I had been coming to see Satya Sai Baba for a few years and had heard that he was an incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim mystic who taught about unity amongst all faiths. I was intrigued by Shirdi Sai Baba’s appearance with his beard and bandanna wrapped around his head since I myself was very comfortable using the two. It was not till a late night in 2003 while I was sleeping at a friend’s home in Puttaparthi, Southern India that the connection between us was ignited.
I was awoken by the visitation of an old man standing at the foot of my bed, dressed in a long white robe with a beard and his head covered by a cloth. He pointed a long finger at me and said “come to Shirdi tomorrow” and then vanished. I was astonished and since I was half asleep, did not think much about it and went back to sleep. Within a few hours, I had a dream where the same old man was standing on top of a building, which looked like an Indian temple, and holding onto the flag that adorned the golden roof and looking at me, he said, “come to Shirdi Tomorrow”. By the time I awoke next morning, this old man who could be none other then Shirdi Sai Baba had visited me three times with the instructions to come to Shirdi, tomorrow:) He lived in the Town of Shirdi in the late 1800’s and was named after the town as no one knew his name. He became one of the most famous saints to ever have appeared in India, renowned for his healing's, blessings and teachings.
As I started the day with Shirdi in my thoughts, I headed to the main temple in Prashanti Nilayam, Satya Sai Baba’s ashram. Upon sitting down amongst the crowd while we waited for Satya Sai’s appearance, a man next to me reached into his shirts front pocket and handed me a small picture card with Shirdi Sai Baba on it with a smile and said : Om Sai Ram" the greeting Sai devotees share amongst each other.. I gratefully accepted it and marveled once again at the powers of these incredible saints. After seeing Satya Sai come out and bless everyone, I headed over to the North Indian Canteen for some good food, as I walked up to the cashier to pay for my meal, I could not but marvel at the book about Shirdi Sai Baba’s life right next to him, with his picture looking straight at me.
Heeding these obvious hints, I finished my meal quickly with the idea to go tell my friend Narendra who was also a Shirdi Sai Baba devotee about my experience. As soon as I told him about my experiences of the previous night and the morning, he looked at me with a beautiful smile upon his face and said “oh brother, you are so lucky, Shirdi Sai Baba is calling you to him personally, so many people do not have this chance, don’t think about anything but go, Ill help you get your ticket”. Within minutes I had a train ticket booked for that evening to Kopergaon, a town in the state of Maharastra within 40 miles or so of Shirdi. I would have to catch my train in Dahrmavaram, a small city an hour away from Puttaparthi and so I thanking my friend, I ran to where I was staying to pack my things.
Whilst getting ready for the evenings journey, I kept feeling that I should go the local temple where there was a small statue of Shirdi Sai Baba to ask for his blessings for a safe and uneventful trip. I quickly finished packing and headed to the other side of town to the small temple. Leaving my shoes to the side I walked through the temple gates and came upon a group of men dressed in orange robes with beards and scarves on their heads serving food to all in front of the small temple housing Shirdi Sai’s statue. As they served people, they chanted Shirdi Sai Baba’s name out loud. I bowed in front of Shirdi Sai’s statue and asked for blessings and then sat amongst the devoted and ate a hearty meal of rice and vegetables, with my hand before heading to catch my train on time with a full belly.
The next afternoon, after traveling from southern India the train arrived in Kopergaon. I alighted with my bag and didgeridoo slung over shoulder. As I walked out of the train station, I saw a line of scooter rickshaws and headed over, getting ready for the interminable haggling that I had to go through everywhere in India to makes sure that I was not getting cheated more then necessary. As I approached the first rickshaw in line, an indian gentleman stuck his head out of the passenger side and said” are you going to Shirdi, would you like a ride?” Happily I said yes and off we went to through the majestic Indian countryside passing bullock drawn carts piled high with grain and feed, pilgrims walking in long lines of color next to the road, all the while chanting Shirdi Sai Baba’s name. As my heart swelled in the Indian heat of devotion, my companion started telling me that his guru was devoted to Shirdi and they met here once a year to pray to Shirdi and serve the poor and if I wanted he could help me to get a hotel after visiting his guru.
Upon arriving in Shirdi amongst the hustle and bustle of thousands of pilgrims from throughout India, we were driven to a small house were I was immediately introduced to this mans teacher who blessed me and called me Sai Manu. I accepted his blessings and gently told him that my name was Manu to which he said “yes, yes, Sai Manu” I did not know where he was coming from and did not want my name changed by a stranger but I accepted his love and devotion for Shirdi. I was then led to a simple and small hotel where I left my things and immediately headed to the temple complex where Shirdi Baba used to live.
As I walked through the dusty streets, dodging dogs, cows, muddy potholes and jeeps packed with pilgrims driven by mustachioed madmen, I could not help but notice the quantity of beggars in this town. I had read that Shirdi Baba would walk through town begging for alms which he would then cook or distribute to the needy who visited him and it seemed that these people were emulating him even now, As some walked around with beards and covered heads like fakirs, muttering mysterious words of blessing and surrounded by wreaths of pungent smoke coming from pots full of incense and a hand carrying a fan peacock feathers, willing to dust away ones karma for a pocketful of change. These were his children, his people, the dusty and the poor, the rich and the famous. Be they Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Christian, This was Shirdi and all were welcome.
As I passed the arches that led into his temple complex, I could see in the near distance a beautiful temple adorned with a golden dome with a flag next to it and as I drew closer I realized that it was the rooftop he had called me from. Even more of a delight when I found out that it was where he was buried. He had called me from his tomb, his holy Samadhi. A destination of millions who believe that he watches them from beyond the grave, taking care of all of their problems however small or big they may be. I walked into the temple and stood in line amongst thousands chanting “Sainath Maharaj ki:, while thousands called back "Jai!!” The energy was electrifying and as we made our way through the long lines, I could see on the wall pictures and paintings of his old devotees and wondered if I had been there with him, if I knew him? When I made it in front of his tomb and saw his statue on top of it, I bowed deeply and felt that yes, I knew him, I had sat with and served him lovingly.
Once I flowed out of the Samadhi temple along with the constant stream of devotees, I headed back to my hotel, stopping on the way to take one of the mysterious beggars into a restaurant with me to have lunch. The next day after Samadhi Darshan, I saw these old men playing trumpets and horns in the courtyard adjacent. I quickly ran to my hotel and fetched my digeridoo. I played it for these delightful old men who laughed so hard while talking to me in their dialect which I understood as much as they my English. It was great to feel their kindness and joy for music as they showed their precious trumpets to me which seemed much older then them. As we played together, children came and danced around. It was a precious moment.
When I walked back to my hotel with this obvious instrument strapped over my back, the hotel receptionist told me about a school for deaf and mute children where he taught yoga and whether I wanted to go with him. Happily I agreed and within minutes was in a big two-story house surrounded by quiet children with beautiful big dark eyes and shy smiles. The kind Christian warden from the order of Montfort showed me around and explained how they taught the children sign language and to read, write, draw and lip-read and how it helped them so much in their lives when they left the school. I offered to play the didge for the kids and the warden smiled at me a little sadly and asked me how could they ever hear since they were deaf? I asked him to put the kids in a circle and after praying to Shirdi Sai Baba, I walked around and blew the didge straight onto their sweet little chests. Gasps of air, smiles and very fast hand movements followed by explanations that they could all feel the rhythmic vibration and force of the music and some of them could hear it. We played with joy and I finished my afternoon happily with tea and biscuits with the deaf children of Shirdi. On my next visit, I brought them money for a cow so they could have milk, but that’s another tale.
