Thursday, March 6, 2014

Quotes and Rumors of Quotes

Meher Baba dictating
When people go about ascertaining for themselves what words to attribute to Baba, and what meanings, all kinds of problems arise. And there is no single silver bullet that one can dogmatically apply to the problem. One inevitably has to make judgments and use their own discrimination. "It's your gamble" as they say. The expression is not only meant to say to a person that such and such a choice is their gamble, but also to warn them not to foist their opinions on others.

There is a value to Baba not leaving the appearance that everything he would be quoted as saying in the future would be "air tight." Here's Baba's own explanation of this ambiguity having a value, in 'his own words.'
Dogmas and creeds generally, however, are as much a source of evil as of good, because in them the guiding vision is clouded owing to degeneration or suspension of critical thinking. (Discourses, Vol. III)
So this article is not written with the intention of creating some new dogma or creed, but in sharing some of my own thoughts about what I think might be helpful to some (or not), and is a list of the various types of common sense and critical thinking I use for myself when making my own determination.

Here is a partial list of considerations one has to think about to determine what is Baba's.

1. Does it matter? Many things do very much matter, especially if repeated. A few hardly do, such as an exact date, or a word that means nearly the same thing. But some do. If a false quote spread broadly gives people a very untrue picture of Baba's general teaching or sentiment, it can be just terrible. If there is one thing that Baba said consistently, without ever equivocating, it was that he was the avatar -- to his disciples much earlier than he said it broadly. We can find Baba saying it very matter-of-factly in sources that were made widely public at least as early as 1932. Yet there is a rumor that Baba worried on his deathbed in his dying moments alone with his mandali -- 'Am I really the avatar, or am I just a crazy old man?' [Previous is false rumor, a statement never made by Meher Baba.] And there are some statements attributed to Baba that are so evil and egregious, so without heart or intelligence, that I am saving them for a future post, for they take up too much room. They would lead people to have a deep misunderstanding of the direction of the path. So some things matter. Some don't.

2. Whenever a false rumor is formed that Baba said such and such, it is helpful to have at least some thoughtful considerations of the dynamics involved in such inventions. There are social and psychological dynamics at work that help them spawn and spread. The most obvious is that some people seem born with certain propensities of their character, so that for whatever reason they feel compelled to get attention. One of the best ways to get attention is to say something that stops a conversation, or turns heads toward you. Few of such people are lying. It is not difficult to vaguely feel one remembers a quote, when in reality it is based on something heard somewhere else, or is based loosely on something said by Baba, but so badly skewed from its original meaning that it is false. In a few rare cases, and I know of one, a false quote is entirely the invention of a troubled psyche that is projecting a personal neurosis. In other cases, a person listening to an account by a witness, that includes some of their own thoughts at the time, can misunderstand and take it that the statement was something Baba himself said in their presence. An example of such a misunderstanding of a story I know of actually made it into an early edition of Lord Meher, from interview notes taken from a witness after Baba's death. It has since been corrected, though long after it has been entrenched into people's collective thinking.

I also witnessed as a boy a rumor form right in front of me at our family's dinner table, that wound up altering what people took to be Baba's original words. Two men were talking big over wine, and a theory formed, of how the words were changed, and this theory morphed and evolved and was repeated so many times that it came to be experienced as so real that it entered into the early draft of Lord Meher as a footnote, stated as fact. I was there when they were concocting it, and only read as a man where it was stated as a fact. Again it has been corrected in a subsequent edition, as deep sleuthing into early records kept in Baba's lifetime proved it to be utterly baseless.

One should not, however, grow cynical. In all of the history of the known avatars, there has never been such a record of words given by the avatar himself. In fact, if one were to throw out every message one ever read, due to historical cynicism, there is ONE message given by Baba that would be impossible to discount as by Baba -- without concocting such a twisted and paranoid conspiracy theory that (. . .) And that is the message given by hand-gestures in the 1967 sound film by Louis van Gasteren. If one sees the full footage (not all has been released) one sees Eruch struggling sometimes over a single word, letter by letter, until Baba approves it. If this is not "literally" what Baba wanted said, then what can one do? What we learn in this glimpse of Baba giving messages, even at the very end, is how precise Baba could be if he chose. Baba does not seem to allow Eruch, his interpreter, to simply say what he likes. Baba says what must be said, 'when it matters.' And for me at least, that is a real peak into how Baba developed all his own books. They are what he meant, and when it mattered it was down to the exact word. When not, he gave that room. Baba does not seem to have been a man who allowed anything to slip past him while he was here in the body.

3. Now I've said enough about how to be skeptical. But here are reasons that one can feel confident, or how I have come to be confident, about a great amount of Baba's words. This blog is named after them, after all. So it is something I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about.

When I returned to the Meher Center a year ago after some years away, I was surprised at Meher Abode to see the display case laid out with several of Baba's books signed boldly by him in the flyleaf. Among them were God Speaks, Discourses, Beams, and The Everything and the Nothing. Others I don't remember. This impressed me, and I'll explain why.

There is much talk of the fact (and it is a fact) that Baba's method of writing after he wrote his "Secret Book" was to give points to a disciple he himself chose, and then assign that disciple the job of fleshing out those words into full English prose. The fact that this is so is unambiguous, for while Baba was entirely fluent in English (as we know from hand-written letters by him), he chose to give these points in several languages, changing mid-stream as it struck him. The image of Baba giving discourses and books "word for word in English" is a myth if it persists at all. See for example my post, How Meher Baba wrote God Speaks.

