“This book makes available for the first time to readers in North America and much of the English – speaking world an account of one of the most important Indian saints of recent times. It also has the merit of treating its subject in a manner that is scholarly and at the same time respects both the greatness of its subject an the limitations of his accessibility. I found it informative, thought – provoking and a great joy to read.”
“The author combines the best features of traditional and modern scholarly techniques. He exposes and highlights the special character of his subject and makes it available for further consideration from a wide variety of standpoints, and contributes to the current scholarly discussion about the relevance and adequacy of the concepts of ‘saint’ for cross-cultural studies and for contemporary constructive work in the areas of ethics, religious studies, and post – modern philosophy.”
“Sai Baba is exemplary among the great saints of Maharashtra in western India for the ways in which he drew upon and surpassed the categories, concepts, and styles of a variety of conventionally competing religious traditions. Maharashtra is well – known for the integrative spirituality of its foremost figures, and among them Sai Baba of Shirdi is particularly important. The author “locates” Sai Baba in the contexts of both Islamic and Hindu traditions.”
A vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as “the Sai Baba movement”. Through the chronological presentation of Sia Baba’s life, light is shed on the various ways in which the important guru figures in this movement came to be linked to the saint of Shirdi.
It is both a pleasure and an honor for the writer of these lines to be asked to open, as it were, the gates of Antonio Rigopoulos’ out standing endeavor. The reader has in his or her hands a work of scholarly depth that is also highly readable: a comparatively uncommon achievement. The book grew from its original format of doctorate thesis (discussed at the University of Venice, Italy, in 1987) into the present comprehensive monography through years of dedicated bibliographical exploration and field –research. The whole scope of the available material concerning the fascinating and elusive figure of the Sai Baba (roughly “Holy Father”: an epithet usually applied to respected Muslim ascetics, but here identifying a purposely no – label spiritual teacher) of the village of Shirdi has been utilized. The result is a rich fresco of Indian religious life between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.
As will be seen, the protagonist of the book, widely known and well – loved in India today, was possessed of a sharp with and we find him more than once deliberately misleading his devotees by paradoxical gestures and teachings. There is, in the Sai’s occasional antics, something of a village Socrates’ irony, an anticlimax to his clamorous miracle – working which truly endears him to the Indian (and non – Indian) public. Several Muslim and Hindu tesserae of the incredibly complex mosaic of the Sai’s background and theatre of operations are introduced in due order by Rigopoulos, so that even those unfamiliar with such a scene are enabled to follow that mysterious man’s often perplexing behavior in the light of the culture of the people with whom he was interacting.
To learn about the Si through a study full of color and details like the one here available for the first time to the Western reader, means to possess a precious key to India’s soul so as to approach the capital question: “What actually does meeting a guru feel like?” For every spiritual teacher is the Guru, but also a guru: side by side with his divine or quasi – divine role, he has idiosyncrasies and characteristic features both in his way of teaching and in his daily life persona. Eventually, the former may subside and the simple presence of the latter will afford a prop to devotees’ search for liberating experience.
Rigopoulos has taken pains to find witnesses recalling the Sai’s teachings, which were certainly imparted in traditional fashion, even as commentaries to spiritual texts: the collective memory of Shirdi has maintained just their barest outlines, whereas a full fledged account of many a curious happening is still available. The Sai himself encouraged such a somewhat sloppy approach – at least to Western eyes – on the part of the local people. He endorsed the importance of abandonment without much ado (prapatti) to divine Grace through his medium, which is, of course, a perfectly legitimate and time – honored quietistic dimension of bhakti in Indian outlook. The result is not only the aforementioned emphasis on his own life’s incidents, but a decisive identification of himself with the Supreme God, whatever his identity be held to be, as well as with the Transcendent Absolute itself, the Brahman of Vedantic teachings. For spiritual teacher is a guru, but also the Guru.
Sai Baba, the celebrated saint of Shirdi from the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra State, though almost unknown to the public in thee west, is an extremely popular figure all across the Indian subcontinent. Millions of people revere and worship his as a god, an avatara, and as a teacher of tolerance and mutual harmony between Hinduism and Islam.
His ever – expanding fame is due, in the first place, to his alleged powers as a miracle worker and healer. According to devotees, his acts of healing have not only continued but actually increased in number since the holy man’s death in October 1918. Besides this fundamental characteristic of the saint of Shirdi, his personality remains, overall, enigmatic and obscure. His birthplace and religious affiliation are a mystery to all, and today people still debate whether he was a mystery to all, and today people still debate whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim.
What is certain is that a young ascetic, identified by villagers as a Muslim, reached the hamlet of Shirdi one day in the last century; that he was attributed the name of Si Baba; and that he lived in the village till the end of his days, dwelling in a dilapidated mosque.
Even an approach to his teachings is not simple. Sai Baba disliked theorizing on religious matters, and he never gave spiritual discourses. He told stories an parables on occasion, and his language was then allusive, metaphoric, or paradoxical.
Of unpredictable moods, devotees remember him as both loving and harsh. When he got angry, often for no apparent reason, he would scream or abuse people, sometimes for hours on end, at times even tearing off his clothes.
What the old villagers in Shirdi emphasize, however, was Sai Baba’s overall spiritual charisma: simply being in his presence gave one the feeling of being in the presence of God. His words pierced hearts and his prolonged silences expressed extraordinary power. Apparently, Sai Baba’s whole persona, his movements, words, and glances, conveyed a tangible and immediate experience of the sacred.
This study of the life and teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi is intended as a general introduction to this fascinating, eclectic religious figure, firmly rooted in Maharashtrian spirituality.
The first par to this attempts a chronological reconstruction of the saint’s legendary life, trying to detect possible his topical traces within the multifarious hagiographic material of the available sources. The presentation of Sai Baba’s life includes an deeds are indeed so predominant in all sources that to underestimate them would mean losing sight of a fundamental aspect of Sai Baba’s persona and the devotional cult surrounding him.
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