Upasani Maharaj, Bombay 1920

Unpublished manuscript by British author Kevin R. D. Shepherd, completed in 2020

Author Kevin R. D. Shepherd (see bibliography)




Update 1: Sakori  Ashram  Tactics

Update 2: Historical  and  Political  Factors

Chronology  for  Upasani  Maharaj

Introduction: Versions  of  the  Biography

1.    The  Upasani  Family

2.     Early  Years  at  Satana

3.    The  Second  Teacher

4.     Renouncing  the  World

5.     Sadhana  at  the  Shiva  Temple  near  Poona 

6.     A  Marathon  Walker

7.     The  Cave  at  Bhorgad  Hill

8.     Recovery  with  Bhils  at  Gawalwadi

9.     Return  to  Satana  and  Caste

10.   Physician  at  Amraoti

11.   An  Estate  Landlord  at  Gwalior

12.   Breathing  Trouble  and  the  Pranayama  Issue

13.   Yogi  Kulkarni  Maharaj  and  Jejuri  Jungle

14.   Narayan  Maharaj  of  Kedgaon

15.   Encounter  with  Sai  Baba

16.   Sai  Baba,  Faqir  of  Shirdi

17.   Settling  Accounts  in  Two  or  Four  Years

18.   "I  have  given  everything  to  this  person"

19.   Smoking  the  Chilim

20.   Retreat  at  the  Khandoba  Temple

21.   "See  me  in  all  creatures"

22.    Dixitwada  and  Abstinence




Upasani Maharaj (1870-1941) was a guru of independent orientation. He settled at Sakori (Sakuri) in 1918, creating an ashram. He became noted for wearing simple sackcloth (or gunny cloth). He was frequently known as Upasani Baba. His earlier phases at Shirdi and Kharagpur evidence some unusual features, including a distinctive contact with Sai Baba of Shirdi (d.1918), whose disciple he became.

A brahman, Upasani was critical of his own caste for what he considered to be a laxity in traditional spiritual discipline. Upasani himself maintained an ascetic lifestyle, avoiding compromise with tendencies to indulgence. He was completely unwesternised. He eventually established at Sakori a community of nuns known as the Kanya Kumari Sthan. In furthering this project, during the 1930s, he encountered strong opposition from high caste conservatives. The opponents could not stop him succeeding.

This is the first extensive biography of Upasani Maharaj. Source materials are diverse, attended by divergent formats and interpretations. Since his death, a number of brief notices and commentaries have appeared, including that found in my early book Gurus Rediscovered (1986). However, so many details are missing in those convenient presentations. The basic sources do permit a much longer coverage. In fact, there is more leeway for a biography of Upasani than a biography of Sai Baba, whose early years remain obscure.

My purpose is to cohere diverse source materials and commentaries into a usable framework of reference. This is an attempt at comprehensive biography, to the degree permitted by sources. Much about the life of Upasani was forgotten or obscured over the decades. Most Western commentators on Hinduism tended very much to ignore him, not evidencing any knowledge of relevant materials.

Upasani Maharaj emerges as a multi-faceted Hindu phenomenon, far more reflective of intrinsic Indian spirituality than some popular gurus of more recent celebrity. Rediscovery of this Maharashtrian sant figure also extends to significant details about Sai Baba of Shirdi, details which effectively passed into oblivion.

The general portrayals of Sai Baba exclude any detailed reference to Upasani Maharaj. This constriction may ultimately derive from an early phase when Upasani was considered a rival by some devotees of the Shirdi faqir. Alternative sources convey a much more rounded picture of events at Shirdi during 1911-1917.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 2020 

Update 1: Sakori Ashram Tactics

Sakori ashram, originally a cremation ground, now a tourist site in Maharashtra

The manuscript of Radical Rishi was originally sent to the University of California Press. Their assessor declined, while considerately stating his opinion that the ms merited publication. In contrast, the State University of New York Press did not respond. The ms was subsequently submitted, in March 2020, to a high profile Indian publisher at New Delhi. This party expressed close interest, while commenting that the ms was exceptionally long. The veteran publisher stated that he had rarely received such a lengthy manuscript.

The prudent New Delhi publisher suggested dividing the ms into two volumes, believing he could sell the first volume more readily, because this included the connection of Upasani Maharaj with Shirdi Sai Baba (now a very famous name in North India). The second volume, relating to Upasani and Sakori ashram, was considered far less saleable, in terms of a relatively obscure subject. This accentuated division of content reflected a bias discernible amongst Shirdi Sai devotees, who do not regard Upasani Maharaj as a major figure. Nevertheless, the resourceful publisher scheduled an editor for both volumes, saying I would have the final say about any editing proposal. Publication was now assured.

The New Delhi publisher tried to get sales interest from Sakori ashram by contacting their office manager. That Hindu was incredulous at the length of the ms. “How could anyone write so much?” Sakori literature generally consists of very compact devotee exercises in veneration. Sakori ashram is strongly associated with Upasani, who died there eighty years ago after making that place his base for over two decades.

Two anonymous Sakori ashram spokesmen expressed their views after reading the manuscript. One of these spokesmen was more moderate in tone than his very disapproving colleague. Both of these readers made clear their preference for a devotional narrative as distinct from historical biography. They attempted to influence the intending publisher in this respect. “Would a little injection of devotion be better?”

The more restrained Sakori spokesman referred to a risk of “misinformation.” The manuscript was “objective but non partisan.” The intending publisher met with the pointed question: “Is that what you want?”

The underlying message, from the same moderate spokesman, was that Sakori ashram trustees could not yet give permission for the manuscript to be published. “Before trustees give a go ahead,” problems would have to be resolved. Ashram censorship was in prospect.

Scholars have quite often considered devotional reporting to be deficient, a mishap in which the data is curtailed to an unwarranted degree. Indeed, some historians have described devotional biography (or hagiography) in terms of fragments and preferred sectarian scenarios. In devotional genre, favoured entities are often elevated above other saintly figures who are awarded only vague reference. In the historical perspective, censorship of relevant detail is not an appropriate resort.

The second, and rather more emphatic, Sakori spokesman insisted that the chapters on “Parsis” (meaning Zoroastrians) must be deleted from the manuscript (chapters 70, 76, 77, 78, 79, 102, 108, 109, 110). This insular prohibition was interpreted elsewhere as a gesture savouring of Hindu nationalist outlook, which has become an underlying attitude factor in many directions. There was certainly an implicit bias against Zoroastrian-born Meher Baba, who appears in a few chapters (89, 102, 104, 108, 109, 110). The author declined these excisions to the manuscript. However, the Sakori spokesmen were afterwards successful in their aspersions, influencing the intending publisher against proceeding with publication of the manuscript. India is a country where religious differences are still strongly accentuated, with short read hagiography frequently being preferred to the full scope of data.

The moderate Sakori spokesman contributed a more impartial statement: “Better than anyone else in the past, he [the author] has put out the facts of the case / life of the man [Upasani Maharaj].” Moreover, “it [the manuscript] is indeed a valuable piece.” Nevertheless, the manuscript was described as being “too factually written” (communication dated 15/04/2020).

The Sakori judgment asserted: “The author has made a careful study of various books on [Upasani] Baba and collated lots of information, but because of little or no access or reference to the devotees of that era, he is forced to go by the literature available.” That relegating nuance included important early literature on Upasani instigated by Meher Baba, also other relevant works listed in my Abbreviations. The devotees mentioned by Sakori are the current public relations team, ashram trustees, and other contemporary Sakori devotees who knew the “Mother,” namely Godavari Mataji (they were too late to meet Upasani). I am not aware of any other reliable method than recourse to the literature available on a biographical subject. The preference for ashram authority figures of a subsequent generation is not necessarily any guarantee of total accuracy, especially if the devotee outlook is sectarian.

The accusation of content being “very dry and too factually written” was accompanied by the reservation “as if without any love affection to the HERO of the book.” The intending publisher interpreted such remarks to mean that the Sakori spokesmen “do not find the book respectful towards Upasani.” Other readers have stated that my respect for the subject is plainly evident in the book content, which took five years to write. I have not attempted any “heroic” portrayal evocative of British nineteenth century biographical genre or Indian devotional hagiography. I do not agree with disparaging British colonial idioms for Indian subjects (as I have demonstrated in biographical coverage of Shirdi Sai Baba, Hazrat Babajan, and Meher Baba).

By attendant implication of Sakori vetting, the sole chapter on a Muslim met with disapproval, especially in view of the “Parsi” connection with Meher Baba (chapter 103). The chapters recommended for deletion were described as “utterly irrelevant.” The full statement here was: “At least 100 plus pages can be directly omitted from the text as they are utterly irrelevant and worse still, inconsequential to the principal narrative.”

The same inflexible spokesman also stipulated that the seven chapters on the Talks (of Upasani) should be deleted (chapters 80-86). Those chapters contain numerous quotes from the Godamasuta translation. The preference of the adamant spokesman was evidently for a conservative Hindu interpretation, as distinct from a more liberal approach. Sectarian censorship was at work. Alternative formats to high caste preference must be stifled, even if the actual words of the exponent [Upasani] are quoted.

The suggestion was made, in the same Sakori communication to an intending publisher, that I was perhaps a devotee of Meher Baba. This mistaken assumption came from the more amiable spokesman. His hostile colleague went further, interposing a reference to Meher Baba in a context of invidious comparison. The verbatim wording is: “MB when he visited Sakori, said GT would pass away soon. When Mother [Godavari Mataji] was told of his pronouncement, she smiled and said GT would outlast them both. As usual She [capital S] was right.”

No source was supplied for this anecdote. MB denotes Meher Baba. The implication is that the Irani Zoroastrian was a bad bet for accuracy. The tendency is widespread, in sectarian circles, to elevate the figurehead over and above presumed rivals. This partisan elevation is found in different communities the world over. Some groupings with a male figurehead favour the use of capital H for He. I am completely outside this divisive scenario, which I have observed with scepticism for many years.

The elevation of a figurehead (whether capital S or H) does not exempt partisans from the exercise of elementary courtesies in their communications to those outside the fold. Nor does the sectarian attitude justify deletion of factual content or zealous restriction on publisher output.

The three chapters detailing the contact between Godavari Mataji and Meher Baba (108, 109, 110) were composed for the purpose of confirming that these two entities were on good terms, rising above the sectarian level of rivalry. To the contemporary Sakori ashram however, the Irani merely represents an alien factor to Hinduism, a nuisance who must be eliminated from any biography of Upasani Maharaj.

The sectarian superiority syndrome is often spread via devotional literature, a medium frequently encouraging insularism. The syndrome creates confusion and misunderstanding, while serving to undermine historical reporting, which is too often marginalised.

Ashram circles often tend to assume that, if some author writes about a mystic or a guru figure, then the author must be a devotee of that guru or saint. I am not a devotee of either Upasani Maharaj or Meher Baba. At the same time, I am not dismissive of their contributions, endeavouring to give a fair and balanced appraisal of their recorded actions, their reported experiences, and their teachings. I am a historian trying to ascertain what happened in a South Asian milieu. The pursuit of historical biography requires different criteria to devotional thinking, sectarian preferment, and exclusionist tendency.

The events under discussion here must be resolved to international academic standard and satisfaction. These events should not be subject to arbitrary suppression, at publication level, by the anonymous ashram elite in Maharashtra.

Chapter 89 in my book, relating to Mahatma Gandhi, was contested, the Sakori version being considered the only valid one. The Kalchuri version of Gandhi meeting Upasani was briefly repudiated (with Purdom also effectively discounted). More generally, I have quite often found in biographical data that different reports actually relate to the same episode. The fact that Meher Baba is included in chapter 89 probably made the Sakori objection more agitated. His factual relevance is here indisputable, because the Irani also encountered Gandhi, who at their first meeting in 1931, specifically mentioned Upasani in a context now of interest.

I requested Sakori for relevant documentation on their highly prioritised version of Gandhi-Upasani. No reply was forthcoming. I therefore regard the existing oral version of this Sakori encounter as incomplete and provisional. Chapter 89 must be regarded as a tentative reconstruction of Sakori events, more deference being possible for the written record of Meher Baba's meetings with Gandhi.

Sakori ashram also snubbed my positive treatment of Godavari Mataji. A vehement Sakori spokesman stated that Mataji does not “need anyone else’s recommendations or Awards.” Sakori ashram presentation was here exclusive to other contributions; the caste monopoly was evident (Mataji was a brahman; her followers are frequently brahmans). My British recommendations of the Indian kanya saint were dismissed as superfluous.

No reference was made to the well known Narasimhaswami critique of Upasani and the Sakori kanyas (nuns). This misleading (and very influential) commentary is missing from Sakori devotional genre but covered in chapter 92 of the stigmatised factual manuscript. The attendant issues in that chapter move well beyond the status of a peripheral accompaniment to the literature.

The intending publisher declined to proceed, as a consequence of Sakori ashram tactics. Sectarian censorship had triumphed. I resolved to have the manuscript published or presented outside India. I concluded that the best recourse was the internet, currently the most accessible mode of international communication. I refuse to be intimidated by the suppression achieved on the part of Sakori ashram trustees. The online text is the unabridged original, of 111 chapters, salvaged from the oblivion preferred elsewhere. Radical Rishi represents historical biography based on declared sources, factual reporting (to the extent now possible), and religious inclusiveness. A democratic principle of documentary survival is at stake.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 2020

Update 2: Historical and Political Factors

In my project of anthropography, analysis of current events is an accompaniment to historical and biographical chartings. Indian events include ashrams and temples, while extending far beyond those milieux. This overview selects the following topics:

Tourist  Ashrams

Hindu  Hatred  Towards  the  British  Imperial  Era

The  Irish  Famine  and  Emigration

The  East  India  Company  and  the  Raj

Imphal  and  the  Burma  Campaign  in  World  War  Two

The  Indian  National  Army  (INA)  and  Indian  Prisoners  of  War

Sectarian  Biases

Status  Parameters

History,  Lore,  and  Constraint

The  Dalit  Plight

Hindu  Ultranationalism


Tourist  Ashrams

Like many other Hindu ashrams, Sakori ashram has a tourist complexion. A British visitor to Sakori ashram, in September 2011, was hoping to meet the kanyas (nuns) at that site. He was disappointed. "The only people visible were a Brahmin priest and some officious managers. The custodians were quick to show us where we could buy some books and pictures. There were donation boxes in different places. The Kanya nuns were nowhere to be seen" (communication dated 28/06/20). The ashram was evidently run by men, being regarded as a venue for priestly activities, while also functioning as a tourist site. The same traveller has contributed a longer record of his visit:

I went on a day trip with three others to Sakori and Shirdi in a hired car. The Sakori ashram seems to be right in Sakori village and is now surrounded by buildings and roads. We did not see any of the nuns. On arrival we walked through a passageway lined with many pictures of gurus. I did not recognise most of these gurus, save for Meher Baba, Sathya Sai, Ramana Maharshi, and Rajneesh. There was a communication problem with some rather officious men who seemed to be in charge. I do not know if they were brahmins. They showed us the main hall where Upasani and Godavari Mataji are buried; the cage (pinjra) with silver bars is also there. We were taken to the Dattatreya temple where a puja was in process, with about ten Hindus present. We joined in this worship, although we did not understand what we were doing. A brahmin priest presided, leading the chants and songs. We just stood with hands folded. Occasionally everyone would clap and do a synchronised full 360 degree turn. When the puja was over, everyone was given a small ladle of milk into the palms as prasad. The other three in my group did not want to drink this and walked out, worried in case the milk would make them ill. I did drink and was fine. This was the first time I had ever been in a Hindu temple. Afterwards we left for Shirdi, which was a nightmare, so totally packed with people that we did not go to the Shirdi Sai shrine but instead to the Khandoba temple, which was much quieter. We gave some of our food (in packed lunches) to child beggars asking for money. These beggars handed us notes in English describing their terrible lives of hardship. (Communication dated 28/07/20)

In relation to Radical Rishi, the Sakori ashram prohibition against featured "Parsis" is disconcerting. A number of those persons were actually Iranis, closely associated with the Parsis of India. The fast disappearing Parsi (and Irani) religious minority is a matter for concern. In history books, different religions are included. Whereas in devotional lore, relevant data is frequently excluded by a mono-religious bias. Events should be portrayed as they were, not as preferred by sectarians. Devotional lore often jettisons unwanted facts, while selecting what an aggregate of devotees wish to regard as canonical.

Sakori suppression of a carefully planned publication, in New Delhi, tends to converge (however indirectly) with the nationalist mood of Hindu high caste supremacy, squashing or relegating other religions. That supremacist policy has caused havoc and suffering in India. There are numerous reports of persecuted lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists, and diverse activists who have dared to criticise the Indian government led by the dogmatic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That government has failed to prevent mob attacks on a Muslim religious minority and harassment of marginalised communities such as Dalits.

Brahmin tourist ashrams diversely promote devotion, ritual, Yoga, and therapy. This activity comprises a screening agent for the discrepant political situation.

Hindu  Hatred  Towards  the  British  Imperial  Era

There is also the factor of an ethnic bias arising, outside the amenable situation of donating tourists. A Western academic has communicated to me:

Because the Sakori folk see him [Upasani]  as a strongly Hindu figure and their ‘personal property,’ you would have to deal with their jealousy and outrage for daring to tackle him at all [in a book], especially as you are a Brit (if you travel in India these days, the hatred towards the British Imperial era is very obvious).

The outlook here is perturbing, to the extent that I will answer the implicit accusations in a manner covering different ethnic channels in historical context.

Many English Conservatives have inherited an unenviable association with the British Empire phase. Inhabitants of India and other countries can clearly perceive that factor of national identity rooted in the past. I am not a Conservative. I am also completely outside the Oxbridge status circuit, replete with colonial pedigrees and links to Conservative governments over generations.

I am not a nationalist, nor a fan of colonialism. I am an Irish-English citizen philosopher with a primary interest in history, also other subjects, including the critical study of religion. Ethnically, I am midway between the Irish and English nationalities (my Yorkshire grandmother was Irish-Scots; she married an Irish Catholic who became an independent thinker).

I pursued a self-taught tradition represented by my Irish grandfather and other working class people in the early twentieth century. My English mother proved eligible for Girton College (Cambridge). She was denied a place in that institution by the economic disposition of her father, according to standards of female relegation common during the British colonial phase. Many social attitudes of that phase were afflicting.

I studied at Cambridge University Library in my adult years, from the age of thirty, as a complete outsider to the academic system. Moreover, I there recorded my primary interest in terms of anthropography, meaning an unofficial interdisciplinary approach to culture (Meaning in Anthropos: Anthropography as an Interdisciplinary Science of Culture, 1991). I vowed never to compromise the range of studies. My approach is revisionist, accuracy being a paramount consideration. 

The  Irish  Famine  and  Emigration

My genetics complicate the Hindu nationalist bias. I am half-Irish. I was born Kevin Murphy. Shepherd is a legal name acquired from my English mother’s side of the family. My Irish father endorsed my legal change of name. He himself changed his name during the 1970s phase of English reaction to the IRA (Irish Republican Army, whose lethal bombs in London and Birmingham caused much resentment). The name Murphy is common in Ireland. Irish people innocent of any crime were, at that time, liable to be harassed in England.

The wall of a family home smashed by a police battering ram, Moyasta, County Clare, 1888. Courtesy National Library of Ireland

My Irish forbears detested the English overlords for generations. My ancestors included “Big Red,” a sturdy Irish farmer with a red beard. Living in the mid-nineteenth century, he was definitely not of the opinion that Ireland was justly governed. During the Great Famine of the late 1840s, numerous Irish families had to watch each other starve to death or emigrate if they still had the strength. Many emigrants on voyages were sick or dying. The Protestant English viewed the Famine as divine providence, a theory not worlds removed from the Brahmin dogma of caste.

After the Famine came the Irish Land War. Many Irish farmers were evicted across the country. Absentee landlords in England "would hire corrupt middlemen to squeeze every possible penny out of their tenants" (Irish Land War). Farmers in poverty barricaded their homes, ready to fight the police who came with battering rams and fire torches. Some houses and cottages were smashed, others burned to the ground. The English government at Westminster supported landlord oppression.

Irish tenants in the ruins of their home burned by police, Glenbeigh c.1880-1890; Irish tenant farmer resisting police in front of his home, Tullycrine, 1888. Courtesy National Library of Ireland

The unpopular landlord Colonel Vandeleur (d.1884), originally Dutch, was a Conservative Party politician and MP for County Clare. His son likewise became notorious for evictions in Clare. From 1881, Hector Stewart Vandeleur lived mainly in London, spending only short periods at Kilrush in Clare. His estate hobby in Ireland was shooting parties, typical of the English country gentleman out of alignment with nature (Vandeleur Evictions in West Clare 1888-1900). He and other prominent landlords owned vast estates.

"We are not goin' to leave." Three Irish tenants wait for the police eviction, Coolgreany, c. 1880-1900. Courtesy National Library of Ireland

Evicted tenant families frequently resorted to abortive huts in the countryside. Resistance to the police could be punished with a jail sentence. These circumstances of turmoil and suffering were the cause of a strong nationalist resistance. The oppressive Royal Irish Constabulary were armed with rifles. Many of the senior police officers were Anglo-Irish Protestants. From the Great Famine onwards (and even before), the Catholic alternative to harassed poverty was emigration. The Irish diaspora was an epic phenomenon spreading to America, Canada, and Australia. Others moved to England, like my own paternal forbears.


Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch of England, was declared King of Ireland in 1542. This event was followed by extensive confiscations of Irish land by the Crown, encouraging English colonists. The Gaelic Irish were contemptuously referred to as “His Majesty’s Irish enemies.” The English Crown exerted a formidable stranglehold, repeatedly quelling uprisings. Queen Elizabeth I sent to Ireland a savage army carrying out a scorched earth policy, during which they killed men, women, and children. From 1607, Irish Catholics were prohibited from gaining public office or entering the army. The relentless English laws effectively imposed illiteracy on the peasants, who were treated by the rulers as untouchables.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) called the Gaelic Irish “barbarous wretches.” In 1649-50, his Protestant invasion violently subdued Catholic opposition, achieving a complete conquest of Ireland. Civilians and soldiers were massacred at Drogheda and Wexford. Cromwell believed that he was accomplishing the work of God; the cause of religion was employed to justify the English conquest. About 40 percent of the Irish population apparently died from war and disease. Cromwell burned Irish crops, while pushing the natives off their land to Connacht. Those who resisted this measure were deported. Cromwell rewarded his soldiers and investors with Irish land.

The Cromwell regime deported prisoners of war to the West Indies as indentured servants. Estimates of the numbers vary. This trend commenced earlier in 1636. Irish labourers were kidnapped and sent to work in Barbados, where sugar plantations produced a huge profit from exploitation. Many Irish were also sent to Jamaica, captured from Spain by the English in 1665. The deported Irish frequently died from heat and disease. The English planters were brutal. Rebellious negro slaves could be punished by slow burning from the feet to the head after being nailed to the ground.

The fate of Irish indentured servants included the grim outcome of an early death through overwork and mistreatment. There may have been over 50,000 victims (men, women, and children) of the Cromwell tactic. Further, many other Irish and English victims of this trend followed during the next century (Jordan and Walsh 2008). Unfortunately, Irish merchants invested in the burgeoning black slave trade. Some Irish were captains of slave ships and managed plantations (Rodgers 2007). However, the English slave traders were in the ascendancy. The English slavers supplied African victims for the Caribbean colonies, also destinations in North and South America. The African slave trade made English merchants hugely wealthy (Thomas 2015).

By 1667, nearly 2,000 Irish indentured servants were members of the militia at Barbados. A few of them became planters; in this capacity, they are known to have tortured black slaves. A major issue is now the distinction between indentured servant and slave:

The refusal to differentiate often reveals a motivation to equate indentured servitude for Europeans with African chattel perpetual slavery to claim spuriously that slavery had nothing to do with race. (Liam Hogan et al, Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean, 2016)

An estimated 3.1 million African slaves were transported to diverse plantations in English ships. In 1746, a justifying mercantile argument was: “If we have no Negroes, we can have no sugar, tobacco, rum.” Eighteenth century Georgian society was a monster geared to the subjection of profitable victims. Between 1695 and 1807, England was by far the major slave-trading country. London and Bristol were eventually surpassed in this activity by Liverpool, whose merchants were responsible for half of the three million transported slaves marring the Empire record. This trade was ceased in 1807.

Charles II and his brother James II (Duke of York) were notorious advocates of slavery, furthered by the Royal African Company (RAC) commenced by London merchants (and James) in the 1660s. This activity was influential in North America. Many slaves were branded with the letters DY, meaning the Duke of York. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) is controversial for becoming a shareholder in RAC and participating in the administration of slave-owning Carolina, though later contesting royal oppression.

Ireland soon became a “granary for England.” The agriculture of Ireland was adapted to suit the demands of English consumerism. Many forests were cut down, the timber being used by the Royal Navy. Via the port of Cork, Anglo-Irish estates exported meat and dairy products to England and the Caribbean. Stripped of their assets, the Irish peasantry suffered a famine in 1740-1 that killed approximately 400,000 people. The domineering Anglo-Irish landowners exported large quantities of grain to England, while the peasants were reduced to potatoes and groats. The underdog Gaelic language was banned by a Protestant ruling class.

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 featured the United Irishmen, a phenomenon in which both Protestants and Catholics joined forces against the British Empire. They were brutally suppressed by the British Crown army. Captured and wounded rebels, plus civilians, were massacred at various places. There were many instances of rape and murder. Hundreds of wounded were burned alive when casualty stations were torched by the colonialist force.

The Anglo-Irish ruling class imitated British Empire characteristics, living in grand mansions with many servants. They were descendants of the English (and Scottish) settlers who were gifted lands by the Crown. These agents of Empire had acquired the best farmland in the country for raising livestock and grain, which they exported to England. The remaining land (suited only to potatoes) was rented to the peasants, who could own nothing. For generations the upper class enforced high rents, evictions, enclosure of common land, plus payment of tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland. Protestants comprised about a seventh of the population. Much of poverty-stricken Catholic West Ireland was roadless. Rents in Ireland were far higher on average than in England. Evicted families wandered as beggars, living in bog holes and ditches, starving to death. They were reduced to eating weeds. The upper class of Protestants loathed beggars. The Protestant Parliament in England also viewed penniless beggars as lazy yokels.

By 1841, the Irish population had increased to 8.2 million. About half of this number were living mainly on potatoes. English critics erroneously viewed the consumption of potatoes in terms of laziness. In West Ireland, peasants were generally limited to poor quality soil in small holdings. Fishing was an extra resort. Many of these small farmers also cultivated oats and barley to pay their rent; corn was likewise produced for that purpose. Catholic peasants were at the mercy of Protestant landlords, including government ministers in England. The worst landlords were notorious for their callous attitude. Many of the victims lived in one room mud huts, which they shared with a pig, whose manure they required for potatoes. Some were too poor even to acquire a mud hut; these people were itinerants living in the fields.

Elite landlords wanted to use peasant land to grow food and pasture animals for export to England. Peasants were regarded as an obstacle to commercial ambition of the Industrial Revolution. Wealthy landlords frequently preferred an absentee lifestyle, meaning that they lived in England, including Members of Parliament.

The fashionable doctrine of “political economy” influenced Parliament at this period. Economists created an extremely simplistic view of Ireland, contradicting their presumed expertise. Speculations of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) demonised the Irish poor, regarding them as a potential threat to England; his theory envisaged a flood of immigrants creating poverty everywhere. A Church of England curate, Malthus lived in the high comfort milieu benefiting from British Empire assets acquired from countries like Ireland. People like him never did any hard work.

The retarded solution of political economy was to devise a Poor Law for Ireland that was even more harsh than the English equivalent. This resort of 1838 has been called draconian. Relief could only be provided within the confines of a workhouse, no provision being made for outdoor relief. There was no actual right of anyone to relief, which was a discretionary mercy easily abused by those who believed that poverty was the fault of the sufferer. Elsewhere, the English victims could be in hazard during the 1840s. At Andover workhouse, in Hampshire, the starved inmates ate the animal bones they were assigned to crushing for fertiliser.  

Nassau William Senior

The influential Nassau William Senior (1790-1864) taught Political Economy at Oxford University. He is associated with a view of poverty as the fault of the individual. In some directions, this convenient belief resisted any need to alleviate the fate of the Irish peasants. The Oxford economist deemed the Irish Poor Law, imposed by the English, to be the best any country had ever adopted. At an early date, Senior evidently wanted to see a substantial degree of emigration from Ireland. Subsequently, he expressed satisfaction that the Famine years had reduced the Irish population from over eight million to less than six million (Senior 1868:1,xii). Those statistics of reduction include Famine deaths in addition to emigration.

Senior’s form of reasoning, arising from the jungle of political economy, makes no reference to the British Empire exploitation. His argument proceeds on the assumption that English rule is beyond question. According to Senior: “In Ireland the consequence [of potato failure] was famine – a calamity which cannot befall a civilised nation” (Senior 1868:1,222). Whereas in civilised England, the difficulty of food shortage was met by “the importation of food from abroad” (ibid).

The political economist does not mention that enormous quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England during the Famine years. Nor does he mention that the English nation, the English navy, and the English army benefited from this huge drain on Irish resources. The obscurantist argument is well below a due civilised standard, usurped by Oxbridge superiority complex and Etonian class pedigree. The Irish peasants were illiterate victims of predatory Empire mentality, partially operating through the Anglo-Irish upper class introduced by the Crown throughout Ireland.

The  Great  Famine

The Irish potato crop failed in 1845. During the period until 1852, the population substantially decreased because of the Great Famine. Over a million Irish died from starvation and disease, while being evicted by landlords. Their status was totally nil. Many died in workhouses, where families were separated. The fate of dying children, in cramped conditions, was grim. Large numbers of victims were buried in nameless mass graves (Crowley et al 2012). Over a million Irish emigrated from colonialist hell.

Famine in Ireland 1841-51

The Great Famine was “ignored, marginalised or sanitised by generations of professional historians” (Kinealy 2002:5). These “revisionists” are no longer considered canonical; they tend to an apologist standpoint in the “value free” suggestion that the English government could have done little more to prevent disasters.  A pioneer of anti-revisionism (Bradshaw 1989) urged that Cambridge University was the source of ideological confusion (Interview with Dr. Brendan Bradshaw, 1993).  Objectivity, in this confusion, meant that no blame was to be placed upon England, whose politicians were immaculate; in this deceptive logic, the Famine years were to be viewed as a phase of small consequence.

According to one version, the English government at Westminster was intent upon genocide (Coogan 2013). A contrasting interpretation argues that the drawback was assisted by various factors including Anglo-Irish landlords, merchants, ambitious landholding farmers, clergy, and local gentry failing to process relief for the poor (McGowan 2017). A factor impossible to ignore is the failure of English politicians to save the starving (Kinealy 2006; 2019). Extensive correspondence, between London and the Irish administration at Dublin Castle, reveals the nature of events formerly obscured. Pleas from relief officials in Ireland were ignored by London.

English politicians became notorious for their neglect of the Irish peasants, whom they criticised as being incapable of a civilised existence. Westminster blamed the victims for being lazy. In 1846, a large number of evictions occurred in Ireland. Children began to die in the wave of starvation. Every decision about Ireland was made in England. Other countries also suffered from the British Empire stranglehold. The Chinese were forced to accept the opium trade because of English mercantile interest in the drug.

Starving Irish peasants could be seen foraging in fields and ditches. In desperation, they started to eat seaweed and raw shellfish, which gave them dysentery. The winter was unusually cold, with severe snowstorms in January 1847. Roads were blocked. Evicted families had to withstand freezing rain in the open. Children screamed with hunger. Thousands of beggars in Cork and elsewhere were dying. Yellow fever, typhus, and scurvy were additional afflictions. Bleeding sores and severe dysentery were no proof of laziness, but of chronic misfortune which the London political elite did very little to alleviate.

In 1846, the Russell administration of Whigs introduced “public works” employment as relief. This amounted to a sadistic exercise in overwork for an eventual total of over 600,000 poor. Weak and starving men were allocated hard labour for 12 hours a day, six days a week, building roads that were criticised for leading nowhere in the chaos of neglected planning. Anguished women and children joined the men at work. An observer reported that “public works” were guilty of “slow murder.” Men often died of starvation before their wages arrived.

The barefooted and shoeless road workers had no warm clothing during the extremely harsh winter of early 1847. The pitifully low wage meant that workers could not buy food in the face of soaring prices caused by English government tactics. Food actually tripled in price. The irresponsible Parliament at Westminster stopped the public works scheme. With no income, the peasants left their homes in desperation, carrying disease with them. Many thousands moved to the towns, where the gates of salvation churches were locked. Peasant corpses in hedges and ditches became a familiar sight.

Famine victims at Skibbereen, Cork, engraving by James Mahony, 1847

During the severe winter of 1847, a sharp increase in the Irish mortality rate occurred.  Death was slow and very painful. From Cork to Belfast, the reality of death was a mockery of Parliamentary evasion. That year became known as Black 47. Corpses were devoured by rats, dogs, and pigs. Reports of cannibalism add to the stark picture of disaster. This trend has to be viewed in the context of 16 million tons of grain denied to the sufferers by Parliament, plus the huge amount of Irish livestock despatched to England.

The leisurely Parliament did not convene for several months until January 1847. In August 1846, the English Treasurer, Charles Trevelyan, took a holiday in France. By January, thousands were dead or dying in Ireland. Deaths in workhouses had reached the figure of 2,700 per week. The poor in Donegal were now living on seaweed. In March 1847, Trevelyan and his close colleagues were influencing the English media projection of anti-Irish propaganda. The Times accused the Irish poor of “astounding apathy.” The complacent Whig agents of social damage won the General Election that year, remaining in power until 1852. Eventually, the overflowing Irish graveyards could no longer accept any more corpses for burial. Mass graveyards became the resort.

Gifts from philanthropists had to offset the huge shortfall created by Westminster inertia. An excelling contributor was not a Christian, but a Jew, namely Lionel de Rothschild, the London MP and financier. In January 1847, this well informed benefactor arranged a meeting in his home, to discuss both the Irish famine and the suffering in the Scottish Highlands. He and his Jewish friends formed the British Relief Association, raising a substantial sum equivalent to 600,000 dollars (The Forgotten Righteous Jew, 2018). This occurred at a juncture when the Times of London was morbidly asserting to English readers that helping the savage Irish was like throwing money away in an Irish bog. National sentiment can prove utterly primitive.

The Jews were far ahead of Queen Victoria, who gave £2,000. However, that sum greatly exceeded the fifty dollars pledged by American President James Polk. The Sultan of Turkey reduced his much higher pledge to £1,000 after learning how little Victoria was sending.

Captain Robert B. Forbes; USS Jamestown arriving at Cobh, painting by Rodney Charman (detail)

America transpired to be a winner in other ways. In February 1847, a group of Boston merchants petitioned Congress to loan them a warship to deliver aid to Ireland. As a consequence, the USS Jamestown was placed at the disposal of Captain Robert Bennett Forbes. This sloop was now loaded with more than 8,000 barrels of bread, beans, pork, beef, peas, corn, potatoes, and other supplies (Warship of Peace). The Jamestown arrived at Cobh (Cove), near Cork, in April 1847, the cargo being distributed at many locations in that county.

At the city of Cork, Captain Forbes was treated to a sumptuous banquet by the wealthy Anglo-Irish upper class. Afterwards he visited an urban locale where the poor were starving. Forbes received a shock, as conditions were far worse than he had imagined. “I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me, hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture.” He described the scene in terms of “the valley of death and pestilence” (Forbes 1847:22). His account includes the following description:

Crowds flock in, from the country to the west and south-west and south-east of Cork, the hospitals and poor houses [workhouses] and jails are full to overflowing, though numbers die daily to make room for the dying; every corner of the street is filled with pale care worn creatures, the weak leading and supporting the weaker, women assail you at every turn with famished babes. (Forbes 1847:22-23)

Captain Forbes encountered Father Theobald Mathew, then assisting many famine victims at Cork. This diligent Catholic priest had recently sent five significant letters to Charles Trevelyan, the politician of Westminster in charge of relief operations. The priest pleaded for more food, describing the terrible urban and rural situations in which thousands were dying every week. Trevelyan would not assist; he preferred to treat the Irish problem as an exaggeration. Westminster was a closed door. In contrast, American donors became enthusiastic. That same year, a total of 114 ships sailed from America to deliver food and clothing to Ireland (Puleo 2020).

In another direction, wheat, dairy produce, and livestock were exported from Ireland by government sponsored merchants to England. According to some estimates, these exports could have fed the entire Irish population twice over. At least one of the American mercy vessels was intercepted by English ships; the Americans had to pay for the cargo to be transferred to English shipping corporations, who subsequently unloaded after the dangerous delay. The English profit here came before any aid to the starving. This situation has led to a complaint that, while America was consigning free food, England (then the richest nation in the world) was adamant that poverty-stricken Irish peasants must pay market prices to appease merchants.

In April 1847, Westminster at last conceded that fever and disease existed in Ireland. This fact was too glaringly obvious even for the evasive Parliament to deny. The overcrowded Irish hospitals, small in number (about forty of these), became known as stinking death traps. Victims could survive longer outside in the fields. Rampant diseases spread to the Anglo-Irish upper class, who also lacked immunity. The problems extended north to Protestants in Ulster.

The English Whigs did not escape criticism. Lord Bentinck complained that no records were being kept of famine deaths. In April 1847, Lord John Russell and his Whig administration belatedly created soup kitchens, a cosmetic strategy inspired (or goaded) by the example of Quakers who were genuine humanitarians, saving many lives in Ireland (for the Quaker and other relief projects, see Kinealy 2013). Parliament is reported to have stingily replaced the nutritious Quaker soup with “flavoured water.” Captain Forbes visited a soup kitchen at Cork, guarded by police. He comments disdainfully: “I can readily conceive [that this soup] would be refused by well bred pigs” (Forbes 1847:22).

Parliament terminated the soup distribution after only a few months, even though over three million peasants were dependent on this subsistence. The harvest of 1847 was supposedly a solution to social problems. This harvest transpired to be dismally remunerative, at only a quarter of normal capacity. Parliament conveniently maintained that Irish money should relieve the famine. In June 1847, Parliament passed the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, relying for aid upon taxes, also the workhouses and a national grid of local Unions (meaning clusters of parishes). The plan was disastrous. The workhouses quickly fell into debt, turning away large numbers of starving people.

Many workhouses were formerly occupied by elderly people, widows, and children. Trevelyan wanted these inmates to be ejected and replaced by men. Conscientious officials in Ireland objected to this plan. Ethical Quakers also objected to the Poor Law Extension Act. Workhouses were widely feared as the scene of flogging; strict rules were explicitly designed to deter arrivals. The 130 workhouses in Ireland had no chance of coping with the new crisis, extending to cholera. Many dying peasants never reached the workhouses. Those who did were allocated two square feet of space in which to suffer and die. Some workhouses were overloaded with two thousand or more inmates. Their actual capacity was about two hundred.

By the end of 1847, Westminster had extracted almost £1 million from the Irish via taxpayers and rate collectors (who even confiscated the clothes of homeless paupers). Charles Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer, stated: “I should not be at all squeamish.” His total lack of conscience advocated the use of mounted soldiers to enforce the new Poor Law.

Economic crisis in England provided a lame excuse for Westminster tactics. In West Ireland, the people starved in the winter of 1847-48 on a scale similar to that of the previous winter. In some regions, evicted families resorted to hovels cut out of the bog, also primitive holes dug into the hillside. Some landlords hired local thugs to eject tenants and destroy their cottages. English troops were also used for this purpose, a bonus of mistreatment from the predatory Exchequer. Resentful Irish protesters shot six landlords (and ten accomplices), including Denis Mahon of Co. Roscommon. An officer in a British cavalry regiment, Mahon owned 9,000 acres of land, including 28 small villages. Mahon evicted all his tenants, including over 80 helpless widows. He was ambushed and shot dead.

Westminster responded to unrest by sending 15,000 soldiers to Ireland, and prohibiting the use of firearms amongst civilians. To speak against Parliament or the Crown was now made a crime punishable by deportation to Australia, in some instances for life. More troops were despatched to crush the short-lived Young Ireland rebellion. Trevelyan made prosperous local Unions pay for other Unions suffering economic depletion. In this manner, economic stability in Ireland was extensively eroded. Even the oppressive Lord Clarendon complained.

Bridget O'Donnell and her children after their eviction in Clare. Illustrated London News, 1849

In 1848, the entire potato crop was again destroyed by blight. Parliament responded with a series of harsh measures. A relentless newspaper, the Times of London, pronounced the Irish to be guilty of ingratitude. The Whig government at Westminster affirmed that their meritorious assistance had been greeted with rebellion. The tax increases exerted by this government resulted in many small Irish landlords and farmers emigrating to America. West Ireland suffered a heavy loss of population. In the general chaos and suffering, the old Irish communal way of life (featuring neighbours sharing in goodwill) collapsed, replaced by a selfish survival of the fittest encouraged by British Empire capitalism and misrule. Some parents even abandoned their children (Ruin of Ireland).

The English Whig politicians refused to close the Irish ports so that food might remain in Ireland. Instead, they gave free rein to merchants in Ireland and England. The non-interventionist (laissez-faire) policy of Parliament evoked the accusation that Ireland had been sacrificed to the London corn dealers. Large amounts of food left Ireland, even from impoverished areas. Politicians were not concerned about the starving. The fashionable Political Economy suggested that poverty was the fault of the poor, providing an adroit excuse to ignore dire need. The truth is that both Irish and English merchants were opportunists in their approach to food shortages as a means of increased profits. Another fact is that British people were heavy consumers of Irish bacon, eggs, butter, fish, and various other products.

While the Americans were sending ships of food to Ireland, the English were taking out all the Irish food supplies for their own use. Some Irish counties had grain mills, pig markets, breweries, and other facilities. Limerick, Clare, Kerry, and Galway provided extensive supplies exported by the Westminster process of acquisition. A network of landlords and merchants were keen to assist the process. In a different camp, the Society of Friends (Quakers) complained that 10,000 people in Donegal were living in a state of almost unbelievable degradation.

English politicians in London continued to justify minimal intervention by laying the blame for the situation on the Irish poor themselves, who were supposedly lazy and uncivilised. Those politicians continued to enjoy an affluent lifestyle of Empire celebrities, their portraits being painted in a pretentious manner associated with Roman Empire predecessors. The Roman and the British Empires had much in common. The overall English military presence in Ireland was very substantial.

Politicians in London maintained that the Irish should pay for the famine problem. The ratepayers were landlords and the more affluent tenants. London created a tax burden for Irish landlords, who responded by evicting tenants with no money. The British Empire wanted to be absolved of all responsibility for the famine. Centuries of colonial domination are not so easily overlooked. Likewise the Gregory Clause, also known as the “Eviction Made Easy Act.” This was inserted to amend the Poor Law in June 1847. Any peasant who applied for benefit could only retain one quarter acre of his rented property, while gaining a pittance for his family. Commentators say the victim was doomed to eviction because he could not maintain a livelihood on such a small holding, nor raise the rent required.

Some landlords offered to pay for a passage to America, wishing to clear tenants quickly so they could raise livestock. The hazardous voyage could last for three months. Landlords too often provided the worst ships, accompanied by lies as to the outcome. This way, they could eject a whole village from their estate.

l to r: Lord Palmerston, Sir Charles Trevelyan

One of the eminent landlords was Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), the Foreign Secretary in the English government during 1846-1851. He is classified as an Anglo-Irish absentee landlord. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, he inherited a vast country estate in Sligo. Palmerston evicted two thousand peasants during the Great Famine. He also financed the emigration of starving peasants to Canada and America, as did Lord Lansdowne (1780-1863), who likewise instigated mass clearances of destitute tenants from his own estates in Kerry. Palmerston was not being generous; he wanted to get rid of people superfluous to his ambitious aims. Like certain others, he owned about 100,000 acres. Palmerston has been accused of consigning his ex-tenants to the long voyage with ragged clothing. His justification for such measures was in the idiom of a “systematic ejectment of small holders and of squatting cottiers” being necessary for improvement in “the social system of Ireland.” The social system meant deep pockets for elite landlords and politicians, with acute misery and death befalling their tenants.

In 1848, when the potato crop again failed, there were further consequences of death and disease. Some analysts say that over half a million people had died by this time. Others say the total was higher. The situation was met by the metaphysical excuse of an eminent Parliamentarian, namely Charles Trevelyan:

The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people… they are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence.

A close colleague of Trevelyan was Sir Charles Wood (1800-85), an Anglo-Indian politician and Chancellor of the Exchequer during the period 1846-1851. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he learned acute anti-Irish sentiment, including the contention: “A want of food and employment is a calamity sent by Providence.” The Trevelyan circle viewed the Great Famine as the will of God.

In June 1849, Trevelyan suggested that all children should be ejected from the workhouses to make room for able-bodied men. The Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twisleton (1809-74), refused to comply. The number of people receiving relief in Irish workhouses was now peaking at 227,000 per day (Famine Timeline).

The pleas of Twisleton (an Englishman), for more assistance, gained media support in Ireland but resistance at Westminster. As a consequence, he resigned in March 1849. Twisleton afterwards campaigned against the Whig administration, making the accusation that they could have been successful in famine relief if they had allocated only a trifling amount from the huge sum reserved for military purposes (Twisleton, Edward T. B., Dictionary of Irish Biography, online).

The dissenting Twisleton resigned after many strong conflicts with Trevelyan, whose role was Secretary of the Treasury. The latter was not solely responsible for lamented policies, his superiors (like Charles Wood) exerting much influence. Trevelyan was reluctant to release any government funding to assist the starving, wishing instead to rely for aid upon charitable organisations and gifts. An underlying reason for reluctance is revealed in his extant anti-Irish statements. For instance, Trevelyan expressed very disparaging remarks about the Irish people in a notorious letter affirming piously: “The judgment of God sent the calamity [of famine] to teach the Irish a lesson.” His fantasy included a false claim that the famine was over. Subsequently, a new peak of deaths occurred in 1849, even worse than Black 47. 

Modern partisans depict Trevelyan in a more positive light than many critics are prepared to concede (Haines 2004). The apologist flair “does not dispel the view that Trevelyan was a man driven by ideas that influenced him in formulating policy, as well as justifying those policies even after the scale of the suffering became apparent” (review by Ciara Boylan, online). Cf.  Trevelyan 2006.

Relief committees were under the general supervision of Trevelyan; his system has been considered haphazard and unduly parsimonious. Disliking the Irish landowning class, he was obliged to liase between Westminster and the Dublin Castle elite. Trevelyan authored The Irish Crisis (1848), a subject in which he considered himself an expert second to none. However, his train of thought, on a number of points, can nauseate critics:

He regarded deaths by starvation as “a discipline,” a painful one admittedly but nevertheless a discipline, and he considered that they [deaths] were a smaller evil than bankruptcy, for through them [deaths] a greater good was to be obtained for Ireland and the whole British nation. (Hart 1960:99)

This politician was a dogmatic Protestant, confirmed by his article in the Edinburgh Review dating to 1848. Here Trevelyan supported the orthodox view that God was punishing Irish Catholics for their adherence to Popery. This was not a belief promising to be the most successful in alleviation of a famine affecting a Catholic majority. The politician was in evident approval of the fact that starvation encouraged emigration.

That same year of 1848, Trevelyan was knighted for his services to the Crown (ten years later, he became Governor of Madras). He and his colleagues had stopped loans for dying Irish children and prevented a rescue package of surplus army clothing. They ensured that very numerous cartloads of export food, en route to the Irish ports and England, ignored starving peasants dying at the roadside. British Empire discrepancies are on sufficient record to indict the overbearing cause of the Crown from Henry VIII onwards (and earlier).

