Sunday, 24 February 2013

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

 Secret India: 2

The three travellers, Meher Baba’s brother Jal Irani, Bhikkhu Prajnananda and Paul Brunton left Meherabad late November to visit the places suggested by Baba. En route to Poona in order to meet Hazrat Babajan the trio made a brief stop at Bombay, where Brunton recounts in his book Secret India (1934: 62–63) that he met an elderly Parsi known as Khandalawalla, a former Judge, who provided him with a brief background regarding Babajan’s life. She “is a native of Baluchistan, that vague territory situated between Afghanistan and India, and she ran away from home quite early. After long and adventurous wanderings afoot, she arrived at Poona about the beginning of this century and has never moved from the city since. At first, she made her home under a neem tree, where she insisted on remaining in all seasons. Her reputation and sanctity and strange powers spread throughout the Muhammedan people in the vicinity, until even the Hindus came to treat her with great reverence. Some Muhammedans eventually built a wooden shelter under the tree for her, since she refused to live in a proper house. This gives her the semblance of a home and provides some protection against the inclemencies of the monsoon season. I ask the Judge for his personal opinion. He replies that he does not doubt that Hazrat Babajan is a genuine faqueer.”

During the meeting with Khandalawalla, the latter had informed Brunton that he had known Hazrat Babajan “for fifty years, and that her age is really about ninety-five,” which was in contrast to the higher estimates. According to Kevin Shepherd (A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan, 1986: 77–78, nn. 52, 54): “That Khandalawalla had known Babajan for as long as fifty years is questionable; though it need not be doubted that he had encountered her by the time of her second visit to Bombay c. 1900 … The general computation of her age was about 120 years, though some maintained that it was in excess of this. [Charles] Purdom cited an approximate date of 1790 for her birth, though Dr [Abdul] Ghani was of the view that she was born later than this. Ghani’s estimate of her age was 125, based on general reminiscences and his own contact with her. In deference to critical tendencies which find the higher estimates indigestible, there seems every ground to believe that the subject was over a hundred by the time of her death.” (1)

Khandalawalla told Brunton he felt that Meher Baba “is honest and really believes in his spiritual attainment.” But he was less enthusiastic about Upasni Maharaj, whom he debunked. Upasni is said to have told the Judge’s son-in-law, who was thinking of going on the Bombay Stock Exchange, that such a move would prove extremely fortunate for him. Acting on his advice Khandalawalla’s son-in-law was almost ruined. Doubtless the austere and ascetic Upasni, who possessed nothing but the gunny sack he used to cover his lower body with, would have considered the financial loss a most fortunate and important lesson for the young man. But this was lost on the affluent Khandalawalla whose son-in-law had sought from Upasni Maharaj of Sakori, whom Brunton states Meher Baba had described as “one of the greatest spiritual personalities of this age,” advice about financial gain.

 Though Brunton had included the brief meeting with Hazrat Babajan in Secret India, he excluded references to other localities specified by Meher Baba. After leaving Poona, and following Baba’s itinerary of places to visit, the trio were warmly received by various devotees of Baba at Panchgani, Kolhapur, and Bijapur. At Hubli, Jal Irani parted company with the two Englishmen, being under instruction to rejoin Baba at Meherabad. Brunton and Prajnananda continued on to Madras, where they had made arrangements to stay with more followers of Meher Baba.

Arriving in Madras on 2 December, 1930, the two travellers became guests of the Meher Asramam in Saidapet, home of the Meher League. Here they received the same warm hospitality which previous devotees had accorded them. Their hosts were C V Sampath Aiyengar and his daughter V T Laksmi, both of them well-educated Hindus who accomplished humanitarian work under Baba’s auspices. An article by K J Dastur in the Meher Message, published in 1931 before the defection of Brother Raphael Hurst (Paul Brunton) became known, provides a revealing insight into what occurred during Brunton’s stay at the ashram. It is evident that he was considered a follower of Meher Baba, and on the afternoon of 7 December the members of the League held a meeting under the chairmanship of Aiyengar. At four pm an address was given at the ashram in honour of the two English guests:

