By Parveen Chopra
Rising above religion, Shirdi Sai Baba, the Indian sage preached simple moral and spiritual laws. While his message appeals to many in this age of complexity, others take refuge in him because of his promise to help devotees in times of crisis
A fakir in a tattered kafni (long robe) who begged for alms till his last day. Who founded no religion or sect, developed no trademark spiritual philosophy or system of practices, started no movement, initiated not a single disciple, left behind no apostles. Who breathed his last eight long decades ago and about whom very few had heard till the 1960s.
The Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Today, he has millions of devotees in India and other parts of the world. Shirdi, the obscure village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, in India, has become a pilgrimage destination much as Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Varanasi. The number of pilgrims go there average 25,000 a day and can climb to over a hundred thousand on holidays and festival days. They belong to every strata of society and all religions, and include politicians, film stars and rich businessmen. By conservative estimates, there are over 2,000 major Sai temples in different parts of India and 150 abroad in places as far-flung as Canada and Kenya, Singapore and England.
Significantly, all these temples have been constructed and consecrated by local initiative. Indeed, the growing Saiphenomenon is not orchestrated by a central organization, though there is the Sri Sai Baba Sansthan, which manages the affairs at Shirdi.
The Shirdi phenomenon defies easy explanation. It perhaps owes itself to the will of Baba himself, who is considered an avatar of no less than the Almighty.
More specifically, he has been called an incarnation of Shiva and Dattatreya (the triune Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva deity worshipped in Maharashtra) and is said to appear to devotees as their deity: Jesus Christ, Rama or Krishna (Vitthala).
Scholars and devotees verily associate him with the Nath tradition of great yogis as well as poet-saints of the Bhaktimovement, particularly Kabir, who decried ritualism and preached the transcendence of caste and creed differences.
In her Ph.D. thesis from the Toronto University, soon to be published as a book, Marianne Warren argues that Shirdi Sai Baba was an aulia, Sufi mystic and saint. Meher Baba, Sai Baba’s contemporary based near Shirdi, had given him the Sufi honorific of Hazrat and placed him at the head of a spiritual hierarchy of five perfect masters on a spiritual mission.
Practically speaking, Sai Baba’s appeal lies in the experiences of innumerable devotees that prayers to him yield tangible worldly results, as well as in the more esoteric areas of transformation of character and spiritual benefits. Yet, most people approached the Baba during his lifetime for material, not spiritual, gain. And Shubha Verma, a Hindi journalist-turned-Baba devotee, says it remains the case till date.
Baba’s mission was, however, to restore belief in god. As he himself said: ‘I give people what they want in the hope that they will begin to want what I want to give them (knowledge of the Ultimate).’
Sai Baba had the reputation of being clairvoyant, healing the sick, restoring eyesight, affecting events at a distance, appearing in devotees’ dreams, and exercising control over the elements. Biographies of Baba are replete with stories of how he helped his devotees out of problems and crisis. He continues to do so.
Govind G. Dabholkar, deputy manager, Indian Airlines, based in Mumbai, is a grandson of Hemadpant who wrote Sri Sai Satcharita, the Marathi biography considered authentic because Baba had blessed the project. Once, on the day of an important Sai function, Dabholkar’s wife’ prayed for a respite from the unceasing rain, which was, causing leakage in their house. From the moment she prayed till the time the last devotee left the house, the rain indeed stopped, though it continued to rain heavily on both the adjacent suburbs.
Umesh Badwally, a retired insurance officer of Mumbai, felt a palpable divinity in Shirdi during his early trips there. ‘After that, I always prayed to him in moments of crisis, and have always been helped. Once, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, and advised an operation. I had no money, and no one to turn to. Soon after, a friend came home, and offered not just to loan the money, but also to stay with me in the hospital. Ultimately, it turned out that she didn’t have cancer. Four years later, she was again advised surgery. This time, she was lying on the operation table when a biopsy proved that she didn’t have cancer.’
M.V. Kamath, former editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and co-author of Sai Baba of Shirdi, A Unique Saint, and former head of the Shirdi trust, reports: ‘Every three months, work takes me to Udipi, Mangalore. To catch the early morning flight, I have to leave home by 5.30 a.m. when taxis are seldom around. Once, I half jokingly asked Baba why don’t you help me find a taxi? Soon, an, autorickshaw appeared from nowhere, a passenger alighted and the driver willingly took me to the airport, at no extra cost.