In 1849, a Parliamentary Commission informed that during 1845-47, half a million cattle, half a million pigs, and a million sheep were shipped from Ireland to consumer England. Such statistics continued during the Famine death toll. When Queen Victoria visited East Ireland in 1849, she travelled by boat, gaining a wrong impression of events, which she passed on as fact. The gap between rulers and subjects is often very substantial.

That same year, a strong criticism of the Whig Parliament came from George Villiers (1800-70), Earl of Clarendon, an Englishman serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He referred to “a policy of extermination,” meaning the disregard of suffering in West Ireland. This Viceroy supported the Poor Law commissioner Edward Twisleton in a plea for famine aid. Parliament refused the request. Villiers privately denounced Trevelyan. In other respects, Villiers was a more typical Whig, employing coercive methods to confront Irish unrest. He increased the Dublin garrison to 10,000 soldiers.

In Ireland, scrupulous Commissioners complained that the dead and missing peasants in County Clare had been abandoned by the English government. Fifty percent of the local Kilrush population had vanished since 1846 (the highest death toll was in Mayo, to the north). The Commissioners stated in a report: “A neglect of public duty has occurred and has occasioned a state of things disgraceful to a civilised age and country, for which some authority ought to be held responsible.” The guilty agents escaped due confrontation, even though the zone of disaster was much larger than County Clare. Some analysts believe that the total of Irish Famine dead was over two million, twice the more conservative estimate. There was no relevant admission of blame for 150 years, until 1997, coming from the English Labour Party, not the Conservatives.

In 1850, a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry was created in relation to Kilrush Union in County Clare. Two reports were prepared, neither of which was adopted by the evasive Committee. One report included the “neglect of public duty” complaint quoted above; this was part of a critical verdict on the local landlords, and also the “Guardians” of Kilrush Poor Law Union. The contrasting report was proposed by Sir Lucius O’Brien of Dromoland (in Co. Clare), who attempted to justify the large number of evictions at issue. Political negation of public duty, exerted in high places, offset the complaint.

William Smith O'Brien, 1848.

Sir Lucius was educated at Cambridge, later active as a Conservative politician in County Clare. His opposing relative was the liberal William Smith O'Brien (1803-64), who led a rebellion of the Young Irelanders that was quickly crushed (after only two days) in 1848. Young Ireland here means “an eclectic group of middle class intellectuals” (Kinealy 2009). The dissidents were reacting to the imposition of martial law and other English strictures. O’Brien was very critical of Parliament’s attitude to the Famine, “which they have permitted if they have not caused.”

William Smith O’ Brien was declared guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. In former centuries, this dire punishment had intimidated dissenters against the Crown. The revived deterrent could not achieve success in this fresh instance. A petition for clemency was signed by 70,000 Irish (and also thousands of English liberals). The sentence was altered to exile in Tasmania. The deported man was finally pardoned in 1856, for the reason that so many soldiers in the Crimean War were Irish. His Tasmanian Journal contains an indictment of the English rule of Ireland:

Force, fraud, intrigue, corruption are the agencies by which England has ever sought to uphold her rule in Ireland, coercion acts, standing armies of soldiers, standing armies of police, packed juries, hired spies, hired informers, hired journalists, moral assassins of every class - such are the agents employed in the government of Ireland."

A witness of the abovementioned and facesaving Parliamentary Inquiry, in 1850, was Captain Arthur E. Kennedy (1810-83), an Irish soldier who became a Poor Law Inspector in Kilrush Union at the end of 1847. The following year he reported:

As soon as one horde of houseless and all but naked paupers are dead, or provided for in the workhouse, another wholesale eviction doubles the number, who in their turn pass through the same ordeal of wandering from house to house, or burrowing in bogs or behind ditches, till broken down by privation and exposure to the elements, they seek the workhouse, or die by the roadside.

Kennedy organised the Kilrush workhouse, where cartloads of famine victims arrived. The passengers could not walk. Too many of them suffered fever and disease. Many years later, Kennedy informed that he had felt inclined to shoot landlords for their callous evictions. At Kilrush, a mass grave for famine victims became the norm. The dead lost all identity in this trend of desperation.

The reports filed by Captain Kennedy were described as exaggerations by his opponents. However, the evidence outweighed landlord apologism. An extensive levelling of evicted tenant houses was confirmed. Surviving unroofed walls were described in terms of “the tombs of a departed race.” The Catholic peasants of Clare were entirely dispensable to the commercial agenda of undeclared murder.

Kennedy evoked strong opposition from wealthy landlords for his public exposure of eviction. His expanded workhouse was eventually able to accommodate over 5,000 famine sufferers, many with smallpox. He had to work against the negativity of a so-called Board of Guardians, chaired by the major local landlord, namely Colonel Crofton Moore Vandeleur (1809-84). This Conservative was Irish (his family originally Dutch). Vandeleur’s Protestant education at Harrow and Cambridge had initiated him into the superiority complex of the master race, who were so far above Irish peasants that a vast number of deaths was meaningless in the status drive of Empire. The British imposition of martial law in Ireland supposedly proved ascendancy of the most civilised nation the world had ever known (a theme favoured by some national historians like Lord Macauley).

Vandeleur was heir to vast estates in 1828. His family effectively owned Kilrush in Co. Clare. His landowning rights were firmly maintained via the many evictions occurring on his territory. He had no sympathy with the famine, which he was merely obliged to acknowledge as a fact. He became a Conservative party politician from 1859, as MP for Clare (Senan Scanlan, Vandeleurs of Kilrush).

Kennedy was frustrated in his efforts for “outdoor relief,” a charity for victims stubbornly blocked by the Board of Guardians. The Board attitude was that expenses must be reduced, a strategy in which they succeeded for a time. These conservatives eventually conspired to have Kennedy transferred from Kilrush, an event lamented as a disaster by the local press. Crowds of commoners bade farewell to Kennedy at his departure. He considerately left the famine victims many large packages of clothing. His dismissal from the Poor Law service can be interpreted as a symptom of official corruption and gross negligence. Kennedy subsequently triumphed, in that he became Governor of Western Australia. Meanwhile, the huge number of Irish peasant deaths was assisted by Westminster and landlordism.

Emigration  from  Ireland

In Black 47 (1847), the emigration increased from earlier years; the figure of 250,000 departees is quoted for that calamity year. The previous year, 100,000 left Ireland. Some Irish were already in America, sending money to relatives. Avaricious steamship companies increased the cost of passage to Liverpool, where the voyage to America commenced. The profitable overcrowding assisted the spread of lice and disease. One in seven passengers did not survive. The hazard was not merely shipwreck. The “coffin” ships had no water or sanitation. Many corpses were thrown overboard.

The Great Famine killed over a million and caused the emigration of almost 1.5 million Irish. The relatively affluent farmers (a “middle class”) participated in this flight from disease and economic chaos; too many of the poorest died in hopeless conditions, though many rural Irish escaped. Over 420,000 Irish voyaged to America, frequently in overcrowded “coffin ships” creating a high death toll. As diseased people, they were not welcome in America. However, they managed to exist in New York slums so distressing that these are difficult to describe.

In Canada, thousands died without being able to land because of their diseased condition. At Montreal, the disembarked passengers were placed in the quarantine of “fever sheds.” Others voyaged to Australia. About 300,000 chose England and Scotland, a territory much nearer to them, though attended by the hazard of English contempt and misreporting.

Irish labourer, 1850s

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73) wrote in 1846: “It may require a hundred thousand armed men to make the Irish people submit to the common destiny of working in order to live” (Millian Liberalism). This convergence with the anti-Irish rhetoric of political economy (and Charles Trevelyan) had no justification. Mill was out of focus in history, the Irish navvies already being active on the British railways, a prized achievement of the Industrial Revolution. The Trevelyan camp were overbearingly proud of their factories and railways, their triumphant army and celebrated navy. According to British Empire propaganda, the Irish people were not on the status map of pragmatic utility. Certainly, the carbon poison footprint of industrialism would increase over the generations.

Irish crop failures in earlier years had already caused many thousands in Ireland to migrate to England. The Irish journeyed in steamships to ports on the British west coast, especially Cardiff, Liverpool, and Port Glasgow.  These people engaged in a desperate search for work, many finding employment on the railway projects commencing in 1822.  They were mainly found living in north-west England, southern Scotland, and south-east England. A decade after the Great Famine, half a million Irish lived in mainland Britain. Many came from rural areas, finding urban adaptation very difficult.

Liverpool was the major port of entry for Irish immigrants. This city had formerly been the leading mercantile arm of the English slave trade in Africans. Negroes were unjustly held in very low esteem, to say the least. Irish immigrants were also resented; a racist campaign of anti-Irish defamation continued over decades. Physical attacks on the Irish, literally with sticks and stones, could easily occur. In some public houses, a prohibition sign contemptuously stated: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” This attitude was assisted by the English press tendency to caricature the Irish as primitive creatures resembling apes.

The media is often remote from reality. At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, about a quarter of Admiral Nelson's fleet were Irish, a fact too often overlooked. That famous fleet of 33 ships had some 18,000 men, of whom records survive for about 12,000. Over 3,500 of those identified sailors came from Ireland, many from Dublin and Cork, plus other places. The curator of naval history, at the National Maritime Museum, has informed: "The contribution of the Irish was enormous, not just about people but about provisions including beef, pork and grain; huge amounts were coming to Britain from Ireland at the time" (England expects, with a little help from Nelson's Irish). The Irish substantially assisted to staff and feed the British navy.

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment holding square at Waterloo, 1815. Painting by Peter Archer. Courtesy Royal Irish Regiment

A proportion of Irish immigrants joined both the British army and the British navy, a trend with a long tradition continuing into the present day. Irish army regiments were strong in the Napoleonic Wars. The 27th Regiment (known as Inniskilling) held the centre of Wellington's crucial line at Waterloo. Most of these courageous soldiers were Catholics. At Waterloo, the 27th Regiment suffered many dead and wounded as a consequence of French artillery. Despite the casualty rate of two-thirds, the Inniskillings tenaciously maintained their square. Years later, the Anglo-Irish Duke of Wellington stated: "They saved the centre of my line." If they had failed, the battle might easily have been lost.

Other Irish immigrants became railway navvies and factory workers. The navvy phenomenon was complex. Some three thousand miles of railway line were constructed in England by 1850 (and 13,000 miles by 1871). Large colonies of itinerant manual workers lived in rough wooden huts near the worksites. They were known as navvies, from the word navigator familiar in earlier work activity on English canals (many Irish workers were attracted by the high wages offered in America, on canal projects, by 1818). “On most lines, skilled workers probably accounted for 10-20 percent of all labour” (Brooke 1989:40). Crucial tunnel miners were in evidence. Also represented were carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, brickmakers, and others. These skilled men received a higher wage than the labourers.

The English, Scottish, and Welsh navvies were very resentful of the Irish immigrants, fearing that their wages would be undercut. A belief of accusers was that the Irish were prepared to work for lower pay. “Contractors claimed that they did not pay the Irish less than other nationalities, but it is difficult to get at the truth of the matter” (Brooke 1989:42-3). This tension also reflected an older religious division between Protestants and Catholics (especially the Scots versus Irish complication). As a consequence, the Irish were in constant danger of racist attack from their rivals in the north of England and Scotland. The Glasgow Irish eventually became Scots, or Scots- Irish.

Working ten hours a day, English and Irish navvies could drink a gallon of beer in the evenings, and were liable to brawl. “It was part of the accepted and regular pattern of [British] entertainment in town and country for an evening of heavy drinking to be concluded by a series of pugilistic contests in the streets” (Brooke 1989:43). In 1838, a pitched battle between English and Irish navvies occurred at Preston, Lancashire. Resort was made on both sides to swords and guns, leaving many wounded. Railway companies learned to avoid violent outbreaks by keeping apart the different contingents of English, Irish, and Scottish navvies. Each ethnic division was assigned a different section of the track. Many of the Irish navvies were apparently Ulster Catholics, differing from the more rural Irish who came to England on a seasonal basis for sheep-shearing and harvesting (Sullivan 1983:49-50).

Common denominators of the different ethnic factions were illiteracy and poverty. They had no vocation open to them other than manual work. They were all helpless servants of a system run by wealthy railway companies and upper class techniques of superiority. The great mansions and stately homes would not have accepted any of them as visitors.

The English bungled the history of navvies, generalising the details, and presenting the Irish railway worker in a very unfavourable light. Flawed sources include hostile newspaper reports relaying anti-Irish propaganda about the Great Famine and lazy peasants. In 1848, the Times of London mocked the emigration of starved and diseased Irish victims. “Soon a Celt will be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a red man on the banks of the Manhattan.” This hostile racist statement speaks volumes about deficient Empire PR.

A myth developed that most (or all) of the navvies were Irishmen with a disposition for theft and drunken assaults. In reality, only about 30 percent of the railway navvies were Irish, with a small number of these being found in many English counties. They were the principal railway workers in Scotland, “from the Borders to the Grampians” (Brooke 1989:40). In 1851, about 25 percent of rail navvies at Knaresborough viaduct (North Yorkshire) were Irish (Sullivan 1983:49). In 1861, 54 percent of navvies on the Border Union Railway in Cumberland were Irish, as compared with less than 2 percent on the Sevenoaks section of the South Eastern Railway. By the end of the century, about 80 percent of railway navvies were English, according to some calculations.

Many of the navvies in England were not Irish, but underemployed agricultural labourers recruited from nearby farms (also handloom weavers and other trades). An incentive for railway work was a higher wage than the basic agricultural income. The English agriculturalists “constituted the bulk of the [railway] labour in most parts of England and Wales” (Brooke 1989:39). Many reverted to field work during the summer months. In the 1840s, the peak period of railway activity, some 200,000 (or more) navvies were in action. They used pick axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, horses, gunpowder, and the locomotive. Railway tunnels could be a very dangerous proposition. Injury and death were constant hazards. Injuries did not receive any compensation.

Anti-Irish propaganda in England included the assertion, on popular media, that rags and squalor were the inevitable hallmark of the despised Gaelic race. Fraser’s Magazine gained an enduring reputation for spreading a belief that the Irish were lazy and workshy. These populist slurs were repeated by the politicians. Certain well known statements of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) were in the bigoted mode: “This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character.” The political broadsides exemplify British Empire biases, including a chronic lack of sympathy with the Great Famine death toll.

President Michael D. Higgins

The origin of anti-Irish rhetoric has been explained by the Irish President Michael Higgins. The focus here moves to Manchester, where circa 1800, Irish immigrants arrived to supply a demand for hand-loom weavers. They had to live in the poverty-stricken zone of “Little Ireland,” an overcrowded slum where about 4,000 people were surrounded by factories of the Industrial Revolution. In 1832, a local Manchester physician became concerned about cholera in the Irish locale. He produced a pamphlet urging the improvement of conditions for the urban working class. This widely-read pamphlet was the hapless source for anti-Irish prejudice in England. The distorting reception created “a negative stereotype character of ill repute.” Disasters in Ireland were interpreted as “a direct result of their own [Irish] inherent inadequacy” (John McAuliffe, President Higgins on Manchester's Irish Connection, 2012, an address to the University of Manchester). 

By 1841, a tenth of the Manchester population was Irish. The strong influx of immigrants surged into Birmingham and other cities. In 1845, the German neo-Hegelian communist Friedrich Engels (1820-95) boosted anti-Irish bias in his description of Manchester inhabitants. Engels viewed the Irish as “virtually uncivilised…. uncouth, improvident and addicted to drink.” Such offensive judgments created a belief that the Irish had only themselves to blame for poverty. The Engelsian myopia was pronounced. The Irish had “become convenient scapegoats for environmental deterioration” in the industrial era (Higgins, article last linked). Engels himself was the bourgeois son of a wealthy partner in a Manchester cotton plant; he did not have to worry about income.  

Navvy stamina and muscle-power substantially exceeded that of revolutionaries like Engels, elite politicians like Disraeli and Trevelyan, also office workers like John Stuart Mill. The navvies did not require an army to make them work (contrary to the blithe assumption of Mill about the Irish in 1846). In this respect, the influential biases of political economy are negated via a dynamic scenario in which, by 1850, the navvy workforce in England was bigger than the army and navy combined (Railway Museum). About a third of that workforce was Irish.

Middle class revolutionaries and office workers would probably have died if they attempted serious navvy work. The “professional” navvies had more endurance than the common labourers (this category is not always distinguished). Sons of navvies started work at the age of seven upwards. A labourer who was flabby (rather than muscular) could need a year of hard training before he could keep up with a “muck-shovelling” team. English navvies early proved how tough they were. In 1829, an Armenian engineer reported: “I have seen many powerful, muscular men with their blood oozing out of their eyes and nostrils.” The French thought that English navvies were bizarre for their strength, muscle, and rough speech. These men were keen meat-eaters, devouring large portions of beef and bacon. They reportedly ate more meat than the Irish.

A precedent feat, among Georgian era canal cutters (who included some Irish), was to dig out a trench of 12 cubic yards of earth a day. This vigorous exercise was exceeded by early railway navvies, who could dig out 25 cubic yards of heavy clay daily. Working in pairs, two of these men were expected to fill 14 wagons of clay per day, meaning 7 wagons for each navvy (Sullivan 1983:56-57).

Railway navvies in Yorkshire, Victorian era

The hard-working Irish, English, Welsh, and Scottish navvies were tragically exploited by railway companies. The rate of accidents amongst workers, by 1839, was dramatically increasing. In 1839-40, Parliament accordingly requested diverse railway companies to provide details about injuries and deaths suffered by navvies. Only a few companies responded, all the others ignoring this requirement. Thereafter, Parliament deviously resorted to the convenience of expressing concern only for the deaths and injuries amongst railway passengers and company staff (Brooke 1989:35). This unsatisfactory situation continued into the 1890s. For each mile of rail laid, an average of three work-related deaths occurred; the statistics could be much higher in tunnel sections of the line.

The Woodhead Tunnels project (1839-1852) became notorious for navvy deaths and injuries. This danger zone was part of the railway line between Manchester and Sheffield, commenced in 1839. The first tunnel was opened in 1845, the second in 1853. The parallel tunnels, under the Pennine hills, were three miles long.  Some Irish were involved in this labour (apparently more so in the first phase). Navvies laid cart tracks across the Derbyshire moor, and built stables for the many horses employed. A navvy camp at nearby Saltersbrook was typically rudimentary in amenities. The railway company failed to provide workers with adequate housing and sanitation. Navvies had to improvise their own dwellings. During excavation of the first tunnel, 32 navvies were killed and a further 250 were seriously injured (Woodhead's Forgotten Tragedy).

In January 1846, the investigator Edwin Chadwick delivered a critical report to the Manchester Statistical Society. He revealed how injured navvies were forced to fend for themselves, how most workers on the Woodhead Tunnel project lived in crude self-made hovels through severe Pennine winters. Chadwick exposed the practice of paying navvies in public houses, which encouraged them to drink their wages. Delayed payments forced them into the “truck system” of dependence on the railway company. Chadwick also showed how the bad repute of the navvy as a drunkard was a direct consequence of the corporation tactic failing to supply proper food and housing (Laws 2013:72-75).

The railway company denied the charges in 1846. Some Members of Parliament concluded that navvies should be paid weekly in cash, not in tokens bonding them to the infamous “truck system” (token cards were not always accepted in shops). However, Parliament shelved the report. The all-powerful railway tycoons faced no effective opposition in evasive Political Economy.

An uncertain number of Woodhead navvies were buried in, and near, an isolated church graveyard on the Derbyshire moors. A cholera outbreak in their insanitary camp added to the misfortune. Some Irish Catholic navvies, and their families, were reputedly not permitted to be buried in the Anglican cemetery.

An unusual railway contractor was Thomas Brassey (1805-70), whom navvies respected as a generous employer. He was the first to take a navvy workforce overseas, constructing over 6,000 miles of railway in Britain, Europe, Russia, Canada, Australia, and South America (Jill Maclean, Domestication of the Navvy). India was another zone of this activity.

Navvies at Manchester Ship Canal circa 1890

A major undertaking was the Manchester Ship Canal, spanning the years 1887-94. Despite some new technology, an enormous amount of hand labour was involved in this canal, thirty-six miles in length. The Irish contingent “numbered upwards of five thousand, or just under one third of the labour force of 16,000 men” (Cowley 2001). Some 130 navvies died on that canal, many more being injured by the hard work and mishaps.

Concrete first appeared in the 1860s, not being used extensively until the early 1890s, when the West Highland Railway (WHR) was a priority. The navvies on this project were Highlanders, Irish, Poles, and others. Work lasted from 1887 until 1894. There were five camps on the WHR, including those at Arrochar, Crianlarich, and Ardlui, in the vicinity of Loch Lomond. The accommodation was mainly wooden huts. Working conditions were severe, with little shelter from the frequent rain or snow. "The men would have been wet to the bone for much of the time." Many of the Irish navvies apparently did not stay very long, because of the remote zone and difficult conditions. They moved south to England (The Navvies Who Died).

In America, Irish navvies were the primary workers on the Union Pacific Railroad. In the drive westwards, they were able to own farms for the first time after many centuries of English domination in Ireland.

Irish harvesters in Yorkshire, 1920s

With the railway boom ending in England, Irish navvies there laboured on roads and at dockyards, while continuing seasonal work in the fields. During the late nineteenth century, over 80 percent of Irish emigrants chose America as their destination. From the mid-1930s, England became the major focus in a search for employment. By the 1950s, over 80 percent of Irish emigrants selected England, contributing strongly to the construction industry (Cowley 2001). The English racist myth of the lazy Irish was shattered innumerable times in real life.

Meanwhile, my Irish grandfather lived in Yorkshire; the Irish ghetto had been extended from Manchester to Middlesbrough. He was at first a navvy before joining the navy, in which he served during the First World War. Afterwards, he taught himself to read and write. He had formerly imagined that the Bible explained religious wars. Now he read the Bible from cover to cover, finding no due explanation of what he wanted to know. At first he was perplexed, then he became angry, feeling that he had been deceived by church ministers. He read many other books also, pursuing the history of religion and society. He abandoned Roman Catholic belief, regarding religious divisions as a major affliction. The Catholic versus Protestant divide had been maintained by clerics for four centuries, causing innumerable deaths and sufferings.

Patrick Murphy, a self-educated navvy, was a marathon walker in the 1920s/30s hunger marches to London. Participants on those marches were responding to the Conservative Party neglect of northern England, Scotland, and Wales. The same establishment was merciless in quelling Irish Independence during the years 1920-22. Sir Winston Churchill despatched the Black and Tans to Ireland on a mission of suppression. Churchill’s wife expressed disagreement with his reliance upon “the rough iron-fisted Hunnish way.” Thousands of Irish had died on the English side in WW1. That was not enough for the punishing Churchill. His colonial strong arm now imposed upon Ireland martial law, censorship of the press, plus mass arrest of Sinn Fein leaders.

The policing force known as Black and Tans were assigned to the Royal Irish Constabulary. About 10,000 men were enlisted, mainly young and unemployed former English soldiers. Their orders were to counter the Irish Republican Army. The Black and Tans gained a dark reputation for police brutality and war crimes. They attacked civilians and their property via arson and looting. They also resorted to beatings and killings. Many Irish villages were hit by this English Conservative gesture of hostility. Numerous houses were burned in the reprisals. The English never had any right to be the bloodthirsty colonialists in Ireland.


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Bradshaw, Brendan, “Nationalism and Historical Scholarship in Modern Ireland,” Irish Historical Studies (1989) 26:329-351.
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------“The Railway Navvy – a Reassessment,” Construction History (1989) 5:35-45.
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The East India Company and the Raj

By 1800, much of India was controlled by the East India Company (EIC), a British innovation of a predatory nature. The shareholders in this commercial enterprise included wealthy British merchants and aristocrats. The EIC overthrew the Mughal rulers (Dalrymple 2019). The aggressive mercantile corporation captured Delhi in 1803 and ruled India until 1858, when the Raj phase commenced. The British Parliament officially condemned the economic exploitation of Bengal by the Company. The EIC “starved millions in India by monopolies and plunder, and almost raised a famine at home by the luxury occasioned by their opulence” (Tharoor 2017:11).

Lord Clive, painting by Nathaniel Dance (detail), National Portrait Gallery, London

From the 1680s until the 1850s, the EIC was engaged in the pursuit of raising revenue from annexed territories in India. The ruthless Major-General  Robert Clive (1725-74) was the first British governor of the Bengal Presidency. He was elevated to the rank of a Lord for his EIC activity. A proportion of the loot acquired in Bengal went directly into his pocket. This colonialist established EIC control of Bengal via the Battle of Plassey in 1757. EIC tactics caused the Bengal famine of 1769-70, in which at least three million people died. The EIC evaded due responsibility for the damage. They were the agents of callous profiteering, in which English traders collected taxes by means of a private army. Greedy shareholders now ruled the Indian people. Famine relief was ignored.

On his first return to England, Clive took home £234,000 from his Indian acquisitions (meaning 23 million in today’s money). His predatory adventures had made him one of the richest men in Europe. Journeying again to India in 1765, he came back two years later with a fortune estimated at £400,000 (40 million today). Lord Clive resold items in England at five times their price in India (Tharoor 2017:10). He was widely criticised for corruption. His afflicting feats did not grant him lasting satisfaction. Lord Clive committed suicide by slitting his own throat.

The EIC is described as an international corporation with a private army of 260,000 men that officially became a revenue-collecting enterprise (Tharoor 2017:4). The British government assisted the EIC via military and naval resources, congenial legislation, and loans from the Bank of England. The EIC enterprise effectively financed the Industrial Revolution in England, a very profitable trend “built on the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries” (ibid:5).

EIC merchants employed their substantial wealth to buy grand estates in England and also status positions at Westminster. They coveted Indian diamonds, which they brought back to England. The lucrative game of theft started in 1702, when Thomas Pitt shipped a 400 carat diamond to England, referring to this gem as “my greatest concern” and “my all.” Ethical concerns were annulled by the EIC piracy of looters, rapists, and murderers.

The predatory Company curtailed India’s textile manufacture and exports, replacing these with British merchandise, while using Indian raw materials in the process. Indian handloom fabrics had formerly enjoyed great demand in England. This competition was ruthlessly squashed. In 1772, notice appeared that the EIC army had systematically smashed Bengali looms (Tharoor 2017:6). Cheap British fabrics could in this way flood the Indian market.

A major exporting nation now became an importer of duty-free British goods forced upon Indians. This was part of the lucrative EIC measure in which “British laws and regulations strangled Indian products they could not have fairly competed against for quality or prices” (ibid:8). The level of economic manipulation was pronounced. “The British extracted from India approximately £18,000,000 each year between 1765 and 1815” (ibid:9). Meanwhile, poor and miserable Indians who did not pay taxes were confined in cages and exposed to the burning sun. The EIC is accused of creating the first landless peasants in India (ibid).

British troops in the Punjab enforcing the punishment of being blown from a cannon. From a painting by Vasily Vereshchagin, circa 1884, depicting murdered Sikh pacifists (Kukas) in 1872.

The British philosopher John Stuart Mill was a long term employee of the EIC for 35 years (1823-58). His philosophy is impaired. He favoured a “benevolent despotism” in the colonies, emphasising differences between “civilised nations and barbarians.” He also stressed that improvement must result. Mill could not recognise barbarians. At the end of his EIC term, the Indian Mutiny (Sepoy Revolt) in 1857-58 was a major symptom of anti-colonial resentment, squashed by such barbarian tactics as the infamous execution involving a cannon. In a retaliatory bloodbath, the EIC hanged and murdered tens of thousands of suspected rebels in towns along the Ganges. In 1858, the Government of India Act was the means for the British Crown to assume direct control of the country. Afflictions did not cease.

Blowing from a gun was a practice formerly used by Portuguese colonialists and by Mughal rulers against rebels. In India, the British adopted this horror procedure from the 1760s, in the instance of some sepoy mutineers. The British command frequently adopted this dire tactic during the Mutiny of 1857, and for many years afterwards. Victims were tied to the mouth of a cannon that was afterwards fired. The victim's back rested against the muzzle. The victim's head would be blown some fifty feet into the air, while the body was blown to bits, no longer visible. Benevolent despotism is a myth blown sky high in realistic reporting.

By 1879, over 300,000 indentured Indian labourers were working in British Empire plantation colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. This situation lasted until the 1920s. Some versions give a figure of two million Indians. The mortality rate was high. Over 80 percent of these labourers were Hindus, many from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A minority were Muslims. In flight from poverty, and not understanding their fate, the exploited victims generally suffered on plantations from harsh conditions and low wages.

Lord Thomas Macaulay, photogravure by Antoine Claudet

Lord Macaulay (1800-1859) was a Whig politician who authored The History of England, a work less popular in more recent generations. Macaulay glorified England with well known flourishes of his nationalist pen. Meanwhile, he became an imperial administrator in India during the period 1834-38.  He introduced a new educational system for India, replacing Persian with the English language. Believing in the superiority of Western science, Macaulay was dismissive of Hindu customs like sati. He created the Indian civil service, a vehicle of Westernisation (Masani 2013).

Thomas Macaulay elevated ancient Greek and Roman literature, while awarding Indian literature a much lower ranking. That demotion refers to translations from the Sanskrit and Persian languages, representing the Hindus and Muslims respectively. Macaulay made no attempt to master Indian languages. He wished to create a class of anglicised Indians, a move which proved successful. He also campaigned for legal equality in relation to all colonial subjects. This innovation was resisted and delayed by other politicians.

Macaulay is highly regarded by Dalits as a liberator from caste tyranny. His elevation of English is viewed by Dalits as being preferable to Hindu languages generating caste concepts. Dalits (like other Indians) favour English as an international language bypassing vernacular limitations (Masani 2013).

A contrasting commentator was Horace Hayman Wilson (1786-1860), active in the Sanskrit College of Calcutta. He opposed a contention that English should be made the sole language of instruction in Indian schools. In a milestone effort, Wilson translated the Rig Veda into English (Rig-Veda Sanhita, 6 vols, London, 1854-88). He also compiled a Sanskrit-English dictionary. Moving back to England, in 1832 he became the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University. From 1836, he was Librarian at the East India Company Library in London.

Critics of British colonial rule in India frequently lodge the accusation that economic benefits were apportioned to the British ruling class. Whereas Empire partisans affirm that British dominance was less exploitive than the rule exerted by Indian princes. Those partisans emphasise the superior legal and administrative system of the British Raj era (Ferguson 2003). A different interpretation accuses the Raj of causing chaos (Wilson 2016). During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, British economic policy had the effect of crashing millions of Indian artisans left without a role. When the British left India in 1947, only 0.2 percent of the half a million Indian villages had electricity, and only 12 (or 16) percent of the population was literate. The arrogant racist attitude of colonialists became notorious.

The American historian Will Durant wrote The Case for India (1930). This distinctive critique of the British rule in South Asia was banned by Westminster politicians. Durant described the East India Company as being "utterly without scruple or principle." His assessment of the Company tactic was in terms of "bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing." Durant viewed the Raj as an ongoing form of exploitation.

The American commentator accused England of causing famines by diverting grain from the Indian people. He revealed that the Industrial Revolution was effectively created by the use of appropriated wealth from India, while in the process destroying India's economy. Instead of bringing relief to the native population, the railways in India were constructed only for the British army and British merchants. During the nineteenth century, England waged over a hundred wars in India, the basic purpose being to acquire land from princely estates. The overall vista amounted to the "greatest crime in all history." The colonialists also aggravated the friction between Hindus and Muslims. The policy of "divide and conquer" has long been criticised in India.

Lingering complacency in England with British Raj failures is not impressive. Critics emphasise the dismal British lack of response to famine, in which many millions of Indians died (up to 35 million). London ate the bread of India while Indians starved; the similarity to better known events in Ireland is significant. The recourse of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in 1943, has been targeted. That politician diverted Indian food from starving Bengalis to wartime Europe, while employing the excuse that famine was the fault of Indians for “breeding like rabbits” (Tharoor 2017).

Sir Winston Churchill versus Mahatma Gandhi

Churchill revealingly stated: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. Let the Viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample Gandhi into the dirt” (ibid). The belligerent Churchill was pronouncedly averse to Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent policy contrasted so strongly with British brutality. Churchill frequently derided Gandhi, presenting him as a dictator attempting to destroy the British Raj, a bogus leader playing on the ignorance of the Indian masses. Churchill's imperialist ambition was alien to the truth. The illiterate Indian masses were helpless in the face of their national assets bled to the bone by wealthy exploiters from the British upper class. Over 60,000 Indians were imprisoned in 1930 when they defied the British monopoly on salt mining, even while Churchill and others were dispensing the domineering colonial propaganda. British officers ordered Indian police to use steel-plated lathis on peaceful protesters at Dharasana Salt Works, near Bombay. Over 300 protesters were injured, many with fractured skulls or broken shoulders (Fischer 1951:343-4; Hatt 2002:32-34).

Gandhi’s promotion of satyagraha (non-violent resistance) was an expedient tool for which the British government were unprepared. The overlords could no longer blast rebellious natives into oblivion with the lethal use of cannons at point blank range. Even Churchill condemned the horrific British army massacre of Indian civilians at Amritsar in 1919.

In 1942, Gandhi and other Congress leaders were arrested because of their Quit India message. Activists subsequently undertook strikes and protests in regions of North India. They resorted to over 600 bomb explosions, causing much damage. The Raj reacted by making over 90,000 arrests, while permitting public flogging and torture. Lord Linlithgow even ordered the aerial bombing of disruptive crowds at Patna. The resistance was squashed in 1944. However, the end was now in sight for the British Raj occupation.

Over twenty years earlier, in June 1920, an Irish regiment of the British army mounted a protest in India, refusing to perform military duties. A company of 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers were stationed at Jullundur in the Punjab. The more general situation is also relevant. The Indian Independence movement was then gaining popularity, while IRA prisoners were on hunger strike in Irish and British jails. The militant Churchill unleashed the notorious Black and Tans to harass the Irish population.

Private James Daly, Connaught Rangers

The Irish soldiers at Jullundur were protesting against constant reports of British brutality in Ireland. Black and Tan atrocities were not easy to forgive. The peaceful protest spread to another company of Connaught Rangers at Solan, a remote garrison in the Himalayan foothills close to the Tibetan border. The Irish ultimatum was there conveyed to a startled commanding officer by Private James Daly (1899-1920) of the Connaught Rangers. The Irish mutineers were refusing to be any longer in military service “until the last British soldier left Ireland.” These soldiers defiantly wore Sinn Fein rosettes on their British army uniforms.

On the third day, the Irish protesters at Solan launched a more dramatic action. About thirty of these soldiers tried to retrieve their rifles from the magazine. The guards opened fire, killing two of the mutineers. This setback ended the protest.  A military trial convicted many men; fourteen of these were sentenced to death by firing squad. With the exception of James Daly, the sentences were modified to penal servitude and eventual “discharge with ignominy.” Daly was subsequently executed at Dagshai prison in November 1920. Private Daly, of Co. Galway, was only 20 years old. He stated bravely: “I am not afraid to die.” He was the last British soldier to be executed for mutiny. The Connaught Rangers were disbanded in 1922. 

Followers of Gandhi interpreted the Solan episode as an example of satyagraha or civil disobedience, regarding Daly and his comrades as anti-imperialist heroes. The Fateh newspaper of Delhi praised the Irish mutiny. “Ties were cemented between the respective independence movements resulting in the Indian constitution mirroring aspects of the Irish constitution.” The overall event has been viewed as an indirect influence from Irish nationalism on the Indian freedom struggle (Brendan Farrell, "Irish soldiers mutiny that rocked the British Empire,"2019). There was certainly a convergence between Gandhian tactics and the IRA soldiers on hunger strike in British jails. 

Imphal  and  the  Burma  Campaign  in  World  War  Two

There are huge moral contradictions in the British colonial stance until 1947, when Indian Independence occurred. There are also strong discrepancies posed by the alliance of the Indian National Army (INA) with Japan during World War Two.

The comments of my Irish father on the British rule in Ireland were not complimentary. He also viewed the British colonial rule in India and Burma as exploitive. He was not a fan of Viceroy splendour. An anti-monarchist, he did not believe in Empire or colonialism. Instead, he was a strong critic of the British upper class, observing how they maintained their pampered existence in the south of England, while the north was afflicted with poverty and unemployment during the 1920s and 1930s. He was very critical of Sir Winston Churchill, while conceding that politician’s relevance to the defence of Britain during the German blitz in World War Two.

My father was not one of those who sang the national anthem every day. He detested the British Conservative Party who ruled in England. He was not an imperialist or a nationalist, regarding both of these standpoints as backward attitudes obstructing social improvement. My father volunteered for the war effort because he believed that the moral duty was to stop Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan from succeeding in a violent agenda. When he discovered what the Japanese army did in occupied Asian countries, he was deeply shocked.

My father also emphasised the drawbacks plainly visible in Indian society. He described India as a country of poverty, disease, caste, and ugly religious conflict. He personally observed numerous Indian beggars in a state of abject poverty. There were so many social problems needing to be resolved. He admired Mahatma Gandhi (d.1948), while pointing out that the distinctive politician was murdered by a fanatical high caste nationalist. My father abhorred untouchability, regarding the caste stigma as a crime. The poor in Britain could occasionally rise up the social scale, something the untouchables (Dalits) could never do in India.

My father, Richard Patrick Murphy, 1945, wearing a Chindit bush hat. Copyright Kevin R. D. Shepherd

During World War Two, my Irish father served in the Royal Air Force (RAF), being stationed in India and Burma. The RAF crucially maintained supply lines for the Fourteenth Army in Burma (Myanmar) and adjacent regions. Richard Murphy gained skill as a wireless operator, while surviving amoebic dysentery, malaria, foot rot, and conjunctivitis. He was not a soldier on the front line, but did encounter many of the fighters, including Sikhs and Gurkhas, whom he greatly respected. He also saw very numerous corpses. When he was still nineteen, he participated in the battle of Imphal, a town at Manipur in north-east India. This event proved a turning point in the Burma Campaign. That war was treated by British politicians, and the British newspapers, as a minor event by comparison with the struggle against Nazi Germany. The relative obscurity continued for long after.

The Fourteenth Army was formed in 1943 under General William Slim, soon becaming the largest Commonwealth force ever assembled, numbering over a million men, many being Indians and Gurkhas. The drama and heroism were substantial (Luto 2013). Yet the Fourteenth wryly referred to their role in terms of the Forgotten Army, neglected by the British press and other channels. A distinct significance is that the majority of men in this army were Indians, whose achievement was later obscured even in India, because of ideological trends accompanying Independence. Popular Indian views subsequently favoured the Indian National Army, who supported the Japanese invaders by fighting alongside them at Imphal and other locations.

My father described the general British and Indian fear of capture by the Japanese Army, a force accustomed to severe mistreatment of prisoners. The British Army observed due international rules for prisoners of war, whereas the Japanese Army did not.

The international componency of the Allied army in Burma was a phenomenon far surpassing description in terms of “British Army.” Not only Indians and Burmese, but Chinese, Americans, Australians, plus various others, were involved in the Fourteenth Army. The neglected statistics factor is sometimes met with incredulity by those far removed from events.

Imphal and Kohima

In 2020, the complaint was still being made that Indian university students never hear about the battle of Imphal (and Kohima). This subject was omitted from Indian textbooks; the British Indian Army is deliberately forgotten by Hindu nationalists. A quote is: "They never got a place in our textbooks, and Indian historians were not at ease with them as they consider it [battle of Imphal and Kohima] to be a part of colonial history" (R. K. Singh, Revisiting the Historical Battles, 2020). Many Hindu nationalists have ignored any implication that the Japanese army needed to be countered in the international interest.

I have discovered that many people (in Britain also) know next to nothing about the Burma Campaign in World War 2. I will offer some remarks here about the neglected history.

Starved British prisoners of war in Japan, Second World War

The Second World War effort of the British and their allies saved India from the violent Japanese army. That mercy is now ignored by Hindu nationalists, who conveniently blame the British for almost every adverse event, including the current proximity of the Chinese Communist army to the Indian borderline. More realistically, during WW2, many British servicemen suffered in concentration camps, in different countries, including Japan. They were starved, beaten, tortured, and mutilated.

In general, the Japanese record for war atrocities is appalling (War Crimes). At Singapore, the militaristic samurai society was at the intimidating level of placing severed heads on poles for public visibility. Prisoners of war (POWs) were callously murdered all too often. They were shot, drowned, and beheaded. However, the death toll varied markedly at different POW camps. A large total of 378 POW camps were created, accompanied by a similar number of civilian internment camps (Blackburn and Hack 2008:11). Some camps had death rates below one percent, others were over twenty percent, while a smaller number were fatal to the point of killing most inmates. At some extremist camps, the Japanese committed acts of cannibalism against Allied POWs at the command of officers. In reported instances, flesh was cut from Indian bodies while the victims were still living.

In China, Japanese military units subjected many civilians to barbaric experiments including amputations without anaesthetic. Some prisoners lost all their arms and legs, and were used for experiments in that extreme condition. The testing of biological weapons on the victims is a dire subject. The Emperor Hirohito (rgd 1926-1947), or his advisors, endorsed activities of the military Unit 731, a horror show which can arouse very strong reactions. That Unit was directed by the violently torturing kempeitai (military police). Many victims were injected with plagues like typhus and cholera; others had all blood drained from their body. The inhuman medical doctors in this project experimented on small children also. In more general terms, human vivisection was widespread routine amongst Japanese doctors working in China at that period.

During WW2, Unit 731 was located at Harbin, in Manchuria, obtaining Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Mongolian victims. Thousands were killed in the experiments, with no survivors. The unscrupulous doctors locked some victims in a pressure chamber to discover how much the human body can withstand before the eyes pop from their sockets (Unmasking Horror). "Unit 731 eventually grew into an assembly line for weaponised diseases that, if fully deployed, could have killed everyone on earth several times over" (Richard Stockton, Inside Unit 731, 2018). Similar experiments apparently occurred in other parts of Japanese-occupied Asia, including the Philippines.

The Japanese army developed plague bombs to afflict Chinese cities; they dropped bombs containing plague-infested fleas. That lethal army also started to send balloon bombs (conveying disease) to America, developing plague bombs in that direction. Only some decades later was the existence of Unit 731 reluctantly acknowledged by the Japanese government, who nevertheless refused to discuss attendant activities. Many years afterwards, in 2018, a Japanese professor of medical science (Dr. K. Nashiyama) prompted the national archives to reveal the names of 3607 personnel in Unit 731.

Japanese soldiers bayoneting a Chinese prisoner; beheading a Chinese victim at the Nanjing Massacre.

The second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) was a prolonged conflict that killed many millions. The Japanese soldiers, marching into Nanjing, were following orders to kill their captives. Constraints were absent. At Nanjing they looted nearly every building. These merciless marauders dragged out women, and even small children, into the street. The victims were violently gang-raped and often murdered. Pregnant mothers were cut open by the samurai sword. Rape victims were sodomised with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony (Nanjing Massacre). The number of dead in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937/38 may have exceeded 300,000; statistics have varied. The manic slaughter was an extremist version of traditional bushido, way of the warrior, favoured by nationalists.

A well known documented episode of that horrific war concerns two samurai swordsmen who competed in the number of men they could kill. This unbridled slaughter was attended by an indifferent admission that the murdered victims were defenceless Chinese civilians. We also know that Chinese prisoners were frequently used for bayonet practice. Even babies did not escape the savagery. Chinese civilians were buried alive by the invaders.

The Japanese Emperor Hirohito was the divine monarch of Shinto belief. Severe military attitudes persisted from the feudal samurai society of Japan which generated numerous civil wars. The uncle of Hirohito was Prince Yasuhiko Asaka (1887-1981), also a military officer who commanded the attack on Nanjing in 1937. Asaka allegedly instructed the Japanese army, and the kempeitai (military police), to slaughter all captives at Nanjing. Some versions say that this recourse entailed 300,000 victims. Asaka remained a member of the Supreme War Council until 1945. The Japanese soldiers were accustomed to brutality; their own military training was brutal in a number of respects, involving drastic punishments for failure. The sadistic activity of kempeitai can defy description.

The Japanese government refused to acknowledge that hostilities in China amounted to a war. Instead, they described molesting activity as an "Incident." The military had free rein for their excuse that international rules of war did not apply. Both the Japanese army and navy were perpetrators of war crimes. China was expected to acknowledge the superiority of the Japanese race. The penalty for defiance of ultranationalism was acute.

Japanese soldiers bayoneting a Chinese baby, Nanjing 1937-38

The pattern of rape and murder spread pervasively in Japanese-occupied Asia. For instance, at Bangka Island in Indonesia, 22 Australian nurses were raped, marched into the sea, and killed with machine guns. One of them survived. In the same year of 1942, British nurses were raped and murdered when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. Singapore and ther Philippines were other areas suffering sexual assault. The number of massacres and atrocities on record is very substantial. These crimes should be made known, not obscured by Indian and Japanese nationalists.

The Japanese military sought to incorporate the samurai battle Code into the Japanese Army's Field Service Code (Senjinkun) which told the soldier to choose death rather than surrender. This implied contempt for foreign soldiers who surrendered. (Blackburn and Hack 2008:14)

The pocket sized Code was issued in January 1941, being prepared by the War Department in Tokyo. This Code resulted in heavy Japanese casualties and suicides. The Code stated: "Never give up a position but rather die." That injunction caused soldiers to attack in hopeless situations. Disobedience could lead to a court martial or a speedy death sentence (Military Field Code). The element of indoctrination was pronounced. The fearless banzai charge of Japanese soldiers was something to reckon with, though often proving suicidal.

Japanese soldier bayoneting a Sikh POW still living after target practice, Singapore. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Other tactics afforded a contrast. Snipers were disguised as civilians. Military prisoners of war became targets of rifle practice for Japanese infantry recruits. The fate of many helpless Asian civilians at the mercy of Dai Nippon (Great Japan) was very unpleasant. When the invading Japanese army landed on the island of Penang in December 1941, no resistance occurred. The British had evacuated the previous day. The neo-samurai commenced extensive looting and massacred many native inhabitants. Their commanding officer felt obliged to stop the atrocities. He did not prevent Chinese and Malayan girls being forcibly abducted from Penang as "comfort women" (prostitutes) for the military, a very stressful degradation.

At the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Japanese troops quelled the much larger British Malayan army (Farrell 2015). The invaders moved rapidly, within two months, across the jungles of south Thailand and the Malay Peninsula. In this advance, 35,000 Japanese troops were pitted against 80,000 British allies (Lebra 2008:32). This is a low estimate for the Allied force.

British officers seriously underestimated the invaders led by General Yamashita (who was later convicted for war crimes). The Japanese army bombed Singapore and followed up quickly through the Malayan jungle (Warren 2001). The British army Indian troops were not trained in jungle warfare; many were raw young recruits, lacking the ferocious edge of the opponent. Various Indian military units were influenced and disabled by psychological warfare tactics of Fujiwara Kikan, a Japanese organisation using Indian deserters for propaganda against the British. Retreating Indian soldiers in Malaya complained: "The Japanese are terrible.... There is no hope" (Crasta 1999:11).

