Rachel Manija Brown
Reviewed by Thomas Robbins, Ph.D.
Most accounts of an individual’s immersion in an esoteric or controversial religion fall into one of two categories. There are affirmative or devotional discourses in which the ultimate truth and value of a generally scorned faith is vindicated. There are also bitterly antagonistic accounts that decry one’s harrowing bondage to a seductive but ultimately pernicious, mind-controlling creed and celebrate one’s subsequent emancipation. What these polarized narratives have in common is that the writer’s attitude toward the esoteric creed in question is deadly serious. The writers now either cling to their redemptive benefactor or flee an insidious menace.
Neither attitude really characterizes All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, Rachel Manija Brown’s humorous memoir of her childhood involvement with the religion of Meher Baba. The faith had been more or less imposed on young “Mani” by her parents, particularly her devout mother. The latter, who is depicted as being somewhat insipid, continually exclaims “Baba, Baba, Baba” upon experiencing any significant emotion or challenge. Her father seems less extreme in his verbal behavior, but he possesses 89 pictures of Meher Baba.
Although thankful to finally be able to leave Meher Baba’s Ashram in Ahmednagar in India, where her parents had taken her when she was seven, Ms. Brown is not engaged in a crusade against Baba worship. She seems to view her religious involvement as an ordeal of her childhood, which she had to go through, and which she now looks back on as something alternately tedious and amusing. Readers may be somewhat reminded of other writers’ accounts of their strict upbringing in Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic, or Protestant Evangelical families. In any case, the author does not view her quirky upbringing as a cause célèbre. She appears to view it as primarily an opportunity for a literary exercise. Her narrative is quite entertaining.
For those readers who are not among the cognoscenti, Meher Baba was an Indian spiritual master who claimed to be the “Avatar of the Age.” Baba died, or rather “dropped the physical body,” in 1969; yet, according to the author, he still has about a hundred thousand devotees worldwide. Meher Baba, the author notes, became “moderately famous for keeping a vow of silence for forty-four years and for coining the insipid motto ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’” Ms. Brown does not inform us that Baba first became familiar to the American counterculture of the 1960s through his denunciation of the spiritual pretensions of some early psychedelic drug users. Baba’s influential critique was embodied in his pamphlet, “God in a Pill?”
I ought to acknowledge that from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, I was a sort of hanger-on of the Meher Baba subculture. I never really connected with Baba on a deep experiential level, but I envied the connection that some of my friends seemed to experience. I lived for more than a half-decade in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where there were many “Baba-lovers,” and I paid several visits to the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. When, decades later, I moved to the Midwest, I gradually lost contact with all but two Baba-lovers.
Rachel Brown seems to view religion as a powerful but ultimately arbitrary psychic obsession. “We all have mental magnets for obsession,” she comments. “[We’re] waiting to encounter an idea or person or practice of the opposite charge.” Her mother’s “magnet was an exceptionally strong one, and it attracted her to Baba.” But her daughter can only understand such an obsession by analogy; for example,
…when I was a child, I was obsessed with animals. Now I’m obsessed with martial arts … some people are obsessed with Star Trek, ferrets or a person they’re stalking. I can understand the fascination even if I can’t understand its object.
Rachel Brown has no idea “why Baba’s followers picked him over the other thirty flavors of God” or why, when she was three years old, she became fixated on rabbits “rather than ponies or parakeets or Komodo dragons.” It may be rebellion, she speculates, but she’ll never know for certain why she can’t share her parents’ connection to Baba, “why I lack the God magnet.”
Rachel Brown’s ruminations seem to suggest that many of us possess intrinsically obsessive personalities, and many persons who are not obsessed with religion or involved in a “cult” may have other fixations which are ultimately just as intense, arbitrary, and seemingly irrational. It should be noted, however, that Brown actually never had the experience of being a true believer or convert, although she has been in a position to observe numerous believers and conversions. Growing up in a devout, Baba-loving family, “I sped toward the Baba-magnet with everyone else, but I only followed their lead. I never felt the pull.”
The author describes life at Baba’s Ashram at Ahmednagar near Pune (Poona) in India. She is aghast at some elements of life at the compound, such as the inadequate toilet facilities. Initially taken by her parents to Baba’s Ashram when she was only seven years old, Rachel Brown manages to depict the Ashram through the eyes of a clever but puzzled child. She is introduced to the “Mandali” (Baba’s chief disciples), who pinch her cheeks. “It was like being introduced to some annoying ancient relative at Thanksgiving, except that there were twenty of them, and they were not going to go away when the holidays were over.” She has a somewhat traumatic experience when she is accosted by a “Mast” or “God-intoxicated” saint. A Mast, she has been told, may act like a madman, but he is really “drunk on God,” and he is thus very spiritually advanced. Rachel realizes that, back home in Los Angeles, her mother would grab my hand and run across the street if she saw a smelly old man talking to himself. But here in Ahmednagar, they gave crazy people jobs and places to live and said they were close to Baba. It was confusing.
When she was a child at the Ashram, Rachel decided that the idea that Baba was God was an abstract notion, which she assumed she might one day come to understand. As an adult, she now cannot accept Baba’s divinity, but neither is she fiercely antagonistic to Baba. She doesn’t think that Baba can be dismissed “as yet another charismatic con man.” She notes that Baba “did not amass wealth or stockpile weapons or use his followers for sex…” Moreover, “a lifetime of self-imposed silence bespeaks sincerity.”Rachel did not come to accept the idea that Baba was God, “but I believed that he believed it.”
