Shirdi Sai Baba

Jonathan Loar

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SHIRDI SAI BABA TIMELINE

1838:  According to Shri Sai Satcharita 10:43, Shirdi Sai Baba was born around the year 1838 (i.e., 1760 in the Shaka era).

1886:  Shirdi Sai Baba suffered an asthma attack and declared that he would enter a state of deep concentration, or samadhi. He rose from his death-like state three days later, as promised.

1892:  Shirdi Sai Baba miraculously lit lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. Note that B.V. Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba holds that this event happened in 1892, while the Shri Sai Satcharita details this event without specifying its date.

1903:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe, alias Das Ganu Maharaj, wrote Shri Santakathamrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in sixty-one chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapter fifty-seven of this work was the first written source about Shirdi Sai Baba.

1906:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote Shri Bhaktililamrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in forty-five chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapters thirty-one, thirty-two, and thirty-three of this work focused on Shirdi Sai Baba.

1916:  G.R. Dabholkar, alias Hemadpant, retired from his position as a first-class magistrate, after which he began to write Shri Sai Satcharita, a Marathi hagiographic text generally considered to be the most authoritative source on Shirdi Sai Baba’s life.

1918 (October 15):  Shirdi Sai Baba died (or rather, attained full and final absorption into God (mahasamadhi)) in Shirdi on Vijayadashami (i.e., Dussehra). He was believed to be around eighty years old.

1918:  Shortly after Shirdi Sai Baba’s death, G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote the 163-verse hymnody known as the Shri Sainatha Stavanamanjari.

1925:  G.D. Sahasrabuddhe (alias Das Ganu Maharaj) wrote Shri Bhaktisaramrita, a Marathi hagiographical text in sixty-tree chapters on various Hindu saints. Chapters fifty-two and fifty-three of this work focused on Shirdi Sai Baba, while Chapter twenty-six told the story of Venkusha, the enigmatic figure some identify as the guru of Sai Baba.

1922:  On the order of the Ahmednagar District Court, the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust was formed to oversee the ritual activities and finances of the Sai Baba’s tomb in the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

Over the last century, Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) has emerged as one of the most popular figures in the South Asian religious landscape. [Image at right] He lived between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in a dilapidated mosque in the small village of Shirdi on the frontier of the Ahmednagar District in the Bombay Presidency of British India. Especially in the last two decades of his life, Shirdi Sai Baba attained renown throughout the region for offering miraculous blessings that could address virtually any sort of crisis. Another aspect of his burgeoning popularity was his reputation as a saint, with practices that blended Hindu and Islamic traditions and teachings that emphasized the ultimate oneness of God.

The resident of Shirdi’s dilapidated mosque came to be known as “Sai Baba,” a name combining the idea of saintliness (the title, sai) with a fatherly sense of love and care for others (the informal term of address, baba). Scholars have argued that sai is a derivative of sa’ih, a Persian term for a Muslim “wanderer” (Rigopulous 1993:3; Warren 2004:35-36). Some hagiographers alternatively suggest that sai is related to the Sanskrit term swami, meaning “master” (Chaturvedi and Rahula 2000:38), or gloss sai as a contraction of sakshat ishwar, meaning “God made manifest” (Sharma 2012:1). Hagiographic literature also refers to Sai Baba interchangeably as an avatar, guru, and fakir, the latter being the term for a Muslim mendicant that Sai Baba occasionally used to describe himself. Hagiographic and academic literature alike refer to Sai Baba as a saint to denote his status as a charismatic religious figure.

Shirdi Sai Baba’s birth and earliest years are completely unknown, or rather, this is the position of G.R. Dabholkar’s voluminous Marathi poetic work Shri Sai Satcharita (1930). Dabholkar states in Satcharita 4:113, 115: “Baba’s birthplace, lineage, and the identity of his mother and father – no one knew anything about these matters… Having left his parents, loved ones, and all ties with others in the world, he manifested in Shirdi for the welfare of humanity.” The text, however, estimates that Sai Baba must have been around eighty years old when he died in 1918, thereby placing his birth around the year 1838 (See, Satcharita 10:43). An earlier hagiographic work, Das Ganu Maharaja’s Bhaktililamrita (1906), reports that Sai Baba once spoke enigmatically about his origins, saying that the world is his village and that Brahma and maya are his father and mother (See, Bhaktililamrita 31:20).

