Sai Baba Movement

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SAI BABA MOVEMENT . The Sai Baba movement is perhaps the most popular modern South Asian religious movement. It owes its origin to Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918). Through one of the inheritors of his charisma, Sathya Sai Baba (b. 1926), the movement became a transnational phenomenon in the late twentieth century.

While most of the available literature is hagiographical in nature, scholars have studied some aspects of the movement, including the figures of Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba, the middle-class constituency of Sathya Sai Baba, and the movement's pedagogical innovations. In addition, Shirdi Sai Baba has been identified with certain ūfī orders in Maharashtra and Karnataka (Shepherd, 1985), the medieval figure of Kabīr (Rigopoulos, 1993), and the protean Indian deity, Dattātreya (Rigopoulos, 1998). Rigopoulos points out that the "syncretistic quality of Kabīr's life and teachings" seems to have been Sai Baba's model (1993, p. 305), and that on one occasion Shirdi Sai Baba stated that his "religion" was Kabīr. Dattātreya's "interreligious eclecticism" is found in the Sai Baba movement: Shirdi Sai Baba was believed by his devotees to be an incarnation of Dattātreya, and Sathya Sai Baba has presented himself as an incarnation of the same figure (Rigopoulos, 1998, p. 251). An early ethnographic study of the Sathya Sai Baba movement by Lawrence Babb (1986) focuses on miracles as central moments that make the world of the devotee seem like an enchanted place. While the miracles of both Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba (healing; appearing in dreams to foretell the future or provide guidance; producing substances, such as ash, that have sacred and salutary effects; etc.) are certainly significant, this entry examines specific institutions, processes, texts, and practices in the growth of the Sai Baba movement.

The authoritative account of Shirdi Sai Baba's life, Shri Sai Satcharita, states that he arrived as a tall lad of about sixteen in Shirdi, a small village in Maharashtra, India (Gunaji, 1972, p. 20). The majority of the population there were Hindu peasants, and Muslims worked mainly as artisans or agricultural laborers. He stayed for three years in Shirdi, then disappeared, only to return in 1858 when he began to reside in a dilapidated mosque, his belongings limited to a pipe, tobacco, a tin pot, a long white robe, and a staff. He sat in front of a sacred fire (dhuni) to ward off the cold. He never used his own name but was referred to by others as "Sai Baba." Rigopoulos suggests that Sai means "holy one" or "saint," while Baba literally means "father" (1993, p. 3). Shirdi Sai Baba often used the term mendicant (fakir or faqir ) when referring to either himself or God. Initially, few people came to him: the incident that transformed him almost overnight from a mad mendicant to a holy saint was a miracle in which he apparently converted water to oil.

Shirdi Sai Baba adopted modes of oral and scriptural instruction for his followers. To some, he recommended the reading of such scriptures as the Rāmāyaa and the Bhagavadgītā, or he recommended simply chanting the sacred names of Rāma, Viu, or Allāh. He sent other followers to various temples, with gifts to other saints, and explained to them the meaning of certain sacred verses, concepts, or texts, either personally or in dreams. At first, Shirdi Sai Baba was worshiped through individual offerings of sandal paste and flowers. With Baba's permission, around 1897, one of his devotees (who had been blessed with a child through his intervention) began the practice of holding a festival commemorating the death of a Muslim saint (urs ) in Shirdi. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Shirdi Sai Baba began the practice of collecting sacrificial fees (dakshina ) from the hundreds who began to flock to Shirdi. The complement of this was the sacred ash (udi ) that Baba collected from burning logs in his sacred fire, for use in all manner of cures.

About 1908, other devotees transformed the early individual worship of Shirdi Sai Baba into a congregational form along the lines of the worship at Pandharpur in Maharashtra, one of the most important pilgrimage centers of Hindu devotionalism in the region. Around this time, Shirdi Sai Baba gave up begging, and the food brought by his devotees would be distributed after he blessed it. In 1912, certain devotees decided to hold a Rāma Navami festival (to celebrate the birth of the Hindu deity, Rāma) along with the urs, and this became an annual festival at Shirdi, with Shirdi Sai Baba actively participating. In 1918, Baba had an attack of fever and passed away. A dispute arose as to where he should be buried. The Muslim devotees wished to lay their saint in an open piece of land in Shirdi, while the Hindu worshipers wished him to be buried in a building where a Ka image was to have been placed. Eventually a plebiscite settled the matter in a way favorable to the Hindus.

