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.
Seeing thousands of fervent pilgrims from various faiths in Shirdi got my heartbeat rising. After hours of waiting, I finally entered the sanctum sanctorum. Baba’s life size statue made of white marble evoked awe and reverence in me. Clad in a silk robe, Baba was adorned in a golden crown. As if in response to my heightened emotion, a hint of amusement seemed to twinkle in Baba’s eyes and a cryptic smile played on his lips.
After the darshan, I went to masjid Dwarakamai. I was surprised to learn that the now-renovated masjid was nothing like what it used to be. Baba lived in a much smaller mud structure with knee-deep pits on the floor and a half-collapsed roof. He had named the dilapidated structure Dwarkarmai. With corrugated iron roof and stone walls, Dwarakamai was an epitome of simplicity. Incidentally, Dwarka is the abode of Lord Krishna.
At the masjid, the dhuni (a pyre) was lined with firebricks. Interestingly, maintaining a dhuni is an important practice in both Sufi and Hindu traditions. I was amazed to learn that the fire which Baba perpetually kept alight ages ago was never extinguished. It is believed that Baba used to distribute its ashes (udi). Legend has it that it protected his devotees from illnesses. Before leaving, I pictured Baba meditating in front of the dhuni and took a pinch of udi.
Whilst in his physical body, Baba is said to have recommended the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita for Hindu devotees and the Quran for the Muslims. He used to listen to Sufi songs and dance ecstatically to it. At the same time, he was equally well-versed in Vedanta Advaita. Baba embraced both Hinduism and Islam during his lifetime. He successfully transcended the limitations of religion throughout his life.
If birth and life could not confine Baba to either religion, then how could death? Baba entered into Mahasamadhi on the Hindu festival of Vijayadashami. It also happened to be the sacred month of Ramadan. “On the ninth day, of the ninth month, Allah is taking away the lamp he lit,” Baba had prophesised.
As I boarded a bus back home, the vivid image of Baba’s enigmatic smile and glowing eyes kept coming back to me. I realised that Baba’s religion did not matter to an ardent devotee. A part of me had already accepted him as my spiritual guru, who broke the barriers of man-made religion. The words, Sabka malik ek (all God is one) resonated with me.