Much more additional information about the saint’s birth and earliest years come from the hagiographer B.V. Narasimhaswami (1874-1956), author of the four-volume text in English prose, Life of Sai Baba (1955-1969). This text, which seeks to introduce its subject to audiences across India, contains much of the same content presented in earlier hagiographic works, but it also draws from the author’s own ethnographic research and interviews with devotees who knew Sai Baba when the saint was alive. An example of this new information is the testimony of Mhalsapati, one of the first devotees of Sai Baba, who purportedly heard Sai Baba call himself a Brahmin from Pathri, a small town about 250 kilometers east of Shirdi. What results in Narasimhaswami’s Life of Sai Baba is a new theory about the saint’s hybridized upbringing: his birth to Brahmin parents; his short tenure in the care of an anonymous Muslim fakir (probably a Sufi, Narasimhaswami suggests); and his longer period of tutelage by a Brahmin guru named Venkusha. This marks an important hagiographic shift in the description of Shirdi Sai Baba: from “neither Hindu nor Muslim” in the Satcharita and other early Marathi works to the one in Life of Sai Baba who becomes “both Hindu and Muslim,” the epitome of Narasimhaswami’s hope for the harmonious future of religion in newly independent India (Loar 2018). This hybridized upbringing becomes further embellished through Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (1926-2011), the self-declared reincarnation of Shirdi’s mendicant. Through revelations given to his devotees, Sathya Sai Baba adds mythological elements to his predecessor’s origin, including the notion that the Hindu god Shiva promised to take birth as the son of the childless Brahmin couple named Ganga Bhavadiya and Devagiriamma (see more detail in Rigopoulos 1993:21-27). While elements of Narasimhaswami and Sathya Sai Baba’s interpretations of Shirdi Sai Baba occasionally appear in contemporary hagiographic texts and film, it should be noted that many devotees continue to hold Dabholkar’s Satcharita and its description of the saint’s unknown parentage as the most authoritative account on this period of his life. The Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust, which oversees the saint’s tomb in Shirdi, prioritizes information from Dabholkar’s Satcharita, too.

The various accounts of Shirdi Sai Baba’s birth and earliest years notwithstanding, there is relative consistency among hagiographic sources with regard to the major events in his life after arriving in Shirdi around the year 1858. This is the date assigned to his encounter with a Muslim man named Chand Patil, a village officer from Dhupkheda around 100 kilometers west of Shirdi. At the time, Patil was searching the countryside for his horse. He came across a young man dressed in the garb of a Muslim fakir, namely, a headscarf (topi) and long robe (kafni), sitting underneath a mango tree and smoking crushed tobacco in a chillum. Over conversation, the fakir told Patil exactly where to find the missing horse at a nearby rivulet. Further astonishing Patil was the fakir pulling a burning ember out of the ground with tongs and then hitting the ground with his walking stick to draw out water. Both of these miraculous actions were to assist the saint in smoking his chillum. Toward the end of their meeting, Patil invited the young saint to his village Dhupkheda and then to Shirdi, where Patil’s relatives were traveling for a wedding. Upon arrival in Shirdi, the young saint was seen by the caretaker of the village’s Khandoba temple, Mhalsapati, who called out, “Sai, please come” (ya sai). From this day onward, the Sai Baba of Shirdi took up residence in his namesake village.

Sai Baba spent his sixty-year tenure in Shirdi as a mendicant. Most of his time was spent in his mosque known as Dwarkamai, sitting in contemplation in front of its sacred fire (dhuni) and occasionally wandering the village. The residents of Shirdi initially kept their distance from the aloof saint until two demonstrations of miraculous power greatly increased his stature in the public’s eyes. The first major miracle occurred in 1886 when the saint suffered an asthma attack and declared that he would voluntarily enter into and return from a deathlike meditative state of samadhi in seventy-two hours. Some were convinced that Shirdi Sai Baba had actually died and moved to bury him, but the saint returned to life three days later, as promised. The second major miracle, which took place around 1892, was the miracle of lighting lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. When Shirdi’s grocers lied about the availability of the oil that they had regularly given as alms, Sai Baba returned to his mosque and mixed water with a tiny amount of leftover oil, drank the mixture as a religious offering (See, Satcharita 5:109), and miraculously lit the mosque’s lamps. According to Das Ganu Maharaj, this event was the catalyst in the public’s perception of saint from a “madman” to “God on earth” (See, Bhaktalilamrita 31:35, 46).

