Unravelling the Enigma Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism

Item Code: NAH251
Author: Marianne Warren
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9788120721470
Pages: 460 (25 Color and 8 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 590 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

Unravelling The Enigma - Shirdi Sai in the Light of Sufism is an exciting new piece of research which examines Sai Baba of Shirdi from the standpoint of Islamic mysticism - the Deccani Sufism of 19th century Maharashtra - in order to resolve the mystery surrounding the saint. Sai Baba is consistently described by his Hindu biographers as a ‘Muslim faqir’ and a mystic, which, by definition, makes him a Sufi. However, no previous researcher has examined him thoroughly in this light. The author assumes that the reader will have some familiarity with previous biographies of Shirdi Sai Baba, and she reviews incidents, anecdotes and sayings of the hagiography surrounding Sai Baba, in the light of the goals, practices and stories of the Sufis from the golden era of Sufism, and discovers that an amazing similarity and correspondence begins to emerge. Immediately the more puzzling aspects of the saint’s actions and sayings fall away, and Sai Baba himself becomes more understandable, attractive and lovable.

In the book, Dr. Warren brings two new pieces of scholarship to the subject. First she elucidates the English translation of part of the works of some 17th and 18th century Maharashtrian Sufi poet-saints-their contribution having hitherto been neglected by scholars. Their lives and writings echo the life and teachings of Sai Baba. Secondly, she includes the English translation of the previously untranslated Urdu notebook, jotted down by Abdul, Sai Baba’s faqiri pupil, from teachings based on the Qur’an given to him by his pir Sai Baba. Both these contributions allow us to look into a world hitherto closed, and expand our awareness of the famous miracle-worker of Shirdi.

While Sai Baba has attained a universal appeal, transcending anyone sectarian religious tradition, it is necessary to understand his Sufi origins in order to obtain a deeper and fuller appreciation of the enigmatic saint of Shirdi.

About the Author

Dr. Marianne Warren was born in England where she earned her first BA degree from the University of Exeter. After emigrating to Canada, she became interested in Yoga, and went on to teach Indian Philosophy, Psychology and Religion as part of a Yoga Teachers’ Training Course. She then went back to University to study for a BA in South Asian Religions at McMaster University, followed by her MA and Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Her interest, in collaboration with her husband Michael, had been in writing Indian-style devotional songs (bhajans) in English in honour of both Shirdi Sai Baba and Sathya Sai Baba. They released two Compact Discs, which have been very well received internationally. Dr. Marianne Warren left this world on 7th September, 2004.


Sai Baba of Shirdi stood for the principles of universal tolerance and peace, and the brotherhood and sisterhood of all mankind. The bhaktas, the true devotees of Sai Baba have experienced their spiritual and material aspirations come to fruition through his divine powers. The image of Sai Baba in his shrine offers both spiritual and physical solace to the pilgrims who visit it.

Dr Marianne Warren’s work is the first scholarly attempt to provide a historical context to Sai Baba’s teachings. Like Shekh Mahammad and Shah Muni, Sai Baba, as Dr Warren establishes, belongs to the great Maharashtrian Sufi tradition. Sai Baba should be studied, not in isolation, but as a holy man working within the circles of Maharashtrian bhakti saints. Dr Warren’s contribution is outstanding in this respect. An equally original point argued convincingly by Dr Warren concerns Sai Baba’s knowledge of Islamic theology. Dr Warren has translated the Saib ab a manuscript in which Sai Baba gave discourses on Islamic history and thought to his pupil Abdulla, his personal attendant, whose tomb rests near Sai Baba’s shrine.

Sai Baba is revered, almost worshipped, as God by his many Hindu followers. Towards the end of his life he accommodated a few Hindu rituals and practices to please his devotees. Living in a self-chosen dilapidated mosque in Shirdi, which he called Dwarakamai, he worked miracles to cure people of their ailments - and sorrows and taught people to have trust in God.

The true living Sufi is the one who has eliminated anger and lust. Constantly he remembers God even while breathing in and out. Re avoids useless talk and he enjoys happiness in solitude ... Re is entranced with love of God and he has lost his consciousness in meditation. Shekh Mahammad, the sixteenth century Maharashtrian Sufi poet-saint, who wrote this verse might as well have described Shirdi Sai Baba.


