheads in the area, namely Hazrat Maulana Saheb of Bandra and Hazrat Baba Addur-Rahman of Dongri. Although both were well-known saints, she would refer to them as ‘my children’” (1986: 43–44). After dwelling in Bombay for a few years, she undertook the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1903 (apparently disguised as a man), and it is possible that she also made a further pilgrimage to the tomb of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Medina. By 1905 she arrived in Poona.
Now an old woman, her back slightly bent, shoulders rounded, white matted hair, and shabbily dressed, Babajan was seen sitting or resting at odd places, in different parts of the city. She finally located to a slum area called Char Bawdi (Four Wells) on Malcolm Tank Road, part of a British Army cantonment. It was under a large neem tree, by a dusty dirt road, that she remained until she died in 1931, though for “some part of the day she used to sit under a banyan tree in the Bund garden looking over the river, to which she would be escorted by her Muslim devotees” (Purdom, 1964: 19). The Char Bawdi area at that time has been described as “a picture of dirt, desolation and ugliness, a breeding spot of plague and pestilence and a regular haunt of dangerous riff-raffs by night” (Ghani, 1939: 33). Babajan was liable to make startling statements to the effect that she was the Truth (Haqq), which offended some of the Muslims living in Poona, and who interpreted her words as blasphemy. Children were in the habit of throwing stones at her. Her speech was largely cryptic, she “did not give any set ‘teaching’; any verbal instruction came in asides or what seemed to be chance utterances” (Shepherd, 1986: 55). She became regarded as a saint by the local Muslim community. Yet the more orthodox would seldom approach Babajan because the Pathan soldiers who guarded her were threatening personages, and the idle beggars who lived off the gifts or money given her by devotees were looked down upon. Yet Babajan’s influence made an impact on the desolate area. It is said that the love emanating from her was so intense that visitors felt pained at leaving her presence. Gradually, out of reverence, or mere curiosity, increasing numbers of people sought her out. They would congregate about her at spare times during the day, and included Muslims and Hindus, together with a number of Zoroastrians.
In May 1913 Merwan began to frequent Babajan’s makeshift abode under the neem tree in Char Bawdi locality. He visited her every evening, but their meetings were almost completely silent. “’I was drawn to her,’ he later said, ‘as steel to a magnet.’ And whenever he spoke of her he would use the words ‘matchless,’ ‘incomparable.’ He often referred to her as ‘Emperor.’ And it is noteworthy that she herself took the name Baba (father) Jan, and would flare up if anyone addressed her as Amma (mother) Jan, since women are held to be the weaker sex and God-realization is not for weaklings” (Hopkinson, 1974: 29).
In January 1914 Merwan’s mother Shirin was horrified to discover early one morning that her son could not speak and was lying in his bed with wide open but vacuously staring eyes. He lay like this for three days to her even greater alarm. She concluded that he was critically ill. She felt some hope when he began to move about of his own volition on the fourth day, but was soon dismayed to realize that he acted like a virtual automaton. She could not even get him to eat any food.
Medical treatment produced no change in his extraordinary condition. It is reliably reported that for nine months he would not eat (unless force-fed) and did not sleep. His mother thought that he had become insane, which is what the doctors assumed. He himself much later commented that his father knew that his condition was not as everyone thought. In his own varied travels Sheriar had doubtless seen strange states of mind exhibited that were known to dervish lore, but the increasingly westernized Parsi community had no knowledge of such experiential tangents and could not credit their existence.
Sherin came to blame Babajan for her son’s strange condition. According to Merwan’s later report, Babajan was in fact the cause of it, but his version of causation was very different to his mother’s. He said later that his inner state had consciously expanded; his mother assumed that he had lost consciousness.
After nine months, his condition changed to some semblance of normality. He began to eat regularly and seemed aware of what was going on around him, but remained strangely indrawn and largely aloof from human contact. According to Hopkinson (1974: 31), Baba later explained that Babajan had given him “God-realization, and that the intensity of his suffering was due to unwillingness to come down into normal consciousness, which was essential for the work he had to do. Babajan herself used to quote Merwan certain Persian lines which mean: ‘Having gained freedom, you have to come back as prisoner (to free others).’” A few months later, in April 1915 he became more physicalized and began to take long walks around the city, followed by excursions to distant places. He visited several figures of Sufi background: Banemiyan Baba of Aurangabad, Tippu Baba of Bombay, Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur, and Sai Baba of Shirdi. He also made contact with the Hindu sage Narayan Maharaj of Kedgaon.
All these contacts were fleeting, and his relatives had little idea of his motivations, since he was not very communicative. But there was one figure that they all had good cause to remember in subsequent years, namely Upasni Maharaj of Sakori. This fierce Hindu guru was a highly atypical holy man, and became Merwan’s supervisor from now on. After their initial encounter in December 1915, Merwan visited Upasni regularly at the latter’s new ashram at Sakori. This relationship lasted for six years. [On Upasni Maharaj, see Kevin Shepherd, Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications, 1986); see also Kevin Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism (Dorchester, Dorset: Citizen Initiative, 2005), pp. 59–104.]
Sherin insisted that Merwan adopt some profession, or at the least take up some business venture. He tried to oblige her, but was unable to remain in employment owing to his acutely introverted state. He ended up working in his father’s toddy shop, for Sheriar was now old and sick. But Merwan was “not a successful shopkeeper, for he could not keep his mind on the business, and was cheated.” He afterwards opened a toddy shop in partnership with his friend Behramji. “The toddy is the sap of the palm tree, a cheap drink, not of strong alcoholic content. [Merwan], however, used to urge his customers, who were largely from the poor of the city, to drink moderately, and often urged them to abstain.… After a year he merely became a sleeping partner, and in the times of the Non-co-operation Movement the toddy shops were picketed as well as liquor shops, and [Merwan] prevailed upon Behramji to dissolve their partnership and close the shop” (Purdom, 1964: 25). Bhau Kalchuri perceptively observes (1986: Vol. 1, 248), during this phase Merwan was still regaining normal consciousness, and “needed to do some menial, but intensely gross, physical tasks—dirty work. He had to do some low-type labour such as cleaning toilets, washing dishes and sweeping floors to increase his gross awareness or worldly consciousness. The objects and the tasks, by the very nature of their grossness, were bringing him down sooner to function normally in the world.”
Merwan again “started to revisit Babajan with whom he would sit for about an hour each evening. He also went almost daily to the Parsi Tower of Silence or wandered on into the jungle beyond, where he would repeatedly knock his head against stones, wrapping his brow with a handkerchief to conceal the bruises from his family. Twice a month he visited Upasni Maharaj” (Hopkinson, 1974: 33). Finally, in mid-1921 Merwan moved from Pune to Sakori to stay with Upasni Maharaj. After several months, Upasni told some of his pupils that Merwan had gained a special prerogative. He told one of his leading disciples, a Zoroastrian named Gustadji Hansotia, that Merwan was “the sadguru of this age,” and that Hansotia should now serve Merwan and not he (Upasni).
By now, Merwan displayed a completely normal demeanour and reflex, but far from reverting to college habits or taking up any profession or business, he chose to lead an ascetic existence in a small hut (jhopdi) on open ground at Poona. Throughout his life he was to display a personal preference for small and rudimentary huts as living quarters. At the Poona jhopdi, he was the focus for a mixed assortment of Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Hindu acquaintances and admirers who began to identify themselves as his followers. For the most part, however, he did not impose on them any form of training or discipline. This he began to do after journeying by foot to Bombay in May 1922; there he accommodated over forty men in the urban dwelling known as Manzil-e-Meem, and presided over a rigorous and distinctive routine in which he asserted his prerogative as the instructor and ‘master’ of the pupils. But he would not align himself with any particular religious or spiritual tradition, not Zoroastrian, Vedantic, or even Sufi. His teaching was already distinctive even at this very early period.
