Man, in the first flush of scientific advancement, has considered religion to be a relic of superstition of primitive humanity. Today, the very advance of science has brought back the sense of awe and wonder at the immensity of the cosmos. Every step forward in science has made us aware how imperfect and tentative our knowledge has been, and is bound to be. The universe, with its mind-shattering dimensions, distances and speeds, down to the sub-atomic particles is basically a mystery.
That our knowledge should be incomplete can be easily understood: If the entire history of life on earth be equated to a hundred years, man’s history occupies about a hundred minutes and that of modern science, a mere two seconds. That our knowledge is bound to be imperfect and incomplete can also be understood: “We know nothing of the universe beyond the effects that its happening produce on our senses, either directly or through the intervention of instruments,” says Sir James Jeans. The sense organs register the various stimuli as vibrations and convey them to the brain. Our mind assembles its image of the external universe from them. The range of perception of our sense is very limited and there are bound to be vibrations which they cannot capture. Thus our experience of the universe is only a fraction of what it is; that too, a subjective projection of it. For we never can experience the source of even the vibrations that our senses gather.
This brings us to our knowledge of ourselves. Psychologists tell us that we are aware of only a minute fraction of our psyche, our being, i.e., of our potential for knowledge. Ancient spiritual philosophy which underlies religions and is confirmed by all great saints has a lot to offer us in this realm. It tells us that while our common means of knowledge is the mind functioning outwards through the senses, perceiving the discreteness of things in nature, the introverted mind of the saint goes deep down to the spiritual core of our being and experiences the spiritual unity of all that is. The latter thus realizes that Reality is normally veiled by the very make and functioning of our senses and by our normal awareness which is conditioned by them. In the mystic experience, on the other hand, man recognizes his identity with the Reality of all existence. The common form of knowledge is knowledge of particular things and does not affect our being, while mystical experience is knowledge of the unity of all existence which alchemizes our being. It transcends the limitations of individuality and leads to profound bliss and ‘peace which passeth understanding’. The genuine spiritual experience of great mystics and even of some common individuals should enable us not to confuse their knowledge with the subjective delusions of deranged minds. The perfect blossoming of spiritual values in a genuine mystic, the peace and bliss he experiences and emanates are the promises which spiritual life holds out to humanity.
The significances of an accomplished mystic to religion is inestimable. All major religions sprang from the mystic experience of such - the Rishis of the Vedas and Upanishads; the Masters of Taoism, the Buddha, the Christ and prophet Mohammad. All religions are sustained too, from time to time, by the saints who demonstrate in their lives, the truth of the promise of religious life, that any mortal can realize the Spirit through genuine effort. The individual seekers too derive the true interpretation of the scriptures from the lives and teachings of such. Upanishads say that a disciplined seeker has to seek the guidance of a realized sage and Sri Krishna says the same in The Bhagavadgita (ch. iv : 34). The third of the three vows of Budhism, “Sangham Sharanam Gacchami”, affirms the need to seek the association of the wise. The Chirst says, “No one can come to the Father save through me”. He finds it so essential to spiritual life that he chooses to seek baptism from John the Baptist “for righteousness’ sake”. The esoteric school of Islam, Sufism, enjoins a seeker to resort to the Pir-O-Murshad. Even modern saints like Guru Nanak and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa were divinely directed to Masters even at an advanced stage of sadhana.
The point is driven home even more powerfully in world’s mythologies. In Hinduism, Lord Dattatreya is the Avatar that manifests Himself to awaken and lead mankind to the verities of spiritual life. It is he that reveals himself in all the world’s perfect masters of wisdom. The Budha and the Bodhisattvas are said to reincarnate for the same end. Every Christian saint had declared at the moment of realization that Christ lives in him and not he. Sai Baba of Shirdi has demonstrated that the One spirit of wisdom of all saints is He.
Further, all the world’s mystical works say that association with a Master is of greater value than the study of scriptures. For the Master interprets the scriptures in a manner which is appropriate to his times and to the individual seekers and thus enables them to live up to the spirit (rather than the letter) of religion.
Yet it is hard to recognize genuine spiritual masters among the teeming half-baked ones with false claims. It is the latter class that make organized religion an odious mess that repels the cultured today. To help the common seekers to find genuine Masters, all religions have adopted some common means. Firstly, the lives and teachings of great masters bring into relief the hall marks of such a one. Some scriptures even clearly spell them as The Bhagavadgita does the qualities of a sthithaprajna, or one who is firmly established in wisdom.
Even with this help, not all can discern a true Master, For there are several clever ones who can successfully deceive people - “wolves in the lamb’s coat”, as the Bible says. Here certain religious traditions have pointed to a higher law which can help. It is said that when the seeker is earnest in his efforts and ripe to receive the Master he is sure to arrive. The Bridegroom knocks and we have to be watchful. All that we can and ought to do lies in preparing to receive the Master.
The most potent means of self-preparation is the devout and intelligent study of the lives and teachings of the great Masters. The Master is the bridge between the human and the Divine, objectively. When a seeker reads his life, the human in the seeker intuits and intuitively contacts the Divine in himself and the inner bridge is thus built. When the process is complete, his accomplishment is corroborated by the external contact with the Master and eventually, the external and the internal become one. The Master is thus within (as “the Kingdom of heaven” is) and without (as the Christ is) too. The Master and the seeker thus become one in the Spirit.
