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Sai Baba of Shirdi

Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. October 15, 1918), also known as Shirdi Sai Baba, was an Indian guru, yogi and fakir who is regarded by his Hindu and Muslim followers as a saint. Some of his Hindu devotees believe that he was an incarnation of Shiva or Dattatreya, and he was regarded as a satguru and an incarnation of Kabir.

The name 'Sai Baba' is a combination of Persian and Indian origin; Sāī (Sa'ih) is the Persian term for "holy one" or "saint", usually attributed to Islamic ascetics, whereas Bābā is a word meaning "father" used in Indian languages. The appellative thus refers to Sai Baba as being a "holy father" or "saintly father". His parentage, birth details, and life before the age of sixteen are obscure, which has led to a variety of speculations and theories attempting to explain Sai Baba's origins. In his life and teachings he tried to reconcile Hinduism and Islam: Sai Baba lived in a mosque, was buried in a Hindu temple, practised Hindu and Muslim rituals, and taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions. One of his well known epigrams says of God: "Allah Malik" ("God is Master").

Sai Baba taught a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, devotion to God and guru. His philosophy was Advaita Vedanta and his teachings consisted of elements both of this school as well as of bhakti and Islam.

Sai Baba remains a popular saint and is worshipped mainly in Maharashtra, southern Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Debate on his Hindu or Muslim origins continues to take place. He is also revered by several notable Hindu and Sufi religious leaders. Some of his disciples received fame as spiritual figures and saints.

Biography

Background

Although Sai Baba's origins are unknown, some indications exist that suggest that he was born not far from Shirdi. Historical researches into genealogies in Shirdi give support to the theory that Baba could have been born with the name Haribhau Bhusari. Baba was notorious for giving vague, misleading and contradictory replies to questions concerning his parentage and origins, brusquely stating the information was unimportant. He had reportedly stated to a close follower, Mhalsapati, that he has been born of Brahmin parents in the village of Pathri and had been entrusted into the care of a fakir in his infancy. On another occasion, Baba reportedly said that the fakir's wife had left him in the care of a Hindu guru, Venkusa of Selu, and that he had stayed with Venkusa for twelve years as his disciple. This dichotomy has given rise to two major theories regarding Baba's background, with the majority of writers supporting the Hindu background over the Islamic, while others combine both the theories (that Sai Baba was first brought up by a fakir and then by a guru).

Baba reportedly arrived at the village of Shirdi in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, India, when he was about sixteen years old. Although there is no agreement among biographers about the date of this event, it is generally accepted that Baba stayed in Shirdi for three years, disappeared for a year and returned permanently around 1858, which posits a possible birthyear of 1838. He led an ascetic life, sitting motionless under a neem tree and meditating while sitting in an asana. The Sai Satcharita recounts the reaction of the villagers: "The people of the village were wonder-struck to see such a young lad practicing hard penance, not minding heat or cold. By day he associated with no one, by night he was afraid of nobody. His presence attracted the curiosity of the villagers and the religiously-inclined such as Mhalsapati, Appa Jogle and Kashinatha regularly visited him, while others such as the village children considered him mad and threw stones at him. After some time he left the village, and it is unknown where he stayed at that time or what happened to him. However, there are some indications that he met with many saints and fakirs, and worked as a weaver; he claimed to have fought with the army of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Residence in Shirdi

In 1858 Sai Baba returned to Shirdi with Chand Patil's wedding procession. After alighting near the Khandoba temple he was greeted with the words "Ya Sai" (welcome saint) by the temple priest Mhalsapati. The name Sai stuck to him and some time later he started being known as Sai Baba. It was around this time that Baba adopted his famous style of dress, consisting of a knee-length one-piece robe (kafni) and a cloth cap. Ramgir Bua, a devotee, testified that Baba was dressed like an athlete and sported 'long hair flowing down to his buttocks' when he arrived in Shirdi, and that he never had his head shaved. It was only after Baba forfeited a wrestling match with one Mohdin Tamboli that he took up the kafni and cloth cap, articles of typically Sufi clothing. This attire contributed to Baba's identification as a Muslim fakir, and was a reason for initial indifference and hostility against him in a predominantly Hindu village. According to B V Narasimhaswami, a posthumous follower who was widely praised as Sai Baba's "apostle", this attitude was prevalent even among some of his devotees in Shirdi, even up to 1954. For four to five years Baba lived under a neem tree, and often wandered for long periods in the jungle in and around Shirdi. His manner was said to be withdrawn and uncommunicative as he undertook long periods of meditation. He was eventually persuaded to take up residence in an old and dilapidated mosque and lived a solitary life there, surviving by begging for alms and receiving itinerant Hindu or Muslim visitors. In the mosque he maintained a sacred fire which is referred to as a dhuni, from which he had the custom of giving sacred ash ('Udhi') to his guests before they left and which was believed to have healing powers and protection from dangerous situations. At first he performed the function of a local hakim and treated the sick by application of Udhi. Baba also delivered spiritual teachings to his visitors, recommending the reading of sacred Hindu texts along with the Qur'an, especially insisting on the indispensability of the unbroken remembrance of God's name (dhikr, japa). He often expressed himself in a cryptic manner with the use of parables, symbols and allegories. He participated in religious festivals and was also in the habit of preparing food for his visitors, which he distributed to them as prasad. Sai Baba's entertainment was dancing and singing religious songs (he enjoyed the songs of Kabir most). His behaviour was sometimes uncouth and violent.

