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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 31, July 26, 2014

Bapu Wrong Yet Again

Saturday 26 July 2014, by Badri Raina

With the change of regime at the Indian Centre, things that never happened before are beginning to happen.

A venerated Shankaracharya, who has to his credit sound, secular-humanist wisdom, exem-plified especially during the dark days of communal assault on the Babri mosque at Ayodhya (1990-1992), has out of nowhere taken upon himself to proffer the admonition that those who worship the Saibaba of Shirdi may be somewhat suspect as Hindu devotees because the Baba was used to chanting “Allah Malik”. It is his view that these devotees who number in the many millions must not be allowed to associate the Baba’s name with Ram or Bhagwan and so forth, and that he must not be seen as an icon of Hindu-Muslim oneness since, according to the Shankaracharya, Muslims do not worship him.

Now there are several problems with this perspective. In the first place, according to the best research on him, Sai Baba’s “early life remains cloaked in mystery”. There is “no reliable record of his birth and parentage”. All that may be understood is that he was born in the years between 1838 and 1842 in the Pathri village of Marathwada in central India, that he arrived in Shirdi as a “nameless entity” and sat in a forest in Babul to meditate, where his morsels came from passersbys. He took up shelter in a dilapidated mosque which he christened “Dwarikamayi” after Dwarika which is thought to have been the kingdom of Lord Krishna.

As the word about him spread, he began to draw recognition and allegiance from all segments of contemporary society. Among known Hindu saints of the time, Anandanath Swami called him a “diamond” and Gangadir a “jewel”. In 1873 Beedhar Maharaj bestowed upon him the honorific of “jagad guru” (lord of the world). He came to be venerated by Swami Vasadevananda, and a group of Shavic Yogis took him in as their own into the Nath Panchayat. According to B.V. Narasimha Swamy, who was called the Baba’s “apostle”, such composite veneration continued till 1954. In later days, the Sathya Sai Baba of Putapurthi, whose devotees also run into millions, called himself a “reincarnation” of Sai Baba of Shirdi.

Among our Zorashtrians, such outstanding Indians as Nani Palkhivala and Homi Bhaba counted themselves as the Baba’s devotees. (Source: Wikipedia.)

This backdrop, you may agree, makes it apparent that, denominationally, it is hazardous to pin an identity on the Baba. Indeed, it may be concluded that the most enticing feature of his happening was this relegation of religious denominational identities. This fact is, if anything, reinforced by the content of his teaching that only one god was lord and master of all things create, and that god’s admonition was to love all and to minister to suffering, regardless of the identity of the sufferer. This levelling paradigm of spirituality may at once be seen to fall squarely within, for example, the venerated Rishi-Sufi order of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, and indeed of the rest of the subcontinent as well.

It therefore seems somewhat narrow-minded to reduce the Baba to a Muslim identity, and thereby, advertantly or not, effect a communal reconstruction of a magnificently humane spiritual tradition that seeks to unite Indians into a non-discriminatory oneness—a perfect antidote to the many violent and irreligious extremisms that currently despoil the world.

As to the propriety of Hindus worshipping someone who chanted the name “Allah”, what are we to think of the fact that so many Hindu saints contemporary with him, far from having any problem with this, bestowed such ultimate kudos on him as stated above, including the honorific of “jagad guru”? Clearly, a repudiation of the Sai Baba would have to include a repudiation of all those Hindu saints as well. And,

what are we to think of the fact that the most beloved prayer/hymn of the most outstanding Hindu of our times, Bapu Gandhi, read, among its verses: “Ishwar Allah tere naam, sub ko sanmati dae Bhagwan”? Or was this sort of thing, perhaps, among the things that the orthodox held against the Father of the Nation, as proof of his embracement of those who have been written down as the country’s “enemy number one”?

In a more extended historical context, haven’t Hindus and all others always flocked to the dargahs and khankas of Muslim saints from the time the Sufi Silsilas  first found roots in India? The sectarian argument that Muslims do not worship the Baba is equally the interested deployment of a partial truth: the fact is that among Muslims there are two broad sects—the

the aiteqadies (Barelvis) and the non-aiteqadies (those that follow the Deoband school),

 the former being those who still observe allegiance to saints and sufis and worship at their shrines, and the latter a more puritanical orthodoxy that forbids such allegiance to mere mortals. There are thus many Muslims who see the Sai Baba as a Sufi saint like any other they know and venerate.

More remarkably, it is one of the philosophical and spiritual high points of Hinduism that it regards everything animate or non-animate as sacred. Thus, stones, shrubs, and animal forms have found placement as deities in famous Hindu temples all across India. How unfortunate then that stones, shrubs, and animal forms may be thus venerated as part of a grand, cosmic vision but not a human being if he be a Muslim, supposing the Baba to have been a Muslim. The question is: why may he be considered any different from a Kabir, a Bakhtiar Kaki, a Chishti in Ajmer or an Auliah in Delhi who routinely draw Hindu devotees in droves? And what of the many celebrated Muslim Indians who famously venerated Hindu deities as a life-long allegiance—Ustad Allaudin Khan, Ras Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan, to name just a few? And what of Sheikh Noor-u-din of Kashmir who regarded Lallishwari as his Guru?

The other question that of course begs itself is whether a Shankaracharya may issue what seems like the equivalent of a fatwa to people who of their own will and volition follow one or the other path and practice of worship? It may be understandable were such advice to be handed down to one’s own followers; for example, the Pope may tell Catholic Christians how and what to do while Christians of other denominations follow their own chosen route to redemption. The old but intractable poser remains relevant: who authorises the authoriser?

It has been speculated (in a talk show on CNN-IBN, for example) in recent days, that the problem may lie elsewhere than in details of propriety or otherwise of worship etiquettes; the Sai Baba establishment does draw great quantities of offerings and contributions, indeed, according to some, second only to the Tirupati Balaji establishment. An irritating fact, surely.  But such criticisms have constantly been made of the Vatican as well by more austere Christian sects. If this truly is the irritant, then the Shankara-charya’s critique ought not to confine itself only to the Sai establishment but extend to that general culture of worship and obeisance which is under-pinned by great quantities of offerings and great hoards of wealth. Such a critique if it came from a Shankaracharya would indeed constitute the beginning of a promising religious reform, and many would endorse the initiative, but neither the Saibaba’s devotees nor the Constitution of India might allow unwarranted meddling with what and how those others should or should not worship who do not follow the Shankaracharya or the Sanatan Dharma.

Indeed, an ill-considered insistence here could have  the potential of generating the equivalent of a Sunni-Shia contention.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.