Friday, 5 January 2018

Colin Wilson

                                                                     
                                               
An influential popular writer was Colin Wilson (1931-2013). He produced over a hundred books, many of these devoted to crime and the occult. A number of his works were commercially stated to be bestsellers. Wilson gained many critics, whose views remain relevant. He is best known for his first book The Outsider (1956), composed in the Reading Room of the British Museum. However, this is not a scholarly work. Wilson gained the reputation of an existentialist.

Within a year, The Outsider had earned the author £20,000, equivalent to over a million today. However, he quickly dropped from literary fashion, and retired to Cornwall. Some of the reasons for discontent with this new writer were his tendencies to party-going, wine and whisky, name-dropping, and personal estimation. Britain's answer to Camus was not committed to any strict self-discipline. A literary failing of The Outsider was eventually defined in terms of having "oversimplified and deformed some case studies to make them fit a thesis" (John Ezard, Colin Wilson obituary).

Wilson's sequel book Religion and the Rebel (1957) did not achieve popularity, and was described by one critic as "half-baked Nietzsche." Wilson was certainly influenced to some extent by Nietzsche. While some critics disown his preoccupation with outsider religion, others say that he opted for a confusing ideological route awkwardly converging with his subsequent tendency to the paranormal. 
 
A drawback for some was Colin Wilson’s declaration of his own talent. He permanently regarded himself as a genius. He is on record as saying: "I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century" (Harry Ritchie, "Look back in Wonder," The Guardian, 2006). 

A journalist wrote in 2004: “This is the first time I have interviewed a self-declared genius, also the first time I have interviewed a self-declared panty fetishist” (Lynn Barber, "Now they will realise that I am a genius," The Guardian). The insidious sexual themes in Wilson's output were no doubt commercial, but are still not rated by critics. 
 
According to Professor Terry Eagleton, “The Outsider is second-rate, off-the-peg philosophy from start to finish.” Wilson became “the most controversial intellectual in Britain…. for about six weeks; he went on to publish a rather dismal series of potboilers on crime and the occult.” (The Guardian, 2013). Eagleton further states:

The Outsider is a ragbag of modish nihilism, ranging from Camus, Sartre, Hermann Hesse and TE Lawrence to Blake, Van Gogh, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky…. Most of the figures it deals with have absurdly little in common with one another…. The pure Romantic cliché of its main argument – that some artists feel alienated from mainstream society – is nebulous enough to apply to almost anyone who lifts a paintbrush or a pen. 

The disposition of Colin Wilson for lurid novelism is commemorated by Ritual in the Dark (1960), profiling a sadistic sex murderer. Wilson’s obsession with diverse forms of sexuality is not appealing to more restrained tastes. His publisher Victor Gollancz described Ritual in the Dark as “a horribly nasty book” (Shepherd 1995:20). Gollancz also “credited the book in question with the power to create excitement of a very unpleasant kind” (ibid). In a more general context, Wilson “was regularly criticised for making sweeping generalisations and for his habit of quoting from memory without reference to his sources” (Daily Telegraph obituary).
 
His financial survival subsequently depended upon easy read books. “Many of those [Wilson books] dealt with murder or the occult as pathways to the insights that fascinated him. His readership grew to include murder buffs, UFO spotters and new age believers. Typical of this later output was Alien Dawn (1998), marketed with the line ‘the evidence is overwhelming – they [space aliens] are here.’ Serialised in the Daily Mail, it undoubtedly made more money than any of his philosophical books" (John Ezard, Colin Wilson obituary).

By the 1990s, Wilson was very much a new age hero, being seen by enthusiasts as the innovator of liberating ideas. A college of psychism was one branch of this trend. A leader at this college accused a Wilson critic of being unduly opposed to the benevolence of new age spirituality. The critic (a female relative of mine) was able to send the psychic institution a telling excerpt from Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind (1984). The passage, underlined in red, afforded an instance of Wilson’s provocative dalliance with themes of the Marquis De Sade, who was here cited in the threatening literary action of juxtaposing a pistol with the female sexual organ (cf. Shepherd 1995:177 note 37). The college of psychism afterwards became silent on the subject of Wilsonian liberation.
 
The Marquis (Count) De Sade (1740-1814) was a bisexual libertine. He procured prostitutes who complained of his mistreatment. He wrote an extremist and obscene novel entitled The 120 Days of Sodom. He is known to have whipped a helpless and poor immigrant widow whom he lured to his bedroom and threatened with a knife. The French aristocracy of that era were not the best exemplars of civilisation. 
 
Howard Dossor wrote a book glamorising Wilson, to the extent of describing his sexual themes in terms of a “sexology” (Dossor 1990). This assessment has been resisted by critics as a form of comic strip. The female journalist (Lynn Barber), who encountered the existential hero in 2004, reports: “His conversation became increasingly odd – he periodically throws out the word ‘fucker’ with extraordinary venom, accompanied by a sly sideways glance to see if I am shocked.” The target of this venom was another journalist, who had formerly encountered and displeased the four letter word existentialist. The scientific dimensions of Wilsonian indulgence are totally elusive to old age standards. Concerning Wilson's autobiography, Barber refers to "his account of how, as a panty fetishist and visiting lecturer at an American university, he contrived to look up his students’ skirts with the aid of a glass-bottomed mug.”

The autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004) does include the sexual dimension of Colin Wilson. This may be acceptable to popular consumption, but does not make Wilson a great philosopher or mystic. Some reviews have been critical, e.g., Adam Mars-Jones, "I was a teenage nail biter," The Guardian, 2004. My own approach is not that of dismissing Wilson as a self-taught intellectual, but criticism of a writer who suffered from disadvantageous stimuli and myopic assumptions.

The magnum opus of Wilson is generally considered to be what is known as the Occult Trilogy. The three books concerned are The Occult (1971), Mysteries (1978), and Beyond the Occult (1988). The first comes closest to being a history of occultism, but has flaws. Mysteries is again strongly coloured by Wilsonian themes and preoccupations, and is basically a discussion of theories. There are such chapter titles in Mysteries as “How Many Me’s are There?” Another heading in the same book is “In Search of Faculty X,” reflecting a major interest of the author. The third book consists of speculation about the paranormal.
 
Wilson described his outlook in terms of the “new existentialism.” He was an eccentric partisan of Nietzsche, and an influential promoter of Aleister Crowley. In the wake of Regardie, Wilson achieved a more tempered revival of Crowley, but sufficient to make this entity a new age celebrity. “Crowley was a mountebank; in spite of this, he deserves serious consideration” (Wilson 1971:400).

Wilson’s The Occult has been very misleadingly described as an authoritative history of occultism. The sources were limited, and the narration is loose. His portrayal of entities like John Dee (“a kind of mystic”) is simplistic, lacking significant details (cf. Shepherd 2004:215-218). A critic commented:

One may dismiss Wilson’s claim that “the essence of magic and the essence of mysticism are one and the same.” Though some criticisms were expressed in this very popular work, the general tone has suggested to the gullible that almost any magical approach was valid in the project of evoking Faculty X, elevated as “the power to grasp reality.” Wilson did not hesitate to honour the psychedelic explosion in terms of a supposed evolution towards increased knowledge. The drug cult of the 1960s was here viewed as being related to the upsurge of interest in the occult, and stated to be “more positive in character” than earlier drug cults of the West because of “the desire to get somewhere, to ‘plug in’ to subconscious forces.” In this beguiling idiom, Wilson affirms that the same is true of the increased sexual permissiveness (then a recent phenomenon, which some of his books had served to further). He adds subversively: “It is not simply a matter of disintegrating morals, but the recognition that sexual excitement is a contact with the hidden powers of the unconscious.” The advocate of permissiveness then went on to treat the reader to D. H. Lawrence’s description of Lady Chatterley’s sensations after lovemaking. This degenerate exposition of evolution then justifies the output of Lawrence in terms of the need to concentrate upon the development of the hidden powers instead of continuing to develop the intellect. (Shepherd 2004:311-312 note 656, with full citations) 

The champion of sexual excitement is not convincing as a guide to mysticism. The new age of casual sex goes hand in hand with commercial occultism and STD (sexually transmitted disease). Wilson subsequently wrote a longer version of Crowley, clearly straining to award a qualified legitimation to this practitioner of “sexual magick.” The author recognised drawbacks in the life of Crowley. The new existentialist nevertheless sanctioned Crowley’s self-centred maxim: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” (Shepherd 2004:19). This disputed vindication (Wilson 1987:164-165) was tragically influential. 
 
