2. An Irani Zoroastrian
3. A Zoroastrian Heretic
4. Paul Brunton and Sadhu Christian Leik
5. Yogis, Masters, Powers, and Miracles
6. The Kaivan School
9. Sufism Reoriented
10. The Avatar Claim
13. Last Years
14. The Mandali versus Murshid Mackie
Some books have been published in which Meher Baba (1894-1969) has been classified under Hinduism. This represents a misconception. The present writer was the first to insist upon Irani, or Iranian, context in the instance of Meher Baba. (1) This theme was explicit in the title of my preliminary book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988). That title evoked varying reactions.
This article focuses on some aspects of Meher Baba's biography, and with reference to certain of his teachings.
2. An Irani Zoroastrian
Meher Baba was born in India at Poona (Pune). His name of birth was Merwan Sheriar Irani. His parents were both Irani Zoroastrian émigrés from Yazd, in Central Iran. These forbears were fleeing from the oppression operative on the Yazd plain, where Shia Islam was the majority religion. In that locale, the Zoroastrian minority had a foothold in the city of Yazd, but many of these people lived in the surrounding villages. For many centuries, they were afflicted by the religious discrimination exercised by Muslims. Only in the late nineteenth century were they released from the burden of jizya, the tax imposed by Islam. However, they were still subject to other impositions.
The Irani Zoroastrians of Yazd were aided by benevolent Parsis of Western India. The Parsis were another Zoroastrian population, having migrated from Iran in much earlier centuries. The Parsis had undergone some racial admixture with Hindus. The ethnic characteristics of Irani Zoroastrians were often quite distinct from the Parsis. The Iranis were the descendants of Sassanian Zoroastrians who lived many centuries before, but who were defeated by Islam in the seventh century CE.
Merwan Irani spoke Persian, and was familiar with some Indian languages. He also learned the colonial language of English at Poona, a cantonment city. His father Sheriar originally lived at the village of Khorramshah, located on the Yazd plain. Sheriar’s own father was a salar, the custodian of a local tower of silence (dakhma), meaning a place of the dead, reserved for ancient funerary practices.
As a young man, Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932) became a mendicant ascetic, travelling through Iran, and eventually transferring to India for further arduous journeys. He finally settled at Poona, where he became literate in Persian and Arabic. Sheriar was familiar with both the Zoroastrian and Sufi traditions. He also reputedly learned Hebrew.
At the age of nineteen, Merwan Irani encountered the female faqir Hazrat Babajan (d.1931). Contact with this matriarch transformed his life. He underwent an experience of acute abstraction from the external world, and lost all interest in his college life, which ceased in 1914. He had formerly been attending the Deccan College, being proficient in English literature. His father was sympathetic to his introverted state, but his mother Shirin did not understand what was happening. She tended to blame Babajan, and was in despair at the gossip of local Zoroastrians.
The experiential transition did not involve any teaching imparted by Hazrat Babajan. She was an independent mystic outside the Sufi Orders, and was not concerned to convey any formal doctrine. The nature of her impact upon Merwan is elusive to conventional religious assessment.
In subsequent years, Merwan was also in contact with Upasani Maharaj (d.1941), an ascetic Hindu disciple of Shirdi Sai Baba. Upasani was based at Sakori, where an ashram formed around him. Merwan normalised during this phase, but was not regarded as an ordinary man by his supporters. He eventually separated from Upasani, and established his own ashram near Ahmednagar. This site was gifted to him by an Irani merchant, becoming known as Meherabad. That desolate place had formerly been the scene of a British military camp, and was not easy to make habitable.
Merwan Irani gained the new name of Meher Baba. His followers included Muslims and Hindus, in addition to Zoroastrians. A 1920s description of him from the Muslim sector was in terms of “the clean-shaven Zoroastrian” (at rare intervals, he was bearded, as in 1925). His Irani Zoroastrian identity was generally acknowledged. At the same time, there was a complete absence of Zoroastrian doctrine in his discourses and statements. His teaching was distinctive. His discourses included reference to some Vedantic and Sufi themes, but with no specific attachment to any religious tradition.
3. A Zoroastrian Heretic
Meher Baba was averse to priestly ritualism. His liberal religious tendencies, and mystical orientation, were the subject of disapproval from orthodox Zoroastrians during the 1920s. Opponents even resorted to assassination plots. Parsi priests were amongst the critics. The basic accusation was blasphemy, apparently because Meher Baba “claimed to have the same spiritual status as the Prophet Zarathushtra” (Kalchuri Vol. 7, p. 2506).
From a number of indications, it is apparent that the heretic viewed this matter in a way that might be tentatively expressed as follows: Zarathushtra was a legend from a very remote era, and the Avesta a ritualist canon created by later priestly exegetes who lost contact with the source. In contrast, Meherabad ashram was on the map of historical events, as distinct from legend, and a sequel to Zarathushtra was possible in a way that negotiated priestly monopoly in doctrine.
The conservative opponents were located in Poona, Bombay, and Ahmednagar. Meher Baba’s early follower Gulmai Irani discovered what the critics were like at Ahmednagar. They were enraged when the Hindu saint Upasani Maharaj visited her home as an honoured guest. This event was treated as an insult to the Zoroastrian community (Shepherd 2005:85). At Poona, the opponents derided Meher Baba for being closely associated with a Muslim faqir (meaning Hazrat Babajan). However, they did not dare to mention this grievance in the presence of his father Sheriar, who was much respected within the Zoroastrian community (Brabazon 1978:51).
Gulmai had formerly encountered the unwanted attention of Parsi priests or dasturs. She lived in a large communal family who did not understand her desire for retreat to a prayer room. She became familiar with the poetry attributed to Kabir. Her relatives anxiously enlisted the services of four dasturs who “performed elaborate and superstitious ceremonies intended to help Gulmai regain identity as a ‘this worldly’ Zoroastrian fighting Ahriman; she was horrified by their dogmatism and lack of insight” (Shepherd 2005:81).
The major critic of Meher Baba transpired to be Colonel M. S. Irani. He was stationed at Aden during World War One, and afterwards built a large house in Poona. The Colonel was greatly annoyed when three members of his family became followers of Meher Baba (including his niece Mehera J. Irani, who gained fame in later years). This man “wrote scurrilous and fictitious accounts of Baba, which were widely published in Gujarati newspapers” (Fenster 2013, Vol. 1, p. 110).
When Colonel Irani visited Meherabad in 1926, he found Mehera and her mother Daulatmai wearing common attire, in a place he regarded as a God-forsaken wilderness. “Colonel Irani was a man who appreciated the ‘finer things in life’ – particularly fashionable clothes. Most of the Colonel’s friends in Aden were Europeans, and he was always dressed in the latest style. He looked askance at his sister and her daughter; he did not like what he saw” (ibid:191). This was a conflict of values and lifestyle features. Preferences of the Colonel did not prove that the Meherabad contingent were wrong.
Some early photographs of Meher Baba reveal him to be wearing a kusti, the Zoroastrian girdle. He did not otherwise draw attention to this accessory, and there was no doctrinal message attendant. A late report says that he wore the kusti all his life; if so, this item of apparel was not generally visible. He did not transmit Zoroastrian teaching, but in his last years, he did recommend the 101 Names of God supplied in the Zoroastrian corpus. (2)
Meher Baba was definitely not a preacher. In 1925, he became silent, a situation which persisted until his death. During 1927-29, he was engaged in the project known as Meher Ashram, which developed an offshoot called the Prem Ashram. This distinctive school for boys, existing at Meherabad, included many Hindu, Muslim, and Zoroastrian inmates. The leading teacher in the Meher Ashram was an academic devotee from Tehran, namely Kaikhushru Afseri, an Irani Zoroastrian.
In 1929, he undertook a journey across Iran. He stayed for a few days at Yazd, where he met with an enthusiastic reception from both Shia Muslims and Zoroastrians. Meher Baba visited his ancestral village of Khorramshah. He also encountered Bahais who were much impressed by his example. This tour of Iran, as a whole, is notable for his tendency to a lack of publicity profile. The incognito journey was a hallmark of Meher Baba for decades. He preferred anonymity and disguise.
Over the years, the majority of Meher Baba’s ashram mandali (resident devotees) were Zoroastrian, a fair number of them Iranis. They maintained a simple lifestyle, and did not wear any distinguishing regalia, but instead ordinary clothing. Some women were included, notably Mehera J. Irani (1908-1989). There were no temples and no display of affluence. There was nothing like the daily darshan and public exposure found in some Hindu ashrams.
4. Paul Brunton and Sadhu Christian Leik
A visitor at Meherabad in 1930 was Paul Brunton (1898-1981), a British occultist who believed in astral travel and the Astral University. He also nurtured a preference for Patanjali Yoga, a system which dwells upon siddhis or powers. Brunton evidently confused Meher Baba with Yoga, and wanted his host to give evidence of a “miracle.” He resented the absence of any supernatural event.
Brunton shows not the slightest cognisance of any Zoroastrian component (although he refers to Meher Baba as a Parsi). He does not mention the tour of Iran which had recently occurred. His version of events appeared in a commercial book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). The shortcomings are evident to anyone with a knowledge of details that were suppressed by the author. (3)
There are many readers who have only known Meher Baba through the distorting lens of Paul Brunton, whose report of the Irani’s facial appearance is memorably misleading. Brunton's vaunted doctoral credential has met with criticism from Jeffrey Masson, a Professor of Sanskrit who was personally acquainted with Brunton and initially a follower (Masson 1993).
In addition to other drawbacks, the Western miracle seeker misrepresented the situation of Sadhu Christian Leik (1870-1929), whom he had never met. Leik was a Russian from Estonia, and for long a follower of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (d.1886). A Hindu colleague later described Leik as a student of Vedanta inspired by Swami Vivekananda. Leik wanted to join the Ramakrishna Order, and travelled to India in 1910, where he commenced to stay in Ramakrishna monasteries. Eventually, he sojourned at one of those monasteries in the Himalayas, apparently the Advaita Ashrama at Almora, where he was residing in 1928. The brahman monks there, despite talking “high Vedanta,” effectively treated him as an untouchable (Chari 1966:8). The high caste monks would not eat with him, fearing contamination. This was the “kitchen religion” complex criticised by Vivekananda, who was not to blame on that account.
