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B. V. Narasimhaswami

Upasani Maharaj

By B. V. Narasimhaswami, Paul Brunton, Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj

Upasani Maharaj

Upasani Maharaj (1870-1941), also known as Upasani Baba, was a brahman ascetic of Maharashtra, gaining the repute of a satpurusha. He is little known by comparison with popular gurus who have since flooded global media and markets. Nevertheless, the difference between his example and the sequels is potentially instructive.

Born at Satana, his grandfather was a pundit learned in Sanskrit texts. Upasani himself did not opt for the pundit career, instead choosing the role of an Ayurvedic doctor at Amraoti. After ten years as a vaidh, he moved north to Gwalior, intending to improve his finances as an estate owner. This plan crashed as a consequence of unforeseen complications. He afterwards removed himself from mundane pursuits. At Omkareshwar, he contracted a severe breathing problem, the precise cause now difficult to confirm. The Yogic practice of pranayama is partially implied in this setback.

The complex train of events led him to Shirdi, where he encountered the faqir Sai Baba (d.1918), who lived in a rural mosque. The Muslim identity of Sai Baba initially repelled Upasani, a strict brahman elitist in religious outlook. His subsequent phase of discipleship under Sai Baba is frequently misrepresented, as a consequence of misunderstandings and sectarian fervour on the part of B. V. Narasimhaswami, a sannyasin from Madras who appeared on the scene many years later.

At the Khandoba temple in Shirdi, Upasani became indifferent to scorpions and snakes. He experienced a state of unmatta, a form of acute introversion in which he made no response to external events. This state became intermittent, permitting him to accomplish manual work which assisted his physical ballast. He was nevertheless considered crazy by local opponents, meaning devotees who resented his close link with Sai Baba.

In 1914, the temple dweller departed for a time to other places, including Kharagpur, in West Bengal. There he became a focus for devotees in a very unusual setting. He lived for months in a bhangi colony, inhabited by Dalit sweepers and scavengers. He assisted these people in various ways, performing much menial work. Eventually, conservative opposition caused him to depart from Kharagpur. High caste hatred of suppressed Dalits was (and is) an ugly feature of Hindu society.

When Upasani returned to Shirdi on later visits, he was becoming famous, a factor of increasing concern to zealous devotees of Sai Baba. The facts were squashed and eliminated in well known devotee accounts. Neglected reports restore the balance.

In 1918, at the village of Sakori, Upasani selected a local cremation ground as his home. At first, there was no accommodation for visitors in this bleak location. Subsequently, an ashram began to form. In 1922, he resorted to confinement in a bamboo cage. He remained completely unwesternised. The spartan existence of Upasani Maharaj contrasts with the comfortable ambience preferred by more recent Indian gurus of commercial orientation. Upasani wore sackcloth, not an ochre robe, nor an opulent gown in the Rajneesh style.

During the 1930s, he established at Sakori the Kanya Kumari Sthan. This distinctive community comprised kanyas or nuns, including Godavari Mataji (d.1990). The project was resisted by brahmanical orthodoxy, who customarily curtailed the activity of women and denied them the attainment of spirituality. Upasani Maharaj survived court cases launched by detractors, emerging as the victor. In 1935, his opponents were set at nought by a high court judge of Ahmednagar. 

The Sakori nuns eventually achieved widespread respect from Poona to Varanasi. Upasani commenced their education in Sanskrit and ritual. After his death, the Kanya Kumari Sthan exercised a unique role, also being discernible as the inspiration for a much later trend of Hindu female priests gaining nationwide acceptance. 

Meanwhile, the popular British occultist Paul Brunton (1898-1981) was contradicted by events which he omitted from a suspect travelogue (Shepherd 1988:146-176). He misconceived Upasani in a book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934), via a brief passage invoking a Parsi sceptic. Brunton associated the Hindu ascetic with the Bombay Stock Exchange and a Parsi speculator (Brunton 1934:63). Upasani was totally indifferent to the financial desires of those Indians trapped in the Western obsession with monetary gain. Many readers of Brunton had no idea what really happened in “secret India,” a commercial phrase of compromised factual relevance.


Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).

Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-56).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).

———Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).

———Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling, 2015).

———Sai Baba: Faqir of Shirdi (New Delhi: Sterling, 2017).

———Upasani Maharaj, Radical Rishi Biography (in four parts, 2020, online)

Tipnis, S . N., Contribution of Upasani Baba to Indian Culture (Sakuri: Shri Upasani Kanya Kumari Sthan, 1966).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 77

Copyright  ©  2020 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


Shirdi Sai Baba

By B. V. Narasimhaswami, Hinduisation, Meher Baba, Shri Sai Satcharita, Upasani Maharaj, Urdu Notebook of Abdul Baba
Shirdi Sai Baba
The faqir known as Sai Baba (d.1918) lived in an obscure mosque at Shirdi, a village in Maharashtra. His precise date of birth is not known. His early life is difficult to reconstruct. However, his last years were reported in far more detail. 
The sources contain much data about numerous devotees, involving a majority of Hindus, some Muslims, and a number of Zoroastrians. One of the Hindus was Govind R. Dabholkar, who composed the Marathi work Shri Sai Satcharita, a verse epic commemorating Shirdi Sai Baba (to be distinguished from Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi). Dabholkar’s commentary is both devotional and philosophical. Hagiographical elements here attend a coverage of episodes reflecting a factual content. One drawback is the lack of chronology.
The earliest years of Shirdi Sai are associated with the Aurangabad region, part of the territory ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad. A popular version of his birth emphasises the village of Pathri. A less well known legend concerning Jerusalem also developed. His arrival in Shirdi has been awarded different dates by major commentators, varying from the 1850s to the period 1868-1872. Dabholkar is associated with the earlier dating. 
Shirdi Sai emerged as a rigorous ascetic committed to a daily begging round. He was initially aloof from the villagers, and became widely regarded as a Muslim faqir. This identity was attested by his attire, and also his habit of speaking in Deccani Urdu. He is reported to have frequently uttered Islamic phrases, especially Allah Malik (God is the Owner/Ruler). His Sufi background is the subject of different interpretations. In contrast, he is often presented as a Hindu, or as a person with no distinct religious background. Complexities of reporting are often ignored. The theme of Hinduisation was emphasised by Dr. Marianne Warren, who complained at the obscurity befalling Sufi components in popular accounts. 
An early Muslim devotee, Abdul Baba, composed in Urdu a Notebook preserving statements and reflections of Shirdi Sai. A due English translation of this document did not appear until 1999 (Warren 1999), over eighty years after the death of Sai Baba. The Notebook reveals a pronounced familiarity with Islamic and Sufi traditions. There is also a significant eclectic disposition represented, one that sought to reconcile the Hindu and Muslim religious temperaments.
An important event, plausibly dated to 1894, involved the confrontation of Sai Baba with a party of local Muslim militants who sought support from the Qazi of Sangamner. Tambuli and others were annoyed by the appearance at the mosque of Hindu worship, as cultivated by the devotee Mhalsapati, who made Sai Baba the object of his improvised puja. The sources relate that the Shirdi faqir supported Mhalsapati against the vengeful opponents.
A prominent source is B. V. Narasimhaswami. This ascetic did not himself meet Sai Baba, not appearing at Shirdi until 1936. He contributed much valuable data, and also his own interpretations. Certain discrepancies have caused confusion (especially his criticism of Upasani Maharaj). The major work of Narasimhaswami is entitled Life of Sai Baba. A tendency to hagiography is evident (cf. Shepherd 2015:328-337). Composed in English, this is a different kind of coverage to that of Dabholkar. Narasimhaswami also produced related works, including Charters and Sayings, an edited contribution which requires close analysis (e.g., Shepherd 2015:300-303).
