To begin I should make it clear that Meher Baba considered himself an avatar, and that what I have to say here is partially an attempt to understand what that means. In simple terms an avatar is a god who became a man, rather than a man who, through efforts in his life, evolves into a god. This does not mean that Meher Baba was born awake. By all accounts he had a normal childhood and had interests that are not at all unusual for a teenager. We know he enjoyed sports and games, and literature, particularly poetry. His father and his grandfather both had a disposition for religion. His grandfather, a Zoroastrian, was a keeper of a dakhma, a tower of silence. These places were set on the outskirts of Persian towns and were where the community brought their dead to be eaten by vultures. This custom was first described in our literature in the 5th century BC by Herodotus and the practice continued until the 1970s. The Zoroastrians considered this method of disposing of the dead to be safest. They believed that burying the dead polluted the earth and that burning the dead contaminated fire. Meher Baba’s father, Sheheriarji, grew up helping his father with his duties, but at the age of thirteen left to become a dervish monk and traveled, first in Persia and then in India. He gave away all his money before he left for India, keeping only enough for his passage there. He lived as an ascetic for 10 years before he had a dream where he was told that it was not his fate to achieve enlightenment.
Eleven years later he married Shirinbanoo who was to become Meher Baba’s mother. They settled in a town near Bombay. Shirinbanoo was fourteen at the time, and he was thirty-four.
Meher Baba was their second child and was born in February of 1894. His period of awakening began in January of 1914, when he was just nineteen and continued until December of 1921, for nearly eight years. It ended when Upasni Maharaj declared that he had made Meher Baba perfect and that he was the Sadguru of his age.
During this eight-year period Meher Baba was helped by five different perfect masters, but it cannot really be said that they taught him in the way that Gurdjieff taught Ouspensky or in the way that Meher Baba himself taught his disciples. Maher Baba, for example, imposed a fairly rigorous set of morals and rules on his early students, and we have no information that anything like that occurred between Meher Baba and the masters he encountered. In some cases, Meher Baba only visited these masters, but in other cases he spent time with them, and by all reports the time spent was mostly a silent time.
The story of the beginning point of Meher Baba’s awakening is that his first teacher Hazrat Babajan (a woman) kissed him on the forehead one evening about a year after their first meeting, and then several hours later, when he was home in bed, he ‘lost his body consciousness.’
The first person to discover Meher in this condition was his mother. She found him lying with wide-open, vacant eyes. She called to him, and he sat up. He could not speak. Thinking he was seriously ill, she made him lie down again. For three days he lay in this condition; his eyes were open, but he saw nothing. On the fourth day, Meher began to move about and was slightly conscious of his body. So he remained for nearly nine months. ~ C. D. Purdon (The God-Man)
Purdom describes the next eight years of Meher Baba’s life in the context of his visits to the five perfect masters, which appear as section headings. He also tells us about Meher Baba’s asceticism; there were long hours of meditation, days of walking, days of fasting, and at one point a session of beating his head against a stone wall. Purdon doesn’t shy away from describing Meher Baba’s inability to do basic tasks like feeding himself or choosing his clothes, but instead seems to make an effort to point them out as if they were evidence of high spirituality. In the beginning, Meher Baba, the avatar of his age, needed to be cared for as if he were an infant, and later, when he was somewhat better, he tried a succession of occupations and failed at all of them.
The first thing we have to observe about this story is that it is remarkably different than the way we normally think about the process of awakening, which, for us, generally begins with a greater awareness of what is around us, and a greater capability to negotiate the ordinary world, not the reverse.
In the fourth way awakening is thought of as a linear progression from lower worlds to higher worlds. We begin by observing our false personality (world 96), and changing the way we look at ourselves by creating attitudes based on reality rather than illusion; these attitudes represent world 48. This process of observation helps us separate personality from essence (world 24). And once we find essence, the work of attention and self-remembering can begin to create results. Those results are moments of perception from the higher emotional center, (world 12), what Meher Baba called the subtle body. And once a disciple is on a solid footing with the experience of the higher emotional center, it becomes possible to have glimpses of the higher intellectual center (world 6), what Meher Baba called the mental body. Of course this a general snapshot of how awakening progresses in the fourth way. In reality all levels are possible to experience at any time on the way, but the necessity of awakening in ordinary life makes this bottom to top approach a more reliable and invisible way.
