Sunday, 12 November 2017

Sheriar Mundegar Irani

Sheriar Mundegar Irani, circa 1893

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliographic Note:

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

Bibliography:

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

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 73 

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

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Meher Baba Supplement

Meher Baba, 1950

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography:

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

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 72

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.