Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Shankara and Advaita

Shankara with disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)

Advaita Vedanta signifies an Indian philosophy of “non-dualism.” A major exponent was Shankara, of whom very little is reliably known. The investigator has to negotiate hagiographies composed many centuries after the death of this figure. His life is not easy to chart, to say the least, despite conventional depictions that do not question details. The dates of Shankara are sometimes given as 788-820 CE, but this is not definitive. One alternative has been suggested in terms of ranging between 650 and 775 CE (Pande 1994:52). The subject was reputedly born at a village in Kerala, and belonged to the brahman caste.

We may believe that Shankara became a renunciate at an early age. Tradition credits him with establishing a monastic organisation.  This became known as the Shankara Order. Over the centuries,  major monasteries featured abbots bearing the title of Shankaracharya. The Shringeri monastery (in Karnataka) is one of these far-flung centres, and gained the repute of being the first monastery founded by Shankara. This claim has been contradicted by the historical evidence for Shringeri as a centre of Jainism until the fourteenth century (Kulke 1985). At this juncture, Hindu patronage from the kingdom of Vijayanagara was influential. Shringeri emerged as a centre of Shaivism, and land was donated by Hindu monarchs to attract brahmans to that location. 

In the traditional version of his life, Shankara is said to have established the group of Shaiva renouncers known as Dashanami sannyasins (and nagas). This contingent is strongly associated with the Shankara Order, but gained a militant complexion. A counter-suggestion argues for the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century as a much more probable date of their formation (Clark 2006 and 2016). Mercenary armies of naga (naked) sannyasins  were generally recruited from the lower castes.
Traditional ascriptions are reflected in such coverages as: “During his lifetime he [Shankara] managed to compose more than 400 works of various genres and to travel throughout nearly all of South India, edifying disciples and disputing opponents. It is Shankara’s preaching and philosophic activity that, in the eyes of orthodox tradition, accounts for the ultimate ousting of Buddhism from India” (Isayeva 1993:2).
Legendary biographies of Shankara date from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. “Although they have certain broad similarities, they have numerous contradictions in detail, and they are full of miracles and exaggerations” (Pande 1994:4). The accounts vary markedly in relation to diverse journeys, pilgrimages, debates, and the founding of monastic centres (ibid:32). Shankara became celebrated as an incarnation of Shiva, a development of uncertain date. Shankara hagiography involved “the mythical pattern of divine incarnation, disputation with rival sects and schools, the establishment of new temples and monastic centres of worship, and the synthesis of Smarta-Puranic cults under the aegis of Advaita” (ibid:19-20).
Hundreds of works are attributed to Shankara, but most of these are now thought to have been composed by much later monastic leaders bearing the title of Shankaracharya. Paul Hacker and other scholars have taken a duly critical approach. The fact is that only a small number of Advaita texts can safely be regarded as the output of Shankara himself. In this respect, the basic work is a lengthy commentary (bhashya) on the Vedantic  Brahma Sutra. Famous later compositions (even Vivekachudamani) have been rejected by some analysts as spurious. Such popular texts were influential in shaping the Advaita doctrine, which developed over a long period of time. Canonical components are not necessarily of an early date.
In his commentary known as Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Shankara was in strong opposition to Buddhism and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Hinduism. He was concerned with the correct interpretation of Vedic scripture, in which direction he sought to reveal opposing views as errors.
Shankara argued against the ritualism of Mimamsaka exponents. He supported a version of religion associated with the Upanishads or jnana-kanda. An Advaita priority was discrimination (viveka) between the real and the false. Whereas ritual priests elaborated a belief system based on merits derived from Vedic ceremonies, which supposedly led to heaven. Shankara emphasised the attainment of self-knowledge, meaning knowledge (jnana) of the atman.