These two miracles coincided with the introduction of two important individuals into the devotional community: N.G. Chandorkar and G.D. Sahasrabuddhe. Chandorkar, a district collector who met the saint in 1892, promoted the miracle-working saint among his many contacts throughout the colonial middle classes (e.g., clerks, police inspectors, solicitors, judges). His influence was so great that he has been called the “first and foremost of Baba’s apostles” and “Baba’s St. Paul” (Narasimhaswami 2004:249). Chandorkar convinced Sahasrabuddhe, a police constable with a great skill for writing religious poetry, to visit Shirdi around 1894. A series of close calls proved to Sahasrabuddhe that Shirdi Sai Baba was protecting him from certain harm. Resigning from the police force, Sahasrabuddhe felt that the saint was pushing him to a higher calling, namely, the writing of the lives of saints. He adopted the penname Das Ganu Maharaj and wrote Santakathamrita (1903), which featured a chapter that become the earliest written account of Sai Baba’s teachings. Additional hagiographic works followed, most notably Bhaktililamrita (1906) and Bhaktisaramrita (1926), as well as many works performed orally in his role as a talented kirtankar.

Another important devotee and hagiographer was Abdul, whose arrival in Shirdi in 1889 preceded Chandorkar and Sahasrabuddhe. Abdul was a close devotee of the saint and briefly in charge of his tomb before the establishment of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust in 1922. Abdul’s handwritten notebook containing the saint’s Sufi-inspired teachings is prominently featured in translation in Marianne Warren’s Unraveling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism, first published in 1999 and later as a revised edition in 2004. The notebook is a key piece of evidence in Warren’s argument that Sai Baba was actually a Sufi holy man and that his legacy underwent Hinduization through the medium of Hindu-authored hagiography following his death.

In the last two decades of Sai Baba’s life, many more people began to visit Shirdi, including one of Ahmednagar District’s deputy collectors and settlement officers H.V. Sathe (1904); the lawyer S.B. Dhumal from Nashik (1907); the sub-judge Tatyasaheb Noolkar from Pandharpur (1908); the prominent Bombay solicitor H.S. Dixit (1909); the Amravati lawyer and political activist G.S. Khaparde (1910); and the first-class magistrate and Satcharita author G.R. Dabholkar from Bandra (1910). In the 1930s, these individuals were interviewed by Narasimhaswami, who then published Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba (1940) as a collection of seventy-nine first-person testimonies about the saint’s miracles and teachings. This work offers an important snapshot of Sai Baba according to devotees who knew the saint when he was alive, but it must be further contextualized by the fact that the voices are predominantly from well-educated, high-caste Hindu males from the colonial middle classes.

The growing regional popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba paralleled the increase in accounts of his miracles, many of which involved blessings to cure diseases or protect people from harm. For example, the thirteenth chapter of Dabholkar’s Satcharita reports instances where Sai Baba prescribed unconventional means to successfully treat various diseases: sitting near the saint in his mosque for pulmonary consumption; feeding a black dog near a Laskhmi temple for malarial fever; and eating a mixture of nuts and milk for diarrhea. The same chapter includes three short anecdotes on a similar theme: an ear infection cured with the words “Allah will make everything okay” (allah accha karega); loose motions cured by roasted peanuts blessed by the saint; and a longstanding case of colic cured by the saint’s blessing (ashirvad) cured. Narasimhaswami’s Devotees’ Experiences includes a great number of additional stories beyond what is covered in the voluminous Satcharita. The lawyer S.B. Dhumal recounts how he was saved from plague by following Sai Baba’s advice, even though it went against the notions of “common sense,” “medical opinion,” and “rules of prudence” (Narasimhawami 2008:31). Many such miracles, especially those involving healing, have recurrent themes, such as the transformation of a skeptical devotee’s disbelief into belief in Sai Baba and the demonstration of a saint’s power as superior to “modern” or “western” medical practices (Hardiman 2015; Loar 2016).

About one month before Shirdi Sai Baba’s death, the brick upon which he rested his head was accidentally broken by a devotee. The saint interpreted this event as the breaking of his karma and an omen of his passing. He died after a prolonged fever on the afternoon of October 15, 1918. This was Vijayadashami, also known as Dussehra, the final day of the Hindu festival of Navaratri. Following his death, a debate quickly emerged among Hindus and Muslims in Shirdi with regard to burial. Muslims wanted to bury the saint on open land, a custom common in the construction of a dargah for a Muslim saint. Hindus, however, maintained that Sai Baba wanted to be buried in a large building under construction by Bapusaheb Buti, a wealthy devotee from Nagpur (See, Satcharita 43:158). The revenue officer of nearby Kopergaon arranged for a vote between the two parties, and the majority favored his burial in Buti’s building, which became known as Shirdi Sai Baba’s Samadhi Mandir (Rigopoulos 1993:241). The saint’s Muslim devotee Abdul became the custodian of the new tomb until the establishment of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust in 1922.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

One of the central beliefs about Shirdi Sai Baba is that he represented religious unity, particularly between Hindu and Islamic traditions. The Satcharita states in several verses, notably 5:24, 7:13, and 10:119, that he was “neither Hindu nor Muslim.” Related to Sai Baba’s non-affiliation with a single tradition are his statements about the equality of Hindu and Islamic notions of God, an example of which is the non-difference between Ram and Rahim expressed in Satcharita 10:50. The third chapter of the Satcharita also showcases Sai Baba professing the equality of Brahmins and Pathans, that is, Hindus and Muslims, each of whom expresses the same spirit of devotional worship in different ways. It is also important to note that these statements of religious unity in the context of Sai Baba hagiography come predominantly from Hindu hagiographers. Consider Satcharita 23:4, in which the Hindu hagiographer Dabholkar balances Hindu interpretation with Sai Baba’s self-expression which uses Islamic vocabulary: “We may regard [Sai Baba] as an avatar because he has all of those characteristics. About himself, he used to say, “I am a servant in the service of God (Allah).”

According to most hagiographic texts, Shirdi Sai Baba was not one to give lengthy lectures on philosophy and doctrine, although a notable exception is Das Ganu’s Santakathamrita (1903) featuring the saint’s lengthy conversation with N.G. Chandorkar on brahmajnana, caitanya, and other topics within Vedanta. Instead, Sai Baba offered simple blessings to those who approached him with phrases like “God will make it alright” and “God is master” (allah malik). Today, the Hindi phrase closely associated with Shirdi Sai Baba is “the master of all is one,” or sab ka malik ek hai. Early Marathi hagiographies neither directly nor indirectly attribute these words to the saint nor use them to describe his teachings. Given this statement has become ubiquitous on posters, calendars, and other printed works bearing his image, one might suggest that these words derive from the saint’s mass-produced iconography. The type of religious unity exemplified in the phrase sab ka malik ek hai has been seen to appeal to Hindus as well as non-Hindus as a unifying force of moral good in contrast to exclusivist and nativist worldviews, such as Hindu nationalism (McLain 2011, 2012).

Devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba profoundly believe in his reputation as an efficacious miracle worker to whom anyone can easily turn. Hagiographic texts are full of testimonies to Sai Baba’s unfailing ability to help people with all sorts of problems, from diseases and life-threatening situations to material concerns, like jobs and money. As with many sacred figures in South Asian religious traditions, Shirdi Sai Baba is imminently accessible even after death. Narasimhaswami, for example, had a powerfully transformative experience at the saint’s tomb in Shirdi in 1936, after which he embarked on a career of sai prachar, or the mission of making Sai Baba known throughout India (McLain 2016b; Loar 2018). Contemporary hagiographic literature continues to report new miracles attributed to Shirdi Sai Baba helping people in need and curing various diseases either through his posthumous presence or the ritual use of the sacred ash (udi) obtained from the sacred fire (dhuni) in Sai Baba’s mosque in Shirdi (Chopra 2016). Miraculous events occasionally receive media coverage, such as the appearance of Shirdi Sai Baba’s face on the wall of a temple in Mississauga, Canada (Loar 2014).

Driving this belief in miracles are the eleven assurances that Shirdi Sai Baba purportedly made before his death in 1918. These assurances do not exist in codified form in the early Marathi hagiographies, but they seem to have coalesced out of exact or very similar entries in Narasimhaswami’s Charters and Sayings (1939), a compendium of more than 600 aphorisms and parables attributed to the saint. The following is a common English rendering of the eleven assurances (Rigopoulos 1993:376):

Whoever puts their feet on Shirdi soil, his sufferings will come to an end.

