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.

Play
'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.

Play
'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.

Play
'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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.