During a classic Asian monsoon season in 1979, while blackish-purple clouds unleashed sheets of rain for weeks at a time, a small, yet powerful book found its way into the damp cottage where we were living in Tiruvannamalai, South India.
I’ll never forget the first sentence of the book: “Look, here comes the crazy fakir (Muslim holy man) again!” I could picture the Indian shopkeepers in the center of a busy marketplace watching a young sixteen-year-old-fakir wander throughout their town. The name of this (currently out-of-print) book is The Incredible Sai Baba, written by Arthur Osborne; the name of the small Indian town where the fakir lived is Shirdi.
The fakir, Sai Baba of Shirdi, is one of India’s great contemporary holy men. Though the details of his life are obscure, and he had no specific teaching, the light of his Realization deeply touched people from many faiths. Very little is known about the early life of Sai Baba. He suddenly appeared in the town of Shirdi in 1872. No one quite knew why he chose this simple township. He wandered around the town, often sleeping under a neem tree at night and ate whatever kind-hearted people gave him. He was about to settle down at a little Hindu temple in town when the guard of the temple, Mahalsapathy (who eventually was to become one of his closest disciples), thought he was a Muslim fakir and refused to let him stay. Mahalsapathy then guided Sai Baba to a simple mud-lined mosque, which was to become his home.
Whoever came through town, Hindu or Muslim, the young fakir acknowledged. One of them remarked, “Watch that young fakir; he’s a jewel on a dunghill.” However, few people took notice of him, thinking him to be a bit of a crack. He rarely spoke, and when he did, he would sometimes say namaz (the ritualistic Islamic prayer). He had a strange habit of keeping a fire burning in the little mosque, a tradition which was more Parsi than Muslim. He also kept little oil lamps burning, in the Hindu tradition. In fact, along with a handful of food, it was oil for the lamps for which he went to the shopkeepers. It was this little bit of oil which turned everything around.
One day, to have some fun with Sai Baba, the shopkeepers refused to supply him with oil. They stealthy followed him back to the little mosque, where they were astounded to see him fill the lamps with mud, and then watch the lamps burn bright before their eyes. After this event no one spoke ill about the crazy fakir again. What they soon were to discover about this young, mysterious soul, was a heart of pure compassion and profound wisdom.
Even his name, Sai Baba, was a mystery. Sai is simply the Persian word for “saint,” and Baba is the endearing and respectful name for “father.” It is thought that he was born in a middle class Brahmin family in a small village in the state of Hyderabad. Possibly, his parents had died very early because he left home to follow a Muslim fakir when he was still very young. When the fakir died he followed a Hindu Guru, whom he affectionately called “Venkusa.”
Sai Baba never wrote or read anything; his behavior was often bizarre and he flaunted miracles with the reckless exuberance of a child, but the extraordinary wisdom that flowed from him was from a deep, inner well.
For years, people thought that Sai Baba was illiterate, so no one ever expected that he knew Sanskrit. One day, he gave a remarkable exposition. Nana, a devotee of Baba, was massaging his legs while chanting softly to himself. Sai Baba asked what he was muttering. “A Sanskrit verse,” Nana replied, not suspecting that Sai Baba knew enough scripture to want a more precise answer. However, he asked which verse it was. “A verse from The Bhagavad Gita,” was the reply. “Tell me the meaning,” asked Sai Baba. Nana gave a very simple interpretation. When he was finished, Sai Baba gave his own understanding of the verse:
“There was obviously no need for Krishna to give Arjuna Knowledge; he was simply removing the veil of ignorance that hides existent Knowledge. This, of course, is not to be done at one stroke, since the disciple is immersed in age-old ignorance and needs repeated instruction. How can one instruct through speech that which is beyond speech?
“Ignorance conceals pre-existent Knowledge, just as water plants cover the surface of a pond. Clear away the plants and you have the water. You don’t have to create it; it is there already. Or take another example—a cataract grows on one’s eye and prevents a man from seeing; remove the cataract and he sees. Ignorance is the cataract.
“Divine Knowledge is to be realized, not taught. It is an illusion to suppose that phenomena are real. That is the screen of ignorance, which hides Knowledge. Remove it and Knowledge will shine forth. Jnana (supreme knowledge) is not something to be attained; it is eternal and self-existent. On the other hand, ignorance has a cause and an end. The root of it is the idea that the devotee is a separate being from God. Remove this and what remains is Jnana.”
Instances of Sai Baba’s miracles can be contained in a volume by itself. His famous statement was, “I give people what they want in the hope that they will begin to want what I want to give them.” In general, people flocked to him to be cured, have children, and all the multitude of “things” that people desire. In his own unique way, most often, he did answer their everyday desires, and yet he also transformed them inwardly as well.
Some people simply arrived to see “the mad fakir.” Once, a curious Station Master came and found Sai Baba washing out mud pots and placing them mouth downwards on the ground. He asked him why he was doing that and Baba replied in a cryptic manner, referring to unreceptive listeners, “Pots come to me like that, mouth downwards.”
Sai Baba sometimes spoke of himself as Kabir, the great poet-saint of the late fifteenth century, who was Master to both Hindus and Muslims. If one could say he embodied any teacher, Kabir would be the most perfect fit. Sai Baba encouraged tolerance and acceptance, love, respect, and openness, rather than a merging of paths.
His message was one that stressed understanding the essence of Being, beyond form. It was often a lesson his more rigid followers needed to learn. The mosque, which he lived in, was a mixture of unorthodoxy and innovation. He referred to it as a “Brahmin mosque.” In the center of the yard he kept a “tulsi Brindhavan,” which is a symbol sacred to the Hindus. He also kept several mud pots either in the mosque or just outside, into which he poured water and stored his begged food. The pots were kept in a place where the sweeper women (those of lowest caste) and the animals, who came by, could take out what they needed before he ate.
Sai Baba never gave any spiritual teaching in the traditional sense. His presence, his touch, one word, an action, was enough to effect a permanent change in a person. It was the radiance of Supreme Presence that emanated from him. It was pure surrender to the flow of grace. He saw intellectual practices as a handicap; it had the seed to create the sense of “I am the doer.” His teaching stressed “living the truth,” unencumbered by ritual.
His teachings were often worded as parables, leaving those to whom they were given much to unravel. Arthur Osborne gives an interesting account of Sai Baba’s stories and their meaning.
“Some robbers came and took away my money. I said nothing but quietly followed them and killed them and so recovered my money.”
(Money is the inner nature of man in his pure state, primordial man as Adam before the fall; the robbers are the desires; killing them and recovering the true wealth is going beyond desire and realizing the Self.)
“A man had a very fine horse, but no matter what he did, it would not run in harness. An expert suggested that it should be taken back to the place whence it had come. This was done and it became useful.”
(The horse is the ego. As the commander of the physical and mental powers of man, it is useful, but it is self-willed, therefore causing endless trouble. Take it back to its source is re-absorbing it into the Spirit or Self from which it arises.)
Early in 1886, Sai Baba had a death rehearsal. He told Mahalsapathy that he was going to Allah, and that he needed to take care of “the body” for a few days. Mahalsapathy was instructed that if he didn’t return, the body was to be buried in a spot of open land, which he had picked for himself, and that only two posts were to be erected to mark the location. After telling him this, Sai Baba’s breathing and heart stopped. Officials were brought in and he was pronounced dead. Consequently, they ordered Malalsapathy to cremate the body, which he promptly refused to do. On the third day, Sai Baba began breathing again.
It was after this death rehearsal, from about 1900-1918, that he became famous and an unending stream of visitors flocked to Shirdi. Even then, he continued to beg his food every day. Just before his physical death, Baba sent some devotees back to Bombay, who had intended to stay with him, and detained others who were about to depart. The ones who left were given the message, “I will go on ahead and you can follow me. My tomb will speak. My clay will give you replies.”
Then he sent word to a Muslim saint: “The light that Allah lit, he is taking away.” On the last day, two Brahmins were alone with him. One of them related his last words; “I am going. Carry me to the wada (the stone building built for the purpose of his burial). Only Brahmins will be near me.” In this instant, Sai Baba used the word Brahmin to mean “spiritually inclined persons.” Despite the expressed wish about his burial, the Muslim followers insisted that they should bury him. A petition for signatures was circulated throughout the town and the wada won.
It is interesting to note that a similar fate occurred after the death of Kabir. With the death of the body called Sai Baba, his presence continues; Shirdi is now a place of pilgrimage.
An example of Sai Baba’s continued guidance is provided by Arthur Osborne. He lived in Calcutta in 1960, where he met an elderly woman named Miss Dutton. He found out she spent most of her life in the West as a nun but eventually couldn’t handle the many rules and regulations. Finally, in middle age, she had had enough and decided to leave the convent. She had no idea what she would do with the rest of her life and was filled with impending uncertainty.
As she sat in her convent cell contemplating the problem, a Muslin fakir (holy man) entered and told her: “Do not worry so much, everything will be all right when you go to Calcutta.” He then asked for a gift of money. She told him she didn’t have any. He then pointed to the cupboard and said that money was inside. She had forgotten about the small amount of money she had left in the cupboard, and when she turned around to give him the money, he had disappeared.
As it turned out, her only living relative was a nephew who lived in faraway Calcutta. Arthur Osborne met Miss Dutton years later, and when he heard this story he told her, “I will show you a picture of your fakir.” He went and got the picture of Sai Baba that he kept in his apartment and showed it to her. The moment she saw it she exclaimed with surprise, “This is my fakir.” She had never heard of Sai Baba before!