After 1910 Sai Baba's fame began to spread in Mumbai. Numerous people started visiting him, because they regarded him as a saint (or even an avatar) with the power of performing miracles. and they built his first ever temple at Bhivpuri, Karjat as desired by Sai Baba.Sai Baba took Mahasamadhi on October 15, 1918 at 2.30pm. He died on the lap of one of his devotees with hardly any belongings, and was buried in the "Buty Wada" according to his wish. Later a mandir was built there known as the "Samadhi Mandir".

Notable disciples

Sai Baba left behind no spiritual heirs and appointed no disciples. In fact, he did not even provide formal initiation. Some disciples of Sai Baba achieved fame as spiritual figures like Upasni Maharaj of Sakori and Meher Baba of Ahmednagar. After Sai Baba passed away, his devotees offered the daily Aarti to Upasani Maharaj when he paid a visit to Shirdi, two times with an interval of 10 years.

Teachings and practices

In his personal practice, Sai Baba observed worship procedures belonging to Hinduism and Islam; he shunned any kind of regular rituals but allowed the practice of namaz, chanting of Al-Fatiha, and Qur'an readings at Muslim festival times. Occasionally reciting the Al-Fatiha himself, Baba also enjoyed listening to moulu and qawwali accompanied with the tabla and sarangi twice daily. He also wore clothing reminiscent of a Sufi fakir. Sai Baba also opposed all sorts of persecutions on religious or caste background.

Sai Baba of Shirdi was also an opponent of religious orthodoxy - both Hindu and Muslim. Although Sai Baba himself led the life of an ascetic, he advised his followers to lead an ordinary family life.

Sai Baba encouraged his devotees to pray, chant God's name and read holy scriptures - he told Muslims to study the Qur'an and Hindus texts like the Ramayana, Vishnu Sahasranam, Bhagavad Gita (and commentaries to it), Yoga Vasistha. He advised his devotees and followers to lead a moral life, help others, treat them with love and develop two important features of character: faith (Shraddha) and patience (Saburi). He also criticized atheism. In his teachings Sai Baba emphasised the importance of performing one's duties without attachment to earthly matters and being ever content regardless of the situation.

Sai Baba also interpreted the religious texts of both faiths. According to what the people who stayed with him said and wrote he had a profound knowledge of them. He explained the meaning of the Hindu scriptures in the spirit of Advaita Vedanta. This was the character of his philosophy. It also had numerous elements of bhakti. The three main Hindu spiritual paths - Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga - were visible in the teachings of Sai Baba. Another example of the way he combined both faiths is the Hindu name he gave to his mosque, Dwarakamai.

Sai Baba said that God penetrates everything and lives in every being, and as well that God is the essence of each of them. He emphasised the complete oneness of God which was very close to the Islamic tawhid and the Hindu doctrine, e.g. of the Upanishads. Sai Baba said that the world and all that the human may give is transient and only God and his gifts are eternal. Sai Baba also emphasised the importance of devotion to God - bhakti - and surrender to his will. He also talked about the need of faith and devotion to one's spiritual preceptor (guru). He said that everyone was the soul and not the body. He advised his disciples and followers to overcome the negative features of character and develop the good ones. He taught them that all fate was determined by karma.

Sai Baba left no written works. His teachings were oral, typically short, pithy sayings rather than elaborate discourses. Sai would ask his followers for money (dakshina), which he would give away to the poor and other devotees the same day and spend the rest on matches. According to his followers he did it in order to rid them of greed and material attachment.

