Different devotees were drawn by Baba to himself and each derived benefit by experience according to his ripeness. Baba’s methods of teaching were as varied as were his devotees.
A characteristic form of his teaching was in the form of parables and stories. Some of them were often the accounts of some one or the other of his devotees assembled there though Baba used to narrate it in the first person.
Others were more cryptic and less direct in their import. They were intended to be understood only by one or two among the devotees. Others often took them for meaningless gossip and it made him seem a mad fakir to most of the natives of Shirdi. Such were the words that Baba spoke to Haji Siddik Falke. (See Ch.4 “Call of the Guru” and excerpts from Khaparde’s “Shirdi Diary”.)
Some of these parables were less cryptic and, with a little thought, can be understood by all. We shall note two from Das Ganu’s account. (1)
Sai Baba once said to his devotees, “I was at Puntamba. There was a struggle between two parties. I wondered why they fought. I found near them a pot full of coins. That was the bone of contention between them. Then I quietly moved up and carried it away. They found that their wealth was gone and began to mourn and lament. I was saying to myself, “Who am I? What is this wealth? Whose is it? What confusion and struggle for this? The pot is mine and I am the pot’s”. (The parable is like a double-edged knife, giving off two complementary significances. At one level, it points out the arbitrary and illusory nature of anyone’s claims for possessions. At another level the treasure trove symbolizes the infinite wisdom hidden at the root of our consciousness which, helps one to transcend the illusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Not having got to that stage the people wrangled over a pot of material wealth. Baba had won the wisdom and hence his was the real treasure.
“Once, at Shirdi, somebody had prepared ‘sira’ (i.e. sweetened semolina pudding). Baba asked me if I was given sira. I then said that I was not on good terms with Baba and that I was not given sira. Baba then gave me instruction: ‘Who gives what and to whom? What is this sira? Who eats it? Do not say of anyone that he is inimical to you. Who is whose enemy? Do not entertain any ill feelings towards anyone. All are one and the same’.
Sometimes Baba did not speak in parables but acted them. Note, for instance, how practically he demonstrated the inviolability of God’s decree and how a devotee had to derive courage from a firm faith in it. This incident was recorded by Prof. Narke.
“Baba used to get sweetmeat from a halvayi ( a vendor of halva, a sweet) for naivedya (offering to guru or God). One day, in 1916, the halvayi lay dead, a plague-stricken corpse. Plague was raging at Shirdi. Baba asked me to go and get the sweetmeat from his shop. I went and told the late halwayi’s wife (who was weeping) of Baba’s order. She pointed to the corpse and said that I might take the sweetmeat from the almyrah if I dared to. I took it, trembling with fear that by this I and others might catch the infection. Baba received it and distributed the same as prasad to all. Baba told me. ‘You think you will live if you are away from Shirdi and that you would die if you stay here. That is not so. Whosoever is (destined) to be struck (by death) will be struck: whosever is to die will die. Whosoever is to be caressed will be caressed……”
“He encouraged me similarly when cholera raged at Shirdi. He had lepers about him who massaged his legs. One of them got cured. Baba made a leper take the udi from the dhuni and gave it as prasad to the devotees. Yet no harm had resulted so far as I know.”
Today we know that leprosy is not contagious; yet many highly educated intellectuals shudder when they see a leper at close quarters. And if this is the state of the people today, what it was nearly sixty years ago can be easily guessed and the strength of mind that Baba was inculcating in his devotees can be guaged. Mrs. Manager recounts how Baba once made her eat a peda which he took from a leper’s bag. We are very likely to fail to appreciate such a gesture on the part of Baba. His devotees looked upon him as their Guru-God and it involved a test of their faith while strengthening it. If we know that leprosy is not contagious, what have we to say of cholera and plague cases which Narke has mentioned? His devotees were safe in spite of Baba making them eat what was brought from a house which was plague-stricken. The devotees concerned must have thought that either Baba or God must have saved them. And either way it is good spiritually. Numerous other unmistakable cases of his miraculous healing were there. If anyone viewed them only as instances of Baba’s fore-knowledge that an ‘X’ or ‘Y’ is likely to be affected, even that is faith in Baba’s unerring knowledge of the future, in his omniscience of the other man’s natural resistance to catch a disease, or in a destiny which must have been so determined for Baba to know it before hand. And the strength of this argument will be doubly- clear if we ponder for a moment as to how many of today’s medical experts, with all their sophisticated equipment, can say unerringly that such-and-such-a-one is immune from such a disease, and that on such a large scale as Baba did?
