Symbols of the world's religions



William Donkin

Like a problem child, who needs the counsel of a psychiatrist to steer him to the highway of normal development, Mohammed was a problem mast, entangled in the brambles of the spiritual path; and it was Baba who came to his rescue.

Mohammed is a mast of exceptional characteristics, and as such, we must turn to Baba if we are to understand something of his spiritual background.

Baba has explained that the case of Mohammed is different from that of other masts. Saints, walis, pilgrims initiate, advanced, or adept, in fact those on the spiritual path who are not masts, may progress from one plane to another, and may also pass through a state between one plane and the next.

Thus, such souls may be on, or between, any plane from one to seven. Now a mast normally progresses only on the planes, and never passes through the state of being between one plane and another, until, having reached the sixth plane, he may enter a state between the sixth plane and the seventh before becoming merged in God (as in the case of Pallukollah Baba of Kilakkarai, Nanga Baba of Jasgiran, and Master Nemraji of Rohri).

Mohammed, however, by an extraordinary set of circumstances, was an exception, and when brought to Rahuri in 1936 he was not only a mast, but was also between the third plane and the fourth.

Normally, as already explained, only saints, advanced pilgrims and so forth, pass through this stage of being between the third plane and the fourth, and in this condition they become dazed. This stage represents a kind of muqam-e-hairat of this section of the path.

Thus, Mohammed was and is a mast in all essential particulars, with this remarkable exception of his having got between one plane and another. This, of course, is a broad generalization, and Baba, in this context, quotes the lines of Hafiz:

"In the Path there are thousands of subtleties
more fine than the hair of the head."

As a result of Baba's contact, Mohammed never entered the fourth plane, but jumped to a state between the fourth plane and the fifth, and then entered the fifth plane. He is now, Baba explains, on the fifth plane, and will not progress further in this life. These are the bare bones of Mohammed's spiritual history, and we will now turn to his outer life with Baba.

In the first place, no mast has had such prolonged contact with Baba, for it is now eleven years since Mohammed was brought to the Rahuri Ashram in August, 1936, and no mast, despite the hundreds whom Baba has contacted, has proved quite so exacting.

For some spiritual reasons of his own, Baba insists that the slightest whim of a mast should be fulfilled, and of all the masts Mohammed seems to have exhibited the most bizarre and capricious vagaries that put the patience of those charged with his care to the greatest possible test.

Mohammed is by birth a Hindu, a potter by caste, born in Ratnagiri, and his real name is said to be Tukaram Chawan. He seems to have had a wife and two children in Ratnagiri, and when he became a mast, he left his home and his job as a potter, and went to Bombay. It was in Bombay that he came to be called Mohammed, by Muslims who held him in respect, and this name has stuck to him ever since.

He probably spent several years wandering about Bombay, and those who specialized in gambling on the day-to-day fluctuations of cotton prices used to hang around Mohammed, hoping that he would give them tips from time to time. In this way, anyone who is peculiar, and especially one who is thought to be spiritually advanced, is pestered by petty speculators, who interpret the merest gesture or fortuitous remark as a tip that may win a fortune. Mohammed was much vexed by such people, and now that his consciousness is better attuned to the things of this world, he sometimes talks of his early Bombay days, and of how these cotton figure gamblers would ply him with tea and food.

Pleader was the first to discover Mohammed in Bombay, and he brought him to the Rahuri Ashram in August 1936. Baba's routine there was the usual one of shaving, bathing, feeding, and sitting with the inmates, and Mohammed was treated in the same manner, but at once was given conspicuous priority.

Mohammed took full advantage of Baba's instructions that the inmates should be given all they asked for, and his daily intake at that time consisted of twelve bananas, four pounds of boiled beetroot, four ounces of pistachio, two large plates of rice and dal(1), six raw onions, twelve chapattis(2), twelve full plates of cooked vegetables, six cups of tea in the morning, and six cups in the afternoon!

He used to sit most of the day near the door of the ashram, and would roundly abuse and spit on anyone who came near him. At night, he would repeatedly call Baidul to bring another blanket for him, although he obviously had no physical need of any more coverings.

