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Miracle Cures for a Suffering Nation: Sai Baba of Shirdi

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015

David Hardiman*
Department of History, University of Warwick


Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918, was raised as a Muslim but is today revered as a Hindu saint. One of his most important perceived qualities was his ability to provide miraculous cures for his devotees, and this has continued after his death. I argue here that the emphasis in the Hindu tradition on saintly figures healing the sick is a relatively modern phenomenon. Earlier, though such figures were renowned for their miracles, healing played a very minor part in this. Their miracles were generally designed to worst religious rivals and to enable them to speak truth to power. In the modern era, however, such saintly figures can gain a reputation through healing in a way that is presented as beyond the comprehension of modern medical science. Such people are seen to provide living evidence of the superiority of Indian civilization and its religious beliefs. This move became entangled with nationalist sentiments, so that getting the better of the “English” doctor became a means to reveal the limited scope of Western science and culture. Although this appears to suggest that many Indians have rejected the biopolitics associated with Western modernity (as defined by Foucault), I argue that certain elements of such biopolitics are central to this process, and illustrate this through a study of Sai Baba, a village holy man taken up by the Indian middle classes and made into a pan-Indian figure, with a now global presence.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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5 Ranajit Guha has, for example, shown how the British made little attempt to govern or control female sexuality in India, and left this largely to local patriarchies. He contrasts this with the forms of sexual governance then being expanded in contemporary Western Europe, as analyzed by Foucault. Guha, Ranajit, “Chandra's Death,” in Guha, Ranajit, ed., Subaltern Studies V: Writings on South Asian History and Society (New Delhi, 1987), 139–40Google Scholar.

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10 Although most of the biographies of Sai Baba that I have examined are firmly within the hagiographical tradition, there are two scholarly ones that I have used extensively in this article: Antonio Rigopoulos' The Life and Teachings of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Albany, 1993)Google Scholar, and Marianne Warren's Unravelling the Enigma. Both are based on PhD dissertations. Both authors are devotees. Rigopoulos states that Sai Baba blessed his endeavors “through his touch” (xix), and Warren reveals that she came to this work through her devotion to Sathya Sai Baba, the alleged incarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi. When encountering a difficulty in her research she prayed to Sathya Sai Baba and the issue was quickly resolved in a way that amazed her (xvi).

11 It should be emphasized that this distinction applies only to revered holy men and women in the Hindu tradition of the sort that I am examining in this article. There are many forms of miraculous healing that we can place within the broad Hindu tradition, for example those associated with the cults of goddesses (Mātāji) such as Sitaladevi; by wandering ascetics such as sādhus with their magical mantras; and by exorcists, known in different parts of India as ōjhā, rōjā, bhūvā, et cetera, who were local ritual specialists in the art of expelling disease-causing malevolent spirits from human bodies.

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97 Lawrence Babb has referred to the way in which Sathya Sai Baba (1926–2011)—who claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi—was believed to have similar powers. “He has been reported, for example, to have performed surgery on devotees while they were dreaming.” It is held that he only appears thus when he has willed it, so that each such dream becomes a form of miraculous communication. Miracles occur around his shrine in people's houses, such as mysterious changes, footprints of sacred ash on the floor, and writing in closed notebooks. Babb, Lawrence A., “Sathya Sai Baba's Magic,” Anthropological Quarterly 56, 3 (1983): 116–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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