In the earlier stages of such reading, the seeker is charmed by a vision, in the Master, of his own infinite spiritual potentialities being realized and is thus spurred on to zealous, optimistic endeavour. The infinite power and love of the Master grips the seeker’s heart in steadfast devotion. From the lay stage of craving for worldly good in prayer, he becomes a true seeker of the Divine which is Love and Bliss, for its own sake. Such a one would most willingly bear the cross of worldly suffering, his heart set on the goal, the end of all sorrow, and follow the Master. Let us remember that all true Hindu, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims are people who are drawn to true religion by the lives of the sages, the Buddhas, the Christ and the Prophet. This tradition is represented by the works, Sri Gurucharitra in Maharashtra (India), and by Periyapuranam in Tamilnadu. In ancient India The Gurugita and The Bhagavata were widely used for the purpose. The instances of readers who were divinely directed to their Masters by such study are legion. The most famous is the instance of young Venkataraman being galvanized into an ardent seeker by a study of The Periyapuranam and, after his subsequent Self-realization which can be traced to it, he became famous as Sri Ramana Maharshi.
The immediate presence of a sage is a myriad times more effective than all of one’s own spiritual endeavours. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sri Ramana Maharshi were emphatic about it. But such association is not possible for all to the needed extent. To one such, Sri Ramana Maharshi said, “Satsang is association with the Divine Reality which is eternal and omnipresent. To be aware of it at all times is satsang. Devout study of lives of those who are realized too can constitute satsang, or association with the enlightened ones.”
To most of us, the study of the lives of perfect masters is even more effective. For human nature being such, even when we live with a sage, we tend to focus our attention more on his physical frame than on his realization which is the essence of it all. Even the apostles of Christ faltered when their boat was tossed by a storm and the Christ chid them as those of “little faith”. Arjuna confesses to such an error in regard to Krishna in The Bhagavadgita. But when we study the life of a Master, we unfalteringly focus our attention on the Supreme wisdom-in-action which is the Master. Thereby, we are trained to do the same when we eventually contact a living Master, as it happened in the case of Sai Baba; or our contact with the Master might remain at a purely spiritual level and alchemise us, as happened in the case of Sri Ramana Maharshi. For when a devotee asked the sage how he happened to realize without the help of a guru, he said that he too had one, though not in the form which the devotee expected.
In this context, the life of Sri Sai Baba of Shirdi, I feel, is unique. He does not merely teach about the omnipresent Spirit. Indeed, his verbal teaching is minimal. For there are scriptures galore to do that. But mere verbal teaching cannot strike deep root in the hearts of common folk. Sri Sai Baba has therefore taught through direct experiences. He baptized mostly through the Holy Ghost. He showed unerring, at-one-ment with all gods of Hindus, all saints, all creatures and even with so-called inanimate objects. He was ever aware of what transpired within and without his devotees everywhere. His devotees had no choice but to be aware of an omnipresent and omniscient Baba. The result is that at one stroke, their conduct and attitude to fellow-creatures were bound to conform to the highest codes of altruism. Wherever the devotee was, he was made to recognize that Baba was, in spirit, with him indeed. The implications of this aspect of Baba are rich beyond measure. The heart of all spiritual endeavour is to cultivate the presence of the Spirit uninterruptedly and this was secured for the Sai devotee - how remarkably, the succeeding chapters illustrate.
Beside this, the manifestation of the Spirit as Sri Sai Baba is unique in another respect. No one knows his caste, creed, or parentage. This anonymity lent a strange facet to his teaching. To the Hindus he was an orthodox brahmin with sacred fire, enjoining the worship of the many gods and the devout study of various Hindu scriptures; he even named the mosque as Dwarakamai and planted the Tulasi in its frontyard and then allowed himself to be worshipped by his devotees in the Hindu fashion. To the moslems, he was a moslem, a pir, living in a mosque, observing the discipline enjoined for a fakir, always uttering the Islamic Allah Malik, guiding moslem seekers like Abdul Baba along the Islamic line. To the Parsis, he was the sacred fire-worshipper. His life, too, is a living manifestation of the Sermon of the Christ and of the eight fold path of the Buddha. Thus, in him we have a perfect model of harmony of all religions for whom this world, with all its sectarian and religious antagonisms, has been looking forward.
A third feature that specially belongs to him is this: Most of the religious scriptures and holy men seem to suggest that one ought not to aspire for this or that material goal, in being devoted to a guru or god. Sri Sai Baba never laid down such a rule. Indeed, once, when a self-assured devotee dissuaded a few visitors who came to Sai Baba for the fulfilment of material needs, the Master told him not do so.
The fourth unique feature is the phenomenally large number of instances in which the great fakir has been physically appearing before his devotees, even decades after his mahasamadhi literally fulfilling his verbal assurance on the great event.
The writer expresses his thanks to the Sai Baba Samsthan, Shirdi, All India Sai Samaj, Madras and Sai Spiritual Centre, Bangalore, for the kind permission accorded to him to utilize the material available in all their publications and journals. Thanks are also due to all other writers of books published in Hindi, Gujarathi and Marathi for the material drawn from them. My special thanks go to those devotees of Baba, like Sri Marthand Mahalsapathi, Sri Nanasaheb Rasne, late Sri Sai Sharananandaji, who shared the reminiscences of their life in the immediate presence of Baba. Finally, I acknowledge with thanks the immense assistance extended to me by Sri Sivanesan Swami of Shirdi in reading out to me from the back numbers of “Sai Leela” (Marathi), the official organ of the Sai Samsthan, Shirdi.