By 1918, Shirdi Sai Baba's constituency had become increasingly urban and his ūfī practices became more overlaid with those identified with sectarian Hinduism. When Baba passed away, he had no property, while all the paraphernalia of worship came to be vested in the Sai Sansthan trust in 1922. The Sai Sansthan today is a vast organizational network, with hotels, rooms for pilgrims, a magazine, and other publications to cater to thousands of devotees. The sacred fire still burns in Shirdi, a site that links devotees to the memory of Shirdi Sai Baba and his life, and sacrificial fees are often collected at the temple where his tomb lies, dominated by his imposing white marble image. Shirdi is on the pilgrimage route for many Hindus and Muslims who regard him as a saint who still speaks from the tomb. Today, the devotion of Shirdi Sai Baba is a national and transnational phenomenon with devotees around the world. There are temples dedicated to Shirdi Sai Baba in virtually every major city in India and in many overseas; several popular films about his life have been made; and while traveling in auto-rickshaws in India, one comes across pictures of Shirdi Sai Baba pasted near the handlebars of the vehicle, alongside those of other deities, the Qurʾān, and movie stars.

Shirdi Sai Baba's reassurances that even after his death he would continue to help his devotees led to the belief among some that he would be reincarnated. While a number of persons subsequently posed as Baba reborn, the most famous claim of reincarnation is that of Sathya Sai Baba, born on November 23, 1926, as Sathyanarayana Raju to a peasant family in Puttaparthi, a village in a drought-prone region of Andhra Pradesh. Sathya seems to have had a fairly normal early life, although biographers and oral accounts claim a number of mysterious events at the time of his birth, including a snake lying under his bed (interpreted as an indication of the deity Śiva's presence) and the sound of musical instruments playing. As a child, Sathya would produce countless articles from a bag for his playmates, and he also seems to have possessed intuitive powers. In his early teens he went through a prolonged period of "illness" and erratic behavior after apparently being stung by a black scorpion. He refused to speak for long periods and would break into weeping and song, sometimes reciting Sanskrit verses. The family took him to various doctors and even an exorcist, but to no avail. According to the official biography by N. Kasturi, on May 23, 1940, Sathya announced his spiritual genealogy to be in the lineage of two Indian sages, Āpastamba and Bhāradvaja, and declared that he was Sai Baba (Kasturi, 1968, pp. 4243). A few months later, he cast off his school books and said that his devotees were calling him.

At first, Sathya Sai Baba resided in the garden of an excise inspector's bungalow and taught what is considered his first devotional song (bhajan ), singing that meditating on one's spiritual preceptor (gurū ) could take one across the difficult sea of existence. He lived in the house of a Brahman woman named Subbamma till about 1944 or 1945, and then he relocated to a building constructed for him by a group of devotees. By 1950 a hermitage called Prasanthi Nilayam was completed on the outskirts of Puttaparthi. Witnesses carefully recorded the details of his maturing ministry: he performed miracles, granted boons to devotees who gravitated towards Puttaparthi, and visited towns and cities in south India. The appearance of Sathya Sai Baba in dreams, the appearance of sacred ash and honey on photographs of Sathya Sai Baba and other holy figures in homes, reports of healings, and so on, formed an ever-growing fund of folklore; Sathya Sai Baba himself has referred to these as his "calling cards." The watershed in his career occurred in 1957, when he left for his first tour of northern Indian cities and sacred sites; thereafter his public role came to be voiced distinctly. He spoke at gatherings of devotees and at temples, hospitals, schools, and language associations, sharing platforms with government ministers, educators, and other religious leaders.

Sathya Sai Baba has categorized his life in terms of three time periods. He stated as far back as 1953 (Sathya Sai Baba, 1999, p. 3) that the first sixteen years of his life were a period of childhood miracles and divine sport. The second period witnessed the centrality of divine miracles, and after his thirty-second year the task was spiritual instruction and the guiding of humanity back to the path of truth (sathya ), righteousness (dharma ), peace (shanthi ), and love (prema ). Sathya Sai Baba was using the term incarnation (avatar ) at least as early as 1955 to describe himself and his mission to reform humanity. He also declared a disinterest in creating a new religious path, for the divine had a million names and forms leading to God. The giant architectural symbol of this universalism is the Sarva Dharma Stupa, an enormous pillar in his hermitage with symbols from five "world" religionsHinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Zoroas-trianism.

Although Sathya Sai Baba had earlier indicated that he was the incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, on Gurū Pūrimā day in 1963 he made the startling announcement that he was the divine bi-unity of Śiva and Śakti (male and female principles of divinity). He also announced that a third Sai Baba would be reborn a few years after his passing away. The recasting of the memory of Shirdi Sai Baba and the prediction of another incarnation, Prema Sai Baba, signaled the beginning of a massive organization and a pan-Indian and international role for Sathya Sai Baba. The first all-India conference of Sai organizations was held in Madras in 1967, and the first world conference at Bombay in 1968. Sathya Sai Baba left for a tour of East Africa, his first and only foreign trip, the same year. The year 1968 was important in other ways: Sathya Sai Baba established an arts and sciences college for women in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh (a similar institution was founded in 1969 in Bangalore for men). In 1981 Sathya Sai Baba established the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, which eventually achieved university status. He later inaugurated two "super-specialty" medical institutes in Puttaparthi (19901991) and Bangalore (2000). One of the most ambitious of Baba's projects provides drinking water for Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesha project completed in 1996, after only one year of work.

Apart from the central hermitage in Puttaparthi, there is a second center of the Sathya Sai Baba movement in Bangalore called Brindavan, and Baba also maintains residences in Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai. Four main festivals have been celebrated at these centers since the early years: Sathya Sai Baba's birthday, Śivaratri in February/March (dedicated to Śiva), Gurū Pūrimā in July (dedicated to one's spiritual preceptor), and a nine-day autumn festival called Dasara. Today, a number of other holidaysfor example, Christmas, Buddha's birthday, New Year festivals, and so onhave been added to the list, and the older festivals have become more elaborate. Thousands travel to Puttaparthi to celebrate Sathya Sai Baba's birthday and to participate in other festivals.

There is a vast and growing corpus of literature on Sathya Sai Baba. Apart from accounts of devotees' experiences, the official biography, and publications of the Sathya Sai Central Trust, Baba's own discourses and works are central to the movement. The first category within them is a set of books that are discourses called "streams" (vahini ) on specific themes, such as meditation, peace, knowledge, and so on, aimed at the clarification of spiritual truths. The second category includes his exegeses on different scriptures. Sathya Sai Baba is an indefatigable public speakerhe speaks mainly in Teluguand he gives lectures to devotees, students, villagers, and other religious organizations. Summer Showers in Brindavan are speeches given by him to college students during courses held for them. The newsletter, Sanathana Sarathi ("The eternal charioteer," a reference to Ka), devoted to the moral and spiritual awakening of humanity, was inaugurated in 1958. Many of Sathya Sai Baba's speeches find their way into Sanathana Sarathi. Others have been collected in more than thirty volumes titled Sathya Sai Speaks.

A central aspect of the Sathya Sai Baba movement is the casting of the relationship between ancient values and modernity in terms of the Sai golden age, a millenarian process in which all followers have a role to play. The path laid down by Sathya Sai Baba for devotees comprises three sets of activities: (1) spiritual activities, including devotional singing, study circles of Sai teachings, and meditation; (2) educational activities, including a program in human values for children; and (3) service activities, including the organizing of medical camps, blood donations, the feeding of the poor, emergency relief, and adoption of underdeveloped villages. The devotional songs are essentially utterances of the names of God, and they form the spiritual center of the movement and a devotee's everyday life. Every week, men and women may gather to sing for about an hour in front of pictures of Sathya Sai Baba (and sometimes, Shirdi Sai Baba, Jesus, Buddha, and others, depending on the constituency) and an empty chair that signifies his presence. The Human Values program for children is meant to create a firm spiritual basis for future society by focusing on the moral education of children. Members are also enjoined to engage in service to society, a reflection of Baba's philosophy that devotion and service are intertwined practices and that the body is the site for realizing the self. Practices such as devotional singing, meditation, or social service become the path by which the self is realized.

The Sathya Sai centers, or samitis, were instituted by Sathya Sai Baba to be the main venue for these activities. The first was registered in 1965 in Mumbai. By 2002 there were 8,447 centers in India and about 9,000 in other parts of the world. The main function of the centers is to undertake spiritual, educational, and service activities under the inspiration and guidance of Sathya Sai Baba and the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization's 1981 charter. The organization is meant for all and does not recognize any distinctions based on religion, caste, color, or creed. Its fundamental objective is to awaken the awareness of inner divinity by propagating through practice and example the basic principles emphasized by Sathya Sai Baba.


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Smriti Srinivas (2005)