spiritual gurus

A Parsi baba who inspired The Who and met Gandhi is still drawing foreign believers to Maharashtra

Meher Baba travelled around the world claiming to be god incarnate. His ‘don’t worry, be happy’ mantra still has many takers.

What do Bobby McFerrin’s famous song Don’t Worry, Be Happy, English band The Who’s rock opera Tommy and American singer Melanie’s Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) about Woodstock have in common?

They all contain references to Avatar Meher Baba, a Parsi spiritual seeker born in Pune in 1894 and who died in 1969 in Ahmednagar.

In most respects, Ahmednagar is a fairly ordinary city of central Maharashtra. At just under 40 square kilometres and with a population of only 3.5 lakh, it is small by Maharashtra’s standards, though it does have a reputation as an educational hub in the neighbouring districts of Marathwada. Despite its size and its location removed from tourist hubs on the west coast, it sees a steady stream of foreigners and Indians on pilgrimage.

Their destination: the ashram of Meher Baba, just south of the city.

The road to Meherabad, near the village of Arangaon, is littered with references to the godman. Along with the regular Marathi cement advertisements painted on the walls of houses (“All engineers swear there is more life in this cement than any other”), there are famous catchphrases of the local Baba who went global – “Don’t worry, be happy” and the rather Orwellian “Mastery in servitude”.

True Baba-lovers, as Meher Baba called his followers, abnegate their desires to become slaves to his wish. Pete Townshend, lead singer of The Who, was one of them. He heard of Meher Baba in 1967. Three years later, he described his complete surrender in an essay for Rolling Stone:

“Falling in love with Meher Baba doesn’t happen by choice... It’s like being reunited with the use of your legs after living without them for years in a wheel chair.”

Love was the message Meher Baba took on his first visit to the US in 1931, seven years after he took a vow of silence that would last his life. That pledge set him apart. Among the clutch of spiritual Indians who were attracting inner peace-seeking Americans on their visit to the US, Meher Baba stood out as the “silent baba”.

He claimed he was god incarnate, following in the footsteps of Krishna, Jesus Christ, Buddha, and all other gods on earth who had preceded him. This was not unusual, as claims of godmen go, and yet it found believers, even after his death.

Today, people from countries as far apart as Russia, Japan, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States continue to spend anywhere from a few weeks to their whole lives in Ahmednagar in the belief that the man they love can take away all their pains.

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'Baba O'Riley', The Who

An itinerant life

Meher Baba was born Merwan Irani in Poona in 1894 to Sheriar and Shireen Irani. His father shared some of his spiritual leanings – as an adolescent and young man, he had wandered through parts of Iran and later Gujarat and Sindh for 20 years in search of enlightenment. Unable to find it, he returned to Bombay at 31 and eight years later, married 14-year-old Shireen. The couple had nine children, the second of whom was Merwan.

Merwan Irani’s early years were typical for a person of his class and background. He was among the first Indian students at a British school in Pune and later studied at Deccan College. His spiritual awakening came at 19, he said, when one day cycling home from college, he met an Afghani saint sitting under a tree. The saint, Hazrat Babajan, kissed his forehead, and Merwan fell into a trance, from which he did not emerge for eight months.

Meher Baba later described Hazrat Babajan as one of the five “Perfect Masters” – his translation of the word “sadguru” – of the age. According to his theology, there are, at any given time, five Perfect Masters. India being a particularly fertile ground for enlightened souls, all five of them were near enough to him to anoint him. One of them was Shirdi Sai Baba, who Meher Baba said prostrated before him when Meher Baba went to meet him.

A priest called Upasni Maharaj was another of the five Perfect Masters. When he threw a stone at the same spot on which Hazrat Babajan had kissed him, Meher Baba realised that he was god. Meher Baba learned from Upasni Maharaj for seven years and then broke off with his own group of disciples to settle in Arangaon, south of Ahmednagar.

In 1925, Meher Baba undertook a vow of silence. When he broke his silence, he said, he would reveal a truth so grand that the entire world would be shattered. He kept promising to break his silence through his life, but eventually died, or “dropped his body”, as Baba-lovers say, in 1969, having not spoken a word for 44 years.

