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Tag: Hazrat Babajan

A review of Kevin R. D. Shepherd Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation

Sai Baba of Shirdi - Book Cover

I

This is the third of Kevin Shepherd’s books describing Shirdi Sai Baba. The publication history includes Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (1986), and Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism (2005). There are also some online features, including ‘Shirdi Sai Baba and the Sai Baba Movement’, which can be located via the author’s full bibliography.

Biographical Investigation is the first book that Shepherd has devoted solely to Shirdi Sai Baba. This is his most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date, with 340 pages of text, including an Appendix on ‘Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba’. Plus over 700 annotations, a bibliography, and a comprehensive index (the entry on Shirdi Sai Baba is four pages long). The 34-page index is substantially longer than the index appearing in Warren’s Unravelling the Enigma, and is of closely comparable extent to that found in the Sai Baba coverage by Rigopoulos (published by SUNY Press, with an index of 32 pages).

Biographical Investigation is well illustrated with many old photographs (and paintings) of interest, both in the text and in plates. There are 81 chapters, ranging between one and fifteen pages in length, many of these comprising descriptions of devotees who came into contact with Shirdi Sai Baba. This material affords an insight into the character and behaviour of the enigmatic mystic.

I should make clear that my own academic background is in philosophy, and not the history and sociology of religion, although I have maintained a nonspecialist interest in the latter for almost thirty years. I first read Gurus Rediscovered towards the end of the 1980s, and it was clear to me even then that Shepherd’s approach was a scholarly one, very far removed from devotional and other popular idioms, an appraisal that appears to have been confirmed by academics in the field.

For instance, in his 1993 The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (an adaptation of his 1987 doctoral thesis), Dr Antonio Rigopoulos referred to Gurus Rediscovered as a ‘ground-breaking work presenting Sai Baba as a Muslim and a Sufi adept … thus countering the “Hinduizing” tendency of all past Indian authors’ (xxvii). Another academic, Dr Marianne Warren (d. 2004), also converted her doctoral thesis (1996) into a publication, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (1999, revised edition 2004). Warren notably says of Rigopoulos that although he ‘acknowledges the saint’s Muslim Sufi aspect, he does not pursue it, and never academically questions the obvious Hindu bias in his assessment and interpretation of Sai Baba’ (p. 18). In contrast, she writes: ‘Prior to Shepherd, the perennial question was whether Sai Baba was Hindu or Muslim, with most of the secondary writers emphasizing the Hindu interpretation. Shepherd was the first author to question this Hindu bias and to redefine the broad “Muslim” category, dividing it into the orthodox Islamic law or sharia and Sufi mysticism … Shepherd observes many links between Sai Baba and the strong Sufi tradition in the Deccan. He notes that since his death, the saint has been totally embraced by the Hindus and that in the process the Muslim minority in Shirdi has been eclipsed’ (p. 15).

Both Rigopoulos and Warren were followers of Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011), whose own career is relevant to research on Shirdi Sai. Ratnakaram Satyanarayana Raju assumed the name of the Shirdi saint in the 1940s, the latter’s celebrity in India having been on the increase since his death in 1918. Unlike the aforementioned academic authors, Shepherd has always distinguished the original Sai Baba from his namesake, who claimed to be a reincarnation of the faqir. Shepherd plausibly described Sathya Sai as an opportunist, in his detailed book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (a work still not assimilated by some academic commentators, who merely cite Gurus Rediscovered because that earlier and much shorter book was mentioned by Dr. Warren and Dr. Rigopoulos; the lack of appropriate reading is all too obvious). Shirdi Sai Baba was an impoverished faqir who lived in a dilapidated mosque and begged for minimal daily sustenance, while Sathya Sai Baba was an ostentatious commercial guru who acquired considerable wealth and who claimed an ability to perform dramatic miracles.

The reputation of Sathya Sai Baba became tarnished by strong allegations of fraud, sexual misconduct, and collusion in murder. Warren recorded the consequent shift in her own outlook, as found in her ‘Author’s Preface’ to the revised 2004 edition of her book (pp. xvii–xviii). In his online ‘Marianne Warren and Shirdi Sai Baba’, Shepherd relays that Warren intended to go further in writing an expose of Sathya Sai Baba (a draft introduction is available here), but she died before this was accomplished. Chapters 79 and 80 of Shepherd contain information on the so-called ‘Sai Baba Movement’ and Sathya Sai Baba respectively.

Shepherd now represents a significant aspect of the argument concerning Sufi dimensions of Shirdi Sai Baba. In an earlier work, Shepherd has already addressed certain confusing comments of Warren. This issue has implications for orthodox and unorthodox forms of ‘Sufism’, variations in usage of the term majzub, and familiarity with alternative sources (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 49–58).

