Sharada (name changed), an ardent devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, was seated in the office of Mohan Yadav, the Public Relations Officer of Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust in Shirdi. She began telling Yadav about how Sai Baba had showered all kinds of riches on her and how much she was indebted to him. She was eager to make a donation of Rs 15 lakh to the Sai Baba Super Speciality Hospital. In the midst of this, an old gentleman was ushered into the office.
He had one request—to be compensated the Rs 13,000 he had lost during his travel and to spend the rest of his life in Shirdi, serving people. Yadav told him the Sansthan could give him work, but no money. As the old man began pleading his case, Sharada counted out crisp Rs 500 notes totalling Rs 13,000 and handed it over to the old man, who was overcome with joy. For Sharada, it was a test of her not being overly attached to mammon. Sai Baba’s ways are inscrutable indeed. The love and devotion people have towards the humble saint is evident in the proliferation of Sai Baba temples across India and the world.
More than a century and a half ago in the village of Shirdi in Maharashtra, Sai Baba walked the earth. On account of Sai, Shirdi—just a dot on India’s map—has grown in influence as a religious and spiritual centre. Sai Baba left his mortal coil on October 15, 1918, and all through this year and next year till his samadhi anniversary, Shirdi will commemorate its loved saint and his reincarnation as god.
Dr Suresh Haware, nuclear scientist, politician and businessman, who took over as chairman of the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust last August, talks of the Sai Movement, spread across the length and breadth of the world. “There are 8,500 Sai Baba temples in 47 countries. Last year, we organised the Global Sai Temple Summit wherein we invited trustees of all Sai temples with 4,500 people participating. The idea was to chalk out a common plan for all Sai Baba temples. More than a religious movement, it’s a social movement, for Sai Baba’s focus was on community service. This year we’ll repeat the summit, in which 8,000 people are expected,” says the man of science.
The year-long centenary celebrations, which have already started, include blood donation camps, talks by religious experts, tree plantation drives, international marathons, etc. “We’ll be starting a wax museum, which will have statues of saints from all over India as well as national leaders, with an iPad and headphones attached to each. A state-of-the-art planetarium with a seating capacity of 200 is also on the cards,” says Haware, who believes that spirituality is the launch pad for progress.
During his lifetime, Sai Baba lived the life of a fakir. And in an interesting paradox, the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust is one of the richest in India, second only to the Lord Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati. ‘Annadan’ or offering food was very dear to Baba, and often he would cook in a large utensil to serve everyone present. As if in obeisance to Baba, the trust has built what is billed to be Asia’s largest Prasadalaya (dining hall), which can seat 5,500 people simultaneously, where food is served free of cost. A mammoth figure of Baba stirring a huge pot is mounted atop the building.
The second triumph of the Trust is the Shri Sai Baba Super Speciality Hospital in Shirdi, built in 2006. Ganesh Deshmukh, who is here from Osmanabad in Maharashtra for his father’s heart surgery, believes that the “big doctor”, Sai Baba, will take care of everything. Dr Vijay Narode, acting medical director who has been with the hospital since its inception, says the treatment afforded in the 244-bed hospital is on par with international standards. “Patients come here for treatment of heart-related ailments and joint placements. Through the Rajiv Gandhi Jeevandayee Arogya Yojana (RGJAY) Health Scheme, cardiac surgeries are performed free of cost.
Ten per cent of beds are reserved for indigent persons,” he says.
While the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust is involved in social and community initiatives, thousands of other organisations across the country are promoting the message and ideals of Sai Baba. Shri Sai Trust and Shirdi Sai Trust in Chennai, started by entrepreneur philanthropist and Baba devotee K V Ramani, have helped construct 450 Sai Baba temples. “We evaluate every proposal and for many temples, we provide Sai idols. The temples are a means to help discharge service such as annadan, education and medical assistance for the needy. Through our scholarship programmes, we have targeted 3,000 children from low income groups. For critical healthcare such as heart and kidney problem, cataract, we have tied up with hospitals. Free lunch and dinner is provided for 10,000 people daily,” says Ramani. The trust doesn’t accept donations in cash or kind.