Leik decided to move on to the ashram of Meher Baba, of whom he heard from a correspondent. The monks tried to persuade him from leaving, believing that he would be hypnotised by Meher Baba, but soon lose enthusiasm. Leik ignored their pessimism, and arrived at Meher Baba’s temporary Toka ashram in October 1928. He discovered that the situation there was nothing like the critics had imagined. Leik afterwards wrote:
"How utterly different I found Meher Baba and his ashram to be.... The atmosphere of Meherashram reflects the deep peace and radiance of my beloved master, Baba, as he is affectionately called by the devotees. There is nothing about him of the awe-inspiring solemnity that is attributed to the occult hierarchy. That love, which all my life I have craved, here I experience more and more as the days pass. One day Baba said he would help me by awakening in my heart the realisation of his divine presence, and later this happened. I became aware of the Self as the Self of all beings." (Adriel 1947:128-129)
Leik had a very different temperament to Brunton, and fitted in well with the mandali (unlike Brunton, who reacted to the environment of Meherabad). Meher Baba soon instructed him to observe silence, which Leik did not find difficult. Baba gave a warning that he could not see the visitor every day, and told Leik to wait for a cue. “Even if I don’t call you for days, don’t come and don’t worry” (Kalchuri, Vol. 3, p. 1111).
In contrast, Brunton resented being left alone, and reacted negatively during his sojourn at Nasik ashram in 1931. Brunton wanted attention, believing that his questions and inclinations were of significance. He appears to have been a compulsive talker, especially in relation to pet “esoteric” themes such as telepathy. Brunton was like a newspaper reporter, pressing insistent questions that Meher Baba may have deemed superfluous. There was no injunction for Brunton to observe silence. The lack of attention and limelight for Brunton was accompanied by an absence of miracles. This meant that Meher Baba was a fraud, and should therefore be depicted as such.
The silent Irani mystic told Leik: “I will speak with you inwardly” (ibid). Leik was subsequently directed to visit Baba’s father Sheriar at Poona, a privilege not extended to Brunton.
Sheriar Irani had a pronounced disposition for silence. His daughter Mani later related something of what occurred. She says (in an audio file) that her father and Leik would sit together in silence for hours. This was the situation when she departed to attend school. When she returned for lunch, these two men were still sitting in the same room, and in the same position. Leik would depart hours later, shortly before Mani returned home from school in the afternoon.
Sheriar was now a businessman (not from choice, but as a consequence of domestic necessity). Some of his acquaintances could not understand his contemplative nature. Sheriar Irani came from the neo-Kaivani world of ascetic vigils, silence, and non-dogmatic insight. He was an exemplar of “Be in the world but not of the world,” a practice primarily associated with Persian Sufism, but also existing amongst Kaivani merchants of the Mughal era.
The peeved Brunton dismissed Leik in three short and very inadequate paragraphs. “Sadhu Leik” was supposedly worsted in becoming a “missionary disciple” (Brunton 1934:59). Other reports are more comprehensive (Purdom 1937:125-6, 152; Kalchuri, 1120, 1142, 1253; Fenster, Lord Meher online, 982-3, 1018). Brunton expressed the opinion that Leik “was physically unfitted for a wandering life,” and implies that Leik died as a result of a “tour round India” in 1929. The dour insinuation was here being made that Meher Baba killed Leik by interposing mendicancy.
Sadhu Christian Leik was a mendicant before he came to Meher Baba. This Christian had adopted elements of the Hindu sannyasin life with a very unusual degree of commitment. This was now his “third pilgrimage” to India, and each time Leik travelled as a mendicant. He had taken the name of Sadhu in honour of the Indian Christian mendicant known as Sadhu Sundar Singh, who died prematurely (apparently in 1929), perhaps because of exhaustion from laborious travels. Leik blended Christianity and Hinduism. In 1928, he arrived at Toka after a trek from the Himalayas, where he had been warned against Meher Baba by Hindu sceptics who knew very little about the Irani mystic.
Baba very rarely endorsed any renunciate option, insisting that his followers remain in the world, to pursue an internal renunciation as distinct from external renunciation. Sadhu Christian Leik was an exception, having become an affiliate of the Ramakrishna Order. However, there were complexities here. Meher Baba told Leik that he would assist him to become a true sannyasin by a form of mental renunciation (renouncing everything in the mind). Leik continued to wear the gerua cloth given to him by a direct disciple of Vivekananda. This robe he wore in honour of Ramakrishna. Meher Baba did not interfere with this disposition; however, he advised Leik to stop writing articles in the idiom of Advaita Vedanta.
This curb on Advaita apparently occurred because Leik tended strongly to a form of introversion; Sadhu Leik himself relates that he had lived for twenty years in a "bodiless" state of consciousness. His recent stay in the Himalayan monastery had been very contemplative and withdrawn. Leik continued to use some Vedantic terminology in his more general communications. He conveys that Baba did not want him to be severed from maya, but instead to work in maya. This meant that his introversion should be offset by involvement with others.
Accordingly, Leik was encouraged to continue writing to his friends in the West. He had formerly been an industrious reader over the years, but now all desire for reading left him. His intellectual orientation changed. Yet Leik's version of devotion to Meher Baba was quite different to the standard disposition involved. He wrote: "No longer is he an Avatar, or any of the divine aspects, to me. He is my own real Self." This very early reference to avatar identity reflects a belief of some devotees in a transcendent role. Meher Baba himself would not openly proclaim such a role for many years. Leik's understanding of that role was very different to the version of Brunton, whose depiction of a "messiah" disposition was very confusing.
The Russian sannyasin was permitted to undertake pilgrimage to different places, afterwards returning to Meherabad as a silent ascetic. Later, his instructions were changed. Leik was absolved from the need for silence, and prepared for a journey in South India, which commenced in April 1929.
During the first stage of this expedition, Leik was a mendicant, begging his food and taking whatever shelter he could find. He arrived at Madras, and there formed a group of receptive Hindus, including A. C. S. Chari, who eventually became a prominent devotee of Meher Baba. Subsequently, Leik moved on to Bangalore, Mysore, and other cities, sometimes spending about two weeks in one place. He conveyed news of Meher Baba to his acquaintances, constantly applying himself to "work in maya," as distinct from a monastic life of retirement. His mode of travel by this time is obscure. Nor is it clear as to whether Leik had any ongoing instruction after reaching Madras.
At Madras, Leik wrote that he had the feeling Baba wanted him to visit different parts of India, to establish connections. He eventually moved northwards, and by August was at Rishikesh, intending to visit nearby Hardwar, where he planned to be the guest of Dr. Swami Nischayananda of the Ramakrishna Mission Sevashram at Kankhal. At Rishikesh however, he became ill, and his tour then ended. Leik was in hospital for two months, being tended by Nischayananda.
He had been intending to travel to the Punjab and Gujarat, followed by a move south to Bombay. Instead, Leik moved back to Meherabad, in a condition of serious depletion. He died there on October 29, 1929, “saying just prior to his decease that his heart was ‘filled with boundless joy’ ” (Shepherd, unpublished manuscript, 1:437). He was buried in the Christian cemetery at Ahmednagar. (4)
Leik was held in high regard by Meher Baba devotees, by some distant Estonians, and yet others. Soon after his death, he was commemorated by a correspondent in London who contacted a Meher Baba devotee in India: “He [Leik] wrote to the Estonian lady [Mary Treumann] saying how good you all were to him, and that he was at peace and knew he was passing on. I journeyed with him to see him start for the land he loved – India. I wept when I heard of his death, as we were brothers all these [thirty] years and I never met a more impressive soul. He was absolutely unselfish and lived only to bless others” (Shepherd, unpublished ms., 1:438).
Leik combined Christian charity with Vedantic metaphysic and ascetic rigour. He inaugurated the Madrasi reception of Meher Baba, in which Brunton soon after became involved at the Saidapet ashram. The Madras devotees were subsequently disconcerted to find that Brunton betrayed their goodwill and hospitality by trashing their figurehead (Meher Baba) because of a primitive instinct for miracles.
In his commercial book Secret India, Brunton gave the impression that he was merely a sceptical enquirer, not an admirer (which was his actual profile at Madras). The despicable literary tactic of Paul Brunton was to relegate Leik as a misguided missionary, and to conceal his own participation in devotee events at Saidapet, where he had glorified his telepathic contact with Meher Baba, whom he had described in laudatory terms (Shepherd 1988b:150).
In 1932, before his book was published, Brunton was active (behind the scenes) in a media attack on Meher Baba, a John Bull feature he wrote anonymously with a Parsi collaborator. His magazine article said of K. J. Dastur, a disaffected Parsi devotee: “In vain he waited for his Master to perform miracles” (Parks 2009:281). Brunton’s own complaint was here being repeated. The British author Charles Purdom subsequently met Brunton, and found that the latter’s assessment of Meher Baba revolved around the subject of miracles. Brunton said that he had asked Baba to perform a miracle, which was not forthcoming (Purdom 1964:128). This was interpreted by the accuser as proof of fraud. Meher Baba may have known how to treat superfluous requests by deflecting the problematic party.
Purdom reports of K. J. Dastur that this effusive devotee “described himself [in a magazine] as ‘The Disciple of his Divine Majesty,’ which was objected to by the mandali; but the editor [Dastur] would not listen to them, and [Meher] Baba, as usual, was indifferent to such matters” (Purdom 1964:77).
5. Yogis, Masters, Powers, and Miracles
The press could be very misleading. A Texan newspaper of 1932 proclaimed that Meher Baba was a “Holy Man of the Hindu Yogis” (ibid:302). Meher Baba was not a Yogi. He did not encourage interest in siddhis (powers), and nor miracles. To the contrary, he warned against hagiology: for example, his comments made in 1954 about B. V. Narasimhaswami and Shirdi Sai Baba (Shepherd 2015:42).
Meher Baba resisted siddhis as a distraction and danger, e.g., “siddhis are therefore rightly regarded as obstacles to the attainment of Realization” (Discourses 1987:191). The Irani exponent also mentioned severe pitfalls that can occur as a consequence of misusing “powers” (Meher Baba 1973:125-128). His version of that subject is by no means typical of gurus, and remains little known.
The Irani mystic was an adroit critic of Yogis. He distinguished a higher category of “masters” who were superior to Yogis. At an early date, in August 1927, Meher Baba is reported to have conveyed: “The powers of the yogis are borrowed and are used with an effort, while the powers of a God-realised one are his own and used automatically. Miracles of yogis are selfish as they are invariably based on personal motives.... Miracles in [themselves], whether manifested by Masters or yogis, are mere illusions in comparison with Truth and are no more substantial than this shadow of a world” (Parks 2005:605).
