Generally known by the name of Meher Baba or The Awakener, Indian mystic Merwan Sheriar Irani (1894–1969) attracted many followers around the world throughout his lifetime. ‘‘Baba-lovers,’’ as they are known, believe that Meher Baba (along with Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, and Zoroaster) was the Avatar, an extraordinary soul who periodically takes a human form as the incar-nation of God.
The son of Persians, Meher Baba was born on February 25, 1894, in Poona, Maharashtra, India. As fervent Zoroastrians, his parents centered their spiritual life around the Avesta, which describes the religious system founded by Zoroaster and espouses the worship of Ahura Mazda in the context of a universal struggle between the forces of darkness and light. In fact, Baba’s father had been a wandering Sufi dervish—the equivalent of a monk—in his younger years and had only been persuaded by ‘‘a voice’’ to return to his home in Poona, where he would find a wife and bear a child. This child, he was told, would ‘‘complete his search for God.’’ He continued to live as an ascetic for another decade, until 1883 when he announced that he would marry the then-five-year-old Shireen. Her parents permitted the girl to marry Irani when she was 14 and he was 39. He would later run a teashop in Poona.
Despite their religious beliefs, the Iranis (a common surname of the period meaning ‘‘from Iran’’) sent their son to St. Vincent’s High School, a Jesuit Catholic school in Poona. Beginning in 1911, Baba attended Poona’s Deccan College. Accounts of his early life suggest that Baba led a happy, active, and normal childhood. His mother, Shireen, who had one other son, called Baba her ‘‘most beautiful child,’’ and, when he was a little older, friends nicknamed the charismatic young man ‘‘Electricity.’’ He reportedly had an interest in mystical topics and the occult from an early age, although he also enjoyed sports such as cricket. In college, Baba became a talented musician and poet and enjoyed reading Shakespeare, Shelley, and Wordsworth, as well as Sufi poets such as Hafiz.
A Momentous Event
Baba’s life is said to have changed abruptly in 1913 when at the age of 19 he was bicycling to his classes at college and felt compelled to stop and sit with an old woman who was a fixture in Poona. Named Hazrat Babajan, the Mohammedan woman lived under a neem tree and was thought to be at least 100 years old. She was also believed to be one of the five Sadgurus (Perfect Masters of the Age), those beings who are responsible for the birth of the Avatar (‘‘first soul’’ or ‘‘ancient one’’) in each Avataric age. The day they met, she briefly embraced Baba and sat with him for a time silently.After a number of such meetings, one night in January 1914 she kissed Baba on the forehead, thereby transferring to him what he later termed ‘‘God-realization,’’ or the knowledge that he was the Avatar. This state of being, Baba later explained, was a permanent one which consisted of a continuous experience of infinite bliss, knowledge, and power.
The awareness of his true identity caused Baba to appear to lose his mind. Much to his family’s and friends’ dismay, he stopped eating and sleeping and wandered randomly throughout the area. Baba’s parents took him to doctors and put him on medications, but despite their efforts the young man spent most of his time sitting and staring. During this period he was reportedly led to each of the other four Perfect Masters. Mrs. Irani even went to Babajan to see what she had done to her son. The old woman merely told the distraught mother that Baba was not insane but that he ‘‘was destined to shake the world into wakefulness.’’ Mean-while, as he later recalled, Baba was completely involved in ‘‘experiencing God’’ and was so unconscious of the world that he kept a stone in his room to knock his head against in order to bring an awareness of his surroundings to his mind. As legend has it, after nine months Baba began sleeping and eating again. He offered to teach Persian to a friend, Behramji, who became Baba’s first disciple.
In April 1915, Baba announced that he would be traveling for a time, and—although he was still considered insane by most—he departed Poona for the first time. Then Baba was guided to another Perfect Master in Kedgaon, Narayan Maharaj, who did ‘‘spiritual work’’ with him and helped him back to ‘‘more normal consciousness.’’ Baba then returned to Poona for some time but ventured forth again to seek out the third Perfect Master, Tajuddin Baba, who helped him become more aware of his divine nature. In December 1915 Baba met the fourth Perfect Master, Sai Baba, who lived in Shirdi and who reportedly exclaimed Parvardigar! (‘‘God Almighty Sustainer!’’) upon seeing Baba. Sai Baba sent Baba on to the fifth Perfect Master, a hermit named Upasni Maharaj, who threw a rock at the approaching man that hit him exactly where Hazrat Babajan had once kissed him on the forehead. Upon sustaining this blow, Baba reportedly became even more aware of his divine purpose.
