Sai Baba of Shirdi (unknown – 15 October 1918), also known as Shirdi Sai Baba, was a spiritual master who was and is regarded by his devotees as a saint, fakir, avatar (an incarnation of God), or sadguru, according to their individual proclivities and beliefs. He was revered by both his Muslim and Hindu devotees, and during, as well as after, his life on earth it remained uncertain if he was a Muslim or Hindu himself. This however was of no consequence to Sai Baba himself. Sai Baba stressed the importance of surrender to the guidance of the true Sadguru or Murshad, who, having gone the path to divine consciousness himself, will lead the disciple through the jungle of spiritual training.
Sai Baba remains a very popular saint, especially in India, and is worshiped by people around the world. He had no love for perishable things and his sole concern was self-realization. He taught a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, and devotion to God and guru. He gave no distinction based on religion or caste. Sai Baba’s teaching combined elements of Hinduism and Islam: he gave the Hindu name Dwarakamayi to the mosque he lived in, practised Muslim rituals, taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions, and was buried in Shirdi. One of his well known epigrams, “Sabka Malik Ek” (“One God governs all”), is associated with Islam and Sufism. He also said, “Trust in me and your prayer shall be answered”. He always uttered “Allah Malik” (“God is King”).
No verifiable information is given regarding Sai Baba’s real name, place or time of birth. When asked about his past, he often gave elusive responses. The name “Sai” was given to him upon his arrival at Shirdi, a town in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. Mahalsapati, a local temple priest, recognised him as a Muslim saint and greeted him with the words ‘Ya Sai!’, meaning ‘Welcome Sai!’. Sai or Sayi is a Persian title given to Sufi saints, meaning ‘poor one’ and in Banjara language, “sayi” means good one. The honorific “Baba” means “father; grandfather; old man; sir” in most Indian and Middle Eastern languages. Thus Sai Baba denotes “holy father”, “saintly father” or “poor old man”.
Historians and devotees agree that there is no reliable evidence for a particular birthplace or date of birth. Communities have claimed that he belongs to them, but nothing has been substantiated. It is known that he spent considerable periods with Muslim fakirs, and his attire resembled that of a fakir. He did not discriminate based on religion and respected all forms of worship to God.
Little has been officially documented on the early life of Shirdi Sai Baba. An account of Shirdi Sai’s missing childhood years has been reconstructed by his disciple Das Ganu, after researching in the area around the village of Pathri. He collected this story in four chapters on Sai Baba, later also called the Sai Gurucharitra. Das Ganu states that Sai Baba grew up in Pathri, with a fakir and his wife. At the age of five, says Das Ganu, the fakir’s wife put him in the care of the saintly desmukh Venkusha, where the boy stayed several years. Dasganu calls the young Sai Baba the reincarnation of Kabir. Because Das Ganu was known to take poetic liberties when telling stories about Sai Baba, and as there are no other sources to corroborate this story, it usually is left out of biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Sai Baba’s biographer Narasimha Swamiji claims that Sai Baba was born as the child of Brahmin parents:
“On one momentous occasion, very late in his life, he revealed to Mhalsapathy the interesting fact that his parents were Brahmins of Patri in the Nizam’s State. Patri is part of Parvani taluk, near Manwath. Sai Baba added, in explanation of the fact that he was living in a Mosque, that while still a tender child his Brahmin parents handed him over to the care of a fakir who brought him up. This is fairly indisputable testimony, as Mahlsapathy was a person of sterling character noted for his integrity, truthfulness and vairagya.” —Narasimha Swamiji, Life of Sai Baba.
According to the book Sai Satcharita, Sai Baba arrived at the village of Shirdi in the Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra, British India, when he was about 16 years old. He led an ascetic life, sitting motionless under a neem tree and meditating while sitting in an asana. The Shri 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 he was regularly visited by the religiously inclined, including Mahalsapati, Appa Jogle and Kashinatha. Some considered him mad and threw stones at him. Sai Baba left the village, and little is known about him after that. However, there are some indications that he met with many saints and fakirs, and worked as a weaver. He claimed to have been with the army of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. It is generally accepted that Sai Baba stayed in Shirdi for three years, disappeared for a year, and returned permanently around 1858, which suggests a birth year of 1838.
Return to Shirdi
In 1858 Sai Baba returned to Shirdi. Around this time he adopted his famous style of dress consisting of a knee-length one-piece Kafni robe and a cloth cap. Ramgir Bua, a devotee, testified that Sai Baba was dressed like an athlete and sported ‘long hair flowing down to the end of his spine’ when he arrived in Shirdi, and that he never had his head shaved. It was only after Baba forfeited a wrestling match with one Mohiddin Tamboli that he took up the kafni and cloth cap, articles of typical 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.
For four to five years Baba lived under a neem tree and often wandered for long periods in the jungle 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 gave sacred ashes (‘Udhi’) to his guests before they left. The ash was believed to have healing and apotropaic powers. He performed the function of a local hakim and treated the sick by application of ashes. Sai Baba also delivered spiritual teachings to his visitors, recommending the reading of sacred Hindu texts along with the Qur’an. He insisted on the indispensability of the unbroken remembrance of God’s name (dhikr, japa), and often expressed himself in a cryptic manner with the use of parables, symbols and allegories.
Sai Baba participated in religious festivals and was 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.
After 1910 Sai Baba’s fame began to spread in Mumbai. Numerous people started visiting him, because they regarded him as a saint with the power of performing miracles or even as an Avatar. They built his first temple at Bhivpuri, Karjat.
Teachings and Practices
Sai Baba opposed all persecution based on religion or caste. He was an opponent of religious orthodoxy – Christian, 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 to study texts such as the Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Vasistha. He was impressed by the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita and encouraged people to follow it in their own lives. He advised his devotees and followers to lead a moral life, help others, love every living being without any discrimination, and develop two important features of character: devotion to the Guru (Sraddha) and waiting cheerfully with patience and love (Saburi). He criticised atheism.
In his teachings, Sai Baba emphasised the importance of performing one’s duties without attachment to earthly matters and of being content regardless of the situation. 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 enjoyed listening to mawlid and qawwali accompanied with the tabla and sarangi twice daily.
Sai Baba interpreted the religious texts of both Islam and Hinduism. He explained the meaning of the Hindu scriptures in the spirit of Advaita Vedanta. His philosophy also had numerous elements of bhakti. The three main Hindu spiritual paths — Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga — influenced his teachings.
Sai Baba encouraged charity, and stressed the importance of sharing. 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 certainly be 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” and “He has no beginning… He has no end.”
- Sai Baba made eleven assurances to his devotees:
- No harm shall befall him, who steps on the soil of Shirdi.
- He who comes to my Samadhi, his sorrow and suffering shall cease.
- Though I be no more in flesh and blood, I shall ever protect my devotees.
- Trust in me and your prayer shall be answered.
- Know that my spirit is immortal, know this for yourself.
- Show unto me he who has sought refuge and has been turned away.
- In whatever faith men worship me, even so do I render to them.
- Not in vain is my promise that I shall ever lighten your burden.
- Knock, and the door shall open, ask and it shall be granted.
- To him who surrenders unto me totally I shall be ever indebted.
- Blessed is he who has become one with me.