The Vedantic doctrine of maya (illusion) has excited varying responses, including denial. Renouncers or sannyasins viewed the householder ritualist lifestyle as being bound by maya. The sannyasin sought freedom through knowledge of the atman (a term variously translated). The various texts do not satisfactorily explain how the self-knowledge is achieved. The mere affirmation of Upanishadic slogans like Tat tvam asi (You are That) is not the most convincing rationale, but can be found in some Shankara texts, along with modifications.
“Absolute liberation does not arise when one is told, ‘Thou art That.’ One should, therefore, have recourse to the reiteration (of the idea, ‘I am Brahman’) and support it with reasoning.” (Upadeshasahasri, trans. Jagadananda 1961:207)
“The Brahma Sutra has actually become the basis upon which we learn the philosophical thought of the early Vedanta school. Since, however, the style of this work is concise to a fault, omissions in it are many and to interpret the text is not at all easy” (Nakamura 1983:425). The brevity is pronounced. “Each sutra usually consists of two to ten words at the most, and it is rare to find one that is longer” (ibid:440).
Shankara contributed an Advaitic interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. A discrepancy requires attention. “The theory of absolute identity of the individual self and Brahman, taught by Shankara, is contrary to the thought of the Brahma-sutra itself” (ibid:427). Paul Deussen and other scholars tended to conflate the two interpretations, leading to some confusion (e.g., Deussen 1912).
The early Vedanta was not a unified tradition of exegesis. “Scholars have frequently asserted that the thought of Shankara has the closest connection with the atman theory of Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” (Nakamura 1983:430). The Brihadaranyaka is one of the earliest Upanishads, and substantially antedated the Brahma Sutra, which may date to the fifth century CE in the extant form of that terse treatise.

The obscure author, or authors, of the Brahma Sutra, were defending the old Vedic religion against the Buddhists, Jainas, Sankhya rationalists, and others. “The evident preference of the authors of the Brahma Sutra was for the daily performance of the Vedic ritual to be maintained along with the meditations on more symbolic aspects of etiquette” (Shepherd 1995:642).
Shankara likewise sustained a contest with rival religious doctrines, but differed from the Brahma Sutra in contesting the ritualist mentality evident in that version of early Vedanta. He awarded a secondary status to Vedic texts depicting meditation on rituals (and which referred to deities presiding over specific ceremonies).
Shankara’s classic Brahma Sutra Bhashya includes a critique of the Yoga and Sankhya systems of philosophy. However, Shankara is traditionally credited with a commentary on the Yoga Sutra. The anomaly has aroused differing explanations, including one which suggests that Shankara transited from the standpoint of a Yoga expositor to Advaita comprehension. Another interpretation denies the authorship of Shankara in relation to that commentary (Rukmani 2001).
“In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.1) he refers to the Paramahamsa monks who transcended caste and ashrama in their pursuit of the non-dual knowledge. These ascetics are identified with the ‘true tradition’ which he says Gaudapada followed. For Shankara, they alone represented the ultimate level of truth” (Shepherd 1995:666). Shankara’s monastic ideal of the Paramahamsa involved criteria of “actual spiritual attainment, not his formal membership of a social group” (Pande 1994:247).
The name of Gaudapada is inseparably associated with Shankara, and as a predecessor. Gaudapada was a distinctive early Advaitin, who may have lived during the sixth century CE. He composed an unusual commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, exhibiting a familiarity with Mahayana thought associated with exponents like Nagarjuna and Asanga (Nakamura 1983:51). The fourth chapter is rich in Madhyamaka and Yogacara terminology, and has prompted a suggestion of authorship by another writer (King 1995).
“Unlike the authors of the Brahma Sutras, Gaudapada insists very strongly on the illusory or phenomenal character of the world, and claims that in this he is only following an earlier tradition for the interpretation of the Upanishadic texts. The existence of earlier followers of the Upanishads who held this view is confirmed by Bhartrhari, late fifth century.... Gaudapada says: ‘Those who are experts in the Upanishadic wisdom look upon this world as if it were a cloud-city seen in a dream.’ The sages who have gone beyond fear, attachment and anger have the direct experience of the truth of non-duality, in which all plurality and illusion vanishes.” (Alston 1980:24-25) 

Alston, A. J., Samkara on the Absolute (London: Shanti Sadan, 1980).
Cenkner, William, A Tradition of Teachers: Sankara and the Jagadgurus Today (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983). 
Clark, Matthew, The Dasanami Samnyasis: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
-------“Religious Sects, Syncretism, and Claims of Antiquity: The Dashanami-Sannyasis and South Asian Sufis” in Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley, eds., Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India (New York: Routledge 2016).
Cole, Colin A., Asparsa Yoga: A Study of Gaudapada's mandukya karika (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004).
Deussen, Paul, Das System des Vedanta, 1883; The System of the Vedanta, trans. Charles Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1912).
Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Shankaracharya (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1965).
Halbfass, Wilhelm, ed., Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). 
Isayeva, Natalia, Shankara and Indian Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Jagadananda, Swami, trans., Upadeshasahasri of Sri Sankaracharya (third edn, Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1961).
King, Richard, Early Advaita Vedanta: The Mahayana Context of the Gaudapadiya Karikas (State University of New York Press, 1995).
Kulke, Hermann, "Maharajas, Mahants and Historians: Reflections on the Historiography of Early Vijayanagara and Sringeri" (120-143) in A. L. Dallapiccola and S. Zingel-Ave Lallemant, eds., Vijayanagara, City and Empire: New Currents of Research (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1985). 
Nakamura, Hajime, A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Parts 1 and 2 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983-2004).
Nikhilananda, Swami, trans., The Mandukyopanishad with Gaudapada's Karika and Sankara's Commentary (third edn, Mysore: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1949).
Pande, G. C., Life and Thought of Sankaracarya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994).
Potter, K. H., ed., Advaita Vedanta Up to Samkara and his Pupils (Princeton University Press, 1981). 
Rukmani, T. S., text and trans., Yogasutrabhasyavivarana of Sankara (2 vols, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 70

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Upanishads and Vedanta

The texts known as Upanishads are traditionally described in terms of jnana-marga, the path of knowledge. Jnana is strongly associated with the ongoing tradition of Vedanta, one of the celebrated six schools of Indian philosophy. The classical Upanishads became known as Vedanta, meaning the end of the Veda. The word Vedanta "was understood to mean not just the end but also the summit and crown of the Veda" (Olivelle 1992:3). These books received later commentaries from medieval exponents like Shankara

The classical Upanishads are much earlier than the monastic organisations created by medieval Vedanta. Those texts are difficult to date, and assessments of chronology have varied markedly. The oldest Upanishads were pre-Buddhist, but many were later in time. Radhakrishnan favoured a date of 900-600 BC for the earliest of these texts, with Western scholarship tending to reduce the time scale. 

Jnana-marga is often distinguished from karma-marga, meaning the path of ritual action, represented by earlier texts of the Vedic corpus. All these texts were composed in North India, and preserved by the brahmanical caste. However, different influences and temperaments are represented. The early Upanishads feature monism, and also refer to transmigration. 

The Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya are prose Upanishads, and are thought to be the earliest in the series. These texts were edited, and some components employed may be considerably older. As with later Upanishads, they are not books presenting any philosophical system. A flexibility in approach to the materials is necessary. 

While some Western scholars discerned in the Upanishads a spirit of revolt against priestly ritualism, other Indologists (notably Renou) muted this factor in a context of priestly supplements to the earlier Brahmana literature. Different angles can be followed here. According to Louis Renou, “Vedism became debased to the level of crude witchcraft owing to magical ideas which left their mark on the Brahmanas, to the extent that one of these texts is given up to magic, as with part of the Atharva Veda” (Shepherd 1995:552). 

The diverse categories of Vedic text can easily cause confusion. The early Samhitas are collections of verses, including the famous Rig Veda corpus of over a thousand hymns (Gonda 1963). The authors of these hymns are often known as rishis, a word denoting seers. “The Rig Veda is a prime case of an anthology. Some of the hymns in this anthology were accessory to the priestly liturgy, but some are entirely secular in tone” (Shepherd 1995:494). The Rig Veda is not a ritual text, despite some strong associations with brahmanical ceremony. The contrasting Brahmanas are prose texts featuring explanations of the liturgy.

The Brahmanas include “esoteric material explaining the hidden meanings of ritual actions and words; some of these esoteric sections... came to be called Aranyakas (texts that were to be recited in the wilderness outside the village), while others came to be called Upanishads” (Olivelle 1996:xxxii). 

“Cosmological and metaphysical topics generally occupy a more central position in the Upanishads, however, than in the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads are, by and large, later than the Aranyakas” (ibid). The Upanishads were not written down “for perhaps a thousand years” (ibid). Meanwhile, many cultural and social transitions occurred, including an increased rigidity of the caste system (Jha 1975). The competition with Buddhism became pronounced. 

According to the Sanskrit scholar Jan Gonda, the Rig Veda, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the earliest Upanishads must have existed (at least for the greater part) in their present form prior to the rise of Buddhism (Gonda 1975:20). The dating for the formation of Rig components has varied considerably. 

The aphoristic nature of Upanishadic composition has caused Western analysts to complain of the lack of any systematic philosophy.... The classical Upanishads... are fond of riddles and enigmatic expressions, and the doctrines of various sages are apt to be condensed into a single sentence. Brahmavidya (knowledge of Brahman) or jnana is depicted as being vastly superior to sacrificial etiquette, and realisation of that knowledge is duly stressed. This objective is inseparable from the aid of a teacher, and is related to tapasya or ascetic discipline. A strict discipline was clearly envisaged, and in some texts it is stated that only brahmans are eligible. The prerequisite for discipleship was evidently a high moral standard, one necessary to maintain a rigorous self-discipline. Meditation is emphasised, but there are many different formats referred to.... The end product of the discipline was the jivanmukta (a standard term in the later Upanishads), i.e., the soul gaining spiritual liberation while still living in the body. (Shepherd 1995:547-548) 

A group of early verse Upanishads include the Katha, dating to the late first millennium BC. These works are noted for featuring strong theistic tendencies, and thus anticipating the Bhagavad Gita, claimed by the Vedanta as a basic scripture. The Katha includes a dialogue between the young brahman Nachiketas and Yama, the god of death. The former asks to be told the secret of death, in a spirit of renouncing the distractions of mortal life. 

Yama then gives advice concerning knowledge of the atman and Brahman. One verse has been translated as: “The truth of the Self cannot be fully understood when taught by an ignorant man, for opinions regarding it, not founded in knowledge, vary one from another. Subtler than the subtlest is this Self [atman], and beyond all logic. Taught by a teacher who knows the Self and Brahman as one, a man leaves vain theory behind and attains to truth” (Prabhavananda 1957:17).

The same text emphasises the difficulty of the achievement involved. “Like the sharp edge of a razor, the sages say, is the path” (ibid:20). Numerous commercial attempts to simplify these matters have occurred during recent decades, and may count as further distractions. 

The Maha-Narayana Upanishad is thought to have been composed during the third or fourth centuries BC. This is a manual for ascetics employing many quotations from older works (Varenne 1960). The text can be interpreted as an attempt to harmonise the ascetic and ritual lifestyles, and thereby facilitating the tendency in brahmanical society to assimilate the numerous ascetics and hermits (Gonda 1970:29). 

A number of the texts in this corpus are known as Sannyasa Upanishads, indicative of their background context in renunciation. Some of these were apparently composed before the third century CE, but others are many centuries later. The term paramahamsa is employed to describe an advanced grade of renouncer. The various classifications indicate an original diversity of ascetic lifestyles that were subsequently conflated into the institution of sannyasa by brahmanical theology (Olivelle 1992:98,100).

The Sannyasa Upanishads convey a graphic picture of ascetic tendencies from an early period. A life in the wilderness contrasted strongly with the ritual lifestyle of the householder maintained in the villages. Ascetics spent their nights in deserted houses, in temples, on haystacks, near anthills, under trees, in the humble sheds of potters, in mountain caves, in open fields, and yet other places. Mendicancy was a basic facet of lifestyle, and nudity was highly regarded by some as a sign of renunciation. However, other ascetics preferred to wear a loincloth or an ochre garment (ibid:103,106). The outlook in this sector included a desire to be despised rather than praised; the purpose was to overcome pride (ibid:108). Some texts advocate disguise, so that the ascetic would not be recognised as a holy man (ibid:107). 
In a basically copyist idiom, many texts appeared in later centuries with the title of Upanishad. Sectarian commitments are frequently in evidence, meaning primarily the division between followers of Vishnu and Shiva. “Such Upanishads continued to be produced possibly as late as the sixteenth century CE and number in the hundreds” (Olivelle 1996:xxxiii). 
During the medieval period, a trend developed of forming into collections both the earlier and later Upanishads. This meant that the early Upanishads were detached from the Brahmana literature. European analysts subsequently complained that scholarly distinctions were lost in this tendency to conflation. A favoured number in North India was 52, reflected in the corpus translated into Persian at the instruction of the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh during the seventeenth century (Hasrat 1982). That collection underwent exegetical changes in the interpretation of Schopenhauer (d.1860).


Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Eight Upanishads, with the commentary of Sankaracharya (2 vols, 1957; second edn, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989). 
Gonda, Jan, The Vision of the Vedic Poets (The Hague: Mouton, 1963). 
--------Visnuism and Sivaism (London: Athlone Press, 1970). 
--------Vedic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1975).  
Hasrat, Bikrama Jit, Dara Shikuh: Life and Works (second edn, New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1982).
Jha, V., “Stages in the History of Untouchables,” Indian Historical Review (1975) 2:14-31. 
Olivelle, Patrick, Samnyasa Upanishads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (Oxford University Press, 1992).
--------trans., Upanishads (Oxford University Press, 1996). 
Prabhavananda, Swami, and Manchester, Frederick, trans., The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal (Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1957).
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, The Principal Upanishads (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953). 
Renou, Louis, Religions of Ancient India (London: Athlone Press, 1953). 
-------Vedic India, trans. P. Spratt (Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1957). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995). 
Varenne, Jean, trans., La Maha Narayana Upanishad (2 vols, Paris: Editions De Boccard, 1960). 

 Kevin R. D. Shepherd 

 ENTRY no. 69 

 Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Sai Baba Movement

Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai Baba

A phrase that has become fairly well known is not in general duly analysed. This phrase, namely the “Sai Baba movement,” has caused much confusion and misconception. Ignorance of the matter is so pronounced that a Wikipedia editor attributed the origin of this phrase to myself. In reality, I merely wrote a book whose title included the phrase under discussion, and over thirty years after the phrase first appeared.

The phrase “Sai Baba movement” was innovated in the early 1970s by Charles White, an American academic who wrote an article on this subject that can be strongly faulted. White associated two Indian celebrities who had the same name, and the resulting confusion became accepted by some academics as a legitimate argument for viewing various events in terms of a “Sai Baba movement.”

Twenty years later, the misconception had developed to the stage where a leading American university press published a book with a rather explicit statement on the paperback cover. The State University of New York Press declared that “a vast and diversified religious movement originating from Sai Baba of Shirdi, is often referred to as ‘the Sai Baba movement.’ ” This statement supported the contents of a book by Dr. Antonio Rigopoulos about Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918).

Rigopoulos was clearly in support of the “Sai Baba movement” formulation devised by White. Both White and Rigopoulos were partisans of Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011), and evidently wished to support that guru’s lavish claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai.

Sathya Sai Baba, of Puttaparthi, created an elaborate avataric hagiology that included Shirdi Sai Baba. Sathya Sai categorically claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and was believed to be an avatar by his followers. However, the claim was elsewhere strongly resisted by followers of Shirdi Sai, and regarded by them as an opportunist fiction.

One of the more well known instances of disagreement occurred when, in 2006, devotees of Shirdi Sai filed an objection in the court at Rahata (near Shirdi), requesting a permanent injunction on claims made by devotees of Sathya Sai that the latter is a reincarnation. Also at issue here was Sathya Sai lore about the birth of Shirdi Sai, including the purported identity of his mother (Mumbai Mirror, 11/01/2006). 

The present writer provided biographical and other materials in the book Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005). This volume is annotated and indexed. I covered the three major figures in Maharashtra who were incorporated by Rigopoulos into the “Sai Baba movement” scenario. I am referring to Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani (Upasni) Maharaj (d.1941), and Meher Baba (d.1969).

On the basis of the actual data available, these three entities do not emerge as part of a conglomerate movement. Rather, each of these mystics created a distinct movement or following in their own name. However, this trio were strongly interconnected, in that they met each other. Moreover, Upasani was the disciple of Shirdi Sai, and Meher Baba was the disciple of Upasani. In contrast, Sathya Sai did not meet any of these three saints, and lived in a different region of India.

Sathya Sai Baba of Andhra is viewed by some partisans as the culmination of events in Maharashtra. Critics affirm that this theme encounters a difficulty in sustaining credence. The partisan idea is supported by belief in the reincarnation claim of Sathya Sai, not by any facts of continuum. What we are actually confronted with is the spectacle of four separate movements, the one based in Andhra having no effective or close resemblance to the movements originating in Maharashtra.

