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Map of Iran (courtesy Microsoft)


1.   Meher  Baba's  Second  Visit  to  Iran

2.   The  Zoroastrian  Background

3.   Zoroastrians  as  a  Religious  Minority  in  Iran

4.   Meher  Baba  and  Zarathushtra

5.   Babis,  Bahais,  and  Zoroastrians  at  Yazd

6.   Meher  Ashram, Prem  Ashram

7.   Aga  Baidul

8.   Paul  Brunton


1.  Meher  Baba's  Second  Visit  to  Iran

The ancestors of Meher Baba (1894-1969) lived on the Yazd plain (in what is known as Yazd Province), located in Central Iran. Meher Baba himself was born in India, his name of birth being Merwan Sheriar Irani. He was an Irani Zoroastrian, both of his parents having recently emigrated from the Yazd plain. He spoke Persian and Gujarati (a language of Western India familiar to many Parsi Zoroastrians), and became familiar with Urdu and Hindi. He also learned Marathi and English.

His first visit to Iran, in 1924, was fleeting. However, the second was more sustained, including a visit to Isfahan, and a sojourn at the desert city of Yazd. This excursion occurred in the autumn of 1929. Meher Baba's tour of Iran was not advertised or promoted, this restraint being a typical feature of his many incognito journeys. "He wished to remain aloof from public contact, but as he moved from town to town, an uninvited acclaim occurred" (Shepherd 2005:115). Not only did he make an impact upon Zoroastrians, but also Shia Muslims, whose enthusiasm astounded his travelling companions. One early version relays:

Although this tour, like the others, was kept strictly private, very few of Baba’s devotees being informed, people came from all parts of the country, among them men of high position, including Government and military officers. (Purdom 1937:139)

After some quick stops at places like Dezful and Malayer, Meher Baba arrived with some of his mandali (ashram group) at Isfahan on October 15, 1929. He typically resided at a low class hotel, with no publicity. After a week, he retreated from the city because of the crowds intent upon paying him homage. Many of these people were Shia Muslims. He moved to the suburb of Djolfa, principally inhabited by Armenian Christians. However, crowds continued to pursue him. Meher Baba insisted that he wanted seclusion, not public profile. He accordingly departed for Yazd on October 22, arriving two days later.

In the surrounding villages, “oppressed Irani Zoroastrians had survived for thirteen centuries as a harshly tolerated minority” (Shepherd 2005:116). Meher Baba’s father Sheriar had departed from the Yazd plain several decades before, becoming a wandering ascetic or dervish. His mother Shirin similarly originated from the village of Khorramshah (this name appears in variants). During the Qajar era, the oppression had been stifling.

In the city of Yazd, the visitor was welcomed by Zoroastrian merchants and commoners. The most influential merchant was Arbab Rustom Khushrav, who spread news of Meher Baba’s arrival, while offering him a bungalow for the duration of his stay. The visitor accepted. However, the public afterwards descended in large numbers upon his dwelling. This time he did not flee, but allowed the intruders to see him. Again, Shia Muslims were in evidence, alongside Zoroastrians.

Meher Baba stayed at Yazd for four days. He could have sojourned for much longer, and in considerable profile, but his priorities were different. Many invitations were pressed upon him; he only accepted some of these in the limited time he consented to remain. When he ventured into the city centre of Yazd, thousands gathered to welcome him, mostly Shia Muslims, including receptive mullas.

The enthusiasm on the part of Shia Muslims can be explained in the light of a progressive liberal trend furthered by the Pahlavi dynasty. Zoroastrians had now gained political representation and a much greater degree of tolerance from Shia Islam. Urban Zoroastrian merchants had become prosperous, freed from the social constraints of former times.

The Zoroastrian hosts of Meher Baba requested him to visit places of public importance. The visitor consented, while simultaneously instigating a search for a place of seclusion. Nothing was found that could meet his requirements.

Meher Baba was regarded by some Zoroastrians as a new prophet. They heard of his philanthropic activity in India. Such activity was held in esteem by Irani Zoroastrians. They saw that he was completely silent, verbalising with the aid of an English alphabet board. Meher Baba had been communicating in this manner since 1927 (after becoming silent in 1925). He was not a preacher or lecturer of any kind. Interpreters amongst the mandali translated his dictated words into Persian. One of these men was Kaikhushru Afseri, a well educated Irani Zoroastrian from Tehran. Afseri was very cordial towards Shi'ite Muslims, who respected him accordingly.

Meher Baba at Toka, India, in 1928

Meher Baba was of medium height, with long hair of an auburn tinge (Shepherd 2005:112). This Irani characteristic is associated with the Irano-Aryan population of the pre-Islamic Sassanian era. The reddish-brown hair colour darkened in his later years. The very mobile face of Meher Baba exhibited rapidly changing moods. His benign disposition was attended by a sense of humour frequently in evidence. During his travels, he generally wore unobtrusive clothing, suiting his desired incognito profile. There is no record of his garb at Yazd.

On the evening of the second day, Meher Baba  moved out from the Muslim environs of Yazd to Zoroastrian village precincts at Jafarabad, where he was welcomed by the inhabitants. He took a hurried meal at the home of Baidul (Rustom Behram Irani), a disciple who had lived with him in India for some years, being a member of the ashram grouping known as mandali. More recently, Baidul had been sent to Iran for purposes relating to the Meher Ashram, a school for boys established by Meher Baba at Meherabad (near Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra). Baidul’s wife Soltun now cooked a meal, which Baba himself served to those persons present.

Afterwards Meher Baba returned to the city, being transported in a motor car for safety. The streets are reported to have been thronged with people struggling to see him. He was now escorted to the Zoroastrian Girls’ School, a significant and recent innovation in Yazd influenced by Parsi reformists in India. Zoroastrian female education had suffered for many centuries previously, as a consequence of political and social conditions, operative under Islam and the conservative Zoroastrian priesthood. Meher Baba expressed a close interest in the new school.

On the third day of his stay at Yazd, “his name was by now a subject of conversation all over the city” (Shepherd 2005:117). His companions had feared that local Bahais and Babis would resent him as a rival religious figure. However, the forebodings were proven wrong. Bahais were instead seen to display a marked veneration for the visitor from India.

In the afternoon, Meher Baba visited another village on the Yazd plain, namely Mubaraka. This was inhabited by both Muslims and Zoroastrians. The expedition was enlivened by an episode concerning the Muslim family of a boy (Aga Ali) who had been living at Meherabad ashram in India (and who had been one of the travelling party proceeding from the port of Mohammerah). This family wished the boy to remain with them, regarding Meher Baba as an infidel. One of the boy’s uncles hatched a fanatical plan to murder Baba, concealing a pistol in his boot. When he came into the presence of Meher Baba, the hostile Muslim discarded his lethal intention. Instead, he bowed to the Irani, and afterwards repented.

