Baba don't preach: Meher Baba came 'not to teach but to awaken'. A century later Dominic Cavendish finds his message of love is still being taken seriously

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The Independent Culture
Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the birth, in Poona, India, of Meher Baba. To many people, this will mean nothing at all. Yet over the next few days several hundred devotees from around the country will gather to celebrate the life of the man who claimed he was the Avatar, or Christ, of his age.

Prophets and Indian gurus come and go, but considering the scope of Meher Baba's claim (he placed himself in the same line as Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha and Mohamed), his profile is surprisingly low in the UK. Although his teachings and 44-year-long vow of silence, which lasted until his death in 1969, are recorded in the Encyclopedia Britannica, his greatest claim to popular affection stems from having coined the phrase 'Don't worry, be happy' (which inspired the 1988 chart-topper by Bobby McFerrin).

The songs, prayers, lectures and poetry readings in Twickenham this weekend, which form the bulk of the English Meher Baba Association's tribute, hardly look set to change that. Apart from mounting a flurry of poster ads on the London Underground, his followers (Baba-lovers, as they call themselves) seem content to keep the events low-key - this despite treading in the footsteps of successive generations of distinguished Westeners. The 'God-Man' reputedly changed the life of Delia de Leon, the actress, and ballet teacher Margaret Craske, in the Thirties, and Sir Tom Hopkinson, the writer, in the Sixties.

There will be no great public gesture from even the best-known living British Baba-lover, Pete Townshend, guitarist with The Who, who has dedicated much of his music to Baba (including the rock opera Tommy). He will be busy flying back from a Roger Daltrey concert in New York. But, say devout Baba-lovers, Meher Baba would have wanted it that way.

'Baba's most immediate message was that people could only realise their innate divinity by carrying out their worldly duties,' explains Susie Biddu, the Association's chairman. 'Apart from no sex outside marriage and no drugs, he didn't lay down any rules and there are no rituals. There is no chanting or standing on your head. There is no propaganda. Baba wanted religions to come together, not to form a cult.'

It is hard, therefore, to spot a Baba-lover. The Association's HQ in Hammersmith is so innocuous it would resemble a doctor's waiting room were it not for the smiling pictures of Baba that adorn every wall. It was his warmth which convinced people that eliminating 'the selfish ego' did not mean destroying their individuality.

The celebrations thus rely on appreciating 'the things Baba loved'. Tomorrow night there will be Indian Qawali singing, a rendition of Cole Porter's 'Begin the Beguine' and a screening of Townshend's short film about him, Parvadager.

At present, the Association can only boast 300 members, but Townshend believes that even at the height of interest in Baba in Britain during the Sixties, there were never more than 800 active followers. 'You have to look pretty hard to find him, but there is something about the nature of the surrender to him that is almost irreversible.' Describing the birthday as 'a very significant moment,' he believes that in the 1990s young people are not as easily drawn to gurus as was his generation. 'It is a difficult time at the moment for people to evaluate whether or not they have found a genuine master or teacher.'

Susie Biddu has no such doubts, and sees Baba as a worldwide phenomenon. 'The true sign of his greatness has only come since he dropped his body. More and more people have been going to his tomb near Ahmadnagar every year. Baba-lovers are probably the biggest underground network in humanity. I think it will happen in this country when it's meant to happen.'

Events: Fri 7pm-10pm, Sat 10am- 10pm, Violet Needham Hall, West London Institute, St Margaret's Rd, Twickenham. Local meeting in Devon (0769 80617). For more information contact Meher Baba Association HQ (081-743 4408)

(Photograph omitted)