The Shirdi Sai Baba movement began in the 19th century, while he was living in Shirdi. A local Khandoba priest - Mhalsapati Nagre - is believed to have been his first devotee. In the 19th century Sai Baba's followers were only a small group of Shirdi inhabitants and a few people from other parts of India. The movement started developing in the 20th century, with Sai Baba's message reaching the whole of India.During his life, Hindus worshiped him with Hindu rituals and Muslims considered him to be a saint. In the last years of Sai Baba's life,Christians and Zoroastrians started joining the Shirdi Sai Baba movement.
Shirdi is among the major Hindu places of pilgrimage. The first Sai Baba temple is situated at Bhivpuri, Karjat. The Sai Baba Mandir (Hindu temple) in Shirdi is visited by around twenty thousand pilgrims a day and during religious festivals this number can reach up to a hundred thousand. Shirdi Sai Baba is especially revered and worshiped in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat.
The Shirdi Sai movement has spread to the Caribbean and to countries such as the United States, Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The Shirdi Sai Baba movement is one of the main Hindu religious movements in English-speaking countries.
Sai Baba had many disciples and devotees:
- Nana Saheb Chandorkar: Deputy Collector – legend has it that Sai Baba saved this man's daughter from labor complications.
- Ganapath Rao: police constable who resigned to become an ascetic,and also know as DasGanu, He was an itinerant who spread Sai Baba's message.
- Tatya Patil: had immense faith in Sai Baba and served him until Sai Baba took samadhi. He is also known to be Sai Baba's younger brother.
- Bhaija Bhai kote patil: Sai Baba treated her as his mother.
- Haji Abdul baba: He served Sai Baba until Sai Baba died in 1918.
- Madhav Rao Deshpande: Later known as Shama, one of the staunch devotees of Sai Baba.
- Govindrao Raghunath Dabholkar (Hemadpant): Sai Baba allowed him to write the Shri Sai Satcharita.
- Mahalsapati Chimanji Nagare : A priest of Khandoba Temple.
Sai Baba's millions of disciples and devotees believe that he performed many miracles such as bilocation, levitation, mindreading,materialization, exorcisms, making the river Yamuna, entering a state of Samādhi at will, removing his limbs or intestines and sticking them back to his body (Khanda Yoga), curing the incurably sick, appearing beaten when another was beaten, appearing in the flesh after death, preventing a mosque from falling down on people, and helping his devotees in a miraculous way.
According to his followers he appeared to them in dreams after his death, and gave them advice. His devotees have documented many stories.
Biographers of Sai Baba (e.g. Govindrao Raghunath Dabholkar, Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja, Smriti Srinivas, Antonio Rigopolous) have based their writing on primary sources. One such source is the Shirdi Diary by Ganesh Shrikrishna Khaparde, which describes every day of the author's stay at Shirdi.
Speculation about the unknown episodes of Sai Baba's life are primarily based on his own words.
The most important source about Sai's life is the Shri Sai Satcharita, written in Marathi in 1916 by Govindrao Raghunath Dabholkar, whom Sai Baba nicknamed Hemadpant. Consisting of 53 chapters, it describes Sai Baba's life, teachings, and miracles. The book compares Sai Baba's love to a mother's love: caring and loving, but reprimanding when needed. It describes Baba's lifestyle, his selfless attitude, and his love for his devotees. The book describes how one should surrender one's egoism at God's feet and trust one's guru. It explains how God is supreme and His devotees should trust Him and love Him. It teaches that God is omnipresent in all living things, so that everything on Earth must be treated with love and respect.
Sri Sai Baba and His Teachings by Acharya Ekkirala Bharadwaja is an in-depth study of Sai Baba's life routine and activities. B.V. Narasimhaswamiji has written important books such as Sri Sai Baba's Charters and Sayings and Devotee's Experiences of Sai Baba.
In various religions
Sai Baba depicted on a tapestry
During Sai Baba's life, the Hindu saint Anandanath of Yewala declared Sai Baba a spiritual "diamond". Another saint, Gangagir, called him a "jewel". Sri Beedkar Maharaj greatly revered Sai Baba, and in 1873, when he met him he bestowed the title Jagadguru upon him. Sai Baba was also greatly respected by Vasudevananda Saraswati (known as Tembye Swami). He was also revered by a group of Shaivic yogis, to which he belonged, known as the Nath-Panchayat.
In Islam, Sai Baba mainly appears in Sufism as a Pir. Meher Baba declared Baba to be a Qutub-e-Irshad - the highest of the five Qutubs, a "Master of the Universe" in the spiritual hierarchy. Sai Baba is also worshipped by prominent Zoroastrians such as Nanabhoy Palkhivala and Homi Bhabha, and has been cited as the Zoroastrians' most popular non-Zoroastrian religious figure.
Meher Baba met Sai Baba only once in his lifetime, during World War I, in December 1915. Meher Baba was still a youngster named Merwan Sheriar Irani when he met Sai Baba for a few minutes during one of Sai Baba's processions in Shirdi. This event is considered as the most significant in Meher Baba's life. Shri Sai Satcharita (Sai Baba's life story), makes no mention of Meher Baba. But inLord Meher, the life story of Meher Baba, there are innumerable references to Sai Baba. Meher Baba credited his Avataric advent to Upasni, Sai Baba, and three other Perfect Masters – Hazrat Babajan, Hazrat Tajuddin Baba, andNarayan Maharaj.
Sai Baba left behind no spiritual heirs and appointed no disciples, and did not even provide formal initiation (diksha), despite requests. Some disciples of Sai Baba achieved fame as spiritual figures, such as Upasni Maharaj of Sakori. After Sai Baba took Mahasamadhi, his devotees offered the daily Aarti to Upasani Maharaj when he paid a visit to Shirdi, two times within 10 years.
Sacred art and architecture
In India, its a common sight to find a Sai Baba temple in any city or town, in every large city or town there is at least one temple dedicated to Sai Baba. There are even some in towns and cities outside India. In the mosque in Shirdi in which Sai Baba lived, there is a life-size portrait of him by Shama Rao Jaykar, an artist from Mumbai. Numerous monuments and statues depicting Sai Baba, which serve a religious function, have also been made. One of them, made of marble by a sculptor named Balaji Vasant Talim, is in the Samadhi Mandir in Shirdi where Sai Baba was buried. In Sai Baba temples, his devotees play various kinds of devotional religious music, such as aarti.