There followed a reflection that the famous Yogi miracle of resuscitating the dead was not favoured by masters (sadgurus), who would prefer “to impress upon the world the fact that what they [in the world] consider to be death is no death at all. Whom to revive when none [are] dead?” (ibid)
In London during 1932, a British journalist reported Meher Baba as saying he could perform miracles if necessary. The Irani said that he had bathed lepers in India, and they had been cured. However, the outcome of this conversation was that Meher Baba queried why the journalist was so insistent on miracles. “Miracles, he explained, were really unimportant” (Davy 1981:43). Meher Baba emphasised, on this occasion, that the attainment of “spiritual unity” is of far greater significance than anything miraculous.
Many people in Britain and America were then preoccupied with miracles, because of references in the New Testament to such phenomena as raising the dead; the enthusiasts found difficulty in assimilating non-Christian teachings.
That same year, Meher Baba briefly mentioned the subject of miracles in two public messages delivered in America. The words were identical, commencing with: “The ability to perform miracles does not necessarily connote high spirituality; anyone who has reached the Christ Consciousness can perform them” (Parks 2009:8,14). He actually said very little about miracles, but this subject was preferred by journalists and some devotees, giving a misleading impression to others.
Several years later, Meher Baba remarked: “The Masters may use their powers on rare occasions to break down the ego of their disciples or help them further along the path.... Ordinarily they secure their purposes through normal, mundane ways” (Discourses 1987:155-156). This was not the kind of message desired by a siddhis enthusiast like Paul Brunton.
In later decades, Meher Baba became more dismissive in reference to miracles. He was known to state that miracles claimed by his devotees were the product of their faith in him, and actually nothing to do with him. He thus disowned miracles attributed to him. In November 1952, he conveyed at Meherabad:
"From letters I am informed that, at present, so many persons in the West are having miraculous experiences about me. They write that they saw me there [in the West] . But honestly, I do not know anything of this, even one per cent. How can I know this when I do not do this? If you think I consciously do and know all these 'miracles.' you are under a false impression. Then who did it? God did it for me." (Kalchuri, Vol. Eleven, 3934)
He did not deny that paranormal events could occur, but he did not credit these as being advanced. Meher Baba criticised the Tantric tradition for encouraging a preoccupation with powers (siddhis), a subject converging so strongly with miracles.
At Poona in 1963, he relayed: “It is possible to derive such powers if you gain Tantric knowledge. These powers may then be utilised for good or bad purposes.... Such powers have nothing to do with the spiritual path. Miracles performed by people who possess such powers are very childish” (Bharucha 1963:31).
On the same occasion, he added: “Powers have no importance, only Love counts on the Path. It requires daring to annihilate oneself. Miracles are childish things” (ibid:33).
6. The Kaivan School
The most applicable associative context for Meher Baba is within the Zoroastrian heritage, not within the Hindu religion. His unorthodox approach has only one clear parallel in earlier times. In the book Iranian Liberal, I emphasised the unusual tradition known as the Azar Kaivan school, a phenomenon of the Mughal era (Shepherd 1988b:127-145). Azar Kaivan (d.1618) was a distinctive Irani Zoroastrian savant who fled from the afflicting Safavid rule in Iran to the tolerance of Mughal India. He was accompanied by Irani disciples, a circle which eventually expanded to include Muslim contacts, two Jews, and others. (5)
The unusual work Dabistan-e Mazahib is inseparably associated with the seventeenth century outspread of this school. Some scholars believe that the Dabistan was composed by a Zoroastrian writer. This author described various contemporary religious and mystical groupings, including the Kaivan school (Shepherd 1988a, part two).
The convergence of Meher Baba, in his heretical context, with the Kaivan school, is fairly substantial (his father Sheriar was familiar with Kaivani works). The Irani Zoroastrian background, the liberal inter-religious attitude, and the basic orientation in a disciplined lifestyle, are some shared features. However, there are some differences. For instance, Meher Baba did not promote Kaivani texts, and did not elevate the ishraqi corpus associated with Suhrawardi Maqtul (d.1191). He was instead completely independent in his own exposition.
Much had happened since the seventeenth century. The Islamic rule had been ousted by the British colonial system. When incoming Iranis arrived in India, they now found a very different milieu to that of Mughal domination. The immigrants did not have to contend with Islamic doctrine, unlike the situation in Qajar Iran, where the ulama were very influential. Meher Baba was instead at loggerheads with the caste system of Hinduism, and strongly supported the untouchables, a factor reflected in his notable meeting with Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar at Bombay in 1932 (Shepherd 2005:124-125). That meeting was unpublicised, symptomatic of the genuine commitment demonstrated by both parties.
The Kaivan school was commemorated in the syllabus of the Meher Ashram, an institution existing at Meherabad during 1927-28. In addition to secular tuition, the inmates were educated in religious history and texts of different traditions. On Saturdays, the curriculum included biographies of spiritual leaders, including “Hazrat Azar Kaiwan (a Zoroastrian Master).” This quotation comes from a work (Kalchuri, Vol. 3, 963) that also includes a discrepant rendering of a discourse of Meher Baba mentioning Azar Kaivan (ibid:1020). The misextrapolation has caused a confusion explained elsewhere (Shepherd 1995:854n.152). The original discourse states: “The last true dastur was Azar Kaivan” (Shepherd 1988b:129-130).
The religious aspect of the Meher Ashram curriculum extended to Islam and Sufism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. There was a Gujarati class reading selections from the Desatir, the Ilm-e-Khshnum, and the Gathas of Zarathushtra (Kalchuri, Vol. 3, 963). Meher Baba himself did not teach, or quote from, the Gathas (a word generally translated as hymns). Nor did he promote the Desatir, a text strongly associated with the Kaivan school; this book became controversial amongst nineteenth century European scholars for a "pseudo-Pahlavi" linguistic format, but has since achieved an improved rating. Meher Baba had no affiliation to the Ilm-e-Khshnum, but was liberal in permitting references to diverse religious movements and texts within the Meher Ashram syllabus.
Confirmation of Meher Baba’s positive appraisal of Azar Kaivan is afforded by an episode occurring in March 1963. He then told a gathering of Parsi devotees that Kaivan was a Zoroastrian “perfect master,” a very high distinction in his vocabulary. The gist of his communication was that, after severe difficulties and trials, Kaivan was given “God-realisation” by another master. This climax occurred after Kaivan was like a dead man for forty days, uttering “Yazdan, Yazdan” until he lost his voice (Cyrus M. Khambata, Azar Kaivan and Milarepa).
The Ilm-e-Khshnum (Path of Knowledge) was a much more recent Zoroastrian movement, created by Behramshah N. Shroff (1858-1927). This Parsi exponent is said to have been enlightened by “masters” who taught him the esoteric meaning of the Avesta. His inspiration is attributed to a secret colony of Zoroastrians in Iran. Shroff gained a following in Surat and Bombay, and converted some Parsi priests at Udwada. He may have been partially influenced by the Kaivani heritage, but did not further the liberal dimensions of that trend. Instead, his movement was exclusively Zoroastrian. Shroff insisted upon formal religious observance.
In 1911, Shroff published in Gujarati the first volume of his Ilm-e Khshnum series, entitled The Key to Understanding the Zoroastrian Religion. "Shroff attracted a considerable group of followers, who then went on to publish their own Khshnumist interpretations of Zoroastrian texts" (Sheffield 2015:549).
The Ilm-e-Khshnum became rivals of the Theosophical Society, but are often stated to have been strongly influenced by that organisation. The teaching of Shroff has been described as a Zoroastrianised version of Theosophy, or a "Zoroastrian Theosophy" (Hinnells 2005:104). The Theosophical Society was introduced at Bombay in 1879. By the 1920s, Theosophy had gained many converts amongst Parsis. Shroff converged with Theosophy in his beliefs concerning reincarnation, vegetarianism, the importance of occult powers, and the value of traditional rituals. However, there is a degree of friction discernible in some Khshnumi commentaries, which view Theosophy as a distraction influenced by non-Zoroastrian religions. Shroff himself is said to have expressed opposition to some Theosophical concepts.
Khshnumis have disagreed with the assertion, of a prominent Western scholar, concerning Shroff: "His doctrine has been characterised as a thorough-going adaptation of theosophy, with belief in one impersonal God, planes of being, and reincarnation, much planetary lore, and a complete disregard for textual or historical accuracy" (Boyce 2001:205). The late Mary Boyce tended to view departures from Zoroastrian orthodoxy as an aberration. More approvingly, the same scholar relays that the Khshnumis opposed elaborate ritual improvisations of Parsi Theosophists, instead practising a strict ritual orthodoxy (ibid).
Meher Baba moved in the opposite direction to Shroff. He likewise claimed a link with “masters,” but in his case, these entities were very tangible, primarily meaning Hazrat Babajan, Shirdi Sai Baba, and Upasani Maharaj. He did not teach the esoteric meaning of the Avesta, a Zoroastrian corpus which he tended very much to ignore. The rituals favoured by Shroff were regarded by Meher Baba as superfluous. The following of Meher Baba was not exclusively Zoroastrian, but extended to members of all religions, including untouchables or harijans.
Meher Baba was in basic disagreement with the Theosophical Society. He dismissed the relevance of ritualism and occult powers. The Irani mystic is known to have criticised the Theosophical conception of “masters” as being inadequate and misleading. Meher Baba insisted that there were very few genuine masters (or “perfect masters” as he called them), and stated that only five of these existed in the world at any one time. He referred to these rare entities as sadgurus or qutubs, the designations here coming from the Hindu and Sufi repertories respectively.
Still obscure to most readers are the “mast tours” undertaken by Meher Baba during the late 1930s and 1940s. This very distinctive activity involved much exertion, considerable philanthropy, and an entire absence of publicity. The three major assistants were all Zoroastrians, notably Aga Baidul, an Irani from the Yazd plain. It is a fact that this “mast work” was unique in twentieth century circles of “spiritual masters.” The descriptions of masts and related categories, supplied by Meher Baba, are very unusual (Donkin 1948).
