The great Maharastrian saint whose austere, miracle-filled life changed all who came in contact with him is attracting an ever-growing devoted following today
In 1855 a young boy thought to be 16 years old arrived in the town of Shirdi. According to the traditional account of his life, Shri Sai Satcharitra, he was an ascetic. He took up residence under a neem tree, meditated almost continuously and remained for three years before leaving as unexpectedly as he arrived. He returned again in 1858 and remained in Shirdi for the rest of his life. The villagers called him Sai Baba, but the holy man was of unknown origin and even religion—he dressed like a Sufi, but his teachings were more Hindu than anything else. During his lifetime, he gained a local following among Hindus and Muslims.
Today those who worship him number in the millions, and the Shirdi temple’s income is second only to Tirupati. He has hundreds more temples not only in India but in the UK, Malaysia, Germany, France and the US. Shrines for the saint have been installed for worship both in Vaishnavite and Saivite temples in India and elsewhere. There is no worldwide or even India-wide organization of devotees driving any of this—it is all at the inspiration of local devotees.
Hinduism Today’s editors have long been aware of Shirdi Sai Baba’s popularity, and last year personally encountered the movement at the Sri Siddhi Vinayaka Cultural Center in Sacramento, California. It was a Thursday evening, and dozens of devotees had gathered for bhajan, worship, arati and prasadam before a life-sized statue of the saint that had been installed in this small Ganesha temple. The experience of this devotional evening inspired us to look further into the life and present-day worship of this saint whose popularity is on the rise.
There are two main biographies of Shirdi Sai Baba. The most influential is the Shri Sai Satcharitra, written in Marathi in 1916 by one of Baba’s devotees, Shri Hemand Pant Dabholkar, then adapted and translated into English by N. V. Gunaji in 1944. Also important are the writings of B.V. Narasimhaswami of Tamil Nadu. He popularized the saint in South India, and between the 1940s and 1960s held yearly conferences on Shirdi Sai Baba.
According to the Sai Satcharitra, the young Sai Baba led an ascetic life, stayed aloof from the people, and meditated under a neem tree day and night. When he returned in 1858, he took on his now famous dress of a one-piece kafni robe and cloth cap, both normally associated with Muslims, and interacted more with the local people, some of whom considered him mad. Those who came to revere him convinced the sadhu to move into an abandoned mosque. He continued to live on alms and, in the manner of Hindu sadhus, kept a constantly burning dhuni, or sacred fire. He would give ash to devotees from this fire for use in healing. That fire still burns today in Shirdi. From 1910, his popularity spread outside Shirdi to Mumbai, and many people started to visit him.
He was known for performing miracles, including lighting lamps fueled with water, restoring a blind man’s sight and having the wounds of another’s beating appear on his own body. He observed both Muslim and Hindu forms of worship, and taught the importance of charity, devotion, the guru and the dangers of atheism.
Devotees often cite eleven sayings of Sai Baba which include: “No harm shall befall him who steps on the soil of Shirdi;” “Trust in me and your prayer shall be answered;” “My mortal remains will speak from my tomb;” “Those who see my advice or help will immediately receive my answers;” and “There will be no dearth of anything in the houses of my devotees.” An impressive collection of the saint’s photos and sayings is the 200-page coffee-table book, Shirdi Sai (available from email@example.com).
Among his prominent disciples was Upasni Maharaj who in turn was the teacher of Meher Baba. Meher Baba was born in a Zoroastraian family and became quite popular in the West from the 1930s onward. He was one of the early Indian teachers to achieve fame in the West. It is an unusual connection of Shirdi Sai Baba to the import of Eastern mysticism to the West, as Sai is otherwise not well known outside the Indian community.
The popularity of Shirdi Sai Baba has grown in two separate movements. About 75 percent are direct followers of Shirdi Sai Baba and 25 percent of Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparti. The latter knew Narasimhaswami in the early 1940s, declared himself the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and became quite widely followed. At any individual temple or shrine to Shirdi Sai Baba, one or the other of these groups tends to predominate. The main temple in Shirdi itself is solely in the hands of direct followers, although in 2004 its management was taken over by the state government of Maharasthra on account of issues with institutional responsibility. It is the only government-run Shirdi Sai Baba temple.
Where the groups connect is in the ever-growing popularity of the saint. Satya Sai Baba was instrumental in the making of the 1977 Bollywood film, “Shirdi Ke Sai Baba,” starring Sudhir Dalvi. According to Sekhar Boddupalli of California, it was this film that launched Shirdi Sai Baba’s present-day popularity. The film is a dramatic account of the saint’s life, including numerous miracles. Since then, eleven films have been made on him, the latest in 2012.
Excerpts from the movie’s Wikipedia entry give some sense of the movie: “He showed Ganpat Rao that he is one with Vithoba and Bhagwan Shri Krishna; he demonstrated to Som Dev that he is one with Bhagwan Shri Shiv; former jailbird Heera regained his eyesight with Sai’s blessing. During all of these miracles, Sai went door to door begging for alms and food. The legend grew, people flocked all over to witness this new Messiah, one whom the Muslims called Allah Sai, Christians Jesus Sai, Sikhs Nanak Sai, and Hindus Bhola Sai. He always blessed Hindus with Allah Malik (Allah bless you) and Muslims with Ram Ram.”
The Main Temple at Shirdi
It is for boons that most devotees come to Shirdi, and there are many stories of those boons being granted. The saint himself promised, “He who comes to my samadhi, his sorrow and suffering shall cease.” Faith in real world miracle is a major factor in the Shirdi temple’s great wealth, which has included gifts of millions of dollars at a time and allowed the temple to develop huge facilities for pilgrims and large philanthropic projects. More than half the temple’s income goes to such work.