This grotesque behaviour went on throughout the Rahuri phase, and continued unabated when the ashram moved to Meherabad the following April. He then began to dig holes in the ground with his hands, and would frequently order Baidul to pull down the ashram, and when he was told that this could not be done, would burst into tears.

At four in the morning, when the ashram staff was struggling with the lighting of fires to make tea, Mohammed would shout impatiently for someone to help him at the toilet. He would stand from six in the morning until eight o'clock cleaning his teeth, would call petulantly for a full bucket of water with which to clean his mouth, and when this was brought would have it sent away, only to shout for it again after a few minutes.

Later in the morning, when Baba used to call him for a bath, it would generally take three men one hour to beguile him to the bathroom.

Perhaps the most familiar attitude of Mohammed, even today, when his behaviour compared with that of the early years is as different as chalk from cheese, is one of bending down or squatting and gazing at the ground, and picking at something there with his fingers. He often does this for hours at a stretch, and at such times, if asked what he is doing, he replies, "Deesh (drishta) pahato". This means, roughly, "I am looking at something I want".

He always refers to Baba as "Dada", and in the early years, when looking for "deesh", he used to grumble, "Dada has made me such, what can I do?". At other times he would explain that he was not seeing the "deesh" of his own volition, but that the divine force behind him made him do it. As a result of this perpetual picking at the ground, Mohammed's fingers and thumbs have a rough and horny skin, and his nails are worn almost to the quick, and are thick and broken.

Those familiar with the history of Baba's life, will recall that in the summer of 1937, he went for several months to Cannes with a large group of eastern and western disciples. Shortly after Baba arrived in Cannes, he cabled instructions for Mohammed to be brought there.

The reader may by now have gathered how tiresome Mohammed could be, and he will thus be able to visualize how difficult it must have been to steer him successfully through the routine of getting his passport. This meant a personal appearance before an august official, and those carrying out this work were in an agony of suspense lest their wayward Mohammed should suddenly abuse and spit on the official. All, however, went well, the formalities were completed, and Mohammed was prepared for the voyage, and was told that he was going to France to see his "Dada".

On the appointed day Mohammed, booted and spurred for the occasion, was led by Baidul up the slope of the ship's gangplank, and was taken at once to his cabin. Some rumour of his queerness reached the ears of the ship's surgeon, who arrived at the cabin, and demanded that Mohammed should be accommodated in the ship's hospital. Adi, who was in charge of the party, managed to convince the surgeon that he would answer for Mohammed's behaviour, and he was finally allowed to stay in his cabin.

Baidul, whose job was to care for Mohammed, now found himself tied to him for 24 hours of the day. When Mohammed's meal was brought to the cabin, he would not only refuse to eat it, but with totalitarian arrogance he would order it to be sent away at once. Then about half an hour later, when Baidul's food was brought in, Mohammed would insist on eating this, and poor Baidul would be left hungry.

When Mohammed was taken on deck, he would make himself conspicuous by bending down and picking at "deesh", would collect old matches and cigarette ends that littered the deck, and when Baidul attempted to drag him away, Mohammed would break into a torrent of vituperation.

At Marseilles, when the passengers were lined up to pass the scrutiny of the authorities, Mohammed again drew all eyes towards himself by collecting "deesh" in the shape of fag ends, matches, and scraps of dirty paper that littered the disembarkation shed, and when dragged away by Baidul he burst into a volley of abuse, and flung away the handful of rubbishy bits and pieces he had collected, with such force and fury, that they fell foursquare on the person of some innocuous fellow passenger.

As soon as Mohammed arrived in Cannes, Baba began his usual daily routine of bathing and feeding him. He was lodged in a room over the garage, and one small room was adapted to make a bathroom after the Indian style.

The chief difficulty of these baths was to get Mohammed clothed thereafter, for he would stand naked, trying to make up his mind to allow his vest to be put on. He seemed like an over-cautious child on the edge of a swimming bath, hesitating to plunge into the cold and uninviting water.

He would tell Baba to put his vest on, and when it was held over him, and was about to be drawn over his head, he would suddenly shout like a frightened child, "No, no," and push it away. Eventually, to the relief of all, he would have the vest on, and would then suddenly demand to have it removed again.