Between then and his death, he undertook an astounding range of travel. He travelled abroad bearing the message of peace – and later via his followers, an exhortation not to consume drugs. He travelled extensively and anonymously within India, leaving behind all material possessions and setting off for a few years with only a few handpicked Baba-lovers, all in search of truth. He sought out those considered insane by society and washed and fed them.

Meher Baba was not a stranger to the political reality of the British Raj. He seems to have met Mohandas Gandhi on a ship on his way to the Round Table Conference – a series of conferences organised by the British government to discuss constitutional reforms in India – and to have written to Bhimrao Ambedkar, imploring him on Gandhi’s behalf to concede the demand for reservations for Dalits in elections.

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'Don't Worry, Be Happy', Bobby McFerrin

All you need is love

There are two major locations for those seeking to know Meher Baba near Ahmednagar. One is Meherabad, south of Ahmednagar – the site of his tomb and those of his close female disciples, a tower, a resource centre and a pilgrim retreat built a little over a decade ago.

Though the Meher Pilgrim Retreat at Meherabad is a comfortable, albeit slightly bizarre, set of buildings, complete with heart patterns built into the metal grills, and the food is adapted to Western palates, visitors put up with the minor inconveniences of bathing only once in two days. The retreat is located in a rough part of Ahmednagar where water is scarce.

Despite its eccentricities, the retreat does conform to certain stereotypes of other Indian religious places. Take food. According to his contemporaries, Meher Baba did not eat very much, but when he did, he did eat the occasional mutton. Despite this and the fact that most Indians do eat meat, the pilgrim retreat today serves only vegetarian food – in deference to forward caste Hindu sentiment. Those who want to add some chicken or beer to their diet must go outside.

The other significant site of pilgrimage is Meherazad, north of Ahmednagar, where Meher Baba lived with his disciples and where he underwent long periods of total seclusion atop a hill. The cluster of houses are a museum today, with the blue bus he travelled around India in preserved in original form, his bed at which Baba-lovers pay obeisance, and photographs and quotes on all the walls, including those proclaiming his divinity.

This last claim of divinity had significant ramifications for his closest female disciple, Mehera Irani. As Krishna had his Radha, Meher Baba too claimed Mehera was his perfect “beloved”. The two even dressed up as Radha and Krishna and posed for photographs on a swing.

Mehera, a Zoroastrian, met Meher Baba when she was 15. Meher Baba called her the “purest soul in the world” and to maintain her purity, insisted she remain in total seclusion from all men. Once she joined his ashram, Mehera was not permitted to touch, see or hear any man except Meher Baba, to the extent that she was forbidden access to radio. Even men’s names were not spoken in her presence. When the need arose, Meher Baba would refer to them as “Mrs Hitler” or “Mrs Churchill”.

For her part, Mehera seems to have been infatuated with Meher Baba. She devoted her life to him, accompanying him on his travels. She finally emerged from seclusion just before Meher Baba died and after his death sat with his disciples and occasionally recounted stories of the man she loved.

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'Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)', Melanie

Baba or bust?

Meher Baba was regarded with some suspicion by his contemporaries. To all his critics, he had a standard response: he gained fame through their defamation of him and it was all, naturally, a part of his divine plan.

Mehera, and her mother, for instance, were upright members of the Parsi community, and their relatives watched with dismay as the two grew closer to Meher Baba. Mehera’s uncle, Colonel Merwan Sorab Irani, was so incensed with Meher Baba’s influence over his family that he spent much of the rest of his life denouncing him as a charlatan, fraud and disgrace to the Zoroastrian community.

There were other critics, such as the journalist Paul Brunton, who travelled across India to meet spiritual leaders. Brunton, though not impressed, did not go as far as to say that Meher Baba was a fraud. Still, he described him as someone who might have once had a spiritual experience, but had the misfortune to mistake it for divinity. He pointed to the instance of Meher Baba continuing to predict a war to end the world. As each date of his prediction approached, Meher Baba revised it with a new one.

However, for Baba-lovers, these criticisms do not matter. As his slogan “Mastery in servitude” suggests, Meher Baba demanded utter obedience, no matter how bizarre his commands seemed to be. Baba-lovers rationalise his frequent contradictions and outbursts of ill temper as the playfulness of a god who is something of a trickster. After all, it is for their own good.

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