Wilson concluded that Crowley was a failure as a human being. However, the existentialist chose to elevate the magician’s belief in his “religion of thelema, the philosophy of human free will that would enable man to evolve to a higher stage” (Wilson 1987:168). This optimism is contradicted by the self-will and degradation in biographical evidence.

Wilson acknowledges that Crowley attempted to drive a woman mad by a form of hypnotic suggestion (that tragedy probably occurred many times). Yet Wilson confused sexual magic with the supposedly benevolent ‘unconscious’ of the right hemisphere of the brain. That equation is unpardonable in criminology, and again amounts to sheer fantasy. Wilson’s adaptation of Jungian theory, like so many other presentations of Jung, is catastrophic for uninformed readers who credit such speculation as being accurate. Who but Colin Wilson could have glossed the psychological implications of an early book, written by Crowley, which attempted to rival the obscenities of the Marquis De Sade. That sadistic fantasy was a red light indicator of Crowley’s abortive mentality and his sinister ability to carry out feats of sadism. Yet Wilson was concerned to dilute the issue in terms of "merely another experiment in shocking the bourgeoisie." (Shepherd 2005:136) 

Over a period of many years, Crowley ingested large quantities of drugs, including heroin. His book entitled Confessions “was written under the influence of drugs” (Wilson 1987:136). Crowley desperately tried to break his drug habit, but “ended his days injecting massive amounts of heroin” (Lachman 2001:148-149). He gained the unenviable fate of daily consuming enough heroin “to kill a roomful of people,” to quote a well known report of his major British biographer John Symonds.
 
In Wilson’s version, the drug addict “seems to have possessed, to a high degree, the power that Jung called active imagination” (Wilson 1987:159). Crowley is said to have tortured his wife by occasionally hanging her upside down by her heels in a wardrobe, while he entertained his mistresses (Wilson 1971:416). The unfortunate wife became insane. “Crowley had a long series of mistresses, and many of them ended up in a state of alcoholism and worse” (Shepherd 2005:137). This bisexual was dangerous to women, whatever the glosses imposed by occultist commerce. Wilson prefers to claim that Crowley knew how “to sidestep the everyday personality and descend into the deeper levels of the mind” (Wilson 1987:159).
 
I am a longstanding critic of Wilson, commencing in the late 1970s. I was incredulous that The Outsider had gained such fame. Not being an admirer of Nietzsche, that book was the more difficult for me to accept as any form of viable philosophy. In my view, The Outsider was a major source of confusion and simplistic deduction. 

Colin Wilson’s phenomenological existentialism [in The Outsider] glorified sensuality, and conflated such vastly different figures as Nietzsche and Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, virtually in the same relativistic breath as describing Dostoevsky’s unpleasant version of rape. The existential outsider emerges as a figure who is preoccupied with sexuality, and a series of celebrities in modern Western literature achieve profile in relation to their sexual drives, including Nietzsche, who died of syphilis. (Shepherd 1995:19-20) 

Some readers have asked why I chose to present my early books, in annotated format, with plain black and white covers offputting to general audiences. The format of those books moved away from “easy read.” This was because I followed a major distinction between serious works and the popular new age (and occult) market where lurid design is a prominent feature. Annotations were (and are) necessary to assist accuracy, contrary to the novelistic trends in fashion. Due resistance is necessary to the casual idioms of popular writers who trade in deception. My first book Psychology in Science included two references to Colin Wilson, who had recently appropriated brain hemisphere research for his occultist theory, creating further extensive confusions in the commercial book Frankenstein’s Castle. A Cambridge “outsider” (from establishment credentials) contested the extremism of a prolific author in Cornwall: 

Any argument which justifies, however indirectly or unconsciously, the literary and other perversions of such as the Count De Sade by a resort to invoking the pressures of 'left brain' civilisation, is a gloss that can be duly exposed for what it is by anyone who cares to think straight and broadly enough. (Shepherd 1983:198)
 
This counter-argument included opposition to the superficial recourse of Wilson in describing Crowley as an advanced Yogi (ibid:197). Crowley would not even remotely qualify for the celibate discipline specified in antique Sanskrit texts. More basically, Wilson “tended to the argument excusing sick or perverse behaviour on the grounds that this is influenced by environmental pressures created by the rational establishment which alienates outsiders” (Shepherd 1991:84-85).
 
The vogue for brain hemisphere distinctions was substantially derived from Robert Ornstein's well known book The Psychology of Consciousness (1972).  The right cerebral hemisphere was popularly associated with intuition, a trend which led to a devaluation of rational abilities associated with the left hemisphere. Many brain scientists and psychologists disowned this complication. However, Colin Wilson extensively overworked this very simplistic theme. Disconcerting emphases could emerge. "Aggression, like alcohol, readjusts the balance between right and left" (Wilson 1984:149). A critic observed: "Wilson is really describing imbalance, not balance, in this reference to the brain hemispheres" (Shepherd 1995:179 note 65).

Colin Wilson's “brain hemisphere” theory had serious consequences for persons who believed in this substitute for reality. A critical “outsider” wrote:

In a book described as having Colin Wilson’s full endorsement, Howard F. Dossor strongly implies Colin Wilson’s supporters in terms of an achievement of ‘right-brain dominance,’ meaning ‘insider’ intuition. The critics are implied as the ‘outsiders,’ representing logic and ‘left-brain dominance.’ Thus the new existentialist is intuitively justified as the real Insider by his supporters, while his critics are all far more limited in their circumferential range. Colin Wilson gains some infallibility in this argument by the strong implication that he is both an intuitive and rationalist. (Shepherd 1995:21-22) 

Mysticism in the new age is a fantasy. Wilson’s exotic book The Misfits (1988) is strongly associated with the idea that sexual aberration is a form of “mystical” experience (or can lead to this new age muddle). The confusions for partisan consumption were legion. The author here extended his favoured subject by alighting on such pet figures as De Sade and D. H. Lawrence, and also focusing strongly on Charlotte Bach of transvestite fame. The existential invention of Faculty X was added to the dubious mix in this very commercial panorama of aberrations. “Wilson’s commercial obsession with sexuality should be clearly distinguished from mysticism, which he has subverted in pioneering a permissive society. Writers like him have assisted the trend to use obscene four letter words in so-called serious books, though such a literary accomplishment helps to define to observers what four letter word occultism really is” (Shepherd 1995:21).

Wilson has been elevated by his followers, who customarily excise much of the criticism, which they depreciate as irrelevant. Gary Lachman approvingly quotes from the early Wilson autobiography Voyage to a Beginning: “If this body and brain of mine could be driven on for another hundred years or so, I could probably solve all the problems of philosophy single-handed” (Lachman 2016:349). 
 
The American publicity for Lachman’s recent biography has asserted that Wilson “became a prolific and unparalleled historian of the occult, providing a generation of readers with a responsible and scholarly entry point to a world of mysteries.” This commercial convenience is assisted by suppression of critics. Wilson was not a scholar, but a prolific writer prone to flaws and errors. The current publicity is excusing the flaws and overlooking errors. 

According to suggestions of partisan Howard Dossor, the critics of Wilson are effectively outsiders, whereas the followers of Wilson are intuitive mystics with insider knowledge. This angle demonstrates a view that may be described as "new age" dogma. 

