There are many stories of the childhood of Sai Baba of Shirdi; he is in a league with the childhood of Jesus, for there is a palpable lack of written records. What is given here is sources from ‘sruti, that which is heard, a form of divine revelation given to seekers of the Divine those who seek the divine and nothing else in their lives. It is meet and fitting to consider that Sai Baba of Shirdi remained in one location for sixty years, and called devotees to him, those who were his bhaktas in ages past. Time is a plaything for the One who is master of time and space, the kalapurusha. Read on and consider the ‘sruti appended.
Ganga Bhavadia was a poor boatman, who used to ferry his passengers across a river flowing placidly by the little hamlet of Pathri, near Manmad. His wife, Devagiriamma, was a kind devout soul, who after completing her domestic chores, devoted her time worshipping God in the form of Parvati. Her husband paid his homage to the form of God he loved most, which was Shiva, consort of Parvati. They were a devoted but childless couple. One evening, when Ganga Bhavadia had returned home from work, he noticed clouds gathering on the horizon … That night, a furious storm broke over Pathri and the normally placid waters of the river were surging wildly, sweeping everything away in a rushing torrent. Ganga Bhavadia hurried to the river bank to strengthen the mooring of his boats and look after their safety during the storm.
After a while, an old man took refuge from the storm into the verandah of Ganga Bhavadia’s house. He requested Devagiriamma to provide him with some food and shelter for the night. She served some food to the old man and permitted him to rest on the verandah. After some time, the old man knocked on the door and complained to Devagiriamma that he could not sleep and wanted a lady to maalish (massage) his legs. The lady of the house was taken aback at this strange request from a strange man, particularly as she was all by herself in the house. Nevertheless she did not wish to disappoint the old man. So she left the house by the back door to visit the houses of a couple of courtesans, who might help her out of this peculiar situation. However, no courtesans were available… she was in a state of confusion and began to cry. Interspersed with bitter sobbing, she prayed to Parvati for help.
Just then she heard a knock on the back door. She opened the door and found a woman standing there. She had come to offer her services to Devagiriamma. This woman was from one of the houses visited earlier by her. She took this woman to the old man on the verandah and firmly bolted the door behind them. No sooner than she had she thought of settling down for the night when a tap was heard on the front door. As Devagiriamma opened the door, she was absolutely amazed by the vision she beheld. In speechless wonder she knelt and bowed low before the Divine Pair. God had manifested before her in the form of Lord Shiva and Parvati, to bless her. Parvati said, “Let us bless her together.” Siva replied that as He had come here specifically to test her, he would bless her separately. Parvathi blessed her with two children, and Shiva announced that He himself would be born to her as her third child, as on. With her eyes brimful of tears, Devagiriamma looked up. The Divine Pair had vanished.
The storm had abated, and Ganga Bhavadia returned home in the early hours of the morning. When his wife related to him her experiences of the previous night, he thought they were the hysterical utterances of a woman left by herself on a stormy night and promptly dismissed the matter. However, subsequent events proved otherwise.
The childless couple bore two children. Years rolled by and it was apparent that a third child was on the way. In the meantime Ganga Bhavadia began to lose all interest in everyday work and domestic life. He developed an intense yearning to see God face to face. Just as Devagiriamma was approaching full term with her third child, his craving for Ishwara Darshan (vision of God) became so intense that he decided to leave his family and home. Devagiriamma argued that all that been told by Siva and Parvati had been fulfilled and as Shiva Himself was due to take birth as her next child, what was the necessity of leaving home in search of God. Ganga Bhavadia replied that he was not going to be satisfied with the vision of God through the body of his son. He wanted to see the pure splendour of divinity without the agency of a human mask. And so he set forth on his quest. The dictates of dharma left no choice to Devagiriamma except to follow her husband. The two children were sent to her mother’s house and she followed her husband into the wilderness.
Very soon Devagiriamma experienced the first symptoms of her impending delivery and she asked her husband to wait for her, but he just hurried on. She stopped, exhausted beneath an banyan tree and prepared herself for the delivery of the child. A son was born to Devagiriamma, in fulfilment of her vision. She prepared a bed of leaves and covered the child with some more leaves. She was in such haste to follow her husband , that she did not even wipe the blood off her new born child.
Now it so happened that Mr Patil, a Muslim, was returning to his village in a tonga with his wife. She had gone to visit her mother in a nearby hamlet. As the tonga approached the banyan tree, Srimati (Mrs) Patil decided to answer a call of nature. She alighted from the tonga and went in the direction of the banyan tree. There she heard the cry of a baby and discovered a child under the leaves. With great excitement she called her husband from the tonga and showed him the baby. They looked around for the mother of the child, but they looked in vain. Finally, they decided to take the child home. The Patils had no children of their own, so they considered this child as God’s gift to them and brought him up as their own son. They named him Babu.