“To Raphael Hurst Esq., Bhikkhu Prajnananda.
Dear Brothers,

We, the members of Meher League, approach you with feelings of fellowship, and offer our heart-felt welcome to you in our midst. We look upon this, your first visit to this place, as a unique event in the history of this asramam which was opened by our master [Meher Baba] …

We welcome you, brother Raphael Hurst, as the founder of the Meher League in England. Your sincere words, ‘Our hearts are with every one of you who are serving the master’s cause [i.e., Baba’s cause] in India. Brotherly greetings to every devotee,’ are ringing in our ears … We earnestly request you convey our fraternal greetings to our comrades in the West. We pray that under the benign care and guidance of the master and with your co-operation, that influences for good may unceasingly flow from this asramam … May the master give you long life to accomplish this work.”

According to Kevin Shepherd’s account (Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, 1988: 149–150): “Nor was this all.… Bhikkhu Prajnananda then delivered a lecture on ‘Sri Meher Baba and his Work.’ This [alleged] ex-Major of the British Army possessed something of an oratorical eloquence, and spoke of the depth of Baba’s inner activity which the latter was silently engaged upon. Prajnananda said that his personal contact with Baba had convinced him that the world would eventually be bettered by Baba’s influence, and that his present followers were fortunate to be connected with him. Prajnananda appealed to the audience to accomplish their part of the ‘work’ with one-pointedness.

Not to be outdone, Raphael Hurst, alias Paul Brunton, then lectured on the meaning of life. The Meher Message specifically states that he related a few of his ‘personal telepathic experiences’ in connection with Meher Baba. These were emphasized as contacts transcendent of normal consciousness. Further, Brunton said that Baba was immersed in the highest state of God-consciousness every moment, and that he functioned in all invisible worlds.”

After about a fortnight at the ashram Brunton and Prajnananda left Madras. At some point they made a brief excursion from Madras to nearby Tiruvannamalai, a small town near to which was the ashram of Ramana Maharshi (d. 1950), a figure who did not, during that first meeting, loom large upon Brunton’s horizons. A record of the meeting of Brunton and Prajnananda with Ramana Maharshi was published in the September 1931 monthly magazine, Peace, the journal of the Swami Omkar Shanti Ashrama in Andhra Pradesh, which I include below:

 “It was half past four in the afternoon and the disciples were sitting before the Maharshi in the hall and were talking about a notification that had appeared in the dailies [newspapers] to the effect that a Mr. Hurst and a Buddhist Bhikshu were intending to visit the Ashrama. The clock struck five and there entered the hall a man in European costume, bearing a plate of sweets and followed by a Buddhist monk. The visitors offered the sweets to the Maharshi and then, after making obeisance in the Eastern way, they both squatted on the floor before him. These were the visitors of whom the disciples had been talking. The man in English clothes was H Raphael Hurst [Paul Brunton], a London journalist who was then on a visit to India. He was keenly interested in the spiritual teaching of the East and thought that by an intelligent study and appreciation of it the cause of cooperation between East and West might be greatly promoted. He came to Sri Ramanasramam after visiting many other ashramas. The Bhikshu who came with him was also an Englishman by birth. He was formerly a military officer but was known as Swami Prajnananda. He was the founder of the English Ashrama in Rangoon. Both visitors sat spellbound before Maharshi and there was pin-drop silence. The silence was broken by the person who had brought the visitors, asking them if they would like to ask any questions.

They were, however, not in a mood to do so, and thus an hour and a half passed. Mr Hurst then stated the purpose of his visit. In a voice of intense earnestness he said that he had come to India for spiritual enlightenment. ‘Not only myself,’ he added, ‘but many others also in the West are longing for the Light from the East.’ The Maharshi sat completely indrawn and paid no attention. One of those who were sitting there asked them if they had come to the East for a study of comparative religions. ‘No,’ the Bhikshu replied, ‘we could get that better in Europe. We want to find Truth; we want the Light. Can we know Truth? Is it possible to get Enlightenment?’ The Maharshi still remained silent and indrawn, and as the visitors wanted to take a walk, the conversation ended and all dispersed. Early next morning the visitors entered the hall and put some questions to the Maharshi with great earnestness. The conversation reproduced below is from rough notes taken while it was going on.

