Attack on Shirdi a political conspiracy

The  spectre of a looming Congress-NCP defeat in the Maharashtra Assembly  elections, due later this year, most likely provoked the Dwarka  Sankaracharya’s vituperative attack on the Sai Baba of Shirdi. The  election in the nation’s financial capital is a matter of survival  for both parties, as well as for Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra  Navnirman Sena. The tragic murder of Pune techie Mohsin Sheikh could  not be exploited as the local media blamed coalition leaders for  vitiating the atmosphere in the State.

The  pro-Congress Sankaracharya’s tirade against Shirdi Sai Baba comes  amidst subterranean rumours that the Congress-NCP is desperate to  retain the State at any cost. Hence the ploy to craft a Hindu-Muslim  schism as reports suggest that Muslims are rethinking their alignment  with Congress and so-called secular parties, and considering having  an open mind towards the BJP which won the recent Parliamentary  elections. A second objective is to divide and confuse the Hindu  devotees of Sai Baba, against whom vicious rumour-mongering has begun  in several places.

Readers  may recall that Swami Swaroopanand’s animus towards the BJP and its  Prime Ministerial candidate is so pronounced that during the recent  Lok Sabha campaign he slapped a journalist who asked him about  Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister. Previously, he took objection  to the enthusiastic slogan ‘Har Har Modi’ and complained to the  RSS chief, who caved in, to the dismay of party workers.

The  Sankaracharya has now extended his crusade against ‘vyakti  puja’  to Sai Baba, virtually ordering Hindus not to worship the saint as he  was a human being and not a God; that reverence for Sai Baba is a  conspiracy to divide Hindus; and that people are making money in his  name. The Shirdi Sansthan is indeed Maharashtra’s richest shrine,  with annual revenues around Rs 100 crore, which has tempted the State  Government to try to take it over in order to appropriate the  offerings. The Sansthan spends most of its income on charity.

Swami  Swaroopanand, who for decades has seized control of both the Dwarka  and Badrinath peethams in violation of the norms governing the  mathams established by Adi Sankara, has agitated bhaktas by asserting  that devotion to Sai Baba is a conspiracy to disturb the existing  hierarchy of Gods: “This is a conspiracy to divide the belief of  common man. There are only two Gods, Lord Ram and Krishna”. He adds  without any evidence that those who do not want the Government to  construct the Ayodhya temple are spreading the belief that Sai Baba  was a God.

Adding  insult to injury, the Sankaracharya says Sai Baba is not the epitome  of Hindu-Muslim unity, or he would have been revered by Muslims as  much as by Hindus. The Sanatan Dharma avers that there are 24 avatars of Vishnu; the Kaliyuga lists only Kalki and Buddha; hence Sai Baba  cannot be considered an avatar, in his opinion.

It  does not take much scholarship to see that the Sankaracharya’s  arguments are flawed. Hindus personify their deities, claim descent  from astral bodies like the sun (surya-vanshi)  and moon (chandra-vanshi),  and believe that the same divine spark (atma)  runs through the creation, including human beings. Hence all are  worthy of worship and are worshipped, viz, earth (prithvi),  trees (pipal),  plants (tulsi),  mountains (Kailash),  rivers (Ganga),  sky (akash),  fire (agni),  wind (vayu),  et al. Parents are regarded as a pilgrimage in themselves (tirth  dham)  and ancestral worship (shraad)  is a pillar of the Hindu faith. Chaste wives are regarded as Sati  (Anusuiya); husbands (karva-chauth)  and children (Ahoi)  revered. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was worshipped as a personification of  Vishnu in his lifetime though he does not fit the avatar timeline; in  our own time, the Paramacharya of Kanchi was similarly revered.  Examples of partial manifestations (ansh  avatar)  of the gods and goddesses abound, and need not detain us here.

Coming  to Sai Baba, little is known of his life. Popular legend says he was  a Muslim saint who in the mid-nineteenth century mysteriously arrived  in Shirdi as a nameless youth; lived in a forest on the outskirts of  the village and meditated under a neem tree. Villagers were drawn to him and made offerings of food; at some  stage, after being ejected from a Shiva temple, he moved into an  abandoned mosque which he designated ‘Dwarka-mai’ (abode of  Krishna). His devotees included Muslims but mainly Hindus; he  preached the unity of godhead (sab  ka malik ek)  which is not the same as monotheism. With time, his followers erected  temples in his honour in virtually every city, and because of his  emphasis on feeding devotees (and dogs) he has emerged as the  patron-saint of traditional food eateries.

Sai  Baba was widely credited with the power to perform miracles, to see  the future and save his devotees from misfortune. In some mystic  circles it is said that he was among a band of revolutionaries in  1857, who fled to the Himalayas when the mutineers lost; they  encountered and received training from the legendary Mahaavatar  Babaji. While this is impossible to verify, the detailed biography by  MV Kamath and VB Kher (Sai  Baba: A Unique Saint)  convincingly establishes the fact that he had formidable yogic  powers.

Sai  Baba acquired considerable fame in his lifetime, and according to the  record of his life in Sai  Charitra,  Lokmanya Tilak came to Shirdi to take his blessings in the company of  freedom fighter Dadasaheb Khaparde. Swami Ram Baba, the  Cambridge-educated scion of the royal family of Dewas (Madhya  Pradesh) had cleared the ICS when an inner voice led him to Sai Baba  in 1914. Paramhamsa Yogananda’s Autobiography  of a Yogi has a picture of the Swami who remained with Sai Baba in Nasik and  formally took samadhi in Mumbai in 1989 at the age of 129.

It  will take more than the pique of a politically aligned Sankaracharya  to push an entrenched sage like Sai Baba off the Hindu pantheon.  Swami Swaroopanand probably did not foresee that the shocked devotees  would file complaints under sections 295A (deliberately hurting  religious sentiments) and 298 (statement given with intention to hurt  religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code. Cases have already been  filed in Indore, Hyderabad and Shirdi; more may follow. Eventually,  the Sankaracharya’s lawyers will advise him to apologise and  retreat as the manoeuvre has boomeranged badly. Should Prime Minister  Modi decide to visit Shirdi during electioneering for the Assembly,  the smear campaign would get a fitting riposte.

First published The Pioneer, 1 July 2014 [Title: Swami  takes on a sage, devotees confused]

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