“But”, the reader might ask, “how did the devotee receive these horrible gestures of Baba?” The characteristic example can be seen in Mrs. Manager’s statement regarding Baba who recalled a leper, took a peda from him and made her eat it. “Why he was recalled and I alone was the chosen recipient of his peda, none then understood. But I knew full well that Sai Baba had read my heart and was teaching me valuable lessons (e.g.) in humility, fraternity, sympathy, endurance and trust in His supreme wisdom rather than in my own notions of hygiene and sanitation for saving me from disease.”
Pride can be of many types and all are equally potent obstacles to one’s spiritual progress. But the most difficult one to control or conceal, and yet the most elusive of its forms is pride in one’s own faith in and love for god or guru. And Baba was quick in noticing it in his devotee and ruthless in nipping it in the bud. One day when Balwant Nachne and others were there Baba complained of stomache ache. An old lady fetched a red-hot brick and put it on Baba’s stomach. Balwant could not bear to see it. Then the lady started massaging Baba’s abdomen with much force. Nachne could contain himself no longer but asked the lady to be more gentle in her service. Baba was at once wild with his interference in another’s devotion and service and asked him to get away immediately. And he did so.
Sometimes Baba was the sole actor in an incident from which the devotees could learn much. Indeed his whole way of living was a continuous teaching of perfect humility, purity, self-control, equality and generosity. He was like the Buddha, Jesus. The christ and Mohammed in that his life was a model of his teaching. But certain of the incidents were more strikingly so.
One day, at noon, Baba asked some one to get a ladder and with the help of that, climbed the roof of one Vaman Gondkar’s house and from there walked over the roof of Radhakrishnamai’s house and got down from the other side. Why he did so remained a mystery. Some thought that it was his mysterious manner of curing Radhakrishnamai of malaria from which she was suffering. After climbing down from the other side, Baba gave Rs.2/- to the man who had brought the ladder. When someone made bold to ask him why he paid such on exorbitant price for such a minor service, he simply replied that nobody should take the labour of others free; that the worker should be duly and liberally paid.
Baba’s omniscient gaze was ever watchful of his devotee’s conduct and if he ever discovered that any of them was committing a folly, he was prompt in his correction. We have mentioned some instances in the chapter on Baba’s omniscience.
Once, one of the devotees was wasting his precious after-noon in reviling one of his acquaintances behind his back in the wada. A little later, the said devotee met Baba at Lendi garden. Baba then pointed to a pig and said, “See with what relish it is gorging on night soil! Your conduct was similar. You go on reviling your own brethren to your heart’s content. You have obtained a human birth as a result of much merit in your past life. But if you behave like this, what can a trip to Shirdi do to you?”
The perfect skill with which Baba could bring home a moral to one or more devotees through a single, complex, situation involving all of them is wonderful. He engineered, as it were, a situation so that the teaching did not remain a merely abstract one. It was such as to expose the undesirable aspect of the devotee’s personality in action so that the devotee could no longer close his eyes to it.
Once a Ramadasi visited Baba and stayed in his presence for some days. Everyday, after his bath the visitor used to read the ‘Vishnu sahasra nama’. One day Baba requested him to fetch sona mukhi, a mild laxative herb, from the bazaar as he was having pain in his stomach. When the Ramadasi left, Baba picked up his book ‘Vishnusahasranama’ and gave it to Shama and said, “Shama, this book is very efficacious. Once, my heart began to palpitate and death seemed imminent. Then I hugged the book and it gave me immediate relief! I thought Allah himself came and saved me. I want to present you with this great book. Read it slowly little by little, at least one name a day and it will do you good.”
