Over half a century ago, Max Weber and Joachim Wach established that individals claiming to embody ultimate spiritual authority - Avatars, Sadgurus, Messiahs, Buddhas - form the core of religious faith. Eileen Barker, Peter Clarke and others showed this is equally true of new religious movements. However, Avatars and Messiahs are now so numerous and volatile that they constitute a civic dilemma of global proportions. This has spawned debate over suitable means of determining these leaders' authenticity - voiced in works such as Spiritual Choices (1987).
For the most part, scholarly response to this dilemma has manifested as profound skepticism about all Gurus and purportedly 'Divine' persons - hence Joel Kramer's and Diana Alstad's The Guru Papers, Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay and John Wren-Lewis's 'Death Knell of the Guru System?.'
The current study attempts an alternative, more positive evaluation of the problem. Following the lead of Michael Washburn, Frances Vaughan, Ken Wilber and John Welwood, it attempts to place leaders' perceived authenticity in relation to long-established traditions of verification. This is enacted through a case study on the emergence and impact of one particular Avatar – Meher Baba (1894-1969).
Meher Baba serves as a potent example of the dynamics of absolute authority claims, as he frequently made statements about his 'Divinity.' Moreover, although scholars such as Robert Ellwood and Jacob Needleham emphasised the need for more research into Meher Baba's life and thought, very little has been attempted to date. Hence the current research additionally served to document a little-known, yet influential, new religious leader.
Applying a blend of Historical and Phenomenological approaches, the validity of Meher Baba's authority was examined. We considered the sources of his authority; their historicity; the process through which his claims were authorised; and how his behaviour was interpreted as indicative of his status.
Primary texts for the study were materials on or by Meher Baba, his movement, his Masters and his general milieu. This covered published and unpublished manuscripts, articles, news clippings, letters, photographs, archival films and audio recordings, and personal communications from disciples, followers and relatives. A fair balance of 'outsider' and 'insider' views was sought, with particular emphasis on early (1920s / 1930s) sources.
Chapter 1 sought to establish a reliable means for differentiating between authority which is perceived as authentic (generally, altruistic or ''egoless'' behaviour and background) and authority which is perceived as inauthentic (generally, egocentric or self-gratifying behaviour and background). Various criteria for determining such authenticity, developed by Michael Washburn, Frances Vaughan, Ken Wilber and John Welwood, were combined into a grid, divided between four common fields of assessment: lineage, initiation, authorisation and behaviour.
Next, allegations concerning Meher Baba's lineage, initiation, authorisation and behaviour were examined in depth, forming a chapter each. Hence, we considered the credibility of Meher Baba's lineage (Chapter 2), the credibility of Meher Baba's initiation and training (Chapter 3), the credibility of Meher Baba's authorisation (Chapter 4) and the credibility of Meher Baba's behaviour (Chapter 5).
We found the bases of Meher Baba's self-perceptions within the Avataric / 'holy person' tradition from which he hailed. Thus Meher Baba's case demonstrated the existence of at least one historic tradition of 'authentic absolutism.' It was established that Baba's Masters were prominent identities within acclaimed Indian lineages. There was considerable evidence for lengthy association between Meher and these purported Masters, including public authorisation of his 'Avatarhood' through them. Meher apparently enjoyed the acknowledgment of a broad range of Indian Gurus, including major representatives of Maharashtran religion, and the little-understood category of masts. More importantly, despite contradictions within Meher's personal behaviour, this Avatar seems to have led an extremely exemplary, service-oriented life.
In conclusion, the study demonstrated the benefits of concentrating on individual cases of absolute authority and fully investigating the basis of that authority. Detailed analysis of a leader's lineage, training, authorisation and behaviour were found to be a potent tool in rating his or her authenticity - especially if a grid is applied (such as the combined Washburn/ Welwood/ Vaughan/ Wilbur one devised here). The combined grid better defined what elements of Meher's activities and background might be considered egocentric rather than altruistic (egoless).