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Miracle Cures for a Suffering Nation: Sai Baba of Shirdi

  • David Hardiman (a1)

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.

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1 Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, Volume I, An Introduction (Harmondsworth, 1984), 135–50.

2 Fehér, Ferenc and Heller, Agnes, Biopolitics (Aldershot, 1994), 63.

3 Chakrabarty, Dipesh, “Community, State and the Body: Epidemics and Popular Culture in Colonial India,” in Hardiman, David and Mukharji, Projit Bihari, eds., Medical Marginality in South Asia: Situating Subaltern Therapeutics (Abingdon, 2012), 3658.

4 Ibid., 46–47.

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), 139–40.

6 Mukta, Parita, Upholding the Common Life: The Community of Mirabai (New Delhi, 1994).

7 Marianne Warren, whose study of Sai Baba focuses on his Sufi persona, defines a faqīr as a person who either takes “the Sufi tariqat of spiritual path towards God-realization, or one who has already attained God-realization.” She notes also the way that this entailed embracing poverty. Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi, 1999), 2.

8 Snell, Rupert, “Introduction: Themes in Indian Hagiography,” in Callewaert, W. and Snell, R., eds., According to Tradition: Hagiographical Writing in India (Wiesbaden, 1994), 1.

9 For an excellent discussion of this, see Ali, Daud, “Temporality, Narration and the Problem of History: A View from Western India c. 1100–1400,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 50, 2 (Apr. 2013): 237–59. This entire issue of the journal is relevant in this context.

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), 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.

12 Feldhaus, Anne, The Deeds of God in Ṛddhipur (New York, 1984).

13 For one such case, see ibid., 48.

14 On the divine infliction of misfortune on humans and the ways that humans may make amends, see Fuller, C. J., The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India (Princeton, 1992), 224–27.

15 Feldhaus, Deeds of God, 4.

16 Ibid., 19.

17 Ibid., 57, 79, 133–34, 154.

18 Ibid., 83, 86, 92, 149, 150.

19 The main source for this paragraph is Natvar Lal Gokal Das Shah, A Life of Shri Vallabhacharya (Baroda, 1984), 5960, 63–65, 67–68.

20 Fuller, Camphor Flame, 226.

21 Tambs-Lyche, Harald, Power, Profit and Poetry: Traditional Society in Kathiawad, Western India (New Delhi, 1997), 248–50.

22 Mahīpati was a Brahman of Maharashtra who lived from 1719–1790, and who recorded the lives of the sants in a series of books in the Marathi language. Justin Abbott translated these into English in the 1920s and 1930s (see following notes).

23 Abbott, Justin E., The Poet Saints of Maharashtra, No. 8, Rāmdās: Translation of Mahīpati's Santivada (Pune, 1932), 279.

24 Ibid., 167–68.

25 Abbott, Justin E., The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra, No. 7, Tukārām: Translation of Mahīpati's Bhaktalilamrita, chapters 25 to 40 (Pune, 1930), 248–49.

26 Abbott, Justin E., The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra, No. 2, Eknāth: A Translation of Mahīpati's Bhaktalilāmṛita (Pune, 1927), 202–4.

27 Abbott, Justin E., The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra, No. 1: Bhānudās: A Translation from the Bhaktavijaya (Pune, 1926).

28 Dave, H. T., Life and Philosophy of Shree Swaminarayan (London, 1974), 143.

29 Williams, Raymond B., A New Face of Hinduism: The Swaminarayan Religion (Cambridge, 1984), 2224.

30 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 67. See also Schimmel, Annemarie, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, 1975).

31 For a detailed study of such shrines in Gujarat, see Basu, Helene, “Ritual Communication: The Case of the Sidi in Gujarat,” in Ahmad, I. and Reifeld, H., eds., Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict (New Delhi, 2004), 233–53.

32 Kanaka O Lila,” in Sen, D.C., ed., Purva-Banga-Gitika, vol. 1, pt. 2 (Calcutta, 1923–1932), 230, quoted in Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 115.

33 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 96–97.

34 Joshi, Kulapati Balkrishna, Sri Jalaram: Mines of Miracles, Mudaliar, Rathnam, trans. (Madras, 1986), 1930, 41, 43, 101.

35 Ibid., 101–2.

36 Ibid., 107–10.

37 Ibid., 138–40.

38 Ibid., 145–96.

39 For examples, see ibid., 150, 152, 155–56, 165, 171.

40 Mukharji, Projit Bihari, Nationalizing the Body: The Medical Market, Print and Daktari Medicine (London, 2009), 4446.

41 Ibid., 161–62.

42 Ibid., 70–74.

43 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 87–88.

44 Ibid., 36–42.

45 Singh, Pragya, Sai Baba: The Supreme Doctor (New Delhi, 2011), 3536, 58–61; Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 65.

46 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 45–46.

47 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 88–90.

48 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 97.

49 Kamath, M. V. and Kher, V. B., Sai Baba of Shirdi: a Unique Saint (Mumbai, 1991), 86.

50 For an excellent study of this tradition, see Novetzke, C. L., History, Bhakti and Public Memory: Namdev in Religious Tradition (New Delhi, 2009).

51 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 110, 134–35, 223.

52 Ibid., 109.

53 Ibid., 99, 123–28.

54 Ibid., 100.

55 Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 350.

56 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 189. This is a common trope of Sufis, as well as the bhakti sants of the nirguna variety, who regard God as having no form or image. See Lorenzen, D., “The Lives of Nirgunī Saints,” in Lorenzen, D., ed., Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action (Albany, 1995), 181211.

57 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 172–73, 179.

58 Ibid., 158.

59 Ibid., 227–28.

60 Dabholkar, Govind Raghunath, Srī Sai Saccarita (Shirdi, 1929), 11:84 (Marathi); quoted in Warren, Unravelling the Enigma, 350.

61 “Life of Shri N. V. Gunaji,” (accessed 9 Sept. 2013).

62 Gunaji, N. V., Shri Sai Satcharita: The Wonderful Life and Teachings of Shri Sai Baba (Mumbai, n.d.); Singh, Pragya, Sai Baba: The Supreme Doctor (New Delhi, 2011), 60, 69, 71.

63 Parthasarathy, Rangaswami, God Who Walked on Earth: The Life and Times of Shirdi Sai Baba (New Delhi, 1996), 311.

64 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 285.

65 Osborne, Arthur, The Incredible Sai Baba: The Life and Miracles of a Modern-Day Saint (Calcutta, 1957), 3739.

66 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 197.

67 On Chokhāmelā, see Zelliot, E., “Chokhāmelā: Piety and Protest,” in Lorenzen, D., ed., Bhakti Religion in North India: Community Identity and Political Action (Albany, 1995), 212–20.

68 Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 127.

69 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 337–39, 344.

70 Ibid., 231.

71 Fabian, Johannes, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York, 1983), 67.

72 Iggers, G. G., ed., The Theory and Practice of History: Leopold von Ranke (Abingdon, 2011), xvi, 4.

73 On this, see Van der Veer, Peter, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, 1994), 142–44.

74 Fabian, Time and the Other, 6–7.

75 Good, Byron J., Medicine, Rationality, and Experience: An Anthropological Perspective (Cambridge, 1994), 138.

76 Ibid., 163.

77 Ibid., 140.

78 Narasimhaswami, B. V., Life of Sai Baba, vol. 4 (Madras, 1983), 35.

79 For an example, see Bharucha, Perin S., Sai Baba of Shirdi (New Delhi, 1980).

80 Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 156–57.

81 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 150.

82 For one such case, see Bharucha, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 62–63. Projit Bihari Mukharji has written on dreaming and healing in Bengali therapeutic practice, in Swapnaushadhi: The Embedded Logic of Dreams and Medical Innovation in Bengal,” Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry 38, 3 (2014): 387407. For some reflections on the relationship between dreams, psychoanalysis, and the writing of history, see Jolly, Margaretta, “Nuclear Nights: The Women's Peace Movement and the History of Dreaming,” Women: A Cultural Review 17, 1 (2006): 125.

83 Narasimhaswami, B. V., Sai Baba's Charters and Sayings (Madras, 1942), 165.

84 Osborne, Incredible Sai Baba, 40–41.

85 Bharadwaj, A. E., Sai Baba the Master (Ongole, 1983), 77.

86 Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, 131.

87 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 345–46.

88 Bharadwaja, Sai Baba, 39.

89 Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, 133–34.

90 Ramalingaswami, Ambrosia in Shirdi (Shirdi, 1984), 166.

91 See, for example, Daya, Dalpatram, Bhut Nibandh: An Essay, Descriptive of the Demonology and Other Popular Superstitions of Guzerat (Bombay, 1849); Enthoven, R. E., The Folklore of Bombay (Oxford, 1924), 193207.

92 Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 162–63.

93 Narasimhaswamiji, B. V., Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba, vol. 1 (Chennai, 2008), 110–13; Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 215.

94 Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 111–12, 119; Osborne, Incredible Sai Baba, 44.

95 Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 109–10.

96 Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, 135.

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): 116–24.

98 Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, 159–60.

99 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 347.

100 Keesing, Roger, “Anthropology as Interpretative Quest,” Current Anthropology 28 (1987): 161–78.

101 Narasimhaswami, Devotees’ Experiences, 29.

102 Ruhela, Satya Pal, What Researchers Say on Sri Shirdi Sai Baba (Faridabad, 1994), 48.

103 Rigopoulos, Life and Teachings, 340.

104 Yogananda, Paramahansa, Autobiography of a Yogi (Bombay, 1975), 266–74.

105 Ibid., fn. on 276.

106 Cited in Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi, 152–53.

107 Last, Murray, “Non-Western Concepts of Disease,” in Bynum, W. F. and Porter, Roy, eds., Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, vol. 1 (London, 1993), 653.

108 Pandian, M.S.S., “Writing Ordinary Lives,” in Pandey, Gyanendra, ed., Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories (New York, 2010), 106.

109 For a detailed examination of this phenomenon, see Nanda, Meera, The God Market: How Globalization Is Making India more Hindu (New York, 2011).

110 However, in a very recent move, some Hindu fundamentalists are now trying to disown Sai Baba on the grounds that he was “really” a Muslim. This represents a new departure in Sai Baba's posthumous career; (accessed 27 Oct. 2014).

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