The major work of Meher Baba was published at New York in 1955. This text includes a vocabulary of Vedantic and Sufi terminologies. For this reason, the presentation was frequently offputting to readers who wanted a more casual digest. However, Meher Baba himself was neither a Vedantist nor a Muslim Sufi. He was undoubtedly liberal to both of these traditions, and quite intimately familiar with them. Nevertheless, the differences have to be assimilated.
His version of the spiritual path is not in the format of classical Sufism, and nor canonical Advaita or Vishishdadvaita (despite usage of Vedantic terms). Nor is he a dualist (dvaitin). He does not refer to, or quote, Shankara or Ramanuja, and nor other famous acharyas. There are, however, brief references to both Kabir (a sant) and the Persian poet Hafiz. In other communications, the author made favourable references to sants of the Maharashtrian bhakti tradition. (6) That tradition, including Eknath and Tukaram, had an extension in the symbiosis of Sufi and bhakti heritages.
In his earlier Discourses, there is a similar tendency. Included in one discourse are brief references to Kabir, Rumi, Shams-e-Tabriz, Ghaus Ali Shah, and Bahlul. Sants and Sufis are thus represented, but not the acharyas of Vedanta. The latter category are associated with caste norms, which may have been a reason for the Irani reluctance. Nevertheless, metaphysical teachings of Meher Baba often include emphases comparable to Advaita (non-dualism).
In another direction, his evolutionism is distinctive, and not found in Vedanta texts or Sufi manuals. He rejected the retrograde evolution denoted by the concept of regress into animal forms from the human stage. This disconcerting feature can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient Greek philosophy. Meher Baba was not a copyist or rote programme specialist. Nothing similar to his presentation can be found in the Zoroastrian priestly texts known as Zend-Avesta.
In a more relaxed mode, the Irani mystic approvingly relates the story of how Maulana Rumi was asked by his master Shams-e-Tabriz to fetch wine from a tavern. A serious drawback here was that Rumi had the role of a prominent theologian, with many orthodox followers and associates. Wine was prohibited to Muslims. The new assignment was an impossibility for canonical acceptance. This request “was a crucial test for the Maulana to carry a jar of wine on his shoulders through the streets, but he did it” (Discourses, 1987:155). Meher Baba himself was a teetotaller who had long prohibited alcohol at his ashrams. His standard of discipline was very high, and for most people would amount to a form of asceticism. He often emphasised the factor of obedience in teacher-pupil relationships, something which supersedes mere conversation and veneration.
9. Sufism Reoriented
Rabia Martin (1871-1947) was the first murshida of the Sufi Order founded by Inayat Khan (1882-1927). Rabia (Ada Ginsberg) was initiated at San Francisco in 1911, and subsequently became leader of that movement in America. In 1945, she "announced to all her Sufi students that her work was now dedicated to Meher Baba and that if they wished to remain in her Sufi group, their spiritual allegiance would need to be to him" (Kalchuri, Vol. Nine, 3071). Rabia Martin died two years later. A problem she had to contend with until her death was the legacy of Inayat Khan's belief in mediumistic abilities. (7)
Murshida Ivy Duce (1895-1981) was the successor of Rabia Martin. She likewise chose to follow Meher Baba, visiting him at his ashram in 1948. The host expressed satisfaction when Duce admitted her lack of spiritual illumination. Duce later told a newspaper reporter: "He [Baba] said that as long as I didn't claim to be a saint or anything, and if I remained totally honest, he would guide me."
Four years later, in 1952, Meher Baba assisted the Sufi Order of Murshida Ivy Duce by contributing to a new Charter. Her organisation became known as Sufism Reoriented. This development has been attended by confusions. (8) Murshida Ivy Duce and her American Sufi murids became devotees of Meher Baba. There were some tensions reported between that contingent and other Western devotees, a factor which did not always assist accurate information.
One of the earliest followers of Meher Baba was Dr. Abdul Ghani Munsiff (d.1951), an Indian Muslim who lived at Poona, "where he was regarded as the leader of a non-sectarian group of persons with Sufi interests" (Shepherd 1988b:213). In the late 1940s, Ghani was the intermediary in correspondence between Murshida Duce and Meher Baba (whom Ghani and other Muslims referred to as Hazrat Meher Baba). Ghani frequently communicated in a Sufi vein of expression, and at that period, was involved in taking dictations from Meher Baba for the book published in 1955.
Ghani had long ago encountered Inayat Khan, holding that Sufi in high regard. However, Ghani was disappointed when he eventually read the books of Khan that Ivy Duce sent to him. Murshida Duce enthusiastically preserved the initiatory ritualism she had inherited from the Chishti Order. Ghani himself believed that Sufi ritualism was a superfluous distraction. Meher Baba was strongly resistant to the varying forms of ritualism found in Sufism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. This characteristic had nothing to do with Protestant Christianity, a religious influence often associated with modification of Parsi ritualism in colonial India. Despite his own personal inclinations, Baba made a point of saying (in 1952) that he allowed his followers to do as they wanted in relation to religious observances. For instance, most of his Zoroastrian devotees continued to wear the kushti (ceremonial thread) around their waist, and he did not interfere with such practices (there is a belief that he himself continued to wear the kushti).
An explanation, which Meher Baba transmitted to Duce (via Ghani, in 1948), asserts that a spiritual master (or qutub) "never goes through the formality of accepting or initiating a disciple" (Duce 1975:719). An accompanying detail is that discipleship has "to be formed and forged by the aspirant himself, the criterion for which is the quality of self-surrender" (ibid).
One of the complaints made by Meher Baba, in private correspondence, was that orthodox Sufism relied upon hereditary descent in the selection of leaders, whose familiarity with religious scriptures was regarded as authoritative. He distinguished such practices from spirituality. In March 1948 (via Ghani), Meher Baba told Duce that conventional Sufi text experts should "never take upon themselves the responsibility of guiding others, much less claim the authority of conferring Khilafatship [Successorship]."
Similar objections to those of Meher Baba have since been lodged by other critics of orthodox Sufism. Contrary to some assumptions, the Ghani-Duce correspondence of 1948-49 had nothing to do with the "Sufi Charter," a project conceived in 1952 and drafted by Americans.
Meher Baba was in no hurry to assist with a Sufi Charter, and in 1949, launched into the renunciatory phase he called the New Life, which involved dramatic changes. He certainly gave Murshida Duce and her colleagues plenty of time to consider what they wished to do with their Sufi Order. Nearly all correspondence ceased during the New Life, during which Ghani only sent one or two letters to Murshida Duce, prior to his death in 1951.
During a visit to America in 1952, Meher Baba encountered many Sufis (pupils of Duce), who proved warmly receptive to him. He then promised these people a Charter in the near future. He also conveyed a brief but evocative message, emphasising that he was equally approachable "through Sufism, Vedantism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, and other 'isms' of any kind, and also directly through no medium of 'isms' at all" (Kalchuri, Vol. Eleven, 3872). He afterwards gave an explanation, which included a complaint that formalism and ritual had caused a problem in various religions. This situation he compared to the effect of rivers running dry. Sufism, Vedanta, and Zoroastrianism were explicitly part of the drawback.
The subsequent Charter has often been mistakenly attributed to Meher Baba. In actual fact, he did not compose this document, but merely appended his signature. He told Duce to collect and format the varied points necessary, his own task being to correct the draft. A letter to Duce from the secretary Adi K. Irani, dated July 1952, informs that he was reading daily for half an hour to Meher Baba (at Youpon Dunes), a session including the Charter draft that Duce had sent him. "He [Meher Baba] finds many points [in the Charter draft] perfect and many points needing correction." It was Adi K. Irani (1903-1980) who coined the name Sufism Reoriented. The editing of the Charter was delayed by Meher Baba's motor accident in America. The document was not finished until November 1952.
According to a report from the mandali after Baba's death, several versions of the Charter were drafted by American Sufis (primarily Ludwig Dimpfl, Ivy Duce, and Don Stevens). According to Duce, she was in despair that so many queries remained about the format. One version (basically by Stevens) was approved by Meher Baba. He then stipulated that the existing twelve initiations employed by the Sufi Order (of Duce) should be discontinued. However, he permitted an invocation of Inayat Khan to be retained under Article (Section) VI. He also permitted a Sufi practice of breathing, but warned that this should not resemble any of the Yogic practices. Further, the breathing should be practised as a "conveyor of God's name and of the Master's name, with feelings of tender emotions." These directions come from an undated letter of 1952, composed at his dictation by one of the mandali, apparently Adi K. Irani (this letter is now online and well known).
In the same letter, Meher Baba advised that the use of "graded papers," authored by Inayat Khan, was to be discontinued. Thirty years later, Don Stevens supplied the information (to the mandali) that Murshida Duce was very upset by the request to cease using the Khan papers for purposes of instruction. For more than a year, she protested to the Irani mystic that the Khan papers were essential to her work. She eventually told Stevens that Meher Baba had at last given her permission to use those papers. Stevens himself then used the Khan papers in Sufi groups under the control of Duce. However, he developed a preference for using the books of Meher Baba in activities that were not subject to the direction of his American mentor. Because of disagreements, Stevens eventually parted from Duce and Sufism Reoriented. His own dissenting reports are very relevant in this subject. (9)
Murshida Duce claimed that Meher Baba promised her a permanent succession of illumined teachers for Sufism Reoriented, to last for seven centuries. The contrasting report of Don Stevens makes clear that this preposterous theme had no basis. (10) The misleading nature of the claim made by Murshida Duce now stands out in sharp relief. (11)
Meher Baba parried the expectation in several ways. He said that charting the democratic aspect of Sufism Reoriented was easy, but to ensure a succession of illumined Murshids was "infinitely difficult." Stevens eventually grasped that Baba was not obligated to fulfill their wishes in this respect. Meher Baba avoided making any promise in relation to the obsession with successors. Instead, he made the Charter state: "Privileges and preorogatives born of Divine Illumination and of Realisation of Truth could never be subject to statutory provision of any kind."
The Sufi Charter is not a long document, and is divided into seven sections. An introduction conveys that Meher Baba's own perspective was "detached and above all religions." A basic theme here is that he specified five principal approaches to spiritual reality, meaning Sufism, Vedantism, Christian mysticism, "Broad Buddhism," and "Dasatirian Zoroastrianism." The American commentaries have not defined what the word "Dasatirian" means. Meher Baba was evidently referring to the Kaivan school text Desatir which rivalled orthodox Zoroastrianism; this "esoteric Zoroastrianism" was favoured by his father Sheriar. Meher Baba never taught the Desatir, and nor did he employ the teachings of Buddhism or Christianity. However, the basic purpose of the Charter introduction was to emphasise that all five religious approaches had equal validity in his eyes. The Irani mystic was not sectarian in any way.
