Saturday, 23 March 2013

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

In A Search in Secret India, Paul Brunton wants the reader to believe that he is a journalist simply intent upon discovering the “real facts” about the Yogis of India (1934: 16):

“I wanted gather the real facts about the Yogis of to-day by the method of first-hand investigation. I prided myself that experience as a journalist fitted me to draw out, with the least possible delay, much of the information which I sought; that sitting at the editorial desk and curtly wielding the blue pencil had trained me to become ruthlessly critical in separating wheat from chaff; and that the contact with men and women in every grade of life which the profession generally gives, with ragged mendicants as well as well-fed millionaires, would help me move a little more smoothly though the variegated masses of India, among whom I searched for those strange men, the Yogis.”

Let us here briefly review some of the real facts Brunton omitted to mention in Secret India:

  • Probable contact with Meredith Starr, a follower of Meher Baba who at the time ran a retreat in Devonshire, England, dedicated to Baba.
  • Reading an article about Meher Baba in the Occult Review.
  • Correspondence with Khaikhushru J Dastur, who had written the above article along with a booklet in English about the subject, and also edited the Meher Message.
  •  “… became one of Baba’s ardent enthusiasts, and … filled several pages of the Meher Message with encomiums” (Ward Parks, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West, 2009: 223).
  • The intention to write a book about Meher Baba.

Then, having arrived in India:

  • Was provided with an itinerary of places to visit by Meher Baba. (1)
  • Accommodated for the large part of his brief tour by Meher Baba’s followers.
  • Undertook two tasks of service (donations for the proposed Academy and new members for the Meher League) connected with Meher Baba.
  • Was an honoured guest at a meeting of the Meher League; welcomed as the founder of the Meher League in England; and spoke of his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in relation to Meher Baba.
  • Spent just several weeks touring India after leaving the Saidapet Asramam in Madras.
  • Complained about the heat, the food, and his inability to meditate in a letter to Meher Baba.

Brunton’s Secret India cannot be compared to, say, a book that was published nearly thirty years earlier, The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India: A Study of Sadhuism, with an Account of the Yogis, Sanyasis, Bairagris, and other strange Hindu Sectarians, by John Campbell Oman. Unlike the academic author of that work, Brunton was merely a ‘freelance journalist’ who not only exhibited a phantasy prone personality throughout his life, but also had a background of interest in the occult and paranormal. He even claimed to have possessed ‘psychic’ powers (see post Paul Brunton: Early Years). He had travelled to India engaged in a personal spiritual quest and not for academic research, despite the later fictitious claim that he held a doctorate of philosophy. In his posthumously published Notebooks he acknowledges (1997: 234, 6:214): “the bulk of my writing is only journalism in book form.” But can Secret India even be accepted credibly as journalism? In a new Preface to that book in 1967, Brunton wrote “… I still fully affirm the fundamental truth of this work.” Yet there are plainly fictional embellishments to be found in Secret India along with the intent to deceive the reader. Certainly, the chapters on Meher Baba now appear to be a hatchet job written by an affronted ex-enthusiast. (2)

Secret India: 3

Not satisfied with his (real or imaginary) personal ‘telepathic’ encounters with Meher Baba, Brunton clearly wanted something far more tangible. When he left the Meherabad ashram to embark on his brief tour, he informs the reader (1934: 61): “I have imbibed sufficient pious wisdom and prophetic forebodings to suffice me for the time. I have not wandered to distant parts of the world merely to hear religious assertions or declarations of grandeur. I want facts, even if they are to be facts of a strange, uncommon kind. And I want reliable evidence; better still, something personal, something to which I can testify for my own satisfaction”—in effect, Brunton wanted a miracle, a demonstration of paranormal powers.

Brunton’s tour of India had so far taken just eights weeks to accomplish, several of which were spent based at the Saidapet Asramam in Madras, home of the Meher League. Bemoaning the heat, the food, and the inability to meditate in his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, the representative of the Meher League, who had talked publicly about his personal ‘telepathic’ experiences in connection with Baba, arrived at Nasik during the first week of February 1931. In his letter, Brunton had written: “I am looking forward to the near future and to receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands …” But the retrospective narrative of Secret India presents the reader with a quite different attitude (1934: 253):

“Once again I am to see Meher Baba, the Parsee holy man and self-styled ‘new messiah’.