Some 40-odd km away from Chennai on the scenic East Coast Road, the trust houses a beautiful Sai Baba temple. “I wanted to build a small meditation hall here for me and my family, but the building sketches started getting bigger and bigger, and I knew then that Baba wanted a different outcome,” smiles Ramani. Simplicity is the only adornment in the temple with no hundis for cash offerings with Baba’s tenets, ‘Shraddha’ (devotion) and ‘Saburi’ (patience), gracing the pillars. “People come here for worship and meditation, the temple is strictly a ‘no money’ place. Baba here wears a simple dress with no crown or other paraphernalia. After all, Baba arrived like a fakir in Shirdi,” reasons Ramani. In the morning and afternoon, there is Vedic chanting, while between 4 and 5 pm, there are recitations from the Koran. Ramani’s philanthropy reached a crescendo when he donated `110 crore towards the building of Sai Ashram in Shirdi, which can house 14,000 people. The trust has also been contributing money regularly for other charitable causes in Shirdi
Another such charitable organisation is the Shri Martand Mhalsapati Maharaj in Shirdi. Mhalsapati was one of Baba’s closest and dearest devotees; it was him who addressed Baba as “Aao Sai” when he alighted at the Khandoba Temple. From then, the fakir took on the name of Sai Baba. Roughly 35 km away from Shirdi at Vadi, the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust runs an ashram. “When Baba’s palki (palanquin) is taken out in December and during Ram Navami, devotees accompanying it are provided accommodation and food. We do annadan as well,” says Ajay Nagare, Mhalsapati’s great grandson.
Many are not aware of Sai Baba’s connect to the Khandoba Temple. It is customary that devotees should first offer worship to the Khandoba deity and then proceed to the Sai Temple. “Probably only those who have read the Sai Satcharita know,” says Nagare. He recalls that Baba had once asked Mhalsapati, “Will you be able to fill your stomach only by resorting to being a goldsmith?” causing him to switch businesses.
Baba adhered to no religion, he respected all faiths and preached harmony and brotherhood. In one of the first movies on him, Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977), a dialogue goes, ‘Kaun hai ye Baba jo Mussalman ko Ram Ram aur Hinduyon ko Allah Malik kehta hai” (who is this Baba who greets Hindus with an ‘Allah Malik’ and Muslims with ‘Ram Ram’?). The question whether Baba was a Hindu or Muslim has dogged everybody with no answers till now. “That matter is confidential,” chuckles Salim, the great grandson of Abdul Baba, Baba’s closest devotee. On seeing the dark-skinned Abdul arrive with mangoes from Nanded to Shirdi, Baba remarked, “Mera kauva aa gaya” (my crow has come). Abdul stayed on in Shirdi. After Sai Baba’s passing away, Abdul Baba used to clean the samadhi, offer flowers and perform service. “This is a ritual we practice even today. Every morning at around 9.45, my father and I, including members from our family, offer flowers at Baba’s samadhi,” says Salim.
During his lifetime, Baba cured hundreds of people from innumerable ailments, sometimes just with a look, with a touch or by distributing udi (sacred ash) as prasad. The underlying significance of the udi was to remind devotees that the visible phenomena in the universe, including the body, are as transient as the ash. The udi also bestowed material gains. Its power was felt by Chennai-based L Ramesh, a government official, who was diagnosed with cancer in the spine. He showed the medical records to Sharada, who asked him to go to Shirdi and worship Baba. “Doctors advised me not to move out of the house but I went to Shirdi all the same. The moment I landed there, the pain vanished. Sharada told me that there is no cancer in the body, but on the persistence of the family and doctors, I am undergoing chemotherapy. Although a bit weak, I can walk and am even going to office,” shares the 47-year-old and father of two.