During his last years, Sai Baba became noted for allusive speech. This characteristic has tended to give him a repute for enigma and symbolism. In contrast, a number of his statements were markedly forthright, and of an ethical complexion. Some witnesses remarked upon the relative absence of metaphysical themes in his delivery, especially those associated with Vedanta.
From about 1910, a large influx of urban devotees arrived at Shirdi. These were predominantly Hindus from Bombay (Mumbai) and other areas. A few became resident devotees, while many others were regular visitors. The general situation changed as a consequence.
The faqir now introduced his distinctive habit of requesting dakshina (donations) from the affluent. He would not ask all the visitors for a gift, and could stipulate varying amounts. Whatever cash he received was daily redistributed amongst ascetics, poor people, diverse retainers and villagers. By nightfall he had no money left in his possession. This situation meant that he had no money or assets when he died. To the last, he retained his simple lifestyle of a begging faqir
Some outsiders and critics could not understand his ways. By caste standards, Shirdi Sai was eccentric, not adhering to conventional taboos, instead welcoming untouchables and even lepers. One of his well known devotees at Shirdi, namely Bhagoji Shinde, was a leper. 
His tactics included reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. His reported statements are free of religious bias. His universalism extended to Zoroastrians, Christians, and Sikhs.
A feature of his last years at Shirdi was the procession known as chavadi utsav. Sai Baba consented to this development at the imploring request of Hindu devotees. However, he refused to sit in the palanquin they gifted him with. The utsav is sometimes compared with Vaishnava celebrations at Pandharpur; Shirdi Sai himself had nothing to do with that major pilgrimage site in Maharashtra. He did not advocate any particular form of worship, remaining neutral in this respect. 
Shirdi Sai gained attention from eminent individuals like Balasaheb Bhate. Originally a materialist sceptic, Bhate became a devotee of the distinctive faqir. Like a number of other followers, Bhate was a revenue official, a role which he renounced in 1909 after meeting Sai Baba.
More well known celebrities were Ganesh Khaparde (1854-1938) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). These politicians both visited Shirdi, although Khaparde had a more intimate link with the faqir. The Shirdi Diary of Khaparde records his numerous encounters with Sai Baba during a sojourn in 1911-12. The saint exhibited various moods reported by the diarist.
Another entity who visited Shirdi was Merwan S. Irani, a Zoroastrian later to become known as Meher Baba (1894-1969). His initial encounter with Sai Baba, in 1915, is evocative (Shepherd 2015:270-271). In later years, Meher Baba expressed a high estimation of the Shirdi faqir.
A very unusual disciple of Sai Baba was Upasani Maharaj (1870-1941), an Ayurvedic physician who arrived at Shirdi in 1911. Upasani became a distinctive ascetic, later establishing his own ashram at nearby Sakori, where he created the community of nuns known as  Kanya Kumari Sthan
The wealthy devotee Gopalrao Buti constructed at Shirdi a spacious private home known as Butiwada. This imposing building became the tomb of Sai Baba, now known as samadhi mandir. Through the efforts of Narasimhaswami and others, a nationwide following of Sai devotees resulted. Shirdi is a famous pilgrimage site, with large numbers of annual visitors reported.
Anand, Swami Sai Sharan, Shri Sai Baba, trans. V. B. Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1997).
Dabholkar, Govind R., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Life and Teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba, trans. Indira Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999).
Kamath, M. V., and Kher, V. B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1991). 
Khaparde, Ganesh S., Shirdi Diary of the Hon’ble Mr. G. S. Khaparde (n.d.; repr. Shirdi: Shri Sai Baba Sansthan, 1994).
Narasimhaswami, B. V., ed., Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1942).
——Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-6; first edn composite volume, 2002). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
——Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Vijayakumar, G. R., Shri Narasimha Swami: Apostle of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2009).
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 67 
Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.