When the biographical details are investigated, there may be strong reason to doubt the legitimacy of a reincarnation claim. The ascetic lifestyle of Shirdi Sai features pronounced differences to that of his namesake. Sathya Sai adopted the name of the Shirdi saint in the early 1940s, gaining much popularity as a consequence.

My book included three appendices reporting the disillusionment of Western ex-devotees of Sathya Sai Baba. I also made reference to the leading Indian critic of Sathya Sai, namely Basava Premanand (d.2009), of Indian Rationalist fame (and who composed a lengthy book on the notorious bedroom murders at Puttaparthi ashram in 1993).

A scholar who wrote an account of Shirdi Sai, in a Sufi context, was a follower of Sathya Sai until 2000. Afterwards, Dr. Marianne Warren (d.2004) became an ex-devotee in relation to the Andhra guru, being greatly disillusioned by increasing reports of dubious behaviour at Puttaparthi ashram. 

In 2006, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement was favourably cited in a Wikipedia article about an academic ex-devotee of Sathya Sai. This was Robert Priddy, whose report I had included in my book. The online citation was strongly resisted by a Wikipedia editor, who transpired to be an American apologist for the Sathya Sai movement. SSS108 (alias Gerald Joe Moreno) pressed for deletion of the Priddy article, and also produced a Wikipedia User page dismissing the validity of all my books. It became obvious that he had not read these books, but was reacting from a sectarian stance, involving a strong antipathy towards ex-devotees and anyone who favourably mentioned them. The Moreno internet campaign of defamation lasted until 2010. 

Research into the "movement," or rather movements (in the plural), is not so easily to be eliminated by ideological conveniences preferred by "crowdsourcing" (to borrow a description of Wikipedia process favoured by academic affiliates of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

In another camp, some Western devotees of Meher Baba, acting as editors on Wikipedia, refused to acknowledge the relevance of Investigating the Sai Baba Movement. They had evidently not read the book; they only knew of the title. One of them mistakenly insinuated that I had coined the phrase “Sai Baba movement.” Until such denominational antipathies and errors of judgment are improved, Wikipedia and other internet media are likely to remain afflicted by misinformation. The suppression of relevant reports, on whatsoever pretext, is no effective substitute for due evaluation. 

Some partisans of Sathya Sai Baba refer to the “Sathya Sai movement.” This is quite a different idiom, and equivalent to "Meher Baba movement" or "Shirdi Sai movement." Identification of these trends in terms of separate movements is surely preferable to the umbrella phrase "Sai Baba movement," which has logical difficulties of exegesis. See further Sai Baba Movement at Issue.

Misconceptions are evident, even in some academic books, about the actions of Shirdi Sai. For instance:  
“Many were suspicious of his claims... but he [Sathya Sai] reportedly substantiated his claims with miraculous acts. For example, Sathya Sai Baba, as he had come to be known, regularly materialised healing vibhuti, sacred ash which devotees imbibe and/or apply to their foreheads. These materialisations established Sathya Sai Baba’s connection to Shirdi Sai Baba, who had also materialised vibhuti for his followers” (Srinivas 2010:9, and citing Srinivas 2008). 

Such statements attest a pronounced confusion about the supposed similarity between Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai. In reality, the Shirdi saint did not materialise sacred ash, and nor did he claim to do so. Instead, Shirdi Sai merely took ash from his dhuni fire, located inside the mosque where he lived (Shepherd 2015:398-399 note 730). In contrast, Sathya Sai claimed to miraculously materialise ash from thin air. Indian critics like Basava Premanand have described the action of Sathya Sai in terms of sleight of hand, a perspective which differs radically from the devotee version. 

One interpretation has emphasised the term avatar in terms of an advantage for the Sathya Sai movement. This is not agreed upon by all parties. An academic review states:

"Whereas Shirdi Sai Baba mixed elements of a Sufi faqir, Hindu guru, and devotional sant, Sathya Sai Baba consistently adopts the term avatar, a divine being who descends from above at a time when truth and righteousness are threatened. [Smriti] Srinivas proceeds to argue that his identification as an avatar increases Sathya Sai Baba's scope of travel and creates a greater capacity to reach devotees, in contrast with an identification as a faqir, guru, or sant" (Loar 2009:1). 

