Sai Baba: Shiva or Sadhaka?
Sanjay K. Dadlani
With an addendum from Brian Steel.
It is pretty well known that the religious leader, Sathya Sai Baba, claims to be a veritable incarnation of God on earth. The reason for this are statements from none other than Sai Baba himself, who unashamedly affirms his divinity without the least bit of morality or consideration for universally-accepted standards.
We might gain an impression of this attitude by looking over some pertinent declarations:
“The power of Sai is limitless; it manifests for ever. All forms of 'power' are resident in this Sai palm.”
“Nothing can impede or halt the work of the Avatar. When I was upstairs all these days, some people were foolishly saying, "It is all over with Sai Baba," and they turned back many who were coming to Puttaparthy! Some said I was in samadhi, as if I were a spiritual sadhaka! Some feared I was the victim of black magic, as if anything can affect me! The splendour of this Avatar will go on increasing, day by day.”
“This Avatar is for the bhaktas, the sadhus and the sadhakas (devotees, noble souls and aspirants) only. It has no japa (recitation of holy name), dhyana (meditation) or yoga (practicing union with God). It knows no worship; it will not pray to anything, for it is the Highest. It only teaches you to worship and pray.”
“This is a human form in which every divine entity, every divine principle, that is to say, all the names and forms ascribed by man to God, are manifest … The revival of Vedic dharma is the Sai sankalpa (the resolve that Sai has), not only drawing people toward me, attracting them by the manifestation of my shakti (power) and samarthya (capacity). This is not a brahmathathwam (phenomenon of delusion). This phenomenon will sustain truth, it will uproot untruth, and in that victory make all of you exult in ecstasy. This is the Sai sankalpa.”
“Some of you remark that Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (an Indian saint) said that yogic powers (siddhis) are obstructions in the path of the spiritual aspirant (sadhaka) Yes, yogic powers may lead the spiritual aspirant astray. Without being involved in them he has to keep straight on. His ego will bring him down if he yields to the temptation of demonstrating his yogic powers. That is the correct advice which every aspirant should heed. But the mistake lies in equating me with a sadhaka, like the one whom Ramakrishna wanted to help, guide and warn. These yogic powers are just in the nature of the Avatar … You must have heard people say that mine is all magic. But the manifestation of divine power must not be interpreted in terms of magic. Magicians play their tricks for earning their maintenance, worldly fame, and wealth. They are based on falsehood and they thrive on deceit, but this body could never stoop to such a low level. This body has come through the Lord's resolve to come. That resolve is intended to uphold truth (sathya).”
“I engage in no asceticism; I do not meditate on anything at all; I do not study; I am not aspirant; I am neither man nor woman, neither old nor young; yet I am all these … My powers do not abide Me a while and then fade away. All this is apparent manipulation by Divine Will. My Body, like all other bodies, is a temporary habitation; but, My Power is Eternal, All-pervasive, Everlasting.”
Among the various ideas that these selected quotes have given us, we may note some key concepts:
1) Sai Baba conclusively states that he is God.
2) Sai Baba states that his form contains all manifestations of God, totally disregarding the knotty theological implications of this statement.
3) Sai Baba conclusively states that his powers are NOT due to any form of sadhana or blessings, and even goes so far as to ridicule the idea.
We may well question the presumption of the third point based on the evidence of two notable books that deal with the early years in the life of Sai Baba. It is worthwhile to note what Arnold Schulman says about the reluctance of the Puttaparthi villagers in speaking about the early years of the avatar:
“For any episode of Baba's childhood, there are countless contrasting versions and, at this point, the author discovered that it was no longer possible to separate the facts from the legend. The only thing that Baba has forbidden to his relatives and devotees is to talk about his childhood and ‘all them live in terror of Baba’, as one of the most devoted Baba's followers has told the author … In the beginning the writer was suspicious about the reasons for which Baba had imposed such severe restrictions to his followers, in referring episodes regarding his childhood, but afterwards he was brought to believe that it was not Baba's intention to suppress some information because he didn't wanted them to be revealed. On the contrary, that was the better way to prevent that Baba's followers, even the good-determined ones, could distort the truth. A little exaggeration here, a retouch there could have definitely polluted his own ‘reservoir of credibility’.” 
