13 May 2007

Carry Your Life in Your Sleeve: An Evening with Esfandiar

In the evening of Thanksgiving Day, 23 November 2000, we attended a talk at Meher Center in Myrtle Beach by Esfandiar Vesali, an Iranian Zoroastrian who as a boy attended the Prem Ashram. This was the unique “love retreat” for imparting spiritual knowledge to young boys of various religious backgrounds, founded by Meher Baba at Meherabad in the 1920s (for details of this school, see Lord Meher by Bhau Kalchuri and Ramjoo’s Diary by Ramjoo Abdulla). Ever since then the main focus of Esfandiar’s life has been to love Meher Baba as he should be loved.

Esfandiar was visiting the Center from Los Angeles, where he moved from Iran about a year and a half ago. He was accompanied by his interpreter, Farshid Namiranian, and Farshid’s family. All had taken up residence in Dilruba (the house formerly occupied by Elizabeth and Kitty and now used for office work and Sunday afternoon teas). This was the last day of their stay, and a large group had gathered in the Meeting Place at Meher Center to hear this unique lover of Baba’s. During his stay we heard many different stories; this evening’s comments were only a fraction of what Esfandiar had to offer, yet in a way that fraction contains all we need to know if we are looking for some meaningful words of inspiration and guidance.

Esfandiar is a beautiful soul, a handsome white-haired man with a serene expression and a quietly blissful presence. There is something uplifting about just being in his presence—visiting with him seems like a lovely a way of “keeping company with the lovers of God.” But he also has some good stories of Prem Ashram days and his later life with Baba; and although he does not always comply when pressed for details of what he calls his “inner work,” he does have some valuable advice for those with ears to hear.

Esfandiar had first seen Baba’s photo when he was four or five years old, in the home of his mother’s uncle—Baidul (Rustom Jafrabadi Irani), a member of the mandali who joined Baba in the 1920s and who had the reputation of having a fine “nose” for finding masts (God-intoxicated pilgrims of the spiritual path). When Esfandiar was twelve or thirteen, he read about Baba’s school in a magazine and told his mother that he wanted to attend. She, a Baba lover, was pleased, but his father was not. Finally the father agreed, and Baidul brought Esfandiar to India along with some other Iranian boys (about fourteen in all).

After arrival in Ahmednagar, they traveled by bullock cart to Meherabad. The boys lined up to meet Baba, and Esfandiar was the last in line because he was the oldest and tallest. He was eagerly watching for the moment when Baba would appear. Baba arrived and began moving down the line of boys, greeting each one. When he got to the end of the line, Esfandiar was about to bow down and kiss Baba’s feet, but Baba moved quickly away before he could do this. The same thing happened the next several times that he saw Baba. Esfandiar did not comment specifically but left me with the impression that Baba thus kindled the fire that was soon to burst into flame in Esfandiar’s heart.

In the meantime, classes had begun, and Esfandiar—who had come to the school with the ambition of eventually studying engineering or medicine—was transformed when he heard his teacher recite a poem stating that a human being can reach the point where he sees nothing but God. This idea so thrilled Esfandiar that he no longer wanted to study; he would remain alone repeating the name of Yezdan (God) and wanted to run away to the forest. When he was brought to Baba and asked why he would not do his schoolwork, at first Esfandiar would not say. But when Baba said he would send Esfandiar back to Iran unless he revealed the reason, Esfandiar told Baba, “I want to see God.” Baba held him in a close embrace for fifteen or twenty minutes. He then took Esfandiar into another room, and Baba lay down on the bed, his face beaming, and covered himself with a sheet. When he emerged after some time, he looked sick and yellow. Esfandiar did not venture any interpretation, but it seemed as if Baba may have been doing some intense work on Esfandiar in order to make his heart’s desire come true, and in some way this must have taken a toll on Baba. Truly the Avatar does suffer intensely in order to give us the precious gift that he came on earth to impart to his lovers.

Baba took Esfandiar with him in a rickshaw (the one now in the museum on Meherabad Hill). There was hardly room for Esfandiar to sit, and Baba told him to hold on to his arm as they went up the hill. At the top he asked Esfandiar, “Did you see how bumpy the road was? If you hadn’t held on to my arm, you would have fallen off. That’s how the Path is also; you have to hold on to me. . . . If you want to see God, you must obey me. . . . From now on, I am your father, your mother, your relatives—your everything. Think of me and nothing else.” He also instructed Esfandiar to keep silence (for a limited period, obviously). If he accidentally broke the silence, he was to tell one of the mandali, and they would bring him to Baba, who would forgive him.

Baba began to instruct Esfandiar in his “inner work” by coming at night to his room (Hall #2 in upper Meherabad, opposite the museum); while the other boys were sleeping, Baba sat with Esfandiar and directed him in the way to do this work. At first it sounded as if Esfandiar was referring to some kind of meditation, but he subsequently clarified that when he spoke of his inner work, he was referring to his “inner journey” in general, which consisted in efforts to love Baba more and more. When asked what were the exact instructions that Baba gave him, Esfandiar simply replied that Baba said to love him.

The stay at the Prem Ashram lasted for twenty months, after which Baba sent the boys away and Esfandiar returned to Iran. After two years Baba came to Iran, and Esfandiar was able to be with him for four days. He did not see Baba again for twenty-eight years.

