Meher Baba, (February 25, 1894 – January 31, 1969), born Merwan Sheriar Irani, was an Indian mystic and spiritual master who declared publicly in 1954 that he was the Avatar of the age.
Merwan Sheriar Irani was born in 1894 and led a normal childhood, showing no particularly strong inclination toward spiritual matters. At the age of 19, a brief contact with the Muslim holy woman Hazrat Babajan began his seven-year process of spiritual transformation. Over the next months, he contacted four additional spiritual figures whom, along with Babajan, he called “the five Perfect Masters.” He spent seven years with Upasni Maharaj, one of the masters, before beginning his public work. The name Meher Baba means “Compassionate Father” in Persian and was given to him by his first followers.
From 10 July 1925 to the end of his life, Meher Baba maintained silence, communicating by means of an alphabet board or by unique hand gestures. With his mandali (circle of disciples), he spent long periods in seclusion, during which time he often fasted. He also traveled widely, held public gatherings, and engaged in works of charity with lepers, the poor, and the mentally ill.
In 1931, Meher Baba made the first of many visits to the West, where he attracted many followers. Throughout most of the 1940s, Meher Baba worked with a category of spiritual aspirant called masts, whom he said are entranced or spellbound by internal spiritual experiences. Starting in 1949, along with selected mandali, he traveled incognito about India in what he called “The New Life.” On 10 February 1954, Meher Baba declared that he was the Avatar (an incarnation of God), and on 10 July 1958 he released his Universal Message.
After being injured as a passenger in two automobile accidents, one in the United States in 1952 and one in India in 1956, his ability to walk became severely limited. In 1962, he invited his Western followers to India for a mass darshan called “The East-West Gathering.” Concerned by an increasing use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, in 1966 Baba stated that they did not convey real benefits. Despite deteriorating health, he continued what he called his “Universal Work,” which included fasting and seclusion, until his death on 31 January 1969. His samadhi (tomb-shrine) in Meherabad, India has become a place of international pilgrimage.
Meher Baba at 16 years old in 1910Meher Baba was an Irani born in Pune, India to a Zoroastrian family. His given name was Merwan Sheriar Irani. He was the second son of Sheriar Mundegar Irani, a Persian Zoroastrian who had spent years wandering in search of spiritual experience before settling in Poona (now Pune), and Sheriar’s young wife, Shireen.
His schoolmates nicknamed him “Electricity.” As a boy he formed “The Cosmopolitan Club,” which was dedicated to remaining informed in world affairs and giving money to charity. Money was raised by donations and sometimes by gambling, e.g. betting at the horse races. He had an excellent singing voice and was a multi-instrumentalist and poet. Fluent in several languages, he was especially fond of the poetry of Hafiz, Shakespeare, and Shelley.
In his youth, he had no mystical inclinations or experiences, and was “[u]ntroubled as yet by a sense of his own destiny…” He was more interested in sports, especially cricket, and was co-captain of his high school cricket team. Baba later explained that a veil is always placed over the Avatar until the time is right for him to begin his work. At the age of 19, during his second year at Deccan College in Poona (now Pune), he met a very old Muslim woman, a spiritual master named Hazrat Babajan, who kissed him on the forehead. The event affected him profoundly; he experienced visions and mystical feelings so powerful that he gave up his normal activities. He began to beat his head against a stone to maintain, as he later put it, contact with the physical world. He also contacted other spiritual figures, who (along with Babajan) he later said were the five “Perfect Masters” of the age: Hazrat Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur, Narayan Maharaj of Kedgaon, Sai Baba of Shirdi, and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori.
Upasni helped him, he later said, to integrate his mystical experiences with normal consciousness, thus enabling him to function in the world without diminishing his experience of God-realization. In 1921, at the age of 27, after living for seven years with Upasni, Merwan started to attract a following of his own. His early followers gave him the name “Meher Baba,” meaning Compassionate Father.
In 1922, Meher Baba and his followers established “Manzil-e-Meem” (House of the Master) in Bombay (now Mumbai). There Baba began his practice of demanding strict discipline and obedience from his disciples. A year later, Baba and his mandali moved to an area a few miles outside Ahmednagar that he named “Meherabad” (Meher flourishing). This ashram would become the center for his work. In 1924, Meher Baba created a resident school at Meherabad that he named the “Prem Ashram” (in several languages “prem” means “love”). The school was free and open to all castes and faiths. The school drew multi-denominational students from around India and Iran.
From 10 July 1925 until his death in 1969, Meher Baba was silent. He communicated first by using an alphabet board and later by unique hand gestures which were interpreted and spoken out by one of his mandali, usually by his disciple Eruch Jessawala. Meher Baba said that his silence was not undertaken as a spiritual exercise but solely in connection with his universal work.
Man’s inability to live God’s words makes the Avatar’s teaching a mockery. Instead of practicing the compassion he taught, man has waged wars in his name. Instead of living the humility, purity, and truth of his words, man has given way to hatred, greed, and violence. 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.
Meher Baba often signaled the moment “that he would ‘break’ his silence by speaking the ‘Word’ in every heart, thereby giving a spiritual push forward to all living things.”
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. It will help every individual to break himself free from his own bondage in his own way. I am the Divine Beloved who loves you more than you can ever love yourself. The breaking of My Silence will help you to help yourself in knowing your real Self.
Meher Baba said that the breaking of his silence would be a defining event in the spiritual evolution of the world.
When I speak that Word, I shall lay the foundation for that which is to take place during the next seven hundred years.
On many occasions Meher Baba promised to break his silence with an audible word before he died, often stating a specific time and place when this would occur. His failure to fulfill these promises disappointed some of his followers, while others regarded these broken promises as a test of their faith. Some followers speculate that “the Word” will yet be “spoken,” or that Meher Baba did break his silence but in a spiritual rather than a physical way.
According to all contemporary accounts, Meher Baba remained silent until his death, but more than thirty years later one close disciple recalled that Meher Baba had spoken to him a few hours before he died, although this recollection contradicted his own earlier accounts.
Each 10 July, many of Baba’s followers celebrate Silence Day to honor him.
First contacts with the WestIn the 1930s, Meher Baba began a period of extensive world travel, with several trips to Europe and the United States. It was during this period that he established contact with his first close group of Western disciples. He traveled on a Persian passport because he had given up writing as well as speaking and would not sign the forms required by the British government of India.
On his first trip to England in 1931 he traveled on the Rajputana, the same ship that was carrying Mahatma Gandhi, who was sailing to the second Round Table Conference in London. Baba and Gandhi had three meetings onboard, including one that lasted for three hours. The British press highlighted these meetings, but an aide to Gandhi said, “You may say emphatically that Gandhi never asked Meher Baba for help or for spiritual or other advice.”
On the journey he was interviewed on behalf of the Associated Press, which quoted him describing his trip as a “new crusade . . . to break down all religious barriers and destroy America’s materialism and amalgamate all creeds into a common element of love”. His intention, according to the resulting article, was to convert thousands of Americans from sin. Describing Baba as “The Messiah,” the article also claims he listed miracles he had performed, and said that a person who becomes one with the truth can accomplish anything, but that it is a weakness to perform miracles only to show spiritual power. However, another description of the interview states that when Baba was asked about the miracles attributed to him, he replied “The only miracle for the Perfect Man to perform is to make others perfect too. I want to make the Americans realize the infinite state which I myself enjoy.”
Baba was invited to the “Meherashram” retreat in Harmon, New York by Malcolm and Jean Schloss. A Time magazine article on the visit states that Schloss referred to him in uppercase as “He, Him, His, Himself” and that Baba was described by his followers variously as the “God Man,” “Messiah” or “Perfect Master.”
On 20 May 1932 Baba arrived in New York and provided the press with a 1,000-word written statement, which was described by devotee Quentin Tod as his Message to America. In the statement Baba proclaimed himself “one with the infinite source of everything,” and declared his intention to break his silence: “When I speak, my original message will be delivered to the world and it will have to be accepted”. When asked about the Indo-British political situation, he had no comment, but his followers explained that he had told Gandhi to abandon politics.
In the West, Meher Baba met with a number of celebrities and artists, including Hollywood notables Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Boris Karloff, Tom Mix, Maurice Chevalier, Ernst Lubitsch and others. On 1 June 1932 Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. held a reception for Baba at Pickfair where he delivered a message to Hollywood. As a result, Meher Baba emerged as “one of the enthusiasms of the ‘30s.”
In 1934, after announcing that he would break his self-imposed silence in the Hollywood Bowl, Baba suddenly changed his plans and boarded the Empress of Canada and sailed to Hong Kong without explanation. The Associated Press reported that “Baba had decided to postpone the word-fast breaking until next February because ‘conditions are not yet ripe’.” He returned to England in 1936 but did not return to the United States again until the early 1950s.
In the late 1930s, Meher Baba invited a group of Western women to join him in India, where he arranged a series of trips throughout India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) that became known as the Blue Bus Tours. When they returned home, many newspapers treated their journey as an occasion for scandal. Time Magazine’s 1936 review of God is my Adventure describes the US’s fascination with the “long-haired, silky-mustached Parsee named Shri Sadgaru [sic] Meher Baba” four years earlier.
During the course of early gatherings of his close circle and followers, Meher Baba gave discourses on various spiritual subjects. Between 1938 and 1943, at the request of Princess Norina Matchabelli, one of his earliest Western devotees, Meher Baba dictated a series of discourses on his alphabet board for the Meher Baba Journal. These discourses, transcribed or worked up by close disciples from points given by Baba, address many aspects of the spiritual life and provide practical and simple direction for the spiritual aspirant. During those years, at least one discourse appeared each month in the journal. Chakradhar Dharnidhar Deshmukh, a close disciple of Meher Baba, compiled and edited the discourses.
Between 1939 and 1954 in India, a five-volume compilation titled Discourses of Meher Baba was printed several times. In 1967 Baba personally supervised the editing and publication of a new three-volume version of the Discourses, which became known as the sixth edition. A widely-available seventh edition of the Discourses, first published in 1987 (after Baba’s death), contains numerous editorial changes not specifically authorized by Baba.
Work with ‘masts’
In the 1930s and 1940s, Meher Baba did extensive work with a category of people he termed masts, who are persons “intoxicated with God.” According to Baba these individuals are essentially disabled by their enchanting experience of the higher spiritual planes. Although outwardly masts may appear irrational or even insane, Baba indicated that their spiritual status was actually quite elevated, and that by meeting with them he helped them to move forward spiritually while enlisting their aid in his spiritual work. One of the best known of these masts, known as Mohammed Mast, lived at Meher Baba’s encampment at Meherabad until his death in 2003.
The New Life
In 1949 Baba began an enigmatic period that he called “The New Life”. Following a series of questions on their readiness to obey even the most difficult of his requests, Baba selected twenty companions to join him in a life of complete “hopelessness, helplessness and aimlessness.”
He made provisions for those dependent on him, after which he and his companions otherwise gave up almost all property and financial responsibilities. They then traveled about India incognito while begging for food and carrying out Baba’s instructions in accordance with a strict set of “conditions of the New Life.” These included absolute acceptance of any circumstance and consistent good cheer in the face of any difficulty. Companions who failed to comply were sent away.
About the New Life Meher Baba wrote:
This New Life is endless, and even after my physical death it will be kept alive by those who live the life of complete renunciation of falsehood, lies, hatred, anger, greed and lust; and who, to accomplish all this, do no lustful actions, do no harm to anyone, do no backbiting, do not seek material possessions or power, who accept no homage, neither covet honor nor shun disgrace, and fear no one and nothing; by those who rely wholly and solely on God, and who love God purely for the sake of loving; who believe in the lovers of God and in the reality of Manifestation, and yet do not expect any spiritual or material reward; who do not let go the hand of Truth, and who, without being upset by calamities, bravely and wholeheartedly face all hardships with one hundred percent cheerfulness, and give no importance to caste, creed and religious ceremonies. This New Life will live by itself eternally, even if there is no one to live it.
After a period of seclusion and fasting Meher Baba ended the New Life in February 1952 and once again began a round of public appearances throughout India and the West.
1950s: Automobile accident in the United States
In the 1950s Baba established two centers outside of India: the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in the United States and Avatar’s Abode near Brisbane, Australia. He inaugurated the Meher Spiritual Center in April 1952. On 24 May 1952, en route from the Meher Spiritual Center to Meher Mount in Ojai, California, the car in which he was a passenger was struck head-on near Prague, Oklahoma. He and his companions were thrown from the vehicle and suffered many injuries. Baba’s leg was severely broken and he sustained facial injuries, including a broken nose. The injured were treated at Duke Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, after which they returned to Myrtle Beach to recuperate. While recuperating at Youpon Dunes, a home owned by Elizabeth Patterson, in Myrtle Beach, he worked on the charter for his group, which he named “Sufism Reoriented”.
Declaration of Avatarhood
Meher Baba began dictating his major book about the purpose of creation, God Speaks, in Dehradun, August 1953. In it he explained the difference between the Avatar and the Sadgurus. In September 1953, at Dehradun, Meher Baba declared that he was “The Highest of the High.” On 10 February 1954 in Meherastana U.P., India, Meher Baba publicly and explicitly declared his Avatarhood for the first time, spelling out on his alphabet board “Avatar Meher Baba Ki Jai.”
In September of that year, Meher Baba gave a “men-only” sahavas at Meherabad that later became known as the “Three Incredible Weeks.” During this time Baba issued a declaration, “Meher Baba’s Call,” wherein he affirmed his Avatarhood “irrespective of the doubts and convictions” of others. At the end of this sahavas Meher Baba gave the completed manuscript of his book God Speaks to two attending American Sufis, Lud Dimpfl and Don E. Stevens, for editing and publication in America. The book was published by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. On 30 September 1954 Meher Baba gave his “Final Declaration” message, in which he made various enigmatic predictions.
In October 1954, Meher Baba discarded his alphabet board and began using a unique set of hand gestures to communicate.
Automobile accident in India
On 2 December 1956, outside Satara, India, the car in which Baba was being driven went out of control and a second serious automobile accident occurred. Baba suffered a fractured pelvis and other severe injuries. Dr. Nilu, one of Baba’s mandali, was killed. This collision seriously incapacitated Baba. Despite his physicians’ predictions to the contrary, after great effort Baba managed to walk again, but from that point on he was in constant pain and was severely limited in his ability to move. In fact, during his trip to the West in 1958 he often needed to be carried from venue to venue. Baba indicated that his automobile accidents and the suffering that attended them were, like his silence, purposeful and brought about by his will.
Final visits to the West
In 1956, during his fifth visit to the US, Baba stayed at New York’s Hotel Delmonico before traveling to the Meher Center at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In July he traveled to Washington, D.C. and received friends and disciples at the home of Mrs. James Terry (Ivy) Duce, wife of the vice-president of the Arabian American Oil Co. He then traveled to Meher Mount at Ojai, California before continuing on to Australia. His final visits to the United States and Australia were made in 1958.
Seclusion and East-West GatheringBaba returned to India and began more periods of fasting and seclusion. He conveyed that although the work was draining and exhausting, it was done on behalf of the spiritual welfare of all humanity.
In 1962, Baba gave one of his last public functions, a series of meetings he called The East-West Gathering. At these meetings, in which his western followers were invited to meet his Indian disciples, Baba gave darshan to many thousands of people despite the physical strain this caused.
Addressing the drug culture
In the mid 1960s Baba became concerned with the increasingly prevalent drug culture in the West and began a correspondence with several Western academics, including Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, in which he strongly discouraged the use of all hallucinogenic drugs for spiritual purposes. In 1966 Baba’s responses to questions on drugs were published in a pamphlet titled God in a Pill? Meher Baba stated that drug use was spiritually damaging and that if enlightenment were possible through drugs then “God is not worthy of being God.” Meher Baba instructed some of his young Western disciples to spread this message; in doing so, they increased awareness of Meher Baba’s teachings among the young during this period. In an interview with Frederick Chapman, a Harvard graduate and Fulbright scholar who met Baba during a year of study in India, Baba stated that LSD is “harmful physically, mentally and spiritually”, and warned that “the continued use of LSD leads to madness or death.”
On this basis, an anti-drug campaign was initiated by Baba lovers in the United States, Europe and Australia. Although the campaign was largely unsuccessful, it created a wave of new followers, and some of Baba’s views found their way into academic debate on the merits and dangers of hallucinogens.
Final seclusion and death
From the East-West Gathering onward, Baba’s health steadily deteriorated. Despite the physical toll it took on his body, he continued to undergo long periods of seclusion and fasting. In late July 1968, Baba completed a particularly taxing period of seclusion and stated that his work was “completed 100% to my satisfaction.” By this point he was using a wheelchair. Within a few months his condition worsened and he was bed ridden. His body was wracked by intense muscular spasms that had no clear origin. Despite the care of several doctors, the spasms grew progressively worse.
On 31 January 1969, Meher Baba died, conveying by his last gestures, “Do not forget that I am God.” In time his devotees called this day Amartithi (deathless day). Meher Baba’s body was laid out for public viewing at his samadhi (tomb-shrine) at Meherabad. Covered with roses, and cooled by ice, his body was kept available to the public for one week before its final burial. Before his death, Meher Baba had made extensive preparations for a public darshan program to be held in Poona (now Pune), India. His mandali decided to proceed with the arrangements despite the physical absence of the host. Several thousand attended this “Last Darshan,” including many hundreds of people from the United States, Europe, and Australia.
Meher Baba’s metaphysical views are most notably described in God Speaks. His cosmology incorporates concepts and terms from Vedanta, Sufism, and Christianity. Baba upheld the concept of nonduality, the view that diverse creation, or duality, is an illusion and that the goal of life is conscious realization of the absolute Oneness of God inherent in all animate and inanimate beings and things. Meher Baba compares God’s original state to an infinite, shoreless ocean that has only unconscious divinity – unaware of itself because this original unconscious state has no means for any self-knowledge. From this state, God had the “whim” to know Himself, and asked “Who am I?” In response to this question, creation came into existence. In this analogy, what was previously a still, shoreless Ocean now stirred, forming innumerable “drops” of itself or souls. Baba often remarked “You will find all the answers to your questions in God Speaks. Study the book thoroughly and absorb it.”.
Evolution and Involution
According to Baba, each soul pursues conscious divinity by evolving: that is, experiencing form in seven “kingdoms” – stone/metal, vegetable, worm, fish, bird, animal, and human. The soul gathers sanskaras (impressions) in each form; these impressions lead to further evolution expressed by taking new, more complex forms. With each new form, increasing consciousness is gained until the soul experiences and discards forms from all the evolutionary kingdoms. The final form of the soul’s evolution is the human form. Only in the human form can the soul experience its own divinity by entering into involution, through which it gradually eliminates all impressions that cause the appearance of separateness from God.
Reincarnation and God-realization
Baba asserts that in the human form, the soul becomes subject to reincarnation, the “involuntary process of association and disassociation of consciousness”. The purpose of reincarnation is to provide the opportunity for liberation from illusion. The soul reincarnates innumerable times in all conditions of life encompassing the whole range of human experience (e.g. man/woman, rich/poor, powerful/weak, etc.). Through the experience of opposites, sanskaras gradually grow fainter and scarcer. Meher Baba describes the process of God-realization this way:
From out of the depth of unbroken Infinity arose the Question, “Who am I?” And to that Question there is the answer, “I am God!”
Meher Baba described heaven and hell as transitory and illusory states between incarnations:
The states of heaven and hell are nothing but states of intensive experiences of the consciousness of the soul, experiencing either of the predominant counterparts of the opposite impressions while the soul is dissociated from the gross human body or form.
Perfect Masters and the Avatar
Baba explained that at all times on Earth there are fifty-six incarnate God-realized souls and that of these souls there are always five who constitute the five Perfect Masters of their era. When one of the five Perfect Masters dies, Baba asserted that another God-realized soul among the fifty-six immediately replaces him or her by taking up that office.
The Avatar, according to Baba, is a special Perfect Master, the first soul to achieve God-realization. This soul, the original Perfect Master, or the “Ancient One,” never ceases to incarnate. Baba indicated that this particular soul personifies the state of God which in Hinduism is named Vishnu and in Sufism is named Parvardigar, i.e. the sustainer or preserver state of God. According to Meher Baba the Avatar appears on Earth every 700 – 1400 years and is ‘brought down’ into human form by the five Perfect Masters of the time to aid in the process of moving creation in its never-ending journey toward Godhood. Baba asserted that in other ages this role was fulfilled by Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad.
Baba described the Avatar as “a gauge against which man can measure what he is and what he may become. He trues the standard of human values by interpreting them in terms of divinely human life.”
Most of Meher Baba’s followers accept his claim of avatarhood and he is said to be “revered by millions around the world as the Avatar of the age and a God realized being.”
Baba’s travels and teachings left a legacy of followers and devotees worldwide. Although Baba participated in large public gatherings, he discouraged evangelizing, stating, “I need no propaganda or publicity.” Rather, he encouraged his followers to “let your life itself be my message of love and truth to others” and to “spread my message of Love and Truth as far and wide as possible.”
The Avatar Meher Baba Trust, established by Meher Baba, maintains his tomb and pilgrimage facilities, provides support for aging mandali, and engages in other activities. The Trust, however, does not act as a central spiritual authority.
Followers of Meher Baba have no obligatory rites, rituals or duties, as in most religions. Many followers do undertake certain rituals and prayers, but the choice is personal. The primary focus for followers is living a life Meher Baba would approve of, for example, refraining from the use of psychedelic drugs, including marijuana, and trying to remember God with love.
Gatherings of Baba followers are highly informal and social in nature. Special effort is often made to gather together on Amartithi, the anniversary of Baba’s death, and on his birthday. Most Baba followers keep silent on 10 July (Silence Day), observing the request Baba frequently made of his followers during his lifetime. Three prayers written by Meher Baba, “O Parvardigar”, the “Prayer of Repentance” and the “Beloved God Prayer,” are recited morning and evening at his samadhi in India and are often recited at gatherings. Many followers personally repeat these prayers daily. At Meherabad, his followers maintain Baba’s practice of lighting a dhuni fire on the 12th of each month. After dhuni prayers, participants throw sandalwood twigs dipped in ghee into the flame as physical representations of limitations and desires they wish to relinquish.
Although Baba had initially begun gaining public attention in the West as early as 1932 as the result of contacts with some celebrities of the time (such as Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Boris Karloff and others) and from the rather disillusioned account of Paul Brunton (A Search in Secret India, 1934), he achieved additional attention over three decades later through the work of Pete Townshend of The Who. Parts of the rock-opera Tommy (May 1969) were inspired by Townshend’s study of Baba, to whom the album was dedicated.The Who’s 1971 song “Baba O’Riley” was named in part after Meher Baba, and on his first solo album, Who Came First, Townshend recorded the Jim Reeves song “There’s A Heartache Following Me,” saying that it was Meher Baba’s favorite song.
Concepts of Meher Baba’s philosophy, often including characters resembling Baba, have frequently appeared in works of comic book writer J. M. DeMatteis, including Dr. Fate, Seekers Into The Mystery, The Last One and Batman: Absolution.
Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 Grammy Award-winning song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was inspired by a popular quote of Baba seen in numerous Baba posters and inspirational cards.