From Mubaraka, Meher Baba moved on to his ancestral village of Khorramshah. He is reported to have been in a very good mood when he arrived. A crowd assembled, eager to see the visitor. Several Bahais appeared with their local figurehead.

They came from mere curiosity, their leader being determined not to acknowledge the visiting celebrity in any way. Yet when he [the Bahai leader] came into the presence of Meher Baba, he gradually lost his reservations. To the surprise of his retinue, the Bahai leader first bowed before Baba, then asked his group to follow suit, then asked them to kiss the visitor’s hand (a sign of esteem), and finally to prostrate themselves at the visitor’s feet. Meher Baba undoubtedly possessed a strong charisma, and the fact that he was silent and did not lecture anyone appears to have left a good impression with Iranians. (Shepherd 2005:118)

When the visitor returned to Yazd that evening, another Bahai appeared. This man is not named; he is described as being leader of the Bahai community in Shiraz. He arrived by aeroplane, his sole intention being to challenge Meher Baba with theological questions. At the moment of encounter, however, the Bahai leader fell at Baba’s feet and exclaimed: “You are God!” Afterwards, this man moved through the crowd, saying: “I have seen God!” Onlookers were surprised to see a Bahai preacher acting in this manner. Subsequently, that same preacher delivered an unusual sermon to a large gathering, commending Meher Baba.

“Bahais found that he [Meher Baba] did not fit the stereotype of religious teachers in Iran” (ibid:119). The Islamic mullas typically sought to persuade and admonish, promoting their religious perspective at every turn. The preachers might assume irate facial expressions of disapproval, and loudly invoke the name of God while threatening divine retribution. In contrast, the benign Meher Baba was not interested in conversion, and did not mention his own views during this sojourn.

He had gained more adulation at Yazd than in any other city on his travels to date. Yet Meher Baba would not stay; he insisted upon leaving on the morning of the fourth day, October 28. He did not view Yazd as being suitable for purposes of seclusion. Hundreds of people appeared at his bungalow to bid farewell. Meher Baba evaded their attention by departing quickly (Kalchuri et al 1989:1239). Some Yazdis pleaded for photographs of him to keep in fond memory. His companions gave away what photos they had. “Even orthodox Shi’i Muslims were asking for photos of a Zoroastrian” (Shepherd 2005:119).

Meher Baba now journeyed to Kerman and then Bam, living in retirement despite the strong public response. He avoided further attention at Kerman by having the motor cars of his party driven into a garage, then giving orders for the garage doors to be closed. Afterwards, he stayed for two days at Bam in a quiet house, where he remained incognito as Arbab Merwan. He firmly instructed his companions to deflect all visitors from seeing him. Furthermore, he left Iran in very low profile, choosing the difficult overland route from Bam to Duzdab on his return to India.

2.  The  Zoroastrian  Background

Zoroastrian dakhma, Yazd plain

The ancestors of Meher Baba lived in conditions of affliction at Khorramshah, one of the outlying villages on the Yazd plain. For centuries after the coming of Islam, the Zoroastrians were a diminishing minority subject to religious discrimination. The grandfather of Meher Baba was Mundegar the salar, meaning a guardian of the local dakhma, a site reserved for corpses exposed to vultures. This method of disposal of the dead was attended by rites dating back to the Sassanian era.

The Qajar era (1789-1925) represented oppression and religious intolerance. The Shia clergy achieved a similar lifestyle to the monarchy. Clerics gained harems with numerous wives and concubines. Many of these religious leaders employed private armies that robbed ordinary citizens. During periods of severe drought, the clergy hoarded large quantities of wheat, heedless of the commoners. The greedy theologians were bribed by Qajar kings to produce fatwas (legal decrees) that enabled the court, the army, and corrupt provincial rulers to plunder the nation (Vahman 2019).

The son of Mundegar Irani the salar was Sheriar, born in 1853. To escape the dire situation of religious bias, Sheriar Mundegar Irani disappeared from Khorramshah. He became a mendicant dervish at an early age, for some years travelling through Iran, before emigrating to India. After further ascetic journeys, Sheriar eventually married and settled at Poona (Pune), where he reared a family.

Sheriar Mundegar Irani

Sheriar taught himself to read and write, becoming literate in Persian and Arabic (Shepherd 1988a). His linguistic abilities were pronounced, and included the Hebrew language (Shepherd 1995:854 n.152). He gained a wide knowledge of Iranian subjects, including both the Zoroastrian and Sufi heritages. His second son was Merwan S. Irani, who became known as Meher Baba after being in contact with Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) and Upasani Maharaj (d.1941).

The transition of Merwan Irani to the life of a mystic was not understood by many observers. His father was an exception, perceiving events in a different manner. In contrast, his mother Shirin was distraught, believing for years that Merwan had become mentally unbalanced as a consequence of associating with Babajan. He ceased attending the Deccan College in 1914, losing all interest in mundane life. His mother eventually understood that Merwan was not deranged, but in a very different category.

Some spectators found difficulty in assessing his religious identity. Meher Baba did not teach orthodox Zoroastrianism. The exact classification of his teaching has varied. See Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988). This was the first book to emphasise the Irani (hence Iranian) dimensions of the subject, despite some puzzlement from Westerners who have associated him with the Indian (and Hindu) milieu. Meher Baba certainly did encompass many Hindu concepts. However, he was not a Hindu. Strongly anti-caste, he did not teach canonical Hinduism.

There was no formal teaching from the faqir Hazrat Babajan. Meher Baba was familiar with Sufism, without teaching this subject in any doctrinal format. His father Sheriar is the most obvious link with Persian Sufi vocabulary. Upasani Maharaj was a distinctive and learned brahman ascetic who lived at Sakori (near Shirdi, the location of Sai Baba, a faqir who lived in a mosque, and whom Merwan Irani also encountered). There are some convergences in Meher Baba’s output with the teaching of Upasani, as this survived in extant discourses of the Sakori mystic. There are also strong departures and extra detail.

Meher Baba, Meherabad 1927

Meher Baba gained many Zoroastrian followers during the 1920s. However, some orthodox Parsis were critical of his unusual career as a mystic, which seemed to them unduly radical. He was regarded by these conventional persons as a heretic. Meher Baba had no affinity with the Zoroastrian priesthood, whose ritualism he avoided. There is an apparent anomaly. He is reported to have worn the Zoroastrian kushti girdle until 1931.

According to American devotee Christopher Ott, Meher Baba wore the kushti all his life (this emphasis appeared in communications to Dr. M. E. Dean dated 2006). Ott commented: “It is true that Baba wore these [the kushti and sadra]. I don’t know why he did so, perhaps out of respect for his ancestors. He had a lot of strange practices that don’t make orthodox sense, such as his dhuni fire on the 12th of each month that no one has been able to explain to me the roots of, at least as he performed it.... The sacred string [kushti] and undershirt [sadra] seem to give at least some credence to the assumption that he identified himself as Zoroastrian” (relayed in a personal communication to myself from Dr. Dean dated 02/01/2007).

