The conflatory phrase "Sai Baba movement" refers to a complex phenomenon which has been given different interpretations. That strongly disputed phrase encompasses the entities known as Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasni (Upasani) Maharaj and Godavari Mataji, Meher Baba, and Sathya Sai Baba. The treatment below analyses components of the presumed convergence, and with the primary accent on Shirdi Sai Baba.
2. Sufism in the Deccan
3. A Liberal Muslim Sufi
4. The Hinduization Process
5. Some Aspects of Teaching
6. The Pathri Legend
7. Religious Syncretism in Maharashtra
8. Insularism and Unorthodoxy
9. Upasni Maharaj
10. Meher Baba
11. The Sai Baba Movement at Issue
12. Sectarian Globalisation and Devotional Memory
Update: Tulasi Srinivas and the Politics of Religion
The phrase "Sai Baba movement" was innovated by followers of Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011), and employed in some academic texts. The State University of New York Press stated on the cover of a well known book: "A vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as 'the Sai Baba movement.' Through the chronological presentation of Sai Baba's life, light is shed on the various ways in which the important guru figures in this movement came to be linked to the saint of Shirdi."
This influential SUNY promotion related to the contents of Antonio Rigopoulos, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (SUNY Press, 1993), a work which included some deference to Sathya Sai Baba. The same book also referred to Upasni (Upasani) Maharaj and Meher Baba.
The designation of "Sai Baba movement" represents an academic theory. In practice, three of the devotional movements involved do not favour this usage, not regarding Sathya Sai Baba as a priority. Moreover, the Sathya Sai movement frequently abbreviates the theory to a proposed connection between Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918) and Sathya Sai. The extensions in relation to Upasni Maharaj (d.1941) and Meher Baba (d.1969) are too frequently omitted. An exception to this convenience was my own non-sectarian book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005).
I have found that general readers are often confused by the academic theory. In 2012, some American followers of Meher Baba even tended to imagine that I had invented the phraseology involved. In the face of widespread non-comprehension, it is relevant to take account of the various presentations, and to analyse accordingly. Some of the issues are controversial.
Devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba have been known to use the counter phrase Shirdi Sai Baba Movement, evidently to distinguish themselves from associations with Sathya Sai Baba. Whereas devotees of Sathya Sai Baba have employed the phrase Sathya Sai Baba Movement.
The career of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918) is distinctive. Complexities relating to his religious background enliven the portrayal. I am not myself a devotee or sectarian, and have approached him from another angle, commencing with a book published thirty years ago. (1)
2. Sufism in the Deccan
Sai Baba of Shirdi is frequently known as Shirdi Sai Baba, the purpose here being to distinguish him from his controversial namesake, Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. In 1943, the latter claimed to be the reincarnation of the Shirdi saint. That sensational claim facilitated the rise to fame of the young Sathyanarayana Raju, alias Sathya Sai Baba (officially born in 1926). Born in or near the village of Puttaparthi, in Andhra Pradesh, the putative successor appropriated the name of the Shirdi saint, an event which has not been viewed with favour by the devotees of Shirdi Sai. The Andhra celebrity subsequently claimed and elaborated the prerogative of avatarhood, meaning the role of a divine incarnation.
It seems true enough that most followers of Shirdi Sai have not accepted the reincarnation claim. Yet some devotees of Sathya Sai Baba have written books which interpose lore about the Shirdi saint that derives from the Puttaparthi celebrity. This trend has caused confusions in the ongoing legendary portrayal, one already subject to “Hinduization” elements acquired in earlier decades.
Two different geographical areas are represented by the two bearers of the name Sai Baba. The original entity lived in Maharashtra, a Marathi-speaking state. Whereas the proclaimed reincarnation emerged in Telegu-speaking Andhra, located further south.
The favoured language of Shirdi Sai was Urdu, an Islamic tongue widely used by Indian Muslims. In such respects, one requires to emphasise the Muslim occupation of the area formerly known as the Deccan. That term broadly signifies the Deccan Plateau, a vast territory covering Andhra, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. The Muslims invaded the Deccan in the thirteenth century, after centuries of complex Sufi developments in Iran and Central Asia. [See my Early Sufism in Iran, 2010.] Various cities of the Deccan are strongly associated with the Islamic occupation, e.g., Hyderabad in Andhra, and Aurangabad in Maharashtra.
A little to the north of Aurangabad was the medieval town of Khuldabad, one which became a major pilgrimage centre in the Deccan, strongly linked with the Chishti Sufis. Shirdi is in the same zone of Maharashtra. Associations with Khuldabad have persisted in the lore attaching to Shirdi Sai.
Scholarly discussion of Deccani history has found in the Khuldabad tradition a foil to the idea of militant religious activism, equated with Sufism via the ghazi religious warriors of the Anatolian frontier and the early Safavid state in Iran. (2) The “Warrior Sufi” interpretation arose in relation to Bijapur, a city in the southern Deccan, where a strong Sufi presence is also attested. The “Warrior Sufi” attribution has since been viewed as an exaggeration. (3)
In the fourteenth century, the Sultan of Delhi transferred his religious and administrative elite south to Daulatabad, located in Maharashtra. For a time, this city functioned as the new Islamic capital in India. The enforced move south in 1329 included many Sufis of the emerging Chishti Order. A substantial number of these men elected to remain at Daulatabad when Delhi again became the favoured administrative centre of the Sultan. Relations with the monarch had become strained. (4)
Near Daulatabad and Aurangabad, the town known as Khuldabad (Rawza) became a major Sufi pilgrimage site in subsequent centuries, and is noted for many domed tombs (dargahs) of Sufis. Khuldabad is rather less than a hundred miles from Shirdi, and has gained an association with Sai Baba, who is said to have stayed in a Chishti-related cave during his obscure early years. This cave has strong associations with the legend and tomb of an early Chishti Sufi, who migrated to the Deccan in advance of the enforced move to Daulatabad. Very little is known about Zar Zari Zar Bakhsh, who is reported to have died in 1309. However, his legendary fame has exceeded that of other saints buried at Khuldabad. (5)
3. A Liberal Muslim Sufi
Hyderabad was a major Islamic centre, and a home for the Urdu language which evolved in response to the Hindu environment. Urdu has been described as a form of Hindustani incorporating many Persian and Arabic words. Urdu became the official literary language of Pakistan, but many years prior to that development, Shirdi Sai Baba was an Urdu-speaker. He adapted to Marathi, a language which he also spoke. A controversial matter is that his basic linguistic and cultural affiliations reveal him as a Muslim, and more specifically, as a Sufi of the liberal and unorthodox variety. (6)
Sai Baba of Shirdi emerges in the early accounts as a Muslim faqir or ascetic. He wore the typical garb of that category. The date of his birth is unknown (though attributions have been made), and his early life is obscure and legendary. By circa 1870 he had become a resident of Shirdi, a village in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, and inhabited largely by Hindus. Only about one tenth of the population are estimated to have been Muslims. The Hindus at first regarded him as an alien, as a Muslim faqir unsuited for entry into Hindu temples. Sai Baba made his abode in a dilapidated mosque of distinctly rural dimensions. One of his early Muslim disciples kept a notebook in Urdu, which has permitted a strong insight into the Sufi orientation of the Shirdi saint.
The Muslim disciple Abdul Baba was a close servitor of the Shirdi saint for almost thirty years until the latter’s death. Thus, we know that the Sufism exposited by Shirdi Sai was in evidence from 1889 until his last years. Abdul would read the Quran in the presence of the saint, and at the latter’s request. Sai Baba would make diverse utterances at such times, and some of these were recorded in the Notebook. Abdul's Urdu manuscript was unpublished until very recently. (7) The basic and underlying significances had passed into oblivion.
Dr. Marianne Warren observed that:
“The manuscript largely pertains to Muslim and Sufi material in Deccani Urdu; there are a number of quotations in Arabic included from the Quran and hadith [traditions of the Prophet].... the fact that the manuscript’s Islamic nature does not fit in with the accepted Hindu interpretation and presentation of Sai Baba may explain why it has remained unpublished.” (8)
Moreover, the translated Urdu Notebook “establishes beyond doubt that Sai Baba was totally familiar with both the Islamic and Sufi traditions, and that as a Sufi master he taught this tradition to Abdul." (9)
The major devotional biography, written in Marathi, likewise confirms the Muslim background. Unfortunately for popular assimilation, this book by Govind R. Dabholkar (alias Hemadpant) gained a very misleading English adaptation that seems to have been more widely read than the original.
The Marathi biography, entitled Shri Sai Satcharita, was composed by an early brahman devotee who repeatedly acknowledged and indicated the Muslim faqir identity of the saint. Yet the English adaptation by N. V. Gunaji involved an attempt to omit the Muslim context, instead improvising a Vedantic complexion to the subject. (10) For instance, Gunaji ignored the frequent use of Urdu by Shirdi Sai, and omitted sections of Dabholkar which referred to Muslims, Muslim practices, and Sufi teachings. Gunaji deleted reference to the Islamic ritual of goat slaughter (takkya). However, Dabholkar duly reported that the saint would occasionally permit this ritual so abhorrent to Hindus (but without himself participating in the slaughter).
The name (or rather title) of this saint is evocative of Muslim origins. The word Sai appears to be derived from the Arabic sa’ih, a term used to designate itinerant ascetics in the Islamic world. (11) The word Baba is sometimes given a Hindu context, but that is only partially correct. Baba is a common Marathi expression meaning “father,” though it was also employed in the medieval Indian Sufi tradition. Baba is a Turkish word that referred to diverse preachers and shaikhs, having an origin in the itinerant babas from Central Asia. (12)
“The first festival performed in Sai Baba’s honour was significantly that of the urs, in 1897. The urs is a Muslim festival, and usually commemorates the anniversary of a saint’s death, though in this instance it celebrated a living saint who was being honoured by a Hindu, Gopalrao Gund of Kopergaon, who attributed to Sai the birth of his son. The Muslim background of the saint was so obvious that Gund had to honour him in Islamic terms.” (13) (The word urs comes from the Arabic language.)
Sai Baba was frequently believed by Hindus to confer the blessing of childbirth. Many instances of this are reported in the hagiology. Social and religious taboos had conspired to make a childless couple seem very undesirable in Hinduism, and a strong stigma could result. Women were particularly subject to the accusation of disgracing the family, and a male child was highly prized. There were thus compulsive reasons for this preoccupation with progeny, which was frequently projected onto holy men, who were believed to be an alleviating factor.
The Hindu followers eventually came to substantially outnumber the Muslim devotees. From about 1910, an urban influx of Hindu admirers was in strong evidence. Sai Baba was welcoming and inclusive, not being a doctrinaire exponent of Sufism. He did not preach, and instead advocated a religious tolerance extending to Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Sai Baba referred amenably to Hindu gods and avatars, and permitted arati worship at his mosque. He frequently resorted to allusive speech, and tended to be very enigmatic.
4. The Hinduization Process
In the Shri Sai Satcharita, Dabholkar records: "A Hindu or a Muslim, to him [Sai Baba] both were equal" (Indira Kher trans., p. 165). This feature of universalism can easily be overlooked, or modified, by religious preferences.
The theme of "Hinduization" was emphasised by Dr. Marianne Warren, who urged that an overlay occurred in much reporting about Sai Baba, tending to obscure the Sufi dimensions of his profile. One is obliged to probe this factor (without necessarily endorsing all the contentions and suggestions of Warren about Sufism).
The Shirdi saint was believed to possess an intimate knowledge of the Sanskrit language, which was the medium for Hindu scriptures. The attribution was based upon his explanation of a verse in the Bhagavad Gita, a classic text associated with Vedanta. This explanation was imparted to a Hindu devotee. Subsequent analysis has strongly contested the "Sanskrit" theory, favoured by B. V. Narasimhaswami, who relayed an earlier report. “That interpretation was followed by other writers, and served to strengthen the tendency to portray the saint in a Hinduized manner.” (14)
Sai Baba's explanation of the Gita verse is described by Warren as “totally different” to the version of Shankara and other canonical Hindu commentators. In this view, the relevant dialogue does not in fact prove that Sai Baba knew the Gita or even Sanskrit, his emphasis being Sufistic. The version of Dr. Warren stresses that the saint gave a unique interpretation, and did not need to know the text at all, as the verse was read out to him along with a statement of grammatical meanings. This was done at his own request. “Sai Baba had all the raw material of the verse given to him, so there is no basis to the supposition that he in fact ‘knew’ Sanskrit or even the Bhagavad Gita." (15) There are various complexities attaching to the dialogue.
During his lifetime, the saint was generally regarded as a Muslim faqir, with Sufi associations not in general well understood. His white robe (kafni) and headgear were clearly Muslim. He used the Islamic name for God, and repeated Islamic sacred phrases, not Hindu mantras. He even had a habit of referring to God as the Faqir. However, his liberalism was so pronounced that no distinct religious message could be attributed to him. He was a believer in reincarnation, which is not generally associated with Sufism.
The influx of urban devotees from Bombay, in the last years of Sai Baba, made the Hindus a clear majority in his following. Tendencies to "Hinduization" appeared in the later reports, obtained from devotees who were interviewed by Narasimhaswami in 1936. Eighty persons were then interviewed, although only 51 have a clear religious identity. No less than 43 of those were Hindu, and 26 of that contingent were members of the elite brahman caste. Only four were Muslims, and there were also two Parsi Zoroastrians and two Christians. (16)
A revealing factor emerges. Narasimhaswami asked all the devotees he interviewed a rather pointed question. Did they think that Sai Baba taught Vedanta? “In all cases they said he did not.” (17) It can seem anomalous that Narasimhaswami promoted a theme of the Sanskrit expert based on a Vedantic text. In the 1940s, Gunaji was giving an erroneous impression, via his Vedantic interpretations of the Shirdi saint, which cannot be found in the original work by Dabholkar that Gunaji was rendering. According to Professor Narke, a prominent Hindu devotee, the affinity of Sai Baba was not with Vedanta or Yoga, but with Bhakti.
Narasimhaswami had never met Sai Baba, and arrived at Shirdi nearly twenty years after the saint’s demise. He was not familiar with either Marathi or Urdu. (18) His books on the subject became very influential amongst Hindus. He did refer to Sai Baba as a Muslim, and one whose teachings were indistinguishable from Sufism. He nevertheless admitted to knowing little about Sufism, and himself clearly preferred the bhakti (devotion) approach of Hinduism.
Narasimhaswami could reason that Sai Baba was apparently a Muslim because he lived in a mosque, although the former was very partial to one report (of Mhalsapati) which claimed that the saint was a brahman by birth. The version of Narasimhaswami can convey the impression of regarding the subject as a Hindu, not as a Muslim. Sai Baba himself showed no concern with religious identity.
The influential testimonies provided by Narasimhaswami are varied in complexion. That enthusiastic promoter of the “Shirdi revival” produced a work entitled Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba (1940). This has a substantial documentary value, but also includes hagiology, which has been differently assessed. An academic commentator described the same book in terms of:
“a detailed presentation of alleged miraculous phenomena.... the intent of the work is clearly hagiographic, aiming at the expansion of Sai Baba’s popularity among the public at large.” (19)
Narasimhaswami later produced in English a four volume biography of the saint, and this likewise has a documentary value. Yet that work has been considered to exhibit a strongly Hinduizing gloss. Two of those volumes draw from reports of devotees the author had interviewed. Narasimhaswami says that "externally the mass of Hindus regarded him as a Muslim but worshipped him as a Hindu god." The same commentator also stated, with honesty, that the ideas and teachings with which the saint was saturated "up to the last were in no way distinguishable from Sufism." (20)
In his last years, the saint freely allowed his Hindu devotees to perform puja (worship) before him at the mosque. This concession annoyed Muslims, and there were initial problems. (21) Despite the liberal attitude of the saint to Hindu religious tendencies, he continued to make constant reference to Allah and maintained the simple kafni (robe) of the Muslim faqir.
Shirdi Sai was ruggedly ascetic to the end, daily begging his food from local houses. He redistributed money (or dakshina) that he requested. He did not keep or hoard funds.
Discrepancies in reporting apply to such episodes as the alleged wrestling match of the saint, in Shirdi, with Mohiuddin Tambuli, evidently a Muslim. According to Dabholkar (and Gunaji), Sai Baba lost this contest, and thereafter changed his apparel to the kafni of faqirs. The dating is uncertain. In contrast, the Hindu informant Ramgiri Bua emphasised that Sai Baba did not wrestle, but instead had a disagreement with the son-in-law of Tambuli, as a consequence of which the faqir retreated to the nearby wilderness. This obscure episode has been tentatively dated to the 1880s. (22)
The popular theme of Sai Baba as a miracleworker is misleading. He did not perform “miracle” stunts like some Hindu holy men, and was merely in the habit of giving sacred ash (udi) from his dhuni fire, as a token of blessing. The ash became credited with healing properties. Devotees like Dabholkar did strongly credit him with miracles, generally of the minor variety, a frequent preoccupation being the birth of a child. Sai Baba himself is reported to have expressed annoyance at the mundane desires entertained by visitors.
