Sunday 27 January 2013

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

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