These reflections met with my caution: “There is no trace of conformist Zoroastrianism in Meher Baba’s teaching. As for the Kaivan school, they were anything but orthodox Zoroastrians. If Meher Baba wore a kushti girdle all his life, then that was a very discreet measure not visible on many photos. In general, he was very critical of the priestly religion, though he did permit his Zoroastrian followers full religious expression” (letter to Dr. Dean dated 02/12/06). A few early photographs, dating to the 1920s, do reveal Meher Baba to be wearing the kushti over his robe (many Western devotees were not aware of the religious associations of this detail while he was alive, and nor after his decease).

I subsequently commented: “Christopher Ott has evidently been at pains to clarify his wordings, and I do respect that. I am quite prepared to accept that Meher Baba regularly wore a kushti string. However, this was not declared during his lifetime. It is quite correct to state that Meher Baba was a Zoroastrian.... Yet the precise nature of his Zoroastrianism is enigmatic, and was definitely not in the orthodox priestly mould” (letter to Dr. Dean dated 21/01/07). The Ott version has been contradicted in terms of duration. Meher Baba stopped wearing the kushti in 1931 (Irani 2017:223-224). The fact of his wearing the kushti means that Zoroastrian associations are fully justified.

In much earlier conversations with myself, Adi S. Irani (Meher Baba’s younger brother) did not mention the kushti. Adi was not himself concerned with Zoroastrian ritual paraphernalia, which he regarded as superfluous. We do not know how Meher Baba regarded his kushti, or exactly what significance he awarded this accessory. He certainly did not attach any importance to the kushti in his discourses and messages.

The robe of Meher Baba has been considered an adaptation of the Zoroastrian sadra (or sudra), a white muslin undershirt or vest possessing symbolic significances. The vest has short sleeves, but Meher Baba wore long sleeves. This robe was called a sadra by his companions. He did not wear the white kafni of Muslim ascetics, and nor the ochre cloth of Hindu holy men. His long robe was rather more similar to the lightweight attire of Zoroastrian priests than to the kafni of Muslim faqirs (Meher Baba is erroneously described as a faqir by some writers).

The kushti is a cord traditionally wrapped three times around the waist, over the sadra. The significance of this action is associated with a pledge to cultivate good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. That Zoroastrian ethical precept has ancient roots in Avestan teaching. Meher Baba’s own ethical teaching was of a high standard, emphasising truthfulness, sobriety, and selfless service of others.

The kushti comprises six interwoven strands, each made of twelve white threads of wool (making a total of seventy-two). Cotton was also used. These trappings were traditionally woven by women from priestly families. During the 1920s, because of the demand in India, Zoroastrian women in the villages near Yazd were trained to weave kushtis, for the purpose of supplementing family income. Irani Zoroastrians were cautious about openly displaying the kushti, because of abusive behaviour from Muslims. The Parsis of India were not subject to this constraint, and many of them still regularly wear the girdle.

In orthodox Zoroastrianism, there are special prayers for untying and retying the kushti. The sadra and kushti are worn as undergarments from the time of the navjote (“new life”) ceremony, conducted by priests, and involving a pledge to abide by the Zoroastrian code. This initiatory rite was adapted at some juncture in medieval centuries, when the age limit was lowered to the age of seven. In recent times, the navjote has been administered to Zoroastrian children between the ages of seven and twelve.

Meher Baba did not interfere with such rites amongst his followers. However, he was not himself a ritualist. He maintained that ritualism can stifle the essential spirit of a religion. He moved at a clear tangent to the priestly ritualism of both Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. He was an opponent of caste concepts, supporting the Indian untouchables so notably championed by Dr. Ambedkar.

Meher Baba did not give any message or announcement at Yazd or other Iranian cities. He made no attempt to gain followers, instead doing his best to avoid crowds and limelight. He declined the offer of a meeting with the Pahlavi monarch Reza Shah (regd. 1925-1941), an autocratic modernist resented by the ulama. Some of Meher Baba's influential new supporters wished to broadcast his name throughout Iran, but he would not give permission. The Zoroastrian mystic was viewed as a progressive influence leading away from the constricting attitudes of medieval religion.

In India, during the 1920s, his discourses were not public knowledge, being instead confined to small groups at the Manzil-e-Meem (Bombay) and Meherabad. The people at large did not know what his teaching comprised.  At Yazd, many Shia Muslims regarded Meher Baba as a saint, while some apparently conceived of him as the long-awaited imam mahdi or rasul (saviour). A rumour spread to this effect.  Zoroastrian supporters dared to envisage him as a prophet. However, Meher Baba did not define any status role for himself while in Iran.  In India, he later referred to himself as avatar (a Hindu term meaning divine incarnation). This was not a public proclamation for many years (until the 1950s).

3.  Zoroastrians  as  a  Religious  Minority  in  Iran

The excursions of Meher Baba into the Yazd plain are of interest. We know that he visited at least three of the very old villages distinguished by Zoroastrian habitation. The Zoroastrian presence in Iran had diminished substantially over time, eventually being restricted to Yazd and Kerman by the sixteenth century. Some scholars refer to a gradual migration of Zoroastrians to these cities from other regions.

The general scholarly consensus is that the Zoroastrians of Yazd originally came from the western provinces of Iran, while the Zoroastrians of Kerman came from the eastern provinces. (S. Gholami, "Zoroastrians of Iran," Encyclopaedia Iranica)

The religious minority were subject to harassment from the Islamic majority. Zoroastrians were officially a tolerated “people of the book,” in accordance with Quranic stipulation. However, their inferior status resulted in a sad degree of affliction. During the nineteenth century, the Parsi Zoroastrians of Western India became very concerned at the fate of their Irani brethren at Yazd. Many Irani Zoroastrians emigrated to India, fleeing the religious discrimination.

The Muslims referred to members of the minority by the contemptuous term guebre, meaning a fire worshipper. Zoroastrians were often bigger in physique than local Muslims, but heavily outnumbered. Their houses on the Yazd plain were constructed on a defensive pattern, with no windows. The Zoroastrian villages were basically independent; religious rituals were conducted in the internal courtyards of houses. A sense of village (deh) affiliations was strong amongst this minority. Khorramshah came to be associated with trade and wealth. However, mercantile activity was for long of a subterranean nature, beset with difficulties.

Manekji Limji Hataria (1813-1890) was a Parsi philanthropist active at Yazd and Kerman. From 1854, he was the emissary in Iran for Parsi well-wishers and reformists. The official designation here was Society for the Amelioration of the Condition of Zoroastrians in Persia, an organisation based in Bombay. Hataria found that many Irani Zoroastrians were illiterate, because they were denied access to education by the hostile ulama. He accordingly established schools at Yazd and Kerman. By 1882, there were twelve such schools, based on Parsi models of secular tuition. Another objective of Hataria was abolition of the detested poll tax (jizya), to which Irani Zoroastrians were subject. This was achieved in 1882, with the aid of the British Raj, who found that influential Parsis were insistent about the matter.

The language of Irani Zoroastrians was Dari, originally the official language of the Sassanian court. Variations of Dari were spoken by Zoroastrians in the villages of the Yazd plain. Khorramshahi was one of the many village dialects (and also a personal name of inhabitants). Many Irani Zoroastrians could also speak the national language of Farsi, but Muslims could not penetrate Dari, which remained a mystery to them. Zoroastrians cultivated a form of secrecy in this respect, for purposes of convenience.

Academic investigation of the Yazd plain commenced with the important fieldwork undertaken by Professor Mary Boyce during the 1960s. She concentrated upon the conservative village of Sharifabad, associated with priestly activity. The interpretation of Boyce revolved primarily around priestly heritage and convention (Boyce 1977).

The strong response to Meher Baba at Yazd came from Zoroastrian merchants, not the priesthood. The investigation of his ancestral village, namely Khorramshah (Khooramshar), started in the 1970s. Details appeared in an article by the Parsi devotee Naosherwan Anzar. Information continued via, e.g., the film taken in 1994 by Reza Ebrahimzadeh. This man visited the ancestral home of Meher Baba’s father Sheriar, and also drove to the deserted Jafarabad, where he saw the abandoned homes of Baidul Irani and Esfandiar Vesali. Ebrahimzadeh also visited a nearby Meher Baba centre, located in the fields at a place called Pir Kharman. This one room centre had a metal entrance door for protection. Local Muslim zealots cut the “Mastery in Servitude” emblem from that door; the decoration was thereafter kept inside the building for safety.

During the last decades of the twentieth century, Zoroastrian inhabitants of the villages frequently moved to the Zoroastrian quarter of urban Yazd, with the consequence that rural localities suffered a degree of neglect. Another factor here was a substantial migration to Tehran, the capital city to the north. This latter trend commenced in the mid-nineteenth century, in the face of travel dangers. In 1877, about 450 Zoroastrians were already living at Tehran, where they retained their high repute for honesty and truthfulness (Janet K. Amighi, "Zoroastrians in Iran," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

4.  Meher  Baba  and  Zarathushtra

Meher Baba’s version of the Iranian prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) was different to the orthodox portrayal, discarding reliance upon ritualistic interpetation. He did not resort to the Gathas, meaning the very old Avestan hymns attributed to the archaic prophet (Insler 1975). Meher Baba very rarely mentioned any chronology. Two references are available, one couched in the manner of an approximation.

In 1929, Meher Baba is reported to have said that Zarathushtra lived “some six thousand years ago” (Kalchuri et al, 1989:1196). In another communication of 1931, he affirmed: “Zoroastrianism is very old – almost six thousand years” (ibid:1352). Source documents are not specified.

This archaic dateline is reminiscent of “Greek chronology,” though not so extended as the Greek tradition of 6,000 years occurring between the Iranian prophet and Plato (Shepherd 1995:257-258). This timeline has been viewed by some modern commentators as a scribal error, effectively adding a nought. There are extensive Greek and Latin references to Zarathushtra, or rather Zoroaster (De Jong, 1998). Plutarch opted for the computation of 5,000 years before the Trojan War. Other classical writers present a much more contracted dateline.

At one extreme Zoroaster’s remoteness is measured in millennia, at the other is mere centuries, and Zoroaster is made the contemporary and teacher of historical Greek sages, notably Pythagoras. (R. Beck, "Zoroaster as perceived by the Greeks," Encyclopaedia Iranica)

Many modern scholars tend to devalue the attributions of ancient classical writers in terms of lore and invention. Certainly, the idea of Zarathushtra as a magician can be discarded. However, the date of Zarathushtra is still an open question.

The extensive scholarly literature on Zoroastrian history, and prehistory, is daunting for any non-specialist investigator. This corpus exhibits varied recent estimates for the dating of Zarathushtra, and also his geographical location. The range is well represented by differences between two major specialists, namely Professors Mary Boyce and Gherardo Gnoli, both now deceased (see Boyce 1975; Boyce 1992:30,45; Gnoli 1980; Gnoli 2000). Boyce favoured the second millennium BC, and a Central Asian homeland. In contrast, Gnoli was at first inclined to the early first millennium BC, and the East Iranian zone he called Sistan. However, he subsequently urged the “traditional” chronology of the sixth century BC, associated with West Iran; this contraction was considered by other Iranist scholars to be a retrogression in terms of accuracy.

The difference in dateline is more than a thousand years, taking into account the version in terms of circa 1200-1700 BC (see Grenet 2015). Cf. Shepherd 1995:846 note 111, mentioning the "maximal 1700 B.C. conjecture" of Boyce. For a negative assessment of historicity, see Kellens 2006. "The Gathas are not a historical text in that they do not tell us anything either about the life of a man or about the organisation of a society" (Kellens 2015:44-5). There is an attendant problem in that "the study of Zoroastrianism now largely operates in a disintegrated academic landscape," the reason being that "scholarly interest has precipitously declined" (Stausberg 2015:xiii). Accordingly, no reasoning independent analyst should be discouraged from making a contribution (this has been my own line of approach). Cf. Williams 2016. In more general terms, the receptivity is poor:

Almost nothing of substance concerning Zarathushtra or the complex religious situation of ancient Iran has made its way into our intellectual culture. In fact, what few ideas people do entertain about these matters are either superficial generalisations, as in the case of the beliefs about fire worship, or wanton distortions, as in the case of Nietzsche’s [literary] figure. (Malandra 1983:3-4)

According to Meher Baba, the original teachings of Zarathushtra are not known today. “His master was a Hebrew” (Kalchuri et al, 1989:1196). This evocative disclosure has no supporting detail.

In February 1928, Meher Baba was visited at Meherabad by two Zoroastrian priests or dasturs. The ensuing conversation is remarkable for an unusual perspective on his part. Meher Baba dismissed the priestly version of what Zarathushtra had taught, saying the Zoroastrian priests had misinterpreted the prophet in terms of a ritual code relating to sacred fires. He astonished his orthodox visitors by asserting (via the alphabet board): “The last true dastur was Azar Kaivan” (Shepherd 1988b:130).

Azar Kaivan (d.1618) was a mystic, a very atypical Zoroastrian savant who emigrated from Safavid Iran to Mughal India. Meher Baba awarded Kaivan a high spiritual status. Elsewhere, a passage in Kalchuri et al, referring to Kaivan, has been revealed as a misconstruction, contradicting a more reliable report from one of the mandali who was present on the occasion in 1928 (Shepherd 1995:854 n.152). The abridgment mistakenly interprets Kaivan as a false dastur. That discrepancy underlines the care needed in analysis of source materials. This confusion is one of the errors known to have occurred in the lengthy compilation known as Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu).

In August 1929, Meher Baba stated in private:

All these Zoroastrian rites, rituals, and ceremonies have come down from the Dasturs [Zoroastrian priests] and Zarathushtra’s followers who began them centuries after his death. For example, those ornaments of the Zoroastrian religion – the sadra and kusti - are the outcome of the preachings of the Dasturs centuries after Zarathushtra’s advent. The sadra and kusti have no connection with his teachings. (Kalchuri et al, 1989:1196)

The mystical perspective, here afforded to Zarathushtra, was emphasised in the same disclosure: “Zarathushtra was the greatest Sufi. He was the father of Sufism” (ibid). This is anything but a conventional definition. Sufism is generally defined in Islamic terms.

A comparison between Meher Baba and his Parsi contemporary Behramshah Shroff (d.1927), who inspired the Ilm-e-Khshnum, reveals pronounced differences in approach. Shroff was a ritualist, unlike Meher Baba. Teachings of Shroff have often been considered similar to themes of Theosophy. Doctrines of the Theosophical Society were certainly very influential amongst Parsis in the early twentieth century. Meher Baba strongly resisted Theosophy.

In the specialist literature, we find theories about the traditional Pahlavi legend of Zarathushtra, lodged in the Denkart, a text of the ninth century AC. The much earlier Gathas (Humbach 1991), “hymns” composed in Avestan, fleetingly identify the prophet as a zaotar or ritual priest. Anomalies have been observed. For instance, some Gathas do not appear to possess any ritual context. The corpus known as Zend-Avesta includes many other texts, mostly much later in date. Some scriptural conventions are discussed:

For the compilers of the Avesta, Zarathushtra was the conduit of revelation from Ahura Mazda and other deities. Thus, like Moses in Leviticus, didactic passages, in which laws and ritual instructions are given, are introduced with a common formula: Zarathushtra asked Ahura Mazda... Ahura Mazda said to Zarathushtra... Of course, these revelations can lay no claim to historical experiences, being as they are simply framed in a fiction that lends ultimate authority to the ruling. (W. W. Malandra, Encyclopaedia Iranica)

5.  Babis,  Bahais,  and  Zoroastrians  at  Yazd

Meher Baba encountered Bahais and Babis at Yazd, mainly the former (Babis were now very small in number). The evocative situation of these minority groupings encompassed decades of persecution. Yazd became well known for a zealous Islamic approach, creating a repressive environment for religious minorities.  See Momen, Bahai History of Yazd and Babis and Bahais of Iran.

Mirza Ali Muhammad (1819-1850), of Shiraz, claimed to be the Bab (Gate), a theme receiving different interpretations. Distortions and omissions are evident in accounts composed after his death by members of rival groupings claiming to represent him (Bayat 1982:87ff). The Babi movement attracted both merchants and Shia clerics. Some mullas were receptive to the Bab’s critique of corruption existing amongst the ulama. However, the majority of mullas reacted strongly to his teaching, which was considered an offence.

Variations of attitude amongst the Shia ulama (Algar 1969) could be pronounced. Their doctrine had known significant permutations during the Safavid period, the most famous exponent being Mulla Sadra Shirazi (d.1636), a key figure in the “School of Isfahan” (Rizvi 2007). This distinctive theologian “drew upon insights from mystical intuition” (Sajjad Rizvi, Stanford Encyclopaedia). “His disregard for material rewards and refusal to serve the nobility in any form is evidenced by the fact that not one of his works bears a dedication to a prince or other patron, although such inscriptions were common practice of the day” (Ziai 1996:637).

In his Asfar (Four Journeys), Mulla Sadra informs: “Our argument is based on intuition and inner revelation (mukashafa) not blindly following the sharia [Islamic law] without practising demonstrations (barahin)” (Rizvi 2009:4). Unfortunately, the ulama in general were dogmatic exponents of sharia.

Babism emerged in conjunction with developments in the Shaykhi school of Shi’i philosophy, commencing during the early nineteenth century. Shaykhi exponents were more mystical than other ulama, employing allegorical interpretation of the Quran. However, a struggle for leadership soon occurred between rival Shaykhi clerics in different cities. A tendency to conservatism appeared. More than half of the leading Babis converted before 1848 had been Shaykhis, including Mulla Husayn Bushrui. In 1844 at Shiraz, this cleric became a disciple of the Bab, an Iranian merchant and holy man with no clerical training.

At Mecca, Mirza Ali Muhammad declared himself to be the Qaim or messenger of God. Another description is that he claimed to be the Gate (Bab) to the Hidden Imam. For centuries, Shia doctrine had emphasised the Hidden Imam, an entity whose advent was believed to precipitate Judgment Day. In 1844, the Bab composed the Qayyum al-asma, a lengthy treatise in Arabic exhibiting a style modelled on the Quran. This radical work was condemned by the ulama, who wielded a formidable power in the Islamic society of Iran. A missionary tendency quickly developed amongst Babis, sparking a millenarian fervour. The Bab was arrested en route to Shiraz from Mecca (Smith 2008:4ff).

In 1845, Babi missionaries told the governor of Shiraz that all property belonged to the Bab; the redistribution of land and wealth now became an issue. Three years later, at Badasht, "the abrogation of the Quran and of Muslim law was announced... and a holy war was initiated" (Fischer 1990:230). The Babis demanded the equality of men and women, and also laicisation of the clergy. Some Babi leaders favoured a theme of martyrdom, reminiscent of the Karbala lore maintained by Shia doctrine. In other respects, influenced by channels such as the Ismaili and Sufi traditions, Babis divested popular Shi'ite concepts of literal meanings. In this way, "Resurrection does not refer to some literal other-worldly rising of the dead for a final judgment, but to the acceptance of a revelation which brings spiritual renewal and thus paradise; Hell, conversely, is the rejection of spiritual truths" (ibid).

In 1845, the radical cause of the Bab was openly proclaimed from the pulpit of a mosque in Yazd. The lecturing Mulla Sadiq was assaulted by objectors, and forced to leave the city immediately. Five years later, Vahid-i-Darabi arrived in Yazd, openly preaching the message of the Bab, who was executed in 1850. A confrontation followed between the Babis of Yazd and the governor. Vahid was forced to leave Yazd.

More extensive confrontations occurred at Zanjan and Nayriz. A large number of Babis, in collision with the army, were slaughtered, some after surrendering. The torture of Babis was all too frequent in this bloodthirsty scenario. Babism has been described as "the only significant millenarian movement in Shi'ite Islam during the 19th century" (D. M. MacEoin, "Babism," Encyclopaedia Iranica).

After the execution of the Bab, a group of Babis in Tehran plotted to assassinate the Shah of Iran. Their plot failed in 1852, when thirty-seven agitators were executed. Some commentators say that the Babi movement as a whole was blamed for the assassination plot; the government encouraged riots against this contingent. Many Babis were killed, while others were imprisoned at Tehran. A rural scene of violence was the small town of Nayriz, near Shiraz in Fars, where persecutions were mounted in 1850, 1853, and 1909. By the time of the third persecution here, the Babis had become Bahais. Men, women, and children refused to recant their beliefs. Hundreds were plundered, maimed, and slaughtered by Muslim zealots (Ahdieh and Chapman 2013).

At Yazd, the majority of Babis became Bahais, members of a radical but pacifist movement inspired by Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, better known as Baha’u’llah (1817-1892), who claimed to be the “promised one” anticipated by the Bab. The Azali Babis rejected Baha’u’llah, surviving as a minority. The Bahai movement (Hatcher 2002) spread over a wide area, by no means restricted to the Yazd locale. Tehran was a major site in this drama (Momen 2015). The chronology of Bahai persecutions continued into the twentieth century.

The militant Babi plan to assassinate the Shah was opposed by Baha'u'llah. The objector was nevertheless exiled by the Qajar government. He returned to Iraq, arriving at Baghdad in 1853. Baha'u'llah "replaced the disastrous militancy of the Babis, to which leaders like Azal were still committed, with an emphasis on internal personal transformation similar to Sufi ethics and mysticism" (Juan Cole, "Baha'-Allah," Encyclopaedia Iranica). Baha'u'llah proclaimed himself to be an independent prophet. The Ottoman government exiled him to Istanbul.

The ulama of Yazd became opponents of the Bahais. Persecutions were mounted. This trend culminated in the grim episode of 1891, featuring the Seven Martyrs of Yazd. Each of the seven martyrs were tortured and executed in a public place (Fischer 1990:244). The orthodox party conducted widespread harassment of Bahais and looting of their property. Twelve years later, another persecution occurred in 1903. For one month, a mob (influenced by the ulama) rampaged through the streets of Yazd and in nearby villages. Over eighty Bahais were murdered, their property being destroyed. The governor of Yazd made no attempt to protect them.

Dire persecutions could not stop the Bahai faith from spreading in Yazd. Numerous people of different social backgrounds reacted to the violence, becoming Bahai converts. These included government officials and religious leaders. Meanwhile, Zoroastrians survived the Islamic displeasure via assistance from the Parsis of India.

In 1903, the Iranist scholar A. V. Williams Jackson made a visit to Yazd, which he reported in his Persia Past and Present (1906). He relays that many Zoroastrians in the villages were cultivators, while those inside the city were largely occupied in trading, a privilege which they had acquired only half a century earlier. Zoroastrians were oppressed by the jizya tax until 1882, which was repealed by the Shah after sustained objections lodged by the Parsis of Bombay. Jackson reports that, in 1903, Zoroastrians were still not at liberty to ride in the streets, and remained subject to many petty annoyances from Shia Muslims.

The American commentator relates that the number of Zoroastrians in Yazd had increased over the last fifty years from 6,658 in 1854 to between 8,000 and 8,500 in 1903. Jackson attributes this population growth to reduced intolerance, aided by the restraining presence of Europeans, and possibly also due to the spread of Bahai doctrines favouring religious liberty.

Earlier, the British scholar Edward Glanville Browne visited Yazd in 1887-8. He gives details of the oppression suffered by Zoroastrians, forming a high opinion of their honesty and integrity. Browne also remarks upon the physical characteristics of the Zoroastrians. Their religious tradition had prevented intermarriage with Arabs, Turks, and other non-Aryan ethnic groupings. The Zoroastrians thus represented the purest Iranian stock, with different characteristics to the Islamic population (Shepherd 1988a:11-13; Browne 1893).

Another development was the Bahai conversion of many Zoroastrians, a trend which started at Tehran, facilitated by an ecumenical dimension in the Bahai outlook. This assimilation was furthered by the tactic of Mulla Bahram Akhtar Khavari (d.1930), who became a Bahai circa 1881. Being familiar with Zoroastrian prophecies, Khavari developed a successful proselytising approach to the Zoroastrians of Yazd and some surrounding villages. At one period, the majority of the Anjuman-i Nasiri, an assembly which led the Zoroastrian community in Yazd, were either Bahais or sympathisers with the Bahai religion.

As a consequence, strong Bahai communities became established in some of the Yazd villages, with Bahai schools being inaugurated. This background context helps to explain why Bahai groups were in such close proximity to Meher Baba when he visited the Yazd plain in 1929. Zoroastrian converts to the Bahai faith gradually separated from the Zoroastrian community, instead joining with the Bahais of Muslim origin. The Yazdi village of Mariamabad accommodated many Bahais. In this direction, a photograph dating to 1933 shows thirty-seven "Zoroastrian Bahai" women alongside five "Muslim Bahai" women (Fischer 1990:238).

There is a drawback discernible in the inter-religious relations. At Yazd in 1915, the "Zoroastrian Bahai" missionary Siyavush Sefidvash wished to marry off his daughter within his own family. The Zoroastrian dasturs (priests) at Yazd refused to issue a marriage certificate. Those priests also attempted to persuade a mujtahid (prominent Shia cleric) to condone their imposition of the death penalty on apostates to the Bahai religion. This drastic measure arose because the same mujtahid had been bribed by a "Zoroastrian Bahai" to issue a fatwa (legal opinion) permitting "Zoroastrian Bahai" laymen to perform marriages (in defiance of dastur rulings). A liberal Zoroastrian educator, namely Ustad Khudabakhsh, confronted the agitating dasturs, with the consequence that these priests hired an assassin to kill him (ibid:237).

A notable feature of the Bahai movement was the advocacy of a “moderate feminism” from the late nineteenth century (Smith 2008:212). The Bahai pleading for religious toleration gained fulfilment during the 1920s under the new Pahlavi regime. In the long term, however, conservative religion of the ulama proved to be tenacious in Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989) instigated the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This influential cleric presided over a dogmatic regime imposing renewed persecution and legal discrimination upon Zoroastrians. Both the Jewish and Zoroastrian populations decreased as a consequence of affliction. These minorities were officially tolerated in a very awkward situation of Islamic superiority.

Khomeini stated that all Bahais are najes (ritually unclean), a derogatory term for dogs and pigs. Islamic censorship wrongly accused this community of moral decadence, a recurring theme in religious bias. The Shia clerics incited mob violence against Bahais, who were debarred from universities. Bahai villages were burned by fanatics. Hundreds of Bahais were executed, imprisoned, and tortured (Vahman 2019). The clerical censorship effectively tried to remove dissidents from history.