‘Next, time, with a little more faith I petitioned his help; and the same thing happened. An autorickshaw came from nowhere, dropped a passenger, picked me up, and asked me for nothing extra. After that, however, I never asked for his help again for such trivial things are not meant to be his problem.
‘My book on Sai Baba has done quite well. Without advertising, it is in its l0th edition.’ Incidentally, the publisher of some of the more important books on Shirdi Sai Baba, S.K. Ghai, head of Sterling Paperbacks, recalls that when he returned from his first visit to Shirdi, he found the manuscript of a book on Baba lying on his table. He now regularly does japa of Baba’s mantra ‘Om Sai Shri Sai Jai Jai Sat‘ and has turned vegetarian.
A DIVINE LIFE
Though the last decades of his life are well documented, the little that is known about the early life of Sai Baba is disputed. He was born to Brahmin parents in 1838 in a place called Pathri in Marathwada. He was abandoned soon after and adopted by a childless Sufi fakir and his wife. Later he was put in the care of a guru (Venku Shah) where he remained for 12 years. According to another version he studied with a Sufi master Roshan Shah Miyah, in the Aurangabad area where Sufism flourished.
He was first seen in Shirdi around 1858, but had disappeared after a while. Initially, he was discarded as a mad fakir. After staying for a while on the outskirts of the village, under a neem (margosa) tree (where he said his master was buried), he finally made a dilapidated mosque his abode. When people began approaching him with health problems, he gave them some herbal remedies and later udi (sacred ash) from his continuously burning dhuni. In a few years, priest of the Khandoba village temple and others had accepted him.
In 1886 Baba went into samadhi for three days, had a direct experience of union with God, after which his spiritual powers became evident and he started acting as a pir to wandering fakirs.
The first miracle performed at Shirdi was lighting oil lamps in the mosque with water. He also saved the village from a cholera epidemic. As his fame spread, government officials, high-ranking Britishers, politicians including LokmanyaBalgangadhar Tilak, and the wealthy started calling on him. One day, a millionaire came to Sai Baba and said he was going to start a building in Shirdi in his name. But before its completion, Baba fell ill and attained mahasamadhi on October 15, 1918.
The building now contains a silver idol of Baba and is part of what is now called the Samadhi Mandir.
What Baba preached was actually quite simple. According to him, real sorrow is the cycle of birth and death and the real happiness is liberation. He suggested:
• Accept your lot cheerfully. If you acquire wealth, become humble the way a tree laden with fruit bows down. Money is a necessity but don’t get obsessed with it. Yet, don’t be a miser, be generous.
• Perform your duty conscientiously and with detachment, not regarding yourself as the doer.
• Surrender the fruit of action to god so that action does not bind you. It is ties of indebtedness from previous births, which bring humans and other beings together.
• Satisfy your sexual desire, albeit only with your spouse. Don’t drown in lust. Rein it with discrimination.
• Give rein to the negative states (avariciousness, anger, hatred, pride, etc.) only as much as is essential to go through the karma earmarked for this physical existence.
• To steady the mind, idol worship is a way, even though the idol is not God. If you do puja with devotion and emotion, you can concentrate better.
• Herculean effort is necessary for god-realization. There are four elements in sadhana: Discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral: that Brahman alone is true, the world is not. Next, renouncing all desire about this life or the thereafter. The third is to inculcate these qualities: control of the mind, bearing without anguish the fated pain and sorrow, remaining ensnared by maya, knowing that money, wife, children and relatives are all ephemeral. The fourth is an intense desire for liberation.
Never ask a saint his caste or creed, said Kabir. Nonetheless the question is discussed threadbare in Sai literature and is surrounded by controversy. However, even a casual study of Sai Baba’s life shows that he offered an eclectic Hindu-Muslim synthesis, perhaps to promote amity between the two dominant and mutually distrustful communities in India. Sai Baba is not a name; the word Sai comes from the Persian expression saih, which means an itinerant Sufi fakir. He came to be called Sai Baba after coming to Shirdi.
