An explanation about the role and greatness of Shri Sai of Shirdi would remain incomplete without the understanding of the life of Kashinath Govind Upasani Sastri, who later came to be known as ‘Shri Upasani Maharaj’. Shri Sai’s deeds and life was full of miracles, but the greatest miracle was His creation of this once inconsequential person to the status of a Sadguru within a period of four years! The methods used by Shri Sai to completely transform Kashinath Sastri, the pain taken by him to protect the neophyte and the assurance with which he grew this unsure and confused disciple to the state of a Perfect Master, would indicate where in the spiritual hierarchy of this world Shri Sai remains.
Born on 5th may, 1870 at Satana, Maharashtra (in India), Kashinath did not exhibit traits of a normal child from the beginning, although his deviations did not indicate existence of any super-intelligence or excellence in him. He held extremely strong views about two vital aspects of life when in his teens.
First, he declared that the formalized educational learning was only for bread winning and, therefore, after doing three years in a vernacular elementary school left it; merciless canning by his teacher becoming the immediate cause of such realization. Secondly, he hated and condemned the body (i.e. his own body) as the creator of limitations and pain in life. He spent all his time doing in Asans (exercises as per Yoga), Pranayama (Breath control exercises), repetition of mantras etc. With such an attitude he could earn nothing and for his family members he was a problem child. To make matters worse, he was married with the hope that his ways would change. Old habits die hard. Not only did Kashinath not change, but also a few months after marriage he ran away from home (at the Dhulia district in Maharashtra) leaving a departing note and reached Nasik. However, two months later anxiety about the plight of his parents compelled him to return home. Shortly thereafter his wife expired, but before the cup of sorrow could be emptied, Kashinath, now fifteen was got married second time. To earn livelihood he went to places like Pune and could not find a job because of the absence of any formal education. At times he did menial work for others and at other times, he took to begging. He was in a miserable state of life. Sometimes, he even had to sleep on footpaths (sideways) and live only on Margosa (Neem) leaves.
During this period of trials and tribulations, he met a saint who impressed upon him the virtues of Brahmacharya (celibacy). Leaving Pune he went to a place called Kalyan where he restored to begging as a means of livelihood, often quenching his hunger only by drinking water. A few days later, frustrated and exhausted, he decided to return home moving through Nasik. He reached home at Satana in July 1890. Soon after his father passed away. To earn livelihood, he practiced medicine for some time, followed by a job of a Malgujari (tax collector for the king or ruler). However, he failed in all the material ventures he undertook. His health also deteriorated substantially due to neglect and lack of comforts. While practicing Pranayama (Breath control exercises), his breath-cycle also got disturbed. Even his sleep, digestion and evacuation systems got difficult. All efforts of medical and religious having failed, he tried to get occult help of a Yogi. A Yogi called Yogi Kulkarni whom he met at Rahuri told him that Kashinath had entered a high yogic state and therefore, must take the help of Shri Sai Baba of Shirdi. Presuming Shri Sai to be a Moslem, Kashinath did not take the advice seriously. One day when Kashinath was walking in the streets of Rahuri, an old man approached him to take hot water as a curative measure and to avoid taking cold water. Kashinath did not take this unsolicited advice given by a unknown person but continued his search for a Hindu Yogi. While on such a move, at a certain place called Jajuri, he went into a Samadhi state while sitting in a lonely place surrounded by prickly-pear bush. When he awoke, he felt very thirsty and went to the stream nearby to drink water. At that time the same old man re-appeared from nowhere. He repeated his advice in an angry tone and disappeared suddenly. Kashinath took his advice (this time) seriously and found sudden relief. In a short time his health became all right by this hot-water therapy. Then he went to meet Narayan Maharaj of Kedgaon a famous Saint. On his way back he again met Yogi Kulkarni at Rahuri who again insisted upon him to meet Sai Baba, as Shirdi was on the way. Ultimately Kashinath came to Shirdi and met Shri Sai on 27th June 1911. Little did he realize at that time that he had met his Sadguru (Master) and that the course of his life would undergo complete thereafter.