The wretched and miserable will rise to joy and happiness as soon as they climb the steps of my mosque.

I shall be ever active and vigorous even after leaving this earthly body.

My tomb shall bless and speak to the needs of my devotees.

I shall be active and vigorous even from the tomb.

My mortal remains will speak from the tomb.

I am ever living to help and guide all who come to me, who surrender to me, and who seek refuge in me.

If you look to me, I look to you.

If you cast your burden on me, I shall surely bear it.

If you seek my advice and help, it shall be given to you at once.

There shall be no want in the house of my devotee.

Slightly different versions of these assurances, whether in English or South Asian languages, also circulate in Shirdi Sai Baba devotion. (Image at right] For example, assurance number seven reads differently vis-à-vis the rendering above: bhajega jo mujh ko jis bhav mein paunga us ko main us bhav mein. The common English translation of this assurance, which is especially visible in online devotional spaces, is: “In whatever faith men worship me, even so do I render to them.” Throughout all of the assurances in whichever form and language, the main theme holds that Shirdi Sai Baba is an approachable and accessible spiritual resource. He serves as an open-access spiritual resource who wants to solve people’s problems and defines his work thusly in Narasimhaswami’s Charters and Sayings, #55: “My business is to give blessings.”

The Satcharita reports Shirdi Sai Baba’s prediction to return among his devotees as an eight-year-old child, but some devotees do not accept Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi as the reincarnation of Shirdi’s mendicant. Sathya Sai Baba further understands his predecessor as a component of a triple avatar: Shirdi Sai as a form of Shiva, Sathya Sai as a form of Shiva together with Shakti, and Prema Sai, the forthcoming incarnation that will be Shakti alone (Srinivas 2008). One way that some devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba distinguish the two Sai Babas is the difference between the “real” (asli) in Shirdi and “fake” (nakli) in Puttaparthi (Loar 2016). However, further research into this matter is necessary to provide greater nuance into our understanding of the place of each Sai Baba in the devotional context of the other.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

According to hagiography, Shirdi Sai Baba’s ascetic lifestyle and religious practices reflected his blended approach to Hindu and Islamic traditions. According to the seventh chapter of the Satcharita, he had pierced ears and was circumcised, a combination of Hindu and Muslim physical features. His long white robe and headscarf were similar to the garb of a Muslim mendicant, or fakir, in the Deccan region, and he lived in the village’s dilapidated mosque. But he referred to the mosque as Dwarka or Dwarkamai in reference to the holy city associated with the Hindu god Krishna. Inside the mosque, the saint kept his constantly burning sacred fire from which he prescribed its ash (udi) as a healing substance. He either read or had someone else read passages from the Quran and he once demonstrated his knowledge of Sanskrit grammar by interpreting the Bhagavad Gita for a Hindu devotee. He occasionally spoke about Hindu metaphysical concepts like brahmajnana and maya, while the name of God that was always on his lips, per Satcharita 7:30, was Allah malik (“God is master”). This religiosity that resists and critiques the social act of categorization is not unprecedented in South Asia, as scholars have explored Shirdi Sai Baba in light of similar antecedents, such as the Nath community of ascetics, the god Dattatreya, the poet-saint Kabir, and other Maharashtrian saints like Gajanan Maharaj and Swami Samarth Maharaj (White 1972; Rigopoulous 1993; Warren 2004).

Another genre of action associated with Shirdi Sai Baba is the miracle. English-language literature often uses the word “miracle” to describe Sai Baba’s supernatural actions and events, both those that took place during his lifetime and those that continue to happen in the present. Works in South Asian languages, such as Hindi and Marathi, typically describe the saint’s miracles as camatkar (lit. “that which astonishes”) and lila, a Hindu theological term that means “play,” as in, a divine figure’s playful manipulation of reality. The saint rarely performed largescale miracles in public during his lifetime, with the notable exceptions of his three-day period of death and revivification, and the miraculous lighting of lamps in his mosque with water instead of oil. Much more common throughout Shirdi Sai Baba literature are the personal testimonies from individuals who recount personal experiences of a miraculous cure, life-saving protection, or material result (e.g., a new job, acceptance into a college, success with a new business).

Despite the blended nature of Sai Baba’s practices and the ecumenical nature of his teachings, many of the rituals of Sai Baba worship fall under the umbrella of Hindu practice, such as puja, arati, and darshan. The major festivals celebrated in Shirdi and Sai Baba temples around the world are Hindu   celebrations: Ram Navami, Guru Purnima, and Vijayadashami, which also commemorates Sai Baba’s mahasamadhi. A major moment in the development of Sai Baba worship was the establishment in 1954 of a marble image (a murti consecrated in Hindu fashion) above the saint’s tomb in the Samadhi Mandir. [Image at right] Similar consecrated images are found in some Hindu temples, and smaller murtis and devotional posters or framed prints may be found in people’s homes and businesses alongside virtually any other sacred figure. The generally Hindu character of Sai Baba worship reflects the predominantly Hindu demographic of his devotees, including hagiographers, past and present. Exact numbers are impossible to ascertain, but one study of Shirdi as a site of religious tourism shows that visitors are mostly Hindus (ninety-two percent), with Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Sikhs all together in a distinct minority (Ghosal and Maity 2011:271).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

In 1922, the Ahmednagar District Court ordered the formation of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan and Trust, the organizational body that would oversee the tomb’s activities and finances. Shortly after its formation, the all-Hindu board of trustees ousted Abdul as caretaker (Warren 2004:347). Today, the Sansthan and Trust continues to manage the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi, a town that has undergone tremendous transformation over the last century. It has been estimated that 25,000 devotees visit Shirdi daily and around 80,000 over weekends, with substantially more during major festivals (Shinde and Pinkney 2013:563).

A notable feature of the Sansthan and Trust is that it routinely ranks among India’s wealthiest religious organizations, alongside Hindu sites like the Venkateshwara Mandir in Tirupati and the Vaishno Devi Mandir in Jammu. Large donation amounts to the Sansthan and Trust are sometimes reported in the media, especially around holidays and festivals. While exact figures are hard to discern, a Marathi article by Vijay Chavan and Manohar Sonawane provides some insight into the increase in the Sansthan and Trust’s finances during the last half of the twentieth century. In 1952, when the organization was registered with the Indian government, it reported an annual income of 214,000 Rupees. By 1973, this amount had climbed to 1,800,000 Rupees, and by the end of the 1980s, annual income spiked to upwards of 60,000,000 Rupees. The turning point in the Sansthan and Trust’s finances, according to Chavan and Sonawane, was the release of director Ashok Bhushan’s 1977 Hindi film Shirdi ke Sai Baba, which introduced the saint to the large audience of Hindi filmgoers. The authors further cite a 2004 report from the organization’s management committee that listed its income as approximately 870,000,000 Rupees and deposits valued at more than 2,000,000,000 Rupees (Chavan and Sonawane 2012:37-38).

While the Sansthan and Trust manages the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi, there are a many other Sai Baba organizations and temples throughout India and around the world. For example, B.V. Narasimhaswami founded the All India Sai Samaj in Madras in 1940 with the purpose of propagating devotion to Sai Baba beyond the movement’s center in Shirdi. This organization ultimately established hundreds of branches and dozens of Shirdi Sai Baba temples in India over the following decades. One such temple in suburban Bengaluru, which presents the saint more as a Hindu deity than a figure with composite heritage, is discussed in Smriti Srinivas’s 2008 In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement. Srinivas finds that the temple’s “bourgeois incarnation of Baba” exclusively appeals to middle-class Hindus aspiring to lead successful lives in a thriving metropolis, and that the consequence of this perspective is that the saint’s “Sufi heritage has passed into a zone of cultural amnesia in the suburban landscape of believers” (Srinivas 2008:233, 239).

Another ethnographic study by Karline McLain is a counterbalance to the understanding of Sai Baba’s story as one of simple Hinduization. McLain’s field research at the Shri Shirdi Sai Heritage Foundation Trust in New Delhi highlights Hindu and non-Hindu voices who express little interest or concern with the politics of religious identity in the saint’s legacy. Rather, she finds devotees “drawn to this new movement because they perceive Shirdi Sai Baba’s life and teachings as a syncretistic example of spirituality that defies rigid religious boundaries” (McLain 2012:192). The organization’s founder C.B. Satpathy, who is also a prolific author of Sai Baba hagiographic literature, echoes Narasimhaswami’s earlier vision of the saint as an example of composite spirituality, which crosses divisions and brings people together. McLain’s work also importantly connects the notion of Sai Baba’s compositeness to the practice of seva, or humanitarian service rendered as worship to one’s guru, which can be practiced by anyone of any faith.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