10. The Avatar Claim
In 1954, during a darshan tour in Hamirpur, an innovation occurred when Meher Baba publicly referred to himself as the avatar (divine incarnation). For the first time, he acknowledged a devotee salute that he had previously ignored: "Avatar Meher Baba ki jai." He spelled out this Hindu salute on his alphabet board at a gathering of devotees (Kalchuri, Vol. Twelve, 4283). He subsequently maintained the elevated identity, which has been enthusiastically promoted by devotees, and strongly denied by critics. I am not concerned here to make such judgements, but merely to provide some contextual details. (12)
A very different situation had applied in the New Life phase of 1949-50, when the operative mode for participants was emphasised in terms of: "We should not talk about [Meher] Baba as Master, Sadguru, or Avatar, and we as his disciples; but only to refer to Baba and ourselves as companions" (New Life Circular 2, January 1950).
The Irani mystic borrowed the word avatar from Hinduism, but his usage of the term was unusual, not fitting standard Hindu doctrines. The same word became commonplace (and rather trite) in Western literary vocabulary, as a consequence of exposure to Hinduism during the hippy era of the 1960s.
Meher Baba also employed, if much less frequently, the accompanying Persian term saheb-e-zaman (Shepherd 2005:139). That phrase means “master of the age,” and has some Sufi associations. However, in Shia Islam, the phrase can denote a return of the twelfth imam. (13)
Another word he used (infrequently) was rasul (Arabic for “messenger” or “apostle”). A feature of related interest can be mentioned. During his 1929 tour of Iran, a rumour developed amongst Shi’ite Muslims that he was the imam (leader) or rasul (ibid:120). Meher Baba avoided this enthusiasm, and declined to meet the Shah of Iran.
In 1956, Meher Baba made a further visit to America. A number of brief messages were afterwards published in commemoration. “All the while strictly maintaining his silence, which has now been unbroken for thirty-two years, the teacher delivered the messages by means of hand gestures rather than with the aid of his alphabet board” (Life At Its Best, 1957, p. 5).
Those introductory words were written by Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878-1965). This pioneering enthusiast of Tibetan Buddhism was much impressed by the Irani, grasping the extent of his personal discipline, and also the profundity of his communications. In relation to one of the messages, Evans-Wentz commented: “No wiser definition of the term God has ever been formulated” (ibid:7).
Reactions to silence, and to communication via the alphabet board (and subsequently hand gestures), were sometimes negative. Prodigiously vocal sceptics were incredulous as to how such communication could be effective, or even valid.
In India, the Hindus refer to silent ascetics in terms of maunam. In such circles, a vow of silence is undertaken for a longer or shorter period of time. Meher Baba was not a Hindi muni, whatever degree of cross-cultural affinity may have existed. He did not take any vow, but continued silence year by year, and indeed, until his death. He was not a declared meditator. Instead, he referred to an activity he called his “work,” stated to be occurring throughout his diverse seclusions, fasts, journeys, and darshan programmes.
A major aspect of lifestyle, in this instance, was seclusion. The retirements of Meher Baba took different forms, and the period of duration likewise varied. He was very often not available to the public, in contrast to many gurus residing at ashrams.
Retirement was generally operative throughout his many journeys, both in India and overseas. An exception was a visit to the West in 1932, when certain British devotees wished to promote him in the press. Meher Baba complied, but soon afterwards reverted to his preferred agenda of incognito travel and aloofness from press coverage.
The well known clip from a Pathe newsreel dates to the 1932 exception. The film crew from Paramount Studios naively expected the Irani visitor to speak while being filmed in London. They had to be content with a silent performance, with author Charles Purdom as the vocalist (Shepherd 1988b:199). (14) Even some devotees had a very limited cognisance of Meher Baba’s lifestyle and priorities. In later years, Purdom discerningly related a significant feature of events:
“To be importunate with him [Meher Baba] usually meant that he gave the answer desired, just as any devotee who greatly wished to take any action was, after warning, allowed to do it.” (Purdom 1951:258)
The many newspaper reports in 1932 were often sensational and misleading, both in Britain and America. One of the more reliable British journalists recorded a very recent disclosure of Meher Baba: “The statement that I am a ‘messiah’ is not to be taken in a literal sense” (Davy 1981:43). Rumours about a messianic role were rarely checked in reference to what he actually said. Some devotees magnified such rumours. (15) One British journalist informed: “I asked Mr. [Meredith] Starr whether Baba would proclaim himself Messiah, and he said that was a question only Baba could answer” (Parks 2009:287). The fact is that Meher Baba had not proclaimed himself as a messiah, a reticence in contrast to all the talk of Starr and other Western devotees about his being a “new Messiah.” Another fact is that Starr gained a great deal of attention in this situation, despite having been a subject of caution in private remarks of Meher Baba to the mandali.
In 1932, Meher Baba was erroneously described in one American newspaper as a Parsi priest (Parks 2009:279). A more factual report in the Washington Post referred to “Meher Baba, proclaimed by his followers as the ‘god man’ and ‘new Messiah,’ arrived here tonight [in Dover, England] from Bombay and had considerable difficulty with port officials on account of his eight year vow of silence” (ibid:285). Very few outsiders understood his silence. A number of Western devotees were not especially discerning in this respect.
Some Western devotees found his preference for retirement very difficult to understand. They tended to assume that he wanted publicity. In contrast, for much of his life, Meher Baba demonstrated that he was averse to publicity. His frequent resort to an incognito profile eluded reporters and sightseers. A person who is committed to silence and seclusion is not the most likely candidate for public parade.
The seclusions occurred at numerous places in India, and also in other countries. Perhaps the most distinctive overseas seclusion programme occurred at Mashhad in 1931. Meher Baba there managed to gain entry into the shrine of Imam Ali Reza (d.818), an important site of Shia Islam, guarded by Shia clerics. Non-Muslims were not allowed into the courtyards of the shrine. However, the prestigious caretaker admitted Meher Baba after experiencing a powerful dream about a holy man who had come to Iran (Kalchuri, Vol. 4, 1370). (16)
Meher Baba was typically incognito on that occasion, being identified as the “elder brother” by his companions. For three nights, he sat alone in the Imam Reza shrine. He afterwards acknowledged Mashhad as being a significant factor in the process of his “universal manifestation.” Interpretation of such references can vary substantially amongst devotees and other analysts.
13. Last Years
In 1967, a short documentary film (Beyond Words) was made (by Louis van Gasteren) of Meher Baba (this film did not become available until thirty years later). The filming occurred at Meherazad ashram (near Ahmednagar), which retained a rustic simplicity. The Irani mystic is here shown washing the feet of lepers, a laborious activity for which he was privately noted. His philanthropy towards the poor and lepers continued throughout his career, and was not typical of gurus. Details were not generally known. Gifts of food, clothing, or money, usually accompanied the ablutions.
Meher Baba was now in his last seclusion, when very few people were able to see him. Westerners were especially rare, in this respect. The surviving mandali were surprised that he allowed Gasteren to visit the ashram and do the filming.
The Gasteren film included a communication from Meher Baba, via hand gestures, warning about the deceptions involved in drug use. Baba here referred to the recurring situation in which many Indian holy men smoke cannabis (ganja or charas), while imagining that they have acquired a spiritual expansion. They see colours and signs; such hallucinations make them feel they have gained enlightenment. Their experience is not continuous, Baba emphasised, and eventually the addicts can become crazy.
In contrast, the Irani claimed a continuous mystical experience without resort to drugs. He was by then well known for his warnings about LSD and other drugs, which he said are harmful in various ways. These warnings were transmitted to the Western world during 1965-66.
During the last years of his life, some American devotees tended to emphasise a brief saying of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry be happy.” The history of this reflection was ignored. (17) The slogan was widely circulated via small printed cards (and also posters). A popular song afterwards featured the simple four word injunction as a title. As a consequence, some outsiders came to believe that the “Don’t worry” aphorism reflected the major teaching of Meher Baba. They were unaware of his extensive dictations, which in conceptual content, substantially exceed the contraction imposed by hindsight.
In 1968, Meher Baba declared that his "work" was now completed to his 100 per cent satisfaction. He did not explain the meaning of this disclosure. There were various theories and beliefs as to what he referred to.
14. The Mandali versus Murshid Mackie
Meher Baba died at Meherazad ashram in January 1969. He had already prepared his tomb at Meherabad, a basically simple building in a desolate landscape. The surviving mandali, now only a small number of men and women, were host to the international pilgrims.
A decade after the death of Meher Baba, a notable division occurred within the movement. The key mover was Eruch B. Jessawala (1916-2001), a Parsi who had joined the mandali as a young man in 1938. He had played a strong role during the low profile mast tours, and had become the major interpreter of Baba's innovated gesture language during the 1950s. Most of the men mandali were now deceased, some long departed. For instance, Dr. Ghani had died thirty years earlier, and the secretary F. H. Dadachanji had expired in 1943. The sturdy Baidul Irani died soon after Baba, and likewise Dr. William Donkin.
Eruch took strong exception to developments occurring at Sufism Reoriented in distant California. In 1980 he campaigned against the recent action of Murshida Ivy Duce in nominating a "spiritual successor," namely James (Jim) Mackie. The agitated letters of Eruch complained at what the mandali felt to be an unwarranted innovation. Eruch had received complaints about Mackie from other American devotees; the behaviour of Mackie was now considered too disconcerting to condone. The tactics of Mackie have been described by critics as theatrical, manipulative, and even hypnotic. His chain-smoking became another subject of query (Meher Baba did not smoke, and tended to frown upon this habit, save in relation to masts).
Murshida Duce sent a delegation to India, for the purpose of justifying her organisation against the recent volley of critique. Her five emissaries talked with Eruch and his associates at the ashrams, adopting a defensive attitude. Basic issues were not resolved. In October 1980, Eruch wrote in exasperation: "The Sufis who visited us implied that Ivy [Duce] is infallible, and as such, induction of Jim Mackie into the [Sufi] Order, and his having been made a preceptor by her wish, is irrefutable."
Eruch did not believe that Murshida Ivy Duce was incapable of error, despite a strong belief to that effect which had developed within her organisation over thirty years. Eruch added in his new letter of complaint: "All of us are liable to err, including Ivy." (18) The mandali continued their rejection of Mackie.