After staying at Shirdi for about two or three days, Kashinath wanted to leave for home. Obviously he had been wishing for a happy union with his family members and to live with them happily ever after. However, Sai would not agree. Everyone in Shirdi knew that if Shri Sai did not permit one to leave Shirdi, there must be something more to it. Those who disobeyed faced problems, which could have been avoided, had they heeded to the words of Shri Sai. When Kashinath pleaded vehemently, Shri Sai ultimately permitted him on the condition that he (Kashinath) should return to Shirdi in eight days. Kashinath, at that time, not having full faith in Sai, started worrying and fretting as eight days was too short a time. Sai knowing his mental state told him “well, go if you like, I will see what can I do.” Very happy at the prospect of going home he made a quick departure. However, strangely enough, moving from place to place, he reached Kopergaon (a village 8 miles away from Shirdi) on the eighth day. He was utterly confused and did not know that as to how in eight days of continuous walking he could only cover eight miles. Willy-nilly from Kopergaon, he came to Shirdi with a group of pilgrims and met Shri Sai again.
When he bowed before Shri Sai, the latter asked him
Sai : “So You have come, when did you leave this place?”
Kashinath : “Thursday”
Sai : “ At what time?”
Kashinath : “At Three”
Sai : “What day of the week is this?”
Kashinath : “Thursday.”
Sai : “How long since you left?”
Kashinath : “A week. To-day is the eighth day”.
Sai : “That’s it. When you left, you protested that you could not return within eight days!”
Kashinath : “I do not know how this has happened. It is all your doing”.
Sai : “Man, I was behind you all these eight days. Now go and stay in that wada” (i.e. Kaka Saheb’s, where visitors of Shri Sai usually stayed. ‘Wada’ means a building within a compound)
From that day onwards Kashinath was put on probation by Shri Sai who asked him to stay in the wada (a place where the other pilgrims were put up). Kashinath attempted to understand Sai by starting to enquire from other devotees and observation of His daily activities. On one day, Sai as usual narrated a peculiar story in the form of a self-experience to the assembled devotees. He said that once he met an emaciated and pregnant woman whom he advised to take only hot water and avoid cold-water, so that the child could be delivered early. She did not heed His advice but went on to drink cold water. He again came and advised the lady not to take cold water but to take hot water only. When she started to take hot water, she delivered the child. While narrating the story Shri Sai pointed frequently at Kashinath, who was convinced that it was Shri Sai who had appeared at two places to save him. Love and gratitude engulfed him so much that he started crying. Sai told him clearly that he and Kashinath had Rinanubandha (Karmic obligations of the past, including the previous births) for many centuries.
To protect Kashinath from all external factors that effect spiritual growth, Sai asked him to go and sit in Khandoba Temple and do nothing so that Sai would be able to do whatever he wills to do i.e. to work within Kashinath and evolve him. Sai told Kashinath that Khandoba’s (Lord Shiva) full grace will come on him after a period of four years.
Like a mother protecting its child from the on-slaughts of nature and people around even at the cost of her own life, Shri Sai protected Kashinath whole-heartedly and openly. Before the assemblage of jealous devotees who asked about the reason of His extreme grace He said, “yes, yes, everything has been given, whatever he is, good or bad, he is mine. There is no distinction between him and me. Now, the whole responsibility for him rests with me.” Kashinath still could not understand the import of the words of Shri Sai. To further indicate his future, Sai said “wherever you are, you are God – You will realize everything.”
