Shirdi Sai Baba - A taste of the Divine
by Roozbeh Gazdar
Many years ago in ancient Persia, when the Prophet Zarathushtra was revealed the laws of the one true God, he looked for disciples to propagate the new faith. He met King Vistaspa who was inclined towards the teachings. Later however, succumbing to the treacherous intrigues of courtiers, he had Zarathusthra cast into the dungeons as a sorcerer.
Zarathushtra did win back the king’s heart—by curing his favourite horse of a mysterious ailment. The miraculous cure, without medicine and through the power of prayer alone, resolved any doubt about Zarathushtra’s divine identity and the grateful monarch dispensed his royal machinery to help the great prophet spread the faith far and wide.
Mind boggling feats
The history of religion is replete with similar ‘miracles’ worked by saints and seers. Moses, demanding the liberation of Israel, gave the Egyptian Pharaoh a taste of God’s wrath by turning his staff into a serpent, causing the Nile to flow with blood and unleashing deadly plagues. Even the seas parted at his command, to ensure safe passage for the slaves, closing again over the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. Jesus, preaching the gospel of love, not only transformed hearts but healed the sick, walked over water, and resurrected the dead.
Indian spiritual culture is especially rooted in mind-boggling, logic-defying exploits of yogis such as Sri Sankara who drank molten lead, Akalkot Swami who turned bone into gold, Jnanadev who could move walls, and Changdev who rode a tiger with a cobra for a whip! Whereas many such narratives constitute folklore, others come from more credible sources. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda describes acts of levitation, spontaneous emanation of perfumes, ability to appear in two places at the same time and other powers displayed by evolved yogis personally encountered by him.
Shirdi Sai Baba is one of modern India’s most endearing saints. A wandering fakir, he settled down in Shirdi in Maharashtra, where he stayed in an abandoned mosque. While some were attracted to his saintliness, most villagers considered him a mad man. In a story similar to Zarathushtra’s, Sai Baba gave evidence of his holiness when a shopkeeper refused him oil to light his lamps—he proceeded to light them using water instead. Word of the incident spread and Sai Baba had the entire village of Shirdi at his feet.
Many powers came to be accredited to the humble fakir. His followers claimed he was clairvoyant, appearing in times of need in different forms such as a leper, beggar or stray animal. Udhi, ash from the fire he kept burning and dispensed to visitors, was known to have healing properties, curing blindness, leprosy and other irreversible conditions. In fact, years after his death, those who visit his samadhi at Shirdi from far and wide, still testify to the promise of Sai Baba’s miracles.
Miracle worker extraordinaire
For many, Shirdi Sai Baba lives on as his reincarnation Sathya Sai Baba, undeniably the most well known miracle worker today. Following a scorpion bite at age 13, Sathyanarayan underwent a radical transformation, proclaiming himself avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba. His claim seemed substantiated by flowers strewn by him, which spontaneously arranged to spell ‘Sai Baba’. He distributed sweets and flowers ‘produced’ out of thin air. Today his trademark orange robe and frizzled hair have become synonymous with miracles, apparently easily accomplished in full public glare.
In his book A Catholic Priest Meets Sai Baba, devotee Don Mario Mazzoleni explores how Sathya Sai Baba’s extraordinary feats mirror those of Christ. Among the most common miracles are materialisations—a deluge of objects ranging from rings, watches and medallions, fruits and sweets, to sacred insignia including lingams and crucifixes and copious amounts of vibhuti (sacred ash) have appeared out of his hands.
Second are healings, a possible reason for Sathya Sai’s immense popularity. Writes Mazzeloni: “I have seen with my own eyes cures of cancerous tumours in their most advanced stages. The patients…would find out this last hope: holy ash, or water sanctified by a lingam, created for the purpose by Sai Baba himself.”
It is still hard to believe another abilitys attributed to this modern-day Jesus—resurrection. Dr Samuel Sandweiss in Sai Baba, The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist gives details about Walter Cowan, an American who suffered a fatal heart attack in Chennai. Declared dead by a doctor, Cowan was reportedly revived by Sathya Sai Baba. Dr Hislop, a biographer of Sathya Sai, was present at the time and has documented the case.
Disciples also credit Sathya Sai Baba with dominion over nature and witnesses describe him causing storms to appear or retreat, commanding back flooding rivers, and once even causing a ‘perpendicular’ rainbow to appear for the benefit of a sceptical devotee. Consistent eyewitness accounts, many from eminent devotees including scientists, jurists, educationists and journalists, suggest there is more to the mystery of Sathya Sai Baba’s powers than sleight of hand, as alleged by his detractors.
An answer may be provided by the science of yoga that details psychic powers, siddhis, which allow yogis to transcend physical limitations and laws of nature. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras contain practices to attain powers ranging from invisibility to walking on water. Though most gurus strongly advise aspirants against succumbing to the lure of siddhis, this is not relevant to one already realised.
Sandweiss quotes Sathya Sai Baba: “They belong to the natural unlimited power of God and are in no way the product of siddhic powers…but is natural only…. His sankalpa, his divine will, brings the object in a moment… (as) He is everywhere.” Comparing him with others who have paranormal powers, Sandweiss observes: “Baba’s powers appear to be boundless. He states that not only are there other dimensions of reality and levels of consciousness—a way to greater awareness—but that he in fact is these other dimensions and the path to them.” Beneath the flamboyant conjuring, Sathya Sai Baba primarily remains a spiritual teacher advocating universal love and a strongly moral, even conservative, way of life.
Explaining the power of yogis from a scientific perspective, Paramahansa Yogananda compares Einstein’s view of the universe as proposed by his relativity theory and the later Unified Field Theory, with the Vedic concept of fundamental reality as maya. He writes: “A yogi who through perfect meditation has merged his consciousness with the Creator perceives the cosmical essence as light (vibration of light energy); to him there is no difference between the light rays composing water and the light rays composing land. Free from matter-consciousness, free from the three dimensions of space and the fourth of time, a master transfers his body of light with equal ease over or through the light rays of earth, water and fire…. (Thus he) is able to employ his divine knowledge of light phenomena to project instantly into perceptible manifestation the ubiquitous light atoms. The actual form of the projection (whatever it be: a tree, a medicine, a human body) is determined by the yogi’s wish and by his powers of will and visualisation.”
Supporting this view are the many unexplainable life-smoothening phenomena reported by sadhaks under the wing of a realised guru. While some such as Sathya Sai Baba are explicit about this, others, for reasons known to themselves, prefer to be discreet.
Energy for transformation
Meher Baba was one such evolved master, who did not let lesser miracles steal attention from his message, saying: “There is no greater miracle than the miracle of the awakened heart.” Cyrus Khambatta has experienced innumerable ‘lucky coincidences’ machinated, as it were, by Meher Baba. But, says Cyrus: “Though in our hearts we know these to be his doing, whenever he was asked about it, Baba would feign ignorance. Teaching that spirituality is nothing but love for God and acquiring inner equanimity, he advocated distance from anything short of this ultimate aim.”
What is the role of miracles in a disciple’s life? By challenging our notion of a material world, a miracle can be a first taste of the impermanence and transitory nature of the universe. As Sandweiss writes: “I am becoming aware of the nature of what in Sanskrit is called maya; the illusionary nature of what we consider reality—how our sense perceptions, our thoughts and our emotions orient us to the world in a way that is purely illusion.”
Sathya Sai Baba himself describes miracles as his visiting cards. “These miracles are merely baits with which I lure the people towards me. Once their faith is fully established they begin to look beyond the miracles and slowly stretching their hands out for what I have really come to give—knowledge and bliss.”
Rajeev Nambiar explains how miracles contribute to the growth of Sathya Sai Baba’s organisation of social workers. “These manifestations of Baba’s supernatural power are intended to increase our faith in God. The thrust of Sathya Sai Baba’s message being seva, selfless service, which is ultimately intended to foster self-development, these miracles give us a taste of the divine, making us ready for service to society.”
This is illustrated by the story of V.V. Rao. In 1983, his daughter, a talented danseuse, suddenly became bedridden with a mysterious illness. Doctors suggested surgery. A friend then advised him to take her to Sathya Sai Baba. A week went by in Puttaparthi without any hope. Then: “On the day before we were to leave, Baba called us in for an interview. Talking to my daughter he assured us that no surgery was required and that he would cure her.” The girl recovered almost instantly.
Rao adds: “Baba told us: I am doing this for you so that now you will do what I say.” The healing paved the way for a transformation in the Rao family. “We immersed ourselves in the seva activities conducted by the Sathya Sai Baba organisation, visiting hospitals, teaching in slums. Through all this
we began to discover the mystery behind creation. We learnt to cope with life’s problems. ”
It is this that clinches the deal for miracles—the power of transformation. As Rao puts it: “Miracles are proof that the Divine exists. They show us our own immortality and grandeur. The real miracle is, after all, the transformation within.”
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