With an upsurge of devotion to Sai Baba of Shirdi currently sweeping India and the installation of murtis there and around the world - this book presents Sai Babas divinity in the light of Sufism. Initially, I embarked upon my research into the life of Sai Baba and his Maharashtrian spiritual background, in order to gain and present a fuller appreciation of this enigmatic mystic. A number of westerners had remarked to me that they were not drawn to Shirdi Sai Baba, finding him austere and hard-to-relate-to, with his mystical statements, inexplicable actions and bizarre behaviour. However, I felt that if one could understand him better, a more sympathetic picture would be revealed. In uncovering the facts, I never dreamt that it would turn out to be such a detective story. Gradually, as information was amassed, it became apparent that certain facts did not seem to fit the universally prevailing Hindu bhakti view of this saint. All the books that I had previously read seemed to point to a Hindu saint who had somehow inexplicably, or ignorantly, been deemed a Muslim faqir. The point was almost cleared up by the information that Persian officials and later British administrators, used to class all ascetics, Hindu or Muslim, as faqirs. I However, it was only after coming to terms with the evidence that Sai Baba was, as consistently stated by his Hindu biographers, both a Muslim and a mystic - which by definition makes him a Sufi - that his life and teachings began to fall into place. Once I started to investigate him from this Sufi standpoint and began to realize how important Sufism had been in the Deccan in the past, did I begin to understand and appreciate the full and often awesome significance of Sai Baba. In this book you can also share in this process of detection, chapter by chapter, and weigh for yourself the data presented. At the end, you may reach the same verdict as I did, that Sai Baba, although he had, by the end of his life, transcended all sectarian differences, emerged out of the oral Sufi tradition of the Deccan. Understanding the basic Sufism underlying his teachings, albeit unorthodox, instantly clarifies some of the mystery and ambiguity surrounding the Shirdi sage, and makes him more accessible, attractive and endearing.

This book is an adaptation of my Ph.D dissertation entitled The Maharashtrian Sufi Context of Hazrat Sri Sai Baba of Shirdi (1838-1918), accepted at the University of Toronto in 1996 as part of the requirements for my Doctorate in South Asian Studies. This thesis has now been modified to be more accessible for the general reader, removing much of the original Marathi language quotations included in the original thesis. At the same time I have brought back into the text some essential comparative Sufi material that was included in the original thesis (but excluded from the final dissertation) submitted to the University of Toronto. I have also reintroduced some of the more interesting side-issues which were formerly relegated to the endnotes. The inspiration for writing the thesis and subsequent book sprang from a number of visits made to Sri Sathya Sai Baba and his ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, in South India at Puttaparthi, in the early 1980s. During this period I learned that Sri Sathya Sai Baba had declared that he was the reincarnation of the then little-known nineteenth-century saint, Sri Sai Baba, who had lived in a village called Shirdi in the State of Maharashtra in Western India, Sathya Sai Baba made this declaration when he was fourteen years old in 1940. Discourses given by Sri Sathya Sai Baba on various occasions in the subsequent decades are recorded in a series of volumes called Sathya Sai Speaks. The early volumes are full of references to Shirdi Sai Baba. However, in the early 1980s there was very little independent information available on Shirdi Sai Baba, either in the ashram or in the village of Putt apart hi, although there was a large picture of him in the Mandir alongside that of Sri Sathya Sai Baba (see Plate I), as well as an imposing marble statue of Shirdi Sai sitting on a silver throne, to the left, facing the altar.

In 1979 I had an unusual experience. At that time I was teaching Yoga history, psychology and philosophy in a Yoga Teachers’ Training Course at a local Community College and I woke one morning with a strong urge to find out more about Sri Sathya Sai Baba. After a yoga class in Toronto, I decided to look in a nearby second-hand bookstore to see if I could find this information. The shop was empty, and after I had looked in all the likely places, under Eastern religion, India, Saints, Yoga, etc, without finding anything, I turned to walk to the front of the shop to leave. At this point a large book fell from a top shelf. Immediately the thought came that there must be something I should find. I began turning over some books in a nearby cardboard box. I thought to myself how foolish I was - but continued rummaging in the box anyway. At the bottom I found four small books on Sathya Sai Baba and one on Shirdi Sai Baba by Arthur Osborne entitled The Incredible Sai Baba: The Life and Miracles of a Modern-day Saint, published in 1957. This was to be my first introduction to the sage.

On one of my early visits to Puttaparthi, Sathya Sai Baba left for a visit to Madras, so I went too, along with a group of devotees. On this trip I was able to visit the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Madras which is part of the All India Sai Samaj, founded by Narasimhaswami, one of Sai Baba’s biographers, whose life and role will be discussed in Part III of this book. This temple was not then affiliated in any way with Sathya Sai Baba, although there is another small Shirdi Sai Baba temple at Guindy, a suburb of Madras, which recognizes Sri Sathya Sai Baba as the reincarnation of the earlier saint. At the first temple I was able to obtain the four-part life of Shirdi Sai Baba by Narasimhaswami entitled Life of Sai Baba. Until very recently this book has not been readily available.

