Almost a century ago one Maha Purush in the form of a young boy of 20 appeared and settled in the unobtrusive little hamlet of Shirdi. Dressed in a long kufni and with a begging bowl as his sole possession, this young and handsome lad, appearing from nowhere as it were, came and sat beneath a neem tree. He soon lit a fire in front of him which he always kept burning. When he felt hungry he went off and begged for his crust of bread. To all intents and purposes he might have been just an ordinary fakir, a little touched in the head, so some people of the village imagined at first when they heard him mumbling to himself. But soon the glory of his atma began to attract mortals to him as bees are attracted to a hive. Somehow, to man is given by the Almighty’s grace a kind of super-sense which enables him to recognize the greatness of the holy ones by mere contact with their presence. No doubt we have, and we will always have, in our midst the unbelievers, those men of little faith, the philistines who, due probably to their karma, are not prepared to receive the grace of sadgurus. But, on the whole, there are not many amongst us who are not strengthened by this contact with saints and who do not come to recognize in time the sweetness of a life of righteousness. Wherever a Maha Yogi chooses to install himself, around him there grows an atmosphere of sanctity, and thousands of pilgrims are ready to take refuge in him, in his dharma and in the glorious satsang which he keeps open in his infinite mercy to the rich and poor, to the great and humble alike.

So it was with this great Yogi too. He had no pretensions., he assumed no title. He called himself a fakir and accepted the simple name Sai. He sat under the neem tree and later in the adjoining mosque for 60 long years and around these spots there grew imperceptibly the Ashram as it stands today. Gradually the fame of the enigmatic one began to spread. No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from. Some spoke of his compassionate bearing, others raved about his healing touch and some related stories of his remarkable all-knowingness. If he went to beg for food, he was like no ordinary beggar. One day he astounded a lady who refused him charity by gently rebuking her thus: “Mother you have such and such number of Chapatis, so much rice(Naming the exact quantity), why do you refuse a crust to the poor fakir?”

Slowly but surely the influence of this strange avatar spread far and wide. Those who came to visit him out of curiosity remained forever in the bliss of the Master’s presence.

Till the day of his passing Sai Baba retained his simple and ascetic habits. Though in a very short while money began to flow into his coffers, and he could have lived like a prince, he still chose to beg for his food., and every morning the sweet and lovable figure would be seen going out with the begging bowl to four or five neighboring houses from where he collected his ration of food. Much later he relaxed this severe discipline and would partake of the naiveda i.e. food given as offering by any of the visiting devotees. But this he did more as a concession to the feelings of those who loved and worshipped him. Nor did the Master ever change his mode of dress. A long loose robe reaching to the ankles and piece of cloth tied around his head completed his attire. He did not posses a wardrobe, and it was useless to give him any clothes for he immediately gave them away! The kufni remained on his body until it was torn and tattered or until some devotee forcibly took it off him and made him don another. Even so the great one would sometimes sit with a needle and thread repairing the torn garment with incorrigible obstinacy! But it is these habits that caused him to be loved so intimately. Veteran devotees still recount with tears in their eyes some of these very human and humble traits of the Master. He did indeed descend from his heavenly abode to be as one of us, and, what is more, to be akin to the poorest among men so that he might with greater understanding and assurance relieve their sorrows and wants. Though he could have lived in a magnificent palace if he so chose, with all the comforts at his command, he showed a vairagya for material things by living in a hut with few or no wants, and at one time with a rickety plank for a bedstead.

It was characteristic of the Master, that though he lived in such austerities, he neither preached nor allowed his devotees to practice any sort of physical mortification. Indeed he was against austerity for the sake of austerity. He never forbade anyone from eating flesh or other palatable food. He sometimes even forced his orthodox devotees to eat onions against their will; and on occasions he is reported to have cooked meat and distributed to all and sundry. This the Master did because he sensed the danger of men forgetting the spirit of the dhrama in the mere letter of its formal rituals. No amount of physical and external vairagya would serve any purpose if the man who practiced it remained impure in mind and heart. Therefore, Baba cautioned his devotees not to make self-mortification an end in itself. Austerities are a means only to inward purification, and if they do not promote this effect, they are not only useless and unprofitable but even dangerous, he preached.

Baba did not deem it am evil to satisfy the natural wants of the body, and if devotees undertook a penance fast, Baba always pointed out the uselessness of their endeavors until these erroneous ideals of self-affliction which chilled their hearts melted away under the gentle warmth of the Master’s persuasion. How can any one be free from self by leading a wretched life, if he does not succeed in quenching the fires of lust and greed?

In Baba’s ashram, therefore, there was no dearth of good and plenty of food. He himself sometimes indulged in cooking. A huge vessel was placed on the fire in which Baba poured ghee and then all manner of vegetables and rice and spices were thrown in and cooked in a mighty hotch-potch! Out of this magnificent repast Baba himself served out the food to all those who were in the ashram; and it is said that no matter how many people came forward to eat there was enough food to go round.

As a matter of fact, the atmosphere in the ashram used to be delightfully informal and happy, and, as pointed out elsewhere, did not in the least resemble the puritanical atmosphere of a monastery.

The great Guru was always approachable. Men, women and children could go to him and at any time without fear of being rebuffed. Most of the time Baba sat in the masjid ministering unto his people. Whenever an opportunity offered itself he gave discourse on moral and philosophical issues and brought home to the assembly the futility of lives absorbed in material pursuits. The rest of the time he busied himself in solving the problems of the ordinary householder, healing the sick and restoring hope and comfort to the afflicted. People came to him for all their wants and sorrows. They had but to ask, and it seemed to be the Mater’s business to give to all those who asked, provided in his wise estimation they did not ask amiss.

Sometimes, however, the compassionate one wistfully waited for the people tp ask for the real treasures of the spirit. “No one cares to listen to me or the wisdom I can give”, he sorrowfully complained. And if in the assembly there were a few who showed a thirst for eternal values, Baba felt radiantly happy and sought in every way to guide such seekers to the right source. The Master’s knowledge of the Shastras, the Puranas, the Quoran, the Gita and other scriptures was phenomenal. He could quote verse and line, to show where a particular truth was embodied, much to the amazement of the Pandits and scholars who went to him, and his interpretations and elucidations of the difficult passages were extremely revealing and inspiring. Such was Baba’s durbar. There was never a dull moment in the Sage’s presence. On the contrary, Baba always made the proceedings lively and interesting by his wit and charm, and due to his extremely cordial and freindly demeanour, no one stood inawe of the great Saint. People both loved and revered him. He was generally very sweet tempered and tolerant, and he allowed people to take all manner of with his person, in that they adorned him with flowers or sandal paste and vermilion and performed all kinds of rites and pujas on him. He submitted to all this, with the true meekness which only the great ones possess. But there were times when Baba got into towering rage and raved and shouted like one possessed. This show of temper would last for a few moments, and then Baba would again melt into tenderness. Devotees sometimes were at a loss to understand such manifestations of wrath. It must be explained here that the anger which realized beings exibit is not of the same quality that ordinary men indulge in. When saints get angry they do so for the good of those who are so chided. The Guru only appears to be wrathful, but there is no scar in his heart which is always full of love for his children. Every morning for a couple of hours Baba retired to the Lendi Gardens where he remained alone and undisturbed. At that time too his aspect was forbidding and stern. Indeed, he looked so very awesome and terrific in those hours that devotees could not go anywhere near him. It seemed as if he assumed at times the third and most awe-inspiring aspect of the trimurtic conception of the Divine. As Shiva the Destroyer and Preserver did the Maha-Yogi manifest himself. But soon after his return from the gardens the Master would relax again and become his sweet and gentle self. His ways were indeed sometimes mysterious!

Before we close this chapter giving these few glimpses of the habits and temperaments of the beloved Master, it is necessary to give an explanation of the strange practice of giving and taking of dakshina which was a practice peculiar only to Shri Sai Baba of Shirdi. There were certain devotees from whom Sai Baba always extracted money, and the huge amount of wealth he collected in this way, it was his practice to distribute among other devotees. His allotments were peculiar too. People used to get fixed allowances every day ranging from Rs. 4 to Rs. 100. This was not some crude form of socialism which Baba sought to put into practice, for he did not invariably collect money from the rich to distribute to the poor. There seemed to be a deeper purpose behind this strange giving and taking of dakshinawhich is difficult to understand from our level of consiousness. The ways of the Almighty are not all the time comprehensible, but nevertheless they have their own mysterious function in the entire pattern. Once when Baba was asked why he took so much money, he replied: “I do not ask everyone. I ask only from those whom the fakir (God) points out. But in exchange I have to give that man ten times the amount which I have taken from him.” And this proved to be true in every case. Whenever Baba took away either money or valuable articles from anyone, that man was not impoverished. On the contrary, in some mysterious way he got back what he had paid ten times over in the shape of a sudden fortune or gift or through a rise in his salary. Baba often demanded dakshina from a person who could ill afford it, but thought to be a greater privilege to be asked for dakshina might also have been a powerful means of promoting vairagya for wealth and worldly possessions. Probably Baba sometimes felt that attachment to money was the only weakness that delayed the spiritual growth of certain devotees, and this was his way of curing that weakness. In the same way, if Baba found that a person had collected money which he did not merit, he took this exact amount away on the pretext of demanding dakshina. Likewise did he denude that man of the amount which in some moment he had promised to give away in charity if his wishes were fulfilled, but conveniently forgot to do so now that he was prosperous. The trouble was that nothing was hidden from this Maha Yogi. No matter how deeply embedded even in the subconscious a devotee’s thoughts and desires were, Baba always knew! Dakshina had, therefore, both a literal and a symbolic meaning and value. Every morning Baba started his day as a penniless fakir. As the day advanced he would amass a fortune which even princes would have envied; then again, before eventide, his treasury was once again empty! This too was one of the leelas of the Saint of Shirdi.

These are some interesting glimpses of the habits and temperaments of the beloved Guru. We can understand from these significant details of his life that in all that he did and said Baba clearly revealed his transcendental origin. When the Divine descends into the earth consciousness He has no need to learn or acquire knowledge. Knowledge and wisdom are immanent in him, for, is He not that from which all knowledge, all wisdom emanate? Is He not the fountain source from which spring all beauty and goodness? Why need we go to any other source but this! But the Divine is also all merciful, and so that the priceless gems of wisdom may be grasped and assimilated by mortal men, He chooses thus to embody Himself in a shape and form which men can worship and cherish and understand more readily than an abstract ideal of the Godhead. This is why to millions of Sai bhaktas the Master is the resurrection and the life, and that is why Baba often said, “Those who come to me reach their Chaitanya, their God.” “Simply say Sai-Sai”, he declared, “I care not for show of respect and forms”.