05 May 2007

Looking at Meher Baba: The Significance of the God-Man’s Form and Image

Enter the home of a Baba-lover and you are likely to see several photos or portraits of Meher Baba. Although some Baba-lovers prefer to be discreet about their decor, others shamelessly place numerous pictures of Baba in every room—everything from tiny refrigerator magnets and bedside knickknacks to framed photographs and large oil paintings. While the display of devotional pictures is common in India, having “too many” pictures of Baba in an American home could lead visitors to worry that you’re involved in a strange cult of guru worship. It’s not always easy to explain why you need to have so many pictures of “that man”—in your residence, workplace, car, wallet, around your neck, and anywhere else you can think of.

Seeing God Is Darshan

There is a special word in India for the act of seeing a Master or an image of God: darshan. We often think of “taking darshan” of Meher Baba as simply referring to the blessing received through being in His presence, embracing Him or touching His feet, or bowing down at His Tomb-Shrine at Meherabad, or from contact with objects associated with Him, such as a chair that He sat in. But literally the word darshan means “seeing,” the auspicious act of visually beholding the sacred image. For Hindus, darshan is an essential part of worship and means standing in the presence of the deity (or a holy person) to see and be seen by the sacred personage.

The scholar Diana Eck offers interesting observations about this tradition in her book Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. She notes that whereas the “people of the Book”—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—rely on the Word for their inspiration, among Hindus the visual image (murti) is given more prominence. It makes sense in a way: To study a holy book, you need literacy (or a good memory of hearing it recited), but to see God you have only to look.

Even a blind person might be granted this privilege. When the visually impaired painter Lyn Ott met Meher Baba in 1965, a light was shone on Baba’s face while He held Lyn’s face close to His own, so that Lyn could receive a strong impression of Baba’s face, which he went on painting despite his impairment. Seeing is not just a gross activity of the physical senses and need not be considered exclusive to those with normal eyesight. It has its inner counterpart in insight, inner vision, and “conviction through sight,” in which the advanced pilgrim of the sixth plane of consciousness sees God face to face. Not for nothing are the sages are known as “seers” (rishis).

Baba’s image may be considered an essential supplement for spiritual health. Daily, when we tune in to the Internet or TV, we are assaulted by visual impressions of lustful actions, ostentatious materialism, violent destruction, and gruesome deaths. Is it really so weird to hang a dozen pictures of the God-Man on the wall? Or is it an enlightened form of impressional self-defense and the height of sanity in a world gone mad?

The reason for my displaying all those pictures could be as simple as the fact that I enjoy seeing varied images of someone I love. Or I might explain it as a spiritual practice, a reminder of God’s presence or the Master’s inner companionship. It is also a way of pleasing the Beloved: Baba encouraged His lovers to keep His photograph and meditate on it or pray to it. With total attention and adoration, Mehera would tenderly touch and kiss each image of Baba she encountered. Eruch Jessawala describes Baba as telling His lovers: "Now that you have seen Me in this coat, this form, keep My photographs or whatever will remind you of Me and help you to continue to remember Me. Keep My picture in your house and in your toilet also, so that even there you can remember Me all the time. Before you start your day, remember Me" (The Ancient One, ed. Naosherwan Anzar, pp. 97-98). Baba used to bless stacks of photographs of Himself to be distributed to His lovers around the world.

Keep Him Before Your Mind’s Eye

There are some profound reasons why looking at Meher Baba is a transformational act. In the discourse “The Types of Meditation: V,” Baba talks about concentrating on the form of a spiritually perfect person—the Avatar or a Perfect Master of the past or present—as one of the principal types of “personal meditation.” Gazing at the form has great significance, because such a person literally embodies the Truth that is our spiritual ideal (hence the title of the Meher Baba photograph book Love Personified). When we look at Meher Baba’s face and form, we are absorbing His divine qualities: “Just as a man who admires the character of Napoleon and constantly thinks about him has a tendency to become like him, so an aspirant who admires some spiritually perfect person and constantly thinks about him has a tendency to become spiritually perfect” (Discourses, 1987, p. 230).