Bhikshu: We have travelled far and wide in search of Enlightenment. How can we get it?

Maharshi: Through deep enquiry and confident meditation.
Hurst: Many people do meditate in the West but show no signs of progress.

Maharshi: How do you know that they don't make progress? Spiritual progress is not easily discernible.

Hurst: A few years ago I got some glimpses of the Bliss but in the years that followed I lost it again. Then last year I again got it. Why is that?

Maharshi: You lost it because your meditation had not become natural (sahaja). When you become habitually inturned the enjoyment of spiritual beatitude becomes a normal experience.

Hurst: Might it be due to the lack of a Guru?

Maharshi: Yes, but the Guru is within; that Guru who is within is identical with your Self.

Hurst: What is the way to God-realization?

Maharshi: Vichara, asking yourself the ‘Who am I?’ enquiry into the nature of your Self.

Bhikshu: The world is in a state of degeneration. It is getting constantly worse, spiritually, morally, intellectually and in every way. Will a spiritual teacher come to save it from chaos?

Maharshi: Inevitably, when goodness declines and wrong prevails He comes to reinstate goodness. The world is neither too good nor too bad; it is a mixture of the two. Unmixed happiness and unmixed sorrow are not found in the world. The world always needs God and God always comes.

Bhikshu: Will He be born in the East or the West?

The Maharshi laughed at the question but did not answer it.

Hurst: Does the Maharshi know whether an Avatar already exists in the physical body?

Maharshi: He might.

Hurst: What is the best way to attain Godhood?

Maharshi: Self-enquiry leads to Self-realization.

Hurst: Is a Guru necessary for spiritual progress?

Maharshi: Yes.

Hurst: Is it possible for the Guru to help the disciple forward on the path?

Maharshi: Yes.

Hurst: What are the conditions for discipleship?

Maharshi: Intense desire for Self-realization, earnestness and purity of mind.

Hurst: Is it necessary to surrender one's life to the Guru?

Maharshi: Yes. One should surrender everything to the Dispeller of Darkness. One should surrender the ego that binds one to this world. Giving up body-consciousness is the true surrender.

Hurst: Does a Guru want to take control of the disciple's worldly affairs also?

Maharshi: Yes, everything.

Hurst: Can he give the disciple the spiritual spark that he needs?

Maharshi: He can give him all that he needs. This can be seen from experience.

Hurst: Is it necessary to be in physical contact with the Guru, and if so, for how long?

Maharshi: It depends on the maturity of the disciple. Gunpowder catches fire in an instant, while it takes time to ignite coal.

Hurst: Is it possible to develop along the path of the Spirit while leading a life of work?

Maharshi: There is no conflict between work and wisdom. On the contrary, selfless work paves the way to Self-knowledge.

Hurst: If a person is engaged in work it will leave him little time for meditation.

Maharshi: It is only spiritual novices who need to set aside a special time for meditation. A more advanced person always enjoys the Beatitude whether he is engaged in work or not. While his hands are in society he can keep his head cool in solitude.

Bhikshu: Have you heard of Meher Baba?

Maharshi: Yes.

Bhikshu: He says that he will become an Avatar in a few years.

Maharshi: Everyone is an Avatar of God. ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.’ Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna, all are in you. One who knows the Truth sees everyone else as a manifestation of God.

Bhikshu: Will the Maharshi make a statement about Meher Baba?

Maharshi: What statement? That (the existence of an outer Avatar) is a question which seekers of Truth need not consider.

Bhikshu: Will the world be rejuvenated?

Maharshi: There is One who governs the world and it is His business to look after it. He who has created the world knows how to guide it also.

Bhikshu: Does the world progress now?

