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Paul Brunton

Upasani Maharaj

By B. V. Narasimhaswami, Paul Brunton, Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj

Upasani Maharaj

Upasani Maharaj (1870-1941), also known as Upasani Baba, was a brahman ascetic of Maharashtra, gaining the repute of a satpurusha. He is little known by comparison with popular gurus who have since flooded global media and markets. Nevertheless, the difference between his example and the sequels is potentially instructive.

Born at Satana, his grandfather was a pundit learned in Sanskrit texts. Upasani himself did not opt for the pundit career, instead choosing the role of an Ayurvedic doctor at Amraoti. After ten years as a vaidh, he moved north to Gwalior, intending to improve his finances as an estate owner. This plan crashed as a consequence of unforeseen complications. He afterwards removed himself from mundane pursuits. At Omkareshwar, he contracted a severe breathing problem, the precise cause now difficult to confirm. The Yogic practice of pranayama is partially implied in this setback.

The complex train of events led him to Shirdi, where he encountered the faqir Sai Baba (d.1918), who lived in a rural mosque. The Muslim identity of Sai Baba initially repelled Upasani, a strict brahman elitist in religious outlook. His subsequent phase of discipleship under Sai Baba is frequently misrepresented, as a consequence of misunderstandings and sectarian fervour on the part of B. V. Narasimhaswami, a sannyasin from Madras who appeared on the scene many years later.

At the Khandoba temple in Shirdi, Upasani became indifferent to scorpions and snakes. He experienced a state of unmatta, a form of acute introversion in which he made no response to external events. This state became intermittent, permitting him to accomplish manual work which assisted his physical ballast. He was nevertheless considered crazy by local opponents, meaning devotees who resented his close link with Sai Baba.

In 1914, the temple dweller departed for a time to other places, including Kharagpur, in West Bengal. There he became a focus for devotees in a very unusual setting. He lived for months in a bhangi colony, inhabited by Dalit sweepers and scavengers. He assisted these people in various ways, performing much menial work. Eventually, conservative opposition caused him to depart from Kharagpur. High caste hatred of suppressed Dalits was (and is) an ugly feature of Hindu society.

When Upasani returned to Shirdi on later visits, he was becoming famous, a factor of increasing concern to zealous devotees of Sai Baba. The facts were squashed and eliminated in well known devotee accounts. Neglected reports restore the balance.

In 1918, at the village of Sakori, Upasani selected a local cremation ground as his home. At first, there was no accommodation for visitors in this bleak location. Subsequently, an ashram began to form. In 1922, he resorted to confinement in a bamboo cage. He remained completely unwesternised. The spartan existence of Upasani Maharaj contrasts with the comfortable ambience preferred by more recent Indian gurus of commercial orientation. Upasani wore sackcloth, not an ochre robe, nor an opulent gown in the Rajneesh style.

During the 1930s, he established at Sakori the Kanya Kumari Sthan. This distinctive community comprised kanyas or nuns, including Godavari Mataji (d.1990). The project was resisted by brahmanical orthodoxy, who customarily curtailed the activity of women and denied them the attainment of spirituality. Upasani Maharaj survived court cases launched by detractors, emerging as the victor. In 1935, his opponents were set at nought by a high court judge of Ahmednagar. 

The Sakori nuns eventually achieved widespread respect from Poona to Varanasi. Upasani commenced their education in Sanskrit and ritual. After his death, the Kanya Kumari Sthan exercised a unique role, also being discernible as the inspiration for a much later trend of Hindu female priests gaining nationwide acceptance. 

Meanwhile, the popular British occultist Paul Brunton (1898-1981) was contradicted by events which he omitted from a suspect travelogue (Shepherd 1988:146-176). He misconceived Upasani in a book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934), via a brief passage invoking a Parsi sceptic. Brunton associated the Hindu ascetic with the Bombay Stock Exchange and a Parsi speculator (Brunton 1934:63). Upasani was totally indifferent to the financial desires of those Indians trapped in the Western obsession with monetary gain. Many readers of Brunton had no idea what really happened in “secret India,” a commercial phrase of compromised factual relevance.