Bibliography:

Dossor, Howard F., Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1990).
Lachman, Gary Valentine, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2001).
-------Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: tarcherperigree, 2016). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Psychology in Science (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1983).
-------Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an interdisciplinary science of culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1991).
-------Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).
-------Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004). 
-------Pointed Observations (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Wilson, Colin, The Outsider (London: Victor Gollancz, 1956).
-------Religion and the Rebel (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957).
-------Ritual in the Dark (London: Victor Gollancz, 1960).
-------Voyage to a Beginning: A Preliminary Autobiography (London: Cecil Woolf, 1969). 
-------The Occult (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971).
-------Mysteries: An Investigation into the Occult, the Paranormal, and the Supernatural (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1978).
-------Frankenstein’s Castle (1980; second printing, Bath; Ashgrove Press, 1982).
-------A Criminal History of Mankind (London: Granada, 1984).
-------Aleister Crowley: The Nature of the Beast (Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1987).
-------The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1988).
-------Beyond the Occult: Twenty Years’ Research into the Paranormal (London: Bantam Press, 1988).
-------Dreaming to Some Purpose (London: Century, 2004).
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
 
ENTRY no. 75
 
Copyright © 2018 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Lord Meher Critique

Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu), Reiter edition

Analysis of a lengthy text can be a complex matter. This is certainly true of the multi-volume Lord Meher, a devotional and biographical work on Meher Baba (1894-1969). The title is a translation from the Hindi phrase Meher Prabhu. Partisan claims have described this book in terms of a definitive work by Bhau Kalchuri (1927-2013), one of Meher Baba’s mandali (ashram staff). There are complications for such an attribution.
 
Kalchuri was only one of the entities involved in the development of Lord Meher, originally in Hindi. A translation into English commenced in 1973. The resulting editorial process was intensive. Early supporters of the Reiter edition (1986-2001) maintained that this was the last word on Meher Baba, fastidiously conveyed by Kalchuri. The American devotee Lawrence Reiter (d.2007) was one of the editors; he undertook publication of seven thousand pages (including many photographs). This is sometimes known as the American edition.
 
The Meher Baba literature is now substantial. The present writer produced the first critical bibliography on Meher Baba (Shepherd 1988:248-297). The literature was even then prolific, indeed unusually so. Thirty years later, the dimensions are far more extensive. Critics complain at the rather lavish devotional titles in evidence, and some idioms are controversial. Assessment of this literature now requires considerable time and commitment. Lord Meher is the major stumbling block to easy overview, but some other complexities should not be understated.
 
The present writer has moved at a tangent to the “orthodox” perspective on Lord Meher. Many years ago, I composed an unpublished Life of Meher Baba in four volumes, commencing in 1967. I do not claim any status for this work, which merely facilitated my studies in the subject under consideration. I was able to tap some oral transmission, and also had access to much literature, some of this unpublished. Writing that lengthy biography did serve to underline, in my mind, the scope of interpretations possible, applying to factual details that were probed.

Meher Baba is unusual for the sheer amount of materials available concerning him. His career of some fifty years (depending upon how one dates the inception) is described in numerous books, booklets, diaries, and journals. The presentation is attended by a wide variety of literary styles and modes of reporting. Certain of his deceased followers now have full length books about them (e.g., Fenster 2013).
 
Lord Meher (LM) is by far the longest work on the subject, and attended by some linguistic complexities. Kalchuri wrote in Hindi, and is reported to have completed his biography in seven months, working non-stop. His contribution was only a small part of the total text. Mistakes in English translation (and possibly the obscure Kalchuri text) were fairly numerous. The translator was Feram Workingboxwala (1901-1980), a Parsi devotee of Meher Baba. Feram had a limited knowledge of Hindi, and Bhau never read his translation, having some difficulty with English. Some of the extending materials in LM were translated by Feram from Gujarati and Marathi diaries and memoranda.
 
From 1974 onwards, substantial materials were added to the existing text, mainly by David Fenster, including diaries and personal accounts from many Indian and Western devotees. An online edition commenced some years after the Reiter volumes were published, and is often cited as authority. The online editor is David Fenster, Kalchuri’s son-in-law, an American devotee strongly involved in the overall editing dating back to the 1970s. Many revisions and additions have occurred in the online version.
 
The Reiter edition very briefly mentioned the translation and editing process on the copyrights page. Kalchuri’s foreword informed that the secretary Adi K. Irani “placed his office records at my disposal and allowed Feram Workingboxwala to assist me in compiling the material for this book, and translating pertinent documents from Gujarati and Marathi into English.” Kalchuri also acknowledges the oral contributions from Meher Baba’s surviving mandali at Meherazad and Meherabad ashrams. Numerous other devotees are also named in this respect. The identity of sources stops there.

The Reiter edition featured endnotes that do not establish the nature of sources and translations. The online edition has no notes, but features pop-up comments in a similar category. The endnotes in Reiter do include some interesting information, but make no attempt to analyse sources, which are not mentioned. The “Kalchuri” text was regarded by Reiter (and others) as needing no explanation in this respect.
 
The analytical assessor of LM will see the text in terms of undefined sources and translations. The lack of annotations and bibliographies has disconcerted some readers. What source did this statement come from? What was the original language? Who edited the source or translation? What is the degree of accuracy involved? These are some of the questions relevant to any full discussion.
 
The office records of Adi K. Irani (secretary to Meher Baba) were almost legendary by the 1960s. These files included diaries and large quantities of correspondence. The languages represented were English, Marathi, and Gujarati. This archive was not on open view, being stored at Khushru Quarters in Ahmednagar. Most devotees of that period were content with general circular information via Adi and Mani S. Irani. I was an exception, wishing to know more about the elusive records.
 
I was in correspondence with Adi K. Irani during 1965-66. I found him helpful on some points. However, he was reluctant to discuss matters of history that were not already available in published literature. For many years he had been supplying “life circulars” on current events, and he did not feel inclined to make his archive better known.
 
I had learned that a vintage diary in English, by Ramju Abdulla, was in existence, being relevant to the early 1920s. I wanted to know more about this document, but met with disappointment. This diary was not published for another thirteen years (Deitrick 1979). That diary was one of those read dismissively by the Yoga enthusiast Paul Brunton almost fifty years before.

Still a major work on Meher Baba, during the 1970s, was The God-Man (1964). This is skeletal in detail by comparison with the total data now available. The author was Charles Purdom (d.1965), one of the earliest Western followers. I met Purdom (more than once) during the last months of his life. He was a fluent talker and could still lecture. I remember well that he prepared a liberal and non-sectarian paper on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (d.1886), read out at a London meeting by Molly Eve in his absence due to illness. Purdom’s speech was free of the devotional jargon that subsequently increased in the movement, i.e., Beloved and lovers, Avatar of the Age. It is very difficult to describe Charles Purdom as a devotee, because he did not express devotion at all, but instead a muted form of respect. He was averse to exaggerated and repetitive stylisms. His book The God-Man is impersonal in tone, contrasting with many other partisan writings. He had retained the discreet vocabulary and literary style of a 1930s British independent follower of Meher Baba (Purdom 1951). See the index references in Shepherd 2005:315.

The present writer early discerned an error in the LM translation of a statement about Azar Kaivan (d.1618). This was reported in an annotation to another book (Shepherd 1995:854 note 152). Several years ago, this error (together with the revision) was duly mentioned on a Wikipedia page by Simon Kidd, an academic real name editor on the web encyclopaedia. Kidd was not a stranger to Kaivan, having studied the Dabistan in Cambridge, under the guidance of a well known scholar. However, his intervention was opposed by a party claiming that Lord Meher was infallible text. As a consequence of more than one opposition from dogmatic interests, the revision was excised. However, the opponents lost all reference to their own “infallible” text in the process of Wikipedia editing at the same article. The altercation is very briefly represented on the current talk page of the Azar Kaivan article. 
 
The defective Reiter edition has the words: “After that, the last one, Dastur Azer Kaiwan, was false and obtained the sacred seat and started collecting money” (page 1020). This was belatedly reworded in the online Fenster edition as: “But after Dastur Azar Kaivan [who became a Perfect Master], a false, deceitful dastur obtained the sacred gaadi and started collecting money” (page 903, accessed 28/11/17). No reference was made anywhere in the Meher Baba literature to the earlier revision which appeared on Wikipedia. The dogmatic mistake had never happened. It is well known that the rendition of a name as Kaivan follows my publications and online articles, in contrast to the Kayvan found on Wikipedia and elsewhere. The evasive online LM editing process might still have to revise the reference to Dastur Azar Kaivan in view of relevant arguments concerning priestly identities. The date of any revision should be duly recorded, and with full references.

Due analysis of a text, religious or otherwise, must transcend dogmatism. See Meher Prabhu/Lord Meher. There is evidence of a critical attitude to LM amongst a minority of Meher Baba devotees. A major exemplar of this attitude is Christopher Ott, an American. He is evidently very familiar with the genesis and development of LM. His contributions include History of Lord Meher. Ott also emphasises elsewhere that the history of the editing process is “long and complex.” He makes a striking disclosure: “I have sworn privacy to one witness and am waiting for that person to die before sharing that person’s emails, confirming what more there is to say.”
 