Baba has made clear that “thinking about Him” includes looking at His image as well as repeating His name. During the 1954 meeting at Meherabad known as the Three Incredible Weeks, Baba asked the Western men to picture Him in their minds. The instructions were “to think exclusively of me for half an hour every day for seven days. You should each sit aloof, select your own spot, close your eyes and try to bring Baba's figure before your mind's eye. If you find that you cannot do that, then just look at my picture and mentally repeat Baba. If thoughts bother you, do not be concerned. Let them come and go, but try your best to keep Baba's figure clearly in your mind's eye” (Lord Meher, vol. 13, p. 4454). On another occasion Baba asked them to picture Him for one minute with their eyes closed after first looking at Him. Afterward, He asked how it went. Francis Brabazon said, "It comes and goes." Baba replied, “Because you come and go! I am there always” (Darwin Shaw, As Only God Can Love, p. 260).

Although Baba sometimes gave meditation instructions to individuals, what is generally important for Baba-lovers is not formal discipline so much as spontaneous love. If one is drawn to contemplating Baba’s form as a regular practice, it can nurture spontaneity. We do the looking and Baba does the rest, gradually awakening us more and more to His omnipresence. I like to take a favorite photo of Baba gazing directly at me and look at it attentively for a period, allowing the feelings it evokes to flow freely. The image itself seems to elicit the spontaneous intimacy between lover and Beloved that He encourages us to cultivate.

Baba points out in the Discourses that meditation on the form of the Master is facilitated if we start out by thinking about the qualities of the Master, like universal love, infinite knowledge, or selfless action. These are not abstract concepts but very tangible qualities that we come to appreciate when we read or hear stories of Baba’s interactions with His lovers and others, in addition to reading His own words. Once we become familiar with Baba’s divine qualities through deliberately reflecting on them, we are more apt to think about them spontaneously: Things that occur naturally in the course of life remind us of Baba—or perhaps I should say He reminds us of Himself through our daily experiences. We cultivate an internal experiential dialogue with Him, by means of which we are discerning and absorbing His qualities. Increasingly when we look at His photos and try to mentally visualize His image, we are deeply contemplating His qualities without deliberately thinking about them in an analytical way. It comes about as a natural process born of our love for and attraction to Him, not from being “religious.”

“If you are really keen about the Truth,” Baba told a visitor at Guruprasad, Pune, in 1960, “try to meditate with love on the Divine Form of your choice, or remember the name of God wholeheartedly. Then, with Divine Grace, a fortunate one sees God face to face, everywhere and in everything, far more clearly and intimately than you see the things in this room now with your physical eyes” (Darshan Hours, p. 3).

Another visitor at Guruprasad expressed the desire for Baba’s “Real Darshan” (Darshan Hours, pp. 5-6). Baba replied, “A rare one is fortunate enough to have that Darshan—seeing Me as I should be seen.” Baba distinguished Real Darshan from the famous scene in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 11, where Lord Krishna grants Arjuna the sight of His Universal Body. Arjuna pleaded for this cosmic vision, but the resulting form—with its myriad faces, innumerable eyes and limbs, and terrible jaws swallowing up armies of men and entire worlds—frightened him so much that he begged Krishna to withdraw it and restore His familiar merciful appearance. Meher Baba explained that this cosmic vision was not Real Darshan; in the latter there is only “ever-renewing bliss,” not fear. “The only way to have such Darshan lies through love,” Baba said.

An especially delightful form of darshan occurs when one beholds the Beloved’s image in natural forms or other objects. The mind of course projects imagery onto things that we look at, so that patterns of foliage, the markings on rocks, or cloud formations may suggest the familiar face of Baba on which we have focused so much attention. (I am reminded here of a painting by Roger Stephens, showing Baba’s face appearing repeatedly in the clouds.) Aside from these more commonplace yet nonetheless heart-warming occurrences, there are a few truly exceptional events, most notably the distinctive image of Baba’s face that appeared on a tree trunk outside Mehera’s bedroom window in 1969 after Baba had dropped His body.