In his new book, Shepherd again outlines some revealing differences of approach (Biographical Investigation, pp. 41–2, 345–6 n.34). His presentation further diverges from Warren by giving far more attention to the liberal attitude of Sai Baba towards Hinduism. Shepherd closely details events in relation to Hindu devotees. In fact, his book strikes an unusual balance between coverage of the Hindu devotees and information about the Muslim followers and contacts. This is a refreshing feature difficult to find elsewhere.

II

Biographical Investigation analyses various source materials, including those of Dabholkar, Narasimhaswami, V. B. Kher, and other influential Indian devotee writers. Significant contrasts and complexities emerge. There are also chapters describing encounters between Sai Baba and specific individuals.

Shepherd writes that his objective is ‘to probe diverse sources and materials on Shirdi Sai Baba, in an attempt to fathom the nature of events in his biography’ (p. v). He is not concerned with miracle stories, and says that his own inclination is ‘to pursue historical details, insofar as these can be charted’ (p. vi). As we shall see below, his use of specialist historical research provides an informative background to the life of the Shirdi saint. More significantly, perhaps, he supplements the ‘canonical’ Sai Baba literature with references from another corpus of source material: published works by writers associated with Meher Baba that have been generally obscured by the Sai Baba canon (see Chapter 9, ‘The Meher Baba Literature’, for a detailed discussion; and p. 256 and Chapter 70, for further examples).

As far as basic historical facts are concerned, there is no evidence for the pre-Shirdi phase, other than what Sai Baba himself said. His habit of using figurative speech means that such statements are difficult to accept at face value. Estimated dates for his birth range from 1836 to 1858 (see p. 4). His original name is unknown. The early Shirdi period remains largely obscure, despite some ingenious reconstruction by Kher. ‘Detailed coverage only applies to the last decade or so of this biography, from circa 1910’ (p. 4). The sources for this period nevertheless have drawbacks that include conflicting versions of the same event and a tendency to hagiography. ‘A century after his death, there are different versions of his life in evidence. These include scholarly accounts and devotee epics, pronounced variations and disagreements, and the complication of a mythology devised by Sathya Sai Baba’ (p. 40).

The date of Sai Baba’s arrival in Shirdi is uncertain, with alternative chronologies being favoured (see pp. 7–8). That means the 1850s or 1868–72. In this village of Maharashtra, the population was predominantly Hindu. Sai Baba eventually settled in a dilapidated mosque. ‘For a long time, many of the Shirdi villagers continued to regard Sai Baba as a stranger, and as a mad faqir’ (p. 18).

A following gradually developed, which included many Hindus. Sai Baba was not eager to convert people to his own views. He was not a preacher, but instead a retiring and eccentric ascetic. He was unpredictable in his reactions to diverse visitors, many of whom sought material benefits.

A daily routine evolved that included a begging round (see Chapter 66). At the mosque, visitors arrived for darshan (a Hindu term for meeting). In his last years, Sai Baba would ask affluent visitors for a monetary donation or dakshina. A crucial point is, however, that all dakshina monies were redistributed to those in need by the end of the day – there was no accumulation of wealth (see Chapter 52). Sai Baba also redistributed much of the food that he begged. The abstemious nature of his lifestyle is rather striking.

Hindu visitors substantially outnumbered the Muslims. The Hindu devotees imported elements of their own tradition, including the ceremonial worship known as puja and arati. Shepherd’s book has considerable detail culled from numerous sources. There were strong variations in Sai Baba’s response to individuals. Several chapters reveal this. Consider, for example, Chapter 61, which is entitled ‘Swami Narayan and High Teaching’.

Tozer (or Thoser) was a civil servant who first visited Sai Baba in 1910. He later became a sannyasin and was known as Shri Narayan Ashram (or Swami Narayan). Interviewed by Narasimhaswami in 1936, his testimony included the following statement: ‘Many people who approached [Sai] Baba cared for material things only, and hardly any came to him for the highest spiritual benefit of Atma Nishta’ (quoted on p. 238). Narayan also referred to a spiritual experience gained at Shirdi. ‘Sai Baba conveyed to him, without any words, the feeling that all differences were unreal, the one reality underlying all else’ (p. 239).