Shama thought that Baba was playing a joke on him by trying to set the Ramadasi against him and said, “Baba, the Ramadasi is a very ill-tempered man and he will quarrel with me thinking that I have stolen his book. Besides, I cannot read Sanskrit”. But Baba was not merely joking; he was really bestowing his grace to the beloved devotee by giving him an efficacious book consecrated by his touch. He forced Shama to accept it.
The Ramadasi returned a little later with sona mukhi. Another devotee, Anna Chinchinikar, wanted to help Baba in playing the practical joke. So he at once told the Ramadasi of what had happened. The Ramadasi flared up and started charging Shama with theft of the book and in his rage he said that he employed Baba as a ruse to send him to the bazaar so as to knock off that book! He said that if Shama did not return the book he would dash his own head before him and die.
This side of the Ramadasi’s personality was what Baba wanted to expose and correct and the situation developed exactly as he wanted. So he addressed the Ramadasi and said, “Oh Ramadasi, why are you so furious? Is not Shama our own man? How is it that you, a devotee, are so quarrelsome and so biting in your speech? Your mind is still impure inspite of reading such holy books, and your passions still uncontrolled! As a Ramadasi (a servant or devotee of Sree Rama) you ought to be indifferent to all things. It is strange that you covet the book so much that you are so wild with Shama for taking it. Go, sit and ponder coolly over the whole thing: books can be had for money and not men. I took the book and gave it to him and he is not to blame. After all, what is the price of the book ? Besides, you have already memorised it thoroughly.” The lesson went home to the Ramadasi.
This incident has gained its several objectives: to benefit Shama with the reading of such a book, consecrated and given by Baba who is unrivalled in his awareness of the spiritual needs of his devotees; to inculcate and strengthen the faith in him that he should accept anything that Baba, his guru-god, gave without presuming to judge it by the tiny light of his own moral judgement; to teach the Ramadasi the need to control his passions and be happy in giving others at least what he no longer needed and what is likely to benefit them. Finally, the whole episode, when taken at one glance, is just calculated to confirm, to one and all, how Baba’s mind is unerring in directing a situation to pin-point the flaws in the personalities of his devotees and giving them the necessary correctives which would contribute to their spiritual betterment.
Baba’s teaching did not always come through the medium of language or in elaborate action. The communication was sometimes mysterious. And what was so conveyed was usually something which words cannot convey. Sri Narayana Ashram records his experience: “Sai Baba had different ways of dealing with different people. He was the centre and to each man he darted a separate radius…..immediate proximity was not needed for spiritual development under Baba. When I was at Shirdi, I would mostly go and sit away by myself in the wada and not be at the mosque. Even at the wada, one is under Baba’s direct influence…Baba had a way of touching (with his palm) the head of the devotee who went to him. There was no adhikari (i.e. deserving person) evidently, to receive everything Baba could give and thus there were none to succeed him to his position. But his touch did convey certain impulses, forces, ideas, etc. Sometimes he pressed his hand heavily on the head as though he was crushing out some of the lower impulses of the devotee. Sometimes he tapped, sometimes he made a pass with palm over the head, etc. Each had its own effect - making remarkable difference in the sensations or feelings of the devotee. Baba’s touch was one means. Apart from that, he would invisibly operate on the nature of the devotee and effect a great change in him. He graciously conveyed to me without any words, the feeling that all the differences were unreal, that the one real thing is that which underlies all. This was after my first visit in 1913 or 1914 perhaps. But Baba never spoke out this truth so far as I know.”
A similar experience was had by one Rajballi Mohammad of Bandra.- “I had nothing particular to ask of him (Baba). I wanted only an increase of faith. I wanted that at my death I may die, possessed of full iman or faith so that I may have a good end. I prayed to him for that and asked for his blessings. He placed his hand on my head and blessed me. From that moment his blessings have borne fruit. My faith has steadily increased.”