The Many Faces and Forms of the Avatar

It is one of the remarkable things about the current Avataric advent that images of Him are so widely available in photographs and films and on the Internet, so that even after His passing, one can have darshan of His image.

With none of the other Avatars identified by Meher Baba—Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad—can we know for certain what they looked like. Rama and Krishna lived so far in the past that their images are thoroughly mythologized, with features such as blue skin. In the case of Muhammad, little iconography exists, since most branches of Islam forbid images of the Prophet’s unveiled face. The taboo against portraying images of living things comes not from the Qur’an but from the Hadith, the extra-Qur’anic sayings attributed to Muhammad. (Judaism has a similar prohibition, against making any picture, image, or statue of God, as commanded in the Torah.) Despite this iconoclasm, a beautiful tradition of figurative painting developed in Iran, the land of Meher Baba’s heritage.

Meher Baba has remarked that each time the Avatar comes, He has certain features in common:

. . . the Avatar is always perfect in all respects, spiritually as well as materially, and in particular, physically. The Avatar always has a charming personality with a beautiful, symmetrical face and body, while the Perfect Masters are generally of odd size and shape physically, with certain defects sometimes so abhorrent that one does not even like to look at them.

Christ, Muhammad, Zarathustra, Buddha, Ram and Krishna were Avatars and hence had charming personalities. So is mine. Upasni Maharaj, Narayan Maharaj and such present Perfect Masters have one personal defect or another. Upasni Maharaj's stature is too big—like a giant. Narayan Maharaj is too small, short in stature—like a dwarf. But this physical difference between the Avatar and Sadgurus makes no real difference in their spiritual status, which is always divine. (Lord Meher 4: 1259)

David Fenster reports in Mehera-Meher that Mani believed that the Avatar looks the same each time He comes, with a characteristic arch and long length of the eyebrow, slim legs, aquiline nose, and moderate height. But Mehera did not agree with this. She strongly felt the uniqueness of Baba: “Everything about Baba was perfect. His way of talking, his singing, his gestures, his movements, his face. That’s why I tell Baba that every Avatar comes, but I want to be with Meher Baba, with our Baba. I love Baba. [She began to cry.]” (vol. 3, p. 423). Mehera tenderly noted each lovely feature of Baba’s physical form (vol. 3, pp. 423-424): eyes, eyebrows, skin, nape of the neck, hands, legs, and feet. Many have tried to describe the luminescence of Baba’s skin, the effulgence of His form. Mani marveled that each part of Baba’s body was so individualistic—His ears, His shoulders. The color of Baba’s hair, sometimes described as reddish brown or auburn, was also unique. When Jane and Bob Brown recorded the haunting traditional folk song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” which most of us would be content to understand in a metaphorical sense, Mehera insisted that the word “black” be changed to “brown,” teaching us that it is important to be aware of the details of Baba’s specific features. We do not love Meher Baba as a symbolic template or archetype, but as a living, breathing human individual. By contemplating Baba’s humanity, we glimpse the significance of our own.

Baba’s nose deserves mention. The septum of His nose was broken in the 1952 car accident in Oklahoma. “I had a very shapely nose before the accident, but due to the injury it is no longer so,” He later commented (Lord Meher, vol. 16, p. 5507). Mehera noted that the shape of Baba’s nose was different after the accident. His nose also suffered contusions in the 1956 car accident in Satara, India. Casual observers who joke about the size of Baba’s nose, or who find it funny that God should have such a nose, have no idea of the suffering and significance that lie behind that appearance.

