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RADICAL RISHI: A BIOGRAPHY OF UPASANI MAHARAJ (1870-1941)

Upasani  Maharaj  circa  1917

Unpublished manuscript by British author Kevin R. D. Shepherd, completed in 2020

Author Kevin R. D. Shepherd (see bibliography)

 

CONTENTS  KEY  FOR  PART  TWO

23.    The  Lendi  Walk

24.    Padukas  and  the  Palmist  Narsobawadi

25.    Para-Yogi: Knower  of  Brahman

26.    Physical  Labours  Grounding  Unmatta

27.    Unusual  Experiences  and  Circles  of  Light

28.    Dislocation  in  Consciousness

29.    Story  of  Yogi  Bua

30.    Turiya  and  the  Dead  Horse

31.    Speaking  and  Acting  as  a  Woman

32.    Dr.  Pillai  and  Other  Devotees

33.    Muslim  Admirers

34.   Sai  Baba  Inaugurates  Worship  of  Upasani

35.   Nanavali  and  the Tormenting  Gang

36.   Visitors  to  the  Khandoba  Temple

37.   Two  Shirdi  Saints  and  Bapusaheb  Jog

38.   Sai  Baba  and  the  Purgative

39.   First  Departure  from  Shirdi,  July  1914

40.   Misconceptions  and  Hindsight  Reporting

41.   Commencing  Return  to  Normal  Function

42.   Move  to  West  Bengal

43.   The  Reluctant  Saint  of  Kharagpur

44.   Transition  to  the  Bhangi  (Mahar)  Hut

45.   "The  greatest  of  all  fools"

46.   Living  at  the  Bhangi  Colony

47.   The  brahman  bhangi

48.   Diverse  Encounters  at  Kharagpur

49.   Kalidas  the  Cobbler

         Abbreviations

         Annotations

 

23.  The  Lendi  Walk

For an uncertain duration, Upasani continued to intercept Sai Baba during the daily walk or procession to and from the Lendi Bagh (garden), part of a wasteland on the outskirts of Shirdi. The faqir was accompanied by selected devotees. On these occasions, Upasani would prostrate before Sai Baba. Some followers had learned that direct encounters with the faqir could occur at this juncture of his daily routine. When Sai Baba left the mosque for the Lendi garden, or returned from Lendi to the mosque, he might be in the mood for a brief personal disclosure to those who approached him.

left: Shirdi Sai Baba with devotees, possibly during the Lendi walk; right: Haji Abdul Baba at Shirdi in 1936, this photograph often being mistaken for Sai Baba himself.

Assemblies at the mosque were not always so amenable to private communications (bearing in mind that the major intermediary at the mosque was Shama, a devotee familiar with the idioms of Sai Baba). The faqir could be more direct during the Lendi excursion, in conditions where a less formal etiquette prevailed. Sai Baba was daily accompanied, to and from the Lendi garden, by the intrepid Abdul Baba (the primary sevakari, a Muslim accustomed to dealing with snakes). A varying number of Hindu devotees also accompanied him; it is not clear how often Shama was included in this event.

The significance of Abdul Baba (Abdul ibn Sultan) is generally understated. A resident of Shirdi from 1889, Abdul regularly received food from Sai Baba's own begging round. At the mosque, Abdul would read the Quran to Sai Baba. He was the only man allowed into the Lendi garden precinct favoured by Sai. As a sevakari, Abdul washed the clothes of Sai, cleaned the mosque and chavadi, filled the mosque lamps with oil, and carried water for bathing. He also often cleaned the toilets, a task commonly reserved in Hindu society for "untouchables" or bhangis. Sai Baba allusively referred to Abdul as Halalkhor Mariambi, here meaning a bhangi or sweeper, a Dalit role. Abdul's Notebook preserved statements of Sai Baba in Urdu; this document was for long obscure (Warren 1999:261-309; SBI:15-17, 123-125; Shepherd 2017:5-12).

On one of the intercepted Lendi walks, Sai Baba asked Upasani if anybody stayed with him at night. The answer was no. However, the question did evoke a detailed explanation, from the temple dweller, of how he had become sensitive to strange nocturnal and paranormal events, emanating from the nearby cremation ground, where corpses arrived night or day for disposal. The mosque dweller told him not to worry. Some words of Sai Baba in this context are reported as: “Allah Malik Hai.... I will purchase your ticket in the special train and escort you until the last station, and until the time your journey is completed, I will personally care into all your affairs.” (99)

Spectators could not understand these Lendi walk interchanges. “Sai Baba revealed to [Upasani] Maharaj many things that were very veiled or secretive, and it is only then that they both departed.” (100) This was apparently a fairly frequent occurrence until mid-1912 (or even late 1912). Afterwards Upasani would return to the Khandoba temple. The indications are that Sai Baba was continually monitoring the situation of his disciple.

During one of these encounters, Sai Baba pointed to a cluster of trees, beneath which was a seat in a clearing. The faqir exclaimed that he could see thousands of devotees gathered in that clearing; he was meaning devotees of Upasani. This congregation were proclaiming the bright future of Upasani, even though the disciple was now an obscure ascetic wearing a torn loin cloth.  (101)

24.  Padukas  and  the  Palmist  Narsobawadi

In August 1912, the temple dweller made what seems to have been his last public appearance at that period. Upasani participated in a devotee ceremony of installing specially commissioned padukas (sandals or “footprints”) under the neem tree at Shirdi (near Sathewada), so strongly associated with Sai Baba. The purpose was to commemorate the advent of the saint in Shirdi. Upasani composed a Sanskrit verse for the occasion, commencing with the words “I bow to Lord Sai Nath.” (102) This verse was engraved (at Upasani’s advice) on the marble paduka memorial. His composition became known as Shri Sainath Mahima Stotra (later recited daily at arati ceremonies in Shirdi).

Swami Samarth of Akkalkot

The padukas were first kept at the Khandoba temple. These relics were associated with both Swami Samarth of Akkalkot and Sai Baba (possibly a consequence of the persistent identification of these two saints, the latter being regarded by some Sai devotees as a successor to the former). Govind Kamalakar Dixit led a procession from the temple to the mosque, where Sai Baba touched the padukas benevolently. This act was regarded as a consecration. Bhai Krishnaji Alibagkar gained permission from Sai to install the relics at the neem tree. Upasani was present at the ceremony alongside Bapusaheb Jog, Dada Kelkar, Balasaheb Bhate, and others (NF:82).

Veneration for padukas arose from a worship of the feet as transmission for benediction of a guru. Padukas of gods and saints were worshipped in homes and temples. Most Indians (including ascetics) favoured simple wooden sandals. In contrast, ornate bronze and silver versions were made for wealthy people. Upasani was able to provide a design for silver padukas prepared for the commemoration at Shirdi.

An undated episode is recorded. Sai Baba permitted a female devotee to place silver padukas on his feet and worship these. When returning the sandals to the devotee, the faqir remarked: “Mother has cut off and carried away my feet” (Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, entry 161). This amounted to a humorous acknowledgment of the worship, which the faqir did not invite.

In November 1912, a palmist (samudrik shastri) visited Upasani at the Khandoba temple. According to a dour 1950s version of Narasimhaswami, Upasani told this brahman that “his life was miserable and wasted and wished to know if his future would be bad.” (103) It is relevant to investigate an earlier source concerning this episode.

The Desai version, recorded only ten years after the event, makes no reference to any negative statement of Upasani, which one may accordingly view in terms of a hindsight misconstruction. The palmist, known as Narsobawadi, was an old man of repute whose “expression was so pleasing, and as a holy man he was so noble and honest, that [Upasani] Maharaj offered him great regard and lovingly welcomed him.” (104) The palmist had come to Shirdi for the purpose of examining Sai Baba, but found this objective difficult (the faqir was resistant to palmists). The visitor heard from local people that Upasani had been described by Sai Baba as the recipient of his own spiritual abilities. The palmist wished to assess the truth of this matter.

Although Upasani was cordial, he tried in various ways to stop the palmist from proceeding further. He may have employed some negative description of himself to prevent publicity; his own angle did not claim any abilities. However, the visitor was insistent, expressing repeated and fervent requests to continue. Eventually, Upasani said that he would give the matter thought and reply the next day.

When the palmist returned, Upasani gave permission for a reading. The visitor used a “small device” to examine his body, especially his hands and feet (not just his palm). The conclusion was that all the features (or lines) discernible were in conformity with requirements for those “who have attained to the highest states.” The jubilant Narsobawadi afterwards announced his successful findings to the high caste people of Shirdi. (105)

According to the depreciatory portrayal of Narasimhaswami, Upasani was now “getting from bad to worse” in respect of his physical and mental condition. (106) There is an obligation to record alternative details that were obscured by such questionable interpretations.

25.  Para-Yogi:  Knower  of  Brahman

For about a year after his arrival at Shirdi, Upasani was subject to a process of sensitisation. Sai Baba demolished his caste pride and changed his daily routine of worship and mantra-japa. The disciple gained unusual experiences, at first of an “occult” kind relating to the nearby cremation ground, followed by a more enlarged degree of perception. Subsequent events baffled many spectators.

He “was frequently unconscious of what he was doing, where he was, and what were his external surroundings” (NSS:75). The same report refers to an experiential phenomenon in which “the far appeared near and [the] near far” (NSS:75). Food resembled excreta to this para-Yogi. His bramishtavasta and unmattavasta were “states resembling the crazy and insane states” (ibid). Upasani himself used those technical terms for mystical states. Related vocabulary can be found in Upasani Lilamrita, a Marathi source of 1930s vintage that is closely associated with him.

Such references do not elucidate what actually happened at the Khandoba temple. Narasimhaswami later applied a “Sai devotional” interpretation which confused many readers, who consequently believed that Upasani lacked faith in the guru. The complete data available does not support this constricting belief.

A decade after his Shirdi sojourn, Upasani made autobiographical disclosures bearing upon the nature of events at Khandoba’s temple. In Talk 117, dating to 1924, he referred to a development that is usually ignored by commentators:

I am generally in the state of Sushumna. This has been due to the illness I suffered once [during 1910-1911]. I never practised any of these things [meaning Hatha Yoga exercises], and yet I attained that state during my illness. That is why I always say that the illness was my guide and philosopher. Every split moment, the breath used to change, and that too in the state of Sushumna. For nearly eighteen months I was in that state. How I survived, I do not know. In the end, the Sushumna became permanent. Of course, this must be the result of the kripa [grace] of the sadguru [meaning Sai Baba]. Attainment of the Sushumna by one’s self, or by God’s grace, leads to all knowledge. It topsyturvies [upturns] everything. I attained the ultimate of yoga spontaneously; it was like the press-button phenomena. (GT, 2:497-498)

The word sushumna traditionally denotes the central nadi or “subtle” channel in the cerebro-spinal complexity associated with kundalini. This subject was favoured by Nath Yogis, whose lore of chakras is now popular (and frequently debased to the point of caricature). Upasani did not describe the full process involved, doubtless because of the difficulties in communicating such matters. (107)

The reminiscence would strongly indicate that “permanent” sushumna was achieved at a critical stage of his sojourn at Khandoba’s temple. The sushumna provides access to the sahasrara chakra, symbolised in some texts as a thousand petalled lotus, located (in a “subtle” body) at the level of the brain. Contrary to some misconceptions, the process has nothing to do with a physical body (although physical repercussions do occur). If the account of Upasani is respected, a conclusion follows that the sushumna complexity was part of the overall process activated by Sai Baba in his unusual disciple.

Sai Baba did not teach sushumna or kundalini, regarding Hatha Yoga with much caution. Upasani describes his eventual “permanent” sushumna in terms of spontaneity, meaning something not forced in the manner of Yoga. Many forced attempts result in problems, both physiological and psychological.

In 1924, Upasani communicated another description of what happened at Khandoba’s temple. Talk 52 is not by any means a complete explanation, but does highlight some unfamiliar themes, including a version of prarabdha karma (which was important in his worldview). This talk refers to residual prarabdha as the cause of increased difficulties at the time of achieving “God-realisation” or nirvikalpa. In his own case, happiness evaporated, while suffering and pain intensified. He submitted to this situation, becoming indifferent to suffering. He was then averse to pleasures, regarding pain as a form of bliss.

I am telling you this from my personal experience…. Pain had become a source of enjoyment to me. While sitting in the Khandoba temple at Shirdi, many a time the scorpions used to sting me, but I had got used to enjoy that pain…. If somebody brought food, I used to throw it away. I felt pleasure in fasting. I did not take any bath for years…. A thick layer of dirt was formed over my body. I felt pleasure in wallowing in dirt and night-soil…. I used to remember this sentence [from the Gita, stating that what is painful to begin with leads to amrita, meaning immortality]. I used to feel that maybe I was destined to have that Amrit in the end, and that is why I was getting all the pain then. Even today I am having all pain. That Amrit cannot be experienced by the gross physical body.  The gross physical body is meant to suffer, to prepare one’s self for that ultimate joy. The body for enjoying Amrit is different from the physical body. That [finer] body is made of stuff that is immortal – eternal. I am today in that [finer] body enjoying the Sat-Chit-Ananda [Existence-Knowledge-Bliss]…. When things became intolerable for me while in Shirdi, one day I said to Sai Baba that no more was I able to suffer. He replied that I should suffer all I could now, as afterwards, there was eternal happiness for me, that my state was the highest, without comparison. With these words in mind, I began quietly to submit to all the suffering that came my way. (GT, 1:110-113)

A much more fleeting reference, in another discourse, is potentially misleading. At this period, Upasani seems to have resolved upon death by fasting (prayopavesha), as the consequence of a strong ascetic mood of denial (triggered by a dismissive event at Dixitwada). After (or while) waiting four months in the expectation of death, he began to throw stones at intruding visitors. He invited a reciprocal gesture. “I used to hand over big stones to others and request them to smash me” (GT, 3:257). At this period he exhibited “crazy” states, no longer appearing normal. Events are not closely detailed or dated. As a consequence, there has been some confusion resulting. The four month period specified here was apparently July-October 1912. The indications are that Upasani was no longer in the ordinary human state during the monsoon season of 1912, but not yet at the level of nirvikalpa. One is here obliged to use the traditional terms found in sources.

In Talk 52 abovementioned, he underlined the spiritual dimension of the Khandoba temple phase. “What you should grasp is that… when the Jiva, instead of enjoying pleasures, submits to all sorts of suffering and pain, and virtually dies [as a consequence]… that Jiva alone becomes qualified to attain the subtle celestial body for enjoying… Infinite Bliss” (GT, 1:113). The accompanying reflection is worded as: “Somehow bide your time and quietly suffer the prarabdha…. Ask for suffering, leave the pleasures, leave desires, and only stick to [follow] a satpurusha…. Those influenced by desires only degrade themselves” (GT, 1:113).

Early and later sources, together with Upasani’s own reminiscences, convey a different picture to the reductionist sectarian reporting of Narasimhaswami, who interpreted events in terms of an erring saint who failed in sadhana.

Once while walking in the fields around the Khandoba temple, Upasani was experiencing a process of adjustment in consciousness. “I had no thought in my mind, but something was being forced on me – worked on me – from within.” He refers to the opening of the brahmarandhra, a complexity traditionally identified with the crown of the head (associated with the brahmanical tonsure or shikha, and through which the atman departs at death). His “inner eye” was perceiving the whole universe (brahmanda). What he calls “a powerful search light” then became operative. In this allusive passage, “that Brahma entered within, or rather the inner and outer Brahma became one.”  (108)

According to Upasani, what “was being forced on me” came from Sai Baba. Certain other statements may need to be viewed in this context. On one occasion, apparently in 1912, Sai Baba remarked to the temple dweller: “I have filled all existence. Wherever you see, there is none but me.” (109)

After a period of residence at the Khandoba temple, “sudden miraculous changes were found in the temperament of [Upasani] Maharaj.” (110) Observers of this phenomenon were divided into two basic camps. The ascetic appeared radiant and intoxicated; the change was considered an aberration by his opponents, but as “the highest state of God intoxication” by his supporters. “His face shone with lustre” (CIC:25), an attribute believed by some supporters to represent the acquisition of Yogic powers. A basic feature of his state was indifference to the body. “Experiencing the conscious joy of the Brahma [Brahman], who has ever then cared for their body.”  (111) Upasani was now regarded by some supporters as a knower of Brahman.  In contrast, the critics said that he was crazy.

Sometimes the temple dweller at Shirdi would seem relatively normal, at other times “intoxicated.” Upasani had reportedly never touched alcohol. He strongly disapproved of drugs, maintaining the strict brahmanical codes. In some abstracted moods he would lament and cry for hours. Yet at other times, he exhibited laughter for a similar duration. At times he conversed with visitors, but on other occasions he would be silent. (112)

A term he favoured in later years was unmatta, here meaning a state of complete separation from the world (the term is sometimes inadequately translated to mean intoxication or madness). A related condition of being “innocent like a child” was described as bala avastha. A further refinement was pishachcha avastha, denoting a form of saintly behaviour easily misinterpreted by others, to the extent that this phenomenon could “create doubt and fear” (CIC:79). None of these rare states are commonly understood, nor even mentioned in much literature.

In Talk 19, Upasani describes unmatta in terms of a complete indifference to one’s own body and jiva (self). The pishachcha variant will not talk in a normal way, will cry or laugh for no reason, change attitude at every moment, and appear suspicious about everything. “A saint sometimes passes into this state; but then he is not cognisant of it” (GT, 2:111). The consciousness has completely changed angle in a manner generally uncomprehended.

A disconcerting feature of Upasani’s conduct, and probably the most well known, was his new habit of sitting or lying down in places of filth. He appeared not to see any difference between the pleasant and the unpleasant, his consciousness having become expanded and hyper-introverted. The “powerful search light” was overpowering in diverse situations, projected onto the brahmanda.

Over a decade later, in Talk 107, he described the state of ananda (bliss) which he experienced at the Khandoba temple and thereafter:

When he is bestowed with the grace of his sadguru, and he fully experiences that Infinite Bliss [ananda], then he loses consciousness of his gross body, and that Bliss he enjoys organises itself to form a celestial body for him, with the help of which he continues to experience that Infinite Bliss permanently. As that Bliss comes to him – overpowers him – bouts after bouts of ananda arise within himself, and his atma remains permanently immersed in it. At such a time, even if the nearest [relatives] approach him, he feels disinterested; he does not like that interference. He does not like to get out of that state of Bliss…. This Ananda, which comes on thousands of times stronger [than cold weather] in its intensity and onset, in no way affects the body like the cold.  There is nothing to worry [about] or suffer in that state. In that state [of ananda], one is not able to see anything in and of the world – even his nearest and dearest [relatives]. He finds and sees himself alone in everything everywhere. He just forgets everything else. After some time, as he feels very contented, he casually sometimes remembers all about the world – all about his associates. He then slowly makes them like himself. But while he is engaged in turning them [around], there is no hindrance or break in his experiencing that Infinite Bliss. (GT, 2:478)

Upasani eventually became normalised, a development which can add to the interest of his biography. According to Meher Baba, who later knew Upasani at close quarters, Upasani achieved a God-realisation (or nirvikalpa samadhi) prior to becoming a sadguru. Definitions of nirvikalpa are often notoriously vague. Claims of transcendence can too easily be made. The behaviour pattern is a crucial factor for  analysis. The instance of Upasani does afford data in this respect.

The date of his transition to a nirvikalpa state at the Khandoba temple is difficult to ascertain. The indicators are late 1912 or January 1913. His “intoxication” was accompanied by a prolonged abstinence often misunderstood. A 1930s report states that, in January 1913, he started to desist from all food, an abstinence continued for about a year (NSS:76). During the latter part of 1912, Upasani was not engaged in perpetual fasting (contrary to some assumptions), as a consequence of repeated intervention by the vigilant Sai Baba. The attempt at prayopavesha was foiled. His own explanation was that food had become abhorrent to him. In January 1913, he was an instance of unmattavastha, transcending the physical dimension of life. In 1913, there was no vow of fasting, and no sadhana.

Upasani said that food had the odour and appearance of excrement, thoroughly gross and repulsive. “If he put a bit [of food] into his mouth, he could not gulp it. It stuck in the throat. When it was in his mouth, he fancied he had already eaten it. If by chance he swallowed a bit, he felt his stomach was overloaded. Therefore, all the food that was sent to him was thrown away to dogs, pigs, birds, and other creatures” (LSB:402).

Other cases of a spiritual introversion were similarly resistant to food intake. For instance, Sai Baba himself had once needed to be fed in the Shirdi forests by a well-wisher (a devoted woman), at a time when he was inwardly absorbed and averse to human contact. This phase had occurred many years before; some local devotees preserved the details to memory. Sai Baba had for long been regarded in Shirdi as a mad faqir by the villagers. They had tolerated him, without understanding anything much about him.

In the case of Upasani, he often sat (or lay) immobile inside the temple. He later indicated a major difference between this introversion and his samadhi at the Bhorgad cave two decades earlier. At Bhorgad he had become unconscious, a variation of the Yogic “stopped state of mind.” Whereas at the Khandoba temple, “he was fully conscious of everything [Brahman]” (GLS:9). This was nirvikalpa samadhi. Events were later covered in a version sponsored by Sakori ashram:

For more than a year, he just sat there; he did not move out [of the temple] even once. He sat there without any food and water. His pulse rate had come down to forty. How he survived was a great question. That small temple remained devoid of any light whatever; dust and dirt collected ankle-deep; scorpions and serpents made their abode in it [the dirt]. His back was attacked by white ants; serpents used to crawl over his body; scorpions used to sting him. (113)

This report is partially accurate. In strong question is the belief that the inmate did not move out of the temple even once. From other accounts, it is evident that Upasani had substantial mobility during the year 1913.

Durgabai Karmakar

At this period (or slightly before), Sai Baba prudently delegated Durgabai Karmakar to be the part-time attendant of Upasani. She was a brahman widow. Her primary role was to take the temple dweller some food and persuade him to eat and drink. That task was far more of a labour than might be assumed. Another woman had failed in the same endeavour. In some moods, Upasani was now very difficult, “refusing to allow anyone near him, hurling abuse and stones at all who approached” (Natu 1994:23). That dramatic situation punctuated his immobile states of unmatta, which strongly featured silence. This basic alternation needs emphasis; some well known accounts are entirely lacking in such details.

Durgabai must at first have wondered how she could possibly cope with this situation. She did not believe that the temple dweller was mad. According to Sai Baba, Upasani was a divine saint who needed assistance on the physical level. His extremely abstracted state reacted acutely to intrusions. Confronting the “threats and abuses” of Upasani, the new female attendant would take him food and insist that he eat at least some of the preparation. Upasani had no interest in food, regarding this as an interference. It is not clear to what extent Durgabai succeeded. Considerable tact and patience were certainly required on her part. The general impression given in most accounts is that Upasani ate nothing. However, his own testimony (in Talk 192) states that he was spoon fed khajura, a paste of palm dates specially prepared for him.

A feature of his behaviour at this time was a form of total withdrawal, contrasting with his resistant moods. Perhaps the best description here is disconnection from the physical world; he appeared virtually dead, whether seated or lying down. No response could then be elicited; although still breathing, he had seemingly passed out of normal existence. Upasani became resistant whenever he emerged from this transcendent unmatta state; he did not want involvement with anything else. At the instruction of Sai Baba, Durgabai had to breach this reaction to externals. There were times when he was more docile.

A commentator, familiar with oral reports of this period, relays: “It was as though she [Durgabai] had become his [Upasani’s] mother, and Maharaj would submit to her ministrations at a time when he would not accept them from anyone else” (Natu 1994:23). Durgabai never wrote any account of events. Fragmentary oral details survived. Durgabai is completely missing from the Sai Baba devotional literature.

There was another dimension to the ministrations of Durgabai. This versatile lady was in regular contact with Sai Baba at his mosque. Through Durgabai, the old faqir knew what was happening at the Khandoba temple. Sai learned from the intermediary (and later Dr. Pillai also) about the physical condition of the temple dweller, how Upasani was reacting to his environment, and how other persons were responding to Upasani. Beneath the veil of his preferred allusive language, Sai Baba was a close assessor of the phenomenon in Shirdi that caused such divergent reactions among witnesses.

26.   Physical  Labours  Grounding  Unmatta

At an uncertain date, a new development emerged. Upasani commenced to exercise a strong disposition for manual work and menial tasks. One interpretation is that he sought, in this manner, to escape conversations with irksome visitors. He was certainly averse to interruptions. However, for any purpose of escaping visitors, he could merely have walked in the forest. Another process is likely to have been operative. Unlike some other holy men, Upasani evidently learned that a manual anchor is useful (or perhaps crucial) in relation to “God-realisation.”

Many popular ideas about “self-realisation” and “God-realisation” are misleading. Realistically, such an achievement would demolish the normal human entity, with unpredictable consequences. The atman is a factor generally unknown, despite glib “new age” interpretations of armchair and keypad convenience. Just be what you already are, is the kind of simplistic maxim resulting. A beguiling excuse for sex addicts, drug users, and diverse salesmen of meditation and alternative therapy.

The instance of Upasani Shastri discernibly underwent a complete disconnection from the environment, followed by a partial awareness of the physical level. The acute displacement entailed a strong reaction to interruptions. Upasani himself said (at a later date) that the entity in a state of enjoying ananda (bliss of atman) has great difficulty remembering their physical context. In this perspective, the “realised” atman has no interest in the physical world. For renewed interest to occur, an extending process of reorientation must surely intervene.

The disconnection was nothing to do with meditation, which requires sanskaras or impressions to maintain (and is generally a limitation, whatever the claims made). As a consequence of “realisation,” the inmate of Khandoba’s temple was averse to food and afflicted by a speech disorder. Upasani could not describe adequately what happened to him. His explanations sounded like insane ramblings to ordinary listeners, who had no key to the nature of events.

One may reason that realisation of atman-Brahman will mean a complete distance from normal function and communications. The mental impressions (sanskaras) are blanked, otherwise “realisation” cannot occur. This form of existence is remote from the commercial tactics of pseudo-gurus and new age therapists who have exploited traditional concepts. Exploiters do not welcome the effacement of their entity, which is what “spirituality” discernibly involves.

For some time, Upasani was naked (or virtually so) at the Khandoba temple. Years later, he described the occasion when, while moving about in the vicinity, he found a gunny cloth in a filthy condition. He says that this item may have belonged to a cholera victim. The sackcloth was soiled with “excrement, vomit, and dirt.” Someone asked him why he wanted such a repellant cloth. Ignoring the question, he took the sackcloth to a stream, where he washed his new possession, which he then wore “like a beautiful costly silken garment” (GT, 2:427). That gunny cloth became his regular attire until he left Shirdi; moreover, this form of rudimentary apparel became his lifelong hallmark.

The acutely spiritualised and reactive condition of the temple-dweller eventually moderated into a greater degree of physical awareness. A major assistance here was manual work. However, the intermittent states of complete disconnection continued for about two years. If Upasani had not succeeded in polarising his indrawn state of consciousness, physical death might have been the likely result (in accordance with some traditional concepts). An x factor is represented by Sai Baba, who was evidently monitoring the condition of his very unusual disciple.

The manual dimension appeared in 1913. The month is unknown. Upasani emerged from the temple on some days, starting to wander in forests and jungles. In Mangwadi region, he entered the house of low caste people. There he assisted a woman to pound grains into flour. Returning to Shirdi, the next day he borrowed a grinding machine from a devotee of Sai Baba. He then requested grains from affluent local people, using the machine to make flour. He would return the product of his labour to the donors, not keeping it for himself. Eventually, the people concerned were declining to give the grains, because they did not think it right that a brahman holy man should work for them in such a lowly capacity.

Upasani now applied himself to various forms of manual work, some of these far more exertive than grinding. He assisted farmers to cut their crops in the fields, and helped low caste labourers to build roads. He even assisted stonemasons to break up large boulders. He was basically a strong man, apparently over six feet tall, recently weakened by continual abstinence. However, his energy was reputedly galvanic at times.

The British authorities were building a bridge at Shirdi, a project involving the removal of many thorn bushes. The bushes were collected in heaps, awaiting disposal by labourers, who had special equipment for the task. Upasani would appear on the scene as a common labourer, without any equipment, or even skin protection. With bare hands and arms, he would lift the prickly heaps himself, saving other labourers a difficult job. He was immune to scratches and bleeding. Even cuts were as nothing compared to scorpion stings; he endured many of those stings at the Khandoba temple, according to his own account.

Upasani would gravitate to the homes of low caste Bhils and Mahar untouchables, determined to assist them in household chores such as grinding flour, scrubbing food utensils, and cleaning the floor with cowdung (regarded as an antiseptic). He would laboriously draw water for a farm, and operate a sugar cane crusher. He would not talk, but instead proceeded directly with the work; this was a typical characteristic of his at that period.

The “crazy” ascetic Upasani Shastri would enter the farms of low caste people, helping in any way he could. His speciality was to become the key mover of the bullock cart. He would release the bullock from harness and substitute himself as the load carrier. In this very distinctive manner he would pull carts, and even the plough.

He would sometimes visit the low caste communal sites where clothes were washed. Upasani would scoop up the laundry and start to wash the dirty linen of women and children, even if they were reluctant to let him do so. He was now doing the work of a common dhobi (washerman). He was very industrious, achieving an unusually clean output. (114)

Upasani seems to have been frequently eager for manual work at this period, escaping the pull of unmatta introversion. In the vicinity of the Khandoba temple, he spent much time collecting cow dung in a basket. He would afterwards make this substance into flat dung cakes, generally used for lighting fires and cooking. However, Upasani made no personal use of these dung cakes, himself lacking any fire. Instead he amassed a pile of these items in a corner of the temple. Soon after, he started to distribute the dung cakes amongst visitors and devotees, so that none remained. (115)

These various forms of manual work had no relation to a high caste profile. To the contrary, Upasani was placing himself on the level of low caste people. The collection of cow dung was abhorrent to other brahmans.

In another dimension of his activities, Upasani encountered a leper, making a habit of bathing him. This was a very unusual gesture for any ascetic or holy man to perform, to the extent that comparisons are difficult. In 1924, he reminisced:

While in Shirdi I had seen a man in the worst stage of leprosy; he had almost lost his fingers, pus was oozing from them... I used to bathe this man, and wash his clothes; that dirty water, thickened with all that muck, I used to drink.... Darshana of a leper and service to him is the simplest method to make one’s mind and buddhi pure and to attain the state of Vishnu.  (116)

27.  Unusual  Experiences  and  Circles  of  Light

In later years, Upasani described his varied experiences at the Khandoba temple in a condensed manner. These reports appear in Upasani Lilamrita and other commentaries, including very early coverage. They are therefore difficult to ignore, despite some bizarre components and unfamiliar phraseology. Upasani referred to abstract and “non-dual” experiences relating to the sushumna, the brahmarandhra, and unmatta. He also described a number of experiences possessing a more “visionary” complexion. Many of these secondary phenomena are quite distinctive, although explanations can differ.

The temple dweller’s unusual mystical experiences, of different kinds, started by mid-1912. Concerning the Dixitwada crisis, when his meals were stopped, a 1930s commentator states that “before this [June 1912] incident he had rare visions” (NSS:75).  The exact month of commencement is unknown. Most of the reports do not supply dates. No sequence is given for these experiences. The process is only very partially on record. The experiences were communicated to others, “either at the time or years later” (NSS:75).

Many of the recorded “experiences with form” apparently occurred before Upasani achieved nirvikalpa samadhi. However, some of these experiences may have occurred in juxtaposition to his basic and underlying formless experience of “non-dualism” (or nirvikalpa samadhi), which apparently started by January 1913, and thereafter continued. In this respect, the visionary complexion of diverse experiences, which he later narrated, can be misleading.

Narasimhaswami speculated that the “visions” were “allegorical” projections of the transcendent bhramishtavasta (NSS:102). This fleeting surmisal does not explain “experiences with form” that occurred during 1912.

Sceptics say that fasting can induce hallucinations, which are often prized by those who experience such phenomena. Upasani was not seeking Yogic or paranormal experiences; his earlier severe breathing problem had taught him caution. His “visions” started before the phase of his abstinence.

He was averse to “occult” impingements that he associated with the nearby cremation ground, phenomena about which he complained to Sai Baba. His most important experiences were “without form” (nirakara, or nirguna), scarcely possible to communicate. He was not generally able to clearly communicate his experiences during his temple phase of 1911-14. Many people had no idea what he was experiencing or undergoing.

At an early stage, Sai Baba told Upasani Shastri: “I will take away half of your head and give you half of my own.” (117) This interchange may be dated to 1912, probably before the Dixitwada cordon in June of that year. The consequence was a vision, in which Upasani saw two saints entering the Khandoba temple, one a Muslim and the other a brahman. They each had a radiant aura. The surroundings were now enveloped in darkness, eclipsed by a light emanating from the saints (one interpretation is that the two visitors were Sai Baba and Narayan Maharaj).

Upasani supplied a rather bizarre account of this experience. He said that the visitors decapitated him, removed the different portions of his brain, and then discarded the empty skull. Upasani observed this spectacle, while lamenting the loss of his head. The visitors are described as ascetic figures in torn garb, covered with ash (or mud), their hair and beards dishevelled. They ignored the lament of the temple dweller, instead eating with relish the food they brought with them, apparently mixing with this intake the contents of his skull.

Despite the macabre nature of this vision, the two visitors were evidently benevolent, not intending any harm as a superficial reading might suggest. Upasani was deeply affected by this obscure encounter, referring to himself as a headless man. The visitation seemed to last for at least two hours. Afterwards he found himself seated exactly as he had been before the event, as if nothing had happened meanwhile.

