A few weeks ago, both parents of a classmate of my son's met with an accident and died on the way back from Shirdi, leaving him, their only child, now in Class 10, behind. Despite the immense tragedy of the situation, it was widely believed that you would have to have been truly blessed souls to have died together, as a couple, after "darshan" on the way back from Shirdi.
It is believed by those who have faith, that you can only step on its soil if you are "called" – what is known here as "Shirdi ka bulava" or "Baba ni biolauvla aahe (Baba has called me)". That is the measure of faith most in Maharashtra have.
Throughout the first week of April, from any part of the state, you would have witnessed streams of people from all classes and walks of life carrying the palkhi of Shirdi Sai Baba and walking barefoot – men, women, children, the elderly – with no fear or without thought to their safety along the Nashik highway, a distance of some 270km, a journey of almost seven days, to reach Shirdi in time for Ramnavami. Their food and water is taken care of by impromptu pandals that offer snacks, meals, water (but admittedly do leave a trail of litter that could do with more of a civic sense about).
|Sai Baba Temple, Shirdi.|
And how is Ram Navami celebrated in Shirdi?
With an Urs, or a Muslim celebration. The practise began in 1890 when a Gopal Gund wanted to celebrate having a child after many childless years. Baba, a fakir, who had mysteriously appeared in the village, but sat in meditation like a Hindu yogi, lived in a dilapidated masjid, which he called his Dwarakamayi, and was worshipped by the Hindus to whom he gave vibhuti or sacred ash as prasad, suggested an urs, something that would bring both communities together, which by 1912 became the local celebration of the Ramnavami festival.
His slogans "Sabka Malik" today is sung as "Malik Sab ka ek hai Sai" and "Allah Malik" are natural utterances for anyone who is a devotee. He was revered by other contemporary saints and yet hailed as a sufi with the words "Sai" and "Baba" meaning father in Marathi. There is no greater syncretic symbol of Maharashtra, especially at this time, when the urs is ongoing (April 8th - 15th).
The miracles Sai Baba is credited with are many; the grinding of wheat, symbolic of karma, and circling the village of Shirdi with it to keep out the plague, spitting water into lamps and keeping them burning for Diwali, and blessing many with children, wishes, visions and medical healing. He taught that remembering god's name, feeding the hungry, and doing good were religion enough.
Like Jesus, he too taught through parables, was the friend of the poor and the elite and the social outcaste alike, with little tolerance for hypocrisy. He had a fiery temper and even to be at the receiving end of that – he threw things at you – was said to be a blessing. He forced donations out of his devotees, small or large amounts, taken to be repayments of karmic backlog.
Like any other patron saint of the Hindus, Sai Baba would have been dismissed as a fraud and a charlatan if he lived in this wonderful age of cynicism.
The wadis (vally) and masjid (mosque) which humbly housed him once are part of a multi-crore Shirdi Sansthan Trust, and the simple handi into which he poured all his offerings to make one hotchpotch of food that the many who came to see him ate, now replaced with fancier prasad. His simple wooden chappals are now moulded in silver and gold and worshipped. And there is a separate line for VIP worship, given the multitudes that pour in. Like all things humble about India's pantheon, Shirdi has turned into a complex and multi-headed beast of organised religion.
But the worship still offered is to his dargah, clothed in a chaddar. Which Hindus and Muslims alike sing aarti to. It is still reported from across the state that Shirdi baba protects, saves, appears, blesses, grants. Every street corner in Mumbai has a small shrine dedicated to him. Reading his biography, written by Hemadpant, seven chapters in seven days, a simply told narrative of a great soul who inspired many with simple words of wisdom, is a practice many undertake. The faith is a living one.
If ever you were seeking a symbol of syncretism in India, it is in these, our saints who bend the lines of religion and caste and social status. They are inexplicable elements of our faith, possible only in the melting pot that is India.
Unlike Swami whoevers who chest thump and call temple burnings and rapes and droughts as acts of vengeance.
Luckily Maharashtra has been blessed with enough saints to know that saints are not those who wreak vengeance. Saints are those who save people from these atrocities even if they are wrought upon them.
Come drought or flood, the blessings of Shirdi far outweigh the impact of climate change, for it seeps into and waters something far more fundamental in our spirit: the ability to see god beyond religion. And that there is a living temple to that in our midst, is miracle enough for Maharashtra.