The Cults Intro





Journeys With A Sufi Master


By Hadrat Bashir M. Dervish

Octagon Press, London, 1982




Chapter 6: THE CULTS


A dervish said to a devil: ‘Why are you sitting
making no mischief?’ The demon replied
‘Since the would-be teachers have
appeared in
such numbers, there is nothing
left for me to do.’


                                       Ghulam Haidar



The story of the Sufi who was able to get on with his work because pseudo-teachers drew off sensation-mongers and gave him peace, was, Halim Jan told me, being widely duplicated at the present time.


    He had been involved in observing and assessing the ‘occultist explosion’ which had been taking place right across Western countries for close on twenty years.


    Beginning about 1960, masses of people in the West, suddenly and almost as if of one accord, had ‘discovered’ Eastern mysticism; or what the West thought was Eastern mysticism.


    Perhaps the decline of religion in the West had left a vacuum. Perhaps the dehumanising effect of modern technology had suddenly become intolerable. Perhaps people genuinely felt that there had to be more to human life than the sterility and hopelessness that many modern conditions implied. Whatever the reason or reasons, millions of people in the West had tried to turn to the East — and to the past. People started to play oriental music, to fill their houses with joss-sticks and saris, to wear fur jackets from Afghanistan, kurtas from India, kaftans from Morocco. They developed a taste for koftas and kebabs, tried to understand the Tibetan Book of the Dead, puzzled over the I-Ching, wore Pharaonic Egyptian ankh charms suspended around their necks. Yoga became a pastime for housewives and a subject offered at municipal evening classes.


    Then, slowly at first and then more rapidly, it all started to look ridiculous. Fakes — and rackets — were unmasked. Meditation was seen to produce no better results than hypnosis; and was widely referred to as ‘the rediscovery of the siesta’. The Chinese officially admitted that they had fooled Western doctors with ‘demonstrations’ of acupuncture anesthesia. Zen was filleted for its ‘martial arts’ content and flowed on in various diluted popularisations. The speed with which the balloon burst was proportionate to the West’s impatience for results. When these were not forthcoming, the restless experimenters sought elsewhere. And suddenly there was nothing left.


    Or next to nothing. As the occultist tide receded and ordinary people lost interest, a number of societies, groups, or cults became more or less stabilised around the ‘developmental’ idea. These groups had one concept in common: mankind has a potential for psychological or spiritual growth which is not realised in the conditions of ordinary life.


    Many of these groups or societies had a leader who, his supporters believed, alone possessed the secret of how to activate and guide this inner development.


    Halim Jan said that this was no new phenomenon. Sufis knew the mechanism and the precise stages which every ‘occultist revival’ went through. They could predict the course of the process or as Halim described it, ‘this disease’.  They also knew that until a certain stage had been reached, there was nothing to be done. ‘What impresses me,’ he said, ‘is not what people have found out in twenty years of occultist revival — but how much of what is really there they haven’t even suspected.’


    The leaders of these cults were sometimes sincere: but even when they were, they were rarely much more than half educated in the subject they professed. For the most part they were opportunists or charlatans, combining the opportunity to indulge their vanity or lust for power over others, with a convenient and easy method of making money. Some of them were millionaires.


    Shah was, and still is, in the forefront of the battle against the cults; for Sufis see themselves as educating, not manipulating. One of the most fascinating results of this was when, in an interview with the editor of Psychology Today Shah stated (without naming them) that some Indian gurus were frauds, he received scores of protests from gurus’ disciples. Evidently the cap fits.


    Once Shah was invited to visit a supposedly spiritual group, alleged Sufis, somewhere in the heart of the English countryside. He took me and two other people with him.


We found that, although the Press had reported favourably on the community, it was sustained by mumbo-jumbo, exercises and ideas borrowed from anywhere, and peopled by a disturbingly excitable and odd-looking range of characters. We examined it in detail; and I remarked that it seemed nonsense from beginning to end.


    Shah stroked his chin and smiled. ‘Now you all know just how to organize a cult. It is possible only because, so far, people in general do not realise a very simple fact, namely, that the human being responds emotionally to almost any kind of stimulus. And if he can be excited about a certain point, he may be convinced that he is having a spiritual experience. However, there are certain types who respond best. These are the depressives. The process is likely to work especially well among people whose feelings are repressed by social constraints. Here, read this. The situation is actually known in scientific observation.’  He handed Halim Jan a clipping from the London ‘Times’. It said: ‘By Our Medical Correspondent. — Rioting in Belfast has had a beneficial effect upon some forms of mental illness in the city, a psychiatrist states. He has found that depression is least common in the areas of the city most affected by the riots and he claims his statistics support the psychodynamic theory that depression is the result of the inhibition of aggressive responses to frustration. . . In contrast, depression has become more common in the rest of the United Kingdom. . .