Japanese troops march into Singapore, 16 February, 1942

Soon after the British surrendered, Japanese soldiers moved into Singapore. They bayoneted wounded men, even on the hospital operating table. Entering the Alexandra Hospital, the attackers killed over 300 doctors, nurses, and patients. The bayonet was also the fate of a British medical officer who surrendered with a white flag. More than 200 badly wounded Indians and Australians were violently beaten and exposed to machine gun fire, afterwards being covered in petrol and set alight (Fowler 2010). The scale of atrocity was substantial. The heads of decapitated prisoners were fixed on poles and fences to frighten civilians into submission.

At Singapore, the Japanese military police (kempeitai) were in lethal operation. Chinese residents aged 18 to 50 were murdered, their crime being alleged anti-Japanese sentiment. Their houses were looted and destroyed. The official Japanese record puts the number of victims at 5,000, whereas other sources state 50,000 (Chun-Moy 2017). Another version says the figure was more than 30,000 dead (Blackburn and Hack 2008:10). Numerous details tend to compromise the desire of imperial Japan to be seen as the liberator of Asians. Local people at Singapore were pressured to learn Japanese, and were forced to sing the Japanese national anthem.

The kempeitai were notorious torturers during WW2, equivalent to the German gestapo (some analysts say the Japanese abusers were even worse). Numbering about 75,000, this vehicle of savage oppression "brought unspeakable terror to all countries occupied by Japan" (Massacres). Numerous Japanese war crimes are glossed by nationalism in Japan and India.

The kempeitai were for many years little known in the West (Lamont-Brown 1998). However, they were integral to the afflicting system of torture existing in all the Japanese occupied countries. The situation cannot be duly understood without reference to them. This military police organisation conducted the POW camps and the civilian internment system of WW2. They had their own specially trained commandos. "Extreme barbarity and sadism was virtually the organisation's creed" (Felton 2009). They also conducted the notorious biological experiments chiefly associated with Unit 731. They forcibly obtained the victims for human experiments rivalling those of Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.

The kempeitai exercised virtually unlimited power in the Japanese Empire. Extortionist rackets were a sideline. They were responsible for establishing the system of "comfort women," bringing misery to thousands of Asian females enlisted as prostitutes for the army. In August 1944, American soldiers captured a copy of the kempeitai handbook Japanese Instructions on How to Interrogate. This document confirmed many international reports about severe mistreatment of POWs and civilians. Kempeitai tortures could cripple and kill. The inventory included the infamous water torture and red hot irons searing flesh. Very common were the beatings with bamboo canes, often inflicted with a manic zeal. The tormentors were hated by many civilians and resistance fighters in different countries.

Reports of atrocities at Singapore include the shock scenario of Japanese soldiers emasculating captured British soldiers. Victims were treated to a mutilation in which the penis was sewn to the lips. Afterwards, the despised Brits were hanged and exhibited on trees. Placards were placed around their necks stating: "He took a long time to die" (Invasion of Malaya). Such terror tactics became widely notorious.

The Allied soldiers loathed the crimes, while civilians were demoralised. In China, Malaya, Burmese jungles, and many far-flung labour camps, the Japanese brutality was pervasive. This situation was dominated by the kempeitai, who specialised in the screams of interrogated victims and consequent murders.

At Singapore, General Percival tamely surrendered over a hundred thousand men. His decision was elsewhere lamented. The invading army had already proved their extremist tendency in China. The Japanese contrived a belief that prisoners who had surrendered were guilty of dishonouring their country; therefore, they were of no consequence. Kempeitai abuses had almost infinite scope in this perspective. About 50,000 of the Allied prisoners were Brits and Australians. Survivors were starved in the local jails, many being sent to diabolical labour camps across Asia, notably Death Railway. Some were moved to Japan, being made to work in mines. Their fate was starvation, torture, overwork, and death. About 3,000 British and Malayan civilians were also imprisoned in the grim camps at Singapore.

Left: Japanese soldiers using blindfolded Sikh prisoners of war for rifle target practice at Singapore. This was not execution by a firing squad. Courtesy Imperial War Museum. Right: Sikh soldiers victorious in the Burma Campaign, 1944.

The remaining Allied prisoners were mainly Indians, many of them Sikhs. A proportion of these soldiers were recruited by Japan into what became known as the Indian National Army (INA). Objectors were used for rifle target practice (afterwards bayoneted to ensure death) or sent to forced labour camps in New Guinea and elsewhere. The INA is described by some war historians as a Japanese strategy to undermine the British in India, the promise of national freedom being contradicted by shocking long-term events of Japanese colonisation in Korea. This development attempted to destroy Korean language and culture. Over 200,000 Korean historical documents were burned. Millions of trees were cut down to accommodate large numbers of Japanese settlers. Many Korean workers were forced to work in Japan. Nationalist monopoly was extensive. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women were forced to become sex slaves in Japanese military brothels. The intensive exploitation lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Japanese soldiers torturing starved Australian and British soldiers at Death Railway, the depiction based on eyewitness reports. Courtesy Australian War Memorial. The tormentors are probably kempeitai. The use of a sharp knee wedge made this ordeal very painful.

Death Railway was constructed for the Japanese army, spanning mountains and jungles of Thailand and Burma. Tens of thousands of forced labourers, effectively slaves, included many British and Australian POWs. They were made to work 18 hours a day or even 24/7, with no adequate tools, food, or medical attention. Torture and punishment were common. Sick men could be fatally brutalised by relentless terror guards. About 14,000 Allied POWs and 90,000 native forced labourers are estimated to have died during this extremely oppressive project.

A substantial number of native forced labourers (romusha) were recruited in various projects of the Japanese army. They were deceived by false promises about pay and working conditions. About 600,000 of these men were assigned to places a long distance from their homes. Nearly 300,000 came from Java. The vast majority of romusha never returned home, most of them dying from the stresses encountered (Blackburn and Hack 2008:11). Meanwhile, Japan was claiming to be the liberator of Asians, contriving an elaborate mode of propaganda.

The Japanese soldiers were notoriously contemptuous of their foes. When they hit Burma in 1942, they were very strong both on land and in the air. The disastrous battle of the Sittang, in February 1942, sealed the fate of Rangoon. The decimated 17th Indian Division was mismanaged by British officers. The victors quickly conquered Burma, driving out their enemies. Sikh and Gurkha soldiers were prominent in the British rearguard action. A number of these resourceful defenders survived deadly Japanese aircraft and the cruel bayoneting of prisoners by the invader.

Meanwhile, Burmese and Indian refugees fled from the brutal neo-samurai soldiers marching to Mandalay. At least half the population of British colonial Rangoon (Yangon) was Indian or Anglo-Indian (also Anglo-Burmese). That city was evacuated in early 1942. The middle class refugees could afford to travel by ships or aeroplanes. The workers were less fortunate. About half a million Indian refugees trekked desperately across Burma to their homeland. Many died on the way from starvation and disease. British official incompetence was a factor in these tragedies. Anti-Indian sentiment amongst the nationalist Burmese was another affliction during the exodus.

Many Burmese became disillusioned with their supposed "independence" under the Japanese. Aggressive police monitoring was not the only drawback. Japanese planes are known to have bombed helpless and innocent Burmese villages, solely for the purpose of creating a diversion, driving the native population onto the roads and into the jungle.

The Imperial Japanese army gained a notorious reputation for their exploitive treatment of "comfort women," meaning those forced by the kempeitai to live as prostitutes for military gratification. A reliable Japanese source states that the army established “comfort stations” in no less than sixty districts of Burma, where “the women and girls made into ‘comfort women’ were taken from Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan and Burma” (data from the Women's Active Museum on War and Peace).

Just a quick rest in the stifling Burmese jungle, alright so far. Don't worry about us, mates, we never existed. Forgotten Army

The “Forgotten Army” in Burma eventually hit back at the forces of Hirohito, learning how to combat a formidable enemy skilled in jungle warfare. The neglected army comprised men from about twenty countries, including those from every state in America, and from every caste in India. The ethnic minority of Karen, and other Burmese allies, were a significant feature. Tens of thousands of loyal Burmese volunteered to fight for Britain, conducting a successful guerrilla campaign against the occupying Japanese army. My father was familiar with various war events and contributors. The Ledo Road, the Hump, Merill's Marauders, the Chinese allies trained in India by the Americans, British and Gurkha Chindits or jungle fighters (along with Burmese, the Hong Kong Volunteers, and Nigerian soldiers). The British could not have won the Burma Campaign without the help of Burmese, Indians, Gurkhas, Chinese, Africans, Americans, Australians, and others (Allen 2000; Latimer 2004).

African soldiers in Burma, WW2; some members of Merill's Marauders, Burma 1944, courtesy US Archives

Only two in every ten of the British force in Burma were white. Scores of different languages were spoken by the multi-national personnel. Nigerians comprised more than half the total of 90,000 West African soldiers sent to South-East Asia after 1943. About 15,000 died according to one estimate. Overall, in the Second World War, more than a million Africans were involved, many fighting against the Germans and Italians. More than half of these were enlisted by Britain, the others serving France and Belgium. Most of the Africans received low pay. Many glib promises were made about pensions that never materialised. There are issues of forced conscription and corporal punishment from superiors (more especially, officers recruited from white settler communities in Africa). African ex-soldiers have resented the obscurity befalling them, another instance of oblivion in the vacuum created by nationalist history from India to Japan, from India to Britain.

The discontent of colonial soldiers spurred the independence of African nations in subsequent years. However, many African nationalist independence fighters resented those Africans serving in World War Two, ignoring the factor of defeat for Fascist oppression. The world would look very different if Hitler and Hirohito had been victorious.

Many Burmese civilians were killed from 1944 onwards, because they were now resisting the Japanese occupation, formerly viewed in terms of “Burmese independence” (regarded by some war analysts as a ploy to achieve colonisation of Burma). Japanese militaristic attitudes of superiority alienated the Burmese National Army, which changed sides, becoming a British ally in 1945. Captured opponents of the Japanese invader could be used for bayonet practice, or experience such horrors as having their skin peeled off with a razor knife, salt being applied to the raw flesh. The samurai sword was widely feared for an ability to amputate. In the act of decapitation, the vicious sword might require two (or more) thrusts from a strong man to sever the head.

In Jule 1945, a Japanese battalion, accompanied by the feared kempeitai, surrounded the village of Kalagon in Burma. The helpless villagers were suspected of being in alliance with the British. They were interrogated; women and children were raped and beaten. No information could be elicited. At least 637 inhabitants were massacred by the kempeitai. As many as a thousand may have died. The corpses were thrown down wellshafts to conceal all traces of the crime. Two victims escaped the carnage. This was only one of the many afflictions endured by the Burmese in their "independence."

Chindits in Burma jungle, 1944 (to the left is a Nigerian soldier); Japanese soldiers with swords, 1944

In Burma, the Chindits were an early version of Special Forces, undertaking extremely dangerous expeditions into Japanese-occupied territory. The target was supply lines. Hand to hand fighting in the jungle was fraught, including the no surrender scenario of Gurkha kukris versus samurai swords. General Percival was an error of the past.

The situation of helpless wounded men was dire. One of the British Chindit officers described the Japanese soldiers: "They were quite implacable, without a shred of compassion or humanity, and we knew of previous occasions when they had overrun our hospitals, butchering staff and doctors as well as sick and wounded." A decision was made to shoot badly wounded Chindits to prevent them suffering atrocities at the hands of the enemy. The wounded could not be carried forward in such difficult circumstances, but neither could they be left behind for the butchers. Chindit reports attest the ferocity of jungle encounters:

The Gurkhas and West Africans engaged with their native knives, the Japanese with their traditional two handed swords. An incessant rain of grenades burst over the heads of the fighters…. ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, with fixed bayonet, led the Gurkhas forward. An officer who was there describes White City battle as ‘medieval’.... The Staffords had to advance up a gradient of one-in-two in the teeth of murderous machine-gun and rifle fire…. Many scores of bodies lie there, with faces shot away, testifying [to] what they went through. But they reached the crest and took no prisoners. Japanese snipers still swing in the trees to which they had lashed themselves before they died. The battle continued through the night, while overhead the air transports went on delivering [Chindit] supplies. (War of the Chindits)

The British Fourteenth Army were eventually victorious in the Burma Campaign, the personnel including many Indians, and also Africans. In 1944, the battles at Imphal and adjacent Kohima were decisive. The Japanese Fifteenth Army besieged these two Indian towns, surrounding the Fourteenth. The Fifteenth were defeated after intensive fighting in jungle terrain. This was a largely Indian victory on Indian soil. The Japanese retreat was attended by heavy casualties, aggravated by disease and starvation caused by supply line failure. The Japanese abandoned artillery and numerous wounded soldiers; they lost about 55,000 men from an army of 85,000. Many of the defeated men committed suicide, via hand grenades, to avoid surrender. The triumphant Allies broke through to the plains of north Burma and gained control of the entire country.

Gurkha soldier and kukri

The Japanese general Mutaguchi was so confident of victory at Imphal (and Kohima) that he had arranged for "comfort women" to be provided for his troops in their hour of triumph. Many of his soldiers were jungle veterans; he exhorted them to fight to the death. His ambition was thwarted. The Japanese faced a formidable Indian force including determined Sikhs and numerous infantry battalions of Gurkhas, whose skill in hand to hand fighting became legendary. If the plan of Mutaguchi had been successful, he might easily have pressed on to Calcutta and Delhi. The INA certainly wished to do this. To judge from what happened in other countries, the ubiqitous kempeitai activity, oppressive labour camps, plus violent bushido tactics of the Japanese army, would have been detrimental to India (even without mentioning the demand for "comfort women").

At Kohima, 2,500 Allied troops were besieged by 15,000 Japanese. The fighting continued for two months, involving artillery and hand to hand combat. Sikh members of the 4th Battalion 15th Punjabi Regiment "experienced the resolute and sometimes suicidal methods of attack by the Japanese."  Serious losses were involved for both sides, but the invader was effectively crippled.

The  Indian  National  Army  (INA)  and  Indian  Prisoners  of  War

Discrepant judgments exist in the literature accumulating since WW2. Certain of these are strongly contested. In 2008, a discerning commentator observed that the only detailed assessment to date, of POW camps in New Guinea, describes how Indian POWs had been “largely overlooked in the war literature of both Indian and the Western Allies” (Douds 2008:73, citing Peter Stanley, Great in Adversity).

Many Indians still hail members of the INA as fighters for India's freedom. Those [Indian soldiers] who rejected Japanese blandishments and remained loyal to their oath of service were regarded as dupes of the imperial [British] power and have been disregarded by an independent India, which does not provide pensions to former members of Britain's Indian army. (Stanley 2002:section 1)

The INA issue is important to understand. Concerning Subhas Chandra Bose, "there is a large body of Indian works, many hagiographic" (ibid:note 1). Critics say this popular hagiography obscures the fact that the INA fought in close alliance with the Fascist rule exerted by Japan. Even a high profile academic source "is flawed in accepting INA mythology without question" (Stanley 2002:note 1, referring to P. W. Fay, The Forgotten Army, 1993). There is a recognised need, amongst scholars like Professor Stanley, for a critical and exacting approach in these matters. Nationalist criteria are not sufficient for international events.

Major Fujiwara; Major General Orde Wingate and the Chindits, courtesy Imperial War Museum

Major Iwaichi Fujiwara (1908-1986) established in his name a military intelligence agency known as the Fujiwara Kikan (abbreviation F. Kikan). This specialised unit provided Indian teams to support the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941. Some early F. Kikan tactics, of other officers, included the beating of Indian prisoners until they agreed to cooperate with the invader. In contrast, Fujiwara himself relied on a more tactful form of persuasion, using Indian liberation as his beguiling theme. He influenced Captain Mohan Singh, a Sikh captive from 1/14th Punjab Battalion who began offering promotions to Indian officers. This tactic proved effective.

The F. Kikan emphasised their ability to assist independence movements in Asia. They were seeking to foment rebellion amenable to the Japanese cause, while gathering intelligence data from their contacts that was passed on to army command. Major Fujiwara was an expert in pro-Japanese propaganda, in this respect converging with objectives of the kempeitai (military police) and Tokyo officials to promote a myth of the Asian Liberator. Fujiwara was promoted and transferred in October 1942, becoming an intelligence officer for the Fifteenth Army in Burma. Fujiwara travelled over much of north Burma, preparing for a Japanese offensive into India. At this period, the Chindits undertook their special operations behind enemy lines in Burma during 1943-44, seeking to offset the Japanese offensive.

Meanwhile, the F. Kikan assisted the Japanese capture of Kuala Lumpur in January 1942. Influenced by the propaganda, Indian officers and their deserting men waved white flags while joining the Japanese procession to Kuala Lumpur. Eventually, about 2,500 Indians are reported to have surrendered in this manner (Lebra 2008:28). Nevertheless, Japanese military experts eentertained doubts about promoting an Indian Independence movement, because of "religious differences, the bondage of the caste system, and discord between the various communities" (ibid:30).

The invaders used a local jail at Kuala Lumpur as a POW camp. Here many Allied soldiers were tortured to death in the kempeitai sphere of operations. The F. Kikan established a separate camp to accommodate thousands of new Indian prisoners. Here Mohan Singh assisted to organise two large teams of Indian soldiers (a total of nearly 300) who became part of the F. Kikan. These converts included Sikhs, Jats, Dogras, and Gurkhas (however, Gurkhas subsequently proved very resistant to persuasion). The first Indian F. Kikan team was assigned to the Japanese advance on Singapore, while the second team was created to further the Japanese invasion of Burma. Both of these teams, wearing Kikan armbands, acted under Japanese officers in the plan to subvert Indian loyalty to the British.

The Japanese “subversion campaign” dropped leaflets from aircraft on Indian soldiers, while also launching a pan-Asian propaganda drive via Japanese radio (Douds 2008:75). The invaders knew that Indian officers resented receiving lower pay than British officers, and also disliked the racial prejudices of some superiors. However, the Japanese pose as liberator of Asia is widely repudiated as a political ruse.

The F. Kikan are strongly implicated in the British retreat at Singapore. Their infiltrating Indian personnel advocated surrender for Indian troops. British officers were killed by agitators; one Australian Lieutenant was executed by the Japanese. The infamous premature surrender of several Indian army units at Singapore was engineered by the Kikan. “The impact of these [Indian Kikan] volunteers was greater than has previously been recognised” (Kevin Noles, Renegades in Malaya, 2017). This perspective confirms the much earlier suspicion of British military intelligence that Kikan influence was considerable “among the demoralised and dispirited Indian troops” (ibid).

"The numbers of Indian and Allied servicemen captured at Singapore "varies widely between even standard sources" (Stanley 2002:note 2). A more recent assessment states that, in February 1942, about 60,000 Indian soldiers became POWs, mostly captured in Malaya and Singapore. They were placed in separate camps to the British and others. Resisting the subversion campaign, about 40,000 of these men remained POWs throughout the war (Blackburn and Hack 2008:11). Only a third capitulated to the Japanese persuasion. The subsequent Indian nationalist emphasis upon those who joined the INA (Indian National Army) obscured the fate of the majority.

Confusions led to a popular story that all 60,000 POWs transferred to the INA. A variant is the version in which 30,000 POWs joined the INA, while 10,000 who resisted were sent to labour camps. A large number of anti-INA POWs were shipped as labourers to New Guinea in “torture ships.” There were also Gurkha POWs at Singapore. “Despite beatings and torture to get them [Gurkhas] to switch sides, many refused” (ibid:9). The Fascist lure was rejected.

When the INA was officially created in September 1942, the Japanese would only arm 16,000 of the recruits. A conclusion is that other defectors remained POWs, along with the majority. Numerous Indian POWs later testified that the subversion campaign had no effect upon them, despite the beatings to which they were subjected.  “There was suspicion of [Indian] officers moving to the new INA on the basis of rich promotion prospects” (Douds 2008:79).

Indian POWS guarded by a deadly Japanese bayonet

When Major Fujiwara was promoted elsewhere in October 1942, he was replaced by Colonel Iwakuro, who was openly contemptuous of Indians in his Dai Nippon bias. His hostility shredded INA morale. A subsequent revolt was crushed by imprisoning Mohan Singh and disarming the INA, which was soon dissolved. Many, or even most, of the INA members were returned to POW camps. The Iwakuro Kikan was a rigidly authoritarian agency.

The “first” INA disintegrated in January 1943, a consequence of “the wide gulf between Indian expectations and Japanese intentions” (Douds 2008:79). The leading convert Mohan Singh contested plans of Japanese officers, who wanted to form labour units under his command. Firm Japanese control under Iwakuro was inescapable. When Singh was imprisoned, 4,000 of the INA recruits deserted. Further undermining INA solidarity was the hostility between Sikhs and Muslims. Another key factor was that Indian POWs resented the violent Japanese tactics, also the oppressor’s confiscation of any valuable items such as pocket watches and compasses (ibid:80). The labour camp victims continued to resist forced adoption of the Japanese language, military uniform, or insignia (ibid:87).

Some defectors to the INA became jailers at Singapore, behaving brutally to loyalists. Rape was amongst the charges subsequently pressed. The INA were detested by loyalists, including Gurkhas. In 1945, two Gurkha battalions, freed from POW camps in Malaya, were far more resentful of the INA than the Japanese. These Gurkha victims testified that the worst of the ill treatment befalling them was administered by INA members (ibid:86). The INA imitated Japanese aggression.

The Bengali revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose travelled to Berlin in April 1941. The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler agreed to assist his plan of raising an army, which he called the Free India Legion. Bose recruited from POW camps in Germany, where many thousands of Indian soldiers had been transferred from their defeat in North Africa. Bose met some resistance in this quarter from those who viewed him as a Nazi puppet. He eventually gained about 3,000 volunteers, over half of them Hindus. He made these converts swear allegiance to “Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose” (Hitler's Secret Indian Army, BBC 2004). The Free India Legion wore German uniforms, being more generally known as the Indian (Indische) Legion.

However, in February 1943, the pro-Nazi activist Bose abandoned his new army. He boarded a submarine for Japan, grasping that the retreating Hitler would not be able to assist him. Some of his men expressed grievances at what they regarded as a betrayal (only a small number of them were transferred to the INA in Burma). In August 1944, the Indische Legion were compliantly drafted into Himmler’s Waffen SS, a body involved in numerous atrocities and classified as a criminal organisation during the Nuremburg Trials.

The German High Command assigned the Indian Legion to Holland and France. These Indian Nazis, after D-Day, were in full retreat through France with the German soldiers. In friction with the French Resistance, the Indian Legion were loathed by civilians. Accusations were made about cases of rape and shooting dead a two year old girl. Some of them were despatched to Italy against resistance fighters, also British and Polish soldiers. Moving back to Germany, they were afterwards captured by the Allies and sent to India for trial. The BBC was forbidden to report on the Free India Legion until a secret file was released by the British government in 2004.

Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose

The INA (Indian National Army) was created by Major Fujiwara in 1942, with obvious underlying political intention, terminating soon after. The Nazi-inspired Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) subsequently became the leader of a new INA, which he maintained via financial assistance from Indians living in South-East Asia. Bose claimed to represent the new government of India. He arrived at Singapore in July 1943, after visiting Tokyo, where he was welcomed by elite Japanese officials. The political and military authorities of Japan regarded the INA in terms of a Dai Nippon (Great Japan) project involving espionage, infiltration, and guerilla attacks. The INA remained firmly under Japanese command. Japanese military officers were assigned to train and equip the INA. Bose viewed the resistant Indian POWs as traitors in their loyalty to the British army. He was not interested in assisting their plight at horrific kempeitai labour camps.

The INA planned to invade India as an ally of the menacing Japanese army. They were regarded by Tokyo as an auxiliary body, not as an independent force. The INA were in opposition to the non-violence tactic of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who described Bose as a misguided patriot resorting to violence. Gandhi apparently regarded Bose as a complicit agent of the Japanese. Gandhi was an unusually conscientious politician; he condemned Fascism, as did other Indian leaders. His code of satyagraha was pitched against all violence. Gandhi was dismayed by reports of Japanese atrocities in China. "His open letter to the Japanese complaining of their brutal imperialism was quoted very selectively in Japanese papers so as to provide justification for the policies that he had condemned" (Weber and Hayashi, Gandhi: The Japanese Connection). Gandhi did not know the full details of Tokyo aggression because, for instance, both America and Japan kept silent for many years about the predatory activities of Unit 731 in China. Unit 731 decodes to kempeitai savagery, the polar opposite to Buddhist compassion.

The militant Bose pressed Tokyo for the INA to serve as a frontline force. "Japan was ready to assault Imphal together with the INA, but with the INA only as guerilla or special services while ultimately under Japanese command" (Lebra 2008:xv). Japanese propaganda continued to attend the Bose satellite army via the Hikari Kikan, an agency which recruited Indians and others for espionage missions against the Allies. Bose recruited a number of teenage Burmese and Malayan girls, who were perhaps not ideally suited to a military campaign. More generally, the INA lacked military dynamic. When Bose sent his INA regiments through Burma in 1944, “their endeavours proved disastrous” (Douds 2008:79). Near Meiktila, two thousand of his soldiers surrendered to the British without a fight; they were influenced by a small group of rebellious officers.

The INA are reported to have tortured and mutilated Indian troops loyal to the British, evidently copying the Japanese example. Thousands of INA soldiers fought alongside the Japanese at Imphal, being likewise forced to retreat. Losing half of their men, the INA eventually surrendered to the British. Bose died at Taiwan in 1945, after crashing in a Japanese aeroplane. Many of his followers refused to believe that he was dead. In 1946, Gandhi commented: "I do not encourage the Bose legend. I did not agree with him. I do not now believe he is alive. Instinct made me believe to the contrary at one time, because he had made himself into a legendary Robin Hood" (Fischer 1951:548).

The British saw the INA as traitors who had assisted war crimes, while Independence India viewed the INA as nationalist heroes. The INA became the subject of romantic partisan portrayals. The Japanese army are depicted, in the Indian nationalist lore, as humanitarian idealists nobly seeking to liberate Asia from the hopelessly evil British colonialists. A consequence was that the battles of Imphal and Kohima were censored in nationalist history. Popular myths imply that all POW Indian soldiers at Singapore joined the INA. The kempeitai are not mentioned in the hagiography. History reveals that they were not angels of salvation.

The INA are inseparably associated with many massacres and atrocities they supported via their strong alliance with Japan and the kempeitai network. For instance, in 1945, about a hundred Dutch soldiers and their families were POWs at Samarinda in Borneo, along with interned civilians. They were sentenced to death by a Japanese officer, no reason being given. The location selected was the nearby Loa Kulu mines. The men and children were forced to watch as the women were "systematically cut to pieces" with samurai swords and bayonets. No ammunition was used. The act of beheading could be a messy feat of near misses, unless a swordsman was well trained. The screaming children were afterwards thrown alive down a mine shaft some 600 feet deep. Over 140 men were then beheaded. This is known as the Loa Kulu massacre. Almost 400 victims died in that episode, the remains subsequently discovered by Australian troops.

Only seconds to live for an Australian POW beheaded by the samurai sword, Papua New Guinea, 1943. The victim was Sergeant Leonard Siffleet. The Japanese officer with the sword was so proud of his action that he ordered a subordinate to photograph the murder.

Indian soldiers who fought for the British army were dismissed as traitors by doctrinaire nationalists in India. At Singapore in 1942, Indian soldiers who refused to join the Japanese-controlled INA were consigned to the shooting range as live targets for new Japanese infantry recruits. Those target prisoners still alive afterwards were bayoneted, which meant they were now corpses. Extant photographs of Sikh victims are confirmation.

In 1943, thousands of Indian POWs were shipped to various labour camps in New Guinea. Sepoy Muhammad Shafi was beheaded for allegedly trying to escape. Others were also beheaded. One Indian POW was tied to a pole with wire for stealing four lemons. He was beaten all night, and then left in the sun without water. He was afterwards taken to a premature grave and bayoneted to death. At Wewak in New Guinea, the Indian POWs had to labour for 12-14 hours daily, and were deliberately exposed to Allied air raids. Colonel Takano flogged sick men for working too slowly.

The Geneva Convention was regarded with contempt by Japanese staff at POW camps. The kempeitai attitude disowned leniency. In 1943, Indian officers petitioned Takano, who responded that Indians had no rights as they had surrendered unconditionally. He called them traitors and imposed even more draconian conditions. He would not permit Indian wounds to be treated after a damaging air raid, even though the victims were crying in pain. The wounded men all died of infection.

Indian POWs rescued near Rabaul, New Britain, exhibiting signs of starvation and brutality. Courtesy Australian War Memorial

In camps at New Guinea, Hindus were severely beaten for refusing to touch beef. The Japanese captors tried unsuccessfully to prevent Muslims from fasting during Ramadan. In general, no toleration was shown in the labour camps for religious scruple. Sikhs were insulted for their long hair and beards; a sport was made of plucking their beards even while they suffered without water. A VCO (Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer) was hung upside down and bayoneted by tormentors, who also pulled out his heart.

Indian POWs were also victims of cannibalism. A psychosis of fear existed in this respect amongst the Indian community of Singapore. Lance Naik Hatam Ali testified that he personally witnessed about a hundred prisoners eaten at New Guinea. Those men with a bigger physique had flesh cut from their bodies while still alive. A Japanese historian (Tanaka), in the 1990s, concluded that cannibalism was undertaken under the supervision of senior officers, being regarded as a means of power projection. This contrasts with a belief that the practice was pursued because the oppressors were running out of food.

About 10,000 Indian soldiers from Singapore were consigned to labour camps at New Guinea. The total number of survivors is given as 5,674, many with severe inflicted injuries. About 4,000 of these POWs were consigned to the island of New Britain, in Papua New Guinea, where only twelve survived the horrors. John Baptist Crasta (an Indian Christian) survived to relay his evocative memoir after years of camp hell at Rabaul in New Britain (Crasta 1999).

Indian POWs were callously used for Japanese experiments in relation to diseases, especially dysentery and malaria (Douds 2008:80). Even transportation of Indian POWs, from Singapore to New Guinea and New Britain, was horrific. Many died on the “torture ships,” up to eighty percent of those on board. There were only three latrines for 2,200 prisoners on a ship where water and fresh air were denied (ibid).

The Indian POWs were treated as “a race of coolies and barbarians” (ibid:81). They were forced to labour seven days a week in the afflicting camps. Those who tried to escape were executed. After June 1944, they became entirely dependent for food upon foraging in the jungle. They were reduced to eating insects. At many camps, vicious beatings were common, a typical kempeitai inspiration.

The Japanese justified this barbaric treatment on the grounds that since Allied forces in Malaya had surrendered unconditionally, the captors were free to act as they pleased with the captives. (Douds 2008:81)

Left: Confrontation at New Guinea 1945, Jemadar Chint Singh identifies alleged Japanese tormentors for Australian War Crimes investigation. Right: Asman Khan, starved and rescued POW Indian soldier receiving medical treatment at Rabaul, New Britain, 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial


At Komoriyama camp in New Britain, the surgeon Mukohata responded with taunts to requests for medical treatment from sick and injured Indian victims. Mukohata said callously that their medicine was the stick used to mercilessly beat them (Douds 2008:83). At Wewak camp, New Guinea, Indian POWs "usually slept in water." There were no survivors from a work party of 176 men at Wewak (ibid:82). Jemadar Chint Singh was the last surviving member of the Indian army in the Wewak vicinity.

Executions at New Britain were frequent and horrific. Condemned Indian POWs were forced to dig their own graves. They had to pass a gauntlet of being beaten with sword blades, clubs, and fists. The line of attack started with officers and ended with privates. Afterwards the victims were blindfolded and shot with rifles. They were then pushed into the graves. If any victim was seen to be still alive, a machine gun finished him (ibid).

In 1945, at Kuala Belait in Borneo, there occurred a mass refusal of Indian prisoners to join the Free Indian League, a Japanese innovation associated with the INA. Some of the protesters were promptly bayoneted and beheaded, while others received “frequent and severe” flogging (Douds 2008:82).

The propaganda theme of Liberation for Asians was transparent at such camps. At New Guinea, POWs were still subject to pro-INA coercion tactics. Some victims at New Britain joined the INA under duress (Stanley 2002:section 17). "Indians sick with disease, weakened by lack of food, and exhausted by long and heavy toil were routinely kicked and beaten even after they had collapsed" (Douds 2008:82). The New Guinea War Crimes Trials subsequently revealed "a consistent pattern of beatings, incremental starvation, crippling labour regimes and summary executions" (ibid:83). Medical care was scarcely existent. The War Crimes Trials, conducted by Australia during the late 1940s, are a relevant source (Fitzpatrick 2016).

A very grim feature of Indian POW plight in New Guinea is difficult to describe. In 1945, many of the surviving victims were suffering from ulcers and gangrene, to the extent that their wounds were beyond medical treatment. The numerous Australian medical teams found there was only one option. The afflicted limbs had to be amputated. So many limbs were removed that the incinerating fire needed to be kept alight day and night for several weeks (Indian soldiers Eaten Alive, 2015).

A due protocol was established by the Australian army for the repatriation of Indian POWs, including an initial payment depending upon rank. The benevolent Aussies mixed with the Indians regardless of rank, and even shared meals in the same mess tent. In contrast, if the rescue camp was run by the British, less generous measures were observed, such as keeping the Indians at a distance. The British made no initial payment and expected the rescued men to build their own huts. Far worse was the treatment received by the rescued men upon arriving home in nationalist India, where they were ostracised and ignored. They were denied a military pension in India because they had joined the British army. Their suffering was a matter of no consequence whatever.

Only in 2003 did the United Kingdom High Court concede that Gurkhas imprisoned by the Japanese were eligible for the £10,000 payment given to the British Far East POWs. (Douds 2008:89)

Better late than never. However, this ruling was a deplorably delayed decision in relation to significant annals largely consigned to oblivion by different countries.


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Sectarian  Biases

Sakori spokesmen were strongly reactive to my inclusion, in Radical Rishi, of the Irani Zoroastrian Meher Baba and Parsi devotees of Upasani. The Zoroastrian contingent definitely are legitimate for reference, as revealed in the sources. I am not a devotee of Meher Baba; however, I do believe in accurate reporting, not the suppression of data that is favoured by cults. Some American devotees of Meher Baba have demonstrated a solipsist mentality, imagining that an outsider has been trying to improve the vaunted Meher Baba article on Wikipedia that seems all-important to them (Newell, Wikipedia). On Wikipedia they also disclosed their belief that I am a heretic, this sectarian complex being considered justification for their policy of aggression (including deletion of the Wikipedia article Kevin R. D. Shepherd). They never apologise for their errors and overbearing agenda. The scope for history in cultist avenues is very limited; eradication of data is instead preferred. Wikipedia Neutral Point of View is a notorious pseudonymous sector arousing suspicion.

One party suggested to me that Meher Baba devotees in America would be interested in Radical Rishi. A more realistic note was sounded by an academic who confided: "I have contacted Meher Baba publishers like Sheriar Press, they tell me they have 'more important' things they wanted to publish; the requirement was that the book be more devotional, to appeal to their likely market (Baba lovers)." The Meher Baba literature includes offputting devotional idioms such as capital H for he and his, for instance, "Meher Baba and His lovers." I am not a member of the congregation.

l to r: Shirdi Sai Baba, Upasani Maharaj, Meher Baba, Sathya Sai Baba

Radical Rishi is at loggerheads with a particular kind of cultic blindspot. The Shirdi Sai Baba devotees regard Upasani as an incidental feature of the Maharashtra landscape. He is regarded by them (following Narasimhaswami) as a disciple of Sai who could never have been any kind of successor. Sakori ashram tolerates Shirdi Sai, while deeming Upasani to be superior, and denying any relevance to Meher Baba as an alien "Parsi." The Meher Baba devotees, in theory, acknowledge Shirdi Sai and Upasani, but in practice treat these two as minor entities in comparison to their own figurehead. The Sathya Sai Baba following celebrate Shirdi Sai, while ignoring Upasani Maharaj and Meher Baba. Each sect narrows down the database, creating a restricted scenario.

The Sathya Sai Baba movement produced an instance of manic sectarian approach. An American devotee of Sathya Sai launched a web network cudgelling ex-devotees and complete outsiders. Gerald Joe Moreno regarded criticism of his guru (and himself) as a criminal offence. He gained adverse repute as a cyberstalker, hacker, and libeller. His output became the focus of international scrutiny from lawyers (Analysis of a Cultist Defamation).

Status  Parameters

The situation is not assisted by the Western academic convention of refusal to publish any book by a non-academic. The shadow of an untouchable would then fall upon the elitist agenda of impeccable credentials. At the age of seventy, I am in revulsion to the academic version of caste system, the myopic sectarian preferences, the overall relegation and distortion of the factual record. History is not generally in vogue, fiction being preferred. Sectarian readerships are frequently prone to hagiography. The academic sector in the West has elevated Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi, revealed as a long term sexual abuser by disillusioned ex-devotees (the word paedophile has been realistically employed in description). Sathya Sai Baba (d.2011) controversially claimed to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, gaining widespread fame and lavish income as a consequence (Sai Baba movement).

40th Pathans attacking the German army near Ypres, illustration by A. C. Michael, 1915. The Pathans here suffered heavy casualties in the British Empire cause. The Pathan faqir Hazrat Babajan lived at the Raj city of Poona. The image dates from the 1920s. CUP coverage of this figure is described by critics as abortive caricature.

There is a British equivalent of caste elitism at places like Oxford University, which are elevated well above the underdogs lacking credentials. The underlying barriers imposed are formidable. At Cambridge, I was permitted to study in the university library. Many years later, when someone (not myself) complained to CUP (Cambridge University Press) about the book Islam and the Army in Colonial India (2009), the publisher would not consider the complaint as being valid from a citizen sector. They would not even look at the manuscript of Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), which had more data than the officially approved version presenting the subject as a mentally deranged drug addict. The fact that the academic author had misused an earlier citizen book of mine, the only one on the same subject, was here treated as being completely irrelevant to the status process of misrepresentation. CUP demonstrated a tactic of apologism for the British Raj imperial cause. In that perspective, Pathans were only colonial natives, a convenient branch of military support for the British Empire in India.

Many details about the British Empire Indian army were conveniently forgotten and obscured. "The sepoys were continually subject over a wide area to racial discrimination from British officers" (Pathan Soldiers). There were also many other adverse factors in that situation, some of these errors still surviving in biased reporting from white supremacists, passing muster as inviolable truth in the Cambridge-Oxford circuit.

According to some recent reports, British government officials are worried that Chinese Communism is exerting an ideological influence upon British universities. Economic dependence upon China is fashionable in academe. Embarassing topics, such as repression of Tibetans, Uighurs, and Falun Gong are taboo in Chinese ideological conveniences, because these details constrict cultural and political status. Findings of the China Tribunal were ignored by economic strategy in Western universities. The criminal traffic in human organs was widely abetted by ongoing evasion.

In another dimension, the flood of Indian commercial gurus, influential in the West since the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is no proof that "meditation, therapy, miracles" amount to a viable philosophy. In the late 1960s and 1970s, pop stars and hippies were deceived by meditation showmen, miracle tycoons, and sex opportunists, paving the way for Rajneesh therapy and "Siddha Yoga." The deceptive status profile of sensationalist gurus has often created disillusionment when their dubious activities emerge into the spotlight.

Richard Alpert, alias Baba Ram Dass

The status of New Age "spiritual teachers" like Dr. Richard Alpert (1931-2019) is very much in question. Alpert’s disastrously influential book Be Here Now (1971) is an unpaginated psychedelic demonstration of extreme confusion and delusion. He tries to convince readers that he has become a spiritual celebrity, meaning the “transformation of Dr. Richard Alpert Ph.D into Baba Ram Dass.” He also describes this mirage in terms of progressing from social science to LSD, ultimately to Yoga. Having gained his doctorate at Stanford, then becoming a professor of clinical psychology at Harvard, Alpert graduated to the situation in which:

I took five people and we locked ourselves in a building for three weeks and we took 400 micrograms of LSD every four hours. That is 2400 micrograms of LSD a day. (Be Here Now, no page number afforded)

This psychedelic feat means that his cerebral ability was impaired, shredding his capacity for due judgment and decision-making. The disability was inadequately camouflaged by pseudo-Yogic status jargon such as “Push far enough into the Void,” “We are all God,” and “I am a hollow bamboo.” Perhaps more provocative in some directions is the relativist idiom: "I am a doctor... a student... a drop-out.... ALL THE SAME GAME."

In January 1966, Alpert sent a letter to Meher Baba (d.1969) at Meherazad, asking for clarification after learning that the Irani mystic had given a clear message of "no drugs" for his followers (two of whom Alpert encountered). The Irani became well known at this period for emphasising the dangers of drug ingestion, especially LSD. He had the status of a guru, but was not a Hindu. In general, Hindu gurus were lax in giving any warning about the topical hallucinogen. Meher Baba cannot be accused of turning a blind eye to an issue that began to alarm medical doctors in the West.

Dr. Alpert had assumed that Meher Baba did not understand the difference between LSD and "opium derivatives." The fond belief of partisans, that LSD was not addictive, had led to sweeping disclaimers of any danger. Alpert received a reply, via a secretary, stating that Meher Baba did understand the difference between LSD and other drugs, while reiterating that he did not endorse drug-taking for the purpose of gaining presumed spiritual experiences. The Irani also stated, in his reply to Alpert, that resort to drugs "not only must prove fruitless but leads away from the path that leads to Reality." He further conveyed that "although LSD is not an addicting drug, one can become attached to the experiences arising from its use." He clarified this point with the observation that increased personal dosage could result, eventually leading to madness or even death. Getting very much to the point, Meher Baba relayed that Alpert could take LSD only three more times and must then stop ingesting the substance "completely" (LM:6412-6415). Alpert ignored this advice, instead persisting in his regular LSD habit.

In 1967, Dr. Alpert travelled to India and visited the promiscuous Neem Karoli Baba (d.1973), whom he accepted as a guru and glamorised to a Western audience (influencing many Americans). This new contact occurred while he resorted to a private stockpile of LSD pills. Dr. Alpert carried “a special batch [of pills] that had been made specially for me for travelling.” Each travel pill contained 305 micrograms of LSD, in his own words “a very solid dose.” His perception of India (or anywhere else) was evidently abnormal. The ingestion of LSD does not prove that he was a “spiritual teacher,” a status phrase favoured by many popular coverages. The psychedelic pseudo-Yogi contributed to the widespread delusion that LSD hallucination amounts to spiritual experience.

Neem Karoli confirmed Alpert's esteem for LSD by himself ingesting three LSD pills provided by the American visitor. The guru recklessly swallowed those three pills simultaneously, meaning an LSD mega-dosage of 915 micrograms. This gesture of complicity does not earn a five star rating from all parties. Neem Karoli evidently thought that he could derive siddhis (Yogic powers) from the pills so highly rated by his visitor. The occult status of LSD is much in query, to the point of total rejection. Siddhis gurus are regarded by critics as a particular problem, this category being noted for superstitions, deceptions, cupidity, and abuse of followers who are trained to believe in the guru's spiritual authority and Yogic ability.

Dr. Alpert’s Be Here Now achieved thirty-five reprints by 1994. The popularity may suffice as a warning, being associated with a neo-hippy milieu of alternative therapy, pronounced tendencies to fantasy, and extravagant personal claims. The author describes his activity in terms of: “Since his most recent return to the West from India he [Alpert] has been floating about on an ocean of love… carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve.” The lectures of Alpert, more commonly known as Ram Dass, misled many victims of present-centredness. The quack Hinduism he exposited is remote from textual studies of Sanskrit specialists. His lifestyle as a bisexual is in strong contradiction to Hindu renunciate celibacy, a subject still not understood in sensualist new age America. The missing component is specified in a famous Yoga manual favoured by Alpert, who described the Yoga Sutra as “an exquisite scientific system.” This means leave out what you do not like, and muddle the rest.

Alpert refers glowingly to the book Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekananda (d.1902), a purist celibate monk remote from the LSD pitfalls, Vivekananda did not neglect to specify the moral code of Patanjali: "Without these [moral trainings] as the basis no practice of Yoga will succeed" (Vivekananda 1965:137). Celibacy is part of the yama clause, also including truthfulness and non-stealing. These traits are increasingly rare in technological society, which prefers to flood the world with pornography and fake news.

An intimate report, by a female devotee of Neem Karoli Baba, describes a sexual encounter imposed by the high status guru. The victim’s negative reaction caused the guru to kick her in the head. She was unable to move for three days. This incident is well known, being subject to apologist gloss and blithe partisan acceptance. The episode appeared in an admiring book by Alpert entitled Miracle of Love: Stories about Neem Karoli Baba (1979). In contrast, the critical reaction to flawed status can be strong.

In another direction, Hindu nationalists tend to view Westerners in a context of the mlechcha (unclean "barbarian" or "foreigner"), a stranger to the sacrosanct caste system. Westerners deceived by superficial gurus should cognise the low status awarded them by caste ideology. The Sanskrit word mlechcha has the current depreciatory meaning of an outsider in relation to traditional caste beliefs of Hinduism. The context is associated with the Manusmriti, a Sanskrit legalist text favoured by nationalists. This code elevated to dvija (twice-born) status the brahman, kshatriya, and vaishya. All other members of society are mlechcha, retarded people of no status or consequence.

Meanwhile, places like the the holy city of Haridwar (Hardwar, in Uttarakhand) attest the "convergence of business, religion, and politics" (McKean 1996:64). This trend means, for instance, that "in Hardwar pilgrimage is business" (ibid). Industrial activity is increasing in the Haridwar vicinity. More ominously perhaps, "some of Hardwar's biggest ashrams are sites for Hindu nationalist activism" (ibid:60). More explicitly, "many of Hardwar's pandas (pundits and genealogists) and ascetic orders publicise and participate in militant Hindu activities" (ibid). The status of militant nationalism has grown stronger over recent decades, assisted by entrepreneurial guruism.

History, Lore, and Constraint

In Maharashtra, Sakori ashram is only a few miles from the Shirdi shrine. Both are pilgrimage and tourist sites, not resembling the original simple environments. Sakori is more insular, lacking the religious liberalism associated with Shirdi. Sakori outreach tends to be localised, whereas the Shirdi movement has won New Delhi and North India, while also spreading globally.

The Shirdi shrine (left) and mosque (right) as tourist sites today

One overseas report describes a visit made to the Shirdi shrine of Sai Baba in 2002:

It is VAST – like Rome: there are special gates, hotels etc for the countless pilgrims. Long before you get to the shrine, there are markets – stretching as far as the eye can see - aggressively trying to sell you Sai merchandise and garlands. The temple shrine itself is enormous, gilded, and crowded with thousands. There is a huge glass pillar filled with donated money (I did not believe it till I saw it) and you have to queue for hours, only to be shoved past by priests the moment you bow or do whatever you want to do at Sai’s statue/samadhi (the line is endless and relentless so you only get a moment). (Dr. Ray Kerkhove, private communication dated 22/06/20)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shirdi shrine, 2018

Westerners are often astounded to hear of the large number of visitors attracted to the Shirdi shrine of Sai Baba (d.1918). Very eminent persons are included in the visitor records. Not long ago, one of my British acquaintances expressed the belief that Shirdi Sai was an illiterate village faqir of no significance. This superficial view is erroneous, not merely because of the hugely celebrated shrine commemorating Sai Baba. Today, the nearby mosque he inhabited does not resemble the former rural setting. Indeed, the old Shirdi village was scarcely recognisable to informed visitors even during the 1950s.

left: old photograph of the Shirdi mosque before tourism; right: Sai Baba seated with devotees outside the Shirdi mosque, circa 1910-15. The "storage rooms" to the right no longer exist.

When a religious movement expands, a political elite are liable to alter the trend, economic dividends being a major incentive. In January 2020, the Maharashtra government announced a controversial plan to make Pathri a Sai Baba tourist centre. In response, the Shirdi shrine supporters protested. The official scheme sought to elevate the alleged status of Pathri as the birthplace of Sai Baba. The Shirdi residents insisted that there was no proof for this claim. Earlier, the devotee commentator V. B. Kher elaborated an influential theory about Pathri which he described as “probable” (Birth Theories). In 1999, a shrine was established at Pathri to commemorate the birthplace, now treated by enthusiasts as history. Twenty years later, the Indian press celebrated the controversy with varying degrees of accuracy. Wikipedia lore supported the birthplace theory as a fact.

A five and a half feet high bronze statue of the faqir was installed at his supposed birthplace [Pathri]. The presence of a statue does not prove the location of birth. (SBI:76)

History is frequently marginalised in devotee lore. V. B. Kher effectively dismissed the relevance of Upasani Maharaj in favour of a late interpretation from the Sai missionary (pracharak) Narasimhaswami (KK:258). That devotional theory is strongly contradicted by close analysis of the available material (see chapter 92 below). In contrast, a well known and influential 300 page book on Shirdi Sai, authored by Kher and a colleague, made three fleeting references to Upasani, a figure they relegated to a very minor significance, without citing any relevant sources.

Unlike Shirdi Sai, Upasani Maharaj is relatively little known outside Maharashtra. His biography rarely achieves any detail or due analysis. I am the first Westerner to compose a lengthy biography of Upasani, a project which occupied me for five years. The reward from Sakori ashram was suppression of publication in India. Internet access can surpass the constraint in countries where democracy exists.

Many basic sources on Upasani are available in English. However, these sources do require close reading, comparative assessment, and delineation of context. The Marathi literature is frequently devotional, with much attention given to the disciple Godavari Mataji. Devotee emphases frequently blur the nature of occurrence, even missing out an entire sequence of events found elsewhere.

Substantial legend attaches to Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918), a factor causing widespread confusion. Facts have to be ascertained in the face of lore. There are people who imagine that Shirdi Sai literature is a vast and impenetrable multi-lingual archive. Some are tempted to believe that a crash course in Indian languages must surely be necessary to assess the faqir of Shirdi. The literature on this figure has mushroomed into regional dialects such as Hindi, Telegu, Tamil, Kannada, and Oriya. Much of the inflation is merely translations of material from English and Marathi. There are a limited number of primary sources in Marathi and English; I had access to these in my native script. I happened to write what some literate Shirdi Sai devotees describe as the most comprehensive factual biography of Sai Baba in print (Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation, 2015). I have contributed two books on Shirdi Sai that were published in India; the second one has been reprinted, being favourably received by devotees and others. Westerners are not always regarded as "barbarians" by Hindus. The Shirdi Sai devotees are more sophisticated than some other sectors.

The Sakori ashram constraint, on positive British commentary about Godavari Mataji, is extremist. She does not need “recommendations or Awards” (Sakori ashram comments on Radical Rishi, April 2020). I have written a biography of Upasani Maharaj, not Godavari Mataji (d.1990). I am not withdrawing my recommendations to satisfy high caste exclusivism or ultranationalism.

An Australian informs: “Godavri was very much ‘chief God’ at Sakori when I visited [in 2002], and nowadays her connections to Siddha Yoga and Sathya Sai are emphasised” (Kerkhove, private communication dated 22/06/20). A mythology is here in evidence. Upasani did not teach Siddha Yoga, a subject missing from the programme he charted for Sakori nuns. Siddha Yoga was promoted by Swami Muktananda (d.1982), whose lucrative teachings are reported to have infiltrated Sakori long after the death of Upasani. Muktananda is notorious for indulging in regular sexual activity with female devotees. Siddha Yoga is a very suspicious subject, representing commercial manipulation.

A well known disciple of Muktananda was Adi Da Samraj (d.2008), an American guru who became the subject of lawsuits, being accused of sexual abuse and assault by disillusioned devotees. He transmitted a sexual disease to a number of his female devotees, while claiming that the infection was for their spiritual benefit. The libertine Adi Da trend has erroneously depicted Upasani Maharaj as a “crazy wisdom” precursor of Adi Da (alias Franklin Jones). Followers of Adi Da have presented the antinomian guru as a sequel to Upasani; the latter is imagined to have forecast Adi Da as an avatar in his cryptic comments made to the Shankaracharya in 1939.

The  Dalit  Plight


Some critics of Hindu ashrams (including Indian sceptics) describe that "spiritual" environment in terms of manipulation by high caste interests. In terms of cuisine, eating arrangements are notorious for a sense of separatism. The brahmin kitchen is too holy even for low caste Hindus, let alone non-Hindus. Outcastes (Dalits or "broken people") do not exist in the ashram spirituality scenario, their predicament almost defying description.

Traditionally, Dalits were bound to their masters in a state of semi-slavery - in Kerala, landlords could literally sell Dalits to other landlords, and also had the right to put Dalits to death. (Shayok Chakraborty, Still at the Margins, 2017)

Dalit sewage worker in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, 2018. Courtesy EPA

A relatively well known plight of many Dalits is "manual scavenging." That moderated phrase does not adequately describe the despised role. "There are tens of thousands of manual scavengers still in India - exact figures are impossible to come by - and deaths from the toxic gases they are forced to inhale are reported with nauseating regularity." The versatile Dalit human rights campaigner Bezwada Wilson has profiled this predicament with some success. There is still a long way to go in the face of high caste complacency (Fight Against Scavenging). The lethargic government too frequently pretends that all problems have been solved (Caste and Discrimination).

Many Dalit women have to clean primitive dry toilets by removing excrement with bare hands. They are in serious danger of contracting various diseases as a consequence. Many Dalit men have to clean sewers and septic tanks, in hideous conditions that frequently shock observers. The pay is pitifully meagre. Every five days, a sewage worker dies as a consequence of noxious fumes and other hazards encountered in this high risk activity. Scavenging was banned in 1993, a governmental concession that occurred far too late. The abominable convention is nevertheless still widespread. Experts on the subject have stated that high caste district magistrates are too often the culprits, because these officials blithely permit and justify manual scavenging in their territory. Complacent caste prigs are totally insensitive to the suffering of others.

Bezwada Wilson

Bezwada Wilson emerged from a Dalit family in Karnataka. He helped to establish the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a notable organisation striving to eliminate manual scavenging across India (see Cullet et al, 2019, chapter 10). As a consequence, the number of scavengers has been reduced; however, the statistics are still far too high. States like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh are notorious amongst critics for the proportion of helpless scavengers existing in these regions. The average lifespan of scavengers is only 40-45 years.

Indian demonstrators, New Delhi 2017, protesting assaults against Muslims and Dalits by Hindu molesters. Courtesy AFP

Many years ago, my anguished mother heard from an eyewitness how big Nazi soldiers would smash screaming and crying little Jewish children against a wall until they were dead. That was during the Second World War. A far more protracted bullying has been the fate of untouchables (Dalits) of all ages in India. The centuries-long harassment is screened by Vedanta and Yoga classes at brahmin ashrams.

Upasani Maharaj is said to have predicted that a long time would elapse before the social system could change. The delay has proved singularly convenient for brahmin superiority at many ashrams. In a more general context throughout India, government regulations are ignored by the caste elite. Untouchables are often beaten up or tortured. The outcastes cannot drink at Hindu wells. Only bad or muddy water for the victims of high caste snobbery. A Hindu sport is rape of untouchable girls, on their wedding night, by atrocious caste landlords. The brahmin abuser is supported by kshatriya colleagues, including police. The sexual abuse has been extensive, causing shock to many Westerners. "Sexual violence is linked to debt bondage in rural areas" (Attacks on Dalit Women).

Some details have stunned close readers. A report, dated 1999, stated that over three million children were victims of prostitution in India (Shingal 2015:108). A national prohibition on devadasi sex slaves, dating to 1988, has been flouted in Western and Southern India until the present day. The devadasi system has procured Dalit girls, as young as five or six, for sexual exploitation by temple patrons and high caste paedophiles. The means for this is traditionally sanctioned dedication to a Hindu goddess (ibid). Many of the victims were reportedly sold to urban brothels.

In some villages, Dalit devadasi girls are kept as concubines by the purchaser. Other victims are "public chattel, used by men free of charge" (Carla Power, Devadasis are Dalit Women sold into Sexual Slavery, 2000). The instance is narrated of a nine year old Dalit girl sold by her parents (for the equivalent of four dollars) to a high caste man. While living as his concubine, she had to support herself by begging for money and breaking stones for construction sites.

The devadasi system preys on landless Dalits, giving "religious" high caste men control of Dalit girls, via forced marriage and prostitution. For centuries, village priests in South India supervised initiations of naked devadasi girls into a degrading life of sex slavery at temples. In the year 2000, up to 15,000 girls in rural areas were still annually becoming sex slaves in this religiously endorsed manner. Many of the victims lived in rural temples as the prey of high caste men. Karnataka is notorious in some accounts, but the phenomenon extends to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. "Devadasis are perpetually trapped in cycles of poverty, vulnerability and sexual and psychological abuse" (Srujana Bej, Tackling India's Devidasi System, 2018). To instance another problem: Dalit women are so poor that they are often lured into Bombay brothels for a subsistence livelihood.

Dalit women of Bihar commemorating survivors of caste-based atrocities. Courtesy Alessio Mamo/Redux/eyevine

In more encompassing terms of caste crime, diverse reports, over the past twenty years, are very disturbing (like those of former decades). Dalits are frequently hanged, burned alive, beaten to death, flogged, scalped, disfigured, gang-raped, tortured by high caste police for days. Dalit boys can be killed for riding a horse. Dalits are forced to eat dung. Their houses are burned down by caste predators. Rape victims are murdered by high caste gangs. Police beat up the victim’s husband and demand bribes. The high caste police are responsible for murder, torture, atrocities.

Over 100,000 cases of rape, murder, arson, and other atrocities against Dalits are reported in India each year.... Even perpetrators of large scale massacres have escaped prosecution. (Human Rights Watch)

In 2000, the National Crime Records Bureau (India) estimated that two Dalits were assaulted every hour, three Dalit women were raped every day, two Dalits were murdered every day, and two Dalit homes torched every day.  These crimes were assisted by policemen and government officials. In 2001, Amnesty International reported an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, often by landlords, high caste villagers, and police officers. Available reports and figures are known to be the tip of the iceberg. The situation of violence against Dalits is aggravated by intimidation of victims and police reluctance to expose culprits.

In 2003, a random sampling on this subject, from headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers, included: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers," "Dalit tortured by cops for three days," "Seven Dalits burnt alive in caste clash," "Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits" (Untouchables face violence).

The corrupt police, generally recruited from the higher castes, are habitually opposed to Dalits. In 1999, a forty-two year old Dalit woman was tortured for eight days, afterwards gang-raped, then burned alive. The local police did nothing. In 2014, a fourteen year old Dalit girl was beheaded by a high caste man. The scale of atrocities is not openly reported; some expert estimates say that only a fraction of attacks, about five percent, are officially registered. Caste based crimes have increased substantially under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nationalists led by Narendra Modi. The BJP is strongly associated with a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation, known as Rashtriya Swayamsevah Sangh (RSS).

Harassed and chained Dalits mistreated by high caste thugs. Those in chains were brutally beaten with rods for two hours in front of a crowd at Una, Gujarat, in 2016. The crime was skinning a dead cow, an ancestral occupation imposed by caste society.

The ongoing caste hatred is recorded in some detail. The history of Dalits is more relevant than caste myths. The Dalits now number about 200 million, perhaps a sixth of the total population. Young Dalits are increasingly visible in protest. In January 2018, Dalits clashed with Hindu nationalists in Mumbai, blocking roads and railway lines. They effectively disrupted transport services, proving their strength. Dalits are now gaining more education and vocational opportunity. Their future role is unpredictable.

Not only Dalits, but Hindu caste women, are widespread rape victims. This rape problem has seared Indian public opinion. Experts say that a woman is raped in India every sixteen minutes. The statistics are sometimes considered unbelievable until close investigation occurs. Every fourth rape victim is a child. Some analysts say that India is "the most dangerous country for women." Well known instances of this crime have shocked international readerships. The fashion for gang rape does not ennoble nationalist rule. A persistent taboo in some parts of India curtails any report of rape. The male-centred bias is overpowering, as Upasani Maharaj discovered generations ago.

In 2018, Maharashtra police detained activists for Dalit and Adivasi rights. This was one of the suppression episodes occurring throughout India. Dalits are depicted as terrorists by the police. In January of that year, a nationalist mob violently prevented a customary Dalit gathering at the village of Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra. The high caste police typically failed to protect the victims. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were duly critical of the official suppression.

Dalit protesters are sometimes supported by minority Muslim sufferers from the high caste hatred. Many of the demonstrators are women; a major issue with them is rape, a crime committed by too many terrorist policemen and other high caste yobs. Activists risk imprisonment from a corrupt police force, biased law courts, and governmental tyranny.

Dalit villagers in Punjab struggle for land rights

Dalits in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab have faced strong suppression. Haryana surrounds Delhi, and is notorious for sexual abuse of Dalit women. In the Sangrur district of Punjab, Dalit villagers have struggled for rights over common land. In Bihar, gang rapes and massacres have afflicted the same community in friction with high caste landowners.

Urban developments are significant. "Those [Dalits] resident in the cities have some access to secondary and higher education, and a growing middle class has evolved within the Dalit community" (Minority Rights). At university level, the position is now that Dalits are intellectuals, social critics, and teachers. Too often ignored are the "parallels between Indian elite experiences of humiliation at the hands of the British and Dalit experiences of humiliation at the hands of caste Hindus" (Rawat and Satyanarayana 2016:2, see bibliography at Radical Rishi Part Four).

Hindu  Ultranationalism

In 2019, the Modi government moved thousands of soldiers into Kashmir, a country with a Muslim majority. The Hindu nationalists divested Kashmir of semi-autonomy, in what now amounted to a colonialist regime. An internet blackout was imposed for months. Journalists were arrested on the pretext of "anti-terrorism" laws. Residency was granted to non-Kashmiris. Economic setbacks and unemployment followed for Kashmiris. Young Kashmiri Muslims reacted in a militant mood to the suppression.

Hindu ultranationalism has now gained an adverse association with Chinese Communism, similarly adopting violent and suppressive measures in a political agenda. The Chinese have severely afflicted Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Falun Gong, and others. In relation to Muslims, the Hindus also discriminate on the basis of religion.

Courtesy Sikh Siyasat News and People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)

The ongoing Hindu ultranationalist trend, to marginalise a Muslim minority in India, backfired in protest and literate criticism. The Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) provoked reaction in December 2019. Widespread anti-CAA protests were met with police batons. At Nadwa College in Lucknow, students organised a peaceful protest march, but were stopped and cordoned by police. At Delhi, the Jamia Millia Islamia University was the scene of teargas and lathi (baton) attack, with the additional hazard of bullets (Night of Terror). There were confirmed bullet injuries. The event became known as "Bloody Sunday." Similar problems occurred the same day (December 15th) at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), where the hand of a student had to be amputated by doctors after he was hit by a teargas shell. The police attacked students in "state-sponsored violence" (Students Versus the Regime).

At AMU, police fired a teargas shell into a hostel room where three students were present. This totally unjustified militant action was accompanied by rubber bullets and a lathi charge. A number of students were badly injured. A fact-finding team visited AMU soon after, reporting that police violence at this campus was worse than at Jamia Millia. A member of the team relayed:

I have never seen such levels of police brutality at a student protest. We met one student who was stripped naked and beaten brutally in police custody. There were belt marks over his body, and one hand was broken. (Violence at AMU)

Strong complaints arose that the police were terrorising universities. Some women protestors were badly beaten up at Jamia Millia Islamia University. Events at Jamia Millia during 13th-15th December, 2019, were dramatic. Police stopped a protest march (against CAA) to Parliament street; this protest involved thousands of students and residents. Another rally of protesters encountered approximately 400 tear gas shells. An insidious feature of the police strategy was lathi attacks causing many injuries to the head and legs, revealing an intent to cause serious harm.

Muslim student being bandaged after lathi charge on Jamia Millia Islamia; demonstrating Hindu girl students

When police entered the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, they assaulted guards, damaged CCTV cameras, and launched a violent lathi charge, beating up students and destroying property. Their intention was to "communally abuse and humiliate every single person," including women. The police unlawfully detained many victims, who were denied legal aid. The police also denied emergency and medical care to dozens of students they had injured (Bloody Sunday). These events evoked widespread demonstrations of student solidarity in campuses at Hyderabad, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Lucknow. The international mood of support for victims was also strong.

A close analysis (by the PUDR) of the attack on Jami Millia, derived from eyewitnesses, reveals a horrifying degree of police violence. The police are described as "a lawless force sanctioned to quell dissent." An ominous paramilitary presence was one feature of the violence. Constant tear gas bombs were employed, plus stun bombs and grenades. The police presence within the campus was estimated at over 1,000 men. Nasty threats of sexual violence were made. The students were derided with such identity tags as jihadi. This was interpreted as Modi-inspired police jihad, the Hindu nationalist war against presumed religious rivals and underdogs. Students were constantly smashed with batons. One of them suffered two broken legs, his kneecap displaced. Bruises were visible all over his shoulders and back. To save his head, he covered this with his hands, his wrists swelling after further blows from murderous lathis.

Not content with their savagery at the university, from 15 December 2019, the Delhi police caused brutal damage in Muslim neighbourhoods across Delhi. They targeted victims in many places with lathi charges. This campaign created a public atmosphere of terror, influencing Hindu mobs who later became notorious.

Police beat protesters in Lucknow street, December 2019. Courtesy PTI

A Muslim protest occurred at Lucknow and other cities of Uttar Pradesh. The activity was suppressed by police to the accompaniment of televised nationalist propaganda. Sinister details emerged later. The police in Uttar Pradesh "used extreme torture including physical violence and sleep deprivation" on forty-one minors who were detained in custody at three towns. The victims were subjected to non-stop beating by police with lathis. Many more adults were beaten up with these painful cudgels, a predicament occurring far from the television cameras (Uttar Pradesh Police Brutalised Minors).

The Hindu ultranationalist mood subsequently facilitated mobs attacking a very prestigious university. In January 2020, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) at Delhi was invaded by masked men armed with sticks, stones, and iron rods. The mob attacked students and teachers, while destroying property. The complicit police delayed assistance. Outside the campus gates, another mob shouted nationalist slogans, while targeting journalists and ambulances. Nearly forty victims were injured. Eyewitnesses told reporters that the mob included right wing students linked to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi supporters have for long targeted the JNU as "anti-national," calling the students urban Maoists. The episode has been viewed as indication of a breakdown of law and order in the capital (Soutik Biswas, JNU campus attack).

Analysts of the Hindu ultranationalist debacle have arrived at grim conclusions. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar stated; "An atmosphere of legitimation of lawless violence has been developed." Senior journalist Roshan Kishore commented: "We are living in an age where ideological differences in places of learning will be crushed by brute force" (last article linked).

In late February 2020, further violence erupted in New Delhi, with police firing lethal bullets at Muslims. Even a practising hospital doctor, tending severe wounds, was indicted by a nationalist chargesheet for murder. The high caste authorities were blind with religious hate. The medic had heroically treated more than 600 patients during the week of strife, many of them apparently Muslims.

Muhammad Zubair, beaten by a Hindu mob in Delhi, February 2020. Courtesy Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Delhi "riots" were a scene of Hindu mobs attacking resident Muslims. These horrific events are described in terms of a "Hindu nationalist rampage, stoked by the rhetoric of Narendra Modi's populist government" (Beaten, Lynched, and Burned Alive). Modi blamed the Muslims for the violence.

Thousands were injured in the Delhi "riots," meaning the planned ultranationalist hate attacks. Muslim homes and mosques were torched by the Hindu mobs. Muslims were burned alive in their homes, or dragged into the streets and lynched. The subversive police assisted the mobs in their plan of destruction. The Hindus were armed with iron rods and similar implements; they also threw acid at victims. The attackers shouted what was once a religious mantra: "Jai Shri Ram." That phrase is now a nationalist slogan of aggression. One of the victims was Muhammad Zubair (age 37). He was photographed while being beaten by a Hindu mob of over thirty crazed haters, none of whom he knew.

Muskan was a twenty year old Muslim woman, eight months pregnant. She was thrown to the ground by a Hindu mob, who kicked her stomach and her body. She pleaded with the attackers not to injure her baby. They continued to kick in their total callousness. She ended up in a hospital bed. If there is even the slightest truth in a vaunted doctrine of karma, some Hindu molesters will be in future agony.

The aftermath was also disturbing. Months later, Delhi police arrested and jailed anti-CAA protesters during the COVID-19 pandemic, evidently relying upon the absence of normal communications. Scholars, human rights defenders, and pregnant women were amongst those placed in overcrowded jails during a dangerous pandemic. Most of the victims were Muslims.

The Hindu ultranationalist police are extremely violent even with Indians, so all foreign tourists should be very careful. British visitors should go to another country, or better still, stay at home. Britain has hosted large numbers of Hindu residents since the 1947 event of Independence. Now any British tourist in India could be savaged by Hindu fanatics and militant caste police. The agitators even killed Mahatma Gandhi, whose high caste murderer N. V. Godse is now glorified in India as a nationalist hero. The Gandhian ideal of non-violence has been replaced by violence and murder.

Across the country, more than a dozen statues of Gandhi's killer have been erected. Several Hindu temples are being converted into Godse temples.... Vandals with links to right-wing groups have defaced pictures of Gandhi, attacked his memorials and scrawled the word traitor on his picture. In June last year, a statue of Gandhi was decapitated in eastern India. (Sameer Yasir, Gandhi's Killer, 2020)

Merely walking through a high caste neighbourhood is a life threatening offence for Dalits, potentially also for British visitors identified as "colonialists" by the "smash Gandhi" zealots. The danger of travelling almost anywhere in ultranationalist India should never be underestimated. That country is increasingly violent. Foreign travel advice, from the British government, now warns: "British women have been the victims of sexual assault in Goa, Delhi and Rajasthan." Men are not exempt from the need for caution. British nationals now run the risk of being robbed or assaulted in India, with reports of food and drink being spiked by belligerent and xenophobic persons. British travellers may face the substantial hazard of being drugged and robbed on railway trains in India. There are recent cases known of ailing British tourists who found themselves in Indian hospitals possessing no adequate medical supplies, the premises instead being infested with rats.

I have no wish to visit India. I wish to be spared from a depressing spectacle of the decaying Taj Mahal, the hideously polluted rivers, low caste villager suicides, victimised Muslims, rabidly persecuted untouchables, a notoriously high proportion of raped women.  Not being a devotee, I have no interest in pilgrimage to high caste ashrams.

Hinduism has now lost all credence to the universal wisdom touted by ashrams and commercial gurus. Despised foreigners, who salvage elements of former Indian achievements, face the constraints imposed by devotional ideology, religious bias, ultranationalist hostility, and ashram censorship.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

September 2020

What follows is the original text of RADICAL RISHI:

Chronology for Upasani Maharaj

1870:    Born at Satana on May 15.

1878:    Probable date of his leaving school and commencing sadhana.

1882-88: Resists child marriage and commences mendicant phase, involving uncertain dates.

1888-89:  Probable date of temple sojourns at Poona.

1889-90: Trek to Kalyan and resort to the cave on Bhorgad Hill, duration unknown.

1890:  Recuperation with Bhils at Gawalwadi and return to Satana.

1891-92:   Becomes an Ayurvedic practitioner and contracts third marriage.

1892-95:   Phase of Sanskrit study at Sangli under the pundit Venkataramanacharya.

1895-96:   At Satana commences profession as a vaidh (physician), moves to Jalgaon.

1896-1906: Moves to Amraoti and establishes a successful Ayurvedic dispensary.

1906-08:  Becomes an estate landlord at Gwalior, but is thwarted by circumstances.

1908-09: Returns to Amraoti, revives dispensary, suffers disillusionment.

1910: Closes his dispensary in April. Pilgrimage to Omkareshwar, where he undergoes an abnormal experience that severely disrupts his breathing. Returns to Amraoti and moves to Nagpur, where he consults Dr. Joglekar. Moves to Dhulia, consulting more medical doctors unsuccessfully. Leaves Dhulia to seek remedy.

April-June 1911: Encounters the Yogi Kulkarni Maharaj at Rahuri. Refuses to visit the Muslim faqir Sai Baba at Shirdi. Ascetic flight to Jejuri jungle. A Muslim advises him to drink boiling hot water as a remedy for his breathing problem. Honours a Muslim site at Shupe. Travels to Bombay for second meeting with Narayan Maharaj. Agrees to visit Shirdi.

27 June 1911: Encounters Sai Baba on the Lendi walk. Departs from Shirdi soon afterwards.

July 1911: Returns to Shirdi on the eighth day. Decides to stay, living under the instructions of Sai Baba. Gifts all his money as dakshina.

July or August 1911: Sai Baba declares the “gold plate grant” he bestowed upon Upasani. This celebration of a stranger shocks Hari S. Dixit and some other eminent devotees.

Autumn 1911 – June 1912: At the instruction of Sai Baba, Upasani takes up residence at the Khandoba temple in Shirdi, where he is exposed to snakes and scorpions. At first cooks his own food at the temple, afterwards accepting an invitation to take a daily meal at Dixitwada. In the new year of 1912, he attends the Vedanta classes of the visiting Ganesh S. Khaparde. Begins to have intense mystical experiences. A crisis occurs when Hari Dixit terminates the feeding arrangement at Dixitwada.

July – December 1912: Abstinence at the temple is monitored by Sai Baba. Intense experiences and “visions” continue for Upasani. His solitude interrupted by visitors, with whom he begins to express annoyance.

1913: The unmatta state early supervenes. His abstinence becomes acute. At some uncertain juncture, Durgabai Karmakar is instructed by Sai Baba to feed the temple dweller, a difficult task. In April, Dr. Pillai appears on the scene, taking a pulse reading. Upasani is frequently occupied in manual labour. Dr. Pillai becomes his devotee and supporter. Some observers believe that Upasani is now a satpurusha, while opponents consider him to be a madman.

18 July 1913: Sai Baba instructs Chandrabai Bhorkar to perform arati and puja before Upasani at the Khandoba temple. The occasion was Gurupurnima. This recognition of Upasani as a guru evokes the harassment of Nanavali.

January 1914: Upasani begins intake of coffee and fruit after Sai Baba administers a purgative concoction at the mosque.

July 1914: Dr. Ganapat Rao arrives on the scene, becoming a devotee of Upasani. Dr. Pillai and Dr. Ganapat plan the removal of Upasani from Shirdi, for the purpose of escaping harassers and improving his physical condition. Upasani agrees, secretly departing with Dr. Ganapat on 25 July.

Late July and August 1914: Recuperation at Shinde, assisted by Dr. Ganapat and his family. Upasani changes to a new diet on 24 August.

September 1914: Moves to the home of Dr. Pillai at Nagpur. Subsequently returns to Shinde, where he eats a little rich food causing pain. Dr. Pillai intervenes by removing him to Nagpur once more. Upasani here commences a begging round at night.

October 1914: Pillai’s brother Chinnaswami takes Upasani to Kharagpur, in West Bengal. The incognito ascetic is at first resistant to visitors arriving at the home of Chinnaswami.

October-December 1914: Gains new devotees, including the brahman Khasnis and the shudra girl Mirabai. Upasani denies being a saint, but in December his incognito profile is replaced by a local fame and a growing number of supporters. He starts to associate with low caste and "untouchable" (Dalit) people.

February 1915: Moves to a derelict hut belonging to the bhangi couple, Bhagu and Namdev. Many brahman devotees continue to visit him, their ranks increasing.

April 1915: Moves from the mahar hut to a nearby bhangi colony. His brahman devotees remain loyal to him, daily visiting the colony.

April-July 1915: Upasani now lives on the level of bhangis (untouchables), working as a sweeper and scavenger. He also pounds flour in bhangi homes, and assists low caste masons. He commences a long term habit of bathing lepers. Every week, about 200 bhangi and low caste children are bathed and fed on Thursday by his devotees. Upasani visits an Indian Christian settlement, there adopting the role of a bhangi. His devotees commence the regular project of a feast (bhandara) for bhangis. High caste critics in Kharagpur campaign in the local press against him, because of his support for untouchables. The opponents attempt intimidation at the bhangi colony.

4 August 1915: Departs from Kharagpur after opponents disrupt a feast for untouchables by summoning policemen. Upasani thereafter adopts a defensive strategy in relation to caste issues.

August 1915. Returns to the home of Dr. Pillai at Nagpur for three weeks. Upasani is visited by the politician Ganesh Khaparde.

Late August – September 1915: Revisits Shinde with Dr. Ganapat. Agrees to an operation for piles, which is performed at Shinde by a Parsi surgeon from Wardha. Upasani refuses any anaesthetic and bears the pain in silence.

Autumn 1915: Invited by devotees to Nagpur. After initial hesitation, he stays for over a month, attracting large crowds, and becoming famous in Maharashtra. However, he wishes to move on for purposes of privacy. Stays a few days in Poona, then travels north to Shirdi, staying briefly at the Khandoba temple in December. Here Merwan Irani (Meher Baba) finds him after encountering Sai Baba. Upasani continues north to his native Satana, selecting the nearby village of Munjwad for a period of isolation.

December 1915: In Shirdi, Hari V. Sathe commences the unusual project known as Dakshina Bhiksha Sansthan, at the instigation of Sai Baba.

Mid-January 1916: Upasani returns to Shirdi again, this time for a lengthy stay, apparently lasting for seven months.

January-July 1916: At the Khandoba temple, Upasani receives many visitors. He forges a strong link with the Seth (Sait) family of Rahata, prominent devotees of Sai Baba. Opposition from Nanavali continues, but this time Upasani gains control.

August-November 1916: Moves to the farm of Daulatram Seth at nearby Rahata. Upasani maintains his egalitarian outlook, welcoming low caste people. Continues manual work. Kharagpur devotees organise an extensive bhandara at the Seth farm.

November-December 1916: Moves for a few weeks to the nearby village of Sakori, at the time of a plague epidemic in the local area. When the village is deserted, Upasani sweeps clean the entire site.

December 1916 - March 1917: Moves back to the Khandoba temple at Shirdi, where he stays for about three months. Resistance from conservative Sai devotees is ongoing, despite the recommendations of Sai Baba himself in favour of Upasani.

March 1917: Travels to Miraj for a hospital operation on his piles. Stays at Miraj for a few weeks to recuperate.

March-April 1917: Invited to Kolhapur, where he stays for a month. Maintains that he is not a guru, but an ailing man; he nevertheless gains many new devotees.

Late April-July 1917: Stays a week in Poona with his brother Balakrishna, but reacts to the devotee worship of himself. Moves on to Shirdi, for his fifth sojourn at the Khandoba temple. His opponents at Shirdi are now very worried by his escalating fame. They feel that his presence in Shirdi is a threat to the primacy of Sai Baba. Upasani agrees to leave, moving to Sakori in July.

August-December 1917: Does not yet settle permanently at Sakori, instead selecting an isolated hut outside the village, where he remains for some months.

Early 1918: Travels north, briefly visiting his mother Rukminibai at Dhulia. Moves to isolated Munjwad once more, and then scenic Durgeshwar.

March-April 1918: Journeys to Bombay at the invitation of Amidas Mehta, who organises a Ramanavami feast. Upasani stays for about six weeks, afterwards settling permanently at Sakori.

May-September 1918: Lives in a new hut at the cremation ground, to the west of the village. The sevakari Durgabai Karmakar also gains a hut on this primitive site. Only committed visitors like Kaikhushru Masa can endure the very basic environment.

September 1918: Upasani gives reluctant permission for devotees to conduct a seven day celebration in his honour. A large pandal is erected near his hut. Hundreds of devotees arrive from Rahata and other places. Upasani repeatedly requests that the pandal (tent) be removed. Devotees resort to a ruse.

15 October 1918: Sai Baba dies at Shirdi.

Late 1918: Influenza pandemic hits Sakori. Upasani removes the corpses.

1919: Various feasts and festivals in occurrence at the cremation ground, with Upasani confirming his social benefactor role via distributions to the poor.

Early 1920: Sojourn at Varanasi (Kashi), lasting a few months. Upasani permits a large number of devotees to come to the holy city after his arrival. The climax is a nine day celebration involving priestly yajna ritual and a bhandara. Upasani confronts brahman priests who choose to exercise a religious bias against the Muslim faqir Sai Baba.

Mid-1920: Travels to Nasik with Merwan Irani and Sadashiv Patel. Revisits the Bhorgad cave with these same companions.

October 1920: Resists invitation from Amidas Mehta to attend a celebration at Bombay. Upasani subsequently spends three weeks in the metropolis, meeting many new and old devotees. The shudra saint Gadge Maharaj is one of the visitors.

14 January 1921: Sankranti festival at Sakori ashram involves a feast for the poor from neighbouring villages, including lepers who are bathed by Upasani.

March-April 1921: Ramanavami festival is the occasion of a similar feast, quickly followed by an Urs festival of Sufi associations, confirming the affinity of Upasani with Muslim followers.

May 1921: Yeshwantrao Borawke finances the celebration of Upasani’s birthday, involving another extensive feast for the poor.

26 July 1921: Commences stay of one week at Sarosh Manzil, the home of Gulmai Irani and her husband Khan Saheb, in Ahmednagar. Upasani here visits the tomb of Bapu Shah Jindewali (Bapu Saheb Wali), a saint associated with Sai Baba.

August 1921-January 1922: Merwan Irani stays for six months at Sakori ashram, meeting Upasani daily in the secluded “second hut,” while attended by Yeshwantrao Borawke.

9-19 May 1922: Merwan (Meher Baba) stays for ten days at Sakori ashram, at first with a large group of his followers, and later with Gustad Hansotia only. The birthday celebration of Upasani is included in the sequence of events, and also a distinctive message from Upasani warning of subsequent complexities. This sojourn underwent a notable contraction and misrepresentation in a popular book by Paul Brunton.

July 28 1922: Meher Baba stays at Sakori for four days, accompanied by Ahmed Abbas (Khak Saheb), Muslim editor (and translator) of the Urdu biography of Upasani.

6-7 August 1922: Meher Baba sends a large group of his mandali from Bombay to Sakori. These men are led by Gustad Hansotia, and include Ramju Abdulla, who made a report in his diary. Upasani discourses to the company.

15 October 1922: Meher Baba visits Sakori for the last time, staying for 18 hours. Mehera J. Irani arrives to spend about a week at the ashram, alongside the brahman kanyas.

1922-23: Preparation and publication, in Bombay, of three different language versions of Upasani’s biography, undertaken at the initiative of Meher Baba.

25 December 1922: Upasani commences his confinement in the bamboo cage (pinjra) at Sakori.

February-May 1923: Mehera J. Irani stays at Sakori ashram as one of the early kanyas.

May 1923: From the cage, Upasani gives darshan to the public at his birthday celebration.

1923-25: Communicates the Marathi discourses known as Talks, recorded by Ranga Rao Vakil.

December 1923-February 1924: Mehera J. Irani and Khorshed K. Irani stay with the Hindu kanyas at Sakori for about two months.

31 January 1924: Upasani emerges from the cage, but soon goes back inside for long periods.

February 1924: Godavari Hatavalikar first comes to Sakori ashram.

1924: Probable date when Mahatma Gandhi visited Sakori. Month unknown. Different versions of the event are in circulation.

Late August 1924: Still living in the cage, Upasani is visited by Maharaja Sir Kishan Prasad, a devotee from Hyderabad. This celebrity arrives at Sakori with a large retinue.

December 1924: By this date, at least three lepers are living at Sakori ashram, including Shantarama.

March 1925: Visits Shirdi for the first time since the death of Sai Baba.

10 July 1925: Meher Baba commences silence at the newly established Meherabad ashram, near Ahmednagar.

1926: Upasani is invited to Hyderabad (territory of the Nizam). Gives darshan at Begumpet, afterwards staying at the bungalow of new devotee Raja Narsing.

1926: Stays quietly at Nadiad in Gujarat.

1 August 1926: Gives mass darshan in Bombay, at the home of Seth Govind Das.

1927: Permits construction of a large Dattatreya temple at Sakori ashram.

1927-28: Complex situation of poisoning associated with Durgabai Karmakar. Upasani recuperates at Nasik after severe illness.

July 1928: Initiates Godavari Mataji at Gurupurnima festival. Upasani tells devotees to bow to her, not to himself.

Late 1928: Stays at Hyderabad as a guest of Raja Narsing. During a mass darshan, Upasani is worshipped as Dattatreya. Visits Hyderabad almost annually thereafter.

January 1929: Installs padukas in the new Dattatreya temple at Sakori ashram.

1929-1932: Period of peak popularity prior to orthodox opposition. Undertakes a number of ongoing journeys to various cities, including Bombay, Surat, Kolhapur, and Nagpur. Satellite ashrams begin to be established at places like Hyderabad.

1930: Gives mass darshan in Bombay, again at Walkeshwar.

September 1931: During a voyage to England, Meher Baba emphasises to Mahatma Gandhi that Upasani Maharaj is a genuine sadguru.

November 1932: At Sakori, Upasani conducts the panch kanya symbolic marriages in Vaishnava mode.

1933: Removes the jealous and accusing Durgabai Karmakar to Sholapur.

1933: Criticised in a private reflection of Meher Baba about the orthodox ritualism at Sakori.

1934: Visits Kharagpur for a few days, after an absence of nearly twenty years. There he counsels his devotees. Then journeys on to Varanasi, a focus for his ongoing sojourns.

February 1934: Divekar Shastri commences defamatory articles against Upasani in Kirloskar magazine.

15 August 1934: Lawsuit filed by S. V. Bangre against Divekar Shastri.

5 September 1934: The short-lived “coconut” lawsuit filed by V. L. Jagtap against Upasani.

September 1934: Upasani commences distinctive contact with Meher Baba via intermediaries.

4 November 1934: Raghunath Karmakar visits Meher Baba at Meherabad.

14 April 1935: Upasani visits Shirdi for the second time after decease of Sai Baba. Encounter with the kirtankar Das Ganu Maharaj.

22 May 1935: Lawsuit launched against Upasani, invoking the Bombay Devadasis Protection Act in relation to his recent spiritual marriages with two kanyas. This case was transferred from Kopargaon to Ahmednagar. The suspect prosecution lost decisively after due examination by Sessions Judge K. M. Kumthekar.

29 August 1935: Lawsuit filed by G. S. Raote against Upasani and R. V. Karmakar.

8 September 1935: Complaint alleging murder lodged against Upasani by R. N. Koli. The case was dismissed after a police investigation found no evidence.

1934-35: Upasani emerges victorious in five court cases launched and influenced by opponents at Kopargaon.

1935: Sakori nuns commence to learn Vedic yajna rites under pundit supervision.

1935: Publication of the well known book Sage of Sakuri, by B. V. Narasimhaswami. Though helpful to a degree, this introductory biography is not by any means comprehensive. The lengthy Sakori phase is here largely a blank.

1935-37: Upasani contracts six more spiritual marriages with young kanyas.

16 February 1936: Visits Khushru Quarters in Ahmednagar, where he unexpectedly performs the arati of Meher Baba.

1936: Commences to perform yajna rituals and other satkriyas with the growing number of kanyas.

1937-38: Suffers from diabetes.

1938: A satellite ashram, Upasaniwadi, is created at Nagpur.

February 1939: Receives at Sakori the Shankaracharya associated with Jyotir math. This religious figurehead endorses the Kanya Kumari Sthan.

April 1939: Confers sannyasa upon his mother Rukminibai, who dies a month later.

6 May 1939: Death of Durgabai Karmakar at Sholapur.

1939: Publication of his book Sati Charitra (in Marathi). Godavari Mataji and the kanyas perform a yajna at Surat.

May 1940: In response to the continued petition of Upasani, Meher Baba agrees to take control of Sakori ashram. This arrangement was not resolved.

December 1940: Last visit to Varanasi (Benares).

January 1941: Performs his last yajna with the kanyas.

February 1941: Last visit to Surat.

17 October 1941: Last meeting with Meher Baba, occurring at Dahigaon.

24 November 1941: Commences last visit to Hyderabad, as guest of Raja Narsing.

12 December 1941: Commences last visit to Poona.

December 1941:  Visits tomb of Jnaneshwar at Alandi.

22 December 1941: Last visit to Satana.

24 December 1941: Dies at Sakori ashram.


Introduction: Versions of the Biography

Ascertaining the biography of Upasani Maharaj is a more complicated process than generally assumed. This is because there are several basic sources, certain of which are little known. Only two of these are represented in most general accounts of the subject. The imbalance has led to extensive confusions.

A similar imbalance occurred in the case of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918), an entity closely associated with Upasani. A recent commentator, Dr. Chandrabhanu Satpathy, writes:

Scanning the abundant literature on Shri Sai Baba we can easily discern a certain amount of repetitiveness of anecdotes and themes, where miracles of Shri Sai Baba are mostly highlighted. The language used in many of the books appears to be somewhat similar and replete with oriental hyperboles, which at times cloud the exactitude of the basic theme and events…. A lot of opinion and perception, based on assumption and hearsay, have slowly crept into his hagiography. Obscurantism is not good. (NF:vii-viii)

The Irani Zoroastrian mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969) was originally a disciple of Upasani (and acquaintance of Sai Baba). He instigated the early publication (in 1922-23) of a biography in three different Indian languages, namely Marathi, Gujarati, and Urdu (SBM:89). This project provided by far the most exhaustive format for the life of Upasani Maharaj until 1920. That undertaking has generally reaped obscurity.

Various editors were involved in the triple language project. The process of composition was accomplished by Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Muslims. The same basic materials were presented in the different linguistic versions, with a degree of editorial adaptation. The Marathi version is better known than the other two. However, the original text was in Gujarati, being composed by Behli J. Irani, who had met Upasani. This writer was familiar with Sakori events.

Sohrabji M. Desai

Behli (Baily) was one of the early mandali of Meher Baba; in that capacity, he was an associate of Gustad Hansotia (a Parsi disciple of Sai Baba) and Sadashiv Patel, both of whom were intimate with Upasani. The core text was edited by the far more well known Sohrab Muncherji Desai, a Parsi scholar and poet of Navsari. The “Desai text” was published as Sakori na Sadguru (1923).

Concurrently, the Hindu writer Madhav Nath (Natha Madhava), of Bombay, translated Behli Irani’s core text into Marathi. Some assistance was given, in Shri Sadguru Upasani Maharaja Yancha Charitra, by Sadashiv Patel (Shelke) of Poona, a personal acquaintance of the Sakori mystic.

An Urdu translation, of the same Gujarati text, was achieved by two Muslim followers of Meher Baba, namely Ahmed Abbas (Khak Saheb) and Asar Saheb. These editors visited Delhi, contacting the famous Muslim savant Khwaja Hasan Nizami (1879-1955), a representative of the Chishti Sufi Order and a prolific writer in Urdu. Nizami consented to write a brief introduction for Garibonka Asara. This Urdu book has sadly reaped obscurity. The interest of Nizami evidently occurred because Sai Baba was widely identified at that time as a Muslim, prior to the innovative interpretations pressing a Hindu background. Nizami himself had encountered Sai Baba, and “held a very high opinion of him” (RD:110).

At the time when these early biographies were published in Bombay, Upasani complained in private to Gulmai Irani, saying he did not want to be known to the public (LM:488). He did not demonstrate any desire for celebrity. The retiring Upasani often resisted communal events requested by devotees. This aspect of his disposition is not common in guru instances, amounting to a premium factor accordingly.

B. V. Narasimhaswami

Another account was presented by B. V. Narasimhaswami, whose partisan work Sage of Sakuri (1935) updated to the early 1930s. This contribution, in the English language, became better known than the abovementioned works in Indian languages, and achieved reprints. However, the sequel is much shorter than the works by Sorabji Desai and Madhav Nath. Narasimhaswami does employ some interesting materials, while his use of English was quite sophisticated for the period. He attempts a form of critical assessment, to some extent mitigated by his partiality for miracles. Narasimhaswami acknowledges his reliance upon (part of) the Marathi work Upasani Lilamrita, which employed reminiscences of Upasani. His version of Sakori events is fragmentary (prompting a later supplement from Subbarao). However, he did usefully record, in the form of appendices, some new information gleaned from various devotees of the Sakori ashram phase.

A later version (again in English), by the influential sannyasin Narasimhaswami, is frequently regarded as authoritative. The commentary featured in the author’s multi-volume Life of Sai Baba, published in the 1950s. The relevant two chapters are not partisan, but instead reactive, perhaps mainly because of the Kanya Kumari Sthan, a community of nuns created by Upasani at Sakori ashram during the 1930s. By the 1950s, Narasimhaswami was an ardent missionary (pracharak) promoting Sai prachar (propaganda). In this respect, his outlook was sectarian. His “Shirdi Revival” sided with orthodox brahmanical opposition to the Kanya Kumari Sthan. That fundamentalist trend, extremely biased and distorting, is not considered valid by informed parties.

The contrasting content of these diverse sources has to date lacked due assessment. Instead, the earlier corpus has been largely obscured. The 1950s reductionist version of Upasani, by Narasimhaswami, is widely regarded in India as being accurate. This is because of the author’s fame as a commentator on Shirdi Sai Baba.

The early 1920s biographical project, furthered by Meher Baba, was intended as a detailed record of Upasani Maharaj. This project has the advantage of very early reporting. An Irani writer produced the core text, which drew upon numerous oral testimonies (including those of Upasani himself). In contrast, Narasimhaswami did not encounter Upasani Maharaj until the early 1930s, a decade later; he was afterwards strongly influenced by conservative brahmanical critique of the Sakori ascetic.

Materials in the Gujarati work Sakori na Sadguru (1923) are associated with an Irani Zoroastrian compiler and a Parsi Zoroastrian editor. A disadvantage is that sources are not specified; this failing is common in biographies of Indian saints. We know that Behli Irani was in contact with many persons who knew Upasani, both Hindus and Zoroastrians; Behli himself had met the Sakori ascetic. His account is lengthy and unusually detailed (amplified by editors).

The 1920s corpus, even in the Desai version only, strongly facilitates a counter to the 1950s interpretation, by Narasimhaswami, of Upasani’s Shirdi phase commencing in 1911. Fairly numerous attendant details of Shirdi Sai were forgotten in the influential Life of Sai Baba.  These missing details are significant, serving to change the picture of events quite substantially. Those details are to some extent convergent with formerly obscured data about the Dakshina Bhiksha Sansthan, a Shirdi trend resurrected by Dr. Satpathy (NF:111-137).

The Marathi work Upasani Lilamrita (2 vols, 1930-1936) is variously described as a biography, a hagiography, and a dictated text; Upasani is reported to have read the manuscript. Lilamrita has been criticised for an absence of relevant dates. Some writers have cited Lilamrita without any reference to earlier biographies, which include different details particularly relevant to the Shirdi sojourns (in the plural). The misconception arose that Upasani had forgotten some dates involved. In his reminiscences, he was frequently indifferent to chronology, being concerned only with the point made. He was a mystic, not a historian.

A useful contribution by S. Subbarao, published in 1948, was intended as a complement to Sage of Sakuri, being integrated in a third edition of that earlier work. Narasimhaswami did not adequately describe the Sakori ashram period, a particular defect of his coverage (indeed, the detail effectively ends with the Kharagpur phase). Subbarao attempted to remedy this truncation, also providing a due chronology of the biography. Even then, his supplement is not by any means exhaustive, leaving ample room for extension.