Bibliography

Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).

Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-56).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).

———Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).

———Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling, 2015).

———Sai Baba: Faqir of Shirdi (New Delhi: Sterling, 2017).

———Upasani Maharaj, Radical Rishi Biography (in four parts, 2020, online)

Tipnis, S . N., Contribution of Upasani Baba to Indian Culture (Sakuri: Shri Upasani Kanya Kumari Sthan, 1966).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 77

Copyright  ©  2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

 

Meher Baba Supplement

By Hazrat Babajan, Lord Meher, Meher Baba, Paul Brunton, Sheriar Mundegar Irani, Sufism Reoriented
Meher Baba, 1950
The subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969) has dimensions that are frequently missing in standard portrayals. The factor of Zoroastrian background is relevant. However, Meher Baba did not teach Zoroastrian doctrines. This matter has caused confusion, leading some people to mistakenly believe that he taught Hinduism.
His ancestors came from the Yazd plain in Central Iran, a region notable for one of the two surviving Zoroastrian populations in that country. The Zoroastrian minority in Iran were afflicted with stigmas imposed by Shia Islam. Many Irani Zoroastrians chose to emigrate. The father of Meher Baba, namely Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932), was initially trained as a salar, or custodian of a local dakhma (burial place). Sheriar emigrated to India, eventually settling at Poona (Pune), where he gained literacy in Arabic and Persian (and reputedly Hebrew). His son Merwan Irani (Meher Baba) was born at Poona.
When he was nineteen, Merwan became a follower of Hazrat Babajan (d.1931). This Pathan matriarch lived under a tree at Poona (Shepherd 2014). The faqir Babajan exerted a strong influence upon the young Irani, who became inwardly absorbed and oblivious to his surroundings. Orthodox Zoroastrians were averse to Babajan, because she was a Muslim. These critics regarded Merwan’s unconventional and neutral tangent as aberrant.
The introversion of Merwan Irani underwent an adjustment at the hands of Upasani Maharaj (d.1941), a Hindu disciple of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). Merwan eventually normalised, gaining his own following, who called him Meher Baba. He was regarded by orthodox Zoroastrians as a heretic. However, many Irani and Parsi Zoroastrians became his followers, along with Hindus and Muslims.
Meher Baba created an ashram at a desolate site becoming known as Meherabad, situated a few miles south of Ahmednagar, a city in the Maharashtra territory. In 1925 he commenced silence, one of his major distinguishing characteristics. There was no vow involved; he merely continued his silence year by year. For communication purposes, he resorted to the use of an alphabet board, featuring letters of the English language.
His ashram contingent became known as mandali, many of them Zoroastrians. Wearing ordinary clothes, they did not resemble the staff of Hindu ashrams. Strongly opposed to caste distinctions, Meher Baba supported the untouchables (Dalits). He generally restricted facilities for darshan, meaning public audience, which he evidently regarded as an interruption. There should be no confusion with some well known Hindu gurus, who tended to favour daily darshan and a considerable number of attendees.
Opposition to Meher Baba, from orthodox Zoroastrians, was strong during the 1920s. They did not actually know what he taught. His discourses to devotees were privately recorded, and not publicly available. He is on record as referring to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), but not in the conventional religious sense. Some analysts have described his teaching as eclectic. However, adequate analysis has scarcely begun.
In the late 1920s, Meher Baba conducted a school for boys known as Meher Ashram. The inmates included Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. In 1929, he undertook a visit to Iran. Some acclaim occurred at Yazd, where he was welcomed by both Shia Muslims and local Zoroastrians. Despite the enthusiasm in evidence, Meher Baba declined to meet the Shah of Iran, instead ending his tour with a renewed incognito policy (Shepherd 2005:116-120).
In 1931, he commenced a series of journeys to Europe and America, ending in 1937. In 1932, some of his British devotees desired publicity for his arrival in London. He consented to their request, briefly appearing on a Pathe newsreel with Charles Purdom. His first visit to England (the previous year) had been conducted without publicity. He resumed his standard incognito approach after the “world tour” in 1932. Meher Baba evidently did not desire public profile. Numerous private photographs attest the incognito tendency of this Irani mystic. He frequently wore a Western suit; contemporary European headgear concealed his long hair.
The major critic of Meher Baba was a British occultist with a disposition for Yoga. Paul Brunton (d.1981) gained commercial status with a popular book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). Some contents of this narrative do not withstand critical examination. Brunton gives a distorted and partial version of some events in 1930-31. He subsequently encountered Charles Purdom (d.1965), a major British supporter of the Irani. Purdom relates how Brunton complained to him that Meher Baba could not perform a requested miracle, and therefore Baba was a fraud (Purdom 1964:128,440). Brunton’s publisher eventually advertised his identity in terms of Dr. Paul Brunton. This credential also proved misleading, being derived from a correspondence course that was closed down by the Federal Trade Commission. The critique of Brunton by Dr. Jeffrey Masson is revealing (Masson 1993).
A new project in 1936 was the Rahuri ashram for the mad. This activity underlines the philanthropic dimension of Meher Baba’s outlook. He personally ministered to the mad, plus other inmates, of this unusual ashram (Donkin 1948:95-104). One of his daily tasks was “to scour the ashram latrine” (ibid:96), an accomplishment seldom in evidence amongst gurus. During subsequent years, he created seven temporary centres which have been called “mast ashrams” (ibid:105-149). These phenomena have no known relation to any aspect of the Hindu ashram tradition.
During the Second World War, and also later years, Meher Baba was active in a distinctive undertaking known as “mast work.” The masts were Indian saints and related examples of a “God-intoxicated” category. Meher Baba sought out many of these entities (both Muslims and Hindus) in arduous journeys undertaken throughout India. He was assisted by Baidul Irani and other Zoroastrian mandali. The commitment is notable for a complete absence of publicity. There is no known counterpart of this activity in the careers of Hindu gurus. The mast work was reliably documented by a British medical doctor (Donkin 1948), who became one of the mandali.
The subsequent New Life phase has often caused perplexity. Commencing in 1949, Meher Baba described this phase in terms of a “new life of complete renunciation and absolute hopelessness.” The New Life opened with his injunction that “no one should try to see Baba or his companions for any reason whatsoever, as Baba will not see anyone of them, nor allow his companions to do so” (open communication via Adi K. Irani dated October 1949). This was another incognito exercise.
A further development has been the subject of misunderstandings. In 1952, Meher Baba applied his signature to a Charter for the American organisation known as Sufism Reoriented. The leader of that contingent was Murshida Ivy O. Duce, who became his devotee. Meher Baba did not compose the Charter, but checked the content and made suggestions. At this period, he made clear that his approach was neutral to all religions, also that contact with him could be made independently of all “isms.”
Murshida Duce claimed that Meher Baba promised, for Sufism Reoriented, a perpetual series of illumined murshids for centuries to come (Duce 1975:123). This extravagance was strongly contradicted by her dissident colleague Don Stevens, who soberly emphasised that Meher Baba never made any such promise.
During the early 1950s, the Irani mystic gained many new Hindu devotees in Hamirpur and Andhra. He undertook darshan tours in both of those regions; he had formerly declined repeated requests, made since 1947, to visit Andhra.  During a darshan tour in 1954, for the first time he publicly affirmed his role as “avatar of the age.” This avatar identity is the most controversial aspect of his career. Meher Baba had made private references to such a role in former years. “He was well aware that avatars are as common as mud in India, and was known to remark that they exist in every other village. To the best of my knowledge, a Zoroastrian avatar on Indian soil is unique” (Shepherd 1988:50).
Meher Baba suffered two motor accidents, in 1952 and 1956. He himself did not drive a car. The second accident left him with an injured hip that affected his walking ability. His last years were spent in retirement at Meherazad, his second ashram near Ahmednagar. There was a more convivial extension each summer at the venue known as Guruprasad, in Poona. Visiting devotees generally went to Poona, attending sahavas programmes which Baba at times permitted.
Extant films reveal situations at Meherazad and Poona. The most significant film, with a soundtrack, dates to 1967. This is the Gasteren footage Beyond Words. Meher Baba is here shown bathing lepers at Meherazad, and also reiterating his well known warning against the use of drugs. In his various messages, LSD and cannabis were both targeted as harmful distractions.
Hindu gurus were not noted for imparting any such message. Some observers say that the Hindu perspective on drug issues was compromised by a widespread usage of cannabis amongst the sadhu population in India. Whatever the case here, Meher Baba did not hestitate to criticise the psychedelic holy men, whose tendencies he described in terms of a recurring (or perennial) problem.
Meher Baba died in January 1969 at Meherazad, while suffering severe muscular spasms. His condition was a source of puzzlement to medical doctors in attendance. The medics said that he should have been in a coma, but he showed no sign of mental disturbance. His body was buried on Meherabad Hill, where a tomb had been constructed many years before.
After his death, the surviving mandali presided at the ashrams of Meherabad and Meherazad. The chief spokesmen were Adi K. Irani (d.1980) and Eruch B. Jessawala (d.2001). In 1980, a disagreement arose between Eruch and Sufism Reoriented. Eruch agitated against the new Murshid of that organisation, namely James Mackie (d.2001), whom Ivy Duce had appointed as her successor. For several years during the 1980s, in reaction to mandali critique, the supporters of Mackie stopped visiting the ashrams and the tomb of Meher Baba.
The mandali are now extinct. Some devotees refer to the current phase in terms of “post mandali” events. Eruch and his colleagues certainly did exercise a strong influence upon devotees at large. Mandali views were frequently represented as authoritative.
The sources on Meher Baba are many and varied. Considerable diligence is now required in tracking all the documentation. I contributed the first critical bibliography (Shepherd 1988:248-297). By far the longest work available is Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu), a multi-volume biography. That celebration is commonly attributed to Bhau Kalchuri, of the mandali. However, Kalchuri was only one of the authors/compilers at work in this project. A number of errors can be found in the Reiter edition, partly arising from the translation efforts involved.