Narayan reported that Sai Baba was ‘mostly silent’ when he first encountered him in 1910, just before the increase in visitors from Bombay commenced. The latter trend resulted in Sai Baba ‘being pressed into new habits and ways; devotees, to suit their own taste, forced numerous forms and observances’ (quoted on p. 239). Narayan also observed that Sai Baba employed parables when communicating with the crowds that flocked to see him, in contrast with the ‘few direct and plain words’ that he spoke to Narayan and some other individuals. Shepherd comments: ‘There was no doctrine, no system, no set of religious practices to be followed, no meditation agenda, no Vedanta, no Yoga’ (p. 240).

Two other contacts were Meher Baba (Chapter 69) and Upasani Maharaj (Chapter 78). Merwan Irani (1894–1969), later known as Meher Baba, achieved a significant reputation in India and abroad, but ‘is not mentioned in most accounts of Sai Baba’ (p. 269). A Zoroastrian born at Poona, in 1915 he came into contact with Sai Baba, after Hazrat Babajan had prompted him to visit Shirdi. It is evident that Babajan knew about Sai Baba, and held him in high regard, saying cryptically that Sai possessed a ‘key’ which she herself could not give Merwan (p. 269).

In later years, Merwan (by then known as Meher Baba) was critical of the devotee attitude towards reputed miracles of Sai Baba. ‘This has been mistakenly understood by some as a negative reflection upon Sai Baba. Confusion about this subject is pronounced. In reality, Meher Baba acknowledged Shirdi Sai as the leading spiritual master of his time’ (p. 271). Shepherd also remarks that when Merwan visited Sai Baba and Upasani Maharaj (at the Khandoba temple), there were at Shirdi ‘three men who became legends in their lifetime’ (p. 271).

The chapter on Upasani Maharaj (1870–1941) is brief. The author informs that a compressed account cannot do justice to the complexity of events relating to this figure. Shepherd explains that a separate book on the subject is in preparation. Meanwhile, he refers the interested reader to his ‘preliminary’ attempts at biography of Upasani in two earlier books, one of these being Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. Upasani arrived at Shirdi in 1911, and thereafter stayed for a few years at the deserted Khandoba temple, following the instruction of Sai Baba.

Chapter 70 profiles Gustad Hansotia, an atypical follower of Sai Baba. As a Zoroastrian who settled in Shirdi, he was distinct from the rest of the population, which was either Hindu or Muslim. Gustad was entirely neglected in the Sai Baba literature until the 1986 publication of Gurus Rediscovered (see p. 272; and p. 390, n. 631). The present reviewer can add that, seven years later, the well known book by Rigopoulos included a very fleeting reference to Gustad in an annotation of three lines, and solely deriving from Australian poet Francis Brabazon, one of Meher Baba’s devotees (see Rigopoulos 1993, p. 219, n. 178). Warren’s contribution in this respect is more substantial, but her data is derived from Shepherd’s Meher Baba: An Iranian Liberal (see Warren 1999, pp. 112–13; and p. 128, n. 40, where she gives the copyright date of 1986 instead of the publication date of 1988). Shepherd has since devoted a chapter to Gustad in Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014).

During his teens, Gustad became dissatisfied with orthodox Zoroastrianism. Living in Bombay, he first visited Shirdi in 1910. He was deeply impressed by the faqir, and thereafter visited Sai Baba every month. In 1918 Gustad left his employment in Bombay and moved to Shirdi. His only possessions were a bedding roll and a trunk. Gustad had no accommodation and slept on a verandah, with permission from the owner. Sai Baba at first ignored him, but Gustad ‘accepted this, not having any status complex’. Two months passed before the faqir ‘acknowledged his presence, as though he had just arrived’ (p. 273). Enduring much travail, but in the process getting closer to Sai Baba, Gustad remained at Shirdi until the saint’s death in October 1918, being one of the coffin bearers at the funeral.

Shepherd pointedly remarks: ‘Gustad Hansotia was forgotten in all the standard versions of Sai Baba. The fact remains that Gustad is the only man known to have been in close contact with four of the most famous twentieth century mystics in Maharashtra, namely Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Hazrat Babajan, and Meher Baba’ (p. 276).

The demise of Shirdi Sai was attended by an increase in what Warren’s Sufi paradigm disapprovingly called the ‘Hinduizing’ influence, to some extent associated with the influx of Hindu visitors from Bombay beginning about 1910. Shepherd does not disagree with this complaint, but nevertheless adopts a different approach to some materials. One discrepancy in the format of Warren was to promote the Hinduizing lore of Sathya Sai concerning Shirdi Sai. Shepherd evidently perceived the anomaly, but deficient assessors assumed that Warren was superior (and therefore correct) because she was an academic and he a citizen author.

Uninformed persons (e.g., some Wikipedia editors) failed to grasp that Warren herself eventually repudiated the extravagant lore created by Sathya Sai. The disavowal occurred after the year 2000, and after her lengthy book was published. This factor contradicts her supposed accuracy, and was a cause of acute embarrassment to her. Shepherd now provides far more information about Shirdi Sai and his devotees than did Warren, and without the disconcerting concessions to miracle lore likewise found in Rigopoulos.

A preoccupation with the miraculous is also found in some Indian devotee accounts. This factor boomed in the career of Sathya Sai Baba, whose claim to be a reincarnation of the charismatic faqir assisted the confusing popular image of Shirdi Sai as a miracle worker. According to Warren, Shirdi Sai ‘demonstrated many miraculous powers’ (Unravelling the Enigma, p. 29). Shepherd, in contrast, finds proof that Shirdi Sai did not claim miracles (Chapter 41). He emphasizes that we may gain a more accurate picture of events if we examine the Shirdi saint in a different way: ‘It is possible to approach Sai Baba in a more rational spirit without reducing his significance’ (p. 204).

III

Like the equally enigmatic Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), Shirdi Sai Baba resists straightforward categorization. Both of these entities favoured the description of faqir in relation to themselves. Other terms that have since been employed for Sai Baba include ‘Sufi’ and ‘guru’, which may be too generalizing, concealing rather than revealing nuances. Shepherd emphasizes that ‘some flexibility is required in the effort to comprehend him’ (p. 2).

A context for Shirdi Sai’s renowned religious liberalism is afforded by the syncretism between Bhakti Hinduism and Sufism that occurred in Maharashtra over centuries (see p. 3 and Chapter 6). The attire of Sai Baba was that of a Muslim faqir, and he spoke the Muslim language of Urdu. However, Sai Baba was reticent on the issue of his religious affiliation, and was not concerned to promote himself in religious terms. His predilection for allusive speech (Chapter 17) is a complication for straightforward assessment. He did not give discourses, and preferred stories.

One of the key factors in comprehending Shirdi Sai is his relationship to Sufism (on page 22, for example, Shepherd describes him as ‘an independent Sufi’). The significance of this subject to Shepherd may be gauged from the fact that the longest chapter of his book (‘Faqirs, Sufis, and Majazib’) is devoted to this topic (see pp. 22–37). By drawing on the scholarship of specialists such as Richard M. Eaton and Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, he underlines the complexity of the religious situation in India between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries: ‘This neglected subject can serve to illustrate the marginalised sectors of independent Sufi mysticism existing in the Deccan’ (p. 26). Shepherd’s use of this material is in contrast to the interpretation of Warren.

Shepherd complains that a tendency of Warren was to associate Shirdi Sai with Sufi Orders (see pp. 22, 36, 63; also p. 35 for a similar observation about Rigopoulos). The term ‘Sufi’ could often designate a member of an established Order, involving a penchant for orthodox beliefs and political assimilation to a ruling elite. Among such established Orders, there was a trend towards accumulation of property and prestige, and also the hereditary transmission of leadership roles. In other situations, ‘Sufi’ could mean an independent liberal mystic trying to avoid persecution by a ruling elite. ‘The variations in Sufi role can be striking; in this respect, the word Sufi is a blanket term covering many dispositions and beliefs’ (p. 27).

Such historical context may help to explain certain statements of Sai Baba appearing in the notebook of his Muslim disciple Abdul Baba (see Chapter 5). This largely Urdu text was neglected for over eighty years, a casualty of the Hinduizing process. Warren deserves credit for commissioning a translation of the notebook, which is included in her own 1999 book. Apart from confirming the deep familiarity of Sai Baba with the Islamic and Sufi traditions, the Urdu notebook evidences that the saint was critical of those he described as ‘false pirs and faqirs’.

Any attempt to do justice to Shepherd’s detailed treatment of these matters would add to an already lengthy review, and instead I refer any interested reader to the relevant Chapter 7. However, I should mention that Shepherd pioneered the association of Sai Baba with the majazib (singular: majzub), a factor astounding some Eastern and Western academics who read his early work Gurus Rediscovered. Warren reacted, and tried to reduce his credibility on this point, regarding him as a rival to her own Sufi-based theory. However, her arguments in this direction are not convincing, and even less so, her attempt to demean Shepherd’s early criticism of Narasimhaswami (a criticism deriving from Meher Baba, and in part relating to the subject of miracles).