The University of Toronto Library system had very little to offer in the way of reference material nor indeed any information on Sai Baba of Shirdi of a scholarly nature. However, on asubsequent visit to India, I was able to visit Shirdi on a trip from Bombay, and learn more about the life of Sai Baba of Shirdi first-hand. I was able to obtain the Marathi version of Sri Sai Saccarita, and also the English adaptation Sri Sai Satcharita. These works and their authors are discussed in detail later.

Meanwhile my University Studies on the religions of India began to narrow down and focus on the bhakti or devotional tradition of India. An essential element of this topic is the resurgence of bhakti in the medieval period, known as the Bhakti Movement. This resurgence occurred all over India, especially in the north, Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra. Maharashtra was one of the most influential centres of the Bhakti Movement with the development of the cult of the deity Vitthala in and around Pandharpur. This study opened up to me a new spiritual world of writers and poet-saints who discovered the way to God-realization through intense devotion to God. First came Jnanadev, whose Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, known as the Jnanesvari, is truly inspiring. So too are the abhangs or verse songs of Namdev, Eknath and Tukaram, which were their intense outpourings of devotion to God. One enormously influential book for me was R.D. Ranade’s Mysticism in India - The Poet-saints of Maharashtra, in defining mysticism. I particularly relate to Tukaram whose life can be said to represent everyman, alternately going from the pinnacle of happiness to the depths of despair, conviction of the presence of God followed by the emptiness of feeling abandoned by God. Here was a man who taught himself to sing the glories of God following the worship of Vitthala and the varkari panth (to be discussed later), transforming himself into a renowned kirtankar (popular devotional singer), and who eventually attained his goal of a direct experience of God. Today in Maharashtra if a saying is prefaced by ‘Tuka mhane’, meaning ‘Tuka says’, it is accepted that this must be an indisputable truth.

However, it finally dawned on me that, while Sai Baba of Shirdi most certainly was aware of this rich spiritual Hindu tradition, he was not really part of it. Yet he most certainly fitted into the category of bhakti saints. Alongside the medieval resurgence of the Bhakti Movement, came the influx of Islam into India through the ruling Mughals. But more important for Maharashtra was the influx of Muslim mystics known as Sufis, who established themelves in the Deccan in the medieval period, subsequently founding many centres. Once my mind was set on this line of thought, everything began to fall into place.

In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Maharashtra there were also a number of Sufi poet-saints who wrote extensively on spiritual matters and their constant theme was to show the devotional path leading to a direct realization of God. Like Sai Baba, they were Muslim minorities in a Hindu religio-social milieu, and had to accommodate their beliefs by finding parallels between the two religions. While this corpus of literature has been available in Marathi, it had never been properly appreciated outside of Maharashtra nor translated fully into English. With the help of Professor N.K. Wagle in translation, it became apparent that there was a close affinity between the teaching of Sai Baba of Shirdi and that of these Sufi poet-saints. The material showing the correspondence of thought and practice is given in Part I of this book.


Sai Baba of Shirdi, it has been said, was ‘a Perfect Sufi and a Parama Bhagavata’, and thus in this dual role he links the two major traditions of India - Islam and Hinduism. These are both technical terms within their respective traditions - a Sufi who is ‘Perfect’ is a Muslim mystic who has reached the pinnacle of God-realization, while in the Hindu tradition a Parama Bhagavata has attained the inner status of a supreme enlightened Divinity. Others have seen Sai Baba as the ‘pioneer of spiritual renaissance in comparatively modem times. Although these epithets, applied to an obscure nineteenth-century Indian Muslim faqir, may initially seem pretentious, now with his mushrooming popularity in the last few decades they indicate that, in the eyes and experience of many devotees, Sai Baba was indeed a fully God-realized Master on a divine mission.

Sai Baba was indeed a paradox - on the one hand he appeared to be a simple unlettered ascetic, on the other, the very embodiment of Divinity - while Hindus revered him as a Hindu, he had every appearance of being Muslim - if Muslim then he was not an orthodox Muslim, but was unconventional to the point of being heterodox - and at his death in 1918 he had but a handful of close devotees, while today his devotees number in the millions. Far from being a local Maharashtrian miracle-worker unknown to the outside world, today his murti or statue is to be found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and in the Vishnu Temple in Toronto, Canada, half a world away. The enigma continues, for he declared that even after his death he would still be present, albeit in a subtle form, to help his devotees, and indeed there does exist a large and growing volume of testimonial literature authored by latter-day devotees, attesting to the truth of his statement.

