Occasional observations on life

A review of Damian Thompson The Fix: How addiction is invading our lives and taking over your world (London: Collins, 2012)


Introductory comments
Given the seriousness of its subject matter, it might seem insensitive to joke that I couldn’t put this book down, but in truth The Fix is a highly readable account of the hydra-headed reality of contemporary addiction. Author Damian Thompson, a journalist with a PhD in sociology, and himself a former alcoholic, describes with disarming candour the ‘addictive desires’ to which he is subject, and which he believes are far more common than most of us would like to admit. Indeed, it is precisely the prevalence of such desires that makes them a target for those whose job it is to manipulate us into consumption of one form or another, and this is really what The Fix is about.

The science of addiction
The book doesn’t present any groundbreaking research. The perspective is more sociological than neuroscientific, although brain chemistry is central to the story, and Thompson’s exposition of it is lucid and interesting. He points out that the scientific jury is still out on the precise causes of addiction. Although the role of neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and the opioid system – in reinforcing certain behaviours is well understood, there is less certainty about what causes some people to cross the line into debilitating addiction, while others evade this outcome. One thing that Thompson is adamant about, however, is that addiction is not a disease.

As an alcoholic, Thompson attended the AA 12-step program and is open about the benefits he received from it, but he attributes the success of the method to the ‘remarkable power of peer-group moral support’ (p. 34), despite – rather than because of – its adoption of the ‘disease model’ of addiction. For Thompson, the disease model is pernicious, because it removes ‘will’ from the picture. Not that his tone is moralising – he recognises the adverse circumstances that can lead to some forms of addiction – but he favours an account, more traditional in my view, that sees addiction in terms of habit formation. In this context, he approvingly cites psychologist Dr Stanton Peele, who ‘argues that AA preserved the temperance movement’s message of total abstinence – deeply rooted in American Protestant society – while relieving guilt by naming illness rather than sin as the cause of addiction’ (p. 44). Thompson finds the jargon of addiction specialists to be fuzzy and superficial: ‘They’ll use a term like “compulsion” without exploring the philosophical questions it raises about free will’ (p. 43); and he accuses them of a circular logic: ‘heavy drinkers who give up alcohol of their own accord … cannot have had the disease and were therefore never alcoholics in the first place ‘(pp. 35–36). The problem, of course, is that there is no diagnostic test for the ‘disease’ of addiction, unlike cancer or tuberculosis.

Countering the disease model, Thompson presents both anecdotal evidence and the results of large-scale research. In the former category is his account of Robin and James, friends from similar backgrounds who both drifted from alcohol to hard drugs. But while Robin gradually turned his life around with great effort, James committed suicide. Thompson points out that if Robin had died during his addiction phase, as nearly happened, the specialists would have felt vindicated in attributing his fate to a disease. Since he recovered through his own efforts, however, the conclusion must instead be that he never had the disease.

The disease model is not supported at an epidemiological level either, as extensive US government research conducted with Vietnam veterans demonstrates. Fearing a massive public-order problem caused by thousands of heroin-addicted GIs returning to American cities, the government commissioned a study of 400 users who described themselves as addicted. What they found, however, was that 88% of the subjects kicked the habit once they returned to civilian life. It seems very likely that it was the extreme circumstances in Vietnam, coupled with availability and peer behaviour, that was the cause of the addiction. Once the circumstances changed, for most of the soldiers the addiction was overcome. For Thompson, this identifies a key factor in addiction, which he describes as the ‘availability hypothesis’. Following Professor Michael Gossop, a leading researcher at the National Addiction Centre, King’s College, London, he describes different ‘dimensions of availability’: physical, psychological, economic, and social. The Vietnam GIs ticked all of the boxes.

Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the science of addiction. The role of dopamine is discussed, as is the opioid system, which contains the brain’s morphine-like compounds (endorphins). The former seems to have more to do with desire (wanting), and the latter with pleasure (liking). The surprising fact for me was that the former is stronger than the latter – our bodies reward wanting more than liking, although the latter plays a role in the former. Grafted onto this schema is what Thompson calls the Go and Stop impulses. The Go impulse is very primitive and we share it with animals. Dopamine is central to this urge. The Stop impulse is associated with the frontal lobes and is highly developed only in adult humans – it helps us to manage the Go impulse by reasoning about the consequences of immediate reward. I might observe that, if we leave out the technical vocabulary, none of this would have been news to the philosophers of the ancient world, who developed reasoning about desire to a high degree.

The point about the brain chemistry is that the same chemicals are involved in any form of addiction, be it ‘substance’ or ‘process’ addiction. The effects of different ‘recreational’ drugs on the brain may vary, and can be observed in addict behaviour (pp. 60–63), but ‘dopamine is still the master drug’ (p. 63). It plays a role in fastening onto ‘cues’, and here Thompson links the rarer experience of addicts to our everyday experience. The physiological effect of cues has been understood at least since Pavlov, but the point here is the continuity of the experience – ‘ordinary’ and ‘addictive’ represent different points on the same spectrum, and that is significant to the case that Thompson is making: ‘the brain’s reward circuits don’t necessarily distinguish between supposedly innocent and supposedly dangerous pursuits … addictive behaviours are accompanied by physical changes in the brain – whether or not they involve drugs’ (p. 65).

This brings us to the heart of the argument about brain chemistry and addiction, and it recalls what was said earlier about the will and habit formation. The following key passage is worth quoting in full:

Why does science have such a hard time getting to grips with the phenomenon of addiction? In a nutshell, because human brains, as opposed to animal ones, can instruct the body to perform an almost infinite number of voluntary (and therefore unpredictable) actions. And, contrary to the beliefs of disease-model advocates and the huge therapeutic industry, addictive behaviour is essentially voluntary. Addicts may be influenced by their disordered brain chemistry to make bad choices, but they are choices nonetheless. (p. 67)

For Thompson, addiction is a disorder describing how ‘people choose to do things that are not in their best interests … addicts are those who consistently seek damaging short-term rewards’ (p. 70). He doesn’t rule out an inherited predisposition, since, for example, alcoholism is known to run in families, but unlike a genetically inherited disease, no one has isolated a specific gene for alcoholism, and Thompson isn’t sanguine about the prospects of finding one: ‘since addiction consists of complex sequences of voluntary acts, such neurological reductionism is a waste of time’ (p. 70). Here he anticipates much of the theme for the remainder of his book. Hard drugs are not physically, psychologically, economically, or socially available to most of us, but there are many other substances, objects, and processes that are, and the producers of such things have a very strong interest in getting – and keeping – us hooked on them.

The chapter concludes with some semantic considerations that emerge from the science. First, ‘the old distinction between “psychological” and “physical” addiction is misleading’ (p. 72). We can be physically addicted to something, meaning that its consumption or repetition is reinforced by changes in the brain, but it is nonetheless reversible if the behaviour changes. Second, ‘dependence’ can mean different things. A diabetic may be dependent on insulin, meaning that he will die without it; but a heroin addict will not die without heroin. Thompson urges that ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’, though not scientific terms, ‘can be used unambiguously because they correspond to discrete urges governed by different brain mechanisms … [and] we can say with some confidence that, increasingly, our wanting urge is overwhelming our liking urge’ (p. 72). He argues that corporations have become very adept at manipulating our environment ‘to make us as greedy as possible’ (p. 73).

The business of addiction
Chapter 4 links what has already been said about brain chemistry and the availability hypothesis, with what we know about evolutionary biology, and applies this knowledge to our contemporary world, with some historical examples that lend support to the argument. A key paragraph is the following:

In evolutionary terms, we essentially have the brains and bodies of hunter-gatherers. Our biochemistry has changed a bit in response to our dramatically altered surroundings, but not nearly enough for us to be able to adjust to them without damaging ourselves. Most people don’t reach the point of becoming addicts; but this mismatch between our bodies and our environment is the fundamental problem of addiction, and it is common to all humanity. (p. 76)

The biological goal of evolution is survival, and the mechanism that drives it is pleasure. Pleasure rewards the behaviour that increases our chances of survival. The problem is that our brain chemistry keeps pushing us towards those pleasurable experiences after our biological needs have been met: ‘We have no way of switching off the hunter-gatherer instincts inherited from the mammals that preceded us, which have developed over hundreds of thousands of years’ (p. 79).

Technology plays a central role in the struggle for survival. Thompson defines technology as ‘an infinite number of tools, crafts and techniques that, thanks to scientific discoveries, have the potential to make life more bearable for us’ (p. 80). Technology ‘allows us to achieve greater rewards for less effort … [it] pushes the work-to-reward ratio in the direction of rewards – and usually short-term rewards at that’ (pp. 80–81).

Problems begin when – due to urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism – we arrive at a situation of unlimited availability. The well-known example of sugar is given: useful in the form of occasional fruit for hunter-gatherers, but positively dangerous in the quantities that we are now consuming it. This brings us to the concept of ‘addictive epidemics’ (p. 87). Heroin addiction among Vietnam GIs was an example of this, and Thompson provides others, such as the eighteenth-century ‘Gin Craze’ in London – the ‘first recorded epidemic of drunkenness in history’ (pp. 84–7); and, in the same century, the epidemic of opium smoking in China (pp. 89–92). In both cases, the epidemics involved a combination of technological developments and other social factors, leading to ‘availability’ in the senses discussed earlier.

Moving on from heroin, alcohol, and opium, Thompson points out that addictive urges needn’t involve ‘substances’ at all, and he gives the examples of casinos and strip clubs, both being cases where the thrill-seeker ‘is endlessly teased with cues that signify sudden wealth or a glorious sexual encounter’ (p. 93). It’s not important that the customer knows deep-down that these expectations are unrealistic, since his brain chemistry leads him to ignore the long-term consequences in favour of a ‘short-term buzz of excitement’ (p. 93).