This sort of thing went on every day, and it would often take one hour to dress Mohammed in the simplest clothes. The same process recurred when it was a matter of putting on his sandals, Pathan chappals, with an adjustable strap behind the heel. They must be tightened, loosened, tightened, loosened, taken off and cleaned, put on again, cleaned, tightened, loosened, and so on and so forth, literally, in the mental sense, ad nauseam, and potentially, one feared, ad infinitum.

These examples of his conduct are not exaggerated, and they illustrate the importance Baba attaches to doing everything that a mast asks; their foibles must be gratified, and their slightest wish must not be gainsaid.

We shall draw a veil over Mohammed's behaviour on the return voyage to India, for his conduct would have tried the patience of Job, and, indeed, it almost exhausted the reserves of those charged with his care on board.

After returning to India in November 1937, until the autumn of 1940, Mohammed's history is closely linked with that of Baba, for during these years he was with Baba almost everywhere he went.

I have tried to describe the sort of trying behaviour that typified Mohammed's early years with Baba, and I now find it impossible to do justice to the gradual transition from this early phase to his present co-operative and friendly attitude, both to other people, and to the world in general.

The external aspect of this transition has been like the spectrum, where one colour blends imperceptibly into the next, without any precise lines of demarcation.

Until October 1940, Mohammed nestled close under Baba's wing, and from that time forth it seemed as if the work of attending to his spiritual nurture was more or less complete, for at the end of October Mohammed was sent to Bombay, where he stayed for some months with Ali Akbar. From Bombay, he was later sent down the coast to Ratnagiri, his old home, but in January 1942 was brought back again to Meherabad, and is now a permanent resident there.

No one would maintain that the Mohammed of today is normal, but there is, nevertheless, a radical change in his behaviour. In the old days, his explosive and irritable temperament gave one a feeling that he was wrestling with some inner problem, and that when you tore him away from his preoccupation with this problem, he became so confused that he burst into an uncontrollable tantrum.

From an indifferent observer's point of view, the mitigating feature of Mohammed's early years was his love for Baba, or "Dada" as he used to call him. However contumacious and difficult he may have been towards everyone else, he seemed really to adore Baba, and to long for his daily visits.

Every day when Baba came, it was as if a brilliant flame were kindled in the depths of Mohammed's being, that for a moment lit up the dark and tangled ways, and slowly these fleeting moments of inner radiance have grown more and more sustained, so that Mohammed today is, for the most part, a harmonious and agreeable inmate of the ashram. He now radiates something unusual and charming, he has a perspicacity that misses little of what goes on in the ashram, and he adopts a kind of avuncular interest in everyone's welfare.

In his odd way, he tries to express his recognition of Baba's spiritual greatness, and the following are some of his statements about Baba, whom, as I have already explained, he always refers to as "Dada".

"Dada is God."

"Dada is Master."

"Everything depends on Dada's will."

"Because Dada is there the world is there."

"Dada is the Master of Mercy."

Even today, despite this great change in character, Mohammed still has the clumsiest control of his body. When he walks, he leans forward, arms dangling at his sides, and stumbles along with his toes turned slightly inwards, and looks as if he might topple over any moment, like a child learning to walk. Perhaps through constant standing hour by hour looking at "deesh", the arches of his feet have dropped. His hands are spatulate, with fingers and nails worn and cracked by endless picking for "deesh".

His voice has somehow caught the habit of a defective gramophone record, for he repeats almost every phrase several times over. This repetition is particularly manifest when he says something rather clever, and as if pleased with his smartness, he recites one phrase ten or twelve times in a loud, sing-song tone.

He also gets puzzled by difficult consonants, and rounds off the sharp corners of tricky words, rather as a child does. He doesn't exactly stutter, but like a self-starter that must be pushed eight or ten times on a cold morning, Mohammed gives several kicks to the first syllable of a sentence, and then finishes the rest of it without hesitation, but with the childish simplification of consonants that I have already described.

Thus, when he says in his own language, Marathi, "Dada Dev ahe" (Dada is God), he says it something like this: "Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dada Dev ahe", and then repeats the same phrase many, many times, with the same clumsy start.