There are several photographs of Baba that resemble familiar paintings of Jesus, including those known as the “Ancient One” photo and the “Young Christ” photo. Dina Snow Gibson at the Love Street Bookstore in Los Angeles once assembled a series of photos of Baba in which He resembled each of the six other Avatars of the present cycle. In the case of Zoroaster, Rama, and Krishna, Baba actually dressed up as these Perfect Ones and posed for photographs. Baba sporting an Arab headdress can stand for Muhammad, and seated in a lotus-like posture he reminds us of the Buddha. (Interestingly, in Buddhist iconography the Buddha to come, Maitreya, often has a distinctive pose unlike that of any other Buddha image: He is seated on a chair. Although it is not the kind of armchair we associate with Meher Baba, this detail seems like a meaningful coincidence.)

I have collected many photos of Baba, because He looks so different in each one that I had to have many different shots—including ones of just his feet and the back of His head. Bal Natu once pointed out, while leafing through a photo album in Mandali Hall, how photos of Baba taken on the same day could be markedly different. Sometimes Baba looked “abundant,” as Bal put it, at other times thin and drawn; one moment radiant and powerful, the next meek and helpless. At first one may prefer the smiling, loving Baba, only later becoming touched by those images that look frowning or exhausted. In photos from the early years, Baba at times appears dazed, solemn, or fierce. Later ones look more gentle, and over time He seems to look “more universal,” so to speak. Each Baba-lover has several favorite photos, or different ones that we prefer for different times and moods. Many Baba-lovers in India seem to favor the more formal photographic portraits, such as the regal-looking “Darbar Pose,” taken by D. D. Rege of Pune (see Lord Meher, vol. 16, p. 5583). I imagine that we each also find certain photos difficult to look at, for one reason or another. The final photograph of Baba’s face after He dropped His body has a powerful aura of holiness, and it can be painful to see it casually displayed.

Darwin Shaw, when describing the first occasion on which he met Baba, mystically commented that one can actually “see Love.” To discover what this might mean, we may not have to be so advanced as to have “eyes divine,” but surely we must have the eyes of a lover. This vision can be developed, I believe. It starts just by looking at Him.

God Is Watching You!

We are extraordinarily fortunate to have movies of Meher Baba. Baba has said that seeing Him in films would help viewers toward the goal of liberation. In another remark, whose exact source was not given, Filis Frederick wrote in the The Awakener that Baba said that one day someone would get God-Realization from a film.

In both films and photos, Baba sometimes looks right at the camera, and then we can look directly into His eyes and feel Him look at us. Surely He knew in that moment that one day you and I would be viewing the film. A friend who ran the projector at Baba meetings used to slow it down at those moments so we could all relish the experience. The recent restored DVD of O Parvardigar has several such moments, where His gaze is held on ours.

Shaligram Sharma of Hamirpur has described how, in 1961, Baba asked him what he wanted, and Shaligram replied that he wanted surrenderance. Baba asked him why did he want that? He would become useless to the world. Sharmaji recited the Hafiz verse that Baba quoted to him: “When my eyes met His eyes, I became useless to the world.”

Many videos of Baba are now available to be watched at home, yet there is something special about sharing the experience with a group at a Baba gathering. When watching these films, I usually don’t take my eyes off Baba (or Baba and Mehera). A suggestion: Ignore people narrating home movies of Baba when they divert the audience’s attention to other people in the frame—“At Baba’s right, His secretary Adi K., Irani,” or “Beryl Williams holding the umbrella over Baba.” Find some other occasion to learn the names and faces of Baba’s lovers. While the Avatar is there before us, with the chance of even meeting His eyes for a split second, maybe we shouldn’t waste the moment by taking our attention from Him.

The Beloved’s glance, or nazar, imparts protection, intimacy, and blessing. Baba once told a group of Indian lovers: “The Perfect Master has the key that opens the last gate which opens to the Infinite Treasure. To aspire to have a look at or to become one with this Infinite Treasure—God—is in a way sheer madness. It has to be that degree of madness which remains unaffected by the most alluring pleasures or the most painful sorrows. The infinitely affectionate look—‘Nazar’—of the Perfect Master can awaken such ‘madness.’ But for this you have to lead your life according to His Will. It makes no difference whether you are physically near or away from Him” (Darshan Hours, p. 57).