In Khaparde’s diary we come across many references to Baba’s yogic glance which is said to have unlocked the flood-gates of immense spiritual bliss that filled the whole of the devotee’s being for a considerable duration.
Janardan Galwankar of Bandra writes “On one such occasion, it was perhaps in 1917, when I went to Shirdi, he placed his palm over my head and that had a strange effect on me. I forgot myself and all surroundings and passed into an ecstatic condition….. Since I got ecstasy by Baba’s blessing, I began to pay more attention to adhyatma i.e., spiritual side of my existence.”
Sai Baba sometimes employed more subtle and mystical modes of teaching his devotees even when the teaching in itself had to be direct and explicit. One Narayan Ambedkar of Poona had to face a series of calamities for seven years after his retirement and there seemed to be no end to his suffering inspite of his repeated visits to Shirdi. In 1916 he grew desperate and wanted to commit suicide in the holy presence of Baba, so that he might at least fare better in his next life. One night, while sitting in a bullock cart in front of Dixit’s wada, he decided to put an end to his miseries by jumping into a nearby well. But Baba had his mysterious way of dealing with his devotee. Just as Ambedkar was entertaining these dark thoughts, Sagun Meru Naik, the owner of a nearby tea-stall was impelled mysteriously to approach Ambedkar. Saying, “Did you ever read this life-history of Sri Swami Samarth of Akkalkot?”, he gave the book to him. When Ambedkar opened the book at random it opened on a particular page which contained, as it were, this pertinent message for him:
A certain devotee of the Swami of Akkalkot was overtaken by so many calamities that he resolved to commit suicide and one night threw himself in a well. Then the saint promptly arrived on the scene and, after rescuing his devotee, told him, “You must enjoy the result, good or bad, of your past actions; if you evade it in the middle you will have to take another birth and suffer the rest of it again; so why not exhaust the whole lot of evil karma at one stretch and be rid of it forever?” the devotee assented and thanked the Swami for his prompt and timely instruction.
The incident was a timely eye-opener to Ambedkar. Later Sai Baba told him that, as his father was a devotee of the Swami of Akkalkot, he should walk in his father’s foot-steps and be devoted to the same Swami. Later, Ambedkar studied astrology and gained proficiency enough to secure his livelihood through it.
This episode has a close parallel in those incidents in which Baba asked his devotee to go and listen to the reading of a purana and through that the devotee’s doubts were clarified. So too Das Ganu’s difficulties in his reading of the Isopanishad were, as though by Baba’s order, clarified by a song that was accidentally sung by Kakasaheb’s maidservant!
There is another instance of Baba teaching in an indirect manner. One Sathe, who was dejected owing to heavy loss in trade, visited Baba and made a devout saptaha parayana (devotional reading of a holy book in a week) of “Sri Gurucharitra” and , at the end of it, Baba graced him with a significant dream: He saw Baba, with the book in his hand, was explaining something to him. When he recounted it to Baba, Hemadpanth happened to hear it and he grew restless; for, while a single reading of the work in a week bore such a fine fruit to Sathe, his own reading of the same holy book for forty years produced no such.
At once Baba asked him to go Shama, take Rs.15/- as dakshina from him, sit and chat with him for a while at his house and then return to Dwarakamai. When Hemadpanth called at Shama’s, the latter was just about to sit for his daily worship. He asked Hemadpanth to be seated for a while till he finished his daily puja and went into his house. When Hemadpanth sat in the front verandah, he saw the celebrated work Nath Bhagwat (Saint Eknath’s commentary on The Bhagavatam) in the book-shelf. He was in the habit of reading a portion of it every day. This reminded him of the fact that on that particular day he had skipped the daily reading and decided to finish it. He realized that Baba had sent him to Shama’s house to remind him of his sacred duty. As though in confirmation of this idea, when Hemadpanth opened the book at random, it just opened on the portion which was due to be read on that day! And when he had just finished his reading, Shama too finished his puja and promptly came out. Then Shama felt impelled to recount some of Baba’s deeds. He told Hemadpanth of a lady who decided not to touch any food or drink until and unless Baba had accepted her as his chela (or disciple) and initiated her with a mantra. He told Hemadpanth how Baba explained to the lady that giving initiation to anyone was not his way; that he (Baba) himself became perfect only through unswerving love and devotion to his guru and not as a result of any initiation.
