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All About Baba

About Shirdi Sai Baba

Sai Baba of Shirdi also known as Shirdi Sai Baba, was a 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. He is deeply respected by his devotees and also called Sadguru, meaning ‘A True Guru’. There are many stories and eyewitness accounts of miracles he performed for the benefit of the helpless and those in distress. He is a well-known figure in many parts of the world, but especially in India, where he is much revered.

The name 'Sai Baba' is a combination of Persian and Indian origin; Sai (Sa'ih) is the Persian term for "well learned" or "knowledgeable", usually attributed to Islamic ascetics, whereas Baba is a word for "father” in various parts of India. Thus Sai Baba refers to as being a "holy father" or "saintly father". His parentage, birth details, and life before the age of sixteen are unknown, 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 which he called Dwarakamayi, practiced Hindu and Muslim rituals, taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions and was buried in a place which was being built as a Hindu temple in Shirdi. One of his well known and favourite sayings about God was "Sabka Malik Ek Hai" ("One God governs all"). He always uttered "Allah Malik" ("God is Master"). He had no love for perishable things, and was always engrossed in self-realization, which was his sole concern, and that’s what he preached too.

Sai Baba taught a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, devotion to God and Guru. His teachings combined elements of Hinduism and Islam and tried to achieve communal harmony between these religions.

Sai Baba remains a very popular saint and is worshipped by people around the world. Though debate over his Hindu or Muslim origins still continues to take place, He is revered by several notable Hindu and Sufi religious leaders alike. Some of his disciples received fame as spiritual figures and saints such as Upasni Maharaj, Meher Baba, Saint Bidkar Maharaj, Saint Gangagir, Saint Jankidas Maharaj and Sati Godavari Mataji.

Early years & Shirdi

No one knows where and when Sai Baba was born. Various communities have claimed that he belongs to them, but nothing has been substantiated. It is known that he spent considerable periods with fakirs, and his attire resembled that of a Muslim fakir. Baba reportedly arrived at the village of Shirdi, when he was about 16 years old. Although there is no agreement on the date of this event, it is generally accepted that Baba stayed in Shirdi village for three years, disappeared for a year and returned permanently around 1858, which posits a possible birth year of 1838.

Some claim Baba was born on 29 September, 1835, but there is no apparent reason on how the date was arrived at. In any case, the only agreement amongst historians and his devotees is that there is no conclusive evidence of his birthday and place. He led an ascetic life, sitting motionless under a neem tree and meditating. 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 – a striking similarity to another great saint of the past, Saint Kabir.

Arrival in Shirdi and Teachings

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" (Marathi:welcome saint) by the temple priest Mhalsapati. The name Sai stuck to him and sometime 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 his back when he arrived in Shirdi, and that he never had his head shaved. It was only after Baba forfeited a wrestling match with one Mohiuddin 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. This attitude was prevalent 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 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 ('Udi') to his guests before they left, and which was believed to have healing powers and protection from dangerous situations.

At first he treated the sick by application of Udi and was considered to be a local hakim, but soon realised that he was a great spiritual being. Baba also delivered spiritual teachings to his visitors, recommending the reading of sacred Hindu texts along with the Qur'an, especially insisting on the unbroken remembrance of God's name – Japa or Dhikr. He never gave sermons to preach, instead, often expressed himself in a cryptic manner with the usage of parables, symbols and allegories. His manner was such that whom he wanted to correct or say something could easily understand, while it made no sense to others present. Thus others could not know about whom it was said. He actively 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 the most. At times his behaviour was uncouth and even violent.

After 1910 Sai Baba's fame began to spread in Mumbai from where numerous people started visiting him, because they regarded him not just as a Saint but an ‘Avatar’ with the power of performing miracles, though Baba never said that about himself. Various rich and greedy businessmen also started visiting him for the fulfilment of their desire for more and more profit, on which Baba used to say “...my treasury is overflowing with gold, and while I want to give gold, people are interested in taking earthen lumps only...” implying that while he was interested in making them progress on the spiritual path, they were only interested in the material gains.

