Critical investigation of an encounter between two controversial entities, with a focus in the well known book A Search in Secret India.

l to r: Meher  Baba  in 1929, Paul  Brunton


1.     Introduction

2.     Meherabad  and  Physiognomy

3.     Brunton's  Sojourn  at  Nasik  in  1931

4.     The  Kalchuri  Version

5.     Telepathic  Ambassador  of  Meher  League

6.     Secrets  of  Paul  Brunton

7.     The  Castro  Version  and  Wikipedia

8.      Paul  Brunton  as  Esotericist  and  Plagiarist

9.      Dr. Brunton  and  Dr. Jeffrey  Masson

10.    Meher Baba as the "Parsee  Messiah"


I.  Introduction

This article refers to the situation in which a British occultist influentially caricatured an Eastern mystic as a fake messiah. Paul Brunton (1898-1981) subsequently became a guru figure in Western locales, being attended by ardent disciples. Some disillusionment also occurred. He has been described as a Neo-Vedantic philosopher. The case history of Brunton reveals some psychological peculiarities as charted by ex-admirer Dr. Jeffrey Masson.

Meher Baba (1894-1969) was an Irani Zoroastrian (his name of birth was Merwan Irani). He eventually became celebrated as an avatar (divine incarnation) by his followers. This matter is controversial; I am not a devotee, and do not seek to promote the elevation. I am totally independent from the Meher Baba movement. It is fair to say, however, that at the time of Brunton's visit to his ashrams, the disclosures of Meher Baba about spiritual status were a private matter, not a public declaration. Sources for the episodes in 1930-31 present some pronounced discrepancies. Brunton's version omitted details preserved in an earlier report of his activities in India (and also his own correspondence). I have elsewhere expressed the conclusion that Brunton's psychology met with a setback, creating a sense of strong antipathy, resulting in an unreliable account.

Paul Brunton (originally Raphael Hurst) wrote the most influential critique of Meher Baba. The relevant chapters form part of Brunton's travel book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). This has been cited many times over the years, and by diverse parties, as proof of the aberrant nature of Meher Baba's career. Partisan "avatar" articles about Meher Baba, such as the Wikipedia example, have done nothing to reduce the influence of Brunton. "Brunton's attack on Baba had an enduring influence - A Search in Secret India is still in print; it stands at the fountainhead of one of the major streams of adverse commentary during Meher Baba's lifetime" (Parks 2009:223).

"I journeyed Eastwards in search of the Yogis and their hermetic knowledge" (Brunton, Secret India, p. 19). Meher Baba was not a Yogi and nor a Vedantist, another category celebrated by Brunton. He was a very unusual Irani Zoroastrian mystic with some ascetic characteristics; he had received inspiration and monitoring from the Muslim faqir (and unofficial Sufi) known as Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) and also the Hindu guru Upasani Maharaj (d.1941). His father was Sheriar Mundegar Irani. Though a liberal and nonconformist Irani, he remained completely independent from Sufism and Hinduism.

Brunton failed to inform readers that he had known of the Irani since 1929, and that he went to India because of Meher Baba. Contrary to the impression he later conveyed, Brunton was a follower of Meher Baba. His tour was planned by Meher Baba, and not in relation to Yogis. The theme of conducting a search in "Secret India" for Yogis was a subsequent reaction to frustrations encountered.

"Hurst [Brunton] became one of Baba's ardent enthusiasts, and he filled several pages of the Meher Message [a periodical] with encomiums" (Parks 2009:223). Brunton was then a freelance journalist of the fringe variety, having contributed articles to The Occult Review, among other lesser known publications. In 1929, he self-published Success Magazine, in which he "wrote most of the contents under various pen names" (Castro, Critics of Meher Baba, note 8). His subsequent ambition was evidently to write a commercial travelogue, which should be analysed accordingly.

2.   Meherabad  and  Physiognomy

In late November 1930, Paul Brunton visited Meherabad, a rural location in Maharashtra, a few miles south of Ahmednagar, and near the village of Arangaon. This was Meher Baba's first ashram, generating much activity during the 1920s, though diminishing almost to a standstill by the time Brunton arrived on the scene. The site was now largely uninhabited, but still in use. The buildings were very basic, and the routine completely different to Hindu ashrams. Meher Baba had deliberately stopped the crowds from arriving.

l to r: Meher Baba, Paul Brunton. The photo of Meher Baba was taken by Brunton at Meherabad in 1930.

The Western visitor encountered Baba at a simple cave on Meherabad hill. This was not an audience room or a darshan hall, but a recently improvised seclusion cell cut into the hill slope. Visitors to Meherabad were now very infrequent, being discouraged and not generally allowed access. The contrast with standard activities of gurus is pronounced. Meher Baba did not at first wish to see Brunton when news arrived of his voyage from England. "Baba had no desire to see Brunton, as he was in seclusion" (Kalchuri et al, Vol. 4:1346).