The grace of the Sadguru is immeasurable. It is said that whereas a touch stone can change a stone to gold by mere touch, the Sadguru (Perfect Master) is such a touch-stone who can convert a stone (disciple) to a touch-stone i.e. to His own state (Perfect Master). The Sadguru, at this stage is responsible for everything, good or evil, done by the pupil. At this stage, the Sadguru virtually remains at the mercy of the disciple. By this total sacrifice of Himself, the Sadguru evolves the disciple to a state of perfection i.e. His own state. Shri Sai, once told one of His close-associates that the endeavor should be to create these perfect men so that they can, in turn, spiritually uplift thousands and millions of other souls from the state of Jivatma (bonded souls) to the state of Shivatma (Perfect souls). To evolve Kashinath was no easy task for Shri Sai. It is said that the difference in the state of consciousness between a stone and an ordinary man is what is the difference between an ordinary man and a Sadguru. Like a man turning a piece of stone by the use of hammer, chisel to a beautiful piece of sculpture, the Sadguru can change a gross individual to that of a perfect soul. This is what Shri Sai was trying to do on Kashinath. The methods he used were, sometimes, harsh from the point of view of Kashinath, but, none the less were meant for his evolution to that perfect state only.
To begin his work Sai told Kashinath “Sit quiet, somehow. Have nothing to do with anyone”. Sai wanted Kashinath not to create further ‘Samskaras’ or impressions for himself in attachment with other people but to draw his mind inwards. As he followed the master, a series of mystic reactions happened in Kashinath and around him.
To make Kashinath realize that, his Guru (Shri Sai) was present in every living being irrespective of the species, He once told Kashinath that he would one day visit Khandoba temple (where Kashinath used to stay). He further said that would Kashinath recognize Him, He would have chillum (earthen pipe for smoking) with him. About two or three months later Kashinath was taking some food to his Guru (Sai, who was sitting at the DwarkaMai mosque). A black dog who had been watching Kashinath while cooking, followed him. Without giving any food to the dog, Kashinath went straight to Sai, who said, “why did you take the trouble to bring the food here, in this hot sun. I was sitting there (i.e. near the temple)”. Kashinath was shocked to hear that his Guru was at the temple and he did not know. He told Sai that there was none in the temple except a black dog. At that, Sai said ‘yes, yes, I was that dog”. Hearing this Kashinath could not stop crying and resolved never again to commit such a blunder. On the next day, while cooking, he watched around cautiously lest the dog would come again. The dog was no where to be seen. A shudra (lower-caste) beggar was found leaning against a wall and watching him cook. Kashinath the Brahmin (Uppermost-caste) grown in the orthodox tradition, immediately asked him to go away. Later when he approached Sai, the latter asked him “yesterday you did not give me food and today you also ordered me not to stand there and drove me away. Do not bring food for me hereafter”. Again Kashinath was surprised and again he was told that ‘shudra’ was Sai Himself. These two lessons taught Kashinath that God and Shri Sai are in everything, and that the essence of God pervades everyone and everything.
On the Gurupurnima day (Ashadha full moon day) of 1913, Shri Sai asked a devotee Chandrabai, a strong willed lady to worship Kashinath the way Sai was being worshipped. This lady approached Kashinath in Khandoba temple with the Puja (worship) material for his worship. Kashinath refused to be worshipped and, even, threatened her for her audacious act. But Chandrabai told him (the language of Sai said through her) that even his body, which he thought was being worshipped, did not belong to him. From this day onwards Kashinath was called as Upasani Maharaj as officially Sai installed him as a Guru even in his probation period. After this incident, he started losing the sense of his body (Dehabhava).
Now Upasani Maharaj started having visions and feelings of a highly psychic and spiritual nature. For example, he lost his normal vision by looking at the sun constantly. The sun and other light sources looked dark to him. When in this state, one day, he suddenly started seeing circles of light, which expanded and then came near him. These circular specks of light would disappear coming near his body. Now he started seeing spiritual visions inside these circles of light. One day he saw himself standing at some place in the space and saw the whole cosmos including the sun, moon, sky revolving. The whirling cosmos slowly became smaller and smaller, came towards him, and vanished near him or into him. Upasani Maharaj now experienced that the whole world was illusory and revolving and that he, as a soul, was outside it. This was a higher stage in his spiritual growth.
