According to accounts from his life, he preached the importance of “realization of the self” and criticized “love towards perishable things”. His teachings concentrate on a moral code of love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace and devotion to the God and guru. He stressed the importance of surrender to the true Satguru, who, having trod the path to divine consciousness, will lead the disciple through the jungle of spiritual training.
Sai Baba also condemned distinction based on religion or caste. It remains unclear if he was a Muslim or a Hindu. This, however, was of no consequence to Sai Baba. His teachings combined elements of Hinduism and Islam: he gave the Hindu name Dwarakamayi to the mosque in which he lived, practised both Hindu and Muslim rituals, taught using words and figures that drew from both traditions and took samadhi in Shirdi. One of his well-known epigrams, Allah Malik (God is King) and Sabka Malik Ek (Everyone’s Master is One), is associated with both Hinduism and Islam. He is also known to have said “Look to me, and I shall look to you” and Allah tera bhala karega. He was said to be an incarnation of Dattatreya.
Sai Baba’s date of birth including his birthplace remains unknown. Most information about Shirdi Sai Baba tends to be derived from a book called Shri Sai Satcharitra written by a disciple called Hemadpant (also known as Annasaheb Dabholkar / Govind Raghunath) in 1922 in Marathi. The book itself is a compilation based on accounts by his various disciples and Hemadpant’s personal observations of Sai Baba from 1910 onwards.
There are various beliefs surrounding Sai Baba’s place of birth and parents. According to multiple sources, Sai Baba was born in a small village Pathri in Maharashtra to a boatman called Ganga Bhavadia and his wife Devagiriamma. Sai Baba is also claimed to have been born in Tamil Nadu. According to this version, his mother’s name was Vaishnavdevi and his father’s name was Abdul Sattar. Sri Narasimha Swamy, a devotee of Sai Baba wrote a book Life of Sai Baba. It claims that Sai Baba would make references to Patri in the Nizam State and much later in life told one of his staunch devotees. Many devotees of Sai Baba do not concern themselves with his birthplace or the religion of his family, as Baba actively discouraged such inquiry nor sought to align himself with any region or religion.
According to multiple sources, he was brought up by Fakir in early childhood. Even from an early age, he was always dispassionate and imbibed the detachment from his foster father, the Fakir. Unfortunately, the fakir too died within 4–5 years of adopting Baba.
Sai Baba at Shirdi
Sai Baba’s real name remains unknown. The name Sai was given to him by Mahalsapati[a] when he arrived at Shirdi, a town now in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. The word Sai refers to a religious mendicant but can also mean God. In several Indian and Middle Eastern languages the term Baba is an honorific signifying grandfather, father, old man or sir. Thus Sai Baba denotes “holy father”, “saintly father” or (venerable) poor old man.
Some of Sai Baba’s disciples became famous as spiritual figures and saints, such as Mahalsapati, a priest of the Khandoba temple in Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj. He was revered by other saints as well, such as Saint Bidkar Maharaj, Saint Gagangiri Maharaj, Saint Janakidas Maharaj and Sati Godavari Mataji. Sai Baba referred to several saints as ‘my brothers’, especially the disciples of Swami Samartha of Akkalkot.
Sai Baba opposed all persecution based on religion or caste. He was an opponent of religious orthodoxy – Christian, Hindu and Muslim.
Sai Baba encouraged his devotees to pray, chant God’s name, and read holy scriptures. He told Muslims to study the Qur’an and Hindus to study texts such as the Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Vasistha. He advised his devotees and followers to lead a moral life, help others, love every living being without any discrimination, and develop two important features of character: faith (Shraddha) and patience (Saburi). He criticised atheism.
In his teachings, Sai Baba emphasised the importance of performing one’s duties without attachment to earthly matters and of being content regardless of the situation. In his personal practice, Sai Baba observed worship procedures belonging to Islam; he shunned any kind of regular rituals but allowed the practice of Salah, chanting of Al-Fatiha, and Qur’an readings at Muslim festival times. Occasionally reciting the Al-Fatiha, Baba enjoyed listening to mawlid and qawwali accompanied with the tabla and sarangi twice daily.
Sai Baba interpreted the religious texts of both Islam and Hinduism. He explained the meaning of the Hindu scriptures in the spirit of Advaita Vedanta. His philosophy also had numerous elements of bhakti. The three main Hindu spiritual paths — Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga — influenced his teachings.
Sai Baba encouraged charity and stressed the importance of sharing. He said
Unless there is some relationship or connection, nobody goes anywhere. If any men or creatures come to you, do not discourteously drive them away, but receive them well and treat them with due respect. Sri Hari (God) will certainly be pleased if you give water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and your verandah to strangers for sitting and resting. If anybody wants any money from you and you are not inclined to give, do not give, but do not bark at him like a dog.”
Baba himself maintained an ambiguous profile, unwilling to identify with either of the two religions. His Muslim devotees were fully convinced that he belonged to their fold, identifying him as an avaliā. The Hindu bhaktas also viewed him as one of them, since he often identified himself with their gods and customs. Sai Baba wanted to belong to all and be shared by all. When pressed on whether he was Hindu or Muslim, he would often get very angry. Once he told a devotee: “You have been with me for eighteen years now. Does Sai mean for you only these three and a half cubits of height?” Sai Baba was able to avoid clashes between the two communities, and, in fact, succeeded in unifying them in an atmosphere of general harmony. In a verse of the midday arti, devotees sing:
“In essence or basic principle, there is no difference whatever between Hindu and Muslim. You took birth in human body to point out this. You look with affection on both Hindus and Muslims. This, Sai, who pervades all, as the soul of all, shows.”
Baba would often talk about the Hindu gods, quoting from sacred texts or even commenting upon passages of the Bhagavad Gita, the Isha Upanishad, and so forth. The names of Krishna and Rama seem to have been particularly dear to him. With his Muslim followers, Baba would always talk of Allah and the Koran, often quoting Persian verses. One of his favourite expressions was “Allah rakhega vaiia rahena”, that is, “Let us be content with what we have, and submit our will to Allah.” On several occasions, Sai reassured his listeners by saying that he, like them, was but a devotee of Allah, a humble faqir with two arms and two legs. In later years, Parsis and even a few Christians would come to Shirdi. Sai Baba respected all creeds, true to his conviction that all religions are but particular paths leading to one ineffable goal. His notion of the unity of all mankind that appealed to everyone was very congruous with Sufism of Islam. “God being one and the master of all also meant that all his creatures were part of one big family,” writes Sikand. “This belief was entirely in keeping with … the teachings of Sufis, who believed that the light of God exists in every creature, indeed in every particle of His creation.” Sai Baba urged his Hindu followers to read their holy books and find their own path. For him, all paths were equally valid, “Ishwar” (the Hindu God) and “Allah” being synonymous.
Padukas of Sai Baba
People coming to his abode were so taken aback to see Hindus, Muslims, and others living together so peacefully that in many instances it changed their entire lives and belief systems.
Sai Baba’s disciples and devotees claim that he performed many miracles such as bilocation, levitation, mind-reading, materialisation, exorcisms, entering a state of Samādhi at will, lighting lamps with water, removing his limbs or intestines and sticking them back to his body (khandana yoga), curing the incurably sick, appearing beaten when another was beaten, preventing a mosque from falling down on people, and helping his devotees in other miraculous ways. He also gave Darshan (vision) to people in the form of Sri Rama, Krishna, Vithoba, Shiva and many other gods depending on the faith of devotees.
According to his followers, he appeared to them in their dreams and gave them advice. His devotees have documented their experiences.