Another person who came into Baba’s fold courtesy a serious illness is Shubashree, a history lecturer and research scholar from Periyar University in Salem. A numerologist and distance healer, Shubashree also practices deep meditation. “In 2008, my jaundice had taken a turn for the worst and I was at death’s door. After a year-and-a-half of treatment, I was dejected while awaiting the results of the scan when a young couple came towards me. The lady asked me why I was so stressed, and when I told her, she gave me a photograph of Sai Baba and asked me to pray to him. At that time, I did not know who Baba was or where Shirdi was. All the same, I prayed to him fervently and said that if he was a true god, he would save me and make me alright. The scan results proved the doctors wrong. Baba gave me a rebirth,” says the 33-year-old scholar. She is now doing a PhD on Sai Baba.
Sixty-year-old Elumalai had a different experience. When his wife Saroja, a Baba devotee, was operated the second time for a brain tumour, he was shattered. He was surprised when he got a call from a person representing a popular store in Chennai asking about how the operation went and that he knew it would be a success as Baba had ordained it. Similarly, a colleague whom he didn’t was a Baba devotee said his wife would be fine. A year after the operation, his wife passed away, but wherever Elumalai went after that, Baba seemed to precede him. “It was as if Baba’s grace was following him everywhere courtesy his wife and that he should remember Baba,” says Elumalai.
There are as many believers as there are nonbelievers. And Baba pulls them all to him. Deepika, her mother and two friends from Pune kneel and pray inside Dwarkamai, where Baba lived in Shirdi. All of them are visiting Shirdi for the first time. Deepika, who lives in the UAE, had asked her wheelchair-bound mother in Bengaluru what she wanted for her birthday, to which she said she wanted to visit Shirdi. “My father was an atheist and I am agnostic, only mom is a believer. As I pray before Baba, I am warring within myself; my intellect will not let me believe in Sai, whereas my heart tells me otherwise. For my mom, it’s been a wonderful experience to be near Sai Baba,” says Deepika, an advertising professional.
Koteshwar Subba Rao, who worked with fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani 12 years ago, is a firm believer. Rao’s wife was told that she would never be able to conceive. The couple, who were devotees of Sai, prayed in Shirdi. In time, they were blessed with two children. “The first girl we named Sai, the second Pooja; that was our Sai Pooja,” says Rao. How has Baba changed Rao? “I should do good at least once a day,” says the 45-year-old.
Middle-aged couple Biswanath Das and Sunanda Das have come all the way from Bhubaneswar to Shirdi, traversing 1,500 km to pay their respects to Baba. Seated within the temple precincts, there’s a faraway look in the husband’s face while wife Sunanda talks softly to him. This is not their first visit; they have been coming here for the last seven years. The calling just came to them one day, admit the couple who have also chalked up the char dhams and the 12 jyotirlings. They have never asked Baba for anything, “Even if I were to ask him for `11,000 crore, he will give me. It’s not as if he does not know what is happening in our lives. Even now we are facing problems and Baba is helping us,” says Biswanath. “Baba is seva ki murti (service personified), there’s a lesson in that.”
For Sudha Umashanker, who has always been wary of godmen, it was not love at first sight. “It was only after I began reading some more about him that I began to develop faith in him. Recently, I read the Sai Satcharita, and found it to be a manual for life,” says the journalist, writer and storyteller. To celebrate the 100th year of his mahasamadhi, Sudha used the material from the Satcharita for her storytelling outfit Storycorner At Bookmine. “The Satcharita lends itself very well to storytelling. Baba also used a lot of stories in his teachings, especially when he wanted to draw his devotees’ attention to something,” says Sudha who came into contact with Baba around five years ago. Her mission is to revisit whatever he taught. “In these trying times of religious disharmony, Baba’s oft-repeated phrase comes to mind: ‘Sabka malik ek’ (One god governs all),” says the 62-year-old.
The Divine Journey
Sai Baba of Shirdi was a saint, regarded as an incarnation of god. He is popularly known as Jagrut Dev (Living God). He first appeared in Shirdi when he was 16 years old, doing hard penance and meditating under a neem tree. His presence attracted the curiosity of the villagers. Some thought he was mad and threw stones at him, following which he left the village. He returned many years later in 1858 with devotee Chand Patil’s wedding party, which camped near the Khandoba Temple in Shirdi, whereupon the temple priest Mhalsapati welcomed him saying “Aao, Sai”. The name stuck. He wore a knee-length one-piece Kafni robe and a cloth cap. The Sai Baba movement began in the 19th century, while he was living in Shirdi.
He performed many miracles such as bilocation, levitation, mindreading, materialisation, exorcisms, entering a state of samadhi at will, lighting lamps with water, removing his limbs or intestines and sticking them back to his body (Khandana yoga), curing the incurably sick, appearing beaten when another was beaten, preventing a mosque from falling down on people, and helping his devotees in other miraculous ways. He also gave darshan to people in the form of Sri Rama, Krishna, Vithoba, Shiva and many other gods depending on the faith of devotees.
Nobody knows whether Baba was a Hindu or a Muslim. He practised both Hindu and Muslim rituals, proclaiming “Sabka malik ek” (one god governs all). He led a simple life, living in a mosque he called Dwarkamayi. During his lifetime, he performed numerous miracles and was regarded as a healer of maladies. He used to constantly test his devotees and many a lesson was learnt in that. He preached universal brotherhood and condemned persecution based on religion and caste, holding up two virtues always—shraddha (faith) and saburi (patience). He left behind no spiritual heirs, only a legion of devotees who spread his name far and wide. Today, there are Sai Baba temples all over the world. He breathed his last on October 15, 1918. His body is interred in the Sathe Wada, also known as the Samadhi Mandir.
miracles of faith
L Ramesh, a government employee in Chennai, was diagnosed with cancer in the spine. His friend, a devotee, recommended he visit Shirdi and pray to Sai Baba. Immediately on reaching Shirdi, the
47-year-old’s pain disappeared.
Research scholar Shubashree, who is pursuing her Ph.D on Shirdi Sai Baba at Periyar University in Salem, had severe jaundice. Doctors had little hope for her. A lady at a hospital gave her a picture of Sai Baba and asked her to pray to him. She did, and the jaundice disappeared.
Sharada (name changed) was 13 when her father, a college professor, passed away, putting the family in dire financial constraints. After her acquaintance with Shirdi Sai Baba, she became his ardent devotee. Through the years, Baba has rained riches on her, both material and spiritual. Today, she runs a company with 200 people under her and considers herself a channel of Sai Baba.
Costume designer Koteshwar Subba Rao from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh was told his wife would not bear any children. The couple prayed to Baba in Shirdi. Their wishes were granted with the couple being blessed with two girls. They named them Sai and Pooja.
Shaikh, who works for a government firm in Chennai, was disappointed when his son didn’t get admission to a US university. He prayed to Sai Baba, and soon he got into one of the best US universities.
He named his son Sai Shamoor.
One of the social initiatives launched is daily blood donation camps. Later, the donors will be given free Samadhi darshan through the year.
Religious experts will conduct talks
The Runbuddies Club of Pune with the Sai Baba Sansthan is organising an international marathon on October 15
A wax museum with statues of all saints and national leaders is also on the cards, as is a state-of-the-art 200-seater planetarium
“There are some 8,500 Sai Baba temples spread across 47 countries. Last year, we had organised the Global Sai Temple Summit wherein we had invited the trustees of Sai temples all over the world with 4,500 people participating. The idea was to chalk out a common plan for all Sai Baba temples. More than a religious movement, it’s a social movement for Sai Baba’s focus was on community service. This year too we will have a repeat of the summit.”
Dr Suresh Haware Chairman, Shri Sai Baba Sansthan Trust