Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) was born in the Afghan territories at an unknown date. A Pathan, and a Sunni Muslim, she spoke Pashtu, Persian, and Urdu. Her early life transited from the purdah of an aristocratic milieu to the renunciate career of a faqir. Babajan lived in the Punjab for many years, and was reputedly buried alive by fundamentalists who objected to her ecstatic utterances, and also to her public focus as a saint who received worship from local Hindu people.
Obscure journeys brought her south to Bombay, from where she undertook a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in 1903. When Babajan arrived back in India, she moved to Poona, a centre of the British Raj, where a military cantonment existed. She settled in Poona (Pune) by 1905.
Babajan at first lived as a street mendicant in Poona, afterwards staying near a mosque in the suburb of Rasta Peth. Here formed a nucleus of Muslim devotees. The vicinity of the mosque became crowded with her visitors, and eventually she moved on. By circa 1910, she settled permanently at a neem tree in Char Bawdi (Bavadi), on the outskirts of the cantonment.
She demonstrated a rigorous faqir lifestyle, refusing to keep money or other gifts, and declining to acquire possessions or live in comfort. She lived under the tree, sitting on the bare ground, exposed to all weathers. She would only consent to a simple awning made of gunny (sack) cloth. Unlike many other faqirs, Babajan was not an exhibitionist. She did not perform ascetic stunts and dressed in simple attire. Although she is associated with a Sufi outlook, Babajan was not a member of any Sufi order, and did not teach any doctrine.
Persons in this independent category (from official Sufism) were often called majzub. This Persian word generally signified God-absorption. Many different temperaments were represented; in this respect, the label of majzub is very much a blanket term.
The environment at Char Bawdi was initially semi-rural, the adjacent slum area featuring ramshackle buildings. Babajan’s presence strongly contributed to a major upgrading of the locale, which became increasingly urbanised. Motor traffic intensified after the First World War of 1914-18. This was a welcome development to the cantonment authorities. Babajan was the major focus of attention in the area, gaining hundreds of devotees by 1920. The British did not understand why a homeless faqir gained so much esteem.
Amongst the early Muslim visitors were Pathan soldiers (sepoys) from the cantonment barracks. They became her devotees, and acted as bodyguards, providing protection against the intrusion of drunkards and thieves, who at first congregated after nightfall in Char Bawdi. The interlopers soon dispersed. The soldiers became greatly outnumbered by civilian devotees.
The inter-religious nature of Babajan’s following is notable. The majority were Muslims, but Zoroastrians and Hindus were also in evidence. Conservative Zoroastrians were disapproving of any departure from religious orthodoxy, and similarly, some Muslims were also insular. These hostile attitudes lost strength with the passing of time. The most famous of the Zoroastrian contacts was Meher Baba (1894-1969), who first met Babajan in 1913, later forging an independent career in the Ahmednagar zone.
In the early 1920s, Babajan’s exposure to the weather was a matter of concern to devotees. They decided that a proper shelter must be constructed for her at the neem tree. The British at first resisted this incentive. The cantonment authorities wanted to move the faqir elsewhere, as her assemblies were tending to obstruct the traffic on an increasingly busy road. However, eventually the Cantonment Board reconsidered the matter; they conceded a new shelter at Raj expense. A drawback was that Babajan herself proved reluctant to accept the modification of her faqir lifestyle, and had to be persuaded to do so by devotees.
Despite her age, Babajan remained healthy. Her basic fitness was demonstrated in brisk walks that occurred frequently until her last years; sometimes she walked for miles across Poona. She disliked medicaments and drugs, which she avoided. Her diet was simple, including tea she was frequently offered. When devotees plied her with too much tea, she would give this away, as she did with everything else. Redistribution was a basic habit of hers, as distinct from hoarding.
From about 1926, she was chauffeured in a motor car around the city (but often used a tonga or horse cab). In April 1928 she travelled outside Poona for the first time since she had arrived there. On that occasion, Babajan made an unexpected journey by car to Meherabad, the distant ashram of Meher Baba situated near Ahmednagar. No publicity was involved. Babajan afterwards repeated her visit (Shepherd, A Pathan Sufi of Poona, 2014, pp. 89-90).
Such details are lacking in the well known book by British writer Paul Brunton entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). This provides a brief depiction of Babajan that is to some extent misleading (Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, p. 148; Shepherd, A Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 91-3, 94). Brunton did state that “some deep psychological attainment really resides in the depths of her being” (Secret India, p. 64). However, Brunton proved a disconcerting ability to misrepresent in his description of Meher Baba’s physiognomy. His account of that “messiah” entity is unreliable. Brunton later became known as a plagiarist of the Advaita Vedanta exponent Ramana Maharshi.
The ashram of Ramana Maharshi eventually turned against Brunton, despite the latter’s celebration of the former in Secret India. In a later book, The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941), Brunton criticised Ramana as a self-absorbed mystic, and also defensively asserted that he had already known about meditation and yoga before encountering Ramana. He subsequently resorted to the spurious academic credential of Dr. Paul Brunton, which is no proof of authority (the credential was derived from a correspondence course).
Hazrat Babajan had no doctrine anyone could steal. Her form of indirect tuition was concealed in asides to visitors and expressed in different languages. She sidestepped both Vedanta and institutional Sufism, neither of those traditions being favourable to women.
The commercial Secret India of Brunton was not the best guide to that country. The traveller briefly met Babajan in 1930, but needed an interpreter. Brunton’s commentary posed the theme of “a genuine faqueer [sic] with wondrous powers” (Secret India, p. 64). He desired to find evidence of powers, which are considered a distraction by other parties.
Babajan did not claim powers. The only claim discernible is represented by her obscure ecstatic utterances implying an identity with the divine (A Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 41-2). Such utterances, associated with her early years at Poona, were not in general well understood. Instead, some devotees chose to emphasise “miracles” that were attributed to her. The indications are that devotees and other visitors varied greatly in their assessment of events.
At the time of Babajan’s death, the press reported some popular beliefs: “It is claimed that she was 125 years of age, and the possessor of magical powers in addition to her powers of sight into the future” (“Poona’s Homage to Famous Muslim Woman Saint,” The Evening News of India, September 23rd, 1931). The historian can reckon more easily with the fact that her funeral was attended by thousands of Muslims and Hindus, and on a scale not formerly known in Poona. An extant newspaper photograph confirms the large number of people attending the procession of her coffin.
The shrine of Hazrat Babajan was constructed by Muslims at the neem tree in Char Bawdi, and has since been rebuilt, with Chishti Sufi associations attendant upon the annual celebrations.
Bibliography: Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India (London, 1934); Abdul Ghani, “Hazrat Babajan of Poona” (Meher Baba Journal, 1939); Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 1 (Myrtle Beach SC, 1986); C. B. Purdom, The Perfect Master (London, 1937); Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge, 1986); Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge, 1988); Shepherd, Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi, 2014). See further my article bibliography.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 59
Copyright © 2014 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.