The same informed commentator reveals the existence of “at least eleven versions of Lord Meher, none of them exactly the same.” One of these versions is the original handwritten Hindi manuscript of Bhau Kalchuri, “never made public.” An elaborated English version was achieved by Workingboxwala, “with additions and corrections inserted and compiled by David Fenster.” This version, dating to the early 1980s, is accessible. A subsequent version was the Reiter edition of 20 volumes (or more realistically, 13 vols in terms of binding). In 2005, an Indian printing of Reiter exhibited “some major changes.” Meanwhile, LM went online in 2002. The current online edition is “redacted monthly,” a process which has involved “drastic and constant changes, with both good corrections and grave new inaccuracies.” All quotes here are from Ott, “Original Lord Meher” (30/06/2017), featuring at meherbabathoughts.blogspot.com (formerly open access online but now available only to invited readers).

Ott makes additional comments of a radical nature. “There is currently no way to systematically ‘fact-check’ the events in any of these [LM] biographies.” The same commentator suggests that future scholars will resort to a new version of LM based directly on the sources, including extant diaries and correspondence.
 
In contrast, for many years, Western devotees were believing that Kalchuri was the sole author (and even translator) of LM. Ott entitles one of his blog communications rather dramatically: "The terrible truth about who translated Lord Meher." Such revelations may encourage a more widespread disposition to analyse LM text.

Over thirty years ago, I wrote the independent work Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (I am now commencing a more intensive biography of an updated nature). Some American devotees maintained that the subject was Indian. Meher Baba was certainly born in India, but his parents were Irani Zoroastrians originating from Yazd. The controversial title was ventured in relation to Irani Zoroastrians who migrated to India, and who retained ethnic and linguistic features distinct from the Parsi population. For instance, Meher Baba and his father (Sheriar Mundegar Irani) spoke Dari.  Another consideration is that Meher Baba was not typical of contemporary Indian gurus like Rajneesh. The tendency to associate him with Hinduism is offset by such details as the Zoroastrian kusti girdle he wore in his early years until 1925 (Fenster 2013, 1:181). Another version, closely associated with Ott, maintains that he wore the kusti all his life.  
 
Irani Zoroastrians are descendants of the original population of Iran in pre-Islamic times. To describe them as Iranians is not an error, nor a crime. The title of my book was not intended to be politically evocative, but placed the subject in a due ethnic perspective. The Wikipedia article on Meher Baba is maintained by pseudonymous Western devotees. These partisan editors deleted Iranian Liberal, an annotated book featuring the first critical bibliography. Such cordoning gestures have elsewhere been considered insular and arbitrary. I decline to be intimidated by such tactics (including hostile remarks on talk pages). Wikipedia is not a primary source for university academics and researchers.
 
The informed American devotee Ward Parks refers to the 2005 Hyderabad edition of LM as “a somewhat emended and corrected text.” Both the American and Indian published editions include selections from the 1920s Tiffin Lectures (silent discourses), not well known until recently. Parks informs:

Lord Meher was written primarily as a biographical account of Meher Baba’s life; and while it is rich in quotation from Meher Baba’s words, it was never meant as a critical edition of any of his messages and should not be taken as such…. Bhau does not ordinarily quote from his sources verbatim or with minimal rewrite…. Often he reduces extensive discourses into abridged versions that convey the essence or gist. On other occasions he selects main points from different junctures in a talk and works them together into an integral message that accurately expresses much of Meher Baba’s original thought but cannot be said to follow his verbiage except in patches. (Parks 2017:520)

The first Reiter volume included chapters on the five “masters” of Meher Baba, including the famous Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). Those chapters are informative to a degree, but are not by any means exhaustive portrayals. Now well known is the eccentric “Kalchuri” statement that Sai Baba smoked “a chilum pipe of opium” (Reiter edn 1986:64). This misleading assertion caused confusions, and was later excised from the online edition as an error (David Fenster has stated in an email that the error was caused by faulty editing). Shirdi Sai was far more reliably reported in early Marathi sources (Dabholkar and Dixit) as a smoker of tobacco (Warren 1999:106; Shepherd 2015:114; Shepherd 2017: viii, 65). The chilum was loosely associated with opium, but was also used to smoke other substances, including tobacco.
 
Fenster has recently mentioned adding a note to LM, suggesting the possibility that a small amount of opium or hashish was at times added to the chilum of Shirdi Sai, for the purpose of alleviating asthma. This suggestion was prompted by a very recent web trawl in November 2017, communicated to Fenster by email. The trawler influenced the unwary Fenster on this point. The trawl was presented in terms of “research.” Fenster ignored my email protest at his projected new note, citing as his authority a presumed statement of Meher Baba which makes no reference whatever to the imagined contingency. This statement had been favoured by the web trawler, who did not bother to read any books on Shirdi Sai; the trawler also explicitly stated to me (by email) that he had no interest in Shirdi Sai, whom he regarded as an illiterate village faqir of minor consequence.
 
The web trawl, which strongly influenced Fenster, located a recent surmisal that Shirdi Sai smoked a sparing amount of bhang for medicinal purposes. The trawler himself was influenced by a 2015 blog of Shri Datta Swami (a contemporary guru), evidencing a preoccupation with allergy medication, namely Citrazin, Uni-carbozon, and Avil. Bhang was here viewed as the equivalent of pharmaceutical tablets. The alleged act of smoking bhang was supposedly an antidote to "illness based on allergy, which is serious cough." The scenario here is very conjectural, and does not count as “research.” The convergence of diverse contemporary assumptions about what Shirdi Sai smoked is here obscuring what early sources stated a century ago.

Fenster provided two versions of his new suggestion in separate emails. In the first, he said that “sometimes a small amount of opium or hashish would be added to the chilum to alleviate Sai Baba’s asthmatic condition.” When I objected to this innovation, he modified the phraseology, but would not abandon his contention as to possibility. He showed no familiarity with Shirdi Sai literature. He gave the impression that he would shortly be placing online his new note.
 
The trawler has since stated in an email to myself (04/12/17): “Shirdi Sai Baba occasionally used a tiny amount of opium or cannabis to alleviate a life-long asthmatic condition.” This was a reference to smoking, and effectively relying on the mistaken suggestion of Fenster, which had been influenced by the same insistent trawler. The reciprocal confusion evidenced in these emails was substantial, creating imagined fact from mere surmisal.
 
The purported statement of Meher Baba quoted by Fenster (email 27/11/17) reads: “Seekers then used not only wine but also hemp, heroin, hashish and opium; so much so that even sadgurus would indulge in them. Sai Baba used to smoke a chillum and Upasni Maharaj smoked beedies.” This is the version found in the online edition of LM. No source is supplied for the 1929 statement. Furthermore, the same LM “Kalchuri” statement of Meher Baba has variants, e.g., “You have heard stories that Sai Baba used to smoke a chilum pipe and Upasni Maharaj smoked bidis” (Reiter edn:1227). Fenster makes no mention of the stories in his online edition.

Extending details are relevant. The same passage, of which the quotation is part, refers to “the ancient past” (Reiter edn:1227). This was when seekers and sadgurus used the substances specified. The ancient chronology is confirmed by the accompanying reflection of Meher Baba that “eventually during those times, ordinary people indulged in these intoxicants for the wrong reasons” (ibid). A lengthy period of time is indicated. In contrast, Fenster emails have opted to place the “ancient past” in the early twentieth century at Shirdi. This is not the most discerning evaluation of an early Meher Baba statement, even supposing that the statement is correct in rendition (all details of origin and transmission being absent in LM). Not all statements of Meher Baba were uniformly rendered, or presented accurately, especially when translation was involved from one language to another. The error relating to Azar Kaivan  is a case in point, and one which misled readers for nearly thirty years.

