Shirdi Sai Baba

Sai Baba was an enigmatic and charismatic Hindu sage and a Muslim fakir simultaneously. He lived many years in the village of Shirdi in Maharastra.
His whole persona, and his glances and gestures, conveyed an immediate experience of the sacred. As the old villagers of Shirdi told me when I interviewed them in October 1985, being in his presence gave them the awesome feeling of being in the presence of god. Though he insisted he was just a devotee of the almighty, a plain faqīr,on occasions he would utter “I am Allāh,” and he also identified himself with many gods of the Hindu pantheon. His charisma and powers inevitably led the local people to want to worship him. The majority of his followers were Hindus and, despite his faqīr appearance and the fact that he dwelled in a mosque, they wished to honor him as a deity and offer him pūjās. Sai Baba’s Sufi character tended to be either downplayed or not recognized by his Hindu bhaktas, who claimed him as one of their fold. In the early years, he resisted such acts of worship. In time, however, he consented to the devotion of his followers and accommodated himself to Hindu rituals. At first he allowed a simple, individual form of worship. But from around 1908 on, it became a congregational one, with the ceremonies of morning, midday, and evening āratīs (the honoring of a deity with the circling of a flame); the offering of eatables (naivedya); and the chanting of devotional hymns (bhajans).
Sai Baba would receive visitors and devotees inside the mosque. He usually held three sittings: two in the morning and one in the afternoon. He would never preach but rather interacted with the people present and offered personal advice. Especially in his late years, he told short stories, pithy riddles, and parables, not at all easy to understand, and which he did not necessarily care to explain. He never spoke much and sometimes would keep silent the whole day. His behavior was unpredictable; he could be most affectionate and loving but also wrathful, to the point of hurling stones at some undesired persons. The rules of purity and pollution meant nothing to him, and he often deliberately broke them in order to impart a lesson to his more orthodox Hindu followers. A brethren of the poor, he enjoyed the company of downtrodden individuals such as untouchables and lepers and shared the begged food with them as well as with dogs and other stray animals. (from Brill’s encyclopedia of Hinduism)

Sai Baba

Shirdi Sai Baba (public domain)

The central theme in the life of a Master is his upadesa (or upadesh, as it is commonly called); that is the spiritual guidance which he gives to his disciples. This is not theoretical or doctrinal instruction but a spiritual discipline normally consisting of rites and observances and the invisible influence that furthers the disciple’s development. Although the central theme, it is not the most obvious or the easiest for the biographer to discover. In fact, it may be kept secret, since it is intended only for those to whom it is personally and directly transmitted, whereas any exposition of doctrine that the Master may make, being less potent and therefore less dangerous if misused, is open and for all.

(Arthur Osborne, The Incredible Sai Baba, page 103)