Unlike some apostates from esoteric religions, Rachel Brown is not on a fervent crusade. She does, however, depict some Baba-lovers, principally her mother, as rather silly. “At the Ashram, Baba’s name was on everybody’s lips at all times. It was used as punctuation, as a greeting, as an exclamation, as a goodbye or as a prayer.” The author’s mother used Baba’s name as a sort of “all-purpose conjunction, ‘Oh Baba, what a nice sunny day’ … ‘Oh Baba, the train’s late again.’” She even “followed burps and sneezes with a trailing sigh of ‘Oh, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba.’” Portraits like this may give readers an overall negative impression of what it is to be a Baba-lover, although a careful reading will reveal that not all devotees are as fatuous as the author depicts her own devout mother.
In fact, the author seems to be rather obsessed with her mother. She wants to discover whether, as she strongly suspects, her mom was abused as a child by her father. (The author reports receiving an actual sexual advance from her maternal grandfather.) Rachel speculates on how childhood abuse has affected her mother’s life and how it might relate to her mother’s spiritual apotheosis. Her mother, like other Baba-lovers, believes that one’s goal in life should be to work toward the extinction of one’s illusory façade of self. Did her abusive childhood “make her wish she didn’t exist?” Did the entire world now seem to Rachel’s mother to be treacherous? What can offer her “more certainty, more pure and sexless love … and drive bad memories away than God Almighty? What could be less threatening than a celibate God who didn’t speak?”
Of course, these are mainly tentative suggestions by the author. She realizes that throughout history “some people have always abandoned everything to go knocking on God’s door.” It seems likely that not all devotees are disturbed or neurotic.
Rachel Brown’s memoir is particularly insightful in places. She may have a point in attributing part of Meher Baba’s appeal to his ambiguity. “Baba-lovers often have widely varying ideas of what Baba-loving is all about…” Moreover, “many philosophies can find support somewhere in the mass of Baba’s writing.” The author treats Baba and his devotees with skepticism but generally not with intense contempt. Nevertheless, some Baba-lovers may have problems with the volume, as did the author’s mother, who was not pleased with a manuscript of several early chapters that she received. Satire and jocular ribbing will sometimes present a more potent challenge to a faith than will strident denunciation.
This volume did, however, disappoint me in a few respects. Although the author doesn’t provide dates, which would have been helpful, it seems likely that Rachel Brown’s sojourn in Ahmednagar transpired a decade or more after my own marginal Baba involvement. She identifies “Firoze” as Baba’s leading disciple, whom her mother sees as a St. Peter figure. However, I had always been told that Baba’s cousin “Addi K. Irani” (Meher Baba had been born “Merwan Sheriar Irani”) was Baba’s chief disciple, although I knew that Addi had died in the 1970s. The other leading male disciple I used to hear about was “Eruch Jessawalla,” who had a more dynamic presence than Addi K. Irani and who had greater contact with Western pilgrims who came to the Ashram. It is Eruch, according to a friend of mine who follows Baba, who is undoubtedly “Firoze.” (Rachel Brown obviously employed pseudonyms.) Baba’s leading female disciple, whom she calls “Paribanu,” seems to be the woman I have long heard of as “Mehera.” I find these name changes a bit disconcerting. If Rachel Brown had grown up among the earliest Christians, she might have represented St. Peter as “George” or St. Paul as “Walter.”
Parenthetically, although I never went to India and never met Eruch/Firoze, I did once meet Addi K. Irani, who came over from India and stayed at the Myrtle Beach Baba Center sometime between 1969 and 1971. One day he came up from Myrtle Beach to visit Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which had a large Baba community. It was arranged that Addi would be feted at Tijuana Fats’ Mexican restaurant, of which I was at the time co-proprietor. Mexican food was not served; rather, various Baba-lovers prepared Indian dishes (generally curries) in their homes and brought their concoctions to the restaurant, which supplied Coca-Cola. After the communal meal, Addi came up to me and thanked me profusely for the dinner. I was a bit embarrassed, and I hastened to emphasize that Tijuana Fats’ had not created the feast, but we had merely provided the Cokes. “I had three Cokes,” replied Baba’s great disciple. As epiphanies go, perhaps this wasn’t much, but I’ve never forgotten Addi’s statement.
To sum up, Rachel Brown definitely sees Baba-loving as a “cult” and does relate various pressures to conform. However, a careful reading will indicate that Baba-lovers are not just another dogmatic sect. At one point, Rachel relates confessing to her father and his new wife that she does not accept Baba’s divinity. She expects them to “freak out,” but she is told they don’t care. Somewhat similarly, I was accepted as part of the Baba community in Chapel Hill and Myrtle Beach even though I continually said irreverent things about Baba and made fun of the religion. Ultimately, the Baba community is somewhat dissimilar to a stereotypical “cult” because it does not really have doctrinal criteria for membership, although there might possibly be particular subgroups of Baba-lovers who are more rigid. The Baba community is thus rather less regimented and “destructive” than some other new movements (although I’m not a wholehearted supporter of the “destructive cult” demonology).
There is indeed some tendency for the Baba community to attract persons who are in some way eccentric or unbalanced. Rachel Brown relates how, upon reaching the Ahmednagar Ashram, some devotees impulsively and exuberantly threw away their [psychiatric] medications, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Nevertheless, as “cults” go, one could certainly do a lot worse.
Finally, reading this book made me feel old. Like Hare Krishna or the “Jesus Movement,” Meher Baba was originally a surging “youth culture religion.” Eventually, such groups make fewer converts and come to depend on the loyalty of the second generation. The second generation, to judge from Rachel Brown’s evolution, may not always cooperate. I miss feeling that I’m on the cutting edge.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006, Page