The initial academic study of Shirdi Sai Baba focused on reconstructing his life through various hagiographic sources and attempting to locate the “real” Sai Baba, whom many have argued was likely a Sufi fakir (Shepherd 1986; Rigopoulos 1993; Warren 2004). More recent scholarship has approached additional topics in the history of the Shirdi Sai Baba hagiographic tradition and prominently highlighted the works of Das Ganu Maharaj, an understudied voice in the early devotional community (Loar 2016; McLain 2016a). Scholars have also adopted new and fruitful perspectives, such as his many shrines in urban public space in Mumbai (Elison 2014), the competing visions of religious pluralism situated between the local and the global (McLain 2016a), the intersection of his healing miracles and the modern Indian nation (Hardiman 2015), and the ways in which individuals and communities find inspiration in his message of peace and unity within religious diversity (McLain 2011; 2012).

Perhaps the most important issue yet to be more fully explored is the nexus of the sainthood embodied by Shirdi Sai Baba in the rural Marathi-speaking region in late colonial India and the region’s broader history of droughts, famines, epidemics, and economic transformation with the advent of new technologies (e.g., railroads) and the shifting of agricultural practices (e.g., sugarcane cultivation). To this effect, Smriti Srinivas has made three very important points: that “congregational worship” in Shirdi “was paralleled by a shift in the economy of the Godavari river region in which Shirdi lies;” that the saint’s “polyvalent personality” enabled him to acquire devotees, especially from among the emerging middle classes from diverse communities; and that his knack for miracles “contravened or interrogated bourgeois rationality that exerted increasing power over these classes” (Srinivas 2008:37-38). Each of these points deserves more scholarly attention to further historicize the popularization of Shirdi Sai Baba in colonial and postcolonial India. While this certainly does not discount the saint’s connections to earlier modes of religious expression (e.g., references in hagiography to Sai Baba as a reincarnation of Kabir), it nonetheless speaks to the sense that Shirdi Sai Baba is both a product of and also a saint for the “modern” and rapidly changing world.

The perennial issue animating much of this recent scholarship is the attempt to explain how this simple fakir from the colonial frontier became so popular, so fast in postcolonial India. Karline McLain, the scholar who has currently written the most extensively on Shirdi Sai Baba, echoes three reasons previously posited by Marianne Warren (2004) to explain the saint’s popularization over the last century: the guarantee of material results obtained through prayer; the proliferation of hagiographic books and films on him; and Sathya Sai Baba’s self-declaration to be his reincarnation. McLain adds a fourth reason: Shirdi Sai Baba’s embodiment of India’s “composite culture.” Adding nuance to the earlier theses about Shirdi Sai Baba’s Hinduization, McLain finds, both textually and ethnographically, that there are multiple understandings of the saint as an incarnation of Dattatreya, a figure who recalls the example of the Prophet, and someone who shows the path to God in ways consistent with Sikh teachings. A particular manifestation of this compositeness is the poster that inspired McLain’s article, “Be United, Be Virtuous,” which features Shirdi Sai Baba wearing the colors of the Indian flag and framed by a mosque, temple, gurdwara, and church (McLain 2011).

