"Getting Rid of the Plague": A Practical Side of the Sai Philosophy
- by Mark T. Best, Bloomington, Indiana, USA

A "global perspective" of the philosophy of Sai Baba of Shirdi implies that the Sai philosophy, the esteemed values taught and embodied by Sai Baba, can go a long way in solving our world's problems. It also implies the potential for a broader, worldwide knowledge of Baba's person and teachings.

Over the decades many have been drawn to Sai Baba because of his reputation as a great miracle worker, and they have then discovered the spiritual teachings that he embodied. Unfortunately, it is just such a reputation that could be a "red flag" of warning in the Western world. The West today is often characterized by cynicism with regard to spiritual things. Many will not believe in "miracles," and thus also reject the faith that is behind them. Of course, people in many other parts of the world also share such cynicism and doubt, but I am writing from a Western perspective.

(I speak from personal experience in this, to some degree. If I may digress, I was initially attracted to Sai Baba by seeing his ubiquitous image in India for several months, and became curious about the identity of this saint with the long-suffering, benevolent gaze. It was only after my initial investigations into Sai Baba that I learned anything about his miraculous aspect, and so any danger of slipping into cynicism was circumvented.)

With this in mind, I would therefore like to briefly address in this essay a practical side to Sai Baba's person, philosophy, and teachings which I have encountered repeatedly in my readings about Sai Baba. I will argue that this pragmatic aspect to Baba teachings challenges his devotees to action to confront the ills plaguing our world today. This practical side to the Sai philosophy is part and parcel of Baba's divine grace, further enabling the devotee to progress spiritually. It is what Swami Vivekananda called "service of God in man."

To do so I would like to focus on an event recorded by Mr. G. S. Khaparde in his "Shirdi Diary." On 11 December 1912 he wrote, "All the people brought a deputation to Sayin Maharaj to get rid of the plague. He advised them to clean the roads, sweep the tombs and burning and burial ghats and to feed the poor." I would like to examine closely this event which at first glance appears to have little significance.

Dadasaheb Khaparde does not explain who "all the people" mentioned here are. These people could be anybody in Shirdi. In his diary, everything he records is based on his own observations, and he does not indulge in idle speculation about people's motivations for coming to Sai Baba. Thus, these people could be devotees with genuine faith in Baba. These people could also include individuals who, given Baba's reputation, simply hope that he will miraculously remove the plague, without any regard for who Baba is beyond that. Whatever each individual's personal perception of Baba, it is clear that they have one common expectation and desire -- that Baba will "get rid of the plague."

And this is clearly what Baba does; however, one gets the impression that his response may not be what they had expected. Instead of "magically" making this problem disappear, Baba offers the means of dealing with this problem, but also places the responsibility to do so upon them.

His advice is simple, direct, and sensible: removing filth and debris from the roads and cleaning the places of the dead prevents disease from germinating and spreading. His third directive, to feed the poor, involves a social responsibility -- relieving those elements of society afflicted with poverty in order to enable them to better resist the plague.

I feel that Baba's sound, practical advice in this situation can be extended to the world in which we live today, both in terms of global problems and our own personal spiritual progression. We are all aware that when the many "plagues" of disasters, whether man-made or natural, arise in the world, it is the poor who most often suffer. Anybody can be the victim of war, disease, hatred, intolerance, etc., but poverty makes these plagues that much worse in their effects.

Baba's advice was not simply advice; rather, he himself lived this advice to the highest degree. In crude material terms, he could have been one of the wealthiest of his time, but the lakhs of rupees only passed through his hands and never stayed there. Instead, he chose poverty, while relieving the poverty of thousands of others, both through his grace and the constant redistribution of the dakshina he demanded of those who could give. Baba knew that we, weak as we are, would not naturally do this of our own accord, and so had to teach by example.

Reliance on Baba's divine grace for material needs in no way diminishes the responsibility which Baba placed upon "all the people," whether devotee or non-devotee, to work to get rid of the plague. The devotee strives to be fully aware of Sai Baba's grace and teachings of his own volition, and to live accordingly. And so here I believe Baba's practical advice on this occasion can also be meaningful to us in our spiritual progress: removing those things that are obstacles on the road to higher spirituality, cleaning out those "dead places" in our lives which hinder us from spiritual growth, and, perhaps most importantly, aiding our fellow human beings.

This is no easy charge, for our human nature rails against it, as Sai Baba knew. How, then, are we enabled to live up to these expectations? Allow me to conclude with another quote from Mr. G. S. Khaparde's diary, dated 7 January 1912, which I believe answers this: "Sayin Maharaj commenced a very good tale. He said he had a very good well. The water in it was inexhaustible. Four mothas could not empty it, and the fruit grown with the water was inordinately pure and tasteful." We should heed Baba's invitation to drink from this well.


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