With regard to the Kanya Kumari Sthan, data provided by some other sources is in pronounced contradiction to the negative assessment by 1950s Narasimhaswami. For instance, the multi-volume work Lord Meher (originally Meher Prabhu), provides details of 1920s, 1930s, and later Sakori events elsewhere neglected. However, editing errors have become notorious in Lord Meher. Caution is duly required (with American, Indian, and online editions). The sheer bulk of material in this compilation is difficult to ignore. However, cross-referencing becomes essential in relation to a lengthy work  omitting citation of sources (Shepherd, Lord Meher Critique,” 2017).

A book of major relevance was contributed by Dr. Shantaram N. Tipnis, meaning Contribution of Upasani Baba to Indian Culture (1966). This carefully annotated study awards a primary focus to the teaching of Upasani, while also providing significant details relating to the biography. Tipnis describes the failed 1934-35 lawsuits that were symptomatic of opposition to Upasani and the Kanya Kumari Sthan. The “Divekar agitation” is here set in due context, contrasting with the confusion created by Narasimhaswami.

The Tipnis documentation was acknowledged by other professional scholars, notably Professor Arthur L. Basham (d.1986), a British Indologist who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). Basham commented in his review of Tipnis: “The thesis forms an interesting survey of the teacher’s life and doctrines. It is useful as a document of contemporary Hinduism. It is definitely a contribution to knowledge, and the student has made use of much interesting material and read very widely in order to prepare it.”

An important source is Talks, incorporating Upasani Vak Sudha, a text approved by Upasani. These “talks” of his date to the years 1923-25. Autobiographical reminiscences are included. The “talks” were very informal; they are not lectures, nor even discourses in the sense commonly envisaged. This collection, extending to about two thousand pages, has generally been neglected. The original Marathi versions (in the plural) later gained a three (and four) volume English translation. Due analysis of content is required. I have not attempted a complete summary in the present book, which is basically biographical.

A compact biography of Upasani came from the pen of Godamasuta, a literate devotee of Godavari Mataji (d.1990), and the translator of Talks. His Life Sketch (1957) amounted to the “official” version of Upasani on behalf of Sakori ashram. It is obligatory to cite this document. The contents need integrating with other sources. Different versions of the same event are found in this literature, a common problem with biographies.

Other sources in English include an early article by Dr. C. D. Deshmukh of Nagpur, who had personal acquaintance with Upasani Maharaj. In that same colonial era, the British author Charles B. Purdom included a sympathetic coverage of Upasani in a biography of Meher Baba, published in 1937. Over thirty years later, the American scholar Dr. Marvin Henry Harper contributed a more retrospective analysis.

There is also much material in Marathi on Godavari Mataji (d.1990) and her teachings, including reports of ritual events over several decades. I have not used this data, which is in excess to the requirements of a lengthy book on Upasani Maharaj.

1. The  Upasani  Family

Upasani Maharaj is often known as Upasani Baba. His original identity was Kashinath Govind Shastri Upasani. His (Upasani) family were village priests, being brahmans skilled in the Sanskrit language.

The grandfather of Kashinath was Gopala (Gopalrao) Shastri Upasani, who gained repute in Maharashtra as a very learned scholar. His erudition encompassed diverse branches of the Sanskrit heritage. Gopalrao was familiar with the Veda Shastra and the Vedanta philosophy. He likewise gained expertise in the legal texts, grammar, and astrology (Jyotish Shastra). Gopalrao was also acquainted with ritual texts (Karma Shastra) and the medicinal/therapeutic prescriptions of Ayurveda (Vaidikya Shastra). As a consequence of his learning, Gopalrao was frequently consulted for his opinion. (1)

Gopalrao belonged to “a very orthodox sect of Brahmins” (Narasimhaswami 2002:384). The particulars are elusive. He may have been a deshastha brahman; he certainly had much in common with that community. Over half of the brahmans in Maharashtra were deshastha. This category were renowned as pundits, also exercising roles as priests, astrologers, and village revenue officials. The sixteenth century bhakti sant Eknath was a deshastha brahman, along with other well known literary figures of Maharashtra.

Major rivals of the deshastha community were the chitpavan brahmans from Konkan, the coastal region of Maharashtra. The chitpavans assimilated Western education, strongly associated with Bombay (Mumbai), to the extent that many of them became educationalists and social reformers during the late nineteenth century (including Bal Gangadhar Tilak). By comparison, Gopalrao Shastri was very much a traditionalist. The fact that Tilak assisted this Shastri family for a year, in 1892-93, has complicated any firm attribution of caste background. In one of his published discourses (Talk 127), Upasani refers to the chitpavans, in terms of their origins. Here he credits a derivation from Europeans; this commentary is not definitive in terms of his own background; see GT, 2:552-554.

Gopalrao was born at the village of Satana, about sixty miles north of Nasik (Nashik). Satana was located within the mountainous Baglan taluka (territory) of Maharashtra, on the Western Ghats. Gopalrao moved to neighbouring Gujarat, where for many years, he served as one of the chief advisers to the Gaekwad of Baroda (Vadodara). The reign was apparently that of Khande Rao; the context would fit the migration of deshastha brahmans, from Maharashtra to Baroda, which occurred during the nineteenth century. That influx desired State service in a prosperous milieu.

Maharaja Khande Rao, Gaekwad of Baroda, with attendants, 1860s

The Gaekwad maharajas were Maratha rulers at Baroda from the early eighteenth century. After fighting the British, they achieved local autonomy in 1802 by recognising British overlordship. Baroda was a large and wealthy princely State, the maharajas living in grand style. The royal court became famed as a spectacle of bejewelled opulence, benefiting from pearl trade relations with the Arabian Gulf. Symptomatic of this trend was the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, commissioned in 1865 by the Gaekwad Khande Rao (rgd. 1856-1870). This textile is embroidered with 1.5 million Gulf pearls and about 2,500 diamonds. The "most expensive carpet in the world" is adorned with pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Infuenced by Persian design, this fantastic creation was reputedly intended as a gift for the tomb of the prophet Muhammad at Medina.

A detail from the Pearl Carpet of Baroda (courtesy National Museum of Qatar)

The elevation of Gopalrao Shastri at the Baroda court was substantial. Desai implies that all religious duties in the region were under his supervision. According to Narasimhaswami, this adviser assessed the merit of incoming literati to the Baroda court, these claimants seeking recognition, diplomas, and more substantial rewards. Gopalrao gained a supporter in the Rajguru, meaning the guru of the royal family.

When the Gaekwad died, his successor did not achieve the same standard of adherence to principle. This was apparently the notorious tyrant Malhar Rao. In reaction, Gopalrao decided to return to Satana. However, he was in such demand that prominent men requested him to continue his role as a court adviser. He was then importuned by means of an intended gift of a large sum of money. Gopalrao adamantly declined the gift, leaving the court. His own lifestyle was simple; he resisted excesses that could be found amongst the wealthy.

After returning to rural Satana, he maintained the traditional gurukula system of tuition. This involved brahman students who stayed at his home to study under him. A pundit and priest, Gopalrao taught the Vedas and Puranas, performed yajna rituals, received dakshina for his services, and gave charity to the poor. Some eight to ten boys would stay at his home for tuition in Sanskrit grammar and other subjects. In a traditional manner, the students would maintain themselves by begging for food at local brahman homes. If they were not successful in this endeavour, then Gopalrao would arrange for food to be provided by his own family. (2)

His basic guidelines of tuition are reported in terms of: “to live truthfully, to refrain from vainglory, to maintain humility, not to enter into conflict with any by uttering obscenities, to be non-expectant for any greatness, praise or commendable appreciations from any” (DSS:43).

Gopalrao’s grandson Kashinath was one of those who discovered that the tutor was a strict disciplinarian. In cases of laxity amongst his pupils, Gopalrao would administer a blow with a cane, and even flogging. This method of retribution was believed to be the most effective in offsetting tendencies to bad habits or neglect of tuition.

As a non-pundit guru in his later years, Kashinath (Upasani) himself occasionally favoured a cane when rebuking an inattentive or erring devotee. A similar context applies to Sai Baba, who became noted for dealing blows with his satka, a short stick or baton.

An illustration of the need for correction is provided by a graphic report of erring behaviour, as evidenced by a young pundit. This student soon envied the fame of his tutor Gopalrao. The brahman youth became skilled in grammar texts; he was thereafter recognised as a pundit of Sanskrit grammar. People would ask the opinion of this junior on religious subjects. Adulation evidently affected him for the worst.

The young pundit became insolent and started to criticise his tutor, even though Gopalrao was the means of making the critic famous and gaining him career distinctions. The senior scholar exercised much patience in this situation; Gopalrao was even known to offer his seat of honour to the young critic at public gatherings. Instead of being grateful for such a gesture, the junior would express abuse and contempt. (3)

A different type of behaviour is also on record. Gopalrao was unable to meet a wedding invitation; he accordingly sent his grandson Kashinath, along with the latter’s mother Rukmini. A traditional seat of honour, on a high pedestal, was arranged at this function. The young emissary of Gopalrao was expected to occupy the elevated seat. Kashinath refused this distinction. Despite repeated requests to take the high seat, he instead sat on the floor with all the other guests. The boy is reported to have said on that occasion: “I will never be able to be even remotely similar to my revered grandfather.” (4)

Gopalrao had two sons, Govindrao and Damodar. The former was the father of Kashinath. Govindrao Shastri became a capable pundit in Sanskrit grammar and astrology, also being skilled in texts relating to traditional mathematics. Two friends advised him to learn English; they were civil servants, urging him to qualify in this manner for a more lucrative position with the colonial powers. The problem for Govindrao was economic responsibility for a large family. The civil servants started to teach him the English language; however, he subsequently discarded this prospect, apparently not wishing to be dependent upon others.

Govindrao found that astrology was not sufficiently remunerative. Faced with a serious shortage of funds, he eventually decided to become an alchemist. In this extremity, he was party to a fairly widespread belief that inferior metals could be transformed into gold. For months he conducted experiments in his house, but to no avail; he became very dejected as a consequence. His father Gopalrao did not believe in alchemy, deeming this pursuit to be a symptom of greed and ignorance. The elder argued that “true saints or holy men” had no need for the “useless and deceptive modes of alchemy.” (5)

The son took due heed, vowing to discard alchemy. He now wanted to travel elsewhere in the hope of finding a suitable career prospect. However, Gopalrao would not give him permission for about six months, finding excuses to stop him. These two brahmans exercised very different roles. The elder lived as a pundit, immersed in ideals of traditional religion and spirituality. In contrast, his son was seeking a secular career to solve economic problems.

Gopalrao eventually gave his consent. Govindrao then moved north to Dhulia, a town where he was successful in gaining a clerical job attached to the legal profession. In his leisure time, he pursued astrology and astronomy. He became close friends with the headmaster of a local school in Dhulia; this man was acqainted with astronomy, having purchased an expensive telescope. These two enthusiasts would spend their evenings with the telescope, surveying the sky for hours on end, comparing their findings with the traditional Sanskrit texts on astrology and astronomy.

Govindrao Shastri became celebrated at Dhulia for his knowledge of Sanskrit. Eventually, he was teaching Sanskrit to students. (6) Meanwhile, he brought most of his family from Satana to reside at Dhulia.

2.  Early  Years  at  Satana

Kashinath Govind Shastri Upasani was born at Satana village, north of Nasik. His date of birth was May 15, 1870 (shaka year 1792). His father Govindrao moved north to Dhulia (Dhule), gaining the office career of a clerk, a role signifying more lucrative prospects than the ancestral priestly calling. In contrast, the vocation of a village priest was poorly paid. His secularised role was part of a widespread social trend in which the brahman caste lost anchorage in a priestly vocation.

Dhulia was a growing city located in the Khandesh region of northern Maharashtra. Until the early nineteenth century, Dhulia was a village of no great significance. This situation changed when Dhulia gained British favour. The colonial overlords selected Dhulia as the hub of what became known as Khandesh District. Dhulia then acquired a cantonment, became a thriving centre of trade, and gained a repute for unusually thorough municipal planning. The Westernising influence of the British was overpowering for many Indian inhabitants. Dhulia was the new mecca of secular prospects for men like Govindrao Shastri.

A distance of about sixty miles separated Dhulia from Satana. The young Kashinath Upasani lived at Satana with his grandfather and uncle Damodar. He had four brothers and one sister. He was the second oldest of the brothers.  He underwent the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) during his eighth year. The ministrant here was a local brahman known as Deva Mamaledara.

The boy strongly disliked the vernacular preparatory school he attended for three years. He “commenced his education at the age of five” (GLS:1). This phase was climaxed by an unpleasant episode. A teacher named Gharpure (or Ghrapure) “brutally caned him on his bare body, raising several weals all over” (NSS:5). The victim fled to his home, thereafter refusing to attend classes.

Kashinath is reported to have attended some lessons taught at home, apparently by his grandfather. Yet the only subject in which he showed any interest was religion. At the age of eight, he had a nightmare in which he was whipped by an aggressive person. This experience upset him deeply. His grandfather prescribed protective mantras, which the boy repeated every night before sleeping. Shortly after, Kashinath selected a small room in the family house as his own, there commencing religious worship (DSS:56-59).

The Desai version does not mention the caning at school. Inconsistencies in reporting may nevertheless permit a conclusion that the nightmare and the caning ordeal were related events. This development apparently marked the beginning of the boy’s strong leaning to worship and meditation.

Kashinath proved averse to Sanskrit learning in subjects like grammar and astrology. He preferred Vedanta and Yoga. The family background in liberal Vishishtadvaita facilitated some attention to bhakti and also worship (puja). His disposition contrasted with that of his elder brother Balakrishna, who became a learned pundit, committed to diverse branches of Sanskrit learning and the memorisation of texts. By comparison with Balakrishna, Kashinath was considered a disappointment by his elders, growing up without any recognised vocation. He preferred “to spend all his time in religious thought and meditation” (GLS:2).

His introspection was strong. Kashinath “loved to sit in darkness in a corner and meditate” (GLS:1). In much later years, he disclosed to a devotee that his boyhood mind was hyperactive on religious subjects because of the sadhana (spiritual discipline) he had undergone in many former incarnations. He posed unusual questions to himself, including “Who am I? Why [am I in] this body? What is the use of this body?” (GLS:1). As a consequence of intent contemplation, he made a “decision to leave his body with God’s name on his lips by starving himself” (GLS:1).

When his family grasped what he was thinking, they tried to dissuade him from sadhana. This counter failed. Kashinath strongly resisted the interference. His favoured mode of concentration took “a deeper root in his mind” (GLS:2). However, he curbed the decision to cease bodily function. Hinduism does not permit suicide, allowing prayopavesha (fasting to death) only if due conditions (such as terminal illness) are met. Young people are not eligible. Another well known version of this commitment is the Jain discipline of sallekhana (voluntary death). The religious psychology involved in sallekhana did not view voluntary death as suicide, but as a controlled effort to eliminate bindings of karma through fasting and withdrawal from physical activity (Dundas 1992:155-156).

The young Kashinath was influenced by a Vedantic teaching that the body is the prison of the atman. His grandfather seems to have favoured Patanjali Yoga; the boy accordingly practised asana (posture) and pranayama (breath control). The ancestral affiliation of Gopalrao was to the tradition of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, associated with Ramanuja (d.1137).

The ideological background of Kashinath and his grandfather was the Uddhava Math, associated with the “Northern” school of Vishishtadvaita. Their outlook was more complex than is generally understood by the term Vishishtadvaita. They professed Advaita doctrine in metaphysics, while adhering to the ritual practice of the tradition created by Ramanuja. The “Southern” followers of Ramanuja were strict Vaishnavas, whereas the contrasting tradition inherited by Gopalrao Shastri favoured diverse deities, including Dattatreya and Khandoba. This “liberal Vishishtadvaita” could appear alien to both Advaitins and Southern Vishishtadvaita (NSS:104-105). In his veteran years, Gopalrao wrote devotional poetry celebrating Uddhava and Krishna (NSS:3).

Kashinath liked to hear stories, from the Epics and the Puranas, featuring austerities (tapas) and the power of mantra. He favoured the practice of mantra japa, meaning the repetition of sacred syllables. He would recite the Vishnu Sahasranama, a popular text featuring a thousand names of Vishnu. In his frequent moods of sadhana, he would visit a nearby cremation ground.

For hours at a stretch [Kashinath Upasani] Maharaj would remain immersed in his devotional practices.... he was not at all mindful of his regular needs of the body such as having meals. (7)

This boy lived in an environment where men constantly recited and memorised Sanskrit texts. Kashinath was not inclined to the pundit programme, believing that sadhana is far more important, being the route to real knowledge. He followed the path of spiritual aspiration, early a mystic in temperament, whereas others of his caste were scholars and memorisers. His disposition rendered him a misfit within his pundit family. He was far more in affinity with the renunciate sectors of Yogis, sannyasins, sadhus, and others. He cultivated a desire to perform tapas on a lonely hill or in a dense forest.

In the presence of his elders, this very unusual boy would argue the case for his ascetic disposition, recalling the fate of “a neighbouring epicure who lived in high style” (NSS:7). That man had devoted his wealth and time to preparation of choice gourmet dishes. Sadly, the epicurean contracted cholera. This disease caused the victim to vomit undigested dainties, after which he died. Kashinath was keen to elaborate a philosophical basis for his contrary tendency to regard the body as an enemy.

While he was thinking in this manner, his friends were studying for a career, and spending their leisure time enjoying games and sports. Observers thought that Kashinath was being lethargic in the learning milieu provided by his famous pundit grandfather. The boy was well aware of this underlying disparagement. However, few of those in his age group dared to openly criticise him. This was because Kashinath “had a giant’s strength and would use it, if provoked” (NSS:11).  He was bigger than many other boys, growing up to be six feet tall (or just over). Narasimhaswami, a slender man only five feet tall, regarded Upasani as a giant. Upasani possessed “a strong and hardy frame, afflicted however with a tendency to constipation and piles, intensified by the frequent liberties he took with it [his body]” (NSS:6). His frequent fasts were punctuated by a habit of swallowing margosa leaf paste and sand sauce recommended by a well meaning adviser.

The boy began to show signs of distress, although not because of his sadhana. His uncle Damodar discovered the reason by questioning him. Kashinath felt upset that he was not making any economic contribution to the family. Damodar and Gopalrao were having to earn money for their relatives. Kashinath complied with enthusiasm when his uncle delegated to him various household tasks. These new commitments made the boy feel useful rather than a liability.

In much later years, he recalled (in Talks) that he had repaired the plaster walls of his family home, and also other houses in Satana (GT, 2:387). He thus became, to some extent at least, a manual labourer. This level of low caste activity was regarded with disdain by the brahman caste. The brahmans did not work in a manual capacity; they were above menials, whom they regarded as much inferior. In the opinion of critics, the ascetic misfit Kashinath was getting nowhere.

3. The  Second  Teacher

The young Kashinath Shastri Upasani became ill. The basic problem appears to have been a digestive complaint. He was now subject to severe stomach aches. His parents grew very worried, because no doctor could cure him. Medics tended to regard him as a hopeless case, believing that he would die.

Eventually, his parents sought the advice of an elderly brahman lady, a neighbouring widow at Satana who was apparently 95 years old. Her name has escaped record. She was stout and tall, her looks impressive, her hair snow white. The relatives of Kashinath encountered a problem, because when he was taken to see her, the widow recognised the boy as a former tormentor, one who had teased and harassed her. She said indignantly that he was now suffering because of his harassment.

In former years, Kashinath and his friends had ridiculed her apparently eccentric habits. She continued to wear bangles on her arms, in defiance of the prevalent custom of widows breaking their bangles. She was subject to criticism as a consequence. Children would imitate their elders in this respect. Widows were frequently a tragic target of social ostracism.

This obscure woman was well known for adorning her forehead with a large auspicious mark in red turmeric. Mischievous boys would wipe off this mark from behind her back. She asked the reason for this victimisation. Kashinath and others said that the mark was meant for women whose husbands were still alive.

Two years after her marriage, her husband had died; she became a widow while still a young girl. Heedless of caste regulations, she continued to wear the mark on her forehead. For a brief period, she did remove the mark, but afterwards resumed this decoration. She gained the repute of a benevolent “witch.”

The suffering Kashinath now pleaded with the old widow to forgive him. She gradually relented, saying that he would have to visit her every day for some restorative treatment. He agreed, so his relatives now committed him to her care as a patient. The widow continually sat near Kashinath in a closed room, not allowing anyone else to come near. She cooked meals and fed him. She would also relate to him tales of God and devotees, while moving her hand gently on his head. These stories had a strong and inspiring effect upon him. The widow would quote verses from the Bhagavad Gita, along with the poetry of Tukaram, Tulsidas, Kabir, and Ramdas. She appears to have gained some knowledge of texts.

This treatment went on for about two months. When Kashinath gradually recovered health, he started to ask the widow questions, wanting to know more about her. He was impressed by her answers. He found that she did not consider herself to be a widow. Instead, she claimed to be in contact with her dead husband. This was why she retained the auspicious mark on her forehead. The boy was embarrassed, promising never to taunt her again. In later years, Kashinath referred to this lady as a source of his inspiration. (8)

The brahman widow appears to have contributed a factor of spiritual aspiration in the life of Kashinath Upasani. This was quite different in complexion to the pundit tuition that the boy gained from his grandfather. Gopalrao was an expert on Sanskrit texts, whereas the widow had attributes of a bhakta (lover of God).

The widow episode, like other boyhood events, is undated. The relevant detail helps to explain the change befalling the young sadhaka. The widow may have died not long after. Upasani never forgot her, much later supplying commemorative reminiscences.

4.  Renouncing  the  World

The young Kashinath later became known by his family name of Upasani. At this juncture, I will therefore begin referring to him by the more familiar identity.

Upasani was dismayed when his parents at Dhulia decided that he should marry. His age at this time is variously given as twelve and fourteen. He pleaded against the imposition, using the pretext of his inability to earn a wage, which meant that the family would merely have another mouth to feed. His parents ignored this reluctance, following the custom that parental decision was solely operative. Upasani was married to a girl of eight named Durgabai. Child marriage was sanctioned by caste tradition.

His father Govindrao did not understand the inclination to sadhana. Govindrao worked as a clerk attached to the legal profession; he was also committed to technical aspects of punditry, mainly grammar and the refinement of astrology. He and his wife Rukmini assumed that marriage would remove the introspection of their son. They were wrong. Upasani became depressed. This youth “had no interest in establishing himself in a business or household and paid little attention to his wife.” (9) He still suffered from the belief that he was a financial burden to his parents. Some family members cracked jokes about Kashinath changing his ways, to acquire an income so that his wife could wear fancy clothes and jewellery.  These remarks merely made him miserable. After some months, he told his grandfather Gopalrao that he could no longer stay in Satana, that he would prefer a mendicant life.

Gopalrao sent him to the parental household at Dhulia, apparently hoping that the boy would study there. Upasani did not like Dhulia, much preferring Satana. He remained averse to secular education. Remaining an ideological outsider, he would secretively withdraw to an underground cave at a Shiva (Mahadeva) temple.

He now decided to renounce his domestic situation.  He wrote a lengthy letter to his father, explaining his predicament, while emphasising that his family should not feel concerned about his welfare. Then he placed the letter on a wall, so that his words could be clearly seen. Upasani departed from the family home in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise, while everyone else was asleep. He did not merely walk out of the city. “He actually ran ten miles from Dhulia, fearing pursuit.” (10)

When Govindrao found the letter from his son that same day, he was agitated. Soon he went in search of Upasani. The parent did not get far, realising that the boy had vanished and could not be located. The pater returned home, exhausted from his search.

Upasani had taken nothing with him except the clothes he wore. His determined mood was that of the world-renouncer. Slowing down after the initial spurt, he completed the journey to Nasik on foot, walking about eighty miles in four days, while suffering hunger and thirst. At Nasik he happened to encounter an old friend of his grandfather Gopalrao; this meeting was not intentional. The householder insisted that the young traveller should stay with him. This host understood the intentions of Upasani, and was sympathetic, lavishing hospitality. Upasani thanked his benefactor. However, he decided that he would only take food which he himself begged, thus remaining independent in this basic respect.

At Nasik, he continued his “regular devotional practices,” spending much of his time thus engaged at a solitary spot on the banks of a river. (11) Upasani lived in this manner for some months. The river provided bathing facilities. Considerately, he wrote a detailed letter to his parents, explaining his situation, while praising the man who had befriended him. This was apparently Eknatha Shastri, a pundit from whom he now took religious tuition.

Two further months passed in repose. Then one day he received a letter from his father, informing that his mother was seriously ill and near death. This message said that his mother wished to see him; indeed, the whole family wanted him to return quickly to Dhulia for that purpose. Upasani was distressed by the news. His host then advised him to attend the deathbed of his mother, like an obedient son.

Upasani reluctantly returned to Dhulia. There he was surprised to find his mother in good health. He discovered that his parents had resorted to a ruse in declaring a serious illness. To avoid further upset, Upasani consented to remain at Dhulia, perhaps because his relatives now made a special effort to accommodate him.

Soon after, his young wife Durgabai died, a victim of the high mortality rate. Only a few weeks after, his parents tenaciously arranged a second marriage for him. The bride was only nine years old. Upasani remained despondent. Daily he implored his parents to give their permission for him to renounce the world. They stubbornly refused, wishing him to remain a householder (grihasta), meaning a person in the second stage of life according to the traditional system. In their opinion, he was too young to become a renunciate. Upasani was married again, but within a year, he left home (in 1886, according to Subbarao).

A mood of ascetic intensity is in evidence. The Desai report informs that Upasani became indifferent to food. He effectively starved. His body is said to have become emaciated. Eventually, his grandfather Gopalrao intervened, being the only relative who understood his psychology. After questioning the youth, and finding that his resolve to renounce was unabated, the old man gave him some money and endorsed his departure.  (12)

He, however, returned quietly a few months later. Like this, he used to run away off and on for a few months, and he repeated this half a dozen times during the ensuing five years. Where he went and what he did, he kept to himself. During the period he stayed at home he used to study books on Ayurvedic medicine. As years passed, the restlessness of his mind also increased. He felt utterly dissatisfied with himself. (GLS:2)

The sources vary in details. The duration of time, and the number of departures, are often contracted. According to a well known commentator, the second marriage occurred in 1885, and the bride died a year later (LSB:384). Another version states that the second wife died in 1891. The variations invite caution.

According to Sage of Sakuri, the second wife lived with his family for seven years (a detail repeated in GLS:5). However, Narasimhaswami revised his statement at a later date. The impression conveyed is that Upasani preferred to live at Poona, sometimes begging, and at other times doing menial service in high caste houses. Later, he “must repeatedly have gone tramping abroad, returning home at rare intervals” (NSS:16). Upasani might have to endure days without a single meal, his hunger relieved only by margosa paste and river water. When no temple or dharmashala was available, he slept under trees or in the open (NSS:17).

At home in Dhulia, Upasani was restless. He started to study Ayurvedic medicine, nevertheless remaining half-hearted in this project. His relatives continued to oppose the mendicant life. Eventually, he resolved to leave home permanently, while concealing this decision. He instead told his relatives that he would pursue an occupation. Thinking he had at last become normal, they gave their approval. He is said to have departed about the middle of 1890. When he arrived at Poona, he disposed of his belongings, keeping only a dhoti to wear. He then made his abode at the famous temple of Omkareshwar (GLS:3). The renunciate disposition dispensed with learning a trade. The date of 1890 seems too late in view of other details.

The Desai report is informative about events at Poona (Pune), far more so than later accounts. Upon arrival, Upasani eventually found a Shiva temple near the banks of the Mutha river, on the outskirts of the city. This site, known as Omkareshwar, was so picturesque that he resolved to stay for a while.

The temple was frequented by many local worshippers. After his journey, Upasani rested for a few days in a corner of that temple, reputedly going without food and drink for four days. Other visitors noticed him, feeling curious about his background. One senior questioned him at length, wanting to know the reason for his presence there. Upasani was perturbed at this interruption, giving evasive replies. A concerned brahman householder eventually approached him, only to receive further vague and offputting answers.

This visitor prevailed upon Upasani to return home with him, for the purpose of receiving a meal. The young man afterwards expressed his gratitude by cleaning the cooking utensils and using a broom on the floors. The host then advised him not to give evasive answers to questions, pointing out that police officers might cause him trouble on this account.

Returning to the river, Upasani decided to live in another temple nearby, one that was smaller and more private. There he spent much time in “devotional practices,” while bathing regularly and going out once a day to beg for alms (madhukari). There were periods when he would relinquish begging and go without food, living only on water. His ability to fast had already been tested at home. The practical difficulties involved in begging could be prodigious.

The young ascetic sent regular letters to his family, asking them not to be concerned about him. Upasani would not disclose his whereabouts, knowing what might happen if he did.

“One and a half years” are reported to have passed in this manner. The mendicant thought of returning home, apparently after experiencing pangs of conscience. However, he decided against this recourse.  He argued to himself that such a return would be futile, because he would not be able to fit in properly with his uncomprehending relatives. He did not wish to be a source of economic liability to them. To make his parents happy, he had offered to find a livelihood, but afterwards discarded that plan. In some despairing moods, he felt that his existence was afflicted and useless, so he considered ending his life. This option he also discounted, viewing suicide as degrading.

His temple was located in a region where many beggars and mendicants lived in a grim condition of semi-starvation. Upasani was eventually able to mediate alms to these men, the episode taxing his ingenuity. Briefly, he encountered an elderly brahman widow who gave him food. Her prolonged kitchen industry was actually intended for him. However, he daily managed to acquire a large quantity of puris which he passed on to others. An increasing number of destitutes came to hear of this charity on his part. Hundreds of them are said to have clamoured for food. After a month or so, Upasani told these people that he was leaving the vicinity. He now wished to escape further pressures and demands. He also bid farewell to the generous benefactor. (13)

5.  Sadhana  at  the  Shiva  Temple  near  Poona

Continuing with his ascetic life at Poona, Upasani moved some distance to the opposite side of the river. Here he selected an old Shiva (Shankar) temple in a dilapidated condition. He managed to close the heavy doors from within, a protective measure involving considerable effort.

His psychological drama now precipitated a new decision: a vow of intense discipline.  He resolved to pray for twenty-one days to Shiva, going without food and water; the anticipation here being that he would either die in the effort or achieve some affinity with God.

The sadhaka sat immobile in a stable posture, resisting sleep without effort. He is reported to have retained a firm count of the days that passed in this manner, remaining aware of his surroundings. He successfully completed three weeks of fasting and vigil.  However, there was no obvious change. His mind was the same. The ascetic feat had not produced any spiritual transformation.

Upasani now had to cope with a basic and disabling transition. When he emerged from sadhana, there was a problem in adapting at the physical level. He could only get up from his seat with great difficulty, needing to cling to the temple wall. While limping and falling down, he emerged from the temple into the daylight. In this precarious condition, he forced himself to the river bank, where he collapsed. He remained in a horizontal position, exhausted. With great effort, he managed to cup some of the pure river water in his palm and drink.

Only the water eased his ordeal. After regaining a little strength, he returned to the temple. However, for four days he had to keep going back to the river, an action amounting to a feat of willpower. Afterwards he started a begging round once again, in pursuit of alms, meaning cooked food.

Seeing this emaciated, skeleton like, penniless Brahmin seeking for alms, all those who were kind and of similar caste did give him fresh and nourishing food. (14)

His sensitive stomach was now a major affliction. At first he ate slowly, not eating to repletion until several days had passed. After about eight more days of resumed food intake, he regained his customary strength and wellbeing.

Although a strong young man, Upasani almost killed himself during this episode. He was tall and sturdy in physique, a solid six footer, bigger than most other Hindus; one report says that he was over six feet tall (SBM:199). Not only in his reclusive vigil, but also in his walking feats, he pushed his strength to the limit. 

6.  A  Marathon  Walker

The mendicant now left Poona, moving on foot west to Kalyan. He had no money or belongings; he wore only a torn loin cloth.  His route was the railway track leading to Bombay. However, he had no intention of going to the metropolis. He decided instead upon a journey to Nasik.  Sometimes he walked on the railway track, and at other times on the adjoining road. The monsoon season was now underway; the traveller walked barefoot in the rain, his only clothing a ragged dhoti. His only form of shelter was provided by trees.

He passed through valleys, jungles, and mountains. The big problem was obtaining food. For days at a time, the wayfarer did not eat. When the opportunity arose, he would seek alms in a village. All that he could usually acquire on this route were chick-peas and water.

Reaching the main road, Upasani rested under a tree. He continued the trek, but due to hunger, fell down on the ground. Back on his feet, he walked in the face of a hailstorm, an ordeal in his naked condition. The path lay through a thick and uninviting forest. When the storm ended, he continued walking in the darkness, not knowing where this route led. At midnight he found a cluster of huts belonging to poor low caste people. Nearby was a small temple.

When Upasani tried to enter this temple in the darkness, he found that his feet slipped into mud. This is described as a ditch of slime and garbage. The traveller was already tired; the effort to find a firm footing exhausted him. At length he fell asleep on the ground outside the temple.

He awoke in the morning, the name of Ram on his lips. A farmer appeared, concerned at Upasani’s “emaciated, starving state, his rags and tatters.” (15) When this man questioned him, Upasani explained that he was travelling on foot to Nasik. Other people in that vicinity arrived, taking him to their homes, giving him raw food to prepare on his own. This description fits the instance of a high caste person being fed by low caste people. Upasani accepted the food, which he cooked for himself, thereby preserving his caste purity.

His considerate hosts insisted that he stay there for two more days. After this respite, he resumed his journey. He arrived at Kalyan, where he encountered an unexpected difficulty. The mendicant now had to beg for food, only to discover that high caste householders disdained the begging habit.  

Upasani desperately pleaded for bread, stale or cooked, from the homes of brahmans. The first house at which he begged belonged to a wealthy brahman.  Yet this man would not give anything. Upasani moved on to another dwelling, where the owner sat reading a newspaper; this householder bluntly told him to go away, saying the meal had finished and there were no remainders.

The mendicant moved on to other brahman houses, finding similar contempt and indifference. At one home, Upasani desperately prostrated at the feet of the owner, asking for stale bread. A youth came out to investigate, yawned indifferently, then told him to earn his livelihood. The door was now closed in his face. Upasani could not get any food that day; he became depressed at the prospects of mendicant life. In later years, he tended to attribute householder bad manners to the influence of Westernisation.

He walked away, taking some rest on the banks of a river, weeping at his plight. An old and low caste Maratha lady found him lamenting. She is reported to have sat near him, asking the nature of his predicament. Upasani told her that he had not eaten for three days. He complained that begging from door to door, amongst his caste, was a useless endeavour. He could only drink water from the river.

The lady tried to console him with a Marathi verse she had learned from her father. Upasani memorised that bhakta verse, which has been thought to accord with his later (and more complex) teaching of “Be as it may.” The lady invited him to call at her own low caste house for simple food that he could cook himself. Upasani declined this offer. He still had reservations about accepting food from low caste people, in accord with the scruples of his brahman upbringing.

She then advised him to return to the same high caste houses, but not to the front doors where men were present. Instead he should call at the back doors, where the women would be working in the kitchens, and far more likely to be sympathetic.

Complying with the old lady’s advice, Upasani found with surprise that she was correct. The women in high caste households gave him freshly cooked food, after which he returned to the river and drank water in his cupped palms. Then he went to the low caste area, where he informed the benign old lady that her prompting had saved him from starvation. For once, he gained a bed to sleep on, falling asleep in exhaustion, no longer caring that he was in a low caste house. Awaking at dawn, he continued the long trek to Nasik. (16)

7.  The  Cave  at  Bhorgad  Hill

The wayfarer felt that he should once again see his grandfather, whom he deeply respected. So Upasani decided to avoid Nasik, instead taking the road to Satana. About ten miles from Nasik, he stopped near the village of Chandwad. He was attracted to a tranquil spot, marked by a river and a Shiva temple. After bathing in the river, he walked to the temple, where he performed his daily sandhya worship. As usual, he drank river water. All he could find to eat were peas. While sitting on the parapet of the temple, he gazed out admiringly at the panoramic scene.

Bhorgad Hill

A large hill riveted his attention. Upasani is said to have sighted a cave entrance on a steep and high slope. “He suddenly thought that [this cave] might be the suitable place he had been longing for” (GLS:3). Another source states: “There he could see from a great distance that in the midst of a forest, the hill projected from the forest and disclosed a natural cave or cavern” (LSB:385). Some say that powerful binoculars would have been necessary for any sighting of the small cave. Upasani lived all his life without such accoutrements.

His state of mind was complex. Upasani was intending to visit Satana and then return to this attractive site. Eventually however, he decided to climb the hill, and while doing so, he again contracted thoughts about a drastic ascetic discipline that could “bring about an end to his life” (DSS:103). This early version does not mention any sighting of the cave from a great distance.

Another account states that Upasani considered the hill to be an ideal spot for his long contemplated prayopavesha, a term which denotes fasting to death, though not having the connotation of suicide (NSS:21). Hinduism prohibits suicide. The law books stipulated various conditions for prayopavesha. The basic idea is that severe fasting only applies when the body has become a burden, and if there are no responsibilities remaining in life. This form of fasting is suited to terminal illness or elderly ascetics. Some assessors would say that Upasani did not qualify for this recourse, being too strong and too young, and still well able to perform religious rites and duties.

The picturesque hill was known as Bhorgad or Bhorkada, located about fifteen kilometres from Nasik. This area is one of hills and old forts reflecting the history of the Nasik district. The hills, part of the Western Ghats, include some high mountains and spectacular views. Bhorgad is modest in height, reaching to over 3,500 feet above sea level. The hill is today a conservation area, improving a barren landscape. The original dense forest was afflicted by commercial logging, plus the activity of villagers chopping trees for firewood. A fit trekker can reach the top in two hours or less, depending on the route taken from the base of the hill.

Bhorgad Cave. The access tree no longer exists.

Upasani reached the top of Bhorgad at dusk. He could now see a cave recess on a steep slope (this was located near the ruins of Bhorgad fort). The climber gazed up at the “small niche, about 4 cubits long, a couple of cubits broad” (GLS:4). He felt a strong desire to enter the cave. However, access was very difficult on a rocky gradient. “With the resourceful spirit of his, he climbed a nearby pippal tree” (GLS:3-4).

Another commentator describes Upasani pushing through bushes, thorns, and boulders to reach the foot of a steep precipice. He then climbed twenty or thirty feet, clutching at projections and clumps. He was now perching on a narrow ledge of rock where a small banyan tree grew. He had to climb this tree to reach the cave entrance, because the rocky slope was too steep. The cave was approximately four or five feet high, four feet wide, and nine feet long (NSS:21).

Upasani found that a tree branch extended to the cave entrance. He grabbed hold of the branch, making what is described (in the Desai version) as a life-threatening jump. He landed safely on his feet, then being able to squeeze through the narrow opening of the cave.

The climber had been so intent upon his manoeuvres that he lost track of time. The sun was setting when he entered the cave, and darkness was falling. He could no longer retrace his steps in such dangerous terrain. Upasani passed the night sitting in this new environment. The next morning, he resolved to stay. The plan of return to Satana was relinquished. In a fresh mood of ascetic intensity, he resolved to sit in the cave without food or water. Taking off some ragged clothes he had acquired, he adapted these into a loin-cloth.

He sat in a yogic posture (asana). He did not move from this posture. There was no possibility of food or water. His only bodily movement was that of his right hand, which he continued to flex. He was evidently intending to repeat his sadhana at the Shiva temple near Poona.

With some poetic flourishes, Desai depicts Upasani as waiting for death, as desiring an end to his life. He compares the subject with Gautama Buddha. “Gautama had resolved to sit down [in contemplation] either for death or for truth, whereas Maharaj was seated solely waiting and longing to die; though the process that they both undertook was similar” (DSS:106). This strongly polarised presentation may be questioned. Upasani had previously decided against suicide; prayopavesha admits of a different context. Furthermore, he lost physical consciousness on his third day at the Bhorgad cave (GLS:4). The “meditation” passed beyond customary confines.

He found that he had no other worries, botherations or concerns in that state... he often forgot himself and lost awareness of his body and surroundings.... Not at all afraid of dying and neither with any other hope or expectation. (DSS:108)

Another version is rather extreme in expression. “Kashinath was intent on killing himself either by fasting to death or by throwing himself off a precipice.” (17) He certainly knew that he could not eat food in the cave. There is no indication that his laborious ascent of Bhorgad was intended to result in falling off a precipice. He wanted a solitary location where he was safe from interruption. The fascination exerted by Bhorgad overcame a plan to visit his grandfather.

“At first he thought he would like to see what his starvation would end in, and he wished to see death coming and taking him away…. Before he became unconscious [he] started namajapa of God” (LSB:385). The primary purpose was a focus upon God, not upon death.

After two days in the cave, he began a silent repetition of mantras. He quickly entered a form of what some commentators call samadhi. This word is variously defined, e.g., concentration, absorption, stopped state of mind. The Desai version affirms that Upasani “at times experienced himself to have become separated from his physical form, and at times had the awareness that he had rejoined to his mortal frame.” (18)

His initial ideas of controlling his fate through prayopavesha were superseded by dramatic experiences he had not envisaged. He was no longer in control. He was not even aware of fasting. In much later years, Upasani informed a devotee that, at the Bhorgad cave, he was “only conscious of existence as such, that was all; he was not aware even of his body” (GLS:4). He was not thinking about death, or his relatives, or his predicament of malnutrition.

He remained there in that state of Samadhi for one whole year at least. As semiconsciousness partially returned to him, he began to experience wonderful visions, which normal human reasoning would never believe in. After some time he regained full [physical] consciousness, and found that except for a little movement in his right arm, his body had lost all mobility. He could not know what time he had passed in that state. (GLS:4)

Upasani is said to have started this sadhana in the spring season. He afterwards concluded that he had spent months in the cave. The Desai version affirms that this vigil ended in the spring season of the following year, meaning that he had spent about twelve months in an ascetic state of samadhi. Reactions to this prospect are often sceptical. Some say that Upasani could not have lived for more than about two or three months in this starved condition, without crucial water. (19)

When Upasani regained some consciousness on one occasion, he saw two men in front of him, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu. They stared at him and seemed very angry, pointing their fingers at him, while conversing between themselves animatedly. They called him a fool, apparently a reference to his extreme condition. He was unable to answer them. They were annoyed by his passivity, threatening to throw him down the Bhorgad cliff. Upasani regarded these entities as messengers of Yama, the god of death. He responded to them on a mental level, being unable to speak with his tongue. The two visitors changed their threatening demeanour and began to laugh, glancing at him with affection, and expressing words of comfort. Then they disappeared. Upasani was afflicted by an acute thirst (DSS:108-110).

This vision did have an effect, the sadhaka duly comprehending that his condition was critical. He experienced the acute shock of regaining physical consciousness. Now he wanted water more than anything else. Some believe that the Muslim and Hindu, in the Bhorgad vision, were the entities Sai Baba and Narayan Maharaj (however, this is not stated in the reports).

The most well known version of the Bhorgad episode is found in Sage of Sakuri. When he emerged from samadhi, Upasani “found someone standing beside him, pulling off his skin.” The fear of being flayed alive “roused him into full [physical] consciousness.” Then he found that the visitor had vanished; his skin was still intact. He now felt intense thirst. “His tongue was retracted.” The sufferer could not even cry out for water. His joints were stiff, except his right forearm, “which providence had left free” (there is no mention here of flexing the arm). The acute thirst was torture. He passed into “an unconscious or semi-conscious state” (NSS:22-23).

Soon afterwards, a thunderstorm occurred, creating torrents of water on the hillside. A small pool of water collected in the cave, close to where Upasani was seated. With his right hand, but with great difficulty, he managed to scoop up some water to relieve his parched throat. This crucial intake continued for three days, during which he desperately massaged his emaciated body. At the end of this revival, he fell asleep and dreamed.

There are overlapping accounts of a vision (or dream) that he experienced. Sage of Sakuri describes the vision in terms of a Muslim and Hindu who “pulled off his entire skin and thereby disclosed his divinely glowing body [divya sharira] within.” These two entities exclaimed: “What! You want to die! We will not let you die. We are behind you.” Then they vanished. The impact of this experience caused Upasani to consider means of exit from the cave. (20)

The attitude of this sadhaka had formerly converged with standard Yogic conceptions of inducing samadhi. Upasani Shastri had now found that direct experience was not the same as theory and doctrine. His disillusionment with mendicancy had precipitated a desire for prayopavesha. Fasting in his case did not lead to a controlled death, but to a form of samadhi quite outside his control. His resultant visions of guiding entities evidenced their negative assessment of his endeavour. He now realised that his plight was very undesirable; he no longer wanted to die. Moreover, he was faced with the grim prospect of descending a steep slope in a very weakened condition, more like an ailing octogenarian than the sturdy climber who had made the ascent.

8.  Recovery  with  Bhils  at  Gawalwadi

Upasani was in a severe predicament. For the second time, he had nearly killed himself with asceticism. At the Shiva temple near Poona, he had been able to keep track of the days he passed in sadhana. Now at Bhorgad, he had lost all track of time. He was also alone near the top of a steep mountain.

The cave ascetic had somehow managed to keep his right hand relatively mobile during his periods of fluctuating recovery of consciousness. Together with the rainwater, this mobility saved his life. According to the Desai version, for about two weeks, he took sips of rainwater daily, also using the water to massage his body. A serious problem was stiff joints, rendering the massage extremely painful. At the end of that time, he was able to impart a slight movement to his distressed limbs. His body was now in a severe state of emaciation.

Once he managed to look down the hillside, glimpsing a village of huts on the distant ground below. He knew that his only chance of survival was to reach the settlement. In another feat of willpower, he managed to wriggle outside the cave. Very painfully and desperately, Upasani took a grip upon the tree branch which he had used for access. (21) He thus parted company with the steep slope in which the cave was set. Yet the pain was now too great; his arms could not take the weight of his body. The worst thing happened. He lost his grip and fell.

According to Sage of Sakuri, the sufferer deliberately dropped to the ground, being unable to climb down. The distance to the ground was enough to be dangerous. He sustained a few bruises, with some swelling and pain, as a consequence of this daring. Five hours thereafter elapsed before he could get to the bottom of the hill (NSS:24-25). According to Desai, the descent took longer. The afflicted ascetic could not achieve a foothold when he fell, but rolled and tumbled down the steep cliff. After about twenty or thirty feet, he came to rest upon a boulder that prevented further sliding. He was helpless and in pain, wondering what to do next, if in fact he could ever do anything.

Upasani was twenty years old, probably unusually strong and determined. After some hours he was able to get up from the horizontal position and crawl down the slope. He got about halfway down without further mishap. By that time darkness was starting to fall. He prudently stayed where he was, waiting for the dawn light.

Bhil ladies in traditional costume, different regions of India

Subsequently, Upasani was crawling and sliding to the bottom of Bhorgad, reaching the flat road below in the early afternoon. He could not stand up properly, continually falling down. In this distressed condition, he tried to crawl and hobble to the village. The stranger was then sighted by two women of the aboriginal Bhil tribes. These local villagers were frightened by the tall and emaciated figure struggling to move forward in erratic postures. They apparently thought that he was an evil spirit.

He beckoned desperately to these women to come closer. Upasani could not talk properly, but managed to verbalise a request for them to take him to the village. They agreed to get the men to come and lift him to safety. He then requested them to massage his limbs, because he was suffering acute pain. They complied, discovering that they could easily lift him themselves, so thin had he become. They accordingly took him to the village without further delay.

