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

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

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Swarupananda Saraswati and Shirdi Sai Baba

Swami Swarupananda Saraswati

In June 2014, Swami Swarupananda Saraswati  commenced an ideological campaign against the deceased Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918) and his living devotees. Many television newsreels and national newspapers profiled the relevant events.  
 
The Swami is a figurehead of the monastic Shankara Order, whose leaders are known as Shankaracharyas and jagadgurus (Cenkner 1983). In 1973, he became Shankaracharya of the monastery known as Jyotir Math, at Badrinath. In 1982, he also became the Shankaracharya of Dwaraka Math, located in Gujarat. These two monasteries have a high repute, being amongst the five major mathas of the Shankara (or Dashanami) Order. That organisation has strong traditional ballast, reputedly being a continuation of the activity of Shankara, the famous exponent of Advaita Vedanta who lived over a thousand years ago (Pande 1994).

Shirdi Sai Baba

Shirdi Sai Baba was a faqir who lived at a rural mosque in Maharashtra. He gained an inter-religious following of Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. This saint often resorted to allusive speech, and was not in any way doctrinaire. Some hagiology does attend his profile; careful investigation of background details is important in such instances. Sai Baba of Shirdi  is sometimes confused with Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011), a very different entity who lived in Andhra, while claiming to be a reincarnation of the Shirdi mystic. 
 
After the death of Shirdi Sai, temple worship of his image was introduced at Shirdi, and other Sai temples also appeared. Swami Swarupananda insisted that Shirdi Sai was a Muslim faqir, not a god or a guru, and therefore could not be worshipped in the manner of a Hindu deity. He declared that images of Shirdi Sai were to be removed from temples. Swarupananda described his campaign in terms of protecting Hindu religion. He urged that Shirdi Sai temples should not be constructed. The critic also described the worship of Shirdi Sai in terms of a conspiracy to divide Hindus. The assertions of this Swami were strongly repudiated by Shirdi Sai devotees. Complaints were already being made against him, in June 2014, at Shirdi, Indore, and Hyderabad.
 
The disapproving Swami enjoined Shirdi Sai devotees to ensure their purification by fasting on Ekadashi day and bathing in the Ganges. He condemned the government minister Uma Bharti, alleging that she was not a true Rama bhakta after she spoke publicly in support of Sai Baba. Swarupananda demanded an apology from Bharti, on the grounds that Shirdi Sai was a meat-eater and did not bathe in the Ganges. He also urged that Sai devotees should not worship Rama.

In July 2014, a local court in Indore issued a summons to the Swami, requesting him to appear in court because of a complaint filed against him for making controversial statements. The Swami was able to postpone a legal confrontation for some time thereafter. He meanwhile urged the government to probe an alleged flow of foreign funding into the bank accounts of Sai devotees. Swarupanand insinuated that a foreign power was attempting, in this manner, to distort the sanatana dharma (true religion, i,e, Hinduism). There was no proof or confirmation for that contention.

A degree of conflict occurred between followers of the Swami and devotees of Shirdi Sai. Supporters of Swami Swarupananda notably included Dashanami ascetics or sannyasis, strongly associated with the Shankara monasteries (Clark 2006). The Dashanamis are divided into ten sub-groupings, including the Giris, the Puris, the Bharatis, and Saraswatis. The format has proved complicated for many Westerners to understand, involving different historical phases, and various other ascetic identities. For instance, the Naga (naked) sannyasis, or sadhus, gained a strong militant complexion in former centuries, becoming organised into akharas or “regiments.” They fought in diverse battles, a military scenario which sometimes astonishes readers (Pinch 2006). “The Nagas were also involved in warfare between rival princely states, usually fighting on opposite sides. Moreover, they fought for control of religious centres, since these constituted ever-flowing sources of revenue and solid bases of power” (Hartsuiker 1993:35).

Many of the Nagas cultivated ascetic feats and Yogic practices. Nagas still display weapons, especially the trident (trishul), at religious festivals such as the famous Kumbh Mela. “The Akharas attribute their origin to the great Shankara, an attempt no doubt to gain more respect and credibility” (Hartsuiker 1993:33). 

The Baghambari monastery (matha) was strongly influenced by Swami Swarupananda. The leader (mahant) of that monastery was Swami Narendra Giri, who “vowed to deface Shirdi Sai Baba’s temples, and let loose Naga Sadhus on the sect’s followers” (Chandan Nandy, Let Dialogue Prevail, 2014).  Many observers in North India feared that the conflict between Nagas and Shirdi Sai devotees could get out of control, but fortunately, this did not happen. However, the tensions were dramatic enough. Indignant Sai devotees responded to the threats by burning effigies of Swarupananda in the holy city of Varanasi (Benares).

Swami Swarupananda verbally attacked the Shirdi Sai Baba Trust, based in Shirdi, accusing this body of regarding Sai as superior to Hindu deities like Hanuman. In October 2015, the Hindustan Times reported that Swarupananda “also claimed that there were no followers of Sai Baba in the country,” a theme which contradicted facts. The critic is reported to have described visitors to Shirdi as “mean, selfish and only want their wishes to come true.” The Swami expressed his belief that Hanuman had instructed his followers to build a Hanuman temple near every Shirdi Sai temple, with the intention of driving “the spirit of Sai” out of India.

Shirdi Sai devotees countered the opponent with legal petitions, emphasising his “deliberate intent to hurt religious sentiments.” As a consequence, in September 2015, Swami Swarupananda prudently tendered an apology for controversial statements he had made. He requested Madhya Pradesh High Court to dispose of a petition made against him. 
 
While staying in Bhopal during 2015, the Swami created a poster portraying Lord Hanuman attacking Shirdi Sai with a tree trunk. This pictorial gesture was considered by some Hindu observers to be extremist. A disciple of Swarupananda was reported, on the media, as saying that the influence of Shirdi Sai would be driven out of India in the next three years by the grace of Hanuman.
 
In April 2016, The Hindu reported reactions of Sai devotees to the orthodox critique. Swarupananda had interpreted the temple worship of Shirdi Sai in terms of creating a drought in Maharashtra. Officials of the Shirdi Sai Baba Trust countered that the Shankaracharya appeared to be suffering from a feeling of insecurity, because so many devotees were visiting Shirdi, instead of going for the darshan of Swami Swarupananda. 
 
The Swami is reported to have said, while staying at Hardwar: “The unworthy Sai is being worshipped while the real Gods are ignored. This is happening in Maharashtra, and particularly in Shirdi. Hence, Maharashtra is facing drought.” Sai devotees responded that Swarupananda only wanted publicity. They pointed out that drought was also prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and the Punjab. A social worker, active at Shirdi, informed the press that the Sai Baba Trust had donated crores of rupees as charity aid whenever floods, earthquakes, and other calamities had struck Maharashtra and surrounding regions (The Hindu, "Sai Baba devotees fume over Shankaracharya's remarks," 2016). 