The reluctance of the villagers and immediate family seem to be rather strange and incongruous with the philosophy that Sai Baba teaches, and is even incongruous with the precepts of other world religions too. After all, isn’t it considered worthwhile “satsanga” to discuss the lilas of the Lord in good company?
“Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead, who is the Paramatma [Supersoul] in everyone’s heart and the benefactor of the truthful devotee, cleanses desire for material enjoyment from the heart of the devotee who has developed the urge to hear His messages, which are in themselves virtuous when properly heard and chanted.”
Considering the extensive spiritual benefits that accrue from discussing the Lord’s lilas, one would think that the residents of Puttaparthi would be rapt in joyful discussion of the same that supposedly even go on up to this day, and what better subject to discuss than the playful and mischievous early years of the Sai Avatar! Indeed, it is an astonishing observation that the early years of Sai Baba are very rarely discussed in devotional circles, and that it is only relatively recently that a few books have emerged that has this topic as it’s primary subject matter. Two hugely popular books in this category would be “Divine Leelas of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba” by (Late) Nagamani Purnaiya, and “Anyatha Saranam Nasthi” by Vijaya Hemchand.
The author of the former book is believed to have become a devotee of Sai Baba in the mid 1940s, and includes a chapter of Sai lilas that have been told to her by “His devotees, though I had myself not been fortunate enough to witness them.” She then goes on to narrate various undated lilas that she claims to have witnessed personally. The author of the latter book has joyfully recounted her childhood experiences with Sai Baba since 1945, and enthusiastically describes many events that happened in Puttaparthi from the 1940s onward. Since these two old devotees have written rather extensively about incidents in Sai Baba’s early life, we may well take it as evidence that such incidents are true especially as Hemchand was an eyewitness to much of what she wrote. Upon reading these two books, I noted that both authors describe incidents in the life of Sai Baba that have common features yet seem to have happened at different times. What is even more surprising about these particular incidents is that they have not been portrayed in any standard biography (such as “Sathyam Shivam Sundaram” and “Easwaramma – the Chosen Mother” by the Late Prof. N. Kasturi) of Sai Baba, and indeed are not described in any other writings! These supposed omissions seem a little suspicious considering the implications of what the incidents represent and how they can shed light into the early development of the Sai Avatar.
The Purnaiya account:
“One day Swami was suddenly missing from Puttaparthy. They searched for Him all over the village but could not find any trace of Him. There was no news about Him even in the villages or the towns nearby. His parents, Subbamma and all other devotees were very much worried. Six months passed without any trace of Swami, and Puttaparthy’s glory seemed to have all gone.
“At the end of six months, a shepherd boy of Puttaparthy, on watch over his cattle, went looking for a goat that had strayed from the herd. Spotting the goat near a cave in the hills nestling Puttaparthy, he tried to catch it but it ran into the cave. Peeping into the cave, the shepherd saw a pair of flame-like eyes staring hard at him. He was scared out of his wits, and running back to Puttaparthy, told the villagers that there was a tiger sitting inside the cave. This cave happened to be quite close to the village and the people were afraid for their lives and for the lives of their cattle as well. Arming themselves with knives, spears and sticks, the villagers followed the lead of the shepherd to the cave.
“Though most of them were too scared to enter the cave, one bold man went in with a lantern in one hand and a lance in the other. To his greatest surprise and immense joy, what he found inside was not a tiger, but Swami Himself with His resplendent eyes! The man’s exclamations of joy at seeing Swami were heard by the crowd waiting outside the cave. Some rushed back to Puttaparthy to inform the village of the happy news. As soon as Subbamma came to know that Swami had been found, she herself rushed to the cave and took Him back home lovingly. Who would be able to say where He was all those six months, or why He had disappeared? God’s ways are mysterious and we cannot claim to understand them.”
I expect that we can now understand why such a strange story such as this has never been seen before in any “official” recounting of the childhood of Sai Baba, particularly due to it’s peculiar nature and the effects of it on the beliefs of devotees. The flow of the usual story is that the young Sai Baba (then known as ‘Sathya’) was bitten by a scorpion and from that moment on was subject to bouts of schizophrenic behaviour in different forms. After declaring himself as the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba (an aged saint who died in 1918) he returned to Puttaparthi and began his ministry. The disadvantage of the Purnaiya account is that it submits no date for when the incident is meant to have occurred. Assuming that Purnaiya had tried to list her stories in chronological order, we can assume that this cave incident took place soon after Sai Baba’s return to Puttaparthi after declaring he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba.
The Hemchand account:
“It was ten o’ clock in the night. We were all sitting on the sand dunes. Swami started telling us about his childhood…
“’For the next six months, keeping out of sight of everyone, I remained hidden in an underground tunnel, under a tree that has since come to be known as Kalpa Vriksha (wish-fulfilling tree). That tunnel still exists. But most of it is closed with rocks and pebbles. Inside it are still to be found a kamandalam (The vessel with a handle in which sages carry drinking water), a dandam (a staff carried by ascetics), a writing desk, a pen, an ink bottle, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and a few letters. Devotees who had gone there with true devotion have seen them and come back.’ As He said these words, Swami cast significant looks at me. ‘People with doubting minds cannot even find the opening of the tunnel, and they come back disappointed.’ He stood up, looked at His watch, and exclaiming, ‘My! It’s already twelve o’ clock. Get up, get going,’ He ran off. It is a great fortune to listen to Swami’s life story as being narrated by Himself. By the way, I forgot to tell you something. Swami told this to us in the year 1949 itself.
“My brother Murthy was adventurous and was very fond of visiting such secret places like the tunnel mentioned by Swami. One afternoon, Swami was busy writing letters. Murthy came and beckoned to me to come out. He told me that we could visit the secret tunnel and be back by the time Swami completed His letter writing. I tried to dissuade him, saying that Swami said that there was a lion there, and so it was better not to risk it. But he did not listen. From our early childhood, I have been Murthy’s companion in climbing trees, in going up hills, in spinning tops or in playing hide and seek. I had always been a supportive playmate to him. Well, we walked swiftly towards the tree. As described by Swami, there was a tunnel there. Between two hills, it was like a valley. It was wider near the opening and narrower near the middle. There were no steps to climb down. The only way to go there was to sit and slide down. There were no hand-holds of any kind. My elder brother suddenly jumped in and pulled me down after him. Our hands and feet were bruised. We inched our way forward. It was pitch-dark inside the tunnel. One need not be surprised to step on snakes and scorpions in such a dark place.
“I followed Murthy. There was a dim light. It was sunlight coming in from a gap above. We found all the objects mentioned by Swami. Even as we were thinking of taking a closer look at them, we heard the roar of a lion. We could see it’s two eyes. They looked like two burning globes of fire. That’s it. We turned back and started running. Getting in was easy. But how were we to get out? We trembled in fear. Trying to jump up at one go did not work. We kept falling down. What if the lion comes chasing us? That very thought made us feverish. Somehow, after repeated efforts, we succeeded in jumping up. God knows how we managed that steep climb. We received many bruises on our knees and elbows, and they were bleeding. Our clothes were torn and covered with mud. We swiftly reached the Mandir. As we were planning to slink away from the back of the building, we saw Sai Narasimha Murthy standing near the gate. He looked more ferocious than the lion, and His eyes looked even more frighteningly angry than the eyes of that lion. We were able to escape from that lion, but could we ever escape from this King of Lions? Our strength was depleted. Our running speed slackened. Our hearts were beating loudly. ‘Hey, you fellow! Come here,” He summoned Murthy in a loud voice. His tone had the booming quality of bronze. As we went near Him, Murthy was given a resounding slap on the cheek. I trembled like a kite. Boxing my ear, He said, ‘You are saved because you are a girl. Go inside.’ Mother was standing in front of us. She rapped me and brother on the head with her knuckles. Since childhood, I had been receiving these raps on the head, thanks to Murthy. Well, isn’t that the result of bad friendship?”
