Shirdi is believed to be one of the most important pilgrimage towns, housed in Maharashtra. It is at a distance of approximately 300 km from Mumbai city. It is renowned for being the home of the saint Sai Baba, referred to as Shirdi Ke Sai Baba, or Sai.
Who is Sai Baba?
Sai Baba of Shirdi was revered as an Indian spiritual master who is considered by his worshippers to be an avatar of Sri Dattaguru and regarded as a saint and fakir. Likely born approximately 1838, he was venerated by both his Hindu and Muslim devotees, even well after his entire lifetime. He also disliked distinctions that are based on caste or religion. Even though there was no confirmation on whether he was Hindu or Muslim, his teachings merged the elements of Hinduism and Islam. He called the mosque he resided in with a Hindu name – Dwarakamayi and performed both – Hindu as well as Muslim rituals. One of his most renowned epigrams – Allah Malik (God is King) and Sabka Malik Ek (Everyone’s Master is One), is related to both Hinduism and Islam.
As per anecdotes from his life, he taught the significance of ‘realization of the self’ and was a major critique of ‘love towards perishable things’. His teachings focus on a moral code of love, charity, contentment, charity, inner peace and devotion to God and Guru. He emphasized the value of surrender to the true ‘Satguru’ who, having walked the road to divine consciousness, will steer the disciple via the jungle of spiritual learning.
Origins of Sai Baba
There are numerous tales with regards to Sai Baba’s place of birth and family. As per many, Sai Baba was believed to have been born in a small village Pathri in Maharashtra to a boatman referred to as Ganga Bhavadia and his wife Devagiriamma. There are other claims he was born in Tamil Nadu with a Hindu mother and Muslim father. Several worshippers of Sai Baba do not give a lot of importance to his birthplace or the religion of his family. This is because Baba used to actively dissuade such inquiry nor did he seek to associate himself with any region or religion. Many claim he was raised by a Fakir in early childhood. Even when he was young, he always seemed dispassionate and imbibed the disinterest from his foster father, the Fakir. But the fakir passed away within 4-5 years of taking in Baba.
Baba was believed to have reached the village of Shirdi in the Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra, India when he was approximately 16 years old. Even though there is no absolute consensus, it is commonly agreed upon that Baba remained in Shirdi for about three years, vanished for a year, and came back for good around 1858, shortly after the post-Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Sai Baba has largely lived an ascetic life, sitting without moving under a neem tree and meditating while sitting in an asana. The villagers were awe-struck to witness a young boy in penance, withstanding the extreme heat and cold. A few of the religiously-inclined villagers began visiting him on a daily basis. The village kids believed him to be crazy and hurled stones at him.
After some time, there were a couple of signs that he encountered several saints and fakirs and also worked as a weaver. He alleged that he battled with the army of Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Sai Baba came back to Shirdi in 1858. When he showed up at the Khandoba Mandir in Shirdi, the temple priest, Mahalsapati, greeted him by saying ‘Aao, Sai’ (Come Sai). Since that time, he was called by the name Sai Baba.
During this time, he used to dress in a knee-length one-piece Kafni robe and a cloth cap. This outfit added to Baba’s identification as a Muslim fakir and was one motive for the early antagonism towards him in a largely Hindu village. After living under the neem tree for a couple of years where he spent long periods of being uncommunicative and withdrawn as he was meditating for long periods, he was eventually convinced to take residence in an old mosque.
In the mosque, he kept a sacred fire (a dhuni) from which he offered holy ash (Udi) to his guests prior to them leaving. The ash was said to contain healing and apotropaic powers. Like a local hakim, he treated the sick by applying ashes. Sai Baba also dispensed spiritual teachings to his visitors, suggesting they read Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita for Hindus and the Quran for Muslims.
By 1910, Baba’s fame reached Mumbai. Several people began visiting him as they considered him to be a saint with the power of executing miracles or even as an avatar. They constructed his first shrine at Bhivpuri, Karjat. In August 1918, Shirdi Sai Baba informed his followers that he would soon be ‘leaving his mortal body’. He suffered a high fever and stopped consuming food towards the end of September. As his condition worsened, he requested his supporters to chant holy texts to him, even though he continued to meet visitors. He passed away on 15th October 1918 which fell on Vijayadashami. His remains were buried at Buti Wada in Shirdi, which subsequently became a place of worship that is now called ‘Shree Samadhi Mandir’ or ‘Shirdi Sai Baba Temple.’
Interesting Stories with Sai Baba
There are numerous stories involving miracles that showcase that Baba was not an ordinary man.
Grinding Wheat: This was during the time Shirdi was affected by an epidemic of Cholera. The helpless people decided to visit Baba to obtain some relief. Baba washed his hand and face. Afterwards, he grabbed some wheat and began grinding in a hand mill. Then, he asked the villagers to pick some flour and hurl it on the village borders. Thanks to Baba’s blessings, from that time on, the cholera epidemic reduced and the villagers were pleased. Baba meant that it was not the wheat that was grounded but rather cholera itself that was grounded to pieces and was forced out of the village.
Turning Water into Oil: Every night, Sai Baba used to ignite earthen lamps in the Dwarkamai. He requested the grocers to deliver oil to him. Initially, people assumed Baba to be this crazy fakir and thus the grocers provided oil simply for fun. But soon, they got annoyed with this being a daily thing. It came to a point where they outright refused to serve him oil. Baba returned to Dwarkamai with the empty oil tin. He poured a little water in the oil tank and drank it as if to make the God within happy. Then, he emptied more water into the lamps and ignited them one by one. The ‘water lamps' burnt all through the night. This incident confirmed to everyone that Baba possessed supernatural powers.
Saving Child from Drowning: Once, word spread that a 3-year-old daughter of a poor man had unfortunately fallen into the well and drowned. When the villagers hurried to the well, they were shocked to witness the child suspended in mid-air as if some invisible hand was carrying her. She was swiftly pulled out and carried to safety. Sai Baba was affectionate and loving to that child who often used to say ‘I am Baba’s sister’. After this incident, the villagers believed her.
Teachings of Sai Baba
Here are some of the significant and poignant teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba:
Shraddha: ‘Shraddha’ is a Sanskrit term, which usually refers to faith with love and respect. Such faith or trust is produced out of powerful conviction, which could not be the outcome of any rational thought or intellectual insight, but a spiritual inspiration. As per Sai Baba, unwavering devotion to a deity is the path to eternity. Baba’s teaching, both direct as well as indirect, elucidates the importance of ‘Shraddha’.
Saburi: It means endurance and determination. It is a quality that you need throughout the journey to attain the goal. This characteristic needs to be instilled in the seeker from day one, lest he loses his stride and abandons the road halfway.
Purity: For Sai Baba, it was never the purity of the body but rather inner purity that was so significant. If an individual was not pure by mind and heart, no amount of physical and external cleansing would serve the purpose.
Compassion: Considering he is believed to be the symbol of compassion and love, Sai Baba imparted those values amongst his followers. Baba frequently told his devotees to never turn away anybody from your door – regardless of whether it is an animal or a person.
Complete Surrender to Guru: Sai Baba always had the Guru on a high pedestal for worship. For him, Guru was the deep and reflective base of the journey to devotion. He requested his disciples to fully surrender to the ‘Guru’.
Teachings via ‘Udi’ and ‘Dakshina’
Udi: The sacred ash was created out of the perpetual fire referred to as ‘dhuni’ ignited by Sai Baba in Dwarkamai at Shirdi. Explaining the meaning of life, he pointed out to Udi and mentioned that, just like Udi, all the observable phenomena in the universe are momentary. With this, Sai Baba desired to make his disciples recognize the sense of discrimination between the real and the unreal.
Dakshina: Sai Baba would ask for ‘Dakshina’ or alms from those who choose to meet him. This clarified the sense of non-attachment to worldly items. Thereby, Dakshina taught the worshippers the significance of non-attachment or Vairagya.
Sai Puja Vidhi
Kakad Aarti: The worshipper needs to wake up at 5 am in the morning, ignite the lamps and perform the Kakad Aarti. The prasad presented needs to be a mixture of sugar and butter. After the aarti is done, start reading the SatCharitra.
Abhishekam: The process of Abhishekam is performed around 8 AM for the Sai Baba idol. Akshata (yellow rice) and warm water need to be used nine times at the feet of Baba. After chanting shlokas, offer milk, tender coconut, orange or lime juice, yogurt, rosewater and finally gangajal to the deity. Then, the idol is adorned with a garland and kept in the shrine. After applying Kumkum and Chandan to the idol, break a coconut and keep it on both sides of the idol. Then read out the paragraphs of the SatCharitra.
Madhyana Aarti: It is performed approximately at 1 pm after finishing the chapter. Then offer prasad like rice, chapati, brinjal, poori and two vegetables. Reading once again commences. Post noon Aarti, 50th, and 51st chapters need to be read out by the host. The worshippers can take turns to recite the Sai SatCharitra.
Dhoop Aarti: After reading all the chapters, the Shirdi Sai Ashtothram is recited with sundal or chana prepared as Prasad. The session ends with the Dhoop Aarti. The complete process takes about 10.5-11 hours.
Benefits of Worshipping Sai Baba
- Offers protection and respite from diseases
- Increased sense of peace and achieving prosperity
- Delivers spiritual upliftment
Festivals Dedicated to Sai Baba
Shirdi is one of the largest and major pilgrimage centers of India and is visited by millions of pilgrims annually. It is revered because it is the home of the great saint Sai Baba who was venerated as the messenger of God and is one of the biggest spiritual leaders in the globe. His teachings brought the Hindu and Muslim communities together and have made sure they live in peace in Shirdi till date.
There are three major festivals in Shirdi that are celebrated with great pomp and fanfare. They are:
Ramnavami – March/April
It is honored with numerous traditional rituals between the mosque and the chavadi. A procession with Sai Baba’s image is taken around the village and the wheat sack kept at prasadalaya is substituted. Moreover, flags at Dwarkamai masjid are replaced.
Gurupurnima – July
On this holy occasion, you can witness millions of devotees visiting Shirdi to pay respects to Sai Baba and worship at the temple.
Shirdi Vijayadashami – October
Vijayadashami is regarded as an occasion that is extremely auspicious with great religious significance for Sai Baba followers. It is on this day when he left his mortal body and started his journey to heaven. This event is marked with a ritual named ‘brahman bhojan’ where numerous sadhus are given food and a donation is given to the gurus.