The village was Gawalwadi, located in Dindori talukha, part of the Khandesh region.  This was a settlement of the tribal people known as Bhils, who are one of the many Adivasi communities. The inhabitants of that village were very poor, but did possess their own herds of cows and other animals. The Bhil villagers here made products like butter and ghee, which they sold in Nasik after walking six miles to that town. They would also forage for sticks in the forests and jungles. They used cow dung to make fuel. All these items were saleable to townspeople.

The villagers were astonished at the spectacle of emaciated Upasani.  After a night’s sleep in a hut, he started to tell them what had happened. He could only speak with great difficulty; his words were broken, not the typical speech of a brahman. He could not stand up straight, being at first virtually helpless. An arrangement was made for a brahman goldsmith, one who lived in the village, to bring water for him. For four days Upasani would only take sips of water, while refusing food, apparently because he did not wish to be a burden (although caste rules were evidently a factor, Bhils lacking any status in brahmanical society).

The villagers afterwards persuaded him to accept freshly boiled milk. After three days of this new food, Upasani was able to stand on his feet for a few minutes. Then after a few more days, he could walk for short distances. He was now able to get water for himself. Living on water and hot milk, Upasani was then persuaded by the villagers to cook bread. As a consequence, he became stronger, starting a begging round in the village. He would also collect vegetables from the nearby farms, and grind grain (nachni) to make the bread known as roti.

In gratitude for the assistance of Bhil villagers, Upasani commenced to help the community in their daily work. He would assist them to gather cow dung and collect sticks. The resulting dung cakes were carefully dried for use as fuel, while the sticks were tied into large bundles. The guest would help in these tasks, and also participate in the marketing journeys to Nasik, carrying a pile of sticks on his head. The Bhils would use the money obtained to buy cereal grain. Walking a total of twelve miles to and from Nasik, Upasani was still in considerable pain. (22)

His clothing comprised an old loin-cloth and a threadbare garment. His sacred thread had become dirty and frayed. Upasani still looked a gaunt figure of skin and bones, with “no trace of any building muscle.” His devitalised skin, “with continuous weakness and emaciation had started hanging down” (DSS:119). Although the period of his stay in the Bhorgad cave is impossible to define, this was evidently long enough to cause a substantial reduction in flesh tissue.

9.  Return  to  Satana  and  Caste

The sojourn at Gawalwadi lasted for about three months, by which time Upasani had regained his strength but not his full physique. The Bhils had now become so attached to him that he had to request their permission to leave. He wanted to return home, taking with him a large pack of roti bread loaves. A crowd of Bhils came to see him depart. In this respect, Upasani had crossed the social gulf existing between the high castes and tribal (adivasi) people.

His old energy returning, the traveller now walked to Satana. He journeyed by night and rested during the day, avoiding a search for any shelter in towns. The bread he took with him rendered superfluous any need to beg as a mendicant. Six days passed in this manner before he reached Satana. He carefully timed his arrival, not wishing to be recognised on the way to his family residence. The date is given in some sources as July 1890. (23)

Arriving at Satana in darkness, at about ten p.m., he walked down the lane leading to his destination. Unexpectedly, he saw his elder brother Balakrishna walking ahead. The traveller eventually called out to him when nearing their home. Balakrishna could not at first recognise the haggard Upasani; he could only recognise his brother’s voice. He complained that there had been no news or letter from Upasani to his relatives for sixteen months.  The family had tended to think the missing man was dead.

Upasani entered the house very quietly, going to his old room, where he rested at Balakrishna’s insistence.  The household was in some commotion, as the grandfather Gopalrao was sick and confined to bed. The whole family were now present as a consequence, including Upasani’s parents, who had come from Dhulia.

Gopalrao had become the victim of paralysis. This development apparently caused him to enter the “fourth stage” of life, meaning the renunciate life of a sannyasin. Gopalrao is reported to have wept upon seeing the emaciated appearance of his grandson. On his own part, Upasani now felt regret that he had not completed his studies in Ayurvedic medicine, as by this means he could have given his grandfather some relief from pain (GLS:5). Now the young man nursed the invalid, consulted Ayurvedic books, while welcoming discussions with medical advisors. He procured and compounded “various simples and drugs,” learning their application for illness (NSS:26-27).

Upasani was now regarded by his relatives as a tapasvi or ascetic practitioner.  Continuing to lead a retiring life, he once visited a local schoolteacher upon invitation. This man, who knew Upasani well from the past, was surprised at his “weakened condition.” The junior would not respond to the teacher’s questioning, having no interest in broadcasting his ascetic life. The same man, named Tatke, afterwards received an explanation of events from Balakrishna. Tatke concluded that nobody in the present day would be able to equal the feat of Upasani at the Bhorgad cave. The schoolteacher afterwards spread the news locally.

Soon after Upasani’s return home, his father Govindrao contracted cholera, dying within 24 hours. Upasani remained at the invalid’s bedside; he also performed the funeral rites, being the oldest son present at the time. Subsequently, his grandfather Gopalrao also expired, the burial reputedly being honoured by thousands of attendees. The date is given as 1891.

Gopalrao left the family in debt. For a year or so, in 1892-3, they were dependent on the generosity of the politician Bal Gangadhar Tilak (NSS:27). This detail has prompted a suggestion that the family could have been chitpavan brahmans (like Tilak). The issue is difficult to resolve. Tilak graduated from the Deccan College in Poona, teaching mathematics at Fergusson College in the same city. Upasani’s brother Balakrishna Shastri moved to Poona, where he became a well known academic. Tilak may have assisted the Shastri family from goodwill rather than because of caste affiliation.

Now Upasani decided upon a career in Ayurveda. He demonstrated prowess in his application of cures, eventually becoming well known for achieving success in cases dismissed as hopeless by other practitioners. Meanwhile, his mother Rukmini conspired with his uncle Damodar to arrange a third marriage, although being careful not to declare this plan openly. When Upasani discovered what was happening, he complained, but to no avail. The preparations now became public news, and the wedding date was finalised.

Wishing to escape this imminent complication, Upasani departed, on the pretext of furthering some Ayurvedic activity in Poona. He went to stay in that city with his elder brother Balakrishna. This relative had been the full recipient of Gopalrao’s expertise in Sanskrit texts, having more recently moved to Poona, where he became a Professor of Sanskrit at the Poona Training College (and also an Examiner for the M. A. degree in Sanskrit at Bombay University).  Not wishing to be a domestic liability, Upasani insisted upon begging his food in the city streets. He was frequently refused alms.

According to Desai, Upasani returned to Satana after a week, believing that his relatives would not now be able to arrange a marriage. He received a shock, discovering that his intending father-in-law was unusually persistent. Upasani was invited to the home of this reputed brahman, on the pretext that a sick person needed examination. The host opportunely explained that he had refused other proposals for his daughter from wealthy families, instead considering Upasani to be the most eligible match.

The young bride in prospect was actually present on this occasion. Upasani remained silent. His uncle Damodar was then requested to be present. Upon arrival, Damodar urged his nephew to express acceptance. Upasani surprised everyone by declining the status match. Both Damodar and the host then argued the merits of marriage. Upasani eventually capitulated to the combined persuasion. The marriage occurred shortly after. Upasani now had the identity of an Ayurvedic physician. (24)

Thereafter, he relinquished the ascetic vocation, applying himself to a householder lifestyle for many years. However, he remained unusual for his contemplative disposition. He had been engaged in a form of sadhana for twelve years or more, apparently from the age of about eight. This early focus was subsequently acknowledged by Sai Baba. Upasani would often say, in later years, that many people left their application to a spiritual life far too late, usually when they were old and frail. His message was: start young.

10.   Physician  at  Amraoti

The new bride Durgabai was very young. In order to create a livelihood, Upasani needed to further his knowledge of Ayurveda. He took his bride to Poona, leaving her in the care of his academic brother Balakrishna. In 1892, Upasani travelled north to Sangli, where he stayed for over three years (1892-1895). This was a period of serious commitment to Sanskrit study, during which “he gathered knowledge of Ayurvedic medicines.” (25) At Sangli, he became the pupil of a famous pundit called Venkataramanacharya. The tutor also taught him Sanskrit grammar, so that Upasani was able to rectify his earlier lack of expertise in the classical language.

This was also a phase of contemplative devotion and religious rites; he maintained his sadhana of aspirational life. He lived very simply, eating mainly the leaves of trees and roots. This was basically because such food was free. If he wanted fruit or peas, he had to pay for these at the bazaar.

In 1895, he returned from Sangli by railway. He had to start walking when his money ran out. His destination was Poona. En route, Upasani fell victim to the strategy of gypsies who enslaved him. He was rescued by a local village headman, afterwards moving on to Poona.

Upasani now took his wife back to Satana. His uncle Damodar there exhorted him to stop travelling about and to settle down, his wife now being of age. Upasani was in agreement, deciding to publicly declare his profession as a vaidh (physician), using his knowledge of Ayurveda.

He became so successful in his new role at Satana that he found no time to rest or contemplate. He was able to charge substantial fees, being in demand amongst high caste people in surrounding villages. He moved to Jalgaon, in East Khandesh, for about a year. There he quickly became a well established and popular vaidh. This was in 1896.

Upasani maintained a daily routine of visiting temples. Someone requested him to distribute the food gift known as prasad. Upasani complied, afterwards discovering that the prasad was mixed with poison (the circumstances are obscure). Pleading innocence, he was sentenced to jail for four months. He exercised his contemplative abilities during this period. “The whole town knew and believed in his innocence” (GLS:6). His popularity meant that he was easily able to resume his medical practice.

Upasani as vaidh at Amraoti

That same year, he moved on to Amraoti (or Amravati, a city in Berar, located in the Central Provinces). There he opened a dispensary or Ayurvedic pharmacy, thus expanding his clientele. This vaidh found an independent abode, eventually becoming well known as a physician. For ten years, Upasani lived in this manner.

He named his dispensary the Rama Ashram, evidencing his Vaishnava affiliation at that period. He purchased a bicycle for the purpose of visiting patients in outlying areas. Upasani used vehicular transport to reach other towns, also travelling outside the State for the purpose of giving treatment. One of his clients was Ganesh S. Khaparde, a prominent lawyer and famous politician.

Upasani fixed his daily routine as follows: he would arise at 5 a.m. to bathe, and then attend to his religious devotions. At 8 a.m. he would start the clinic and treat patients until twelve. Resting for two hours, he then returned to the clinic for afternoon and evening sessions. In the afternoon, he would make any out-of-clinic visits that were needed. Upasani was so frugal in his diet that, at one period, he lived on two bananas daily. As a more general rule, he would subsist for days at a time on onions, boiled vegetables, fruits, or simple dal (a lentil dish). He also had a habit of eating only neem leaves on some days. This meagre fare was occasionally punctuated by a normal, or a sumptuous, dinner.

His altruistic tendencies are reported. “He gave free treatment to the poor, and was far more bent on restoring health than upon making money.” (26) Nevertheless, Upasani became a moderately wealthy man, having a sufficient number of affluent clients. He eventually prepared patented medicines for diseases like cholera. These remedies are reported to have been effective; they were sold and became popular. He was reputedly unable to meet the volume of incoming orders. Upasani created a monthly Marathi journal on Ayurveda, entitled Beshaja Ratnamala, which he edited for three years during 1902-1905. This journal, describing diseases and symptoms, was also a means of advertising his patent medicines.

The same journal attested his reading in religious texts. The Bhagavad Gita, the Panchadashi, and the Yoga Vashishta were included in this referencing. Upasani the vaidh had evidently read these texts “very closely” (CIC:200). He was thus familiar with Advaita philosophy in his pre-Shirdi days, via the Panchadashi. The misleading impression is sometimes given that he did not become conversant with Advaita until a later period.

His wife was devoted to him, assisting him in various ways. When Upasani was twenty-nine, Durgabai gave birth to a son. The infant died after a few months, a victim of the high mortality rate.  (27)

11.  An  Estate  Landlord  at  Gwalior

As a vaidh (physician), Upasani acquired sufficient wealth to invest in property. During the year 1906, he decided to purchase a large tract of land at Gwalior, to the north of the Central Provinces, not far south of Agra. Gwalior State was disposing of substantial leased estates known as Malguzari. This was a trend of selling uncultivated land for an enticingly low sum. Upasani found that an estate of 2,000 acres could be obtained merely by paying 600 rupees as advance payment. The transaction involved an agreement to pay fixed rents, which could be collected from the tenants, or by means of estate produce.

Upasani now became an estate landlord, moving to Gwalior to live on his property. However, he discovered with shock that he had taken on a difficult proposition, having been unaware of complexities involved.

His new milieu bore similarities to the malguzari system of the Central Provinces, which had been reconstituted by the British rulers during the 1860s. This was a system of land revenue and management deriving from Mughal times. Landholders called malguzars were attended by hereditary village officials (kulkarnis or patwaris), who became a type of government servant from 1883 (Banerjee 1999:6). Tenants or cultivators (including tribal groupings) had varying degrees of property rights. The malguzar was a revenue payer, his tenants receiving a protection, while at risk from factors such as deficient land yield and a rise in taxes. This system was abolished after Independence.

Tenant villages were located in the territory of Upasani malguzar. He expected to increase his wealth by leasing unoccupied land, or by cultivating the land via hired labour. A formidable drawback emerged. The estate had been offered by the previous owner because of failure to pay the fixed rental instalments. The tenants refused to pay rent. Moreover, the forests and other lands would not yield produce for various reasons.

Upasani found difficulty in paying monies to the State. The local officers were empowered to serve warrants for seizure of his assets. They did this when his wife was on the estate alone, while he was away. The tenants defied his need to collect the rent. The village officials were the agents of rent collection. However, these men would not cooperate with the owner.

The vaidh (physician) was now in the role of a travelling rent collector and labour controller. Kashinath Upasani malguzar found himself regarded as a foreign land grabber by tenants, labourers, and village officials. The situation was aggravated by resentment from the previous malguzar. The complaints of Upasani were ignored. In desperation, he resorted to court proceedings, a counter which proved useless. The village officials wished to humiliate him. His life was in danger from hostile tenants and labourers.

After about two years of such frustration, he gained a personal interview with the State ruler, who represented a Maratha dynasty. This rather obscure encounter proved a disappointment. The ruler was Maharaja Sir Madhavrao II Sindhia (rgd. 1886-1925). That aristocrat gained various honours in his liaison with the British Raj, including an honorary degree from Cambridge University. The Maharaja became noted for his active interest in State administration. However, he was unable to solve the problems of a harassed malguzar from Amraoti.

Upasani was now suffering the consequence of lawsuits and colonial government taxes. He lost both his estate and his money; he was obliged to relinquish his lands to the State. His health was adversely affected by this punishing existence (NSS:30-32).

In desperation, he returned to Amraoti in 1908, intending to revive his medical dispensary. Despite his broken health, the dispensary survived until 1910. The situation was arduous. After accomplishing his medical rounds, he was reduced to a state of exhaustion by the time he returned home in the evening. His wife pleaded with him to reduce his medical hours. He eventually agreed. Upasani had been worrying that he would not be able to leave his wife with sufficient funds after his death. Durgabai now disclosed an intuition that she would die first; by this means, she reassured him.

Upasani now experienced severe disillusionment with the householder life.  He could no longer apply his mind successfully to a medical practice. The restlessness of his earlier years now returned; his professional composure evaporated. Eventually, he decided upon a drastic transition. After many years of a highly respected vocation at Amraoti, he disposed of his Ayurvedic dispensary. He had the full cooperation of his wife. Now he resolved to leave Amraoti, his objective being to achieve spiritual freedom. (28)

12.  Breathing  Trouble  and  the  Pranayama  Issue

In April 1910, Upasani closed his failing dispensary. He had no wealth or possessions, being now effectively destitute. He started off on a pilgrimage with his wife Durgabai. They stopped at Omkareshwar, located in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Famous shrines of Shiva existed here, on the island of Mandhata, set in the Narmada river. The island was reputedly shaped like the sacred symbol Om.

Gauri Somnath temple, Mandhata

Upasani favoured the Gauri Somnath temple, located in the forest on Mandhata; this building housed a black stone linga six feet high, the primary object of worship. The building was generally in solitude. The locality has since lost a rural dimension, becoming far more urbanised. The temple (and others nearby) is now a busy tourist site.

Mandhata Island in the Narmada River

Upasani was disposed to stay in the scenic and solitary island environment. He could walk in pleasant forested hills nearby. He regarded the Mandhata island temple site as ideal for sadhana. Durgabai cooked a simple daily soup of neem leaves. They sat in meditation, apparently opposite each other on both sides of the linga.

Upasani appears to have revived his old habit of pranayama. One day when commencing his sadhana practices, he experienced in his body a “strong jolt, a terrific current as a result of which for those moments his very breath stopped.”  (29) He fell unconscious. Durgabai could not find any sign of breathing. She anxiously threw water on his face. This action restored his consciousness, but not his breathing. He is described as “remembering the usual practice of artificial respiration,” (30) which may mean that he had known difficulties previously. If so, his new crisis was worse than anything he had formerly encountered. His own words are reported as:

At that time I was so deep in the state of Samadhi, that no thought of any kind, even a spiritual one, entered into or crossed my mind; my mind had absolutely ceased to function, what of body consciousness then? I did not know how long I was in that state. But when consciousness suddenly came on me, I found that my breathing had stopped. This gave me a great shock, and I perforce began to breathe with the help of my belly. (GLS:7)

His lungs had stopped functioning normally. The artificial respiration via the stomach was very difficult. “He began to heave his whole body and uttered groans so as to move the respiratory muscles of his chest; slowly and with considerable groaning and effort, he began to breathe.” (31) Nevertheless, Upasani became worried that his breathing could stop at any moment. “He was afraid to strain at stools or to go to sleep, lest during these times the breathing should stop” (LSB:387)

This setback made Upasani abandon his sadhana and return to Amraoti with his wife. The journey occurred only with great difficulty. Another problem emerged. Durgabai now suffered from stresses resulting from the ascetic lifestyle. She became ill, the cause being described in terms of fasting and a lack of sufficient nutrition. Upasani could adapt easily to privation and fasting, but not everyone else could. He subsequently applied his Ayurvedic skill to the malady of Durgabai, with the consequence that she recovered soon after. (32)

At first, Upasani seemed able to heal himself. His breathing trouble seems to have subsided for a while. He travelled east to Nagpur, apparently in comfort. He and his wife stayed at the home of a friend. However, while engaged in his daily sandhya worship, he felt another electrical jolt in his body. This is described as being similar to the previous one at Omkareshwar, but “greater in intensity and duration, more frightening.” (33) Again his breathing stopped. In desperation, the sufferer continually resorted to artificial respiration, described in terms of being at “a rate of two breaths per second.”  (34)

Upasani could not sleep or eat. Even conversation was a matter of great difficulty, because he could only breathe through his mouth, not through his nostrils. Durgabai was frightened at this new crisis, not knowing what to do. Their host at Nagpur hired a cab, taking Upasani to an eminent doctor who had some familiarity with Yoga. This was Dr. Joglekar, who expressed a verdict that the sufferer was experiencing a state related to Yoga practice.

The medic admitted that he did not understand how Upasani had achieved a counter-method of breathing. Joglekar was accustomed to thinking of Yoga in positive terms; he could not explain the negative symptoms of his new patient. Upasani begged him for some relief. Joglekar administered some medicines that proved useless. (35)

The patient moved to Dhulia in sheer desperation. There he contacted his professorial brother Balakrishna, who was duly concerned. This relative took him to visit many local physicians. However, none of these medics were able to assess what his ailment comprised. Upasani urgently explained to them how his natural mode of breathing had ceased, meaning that he was now in the “artificial” mode. Some of the consultants could not believe this, considering him to be a madman. The sceptics contrived an argument that his natural mode of breathing was part of the “artificial” mode, or else he would not be able to live. His good opinion of doctors decreased.

Meanwhile, his relatives had no effective idea of what to do in this fraught situation. The conventional religious outlook attributed maladies to previous karma; the remedy in prospect was satkarma (good works). This context was applied to the sufferer’s wife, who wished to avoid widowhood. Someone suggested that Durgabai should circumambulate a sacred fig (audhambar) tree, which was placed in the family home. She apparently accomplished the ritual activity 125,000 times (NSS:35). That procedure was believed to restore the patient to health. Durgabai became exhausted, while Upasani experienced another severe “jolt” in his body while briefly dozing. He continued to live by means of laborious artificial breaths.

Wishing to escape his confused relatives, the sufferer eventually said that he wanted to change his situation. Upasani then travelled by railway from Dhulia to Manmad. At this juncture, he evaded the attention of two young male relatives who had become his attendants. He also evaded the alert vigilance of Balakrishna, who had to return disconsolately to Dhulia after searching for his brother.  (36)

The absentee also wanted to escape the uncomprehending physicians of Dhulia. The mediator with those doctors was Balakrishna, whose vast Sanskrit learning transpired to be completely useless in this situation. Upasani now desired to find someone who really understood his predicament.

13.  Yogi  Kulkarni  Maharaj  and  Jejuri  Jungle

Upasani departed from Dhulia in early April 1911. He was afflicted with a severe respiratory problem that affected his ability to eat. He had managed a moderate intake of milk and water, but was again emaciated through lack of food. He was intending to find a Yogi who could advise about his damaged respiration. He apparently decided that, in the event of not finding a cure, he would unobtrusively die somewhere to avoid causing any further trouble for his relatives.

Changing trains at Manmad, Upasani reached Ahmednagar, where he heard of a renowned Yogi at Rahuri. He accordingly took another train for Rahuri. There he visited the Yogi, called Kulkarni Maharaj, at the latter’s home. The Yogi welcomed him, massaging the visitor with oil, afterwards administering a relaxing hot water bath. This was not a cure, however.

Upasani was subsequently given a meal,  also some advice which proved unwelcome. Kulkarni Maharaj now concluded that the breathing ailment was not a disease, but instead the result of Yogic practices. It is not clear as to whether he specified pranayama. Kulkarni said he could not assist any further, instead suggesting that Upasani should visit Sai Baba (alias Sainath) at Shirdi, some distance north. The purport of this disclosure was that the Shirdi saint would be able to relieve the breathing problem, and also confer spiritual advancement.

Kulkarni apparently referred to Sai Baba as aulia, the Muslim term for saint (the plural of wali, but in the Deccan, employed as a mode of address in the singular). Upasani asked for a clarification, in terms of what caste Sai Baba belonged to. The Yogi informed that Sai Baba was a Muslim. Upasani then chose to ignore the obvious degree of respect which Kulkarni extended to the Shirdi saint. The visitor objected that he had a pure brahman lineage. He flatly refused to approach a Muslim.

There are differently worded accounts of this meeting at Rahuri, although approximately converging.  The 1950s version of Narasimhaswami is as follows:

That yogi, after listening to his account, stated that he [Upasani] was not having any disease at all, that his breathing was one of the accidents of yogic practice, that it would become normal again, in due course, that his yogic condition was far advanced, and advised him to go to Sai Baba. Hearing the name ‘Sai Baba’ uttered by the Rahuri yogi, he [Upasani] said, ‘Sai Baba must naturally be a Mohamadan, and I am a Shastri’s son and grandson, and so, bowing to a Muslim is out of the question.’  (37)

While walking in the streets of Rahuri, Upasani met “an old man” (a Muslim) who recommended a solution for his breathing problem: to drink water as hot as he could bear. Upasani ignored the advice, resolving to seek out another Yogi (called Phatak) at Moregaon (NSS:38).

Instead of visiting Sai Baba, Upasani preferred to go into a jungle at Jejuri (over a hundred miles from Rahuri) for a number of days or weeks (the exact duration is not clear). He is credited with “a sudden fit of vairagya [renunciation]” (NSS:38). He was not afraid of the dangerous snakes crawling near him.

According to 1950s Narasimhaswami, Upasani “again sat up for yoga practice under a thick prickly pear bush” (LSB:387). Twenty years previously, the same commentator described the Jejuri episode in terms of: “Finding an enclosure in a prickly pear bush in a lonely place, he sat there for a week, passed it mostly in samadhi” (NSS:39). There is no reference to Yoga in this report.

A longer and earlier account, with different details, indicates that Upasani was anticipating a natural death, believing these to be his last days, feeling he was best off living in relative peace. “He lay waiting for death to arrive.”  (38) The urge for survival had not left him, however. The jungle dweller would laboriously forage for berry fruits, his only source of sustenance; a mere “four or five” of these berries are mentioned as a daily quota. After a few days, he is said to have experienced “being totally distinct from the body.” (39) An autobiographical reference (in Talk 78) may relate to the crisis at Jejuri.

I had come to the conclusion that my body and Jiva [limiting self] were of no use and hence I wanted to get rid of them; I decided to fast unto death, and for this purpose I went into the forest. I had determined not to return [home] under any circumstances. Hundreds of difficulties came in my way, but I did not return. Ultimately, even though my body did not fall off, I fully experienced the death of my Jiva. (GT, 2:366)

The ultimate experience, referred to here, did not occur at that juncture. This was not the first time Upasani had decided upon a severe fast. However, his breathing problem was now a severe complication. Another affliction was thirst, becoming unbearable in the summer heat. The miserable ascetic found a stream, then prepared to drink the cold water. According to Narasimhaswami, an old man appeared at this spot, saying urgently: “Are you trying to kill yourself? I told you to drink hot water and avoid cold water.” (40)

The adviser was an old Muslim (probably a faqir), whom he had encountered in Rahuri. This man had told him that the remedy for his ailment was to drink water as hot as he could bear. Upasani had ignored this advice as being useless, coming from a Muslim. Sage of Sakuri reports the adviser’s diagnosis in terms of vatha (Sanskrit:wind), which may refer to a factor in Ayurvedic medicine; the energy of vatha or vata is conceived as a combination of air and ether, controlling bodily movements that include blood flow, breathing, and elimination.

Now the sufferer did not repeat his error; he altered his plans, going into the nearby village of Jejuri to drink boiling hot water. This recourse provided substantial relief. He was able to sleep well afterwards, a mercy for long denied him. He continued to drink hot water. However, his state of depletion was serious. He needed to recuperate from the jungle habitat, staying for weeks with a brahman householder who tended him. The host was Chintopant Belsare, “whose relations were staunch devotees of Sai Baba” (NSS:39). The hot water made Upasani perspire profusely. His health greatly improved after about twenty days.

Afterwards he departed for Moregaon, staying at a Vithoba temple. He feared that the cure might not be permanent, still intending to see Phatak. However, that Yogi could not be located. The local people started to revere Upasani, but he protested, deciding to leave. He refused the gift of a silk dhoti. His admirers obtained a bullock cart for his journey to Shupe (Supa), where he stayed in another temple. Adulation again occurred, which annoyed him.

Upasani would now only drink boiled hot water; this was obtained for him by a brahman householder known as Appa Saheb Deshpande. He was disconcerted when locals returned for his darshan, believing him to be a saint. He tried to stop the new devotees prostrating at his feet, saying he was only an ordinary traveller.

For the first time, he now went to pay his respects at the local tomb of a Sufi pir (the saint is not named). “Never before had he chosen to visit a Muslim shrine.”  (41) The site was deserted. Upasani requested some Hindu locals to perform worship here, with items such as incense and camphor. The Muslim site was thus honoured. His inbred attitude of religious insularity was evidently changing. This event may have represented his acknowledgment that a Muslim had provided him with the blessing of hot water drinks to remedy an accident of Yogic practice. Even Kulkarni Maharaj had not been able to cure his ailment.

14.  Narayan  Maharaj  of  Kedgaon

The traveller now had two primary objectives. Firstly, to obtain a daily intake of boiling hot water to alleviate his breathing crisis. Secondly, to gain further assistance by visiting Narayan Maharaj (circa 1885-1945), a saint who lived at Kedgaon, a village about thirty miles from Poona. (42)

Upasani was persuaded to stay for about two weeks in Shupe, at the home of Appa Saheb Deshpande. His host knew much about Narayan Maharaj, who had stayed in that same house in former years. Deshpande hired a bullock cart for the journey to Kedgaon. A few of the new acquaintances accompanied Upasani to his destination. However, when the party arrived at Kedgaon ashram, they discovered that the guru was staying in Bombay. Upasani quickly obtained a ticket at the railway station. He thereafter travelled alone.

Narayan Maharaj

Upasani had encountered Narayan on a previous occasion at Nagpur, being greatly impressed by him. At that time, Upasani and others expected Narayan to sit on a prestigious high level seat arranged for him at a darshan function. Instead, Narayan had entered the darshan hall with about ten devotees, sitting with them on the ground as part of the crowd, ignoring the status seat. Because of this tactic, Upasani was unable to identify the guru. Upasani was further startled when Narayan garlanded him, enjoining him to sit on the resplendent seat. Upasani felt obliged to obey this unusual request.  (43)

Reaching Bombay, Upasani stayed at the home of a friend. He located Narayan, a small man of slight physique and amiable manner. Finding the saint with an assembly of devotees, Upasani joined them until they dispersed. Then he requested a private audience. The saint told him to come back the next day at noon. Upasani complied, feeling surprised when Narayan garlanded him. Some brahman ladies were present. The host then requested him to return in the evening. Disconcerted by the delay, Upasani nevertheless agreed. When he reappeared, he found Narayan alone, as if waiting for him.

Before the visitor could say anything, Narayan commented: “Do not fear at all. In a few days everything will become better” (DSS:173). From a silver box, he gave the visitor betel leaf and nut (a masticatory known as paan).  Upasani hesitated, saying he had never eaten paan. Narayan was insistent that the visitor should consume the paan in his presence, and chew the substance until this turned to liquid. Upasani then vigorously chewed the gift. Narayan approvingly touched the visitor on the back, commenting: “Today you have been so much painted as till now nobody was ever painted” (PPM:31). A variant of this wording is: “You have been thoroughly coloured inside and outside; now nothing remains” (CIC:23).

This disclosure apparently employed associations of religious (or initiatory) marks daubed on the face and body in some ceremonies. Upasani had not received any external colour. He had only eaten paan. He expressed bewilderment, asking for an explanation. Narayan replied: “Never mind if you do not understand me! The time will come, and it is approaching fast, when you will understand everything.” (44) The guru added: “For the present, be contented with believing that you have been thoroughly painted. I cannot explain what I mean.” A variant reads:

If you have not understood, then understand that hereafter you will be able to understand everything. Hence, in the manner whereby the knowers [of Brahman] know, so you have been very finely coloured today. For the present, be content with just this much of understanding, for greater than this, at this instant, I am unable to explain to you. (DSS:173-174)

The next day, Upasani asked the permission of Narayan to leave Bombay. This was granted. Upasani then asked where and when he would be able to meet the saint again. A very allusive remark was then forthcoming from Narayan: “I will myself come and meet you after a few days, and then I will meet you in such a manner that I will always abide by [with] you.” (45) Another version has the words: “I will meet you within a few days, and in such a way that I will permanently stay with you.” (46) The recipient of this message could only wonder at the meaning.

There had been no chance to discuss the breathing problem. Narayan Maharaj had adopted a transcendent angle, speaking as if there were no problem at all. A very puzzled Upasani Shastri then travelled to Ahmednagar. Was he just to continue drinking boiling hot water? He returned to Rahuri, for the purpose of meeting Kulkarni Maharaj again.

The Yogi now asked if his visitor had gone to Shirdi as he had earlier advised. Upasani had to give a negative reply. Kulkarni again exhorted him to visit Sai Baba. The host reassuringly explained that he had himself met Sai Baba. Kulkarni also emphasised that the Shirdi faqir was exceptional, being above the issue of caste and creed. He affirmed that Sai Baba was a satpurusha like Narayan Maharaj.

This time Upasani agreed to make a brief visit to Shirdi, not wishing to offend Kulkarni. The Yogi afterwards accompanied him to the railway station, there purchasing Upasani a ticket for Chitali.  (47)

15.  Encounter  with  Sai  Baba

Alighting from the train at Chitali, Upasani was not able to find a bullock cart, or any other mode of transport, for completion of the journey to Shirdi. For three days he remained at the railway station, exercising his stoical ascetic disposition. He was evidently not willing to walk, no doubt because of his delicate breathing function.

Eventually, one of the Indian railway staff questioned him, to find that Upasani had not eaten since his arrival. The enquirer considerately gave him food suitable for a brahman, and then arranged for a bullock cart to take him to Rahata.

The village of Rahata was only a few miles from Shirdi. Upasani walked this distance, arriving at Shirdi about nine a.m. The date was June 27, 1911. He was unknown to anyone living there. Somebody advised him to lodge at the wada (house) of Kakasaheb, alias Hari S. Dixit. This large dwelling, recently constructed at Shirdi by Dixit, was accordingly known as Dixitwada. The new building functioned as a hostel for visitors wishing to greet Sai Baba.

Upasani stood deep in thought at the entrance to Dixitwada. He was characteristically reflective, not a superficial talker. His clothing was ragged and unkempt, far removed from high caste finery. He carried a travel bag. Three men approached him. These were Dixit and two other prominent devotees of Sai Baba, namely Shama (Madhavrao Deshpande) and Gopalrao Buti.

Shirdi Sai Baba

The devotees asked Upasani why he did not go immediately to see the faqir. The visitor explained that he would first attend to his daily religious practices. The others persuaded Upasani to follow them, with the consequence that this group encountered the saint while he was returning from the Lendi garden to the mosque. Upasani bowed to Sai, as did the others, afterwards returning to Dixitwada.

The visitor next took a bath, after which he attended the recently inaugurated arati ceremony, performed in honour of Sai Baba at the Shirdi mosque. Upasani was still reluctant to accept the unfamiliar situation involving an Islamic place of worship. He ate lunch with the devotees. However, he had no intention of staying. Upasani felt that he had met the obligation presented by Kulkarni Maharaj. Now he wanted to return to his family at Dhulia and Satana. In the evening, he went to Sai Baba and asked permission to depart.

The faqir responded firmly by telling him not to leave, but instead to stay at Dixitwada. Upasani became silent at the injunction. “Such was the authority with which this [command] was uttered that he [Upasani] felt as if a sudden jolt had shaken him” (DSS:199).

Sai Baba then modified his response by conceding the visitor’s wish to leave, while telling him to return after eight days. Upasani replied that he could not promise to return so quickly, but would comply when the opportunity arose. Sai Baba commented: “Then you had better stay. Do not go away.” Upasani was still reluctant to agree. Sai then told him to go, adding: “I will see into your matter.”  (48)

The visitor departed, retracing his steps to Rahata. An early account relates that, for the next seven days, Upasani continually travelled by train between Chitali and Kopargaon, a town about eight miles north of Shirdi. He never returned to Satana, despite his firm intention to do so. According to Narasimhaswami, the traveller became distracted by religious activities such as bathing in the sacred Godavari river at a nearby village. According to Desai, Sai Baba was exercising a kind of magnetic influence or “hidden strength” upon the absentee (LSB:388-89; DSS:199).

Both sources agree that, on the eighth day, Upasani was at Kopargaon, in conversation with a brahmachari from the Dattatreya temple.  This entity is sometimes called Brahmachari Bua; he was locally revered as a saint. Upasani is reported to have stayed at Kopargaon for a few days at this time, with Bua emphasising that he should go back to Sai Baba. (49) Once again, a Hindu holy man was commending a saint locally perceived as a Muslim faqir.

On the eighth day, at Kopargaon railway station, Brahmachari Bua was conversing with Upasani, urging him to return to Shirdi. Upasani declined the prospect. A horse and cab (tonga) then arrived, the passengers being new pilgrims to Shirdi.  They now wanted a guide. Brahmachari Bua sponsored Upasani for this role. The latter excused himself with the explanation that he had not eaten a meal and lacked any money for the tonga fare. His reservations were dismissed by the pilgrim devotees, who said they had both food and money to give him. Upasani now had no argument remaining. He found himself trying to oblige these pilgrims. He accompanied them to Shirdi, apparently in a tonga.

When this group arrived, they took the darshan of Sai Baba, bowing to him in reverence. The faqir greeted Upasani by pointedly asking how many days had passed since his departure. The returning visitor then counted the days. Upasani found to his surprise that the eighth day had arrived, matching the earlier stipulation of Sai. The faqir reminded Upasani that he had not formerly thought a return possible in only eight days.

Upasani is reported to have expressed bewilderment at this situation. He had arrived back at Shirdi, not going home to distant Satana. “I was eager to go home, and I wonder how I did not go back home. This must be all your doing!” Sai Baba remarked: “I have been with you all these eight days, following your steps.”

According to a commentator, Upasani now grasped that Sai Baba could exercise unusual powers and abilities. (50) If so, then at first Upasani still tried to obtain permission to depart, with Shama here being the intermediary. However, there were subtleties in this petition that some writers omitted.

16.  Sai  Baba,  Faqir  of  Shirdi

The major work about Sai Baba is described by scholars as a hagiography. The Sri Sai Satcharita was composed in Marathi verse during the years 1922-28 (DAB:vi). The author was the brahman devotee Govind R. Dabholkar (1859-1929). This document does have some historical relevance, despite the format of a pothi (religious text). However, pronounced omissions are evident.  For instance, there is no reference to the career of Upasani at Shirdi. The Satcharita was composed and published after the earliest biographies of Upasani, which are different in format.

Dabholkar did not use any of the material available in the Marathi biography of Upasani by Madhav Nath. The same vacuum is evident in a supplementary work of a later period, which resorts to an error of the 1950s (KK:258), drawing briefly on the misleading portrayal of Upasani by Narasimhaswami in his Life of Sai Baba.  Alternative sources on Shirdi reveal that much was left out of the popular record of Sai Baba’s last years.

At the juncture when Upasani Shastri arrived in Shirdi, a new wave of urban Hindu devotees were commencing to appear on the scene. The minority of Muslim devotees were rapidly eclipsed by this development.

A recent arrival was Hari S. Dixit (Kakasaheb), who was permitted to build the Dixitwada, a hostel serving as a rendezvous for high caste devotees visiting Shirdi. Dixit (Dikshit) was a prosperous Bombay solicitor. He puzzled some former acquaintances by his new allegiance to the faqir Sai Baba, viewed by Hindu conservatives as a Muslim whose mosque was out of bounds to caste etiquette.

Sai Baba, at the Shirdi mosque, 1903

That mosque (masjid) eventually became known as Dwarakamai, a name of Hindu association. Sai himself called this building Masjid Ayi (“mother mosque”). For many years, the mosque had been dilapidated. Sai Baba had resisted all attempts at renovation, preferring simplicity in his faqiri. The building was not repaired until 1909, via a project which saw ongoing refinements over the next few years.

An early British assessment of Sai Baba’s age has to be regarded as provisional. The source is a weekly report of the Director of Criminal Intelligence, based in Calcutta. The date of this notice is 17/01/1911, the same year that Upasani arrived in Shirdi. The entry relates that, shortly after the return of lawyer G. S. Khaparde from England, he visited the faqir Sai Baba, “said to be a Mahomedan.” The religious identity matches other early accounts of the 1920s and 1930s. The British report also states: “The fakir is an old man of about 70 who came to Shirdi some 30 or 35 years ago and put up in the village mosque…. in the last 15 years he has acquired a great reputation for sanctity” (NF:30). In the absence of any clear proof of a date of birth, the police frequently registered age on the basis of hearsay.

According to Dr. Chandrabhanu Satpathy, “we may draw the inference that Sai Baba came to Shirdi in 1872” (NF:34). This date contrasts with the suggestion of Dabholkar that the date for arrival in Shirdi was 1854. Sai Baba’s date of birth is uncertain, the basic options varying between 1838 or 1856.

Sai Baba on his begging round in Shirdi

The lifestyle of Sai Baba was extremely simple. His faqiri was strictly averse to comforts. Several times daily, he undertook a daily begging round at local houses. The food he collected in this manner was bread and vegetables. His only luxury was a tobacco pipe or chilim. His white kafni (robe) was often stained with soot from the dhuni fire he maintained at the mosque. That dhuni made the building very warm in the summer months, a factor to which he was impervious. The dhuni was a custom found amongst both Hindu Yogis and Muslim faqirs, although the practice may originate with the former.

Perhaps coinciding with the new influx of visitors to Shirdi, from about 1910, the speech of Sai Baba was frequently allusive, and could at times be very cryptic. This habit is believed, by some commentators, to have been intended as a foil to dogmatic considerations and divisive religious interests. Shirdi Sai was not interested in religious dogma or conversion. He proved that point on a daily basis.

“The use of metaphorical, symbolic and figurative language is a method adopted by many saints, particularly, in the Sufi tradition, which Sai Baba frequently adopted” (NF:41). He relished telling stories (goshtis) demanding close attention from his listeners, who were not always sure what he meant to convey. References to reincarnation were frequent in this mode of oblique communication. The Hindu theme of rinanubandha here emerges.

In contrast to the tactic of allusion, the Shirdi faqir could be penetratingly direct in his alternative mode of ethical counsels and personal instructions. Brevity was a frequent feature of his disclosures, facilitating memory recall.

The temperament of Sai Baba varied on different occasions. He was known to express annoyance with some enquirers. However, he could also exhibit a benign patience. A strong sense of humour was at times in evidence. Sai Baba liked jokes, including the tongue in cheek variety.

This rugged faqir spoke Deccani Urdu, a Muslim language associated with the sprawling domain of the Nizam, situated to the east. Eyewitnesses report Sai Baba chanting Islamic phrases such as Allah Malik, a zikr which he constantly uttered, and the best known of his Sufi expressions. “The frequent use of the word Allah reflects his unorthodox Sufi style of communication” (NF:38). He also spoke Marathi, if to a degree of fluency that is uncertain.

Early Hindu followers, including Das Ganu and Govind Dabholkar, referred to a Muslim identity for the Shirdi faqir. Whereas later Hindu commentators portrayed Sai Baba as being born into a brahman family. Details of birth remain very obscure. Upasani himself described Sai Baba as a Muslim. This significant testimony is generally ignored, like the British colonial version. The strong attraction of the faqir for Pathans has led to a suggestion that Sai Baba himself was a Pathan (or a half-breed). The contention remains unconfirmed. However, the attraction of Sai Baba for Muslims cannot be denied. The Muslim supporters were greatly outnumbered by a predominantly Hindu following during his last years. Nevertheless, the general recognition of Sai Baba as a Muslim, together with his long term residence in a mosque, are factors known to have deterred high caste Hindu visitors.

His early years are difficult to chart. When Sai Baba first settled in Shirdi, he was regarded by many villagers as a “mad faqir,” an eccentric holy man averse to interruption. Eventually he gained devotees, including Mhalsapati and Shama, the latter at first a local schoolteacher. Later, the learned Nanasaheb Chandorkar became a supporter. This revenue official came to believe that Sai Baba knew Sanskrit. The faqir was certainly dexterous and innovative in his interpretation of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (Shepherd 2015:162-167). The Urdu Notebook of Abdul Baba, for long obscured, reveals Sai as a liberal Sufi (Shepherd 2017:5-12).

Many visitors came to Shirdi from circa 1910 onwards. Numerous dispositions were represented, including greed for the presumed benefits of darshan. Sai Baba often mentioned this discrepant feature of approach. He complained that too many persons wanted what was secondary and distracting; too few persons were seeking what he actually wished to give. The desire of visitors for cures was persistent. The attribution of miracles was furthered by certain devotees, not by the faqir. (51)

Online reminder of erroneous attributions

Caution against hagiological elements is not the only necessity. A number of images are circulated in the belief that these represent the Shirdi faqir. Mistaken attributions have been applied to paintings, film shots, and images of other entities whose identity is known.

During his last years, Sai Baba innovated his request for dakshina or alms. He would not ask everyone for this gift of money. He was liable to request more than the visitor had on their person, or as much as they carried in their pocket. The donors were generally affluent townspeople. By nightfall, Sai Baba had redistributed all the money obtained. He did not use this money for personal gratification, instead giving the funds away to diverse dependants and poor people.

His attitude to wealth is illustrated by the report of what happened to a group of wealthy devotees who once sat near him at the mosque. The faqir requested these guests to give him their gold jewellery. The donors obliged, afterwards feeling upset to see Sai Baba give these adornments to another man who was present. This procedure continued for some while that day. Always the same man (unnamed) received the gifts. Eventually the visitors complained, saying they wanted Sai to have the jewellery, not the other man. The faqir responded: “What do you do with rubbish? You put it in the waste bin!” (52)

At his death, Sai Baba had no property or wealth. He possessed only his robe or kafni, sixteen rupees, rustic tobacco pipes, a satka (stick), a tin pot for begging, and a small grain grinder (chakki).

A century after his death, opposition to his fame was expressed by the prestigious Swami Swarupananda Saraswati, who militated against temple worship of the deceased faqir. "A general verdict was that the campaign inadvertently spotlighted an area of religious differences which should be surmounted, and not accentuated" (Shepherd 2017:187-189).

Generations before, when Upasani Shastri first came to Shirdi, he regarded Sai Baba as a committed ascetic, one worthy of respect, but nevertheless coming from a different religion to his own. A brahman had nothing to do with a mosque. Therefore, he (Upasani) was just passing through, making a polite gesture of deference to a liberal Muslim holy man recommended by Kulkarni Maharaj, the Yogi of Rahuri.

Upasani afterwards found that Sai Baba was far more relevant than he had at first assumed. The aloof brahman soon had to reckon with the Shirdi saint on a completely different level to his caste complex. The effort to assimilate Sai Baba became total, leading to dramatic experiences of a kind formerly unknown to him.

17.  Settling  Accounts  in  Two  or  Four  Years

Upasani found that to stay at Shirdi meant living under the instructions of Sai Baba. The faqir told him to reside in Dixitwada. The new Shirdi guest received meals at that building. With local and visiting devotees, he attended the daily assemblies permitted by Sai Baba at the mosque. Those assemblies, potentially unpredictable, were of varying duration.

Upasani saw for himself that what Kulkarni Maharaj had said was true. Sai Baba transcended religious category, giving no preaching, no doctrine, and permitting arati rites in a mosque. The arati innovations were recent, divided between the mosque and the chavadi (a disused village hall where Sai Baba slept on alternate nights after the mosque renovation started).

Madhavrao Deshpande, known as Shama

Shama (Madhavrao Deshpande), a former schoolteacher and long-term devotee of Sai Baba, was the favoured intermediary with other devotees, probably because of his familiarity with Urdu, the basic language of the Shirdi faqir. The 1936 report of Shama informs that when Upasani first came to Shirdi, he was still unwell; the newcomer cried in his sleep “I am dead.” The impact of his breathing travail evidently remained strong. The breathing problem is not described in this interview (probably not being remembered well by the 1930s, when Shama was an octogenarian). Upasani asked Shama to request Sai Baba to help him. Shama told the faqir that Upasani Shastri was expecting death. Sai replied that Shirdi was for saving people, not killing them. (53)

By a process of hindsight, some writers have since stated that the breathing problem of Upasani miraculously and suddenly disappeared when he first came to Shirdi. The recourse to drinking boiling hot water is not mentioned.

At first, Shama and others mistook Upasani for a police detective, a misconception which the new resident duly denied. To them, he appeared very different in temperament to the many devotee visitors who frequented Shirdi.

Establishing an exact chronology is difficult. According to a 1930s reminiscence, about fifteen days after his second arrival, Upasani was instructed by Sai Baba to remain in the Khandoba temple just outside Shirdi. However, another 1930s report says that “for a few months he was a paying boarder” at Dixitwada. (54) The newcomer continued to visit the mosque assemblies.

At this period, Sai Baba asked Upasani if he had any money to give as dakshina, meaning the payment which the saint often requested from visitors (followed by a communal redistribution). Upasani then gave Sai an old and worn rupee coin, one that had turned black and green with age. The faqir commented: “He has deliberately selected a dark rupee.” The visitor felt badly about this, returning after his meal with the best condition rupee that he possessed.

