One must call you a Muslim because you read the QuranThe Gupta family from Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh has been in Shirdi for almost three weeks. After the family of 12 had finished darshan, one member, Preeti Gupta, had met with an accident and was hospitalised at the Shirdi Sansthan Hospital. But this has not shaken their faith in the Sai Baba. Her husband Vishnu visits the temple daily to pray for her recovery. “We came here because we have heard so much about Sai Baba and wanted to get his blessings. Unfortunately, my wife had an accident, but I think she was saved because of him and she will recover soon,” says Vishnu, who sells sweets on the streets in Sitapur. The hospital is full of patients who have come from faraway places, hoping for cheap treatment, and more importantly, to get better with Sai Baba’s blessings. These are just a handful among the lakhs of devotees who daily come to Shirdi, each with a wish or a hope—a job, a marriage, a child, a cure.
One is also certain that you are a Hindu, as you worship agni (fire)
But the differences are only of practice, of technicalities
An earnest and curious devotee does not find them important.
—from Sainath Stavan Manjiri in Marathi
The Sai Baba temple in Shirdi is not visible from outside the high, well-secured walls. Countless shops, hotels and lodges—some quite swanky—dot the town. Showers have kept devotees away. Besides, the numbers begin to swell only by Thursday, Sai Baba’s day. As a result, the town looks a bit forlorn. But there’s a controversy raging among Sai devotees, set off by Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Dwaraka Peeth in Gujarat. The Shankaracharya has said that Sai Baba was a Muslim and ate meat; he was not a guru, saint or god, so Hindus should not worship him.
Last week, a dharma sansad (religious parliament) in Kawardha, Chhattisgarh, backed the Shankaracharya and adopted a resolution that Sai Baba was neither guru, saint nor god, so he cannot be worshipped and his image cannot be kept at home along with that of Hindu gods. TV channels, particularly the Hindi ones, picked up the controversy and clashes broke out between supporters of both groups in some parts of Uttar Pradesh, already hit by communal clashes in many cities, and Chhattisgarh. In Benaras, devotees of Sai Baba burnt effigies of the Shankaracharya. In Kawardha, supporters of the Shankaracharya tried to remove Sai Baba’s statue from a temple.
All this rancour over a seer who has till now been revered and celebrated uncomplicatedly by everyone, by the poor and by celebrities, the marginalised and the powerful, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis, and some say, even by atheists. All this controversy at a time when Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS supremo, is saying that the cultural identity of all Indians is Hindu, and that everyone living in India is a Hindu; when minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah supports Bhagwat but later issues a clarification; when Goa’s deputy chief minister Francis D’Souza says that India is a Hindu nation and that he considers himself a ‘Christian Hindu’. All this provocation at a time when a charged BJP government at the Centre, after a big election victory, seems set to propagate its version of history, appropriating key historical figures for itself.
However, in Shirdi itself, the cacophony that is on in UP, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat or even elsewhere in Maharashtra is completely drowned out by Sai devotional songs, set to popular Bollywood numbers, being played aloud as devotees stand in queues for their turn for a darshan. It’s business as usual in this temple town. The shopkeepers run and jump on vehicles, trying to get the people to come to their shop. They sell roses, chaddar, coconut and pedas—the roses and chaddar are reminiscent of traditions at dargahs such as Ajmer Sharif, and the coconuts and pedas remind one of common offerings at temples. Palkis, or processions of Sai Baba, are taken out on Guru Purnima, Dassera and Ram Navami. But before Ram Navami, an Urs procession for him takes place too. The Hindu-Muslim syncretism in Shirdi is hard to miss. There is a mosque, or Dwarkamai, where the baba lived, near Lendi Baug, the well-kept garden where he is said to have walked around and preached. Then there are three temples, to Hanuman, Ram and Shiva, in the vicinity. There is a museum which has several artefacts used by Sai Baba and his pictures and paintings. Sai Baba, like other saints of the time, had a chillum, wore flowing plain clothes, chappals and carried a stick. He also had a gramophone... read more: