In 1872 a 16-year-old lad wandered into the remote village of Shirdi in India. He sat under a Neem tree and slept on the bare floor, not mixing with anybody or saying much. Most days he sat quietly under the tree and ate food provided by few kind villagers. He stayed around for a few weeks and then wandered away.
After some time he reappeared. This time he went to the local temple with the intention to stay there, but was shooed away by the priest. Since his mannerisms resembled a Muslim, the priest asked him to go to the mosque, which he did. Besides food the only other thing he needed was oil for a lamp. He would visit the local stores to beg for oil.
“Here comes the crazy fakir!” The shopkeepers said when they saw him coming towards them. “Lets have some fun with him today. Lets all refuse him oil today and see what he does!”
When the lad appeared all the shopkeepers refused him oil. Without much complaining the lad turned around and returned to the mosque. The shopkeepers decided to follow him out of curiosity. To their amazement he proceeded to fill his lamp with water and light it up as if it had oil!
The sight of water burning as oil wiped away the smirks from the faces of the shopkeepers. They begged him for forgiveness and never again refused him the oil he needed for his lamps!
This was the beginning of the legend of Sai Baba. Nobody knew who this lad was and what his name was, but from now on he would be known as Sai Baba. The word “Sai” is a term of Persian origin and means “Saint” and “Baba” is a term of endearment and respect that means “Father”.
Sai Baba rarely spoke about himself. But slowly it emerged that he had been born to a Hindu Brahmin family in a southern state of India. He was orphaned at an early age and adopted by a Muslim fakir. This is where he picked up his mannerisms. After a few years the fakir died and he joined a Hindu Guru. Sai Baba spoke highly about this Guru, but all we know about him is that he went by the name of “Venkusa”. It later became clear why he had chosen Shirdi to be the place of his residence. One day he asked one of his devotees to dig near the Neem tree where he used to sit when he first came to Shirdi. A grave was found there, and Sai Baba claimed that it was the grave of his guru in his previous life!
When Sai Baba appeared in Shirdi he was already a highly realized saint. But even by standards of Indian saints where eccentricity is normal, Sai Baba was far out there. He spoke cryptically and metaphorically. He did not espouse any metaphysical theories or methods to follow. He was the rare saint who attracted both Hindus and Muslims but insisted that each follow their own religion and there was no need for anybody to convert from one religion to another. He had quite a temper and was not averse to show it.
There are two more unique things about Sai Baba. One was that unlike most realized saints, he asked money from his disciples. Though this was largely symbolic his asking of money was very unusual. Most saints in India stay away from money. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa would not even touch money as he felt a burning sensation when he touched it. However Sai Baba had no such qualms. He viewed the giving of money by his disciples to him as a symbol of submission. Sai Baba never kept the money he collected. By sunset most of the money would be distributed to the needy. Sai Baba himself never changed and he begged daily for his food. When he died he had just enough money to cover the cost of his funeral expenses although by then vast sums of money were being sent to him by his rich devotees from big cities like Mumbai.
The other unusual thing about Sai Baba was that he was not shy about performing miracles. From ancient times Indian saints have been prohibited from demonstrating miracles arising from Yogic Siddhi powers. Lord Buddha went so far as to de-frock a monk who had a habit of performing showy miracles. But this was not the case with Sai Baba. He performed miracles with the exuberance of a child. With Sai Baba the extraordinary was the ordinary. The flow of miracles that started the day Sai Baba lit the lamp with water instead of oil, have never stopped since. Even his passing in 1918 has done nothing to stem the flow of extraordinary stories of miracles from his devotees. This has made Sai Baba into an extraordinary spiritual figure in India. His fame has spread and you will find his devotees in remote villages and big cities in all corners of the country.
Why did Sai Baba perform his miracles? His answer was simple, “I give people what they want, in the hope that they will begin to want what I want to give them.” For Sai Baba the demonstration of miraculous power to a devotee was a way to open the door that would lead to the movement away from the material towards the spiritual. He told his devotees, “Stay still and I will do the rest.” He wanted his devotees to lead a pure and humble life so that he could slowly work on them from the inside and lift them up spiritually. Working the miracles and asking for money was his way of making sure that his devotees had full faith in him and were able to receive his grace.
A lady by the name Radnabai Deshmukhin was an ardent devotee of Sai Baba. She repeatedly asked him for a method or mantra by which she could make spiritual progress, but Sai Baba refused. One day she started a hunger strike to force Sai Baba. On the fourth day of her fast Sai Baba sent for her. He told her that this was not his method and he worked silently on his disciples to foster an inner awakening. This was what his guru had taught him and he was continuing the same.
