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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.


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.


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.
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.

Meher Baba and Dr Brunton

By Charles Purdom, Meher Baba, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi

Meher Baba, 1930; Paul Brunton in India

Paul Brunton wrote the book called A Search in Secret India (1934). This became a bestseller. Reprints were eventually adorned with the credential of Dr. Paul Brunton. The British author became regarded by many as an authority on Indian religion. 
I have talked with people who are under the impression that Secret India is a reliable document. Any suggestion to the contrary can be met with incredulity and outright denial.
In my early years, I met two persons of a literary ability who were able to analyse Secret India, though in different ways. The first was a teacher of English (at Cambridge) who found Brunton’s style deficient, a style which he associated with low grade journalism as distinct from scholarship. Indeed, he laughed at some phraseology he found. This academic was nevertheless inclined to believe a popular view that the contents were accurate, because of the doctoral status claimed. 
The other analyst had actually met Paul Brunton (1898-1981). This critic denied the validity of Secret India in relation to Meher Baba. Charles Purdom (d.1965) was a literary man who had daringly ventured into biography of Meher Baba, despite the relatively marginal Western interest in his day. Purdom wrote that Brunton, “then known as Raphael Hirsch, came to see me in London some time after his visit” to the ashrams of Meher Baba. On that occasion, Brunton “said he had no doubt [Meher] Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hirsch, had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not” (Purdom 1964:128).
In brief, Purdom had deduced that restraint from performance of a “miracle” is no proof of falsity. On the contrary, he believed that Brunton’s attitude was confused and misleading. Purdom was also very sceptical of the  doctoral status advertised by Brunton’s publisher. The background of the Ph.D. credential proved exasperatingly obscure.
Purdom was a follower of  Meher Baba, very closely acquainted with how that entity lived and taught. He early wrote a biography, published in 1937, that was overshadowed by Brunton’s commercial “Secret.” Purdom’s book is today cited by commentators who can discern that he was attempting an objective report of his subject. The sub-title is The Life of Shri Meher Baba, revealing the idiom in which the subject was then known. 
Many years ago, I researched the Brunton problem, discovering materials that Brunton had omitted from his book. The missing data, and loss of context, invalidate Brunton’s report of Meher Baba to a very substantial extent. 
Secret India is noted for a rejection of Meher Baba (1894-1969) in favour of Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Both of these figures are now famous twentieth century mystics, associated with rather different teachings. There is no indication that Brunton actually understood the teaching of Meher Baba; however, he did assimilate Vedantic emphases of Ramana. Indeed, to such an extent that he eventually became notorious as a plagiarist, with the consequence that he was banned from the ashram of the Advaita sage in 1939. 
Paul Brunton can scarcely be gauged without reference to his background in Western occultism. During the 1920s, he was part of the avant garde “bohemian” scene in London, strongly influenced by Theosophy and numerous “esoteric” trends, some of these so dubious that even the enthusiasts rejected them. Yoga was a fashion to which Brunton became very partial. The subject of Yogic siddhis (powers) excited Western occultists. Brunton believed that he himself early gained occult powers and abilities. According to his own report, he was able to miraculously extinguish lighting at the lecture hall of an opponent. 
Brunton’s business as a “freelance journalist” failed in 1929. The following year, he travelled to India as an enthusiastic follower of Shri Meher Baba. He visited two ashrams of the latter, and in between, he undertook a tour of various places at the instruction of Meher Baba. At Madras he ventured a public declaration of his purportedly “telepathic” experiences concerning Meher Baba. In a subsequent letter sent from Calcutta to his inspirer, Brunton mentioned that he was looking forward to “receiving spiritual enlightenment at your hands.”
These are some of the realistic details. A major problem for unwary readers is that Brunton, in his bestselling book Secret India, omits crucial reference to the context. Presented instead is a deceptive narrative in which Brunton was a sceptical enquirer; he demeans the two non-Hindu ashrams he visited, writing as if he conducted the tour of his own volition, with the objective of visiting Yogis possessing hermetic knowledge. Relevant documentation is scrupulously missing. Brunton’s travelogue is undated, assisting the impression of a lengthy search in “secret India” that actually lasted only a few months. Brunton also supplied a very misleading description of Meher Baba’s facial appearance. 