Another pronouncement of the Swami, not relating to Shirdi Sai, was strongly resisted. In April 2016, he complained against the termination of a four hundred year ban on the entry of women to the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra. Feminists were very indignant at his verdict. A human rights lawyer said that Swami Swarupananda should be charged with contempt of court. (Shriya Mohan, “Shankaracharya is a misogynist,” 2016). Swarupananda was contradicting a judgement of the Bombay High Court. 

The depiction of Sai Baba, as a Muslim outsider to Hinduism, neglects due context of a very liberal attitude on the part of this faqir towards Hindus, and also to the members of other religions (Shepherd 2015). Shirdi Sai was not a preacher or political agitator. He lacked any sectarian bias. In this respect, his eccentricities may be considered refreshing. Shirdi Sai has been described as a Sufi mystic (Warren 1999), but did not project any separatist attitude in his predominant encounters with Hindus. His origins are obscure. An influential theory of his Hindu birth at Pathri remains unconfirmed (Kher 2001:1-14).

An account of Shirdi Sai's devotional following, during the past century since his death, relays that the pilgrims to Shirdi are primarily Hindus, but also include Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians (McLain 2016). 

Very much neglected in the recent orthodox Hindu version of events is the instance of Upasani Maharaj (d.1941). This entity was a major disciple of Shirdi Sai, subsequently establishing an ashram at nearby Sakori. Upasani is still largely obscure in the abbreviated and distorted reports commonly known. A paradigmatic Hindu ascetic, and a learned shastri, he was completely unwesternised. 
 
During an evocative episode occurring at Benares in 1920, Upasani strongly defended Shirdi Sai, while in bold confrontation with an assembly of orthodox brahman priests and pundits. “He did not deny that Sai Baba was a Muslim, but maintained that the deceased saint was above religious distinctions, existing as much for brahmans as for Muslims” (Shepherd 2005:79). Upasani would not defer to the biases of that prestigious assembly, who were sustaining habitual religious discrimination against Muslims.

Moving to more general matters, some Indian intellectuals have expressed concern at national trends. For instance, the British-Indian sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor referred to a recent development in which “dozens of Indian writers handed back their literary awards in protest, following communal violence against Muslims and attacks on intellectuals” (Anish Kapoor, India is being ruled by a Hindu Taliban, 2015). The “militant Hinduism” of the Indian government was here seen as being at risk of “marginalising other faiths” (ibid). This issue is controversial. Certainly, the population statistics in India comprise about 965 million Hindus and 170 million Muslims.
 
Some Indian writers emphasise the extremely shocking 2002 attack on Muslims (by Hindus) in Gujarat, a tragedy in which “more than 2,000 Muslims were murdered, and tens of thousands rendered homeless in carefully planned and coordinated attacks of unprecedented savagery” (Pankaj Mishra, Gujarat Massacre, 2012).
 
The long-standing friction between Hinduism and Islam is a disconcerting drawback to Indian cultural unity and the history of religions.

Bibliography:

Cenkner, William, A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara and the Jagadgurus Today (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983). 
Clark, Matthew, The Dasanami Samnyasis: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (Leiden: Brill, 2006). 
Hartsuiker, Dolf, Sadhus: Holy Men of India (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993). 
Kher, V. B., Sai Baba: His Divine Glimpses (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2001). 
McLain, Karline, The Afterlife of Sai Baba: Competing Visions of a Global Saint (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016). 
Pande, G. C., Life and Thought of Sankaracarya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994). 
Pinch, William R., Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (Cambridge University Press, 2006). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 
-------Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; revised edn, 2004).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

ENTRY no. 71 

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

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Shankara and Advaita

Shankara with disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

Advaita Vedanta signifies an Indian philosophy of “non-dualism.” A major exponent was Shankara, of whom very little is reliably known. The investigator has to negotiate hagiographies composed many centuries after the death of this figure. His life is not easy to chart, to say the least, despite conventional depictions that do not question details. The dates of Shankara are sometimes given as 788-820 CE, but this is not definitive. One alternative has been suggested in terms of ranging between 650 and 775 CE (Pande 1994:52). The subject was reputedly born at a village in Kerala, and belonged to the brahman caste.

We may believe that Shankara became a renunciate at an early age. Tradition credits him with establishing a monastic organisation.  This became known as the Shankara Order. Over the centuries,  major monasteries featured abbots bearing the title of Shankaracharya. The Shringeri monastery (in Karnataka) is one of these far-flung centres, and gained the repute of being the first monastery founded by Shankara. This claim has been contradicted by the historical evidence for Shringeri as a centre of Jainism until the fourteenth century (Kulke 1985). At this juncture, Hindu patronage from the kingdom of Vijayanagara was influential. Shringeri emerged as a centre of Shaivism, and land was donated by Hindu monarchs to attract brahmans to that location. 

In the traditional version of his life, Shankara is said to have established the group of Shaiva renouncers known as Dashanami sannyasins (and nagas). This contingent is strongly associated with the Shankara Order, but gained a militant complexion. A counter-suggestion argues for the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century as a much more probable date of their formation (Clark 2006 and 2016). Mercenary armies of naga (naked) sannyasins  were generally recruited from the lower castes.
 
Traditional ascriptions are reflected in such coverages as: “During his lifetime he [Shankara] managed to compose more than 400 works of various genres and to travel throughout nearly all of South India, edifying disciples and disputing opponents. It is Shankara’s preaching and philosophic activity that, in the eyes of orthodox tradition, accounts for the ultimate ousting of Buddhism from India” (Isayeva 1993:2).
 
Legendary biographies of Shankara date from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. “Although they have certain broad similarities, they have numerous contradictions in detail, and they are full of miracles and exaggerations” (Pande 1994:4). The accounts vary markedly in relation to diverse journeys, pilgrimages, debates, and the founding of monastic centres (ibid:32). Shankara became celebrated as an incarnation of Shiva, a development of uncertain date. Shankara hagiography involved “the mythical pattern of divine incarnation, disputation with rival sects and schools, the establishment of new temples and monastic centres of worship, and the synthesis of Smarta-Puranic cults under the aegis of Advaita” (ibid:19-20).
 
Hundreds of works are attributed to Shankara, but most of these are now thought to have been composed by much later monastic leaders bearing the title of Shankaracharya. Paul Hacker and other scholars have taken a duly critical approach. The fact is that only a small number of Advaita texts can safely be regarded as the output of Shankara himself. In this respect, the basic work is a lengthy commentary (bhashya) on the Vedantic  Brahma Sutra. Famous later compositions (even Vivekachudamani) have been rejected by some analysts as spurious. Such popular texts were influential in shaping the Advaita doctrine, which developed over a long period of time. Canonical components are not necessarily of an early date.
 