Mischief and an Ashram
By the time Babu grew into boyhood his foster father had died and Smt. Patil was left alone to take care of him. However, Babu was no ordinary boy of his age and his activities caused her great concern. He not only installed and worshipped a stone lingam in a mosque, but also recited passages from the Koran in all the Hindu temples he visited. Thus he upset both communities. By these acts, Babu tried to show the unity of both religions to the people of that village. However, the whole neighbourhood was in an uproar and bitter complaints about his activities began pouring to Smt. Patil. Not knowing Babu’s antecedents, she did not know how to handle him.
One day, Babu (or the future Sai Baba of Shirdi) declared his divinity to a shaukar’s (a wealthy landlord) wife. While playing a game, the shaukar’s son lost all his marbles to Babu. The boy wanted to win back his marbles but as he had lost them all, what could he stake or play with? Suddenly, he remembered the Saligram (black globular stone used for worship) in his mother’s puja room and decided to take that and play with it. Very soon, he lost even the Saligram to Babu. However, the boy felt that Babu had cheated him and he demanded it back from Babu. But Babu refused to part with it and promptly put it in his mouth. Then the shaukar’s son was frightened and made a clean breast of his activities to his mother. When he told her about taking the Saligram from the puja room and losing it to Babu, the horrified shaukar’s wife came rushing to Babu and demanded the Saligram back from him. But she found a tight, stubborn boy, who refused to return it. No amount of coaxing or pleading worked with Babu. Finally, she compelled him to open his mouth and she saw a vision of the Cosmic Person in place of the Saligram. It was the same vision of the Lord that Yashoda (Krishna’s foster mother) had seen in the mouth of Krishna. Babu laughed and told her to look for the Saligram in her puja room. She found that the Saligram had miraculously arrived back in its place in the puja room. Realising the significance of this leela, the shaukar’s wife prostrated herself at Babu’s feet. From that day on, she used to visit Babu’s house every day and touch his feet, until ignorant people criticised her which made her stop this outward act of homage to Babu. Thereafter, she worshipped him mentally.
By now, Smt. Patil was a thoroughly confused woman, and she felt utterly helpless trying to curb Babu’s activities. She decided to take him to an ashram for orphans run by a sadhu called Venkusha. The ashram was situated some distance away at Selu and the foster mother felt that Babu would be safe in that place away from various distractions and “mischief”. The night before the arrival of Baba at the ashram, Venkusha had a dream in which Lord Shiva told him that He, Lord Shiva himself, would come to him tomorrow at 10AM. The next morning, a slightly puzzled Venkusha expectantly awaited events. Around ten o’clock Smt. Patil arrived with Baba at the ashram. She told Venkusha about Baba’s behaviour in the village, praying to him to accept Baba as an inmate of the ashram. Venkusha instinctively recognised the young Baba as none other than an incarnation of the Lord, and with great delight and due reverence, he accepted Him into the ashram. Venkusha said that the very pupil for whom he had been waiting for a long time had at last arrived. A happy foster mother turned back towards her village.
Very soon the other boys in the ashram grew jealous of Baba as Venkusha was very fond of him, or appeared to be so in their minds. They began to persecute Baba. The climax came when Venkusha sent Baba into the woods to fetch some Bilva leaves for worship one day. A group of boys followed him, and at the appropriate time, they overpowered him and beat him mercilessly. One of them threw a brick at Baba which inflicted a deep wound on his forehead. Baba did not utter a single word of complaint, only he showed the brick to Venkusha. Seeing Baba in this condition, Venkusha was deeply grieved and moved to tears. He quickly tore a part of his dress and bandaged Baba’s wound. He shed tears over the brick which was now stained with the Lord’s blood.
When Baba left Selu, the brick was given to him by Venkusha as guru-diksha (the passing on of the Guru’s blessings and grace). The young Lord received a brick stained with his own blood, as a token of love and reverence towards him from Venkusha. The brick was almost as dear to Venkusha as it was to Baba. Having received it from Venkusha, it was equally dear to Baba. Baba carried the brick with him when he travelled to Shirdi with Patil’s marriage party, and took it with him when he took up residence in the dilapidated masjid called Dwaraka Mayi. It amazed many a devotee to witness Baba’s strange behaviour towards that brick. He used to lean against it, or rest his hand on it, or sometimes at night, he would use it as a pillow.