Despite the concession, Brunton is depreciatory. "I track him down to his Indian abode where he is almost unknown to more than local fame" (Brunton 1934:46). This statement is blatantly inaccurate. Meher Baba favoured incognito travel, but had nevertheless been celebrated in Iran the year before. The deceptive visitor acknowledges that his host had "set his retreat in a scene of aloof, untroubled peace" (ibid:47). Brunton described the hut as an "artificial cave.... built of stones and rubble cemented together and is about eight feet deep" (ibid). The floor was covered with a "Persian rug," which seems to have been the only concession to luxury. The occupant had not spoken a word since 1925, observing silence and communicating via a small alphabet board. Words were spelled out in a "dumb pantomime manner." Brunton was more gracious in observing that "he possesses an excellent command of English" (ibid:48).

The account is offputting, the subject being depicted as making fantastic and theatrical claims. There are some patent errors. For instance, "he calls himself Sadguru Meher Baba" (ibid:54). He never actually did so, his followers being responsible for this identity tag. Sadguru is a word found in the Hindu vocabularies, conventionally denoting a spiritual teacher. The general description for the subject was Shri Meher Baba, employed by both Hindus and Zoroastrians. Muslims called him by the title of Hazrat, which Brunton again fails to mention.

Meher  Baba,  Madras  1930

Very questionably, Brunton described Meher Baba's facial features in terms of the forehead being "so low as to appear less than average height, and it is so receding as to make me wonder" (Secret India, p. 48). This description is so inaccurate as to make any informed reader query the motivation behind the contraction. Brunton must have known that he was committing an error. Yet he makes a pointed aspersion, implying limited powers of thought in the Irani mystic, based upon his misleading cranial assessment. Brunton loses credibility. "The copious photographic documentation on Meher Baba proves indisputably a high forehead and an unusually large cranium for his height and build" (Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, p. 160).

The Western visitor also inaccurately referred to Baba's "small pointed chin" (Secret India, p. 258), an accusation which supposedly proved that "he is really an irresolute man, influenced by others and by circumstances" (ibid). This curious theme has no basis. The chin of Meher Baba was not in fact small and pointed, again confirmed by very numerous photographs. The insidious attempt of Brunton to portray his host in a bad light is revealing of a strong animosity.

A well known prediction of Brunton was similarly inaccurate. He compared the Irani mystic to a meteorite flashing across the Western sky, a reference to his subsequent journeys abroad. "Like a meteorite, he will fall ingloriously to earth" (Secret India, p. 46). In fact, Meher Baba took root in several countries. Even strong critics have since acknowledged his representation in numerous locations.

Brunton spent three days at Meherabad. He presents himself as a critical assessor of Meher Baba's extravagant disclosures about a messianic career. There is strong reason to doubt this portrayal. The general tone of description is disparaging. "With the exception of a few paragraphs, none of the section relating to [Meher] Baba can be taken as an accurate report" (Iranian Liberal, p. 160).

3.   Brunton's  Sojourn  at  Nasik  in  1931

A pronounced drawback in Brunton's account, one that for long proved difficult to refute, was the duration of his sojourn at the Nasik ashram of Meher Baba in February 1931. Brunton states in Secret India that a month elapsed, but a more recent investigation has concluded that only a week was involved. See section 7 below. "Brunton's travel story is undated throughout" (Iranian Liberal, p. 151). This literary device gave an impression of a lengthy tour of India; in actual fact, that tour lasted for several weeks only. Brunton's week at Nasik fits the general itinerary of speed and convenience.

Brunton's account of his sojourn at Nasik is very suspect, though not merely because of the contracted duration. In total, he appears to have spent only ten days near Meher Baba. At Meherabad, the host supposedly made numerous extravagant assertions to the critical Western visitor, who was nevertheless still very keen to visit the Nasik ashram, despite the prohibition on note-taking. At Nasik, things did not go as the visitor anticipated. His continual questions were not welcome. He was given two diaries to read (possibly at his own request). One of these diaries, by the Muslim disciple Ramju Abdulla, has since been published (Deitrick, Ramjoo's Diaries). The other diary, by the Parsi F. H. Dadachanji, is available online. Brunton reacted to the diaries and to his background position in events. He did not receive the attention that he wanted.

"A retinue of forty disciples wander aimlessly about the place" (Secret India, p. 254). This disgruntled remark does not tally with what is known about Meher Baba's ashrams, where the disciplined inmates were allocated specific duties. Such descriptions seem on a par with Brunton's version of physiognomy.

"I wait for the wonderful experiences he has promised me, though I never expect them to arrive" (Secret India, p. 257). Brunton was fixated on the occult for many years; an extant letter of his reveals that he did not visit Nasik in the belief that nothing would happen. Quite to the contrary. Further, an Indian account preserves Brunton's own testimony to his telepathic rapport with the Irani mystic, whom he then believed "was immersed in the highest state of God-consciousness every moment" (Iranian Liberal, p. 150). That testimony dates to December 1930, after the visit to Meherabad. As the recipient of such adulation, Meher Baba was evidently shrewd enough to distance himself from the occultist at an appropriate juncture. A rebuff is discernible.

"Meher Baba seems to be avoiding contacts with me as my stay draws to its close.... when I do see him, he is always in a tremendous hurry, and rushes away a few minutes after" (Secret India, p. 257). After only a few days of the sojourn, the mystic may even have said something about occultism which the visitor did not appreciate. Certainly, the upshot was that the visitor and ex-enthusiast nurtured a strong resentment towards his host for a long time thereafter. The mood of spite strongly coloured the pages of Secret India.

Brunton says that shortly before he departed from Nasik, he complained about the lack of the miraculous. In response, Meher Baba "lightly transfers the date of his promised marvels to a couple of months later, and then dismisses the matter" (ibid). There could be an element of truth in that report, so strongly weighted in Brunton's favour. The Irani was unpredictable, sometimes dousing expectations. He also frequently repudiated the pursuit of siddhis (occult powers), so popularly desired in India, a pursuit to which Brunton was evidently susceptible in his subsequent proclaimed search after Yogis. Meher Baba was well removed from the Yogis and sadhus, whom he criticised over the years for their extremisms, rote practices, and superstitions. Brunton was far more like a Yogi; he also appears to have lived the rest of his life in a fantasy world of occult actions, a career even causing him to believe that he could prevent an anticipated World War III (sections 7 and 8 below).

4.  The  Kalchuri  Version

Devotees have frequently eulogised the multi-volume work Lord Meher, partly authored by Bhau Kalchuri, who was an inmate of Meher Baba's Meherazad ashram from the 1950s. This biography was originally composed in Hindi during 1971-2, afterwards being subject to an extensive amplification process. One complaint is a lack of documented sources. Kalchuri and his editors include several pages on Brunton; however, the treatment is disappointingly uncritical. Kalchuri et al repeat Brunton's version of Meher Baba's statements, accepting these as reliable reporting. Lord Meher also omits important data on record elsewhere.

A preferential statement is: "Three years later, Brunton was to publish a popular book entitled In Search of Secret India [sic] which, although critical of the Master, drew Europeans and Americans to become interested in Meher Baba" (Lord Meher Vol. 4:1359). That popular book also inspired volleys of strong criticism and denigration lasting over decades in different countries. A due analytical assessment is required of the entire episode under discussion, while furthermore integrating available data lost in Lord Meher.

5.   Telepathic  Ambassador  of  Meher  League

Meher Baba and Charles Purdom, London 1932

My investigation of the Brunton episode dates back to the mid-1960s, when I was a youthful follower of Meher Baba. For two years I was a frequent participant in the monthly group meetings of devotees in London. In 1965, I met Charles Purdom, who had the reputation of being the most intellectual follower of Meher Baba, authoring The God-Man (1964). Purdom died that same year. There was no devotionalism in his speech or writing. He had met Brunton, whom he regarded as a confused occultist expecting Meher Baba to perform a miracle. At the time of their encounter in London, Brunton told Purdom that "he had no doubt [Meher] Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hirsch [Hurst], had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not" (Purdom 1964:128).

Three other followers known to me were Ann Powell, Delia De Leon, and Adi S. Irani (the brother of Meher Baba, resident in London), whom I had more opportunity to question. Powell and De Leon had been devotees since 1931, while Adi was a direct informant about the 1920s and earlier. I found relevant data in an early periodical about Meher Baba, dating back to the late 1920s. Information from this printed source (the Meher Message) revealed substantial discrepancies between the train of factual events and what Brunton chose to mention in his subsequent commercial book. This source furnished proof that Brunton's version of Meher Baba in Secret India amounted to a cover-up for omissions he did not wish to divulge.

The full data reveals that Paul Brunton was initially a follower of Meher Baba, not a critic as he subsequently led readers to believe. This significant deception involved events that he did not want to mention. "The reality of the situation was that Brunton believed himself to be in telepathic affinity with Baba" (Iranian Liberal, p. 161). There is also the factor that Brunton "was arranging to form an extension of the Meher League upon his return to England" (ibid:149). At Madras, in December 1930, Brunton was expressly welcomed as the "founder of the Meher League in England" (ibid:150). The League had been created by devotees at the Saidapet ashram in Madras. Such details place the slightly earlier visit of Brunton to Meherabad in a very different light.

A partisan version of Secret India has asserted in relation to the Nasik sojourn: "Brunton had initially promised to stay with him [Meher Baba] an entire month; however, it did not take long to diagnose in the person of Meher Baba a mystic close to paranoia" (Cahn Fung 2004:36-7). The neglected data found elsewhere is a hindrance to this assumption, created by a commercial book. The Saidapet ashram was so secret that it did not appear in the pages of Secret India, despite being one of the major venues on Brunton's tour.

According to Brunton, at Meherabad the Irani said: "Go to the West as my representative" (Secret India, p. 61). This may be interpreted as an acute abbreviation for the Meher League, all mention of which was suppressed in Secret India. Brunton's account simply cannot be taken at face value. He interposes very suspect phrases like "such a task staggers my imagination" (ibid). Even more unconvincing is his purported reply that he could not undertake the task "since I cannot perform miracles" (ibid). Only two weeks later, he was acclaimed at the Saidapet ashram as the Meher League ambassador.

The tell-tale mood, of literary embellishment and excision, envelops the detail that Meher Baba invited the visitor to stay for a month at Nasik. Brunton projects this invitation in terms of a prospect of spiritual experiences. "You will be shown my inner spiritual powers." (ibid:62), a purported emphasis which gains the variant: "I will help you to obtain advanced powers" (ibid:61). Such a tactic was not typical of the Irani, a critic of siddhis. In view of crucial missing data, a distortion of the episode is a legitimate conclusion. Brunton's obsession with powers, e.g., telepathy (one of the Yogic siddhis), is the basic denominator.

In later years, Meher Baba was not keen on visitors who wanted to sample diverse ashrams via "Indian tours." He was probably just the same with Brunton, who was soon afterwards desiring to find wonders amongst the Yogis. At Meherabad, the Irani may well have encouraged the visitor to think that opportunities for "wonders" would be forthcoming at Nasik. This would ensure that the visitor returned. When Brunton arrived at Nasik ashram, he found himself relegated to a background position like all the other inmates. There was no talk of powers, and also no focus upon "self-realisation," contrary to the custom found elsewhere and to which Brunton became partial.

The visitor may even have been prescribed manual work. This prospect would have seemed horrific to Brunton, who was an introverted writer and meditator. He would not have liked being amongst the non-occult disciples who had repaired buildings and cleared the hot Meherabad hill of undergrowth, snakes, and scorpions. All those perspiring men wore ordinary clothes instead of Yogi loincloths. Such tasks were undertaken at the instruction of Meher Baba, who was the sole administrator at his ashrams, unlike the situation of caste management at many Hindu ashrams, where kitchen taboos could be a giant issue.

6.   Secrets  of  Paul  Brunton

A relevant chapter in my annotated book Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988) was composed in 1985-6. This borrowed from an earlier unpublished work of mine composed many years before. The thirty page chapter is entitled "The Secrets of Paul Brunton." That was the first detailed analysis of the 1930-31 episode appearing in Secret India.

My treatment of Brunton in Iranian Liberal is duly critical, causing consternation amongst his partisans in America. The treatment of Meher Baba is lenient, attempting to rectify the widespread deficit caused by superficial elevation of Brunton as a great esoteric writer and accomplished traveller in so-called secret India. However, the Meher Baba movement in the West chose to suppress this book. The Meher Spiritual Center at Myrtle Beach was one medium of disapproval and an undeclared ban. Rank and file devotees were encouraged to avoid the book. The leading devotees were solely concerned to censure mild criticism of some prominent followers and evangelists. They had no sense of due comportment in relation to observer parties and alternative standpoints. A mood of religious orthodoxy prevailed.

The pro-Brunton camp were well ahead of the Meher Baba Centres in terms of literary assimilation. An academic admirer of Brunton conceded that his hero had been distorting in relation to Meher Baba. However, he was reluctant to credit the 1972 Agostini report I cited, not having access to that revealing article in an obscure periodical. Louis Agostini was Brunton's former secretary, an assistant who pointedly chose to become a partisan of Meher Baba instead. The second article by Agostini was also strongly anti-Brunton, though not published until 1985, regrettably too late for inclusion in my book.

Agostini is notable for providing such details as Brunton's preferred name of JR, "an abbreviation for Jupiter Rex, an appellation which he said had been bestowed upon him by higher powers" (Iranian Liberal, p. 175). This title co-existed alongside his counterfeit (correspondence course) academic credential of Dr. Brunton. Circa 1960, Brunton added another status feature by "announcing himself as an example of one who had finished the spiritual path" (ibid). See Jupiter Rex Contradicted. Comparatively sober was Brunton's disclosure of how he told Meher Baba at Meherabad that he wanted to write a book about him (Agostini 1985). This detail further explodes the myth of Brunton as being from the start a critic of the paranoid messiah.

7.  The  Castro  Version  and  Wikipedia

In 2011-12, the British author Stephen J. Castro composed a substantial article entitled Critics of Meher Baba: Paul Brunton and Rom Landau. This features over 140 annotations. The major part of the content relates to Brunton. Like myself, Castro is neither a devotee of Meher Baba and nor a Brunton supporter. He has authored the book Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (1996).

The Castro article emphasises that Brunton stayed at the Nasik ashram of Meher Baba for only a week, in contrast to the former's misleading statement that a month elapsed during this sojourn. Brunton had evidently been invited to stay for a month, but chose to leave early, later giving the impression that he had met the full terms of invitation. I had earlier conceded Brunton's statement: "With the passing of the month I announce my impending departure" (Iranian Liberal, p. 151). However, I here agree with Castro's verdict that "the balance of data now permits a strong denial of his [Brunton's] misleading words" (Castro, Critics of Meher Baba, note 55). Virtually all readers had believed Brunton, despite a discrepant date found in Purdom that was more difficult to vindicate at the time I wrote.

The early departure may well have been caused by the fact that Meher Baba no longer seemed interested in the visitor, and stopped being responsive to his questions. However this episode is interpreted, the overall details of Brunton's career prompted the psychiatrist Anthony Storr to criticise Brunton, not Meher Baba. Castro accordingly cites Storr's book Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (1996). This analysis informs: "Brunton exhibited many of the traits and forms of behaviour characteristic of gurus" (Storr 1996:162ff).

