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

by Simon Kidd

Cover Photo

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.