In his commentary known as Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Shankara was in strong opposition to Buddhism and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Hinduism. He was concerned with the correct interpretation of Vedic scripture, in which direction he sought to reveal opposing views as errors.
 
Shankara argued against the ritualism of Mimamsaka exponents. He supported a version of religion associated with the Upanishads or jnana-kanda. An Advaita priority was discrimination (viveka) between the real and the false. Whereas ritual priests elaborated a belief system based on merits derived from Vedic ceremonies, which supposedly led to heaven. Shankara emphasised the attainment of self-knowledge, meaning knowledge (jnana) of the atman.

The Vedantic doctrine of maya (illusion) has excited varying responses, including denial. Renouncers or sannyasins viewed the householder ritualist lifestyle as being bound by maya. The sannyasin sought freedom through knowledge of the atman (a term variously translated). The various texts do not satisfactorily explain how the self-knowledge is achieved. The mere affirmation of Upanishadic slogans like Tat tvam asi (You are That) is not the most convincing rationale, but can be found in some Shankara texts, along with modifications.
“Absolute liberation does not arise when one is told, ‘Thou art That.’ One should, therefore, have recourse to the reiteration (of the idea, ‘I am Brahman’) and support it with reasoning.” (Upadeshasahasri, trans. Jagadananda 1961:207)
“The Brahma Sutra has actually become the basis upon which we learn the philosophical thought of the early Vedanta school. Since, however, the style of this work is concise to a fault, omissions in it are many and to interpret the text is not at all easy” (Nakamura 1983:425). The brevity is pronounced. “Each sutra usually consists of two to ten words at the most, and it is rare to find one that is longer” (ibid:440).
 
Shankara contributed an Advaitic interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. A discrepancy requires attention. “The theory of absolute identity of the individual self and Brahman, taught by Shankara, is contrary to the thought of the Brahma-sutra itself” (ibid:427). Paul Deussen and other scholars tended to conflate the two interpretations, leading to some confusion (e.g., Deussen 1912).
 
The early Vedanta was not a unified tradition of exegesis. “Scholars have frequently asserted that the thought of Shankara has the closest connection with the atman theory of Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” (Nakamura 1983:430). The Brihadaranyaka is one of the earliest Upanishads, and substantially antedated the Brahma Sutra, which may date to the fifth century CE in the extant form of that terse treatise.

The obscure author, or authors, of the Brahma Sutra, were defending the old Vedic religion against the Buddhists, Jainas, Sankhya rationalists, and others. “The evident preference of the authors of the Brahma Sutra was for the daily performance of the Vedic ritual to be maintained along with the meditations on more symbolic aspects of etiquette” (Shepherd 1995:642).
 
Shankara likewise sustained a contest with rival religious doctrines, but differed from the Brahma Sutra in contesting the ritualist mentality evident in that version of early Vedanta. He awarded a secondary status to Vedic texts depicting meditation on rituals (and which referred to deities presiding over specific ceremonies).
 
Shankara’s classic Brahma Sutra Bhashya includes a critique of the Yoga and Sankhya systems of philosophy. However, Shankara is traditionally credited with a commentary on the Yoga Sutra. The anomaly has aroused differing explanations, including one which suggests that Shankara transited from the standpoint of a Yoga expositor to Advaita comprehension. Another interpretation denies the authorship of Shankara in relation to that commentary (Rukmani 2001).
 
“In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.1) he refers to the Paramahamsa monks who transcended caste and ashrama in their pursuit of the non-dual knowledge. These ascetics are identified with the ‘true tradition’ which he says Gaudapada followed. For Shankara, they alone represented the ultimate level of truth” (Shepherd 1995:666). Shankara’s monastic ideal of the Paramahamsa involved criteria of “actual spiritual attainment, not his formal membership of a social group” (Pande 1994:247).
 
The name of Gaudapada is inseparably associated with Shankara, and as a predecessor. Gaudapada was a distinctive early Advaitin, who may have lived during the sixth century CE. He composed an unusual commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, exhibiting a familiarity with Mahayana thought associated with exponents like Nagarjuna and Asanga (Nakamura 1983:51). The fourth chapter is rich in Madhyamaka and Yogacara terminology, and has prompted a suggestion of authorship by another writer (King 1995).
“Unlike the authors of the Brahma Sutras, Gaudapada insists very strongly on the illusory or phenomenal character of the world, and claims that in this he is only following an earlier tradition for the interpretation of the Upanishadic texts. The existence of earlier followers of the Upanishads who held this view is confirmed by Bhartrhari, late fifth century.... Gaudapada says: ‘Those who are experts in the Upanishadic wisdom look upon this world as if it were a cloud-city seen in a dream.’ The sages who have gone beyond fear, attachment and anger have the direct experience of the truth of non-duality, in which all plurality and illusion vanishes.” (Alston 1980:24-25) 
Bibliography:

Alston, A. J., Samkara on the Absolute (London: Shanti Sadan, 1980).
Cenkner, William, A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara and the Jagadgurus Today (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983). 
Clark, Matthew, The Dasanami Samnyasis: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
-------“Religious Sects, Syncretism, and Claims of Antiquity: The Dashanami-Sannyasis and South Asian Sufis” in Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley, eds., Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India (New York: Routledge 2016).
Cole, Colin A., Asparsa Yoga: A Study of Gaudapada's mandukya karika (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004).
Deussen, Paul, Das System des Vedanta, 1883; The System of the Vedanta, trans. Charles Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1912).
Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Shankaracharya (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1965).
Halbfass, Wilhelm, ed., Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). 
Isayeva, Natalia, Shankara and Indian Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Jagadananda, Swami, trans., Upadeshasahasri of Sri Sankaracharya (third edn, Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1961).
King, Richard, Early Advaita Vedanta: The Mahayana Context of the Gaudapadiya Karikas (State University of New York Press, 1995).
Kulke, Hermann, "Maharajas, Mahants and Historians: Reflections on the Historiography of Early Vijayanagara and Sringeri" (120-143) in A. L. Dallapiccola and S. Zingel-Ave Lallemant, eds., Vijayanagara, City and Empire: New Currents of Research (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1985). 
Nakamura, Hajime, A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Parts 1 and 2 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983-2004).
Nikhilananda, Swami, trans., The Mandukyopanishad with Gaudapada's Karika and Sankara's Commentary (third edn, Mysore: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1949).
Pande, G. C., Life and Thought of Sankaracarya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994).
Potter, K. H., ed., Advaita Vedanta Up to Samkara and his Pupils (Princeton University Press, 1981). 
Rukmani, T. S., text and trans., Yogasutrabhasyavivarana of Sankara (2 vols, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 70

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Upanishads and Vedanta


The texts known as Upanishads are traditionally described in terms of jnana-marga, the path of knowledge. Jnana is strongly associated with the ongoing tradition of Vedanta, one of the celebrated six schools of Indian philosophy. The classical Upanishads became known as Vedanta, meaning the end of the Veda. The word Vedanta "was understood to mean not just the end but also the summit and crown of the Veda" (Olivelle 1992:3). These books received later commentaries from medieval exponents like Shankara

The classical Upanishads are much earlier than the monastic organisations created by medieval Vedanta. Those texts are difficult to date, and assessments of chronology have varied markedly. The oldest Upanishads were pre-Buddhist, but many were later in time. Radhakrishnan favoured a date of 900-600 BC for the earliest of these texts, with Western scholarship tending to reduce the time scale. 