Sai Baba had referred to taking away half of the disciple’s head. This process was possibly reflected in the “skull vision” abovementioned. Upasani was perhaps registering the termination of his ordinary brain function in the unmatta state. We know that Sai Baba was familiar with basic brain features. Abdul Baba’s Urdu Notebook reports a reference of Sai Baba to analytical and memory faculties of the brain (Shepherd 2017:7). This theme is not found in religious works, whether Sufi or Vedantic. A translation is: “The brain of the man is divided into two parts, front and back; the front portion receives the messages, so it is regarded as the reporter or the transmitter of information. The back portion is regarded as the protector of what is received – like a telegraph officer or editor” (Warren 1999:280-281).

In referring to the head, therefore, Sai Baba did have a perspective on the brain that can easily be ignored today, whether by sceptics or devotees. Also relevant for consideration is an observation of the medieval Sufi writer Abdul Karim Jili, who “explicitly referred to prototypes stored in the left and right sides of the brain, aligning these with mentation reflexes analogous to ‘hell’ and ‘heaven’ respectively” (Shepherd 1983:66). This would indicate a knowledge of functional differences between brain hemispheres, a subject that is still imperfectly known.

Upasani Shastri did not speak in terms of the brain. A number of his reported mystical experiences, during the phase at Khandoba’s temple, feature what he called “circles of light.” These phenomena are a major denominator of the secondary experiences under discussion here. The “circles of light” are very different features to the more well known Vedantic and Sankhya themes of Indian philosophy, to which Upasani subscribed, surfacing in his discourses of a later period.

After his encounter with “light” in the “skull vision,” Upasani Shastri saw daylight as darkness. This still causes puzzlement. One way to explain this anomaly is via a detail found in his own report of the “skull vision.” He there refers to the bright aura of the two visiting saints, their radiance contrasting with the darkness outside those auras. Daylight had not the same intensity as the auric radiance, one should perhaps conclude. Upasani was not at first able to describe those experiences coherently; the versions later recorded are likely to have been very partial in content. A confusing commentator refers to the belief of Upasani that “the sun’s rays were coming out from inside his head through his eyes” (LSB:402). This does not mean that he temporarily went blind, as the same writer assumed.

After the “skull vision,” Upasani was found muttering to himself that daylight was darkness, therefore he needed a torch. He also lamented the absence of his head. Some visitors thought him to be crazy as a consequence. Several years later, Upasani remarked in retrospect: “I meant that the head was there, but it had become empty – it contained nothing” (GT, 1:601).

On this later occasion, in the 1920s, he compared the empty head with the state of a new-born child. This state of emptied mind was necessary, he indicated. Upasani apparently meant that the mental contents, or impressions (sanskaras), must be eliminated for advanced spiritual states to occur. The transition remained a mystery to many spectators.

The subject of sanskaras was basic to the subsequent teaching of Upasani. He passed on this component to Meher Baba (who tackled the subject with unusual precision). The term sanskara is associated with the ancient Yoga-Sankhya vocabulary of Indian philosophy. Mental impressions are a powerful conditioning factor, yet their nature is seldom probed. The “empty head” of Upasani represented a dissociation from former constraints which had narrowed his vision.

A number of his bizarre references require consideration in a more flexible context than the literalist interpretations usually encountered. The “empty head” is one instance. At Khandoba’s temple, Upasani also emphasised that he had lost his stomach. Inevitably perhaps, onlookers could not fathom the nature of this abdominal vacuum. (118)

The temple dweller was actually telling the truth about his stomach loss, in the sense that his normal intake of food had ceased. He lost all volition to eat; both his appetite and his sense of taste vanished. Food and other substances were the same to him; he could no longer tell the difference. The temple dweller was not fasting, contrary to a general assumption at this period on the part of spectators. Upasani found food repellent and indescribably crude. When he stopped eating, he was not actually fasting (his attendant Durgabai Karmakar had to find a form of nutritious food he could easily eat, which transpired to be khajura).

There were other modes of awareness mentioned in some of his communications. For instance, Upasani said that he felt himself to be inert like a stone; he also experienced different modes of identity with stone. Further, in relation to inert objects, these are reported to have imparted information to him. Whether a stone, the leaf of a tree, or a piece of paper, these objects would transmit explanations to him about their identity, sensation, and so forth. (119) In other words, the world was fully alive in the experience of Upasani Shastri.

This affinity with objects extended to an image of Khandoba located inside the temple. Upasani claimed that this stone image would converse with him, and even move outside, in a repeated experience of affinity, after which he would find himself again in a “normal” state inside the temple.

The acute relativity of time features in these reports. Sitting in the Khandoba temple, Upasani would undergo intense experiences which seemed to last for hours, or even days. Yet when he surfaced, he would be in exactly the same position as when the experience started, this factor negating any sense of time extension. (120) In ordinary time, nothing had occurred.

In one experience, he found himself assisting discarnate souls. He described the location in terms of a town where the dead resided. Upasani worked in that “town” for what seemed to be months, “yet when he awakened [physically], it was the same day and the same time, not even a change of a moment or an hour.” (121)

On another occasion, when relieving himself, he saw “the entire earth suddenly moving, the entire creation seemed to be whirling.” (122) At first slow, this process became very fast, then finally very subtle before disappearing. When he reverted to the physical level, Upasani found himself to be in the same condition and posture as when the cosmic experience started. 

“In pure waking states, Maharaj often found himself participating in different issues, in different places, going through different events.... Maharaj found himself not only distinct from creation and its affairs but also participating in various events.” (123) Such references are not systematic, conveying a very partial picture of an unusual form of consciousness.

In one of these “waking states,” he saw innumerable units of light, enabling him to comprehend the atomic structure of the universe. In another experience (apparently later than some others), he perceived the earth, sky, and sun revolving in their orbits, while he himself was outside those motions. A change in description makes clear that he was perceiving the whole cosmos, which approached closer while diminishing in size, eventually becoming absorbed into his own being.

Upasani was here experiencing himself as existing outside the universe. He subsequently gave an explanation that the universe is not real, but subject to constant movement and change - appearing, existing, and then disappearing as part of maya, the cosmic illusion. The universe was not disappearing into his physical body, which was part of maya, and distinct from his atman. He emphasised that the embodied soul must transcend maya. This means realisation of the atman as being outside maya. These themes resemble aspects of Advaita doctrine, with the addition of personal insights not found in classical textbooks.

According to a commentary, this experience of the cosmos as maya lasted for fifteen or thirty minutes (LSB:403). That can be misleading, because Upasani is known to have emphasised the acute relativity of time applying to such experiences. “This is something like subjective idealism, and is referred to as Jnanodaya in Upasani Lilamrita – the Mahratti [Marathi] memoirs of Upasani Baba written under his supervision and guidance” (LSB:403). Dimensions of jnanodaya differ from accents in Western philosophy. The cosmic experiences of a Hindu temple dweller are remote from well known cogitations in European discursive thought, involving not only a different vocabulary, but also alternative impressions (sanskaras).

Once while seated at his usual place in the temple, Upasani found that all of his deceased relatives were “coming out of his heart.” Each one was surrounded by a “circle of light,” while all else was darkness. When he came back to his physical self, he was sitting in the same position as before, the daylight having returned. (124)  

Sai Baba featured in numerous of these experiences. In another “circle of light,” Upasani witnessed an assembly of saints and holy men. They were in the process of reaching a decision concerning world affairs. Upasani could understand what was occurring, but could not penetrate the nature of a complex query which caused disagreement. The saints were all waiting for Sai Baba, wanting to know why he had not arrived at this assembly. A recognition occurred that Sai was physically in Shirdi, while his soul was preoccupied elsewhere. Sai Baba did afterwards appear, with a smile on his face, wanting to know the outcome. The others responded that confusion had been caused, so they needed to receive his counsel. The “circle of light” then disappeared, Upasani again finding himself back at his physical location in the temple. No “significant change in time” had occurred at the mundane level. (125)

In a further “circle of light,” Upasani witnessed Sai Baba and other saints. A large contraption, of weighing scales, was set up. Sai Baba sat in one of the scales, but none of the others could balance him in terms of weight. Sai then requested that Upasani should sit in the opposite scale, with the consequence that the scales went into balance, the weight being equal between them. Sai then got down from his scale, remarking to the others: “Finally I have seen one equal to me.” (126)  The circle of light then vanished. Upasani found himself as usual in the temple, not having moved from his position meanwhile.

One of the most well known of his Shirdi experiences again related to a “circle of light.” This appeared one evening when Upasani was seated in the temple. Sai Baba arrived, saying “Come with me.” Within the circle, they both walked to an antique building where an old and serene mahant (leader of a monastery or a temple) was seated. Sai Baba interpreted this entity in terms of Advaita Vedanta that was millennia old. “I have great friendship with non-duality.”

A distraction emerged in the form of an image or dark counterpart of Upasani, appearing near Sai Baba. This pulled Upasani away, preventing him from hearing the counsel of Sai. The latter warned Upasani (identified with the image) to focus only on him (Sai). The distraction proved strong, causing Sai Baba to give the image “a solid thrashing.” Sai afterwards moved to a cremation ground, where he threw the hindering image on a pyre for burning. The “circle of light” then vanished, leaving Upasani alone in the Khandoba temple. He afterwards continued to lament the situation, perplexing bystanders, (127) who had no idea of what he was experiencing.

The reference to non-dualism does fit the Advaita orientation which Sai Baba encouraged in Upasani during early 1912, and via the Panchadashi. The venerable white-bearded mahant had been sitting for “thousands of years” in his monastery (or temple), which Sai “repeatedly” visited. The symbolism involved in the narration does not detract from the essential significances discernible. The faqir of Shirdi, in the transmission of Upasani Maharaj, is indelibly associated with Advaita Vedanta.

In a closely related “circle of light,” Sai Baba showed Upasani a house inhabited by a virtuous man, who was comfortably seated upon a huge pile of silver rupee coins. Sai explained that this person was also Upasani. The “evil” Upasani had been burnt on the pyre, while the “good” Upasani had the wealth of silver rupees. Upasani then observed: “He is the good one, and the other was an evil one. Then who am I?” Sai Baba explained: “You are beyond both of these. You and I are one. All this wealth belongs to us.” (128) Sai Baba referred in this experience to hundreds and thousands of houses completely filled with rupees. “All these are ours; you will come to know all this yourself.” (129)

The pile of silver rupees is described as being 4 feet high, 225 feet long, and 120 feet wide. The silver rupee was evocative of British Raj colonial wealth; this Victorian coin, minted in India, was effectively a status symbol for the prosperous. Such a quantity of coins was quite beyond the reach of wealthy Indians. Even maharajas could be destitute by comparison. To possess a large hoard of silver rupees was a dream of the super-rich. Thousands of houses, filled with these coins, was a mind-boggling prospect even to the British Governors. The wealth evidently signified a spiritual bounty, not a physical endowment.  

In other experiences, Upasani perceived figures whom he associated with Sai Baba. One scenario is associated with the well located a few hundred yards from the Khandoba temple. Muslims are reported to have used this well in relation to the Muharram festival, and more specifically, the bier or tabut featuring in the Muharram procession.

One day Upasani walked to that well and sat beneath a tree. There he saw a leper washing clothes in water. A distinctive woman arrived, gesturing to Upasani to drink the same water. He did not at first respond to the offputting prospect. Afterwards he wondered if the woman was a manifestation of Sai Baba, and if the purpose was “to give him the experience of pure non-duality with the Divine.” (130) The juxtaposition of a Muslim site and a leper was certainly a strong challenge to high caste codes of social discrimination.

Now filled with enthusiasm, Upasani went to the water, which he started to drink in the palm of his hand. The woman then urged him to bathe in the same water. He complied, as if that sullied pool were the Ganges. The leper eventually prostrated before him on the ground. Then the compelling woman disappeared. Upasani returned to the temple, reflecting deeply on what had transpired. This experience may have been preparatory to his feat of washing a local leper; he was here radically departing from caste discrimination.

The experiences relating to “circles of light” may all have occurred in 1912, prior to his unmatta breakthrough. The presence of Advaita symbolism in some of these experiences may converge with the events of early 1912, when the Advaita text Panchadashi was highlighted. At that period, Upasani seems already to have been abstracted in some moods. His critics could not understand his increasing introversion, deeming their own high caste lifestyle to be that of ideal Sai devotees.

The opponents had no sympathy with the climax of unmatta in 1913. Unmatta signifies a tendency to lose all awareness of the body. Whether sitting or lying down, Upasani appeared to be dead or unconscious. His state was completely unresponsive at such times. He still exhibited unmatta characteristics at a slightly later period, in another setting.

28.  Dislocation  in  Consciousness

There has been much talk in the West, during the past fifty years or so, about transcendental states of consciousness and “self-realisation.” These theories often strike critics as being unduly romantic, or simplified, depending upon observer viewpoint. Seldom envisaged are the potential difficulties arising in “coming back to normal” after a substantial expansion of consciousness. Some enthusiasts of Yoga and Vedanta believe that when they get “realisation,” they will be able to resume their desired activities immediately, without any problem occurring.

Upasani Maharaj affords an instance of the dislocation which is almost certain to emerge in cases of what is known in Hinduism as nirvikalpa samadhi. Some traditional sources affirm that the physical body dies soon after nirvikalpa samadhi, the impact of this expansion negating possibility of physical survival. In this perspective, to maintain such an exceptional state, in physical life, is accordingly very rare. The link with normal brain processes appears to be disrupted or suspended. The phenomenon is at pronounced risk of being misunderstood. Nirvikalpa is often confused with many lesser states that can occur, including meditative states.

A further state is sometimes called sahaja samadhi, meaning the “natural” realisation. This achievement is frequently confusing in the textual references available. The state of sahaja reintegration is apparently even more rare than the one preceding. Unfortunately, this eventuality is often confused with facile ideas of “spontaneity” and related clichés. Many speculative versions of sahaja appeared in different antique cults, including those of a Tantric complexion. Siddha lore in America has been disastrous for clarity.

The term sahaja samadhi was used by Upasani himself in later years. In Talk 127, dating to 1924, he defined the state signified as the consequence of a knowledge gained from a sadguru. This knowledge is “superior to the one obtained through Hatha Yoga.” The sadguru sets “a slow pace… that does not go against nature.” The basic meaning is a natural development, not the forced attempt occurring in Hatha Yoga (and Kundalini Yoga). In his own case, the sahaja process was based on virtue or punya deriving from nishkama karma, here meaning Upasani’s life as a householder and Ayurvedic doctor for many years. Upasani described the superior and surpassing knowledge as “traditional,” apparently signifying Vedantic wisdom.  In Talk 127, he continued:

A person who has fully imbibed this traditional knowledge is the real ‘knower.’ To be in the state of this knowledge means the state of Sahaja Samadhi…. The Lord [Krishna] has said that there is no difference between Himself and the one who has attained the state of Sahaja Samadhi. (GT, 2:541-542)

The overwhelming intensity of Upasani’s transition at first resulted in a dislocation from normal physical and mental function. Many onlookers thought him to be crazed. Nevertheless, he did eventually return to normal function, or rather the enhanced integration known as sahaja samadhi. The interim phase is not easy to describe, though important to comprehend. The temporary dislocation may be the underlying reason why Sai Baba initially emphasised that Upasani was to remain alone at the Khandoba temple.

The temple dweller subsequently recounted an episode which sounds extraordinary, though abundantly illustrating a basic problem. One evening, Upasani was seated outside the Khandoba temple entrance. The event is undated, but appears to have occurred in 1912. Adopting an asana (posture), he was reciting sandhya worship (consisting of chants). He was then confronted by an old man, who came up close to him. He identified this person as his deceased grandfather Gopalrao, who became a sannyasin. The visitor uttered the word Ahmednagar. This is the name of a city. Upasani was at first unable to understand the word, which the visitor accordingly repeated, slowly and clearly. Upasani was still unable to derive any meaning from Ahmednagar. The visitor then divided the word into three, in this manner: Aha-Madana-Gar.

Upasani interpreted Aha as a Sanskrit-related word meaning I-ness or vanity. Madan signified complicating subtle desires, while Gar meant poison. In this context, the transposed version of Ahmednagar had the meaning of: one under the influence of I-ness is hindered by desires and tastes the poison leading to death. (131)

The word Ahmednagar thus gained an ascetic signification in the mind of Upasani. As a consequence, he repeated this word many times to visitors. In his own mental processes, the word had a deep meaning. To outsiders, his reliance upon the name of a city meant that he was mad. In his abstracted condition, he was less able to grasp that the hearers could not understand significances that were obvious to him. (132)

After suffering a number of harassments, Upasani came to believe that some people he knew were conspiring to kill him. When a friendly jeweller came to visit him at the temple, Upasani interrogated him as one of the conspirators. The visitor thought that the ascetic had gone mad. Upasani talked as though the visitor was planning to kill him just outside the temple. The jeweller was evidently quite innocent of any such intention. (133)

However, harassments definitely did occur. Upasani was “greatly harassed by Hindu and Muslim boys who considered him to be mad and always ridiculed him; in their jest they would throw stones at him, and often would threaten to break down the temple doors” (DSS:281). Moreover, these boys would mischievously ask him if he needed food. If Upasani said yes, they would collect waste, and put this in his mouth. To their delight, he would eat the garbage. (134) His attendant Durgabai Karmakar had to contend with this harassment, which evidently occurred in her absence.

During the most critical period of his sojourn at the temple, meaning 1913, the environment of Upasani exhibited some bizarre features. His indrawn and dislocated awareness was indifferent to all comfort. He liked to sit in filth when outside the temple. Animal droppings were not alien to him. Moreover, “many a time he had collected the excretory waste of people.” (135) This disconcerting habit was probably his most repelling characteristic at that time. He would also collect the dung of animals, meaning cows, buffaloes, pigs, and boars. There was a pragmatic consequence to this activity. He was clearly intending to make dung cakes, though initially in a rather haphazard manner.

His devotee Sagun would come daily to the temple with food. Upasani was averse to the food, insisting that devotees give this to stray dogs. One day when Sagun arrived with a full dish, he found that the temple compound was littered with piles of waste. The odour must have been strong. This scenario included the cow dung which Upasani had recently been amassing (for the purpose of making dung cakes, a domestic fuel).

Sagun was not certain how to deport himself in this situation. His dilemma is described in terms of worrying that Upasani would scold him if he accidentally trod on the waste. Or he might appear contemptuous if he jumped over the piles. This situation apparently did not last for long. Upasani made many dung cakes, which he stockpiled in the temple after drying. His produce was of a different shape and appearance to the dung cakes generally made by Shirdi villagers.

Onlookers knew that Upasani did not maintain any fire, so he could not burn the fuel. They asked him why he worked hard to collect the dung and make the fuel, when in fact he could not use it. He would respond that the fuel would be used for his cremation pyre. This was a feasible explanation. As events transpired however, he soon gifted the fuel to devotees, who revered the dung cakes because Upasani created them. The first recipient was a visitor from Bhusaval who requested something from the pile in the temple; he then received four dung cakes which he regarded as a blessing.

Over twenty years before at Gawalwadi, Upasani had assisted the Bhil villagers to collect cow dung and make fuel cakes. At Shirdi, he may have worked from the instinctive memory of that phase. The diverse piles of waste at Khandoba’s temple may be attributed to his initial confusion about what to make into fuel. The activity amounted to an exercise in extroverting his attention, which apparently no longer cognised environmental details as other people did. His industry became noticeable, both inside and outside the temple. A landscape of dung cakes was common in Indian villages. Far more unusual here is that a brahman produced the fuel at the Khandoba temple in Shirdi. This activity may have been the preliminary to his manual work in adjacent villages and farms. Precise chronology is lost.

Indian village women making and stacking cow dung cakes. Many cakes are much thinner.

Dung cakes are variously known in India as komaya, upla, goitha, and kande. They were (and are) extensively used for fuel in many parts of India. These items were generally made by village women, who would mix the cow dung with hay to produce a dough. This mixture was then flattened and left to dry in the sun, while being placed on walls or on the ground. A modern scientific complaint is that air pollution is caused by hearth cooking with dung cakes (human dung is much less frequently used as fuel, and more hazardous; the recent developments in biogas have extended to pig manure). The use of cow dung as a fertiliser, disinfectant, pesticide, and fuel, has often startled Westerners. The ecology of cow culture is a complex subject.

Another householder devotee was Bapuji. A regular visitor, he would discuss religion with Upasani, who could make interesting comments on such matters as hymns and worship. One day, and after conversation, Bapuji asked Upasani for some consecrated food. Upasani became annoyed, chastising the visitor. The fact is that he had no such food to give. The temple dweller eventually gave his guest some dust from the floor. Bapuji accepted this gladly.

When devotees brought him food, Upasani would sometimes say that they had only brought their own personal hells, and also the hells of their relatives. (136) This was one reason why he did not want the food. In later years, he indicated that many visitors brought with them hindering sanskaras (mental impressions) to which he was averse. In the early 1920s, he is known to have stated at Sakori that incoming food was “full of sanskaras (impressions) of the people giving it” (MM:99).

In relation to the Shirdi phase, a basic theme emerges that Upasani “was totally unaware of his physical form.” (137) His bizarre attributes may need to be explained in this unfamiliar light. However, the nature of his awareness evidently fluctuated. There is a necessity to distinguish here between his unmatta states and the extroverted states in which he accomplished manual work. An early description conveys the gravity of his neglected physical condition:

In the Khandoba temple, Maharaj’s body had turned into an absolute skeleton due to his long fasts, hence he did not have strength left even to sit or get up from the ground, because whether he slept or sat, his bones touched the ground and he could not bear the pain. (138)

Because of this pain, the temple dweller had placed a protective layer of mud on the ground where he sat or lay, covering the mud with a piece of gunny sack. Upasani was continually experiencing indrawn states of consciousness, the outward world receding. He was often immobile at that period (in 1913). White ants inhabited the gunny sack, and also made a nest on his body. Upasani is described as being unaware of these ants.

His clothing was a “torn threadbare cloth,” apparently the same distressed gunny sack which he used as a blanket. “This cloth was infested with many white ants, yet Maharaj never bothered either to remove them or shake them off from the cloth; soon they occupied most of the cloth.” (139) He wore this cloth until the time he left Shirdi.

The descriptions strongly suggest that Upasani became very weak in 1913. He was in a serious predicament by normal standards. However, according to Upasani himself in later years, his inner state was one of intense bliss, not the dereliction that sceptics tend to assume. He was now the ideal of “sitting quietly, doing nothing,” meaning the prescription formerly awarded to the temple dweller by Sai Baba. This was unmatta, transcending the physical level.

The same gaunt ascetic was capable of manual exertion when he emerged from the unmatta state. If he really did take no food that year, as some sources urge, then he must have become very much weaker by the end of 1913. The alternative is to believe that Durgabai Karmakar saved his life by successfully feeding him with khajura. He himself described that paste food as reviving him (in Talk 192). No date is given for the assisting event. Even then, his improved condition remained critical by medical standards.

A Parsi devotee of Sai Baba was Dhanji Shah (this man appears to have been the former solicitor associate of Hari Dixit at Bombay). He visited the Khandoba temple (possibly at the suggestion of Sai), being shocked to see the occupant’s condition. There are references to a skeleton-like body. Dhanji Shah wept, saying he could not bear the sight. The visitor said that when he returned home, he would send Upasani a blanket and sheets. Upasani declined the offer with his ascetic steadfastness. “I do not need anything, kindly let me rest in whatever state I am!”

Faced with this adamance, Dhanji Shah decided to send only a deer-skin for Upasani to sit on. He also advised the ascetic to take some milk daily. The affluent visitor requested permission to send some fruits, honey, and milk, along with a primus stove to heat water. Upasani refused the offer.

The frustrated Dhanji Shah, after returning home, nevertheless sent the gifts he had mentioned. Upasani typically negated the gesture of assistance by giving the stove and food away to others. (140) Nor would he accept the deer-skin, an item of superfluous luxury in his estimation.

29.  Story  of  Yogi  Bua

In subsequent years, Upasani devised an intricate story revealing the superficial nature of popular beliefs about eating waste. Such beliefs were widespread, often associated with Tantric practices. Upasani was not a Tantric practitioner.

A simple and dull-witted farmer was committed to the pursuit of attaining spiritual liberation, and thus to end the process of reincarnation. Being very gullible, he consulted many gurus. He was easily deceived by shallow saints and opportunists in miracle lore. In his confusion, he would sometimes act as a teacher and advise others. He was partial to Yoga, thus becoming known as Yogi Bua (Good Yogi).

From two ignorant and confused pundits, Yogi Bua contracted the idea that liberation could be attained via the courage to eat waste. The story moves on to deny this Tantric belief. Yogi Bua consumed a small quantity of the desired waste. After feeling revulsion, he came to believe “that he had done away with the repetition of births and deaths for good; such was his joy that it seemed as if he had attained liberation there and then.” (141)

Later, Yogi Bua encountered Dada Saheb, a wise and learned magistrate who reproved him for his folly. Dada warned Yogi Bua that he had not secured liberation by eating waste, but instead invited a difficulty. Eating waste was fit only for boars, pigs, and other scavengers. “Liberation (mukti) is attained only after knowledge (jnana). Knowledge bestows this liberation, and which knowledge is this? The knowledge which grants the experience that you yourself are truly existence, consciousness, bliss.” (142)  The reference here is to sat-chit-ananda.

Dada concluded that Yogi Bua, instead of gaining jnana, had merely contracted impressions (sanskaras) facilitating a future birth as a pig. While searching for an easy route to liberation, he had resorted to a hypocritical shortcut. The Yogi was now crestfallen at his failure.

The story ends with a reflection that some genuine saints might eat waste, but only in a special context of lifestyle elusive to others. In such exceptional cases, liberation is not imagined to be in the offing by such a futility as overcoming aversion to unpleasant substances.

Upasani apparently did at times eat waste during his sojourn at the Khandoba temple (for instance, when harassers fed him waste, or tried to do so). However, this was not in any context of sadhana or quest for liberation. His actions were simply a reflex of the dislocation between physical and spiritual worlds. The strong implications are that Upasani was not aware of what he ate. Some descriptions imply that the waste merely remained in his mouth, without actually being consumed.

30.  Turiya  and  the  Dead  Horse

The temple dweller became credited with the achievement of turiya, the celebrated fourth state of consciousness mentioned in the Upanishads (especially the Mandukya). This fourth state signifies knowledge of the atman, cognate with sat-chit-ananda (existence, knowledge, bliss). The other three states are the normal state of sense perception, the state of dreaming, and dreamless sleep.

In later years, Upasani often implied that widespread ignorance existed about such matters as turiya and sushumna, despite claims to knowledge in some avenues. This was the situation in India. Since that time, numerous Western writers (from Paul Brunton onwards) have produced commentaries and travelogues on Yoga and Vedanta, which rather frequently continue the misinformation. Too many enthusiasts never anticipate the acute difficulties involved in a “return” from “self-realisation.”

The popular Vedantic phrase sat-chit-ananda, a generally over-simplified reference, now amounts to a meaningless commercial ad in some guru inventories.

The non-commercial events at Shirdi involved several factors deserving recognition. Firstly, the dangerous sushumna activation which afflicted Upasani for many months with a severe breathing problem. Secondly, the monitoring presence of an entity like Sai Baba, who is still largely a mystery to both scholars and devotees. Thirdly, the convenient and nearby precincts of a deserted temple where diverse (and frequently fraught) events occurred. Fourthly, inclusion of the resilient attendant Durgabai Karmakar, who appears to have saved the life of the man she assisted. Last but not least, the rugged disposition and sheer stamina of a para-Yogi like Upasani Shastri, whose turiya is memorable for uncommon features difficult to trace elsewhere.

An undated episode reveals the unusual degree of abstraction exercised by Upasani, in a situation abhorrent to most people.

Local villagers left the dead body of a horse in an empy farm property not far from the Khandoba temple. Three days of exposure followed, during which crows fed on the decaying flesh. The inner organs of the animal became visible, including the liver and lungs. Sight of the corpse was unpleasant, and a strong stench accumulated. Passers-by moved on as quickly as possible, to escape this blot on the landscape.

Upasani happened to arrive on the scene. Feeling tired, he rested his back on the corpse of the horse. He was totally immune to the decaying composition of the animal. “His neck was found comfortably resting on those inner organs [of the horse] that had been ripped out [by crows], and thus he remained for many hours.” (143)

Another version of this event reads: “On one occasion he embraced the body of a dead horse near the temple, and remained the whole day with the carcase, even though it was being steadily devoured by hungry birds of prey.” (144)

According to an interpretation, Upasani was not actually aware of the corpse, or at least, not in the normal manner. A surging inner consciousness was his focus, the externals being acutely marginalised.

A term used by Deshmukh in this context was unmatta, signifying unconsciousness of the body. That word is sometimes rendered in terms of madness, which can be misleading. Unmatta was a basic aspect of Upasani during this period, an attribute that baffled many spectators.

31.  Speaking  and  Acting  as  a  Woman

There are contractions in some source references. For instance, according to one commentator: “At times, Maharaj inwardly felt like a woman, and spoke and acted as if he were a woman.” (145) This fleeting reference needs context supplied elsewhere.

At Khandoba’s temple, Upasani had different inner experiences relating to women. The most well known of these commenced while he was walking along the road from Shirdi to Rahata. Reaching an unfamiliar and extensive wasteland, he was caught by two strong young teenage girls who tied him to a pillar. However, this was not a physical occurrence.

The scenario related to a “circle of light” in which he found himself projected. The visionary experience was dramatic. He encountered large groups of girls, aged about sixteen. Two of these females tied him to a pillar, situated in the middle of the wilderness. He begged for release, but his captors refused.

Afterwards other girls freed him, on the condition that he should agree to become a woman. He doubted that this transition was possible. The girls insisted he was wrong. He was afterwards obliged to play with a group of girls in an oppressive situation. They threatened that, if he did not play, he would be unable to return to his temple. Upasani remonstrated and excused himself from participating. However, the girls were insistent that he dress and behave like one of them. To satisfy them, and “to be rid of this trouble,” he had to wear bangles. The persuasive girls wanted him to wear a pair of bangles that would remain permanently on his wrists and make him a woman. The girls also relayed to him several stories which had a powerful or hypnotic effect, making him feel that he was a woman, or had feminine qualities.

When the dreaded bangles were applied, Upasani “suddenly found that entire event vanish before his very eyes, and realised that he was at some distance from the tomb of the Muslim Fakir en route to Rahata from Shirdi.” (146) In this overpowering experience, he had felt himself to be a captive for days. In physical time, however, there was no change. Upasani now realised that he had merely halted briefly on the road, while the fraught experience in the “circle” had occurred. Feeling perturbed at these factors, he decided not to walk any further. Instead, he returned to the temple.

This episode probably dates to 1912, at the juncture when Upasani was overwhelmed by a new influx of paranormal experiences. After his breathing problem had subsided, he found that his sensitised sushumna was a medium for powerful “occult” experiences he could not control. This was why he complained to Sai Baba, when meeting the faqir during the Lendi excursion, receiving the response that he had been placed on a fast “train” that would not be delayed. The basic meaning of this allusion appears to have been that the sushumna experiences would be negotiated safely, without causing any problem. In cases where no due guidance exists, such experiences can cause permanent confusion and diversion.

Some days after the “girls and bangles” experience, while in the temple, another circle of light “entered from the left portion of Maharaj’s chest.” (147) Such “circles of light” were of differing dimensions and range; we have only a very sparse description of these phenomena. A woman emerged in this particular circle, walking along the road outside the Khandoba temple. She was walking while still within the illuminated circle. Everything outside that circle was in darkness. The lady vanished along the road leading to the Lendi garden, so strongly associated with Sai Baba.  She was apparently a far more spiritual entity than the occult girls who wanted to change Upasani into a woman. The recipient of this experience subsequently found himself sitting at his usual place in the temple. Afterwards, for some days, he continued to lie down in a very introverted state.

These two powerful “circles of light” caused Upasani to believe, for a short time, that he was a woman. He accordingly asked female visitors for turmeric (or yellow rouge) and bangles. He would wear these accoutrements while the visitors were present. When these people left, Upasani returned the ornaments to them. He would also ask a strange question: “Where is my baby?” The villagers who heard this (or of this) were much amused (NSS:94). After some days had elapsed, his preoccupation with female identity ceased; he then reverted to his usual masculine role.

Some interpretations of these events are questionable. Upasani said in much later years that, when he remembered the powerful stories recounted by the occult girls in the “circle of light,” he felt that he was a woman, in contradiction to his male body. Such empathy is perhaps surprising in view of his markedly masculine characteristics.

32.  Dr.  Pillai  and  Other  Devotees

The silent unmatta state of Upasani Shastri was interspersed with extroverted and vocal manifestations of a varying nature.  A medical doctor encountered him at Khandoba’s temple, coming to understood him more than most other visitors.

Dr. Chidambaram Pillai

In April 1913, there appeared on the scene Dr. Chidambaram Pillai, a devotee of Sai Baba who also became a strong supporter of Upasani. A senior medic, Pillai was now a government pensioner. He came to Shirdi to meet Sai Baba. Pillai also heard about Upasani, who fascinated him. This visitor went to the Khandoba temple and requested permission to conduct a medical examination, being concerned about the severe abstinence of Upasani. The ascetic proved cooperative.

Upasani was extremely thin. On 15 April 1913, his pulse rate was now discovered to be only forty beats per minute. The doctor anxiously told the ascetic that if he continued to abstain from food, he would die. A low heart rate, or bradycardia, is often defined in terms of less than fifty beats per minute. A person with a count of forty could indeed be in a critical condition if their condition is one of illness or fatigue. In contrast, athletes can have a low resting heart rate of only thirty beats, which is healthy in their instance.

Upasani did not seem at all concerned by the medical disclosure, responding that he was in a similar physical condition to some predicaments he had known in the past, implying that he would survive. Moreover, the ascetic said encouragingly that contact with a medical doctor amounted to prolonging life. In contrast to the much later impression given by the Sai missionary Narasimhaswami, Upasani was not gloomily talking about death in 1913, but optimistically parrying the negative attitude of his distinguished visitor.

