Again and again during his eventful pilgrimage on earth, the Master exhorted his devotees to spend all their time, energy and thought in knowing the self. Steady and disciplined inherence in the self was what he always advocated. After all, the most fundamental thought in the mind of every individual is the thought of ‘I’ and ‘Me’. Therefore, it is only through a concentrated self-enquiry that one can arrive at the Truth -- thus taught the Master. That is why he repeatedly said, “Who am I, think, always think about this”. “We have only to see the self”, he said once to a devotee, “and the rest becomes revealed.”

It used to be the custom in those days in Shirdi for devotees to go to Baba, on particular occasions, each with a religious book in his hand, in order to invoke the Sage’s blessing on that particular work which the devotee found inspiring. On one such occasion a certain devotee went empty handed. Instead of rebuking him, as was expected by those present, Baba on the contrary turned to this devotee with a radiant smile and told him that he was wise, for it was not by reading pages and pages from the Shastras that a man could assimilate wisdom. True wisdom lay in one’s own atma. Even in order to understand what meditation is, one must first and foremost understand the meditator. If man is mass of contradictions and conflicts internally, how can he assimilate anything from the outside! The impression of a confused and unintegrated person would necessarily be confused and unreliable. This was one example of the Master’s teaching.

Such preoccupation with the self leads one in time to realize that the self is identical with God. Baba felt that by constantly regarding oneself as God, the importance that one unconsciously gives to the changing and mutable qualities of the Jiva would be given up. Man’s attention would then be focused on that which is changeless. According to Sai Guru this process of identifying oneself with the supreme Being can be greatly strengthened by contact with saints.

When people quarreled and fought, Baba’s favorite method of chiding them was asking them a counter question, “Who is quarreling with whom”, he asked, “Just think of that.” What the Master wished to emphasize was that if we see God in every place and in everyone, then we would have no scope left for hatred and dissension. “Therefore, let none hate and let none forget that I, you and all the world are parts of the Lord,” said Baba.

But the blessed master did not merely stop at giving this injunction. He showed ways and means whereby this could be put into practice. It was all very well to advise men to conduct an enquiry into the true nature of the Self. How was an ordinary mortal to set about this difficult task of knowing himself? After all, it was not given to every one to be introspective, nor was it possible for the majority of the human beings to grapple with abstractions. Baba knew that what people needed was practical guidance and help. It would not be of much use to preach about metaphysical subtleties if the common man cannot assimilate it. Baba’s practice was to elaborate his injunction by constant references to practical modes of approach.

The best way of giving effect to this process of knowing oneself was, according to Sai Baba, through a complete surrender to God. Ideas of what God is varies widely. Those who believe in a personal deities embodied in the form of a Guru, for instance, can get a tremendous push forward in the evolution of their spiritual growth. Surely, to be able to call upon a power like this which is the master of all material conditions is to have that “pearl of great price”, for which we may well work, watch and pray.

It seems then that the Sage of Shirdi did favor the path of bhakti for attaining salvation. Once when comparing gnan and bhakti, the Master likened the former to Ramphal and the latter to Sitaphal. The pulp of ramphal is difficult to comb out, but the sitaphal is sweet and its pulp is easily accessible. If the gnani falls, there is a danger of his remaining in that state, since he may not be able to help himself, but the bhakta always has the compassionate succour of his master to support and reinstate him. Perhaps Sai Baba felt that the crying urgency of this Kali Yuga was bhakti. The first and most fundamental requisite is of course a strong desire for moksha, a hunger and thirst for the Divine which no material conditions can ever assuage. Wealth, kith and kin are all transient. So long as the material attachments occupy a vital part of man’s thoughts he cannot go far. Equipped with this burning desire for a union with the Lord, if a devotee has complete faith in His mercy and surrenders all to His wisdom, then his task becomes less arduous and his ultimate success is assured. Not only this, but bhakti even when practiced not too thoroughly is nevertheless a powerful weapon of purification, in that it gradually leads the bhakta to greater and greater concentration of worship; that is to say, if one may so express it, even a casual bhakta is transformed into an ardent one sooner or later. Only a beginning has to be made, the rest is taken care of. How reassuring this thought is. We cannot take the wrong path if we keep conscious of the Light. Baba, therefore gave great importance to all those practices that aid concentration in the Divine. He greatly favored the use of Japam i.e. repetition of the Guru-god’s name either audibly, or mentally. Such repetition, Baba said, may seem mechanical at first, but it slowly draws the mind into the vortex of a one-pointed concentration. From a practical aspect its aim is to cultivate emotional and mental stability, and thus prepare the soil for the realization of Brahman.