The morning after, as I headed out of my hotel, I saw Shirdi Sai Baba standing in front of the door in his astral form. He motioned me to follow him and started taking me through narrow and back streets whereupon he led me to a big building where many people where standing in line and then he vanished. I walked up to the line and asked what they were waiting for and found out that it was for breakfast. I bought a five rupee ticket and walked with the crowd into a Hugh hall, where there was row upon row of steel tables with stools bolted next to them and as the thousands sat down, a highly efficient crew would come walking down the rows handing out plates followed by men pushing carts with gigantic pots of rice, beans and chapattis. One could eat to their hearts content. I happily ate this Prasad or blessed food as I knew Shirdi sponsored it and I was reminded of how he fed me before I left Puttaparthi. I came to Shirdis canteen for the next two days and one the third day was up to my ears in rice and beans and wanted some variety and as I walked around town I noticed a sign board advertising my favorite indian dish for 35 rupees. I resolved to go eat dinner there after my afternoon nap. After my nap as I headed out of my hotel, Shirdi Sai Baba was waiting for me and beckoning me to follow him, he led me down some unfamiliar side streets to the back of a big building, as I wondered what was there, a group of seven street urchins ran up to me asking for food, they grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to a ticket stall where I realized that I had been led to the back of Shirdi's canteen and so for the price of my favorite dish, I bought meals for seven children to eat to their hearts content while learning that so much can be done for others when we are willing to give up a desire.
The next day was a Thursday and in India it is the day that is used to worship the guru and Shirdi Sai Baba specifically. Behind his main Samadhi temple is an old lane where he would walk through. This lane would lead from his home and temple, the Dwarakamayi to another one called the Chavadi. He would often leave the Dwarakamayi for the Chavadi where it would be more quiet for him. Over time this became an elaborate affair that became a parade. Shirdi Baba would walk down the lane surrounded by devotes playing music, while flower petals were thrown on the ground in front of his feet. He would arrive in the Chavadi and people would worship him by placing garlands around his neck and adorn him with jewels and crowns. He would give these things away later as he did with all money and gifts received. He would go to sleep with an empty begging bowl just as he started the day. Simplicity was his motto and yet he allowed the devotees to worship and adorn him with an understanding that it was from pure love.
These days, they take a large painting of Shirdi Sai Baba from the Dwarakamayi or Samadhi Mandir in a palanquin carried by chanting priests, led by a band and a dancing troupe of young boys and girls, followed by a cannon booming out large amounts of confetti. What a beautiful and colorful celebration. As I stood by the road with my didgeridoo, I saw the procession returning to the Samadhi Mandir from the Chavadi and as the dancing children came near, they saw me and called me to the parade. I immediately recognized them as the children who had danced around the old musicians and I when we had played music together. They kept beckoning me to the front of the procession; I was quite shy and got pushed there by people behind me. And so I found myself, the only white guy for miles, in front of this procession, I could only but be in the the moment and start to play as loud and best as I could, as I started, someone yelled “shoes” I was puzzled, “what?” shoes, take off your shoes!!” Ahhh, I immediately shook one foot and a shoe sailed to the left and then was followed by the other one heading into the crowd on the right. Blowing the Australian didgeridoo, I led Shirdi Babas procession back into his temple, touched, humbled, ecstatic and over the top. Once they put him back in his place, I left the temple and all of a sudden realized that I had no shoes, last I remembered, one had flown to the left and other sailed into the crowd of hundreds to my right. I gave up any hope of finding them as I perused the area thinking that were cheap and the trade off had been worth it. As I walked forward fifteen feet, I saw something that blew me away. To my left, were both of my shoes sitting together covered in a gigantic pile of flowers .With tears pouring down my face, I put on my shoes realizing that my path had been blessed for life by Shirdi Sai Baba.
Feeling my trip was done, I arranged my ticket home and before I headed back to the train station In Kopergaon, I went to Shirdi's Canteen for one last meal. As I walked in and sat down, I looked to my left and there were the men in orange from Puttaparthi who had fed me not long ago. Recognizing each other and the miracle of our meeting while feeling Shirdi Sai Baba’s love, we embraced one another and said “Om Sai Ram” to each other with a smile. I left Shirdi with a bigger heart and humbler outlook on life then ever before. Thank you Shirdi Sai Baba for calling me home.