This narration, along with the miracle of his finishing his daily reading of Nath Bhagwat had set Hemadpanth’s restless mind at ease. Now, in retrospect, he had a thrilling revelation of his own better fortune than even Sathe’s. Sathe saw and heard Baba’s instruction only in his dream, the impact of which was less direct. But in his own case Baba’s grace was much more tangible. For Baba, whose remote but sure control of events was already proved by the episode of the Nath Bhagawat, had secretly impelled Sathe to recount his dream-experience in his (i.e. Hemadpanth’s) presence and thereby made his mind restless and eager for an instruction. Then he was explicitly sent by Baba to Shama’s house to finish his daily reading of the holy book and to listen to the invaluable and very apt account of Baba’s leela given by Shama. Thus he received Baba’s instruction more tangibly than did Sathe.
Some of Baba’s teachings were direct and explicit. We shall note a few here. Abdul Baba says, “Baba’s practical advice to me was that I should not sleep over my Koran reading. He said, ‘Eat very little. Do not go in for a variety of eatables. A single sort of dish will suffice. Do not sleep much!” obviously, it is not an easy piece of advice to follow and occasionally Abdul had his slips. But Baba’s methods of correction were very considerate and were positively encouraging. Abdul writes: “One night I was tired and tried to sleep, holding my palms in front of me to rest my drowsy head. Then Baba said, ‘Are you trying to see the moon?’ That night I fell asleep and fell upon Baba and his gaddi (elevated seat) in that sleeping condition. Baba gently stroked my feet, and I awoke. Next day, strange to say, when I took water in my palms and looked, there was a big moon in that water. It was 2 p.m. This was what Baba had spoken of. Baba’s blessings to me were strange and sometimes concealed in abuse and violence. He had beaten me and Mr. Jog many times”.
Balabhat of Andheri visited Baba on the festival of Deepavali in 1909. One day after 8 p.m., Balabhat asked Baba to give him upadesh or initiation and be his guru. Then Baba replied, “It is not essential that one should have a guru. Everything is within us. What you sow, you reap. What you give, you get. There is no need for a guru. It is all within you. Try to listen within and follow the direction you get. We must look at our ‘Self’ That is the monitor, the guru.”
The type of instruction that he had given Abdul or Balabhat cannot be generalised as Baba’s essential teaching. For there is and can be no such a teaching – an absolute teaching for all. No two persons are alike and so no one method can suit all. In gauging the devotee’s ripeness and giving him the kind of teaching that he individually needs and in giving him the necessary fillip lies the greatness of a guru. Or else the mountains of books that we have, would have sufficed to make great saints of all human beings. Books on medicine are no substitutes to an astute physician. And we shall look at such instances in Baba’s teaching.
Nanasaheb Nimonkar wished to read The Bhagawata as his daily devotional study but he did not know Sanskrit. Baba one day said to him, “Kaka. Why don’t you read pothi?” “I do not know Sanskrit”, said Nimonkar, “Never mind”, Baba assured, “Musjidi Mai (mother musjid) will teach you Sanskrit, and gradually you will learn”.
With faith in Baba’s words he began reading The Bhagawata daily, not minding whether he understood it or not. Gradually he began to understand and soon attained such proficiency in Sanskrit and mystical philosophy that he could clear the doubts which even those who were well versed in Sanskrit, like Kakasaheb Dixit and Jog, got in their study of philosophical treatises like The Jnaneswari and The Bhagavadgita. However, at one stage Baba told him, “Why should we explain things to others? That will make us puffed up with self-conceit”.