The 2,100-square-foot main temple is called the Samadhi Mandir. Its central hall, with pillars and arches encased in gold, can hold about 600 people at a time in front of the statue and burial crypt of the saint. The area around the central hall displays artifacts from his lifetime, such as his shoes, cooking pot, grinding wheels and some garments.
Worship here follows the standard pattern of a Hindu temple, with morning arati at 4:30 and abhishekam or bath at 5:05. From 5:40 am the temple is open to devotees. There are various other ceremonies through the day, until at 11 pm the saint’s statue is wrapped in a shawl, a mosquito net is lowered around it and he is considered at rest till morning. In addition to visiting the temple itself, devotees pay their respects at various places around town associated with Shirdi Sai Baba’s life, such as the neem tree where he first meditated long hours upon his arrival in the village.
Harun Trikha wrote of his experience upon entering the temple, “The walls of the Shirdi sanctorum were resounding with the chant of ‘Om Sai, Om Sai, Jaya, Jaya Sai.’ My eyes took in scores of devotees giving vent to their emotions in sync with the raising of their arms, their eyes shining with tears. Others had their eyes tightly shut, their faces ecstatic with bliss, unquestioning faith and devotion. A magnificent aura of the saint’s spiritual power permeated the atmosphere.”
Temples in India and Worldwide
India today has many independent temples to Shirdi Sai Baba. In Delhi itself there is the Shirdi Sai Baba temple at Lodhi Road, founded in 1968, and the Sai Pragyadham, founded by Mahamandaleshwar Swami Pragyanand in 1994. Swamiji first visited Shirdi town in 1970, and it was upon forming an inner connection with the saint that he left his teaching post at a university and took sannyas.
Swamiji estimates there are 100,000 temples large and small to Shirdi Sai Baba in India. Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh alone has four hundred; Delhi has 15 large temples and many small ones. Outside of India, Swami estimates 80 percent of the temples have installed the saint’s statue at the request of devotees. He believes that 98 percent of Shirdi Sai Baba‘s devotees are Hindus.
Asked the secret of the saint’s popularity, Swami Pragyanand replied frankly, “It is very plain and simple: you ask him anything and Baba grants it to you. There are many stories of people saved from illness, blessed with children and wealth. His life was full of miracles. Clearly people get associated with him because they got something from him.”
In Wimbledon, London, the Sai Mandir inside the Shree Ghanapathy Temple was opened in 1981 as a place for devotees of Satya Sai Baba to congregate. At a recent gathering there, our contacts inform us, about 200 people were present, ranging in age from young to old. There was bhajan, recitation of Gayatri Mantra 108 times, arati to both Satya Sai Baba and Shirdi Sai Baba and prasadam served to all.
Several organizations have established dedicated Shirdi Sai temples in England, including Shri Dam in Nottingham and the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple in Leicester. There are individual shrines for the saint in the New Malden Murugan Temple, the Shree Venkateswaran Temple and others.
The worship of a statue of Shirdi Sai Baba installed in a consecrated Hindu temple has attracted some criticism, most notably by the Shankaracharya of Dwarka in 2014 when he stated the saint “should not be worshiped with Hindu Gods” in temples. A court case followed, as did further critical remarks by the Shankaracharya on the saint. The following year he submitted a formal apology, and the case was dropped.
We asked the opinion of Dr. S. P. Sabharathnam Sivacharyar, an expert in Saiva Agama whose translations are featured in each issue of Hinduism Today. In his view, a separate temple may be built for any saint, ancient or recent. But the statue of a saint can be installed in a Siva Temple only if he or she was of the Saivite lineage and long recognized as a great religious leader. The recommended time is a thousand years, but he allowed that a saint of widespread celebrity could be installed sooner. The proper location in the temple for the statue would be in the southern or northern side of the second outer walkway around the central sanctum. He was also of the view that a non-Saivite saint should not be installed in a temple where Agama-based Siva Lingam worship is performed.
Hinduism Today spoke with Vishal Khanna, who maintains a popular shrine to Shirdi Sai Baba in his Mississauga home. He said the saint’s statue has been installed in ten temples in Ontario. Vishal explained, “He is boon giving. Here in Canada devotees have been blessed with children and cured of cancer. The goal of worshiping Shirdi Sai Baba is to be a good human being. You can get moksha by just chanting ‘Sai, Sai’ if you can come out from your desires for family, wealth and fame.”
After visiting the Sacramento temple, we spoke with Sekhar Boddupalli, who had inspired the local group there. As a child he had attended a Shirdi Sai Baba temple in his home town in Andhra Pradesh. At the time, he said, hardly anyone went. Today, the whole street is closed for the Thursday night worship. Sekhar left India 30 years ago and is now an executive in a biotech company.
Asked about the worship of the saint in temples, Shekhar pointed out, “At one point in history, even Krishna was a human being, but He ultimately became an object of worship.” Shekhar offered a simple explanation for the installation of the saint in existing temples: “It is the temple committees who want the statues, because they want the devotees.”
“To me,” Shekhar confided, “Shirdi Sai Baba doesn’t belong to Hinduism; in fact, he doesn’t belong to any ‘ism.’ His focus was on harmony in the life of his devotees.” Part of his appeal today, Shekhar went on, is that “his devotees do not feel bound by the tradition that only the priests go near the statue. Many of the temples in the US don’t even have priests; the devotees do everything. It is like a socialist Hindu God, an open-access God, independent of caste, creed or gender.”