Returned to Everyday Life
From 1915 to approximately 1922, Baba held a series of jobs, including managing a theater and working in his father’s tea shop. The elder Irani decided to sell alcohol at one point to improve business, but his son frequently chastised customers to quit drinking. Eventually, Baba and Behramji took over the shop, but their mismanagement of it combined with the Noncooperation Movement (a civilian protest against goods made in Britain) soon forced them to close the business. Meanwhile, Baba was working with Upasni Maharaj to integrate his consciousness of God with everyday human existence. At the end of 1921, Upasni was so impressed with Baba’s progress that he declared him to be a Perfect Master as well as the Avatar.
In 1922, Baba began to attract a small group of dedicated followers who began to call him ‘‘Meher Baba,’’ or ‘‘Compassionate Father.’’ Although his disciples considered him to be a Perfect Master and some even began to call him a messiah, Baba did not openly state what he believed to be his destiny. In the next several years, people from all over India came to see him as word spread of his presence, and eventually he announced to his grow-ing body of followers, ‘‘I am infinite power, knowledge and bliss. I am the Ancient One, come to redeem the modern world.’’
Established as Spiritual Leader
Baba next established an ashram (the secluded residence of a guru and his or her religious community) in Bombay (now Mumbai) named Manzil-e-Meem (House of the Master). There, he trained his disciples. He insisted that his followers live under strict discipline, giving up ‘‘selfish thoughts’’ and all possessions, as well as obeying Baba in all matters. The ashram dissolved in about 1923, and Baba relocated with his most dedicated followers, the mandali, to another ashram in Arangaon, outside Ahmednagar.In 1923–1924, Baba fasted, traveled around India, and held spiritual discussions. The new ashram was named Meherabad after its leader, and under its guru’s watchful eye, an entire city developed there by 1925, complete with a post office, free school, and free hospital. Because many people of all different backgrounds lived there, getting the community to run smoothly was especially challenging in such a religion- and caste-conscious society. Nevertheless, Meherabad would become Baba’s spiritual base.
On July 10, 1925, Baba began what he initially said would be a short period of silence ‘‘to save mankind from monumental ignorance.’’ The leader assured his followers that he would end his silence when ‘‘suffering on earth was at its height’’ and would be linked to ‘‘the universal awareness of God on earth.’’ His controversial silence would last 44 years—for the remainder of his long life. At the beginning of his vow of silence, Baba would communicate through writing and promised that he would soon speak again. He and his mandali fasted and worked intensively together. Meanwhile, Baba began writing a book of spiritual thoughts. It would never be published. In 1927, he began using an alphabet board to communicate and also established a school for boys of all religions and castes to teach them secular and spiritual subjects. The school closed in 1929.
Introduced to the West
By 1930, news of Baba had begun to reach the West. He traveled to England in 1931 and 1932, meeting there with Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi. Baba gave many interviews to curious reporters, and when asked if he was the Messiah did not deny that the salvation of mankind was his purpose. In one of these interviews, he reportedly declared, ‘‘I have not come to establish any cult, society, or organization, nor to establish a new religion. The religion I shall give teaches the knowledge of the One behind the many.’’ He also spoke of a book that he would write that would hold ‘‘the key to the mystery of life.’’ His claims prompted contempt, hostility, and amusement, and many skeptics called him a false prophet. Baba refused demands to perform miracles, saying that the only miracles he could cause were the ‘‘awakening of the heart’’ and the breaking of his silence.
Baba visited the United States in 1932, where he was especially well received in Hollywood. Top celebrities of the day, including Douglas Fairbanks, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mary Pickford, attended a large reception there for him. From 1932 to 1936, Baba traveled to Europe and Asia several times. Beginning in 1936, he initiated a campaign to gather together all of the mast-Allah (‘‘God-intoxicated ones’’) that he and his disciples could find. (According to Baba’s accounts, these individuals appear insane but are actually in such blissful states that they cannot relate to the everyday world in any meaningful way. He believed that these people are found only in Eastern countries.) Baba set up special ashrams for the masts, as he called them, where he personally bathed, fed, and clothed them.
Near the end of the 1930s, Baba founded a new ashram in Nasik, India, for his Western followers. The discipline there was much less rigorous and had more Western-style conveniences than the ashram at Meherabad. Apparently the most difficult aspect of life there was learning to get along with other Baba devotees, but the guru preached, ‘‘If you cannot love each other, then learn to give in.’’Baba divided his time among the mast ashrams and the Nasik ashram until 1941, when he shut down all but the Meherabad group because of Word War II. However, he continued with his search for masts throughout India until 1948.