It is with no keen desire that I return to him. The cold serpents of doubt have firmly coiled themselves around my mind, and a strong inner feeling tells me that my proposed stay near him will be a waste of time, and that Meher Baba, though a good man and one living an ascetic life, is unfortunately suffering from colossal delusions about his own greatness.”

He states that on arrival Meher Baba had asked him: “What are you thinking about?” To which the “tired and travel-worn” visitor replies (1934: 254):

“I am thinking of the dozen or more messiahs whom I have discovered in India since I have been here.”

Brunton relates:

“Meher Baba does not seem surprised.

‘Yes,’ he rejoins with fingers moving slickly across his alphabet board, ‘I also have heard of some of them.’

‘How do you explain it?’ I ask innocently.

His forehead contracts into wrinkles, but his mouth smiles in a superior sort of way.

‘If they are honest, then they are mistaken. If they are dishonest, then they are deceiving others. There are holy men who make good progress and then develop spiritual swelled-head. Such a sad state of affairs usually arrives when they have no proper master to advise and guide them. There is a point which is midway along the mystical path which is most difficult to cross; it often happens that the person whose devotions have brought him to this point foolishly believes that he has reached the highest goal. It takes little more for him to imagine himself a messiah!’”

Brunton then turns that explanation around in his narrative and applies it critically to Meher Baba throughout the rest of the chapter derisively titled ‘At the Parsee Messiah’s Headquarters’. The term ‘messiah’ would not have been in use at either the Meherabad or Nasik ashrams, and nor indeed recognized among the various yogis and sadhus that Brunton had encountered on his tour. At the time in question Meher Baba was viewed by his devotees as a sadguru or satguru, a Sanskrit term which means literally: true teacher, a title given specifically to a spiritually enlightened teacher. There is no sensationalism implied, but rather realism based on the Hindu philosophical understanding of the importance of knowledge and that the teacher, guru, is the sacred conduit to self-realization for the disciple. This was apparently lost on Brunton, who would later in a mood of pique introduce the element of sensationalism.

[In the record (see Secret India: 2) of the meeting between Brunton and Prajnananda with Ramana Maharshi, published in the September 1931 monthly magazine, Peace, the journal of the Swami Omkar Shanti Ashrama in Andhra Pradesh, Prajnananda states in relation to Baba: “He says he will become an Avatar in a few years.” If the transcript that talk can be trusted as being a verbatim report then it may well be that on rare occasions, either explicitly or implicitly, Meher Baba had used the term avatar in reference to himself.

But during the brief time Paul Brunton stayed at the Meherabad and Nasik ashrams in late 1930 and early 1931, the term avatar would certainly not have been in general use; Meher Baba was accepted by devotees as a sadguru. Even among Western enthusiasts in the 1930s Meher Baba was simply referred to as the ‘Perfect Master’. The articles and publications of the period confirm this. In 1931, Charles Purdom, then the literary editor of Everyman, wrote an article titled “A Perfect Master.” He would later write a book, published in 1937: The Perfect Master. In an interview with James Douglas, a leading writer and religious editor for the Daily Express in London, on April 9, 1932, Meher Baba is addressed as “Shri Sadguru Meher Baba.” There were two booklets of sayings published in 1933: Shri Meher Baba, the Perfect Master: Questions and Answers and The Sayings of Shri Meher Baba. And even K J Dastur, known for his pompous style of writing, used the heading “Sayings of His Divine Majesty Sadguru Meher Baba” in the pages of the Meher Message.]
In his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, Brunton had written: “It is difficult to find time to meditate on this tour, so I trust to make up for this omission.” But he does not use the opportunity to do so at the Nasik ashram. Instead, he becomes increasingly affronted and resentful.