His mood nowadays is usually good, but like many of us who are not at our brightest in the morning, Mohammed has a scowl on his face for the first hour or two after rising. If you talk to him then, he either takes no notice or tells you to shut up, but with nothing like the force and wealth of epithet of his early years.

He has a habit, at times, of draping his blanket over himself, and standing for two or three hours at a stretch, his body bent forward to a right angle or more. Sometimes, with the blanket thrown over himself in the same way, he squats on his heels and bends his body forward, so that his elbows rest on the ground, and his head nestles, one supposes, between his elbows. (A supposition, because he is under the blanket.)

It is the oddest sight to see this queer shape draped in a brown homespun blanket, a motionless figure that suggests an eccentric article of furniture, rather than a concealed and static human form.

At such times, if Mohammed is asked what he is doing, he either abuses the inquisitive questioner, or explains that it is his habit to stand or squat in this way, and he ends the matter by exclaiming, "You wouldn't understand."

When engrossed in "deesh", Mohammed takes little notice of what goes on around him, but he now spends the greater part of the day standing or sitting on the back verandah at Meherabad, whence he keeps an eye on all who come and go.

If a baby buffalo escapes from its pen, he shouts to a farm hand to have it caught; if something is left in the open when a shower of rain comes pelting down, he calls someone to bring it under shelter. Those who pass to and fro about their business he orders about in a friendly and cheerful way, and when the gong for meals is sounded, he tells laggards to go for their food.

He knows all the men in the ashram, all the regular farm hands and servants, and all the animals by their names, and he takes a vivid and critical interest in everything that goes on.

Despite this capacity for acute observation, he still lacks a sense of judgement. As an example of this, we may cite the following. He remembers quite well his visit to France in 1937, and for the past two or three years he has got it into his head that he must go to France again. Whenever Baba comes, he begs him to take him to France.

As a result of various discussions with Baba and Pendu, Mohammed has now come to believe that a sum of 71 lakhs(3) of rupees has been put aside for his expenses, and that a specially chartered ship is being made ready for the voyage.

At the time of writing (September 1947), Mohammed's plans are to leave for France in "Dissimla" — which is his way of pronouncing the word December.

He is rather worried as to whether he will get rice there, for he has been told how the economy of Europe has been upset by the war, and when "Dissimla" comes he will be given some other reason why it will not be possible for him to go to France just yet.

About a year ago he was avidly keen to be off, and every day made anxious inquiries about the progress of negotiations for passports and tickets. Now, however, this passion for foreign travel seems to be gently waning, and perhaps by the end of the year he will not greatly care if he is told that his voyage is again postponed.

A few years ago, he had an idea that he wanted to marry a fat wife, and have children, but this early ambition has now been supplanted by his desire to revisit the fair land of France.

This deception may sound pathetic and unfair, but if Mohammed is told squarely that such and such a thing is impossible, he becomes morose and miserable, and sometimes bursts into tears. Like the vain hopes that encourage a man along the road from cradle to grave, Mohammed too appears to be sustained by these simple dreams; they may seem puerile to us, but perhaps serve him in the same way that our ambitions do; they give him something to look forward to.

Whatever may be one's intellectual estimate of this strange blend of child, man, and saint, Mohammed somehow commands one's affection. In short, despite his impossible behaviour, one loves him, and through the chinks in his distorted personality one discerns, now and again, a beauty of soul that makes the shortcomings of his character unimportant.

In this way, of course, he is much the same as any mast, for either by an irony of the love of God, or for some specific divine purpose, the spiritual state of these God-intoxicated souls is veiled from our eyes by the dense folds of a cloak of eccentricity.

(1) Note for westerners: Dal is a spiced preparation of split pulse usually eaten with rice.
(2) A chapatti is a thin flat cake of unleavened bread, made from coarsely ground wheat; it is the bread of India, and is a wholesome and nourishing article of diet.
(3) A lakh is 100,000, and a rupee is about 1£. 6d. or 30 cents.


THE WAYFARERS, pp. 43-50
1988 © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust


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