Some discrepancies are discernible. The conception of Shirdi Sai as a devotional sant is misleading.  The Shirdi saint has been depicted as both a Sufi faqir and a Hindu guru, but a substantial number of portrayals limit the attention to detail that is possible in this instance. 

The claim of Sathya Sai to avataric status does not establish any priority in communication over Shirdi Sai in relation to devotee followings. The guru of Puttaparthi contributed a lavish puranic mythology of Shirdi Sai, this development assisting a general tendency to marginalise Sufi dimensions of the latter. The overall consequence of this preference was to obscure contextual data relating to the Shirdi saint, who furthered an eclectic approach to Sufism and Hinduism.


Loar, Jonathan, review of Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba, in Practical Matters: A Journal of Religious Practices and Practical Theology (2009, Issue 2, 1-3).
Premanand, Basava, Murders in Sai Baba’s Bedroom (Podanur, Tamil Nadu: B. Premanand, n.d., but 2001). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005). 
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Srinivas, Smriti, In the Presence of Sai Baba: Body, City, and Memory in a Global Religious Movement  (Leiden: Brill, 2008). 
Srinivas, Tulasi, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism Through the Sathya Sai Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). 
Steel, Brian, A Controversial Academic View of Sathya Sai Baba by Smriti Srinivas (2009). 
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004). 
White, Charles S. J., “The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints,” Journal of Asian Studies (1972) 31:863-878. 
Kevin R. D. Shepherd 
ENTRY no. 68

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Shirdi Sai Baba

Shirdi Sai Baba

The faqir known as Sai Baba (d.1918) lived in an obscure mosque at Shirdi, a village in Maharashtra. His precise date of birth is not known. His early life is difficult to reconstruct, although his last years were reported in far more detail. 
The sources contain much data about numerous devotees, involving a majority of Hindus, some Muslims, and a number of Zoroastrians. One of the Hindus was Govind R. Dabholkar, who composed the Marathi work Shri Sai Satcharita, a verse epic commemorating Shirdi Sai Baba (to be distinguished from Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi). Dabholkar’s commentary is both devotional and philosophical. Hagiographical elements here attend a coverage of episodes reflecting a factual content. One drawback is the lack of chronology.

The earliest years of Shirdi Sai are associated with the Aurangabad region, part of the territory ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad. A popular version of his birth emphasises the village of Pathri. A less well known legend concerning Jerusalem also developed. His arrival in Shirdi has been awarded different dates by major commentators, varying from the 1850s to the period 1868-1872. Dabholkar is associated with the earlier dating. 
Shirdi Sai emerged as a rigorous ascetic committed to a daily begging round. He was initially aloof from the villagers, and became widely regarded as a Muslim faqir. This identity was attested by his attire, and also his habit of speaking in Deccani Urdu. He is reported to have frequently uttered Islamic phrases such as Allah Malik (God is the Owner/Ruler). His Sufi background has been the subject of different interpretations. In contrast, he is often presented as a Hindu, or as a person with no distinct religious background. Complexities of reporting are often ignored. The theme of Hinduisation was emphasised by Dr. Marianne Warren, who complained at the obscurity befalling Sufi components in popular accounts. 
An early Muslim devotee, Abdul Baba, composed in Urdu a Notebook preserving statements and reflections of Shirdi Sai. A due English translation of this document did not appear until 1999 (Warren 1999), over eighty years after the death of Sai Baba. The Notebook reveals a pronounced familiarity with Islamic and Sufi traditions. There is also a significant eclectic disposition represented, one that sought to reconcile the Hindu and Muslim religious temperaments.
An important event, plausibly dated to 1894, involved the confrontation of Sai Baba with a party of local Muslim militants who sought support from the Qazi of Sangamner. Tambuli and others were annoyed by the appearance at the mosque of Hindu worship, as cultivated by the devotee Mhalsapati, who made Sai Baba the object of his improvised puja. The sources relate that the Shirdi faqir supported Mhalsapati against the vengeful opponents.
A prominent source is B. V. Narasimhaswami. This ascetic did not himself meet Sai Baba, but appeared at Shirdi in the 1930s. He contributed much valuable data, and also his own interpretations. Certain discrepancies have caused confusion (especially his criticism of Upasani Maharaj). The major work of Narasimhaswami is entitled Life of Sai Baba. Much depends upon the accuracy of his observations, and also the discernment of opinion as distinct from fact (cf. Shepherd 2015:328-337). This is a different kind of coverage to that of Dabholkar, and was written in English. Narasimhaswami also produced related works, including Charters and Sayings, an edited contribution which both merits and requires close analysis (e.g., Shepherd 2015:300-303).
During his last years, Sai Baba became noted for allusive speech. This characteristic has tended to give him a repute for enigma and symbolism. Yet a number of his statements were markedly forthright, and of an ethical complexion. Some witnesses remarked upon the relative absence of metaphysical themes in his delivery, especially those associated with Vedanta.

