The Dwarka Shankaracharya’s recent remarks about Shirdi Sai Baba (see TOI report here) are unfortunate, if hardly surprising. Seers like Sai Baba have existed in the margins of organised religion in the subcontinent, and are often regarded as a threat to the existing religious status quo. The reason is simple. They do not owe or declare allegiance to any organised religion, which in the Indian subcontinent is usually bound up with several layers of heirarchy – caste, gender, class, and so on. They have also usually ‘opted out’ of societal norms, and have embarked upon a spiritual journey that has led to an inner attainment and realisation, a direct experience of the sacred that might be quite different from the prescribed dos and don’ts of ritualised religion.
Their appeal to the masses is because of their accessibility, their ability to provide spiritual solace and guidance, and because with the passage of time, they might come to be regarded as wish-fulfillers as well. Certainly, this is the case with the sage who is now known as Sai Baba of Shirdi, and it is this aspect of his appeal that draws ever-increasing numbers to his shrines each year.
One of the reasons the venerable Shankaracharya gives for Hindus to stop revering Sai Baba is because he was a “Muslim fakir”. In which case, I suppose he would want us to stop singing Kabir’s songs because he was a brought up by a Muslim couple, and oh, Meera too, for publicly singing of how her heart belonged not to her husband but to another? Lalla might qualify for the “fallen woman” tag as well, because didn’t she roam around naked? So, off with her divinely beautiful vaakhs. This list could become endless.
I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that guardians of organised religion will always want people’s faith and their connection with the sacred to stick to a particular model (preferably designed and designated by them). In India, for millennia, we have defied those who deem to be the definers of our relationship with the sacred. Sramanas (spiritual seekers) were opting out of the pale of organised society and religion on inner quests of truth certainly before and around the Buddha’s time some 2,500 years ago. A popular saying in India is, ‘There are as many paths as there are seekers’. Each seeker of spiritual truth has the freedom and the right to forge his or her own inner path to the sacred. It is time we stood up and owned this right for ourselves today.