In his new book, Shepherd again argues for the relevance of the majazib to his subject, but not in any unqualified manner. On the one hand he acknowledges Sai Baba’s affinity with the majazib in the ‘independence from religious doctrine’ (p. 19) and the faqir’s ‘aloof, disconcerting, and unpredictable’ behaviour (p. 24; see also p. 35). On the other hand, Shepherd finds that the label is ‘very inadequate for specifics, merely amounting to a well known significator of abstracted God-absorption’, and that it ‘fails to qualify the diversity of temperament in evidence … Different types of majzub (including superficial imitators) are discernible in the process of liberal Sufism’ (p. 35).

Therefore, although the term majzub is ‘evocative’ (p. 35) and the majazib ‘are a useful reference point in the study of unorthodox Sufism’ (p. 36), Shepherd finds that ‘the subject lacks definition’ (p. 36). ‘To some extent, Sai Baba can be viewed as a faqir exemplar of the tangent from “orthodox Sufis,” a trend which goes back many centuries in both Indian and Iranian milieux. It is not necessary to describe him as a majzub, that term having become a popularised label denoting eccentricity. Furthermore, some academic commentators have mistakenly treated the majzub role as an indication of clinical madness’ (p. 37).

The emerging profile is one of an unorthodox ‘Sufi’ whose tolerance of Hinduism was exceptional. ‘Distinctive figures like Shirdi Sai Baba, Hazrat Babajan of Poona, and Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur were mystics living well outside the network of Sufi Orders. Criteria conventionally applied to Sufi Orders do not work for such exceptions’ (p. 35).

There are widespread misconceptions as to what Shirdi Sai Baba taught. The significant Chapter 73 in Biographical Investigation counters the confusion. For instance, Sai Baba did not teach Vedanta. However, he was ‘a supporter of reincarnation, a theme mentioned frequently in the sources’ (p. 294).

Chapter 77 ventures a commentary on the scenario of Nath Yogis versus Sufi Orders. To the best of my knowledge, this treatment is unprecedented in the Sai Baba literature. Shepherd here employs reference to the significant research of Professor Carl W. Ernst. The point is being made by Shepherd that Sai Baba bypassed preoccupations strongly associated with both the Naths and the Sufi Orders, religious contingents whose rivalry persisted over centuries in India. ‘Sai Baba ignored the practices favoured by the Nath Yogis and a number of Sufi Orders’ (p. 312). The angle of realistic interpretation is here very different to earlier speculations of Charles White, a 1970s innovator of ‘Sai Baba movement’ theory whose influence proved confusing.

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A review of Kevin R.D. Shepherd Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona

Cover Photo

INTRODUCTION
In an earlier post I published a review of a book by independent author, Kevin R.D. Shepherd. As part of his citizen publishing project, Shepherd has recently updated his 1986 biography of Hazrat Babajan of Poona in a completely new book. This is complemented by three online articles, one of which is referred to below. The other two are ‘Hazrat Babajan, A Pathan (Pashtun) Sufi’ and ‘Hazrat Babajan’. What follows is my review of the new book.

REVIEW
Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 2014).

1. Introduction

That significant spiritual events need be attended by some preternatural sense of the numinous, or by outward ‘signs’ and ‘miracles’, are common enough expectations, if we are to go by the offerings of the mass media, or the ostentatious exploits of some contemporary ‘gurus’. Our extroverted society has a preference for the sensational, such that we commonly fail to notice the subtle or understated. In the latter case, even when our interest is piqued, perhaps by some pre-existing element of celebrity, we tend to focus on the outward aspect to the detriment of the inward. Such a course may be appealing to aggregate tastes, but it arguably results in a situation of misunderstanding that, at best, perpetuates confusion.

The life of Hazrat Babajan challenges many of the assumptions we might harbour about so-called spiritual matters, and this life is brought to us through a new biography by independent British writer, Kevin R. D. Shepherd. His latest offering supersedes his earlier monograph (1986a), which was the first annotated book-length treatment of the subject. This new work clarifies a number of points and takes into account some publications that have appeared in the intervening decades. Furthermore, given that the task of a biographer is to engage sympathetically with his subject, while maintaining a critical stance towards sources, Shepherd arguably sets a precedent for engaged research that avoids the twin pitfalls of academic insularity, on the one hand, and popular sentiment, on the other.

When Hazrat Babajan died at Poona in Maharashtra, India, on 21 September 1931, thousands of Muslims and Hindus are reported to have attended her funeral, the procession being described as ‘a tremendous affair, never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona.’ (2014a: 95) Her tomb endures as an object of veneration to this day. Yet this elderly Muslim woman, reputed to have been over a hundred at the time of her death, had never preached, let alone expounded any doctrine or system; nor had she claimed affiliation with any religious group. Collating the data from extant sources, and situating it within the socio-political context of nineteenth and early twentieth century Afghanistan and India, Shepherd elucidates the significance of this remarkable life.