In temperament, Shirdi Sai Baba was complex. Sometimes irascible, he could also be very patient, and liked to joke. His strong tendency to allusive speech, in his later years, was perhaps prompted by the gulf existing between different religions. There was another contrast between the renunciate lifestyle and the householder career. Most of the devotees were householders, meaning those in the married state. Their domestic preoccupations were far removed from the ascetic milieu which Sai Baba represented.
At his death, there was a disagreement amongst his followers about burial procedures. The Muslim minority are reported to have included the category of theologians known as maulvis and maulanas. An air of dignity would thus have attended the argument. The Muslims wanted Sai Baba to be buried in a Sufi tomb or dargah of the type well known in the Deccan. Yet the Hindu majority wanted the saint to be buried in the courtyard of a large house (wada), recently constructed by the wealthy Hindu devotee Gopalrao Buti.
The Hindus were victorious, the Muslim proposal being offset by the heavy expense involved. However, the Hindus deferred to Muslim sensitivities, initially permitting the new tomb interior to resemble a dargah, and making Abdul Baba the custodian of the shrine. These details indicate that the Muslim identity of the saint was still clearly recognised by the Hindu majority.
After a few years, however, Abdul was denied his role as tomb custodian in 1922. A prominent Hindu devotee, Hari Sitaram Dixit, overruled the authority of Abdul by setting up a Public Trust through the Ahmednagar District court, with the intention of administering the tomb. Abdul was persuaded by sympathisers to challenge the court ruling, and to file a counter-suit declaring that he was the legal heir to Sai Baba, and that the Public Trust was illegal. Abdul lost his case, and had to leave the room reserved for him at the shrine. The severe restrictions were relaxed at a later date, but the Muslim claim to dominance was permanently eliminated.
The new official Sansthan (Trust) was exclusively composed of Hindu members. The tomb at Butiwada became known as the samadhi mandir. During the 1950s, a marble statue of Sai Baba was installed on a silver throne; above the statue was placed a sign identifying Sai Baba with the Hindu avatar Rama. Acccording to Warren, this innovation caused offence to Muslims; faqirs are reported to have stopped visiting the tomb. (23) However, the substantial Hindu support increased over the years. Shirdi became a famous and expanding pilgrimage site. The samadhi mandir is reported to gain a large number of annual visitors from Mumbai and other cities.
Writers who followed in the wake of Gunaji and Narasimhaswami, were strongly influenced by the "Hinduization" tendency. A Parsi writer composed a chapter entitled “What the Master Taught.” There is not a single reference to Sufism, but instead many to Hindu bhakti, and also one or two that can be interpreted in terms of a simplified Vedanta. Furthermore, another chapter includes the statement:
“The saint of Shirdi baffled his admirers! No one knew whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. He dressed like a Muslim and bore the caste marks of a Hindu!" (24)
The equivocal theme of “Hindu or Muslim” had replaced the earlier awareness that Sai Baba was a Muslim faqir. The reference to caste marks is superficial, arising from hagiological tendencies.
5. Some Aspects of Teaching
The teaching of Sai Baba did not occur in the generalising terms associated with gurus and pirs. He was not a preacher, and did not give lectures. The original Hindu devotees like Dabholkar testify that he was constantly uttering Islamic sacred phrases such as “Allah Malik” (God is the Owner/Ruler). Vedanta is not here evident, but rather a version of the Sufi theme tauhid (unity, oneness of God). However, no doctrine was transmitted. There were instead many parables, enigmatic statements, and ethical reflections. In various ways, the Shirdi faqir emphasised a religious liberalism.
During his last years, Sai Baba permitted his brahman devotee Bapusaheb Jog to read aloud and expound Hindu scriptures at the Sathewada (a building in Shirdi). Jog would relay the Jnaneshvari and the Eknathi Bhagavat, texts associated with the Maharashtrian bhakti tradition. The faqir would tell visiting Hindu devotees to attend the daily sessions held by Jog, who was proficient in Sanskrit. Such events convey the liberal attitude of Sai Baba.
The Urdu Notebook of Abdul relays that Sai Baba strongly criticised false Sufis, and also corrupt orthodox (Muslim) divines who accepted bribes. The Notebook "includes conciliatory verbal gestures to Hindu themes, testifying to the fact that Sai Baba was not insular." (25)
6. The Pathri Legend
The British writer Arthur Osborne became well known for his interpretation of Ramana Maharshi, and also wrote The Incredible Sai Baba (1957). This book formed an introduction to the subject for most Westerners prior to the 1980s. Osborne made a sympathetic attempt to decipher the Shirdi saint, and grasped that he was not typical of the Hindu guru category. Yet the commentary does not refer to a Sufi context. Osborne reports that Sai Baba was regarded as a Muslim faqir, but does not supply any due contextual description. The Western writer was strongly influenced by works of Narasimhaswami. Osborne states of Sai Baba:
“It is fairly certain that he was born of a middle class Brahmin family in a small town in Hyderabad State. Possibly his parents died when he was young, because at a very early age he left home to follow a Muslim fakir.” (26)
Some analysts are sceptical of this version. Narasimhaswami favoured a report gleaned from Mhalsapati, a priest who became one of the earliest devotees. According to this source, Sai Baba revealed in his later years that his parents were brahmans of Pathri. If there is any truth in that now popular legend, then Hindu parentage was quickly superseded by a Muslim ascetic lifestyle. The Pathri legend has become influential. However, less well known details could afford a different complexion.
Pathri is a small town in Maharashtra, in the Aurangabad region. Warren reported that sixty per cent of the Pathri population is Muslim, a fact reflecting the strong Islamic concentration in this zone. Pathri was a known centre of the Qadiri Sufis, and features Sufi tombs dating back to the medieval era. The most salient tomb (dargah) is that of Sayyad Sadat (Aminuddin Shah), whose urs festival (death anniversary) has been popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims. (27)
Sai Baba is noted for giving contradictory replies to questions concerning his parentage and origins.
7. Religious Syncretism in Maharashtra
Strong tendencies to Hinduize the subject influenced writers like Arthur Osborne into making the Shirdi saint a subject of equivocal affiliation. According to Osborne, Sai Baba “did not fully conform to either” religion, meaning Islam and Hinduism. To some extent this is true enough, but details have to be carefully fathomed. Osborne states that Sai Baba was a vegetarian. (28) The vegetarian theory has since been exposed as a myth, one which inadvertently sides with the Gunaji excision of Dabholkar's reference to the Islamic ritual involving goat slaughter. Sai Baba did eat meat in the company of Muslims, although on his daily begging round (at Hindu houses) he was restricted to vegetarian food.
The most convincing explanation, for the Shirdi phenomenon, is that Sai Baba's assimilating approach to Hinduism represented a continuation of syncretistic trends operative between Muslim Sufis and Hindus. Indeed, Sai Baba's enlightened (if at times eccentric) form of syncretism can appeal equally to the sociological and religious modes of analysis. The Shirdi saint represented a Muslim minority amongst a Maharashtrian Hindu majority. Avoidance of Sufi significances has the effect of reducing the scale of his achievement.
Sai Baba made diverse references to Hindu gods in his interactions with Hindus. That gesture can be interpreted in terms of a liberal Sufi tendency. His speech was frequently so allusive that even the word brahman has been tagged as symbolic. (29) The story of a Hindu guru, favoured in some sources for the early life of the saint, has been discredited by critical scholarship. (30) The Hindu scholar V. B. Kher (associated with the Shirdi Sansthan) arrived at a memorable conclusion. This was expressed in terms of “the fact that Sai Baba's guru was a Sufi is not a matter of surprise." (31)
It is relevant to focus here upon the first major account of Sai Baba, and one that has an elite reputation amongst Hindu devotees. Hemadpant was the name bestowed by the saint upon his brahman devotee Govind Raghunath Dabholkar. The contact of Dabholkar with the saint commenced in 1910, and resulted in the devotional biography known as Sri Sai Satcharita. This was written in Marathi verse, and published in 1929. Dabholkar was here following a long Hindu tradition of writing saintly biographies in verse format.
Dabholkar was at times concerned to describe miracles of the saint, but the factual dimension is strong. Legendary details and actual events have been discerned to overlap, requiring careful analysis. Another realistic assessment about the work of Dabholkar is that “when he did not understand the enigmatic mystic, he would rationalize sayings and events in conformity with his own religious background.” (32)
Dabholkar’s poetic biography assimilated a devotional tendency to identify Sai Baba with the god Dattatreya, who is often depicted as an ascetic or yogi. Various Hindu gurus gained repute in the nineteenth century as incarnations of the ascetic deity Dattatreya. A well known instance of Dattatreya association is Swami Samarth of Akalkot (d.1878). A subsequent “Dattatreya guru” was Narayan Maharaj of Kedgaon (1885-1945); this ascetic favoured an opulent lifestyle in his later years, while acting as a patron of Dattatreya worship at his ashram. (33)
At the beginning of each chapter, Dabholkar extols Sai Baba as Shri Sainath, and in the context of an obeisance to tutelary deities like Ganesha and Saraswati. The Shirdi faqir is here totally compatible with Hinduism. "O Self-illumined Sainath, to us you are truly, Ganadheesh and Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh." (34)
In the opening chapter, Dabholkar extols Hindu gods, and refers to the bhakti saints of Maharashtra such as Eknath and Tukaram. The Eknathi Bhagavat has been discerned as a strong influence in his direction. Yet Dabholkar "fails to mention any Muslim saints or famous Sufis, although there were many whose names were quite famous in Maharashtra.” (35) According to Dr. Warren, the overall impression conveyed by the work under discussion is that Dabholkar “personally regarded Sai Baba as a Muslim, although he was limited in fully understanding Sai Baba's Muslim-Sufi identity due to his own ignorance of Islam and Sufism in Maharashtra." (36)
Dabholkar includes the emphasis, closely associated with Sai Baba, that “Ram and Rahim are one and the same.” Ram here means the Hindu avatar Rama, while Rahim is an Islamic sacred name. The same writer reports that Sai Baba associated with all castes and outcastes, ignoring the conventional caste distinctions. Such achievement needed stressing to the caste bigotries which prevailed in Maharashtra and elsewhere in India. To numerous (but not all) high caste Hindus, the Muslim faqir was an outcaste, and unfit to enter temples.
Dabholkar (12:151ff) provides an instance of the formidable bias encountered. A Ram bhakta (devotee of Rama) had strong reservations about going to Shirdi. This man was a brahman, and said: " I cannot bring myself to make obeisance at the feet of a Muslim." His friend, a mamlatdar (revenue official), urged that nobody would request him to perform any obeisance to Sai Baba. Thus reassured, the Rama devotee agreed to visit Shirdi. When he arrived at the mosque, he made a prostration to the saint of his own accord. His accompanying friend was amazed, and asked the reason. "How did you prostrate before a Muslim?" The brahman related that he had seen Rama in the person of Sai Baba; he had not been aware of any Muslim presence. Now the visitor reasoned: "How can he [Sai Baba] be a Muslim? No, indeed! He is a yogi, an Incarnation of God!"
Dabholkar comments that the caste background of saints was not important. "The great saint Chokhamela was a mahar [untouchable] by caste; Rohidas was a cobbler; Sajan was a butcher, who killed animals for a livelihood. But who ever thinks of the caste of these saints?" (37)
Dabholkar faithfully reported another significant episode. A Hindu devotee (Dr. Pandit) was allowed by the saint, on one occasion, to apply sandal paste to his (Sai Baba’s) forehead, thus reproducing the tripundra emblem of the Shaiva tradition (i.e., of Shiva). When questioned afterwards as to why he permitted this unusual latitude, Sai Baba explained that although he was of the Muslim caste (mi jatica Musulman), Dr. Pandit thought of him as a guru and was here performing ritual worship to the guru (guru-puja). The saint then revealingly added that "he (Dr. Pandit) did not even entertain the thought that he was a pure brahman and that I was an unclean yavana (Muslim)." (38)
The overall liberalism of Sai Baba, in a divided religious milieu, is remarkable to an extent as yet only partially comprehended.
8. Insularism and Unorthodoxy
The reported statement of Sai Baba that “I am of the Muslim caste” is significant. Yet in passing from Dabholkar to the adaptation of Gunaji, we encounter omission in this respect. Gunaji evidently resisted any prospect of the saint having been a Muslim.
In a well known passage preserved from Dabholkar, Gunaji poses the question: if Sai Baba was a Muslim, how could he keep a dhuni fire burning in his mosque, and how could he keep a sacred tulsi plant in the yard outside, and how could he permit Hindu music, and how could he have pierced ears, and how could he have donated money to repair Hindu temples?
The tolerance of Sai Baba in relation to Hindu ceremonial adjuncts was notable. This feature of tolerance does not invalidate his own (excised) statement that he was a Muslim. (39) The insular thinking can be contradicted; Sai Baba was not an orthodox Muslim, but a very distinctive and unorthodox Sufi faqir.
The sacred fire or dhuni, associated with Hindu holy men, was also favoured by Muslim faqirs. (40) The issue of pierced ears is not definitive. Many Hindus gained pierced ears at birth. Hindu biographers have urged that the Shirdi saint had pierced ears. Against this must be set an assertion of the Hindu devotee Das Ganu, in a well known poem, that Sai Baba can be called a Muslim because of such characteristics as his ears not being pierced. Das Ganu added his own conclusion that the saint was a Hindu, adducing the dhuni fire as support. Dabholkar is also contradictory, favouring pierced ears but affirming that Sai Baba was circumcised. (41)
As to the repair of Hindu temples, in his last years Sai Baba gave away large amounts of money, daily gifted to him as dakshina or alms. His mosque was repaired by Hindu devotees, and a reciprocal gesture was generous enough. He did not actually want any renovation of the ramshackle mosque. An affluent devotee pointedly dumped cartloads of stone outside the building. The saint responded by telling him to give the stone to temples. Sai Baba eventually agreed to the renovation but continually interfered with the project, to the extent that workmen could only be on the site during nocturnal hours. Sai Baba insisted upon the standard minarets and nimbar recess in the west wall facing Mecca. The dhuni fireplace was an innovation; he apparently regarded this as the ennobling of a faqir observance.
Sai Baba sometimes advocated to Hindus the reading of various sacred texts such as the Eknathi Bhagavat. Yet he would not give the formal initiations that some supplicants anticipated. He occasionally recited the first chapter of the Quran. Consisting of seven verses, that chapter is known as Al-Fatihah (“The Opening”).
Dabholkar's book in Marathi gained a foreword by Hari Sitaram Dixit (d.1926). This was the same prominent devotee who ousted Abdul Baba from the role of tomb custodian. Dixit subscribed to an interpretation of the saint that is currently considered idiosyncratic by Sai devotees. He referred to Sai Baba as having been born ayoniya, which literally means without a womb, i.e., without a human mother.
The ayoniya concept avoided the issue of whether the saint was born a Muslim or a Hindu. Yet the innovation was closely linked to an interpretation of divine incarnations in the Hindu tradition, entities who were all considered to be the products of a virgin birth. (42)
A realistic alternative, for the biography of Shirdi Sai Baba, is to accommodate both religious orientations (i..e., Muslim and Hindu) in due perspective, duly checking the available sources and contextual details.
9. Upasni Maharaj
Despite the preferential manipulations of context, many Hindus continued to regard Sai Baba as a Muslim. Indeed, Narasimhaswami reacted to the widely emphasised Muslim identity during the early 1930s, and did not at first wish to visit Shirdi. Narasimha Iyer, later known as Narasimhaswami (1874-1956), was a brahman of South India who became a lawyer. He subsequently renounced his professional career and opted for a contemplative life. He joined the ashram of Ramana Maharshi, but afterwards moved elsewhere, one interpretation being that he reacted to the Advaita Vedanta of Ramana, which Narasimha found too intellectual for his own disposition. (43)
In 1936 the pilgrim arrived at Shirdi, subsequently to become celebrated as the "apostle of Sai Baba," via his new role as the founder and president of the All India Sai Samaj, based at Madras. By the early 1940s, Narasimhaswami had become the influential populariser of Sai Baba in South India. His “Shirdi revival” quickly spread the fame of the shrine maintained at Shirdi by the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan. His industrious spate of publications assisted the growth of a nationwide Sai Baba movement. However, there is some scope for disagreement about a number of his interpretations.
Narasimhaswami notably discountenanced the view in some Hindu quarters that Upasni Maharaj (1870-1941) was the successor of Sai Baba. Upasni (Upasani) was also a brahman, and had established an ashram at Sakori (Sakuri), a few miles south of Shirdi. The intricacies of this situation are quite complex, and merit further attention.
