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The Tribune, Chandigarth

About the other Sai Baba
by P. D. Shastri

Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism by Marianne Warren. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi. Pages 439. Rs 375.

Sai Baba of Shirdi (1838-1918), hailing from Maharashtra, was a great Muslim Sufi saint of the 19th century. His great teachings transcend faiths, countries and continents. Only the present Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi enjoys greater popularity and status as a global figure.

Sai Baba of Shirdi was every inch a Muslim. He read the Quran and taught his gospel to his chief disciple Abdul through the medium of the Quran. He offered namaz and lived in a mosque and when he died, he was buried in a grave. He talked of God as Allah.

Once he said to Abdul, “I am going to Allah for three days. You protect my ‘dead’ body for three days.” He returned after three days after meeting his Allah.

His disciple Abdul recorded every word that the Shirdi Baba spoke in his diary of 137 pages. That is his gospel. The last sentence there is, “There is no other God but Allah and Hazrat Muhammad is His messenger.”

The writer of this book is the first to translate Abdul’s diary into English and publish it in 137 paragraphs. It is a pioneering service.

Dr Marianne Warren, the author, was born in England, where she did her B.A. After that she emigrated to Canada where she took her Ph.D. degree from Toronto University; the subject of her dissertation was Sai Baba of Shirdi, on which the present book is based. She is at present professor at Toronto University.

Hers is then a unique work. She being a Christian and a Canadian is able to take a non-partisan view of the Shirdi Baba from her impartial height.

The books written by the Baba’s over-zealous disciplies often err on the side of excessive hero worship, making him much larger than life, while the books written by professionals and intellectuals seem at places too critical and seem to do less justice to this world figure.

This book running to 439 pages examines the Shirdi Baba from various angles — Sufism, Islamic mysticism, as a Muslim faqir, and also the Hindu following of the Shirdi Baba. Her researches are penetrating and comprehensive.

The Shirdi Baba cult is widespread in India and abroad. His temples are found in many cities, where his marble icons are worshipped by a large number of people. His pictures are kept in homes for good luck; some carry them in their purses for prosperity. The Shirdi Sai societies hold their meetings every week or even oftener throughout the year.

A large number of books and other literature has come up around his name; the author gives a bibliography running to 15 pages, followed by 10 pages of appendex. He is truly a grand phenomenon. Even today, Doordarshan is telecasting week after week a serial on the Shirdi Baba under the title “Ham sab ka malik ek” and ending with “Allah malik”.

When the Moghuls come to rule over India a large number of Muslim Sufi saints also come and settled in Maharashtra. The author gives a detailed history of the Sufi movement that started in Maharashtra and of the different Sufis who preached their message. The Sufis are not fanatical; their doctrine is that all religions are different facets of the same truth.

These Sufis are not too strict about the Shariat, Muslim laws and the Hadith. This outlook greatly appealed to the Hindu mind, especially during Muslim rule. As a result, a large number of Hindus adopted the religion of their Muslim gurus. To them Sufism seemed a half-way house between Hinduism and Islam, a sort of carrying the blessings of both.

Their Hindu detractors felt that the secret intentions of these Sufi saints and faqirs was to convert Hindus to Islam by other means. In any case. Sufism became a widely established cult in India.

At Shirdi which is the headquarters of this dynamic movement, the pilgrims are almost all Hindu, though a number of Muslim devotees also come.

Abdul, the Shirdi Babas chief disciple, remained with him at Shirdi for 29 years and after his death for a few years. He died in 1954 and the Shirdi shrine passed under the control of a Hindu trust.

In the case of a similar temple in Madras, the High Court and the Supreme Court did not permit a Hindu takeover, holding that the Shirdi Sai cult was common to all religions and should not be monopolised by one.

Thinking people are puzzled over the fact that Hinduism which has any number of gods, deities, gurus and scriptures should find it necessary to go to an outside source, a Muslim faqir, to seek religious instruction on such a vast scale. They start with an anti-Muslim prejudice and are very suspicious of Islam making inroads into Hindu institutions and culture. Then how come this fact?

The following incidents provide the answer. On May 23, 1940 when the present Sai Baba was a lad of 14 he threw away his school books and announced that he was Sai Baba incarnate. “I do not belong to you, my devotees are calling me,” he told his parents. He scattered jasmine flowers on the floor which formed in the Telugu script the name “Sai Baba”.

Our author visited Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, Satya Sai Baba’s birthplace and the headquarters of the movement. Every time she found the Sai Baba announcing that he was the incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba. She has dedicated her present book to Satya Sai Baba.

The Shirdi Baba had said at his death (1918) that he would return as a child after eight years; in 1926, Sai Baba was born, eight years later.

Sai Baba speaks of a trinity of Sais. He would live to be 96 years, until 2022; eight years after his death (in 2030) the third Sai, Prema Sai will be born in a village in Mandya district of Karnataka. The three Sai’s will embrace the three major religions of the world — the Shirdi Baba Islam; Satya Sai Baba Hinduism and Prema Sai Christianity. It will be the second coming of Christ. Evil has spread so deep that it required not one prophet but three Sais to combat it.

Thus we see that the Shirdi Baba rises to global stature on the shoulders of Satya Sai Baba whom millions regard as God.

At first the Shirdi Baba gave herbal medicines to patients. Later he gave only sacred ash (vibhuti) as does Satya Sai Baba.

The Shirdi Baba fought the British on the side of the army of the queen of Jhansi in 1857. His spiritual mission included freedom of the country.

The Shirdi Baba taught his Muslim disciples through the Quran, his Hindu followers heard shlokas from the Gita. In Hindu company he used the names Hari and Ram instead of Allah. This is Sufi accommodation to the Hindu milieu.

The Shirdi Baba believed in voluntary poverty. He gave away the funds collected daily at his satsangs and the next day started from the scratch. He did not believe in fasting and celibacy. He told his disciples: “Next time two of you should come.”