Jnana-marga is often distinguished from karma-marga, meaning the path of ritual action, represented by earlier texts of the Vedic corpus. All these texts were composed in North India, and preserved by the brahmanical caste. However, different influences and temperaments are represented. The early Upanishads feature monism, and also refer to transmigration. 

The Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya are prose Upanishads, and are thought to be the earliest in the series. These texts were edited, and some components employed may be considerably older. As with later Upanishads, they are not books presenting any philosophical system. A flexibility in approach to the materials is necessary. 

While some Western scholars discerned in the Upanishads a spirit of revolt against priestly ritualism, other Indologists (notably Renou) muted this factor in a context of priestly supplements to the earlier Brahmana literature. Different angles can be followed here. According to Louis Renou, “Vedism became debased to the level of crude witchcraft owing to magical ideas which left their mark on the Brahmanas, to the extent that one of these texts is given up to magic, as with part of the Atharva Veda” (Shepherd 1995:552). 

The diverse categories of Vedic text can easily cause confusion. The early Samhitas are collections of verses, including the famous Rig Veda corpus of over a thousand hymns (Gonda 1963). The authors of these hymns are often known as rishis, a word denoting seers. “The Rig Veda is a prime case of an anthology. Some of the hymns in this anthology were accessory to the priestly liturgy, but some are entirely secular in tone” (Shepherd 1995:494). The Rig Veda is not a ritual text, despite some strong associations with brahmanical ceremony. The contrasting Brahmanas are prose texts featuring explanations of the liturgy.

The Brahmanas include “esoteric material explaining the hidden meanings of ritual actions and words; some of these esoteric sections... came to be called Aranyakas (texts that were to be recited in the wilderness outside the village), while others came to be called Upanishads” (Olivelle 1996:xxxii). 

“Cosmological and metaphysical topics generally occupy a more central position in the Upanishads, however, than in the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads are, by and large, later than the Aranyakas” (ibid). The Upanishads were not written down “for perhaps a thousand years” (ibid). Meanwhile, many cultural and social transitions occurred, including an increased rigidity of the caste system (Jha 1975). The competition with Buddhism became pronounced. 

According to the Sanskrit scholar Jan Gonda, the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the earliest Upanishads must have existed (at least for the greater part) in their present form prior to the rise of Buddhism (Gonda 1975:20). The dating for the formation of Rig components has varied considerably. 

The aphoristic nature of Upanishadic composition has caused Western analysts to complain of the lack of any systematic philosophy.... The classical Upanishads... are fond of riddles and enigmatic expressions, and the doctrines of various sages are apt to be condensed into a single sentence. Brahmavidya (knowledge of Brahman) or jnana is depicted as being vastly superior to sacrificial etiquette, and realisation of that knowledge is duly stressed. This objective is inseparable from the aid of a teacher, and is related to tapasya or ascetic discipline. A strict discipline was clearly envisaged, and in some texts it is stated that only brahmans are eligible. The prerequisite for discipleship was evidently a high moral standard, one necessary to maintain a rigorous self-discipline. Meditation is emphasised, but there are many different formats referred to.... The end product of the discipline was the jivanmukta (a standard term in the later Upanishads), i.e., the soul gaining spiritual liberation while still living in the body. (Shepherd 1995:547-548) 

A group of early verse Upanishads include the Katha, dating to the late first millennium BC. These works are noted for featuring strong theistic tendencies, and thus anticipating the Bhagavad Gita, claimed by the Vedanta as a basic scripture. The Katha includes a dialogue between the young brahman Nachiketas and Yama, the god of death. The former asks to be told the secret of death, in a spirit of renouncing the distractions of mortal life. 

Yama then gives advice concerning knowledge of the atman and Brahman. One verse has been translated as: “The truth of the Self cannot be fully understood when taught by an ignorant man, for opinions regarding it, not founded in knowledge, vary one from another. Subtler than the subtlest is this Self [atman], and beyond all logic. Taught by a teacher who knows the Self and Brahman as one, a man leaves vain theory behind and attains to truth” (Prabhavananda 1957:17).

The same text emphasises the difficulty of the achievement involved. “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path” (ibid:20). Numerous commercial attempts to simplify these matters have occurred during recent decades, and may count as further distractions. 

The Maha-Narayana Upanishad is thought to have been composed during the third or fourth centuries BC. This is a manual for ascetics employing many quotations from older works (Varenne 1960). The text can be interpreted as an attempt to harmonise the ascetic and ritual lifestyles, and thereby facilitating the tendency in brahmanical society to assimilate the numerous ascetics and hermits (Gonda 1970:29). 

A number of the texts in this corpus are known as Sannyasa Upanishads, indicative of their background context in renunciation. Some of these were apparently composed before the third century CE, but others are many centuries later. The term paramahamsa is employed to describe an advanced grade of renouncer. The various classifications indicate an original diversity of ascetic lifestyles that were subsequently conflated into the institution of sannyasa by brahmanical theology (Olivelle 1992:98,100).

The Sannyasa Upanishads convey a graphic picture of ascetic tendencies from an early period. A life in the wilderness contrasted strongly with the ritual lifestyle of the householder maintained in the villages. Ascetics spent their nights in deserted houses, in temples, on haystacks, near anthills, under trees, in the humble sheds of potters, in mountain caves, in open fields, and yet other places. Mendicancy was a basic facet of lifestyle, and nudity was highly regarded by some as a sign of renunciation. However, other ascetics preferred to wear a loincloth or an ochre garment (ibid:103,106). The outlook in this sector included a desire to be despised rather than praised; the purpose was to overcome pride (ibid:108). Some texts advocate disguise, so that the ascetic would not be recognised as a holy man (ibid:107). 
 
In a basically copyist idiom, many texts appeared in later centuries with the title of Upanishad. Sectarian commitments are frequently in evidence, meaning primarily the division between followers of Vishnu and Shiva. “Such Upanishads continued to be produced possibly as late as the sixteenth century CE and number in the hundreds” (Olivelle 1996:xxxiii). 
 