Ironically enough, Narasimhaswami had formerly composed a glorifying biography (or hagiography) of Upasni. (44) Yet he had also fallen victim to some strongly circulated rumours (or libels) about the Sakori guru. The scandal was contrived by influential brahman opponents of Upasni, who were incensed at the importance he gave to a select group of his women disciples. Upasni broke orthodox stigmas by making those women an active symbol of participation in priestly rites and recitation. Upasni dispensed with the primacy of male priests, and emphasised a return to the Vedic tradition of kanyadin, a word connoting female celibacy and discipline. Upasni even said that women could make more rapid progress in spiritual development than men (he did not mean in all cases, however).
The very conservative libellers accused Upasni of immorality, although in fact the Sakori ashram was a scene of austere discipline. The selected women lived as nuns called kanyas. In later years they emerged victorious from the libels, and their leader Godavari Mataji (1914-1990) became famous as a saint in her own right. She and others lived to tell the tale of what really happened. Their institution became known as the Kanya Kumari Sthan. By the time of Godavari Mataji's death, there were almost fifty nuns in this institution.
Upasni Maharaj is similar in some ways to Sai Baba. He was a vigorous ascetic, with the same uncompromising attitude to physical hardships. Like Sai Baba, he was also eccentric at times, and frequently enigmatic. There was a difference in that Upasni was a brahman, and unrelated to Islam or Sufism. In his earlier life, he became an ascetic while still in his teens, but was subsequently a householder with a professional career in Ayurvedic medicine. When he first heard of Sai Baba, he did not wish to visit the Shirdi saint because of the Muslim identity that was so well known in Maharashtra.
Kashinath Govind Upasni Shastri was born in 1870 at Satana, near Nasik. He was the second son in a family of Maharashtra village priests. His grandfather Gopala Shastri was noted for accomplishments as a pundit. Upasni early favoured austerities that were extolled in the scriptures, and is reported to have adopted Yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breath control) in his youth. Upasni appears to have resumed those practices at a later date, after he relinquished his medical career and resorted to pilgrimage with his wife. His reliance upon ascetic exercises then included pranayama, according to one version (Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 64-5, 189 note 189).
Those exercises now resulted in a severe problem: his breathing lost all normal rhythm. Upasni was only able to breathe, though with difficulty, when he massaged his stomach. This precarious condition continually lost the artificially induced rhythm, such as when he tried to sleep or eat. His stomach is reported to have become swollen.
In desperation, the pilgrim Yogi left his seclusion and travelled to Nagpur and Dhulia, searching in vain for a remedy. No doctor knew how to cure him. Upasni became convinced that only another Yogi could help him, one with more knowledge than he himself possessed. He commenced this new quest in April 1911. He visited a Yogi known as Kulkarni Maharaj at Rahuri, but was disconcerted to find that this practitioner urged him to see Sai Baba of Shirdi, who was here identified as an aulia or Muslim saint. Kulkarni Maharaj reassured his visitor by emphasising that Sai Baba was above caste distinctions. However, Upasni possessed a strong caste pride and persisted in searching for a Hindu mentor.
Upasni thereafter found a degree of relief by drinking only hot water, but was in constant fear of a relapse into deficient breathing. He later returned to Kulkarni Maharaj in June, and the Yogi again urged him to visit Sai Baba, emphasising that the latter was above creed and caste. This time Upasni acted on the advice, although still feeling reluctance. He arrived at Shirdi in late June, 1911. His breathing ailment thereafter disappears from the record.
The visitor found that Sai Baba generally spoke in cryptic language, and this was not always easy to decipher. The enigmatic device muted the religious divide between the Muslim faqir and Hindus, but Upasni was still offput by the mosque environment at Shirdi. The visitor intended to leave and return to his wife, but via a combination of circumstances, he ended up staying at Shirdi (his wife died soon after). His doubts were resolved, and he came to view the faqir as the most exceptional entity he had ever met.
Upasni became a committed disciple, and was introduced to an intensive phase of seclusion at a nearby Khandoba temple. That shrine was deserted and derelict. This bizarre phase lasted for a few years, and the accompanying interaction with Sai Baba was complex. The liberal Sufi often made glowing references to his rather exceptional Hindu disciple. There is no doubt that the former now highly rated the latter. Sai Baba eventually declared that Upasni had become a guru deserving of worship like himself.
From the start of the phase at Khandoba's temple, Sai Baba contributed both specific instructions and allusive remarks. He enjoined that Upasni was to stay in the derelict temple for a few years, living quietly and "doing nothing." There were no prescriptions for meditation or sadhana (spiritual discipline). The faqir did not sanction exercises like pranayama, an adventure which Upasni did not repeat, knowing too much about hazards that were not generally envisaged by Yoga enthusiasts.
At first the disciple found the changes difficult to accept. He retained his caste complex in matters of food preparation. One day he found that a beggar, a shudra by birth, was hovering nearby while the food was being cooked. Upasni drove the beggar away with some stern words, a gesture reflecting his brahmanical fear of pollution from lower castes.
When he subsequently took the prepared food to Sai Baba, the old faqir refused to accept the food and instead drove him away. The disciple believed that Sai Baba was deliberately reflecting his own harsh treatment of the beggar. This event appears to have been the origin of Upasni's subsequent sense of identity with shudras and untouchables, an affinity that moved at an acute tangent to caste prejudices. "Wherever you may look, I am there." This was one of the allusive statements made to him by the faqir.
Upasni initially stayed with other devotees at Shirdi. Then Sai Baba started to make statements like: "Have nothing to do with them. Your future is excellent; none of the others have such a future." At this juncture Upasni moved to the far more inhospitable Khandoba temple, which was inhabited by cobras. That temple was situated on the outskirts of Shirdi, and afforded a relative degree of seclusion. Most villagers would not have gone inside it, especially at night. Khandoba, sometimes described as a form of Shiva, was a popular deity in Maharashtra.
Resident devotees became jealous of the temple dweller, who was celebrated by Sai Baba. Upasni at first kept asking Sai Baba that he (Upasni) might leave Shirdi. Permission was not granted, and instead there were allusive injunctions from the faqir. "You should not now talk to me, and nor will I talk to you. After four years, you will have the full grace of Khandoba."
Upasni stopped visiting Sai at the mosque, but their contact did not cease. Different versions of these events exist. There were some occasions when Upasni adroitly approached the faqir during the latter's daily begging round in the village (or during the Lendi excursion). Cryptic reassurances would be given.
For Upasni, the householder caste life was over. He gained visions and experiences which he later described in fragments. He became averse to food, which he would throw away to dogs. He had no money left, and his clothes were now rags. Yet the faqir commented at the mosque that "everything I have has been passed to him (Upasni)." Such remarks were puzzling to devotees.
Upasni stopped eating, reportedly for a whole year and more. He lost much weight, and became very thin. Yet during that same phase, he was intent upon performing hard manual labour, activities which extended to making roads and ploughing fields. He would now associate with untouchables, beggars, and common labourers. He had lost all caste pride. This development was an extension of "doing nothing," which entailed no obvious religious significance.
To some observers, he seemed crazy, no longer the decorous brahman. He lived with snakes and scorpions in the distressed temple, and once embraced a dead horse. Upasni was mocked by local youths and a cantankerous holy man, the latter being a devotee of Sai Baba. Some devotees remained incurably jealous. That situation of animosity did not diminish when, in the summer of 1913, Sai Baba instructed devotees to worship Upasni at the Khandoba temple in the same manner that he (Sai Baba) was worshipped at the mosque.
The elevation of the disciple proved too much for the opponents, some of whom harassed Upasni. This development affords a significant instance of the denominational disposition which adheres to one revered figure at the expense of more comprehensive factors.
Two medical doctors persuaded Upasni to leave the temple; he was in need of medical assistance after his severe fasting. These men also wished to stop the harassment in evidence. During 1914, and in the company of a medic, Upasni left Shirdi, and subsequently resumed a normal intake of food. This ascetic returned to the Khandoba temple the following year, still meeting opposition from his detractors. Meanwhile, he gained many new devotees; the train of events was complex, and much detail is on record for these years.
Upasni finally settled on the outskirts of Sakori village in 1917. His simple formative ashram was at first an uninviting prospect. However, a number of Sai Baba's devotees transferred allegiance to him after the death of the faqir. These converts included the learned Bapusaheb Jog (d.1926). Many brahmans were impressed by the ascetic saintliness and scriptural knowledge of Upasni Maharaj (alias Upasni Baba). He had become emaciated during his sojourn at Khandoba’s temple, but subsequently regained full flesh, and appears in photographs as an ascetic of robust physique.
A distinguishing hallmark was his attire. Upasni did not wear the conventional ochre robe of Hindu sannyasins; he did not take initiation as a swami. Instead he wore a strip of sackcloth (known as gunny cloth) draped over his body. His spartan lifestyle extended to confinement in a “cage” of bamboo bars at Sakori ashram. His austere traditional outlook disliked cameras, and he customarily scowled at the photographers who captured his image.
Upasni made efforts to accommodate orthodox attitudes of the brahman caste, and these are reflected in his extant discourses. Yet there was an underlying element of nonconformism. He early exhibited a strong sympathy with the untouchables, and also had a habit of bathing lepers. Such traits are not typical of Hindu gurus.
He was very unpredictable in temperament, and like Sai Baba, could express irascible moods when confronted by inappropriate tendencies. He gained a reputation for leonine strength, and was known to place a pretentious person over his knee, slapping the other like a naughty child. Upasni was six feet tall (or more), with a solid torso and powerful arms.
A very notable episode occurred at Benares in 1919, soon after Upasni had settled at Sakori. The occasion was a maha-yajna, a sacrificial fire ritual attended by thousands of brahmans. There were over a hundred officiating priests at this revered rite. Upasni was contributing a feast, and insisted upon displaying a large painting of Sai Baba, who had died the previous year.
The priests reacted to that painting. Some of them complained that Sai Baba was a Muslim, which meant that they could not participate in a feast which had such outcaste auspices. Upasni did not deny the Muslim identity, and at first tried to reason with the objectors. He was patient for some two hours, maintaining that Sai Baba was above religious distinctions, existing as much for brahmans as for Muslims. He even offered to increase the payment for ritual services of the officiating priests.
His opponents insisted that the painting of the alien saint must be removed, and they refused to eat the food provided for them until this removal occurred. Upasni then lost patience, and told his disciples to give the unwanted food to the poor, who were summoned by banging drums. The objectors then anxiously apologised, realising that they were losing their food and the increase in payment (dakshina) for their officiating services. Yet now Upasni was refusing to comply. He derided the objectors, and asserted that Sai Baba was the real pundit (religious expert), and not the formal pundits of Benares. Now unrelenting, he broke up the entire assembly. (45)
When in such a mood, Upasni Maharaj could be very forthright. He demonstrated this when the increasingly famous politician Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) visited him at Sakori. The date sometimes given for this event is 1927. Gandhi apparently wished to gain the blessing of the sackcloth saint for his political project; however, Upasni did not award his visitor the red carpet treatment, and was instead dour and offputting. "You may be a great man, but what is that to me?" (46)
Different interpretations of this episode have been proffered. The most obvious conclusion is that Upasni did not want any political involvement such as Gandhi represented. On his own part, Gandhi later complained to the Irani mystic Meher Baba that he could not understand Upasni. Meher Baba was rather more amiable in temperament, and treated Gandhi with respect. However, the Irani (a disciple of Upasni) did assert that Upasni was a genuine spiritual master.
10. Meher Baba
Meher Baba (1894-1969) was one of the two major disciples of Upasni Maharaj, and some say the most crucial instance. He was neither Muslim nor Hindu, but an Irani Zoroastrian. He was born Merwan Sheriar Irani, and his biography is far more detailed than that of Upasni or Sai Baba. His parents came from the severely repressed Zoroastrian minority in Iran. His father was Sheriar Mundegar Irani. Reared at Poona (Pune), Merwan attended the Deccan College, having a talent for English literature. A spiritual experience then dramatically altered his horizons.
Afterwards Merwan personally encountered Sai Baba in 1915 on a visit to Shirdi. He subsequently became a disciple of Upasni Maharaj, visiting Sakori ashram from the inception, and even being present at the abovementioned maha-yajna in Benares. Merwan Irani was also closely involved with the distinctive figure of Hazrat Babajan (d.1931), the female Muslim faqir (and reputed centenarian) who became renowned at his birthplace of Poona.
The copious literature on Meher Baba includes important significators to the careers of both Upasni Maharaj and Sai Baba. Meher Baba and some of his disciples knew a great deal about Upasni, and the Parsi Zoroastrian Gustad Hansotia was originally a devotee of Sai Baba before transferring to the other two.
The brahman devotees of Upasni stigmatised Meher Baba as an outcaste intruder at the Sakori ashram. He was unwelcome, both as a Zoroastrian and as a favoured disciple of the brahman guru. The jealousy arising in his direction is reminiscent of the rather similar situation afflicting Upasni at Shirdi several years earlier. Meher Baba moved on to other locales, arriving at a site a few miles south of Ahmednagar in 1923. That desolate and very inhospitable environment was a disused military camp of the British, adjoining the village of Arangaon. Two years later, this site became Meherabad ashram, and was the eventual setting for the tomb of Meher Baba many years afterwards. Meherabad was in the same zone of Maharashtra as Shirdi and Sakori, though further south of those two villages.
At Meherabad, the disciple of Babajan and Upasni created a hospital and a school for boys and girls, and also commenced his activity of personally ministering to the poor. He gave close attention in varied ways to the local untouchables of Arangaon. Yet perhaps the most singular event occurred on July 10, 1925, when the Irani ascetic commenced strict silence, which he maintained until the end of his life. He became dexterous at using an English alphabet board for communication.
Meher Baba's sympathy for the Indian untouchables emerged strongly at Meherabad. In 1932, he gained a significant (and completely unpublicised) interview with the untouchable leader Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar. Unlike many gurus, Meher Baba would not compromise with caste stigmas or the elevation of ritualism. Caste was eliminated at his ashram.
A commercial writer who proved insensitive to various aspects of Meher Baba's background was the British occultist Paul Brunton (1898-1981), who visited Meherabad in 1930. He included misleading information in a popular book entitled A Search in Secret India (1934). Brunton here snubs Meher Baba as a “Parsee messiah,” and instead sides with the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). The narrative is deceptive, and not merely because the British writer gives a chronically inaccurate description of the Irani’s physiognomy.
Brunton failed to disclose that he was initially a follower of Meher Baba, and one who claimed telepathic experiences in this direction. Indeed, Brunton exercised such a strong interest in Meher Baba that he was acclaimed by the Saidapet ashram in Madras, where he gave a talk in December 1930. This ashram was affiliated to Meher Baba, being run by well-educated Hindu devotees, who explicitly acknowledged Brunton as "the founder of the Meher League in England" (the League had been created by the Saidapet ashram, not by Meher Baba). The documentation attests that Brunton was intending to further the League when he returned to Britain.
The conclusion is pressing that Brunton subsequently felt thwarted because his expectations were not fulfilled. His report of a subsequent sojourn at Meher Baba’s Nasik ashram in February 1931 is more than a little misleading. The subsequent biographer of Meher Baba, namely Charles B. Purdom, states that when Brunton “then known as Raphael Hirsch, came to see me in London some time after his visit (to Meher Baba), he said he had no doubt Baba was false, as he, Raphael Hirsch, had asked him to perform a miracle but Baba could not." (47)
Meher Baba was notably averse to the desire of devotees and “seekers” for miracles. He evidently regarded that disposition as a psychological failing; he would sometimes shock this tendency, and at other times ignore it.
The loss of context in Brunton's Secret India is very pronounced. Various ingredients are very suspect; some reported statements do not tally with other accounts of Meher Baba idioms. The clear intention of Brunton was to make the Irani mystic look a fool for making extravagant claims. Meher Baba did occasionally make private statements about his "spiritual work" that can sound fantastic. However, the generally misleading context contrived by Brunton is deplorable, involving the omission of crucial details.
Brunton shows only a very superficial acquaintance with his subject. He even derides the robe of Meher Baba in terms of "looks ludicrously like an old-fashioned English nightshirt." (48) That long white robe was certainly a different auspice to the ochre robe of Hindu holy men, who were a far more common sight. Meher Baba never wore ochre, but instead a white garment known as sadra (sudrah), related to the sacred vest or shirt of Zoroastrian apparel. This garment did not in fact match English nightshirts, and is rather more reminiscent of the white kafni worn by Muslim ascetics like Shirdi Sai. However, the relatively unfamiliar Zoroastrian context needs emphasising.
The distortions and pique of Paul Brunton were strangely influential. Many readers of his commercial book appear to have believed every word he wrote. He followed up with a string of bestselling “esoteric” books, and eventually added to his public profile the description of himself as Dr. Paul Brunton. He is on record as explicitly claiming the Ph.D. credential from Roosevelt University in Chicago.
A disillusioned academic partisan discovered that the doctoral credential was fraudulent, amounting to a deception in university terms (in reality, the elevated Dr. Brunton gained an inferior "degree" via a correspondence school). Dr. Masson referred to the nebulous Astral University, one of the fantasies in which Brunton indulged. (49) Astral travels are not the best recommendation for misleading commercial books. Some parties continued to advertise the doctoral credential, including the publisher Rider & Company. Brunton's followers regard him as a spiritual teacher and extol The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, which is a multi-volume work.
There is a pronounced irony in the situation concerning Ramana Maharshi. While Brunton chose to proclaim the merits of the Arunachala sage, no less a writer than B. V. Narasimhaswami (1874-1956) was moving in the direction of Meher Baba. Narasimhaswami composed the first biography of Ramana, having lived at Ramanashram as a disciple. This book was Self-Realization (1931), widely read in later editions. Meher Baba is known to have expressed respect for Ramana as a saintly person, but these two never met.
Advaita Vedanta proved problematic for Narasimhaswami. Ramana reportedly told him: "I am not your guru." After three years, in 1929 Narasimhaswami left Ramanashram. In 1933, he sojourned at the Kedgaon ashram of Narayan Maharaj (d.1945), where he learned of Meher Baba. He now desired to become the disciple of Meher Baba, and wanted to write the latter's biography. Narasimhaswami moved to Meherabad at the end of 1933, where Meher Baba was living in seclusion. He apparently stayed for several weeks, but events did not occur as he anticipated. The Irani mystic was not enthusiastic about accepting the new candidate as a disciple, and reportedly told the visitor: "I am not your guru."
Narasimhaswami is reported to have been very upset when Meher Baba told him not to write a biography. The visitor is known to have made a close study of the Irani mystic's life and teaching, and was clearly enthusiastic. He evidently did not want to leave Meherabad, and only did so because Meher Baba suggested that he go to Sakori and write the biography of Upasni Maharaj. (50)
In March 1934, Narasimhaswami accordingly moved on to Sakori ashram, where he became a devotee of Upasni Maharaj, a fellow brahman. He composed a biography of Upasni that was published in 1936. However, that same year he defected, influenced by hostile brahmans who had created adverse rumours. These critics wanted to enforce strict caste attitudes, having reacted to the equality for women that was favoured by the Sakori guru. Narasimhaswami moved to Shirdi, where he became a follower of the deceased Sai Baba; he was subsequently very influential in the "Shirdi revival," and himself became regarded as a saint.
Meher Baba had auburn hair, indicative of his Irani ethnicity. He wore his hair long in the early years of his career, though during the 1930s he resorted to a braid, which he subsequently favoured on a permanent basis. Of average height, his cranium was large in proportion to his physique. He did not possess the dramatically receding forehead which Paul Brunton so dubiously described. His physique was lean, though filling out in his later years. He would probably have lost in a wrestling match with the formidable Upasni Maharaj, but his stamina was pronounced. It is said that only the strongest men in his entourage could maintain the pace he demanded on so many of his laborious journeys in India, which could easily become marathon tests of endurance. Meher Baba was a fast walker and an agile hill climber.
Charles Purdom has left the following firsthand description of the Irani saint, relating to the early 1930s:
“Baba is a small man, five feet six inches in height, slight in build, with a rather large head or a head that appears to be large, an aquiline nose, and an olive complexion. He is extremely animated, has a mobile face, constantly smiles, and has expressive hands and gestures. He creates the opposite of a sense of remoteness or strangeness, making an immediately friendly appeal to those who meet him. He is indeed disarming in his obvious simplicity, and the atmosphere that surrounds him might be described as that of innocence. He is childlike and mischievous as well as innocent. I discovered, and others have told me, that he is a superb actor with quickly changing moods.” (51)
The reference to being mischievous relates to a sense of humour, which was pronounced. This attribute is confirmed by a number of the sources. Although an ascetic entity, Meher Baba was anything but the stereotyped image of the mournful penitent. His fasts and seclusions are perhaps more interesting in view of such factors. He did not encourage asceticism or renunciation in his followers, and strongly advocated a "be in the world but not of the world" outlook.
The first thirty years of Meher Baba’s ashram career were marked by many incognito journeys, including some to Western countries in the 1930s. In India, he customarily travelled by third class rail, which could frequently be a difficult experience. (52) He notably demonstrated strong humanitarian and philanthropic tendencies, personally ministering to lepers and diverse indigents. He had a rather uncommon habit of washing the feet of poor people, and presenting them with a gift of food and clothing (or cloth), and sometimes money. He maintained these traits until the end of his life.
In 1936, Meher Baba created at Rahuri (about 30 miles north of Ahmednagar) a settlement for mad people, whom he personally tended. This became known as the Mad Ashram. Every day he would scour the ashram latrine, a task relegated to untouchables or low caste people in many Hindu ashrams. There was no publicity for this rather distinctive project, which had no economic motive.
The project moved to Meherabad the following year, and was the precursor of more specialised activities involving the obscure category defined as mast (God-intoxicated), comprising many Hindu and Muslim specimens on a nationwide basis. The only publicity for this unusual pursuit occurred in a book published in 1948, written by an English medical doctor named William Donkin, who personally observed a number of the events described. (53)
The charity for the poor maintained by Meher Baba was frequently anonymous. The selected needy persons were generally given numbered tickets supplying the address and date of the venue. The name of the benefactor was not given; Meher Baba was effectively incognito when he dispensed money or other gifts with his own hands. (54) Unlike certain well known gurus, he did not delegate philanthropic work to devotees, but instead performed the task himself.
There was no caste management at his ashrams. Meher Baba supervised everything himself, maintaining a simple routine, and gaining a degree of donor funding that enabled him to support various devotees and their families. The small number of ashram devotees were known as mandali, predominantly men but also some women, who all lived a simple lifestyle that involved ordinary clothes and no distinctive regalia. There was no ritualism or initiation.
During the late 1930s, a significant gesture was made by Upasni Maharaj. Via messengers, Upasni repeatedly requested Meher Baba to take over management of Sakori ashram. This tactic effectively dramatised the insular attitude of the existing caste Hindu management towards the Irani disciple. The management had been insisting for many years that Meher Baba was only an ordinary disciple of Upasni, just like them. This relegation was attended by their fear of his (Meher Baba's) resistance to caste ritualism and his known sympathies with the cause of untouchables.
The Irani disciple (now quite independent) would not agree to the request of Upasni, complaining at the Hindu ritualism that was prominent at Sakori and which signified caste exclusivism. Meher Baba stated that all the Hindu rituals would have to stop at Sakori if he agreed to the request.
After several years of this unusual series of communications (ongoing since 1936), Upasni became compliant with the counter request. In 1940, Meher Baba at last agreed to purchase Sakori ashram, on the basis of the exceptional arrangement about eliminating ritualism. However, nothing came of the proposal, which was evidently resisted by prominent Hindu devotees at Sakori, who viewed Meher Baba as an alien rival.
The last meeting between Meher Baba and Upasni Maharaj occurred in October 1941, at the insistent request of the latter. The venue was a solitary hut at Dahigaon, not far from Sakori. These two entities had not met for nearly twenty years. The event was unpublicised, and only a few persons were present. Upasni died two months later at Sakori.
Not until the 1950s did a new attitude emerge at Sakori. This change was brought about by Godavari Mataji, the female disciple of Upasni who had become the recognised spiritual leader of Sakori ashram. Her role had been elevated by the management, who were now very disconcerted to discover that she revered Meher Baba.
Godavari prevailed upon the management to allow Meher Baba to visit Sakori, first in 1952 and later in March 1954. The first visit was very brief. A detailed account exists of the more extensive sequel. Meher Baba proved to be tactful on that occasion, despite the stigmas which had been aimed at him in the past. He was very appreciative of Godavari Mataji, who also visited Meherabad with some of the other Sakori nuns. Meher Baba subsequently made further visits to Sakori ashram due to the intervention of Godavari. (55)
Meher Baba was markedly universalist in outlook. His early following comprised Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. He was noted for his disciplined way of life. Despite his lifelong silence commencing in 1925, he communicated fluently via an alphabet board and gesture language. His major book exhibits an unusual format, including many terms drawn from Sufism and Vedanta. He spoke Persian, Gujarathi, Marathi, and English. The Sufi streak in his thinking is fairly strong, though by no means total. He would not identify himself with any one religious or mystical tradition. For such reasons, he has proved difficult to classify.
Meher Baba abundantly demonstrated the religio-mystical syncretism which had been occurring in Maharashtra over the centuries. He made this very explicit in his major work, published in 1955, which incorporated Arabo-Persian and Sanskrit (and Marathi) vocabularies, thus strongly attesting Sufi and Vedantic associations. Ironically, this significant factor has been generally ignored.
He may be viewed as a successor to some aspects of the legacy associated with the Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmednagar, founded in 1494 and surviving into the seventeenth century. That regional dynasty was established by a brahman convert to Islam, namely Ahmed Nizam Shah, who possessed a strong ancestral link with Pathri. The Nizam Shahi dynasty, with their capital at Ahmednagar, exhibited more religious tolerance than many other Muslim rulerships. They were keen to patronise learning, with Persian constituting their official language. The Deccani Urdu dialect was strongly nurtured in this territory, resulting from a combination of Persian, Arabic, and Marathi. (56)
Certain associations with Hinduism are misleading. Meher Baba certainly did integrate some features of Hindu philosophy and terminology. However, he was basically at variance with the caste system, religious ritualism, and diverse trappings believed to represent spirituality. He was known to criticise Vedantic punditry, which so fluently recited scriptures and assumed that numerous renunciates were "knowers of Brahman." Meher Baba himself ministered to sadhus (holy men) in his rather distinctive charitable projects, but he is known to have remarked that such categories are not spiritually advanced (save perhaps in exceptional cases).
The teaching of Meher Baba strongly features reincarnation, though in an expanded format difficult to find elsewhere. He applied an intensive emphasis to the Sanskrit word sanskara ("impression"), here meaning an impression in the mind or a binding operative in consciousness. Ritualists and Yogis had used this term differently; Meher Baba is much closer to the latter, but nevertheless distinctive. He discountenanced Yogic exercises, which he viewed as bindings comprised of impressions (sanskaras) that trap the mind.
He sometimes referred to the situation of Yogis who claim the "stopped state of mind" in meditation. That condition, in which the mind is temporarily suspended, is deceptive. Meher Baba observed that when the meditation ceases, the Yogi is again subject to the complex flow of impressions in the mind. The Yogi has not escaped the sanskaras, which may even intensify.
Meher Baba did not view meditation as an end in itself, and maintained that this common resort cannot achieve what he called "God-realisation." This latter attainment he depicted as being extremely rare. One reason is that the impressions in the mind must be completely eliminated for this realisation to occur. Yet the elimination is virtually impossible to achieve, in view of the nature of impressions acting on the mind.
The scope for delusion is prodigious amongst enthusiasts of "nondualism" and other mystical concepts. How does anyone break through the subjective net of impressions which determine thoughts and actions? According to Meher Baba, only some of the 56 God-realized entities (living at any one time) are capable of eliminating the binding sanskaras in the mind of a suitably prepared individual. This version differs quite substantially from conventional and popular presentations of enlightenment, and also from the Aurobindo format [see Aurobindo Ghose].
The "spiritual hierarchy" theme of Meher Baba has some affinities with the "hierarchy of saints (awliya)" found in Sufism, although the format is different. The five leaders are here described in terms of qutub, an Arabic word meaning "axis" or "pivot." In Sufism, the five are sometimes split into the qutub and four awtad ("pillars"). The Irani exegete included (as an equivalent for qutub) the Hindu term sadguru, which he translated as "perfect master," a nuance intended to distinguish between a proficient grade and lesser roles of guru, yogi, and advaitin.
The teaching of Meher Baba is that of an independent mystic who had no link with organisational groupings associated with Islamic Sufism or Hinduism. His correlation of terminology between the Sufi and Vedantic traditions appears to have been unique. Furthermore, his version of transmigration through the species is explicable from a Darwinian perspective, and yet in a spiritualised format eschewing both Darwinist materialism and the superstitions about retrograde incarnation that can be found in Asiatic religions.
During the latter part of his life, from the 1940s, Meher Baba was active at another ashram called Meherazad, to the north of Ahmednagar. That new ashram (near the village of Pimpalgaon) remained secluded, and was very different to some of the more public institutions of Hindu gurus existing elsewhere. Meanwhile, he continued his incognito journeys. He also undertook public darshans on a very intermittent basis. During the 1950s, he made a public claim to be the avatar, a Hindu term meaning a divine incarnation. This proved to be the most controversial aspect of his career.
A motoring accident in 1956 curtailed his movements, leaving him with a damaged hip. In the late 1960s, he became noted for contesting the supposed spiritual validity of drug experiences, a belief which had become fashionable in the West. He was especially concerned to oppose the popular theories about LSD that were in favour amongst the hippy generation.
His tomb (built to his own specification in 1938) exists at Meherabad. This building resembles the Sufi dargahs of the Deccan, though relatively plain and unadorned. (57)
After his death, the Western followers of Meher Baba (including Pete Townshend) promoted a rather sentimental devotionalism. Many of them tended to favour simplistic catchphrases like “Don’t worry be happy.” That represented an aside of their figurehead, not his teaching, which remained relatively obscure, like many of the biographical details. See further Sectarian Issue and Oceanic.
11. The Sai Baba Movement at Issue
The close juxtaposition of the abovementioned three saints (or whatever they are diversely called) in Maharashtra has been considered distinctive, and even unique. These three entities (Sai Baba, Upasni Baba, Meher Baba) were significantly interlinked in terms of personal affiliations. Their geographical proximity is relevant. They covered a whole century and three Eastern religions between them, with Christian and other followers being added. The linguistic range encompassed Persian, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarathi, Sanskrit, and English.
This convergence has been dubbed the “Sai Baba movement.” Yet a problem is evident in such description. That is because the phrase “Sai Baba movement” was innovated by supporters of Sathya Sai Baba, whose career occurred in a different part of India. The contention of those supporters has amounted to endorsing the claim of Sathya Sai to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. The assumption is that Sathya Sai represents the culmination of the “movement” signified. This view has been contested. The basic claim has been particularly unpopular with the Sai Baba Sansthan of Shirdi, who are the most influential of the three Maharashtrian religious movements mentioned above.
Analysts have noted that the supporters of Sathya Sai tend very much to relegate Upasni Maharaj and Meher Baba in the sectarian preference for a theme of Shirdi Sai being reincarnated as Sathya Sai. The intervening figures are mentioned (mainly Upasni), but in a purely secondary context. From Shirdi to Puttaparthi is the basic emphasis of this interpretation.
The Puttaparthi ashram of Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011) is situated in Andhra Pradesh. From the initially humble beginnings in 1948, that ashram (known as Prashanthi Nilayam) grew into a very wealthy complex of buildings. Devotees extolled the humanitarian activities of Sathya Sai; his ashram was promoted as a paradise of love and spirituality. His miracles were believed to confirm his authority as a God-man, and his major work Sathya Sai Speaks received partisan acclaim as divine messages. That work is an extensive multi-volume presentation, the sub-title being Discourses of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
In another camp, disaffected Western ex-devotees insisted that the much publicised humanitarian activities at Puttaparthi were easy to accomplish via wealthy devotees, who actually performed the work involved. Some emphasise that Sathya Sai maintained a formidable security force to protect himself at the ashram. Allegations of sexual (homosexual) abuse by the guru are denied by devotee spokesmen. Many Western devotees left the movement in disillusionment from the year 2000 onwards. Certain of these people have contributed strong criticism of Sathya Sai Speaks, and also the hagiological works supporting this lengthy collection of discourses.
Accusations were lodged about economic manipulation at Puttaparthi. There was certainly an extensive funding involved, making possible the elaborate building programme at Puttaparthi. The ashram mandir (temple) is ornate, and Sathya Sai Baba has been described as creating "palaces." By the time of his death, his assets were considerable even by the standards of the super-rich. The precise total of those assets has varied in different reports. The scale runs from 9 billion to over 30 billion US dollars. Many devotees and critics were astonished when, in June 2011, the sealed private residence of the deceased guru was opened by officials. The inspectors found a hoard of gold and silver ornaments, plus the equivalent of 2.6 million dollars in cash. The total value of this personal hoard was assessed at being equivalent to 8 million US dollars.
Critics say that Sathya Sai Baba did not live up to the standards of a renunciate; the hoarding of wealth is discrepant with such a value system. A comparison with the Maharashtra trio in the putative "Sai Baba movement" is surely relevant.
Shirdi Sai never created an ashram, and merely lived in a rural mosque while daily begging his food. He died a poor man, without assets. Upasni Maharaj did permit his brahman devotees to build temples at Sakori ashram, a development which changed the character of that simple rural site. However, the scale of innovation was not comparable to the far more lavish Puttaparthi project. Upasni also maintained a frugal lifestyle.
Meher Baba established two permanent ashrams in the Ahmednagar zone, but these were both simple in appearance and function. The Irani mystic did not permit temples, and the utility structures in favour were basic, not elaborate. Indeed, the early colony at Meherabad was dismantled after only two years duration (1925-6), the population subsequently decreasing and eventually becoming sparse. This was not a public venue after the 1920s. Meherazad also remained simple to the end, housing only a small number of devotees and likewise not being a public venue. There was nothing here even remotely resembling the daily darshan (audience, meeting) at Puttaparthi, where Western guests were encouraged in large numbers from the 1970s onwards.
The disputed claim of Sathya Sai to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai arose in circumstances influenced by the popular “Shirdi revival” associated with B. V. Narasimhaswami, whose books were read in South India from 1938, being published at Madras. The official date for the declaration of reincarnation is 1940. However, this has been revised to 1943 by ex-devotee Brian Steel. Either date would accommodate the influence of Narasimhaswami’s version of “Sai Baba bhakti” and the attendant hagiology of miracles. Yet the revised date allows a much stronger anchorage in this respect.
Another controversial feature of Sathya Sai’s teenage years was his strong inclination to practise sleight of hand magic tricks. Critics like Basava Premanand have lodged the accusation that Sathya Sai later developed these tricks into an ambitious programme of deception, extending to the "materialisation" of jewellery and holy ash. A further drawback is that the extensive literature on Sathya Sai is markedly hagiographical.
The version of Shirdi Sai by Sathya Sai was enthusiastically extolled at Puttaparthi, but received with caution elsewhere. The relevant discourses have been observed to minimise the Muslim Sufi element and to reflect some themes of Narasimhaswami, including the alleged birth of Shirdi Sai at Pathri. (58)
The phrase “Sai Baba Movement” arose in the 1970s, being proposed by a Western academic in 1972. The innovator was principally referring to Shirdi Sai, Upasni Maharaj, Godavari Mataji, and Sathya Sai. Charles White was evidently influenced by the Sathya Sai movement, having met Sathya Sai at the latter’s Whitefield ashram (near Bangalore) in 1969. (59) Another academic writer, identified with the pro-Sathya category, added a brief version of Meher Baba at a later date. (60)
Ex-devotee Brian Steel has commented on the misleading nature of the White version, which stated: "The competence of Sathya Sai Baba to serve as the successor of Shirdi Sai Baba is increasingly recognised in the Sai Baba cult.” (61) Steel duly emphasises: “It is no secret outside Andhra Pradesh that most followers of Shirdi Sai have never accepted Sathya’s incarnation claims.” See further the critique by Brian Steel, On the Terms “Sai Baba” and “the Sai Baba Movement” (December 2008).
A number of scholars were observed to accept the description of “Sai Baba Movement” in a rather facile manner. This seems to have been initially the case with the late Dr. Marianne Warren (d. 2004). However, she eventually repudiated the basic associations in train. A devotee of Sathya Sai, her research on Shirdi Sai arrived at the overwhelming conclusion of a full-bodied Sufi identity that contradicted the Hinduized accounts. Observers noted the acute discrepancy between her findings and the version of Sathya Sai. Dr. Warren’s lengthy book Unravelling the Enigma (1999) was a clarification of many anomalies, although some issues were still awaiting resolution.
Soon after publication of the first edition of her book, Dr. Warren seceded from the Sathya Sai movement, instead siding with the growing ex-devotee mood of reaction. She subsequently contributed a revised edition (2004) of her book shortly before her death, amending the preface with some accusing statements aimed at her former guru. She now said that Sathya Sai had introduced “typical puranic stories” about the birth and life of the Shirdi saint, and by this she meant fictions of a Hinduizing nature. Dr. Warren also wrote the introduction to an intended future volume that would expose Sathya Sai. She now totally disagreed with his reincarnation claim, which she viewed as a symptom of opportunism. See Shirdi Sai Baba and Dr. Marianne Warren's Rejection of Sathya Sai.
Another ex-devotee has complained that enthusiasts of the reincarnation claim are actually celebrating the "Sathya Sai Baba Movement" of Andhra, not the earlier associated events in Maharashtra. See Brian Steel, web article linked above, and citing a recent academic work by Professor Smriti Srinivas. (62) See further the review by Steel of that work. Brian Steel here accuses Srinivas of failure to give due attention to the first two volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, which comprise discourses and claims recorded between 1953 and the early 1960s, “a period which most academics have also ignored, preferring to be guided by the Sathya Sai Organisation’s simplistic selection of four ‘landmark’ Discourses to indicate the progression of Sathya Sai Baba’s claims.”
Steel also urges that Srinivas has demonstrated “a tendency to read and use material favourable to Sathya Sai Baba and the official story of his Mission, while ignoring other points which have recently come to light.” Brian Steel stresses that certain critical works are missing from the lengthy bibliography of In the Presence of Sai Baba (2008), including those by Dr. Dale Beyerstein which query the alleged paranormal powers of the Puttaparthi guru.
“Although she (Srinivas) shows signs of being aware of critical Internet activity about Sathya Sai Baba in the past six years, she has chosen, deliberately (see pp. 333-334), not to examine it, thereby laying herself open to the criticism of staying too close to the 'official line' on Sathya Sai Baba, however unconsciously this may have occurred" (Steel, internet review of Srinivas, section 5).
The Steel analysis continues by emphasising a discrepancy, evident in the Srinivas book, of not adequately distinguishing between “two Sai Baba Movements.” He urges that the Shirdi Sai (Baba) Movement should be regarded as distinct from the Sathya Sai (Baba) Movement. The point being that "Srinivas makes frequent specific references to the 'Sathya Sai Baba Movement' as a synonym for her (debatable) concept of the 'Sai Baba Movement'."
Brian Steel pointedly alights upon the idea (favoured by Srinivas) of the two Sai figures being "identified" within the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. He observes that this claim "is clearly Sathya-centric and Shirdi-exclusive." Nearly forty pages further on, Professor Srinivas acknowledges that the Sai Baba Sansthan at Shirdi "does not recognise any successor to [Shirdi] Sai Baba."
Steel concludes that the Srinivas presentation “makes the elementary mistake” of regarding allegations of sexual abuse as being the most central component of the controversies about Sathya Sai. Some academics conveniently treat the status of allegation as being cause to ignore the controversy.
“Coincidentally, but more deliberately, the Sathya Sai Organisation often adopts a similar attitude in order to be able to issue lofty dismissals of all critical comment and discussion” (Steel review of Srinivas).
According to Steel, a more fundamental issue than the sexual allegations are the obvious discrepancies between the translated content of Sathya Sai Speaks and the original Telegu discourses. Yet these matters are likewise ignored by the disputed commentary of Srinivas.
The problems and anomalies attaching to “Sai Baba movement” conceptualism are not restricted to the reincarnation controversy and the dispute about miracles. There is also the relatively neglected matter of two avatars being discernible in the supposed “movement” theorised by Charles White and others. The word avatar belongs to the Hindu lexicon and generally has the meaning of divine incarnation.
The two major devotional biographies of Meher Baba supply relevant details. In February 1954, Meher Baba publicly confirmed his avatar role by dictating on his alphabet board the words “Avatar Meher Baba ki jai,” representing a devotional salute that he had never before acknowledged. The biographers make much of this, and relay that he was formerly indifferent to what people called him. (63)
For many years, the title of Meher Baba was often merely Shri, a common term of respect amongst Hindus. He was also sometimes called Sadguru, which is a more celebratory word. Yet as from February 10, 1954, Meher Baba referred to himself as avatar both in public and in private. He subsequently supplied complex explanations of the avatar role. He is known to have made earlier sporadic private references to his avatar identity, and these date back to the 1920s.
The venue for the public confirmation was Mahewa, in the Hamirpur district of Uttar Pradesh. This event occurred during a darshan tour, which gained a sequel that same month in Andhra. In response to invitations, Meher Baba visited a number of towns in Andhra, such as Eluru and Rajahmundry, many thousands of people being involved. These darshan tours represented a major extension of his contact with Hindus in a devotional milieu. At Eluru, he also visited a temple dedicated to Shirdi Sai, and is reported to have said of the latter: “He is my Grandfather.” (64) The meaning related to a spiritual ancestry devolving via Upasni Maharaj.
These events occurred during the very early years of the Puttaparthi ashram, and before the discourses of Sathya Sai began to be published in 1955 (in the form of Sathya Sai Speaks). The avataric claims of both Meher Baba and Sathya Sai Baba sound fantastic to most critical assessors. However, the former did not annexe any recent saint in his claim. Meher Baba instead referred to a long term cyclical manifestation of avataric entities, meaning the founders of religions. This theme might be interpreted as an attempt to embrace or unite different religions, five of which were mentioned in the exegesis under discussion. The Irani avatar of Maharashtra remained impervious to miracle consumerism, which he frequently criticised, and this is one of his most impressive traits. He was also very resistant to the caste system and attendant forms of ritualism.
In contrast, Sathya Sai formulated a theme of “triple avatar,” as this has been called. The pivotal reference often cited dates to July 6, 1963, and can be found in Vol. 3 of Sathya Sai Speaks. In the relevant discourse Shiva-Shakthi, Sathya Sai briefly referred to himself as an incarnation of Shiva and Shakti (Shiva is the “destroyer” deity, and Shakti is the feminine consort). Shirdi Sai is here described as an incarnation of Shiva, while the third in the series is named as Prema Sai Baba, here identified with Shakti. In a later statement, Sathya Sai said that he would live to the age of 96 (i.e., 2022), and that Prema Sai would be born eight years after.
The ex-devotee analyst Brian Steel has contributed an important online bibliography relating to Sathya Sai. He describes the influential four volume biography by Narayan Kasturi as “rank hagiography.” This refers to Sathyam Sivaram Sundaram (1961-80). Kasturi is reported to have acknowledged a heavy debt to a booklet of 30 pages dating to 1944, originally written in Telegu by V. C. Kondappa. Sixty years later, the translation has been entitled Sai's Story, and includes the assertion that this was the first book ever written about Sathya Sai. The contents include several pages of alleged early Shirdi Sai biography in relation to the reincarnation claim, which had then so recently been made, in 1943 and not in 1940 as Kasturi believed. (65)
Brian Steel has offered many pressing reflections upon the discourses of Sathya Sai, including the Convocation discourse of 22/11/2008. In that discourse, the guru gave the misleading message of “No bombs for India,” a statement which completely ignored the ongoing terrorist attacks in India. The embarrassing statement was quickly removed, from the (visible internet) discourse in question, by the Sathya Sai Organisation and devotee websites.
Ex-devotees made much of this matter. In the excised paragraph, Sathya Sai stated that "in India, there is no fear of bombs; India will never have any such attacks." This assertion was made immediately prior to the grim terrorist attack at Mumbai in late November 2008. The guru mistakenly claimed that America and Germany were in a far more critical condition of fear about terrorism. It was well known that India had been suffering terrorist attacks for two years or so. Sathya Sai was clearly out of contact with current events.
According to Steel, “the constant disappearance of embarrassing or incorrect utterances by Sathya Sai Baba is a well documented phenomenon.” Critics maintain that extensive editing was applied, before publication, to the Telegu discourses of the Puttaparthi guru.
In 2002, a flourishing multilingual website maintained by some devotees of Sathya Sai (a group called Premsai) "totally disappeared from the Internet." This Premsai website inadvertently afforded clear proof about the extent of official editing in relation to the guru's Telegu discourses, before their publication and translation in several languages. Steel relates that "the new insights into the Discourses also raised important questions outside devotee circles about the official image of Sathya Sai Baba as projected for so many years by the Sathya Sai Organisation."
According to the same researcher, a comparison of literal translations and the final edited form of discourses, reveals that Sathya Sai Baba's “impromptu public preaching in Telegu is rambling, not very well structured, and sometimes contains unclear or muddled statements, discrepancies, and errors.” Ex-devotees have accordingly objected to the guru's claim of omniscience, which has been strongly promoted by the Sathya Sai Organisation. See Brian Steel, Sathya Sai Baba Discourse Evidence Disappears from Public View (2008). Steel also made a visit to the ashram of Sathya Sai in 2008. (66)
12. Sectarian Globalisation and Devotional Memory
A book by Professor Smriti Srinivas is In the Presence of Sai Baba (2008). This work acknowledges that the bulk of material employed was furnished by the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. The coverage by Srinivas emphasises the globalisation of that movement, but evidences a disinterest in critical sources from ex-devotees and others. In the eyes of critics, this form of presentation, though innovative in a sociological sense, is nevertheless one-sided and misleading.
The Srinivas presentation benefits from fieldwork in different countries, and formulates a sociological theory in relation to global centres of the Sathya Sai Baba Movement, i.e., Bangalore, Nairobi, Atlanta. This theory differs from official doctrines of the movement, which are nevertheless compatible. Some basic themes are declared in the sub-title, i.e., body, city, and memory in a global religious movement. Some analysts think that devotional memory is the most significant of these components. Yet there are disadvantages signified by the excision factor, meaning that critical sources are eschewed, these being an embarassment to sectarian doctrine. Devotional (and sectarian) memory frequently screens out matters not appearing in doctrine.
The limitations of “devotional memory” can be pronounced. The Muslim faqir Shirdi Sai was de-Islamized to fit Hindu devotee preferences. The Irani Zoroastrian Meher Baba was censored by brahmanical caste prejudices in the devotional following of Upasni Maharaj at Sakori. The Shirdi variant of devotional memory discounted the eulogistic statements of Sai Baba about Upasni and instead opted to view the latter as a peripheral factor. The Hindu champion of female celibates was subsequently libelled by ultra-conservative Hindu insularists.
A pro-sectarian tactic was conducted by American blogger Gerald Joe Moreno during the years 2004-10. The loaded pro-Sathya apologist campaign of Moreno exhibited an unyielding attitude amounting to: “remove or caricature all sources that compromise sectarian priorities and beliefs.”
The aggressive internet campaign of Moreno was strongly associated with the Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO), sometimes described as International Sai Organisation, which is misleading in that there are two Sai entities to account for. The SSO had become inseparable from the presiding official Michael Goldstein of California, who was alleged to be in affinity with Moreno (alias Equalizer). The total absence of sectarian accountability resulted in a defamatory agenda aimed at critics of anomalies. That is what can happen in devotional memory and globalisation drives.
When a sector of American anthropology (associated with the University of California) opted for the excision factor, the standard of elucidation remained at the heavily compromised stage of effective support for sectarian sources at the expense of ex-devotee and related non-sectarian critiques. Criteria such as “devotional memory” require to be complemented and enlarged. Globalisation of the Sathya Sai Baba Movement is surely no excuse for libellous blogs and the extremist website saisathyasai.com. The academic relegation of critical reports can unfortunately have the effect of assisting apologist actions, which may be aggressive.
Two of the key phrases associated with In the Presence of Sai Baba (2008) are “understandings of citizenship” and “new forms of urban modernity.” What does this actually mean in real life rather than academic theory? To take a known recent example: an eighty year old relative of mine (my mother) was targeted by the Moreno sectarian campaign flourishing in the urban modernity of Las Cruces in New Mexico. Five copyrighted photographs of her were insolently and vindictively paraded on the primary Moreno website saisathyasai.com. There was an accompanying mockery caption, and an offensive paragraph containing a known libel promulgated by the controversial Findhorn Foundation [associated with problems involved in the David Lorimer issue].
The victim had done absolutely nothing to merit such a calculating attack from the internet terrorism of the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. She was not a computer user, and had not mentioned Moreno. The truth is that Jean Shepherd (Kate Thomas) was attacked because she is my mother. The issue of relatives (of victims) being targeted by manic cult psychology is now on the agenda for realistic analysis in "understandings of citizenship." The cyberstalker tendency to attack all connections of victims is a further warning.
The Moreno attack shifted from vilification of ex-devotees to denunciation of a complete outsider (myself) – although some journalists and the BBC had also been castigated. While close analysts conceded that many of the devotees (especially in India and Africa) do not evidence aggression, a growing fear developed that the provocative example set by Moreno (allegedly backed by Goldstein) could prove contagious elsewhere in the Sathya Sai Baba Movement, more especially in America. This prospect might too easily lead to a widespread spate of harassments and libels.
The preferred blog anonymity of Gerald Joe Moreno (alias Equalizer and other pseudonyms) is unfortunately another problem, making it difficult for uninformed parties to discern the web ploys conducted in the cause of Sathya Sai Baba. See my analysis of a cult defamation. Moreno is said to have died in 2010, but his numerous blogs are still visible on the internet.
