Every perfect saint is an embodiment of the spiritual tradition to which he belongs, either by birth or by choice. Sai Baba is unique in that he does not belong to any single tradition, or rather, he belongs to all traditions. We therefore find in his physical existence, a symbol or a glyph of the divine mysteries of creation. When we consider why he chose to present himself in a particular manner amidst us, we feel that it referred to a profound spiritual truth. It is rewarding to venture a guess at a few aspects of this truth.
Baba first appeared in the outskirts of Shirdi as a boy of sixteen. This age seems to have a special significance in the lives of many mahatmas. Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi had the first experience of realisation at the same age. Sri Gajanan Maharaj of Shegoan, the great contemporary of Sai Baba, first appeared as a naked boy of sixteen. In Christ’s life too, this age seems to have marked a major turning point.
Baba’s appearance was such that his religion could not be recognised. His appearance and conduct showed that he was totally enlightened. His complete non-attachment and solitude were such as to remind perceptive observers of the fact that our ‘Awareness’ is a unity untouched by the objects of perception and impossible to be subjected to the distinctions of caste and creed.
Baba was always sitting under the neem tree. In most religions, the tree symbolises the whole creation in that (a) both have their roots hidden from our immediate perception; (b) both are ever growing, renewing themselves, putting forth new and different forms and shedding the old. The Word Kalpa Vriksha (wish-fulfilling tree) means also ‘the tree of creation’. The opening verses of chapter XV of The Bhagavadgita describes the world as a tree. The Hinayana School of Buddhism represents the Buddha through the image of a tree. The Norse religion speaks of the tree Igdracil. It is fitting that Baba, who demonstrated that he is the Spirit underlying the whole of creation as its ground and source, should sit at the base of a tree.
There is a particular significance in Baba choosing the neem tree. Its sap is bitter. This signifies the first noble truth of the Buddha which says that phenomenal existence is conditioned by sorrow. Yet, medicinally, the neem tree is very valuable. Though this phenomenal creation is a web of sorrow and impermanence, it is also the only possibility for the human spirit to work out its karmic store and to heal itself of the disease of spiritual ignorance. Such a tree of creation has, at its base, the Supreme Spirit which is joy and freedom. Baba sitting under the tree represents this spirit, helping the souls to utilize the sorrow of life as a point of departure for their quest for spiritual wisdom. Further, those who remember the Spirit that underlies all things, are freed from the sorrows of life. Such a way of life is represented by the particular branch of the neem tree under which Baba sat. No wonder that the leaves of that branch were found to be particularly free from bitterness. If bitterness stands for sorrow, sweetness, which is its opposite, must stand for joy. The mere absence of bitterness (and sweetness) stands for the supreme spiritual state which is above the pairs of relative joy and sorrow which is promised by such a life of awareness of the omnipresent Spirit. Sri Upasani Baba, in the fourth and fifth of his sixteen verses in praise of Sai Baba, had hinted at this symbolic significance. Hindu tradition also describes Lord Dakshinamurthi, the God of Wisdom, as a youth seated at the foot of the banyan tree (as Baba was, when he first appeared in 1854). Sri Krishna is described as standing under the tamala tree. It is significant that Siddhartha attained Bodhi at the foot of the Bodhi tree.
Baba lived by begging at five houses in the village. All the ancient religions considered the whole creation as made of the five elements. The Supreme Spirit, when it manifests itself on the material plane as an avatar, has to draw constantly from these five elements for sustaining its physical form. Again, mind manifests its five powers of objective perception in the form of five senses from which it has to draw all its sustenance of relative experiences of the phenomena. The underlying principle of these two phenomena is symbolised by Baba’s act of begging (as also by Lord Siva’s and Lord Dattatreya’s, in Hindu mythology).
Baba always maintained the perpetual fire or the dhuni. Fire-worship played a significant part in Hindu and Parsi religions. Fire, according to the Vedas, is a particular manifestation of the energy which is the stuff of which the whole universe is made. Thus the whole creation is described by The Purushasukta in the Veda as the cosmic fire-sacrifice (yagna). The same concept of yagna is elucidated by Krishna in The Bhagavadgita. The fire of that sacrifice is the cosmic consciousness in which the manifold creation is projected, maintained and constantly transformed. The end product of the fire-sacrifice is udi or vibhuti. The many forms that are perceived in the waking state are consecrated to the fire of Supreme consciousness in one’s meditation and contemplation and are realised to be devoid of all the apparent distinctions. They are, in essence, one with the Spirit. This supreme realisation on the one hand and the realisation that all phenomena in nature are perishable and so unworthy of our craving, is signified by udi which Baba distributed to all. It is the one panacea for all the ills of life. The Sanskrit word vibhuti means ‘the possession or attribute of the Supreme Lord (Vibhu)’. Indeed, as we have noted above, the attributes of the Supreme Spirit are also the attributes of vibhuti, the imperishable essence of things. Thus Indian scriptures describe Lord Siva, the Destroyer, as besmearing himself with it.
The natives of Shirdi came to know that the young fakir had practised severe spiritual discipline (tapas) in the underground cellar beneath the neem free for a long time before he became accessible to them in 1854. This symbolises the spiritual truth that the Godman springs into manifestation in Time from the substratum of all creation, from its unknown depths of Parabrahman. In the individual, the divine awakening starts at the root centre of the muladhara when it rises up, according to the yogic lore.
Baba’s second advent at Shirdi along with Chand Patil is interesting. Baba restored the run-away horse to him and thereby made himself known for what he is, a sadguru. This indeed is rich with symbolism. Mind is the horse or the carrier of man to his goal of perfection. But when he loses control over it, it is lost in the wilderness of phenomenal existence. When such a man is earnest in his search for it, he is sure to be brought in touch with a Perfect Master who restores the lost means of his spiritual journey. The twelve ox-herding pictures of Buddhism represent the same truth. In one of his parables, Baba says that a man had a horse which refused to go in pair. A wise man advises him to take it back to the place from which it was brought. This makes the horse obedient. I have explained the significance of the parable in an earlier chapter. We have a parallel to this in Sri Swami Samarth of Akkalkot restoring the royal elephant which ran amock, to the prince. So did Sri Gajanan Maharaj of Shegoan tame the unruly horse of a devotee, Takhlikar.
After his second and final advent at Shirdi, Baba raised a flower garden on a piece of waste land. The significance of this act is hinted at in the relevant chapter in this book. We have also noted that one of Baba’s parables also refers to it with the same significance.
The next significant event in the life of Baba is his stay at the mosque. His arrival there, we have noted, marked his recognition by the people as a sadguru. His first appearance under the neem tree was, so to say, a period of incubation, a working at the roots, so that the mighty spiritual tree might unfold itself to the world in its next phase. But henceforth, he is the gateway to the Spirit. True spirituality is above the narrow formalism of religions. As Vivekananda says, religions are the kindergartens of the Spirit. Baba is the Way and the Truth beyond religions. It is significant that he named the mosque as ‘Dwaraka mayi’. The significance of the name as explained by the Skandapurana, is already mentioned in the book. Once Baba, the Truth, comes to dwell in it, it cannot be either a mosque or a temple. It can only be both or none. Besides, it is a particular symbol of Baba’s physical frame. Baba was a Pir to the Moslem, a wali, an aulia. He was all the gods to the Hindus and therefore, the guru. So was Dwarakamayi, a mosque to moslems and a temple to Hindus and Parsees. Both the saint and the place were ever open to the devotees. To both of them Allah, is the Malik. When Baba left his physical body, he appeared to some of his devotees in dreams and told them that the musjid was fallen. When one of the devotees was making holes in the musjid – walls in order to raise a shed for the silver palanquin, Baba described the act as a child injuring the mother’s leg. Whenever he received dakshina from the devotees, he used to say that musjid ayi or mother musjid received it and that she would bless them. It is not like any other mosque. Only those whom Allah permitted were allowed inside. How real this symbolic identity between Baba’s physical existence and the musjid can be seen from the fact that the Samsthan at Shirdi is inspired by Baba to maintain the place as it was, with its dhuni and lamps, just as Baba’s physical frame continues to manifest itself before many of his devotees even today.
From the above consideration, it follows that if Dwarakamayi represents the physical body of Baba to which people rushed for darshan, his visits to the chavadi represent the visits of Baba to his devotees in the world in his subtler bodies. Indeed, like the chavadi the world is a place where all of us gather again and again for social interaction.
The significance of the samadhi mandir is self-evident. It represents the state of samadhi in which we can contact him as our true Self, in which “all of us can be happy together”, to put it in his own words.
There are six places at Shirdi which are closely connected with Baba:
1) The underground cellar under the neem tree
2) The neem tree
4) Nandadeep at Lendi
6) Samadhi Mandir
These six places may together be taken to symbolise the six yogic centres in our body, the seventh being beyond space and time.
This interpretation of Baba’s life as a symbol is needed to understand a particular aspect of the phenomenon of divine manifestation in general. When we look into the history of mystical schools of various religions, we find that all religious scriptures are interpreted both as records of historical facts and spiritual, symbolic truths. We have in Hinduism, the story of Rama. Some believe and interpret it as a real fact of history and this plays an important part in their life. Others interpret Sita as the Self and Rama as the Ego, with Hanuman or the breath as the mystic messenger between the two. Ravana is the sum-total of our evil propensities which conceal the Self from the Ego. Again, some Hindus take the Mahabharatha for a piece of history. Others insist on a symbolic interpretation: the body is the Kurukshetra. The Kauravas are the evil tendencies. The Pandavas are the five vital breaths, Droupadi is their common companion, the mind. Sri Krishna is the Self. Mahabharatha was the perpetual battle which goes on in every human being. We find the same approach to the story of the Buddha in Buddhism. While the exoteric schools of Buddhism attach much importance to the historical Buddha and his teachings, esoteric schools (which are secret only in the sense that they cannot be conveyed in words to the intellect) like Zen insist on re-enacting the story in our own being and discovering the Buddha nature in us. In Christianity, the story of Christ is insisted on by some as deriving its value from its historicity. But several mystical schools hold that the birth of Christ, his baptism, crucifixion as spiritual phenomena which have to be effected in one’s own soul.
In all these dual interpretations of the lives of the Godmen, we find that both are equally true. From this it is easy to see that such a perfect manifestation of the divine as Sai Baba calls for both the interpretations for a fuller appreciation of it.