It was early morning when I arrived in Shirdi, a quaint town in the Indian state of Maharashtra. While I was tired and sleepy, the town was awake, bustling with activity. As soon as I got off the bus, I saw pilgrims lining up outside the Sai Baba temple to witness the early morning Kakad Aarti (a ritual wherein lamps are lighted, offerings made and hymns). Witnessing the devotees’ enthusiasm and energy, my own exhaustion–from having travelled overnight on a rickety bus–soon disappeared.
I checked into a hotel, freshened up and joined the serpentine queue for the darshan. As I had a lot of time on hand, I picked up a conversation with a fellow devotee. I learnt that Sai Baba is revered by both Hindus and Muslims. In fact, it is uncertain whether Baba himself was a Hindu or a Muslim. Till date, his ancestry has remained a mystery.
Legend has it that Baba came to Shirdi when he was about 16. Villagers were surprised to see such a young lad leading the life of an ascetic, practising yoga and meditation under a neem tree. Baba lived in poverty–he converted a dump yard into a garden, begged for alms and wore a tattered kafni (traditional attire of the Sufis). He was ignored by most Hindu villagers as a mad fakir (beggar).
Things began to change when the locals recognised the mystic’s miraculous healing powers. From a mad fakir, he became a hakim (healer). Over time, his miracles and spiritual powers earned him a set of devout followers who spread his name far and wide. With rising fame, several saints too connected with Baba. Sufi saint Meher Baba bestowed the title Qutub-e-Irshad,(master of the universe) upon him. Hindu saint Anandanath of Yewala called him a ‘spiritual diamond’. Saint Shri Beedkar Maharaj conferred upon him the title Jagadguru. It is said that during Baba’s last days, even Christians and Zoroastrians started following him.
Baba embraced both Hinduism and Islam during his lifetime. He successfully transcended the limitations of religion throughout his life.