“New forms of urban modernity” are perhaps particularly dangerous in a country like America, where there is virtually no limit to misrepresentation by the blog detritus and cultweb encouraged by blogspot.com and wordpress.com. New forms of international legal expertise are required to deal with the excesses, which are American, and inimical to the misunderstood and abused citizenship trashed by "devotional memory" and sectarian globalisation at defective blogger level.
The present writer contributed an annotated book entitled Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005). This was suppressed on Wikipedia in 2006 by Gerald Joe Moreno (SSS108), and in a clear context of total opposition to ex-devotee objections (and allegations) in relation to the Puttaparthi guru. I had reported those objections in appendices. The text of the proscribed book awarded a sympathetic treatment to three other gurus/saints (Shirdi Sai, Upasni Maharaj, Meher Baba). It was not therefore an "anti-guru" book of the type despised by Moreno. The observer verdict over quite a wide spectrum has been one of alarm at belligerent pro-sectarian tactics. See further Wikipedia Issues and Sathya Sai Baba (2009) and Wikipedia, Gerald Joe Moreno, Google (2008). See also Hate Campaign Blogs.
In more general terms, the problem of deficient gurus has been spotlighted by the Indian Rationalist cause. One of the spokesmen here is Professor Narendra Nayak, who has urged the elimination of godmen and superstitions from India. This is a controversial issue. Events in Kerala were much discussed. In May 2008, Swami Amrithachaithanya “was arrested in Kochi for alleged rape and possession of narcotics and pornographic films.” Furthermore, “after the incident, complaints against godmen started pouring in from various parts of the state [Kerala], prompting the government to initiate a statewide crackdown.”
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 2009 (modified October 2013, February 2015, and January 2016)
UPDATE: Tulasi Srinivas and the Politics of Religion
In 2010, a significant book was published by Columbia University Press. Professor Tulasi Srinivas, an anthropologist at Emerson College, emerged with a version of the Sathya Sai Baba sect that broke new ground in academic literature. Professor Srinivas included some coverage of dissident online reports. This dimension is considered relevant by the more thorough investigators, though frequently ignored to date by political strategies and one-sided academic commentaries.
A variety of sources were employed by Professor Srinivas in Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (2010). In contrast to the amiable academic reviews was a very hostile coverage by the Pro-Sai activist Gerald Joe Moreno (of New Mexico), appearing on his website saisathyasai.com and his blog at geraldjoemoreno.wordpress.com. That disapproving review is dated June 30th, 2010, and is composed in the third person, as are many Moreno pseudonymous blogs that appear under names like Equalizer. Moreno asserts that Winged Faith is "poorly researched, highly biased." This opinion urges that the book by Professor Srinivas "heavily relies" upon the critical internet material supplied by disillusioned devotees of Sathya Sai Baba.
Moreno applied the stigma of "tattered research" to the Srinivas book. This is strongly reminiscent of other verdicts from the same blogger concerning materials and publications that are not invested with academic status. The fact that professorial research is also denigrated as an aberration may be significant. Professor Srinivas spent nine years in her research, and therefore may have been getting to grips with the controversial subject.
Emerson College has supplied a description of Winged Faith in terms of telling "the promising and problematic story of a rapidly globalizing Indic sect." However, Gerald Joe Moreno does not recognise any problematic elements, which are instead considered to lie solely with the critics.
A familiar theme of Moreno is that he is not a devotee of the guru (although formerly he was one). He accuses Professor Srinivas of neglecting this contention. He states correctly that he did provide this information on his FAQ page in 2005 (which I have elsewhere acknowledged, and with the comment "though Moreno says that he is not a devotee, it is obvious that he considers himself to be a Pro-Sai Activist"). However, in view of the very strident defence of Sathya Sai Baba made by Moreno via innumerable blogs, observers have frequently interpreted his contribution in the context of a devotee supporter. Furthermore, his vehement attacks on critics and objectors have been so severe, in a number of cases, that a contrasting identity requires special pleading. If not a devotee, then surely a very militant supporter with a strong devotee background in his earlier years.
Sectarian overtones of his Pro-Sai activist argument are strongly deducible. Moreno's extensive agitation, against persons he derisively called "Anti-Sai" commentators, has been considered a prime instance of sectarian standpoint, and one that is increasingly notorious (he has also opposed critics of other gurus). His general presentation of Sathya Sai Baba is that of the immaculate guru who transcends all allegations of abuse made by ex-devotees. Many of the latter regard Moreno as a blog bully and internet hit man. His website at saisathyasai.com gained disrepute as an excessive exercise in justifying the guru against all criticisms and allegations, which Moreno ridiculed in terms of "smear campaign."
Moreno's own explicit campaign has extended to defamatory google blogs claiming to "expose" a number of persons (including myself) who have argued against him. Rational dialogue cannot occur in such a situation. Strong suspicions of an underlying cult tactic have been aroused.
The Moreno review of Winged Faith states that "although Moreno [third person] runs the largest internet websites exposing the many smear campaigns waged against Sathya Sai Baba by critics and ex-devotees, Tulasi Srinivas never attempted to contact Moreno even once although she cited links to his websites." The accusation of not contacting Moreno was also made by him in my direction a few years ago (in 2007), and was transparent as a rhetorical device, especially in view of his then very recent hostile gestures.
In his capacity as Wikipedia editor SSS108 (a role subsequently terminated by a Wikipedia arbitration committee), Moreno had less than a year earlier attacked my books on a Wikipedia User page, and strongly insinuated that my publishing output was effectively off the map and totally inconsequential. See Wikipedia and Moreno. He followed up this "official" denunciation with a related aspersion on a sectarian blog at wordpress.com. My subsequent online objections were evaded and dismissed in various ways, including the accusation of not having contacted him. I had seen online what happened to persons who did contact him, their emails being paraded as proof of error and worse.
Moreno finds fault with some of the notes in Winged Faith, and even implies that Professor Srinivas would be laughed out of Emerson College in the light of his disclosures. To date, that exit has not occurred, and is even less likely to happen when the accusations have been duly assessed. I will here confine attention to the accusations with which I am more intimately acquainted.
In reference to pages 353-4 of Winged Faith, Moreno chastises the author for having referred to myself as a "biographer of Shirdi Sai Baba." His discourtesy can be overwhelming. A bizarre justification for this indictment is supplied in terms of "a vanity self-publisher who admitted he is not an academic and who admitted he dropped out of school at the age of fifteen." I have objected to such stigmas more than once, countering the sector of sectarian hate campaign. See Hate Campaign Blogs.
I have not had to admit anything, as I never claimed anything in respect of academic status. This is known from my published output since 1983, nearly thirty years ago, and long before Moreno appeared on the web. My route through life and study has intentionally bypassed the salaried career of credential (as some academics do appreciate). See Autobiographical Reflections. The Moreno commentary is more than superficial, being vindictively deceptive. He himself had no academic credentials, and also no history of private library research or authorship of annotated books. He is currently classifiable as an inhabitant of the American blogosphere since 2004 (he is said to have died in 2010).
The Moreno review of Srinivas also describes me as "a malicious critic of Sathya Sai Baba." What I actually did was to report the submerged views of dissidents and critics like the late Basava Premanand, an Indian Rationalist who referred to many disturbing murders and other molestations closely associated with the guru. I contributed a web article entitled Sathya Sai Baba: Problems. This was not malicious, but effectively defensive, and in the face of censorious antipathy devolving from Wikipedia via Pro-Sai activism. If Premanand was even partly right, the Indian situation was horrific for many years and nurtured a strong element of terrorism.
I am also described by Moreno's third person rhetoric as having "fanatically accused Moreno" of being an internet terrorist. That description was indeed evoked from me in 2009, but not in any fanatical cause. The web article Internet Terrorist was a defence and statement against the dismissive libel to which I had been subjected, and which has invited legal analysis.
The Moreno web campaign against myself subsequently infiltrated Wikipedia at a renewed angle in 2009, and to such an extent that superficial editors and administrators (having no obvious research ability) were deceived by the blog tactics (see Wikipedia and Kevin Shepherd). Professor Tulasi Srinivas has been more resistant to the politics of sectarian religion, and can be congratulated upon a standard of reporting and research that is far more objective than the customary academic relegation of such matters to oblivion.
Professor Srinivas was correct to cite me as a biographer of Shirdi Sai Baba, though I do not claim any great achievement in that respect. I have to date provided two published and annotated biographical overviews, and one online annotated overview on the present webpage. Non-sectarian analysts have concluded that I contributed the first annotated version of Shirdi Sai in his Muslim Sufi context (Gurus Rediscovered, 1986), and the first annotated biographical commentary disputing some emphases found in two academic works of note (Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, Part One).
Moreno ends his hostile aspersion against myself with the remark that "this is the type of person that Tulasi Srinivas deemed credible enough to cite as a reference in her book." Once again, the contrivance of total stigma, unfit to be cited, further justifying Moreno's Wikipedia editorial role in 2006 when he had reacted to a citation of my book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. The disdained citation appeared in the Wikipedia article on the ex-devotee and retired academic Robert C. Priddy. The "Anti-Sai" opposition was favouring me, so I had to be censored by Pro-Sai activism on Wikipedia. See also Wikipedia Issues [and Tulasi Srinivas and Moreno].
In April 2010, I deleted the sole known image of Moreno from my websites. He was aggravating about this matter, and so I complied. He desired anonymity. It is obviously convenient for some parties to avoid the protocol of due pictorial web identity, a common trait of the blogosphere and Wikipedia. Moreno did not return the conciliatory gesture, instead preserving the images of myself that he had appropriated from my Citizen Initiative website, and also retaining the abused images of my mother (who had never mentioned him). Further, in June 2010 he made the additional disparaging references abovecited in his misleading review of Professor Srinivas. That is "the type of person deemed credible enough" as a role model by Pro-Sai activism (allegedly funded by an official of the Sathya Sai Organisation).
Moreno also berates Professor Srinivas for citing Conny Larsson, an eccentric ex-devotee whose activities in new age "workshops" and "counselling" have been profiled. Moreno is well known for his attacks on Larsson, due to the latter's fame as a major testifier to abuse (meaning sexual abuse by Sathya Sai Baba). Moreno here makes the very misleading statement that "Robert Priddy and Kevin R. D. Shepherd attempted to defend Conny Larsson and were subsequently silenced by two scathing responses by Moreno."
A few words can be said about this misrepresentation. Firstly, Gerald Joe Moreno has frequently referred to me in combination with the ex-devotee Robert Priddy (his major and ultimate opponent). The truth is that I am a complete outsider to the Sathya Sai Baba sect, and hold independent views to those of ex-devotees.
Priddy has valid complaints, and demonstrates an extensive output. The persistent attempt of Moreno to "expose" him has been strongly denied, e. g., Robert Priddy Not Exposed. More graphic is Priddy's own statement at Gerald Moreno. Priddy complains of an excessive and distorting campaign moving well beyond the conventions of legitimate criticism. These matters of sectarian psychology generally sound almost incredible.
In more philosophical areas however, I do not agree with Priddy's overall worldview, as his disillusionment with Sathya Sai Baba created in him a strong tendency to materialist scepticism which I do not share. This shift of outlook frequently happens to people in his category, and is quite understandable. The ultimate truth remains elusive. Priddy closes down metaphysical issues, whereas I leave those open, though not in any sectarian or cultist context. Remote from such intellectual complexities, Moreno devised the ludicrous story that I endorse Priddy as an LSD consumer. The poverty of sectarian contrivance is acute.
Secondly, I did not defend Larsson's eccentric "workshop" career, which I regard as an indulgence and distraction, and a cause of further confusions. A number of ex-devotees have sought psychological reassurance in other "alternative" avenues after their acute dissatisfaction with the guru. To be fair, Larsson has contested the accusations made against him by Moreno, and Priddy has not been silenced on that matter.
I merely cited the statements of Larsson about alleged sexual abuse and related matters. Moreover, I was not silenced by the extremely misleading responses of Gerald Joe Moreno, and the following year I provided a commentary on the Moreno-Larsson role problems, the purport of which was ignored by Moreno, who never accepted criticism of his extremist arguments and tactics. The title of the relevant entry was New Age Confusions and Sectarian Misinformation, meaning Larsson and Moreno respectively.
Until more academic researchers rigorously evaluate sectarian occurrences, including the blog campaign category, there will be no due education on these matters, with proportionate casualties and confusions in the public sector. Those drawbacks include the Wikipedia administration, whose aggregate ability to penetrate sectarian argument and the blogosphere is dismally deficient, as events have demonstrated. Wikipedia anomalies should not be forgotten, in case these happen again, afflicting further victims [see also Wikipedia misinformation].
In the interests of transparency, my total web output is indexed at Kevin Shepherd Bibliography.
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
February 2011 (slightly modified November 2015)
(1) Shepherd, Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986). Revisions and amplifications occurred in a later work of mine (published in 2005 as Investigating the Sai Baba Movement). Gurus was recognised in some circles as a relevant innovation in dealing with two figures who had become separated into contrasting sectarian figureheads. For a more extensive version of the Shirdi saint, see Shepherd, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling, 2015).
(2) “Contemporary sources show that the mystical philosophy and social role of the Chishtis of Daulatabad differed markedly from that of the Turkish babas and the Safavis in Iran, which both combined radical elements of Shi’ism with tribal military affiliations.” The quote comes from Carl W. Ernst, Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 100-101.
(3) Cf. Richard M. Eaton, Sufis of Bijapur 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (Princeton University Press, 1978). In support of the non-warrior counter theory, Professor Ernst states that “the early Chishtis were generally either urban Sufis with close connections to the court or else reclusive teachers who maintained their lodges in remote areas” (Ernst, op. cit., p. 101).
(4) See further Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India Vol. One (New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1978), pp. 175ff., 189, describing frictions with Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, the ambitious monarch who established Daulatabad in an effort to maintain subjugation of the Deccan, and who wished to transfer many Sufis to that new centre, for the purpose of undermining their influence in Delhi. However, the philosophers (falasifa) are reported to have benefited from political developments.
(5) Marianne Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling, 1999), pp. 91ff., and citing the statement of Meher Baba. Warren stipulates (without proof) the cave on Hoda Hill, which is closely associated with the Chishti Sufi known as Zar Zari Zar Bakhsh (d.1309), alias Muntajebuddin Zarzari. The reference of Meher Baba was first exhumed in my Gurus Rediscovered, pp. 11-12. See also my Biographical Investigation, pp. 39-40. Dr. Warren attributes one of the reports involved to Naosherwan Anzar, but in fact that Parsi merely edited the narration of Eruch B. Jessawala, which is entitled The Ancient One: A Disciple's Memoirs of Meher Baba (New Jersey 1985), and cited in Gurus. On the legendary Muntajebuddin, see Ernst, Eternal Garden, pp. 235ff.
(6) Shepherd, Biographical Investigation (2015), pp. 22-37. My interpretation differs, in some basic respects, from that of Warren. A specific Sufi link was proposed for Sai Baba in B. K. Narayan, Saint Shah Waris Ali and Sai Baba (New Delhi: Vikas, 1995). The mentor here suggested is Haji Shah Waris Ali (1819-1905), a Sufi who became noted for tolerance towards Hindus, and who has some similarities to the Shirdi saint.
(7) See Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, pp. 261-333, and including a translation of the Urdu Notebook. Some pages of that document were written in the obscure Marathi script known as Modi, but the Notebook mostly comprises Deccani Urdu. Though idiosyncratic in some ways, the Notebook (or Saibaba MS) attests familiarity of the saint with Islamic history, including early Shi'ism, Ismaili teachings, and the Sufi orders in India. The comments of the saint arose from a Muslim devotee reading verses in the Quran, a large copy of which was kept for this purpose at the mosque. Dr. Warren believed that only “a very small percentage” of the commentary was ever written down by Abdul (ibid., p. 313).
(8) Ibid., p. 267. Abdul mentioned the Notebook in his later conversations with Narasimhaswami during the 1930s, but the latter evidently could not assimilate the significances, and was at a linguistic disadvantage, not being able to read Urdu.
(9) Ibid., p. 277. Dr. Warren had the Notebook of Abdul examined and translated into English by three Urdu specialists, who all agreed that the manuscript comprises random jottings relating to Islamic and Sufi topics (ibid., p. 272). The Notebook is not therefore a treatise demonstrating continuity of thought, but the contents are nevertheless evocative.
(10) Ibid., pp. 3-8. See also Nagesh V. Gunaji, Shri Sai Satcharita or the Wonderful Life and Teachings of Shri Sai Baba (1944), which has gained many reprints published by the Shri Sai Baba Sansthan of Shirdi. See also Indira Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Life and Teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling, 1999).
(11) Shepherd, Gurus Rediscovered, p. 26; Warren, op. cit., pp. 35-6; Antonio Rigopoulos, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 3. See also J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 49, 310, and translating the Arabic word sa’ih as itinerant, an equivalent of the Persian darvish (anglicised to dervish).
(12) Trimingham, op. cit., p. 301; Ernst, Eternal Garden, p. 375. Many Hindu sadhus or holy men are commonly addressed as Baba, frequently with the respectful suffix ji. Alternative titles are Sant (saint) and Maharaj(a), the latter word having regal connotations.
(13) Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005), p. 26. The urs was subsequently accompanied by the Hindu festival known as Ramanavami, which eclipsed the precedent after the saint's death (Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, 2015, pp. 131-133).
(14) Shepherd, Investigating, p. 179 note 106. This explanation of the Bhagavad Gita verse was transmitted to Nanasaheb Chandorkar, a brahman devotee. The episode was recorded by Dabholkar, and also in three books of B. V. Narasimhaswami, including Devotees' Experiences of Sri Sai Baba (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1940).
(15) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 357. The Gita verse (IV.34) under discussion is here described in terms of approaching a guru to be taught divine knowledge (jnana). It is discernible that the saint of Shirdi actually argued against the conventional meaning of the Gita verse. Sai Baba emphasised that what the guru teaches is ajnana (ignorance), not jnana, amounting to a thorn designed to remove another thorn. He further asserted that “divine knowledge is to be realised, not taught” (ibid., p. 359). Warren connects this interpretation with the Sufi theme of removing veils or layers of ignorance.
(16) Ibid., pp. 360, 404ff. The interviews conducted by Narasimhaswami during 1936 were reported in his subsequent work entitled Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba. The majority of those persons interviewed became devotees of the Shirdi saint after 1910. Only three of them had a link with Sai Baba prior to 1900.
(17) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 348. The same scholar adds a translation from Dabholkar's Marathi work, which describes Sai Baba’s refrain of Allah malik in terms of: “he disliked any thought contrary to this assertion and would not tolerate any dissent” (ibid., p. 349).
(18) Ibid., p. 356, commenting that, as Narasimhaswami could not speak these languages, he did not interview faqirs in the Shirdi environs who had known Sai Baba. Dr. Warren emphasises that an important aspect of Sai Baba's activity was contact with the wandering faqirs, who spoke Marathi or Urdu.
(19) Rigopoulos, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi, p. xxv. The quote does not do justice to the content of Devotees' Experiences. In more general terms, hagiology was extensive by the 1950s. In 1954, Meher Baba complained that the miracle atmosphere at Shirdi had led to a commercialisation of Sai Baba, whose image could be found "in cinemas and on match boxes." This reference comes from Charles Purdom and Malcolm Schloss, Three Incredible Weeks with Meher Baba (The Awakener - Special Issue, Seattle, Washington, 1955), p. 50.
(20) See further B. V. Narasimhaswami, Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-56). The two quotations from the Life were pointedly utilised in Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, pp. 2, 356, and citing Vol. 3, pp. 152, 157. Cf. Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, 2015, pp. 328-337. Narasimhaswami also composed other works on the subject that proved popular, starting with his early Introduction to Sri Sai Baba of Shirdi (1938) and the oft-cited Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings, which has frequently been reprinted.
(21) “A few Hindus began offering him some kind of worship inside the masjid [mosque], though Sai Baba strongly disapproved” (Rigopoulos, op. cit., p. 69). Only Mhalsapati at first seems to have been involved. This brahman would apply sandal paste to the saint’s person. The Muslims of Shirdi protested, and several of them resorted to wielding clubs when they guarded the mosque entrance. Mhalsapati here emerged victorious by gaining the support of Sai Baba (Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, 2015, pp. 128-130).
(22) Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita, pp. 78-79; Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 55-56; M. V. Kamath and V. B. Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint (Bombay: Jaico, 1991), p. 79, describing the son-in-law as a mantrika. Cf. Warren, op. cit., pp. 104, 127 note 10. The report of Ramgiri Bua appeared in Narasimhaswami, Devotees’ Experiences (1940). Ramgiri stated that the saint had long hair when he arrived in Shirdi, but this detail is at variance with the kafni and cap reported in his meeting with Chand Patel, the Muslim of Dhupked who was encountered prior to the final arrival at Shirdi (Rigopoulos, op. cit., pp. 51-2). The dating for the latter event varies in the sources between 1858 and 1872. Further, a number of formerly unknown and purported Shirdi Sai photographs have recently emerged on the internet. Some of these are definitely not Shirdi Sai. One of these photographs shows a figure with long hair and a loincloth, reminiscent of a Hindu yogi. This photo has been claimed as a portrait of Shirdi Sai in his early years. Even if authentic, this photograph does not prove that the subject was a Hindu. Long hair was favoured amongst Persian dervishes during the Qajar era; also, a minority of Muslim ascetics in India converged with features of the sadhu vocation. The authenticated images of Shirdi Sai attest the Muslim faqir apparel, which was also worn by his disciple Abdul Baba.
(23) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, pp. 268-70, 346-7, and reporting a personal encounter at Shirdi with Abdul Baba's grandson Rahim Khan. Dr. Warren comments that the lifesize marble statue (murti) of Sai Baba, at the Shirdi shrine, has probably been the main deterrent to Muslims, who are averse to anthropomorphic representation. See also Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 280-286.
(24) Mani Sahukar, Sai Baba: The Saint of Shirdi (third edn, Bombay: Somaiya, 1983), p. 24. The confusion here, about bearing the caste marks of a Hindu, arose from references to the application of sandal paste to the saint's forehead during the ritual worship at the mosque. Elsewhere, Hindus are also known to have enthusiastically applied a ceremonial mark to the forehead of Meher Baba during some darshan events. However, the Irani Zoroastrian was obviously not a Hindu, despite such devotional attention. See also Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 84-85.
(25) Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), p. 46. "Although familiar with various features of Islamic exegesis, Shirdi Sai departed from the role of orthodox Sufi, and may be compared with liberal Sufi radicals in earlier times" (ibid., p. 47).
(26) Arthur Osborne, The Incredible Sai Baba (Calcutta, 1957; London: Rider, 1958, pp. 15-16). In his prefatory acknowledgment, Osborne writes that he had spoken to Narasimhaswami before the latter's demise, and been requested to make full use of the Narasimhaswami publications.
(27) Warren, op. cit., pp. 86-8. Cf. Rigopoulos, op. cit., p. 8, who duly remarks that “the motif of the Hindu birth of reputed Muslim figures is often attested to in Indian hagiographic literature.” Cf. Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint, pp. 14-18, which reports an investigation of Pathri Hinduism in the 1970s, and proffering the theory that Sai Baba originated from the Bhusari family of brahmans. Cf. Warren, op. cit., p. 87, stating that "even today sixty per cent of the population [of Pathri] is Muslim and it is not surprising that Pathri's rich Muslim Sufi heritage is the environment which nurtured Sai Baba in his early years."
(28) Osborne, op. cit., p. 69, and adding the belief that Sai Baba "referred frequently to his Hindu Guru and to Hindu scriptures and Gods" (ibid.).
(29) E.g., Osborne, pp. 78, 122, who emphasises that Sai Baba used the word brahman (anglicised to brahmin) in the sense of a spiritually inclined person or spiritual elect. See also Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), p. 9.
(30) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 37ff., referring to the influential legend of Venkusha that is primarily associated with Das Ganu, a well known Hindu devotee of Sai Baba, who linked a laconic utterance of the Shirdi saint with Gopalrao Deshmukh, the putative guru of Sai. The reference of Sai Baba to “Venkusha” remains typically enigmatic. The Muslim writer Dr. Abdul Ghani (Munsiff) was liberal towards Das Ganu’s Marathi work Bhakti Lilamrit, and included uncritical reference to Gopalrao. However, Ghani had a significant source of independent references from his teacher Meher Baba, who referred to Sai Baba as a qutub, to use Sufi terminology. Ghani’s article entitled Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi appeared in The Meher Baba Journal Vol. 1 (Ahmednagar, 1938-39). Very few people outside the Meher Baba movement had seen that article when I included reference to it in Gurus Rediscovered (1986). See further my Biographical Investigation (2015), pp. 43-49. Dr. Rigopoulos appropriately included the article by Ghani in his list of primary sources, duly grasping that the Muslim factor had been eclipsed in the Shirdi movement. All other primary sources listed by that scholar were Hindu works. See Rigopoulos, op. cit., pp. xxiv-vi.
(31) Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint , p. 31, and incorporating the account of Swami Sai Sharan Anand, a brahman devotee of Sai Baba who was told by the saint that Roshan Shah Mia(n) was his (Sai Baba's) guru. A Muslim name is here supplied for the obscure entity. The co-author V. B. Kher was a trustee of the Sai Baba Sansthan of Shirdi from 1984-89, and composed various articles on Sai Baba (Kher, Sai Baba, 2001). See also Swami Sai Sharan Anand, Shri Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling, 1997). Sharan Anand was originally named Waman Prangovind Patel until he became a sannyasin in the 1950s. He stayed for nearly a year at Shirdi in 1913-14. His biography of Sai Baba was written in Gujarathi.
(32) Warren, op. cit., p. 5. Dabholkar (Hemadpant) has the reputation of having gained Sai Baba's permission to write the biography. His contact with Sai Baba began in 1910, and he became a resident of Shirdi in 1916 upon his retirement from a career as a magistrate in Bombay.
(33) Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 93-95; Warren, op. cit., pp. 140-149, describing Swami Samarth of Akkalkot as “extremely unorthodox, treating Hindus and Muslims equally and having equal respect for temples and mosques... as well as having a total disregard for caste.” Warren favours an association of Dattatreya with the syncretism of Hinduism and Sufism that has been traced in Maharashtra. She says that the ascetic category of avadhutas "are described in the literature as fraternising with Muslim Sufis and they were the earliest group to do so, seeing no essential difference between the Sufis and themselves" (ibid., p. 141). On Narayan Maharaj, see Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. One (Myrtle Beach, SC: Manifestation, 1986), pp. 20-47, which has numerous photographs. On the Dattatreya phenomenon, see Antonio Rigopoulos, Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avatara (State University of New York Press, 1998).
(34) Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita (1999), p. 3. Dabholkar “tried to accommodate the Muslim Sai Baba within the Maharashtrian Hindu milieu for his readers” (Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 149). Dabholkar assimilated the identification of Sai Baba with the triune god Dattatreya, a trend occurring during the saint's closing years. This identification was assisted by the ascetic repute of Dattatreya. "Sai Baba was a celibate ascetic all his life; he had no possessions beyond a danda or short stick and a chilim or pipe" (ibid., p. 146).
(35) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 150. Three of the most well known contemporary Sufis in that sector were Hazrat Babajan of Poona, Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur, and Bane Miyan Baba of Aurangabad. Sai Baba has a reputed but rather obscure connection with the third Sufi named here, who is called Bane Mia (or Bannemiya) in some accounts (ibid., pp. 116ff.). One version informs that Bane Miyan came to Aurangabad in 1856; his grandson stated to Dr. Warren, in 1990, that Sai Baba was the disciple of Bane Miyan. The Aurangabad Sufi died in 1921, reputed to be 105 years old. In 1915 he had been visited by Merwan Irani, alias Meher Baba, who held Bane Miyan in high esteem, subsequently describing him in Sufi terms as a majzub. A rather more critical assessment can be found in Nile Green, Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion and the Service of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 100ff., who formats some of the hagiology attendant. Cf. Shepherd, Biographical Investigation (2015), pp. 88-92.
(36) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 150. Dabholkar reported that "whether devotees were Hindu or Muslim, Sai Baba would treat them equally" (ibid., p. 152). Cf. Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita, p. 165, which has the close variant of: "A Hindu or a Muslim, to him both were equal." Dabholkar observed admiringly that Sai Baba ignored caste distinctions; this achievement was perhaps relatively easy for a Muslim not geared to the brahmanical concept of social stratification. However, the familiarity with Hindus was not typical of Muslims.
(37) Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita (1999), pp. 193-194. Cf. Warren, op. cit., p. 152. Ram or Rama is the avatar (divine incarnation) celebrated in the Ramayana epic, and frequently the chosen ideal of bhakti exponents. Chokhamela was a famous sant of earlier centuries.
(38) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 351. See also Indira Kher, trans., Shri Sai Satcharita, p. 171. Elsewhere in the same work, Dabholkar argues that the saint was "neither Muslim nor Hindu." This attitude was liberal, but is too equivocal for some contemporary assessors. More recent Hindu treatments of the subject exhibit diverse shades of approach. See, e.g., Acharya E. Bharadwaja, Sai Baba the Master (fourth edn, Ongole 1993); Ammula Sambasiva Rao, Life History of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling, 1998); V. B. Kher, Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling, 2001); Balkrishna Panday, Sai Baba’s 261 Leelas: A Treasure House of Miracles (New Delhi: Sterling, 2005). The lastmentioned work is in the idiom of leela (play or sport), stressing interventions in the lives of devotees, varying from the curing of sickness to visions.
(39) Cf. Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, pp. 350-1, and citing the Gunaji adaptation of Shri Sai Satcharita. The tulsi plant that the saint permitted in the mosque courtyard was set in a masonry block and known as tulsi brindhaban. The tulsi plant is sacred in Hinduism, and is the object of circumambulation. There are various theories about the origin of this rite, which appears to be ultimately archaic.
(40) Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), p. 19 and note 83. The customs of Hindu sadhus are better known. Many sadhus maintain a dhuni, and some are known as Babas. The martial spectacles and ascetic stunts of sadhus require a certain amount of historical context, which can be traced back to the medieval era. Another similarity between sadhus and some Muslim faqirs was the habit of smoking a pipe or chilum. On the pipe-smoking of Sai Baba, see Shepherd, op. cit., pp. 181-2, note 135. See also Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 114-115. Sai Baba is associated with the Muslim convention in Maharashtra of tobacco-smoking, although some parties have assumed that he resorted to cannabis or even opium. The misunderstanding relates to practices amongst sadhus who maintain dhuni fires. Both Shaiva and Vaishnava ascetics have kept a fire; this custom is more generally associated with Shaivas, i.e., the followers of Shiva. The Shaivas are the more extremist category in the world of sadhus. The Shaiva pipe ritual frequently employs a mixture of tobacco and charas (hashish or cannabis). Charas is strongly asssociated with Shiva, and is popularly interpreted in terms of divine intoxication. Many sadhus thus believe that they participate in the ecstasy of Shiva, and use various mantras to accentuate this sense of elevation. However, the practice is controversial amongst sadhus, it is fair to state. "Charas may be used by Shaivas and Vaishnavas, but many Babas do not smoke at all and may even condemn the habit as low caste and counterproductive." The quote is from Dolf Hartsuiker, Sadhus: Holy Men of India (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993), p. 99. Many sadhus come from a low caste background, and are noted for an exhibitionist element that may resort to "miracle" stunts. The martial trappings of some sadhu fraternities date back to real life sectarian skirmishes. See, e.g., Klaus K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), pp. 53-4, reporting that "in the nineteenth century, the kumbha-melas, when a large number of sadhus of all sampradayas congregated, witnessed regular battles between Shaivas and Vaishnavas in which many lost their lives."
(41) Warren, op. cit., pp. 105, 352, and citing Das Ganu’s Shri Sainath Stavan Manjari (1918), which comprises verses in praise of Sai Baba. Dr. Warren states: “we may infer that Sai Baba was almost certainly circumcised, because if not, the fact would have been duly reported by his Hindu biographers” (p. 105). On circumcision, see Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, p. 135.
(42) Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, pp. 149-150. Hari Sitaram Dixit (also spelt Dikshit) was a prominent devotee from 1909, and called Kakasaheb by Sai Baba. His memoir appeared in M. W. Pradhan, Shri Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Glimpse of Indian Spirituality (1933), which has frequently been reprinted by the Sai Baba Sansthan of Shirdi.
(43) See further Sai Padananda, Sri Narasimha Swamiji: Apostle of Sri Sai Baba, the Saint of Shirdi (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1973). The output of Narasimhaswami had earlier met with resistance from Meher Baba, who made some disclosures in the 1950s. Briefly, Meher Baba regarded Narasimhaswami as being in error for emphasising petty “miracles” of the Shirdi saint, such as the anecdote of lighting lamps with water instead of oil. Meher Baba himself disowned miracles, and attributed these to the faith of his devotees. I made reference to this interpretation in Gurus Rediscovered (1986), citing a little known journal which had published a diary of Kishan Singh, who reported statements of Meher Baba disclosed in 1954. This information was differently received. Dr. Warren was one of those who resisted Meher Baba’s criticism of Narasimhaswami, even though she did opt to favour other interpretations given by the Irani mystic. I was here vicariously blamed for criticising the apostle of Sai Baba. Dr. Warren did not cite the Singh diary. It is obvious that she had failed to locate this relevant source. Meher Baba had actually known Narasimhaswami, who many years earlier, had petitioned him as a potential biographer. The former deflected the latter, who afterwards went to Sakori and Shirdi. Cf. Warren, op. cit., pp. 353-4. Cf. Gurus Rediscovered, pp. 3-4, 74 note 7. A drawback in the otherwise compelling book of the late Dr. Warren is her gullibility with regard to miracle lore, a factor that seems closely related to her estimation of Sathya Sai Baba, who encouraged this lack of critical disposition. Dr. Warren became disillusioned about the Puttaparthi guru soon after the first edition of her book, causing her to create a revised edition. See also Shepherd, Biographical Investigation, pp. 41-42.
(44) B.V. Narasimhaswami and S. Subbarao, Sage of Sakuri: Life Story of Shree Upasani Maharaj (1935; repr. Sakuri: Shri Upasani Kanya Kumari Sthan, 1966). Meher Baba's assessment of this work was very critical. As one of the two major disciples of Upasni Maharaj, his view has to be taken into account. Cf. Shepherd, Gurus Rediscovered (1986), Part Two. Some revisions and amplifications were duly presented in my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), Part Two. See also ibid., Part Three, pp. 136-7, reporting that "Meher Baba blamed Narasimhaswami for having created the 'miracle instinct' at both Shirdi and Sakori." The same critical source described half of the book Sage of Sakuri as being "absolute nonsense" (ibid., p. 137).
(45) Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 79-80. This rather dramatic episode at Benares (Kashi) occurred two years after Upasni had settled on the outskirts of Sakori, in the desolate locale that later became an ashram featuring temples.
(46) Ibid., p. 93. Gandhi discussed this event with Meher Baba a few years later in 1931, when he was voyaging to Britain and the Round Table Conference.
(47) Charles B. Purdom, The God-Man: The life, journeys and work of Meher Baba (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964), p. 128. See also ibid., p. 440, stating that Meher Baba ignored Brunton’s request for a miracle. “When [Meher] Baba ignored the request, the journalist expressed an adverse view of Baba’s spirituality.”
(48) Paul Brunton, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934; second edn, 1970), p. 47. In the same paragraph, Brunton expressed his now notorious statement that Meher Baba had a low and receding forehead. This assertion is graphically disproven by photographic evidence. For a critical commentary on Brunton’s version of events, see Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988), pp. 146-176. This supplement includes reference to the Saidapet ashram and other matters.
(49) See Jeffrey Masson, My Father’s Guru: A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusion (London: Harper Collins, 1993), pp. 85-6, 160ff, stating that Brunton knew no Sanskrit (despite his implication to the contrary), and furthermore, that the degree Brunton attributed under duress to Roosevelt University was "fraudulent." By 1945, Brunton had devised notepaper emblazoned with "Dr. Paul Brunton." His publisher took up this shallow credential, strongly implying a Ph.D., which has misled many readers ever since. In a conversation with Dr. Masson, Brunton explicitly claimed that he had gained the Ph.D. credential. The only credential in operation was acquired via a correspondence school, and this did not have the same rating as a university qualification.
(50) In 1954, Meher Baba described Narasimhaswami as a “dear erring soul,” and as a “very good soul who made a mess of things because of his ignorance.” Meher Baba complained of the superstitious “miracle instinct” created by Narasimhaswami at both Sakori and Shirdi (principally the latter). He related that Narasimhaswami came to him at Nasik and said “Baba, I want to stay with you and write your biography.” Meher Baba commented, “I told him I don’t want that and he could go to Sakori and write Maharaj’s biography; this dear fellow got very upset.” These and other remarks can be found in the diary of Kishan Singh reproduced as “At Sakori with Baba,” The Glow Quarterly (Dehra Dun, May 1975) 10 (2): 4, 20. Some additional details can be found in G. R. Vijayakumar, Sri Narasimha Swami: Apostle of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling, 2009), pp. 45-6, 56ff. There is an error here in that Meher Baba is described as taking a vow of silence only twenty days before the arrival of Narasimhaswami. There was no formal vow, and the silence had commenced eight years earlier. The visitor is stated to have "stayed for sometime in Meher[a]bad." Both Ramana Maharshi and Meher Baba are here reported to have told Narasimhaswami: "I am not your Guru."
(51) Charles B. Purdom, The Perfect Master (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937), p. 230. Much of Purdom’s reporting is strictly factual, and there is no hagiography. He first met Meher Baba in 1931, when the latter initially visited Britain. Purdom's depreciatory attitude to miracles reflects that of his inspirer. Although he did briefly credit Meher Baba with healing abilities, this was in a context of transiency for any such ability (ibid., pp. 269ff.). Purdom even stated that: “the performance of miracle, while it may be evidence of powers beyond those of ordinary men, may often be regarded as a sign of defective spirituality” (ibid., p. 270). See also The God-Man (1964), p. 441, where Purdom states that Meher Baba “brushes aside attempts to explain happenings as due to his miraculous intervention.” Indeed, Purdom here informs that his teacher had declared many times: “I have never consciously performed a miracle.”
(52) See Eruch B. Jessawala, That’s How It Was: Stories of Life with Meher Baba (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Foundation, 1995), pp. 226ff., stating “we almost always went third-class, especially in the early years.... you had to fight even to get on board the train.... All during the war years, when the trains were always overcrowded and most of the cars were reserved for the military, we travelled throughout India.” This continued to be the case in the dangerous period after the 1947 Partition of India, when trains could be found piled with corpses. The late Eruch B. Jessawala was a sturdy Parsi and frequent travelling companion of Meher Baba. His reminiscences include some graphic descriptions of events.
(53) William Donkin, The Wayfarers: An Account of the Work of Meher Baba with the God-intoxicated, and also with Advanced Souls, Sadhus, and the Poor (Ahmednagar: Adi K. Irani, 1948). Dr. Donkin was a distinctive devotee, having become an inmate of Meher Baba’s ashram at Meherabad in the 1930s. The small group of resident devotees were known as mandali. Donkin reports factually, although he does follow the complex descriptions formulated by Meher Baba for the mast and related categories.
(54) Ibid., p. 350, for an instance afforded by the occasion when, at Saharanpur in August 1946, 1500 poor men and women were each gifted one rupee. The venue was a private room in the public library. Donkin reports that "Baba's name is never given" on the numbered tickets distributed amongst the recipients of charity. Donkin here credits the belief that spiritual work was in occurrence.
(55) On the events relating to Sakori, see Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 131ff., and citing Natu, Glimpses of the God-Man Meher Baba Vol. 6 (1994), for the visit to Sakori in 1954. For the Dahigaon event, see Donkin, The Wayfarers, pp. 227-8; The Meher Baba Journal Vol. 4 (November 1941): 56. The meeting at the Dahigaon hut lasted for about half an hour, and the attendants were told to remain outside.
(56) See Meher Baba, God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and Its Purpose (New York: Dodd Mead & Co., 1955; second edn, 1973). It has elsewhere been observed that, due to the mood of tolerance in the Ahmednagar kingdom, "most of the sixteenth century sants (mystic poets) came from the kingdom of Ahmednagar" (Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, p. 86). Hindu saints like Janardhan Swami (teacher of Eknath) are here denoted. Many Hindu relatives of the Nizam Shahi kings gained high positions, a factor which has been deemed significant. The Muslim population in the Ahmednagar kingdom included converts to Islam known as dakhani Muslims. There were also incoming Muslims from Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Ethiopia. The newcomers brought Islamic learning, including Shia philosophy associated with Iran (ibid., p. 88).
(57) For varying approaches to Meher Baba, see Charles B. Purdom, The God-Man (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964); Ivy O. Duce, How A Master Works (Walnut Creek, California: Sufism Reoriented, 1975); Kitty Davy, Love Alone Prevails: A story of life with Meher Baba (Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Sheriar Press, 1981); Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988); Bhau Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher (20 vols, American edn 1986-2001). See also Part Three of my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005).
(58) Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi, pp. 21ff.; Sathya Sai Baba, “The Shirdi Sai Saga,” Sanathana Sarathi (November 1992). The article by Sathya Sai has received strong critique from ex-devotees. The book by Dr. Rigopoulos is informative about Shirdi Sai, and also has the merit of acknowledging a Muslim faqir context, though an underlying pro-Sathya affiliation is discernible, as in pp. 247-9, where the author says, for instance, that Narasimhaswami has provided involuntary support to the reincarnation claim of Sathya Sai. In contrast, one can comment here that the devotional preoccupation of Narasimhaswami with miraculous events and "numerous lilas in southern India" proves nothing about the disputed claim of Sathya Sai. In another direction, the late Dr. Warren complained that Rigopoulos relied upon Gunaji in many of his citations, not having access to the original Marathi work by Dabholkar. See Warren, Unravelling the Enigma (1999), p. 18, also stating that Rigopoulos “never academically questions the obvious Hindu bias” and “has actually contributed further to the Hindu gloss on Sai Baba.” However, one should add here that Dr. Rigopoulos scrupulously reported how “the majority of Shirdi Sai Baba’s bhaktas have not shifted their devotion to the present Satya Sai; many of them ignore him or are critical of him: when I was doing research at Shirdi, people preferred to avoid the issue altogether" (Life and Teachings, p. 249).
(59) Charles S. J. White, “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints,” Journal of Asian Studies (1972) 31 (4): 863-878.
(60) Rigopoulos, op. cit., pp. 208-10, and presenting a very skeletal version of Meher Baba’s “avataric career.” SUNY Press advertised on the cover of this book that “a vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as ‘the Sai Baba movement’.... light is shed on the various ways in which the important guru figures in this movement came to be linked to the saint of Shirdi.” Although Dr. Rigopoulos does quote one very brief account of that linkage in the case of Meher Baba, his version of the "career" is strongly related to Western "Meher Baba Centers," which were primarily a feature of the 1960s and after. He specifies “particularly in the sixties and early seventies” (ibid., p. 209). Cf. Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 142ff., which is critical of Meher Baba Centres. Rigopoulos states that "since Meher's death in 1969, the movement's power of attraction has gradually decreased" (Life and Teachings, p. 209). This reflection has been read as an indication of the author's preference for the burgeoning movement of Sathya Sai.
(61) White, art. cit., p. 874, and cited by Brian Steel in the web entry entitled On the Terms “Sai Baba” and “the Sai Baba Movement” (2008). A rather different academic assessment to that of Professor White came from Professor Lawrence A. Babb, who detected in the discourses of Sathya Sai “a view deeply conditioned by the ideology of caste.” See Babb, “Sathya Sai Baba’s Miracles” (277–292) in T. N. Madan, ed., Religion in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 290. The same analyst also affirmed of Sathya Sai that “the strict facts of his personal biography and manner of life are buried beneath layer upon layer of hagiography” (ibid., p. 279). This article was a reprint from Babb, Redemptive Encounters (University of California, 1986). Professor Babb had formerly expressed an "anthropology of credibility" with regard to the miracle lore, dating to his fieldwork in the late 1970s amongst Sathya Sai devotees in Delhi. He has the repute of being a sceptical but sympathetic commentator on this subject. Brian Steel has commented that Prof. Babb gave too little attention to Sathya Sai Speaks, opting instead to focus upon the miracles which figured so largely in devotee thinking. Steel urges that there are “frequent and clearcut divine and avataric claims” in the Discourses prior to the well known Shiva-Shakti declaration of 1963. See the Steel Bibliography, and Parts 2 and 3 of that bibliography.
(62) See Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement (Leiden: Brill, 2008). This book is about Sathya Sai Baba and "globalisation," a theme moving between Bangalore, Nairobi, and Atlanta. The first chapter is liberal in the attention given to Shirdi Sai, Upasni (Upasani) Maharaj, and Meher Baba. A book of a different kind was Srinivas, Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India's High-Tech City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). See also Srinivas, “The Brahmin and the Fakir: Suburban Religiosity in the Cult of Shirdi Sai Baba,” Jnl of Contemporary Religion (1999) 14(2): 245-61. See also Srinivas, “Sai Baba Movement” in Encyclopaedia of Religion Vol. 12 (second edn, New York, 2004), pp. 8026-29. Cf. the review in Brian Steel’s internet bibliography (note 61 above), mentioning a “research gap” on the part of Professor Srinivas in relation to Dr. Warren and other sources. However, in relation to myself, Professor Srinivas was exemplary in her book In the Presence of Sai Baba. She cited generously from my two works of the 1980s relating to Shirdi Sai, Upasni Maharaj, and Meher Baba. She also referred to my "annotated bibliography of written and oral sources on Meher Baba" (Srinivas 2008:42 note 16). She correctly cites the page extent of that bibliography, a gesture comprising a distinct improvement upon Dr. Marianne Warren's rather more fleeting acknowledgment of the work in which that feature is found. In another direction, Professor Srinivas was far in advance of the Wikipedia editors and trolls (e.g., G. J. Moreno) who relegate all mention of annotations and bibliographies in their very doubtful version of NPOV (Neutral Point of View). See also note 63 below.
(63) Bal Natu, Glimpses of the God-Man Meher Baba Volume 5 (Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Sheriar Press, 1987), pp. xi, 73,76; Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 12 (1997), p. 4283. Both Natu and Kalchuri were long-term devotees of Meher Baba. Kalchuri’s lengthy work was originally written in Hindi, and later subject to extensive editing. The data concerning the "avataric phase" of Meher Baba, from 1954 onwards, is both extensive and complex. One of the misconceptions existing is represented by the following academic statement: "According to Shepherd, while Meher Baba later referred to the avatar theme and stated that Zarathushtra was an avatar, along with Rama, Krishna or the Buddha, he did not identify himself explicitly as an avatar" (Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba, p. 45). A misunderstanding and contraction was here involved. Professor Srinivas is referring to Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), p. 49. I was there explicitly citing the Highest of the High message dating to 1953, prior to the more definitive declarations of Meher Baba. This avatar message was sophisticated in the wordings employed, e.g., "If I am the Highest of the High." The very next page of my book observed that, "while gradually shaping his own avatar image, Meher Baba hit at a major media of commercialism" (Shepherd 1988:50). Such factors are submerged and omitted in other coverages. See also Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), p. 139, informing: "Meher Baba definitely did claim to be the avatar. An inspection of various statements he made on this subject leaves no room for doubt." Professor Srinivas was correct to infer the existence of two different forms of exegesis relating to Meher Baba, one of these being my own. She also cites Charles Haynes, Meher Baba, the Awakener (1989), representing the devotee portrayal. Although some other academics had formerly perceived certain differences visible in the literature about Meher Baba, Professor Smriti Srinivas was apparently the first to mention this contrast in published format. The more analytical form of exegesis has been deleted from Wikipedia article listing by Western devotees of Meher Baba, whose proscribing zeal is something that I do not wish to emulate. See further Meher Baba Movement: Neglected Details (and also Update). My own perspective is indicated in the phrase: "The ethnographic, sociological, and mystical material contained in Meher Baba's case history can be studied without becoming a dogmatic spokesman for or against" (Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, p. 139). Wikipedia crowdsourcing cannot assimilate such a viewpoint, although a number of university academics fortunately demonstrate a contrasting disposition.
(64) Kalchuri, op. cit., p. 4313; Natu, op. cit., p. 142. An earlier version of the Andhra tour was skeletal, namely Francis Brabazon, Journey with God (Beacon Hill, New South Wales, 1954), written by the Australian poet who joined the mandali at Meherazad. Also brief is the account in Purdom’s The God-Man (1964), pp. 215ff.
(65) See the review of Kondappa by Brian Steel. The title covered is V. C. Kondappa, Sai’s Story, as revealed by Sathya Sai to His Teacher, trans. from Telegu by P. O. Reddy (Bangalore: Sai Towers Publishing, 2004). Kondappa was the ex-schoolteacher of Sathyanarayana Raju (alias Sathya Sai Baba), and had visited the young guru at Puttaparthi in the company of another ex-teacher. That was in 1944, shortly after the teenage celebrity had commenced his new career as a guru, and with the sensational claim to reincarnation honours. This claim was revealed to the two schoolteachers, who were evidently impressed. Steel remarks that his own coverage assumes the booklet to be a faithful translation, and adds that the original was published in 1944. With regard to the revised date of 1943 for the reincarnation claim, this is derived from R. Padmanaban et al, Love Is My Form Vol. 1: The Advent (1926-1950), published at Puttaparthi in 2000. Steel has described this work as a well researched hagiography which improves markedly upon the version of Kasturi in Vol. 1 of Sathyam Sivam Sundaram: The Life of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
(66) Brian Steel visited Puttaparthi ashram in October 2008. His revealing report refers to "the steady physical decline of Sathya Sai Baba in the past four or five years,” necessitating the use of a wheelchair. Steel further says that, on the day he visited, “I only saw a handful of foreign visitors.”
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