Until recently Sai Baba has been the sole prerogative of ‘devotees’, but now he is attracting the attention of the academic world.’ This book seeks to unravel some of the enigma that surrounds the life of Sai Baba, to place him in the spiritual context of Maharashtra in western India, which has a rich heritage of both bhakti and Sufi saints, and to re-examine the Hindu gloss given by virtually all of his biographers from 1910 onwards. The ‘Parama Bhagavata’ half of the opening quotation has been fully explored in numerous Hindu-authored biographies and books about Sai Baba, but the other half - the ‘Perfect Sufi’ aspect of the saint has been almost totally ignored. Therefore, in this work Sai Baba will be examined in the light of Sufism, to elucidate a clearer understanding of him. The recent discovery and translation of a manuscript of a notebook, written in Urdu by Abdul, Sai Baba’s Sufi pupil or murid, has helped to confirm Sai Baba’s Muslim and Sufi origins and predilections.

Sai Baba was constantly referred to by his biographers, as either a Muslimfaqir or mystic, or as an awliya or Muslim saint. In esoteric Islam, a Muslim mystic is by definition known as a Sufi or alternatively a faqir; the term refers either to one traversing the Sufi tariqat or spiritual path towards God-realization, or to one who has already attained God-realization. The latter was its original meaning, for according to al-Sarraj, ‘genuine Sufis [were those] whose heart God has vivified by gnosis’ - meaning God- realized, but today in general usage the term has come to include one still treading the path. The term fuqara (plural of faqir) is applicable to all initiates on the Sufi path and literally means poor men, denoting those practicing Sufism. Although the term faqir was used extensively in the Sai Baba literature, the term Sufi was used only rarely to describe Sai Baba. Unfortunately, today this term carries negative innuendos - such as holy frauds or wandering rogues who lie on a bed of nails, etc., never intended in its original use. Thus, for this book Sai Baba is being promoted as a Sufi, rather than a faqir. Narasimhaswami made the comment that ‘the ideas which Baba [was] thoroughly soaked up in up to the last were in no way distinguishable from Sufism’. Yet today, almost without exception, he is treated and revered as a Hindu saint and incarnation of God, known as an avatar, and the worship at his tomb reflects the Hindu ritualistic puja enacted daily at any Hindu shrine. Furthermore, most of the biographies and secondary literature have couched his life and teachings in terms of the language, philosophy and devotion associated with the Hindu Maharashtrian bhakti milieu. While many devotees have derived great spiritual help from these writings, this book will attempt to provide an additional perspective on Sai Baba’s life and teachings, and highlight the Sufi aspect of the saint within the context of Maharashtra. It aims to redress the Sufi-Bhakti imbalance and re-emphasize certain universal elements shared by Indian Sufism, particularly Deccani Sufism, and the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra, which the life of Sai Baba epitomized.

Sources for the book-There exists a relatively large corpus of information and source material on the life of Sai Baba in Shirdi from the period 1910- 1918 towards the end of his life, but there is very little verifiable data on his early life, and most of this material may be classified as hagiography, and therefore not reliable as historical fact. Traditionally, the oral hagiography of many rural saints in India is not written down until many decades or even centuries after a saint passes away, but in the case of Sai Baba there are a number of sources of information actually recorded during Sai Baba’s liwtime, or very soon thereafter. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Shirdi was a typical remote village, and at the folk level people relied on memory, and information was transmitted orally. It was only with the arrival, in the early decades of the twentieth century, of an educated, mostly Brahman elite and professional people from Bombay, that day-to-day occurrences, teachings and miracles in the life of Sai Baba began to be systematically recorded.

