Aspiration towards a higher life is the essential characteristics of the Indo-Aryan culture. This leaning towards spirituality has contributed to the greatness of Bharat and perhaps the cause of its survival. The descent of God as an Avatar and the ascent of man to Divine perfection -- these are two inevitable aspects of our country’s faith. It is a kind of super-structure on which our spiritual tradition is based. Shri Sai Baba may well be called the pioneer of a spiritual renaissance in comparatively modern times. He had the vision to link up the perennial wisdom of the past to progressive modern trends which he based on the sound and healthy principles of progress. Sai Baba maintained that all progress must be achieved through the vitality of religion. For, true unity which is the basis of happiness is not possible, according to the sage, through political creeds or even social reforms or the principles of science, since all these may flourish in one era and be obsolete in the next. The unity of spiritual vision, however, is enduring, because the texture of such unity remains unchanged through the ages. This unity is to be found in man’s love for God. This is Baba’s most important thesis. Taking this as a major proposition, Baba argues that this is the crux of the whole approach. Inasmuch as we learn to love God with a perfect love, so shall we be able to love our fellow men. God is the common denominator, as it were. With a compassion that is innate in this great master, he knew that struggling to refine our emotions would weary us, so he advocated instead a turning to God with thoughts of love and surrender. Instead of starting from the bottom and struggling upwards, Sai Baba advises us to begin by accepting God as a spiritual axiom. The Divine thus becomes the starting point, the nucleus from which we progress to the attainment of the ideal of the fellowship and brotherhood of men. This is a refreshing approach and a rewarding one, because we are assured that when the aspiring soul takes one step towards God, the Almighty hastens to take him under His eternal protection.

As a matter of fact, with the advent of the Saint of Shirdi, the great and traditional movement of Bhakti, as a virile Sadhana for attaining salvation, received a tremendous impetus. Sai Baba brought about a powerful renaissance of the cult of devotion. For this contribution alone has the Master earned for himself an immortal name in the annals of spirituality.

Conscious of the beauty and power that reside in devotion which is tendered to the Divine, Shri Sai Baba exhorted men and women to adopt Bhakti as the most rewarding sadhana. It must not be imagined, however, that Sai Baba in any way decried the value and importance of other paths. After all, the goal is the same, declared Baba; so it matters not only by what varied routes you seek to attain it. The search and the seeker ultimately become one with all seekers who search for the common light. Even so, Shri Sainath did feel that intellectual concepts have an uncomfortable and an infinite capacity of varying and multiplying with individuals. There are as many systems of philosophy as there are philosophers, and, as such, these concepts, more often than not, becomes causes of tension among seekers. But Bhakti is different. Bhakti or love is the most natural and vital feeling of the human heart. Loving and being loved fall within the scope of every individual’s normal experience, and one has no need to cultivate love. Like a true and sensitive psychologist, Sai Baba recognized that the need to adore is inherent in the human heart and, as such, he felt that the sadhana of devotion (Bhakti) could well become the basis of an inter-religious dialogue.

Shri Sai Baba, therefore, descended as the Avatar of Love. This was his manifest role. It could be said that after Jesus Christ, there has not been a greater apostle of love than Shri Sai Baba, the Saint of Shirdi.

Writing the biographical sketch of saints is difficult, but the difficulties become well-nigh insurmountable when one has to deal with the life of the incredible Saint of Shirdi. Sai Baba’s early life was enshrouded in contradictions and mystery. Moreover, the great one delighted in perpetuating this feeling of mystery and uncertainty that hovered over his birth, his parentage and the events and incidents of his early childhood. Indeed Sai Baba is one of those rare saints of whose birth and parentage there is no authentic record. Shri Sai Baba’s appearance was an affirmation of the Immaculate conception. As the distinguished author Hemadpant of Shri Sai Charita aptly points out, “Namdev and Kabir were not born like ordinary mortals. They were discovered as infants concealed in the mother of pearl, Namdev was found by Gonayee in the Bhimratha river and Kabir was found by Jamal in the Bhagirathi river. Similarly, Sai Baba was not born of mortal parents”, concludes the learned author. We may, however, mention that there is another not too authentic a version of Sai Baba’s origin. It is stated that Sai Baba was born of a Brahmin parents in the Nizam’s state. In infancy Baba was supposed to have been deserted by his parents. Legend says that a fakir found the child and took him home. After the fakir’s death, the child was taken over by a zamindar of selu who brought up this child in the historical evidence supporting this theory, and Shri Sai Baba himself is not known to have confirmed it. On the contrary, the saint’s own utterances about his origin were pregnant with innuendoes hinting at his supernatural emergence into the world. All that is historically known is that Sai Baba first came to Shirdi when he was a lad of 16, and lived there for about 4 years. Then suddenly he disappeared for some time, and after a lapse of 4 years returned to Shirdi round about the year 1859. After that he resided in the place of his choice for an unbroken period of sixty years until he attained mahasamadhi in 1918. But when and where this young lad was born, where he came from, was not definitely known. Can it be that he was not born at all in the human way? Could he not have been a Mahatma, a great Avatar, who willed himself a body, because he wanted to fulfill a mission, because he wanted “to lead lacs of people to salvation?” A daring concept, no doubt; but then one is justified in wondering why there is not a single solitary evidence about the birth and parentage of the elusive Saint of Shirdi. Nor is this speculation a mere figment of the author’s imagination. It is well established fact of spiritual lore that, when a Jiva reaches liberation, he transcends his material body. No Yogi dies in the ordinary sense of the word. His mission is self-allotted and springs from the source of his free and redeemed spirit. Such a one’s passing from amongst us is said to be a conscious and voluntary act, so that when a liberated being leaves the world, he is not Sai to have died, but to have ‘given up his body’. If then, in the tradition of spiritual wisdom it is believed that great sages are not overcome by death, but will themselves to die, it is not irrational to envisage the possibility of such beings willing themselves alive, and in and through that fiat of will they may not even deem it essential to go through the ordinary physiological process of birth. Shri Aurobindo, one of the greatest seers of our times, has hinted at the above possibility in one of his writings which is quoted below:

“A soul wishing to enter a body or form for itself a body and take part in a divine life upon earth, might be assisted to do so or be even provided with such a form by this method of direct transmutation without passing through birth by the sex process or undergoing any degradation or any of the heavy limitations in the growth and development of its mind and material body inevitable to our present way of existence.”

The above is a very thought-provoking declaration, coming as it does from one of our foremost thinkers and seers. It gives adequate support and validity to the theory of Shri Sai Baba’s immaculate origin. Besides, the magnitude of Shri Sai Baba’s stature coupled with his enigmatic personality and utterance could certainly tip the balance in the favor of his supernatural birth. This solved, now or ever. It is sufficient to come within the orbit of his radiant influence which shines effulgently today, as it did when he was alive and residing in Shirdi.

When Shri Sai Baba first came to Shirdi with a marriage party he was a young lad of 16, but even at that tender age he looked every inch a Sat Purush. His radiant appearance and the unusual lusture on his face singled him out as one who had come to fulfill a magnificent destiny. The simple village folk of Shirdi were enabled, by God’s Grace, to recognize the Mahatma that he was. When the marriage party came to Shirdi, several men got down one by one from a cart which had brought them thither. These villagers alighted in a field belonging to one Bhagat Mhalsapati who later achieved the distinction of becoming famous as one of Sai Baba’s most faithful and worthy disciples. Now when it came to the young Yogi’s turn to get down from the cart, Shri Mahalsapati shouted out; “Welcome Sai”. Thus, in a moment was resurrected Shri Sai Baba, the immortal Saint of Shirdi. It was characteristic of the Great Master that he accepted this name without demur or protest. Perhaps he had selected this simple name for himself as the savior of the masses, and so he himself subtly provoked his disciple to call him by the name of his choice! It may even have been a hint of his own nameless state!

Shri Sai Baba often spoke in parables, which, if taken too literally, resulted in a mass of contradictory beliefs and theories, each group of people believing what they wanted to believe. The Hindus thought him to be an Avatar of some God-head; the Muslims said he was a Pir sent by Allah to liberate men. To one man he was the Avatar of Dattatreya, to another he was Akalkote Maharaj re-incarnated. Each individual saw in this unique Saint a personification of his own favorite deity, as incarnation of his own chosen ideal, and worshipped him as such. Through all this maze of contrary beliefs, Baba lived on unperturbed with perhaps a glint of humour in his eyes for the perplexity which these unimportant speculations about his caste and creed roused in those who surrounded him. For Baba had a keen sense of humour. Though he had attained to the highest kingship in the realms of the spirit, he was not like many other Yogis absorbed in the contemplation of his own blissful state. He always walked, talked, and laughed with his many devotees. He loved fun, and loved to poke fun at the discrepancies of human nature, but his sallies were always tempered with tenderness. His assembly in Shirdi in those glorious days was a veritable abode of joy, and in no sense did it resemble a gloomy cloister bereft of laughter and sunshine, The Saint of Shirdi baffled his admirers. No one knew whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim! He dressed like a Muslim and bore the caste marks of a Hindu! He celebrated with the same child like éclat the festivals of both the communities! If the Hindu protagonists felt a pride of possessions in the thought that true to their customs Baba was always burning the sacred fire before him, they were also reluctantly compelled to admit that after all he lived in a masjid. He quoted the Quoran and delighted his Muslim worshippers, and then made them look askance at his profound knowledge of the Hindu shastras. He called himself a fakir and on his lips reverberated constantly the incantation ‘Allah Malik’. But, Then he called himself a pure Brahmin too, and showed a remarkable proficiency in all yogic practices. It was magnificent tribute to his luminous presence that the most orthodox members of both the communities prostrated themselves at this feet. Perhaps such a phenomenon is yet unknown in the history of this vast and bewildering country of ours, where these two communities have worshipped one Seer with the same veneration and with mutual toleration of each other’s mode of worship. Sai Baba in his infinite wisdom saw how imperative it was to harmonize people, for he grievously hated all dissensions and was never so hurt as when he found people arguing and quarreling. That Rama (the God of Hindus) and Rahim (the God of Muslims) were one and the same -- was his constant counsel to his followers. In Shirdi in those days a remarkable spirit of love and brotherhood prevailed, for all communities had found a common and unifying interest in the divine personality of Shri Sai Baba. Could this not be one of the important reasons why Baba set about deliberately baffling his followers whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim.

So, who is Sai Baba, people ask to this day; and to those who seek for a superficial classification of the Saint as subscribing to this or that creed there is still no satisfactory answer to this question. But those few who have assimilated the teachings of the Great Master realize that “Sai is not this three and a half cubic feet of visible body residing in Shirdi”, as Baba himself was fond of repeating, but a glorious being who had transcended the limitations of time and space to become one with all-absorbing and all-loving Divine. To such a one, what did it matter how and where he was born, or what his nationality was! Once in reply to the same query Baba said: “I have no residence, I am the attributless absolute. By the action of karma, I got embroiled and came to a body. My name is the embodied Dehi. The world is my abode. Brahman is my father and Maya my mother. By their interlocking, I got this body”. “Those who think I reside at Shirdi do not know the real Sai”, he chided, “for I am formless and everywhere”.

Like the late stage of Arunchala -- Bahgwan Ramana -- whose life is yet another saga of spiritual magnificence, Baba also constantly encouraged enquiry into the true nature of the self. The similarity of approach between these two great teachers is significant. Bhagwan Ramana’s “Who am I” has become the pivot of his teachings. Sai Baba many decades ago never got tired of telling his followers to think of who they were. He often said, “Who am I -- whence? Night and day, think on this”. This was one of the most important injunctions of the Master and will be developed further in another chapter.

The master taught by precept and practice and by the power and glory of his mere presence the way of life that leads to a radical transformation in the inward man. True, he taught only through a medium of the spoken word in the age long tradition of many of India’s Gurus, But that spoken word had in it the lusture and the strength to pierce through the limitations of time and distance, and has spread far and wide even to the remotest of our villages. Sai Baba’s teachings and life have specially captured the imaginations of the Maharashtrians and South Indians among whom alone there are millions of devotees at the present day. But even in other parts of India there is no dearth of Sai Bhakta. Curiously enough, the influence of this great Yogi is growing and spreading more and more, instead of waning with the passage of years. Though himself a great Gnani and an able exponent of metaphysical subtleties, Baba was pre-eminently the savior of the poor and the simple and the so-called ignorant mass of humanity. Shri Aurobindo talks of divine love that is also personal. “It is not like the ordinary personal human love depending on any return from the person”, he says. “It is personal but not egoistic; it goes from the real being in the one to the real being in the other”. This is the kind of love that Baba has for humanity. He is even today actively burning with compassion for the miseries and sorrows that seem to have an asylum on earth. A glance into his eyes, and somehow one seems to hear once again the Christ-like utterances of intense compassion. “Come unto me all Ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”.