These discourses he would then have read to him and would make corrections, frequently changing a word or giving a full further clarification. Then, at the time Baba chose, these went to print, with his name as sole author. Such a method of writing is in no way in conflict with how works of this nature are done. Authorship does not mean no one has worked on it. It means that the result was approved as rightly conveying the positions of that person as he gave them. Baba did so many things to show his approval of selected works by him being passed on as true representations of his statements. One of these is that he copyrighted his works, and that he made every provision for such copyrights after his death. More than half of Baba's Will and Testament is devoted to his copyrights. But as if these were not enough, Baba signed his books, in the case of God Speaks, doing so 500 times, the strongest gesture an author can make of signing off that a book represents him.

When a book is written by a ghost writer, let us say by a politician, it is not true it is not by the stated author -- so long as that politician signs off that it is a clear and true representation of what he had to say and approves that his name is on it. Any other would be called "unauthorized."

4. What can be said in defense of books gathered together and edited by others after Baba's death. An example is Infinite Intelligence, from folios penned in an unknown hand, found just after Baba's death, that some theorize originates from lecture notes taken by a disciple in the 1920s, and others that it was a fair copy of something originally in Baba's own hand. In either case, the material was only discovered posthumously, greatly edited, and published in 2005 with Baba's name. Certainly there is no signature or copyright by Baba to make this ascertainment, leading some to dismiss it entirely -- or as an invention of its editors. Yet I defend its content in my review of the book, and believe it is properly attributed. This I would argue would even be true if it were from lecture notes later gathered, as there is precedent for such a procedure. To give a respected example of such a book properly credited to the originator, consider The Blue and Brown Books, a book with the author given as the British philosopher Ludgwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), though only published in 1965, over a decade after his death, culled from his notebooks and from lecture notes taken by his students at Cambridge. No one in philosophy (a group made up of fanatic bibliophiles with an obsession for precise wording) considers it to not be a true representation of Wittgenstein's thoughts. So with Infinite Intelligence we are not so far out on a limb.

What begins to emerge then is that no exact rule can be applied to the decision one must make when he takes words to be true representation of Baba's meaning and message. Every rule I have ever thought of, I can think of some counter-example to it that would qualify that as a solid dogma. One has to remain discriminating, as I said at the opening of this essay. But I would like to point out some obvious common sense rules of thumb for people to consider when trying to make that choice, so they can ignore grossly obvious fake quotes, or extremely dubious claims of coming from Baba.

(a) Hearsay: When, since Baba has dropped his body, someone reports that X person (who has died and can't confirm or deny it) said that Baba (who can no longer confirm or deny it) said such and such, be very doubtful. It's called hearsay. It suffers from one's inability to confirm or deny it. One has to take the word of the witness of the witness of the source. Bad idea.

(b) Argument from ignorance: There are two forms of this. When someone says to you, "We don't know Baba didn't say it, so it's possible, so we have to consider it." This is of course called argument from ignorance, and it's a fallacy of logic. A simple counterexample shows why. The number of things Baba didn't say is infinite. Also, the number of things that are possible is infinite. Therefore these are trivial. It is possible I'm a dog. But that is not an argument to believe I am one.

The second argument from ignorance comes from a bizarre logic surrounding the printing press. The logic goes:
Not all in print is true.
Therefore, you should believe what I tell you.
Never believe a word a person says by prefacing it with, "You believe everything you read?" No one believes everything they read. Yet there are levels of veracity, a spectrum. At the top of this spectrum is hearing a source speak in your presence. At the very bottom is hearsay. Somewhere in the middle is printed material. But very near the top is something printed in a person's lifetime stating it contains their ideas, published with their consent, then copyrighted by them, and then signed by them. It's kind of hard to trust someone who says of such a book, "You believe everything you read?" There's an even older expression that goes, "You believe everything you hear?" So be cautious when one applies this skepticism to books, but not to their own words -- especially when those words are admittedly derived from rumors.

(c) Late-breaking revelations: There are two forms of this. When someone 'remembers' what Baba said to them long after he died, one ought to be suspicious -- especially when it's decades later. Or when someone claims to only now be admitting something Baba said to them when he was alive. I would again be cautious. And just because something is in print, it is true in this case that this adds little more than the fact that someone who published it took the gamble that the revelation is true. This does not mean you have to take that same gamble. Without Baba here to continue signing off on books, we are left to our personal choices. For myself, I avoid the later revelations.

In the end, however, the decision about how one makes these assessments has to remain personal. The spiritual path is one that each individual must take alone, though in the midst of others. What we choose to believe is from Baba is every person's personal gamble. For they will likely live by whatever choice they make, and that is where the real 'words' take their life. In the hearts and actions of people. 

Coming to a Happy Balanced Position

Nothing I've said here is all that exciting. It's all just basic common sense anyone can stop and think about. Yet one does not want to overemphasize textual skepticism when approaching what Baba had to say. That would be unbalanced. If we were nothing but cynics, we could hardly take advantage of the treasures that are in Baba's books and messages. A little common sense and a little childlike trust are both needed to make best use of what Baba has left to us.

And it goes without saying that one should ignore anything I have said here one does not like.

I end on this final note of extreme optimism. Over the years I have noticed something. There is one basic desire that is shared by those who trust all Baba's books, and even hearsay of their liking, and those that we might count as the harshest critics of publishers of Baba's books. They all seem to agree that to get closer to Baba's own meaning is the aim of all of it. That says something nice about the originator, Meher Baba. There are few in this world that do not admire the man's brilliance and clarity -- however it comes to us. And that means that in spite of all the imperfections of our human methods of conveyance of whatever he said, that light that was the essence of Baba's words shines through.


  1. Thanks. This had many good points, Chris.

  2. Good blog Chris. It is important to talk to those who were present in His lifetime, check to confirm 'facts' printed in books about life with Baba. If the history of His advent gets distorted by someone, then it is the responsibility of those who were there and present to verify or deny, to present their version from what they remembered. And this needs to be done now, while these individuals are still alive!!