“In the riot area,” he says, “even those inhabitants who took no active part in confrontation with the security forces or rival religious groups could not escape involvement. Violence was a main topic of conversation and the high emotional content of such talk could be expected to have a beneficial effect on those prone to depression. The rise in the peaceful areas of Co. Down could possibly be due to the men there feeling frustration at being unable to take part in the violence described by the news media.”


    ‘You see,’ Shah continued, when the item had been read out by Halim, ‘when people who have been inhibited from showing emotion are allowed to do so they will feel better. Their depression will be lightened. The people who run these pantomimes, as one of you has called them, do not usually know what they are doing. Indeed, they may themselves imagine, through misunderstanding what is happening, that something divine has entered the situation. Yet this is really a fairly well-known common denominator of many religious cults.’


    ‘But,’ I asked, ‘if some scientists know this, how is it that the facts are not thoroughly understood by the world at large? If medical people, and social scientists, know the mechanism, why isn’t it common knowledge?’


    ‘First, it certainly is well known. The shelves of bookshops overflow with paperbacks explaining the mechanism of cult-formation and conditioning. So this material should be common knowledge to the readers of such books, which are published for the general public. More time may be necessary, and more educational effort, before this material percolates to the general level.


    ‘Second, the slowness of the acceptance of these facts may well be because the mechanisms which are used by cults are the same as those which are employed in implanting more generally acceptable ideas into the mind. Since no way of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ inputs of this nature is known, people will tend to look the other way. The days are long gone when one could have said, in the formerly acceptable formula, “Yes, this is how it is done, but in the case of the cult it is the devil, and in our case the church.”’


    I asked what could stop the cults. ‘Only education. But before people can educate, they have to find a way of bringing to people the truth which is higher than, and a replacement for, manipulating them. The Sufis have clean hands in this respect: but how many other current institutions can say, “Such-and-such a thing is indoctrination: it is treating human beings like programmable machines”?’


    ‘The present position is that, as I have said, most conventional belief-systems have little to offer other than inducing belief. They have to research the alternatives before they can teach. Further, though there is a good deal of talk about “harm” and “evil” from the cults, this has never been quantified, and many reasonable people are not at all convinced that all cults are harmful or evil. The cults will, one day, have to be studied side by side, for good and harmful effects, with all other belief-systems. Only such a study can claim to be scientific, and could command general respect.’


    We visited one cult headquarters, as much, I suspect, for my benefit as any other reason: and were met at the door by a morbid-looking individual who asked who we were. Shah said ‘just visitors’ whereupon the door was slammed in our faces. Shah then telephoned the grandly-named ‘Sufi’ who was the leader of this group and asked to speak to his secretary. To this man Shah said, ‘I want to make an appointment for the Ambassador of Central Arabia.’


    The ‘Ambassador’ was instantly invited: and when we went to the place, the red carpet was well and truly out in our honour. We were treated to an exhibition of holy gymnastics and given a ‘sacred reading’ as a prelude to meeting the Master. After a few minutes, during which he stressed both the importance and the secrecy of his work, he calmly demanded that the ‘Ambassador’ give him a donation of a million pounds towards his work!


    On the way home Shah said, ‘If these are what ordinary people know as Sufis, no wonder the man in the street expects us to be mountebanks and frauds.’


    In encounters with self-appointed teachers, Shah was taking no active part and was only providing illustrative material for me and the others of our party. Months later I was to see him in a more active confrontation. The inner meaning of this incident was by no means clear to me when I witnessed it, but an analysis of the encounter illustrated not only the precision and economy employed, but also the several levels of understanding simultaneously available when a Sufi engages in a demonstration.


    The leader of a certain cult attended a meeting addressed by Shah and after a bit stood up and started shouting: ‘I defy you to show that your so-called teaching isn’t false. . .’  He ranted on, embracing all the audience in his anger and indignation till he finally ran out of breath. When he did, Shah inquired, ‘Does the chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?’


    The protestor became so red in the face, I thought he might collapse. He finally declaimed: ‘And that shows you are an empty buffoon who cannot even respond to a simple question’ and stormed out of the room.


    I asked a Sufi to comment on this incident. He said, ‘The ordinary person has no conception of what takes place between Sufis: because real Sufis communicate by direct perception and not by words. When they are dealing with those who do not understand this, they will use a certain form of language which has one meaning for a ‘raw’ person and a quite different meaning for those who have undergone certain experiences.
    ‘Sufis do not debate one with another. Only scholars and pseudo-Sufis do.


    ‘Had this man been a Sufi, he would have addressed Shah mind to mind, silently and would have been given an answer in the same way. By answering him in words, Shah was demonstrating, to those present and able to understand, that this man was not a Sufi. Second, by giving the reply he did, Shah was showing that a silly question deserves a silly answer. Third, he punctured the fellow’s self-esteem and thereby showed that since he could be provoked, he couldn’t be a Sufi. And finally, he showed that a dozen words was all that was necessary to get rid of a noisy pest.’


    The Sufis may use jokes to convey an idea so that it ‘penetrates,’ when a laborious exposition of the same idea would become entangled in, or blocked by, the hearer’s conditioned responses.


    I have always suspected that there is some awareness of this principle in quite ordinary exchanges; and people often use jokes in a very similar way. A joke somehow touches a nerve on the raw. Some quite instructive ones are found in the West, as well as in the East.


    In one tale, following the Middle East version, a Sufi was to pay a business visit to Europe and was given one or two names which would prove helpful. He was duly passed from contact to contact and had a very successful trip. When he related his experiences to friends at home they noted that his contacts appeared to be university professors, bankers, diplomats, authors and the like, all of them Sufis. One of his friends said, ‘This is very gratifying; but did you get any impression of how ordinary people in, say, England and France are responding to the present Sufi work?’
    ‘That, I’m afraid, I don’t know. You see, I was only dealing with the top people.’ The Scots have a closely similar joke.


    During my stay in England, I had been impressed by the large number of professional people whom Shah met. Some, it is true, were inquirers; but many were already following the Sufi way. The idea that in the West responding to Sufi ideas there was a disproportionate number of influential people had indeed struck me. When I heard the ‘top people’ joke in Arabic, I ventured to ask Shah if there was in fact some hidden elitist element in Sufi work.


    He said, ‘Absolutely not. Indeed the reverse. But, in a Sufi operation, certain known mechanisms are followed because they have been shown, historically, to work. A human trait of imitativeness can be encouraged deliberately though normally it manifests mechanically. For instance, in the 18th century the great mass of people in France wouldn’t eat potatoes. But when it became known that the King was not only eating them but was growing them, people clamoured to have their share of “King’s food”.


    ‘Centuries ago when it was necessary to open up communications in one area of the world, six hundred years ago, the Sufi Bahauddin Naqshband of Bukhara actually spent years building roads with his own hands. Afterwards, road-making became an almost compulsive activity because people wanted to follow the holy example of a Saint.


    ‘Again, you may or may not have noted how major religions spread. To begin with they were trivial and local, then a sudden huge expansion took place. This almost always happened as soon as the top people had been converted.


    ‘Just as in mundane matters people imitate those whom they respect, so in Sufism, the inner qualities of one person may help to transmute the learner. People who are real and worthy professionals communicate this higher element through a generally unperceived current. You will meet, in the West, large numbers of our people who are not of the elite.’
    And I did.






O Shah! Heaven portioned sovereignty to thee
And saddled power thy glorious steed to be;
And where thy charger sets his golden hoofs
Earth glitters like some golden tapesty.


                             Omar Khayyam, Quatrains
                               Translated by E. H. Whinfield



On the journeys, whether in East or West, I came more and more to realise that the mechanisms of human behaviour are far indeed from what people imagine them to be.


In everyday life we provide ourselves with plausible, usually flattering, reasons for doing what we do and saying what we say. Our real motivations are different, unsuspected, deeply hidden, and can be sinister or even ludicrous.


For Shah, every moment of the day, every chance encounter with dustman or duke was an opportunity to teach us – and the people involved if they could see it – that behind appearances there was another reality.


Perhaps it would be possible to list the principles governing mental and emotional mechanisms: but this is not the Sufi way. They are taught instead by a marvelously subtle procedure which enables the student not merely to see but to experience what underlies appearances, whether in himself or in others.


Learning in this Sufi way, I came to recognise certain patterns of reality. But I thought there were gaps in the pattern for which I could not account, until I saw that these arose from a fault in my own perception. One of the commonest in human behaviour here is unwarranted assumption.


Here is an example.

Like most people, I have always been impressed by predictive capacity wherever I have come across it. Hence of great interest to me was to note how Shah could apparently tell what people were going to think about him before he had met them.


Again and again he would say, almost as if to himself, ‘He will like us’, or ‘This man whom we are going to see will oppose us violently’. And, again and again, things turned out exactly as he had foreseen.


When this had happened perhaps twenty times, I asked if I could know how this prediction worked.


He said, ‘I have been waiting for you to ask, because you always prick up your ears when I do it. Now, we are having a meeting with X tomorrow. This time, you tell me how he will react.


I thought for a moment, and then said, ‘Favourably’. This in fact was how it turned out. This happened several more times. Each time I would ‘decide’ whether the person would be well disposed or otherwise; each time I ‘predicted’ correctly.


‘So, you see’ said Shah, ‘it seems that you can “predict” as well as I can!’

I went over this in my mind, flattered that I seemed able to do this but not wholly convinced that I was doing it. There was something not quite right. . . Yet I had guessed correctly in each case.


It took a surprisingly long time before I realized I was not doing anything: Shah was. In these cases at least, he caused something to happen which determined the reaction of the strangers when we met them.


I asked him why it took me so long to understand.

‘Why it took you so long’ he said, ‘is because you were standing in your own light. You assumed that you were doing something and your assumption was subtly supported because of your desire to do wonderful things.’


Well, if I was not doing wonderful things, he was and I immediately thought that anyone who could so manipulate people, need never have opponents, and was in a position to achieve anything.


Shah interrupted my train of thought. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you get no license to act like that, just because you’ve acquired additional faculties. Do surgeons cut everyone up just because they are allowed to operate? If someone gives you money for a charity, do you spend it on yourself? It is common to imagine that people will do things just because they can. In reality, added abilities produce added responsibilities.’


‘Did you read my mind just now?’ I asked him.

‘Certainly not! I knew what you thought because I know you,’ then added that this faculty was ‘just something which helps one to do one’s job, like knowing how to be polite, say. Knowing how to be polite’ he continued ‘helps you to get on. It means that you can predict and plan things. People do not object to politeness, even though it can predict what people will do.’


I could not help interrupting to say, ‘But the one is a practice, a custom, and the other is . . . something else.’

‘Not so,’ he said, ‘they are more similar than you know. Both are by-products, the one of civilized culture and the other of a special culture. . .’


Mentally, I was speculating about how many years it would take me to acquire such powers. Shah cut in to say, ‘So long as you want to perform like that for its own sake, so long will it be denied you. But’, he ended, smiling, ‘even if you are born in a stable, you don’t have to grow up a horse.’


The inviolable rule in the excercise of this faculty undoubtedly is: never try to use it for personal gain or advantage. There must be a definite purpose in using it as indicated by the Design. More than once, Shah has said, when indicating that someone would dislike us, ‘That is as it should be. As he opposes us this will cause well-intentioned people, people with better characters, to move towards us, since they will dislike him.’


I once said, ‘But isn’t it cruel deliberately to generate dislike in someone?’


‘One morning’ he said, ‘I was sitting in my room, watching a bee trying to find a way out. It spent nearly half an hour trying to find a way through a pane glass. Deceived by the presence of light, it assumed there must be open space there as well. As soon as it discovered, however, that there was another window open, adjoining the first one, it was on the right lines. As soon, that is, as it changed its attention from light to the incoming air, it was free; well, almost. It stayed on the carrier current once I had flicked it with a rolled-up newspaper.

‘I am pretty sure that both the bee and some kinds of observers would have concluded that I was opposed to it. And also that the bee, if aware of me, would have thought me its enemy.’


I wondered how many people had resisted being helped by Shah because their perception, like the bee’s, made them see help as opposition. Once I was sitting next to a Middle East ambassador on an aircraft. He said to me, ‘You can get from Shah only what you are prepared to receive. People who have not valued him have derived little from his friendship.


‘Speaking for myself, I can say that he really taught me all the things which have served me so well in my career from junior secretary to where I am now. I have heard people describe this sort of help again and again – though I am not sure that I would have believed it had I not seen it happen in my own life.

‘I suppose that this is a form of what people call “magic”. Here is a man, outwardly no different from millions of others, but with the capacity to transform lives. Yet he exercises this capacity in secret, as it were. Many, many people without any ordinary hope of making progress in life have “caught” success from him and flourished. Afterwards, as a rule, they never even pause to wonder how it was that the miracle came about.’


This flight brought a number of minor incidents all carrying the peculiar quality that may mark an activity by Shah. Flying from Bombay to Amsterdam, we touched down in Switzerland. In the transit lounge a reporter approached us and said, ‘I notice that in this morning’s Daily Telegraph of London you are described as a member of the world’s oldest family. Does this please you?’


Shah said, ‘Well everything has a plus and a minus. Not long ago I heard someone say, “World’s oldest? – mm . . . he looks like it, too!”’


The newsman seemed a little baffled, but dutifully wrote down the reply. Then he said, ‘What do you think of this man Y, who has been making a name on British television by paraphrasing all your ideas and then giving them out as his own?’

‘I think,’ said Shah, ‘that anybody who could really do that would have a very unusual talent. You should try memorising everything I’ve written.’


On our way back to the aircraft we were suddenly surrounded by a group of German and Austrian priests, travelling somewhere by Scandinavian Airlines. They had, it seemed, recognized Shah from photographs. Nobody in our party knew German, and the priests seemed to speak nothing else.


Suddenly, however, Shah was in animated conversation with them in a language I did not recognize. They seemed to understand it, to be asking questions, listening to the answers, and pulling out bits of paper for his autograph.


When we were together again, I asked, ‘What language was that?’ He looked at me as if I were being particularly obtuse.

‘Latin’, he said.

I felt foolish, because one of Shah’s most effective weapons is to say, ‘Can’t you think it out for yourself?’ The reproach, stated or implied, is justified because people so often speak without thinking, even in matters of importance to them.


Even when people know by experience that he may use this technique, Shah can still impart a lesson.

After one lecture, an aggressive old man pushed his way to the front of a group who were buttonholing Shah: he said: ‘Whatever you say, the fact remains that when I’m with my guru I just feel better. But you’re always on about how useless they are. Now, you cannot deny that this man is useful to me, which is more than I can say for you! And don’t tell me that I can think that one out for myself, because there is nothing to think out. My guru’s blessings to me are apparent all the time. . .’


Shah smiled and said, ‘I refer you to the tale of the man who always sent his shirts to a certain laundry because he appreciated the way they replaced missing buttons free of charge.

‘He always felt better, knowing he could count on this service, and he appreciated the blessing of free buttons. So much so, in fact, that he never noticed that this laundry charged more for washing one shirt than it would have cost him to buy a new one.’


Another capacity Shah has is that of causing people suddenly to unburden themselves. He will meet someone, and develop an ordinary relationship. It may be social or it may be that of teacher and pupil, but it is always apparently quite ordinary. The two will talk about all kinds of things, for a time. Then, without warning, Shah will ‘draw out’ what seems to be the innermost thoughts of the other person, who will start to explain exactly why he or she had done a certain thing, what effect it had had on others, and why it was a good or bad action.


Or, again, one would first hear the person complain about someone and then – as if a private inner recording machine, an inward observer or second self was talking, all the reasons come tumbling out.


I knew an instance in which a Cabinet Minister of a certain country explained why he had taken this or that action involving the fate of millions of people.

Then, after a pause, he suddenly started to analyse his own conduct and explain why he was really taking this action. The real reason was not to his credit.


Another time a famous poet and writer, who only a few minutes before had been talking about the originality of his work, suddenly switched into this alternative mode and listed various classical and other sources from which his work was derived, and how unoriginal it really was; though no student of his work had ever noticed this. ‘In fact,’ he interrupted himself, ‘I had never realised how derivative my work was until this moment.’ It was as if Shah enabled people to see themselves, however fleetingly, in a newly objective light: as if they were someone else, or as if they had been observing themselves with some inner, useful but hitherto unused, part of themselves.


I said to Shah: ‘It seems to me that there is, within everyone, a memory of everything that has ever happened to him, and why it has happened, and that this knowledge is buried within the brain of that person. There is also a mechanism whereby these memories can be released complete. And it seems to me that you know how to press the playback button.’


He said: ‘Here’s a thought: There was once a man who dreamt that he had eaten a tasteless and very dry cake. When he woke, it was to find that the handkerchief under his pillow had vanished, although the room had been locked from the inside. So, looking for an explanation, he told his doctor that his indigestion was due to the shock of his handkerchief disappearing. Unable to see the straightforward explanation of his situation, he found another one. This is what people do when they belong to this world. . .’


I had long believed that a person’s opinion of someone was largely based, not on judgement but on his need to like or dislike, or to be impressed, and so on.


Shah said, ‘Yes, you have seen something. In current jargon, it is group-dynamics and human interaction. There is no problem in testing this. You can induce people to like you, or dislike you, or be puzzled by you, and so on; and they will derive pleasure from adopting one or more of these postures. They think that they feel about you as they do because of some decision they have arrived at by themselves, and these “selves” are highly regarded, although experience should have shown their unreliability. They do not know that their desire for certain stimuli, plus your behaviour – and a few other “inputs” – make up about two-thirds of the ingredients of their reaction.


‘The third which remains – the actual reality – has an almost negligible effect, except in a really objective person. If people were to learn this, or even to consider that it might be so, they would lose their only familiar means of feeling significant. Why should they lose what they think is vital, illusory though it is, when they have no conception of what it blocks out from them?’


It was several months before this was referred to again. Then he said, ‘You remember how I once said, when you raised the question, that people really can’t trust their opinions but continue to do so nevertheless; because they can be made to have pro, contra or undecided ones?’ I said, ‘Yes, indeed.’


‘Well, then, come and see this in action.’

He was due to address a university audience of about a hundred people. He asked me to split them up into three roughly equal groups, and to assign a lecture-room and a time to each group. Three meetings were held and at each one – unusual for him – he read the lecture, and each time it was the same text.


After each lecture it was my task to request the people to put up their hands to signify whether they liked, disliked or were undecided by what they had heard.

I did this. On each occasion I had before me a piece of paper on which Shah had already written: ‘Group I – like the materials and like Shah; Group II – dislike both; Group III – puzzled/undecided.’


This was precisely the result we obtained. Once more I had the feeling, ‘psychology as we know it is still in its infancy.’

Privately to me, Shah said, ‘There is a time when nothing can be done; a time when something can be done; and a time when everything is possible. Keep this in mind, so as to be alert to discern each different quality of time.’


The participants in the three ‘experiments’ who were all students or faculty members of the university, were now allowed to hear a rumour that ‘they had been manipulated for sociological research’. At once they came flocking to know what had been going on. One strange result now emerged. Those who had said they disliked Shah now apparently didn’t. Curiosity had overpowered and replaced dislike.


Shah agreed to comment upon his lecture and its effects, with two stipulations. The first was that he should be allowed to say exactly what he wanted, and at whatever length he desired. The second was that everyone who came to listen to the comment would swear to obey him, utterly, for the period during which they were in the lecture-hall.


This started a lot more confusion and consternation. Most of the people refused to take the oath, saying that it was the complete reverse of all academic freedom to obey anybody in a sheep-like manner. Others, whose excitement was stronger than their allegiance to principle, looked at the other stipulation (about the length of time needed) and brought pillows and vacuum flasks of coffee, in the expectation of a vigil or marathon lecture.


When Shah had collected his audience and had removed a radio micro-transmitter which one enterprising student had installed with a view to getting the ‘halfpence without the kicks’ as Shah called it, we were ready for the great moment.


Shah then said: ‘When I had just grown up and was, so to speak, thrown out into the world, I used to go about asking what the educated people were doing about the ignorance of the uneducated. I stopped asking when someone told me, “The allegedly educated like to define themselves in contrast to the supposedly ignorant. They have therefore a vested interest in maintaining ignorance. If all the inhabitants of a country are professors, all professors are peasants.” Or as Shah might have put it, “In Hell a devil is nobody in particular”.


‘As for the vow to obey me totally, I would like to warn you against swearing false oaths, which is something which I feel very strongly about. Everyone here has undertaken to obey me. But, since your capacity to obey has not been tested, how could you give such a pledge with any reality?


‘You have perhaps been misled into thinking that one thing is the same as another: the very reverse of what education really is; for the basis of education is to be able to tell one thing from another. The two things, in case you still do not see, are these:

‘First comes the possible, which is when, for instance, you can truly swear to a matter of fact or to something under your control, such as “I swear that I went to school in Dorset or not to go to Niagara Falls this year”.

‘The other kind of oath is where you have no knowledge or control, such as when you say “I swear to obey in every particular.”

‘If, for example, I call in your oath now by asking you to speak Japanese or exercise spiritual powers, you would not be able to discharge it, since you are incompetent in such areas. Don’t people ever tell you these things?’


We are still receiving puzzled letters from people who wonder what the last point, exactly, meant. Luckily, we also get enough approaches from people who did understand, to have made the event more than worth while. We send the letters from those who do not understand to those who do, saving a lot of energy.

Shah said, ‘First ease the pinching boot, then we will talk about cosmic events.’


One of the faculty at this seat of learning described himself as ‘heavily into’ esotericism, having, as he said, ‘tried mainline religion long enough’. I personally thought that he was quite unbalanced, but he was a distinguished man in his own, somewhat recondite, field of learning. Indeed, he still has a weighty international reputation.

He wrote down and sent by registered post a long screed, contesting Shah’s ideas, and offering to put him straight; and also clumsily flattering him.

 I asked Shah what he would do with him. I assumed he would ignore the letter.

‘I shall invite him to become my spiritual adviser’ said Shah.

I thought, even after all the experience I had of Shah, that I must have misheard this time. But no, he repeated the words at my request.

‘But they don’t come any weirder than this one’ I said.

‘Exactly. But he will take my answer to the leaders of a certain religious denomination. He really wants to impress them, but at the moment they haven’t much time for him. They, however, have been angling for me. When they see this letter, which he will probably brandish in a hundred photocopies, they will want to snap him up before I do, and these worthies and our mad friend will really suit one another.

Whereas if I do not answer him, or if I say anything else, he will undoubtedly go completely crazy, and the other people will lose what, for their type of operation, is a useful influence.’


I had an uncanny feeling that I was living through a version of the story of Moses and Khidr.

And what Shah said actually did happen. The next letter from our peculiar correspondent was no longer a mixture of criticism and fawning. It said, and I have it before me as I write:

‘Certain developments make it impossible for me to advise you in your spiritual life. I have shown your letter to so-and-so, the eminent theologian, who not only advised me against dealing with you at all, but has now arranged for me to be appointed Personal Adviser to him and a liturgical consultant to his Organization. . .’


I asked Shah if any of us could learn to do something like this. His answer was, ‘Not everyone with a grimy face is a blacksmith – but he may become one!’


Over and over again I had demonstrations that Shah was a graduate in a science of man unsuspected alike by ordinary men and women and by official psychologists alike. I sometimes felt that his knowledge was so unified that it must go back to some remote period when human thought was being formed. This kind of idea was probably in the mind of a dervish who once reported an unproductive conversation with a Protestant minister.


The Dervish said: ‘The Minster was condescending to me. He claimed he wanted to reach the truth but such was his state that there was no way I could show him the truth. The truth in this case was that we have a thousand years’ more experience than Protestant divines. In addition, we have back-and-forth chronological versatility – we can see past and future – which means that we can verify doctrine in a way impossible to them.

‘This means we don’t try what we can’t do, while they depend on trial-and-error. Going back into the past reveals the real situation about his faith. Going into the future shows me how sterile would be the results of any attempt to explain this to him.’


Here is another illustration of the depth at which Sufi psychology operates. I listened to a long argument between a certain famous man and Shah, the former contesting almost everything Shah said.


When this long interchange was over, I said, ‘Why did you let him get away with so many absurd points, that could easily have been refuted? With respect, why did you bother with him at all? He is bitter and unreconciled; I don’t think that your patience will have any effect on him. What is the good of that?’


Shah said, ‘Everything you say would seem the position to any ordinary observer. The man is behaving in a hostile and idiotic way. Many people would think it best either to refute him or befriend him; and in some ways he undoubtedly is powerful.

‘But it is too early to act at the moment. His mind needs time to do its “cooking”.  I want you to go to [he named a certain club] where he will be in full cry next week. By then what I have said will have an effect. . .’


I went to the club, as the guest of a member I knew. To my amazement, Shah’s distinguished opponent was now defending, instead of opposing, every single point that Shah had made in their discussion: almost completely reversing his previous standpoint.

I also made notes on another case which appeared to illustrate the last situation in reverse.

Someone came to Shah and agreed with everything he said. He was likeable, animated, well-dressed, respectful and anxious to help in every way.

I suggested that this man should be given some responsibility, that I could do with some help, and he had offered to be of any service, I was sure that we would get on, and so on.


To a number of us who had been present Shah said, ‘This man believes that he accepts all that we say and do. He imagines that we have a future together. He is popular in all his relationships, he is even regarded as a model by some people. People like him, want him as their friend.

‘But inwardly, in an area which is unperceived both by him and by all of you, he is potentially what you would call deceived and a traitor. One day he will surely turn against us.’


I was really surprised. But, by now, I had had enough experience of Shah not to dismiss the idea, unlikely though it seemed in the light of my own judgment.


‘It is impossible at this stage,’ Shah continued, ‘to convince either him, or perhaps anyone else, that he will betray both his friends and his own best interest. The poison in him is latent, and there is no way to reveal it. Even perceiving it is possible only to some.’


He also made several specific statements about the man’s future. They all came true. Coming, as this man did, to a sticky end, I was tempted to think that this could have been due to his own ‘latent poison’.


Shah used this instance to emphasise something which I found most intriguing. ‘We should remember,’ he said, ‘that cultures and societies are often at stages where time must pass before an idea is accepted. In the modern world, for instance, goodwill and idealism are still seen as the way to progress. When these are finally found to be inefficient, man will soon enough look for knowledge instead. This has, of course, already been done by the Sufis, And when people are ready, Sufis are ready for them.’


‘Our assessment,’ he said, ‘of why people say things can be drastically inefficient; and that includes our ideas about our own beliefs.’ Shortly after this exchange, he handed me a cutting from Time Magazine.* The item described how prospective employees were asked whether they thought that people should be dismissed for cheating on expenses. It was discovered that those who answer ‘no’ to this question were more likely to be honest than those who said ‘yes’! And, although it is generally assumed that most people are honest, 40% of applicants for jobs in some areas were found to be thieves. . .


*Time Magazine, European Edition, December 12, 1977, page 43.


Shah continued to the effect that numerous experiments had been made which showed that witnesses to staged accidents could not remember facts correctly, even though they ‘remembered the evidence of their own eyes’. ‘When Western and other researchers come to assess the implications of all this kind of work,’ he said, ‘there will be a perhaps slow, but nevertheless definite, move towards finding out what can be found out, and that includes knowledge of what is real and what is true.’


At the time of Shah’s diagnosis, I suggested that if the man with the ‘latent poison’ was such a bad case, could we not help him in some way. He said, ‘Let’s do what we really can do, shall we? Trying to do good when you cannot is a luxury available, alas, only to the ignorant. It may be heroic and please you and your friends. Its only fault is that it is not likely to work. Getting yourself liked and trying for lower-level aims may feel good. It may also prevent you from really serving God and man.’ I was later to see, in such of his books as Learning How to Learn, why it was that Shah produced so many instances of how fallacious human thought and observation really is – and why he took so many instances from newspaper and other current materials. Although the same point had been made for centuries by the Sufis, Shah was relating them to today’s world, and calling for a realisation that knowledge must replace opinion wherever this can be done.


Those of us who ‘travelled’ with Shah were for long unable to match his use of humour together with teaching: it was and is one of his hall-marks.
    But we did succeed in staging some practical jokes which were recognised as coming close: for they worked on the level of exposing triviality which masquerades as something deep.


    Of these, the ‘Indian Rishis’ hoax was our favourite. We did several variations of it, with businessmen, scholars, self-styled holy people, and so on.
    The joke first came into being because Burke, Adil, Firoz and I were getting tired of a number of monks who had taken to visiting the house which had been lent to Shah for one Summer.


    In spite of the many ways which we used to try to discourage them, they came again and again. We gave them lectures to expose their shallowness, which they took with dignity, admitting that they were far from perfect, and revelling in their confessions of inadequacy. When we gave them food, they preached the bounty of God. When we denied it to them, they claimed that they had had it in mind to fast that day, anyway.  In short, they were incorrigible sensation-seekers and dreadful hypocrites. The Press and the pulpit, however, extolled their ‘godliness’.


    Everything was interpreted on the most superficial level, association of ideas, and this was then regurgitated to us as a part of the great, cosmic, spiritual plan and teaching which had once been vouchsafed from on high.

    I have never known people anywhere who were so given to platitudes, and repeated them so much. Firoz said they had been sent ‘by the Father of all conditioning and brainwashing as his most triumphant samples’.


    They were very keen on ‘facts’. They ransacked the writings of the saints of the Middle Ages to provide ‘facts’ about holiness, about God, about revelation, about everything they could think of. Shah, for some reason that escaped us all, treated them kindly but was heard to mutter: ‘Some people’s “facts” are so wrong that one can only hope that their fantasies are of better quality!’


    So we decided to provide some ‘facts’ of our own.
    Five of the monks, we agreed, were the worst. Shallow intellectuals, with a repressed emotionality which they thought was religion, is the only way I can begin to describe them.


    So, one day, we invited them to meet some very holy men — Indian Rishis — who had arrived on a visit. One of them, we said in a confidential tone, was really a saint.


Their delight knew no bounds, and each one wanted to know which one would be the ‘saint’. Each of the monks was told separately ‘in confidentiality,’ which of the visitors would be the saint, and he was asked not to tell the others. The first monk was told that the ‘man in the red turban’ would be the great man, the second was tipped off that the saint would be the one in the blue turban, and so on.


   Meanwhile, we had got hold of five rather avaricious and down-market Sikh peddlers, who travelled the country with suitcases selling clothes, mostly women’s underwear, from door to door. We told them we had some Western customers for them who should be a pushover for a bit of salesmanship.


    The Sikhs arrived first and we seated them in front of a large rockery, on a plank covered with red silk. Then the monks, eyes gleaming with heaven knows what expectation of holy revelation, were led from the house.

    We coached the Brothers to treat the Sikhs with the utmost respect, and then showed them onto the lawn which abutted the bushes in front of which the itinerants were settled.


    At the sight of the holy ones, the monks broke into a run. Then, remembering our instructions, they fell to their knees and approached the Indians as best they could in that fashion. When a short distance from their goal, each monk gave a small cry in Punjabi (which we had made them memorise and which really meant ‘show me your wares please’). Then each took the hand of his appointed ‘real saint’ and kissed it.


    I will say one thing for some Sikh peddlers: it takes a lot to surprise them.


    Without turning a hair, each of the ‘Saints’ led his appointed monk by the hand, past the rockery and into the bushes. There he gravely displayed, from his battered suitcase, his full range of largely feminine garments before the glazed eyes of the celibate fact-worshipper.


Such arguments as were possible, given the extreme limits of communication, were not long in breaking out.
    The monks got the worst of it. They lacked an understanding of the strong sense of injustice which assails the Punjab small businessman when he finds people failing to appreciate the necessity of making a purchase from him after showing interest.


    The monks left in high indignation and never came back. The Sikhs were compensated for the deals that had fallen through.
    Shah was told of our deviation from the straight and narrow. He said: ‘One of these monks used to ask me to “describe a Sufi”. Describing a saint as a man you can recognize by a coloured turban is just about what they deserved.’


‘As practical jokes go, this was a good one. But, having savoured it, let us remember what Saadi says in the Orchard, and exercise our himmat (aspiration) that it should be so in this case: “One places a seed in the earth/So that on the day of need it shall give fruit.”’


    Omar Burke, after the manner of the Sufis who use quotations to keep an event in the mind, cited one attributed to the Master Gharib-Nawaz: ‘He is indeed in a prison-house who claims to be pious.’


    One of the fruits of this seed, breaking out of the prison of assumptions and hypocrisy, was the delight which so many Indians expressed when they heard this tale. For them, it seems the burden of false gurus and equally false Western admirers, as well as of certain itinerant and sometimes rascally trading compatriots in the West, was becoming too much to bear.


    Indeed, I am still hearing of versions of this practical joke, which are perpetuated by members of the Indian immigrant community in Britain, ‘to keep the ball rolling,’ to keep the process alive, as one of them recently informed me.


    But after this I spent less and less time in the United Kingdom, for my duties took me to the new and in many ways different field of America.