SSB's Claim to be the Reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba
Brian Steel July 2002
Copyright Brian Steel 2002
There is at least one unique feature which sets SB apart from all other gurus (living and dead). It is his first special Claim (Declaration) made in Uravakonda in May 1943: "I am Sai Baba" (i.e. the reincarnation of the revered saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi, also known as Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918). Along with his alleged healing miracles, this was a principal characteristic of SB's early Mission.
The evidence which follows strongly indicates that this claim is unconvincing.
1. (Taken from Chapter 1 of The Guru from Puttaparthi. An Alternative View of Sathya Sai Baba by Brian Steel: http://bdsteel.tripod.com )
Specific claims to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba are common not only in SB's early recorded Discourses but also, according to Volume 1 of Love is My Form (LIMF - e.g. on pp.78-79 and 199), from his teenage years in the early 1940s.
"I remember telling a questioner in Maharashtra, while in the previous body, that there are three types of devotion ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 2:10 - Prasanthi Nilayam,1955)
"When this Mahaashakthi decided to leave the previous body in 1918, Kaaka Saheb Dikshit was told that in 8 years' time this will take birth again." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 20:102)
"There was a Judge who used to come to Shirdi ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 37:216)
"Let me tell you an incident which happened while in the previous body at Shirdi. There was a lady ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 48: 270)
SB's claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba deserves very special attention, both because it was pivotal to SB's early Mission and because it reveals several less than convincing aspects.
Following SB's mysterious and traumatic illness in 1943 (officially claimed as 1940), he made the famous announcement, "I am Sai Baba" (in May) a few months before the Declaration of his Mission on 20 October 1943. For the first years of his Mission, the Shirdi Sai Baba connection was to become a prominent feature, along with SB's growing reputation as a miracle man and miracle healer. In addition to making frequent public claims to be the reincarnation of this revered saint (d. 1918), SB made special efforts to describe his affinities with Shirdi: teachings, types of miracles, and sayings, as well as exhibiting pictures of Shirdi in his ashram. He also made references (including allegedly omniscient ones) to Shirdi's life, especially to older devotees. All of this played an important part in spreading SB's fame and in attracting devotees, including a number of elderly aristocratic patrons. The Shirdi aspects and links have been described in many of the books about SB and present-day devotees are familiar with them.
(Examples of similar sayings selected by some of SB's biographers and commentators:
"If you look to me, I look to you."
"If you seek my advice and help, it shall be given to you."
"I am God. You are God. All are God.")
The reincarnation claim and other alleged evidence has not, however, been universally accepted or welcomed, as the following critical statements by the scholar Kevin R. D. Shepherd in his work,Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasni Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge, Anthropographia Publications, 1986) indicate:
"However, some of [Shirdi] Sai Baba's latter day following have a grievance with which it is easy to sympathize. This relates to the claims made for a certain namesake of the original [Shirdi] Sai Baba, who encourages an obsession with wonder-working and is believed to be the avataric reincarnation of the Shirdi saint." (Shepherd, Chapter 1)
"Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi is certainly not to be confused with those gurus who announce themselves as speedily returning reincarnations of him, and who even appropriate his name.(77)" (Shepherd, Chapter 3)
[Note 77] "Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparti was born in 1926 and claimed in 1940 to be a reincarnation of the Shirdi master. Fame accrued very quickly. It is reported that he would produce ash (udhi) from thin air, and likewise photos of Sai Baba, and gerua cloth which he said was from the kafni which Sai Baba used to wear." (Shepherd)
Then, as the Mission prospered and more benefactors and worldly-wise collaborators and advisers joined Baba (now aged 40), the Sai Baba Organisation really "took off", nationally and internationally, with the April 1967 First All-India Conference in Madras and the First World Conference in Bombay in May 1968. And, suddenly, not only does the public claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba CEASE to be made but for almost 20 years (in Volumes X-XXII of Sathya Sai Speaks covering the years 1970-1989) there are NO printed PUBLIC references by Sathya Sai Baba to Shirdi Sai Baba. Again one wonders why.
Did the Shirdi Sai Organisation take umbrage and make any protests about Baba's reincarnation claims early in his Mission? As with much information about Baba, particularly about miracles, public knowledge of Baba as Shirdi reincarnation is promoted largely in the conversation and books of devotees.
Such reticence (self-censorship?), following the previous confident claims draws attention to itself. Why would an alleged Divine being need to be quiet about one of his prime characteristics? One can only hazard a guess that the silence was to avoid (or to stop) offending the very powerful Shirdi Sai Organisation, few of whose members appear to accept Baba's claims of being a reincarnation of Shirdi. The writer and publisher, Parveen Chopra, in the issue of his high-circulation spiritual magazine, Life Positive, dedicated entirely to articles on Shirdi Sai Baba, states clearly, in connection with Sathya Sai's claim to be an incarnation of Shirdi Sai and a precursor of Prema Sai, that "Most Shirdi Sai devotees as well as the Shirdi Trust don't give credence to any of this." (Life Positive, October 1997, p. 35).
Also, on the Internet, it is noticeable that whereas the Sathya Sai websites feature Shirdi Sai Baba prominently (as is also the practice in SB's ashrams, with photos and statues), Shirdi Sai sites do not mention SSB. (Finally, as far as I can ascertain, Baba has never visited Shirdi. Why not? The answer is, presumably, that he would NOT be accepted there as Shirdi's reincarnation!)
The following piece of very recent evidence (for which I thank my friend, Serguei Badaev) suggests that the diplomatic silence kept by the Shirdi Sai Baba authorities for so long may be ending.
On 1 June 2002, according to one of the official websites of the very influential Shirdi Sai Association, www.saibaba.org/whatsnew.html, in a report by Mansha Bulchandani, a Shirdi official, Shri C. B. Satpathy, in an address to an All India Convention of Shirdi devotees in Chennai, was quoted in the following terms: "He said that ... Shri Sainath [Shirdi Sai] is an avatar, an incarnation, and emphasised that an incarnation is never reincarnated again." [italics added] To Shirdi supporters (and any SB supporters who might come across the reference on the Shirdi Sai website), this would seem to be a relatively direct semi-official repudiation of SB's well-known claim to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi.
In fact, the Shirdi Movement is particularly strong in the North, notably in the capital, Delhi, which Baba has only visited on a handful of occasions in 60 years. The lack of a Sai Baba base in that important city until 1999 may also be due to his relative lack of popularity in the North of India, both for the Shirdi reason just offered and the fact that in multilingual India, Sathya Sai Baba's native Telugu language is a limiting communications factor, since it is only spoken in Baba's South Indian home state of Andhra Pradesh.
In September 1990, however, in a characteristically sensational and ad hoc way, Baba finally broke this public silence about Shirdi Sai Baba of more than two decades to reveal to the world his version of the hitherto unknown date of birth of Shirdi as well as many other unknown details about his upbringing and youth (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXIII, Discourse 28). Equally sensationally, but more confusingly, two years later (September, 1992), Baba, without the least reference to the former revelations, amended the date of birth by three years and offered different details about Shirdi's early life (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXV, 31:326-334, September 1992). Most SB devotees seem to have accepted without question both the original statement and the later contradiction - both unverifiable. I have no reference to a Shirdi Sai Baba Association reaction to the two sets of news.
This unblinking, unquestioning acceptance of any pronouncement, and any conflicting statements or stories by Sai Baba is characteristic behaviour for the most unconditional of his devotees. If any comment at all is forthcoming from them, it would probably be to describe the initial revelations and the later contradictory comments as "just another of Baba's leelas for us to absorb and, if possible, benefit from".
Even by the Sathya Sai Organisation's own reckoning, Sai Baba's March 1999 visit to Delhi was the first in 17 years, a very long time to be absent from the nation's capital for one whose goal is to redeem Dharma in the whole of India (and the world). On that 2-day visit to Delhi, as on the previous sporadic ones, Baba was again careful not to claim Divinity, or any direct relationship with Shirdi Sai Baba. It was almost as if he was being forced to swallow his previous claims. Was it because the buildings he inaugurated were only a couple of hundred yards down the road from the principal Shirdi Mandir in Delhi?
In answer to a journalist's question about Shirdi Sai, SB replied as follows (The Times of India, 12 March 1999):
"How do you relate yourself to Sai Baba of Shirdi?"
"This body has not seen him."
Other guarded answers given to this group of (hostile-sounding) journalists come much closer to Baba's usual claims but still just stop short, in Indian or Hindu terms, of claiming Divinity:
"Why do you perform miracles like materialising a ring, a medallion, a necklace, vibhuti and other objects? What are you trying to prove by performing these miracles?"
"I am only performing a divine mission. ... ... When the world sleeps, I go to my devotees, give them my vision, comfort them, console them and solve their problems. I willingly take on the sufferings of my devotees on myself. ..."
"Do you read newspapers?"
So what are we to make of such coyness, typical of a politician, on potentially hostile territory? Was Baba guided by his Organisation "minders", or was the uncharacteristic caution self-imposed? In either case, why should GOD be intimidated, or change his style, because of a few journalists?
(There is more to add on the Shirdi Sai question but it is more appropriate to leave it until Chapter 7, and for Chapter 5 ('Omniscience and Truth'), where recent evidence will be quoted to refute SB's 1976 claim that Shirdi Sai Baba was unknown in Puttaparthi in the early 1940s at the time of his two dramatic Declarations.)
2. (Taken from Chapter 5 of The Guru from Puttaparthi. An Alternative View of Sathya Sai Baba at http://bdsteel.tripod.com )
Another Basic Myth
SB has claimed that Shirdi Sai Baba was unknown in his village (Puttaparthi) when he made his claim to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Baba in 1943 (the date originally claimed was 1940). The "official" support for this incorrect claim by SB (about the lack of local knowledge about Shirdi Sai) by the long-time Chairman of the SSO, Indulal Shah, is also contradicted by new evidence.
"What makes you so sure that you are Shirdi Baba incarnate?"(Karanjia, 1976:21)
"The very fact that I announced that I am Shirdi Baba 40 years ago, when I was only 10 and when nobody in this part of the South had known or even heard of Shirdi Baba proves this fact." (p. 21) [Another careless double error on SB's part, virtually placing his Shirdi Announcement in 1936, and at age TEN!]
Equally confident is the official backing for this claim, voiced here by the Chairman of the SSO World Council, Indulal Shah:
"All this confirmed more and more my faith in Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba's announcement at the age of 14 that He is the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. What appeared remarkable to me is that He made this announcement in his village where no one had even heard of Shirdi Sai Baba!" (Shah, 1980:51)
What is not clear to us, of course, is whether Mr. Shah had been misinformed by SB, or whether he was knowingly supporting an untruth.
Prior to the year 2000, we already had some weak evidence that this was not true: Howard Murphet's Man of Miracles, p. 56: "The name [Shirdi Sai Baba] was only known to a few very old villagers." (Also on p. 58: 'known by a few people in the area'.) In his scholarly (1986) study of Shirdi Sai Baba, Kevin R. D. Shepherd had written, "It may be observed that photographs of the Shirdi adept were not difficult to obtain at that time..." (Note 77)
However, in 2000, background information in LIMF very strongly contradicted these claims in several places, but in particular on pp. 78-9, where two of SB's classmates recall that Sathya Narayana had Shirdi Sai pictures in his books and pockets: "He had pasted Shirdi Baba pictures in all his books and also carried one in his pocket." (p. 78) "He had a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba." (p. 79) "At Penukonda people had heard of Shirdi Sai Baba." (p. 114)
On p. 117 the meticulous (devotee) researchers quote the following extract from an interview they conducted with a contemporary, showing that Shirdi Sai was both known and worshipped in SB's village and area in the early 1940s:
"The practice of Shirdi worship was becoming common in Puttaparthi. Raju's uncles, Venkatarama Raju and Venkatasubba Raju, were worshippers of Sai Baba of Shirdi long before Raju announced himself as being 'that' Sai Baba. Venkatasubba Raju brought a Shirdi Baba portrait and started offering worship before it. During the worship, Raju used to sit behind him and, on many occasions, would fall into a trance." (p. 117) Also, this uncle "often read aloud the biography of Shirdi Baba."
In the Foreword to LIMF, written by the celebrated octogenarian devotee, Kamalamma, the younger wife of the (late) Karnam, we find further direct support of the young boy's familiarity with Shirdi Sai: "He keeps a Shirdi Baba photo ..." (p. xv)
And, finally, the recent eye-witness account by Vijayakumari quotes SB as saying in 1949: "I had four good friends. After school, we would assemble under a tree and offer worship to Shirdi Baba." (p. 217) The same writer also reveals that SB's elder brother, Seshama, once made this statement in the presence of the writer: "For schooling, I took him to Uravakonda. My desire was to educate him well and make him an important official. ... But Swami used to sit in front of Shirdi Baba's picture always and offer pooja." [worship] (Vijayakumari, p. 254)
Such a lot of counter-evidence to the denials by SB and I. Shah should raise a few basic questions, even among unquestioning devotees still convinced of SB's Divine Omniscience.
3. (Taken from the unpublished Chapter 7 of The Guru of Puttaparthi. An Alternative View of Sathya Sai Baba )
As we have seen in earlier sections of this Note, from the beginning of SB's Mission, and even before the official Declaration, he was very influenced by the story of Shirdi Sai Baba. It is a striking fact that, according to the accounts that we have, in addition to SB's Discourses from the late 1950s on, the crucial early years of his mission were closely linked with the name of Shirdi Sai Baba. SB's initial success in attracting some of his first devotees and, importantly, many of his early benefactors (particularly the aristocratic ones) was due to the support of ex-Shirdi devotees who were convinced by his verbal claims and demonstrations of special knowledge of the other guru.
As we saw in the extract from Chapter 1, SB's early claims to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai were strong and frequent. Since then, they have been intermittently muted and repeated, and pictures of Shirdi Sai Baba are prominently displayed in the ashrams and mandirs.
Evidence was also brought forward in Chapter 1 to suggest that the Shirdi Baba reincarnation claim was not as strong as devotees have been led to believe. In the extract from Chapter 5, recent new evidence (mainly from LIMF, and from Srimati Vijaya Kumari's recent book, Refuge Other than You is There None ) relating to SB's childhood refutes SB's and others' claims that Shirdi Baba was unknown in the Puttaparthi area in 1940 (or 1943).
Since the above considerations reveal the basic weakness of SB's Shirdi Sai Baba reincarnation claim, it is time for this crucial claim to be subjected to further investigation. For the moment, based on this evidence, the following hypothesis seems reasonable:
That the young Sathya Narayana Raju was so influenced and inspired by what he had heard and felt about Shirdi Sai that, following his long and extremely traumatic illness in 1943, the ultra-sensitive youth somehow came to believe that he was Shirdi's reincarnation with a noble mission to revive Hindu dharma and, consequently, he began (consciously or unconsciously) to model himself on the revered saint to the extent of adopting or adapting some of Shirdi's mannerisms (the use of vibhuti, for example) and spiritual aphorisms. These and other similarities between the two men have been pointed out by many writers. Even Shirdi's lineage, that of the Bharadwaja clan (according to books about Shirdi), was also claimed as his own by SB himself, most notably in his dramatic Shiva-Shakti Discourse on Guru Purnima Day, 1963.
Postscript for Occultists:
Assuming the following words to be authentic and to be accurately translated from the original Telugu, please interpret, hypothesise on, or investigate further, the following fascinating statement which allegedly emanated from the young Sathya Sai Baba [presumably in the year 1943] according to the Foreword to LIMF (p. xv) by the octogenarian Kamalamma, one of SB's early benefactresses in the 1940s:
"I am not a ghost. I am Shirdi Baba. I want to join this boy. I trouble this body in numerous ways, to settle down."
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