Sai Baba left behind no spiritual heirs; neither appointed any disciples nor started any sect. In fact, he did not even provide formal ‘initiation’ (diksha), despite requests from some of his cloatihaase devotees too. Some disciples of Sai Baba achieved fame as spiritual figures like Upasni Maharaj of Sakori and Meher Baba of Ahmednagar.

Teachings and Practices

In his personal practice, Shirdi 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 AlFatiha, and Qur'an readings at Muslim festival times. Occasionally reciting the Al-Fatiha himself, Baba also enjoyed listening to moulu and quawwali accompanied with the tabla and sarangi twice daily. He also wore clothing reminiscent of a Sufi fakir. Shri Sai also opposed all sorts of persecutions on religious or caste background.

On one occasion, he also shattered the pride of one of his very dear and notable disciples Nana Chandorkar, who while serving him was reciting a Sanskrit ‘shloka’ from Bhagavad Gita. When Baba asked him the meaning of that, Nana considering that Baba did not know Sanskrit gave a brief meaning, to which Baba said that he did not want a purported meaning but a complete explanation of the same. He then started questioning Nana various things from within the shloka, which Nana completely failed to explain. Nana who thought that he had read ‘Gita’ many times and understood everything, when failed to explain even one shloka, silently bowed his head in shame and thought how small he was in front of Baba. Then Baba in his most affectionate manner explained the whole meaning of the same with appropriate reasons, and it was then that Nana understood the true greatness of Baba and the depth of his knowledge, and realised that there was nothing that Baba did not know.

Sai Baba 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. He also did not encourage fasting and said “Fasting only helped to regulate the system of the body function and no spiritual significance or gains could be achieved through this.

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 along with the commentaries to it. He advised his devotees and followers to lead a moral life, help others and love every living being without any discrimination. Other than love, he also encouraged to develop two important features of the character – ‘Faith’ (Shraddha) and ‘Patience’ (Saburi). He also criticized atheism. In his teachings Sai Baba also emphasized the importance of performing one's duties without attachment to earthly matters and worrying about the results, 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 also that God is the essence of each one of them. He emphasized the complete oneness of God which was very close to both the Hindu Philosophy as in the Upanishads, and Islamic tawhid. Sai Baba said that the world and all that the human may give is transient, and only God and His Gifts are Eternal. He also emphasized 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 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 and pointed 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 buying wood to maintain Dhuni. 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. Do not discourteously drive them away, but receive them well and treat them with due respect, if any men or creatures come to you. 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”.

Worship and Devotees

The Shirdi Sai Baba movement began in the 19th century, during his life, while he was staying in Shirdi. Khandoba Temple priest – Mhalsapathy, who first addressed him as ‘Sai’, is believed to have been his first devotee. However, in the 19th 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 20th 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 Baba's life) Christians and Zoroastrians also started joining the Shirdi Sai movement. The Sai Baba Temple (Samadhi Mandir) in Shirdi is active and daily-worship of Sai is conducted there. Thousands of pilgrims visit Shirdi every day.

The devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba have spread not just all over India but world. According to the Gale Encyclopaedia of Religion there is at least one Sai Baba temple in nearly every Indian town or city. Shirdi is among the major Hindu places of pilgrimage today.

Beyond India the Shirdi Sai movement has spread to other countries such as the U.S. or the Caribbean. Sai Baba temples and organizations 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 Temple 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 labour complications.
2. Mhasalapathy: Priest of Khandoba Temple in Shirdi. He is the first one to have addressed Baba as Sai Baba.
3. Ganapathi Rao: Popularly known as Das Ganu, Police Constable later resigned to become an ascetic.
4. Tatya Patil: Baija Bai’s son, had immense faith in Sai Baba and served him until his Samadhi.
5. Madhava Rao Deshpande later known as Shama, one of the staunch devotees of Sai Baba.
6. Hemadpant: Baba allowed him to keep memos and write Sai Sat Charitra – his life history.

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 (Guru for the whole world) 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.

Other religions

Sai Baba is considered a Pir by some Sufi groups. Meher Baba declared Baba to be a Qutub-e-Irshad - the highest of the five Qutubs, "Master of the Universe". 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.