The book covers many subjects, both practical and highly esoteric. Some chapters go into the human search for the Truth and God, spiritual advancement, aspirants, various states of God-realized beings, the Avatar and discipleship. Other chapters deal methodically with several aspects of spiritual advancement and the spiritual path, such as the formation and removal of sanskaras (mental impressions), various aspects of meditation, transcending good and evil, and clarify Meher Baba's views on such topics as occultism, reincarnation and maya. Several chapters are discourses on individual subjects such as selfishness, violence, sex, love, happiness and spiritual work. Due to the nature of the Discourses, some topics occur repeatedly in various contexts. Yet the book maintains a methodical flow and structure rather than being a random collection of individual discourses.
The use of the term Ego in the Discourses does not follow strictly the Freudian definition, although generally it refers to the same concept and many parallels can be drawn. Baba makes no mention of the Id or the Super-ego, but only the distinction between the implicit and the explicit ego. The latter finds manifestation in consciousness, whereas the former remains in the subconscious mind. Isolated subconscious tendencies stored in the implicit ego must come to the explicit side to take part in a conscious process. Yet the explicit ego is very intricately organized and has self-protection mechanisms that act as a repressive barrier to subconscious tendencies. Since spiritual progress requires all subconscious tendencies to gradually pass through the conscious part of the mind and become refined and eventually eliminated, the explicit ego has to be weakened, under certain conditions, to permit this to happen.
Evolutionarily, the ego is formed by the inherent nature of living beings to store, integrate and evaluate experience around a central mental point. The organized mental structure of experience eventually takes over the sense of "I" and starts considering itself as the central identity of the individual. This creates various erroneous assumptions from the ego's side, such as identifying itself with the physical body, the psychological functions or the mind of the individual, or endowing external objects and events with values that don't really belong to them but that it projects on them. Generally the ego is the central cause of all mental conflict. Its presence during the evolution of consciousness is of instrumental importance, but from a certain point on it starts acting as a hindrance to the further development of self-consciousness. A lot of spiritual effort has to be made to weaken the ego's dominance on self-consciousness and as the effort moves deeper it becomes increasingly difficult to proceed. The individual can get indefinitely stuck in some stages and therefore help from outside becomes very important. The final emancipation of consciousness from the ego is practically impossible without the intervention of a perfect master or sadguru.
Self-consciousness and the consciousness of the apparent universe do not end after the dissolution of the ego and several chapters of the book are dedicated to the states of consciousness gained by those who have transcended the ego. Also, most chapters of the book get into particular practices for the emancipation of consciousness from the ego, qualities that have to be developed by the individual, and examine important issues that have to be confronted in the process.
In the chapter on Good and Evil, Meher Baba takes a unique position. What we call evil, according to Meher Baba, is most often a misapplied relic of a past good. For instance, an act which was beneficial to a lower species in evolution becomes detrimental to the individual and society in a human cultural context. Similarly, the ego, which plays a vital role in the process of evolving self-awareness, becomes a spiritual hindrance once full awareness (in human form) is achieved. Still, Baba asserts that good actions (judged as good in their context) are preferable to so-called bad actions, in that they are far less binding to the soul. According to Baba, both good and bad actions are binding in the sense that they leave impressions (sanskaras) that must be worked out or balanced by ongoing experience in reincarnation. But even in this context, good actions are preferable and less binding. He gives the analogy that bad actions are like ropes which bind both feet and hands, but good actions bind only the feet, and thus can more easily be disentangled. This principle of evil being the relic of a past good, becoming bad in the wrong context, is repeated in his writing on the subject of war. A war may be deemed necessary, and thus not necessarily bad, when its use serves the greater good of the people (such as in repelling a significant unprovoked threat) as seen from the highest possible vantage point. However, Meher Baba says that war is generally the least creative means of resolving human conflict and is most often misguided. Also he points out that war is only a symptom, while the root cause of the problem is individual and collective egoism.
Meher Baba suggests that in the final analysis there is no such thing as bad in the sense that we conceive it, but rather there are more truly only degrees of good. Rather than categorizing actions in terms of good and bad (which are sometimes little more than societal conventions) Meher Baba divides actions into those which are binding and those which are unbinding, i.e. those actions which when undertaken tend to emancipate the soul from illusion (Maya) as opposed to those which further retard or thwart the soul's release from all bindings (sanskaras). Baba also makes a distinction between natural and non-natural impressions derived from natural and non-natural actions. Natural actions, such as marriage, are far less spiritually entangling and easier to process and balance than, for instance, promiscuity. Thus it is far more advantageous, from a spiritual point of view, to choose good and natural actions over less good and less natural ones.
The concept of Maya, or the principle of illusion, is not new to oriental philosophy. The concept appears at least as early as the works of Indian philosopher Adi Shankara writing in the eighth century. Meher Baba makes a distinction, however, from the traditional interpretation of Maya as illusion itself, and says that it is that principle that causes one to be deceived into seeing the false as real.
Maya is not illusion; it is the creator of illusion. Maya is not false; it is that which gives false impressions. Maya is not unreal; it is that which makes the real appear unreal and the unreal appear real. Maya is not duality; it is that which causes duality.
Maya does not mean this world and its affairs. The illusion that this world and everything in it is real – and of feeling happy or unhappy over certain conditions – is Maya.
For its spiritual significance, Maya is primarily connected to intellectual misjudgments. But while errors on objective facts (such as the size of an object) can be relatively easily corrected, errors in valuation (such as considering rituals as ends in themselves) are much harder to correct, because they are connected to subjective desires. From this second kind of misjudgment, arise false beliefs which are taken as self-evident and are the hardest to eliminate. From the point of view of the awakening individual, however, Maya disappears completely as consciousness becomes free of its grasp. This awakening from Maya is also termed Mahapralaya, or the final annihilation of the world, since the world is the creation of Maya. This also stands in view of the statement: “The soul in its transcendental state is One, Formless, Eternal and Infinite, yet identifies itself with the phenomenal world of forms, which are many, finite and destructible. This is Maya or the cosmic illusion”.
Meher Baba describes meditation as the path that an individual makes for himself in his effort to get beyond the limitations of the mind. He distinguishes meditation from concentration in that in the former the mind moves from one relevant idea to the other, whereas in the latter there is no movement in the mind, which remains fixed on its object. Meher Baba disqualifies as meditation any other mental process that doesn't have spiritual significance for the subject. However, he accepts philosophical thinking, as a general type of meditation, provided its goal is to grasp the ultimate nature of life and the universe. He also points out that any effort to force the mind during meditation is bound to be spiritually fruitless. Spontaneity and love for the object of meditation are of utmost importance. He considers seclusion and silence as necessary for meditation and states some helpful factors, such as darkness, posture and place, but leaves much room for alternatives (“Even when walking, one may be absorbed in meditation”). In the case of aspirants who are in harmony with each other and when one is not concerned about the other's course of meditation, collective meditation is also possible and can even be helpful for the individual. He warns also that many disturbing thoughts are bound to try to distract the mind from its object and he advises patience and the confidence that they will subside. Any direct effort to repress them, apart from being a waste of psychic energy, is bound to entangle further the mind with the disturbance and therefore strengthen it.
In the relatively long chapter The Types of Meditation, Meher Baba makes very elaborate classifications of the various types of meditation. He makes three different types of classifications: one based on their functionality in spiritual advancement, one according to the predominant part of the personality that is involved in the process and one on the basis of items of experiences pondered.
According to the meditation's functionality in spiritual advancement, Meher Baba distinguishes between associative meditation, in which consciousness associates itself with various aspects of the eternal Truth (such as "I am Infinite") and dissociative meditation, where consciousness dissociates itself from illusion (such as "I am not my desires"). In the associative type the synthetic activity of the mind (Anwaya) is involved, while in the dissociative type the analytic activity of the mind (Vyatireka) is at work. Dissociative meditation prepares the way for associative meditation, which is spiritually more fruitful than the former. Tanslator E.B. Cowell defines anwaya-vyatireka as 'affirmative and negative induction,' in his edition of Colebrooke's Essays, vol. i., p. 315, note 3.
According to the predominant part of the personality involved in the meditation, Baba distinguishes between "discriminative meditation", where the intellect is predominant and can include both types of the previous system, the "meditation of the heart", where the heart is predominant in a steady flow of love from the aspirant towards the Divine Beloved, and the "meditation of action", where the active nature of man is predominant, in the form of selfless service of the Master or humanity. These three types, although undertaken one at a time, are to be used complementarily, but in such a manner that the one doesn't interfere with the progress of the other.
According to items of experiences involved, two subdivisions are made: general meditation, which aims at the mental assimilation of the Divine Truths (through philosophical thinking, hearing discourses from the Masters, or reading the written expositions of the Masters), and specialized meditation (meditation concerned with the object of experience, meditation concerned with the subject of experience and meditation concerned with mental processes), in which the mind is exclusively concerned with some definite experience it selects. In this system of classification are also mentioned two types of meditation of the Spiritually Perfect: Nirvana (or absorption) and the Nirvikalpa State (or divinity in expression).
In the human level, with the development of consciousness, love, although continuous with its lower forms, attains a higher form because of its relation to reason. In the beginning these two factors are in a natural harmony, but the one doesn't have conscious access to the other. Each one operates almost separately from the other. Then comes a stage where reason and love come in rapport and conflict with each other, yet the important factor is that they start coming simultaneously in the conscious sphere. Then comes a third stage where a synthesis of love and reason is achieved to bring an altogether new type of consciousness, best described as superconsciousness.
Obviously the longest part of human development deals with the second phase. Yet from the effort to resolve the conflicts brought about between love and reason there arises spiritual progress. As lower forms of love come in conflict with higher ones, human love is limited by many factors. Lust, greed and anger are limiting factors mentioned in many philosophies. The only hope of breaking these limits is the appearance of a pure form of love, called Divine love. This love can only arise through the grace of spiritual Masters. This is not a momentary event. The Avatar comes to awaken humanity to this higher love. An individual has to develop a conscious longing for this love and has to give up all forms of desires except for the desire to attain it. In human love the duality of the lover and the Beloved persist. In Divine love, lover and Beloved are indivisibly one.
This view of God realization is consistent with some early Christian Gnostic teachings, Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, and certain schools of Sufism in Islam. In this sense Meher Baba is said to syncretize these three esoteric schools, Vedantic, Sufi, and Mystic. However, one ought to note that the overwhelming majority of practitioners of Christianity and Islam, as well as a significant portion of the adherents of Hinduism disagree strongly with this facet of Baba's view, even if such ideas exist in certain esoteric forms of those religions.
The text of the Discourses was first published in New York as a series of essays in Meher Baba Journal between 1938 and 1943 by Princess Norina Matchabelli and Elizabeth C. Patterson. Between 1939 and 1954 in India, a five-volume compilation titled Discourses of Meher Baba received several printings. In 1955 an early single volume edition edited by C.B. Purdom titled God to Man and Man to God was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. In 1967 the discourses were re-released as a three-volume set titled The Discourses, and finally took their current form as simply Discourses in 1987 (Sheriar Foudation). In 2007 a reprinting of the three-volume 6th edition was released which also includes a fourth companion volume on the history of the Discourses.
Material from Meher Baba's discourses is also printed in part in many other works and anthologies, including Silent Teachings of Meher Baba by Naosherwan Anzar, Treasures from Meher Baba Journals by Jane Barry Haynes, Meher Baba the Awakener by Charles C. Haynes, Much Silence by Tom & Dorothy Hopkinson, Mastery of Consciousness by Allan Cohen, The Narrow Lane compiled by William Le Page, and The Silent Master Meher Baba by Irwin Luck.