The evident advantage of the Hemchand account is that it is much more accurate on account of the eyewitness factor and it’s excruciating attention to detail, especially regarding the method of entering the cave. Furthermore, Sai Baba himself told the story to her, and just before narrating the story of the cave, Hemchand writes that Sai Baba revealed that this happened around six months after his thirteenth birthday. Joining this with the flow of the standard story, we can surmise that this cave incident happened shortly after the young Sathya declared himself to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and that he was leaving his home and environment to embark on his mission. At this point, the obvious questions would be:
1) Why did Sai Baba deliberately conceal himself in an underground cave in Puttaparthi for a period of six months?
2) What was he doing whilst in the cave?
3) Since there were writing materials and a copy of Bhagavad Gita present in the cave, what was he writing?
4) Is the cave visible even today?
The photo story:
An early photo exists of the young Sai Baba sitting on a tiger skin in a cross-legged yoga posture holding a rosary. From standard biographies, we are led to believe that this photo was taken as a portrait upon receipt of a tiger skin and that the young Sai’s devotees insisted that he pose as a yogi to their delight. Even though Sai is believed to have been strongly averse to the idea, he eventually complied and the photo was thus taken.
We certainly have no reason to believe the glorified accounts in standard biographies primarily because we cannot rely on them as being truly authentic, on account of the Hitlerian censorship imposed by Sai Baba on his own family and villagers. As such, we have no way of knowing if the above story regarding this photograph is true or false. As far as direct observation is concerned, this photograph simply depicts the young Sai Baba in a yoga posture. There is no reason NOT to believe that Sai Baba is not doing yoga since all the expected paraphernalia of yoga is present, the rosary in the hand, the Baba seated in the padmasana (lotus) position, and the tiger skin. The Hindu god Shiva is often depicted as wearing or sitting on a tiger skin, and as a result is regarded by yogis to be an appropriate seat. Sai Baba is even bare-chested and has a slight smile on his face, which suggests that he may actually have posed for the photograph and is hardly under any form of force.
One would naturally be tempted to think that Sai Baba had spent six months in the underground cave undergoing intense austerities and study of the Bhagavad Gita before emerging as the miracle-working incarnation of God that he now claims to be. The facts of being in the cave are even admitted by him, and also there is the ancillary information that Sai particularly forbade his relatives and early devotees to talk about his childhood up to at least 1971. It is possible that a huge undertaking and cover-up was carried out just to perpetuate the myth of a “Living God” on earth. Accordingly, the standard biographies are filled with flowery and far-fetched descriptions of possibly concocted events. The description of Sai Baba’s lilas and miracles in Ra. Ganapathi’s opus “Baba Satya Sai” is particularly fanciful.
The Shirdi connection:
The ideals of poverty and austerity are exceptionally highlighted when reading through a book about Shirdi Sai Baba. This is religiously exemplified in Shirdi Baba’s habit of carrying a danda. Since the young Sathya claimed to be a reincarnation of the old saint, it may be worth noting selected points of similarity between the two.
It is known in Shirdi literature that Shirdi Sai Baba often remarked that he had spent long periods of time in seclusion under the guidance of his guru. To one devotee, the old Baba remarked that he had lived in an underground cave surviving on margosa leaves for twelve years. In his book “Sai Baba the Master,” Acharya E. Bharadwaj includes the following story:
“Baba once told Shri Sai Sharananandaji, pointing to a pillar near his dhuni (the sacred fire) in the mosque … that there was a cave thereunder to which he always confined himself, that once his beard grew so long that it reached the ground and swept it … Throwing light on his life during this period, once Sai Baba admonished Sagunmeru Naik, ‘What? Can’t you put up with a day or two days’ starvation? I lived on margosa leaves for twelve long years!’”
The parallel with Sathya Sai is immediately noticeable; the underground cave. Indeed, it was Meher Baba, a twentieth century Sufi master who had met Shirdi Baba in his childhood, who provided the confirmation that Shirdi Baba had “practised severe asceticism for a number of years” in the same underground cave that had been previously used by Zar Zari Zar-Baksh, a thirteenth century Sufi master of the Chishtiyya Order. Whether this is the same cave that Shirdi Baba resided for twelve years is unclear, but there is no denying the fact that the Baba had indeed practised intense austerities for a long time in an underground cave before his appearance at Shirdi. Another interesting story by HH Narasimha Swamiji in his book “Sri Sai Baba’s Charters & Sayings,” reads thus:
“In 1886 Baba said to Mahalsapathy: ‘I am going to Allah. Take care of this body for three days. If I return, I will look after it myself thereafter. If I do not, inter this body thereafter in that open land (pointing to an open land) and place two standards there to mark the place, where my body is placed.’