Maharshi: If we progress the world progresses. As you are, so is the world.
Without understanding the Self what is the use of understanding the world?
Without Self-knowledge, knowledge of the world is of no use. Dive inward and find the treasure hidden there. Open your heart and see the world through the eyes of the true Self. Tear aside the veils and see the divine majesty of your own Self.” See

 It is worth noting, having only recently spoken of his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in connection with Meher Baba to fellow members of the Meher League, in Secret India Brunton now claims (1934: 162–63) that during a further meeting with Ramana Maharshi before leaving the ashram to continue his tour:

“There comes a perceptible change in the telepathic current which plays between us, the while my eyes blink frequently but his remain without the least tremor. I become aware that he is definitely linking my own mind with his, that he is provoking my heart into that state of starry calm which he seems perpetually to enjoy. In this extraordinary peace, I find a sense of exaltation and lightness. Time seems to stand still.…What is this man’s gaze but a thaumaturgic wand … Suddenly, my body seems to disappear, and we are both out in space!”

Paul Brunton would of course later become associated with Sri Ramana, and is described by the Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology as “one of the first Europeans to draw attention to Sri Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai, South India.” Yet, following the publication in 1934 of Brunton’s Secret India, he was subsequently banned in March 1939 by Sri Ramana’s brother from visiting the ashram. This was apparently because Brunton had not obtained permission to write about Ramana Maharshi, nor had he given any profits from the book to the ashram. Though there appear to have been other issues involved. According to David Godman, the original version of the manuscript for the book Talks with Ramana Maharshi, first published in three volumes beginning in 1935 up through 1939, contained a record of Brunton getting banned. However, the whole subject surrounding Brunton being banned was deleted prior to publication. Godman has now published the original transcripts that show the undeleted version on pages 191-94 in his Living by the Words of Bhagavan. Brunton would later comment that he had used Sri Ramana in his books simply as a ‘peg’ for his own theories of meditation. For a useful analysis of the controversial relationship between Brunton and Sri Ramana, see Part Three of the excellent ‘Studies Related to Paul Brunton’ by Dr J Glenn Friesen at

Following his stay at the Sri Ramanasramam, Brunton returned to Madras, and then left for Calcutta intent on visiting the Ramakrishna Math, where he was fortunate to meet the aged Mahendranath Gupta (Mahasaya), who was one of the few surviving pupils of Ramakrishna (d. 1886). He went alone, as Prajnananda had become unwell and could not accompany him. From Calcutta, Brunton wrote the following letter to Meher Baba on 30 December, 1930, which has now been made public by the Avatar Meher Baba Trust Archives:

“Dear Baba

I received a telegram from Vishnu [a disciple and secretary for Meher Baba] on my arrival here yesterday and hear you want me to write about the tour. Well I sent an account to [K J ] Dastur 2 weeks ago, and no doubt he will show it to you, if you ask him. Since then I left Madras and went South and later returned to Madras and so on to here.

Now I am camping on with the tour but had to make alterations.

First the Bhikkhu Prajnananda become ill and irritable and had to have doctor’s attention. He is fairly well now again, but it was the travelling which does not suit him: he wants to rest since he came all the way from Burma. So at his request I wrote 2 letters to you to ask permission to leave out some of the places on our list, so he should have less journeys to make. You were away so Dastur said I should act as seemed best. So I omitted going to the extreme South (viz Rameswarm, Madural and Mysore), we did however visit Tiruvannamalai instead. Then the Bhikkhu asked me if I could finish the tour myself, and I agreed that I was now so accustomed to Indian travelling conditions that I could quite easily carry on myself henceforth. So at his request I left him at Madras, just before I left for Calcutta 2 or 3 days ago. I gave him sufficient money for all his needs and he has gone to some place near Tiruvannamalai until I complete my tour when he will come later to Nasik.

At Madras we were very kindly treated by all the friends there. We did what we could there also, and 12 new members joined the Meher League as a result. Also I interested certain people in you and they will visit you when you next come to Saidapet: They include the Assistant Editor of the Hindu newspaper: K S Venkatapamani, the author: The Principal of Government College, Kumakonam and others.

As regards the academy: I was unable to do anything for this until we reached Madras owing to the hurry. Here I broached the matter and it was brought to the attention of the public meeting of 100 people we addressed there. Mr Aiyenger [Sampath] also said he would see about getting them all to contribute a little each one, so I have left it to him.

[The ‘academy’ had been advertised in the Meher Message, and refers to a proposed Spiritual Academy “for young spiritual aspirants of all castes, creeds and colours.” It was intended for “spiritually-minded youths who are not less than eighteen and not more than thirty years of age, and who are not married.”]

My experience shows me the following: that it is difficult to approach anyone who is not a devotee of your Holiness. They are not going to support financially any such academy unless they are your followers. So it limits my efforts down to your own devotees. Again among these the poor can contribute very little if at all. So again one is narrowed down to the narrow circle of well-off devotees. But as I do not know their names I am unable to find them out. I wrote to Dastur and asked for a few names I could call on during the tour but he forgot to send them.

So you see I am rather pessimistic about raising the money in India. In the west it would be naturally be easier for me, as I am known there, but here I am a stranger. However I have written to Max Gysi [who knew Meredith Starr and had visited the Devonshire retreat in 1929 or 1930] and made a proposition to him. When I saw him last he was going to spend 1,350 rupees on a certain object which I regarded as foolish so I have written in such a manner as to try to convince him to spend the money on the spiritual academy. I believe he will very likely agree to this. I am waiting for his answer which I suppose will arrive from America, just before I reach Nasik. Western Subscribers, it is necessary for me to go to them personally, so I must leave that until I return to Europe. I am thinking that it will be difficult for me to bear the heat if I stay in India so long as I first intended and perhaps it will be necessary for me to go back not later than April 1st. Somehow the food does not agree with me also. However I must leave all that for later on.

As I am only just arrived in Calcutta I do not know the possibilities here but shall stay a few days.

I want to ask whether it would be possible for me to be permitted to arrive at Nasik one week earlier than we first arranged: that is instead of Feb 1st I arrive January 21st or 22nd. Please let me know and I will act accordingly. In this case I would omit one or 2 purely sightseeing places on my remaining trip.

It is difficult to find time to meditate on this tour, so I trust to make up for this omission.

I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands; I need it if I am to go back to the West with any message for their materialistic minds.

Will you please write to me at the Calcutta address. The letter will reach me even if I leave but I shall stay till the end of this week certain.

In humble devotion
Yours sincerely
Raphael Hurst”

The above letter makes plain that Brunton was not only following an itinerary of places to visit suggested by Meher Baba, but was also engaged in specific tasks of requested service such as raising funds for the proposed Academy and seeking new, and possibly influential, members for the Meher League. How Brunton approached those tasks would have been important. It is not clear whether or not he was asked to visit Tiruvannamalai, where the Sri Ramanasramam was located. According to Bhau Kalchuri, Meher Baba never met Ramana Maharshi nor had any communication with him, though Baba once commented that he was a genuine saint” (Meher Prabhu, 1986: 1359, note).

In Secret India Brunton recounts that during his stay at the Meherabad ashram, Meher Baba “informs me that within a few months he will be in residence at his central headquarters, which are situated near the town of Nasik. He suggests that I should visit him there and stay a month.” According to Brunton, Baba communicated: “Do this. Come when you can. I will give you wonderful spiritual experiences and enable you to know the real truth about me. You will be shown my inner powers. After that, you will have no more doubts” (1934: 62). In the letter from Brunton to Baba quoted above, he writes, “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands.” The implication being that he took Baba’s words literally as he deemed himself a suitable candidate for enlightenment.  Earlier, Baba is said to have stated, “Go to the West as my representative! Spread my name as that of the coming divine messenger. Work for me and my influence, and you will be working for the good of mankind.” But Brunton’s response was, “nothing short of working a series of miracles will convince the West that anyone is a spiritual superman, let alone a messiah, and since I cannot perform miracles I cannot undertake the job of being his herald.” Baba replied: “Stay with me and I shall confer great powers on you … I will help you to obtain advanced powers, so that you will render services in the West” (1934: 61). This encounter is said to have occurred at Meherabad prior to Brunton’s stay at the Meher Asramam in Saidapet as a distinguished guest who had formed (or was arranging to form) the Meher League in England. Brunton had already presented himself to the Meher League as a representative of Meher Baba, and also claimed personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in relation to Baba. It was clearly the talk of “wonderful spiritual experiences” and “powers” which was to lure him to Nasik, and not service to Meher Baba, or the promotion of the Meher League’s ideal of universal brotherhood.