During the medieval period, a trend developed of forming into collections both the earlier and later Upanishads. This meant that the early Upanishads were detached from the Brahmana literature. European analysts subsequently complained that scholarly distinctions were lost in this tendency to conflation. A favoured number in North India was 52, reflected in the corpus translated into Persian at the instruction of the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh during the seventeenth century (Hasrat 1982). That collection underwent exegetical changes in the interpretation of Schopenhauer (d.1860).

Bibliography: 

Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Eight Upanishads, with the commentary of Sankaracharya (2 vols, 1957; second edn, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989). 
Gonda, Jan, The Vision of the Vedic Poets (The Hague: Mouton, 1963). 
--------Visnuism and Sivaism (London: Athlone Press, 1970). 
--------Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1975).  
Hasrat, Bikrama Jit, Dara Shikuh: Life and Works (second edn, New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1982).
Jha, V., “Stages in the History of Untouchables,” Indian Historical Review (1975) 2:14-31. 
Olivelle, Patrick, Samnyasa Upanishads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (Oxford University Press, 1992).
--------trans., Upanishads (Oxford University Press, 1996). 
Prabhavananda, Swami, and Manchester, Frederick, trans., The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal (Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1957).
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, The Principal Upanishads (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953). 
Renou, Louis, Religions of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953). 
-------Vedic India, trans. P. Spratt (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1957). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995). 
Varenne, Jean, trans., La Maha Narayana Upanishad (2 vols, Paris: Editions De Boccard, 1960). 


 Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

 ENTRY no. 69 

 Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Sai Baba Movement

Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai Baba

A phrase that has become fairly well known is not in general duly analysed. This phrase, namely the “Sai Baba movement,” has caused much confusion and misconception. Ignorance of the matter is so pronounced that a Wikipedia editor attributed the origin of this phrase to myself. In reality, I merely wrote a book whose title included the phrase under discussion, and over thirty years after the phrase first appeared.

The phrase “Sai Baba movement” was innovated in the early 1970s by Charles White, an American academic who wrote an article on this subject that can be strongly faulted. White associated two Indian celebrities who had the same name, and the resulting confusion became accepted by some academics as a legitimate argument for viewing various events in terms of a “Sai Baba movement.”

Twenty years later, the misconception had developed to the stage where a leading American university press published a book with a rather explicit statement on the paperback cover. The State University of New York Press declared that “a vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as ‘the Sai Baba movement.’ ” This statement supported the contents of a book by Dr. Antonio Rigopoulos about Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918).

Rigopoulos was clearly in support of the “Sai Baba movement” formulation devised by White. Both White and Rigopoulos were partisans of Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011), and evidently wished to support that guru’s lavish claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai.

Sathya Sai Baba, of Puttaparthi, created an elaborate avataric hagiology that included Shirdi Sai Baba. Sathya Sai categorically claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and was believed to be an avatar by his followers. However, the claim was elsewhere strongly resisted by followers of Shirdi Sai, and regarded by them as an opportunist fiction.

One of the more well known instances of disagreement occurred when, in 2006, devotees of Shirdi Sai filed an objection in the court at Rahata (near Shirdi), requesting a permanent injunction on claims made by devotees of Sathya Sai that the latter is a reincarnation. Also at issue here was Sathya Sai lore about the birth of Shirdi Sai, including the purported identity of his mother (Mumbai Mirror, 11/01/2006). 

The present writer provided biographical and other materials in the book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005). This volume is annotated and indexed. I covered the three major figures in Maharashtra who were incorporated by Rigopoulos into the “Sai Baba movement” scenario. I am referring to Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani (Upasni) Maharaj (d.1941), and Meher Baba (d.1969).

On the basis of the actual data available, these three entities do not emerge as part of a conglomerate movement. Rather, each of these mystics created a distinct movement or following in their own name. However, this trio were strongly interconnected, in that they met each other. Moreover, Upasani was the disciple of Shirdi Sai, and Meher Baba was the disciple of Upasani. In contrast, Sathya Sai did not meet any of these three saints, and lived in a different region of India.

Sathya Sai Baba of Andhra is viewed by some partisans as the culmination of events in Maharashtra. Critics affirm that this theme encounters a difficulty in sustaining credence. The partisan idea is supported by belief in the reincarnation claim of Sathya Sai, not by any facts of continuum. What we are actually confronted with is the spectacle of four separate movements, the one based in Andhra having no effective or close resemblance to the movements originating in Maharashtra.

When the biographical details are investigated, there may be strong reason to doubt the legitimacy of a reincarnation claim. The ascetic lifestyle of Shirdi Sai features pronounced differences to that of his namesake. Sathya Sai adopted the name of the Shirdi saint in the early 1940s, gaining much popularity as a consequence.

My book included three appendices reporting the disillusionment of Western ex-devotees of Sathya Sai Baba. I also made reference to the leading Indian critic of Sathya Sai, namely Basava Premanand (d.2009), of Indian Rationalist fame (and who composed a lengthy book on the notorious bedroom murders at Puttaparthi ashram in 1993).

A scholar who wrote an account of Shirdi Sai, in a Sufi context, was a follower of Sathya Sai until 2000. Afterwards, Dr. Marianne Warren (d.2004) became an ex-devotee in relation to the Andhra guru, being greatly disillusioned by increasing reports of dubious behaviour at Puttaparthi ashram. 

In 2006, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement was favourably cited in a Wikipedia article about an academic ex-devotee of Sathya Sai. This was Robert Priddy, whose report I had included in my book. The online citation was strongly resisted by a Wikipedia editor, who transpired to be an American apologist for the Sathya Sai movement. SSS108 (alias Gerald Joe Moreno) pressed for deletion of the Priddy article, and also produced a Wikipedia User page dismissing the validity of all my books. It became obvious that he had not read these books, but was reacting from a sectarian stance, involving a strong antipathy towards ex-devotees and anyone who favourably mentioned them. The Moreno internet campaign of defamation lasted until 2010. 

Research into the "movement," or rather movements (in the plural), is not so easily to be eliminated by ideological conveniences preferred by "crowdsourcing" (to borrow a description of Wikipedia process favoured by academic affiliates of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

In another camp, some Western devotees of Meher Baba, acting as editors on Wikipedia, refused to acknowledge the relevance of Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. They had evidently not read the book; they only knew of the title. One of them mistakenly insinuated that I had coined the phrase “Sai Baba movement.” Until such denominational antipathies and errors of judgment are improved, Wikipedia and other internet media are likely to remain afflicted by misinformation. The suppression of relevant reports, on whatsoever pretext, is no effective substitute for due evaluation. 

Some partisans of Sathya Sai Baba refer to the “Sathya Sai movement.” This is quite a different idiom, and equivalent to "Meher Baba movement" or "Shirdi Sai movement." Identification of these trends in terms of separate movements is surely preferable to the umbrella phrase "Sai Baba movement," which has logical difficulties of exegesis. See further Sai Baba Movement at Issue.

