Sunday, October 16, 2016

Meher Baba does not mean Compassionate Father

It has long been a tradition to tell people that the name Meher Baba means 'compassionate father.' This is sort of true, and sort of not.

Here are four examples of this convention in print.
Now he began to gather his disciples; it was one of these
who first called him Baba, Meher Baba or Compassionate Father. (Francis Brabazon, Stay With God, 1991 edition, p. 23)

This avataric mission started in 1921 with the gathering together of his first disciples, who gave him the name "Meher Baba" or "Compassionate Father."
(Don Stevens editor, Introduction to Discourses, 1967 edition)

Who was this man with whom they had spent this priceless week? He was called "Meher Baba" (compassionate father), and thousands flocked about him at the slightest opportunity. (Meher Baba, Listen, Humanity, Narrated and edited by D.E. Stevens, 1985 edition, p. 89)

Saheb was profoundly impressed with Merwan's great spiritual strength and attributes, and no longer liked the name 'Merwan Seth' – thinking it sounded too ordinary. When all the Poona friends were gathered in Nasik, Sayyed brought up the topic of changing Merwan's title. Each man agreed, but what new name could they give Merwan? One of the men suggested "Mehru Baba" – meaning the Great One, but that was not approved. After several other choices were suggested and rejected, Sayyed Saheb himself, in the end, proposed the name "Meher Baba" – meaning Compassionate Father. Immediately it was endorsed by all. (Lord Meher, Vol. 1, 1986 edition, p. 290)
 Here is one that deviates from the standard.
Deeply touched by his loving ways, the first disciples of Merwan began to call him "Meher Baba" meaning "Compassionate One" or "Compassionate Father."
(Charles Haynes, Awakener, 1993 edition, p. 40)
How the authors came up with "one" as a translation for "Baba" is not explained. It doesn't. I'll explain in a moment what it means in its context as an extension to a name.

Now here are some facts.
Persian King

Baba was originally named Merwan by his Irani parents. His father was from Iran and his mother born to parents recently immigrated to India from Iran.

Mehran (Persian: مهران‎‎) is derived from the term "Mehr", or Mithra, a pre-Islamic ancient Persian deity.

Merwan (simply another western phonetic approximation of Mehran) was the name of two pre-Islamic Persian kings in the early Middle Ages, Merwan I and Merwan II. In English letters, Merwan can be spelled Maruan, Marouane, Merouane, Mervan, Marwan, or Merwan.

Now the problem with Baba's given name of Merwan was not that it was too ordinary, as Lord Meher says (p. 290, first edition). In fact 'Meher' is more common in India. The likely reason Baba's disciples sought a variation of his name was that Merwan has a strong Persian associations. From the beginning Baba was inclusive. The name Meher, is, from an Indian standpoint, much more universal, less ethnic, used broadly in India by Parsis, Hindus, and Muslims. Also, Meher really is only a variation of Merwan. Another spelling of Meher is Mehr, and Mehrwan is another spelling of Merwan. Hence, we could look at Meher as merely a more universal Indian form of Merwan, divorced of any single national or religious association.

Now we turn to the second part of the name, i.e. Baba. While the word "baba" is used around the world for anything from grandmother to a kind of spongecake in Poland, in its Eastern context Baba is an honorific often appended to the name of a person of great esteem, and comes from the word meaning father, grandfather, wise old man, or sir. To translate an honorific as a name is to mischaracterize it in the context, and the saying that it means father was likely meant to appease westerners -- as the West does not use honorifics.

The use of the honorific 'Baba' in India is usually specific to Sufi Saints. Consider for instance Sai Baba, Babajan, and Tajuddin Baba. Sai was the person's name, and Baba was appended as an honorific to show respect. Hindu Saints the equivalent is Maharaj (coming from the word for a king). Consider Baba's two Hindu masters, Upasni Maharaj and Narayan Maharaj.

Hence putting all this together, Meher Baba does not mean "compassionate father." It means 'Great Person, Merwan.'

Baba's disciples did what is traditional to India for Sufi masters, by appending to his name a strong honorific, and changed his first name to to a version that is less ethnically local so as not to off-put some Indians.

It is worth noting that Baba himself continued to sign his name Merwan, and it appears that way on  his passports, legal documents, and last will and testament.

Hence, I would like to suggest that the tradition of giving a "translation" of Meher Baba's name to people, who incidentally never ask what the name means, come to an end. In its place we say his name is Meher Baba, which was a name given to him out of respect, and is a de-ethnized version of his birth name of Merwan.


The meaning of the name “Mehar” is: “Kindness” and is of Arabic origin.

In most countries all over the world the name Mehar is a girl's name.

It is used in many countries and different languages of the world, especially English speaking countries, Hindi speaking countries among others.

If you consider naming your baby Mehar we recommend you take note of the special meaning and history of the name as your baby’s name will play a big role in its life and your baby will hear it spoken every day. Searching for a name is a very important and fun process as it’s the very first gift you will give to your baby. Many people believe that the name can affect success in life, through their children's working career and other circumstances, so they choose more “respectable” names or name meanings as they believe that the name meaning reflects the personality of the child. (source)

In Somali "Meher" means married.
In Latin it means tension.

Incidentally, in all early publications and announcements, Baba's name was printed as 'Sri Meher Baba.' Sri, also transliterated as Sree, Shri, Shree, Si or Seri is a word of Sanskrit origin, used in the Indian subcontinent as a polite form of address equivalent to the English "Mr." or "Ms." in written and spoken language, but also as a title of veneration for deities. It is also widely used in other South and Southeast Asian languages.

See this post for further, and perhaps better, thoughts on this topic. 

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