Hinduism Shirdi Sai Baba
by
Karline McLain
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0266

Introduction

Sai Baba was an itinerant renouncer who settled down in the village of Shirdi in western India in the mid-nineteenth century. Sai Baba means “saintly faither,” and little is known with historical certainty of his early years, including where and when he was born, what his birth name was, and what religion he was born into. Various hagiographies composed by his devotees provide different answers to some of these key questions. What is known with some historical certainty is that the man who came to be known as Shirdi Sai Baba arrived in Shirdi in the late 1850s, when he was a young man of approximately twenty years, and he died there in 1918. During the decades that he lived in Shirdi, Sai Baba gathered both Hindu and Muslim followers from the surrounding region. Some of his followers were drawn to his reputation for possessing miraculous powers, and others for his ability to help them progress down their individual spiritual paths. In the century since Sai Baba’s death, his following has only continued to grow. Shirdi Sai Baba has now acquired a pan-Indian and increasingly global devotional following, and the village of Shirdi has transformed into one of India’s most popular pilgrimage destinations.

General Scholarly Overviews and Analysis

The academic study of Shirdi Sai Baba has emerged within the past several decades as scholars of religion in South Asia began to engage in a wide array of studies of popular saints and gurus, and as they observed the rapid growth in devotion to Shirdi Sai Baba in particular within the Indian subcontinent and, eventually, beyond India. White 1972 provided the first academic analysis of Shirdi Sai Baba, noting his growing popularity in western India and attributing it to the unifying bond created between Sai Baba’s devotees, a bond that crosses distinctions of caste, class, and social status. Rigopoulos 1993 is the first book-length academic study of Shirdi Sai Baba, which presents a biography of Sai Baba in the first half that draws upon Hindu-authored hagiographies and presents Sai Baba’s key teachings in the second half with an emphasis on interreligious tolerance. Warren 2004 includes a valuable translation of the diary kept by Abdul Baba, a Muslim follower of Sai Baba in Shirdi, and draws upon that to present an interpretation of Sai Baba as a Muslim fakir who traveled the Sufi path. McLain 2016 traces Shirdi Sai Baba’s rise from small village guru to global phenomenon, using a wide range of textual, material, and visual sources to investigate the different ways that Sai Baba has been understood and the reasons behind his skyrocketing popularity among Hindus in particular. The edited collection Srinivas, et al. 2022 provides insight into the worship of Sai Baba beyond the village of Shirdi in the early twentieth century, with essays that examine more contemporary worship at multiple sites within India as well as in Asia and Africa. Several articles also make valuable contributions to the study of Shirdi Sai Baba: Hardiman 2015 analyzes the miracle healing cures associated with Sai Baba and the relationship between his spiritual power and secular science; Rigopoulos 2012 analyzes some of Sai Baba’s miracles in connection with yoga powers; Vicziany 2016 examines the worship of two syncretic figures, Shirdi Sai Baba and Haji Ali, in the city of Mumbai, India; and Loar 2018 compares the hagiographies of Shirdi Sai Baba that were written by two of his Hindu followers, Dabholkar and Narasimhaswami.

  • Hardiman, David. “Miracle Cures for a Suffering Nation: Sai Baba of Shirdi.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 57.2 (2015): 355–380.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417515000067Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the miracle cures associated with Shirdi Sai Baba through the distribution of ash from his sacred fire, arguing that his novelty lay in his ability to take on modern medical practitioners and prove himself their superior in curative powers. Sai Baba’s following only grew after his death when it was understood that his healing power could still be accessed from his tomb-temple in Shirdi.

  • Loar, Jonathan. “From Neither/Nor to Both/And: Reconfiguring the Life of Shirdi Sai Baba in Hagiography.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 22.3 (2018): 475–496.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11407-018-9246-0Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A comparative study of the hagiographies of Shirdi Sai Baba composed by two Hindu followers, Dabholkar and Narasimhaswami. Argues that whereas Dabholkar presented Sai Baba as “neither Hindu nor Muslim,” Narasimhaswami presented Sai Baba as “both Hindu and Muslim.” In so doing, Narasimhaswami gives Sai Baba a dominant Hindu embrace which contained a domesticated Muslimness.

  • McLain, Karline. The Afterlife of Sai Baba: Competing Visions of a Global Saint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016.

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    This book analyzes varying textual, visual, and material interpretations of Shirdi Sai Baba that have been advanced during the century following his death and have contributed to his growing popularity, including hagiographies written by Das Ganu Maharaj and Narasimhaswami; Bollywood films; pilgrimage to Shirdi; and temples founded in India and the United States. Considers the reasons for and ramifications of the increasing Hinduization of this syncretic figure over the past century.

  • Rigopoulos, Antonio. The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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    Presents a biography of Shirdi Sai Baba in the first half of the book that draws upon hagiographic literature composed by Shirdi Sai Baba’s Hindu followers, primarily Dabholkar and Narasimhaswmi. The second half of the book presents Shirdi Sai Baba’s key teachings, comparing him with the medieval South Asian poet-saint Kabir and arguing for his syncretic and tolerant nature. Rigopoulos views Sathya Sai Baba as inheriting the mantle of Shirdi Sai Baba in his universalism.

  • Rigopoulos, Antonio. “Sai Baba of Shirdi and Yoga Powers.” In Yoga Powers: Extraordinary Capacities Attained Through Meditation and Concentration. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 381–426. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004214316_016Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Examines the descriptions of Shirdi Sai Baba as a yogin who exercises various yogic powers in the hagiographies composed by Sai Baba’s devotees. Raises questions about the interpretation of yoga powers in Hinduism and Sufism.

  • Srinivas, Smriti, Neelima Jeychandran, and Allen Roberts, eds. Devotional Spaces of a Global Saint: Shirdi Sai Baba’s Presence. New York: Routledge, 2022.

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    An edited collection that expands the study of Shirdi Sai Baba in several valuable directions: geographically, by considering cultures of worship of Sai Baba at multiple sites within India as well as in Asia and Africa; methodologically, by examining Sai Baba’s influence on everyday life through multiple disciplinary lenses; and thematically, by investigating a rich array of spatialities of devotional practices and a diverse set of written, visual, and material narratives.

  • Vicziany, Marika. “The Survival of the Syncretic Cults of Shirdi Sai Baba and Haji Ali Despite Hindu Nationalism in Mumbai.” In Islam, Sufism, and Everyday Politics of Belonging in South Asia. Edited by Deepra Dandekar and Torsten Tschacher, 156–173. Milton, UK: Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

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    A study of the worship of Shirdi Sai Baba and Haji Ali in the city of Mumbai, India. In Mumbai, both of these figures are worshiped by Hindus, Muslims, and others, in spite of the growing influence of both the Hindu right and the Muslim right in western India.

  • Warren, Marianne. Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism. New Delhi: Sterling, 2004.

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    Focuses on Shirdi Sai Baba’s connections with Islam and presents an interpretation of Shirdi Sai Baba as a Muslim fakir who traveled the Sufi path, with an analysis of the four phases in his spiritual evolution as a fakir. Includes a translation of the diary kept by Abdul Baba, a Muslim follower of Shirdi Sai Baba.

  • White, Charles S. J. “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints.” Journal of Asian Studies 31.4 (1972): 863–878.

    DOI: 10.2307/2052105Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The earliest academic study of Shirdi Sai Baba. Argues that the main contribution of Shirdi Sai Baba and other saints to Indian religious life is the sense of relationship they engender with and between their devotees, and the unifying bond they create that crosses distinctions of caste, class, and social status.

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