Misconceptions are evident, even in some academic books, about the actions of Shirdi Sai. For instance:  
“Many were suspicious of his claims... but he [Sathya Sai] reportedly substantiated his claims with miraculous acts. For example, Sathya Sai Baba, as he had come to be known, regularly materialised healing vibhuti, sacred ash which devotees imbibe and/or apply to their foreheads. These materialisations established Sathya Sai Baba’s connection to Shirdi Sai Baba, who had also materialised vibhuti for his followers” (Srinivas 2010:9, and citing Srinivas 2008). 

Such statements attest a pronounced confusion about the supposed similarity between Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai. In reality, the Shirdi saint did not materialise sacred ash, and nor did he claim to do so. Instead, Shirdi Sai merely took ash from his dhuni fire, located inside the mosque where he lived (Shepherd 2015:398-399 note 730). In contrast, Sathya Sai claimed to miraculously materialise ash from thin air. Indian critics like Basava Premanand have described the action of Sathya Sai in terms of sleight of hand, a perspective which differs radically from the devotee version. 

One interpretation has emphasised the term avatar in terms of an advantage for the Sathya Sai movement. This is not agreed upon by all parties. An academic review states:

"Whereas Shirdi Sai Baba mixed elements of a Sufi faqir, Hindu guru, and devotional sant, Sathya Sai Baba consistently adopts the term avatar, a divine being who descends from above at a time when truth and righteousness are threatened. [Smriti] Srinivas proceeds to argue that his identification as an avatar increases Sathya Sai Baba's scope of travel and creates a greater capacity to reach devotees, in contrast with an identification as a faqir, guru, or sant" (Loar 2009:1). 

Some discrepancies are discernible. The conception of Shirdi Sai as a devotional sant is misleading.  The Shirdi saint has been depicted as both a Sufi faqir and a Hindu guru, but a substantial number of portrayals limit the attention to detail that is possible in this instance. 

The claim of Sathya Sai to avataric status does not establish any priority in communication over Shirdi Sai in relation to devotee followings. The guru of Puttaparthi contributed a lavish puranic mythology of Shirdi Sai, this development assisting a general tendency to marginalise Sufi dimensions of the latter. The overall consequence of this preference was to obscure contextual data relating to the Shirdi saint, who furthered an eclectic approach to Sufism and Hinduism.

Bibliography:

Loar, Jonathan, review of Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba, in Practical Matters: A Journal of Religious Practices and Practical Theology (2009, Issue 2, 1-3).
Premanand, Basava, Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom (Podanur, Tamil Nadu: B. Premanand, n.d., but 2001). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Srinivas, Smriti, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement  (Leiden: Brill, 2008). 
Srinivas, Tulasi, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). 
Steel, Brian, A Controversial Academic View of Sathya Sai Baba by Smriti Srinivas (2009). 
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004). 
White, Charles S. J., “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints,” Journal of Asian Studies (1972) 31:863-878. 
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
 
ENTRY no. 68

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Shirdi Sai Baba

Shirdi Sai Baba

The faqir known as Sai Baba (d.1918) lived in an obscure mosque at Shirdi, a village in Maharashtra. His precise date of birth is not known. His early life is difficult to reconstruct, although his last years were reported in far more detail. 
 
The sources contain much data about numerous devotees, involving a majority of Hindus, some Muslims, and a number of Zoroastrians. One of the Hindus was Govind R. Dabholkar, who composed the Marathi work Shri Sai Satcharita, a verse epic commemorating Shirdi Sai Baba (to be distinguished from Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi). Dabholkar’s commentary is both devotional and philosophical. Hagiographical elements here attend a coverage of episodes reflecting a factual content. One drawback is the lack of chronology.

The earliest years of Shirdi Sai are associated with the Aurangabad region, part of the territory ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad. A popular version of his birth emphasises the village of Pathri. A less well known legend concerning Jerusalem also developed. His arrival in Shirdi has been awarded different dates by major commentators, varying from the 1850s to the period 1868-1872. Dabholkar is associated with the earlier dating. 
 
Shirdi Sai emerged as a rigorous ascetic committed to a daily begging round. He was initially aloof from the villagers, and became widely regarded as a Muslim faqir. This identity was attested by his attire, and also his habit of speaking in Deccani Urdu. He is reported to have frequently uttered Islamic phrases such as Allah Malik (God is the Owner/Ruler). His Sufi background has been the subject of different interpretations. In contrast, he is often presented as a Hindu, or as a person with no distinct religious background. Complexities of reporting are often ignored. The theme of Hinduisation was emphasised by Dr. Marianne Warren, who complained at the obscurity befalling Sufi components in popular accounts. 
 
An early Muslim devotee, Abdul Baba, composed in Urdu a Notebook preserving statements and reflections of Shirdi Sai. A due English translation of this document did not appear until 1999 (Warren 1999), over eighty years after the death of Sai Baba. The Notebook reveals a pronounced familiarity with Islamic and Sufi traditions. There is also a significant eclectic disposition represented, one that sought to reconcile the Hindu and Muslim religious temperaments.
 
An important event, plausibly dated to 1894, involved the confrontation of Sai Baba with a party of local Muslim militants who sought support from the Qazi of Sangamner. Tambuli and others were annoyed by the appearance at the mosque of Hindu worship, as cultivated by the devotee Mhalsapati, who made Sai Baba the object of his improvised puja. The sources relate that the Shirdi faqir supported Mhalsapati against the vengeful opponents.
 
A prominent source is B. V. Narasimhaswami. This ascetic did not himself meet Sai Baba, but appeared at Shirdi in the 1930s. He contributed much valuable data, and also his own interpretations. Certain discrepancies have caused confusion (especially his criticism of Upasani Maharaj). The major work of Narasimhaswami is entitled Life of Sai Baba. Much depends upon the accuracy of his observations, and also the discernment of opinion as distinct from fact (cf. Shepherd 2015:328-337). This is a different kind of coverage to that of Dabholkar, and was written in English. Narasimhaswami also produced related works, including Charters and Sayings, an edited contribution which both merits and requires close analysis (e.g., Shepherd 2015:300-303).
 
During his last years, Sai Baba became noted for allusive speech. This characteristic has tended to give him a repute for enigma and symbolism. Yet a number of his statements were markedly forthright, and of an ethical complexion. Some witnesses remarked upon the relative absence of metaphysical themes in his delivery, especially those associated with Vedanta.

From about 1910, a large influx of urban devotees arrived at Shirdi. These were predominantly Hindus from Bombay (Mumbai) and other areas. A few became resident devotees, while many others became regular visitors. The general situation changed as a consequence.