“Then Baba’s breathing, pulse, circulation, all stopped and the body became a corpse. The Village Chief and Police held an inquest and ordered Mahalsapathy to bury the body; but he prevented it … On the third day consciousness returned to Baba. Breathing began and the abdomen was seen moving. Then Baba’s eyes opened and his life was restored.”
This story is remarkable for one significant point: Shirdi Baba clearly states that he is “going to Allah.” Many Shirdi biographers have noted that after this incident in 1886, Shirdi Baba seemed to have evolved further into his role as a great saint and had at last reached the goal of final enlightenment. It is a characteristic of Sathya Sai devotees to insist that the three Sais (Shirdi Sai, Sathya Sai and the future Prema Sai) are complete and total divine incarnations meant for the redemption of the world, and usually overlook references made by Shirdi Baba about his past lives and performance of austerities to reach his lofty position. This proposal is totally defeated at least for the case of Shirdi Sai, in whose literatures there are references aplenty to past lives and spectacular descriptions of the austerity he underwent. Providing that a Sathya Sai devotee believes that Shirdi Baba underwent severe austerities and that he had reached enlightenment, and had again been reborn as Sathya Sai Baba, one might ask why he had to again reside in a Puttaparthi cave for six months presumably practising intense yoga and studying the Bhagavad Gita?
One of the continuing thoughts in my mind while writing this paper was regarding the sheer extent to which the real storied about Sai Baba have been covered up, suppressed, hidden, buried, and in some cases even deleted, and how this specific anecdote vis-à-vis underground caves may have been revealed inadvertently by devotees. Who knows what more may be revealed? Who really knows why Sai Baba was hiding away in a cave for six months? Who knows what effect it had on his psychological development and why he claimed to be an incarnation of God? Who knows if he is speaking the truth about his assertion that he has performed no sadhana? The facts of the case are:
1) Sai Baba was reported missing for a period of six months at thirteen years of age. This fact up until recently was not included in standard biographies. Why?
2) Sai Baba himself publicly admitted that he was missing for six months. Many devotees at the time would have heard it, yet none reported it up until recently. Why?
3) Sai Baba himself said that the cave housed writing materials and a Bhagavad Gita? Was Sai Baba studying it? If so, why?
4) Sai Baba was violently angry when two children found the cave and explored it. Why?
5) Sai Baba posed as a yogi and allowed a photograph to be taken, despite claiming to be an incarnation of God and that his powers are natural. Why?
6) Sai Baba forbade his relatives and devotees to talk about his childhood. Why?
7) Shirdi Sai Baba often related stories of his past lives and detailed the sadhana he had undertaken. Sai Baba claim to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and that the two are divine incarnations. Why?
I will leave it up to the reader to decide their answers, but perhaps only when these questions and more are answered can we unlock the mysteries of the issue over whether Sathya Sai Baba’s miraculous powers are of divine origin or gained from intense austerity. These questions may very well be answered by Sai Baba himself through the testimony of Krishna Kumar, the elder brother of Vijaya Hemchand and a devotee since 1946:
“Many people would say: ‘Baba, you must show me some miracle.’ He would say: ‘I show you something, and you still do not believe in the miracle. What am I then to do? You should learn how to do this for yourself. It is possible. But even then you will not be able to explain it to others. You can only enjoy it.”
 Mahashivaratri 1955.
 17 May 1968.
 Miscellaneous extracts from “Is Sai Baba God?” by M.R Kundra.
 Srimad Bhagavatam 1.2.17 .
 DLBSSSB, p.20.
 At the time of writing this paper, I was unable to find any mention of the tiger skin in Sathyam Shivam Sundaram, the authorised biography of Sathya Sai Baba. The Ganapathi biography (‘Baba Satya Sai’) told the story of how the tiger skin came to Puttaparthi, but failed to make any mention of how Sai Baba posed for the “yogi” photo.
 DLBSSSB, p.7-8.
