If a culture has to live, it has to assert itself again and again with the impact of a volcanic eruption blasting the ignorance of man. Though Bharat’s spiritual philosophy is true for all times, in reinstating it a great upheaval has to be created by a daring outburst of spiritual truths. This can be done only by a great Avatar. The early 20th century produced such a man in Shri Sai Baba, the Saint of Shirdi. Shri Sai Baba passed away in 1918, and through the period of his messiahship extended only to about 60 years, he was able in that short span to vivify the temporal order with the light of God, revealing in men to themselves and leading them to discover their own dignity.

Sai Baba still lives in the souls of our motherland and in the hearts of her children; even as all other Avatars and Sages do.

The religious impulse so securely embedded in the very soil of this great and ancient country of ours. The lofty idealism of our ancient scriptures, defining religion as a way of spiritual living rather than as a dogma or a creed, still has a hold on the masses as well as the intelligentia. Though the vitality of the religious impulse may be submerged today, it is bound to assert itself, because the typical Indian still cherishes in his heart of hearts a strong faith that through spiritual values alone can he fulfill basic needs of happiness and peace of mind. This is a deeply ingrained characteristics of the Indian soul, and nothing can completely uproot or destroy it. The Indian believes that mankind and the world have their end not in themselves, but are ordained to a transcendental destiny so that the individual has to get busy in striving towards perfection. The establishment of the kingdom of God on earth is felt to e co-operative enterprise between God and man. Man is a co-sharer in the work of creation. Men and women may be deeply committed to the tasks of the world, but the inspiration which sustains them in their human vocation comes from above, from the essence of religion which is spirituality.

A brief survey of conditions prevailing in the present times leaves us with an impression of chaos all over the world, of cold wars and hatred, of forces of evil triumphing over the forces of good, of the increase in immorality and corruption, not only in Bharat, but in all the countries of the world. The fact is that scientific inventions have placed at the disposal of humanity immense powers, but unfortnately, man the user of these powers has still not conquered his base instincts for power and greed, so that these scientific implements are used for destructive rather than constructive purposes. Moreover, these very inventions have multiplied wants and titillated the human instincts for possession. In trying to satisfy this Frankenstein of worldly desires, man has become the victim of tragic fallacy that a material environment in which there is a mad pursuit of redundant luxury, comfort and sense pleasures in the panacea of all troubles and problems. But, when the deeper instincts of the human heart are neglected, misery and frustration follow in their wake, for a materialistic approach to life ends in satiety. The alarming degree of psychotic maladjustment in Sweden and other ultra Americanized countries, resulting in the biggest percentage of suicides should be a warning against too much absorption in materialism, This is all the more convincing because otherwise these countries are prosperous, and poverty and unemployment do not exist there to such an extent as to justify such abject despair. We in India can learn a lesson from this, and turn once again to the dynamism of religion and to the revival of Truth, Beauty and Love. As Shri Aurobindo has rightly pointed out, “India can best develop herself and serve humanity by being herself. She can be herself only by being loyal to her ancient knowledge which is grounded in spirituality”.

Faith in the spiritual Guru is one of the staunch pillars of the Sanathana Dharma. The teachings of Prophets and Incarnations have always provided great inspiration to spiritual seekers. The Guru as the spiritual preceptor has always had a tremendous appeal to the oriental mind. The Indian heart spontaneously responds in surrender to the Guru. The theory of avatarhood is an eloquent expression of Bharat’s spiritual philosophy. If God is looked upon as the saviour of humanity, as He invariably is, then God must manifest Himself. The birth of the Satpurush is thus acclaimed as the greatest good that can befall humanity. God as the abstract Creator eludes our imagination, but when a human temple enshrines divinity we begin to understand through this familiar medium the purpose of our own ultimate destiny. Thus when God assumes a human form, He establishes Himself as the Guru. Guru is manifested God -- This is perhaps the most succinct and satisfying definition of the word, and eliminates the false claim of some so-called Gurus who are ready to assume the mantle of spiritual authority without the true manifestation of the divine principle. The Guru as manifested God soon becomes the Light, the inspiration and the great exemplar. The life of the average seeker, as it is lived on the material and physical level, is barren and unproductive until it finds its focus in the Master. For though it is true that every man and woman is potentially divine, it requires the grace, protection and the powerful push of the Guru to release this imprisoned splendour which lies captive in each and every one of us.

Even ultimate knowledge which is sometimes described as the secret wisdom is innate in man, but it is revealed only to an intellect which is purified by the tapasya of the seeker and of the touch of the Sadguru. It is therefore believed that the Guru and God are one because the Almighty and his medium of manifestation cannot be different. The Guru embodies not only the Saguna characteristics but also the Nirguna quality of the supreme being., and so to that extent the Guru is approachable and accessible to the fact that we have to reach eternity in the temporal order, we have to seek oneness by going beyond the appearance of pluralities. In order to achieve such a difficult task we certainly need the protection and guidance of a spiritual preceptor.