Sai Baba accepted the new offering. A devotee named Haribhau Chaubal then appeared, gifting the faqir with some rupees. Sai then asked Chaubal for more money, but this man had no more coins on his person. Sai Baba then asked Chaubal to bring all the money he kept at his lodging. When Upasani heard this, he offered to bring all the money he himself had. Soon after Chaubal presented his dakshina, Upasani returned to the mosque with his own proof of commitment, (55) giving every rupee and pie he had.

The newcomer initially demurred because he feared “a penniless life amidst strangers” (NSS:72). After giving dakshina, Upasani could no longer pay for board at Dixitwada. This episode appears to have been part of the obscure drama involving Hari (Kakasaheb) Dixit, who resented Upasani. Sai Baba tactfully transferred his new disciple to the Khandoba temple.

In this way, Upasani became one of Sai Baba’s economic dependents. Thereafter he lived solely in relation to whatever arrangements were made for him. A problem arose in his mind because, from an early age, he had chafed at being dependent upon the charity and money of others in his family. He disliked being a financial burden to anyone. Upasani thus felt that he ought to leave Shirdi, on grounds of conscience. This was why, for a time only, he sought to obtain permission to leave Shirdi. These requests were relayed through Shama. Each time however, the faqir declined, making an allusive remark to the effect that “permission [to depart] would be given after settling all the accounts.”  (56)

Sai Baba also stated: “These accounts [of Upasani] will take two or four years to settle.” (57) He is generally presented as referring to a period of four years residence for Upasani at Shirdi. However, a short cut was evidently possible. Upasani was not sure what the attendant terminology meant. He found that even Shama did not know. Shama then asked on behalf of the new resident: “What accounts?” Sai Baba then responded: “I have to settle the accounts of everyone who comes to me.”  (58) This was obviously not a full explanation. The “accounts” were part of the faqir’s allusive speech.

In the case of Upasani, “his love for Sai Baba went on increasing.” (59) This factor is relevant to events, while amounting to a very sparse explanation. The attitude of Upasani to the Shirdi scene changed substantially from his initial aloofness and trepidation.

At this period, Sai Baba was resorting to allusive speech, a response to an increasing number of visitors. His former speech style (prior to 1910) was apparently very direct, but now he was guarded (KK:9). Upasani discovered something surprising about allusive remarks made by the faqir during mosque assemblies, prior to the performance of arati. Many comments expressed by Sai Baba, in the presence of Upasani, were found by the latter to comprise references to events in his own life. There was no punditry, no dogma, no Sufi lectures, only very informal utterances comprehensible solely to the person being addressed. No teaching in the conventional sense was administered.

A revealing account of one (undated) event at a mosque assembly is available. Sai Baba expressed an allusive description, while occasionally pointing to Upasani. The faqir said that he had noticed a pregnant woman whose belly was protruding (Upasani was well aware that after his breathing problem began, his paunch had noticeably protruded). This “woman” was grunting with pain, and could not walk easily. Sai laughed at her, and said he had known her before – she had been carrying a child for many years. He had asked her: “Why are you not yet delivering?” She could not reply. Sai had commented: “Let that pass. You had best adopt the rule of drinking only hot water. That will make delivery easy.” The woman had ignored his advice, instead deciding to drink cold water at a stream. Sai commented that he knew she would die unnecessarily, and likewise the children in her belly. So he approached her and asked why she had ignored his advice. He told her to go to a nearby village, and there she began to drink hot water. “Now she is alright.” Sai Baba added a significant reference to vatha (a topic which the old Muslim at Rahuri had mentioned to Upasani some months earlier).

Upasani was amazed at these disclosures, knowing exactly what was being described (he had apparently not mentioned the events of his past; he was not a talkative man). He now believed that Sai Baba was the old Muslim he had seen at both Rahuri and Jejuri, the man who had cured his breathing problem that defied the skill of all medical doctors and Yogis. Upasani now felt deep gratitude to the faqir. The content of allusion was a mystery to the other persons present at the mosque (NSS:50-51).

Sai Baba and Shama, early photograph

During the first weeks after his return to Shirdi, via Shama as an intermediary, Upasani would frequently present his request to depart. Shama was rebuked by Sai for conveying the insistent petition. Likewise via Shama, the faqir sent Upasani an instruction to fast for three days on tea and peanuts. (60) Sai Baba evidently took the attitude that the new resident of Shirdi must stay and carry out instructions. He did not give any explanation as to why, apart from the allusive reference to “accounts.”

One day, at the mosque, Upasani and Shama were both engaged in massaging the feet of Sai Baba, a service often rendered by devotees. Shama took the opportunity to mention once more the issue of permission to leave. The faqir then addressed Shama as follows:

Listen carefully to what I am saying about him [Upasani]. He has to stay here not for one year or even one year and a half. He has to stay here for four years. After four years, the grace of Mhalsapati (Khandoba) will fall on him, and all his accounts will be clear. He should stay quietly in Vithoba’s temple, for four years. He has a very good future. There is none like him; such is his worth. The whole world is on one side, and he is on the other.... He should stay quietly in Vithoba’s temple, and I will do what I want to [in this matter].  (61)

The temple referred to here was Khandoba’s temple, on the outskirts of Shirdi. Sai Baba always described this place as Vithoba’s temple (the reason has been interpreted in terms of a non-sectarian attitude). There was no doubt that the faqir wished Upasani to reside in the deserted sanctuary.

An alternative rendering of the above quote reads: “Such is his worth. The whole world may be put in one scale, and he in the other. He is merely to eat bread and vegetables and sit quiet. I shall accomplish what I want.” (62)

The new disciple felt unworthy of the praise expressed in his direction. He continued to ask for permission to leave, apparently influenced in this respect by a concern for his relatives. He felt that Sai Baba was deliberately pulling him away from his family.  (63) Upasani did not know that his wife would be dead only a few months later.

Sai Baba was more explicit about the new prospect in another communication at this early stage of contact:

Now you [Upasani] should not worry about anything. I have fully recognised your worth (adhikar). For many years, I have been after you. Whatever good or bad actions have until now been done by you, have really been done by me. You have not recognised me, but I have recognised you. For years, I have been thinking of you in my heart. Now there is nowhere [else] to go or to come. If you are unable to do anything, do not do anything. I will myself purchase the ticket for you and will with my own hands seat you in the train; and without allowing the train to stop anywhere, I will take you straight to where I want to take you.  (64)

The last part of this communication has a variant in Talk 168, conveyed by Upasani in Marathi over a decade later. He was relaying what Sai Baba had said to him in 1911 about an obscure destination:

I will personally conduct you to the place. You do not know the road, and you may have no money to buy the ticket. I myself will buy a ticket for you. I will give you such a pass that the train will lead you to your destination without any halt anywhere. (GT, 1:401)

The reference to railway travel is purely allusive. Upasani adds a retrospective reflection to this report. “Subsequently I moved as if in a special train; it hardly ever stopped in the middle [of the route]; it just went on and on” (GT, 1:401).

18.  “I  have  given  everything  to  this  person”

A very graphic disclosure of Sai Baba about Upasani is found in an early source, composed only a decade or so after the events described. The date is elsewhere given as July-August, 1911 (during the month of shravan). The communication thus occurred during the early weeks of Upasani’s stay at Shirdi.

Following repeated requests from Upasani to leave, Sai Baba asked him to wait two more days. True to this deadline, Sai made a statement (probably mediated by Shama) during an assembly of devotees at the mosque. The distinctive communication was later reported in different languages. Here is a version rendered from Urdu/Marathi into Gujarati, and subsequently into English:

All of you present here, listen carefully. All that I have attained in the path of God, that in entirety is about to be delegated to this protector here [pointing a finger at Upasani]. The time is absolutely near for him to reach the highest heights and experiences that this godly path offers.  He will have to stay here for four more years, and the result of that will be what I have just announced to you. Be sure of it. I will make him responsible for all my godly tasks and I too will stay in his heart. Do not consider these words of mine to be anything else but the truth. Nothing is going to change this fact. At the apt time you all shall so witness.  (65)

One of the prominent devotees, who was present on this occasion, resisted the declaration, expressing a strong query:

We have been in your service for years, and yet you mention that you will delegate all your godly power to an unknown person who is not even of the same caste. How is this possible, Baba? Will you be able to emboss this [statement] on a copper plate and announce it to the entire world?  (66)

Sai Baba is reported to have replied:

Can this pure mosque [masjid ayi] ever be able to tolerate falsehood? Once again, I repeat that what I have just said is true. I will write it on a golden plate, one that does not despoil in a few years like copper.  (67)

A variant of these statements is given by Narasimhaswami. This commentator says that some devotees were jealous of Upasani because of the exaltation expressed by Sai Baba. One of these men, described as a prabhu from Bombay, said:

What, Baba, we have been attending upon you for years, and you seem to be conferring a copper plate grant of all your powers to this stranger, and are we all, therefore, to be neglected? Is it true that you are giving all your powers?

The reply of Sai Baba is here given as follows:

Yes, I speak only the truth, sitting as I do in this masjid. What I have spoken, I have spoken. I have given everything to this person. Whether he be good or bad, he is my own. I am fully responsible for him, and, as for sasana or a grant, why a copper plate grant? I have given him a Gold plate Grant.  (68)

The same response of Sai is elsewhere worded as: "Yes, I have given him [Upasani] everything. Whatever he is, he is mine. There is no difference between him and me. All his responsibility is on me."  (69)

Turning to Upasani, Sai Baba asked: “Think which is better, copper or gold?” Upasani expressed ignorance of this matter. He is also said to have remained silent. Sai himself obliged with an answer: “Copper gets corroded and tarnished. Gold does not. Gold remains pure always. You are pure. You are pure Bhagavan.”  (70)

Despite the positive assessment expressed by Sai Baba, the commentator Narasimhaswami, writing forty years later, depicts Upasani as being incapable of a due answer to the metallic question, being “too much dazed by the prospect of four gloomy years to be spent at Shirdi, away from his wife and kith and kin at Satana, to give any rational answer.”  (71)

This belittling interpretation is very misleading. The influential 1950s detractor Narasimhaswami was not present at the time of these events, instead appearing at Shirdi twenty-five years later, long after the death of Sai Baba. This sannyasin became the innovative missionary (pracharak) of the Sai Baba movement, developing a sectarian agenda that weighed heavily upon his judgment. He preferred to view Upasani as an uncomprehending grihasta voluptuary attached to wife and relatives, basically failing the recommendation he received from the celebrated faqir. Narasimhaswami presented Upasani as a householder who did not qualify as a renunciate.

l to r: B. V. Narasimhaswami, Hari S. Dixit (Kakasaheb)

Narasimhaswami was obliged to acknowledge the event of declaration that he resisted. However, he appended his opinion that the disclosure about giving “everything” was conditioned by a stay of four years at Shirdi on the part of Upasani. This pracharak argument lacks evidence. According to both Desai and Sage of Sakuri, Sai Baba made his significant disclosures without any qualification. That factor shocked a number of supporters, who were unwilling to assimilate the newcomer. When the Bombay prabhu, namely Hari (Kakasaheb) Dixit, queried Sai Baba’s elevation of Upasani, the faqir responded strongly, looking full in the face of the sceptic, while commenting: “Do you take my words to be lies? Is this a mosque for liars? What I have spoken, I have spoken. Everything I have got has been completely given to him” (NSS:56).

There followed a complex interchange between Sai Baba and Upasani (which may have extended to more than one occasion). In one version, the faqir told Upasani: “Now understand fully that the gold plate grant is given into your hands. Hereafter, you need not go [come] to me frequently. Come to me only occasionally. You should not, however, talk to me. Nor will I talk to you. After four years, you will have the full favour of Mhalsapati (Khandoba) and you will realise everything.”

Upasani replied that he was “totally unfit” to take on this “heavy responsibility.” He asked that he might instead be allowed to go home. The new disciple must have been aware of adverse reactions from prestigious devotees to the “gold plate grant.” Sai Baba dismissed his hesitation, and continued:

Do not think of such things now. I know full well what you are, and you will come to know who I am. I am, and have been, after you for many years. Whatever has been done by you – good or evil – has, in fact, been done by me. You have not recognised me, but I have recognised you thoroughly. I have been intently thinking of you for many a year.  Now where are you to go or come? If you are unable to do anything, keep quiet. (NSS:56-57)

The faqir then struck his chest “in token of determination and a personal undertaking” (NSS:57). There followed further, and more allusive, references to railway travel, the point being that the disciple would be conducted to his goal with maximal speed.

At Shirdi, during the lifetime of Sai Baba, observers knew that the faqir had singled out Upasani Shastri in an unprecedented manner. This celebration evoked the support of some devotees, and the resistance of others (the numbers are not known).

Hari Vinayak Sathe was a prominent devotee who created the hostel at Shirdi known as Sathewada. This man later testified that Sai Baba was once asked (long prior to 1911) if there would be any successor to his role. The faqir responded: “Arre, will there not be some man coming in tatters?” This description fitted the ragged Upasani Shastri upon his arrival at Shirdi in June 1911 (LSB:427). Sathe eventually became a supporter of Upasani.

An early report affirms: “The rich of Shirdi had disdain and contempt for [Upasani] Maharaj, for he always chose to remain in solitude and spent most of the time alone sitting in a corner, and talked only when it was absolutely essential” (DSS:203).

However, during his initial stay at Dixitwada, Upasani is reported to have participated in the nightly conversation upstairs. (72) Here regular visitors liked to converse on the upper floor, many of them brahmans. This phase did not last long for Upasani. Afterwards he was enjoined by Sai Baba (via Shama) to remain quiet and “to do nothing” at the Khandoba temple.

Many years later, in Talk 285, Upasani reminisced: “He [Sai] never showed me any miracle…. He was a Yavana [Muslim] while I was a Brahmana, and yet I decided to follow strictly with all faith whatever he would tell” (GT, 3:488).

One reason for the new situation involving these two, master and disciple, was allusively disclosed by Sai Baba to Upasani in a manner not especially easy to understand.  “Their ancestors were intimately connected with each other for thousands of years” (LSB:397). The context was rinanubandha, a Sanskrit word here denoting a reincarnatory link and consequent obligation on the part of Sai Baba. There is reason to believe that only part of the explanation survived. Available reports exhibit differences. In Talk 303, Upasani relays that Sai Baba told him: “You and your family and myself have been friends for the last hundreds of years” (GT, 3:563).

Sage of Sakuri relays a communication of Sai to Upasani: “There is rinanubandha (mutual obligation) between us. Our families have been interlocked by rinanubandha for centuries, nay – for a thousand years. So there is no difference between you and me” (NSS:52). The commentator adds that Upasani uncharacteristically shed tears at this disclosure.

19.  Smoking  the  Chilim

Sai Baba regularly smoked tobacco in the rustic clay pipe known as chilim (or chilum). Critics have assumed that he was addicted to tobacco, along with many other smokers. Some differences from common usage are discernible. During the last years of his life, the daily pipe ritual served as a means of elevating the position of his leper devotee Bhagoji Shinde, who was allowed to prepare the pipe every morning (Shepherd 2017:122). Lepers were commonly shunned by caste society.

The tobacco pipe also provided a basic test of response for brahman visitors and devotees. High caste Hindus regarded the Islamic mosque as a place of contamination. To smoke the chilim with the Shirdi faqir was a prospect feared by some brahmans, because this signified defilement (a Muslim mosque and a Muslim pipe were a double-barrelled deterrent).

Some early sources specify that Sai Baba smoked tobacco. Unanimous on this point are the prominent writers Govind Dabholkar, Hari S. Dixit, and Narasimhaswami. (73) Smoking tobacco in a pipe was not a typical Hindu custom; sadhus often smoked cannabis in the chilim. Muslims of the Ahmednagar district were noted for smoking tobacco in a huqqa (Warren 1999:105).

In 1911, during his early months at Shirdi, Upasani was requested by Sai to smoke the chilim with him. By this time, the new disciple had moved to the Khandoba temple. Like other orthodox brahmans, Upasani Shastri never smoked (NSS:66-67). Tobacco was out of the question for his strict mode of living. Cigarettes and pipes were abhorred in this instance. Upasani accordingly objected to the request. However, Sai Baba insisted upon what amounted to a transgression in the caste perspective. Upasani obeyed with reluctance, out of respect for his new guru. At least one sequel occurred in early 1912.

Other brahman devotees are known to have been requested by the Shirdi faqir to smoke the tobacco pipe. Notable is the case of Krishnashastri Bhishma, who at first feared contamination during his visit to Shirdi in December 1911. “Sai Baba was well known for offering his tobacco pipe to visitors” (Shepherd 2017:147). Bhishma dreaded being proffered the pipe; he was eventually caught off guard. Religious taboos and biases were not conducive to deeper perceptions of what existed at Shirdi.

The egalitarian faqir maintained an unusual form of communication via allusive speech, terse instructions, predictions, ethical exhortations, and other tactics including the chilim. Upasani found that obedience to Sai Baba was a challenge ultimately granting vistas he had never before known.

Upasani did not contract the smoking habit. In later years, he is reported to have forbidden his brahman devotees to smoke (NSS:66-67). He maintained a high caste tradition in this respect.

20.   Retreat  at  the  Khandoba  Temple

The date at which Upasani moved to the Khandoba temple is uncertain, but may have been only a few weeks (or months) after his second arrival at Shirdi in early July 1911. He moved to the temple from Dixitwada at the instruction of Sai Baba. This was a form of retreat, but with no ascetic injunctions or religious rulings. He was simply told to live in solitude at the temple, and “not mix with people but to remain alone, doing nothing” (LSB:390).

Sai Baba is reported to have said: “He [Upasani] must simply sit quietly in Vithoba’s [Khandoba’s] temple, doing nothing” (NSS:55). At the time, very few people attached any significance to such statements.

Upasani at Shirdi, 1914

At this initial period, Upasani was accustomed to spending part of his time in having a daily bath. He was scrupulous about hygiene, and also his religious observances, sometimes called nityakarma. Performing prayer and japa (repetition), he would also recite from the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnu Sahasranama. He occasionally read the Rama Gita and the Adhyatma Ramayana. He would still occasionally visit the mosque at the time of arati (NSS:61).

Sai Baba reiterated basic emphases in relation to Upasani: “I am fully responsible for you. Go to Vithoba’s [Khandoba’s] temple and sit quiet. Live as I told you before. Then Shama will drag you out. And I will make you sit in the open. Do not think of anything. The whole world in the one scale and you in the other. Such is your merit” (NSS:62-63).

The prediction of Sai Baba is variously worded in the sources. According to a 1950s recasting, at the end of Upasani’s stay in the temple, he would be the recipient of divine favour. The disciple would then be taken out of the temple and placed in the open for all people to see and venerate for his spiritual achievements. There is the phrase: “He (Upasani) is or would be God or the full recipient of God’s favours, which amounted to the same thing” (LSB:399). Shama (the linguistic intermediary) was named as the agent for a preliminary public appearance. In making such brief disclosures, the faqir would not comment further. The indications are that only a few persons were present when such statements were uttered.

Khandoba temple at Shirdi (early photograph)

The Khandoba temple was a disused and derelict building on the outskirts of Shirdi. The auspices were Shaiva; the god Khandoba was elevated as Martanda Bhairava. Another name for him was Mhalsapati (husband of Mhalsa). The legendary figure of Khandoba ruled from a fort at Jejuri; he had several wives, primarily Mhalsa. A folk deity of Maharashtra, Khandoba was mythologised as an avatar of Shiva, proving popular amongst the agricultural castes. This Shaiva figurehead was even worshipped by Muslims. There were hundreds of Khandoba temples in the Deccan. (74) However, the retreat of Upasani had nothing to do with any religious or sectarian programme. He was merely told by the Shirdi faqir to “sit quietly” and “do nothing.”

The Khandoba temple at Shirdi was only a few minutes walk from the mosque. The horizon was bounded by the village on one side, and on the other, by a cremation ground and a dense forest.

This temple was a compact single storey building with a spire; small windows were set in the stone walls. There was a door (or pair of doors) which Upasani could lock from the inside against intruders. However, he could not prevent snakes and scorpions from gaining access. The occupant became accustomed to scorpion stings. In later years, he remarked: “A chronic illness gives you pain and makes you cry; but the scorpion bite does that in a second. Serpents and scorpions therefore are all forms of God [Narayana]” (GT, 2:363-64). The sufferer had to live with the pain, viewing the affliction as providential.

At night he had no lamp or light. On one nocturnal occasion, he leaned against the wall, and felt something touch his backside. He was wearing very little clothing. He put out his hand in defence against a scorpion. He then received a sting near the anus. The creature also stung him on his hands, feet, and back. The pain must have been acute. His own report says that he sat the night through talking to the scorpion. He felt that he must be a very sinful person to have experienced this ordeal (GT, 2:368-69).

In this very disconcerting environment, Upasani now resignedly lived alone. A strong commitment was involved. He would meditate in the temple behind closed doors. At first, he continued to visit the mosque for the daily assembly of devotees, which now featured arati. Only later did Sai Baba state that the disciple need not visit him every day (Deshmukh 1965:32).

In his very early days at Shirdi, Upasani was still worried that the breathing problem might recur. He accordingly feared that he might die suddenly. Via Shama as an intermediary, Sai Baba dismissed his forebodings with the remark: “Shirdi is no place for death, but a place for crossing death!” (75) Insofar as is known, no repeat of the malady occurred.

Over a decade later (in 1924), Upasani reminisced about an episode occurring at this time. Events became intolerable for him at Shirdi.

I said to Sai Baba that no more was I able to suffer. On this he replied that I should suffer all that I could now, as after that, there was all eternal happiness for me, that my state was the highest, without comparison. (GT, 1:112-113)

Another source reports Sai Baba as saying to the temple dweller: “I am always with you.  You need not fear.  The more you suffer now, the happier and more excellent will be your future.  You in one scale, and the world in the other.  You are going to be an Avadhuta. Hundreds will rush to take your darshan” (LSB:402).

We know that the sufferings of Upasani were caused by scorpions, snakes, and humans. For instance, opponents in Shirdi wanted to eject the temple dweller. These confused people spread rumours that he was a spy of the secret police (or CID officer), a political refugee, or even a convict who was trying to hide in this rural place. One of these agitators contacted the police at Kopargaon, who afterwards came to question him. The police wanted to know details of his personal affairs, family, and former businesses. Upasani gave polite answers, but the police remained suspicious. He was threatened with a repeat enquiry at a later date. Upasani afterwards complained to Sai Baba, reviving his request to leave Shirdi. The faqir told him not to worry, and if the police came again, then to answer them boldly (DSS:201-202).

More generally, the laconic advice of Sai Baba, in this instance, was to “sit quietly.” The basic message amounted to a need for enduring the temporary difficulties encountered.

There was indeed a sequel. A prestigious revenue officer, the mamlatdar, arrived in Shirdi with a group of policemen. They proceeded to cross-examine Upasani. This time he was firm in his response. Upasani now asked for proof of the theory that he was an escaped prisoner. Alternatively, if they really believed he was a police spy, then they should allow him to do his duty. He was so confident and forceful in his approach that the posse decided to leave him alone, still uncertain as to who he was.  (76)

A brahman police inspector arrived one day, accompanied by other personnel. The inspector did not remove his shoes when entering the Khandoba temple. Upasani berated him for this neglect of protocol. The inspector retreated outside. The ascetic followed him, proceeding to give advice on religious conduct. The tension was such that the inspector eventually felt obliged to apologise for his error. (77)

In being reduced to a state of dependence, Upasani would abstemiously ask only for bread and chutney, hoping that he would be able to pay for meals at a later date. Afterwards he received gifts of grain from some devotees at Shirdi. He cooked for himself at the Khandoba temple, eating well on simple food. Then Hari S. Dixit invited him to take free meals at Dixitwada. Upasani accepted the new arrangement, apparently with reluctance.  This situation continued for some months.

Eventually however, in the presence of others, the manager (not named) of Dixitwada told Upasani that the meals for him were about to discontinue the next day. The reasons for this refusal are given in terms of: (a) the number of enemies he had gained, particularly because of the declarations made by Sai Baba in his favour (b) his unsociable behaviour, which appeared aloof.

The first reason given is undeniable. The second one has the relevant qualification that he was told by Sai Baba “to go and live in solitude at Khandoba’s temple, just outside the village, and not mix with people but to remain alone, doing nothing.”  (78) Yet Narasimhaswami overlooks this factor (which he himself specifies), making the accusation that Upasani “thought highly of himself and would not care to placate or hobnob with the big men of the place, or among the visitors that came there.”  (79) In the Life of Sai Baba, a 1950s commentary by Narasimhaswami, Upasani Shastri is demoted, a negative verdict being imposed by questionable criteria. The anomaly here amounts to Upasani being criticised for obeying the instructions of Sai Baba.

The “big men of the place” are not named in this reference. They are known to have included Kakasaheb Dixit, the owner of Dixitwada. Upasani was certainly not guilty of ignoring Ganesh S. Khaparde, the eminent lawyer and politician (and tireless diarist) who arrived at Shirdi in early December 1911, staying for over three months. Khaparde is noted for his respectful attitude to Sai Baba, remaining silent in his company (unless invited to speak) and refraining from the chatter preferred by many devotees. Only a very few of the visitors achieved this attentive attitude at the mosque. Only two others are mentioned in this context of humility, namely Gopalrao Buti and Tatyasaheb Noolkar. Khaparde would carry out the instructions of Sai Baba; again, this was not common practice, distractions often gaining precedence. Some of the reports invite a duly critical assessment of events.

Ganesh S. Khaparde

Khaparde knew Upasani Shastri quite well, having been a former client of the vaidh during the latter’s Amraoti phase of Ayurveda expertise. Upasani met Khaparde again very soon after the latter’s arrival at Shirdi from Amraoti. In his Shirdi Diary, Khaparde mentions that he talked with Upasani (whom he calls Vaidya). Upasani then disclosed his adventures in Gwalior as a landowner, how he had become ill with his breathing ailment, how he had tried all remedies, had sought out various saints, and eventually came to Sai Baba. His condition had improved, and he was “now under orders to stay here.” He had composed a Sanskrit hymn in praise of the faqir. Upasani thereafter participated daily in the Vedanta study sessions which the learned Khaparde conducted at Dixitwada from early January 1912, with the permission of Sai Baba.

This intellectual milieu was remote from political associations of the famous lawyer. Much interest has attended a recent treatment of the Khaparde-Craddock friction. Khaparde wrote in his diary that Sai Baba “told my wife that the Governor [Craddock] came with a lance, that Sayin Maharaj [Sai Baba] had a tussle with him, and drove him out and that he finally conciliated the Governor. The language is highly figurative and therefore difficult to interpret” (NF:38).

Sir Reginald Henry Craddock (1864-1937) was Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces from 1907. He proposed the deportation of Khaparde in 1909, based on the speeches of this politician in 1905, plus other sources. The foil to this hostile gesture was Viceroy Lord Minto (1845-1914), who decided against deportation. However, Khaparde remained very much on the Empire blacklist for his radical political orientation, associated with Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Dr. Satpathy interprets that Craddock had “raised his sharpened lance” via the severe proposal, which was negated by Lord Minto (NF:50).

Apart from Sai Baba, Khaparde was the most famous man in Shirdi at that time. In addition to his legal skills, Khaparde was learned in religious texts, an attribute tending to dominate his Shirdi activities. During his Vedanta study group at Shirdi, he analysed in succession three texts, ending with the Panchadashi. Upasani assisted in reading the texts and posing questions, while receiving elucidations from Khaparde. Although Khaparde is sometimes described as giving lectures, his method was actually more sophisticated. Other learned devotees also participated, including Bapusaheb Jog and Krishnashastri J. Bhishma. This study group lasted until mid-March 1912.

Krishnashastri J. Bhishma

Khaparde was familiar with different editions of the Jnaneshwari, in some respects a difficult text even for professional scholars at that time. Jog also became familiar with that text. Bapusaheb Jog (Sakharam Hari) was not merely an arati ritualist, but a literate brahman with a close knowledge of Sanskrit scriptures. He had experienced some adventures at close range with the Shirdi faqir, including admonitions via the satka (stick). Jog now regarded Upasani merely as a fellow student, but in subsequent years was to become his devotee.

A complexity is evident. Upasani “was not particularly drawn to intellectual discourses” at this time. However, Khaparde persuaded him “to attend to all the explanations” (Deshmukh 1965:32). The Panchadashi is emphasised in this respect. Khaparde is here described as feeling “an inner call” to impart these explanations to Upasani. The situation was apparently more intricate than generally stated.

An early report, about Upasani and the Panchadashi, says that Sai Baba recommended this Advaita text to him, in the sense of “try to understand the truth mentioned in it fully; hence [Upasani] Maharaj now spent most of his waking hours in comprehending this scripture.” (80) That factor may explain Khaparde’s sudden interest in the Panchadashi. One day Upasani left the Khandoba temple with this Sanskrit text in his hand, meeting Sai Baba as the latter returned to the mosque from the Lendi. The reader complained that he could not understand the meaning of the Panchadashi (or part of that book). Sai responded: “You will understand all of it gradually.”

B. V. Narasimhaswami did not arrive at Shirdi until 1936, twenty-five years after the events discussed here. He is noted for casting aspersions upon Khaparde for being a follower of Upasani in much later years. Moreover, according to him, Khaparde neglected to become a devotee of Sai Baba. Narasimhaswami also considered the study group at Shirdi (which he had never attended) to be too intellectual. “There was no study class with [Sai] Baba, and Baba rarely talked to Kashinath [Upasani].” (81) Apart from Shama, the allusive faqir rarely talked to anyone for very long. Sai Baba never made such glowing declarations about any of his contacts as he did in the case of Upasani. Narasimhaswami nevertheless depreciates Upasani for studying the Panchadashi with Khaparde, even while Sai Baba was inspiring Upasani to study this classic until he understood the meaning fully.

There is a discrepant statement, from the same sannyasin writer, referring to a three year novitiate (1911-14) of Upasani, “during which there was daily, hourly, or even perpetual contact, seen and unseen, with [Sai] Baba.” (82) This complex phase evidently created departures from the norm, in a context that Shama and Dixit did not experience.

According to 1950s Narasimhaswami, Upasani was not familiar with Advaita, the reason being that he had been reared to the Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja. This argument is misleading. The same writer’s earlier book Sage of Sakuri informs that the liberal Vishishtadvaita family of Upasani professed Advaita doctrine. Upasani was more amenable to the bhakti disposition than most Advaitins. We know that he had studied the Panchadashi during his literate career as an Ayurvedic doctor at Amraoti (CIC:200-201). His revived interest in this text may be attributed to Sai Baba. The faqir of Shirdi did not teach Vedanta, but evidently wanted Upasani to develop a fresh insight into the Advaita format of philosophy. This directive was an extension of the injunction to live quietly and “do nothing” at the Khandoba temple.

During his early period at Shirdi, Upasani continued his habit of mantra japa. He used stones to count a hundred chanted mantras at a time. One day Sai Baba arrived on the scene while Upasani was arraying the stones (the location is not stated). The faqir asked the purpose of the stones. When told, he kicked the stones aside in disapproval. Sai Baba is reported to have said: “Who asked you to do all this? Keep quiet. Do nothing.” (83) This report does tally with the known aversion of Sai Baba to mantra repetition, which he evidently considered simplistic, and a barrier to deeper experiences. Narasimhaswami views mantra japa as a typical shastri or pundit practice. (84) To “keep quiet” at the temple entailed a reversal of some high caste habits.

At the mosque assemblies in 1911, Upasani was astounded to find that Sai Baba allusively referred to events in his own life which only he [Upasani] knew about. These references were delivered in what other listeners could interpret as parables. Because of these disclosures, Upasani would shed many tears (he was quite a rugged man, not the emotive type). “He was now fully complying to each minute wish of Sai Baba with due regard, totally surrendered to his authority.”  (85)

Upasani wore only a ragged loin-cloth (dhoti), having no money to buy clothing. His travel bag was stolen. When his brother Balakrishna sent a new cloth, someone stole this also. Balakrishna Shastri at last located Upasani in late December 1911. At Khandoba’s temple, the salaried Professor of Sanskrit found a very ascetic situation far removed from the pundit milieu.

According to the 1950s pracharak, Upasani told Balakrishna that he did not understand what Sai Baba was doing in his case. (86) Narasimhaswami attributes two brief sentences to Upasani. On this basis, the Madras sannyasin assumes that Upasani was inclined to forget the disclosures of Sai, believing that nothing was being done by the faqir. More reliably, we know that Balakrishna first went to the mosque, where Sai Baba tersely directed him to Khandoba’s temple. The visitor complied, finding his brother living inside the building. Upasani said “that he was remaining there by Baba’s order and that he saw very little of Sai Baba.” No other conversation between the brothers is reported by Balakrishna in the interview of 1936.  (87)

Turning to a much earlier report, the Shirdi Diary of Khaparde, we find that Balakrishna’s meeting with Sai Baba in the mosque had additional content. The faqir made a reference to “people bringing ties with them from a former birth and meeting now in consequence of them.” The date was January 1, 1912. Afterwards, Khaparde encountered Balakrishna at Dixitwada. We may regard the diarist’s testimony as reliable. Khaparde had formerly met Balakrishna at Poona and Amraoti. Balakrishna left Shirdi very early the next morning.

Several days later, an astrologer from Dhulia arrived, being a guest of Upasani, but briefly staying in Dixitwada. Upasani was present at the cremation of Megha Shyam on January 19, 1912. He must therefore have encountered Sai Baba, who was conspicuous on that occasion. At the end of the month, on January 28, Khaparde visited Upasani at the Khandoba temple and “sat talking with him.” The diarist does not mention the content of conversation. However, he was seeing Upasani every day at his Vedanta study group, and quite accustomed to speaking with the temple occupant.

Upasani was probably sad when Khaparde departed from Shirdi in mid-March. The link between these two was fairly strong, and resumed years later, in a different (and positive) mode.

At some uncertain date, Sai Baba told Upasani to cease attending the mosque assemblies (possibly because of the frictions created by jealous devotees). However, they still met frequently during the Lendi walk or “procession.” The Lendi walk was a favoured juncture for devotees to catch a glimpse of Sai Baba; the lucky ones could then briefly converse with him.

Sai Baba did not act like a guru; he did not discourse in the accepted manner. He did not “teach” people in the way they often expected. His discreet comments to Upasani were not generally known or comprehended. Upasani evidently adjusted to this form of guidance, even though during his first year at the temple, the future must have seemed very uncertain to him. Narasimhaswami dogmatically asserted that Sai Baba’s method was “totally unintelligible” to Upasani, a phrase which the commentator also attributes to the temple dweller. This judgment seems arbitrary. The missionary commentator also remarks that Sai Baba “seemed to be totally indifferent and not doing anything like an ordinary teacher or guru” (LSB:398). However, there is some evidence that Sai was not indifferent.

Upasani’s wife Durgabai died in early February 1912. One version says that Upasani expressed no sorrow at the demise. (88) Whereas the agitating account of Narasimhaswami affirms that this event was a serious blow to the temple dweller. “He thought that life was useless without his wife.”  (89) This report is not convincing, savouring more of the insidious sannyasin preferment to view Upasani as a grihasta voluptuary.

More realistic is the following episode.  When a letter arrived for Upasani containing news that his wife was seriously ill, he took this communication to Sai Baba, asking permission to visit Durgabai. The faqir refused permission. The words of Sai Baba are recorded as: “You had better remain [here]; you can do nothing there.” (90)

On February 6, 1912, news of Durgabai’s death was received by Upasani, who then went to Sai, asking permission to leave (apparently for the funeral). The faqir consoled him with the assurance that the soul of Durgabai had come to him (Sai), attaining the highest goal. Thereupon Upasani took ten rupees to Sai Baba, requesting him to use the money to confer sadgati on Durgabai (possibly by means of a rite). The faqir returned the money, saying that his grace had already been granted. Sai also made a remark to the effect of “whatever was not necessary for the disciple had been taken away, and that what was necessary had been given.” (91)

These events confirm that Upasani was still visiting the mosque precincts in early 1912, at least in moments of urgency. Furthermore, there is a recorded episode, relevant to the mosque, dating to “the first quarter of 1912,” when Sai Baba again made Upasani smoke the tobacco pipe. The faqir was very allusive on this occasion, telling his disciple that he [Upasani] had to plant many trees. Upasani asked if he should plant small tulsi trees next to the Khandoba temple. Sai did not approve of this suggestion, saying that Upasani had to plant trees enduring for many centuries, from which people could derive benefit. The faqir then advised the planting of fourteen pippal trees. Upasani objected that there was no space at his temple for a number of large trees. The disciple commented that he did not understand the injunction. Sai Baba responded that he would eventually understand, “without any words of explanation.”

At this juncture, Sai again made Upasani smoke the tobacco pipe, despite the aversion of his high caste disciple to that action. The faqir then communicated words reported as follows: “Whenever I come to you, do give me tobacco and chilim. You must burn tobacco. The more you burn it, the more of people’s sins will be burnt off. Go and sit in the temple. You are God’s slave” (NSS:120).

Upasani was baffled by this message. For one thing, Sai Baba never went to the Khandoba temple. Over twenty years later, Narasimhaswami ventures an explanation of the reference to pippal trees; however, he admits that the enjoined burning of tobacco to destroy sins was a mystery to him. One could surmise that, in return for the breach of high caste rules, Sai Baba was exhorting his disciple to a particular spiritual function capable of eliminating sins (or sanskaras). The earlier reference to a “gold plate grant” strongly hinted of unusual abilities. The employment of allusive “pipe” speech may have served to bypass or bewilder resisting tendencies of jealous devotees within earshot.

21.  “See  me  in  all  creatures”

After moving to the Khandoba temple, Upasani went to the home of Dada Kelkar for meals of rice. This high caste devotee of Sai Baba was prominent at Shirdi. Kelkar was the father-in-law of Hari V. Sathe, a revenue official and Sai devotee who had constructed the Sathewada at Shirdi a few years earlier. Sathewada served a similar hostel function to Dixitwada. The Sathe family were sympathetic toward Upasani, contrasting to reactions associated with Dixitwada. Kelkar and Sathe were two of the “big men” at Shirdi; they evidently grasped that Sai Baba’s declaration of a “gold plate grant” had to be taken seriously.

Subsequently, an arrangement was made for grains to be sent from the homes of Kelkar and Bala Sonar to the Khandoba temple, where Upasani commenced to cook his own food made from flour and vegetables. He was assisted by another brahman devotee of Sai Baba, namely Govind Kamalakar Dixit (not to be confused with Hari Dixit).

On the first cooking occasion, the temple dweller conceived the idea of gifting Sai Baba with a plate of food. While the food was being prepared, a large and hungry black dog looked on near the temple entrance.  This animal, although ignored, followed Upasani part of the distance to the mosque. The walker intended to feed the dog on his return, but changed his mind on the way. He then looked around for the dog, which had disappeared.

When Upasani came before Sai with his gift of food (naivedya), the faqir laughed and declined the offering. Sai Baba asked why the disciple had taken the trouble to bring food in the hot sun. The faqir stated that he had been present while the food was being cooked, watching from the doorway. “You should have spared yourself the trouble of coming here by offering me the meal there.”

The perplexed visitor insisted that only a black dog had been visible at the temple. Sai Baba responded: “Yes, I was that dog.” The faqir refused to eat the food because he had not been fed at the temple. He firmly told Upasani to deposit the food in a hollow of the mosque wall outside, apparently reserved for general consumption. The visitor shed tears at his folly. He now remembered that Sai Baba had formerly asked him a pointed question: If he (Sai) came to the temple, “will you recognise me?”

Upasani then quickly returned to the Khandoba temple, eager to find the black dog. The brahman cook told him that the dog had left the precincts when he did. (92) There are several other episodes on record in which Sai Baba favoured the feeding of hungry stray dogs, so often neglected by caste society. In the case of Upasani, a sequel event was perhaps even more revealing.

On the following day, the temple dweller was determined not to repeat his mistake. When cooking the meal, he looked especially for the black dog. That animal was going to be lavishly feasted. However, much to his disappointment, no dog could be found. Later, Upasani saw nearby a shudra beggar (apparently ill, possibly a leper), who was leaning against a wall and watching the food being prepared. Such proximity was not tolerated by orthodox codes; brahman activity was above the lowly, food could easily be contaminated by inferiors. Upasani accordingly told the shudra to go away.

When he afterwards took a meal to Sai Baba, the faqir was very angry. “Yesterday you did not give me food, and today you told me to go away.” In response to a query, the faqir said: “I was standing there leaning against the wall, and you told me not to stand there.” Upasani now had to assimilate the extent of deficiency in his culinary observances. When he asked if Sai was the shudra, the egalitarian mosque dweller replied: “Yes, I am in everything - and even beyond. Wherever you may look, I am there.” Upasani was very repentant at his continued failure. (93)

Sai Baba is known to have told other devotees that he was in the dog or pig that they fed, or failed to feed. His policy towards low caste people and untouchables was notably inclusive; these categories were welcome at his mosque. A feature of his exhortation is reported as: “See me in all creatures.” (94)

Upasani Shastri had suffered a double blow to his caste complex, which did not recover. He lost his sense of exclusiveness as a brahman. He now grasped that Sai Baba exercised a very open-handed policy at the mosque, leaving in the courtyard some food for animals (collected from his begging round). Not long afterwards, at the Khandoba temple, Upasani commenced to throw food out for wild boars. This was another category of animal to which Sai Baba extended sympathy. Boars could be found on the village outskirts.  By that time, Upasani was not eating. He now gave all his food to animals.

A female devotee called Durgabai would continually bring meals for him. Upasani would tell her to give the food to the wild boars who roamed nearby. As a consequence, these animals would often come close to Upasani and Durgabai, as if they were pets.

On many occasions, Upasani would sit with the boars in mud. Once while he was thus engaged, a wealthy visitor arrived and bowed to him from a distance. Upasani remarked that the visitor was bowing to the boars; his meaning was self-depreciatory.  He was less than a boar. The visitor then came nearer, placing a bundle of rupee notes near the feet of Upasani. The ascetic responded by tying the wad of notes around the neck of a boar. The animal then moved away, along with the gift. Upasani was indifferent to the money.

On another occasion, a she-boar appeared at a neem tree near the Khandoba temple, whining in pain because of her litter. The animal was in a helpless condition. Upasani found that the boar passed out in pain, her litter only half outside her body. Upasani slowly and carefully removed the baby boars, and afterwards bathed the mother. This she-boar recovered, afterwards moving about freely with her young (DSS:237-238).

22.  Dixitwada  and  Abstinence

The period of independent cooking at the Khandoba temple ended after a few months, when the prominent devotee Hari S. Dixit (Kakasaheb) insisted to Sai Baba that Upasani should have meals at Dixitwada. Upasani’s assistant (a brahman named Govind Kamalakar Dixit) was included in the offer. Hari Dixit persuaded Sai Baba to endorse this arrangement.

Dixitwada, Shirdi (early photograph)

Kakasaheb was the owner of Dixitwada, a spacious new building at Shirdi, becoming a favoured rendezvous of affluent brahman devotees from the cities. This hostel rivalled the earlier Sathewada, a nearby edifice contributed by Hari Vinayak Sathe.

In the summer of 1912, a food crisis occurred for the temple dweller. About the end of June, Shama informed Upasani that a telegram had been received from Kakasaheb, who was then in Bombay (apparently still working as a solicitor). This communication stated that meals given to Upasani and his friend should be stopped immediately. The local hostility had evidently become persuasive. Upasani was shocked at this development. He vowed not to take meals at any house in the future.  (95)

According to a 1930s account, the cessation of free meals arose from “the intense jealousy” created by the situation in which Upasani was favoured by Sai Baba.  Upasani was told of the telegram while he sat eating at Dixitwada. This event is described as an “utter humiliation” by Narasimhaswami. Upasani stopped eating and would have no more food. He expressed scorn for the new decision, knowing that a bias was involved. Returning to the temple, he is said to have vowed never to taste food again, resolving upon total independence from cantankerous devotees. In the events that followed, Sai Baba intervened at times, giving the instruction that Upasani should take a little food. However, long periods of abstinence apparently occurred (NSS:73-74).

A later version by the same commentator reports that the manager at Dixitwada (whose identity is not supplied, but apparently meaning Shama) communicated the new ruling to Upasani at a meal, in the presence of other devotees. Upasani emphasised that dependence on meals from others created servility, resulting in an unsatisfactory situation. He fasted severely for two or three days afterwards. (96)

The earlier accounts have a more severe outcome. The fasting was longer than a few days. Upasani stopped going into the village and ceased talking to anyone. He was still fasting rigorously after two weeks. During the second week, Sai Baba complained to the devotees around him that he was hungry. His refrain was: “I am going without food and water, yet there is none who would care for me!” This was perceived by some attentive listeners to be a reference to Upasani; Sai Baba himself was not fasting.

Another devotee of Sai Baba, called Bhai, was also a supporter of Upasani, as distinct from those who “were full of envy and were inwardly continuing to burn with jealousy towards [Upasani] Maharaj.” On the fifteenth day of the latter’s fasting, prompted by the mutterings of Sai Baba, Bhai took a cup of milk coffee to the Khandoba temple. Upasani refused to drink. Bhai told him that Sai was continually making remarks such as: “I am dying of hunger.” These disclosures had been decoded to mean Upasani.

The ascetic spoke to the attentive visitor, suggesting possible outcomes of his sojourn at the Khandoba temple: (a) within four years he would expire, but meanwhile he must live apart from the confusing world of men as a renunciate in the temple (b) Sai Baba wanted some “secret task” completed via himself as an instrument, and thereafter he would return to the world (c) at the end of his stay in the temple, Sai would entrust him with a vocation. (97) This appears to be the gist of what Upasani really thought at this period, as distinct from the brief negative remarks attributed to him by Narasimhaswami, who never met Sai Baba.

The abstinence continued. The temple dweller became known as Upavasani, a form of pun on his real name, meaning the man who fasts. However, this situation of refusing food is not straightforward. Several different accounts are involved. He later explained that food became abhorrent to him, that he was unable to eat. This was because his state of mind altered acutely. Even before the crisis at Dixitwada, dating to late June 1912, his distinctive mystical experiences commenced at the Khandoba temple. Those experiences deepened thereafter, and eventually proved overpowering.

The nine month retreat of Hari Dixit had apparently ended recently. This solicitor devotee appears to have regarded Upasani as a major rival in retreat honours. There is actually scant comparison in retrospect. Dixit conducted his retreat in a comfortable upstairs room at Dixitwada, with none of the drawbacks found at the Khandoba temple. Hari Dixit lacked the ascetic intensity of the temple dweller, remaining a householder with property assets.

Dixit probably commenced his retreat soon after Upasani moved to the Khandoba temple in 1911. The convergence in timing is too strong to discount. Sai Baba instigated both of these retreats. The faqir was very aware that Dixit resented his (Sai Baba’s) elevation of Upasani. This may be the reason why both of the “rivals” were adroitly placed in retreat. A major difference is that when the retreat of Dixit ended, the retreat of Upasani was only just starting to gather momentum.

Hari Dixit was accustomed to a role of social prominence as a Bombay solicitor. A member of the Bombay Legislative Council, he was also associated with the Indian National Congress. He did not think that Upasani was important compared to himself, evidently believing that he was more deserving. Dixit even contested the judgment of Sai Baba about the evocative “gold plate grant” conferred upon Upasani. The faqir had pointedly confronted Dixit on this issue. However, the jealousy remained.

