Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Paul Brunton and Meher Baba: In Search of Brunton’s Secret – Part Two

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