He was now known as Meher Baba (‘compassionate father’) to his devotees. Though he was very easygoing towards women, he was an iron disciplinarian with males, and those in his close proximity soon found that it was not easy to maintain his standards. Many of the men with him found a welcome respite from discipline when he closed the Manzil and departed with only a few selected individuals on a gruelling and unpredictable series of journeys that took him as far afield as the Afghan and Nepalese borderlines. Meher Baba (whom I shall hereafter also refer to as Baba) was no soft-pedaller, and never opted for any easy course as he could very conveniently have done. Instead he commenced his characteristic programme of prolonged fasting in addition to non-luxury travelling and general austere living standards.
The ascetic personal characteristics of Meher Baba received their most well known manifestation in his adoption of complete silence of mouth, commenced in July 1925. He never spoke a single word until his death forty-four years later. This notable personal aloofness from human intercourse was mitigated to some extent by his aura of humour which he managed to mutely project, but the concentrative aspect of his personality was often unduly minimized in devotee reports. In January 1927 he gave up writing, save for his signature, and thereafter employed an (English) alphabet board for the purposes of communication. But this meant that he was often dependent upon the verbal clarifications of others to an extent that should not be ignored.
It is perhaps not entirely surprising that in a man of Meher Baba’s introspective capacity, there were increasing references to his ‘inner work’. Yet some of these statements sound blatantly fantastic even to people who are disposed to concede that there are forms of extra-sensory activity. This feature remains the most problematic one in respect of evaluating him. In the interests of clarification, it should be pointed out that there are recorded instances of his having made an exotic prediction which he afterwards made clear to those concerned as representing a contrived exaggeration which they should have been able to see behind, though the possibility of cognitive dissonance cannot be discounted. That literalists often took him for granted is no reflection upon the fact that he himself was a non-literalist by his own admission..
A few months before commencing his silence, Baba established himself again at a site near Ahmednagar which became known as Meherabad. Initially a small ashram, he now quickly developed it into a sizeable colony of some four hundred inhabitants. The daily and overall emphasis was unusually practical, one of pronounced disciplinarian and humanitarian dimensions. Not only did he undertake personal supervision of the local village untouchables, but he also maintained a (secular) school for boys, fed the poor, and tended lepers with his own hands. Purdom writes (1964: 49):
“Meherabad began to grow; a school, hospital and dispensary were set up and an ashram for lepers and the destitute.… Hundreds of people came regularly to Baba for darshan, and many Mahar amd Mang boys—of the untouchable class—came daily for singing and prayers—also for the sweets that were distributed.… the ‘Meher Charitable Hospital and Dispensary’ was opened, under the charge of a qualified medical officer, to supply medical attendance without charge to all without respect to class or creed.… The Hazrat Babajan school was opened to impart free primary education to the village boys and girls of all classes and creeds, mostly untouchables. Free boarding and clothing were also provided. The school started with about twenty boys, and grew to one hundred and fifty boys and girls. The boys’ and girls’ schools were separate. At first the untouchables were taught apart, but after a few months all were taught together. The vernacular Marathi was taught to the girls, who had a woman teacher; the boys were also taught English.”
This humanitarian penchant was to continue through various phases for many years. Though the Meherabad colony flourished and began to acquire a very favourable reputation in the Deccan, Baba unaccountably closed it down completely at the end of 1926, and even left the site temporarily. He said that his ‘work’ no longer required the colony, and hence the latter had to go. He had already curtailed the inflow of visitors substantially, and was clearly not intent upon accumulating a greater public fame.
A much less popular, though undeniably exceptional, undertaking was actualized at Meherabad the following year when Baba returned to the site. He kept himself aloof from any public limelight and commenced a punishing fast during which he subsisted on liquid only for six months, at the end of which he could not immediately walk properly. During this fast, he confined himself in a small hut, a characteristic aspect of his repeated seclusions. Yet he managed throughout to supervise an educational institution that was perhaps unique of its kind in India at that time. This was the Meher Ashram, which lasted from 1927 to 1929. It numbered over a hundred boys on an inter-religious basis, providing them with free boarding school services. The inmates notably included both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims in addition to Hindus, Mahars (untouchables), and Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians. In addition to a secular curriculum, these boys were given a non-sectarian tuition in mystical and philosophical subjects, and Baba himself strongly contributed to the latter.