Bhau Kalchuri writes (Meher Prabhu, Vol. 4, 1973: 1358–59): “Brunton was invited to stay with the men at the ashram in Nasik.… however, Baba usually kept aloof from him. Although Brunton questioned the Master every day, Baba was cool in his reception and their meetings were deliberately kept brief in contrast to the lengthy interviews Baba had granted him at Meherabad.” He was given the extensive diaries of two of Baba’s devotees to read, comprising nearly two thousand pages of loosely written manuscript, mostly composed in English. According to Louis Agostini, who for a three-year period during the 1960s served as Brunton’s mail secretary “… when Paul Brunton first met Meher Baba at Meherabad, he told Baba that he wanted to write a book about him.” Baba is said to have replied “that it was not the time to write anything about him” (Glow International, Feb. 1985). Were the diaries now produced at Nasik because of that request, or was it in order to gauge where his real interests lay?

Brunton was unimpressed and critical of the material that had been presented to him (1934: 255–56):

“The diaries have clearly been compiled in a spirit of blind faith … The two disciples who have kept these diaries are young men with only a fragmentary experience of life beyond their extremely limited circle, but their very naïveté and complete trust in their master have caused them to place on record things which are really uncomplimentary to him.…

I find enough matter, therefore, to feed the doubts which live repressed existences in my mind. I find also that Meher Baba is a fallible authority, a man subject to constantly changing moods, and an egotist who demands complete enslavement on the part of his brain-stupefied followers.”

In that critical frame of mind, he then laments: “Meher Baba seems to be avoiding contacts with me … I wait for the wonderful experiences he promised me, though I never expect them to arrive.… Nothing unusual happens nor do I see anything unusual happening to the other men” (1934: 257). Baba no longer appeared interested in him, was no longer amenable to his questions. This amounted to a rebuff in the mind of Brunton. The disciple of telepathic prowess who arrived at Nasik with the expectation of receiving wonderful experiences was now dwarfed into a mere tiresome and resentful visitor. Deflated, affronted, and minus the desired experiences, Brunton states in his book, “with the passing of the month I announce my impending departure.” In actual fact, contrary to the impression given in Secret India, Paul Brunton had stayed at the Nasik ashram for only a week. Despite his pledge to stay a month, he left Nasik on 8 February, 1931, travelling to Bombay, intending to return to England.

Kevin Shepherd notes (Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, 1988: 154): “[Brunton] would have regarded the Nasik ashram as the climax of his itinerary, not as the damp squib he later wished his readers to think.” It is hardly surprising then, on reaching Bombay, Brunton describes his condition thus (1934: 269, 270):

“When I succeed in arriving there and installing myself in a hotel, I succeed also in falling ill. Cooped up between four walls, tired in mind and sick in body, I begin to develop, for the first time, a pessimistic outlook.… My body is now a weary burden flung on a bed of pain.… I wonder how much longer I can stave off a breakdown.… If my physical and mental condition is bad, my spiritual state is little better. I am disheartened by a sense of failure. True, I have met some men of remarkable attainments and fine character, as well as others who can do amazing things, but I have not settled down to any positive inward recognition that here is the spiritual superman of my quest, the master who appeals to my rationalistic make-up and to whom I can gladly attach myself.… it is a living, first-hand, personal experience which I seek, a spiritual illumination entirely my own and not someone else’s.”

Just before his ship sailed, he received a letter from a follower of Ramana Maharshi, suggesting that he revisit the latter’s ashram. Brunton did not want to return to England bereft of consolation, and so he made the journey to Tiruvannamalai before later returning to England.

It was not “spiritual illumination” but a demonstration by Meher Baba of siddhis (paranormal powers) that Brunton required. He doubtless also hoped to have such ‘powers’ bestowed upon him. According to Charles Purdom, then editor of the Everyman magazine, a literary weekly for the publisher J M Dent: “When the writer, then known as Raphael Hurst, came to see me in London some time after his visit [to India] he said he had no doubt Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hurst, had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not” (The God-Man, 1969: 128).