It is important at this stage to make clear distinction between the kind of bhakti that Sai Baba enjoined on his followers, and the undisciplined emotionalism that sometimes goes by the name of bhakti. Baba gave bhakti the highest place in any sadhana, but he wanted that this emotion should also be purified. The emotion must not be allowed to degenerate into mere sentimentalism which has not the same poise and balance of disciplined bhakti. True Bhakti can be easily distinguished from mere hysterical emotionalism. For in the latter there is ultimately a feeling of incompleteness and exhaustion. This lower type of bhakti is a kind of deluded extension of self-love. It has its roots in the ego, that is why it is impatient of returns. But the bhakti that Baba enjoined is bhakti plus yoga -- bhakti that is discipline. In the giving of such devotion there is a feeling of completeness and fulfillment and a total conserving of one’s energies, so that the true bhakta never has a sense of frustration, nor is he ever exhausted.

There is no doubt that Shri Sai Baba was the apostle of love and that his predictions lay more in the direction of the bhakti way to salvation. Not once, but several times did he emphasize the great value he attached to devotion and surrender. “I am the bond slave of my devotees. I love devotion. If one ever dwells on me in his mind and will not even taste food before offering it to me, I become his slave -- so also if he hungers and thirsts after me and treats all else as unimportant.” Such was the illuminating language in which the sage gave predominance to the function of love. Shri Sai Baba’s followers, therefore, have so to elevate their understanding as will enable them to realize the living beauty of love, its divine energies, its health-giving properties, its power to demonstrate immortality.

The Master revealed himself to be the true and sensitive psychologists, in that he always recognized that the need and the desire to adore is inherent in man. Bhakti is the natural state of the human heart; one does not have to acquire it or be initiated into it. It is there, and to ignore it is to ignore one of the most vital traits of human nature. Like any other innate gift, however, bhakti has to be developed and chiseled into the right shape before it can yield any creative results, before it can effect an opening for the Divine to enter.

Baba did not in any sense belittle the supreme value of knowledge. At the same time, he did not make it incumbent upon every sadhaka to grasp the subtitles of fundamental truths with the intellect. It is enough if a devotee earnestly aspired in the silence of his heart to become one with the Lord. To such a one is given infinite protection and guidance, and ultimately the bhakta necessarily becomes a gnani too. Knowledge comes of itself through an instrument that is far more potent than the mind. Bhakti brings in its wake knowledge that is both spontaneous and effortless.

Those seekers who have a purely intellectual bias sometimes wonder why Shri Sai Baba tolerated and even fostered external forms of worship. But Baba deliberately encouraged rituals and ceremonials and held them to be the outflowing expressions of the inner devotion. Symbols are the very source and support of life. Man thinks in terms of symbols. Why then should there not be symbols in the adoration which man seeks to express for the Divine?

Besides, majority of human beings do need physical and concrete outlets for their emotions. They cannot realize anything except through visible and tangible symbols. The symbol of the crucifix and the attendant ceremonials commemorating the life and events of the Christ are powerful assets of the Christian faith. They have a dynamic appeal for a man’s imagination, and as such they play no small part in keeping the religion alive and potent; so do many of the colorful religious rituals of the Hindus. Certainly the danger of rituals and ceremonials being misused and even abused has to be reckoned with; but for all that one cannot deny them their value, nor can one deny that they have a significant place in the religious impulse of man. So long as these expressions of worship were an index to the inward spiritual aspiration, Baba treated these with respect and allowed the devotee to pursue unhampered all the outward forms of worship which were dear to his heart. But whenever the sage found that these pujas and ceremonies were just subterfuges used in order to conceal false pretensions of piety, or when Baba felt that they were just empty customs practiced through sheer force of habit, then he either ruthlessly destroyed them or discouraged them.

The sadhana of devotion prescribed by Shri Sai Baba has a warm appeal for all those whose aesthetic sensibilities are predominantly developed. The sensitive and the artistically inclined are lured by the prospect of a union with the Divine which combines in it so much ecstasy and fulfillment. The way is not cold and austere, but replete with the intimate fullness of loving and being loved. The perfect Master of Shirdi is also the perfect artist, and beckons to those who are temperamentally colorful, warm and vigorous, and sweet-scented with love’s distillations.

The Master’s message is the message of love raised to its actual perfection, and since love is not a mere abstraction, it is natural that the soul of the bhakta should turn to some living embodiment of the Divine. That is why in the sadhana of Shri Sai Baba’s choice the Guru becomes the supreme reality. To a living, palpable image of God alone can the love-smitten disciple pour out his devotion in all the fullness and warmth of his ardour; and the beloved can be sought by any and all of us. We are now in a position to realize why Sai Baba laid such overwhelming emphasis on the dependence of the sadhaka on the Guru by whose grace and contact the seeker can advance very rapidly. Therefore, to the man or woman who puts his or her hand in the hand of the omnipresent God-guru like Sai Baba the outlook can never be dreary.