Part of the school developed into a specialized faculty known as the Prem Ashram. This was for selected boys who effectively became pupils of Meher Baba and not merely pupils of the secular course. Most of these boys were in their early or mid teens. A contemplative capacity became a pronounced hallmark of these selected individuals, but the two most exceptional instances were two Muslim youths from Iran. Chota Baba Hazrat Abdulla and Aga Ali ibn Haji Muhammad are monograph subjects in their own right, and repay close attention from anyone interested in Sufi states of mind. [For an interesting account of that period, see Ramjoo Abdulla, Ramjoo’s Diaries 1922–1929: A Personal Account of Meher Baba’s Early Work (Walnut Creek, CA. Sufism Reoriented, 1979).]
Even this institution was not permitted to last, however, much to the concern of his disciples. Tom Hopkinson (1974: 45–46) provides an insight into the transitory nature of these various activities. “Baba’s own comment was: ‘Usually a temporary scaffolding is set up around a big building which is under construction, and when the building is completed, the scaffolding is removed. Often my external activities and commitments are only the outward expression of the internal work I am doing. The school, hospital, etc., were but scaffolding for my real work.… Hence, when my work is finished, I have no need of scaffolding.’ Another time he declared: ‘I have not come to establish retreats or ashrams, I create them for the purpose of my … work, only to repeatedly dissolve them once that purpose has been served.’”
In 1929 he undertook a visit to the country of his forebears. He went to several cities in Iran, including his ancestral Yazd where he gained a surprisingly strong recognition from Babis and Bahais. His reception as a whole was very favourable, and the sympathy of the new Pahlavi government for the pre-Islamic Iranian heritage seems to have contributed to this enthusiasm. It is surprising to some that Meher Baba did not exploit this situation more; it is a fact that he desired privacy on this visit and declined offers to arrange a meeting with Reza Shah. Returning to India, Baba switched his headquarters from Meherabad to Nasik, a city in the same zone of Western India.
Meher Baba’s personal routine at his ashrams was invariably strict. He was a vegetarian and teetotaller, and maintained a firm disciplinary environment for those resident with him. They were even forbidden to smoke tobacco, and alcohol was taboo. The men and the women were segregated. The men were largely occupied in routine chores and manual labour. All were vegetarian (though he permitted pupils outside the ashram to eat meat). The ashram routine did not involve any relinquishment of former religious affiliations: Muslims remained Muslims, and Hindus remain Hindus. This was his expressed wish, and he never at any time in his life formulated any sectarian identity for his followers.
His ashram community were referred to as mandali, from the Marathi word mandal, meaning a group, or by extension, the members of a family. This word was not in ashram usage elsewhere. The community wore no distinguishing uniform, and there was a marked absence or ritual observance such as was common in Indian ashrams. He did allow his Hindu followers certain latitude in respect of ceremonial, though restrained by comparison with orthodox norms. His emphases were consistently egalitarian and anti-ritualist.
On 15 November 1930, Meher Baba was in strict seclusion in the ‘Panchvati Cave’, a man made construction that the mandali dug out from the south-eastern side of Meherabad Hill. When work on the eight foot deep cave was completed a tin roof was installed overhead, a carpet spread over the earthen floor, and a canvas hung across the entrance. Whilst in seclusion news reached Baba that a ‘freelance journalist’ named H Raphael Hurst (Paul Brunton) was coming from England for Baba’s darshan and to interview him. Baba apparently had no desire to see Brunton, but nevertheless instructed his secretary to write to a disciple, Adi K Irani in Nasik, informing him to go to Bombay and meet Brunton at the dock, lodge him in a hotel for the night at his own expense, and bring him to Meherabad along with Baba’s brother Jal.
Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro