In the early days of his stay at Shirdi, Sai Baba grew his hair long but never had it shaved or cut. He dressed himself like an athlete. He used to tie a white turban on his head, a dhotar round his waist and wore a shirt. He was quiet and calm in his demeanour and showed no craving for any comforts or luxuries. He never discriminated between the rich and the poor in his treatment of the visitors. He was equally indifferent to honour or dishonour shown to him by the people. He used to utter the name of Allah frequently. He either spent his time alone at the mosque or wandered about the village or into the neighbouring jungles.
We have already noted how Tatya Kote, Mahalspathy and a few others respected Sai Baba as a saint. Tatya Kote's mother Bayajabai too was very much devoted to him. Whenever baba wandered into the jungles, Bayajabai used to go to the woods, carrying food in a basket on her head. She used to walk miles on end in search of him, across bushes and shrubs. She never gave up her search till she found him out. Often she found Sai Baba sitting alone, calm and motionless, under some tree, in deep meditation. Then she would boldly approach him, spread the leaf plate before him and serve the meal. Sometimes Sai Baba was oblivious of all this, immersed as he was in dhyana samadhi. At such moments she would mix the food and feed him with her own hands as a mother feeds the child. For sometime this was almost a regular occurrence and Bayajabai looked upon this as her vow and spiritual discipline. After sometime, as though out of compassion for her, Sai Baba ceased wandering and mostly confined himself to the mosque. But he never forgot the devoted and loving services she had rendered to him as long as he was in flesh and blood. He not only treated her with great affection and love but showered his mercy on her son Tatya Kote also as though he were repaying a deep debt of gratitude.
We have noted earlier that he walked now and then to Rahata and Neemgaon. Once when he went to Rahata he had brought with him several varieties of seeds. After cleaning and levelling a certain plot of the village land, he planted the seeds and watered them regularly. A devotee by name Vamana Tatya supplied him every day with a pair of new, unbaked, earthen pots. Baba drew water from a nearby well and carried it in the pots on his shoulders and watered the plants. In the evening he would leave the pots at the foot of the neem tree and, strangely enough, as soon as he left them there they would crumble to pieces. The next day he would get a new pair of pots from Vamana Tatya. This went on regularly for quite some time and in due course a beautiful garden grew up. Visualizing the whole process, it seemed symbolic of the elevation of a god-forsaken village like Shirdi into a powerful spiritual center and of the common rung of the society that came to him into a luscious spiritual crop. In fact, at a later date, (as we are to not later) this was the symbol he used when he told Upasani Sastry, whom he alchemised into the great saint Sri Upassani Baba Majharaj of Sakori, “You must plant trees that will live for many centuries, from which people will derive much benefit.”
The whole act of growing the garden, too, seemed to signify what is to come ultimately. For it was on that plot of land that subsequently his samadhi mandir was to stand! Is not that an eternal flower garden of the spirit?
In the early days of Sai Baba’s second advent at Shirdi, the majority of the villagers took him for a mad fakir. For, while he mingled with no one, he was often found muttering something to himself. Occasionally he would even burst into a rage and go on heaping abuse as though he was subject to some hallucination. However, in his ‘saner’ moments he was normal. He used to meet some of the noble souls and saintly persons that sojourned at the village. It was only the testimony of some of the acknowledged saints regarding his spiritual greatness that induced a few more natives of the village to respect him.
For instance, twelve years before Baba arrived at Shirdi, a young boy of ten or eleven years, named Devidas, came to the village and lived in the Maruthi temple. Devidas had fine features and bright eyes. He was a jnani, dispassion incarnate. Many natives like Tatya Kote, Kashinath and others regarded him as their guru.
When Baba arrived at Shirdi and began to live in the mosque, he often used to join Devidas and stay with him in the Maruthi temple or in the village chavadi. As we shall note a little later, this Devidas was responsible for Baba’s permanent stay at Shirdi.
Later, another saint by name Janakidas came to Shirdi and Baba spent much of his time with him. Sometimes Janakidas went to the mosque and stayed in Baba’s company.