What we see with Meher Baba’s journey is more of a top-down awakening. The shock administered by Hazrat Babajan appears to have vaulted Meher Baba directly into the mental world. And if we take a man whose level of being is squarely in world 6, what we find by using Gudjieff’s ladder diagram is that the highest world that is possible for him to experience is world 1 (the Absolute or God), but—and this is more revealing—the lowest world he can experience is world 24 (essence). Ordinary mind works with either world 96 or 48, so it is no wonder that Meher Baba couldn’t speak at first and had trouble caring for himself. His difficulty in navigating the physical or gross world was because his being had only a tenuous relation to that world.
I do not think that this top-down awakening is singular to Meher Baba or to the avatar. In the way of the fakir or the way of the monk, when the aspirant sets out on a path of the transformation of intense suffering from the beginning of his quest, he can sometimes bypass the subtle world and jump directly to an experience of the higher intellectual center. This kind of awakening is described in some of the lives of the Christian saints, like Saint Anthony, Saint Francis, or Simeon Stylites, or in the stories found in the Lausiac History. When suffering is so intense that the physical body begins to believe that it will die, the being or soul takes refuge in the higher intellectual center; this is a natural reaction because the mental world is the first stage of the afterlife experience. Obviously this is a precarious path, fraught with dangers on many different levels. If the aspirant is not sufficiently detached from the physical body, there is a risk of binding himself further to the gross world making spiritual advancement more difficult, if not impossible.
That Meher Baba was able to find himself in the mental world from a kiss on the forehead indicates both that Hazrat Babajan was a powerful spiritual master and that Meher Baba had an extremely receptive and ancient soul. His intense asceticism during the first part of his awakening probably indicated that he needed to continue to shock his body to maintain an existence on the mental plane. In an ordinary man being thrust into the higher mental center would cause such a shift in his feeling of identity that it would cause unconsciousness or extreme confusion and fear. His only concern would be to return to normal consciousness as soon as possible.
If Meher Baba was able to achieve the highest level possible for a man—this is according to Gurdjieff—in an instance, why did it take him eight years to become perfect? In Purdon’s account of that time, he makes a number of references to Meher Baba returning to normal consciousness, and a couple of times gives a percentage of how normal he had become.
By the beginning of the following year, 1921, Meher was three-quarters normal; he could do ordinary acts, speak in a normal way, and understand what was said to him. ~ C. D. Purdon (The God-Man)
And at the end of the process, at the conclusion of Meher Baba’s visit with Upasani Maharaj, Purdon writes, Meher Baba was restored to full normal consciousness.
This is what I meant by the idea of a top-down awakening. Meher Baba’s journey was not toward God, but toward man. After taking possession of the mental body, he had to learn to inhabit the subtle body, which is the world beneath the mental body. The reason is clear, without a connection to the subtle body he could teach only those who were open to the energies of the higher mental center, which, in any time, would not be more than a handful of people. In order to appeal to a larger number of people, he would have to connect to them through his subtle body and be able to understand the obstacles to overcoming the illusions of physical existence. In order to do this, he had to achieve mastery over all three bodies, the gross, the subtle, and the mental. He just did it in reverse order. Most aspirants begin with the mastery of the physical body, and then move the subtle world, and eventually to the mental world, if they make it that far.
So can we learn anything about our path of awakening from Meher Baba’s example? There are some who will say no, he was the exception because he was the avatar, and there is truth in that, but awakening is a process and subject to laws that can be understood. The avatar awakens to a fully evolved soul, but all our little awakenings are each an awakening to a larger being that contains experiences and impressions that are veiled to us while we remain identified with the physical world. In our case we must for now settle for partial glimpses of what awaits us, and remember that the path to awakening is not set, and that each path has individual elements.
The highest is latent in everyone, and has to be manifested. ~ Meher Baba (in a statement to reporters in New York)
After becoming perfect and attracting his own students, Meher Baba created a teaching of a more traditional kind. He did not normally require feats of asceticism of his students; he did not vault them into worlds that they were unprepared to negotiate. They were set on a bottom to top path, and it is that path that he emphasizes in The Discourses and God Speaks.
Perhaps his choice to remain silent for the last 44 years of his life suggests that he had a preference for remaining as unhindered as possible from the subtle and gross worlds. For a time he hinted that he would break his silence when the time was right, but for whatever reason, that time did not happen in his life. Maybe he realized that he had done all he could for humanity and that another public statement was no longer necessary.
In the Discourses, when he speaks about the day when he will break his silence, he adds this:
I bring the greatest treasure that is possible for a man to receive—a treasure that includes all other treasures, that will endure forever, that increases when shared with others. Be ready to receive it.
He left us much, the question for us is: are we ready to receive it?