As a consequence of these varied flaws, the book A Search in Secret India cannot be taken seriously as an accurate report, only as a testimony to what can go wrong in accounts deriving from pique and attendant emotions of a suspect nature.
I contributed a book including a confrontation with the Brunton problem. Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988) was the first published account to divulge what Brunton omitted, and to reconstruct what really happened. The responses were mixed. Some followers of Brunton were prepared to concede that he had made a mistake in his assessment. However, they were unable to accept the overall implications, instead affirming that Brunton’s lengthy Notebooks of a later period were a redeeming feature. 
Some American devotees of Meher Baba unofficially banned Iranian Liberal because of some (relatively mild) criticisms of their own spokesmen (I am not a devotee of Meher Baba). They consigned to oblivion the only published account vindicating the reputation of their own figurehead in the face of “Secret India” opportunism. 
Very briefly, Paul Brunton effectively associated Meher Baba with Yoga, together with the desired powers and experiences that he was so fixated upon. Meher Baba was not in fact a Hindu and never taught Yoga; he was an Irani Zoroastrian with a teaching sometimes described as eclectic. Meher Baba was opposed to any occultist pursuit of siddhis. In his early years he wore his hair long; this trait doubtless assisted certain “hermetic Yogi” impressions in Brunton’s mind. The visitor wanted “spiritual” experiences; he triumphantly aired his telepathic prowess. Telepathy is a Yogic power, as Brunton knew very well. For reasons that are not too difficult to fathom, the Irani mystic disconcerted the expectations. 
The frustrated British occultist chose to depict his former host and inspirer as an obsessive messiah figure who promised him powers, but could not supply them. The Irani is made to look so ridiculous that readers are led to believe he was a hopeless fraud. That version of events made Paul Brunton, in commercial estimation, the great British critic of Secret India. 
The popular writer produced further books such as A Search in Secret Egypt and The Secret Path. These confirmed to critics that Western occultism is not basically secretive, whatever the mysteries proclaimed; the secrets exist to be disclosed or advertised, and perhaps even exploited. In this trend, the supposed adept of Vedanta eventually wrote The Hidden Teaching beyond Yoga (1941), a book including controversial criticisms of Ramana Maharshi, from whose ashram he had been banned. 
Followers of Brunton have celebrated his association, in the late 1930s, with the milieu of Krishnaraja Wadiyar (d.1940), the Maharaja of Mysore. At the court of this royal celebrity, Brunton gained servants and material assistance. His new counter-ideal to Ramana was apparently the Maharaja, whose family derived support from British colonial power. The Maharaja favoured industry and technology. A tutor of the Maharaja was Subrahmanya Iyer, a neo-Vedantin brahman associated with modernist ideas and Western philosophy. In the company of Iyer, Brunton represented for partisans a new Plato at the court of a philosopher king, dispensing The Wisdom of the Overself (1943). This doctrine has elsewhere been considered eccentrically mentalist, with elements of Theosophy implied. 
A major drawback, in critical estimation, is that the Wisdom teacher opted to claim a Ph.D, enthusiastically advertised by Rider and Company. Brunton’s books were now unassailable, in commercial theory at least. The lofty credential was subsequently revealed to be a deception. When pinned down on the issue, Brunton claimed a Ph.D. from Roosevelt University in Chicago. No record of this credential could be found in university precincts (Masson 1993:161-3).
A “doctoral” certificate later appeared online, dating to 1938. What Brunton actually acquired was a spurious degree from a very commercial correspondence school, on the basis of a short book lacking annotations. This “school” was launched by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated, not Roosevelt University. The corporate name of McKinley-Roosevelt University was a rank deception. None of the commercial staff were qualified to teach the numerous subjects for which they received payment from clients like Brunton. The devious and unscrupulous enterprise had to be closed down by the American government in 1947. The superficial tag of Dr. Paul Brunton is meaningless in the academic sense, fitting only the make-believe scenario of  fashionable occultism and mentalism.

This presumed esotericist and hermetic philosopher also claimed to reach the end of the spiritual path. At one point, Brunton even called himself Jupiter Rex, signifying king of all the gods. His American secretary defected, becoming a follower of Meher Baba, who claimed the non-academic status of avatar (a Hindu word) from 1954 onwards. The Irani mystic is not associated with royal courts, technology, the British Raj, or Theosophy. He might nevertheless be relevant for study, a consideration which is perhaps even a necessity for the British sector as a foil to Brunton’s caricature. The literature on Meher Baba is now extensive; the primary sources do not include A Search in Secret India.
Bibliography at website article.
Bibliography of Works Cited Above
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
——–The Hidden teaching Beyond Yoga (London: Rider, 1941).
——–The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider, 1943).
Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion (London: HarperCollins, 1993).
Purdom, Charles, 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). 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 61
Copyright © 2021 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. 
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 
Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Ramana Maharshi

By Advaita Vedanta, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi, Ramanashram

Ramana Maharshi

A version of Advaita Vedanta was taught by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Report of him was pioneered in India by Narasimhaswami, and in the West by Arthur Osborne and others. Ramana was subsequently assimilated to some controversial American versions of Nondualism. The Western “neo-Advaita” has aroused scepticism.

Ramana was the son of a brahman (a member of the Hindu priestly caste) who worked as a lawyer at Tiruchuzi, a village in the Tamil sector of South India. His real name was Venkataraman Iyer. After his father’s death, some of his relatives moved to Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu. Here in 1896, while still sixteen, Ramana underwent an experience variously described in terms of “awakening” or “death.” The belief subsequently developed that he gained “enlightenment” or “realisation” at this time. Another phrase used is “sudden liberation.” Different accounts exist of this episode, together with fragmentary reminiscences of Ramana himself in much later years. “There are many interpretations of Ramana’s teaching, and of the nature of Ramana’s enlightenment experience itself” (Friesen 2006:2).

Caution is required. “Later followers subsequently rationalised this event as a sadhana [spiritual discipline] which lasted half an hour and was completed on the spot. They wanted to believe that he [Ramana] had gained the ultimate realisation known as sahaja samadhi in this brief period of awakening, though he himself did not say that” (Shepherd 2004:153).

In an early biography, B. V. Narasimhaswami  reported that divergent interpretations of this Tamil Advaitin were current: “He speaks little and only as to what is asked. His works are cryptic and are capable of diverse interpretations. Shaktas go to him and think he is a Shakta. Shaivas take him for a Shaiva. ShriVaishnavas find nothing in him inconsistent with their Vishishtadvaita ideal. Muslims and Christians have found in him elements of their ‘true faith’ ” (Narasimhaswami 1931:197-198).

According to Dr. Friesen, Ramana was influenced by Tantra and neo-Hinduism, also Christianity. “Ramana should not be regarded as a traditional advaitic sage” (Friesen 2006:5). This theme has been strongly resisted by partisans of Ramana, who urge that his “realisation” is the sole gauge for his teaching.

Ramana did have some previous knowledge of meditation prior to his experience as a 16 year old, and he derived his teaching of Self-Enquiry from books that he read before he wrote any of his own. Even more importantly, Ramana did not himself have the certainty at the age of 16 that his experience was permanent. And he later disputed the necessity of a state of trance for enlightenment. (Friesen 2005:37-38)

Narasimhaswami supplied a description of the 1896 “death” episode, implying a  sadhana of control on the part of the subject. Ramana actually said: “The fact is, I did nothing.” The influential version of Narasimhaswami resorts to the first person “I” in statements attributed to Ramana. However, the author does acknowledge his innovation by informing: “The exact words have not been recorded.”

Ramana retrospectively referred to his “absorption in the Self [atman].” There is the complexity that he also described his “awakening” in terms of possession, apparently his early reaction to the experience, which he conveyed to his first biographer Narasimhaswami (David Godman, Life and Teachings).

The “awakening” occurred at Madurai, where Ramana was afterwards in the habit of visiting the Meenakshi temple, associated with Shiva-bhakti and the sixty-three Shaiva Tamil saints of the nayanmar tradition. “After the Awakening I went there [to the temple] almost every evening” (Osborne 1954:23). He had read a book (the Periya Puranam) on those saints which inspired him. In his later life, he acknowledged the significance of bhakti (love, aspiration), which is something quite different to the Advaita doctrines. Indeed, his own report states, of his continuing visits to the Meenakshi temple (after his “awakening”), that he would sometimes pray for the descent of divine grace “so that my devotion [bhakti] might increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three saints” (Osborne 1954:23). This is not the language of Advaita, contradicting the much later devotee insistence upon an immediate non-dual “enlightenment.”

At the end of August 1896, Ramana experienced “a deep state of absorption in the Self” to quote a popular online version. He soon left home, journeying north to the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai, there staying in temple precincts while subject to an abstracted state. He eventually settled in caves at nearby Arunachala Hill, strongly associated with the deity Shiva. The basic feature of that early period is one of acute introspection. He was no longer a brahman, having jettisoned the sacred thread signifying caste status. He was now an ascetic sadhu wearing a loin-cloth, not the ochre robe of Vedantic renunciates. Ramana was not an official Vedantin or sannyasin.

Devoted attendants saw to his simple needs and protected him from intrusions, diverting unwanted sightseers who thronged the pilgrim locale of Arunachala. At first, his introspection was so acute that food had to be pressed into his mouth for the purpose of keeping him alive. Afterwards, he is reported to have accepted only a single cup of food daily; he was accordingly emaciated. For years (until circa 1906) he would not speak to visitors. Indeed, he is reported to have lost his ability to speak normally until that juncture. A different kind of problem was jealous sadhus, local holy men who resented his increasing fame.

A visiting group of sadhus expressed an extremist belief that their own distant sacred hill was home to a rishi who had been practising austerities for thousands of years. This entity had purportedly told them to abduct Ramana for initiation, after dramatically preparing him for the attainment of occult powers or siddhis. “Whether hemp addicts or alcoholics (or both), they evidently entertained some of the more fantastic and predatory ideas associated with Tantric Yoga” (Shepherd 2004:155). Ramana is reported to have made no response to these visitors; he never expressed esteem for siddhis, which are an unhealthy preoccupation.

Ramana was reputed to be in samadhi, signifying spiritual absorption; the word samadhi comprises a diffuse blanket term in popular usage. The basic event discernible is that Ramana emerged from this absorption over a lengthy period, gradually normalising in his response to the outside world (while retaining his spiritual awareness, according to his own account). “At some obscure date he began to walk about the hill instead of sitting motionless” (ibid:154). He would refer to himself as a jnani (knower), not as a Yogi. Ramana warned about the pursuit of siddhis. He was averse to Yogic exercises, which he evidently viewed as a complication.

Ramana Maharshi at Arunachala

In 1922 he moved down to the foot of Arunachala Hill, taking up residence at the site which became known as Ramanashram. By 1926, the increasing crowd of visitors and devotees was sufficiently large to hinder his customary daily walk around the hill, which thereafter ceased, apparently because nobody wanted to stay behind at the ashram without him.

The concession to public spotlight, at an ashram, was accompanied by some unusual characteristics. Ramana retained a very simple lifestyle. He did not refuse visitors, but could seem indifferent to company. His statements tended to brevity; he seems to have abbreviated his jnani emphases if he considered that the audience was uncomprehending. Preferring informal conversation, he was notably averse to giving initiations, an accepted part of the popular Hindu spirituality.

Ramana was often requested by admirers for permission to adopt the life of renunciation. He generally opposed this desire, a persistent trait which caused puzzlement. According to him, the effort needed was internal, and nothing to do with the formal vow of sannyas (renunciation). He evidently regarded many of the renunciates as distracting sources of misinformation. 

He favoured the discipline of vichara (self-inquiry), which he advocated to many visitors in the spirit of Advaita (non-dualism). He disliked the customary expositions of Vedanta associated with pundits, who exercised a rote learning of scriptures. Ramana was completely independent of organisations like the Shankara Order.

Vichara is viewed as an innovative feature of his communications, relating to the “realisation of the Self,” a Vedantic theme prone to abuse and facile interpretation. The protractedly introverted and normalising “realisation” of Ramana, in his early years, contrasts with glib assumptions about achieving “Nondualism” and “Self-realisation.” Those contractions are frequently encountered in both India and the West. The fantasised “short cut” is not convincing to some analysts, though very appealing to overnight gurus. The facile scenario of effortless enlightenment is well known in relation to the American guru Andrew Cohen. Ramana’s emphasis on the constant practice of self-enquiry is often abbreviated to slogans like “Be as you are,” singularly convenient for exploiters. Related mantras have become pervasive in the “new age” of commercial mysticism.

A lop-sided view of Ramana Maharshi in his later years, as an abstracted contemplative, has been corrected by partisan writer David Godman. Ramana industriously prepared food at his ashram for about 15 years; he also closely supervised building work during the 1930s. He was evidently not too keen about having to sit in the audience (darshan) hall where he received all visitors; he often referred to that hall as his prison.

Although an unusual teacher (and one who did not describe himself as a guru), Ramana was not venturesome in the area of social reform. According to a well known commentator, he “did not disapprove of orthodoxy in general” (Osborne 1954:77). Ramana certainly did not condemn caste norms, which were reflected to some extent in the emerging ashram management run on conservative lines. The leader of management staff was his brother, a renunciate who wore the traditional ochre robe. The increasing number of visitors, during the 1940s, imposed changes, including the building of a new and more imposing audience hall to which the sage was averse.

“A brahman code prevailed in the kitchens, where only brahmans could prepare the food” (Shepherd 2004:156). However, free food was dispensed to sadhus and the poor on a daily basis. The formalism of management officials is reported to have been resented by visiting devotees; there was even a request that the management be removed (Osborne 1954:120).

The ashram dining hall was partitioned, the orthodox brahmans sitting to one side, while on the other side sat the lower castes, non-Hindus, and liberal brahmans. “Sri Bhagavan [Ramana] says nothing to induce Brahmins either to retain or discard their orthodoxy” (Osborne 1954:133). Nevertheless, “he often turned a blind eye when devotees violated caste rules” (Godman, Bhagavan the Atiasrami). His perspective is described in terms of: “He had no opinions on these scripted events [occurring in the world], and no desire to change their course” (Godman, Bhagavan and Politics).

This situation can easily disappoint. However, Ramana did make certain gestures in defiance of caste biases. During the daily recitation known as Veda parayana, he allowed all visitors to attend. This was “a flagrant violation of caste rules,” because only the higher castes were entitled to hear scriptural chants. Ramana ignored related complaints from high caste persons. A visitor from North India once disapprovingly confronted him on this issue. Ramana “curtly told him to sit down and mind his own business” (Godman, Atiasrami, linked above).

In some of his statements, Ramana appeared to endorse the political career of his contrasting contemporary Mahatma Gandhi. These two entities never met. Untouchables (Dalits) were not allowed into Hindu temples, including the strongly resistant Shiva temple at Tiruvannamalai. Gandhi attempted to change the conventional high caste attitude. He was murdered by a brahman assassin.

After the death of Ramana Maharshi, the belief developed amongst devotees that the saint “guides whoever approaches him” (Osborne 1954:194). Such beliefs about posthumous guidance are also found in relation to other deceased Indian saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi. Hagiography easily accumulates in such climates of expectancy.

“Current Western gurus, influenced by the Ramanashram, have insisted that vichara (self-enquiry) is the ideal approach for all seekers” (Upasani Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi). This contention is not universally agreed upon. The popular Advaita movement in the West has favoured a notion that atma-bodha is “directly experienced by everyone,” a contradiction to the effort mentioned elsewhere. Be as you are, thoroughly lazy and needing improvement. The commercial network urges that everyone is a jnani, a simplistic belief very convenient for predatory gurus. The misleading tide of “nondualism” literature has done nothing to create discernment. 

Paul Brunton in India, 1930s

Ramana has been credited with a unique teaching, a theme disputed by others. Adding to confusions was Paul Brunton (1898-1981), a British occultist whose commercial books became famous. There are partisans of Brunton who extol his spiritual connection with Ramana; the evidence confirms something less exemplary.

Brunton early joined the Theosophical Society, from which he later parted company. However, strong Theosophical influences are discernible in his output, along with other related currents of the middle class British “esotericism” of the 1920s. Brunton claimed powers of clairvoyance and clairaudience, including astral travel. He composed numerous articles for the enthusiast periodical Occult Review. The British occultist became fixated on the siddhis (powers) of Yoga, including telepathy. “It seems that one of Brunton’s disappointments with Ramana was that Ramana did not impart more special powers to him” (Friesen 2005:17).

Brunton (then Raphael Hurst) visited the ashram of Ramana for two weeks in January 1931. He moved on to see other teachers and celebrities. After making a second visit to Ramana, he returned to England. Brunton believed that he had experienced samadhi for an hour at Ramanasramam. Yet Ramana himself seemed critical of the account found in Brunton’s A Search in Secret India (Friesen 2005:20). That book is notorious for omissions and misreporting (Shepherd 1988:146-176). The British writer made a “later confession that he used Ramana as a ‘peg’ for his own ideas” (Friesen 2005:22).

Frederick Fletcher, alias Bhikku Prajnananda

In Secret India, Brunton wrote as though he were an objective and critical narrator. Analysis of the underlying situation reveals strong Theosophical, British occult, and Yoga influences upon the astral traveller. His tangible travelling companion in India was Frederick Fletcher (born 1877), an Englishman who had become a Theravada Buddhist monk, assuming the name Bhikku Prajnananda. Fletcher was a fellow ex-Theosophist whom Brunton had met in London years earlier. The monk acted as a guide for Brunton and introduced him to Ramana (whom Fletcher respected). Brunton could not speak any Indian language.

As a consequence of his later story told to a press reporter, Fletcher gained celebrity as the Buddhist adept who had lived for a year (in 1922) at the major Tibetan Mahayana monastery near Shigatse (“British Major, Buddhist Monk,” The Age, December 1941). The report is revealed as being exaggerated. In reality, Fletcher was part of a small British scientific expedition to Tibet, having the role of a geologist and transport officer. 

Fletcher invented Theosophical auspices for his secular expedition. The misleading title of Lama Dorje Prajnananda is associated with him. He was supposedly ordained as a Gelukpa novice at Shigatse. If so, he subsequently returned to Ceylon in 1924 (or later), where he took the ordination of bhikku in a Theravada community. A Sergeant-Major in the British army during World War One, he had been upset by the suffering he witnessed, gaining incentive to renounce the world. He subsequently established an “English ashram” at Rangoon in Burma (the details are very vague).

Bhikku Prajnananda is typically missing from Secret India, despite being a major figure in the obscured cast. Brunton instead refers to this companion as a “yellow robed Yogi” named Subramanya (In Search of Brunton’s Secret). The impression was conveyed of an Indian Yogi. This identity switch was probably a result of Brunton’s preference for Yoga and siddhi auspices, anglicised Theravada being much less sensational (cf. Brunton 1934:117-18, 132-3). Nothing in Secret India can be accepted as the truth unless corroborated by other sources. The vaunted colonial esoteric expert was  very unreliable (in contrast, Fletcher did commit himself to a monastic discipline, unusual in such circles).

The foil to Brunton’s deception is found in another account of his first visit to Ramana. This relevant alternative identifies the companion as Fletcher, who founded “the English Ashrama in Rangoon.” The key report was published, in September 1931, by the Peace magazine of Swami Onkar’s Shanti Ashrama in Andhra (Friesen 2005:22-24). That was three years before the innovative Secret India appeared.

The supposed academic status of Dr. Paul Brunton has often been used to deflect criticism. The reality is not flattering. In 1938, he obtained a correspondence degree from a fraudulent diploma business in America created by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated. This enterprise was subject to government proscription, leading to  closure in 1947. Brunton’s spurious “doctoral degree” has no academic relevance whatever, being part of the commercial fantasy he projected. Many thousands of readers were deceived (including those at Ramanashram, or Ramanasramam). Brunton’s publisher Rider was tireless in broadcasting the impressive credential of Ph.D.

Ramana remained silent when introduced to Brunton and Fletcher (alias Subramanya) in 1931. Deceptions were created by Secret India. The suspect account of Brunton is embellished. “We have every reason to distrust what Brunton says, since he has admitted that he was only using Ramana for his preconceived ideas” (Friesen 2005:25). Another factor is urged:

Not only did Brunton interpret Ramana through his previous Theosophical ideas, but he in turn influenced Ramana and his disciples to interpret the [Advaita] experience in the same way. (Friesen 2005:46)

Brunton gave the impression that he achieved an enlightenment at Ramanasramam. His subsequent books do not confirm his pretension. He continued to be fascinated by occult powers or siddhis. His Search in Secret Egypt (1936) is a bizarre showcase of British neo-Theosophical speculation. For instance, Brunton believed that spiritual adepts from ancient Egypt were still alive in their tombs via a fully conscious trance. He also evidently believed that occult masters with great powers existed in the Himalayas, an influential theme of Blavatsky. The Irani mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969) repudiated this theory in a conversation with Brunton: “You will find nothing but dust and stones in their supposed abodes” (Brunton 1934:60). This denial was probably one reason for Brunton’s hostility to the Irani in Secret India. Certainly, Meher Baba was wrongly depicted by the occultist as having a receding forehead indicative of deficient thinking (ibid:48).

Brunton became notorious as a plagiarist of Ramana. He was banned from Ramanasramam in March 1939, by the managerial brother of the Advaita sage, who resented the fact that Brunton had copied so many sayings of Ramana as his own. An elementary factor should be grasped: “Brunton’s philosophy is not nondual” (Friesen 2005:84). Brunton was a stranger to Advaita, a teaching he confused with Yogic powers.

The British occultist was evidently proud of his ESP achievements. He even stated, in a book, that he sent telepathic messages, instead of written replies, to some letters he received (Brunton 1937:65). He evidently  believed that he surpassed Ramana, expressing a public criticism of the Tamil sage in his book The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941). Brunton had now transcended Yoga and Ramana in his speculations on the Overself, a favoured term that was not a translation from Sanskrit. Brunton apparently derived this new European (and American) word from a 1932 book by Gottfried de Purucker, a leader of the Theosophical Society who was here expounding The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky (Friesen 2005:7-8).

Brunton’s book Wisdom of the Overself (1943), gaining several reprints, was one of those to display the credential of Ph.D. on the title page. He claimed that “hundreds of texts were examined in the effort to trace and collate basic ideas.” Another description used by the author reads:  “An exposition in such an ultra-modern form was until now quite non-existent.” Brunton even writes: “It would have been more self-flattering to parade the breadth of my learning by peppering both volumes with a thousand Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese quotations, names or words” (Brunton 1943:7ff; cf. Shepherd 1988:173-4). The phraseology could imply that Brunton was familiar with these languages.

A subsequent critic, Dr. Jeffrey Masson (having a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard), revealed that the bogus academic Brunton had no knowledge of Sanskrit or other Eastern languages. “He could not read the alphabet, any Indian alphabet, nor a single sentence in Sanskrit…. He was completely ignorant of the language” (Masson 1993:162). Many years later, in 1967, the occultist fraud was forlornly attempting to deceive a private gathering with his ruse of causing a heavy oak table to levitate. Brunton “was now nothing more than a charlatan, reduced to attempting carnival tricks for what he hoped would be a gullible audience” (Masson 1993:165).


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

——–A Search in Secret Egypt (London: Rider, 1936).

——–A Hermit in the Himalayas (London: Rider, 1937).

——–The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (London: Rider, 1941).

——–The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider, 1943).

Chadwick, A. W., A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi (1961; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1994).

Friesen, J. Glenn, Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi (2005).

——–Ramana Maharshi: Hindu and Non-Hindu Interpretations of a Jivanmukta (2006, online).

Godman, David, ed., Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1985; Penguin, 1988).

——–An Introduction to Sri Ramana’s Life and Teachings.

Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

Narasimhaswami, B. V., Self Realization:  Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1931; fourth edn, Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2002).

Osborne, Arthur, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge (London: Rider, 1954).

Osborne, Arthur, ed., Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (London: Rider, 1959). 

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).

——–Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).

Venkataramiah, Munagala, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (1955; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2003).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 24th 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 35

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