See Him as He Really Is

Baba has said that we must learn to see Him as He really is: “You do not see me as I really am. This body is not me. My real self is far more beautiful” (Lord Meher, 4: 1597).

What would it mean to see Him as He really is? It is beyond imagination, for the ego-mind has to go before God comes. Meher Baba has made the intriguing statement that “In the beginning of creation, I defecated, and all the suns, moons, stars and universes came out. They are all my excrement! But just imagine! When this dirty thing is so beautiful, how can you ever imagine My real splendour? You will lose your senses if you ever see a glimpse of it” (Lord Meher, vol. 4, p. 1161).

But perhaps even more startling than the equation of our universe with excrement will be the realization that who He really is, is our own Self. With His human charm and beauty, the God-Man tricks and entices us into the romance of lover and Beloved, which He tells us is the highest and quickest of the high roads to God-realization in this age: love for the Divine Beloved, constant longing to see Him, be in His presence, serve, obey, and surrender to Him. But this game of duality holds the seeds of its own destruction, for its finale is Oneness.

At the East-West Gathering in 1962, Baba interpreted the words of a qawwali singer who was performing for Him:

The singer is saying:

“I tried to see you a thousand ways,

but I could not see you!

I see a beautiful face, eyes, nose, limbs,

but I cannot see your Oceanic Form.

I have knocked my head on a thousand thresholds,

but I cannot see your Real Form.”

But only one in a billion can see me as I really am, in my Real Form. The meeting in Oneness is quite different from this sort of darshan. For that, unique love for and unflinching faith in me are essential. But do not worry.

In this hall, all the cups of wine are empty. But when the Divine Wine-seller opens his eyes, simultaneously all cups will be filled with love. Let us hope it will be soon! When I break my silence with that Word of Words, all your cups will be filled full of love—then you may drink to your hearts' content.

I am that Drop that has swallowed the whole Ocean! If you were to really love me, maybe one day you will see me as I really am. Love me wholeheartedly and you might one day get a glimpse of my Reality. (Lord Meher, vol. 18, p. 6022)

At Nasik in the 1930s Baba told the Western women: “Though your eyes are small, they see the world. Through these tiny openings, you can see vast landscapes. But when you close them, you will be able to see me!" When Delia DeLeon then stated that she saw nothing when she closed her eyes, Baba responded, "When have you closed them? Real closing means that there should not be a single thought in your mind. The death of the mind makes the eyes close and you will only then see me as I really am. For this reason, I tell you to be ever mindful of me and not to pay attention to outside attractions" (Lord Meher, 1764).

In a cryptic statement, Baba referred to one particular photo of Himself: “I really like this photograph. In this photograph I am depicted as I really am” (Eruch Jessawala, That’s How It Was, p. 31). At the Jessawala home in the early 1930s He took darshan of it, bowing to His own feet in the photo. It was taken in 1926, with Baba in His kamli coat, a kerchief tied around His head, seated in front of a painted backdrop (see Love Personified, p. 11).

Beauty in the Eye of the Lover

On Baba’s birthday years ago, Darwin Shaw appeared on a radio program in New York City, and it was announced that he would give a public talk later in the day at Meher Baba House. Several people from the radio audience turned up for the talk, in which Darwin described the events leading up to his first meeting in person with Baba. When he came to the part where he said, “And then I saw Baba . . . ,” he closed his eyes and stood silently lost in the memory, a look of utter bliss on his face. After several long seconds, he opened his eyes, continuing brightly: “And then ...” With palpable feeling, Darwin had conveyed more than words could ever express.

After the talk came the question-and-answer session. One woman said, “You mentioned several times how beautiful Meher Baba was. From what you’ve said, he seems like a wonderful man. But looking at these pictures”—she gestured at the many photos on the Baba House walls—“I don’t quite understand what you mean when you refer to his great beauty.” I looked at the images she was pointing at and tried to see them through her eyes: Was this merely an ordinary man?

