The Afterlife of Sai Baba

Competing Visions of a Global Saint

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Karline McLain
Global South Asia
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , May
     2016.
     278 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780295995519.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Karline McLain’s The Afterlife of Sai Baba: Competing Visions of a Global Saint is an engaging and accessible account of the devotional following of Shirdi Sai Baba. This formerly itinerant renouncer eventually settled in the small farming village of Shirdi (located today in the Indian state of Maharashtra) in the mid-nineteenth century and remained there until his death in 1918. Today the village has become one of India’s foremost pilgrimage destinations and Shirdi Sai Baba is a ubiquitous, yet continuously ambiguous figure. McLain is interested specifically in the intervening period between Shirdi Sai Baba’s death and this present state of things—a pertinent concern due to the fact that Sai Baba’s astronomic rise in popularity has been largely posthumous. At the heart of her work lies the question of what it means that the main flavor within this following—devoted to a figure whose own religious pedigree is unknown and whose teachings espouse unity and non-sectarianism—is nevertheless a Hindu one. This tension is most poignantly summed up by a line that McLain quotes from the devotional verses of the Shri Sai Chalisa: “You can consider him whomever you would like, after all, ‘but know that Sai is truly Bhagwan’ and should be worshipped as such” (217).

McLain presents not a study of the historical figure, whose chief characteristic is indeed his ambiguity, but rather a history of representation. Engaging with previous scholarship that has emphasized Shirdi Sai Baba’s religious fluidity and bemoaned his subsequent “Hinduization,” she examines this latter process in all of its multivalent complexity. She explains that “by decentering Shirdi Sai Baba and focusing on his afterlife interpretations, this book investigates how Hindu devotees have actively and variously interpreted Shirdi Sai Baba and in so doing have sought to interpret Hinduism as a modern and increasingly global religion through their faith in him” (6). McLain undertakes this task by weaving together a variety of sources and methodologies, from textual—broadly speaking, as she also consults film—to ethnographic. Her findings reveal the following pattern which serves as the implicit organizing principle of the book’s chapters: her Hindu interlocutors turn to Sai Baba for spiritual succor; they do so specifically in a quest to free themselves from the limitations of “traditional Hinduism”; and in doing so they nevertheless utilize religious frameworks that reaffirm and even create a Hindu identity.

The first chapter sets the scene for this trend as it examines the hagiographies authored by two of Shirdi Sai Baba’s closest followers: Govind Rao Dabholkar, a Hindu Brahmin, and Abdul Baba, a Sufi Muslim. While the two men ultimately converge in their vision of Sai Baba as a spiritual teacher whose importance transcends sectarian and theological boundaries, they nevertheless differ in how they understand his person. For Dabholkar, Sai Baba is a Hindu guru and god-man; for Abdul Baba, he is a Sufi master and saint. McLain extends the complexity of this refracted hagiographic vision by tracing the ways in which the Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust, the entity which governs the pilgrimage complex in Shirdhi, has historically privileged Dabholkar’s account.

The second and third chapters build on this specificity of spiritual perspective and examine the ways in which hagiographies of Shirdi Sai Baba have been used to promote a reformist Hindu vision. Chapter 2 presents the work of Das Ganu Maharaj, which posits a utopian vision of Shirdi to argue against inter-caste strife while maintaining the overall Hindu framework of caste distinctions. Chapter 3 focuses on the hagiography authored by B. V. Narasimhaswami, who argued for a universalistic vision of God-realization as a path to ending communal antagonism and uniting Hindus and Muslims despite relying on a Hindu monistic theological framework.

The fourth and fifth chapters depart from purely personal hagiographic and textual sources and examine the Shirdi Sai Baba following in the Bollywood film and transnational temple communities respectively. McLain examines two 1977 films—Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony and Ashok Bhushan’s Shirdi Ke Sai Baba—and the ways in which they represent Sai Baba as a pluralistic folk hero who unites communities and helps the helpless while centering Hindus and Hinduism. Finally, chapter 5 focuses on Shirdi Sai Baba’s transnational popularity, which it examines primarily in the context of two temples in the United States—one in Chicago, Illinois and the other in Austin, Texas. Here, the non-sectarian emphasis on spirituality and pure faith are belied by the reliance on Hindu rituals performed by Brahmin priests.

McLain’s work presents a kaleidoscopic vision of Shirdi Sai Baba’s “afterlife” while nevertheless succeeding in creating a unifying vision of the ways in which Hinduism is privileged at every turn. I find especially compelling her yoking of traditional hagiographic, pop cultural, and ethnographic data. My only wish is that McLain had spent more time examining Shirdi Sai Baba within the context of the modern transnational guru movement. There is a tantalizing yet ultimately dangling section within chapter 5 that positions Shirdi Sai Baba in relation to Meher Baba and Sathya Sai Baba, and posits that their movements contributed to his own growing fame before turning back to the main focus of transnational temples. Given how densely packed with information and how out of step with the surrounding content this section is, it appears as a non sequitur. This is, however, an incredibly minor criticism and perhaps a more fitting subject for an entirely different work.

McLain’s study is surely a valuable contribution not only for its ability to fill a content gap in the study of modern South Asian religion, but for its successful use of this data to explore the inherent paradoxes that reformist spiritual movements face in such a context. Beyond scholars of South Asian and transnational Hinduism, the clarity and accessibility of this work will make it pertinent to anyone interested in the dynamics of modern religious syncretism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anya P. Foxen is a Lecturer in the Religious Studies Program at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karline McLain is chair and associate professor of religious studies at Bucknell University. She is the author of India's Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes.

Keywords: 

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