By appearance, he was a Muslim fakir, but, it has been noted, his ears were pierced—a Hindu sign—and he was not circumcised. He lived in a mosque but curiously christened it Dwarka-mai (after the birthplace of Lord Krishna) and kept a sacred fire going there. He had intimate knowledge of both the Hindu holy books and the Koran and was well versed in the Indian Sufi lineage. He promoted both Hindu and Muslim festivals and sent money and materials for the renovation of Hindu temples. When conservative Muslims asked him why he allowed Hindus to do puja to him, he remarked: ‘Do in Rome as the Romans do’, indicating that he was ministering to a predominantly Hindu following.
His Hindu devotees too have integrated some Muslim and Sufi practices—they offer chader at his dargah and kiss his image.
In her thesis, Marianne Warren, however, makes a strong case that Shirdi Sai Baba was a Sufi divine who has been progressively Hinduised in his biographies written by Hindus. Her main source of evidence is the note left by Abdul, Baba’s servant and Sufi pupil for many years. The unpublished manuscript in Deccani Urdu, contains Baba’s instructions and teachings based on the Koran. She also refers to the Baba doing dhikr (constant repetition of Allah‘s name) even during sleep. Then, Allah Malik (Allah alone is the Lord and master) was Baba’s pet expression. Warren also interprets Baba’s own spiritual growth, his life and sayings in the light of Maqamat and Ahwal (the stations and states of the Sufi way). But Baba’s syncretic message and lofty mission shine through in this crazy conversation he had with a magistrate in connection with a petty court case:
‘What is your name?’
‘They call me Sai Baba.’
‘Your father’s name?’
‘Also Sai Baba.’
‘Your guru’s name?’
‘Creed or religion?’
‘Caste or community?’
‘Parvardigar (almighty sustainer).’
‘Millions of years.’
A TRIPLE AVATAR?
Controversy also surrounds the link between the saint of Shirdi and Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. When he announced his spiritual mission in 1940, Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be a reincarnation of the Shirdi Baba at a time when the latter was virtually unknown, more so in Sathya Sai’s village in Andhra Pradesh, hundreds of miles from Shirdi. Sathya Sai literature also points out that Shirdi Sai Baba had himself announced that he would reappear eight years after his death (Sathya was born in 1926).
Sathya Sai Baba further talks about a triple avatar, which is required to usher in a new golden age at a time when the world is passing through the worst of Kaliyuga. The third one in the Sai lineage will be born eight years after the passing away of Sathya Sai Baba, and will be called Prema Sai Baba. In the pictures of Prema Sai Baba circulated, he looks like Jesus Christ.
Most Shirdi Sai devotees as well as the Shirdi trust don’t give credence to any of this. ‘If Shirdi Sai Baba were to reincarnate, he wouldn’t have made the 11 promises,’ says one devotee. Arguing against a link between the two Sai Babas, Dabholkar cites the fact that Sathya Sai Baba has never been to Shirdi. Moreover, Shirdi Sai Baba didn’t chose the path of miracles—unlike Sathya Sai Baba—they just happened.
On the other hand, people who have reached Shirdi via Puttaparthi continue to believe Sathya Sai Baba’s story. He gives a place of prominence to Shirdi Sai Baba and tells them: ‘Go to Shirdi first. I’m present there.’ S.P. Ruhela, a professor of education at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and author of books on both the Sai Babas, attributes denials by most Shirdi devotees and the Shirdi trust to their conservatism.
That the two Sai Babas are part of the same avatar, he says, is believed by 25 million Sathya Sai devotees. The fact remains that Sathya Sai Baba, with perhaps the largest following for a living godman in the world, has contributed immensely to the growing popularity of Shirdi Sai. Since many of his devotees make a pilgrimage to Shirdi, the Shirdi trust may even be softening its stand on Sathya Sai.
A few prominent Sai devotees in different parts of the country, too are throwing hints that they are Shirdi Baba’s apostles, if not incarnations, or setting themselves up as gurus. Yet, they too are helping take Baba’s message to an ever-increasing number of people by building temples and publishing literature on the Baba. One of them is C.B. Satpathy, an IPS officer currently posted in Moradabad. But the staunch Sai devotees argue that Sai Baba does not need any intermediaries or apostles.
There is even talk of uniting all the Sai societies under one umbrella, improving the facilities for pilgrims at Shirdi, taking the Baba’s message to other countries, but the present state of affairs is likely to continue. As will Baba’s growing following and grace.
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