Bibliography:

Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Deitrick, Ira G., ed., Ramjoo’s Diaries 1922-1929 (Walnut Creek, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1979).
Donkin, William, The Wayfarers: An Account of the Work of Meher Baba with the God-intoxicated, and also with Advanced Souls, Sadhus, and the Poor (Ahmednagar: Adi K. Irani, 1948).
Duce, Ivy Oneita, How a Master Works (Walnut Creek, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1975).
Jessawala, Eruch, That’s How It Was: Stories of Life with Meher Baba (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 1995).
Kalchuri, Bhau, Feram Workingboxwala, David Fenster et al, Lord Meher (20 vols, Reiter edn 1986-2001).
Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
Natu, Bal, Glimpses of the God-Man, Meher Baba (6 vols, various publishers, 1977-94).
Parks, Ward, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West: The 1932-1935 Western Tours (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2009).
Purdom, Charles B., The Perfect Master: The Life of Shri Meher Baba (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937).
———The God-Man: The life, journeys, and work of Meher Baba with an interpretation of his silence and spiritual teaching (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
———Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
———Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2014).
Stevens, Don E., ed., Listen Humanity (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1957).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 72

Copyright © 2017 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Meher Baba Update

By Charles Purdom, Lord Meher, Meher Baba, Paul Brunton, Pete Townshend, Wikipedia
Meher Baba 1957
Errors of assessment are a common occurrence in the contemporary field of “new religious movements.” Such matters necessitate due information rather than hearsay and assumption. The historical angle is necessary with the subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969), as with other figureheads of well known religious movements. The alternative is lore.
A Meher Baba devotee inserted on Wikipedia a misleading version of events dating back to the 1960s. The errors were traced to the American branch of the Meher Baba movement, and more especially, to the Myrtle Beach Centre. The pronounced distortion has been refuted. The erroneous storyline is an example of what can happen when supporters of a movement have no adequate knowledge of events they purport to describe.
The Wikipedia lore interpreted a Hindu disciple of Meher Baba as being a rival “spiritual teacher” to the Irani mystic. No contextual information was supplied, only a variant of anecdotal calumny sustained for decades. The Hindu disciple and scientist was never a rival of Meher Baba, instead being a regular donor to the latter’s Meherazad ashram, located in Maharashtra.
The Hindu disciple lived for ten years in England at the instruction of Meher Baba. Possessing a degree in physics, this man worked as a salaried professional. As a consequence, he was able to send to India regular donations, amounting in total to thousands of pounds sterling. His level of commitment was very high, far more so than most other adherents of Meher Baba.
The experiences and viewpoint of this Hindu disciple are not without an interest of their own. However, obscuring biases of the Myrtle Beach Centre worked against any accurate knowledge of the subject. Instead of registering complaints and explanations provided in a former lengthy document, the prestige Centre ignored the document and opted to impose an unofficial ban on a book about Meher Baba that was published in 1988. As a consequence of this censorship, the stories about a rival spiritual teacher continued. Nor was there any rectification of other serious errors involved in the misrepresentation.
The literature on cults is now prodigious. Two of the basic problems, typical of “cults,” are misrepresentation and suppression of relevant details. The American branch of the Meher Baba movement achieved both of these undesirable drawbacks. An extension of this muddle infiltrated Wikipedia, a web venue notorious for troll activity and other complications. The rather basic sectarian issue is obvious to a number of observers.
Pseudonymous Wikipedia supporters of Meher Baba were keen to elevate a lengthy work entitled Lord Meher, presenting this as reliable fact eclipsing any other version, and more especially, my own book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal. In the devotee presentation, an outsider book could only amount to deficient opinion as compared with the surpassing authenticity of a canonical work. Indeed, Meher Baba trolls were known to appear at different Wikipedia articles with the intention of removing non-canonical content. This action occurred even in an instance relating to transcription of antique Zoroastrian history (the Kaivan school), of which they knew nothing whatever. These people also disdained reference to a valid source in the canonical Meher Baba literature, preferring instead an inaccurate passage in Lord Meher.
My book included an unprecedented critique of the two major detractors of Meher Baba, primarily Paul Brunton. The latter’s book, A Search in Secret India, is still influential after eighty years of circulation. However, my critique (based on factual sources) was early ignored by the Myrtle Beach Centre, and many years later, was merely opinion according to devotee assessment. The hostile party on Wikipedia was unintentionally validating the travesty of Brunton’s deviation. Trolls do not read books, but merely debunk them in convenient online graffiti of two or three lines, in this instance supporting ideology of the Meher Baba Centres about canonical works.
The storytelling of Paul Brunton was here effectively justified by the ideological reflex. I had proved that Brunton’s hostile report of Meher Baba was unreliable, a factor which serious readers recognised (including some Brunton partisans). However, my substantial critique of Brunton, in Wikipedia troll assessment, amounted to the mere opinion of an outsider to the infallible canon extolled by the Meher Baba movement. This episode cannot be disregarded, because the troll action was closely linked, via editorship, with the Meher Baba article on Wikipedia. 
The multi-volume Lord Meher has seldom been duly analysed. An extensive editorial process was involved. A relatively minor consideration is that Bhau Kalchuri was not the sole author of this work, despite the contrary impression conveyed for over thirty years by devotee media. The Reiter edition of twenty volumes, on all the title pages, presented Kalchuri as the sole author. Feram Workingboxwala was very unpopular, while the American editor and compiler David Fenster was in low profile for many years.
Lord Meher does not contain due information about the misrepresented Hindu disciple and donor who lived in England until 1964. This work is not comprehensive, despite the length. A number of passages in Lord Meher identify the followers of Meher Baba as “lovers.”
During the mid-1960s, I attended meetings of the London group of Meher Baba supporters. At that time, the subscribers did not refer to themselves as “lovers” of Meher Baba. This identity tag did not become prevalent until 1967, being favoured by the new generation of devotees associated with Pete Townshend and the American influx. The rather more conservative and vintage British devotees called themselves the “friends of Meher Baba.” Although Meher Baba himself used the (mystical) word “lover,” he did not stipulate that his followers should describe themselves in this manner.
Charles Purdom
A representative of the older trend was author Charles Purdom (d.1965), a figure in reaction to some devotee tendencies. Purdom achieved a degree of objectivity that is comparatively rare in religious movements. It would not be fair to place him in the same category as the trolls and storytellers of the Meher Baba movement.
Purdom’s preface to his book The God-Man (1964) does not mention the word avatar. The author here says that he has done his best “to maintain the necessary degree of detachment of mind.” Compared with other partisan recommendations, the appraisal of Meher Baba by Charles Purdom is restrained:
I do not think one can find any parallel in modern times with the life of this simple, subtle, innocent, unpredictable, alarming and engrossing man. (Preface, unpaginated)
Over the years, I have found that devotionalism is a distorting factor in relation to the record of Meher Baba. For instance, the attendant dogmatic approach obliterated details of the abovementioned Hindu donor and certain other entities, including myself. I decline to be eliminated by the dogmatists, and will resist misinformation. Democracy is a farce at places like the Myrtle Beach Centre, where a process of suppression has been operative for many years.
My interest in Meher Baba applies to ascertaining historical dimensions of his biography, as distinct from the lore and confusion that is too frequently found. I have no interest in promoting exclusivist avatar themes, which evidently encourage some devotees to adopt a status profile as followers of Avatar Meher Baba. I have no interest in promoting “lover” clichés, these also being objectionable in acts of misrepresentation and suppression. The vaunted love can easily become hate campaign.
Pete Townshend
The phase of ascendancy achieved by Pete Townshend, during the 1970s, is perhaps instructive. That rock star became the focus of adulation for numerous new “Baba lovers” in different countries. He has since admitted the limitation of his self-appointed role as a leader and organiser within the Meher Baba movement. Townshend has been honest in a number of ways, a refreshing contrast with troll activities presuming an unassailable spokesmanship for Meher Baba. Townshend’s own reflection, found at his website, is relevant here:
What was clear to me in early 1980 was that I could no longer stand as any kind of public representative for Meher Baba with such recent alcohol and drug-abuse problems. Meher Baba Oceanic, the pilgrim centre I had run, had in any case slowed down to a crawl while I descended into self-obsession. Several of my employees there had gone through problems of their own, and some time in 1982 I impolitely sacked everyone. 
These references indicate serious problems. Townshend nearly killed himself on alcohol and drugs. Yet he had been exalted by many devotees even before he created, in 1976, the ill-fated centre known as Meher Baba Oceanic. Townshend was initially influenced by Purdom’s book The God-Man (1964), and describes the author as “an eminent British journalist of the Thirties” (Who I Am, p. 110). That is a contraction of identity, because Purdom was also a garden city pioneer and author, and still leading the London group of “friends” in 1965, only two years before the new wave appeared. Townshend and other “lovers” reversed the sober approach of Purdom into cliché, guitar music, and devotee poetry.
The new wave of “lovers” were frequently afflicted by proximity to the drug infraculture, so pervasive in Western countries since the 1960s. In America, many of them were content with such slogans as “Don’t worry be happy.” This theme comprised an acute reductionism, not reflecting Meher Baba’s rather distinctive metaphysical teaching. The happy lovers were averse to complexity.
An eccentric rune of the Townshend era was “Baba’s love game.” The rock star and his colleagues were viewed by their own camp as avant-garde representatives of the unique Avatar. Townshend acknowledged the American inspiration of Murshida Ivy Duce, leader of Sufism Reoriented. He was perhaps influenced more by Adi K. Irani (d.1980), the former secretary of Meher Baba, who had gained a limelight role as exegete of the Avataric cause. The love game ended with Townshend’s addiction to large quantities of brandy, accompanied by an afflicting ingestion of cocaine and heroin. His version of “Baba’s Umbrella” was not waterproof.
A major influence, upon the new wave of Baba lovers, were newsletters dating to the 1960s. These were composed by Mani, the sister of Meher Baba who lived at Meherazad ashram. Mani S. Irani (d.1996) favoured an influential vocabulary of “lovers” and the “Beloved.” The newsletters were regarded as canonical texts at Meher Baba Centres. However, a literary critic said that these writings were gushing and sentimental, not profound. Even some of the happy lovers were worrying that insufficient information about Meher Baba was being conveyed by Mani. They were puzzled to find frequent descriptions of secondary matters. Apologists excused Mani by saying that she was not allowed to describe more about Baba, who was in seclusion. Mani did relay messages from, and some details about, the figurehead. However, there are distinct gaps in coverage.
Insofar as some basic events were concerned, the Mani “family letters” amounted to a detour. For instance, a more recent and lengthy account of 1960s events provided descriptions very different to those of Mani, including details of how Meher Baba strongly rebuked argumentative mandali, including Mani herself (Kalchuri Fenster 2009). The disparity is too revealing to ignore. Essential traits and methods of Meher Baba (silent since 1925) remained obscure, overlaid by preferences of the far more vocal lovers.
Bibliography:
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Irani, Mani S., 82 Family Letters (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1976).
B. Kalchuri, F. Workingboxwala, D. Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001).
Kalchuri Fenster, Sheela, Growing up with God (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2009).
Parks, Ward, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2009).
Purdom, Charles B., Life Over Again (London: Dent, 1951).
——–The God-Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Shepherd, K. R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
———Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Townshend, Pete, Who I Am (London: HarperCollins, 2012).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 66
Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Hazrat Babajan

By Majzub, Meher Baba, Pathan Faqir, Paul Brunton, Poona Cantonment
Hazrat Babajan
Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) was born in the Afghan territories at an unknown date. A Pathan (Pashtun), 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. She was reputedly buried alive by fundamentalists who objected to her ecstatic utterances, 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. This was apparently the reason why she eventually moved on. At circa 1910, she settled permanently under 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. Although she is associated with a Sufi outlook, Babajan was not a member of any Sufi order. She did not teach any doctrine. Garbed in simple attire, she did not wear a veil.

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, acting as bodyguards. The sepoys provided protection against the intrusion of drunkards and thieves, who at first congregated after nightfall in Char Bawdi. The interlopers soon dispersed. However, beggars were a frequent sight in the locality. The sepoys served and died in the First World War.
During her early years at Poona, orthodox parties could not understand the independent orientation of Babajan. Conservative Zoroastrians were disapproving of any departure from religious orthodoxy; the mere fact of her being a Muslim was cause for censure. Similarly, some Muslims were also very insular. Hostile Muslims and Zoroastrians initially tended to regard Babajan as a witch. The situation was potentially dangerous. At that period, women could be burnt as witches in rural India; old women (or widows) were particularly vulnerable.  The fate of some women could be tragic, as in medieval Europe. Babajan had to endure stone-throwing from some families (apparently not Hindus). The sepoys were probably defensive on this account. The increasing number of her devotees meant that she could no longer be regarded as a “witch” by circa 1920.
The stone-throwers were children influenced by their parents. Muslim families apparently started this hostility, viewing Babajan as an eccentric nonconformist or even a witch. Belief in sorcery was certainly widespread in Islam, where magic is forbidden. Sorcerers and fortune tellers did exist amongst Muslims, but Babajan was not one of these. Talismans and amulets were popular accoutrements, missing in the case of Babajan.

The persecution of witches in India is now considered a form of lethal misogyny. Hinduism harbours extremist tendencies against the witch (dayan). A strong “evil eye” folklore revolves around the dakini, a female spirit believed to drink the blood of men (the dakini is associated with Shaivism, also Tantric Buddhist mythology). In parts of India (mainly Central India), grim occurrences are on recent record. Severe beatings and lynchings (and even beheadings) are not an attractive tourist feature. Low caste women are often the targets of this fanaticism. Indian police records have suggested that more than 150 women are killed every year as witches in the twenty-first century. The details can cause shock.

They are burned, hacked or bludgeoned to death, typically by mobs made up of their neighbours and, sometimes, their own relatives. Ritual humiliation often precedes death. (Witches are still hunted in India, The Economist, 21/10/2017)

Babajan was successful in her counter strategy to religious hate. Her memorable interactions with Zoroastrian women indicate a dimension of cross-cultural empathy quite alien to Eastern fundamentalists and white supremacists. The insular religious mentality was graphically demonstrated by an Irani Zoroastrian family of the 1920s, who hated both a Hindu guru and an Irani nonconformist (and also Babajan). The bias here employed a recourse to appropriate the money of a victimised relative, perhaps similar to cases of Hindu “witches” who are molested because they own desirable land. The urban victim at Bombay was Kaikhushru Masa Irani (d.1931). He and his wife Soonamasi were amongst the liberal Zoroastrians who amenably encountered Babajan at Char Bawdi.

The inter-religious nature of Babajan’s following is notable. The majority were Muslims, but Zoroastrians and Hindus were also in evidence. 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.

A minority of Hindu women became the equivalent of faith healers, using mantras and other techniques. Some Muslim male faqirs displayed elaborate healing rites that were evidently designed to impress their audience, converging with ostentatious “miracles” of Hindu holy men. The various types of healer generally received money for their services. Babajan was not in this category. Dr. Ghani briefly records that petitioners would approach her for a cure. She responded in an idiosyncratic manner, apparently obliging the sufferers by her “funny operation” of tweaking the “painful or diseased” portion of flesh (Ghani 1939:35-36). No money was requested, no mantras were employed. The frequency of such episodes is not on record. Other accounts have no reference to this feature of her interaction with visitors. 

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, because her assemblies were tending to obstruct the traffic on an increasingly busy road. However, the Cantonment Board eventually 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. She 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 frequently offered by visitors. 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, quite distinct from hoarding.
From about 1926, she was chauffeured in a motor car around the city. However, she 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 2014:89-90).
Such details are lacking in the well known book, by the British occultist Paul Brunton, entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). This provides a brief depiction of Babajan that is to some extent misleading (Shepherd 1988:148; Shepherd 2014:91-3, 94). Brunton conceded that “some deep psychological attainment really resides in the depths of her being” (Secret India, p. 64). However, the same writer misrepresented 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. The British writer 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).  The would-be Yogi 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 (Shepherd 2014:41-2). Such utterances, associated with her early years at Poona, were not in general well understood. Instead, some devotees chose to emphasise “miracles” 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. This monument has since been rebuilt, with Chishti Sufi associations attendant upon the annual celebrations. 
Bibliography:
Brunton, Paul,  A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Ghani, Abdul, “Hazrat Babajan of Poona,” Meher Baba Journal (1939) 1 (4):29-39. 
Kalchuri, Bhau, et al, Lord Meher Vol. 1 (Reiter edn, Myrtle Beach SC, 1986).
Purdom, Charles B., The Perfect Master: Life of Shri Meher Baba  (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
—— Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
—— Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling, 2014).
See further my article bibliography.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 2014 (modified 2021)
ENTRY no. 59 
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