One this fascinating contact between the Guru and the bhakta is established, the relationship between the master and the disciple becomes a thing of beauty. A thrilling intimacy is engineered where each completes the other to bring about a rare and lyrical fusion. This leads us to consider the principle of reciprocity which operates in this relationship. In return for the innumerable demands which a bhakta makes on the Master, it is but natural that the Guru too should impose a few conditions on the bhakta. The Guru expects total surrender, absolute obedience, and, the last and most important, supreme effort. Effort is a courtesy which all sadhakas owe to the Divine, and preserving effort alone brings down the dynamism of God’s help and grace. As sadhakas we have to venerate and respect all Gurus, but to the form in which he or she appears to enlighten us we have to render our exclusive adoration and surrender.

Is a Guru absolutely necessary for spiritual sadhana? The pros and cons of this question have been adequately discussed by Shri Sai Baba in the body of the book in the chapter entitled “Surrender to the Guru is the only sadhana”. Though Sai Baba was pre-eminently the apostle of the Guru Marg, he did not deny the possibility of progress and attainment without the Guru, but he always pointed out the besetting difficulties of a sadhak who did not lean on a spiritual master for guidance and protection. It is all very well to talk of one’s own true self being the Guru, said Baba, but the real self is so deeply overshadowed by the ego which is full of contradictions that it is very difficult to get behind this overbearing selfhood to reach the hidden potentiality of the divine self. The Guru on the contrary accepts the sadhaka’s limitations and slowly but surely helps him to transcend these and reach his goal. Even Shri Raman a Maharishi who had advocated the path of self-enquiry which is the pat of gnan, said in his last years: “If you surrender to me, I shall lead you to the portal of eternal liberation”. Thus, by agreeing to be a Guru, the great sage of Arunchala confirmed the importance of the Guru. Swami Vivekananda was an incorrigible rationalist in his earlier life, but when he attained spiritual maturity through the grace of his Guru Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, he made this significant avowal to Sharada Devi -- “Mother, the knowledge that sweeps away the lotus feet of the Guru is no knowledge at all”. The Guru is thus the deep rooted conviction of Bharat’s soil. The concept of the Guru is the pivot on which practically all sadhana finds its focus.

The Guru thus appears as the great awakener. At least in the traditional path of Bhakti the Guru is held to be an inexorable necessity for those aspiring to a higher life. For, it is maintained that a sadhaka can reach that pitch of selfless adoration which the traditional path of devotion prescribes only if he is attached to some great personality.

The sadhaka cannot cultivate the same emotion for abstract concepts. Ultimately, of course, the personal form of the Guru dissolves in the impersonal reality, but not till the awakening has reached a certain high level. In the initial stages, the aspirant can comprehend the unknown only in terms of the known.

The Guru’s mission appears to be two-fold. The first and most important concern of the Guru is to awaken, elevate and transform the seeker. The second and the final purpose of the Guru is paradoxically to help the sadhakas to transcend this state of complete dependence on the Master, which dependence the Guru himself had taken such pains to foster. The final spurt of realizing his true identity with God is exclusively the Sadhaka’s job.

The beauty and wisdom of India’s spiritual literature have been considerably enhanced by the tribute that is paid both in prose and poetry to the unique relationship that exists between the Guru and the bhakta. This exquisite relationship is replete with inexhaustible possibilities; and the delicate nuances of give and take between the master and disciple give to the relationship a lyrical composition. The Divine, sensing man’s need for a sakshat and perfect presence whom he could both love and worship, comes down as the great Avatar. Bharat has produced many such Avatars, and this perhaps is the cause of our country’s greatness and the cause of its survival too through strange vicissitudes of good and bad fortune.

The Saint of Shirdi recognized and emphasized the beauty of a Guru-guided life. He felt that the very ethos of our nation could be found in this enduring and endearing association of the Guru and his bhaktas. He wanted his beloved followers to feel a thrill of protection in the assurance that a loving Master delights in the intimacy of the demands made by his devotees. In each of his lovers, Sai Baba recognized the potential Divine, and so he brought to each association a quality of tender and reverent friendship. In appraising the life and leelas of this great spiritual Master, one cannot but feel the subtle unfolding of the ancient tradition of the Guru lending its fragrance to all that he did and said.

The Saint of Shirdi left behind a rich heritage of enlightened followers. The spiritual world is deeply indebted to this Mahapurush, not only for his exalted guruship, but also because he has brought into being a brilliant dynasty of Gurus. Shri Upasani Baba Maharaj was Sai Baba’s most inspired successor. How the former was able to establish a lasting Guru- parampara through his vision and foresight, is another absorbing story; but Shri Sai Baba’s leelas would be incomplete without reference to Shri Upasani Baba’s life and the life and teachings of the holy Mother, Sati Godavari Mataji, who is alive today to sustain and heighten the tradition of the two great Babas. I have, therefore, added two more chapters at the end of this second edition, dealing with the lives and teachings of Shri Upasani Baba and Sati Godavari Mataji.

Shri Sai Baba was not content to transfer his messiahship to his descendants. In the last years of his life, he said to his devotees with a mother’s solicitude, “Do not grieve when my body passes away. My tomb will live and move and speak with all those who make me their sole refuge.” Happily, though we have just commemorated the 50th year of his mahasamadhi, Sai Baba’s promise is abundantly fulfilled today. Through half a century of void there comes echoing down the years the gracious message -- “ Lo, I am beside you always.