2. Critical Evaluation of Sources

Shepherd takes a critical approach to the sources, particularly in his astute sorting of historical from hagiological data, and his understanding of the complex factors involved in reporting and documenting obscure events. If one incorporates the literalism of the devotee mindset, and the dogmatism of sectarian authors, then one has a perfect storm of interpretative complexity. This is the sort of situation that scholars are supposed to negotiate, but their efforts are not uniformly productive. Shepherd’s approach contrasts with those of devotees and sectarians on the one hand, and compensates for scholarly lacunae on the other.

But a life is always more than a set of ‘facts’. It is, rather, the context for those facts that endow them with significance. Furthermore, an awareness of context, and an ability to elucidate it interpretatively, sets one biographer apart from another. This hermeneutic exercise is not divorced from the facts, but must take them into account. This is true of all historical and biographical research, but it is especially important when the subject is as enigmatic as Hazrat Babajan.

The earliest published biography of Babajan was written by Dr Abdul Ghani, a medic and devotee of Zoroastrian teacher Meher Baba, although two years earlier Charles Purdom had included some information about her in a book about Meher Baba (Purdom 1937). Ghani’s compact account ran to ten pages, and was published in the Meher Baba Journal in February 1939, eight years after the death of the subject.

An early example of the tendency to neglect facts is Paul Brunton (the pen name of Raphael Hurst, 1898-1981), a British journalist with an interest in the occult, whose ‘A Search in Secret India’ (1934) became a bestseller. In late November 1930, Brunton had a brief verbal interchange with Babajan, through an unnamed interpreter, whom Shepherd identifies as Jal Irani, a brother of Meher Baba, who was assisted by the Muslim devotee Abdulla Jaffer (2014b: n. 34). This was only one of the omitted facts. Shepherd points out that Brunton’s version of Babajan’s life is inadequate and relies on the unsourced interpretation of a Bombay Parsi named Khandalawalla.

The late Dr Marianne Warren (d. 2004) made various factual errors, including her statement that Babajan ‘gave darshan’, a Hindu term with implications of homage, a practice to which the saint was notably averse. She erroneously attributes joint authorship of a document on Babajan to Meher Baba, perpetuating a confusion that originated with the latter’s devotees, when they reprinted Ghani’s earlier biography, along with his supplement on purported miracles, in a booklet bearing Meher Baba’s name along with Ghani’s on the title page (Warren 1999; Shepherd 2014a: ‘Appendix 1: Drawbacks in Miracle Lore’; and 124, n. 1).

In his doctoral dissertation, James Richard Newell devotes a chapter to Babajan, but claims that:

‘Aside from a few scattered references, the main sources of information on the life of Hazrat Babajan are hagiographic (Ghani 1961; Ramakrishnan 1998; Kalchuri 1986). As a result, the authors tend to emphasize her karamat, or miraculous powers.’ (Newell, 2007: 85)

Shepherd responds to this in an online article:

‘[Newell] lists only three sources, namely Ghani, Ramakrishnan, and Kalchuri. Purdom is not mentioned, and nor is Shepherd (the British contingent were bypassed in this American assessment, but did actually exist). Ramakrishnan (with editor Kantak) is not actually a separate source to Ghani, but merely of convenience to those who could not access the original Ghani articles (plural) appearing over seventy years ago. A minor consideration is that one of those articles (the biography) is abridged in Ramakrishnan. As stated above … the misunderstandings adhering to the Ramakrishnan publication (reprinted in 1998) are substantial. I should add that Dr. Newell is clement in his judgment of the “hagiographic” sources, and does commendably indicate that factual information can be found in them. Kalchuri applies a strong poetic gloss to some accounts he mediated. I have myself complained elsewhere of embellishing tendencies in Kalchuri’s work, but this does not annul the factual content that is discernible.’ (2014b: n. 23)

By contrast with some other academics, Newell is sympathetic to his subject, and is also sensitive to the religious context. He points out that although Babajan’s shrine was

‘appropriated by representatives of the Chishtiyya order soon after her death, or perhaps even as her death was seen to be imminent … it was only by virtue of their affection and reverence for her that they wished to be associated with her, there is no record of her voicing such an affiliation herself … Babajan’s popularity was not inspired by her institutional affiliation or bloodline, but rather, by her personal magnetism, her austerities as a faqir, and her state of mind, which was understood by her followers as an ecstatic state of divine absorption, of majdubiyya [attraction to the divine].’ (Newell, 2007: 80)

He goes on to distinguish between the state of ‘divine absorption’ found in some mystics, and the contrasting state of mental derangement found in people who are described as ‘mad’. For Newell, close examination of the facts points strongly to Babajan’s inclusion in the former category, and he is clearly critical of any attempt to apply a Western paradigm of mental functioning to such individuals, citing the work of academic specialists to support this case (see also Donkin, 1988). He concludes:

‘Babajan’s choice to live in the open, on little food, was the conscious act of will of a faqir, and these austerities themselves led to her absorbed state, not the other way around; not an unbalanced mind resulting in the condition of one who could not care for her own needs.’ (Newell, 2007: 81-2)

Shepherd is in basic agreement with this position, although he has reservations about the use of terms such as majzub, which were often applied to a range of entities, resulting in a conflation of meanings.