For Thompson, there is no tidy explanation of what tips people over into self-destructive behaviours, but he asks us to step back and remind ourselves of the big picture:

The only things limiting our ability to stimulate ourselves to the point of frenzy are our fragile biology and our common sense. Western society has moved beyond the point where addictive epidemics can easily be distinguished from everyday behaviour; the dynamics of addiction and the dynamics of the free market simply have too much in common. (p. 94)

Dramatically illustrating this point is the example of the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, which commercialized the drug diamorphine in 1898, marketing it as a syrup for ‘coughs, colds and “irritation”’ (p. 95). It was trademarked as Heroin, ‘to indicate its “heroic” properties’ (p. 95). (Diamorphine had first been synthesized by an English chemist in 1874, but Bayer led commercialization after Felix Hoffmann independently re-synthesized it.) Although they had been searching for a less addictive form of morphine, they ended up producing a substance that was more addictive, and then making it readily available with dreadful consequences. We now know that once demand has been created, limiting supply becomes ineffective, because addicts will switch to other substances, and even to non-substance forms of addiction:

Addictive behaviours aren’t necessarily locked on to specific things: in a world where there are practically limitless pleasurable experiences on offer, obsessive behaviour becomes promiscuous: it can grab hold of any object or activity that promises us a hit. (p. 98)

Most of the rest of the book applies this argument to various modern forms of addiction. Chapter 5 is devoted to sugar, which Thompson points out shares some of the psychoactive properties of ‘recreational’ drugs. Lab tests at Princeton University indicate that sugar induces cocaine-like reactions in rodents (pp. 107–8). Beyond the substance itself, however, is all of the daily behaviour that surrounds it, and which surrounds our consumption (and over-consumption) of food in general: ‘the food industry not only engineers food that exploits our natural preference for sugar, fat and salt, but also grabs our attention when we’re not eating, employing cues that awaken our wanting instinct’ (p. 123).

Chapter 6 considers the social phenomenon of binge drinking. Public drunkenness has become more prevalent, even among women, and its effects are graphically portrayed not just in the traditional media but on social-media platforms like YouTube. The ‘narrowing of the alcohol gender gap … [means that] women are now exposed to changes in brain chemistry that had previously been restricted to men’ (pp. 134–5). A large part of this chapter is autobiographical, but Thompson draws out the implications, describing himself as ‘a fairly typical casualty of an environment saturated with my drug of choice’ (p. 141). He goes on to link the social change in drinking patterns to the related ingestion of recreational drugs, which are being synthesized at an increasing rate, and often available at low cost on the Internet. The acceleration of the process makes it virtually impossible for the authorities to keep up. The conclusion is a pessimistic one:

Government scientists are scrambling desperately to classify these drugs and warn young people of the dangers of taking them. But the underground laboratories, and their new digital sales departments, are too far ahead. It’s a lost cause. (p. 150)

Chapter 7 takes a look at the converging problem of prescription medication. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, designed to treat ADD and ADHD (controversial diagnoses in their own right), have become widely prescribed, particularly in the US. These stimulants have been adopted as cognitive-enhancing drugs, particularly by students who are under pressure to perform, and they are traded accordingly. The social pressure on students to drink, at parties or in clubs, has resulted in widespread self-medication, often involving carefully-planned sequences of alcohol, amphetamines (legal and illegal), painkillers (e.g. codeine), and tranquilizers.

What we’re confronting here goes further than a blurring of the boundary between legal and illegal drugs. Also evaporating are the distinctions between the legal, inappropriate and unlawful use of medicines, plus the difference between medication and self-medication. (p. 159)

The pattern doesn’t necessarily end with graduation either, but can be carried over into a high-pressure workplace. Research indicates, however, not only that the drugs are damaging, but that they deliver no long-term cognitive enhancement. In the case of such self-medicating high achievers, Thompson suggests that ‘it might be worth checking on the state of their brain chemistry in a few years’ time’ (p. 171).

The next two chapters take us beyond substance abuse to forms of non-substance addiction, such as ‘gaming’ (Chapter 8) and pornography (Chapter 9), both being areas where computer technology has created unheard-of forms of addiction.

The title of Chapter 8 (‘Gaming, the new gambling’) is a succinct summary of its content. A watershed event was the passing of a law in the US in 2006, making online betting illegal and preventing any company from providing it there. People who had been addicted to online gambling switched instead to online gaming, and gaming companies recruited programmers from the now-illegal industry. The switch would have been relatively smooth for them because, as Thompson points out, the two activities employ similar ‘reward dynamics’ (p. 174). He describes them with an evocative phrase: ‘brain-hijackers with transferable skills’ (p. 180). Supporting this claim is a statement from an anonymous Silicon Valley gaming company CEO:

We design an environment in which losses are insignificant and there are regular reassurance mechanisms. Then we make modifications to that environment and monitor which combinations of punishment and encouragement keep users playing for longer. We engineer the game very precisely to keep players enjoying it for the longest possible time, and we use complex software to help us monitor what the entire installed user base of players is doing with their copy of the game. (p. 181)

Who are these players? Thompson points out that ‘it isn’t just children who are getting trapped in cyberspace’ (p. 176). There are adults who spend hours in front of a screen tweaking their online personas (avatars), purchasing virtual real estate, furniture, and clothing, and interacting with other avatars in an immersive virtual world (e.g. Second Life). Corporations take male and female preferences into account and tailor their games accordingly. Furthermore, not only has the ‘traditional’ gaming market mushroomed, but a host of other software applications has been ‘gamified’ (p. 177), including email, Twitter and Facebook. That such applications are now installed on multiple platforms (smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers) means that we are increasingly bombarded with visible and audible notifications that give us a buzz of excitement.

Although games and social media technologies might appear trivial by comparison with some forms of addiction, Thompson believes we are facing ‘yet another social epidemic, born out of the marriage of marketing and reward-responsive brain chemistry’ (p. 183). He numbers ‘300 internet addiction clinics in China alone, catering to some of the estimated 17 million game and internet addicts in that country’ (p. 188).

A troubling implication of this burgeoning online interaction is that ‘relationships in the real world will resemble those in the digital one: transitory, accelerated, pragmatic associations that provide a hit of narcissistic reassurance rather than lasting bonds between close friends’ (p. 194). If this sounds far-fetched to some, Thompson concludes, consider that ‘by the end of 2011, Facebook was being cited in a third of divorce cases in the UK’ (p. 195).

Chapter 9 tells a similar story, but this time it is digital pornography that is of concern. Men are more prone to this addiction, but women are affected. It is a difficult area to research, but the available data ‘suggests that the sexual appetites of countless millions of people are being manipulated in ways for which there is no historical precedent’ (p. 196). Of all the addictions that Thompson describes in the book, ‘it’s the one that comes closest to panicking the experts’ (p. 198).

By contrast with the pre-digital version, digital porn has become increasingly explicit, in response to the jaded appetites of consumers. This includes a ‘drift towards violence and cruelty’ (p. 204). Furthermore, although porn has always taken advantage of new technologies, the Internet has made it available on an unprecedented scale, frequently without cost, and to children as well as adults.

Thompson cites psychiatrist Norman Doidge, whose 2007 book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has made popular the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’. For Doidge, ‘internet porn is addictive in roughly the same way as drugs’ (p. 211). In the mid- to late-1990s, he noticed that some of his male patients complained of problems with normal sexual performance, and he ascribed this to brain rewiring, brought on by repeated bursts of dopamine in response to explicit pornographic images. The business side of porn may not be as systematic as online gaming, but the effects on the brain are just as pernicious, if not more so.

The examples provided by Thompson demonstrate that this problem is affecting males of all ages and backgrounds, with publicised cases revealing the collection of hundreds of thousands of illegal images. This is one of the instances where addiction reveals obsessive-compulsive traits. Like other forms of addiction, internet porn exploits loneliness, and masquerades as an antidote to it. It is a case of the progressive replacement of people by things, in this instance by increasingly hard-core images.

The title of the final chapter (‘Deliver us from temptation’) has religious overtones, perhaps reflecting Thompson’s academic and professional background – his PhD was in the sociology of religion, and he has been religious affairs correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald.

In this chapter, we return to the big picture, to get some sense of what we are confronting. Regarding legalisation of drugs, Thompson points out that the resulting changes to lines of supply would not provide any remedy for addiction. Furthermore, technological changes mean that the boundary between legal and illegal drugs has become blurred, and, in any case, many abused drugs are already easy to get hold of (e.g. Adderall, Ritalin, codeine).

As a way of understanding addiction in the 21st century, Thompson adopts the pyramidal model proposed by Dr Adi Jaffe, a former addict and dealer turned academic psychologist. According to this model, the pyramid is divided into thirds: the bottom third represents ordinary people whose addictive impulses are ‘difficult, but not impossible, to excite’; the middle layer consists of ‘vulnerable individuals whose natural reaction to stress is to search for a fix’; at the top are those we consider addicts in the real sense, ‘with their wide-open “wanting” pathways who are capable of developing an all-consuming obsession with anything from candy bars to sadomasochistic sex acts’ (p. 237). In the light of the preceding chapters of his book, Thompson proposes that we are witnessing an upward trend within this pyramid:

More of us find ourselves in the category of addict or the intermediary layer of vulnerable consumer. More of us are at risk than ever before of developing crippling addictive behaviours. Ignoring potentially harmful temptations involves significantly more willpower than it once did. (p. 238)

If, as Thompson argues, addiction is not caused by brain malfunction, but rather the opposite – ‘addictive behaviour, influenced above all by the available supply of addictive substances and experiences, can sometimes cause brain abnormalities’ (p. 238) – then the social implications are enormous.

Thompson refers to ‘the sudden disappearance of political and cultural obstacles that limited the geographical spread of particular addictive products and practices’ (pp. 240–41). These include the fall of the Berlin Wall, hi-tech globalization, migration, organized crime, and long-haul travel (which ‘has changed the attitude of students and young professionals towards mind-altering drugs, which they have seen consumed in developing countries as part of the natural rhythm of life – or so they like to think, in their romantic way’, pp. 244–5). The changes are too rapid to be described as ‘generational’ and they place a huge burden on our psyches:

One way or another, everybody in the Western world has to confront the quickening of desire. It’s true that many people can’t afford to pursue more than a few of those desires. Most of us, however, face an intensity of temptation that we can only intermittently resist. Managing those temptations draws deeply on our psychological resources: it can dominate our thoughts and swallow up our time. (p. 246)

The modern consumer society only exacerbates this burden, since it is ‘partly fashioned around our inability to exercise willpower’. Indeed, our livelihoods often depend on ‘other people’s vulnerability to temptation’, which implies that we are all implicated: ‘The multiplication of choice, the expansion of the free market and the stimulation of greed are so tightly interwoven as to be almost indistinguishable from each other’ (p. 258). The result is that the ‘addictive personality … is fast becoming the default personal style of disoriented modern citizens’ (p. 259).

The medical model may appear to lighten the burden by making us think that ‘addictions are not so much the product of our actions as something we are unlucky enough to have acquired’ (p. 247), which Thompson describes as ‘a recipe for learned helplessness’ (p. 249), but it will not help us in the long term. In the final analysis, he believes that ‘addiction is a disorder of choice, and we’re not doomed to carry on making bad choices to the point of helplessness’ (p. 259):

Perhaps we need to rediscover the vigilance that protected our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The quicker we are to spot the technological tricks that manipulate our “wanting” impulse, the greater will be our chance of resisting them. That’s if we want to, of course. (p. 260)

Concluding comments
The Fix is written for a general audience, although the influence of Thompson’s background in sociology is detectable. With minimal use of scientific jargon, he makes a plausible case for the continuity between extreme forms of addiction, which we might all recognise, and the more mundane experience of giving in to temptation, whether the object of our desire be food, prescribed medication, or digital distractions. Furthermore, he suggests that our contemporary way of life is pushing us into addictive-type behaviours.

A recurring theme in the book is that addiction involves the progressive replacement of people by things. This is particularly evident where addiction intersects with obsessive collecting (a form of OCD), but it is not limited to such cases. Even the people in an addict’s life often become a means to the object of his addiction. And addicts often end up alone in their bedroom or sitting room, whether they are addicted to alcohol or gaming.

Describing himself as a former addict, he refuses to accept the ‘medical model’ that claims addiction is an incurable disease. Although he acknowledges the role of ‘situation and context’, and agrees with Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, 2000) that we tend to ‘overestimate the importance of character traits’ (p. 88), his description of addiction as a ‘disorder of choice’ is entirely compatible with traditional accounts of habit formation.

We know from their writings that ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle well understood the human psyche to be a battleground between competing influences. Notwithstanding the power of irrational forces, they regarded rationality as the defining characteristic of human beings, and they claimed that the ordered psyche was one in which the irrational was submitted to the rational. Ancient philosophical schools, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, developed a sophisticated understanding of desire and emotion, including a hierarchy of different kinds of pleasure, and they elaborated exercises to help students strengthen the will against temptation. Their goal was eudaimonia, often translated as ‘flourishing’, in the sense of a fulfilling human life. They were concerned with ‘normal’ desire, rather than the extreme of addiction, though doubtless they would have seen the two lying along a spectrum, with the latter being the developmental endpoint of a dissolute life, one in which there was no attempt to subjugate the lower desires.

Thompson, perhaps judiciously, doesn’t bring such historical considerations into his account, which is generally factual and descriptive rather than moralizing. I believe it is significant, however, that he leaves open the door to what the ancients have to teach us. Although no stranger to addictive desires himself, he refuses to shirk responsibility for his own poor choices in the past. Rather, he returns, like the escaped prisoner in Plato’s cave allegory, to help liberate his erstwhile fellow captives, and warn against complacency in a world increasingly governed by desire.

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A review of Kevin R. D. Shepherd Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation

Sai Baba of Shirdi - Book Cover


This is the third of Kevin Shepherd’s books describing Shirdi Sai Baba. The publication history includes Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (1986), and Investigating the Sai Baba Movement: A Clarification of Misrepresented Saints and Opportunism (2005). There are also some online features, including ‘Shirdi Sai Baba and the Sai Baba Movement’, which can be located via the author’s full bibliography.

Biographical Investigation is the first book that Shepherd has devoted solely to Shirdi Sai Baba. This is his most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date, with 340 pages of text, including an Appendix on ‘Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba’. Plus over 700 annotations, a bibliography, and a comprehensive index (the entry on Shirdi Sai Baba is four pages long). The 34-page index is substantially longer than the index appearing in Warren’s Unravelling the Enigma, and is of closely comparable extent to that found in the Sai Baba coverage by Rigopoulos (published by SUNY Press, with an index of 32 pages).

Biographical Investigation is well illustrated with many old photographs (and paintings) of interest, both in the text and in plates. There are 81 chapters, ranging between one and fifteen pages in length, many of these comprising descriptions of devotees who came into contact with Shirdi Sai Baba. This material affords an insight into the character and behaviour of the enigmatic mystic.

I should make clear that my own academic background is in philosophy, and not the history and sociology of religion, although I have maintained a nonspecialist interest in the latter for almost thirty years. I first read Gurus Rediscovered towards the end of the 1980s, and it was clear to me even then that Shepherd’s approach was a scholarly one, very far removed from devotional and other popular idioms, an appraisal that appears to have been confirmed by academics in the field.

For instance, in his 1993 The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (an adaptation of his 1987 doctoral thesis), Dr Antonio Rigopoulos referred to Gurus Rediscovered as a ‘ground-breaking work presenting Sai Baba as a Muslim and a Sufi adept … thus countering the “Hinduizing” tendency of all past Indian authors’ (xxvii). Another academic, Dr Marianne Warren (d. 2004), also converted her doctoral thesis (1996) into a publication, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (1999, revised edition 2004). Warren notably says of Rigopoulos that although he ‘acknowledges the saint’s Muslim Sufi aspect, he does not pursue it, and never academically questions the obvious Hindu bias in his assessment and interpretation of Sai Baba’ (p. 18). In contrast, she writes: ‘Prior to Shepherd, the perennial question was whether Sai Baba was Hindu or Muslim, with most of the secondary writers emphasizing the Hindu interpretation. Shepherd was the first author to question this Hindu bias and to redefine the broad “Muslim” category, dividing it into the orthodox Islamic law or sharia and Sufi mysticism … Shepherd observes many links between Sai Baba and the strong Sufi tradition in the Deccan. He notes that since his death, the saint has been totally embraced by the Hindus and that in the process the Muslim minority in Shirdi has been eclipsed’ (p. 15).

Both Rigopoulos and Warren were followers of Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011), whose own career is relevant to research on Shirdi Sai. Ratnakaram Satyanarayana Raju assumed the name of the Shirdi saint in the 1940s, the latter’s celebrity in India having been on the increase since his death in 1918. Unlike the aforementioned academic authors, Shepherd has always distinguished the original Sai Baba from his namesake, who claimed to be a reincarnation of the faqir. Shepherd plausibly described Sathya Sai as an opportunist, in his detailed book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (a work still not assimilated by some academic commentators, who merely cite Gurus Rediscovered because that earlier and much shorter book was mentioned by Dr. Warren and Dr. Rigopoulos; the lack of appropriate reading is all too obvious). Shirdi Sai Baba was an impoverished faqir who lived in a dilapidated mosque and begged for minimal daily sustenance, while Sathya Sai Baba was an ostentatious commercial guru who acquired considerable wealth and who claimed an ability to perform dramatic miracles.

The reputation of Sathya Sai Baba became tarnished by strong allegations of fraud, sexual misconduct, and collusion in murder. Warren recorded the consequent shift in her own outlook, as found in her ‘Author’s Preface’ to the revised 2004 edition of her book (pp. xvii–xviii). In his online ‘Marianne Warren and Shirdi Sai Baba’, Shepherd relays that Warren intended to go further in writing an expose of Sathya Sai Baba (a draft introduction is available here), but she died before this was accomplished. Chapters 79 and 80 of Shepherd contain information on the so-called ‘Sai Baba Movement’ and Sathya Sai Baba respectively.

Shepherd now represents a significant aspect of the argument concerning Sufi dimensions of Shirdi Sai Baba. In an earlier work, Shepherd has already addressed certain confusing comments of Warren. This issue has implications for orthodox and unorthodox forms of ‘Sufism’, variations in usage of the term majzub, and familiarity with alternative sources (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 49–58).

In his new book, Shepherd again outlines some revealing differences of approach (Biographical Investigation, pp. 41–2, 345–6 n.34). His presentation further diverges from Warren by giving far more attention to the liberal attitude of Sai Baba towards Hinduism. Shepherd closely details events in relation to Hindu devotees. In fact, his book strikes an unusual balance between coverage of the Hindu devotees and information about the Muslim followers and contacts. This is a refreshing feature difficult to find elsewhere.


Biographical Investigation analyses various source materials, including those of Dabholkar, Narasimhaswami, V. B. Kher, and other influential Indian devotee writers. Significant contrasts and complexities emerge. There are also chapters describing encounters between Sai Baba and specific individuals.

Shepherd writes that his objective is ‘to probe diverse sources and materials on Shirdi Sai Baba, in an attempt to fathom the nature of events in his biography’ (p. v). He is not concerned with miracle stories, and says that his own inclination is ‘to pursue historical details, insofar as these can be charted’ (p. vi). As we shall see below, his use of specialist historical research provides an informative background to the life of the Shirdi saint. More significantly, perhaps, he supplements the ‘canonical’ Sai Baba literature with references from another corpus of source material: published works by writers associated with Meher Baba that have been generally obscured by the Sai Baba canon (see Chapter 9, ‘The Meher Baba Literature’, for a detailed discussion; and p. 256 and Chapter 70, for further examples).

