The revered Shirdi Sai Baba is a product of the eclecticism that has traditionally accompanied religion in the sub-continent, giving birth to devotees who believe in the oneness of God. There has been a dragging row over whether the Shirdi Sai was a Hindu or a Muslim. But his religious identity hardly matters to the millions who see him as an embodiment of God. It is this syncretism which came under attack when a group of Hindu hardliners uprooted a Shirdi Sai idol from a Hindu temple in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area.
Today, Shirdi Sai temples exist all over India – and his following seems to rise every year. Rightly as he had predicted before passing away on October 15, 1918, Shirdi in Maharashtra has become a major pilgrimage centre. Born at Pathri in Marathwada, Sai Baba arrived in Shirdi, which was then a small village, at a young age between 1868 and 1872, left for Aurangabad after a few days and finally returned to Shirdi to make it his home.
Within years, locals who first saw him as a mad fakir began to worship him, realising the man could do miracles. Govind Raghunath alias Annasaheb Dabholkar, author of the hallowed ‘Shri Sai Satcharitra’, a must read for all Sai devotees, met Sai Baba in 1910. Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak visited Shirdi to see Sai Baba in May 1917.
The Shirdi Sai was no conventional saint. He was, in fact, a phenomenon. He had no pretensions to scholarship and never wrote a critique of the Hindu holy epics. He did not set up any ashram and initiated none to take over from him. But in the decades he spent in Shirdi, the Baba – always dressed in simple clothes, his head invariably covered with a piece of cloth – had a profound insight into both Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His followers included people from both communities with Hindus outnumbering everyone else by the end.
One reason for the Shirdi Sai’s immense popularity to this day is the simple language he used to teach ordinary folks about the norms of life. He always spoke lovingly of God, asking everyone to surrender to His will. He spoke simple words that earned an instant appeal: Do not engage in controversy; do not speak ill of others; do not give tit for tat as each person is answerable for his actions; read sacred books; be moderate in your food and recreation; there is no one higher than God; one who has faith and patience will undoubtedly find Him; do good and God will bless you; do evil and you will displease Him; if you injure others’ feelings, I suffer; he who lays hands on the devotee of God will suffer; do not quarrel; my blessings will go with one who is firm in faith and strong in devotion; I take care of my people, generation after generation, birth after birth.
As MV Kamath and VB Kher rightly say in their eminently readable biography, Sai Baba was heir to the saintly tradition of Maharashtra that began with Jnaneshwar, who was born in 1271 AD. The last of the great Maharashtrian saints before Sai Baba, who appeared in Shirdi, was Ramadas (1608-81). Like gurus in the Indian tradition, Sai Baba would say he had manifested himself to link up with those who had previous karmic links with him so as to push them further on the righteous path.
During his presence, the plague broke out in Shirdi in 1911, but no one died there. The holy man frequently took up the karmic suffering of his devotees. Indeed, as his fame spread, people of all faiths called on Sai Baba. The fact that he stayed in a dilapidated mosque and allowed people to pray to him in Hindu style was itself an act of eclecticism. In the process, Hindus and Muslims together came to celebrate Rama Navami at Shirdi.
Speaking in Parables
The Baba never took any credit for the miracles he brought about in people’s lives. He could light lamps with water, raise the dead, read people’s minds and predict the future with deadly accuracy. Devotees even today have such deep faith in him that they convey to his image their problems and expect these to get resolved. He goaded people to stick to their family deity. “Worship the God that your ancestors have worshipped,” he would say. If someone praised him after his or her work got done, the Sai would argue: “It is Narayana who gets things done. He makes impossible things possible for a devotee.”
During his lifetime, as the crowds swelled at Shirdi, Sai Baba began to speak in parables. He also started offering visitors ‘udi’ – a product of the perpetually burning ‘dhuni’ in the mosque. At times, he would personally apply it on people’s forehead. Even today, the ‘dhuni’ remains in place at Shiridi, home to Sai Baba’s Samadhi, and the ‘udi’ from there is much in demand.
Some of his most prominent early devotees were Hindus. None of them was bothered to know whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim – an issue raised by those who attacked the Shirdi Sai idol at the Delhi temple. Indeed, in 1849, some Muslims opposed Baba’s worship in the mosque. But he asked the faithful to ignore them with contempt.
Much later, a fundamentalist Pathan turned bitter about Hindu practices in the mosque. He sought permission from the Baba to kill all the Hindus sleeping in the vicinity. If you want to kill the Hindus, kill me first, pleaded the Baba. The Pathan now turned against the Sai. Once when the holy man was alone, the Pathan tried to hit him with a stick. The Baba’s mere glance felled the Pathan to the ground; he could get up only with help. Ashamed of his conduct, the Pathan realised that Sai Baba was no ordinary human.
What the misguided Pathan failed to achieve in Shirdi, the Hindu hardliners have succeeded in doing at Shahpur Jat in Delhi.
(The author is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi)
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