During one interchange with Pillai in 1913, Upasani predicted that a devastating war would commence in the near future. He stated that the conflict would spread throughout the world. Pillai was puzzled, saying there was no indication of any terrible war. Upasani was adamant on this point, however. The following year, the Great War with Germany started in Europe. When Pillai grasped that a serious war was in process, he remembered Upasani’s prediction, and relayed this information to Sai devotees like Hari Dixit. (148)

Dr. Pillai chose to reside in Shirdi, thus being in constant contact with both Sai and Upasani, observing these two ascetics very closely. The medic is reported to have conversed with Upasani daily for about half an hour. He was not offput by the bizarre situation of this abstracted ascetic. For instance, Upasani would never clean the temple interior, and nor would he allow anyone else to do so. He was indifferent to snakes, scorpions, and ants. His moods were unpredictable; his speech could be difficult to comprehend. He was liable to express annoyance with some visitors, but seems to have been placid with Pillai and Durgabai, treating them as friends.

Pillai and others would visit the temple after paying their respects to Sai Baba at the mosque. On several of these occasions, Upasani would refer to occurrences at the mosque, even though nobody had told him of those events (NSS:112).

Pillai became convinced that Upasani was exceptional. The doctor felt certain that Upasani would be the spiritual successor of Sai Baba, as the latter had indicated. Pillai made his beliefs known to the high caste inhabitants of Shirdi, and to some effect. Many of those people are reported to have approached Upasani with the insistent request that he take food at their home. These interruptions annoyed the ascetic, who would not agree.

The new well-wishers also accompanied two regular supporters of Upasani, namely Bhai and the woman named Durgabai Karmakar (both devotees of Sai), when the latter took a cup of milk coffee at night to the temple dweller. Upasani would not accept this drink, which he gave instead to stray dogs. Further, when two other supporters, namely Vesu Kaka and Sagun, arrived with meals for him, the ascetic would not allow them to enter the temple. Instead, Upasani told the visitors to feed stray dogs. He had not forgotten the lesson Sai Baba had taught him about animals in 1911. Upasani now awarded special care to a blind mongrel bitch. He even referred to this animal as his mother-in-law and teacher. (149)

Every evening, Dr. Pillai would visit Upasani in the company of three other supporters, namely Bhai, Durgabai, and a Muslim named Sirajuddin. The mood of their host varied; Upasani was not always communicative, and could be disconcertingly silent (in the unmatta state). Yet one night he talked about religious matters, the explanation continuing until two in the morning. That was the beginning of his later fluency in discourses, which could strongly absorb audience attention.

At this early period, Upasani puzzled admirers by his abstention from food. He did not derive this trait from Sai Baba, who resisted fasting and regularly ate food (and when with faqirs, ate meat). Every time Pillai and the others visited Upasani, they would take coffee with them as a gift. He scolded them many times over their attempt to alleviate his abstinence (or sheer aversion to food, as he himself tended to describe the phenomenon). The ascetic would invariably give the coffee to dogs. Once in exasperation, he flung the unwanted vessels some distance away.

According to one commentator, Upasani told Pillai that “he was tortured like a dumb brute” (LSB:398). The context is supplied: “Mischievous young persons tortured him” (LSB:466). This refers to his known harassers at that period, associated with the eccentric holy man Nanavali. However, some admirers were also bothersome, not understanding the nature of his desired seclusion.

A very persistent devotee was a wealthy Parsi named Hormasji. This man came from Poona to visit Sai Baba, afterwards becoming attracted to Upasani (the dual pull quite often occurred amongst visitors to Shirdi). The Parsi would bring fruits and tea, despite the aversion of the ascetic to this fare. Hormasji assumed that he had a right to sit near Upasani in the Khandoba temple. Accordingly, he would not leave, even in the face of angry outbursts.

 On one occasion, to escape this very persistent visitor, the temple inmate walked away on the road to Rahata. When he glanced behind him, however, Upasani saw that Hormasji was tracking him at a distance of about thirty yards. If Upasani quickened his pace, Hormasji would do likewise. If Upasani slowed down, so too would the devotee. This continued for about a mile, after which Upasani moved into the forbidding jungle terrain. Still Hormasji tenaciously followed him. Upasani climbed a tree. Eventually, Hormasji had to request onlookers to guide him back to the Khandoba temple. Then he sat near the temple, waiting for Upasani to return.

The ascetic was careful to synchronise his own return with the arati rite at the mosque, knowing that Hormasji would not miss the major devotee event (meaning the performance of worship before Sai Baba). However, after arati, the tireless Hormasji reappeared at the Khandoba temple (DSS:223-224).

Some visitors to Shirdi were objectionable in the eyes of both Sai Baba and Upasani. Caste attitudes were evidently an issue. For instance, Narahari Londhe of Nevasa was a brahman who initially felt high caste revulsion at the darshan prospect of bowing to a Muslim faqir in a mosque. When his party arrived at Shirdi, Sai Baba asked them for dakshina. Londhe now approached the saint, who, however, “looked fiercely at him in such a way that he dared not go nearer.” Londhe offered a mental apology for his attitude of caste bias. The faqir continued the disconcertingly fierce glare. Sai was apparently unwilling to accept dakshina from Londhe. The deflated visitor now moved away to the Khandoba temple, hoping instead for the darshan of Upasani.

When Londhe tried to place his head on the feet of the Hindu ascetic, he encountered further frustration. Upasani prevented the devotee move by turning in his seat at an angle of 100 or 150 degrees. Londhe tried again, but the desired feet remained elusive. Upasani bluntly told the visitor: “You are a brahman and cannot take darshan of Sai. What business have you with me?” Londhe apologised for his failing. Nevertheless, Upasani sent him away. (150)

The temple dweller situation could bring shocks. Dr. Pillai and his companions once arrived at the Khandoba temple to find a startling sight. Upasani was sitting serenely in a posture (asana) associated with samadhi. A large snake had entered through a small window, and was now on the back of Upasani. The hood of this creature (apparently a cobra) perched on his head. The visitors stood quite still, not daring to move, wondering what to do next. Somebody made a due exit, summoning local men who removed the dangerous serpent, which was killed.

This event, and another similar, became regarded as “miracles.” Certainly, grave danger was averted. One night when Upasani was lying down, a snake coiled itself around his feet, effectively binding them. He sat up erect, gazing at the snake, whose head was on his feet. His devotee Bala Sonar was present, then in the untimely act of relieving himself. Sonar became “frightened out of his wits” when he saw what was happening. Mustering due courage, this man somehow managed to get the snake off the body of Upasani. At the ascetic’s request, Sonar allowed the intrusive creature to go free outside the temple. (151)

The category of this snake is not recorded. A king cobra bite is deadly, with the repute of being able to kill an elephant. Kraits are also notably venomous. The viper was the most feared snake in India. Death or disablement could result from snake bite. Even today, the annual total of deaths caused by these serpents is over 40,000, plus about 140,000 cases of disablement.

Upasani appears to have been impervious to snakes. In emergencies, he apparently did not wish to injure or kill them. In another sector, the British were often puzzled at the ability of Indian snake charmers to handle poisonous snakes. This low caste hereditary profession could tame king cobras and even vipers; the snakecharmer practice of removing fangs and venom glands is now controversial. Many Indians were terrified by hostile vipers, whose bite was both extremely painful and potentially fatal.

33.   Muslim  Admirers

Many Muslim visitors are reported to have attended the annual Urs celebration at Shirdi, which Sai Baba had allowed commencement in 1897. Not all of these visitors were necessarily followers of Sai Baba. An early report, relating to Upasani, describes four Muslims arriving at Shirdi. Standing at a distance, these men observed Upasani on two or three occasions, while he sat under a banyan tree near the Khandoba temple. The date is elusive.

Afterwards, these Muslims started to perform their daily prayers (namaz) at his temple. Upasani eventually discouraged this rite, indicating that namaz belonged at the mosque of Sai Baba. The visitors then requested that he listen to what they had to say, whether at the temple or at the banyan tree. Upasani said that he would consider the prospect. He was generally reluctant to get involved with visitor petitions.

The next day, the same group of Muslims found him sitting under the banyan tree. They bowed in reverence and sat near him. He then asked why they had performed namaz at his temple. One of them commenced to cite passages from religious texts. An attributed passage is cited retrospectively in the early Gujarati work by Desai. The source here was actually a reminiscence of Upasani, revealing distinctive phraseology that he used. The gist is as follows:

A true Sufi saint or “Sai” can make a brahman his disciple. In such an instance, the “formless aspect of Sai enters into the heart” of the brahman, and simultaneously the nature of the disciple resides within the Sai. Because their spiritual nature is similar, a crossover occurs.

The Muslims then voiced their conclusion that the Muslim-Hindu unity, or crossover, was mirrored in the situation of Sai Baba and Upasani. They had found proof in the deportment and visage of the temple dweller. An extending consideration, in this crossover, is expressed by the narrator (Desai): the essence of Upasani was that of a pure Muslim (or Sufi), while Sai Baba had the essence of a pure brahman.

A basic point emerges. Upasani was aware of the truth which the Muslims were describing. Moreover, he was in the “state of consciously experiencing non-duality,” which the Muslim Sufis referred to via their own terminology.

The four Muslims explained that, becoming certain how “the formless aspect of Allah resides in you [Upasani],” they had felt justified in performing their daily prayers in his presence. After this unusual interchange, the visitors departed, giving their salute or salaam. (152)

Another Muslim visitor is reported to have entered the Khandoba temple without permission. He seated himself near Upasani. This guest then delivered an unusual reflection, uttering his words very slowly and solemnly: “Sai has gone and Swami has arrived!”

Upasani expressed curiosity, asking his guest to repeat those words. A permutation is given: “Sai has gone away and Swami [Upasani] has just announced his presence.” (153) The visitor then departed. This unnamed Muslim was apparently referring to the topic of successorship, which Sai Baba had himself emphasised in 1911. That topic became widely known in Shirdi, at the same time being rendered taboo amongst conservative Sai devotees.

34.  Sai  Baba  Inaugurates  Worship  of  Upasani

In July 1913, Dr. Pillai found that the pulse rate of Upasani had gone down dramatically, being only 20 to the minute. The medic was puzzled by the fact that this gaunt and emaciated ascetic was now accomplishing hard manual labour in the hot sun. Upasani was indifferent to his pulse reading. He continually proved that unexpected feats could be accomplished by an abstinent world renouncer.

Chandrabai  Borkar

The alarmed doctor spoke about his discovery to others in Shirdi, including Sai Baba. The faqir then made a very unusual gesture. Via Shama, Sai instructed a female devotee, Chandrabai Borkar, to conduct worship (puja) at the Khandoba temple, on the occasion of Gurupurnima, the day for worship of a guru. The object of worship was Upasani himself, whom Sai was now indicating to be a guru. Borkar was one of those who performed arati and puja at the mosque. The clear intention was to duplicate the worship of Sai Baba in a celebration of Upasani. This development was a major shock to the opponents of Upasani.

The date was 18 July, 1913. The innovative puja occurred inside the Khandoba temple. Chandrabai was a strong and bold woman, qualities needed on this occasion. She entered the temple, which she found “very dirty and stinking” in the absence of cleaners. She started to massage the feet of the occupant, in the same way that she massaged the feet of Sai Baba. Upasani objected to the worship, requesting her to leave. Two men (unnamed) arrived. Chandrabai explained to them that she had come at the order of Sai Baba to perform puja. Upasani questioned this order. The visitor repeated her mandate, saying she had brought with her naivedya (food offering), because Upasani had eaten nothing for a long time.

Chandrabai grabbed hold of Upasani’s foot, intending to wash this with water and milk, then to use turmeric and sandalpaste as decoration. The resisting ascetic withdrew his foot under the gunny cloth he used as a blanket. He had no interest in being worshipped. He again told her to leave. Chandrabai instead expressed her determination to continue, defying him to beat her (an action which she apparently anticipated). This sturdy woman pulled his foot out from the blanket. Upasani then shook his fist at her in anger, and again withdrew his foot. The pujari once more pulled out the reluctant foot, countering his objections with the refrain: “Your foot and your body have become ours and belong to the whole world.”

Chandrabai now exhorted the two male spectators to come inside the temple and hold Upasani, to prevent him resisting. “Knowing Maharaj’s strength and readiness to strike people when provoked, they dared not approach him” (NSS:79). So the resourceful pujari continued on her own, gripping the obstinate foot with one hand and performing worship with the other. She afterwards waved her arati tray and camphor lamp before the ascetic, placing flowers over his head. She then moved a cup of milk (the naivedya) to his lips. That final gesture proved too much. Upasani threw the cup down and got up from the floor, expressing annoyance, telling Chandrabai to leave. This time she obeyed, and did not return.

The July puja event created a strong local interest, amongst both supporters and opponents. The hostile contingent were again reacting to exaltation of the person they hated as a rival. The temple dweller now became known as Upasani Baba or Upasani Maharaj. A few persons could remember how Sai Baba had predicted, two years earlier, that Upasani would emerge from his retreat to gain public veneration. “He would be completely transformed into God, filled with Khandoba’s grace” (LSB:464).

In 1911, Sai Baba is reported to have told Upasani: “Shama will come and pull you out of Khandoba’s solitude and I will place you in the open. That is, your divinity will be recognised by all” (LSB:464). Narasimhaswami assumed that such an event could only happen after four years. Sai Baba actually referred to a period of two or four years duration. Shama was the continual intermediary between Sai and devotees. The puja event would inevitably have been attended by Shama’s communication skills.

The puja episode caused confusion in some commentaries. According to Narasimhaswami, Upasani “had no idea as to the real significance” of this event.  (154) The critic here asserts that Upasani “was fully earmarked as a Guru to be worshipped by people, and to have no more sense of ownership or anything personal in his body or reputation; he existed or should exist like Gods, images, etc. for the public.” (155) The complaint appeared in a chapter elaborately denying that Upasani was a successor of Sai Baba. On his own part, Upasani remained basically resistant to worship of his person for many years, even when permitting such puja. Some analysts see this trait as a virtue rather than a crime.

A humorous dimension of the 1913 puja event was emphasised by Upasani in later years. In his Talks, he provided the analogy of a brahman who became a doctor against his will. When entering a village where he was unknown, the inhabitants believed him to be a doctor, hoping for cures of their ailments. They applied such constant pressure upon him that he admitted his medical “knowledge” and prescribed holy ashes, mixed occasionally with powdered ginger to facilitate consumption on the part of patients (NSS:80). Upasani himself resorted to sacred ash (udi) in the 1920s, when many visitors to Sakori ashram requested this popular blessing. A note of self-depreciation is evident in such references.

At Shirdi in 1913, via the worship ceremony instigated by Sai Baba, the supporters of Upasani were now legitimated to approach him as devotees. Most, or all, of them were also devotees of Sai. These people continued in the attempt to worship Upasani at his temple. They had to overcome his customary introspection (or unmatta); in some moods he could react strongly to interruption, no matter who was present. The worshippers, who were accustomed to his idiosyncracies, persevered accordingly. They did have some success with their puja. However, they also encountered another obstacle, of the worst kind.

A prominent detractor was a local ascetic called Nanavali (Nanawali). This man was a militant devotee of Sai Baba, gaining notoriety as a violent troublemaker in Shirdi. Some reports inform that he would beat up hapless devotees in his aggressive moods. Nanavali was a sturdy man, and apparently very strong. He himself had gained the reputation of a pagal (madman), because of eccentric behaviour. Different sources have claimed him as a Hindu and a Muslim respectively, although he is often referred to as a brahman.

Narasimhaswami’s overall version of these events is confused and misleading. However, his conclusion about Nanavali is relevant. “Nanavali was a sturdy stout person ready to do violence to any one on the slightest provocation.”  (156)

Nanavali deliberately tried to disrupt the puja events at Khandoba’s temple, ignoring the fact that Sai Baba had instigated them. When the devotees threw flowers at Upasani, Nanavali contemptuously threw mud or dirt. When the devotees sang hymns of praise, Nanavali would erupt into insults.  (157)

35.  Nanavali  and  the  Tormenting  Gang

The full details of the Shirdi phase go well beyond any hagiographic profile. The realism is impressive. We are in the realm of factual occurrence. Devotee actions are too frequently discernible as a manifestation of limited outlook. The pothi pages of Dabholkar are silent about the case history of Upasani, which comes alive in other sources.

The molester Nanavali was even more extreme on the occasion when he tied Upasani to a pillar with a rope, dancing or romping around him, and verbally abusing him. (158) Upasani was weak from abstinence, a factor enabling this belligerent attacker to overwhelm him. The hostile situation, which had been in process for two years, was now very serious. According to Narasimhaswami, “Muhammadan boys and others” were the colleagues of Nanavali in his predatory exploits. The full range of opponents was evidently daunting, but none so menacing as Nanavali.

The bizarre figure of Nanavali was eventually glorified in some accounts. He is there presented as a wonderful devotee of Sai, occasionally erratic. The date he arrived at Shirdi is uncertain. Sai Baba called him Nanavali, the name by which he became generally known. Sai warned him not to betray their contact. Nanavali was extremist in his behaviour. He would put scorpions and excreta in his mouth, and daub his body with dirt. His antics attracted local boys, who followed him about. Most of the boys in Shirdi were Hindus.

Nanavali believed himself to be a great devotee, identifying with Hanuman, the legendary companion of Rama, portrayed as a monkey. Nanavali would say "I am Hanuman." He would improvise a "monkey tail" made of cloth, as if to prove his claim. His eccentric dancing could become noisy in the presence of the gang of boys. This activity impinged into the mosque precincts. Sai Baba warned Nanavali against becoming a distraction. However, the "great devotee" superiority complex became violent.

Nanavali gained the repute of being a bully and molester. At an uncertain date, he once beat the harmless Dr. Pillai in a mood of aggression. The artist Shyama Rao Jayker was familiar with this episode. Jayker painted a few portraits of Sai from 1913 onwards, after gaining very reluctant permission from the faqir. Sai Baba told Pillai and Jayker to keep clear of the militant Hanuman. The artist Jayker described Nanavali as "a dangerous man." Furthermore, "Jayker says that Sai would beat Nanavali and warn him not to do wrong" (SBI:245). Some retribution evidently occurred in a situation neglected by cosmetic versions and hagiography.

In later years, Upasani himself related:

In Shirdi, during Sai Baba’s time, there was a fellow by name Nanavali; he was a man with a very strong prakriti [nature]. He troubled me and Sai Baba as well. Once he caught me and pulled me to the masjid [mosque] of Sai Baba, took away my clothes leaving me naked, and started behaving like a buffoon.  (159)

Narasimhaswami urges a prachar theory that Upasani “could not see what was being done with him by [Sai] Baba in connection with his spiritual attainments.” (160) The commentator should perhaps have said that Nanavali and other opponents could not see what was really occurring at the Khandoba temple.

There are different versions of the afflicting episode in which Nanavali acted like a "buffoon." An early report says that Nanavali came into the Khandoba temple and grabbed hold of Upasani, taking him to the mosque (probably with the aid of assistants). There Nanavali removed his own loin-cloth and told Upasani to wear that item. In exchange, the molester took the gunny cloth from Upasani and wore this himself. Nanavali also danced with Upasani on that same bizarre occasion. A description supplied is “jumping about up and down” (DSS:620). This event occurred in the presence of Sai Baba and some devotees, lasting for two hours. However, Sai Baba did not endorse the eccentric cavorting. He invariably expressed deference to Upasani as a holy man. In this respect, opponents could never get the upper hand.

At this period, Upasani told Dr. Pillai: “My sufferings and their causes have been indescribable. I am like a dumb gagged brute, beaten and tortured, quite unable to express the pain felt” (NSS:123). He was apparently referring to Nanavali and other harassers.

According to Sage of Sakuri, Nanavali had recently arrived at Shirdi. “He declared that his mission at Shirdi was to protect his ‘uncle Sai’ from all persons giving him trouble, or bringing discredit upon his name, and he included in this category both Rao Bahadur H. V. Sathe and Upasani Maharaj.” (161) Other accounts favour an earlier date for the appearance of Nanavali at Shirdi.

The menacing Nanavali should not be underestimated in any coverage of this period. He would make an entry into the Khandoba temple at any hour, disturbing the occupant even while he seemed to be asleep (as some assumed). The very calculating Nanavali is reported to have thrown Upasani into a ditch, having covered this spot with sharp thorns to cause bleeding. Twenty years later, a commentator relayed:

Thoroughly rude and irreverent, he [Nanavali] would disturb others who waited on [Upasani] Maharaj for worship. Bringing dirt and mud, he would fling these on Maharaj’s body or on the floor. Once he pulled off his [Upasani’s] cloth, the only thing [gunny cloth] he wore, made him stand naked in the presence of many – even in the presence of Sai, and gambolled around him. He forced Maharaj at times to stand up and sit down alternately many times until the [emaciated] knees creaked with pain. Once he tied him [Upasani] up with a rope. Often he would talk of him with utter disrespect and contempt. Maharaj endured all this patiently and in silence. (NSS:128)

Boys of the village considered Upasani to be mad. They threw stones and filth at him. This may be one reason why he earlier resorted to stone-throwing, in late 1912, as a defensive measure. Narasimhaswami identifies the boys as Muslims, which may be misleading; many boys in Shirdi were Hindus. “Elderly and pious Muslims revere madmen or let them alone” (NSS:124). The mischievous youths at Shirdi occasionally went inside the temple “to torture him [Upasani]” (NSS:124). These intruders are described as being in the age bracket of ten to twenty. They may well have emulated the hostile behaviour of Nanavali. According to Sage of Sakuri, this gang were “encouraged by Maharaj’s policy of non-resistance to evil” (NSS:124). Upasani would only tell stories to these miscreants in return for their harassment. (162)

If the belligerent boys were really Muslims, then Nanavali himself is more likely to have been a Muslim. However, he is portrayed in a number of accounts as a Hindu ascetic. A name applied to him, Shankar Narayana Vaidya, is distinctively Hindu.  “Sometimes Nanavali wore the garb of a Muslim faqir, and at other times he appeared to be a Hindu ascetic” (SBI:244). Nanavali reportedly wore sackcloth, like Upasani. The apparent inconsistency might be explained by the detail that Nanavali served in a Muslim shrine during his boyhood.

The situation at the Khandoba temple was evidently more complex than a policy of non-resistance. According to some early sources, the regular unmatta states of Upasani rendered him oblivious to his surroundings. These states (or state) were not sleep. He could not be roused from unmatta inaction by devotees or anyone else. He just sat or lay down on the floor in silence, for hours at a time. This was an unresponsive condition of a rare type. The situation was abused by the gang of unruly boys, who entered the temple when devotees were absent.

The gang once brought into the temple a “potsherd full of human and animal excreta” (NSS:124), saying they had sweets for the occupant. Upasani remained silent, being in the unmatta state (and lying down, an easy prey). The intruders inserted canine dung into his mouth. He neither swallowed this, nor spat it out. He is reported to have shed silent tears. The dung remained in his mouth. “The boys gambolled round him, cracked jokes at his expense, played indecent and horrible tricks on his person, derided him” (NSS:124). They perhaps urinated over him; that is certainly the level of mentality in some juvenile gangs. The harassers departed after about half an hour, but repeatedly returned. The victim did not complain against them, nor did he react violently.

His eventual resort “stunned even Shirdi imagination by his method of self-torture.” The meaning is that local villagers had invented wild interpretations of what was occurring at the temple. Upasani now dug a pit, resembling a grave, “in the locality which was really a graveyard” (NSS:125). This may refer to an extension of the nearby cremation ground; the Muslim cemetery was some distance away. Upasani lay down in this pit, carefully pulling over himself bundles of thorns. The gang could not reach through these thorn layers, departing in frustration.

Some visitors to the Khandoba temple were amazed to find Upasani in the pit. They called to him, but he did not respond. They are said to have feared his wrath. Accordingly, they decided not to disturb him further on the first day. However, the next day they removed the thorns. Upasani then walked out of his premature grave (NSS:125).

36.  Visitors  to  the  Khandoba  Temple

The Marathi novelist H. N. Apte visited Upasani at the temple in July 1913. According to the Sai missionary (pracharak) Narasimhaswami, Upasani told this novelist that he did not expect to live long, and would be glad to see his relatives before he died (LSB:402).

Apte was well intentioned, but not especially perceptive. In contrast to Dr. Pillai and others, the visitor assumed that Upasani felt lonely and needed to see his relatives. So he wrote to Balakrishna Shastri, Upasani’s professorial brother, who is said to have visited Shirdi again with the intention of consoling the supposedly forlorn ascetic. As a consequence, Upasani’s mother Rukmini subsequently visited him.

The missionary version is distorting. Upasani is here said to have told Balakrishna that “he could not see what was being done with him by [Sai] Baba in connection with his spiritual attainments” (LSB:402). The earlier partisan version of the same writer has different wordings and extra detail, including the reference of Upasani to “a hell on earth,” meaning the Khandoba temple (NSS:128-129). Nanavali and the tormenting gang would be sufficient basis for any complaint.

The pracharak preference was to ignore the unmatta states of Upasani, instead presenting his outlook in terms of bitterness. “Kashinath could not get over his bitter feelings” (LSB:402). This theme of Sai prachar (propaganda) is still cited as authoritative by parties failing to examine suppressed details.

The pracharak tactic implied that the uncomprehending temple dweller was too attached to his wife and family, lagging far behind the Sai devotionalism demonstrated to perfection by the “apostles” like Hari S. Dixit. The “gold plate grant” declaration of 1911 was annulled by such transparent calculation.

Dr. Pillai perceived that many visitors (and gossipers) did not understand Upasani. The ascetic was experiencing a very indrawn state of mind, often shedding tears when visitors came, the reason being his aversion to interruption. Apte assumed that Upasani must be feeling lonely, wanting to see his family. Misconceptions could so easily occur. Upasani’s brother Balakrishna does not mention Apte in his interview of 1936; he merely says that he “visited Shirdi on one or two occasions” (NDE:230).  His neglected correspondence might throw further light upon events. Rukmini certainly did make the journey to Shirdi. This widow, now aged about sixty-five, had never understood the renunciate tangent of her second son.

Rukmini (Rukminibai) now went unannounced to the Shirdi mosque. Sai Baba requested her to sit near him, benignly applying udi to her forehead (in accordance with a common expectation of visitors). Then he sent her to the Khandoba temple. Some sceptical villagers (or devotees) warned Rukmini that a madman lived there, one who was likely to molest her if she approached him. She nevertheless knocked at the temple door. Upasani greeted her warmly and shed tears (NSS:129). From now onwards she revered him (eventually he conferred sannyas upon her).

The method of some contemporary sociologists does not clarify the vintage events. They focus upon beliefs of contemporary Sai devotees, frequently influenced by pracharak argument. The consequence is a widespread ignorance of events as these actually occurred. This situation has led to careless descriptions of Sai Baba as a healer (a preference of Hari S. Dixit), despite discernible complaints of the faqir about many darshan seekers who came to Shirdi for the wrong reasons.

One visitor to Sai Baba was a blind man hoping for a cure. The faqir did not respond to his request. The petitioner afterwards visited the Khandoba temple.  Upasani wept at the interruption. He asked why the visitor wanted physical sight, advising him to ask instead for spiritual vision. The blind man returned to the mosque for this purpose. There is no record of Sai Baba’s answer. The blind man stayed at Shirdi, but died after a month. Sai then remarked: “He is not dead; he is in bliss” (NSS:114-115).

An undated episode concerns the Raja of Jawar State. This aristocrat visited Sai Baba, his retinue erecting a camp near Shirdi. When the Raja heard of Upasani, he sent a gift of food via two soldiers and a servant. This trio carried an elaborate silver plate (or plates) covered with a fine satin cloth. Upasani merely gazed at the servant. Then he began to weep aloud. This was apparently a frequent response of his to interruption. The upset might be followed by a gesture of frustration. In this instance, he enquired the identity of the visitors, and seemed annoyed with the reply. He snatched the silver plate from them, throwing this into a ditch outside the temple. The plate was damaged.

Despite his anger, Upasani continued to weep. He told the servant to leave, saying this man had received the grace of Sai Baba (meaning that nothing else was necessary). After four days, the servant caught cholera and died within a few hours.

Several days later, the Raja himself arrived with an attendant, with an absence of finery. Upasani permitted these two visitors to enter the Khandoba temple. However, he warned the Raja that his derelict abode was not suited to royalty. The aristocrat replied with humility, even refusing a mat offered by his attendant for use on the dirty floor. The Raja stayed for about fifteen minutes, afterwards requesting permission to leave. On subsequent days, the Raja returned with his queen, staying for about half an hour. The compliant Upasani is reported to have discoursed, making reference to unworldly events. (163)

37.  Two  Shirdi  Saints  and  Bapusaheb  Jog

From July 1913, the “official” situation at Shirdi was that two saints were now worthy of worship. Unofficially, the opponents of one saint were extremely antagonistic to the endorsement of Upasani by their own leader, meaning Sai Baba. The acute anomaly evident here is enlivened by further intricacies disclosed in the available (and suppressed) records.

The harassment was very tangible, although culprits are basically anonymous in the sources. Instances occurred of detractors following Upasani to the temple, and then “abusing and teasing” him. Upasani is reported to have been mild in requesting them to leave. If they refused to listen, persisting in their form of contempt, then he would resort to “severe abusive words.” He would even threaten to remove them. If the interlopers still continued with their insulting behaviour, then the temple dweller would become angry, which meant “tear their clothes and even beat them” (DSS:228).

A drawback in such confrontations was evidently Nanavali, exhibiting a manic aggressive tendency. Both he and Upasani had gained the repute of being “crazy saints.” There were discernibly strong contrasts. Nanavali went out of his way to be insulting and disruptive. Upasani was only concerned with maintaining an independent lifestyle at his temple.

Shirdi Sai Baba, 1903

Some late accounts convey the impression that Sai Baba was an incidental figure in relation to Upasani. A contrasting perspective is afforded in an early source rarely cited. “Sai Baba would often use any pretext and send his devotees to [Upasani] Maharaj only to get them beaten.” (164) This detail reverses a favoured Sai prachar (propaganda) theme that the temple dweller failed Sai Baba by becoming prone to bitter feelings. The earlier reporting was not missionary, and is far more realistic.

Sai Baba was not allowing troublemakers to have things their own way. Instead, he utilised the occupant of Khandoba’s temple as a catalyst for reactions. Real life events, as distinct from prachar fantasy, confirmed the faqir’s high estimation of the temple dweller, who became an agent of retribution for laxities perceived at the mosque.

At that period, and in certain situations, a beating was regarded as a blessing at the hands of a genuine saint. Some say that this was more generally a Muslim belief, not a Hindu attitude. Sai Baba himself had often administered blows with his short stick (satka), like a schoolmaster maintaining discipline. Upasani was familiar with the pundit system of corporal punishment favoured by his grandfather, who had also used a stick for difficult students.

One of the most prominent devotees of Sai Baba was Hari S. Dixit, a Bombay solicitor. He once visited the Khandoba temple with some of his relatives, apparently at the instigation of Sai Baba (the year date is missing). Dixit noticed that Upasani had installed a machine to ground flour. For some reason not specified, Dixit laughed at this innovation. Upasani ignored the taunt, instead asking if the visitor could ground flour on the machine.

Dixit did not respond to the request. He preferred to joke about the activity of grinding grains. Upasani then became annoyed at the depreciatory attitude. The high caste Dixit did not need to ground flour; he could afford to give away, at Shirdi, a suitcase (or trunk) full of silver rupees (a vast fortune even to high caste villagers). That memorable gift to Sai Baba is on record (SBI:177). In contrast, Upasani did not possess a single rupee.

On the occasion of friction, the ascetic was apparently sitting at the grinder. He stood up in a rage and caught hold of the scorner, forcibly ejecting him from the temple.  Dixit and his relatives are reported to have received “a solid thrashing,” apparently in the form of slaps. (165)

Sai Baba himself used a grinding machine for flour. The faqir is reported to have purchased two of these implements from a vadari. Grinding was a low caste activity, which may be the reason why Dixit cast aspersions during his visit to Upasani. Dixit did make some mistakes. He is known to have aroused Sai Baba’s strong displeasure when he was found making a criticism of Christianity, a lapse for which he afterwards apologised. Sai Baba would not tolerate criticism of other religions, a point that is very much in his favour.

Professor Ganpatrao Narke

In a different category was Ganpatrao Narke, another brahman devotee, who later became a Professor of Geology at Poona. He also “received a beating” from Upasani, although the reason is not stated (and the date is missing). However, his family “continued to have full regard and devotion” for Upasani. (166) This contrasts with an evident rift occurring between Hari Dixit and the temple dweller.

Narke spent much time at Shirdi when he was unemployed for over a year. He first visited Sai Baba in April 1913, at the time when Dr. Pillai discovered Upasani. Narke was at first more assertive than he later became. The devotee milieu varied in temperament. Precedence was given to devotees of Sai who seemed to be the most important "big men." Some persons even assumed that Nanavali was spiritually significant. Narke came to believe strongly in supernatural abilities of Sai Baba. He was more discerning than most other followers in his assessment of various matters, relayed in a much later interview of 1936 that is now well known (SBI:229-235). Narke reports: "Sai Baba never lectured.... a word or a sentence or two at a time was all he cared to utter" (ibid:230). When the faqir did talk for any length of time, the format was a story or allegory not always easy to comprehend.

A man well disposed to Upasani was Sudama Deva Hansraj, an elderly Hindu devotee of Sai Baba. He expressed to the faqir a desire to visit the occupant of Khandoba’s temple. Sai offputtingly remarked that the unpredictable Upasani might hit him. Nevertheless, Hansraj accompanied some others to the temple. The date is elusive (most likely 1916). Upasani was restrained on this occasion, punning on the factor of “madness.” This was because some Sai devotees called him a madman. “Whosoever says that Sai Baba and I are different is the really mad [one]” (GT, 3:393).

Like a number of  others, Hansraj became a joint supporter of Upasani and Sai. He relayed that Sai Baba told him: “He [Upasani] and I are one” (GT, 3:391). The faqir did not retreat from his “gold plate grant” declaration in 1911, contested by the argumentative Hari Dixit, a devotee who believed that he was more important than Upasani.

Talk 268 is a reported conversation between Hansraj and Upasani in 1924. Information is supplied as to how Sai Baba told Hari Dixit that he [Sai] would run away, and because of this, all his retainers would die of hunger (GT, 3:393). This appears to have been a humorous dig at the situation of financial patronage which the faqir extended via dakshina. According to Hansraj, “Sai Baba was all kindness” (GT, 3:393). However, this devotee harboured a mild resentment at having paid what he considered too much dakshina. Once while fanning Sai, Hansraj was thinking to himself: “This Muslim has ruined me” (GT, 3:393). The faqir immediately turned round and exclaimed  indignantly: “You [angrily] call me a Muslim!”

Hansraj says that the recipients of redistributed dakshina were men like “Bajababa Ganjadi, Tatya Patil [Kote], Nanba.” Two of those names are now obscure. “All of those big people like Kakasaheb [Hari Dixit], Buty Saheb [Gopalrao Buti], Bade Baba used to sit for dinner [at the mosque], and he [Sai] used to serve them plenty” (GT, 3:394). However, Sai himself would eat very little and quickly get up, saying “Allah Malika” (Allah Malik Hai). If any poor man came, he would send that person to the wealthy Gopalrao Buti (a millionaire of Nagpur).

Hansraj also informs that he was in the habit of telling Hari Dixit not to trouble Upasani (a potentially significant admonition). This outspoken man told another prominent devotee, Tatya Kote Patil, that Upasani and Sai Baba were one and the same. Hansraj exhorted the sceptical Tatya to respect Upasani, whom he now described as “the real disciple of Sai Baba” (GT, 3:394). In retrospect, Hansraj lamented: “Those fellows never listened to me.”

A veterinary surgeon would tell Sai Baba that Upasani remained naked at the temple. This was apparently an edged complaint. Sai would respond: “Allah Malika.(167) The faqir would not criticise the temple dweller, a factor of annoyance to opposing devotees.

Bapusaheb Jog

In contrast to Dixit and Tatya Kote, Bapusaheb Jog (d.1926) eventually became a devotee of Upasani, whom he considered to be spiritually identified with Sai Baba. Jog (Sakharam Hari), one of the most literate devotees at Shirdi, was the major arati officiant. This brahman had come to live at Shirdi with his wife. He witnessed many of the events concerning Upasani, whom he found impressive. However, Jog was initially involved in a dramatic episode of conflict with the temple dweller.

In November 1913, Jog took food to Upasani in the hope of stopping his abstinence. At the time of Shiva-ratri, Jog asked the permission of Sai Baba for this expedient. It is not clear why he thought that his contribution would be successful. The faqir was silent for some time, evidently being reserved on the matter. At length Sai asked: “What do you want to do? Prepare the meal and offer it to Maharaj, or escort Maharaj [to your] home and then offer him food there?” Jog answered that he would prefer to take a prepared meal to Upasani. Sai Baba typically exclaimed “Allah Malik Hai!” Then he simply nodded in assent.

Jog went home and filled a plate with delicious foods. Arriving at the Khandoba temple, he found that the doors were closed. From inside the temple, Upasani asked loudly: “Who are you?” The occupant unlocked the doors, saying that he did not need anything, instead asking Jog to leave. Like others, Jog found that enticing platters could not tempt this ascetic. The visitor was nevertheless insistent that the food should be eaten, saying he had the permission of Sai Baba in this mission. Upasani “did not give any reply but continued to sit without uttering a word” (DSS:242).

Reports of this episode differ. Narasimhaswami does not mention the silence, instead supplying a conversation in which Upasani says that the food should be given to crows and dogs. “I am not distinct from crows and dogs; feeding them is feeding me.” Jog responds that he cannot comprehend this “high philosophy.” (168) The conversation comes from the first biography by Narasimhaswami. Such details contradict the same writer’s second coverage of Upasani, which demonstrates a preference to believe that the subject thought “on purely dualistic lines” in contrast to “the idea of all personalities being one.”  (169)

A woman called Bhimabai arrived. She urged Upasani to partake of the food, uttering the familiar refrain that he had been fasting for so long. The temple dweller became annoyed at this further insistence; he had been listening to such exhortations for months, in contradiction to his own wishes. He came out of the temple, slapping the adamant woman and verbally attacking Jog. The latter responded with similar anger, now using swear words. Upasani cooled down and told Jog to go away. The visitor refused to comply, expressing words to the effect of: “I will go wherever I want.”

Upasani disliked this assertive attitude. He angrily threw a stone at Jog, producing a wound on the visitor’s left hand. Jog then lost control, goading the ascetic to attack him once again, threatening a due response. Upasani declined to take the matter further. He is reported to have said: “I will not lift my hand on you again.”

If the temple dweller had consented to eat a plate of rich food, as Jog wished him to do, his wasted stomach would have severely reacted (his own explanation in later years was that he could not eat food, for which he felt revulsion). His gaunt and emaciated body was certainly no advert for a gourmet lifestyle.

Two male acquaintances of Jog arrived on the scene. Jog agreed to follow their suggestion, which was dramatic. These men forcibly removed Upasani to one of their houses, tying him up with strong ropes. This narration, reminiscent of a reported encounter with Nanavali, is possibly a version of the same episode. Several abductors may have been involved. The Desai version says that Jog arrived at the place of detention some time later, then freeing Upasani.

Jog asked the temple dweller to accompany him to the mosque. Upasani was compliant.  Jog now triumphantly reported his complaint to Sai Baba: Upasani would not eat the food prepared for him and was very resistant to visitors. The white-bearded faqir listened patiently to the lengthy description of events. He told Upasani to sit beside him. Sai Baba then asked his disciple: “Why do you not sit in your temple in full silence?” In response, Upasani rose to his feet and walked silently out of the mosque. He returned to the temple, where he sat down in silence.

According to Sage of Sakuri, Upasani was carried to the mosque while tied with ropes, which had been applied by villagers at the request of Jog. After the complaint was expressed by captors, Sai Baba instructed that Upasani should be freed, and not troubled further (NSS:127). The implication was that objectors had misunderstood the situation.

In the afternoon of that same fraught day, Jog and his friends went to the temple, where they delivered a threatening message to the occupant. This message did not come from Sai Baba, but was their own improvisation: “We are going to inform the police officers of your misbehaviour!”

The stoical Upasani would not respond to this goad, remaining silent. The stalemate continued until the emphatic visitors became tired of the matter and departed. They realised now that they had to obtain the permission of Sai Baba before they could carry out their new plan.

That evening Shama, a frequent intermediary for the faqir, aired his own grievance to Sai Baba. He said that Upasani had been behaving irresponsibly in the recent phase. Formerly, Upasani had become violent with himself (Shama) and Hari Dixit, and now the difficult ascetic had been severe with Jog. Shama then made a request: “For how long do you think that we should let this matter go? Allow us to complain to the police authorities about it.”

Sai Baba is reported to have briefly replied: “He [Upasani] is a relative of the Faqir, therefore I cannot do or say anything about him.”  (170)

This verdict finished the matter. Shama and his party had to abandon their plan. Upasani had been endorsed in terms of an abstruse reference to the Faqir (capital F), signifying Allah. Sai Baba often used the word Faqir in relation to Allah, not to any human entity.

A much shorter version, by Narasimhaswami, translates the final response of Sai Baba in terms of: “He [Upasani] is a man of God. Let none trouble him.”  (171) This compact phraseology misses the intricacy of Sai Baba’s evocative speech. Narasimhaswami also presents the two culminating encounters with Sai in terms of a single event. Contractions are frequent in the sources.

After the death of Sai Baba in 1918, Bapusaheb Jog became a devotee of Upasani, concluding that he had failed to perceive some earlier occurrences in due perspective. He and other devotees of Sai Baba had interpreted events from a limited point of view, making suggestions and judgments that were irrelevant.

The change in Jog’s attitude occurred after various interim developments, in which the friction over Upasani gained further twists that were not complimentary to the opponents. The eventual perspective of Jog was very different to that of Narasimhaswami, who was not a witness to any of these events, and whose misleading pracharak version was published over forty years later. 

38.  Sai  Baba  and  the  Purgative

During the closing months of 1913, Upasani was apparently in a critically emaciated condition.  His abstention from solid food was aggravated by the problem of constipation.

Shirdi Sai Baba

A very unusual episode occurred at this juncture. The date was apparently late 1913 (or January 1914). At the Shirdi mosque, Sai Baba prepared with his own hands a mixture of purgative substances. He used a large cooking vessel for this purpose. In this dramatic scenario, he proceeded to give all those present one cup of the resulting laxative, for the declared purpose of loosening the bowels. He himself took a cupful of the mixture. Sai Baba was not actually in need of this prescription. In contrast, Upasani had been resistant to food for a long time, and was suffering constipation.

No effects were evident upon anyone present at the mosque. However, at the Khandoba temple next day, Upasani found that he had to “run to the toilet every few minutes” (DSS:245). Yet he himself had not been given the purgative. His drastic predicament lasted for a week or so. Dr. Pillai was in the habit of informing Upasani about events at the mosque. The purgative was accordingly mentioned. Upasani then commented that the cause of his new discomfort was the action of Sai Baba in administering the purgative. (172)

This bizarre event seems to have occurred shortly before the resort of Upasani to coffee and fruit on 14 January, 1914. The conclusion may follow that relief of his constipation afforded a shock to his system that made him more receptive to assimilating food. The purgative episode at the Shirdi mosque does not match standard medical prescription, but appears to have been strangely effective.

At this period, Sai Baba gave a ripe mango to Dr. Pillai, telling him to give the fruit to Upasani. The medic accordingly went to the Khandoba temple and presented the mango. Upasani resisted. Pillai urged him to eat the mango as Sai Baba wanted. Upasani said he would decide about the matter later. Pillai came back with the mango that night, repeatedly requesting the ascetic to eat at least some portion of this gift. Upasani capitulated; Pillai now sliced the mango. Upasani began to consume the gift, while complaining that he was unable to taste the mango. Pillai responded: “Now that you have reached the truth, how can you decipher the taste of anything else?”

Upasani then quoted a Sanskrit verse, adding in explanation: the man who exists for a lengthy period without food or drink, his mind transcends the partiality for all sense objects.

After eating a slice of the mango, Upasani was given a spoon measure of hot coffee. Subsequently, he would accept coffee in small doses, until he was able to drink an entire cupful. Meanwhile, in the evenings, Dr. Pillai would arrive at the temple with fresh sliced fruit. Upasani would sometimes eat this fruit, but only at night. During the daytime, he continued to go without food or liquid. He followed that routine until his departure from Shirdi. (173)

39.  First  Departure  From  Shirdi, July 1914

The 1950s commentator, B. V. Narasimhaswami, was preoccupied with trying to prove that Upasani Maharaj was not a successor of Sai Baba. This led to his well known and influential theme that Upasani failed to stay a prescribed four years in Shirdi, instead leaving after only three years. That dismissive pracharak version does not convince when the full details are known. The unsympathetic attitude of Narasimhaswami does not do justice to neglected events.

Upasani Maharaj, Shirdi 1914, outside the Khandoba temple

During the summer of 1914, Upasani gained a new supporter in Dr. Ganapat Rao Pundit. In his medical capacity, that professional was being posted to Shinde village, near Nagpur. En route he called at Shirdi, and there visited Sai Baba. He also encountered Dr. Pillai, his old friend. The senior medic now introduced him to Upasani at the Khandoba temple. Dr. Ganapat shed tears at the meeting. He seems to have quickly become a devotee of the sackcloth ascetic. Reference is made to the striking and radiant face of Upasani.

The newcomer was quick to assess the physical condition of Upasani Maharaj, also the nature of his overall situation. Dr. Ganapat then wished to remove the ascetic to Shinde, for the purpose of granting him a more comfortable existence. He subsequently argued this prospect with Dr. Pillai. Their outlook requires due attention, revealing the complexities confronting these two medics.

The ascetic’s body was very lean; he would still not eat solid food (apart from fruit). He was suffering from constipation and piles, ailments which complicated his intake. The interruptions to his privacy were not helpful even from well meaning persons, while the harassment from detractors was deplorable. On medical and humanitarian grounds, Dr. Ganapat argued that Upasani should not be allowed to stay in such disastrous conditions. Instead he should be escorted to Shinde, and there live for a few months in the care of Dr. Ganapat, who could administer due medicine and food, to ensure that the ascetic would regain his former physical strength.  (174)

Dr. Pillai was doubtful that Upasani would be willing to accept the transition, despite this being viewed as a temporary expedient. Dr. Ganapat then urged his friend to persuade Upasani, feeling that the prospect was workable if Pillai argued the advantages. So with this objective in mind, both of these medics again visited Upasani. At the Khandoba temple, Pillai argued that there was no longer any need for Upasani to remain in Shirdi and endure the harassment of unruly people. Moreover, after regaining his health at Shinde, he could then return to Shirdi.

Upasani sat in silence, listening to the proposition. He eventually asked when Dr. Ganapat intended to leave for Shinde. Ganapat explained that he had to leave for Shinde the next day, because he had agreed to take over the dispensary there from another doctor who was giving temporary service. Upasani was not willing to prolong this session, saying that he would consider the proposal and give his decision the next morning.

The two doctors returned to the Khandoba temple on the day following. They were relieved to find that Upasani expressed agreement with their plan. However, he made one condition, meaning that no other person should be told of the move to Shinde. If other people were informed, then at Shinde visitors would come every day as before, continually trying to touch him in veneration, while asking him irrelevant and bothersome questions.

The purport of his stipulation is pressing. All Upasani had wanted, from the beginning at Khandoba’s temple, was solitude, thus meeting the injunction of Sai Baba to sit quietly. The directions of Sai Baba were continually frustrated by visitors and harassers. In some situations of stress occurring at the temple, as a consequence of impingement, Upasani had cried and been in tears. The doctors knew of this predicament. They both readily agreed with his stipulation.

That night, at 2 a.m., Upasani left the Khandoba temple in the company of Dr. Ganapat, travelling in a cart to Chitali railway station. “Externally he seemed to be a mere skeleton yet within he was very much awake.” (175) Dr. Pillai was there to bid farewell. The date was 25 July, 1914. At Chitali station, possibly due to the cold wind, the abnormally thin body of Upasani was subject to swelling. Dr. Ganapat explained this problem to him as being a symptom of his severely weakened condition.

The temple dweller was thus removed from Shirdi by the medical profession. Dr. Pillai remained behind, determined to honour his pledge not to divulge what was happening. He transpired to be very proficient in this respect, nevertheless discovering that one other person knew the secret.

The inhabitants of Shirdi soon grasped that the occupant of Khandoba’s temple had vanished. This event apparently became a major topic of conversation, with diverse reactions. Pillai was present at the mosque when Shama whispered to Sai Baba that Upasani had disappeared. Nobody knew why, when, or where he had gone. In response, the faqir made a brief comment: “Maharaj [Upasani] has been kept in hiding by none other than Dr. Pillai!”  (176)

The others present thought that Sai was merely joking. However, Dr. Pillai was stunned. Tears came to his eyes. He had formerly experienced that Sai Baba somehow knew of certain events without being told. The incident was soon forgotten by most, but not by Pillai, who now felt that Sai Baba had endorsed both the secret and the departure.

Sai Baba is reported to have been questioned many times about the disappearance of the temple dweller. On one occasion, he responded:

“He [Upasani] had undergone very hard penance for over twelve years before this [in his early years]. What remained [to achieve], I got it done by him (at Khandoba’s temple]. Who can be compared with him? What of God realisation only, he has realised All.” (GLS:10)

These significant reflections were typically ignored by argumentative Sai devotees. They knew best. Upasani was merely a madman, falling well below their own high standards.

40.  Misconceptions  and  Hindsight  Reporting

Influenced by the Narasimhaswami version of Upasani in Life of Sai Baba, another well known book on the Shirdi faqir included the statement:

[Sai] Baba advised him, much against Upasani’s own wish, to stay in Shirdi for four years doing tapas but he fled away after three years, it is said much to his detriment.  (177)

There is no evidence to support this belief that the departure in 1914 was to the detriment of Upasani Maharaj. (178) The allegation, originally lobbied by 1950s Sai prachar (propaganda), is gravely misleading. On the contrary, Upasani benefited from the removal to Shinde, gaining medical assistance. Only after his departure from Shirdi did Upasani start to regularly eat solid food, which was by that time crucial. The process of food intake was facilitated by medical supervision.

Only a very insensitive analyst could maintain the mistaken belief that Upasani acted in contradiction to the wishes of Sai Baba. His plight was so extreme, in many respects, that the intervention of medical doctors was crucial for his wellbeing. The complexities involved in the initial prescription of Sai Baba to “sit quietly, doing nothing” were prodigious. The sitter at Khandoba’s temple could very easily have died, as Sai Baba must have been aware. The record strongly indicates that the Shirdi faqir was continually alert to the situation and needs of the temple dweller. There is no ground for any belief that the doctors (Pillai and Ganapat) were acting in error.

Upasani was not performing tapas or sadhana in Shirdi. Nevertheless, a number of authors have inaccurately described his temple sojourn in those terms. Tapas and sadhana generally denote a programme of exercises and ascetic practices. In contrast, Upasani was “sitting quietly,” in solitude, as the recipient of intense spiritual experiences which have been distorted and omitted in some accounts. He managed to do this, despite many interruptions that were not of his choosing.

41.  Commencing  Return  to  Normal  Function

When Upasani and Dr. Ganapat arrived in Shinde at the end of July, 1914, the ascetic sat beneath a tree in the compound of the dispensary. Dr. Ganapat had to relieve the existing medic on these premises. Upasani made pointed comparisons of these two doctors with the situation of himself and Sai Baba. The doctor being relieved was an old Muslim, whereas Dr. Ganapat was a much younger caste Hindu.

The family of Dr. Ganapat proved deferential to Upasani. The ascetic's beard was removed by a barber. Upasani was also given a bath, apparently his first for about two years. He accepted a new loin-cloth. However, he proved difficult when his gunny sack covering (or blanket) was given to the launderer for an urgent clean. The doctor’s wife did not seek his permission for this innovation, not realising the potential reaction. Now refusing to eat or drink anything, Upasani shouted angrily at the doctor and his family, demanding back the sackcloth. When this treasured item was returned, he was mollified. However, he remained sullen for the remainder of the day.

Upasani was allocated a room, where he remained in silence and solitude. Both the mother and wife of Dr. Ganapat prevailed upon the ascetic to accept regular food and drink. Upasani now accepted milk, coffee, and fruits two or three times a day. This made a big difference to his diet. The transition is dated to 24/08/1914. The women only managed to get him to eat solid food by their refusal to take any sustenance themselves unless he ate first (NSS:131).

After a fortnight, Dr. Pillai arrived from Shirdi. The new guest rebuked Dr. Ganapat for the episode concerning the gunny blanket, emphasising that the permission of Upasani had to be obtained for such changes. Pillai now wanted to take Upasani to Nagpur, a prospect which Ganapat at first resisted. The junior medic capitulated after getting Pillai to agree that Upasani could return to Shinde at a later date.

Dr. Pillai was an astute assessor of ongoing events. For over fifteen months, he had been closely observing the speech and behaviour of Upasani. He had personally witnessed the unusual rapport existing between the temple ascetic and Sai Baba, something that was invisible to opinionated devotees preoccupied with their personal agendas. Pillai knew how and why Upasani reacted to some intrusive situations. The senior doctor believed that helpers should grant the ascetic autonomy in basic decisions.

Upasani readily agreed to move to Nagpur, apparently wishing to escape what he considered to be nagging from the benevolent females in Ganapat’s family. Upon arrival in Nagpur, he selected a room on the upper floor of Pillai’s dwelling. Two brahman friends of Pillai, namely Vaidya and Marathe, had formerly encountered Upasani at Shirdi when they went to visit Sai Baba. Now these two, along with their wives, would often bring coffee to the ascetic.

Next to the room of Upasani was a storage room, which he liked to enter, rearranging the untidy contents. Finding two empty gunny sacks, he started to sew these together. The two visiting women then finished the task of sewing. The result was used as an item of clothing in the winter and a seat (or blanket) on the floor in summer. This simple (and frequently renewed) sackcloth attire became the hallmark of Upasani Maharaj for many years afterwards, being visible in a number of photographs.

Pillai allowed his guest to live in the storage room, which Upasani preferred. A window gave light, but the occupant sealed this up. Pillai allowed Upasani to do whatever he pleased, knowing that dissatisfaction could otherwise result. The women gave Upasani a regular bath.

After a fortnight, Dr. Ganapat arrived, lamenting that he was unable to sleep and feeling distressed at the absence of Upasani. The abstracted ascetic had a strong  impact upon persons who encountered him, arousing a strong devotion and sense of commitment. This despite his moods of anger and displeasure.

Pillai now agreed that Upasani could return to Ganapat’s home in Shinde. The ascetic consented to the change and was taken back to Shinde. A few days later, exotic foods were prepared for the doctor’s birthday. Upasani refused even to taste these delicacies. Ganapat then said that the family would fast instead of celebrating. Upasani was annoyed, threatening to depart. Meals were accordingly cooked for the birthday.

Ganapat now worshipped Upasani, requesting him to take a small piece of each cooked birthday dish. To this effect, Ganapat’s mother also entreated Upasani in a tearful voice. The gaunt ascetic then softened, agreeing to have a tiny morsel from each dish. Upasani had not eaten such rich food for about two years, and he was in pain as a consequence.

Dr. Ganapat believed that the best recourse for Upasani was to eat more food rather than less. The ascetic at last agreed, eating normally for three days. However, he was already constipated. The overload of food proved afflicting. Ganapat then decided upon an enema. The pain nevertheless continued. Upasani was persuaded to keep eating meals. Ganapat gave him laxatives, but these did not seem effective.

Dr. Pillai then arrived, demanding an explanation from his colleague. Pillai blamed Ganapat for causing unnecessary pain to Upasani. The adamant visitor took the ascetic back to Nagpur. There he advised Upasani to eat small and frequent meals. Some progress had definitely been made. Upasani was aware of this, and started to prepare his own food. He produced a dish called pouwa, which gained praise in the Pillai household for being exceptionally tasty. The next day, Upasani cooked khichdi (meaning rice and gram in coconut water), ate a little of this, and distributed the rest to his companions.

Eventually, Upasani realised that these special cooking arrangements involved much work for the household. He then ceased his role as chef, saying that he would beg for food instead. No work for the family would then be involved. Pillai was alarmed, saying that such mendicant activity would give Upasani a bad reputation in the city. However, Upasani would not heed this warning.

By that time, he was taking only one meal in twenty-four hours, at night. When Upasani asked for directions to reach the brahman locality in Nagpur, Pillai obediently conducted him there. Every night thereafter he would go out begging, never visiting the same house twice. He would eat some of the alms, giving the rest to Pillai and his family.

On one begging expedition, a brahman householder considered Upasani to be “a ruffian goon and gave him a solid thrashing with his stick” (DSS:339). Upasani did not say a word in retaliation and accepted the beating. Another source describes this episode in terms of being fisted because he was mistaken for a thief. Upasani told Pillai and his family about the molestation. They were indignant, wanting to know the name of the aggressive householder. Upasani refused to give any identity, having referred to his beating in a mood of humour, not distress (NSS:132).

The violent incident did not stop his begging rounds. These were frequently conducted in adverse conditions, as Pillai had feared. Upasani was ridiculed for not behaving like a brahman; observers treated him as a crazy mendicant. Youths were particularly bothersome and derisive. A telltale event revealed that Upasani was not always aware of externals.

One youth mischievously filled Upasani’s begging bowl with horse dung. In the darkness, Upasani failed to discern this discrepancy. He merely uttered thanks and blessings, continuing on his way. He gained alms from two or three more houses, placing all this in the same bowl. Returning home, he mixed the contents together. Upasani started to eat with enthusiasm, consuming about half the contents. Still he had not registered anything amiss. The remainder he gave to the Pillai household, who were quick to find the dung. Dr. Pillai and the others were horrified. They told Upasani that his begging bowl had contained horse dung. The mendicant then laughed, gripping his stomach in a humorous gesture (DSS:341-342). He was evidently not upset by the disclosure. His attitude to food was basically one of indifference. He accepted what he was given, lacking the squeamish approach.

A fortnight passed in this manner. Chinnaswami, the younger brother of Pillai, then arrived from Kharagpur (Khadakpur). The newcomer, although a member of the South Indian Madrasi caste, was fluent in Marathi. He was much attracted to Upasani (a Marathi speaker), despite the tantrums exhibited by the latter. At this period of transition, Upasani was frequently discontented with events around him, being liable at such times to rant at persons in his contact if anything seemed to be wrong. (179)

Chinnaswami wished to take Upasani back to distant Kharagpur. The purpose was to gain a change of climate for health reasons. At first the ascetic refused this prospect. For days after, the two brothers urged him to reconsider. Eventually Upasani agreed, so preparations were made accordingly.

A few hours before the time of departure, Pillai gave some special advice to Chinnaswami. He said that the lifestyle of Upasani was bizarre, requiring fortitude on the part of those near him. Pillai told his brother to allow Upasani to do whatever he wanted, and to abide by his instructions. Despite the eccentricities of Upasani, his saintly qualities were such that Chinnaswami should “care for him more than your life itself.” (180)

42.  Move  to  West  Bengal

The journey to Kharagpur occurred in October 1914.   This town was situated to the south of Midnapore in West Bengal. The population was then only 19,000 people, subsequently escalating with the industrial phase. Kharagpur was described in a British survey of 1917 as a “town and railway junction in Midnapore district, containing engineering works of the Bengal-Nagpur railway.” (181) Kharagpur was about 130 kilometres from Calcutta (Kolkata).

Kharagpur railway station, 1911

The colonial railway had arrived in 1898. Kharagpur (Khargpur) became known as the "Railway Town" of India, exhibiting an unusually large and impressive railway station. The growing population largely existed to serve the railway amenity. Kharagpur gained the repute of being unique in India as a town of mixed ethnic groups and linguistic diversity. Bengali, Telegu, and Hindi were amongst the languages represented. Upasani lived here for nearly a year, eventually exercising a degree of influence on the local populace.

Kharagpur is described as a "colonial railway town whose history has been overwritten by one of the 'temples' of the postcolonial nation state, the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology" (Anjali Gera Roy, "The Remembered Railway Town of Anglo-Indian Memory," South Asian Diaspora, 2012). The town was enlivened by an Anglo-Indian community adding to the general ethnic mix; the Anglo-Indians were able to claim both Irish and English ancestors. At Kharagpur, British Empire segregation was in evidence. Indian employees of the railway were not permitted to enter the Railway Colony unless accompanied by British or Anglo-Indian associates. The overwritten history surely extends to the activities of Upasani Maharaj in this sector.

The sackcloth ascetic travelled to Kharagpur by train in the company of Chinnaswami and his friend Sitaram Naidu. Others found the journey long and tiring. Whereas Upasani seemed indifferent to the journey. He “remained in one place, without moving, eating, drinking, sleeping, getting up or doing anything at all; he continued to remain seated in the same posture.” (182) His indifference to external circumstances could be startling.

Arriving at the home of Chinnaswami, Upasani there declined food, instead distributing this to the household members. The wife of Sitaram Naidu could speak Marathi; she frequently remained near the guest to interpret his wishes. Upasani did not want anyone to spread word of him in Kharagpur. He spent much of the time in solitude in his room, giving the impression of an intense concentration.

Upasani cooked his own meals on a stove during the day. However, he did not eat the food until night. He would also make coffee for himself. This was a huge advance upon his Shirdi phase. He now started to complain of piles, a malady attributed to the enemas dispensed by Dr. Ganapat at Shinde. The ascetic now had to withstand considerable pain. The fact is that Upasani was an adept in bearing pain. At least now, there were no scorpions or snakes to endure. Nanavali and the Shirdi harassers had vanished.

Chinnaswami considerately prepared a fibre dish every morning for the guest. The host, his wife, and his mother, repeatedly bathed Upasani. The ascetic now found more difficulty in cooking (apparently because of the pain involved in standing). After a week of this, he became restless. Again he considered begging for food. He went out one night for this purpose, returning exhausted and empty-handed. His companions then suggested that he go out to beg during the daytime. Upasani agreed. The next morning he garbed himself in gunny sacking and left the house with a bowl in hand.

On this occasion, he visited the home of a brahman named Dasi Venkatesh Khasnis. The latter’s wife Lakshmibai was ill; she nevertheless managed to bring a freshly prepared dish called shira, made of wheat flour, ghee, and sugar. The beggar now ate this welcome food in the house of Khasnis, who was to become his committed devotee.

After three days, Upasani tired of begging, and resumed cooking his own food. While engaged in this activity on a festival day, he erupted into a rage and shouted at those inside the house, including the host Chinnaswami. In this fraught situation, Khasnis arrived, having been told by his wife to invite the ascetic to a meal at their home. Upasani then shouted at the visitor. Khasnis interpreted that reaction as a form of welcome. Chinnaswami told the visitor to come the next day instead. The verbal onslaught continued for nearly half an hour. Upasani climaxed this outburst by throwing his food out into the road, and by extinguishing all the festival lamps and lights. (183)

Soon after, he calmed down, retreating to his room. Chinnaswami relit the lamps and restored order. More food was prepared. However, the retiring Upasani did not eat that day. News of his outburst spread. Some locals now viewed the incognito stranger as a madman. They knew nothing of his background or lifestyle. The major problem he had to contend with was his own tendency to unmatta. His overpowering unmatta states continued at Kharagpur, to a modifying extent compared with the Shirdi phase. (184) Those states drew him constantly inward, at times producing a strong reaction to external events.

When winter arrived, Upasani made a habit of sitting outside in the sun under a fruit tree, located in the compound. At a nearby water tap, he made a new friend. This was Mirabai, the nine (or ten) year old daughter of a shudra named Bhajirao. She would regularly wash the cage of her parrot. Upasani liked to ask her questions about the parrot, a subject which apparently fascinated him. He would also tell her moral tales (of a type he had communicated at Shirdi). Mirabai developed a strong affection for Upasani.  He evidently enjoyed her innocent chatter, and liked to make her laugh.

One day while Upasani was eating outside, Mirabai arrived, but started to leave because he was eating. She knew he was a brahman. Upasani then told her to stay, sharing with her some of the food, ignoring caste protocol. When she returned home, this low caste girl told her parents what had happened. She also expressed her conclusion that all those people who called Upasani mad “were truly mad themselves,” not recognising that he surpassed them.

The parents of Mirabai now wanted her to invite Upasani to their home for a meal. The girl complied. The ascetic responded that he would definitely come as a guest one day, so she should not worry about the matter meanwhile.

His partiality for the fruit tree increased. He spent most of his time sitting at this spot, instead of in his room. Again Upasani became averse to cooking, deciding to beg for alms during daylight hours. Mirabai accompanied him, pointing out suitable brahman households to visit. This pair were now inseparable: the tall brahman ascetic and the talkative low caste girl.

In a lonely place outside the town, Upasani found a suffering man who seemed almost dead. The indigent sufferer wanted a sherbet drink. Upasani hurried home to prepare a lemon drink. He took this back to the ailing man, who quickly drank it. Back in his room, Upasani experienced a vision of Sai Baba, himself, and the sick man; the reported context is ambiguous. When he afterwards made his way back to the sufferer, he found the site completely deserted. This confused him. When Upasani returned home, he manifested anger, a mood arising from his frustration over the missing entity. He hit Chinnaswami and his wife with a pillow and retreated to his room. No harm was done, but the host could not understand what was happening.

Chinnaswami afterwards sent a letter to his brother Dr. Pillai at Nagpur. He complained that he had to endure verbal abuse without any provocation, and even beatings of a sort. Upasani was liable to create a furore. Pillai replied, denying the implication that Upasani was mentally unbalanced, affirming him to be a saint whose attention (even if violent) was a blessing. This message consoled Chinnaswami, who thereafter lost his fear of unpredictable behaviour.

Another crisis occurred. There was a rupture in the piles affliction of Upasani. He suffered intensive bleeding at the rectum. His room was reportedly coloured with blood. This severe ailment continued for four days. The sufferer lost strength, but refused attention from a local medic. Chinnaswami and his family were now very worried. One reason was their fear of offending Dr. Pillai if the sufferer died. They started to lament and wail. Upasani then consoled them, saying that the bleeding had stopped on the fourth day.

Nevertheless, Upasani was weakened by this episode; he could not cook for himself or go begging. Chinnaswami enlisted the services of a brahman neighbour called Rampanth, who now provided meals. Jankibai, the wife of Rampanth, urged Upasani to eat food at their home, which he did for a week. Not wishing to be a burden in any way, he then resumed begging. A drawback here was his eccentric behaviour, still liable to court perplexity in public places. He often chanted in an undertone, and could rant if he became angry.

Chinnaswami was concerned at the weak condition of Upasani. He prevented the ascetic from begging by hiring another brahman to cook for him. This was Vinayakrao Singvekar, who wanted to meet Upasani before making any decision. Their meeting produced a positive effect. People who gained intimacy with Upasani generally acquired a good impression of him, despite his eccentricities. Subsequently, Upasani daily visited the home of Vinayakrao. No definite time was fixed for his meals; he made visits whenever he felt hungry.

A local Bengali householder, Patra Babu, began to observe Upasani when he sat outside under the fruit tree. He had asked Chinnaswami about Upasani, with negligible results. The host was cautious, having been told [by Upasani] not to disclose any identity. Chinnaswami merely said that the ascetic was a friend of his elder brother Dr. Pillai, being a slightly crazy patient who was sent here for a change of climate. However, Patra Babu became convinced that Upasani was not crazy, but a saint, and would accordingly bow to him at a distance.