From about 1910, a large influx of urban devotees arrived at Shirdi. These were predominantly Hindus from Bombay (Mumbai) and other areas. A few became resident devotees, while many others became regular visitors. The general situation changed as a consequence.

The faqir now introduced his distinctive habit of requesting dakshina, meaning donations, from the affluent. He would not ask all the visitors for a gift, and could stipulate varying amounts. Whatever cash he received was daily redistributed amongst ascetics, poor people, and diverse retainers and villagers. By nightfall he had no money left in his possession. This situation meant that he had no money or assets when he died. To the last, he retained his simple lifestyle of a begging faqir
Some outsiders and critics could not understand his ways. By caste standards, Shirdi Sai was eccentric, not adhering to conventional taboos, and instead welcoming untouchables and even lepers. One of his well known devotees at Shirdi, namely Bhagoji Shinde, was a leper. 
His tactics included reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. His reported statements are free of religious bias. His universalism extended to Zoroastrians, Christians, and Sikhs.
A feature of his last years at Shirdi was the procession known as chavadi utsav. Sai Baba consented to this development at the imploring request of devotees, but he refused to sit in the palanquin they gifted him with. The utsav is sometimes compared with Vaishnava celebrations at Pandharpur, but Sai himself had nothing to do with that major pilgrimage site in Maharashtra. He did not advocate any particular form of worship, and remained neutral in this respect. 
Shirdi Sai gained attention from eminent individuals like Balasaheb Bhate. Originally a materialist sceptic, Bhate became a devotee of the distinctive faqir. Like a number of other followers, Bhate was a revenue official, a role which he renounced in 1909 after meeting Sai Baba.
More well known celebrities were Ganesh Khaparde (1854-1938) and Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920). These politicians both visited Shirdi, although Khaparde had a more intimate link with the faqir. The Shirdi Diary of Khaparde records his numerous encounters with Sai during a sojourn in 1911-12. The saint exhibited various moods reported by the diarist.
Another entity who visited Shirdi was Merwan S. Irani, a Zoroastrian later to become known as Meher Baba (1894-1969). His initial encounter with Sai Baba, in 1915, is evocative (Shepherd 2015:270-271). In later years, Meher Baba expressed a high estimation of Shirdi Sai.
A distinctive disciple of Sai Baba was Upasani Maharaj  (1870-1941), who arrived at Shirdi in 1911, and who later established his own ashram at nearby Sakori.
The wealthy devotee Gopalrao Buti constructed at Shirdi a spacious private home known as Butiwada. This imposing building became the tomb of Sai Baba, now known as samadhi mandir. Through the efforts of Narasimhaswami and others, a nationwide following of Sai devotees resulted. Shirdi is a famous pilgrimage site, with large numbers of annual visitors reported.
Anand, Swami Sai Sharan, Shri Sai Baba, trans. V. B. Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 1997).
Dabholkar, Govind R., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Life and Teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba, trans. Indira Kher (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999).
Kamath, M. V., and Kher, V. B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Unique Saint (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1991). 
Khaparde, Ganesh S., Shirdi Diary of the Hon’ble Mr. G. S. Khaparde (n.d.; repr. Shirdi: Shri Sai Baba Sansthan, 1994).
Narasimhaswami, B. V., ed., Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings (Madras: All India Sai Samaj, 1942). 
Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba (4 vols, Mylapore, Chennai: All India Sai Samaj, 1955-6; first edn composite volume, 2002). 
Rigopoulos, Antonio, The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2015). 
Vijayakumar, G. R., Shri Narasimha Swami: Apostle of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2009).
Warren, Marianne, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999; new edn, 2004).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 67 
Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.