Not long after, Murshida Duce died in 1981. Her students at Sufism Reoriented rallied to the support of Mackie, who now replaced her as Murshid (according to her explicit nomination). This contingent published that same year a booklet entitled Sufism Speaks Out: Sufism Reoriented Replies to Attacks from India. This counter to Eruch was widely distributed, and includes responses from Mackie and several of his colleagues. Mackie urges that Adi K. Irani, when visiting America in 1979, agreed with his own view that Meher Baba spoke directly though Murshida Duce. This was considered a confusion by Eruch and his supporters. The secretary Adi K. Irani died in 1980; this senior member of the mandali could no longer be consulted on matters of disagreement.
Murshid Mackie now presided in a situation that was unprecedented, meaning that he encouraged defiance against the mandali. His supporters, in Sufism Speaks Out, included Dr. Allan Y. Cohen, who had formerly been active in disseminating the anti-drug messages of Meher Baba. Cohen had once been praised by Mani S. Irani (1918-1996) for his efforts (Mani was Baba's sister, and the most vocal of the women mandali). Now Cohen was in conflict with the mandali, who regarded him and other Sufi enthusiasts as retrogressive devotees. Mani was a strong supporter of Eruch in the reaction against Sufism Reoriented. In 1982, Mani described Dr. Cohen as being "totally committed to the leadership of Jim Mackie."
Cohen certainly did express a strong support for Mackie, denying hostile versions of his role. Some ex-Sufis had provided negative reports. However, Cohen does reflect: "Some of Jim's apparent eccentricities may be baffling to outside observers." Dr. Cohen describes himself as "a Sufi preceptor" (Mackie 1981:45), a confirmation of his deep involvement in Sufism Reoriented. Cohen and Mackie were both Sufi preceptors, and in close contact; the link was evidently strong. Dr. Cohen adds a perspective of Murshida Duce which had apparently been influential. "Murshida has indicated to Mani that Jim's work may be consistent with work done from the sixth plane of consciousness" (ibid:49). Mani did not believe in the sainthood of Dr. Mackie. In the teaching of Meher Baba, the sixth plane is an advanced state of consciousness.
Dr. Cohen expressed a respect for the academic connections of Mackie. Both of them had a background in psychotherapy. Their critics did not believe that academic qualifications and psychotherapy roles were necessarily an indication of spiritual adeptship. Mackie certainly did have a Ph.D. from the University of Utah, and had filled the role of assistant professor of psychiatry for ten years (until 1978) at the University of Maryland Medical School. He had contributed to the elite Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, which he edited for three years. Mackie transited to co-authorship with Duce of the book entitled Conversations with a Western Guru (1981). This latter contribution was sub-titled: The Termination of the Golden Age of the Ego and the Beginning of Spiritual Awareness. The egoless attributes of Duce and Mackie have been disputed.
Dr. Mackie's output extended to a series of saleable cassette tapes, which included such topics as "speeding up karma." Critics described such tendencies as commercial neo-Sufism. Certainly, the fashion for "spiritual" tapes was widespread in the "new age" enthusiasms.
The Mackie literature asserted that "founding and organising Sufism Reoriented occupied [Meher] Baba's attention for more than twenty years and was the most innovative educational project of his life." Eruch and Mani were not in agreement. Mani pointedly responded that the mandali who lived with Meher Baba "very seldom heard him mention about it [Sufism Reoriented] in all those years" (wordings from Sufism Speaks Out).
Murshid Mackie conducted what has been described as a "collective boycott" of Meher Baba's tomb at Meherabad, the major pilgrimage venue of devotees. Sufism Reoriented no longer patronised the tomb, which their members ceased to visit. Dr. Mackie was proving that he had control over his new flock. Eruch had accused him of being a predatory wolf.
A letter from Bhau Kalchuri to Don Stevens is of interest. This is dated October 1985, and was composed soon after Kalchuri had visited California, where the Sufis did not attend his meetings. Kalchuri had joined the mandali in 1953, and was generally credited with authorship of the complex multi-volume work entitled Lord Meher. "I find that Jim Mackie is playing the game of psychology and hypnosis with them, and the Sufis have been completely deluded." Kalchuri adds that he had never read the Sufi Charter of 1952 until 1980, when Duce sent her delegation to the ashram. "I found that Baba did not make any provision in the Charter for the appointment of the Murshid after Ivy Duce." Kalchuri also informs that the mandali had not been in the habit of referring to Duce as Murshida, a restraint which puzzled her murids when they visited the ashrams.
In 1987, Mackie altered his tactics. He led about 300 murids (disciples) in a special expedition to the tomb at Meherabad Hill. He subsequently increased the number of his followers to nearly five hundred, his organisation being based in California and Washington.
Murshid Mackie eventually published his compact Sufi Handbook (1997). The pilgrimage to Meherabad is here respected. The statement appears: "Sufi classes are gatherings to celebrate the Avatar." This may have been intended to placate the mandali, but has annoyed conventional Sufis who define classes in a different idiom. American devotees were often lavish in their use of the avataric title, and outsiders are still frequently disconcerted by the enthusiasm.
There is nothing antinomian or bizarre about the Sufi Handbook. This was a Mackie exercise in decorum and restraint. There is a passage mentioning emphases of Meher Baba in the Sufism Reoriented Charter of 1952. Meher Baba identified inner qualities needing to be cultivated, e.g., to be able to cherish no material ambitions, to avoid every type of falsehood, and to be prepared for complete abstinence from lustful activities except legitimate marriage relations (Sufi Handbook, pp. 52-53).
The Handbook makes no reference to allegations which disturbed many observers. Circa 1988, Dick Anderson reported that many murids had questioned the actions of Mackie. In all cases (about twenty of them), the Murshid forced the objectors out of Sufism Reoriented. Moreover, Mackie encouraged the rest of his community to shun these critics. His severe measures, in some cases, are said to have destroyed families. Anderson himself was one of the victims. He accused Mackie of acting like a spiritual master and demanding uncritical obedience. Dr. Mackie had refused all invitations to open dialogue.
Anderson made another pointed accusation, He said that the followers of Mackie believed their leader to be a "perfect master." This is a very exalted role in the terminology of Meher Baba. "If you pin them down, many of them [Mackie followers] will even admit all this."
The variations of attitude and behaviour within the Meher Baba movement were by now extensive. While Murshid Mackie and Sufism Reoriented were enjoying the deceptive Duce belief in a perpetual series of illumined teachers, Don Stevens was supplying data revealing that certain American Sufi beliefs were misrepresenting communications of Meher Baba. Stevens himself had a star role as a globetrotting Sufi who lectured on Baba's Discourses. In London, the enthusiastic rock star Pete Townshend opened Meher Baba Oceanic in 1976. That ambitious "Baba Centre" terminated a few years later, after serious complications occurring in Townshend's celebrity career, compromising his stance as a dedicated devotee, and causing him to recede from the movement.
In contrast to such prominent entities, the Hindu disciple Inder Sen (Sain) was committed to self-abnegation and obscurity, to such an extent that the mandali eventually disclosed their failure to locate this low profile scientist. (19) Sen had known Meher Baba since 1946, two years earlier than Duce and six years earlier than Stevens. His 1960s comments on the movement were recorded, and reveal an unusual dimension to some events.
Last but not least, Charles Purdom (d.1965) was a restrained commentator whose contact with the Irani mystic dated back to 1931. He was an exegetical rival to Duce and Stevens. These two parties, the "Old School" and "Reoriented Sufi," produced different versions of the Discourses. Purdom's elegant English diction supported Meher Baba's characteristic silence and alphabet board on a well known Pathe newsreel of 1932. Purdom had considerable experience of how devotees often misinterpreted Baba, preferring their own version of what he communicated.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
(1) In the book Iranian Liberal, I used the word Parsi in a generalising sense for Meher Baba, i.e., “Meher Baba was born a Parsi” (ibid:9). This description does reflect a fairly common tendency, but is not technically correct. Even if Iranis were born in India, they remained Iranis, and were only Parsis by association. Some Western devotees of Meher Baba have insisted that he was an Indian, which is true enough in one sense. However, this classification overlooks relevant ethnic and linguistic factors involved in the passage of Zoroastrian Iranis from Iran to India.
(2) For example, in 1963 he asked a gathering if anyone could repeat “the 101 names given in the Zoroastrian prayer book” (Bharucha 1963:29). Nobody could do so. Meher Baba then remarked: “If you repeat these names with love, no other prayer remains to be said. Anyone can repeat these names with love, irrespective of the religion to which he belongs” (ibid). The 101 Names were reproduced in the same issue of The Awakener, a quarterly magazine published in America and explicitly “devoted to Meher Baba.”
(3) Brunton is suspected of having inserted sensational themes from 1932 press reports into his account of a conversation with Meher Baba at Meherabad in 1930. He was not permitted to take notes at Meherabad, and thus errors and inflated passages could easily have occurred in his book published in 1934.
(4) By comparison with Paul Brunton, Sadhu Christian Leik is now largely unknown. I have accordingly addressed the disparity here. It is evident that Meher Baba had a high estimation of Leik, whom he compared very favourably to Meredith Starr, a British devotee of erratic temperament. In February 1929, at Meherabad, Baba is reported to have remarked in private: “There is a vast difference between Meredith Starr and Sadhu Leik. They are poles apart” (Kalchuri, Vol. 3, 1142). Starr had been the intermediary for Leik to gain a knowledge of Meher Baba. Starr had stayed at the ashram in 1928 for six months, but at the end of his sojourn, he became difficult. The British follower then became known for “inconsiderate ways and demanding attitude” (ibid:1134). Meher Baba resorted to a “ruse,” to prompt Starr's return home to England, without causing any offence. This tactic is preserved in a letter that Baba dictated in December 1928. The disarming letter confirms other indications that the Irani mystic was a strategist. Starr took the bait and departed without fuss. This devotee believed himself to be a crucial appendage to Meher Baba’s activity, and had big ideas about his own abilities. In England, he opted to promote Meher Baba as the “new messiah,” and proved very influential. See also note 11 below.