In his later years, Brunton believed that he was averting a nuclear war by "conferring with four higher beings - the Four Archangels who lived on what according to Brunton, was to be his posthumous destination, the star Sirius - to see what could done to save planet Earth. He saw himself as engaged in 'work' that would affect the fate of millions" (Castro, art. cit., section entitled World War III).

This relevant article by (Wikipedia editor) Castro was submitted to Wikipedia in 2011, nevertheless meeting with a bullying reception on a talkpage from two American Meher Baba devotees (Dazedbythebell and Hoverfish, identified as Christopher Ott and Stelios Karavias). They contested the contents, pressed for revision and contraction, and even threatened deletion. Castro eventually decided to relinquish the Wikipedia context, not wishing for mutilation of his article. Instead he made the article an independent web feature. Some observers take the view that serious articles by real name authors are doomed at Wikipedia, especially when that web facility is governed by harassing editors with false names and inflexible ideological affiliations.

As a consequence, the Meher Baba devotional movement has an anomalous relation to critique of Paul Brunton. However, we are not here discussing the Eastern sector of that movement, but the Western sector, and more specifically, the American scene. According to real name Wikipedia editor Simon Kidd, the main reason for the opposition to Castro was because a number of references to my own books could be found in the contested Castro article. In Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), I defended Meher Baba against the attack of Paul Brunton, though from a philosophical perspective, not a devotional one. The irrational tyranny of Western Meher Baba devotees was a contributory factor to my Statement of Independence. I have nothing whatever to do with the Meher Baba movement. See further Update.

8.  Paul  Brunton  as  Esotericist  and  Plagiarist

Paul Brunton became a very popular author. A Search in Secret India was one of a string of commercial works he wrote during the 1930s. Those books, not exhibiting any mode of scholarship, became bestsellers in a dozen languages. Titles like The Secret Path and A Search in Secret Egypt were surely overworking the agenda. The publisher chose to advertise Secret India as "an adventure in self-metamorphosis," while the author became a "Great Writer on Esoteric Wisdom" according to Rider & Company. The accolades assisted his emerging role amongst admirers as a spiritual teacher.

For two years in his earlier life (about 1918-20), Brunton was a member of the Theosophical Society. He retained a strong interest in occult matters, a disposition observed to colour his subsequent interest in Indian religion. His promotion of Ramana Maharshi in Secret India has been discussed in the context of a Neo-Vedantic inclination. Supporters have enthused about his The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941) and The Wisdom of the Overself (1943). Brunton has been credited with a mentalist philosophy.

Events did not work out smoothly in the Vedantic sector. Brunton made a big mistake; he "copied many sayings of Ramana and passed them off as his own" (Friesen, Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi, 2005, p. 27). This plagiarism was a basic reason why the ashram of Ramana Maharshi "later disallowed Brunton from taking notes of disciples' conversations with Ramana, and then finally barred Brunton from visiting the ashram altogether" (ibid:27). A significant comment reads: "It seems apparent that Brunton altered the facts regarding his first meeting with Ramana" (ibid).

Nevertheless, a romantic interpretation has emerged in some directions. "As a result of his rupture with [Ramana] Maharshi's ashram in 1939, Brunton was never again to see the Sage.... he remained in telepathic communication with him until the Sage's death in 1950" (Cahn Fung 2004:49). Brunton's claim of telepathic prowess is strongly reminiscent of his earlier exploits in connection with Meher Baba (section 5 above).

Relevant is the deduction: "It seems that one of Brunton's disappointments with Ramana was that Ramana did not impart more special powers to him" (Friesen, art. cit.). This repetition of an earlier event has been obscured via the celebrity derived by Brunton from Secret India. He was able to enjoy his new role as the Vedantic pioneer (allied with Ramana) for some five years, afterwards resorting to the telepathic compensation. Telepathy was a lifelong claim of the Western esotericist. Far less esoteric is Brunton's objection to Ramana on ethical grounds.

9.  Dr. Brunton  and  Dr. Jeffrey  Masson

By 1945, the British occultist was supplying, on his note paper, the tag of "Dr. Paul Brunton." His pseudo-doctoral status also appeared in his books of that decade. The false credential was derived from a correspondence course of predatory commercial auspices. Many readers were misled in this respect; the drawback was magnified by Brunton's publisher, namely Rider, who transmitted the deception for many years. In fact, several decades later, Secret India was still emblazoned with the misleading credential, which even appeared on the spine of Rider paperbacks.

The spurious credential of Paul Brunton was derived, in 1938, from a fraudulent commercial activity in Chicago dispensing correspondence courses. Like many others, Brunton paid for his nominal doctorate, achieved with the minimum requirements devised by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated. This deceptive project was terminated by the Federal Trade Commission in 1947. The Ph.D. of Brunton had no validity save in his imagination. He was influenced by an ambitious business company supplying the public with pretentious and worthless certificates from the misleading “McKinley-Roosevelt Graduate College.”

Sadly, many readers imagined that "Dr. Brunton" had gained qualification in an accredited University like Harvard or Oxford. My grandmother was one of the many victims of the McKinley-Roosevelt hoax. She would defer in awe to Dr. Paul Brunton, the renowned expert on Hindu religion. A contrasting assessment from a real academic, a Professor of Sanskrit, reads: “P. B. [Paul Brunton] knew no Sanskrit, knew no texts, invented things, lied, cheated, and stole, intellectually speaking” (Masson 1993:160).

Paul  Brunton and Jeffrey  Masson in the mid-1950s

The critics of Dr. Brunton have prominently included Dr. Jeffrey Masson, at one period a Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto. This former admirer was closely acquainted with Brunton since his childhood in the 1940s. His father was closely associated with Brunton since 1945. Jeffrey Masson (born 1941) had a prolonged close-up view of the subject throughout the 1950s. The major geographical location was America, though Brunton was also active in Europe.

The Masson family lived in California, where Brunton was their long-term guest. The psychology of Brunton gains strong profile in My Father’s Guru. Jeffrey Masson here informs that Brunton believed he came from Venus, talked constantly about meditation, posed as a guru, and married a nineteen year old girl in 1951 (at the age of 54). The marriage shocked his followers. Brunton stated: “The impact of my aura will gradually strengthen, calm, and uplift any sensitive disciple” (Masson 1993:52).

Masson assisted in the compilation of entries for Brunton’s Notebooks, meaning “scribbled notes” and quotations from many books read by Brunton (ibid:58). “He was a voracious reader of any book on mysticism” (ibid). Some analysts conclude that this compulsive habit is not proof of wisdom, contrary to the beliefs of Brunton partisans.

The disillusioned Masson despatched the pseudo-academic contrivance of "Dr. Brunton." The real academic stated: "The degree was fraudulent, the scholarship nonexistent.... He could not read the [Sanskrit] alphabet, any Indian alphabet, nor a single sentence in Sanskrit.... More deeply, he was totally ignorant of the larger issues of Indian history and culture. He knew nothing of the reality of India. He inhabited a phantom India that existed only in his imagination and that of his disciples" (Masson 1993:162-3).

Masson also revealed that Brunton believed he had studied philosophy at the Astral University (ibid:86). To Brunton, "philosophy" meant his version of Indian religion and esoteric/occult lore. The critic conveys that Brunton was a strict vegetarian and considered himself an expert on reincarnation. Masson deduces that Brunton "was in fact much influenced by Theosophy, and particularly the writings of Madame Blavatsky" (ibid:65). Brunton's encounter with Hinduism is here viewed as a confusion, despite the well known association with Ramana Maharshi, whom Brunton extols in Secret India, but later criticised as being too remote from worldly events. Ramana did not marry a nineteen year old girl, did not claim Astral University honours, and was not a certificated pseudo-academic graduating in the mode of McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated.

The astral graduate described himself as "a hermetic philosopher." No close affinity with the Hermetic Corpus is here implied; Brunton was resorting to a fashionable esoteric word, investing this with his own significance as a contrast to Western philosophy. "He meant that he was engaged in thoughts that others should not know about. It was secret" (ibid:79). Brunton liked to be inconspicuous on the street. That may be admirable, though he compensated for this trait by wearing "a long flowing Chinese silk robe" when at home (ibid). He favoured "philosopher robes," which are not the ideal of other categories of philosopher.

Furthermore, Brunton's "hermetic" career was distinguished by considerations that invite scepticism. He stated: "I hate to shake anybody's hands, because I get contaminated by their aura. I need to preserve my psychic purity.... I feel ill when I touch somebody who is lowly evolved.... This is why Indians of the higher caste do not like to have their food looked at by those of the very lowest caste. It is a polluting act" (ibid:80).

Brunton claimed that he had visited Tibet, becoming "locked in deadly battle" with evil forces, meeting "a highly advanced yogi" in that country, one further described as a Tibetan lama and direct descendant of the legendary Milarepa (ibid:81-2). Masson eventually came to the conclusion that Brunton had never been to Tibet, although he may have encountered Tibetan monks in India. Brunton was merely "catering to my desire for the sensational" (ibid:83).

Brunton aroused concern among his followers about a World War III to begin in 1961 or 1962. To save the planet, he conferred with “four higher beings – the Four Archangels who evidently lived on his home star of Sirius” (ibid:133). He was apparently advised to conduct “elaborate research connected with radiation fallout, wind direction, and so on” (ibid). The upshot was that he “started amassing mounds of literature and poring over maps of the different parts of the world that he thought would prove safe” (ibid). He delegated one of Masson’s relatives to conduct a secret mission to Washington for the purpose of receiving “a clandestine map of the world on which the safest locations would be marked” (ibid). At the airport, Uncle Bernard was given a small packet by a mysterious stranger. This contained a map of the world marking out Uruguay and Ecuador. The recipient later complained that “the map was one anybody could have purchased in Woolworth’s for a quarter” (ibid:134).

Jeffrey Masson and Paul Brunton, 1960s

Masson was twenty-six at the time of his “final disillusion” with the British occultist in 1967. While about eight people were seated around a heavy oak table, Brunton claimed the ability to make that table levitate with the assistance of discarnate spirits. He “began to chant some mumbo-jumbo that he claimed was Sanskrit, but of course by now I knew better” (ibid:164). Masson was then a graduate student in Sanskrit at Harvard. Brunton told the others to keep their eyes shut while placing their hands flat on top of the table, so they could register the upward momentum. Masson opened his eyes to see Brunton pushing underneath the table to cause a slight movement. The deceiver claimed that spirits were “beginning to move the table” (ibid:165). Masson comments: “The unmasking was complete” (ibid).

Brunton afterwards moved to Switzerland, living in retirement, still reading and taking many notes, while “answering his ever-diminishing mail” (ibid:166). His last book, The Spiritual Crisis of Man (1952) was not successful; this “sold few copies and was ridiculed by reviewers” (ibid). Another factor is mentioned. “His disciples had begun to fall away after the World War III debacle” (ibid).

Masson's father Jacques had already expressed dissatisfaction with his eccentric guru. In 1965, Jacques wrote to Uncle Bernard (his brother):

You must face some facts. PB [Paul Brunton] is not the great Guru you have made him out to be all these years. Actually, he ruined your life and almost ruined mine.... Let's analyse some of his disciples.... W is a superstitious and pitiful fool. D is a complete failure considering the brilliant future he had as an up and coming lawyer in Chicago. E left PB at an early stage. G is weak and vacillating. R has shut herself up in an ashram. H, the bearded poet, is a real nut. When I was in India to see PB, I wanted to go and see the Maharishi [Ramana Maharshi]. PB discouraged me and I missed a great experience. When I went to Fallbrook I became a servant to PB, paid for the rent and running the house, cooked his meals and even waited on him.... I was delegated the smallest room in the house for which I was paying the rent. I remember I had to go sideways in order to get into my bed, the room was so small. The strain of all that caused me the worst attack of ulcers I ever had in my life. Years before you instilled in me a reverence and awe for him as a Demi-God.... He told me that 90% of his students had mystical experiences.... He told me that one meditation with him is enough, yet I meditated with him many times. Nothing. Bernard, you must face life.... You know PB always makes contradictory statements and when he makes a big mistake he says:" I'm sorry." Sometimes he even denied the facts. (Masson 1993:167-168)

Dr. Masson succeeded in creating a mood of caution about the "Western guru." He describes the biography of Brunton by Kenneth Hurst (Brunton’s son] as "an adoring hagiography" (ibid:xi). The attempt to extricate fact and history remains a priority.

Supporters of Brunton have elevated his multi-volume Notebooks (1984-8), published after his death; they claim that he was a man of profound insights in his later years. Partisans have also regarded the Notebooks as proof that the author was spiritually illumined. Critics have been resistant. "The many volumes of the Notebooks do not alter the questionable nature of Brunton's career" (Shepherd 1995:200 note 275).

Some beliefs about Brunton are not accepted by critics. "Brunton spent the last twenty years of his life in Switzerland, writing daily [the Notebooks]; he maintained a mostly telepathic correspondence with students worldwide, receiving letters but not usually sending written replies" (Peter Holleran, Architect of a 21st Century Philosophy, online). The telepathic occultist survived his "World War III" fiasco as the inspirer of further questionable lore; all this followed in the wake of a “hidden teaching beyond Yoga,” promoted via a spurious doctoral credential.

10.  Meher  Baba  as  the "Parsee  Messiah"

Brunton's disparaging account of Meher Baba has two chapter headings entitled "I Meet a Messiah" and "At the Parsee Messiah's Headquarters." The messianic issue is clouded by a difficulty in ascertaining the accuracy of Brunton's report as to what the subject said via the alphabet board (Meher Baba did not speak, but observed silence). Brunton was not permitted to take notes, and had to write from memory, which he did at an unspecified date.

One may question as to whether any of Brunton's coverage of the "messianic" statements can be regarded as reliable. His version might be half-truth or sheer fiction. Then again, some components may be approximately correct. Unfortunately, a writer who creates deceptions about facial features, omits basic details, and who lies about the duration of his visit to the "Parsee messiah's headquarters," is not the best resort for any definitive version. Meher Baba did not use the word messiah; he did occasionally employ the term avatar in private conversation.

There are other factors of relevance. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Meher Baba was an Irani Zoroastrian, not a Parsi Zoroastrian (Shepherd 2005:112, 209 note 322). Such distinctions are lost upon some devotees, who insinuate that their figurehead was just as much Hindu as Zoroastrian. He was certainly liberal in the religious sense, but that is not the point here. In a book title, I described Meher Baba as an Iranian [Irani] liberal. The fact is that both his parents originated in Central Iran. His father Sheriar Mundegar Irani was a mystic. The term avatar (openly employed by Meher Baba from 1954) is evocative of Hinduism to many minds. One could respond: he could speak English, but he was not an Englishman or a Christian.

Brunton shows not the slightest familiarity with Zoroastrianism. His predisposition for Yoga blotted out context. Meher Baba's thin white robe or shirt (sadra) belongs to the Zoroastrian heritage (although the precise interpretation can differ). Until 1931, he wore the related kusti, the Zoroastrian sacred string or girdle, which is easily concealed. His white sadra served to distinguish him from the ochre robe of Hindu renunciates, a very common sight in India.