3. Contexts for Interpretation

Apart from a critical appraisal of sources, throughout the book Shepherd establishes a positive context for interpreting the life of Hazrat Babajan. One example is the topic of fana-baqa, Sufi terms for the mystical process of ego annihilation followed by stabilization of consciousness. There are indications that Babajan underwent this complex process with the aid of both Hindu and Muslim preceptors.

She is also known to have made ecstatic utterances implying a unity with the divine, a tendency that attracted criticism and even hostility from orthodox Muslims, who would have regarded such declarations as heretical. Shepherd elucidates the context for this in the intellectual formulation of wahdat al-wujud or ‘unity of being’, associated with Andalusian mystic and philosopher, Muhyiuddin Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240). He points out that this teaching ‘gained a strong profile in the annals of Indian Sufism’ (2014a: 41), with the qualification that Babajan ‘was nothing of a systematic expositor … [being] completely unconcerned with promoting any doctrine’. (2014a: 42)

Babajan was often referred to as a faqir, a term deriving from an Arabic word for ‘poverty’. In fact, this seems to have been the only appellation she applied to herself. A core meaning of faqir is a mendicant dervish living on alms, but this has been broadened to include Hindu holy men, and is sometimes even a byword for ‘beggar’. In 1931 Winston Churchill referred disparagingly to Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir’. (2014a: 78) The term also became popularly associated with abilities of a supposedly occult nature, such as snake charming, lying on nails, and walking over hot coals. In his account of the meeting with Babajan, Brunton wondered: ‘Is it possible that … this haggard and huddled figure contains the soul of a genuine faqueer with wondrous powers?’ (2014a: 93). It was captured in a line from T. S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat (published in 1939, five years after Brunton’s ‘Search’): ‘His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare.’ There are also mystical interpretations of the word.

Shepherd says that the ‘basic element of Babajan’s situation was faqiri, the faqir lifestyle and outlook’ (2014a: 76), but with certain qualifications. Although she gained a reputation for healing, and certain ‘miracles’ were attributed to her, she did not claim occult powers herself or resort to extroverted ‘stunts’. She did not adopt exhibitionist postures. Unlike some of the entities in this category, she did not take drugs. The example of her wasted finger (2014a: 65; 141, n. 58) was not a recognised exercise in mortification. In Shepherd’s view, she exemplified faqiri in its original and most essential form: ‘The basic faqir mode demonstrated by Babajan was the ideal of simplicity and abnegation, keeping no gifted money for herself, and abstaining from acquiring possessions.’ (2014a: 78)

There were several Sufi orders in India in Babajan’s time, and her self-description as faqir places her within the Sufi tradition, although she typically made no claims about the latter, presumably not having any need for categorization. She is known to have appreciated qawwali, a form of music often involving the recitation of Sufi poetry. In India it was favoured by the Chishti order. For Shepherd, however, Babajan represents ‘the basic form of Sufi vocation, going back centuries before the dervish orders of the medieval era (and when more women were in evidence as scholars and ascetics)’. (2014a: 96)

Shepherd devotes a relatively lengthy chapter to ‘Women and Sufism’. This is a topic where the life of Babajan is very useful and instructive, as historical records are markedly sparse for female Sufis. One notable exception was Rabia al-Adawiyya (died c. 801), whose life has been studied by British scholar Margaret Smith (1994). Shepherd refers to the latter’s claim that the development of Sufism within Islam presented women with the opportunity of attaining sainthood. Babajan was independent of any order, but her upbringing as a female Muslim would clearly make her sympathetic to the mystical dimensions of the religion. Significantly, she always referred to herself in male terms, and this stance could be interpreted as a demonstration of equality. It is also fitting that the name Babajan has male and female connotations.