Here, Baba is not advocating any kind of narrow minded unconcern for a fellow devotee’s spiritual development. Far from it, He did advise certain others to read and expound philosophical texts. This piece of advice is specific to Nimonkar and how useful it is can be seen if we but remember how many are the pundits who get bogged down by scholastic discussion and argument and the spiritual pride generated therein would close their eyes to their own real spiritual inadequacy. The pharisees and scribes in the case of Jesus Christ’s life provide a parallel.
Devotees of a Godman like Baba are easily tempted to commit one error i.e. to think that he would do, by his omnipotence, all that the devotee wishes him to do. It is necessary to remember, especially for a devotee, that Baba’s superior wisdom knows how to judge a situation better. But any amount of verbalizing over this would not do. A practical lesson is necessary.
In 1915, a rich old man of Harda who was suffering from tuberculosis came to Shirdi with a lady. During the first month there was gradual improvement in his condition, but thereafter it showed a sharp decline. His end seemed near and Prof. Narke was sent to Baba for udi. Baba told the professor that the man would be better for quitting the earth and said, “What can the udi do? Any how take the udi and give it as it is wanted”. Shama was then sent to intercede with Baba, but Baba said the same thing as he did to Prof. Narke, but in a cryptic manner which outwardly seemed to mean the opposite! “How can he die? In the morning he will come to life”.
This was taken to mean that the old man would survive and nobody noticed the warning implied in the wording of the second sentence. The man died and the devotees felt that Baba gave false hope. A little later, one of the relations of the old man saw Baba in a dream with the deceased man’s head over his own. Baba disclosed the lungs of the late old man. They were in a rotten state and Baba said, “From the torture of all this I have saved him”. Thereafter the relations of the old man renewed their visits to Shirdi. For they know that many were the cures which Baba effected if he considered them worthwhile and beneficial to the affected soul. That and not the attachment of kinsfolk to the sick person was Baba’s criterion in deciding whether to heal or not. We will see elsewhere how Baba knew the past of a person even to hundreds of his previous lives and so he knew minutely the causes that underlay his joys and sorrows; he knew the potentialities of each and he used his superknowledge in getting the best for his devotee without violating god’s justice too much. Many were the cases in which Baba deemed it wiser to let a creature die, as in the case of a tiger.
As Bhagavan Ramana had often pointed out, though self-realization is the result of grace, grace never comes without efforts, i.e. arbitrarily. And Sai Baba was asking everyone to exert, exert himself in his spiritual exercises and in being vigilant against the negative tendencies of his own mind. The variety of his teachings and his ways could be summed up in the words of his first biographer, Hemadpanth:-
“He who wants to get rid of the cycle of births and deaths should lead a righteous life with his mind calm and composed. He should not speak cuttingly to anyone so as to hurt him to the quick. He should always engage himself in good actions, should do his duties and surrender himself heart and soul to Him. He need not then be afraid of anything. He who trusts Him entirely, hears and expounds His leelas and does not think of anything else is sure to attain self-realization. Baba asked many to remember His name, but to those who wanted to know who they were, he advised sravan (hearing) and manan (contemplation on teaching of the guru). To some he advised remembering God’s name; to others, hearing His leelas; to some the worship of his feet; to others the reading and study of the Adhyatma Ramayan, Jnaneswari and other sacred scriptures. Some he made to sit near His feet, some he sent to Khandoba’s temple, and to some he enjoined the repetition of the thousand names of Lord Vishnu and to some, the study of the Chandogyopanishad and Gita. There was no limit or restriction to his instructions. To some, He gave them in person. To others by visions and dreams. To one addicted to drink, He appeared in his dream, sat on his chest, pressed it (hard) and left him (only) after he gave a promise not to touch liquor. To some, He explained mantras like Gurur Brahma in dreams. To one devotee who was practicing hata yoga, he sent word that he should leave off hata yoga practices, sit quiet and wait (i.e. for God’s grace). It is impossible to describe all His ways and methods. In ordinary dealings, He set examples by his actions...” (Sri Sai Satcharitra).