Storm in a tea cup over Sai Baba
Ultimately, it seems to be all about money and political clout. A bizarre controversy – almost a storm in a tea cup – erupted briefly in Maharashtra over, of all things, the Sai Baba of Shirdi. More than a century after this 19th century saint, about whose antecedents very little is known, attained samadhi in Shirdi, there is a bitter fight between residents of Shirdi and Pathri, his purported birth place in Parbhani district, over claims to his legacy.
During his lifetime, Sai Baba deliberately obfuscated his origins and confused his devotees about his upbringing. To some he said he was left in the care of a guru by a fakir’s wife, to others he said he was brought up by a fakir after being abandoned by his Hindu parents. In any case, Sai Baba was ahead of his times, making no difference between castes and religions, credited with many miracles and an over-riding philosophy that eschewed materialism and was rooted in love and harmony. He lived in a mosque, but meditated under a neem tree, practising the most strenuous of asanas. His attire of a kafni (half robe) and cloth cap were more Sufi than saffron, despite later day claims by devotees that he was an incarnation of Vishnu. He ate meat and eggs and, thus, according to Shankaracharya Swaroopananda Saraswati of the Dwarkapeeth, ought not to be worshipped in the manner he is because he is a mere mortal, no God and probably not a Hindu at all. The Shankaracharya based his opposition to Sai Baba on his two epigrams ‘Allah Malik’ (God is king) and ‘Sabka Malik Ek’ (There is only one master) which became popular among devotees, who today are more Hindus than Muslims, thus troubling the Shankaracharya, despite its modern-day messaging of religious harmony.
Even during his time, many people were said to be sceptical of Sai Baba’s powers, including that of healing. But since his samadhi, the legend has only grown with people thronging the temple in Shirdi in large numbers – the daily footfall could be anywhere upwards of 50,000, not counting festivals, and daily collections at the temple in offerings, including gold and silver, running into crores.
Politically, the Sai Baba temple trust is among the two most coveted ones – the other being the Siddhivinayak trust of Mumbai – by all political parties. During past coalition regimes in Maharashtra, the management of the two trusts was equally apportioned between the two leading parties (Sena-BJP, then Congress-NCP) but now the claimants could be many. Shirdi is located in Ahmednagar district, which is under the influence of the Vikhe-Patils, who recently jumped ship from the Congress to the BJP to be on the right side of the ruling dispensation, as they have always been. However, they found themselves on the wrong side this time, following the coming together of the Shiv Sena with the Congress and NCP to form the government in the state.
Now, it appears that it is the Vikhe-Patils who engineered a shutdown in this temple town on Sunday after chief minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a grant of ₹100 crore for the development of Pathri, believed to be the birthplace of Sai Baba in the Parbhani district of Marathwada. That grant could go to developing the Sri Sai Janmasthan temple which already exists in this municipal town, but is nowhere near to drawing the kind of crowds as the Sai Baba temple in Shirdi does.
It is obvious that most of the people in Shirdi, including its local MLA belonging to the Shiv Sena, objected to the official declaration of Pathri, as Sai Baba’s janmasthan, for that official endorsement could then divert and draw devotees away from Shirdi, one of the richest temples not just in the state but also the entire country.
However, the Sai Baba of Shirdi unites not just castes and religions, but also political parties. Although in an era where people are finding it difficult to lay hands on birth certificates from a few decades ago, many in Pathri claim they have documents to prove Sai Baba was born in their town, no one in the government either, including those in the Congress and NCP, wish to start a controversy over the issue. After a meeting with Thackeray on Monday, the agitators, including those belonging to the Shiv Sena, claimed they were satisfied there will be no attempt to reduce the importance of Shirdi and they have decided to withdraw the shutdown.
Of course. No one can afford to lose money. Or even votes. Pathri will just have to wait a little longer for its own prosperity.