 “Anyatha Saranam Nasthi”, p.219-221.
 It is worthwhile also to note that Vijaya Hemchand is also the daughter of Radhakrishna Chetty of Kuppam, who was allegedly raised from the dead by Sathya Sai Baba in the early 1950s.
 Tal Brooke reported in his book “Lord of the Air” that the Puttaparthi villagers informed him that the source of Baba’s power was “an ancient lingam on a hill.” This lingam has never been found.
 I have not been able to find this story in any of the standard biographies and I reproduce it purely from my own memory.
 The tiger skin is also reputed to have spiritual properties that
can be harnessed by yogis to assist them in the attainment of their goals. In
the Bhagavad-Gita 6.11-12,
 A danda is a symbol of renunciation and is
carried mostly by sannyasis, those who have given up material life and
pleasures in search of God. Shirdi Sai carried a danda, and a danda was also
found in the cave in Puttaparthi. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada explained the significance of the danda as follows: “The Mayavadi
[Advaitic] sannyasis, they carry ekadanda, one stick. As we Vaisnava sannyasis
carry 3 danda, or three sticks, combined together. The one stick is the symbol
of understanding oneness. The monists only accept chin matra, there is
only one spirit soul; they do not understand the varieties of the spiritual
world. And so far our three sticks are concerned, we take it for granted that
we have dedicated our life, for
The fact that Sathya Sai had a danda in his cave is even more suggestive of the fact that he may have been performing sadhana and that his claim to divinity may be false.
 “Sai Baba the Master”, Acharya E. Bharadwaj, p. 27.
 Munsiff, “Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi,” p.51.
 “Sri Sai Baba’s Charters & Sayings,” HH Narasimha Swamiji, p.134.
 “Unravelling the Enigma,” Marianna Warren, p.125.
 My own personal experience with the Kalpa Vriksha tree is mystifying. The last time I went to Puttaparthi was in the early months of 2000. I paid a visit to the tree as I always had done on every trip. This time I went with friends and decided to explore the area around the tree. I found that by climbing a certain rock, I was able to raise myself to a level higher than the tree and was even able to view the tree from behind. I saw many tiny pieces of paper attached to the tree’s branches and sub-branches and I assumed that these were the written prayers of countless devotees who had visited the tree in the hope of receiving an answer.
I was not able to see any entrance to any cave except by the front of the tree itself, the same mini-cave that is now regarded as a shrine and guarded by an elderly lady or gentleman devotee. I remember peeking into this tiny cave and was amazed at how narrow it was, and what may happen to me should I wish to enter the cave and if I would ever get out. Was this the same cave that was inhabited by Sai Baba for six months?
 “Miracles Are My Visiting Cards,” Erlendur Haraldsson, p. 124.
Bharadwaja, E. Sai Baba the Mater. 5th ed. Ongole, A.P.: Sree Guru Paduka Publications, 1996.
Brooke, Tal Avatar of Night: The Hidden Side of Sai Baba. New Delhi, Tarang Paperbacks, 1984 (1st ed. in 1972).
Ganapathi, Ra. Baba Satya Sai Part 1. 3rd ed. Madras: Divya Vidya Trust, 1991.
Haraldsson, Erlendur, Miracles Are My Visiting Cards, 1st ed. London: Century, 1987.
Hemchand, Vijaya, Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. 1st ed. Chennai: Sai Shriram Printers, 1999.
Kundra, M.R. Is Sai Baba God?
Munsiff, Abdul Ghani. “Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi.” Meher Baba Journal (Ahmednagar) 1 (1938-39), pp.46-56.
Narasimhaswami, B.V. Sri Sai Baba’s Charters and Sayings. 6th ed. Rpt; Madras: All India Sai Samaj (Regd.), 1955-56.
Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srimad Bhagavatam First Canto Part One. 6th ed. Germany, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1991.
Purnaiya, Nagamani, Divine Leelas of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. 3rd ed. Sree Venkatesa Printing House: Chennai, The House of Seva, 1991.
Schulman, Arnold “Baba”, New York, Viking Press, 1971.
Warren, Marianne. Unravelling The Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism. 1st ed. Sterling, New Delhi, 1999.