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, although 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 such as Allah Malik (God is the Owner/Ruler). His Sufi background has been 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, but appeared at Shirdi in the 1930s. 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. Much depends upon the accuracy of his observations, and also the discernment of opinion and hagiography as distinct from fact (cf. Shepherd 2015:328-337). This is a different kind of coverage to that of Dabholkar, and was written in English. Narasimhaswami also produced related works, including Charters and Sayings, an edited contribution which both merits and 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 became regular visitors. The general situation changed as a consequence.
The faqir now introduced his distinctive habit of requesting dakshina, meaning 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, and 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 devotees, but 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, and remained 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.
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.
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).
Narasimhaswami, B. V., 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).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., 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
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