Whenever she could, the shudra girl Mirabai would come to sit near Upasani. Lakshmibai, the wife of Khasnis, would also come to see him; she invited him for meals, and he eventually arrived at her home. Some other women were present, engaged in pounding flour. Upasani himself took over the pounding assignment with enthusiasm. He appears to have been vigorous. Lakshmibai cautiously came forward to assist him.

At night, Upasani did not wish to be disturbed for any reason. He would lock the door of his room until eight a.m. He could rant if interrupted. His undertone habit of chanting Sanskrit verses sounded to some like incoherent mumbling. This muted verbal trait contrasted with an ability for intelligent discourse that was to become increasingly evident at Kharagpur.

At Christmas 1914, Chinnaswami secured his permission to visit Shirdi for a week, with the purpose of meeting Sai Baba. While the host was absent, Upasani protested at the situation in which people were taking a close interest in him. Some would secretly come to listen to the moral tales he told Mirabai. He maintained that he was only a crazy man telling stories to a girl. The daily assembly increased. People acted as if they were his devotees. Upasani denied being a mahatma or a saint. Admirers even believed that he was an avatar. When Chinnaswami returned from Shirdi, he found that the incognito profile of Upasani had been replaced by a local fame. More worship was now given to the reluctant ascetic than he had gained at Shirdi (NSS:133-134).

Upasani was indifferent to bathing, which had once been his scrupulous daily habit prior to his sojourn at the Khandoba temple. The new devotee women insisted upon giving him a weekly bath. They would use oil and “soapnut,” then pour warm water over him. Then they would worship him. Upasani resisted these attentions, trying to offput the devotees by rejecting gifts and getting dirty soon after the bath.

At this juncture, he started to clean latrines. On one occasion, he carried bucketloads of waste some distance, acting like a bhangi (sweeper). He made a new habit of sitting in the latrine area, as if he were quite at home there. However, the women would invariably follow him and perform worship. In exasperation, he once told them to worship the latrine instead of his own person. They obeyed. He used bricks as his toilet, making devotees worship these soiled bricks instead of himself (NSS:135-136).

Upasani moved from his favoured tree to a spot near an electricity pole. This was apparently an attempt to escape the increasing number of admirers. He would gather garbage, which he would burn to keep warm in the winter chill. His devotees assembled at this new location, heedless of inconveniences.

When the men in his contact left for their office jobs, their wives would visit Upasani at his new site. He now gained celebrity as a saint, overturning the belief that he was a madman. News of his sanctity spread throughout the town. In the evenings, men would visit him in their leisure hours. However, Upasani himself was not happy with his new fame, which he had not sought. He forthrightly stated that he was not a saint or mahatma, and did not deserve the devotion now awarded him. He blamed gossip for the new acclaim he received. Upasani plainly stated that he was an ordinary man, one suffering from madness and instability. He also referred to himself as a dead man. “I am thus completely dead, hence for God’s sake allow me to remain dead in my peace!” (185)

He certainly did not ask for, or seek, devotees. He was instead basically resistant to followers. This was very difficult for many to understand. The audience would listen silently to his “no saint” reflections, returning the next day to hear the same refrains. Nothing he said could deter them. He became known as Maharaj, a common description for a holy man.

This instance is remarkable for the profile afforded, meaning a “crazy saint” who declined the status of sainthood. Upasani Maharaj was disarmingly prepared to credit hostile descriptions of himself as being mad. Supplementary statements of Upasani, during the Kharagpur phase, strongly indicate that he was fully aware of the former dislocation in his consciousness. The past tense is relevant. He referred to “previous states of intoxication” he had experienced, also providing a qualification: “When I came to wakefulness, of being aware of myself and my surroundings.” (186) At Kharagpur, he overcame the dislocation affecting his Shirdi phase.

The number of his admirers kept increasing. Upasani accordingly sent the girl Mirabai to the homes of these new devotees, with a message to stop coming to see him. The recipients ignored this plea. As a consequence, Upasani sometimes responded to his visitors with verbal abuse, telling them to go away. He was also liable to slap visitors as a deterrent. On other occasions, he was more docile, giving helpful advice and even creating laughter. He could also be indifferent to conversation, exhibiting states of unmatta.

If Upasani escaped to his room at Chinnaswami’s house, devotees would follow him there. That house could become full of visitors, the crowd overflowing into the courtyard (where the fruit tree was located).

Seated in his room, Upasani would complain to the visitors: “Why do you all believe me to be a saint? For God’s sake, go away. Leave me alone, and give up your false belief! If you take only God as the sole object of your trust, then you will never be disappointed.” (187)

43.  The  Reluctant  Saint  of  Kharagpur

Chinnaswami soon grasped that Upasani was averse to the new inrush of admirers at his home. The host accordingly refused entry to the increasing crowd. However, Chinnaswami could make no headway in this respect. Enthusiastic visitors came in the daytime and evening, being in no mood to desist.

Upasani himself exercised the full gamut of responses. “Maharaj tried requesting them [to go away], making them understand, consoling them, urging them, throwing tantrums in front of them, and finally even threatening and being totally irritated with them, to the limit of cursing and abusing them” (DSS:357).

As a last resort, the reclusive ascetic gave a graphic warning to his audience. He remarked that, because he was crazy, if he lost control, he might even kill one of them sooner or later. The devotees were resilient in the face of such prospects.

Every Thursday, arrangements were made by devotees to give Upasani a bath. Key figures in this trend were Lakshmibai and her husband Khasnis, who believed that Upasani was an incarnation of Dattatreya. One Thursday morning, they took him to their house, persuaded him to sit on a table, where they anointed his body with oil. Then they worshipped him, afterwards escorting him back to the abode of Chinnaswami. Other brahmans wished to emulate this procedure. However, Upasani proved resistant to the worship. The ascetic explained that he was strongly connected with Khasnis because of interactions in a former incarnation; this factor did not apply in other instances.

The devotees now took up so much of his attention that Upasani found he was unable to visit Vinayakrao for the formerly arranged meal. So Vinayakrao sent the food at noon to the home of Chinnaswami. By that time however, Upasani was following different arrangements. He no longer ate during the day and stopped drinking coffee. He would either cook a meal at night for himself, or some devotee like Lakshmibai would cook for him. All excess food he offered to Mirabai and others. There are signs that his behaviour was becoming increasingly normalised.

On one occasion, Upasani was giving a discourse to the women devotees. Jankibai, the wife of Rampanth, arrived. Usually silent and unobtrusive, this time she did something dramatic. On the verandah outside, she removed all her clothes, entering the house naked. While the discourse was in progress, Jankibai placed flowers on the head of Upasani, washed his feet with water, afterwards drinking that water as tirtha. She then put on her clothes and departed. The other women were amazed. Upasani expressed disapproval. Jankibai may have read some eccentric text advocating this type of worship, but there was a need on her part for due social decorum.

Upasani now started to wander about in the locality of the untouchable bhangis or sweepers. This was situated near the railway, some distance from the home of Chinnaswami. He was often accompanied there by Mirabai, his guide. However, this young shudra girl had a habit of departing when the mood took her.

Upasani began to teach that, in the presence of a saint, untouchables lost stigma and gained social equality. This radical attitude was accompanied by his conservative acknowledgment of caste rules (NSS:137). He started to associate with untouchables, even while deferring to caste norms. He was exercising a defensive strategy, knowing what the orthodox reaction could be.

While walking outside one day, Upasani saw a bhangi woman washing her clothes. He sat near her, observing that the clothes were stained with oil, making the cleaning task very difficult. She made strong efforts at her task; he was moved to assist her. As a consequence, the pile of clothing was cleaned in a short time. This lady, named Bhagu, became his devotee.

One Sunday afternoon, a high caste official called Damodar Pantha arrived, along with some colleagues. They wanted upadesha or instruction. Pantha had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita; he requested Upasani to explain to him the content of this famous scripture associated with Krishna. Upasani disowned any knowledge of Krishna, saying he was not competent to give tuition. He asked: “Why do you think that I will be able to explain this text to you?”

Pantha then identified Upasani with Krishna. The ascetic replied that if he was Krishna, then where was the Arjuna eager to comprehend the Gita? Did Pantha have the capacity to be Arjuna?

After further dialogue, Pantha repeatedly requested Upasani to explain the text, evidently anticipating a pundit performance. Upasani replied that he was not familiar with the method of pundit exposition, therefore he would be unable to explain the Gita. He pointed in the direction of a humble bhangi dwelling, exclaiming: “See that house! The bhangi woman staying there has taught me all that I know. You too should go to her and attain knowledge!” (188) The bhangi woman was Bhagu.

Upasani commented that he would be able to read and explain the text if Pantha would immerse the Gita in nearby gutter water (associated with the menial work of sweepers). This was a shock statement. Nevertheless, Pantha insisted that Upasani was Krishna. Upasani replied that he did not feel like Krishna. “If you become Arjuna, that will make me Krishna.” The visitor asked how he was to become Arjuna. Upasani replied: “You must become low, and humble yourself to the dust. Then you will get the teacher Krishna. Ahamkara (egotism) and abhimana (pride) have to be shed.”

The unconventional approach was not easy to accept. Pantha ended up prostrating on the floor before Upasani, afterwards leaving quietly. Upasani then made comments to the others present. He denied the validity of pundit rote reading of sacred texts, implying that orthodox commentary was useless for salvation. His standpoint was: one in a million is the true seeker who gains real knowledge as the consequence of spiritual experience. The person with that experience no longer needs scriptural knowledge. (189)

A contrasting instance to Pantha was that of Annapurnabai, a female devotee who was almost illiterate. Upasani encouraged her to read verses of the Gita to him daily. After some initial difficulty, she made good progress, astonishing others by her ability to recite. She also started to comprehend the meanings of this Vedantic text. (190)

44. Transition  to  the  Bhangi  (Mahar)  Hut

Upasani was unable to prevent the continual intrusion, and darshan expectations, of brahman devotees. His complaints had no effect. Eventually he resorted to solitude. Sometimes he walked long distances for this purpose. At other times he assisted low caste people in their daily tasks. He would return late at night, going immediately to his room.

The manual aspect of his new routine was arduous. Upasani lifted coal, and assisted masons to move bricks. Using a hammer, he would break boulders into smaller pieces. Then he would move bags of heavy stones to the building site. He would work independently, not asking anyone what to do. His labour was purely voluntary and entirely unpaid.

Sometimes he visited the house of Bhagu, the bhangi woman. Her husband Namdev would play the sitar and sing poems of Kabir. Upasani would become absorbed in this music, often shedding tears.

On returning to his room, at the home of Chinnaswami, there were times when he would remain inside for two to four days in succession, not going out at all. The problem now was that devotees continually searched for him.

Many of the devotees were brahmans of the Bengali and Telangi castes (or sub-castes). Upasani was liable to be difficult with them, throwing away offerings which they brought to him, even driving them away. He would complain that they were harassing him.  Because of this, he had left his “seat” near the electricity pole, and was now wandering about the town and doing manual tasks. Upasani is reported to have said that devotees could visit while he was resting in his room, but not at other times. They often came at the wrong time and at the wrong place, while he was involved in his “duty.” The lastmentioned word is not clear in context.

Upasani did recognise an exceptional degree of devotion in some persons. For instance, the brahman woman Yamunabai would daily bring milk for him. Upasani would accept this offering, whether in his room or elsewhere, even if he was absorbed in some task or other. Yamunabai was unusually intent; Upasani would give advice to this lady and her husband Vinayakrao Singvekar.

The first time that Yamunabai came with a cup of milk, Upasani looked at her and wept, exclaiming: “We must be content with the fate assigned to us by God!” He repeated this weeping and exhortation day after day. Nobody could understand why. After some while, her husband caught a disease, dying soon after. On the day that Vinayakrao died, Upasani was in the hut of Bhagu the bhangi. The ascetic shed tears, complaining of a severe pain in his waist. At this same time, Vinayakrao was dying of a similar pain. When the invalid expired, Yamunabai ran to Upasani and would not let go of his feet. Upasani remarked that he had already prepared her for the shock, so she should now accept the situation. Other female devotees had to pull her away from the guru and take her home. (191)

Every Thursday, the women would bathe him. When working with coal and mud, his body would become covered with a layer of grime. The devotees complained at this sight, saying that hard work was involved for them. Upasani responded: “Who has ever told you to bathe me? Do I ever request or invite you to scrub and clean me? Why do you think I am in need of such cleanliness?” (192)

He made a visit to the government dispensary, where he stood on the verandah. A medical doctor approached him, en route to the nearby smoking parlour (for the relaxation of staff). This doctor, of the “Bengali caste,” possessed a caustic temperament. An atheist influenced by Western thought, he considered religious people to be inferior. Resenting the homage awarded Upasani by devotees, he now spoke in anger to the ascetic. The doctor addressed Upasani as a madman, telling him to go away.

The visitor stood his ground. Upasani argued that, if he was a madman, then the doctor’s duty was to care for him. “You are a doctor, then why should I leave your door and go elsewhere to get myself treatment?  Do I not have the right to be treated by you?” (193)

The superior medic was annoyed. Very dismissively, he told Upasani to go to a lunatic asylum. Upasani continued with his counter-argument. He said that a madman does not have the incentive to enrol in asylums. Madmen were not sufficiently aware of their required daily food and drink. How would they be able to find out where asylums are located?  The doctor should know what his own duties were, having been given charge of a government dispensary. If his [Upasani’s] condition was serious, then the doctor should duly inform the superintendent of the nearest asylum.

This argument attracted the attention of devotees. After Upasani had finished speaking, his supporters addressed the contemptuous doctor. They asked if a madman could talk in the logical manner demonstrated by Upasani. The truth of his words had negated the doctor’s dismissal. The doctor then quickly moved away, fearing a disgrace.

After this episode, every evening Upasani would go to the dispensary, or rather, to “a room full of waste" near the medical consultation offices. (194) The dispensary was located near the home of his brahman devotee Khasnis. Lakshmibai and a few other women took meals to Upasani in the offputting room. He would usually tell devotees to leave while he was eating; however, on one occasion he allowed all of them to sit near him. Then he imparted a distinctive message:

I am no longer a brahman. I live in the house of the shudras like Bhagu Maharann. Now I desire to give you all some food with my own hands. However, you are all brahmans, and the highest castes amongst them. Then how will I be able to offer food to you? It is possible that you all might refuse to eat what has been offered by one like me, who has faltered and is no longer a brahman! (195)

The audience of women insisted that they were ready to eat the food, which was chutney. Accordingly, they accepted what he handed out. From that time onwards, his usual night meal comprised chutney and bread. His declaration of no longer being a brahman was clearly intended to be startling. At Kharagpur, Upasani really did make a strong choice between brahman and low caste accommodation.

One day in February 1915, at the brahman home of Chinnaswami, he became very angry with all the devotees present. The reason was elusive. Upasani departed and went to the home of Bhagu and her husband Namdev. (196) He now made his abode in the hut near their home. That hut belonged to this bhangi couple, who are also described as untouchable mahars. The term mahar was common in Maharashtra. Mahars were often described as shudras; however, they were treated as untouchables by high caste rulers in Maharashtra. Some mahars found a haven in the British colonial army during the nineteenth century. We are referring to categories of Dalit.

The primitive hut or hovel, selected by Upasani, is described as a disused cow stable. The building had no door; the walls were broken and covered with makeshift gunny sacks, quite insufficient to keep out the cold winter wind. Upasani had to endure severe cold during his first night in this unprivileged hut. Namdev considerately gave him a sack to cover himself with, while careful to provide a small fire of coal and wood.

Chinnaswami arrived, anxiously requesting Upasani to return to his own home. The ascetic resisted, saying that his decision was to leave his former domicile permanently. Chinnaswami then wanted to send items of comfort like a blanket and pillow. Upasani refused these amenities. Chinnaswami afterwards returned with his wife Suvarnnabai, both pleading for the return of their new guru. Upasani remained adamant. (197)

Chinnaswami had formerly complained to Dr. Pillai about the unpredictable behaviour of Upasani; now he was deeply dismayed at losing the guest who had become so famous in the town. Chinnaswami was a man overtaken by events.

The removal caused a widespread stir. The high caste devotees were loyal, soon starting to gather at the dilapidated mahar hut. Upasani would express irritation at the avalanche of visitors. His favoured greeting sounded like a rebuke: “Is it appropriate for all of you brahmans to come and sit in the hut of the mahars?”

Nevertheless, the number of devotees is reported to have nearly tripled at the mahar hut. This following included many from Bengal, Madras, Maharashtra, and Telanga. (198) Bengali women were conventionally subject to a strong cordon in their homes, not being allowed to go outside their houses. However, Bengali female devotees would come to the bhangi hut even at night and sit near Upasani. Those women who could not understand the Marathi and Urdu languages were given an explanation of Upasani’s discourses by their husbands. These Bengali people were familiar with the example of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (d.1886), finding similar mystical states exhibited by Upasani (whose unmatta characteristics continued to some extent). The women had different ideas about him. Some devotees believed Upasani to be an incarnation of Dattatreya.

Upasani tried in various ways to restrict his escalating fame at Kharagpur. However, he also started to give discourses about Vedantic and other subjects, larded with quotes from scripture. This tendency was not continual or consistent, depending upon his mood. He was sometimes offputting, and is reported to have said:

I have no knowledge! I am just pure ignorance! My vessel is totally empty and even my destiny has continually turned upside down. There is nothing in me except for a huge fat zero. All that I teach you is merely your own knowledge which generates in me, and thereafter it is for ease of understanding that I repeat and explain to you. (199)

Upasani would also say that he acted like a mirror to visiting devotees. Their mental tendencies could precipitate his verbal abuse, meaning that he dramatised what they wished to hide from others. “All that is good or bad within you enters my empty vessel [huge fat zero], and thereafter it is your own temperament, pure or foul, that is presented to you” (DSS:428). He also said:

Now I am very much like the mirror here.... All this knowledge that I impart to you is your own, and is ever with you, yet you all have forgotten it and are haplessly searching for it in all directions, thus wasting your precious years. However, when the sadguru, in the form of a mirror, stands facing you, then immediately you find out as to who you truly are.  (200)

The brahman lady devotees continued the Thursday programme of bathing him. Bhagu and her husband Namdev now participated. Upasani often seemed bored with such events, repeatedly asking for these to cease. At the same time, he was sensitive to the devotion, and did not enforce any termination.

During one of the Thursday events, Upasani glimpsed an old blind woman being assisted by a young boy. Her clothing was torn and dirty, evidencing the poverty she suffered. Upasani remarked that there was no necessity for him to be bathed, because instead the blind woman was in need. She had perhaps not received a due bath for months. He referred to the blind woman as a form of God.

Lakshmibai and the other female devotees expressed their willingness to comply with his directive. Upasani responded that he could not order them to comply, because the devotees were all brahmans, and the blind woman was low caste. He suggested that Dattatreya had chosen to take the form of this blind woman.

The devotees present were quick to act. They fetched the blind woman and made her sit comfortably on a stool. They anointed her body with oil and bathed her with much care. Then they gave her new clothes. Even the young child was similarly treated. Afterwards, these two guests were given a meal. The old woman was happy, and departed while expressing her gratitude.

The devotees afterwards anointed and bathed Upasani. Returning to the hut, he sat down and expressed much satisfaction at how the female devotees had bathed the blind woman. He commented that this was the first time they had truly attended to him. By serving the blind woman, they had served him. “That service has definitely reached me, be sure of this fact.” (201) The women were delighted on this occasion. He afterwards related an illustrative story, in a manner that became a hallmark of his developing verbal output.

When leaving his hut daily, Upasani was strongly inclined to assist with manual work. He would often sit by the road with poor cobblers and help them sew torn shoes. He would also help aged women who filled their pitchers with water, carrying their load for them. Taking hold of a saw, he would assist local carpenters. He broke up stones and carried coal. His aim was to merge with the lowest classes of Hindu society, including the untouchables. In his close vicinity, he would help Bhagu to clean her house and kitchen utensils.

This industrious ascetic would also clean gutters, drains, rubbish bins, and latrines. He moved heaps of human waste that accumulated in areas despised by his caste. About thirty yards away from his hut, a new colony of bhangi outcastes had appeared. Upasni regularly visited this “untouchable” community, assisting in much menial work they were doing. There were actually seven colonies in that location. He would use a bhangi broom to clear refuse from the paths. In such unpleasant work, Upasani seemed intent upon living at the level of untouchables (or Dalits).

During the daytime, he would redistribute incoming food to Mirabai and others. At night, he would do likewise with Bhagu. He could only eat a very small portion of what was given him, as he often warned. Many devotees brought tea or coffee for him; however, he would rarely drink these substances, instead redistributing to others. In terms of liquid diet, he subsisted largely on water, as he had done for years.

Some events require such background context to duly assimilate. His frugality was rarely comprehended. For instance, Mami was the wife of Guard Mama, a prominent brahman devotee. She once took Upasani an elaborate dish of food, waiting for him at the hut until he returned at about five in the evening. Mami assumed that he must want this food, like her husband and other men. Upasani inspected the food, but did not eat. He would never eat at that time of day. Upasani was content with one simple meal daily, of bread and chutney, having a delicate stomach (he would also eat neem leaves and lemon leaves). Mami begged him to eat, also requesting him to “shower your grace on me.” (202)

The second request was evidently a complication. Upasani commented that he would only comply if the visitor did what he told her.  Mami replied that she was ready to do whatever he said. He then told her to put all the food she had brought into a nearby dustbin. She obeyed, at which he expressed approval. He commented: “Know for sure that I have definitely eaten what you brought for me!”

Mami subsequently had other experiences in bringing Upasani food. His tactic was to make her eat, instead of himself eating. The food was not then wasted. This daily interchange made her very happy. He would refer to himself and Mami as being one. (203) She became one of the most longstanding devotees.

There were occasions when Upasani would silently sit or lie down in the mahar hut, for hours at a time, not conversing with anyone. If visitors found him in this transcendent unmatta state, they would silently bow to him and quickly depart. At such times, he was remote from externals, disengaged from all human affairs. This trait was a legacy from his Shirdi phase.

On the whole, his many interactions with devotees, together with the regular manual work, made Upasani more extroverted than in earlier months at Kharagpur. His increasing verbal dexterity reflected the same trend. Yet there was evidently a lingering element of unmatta introspection more familiar from his sojourn at the Khandoba temple.

45. “The  greatest  of  all  fools”

The devotees at Kharagpur were predominantly brahmans. They belonged to various linguistic groups associated with different regions, including Assam. Some believed Upasani to be an avatar of the Kali Yuga. His response to acclaim could be very negative. He is reported to have said:

All of you believe that I am God, but it is not so, nor am I any of His incarnations, and neither any saint. Then the question arises: Who am I? In reply to this I will say: I am the leader of all the fools of this world.

Another question then arises. Who is God or an Incarnation of God and who are saints?  To this I will plainly reply: They are you yourselves! (204)

Upasani would cap these assertions by reciting a Sanskrit verse of his own composition. A translation of this reads:

I am an illiterate fool. I am the greatest of all fools, and in fact I am the crowning jewel of the assembly of the greatest fools of the world. It is you all only who are truly saints of God, who are elite Pundits! Moral: Do not come near me! (205)

Devotees would argue that they could not believe his negative statements. His discourses were not the sign of a madman or an ignoramus. His version of jnana was not that of a fool. Upasani employed stories and scriptural passages in a skilful way; he also explained meanings in the abhangas of Tukaram (the bhakta sant of Maharashtra).

He occasionally made comments which contradicted his abnegation. For instance, Upasani disclosed that he had been entrusted with “the responsibility of seeing into the liberation of all those who were associated with me in past births.” (206)

He also expressed a decision to remain in the naked, or rather semi-naked, state, no matter what critics thought of ascetic lifestyles. A strong piece of sackcloth lasted him for six months. He could not see any reason why he should consent to wear conventional clothes. Upasani referred to his “previous states of [unmatta] intoxication,” in which any concern for physical needs was entirely absent. “When I came to wakefulness, of being aware of myself and my surroundings,” he saw no need to re-accept those things which he had discarded. “As for the present I am in full awareness.” (207)

46.  Living  at  the  Bhangi  Colony

In April 1915, Upasani moved from the derelict bhangi hut to the nearby bhangi colony of sweepers and scavengers. This colony served Kharagpur under the constraints existing in Hindu society of that era. His affinity with "untouchable" bhangis (or Dalits) is memorable.

The departure of Upasani to the bhangi community was unexpected and unannounced. He occupied the verandah of an empty house in the colony. That verandah was not at all inviting, being covered with excrement and dirt, having been used by children and dogs as a latrine. By comparison, the bhangi hut of Bhagu and Namdev was a luxury hotel room.

Harassed Dom scavengers in Bihar, living on village outskirts. Courtesy Sudharak Olwe. These recent Dalit people may resemble the bhangis living at the Kharagpur colony in 1915. Doms are often described as corpse-burners in one of their roles, being experts in cremation.

It is not clear to what extent the colony at Kharagpur was sanctioned by municipal planning. The worst situations were those in which untouchables were at the mercy of callous landlords. The oppressive tactics of caste hatred have continued in post-Independence India, where Nehru's legislation failed to protect Dalit minority rights.

Opposite the colony was a large unoccupied area reserved for dumping waste. Here Upasani chose to sit during the day. This site was perhaps the ultimate deterrent for visitors. He would rest his back against a foul-smelling waste tank, open to the sky, a depository for human waste collected from the surrounding neighbourhood. The stench was formidable. When the brahman devotees located him, he emphasised the prodigious orthodox aversion to the place he now inhabited. A bhangi colony was anathema to high caste sensitivities, being a place notorious for filth and the absence of all social status.

Upasani is also described as “resting on the waste heap” (DSS:510), and sitting while “supporting himself on the waste heap” (DSS:506). He probably did sometimes sit on the heap itself, an action that would have shocked most brahmans. He later provided a description of a waste heap, so familiar in bhangi zones:

People staying around dump on it all sorts of things – rubbish – useless, dirty, fermented, stinking things, and even night soil and urine. Plenty of vermin grow in it. The whole pile simply stinks and spreads the nasty odours. If it is touched or moved, the stink becomes unbearable, and yet people go on adding to it. Such a pile spreads not only an unhealthy stink, but even epidemics, and the poor people around have to suffer. (GT, 2:68)

No Escape from Imposed Labour: a bhangi sweeper boy

A bhangi was a sweeper or a "manual scavenger," two different roles being involved here. Bhangi communities were amongst those dreaded by the social elite as “untouchables” (or Dalits). The segregation complex was acute; bhangis were associated with contaminating squalor. The sweeper used a long broom to clean problematic places.

The manual scavenger ranked even lower than the sweeper, carrying the excrement or "night soil" produced and detested by caste society. This human waste was conveyed from latrines in urban areas, some different conditions existing in villages. The scavengers had to dispose of this waste as best they could, frequently in very unpleasant conditions. They carried buckets (or baskets) of human excrement on their heads.

Some have translated the derogatory word bhangi as meaning “broken.” This context is interpreted as applying to sweepers who split bamboos, weaving mats and baskets for sale. Another translation is "broken identity." The socially imposed role of an "untouchable" bhangi encompassed the removal of dead cattle from the streets, also skinning of the carcases. These activities were regarded as taboo by the high castes. The bhangi also collected cow dung, which was in demand. Caste Hindus used cow dung for fuel and antiseptic purposes; cow urine was employed for ritual purificatory procedures. (208)

When bhangis walked along a road, they had to give warning of their presence by shouting “Keep at a distance.” They were regarded as being defiled, because of their hereditary occupations of removing "night soil" and tanning hides. They also cleaned sewers and drains, another activity arousing abhorrence. To avoid starvation, bhangis ate carrion beef and the meat of other dead animals, contrary to the orthodox rules of Hinduism. They were never permitted to enter the home of a high caste person. (209) 

Manual scavenger at work

Upasani was rigorous in identifying himself with the bhangi outcastes. The extent to which he did this is remarkable, especially in view of his brahman and shastri status.  The slum was now his preferred milieu. He did not tan hides or eat meat; however, he did clean sewers, gutters, and toilets, carrying the noxious content to waste heaps. Contact with human and animal dung had become habitual to him since his Shirdi phase. In some respects, he strongly converged with the role of a scavenger.

In relation to bhangis, Upasani is known to have used the polite term halalkhor.  (210) This is an euphemistic word of Persian derivation, meaning one who eats what is lawful. In fact, everything about the outcaste grouping of bhangis was officially despised. The stigmatising social situation, as known in the time of Upasani, is thought to have existed since the early period of Islamic occupation in India. This followed on from more obscure antecedents associated with the chandala, mentioned in early Sanskrit texts (see Jha 1975).

The Kharagpur bhangi colony was not a place for over-sensitive noses. The scavengers used a cart, drawn by four buffaloes, to transport piles of human waste from the streets to the colony. The dung of these buffaloes was also collected in a heap, treated by hand, and made into fuel. Upasani typically assisted in this lowly task, (211) shunned by high caste people. Even primitive standards of hygiene easily blurred in such conditions. His lifestyle was very basic at this period. (212)

On the day when one of the devotees first located him at the colony, a large group of female brahman devotees gathered in the afternoon to see him. They brought food, although they knew well enough by now that Upasani did not eat anything from such gifts. The women happily distributed the food to low caste Mirabai and others. However, Upasani expressed disapproval of their presence at his new locale. This attitude reflected his adroit reminders of caste propriety, a factor which gained ambivalent meaning in these situations. “In this dirty smelly place, and amidst the lowliest caste of sweepers, you come and sit, and have transgressed all limits of social conduct!” (213)  He was silenced by their response, which expressed continued commitment to his cause.

That evening, the male devotees arrived. They were all (or mostly) brahmans. These men had probably never been inside a bhangi settlement; it was a sign of commitment for them to enter the taboo precincts. They found Upasani both fascinating and unpredictable. They took some precaution, assembling some distance away from their new guru, under the leadership of Yaknathrao, a pay clerk. This man was accustomed to approaching Upasani on his own. The ascetic was liable to be rather more difficult with men than with women; he did not always wish to be interrupted, and could prove fiery. The other male devotees found Yaknathrao a convenient gauge of Upasani’s mood. If the mood was reactive, the observers bowed from a distance. On this occasion, Upasani was welcoming. He nevertheless grumbled that the visitors were contradicting their high caste code by entering the detested bhangi colony. He was giving fair warning of how their infringement could be regarded by orthodox critics.

He now shot the question: “Do you consider me to be Lord Rama?” The men stood in silence, uncertain how to respond. Upasani then changed his emphasis: “If your devotion is true love, and you consider God Ram [Rama] to be present in such a settlement, then the same Lord Ram will enable you all to reach the highest godly states!” (DSS:460)

After the men departed, three committed women arrived with a night meal for the ascetic. These were Lakshmibai, Suvarnnabai, and Bhagu (two brahmans and an untouchable). Upasani ate some of the food, gifting the remainder to bhangi children. He talked for some while with the three women devotees, before they also departed. Later, Bhagu reappeared with her husband Namdev. This mahar couple pleaded with Upasani to return to their hut, but he steadfastly declined. Namdev then urged him to accept a plain mattress. Upasani did agree to this gift, placing the item in a corner of the verandah. However, he continually refused all offers to clean the badly soiled verandah.

Devotees found difficulty in sitting on or near the verandah, so offputting was the condition of this site. After three more days, while the occupant was out walking, the brahman women enlisted the help of bhangis to clean the verandah. Upasani was annoyed when he returned, but soon calmed down. He changed his position on the verandah, resting his feet on two bricks.

Thereafter, he allowed the women to regularly clean the verandah and surroundings, also to remove grass and weeds, on the condition that his “seat” was not touched. They would anoint his feet with butter and ghee; he would joke about this performance. He could sometimes get angry; however, it is evident that such moods did not affect the devotion. A major target of his annoyance was the tendency to worship him.

The devotees had never seen anyone like this ascetic. The six foot tall brahman was a man of intense disposition. Possessing a galvanic energy, he accomplished many manual tasks abhorred by his caste. His sporadic anger was accompanied by humour and pathos of a rare kind. His other-worldly charisma dispelled fear of the bhangi colony and the “contamination” dreaded by high caste people.

Mami, the brahman wife of Guard Mama, would rush to embrace him. Her emotion on these occasions would cause Mami to cry loudly like a child. Upasani would respond jovially: “Mami! What is this, I feel like laughing at hearing you cry!” She suffered from ophthalmic ailments, but came daily for his darshan, bringing food offerings. Upasani exercised an endearing habit of feeding her what she brought.

Mami would bring a mango, which she ordered specially from Calcutta, always hoping Upasani would taste at least a little of the fruit. He does not seem to have been compliant, instead expressing the refrain: “You and I are one. When you eat the mango, it is like me eating it. Therefore you taste it. This will make me very happy.” Mami was very contented on receipt of these messages, and would eat the mango accordingly. (214)

The male devotee Patra Babu had an aunt who affiliated herself to Upasani. This brahman lady (unnamed) was about sixty. Her eyes would fill with tears at the memory of him. When Upasani was present, she would become strongly absorbed, and “often fall down losing her consciousness.” (215)

Some devotees wished to organise a bhandara, meaning a celebration in which food would be publicly distributed to all. They asked permission from Upasani, who replied in an aloof manner, typical of his adroit strategy:

You can all do as you wish. I do not even want to know what it is, but do not do it in my name, and do not ask me to consent to any of your activities! I am not your God. I am an unknown person who is in difficulty. Therefore you have no need of either my order or my consent. (216)

The devotees decided to proceed. They erected a small structure some distance away from the verandah. Upasani eventually assisted in this project. Brahmans did the cooking, while news of the event spread across the town. A large crowd of poor people attended. There was prior consternation at how to accommodate them in the summer heat. A capacious tent was needed.

Shortly before Upasani had moved to the bhangi colony, a cinema company had arrived in Kharagpur, setting up their tents nearby. As a part of his whirlwind manual activity, Upasani had assisted to erect those tents, without being asked to do so. Now he suggested that devotees ask the company manager if they could borrow a tent for a few hours. The devotee response was one of disbelief; the cinema company apparently had British connections. However, the manager was afterwards approached, and agreed to loan a tent.

The event proved successful. The serving of food continued in the borrowed tent until seven p.m. Upasani stood watching, also assisting in serving the destitute.  Afterwards, he wished to join a late queue for the bhandara food, instead of eating alone. So he accompanied Namdev and twelve other brahman and bhangi devotees. The cooks in the tent were about to go home, but upon seeing Upasani, they quickly stood in attendance. Upasani subsequently praised the activity of feeding the poor, describing this in terms of true worship. (217) He distributed the food brought separately by Lakshmibai and her companions. He kept for himself only a loaf of bread and neem leaves (which he described as “food for Yogis,” because of the bitter taste). Later, he gave away those provisions also.

The number of devotees now increased again, a fact which irritated Upasani, because of the drain upon his time and attention. About four to five hundred people now visited him daily. Muslims and Christians are reported to have been included. Upasani could be benign or disapproving; he would scold even prestigious persons. The men would arrive from four p.m. onwards through the evening. Upasani would sometimes tell them to leave him in peace. When his anger subsided, the group would reassemble (DSS:468).

On some occasions when female devotees arrived in the morning, he unexpectedly departed to accomplish manual labour, helping low caste masons. The women followed him, attempting to worship him. Upasani would ask them instead to worship the shovel in his hand. He might also request them to leave him alone.

When the men arrived later in the day, they could be treated in a similar fashion. If they pressed him too hard, Upasani might stealthily walk away and go into hiding near the railway station, or beneath a nearby bridge. He often resisted worship of himself, and was not always amenable to conversation. He was not trying to present himself as a guru.

Every afternoon about four, Upasani would enter nearby bhangi houses and help the women to pound flour. When female brahman devotees discovered that he was absent from the verandah, they knew where he had gone, wishing to enter bhangi houses to see him. However, he could be offputting, warning that the official religious code discouraged such inter-caste mixing. The devotees answered that true conduct was remaining with him, regardless of the situation. Boldly confronting him on this issue, the women devotees would gain entry, often assisting him (DSS:472-473).

Upasani was very thorough in such tasks. When he sat down to pound grain, he did not like to stop until the entire amount of grain had been treated, whether in terms of 500 grams or 5,000 grams. He accomplished other chores like washing clothes, mopping, and picking up waste, as if he were a servant in bhangi houses.

A brahman woman named Ambutai brought fresh whey daily from Kharida village, about two miles from Kharagpur. Upasani would not at first accept her gift. She was persistent, so afterwards he accepted. He was suffering from piles, in which context this food proved helpful. Ambutai was walking barefoot for two miles; he told her to tie a cloth around each foot as protection. He warned that if she did not do this, he would not accept her gift. She complied accordingly.

One day when he left the verandah, a Punjabi woman arrived, finding him absent. She pursued him, took his darshan, and described him as God. Upasani remonstrated, saying: “I am but a helpless crazy person, and am neither an incarnation nor a saint” (DSS:474).

In the complex interchange that followed, this Punjabi (a Sikh) offered herself for any task that he deemed appropriate. Upasani responded with an offputting instruction to make a mix of chillies, and then apply the mix to his eyes. The Punjabi lady made the powder, afterwards hesitating to proceed with the drastic application. Upasani reminded her to prove her commitment. She then obeyed by applying the powder. As a consequence, tears dripped from both of his eyes. Other devotee women then arrived, reprimanding the Punjabi for her extreme action. They anxiously washed the eyes of Upasani with cold water, to restore normal function.

Upasani intervened on behalf of the Punjabi woman, reporting what had occurred. He said that he was pleased with her response, adding: “If I am a saint, then I will act for her benefit” (DSS:475).

Subsequently, the Punjabi woman (unnamed) regularly visited Upasani, bringing her daughter and a Punjabi girl, to whom she was teaching the religion of Guru Nanak. She asked these two girls to sing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib while in the presence of Upasani. She would stay for an hour or two, herself reading from the same Sikh classic. (218) She listened attentively to the comments of Upasani, who expressed respect for the Sikh scripture. His outlook was liberal.

In general, the devotee women found that when they offered food delicacies to Upasani, he declined, instead asking for the bitter tasting neem leaf. So they plucked leaves from a nearby neem tree. Upasani observed this activity. Sometimes he indulged in a form of banter: they regarded him as divine but fed him with bitter food. He admitted that this teasing was just a test.

Once when the women were seated near him, he asked: “Do you all truly like me?” They were in no doubt. Then he asked if they were prepared to do anything he instructed. The response was emphatically positive. He then said, almost mischievously, that they should crush a sack of coal into small pieces, dip the pieces in kerosene oil, and anoint his body with the mixture, or at least his face. The women proved apprehensive at this bizarre suggestion. He concluded that they were merely “sweet talkers” who did not truly like him.

A day or two later, Sonabai and three or four other women resorted to his controversial suggestion. Sonabai was the brahman daughter of Vinayakrao Singvekar; she was now a committed devotee. Sonabai and her friends prepared coal as Upasani had outlined. Other women were horrified, taunting Sonabai. Because of this strong resistance, the new plan was abandoned. Upasani seemed triumphant, expressing a conclusion that none of the women really liked him.

Another lady mustered up courage to make preparations for coal and oil. The same situation recurred. The protesters against this plan proved formidable, causing the dissident to relinquish the improvisation.

Upasani remarked to the defeated lady: “You also lost, although you lasted out some time!” He said that she should not have capitulated to her critics. Of the opposition, Upasani commented in jest that they had no affection for him, merely being afraid that if he was blackened with coal and oil, they would have the task of cleaning him. He added that the least these women could do, as the mixture had already been prepared, was to apply a small tilaka mark (an auspicious sign) to his forehead, by means of the coal and oil. This action would make him content. All the women devotees agreed to this diluted measure, his instruction then being carried out. (219)

47. The  brahman  bhangi

Upasani began to eat during the day, making this innovation a subject of bhangi (untouchable) significance. He emphasised that he did not want any food other than a portion of what the bhangis acquired by begging. This preference was anathema to the brahmanical code. He frequently shared with bhangis the coconut pieces they received. “In this manner he had turned fully into a sweeper [bhangi].” (220)

Bhangis were not generally paid for their work. Some would sell cow hides they skinned from the carcases removed (by bhangis) from streets. They lived in squalid mud huts where families lived in one room (along with animals like goats). The bad water, along with other adverse conditions, could easily make children ill. The adults routinely disposed of animal droppings found on the roads. All their activities were performed with bare hands. They were subject to skin allergies, stomach infections, and also lung problems. Upasani now lived on their level, doing what they did in many ways. Gloves were unknown in such environments.

left: Dalit woman cleaning a gutter; right: scavenger cleaning a toilet, courtesy Safai Karmachari Andolan

The extent of his menial activities, and unconventional habits, is surely remarkable. Upasani would sweep roads, while also cleaning foul sewers, gutters, and latrines. He would lay down to rest beside the noxious waste heap at the colony. He would wash in gutter water, and even drink that unhealthy substance. He also accomplished what even bhangis did not do. He bathed lepers, and washed their clothes, afterwards drinking the water involved in the washing procedures, treating this as tirtha or sacred water (GLS:11). This naked (nangta) brahman occasionally wore a piece of gunny cloth, his only concession to social nicety.

In April 1915, devotee ladies of all castes gathered in the bhangi colony to celebrate a festival called Chaitri Navrati, during which women would traditionally invoke the goddess Durga. The verandah of Upasani now filled with gifted items like sugar and peas, which he duly redistributed. He became regarded as the goddess at this festival. However, two days previously he had asked the devotee women not to perform the rite within the colony, and not to regard him as the goddess. His audience had objected to this prohibition. He concluded:

If you are so adamant, then do as you wish, what is the need to ask me beforehand? Why is it necessary for me to consent to anything that you feel like doing? (221)

Upasani was in a mood to joke when the brahman lady Sitabai (wife of Rambhau) visited him one day. He remarked that the locale was so holy as to be suited to religious rites. Pointing to the foul-smelling waste heap, he commented:

See how many beautiful flowers are growing here! How wonderful is the fragrance to be sampled! I feel like admiring the flowers and smelling these sweet perfumes forever!

Sitabai responded in a sympathetic manner, expressing belief in the sanctity of the place he had chosen. Upasani then mentioned the doubtful auspicious result on that site from a “worship for 16 Mondays,” meaning a continuous celebration of Shankar (Shiva) for four months. Sitabai and other women were enthusiastic at the prospect. Having suggested the programme of worship, Upasani then expressed irritation with the enthusiasm, saying they did not understand that he was joking. He pointedly asked which scripture had ever advocated such a holy rite in a bhangi colony?

Sitabai and two other devotees said they were going to perform the ritual programme of 16 Mondays. Upasani then expressed a form of banter. Was their intention to chase him away by such a rite? They were not concerned about what others of their caste would say. He had come to this dirty place, full of stench, to be free of them all, and yet now they were planning a religious rite in this same colony. The women became silent. They knew that he often tested commitment. The matter resolved soon after.

Sitabai proved keen to conduct “the vow of 16 Mondays” at the bhangi colony. This vrata, dedicated to Shiva, is generally performed by women. The observance, sometimes known as Solah Somvar Vrata,  comprises fasting, worship of Shiva, and recitation. Young women have often celebrated this event in the hope of gaining a worthy husband. However, Sitabai (a married woman) and other devotees (many of them senior) exercised a devotional commitment.

Upasani was elaborately verbal in some exchanges relating to the Solah Somvar Vrata. In more general terms, he included a caution about caste rules. “Though Maharaj now was one more sweeper amongst the sweepers of that locality, yet he always told all who came to meet him that none should go and touch these untouchables.” (222) He was here deferring to a propriety desired by caste attitudes, of the kind which his devotees were continually infringing. Ominously, there were local high caste critics of his activities.

The four month programme was launched soon after his move to the colony. This proved successful in terms of humanitarian work (which was evidently the undeclared intention of Upasani). On the commencing day, the brahman women fasted and started cooking. Sitabai proclaimed Upasani to be identical with the deity Shankar (Shiva). He was resistant to this equation; however, he did not stop the “16 Mondays” programme. Upasani said that the first meal should be offered to brahmans, while adding the question: In a colony of bhangis, how could this occur?  “As for me, these sweepers [bhangis] themselves are brahmans.” (223)

The devotees said that the only brahman they were concerned with was himself, as Shankar. One needed to find brahmans only in the absence of God. Upasani retorted: “Very well then! As per custom, I will distribute these offerings amongst my brahmans – these sweepers” (DSS:484). Devotees like Sitabai conceded his wishes.

The situation boils down to Upasani here celebrating a very rare event, a Shiva festival conducted in a bhangi colony. The men and women devotees worshipped him in the evening. His eyes filled with tears at the sight of brahmans worshipping in the midst of human waste and urine, in a precinct rigorously shunned by convention. When the worship finished, Upasani distributed the large amount of cooked food amongst the delighted bhangis, who were here recognised as “the best of brahmans.(224) The remainder he gave to the devotees, who included Bengalis, Telangis, and Madrasis.

For the first two Thursdays at the untouchable colony, the women devotees continued to bathe Upasani with sandalwood oil and scented hot water (he needed a bath, being covered with muck and grime from his varied activities; in particular, cleaning sewers could leave a deposit of filth). Then Lakshmibai and the others had the idea of bathing and clothing young bhangi girls. Upasani pointed out the orthodox bias against such a plan. The traditional texts stated: “Even if unknowingly you touch a sweeper slightly, you have to bathe with cow’s urine, and again [need] a purificatory bath.... Besides, you are not [then] allowed to enter your own house or touch anyone or anything else” (DSS:490).

The women now reasoned against orthodox prohibitions. Bhangi children were in such poverty that they did not get a decent bath for months. They only possessed torn and dirty clothes. So the next Thursday, the new plan was put into action. Children under twelve years old were assembled, bathed, and given new clothes to wear. Not only were children selected from the bhangi colony, but also low caste cobbler children, likewise those children working in crematoriums (touching corpses was regarded by caste society as a polluting action, fit only for untouchables). This became the new Thursday programme.

Many brahman women participated. They included young and old, from varying backgrounds. Some brought water from a distant canal, while others fetched wood for a fire. The children were given food contributed from various devotee homes. Encouraging this activity, Upasani now refused to be bathed on a weekly basis. Instead, he opted for a monthly bath, at the time when he shaved his head and beard. The bathing programme for children came to include music, a wooden swing for play, and a meal freshly cooked on the spot. About two hundred unprivileged children regularly received the bath and food. This benefit occurred unfailingly every week.

Upasani wore the same torn gunny cloth of earlier months. Food for him was brought daily by at least fifteen or twenty women. He never ate this, as they well knew; Upasani instead gave directions for the offerings to be distributed amongst the bhangis. Different devotees were allocated a specific area of the colony, thus distributing the food to maximal advantage.

Upasani continually emphasised that any devotee was free to drop out of this charitable activity. He was not applying any pressure. In fact, he was so often trying to caution devotees with his references to orthodox disapproval (while criticism was mounting in the high caste sector).

When an unseasonal downpour of rain fell, the verandah he occupied became waterlogged, not least because of a leaking roof. Upasani would not move, however, despite having to endure water that was knee-deep. When devotees tried to remove the water, he actually prevented them. Nityaprasad Babu and others eventually managed to repair the roof.

When the rain stopped, Upasani himself cleared the verandah with the help of young Mirabai. Devotees then wanted him to accept shawls and quilts for protection against the cold, but he would not comply. Chinnaswami even wanted to give him a bed. This was deemed a discrepant luxury by the brahman bhangi.

Male devotees now decided to build a hut for Upasani on the open ground. He did not welcome the comfort in prospect. Engaging a carpenter, the building project group came one Sunday when they did not have to go to their offices. Upasani was then annoyed at the noise made by cutting wood. He said that he would not move into the hut even if they finished building.

After a few days, bhangi children came to Upasani, asking if he could install a swing where they could play. He agreed to this plan. A playground resulted, apparently on the site of the abandoned hut. The brahman women devotees would also congregate at the playground, where Upasani would join them. Devotees would sing and dance on these occasions (DSS:494).

The bhangi children often asked Upasani to sit on the swing. He seemed reluctant about this matter. One evening the girls went to him, insisting that he agree; they escorted him to the swing. He complied with their wishes for about an hour and a half, to their great pleasure (DSS:572).

The tendency of Upasani to discourse was ultimately focused on serving the poor.  This had the effect of inspiring devotees to assist the untouchables and other low caste people. A new project of a feast (bhandara) for the bhangis was conceived amongst his supporters (the date is elusive). The proposition was mentioned to Upasani, who typically responded: “You know about it much better, why come and tell me?” (DSS:495)  

A prominent brahman devotee promptly organised an evening feast for nearly four hundred bhangis. Rice, dahl, vegetables, and sweets were prepared. The event commenced with food being given to Upasani, who was sitting near waste pits. He then made a distribution to the bhangis, who happily took the food back to their homes.

Thereafter, similar feasts occurred at least five days a week, the menu varying. The industrious Lakshmibai (wife of Khasnis) once asked Upasani what she should prepare. He suggested a simple fare of bhakri bread and a vegetable. However, this type of bread was not popular in Kharagpur. Many of the women devotees did not know how to cook it. Only Lakshmibai and Jankibai were proficient. Upasani watched the cooking from a distance. He laughed and said jokingly: “What use is your being born as women when you do not know how to cook this simple thing!” As a consequence, he himself started to teach those present how to cook the desired bread (DSS:497).

The “mumbling” of Upasani continued. This attribute can be deceptive. He was actually uttering Sanskrit verses of recognisable meaning. At the time of distributing the bhakri bread to bhangis, he was reciting from the Bhagavad Gita: “Naaham Prakash Sarvasya Yogamaya Samavruta.” This means, “I do not shine forth to all, for they are veiled with the divine delusion of Yogamaya.(225)

He is reported to have continually uttered this verse on former occasions when he stayed at the mahar house of Bhagu. She heard these words so often from his lips that she could recite the verse herself. The context of “veiling” evidently applied to all castes, not just untouchables.

High caste devotees who organised the feasts would worship Upasani with flowers, coconut, turmeric, and so forth. If he was absent at the time of worship, these devotees worshipped the brick on which his feet rested. When some items, including coconuts, were placed at his feet, he remarked: “You should give all this to a brahman, for I am but a bhangi staying in the bhangi settlement. Why have you brought all this to me?” (226)

When devotees worshipped him, Upasani often remained silent, with tears pouring from his eyes. At other times, he would react to the event, throwing away the worship regalia and expressing anger. These events of worship could arouse intense fervour. On one occasion, Patra Babu even used his own blood in the worship rite, slashing his abdomen with a knife and utilising the flow of blood.  Observing this zeal, Upasani was in tears, registering the devotion. (227)

During a bhangi festival, all the bhangi women and girls gathered to worship him, placing a coconut at his feet and bowing respectfully. On one occasion, a devotee placed a large pile of clothes near Upasani, comprising a variety of garments, including saris and bangles. Upasani then distributed all of these garments to the bhangis, even assisting the women to wear their bangles. (228)

Dalit sweeper women with brooms, recent photograph. Courtesy Sudharak Olwe

On the feast days, brahmans fasted while cooking. In the evening, Upasani himself would distribute food to the poor. He daily continued to pound flour in bhangi homes. Interest in the feasts caused Christians, Anglo-Indians, Goanese, and Eurasians to visit him. As a consequence, Upasani appeared at an Indian Christian settlement, where he would clean streets with a broom, acting as a bhangi. However, locals often requested him not to do this, because he was revered as a saint.

In the Christian colony, Upasani would not enter homes when invited, but instead sit outside respectfully in the garden. He refused the amenity of chairs that were brought to him, preferring to sit on the ground. Some of the Christians were insular; they ridiculed him as a madman, also inciting a gang of youths to harass him. These aggressors placed around his neck a garland made of torn old shoes and similar discarded objects. However, Upasani seemed quite happy at this contemptuous innovation. He proved capable of “turning the other cheek.”

Christians with integrity then rebuked the opponents, removing the derisive garland. In the evening, the hostile group found that Upasani was cleaning their locality with a broom. This charity made them feel embarrassed. They now bestowed upon him a garland of blossoming flowers. Upasani then quipped: “The shoes are really beautiful!” (229)

He afterwards transferred his assistance to a group of bhangis who walked along streets to remove the carcases of dead animals, mainly cows. This was another scenario of stench and unpleasant work with bare hands. Another group of bhangis would remove and tan the hides. Other bhangis would collect the resulting bones, and amass these into heaps. The bones were pounded into powder for making a type of sugar. Upasani evidently felt at home in these activities. He was seen to sit on a bone heap and even sleep there. A century later, the plight of bone collectors is even worse under the yoke of oppressive ultranationalism.

A basic teaching of Upasani, during the Kharagpur phase, amounted to: “God is in everything, good or bad, lovely or ugly, clean or unclean” (CIC:27). That refrain was the antithesis of caste scruple.

One day he visited a mosque on the outskirts of Kharagpur. There he passed some hours in solitude, “in a state of total non-duality.” (230)  Devotees searched for him, but could not find him. Not until evening could he be located. A group of devotees then arrived on the scene. A faqir, living nearby in a hut, was a source of information. Upasani was totally abstracted, apparently oblivious of his surroundings. Nobody dared to go near him. The description fits earlier manifestations of unmatta at Shirdi and Kharagpur.

The devotees were in the mosque precincts; they started to argue about what to do. Upasani then “awoke to his surroundings.” (231) He expressed irritation, demanding that the visitors leave the mosque. He chided them for coming after him, asking to be left in peace. Afterwards he calmed down, while the devotees pressed for his return to the colony. Muslims at the mosque supported this plea. Upasani eventually agreed to depart.

The tendency to take refuge was also evident in relation to a Shiva temple that Upasani sometimes visited. This old building was dilapidated; the interior was very dark all the year round. This factor kept away visitors, with the exception of a priest who came there daily for worship. Even he left quickly. However, this was just the type of sanctuary that Upasani preferred.

In a contrasting situation, he would participate in cricket matches with devotees and bhangi children. Upasani liked to bowl, while children took the bat. With bhangi children, he also played marbles andthe game of gilli-danda.

One day a tiger came to his verandah at the colony. The intruder drank water intended for Upasani, who was apparently indifferent to such interruption. The tiger returned on a daily basis. Bhangis reported this development, which became widely known in Kharagpur. However, many people refused to believe the report. One night, the tiger pounced on a goat in the near vicinity of Upasani. A few days later, the dangerous predator lifted up a bhangi baby sleeping near the mother. The woman shouted, rousing the whole colony from slumber. Some frantic bhangis informed Upasani of this episode. He agreed that the tiger should be eliminated.

The baby was quickly recovered, with no serious injury. The next day, Upasani advised bhangis to hunt down the tiger, in the interests of communal safety. The bhangis tied goat’s meat to a post as bait. Nothing happened, the tiger did not return. The predator was never seen again in the locality (DSS:505).

48.  Diverse  Encounters  at  Kharagpur

Upasani exhibited different moods with various visitors. He could be offputting in some cases, while welcoming other persons.

Baburao and his friend Khadilkar were brahman critics of Upasani; their wives were both devotees who obeyed instructions of the ascetic. These women wanted their husbands to become devotees also. They mentioned this matter to Upasani, who commented: “I will see into it.” As time passed, the two critics did become more interested in the distinctive newcomer to Kharagpur. Eventually, they decided to visit him at the colony. Arriving at his verandah, they asked a bhangi where Upasani could be found. The bhangi informed the ascetic about the two new visitors.

Upasani now gave a message to the bhangi, saying that the visitors should take darshan of the bhangi. He [Upasani] was also a bhangi, he maintained, so there was no actual difference between the two. The visitors could hear this conversation from afar, feeling disconcerted. They walked away in silence, in consternation at the prospects. However, the next day they arrived with other devotees; their visits subsequently became regular. Nothing further is reported about bowing to a bhangi.

One day Baburao and Khadilkar expressed their desire to worship Upasani. The request was refused. Upasani said that this worship could not occur until he had seen in these men a due devotion.

Afterwards, one Thursday these two converts assisted in the programme of bathing bhangi children, undertaken by devotees. Baburao was then permitted to conduct worship, but also warned about superficial actions. The devotee now acknowledged his former blindness and arrogance. He and Khadilkar now redoubled their efforts at dedication, visiting daily.

However, Khadilkar once arrived late in the evening, when Upasani had just finished his meal. Khadilkar bowed to the ascetic, taking his seat nearby. Upasani apparently deemed this action to be an interruption, becoming angry. He started to criticise the visitor. Then he forcefully threw his begging bowl, which landed in the lap of Khadilkar. The devotee put the bowl aside and silently walked away. Other devotees said afterwards that Khadilkar should have taken the begging bowl home with him as a trophy and special gift (DSS:568-569). There were evidently different views about due deportment.

A householder brother of the brahman Vinayakrao Singvekar came to stay in Kharagpur for a few days. Raosaheb had luxuriant hair and beard. He followed Balappa, a disciple of Swami Samarth of Akkalkot (d.1878). Raosaheb now decided to visit Upasani. After some conversation, he was asked to leave. The visitor nodded in acknowledgment, but did not get up from his seat. Three times Upasani asked him to depart. Raosaheb moved closer to the ascetic after each rebuke.

This contrary behaviour annoyed Upasani, who gave the visitor a slap on the face. Raosaheb did not move, evidently unperturbed by the blow. Upasani was not pleased, administering another slap. To no effect again. The host then picked up a stick, becaming more vigorous in administering a “beating.” Still the guest did not get up. Upasani was exasperated by this behaviour, commencing to rant at the non-compliant visitor.

Upasani then changed his attitude. Raosaheb apparently intended to prove his commitment by enduring admonitions and blows. Upasani started to praise Swami Samarth of Akkalkot. Upasani had never met Raosaheb before. However, in this expansive mood, the ascetic stated that he had known the visitor previously (this reference has been interpreted in terms of a former incarnation). Upasani followed up by telling Raosaheb not to leave until he was told to do so. Upasani then moved away, the visitor remaining in the same position. However, Raosaheb afterwards departed (apparently without permission). Later, Vinayakrao Singvekar expressed an apology for the stubborn performance of his brother.  (232)

Sonabai, the daughter of Vinayakrao, came to stay with her father. She went to the colony at five in the evening to meet Upasani. His habit, at that time, was to visit a bhangi home and pound flour. He asked Sonabai to depart accordingly. She declined, saying that she would accompany him instead.

Walking away, Upasani entered the bhangi hut, where he assisted the housewife. Sonabai followed him. Again he asked her to return home. She declined once more, now boldly commencing to assist the work in progress. Upasani accepted the new situation. He asked the housewife to get up and perform some other task, while allowing Sonabai to replace her. A group of devotees arrived, bowed to Upasani, and departed. Again he asked Sonabai to leave, but again she refused. Upasani then said that she could do as she liked, and remain where she felt comfortable.

After the hard work, Sonabai accompanied him back to the verandah where he lived. Upasani gave some of his food to her; when she had eaten, he gave her a mat to rest upon. This was a rare gesture on his part. She continued to lie there the whole night, in deep sleep. In the morning, she described to Upasani her experience:

The mat that you gave me was such that I immediately fell asleep, and till I woke up, I experienced such a state which I had never known before. In my experience, all I could see was light everywhere, and even I was in that light, totally surrounded by resplendence! (233)

For the next two or three days, Sonabai remained with Upasani, spending nights on the verandah. The intense experience of the first night did not occur again. Her parents had no hesitation in allowing her to be with Upasani. On the fourth day, he asked her to leave, becoming unyielding at that juncture. Sonabai became a long term follower.

A devoted bhangi woman (unnamed) learned to cook food in accordance with strict brahman customs of cleanliness. She went to Upasani with this food and some accessories of worship. No brahman woman was present at the time. She entreated him to accept her worship and the food. He is reported to have said: “Because your heart is without blemish, I accept your request” (DSS:511-512). She then performed her worship and presented the food, which he ate happily. Upasani also consented to accept water from her hand, despite the fact that he was a brahman and she a bhangi.

A brahman named Mangodkar asked permission to organise a feast. Upasani tersely replied, “Yes.” This mode of response could be deceptive, a form of polite deference not necessarily reflecting his deeper views. Upasani was told that Mangodkar would want to do things his own way. The organiser subsequently became involved in elaborate preparations, even decorating the verandah that comprised the ascetic’s living space. Mangodkar had not received permission to do this.

Upasani retreated from the verandah to sit under a tree some distance away, now in an aloof mood. The devotees expected him to return, but he did not. Upasani sat under the tree until evening, afterwards moving to a waste heap, choosing to watch the feast from a distance. This was a danger signal.

Mangodkar intended to worship Upasani. This officious devotee appeared with the paraphernalia of worship, which he placed before Upasani. The ascetic then picked up these items, throwing them onto the waste heap. He even garlanded that heap, in a very unconventional gesture; this action was in preference to worship of himself, which involved a garland. Mangodkar was affronted, commencing to express discontent. Upasani then erupted into a verbal attack. The devotee became silent, grasping that he had made a mistake.

Mangodkar now politely requested Upasani to sit on the stool arranged for a bathing session. The ascetic again expressed annoyance, telling the devotee to set fire to the stool and accompanying items. Mangodkar refused. Upasani asked if the devotee’s heart was still set upon these minor things. Mangodkar then changed his attitude, opting to burn the bathing equipment. (234)

Yaknathrao was another brahman closely involved in the feasts. Upasani was often worshipped at the outset of the bhandara, while seated at the waste heaps and cesspits. This worship did not occur at his instigation, but as a consequence of devotee expectation. In the disconcerting location described, on one occasion Yaknathrao and his wife Anjanabai started to perform puja before Upasani. The ascetic was not compliant, instead extracting an old pair of shoes from a waste heap. This episode signified an ongoing resistance of the saint to worship of his own person. Upasani asked the enthusiastic couple to worship the dirty shoes instead of himself. Yaknathrao then told his wife to carry out the instruction, himself following suit. Finally, Upasani asked Anjanabai to take the shoes home and care for them as objects of worship (DSS:512).

Another worshipper had very different ideas of what to do.  He came every day at about four p.m. Near the site where Upasani resided, this visitor dug a hole and started a fire or dhuni. There he would make oblations while chanting mantras. Afterwards he would increase the fire and then depart silently. The worshipper believed that his procedures would evoke the grace of a sadguru, meaning Upasani. Yet he did not encounter Upasani, who was heard to mutter critical reflections on this situation. Upasani evidently viewed the ritual expectations as being erroneous (DSS:512).

A pilgrim arrived from Kashi (Varanasi) with a vessel containing holy water from the Ganges. Many devotees were then assembled near Upasani. The visitor expressed his desire to sprinkle and bathe Upasani with the holy water. The ascetic was resistant, saying that he inhabited a colony so unclean and defiled that even Ganges water could not cleanse him. The pilgrim then argued: “Truly speaking, it is you who are holier than everything, and can impart this purity to whoever you so desire.”

Upasani countered this emphasis with the reflection: “If that is so, then what is the need to cleanse me with this pure water?” The pilgrim obstinately proceeded to pour the holy water over the resistant ascetic, emptying about half of the vessel. Upasani said that his own Ganga was always with him, adding that now he would need to bathe with this personal “Ganga.” The frustrated pilgrim could not get further with his intention. He accordingly distributed the remaining half of his water to others present. In the process, he found that the contents of his vessel now resembled dirty water.

Upasani then instructed devotees to bring water from a nearby drain pipe extending from a latrine. This was a very disconcerting prospect. However, Guard Mama and his wife Mami were ready to obey him. That devoted couple took pots to the public gutter, where they filled their containers with foul water containing tar, dirt, and urine. The two devotees brought these pots before the approving Upasani; at his bidding, they poured the contents over him. He reminisced about this episode in a talk dating to 1924. (235)

This bizarre event tends to underline the unusual attitude of Upasani at this period. The gutter water was part of the bhangi colony. He was perhaps demonstrating that the despised gutter water was his holy water. The high caste solution of Ganges water was certainly no answer to the predicament of untouchables.

One of the brothers of Vinayakrao Singvekar was Shridhar Panth, a critic of Upasani influenced by conservative agitators. In contrast, his wife Anandibai was a devotee. Shridhar became ill, being taken to another town, receiving attention from medical doctors. He gained the unexpected experience of seeing Upasani “at all times of the day” (DSS:509). Because of these continuous visions, the invalid requested his family to take him to Kharagpur, for the purpose of meeting Upasani. Nobody gave any importance to this entreaty, however; the conservative brahman family of the invalid did not esteem Upasani. The condition of Shridhar deteriorated daily.

His relatives eventually decided that a transfer to Kharagpur was the best recourse. Vinayakrao was enlisted as an escort. Shridhar could no longer get out of bed. At Kharagpur, his request to see Upasani continued. His wife Anandibai described the situation to her guru, who declined to see Shridhar, perhaps because of complications caused by family attitudes. Eventually, the whole family of Shridhar were requesting Upasani to meet the sick man, despite their earlier indifference. At this late hour, Upasani sent a message to the family: “I will come to meet him at your house, so tell him not to bother you all to be brought here!” The bhangi colony was no place for an invalid.

After weeks had passed, still Upasani made no move. Finally, he informed the relatives: “Every time you meet him [Shridhar], you should say to him that Maharaj is definitely coming to visit you.” Upasani also said that the invalid would be transformed after four days. According to an early report, after four more days, Shridhar experienced a vision of Upasani, expressing contentment. He died the same day. (236)

A very different encounter occurred on the verandah occupied by Upasani at the bhangi colony. The date is not supplied; the hour was about midnight. Upasani was alert to the sound of someone entering his verandah. This transpired to be a Muslim woman wearing a veil. He asked her identity. Instead of replying, she placed a dish of quality food before him. Bowing at his feet, she then recited verses from the Quran. Only afterwards did she unveil her face, informing that she had prepared the food, which she requested Upasani to eat.

The occupant of the verandah asked the visitor how she had managed to come alone at such a late hour. She replied that her husband had sent her, travelling most of the way with her. This Muslim had formerly met the ascetic more than once, respecting both Upasani and the Hindu religion. He believed that Upasani had gained a high spiritual state. Cordially receiving this information, Upasani expressed a desire to satisfy the wishes of this couple. He then asked the visitor to give him two morsels of the rich food she had brought. The Muslim lady afterwards bowed to him again and read out more verses from the Quran. Finally, she departed. (237)

One morning at about nine, a group of Muslims visited him while he “was in a state of pure non-duality.” (238) The transcendent characteristics of unmatta are described by some commentators in terms of non-dualism (advaita). The Muslims waited patiently in one corner of the verandah. Upasani remained abstracted. The visitors whispered amongst themselves as to what should be done. One of them obtained some incense sticks, which were now lighted, spreading fragrant smoke. There was no effect upon Upasani, however. Then a decision was made to offer the ascetic a bidi, or cigarette containing tobacco. The visitors could not elicit any due response.

Subsequently, one of the Muslim visitors placed a lighted cigarette in the mouth of Upasani, who moved a little and soon regained outward awareness. Seeing the Muslims sitting on the verandah, he asked their identity. Now they wanted to give him another cigarette; he accepted, sharing the bidi with one of the Muslims. (239) This group possibly grasped that the act of smoking tobacco facilitated a return to normal cognisance, which is what the episode amounted to.

The factor of extroversion is relevant to his nocturnal schedule. This had always been very retiring during the early phase at Kharagpur, when Upasani habitually closeted himself in a room. During the bhangi colony phase, he was much more flexible. One night he made visits to no less than four houses.