In the confusing LM passage at issue, the impression is given to unwary readers that Upasani Maharaj (d.1941) smoked a drug substance over a lengthy period. In reality, Upasani smoked bidis (country tobacco cigarettes) for a few weeks only. He did this solely because of a medical insistence that he resort to tobacco for the purpose of assisting bowel motions, at a point of crisis prior to a necessary surgical operation. Upasani himself disliked cigarettes, and had to be persuaded to smoke (Shepherd, Upasani Maharaj, chapter 49). He was an orthodox brahman opposed to drugs and alcohol.

Upasani Maharaj  is a subject closely converging with Meher Baba, but for the most part neglected in the Meher Baba literature. Due analysis of Upasani biography (and teaching) is long overdue. Upasani is also strongly linked with Shirdi Sai Baba, in situations requiring more detail than is customarily supplied.
 
Generations may elapse before all discrepancies in the lengthy composite work Lord Meher are resolved. Meanwhile, a dogmatic celebration of infallible text is not appropriate.

Bibliography:
 
Deitrick, Ira G., ed., Ramjoo’s Diaries 1922-1929 (Walnut Creek, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1979).
Fenster, David, Mehera-Meher: A Divine Romance (3 vols, 2003; second edn 2013).
Kalchuri, Bhau, Feram Workingboxwala, David Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001).
Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher (revised edn, 8 vols, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh: Meher Mownavani, 2005). 
Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher online, ed. David Fenster. 
Parks, Ward, and Meherwan B. Jessawala, eds., Meher Baba’s Tiffin Lectures as given in 1926-1927 (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2017). 
Purdom, Charles B., Life Over Again (London: Dent, 1951). 
--------The God Man: The life, journeys and work of Meher Baba with an interpretation of his silence and spiritual teaching (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba: An Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988). 
-------Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995). 
-------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 
-------Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
-------Sai Baba: Faqir of Shirdi (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2017). 
-------Upasani Maharaj of Sakori: A Biography (unpublished). 
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999).
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
 
ENTRY no. 74

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

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Sheriar Mundegar Irani

Sheriar Mundegar Irani, circa 1893

Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932) was the Zoroastrian father of Meher Baba (1894-1969). His life affords an interesting variant of the substantial Irani emigration from Central Iran to India. This exodus, occurring over generations, was the consequence of oppression afflicting a religious minority.

Irani Zoroastrians were the original Persians, the real Iranians, an ethnic breed quite distinct from the Arabs and Turkic peoples who infiltrated Iran during the Islamic era. Over the centuries, their zone of habitation contracted to the regions of Yazd and Kerman, primarily the former. At Yazd, they lived mainly in villages on the Yazd plain (Boyce 1977). These rural Zoroastrian ghettos existed in the shadow of Shia Islam. Zoroastrians were officially tolerated, but nevertheless subject to harassments and an insidious religious discrimination (Amighi 1990).
 
Sheriar Mundegar was born at the Yazdi village of Khorramshah. He was the son of Mundegar the salar, meaning the custodian of a local Zoroastrian dakhma or “tower of silence.” At these towers, corpses were disposed of in the traditional manner, being left for vultures to devour. The salar guarded the corpses, and performed basic rites for the dead. Mundegar was very unusual in being the follower of an obscure Muslim saint at Khorramshah (Kalchuri 1986:120). Because of this allegiance, local Muslims were more tolerant of his family than would otherwise have been the case.

Irani Zoroastrians lived in constant fear of abuse. They were known contemptuously as guebres or “fire worshippers.” Restrictions applied to the size of their houses, and their mode of travel. They could not openly trade; their lifestyle was frequently that of agricultural workers. The presiding legists were mullas, a religious party indifferent to infidel complaints. “If a Zoroastrian was murdered, no one was punished” (Anzar 1976:4).
 
Mistreatment from the local Muslim population and clergy was more severe at Yazd than in the Kerman milieu (Sanasarian 2000:49). Many travellers to Iran commented on the Zoroastrian plight. E. G. Browne referred to the “savage brutality of lutis,” a category described as hooligans (Browne 1893:371; Shepherd 1988a:13-14). While Browne was in Yazd, a Zoroastrian was bastinadoed for accidentally touching with his garment some fruit for sale in the bazaar, rendering this commodity unclean for true believers (Browne 1893:371-2).

The Irani Zoroastrians dreaded attacks on their women. A Zoroastrian girl was raped while carrying farm produce to the city. The Muslim attackers callously claimed that she was drunk, and therefore responsible for the crime. The victim could not endure the stigma imposed upon her, and committed suicide by burning herself (Jahanian 1996). Other girls are reported to have been forcibly converted to Islam.
 
Young Sheriar himself foiled a molestation when a group of Muslims on horseback were chasing a young and attractive Zoroastrian woman. He concealed this fugitive at the site of the dakhma he tended with his father (Anzar 1974:2). The pursuers had broken into a Zoroastrian house. Other reports confirm that Muslims would kidnap Zoroastrian girls and convert them to Islam via marriage. Converts would be paraded in the Yazd bazaar as a sign of Islamic triumph (Amighi 2014). Another version is that abductors would have the girls “married to Muslims in other areas or sell them as concubines” (Kalchuri 1986:121 endnote). A frequent destination of the victims was Arabia. “In this way the Muslim fanatics reduced the Zoroastrian population” (ibid). In his description of 1850s abuses, the Parsi traveller Maneckji Hataria wrote: “Vagrants have kidnapped their [Irani] women and daughters” (Jahanian 1996). Some abductors seem comparable to slave traders. However, Qajar Iran is much better known for other aspects of the widespread slave trade (Mirzai 2017).

The feared lutis were involved in murders. Circa 1870, two Zoroastrians were attacked outside Yazd by two Muslims. One victim was killed, the other very badly wounded, as the aggressors tried to cut off his head (Malcolm 1908:50). Violence was too often preferred. Oppressive collectors of the jizya tax would tie a man to a dog (a despised Zoroastrian pet) and beat both of the victims until the money was given, amounting to a labourer’s wage for ten days (ibid:47). Not to be outdone in such excesses, the pious Shia mujtahids (elite clerics) made Zoroastrians stand on one leg inside their (Muslim) houses “until they consented to pay a considerable sum of money” (ibid:48).
 
The French ambassador to Qajar Iran wrote pessimistically: “A miracle may save them [Irani Zoroastrians] from extinction” (Jahanian 1996). In the mid-nineteenth century, the village of Turkabad, near Yazd, suffered a forcible mass conversion of Zoroastrians (Boyce 1977:7; Boyce 1992:158). This event is sometimes described in terms of a massacre. There were apparently less than 7,000 Zoroastrians surviving at Yazd during the 1850s. The Parsi mission of Maneckji Hataria attempted to improve the situation, although not without opposition from conservative Irani priests (Ringer 2011:152ff). 
 
The young salar Sheriar Irani departed from Yazd in 1865-66. He was not merely fleeing from harassment. He became a mendicant committed to Yazdan (the Zoroastrian God). He is often referred to as a dervish, a word generally denoting a Muslim mendicant. However, he remained a Zoroastrian. His father’s intimacy with a Muslim saint may have imparted to Sheriar a degree of affinity with mystical Islam. Sheriar grew accustomed to the wilderness, which he regarded as a haven from interference. This was a very tough life, sandstorms being only one of the problems. A strong walker, he learned how to survive, and adapted as best he could to the surrounding Muslim society.

After eight years of wandering, he emigrated to India with his brother Khododad. They arrived in Bombay circa 1874, taking employment. Their environment was now that of Parsis, the Zoroastrian community of Western India commencing many centuries earlier (Palsetia 2001). After the British took possession of Bombay in 1662, Parsis converged there in large numbers, flourishing as traders or sethias (Hinnells and Williams 2008a:1). See also Bombay communities.  A major influence in this city, during the early nineteenth century, was Sir Jamshetji Jejeebhoy (1783-1859), the Parsi merchant and philanthropist, and the first Indian to be knighted (Palsetia 2015).

Unlike Khododad, Sheriar did not pursue wealth. Instead, he again departed as a mendicant, effectively vanishing during the years 1874-1883. After a severe thirty day fast and vigil (chilla), he returned to the urban sector (in 1883 or 1884), his body emaciated. He had experienced a powerful dream, which conveyed that he could not himself attain God, but instead his son would do so. This intimation caused mental turmoil; his mind was divided between the prospect of a family and his dedication to the renunciate life.