(5) Shepherd 1988a:85-154. See also Henry Corbin, “Adar Kayvan,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online; M. Tavakoli-Targhi, “Contested Memories: Narrative Structures and Allegorical Meanings of Iran’s Pre-Islamic History,” Iranian Studies (1996) 29:149-175; idem, Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism and Historiography (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 77ff. A theme of Professor Tavakoli-Targhi is that the Kaivan school, as a “neo-Mazdean intellectual movement,” subordinated the Biblico-Quranic version of ancient history, supplying instead an Iran-centred narration. In such works as the Desatir and the Dabistan, human history does not begin with Adam, but with Mahabad. The Kaivan school were responding to an ideological threat of elimination exercised by the Safavid regime. This interpretation has the merit of offsetting the nineteenth century European conception of Kaivani writings as an aberration.
(6) For instance, at Poona in 1963, Meher Baba translated a Marathi verse of Tukaram: “There are many hypocritical saints with long hair, and who besmear their bodies with ashes. Tukaram says let their dead conscience be burnt. Even to thrash them is no sin” (Bharucha 1963:27). Meher Baba added: “Ninety per cent of all so-called saints know nothing about the spiritual path. In Northern India such bogus saints abound” (ibid).
(7) One of the students of Rabia Martin was Don Stevens. He reports that Martin had suffered much because she felt obligated to respect the mediumistic abilities of Samuel Lewis, who had been recommended in this capacity by Inayat Khan, who said that he could be contacted in emergency via Lewis. Like Martin, Lewis was a student of Khan. Martin "soon had the impression that the replies received by Samuel from Inayat Khan... always seemed oddly slanted to Samuel's own tastes and good." The climax of this long term psychic resort occurred at the end of her life, when Lewis "produced a message, purportedly from Inayat Khan, criticising her [Martin] for having deeded Sufi property to the new spiritual head of the Order [meaning Meher Baba]." This data was mediated by Laurent Weichberger at Don Stevens on Sufism. Cf. Stevens 1995:5-6, relaying: "Samuel however managed to advise her [Martin] that Inayat Khan was greatly displeased by the recent course of her actions." Murshida Duce was subsequently confused by this episode, assuming that Martin had turned against Meher Baba. Nearly twenty years later, Stevens was obliged to correct the misconception. Duce "was appalled by the confusion, and said it was necessary to correct the misunderstanding. But... the misconception was left uncorrected in the official story" (ibid:6). Meher Baba did not resort to mediums, and could be stern (and jocular) in the repudiation of such activities. Indeed, he is known to have warned Ivy Duce against psychic consultation. Subsequently, Duce acted in contradiction to the warning.
(8) Cf. Sedgwick 2017:190-194, who misrepresents the Ghani correspondence and other matters. Dr. Sedgwick affirms that "Meher self-identified as a Sufi," and also that his movement had a connection with the Theosophical Society (ibid:190). A contradiction is posed to the first assertion via the remark: "His self-presentation and terminology were more Hindu than Sufi" (ibid:194). A supporter of Sufi Orders, Dr. Sedgwick wishes to marginalise Meher Baba as a "New Age" aberration. The truth is that Meher Baba was in disagreement with the Theosophical Society, and had no connection with this organisation. "[Ivy] Duce found that [Meher] Baba himself, though possessing an evidently deep knowledge of Sufism, would not specifically identify himself with it" (Shepherd 1988b:213). Dr. Sedgwick mistakenly suggests that the Zoroastrian movement, Ilm-e-Khshnum, were a source of religious understanding for Meher Baba. This speculation is made on the basis of a report found in Kalchuri, concerning "a text identified as the Ilm-i Khshnum" being included in the Meher Ashram curriculum. According to Dr. Sedgwick, "Meher at least approved of the Ilm-i Khshnum movement, then" (Sedgwick 2017:192). The inclusion of numerous names and texts in the late 1920s Meher Ashram curriculum in no way proves any influence on Meher Baba. He permitted much liberal scope to the teachers in that school at Meherabad, which did not foster a repressive atmosphere. The crux of the matter is that Meher Baba had a very different teaching and orientation to Behramshah Shroff and his followers. No close analysis could miss the contrasts. Dr. Sedgwick makes no reference to the earlier Kaivani movement (although the Dabistan appears in a preceding chapter of his book, relaying "Universalist Sufism"). Instead, the Western academic offers another speculation: "A second possible source of Meher's religious understanding may have been the universalism of the Prartharna Samaj (Prayer Society), a Hindu reform society similar to the Arya Samaj (Noble Society) that had welcomed Olcott and Blavatsky in 1879" (ibid). Again perhaps, an insidious attempt to link Meher Baba with the unrelated organisation of Olcott and Blavatsky. The Prartharna Samaj was a theistic grouping based in Bombay, demonstrating a very commendable interest in social reform. This Samaj had a branch in Ahmednagar, a detail which causes Dr. Sedgwick to associate them with Meher Baba. The academic commentary fails to relay that Upasani Maharaj (d.1941) was a very significant influence on Meher Baba from 1915 onwards, in respect of both ideology and social action. The Prartharna Samaj were superfluous here, furthermore contrasting in some ways with the basically monistic outlook of the Irani. Dr. Sedgwick expresses his opinion that Meher Baba exercised a "predominantly Hindu universalism" (ibid:194). This questionable judgment is supported by a misleading statement that Dr. Abdul Ghani assisted Murshida Ivy Duce in "replacing the terminology of Sufism with that of Vedanta" (ibid). Ghani did not use Vedantic terminology, and his role in exegesis did not generally exceed taking dictations from Meher Baba. Moreover, there is no Vedanta in the Sufi Charter of 1952, which was nothing to do with Ghani, a correspondent by then deceased. The ignored major work of Meher Baba, published in 1955, was edited by Ivy Duce and her colleague Don Stevens. The presence of Sufi terminology is very strong in that work, as the index discloses. The first edition of that book employs 196 different Sufi terms and 101 different Vedantic terms. Dr. Ghani is anonymously represented in the supplement via some explanations of a Sufi nature (transmitted by the Irani author). The content of that work is still largely unknown and uncomprehended. Oxford University Press have now supplied a serious distortion of content. It is perhaps unlikely that an Irani eclectic stance in the Maharashtrian mode of religious symbiosis will ever be fully understood in the West, at least in academic quarters. The misinformation about Meher Baba is now far worse than it was during the 1970s (when a reaction occurred to devotional excesses of the movement using his name). The distortion is too frequently lobbied in academic publications (Cambridge University Press now has the tarnished repute of profiling Hazrat Babajan as a drug addict). The biases and misunderstandings are not impressive, and do not signify any objective knowledge. Dr. Sedgwick appears to favour the traditionalist movement of Rene Guenon. See Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). The present writer is not an apologist for the Meher Baba movement, myself and my mother having suffered misrepresentation from that movement. However, I believe in a form of objective reporting that remains the ideal for all parties concerned. The life and teaching of Meher Baba are of interest on a fair number of accounts, and I believe that these matters should be better covered than they are to date.
(9) In a letter from Monte Carlo dated June 1981, Don Stevens commented on the belief within Sufism Reoriented that Meher Baba had given permission for Ivy Duce to employ the graded papers of Inayat Khan in the "Sufi closed classes." Ira Deitrick and others were not aware of all events, in the early 1950s, relating to those papers. Stevens writes: "This is typical of the half-truths which finally led to my quietly pulling away from Mrs. Duce several years ago, after having spent years first in trying to argue with her on a limited number of them [half-truths], and then of trying to live with what I knew was not honest." This letter of Stevens was addressed to Eruch Jessawala and Mani S. Irani, by now the two most salient spokesmen for the mandali. The epistle is reproduced online at meherlegacy.org.
(10) A significant letter from Don Stevens to Ira G. Deitrick (of Sufism Reoriented) is dated March 1981. Stevens relates here that the topic of providing illumined teachers for Sufism Reoriented was mentioned "several times by Meher Baba in my presence over the years." Stevens makes clear that Meher Baba did not feel obligated to make such teachers available in the future (contrary to the wishes of Ivy Duce). "In several conversations it became clear that Baba had given no hint as to when the first one [i.e., teacher] would arrive and be available." Moreover, Baba did not specify a continual succession of such illumined teachers, and nor did he say whether all or some of these teachers would be identified with Sufism Reoriented. Stevens concludes that such undefined matters were "typical of the fashion in which Baba always keeps us all guessing." He adds that any attempt to read in preferred interpretations would amount to formulating "the sort of indelible blueprint of action that Baba always avoided giving." Yet Murshida Ivy Duce supplied a preferred interpretation that achieved international fame as the actual words of Meher Baba. Many years later, in an article of 2010, Stevens relayed that Meher Baba gave a message for Eruch Jessawala to tell him (Stevens) what Baba had formerly told Ivy Duce. This communication to Duce is rendered as: "From time to time, he (Baba) would provide an illumined master as the head of the [Sufi] Order." Stevens and others recognised that the word "illumined" did not have the same connotation as "God-realised," a favoured phrase of Meher Baba. So the belief developed that such illumined teachers had the lesser (but saintly) status of the "mental planes." More recently, Laurent Weichberger (the biographer of Stevens) has informed that Stevens was upset in the long term about reported statements of Meher Baba which had "persisted in a corrupted fashion." Stevens had written notes for an intended meeting with Murshid James Mackie (d. 2001), leader of Sufism Reoriented. No meeting ever occurred, and so no due revision of the record was achieved. These notes include Meher Baba's statement to Duce: "I will save your students from your mistakes." Weichberger relays that: "For some reason, she [Duce] misrepresented this statement when repeating it to others, relating instead that Baba said he would save her from making any mistakes." Meher Baba was evidently aware of this deficiency, and had Eruch Jessawala repeat to Stevens exactly what he had promised Murshida Duce. This clarification made no difference to the overall situation; Duce treated her misinterpretation as a supposed guarantee that she would not make mistakes. Also revealing is the report of Stevens that Meher Baba told Duce to abandon the papers of Inayat Khan, which that Sufi had used to teach his own pupils. However, Duce ignored this instruction and continued to use the "graded papers" of Inayat Khan in her own classes. Weichberger also reviews the now infamous theme of how Murshida Duce removed key words from another communication she gained from Meher Baba. The phrase "from time to time" disappeared in her version, in which she presented Meher Baba as saying that Sufism Reoriented would enjoy a perpetual leadership of spiritually advanced teachers. The Weichberger rendition of this complexity states: "Baba promised to bring into the Sufi succession of Murshids, from time to time, an illumined master." We know that Stevens, in his letter to Deitrick of 1981, made plain that Meher Baba had actually promised nothing to Sufism Reoriented, instead communicating in an enigmatic manner. Weichberger informs: "There is now a notion at Sufism Reoriented that the entire line of publicly seated Murshid(a)s are illumined." The same writer expresses a personal interpretation that the masters referred to by Meher Baba "may not publicly fill the role of Murshid at Sufism Reoriented, but still be responsible for spiritually guiding that order." This scenario is perhaps remarkable for the known difference between preferred doctrine and more reliably reported transmission. Details in this note are derived from Don Stevens on Sufism. See also Stevens 2014.