My previous work on the Shirdi Sai Baba hagiographic tradition has reframed this “composite culture” as the politics of compositeness, in which there are dominant Hindu and subordinate Muslim aspects to Sai Baba’s legacy. One locus of this process is N.V. Gunaji’s The Wonderful Life and Teachings of Shri Sai Baba, Adapted from the Original Marathi Book Shri Sai Satcharita by Govindrao Raghunath Dabholkar alias ‘Hemadpant’ (1944). As an adaptation and not a full translation, Gunaji’s text warrants close scrutiny. (A dutifully comprehensive translation of the Satcharita is available through Indira Kher’s 1999 publication). There are very detailed accountings of the hagiographic Hinduization evident in Gunaji’s adaptation of the Satcharita and how it omits, suppresses, and glosses over the many connections between Sai Baba and Islam in the original text (Warren 2004; Loar 2016). For example, Gunaji inserts a footnote to his rendering of the Satcharita in reference to Sai Baba’s circumcision; the footnote clarifies that a Hindu devotee closely inspected the saint and confirmed he was actually not circumcised. Another example is Gunaji’s handling of Satcharita 11:62-63, in which Sai Baba describes himself as a Muslim by birth who nonetheless welcomes the worship offered to him by a Brahmin man named Dr. Pandit. In his adaptation, Gunaji simply omits Sai Baba’s self-description of his Muslim-ness, thereby changing the tone of the story: from a teaching on sincere devotion to one’s guru as beyond religious categories to a simple example of the saint accepting worship from a Brahmin (Loar 2016). Following Gunaji’s attempt to create a more Hindu and less Muslim saint, I have followed this politics of compositeness to the next major figure in the saint’s reconfiguration, B.V. Narasimhaswami, author of the English text Life of Sai Baba. Narasimhaswami focuses his attention on the saint’s mysterious origin and draws together other devotees’ testimonies to create the theory of Sai Baba’s hybridized upbringing: Brahmin parentage, Muslim (Sufi) foster care, and Brahmin tutelage under Venkusha. Here, it is more accurate to refine the Hinduization in Sai Baba hagiography as actually a form of Brahminization, an act of assigning caste to a figure previously described as having unknown parentage. But this hybridized upbringing is very important to Narasimhaswami. He writes in the third volume of Life of Sai Baba: “From Hindu parentage… [Baba] passed to Muslim hands and from Muslim care again to a Hindu saint’s care. The fusion of Hindu and Muslim had to be perfected first in his own person before he could affect any fusion of the Hindu-Muslim elements in society” (Narasimhaswami 2004:595). This language of syncretism, which is evident throughout Life of Sai Baba, evidences Narasimhaswami’s rebranding of the saint for a postcolonial audience and a postcolonial discourse, namely, the discourse of national integration in independent India. In doing so, we see Sai Baba’s elevation from a primarily regional to increasingly national figure of religious unity (Loar 2018).

Not everyone, though, is a fan of Shirdi Sai Baba. In particular, there are some voices aiming to challenge the legitimacy of the saint’s notion of Hindu-Muslim unity. My study of anti-Sai Baba rhetoric on several Facebook pages finds that the Muslim elements of the saint’s life have become the subject of harsh critique. Polemical memes proliferate on such pages, suggesting that Shirdi Sai Baba is part of a “bhakti jihad,” an essentially Muslim figure who has tricked Hindus into worshipping him and defiling their religion (Loar 2016). These pages also lend support to a leading a voice of anti-Sai Baba rhetoric: Swami Swaroopananda, the nonagenerarian head of the Dwarka Pitham in Gujarat.  In the summer of 2014, Swami Swaroopananda launched several critiques of Sai Baba worship that were picked up in the Indian news media. On June 23, Maharashtra Times reported the swami’s claim that Shirdi Sai Bab was not a divine figure and therefore unworthy of worship. On June 30, the Deccan Chronicle covered his attempt to provoke Hindus into rejecting their worship of a “Muslim fakir.” In August, he led a gathering of 400 Hindu leaders during a religious conclave, or dharma sansad, which passed a resolution on the incompatibility of Shirdi Sai Baba and Hinduism, or sanatan dharma. The Sansthan and Trust in Shirdi quickly condemned Swami Swaroopananda, while devotees in several states filed court cases against the swami by citing sections of the Indian penal code that criminalize statements that outrage and hurt the religious sentiments of others. In September 2015, Swami Swaroopananda presented an apology for his critical statements before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, although he continued to make occasional inflammatory comments, such as blaming Maharashtra’s drought in 2016 on the continued worship of Sai Baba alongside Hindu deities. While the swami’s public campaign against Sai Baba was ultimately ineffectual, he became another example of the many fundamentalist religious figures in modern India who claim the authority to define what is and is not properly “Hindu” but are not recognized universally by all Hindus as having the power to do so (Loar 2016).

IMAGES

Image #1: Photograph taken around 1916 that shows Shirdi Sai Baba wearing headscarf (topi) and robe (kafni) while leaning against his mosque in Shirdi with several male devotees. Source: Wikipedia commons.
Image #2: Hindi placard from Shirdi: “Shri Sadguru Sai Baba’s 11 Assurances.” Source: Jonathan Loar.
Image #3: Murti at the Shri Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir in Kukas near Jaipur in Rajasthan. Source: Jonathan Loar.

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Publication Date:
20 November 2020

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