An interesting parallel to Babajan is found in the life of Fatima bint Ibn al-Muthanna, one of the female teachers of Ibn al-Arabi:

‘Fatima was an ascetic over ninety years old, and reputedly possessed a “pink and fresh” complexion. She lived at Seville, in a situation of “extreme poverty, feeding herself from the waste that the people of Seville left outside their doors.” She apparently had no home until Ibn al-Arabi and two other of her disciples constructed a reed hut for her use.’ (2014a: 106; quotes are from Claude Addas)

Shepherd also refers to the role of aristocratic female sponsors of Sufism, specifically describing the cases of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara (1614-81) and his granddaughter Zebunnisa (1638-c. 1702), who were, respectively, sister and daughter to the doctrinaire Aurangzeb. These liberal-minded women suffered at the hands of their zealous relation, whereas Babajan escaped any such fate by giving up her aristocratic status.

Shepherd analyses Ghani’s claim that Babajan possessed the characteristics of a qalandar: ‘It is obvious that Babajan’s very unusual career posed Ghani with a dilemma of description for which no adequate terminology existed.’ (2014a: 97) For Shepherd the attribution is unsatisfactory, especially given what more recent scholarship tells us about the qalandars.

‘The qalandars were definitely a male phenomenon, arising from a mendicant impulse that contrasted with the settled and affluent milieu of “moderate” Sufism represented by the hospices or centres.’ (2014a: 98)

Qalandars denied the relevance of formal religious observances, and their antinomianism could be extreme, tending to bizarre behaviour and even a libertine lifestyle. The trend was widespread in the middle ages; qalandars were sometimes assimilated to Sufi orders.

‘In some aspects of her career, Babajan did sequel the early qalandar itinerant spirit of independence from the khanaqah system spread by the Sufi orders. That system was associated with a doctrinally hidebound “orthodox Sufi” establishment. Babajan’s early contact with a Hindu teacher is reminiscent of the medieval qalandar tendency to affinity with Hindu ascetics, which took varied guises. She was discernibly in affinity with the wahdat al-wujud teaching, as demonstrated by her gnostic reveries (or ecstasies) that were unwelcome to orthodox Muslims.’ (2014a: 102)

Babajan was not antinomian. She was clearly an ascetic renouncer, not a libertine. In view of her female role, Shepherd believes she ‘can be described as an unusual faqir and neo-qalandar, living completely outside the Sufi orders favoured by orthodoxy and royalty.’ (2014a: 116)

This is perhaps as close as we can get to a ‘final verdict’ from the author. More information on the qalandars can be found in his ‘From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics’ (1988a), and his recent Web article goes into greater detail about the similarities and differences to conventional Sufism discernible in Babajan’s life.

Babajan left behind no organized teaching, which arguably made her legacy more resistant to cult or sect formation.

‘Babajan did not take on disciples. There was nothing resembling the initiations and “teaching master” persona celebrated in the Sufi orders. Those who got close to her did find that a form of instruction or guidance was in process, but this was not declared or explained. Babajan did not ask for people to gather near her, and sometimes she was not responsive, preferring to be alone. There was local talk of miracles she had performed, but she herself was indifferent to this factor. The miracle lore evolved as a substitute for comprehension of her lifestyle.’ (2014a: 61)

4. Concluding Comments

‘Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona’ will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike. Demonstrating a genuine sympathy for his subject, and a subtle understanding of her context, the author makes an original contribution to the literature, and moreover one that sidesteps the sectarian and ideological influences that have at times afflicted researchers. In the end, perhaps it is fitting that an independent writer should be the one to elucidate the life of an independent Sufi, especially when some academics fail in their role as guardians of rigorous scholarship. Future researchers may have cause to thank Shepherd for his contribution to their labours.

NOTE: A PDF of this review is available here.

Bibliography

Brunton, Paul
1985: A Search in Secret India. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser. Originally published in 1934.

Donkin, William
1988: The Wayfarers: Meher Baba with the God-Intoxicated. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Sheriar Press. Originally published in 1948.

Eliot, T. S.
1939: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. London: Faber and Faber.

Ghani, Abdul
1939: ‘Hazrat Babajan of Poona’ in Meher Baba Journal, 1(4): 29-39. Published as an eBook by the Avatar Meher Baba Trust in 2011.

Newell, James Richard
2007: ‘Experiencing Qawwali: Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India’. Online doctoral dissertation (accessed 23 August 2014).

Purdom, Charles B.
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Shepherd, Kevin R. D.
1986a: A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan. Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications.
1988a: From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics. Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications.
2014a: Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.
2014b: ‘Hazrat Babajan, Faqir of Poona’. Online article (accessed 6 December 2014).

Smith, Margaret
1994: Rabi’a: The Life & Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. Originally published in 1928.

Warren, Marianne
1999: Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.