As far as basic historical facts are concerned, there is no evidence for the pre-Shirdi phase, other than what Sai Baba himself said. His habit of using figurative speech means that such statements are difficult to accept at face value. Estimated dates for his birth range from 1836 to 1858 (see p. 4). His original name is unknown. The early Shirdi period remains largely obscure, despite some ingenious reconstruction by Kher. ‘Detailed coverage only applies to the last decade or so of this biography, from circa 1910’ (p. 4). The sources for this period nevertheless have drawbacks that include conflicting versions of the same event and a tendency to hagiography. ‘A century after his death, there are different versions of his life in evidence. These include scholarly accounts and devotee epics, pronounced variations and disagreements, and the complication of a mythology devised by Sathya Sai Baba’ (p. 40).

The date of Sai Baba’s arrival in Shirdi is uncertain, with alternative chronologies being favoured (see pp. 7–8). That means the 1850s or 1868–72. In this village of Maharashtra, the population was predominantly Hindu. Sai Baba eventually settled in a dilapidated mosque. ‘For a long time, many of the Shirdi villagers continued to regard Sai Baba as a stranger, and as a mad faqir’ (p. 18).

A following gradually developed, which included many Hindus. Sai Baba was not eager to convert people to his own views. He was not a preacher, but instead a retiring and eccentric ascetic. He was unpredictable in his reactions to diverse visitors, many of whom sought material benefits.

A daily routine evolved that included a begging round (see Chapter 66). At the mosque, visitors arrived for darshan (a Hindu term for meeting). In his last years, Sai Baba would ask affluent visitors for a monetary donation or dakshina. A crucial point is, however, that all dakshina monies were redistributed to those in need by the end of the day – there was no accumulation of wealth (see Chapter 52). Sai Baba also redistributed much of the food that he begged. The abstemious nature of his lifestyle is rather striking.

Hindu visitors substantially outnumbered the Muslims. The Hindu devotees imported elements of their own tradition, including the ceremonial worship known as puja and arati. Shepherd’s book has considerable detail culled from numerous sources. There were strong variations in Sai Baba’s response to individuals. Several chapters reveal this. Consider, for example, Chapter 61, which is entitled ‘Swami Narayan and High Teaching’.

Tozer (or Thoser) was a civil servant who first visited Sai Baba in 1910. He later became a sannyasin and was known as Shri Narayan Ashram (or Swami Narayan). Interviewed by Narasimhaswami in 1936, his testimony included the following statement: ‘Many people who approached [Sai] Baba cared for material things only, and hardly any came to him for the highest spiritual benefit of Atma Nishta’ (quoted on p. 238). Narayan also referred to a spiritual experience gained at Shirdi. ‘Sai Baba conveyed to him, without any words, the feeling that all differences were unreal, the one reality underlying all else’ (p. 239).

Narayan reported that Sai Baba was ‘mostly silent’ when he first encountered him in 1910, just before the increase in visitors from Bombay commenced. The latter trend resulted in Sai Baba ‘being pressed into new habits and ways; devotees, to suit their own taste, forced numerous forms and observances’ (quoted on p. 239). Narayan also observed that Sai Baba employed parables when communicating with the crowds that flocked to see him, in contrast with the ‘few direct and plain words’ that he spoke to Narayan and some other individuals. Shepherd comments: ‘There was no doctrine, no system, no set of religious practices to be followed, no meditation agenda, no Vedanta, no Yoga’ (p. 240).

Two other contacts were Meher Baba (Chapter 69) and Upasani Maharaj (Chapter 78). Merwan Irani (1894–1969), later known as Meher Baba, achieved a significant reputation in India and abroad, but ‘is not mentioned in most accounts of Sai Baba’ (p. 269). A Zoroastrian born at Poona, in 1915 he came into contact with Sai Baba, after Hazrat Babajan had prompted him to visit Shirdi. It is evident that Babajan knew about Sai Baba, and held him in high regard, saying cryptically that Sai possessed a ‘key’ which she herself could not give Merwan (p. 269).

In later years, Merwan (by then known as Meher Baba) was critical of the devotee attitude towards reputed miracles of Sai Baba. ‘This has been mistakenly understood by some as a negative reflection upon Sai Baba. Confusion about this subject is pronounced. In reality, Meher Baba acknowledged Shirdi Sai as the leading spiritual master of his time’ (p. 271). Shepherd also remarks that when Merwan visited Sai Baba and Upasani Maharaj (at the Khandoba temple), there were at Shirdi ‘three men who became legends in their lifetime’ (p. 271).

The chapter on Upasani Maharaj (1870–1941) is brief. The author informs that a compressed account cannot do justice to the complexity of events relating to this figure. Shepherd explains that a separate book on the subject is in preparation. Meanwhile, he refers the interested reader to his ‘preliminary’ attempts at biography of Upasani in two earlier books, one of these being Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. Upasani arrived at Shirdi in 1911, and thereafter stayed for a few years at the deserted Khandoba temple, following the instruction of Sai Baba.

Chapter 70 profiles Gustad Hansotia, an atypical follower of Sai Baba. As a Zoroastrian who settled in Shirdi, he was distinct from the rest of the population, which was either Hindu or Muslim. Gustad was entirely neglected in the Sai Baba literature until the 1986 publication of Gurus Rediscovered (see p. 272; and p. 390, n. 631). The present reviewer can add that, seven years later, the well known book by Rigopoulos included a very fleeting reference to Gustad in an annotation of three lines, and solely deriving from Australian poet Francis Brabazon, one of Meher Baba’s devotees (see Rigopoulos 1993, p. 219, n. 178). Warren’s contribution in this respect is more substantial, but her data is derived from Shepherd’s Meher Baba: An Iranian Liberal (see Warren 1999, pp. 112–13; and p. 128, n. 40, where she gives the copyright date of 1986 instead of the publication date of 1988). Shepherd has since devoted a chapter to Gustad in Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014).

During his teens, Gustad became dissatisfied with orthodox Zoroastrianism. Living in Bombay, he first visited Shirdi in 1910. He was deeply impressed by the faqir, and thereafter visited Sai Baba every month. In 1918 Gustad left his employment in Bombay and moved to Shirdi. His only possessions were a bedding roll and a trunk. Gustad had no accommodation and slept on a verandah, with permission from the owner. Sai Baba at first ignored him, but Gustad ‘accepted this, not having any status complex’. Two months passed before the faqir ‘acknowledged his presence, as though he had just arrived’ (p. 273). Enduring much travail, but in the process getting closer to Sai Baba, Gustad remained at Shirdi until the saint’s death in October 1918, being one of the coffin bearers at the funeral.

Shepherd pointedly remarks: ‘Gustad Hansotia was forgotten in all the standard versions of Sai Baba. The fact remains that Gustad is the only man known to have been in close contact with four of the most famous twentieth century mystics in Maharashtra, namely Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Hazrat Babajan, and Meher Baba’ (p. 276).

The demise of Shirdi Sai was attended by an increase in what Warren’s Sufi paradigm disapprovingly called the ‘Hinduizing’ influence, to some extent associated with the influx of Hindu visitors from Bombay beginning about 1910. Shepherd does not disagree with this complaint, but nevertheless adopts a different approach to some materials. One discrepancy in the format of Warren was to promote the Hinduizing lore of Sathya Sai concerning Shirdi Sai. Shepherd evidently perceived the anomaly, but deficient assessors assumed that Warren was superior (and therefore correct) because she was an academic and he a citizen author.

Uninformed persons (e.g., some Wikipedia editors) failed to grasp that Warren herself eventually repudiated the extravagant lore created by Sathya Sai. The disavowal occurred after the year 2000, and after her lengthy book was published. This factor contradicts her supposed accuracy, and was a cause of acute embarrassment to her. Shepherd now provides far more information about Shirdi Sai and his devotees than did Warren, and without the disconcerting concessions to miracle lore likewise found in Rigopoulos.

A preoccupation with the miraculous is also found in some Indian devotee accounts. This factor boomed in the career of Sathya Sai Baba, whose claim to be a reincarnation of the charismatic faqir assisted the confusing popular image of Shirdi Sai as a miracle worker. According to Warren, Shirdi Sai ‘demonstrated many miraculous powers’ (Unravelling the Enigma, p. 29). Shepherd, in contrast, finds proof that Shirdi Sai did not claim miracles (Chapter 41). He emphasizes that we may gain a more accurate picture of events if we examine the Shirdi saint in a different way: ‘It is possible to approach Sai Baba in a more rational spirit without reducing his significance’ (p. 204).


Like the equally enigmatic Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), Shirdi Sai Baba resists straightforward categorization. Both of these entities favoured the description of faqir in relation to themselves. Other terms that have since been employed for Sai Baba include ‘Sufi’ and ‘guru’, which may be too generalizing, concealing rather than revealing nuances. Shepherd emphasizes that ‘some flexibility is required in the effort to comprehend him’ (p. 2).

A context for Shirdi Sai’s renowned religious liberalism is afforded by the syncretism between Bhakti Hinduism and Sufism that occurred in Maharashtra over centuries (see p. 3 and Chapter 6). The attire of Sai Baba was that of a Muslim faqir, and he spoke the Muslim language of Urdu. However, Sai Baba was reticent on the issue of his religious affiliation, and was not concerned to promote himself in religious terms. His predilection for allusive speech (Chapter 17) is a complication for straightforward assessment. He did not give discourses, and preferred stories.

One of the key factors in comprehending Shirdi Sai is his relationship to Sufism (on page 22, for example, Shepherd describes him as ‘an independent Sufi’). The significance of this subject to Shepherd may be gauged from the fact that the longest chapter of his book (‘Faqirs, Sufis, and Majazib’) is devoted to this topic (see pp. 22–37). By drawing on the scholarship of specialists such as Richard M. Eaton and Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, he underlines the complexity of the religious situation in India between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries: ‘This neglected subject can serve to illustrate the marginalised sectors of independent Sufi mysticism existing in the Deccan’ (p. 26). Shepherd’s use of this material is in contrast to the interpretation of Warren.