Sai encouraged charity and the importance of sharing with others. He said: "Unless there is some relationship or connection, nobody goes anywhere. If any men or creatures come to you, do not discourteously drive them away, but receive them well and treat them with due respect. Shri Hari (God) will be certainly pleased if you give water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked and your verandah to strangers for sitting and resting. If anybody wants any money from you and you are not inclined to give, do not give, but do not bark at him like a dog. Other favourite sayings of his were: "Why do you fear when I am here", "He has no beginning... He has no end." Sai Baba made eleven assurances to his devotees:

  1. Whosoever puts their feet on Shirdi soil, their sufferings will come to an end.
  2. The wretched and miserable will rise to joy and happiness as soon as they climb the steps of My Samadhi.
  3. I shall be ever active and vigorous even after leaving this earthly body.
  4. My tomb shall bless and speak to the needs of my devotees.
  5. I shall be active and vigorous even from my tomb.
  6. My mortal remains will speak from My tomb.
  7. I am ever living to help and guide all who come to Me, who surrender to Me and who seek refuge in Me.
  8. If you look at Me, I look at you.
  9. If you cast your burden on Me, I shall surely bear it.
  10. If you seek My advice and help, it shall be given to you at once.
  11. There shall be no want in the house of My devotee.

Worship and devotees

The Shirdi Sai Baba movement began in the nineteenth century, during his life, while he was staying in Shirdi. A local Khandoba priest - Mhalsapathy - is believed to have been his first devotee. However, in the nineteenth century Sai Baba's followers were only a small group of Shirdi inhabitants and a few people from other parts of India. It started developing in the twentieth century and even faster in 1910 with the Sankirtans of Das Ganu (one of Sai's devotees) who spread Sai Baba's fame to the whole of India. Since 1910 numerous Hindus and Muslims from all parts of India started coming to Shirdi. During his life Hindus worshipped him with Hindu rituals and Muslims revered him greatly, considering him to be a saint. Later (in the last years of Sai Baba's life) Christians and Zoroastrians started joining the Shirdi Sai movement.

The Sai Baba mandir in Shirdi is active and every day worship of Sai is conducted in it. Pilgrims visit Shirdi every day. Shirdi Baba is especially revered and worshipped in the state of Maharashtra. A religious organisation of Sai Baba's devotees called the Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust is based there. The first ever Sai Baba temple is situated at Bhivpuri,Karjat.

The devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba have spread all over India. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Religion there is at least one Sai Baba mandir in nearly every Indian city. His image is quite popular in India. Some ordinary non-religious publishing houses (such as Sterling Publishers) publish books about Shirdi Sai written by his devotees. Shirdi is among the major Hindu places of pilgrimage. The Shirdi Sai Baba movement is partially organised. Only a part of his followers and devotees belong to the Shri Saibaba Sansthan or to other religious organisations that worship him.

Beyond India the Shirdi Sai movement has spread to other countries such as the U.S. or the Caribbean. Sai Baba mandirs and organisations of his devotees have been built in countries including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the USA. The Shirdi Sai Baba movement is one of the main Hindu religious movements in English speaking countries. According to estimates the Sai mandir in Shirdi is visited by around twenty thousand pilgrims a day and during religious festivals this number amounts to a hundred thousand.

Sai Baba had many notable disciples:

  1. Nana Chandorkar: Deputy Collector (Legend has it that Baba saved his daughter from Labor complications)
  2. Mhasalapathi: Priest of Khandoba Temple in Shirdi (He is the one to have addressed Baba as Sai Baba)
  3. Ganapathi Rao popularly known as Das Ganu: Police Constable later resigned and became ascetic
  4. Tatya Patil: Ganapathi Rao's Son had immense faith on Sai Baba and served him until his death (Sai's Death)
  5. Madhava Rao Deshpande later known as Shama: One of the staunch devotee of Sai Baba

Reported "Miracles"

Sai Baba's millions of disciples, followers and devotees believe that he had performed many miracles. Some of them were: bilocation, exorcisms, curing the incurably sick, helping his devotees in need in a miraculous way, reading the minds of others. Numerous inhabitants of Shirdi talked about these miracles. Some of them even wrote about them in books. They talked and wrote about how they (and others) were the witnesses of his unusual Yogic powers: levitation, entering a state of Samādhi at wish, even removing his limbs and sticking them back to his body (Khanda Yoga) or doing the same with his intestines.

According to his followers he appeared to them after his death, in dreams, visions and even in bodily form, whence he often gave them advice. His devotees have many stories and experiences to tell. Many books have been written on the same.

Historical sources

Biographers of Sai Baba of Shirdi (e.g. Govindrao Ragulnath Dabholkar, Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja, Smriti Srinivas, Antonio Rigopolous) when writing about him base it on what people who knew Sai Baba said and wrote. Another source they use is the Shirdi Diary written by Ganesh Shrikrishna Khaparde, which describes every day of the author's stay at Shirdi. When speculating about the unknown episode's of Sai Baba's life, they mainly base their conclusions on his own words.