From his childhood Upasani Maharaj had identified the body as the cause of all evils in life and had made conscious attempts to punish it. For a spiritual aspirant identifying the body with the self is a big limitation. How Shri Sai removed it is an interesting story. One day Upasani Maharaj saw a vision that in an old building he (Upasani) and Sai were there. Shri Sai beckoned him to bring his ear close to his (Sai) mouth so that he could give a mantra. When Upasani Maharaj tried to do so, a shabby figure, which looked exactly like him tried to pull Maharaj away from Sai. Then Sai beat-up that shabby figure carried him out and burnt him in a pyre. Identifying himself with this figure when Upasani complained about this action (of burning). Shri Sai told him that it was his (Maharaj’s) evil form, which has been burnt. Little later, he saw an illuminated figure of himself. Again on being asked, Sai said that it was his (Maharaj’s) virtuous form. Maharaj was surprised and asked if he had an evil form and also a virtuous form who was he! Shri Sai told him that he was beyond both these forms and was the pure soul the element with which Shri Sai himself was made of.
As Upasani Maharaj proceeded from the stage of illumination to self-realization occult powers and ‘siddhis’ came to him. When an aspirant evolves in the spiritual path higher psychic and occult powers gradually grow in him. He could read the minds of everyone – his past, present and future. People started surrounding him and he had some following.
Often, when he would be worshipped by a few persons, a crazy ascetic called Nanavali, who stayed at Shirdi, would come and pull out his cloth and talk with him with disrespect and contempt. Once he tied him up and beat him up. As Nanavali was a tough and dangerous person, no one could protect Upasani Maharaj. His cup of sorrow was full but inwardly his Godly qualities were evolving to perfection. He was getting ready for his new and bigger role. Every time he faced a problem, Sai assured him by saying that He (Sai) was always with him and that the more he suffered at present, better it would be for his future.
One night in July 1914 Upasani Maharaj left Shirdi quietly taking mental permission from his Guru for a role he was destined to play elsewhere. First he went to a place called Shindi, then to Nagpur where he stayed for about a month and finally Kharagpur. At all these places, people started worshipping him even when he tried fervently to run-away from such situations. He tried to remain incognito but people would not leave him in peace. At Kharagpur, he deliberately stayed in a dirty condition and used filthy articles and even abused people in most unparliamentary language that he could. People followed him everywhere and conducted his Puja (worship) and demanded advice out of him. When a flower blooms and its aroma spreads, butterflies and insects naturally get drawn towards it.
Same was the case with Upasanji Maharaj. Since he had become a ‘Satpurush’ (Perfect one) people naturally flocked to him whether he liked it or not. All persons coming in contact with a Satpurush get purified. His following increased everyday and his surroundings became a place of activities like poor feeding, kirtan and ‘Naamjap’ remembrance of the name etc. Although Upasani Maharaj would not agree to be the creator, but a number of miracles started happening around him. After staying for about a year in Kharagpur, when people tried to build a permanent abode for him, he quickly left the place. Soon he reached Nagpur, where also, people surrounded to have his darshan. After two months of stay at Nagpur, he visited places like Poona and also his home at Satana. As his four-year period was over, he returned to Shridi and stayed at Khandoba temple for about seven months. Thereafter, he left for a place called Rahata where he conducted naam japs, poor feeding etc. From there he went to Ahmedabad for some time. Returning to Shirdi, a third time he stayed near to his Guru for about two to three months. In 1917, he finally shifted to Sakori and started functioning as a spiritual master (Sadguru).
This child of Shri Sai served thousands and thousands of people, day in and day out with least regard for his personal comforts and finally left his gross body in the early hours of the 24th day of December, in the year 1941. Like his Guru, Upasani Baba had given enough indications about his final departure earlier.
Upasani Baba was Shri Sai’s loftiest creation a stone turned into a touchstone.