I don’t remember what Darwin replied, but the exchange leads me to think that it is Baba’s grace that allows us to see Him, if not yet as he really is in His divinity, then at least as an extraordinary human being who is divinely beautiful, both physically and spiritually.

In December 1934, Darwin and his wife, Jeanne, were sitting in a New York City hotel lobby, hoping to unobtrusively catch their first glimpse of Baba as He arrived. Jeanne, all anticipation, was disconcerted when Baba suddenly entered the lobby dressed Western-style in a long overcoat and a fedora hat pulled down, almost covering His face, with His long hair tucked up inside. She thought to herself, “Is this what God looks like?” As a young woman in her twenties, she had a different expectation of how God should appear. But later, when they were invited to come up and meet Baba in His suite, she beheld a transformed vision. Darwin writes in his book As Only God Can Love, “This time he looked completely different. His long, dark hair was hanging down to his shoulders; he wore a long, white Indian sadra and had sandals on his feet.” Jeanne felt that Baba had responded to her thought and now revealed to her a divine image that deeply touched her, causing tears to flow uncontrollably (until Baba placed His hand on hers, turning off the tears “like a faucet”).

In Baba’s presence, many people, even strangers, could not take their eyes off him, and in India many lovers, just like the Shaws in America, traveled far in order to glimpse him from a distance for only a moment as he stepped out of a bungalow or appeared briefly at a window. Baba’s graceful movements and facial expressions were so striking that people would turn their heads to look at him, or be irresistibly drawn to him while he was traveling. However, if Baba did not want people looking at Him, He could withdraw this magnetism. The dancer Donald Mahler told me how he once observed Baba standing on the street in New York and none of the passing crowd gave Him so much as a glance, even though He was dressed in distinctive Indian clothing.

Baba generally liked to keep the atmosphere around him normal and natural, and did not want people gaping at him with ostentatious adoration. But at times He granted an intimate glimpse. A number of people have spoken of gazing into the pools of infinity that were his eyes—an experience described as overwhelming by Tex Hightower, the dancer who first met Baba in the Lagoon Cabin at Meher Center in Myrtle Beach in 1952. Another lover, who was drawn to Baba just from seeing his photo, said that she came to Him when she “fell into His eyes.”

Symbolism of the Beloved’s Face and Form

The classic Persian poets exalted the parts of the Beloved’s face and body: his languid eyes (or “her” in some translations; pronouns in Farsi do not distinguish gender), apple chin, eyebrow’s arch, moon face, musky tresses, sugary lips, and mole or beauty spot. Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, head of the Nimatullahi Sufi order, has collected brief commentaries and exemplary couplets from Sufi literature on the Beloved’s form in volume 1 of his marvelous Sufi Symbolism series. Here we learn that the parts of the Beloved’s body represent various states and stages of the lover’s inner path as well as divine attributes. For example, the “radiant face” (tal’at) is said to symbolize the theophanies (visible manifestations) of Beauty:

The glowing of your radiant face
the moon could never render;
Before a flower like you
all plants lack beauty.

—Hafiz

Various traditions recognize that the human body is a sacred replica or model of the cosmos. Baba once described how the seven planes of consciousness corresponded to seven parts of the physical body:


1st plane: the navel
2nd plane: the left part of the chest
3rd plane: the right part of the chest
4th plane: the lower part of the throat
5th plane: the center of the throat
6th plane: the third eye (between the two eyes)
7th plane: the top or center of the head

[Lord Meher, vol. 3, p. 1001]

Although Meher Baba frequently reminded His lovers, “I am not this body,” at the same time His physical form possesses enormous significance. It is through His gross body that He appears to us and allows us to see and embrace Him, and it is His body that suffers and bears the burden of His Universal Work. The different parts of the Master’s body have symbolic import—the feet, for example:

The feet, which are physically the lowest part of the body, are spiritually the highest. Physically, the feet go through everything—good and bad, beautiful and ugly, clean and dirty—zyet they are above everything. Spiritually, the feet of a Perfect Master are above everything in the universe, which is like dust to him.

When people come to a Perfect Master and touch his feet with their heads, they lay the burden of their sanskaras on him. A Perfect Master's feet collect the sanskaras from all over the universe, just as an ordinary person when walking collects dust on his feet. This is the burden to which Jesus referred when he said, "Come unto me all you who have labored and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest."

Those who love the Perfect Master deeply, and wish to lighten his burden as much as possible, wash his feet with honey, milk or water. Honey represents red sanskaras (mental); milk represents white sanskaras (subtle); and water represents yellow sanskaras (gross). Some devotees place at his feet a coconut which represents the mind and symbolizes their complete surrenderance of their will to him. (Lord Meher, vol. 6, p. 2114)

And Baba once explained, “When a Sadguru's right hand and right foot are active, it signifies spiritual help for the person concerned to aid him in realizing God. Similarly, his left hand and left foot denote material happiness or miracles” (Lord Meher, vol. 3, p. 799).

Injuries that Baba sustained from his two car accidents and other mishaps had meanings that we can barely imagine. One remarkable example will suffice, in which Baba explained the painful boils that appeared on His body:

These boils are of different types—one irritating, one itching, one full of pus, one very small, one very large. Why are they all so different and peculiar? The explanation is that each represents a particular country or continent. For instance, that one on my anus represents India, the other on my buttocks represents Persia and so on—different types according to the sanskaras of the country it represents.

This means, in short, that there are no physical defects on my body. Whatever physical ailments you see are due to the sanskaras taken on from the world at large, for whose benefit and welfare I work.

It is similar in the case of the other Sadgurus. Upasni Maharaj has piles; Sai Baba regularly had high fevers. I have stomach trouble, dysentery, blisters and these boils. (Lord Meher, vol. 4, p. 1326)

Meditation on Baba’s Form through Art

It would take a much longer essay or a book to do justice to the subject of artistic representations of Meher Baba (and I am sorry I can only give a few examples of the many artists who have portrayed Baba). We know that Baba highly valued art as “a process toward the realization of the sacred within,” as He told the painter Tom Riley. It is not photographs but paintings of Baba (by Charles Morton and Helen Dahm) that grace the interior of His Samadhi.

I have heard some people say that they prefer a photograph of Baba to a painting. With photographs of Baba available, why do we need artistic renderings? Several answers can be given. One, contemplation of the form of the Divine Beloved may be considered the supreme activity of art, so from the artist’s point of view at least, to draw, paint, or sculpt the God-Man is the highest meditation. Furthermore, art has the power to communicate truth—the emotional or inner truth of a thing—in a way that so-called reality often does not. Photography itself is an art, and to look at a photo is not necessarily equivalent to seeing the real subject. Some photos distort the way a person really appeared in life. And since most photos of Baba are black and white, the creative use of color can transform the image (as in Laurie Blum’s work).

Artistic temperaments vary. Stylistic clarity and technical precision can produce startlingly realistic works (David Barison), which often convey a sense of intensely focused attention and observation. However, there are also portraits that charmingly capture Baba’s moods and mannerisms without being photographically exact (Rano Gayley, Diana Le Page, Katie Rose). Portrayals of Baba in an imaginal scene lead us into inner worlds of meaning or the realms of myth and fantasy (Phyllis Ott, Tom Riley, Anthony Davis, Diane Cobb, Wodin), and impressionistic styles and painterly brushwork powerfully evoke the energy and presence of Baba (Lyn Ott, Charles Mills). Charlie Mills, who says he prefers to use a balance of the painterly and photographic approaches, feels that a looser rendering delivers “a lighter, breathier expression,” allowing the eyes and minds of a broad range of viewers to "fill in" or interpret the image for themselves. From the artist’s perspective, he adds, the painterly approach enables a more dynamic spatial sense.

In the realm of sculpture, I imagine it could be a challenge to render the form of Meher Baba—who was so fluid and ever-changing in His graceful movements and lively expressions—in a way that is not static. Jurgis Sapkus, Vivian Agostini, Marianne Principe, and the jewelry designer Randel Williams are among the sculptors of Baba in the West. In India, with its ritualistic worship of “idols,” Baba allowed His Hindu lovers to produce life-size bronze or marble statues of him at various locations (Meher Dham in Nauranga and Dehra Dhun, and Mehersthan in Kovvur, Andhra), but also asked them to display His messages about the importance of tearing away “the curtain of set ceremonies and rituals.”

Meher Baba’s image has inspired creativity in many other mediums, including the knitted pictures of Mayan, the inlaid woodwork of Shaheen Khorsandi, the whimsical polymer figures of Theus Malmberg, and the inimitable refrigerator magnets of Jean Vigodsky. Undoubtedly the future will see an explosion of arts as creative genius realizes the supreme object of its attention in the God-Man, Meher Baba. Those now painting or sculpting Baba out of love, without validation by “the world,” are blessed.

Mehera was exquisitely sensitive to how Baba was portrayed in both art and photography. She didn’t like works that failed to capture Baba’s likeness accurately, and wouldn’t hesitate to point this out to artists showing her their work. She also did not favor photos where Baba appeared sad, angry, or in pain. Others have wanted the impression of Baba presented to the public to be the warm, loving, jolly, or masterful-looking Baba rather than the impatient, solemn, irritated, or suffering Baba. This can be debated. One might argue that a person whom Baba contacts by means of His image will see what Baba wants them to see; what is important is the link that is established, not whether on the surface the person experiences the image favorably or unfavorably.

For artists, photographers, filmmakers, and spectators alike, focusing on the form and image of the God-Man is an activity that can suspend mental activity and self-consciousness—a variety of meditation in action. Baba told one artist: “When you paint, you forget everything except your object. When you are too [very] much engrossed in it, you are lost in it. And when you are lost in it, your ego diminishes. And when the ego diminishes, love infinite appears. And when love is created, God is attained. So you see how art can lead one to find infinite God.”

“Who is that man?” countless people have asked on catching sight of a Baba card, button, photo, or picture. Looking at Meher Baba, they may have been reminded of Jesus or Krishna, a famous rock star, their Jewish grandfather, Jerry Colonna (a mustachioed American comedian of the 1940s and ’50s), an Italian organ grinder, a handsome Persian prince, or—if they have eyes to see with—the personification of Love Divine. Meher Baba says, "I am whatever you take me to be. Love me, and do not try to understand me. I cannot be grasped by the intellect. I am only reached by love."

5 comments:

dshlaen said...

Beautifully written....glad to see Kendra's Notebook online

Vicky MacDonald said...

How wonderful, both the article and the silk screen are lovely! Tnak you for this precious gift.

Liam Mullan said...

Filled with insight...always joyous to read Kendra's comments & insights.....more please when time permits.

Liam 5.6.07

Pippin said...

Thanks, Kendra, for a beautiful essay.

On Maitreya, the coming Buddha of Compassion, another similarity to Meher Baba is that Maitreya is often shown with his right hand making the ("OK") sign of perfection. (Note: As a boy, a friend handed Meher a book on the coming Buddha, & he had the flash of insight, "I am that, actually." Then he forgot about it until after Realization.)

You could add a note on the Avatar always appearing in male form. My guess is that there are deep psychological reasons, beyond social norms or traditional roles, reaching back to the primitive role of the man as an explorer & trailblazer leading his people to new & better ways of life. That "primitive" spiritual role of the man as a strong & independent guide, might reach the deepest levels of the human psyche.

~ Jai Baba ~

DP

Fereshteh Azad said...

Great article, beautifully written.

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.