(11) Murshida Ivy Duce appointed James Mackie (1932-2001) as her spiritual successor in 1979, a decade after Meher Baba's death. This event has been considered an error with no basis in the "Sufi Charter" of 1952. Prior to that Charter, the correspondence of Duce with Meher Baba involved a significant clause: Duce was to openly declare that she was not "God-realised" but merely a student of spirituality. This injunction appeared in a letter dated March 1948, the intermediary being the patient Dr. Ghani. A relevant deduction is that Duce had no authority to appoint a spiritual successor. A current accusation is that Duce supplied a deception. "She wilfully distorted conversations on the subject of succession with Baba to arrive at the fabrication, publicly expressed only after Baba dropped the body [i.e., died], that Baba had promised a continuous line of illumined murshid(a)s for the next 700 years to guide Sufism Reoriented. The leadership and mureeds [students] of her order believed her, with the notable exception of Don Stevens, who was Ivy's liaison with Baba on such matters. He was evidently the only Sufi apart from Ivy herself to have full knowledge of the facts." The late Don Stevens (1919-2011), another pupil of Rabia Martin, is well known as the major colleague of Duce during the 1950s and later. Stevens is stated to have "left Sufism Reoriented in the early 70s because of Ivy Duce's dishonesty." Murshida Duce failed to transmit the original words of Meher Baba and "promoted instead a grandiose fiction." Stevens duly revealed the original words of Meher Baba, who was responding to a request for elite successorship within the ranks of Sufism Reoriented. Meher Baba actually said to Duce that he would provide a genuine Sufi teacher only from "time to time and in his own way and manner" (this is a wording of Adi K. Irani, whose version has been influential). The guarded idiom was very different to fluent affirmations of Duce about the permanent elevation of Sufism Reoriented via guaranteed spiritual leaders. The information can now be found online that the Sufi Charter of 1952 was finalised "after several years of intermittent discussion between Ivy Duce and Don Stevens." That Charter "does not provide for the possibility of Ivy Duce appointing a spiritual successor, for the obvious reason that Ivy Duce herself had no spiritual status." The accusation is also made that Murshida Duce resorted to "repeated consultations with astrologers, psychics and mediums in the period after Baba dropped the body [i.e., died] in 1969." In contradiction to such behaviour, Meher Baba had expressly warned Duce not to confuse psychism with spirituality. Dr. Ghani had relayed to her in 1948: "You are therefore enjoined by Hazrat Meher Baba to remember that nobody should succeed in impressing or overawing you by such claims as having the capability of receiving messages from Masters, living or dead." Her purported spiritual successor, James (Jim) Mackie, has long been a subject of criticism. "The staging by Jim Mackie's besotted mureeds of his arrival at Baba's Samadhi [tomb] in 1987 remains the unsurpassed story of spiritual pretension in the Baba world." See Why Sufism Reoriented of Walnut Creek is a cult, a 2015 contribution from Meher Baba devotee Bill Gannett. In another direction, readers have noticed that my 1980s coverage of Ivy Duce was critical (Shepherd 1988b:210-223). I did not believe her version of permanent spiritual successors, but was unable to disprove what I strongly suspected to be a major discrepancy. "This is an amusing feature, since the concept of a perpetual sufi organisation with officially smooth transitions from one generation to the next is rather like desiring an orthodox church in addition to the esoteric fare" (ibid:216). However, I had to rest frustratedly content with citing the 1970s book of Duce entitled How a Master Works. That title can be misleading; Murshida Ivy Duce did not always relay how Meher Baba worked or what he actually communicated. Her book attributes to Meher Baba the statement: "I promise you that you will have an illumined Murshid for the next seven hundred years" (Duce 1975:123). According to Stevens, such a promise was never made. The crucial counter of Don Stevens was initially expressed in a letter to Ira Deitrick, of Sufism Reoriented, in 1981. His revision was effectively useless for many years, not surfacing in events as it might have done. Stevens tended to project himself as an expert on Meher Baba's Discourses wherever he went, including London, where he was regarded in the 1970s as a great authority by rock star Pete Townshend and other uncritical admirers of Murshida Duce. Over three decades later, and after his death, the significant counter of Stevens belatedly appeared in a book (Stevens 2014). Meanwhile, the confusion had become a deep-rooted doctrine within Sufism Reoriented, and transmitted to the outside world accordingly. Stevens wanted to discuss matters with the elusive Murshid Mackie, but did not get the opportunity to do so.
(12) The first issue of the Meher Baba Journal, in November 1938, included a dictated article by Meher Baba entitled “Avatar.” This item strongly implied his own background in such a role, but did not specifically claim avatar identity, an occurrence of later years. Meher Baba was then known by the title of Shri, as the accompanying editorial feature specified. Further, the same editorial (pp. 9-10) referred to him in the context of a sadguru, or “perfect master.”
(13) See the contribution of Professor H. Talat Halman in “Saheb-e Zaman: Meher Baba as,” (2012). Halman observes: “For many Shi’a Muslims this term Saheb-e Zaman refers to the return of the 12th Imam.” The same commentator informs that this term also appears in a well known Sunni source, the Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi.
(14) Paramount filmed Meher Baba dictating a message on his alphabet board. Charles Purdom read out the content. The location was the garden of Kitty Davy’s home in Kensington. The message commenced with: “My coming to the West is not with the object of establishing new creeds or spiritual societies and organisations, but is intended to make people understand religion in its true sense” (Davy 1981:42). This statement reflects a consistent theme of Meher Baba, who repeatedly said that he did not want to establish another religion. The message to Paramount newsreel, like many other early messages, does not contain any reference to his spiritual status.
(15) A major problem in some areas of communication was Meredith Starr, a British devotee who had established a retreat at East Challacombe, near Combe Martin, in North Devon. Starr zealously promoted the Irani as a “new messiah,” but admitted some uncertainties in the emerging devotional profile. One of the more diligent British journalists reported Starr as saying in April 1932: “He [Meher Baba] is regarded by thousands as having the same consciousness as the Messiah, and I share this view. I do not consider it important whether he is a reincarnation or whether he is another perfect ‘Master,’ as all perfect masters are essentially one” (Parks 2009:287). Soon afterwards, Starr defected when he did not get the “God-realization” that he wanted. In some respects, Starr was similar to Paul Brunton. Starr was described by Brunton, in May 1932, as Meher Baba’s “principal agent for Europe and America” (ibid:280). This may be regarded as accurate; the influence of Starr was considerable amongst Western devotees. It is strongly deducible that Brunton appropriated the “messiah” tag provided by Starr, and employed this, in the manner of an aspersion, in his book A Search in Secret India, published two years later. Meher Baba himself did not use the word “messiah,” which cannot be found in his various messages and statements. This was a Western improvisation, and part of a very muddled profile. Brunton’s anonymous defamatory article in John Bull was entitled “All Britain Duped by Sham Messiah.” A pronounced exaggeration was at work. In relation to the same very questionable article, Brunton may be considered correct in his assertion that the publicity for Meher Baba was “chiefly inspired through the tireless efforts of a gentleman named Meredith Starr.”
(16) There are different reports of the Mashhad episode. One says that Meher Baba spent two nights in the shrine, whereas three nights are elsewhere specified. The impelling dream of the caretaker at the shrine has different accents, one version stressing a vision of the Imam Reza, and another specifying a visiting holy man. These variations do not affect the basic narrative, which has caused amazement that the Zoroastrian visitor was able to get into the shrine precincts, guarded by so many Shia clerics. Non-Muslims were not permitted inside the courtyards, and to sit alone inside the shrine buildings was a feat of seclusion preference. The shrine is an extensive complex of courtyards and buildings, the most important area being the burial chamber of Imam Reza. Meher Baba apparently positioned himself in the close proximity of the burial chamber.
(17) The phrase “Don’t worry be happy” was an aside in personal conversations, and occasionally figured in some more general situations. For instance, soon after his motor accident in 1956, Meher Baba dictated a reassuring message for his devotees: “Do not worry; be happy. All will be well” (Adi K. Irani 1968:69). The phrase at issue had no relation to his teaching. Usage of the phrase as an identity factor, in the late 1960s, caused many confusions. During the 1990s, an acquaintance of mine encountered an American who had heard of the slogan, but very little else; the imitator sang a line or two from the popular song, and assumed that this lyric encapsulated the teaching of Meher Baba.
(18) Many devotees tended to regard the mandali as infallible. Eruch, Adi K. Irani, Mehera J. Irani, and Mani S. Irani were particularly associated with this repute. Eruch was less authoritarian than the secretary Adi K. Irani, and more likely to be flexible in an argument. Eruch now effectively discarded the myth in confrontation with an unpredictable role (of Mackie) that greatly alarmed him, something he had never encountered before in the Meher Baba movement.
(19) The source for this information was Adi K. Irani, during a visit to London in 1976. Inder Sen (Sain) was the subject of correspondence between my mother and Murshida Duce in 1978-79. Duce recognised that my mother's complaint about misrepresentation of herself was legitimate. Duce conceded that something had gone wrong with the mandali version of events transmitted to devotees at large. However, Murshida Duce did absolutely nothing to rectify the situation, evidently fearing difficulties posed by other prestige figures in the Meher Baba movement. A decade later, in a letter to myself, Eruch Jessawala offset the earlier confusion of the mandali in relation to Sen. However, he very briefly expressed a defensive gesture (exonerating the mandali from any blame) to which my mother objected, as she believed Eruch should have been more open. Her sense of democracy favoured a broadcasting of the relevant details, instead of Eruch privately invoking obscure correspondence that nobody could check.
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----------Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2014).
----------Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015).
----------The Life of Meher Baba (4 vols, unpublished manuscript).
Stevens, Don E., Some Results (St. Helier, Jersey: Companion Books, 1995).
----------Three Snapshots of Reality (London: Companion Books, 2014).
Copyright © 2017 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.