Monday, July 17, 2017

What does the name Meher Baba really mean?

It is a common meme that his early disciples gave Baba the name 'Meher Baba,' and that it means 'compassionate father.' Is this true?

In a round-about way it could be conceived to mean that, but that does not establish why they chose this name for him as a master.

From what I can gather, the name Meher is an alternative spelling of Mehr, a name which in turn derives from the Iranian word "Mihir", which is ultimately from the sanskrit "Mithira." English spellings tell us nothing, as there was no formalized spelling for Indian or Iranian names in 1922 when Baba's disciples began to call Merwan (or Merog as his family called him) Meher Baba.

Baba is simply an honorific used for Sufi masters in that period, e.g. Tajudin Baba, Sai Baba, Babajan. While the word Baba can also mean father or grandmother in some languages, this has no direct bearing on its use as an honorific.

To say that the name Meher Baba was given in such a way that "meher" was used as an adjective and "baba" as a word for a paternal member of a family is absurd.

Meher has no precise single meaning, just as names generally do not. My name could in such a way be translated as 'Christ bearer zero.' This is not how people are named, i.e. with meanings in mind.

In short Meher was a variation of spelling of Baba's actual name Mehrwan/Meherwan/Merwan (all spellings are just as good for a person born in a family that spoke Dari at home, and Gujarati in the surrounding community.

If I were telling someone about Meher Baba and his name came up (not sure why it would) I would simply say that Meher was a variation of the spelling of his name and Baba a common honorific title in the East.

Meher Baba's name does not mean compassionate father. It is an honorific name, pure and simple. Names mean their referent, in this case the person named Meher Baba.

An earlier stab at this point is in this post.

BTW, we no longer use honorifics generally in the West. In the past, various members of nobilioty had honorific titles such as King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Duke, Duchess, Marquess, Earl, Countess, Baron, etc. Sir is still sometimes used to denote someone who is knighted, though even this use is declining.

The term 'father' as used in the West for a Catholic or Anglican priest is not an honorific in the same sense that 'Baba' is used for people considered enlightened in the East. 'Father' literally refers to the priest's state of representing God on earth, who is literally the Father in the Christian trinity. Baba in the East bears no such literal allusion to a father in the paternal family sense. In fact to call an elderly person (even a woman) Baba in the East is like saying sir or madam, a show of being especially polite -- and has no biological allusion.

Perhaps the closest analogous use in the West to an honorific like Baba is our word 'doctor' or the extension 'Ph.D. or M.D.' We really do say 'Dr. Rosenthal will be the keynote speaker at tonight's banquet.' This alerts others to the higher status of this person within our society. It would be considered rude or even strange to say, 'Joe will be the keynote speaker at tonight's banquet.' And it is even rude to refer to such a person as 'Mr. Rosenthal.' Clearly our word 'doctor' is an honorific. And such titles are still given to people for merit, as honorary titles. So we say 'Doctor Bill Cosby will be present with us at the conference.' The Comedian Bill Cosby has received 57 honorary degrees since 1985. Here is the list.

The final question that interests me, as an academic, is what to call Baba when referring to him in an analytical paper. The term Baba seems odd. If we were writing about Dr. Joseph Rosenthal, we would not refer to 'Doctor' throughout the paper. It does not pick out which one? There are many with the honorific Baba, and it just sounds too devotional and a bit unsettling. It also would seem demeaning to refer to him as Merwan, though that is how he spelled his own name until he gave up signing.

Meher Baba signed his own name 'Merwan' as he learned in school
It also seems odd, for some reason, to refer to him as Meher, though some academics have, much as they refer to Gautama Buddha as Gautama. Other academics have chosen to use his full name for clarity throughout. Here is an example of such a paper. I have always taken the tack of José Sanjinés myself, and will continue to I believe.

Meher Baba's name is kind of a mystery. It is a unique case, I think. And as such it might deserve unique handling in serious literature. I will continue to refer to him mostly as Meher Baba myself. No other form seems to fit him.

One more aside. The notion that the meaning of a proper name of a person or thing is the person or thing that it names is not off the top of my head. It is based on formalized logical syntax as defined in Principia Mathematica, written over a three year period by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell and published in three volumes in 1910, 1912, and 1913. In logic the 'meaning' of a proper name is its referent.

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