The faqir now introduced his distinctive habit of requesting dakshina, meaning donations, from the affluent. He would not ask all the visitors for a gift, and could stipulate varying amounts. Whatever cash he received was daily redistributed amongst ascetics, poor people, and diverse retainers and villagers. By nightfall he had no money left in his possession. This situation meant that he had no money or assets when he died. To the last, he retained his simple lifestyle of a begging faqir
 
Some outsiders and critics could not understand his ways. By caste standards, Shirdi Sai was eccentric, not adhering to conventional taboos, and instead welcoming untouchables and even lepers. One of his well known devotees at Shirdi, namely Bhagoji Shinde, was a leper. 
 
His tactics included reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. His reported statements are free of religious bias. His universalism extended to Zoroastrians, Christians, and Sikhs.
 
A feature of his last years at Shirdi was the procession known as chavadi utsav. Sai Baba consented to this development at the imploring request of devotees, but he refused to sit in the palanquin they gifted him with. The utsav is sometimes compared with Vaishnava celebrations at Pandharpur, but Sai himself had nothing to do with that major pilgrimage site in Maharashtra. He did not advocate any particular form of worship, and remained neutral in this respect. 
 
Shirdi Sai gained attention from eminent individuals like Balasaheb Bhate. Originally a materialist sceptic, Bhate became a devotee of the distinctive faqir. Like a number of other followers, Bhate was a revenue official, a role which he renounced in 1909 after meeting Sai Baba.
 
More well known celebrities were Ganesh Khaparde (1854-1938) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). These politicians both visited Shirdi, although Khaparde had a more intimate link with the faqir. The Shirdi Diary of Khaparde records his numerous encounters with Sai during a sojourn in 1911-12. The saint exhibited various moods reported by the diarist.
 
Another entity who visited Shirdi was Merwan S. Irani, a Zoroastrian later to become known as Meher Baba (1894-1969). His initial encounter with Sai Baba, in 1915, is evocative (Shepherd 2015:270-271). In later years, Meher Baba expressed a high estimation of Shirdi Sai.
 
A distinctive disciple of Sai Baba was Upasani Maharaj  (1870-1941), who arrived at Shirdi in 1911, and who later established his own ashram at nearby Sakori.
 
The wealthy devotee Gopalrao Buti constructed at Shirdi a spacious private home known as Butiwada. This imposing building became the tomb of Sai Baba, now known as samadhi mandir. Through the efforts of Narasimhaswami and others, a nationwide following of Sai devotees resulted. Shirdi is a famous pilgrimage site, with large numbers of annual visitors reported.
 
Bibliography: 
 
Anand, Swami Sai Sharan, Shri Sai Baba, trans. V. B. Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1997).
Dabholkar, Govind R., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Life and Teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba, trans. Indira Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999).
Kamath, M. V., and Kher, V. B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1991). 
Khaparde, Ganesh S., Shirdi Diary of the Hon’ble Mr. G. S. Khaparde (n.d.; repr. Shirdi: Shri Sai Baba Sansthan, 1994).
Narasimhaswami, B. V., ed., Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1942). 
Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-6; first edn composite volume, 2002). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Vijayakumar, G. R., Shri Narasimha Swami: Apostle of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2009).
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004).
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
 
ENTRY no. 67 
 
Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Meher Baba Update

Meher Baba 1957

Errors of assessment are a common occurrence in the contemporary field of “new religious movements.” Such matters necessitate due information rather than hearsay and assumption. The historical angle is necessary with the subject of Meher Baba (1894-1969), as with other figureheads of well known religious movements. The alternative is lore.
 
A Meher Baba devotee inserted on Wikipedia a misleading version of events dating back to the 1960s. The errors were traced to the American branch of the Meher Baba movement, and more especially, to the Myrtle Beach Centre. The pronounced distortion has been refuted. The erroneous storyline is an example of what can happen when supporters of a movement have no adequate knowledge of events they purport to describe.
 
The Wikipedia lore interpreted a Hindu disciple of Meher Baba as being a rival “spiritual teacher” to the Irani mystic. No contextual information was supplied, only a variant of anecdotal calumny sustained for decades. The Hindu disciple and scientist was never a rival of Meher Baba, and was instead a regular donor to the latter’s Meherazad ashram, located in Maharashtra.
 
The Hindu disciple lived for ten years in England at the instruction of Meher Baba. Possessing a degree in physics, this man worked as a salaried professional, and was able to send to India regular donations, amounting in total to thousands of pounds sterling. His level of commitment was very high, and far more so than most other adherents of Meher Baba.
 
The experiences and viewpoint of this Hindu disciple are not without an interest of their own. However, obscuring biases of the Myrtle Beach Centre worked against any accurate knowledge of the subject. Instead of registering complaints and explanations provided in a lengthy document, the prestige Centre ignored the document and opted to impose an unofficial ban on a book about Meher Baba that was published in 1988. As a consequence of this censorship, the stories about a rival spiritual teacher continued. Nor was there any rectification of other serious errors involved in the misrepresentation.
 
The literature on cults is now prodigious. Two of the basic problems typical of “cults” are misrepresentation and suppression of relevant details. The American branch of the Meher Baba movement achieved both of these undesirable drawbacks. An extension of this muddle infiltrated Wikipedia, a web venue notorious for troll activity and other complications. The rather basic sectarian issue is obvious to a number of observers.
 
Pseudonymous Wikipedia supporters of Meher Baba were keen to elevate a lengthy work entitled Lord Meher, presenting this as reliable fact eclipsing any other version, and more especially, my own book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal. In the troll presentation, an outsider book could only amount to deficient opinion as compared with the surpassing authenticity of a canonical work. Indeed, Meher Baba trolls were known to appear at different Wikipedia articles with the intention of removing non-canonical content. This action occurred even in an instance relating to transcription of antique Zoroastrian history (the Kaivan school), of which they knew nothing whatever. These people even disdained reference to a valid source in the canonical Meher Baba literature, preferring instead an inaccurate passage in Lord Meher.
 
My book included an unprecedented critique of the two major detractors of Meher Baba, primarily Paul Brunton. The latter's book, A Search in Secret India, is still influential after eighty years of circulation. However, my critique (based on factual sources) was early ignored by the Myrtle Beach Centre, and many years later, was merely opinion according to troll assessment. The hostile party on Wikipedia was unintentionally validating the travesty of Brunton’s deviation. Trolls do not read books, but merely debunk them in convenient online graffiti of two or three lines, in this instance supporting ideology of the Meher Baba Centres about canonical works.

The storytelling of Paul Brunton was here effectively justified by the ideological reflex. I had proved that Brunton's hostile report of Meher Baba was unreliable, a factor which serious readers recognised (including some Brunton partisans). However, my substantial critique of Brunton, in troll assessment,  amounted to the mere opinion of an outsider to the canon extolled by the Meher Baba movement. This episode cannot be disregarded, because the troll action was closely linked, via editorship, with the Meher Baba article on Wikipedia. 
 