Similarly a vaisya (i.e., one of the merchant caste) householder saint by name Gangagir came frequently to Shirdi from Puntamba. When he first saw Sai Baba carrying water from the well, he said, “Blessed is this village of Shirdi; this dung hill got a precious jewel. This man is carrying water today, but he is not an ordinary fellow. This land is really fortunate”.
Another famous saint by name Anandaswami of Yewala Muth, a disciple of the celebrated saint Sri Akkalkot Maharaj, came to Shirdi in 1885. On seeing Baba he said, "Though he looks like an ordinary stone (i.e., an ordinary man) he is a diamond. You will soon realize this".
One interesting aspect of Baba’s personality, besides his earlier fondness for wrestling, was his love of songs and dance. In the early years of his life at Shirdi he used to go to the takia, the public resting place for Moslem visitors to the village, at night. There, in the company of sojourning devotees and fakirs, he would dance and sing melodiously, with small trinkets tied around his ankles. The songs he sang were mostly in Persian or Arabic, which the local people could not understand. Sometimes he sang the more popular songs of Kabir. This went on till as late as 1890. Subsequently he stopped singing himself but his love of devotional music could be recognized. He encouraged his devotees to sing kavvalis and kirtans and to chant the attributes of god incessantly for seven days on end.
In spite of the testimony of many saints regarding Baba’s greatness, many were still ridden with the doubt that he was a little cracked in the head. One miracle that they witnessed had ultimately set their doubts at rest.
Baba was fond of illuminating the local temples and the mosque with oil-lamps at night. He used to beg oil from the grocers everyday and after sunset, he used to light the earthen lamps and keep them burning throughout the night. At one stage, the grocers felt that they were wasting what little oil they were giving him. So one day all of them agreed among themselves and said ‘No’ to him and they curiously watched what he would do next.
Baba calmly returned to the mosque, drew water from the well, rinsed the oil-can well with a little of it, and gulped it down at one drought. Again he filled the can with the water and, returning to the mosque, poured it in the lamps and lighted them. To the utter amazement of the prying scoffers, the lamps went on burning through out the night. The grocers begged his pardon. Baba exhorted them never to utter lies but to be truthful and to have faith in god. The darkness of their ignorance was, as it were, driven out by the lamps of faith that he lit in their hearts, pouring the water of his grace into them, and the external act was a living symbol of what he was subtly doing with their spirits.
News of this miracle flashed across the village and the neighborhood like a lightning and his fame thundered, as it were, heralding a downpour of his grace on devotees. It was the herald of a new chapter in the annals of the village and also in the lives of the countless devotees that were to bask in his grace and protection. The streets of Shirdi were to overflow with streams of devotees from all parts of the country.
Mosque or Dwarakamai?
It would be of interest to see how the mosque looked, after Baba came to reside there. R.A. Tarkhad of Bandra actually saw Baba living in the mosque. He describes it in detail:
“The place where he used to sit looked to all outward appearances as tumbled-down old ramshackle sort of construction. But in that small oblong room Sai Baba sat in the North East corner. Opposite to him, in the opposite corner, was the sacred fire burning night and day. Next to this sacred dhuni (fire) were earthen pots filled with water for Baba to drink and perform ablutions. The wall had a niche in which were placed a number of earthen chilims (i.e., clay pipes for smoking). Next to Baba’s place and on the right side were a couple of grinding stones where he occasionally used to grind corn and pulses.
There was a sack of wheat and a sack of country tobacco. This tobacco was put in the earthen pipes and smoked, the pipe being offered to various devotees, smoked by them and passed on to and fro to Baba.
On the western wall was a sort of niche as is observed in Mohammedan musjids (mosques).
Opposite to this niche, in the central part of the room, Sri Sai Baba partook of a little of the food which he daily begged from some houses in the village and of the offerings made by visitors and others. These he mixed and personally distributed to some of the devotees, amongst whom were high cast Hindus, Brahmins, Moslems and Parsees.
When a Moslem visitor came up to pay his respects with flowers, lump sugar and coconuts, Fatia (Moslem prayers) was uttered in which Baba joined. The flowers were hung up in the central niche mentioned above, the lump sugar was partly distributed amongst all those present there as well as the village urchins outside and a part of it returned to the party as prasad (consecrated gift). The coconuts were broken up and similarly distributed. All the while, the Hindu devotees sitting there witnessed this Fatia and partook of the lump of sugar as well as pieces of coconuts with pleasure and joy.
The Hindus worshipped Sri Sai Baba with all their rituals as observed in the Hindu temples. Sandal paste was applied to Baba’s forehead, chest, hands and feet. Kumkum, with rice was similarly applied. The toes of his feet were washed and the water was partaken as sacred teertha (holy water). The arthi was performed at noon with all the din and paraphernalia of worship as in a Hindu temple. Bells were rung. Sacred lamp with its five lights was waved before him, cymbals clashed, the big drum sounded, the huge bell in the compound sent its notes for miles and miles around and hundreds of devotees recited in perfect union the words of the arti and the sacred Sanskrit hymns. The Moslems present there enjoyed all this and freely partook of the offerings distributed by the Hindu bhaktas (devotees).
This wonderful place was called Dwarakamai by Sri Sai Baba and he was heard many a time saying that whoever stepped into this Dwarakamai had his future assured.
It would thus be seen that this wonderful place, owing to the presence of the sacred fire, was a temple to the most orthodox Hindu and Parsee; and owing to the niche, it was a musjid (mosque) to the Moslem; and to the Christian it was a church where the bells announce prayers. So in this unique place all the principal creeds were united and the common worship of the universal god brought home to each and all in a unique and living manner. Moreover, to the ordinary householder, an object lesson for carrying on his daily earthly duties with tolerance for the views and rituals of others, was driven home in the most vivid and unmistakable manner.
The title Dwarakamai which Baba gave to the mosque signifies this truth for which Baba stands. For, the Skanda Purana explains this title as meaning, “the place where doors are open to all people of the four castes for accomplishing the four purusharthas (objects of man's life) viz., dharma (righteousness), artha (the means of living), kama (fulfilments of legitimate desires) and moksha (release from ignorance or imperfection)”.
In course of time Sai Baba came to have one more resting place, the chavadi. Originally it was a structure intended to be the venue of gathering of the village elders to discuss matters of public concern. Once during very heavy rains, the whole mosque was wet and there was not a single dry spot left where he and his devotees could sit in comfort. In those days it did not have the frontyard covered as it is today nor was the floor. It was a mud mosque and its floor was smeared periodically with cowdung. On that day one Narayana Teli proposed to Baba that they should all go to the chavadi which is protected from the rain. Then baba, in his characteristic manner, refused to go there himself and told the devotees to go there. His devotees insisted and finally, taking liberties with the indulgence he showed them, held him by his arms and brought him to the chavadi. Once he slept in that place he made it a rule to spend alternate nights in the chavadi. His movements from and to the chavadi, were all accompanied by a procession of his devotees in all ceremony, pomp and music.
Madhav Rao Deshpande who was to be very dearly loved and addressed by Sai Baba a little late as ‘Shama’ records his observations of the great saint during the early years of his stay at the musjid:
“I was an assistant teacher in a school….A window of that always looked on the adjoining mosque. Through that I occasionally watched Sai Baba who was taken by people to be a mad fakir. I had no regard for him then…I used to sleep in the school. Baba was the sole occupant of the mosque. Yet I could hear English, Hindi and many languages being spoken in the mosque (at night) evidently by Baba. I inferred that he had remarkable powers and began to have faith in him”.
There arose a problem due to the spread of Sai’s fame. One Mohiddin Tambuli having a good physique with strong muscles, was selling betels and talismans in Shirdi. The natives of the village honoured him thinking that he had some divine powers. When the greatness of Sai was unfolding, unable to bear it, one day he quarreled that either he or Sai should be in Shirdi and said that the same should be decided by a wrestling contest between them. He fought with Sai and won the fight. From that day onwards according to that condition, Sai stayed in the garden at the bank of Lindi Lake. Devotees like Tatya took his darshan there itself. Sai did not come to the Village in spite of their repeated requests. One day suddenly there was some transformation in Tambuli and having decided to live near the tomb of a mahatma, he left Shirdi. His physical strength was conquered by Baba’s spiritual strength and his hatred by Baba’s love. Then Baba returned to the musjid.
Henceforth Baba changed his dress and mode of living. He donned a kafni or a long shirt, and used a piece of sack cloth for his seat and bed and was content to be dressed in rags. He always declared that fakiri (holy poverty) was far superior to wealth. For Allah is always the friend of the poor. Baba answered only when he was addressed. By day he always stayed in the mosque or under the neem tree or under a babul tree outside the village. In the afternoons he used to wander towards Neemgaon or Rahata. At Neemgaon he used to visit one Triambakji Dengale. Baba once blessed his brother with a son and henceforth people started coming to him in small numbers for his blessings. He wore no shoes or sandals. The cloth tied around his head and twisted into a flowing plaint dangling behind his left ear was not washed for weeks. He always kept a fire burning before him in the mosque and this is the famed dhuni which is still kept burning by the Sai Samsthan.
Another incident happened after five years. A Moslem named Jawahar Ali came from Ahmedangar to Rahata. He was a great scholar endowed with a sweet tongue. Soon he brought the natives of that village under his sway and started to build for the sake of Moslems, a place for praying. But, in the meanwhile the people, unable to bear with his narrow minded religious view, drove him away from that village. Ali ran away and took shelter in the musjid at Shirdi. But he did not leave his narrow mentality. He influenced the devotees by his good talk and soon started telling that Sai was his disciple. Baba also started behaving accordingly with patience and humility. Ali thought of making use of this opportunity and taking Baba he went to Rahata and started to live there. Both of them used to come now and then to Shirdi and go back. Unable to bear this situation, devotees went to Rahata to bring Baba to Shirdi. There Baba met them near the Idga (the wall before which the Moslems pray on their holy day of Id) and said, "This Ali will not send me at all. I should not come if he does not send me. He is an irritable man. Even if he sees you, he will become wild. It will be good if you return before he comes". By that time he came and on hearing about their idea, flew into a rage. At last they arrived at an agreement and brought both the guru and the disciple to Shirdi. Soon, the devotees who disliked the behavior of Ali, arranged a discussion in vedanta (Hindu philosophy) between him and Devidas. In that, the old scholar Ali had a defeat in front of the young Devidas. On the next day he left for Bijapur without telling anybody. Later on, once he repented for his behavior and took darshan of Baba with bhakthi and sraddha. Baba had been showing by his behavior how much humility and patience a sadhu should have. As Ramana Maharshi has said, "Only a jnani can recognize a jnani". But it took that long for Ali to realize that. The truth blended with love and patience only conquered in the end.
One Shankar Narayana Vaidya used to worship the samadhi of a mahatma called Nanavalli. One day that mahatma gave him darshan in a dream and ordered him to go to Shirdi. He went to Shirdi. When Sai came, as soon as he saw him, he recognized him to be a great soul and with great intimacy he said "Mama, have you come?" As Baba told him not to open his mouth, he did not tell anybody anything about Baba. Devotees started calling him Nanavalli. Once he approached Baba who was seated on his gaddi (raised seat) and asked him in a rude manner, to get up, as he himself wanted to sit there. Baba at once got up very willingly and Nanavalli sat in that place. After a few seconds Nanavalli got up and asked Baba to resume his place and when he sat there, fell at his feet and went away. Evidently Nanavalli wanted to test whether Baba’s growing fame had made him possessive and proud. Finding him not in the least displeased at being so rudely ordered out of his seat, Nanavalli bowed before Baba, meekness personified. When Baba attained samadhi, he had been lamenting, "Oh, Mama, I cannot live without you. I will also come!" for thirteen days; and without taking even food and water, he also took samadhi.
Devidas was practicing medicine in the surrounding villages. One day Baba reproached him saying "Sadhus should be at a long distance from ladies". Nobody knew the reason for that reproach. After some days a rich woman brought him under her sway by threatening to spread bad rumour about him. Then he understood the meaning of Sai’s words and went away leaving that place. But Janakidas used to follow the warnings of Sai scrupulously. At last when he was leaving Shirdi, devotees gave him a grand send-off. At that times his divine brilliance merged in the idol of Maruthi, in the form of a light.