It has been astutely observed by Kevin Shepherd (1988: 152–153): “There is little doubt from the overall body of facts on Brunton at this stage in his career that he was very preoccupied with ‘telepathic messages’ of Meher Baba and other extra-dimensional occurrences. His contacts with yogis and faqirs attest Brunton’s fascination with paranormal phenomena, and he clearly believed that it was possible to gain ‘powers,’ known in India as siddhis, a customary yogic preoccupation. Brunton was quite ready to talk about his telepathic experiences in a way that caused devotees of Meher Baba to exalt him accordingly. It is worth observing here that Baba is known to have frequently expressed a low rating of persons disposed to seek ‘wonders’ among the sadhu population of India, since the attendant overload of superstition and cultivation of siddhis were deemed by him as harmful to serious aspirants.… If Meher Baba was anything of a psychologist (as the evidence does strongly indicate), then he would have perceived typical traits in Brunton of the ‘siddhis’ mentality, i.e., a desire for occult powers and attributes of greatness. Since such people are in general unfit for discipleship, he would have done the next best thing possible: teach the candidate for honours a necessary lesson.”

In Secret India Brunton wants the reader to believe that he left for Nasik with doubts in his mind (1934: 253): “I do not believe the Parsee messiah can keep the extraordinary promises of wonderful experiences which he has made to me; but because I have agreed to spend a month near him, I think my pledge is not to be lightly broken. So, against every instinct and all judgement, I take train for Nasik, that he may not accuse me of never having given him the chance to prove his alleged powers.”

But that statement is contrary to the letter he wrote to Meher Baba from Calcutta on 30 December, 1930, where he writes optimistically: “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands; I need it if I am to go back to the West with any message for their materialistic minds.” As Shepherd rightly suggests (1988: 152):

“The real ‘secret’ of Brunton’s sojourn in India was locked up in the Nasik ashram, and left padlocked by journalistic preferences of retrospect. (2)

To be continued …


1. Hazrat Babajan died in the Char Bawdi area of Poona on 21 September, 1931. On Wednesday, 23 September, the Evening News of India reported ‘Poona’s Homage to Famous Muslim Woman Saint’: “The Muslim community in Poona has been greatly moved by the death of the famous saint Babajan. It is claimed that she was 125 years of age, and the possessor of magical powers in addition to her powers of insight into the future. Her funeral yesterday … was very largely attended with thousands of people both Muslim and Hindus taking part in the procession.” According to one account: “Her funeral procession was a tremendous affair, never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona” (Ghani, 1939: 38). On hearing of her death, Meher Baba, who was then in England, sent a telegram to Dr Abdul Ghani directing him to donate four thousand rupees on his behalf toward erecting Babajan’s marble tomb. The small one roomed marble dargah (shrine) was built alongside the neem tree under which she sat for so many years, by the roadside which is now a busy and noisy thoroughfare.

 2. Brunton’s record of the interviews he had with Meher Baba cannot be regarded as a verbatim report, but simply as a retrospective narrative influenced by subsequent events, i.e., according to Shepherd (1988: 241, n. 212): “In April 1932, English reporters dubbed Baba in the British newspapers as the ‘Indian Messiah’, which seems to have lent accentuation to the journalism in Secret India, since Baba was commonly accepted in India only as a sadguru.” The term ‘Messiah’ used by Brunton in Secret India would therefore not have been current at either the Meherabad or Nasik ashrams during his stay. Brunton confirms in his posthumously published Notebooks (1987: 226, 6:171) that he did not start work on Secret India until around early 1933: “It was only after nearly two years which were needed to get rid of the blackwater fever which India dragged me down that I was able to begin work on A Search in Secret India.”

Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro