By Roozbeh Gazdar
An accomplished medical doctor, Mumbai-based Aniruddha Joshi is today revered by millions as the reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi. Credited with having performed many miracles, he nevertheless advocates a practical blend of spirituality and science
Aniruddha Bapu’s blend of spiritual wisdom and pragmatism appeals in today’s materialistic world with its fast pace and slackening spiritual mores
Digambara, Digambara, Shripad Vallabh Digambar…,” a bhajan plays on. It is 7.30 p.m. on a chilly December evening, as I wait in the compound of the New English School in Kherwadi, Bandra East, in Mumbai. People have filled the ground in front of an elaborately decorated stage; beyond, separated by a grill, the school’s lobby is packed to capacity. I am lucky to be here; many others have had to be accommodated inside the school building, and will only witness the evening’s proceedings courtesy close circuit television. Others have settled outside the compound walls, on the footpaths and in an open ground across the road, eyes glued to a big screen put up for their benefit.
Around 7.50 p.m., the excitement among the gathering is palpable. Suddenly, the blowing of a conch shell causes a stir in the crowd. All eyes expectantly turn towards the path leading to the gate. A whisper rings through the throng: “Bapu aale, Bapu aale”. A pair of turbaned, traditionally dressed musicians march stiffly blowing on tutaris (wind instrument), followed by a pair of similarly dressed sentries. Behind, walking briskly, casually waving to the crowd, in white shirt, black trousers, and leather chappals, is a fifty-something man, tall and athletic. The people in the audience bow in reverence, hands folded. He responds, arms raised in blessing. As the trademark drooping moustaches accentuate a friendly smile, his eyes twinkle; he seems to recognise many faces in the crowd, and greets some individually. For the lakhs of his devotees assembled here, he is Aniruddha Bapu, the reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Born in 1956, Aniruddha Joshi studied at a school in Parel, before following in his father’s footsteps, by opting for medicine. A brilliant student and gold medallist, he gained his MD, specialising in rheumatology. A lecturer in Nair Hospital till 1985, he later started his private practice in Dadar and Parel, which he continued till 1998.
A married man with two children, Dr Joshi led a normal life, until around 1981, when he started studying ayurveda from Vaidya Antarkar and experienced a radical shift in his thinking. The doctor began to realise the superiority of this system of Indian medicine over allopathy. It also made him mull over what had gone wrong with the system. Why had ayurveda stopped progressing? Looking for answers, he had an insight into the role of spirituality in society. Social progress, he realised, was hindered as spiritual values ceased to be important.
But the transition from Dr Aniruddha Joshi to Aniruddha Bapu has an interesting story behind it. Before taking samadhi in 1918, the Sai Baba of Shirdi had given three of his personal belongings to Govind Raghunath Dabholkar (also known as Hemadpant), a close devotee of his, assuring him that he would return one day to claim these articles back. The articles, a shaligram (holy stone used in puja), a small trishul and a rosary passed on to Hemadpant’s son Gajanan Govind Dabholkar, who in his last days gave them to his son Govind Gajanan Dabholkar also known as Appa Dabholkar. This fact was, however, a closely guarded secret, known only to the family.
Sai Niwas, the ancestral home of the Dabholkars in Bandra, has always been associated with Sai Baba. The Sai puja, held here daily since 1911, draws hordes of devotees. Dr Joshi, himself a Sai bhakt, thus came first to Sai Niwas in 1993. Known then to the Dabholkars as an eminent doctor, he immediately made an impression on them by his modesty, his simple and joyful ways and his profound, yet lucid explanation of religious scriptures.
On May 27, 1996, Dr Joshi went to Sai Niwas, and asked for the articles belonging to Sai Baba. “We were stunned. We bowed in reverence as we saw him manifest in the form of Shirdi Sai Baba,” recalls Dabholkar, whose wife and children were also present to witness the event. However, they were asked to keep this encounter to themselves, till Bapu gave them permission to talk about it in 1998. “This was not the first occasion on which Bapu declared his divinity. It had been predicted to his great-grandfather that Lord Vitthala would take birth in his home and thus his family was always aware of his divine status,” maintains Dabholkar.
As word spread, believers started flocking around Aniruddha Bapu or Sadguru, as he came to be known. Today, lakhs of devotees in and outside Maharashtra and even abroad consider him to be the avatar of Mahavishnu. Nandamata, Bapu’s wife, is also worshipped as Laksmi Avatar. A former student of his, Dr Suchit Dada, is worshipped as Sheshnag avatar. Dr Dada’s clinic draws many patients seeking a cure and Bapu is supposed to work his miracles through him.
For various devotees from all walks of life, Aniruddha Bapu has proved to be a turning point in life. “It is as if a miracle has taken place in my life,” says Sandhyaveera Jaiker, who is actively involved with the movement. “I have been attending the pravachans (discourses) and taking an active part in the various socio-cultural activities. I have been exposed to a world beyond the four walls of my house. My life has taken such a turn for the better,” she exclaims.
For the Dabholkars, their devotion to Sai Baba had borne fruit. The Sadguru had once again entered the lives of the family in human form. “He is full of prem (love) and karuna (compassion) and forgives easily. He teaches that though men make mistakes, they can always be corrected. He remembers the name of every devotee he meets, even children, whom he especially loves. Not only humans, even animals are drawn towards him. Cows come to him when he calls them by name and when he talks to them they have tears in their eyes. Today we are privileged to experience God in the human form,” Dabholkar says.
Sadhanatai Upadhye retired as the head of the Marathi department in Wilson College. “When my husband died,” she recalls, “I had lost all hope. Confining myself in my house, I just used to read my books. Meeting Bapu helped me to open the windows of my heart, and I started attending his discourses and participating in his activities,” she says. “He has come to remove the decadence that has set in the world today. His manner of working is upgrading society through education and awareness. He works day and night for the people. When others see the work he is doing, they are also inspired to dedicate themselves to his service. Working for Aniruddha Bapu, I feel that I am working for society and the nation.”
In fact, Sadhanatai had been first graced with his darshan when, during her pregnancy in 1964, she used to visit the Vitthala Mandir in Wadala. There she once met a small boy with a happy smile, who gave her a peacock feather and touched her belly. A woman accompanying the boy remarked then that her baby had been blessed by Lord Vitthala himself. Years later, when he himself reminded her about the incident, she realised that the child was none other than eight-year-old Aniruddha himself.
Dabholkar has an interesting observation to make. “In the Sai Satcharita, Sai Baba has said that he would take rebirth when eight years of age. This refers to his age when the outside world would first experience his grace, just as Sadhanatai did,” he explains.
Dr Santosh Salagre, a lecturer in medicine, is also sure that Bapu has come to alleviate the ills of the world. “We see such a lot of the effects of Kaliyug today. I realised that just like Shri Ram and Shri Krishna (before him), Bapu too has taken birth to solve the problems of our world,” he says.
Dr Keshav Narsikar studied with Dr Joshi in Ruia College and later in Nair Medical College from 1972 till 1979. “He was exceptionally brilliant and could cite from any textbook, even giving cross-references off hand.
This is not possible even for an above-average student,” he recalls. “He was interested in dramatics and was famous for his excellent oratory and mimicry. Always cordial, he would go out of his way to help others. His entire outlook, even as a student, was very different,” reveals Dr Narsikar. Though clueless about Bapu’s spiritual credentials, he says: “I always respected him and found consolation in his company.” Today he has no doubt that his former classmate is indeed a Sadguru. “Thousands of people have experienced sudden transformation, some even after just one darshan. I have personally talked to many devotees and their experiences cannot be explained by material sciences,” he explains, adding that he makes it a point to regularly attend the evening discourses.
Filmmaker Shrabani Deodhar, though spiritual from a young age, “did not fancy the worship of human beings”. She went to Bapu’s programme out of curiosity while working on a TV serial about Shirdi Sai Baba. She says: “I am not from a background where I get carried away easily, but I was soothed and felt very strongly drawn to Bapu.” Suffering from health problems as a result of work pressure, she met Dr Suchit Dada at his clinic, who assured her that she would be completely cured. Thereafter she was privileged to have a personal meeting with Bapu, which she describes as an intense psychoanalytical session. “I had a lot of fear inside me, such as the fear of death that I was not even aware of. During the session all this came out as I learnt how to fight my fear-psychosis. And from there my life really took off. I feel he has come into our life in a big way. He is really our Sadguru,” she says. “The whole approach taught by him has made life so beautiful.”
However, Bapu himself has never claimed to be an avatar. In fact, he denies the new role thrust upon him, repeatedly pointing out that Sai Baba was a brahmachari, while he himself is a family man. In an interview with the Marathi weekly Lok Prabha, incidentally the first and only press interview that he agreed to, he explains the occurrence at Sai Niwas as a mere coincidence. “Being aware of the friendship between Sai Baba and Hemadpant, I had casually asked Appa Dabholkar if he had in his possession any articles given to his grandfather by Sai Baba.”
Whether an enlightened doctor preaching spiritual values or an avatar of Sai Baba, going by the phenomenal numbers that flock to his discourses held every Thursday evening, Mumbai has given its heart to the Sadguru, who even dresses in the city’s own cosmopolitan garb.
One reason for this, according to Wing Commander (retd.) Ravindra Parasnis, is that Bapu, even before he came to be known as Sadguru, was a competent doctor with a reputation for curing many incurable conditions. Again, he has always been involved in social work and has successfully brought back people who had gone astray, such as drug addicts and alcoholics. “Also, as a guru he is great and gives practical and good advice,” he feels. Though personally not sure about his divinity as avatar of God, he says: “I definitely respect him as a guru. I have attended only a few of his pravachans, but I like what he preaches.”
Wing Commander Parasnis has a point. Instead of an abstruse philosophy that can be comprehended by few, Bapu’s teachings boil down to common sense, pure and simple. While teaching bhakti (the path of devotion), he stresses sincerity and awareness. “For naamsmaran (recitation of the name of God) any name will do, but it should be taken from the heart and with awareness,” he says. “If pressed for time, it is okay to perform puja without taking a bath, rather than not doing it at all,” he clarifies. Disapproving of those who renounce their domestic duties in the pursuit of God, he preaches that a few minutes spent daily thinking about God are sufficient.
Harking back, perhaps to his training as a doctor, Bapu strongly advocates an intelligent and scientific approach to life. This blend of spiritual wisdom and pragmatism especially appeals in today’s increasingly materialistic world with its fast-paced schedules and slackening spiritual mores, and perhaps explains the presence of a large number of youth among his devotees.
A crusader against superstition and blind faith since his medical days, another facet to Bapu is his role as a social reformer. He has often spoken about the need to eradicate social ills such as caste discrimination and the low status accorded to widows, even declaring that if Manusmriti (Manu’s laws) cannot benefit all it must be discarded. At Ramnavmi Mahotsavs organised by him, the puja is conducted by volunteers, including members of the lower castes. Widows, traditionally debarred from religious ceremonies, also take part in auspicious rites. “What Bapu preaches, he himself practises and even the last rites of his parents were conducted by volunteers from amongst his devotees,” confirms Sunil Mantri, a devotee.
Bapu exhorts his disciples to read Sai Satcharita, Sai Baba’s biography written by Hemadpant. To ensure the scientific study of this message of Sai Baba, he introduced the Panchasheel examinations: a set of five exams including practicals at the final level, held twice each year for which thousands of students appear. Dr Salagre refers to the exams as “milestones of my spiritual progress at each level”.
In 1999, Aniruddha Bapu established a gurukul at Juinagar, for the propagation of Ayurveda and Mudgal Vidya, the martial arts of ancient India. Also, the Govidyapeetham, established in Karjat, near Mumbai, aims to study the rearing and breeding of cows, combining modern veterinary science with ancient techniques.
For the establishment of ‘Ramrajya’ by year 2025, Bapu instituted the Aniruddha Samarpan Pathak and the Sadguru Shree Aniruddha Upasana Trust (SSAUT). Inspired by his words “Tu ani mi milun ashakya ase hya jagat kahihi nahi” (There is nothing that you and I together cannot achieve), volunteers involve themselves in social work including rehabilitation of leprosy patients, holding blood donation camps, working for the blind, running de-addiction centres and cleanliness and hygiene awareness. A welfare centre for earthquake victims opened in June 2001, in Kharoi village, Kutch, has a team of volunteers, including qualified medical professionals, administering treatment. As part of the rural development scheme, a few villages in Dhule, Maharashtra, have been adopted by the SSAUT.
“Bapu teaches us different responsibilities, including our social responsibility,” feels Mantri, himself a volunteer and member of the Aniruddha Samarpan Pathak. A unique ‘13-point programme’ (see box) was announced by Bapu on October 3, 2002. Its aim: to achieve ‘Samartha Bharat’, a strong and self-reliant India.
The discourse delivered, it is well past midnight as Bapu walks down the path leading to the gate. I had come here full of questions. Does God walk the earth as a man? Wear a shirt and pant? Go to medical college? I am still not sure I have the answers. But what the heck, I think. Heaven alone cannot lay claim to God. What about His work? People being taught the right path, rediscovering their spiritual selves. Volunteers committing themselves to the uplift of society. Youthful lives rescued from the clutches of drugs and alcohol. Needy students helped in their quest for education. The poor and the downtrodden given the chance of a better life. If there is God, then He is here. On earth, among us, wherever His work is done.
The crowd picks up a chant. Egged on by Bapu, it grows louder. “Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa!, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!” Originally a Sikh salutation, the words “Hail the Khalsa (pure) who belongs to God! Hail God to whom belongs the victory!” ring loud in my ears as I make my way home.
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