Late one evening, while resting alone on the verandah at the colony, he got up and walked to the home of his former host Chinnaswami, knocking on the door. Upasani was invited inside, saying there was no specific reason for the visit. Chinnaswami and his wife offered some food, but the guest took very little, asking them to eat the remainder. Yaknathrao and other devotees arrived. Upasani then accompanied them to the abode of Yaknathrao, where the latter’s wife Anjanabai insisted that Upasani eat some ice-cream. The ascetic complied, contrary to his general habit. Then he visited each room of the house at invitation. Afterwards he walked to the dwelling of Sitaram Naidu, where he talked with the host’s mother.

Finally, he went to the home of devotee Patra Babu, who showed him each room of the house. In the room reserved for worship, Upasani found a photograph of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (d.1886). This item he picked up reverently. Holding the picture to his chest, he afterwards carefully put the object back into position. (240) Then the wife of Naidu offered him fruits and sugar. Again, he consented to eat some of this gift, afterwards departing. Upasani now moved back to the home of Chinnaswami, entering by the rear door and going out via the front door, walking to the bhangi colony, returning alone to the verandah. (241)  

49.  Kalidas  the  Cobbler

Kalidas was a low caste cobbler from Gujarat, now living at Kharagpur. This man came on many occasions for the darshan of Upasani, listening attentively to his statements. Kalidas wanted Upasani to visit his hut. However, the ascetic did not seem interested. The visitor then vowed to remain without food and water, with the intention of having his wish fulfilled. Kalidas abstained for three days while at home. His wife Lakshmi became worried, informing Upasani accordingly. The ascetic consoled her, saying he would visit their home that same day.

During the evening, at 8.30 p.m., Lakshmibai (wife of Khasnis) and others came to Upasani with a meal. The ascetic then said that he had to depart for the purpose of visiting Kalidas.  Lakshmibai requested him to eat the meal. Upasani declined, starting off in a hurry, asking those present to accompany him. Raghoba, nephew of Guard Mama, was the only person who knew where Kalidas lived, on the outskirts of Kharagpur, where Kalidas had a cobbler’s shop. Arriving at their destination, they found Kalidas seated immobile, not having moved for three days. The wife of Kalidas roused him. This cobbler now took the darshan of Upasani, saying: “How fortunate am I that God has chosen to arrive at my house today!” (DSS:548)

Lakshmi had cooked dishes for the visitor. Upasani consented to eat a little of this food, requesting Kalidas to consume the remainder, then resume his work as a cobbler. Upasani returned to the colony. Kalidas and his wife thereafter came daily to meet Upasani. Kalidas also arranged a bhandara feast for the poor. One evening, Upasani found a torn bhangi cap in the nearby waste heap. He then wore that bhangi cap himself, despite the filthy condition of this item. He even discoursed while wearing the cap, to the surprise of devotees.

Kalidas soon gifted to Upasani two bags, filled with ornaments belonging to himself and his wife. He insisted upon adorning Upasani with these items. Kalidas told his wife to sit near Upasani, and to place their bunch of keys at the ascetic’s feet. Then Kalidas removed his clothes and remaining ornaments. In a near naked condition, he circumambulated Upasani several times, finally prostrating. Upasani remained silent, afterwards instructing Lakshmi to give the clothes back to Kalidas, and to get her husband dressed. This was accomplished, after which Upasani removed the ornaments lavished upon him. He gave instructions for those ornaments to be returned to the devotee couple.

Kalidas refused to take back the ornaments. This devotee said that he had offered everything to Upasani: himself, his wealth, his wife, his ornaments, his shop, his house. Upasani responded firmly, saying that he could not maintain the shop of Kalidas, nor care for the discarded wife. Further, if the devotee had surrendered to him, then Kalidas should do as instructed, meaning to resume worldly life as before. Upasani here emphasised that God was present even in the life of a householder (DSS:550).

Kalidas is reported to have been satisfied by the instruction. However, he soon went against the advice. He was too strongly inclined to take up the life of renunciation, in which the family is left behind. Kalidas soon began to roam about the town, garbed only in a loin-cloth, at times naked. He appeared to be mad, shouting loudly and expressing abuses. As a consequence, police officers jailed him to prevent any public nuisance. However, Kalidas was then examined by a medical doctor, who declared the new renunciate to be aware of himself and his surroundings. On the basis of this recommendation, Kalidas was released.

Not long after, Kalidas again started to roam the streets, while demonstrating the same extreme behaviour. After some days, he visited the bhangi colony where Upasani resided. There he continued to deport himself incongruously. The response of Upasani was to administer a “thrashing” to the eccentric ex-cobbler. Despite this rebuke, Kalidas did not alter his extreme behaviour. The police again arrested him, placing handcuffs on his wrists. Kalidas somehow escaped, only to be caught and jailed once more, being kept under strict surveillance (DSS:555-556).

This instance can be interpreted in terms of a failure to remain in the householder state, as Upasani clearly wished Kalidas to do. Exactly why the cobbler became so unbalanced in his behaviour is not clear, especially in view of the examination by a medical doctor who provided a positive judgment about his mental state.

AUTHOR: Kevin R. D. Shepherd. For continuation see Upasani Maharaj, Radical Rishi Biography (3)

ABBREVIATIONS

AU         Anushthan, discourse by Upasani Baba, trans. Subbarao

CIC        Tipnis, Contribution of Upasani Baba to Indian Culture

DAB       Dabholkar, Shri Sai Satcharita, trans. Kher

DSS       Desai and Irani, Sadguru of Sakori, trans. Gumashta

GLS       Godamasuta, Life Sketch of Sadguru Upasani Baba Maharaja

GT          Godamasuta, ed., Talks of Sadguru Upasani Baba Maharaja

KK          Kamath and Kher, Sai Baba of Shirdi

LM          Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu), Reiter edition

LSB        Narasimhaswami, Life of Sai Baba

MBJ       Meher Baba Journal

MM         Fenster, Mehera-Meher Vol. One

NF          Satpathy, New Findings on Shirdi Sai Baba

NDE       Narasimhaswami, Devotees’ Experiences of Sri Sai Baba

NSS       Narasimhaswami, Sage of Sakuri

NSU       Nath, Shri Sadguru Upasani Maharaja Yancha Charitra

PPM       Purdom, The Perfect Master: Life of Shri Meher Baba

RD          Deitrick, ed., Ramjoo’s Diaries 1922-1929

SBI         Shepherd, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation

SBM       Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement

SSS        Subbarao, Sage of Sakuri Part II

UL           Upasani Lilamrita

TIW         Purdom and Schloss, Three Incredible Weeks with Meher Baba

 

ANNOTATIONS

(99)  DSS:214-215. The date of this encounter is uncertain. The report refers to disturbing occult manifestations emanating from the cremation ground, including bizarre voices, screams, and threats. The allusions of Sai Baba to railway travel appear in other accounts of the early months of Upasani at Shirdi. Sai Baba may have repeated the basic gist on more than one occasion. The Desai version authentically includes the zikr of Allah Malik Hai. Sai Baba here urges Upasani not to consider returning home, which would suggest a date in 1911 rather than 1912. In this version, Sai Baba says that Upasani should not think of returning home because he [Sai] “will enable you to reach your house” (ibid:215). The real home of Upasani was in prospect, as distinct from his family abode. A feasible interpretation is the transit to the metaphysical domain of brahmarandhra, a term found in Upasani’s own reminiscences of a later date.

(100)  DSS:221. Cf. NSS:122, for a variant about the “Lendi path,” mentioning more than one encounter relating to the cremation ground phenomenon, in which Upasani heard strange sounds and saw strange sights. Sai Baba is here stated to have “always said” the following: “Do not fear. I am with you always. The more you suffer now, the happier your future. The world in one scale and you in the other.”

(101) DSS:221. Such episodes were completely forgotten in the literature on Sai Baba. Even early Narasimhaswami has no reference to many of these events (although he does describe Sage of Sakuri as an introductory work). The data in Desai and Madhav Nath remained largely submerged, even though Nath (NSU) was far more widely read in Maharashtra.

(102) Rigopoulos 1993:186. Padukas relate to a devotional practice in Maharashtra. These “footprints” are a copy of the feet or sandals of a saint. According to Rigopoulos, “the installation and worship of Sai Baba’s padukas, is indicative of his assimilation to an avatara of Dattatreya” (ibid:163 note 36). However, this form of worship (puja) is not restricted to Dattatreya. Dabholkar refers to the event of August 1912 in a context associated with Swami Samarth of Akkalkot. Bhai Krishnaji Alibagkar, a Bombay devotee of Swami Samarth, stayed for six months at Shirdi in 1912. He is said to have “installed the padukas of Swami Samarth under the neem tree” at Shirdi (DAB:78). This was in commemoration of a dream vision he had experienced in which Swami Samarth informed that “my stay is in Shirdi.” The account differs from other versions which state that the padukas were those of Sai Baba (e.g., RF:82). The reputed connection between Sai Baba and Swami Samarth is not unanimous. Cf. Rigopoulos 1993:135-136. According to Dabholkar, “the installation [of padukas] was performed at the hands of Dada Kelkar and under the direction of Upasani, with all the rites and rituals prescribed by the Shastras” (DAB:78). Cf. Warren 1999:151, relaying that silver padukas were arranged for this event, while Sai agreed “to imprint his footprints on the padukas.” Upasani designed the padukas with traditional motifs, including the lotus and conch shell. Over fifty years later, in 1968, padukas featured at the Shirdi samadhi mandir during the fiftieth anniversary of Sai Baba’s death. One account refers to “an opening in the railing and the paduka (‘footprints’) of Sai Baba in marble were set into the floor; devotees filed past this opening and touched or kissed the paduka” (Harper 1972:32).

(103)  LSB:398. There is strong reason to doubt this pracharak report, which is contradicted by the much earlier Desai version. In Narasimhaswami’s own previous book Sage of Sakuri, a different statement is credited to Upasani: “I have lost house and doors. I have no wife, no domestic ties. I have not a pie, my body is shattered. Suffering all sorrows, you see to what I am reduced. I have not even a piece of neat cloth to put on” (NSS:123). The content seems accurate enough for his basic situation, but is not comprehensive of all factors.

(104)  DSS:209. The palmist is said to have been about 65 years old, having studied the samudrik texts since childhood. He was well known at various cities and in royal courts, claiming mastery of his art in assessing holy men. He disclosed that he had encountered many holy men, but had never seen one who exhibited all the auspicious signs he could detect. Sai Baba blocked his investigation at the mosque (we are not told how).

(105)  DSS:209-210. The meaning is that Upasani was considered to possess many auspicious signs which the psalmist was looking for. At the close of his investigation, the samudrik shastri prostrated on the ground before Upasani, declaring: “It is only today that I have seen the Para-Brahma with my own physical eyes!” Narsobawadi regarded his quest as being fulfilled, now resolving to relinquish his pursuit of palmistry and enter retirement. This enthusiastic recognition was subsequently effaced by Narasimhaswami, who preferred a negative version of the event.

(106)  LSB:398. Even in his earlier partisan work Sage of Sakuri, the Madras sannyasin occasionally expresses a misunderstanding. For instance, he invented unconvincing explanations of certain “visions” of Upasani. Narasimhaswami does not evidence any understanding of his subject’s state of samadhi in 1913. The sannyasin thought that, during his “lucid intervals,” Upasani still read the Bhagavad Gita and other works (NSS:83). There is no evidence of this. The reading of books ceased during 1912, an experiential state intensifying to the point where books were superfluous.

(107) In his later years, Upasani referred to numerous Yogic concepts and practices. He was undoubtedly familiar with varied facets of Yoga, relating to both the Patanjali and Nath traditions. However, he also distanced himself from Yoga in a number of ways. His claim to experiential knowledge of kundalini-sushumna processes was an independent stance, perhaps of more interest accordingly. Yoga is an approach found in variants within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The subject is also associated with the Upanishads. See Mallinson and Singleton 2017.

(108) GT, 1:599-600. This passage comes from Talk 212, dated January 1925. Upasani here indicates the overwhelming nature of the experience. “When the Brahmarandhra opens, all the within and without becomes one, i.e., all within and without that void – the Akasha – unites to become one” (ibid:600). The editor of this passage notes that the brahmarandhra is associated with the opening at the top end of the sushumna nadi, renowned in the Yogic lore of kundalini. Upasani also refers in this passage to the hamsa (swan) state celebrated in Vedanta, “the state of having attained the Brahma” (ibid), beyond the akasha. Upasani further alludes to the legendary instance of Mirabai, for whom the brahmarandhra was opened, so that “celestial light called Parameshvara entered into her” (ibid). The Sanskrit word brahmanda signifies the “Brahma egg” or “universal egg,” denoting the origin of the universe. The same word brahmanda is sometimes translated as cosmos. There are related meanings associated with the Brahmanda Purana. Upasani used the term in a microcosmic context. For instance, he says: “The Vaikuntha [heaven of Vishnu] is the Brahmanda situated in the head” (GT, 2:129-130). In the same Talk 20, he refers to “the darshana of Vishnu situated in the Brahmanda located in himself” (ibid). The darshan of Vishnu can be gained, e.g., by association with a satpurusha, “one who has experienced it and who is ever in it” (ibid), meaning the brahmanda.

(109) CIC:25. In a very different mode to Dr. Tipnis, Narasimhaswami eventually resented the close association of Upasani with Sai Baba. The controversial chapters about Upasani in LSB (Life of Sai Baba) are depreciatory in a number of passages. This negative treatment was strongly influenced by the author’s devotional interpretation of Sai Baba, and also by his monastic aversion to the Kanya Kumari Sthan, which Narasimhaswami misrepresented via crude insinuation.

(110) DSS:226. One explanation for the transition was given by Charles Purdom, deriving this from Indian followers of Meher Baba, who (along with Upasani) was the ultimate source of the explanation. “Sai Baba, we are told, made Kashinath [Upasani], who was then about forty-two years old, God-realised, and then brought him down from the divine plane to restore a little normal consciousness” (PPM:32).

(111)  DSS:226. Dr. Pillai is here reported to have commented that, via the assistance of Sai Baba, Upasani had achieved the experience of “godly grandeur.” The narrative also says that Upasani did not forsake his religious observances. Until the commencement of his changed state, Upasani would regularly “recite the chants,” which would take him nearly two hours (ibid:227). However, this event was attended by a complex factor difficult to elucidate. “Many a time Maharaj found that, when reciting religious mantras, only his lips moved, whereas the voice came from somewhere in the central region of the head” (ibid). This was not the common act of chanting. The acute difficulty of explaining such phenomena led to his silence on these matters. “Maharaj continued to remain silent for he had no other option in this issue” (ibid). There follows a comment of Desai that has caused puzzlement. “His state can be said to be like one whose mouth is closed shut and is bearing fist punches” (ibid). This was apparently an aspect of the preliminary phase of his transformation. Upasani seems to have stopped chanting, the intensity of his new mystical experiences rendering that exercise superfluous.

(112)  DSS:227. Different descriptions were applied to the unusual state of Upasani at the Khandoba temple. Narasimhaswami reports a local belief that this ascetic had achieved brahmishtavasta. A more familiar term is brahmajnana, meaning knowledge of Brahman. Meher Baba stipulated that Upasani gained nirvikalpa samadhi at the temple, an achievement preparatory to sahaj samadhi. Meher Baba was in close contact with Upasani during the years 1915-1921. The reminiscences of Meher Baba are found in different sources.

(113) GLS:9. The matter of precise dating in these matters is a vexed one. The original sources were Upasani himself, his professorial brother Balakrishna, and early devotees. The Life Sketch says that he “passed over a year in this state” (of unmatta or unmada) before beginning to come out of the temple for purposes of manual labour. There was actually a strong degree of overlap in this respect. Further, the Life Sketch says that the subject “passed two full years without any food or water” before commencing liquid food at the outset of 1914. The duration was realistically twelve months or more, with an attendant uncertainty about the absence of food and water intake. The resourceful Durgabai Karmakar was entrusted by Sai Baba with the task of feeding Upasani; she was perhaps successful on many occasions. A potentially applicable reference is that found in Talk 192, where Upasani relates that he was “almost dying some years ago.” He could not eat; in that condition, his stomach, chest, and head were “burning hot.” Any food placed in his mouth was merely vomited out. He could not even manage an intake of liquid. Talk 192 informs that he had not been eating anything for months. Then a woman (unnamed) diligently prepared him khajura, a paste made from palm dates and described in terms of syrup. She began putting spoonfuls of this khajura in his mouth. Her action was successful, causing him to revive (GT, 3:147). Upasani also comments that doctors had declared his case to be hopeless, evidently a flashback to an earlier event when his breathing failed; that pre-Shirdi crisis does not seem to have been nearly so severe in terms of food and liquid intake. The unnamed woman must surely have been Durgabai. The information about khajura serves to explain how Upasani was able to live during the fraught interval of abnormal functioning at Shirdi.

(114)  DSS:217-218. The point is made that other washermen (dhobis) could not match the standard of cleansing achieved by the labours of Upasani. This activity was certainly well outside the caste prescriptions for brahmans.

(115)  DSS:236-237. In Talk 75, Upasani says that after storing the dung cakes inside the temple, a “few days later” he distributed these amongst devotees (GT, 2:349). He himself had no need of these items. He did not have a fire for burning the dung cakes, either for cooking or to keep warm. He informs that some devotees would worship the dung cakes he had made, while others would keep them for future use on a funeral pyre, for the purpose of facilitating sadgati (GT, 2:348).

(116) GT,1:178. The quotation comes from Talk 87. Associations with Vishnu are relevant for Upasani. He quite often refers to “Lord Shri Krishna” in his discourses. During his Amraoti phase as a vaidh, he is known to have exhibited the mark of Vishnu on his forehead. However, in his later years, there was no sectarian adherence to Vishnu on his part.

(117)  LSB:408. Cf. NSS:102, which is similar. A very brief description is given of the subsequent vision: “Some ruffians came and cut his head off, scooped up the brain, ate the contents and ran away” (LSB:408). This version fails to convey sufficient detail, and may be considered a misadventure in translation. The visitors were not ruffians, but entities of a different kind. An earlier version is more informative, for instance: “There was a bright aura surrounding these two [the visiting Muslim and brahman], but the light it [the aura] shed remained in the area where they moved but all else remained dark” (DSS:251). The contraction of Narasimhaswami is obvious. Reports could easily become muddled, whether in oral or written format. The earlier version does not say that the two visitors ran away, instead informing that they left the Khandoba temple after finishing their meal, which included bhakri bread.

(118) DSS:251-3. Cf. LSB:401, where Narasimhaswami invents an explanation for the “darkness” in these experiences. Upasani had formerly been conducting the daily brahmanical rites of trikala sandhya; at the noon sandhya, he would take water in both of his palms and offer this to the sun. The noon sun would glitter in the reflection provided by the water. According to Narasimhaswami, when Upasani gazed at the reflection, he lost the ability to see anything, because everything then appeared dark. In this interpretation, Upasani feared that the symptoms “betokened the approach of death” (LSB:401). He is said to have visited some houses in the village, requesting a cure. “They found fomentation and other processes useless and they believed starvation was the cause” (LSB:401). The well-wishers gave him liquid food, but Upasani was unable to consume this. These people believed that he had gained the state of Brahmishtavastha, associated with Yogis, an achievement attributed to the grace of Sai Baba (LSB:401). There is no proof that the interpretation of Narasimhaswami is correct. Blindness can be induced when Indian ascetics gaze directly at the sun for a lengthy period. Upasani was not in this category; the noon rite of sandhya is brief, often lasting only for about ten minutes. The assumption of blindness does not explain various aspects of Upasani’s recorded experiences at this time. For instance, the unusual “circles of light” provided a contrast with the specified darkness outside those phenomena. Moreover, Upasani was not performing trikala sandhya at this period of transition. His customary daily routine had been dramatically altered by his disapproving mentor. We know that he had ceased mantra japa at the injunction of Sai Baba (this detail is included by Narasimhaswami). Upasani himself says, in Talks, that he would sit in the Khandoba temple without performing his former daily ablutions or other brahmanical observances (GT, 3:232). Narasimhaswami, who neglected the Talks, does not seem to have been aware of various developments at the Khandoba temple, an ignorance which places his adverse opinions at a strong disadvantage.

(119)  DSS:253, 270. These very unusual experiences are not easy to assimilate. The account refers to “phases of knowing himself as a round stone, a flat long stone, then a thin sharp one” (DSS:253). This phenomenon was apparently related to a para-Yogic sense of lacking body-consciousness. There is also reference to a feeling “in his torso region being continually under friction” (DSS:253).

(120)  DSS:250. To quote from the English translation of Desai: “It seemed as if all these events took place in a blink of an eye, yet he experienced them for hours or days.”

(121)  DSS:263. An experience which underwent contraction in some versions was the “vision” in which Upasani is offered a lamp (LSB:408). Cf. the earlier account in Sage of Sakuri, which awards more context. When offered the lamp, Upasani doubted if he should accept. Then he noticed that the sun and moon were in juxtaposition on the horizon (this may be related to Yogic symbolism). Sai Baba communicated that the sun and moon were not necessary for them (Sai and Upasani), because they had access to a greater light. Sai told the disciple to accept the lamp, which needed no oil. “If you have that lamp, you will never be obstructed, and you will give light to hundreds in the future” (NSS:101-102).

(122)  DSS:254. Narasimhaswami tended to diminish the content of such experiences, while inventing his own “Sai devotional” explanation amounting to a straitjacket.

(123)  DSS:300. On the cosmic experience known as jnanodaya, see NSS:85-87. This is also a feature of UL, a Marathi record of reminiscences and interpretations, to some extent overlapping with other accounts. In Maharashtra, UL is a far better known work than DSS. However, the Desai text has the advantage of being earlier. The editing variants in NSU are of interest to those able to make comparisons.

(124) DSS:256-257. Many years later, Narasimhaswami intellectually assimilated the Shirdi experiences of Upasani in terms of “vision and pictures,” which he interpreted as a form of instruction imparted by Sai Baba (LSB:400). However, this commentator myopically remarked: “One may wonder what ‘pictures’ could be seen at Shirdi, where there were no cinema houses” (ibid). Upasani referred to “circles of light” and related experiences which have been subject to misunderstanding. The association with cinema is superficial.

(125)  DSS:254-5. The elite spiritual assembly are described in terms of “the celibate, holy men, saints, Fakirs, priests, religious heads, as well as all else who had reached to the highest godly states” (DSS:254). The attendant experience followed on from Upasani’s perception of “three circles of light surrounding him,” a phenomenon which he viewed “for many days at least twice a day” (DSS:254).

(126)  DSS:256. One interpretation of this experience is that Upasani was assimilating the earlier disclosures of Sai Baba, who had stated at the mosque in 1911 that Upasani was in one weighing scale and the universe in another. The disciple had not known what to make of such startling assertions as: “The whole world in the one scale and you in the other; such is your merit” (NSS:63).

(127) DSS:258-259, an account appearing in different versions, sometimes concluding with Sai Baba’s disclosure that Upasani was now free of bindings.

(128)  Deshmukh 1965:33-34. The alternative rendering of Narasimhaswami is rather copiously worded, suggesting an inflated content. One may easily accept the basic question of Upasani: “If this figure is my punya purusha, and the other figure you destroyed was my papa purusha, who am I?” (LSB:409) The answer of Sai Baba is here given as: “You are beyond these two, beyond punya [virtue] and papa [vice]. That which constitutes me constitutes you.  That is, you are myself…. So, there is no difference between you and me” (ibid). The commentator then moves into his very questionable theory that Upasani “continued for very many years, that is, till about 1935, to think on purely dualistic lines” (ibid). Narasimhaswami had no due comprehension of the experiences gained by Upasani from 1912 onwards.

(129) LSB:408. Narasimhaswami here offers another very questionable interpretation.  He opted to depict the symbolism of rupees in terms of the subconscious mind of Upasani being impressed by Sai Baba with “the feeling that it was cloyed and glutted with ample possession of wealth.” Meaning that Upasani was too greedy. The symbolism could have meant something very different, escaping the associations imposed by pracharak Narasimhaswami in his demeaning version of Upasani Maharaj. The wealth depicted in the “vision” was of extensive proportions.  Upasani, even during his Amraoti phase as a successful vaidh, had nowhere near that kind of wealth. When he arrived at Shirdi in 1911, he had very little money. Soon he had no money left at all, after making dakshina to Sai Baba.

(130)  DSS:249. The strong association of this experience with a Muslim well is cause for reflection. This factor might be regarded as symptomatic of the para-Yogi’s new affinity with life and activity outside caste Hinduism. His intense inner experiences further demoted his caste background.

(131) DSS:219-221. Cf. NSS:90, informing that Upasani would frequently repeat to himself the word Ahmednagar, while the villagers who heard him believed that this verbal exercise comprised one of his “mad pranks.”

(132) The temple dweller later described a strange experience to which he was constantly subject day and night. This is difficult to understand, bearing in mind the minimal wordings involved in available description. We are told that a duplication of his actions was achieved by different persons appearing near him. He perceived them as belonging to different castes, including Muslims.  Some of these persons were local acquaintances, but unaware of the duplication he described. He would sometimes ask such people why they copied him; their response tended to be pity for his state of mind (DSS:269). The inter-religious dimensions of this phenomenon may have imposed complications for any straightforward explanation.

(133) DSS:270-271, where the translation of Desai refers to the episode in terms of paranoia. The Parsi editor comments that the conclusion of Upasani was “worthy of being laughed at.” There is no indication as to whether the jeweller was the same one who died at Shirdi, being cremated near the Khandoba temple. When the funeral pyre of the deceased jeweller was lighted, Upasani came and spent the whole night sitting near the flaming pyre. He was quite alone. When asked the reason, he stated that the temple was very cold and so he had come outside to the pyre for warmth (DSS:278). There was nothing bizarre about his explanation.

(134) DSS:281. This source affords the detail that an “aged woman” would cook for Upasani and bring food to him. He would nevertheless refuse this healthy food, instead requesting “waste or hell.” When she received that reply, the well-wisher considered him to be mad “and never again insisted that he should eat something” (ibid). The woman is not named. She appears to have been a precursor of Durgabai Karmakar, a middle aged brahman lady who did not believe that Upasani was mad. Durgabai did not give up in her insistences. Exactly why Upasani requested waste is difficult to understand; his precise meaning is elusive. The extreme nature of his temporary dislocation evidently posed anomalies. The intrusive harassers are reported to have fed him waste. To Upasani at that time, all food was repellant. Durgabai was successful in negotiating the request for waste, becoming his daily meal provider for many years.

(135)  DSS:279. The report says that he would often take the waste into the temple and make this into dung cakes, which he preserved as something valuable. There may be a confusion here with the cow dung cakes Upasani is known to have stockpiled in the temple. The report relays that he would make the human waste “into circular plate forms” (ibid). Desai seems to have regarded this eccentric activity as a bizarre saintly action redeemed by other characteristics. The Parsi reception of Upasani was very liberal on the part of supporters.

(136)  DSS:280, informing that Upasani would sometimes fling away a dish of food brought to him. This account says that devotees would always bring food offerings to him at the temple. Desai does not actually state that Upasani never ate any of the incoming food, but the general tone of his narrative does suggest this. Like Madhav Nath (editor of NSU, the related Marathi biography of Upasani), Sorabji Desai had not met the temple dweller; he was instead editing oral reports written down by a colleague more intimate with the subject. There is a surprising amount of neglected information in these edited documents, often engendering difficulties for any neat chronology.

(137)  DSS:281. This statement accompanies a description of the white ants appearing on the gunny cloth and on his body. These ants appeared in monsoon weather, an indication of the date. During the rainy season, Upasani probably did not go outside the temple very often, if at all. The monsoon would have contributed to his immobile characteristics.

(138)  DSS:281. There are diverse references to his skeletal appearance at Khandoba’s temple. Upasani was undoubtedly emaciated during 1913-1914. However, this condition was not created by intention, contrasting with the situation of many other ascetics.

(139)  DSS:282. Such details are lacking in Sage of Sakori, which already represents a diminishing repertory in contrast to the early works. Narasimhaswami did not have access to informants of the Desai-Nath editing period over a decade previously.

(140) DSS:281-282. The very unusual nature of Upasani’s ascetic situation has often been ignored. There is no comparable instance known amongst the devotees of Sai Baba. Professor Satya Pal Ruhela has referred to Upasani as “the only disciple” of Sai (Ruhela 2016). Such description would certainly have been contested by Hari Dixit and others at Shirdi; however, this party left no adequate reason for their opposition. Ruhela does not provide details of the friction.

(141)  DSS:308. Desai appears to have embellished the story, which is nevertheless notable for a strong point being made by Upasani in the direction of imitative Yoga.

(142)  DSS:311. The habit of eating waste was cultivated in some Tantric circles; such practices were given elaborate pretext for a supposed transcendence of opposites. In the exegesis of Upasani Maharaj, those practices do not suffice for enlightenment.

(143)  DSS:278. There is no trace of any sadhana in such events. Sadhana means a deliberate effort in the ascetic life, whereas Upasani was simply living through environmental situations in a form of reflex from his intense unmatta states.

(144)  Shepherd 1986:104, following the brief reference in Deshmukh 1965:34. Western reactions to this episode have tended to incredulity. The general notions of “self-realisation” are compatible with the “workshop” milieu of affluent new age clientele, a population utterly remote from early twentieth century Shirdi.

(145)  Deshmukh 1965:34. The evocative reference does not provide context.

(146) DSS:266-267. Cf. NSS:93-94, supplying an abbreviated account. The visionary experience of girls in the “circle of light” is told in different versions and languages, but with the same basic gist. A few reports also invoke the much later episodes of Upasani at Sakori, during the 1930s, when he dressed like a woman (or the “wife of God”) on some occasions during his Shakta phase. The questionable interpretation can be found, associated with 1950s Narasimhaswami, that Upasani was being trained at Shirdi to forget his gender role, so that members of both sexes could become his disciples. Other interpretations are possible. However, a relevant report informs: “He [Upasani] says that he remembers these stories [relayed by the occult girls] and feels at times just like a female, although his body continues unaltered throughout; and that he is then the wife of God, an akhanda sowbhagyavati” (NSS:94).

(147) DSS:267. The “circles of light” were evidently part of a complex experiential programme. Upasani does not appear to have explained the attendant phenomena in detail. The available descriptions first appeared in his reminiscences recorded by very early transcribers, a decade prior to the Marathi work Upasani Lilamrita (1930-36).

(148)  DSS:235. This source reports Upasani as saying to Pillai that the war would start “exactly 1.5 years from now.” He predicted that “rivers of blood of the deceased will flow,” while the living survivors would be afflicted by poverty. Dr. Pillai was confused by these disclosures. Most Indians were then far removed from the calamitous situation that was soon imposed by European powers. The Great War started in July 1914, after which a large number of Indian soldiers became participants, many of them losing their lives.

(149) DSS:216-217. This dog “was specially cared for by Maharaj and treated with great affection.” His explanation for the kindness was: “She is my mother-in-law and teaches me godly knowledge” (ibid:217).

(150)  NSS:113-114, regarding the response of Upasani as proof of clairvoyance. The undated episode of Narahari Londhe is realistic, not needing any gloss of “powers.” However, it would seem that Upasani often acted in a manner indicating that he knew of events about which he had not been told.

(151)  DSS:231-232. The episode illustrates the ahimsa policy of Upasani, similar to that of Sai Baba. However, there may have been a few subsequent episodes (of a later period) when Upasani did permit the killing of dangerous snakes. Close documentation is lacking. In ashram situations, poisonous snakes could cause serious harm.

(152)  DSS:228-230. This distinctive episode confirms the liberal spirit demonstrated by Upasani in his contact with Muslims at Kharagpur (Shepherd 1986:113). The uncertain date of the Shirdi episode means that this event could have occurred after the sojourn at Kharagpur. Various idioms of Upasani can be detected in numerous reports found in DSS, NSU, and UL, to some extent correlating with DT.

(153)  DSS:236. This undated episode may have occurred during 1916-17, when many residents and visitors at Shirdi were in contact with both Sai Baba and Upasani.

(154)  LSB:466. This argument of Narasimhaswami comes from the chapter entitled “Succession to Sai’s Seat.” The author’s strongly accented denial of “successorship” is attended by conventional notions of what a “successor” is. The “fully earmarked” Guru could not be a successor, because this contradicted the belief of Narasimhaswami, who was unable to credit that the innovative Sakori ashram for female renunciates was a valid spiritual event. Cf. NSS:76-80, for a more detailed and objective description of the puja event, lacking the polemic of a later work.

(155)  LSB:466. The author interprets the puja event in terms of Sai Baba helping Upasani “to regain some degree of assurance in the midst of all his troubles and fear of approaching death” (ibid). This theory reflects a substantial misinterpretation.

(156)  LSB:467. Narasimhaswami also describes Nanavali as “a sturdy half-crazy ascetic.” More recently, devotional literature has tended to glorify this figure, ignoring the context in much earlier works.

(157)  LSB:467. Nanavali, also known as Shankar Narayan Joshi (Vaidhya), is variously described in the Sai Baba literature. The earliest sources (including Narasimhaswami) are not flattering to him. Some later accounts portray him as a salient devotee with characteristics of Hanuman.

(158)  Fleeting references are involved in the output of Narasimhaswami (LSB:467; NSS:128). A variation is DSS:242.

(159)  GT, 1:449. The quotation is from Talk 172. Nanavali is here described as a man with a very strong prakriti. This factor is related to a theme which some readers have found difficult to follow, i.e., “sometimes if the prakriti of the [visiting] Jiva happens to be stronger, then the prakriti of the satpurusha is not able to displace the other” (GT, 1:448). Nanavali was certainly a strong factor of interference during a phase when Upasani was still graduating to the role of a satpurusha.

(160)  LSB:402. The author here employs his version of what Upasani told Balakrishna Shastri in December 1911. In Sage of Sakuri, the same writer expresses his opinion that Upasani could not understand what Sai Baba meant to do with him in such “a hell on earth” (NSS:128). The Madras sannyasin was at a loss to explain the nature of events.