The multi-volume Lord Meher has seldom been duly analysed. An extensive editorial process was involved. A relatively minor consideration is that Bhau Kalchuri was not the sole author of this work, despite the contrary impression conveyed for over thirty years by devotee media. The Reiter edition of twenty volumes, on all the title pages, presented Kalchuri as the sole author. Feram Workingboxwala was very unpopular, while the American editor and compiler David Fenster was in low profile for many years.
 
Lord Meher does not contain due information about the misrepresented Hindu disciple and donor who lived in England until 1964. This work is not comprehensive, despite the length. A number of passages in Lord Meher identify the followers of Meher Baba as “lovers.”
 
During the mid-1960s, I attended meetings of the London group of Meher Baba supporters. At that time, the subscribers did not refer to themselves as “lovers” of Meher Baba. This identity tag did not become prevalent until 1967, being favoured by the new generation of devotees associated with Pete Townshend and the American influx. The rather more conservative and vintage British devotees called themselves the “friends of Meher Baba.” Although Meher Baba himself used the mystical word “lover,” he did not stipulate that his followers should describe themselves in this manner.

A representative of the older trend was author Charles Purdom  (d.1965), a figure in reaction to some devotee tendencies. Purdom achieved a degree of objectivity that is comparatively rare in religious movements. It would not be fair to place him in the same category as the trolls and storytellers of the Meher Baba movement.
 
Purdom’s preface to his book The God-Man (1964) does not mention the word avatar. The author here says that he has done his best “to maintain the necessary degree of detachment of mind.” Compared with other partisan recommendations, the appraisal of Meher Baba by Charles Purdom is restrained:
 
“I do not think one can find any parallel in modern times with the life of this simple, subtle, innocent, unpredictable, alarming and engrossing man” (Preface, unpaginated). 
 
Over the years, I have found that devotionalism is a distorting factor in relation to the record of Meher Baba. For instance, the attendant dogmatic approach obliterated details of the abovementioned Hindu donor and certain other entities, including myself. I decline to be eliminated by the dogmatists, and will resist misinformation. Democracy is a farce at places like the Myrtle Beach Centre, where a process of suppression has been operative for many years.
 
My interest in Meher Baba applies to ascertaining historical dimensions of his biography, as distinct from the lore and confusion that is too frequently found. I have no interest in promoting exclusivist avatar themes, which evidently encourage some devotees to adopt a status profile as followers of Avatar Meher Baba. I have no interest in promoting “lover” clichés, these also being objectionable in acts of misrepresentation and suppression. The vaunted love can easily become hate campaign.
 
The phase of ascendancy achieved by Pete Townshend, during the 1970s, is perhaps instructive. That rock star became the focus of adulation for numerous new “Baba lovers” in different countries. He has since admitted the limitation of his self-appointed role as a leader and organiser within the Meher Baba movement. Townshend has been honest in a number of ways,  a refreshing contrast with troll activities that presume an unassailable spokesmanship for Meher Baba. Townshend’s own reflection, found at his website,  is relevant here:
 
“What was clear to me in early 1980 was that I could no longer stand as any kind of public representative for Meher Baba with such recent alcohol and drug-abuse problems. Meher Baba Oceanic, the pilgrim centre I had run, had in any case slowed down to a crawl while I descended into self-obsession. Several of my employees there had gone through problems of their own, and some time in 1982 I impolitely sacked everyone.” 
 
These references indicate serious problems. Townshend nearly killed himself on alcohol and drugs. Yet he had been exalted by many devotees even before he created, in 1976, the ill-fated centre known as Meher Baba Oceanic. Townshend was initially influenced by Purdom’s book The God-Man (1964), and describes the author as “an eminent British journalist of the Thirties” (Who I Am, p. 110). That is a contraction of identity, because Purdom was also a garden city pioneer and author, and still leading the London group of “friends” in 1965, only two years before the new wave appeared. Townshend and other “lovers” reversed the sober approach of Purdom into cliché, guitar music, and devotee poetry.
 
The new wave of “lovers” were frequently afflicted by proximity to the drug infraculture, so pervasive in Western countries since the 1960s. In America, many of them were content with such slogans as “Don’t worry be happy.” This theme comprised an acute reductionism, not reflecting Meher Baba’s rather distinctive metaphysical teaching. The happy lovers were averse to complexity.
 
An eccentric rune of the Townshend era was “Baba’s love game.” The rock star and his colleagues were viewed by their own camp as avant-garde representatives of the unique Avatar. Townshend acknowledged the American inspiration of Murshida Ivy Duce, leader of Sufism Reoriented. He was perhaps influenced more by Adi K. Irani (d.1980), the former secretary of Meher Baba, who had gained a limelight role as exegete of the Avataric cause. The love game ended with Townshend’s addiction to large quantities of brandy, accompanied by an afflicting ingestion of cocaine and heroin. His version of “Baba’s Umbrella” was not waterproof.
 
A major influence, upon the new wave of Baba lovers, were newsletters dating to the 1960s. These were composed by Mani, the sister of Meher Baba who lived at Meherazad ashram. Mani S. Irani (d.1996) favoured an influential vocabulary of “lovers” and the “Beloved.” The newsletters were regarded as canonical texts at Meher Baba Centres. However, a literary critic said that these writings were gushing and sentimental, not profound. Even some of the happy lovers were worrying that insufficient information about Meher Baba was being conveyed by Mani. They were puzzled to find frequent descriptions of secondary matters. Apologists excused Mani by saying that she was not allowed to describe more about Baba, who was in seclusion. Mani did relay messages from, and some details about, the figurehead, but there are distinct gaps in coverage.
 
Insofar as some basic events were concerned, the Mani “family letters” amounted to a detour. For instance, a more recent and lengthy account of 1960s events provided descriptions very different to those of Mani, including details of how Meher Baba strongly rebuked argumentative mandali, including Mani herself (Kalchuri Fenster 2009). The disparity is too revealing to ignore. Essential traits and methods of Meher Baba (silent since 1925) remained obscure, overlaid by preferences of the far more vocal lovers.
 
Bibliography:
 
Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).
Irani, Mani S., 82 Family Letters (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1976).
B. Kalchuri, F. Workingboxwala, D. Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001).
Kalchuri Fenster, Sheela, Growing up with God (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2009).
Parks, Ward, ed., Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West (North Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 2009).
Purdom, Charles B., Life Over Again (London: Dent, 1951).
--------The God-Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).
Shepherd, K. R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).
---------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).
Townshend, Pete, Who I Am (London: HarperCollins, 2012).
 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
 
ENTRY no. 66
 
Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.