The confrontation between Dwaraka peeth Shankaracharya swami Swaroopanand Saraswati and devotees of Sai Baba spilled onto the streets last week. Yet, Shirdi's Sai baba temple committee has maintained silence over the issue amid a surge in the number of devotees to the temple.
Speaking to Hindustan Times over phone public relation officer of temple trust Mohan Yadav said, the committee has decided not to react to any "insinuation".
"The devotees are free to protests against the Shankaracharya but as a temple committee we have decided not to react to any provocation," Yadav said.
Interestingly, after the row erupted following Swaroopanand's remarks that Sai baba is not the symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity and should not be worshiped, the Shirdi temple has seen an unusual surge in the number of devotees.
"This week, number of devotees coming to Shirdi temple gone up substantially. Many wanted to seek Sai Baba's blessings," said trust official requesting not to be identified.
Shankaracharya had sparked a controversy saying, "Sai baba was merely a human being, not god, and therefore should not be worshiped."
Angry devotees of Sai Baba burnt Swaroopanand's effigy and demanded an apology from the 90-year-old pontiff. For the temple committee, what devotees have done is "out of love and affection for SaiBaba."
The devotees have accused Shankaracharya of being jealous for not getting equal attention as Sai Baba gets.
"It is an unnecessary controversy created by Shankaracharya. He's jealous of Sai Baba for not getting devotees in large number," said Jayant Sasane, former chairman of Sai Baba temple trust. Sasane said, the number of Muslim devotees coming to the temple is far less, though Muslims do participate in 10am arti and offer floral chadar every day.
Another reason for creating the controversy, many believe, is the donations that Shirdi temple receives every year. The Sai Baba temple is the third richest in the country after Tirupati and Padmanabh temple in Kerla. In 2012-13, the temple received donations worth Rs 410 crore as against the previous year's Rs 343.64 crores, according to audit report displayed on temple website.
"People come and donate in large number at Sai temple, others get jealous of it," said local activist in Shirdi Sanjay Kale.
Based on devotees' complaint, the Shirdi police have filed a case against Swaroopanand under sections 295A, 298 of IPC (accusing him of hurting religious sentiments). When asked about the progress of the complaint, officials at the Shirdi city police station said, "We are probing the matter."
Interestingly, not everything is transparent at the Sai Baba temple. In 2012, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court ordered dismissal of the Sai Baba temple Trust.
The court order came on the PIL accusing the Trust of violating the eligibility rules by appointing politicians as Trustees. Currently, the temple is controlled by a high court-appointed three-member committee. There is another PIL pending in the high court pertaining to accusations of corruption.
Temple of "mysterious fakir"
Some 470 kilometers northeast of Mumbai, Shirdi, a town of 25,000 in Ahmednagar district, prefers to be known by their deity name Sai Baba. According to Shirdi temple administration, Sai, a "mysterious fakir", came to Shirdi in 1858 as a youth and began helping needy for the rest of his life.
In 1918, after Sai opted Samadhi, the locals at Shirdi built temple around his Samadhi, where devotees today seek blessings. Locals and devotees recite fairy-tales underlining the message how Sai baba helped many change their life forever.
Currently, about 60,000 devotees visit the temple daily. Besides building hospitals and other facilities, the Temple offers meals at community kitchen to about 40,000 people every day.