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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Explained: Contesting claims over the birthplace of Sai Baba

A proposed Rs 100 crore grant for Baba’s ‘birthplace’ Pathri has triggered anger in Shirdi, the town synonymous with the saint. What is the basis of Pathri’s claim? Is the quarrel rooted in faith or insecurity?

Written by Atikh Rashid | Pune | Updated: January 21, 2020 11:36:54 am
Explained: Faith or insecurity? Contesting claims over Sai Baba A view of sanctum santorum of Sai Baba temple in Shirdi. (Express archive photo)

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Monday met representatives from the temple town of Shirdi, who have been upset over the government’s decision to develop Pathri in Parbhani district as the birthplace of Sai Baba. Shirdi MLA Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil said the meeting was “positive”, and the agitation would be withdrawn.

On January 9, Thackeray announced in Aurangabad that his government would grant Rs 100 crore for the development of Pathri as a centre of religious tourism and “the birthplace of Sai Baba”. The plan was originally mooted over three years ago when Devendra Fadnavis was CM, after President Ram Nath Kovind, who was then the Governor of Bihar, visited Pathri in January 2016 and promised local leaders that he would take up the issue of infrastructure in the town with the state government.

Thackeray’s announcement triggered joy and hope in Pathri, a town of 40,000 people about 180 km to the southeast of Aurangabad. In Shirdi, located about 125 km to the west, however, there was anger — and residents of the town that has become synonymous with Sai Baba announced an indefinite bandh in protest.

Pathri: What records say

In 1975, V B Kher, a Sai devotee and former trustee of the temple trust in Shirdi, announced that it was “probable” that the 19th century saint was born in a Yajurvedi Deshastha Brahmin family in Pathri as one of the five sons of one Parshuram Bhusari. In 1978, a trust, the Shri Sai Smarak Samiti, was established to build a temple to Sai Baba at the site where some believed he was born.

In fact, several authoritative, popular works on Baba either directly mention Pathri as his possible birthplace, or speculate that he may have been from that area. Some of these works were either written by, or quoted those who knew Baba personally. Baba is said to have come to Shirdi in 1872, where he lived until he took mahasamadhi (passed away) on October 15, 1918.

Explained: Faith or insecurity? Contesting claims over Sai Baba Click to enlarge

The introduction — written by Hari Sitaram Dikshit alias Kakasaheb — to the Shri Sai Satcharita mentions Pathri. The Shri Sai Satcharita, written in Marathi verse by Govind Raghunath Dabholkar alias Hemadpant, was the first biography of the saint, and was serialised in the Sai Leela magazine. Both Dikshit and Dabholkar were close aides and devotees of Baba.

Dikshit, who gave up his law practice and political activities as a Congress member of the Bombay Legislative Council to serve Baba, is credited with establishing and running the Shirdi Saibaba Sansthan in its intial days. His introduction to the Shri Sai Satcharita, which reportedly appeared in 1923, said: “Sri Sainath Maharaj came to Shirdi about 50 years ago. Shirdi is located in Rahata taluka of Ahmednagar district. There’s no reliable information on his place of origin and his parentage. However, it can be said with certainty that he must have some links with Nizam’s state. In his conversations, there were often references to places like Selu, Jalna, Manwat, Pathri, Parbhani, Aurangabad, Bhir and Bedar. Once a visitor from Pathri came to Shirdi for Sai Baba’s darshan. Sai Baba enquired about several prominent persons by naming them. This leads one to believe that he had special knowledge of Pathri. However, it can’t be stated with surety that he was born there.”

Baba’s “great apostle” B V Narsimhaswami wrote in his book that the saint discouraged questions on his parentage, and when pressed, gave mystifying answers. However, the book quotes Mhalsapaty, a Shirdi goldsmith who was among Baba’s earliest devotees, as saying that on a “momentous occasion” very late in Baba’s life, the saint had told him (Mhalsapaty) that his parents were “Brahmins in Patri in Nizam’s state”.

In a chapter titled ‘Baba’s Earliest Period’ in Vol I of his four-volume tome written in the late 1950s, Narsimhaswami said: “Patri is part of Parvani taluk, and near Manwath. Sai Baba added (in explanation of the fact that he was living in a mosque) that while still a tender child his Brahmin parents handed him over to the care of a fakir who brought him up… Sai Baba occasionally showed interest in Patri and Parvani when people from those parts came to him, (but)… this is practically all that we have about the birth and parentage of Sri Sai Baba.”

Kher, the first person who claimed to have somewhat resolved the mystery and zeroed in on a family in Pathri to which, he believed, Sai Baba “probably” belonged, started his probe from where those before him had left.

Explained: Faith or insecurity? Contesting claims over Sai Baba Pathri, where some believers say Sai Baba was born. (Express Photo: Haseeb Shaikh)

In June 1975, Kher arrived in Pathri and interviewed locals who told him anecdotes about Baba being born in a Brahmin family, and that he was taken away by a Muslim wali when he was a child. Elders of the local Brahmin community told Kher that they believed Baba was born in the Bhusari family house in Vaishnav Galli.

Kher found the house empty and in ruins, but managed to contact a member of the family, Raghunath Bhusari, who had retired as a professor of Marathi in Hyderabad’s Osmania University. Prof Bhusari helped Kher chalk out a family tree going back three generations to the individual who could have been Baba’s father. Bhusari told Kher that he had heard from his grandmother that of the five sons of his great grandfather Parshuram, three had left home very young. One of them, “Haribhau”, had left in search of God.

“Could it not be that Haribhau Bhusari was Sai Baba? I wonder. The theory advanced above is probable. I discussed it jointly with an experienced lawyer and a reputed historian, and both of them agreed that it could be so. I do not wish to add anything further, I leave the matter to the readers to judge for themselves,” Kher wrote.

Later, Kher and Pathri resident Dinkar Chaudhari bought the Bhusari family house and established the Shri Sai Smarak Samiti. The trust built a temple at the site, which was inaugurated in 1999.

Devotee vs devotee

Abdullah Khan Durrani, a senior NCP leader who has controlled Pathri Municipal Council for over three decades and has been a member of the Shri Sai Smarak Samiti Trust since 1978, said local people had met President Kovind four years ago.

“He was Bihar Governor when he visited the temple. We apprised him of the inconvenience that devotees faced because the temple has a very narrow approach road, and there are no proper places for devotees to stay. Kovindji had called (then CM) Devendra Fadnavis and requested him to do something to improve the situation. We met Fadnavisji in Mumbai, and he told us to prepare a development plan, and that he would grant Rs 100 crore. The Pathri Municipal Council prepared the plan, but it was not sanctioned due to opposition from the people of Shirdi. Now, Uddhavji has made the announcement and we are sure the plan will go ahead.”

Durrani, who is a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, said the people of Shirdi had no reason to feel insecure. “Shirdi is Baba’s Karmabhoomi. Pathri is his Janmabhoomi. Even now about 1,500-2,000 devotees visit the temple in Pathri every day; it does not mean that they don’t want to go to Shirdi,” he said.

But the residents of Shirdi argue that if Baba wanted his roots to be known, he would have announced it himself.

“There is no point in looking for his birthplace. There will be many claimants. We don’t mind if Pathri is given Rs 100 crore or even Rs 1,000 crore. What we are objecting to is the claim that Baba was born in Pathri. It appears to be a conspiracy to spread a wrong message among Baba’s devotees,” Sachin Tambe, a former trustee of Saibaba Sansthan Shirdi, said.

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