Start of ‘‘New Life’’
In 1949, Baba shocked and dismayed his followers by announcing that he would immediately begin a ‘‘new life,’’ saying that all his ashrams except Meherabad would be closed down or would have to operate without his guid-ance. Baba said that from this point on he would ‘‘rely solely upon God’’ and would renounce his role of Perfect Master, instead calling himself a common man, or Perfect Seeker. He permitted only a few of his closest devotees to remain with him as he entered this phase of his life, which he said comprised ‘‘complete renunciation of falsehood, lies, ha-tred, greed, and lust’’ and which would ‘‘live by itself eternally, even if there is no one to live it.’’Baba and his small circle of followers began to wander throughout Nepal and India in what would become a severe test of their devotion. Baba personally bathed lepers, washed the feet of many poor people, and handed out grain and clothing to the needy. He called his existence during this period ‘‘Helplessness and Hopelessness,’’ but insisted that his followers ‘‘wholeheartedly face all hardships with 100 percent cheerfulness.’’ After several years of this strict regimen, Baba secluded himself in order to achieve mano-nash, or ‘‘annihilation of the mind,’’ saying, ‘‘We must lose ourselves to find ourselves. . . . We must die to self to live in God; thus death means life. . . . Being is dying by loving.’’
‘‘Fiery Free Life’’
In 1952 Baba entered a new phase of his life that he called the ‘‘Fiery Free Life.’’ The goal of this period, he said, was to ‘‘dissolve the bindings of every soul, and establish to the world that everyone and everything is one with God.’’ Later that year, he announced publicly for the first time that he was the Messiah. . .God in human form. Baba said that injuries he sustained in automobile accidents in 1952 and 1956 were the modern equivalent of the physical traumas suffered by the world’s great spiritual leaders. He proclaimed that his ‘‘physical bones were broken so as to break the backbone of the material aspect of the machine age, while keeping intact its spiritual aspect.’’ By now, thousands of worshippers, sometimes as many as 100,000 in one day, were traveling from all over India just to see Baba from a distance.
In 1954, Baba had stopped using the alphabet board and was communicating with his closest subjects using their sign language. By then, he had dictated his 1954 book God Speaks using the English-alphabet board. Starting in 1957, he held many darshan (divine blessings or viewings), one of which united his Eastern and Western followers for the first time. A year later, his mandali issued ‘‘Meher Baba’s Uni-versal Message,’’ which comprised all the leader’s sayings and teachings that they had gathered together. In it, Baba pronounced, ‘‘I have not come to teach, but to awaken. . . . Because man has been deaf to the principles and precepts laid down by God in the past, in this present Avataric Form I observe silence. . . . My present [form] is the last Incarnation of the cycle of time. Hence, my manifestation will be the greatest. When I break my silence, the impact of my love will be universal and all life in creation will know, feel, and receive of it. . . . I had to come, and I have come. I am the Ancient One.’’
Baba’s last trip to the United States was in 1958, when he visited the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The center had been established to study his teachings. Baba’s popularity surged in the 1960s with the rise of the hippie culture in the United States and Australia. Young people experimenting with drugs were especially attracted to the leader, but when Baba sternly warned against the dangers of drug use, these followers left him in droves. However, many devotees felt even more strongly attached to him because of this message. It was also around this time that Baba is credited with coining the now popular phrase, ‘‘Don’t worry, be happy.’’
Baba went into strict seclusion again in 1967 despite strong demands from his audience. Only a select few of his closest associates were permitted to see him during this phase, which he said was part of his ‘‘universal work,’’ the results of which would be ‘‘intensely felt by all the people of the world.’’ He pledged that he would give a public darshan in 1969, although the 75-year-old Baba’s health was quickly declining.
By January 1969, the guru was reportedly in chronic major pain from a hip that he had broken in one of the automobile accidents in the 1950s, but he announced that he had finished his ‘‘universal work.’’ On January 31, 1969, in Pimplegaon, India, to the great dismay of his many fol-lowers, Baba died without breaking his long silence, only signing to a disciple the message ‘‘Do not forget that I am God.’’ Over the following week, mourners came from all over the world to pass through Baba’s tomb prior to his burial in Meherabad. From April through June 1969, his followers carried out the final darshan that their leader had promised. Thousands attended the ceremonies in Poona and at Baba’s tomb.
After his death, Baba retained a strong following all over the world. Baba-lovers observe ‘‘Silence Day’’ every year on July 10, and dozens of Internet sites are dedicated to disseminating information by and about him. Pilgrims con-tinued to frequent several sites at which Baba’s spirit is thought to be especially strong: the ashram at Meherabad, Avatar’s Abode in Australia, Meher Mount in California and the Meher Spiritual Center.
‘‘The Life of Meher Baba,’’ The Northern California Meher Baba
Center, http://www.meherbabameherbaba.org (December 16, 2003).
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‘‘Meher Baba,’’ Wikipedia, http://en2.wikipedia.org (December
‘‘Meher Baba, Avatar of the Age, Biography,’’ Avatar Meher Baba, http://www.avatarmeherbaba.org (December 16, 2003).