(161)   NSS:127. The policy of Nanavali was in contradiction to the attitude of Sai Baba himself. Nanavali’s harassment of Hari Vinayak Sathe was extremist, relating to a situation that was obscured, a blank partially redressed by recourse to the early magazine Sainath Prabha (SBI:247-251; NF:138-156). The extension of Nanavali’s antipathy to Upasani is quite well documented, though generally ignored in the proliferating Sai Baba literature, which increasingly tended to excuse and glamorise Nanavali as a great devotee. He was a violent man notorious for beating up hapless devotees at Shirdi; Sai Baba is reported to have warned him about his behaviour. The background of Nanavali is only partially known; there are contrasting versions of his religious identity (SBI:244-246).

(162)   NSS:124. The content of the stories recounted has escaped record. The non-reactionary tactic of Upasani is here in contrast to reported (but largely undated) episodes of his irritation with other visitors. During 1913, he was basically introverted as a consequence of intense states of expanded consciousness. In 1914, he became more aware of his environment, and apparently more resistant to intrusions. Ironically perhaps, the extremist bullying of Nanavali, which made Upasani stand up and sit down many times, is likely to have assisted the necessary process of extroversion. The supporters of Upasani would never have dared to impose such actions. This may even be a reason why Sai Baba did not prevent the interference of Nanavali. The derisive harasser apparently considered Upasani to be a madman in need of discipline. Also discrepant is the belief of a sannyasin commentator, i.e., Upasani “could not get over the impression that life was extremely bitter” (LSB:402). The unmatta state is an almost completely unknown factor.

(163)  DSS:233-234; NSS:115-116. These reports are converging, but not identical. Narasimhaswami covers the first visit of the servant, but not those of the Raja. He describes the royal gift in terms of silver plates containing fruit, nuts, and rupees, covered with costly lace. He emphasises the weeping of Upasani, opting to imply the significance of “powers” in this episode.  The commentator does not mention the basic factor that Upasani reacted to many intrusive situations at the temple with weeping and/or anger. The ascetic did not want gifts of food or money.

(164)  DSS:239. This unusual scenario makes the contact between Sai Baba and Upasani rather more colourful. Much of the early detail was lost in later accounts, to an extent which is sometimes remarkable for preferential contraction.

(165)  DSS:239. It is obvious that Hari Dixit aimed criticisms at Upasani, resenting the praise which Sai Baba expressed for the latter. Dixit is known to have been short-tempered during the early years of his commitment to Sai Baba. The faqir once told him: “If you speak ill of anyone, then immediately I feel their pain.” Dixit is said to have thereafter altered the tendency to annoyance and aggression on his part, adopting a more conciliatory role with others.

(166)  DSS:239. The translation says: “This family [of Narke] yet continued to have full regard and devotion for Maharaj and take his advice in all matters, living accordingly” (ibid). The implication is that Professor Narke himself continued to esteem Upasani. Narke does not mention the Sakori saint in his 1936 interview; however, that interview was conducted by Narasimhaswami, who was no longer partial to Upasani. Narasimhaswami deemed Narke to be an intellectual of minor importance compared to devotees like Dixit. This attitude has been considered unduly weighted by some readers. The fact is that Professor Narke expressed one of the most arresting and incisive assessments of Sai Baba, facilitated by his personal contact with the faqir (SBI:229-235).

(167) GT, 3:394. The interchange between Upasani and Hansraj, in 1924, is of interest. Talk 268 is entitled Conversation with a Sai Baba devotee. This memoir attests that Hansraj came to Sakori in a complaining mood. Despite his advanced age, he wanted to have a son. He complained of an impeding illness or weakness, tending to blame his frustration upon Upasani. The ascetic countered by saying: “You spent your youth in enjoying tea and toast and now you come here.” Upasani Baba often said that old men had wasted their early years. Hansraj now said: “I have left everything.” Upasani was evidently not impressed by this presumed detachment. Hansraj had expressed his grievances in letters to Upasani. He said that Sai Baba had ruined him by asking for dakshina. There are contradictions. Hansraj stated to Upasani; “You and Sai Baba are one and the same.” Upasani adroitly responded: “If we are the same, well, do I ask for dakshina? I never ask anybody nor give to anybody.” The visitor informed that Sai would say, if approached by a beggar: “I will give you cart-loads.” Upasani commented: “He told the truth; he used to take away the false and give the true” (GT, 3:395). Hansraj afterwards complained that Upasani did not feed “us” like Sai. Hansraj, though not a member of Sakori ashram, now wanted to stay, desiring that his “illness” should disappear. He and his wife Kashibai performed the worship of Upasani on this occasion. Hansraj nevertheless accused Upasani of “raising nice buildings” instead of feeding people like him. The ascetic responded: “Nothing remains with me, I build nothing. I just do nothing. Those that want [buildings], do all that. Not a blade of grass even remains with me” (ibid). He pointedly asked why Hansraj had departed at an earlier date, “when everything was going on well.” The behaviour of devotees was not always consistent.

(168) NSS:126; Rigopoulos 1993:195. The “high philosophy” could be interpreted as having an affinity with the Panchadashi, reflecting the silent unmatta state. The diverse recorded experiences of Upasani, at this period, are something additional to Advaita texts, which provide a doctrine frequently repeated with scant comprehension.

(169)  LSB:409. Such aspects of reporting in the Life of Sai Baba are a grave defect. Despite his status as a major commentator, Narasimhaswami had no understanding of the experiences undergone by Upasani. The pracharak was concerned to promote a devotional doctrine of his own invention. Upasani did not fit this missionary conceptualism.

(170)  Cf. DSS:243. The word "saint" is superfluous in this rendition. The decision here expressed by Sai Baba appears to have been something of a standard response in matters relating to Upasani. Such tactics perplexed and annoyed those devotees who opposed the temple dweller. Sai Baba’s habitual references to the Faqir, meaning Allah, are not in the spirit of Hinduism.

(171)  NSS:127. The version of this episode in Sage of Sakuri lacks the detail found in Desai. The Madras sannyasin is quite graphic about some events, but reductionist in relation to other occurrences. His 1950s sequel is misleading because of the abridged nature of reporting.

(172)  Desai emphasises the theme of effects being seen, in the case of Upasani, when others were given the purgative. The same editor emphasises the factor of “intoxicated” states experienced by Upasani (DSS:246). Desai tends to argue that the consumption of alcohol by others produced a form of psychic effect upon Upasani. This contention appears to be based upon a disclosure of Upasani himself. Alcohol consumption had certainly increased in India, apparently because of the European trade in liquor. Relevant is the statement: “We very well know that the distance between the earth and sky was the distance between [Upasani] Maharaj and all sorts of intoxicants, for he had never known what drink was” (DSS:245).

(173)  DSS:283-284. This information does not include any reference to the khajura described by Upasani in Talk 192. We know, from his own testimony, that he was administered this reviving paste of palm dates, which he compares to a syrup. However, there is no indication as to when he consumed khajura, nor for how long.

(174)  DSS:325ff. The enlightened view of Dr. Ganapat, and indeed the actual details of Upasani’s sojourn at the Khandoba temple, were subsequently overlooked by a number of writers on Shirdi, whose horizons were rather more limited.

(175)  DSS:329, giving a date in terms of “the 5th day of the bright half of the month of Shravann.” The date of departure from Shirdi became a subject of confusion. According to Deshmukh, that date was 15 August, 1915 (Deshmukh 1965:34). This is incorrect, possibly influenced by Upasani Lilamrita. UL is known for an error in dating the early Shirdi phase to four years from 1911. Cf. Shepherd 1986:108, also incorrect in referring to a departure “at the beginning of 1916.” One source that influenced me on this point was Deshmukh, who wrote: “It was towards the end of this period in Khandoba’s temple... that Meher Baba first came into contact with Maharaj” (Deshmukh 1965:34). Meher Baba later stated that his first contact with Upasani occurred in December 1915, at Khandoba’s temple. However, this episode occurred during a later sojourn of Upasani in Shirdi. There were several different phases of residence. The attendant chronology is still, to some extent, obscure. Cf. SBM:73, 191-2 note 212, revising the date of the first departure to 25 July, 1914, conceding this “conventional date” repeated in the version of Kalchuri et al. Cf. LM:102. Cf. LSB:423, supplying the same date of 25 July, 1914. Cf. PPM:32, which is confusing about chronology, giving no year date, but conveying the impression that Upasani left Shirdi four years after arrival in 1911. Cf. Harper 1972:43, who gives the date of July 1914. Cf. Rigopoulos 1993:201, whose very brief reference gives the date of 25 July, 1914.

(176) DSS:332. Cf. Deshmukh 1965:35, who reports: “When people used to ask Sai Baba about the sudden disappearance of [Upasani] Maharaj, Sai Baba told them that Dr. Pillay had concealed him.”

(177) KK:258. Elsewhere, Swami Sai Sharan Anand avoided the aspersion of Narasimhaswami, instead celebrating Upasani for a three year stay at Shirdi (Anand 1962). Anand had evidently woken up to the fact that Upasani had created a significant ashram for women. Cf. Parthasarathy 1996:93-95, who is strongly influenced by Narasimhaswami, to the point of acute distortion.

(178)  Sage of Sakuri features a brief but amenable report of the departure in July 1914 (NSS:130), which is basically misleading. This includes the poetic statement: “The cup of his misery was full to the brim” (ibid). That contraction sealed the “suffering saint” exegesis, uncritically repeated by academic writers like Harper and Rigopoulos, and still widely credited as the truth. The later 1950s account of the same Indian commentator inverted the data, opting for a constricting interpretation reflecting the Sai prachar cause. This version was repudiated by Meher Baba, who expressed a very different exegesis which has been generally neglected, eclipsed by the Shirdi Revival created by Narasimhaswami. No details of this appear in Rahula 2016, who mentions Meher Baba with approval but not in due context.

(179) One day he did not go begging for alms, but went to the home of Vaidya, whose wife was slow in bringing the requested food. Upasani responded to the delay by giving this woman a “thrashing,” in the presence of Vaidya, Pillai, and Chinnaswami. Rather than causing offence, this attention was considered by all present to comprise a form of blessing (DSS:340). No harm was done. Upasani generally awarded slaps to the body in these exhibitions of displeasure. The devotee attitude tends to puzzle sceptics.

(180) DSS:341. Concerning the sojourn at Shinde, a commentator wrote that Upasani “had not touched food for over two years” (CIC:26). This conventional belief is not correct; the author overlooked details found in early sources. The monitoring by Sai Baba ensured that Upasani did eat solid food (or khajura paste, to a small extent perhaps) during the latter part of his first stay at Shirdi, enough to keep him alive (this was apparently before the period of transition to liquid food). Dr. Tipnis, as he states in a footnote, was basically summarising from Narasimhaswami’s Sage of Sakuri. That 1930s source is not comprehensive.

(181)  O’Malley 1917:303. Cf. PPM:32, describing Kharagpur as being located in the Monghyr district of Bengal. That is confusing, because Monghyr (Munger) is located further west in Bihar. A variant of the town name is Khadakhpur, favoured by Desai. The population of Kharagpur swelled to 200,000 during the twentieth century.

(182) DSS:342. The ascetic characteristics of Upasani were pronounced, a factor frequently evidenced in the sources. Cf. NSS:133, for a closely comparable description: “He did not get up even once from his seat, ate and drank nothing, spoke not a word, passed no motions nor even urine, and thus demonstrated once again what powerful control he had over his muscles and nerves.”

(183) DSS:347. This episode is the most extreme of those reported at this period. The cause is obscure. According to Desai, there was no provocation. At the end of his tirade, Upasani drove Chinnaswami and his wife out of the house, although the ascetic himself also went outside. Upasani then became annoyed at the sight of a mud pot filled with auspicious red powder and other items. Such pots were a common sight, being used in a rite featuring mantras; the pots were placed in “the centre of cross-roads,” thus associated with a popular belief that enemies (or evil spirits) were deterred by this means. Whether or not Upasani was reacting to these superstitious associations, he smashed the pot with a kick, afterwards throwing the contents into a drain. He expressed a “ceaseless flow of verbal abuse,” his refrain being that the inhabitants of Kharagpur were “murderers” intending “to kill their own friends and relatives” (DSS:346-347). This outburst was later interpreted as a precognition of local high caste hostilities targeting himself and his followers at Kharagpur.

(184) The unmatta dimension was evidently still strong during his early months at Kharagpur. This factor is largely missing even in Desai, while Narasimhaswami altogether failed to cognise such complexities. The Desai version does not clearly mention unmatta in relation to 1914, but does have a reference applying to early 1915. Desai himself perhaps did not understand this difficult subject very well. The Irani source he edited is a different matter, being related to informants like Gustad Hansotia. There is no firsthand report from Dr. Pillai, a direct witness of many events.

(185) DSS:355. The Kharagpur phase is also extensively described in UL. The earlier versions of Desai and Madhav Nath remain important for comparison. Sakori na Sadguru is the only one of these works to have gained an English translation. The sojourn at Kharagpur there extends to over two hundred pages. In contrast, Narasimhaswami has less than twenty pages on that distinctive phase in his Sage of Sakuri.

(186) DSS:444. According to Kalchuri et al, the condition of Upasani at Kharagpur “was similar to that of a Brahmi-Bhoot” (LM:104). The Vedantic term was interpreted by Meher Baba as an equivalent of the Arabic/Persian word majzub (Meher Baba 1955:70, 122). Kalchuri et al say that Upasani “appeared dazed and showed no bodily effects of gross consciousness” (LM:104). This statement misses the transition that is discernible in longer accounts of the Kharagpur phase. The condition of Upasani at this period may instead answer to what Meher Baba called turiya avastha, a junction “where sometimes the super-consciousness gives the experience of the ‘I am God’ state and where sometimes super-consciousness gives the experience of the ‘I am human’ state of normal consciousness” (Meher Baba 1955:132). The objective is to integrate these alternating experiences. Even during his Shirdi phase, Upasani did not totally exhibit the characteristics of a majzub as Meher Baba defined this category.

(187) DSS:356, adapted words. The commentator says that many of Upasani’s utterances at this period seemed “incoherent and crazy,” while nevertheless impressing those who recognised him as a saint. His basic aversion to status, and to worship of his person, can appear commendable rather than backward. The expectations of visitors were frequently programmed to standard beliefs about holy men.

(188) DSS:364. Although Upasani denied any prowess in the field of punditry, this may be interpreted as a feature of modesty. According to Narasimhaswami, Upasani “was a great pandit, especially after his studies at Sangli and [his] literary efforts at Amraoti, when compared with the people at Shirdi” (LSB:390). The same commentator was a critic, and so his deference in this respect is noteworthy. Narasimhaswami also stated of Upasani: “His learning, his mastery of Sanskrit, and general information, were far superior to those of the ordinary pandit” (LSB:390). The commentator encountered Upasani during the early 1930s.

(189)  DSS:365; NSS:140-142, reporting that Upasani declared he had learnt the Gita from a Mahar girl, who first asked him to wet the holy text in gutter water, and to bathe in that water. “He faithfully obeyed her mandates” (NSS:141). This was a most unorthodox approach on the part of a Shastri, or rather ex-Shastri. The Desai version depicts Damodar Pantha as obstinate and disordered in his argument; the translation describes this visitor as a “rogue,” whereas Narasimhaswami refers to him as an official. The basic point is that Pantha arrived with conventional expectations of textual exegesis.

(190) DSS:578. According to Desai, some years later, this lady could read the entire text of the Gita without difficulty. Initially, while being barely able to read, Annapurnabai had to “literally stick letters together to form words” (ibid).

(191) DSS:373; NSS:142-143. The date of Vinayakrao’s decease is elusive. Yamunabai remained a staunch devotee of Upasani for long after.

(192) DSS:382. His banter about bathing is juxtaposed with the editorial reflection that Upasani repeatedly explained a theme to Yamunabai and her husband. Upasani gave different inflections to the subject of a generally fleeting anger of the sadguru (apparently meaning himself). Yamunabai appears to have been one source of oral reporting. Kharagpur devotees certainly transmitted numerous details of this period.

(193) DSS:383. This is an instance of two medical doctors in very different circumstances, with very different experiences of the world.  At Kharagpur, Upasani was not known as a vaidh (physician). He had blanked his past, effectively remaining incognito.

(194)  DSS:385. The mother of Sitaram Naidu was enthusiastic about serving Upasani food that she had cooked herself. She had to wait some time before this was possible, as he would not give permission. Eventually, he allowed her to make a coarse chutney from neem leaves, along with bread. He ate a little of this, then distributed the meal amongst the devotees present. On that occasion, he dramatised his new theme of no longer being a brahman.

(195)  DSS:385. The reference to shudras in this quote is ambiguous; Bhagu was a bhangi, also identified as a Mahar. The Mahar population of untouchables were mainly in Maharashtra, but also found in other regions like Gujarat and West Bengal.

(196)  Upasani asserted that Namdev had been his guru in a former incarnation. “I am in search of all those who are related to me in my last and final birth” (DSS:452). In this context, Upasani bowed to Namdev, while the other devotees present emulated his example. In response, Namdev fell at the feet of Upasani and “started crying loudly like a small child” (DSS:453). Upasani consoled him, helping Namdev to get up on his feet, “and then set aside this topic to avoid any further disturbance” (ibid).

(197)  DSS:387-388. There was evidently a considerable degree of drama in these events, with deep feelings aroused amongst brahman devotees. Upasani initiated his transfer to the hut in a mood of anger; however, a degree of calculated decision-making is also evident. He no longer wanted the amenities of high caste household, dramatising his removal to a site so rudimentary that other brahmans were shocked.

(198) Telanga was generally identified with the region of that name in Hyderabad State. Telanga (or Telangana) was the home of Telegu speakers. As a consequence of railway development, Telegu became one of the languages spoken at Kharagpur, but was more commonly found in southern regions of India. In 1956, “the Telanga region of the then Hyderabad State was merged with Andhra Pradesh” (Kumar 2013:13). Whereas the non-Telegu-speaking regions of Hyderabad State were merged with Maharashtra and Karnataka (ibid). In 2014, Telangana was awarded the status of a separate State. Telegu is often described as a Dravidian language.

(199)  DSS:427. Upasani’s Vedantic theme of “your own knowledge” is quite different to the new age message recently popular in Western countries, i.e., you are always what you are. His refrain was that the spiritual teacher is a mirror for “your own knowledge.” Upasani used a humorous story to illustrate his point, concerning the woman who removed her valuable gold and diamond nose ring, which she tied around her throat. She afterwards forgot what she had done, thinking she had lost the precious ring. She searched everywhere, becoming desperate and morose. She then found neighbours laughing at her plight. When presented with a mirror, she at last perceived the nose ring around her neck (ibid:429-430).

(200) DSS:430. Reference to “the sadguru,” in this quotation, amounts to a personal significator contradicting the abnegatory expressions employed by Upasani Maharaj. See also note 205 below.

(201)  DSS:407. Upasani afterwards recounted the story of a sadguru and differingdevotees. This takes up several pages, being of interest for the kind of parable he favoured. To what degree that story was inflated by editorial process is difficult to say. Upasani became fluent in recounting such illustrative stories throughout his life. He did not always favour discourses.

(202)  DSS:416. Upasani retained his tendency to sparse diet. During his last years, his physique grew bigger, as revealed in photographs. However, this weight increase was not caused by any over-eating.

(203)  DSS:577. Mami would daily take him a mango, but he would not eat and instead made her consume the gift. He would speak “sweetly and softly,” the words making her feel very happy. She ordered the choice mangoes from Calcutta. Upasani said that he was happy when she ate the food, because this amounted to him eating it.

(204) DSS:444. In those contrasting statements which claimed a spiritual identity, Upasani did not refer to himself as an incarnation or avatar.

(205) DSS:445. In later years, Upasani offset such negation by making assertions like: “I am the Ancient One. I am beyond Duality and Non-Duality. I am neither bound nor liberated. I am in the world, but not of it” (Tipnis 1988:14). The phrase “Ancient One” was also used by Meher Baba. The version of Upasani is commemorated in Talk 214, entitled The Purana State, which includes the assertion: “One who has attained the state of Purana [ancient] Purusha is called satpurusha” (GT, 1:617). Satpurusha was a favoured term of Upasani, but is not found in the output of Meher Baba. In Talk 126, Upasani says: “The shastras name God as Purana-Purusha. Purana means the ancient – the old -- the oldest. God is never called as a modern – as a new Purusha” (GT, 2:529).

(206)  DSS:452. On that same occasion, Upasani disclosed that the mahar Namdev had been his guru in a former incarnation. Namdev was apparently the entity signified in the reference to a guru who had taught him (Upasani) only four letters in four years.

(207) DSS:444. This disclosure can be interpreted in terms of the sahaja state which had superseded the dislocation formerly evident in his responses. Such states are not well known, despite many popular references.

(208)  Sharma 1995:51-52; Srivastava 1997:15, 21.

(209) Shyamlal 1992:23-25. A relevant quotation is: “Most of the bhangis of West Bengal come from Bihar” (Thekaekara 1999:30). Bengal lacked a community of scavengers, a situation leading to measures taken during the British colonial era to import bhangis from other regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Bihar (Bagchi and Mitra 2017:156). Bhangis became part of the Scheduled Castes, eventually being listed with Mehtars, Methars, and Haris under the same serial number by the Government of West Bengal in 2013 (ibid:154-155).

(210)  DSS:495. The translation says: “They [the bhangis] are not my first cousins, and neither are any of them my men or followers, and nor are they even remotely of my caste! What they are is what you know; they clean your waste, pick up your excreta, and eat what they gain. It is hence that they are called halaalkhor” (DSS:495). The meaning applied here to halalkhor, by the translator, is “scavenger, honest worker” (ibid). Relevant is the emphasis of Upasani: “I do not allow any of them [bhangis] to clean my waste, I do it myself” (ibid). Upasani was here talking to a brahman householder devotee who, the next day, organised a feast for nearly four hundred bhangis. “How can I refuse any if they [brahmans] want to feed them [bhangis]?” (ibid).  This loaded reflection of Upasani was a strong indicator that he wanted high caste devotees to aid the untouchables, without needing to gain his permission.

(211)  DSS:573. Several years later, Upasani reminisced about his labours in Talk 10: “At Khadgapur [Kharagpur] I had to clear the latrines, carry the night soil, sweep the streets and gutters, draw the water from wells, wash the clothes, grind the flour, stay with the untouchables, and so on” (GT, 2:67). In this discourse of December 1923, he described the manual activity in terms of a need “to wash away my sins, and thus remove the covering they had formed on my soul” (GT, 2:67). Other purposes are also implicit in the voluntary activity.

(212)  His basic toilet procedure fitted his locale. During his residence at the colony, Upasani used his wooden begging bowl for defecatory purposes. Upasani would wash this bowl before seeking alms. If water was not available, he would use mud for the purpose of cleaning. He would wash the begging bowl more thoroughly on occasions when food remains were distributed from that same utensil to a few eager devotees (DSS:489), meaning Lakshmibai and some other brahman women. These habits seem startling to contemporary ideas of hygiene, but were far less dramatic in the bhangi environment. Most Westerners today (and many Indians) would scarcely be able to envisage the conditions in which so many untouchables lived at that period. For instance, fresh water was too frequently not available; the depressed population were banned from public wells, being expected to obtain water from muddy pools. Desai opines that Upasani “was unaware as to the difference between food and waste” (DSS:489). This surmisal is contradicted by the washing of the begging bowl. In general, the year 1915 strongly indicates a return to normal consciousness and reflex in this instance. The precise juncture of resolution is not known.

(213) DSS:457. The frequent banter of Upasani about this matter was evidently calculated to arouse reactions from brahman devotees, causing them to reflect deeply on the situation confronting them, also evoking a determination to copy him in defiance of caste rules. 

(214)  DSS:577. Mami transpired to be one of the most loyal devotees, becoming well known during the Sakori ashram phase.

(215)  DSS:578. This type of event is attributed by materialist sceptics to a form of physical defect or emotional instability. Other explanations are possible. One example of “blanking out” occurred in the instance of Yeshwant J. Galvankar at Shirdi, while in the presence of Sai Baba (SBI:277-78).

(216)  DSS:461. This issue was complex. Upasani evidently wanted high caste people to organise feasts for the poor. However, he did not wish them to do this merely because he gave a directive. Upasani was also no doubt aware of possible retaliation from caste insularists.  A strong resistance from high caste critics did complicate the situation at Kharagpur, eventually becoming oppressive.

(217)  DSS:463. This emphasis became integral to his teaching. Feeding the poor was considered by Upasani to be a meritorious act conducive to the desired accumulation of punya, a word sometimes translated as virtue, but also meaning purification of the soul. The opposite of punya is papa, sometimes translated as vice, but actually meaning much more, including the affliction and harassment of others by the wrongdoer.

(218)  DSS:481. This family were evidently Sikhs. The grim episode of chilli powder is unique in the accounts of Upasani. Sore eyes are one of the ailments featuring in a list of sufferings that befell untouchable Mahars, i.e., being reduced to begging, wearing clothes taken from corpses, eating from broken clay pots, eating food unfit even for animals, sitting on a dung heap (Rao 2009:45). The lifestyle of Upasani Maharaj, at this period, bears a strong resemblance to such outcaste tribulations. He appears to have invited situations offsetting his caste status. According to Godamasuta, at Kharagpur Upasani “stayed with Mahars, Mangs, Bhangis and other untouchables” (GLS:11).

(219) DSS:570-572. Desai enlivens this account with an anecdote about Muslim pilgrims. The prescription of Upasani, for blacking his face, was reminiscent to some women devotees of a punishment for criminals in former times.

(220)  DSS:483. According to Desai, this development of sharing bhangi food represented “one of the last states of experiencing non-duality” (ibid). It was certainly a very strong social gesture of defying caste barriers. 

(221)  DSS:482. On that occasion, his women devotees gave clothing and sweets to bhangi women, evidently with his approval. “Never before in Khadakpur [Kharagpur] had such an event taken place” (DSS:482). “Most of the Hindu women of Khadakpur had assembled there” for the festival. At this time, a bhangi girl was observed to eat some food after begging. This was stale rice and curry, not very edifying. Upasani asked her for a portion of this food. The girl eventually agreed; Upasani ate the food she proffered. He evidently attached significance to this event, as from then onwards, he began to eat during the day, but only taking food which bhangis had begged. Coconut pieces are mentioned (ibid). This is further confirmation of his unusual empathy with bhangis.

(222)  DSS:483. Sitabai and her husband Rambhau Ampti were the prime movers in launching a bhandara (feast) at this juncture. Sitabai industriously “cleaned the entire settlement,” with other high caste women coming to assist; that must have been a daunting project. These women brought wood and made a cooking fire. Sitabai declared her belief that Upasani was Shankar (Shiva). She resolved upon the “vow of 16 Mondays,” meaning four months of Solah Samvar Vrata, subsequently carried to completion.

(223)  DSS:484. These events, of jesting in such a very serious situation of social innovation, seem to have been unique. Sitabai and her female colleagues were instrumental in securing male participation.

(224) DSS:485. At this same period, Upasani narrated a story concerning the interactions of a sadguru with petitioners, who were told to come back after twelve years. The purport is described in terms of: “A sadguru sees that whosoever interacts with him are all uplifted into being great and worthy from the lousy and low states that they are in” (DSS:487). The consideration evidently extended to bhangis.

(225)  DSS:497. The verse from the Gita is well known. The “mumbling” of Upasani may not have been intelligible to persons unable to speak Sanskrit.

(226)  DSS:498. The translation has the word “sweeper,” which I have replaced with bhangi.  The gifts were brought by Mama Guard, one of the upper caste devotees who organised bhandaras. This man afterwards removed all ornaments from his person, placing these at the feet of Upasani, who declined and told Guard to take back the ornaments. Upasani commented that if he was forced to accept the ornaments, he would distribute these amongst the bhangis. Mama Guard then remarked that Upasani could give the items away to anyone he wanted. Mami, the wife of Guard, was afterwards asked by Upasani to give the ornaments to Bhagu, the bhangi

(227)  DSS:573. This early report describes how, when the feast was over, brahmans had to transport the remnant food. This task apparently involved minor infringements of caste rules, in the presence of Upasani. Desai informs that Upasani would encourage such situations of infringement, only afterwards expressing a caution. He pointed out that his devotees now accepted his divine status; therefore, if any infringement of caste rules occurred, the “sin” would not hinder them from progress. He gave the accompanying warning that if they committed such infringements without his instructions being in process, then they would have to cope with the consequences of an adverse karma.

(228)  DSS:573. This solicitude for bhangi women is remarkable in view of the general indifferent attitude of his caste, who scrupulously avoided untouchables.

(229) DSS:500. According to Purdom, Upasani gained scores of Indian Christian followers at Kharagpur. That version also refers to thousands of Hindu devotees, and hundreds of Muslim devotees (PPM:32). These figures were repeated in Shepherd 1986:113, with the description supplied of “visitors” as distinct from devotees. The figures for Hindu and Muslim devotees are high, and seem exaggerated. The truth would seem nearer to hundreds and scores respectively. However, very little detail exists about the Muslims involved. Transmitters of the early reporting were mostly Hindus and Zoroastrians.

(230) DSS:501. The report is evocative of a transcendent aspect of Upasani Maharaj, particularly visible at that period of his life, while he was still undergoing a transition which is difficult to describe.

(231)  DSS:501. Soon afterwards, Upasani related a story about an eccentric saint who was initially discounted by observers. Upasani then sat on “the lid of a waste pipe,” in a foul-smelling environment. He wanted to be left alone, but eventually ate the food brought to him by devotees in this new offputting location. Only then would he return to the bhangi colony (DSS:502-503).

(232)  DSS:508-509. This episode is not easy to explain. The resolute attitude of Raosaheb is perhaps reminiscent of an event at Shirdi in which Gustad Hansotia was the recipient of blows from Sai Baba (Irani 2017:42). Such an attitude was not necessarily preferred by the teacher. Desai describes the behaviour of Raosaheb as stubborn, reporting that the beating by Upasani was severe. There are probably missing details that would throw light upon discrepancies. Upasani evidently respected Swami Samarth, who had become famous. This figure is associated with the early years of Sai Baba (SBI:46-47, 93-96).

(233)  DSS:511. Cf. NSS:183, who describes the experience of Sonabai in terms of the world disappearing, leaving her in a state of bliss.

(234) At this juncture, Vinayakrao Singvekar appeared with his own items of worship. Upasani now allowed this worship, although reservedly. He was not in the mood for puja. Vinayakrao was also prominently involved in arrangements for the feast; he requested Upasani to distribute the food prepared for the bhandara. The attitude of the saint became: “Do as you please.” He was not inclined to participate, instead walking away from the scene, wishing to be left alone. Vinayakrao and his brother then pursued Upasani. The forthright ascetic asserted that he would thrash them if they did not return to the feast. The two devotees responded that they were prepared for chastisement, but still wanted him to distribute food (DSS:506-507). Upasani gradually relented. There was no thrashing.

(235) DSS:542; GT, 2:530-531. Talk 126, dating to September 1924, is far more comprehensive than Desai in relation to this episode. There are differences in the reports, which are basically convergent. Upasani informs that the filthy water poured over him “looked obviously so dirty; but as it passed over my body it looked to be crystal clear like the real Ganga” (GT, 2:531). Uncharacteristically, he describes this event as “the miracle seen by all” (ibid). Guard Mama, and his wife Mami, were present on the occasion of this discourse at Sakori in 1924. Upasani then commented approvingly: “This couple is always ready for any work; they are really devoted” (GT, 2:530). In the Talks, Upasani refers to Kharagpur as Khadagpura. Guard Mama and Mami were apparently the persons who carried out the wishes of Upasani on Haratalika Day in 1924, bringing sand to cover his body in celebration of Shiva. These two followers had grasped that Upasani wanted his instructions promptly obeyed at such times.

(236)  DSS:509-510. Cf. NSS:144, who describes Shridhar Pant as a devotee, not a critic. When Shridhar fell ill, he could not walk to the quarters of Upasani, who frequently sent word that he would come. Eventually, Upasani sent word that he was in the sick room with the patient. Shridhar then saw Upasani appear in the sick room and “died intently thinking of Maharaj.” Narasimhaswami views this event in terms of a Gita ideal, quoting the advice of Krishna to Arjuna: “If one thinks upon me alone at the time of leaving the body, he surely will come to me” (NSS:143).

(237)  DSS:512-514. The Muslims are not named. The visiting lady said of her husband: “He is certain and believes with full trust that you have achieved full non-distinction [unity] with Allah” (DSS:513). The day of her visit was a festival day of Islam. She spoke in Urdu, a language not unfamiliar to Upasani.

(238)  DSS:514. This group are anonymous, nevertheless comprising a testimony to the Muslim interest in the subject. Upasani related to them a lengthy anecdote of his early years when, as a wanderer in a strange town, he was befriended by an elderly Muslim woman who inspired him with interreligious talks relating to Ram and Rahim (DSS:515-518).

(239)  DSS:515. This exchange involved alternate puffs at the same cigarette from Upasani and the unnamed Muslim. This episode is quite sufficient to dispel any mistaken idea of Upasani as a caste conscious brahman. His general antipathy to smoking was in conformity with traditional attitudes of his caste. In contrast to Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani did not smoke tobacco. However, he did not cordon Muslims, unlike many other high caste Hindus.

(240)  In another episode occurring that year, Upasani likewise found a picture of Ramakrishna in the worship room at the home of Vinayakrao. He similarly lifted up the picture, gazed at it reverently, afterwards carefully putting the item back in place. This occurred during a nocturnal visit to the home of devotee Vinayakrao, during the bhangi colony phase (DSS:556). By that time, Ramakrishna was famous in Bengal, his image being promoted by the Ramakrishna Order.

(241)  DSS:558-559. Upasani could not have undertaken these nocturnal visits when he first arrived at Kharagpur. His orientation had changed, part of a process so difficult to chart.