There is no doubt that Meher Baba did make some strong disclosures over the years about what he called his "inner work." Some of those are reliably recorded, and are not within my range of comment. A number of his statements do sound fantastic; he said that he was using his "own language" in some descriptions, thus implying that few people would be able to understand the meaning. In his last years, he made public statements about an avatar role, contrasting with his more discreet profile of private disclosure in earlier decades.

In my opinion, the fairest thing to do is to make comparisons between Meher Baba and Paul Brunton, rather than to judge the former through the distorting lens imposed by the latter. For instance, the "Parsee messiah" achieved a significant meeting in Bombay with the untouchable leader Bhimrao R. Ambedkar in 1932, having gained a reputation for defending the untouchables against caste biases (Shepherd 2005:124-5). There was no publicity involved, as with many other features of the Irani's activity, including meetings with other untouchable leaders earlier that year.

In contradiction, that same year of 1932, Paul Brunton attacked the Irani as a publicity-loving charlatan via the topical British weekly John Bull, employing slurs and inaccuracies in a "sensational exposure" quite as lop-sided as Secret India (Castro, Critics of Meher Baba, relevant to notes 69-78; Parks 2009:280-1).

The British occultist showed no concern about untouchables, instead favouring caste taboos to justify his psychic purity in not wishing to shake hands. Brunton admired a well known high caste trait. He said approvingly: "Indians of the higher caste do not like to have their food looked at by those of the very lowest caste" (Masson 1993:80). The Irani mystic avoided such extremes, getting to the social and political crux, unlike the British astral traveller.

l to r: Meher Baba washing a leper, Pandharpur 1954; cleaning a toilet at Meherabad, 1938

One may easily credit Brunton's report that Meher Baba said: "I shall not rest till the pernicious caste system is uprooted and destroyed" (Secret India, p. 51). This theme does converge with certain other statements on record. The emphasis contrasts strongly with Brunton's own indulgent view of caste practices (section 8 above). Although Meher Baba was likewise a vegetarian, he was not fanatical about this observance, pardoning the occasional consumption of fish and meat. His social outlook was at acute loggerheads with caste Hinduism. Unlike many Indian gurus, he washed and tended lepers (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, p. 106). Brunton was quite incapable of such labour in his confined personal space avoiding contamination. In some respects, Brunton had the mentality of a caste-conscious Brahmin.

The anti-caste "messiah" was also known to clean ashram toilets, an unpleasant task generally reserved for low caste (and outcaste) people at ashrams, where most gurus were fastidiously exempt from such menial work. In 1936, Meher Baba commenced an unusual ashram for the mad at Rahuri, which later transferred to Meherabad (Donkin 1948:95ff). There are photographs which reveal him cleaning the rudimentary toilet area of this quarter, a duty which he is reported to have frequently accomplished (Kalchuri et al, 1994:2244-5). He permitted the relief of an umbrella to shield him from the sun.

Both of the entities under discussion were reincarnationists, though in a very different way. Meher Baba's teaching on evolution strongly incorporates reincarnation; he does formulate in accompaniment a consistent logic of impressions (sanskaras). The exposition in his major work (God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose) moves at a strong tangent to Hindu doctrine, and is something not found in Brunton's Notebooks. His liberal attitude employed both Sufi and Vedantic terminologies, a very unusual recourse. The Sufi component in his exegesis was assisted by a familiarity with the Persian language; Meher Baba could also speak English and several Indian languages. His multi-lingual ability was somewhat in advance of Brunton's far more limited language skills.

Brunton exhibits nothing of the Sufi dimension, muddled Vedanta with Yoga powers (siddhis), and had no knowledge of Zoroastrianism. The Irani's sadra merely resembled "an old-fashioned English nightshirt" (Secret India, p. 47) to the occultist visitor from another planet. Brunton expressed a very narrow set of terrestrial and colonial associations in assessing a man whom he wrongly described as having a deficient cranium (section 2 above).

The Irani mystic affords an exposition of evolution that does not contradict the basic discoveries of Darwinian science. Despite the strong metaphysical and spiritualising themes that are stressed in his version, evolution through the species-forms is quite systematically enunciated. Human evolution follows in the sequence from animals, who are in turn preceded by birds and fish. In contrast, Paul Brunton did not believe in Darwinian evolution. "Apes were a degeneration from man, man was not an evolution" (Masson 1993:29). Even more specifically, Brunton asserted that "the monkey came after man, not before" (ibid).

Neither of these men were preachers. However, the Irani was far more silent than the talkative occultist. Both liked to be inconspicuous on the street. Meher Baba's early Western tours, occurring in the 1930s, featured intensive incognito activity in Western cities; he dressed in Western suits and headgear tangibly commemorated in diverse photographs. His retiring policy was the same in India, where he generally took elaborate precautions against being recognised by devotees and diverse saint-worshippers on his many incognito journeys. This was one of his characteristics that differed markedly from Indian gurus. The "Parsee messiah" was a far more complex entity than Brunton suggested.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

June 2012 (last modified March 2021)


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