The most important source about Sai's life is the Shri Sai Satcharita written in Marathi, in 1916 by Govindrao Ragulnath Dabholkar (translated into English by Nagesh Vasudevanand Gunaji with English title: Shri Sai Satcharitra) whom Sai Baba nicknamed Hemadpant, which is an account of his life, teachings and miracles. Other important sources about Sai Baba are books by B. V. Narasimhaswamiji such as Sri Sai Baba's Charters and Sayings or Devotee's Experiences of Sai Baba. Sri Sai Baba and His Teachings by Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja is an indepth study of Sai's life routine and activities.

In various religions

Hinduism

During Sai Baba's life the Hindu saint Anandanath of Yewala declared Sai Baba a spiritual "diamond". Another saint, Gangagir, called him a "jewel". Sri Beedkar Maharaj greatly revered Sai Baba, and in 1873, when he met him he bestowed the title Jagadguru upon him. Sai Baba was also greatly respected by Vasudevananda Saraswati (known as Tembye Swami). Sai of Shirdi was also revered by a group of Shaivic yogis, to which he belonged, known as the Nath-Panchayat. Swami Kaleshwar publicly worships Sai Baba, and treats him as a great saint and his own guru.

Other religions

In Islamic culture Sai Baba appears mainly in Sufism and is considered a Pir of a very high order. Meher Baba declared Baba to be a Qutub-e-Irshad - the highest of the five Qutubs. Baba is also worshipped by prominent Zoroastrians such as Nanabhoy Palkhivala and Homi Bhabha, and has been cited as the most popular non-Zoroastrian religious figure attracting the attention of Zoroastrians.

In culture

Sacral art and architecture

In India, in nearly every larger city there is at least one temple dedicated to Sai Baba. There are even some in towns and cities outside India. In the mosque in Shirdi in which Sai Baba lived there is a life-size portrait of him by Shama Rao Jaykar, an artist from Mumbai. Numerous monuments and statues depicting Sai Baba, which serve a religious function, have also been made. One of them, made of marble by a sculptor named Balaji Vasant Talim, is in the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi where Sai Baba was buried. In Sai Baba mandirs, his devotees play various kinds of devotional religious music, such as aarti.

Film and television

Sai Baba has been the subject of several feature films produced by India's film industry.
Year Film Title role Director Language Notes
1977 Shirdi ke Sai Baba Sudhir Dalvi Ashok V. Bhushan Hindi Also featuring Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Hema Malini, Shatrughan Sinha, Sachin, Prem Nath
1986 Sri Shirdi Saibaba Mahathyam Vijayachander K. Vasu Telugu Dubbed into Hindi as Shirdi Sai Baba Ki Kahani, into Tamil as Sri Shiridi Saibaba
1993 Sai Baba Yashwant Dutt Babasaheb S. Fattelal Marathi Also featuring Lalita Pawar
2001 Shirdi Sai Baba Sudhir Dalvi Deepak Balraj Vij Hindi Also featuring Dharmendra, Rohini Hattangadi, Suresh Oberoi
2005 Ishwarya Avatar Sai Baba Mukul Nag Ramanand Sagar Hindi Composite movie drawn from Sagar's TV serial, Sai Baba.
2008 Malik Ek Jackie Shroff Deepak Balraj Vij Hindi Expected release in 2008. Also featuring Manoj Kumar, Divya Dutta, Rohini Hattangadi, Zarina Wahab and Anup Jalota as Das Ganu.

In the popular Hindi film Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Rishi Kapoor playing the Muslim character Akbar sings "Shirdi Wale Sai Baba" in a temple. Laxmikant Pyarelal composed the music, Anand Bakshi wrote the lyrics, and Mohd. Rafi was the playback singer. The song became a hit and is still played today.

A more recent Hindi TV series, "Sai Baba" was made by Ramanand Sagar and broadcast by Star Plus in 2006, with 31-year old Mukul Nag in the title role. A TV serial on Sai Baba is telecasted on Star TV network on every Sunday at 8:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. by Prof. C. V. Vijendra in Hyderabad.

References and footnotes

Further reading

  • Hoiberg, D. & Ramchandani, I.; Sai Baba of Shirdi, in: Students' Britannica India. Page available online
  • Dabholkar, Govindrao Raghunath (alias Hemadpant) Shri Sai Satcharita Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Shirdi, (translated from Marathi into English by Nagesh V. Gunaji in 1944) available online or downloadable
  • Kamath, M.V. & Kher, V.B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint, India: Jaico Publishing House (1997). ISBN 81-7224-030-9
  • Rigopoulos, Antonio The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi State University of New York press, Albany, (1993) ISBN 0-7914-1268-7
  • Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma. Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism, Revised edition, New Delhi, Sterling Publishing, 2004. ISBN 81-207-2147-0
  • White, Charles S. J. The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of India Saints in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Aug., 1972), pp. 863-878
  • Venkataraman, Krishnaswamy, Shirdi Stories, Srishti Publishers, New Delhi, 2002. ISBN 81-87075-84-8

See also

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