In connection with this separation, an interesting episode concerned a story Esfandiar had read or heard, about a saint meditating in the mountains, and how the force of his love caused the snows to melt and spring flowers to bloom around him. Esfandiar had doubted that this could really happen, until an unusual event occurred. He set out to get some medicine for his sister in Yazd, riding a donkey in a snowstorm. He began to get freezing cold and thought that he might not survive the storm, but then he remembered that Baba had promised that Esfandiar would see him again, and he began to weep. At that moment it was as if he were drenched with boiling water. The snow around him melted, and he had an inner experience of bliss, which persisted for some time (and there were no ill effects from his exposure in the storm). I am reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist masters such as Milarepa who practiced tummo, or inner fire meditation, producing so much heat that they wore only a thin cotton garment in the midst of a frosty winter in the mountains. But while Tibetan tummo meditation is a formal practice involving complex esoteric visualizations--which not only create physical heat but also burn away ignorance and lead to bliss--Esfandiar appears to have stumbled onto similar results through the “easy” medium of his natural, spontaneous love for Baba.

During the years apart from Baba, Esfandiar wrote to India about his desire to return, but several times the mandali wrote back saying that Baba was in seclusion. Finally Baidul wrote in 1963 and told him he could come to India, but Esfandiar replied that did not have the money. Baba told him to speak to the trees in his cherry orchard and tell each tree of his desire. Usually the blossoms would freeze each year, ruining the fruit, but this year they gave an ample crop of cherries, enabling him to make the pilgrimage. (As soon as he knew that the fruit would be abundant, he borrowed the money for the trip—evidence of his complete faith in Baba.) When it was time for him to leave India, the airline would not let him pay for his return ticket in rupees, and he had to wait to receive Iranian currency in order to get the ticket. In the meantime he got to stay with Baba an extra twenty-eight days—interestingly (it occurred to me after the talk), the same number of days as the years apart from Baba.

When he returned to Iran, he realized that in order to be with Baba, he must pursue the inner work of loving him intensely that he had learned in the Prem Ashram. He started loving Baba with all his existence and all his soul, with the aim of loving him to the point that he would forget himself. Esfandiar told about the hard time he had when he broke his hip, and his wife had a broken leg at the same time. At first he was quite depressed because not only was he unable to walk, but also the pain made it hard for him to do his inner work. This broke his heart, and it was that broken heart which led him to a very special inner experience. He was sitting on his bed, inwardly loving Baba, when he reached the point of experiencing infinite bliss and power. He wanted to use his power to do something, but he realized that he could not—Baba was blocking that channel. Then it occurred to him that he could use that power to love Baba more. By doing that, he lost his finite self in Baba’s infinite Self. This continued until somehow he came back to his body. The feeling persisted for some time, along with the consciousness of the body.

In the question-and-answer period, Esfandiar’s replies to various requests for advice were all variations on the same theme: Love Baba, commune with Baba, hold his image with the inner eye, and this will open the path. It is not enough just to repeat Baba’s name—it must be done with love. Imagine, he said, that you have been married for thirty years and all that time have been unable to have the child you longed for. Then, after thirty years, God gives you a child. Think how much you would love that child. That is how you should love God.

Someone asked if there was an “easy way” to love Baba (this evoked a peal of laughter in the audience). Esfandiar replied that control of one’s thoughts was an important step. He mentioned avoiding bad thoughts, but I also took his reply to mean that through self-control we can turn our attention away from our attachments and place our thoughts on Baba. It seemed similar to the idea he had expressed when describing the inner experience of infinite power and how he turned that power toward loving Baba. We may not feel that we possess power that is infinite, but each of us nonetheless has our own source of power that we can learn to channel so as to intensify our love for Baba.

Esfandiar quoted Hafiz to the effect that it is impossible to express and explain love, and he added that the aspirant will recognize it by doing it.

Three or four times in the talk he repeated a couplet of Hafiz, translated by Farshid as:

“The abode of Mister Love is higher than the mind.
Only the one who wears his life on his sleeve is able to kiss that

Farshid explained the expression "wear one's life on one's sleeve" as meaning "being ready to give up one's life." Baba quoted the same verse, as reported in Listen, Humanity (page 17):

"Hafiz describes the bare truth about love when he says:

‘Janab-e ishqra dargah basi bala tar-azaq'l ast:
Kasi in astan busad kay jan der astin darad.’

“The majesty of love lies far beyond the reach of intellect;

only one who has his life up his sleeve dares kiss the threshold of love."

I was curious to find out more about this expression, “having one’s life up one’s sleeve.” In English we speak of wearing our heart on our sleeve, and it means that we do not conceal our true feelings of love for someone. Or we may say that someone has something up his sleeve, meaning he has some scheme he is concealing. But these do not seem to be the meanings intended by the Persian expression. Frank Bloise offered the comment that “one who holds his life lightly unshackles his heart so that it is open to receive the gift of Love.” I also asked Carl Ernst, a specialist in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, and he provided some illuminating comments:

“The phrase has to do with the large and capacious sleeves that in Hafiz's time were used to store large money purses and things like food. There is a nice play on words here: the one who can kiss that threshold (asetan) has his life stored in his sleeve (asetin), ready to give it away. So it is quite different from the English phrase. More precisely, I would translate:

‘The court of the Lord of Love is much higher than the mind
The one who kisses its threshold has his life inside his sleeve.’

“This has a lot of royal imagery--the court (dargah), the lord of it who is master of its ‘inner sanctum’ (harim), the threshold, etc. One always approaches a king with a gift, and in this case it is one's life. Unfortunately the literal translation of the phrase does not convey to an English-speaking reader the implication of giving away something stored in
the large sleeve.”

When it was time to end the talk, Esfandiar was asked for one last word of advice. His answer:

“The best backpack on this path is intense love. Once you have that, it will take you where you need to go.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for sharing - anything from esphandiar vesali is truly and always uplifting, thank you so much for taking the time to put this out. jai Baba

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.