Any attempt to compare Meher Baba with the Bab or Baha'u'llah must recognise the differences. The Zoroastrian mystic was to some extent convergent with Baha'u'llah in the disposition to "personal transformation similar to Sufi ethics and mysticism." However, Baha'u'llah rejected reincarnation, whereas Meher Baba accepted this teaching (while clarifying the subject in a distinctive manner). The tendency to a religious universalism was also similar. Meher Baba was very careful not to get involved in any political dispute. He did not express any emphasis on martyrdom, which was part of the Bahai outlook, reflecting Shi'ite themes. Nor was he interested in conversion tactics, which frequently occurred at Yazd. The subsequent Meher Baba movement has received differing assessments, including that of a devotional outlook. My own standpoint is independent.

6.  Meher  Ashram, Prem  Ashram

In 1927, an unusual school for boys was established by Meher Baba at his ashram (Meherabad), near Ahmednagar, in Maharashtra. This school in Western India was known as the Meher Ashram, an offshoot being the Prem Ashram (Deitrick 1979). Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians were enrolled in this school, which was distinctly inter-religious. Meher Baba himself did at times discourse to the boys via the alphabet board, employing a distinctive teaching which included terminology of Sufism and Vedanta. The school closed in 1929, before the visit to Iran described above.

A number of Irani Zoroastrian boys from the Yazd plain were accommodated at Meherabad. These included Esfandiyar Vesali (E. S. Irani) and Khusrau (Khosrow) Toos, also known as Namiranian. The latter afterwards lived at Shiraz; he was the last survivor of the Prem Ashram, dying in 2007, by which time he was known as Baba Khusrau. He had a habit of kissing the dust from the feet of whoever entered his home, which became known as “the tavern of divine love.” The inspiration of Meher Baba was primary in this instance; however, the behavioural trait was not that of Baba.

Born at Yazd in 1918, Khusrau was nine years old when he was taken to India in 1927 by Aga Baidul of Jafarabad. Baidul was a member of Meher Baba’s mandali (resident group) at Meherabad. Khusrau was accompanied by his twin brother Khodayar and twelve other boys (two of them Muslims, the rest Zoroastrians). At Meherabad, they mingled with about ninety other boys from different areas of India. Khusrau later reported:

Even in the first instant my gaze fell on him [Meher Baba], I thought he was very different from normal people, from regular people. He was very lovable, with a very radiant countenance. He always had a smile.... Whenever we would see Baba, we would feel that same peace and joy and purity. (Deitrick 1979:566)

When he returned to Yazd, Khusrau became a farmer. He soon encountered Meher Baba again during the latter’s visit to Yazd in 1929. Khusrau and other boys of the former Prem Ashram then saw him daily. On the day of his departure, Meher Baba told these boys not to return to India in an effort to see him. Instead, he would let them know when they could see him again. The reunion transpired to be in 1962 (ibid:568). In later years, Khusrau’s brother Khodayar reported:

From when I first saw Baba, i told myself that he was not like the rest of human beings.  All his manner and gestures, everything he did, were such that I had never seen before in the world. He was observing silence, but he would speak with gestures in such a way that even the newcomers could understand. Even while observing silence, Baba would come and play games with us. He was very kind to us – very, very kind to us. (Deitrick 1979:563)

Khodayar also comments on the educational value of the Meher Ashram. “Baba gave us so much education during the one year and eight months. In that period I studied equal to four years of English school and six years of Persian school.... Every three months we would take a new examination and not fail” (Deitrick 1979:564).

A few years after Meher Baba’s tour of Iran in 1929, Khodayar transferred to Bombay for the purpose of obtaining work. In that metropolis, he once again encountered Meher Baba. “The only thing Baba said was that I should think of him constantly. I would think of him and this has been a great help for my external and internal life” (ibid:565).

Meher Baba at Meherabad, 1927-28

In March 1928, Meher Baba selected twenty-eight of the Meher Ashram inmates to form the Prem Ashram. Attendant events were described in a publication written by a Sunni Muslim, namely Abdul Karim (Ramju) Abdulla, a member of the mandali. A number of the inmates are reported in the context of mystical and contemplative experiences, especially the Muslim youth Abdulla Pakrawan, alias Chota Baba (Shepherd 1988b:254).

Esfandiyar Vesali was a sixteen year old schoolboy in Yazd when the Meher Ashram opened in 1927. The new school offered free tuition up to the seventh English grade. Baidul was a relative of Vesali’s mother, who wanted the boy to go to Meherabad. Vesali was the tallest boy in the group escorted by Baidul from Yazd. Vesali was described by Ramju Abdulla in terms of advancing “on the path that leads directly to God-realisation.”

On January 1, 1929, Vesali became unconscious at Meherabad. However, this “was not an ordinary unconsciousness, since when he lost consciousness of the gross plane, he became conscious of the subtle plane.” When asked to describe what happened to him, Vesali commented: “Baba broke my skull, and the light began to manifest out of it” (Deitrick 1979:528-29).

Due to a combination of events, Meher Baba sent the Prem Ashram boys back home. They did not want to depart. Under varying circumstances, a few returned in later years to visit him.

After leaving Meher Baba, Vesali did not see him again for thirty-five years. Vesali lived in Tehran, where his home served as a Meher Baba centre. He travelled to Poona (Pune) in May 1963, visiting Guruprasad, the place where Baba was staying. Vesali arrived one day late, and waited in the hallway. Meher Baba called him inside the assembly room; Vesali then wept at the reunion.  Baba insisted that the devotee should return to Iran, while allowing him to stay in Poona for twenty days (Vesali 1976:14-15).

Ali Akbar Shapurzaman (1916-2002), nicknamed Aloba, was born at Yazd in 1916. He is also known as Ali Akbar Yazdi. His name has caused confusions, some believing that he was a Muslim, although he is associated with Zoroastrian Iranis. His uncle took him to Bombay in 1923. The Bombay Iranis came to learn about the opening of Meher Ashram through a Persian newspaper printed in Calcutta. Aloba joined this school in 1927, learning the Persian and English alphabets. Baidul was one of the teachers. Aloba formed a strong attachment to Meher Baba.

Eventually, Aloba was forcibly taken away from the Prem Ashram by his disapproving uncle. That was in 1928. Several years later, in 1934 he journeyed from Bombay to Nasik, managing to locate Meher Baba again. His report relays that Baba’s appearance had changed. Aloba did not at first recognise his former inspirer. In 1928 Meher Baba was very thin, but he had since gained more weight; he had also clipped his luxuriant moustache. Baba is described as having a long beard, a very unusual and temporary feature (Shapurzaman 1976:17).

Aloba was told to return to Bombay, where he started business as a shopkeeper. After several months, Meher Baba sent for Aloba and told him to visit on a monthly basis. This arrangement continued for many years, until Aloba joined the ashram mandali in 1949.

Aloba reports that, in May 1943, Meher Baba stated: “The tree of my divine manifestation is to be planted at Mashhad, where it will grow and spread, ultimately covering the whole world” (Shapurzaman 1976:18). This theme for long remained obscure; the rendition has varied, another version being worded as: "The seed of the tree of my universal manifestation is planted in Mashhad."

There is a strong association here with Meher Baba's third visit to Iran in June 1931, when he stayed at Mashhad, ignoring other cities. There he favoured a major Shi'ite shrine for purposes of seclusion on three nights (Kalchuri et al, 1989:1370). This was the tomb of Imam Ali Reza (765-818). That sojourn evidenced both the religious neutrality and incognito policy of Meher Baba, who moved about the streets of Mashhad in disguise. The visitor was only able to enter the venerated shrine because a prominent mulla, who was caretaker, relaxed rules of admission after experiencing a powerful dream which melted his resistance.

On a later occasion in September 1954, at Meherabad, Aloba chanted a Muslim prayer, while Meher Baba stood with him facing in the direction of Mecca. That prayer comprised “the prelude to the Quran and the first verse of the Quran” (Purdom and Schloss 1955:22). During the performance, Aloba “raised his arms, bowed, kneeled and prostrated himself” (ibid:24). This event was a feature of distinctive prayer observances innovated by Meher Baba in his later years.

7.  Aga  Baidul

l to r: Aga Baidul, a Prem Ashram boy, Meher Baba, Toka 1928

Aga Baidul (1894-1970) was an Irani Zoroastrian from Jafarabad, a village on the Yazd plain. Originally known as Rustom Behram Jafarabadi, he became a devotee of Meher Baba at an early date, being one of the men living in Bombay at the Manzil-e-Meem in 1922. Baidul was thereafter an important link between Yazd and Meherabad. Even before the Meher Ashram commenced, Baidul supervised a school for Irani boys in his native Jafarabad, a project financed by Meher Baba (Anzar 1976:9). During the subsequent Meher Ashram phase, Baidul was a teacher in the alphabet class at Meherabad.

Baidul was afterwards a major participant in the work of Meher Baba with masts (“God-intoxicated”), commencing in 1936 and continued throughout the 1940s. This activity was distinctive, if seldom comprehended. The tough Jafarabadi was the strongest walker amongst the mandali, and often mistaken for a Pathan. His reconnaissance journeys for “mast tours,” in India and Pakistan, were an epic of endurance and stamina. Only the Parsi Eruch Jessawala, also a participant, was in the same category of strength and resource.

Baidul had an unusual ability to trace masts and related categories, prior to Meher Baba appearing upon the scene to conduct his ministrations. Some aspects of this phase are obscure and little studied, although solid documentation does exist (see Donkin 1948; Natu 1977; Kalchuri et al, Vols 7, 8, 9; Shepherd, unpublished manuscript).

In that situation, an intrepid Yazdi was the advance guard in locating numerous Hindu and Muslim masts and other entities. The industrious project of Meher Baba extended a form of philanthropy to diverse saints, sadhus, and the poor. This "mast work" was conducted in a complete absence of publicity. I do not know of an equivalent activity undertaken by any other mystic.

8.  Paul  Brunton

Paul Brunton

During the 1930s, Paul Brunton (1898-1981) became known in Britain for his commercial work A Search in Secret India (1934). In this purported travelogue, the Westerner includes Meher Baba, whom he encountered in late 1930 and in early 1931. However, Brunton demonstrates an extensive ignorance of the Zoroastrian background. He knew nothing about Sufism. He was a believer in astral travel.

The Western occultist was preoccupied with Yoga and the closely related matter of siddhis or powers. Brunton desired miracles, a subject concerning which Meher Baba had reservations. When thwarted in his expectations, Brunton distorted events in a mood of resentment. His theme of “I meet a messiah” signifies an aborted account omitting known and very relevant facts on record elsewhere (Shepherd 1988b:146-176). Another omission was Meher Baba's tour of Iran and visit to Yazd in 1929.

Meher Baba, London 1931

Brunton’s very brief account of the Meher Ashram phase is superficial. He accurately records that the Meher Ashram did not charge fees for tuition or board. He duly reports that the pupils belonged to various castes and creeds. However, Brunton also writes dismissively: “There are plenty of schools in England where pupils of different creeds foregather in a natural spontaneous manner without the fuss that is made of it in a creed-ridden country like India” (Brunton 1934:57).

This judgment is reminiscent of the British Empire superiority complex. I do not know of any 1920s school in England with the same track record as the Meher Ashram. In November 1928, that school at Meherabad comprised forty-nine Hindus, twenty Muslims, thirty-two Zoroastrians, and one Indian Christian. The Hindu inmates included eleven brahmans and fifteen mahars or “untouchables” (Dalits). The Zoroastrian inmates comprised twenty-six Iranis and six Parsis (Deitrick 1979:502). These details are quite sufficient to warrant a stronger rating for the Meher Ashram than is afforded by the contraction of Brunton.

The astral travel enthusiast gave no profile to the Yazd plain, which is a complete blank in his version of events. The inclusion in the Meher Ashram of so many Irani Zoroastrians, including those from Yazd, living alongside Muslim inmates, was not a common feature of the British institutions preferred by Brunton.

At the Yazdi village of Mazrah, about twenty Zoroastrian boys expressed their wish to attend the Meher Ashram in India. However, only one of the parents had the courage to send their boy to the Islamic city of Yazd for the journey to Bombay (Deitrick 1979:574-5). This was during the comparatively benevolent Pahlavi regime, contrasting with the bigotry of earlier years. At this period a young Irani, namely Khododad Toos (a brother of the Meher Ashram students Khusrau and Khodayar, all three of them Yazdis), lived as a farmer near Shiraz. He found himself in a fight with two sturdy Muslims who were bigger than he was. One of them violently banged his head against the ground, while declaring: “You are not a Muslim, you are Zoroastrian; therefore we must kill you” (ibid:571). The victim survived, desperately fighting back after mentally invoking the aid of Meher Baba.

Although Paul Brunton is commonly cited as a critic of Meher Baba (especially by detractors), his account as a whole is so misleading that any scholar familiar with basic details would not give much credence to the portrayal. The retiring approach of Meher Baba contrasts with the extravagant image of him that Brunton created. The British writer failed to mention the extensively incognito journeys of the Irani mystic. Brunton's fleeting version of the disciple Sadhu Christian Leik is also very confusing for uninformed readers.

Brunton refers to Meher Baba as a Parsi, a description which proved influential. In fact, Meher Baba was an Irani, not a Parsi (Shepherd 2005:209 n.322). The distinction was pronounced at that time amongst the Zoroastrians in India (see Iranis and Parsis). Iranis were the recent immigrants, whereas many Parsi families had been in India for centuries, having come from Iran at a much earlier date. Some interbreeding with native Indians had occurred amongst the Parsis.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd  

October 2016 (last modified June 2021)


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