Brunton had displayed typical Western misconceptions about what constitutes spirituality in the East. And even in later life the lesson he should have learnt from Nasik had still not sunk in. On the subject of yogis and paranormal powers, in 1937 Meher Baba is said to have communicated: 

“The West differs from the East in its ideal of spiritual perfection. The West believes perfection to signify the possession and use of psychic powers.
A yogi can do all the jugglery by using psychic powers. He can abstain from food, go without sleep, leave the body at will, or stop his breathing, et cetera. Spiritually considered, a moral, good man who works in the world selflessly for others is much better and stands higher than many yogis with all their occult powers of performing miracles, which are nothing but jugglery without any spiritual importance at all; because whatever a yogi does is for his own individual self, and hence he is not selfless. He overcomes one illusion by creating another, which differs fundamentally from the teaching and work of a Sadguru …” (see Meher Prahbu, 1994, Vol. 6: 2232).

Shepherd observes: “[Brunton’s] search after paranormal demonstrations had not brought him any fulfilment. Though he does not give the due context, it is evident that the deflation he had experienced at Nasik had made its mark, and was not by any means as casual as the more superficial readers might have thought.… The deflation caused Brunton to turn against his mentor with distinctive venom.… To psychologists, it is quite evident that Brunton had set much store on the possibility of miracles, and that he was acutely piqued when these were not forthcoming. Two major features of his psychology after that time were (a) to cover up the fact that he had been an admirer of Meher Baba to a pronounced degree (b) to give a much lower rating to miraculous elements and instead to assume a critical stance, though not invariably” (1988: 157, 156).

Brunton returned to England in the spring of 1931, but due to “nearly two years which were needed to get rid of the blackwater fever which India dragged me down” he did not start work on A Search in Secret India until early 1933. The events surrounding Meher Baba’s visits to the West in 1931 and 1932; the defection of Khaikhushru J Dastur in 1932, who became one of Baba’s “fiercest public critics”; and the sensationalist Press headlines ‘Indian Messiah’ were to play a decisive part in how Brunton would later express his criticism of Meher Baba in Secret India. (3)


  1. According to Bhau Kalchuri (Meher Prabhu, Vol. 5, 1990: 1610), Meher Baba “told [Paul Brunton] to go on pilgrimage to certain places in India. He did not do that …” The places suggested appear to have had a specific connection to events in Meher Baba’s life and travels. The intent was that Brunton remained mindful and focused on Meher Baba, and not go chasing after various yogis, sadhus and fakirs. It is doubtful that Tiruvannamalai, a small town near to which was the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, would have been part of that itinerary. In his letter to Meher Baba of 30 December, 1930, Brunton writes: “First the Bhikkhu Prajnananda become ill and irritable and had to have doctor’s attention. He is fairly well now again, but it was the travelling which does not suit him: he wants to rest since he came all the way from Burma. So at his request I wrote 2 letters to you to ask permission to leave out some of the places on our list, so he should have less journeys to make. You were away so Dastur said I should act as seemed best. So I omitted going to the extreme South … we did however visit Tiruvannamalai instead.” There is no mention in the letter of the meeting with Ramana Maharshi.

  1. Included in Paul Brunton’s posthumously published Notebooks is the following: “To become a disciple is to become an enthusiast, one who exaggerates, distorts, or overlooks the real facts. He will grossly misrepresent the true state of affairs because his guide is no longer reason but emotion.” (Notebooks, Vol. 11, 1987: 133, 6:13). Ironically, the above words of the ex-enthusiast can be used to provide a most fitting and truthful review of the chapters he wrote on Meher Baba in Secret India.

  1. Louis Agostini relates: in the “very last letter which [Paul Brunton] wrote to me from Auckland, New Zealand … he stated that he felt that his original statements about Meher Baba had been written by another person and that certainly if he had to do it over again, he would write differently ((Glow International, Feb. 1985). But Brunton never did publicly rectify his misrepresentation of Meher Baba in Secret India. His distorted portrait of Meher Baba remains influential to this day.

 Copyright © 2013 Stephen J Castro