The most important source of information about the life and teaching of Sai Baba of Shirdi that can be deemed as authoritative is the Sri Sai Saccarita, a devotional biography written in Marathi by Govind Raghunath Dabholkar, a Brahman working as a government clerk (see Plate 2). The spelling of the Romanized transliteration of the Marathi Sri Sai Saccarita has been retained throughout this book in order to distinguish it from Gunaji’s English adaptation of the same title Sri Sai Satcharita. The over- riding value of Dabholkar’s book lies in the fact that, unlike any other source, it was commenced with the full authority of Sai Baba himself, who blessed the undertaking in his unique style by giving sacred ash, known as udi, to Dabholkar, saying: “He has my complete support; he will be the instrument through which I will write my own story.” Dabholkar’s initial motivation was to record Sai Baba’s day-to-day miracles, and to foster awareness of the more spiritual dimension of the sage. He had direct access to and contact with Sai Baba sporadically over the years between 1910 and 1916, until he took up permanent residence in Shirdi in 1916 when he retired. The gathering of the data for the biography thus commenced in 1910, and pertains to events and miracles which the author personally witnessed in the last eight years of the saint’s life. Legendary aspects and actual events overlap, as is usual in hagiographical accounts of saints. The book was finally completed and published in 1929, eleven years after the saint’s death. The Sri Sai Saccarita was Dabholkar’s ‘offering’, and it is a devotional work which never had the pretension of being a scholastic biography with a detailed chronology. Dabholkar followed the traditional Maharashtrian style of sacred literature in which precise dating is positively eschewed, modelling his work on the style of a fifteenth-century revered Marathi classic text, Sree Guru Caritra by Gangadhar Saraswati about the life of Sri Guru, also known as Dattatreya, and two of his major incarnations. Dabholkar was no doubt inspired to model his Sri Sai Saccarita on this work due to the fact that Sai Baba, while still alive, was also heralded as a modem incarnation of Dattatreya. Dabholkar composed the work in Marathi ovi verse, or short lyrical poems, but its style is rough and contrived in comparison with the smooth literary Marathi of his model the Sree Guru Caritra. It would be much easier to read the Sri Sai Saccarita had it been confined to prose, but Dabholkar was following an age-old tradition of writing biographies of saints in verse form. Sai Baba, he felt, was a saint and therefore his biography must perforce be written in verse in order to make it acceptable within the Marathi religious milieu.

The Sri Sai Saccarita contains a great deal of factual information, even as it follows the devotional tradition of extolling the saint’s virtues at the beginning of each of its 53 chapters (51, plus an Epilogue and Epitome). However, as a Brahman steeped in his own Hindu tradition, Dabholkar had practically no knowledge of Islam or Sufism. He was inspired merely to record what he saw, and when he did not understand the enigmatic mystic, he would rationalize sayings and events in conformity with his own religious background. In spite of the handicap of being unfamiliar with Muslim practices and language, Dabholkar nevertheless faithfully recorded events bearing on Islamic practices. For example, he recorded the fact that Sai Baba would occasionally go through the special Muslim sacrificial ritual, known as takkya, when a goat was about to be killed on an altar, in order to ensure that the meat would be h alal, or appropriately purified. Such a sight would be abhorrent to a Brahman.” Dabholkar’s Sri Sai Saccarita has come to be regarded as sacred literature or pothi, and is widely revered in Maharashtra. It has been the major source of stories and information on Sai Baba for a majority of the secondary books which have been published over the years.



  Foreword ix
  Author’s Preface xi
  List of Plates xxii
  Introduction 1
  Part I: Sai Baba and Maharashtrian Mysticism  
Chapter 1: An Overview of the Life of Sai Baba 27
Chapter 2: Sufi Mysticism and Sai Baba 52
Chapter 3: The Historical Background: Sufism in Maharashtra 78
Chapter 4: Sai Baba - The Muslim Faqir 101
Chapter 5: Sai Baba and the Maharashtrian Bhakti Movement - Its Poet-Saints, Mystics and Deities 130
Chapter 6: Sufi Accommodation to the Hindu Milieu 156
Chapter 7: Outwardly Different - Inwardly the Same 185
Chapter 8: Nineteenth Century Sufi Contemporaries of Sai Baba 195
  Part II: Sai Baba and the Suji Path - The Tariqat  
Chapter 9: Sai Baba and the Sufi Tariqat (path) 209
Chapter 10: Abdul and his Notebook 261
Chapter 11: English Translation of the Sai Baba MS 275
Chapter 12: Some Observations of the Sai Baba MS 310
  Part Ill: Sai Baba - A New Perspective  
Chapter 13: The Hindu Embrace of Sai Baba 336
Chapter 14: The Sathya Sai Baba Connection 366
Chapter 15: Drawing the Threads Together 377
Appendix A ‘Eleven Promises’ of Sai Baba 385
Appendix B Map showing the location of the Independent Nizam’s Dominions circa 1848 386
Appendix C 1857: Sai Baba and the War of Independence 387
Appendix D Authentication of Abdul ‘s Notebook as a True and Identical Copy 399
Appendix E Devotees Interviewed by B V Narasimhaswami in 1936 400
Appendix F Sri Sai Satcharita: Extract from chapter 39 406
  Bibliography 411
  Index 427


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