Although seriously weakened from fasting, he now walked over four hundred miles south from Gujarat. He arrived in Poona (Pune), finding the home of his sister Piroja, who had likewise emigrated from Yazd. She had given up hope of ever seeing Sheriar again. Piroja could not understand his ascetic way of life. She wanted him to marry and settle down. Sheriar reacted, repeatedly telling her that he intended to resume mendicancy. Piroja was upset and wept.
 
Eventually Sheriar adopted a different tactic. Gazing out of the window, he pointed to the five (or six) year old daughter of an Irani neighbour, saying that if he had to marry, then he would marry this little girl. Sheriar did not believe that his suggestion would be taken seriously. He was astounded when his persistent sister arranged the match (Kalchuri 1986:130-137; Shepherd 1988a:52-57). The marriage was scheduled years in the future.
 
Sheriar felt obliged to honour his word. The Zoroastrian ethical code stressed truthfulness. A promise was considered irrevocable. This feature of integrity converged with the Zoroastrian religious tenet of “good words” (hukhta), associated with the ancient prophet Zarathushtra (Boyce 1992:90).
 
He commenced to earn a livelihood, at first working in Poona as a gardener at a Parsi mansion, where plants flourished in his care. Eventually he married Shirin Irani, as he had promised, in 1892. He was then 39, while she was 14 years old. Sheriar became a businessman, in the interests of supporting his growing family of several children. His simple terraced house was near the Poona cantonment, in a locality then known as Butler Moholla. In 1919, he acquired a larger house in the same lane, opposite the earlier home (Irani 1965:23). The ambience was middle class. Yet neither of these properties were comparable to the fine mansions of wealthy Parsi celebrities. Sheriar maintained a business because he had to, not because he wanted to. He was eventually the proprietor of a string of toddy shops, employing many assistants. At that period, many Parsis in Gujarat made their living from the production of toddy, a mild alcoholic drink.

Meanwhile, during the 1880s, he taught himself to read and write. Not only did he learn Persian, but also Arabic. He spoke with his family in Dari, meaning the Irani language used at Yazd (more specifically, Zoroastrian Dari in the Yazdi dialect was divided into many variants relating to neighbourhood). His daughter says that Sheriar had an imperfect knowledge of Gujarati, which he spoke with an Irani accent (Irani 1993:52). Gujarati was the vernacular language of Parsis, and associated with the neighbouring state of Gujarat (Shirin could speak fluent Gujarati, being reared in this language). In contrast, Arabic was a very unusual linguistic interest amongst Zoroastrians. Sheriar became acquainted with both Sufi and Zoroastrian texts. He taught Shirin Persian, reading to her the Shah-Nama and Divan of Hafiz. He also wrote mystical poetry in Persian.
 
His daughter Mani later related that he was consulted by a scholar engaged in the translation of a text from Arabic to Persian. She actually saw him “help a well known [Parsi] professor to correct some manuscript in Arabic” (Irani 1993:60). Mani also relayed that her father would talk in Hebrew with a woman who lived in the same lane at Poona. Exactly how Sheriar came to learn Hebrew is not known. “I would hear Father converse in Hebrew with a charming old Jewish lady who wore dozens of bangles” (ibid). A Jewish community had existed at Yazd, but any early connection of Sheriar with that colony seems unlikely.
 
Mani wondered how her father could speak these languages so well (in contrast to his more pedestrian Gujarati). She questioned him on this matter. Sheriar was reticent; he merely remarked that the acquisition “came to me suddenly, in a moment” (ibid). Years later, Mani asked her brother Meher Baba how such knowledge could be possible. The mystical reply was: “Knowledge is all inside, hidden behind a curtain” (ibid). We know that Sheriar was self-taught at Poona, but his approach to learning was not typical of autodidacts or academics.

Arabic had been a strong component of the eclectic tradition known as Kaivani or Sipasi. During the Safavid era, the Zoroastrian mystic Azar Kaivan (d.1618) emigrated to India from his native Iranian territory of Fars.  Kaivan’s Zoroastrian circle of disciples included learned speakers of both Arabic and Persian. They were familiar with the ishraqi tradition of philosophy transmitted by Suhrawardi Maqtul (d.1191). Kaivani texts were studied by nineteenth century Parsis. Sheriar was another reader familiar with complexities (Shepherd 1988a:58ff). His son Merwan (alias Meher Baba) is known to have awarded a high rating to Azar Kaivan, describing this figure as a spiritual master
 
The Dabistan informs that two Jewish rabbis became followers of the Kaivan circle in the early seventeenth century. Hebrew was not necessary for the study of Kaivani texts. However, the inter-religious disposition of that circle must have impressed Sheriar. Relevant works like the Dabistan and Desatir  were well known in literary circles of his time. Like the Kaivanis, Sheriar believed in reincarnation. Many Parsis became Theosophists, but Sheriar moved in another direction. He may be described as a neo-Kaivani.
 
Sheriar learned to some degree the local Marathi, but did not assimilate English. However, he had nothing against the British. Zoroastrians benefited from the tolerant colonial regime. For generations until circa 1860, the mercantile activity of Iranis at Yazd had been much restricted, literally occurring underground, operating in cellars of their houses as a consequence of Islamic prohibition (Malcolm 1905:46-47). Now, in India, they were free to prosper alongside the Parsis.

Enterprising Parsis built and ran the Bombay dockyard, were the leading ship owners of India, were pioneers in education and social reform, were leaders in banking, law, and the Indian industrial revolution (Hinnells and Williams 2008a:2). At Poona, some Parsis established factories. The earliest Parsi settlers here were traders, but many became professional people, e.g., lawyers, doctors, academics. Parsi philanthropists made generous donations to educational institutions such as the Deccan College.
 
Some of the most imposing houses in Poona were owned by Parsis, whose social functions attracted many British officials. Circa 1900, there were 1,900 Parsis in Poona, many of them affluent. In contrast, numerous Iranis arrived as refugees; most of these newcomers were not wealthy (Hinnells 2008b). Iranis were far more at the working class level. Accordingly, Parsis tended to regard themselves as superior. There is a general lack of information about the Iranis in Poona, Sheriar being an exception.

The education of Parsis generally followed a Westernised model. Sheriar did not participate in this trend, but remained a mystic. Some wealthy Parsi families gained many servants. Sheriar’s family had only one servant, a Hindu lady named Chandri, whom they employed in the 1920s. Sheriar was not a gourmet. He maintained a habit of selecting the most imperfect food for himself, for instance, a blemished apple. Mani says that he would quickly put such items on his plate, not saying a word. “As a child, she [Mani] noticed such selfless acts” (Fenster 2013:230).

The ex-mendicant Irani was not typical of the business sector. His wife Shirin was often exasperated by his lack of interest in mundane acquisitions and savings. Mani related that her mother did not trust Sheriar with money, the reason being that he would so frequently give away cash to beggars and ascetics. The benign Sheriar had exactly the same tendency with blankets. Shirin complained that she could have opened a blanket shop if they had kept all the blankets her husband had so generously gifted (audio source). In this action, Sheriar was similar to Hazrat Babajan (d.1931), the Muslim  faqir whose latitude to the poor became famous. Sheriar was an acquaintance of Babajan, who lived nearby in the same area of Poona (Shepherd 2014:49-50). 
 
Sheriar Irani was constantly muttering “Yazdan, Yazdan,” a Zoroastrian sacred name. This was not an ostentatious exercise, but scarcely audible, and often completely silent. His daughter informs: “I would look up to catch a glimpse of the tip of his tongue moving up and down as he silently repeated God’s name” (Irani 1993:57).
 
Silence was a frequent characteristic. Mani relays that a local businessman was deeply impressed with Sheriar, and would visit his home. The two would sit in silence for hours at a time. Shirin would become annoyed, asking the visitor when he was going to leave; she would tell him to come to the point. The visitor is reported to have replied; “I do not come here to talk to Sheriar, I just like to sit in his presence. I feel so peaceful sitting here with him” (audio source).
 
In another report, Mani writes: “Many a family friend or acquaintance has come into our home to sit for hours beside him [Sheriar] in total silence” (Irani 1993:57). The reason supplied is that the visitors gained peace of mind.
 
When Mehera J. Irani (along with other visitors) encountered Sheriar in December 1924 (or January 1925), she found that he “would sit away from the others, quietly repeating Yezdan, the Zoroastrian name of God” (Fenster 2013:158). He was still partial to horticulture; Mehera noticed the violets growing in his garden at Butler Moholla.

During the early 1920s, the elderly Sheriar lost his business to a dishonest employee. He was indifferent to the loss of income (Shepherd 1988a:73-75). He maintained his composure, giving the impression that the outer world was of no consequence by comparison with the inner world.

Some orthodox Parsis of Poona were critics of his son Meher Baba, whom they considered a heretic. This hostile group bribed a policeman who had alcoholic tendencies. The agitators made the policeman drunk, exhorting him to visit Sheriar and administer a beating. The inebriated officer of the law complied with the request, and threateningly entered Sheriar’s house. The old man simply gazed at the intruder, who shouted abuse. Sheriar did not react. The interloper failed in his mission; no violence occurred. However, neighbours were outraged by this unseemly event, and made the policeman apologise afterwards to his intended victim (audio source). These neighbours were not Zoroastrians. Their identity is uncertain. Butler Moholla was inhabited by “Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists” (Irani 1993:19).
 
Another visitor to the home of Sheriar had a deeper comprehension than most others. Sadhu Christian Leik (d. 1929) was an unusual ascetic from Esthonia who became a disciple of Meher Baba in 1928. Mani reported that Leik would sit in silence with Sheriar for hours. Both of these men were contemplatives who did not feel a need for words. 

Bibliographic Note:

The early published account in Purdom 1937:14-16 has some errors, including the mistaken date of 1879 for the marriage of Sheriar and Shirin. Purdom also says that Sheriar “returned to Bombay and went to his sister Piroja’s house – there he stayed.” The traveller did return to Bombay, but quickly moved on to his sister’s home in Poona, a place name omitted by Purdom. This misleading version is reflected in the current Wikipedia article on Sheriar, which states that Piroja lived in Bombay, and that Sheriar and his wife moved to Poona in 1893. This error is attributed to Maud Kennedy, but her article correctly identifies Poona as the location, following Jal S. Irani (without supplying any source). Only weeks after Shirin Irani was born at Bombay, her parents moved to Poona in the late 1870s, where her father Dorab Irani opened a tea shop. The date Purdom selected for the marriage was actually the time when Dorab and his family moved to Poona. The contraction about Bombay is repeated in Purdom 1964:16, but the date of marriage is duly revised to 1892. The date of birth here is still unsatisfactory. The article by Sheriar’s son Jal Irani was a basic source for Maud Kennedy, a British devotee of Meher Baba. Both of these articles lack details afforded in subsequent published materials and oral transmission. Jal says that Sheriar left home “when he was barely thirteen years of age” (Irani 1965:16). There are slight differences in the reports. Cf. Kalchuri 1986:122, stating “he was only twelve years old.” Other writers give the age as thirteen. Jal gives no date for the voyage from Iran to Bombay, and says that his father eventually owned “several toddy and tea shops” (Irani 1965:22). Jal informs that Sheriar gained “a scholarly knowledge of the Persian and Arabic languages” (ibid:21), but does not mention the acquisition of Hebrew. The 1976 article by Naosherwan Anzar supplied very relevant material resulting from fieldwork on the Yazd plain. Bhau Kalchuri, and the editorial process of Lord Meher, supplied two chapters on Sheriar and Shirin. Major informants about Sheriar Irani were his children Mani S. Irani and Adi S. Irani. Mani’s version is represented in Lord Meher. She is described as having “authenticated” the relevant chapters. Adi is not represented. He never wrote anything, but did make references in conversation. Adi was acknowledged in Shepherd 1988a:82. “I am indebted to Sheriar’s son Adi S. Irani for certain background data.” My book supplied the longest version of Sheriar’s biography, together with details about the Kaivan circle and their literature. A second edition is planned. Adi was in awe of his father, whom he considered an excelling example of the “be in the world but not of it” ideal. Adi emphasised the unusual extent of Sheriar’s philanthropy, and believed that only Merwan (Meher Baba) was fully conversant with the range of their father's studies. My earliest version of Sheriar was in the unpublished manuscript Life of Meher Baba, the chapter on Sheriar dating to 1967. See also the index references to Sheriar Irani in Shepherd 1988b:302; Shepherd 2005:310. The details contributed by Mani S. Irani (1918-1996) were partly in oral and audio transmission, the audio materials emerging online. Her written version is Irani 1993:52-61. On Mehera J. Irani (1907-1989), see Fenster 2013. Concerning the phenomenon of Parsi success, “they [Parsis] are now India’s smallest community, yet they are among those who have exercised the greatest influence on the Subcontinent, having been foremost in so many areas all out of proportion to their demographic size” (Hinnells and Williams 2008a:1).

Bibliography:

Amighi, Janet Kestenberg, The Zoroastrians of Iran: Conversion, Assimilation, or Persistence (New York: AMS Press, 1990).
---------“Kerman xiii. Zoroastrians of 19th Century Yazd and Kerman,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online (2014).
Anzar, Naosherwan, The Beloved: The Life and Work of Meher Baba (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1974).
---------“In Search of God’s Ancestry,” The Glow Quarterly (August 1976) 11(3):3-10.
Boyce, Mary, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). 
--------Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour (Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992). 
Browne, Edward G., A Year Amongst the Persians (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1893). Eduljee, K. E., Zoroastrian Heritage (2005-17).
Fenster, David, Mehera-Meher Vol. 1 (second edn, Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2013).
Hinnells, John R., The Zoroastrian Diaspora: Religion and Migration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Hinnells, John R., and Alan Williams, eds., Parsis in India and the Diaspora (London and New York: Routledge, 2008a).
Hinnells, "Parsi Communities i. Early History," Encyclopaedia Iranica online (2008b). 
Irani, Jal S., “Biographical Notes on Avatar Meher Baba’s Parents,” Divya Vani (Jan. 1965) 2(1):15-23.
Irani, Mani S., God-Brother: Stories from my Childhood with Meher Baba (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 1993).
Kalchuri, Bhau, Feram Workingboxwala, David Fenster et al, Lord Meher Vol. 1 (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Manifestation, 1986).
Kennedy, Maud, “Sheriarji: The Wandering Dervish,” Glow International (August 1985):11-13. Malcolm, Napier, Five Years in a Persian Town (London: John Murray, 1908).
Mirzai, Behnaz A., A History of Slavery and Emancipation in Iran 1800-1929 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).
Palsetia, Jesse S., The Parsis of India: Preservation of Identity in Bombay City (Leiden: Brill, 2001). 
--------Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy of Bombay: Partnership and Public Culture in Empire (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Purdom, Charles, The Perfect Master: The Life of Shri Meher Baba (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937).
---------The God-Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Ringer, Monica M., Pious Citizens: Reforming Zoroastrianism in India and Iran (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011).
Sanasarian, Eliz, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988a).
---------Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988b).
---------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
---------Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling, 2014).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 73 

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

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Meher Baba Supplement

Meher Baba, 1950

The subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969) has dimensions that are frequently missing in standard portrayals. The factor of Zoroastrian background is relevant. However, Meher Baba did not teach Zoroastrian doctrines. This matter has caused confusion, leading some people to mistakenly believe that he taught Hinduism.
 
His ancestors came from the Yazd plain in Central Iran, a region notable for one of the two surviving Zoroastrian populations in that country. The Zoroastrian minority in Iran were afflicted by stigmas imposed by Shia Islam. Many Irani Zoroastrians chose to emigrate. The father of Meher Baba, namely Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932), was initially trained as a salar, or custodian of a local tower of silence (a burial place). Sheriar emigrated to India, eventually settling at Poona (Pune), where he gained literacy in Arabic and Persian (and reputedly Hebrew). His son Merwan Irani (Meher Baba) was born at Poona.
 
When he was nineteen, Merwan became a follower of Hazrat Babajan (d.1931). This Pathan matriarch lived under a tree at Poona (Shepherd 2014). The faqir Babajan exerted a strong influence upon the young Irani, who became inwardly absorbed and oblivious to his surroundings. Orthodox Zoroastrians were averse to Babajan, because she was a Muslim. These critics regarded Merwan’s unorthodox tangent as aberrant.
 
The introversion of Merwan Irani underwent an adjustment at the hands of Upasani Maharaj (d.1941), a Hindu disciple of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). Merwan eventually normalised, and gained his own following, who called him Meher Baba. He was regarded by orthodox Zoroastrians as a heretic. However, many Irani and Parsi Zoroastrians became his followers, along with Hindus and Muslims.
 
Meher Baba created an ashram at a desolate site becoming known as Meherabad, situated a few miles south of Ahmednagar, a city in the Maharashtra territory. In 1925 he commenced silence, one of his major distinguishing characteristics. There was no vow involved; he merely continued his silence year by year. For communication purposes, he resorted to the use of an alphabet board, featuring letters of the English language.

His ashram contingent became known as mandali, many of them Zoroastrians. They wore ordinary clothes, and did not resemble the staff of Hindu ashrams. Meher Baba was opposed to caste distinctions, and supported the untouchables (harijans). He generally restricted facilities for darshan, meaning public audience, which he evidently regarded as an interruption. There should be no confusions with some well known Hindu gurus, who tended to favour daily darshan and a considerable number of attendees.
 
Opposition to Meher Baba from orthodox Zoroastrians was strong during the 1920s. They did not actually know what he taught. His discourses to devotees were privately recorded, and not publicly available. He is on record as  referring to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster), but not in the conventional religious sense. Some analysts have described his teaching as eclectic. However, adequate analysis has scarcely begun.
 
In the late 1920s, Meher Baba conducted a school for boys known as Meher Ashram. The inmates included Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. In 1929, he undertook a visit to Iran. Some acclaim occurred at Yazd, where he was welcomed by both Shia Muslims and local Zoroastrians. Despite the enthusiasm in evidence, Meher Baba declined to meet the Shah of Iran, and ended his tour with a renewed incognito policy (Shepherd 2005:116-120).
 
In 1931, he commenced a series of visits to Europe and America, ending in 1937. In 1932, some of his British devotees desired publicity for his arrival in London. He consented to their request, and briefly appeared on a Pathe newsreel with Charles Purdom. His first visit to England (the previous year) had been conducted without publicity. He resumed his standard incognito approach after the “world tour” in 1932. Meher Baba evidently did not desire public profile. Numerous private photographs attest the incognito tendency of this Irani mystic. He frequently wore a Western suit; contemporary European headgear concealed his long hair.
 
The major critic of Meher Baba was a British occultist with a disposition for Yoga. Paul Brunton (d.1981) gained commercial status with a popular book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). Some contents of this narrative do not withstand critical examination, and are very misleading. Brunton gives a distorted and partial version of some events in 1930-31. He subsequently encountered Charles Purdom (d.1965), a major British supporter of the Irani. Purdom relates how Brunton complained to him that Meher Baba could not perform a requested miracle, and therefore Baba was a fraud (Purdom 1964:128,440). Brunton’s publisher eventually advertised his identity in terms of Dr. Paul Brunton. This credential also proved misleading, in view of strong associations with a correspondence course. The critique of Brunton by Dr. Jeffrey Masson is revealing (Masson 1993).

A new project in 1936 was the Rahuri ashram for the mad. This activity underlines the philanthropic dimension of Meher Baba’s outlook. He personally ministered to the mad, and other inmates, of this unusual ashram (Donkin 1948:95-104). One of his daily tasks was “to scour the ashram latrine” (ibid:96), an accomplishment seldom found amongst gurus. In subsequent years, he created seven temporary centres which have been called “mast ashrams” (ibid:105-149). These phenomena have no known relation to any aspect of the Hindu ashram tradition.
 
During the Second World War, and also later years, Meher Baba was active in a distinctive undertaking known as “mast work.” The masts were Indian saints and related examples of a “God-intoxicated” category. Meher Baba sought out many of these entities (both Muslims and Hindus) in arduous journeys undertaken throughout India. He was assisted by Baidul Irani and other Zoroastrian mandali. The commitment is notable for a complete absence of publicity. There is no known counterpart of this activity in the careers of Hindu gurus. The mast work was reliably documented by a British medical doctor (Donkin 1948), who became one of the mandali.
 
The subsequent New Life phase has often caused perplexity. Commencing in 1949, Meher Baba described this phase in terms of a “new life of complete renunciation and absolute hopelessness.” The New Life opened with his injunction that “no one should try to see Baba or his companions for any reason whatsoever, as Baba will not see anyone of them, nor allow his companions to do so” (open communication via Adi K. Irani dated October 1949). This was another incognito exercise.
 
A further development has been the subject of misunderstandings. In 1952, Meher Baba applied his signature to a Charter for the American organisation known as Sufism Reoriented. The leader of that contingent was Murshida Ivy O. Duce, who became his devotee. Meher Baba did not compose the Charter, but checked the contents and made suggestions. At this period, he made clear that his approach was neutral to all religions, and that contact with him could be made independently of all "isms."
 
Murshida Duce claimed that Meher Baba promised, for Sufism Reoriented, a perpetual series of illumined murshids for centuries to come (Duce 1975:123). This extravagance was strongly contradicted by her dissident colleague Don Stevens, who soberly emphasised that Meher Baba never made any such promise.

During the early 1950s, the Irani mystic gained many new Hindu devotees in Hamirpur and Andhra. He undertook darshan tours in both of those regions; he had formerly declined repeated requests, made since 1947,  to visit Andhra.  During a darshan tour in 1954, for the first time he publicly affirmed his role as “avatar of the age.” This avatar identity is the most controversial aspect of his career. Meher Baba had made private references to such a role in former years. "He was well aware that avatars are as common as mud in India, and was known to remark that they exist in every other village. To the best of my knowledge, a Zoroastrian avatar on Indian soil is unique" (Shepherd 1988:50).
 
Meher Baba suffered two motor accidents, in 1952 and 1956. He himself did not drive a car. The second accident left him with an injured hip that affected his walking ability. His last years were spent in retirement at Meherazad, his second ashram near Ahmednagar. There was a more convivial extension each summer at the venue known as Guruprasad, in Poona. Visiting devotees generally went to Poona, attending sahavas programmes which Baba at times permitted.
 
Extant films reveal situations at Meherazad and Poona. The most significant film has a soundtrack, and dates to 1967. This is the Gasteren footage Beyond Words. Meher Baba is here shown bathing lepers at Meherazad, and also reiterating his well known warning against the use of drugs. In his various messages, LSD and cannabis were both targeted as harmful distractions.
 
Hindu gurus were not noted for imparting any such message. Some observers say that the Hindu perspective on drug issues was compromised by a widespread usage of cannabis amongst the sadhu population in India. Whatever the case here, Meher Baba did not hestitate to criticise the psychedelic holy men, whose tendencies he described in terms of a recurring (or perennial) problem.
 
Meher Baba died in January 1969 at Meherazad, while suffering severe muscular spasms. His condition was a source of puzzlement to medical doctors in attendance. The medics said that he should have been in a coma, but he showed no sign of mental disturbance. His body was buried on Meherabad Hill, where a tomb had been constructed many years before.

After his death, the surviving mandali presided at the ashrams of Meherabad and Meherazad. The chief spokesmen were Adi K. Irani (d.1980) and Eruch B. Jessawala (d.2001). In 1980, a disagreement arose between Eruch and Sufism Reoriented. Eruch agitated against the new Murshid of that organisation, namely James Mackie (d.2001), whom Ivy Duce had appointed as her successor. For several years during the 1980s, and in reaction to mandali critique, the supporters of Mackie stopped visiting the ashrams and the tomb of Meher Baba.
 
The mandali are now extinct. Some devotees refer to the current phase in terms of “post mandali” events. Eruch and his colleagues certainly did exercise a strong influence upon devotees at large. Mandali views were frequently represented as authoritative.
 
The sources on Meher Baba are many and varied. Considerable diligence is now required in tracking all the documentation. The present author contributed the first critical bibliography some thirty years ago (Shepherd 1988:248-297). By far the longest work available is Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu), a multi-volume biography. That celebration is commonly attributed to Bhau Kalchuri, of the mandali. However, Kalchuri was only one of the authors/compilers at work in this project. A number of errors can be found in the Reiter edition, partly arising from the translation efforts involved.

Bibliography:

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

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 72

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