Y. J. Galwankar reports, “Sai Baba once placed his hands over my head and it had an extraordinary effect on me. I forgot my surroundings and myself and passed into an ecstatic condition. After this experience I began to pay more attention to the spiritual side of my life. Then in 1932 (14 years after passing away of Sai Baba) Baba appeared in my dream and asked what I wanted. I replied that I wanted Divine Love. Baba blessed me and disappeared. Ever since I have had spells of Divine Love gush through me when I meditate or sometimes even when I am reading or doing something else.”
Sai Baba discouraged his devotees from renouncing the world and going forth as mendicants or monks. He wanted his devotees to develop inwardly through the medium of family life.
Much what Sai Baba did was symbolic. Once he asked a devotee for four Rupees. On receiving it he told him that he got only one. The devotee confessed that he did not understand, and Sai Baba assured him he would later. Some time later when the same man was traveling by train a young fakir approached and begged for alms. He gave him one coin but the fakir asked him for four. When he gave him four coins the fakir told him that he got only one and went away. The same theme repeated many days later with another wandering ascetic. The ascetic asked him for four coins and when given these he told him that he got only one. Finally the symbolism dawned on him. Sai Baba was appearing to him in various forms and asking him to submit his four aspects of consciousness to him: Manas (Mind), Buddhi (Intuitive Intellect), Chitta (Awareness), and Ahmkara (Ego). But his surrender was not complete, it was at the superficial mental level only.
Christ once said, “In as much as you do it to one of the least of these, you also do it to me.” Sai Baba did not say the same words but he did so by actions. A lady one day invited him for food and he consented. She prepared special dishes with love, devotion, and skill. But when everything was ready a dog appeared and seemed to make his way towards the food. The lady immediately shooed him away. It so happened that Sai Baba was approaching at the same time and the lady invited him in. Sai Baba immediately said, “No, you drove me away when I wanted it. Now I don’t want it.” He then turned and walked away.
Sai Baba begged for his food. The food he collected would be kept in pots that he kept outside the mosque where he lived. The low caste sweeper lady would help herself and so would other hungry and poor people. It was not unusual for stray dogs to feed themselves from these pots. Once everybody had their fill, only then Sai Baba would eat.
One day when Madhava Bua was sitting with Sai Baba a question occurred to him. Even before he had a chance to verbalize the question Sai Baba sent him to Dixit who happened to be reading scripture. At the very moment Madhava Bua appeared he was reading a passage that contained the explanation he sought. Many others repeated this story. When they had a question that was troubling them, Sai Baba would send them off to meet somebody. They would arrive just at the moment when the other person was either reading or discussing the answer to this question.
When Sai Baba did answer questions his replies would be either symbolic or cryptic. One day a photographer approached him with a request to take a picture. The answer? “No he may not take a photograph. It is enough that he knocks the walls down!” The bewildered photographer did not know what to make of this till somebody explained: The wall was the idea that “I am the body”. Sai Baba was asking him to give up the notion that the external form was important. Once he tore down this false idea, the inner Spirit would be visible and he would be able to see the true likeness of Sai Baba and take a worthy picture.
Sai Baba passed away in 1918 but in 1886 he had a practice run. He told Mahalsapathy, an early devotee, “I am going to Allah. Take care of this body for three days. If I return I will take care of it myself. If not bury it in the open space over there and put up two posts to mark the place.” Soon his breathing and circulation stopped and his heart stopped beating. The word spread and an inquest was held by Civil authorities and he was pronounced dead. Mahalsapathy was ordered to either cremate or bury the body in accordance with the law that a body not be kept longer than 24 hours. But he refused. On the third day breathing was seen to resume and the abdomen was seen to move. Then Sai Baba opened his eyes and returned to life.
By 1900 his fame had begun to spread and there was an endless stream of visitors. From 1910 onwards the stream turned into a torrent and his health began to deteriorate. He suffered from Asthma and other ailments. It is said that he frequently took on his devotee’s illness or bad karma and suffered as a result. Then in 1918 he knew the end was near and he sent word to another Muslim saint, “The light that Allah lit, he is taking away.” When the saint heard these words he had tears in his eyes.
A few months later Sai Baba became very sick but few realized that this would be his final illness. He sent most of his devotees away and then he asked to be propped up. As he leaned against one devotee he told him the final words, “I am going. Please carry me to the courtyard.” With these words he breathed his last. He was buried in the courtyard that he had asked to be carried to. The flame that Sai Baba had always kept lit in the mosque is still kept burning to this day.
Credits:This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah. This is based on the book “The Incredible Sai Baba” by Arthur Osborne. Arthur Osborne was a disciple of the sage Ramana Maharshi and he wrote a biography on the life of the sage that made Ramana Maharshi world famous.
You may also like: The Story Of Ramana Maharshi: Reaching Home