Shepherd complains that a tendency of Warren was to associate Shirdi Sai with Sufi Orders (see pp. 22, 36, 63; also p. 35 for a similar observation about Rigopoulos). The term ‘Sufi’ could often designate a member of an established Order, involving a penchant for orthodox beliefs and political assimilation to a ruling elite. Among such established Orders, there was a trend towards accumulation of property and prestige, and also the hereditary transmission of leadership roles. In other situations, ‘Sufi’ could mean an independent liberal mystic trying to avoid persecution by a ruling elite. ‘The variations in Sufi role can be striking; in this respect, the word Sufi is a blanket term covering many dispositions and beliefs’ (p. 27).

Such historical context may help to explain certain statements of Sai Baba appearing in the notebook of his Muslim disciple Abdul Baba (see Chapter 5). This largely Urdu text was neglected for over eighty years, a casualty of the Hinduizing process. Warren deserves credit for commissioning a translation of the notebook, which is included in her own 1999 book. Apart from confirming the deep familiarity of Sai Baba with the Islamic and Sufi traditions, the Urdu notebook evidences that the saint was critical of those he described as ‘false pirs and faqirs’.

Any attempt to do justice to Shepherd’s detailed treatment of these matters would add to an already lengthy review, and instead I refer any interested reader to the relevant Chapter 7. However, I should mention that Shepherd pioneered the association of Sai Baba with the majazib (singular: majzub), a factor astounding some Eastern and Western academics who read his early work Gurus Rediscovered. Warren reacted, and tried to reduce his credibility on this point, regarding him as a rival to her own Sufi-based theory. However, her arguments in this direction are not convincing, and even less so, her attempt to demean Shepherd’s early criticism of Narasimhaswami (a criticism deriving from Meher Baba, and in part relating to the subject of miracles).

In his new book, Shepherd again argues for the relevance of the majazib to his subject, but not in any unqualified manner. On the one hand he acknowledges Sai Baba’s affinity with the majazib in the ‘independence from religious doctrine’ (p. 19) and the faqir’s ‘aloof, disconcerting, and unpredictable’ behaviour (p. 24; see also p. 35). On the other hand, Shepherd finds that the label is ‘very inadequate for specifics, merely amounting to a well known significator of abstracted God-absorption’, and that it ‘fails to qualify the diversity of temperament in evidence … Different types of majzub (including superficial imitators) are discernible in the process of liberal Sufism’ (p. 35).

Therefore, although the term majzub is ‘evocative’ (p. 35) and the majazib ‘are a useful reference point in the study of unorthodox Sufism’ (p. 36), Shepherd finds that ‘the subject lacks definition’ (p. 36). ‘To some extent, Sai Baba can be viewed as a faqir exemplar of the tangent from “orthodox Sufis,” a trend which goes back many centuries in both Indian and Iranian milieux. It is not necessary to describe him as a majzub, that term having become a popularised label denoting eccentricity. Furthermore, some academic commentators have mistakenly treated the majzub role as an indication of clinical madness’ (p. 37).

The emerging profile is one of an unorthodox ‘Sufi’ whose tolerance of Hinduism was exceptional. ‘Distinctive figures like Shirdi Sai Baba, Hazrat Babajan of Poona, and Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur were mystics living well outside the network of Sufi Orders. Criteria conventionally applied to Sufi Orders do not work for such exceptions’ (p. 35).

There are widespread misconceptions as to what Shirdi Sai Baba taught. The significant Chapter 73 in Biographical Investigation counters the confusion. For instance, Sai Baba did not teach Vedanta. However, he was ‘a supporter of reincarnation, a theme mentioned frequently in the sources’ (p. 294).

Chapter 77 ventures a commentary on the scenario of Nath Yogis versus Sufi Orders. To the best of my knowledge, this treatment is unprecedented in the Sai Baba literature. Shepherd here employs reference to the significant research of Professor Carl W. Ernst. The point is being made by Shepherd that Sai Baba bypassed preoccupations strongly associated with both the Naths and the Sufi Orders, religious contingents whose rivalry persisted over centuries in India. ‘Sai Baba ignored the practices favoured by the Nath Yogis and a number of Sufi Orders’ (p. 312). The angle of realistic interpretation is here very different to earlier speculations of Charles White, a 1970s innovator of ‘Sai Baba movement’ theory whose influence proved confusing.

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A review of Kevin R.D. Shepherd Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona

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In an earlier post I published a review of a book by independent author, Kevin R.D. Shepherd. As part of his citizen publishing project, Shepherd has recently updated his 1986 biography of Hazrat Babajan of Poona in a completely new book. This is complemented by three online articles, one of which is referred to below. The other two are ‘Hazrat Babajan, A Pathan (Pashtun) Sufi’ and ‘Hazrat Babajan’. What follows is my review of the new book.

Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 2014).

1. Introduction

That significant spiritual events need be attended by some preternatural sense of the numinous, or by outward ‘signs’ and ‘miracles’, are common enough expectations, if we are to go by the offerings of the mass media, or the ostentatious exploits of some contemporary ‘gurus’. Our extroverted society has a preference for the sensational, such that we commonly fail to notice the subtle or understated. In the latter case, even when our interest is piqued, perhaps by some pre-existing element of celebrity, we tend to focus on the outward aspect to the detriment of the inward. Such a course may be appealing to aggregate tastes, but it arguably results in a situation of misunderstanding that, at best, perpetuates confusion.

The life of Hazrat Babajan challenges many of the assumptions we might harbour about so-called spiritual matters, and this life is brought to us through a new biography by independent British writer, Kevin R. D. Shepherd. His latest offering supersedes his earlier monograph (1986a), which was the first annotated book-length treatment of the subject. This new work clarifies a number of points and takes into account some publications that have appeared in the intervening decades. Furthermore, given that the task of a biographer is to engage sympathetically with his subject, while maintaining a critical stance towards sources, Shepherd arguably sets a precedent for engaged research that avoids the twin pitfalls of academic insularity, on the one hand, and popular sentiment, on the other.

When Hazrat Babajan died at Poona in Maharashtra, India, on 21 September 1931, thousands of Muslims and Hindus are reported to have attended her funeral, the procession being described as ‘a tremendous affair, never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona.’ (2014a: 95) Her tomb endures as an object of veneration to this day. Yet this elderly Muslim woman, reputed to have been over a hundred at the time of her death, had never preached, let alone expounded any doctrine or system; nor had she claimed affiliation with any religious group. Collating the data from extant sources, and situating it within the socio-political context of nineteenth and early twentieth century Afghanistan and India, Shepherd elucidates the significance of this remarkable life.

2. Critical Evaluation of Sources

Shepherd takes a critical approach to the sources, particularly in his astute sorting of historical from hagiological data, and his understanding of the complex factors involved in reporting and documenting obscure events. If one incorporates the literalism of the devotee mindset, and the dogmatism of sectarian authors, then one has a perfect storm of interpretative complexity. This is the sort of situation that scholars are supposed to negotiate, but their efforts are not uniformly productive. Shepherd’s approach contrasts with those of devotees and sectarians on the one hand, and compensates for scholarly lacunae on the other.

But a life is always more than a set of ‘facts’. It is, rather, the context for those facts that endow them with significance. Furthermore, an awareness of context, and an ability to elucidate it interpretatively, sets one biographer apart from another. This hermeneutic exercise is not divorced from the facts, but must take them into account. This is true of all historical and biographical research, but it is especially important when the subject is as enigmatic as Hazrat Babajan.

The earliest published biography of Babajan was written by Dr Abdul Ghani, a medic and devotee of Zoroastrian teacher Meher Baba, although two years earlier Charles Purdom had included some information about her in a book about Meher Baba (Purdom 1937). Ghani’s compact account ran to ten pages, and was published in the Meher Baba Journal in February 1939, eight years after the death of the subject.

An early example of the tendency to neglect facts is Paul Brunton (the pen name of Raphael Hurst, 1898-1981), a British journalist with an interest in the occult, whose ‘A Search in Secret India’ (1934) became a bestseller. In late November 1930, Brunton had a brief verbal interchange with Babajan, through an unnamed interpreter, whom Shepherd identifies as Jal Irani, a brother of Meher Baba, who was assisted by the Muslim devotee Abdulla Jaffer (2014b: n. 34). This was only one of the omitted facts. Shepherd points out that Brunton’s version of Babajan’s life is inadequate and relies on the unsourced interpretation of a Bombay Parsi named Khandalawalla.

The late Dr Marianne Warren (d. 2004) made various factual errors, including her statement that Babajan ‘gave darshan’, a Hindu term with implications of homage, a practice to which the saint was notably averse. She erroneously attributes joint authorship of a document on Babajan to Meher Baba, perpetuating a confusion that originated with the latter’s devotees, when they reprinted Ghani’s earlier biography, along with his supplement on purported miracles, in a booklet bearing Meher Baba’s name along with Ghani’s on the title page (Warren 1999; Shepherd 2014a: ‘Appendix 1: Drawbacks in Miracle Lore’; and 124, n. 1).

In his doctoral dissertation, James Richard Newell devotes a chapter to Babajan, but claims that:

‘Aside from a few scattered references, the main sources of information on the life of Hazrat Babajan are hagiographic (Ghani 1961; Ramakrishnan 1998; Kalchuri 1986). As a result, the authors tend to emphasize her karamat, or miraculous powers.’ (Newell, 2007: 85)

Shepherd responds to this in an online article:

‘[Newell] lists only three sources, namely Ghani, Ramakrishnan, and Kalchuri. Purdom is not mentioned, and nor is Shepherd (the British contingent were bypassed in this American assessment, but did actually exist). Ramakrishnan (with editor Kantak) is not actually a separate source to Ghani, but merely of convenience to those who could not access the original Ghani articles (plural) appearing over seventy years ago. A minor consideration is that one of those articles (the biography) is abridged in Ramakrishnan. As stated above … the misunderstandings adhering to the Ramakrishnan publication (reprinted in 1998) are substantial. I should add that Dr. Newell is clement in his judgment of the “hagiographic” sources, and does commendably indicate that factual information can be found in them. Kalchuri applies a strong poetic gloss to some accounts he mediated. I have myself complained elsewhere of embellishing tendencies in Kalchuri’s work, but this does not annul the factual content that is discernible.’ (2014b: n. 23)

By contrast with some other academics, Newell is sympathetic to his subject, and is also sensitive to the religious context. He points out that although Babajan’s shrine was

‘appropriated by representatives of the Chishtiyya order soon after her death, or perhaps even as her death was seen to be imminent … it was only by virtue of their affection and reverence for her that they wished to be associated with her, there is no record of her voicing such an affiliation herself … Babajan’s popularity was not inspired by her institutional affiliation or bloodline, but rather, by her personal magnetism, her austerities as a faqir, and her state of mind, which was understood by her followers as an ecstatic state of divine absorption, of majdubiyya [attraction to the divine].’ (Newell, 2007: 80)

He goes on to distinguish between the state of ‘divine absorption’ found in some mystics, and the contrasting state of mental derangement found in people who are described as ‘mad’. For Newell, close examination of the facts points strongly to Babajan’s inclusion in the former category, and he is clearly critical of any attempt to apply a Western paradigm of mental functioning to such individuals, citing the work of academic specialists to support this case (see also Donkin, 1988). He concludes:

‘Babajan’s choice to live in the open, on little food, was the conscious act of will of a faqir, and these austerities themselves led to her absorbed state, not the other way around; not an unbalanced mind resulting in the condition of one who could not care for her own needs.’ (Newell, 2007: 81-2)

Shepherd is in basic agreement with this position, although he has reservations about the use of terms such as majzub, which were often applied to a range of entities, resulting in a conflation of meanings.

3. Contexts for Interpretation

Apart from a critical appraisal of sources, throughout the book Shepherd establishes a positive context for interpreting the life of Hazrat Babajan. One example is the topic of fana-baqa, Sufi terms for the mystical process of ego annihilation followed by stabilization of consciousness. There are indications that Babajan underwent this complex process with the aid of both Hindu and Muslim preceptors.

She is also known to have made ecstatic utterances implying a unity with the divine, a tendency that attracted criticism and even hostility from orthodox Muslims, who would have regarded such declarations as heretical. Shepherd elucidates the context for this in the intellectual formulation of wahdat al-wujud or ‘unity of being’, associated with Andalusian mystic and philosopher, Muhyiuddin Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240). He points out that this teaching ‘gained a strong profile in the annals of Indian Sufism’ (2014a: 41), with the qualification that Babajan ‘was nothing of a systematic expositor … [being] completely unconcerned with promoting any doctrine’. (2014a: 42)

Babajan was often referred to as a faqir, a term deriving from an Arabic word for ‘poverty’. In fact, this seems to have been the only appellation she applied to herself. A core meaning of faqir is a mendicant dervish living on alms, but this has been broadened to include Hindu holy men, and is sometimes even a byword for ‘beggar’. In 1931 Winston Churchill referred disparagingly to Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘one time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir’. (2014a: 78) The term also became popularly associated with abilities of a supposedly occult nature, such as snake charming, lying on nails, and walking over hot coals. In his account of the meeting with Babajan, Brunton wondered: ‘Is it possible that … this haggard and huddled figure contains the soul of a genuine faqueer with wondrous powers?’ (2014a: 93). It was captured in a line from T. S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat (published in 1939, five years after Brunton’s ‘Search’): ‘His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare.’ There are also mystical interpretations of the word.

Shepherd says that the ‘basic element of Babajan’s situation was faqiri, the faqir lifestyle and outlook’ (2014a: 76), but with certain qualifications. Although she gained a reputation for healing, and certain ‘miracles’ were attributed to her, she did not claim occult powers herself or resort to extroverted ‘stunts’. She did not adopt exhibitionist postures. Unlike some of the entities in this category, she did not take drugs. The example of her wasted finger (2014a: 65; 141, n. 58) was not a recognised exercise in mortification. In Shepherd’s view, she exemplified faqiri in its original and most essential form: ‘The basic faqir mode demonstrated by Babajan was the ideal of simplicity and abnegation, keeping no gifted money for herself, and abstaining from acquiring possessions.’ (2014a: 78)

There were several Sufi orders in India in Babajan’s time, and her self-description as faqir places her within the Sufi tradition, although she typically made no claims about the latter, presumably not having any need for categorization. She is known to have appreciated qawwali, a form of music often involving the recitation of Sufi poetry. In India it was favoured by the Chishti order. For Shepherd, however, Babajan represents ‘the basic form of Sufi vocation, going back centuries before the dervish orders of the medieval era (and when more women were in evidence as scholars and ascetics)’. (2014a: 96)

Shepherd devotes a relatively lengthy chapter to ‘Women and Sufism’. This is a topic where the life of Babajan is very useful and instructive, as historical records are markedly sparse for female Sufis. One notable exception was Rabia al-Adawiyya (died c. 801), whose life has been studied by British scholar Margaret Smith (1994). Shepherd refers to the latter’s claim that the development of Sufism within Islam presented women with the opportunity of attaining sainthood. Babajan was independent of any order, but her upbringing as a female Muslim would clearly make her sympathetic to the mystical dimensions of the religion. Significantly, she always referred to herself in male terms, and this stance could be interpreted as a demonstration of equality. It is also fitting that the name Babajan has male and female connotations.

An interesting parallel to Babajan is found in the life of Fatima bint Ibn al-Muthanna, one of the female teachers of Ibn al-Arabi:

‘Fatima was an ascetic over ninety years old, and reputedly possessed a “pink and fresh” complexion. She lived at Seville, in a situation of “extreme poverty, feeding herself from the waste that the people of Seville left outside their doors.” She apparently had no home until Ibn al-Arabi and two other of her disciples constructed a reed hut for her use.’ (2014a: 106; quotes are from Claude Addas)

Shepherd also refers to the role of aristocratic female sponsors of Sufism, specifically describing the cases of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara (1614-81) and his granddaughter Zebunnisa (1638-c. 1702), who were, respectively, sister and daughter to the doctrinaire Aurangzeb. These liberal-minded women suffered at the hands of their zealous relation, whereas Babajan escaped any such fate by giving up her aristocratic status.

Shepherd analyses Ghani’s claim that Babajan possessed the characteristics of a qalandar: ‘It is obvious that Babajan’s very unusual career posed Ghani with a dilemma of description for which no adequate terminology existed.’ (2014a: 97) For Shepherd the attribution is unsatisfactory, especially given what more recent scholarship tells us about the qalandars.

‘The qalandars were definitely a male phenomenon, arising from a mendicant impulse that contrasted with the settled and affluent milieu of “moderate” Sufism represented by the hospices or centres.’ (2014a: 98)

Qalandars denied the relevance of formal religious observances, and their antinomianism could be extreme, tending to bizarre behaviour and even a libertine lifestyle. The trend was widespread in the middle ages; qalandars were sometimes assimilated to Sufi orders.

‘In some aspects of her career, Babajan did sequel the early qalandar itinerant spirit of independence from the khanaqah system spread by the Sufi orders. That system was associated with a doctrinally hidebound “orthodox Sufi” establishment. Babajan’s early contact with a Hindu teacher is reminiscent of the medieval qalandar tendency to affinity with Hindu ascetics, which took varied guises. She was discernibly in affinity with the wahdat al-wujud teaching, as demonstrated by her gnostic reveries (or ecstasies) that were unwelcome to orthodox Muslims.’ (2014a: 102)

Babajan was not antinomian. She was clearly an ascetic renouncer, not a libertine. In view of her female role, Shepherd believes she ‘can be described as an unusual faqir and neo-qalandar, living completely outside the Sufi orders favoured by orthodoxy and royalty.’ (2014a: 116)

This is perhaps as close as we can get to a ‘final verdict’ from the author. More information on the qalandars can be found in his ‘From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics’ (1988a), and his recent Web article goes into greater detail about the similarities and differences to conventional Sufism discernible in Babajan’s life.

Babajan left behind no organized teaching, which arguably made her legacy more resistant to cult or sect formation.

‘Babajan did not take on disciples. There was nothing resembling the initiations and “teaching master” persona celebrated in the Sufi orders. Those who got close to her did find that a form of instruction or guidance was in process, but this was not declared or explained. Babajan did not ask for people to gather near her, and sometimes she was not responsive, preferring to be alone. There was local talk of miracles she had performed, but she herself was indifferent to this factor. The miracle lore evolved as a substitute for comprehension of her lifestyle.’ (2014a: 61)

4. Concluding Comments

‘Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona’ will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike. Demonstrating a genuine sympathy for his subject, and a subtle understanding of her context, the author makes an original contribution to the literature, and moreover one that sidesteps the sectarian and ideological influences that have at times afflicted researchers. In the end, perhaps it is fitting that an independent writer should be the one to elucidate the life of an independent Sufi, especially when some academics fail in their role as guardians of rigorous scholarship. Future researchers may have cause to thank Shepherd for his contribution to their labours.

NOTE: A PDF of this review is available here.


Brunton, Paul
1985: A Search in Secret India. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser. Originally published in 1934.

Donkin, William
1988: The Wayfarers: Meher Baba with the God-Intoxicated. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Sheriar Press. Originally published in 1948.

Eliot, T. S.
1939: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. London: Faber and Faber.

Ghani, Abdul
1939: ‘Hazrat Babajan of Poona’ in Meher Baba Journal, 1(4): 29-39. Published as an eBook by the Avatar Meher Baba Trust in 2011.

Newell, James Richard
2007: ‘Experiencing Qawwali: Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India’. Online doctoral dissertation (accessed 23 August 2014).

Purdom, Charles B.
1937: The Perfect Master (London: Williams and Norgate).
1964: The God-Man (Crescent Beach, SC: Sheriar Press).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D.
1986a: A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan. Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications.
1988a: From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics. Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications.
2014a: Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.
2014b: ‘Hazrat Babajan, Faqir of Poona’. Online article (accessed 6 December 2014).

Smith, Margaret
1994: Rabi’a: The Life & Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. Originally published in 1928.

Warren, Marianne
1999: Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.


If materialism is defined as the theory that all that really exists is matter, then how does the materialist explain how matter thinks and feels; categorizes and explains; questions and asserts; imagines and hopes; and believes and doubts? Is it not paradoxical that matter should be able to wonder about itself, define itself, describe itself, and objectify itself?

Or has the materialist got things the wrong way around, by abstracting the concept of ‘matter’ from the objects of experience, and then reifying it into some stuff that is supposed to explain that very experience? Doesn’t the materialist presuppose the very thing that needs to be explained? Why doesn’t the materialist take ‘awareness’ to be the fundamental given? Can there even be ‘matter’ without awareness?

What Philosophy Is

Philosophy is being honest about what one doesn’t know.

A review of Kevin R.D. Shepherd’s Meaning in Anthropos


Some years ago I wrote a review of a book that I thought was significant. The review was never published but, having re-read it, I believe that it may be of interest to others. Consequently I am publishing it here, unaltered apart from a few grammatical changes. I still think that Shepherd’s book is significant, although it is only a small part of his oeuvre, which to date includes eleven books and a growing number of internet articles. His full bibliography can be found at Shepherd has more recently used the qualifier “citizen” when referring to his output (see, for example, Citizen Philosophy). Notwithstanding this, he does still refer to Philosophical Anthropography, stating: “Nearly thirty years later, I am continuing this project, modifying some guidelines and extending others.” Interested readers should consult that page for the author’s own (and more recent) description of this enterprise.


Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an Interdisciplinary Science of Culture (Cambridge: Anthropographia Publications, 1991). Intercultural Research Series of Anthropography No. 6.

This paper attempts a presentation of my own understanding of Kevin Shepherd’s Meaning in Anthropos. As such, it is unavoidably selective, and any misrepresentation on my part is regretted. Furthermore, these pages cannot adequately reflect the vitality of the book under review, and the force of criticism in particular. However, one purpose of a review is to stimulate interest, and it is hoped that the reader will be motivated to undertake a study of the reviewed book, and perhaps the other published works of the author, in the spirit of scientific objectivity. In my opinion, such a study would be worth the effort.

As the main title suggests, the central theme of the book is that of meaning in anthropos, the latter being the classical Greek equivalent of our “human being”. In a sense, all questions of meaning relate back to the central question of meaning in the human entity, since the meaning of anything must be a meaning for something, and as far as we know it is only the human entity that explicitly seeks meaning. Therefore, the book is concerned with a question that should be of central importance to every human being.

The search for meaning, or knowledge, and formulations of this search, appear to be coextensive with known human history. The subtitle of the book specifies the author’s contribution to these endeavours, in the form of an interdisciplinary science of culture that he calls “anthropography”, a word that can be dated at least as early as the sixteenth century, although it has since fallen into general disuse.

Anthropography takes as its modus operandi the current, and useful, scientifico-educational format of a research strategy. One purpose of the book is to define this research strategy and differentiate it from other approaches to knowledge, both past and present, whether or not these are described as “research strategies”.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part constitutes a basic definition of anthropography as a research strategy, including its epistemological basis and guiding theoretical principles. The second part extends this basis in an “Interdisciplinary Spectrum of Critical Surveys”. Here the author charts the implications of anthropography for disciplines such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology and palaeoanthropology, archaeology, biology, ecology, and the history of religion. In each case, the implications take the form of a pointed critique of shortcomings in the respective approach to knowledge, together with the more positive contribution of suggested improvements, the latter often in terms of neglected alternatives.

Cutting across the formal content is a critique of current educational deficits. This in turn rests upon an even more basic critique of society. More explicitly, it is suggested that modern socioculture has reached a dangerously low ebb, requiring urgent and radical changes in patterns of human thinking and behaviour, if the ultimate outcome is to be positive. In this context, anthropography does not simply represent one research strategy among others, but poses a serious challenge to both establishment and popular circles, calling upon them to review the precariousness of their situation, or ignore it at their peril.

This challenge is presented in the non-dogmatic spirit of scientific investigation. However, “non-dogmatic” should not be confused with “lax”, a confusion that Shepherd suggests is only too evident in both establishment and popular approaches, whether or not they are considered to be “scientific”.

A primary requirement of anthropography is that a comprehensive range of data be employed by any research strategy purporting to be scientific. Anthropography disavows rigid disciplinary and cultural boundaries, although it does not repudiate the necessity for specialization. Indeed, academic and scientific specialization are essential, but are in danger of becoming myopic if they are not subsumed within a polymathic framework allowing critique, extrapolation, reformulation, and proposals for future lines of enquiry. However, the polymathic framework is not to be confused with the current popular alternative to specialization. If specialization tends to myopia, then the popular alternative is regarded as hopelessly diffuse in its emphases. The mushrooming “new age” trend is presented as a particularly pernicious example of this popular alternative to establishment dogmatism.

In its polymathic format, anthropography stresses the contributions of non-Western societies to the field of human knowledge. Pre-modern societies, in both East and West, are also afforded a special emphasis. In this way, anthropography proposes to redress the imbalance caused by former, and contemporary, ignorance and distortion of such contributions, thus allowing a more objective approach to knowledge. Pluralism is genuine only if it allows for a truly comprehensive plurality of ideas and values, as opposed to a selected plurality convenient for the mental aggregate pitch of a materially dominant society.

However, comprehensiveness of data is a minimal, though necessary, requirement. If it is to be of any use, such data must be adequately researched according to acceptable criteria. In short, it must be as accurate as possible. Such accuracy is not a hallmark of many approaches, whether popular or academic. Yet it is only on the basis of such accuracy that valid extrapolations can be made. The latter are allowable in situations where a paucity of data gives rise to undesirable lacunae. Thus anthropography is both historiographic and nomothetic in its approach.

Shepherd borrows the terms “etic” and “emic” for the anthropographic appraisal of accuracy and inaccuracy. These terms are given precise definitions. “Emic” denotes ideas and values that are incomplete, non-mature, and/or corrupt. “Etic” denotes the uncovering and accurate description of emic ideas and values. Anthropography is concerned with an etic evaluation of phenomena.

Accuracy will naturally invite comparisons and contrasts based on fine distinctions. The necessity for making such fine distinctions cannot be overstated. A disregard for this requirement has led, for example, to a devaluation of terms such as “mystical”, “gnostic”, and even “philosophical”. Conflation is one of the greatest enemies of objectivity. Blanket criticism, or praise, is not simply a fixture of bygone authoritarianism, but continues to be rampant in supposedly liberal contemporary circles. Just because some, or even many, so-called “mystics” can be shown to be charlatans, does not mean that one should throw the baby out with the bathwater and deny the validity of all “mystical” claims to knowledge. The unmasking of fakes is an admirable pursuit, if accompanied by a discernment allowing the appraisal of what, precisely, constitutes the true and what the false. Such discernment is a goal of anthropography.

This discernment will be based on the foregoing requirements of comprehensiveness and accuracy. But anthropography does not stop at such “formal” requirements, however essential they may be. If objectivity in knowledge is a viable possibility, then formal study alone will not attain it, although formal study may be an important preliminary. Anthropography calls for a complete discipline of body and mind, a demand that strikes at the very heart of our philosophical assumptions concerning knowledge, although one which has a precedent in the lives of former philosophers, as familiarity with historical data will reveal. The demand for a discipline of mind and body is based upon studies arising from anthropography’s polymathic strategy – studies such as those listed above.

* * *

The foregoing represents a very condensed and selective account of the anthropographic research strategy. In its brevity it leaves many questions unanswered. In particular, the diligent reader will require an elaboration of that which has been termed “a complete discipline of mind and body”. Such a notion may be foreign to the academic mind, except in the most banal sense, and this may well represent the anthropographic point of departure from the purely academic approach. This issue leads us to anthropography’s more positive (as opposed to formal and critical) statements concerning meaning in anthropos. The critical comments are important, but would not be optimally constructive if they did not lead to a positive alternative. Therefore, the views that are criticised act as a foil for the presentation of the anthropographic position. In this section, I shall attempt to synthesize various aspects of the latter, the critical element remaining largely implicit, due to considerations of space.

Despite the obvious lacunae in all branches of knowledge, anthropography does not indulge in pessimism, relativism, or unfounded speculation, but instead claims that there is sufficient data available to contradict many commonly accepted notions and also to provide alternative explanatory hypotheses. It posits the necessity of both inductive and deductive (empirical and logical) approaches, emphasizing that the former must provide the latter with a sufficiently broad range of data. Only on the basis of such a comprehensive approach can the shortcomings in one area be complemented by the contributions of another.

The distinguishing of constants and variables is a central heuristic principle for anthropography. Much confusion is created when a variable is taken as a constant, however much the evidence may seem to support such a tactic. For instance, in view of the increasing glorification of violence in the popular media, one could be forgiven for concurring with the opinion that man is nothing but a “naked ape”. Not only would such a comparison be detrimental to our simian relations, however, it would also display a gross ignorance of the finer manifestations of the human mind. Admittedly, the highest manifestations remain a potentiality in most cases, but this should surely lead to an investigation into the conditions of actualization, rather than a dogmatic refusal to acknowledge the possibility of such actualization.

On the basis of its polymathic research strategy, anthropography posits a whole range of hypothetical constants and variables that invite further investigation, elaboration, and verification/falsification. However, commonly accepted notions of verification/falsification may themselves have to be revised in the light of anthropographic constants/variables. For instance, it is suggested that the human mind commonly operates at a fraction of its potentiality, and that the latter includes a refinement and supersession of lower-grade activity, producing degrees of enhanced objectivity in exceptional individuals. Therefore, verification/falsification may turn out to be matters of refined experiential capacity. Unavoidably, this assertion is itself dependent on a similar experiential verification. This does not rule out its assessment as an hypothesis, however. Such assessment may be largely philosophical, but it cannot be determined in a purely deductive manner; philosophy must correlate the data provided by a whole spectrum of disciplines.

The human brain provides a focus for the elaboration of meaning in anthropos. Although research is arguably still in its infancy, recent studies support the contention that both hemispheres of the brain possess considerable scope for enhanced performance. Anthropography is critical of the reduction of left/right hemispherical potentials to verbal/spatial abilities respectively. Even the rational/intuitive dichotomy is regarded as hopelessly simplistic. Such labels do not rise above the level of the common denominator, and ignore uncommon manifestations of increasingly realized brain potential in particular individuals.

Anthropography is critical of any position which glorifies one hemisphere at the expense of the other. Furthermore, exaltation of either one, or even both, of the hemispheres may turn out to be based upon an inadequate understanding of cortical operations at normal or enhanced levels. For example, the “new age” championing of the “intuitive” right brain, to the detriment of the “rational/intellectual” left brain, is seen to be an emic judgment, not based upon an adequate (i.e., etic) appraisal of the data.

In opposition to behaviourist approaches, anthropography asserts the existence of a conscious self which is not reducible to the body, including the brain. But it is not a Cartesian dualism that is expounded here. It is not a question of explaining how a “mental” self interacts with a “physical” body, but rather one of explaining how the conscious self negotiates the “stream of impressions” that comprise the individual mind. These impressions include emotions, as well as thoughts and sensations, and they exist on conscious, subconscious and dormant levels of the mind.

In the anthropographic view, the mind is as much a product of evolution as the body, and standard evolutionary theory is criticised for its materialistic neglect of this denominator. The evidence suggests a progression from the most rudimentary level of consciousness through the various species of plant and animal, involving greater and greater complexity, until the human stage is reached.

This raises the question of purpose and order, and here anthropography is not afraid of putting forward hypotheses concerning ultimates. A beginning point, or “creation”, is hypothesized as an ultimate cause, although this is not understood in terms of creation by a conscious agency that is complete in itself (the “god” of theology). Rather, it is argued that there is a latent “intelligence” prior to creation, which remains immanent even after this event. The outworking of this immanent intelligence results in an orderly and purposeful universe, with a teleological principle.

According to this paradigm, neither “survival of the fittest” nor genetic selection supplant consciousness as the central causal principle in evolution. Genetic selection does not explain species jumps, and although survival of the fittest may operate at early stages of evolution, it is argued that other motivating factors may intervene at later stages.

Anthropography does not condone entirely mechanistic explanations of evolution, but instead posits an open-ended determinism in terms of the outworking of purpose and order. This implies an element of creativity, which may be aligned with free will at the human level. At this level the sociocultural factor assumes prominence as a form of species adaptation. Freewill implies the possibility of destructive as well as creative impulses, and the interaction of these impulses can produce collective trends in consciousness that result in the cyclical emergence and decline of sociocultures. Both materialistic and phenomenological theories of social change are rejected for their myopic constriction of data.

In an orderly universe, the outworking of dissolution trends must proceed according to laws inherent in the evolution of consciousness. Evolution is an ultimate necessity, but de-evolution is a palpable contingency which may involve a sociocultural bathos in which freewill has considerably reduced scope for expression.

Accumulating data in the human sciences does not contradict the foregoing explanatory hypotheses. Research in palaeoanthropology indicates that the present structure of the human brain emerged as early as the last Ice Age, and perhaps even earlier. This would imply that there are very large gaps in our knowledge of human history. However, from the data that are available it is possible to discern the emergence and nature of sociocultural patterns, including the activities of diverse constituent minority repertories.

Such repertories cannot be understood on the basis of static categories, e.g., “religious”, “gnostical”, etc. A repertory may have included strongly creative potencies (and actualities) at its inception, but may have subsequently devolved to a distinctly uncreative existence, which nonetheless perpetuated itself in a ritualistic manner. There is the added complexity of the role of exceptionally creative individuals, who may have operated within the context of a minority repertory, or independently of any.

There are indications that uncreative minority repertories have often masqueraded as “religious”, “mystical”, or “gnostical” entities. This does not disprove the existence of the genuine article, even if the latter is less obtrusive in its manifestations. Such negative trends appear to have had a deleterious effect upon the entire socioculture to which they belonged, resulting in its eventual collapse. This was usually followed, after an interval, by the emergence of another socioculture, which inherited both creative and uncreative characteristics of its predecessor. Which characteristics were nurtured, and which achieved preponderance, depended on the interplay of the constituent repertories, as well as individuals who had the ability to transcend social limitations and exercise a strong (although perhaps unostentatious) influence upon events.

The question of individual incentive brings us back to the issue of brain potential. History provides us with ample evidence of exceptionally creative entities. A progressive theory of brain potential will obviously include the higher as well as the lower end of the scale. The implications of discoveries in this field should be of concern to educationalists.

In the anthropographic view, mind exercises a causal influence on the environment, which may be beneficial or not. The interaction of the two factors is obviously important here. A dissolute environment is not likely to elicit higher potentials in the minds of individual members. The stream of impressions comprising such minds incorporates crude elements to a greater or lesser extent, and uncreative behaviour is a likely outcome. The scope for the exercise of free will is accordingly diminished, and it is permissible to speak in terms of the strongly determinative influence of the environment. However, determinism is always open-ended, and even in an oppressive environment motivated individuals can outstrip harmful influences and actualize previously untapped brain reserves.

It is argued that the total operation of the brain would involve a sublimation and synthesis of left- and right-hemispheric tendencies which would dwarf current popular and academic measurements. Such an achievement would admittedly be rare, but cannot be discounted on this basis alone. Indeed, it is quite possible that a manifestation of this nature would represent an ultimate emergent of the process of creation and evolution. In such a brain we might have an example of the complete actualization of the inherent intelligence in the universe. Obviously, it would take a similarly activated brain to completely verify the event, but this factor does not rule out the possibility of varying degrees of recognition.

Such a concept may seem far-fetched to some, while others would simply label it as “gnostical”, perhaps in the hope that it could then be safely filed away and forgotten about. However, the fact that a phenomenon is not generally recognized does not necessarily amount to its invalidation. The concept of a maximally operative brain may be an unfamiliar one in our present society, but this may simply turn out to be an uncomplimentary reflection on the latter.

As already indicated, the current social situation is subject to pointed criticism in the book. Western society (which has become global in its extensions) is regarded as an unhealthy accumulation of various adverse trends. Materialist science, allied with capitalist (and communist) greed and ethnocentric complacency, has given rise to a form of technological dependency which is destructive to the environment, while at the same time its votaries neglect proper education in favour of a wasteful addiction to television, pop music, and any form of novel gadgetry which distracts from self-examination. Social chaos is reflected in the academic world, where postmodernity is regarded by some as a positive step forward into a realm where there are no fixed meanings and where anything goes.

This situation is not likely to produce an accurate appraisal of constants and variables in the sphere of human potential. But it is only on the basis of such an appraisal that a viable educational syllabus can be drawn up – a syllabus that would avoid destructive tendencies while evoking the finer dimensions of the human mind. This is not simply a reference to a revolution in institutionalized education, but to a complete removal of crude stimuli from the environment.

The foibles of ordinary understanding are presently producing a relativistic interpretation of the human situation. However, this popular route may be as much in error as assumed objectivity. In the midst of the confusion, anthropography proposes both a description of the predicament, and a prescription for its alleviation. Facts and values are thus seen to be inseparable in a valid scientific framework. At the hub of the anthropographic challenge is the following statement: the human mind, admittedly limited in a statistically large number of cases and under certain conditions, is capable of attaining to a greater objectivity under certain other specifiable conditions.

Elucidation of the latter would require a metaphysical description of human nature. Anthropography does not discountenance such an undertaking, but holds that a more immediate necessity is the countermanding of basic inaccuracies in popularly received notions, and the provision of viable alternatives based on scientific research. Survival is always a priority, and is often facilitated by the removal of ignorance. If basics such as ecology are not properly understood, then there will be little point in elucidating finer dimensions.

Ultimately, an understanding of human nature will depend upon the extension of research boundaries beyond academic and cultural confines. In particular, areas that are popularly labelled “mystical” must become subject to a rigorous, yet open-minded, scientific approach. Brain research provides a promising focus for the latter.

The question of the meaning of life is traditionally the prerogative of philosophy. According to anthropography, the fundamental purpose of philosophy is to find sufficient answers to evolutionary problems. Philosophy should chart the bases of experience and living, which is an empirical pursuit in its own right, and not to be confused with academic philosophy. The latter attempts to answer important questions on the basis of insufficient data, often resulting in pessimism or relativism. For this reason, anthropography distinguishes essential philosophy from the academic variety. The former is concerned with definite knowledge, not with dogmatic assumptions of such knowledge or equally dogmatic denials of its existence.

Meaning in Anthropos should be of interest to anyone who is concerned with the human situation. The anthropographic hypotheses contained therein are open to scientific scrutiny. It is incumbent upon those who consider themselves open-minded to undertake a study of these hypotheses before coming to their own conclusions.

Copyright Simon Kidd 2012