In Shri Sai Satcharita, Dabholkar realistically informs that only a bare minority of (named) devotees were silent in the presence of Sai Baba. He does not name Dixit in this respect. One of the three silent men was Ganesh Khaparde, who, despite his learning and political prominence, showed humility in the presence of a saint. “All the others used to speak out, some even argued with [Sai] Baba, without any reverence, fear, or awe” (DAB:445).

The diary of Hari Dixit attests that he developed a partiality for stories of cures spread by devotees. In contrast, Upasani Shastri was not a typical devotee, being unusually resistant to lore of cures and miracles. Unlike Dixit, he did not desire prominence. He proved this when he left Dixitwada in late June 1912, thereafter commencing a solitary form of prayopavesha, wishing to escape the afflicting mentality of elite devotees.

Upasani did not desire to be a successor of Sai Baba; that mantle was thrust upon him by the faqir quite unexpectedly. Upasani was not even concerned to preserve his life. However, he scrupulously abided by the instructions of Sai, living very quietly and “doing nothing” at the incommodious temple. The latter half of 1912 is largely obscure, the profile of Upasani receding into silence, “crazy” responses to intruders, and strange mystical experiences. Very few tangible dates emerge for this period.

Unlike the personnel at Dixitwada, Sai Baba did not forsake Upasani. He subsequently gave instructions to a woman named Durgabai Karmakar. She was a brahman widow, having come to stay in Shirdi with her young son Raghunath, resolving to spend her life in the service of Sai Baba. At a critical juncture, the faqir entrusted to her the duty of tending Upasani. (98) She took this task very seriously, proving totally committed. Durgabai possessed stamina and tenacity. She needed both of these attributes in her new assignment.

In Talk 192, Upasani informs that he was spoon fed at this period with khajura, a syrup-like paste made from palm dates (GT, 3:147). The frequency of feeding is not known. However, he says that the food revived him. This development may explain how he managed to survive at that very difficult time, however sparing his intake may have been. The relevant 1920s discourse has been generally neglected. There was apparently an earlier female assistant who gave up in defeat because of his resistance to feeding.

Upasani had been told by Sai Baba to sit quietly and do nothing. So he closed the temple doors and lived in a retiring manner. Nevertheless, more visitors converged on the Khandoba temple. Some were supporters like Bhai and Durgabai, others were merely curious, while his detractors came with the intention of teasing him. Upasani is reported to have requested unwanted persons to stop their visits, although few paid heed in this respect. He was thus a focus of unwelcome attention. He started to throw stones at intruders.

His prescribed role of “living quietly, doing nothing” is not duly explained in the pages of Sai pracharak Narasimhaswami, who opted to depict Upasani as proceeding largely on “rationalistic lines” of the type occurring in the purohit (priest) home of his grandfather (LSB:397). There was nothing rationalistic about the experiences which befell Upasani at the Khandoba temple. He strongly veered away from the role of a priest or a pundit.

AUTHOR: Kevin R. D. Shepherd. For continuation see Upasani Maharaj, Radical Rishi Biography (2)


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



(1)  DSS:40-41. This Gujarati work was written by Behram (Behli) J. Irani and edited by Sohrabji M. Desai, a Parsi scholar and poet. The original was published at Bombay in 1923 under the title Sakori na Sadguru. Along with two other versions in Urdu and Marathi, the book was instigated by Meher Baba, who wanted a reliable record created. This trilingual celebration was unique. These works were the first to make Upasani Maharaj known to a reading public (SBM:89). They preceded the more compact and better known work by Narasimhaswami, entitled Sage of Sakuri, by over a decade. The Marathi version, translated from the core Gujarati text and adapted by Madhav Nath, was entitled Sadguru Upasani Maharaj Yancha Charitra (Bombay 1923). That book did gain some recognition; however, the two companion sources were for long obscure. The Desai version seems to have been mainly read by Zoroastrians, who were the intended audience. The Urdu version is still very little known. Regrettably, I have not been able to consult the Urdu version in any format. Even the work by Dr. Shantaram Tipnis (1966) does not list the Desai version or the Urdu version in the bibliography. These early presentations cannot therefore have existed in the Sakori ashram library.

(2)  DSS:40-43; NSS:3-4. The traditional brahman curriculum has received rather differing assessments. This form of education included “a great training of the memory which is developed from a young age” (Filliozat 1991:171). With the exception of logic, Vedanta philosophy was an optional subject, varying according to school affiliation. Only a section of the brahman class accomplished a deep study of Vedantic texts (ibid). The complete traditional studies “are long and engrossing” (ibid:172), being compatible today with learning English. However, Sanskrit studies deteriorated during the twentieth century, mainly because secular vocations captured high caste attention (see Michaels 2001). In the nineteenth century, there was some competition from Christian mission schools, where the Bible took precedence. At the Christian colleges, established in India by missionaries, education in medical sciences, law, and European languages was also emphasised (Srivastava 2000:42). Both girls and boys were taught in the mission schools. These institutions lost favour with the Government after the Sepoy rebellion of 1857-58. Missionary ambitions were curtailed when British secularists and non-Christian brahmans became school inspectors. However, mission schools continued to thrive in the larger provinces such as the Bombay Presidency and Madras (ibid:46-47). Large numbers of boys attended mission schools, especially in the Madras zone, partly because many untouchables (harijans) became Christian converts. A major influence in Bombay for nearly fifty years was John Wilson (1804-1875), a Scottish missionary who pioneered education for the low castes. Wilson mastered Sanskrit and other languages, becoming a leading “orientalist” scholar. He “attracted a few high caste Hindus and the first Parsi converts to Christianity” (Mohan D. David, “Wilson, John,” in Anderson 1999:742).

(3) DSS:45-46. Gopalrao is reported to have endured the refractory behaviour with composure and laughter. By that time, it was evidently too late to administer correction, as the young pundit was achieving social prestige.

(4)  DSS:44. On this same occasion, the host of the wedding event told Upasani: “You are the sibling of a lion and a day will soon arrive when you will become a lion” (ibid). Cf. Shepherd 1986:84.

(5) DSS:51. Resistance to alchemy was traditional amongst brahmans. For many centuries, the priest class had opposed the transmutation of base metals. Several reasons were involved, including an aversion to counterfeit gold. Erring goldsmiths who assisted this trend risked the punishment of a severed limb. Furthermore, the claim of alchemical transmutation challenged sacerdotal primacy and the declared efficacy of sacrifices. The priests viewed alchemists in the light of a threat to their power. The brahmans also resorted to an argument that alchemy was non-Vedic, and therefore impure. As a consequence, “no theoretical or philosophical foundation for the subject was ever created” (Rajas 1990:105-106).

(6)  DSS:53. Govindrao is credited with about a hundred students in the Sanskrit language. His early grounding in grammar was apparently a strong factor in this development.

(7)  DSS:60. Cf. Harper 1972:36, who comments: “The result of his strange actions was that he was both pitied and scorned by those around him.” Cf. NSS:10, emphasising that Upasani was fascinated by tapas, japa, mantras, pranayama, and fasting. The boy learned about these subjects from legends found in the Epics and Puranas. The use of mantras was a daily event at his home in Satana, where his grandfather apparently conducted “rites for curing ills” (ibid). The same writer says that Upasani was able to dissociate from the body, for a time believing that the objective was “dying nobly,” meaning by the discipline known as prayopavesha (ibid:106).

(8)  DSS:446-450. Cf. LM:87-88. Different details are supplied in these accounts. According to Kalchuri, Upasani discovered that the widow was not a witch but a “lover of God” (ibid:88). Kalchuri attributes to this contact a personality transformation in Upasani, who thereafter became averse to externals. Cf. SBM:60. The precise date of this episode is elusive. The Desai version refers to Upasani as being twelve years old at the period under discussion. There is no firm chronology for his early years.

(9)  LM:88. The single chapter account of Upasani by Kalchuri is part of a much longer work on Meher Baba, which underwent an extensive editing process. The Reiter edition of Lord Meher, published in America, repeatedly attributed the multi-volume work to Bhau Kalchuri. This is not accurate, because the Hindi original of Kalchuri was translated and amplified into English by a Parsi, with much editorial work and additions following on from Western contributors. The subsequent online edition reflects an ongoing editing process. The customary devotee attribution of twenty volumes to Kalchuri is misleading (the actual number of volumes was thirteen). The Reiter edition remains relevant to ascertain formative content. Insofar as Upasani is concerned, the chapter on this figure in the first volume of Lord Meher is perhaps basically the work of Bhau Kalchuri (d.2013), who became one of Meher Baba’s mandali in 1953. Kalchuri himself never met Upasani Maharaj, although being in contact with persons (amongst the mandali) who had done so, especially Adi K. Irani and the silent Gustad Hansotia.

(10) NSS:12-14. Cf. DSS:63-65. There are differences in the reports. Desai indicates that a period of about one year elapsed between the marriage and the decision to depart. Cf. PPM:27, stating: “When scarcely twelve years of age he resolved to relinquish the shelter of his parents’ home and to lead the itinerant life of a monk.” The account by Charles Purdom was the earliest to appear in the West, with the exception of Paul Brunton’s brief cameo of Upasani, which is far less reliable. See note 340. Cf. LSB:384, stating that Upasani was married at the age of fourteen; a date of 1883 is here calculated. Cf. GLS:2, stating that the subject’s age was twelve at the time of marriage. This would tend to support the Purdom version.

(11)  DSS:68. These practices included sandhyavandana, a simple brahman ritual performed three times daily at sunrise, noon, and dusk. This observance varies between different communities of brahman. Sandhya generally includes Vedic recitation of shlokas and mantras, prayers, and also pranayama (breathing). The Gayatri mantra is salient. The hands and feet are regularly washed. Some brahmans follow the Rig Veda, others the Yajur Yeda.

(12)  DSS:70-73. Cf. LM:89, a brief version describing the departure in terms of Upasani employing “the pretext of going out to study some medical book.” This appears to be a confusion with the later occurrence in which Upasani tried to avoid an arrangement for his third marriage. According to another source, Upasani “often fled away from home” in the pursuit of God-realisation (CIC:21). A more graphic version is supplied in GLS:2. Elsewhere, in his 1950s Life of Sai Baba, Narasimhaswami asserted that none of the “later ramblings” were “worth mentioning” except the Borghad (Boorkhad) episode in 1890. This contraction fails to mention the notable episode of sadhana at a Shiva temple near Poona.

(13) DSS:74-79, an account covering, in further chapters, the benefactor episodes involving the distribution of puris to a thousand mendicants over a period of forty days. The figure of a thousand is perhaps exaggerated. Many needy persons evidently came to hear of the distribution, in a situation involving “the violent shouts and gossip of such penniless mendicants and beggars” who congregated at the Omkareshwar temple (ibid:89). Cf. NSS:18, for a very brief account stating that the benefactor was a lady at Rashtapeth.

(14)  DSS:94. The relevant word madhukari refers to the practice of collecting alms by sannyasins. Some ascetics were accordingly known by the designation of madhukar. In former times, Hindu society regarded the almsgiving as a household duty; indeed, the visiting ascetic could be fed before the family ate their own meal. However, this custom has since lost popularity.

(15)  DSS:96. According to another source, when the traveller left Poona, he encountered “a sadhu Brahmachari” who impressed upon him the need for celibacy and worship of Shiva (NSS:19). Upasani was already committed to celibacy. He does not appear to have been specifically Shaiva or Vaishnava in his early years.

(16) There are variations in the reporting. The compact account of Godamasuta implies that Upasani made the decision to return home when he approached Nasik. The account of Purdom is very brief, while Kalchuri is notable for omission. In contrast, the Desai version is detailed. Desai inserts a rather lengthy speech into the mouth of the low caste Maratha woman. Narasimhaswami, who identifies the location as Kalyan, renders the Marathi verse as: “Maintain life even on water. Love God. Endure your lot. Bear misfortunes. Should fortune smile, reject her. Burst the bonds of desire. Forsake not saintly company” (NSS:19-20).

(17)  LM:89. This brief and poetic commentary (by Kalchuri and his editors) assumes that, at Bhorgad, “death seemed the only solution.” More complex is the remark: “His turmoil was profound; he was desperate for God” (ibid). The context of prayopavesha is missing.

(18)  DSS:107. Cf. NSS:22, saying that Upasani perceived the forest below to be unfrequented, an advantage for his purposes; he passed two days and nights “waiting for death,” but on the third day commenced a silent japa of sacred names. Then he “entered into samadhi, with loss of consciousness of time, space etc.”

(19)  LM:89, stating that Upasani spent nine months in the Bhorgad cave without food and water. The only concession some critics will make, to this severe prospect, is that Upasani must have utilised earlier falls of rainwater in the cave. In an earlier work, I met this scepticism by commenting: “The period he spent in the [Bhorgad] cave is variously said to have been many months, nine months, and one year. That seems to exaggerate the critical condition of long duration in which he lacked food and water” (SBM:63). It is possible to live without food for a long time; lack of water is a greater problem. Upasani is said to have concluded that he must have spent “many months” in the cave (NSS:25). According to the same writer, the fast occurred for “an unknown period” (LSB:385). Tipnis makes no reference to any duration (CIC:21).

(20)  NSS:23-24. Cf. Harper 1972:38. Cf. DSS:111. Cf. LSB:385, which has the words: “Why do you wish to die? We will not let you die! We are behind you.” Cf. LM:86.

(21)  Thirty years later, in 1920, Upasani again climbed Bhorgad, this time with two companions. He subsequently revisited Bhorgad in 1932, at the request of some devotees, who wanted to make a pilgrimage there. He agreed to travel by car from Sakori to find the cave (kapari); he was accompanied by Godavari Mataji and two men. The cave then proved inaccessible, because the crucial tree allowing access had died. The rocky gradient was very dangerous. Upasani warned that nobody should try to climb the slope. A procession (dindi) from Sakori to Bhorgad occurred annually from 1934 to 1941. Upasani visited this mountain once again in 1935 for a few hours (SSS:62-63).

(22)  DSS:112-120. By comparison, the Narasimhaswami account in Sage of Sakuri is vestigial and understated, implying that Upasani stayed in Gawalwadi for a month. The interlude with Bhils has an anthropological interest. The Bhils were, and are, a substantial tribal (or adivasi) population found in northern Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. In Rajasthan, many of them were formerly soldiers (in the service of maharajas) who subsequently settled in rural villages. In Maharashtra, the rural Bhil community is found in the regions of Dhulia (Dhule), Nasik, Jalgaon, Aurangabad, and Ahmednagar.  Their language is Bhili (Bhilori). Bhils are sometimes defined as settled agriculturalists who formerly lived in forests. Bhili is one of the 43 languages currently spoken in Maharashtra. The Bhils are bilingual, speaking Bhili and Marathi, and also other languages to a much lesser extent (Singh 2004:XXXIII). The Bhils show considerable local variation in customs, traits, and language; illiteracy was prevalent amongst them as a consequence of isolation from caste society (Mehta 2007:1,19). Although Bhils are recognised as the oldest living inhabitants of India, there is no unanimous opinion about their origins; they are sometimes described as forest aboriginals (ibid:2). Father S. S. Thompson published a Bhili grammar in 1895; his analysis concluded that eighty per cent of the Bhili words derived from Sanskrit. The Gujarati basis of Bhili dialects has also been emphasised (ibid:13). In Bhil society, women enjoyed more freedom than in Hindu society, a drawback being that they worked very hard and for long hours (ibid:18). Long before anthropologists, the early British administrators and Census officials investigated the culture of tribal peoples in India (Singh 2004:35). In 1827, the Essay on Bhils by John Malcolm appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society of Great Britain and Ireland. A century later, the first systematic ethnographic commentary on tribes in the Bombay Presidency was published, namely R. E. Enthoven, Tribes and Castes of Bombay (3 vols, 1920-22). See also Berger and Heidemann 2013:243-244, 248-255, on the Bhils of Rajasthan.

(23) NSS:25, states the date as 22/07/1890. Following suit is LM:90. Cf. Deshmukh 1962:3, who gives 1900 for the date of seclusion at Bhorgad, which is clearly an error. The Life Sketch, by Godamasuta,provides an anomaly in stating that Upasani left home for Poona “about the middle of 1890.”

(24) DSS:121-134. Cf. GLS:5, stating that Upasani “returned home at the end of the marriage season,” and that he “chose a girl.” It is not clear exactly how he felt about his new wife. However, he was evidently disposed to take the marriage very seriously.

(25) Deshmukh 1962:4, for a brief reference only. Cf. PPM:29, stating that Upasani stayed in Sangli at a Dattatreya temple for two and a half years, describing him as “leading the life of a devout monk.” Cf. LSB:386, relaying that Upasani was coached “in Ayurveda and Sanskrit grammar under Sangli Venkataramanachar.” Cf. GLS:5.

(26) PPM:29. Cf. NSS:28, stating that Upasani created his dispensary with the assistance of G. S. Khaparde, who later became a Dewan Bahadur and a member of the Council of State. This dispensary is described as having a branch at Nagpur. The same source reports that Upasani maintained practices of puja, japa, parayana, pranayama, and the study of books like the Rama Gita and Panchadashi (ibid). He occasionally gave religious lectures (ibid). Narasimhaswami describes him as a pundit, although this role was evidently a secondary factor to his medical career.

(27) DSS:135ff, 145-148; LM:90-1; CIC:200-201; GLS:6. Some think that the most significant influence upon Upasani at this period was the Bhagavad Gita. Amongst the other texts he read at Amraoti was the Bhagavat of Eknath. This detail reflects part of his encounter with the sant tradition of Maharashtra.

(28) GLS:6-7; NSS:32; LSB:386; LM:92; SBM:64. Desai does not refer to the Gwalior phase, and nor does Deshmukh. The action of Upasani in becoming a landowner was by no means unusual for his caste. “The medieval literature is full of accounts of the Brahmans who deviated from their priestly functions and took up moneylending and commercial activities to earn money” (Singh 2004:LIV). The same commentary includes a finding that deviation from traditional occupations was “more the rule than an exception” (ibid).

(29) DSS:152. This account (along with Tipnis and Godamasuta) does not mention pranayama, in contrast to Narasimhaswami and also Balakrishna Shastri, the academic brother of Upasani. Balakrishna reported in an interview that Upasani “had contracted some strange disease in the course of his efforts at pranayama” (NDE:229). This interview (dating to 1936) informs that Upasani could not lie down in case his breathing stopped. The same report relays that the sufferer could not get sleep. Cf. GLS:7, stating: “While he was sitting in a state of Samadhi in the adjoining forest, consciousness suddenly returned to him with the result that he suffered from terrific respiratory stress, and became unconscious.”

(30) LSB:387, informing that, at Omkareshwar, Upasani “tried to practise Pranayama himself.” In an earlier work, the same commentator stated: “Consciously or unconsciously, the doctor revived his old practice of breath control” meaning pranayama (NSS:33). In contrast, Deshmukh affirms that “Maharaj had not been practising Pranayama or any other yogic practices” (Deshmukh 1962:4). I was influenced by that version in Gurus Rediscovered, pp. 88-9, but subsequently revised my assessment (SBM:64-5). The matter is not straightforward. Deshmukh attributes the problem to a successful meditation and “his first experience of Samadhi,” without being more descriptive. According to Desai, the problem started when Upasani was “just about to begin his ascetic practices” (DSS:152), a factor which would fit preliminaries in pranayama rather than samadhi. According to Tipnis, Hatha Yoga (and Raja Yoga) was given little importance by Upasani in his later years. In his Talks, the Sakori ascetic referred to pranayama in a cautioning manner, saying that “it is decidedly more dangerous” to do pranayama through the basic and popular exercises known as purak, kumbhak, and rechak. This process refers to inhalation of breath, retention, and exhalation. Upasani was here recommending kubadi as a safer resort (CIC:113-114). The autobiographical reference in Talk 117 says: “I never practised any of these things,” meaning Hatha Yoga exercises, which might mean after the initial adventure in Yoga practices. Upasani here refers to pranayama as “rather a difficult and harmful procedure if done improperly” (GT, 2:497). He recommends the practice of kubadi as an alternative, avoiding asana and pranayama, saying this recourse can help lung diseases or digestive problems. The kubadi is an implement that fits into the armpit and rests on the ground.

(31) LSB:387. Cf. NSS:33-34, reporting the episode in terms of the primary respiratory apparatus appearing to be paralysed. “Instinctively he began to move other muscles and parts of his body, and breathing was started.” To maintain the breathing, he had to exercise “the other muscles connected with his breathing – and a strange groaning or whining sound marked this forced breathing” (ibid).

(32) DSS:153. This early version gives the impression that Upasani returned to Amraoti (Umravati) “to be rid of solitude” and adapt again to city life.  A temporary respite from the breathing problem apparently occurred.

(33)  DSS:156. Narasimhaswami does not mention this episode.

(34)  DSS:157, referring to the subject’s “newly devised effort-demanding bellow-like breaths.” See also NSS:34-35, stating that the breathing problem often recurred at Nagpur, forcing Upasani to “breathe very quickly and with noise to ensure respiration.” The problem was not constant, but continually pending. Even when he was normal, the sufferer was subject to a continual fear that his breathing and heartbeats might suddenly stop. Upasani could not sleep, gulp solid food, or evacuate his bowels. As a consequence of these afflictions, he was greatly weakened (ibid).

(35)  DSS:157-159. Cf. NSS:35, which does not mention Dr. Joglekar, though providing supporting details. According to this version, because the breathing problem “had arisen from his efforts at pranayama,” some doctors expressed the opinion that no disease was involved, but instead “a suspension of respiration, and perhaps even circulation, which is achieved by the biggest experts in Hatha Yoga” (ibid). An attendant assumption was that the breathing problem did not need treatment and would correct itself. Upasani was evidently exasperated by the devastating achievement credited to him. In later years, he expressed a critical view of Hatha Yoga procedures. However, he also conveyed in retrospect that his breathing trauma was related to a process of sushumna activation, a subject that is not generally understood, and one attended by extensive misconceptions. The indications are that Upasani was not afflicted by a disease, but something more difficult to describe.

(36)  DSS:159-163. One version of Dhulia events says that a partisan of Yoga told Upasani that his ailment was not a disease, as many thought, but “a sure sign of high spiritual attainments” (CIC:23). The same man advised Upasani to visit a Yogi for further progress. This might represent a confusion with Kulkarni Maharaj, a subsequent contact at Rahuri. Another report says that Upasani “consulted many a Yogi,” and also visited “Doctors, Vaidyas, Hakims in various places” (GLS:7). He also consulted “Bapusaheb (Bapu Shah) Avalia,” an obscure encounter (ibid:7-8). The coincidence of name does not necessarily mean that this man was Bapu Shah Jindewali, alias Jawahar Ali, a Sufi figure of Ahmednagar (see Shepherd 2015:106-110). Bapusaheb responded to Upasani’s predicament by saying: “What is wrong with you? What more is to happen now? You are free. Go anywhere” (GLS:8). The visitor could not understand these remarks.

(37) LSB:387. The earlier version of the same commentator is a little more detailed, informing how Kulkarni was convinced that the Gauri Somnath temple had granted Upasani an advanced stage of Yoga amounting to the deepest samadhi, in which breathing and circulation stop. Kulkarni assured Upasani that his sushumna had been activated without any effort on his part, and that he had achieved what other Yogis lacked, without any systematic practice of Yoga (NSS:37-38). The same report says that when Upasani heard the words awliya and Sai, he knew that a Muslim was being recommended. Dr. Tipnis states more categorically that Sai Baba “was a Moslem saint” (CIC:9, 24), here summarising details from Dabholkar’s Shri Sai Satcharita.

(38)  DSS:165. There appears to be a similarity with an event very briefly described in Talk 78, referring to a forest which Upasani chose to inhabit in desperation. This event does not seem to closely match his earlier seclusions in a Shiva temple and the Bhorgad cave. The forest situation is undated, a recurring problem with a number of reminiscences, including those found in UL and NSU.

(39)  DSS:165. This earlier account does not have the Yoga accents found in Narasimhaswami. Upasani is here described as desiring a natural death in the Jejuri jungle, where he stayed for “about six months.” The implication is that poisonous snakes were viewed as a potential means of natural death. Desai refers to the “skeleton-like body” of the jungle-dweller (DSS:167), which is not surprising if he really stayed that long. However, a duration of several months would mean that the dateline of April 2011 is wrong in relation to his move from Dhulia. A duration of several weeks is more readily explicable in chronological context. Cf. PPM:30, mentioning “several days” in the jungle. When Upasani emerged from the jungle, he managed to reach Jejuri village, where a brahman recognised him as a high caste person. Upasani stayed with this local householder for “about a month,” needing recuperation. Upasani asked his host for boiling hot water to drink; the host also made him drink fresh warm milk (DSS:168). There is no reference to the old Muslim at the stream, mentioned by Narasimhaswami; however, this factor is not thereby ruled out in the converging reports.

(40) LSB:388. At a later date, Sai Baba disclosed to Upasani that he (Sai) was the person who cured the breathing ailment by prescribing the remedy of hot water (LSB:397).

(41)  DSS:171. This report includes the visit to a local Shiva (Shankar) temple, which had an underground cellar. While his companions were afraid to enter the dark cellar,  Upasani descended without any lamp. The party were surprised to find that the cellar was then illuminated. When Upasani emerged from the cellar, the light disappeared. This semi-miracle story perhaps tended to provide support for local veneration of him at Shupe. Cf. PPM:30, for the same episode. Upasani was certainly fearless in some moods. He had overcome the common aversion to snakes, which were a constant danger in the Jejuri jungle.

(42) Narayan was born to a brahman family in Mysore State.  He is said to have been only nine years old when he renounced the world as an ascetic. His early travels as a mendicant are obscure. The date of birth for Narayan Maharaj is uncertain. This has been stated as 1885 (e.g., LM:20). However, an earlier source gives the date in terms of “approximately 1855” (Stevens 1957:65).  Cf. Sathe 1984. Narayan eventually gained many devotees, becoming strongly associated with Dattattreya worship. He established an ashram at Kedgaon Bet, a small agricultural village. The Kedgaon guru worshipped a marble statue of Dattatreya, the focus of an elaborate temple constructed at his ashram. Elements of a Dattatreya hagiology are discernible in the biography (LM:20-47). During his earlier years, Narayan visited the pilgrim city of Gangapur, sacred to devotees of Dattatreya. See also Natu 1977:110-117, informing: “Hundreds of religious functions were arranged at Kedgaon and meticulously performed, quite in contrast with the activities around Hazrat Babajan and Tajuddin Baba” (ibid:113). Narayan does not appear to have encouraged belief in miracles. He “always instructed his devotees not to pay any heed to the supernatural events around him; he insisted, through simple talks to them, on the importance of Nam Smaran – wholehearted repetition of the name of God” (ibid:116).

(43) DSS:154-155. The elevated seat of Narayan Maharaj had his name conspicuously emblazoned upon it. Narayan deliberately frustrated this ennobling gesture of devotees. When Narayan and his companions sat on the ground, Upasani could not tell which one was the guru. “Not even in his wildest dreams had he thought that such a situation would have to be faced” (ibid:154). Eventually, someone garlanded Narayan, the only clue to his identity. The report informs that the Kedgaon guru gazed intently at Upasani. Afterwards, Narayan passed the garland to Upasani and told him to occupy the seat of honour. The assembly was astonished at this departure from protocol. Upasani was also amazed, but did not dare to contradict the instruction.  The gathering dispersed after about half an hour, when Upasani likewise departed. For two more days, Upasani was able to gain sight of Narayan, before the latter departed to another city. Upasani acquired a photograph of the saint, which he included amongst the revered objects employed in his daily worship (ibid:155).

(44)  PPM:31. Cf. DSS:173. Cf. GLS:8, reporting the words of Narayan as: “What are you roaming [about] for? What is remaining now? You are all the same within and without.”

(45)  DSS:174. Cf. LSB:388, referring to Narayan Maharaj as “a famous Datta Upasaka possessed of marvellous powers.” According to the same writer, Upasani was asking for assistance with his health, i.e., his breathing ailment. Narasimhaswami affirms that the blessing of Narayan “pushed” Upasani to Sai Baba. In his earlier work, the same writer says that Narayan told Upasani “there was no need to come again and visit him, and that Pandit’s business had already finished” (NSS:40). By a process of association, Narasimhaswami sometimes referred to Upasani as a pundit; this is not an accurate description.

(46) PPM:31. The variant translations are in evident convergence. The original language appears to have been Marathi.

(47)  LM:95; DSS:174, referring to the Yogi’s recommendation of no delay in going to meet “the personified Allah, Khuda, the holy Vali [Wali] Moslem fakir Sai Baba.”

(48)  DSS:199. Cf. LSB:388, which has Sai Baba saying: “I shall see what I can do.” Cf. NSS:40, relaying the words: “You seem perplexed. Well, go if you like. I will see what I can do.” Such differences of wording are common in the sources, but often do not greatly affect the meaning.

(49)  Deshmukh 1962:5-6, describing Brahmachari Bua as a saint, also informing that Upasani stayed for a few days in a temple at Kopargaon, apparently meaning the Dattatreya temple.

(50)  LSB:389. In his earlier work, this commentator relays that the first instruction of Sai Baba to Upasani was a laconic “Go and stay in that house,” meaning Dixitwada. The new disciple now yielded in “docile obedience” (NSS:43, 48).

(51)  Major transmitters of miracle lore were Das Ganu and Narasimhaswami. The book Sage of Sakuri implemented this trend in the chapter on Sai Baba, referring to cures and miracles with evident enthusiasm. The well known chamatkar of mosque lamps burning with water is included, also stories of wives gaining a child. Meher Baba was averse to this trend; he criticised Sage of Sakuri in that respect. Narasimhaswami also includes the visit of a British Revenue Commissioner and his wife, who are here said to have arrived at Shirdi (with Indian officials) for “direct demonstration” of Sai Baba’s powers. “Far from encouraging the visit,” the faqir made the prestigious visitors wait at the chavadi while he went out to beg. When they became impatient, Sai continued the delay, not feeling disappointed at their resultant departure (NSS:47-48). Cf. SBI:120-122, for the same episode concerning Sir George Seymour Curtis.

(52)  This anecdote was relayed by Mani S. Irani (d.1996), sister of Meher Baba and one of the mandali at Meherazad ashram. The episode was commemorated on a video, via a talk by Sohrab and Rustom Irani, sons of Beheram Irani (brother of Meher Baba). Such anecdotes were pooled in mandali memory at a much earlier period, deriving from the 1920s and before. The original mediator of this anecdote could have been Gustad Hansotia, a Parsi who personally witnessed Shirdi mosque events at the end of Sai Baba’s life (SBI:272-76; Shepherd 2017:170-172).

(53)  NDE:193, from the testimony of Shama recorded in 1936. Cf. NSS:53, relaying that Upasani feared his breathing problem might revive and kill him. Sai Baba then commented reassuringly: “This place is not for death (maran) but for salvation (taran).”

(54)  NDE:193; NSS:72. The accommodation at Dixitwada was evidently not free of charge; Upasani must have possessed a small amount of money when he arrived at Shirdi, the remainder being given to Sai Baba as dakshina.

(55)  Deshmukh 1962:6. The account by Dr. Deshmukh (a professor of philosophy) originally appeared over twenty years earlier in The Meher Baba Journal, only a few years after Narasimhaswami’s first book on Upasani gained publication.

(56)  Deshmukh 1962:7. This account says that the dakshina offering occurred “a few days” after Upasani commenced his stay at Shirdi. Different reports are contradictory in this respect.

(57)  LSB:397. According to Sage of Sakuri, after Upasani had been living some weeks at Shirdi, Sai Baba remarked that all accounts of Upasani had been settled “except two or four cartloads.” A little later, by August 1911, the faqir commented that the settlement had been finalised, the result being that Upasani must remain four years at Shirdi (NSS:54).

(58) LSB:397. In respect of “accounts,” complexities of dakshina requested by Sai Baba, would seem an affiliated subject. However, the particular focus on “accounts,” in relation to Upasani, is unique in Shirdi annals.

(59) Deshmukh 1962:7, referring to Sai Baba allusively revealing many things about the life of his new disciple. These disclosures would occur before the daily performance of arati at the mosque.

(60) DSS:204. Such a fast was easy for Upasani, whose general consumption had always been abstemious. The meals at Dixitwada did not suit him (NSS:53); no further details are supplied.

(61) Deshmukh 1940:17; Deshmukh 1962:7; Shepherd 1986:96. For some distinctive references of Upasani himself, in relation to the Khandoba temple phase, see GT, 3:253ff. The relevant Talk 215 is entitled The Glory of Khandoba. According to Narasimhaswami, Sai Baba used the words Khandoba (avatar of Shiva) and Vithoba (a form of Vishnu) “indiscriminately, because all gods were one to him.” The explanation is proffered that this latitude “was probably the excellent result of his being trained in monotheistic Mahomedanism in his earliest and most impressionable years” (NSS:55).

(62)  NSS:55. This author has a number of quotations relating to the year 1911 at Shirdi. There is a broad convergence between several writers, attesting to a basic record achieving variations in translation. Sage of Sakuri includes an impartation of Sai Baba to Upasani: “Have nothing to do with anybody. Your future is very excellent. No other has such a fine future” (ibid). Narasimhaswami does not have the same statement appearing in the earlier Desai version; however, the convergence of subject matter is basically obvious.

(63) DSS:200, relaying that the mind of Upasani was “filled with thoughts about his family members and their related affairs.” However, these connections “modified as if being pulled away from him one after the other.”

(64)  Deshmukh 1940:17; Deshmukh 1962:7. The 1940 rendering of Deshmukh has the words: “I will reach you straight to where I want to reach you.” The 1962 American reprint was slightly edited. The Deshmukh version refers to a “gentleman from Bombay” who asked if Sai Baba had really given everything to Upasani. The Shirdi faqir replied strongly in the affirmative. The Bombay devotee was Hari S. Dixit. The Deshmukh account does not give any adequate idea of the frictions involved in these events.

(65) DSS:204, stating that on this occasion, Shama at first pleaded on behalf of Upasani for departure; the episode is apparently the same one covered by Deshmukh. Narasimhaswami does not have the key statement, but does report the attendant comments. He informs that “several older devotees” were present on this occasion; these men were averse to what Sai Baba was saying (NSS:55). We know that one of the objectors was Hari Dixit.

(66) DSS:204. The reference to Upasani, as not being of the same caste, is a clear acknowledgment that Sai Baba was not a brahman. The reference to a copper plate signifies a status medium well known at that time, featuring commemorations and honours acquired. Mention of a plate does not mean a domestic utensil.

(67)   DSS:205. The adamance of Sai Baba on this point did register with some of his followers. Some years before, the devotee Hari Vinayak Sathe had asked the faqir if he would have a successor. Sai Baba responded: “Will there not be some man coming in tatters?” (LSB:427). In 1911, Upasani Shastri “came in tatters” (ibid). The prediction was interpreted as a reference to Upasani, who appeared at Shirdi in ragged clothing after his recent breathing problems and fraught travels.

(68)  LSB:399. The prabhu from Bombay was Hari Sitaram Dixit, alias Kakasaheb, a solicitor who was now a prominent devotee at Shirdi, and whose opinion was often sought by the others. Dixit (Dikshit) is known to have reacted to Upasani, apparently regarding him as a rival. The background context to this emerging situation is very relevant. In 1911, Dixit stayed for a lengthy period in Shirdi, becoming conspicuous at his new dwelling known as Dixitwada. He retained a room on the first floor of Dixitwada for his own use. At the instruction of Sai Baba, he observed a form of retreat in that room for about nine months. This was not a literal seclusion, because pilgrims continued to visit Dixitwada and stay there. Saraswatibai, the perplexed wife of Dixit, came to Shirdi, wondering what was happening to her husband; she was not allowed upstairs at Dixitwada, those quarters being reserved for male visitors. Sai Baba tactfully conciliated with the distressed wife, telling her not to worry. Via Shama (who was generally the intermediary in so many situations), the faqir relaxed the retreat discipline by granting the unhappy Dixit special permission to attend the afternoon arati at the mosque, and also to dine there. Eventually, Dixit was allowed to sit near Sai Baba at the time of the mid-day meal. This was considered a great privilege. At some uncertain date, Sai gave Dixit a kafni to wear while he was in Shirdi, an event prompting a very loose (and misleading) description of the solicitor as an ascetic. Different reports exist about Dixit’s solicitor role; Sai Baba did not advise him to terminate his professional career (Shepherd 2015:178). In his memoranda, Dixit informs that, after moving to Shirdi, he resolved not to eat dinner for the rest of his life. Sai Baba did not approve of this idea about abstinence; instead he told Dixit to eat food. The devotee accordingly abandoned his vow. It is obvious that Sai did not want Dixit to become an ascetic. In contrast, the situation of Upasani became markedly ascetic, a factor fully endorsed by Sai Baba. The Diary of Kakasaheb Dixit, composed from 1909 onwards, is only partially extant, the original being lost (NF:142). This document includes events associated with the power of udi (sacred ash from the dhuni) and related episodes of cure.

(69)  Deshmukh 1962:7. Cf. GLS:8, providing a variant of the words as: “I have given him [Upasani] all I have. Whatever he be, he is mine. There is no difference between us.” This version adds that all the devotees of Sai Baba turned against Upasani, who had no alternative but “to patiently submit to all the troubles and privations caused by them.”

(70) LSB:399. Cf. the commentator’s earlier work Sage of Sakuri, reporting that Upasani replied: “I have no skill in such matters” (NSS:56). This wording is replaced in the Life of Sai Baba by “I do not know, Baba.”

(71)  LSB:399. The interpretation is forced. The reported admission of incompetence in such abstruse matters is no proof of an emotional dependence upon kin.

(72)  NDE:193, here relaying the 1936 testimony of Shama.

(73) NSS:66-67, referring to the chilim of Sai Baba as a “tobacco pipe.” The 1950s diarist Kishan Singh (associated with Meher Baba) also used the words “tobacco pipe” in this context (Singh 1975:4), when describing (in 1954) the chilim of Sai Baba preserved at Sakori ashram. Dabholkar’s Shri Sai Satcharita and Dixit’s memorandagive equivalent descriptions. See SBI:114-115; Shepherd 2017:65. A mistaken confusion with opium appeared in the Reiter edition of Lord Meher (page 64). This attribution was subsequently revised in the online version; via email correspondence, the LM editor David Fenster described the attribution as a former (American) editorial error. See also Shepherd, Lord Meher Critique (online feature 2017).

(74)  See further Sontheimer 1989. Khandoba (also known as Khanderaya) is the most popular deity in Maharashtra, being worshipped by all communities, including Muslims (Singh 2004:LIX). Khandoba was exalted as Martand Bhairay (Martanda Bhairava), an incarnation of Shiva. There were also linkages with Vaishnava and Jain traditions. Khandoba even acquired a Muslim name, i.e., Mallu Khan. Khandoba “is eclectic, a much married god with wives from many communities,” the fifth wife being Chandai, a Muslim (ibid).

(75)  LSB:398 footnote. This commentator (Narasimhaswami) does not include relevant autobiographical references of Upasani, which serve to cast further light on the nature of events.

(76) DSS:201-203. The mistaken notion, that Upasani was a spy, apparently arose amidst fears that British government detectives had penetrated Shirdi. In his Shirdi Diary, Khaparde refers to a visitor at Shirdi who had “in his general conduct all the indications of a spy.” This man departed in mid-December 1911, after identifying himself as the friend of a Nagpur magistrate. Fears about spies in the village probably date back to Khaparde’s first visit to Shirdi in December 1910. As an associate of B. G. Tilak, Khaparde was strongly suspect in the eyes of the British Raj. On Khaparde’s Shirdi Diary, see Shepherd 2017:129-146. For political undercurrents and Shirdi Sai, see NF:53-71. Dr. Satpathy here supplies a British police report, dating to January 1911, which suggested that Sai Baba was an astrologer predicting the future (NF:64). This misconception was derived, via association of ideas, from Khaparde’s interest in consulting astrologers at his home in Amraoti. Those astrologers apparently told the politician that the British would have to vacate India by 1925. The British suspicion of Sai Baba as an astrologer was entirely erroneous. This faqir frequently discouraged people from consulting astrologers and palmists (SBI:23,299; Nimbalkar 2001:128). There is no evidence of nationalistic anti-British feeling in his communications.

(77)  DSS:243-244. The police inspector is reported to have prostrated on the ground before Upasani, an unexpected outcome for observers of this event. His party included a Muslim sub-inspector and a head constable. Upasani could become very dynamic in such episodes of confrontation. This police incident is difficult to date.

(78)  LSB:390. Hari Dixit is strongly implied in the sources as an aggravating factor. We know that Sai Baba did not always agree with the attitude of prominent devotees. For instance, Khaparde records in his Shirdi Diary that, on 23 December, 1911, there was a “meaningless disagreement” between Shama and his (Khaparde’s) own wife and son about accommodation in Dixitwada. The implication is that Khaparde’s family were being requested to lodge elsewhere. Sai Baba intervened in this situation by emphasising that Dixitwada belonged to him, and not to Dixit or Shama. “So the matter settled itself,” meaning that the guests stayed at Dixitwada.

(79) LSB:393-4. This weighted verdict clashes with the known details reported by Khaparde, whose Shirdi Diary has many entries describing the attendance of Upasani at his Vedanta classes. Those sessions occurred at Dixitwada (and elsewhere) during January-March 1912. In early January, Khaparde borrowed from Balasaheb Bhate a copy of Ranganath Swami’sversion of Yoga Vashishta. That book was in Marathi. Khaparde was soon reading this work with Upasani, Bapusaheb Jog, and K. J. Bhishma (others joined later, and eventually Balasaheb Bhate). This group were more literate than most of the other Sai devotees. Khaparde makes a critical comment on the selected text: “The book does not appear to sustain the impression it makes at first.” Dixit did not attend those sessions. Instead, Dixit gave regular readings (at Dixitwada) from the Bhavartha Ramayana of Eknath. Although familiar with Sanskrit, Dixit was not such an avid reader as Khaparde. By mid-January, Khaparde had moved on to Paramamrita, which he describes as “a very celebrated Marathi work on Vedanta.” Upasani actually did the readings, while Khaparde, Jog, Bhishma, and Rama Maruti listened. Khaparde says: “I give explanations whenever necessary.” The literate Mrs. Kaulgi also attended. In early February, this study group switched to the Panchadashi, which Khaparde describes in terms of: “about the best work on the subject [Vedanta] and none can take precedence of it.”

(80)  DSS:210-211. Khaparde commenced readings from the Panchadashi on 1 February, 1912, during the phase when his study group met at the home of Bapusaheb Jog. He then “explained the first ten verses which really contain the whole work in germinal form.” The Panchadashi is a text attributed to Swami Vidyaranya, an Advaitin of the fourteenth century. See further Swahananda 1967. To be more precise, the Panchadashi is variously attributed to both Bharatitirtha and Vidyaranya, two Shaiva Advaita abbots of the Shringeri monastery associated with the Shankara legend. The attribution of many texts to Vidyaranya is problematic (Clark 2006:203-204). The Panchadashi is often regarded as the most important of the post-Shankara treatises on Advaita. According to Deshmukh, Khaparde “felt an inner call to give to [Upasani] Maharaj discourses and explanations on Panchadashi" (Deshmukh 1965:32). Khaparde does not mention this matter in his Shirdi Diary. According to a very brief report by Narasimhaswami, Sai gave Upasani a copy of the Panchadashi, commenting: “This is our treasury” (Narasimhaswami 1999:61). See also Warren 1999:217. According to Kalchuri et al, Khaparde was sent by Sai Baba to read the Panchadashi to Upasani. The location here was apparently the Khandoba temple. However, Upasani had “little interest” in the text, and the reading stopped (LM:99). In his Talks, Upasani states: “Shri Dadasaheb [Khaparde] tried to teach me that great book Panchadashi, but I could never understand it. Hence whatever I am saying, I am doing so from what I have heard. Moreover, what I am saying is not mine; it is somebody else within who is speaking about these things. If you like, you can take advantage of this [i.e., learn from the words spoken]. Those that are qualified will understand what I am talking” (GT, 1:382-383). This idiom is perhaps deceptive, being an instance of Upasani’s abnegation tendency. He would make no claim to pundit knowledge, disliking the sense of authority so frequently exercised by his own shastri community. He would sometimes attribute his statements to some higher entity, or advanced faculty, that was distinct from his personality. Such tendencies were not typical of gurus. Furthermore, Upasani was often careful to inform that his inner knowledge derived from what he called sadguru kripa (grace of a sadguru), meaning Sai Baba in this instance. This factor was something quite different to concepts and themes found in texts.

(81) LSB:400. It is true enough that Sai Baba himself had no interest in the study of Vedanta. However, he evidently considered that such a study group was helpful to the more intellectual persons in his vicinity at that time. He did not talk about Vedanta to Khaparde, instead communicating to this visitor a number of parables (goshtis), certain of which the diarist found difficult to comprehend. These parables, requiring close attention, could be rich in allusion and metaphor. Ironically, the goshtis could be more demanding than some of the antique texts which Khaparde read, such as the Dasabodha of Raidas. Even Khaparde had difficulty with the Jnaneshwari, which he read in the edition of Sakhrebwa, observing in his diary that: “Unfortunately, like the other editions, it does not solve all my difficulties.” Other brahmans also found difficulty with this thirteenth century text, including the Sai devotee Balkrishna Deo (SBI:292-294). The Jnaneshwari is a thirteenth century Marathi commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, influenced by Vaishnava bhakti and Advaita.

(82) LSB:423. The contradiction evidenced by Narasimhaswami is substantial. In numerous other statements, this Sai missionary was suffering from the hindsight caused by his rejection of Upasani in earlier years, in circumstances which have rarely been adequately described.

(83)  LSB:400. Sai Baba never usually walked in the direction of the Khandoba temple. If he did actually meet Upasani at the temple, this was a special event.

(84)  LSB:400. “As every Shastri does, he [Upasani] also counted his mantra japa.” Narasimhaswami also asserts here that Upasani “was a total stranger to Baba’s methods” (ibid). This was at first true, but not for long. Readers have been led by Narasimhaswami to think that Sai Baba must have chosen the wrong man to become the recipient of “everything.” Narasimhaswami undertook extensive lecture tours throughout India for many years, as a declared apostle of the deceased Sai Baba, conducting what he called prachar or propaganda. Lecturing and propaganda were totally alien to the methods of Sai Baba.

(85) DSS:206. Such early commentary is ignored by 1950s Narasimhaswami, who invented his own distorted interpretation of episodes in this case history. The earlier contribution of the sannyasin, namely Sage of Sakuri, is far less strictured, although evidently unfamiliar with the Gujarati Sakori na Sadguru.

(86)  LSB:398, reporting Upasani as saying: “I do not understand what this Sai Baba is doing to me. It is totally unintelligible.” Upasani’s brother, Balakrishna Govind Upasani Shastri, was a Professor of Sanskrit at Poona. In late December 2011, the academic was trying to find his brother Upasani, who “had contracted some strange disease in the course of his efforts at pranayama.” During that crisis, Upasani could not lie down in case his breathing stopped. He had no sleep, nor good digestion. He left home, and the family had no trace of him (NDE:229). During the early phase of his stay at Shirdi, Upasani believed that he would die, still fearful of a resurgence of breathing problems. Narasimhaswami tends to confuse this matter with a more general pessimism that he attributes to Upasani.

(87)  NDE:229. Balakrishna Shastri here says that he returned to the mosque after arranging with a Sai devotee, Dada Kelkar, about food for Upasani. He refers to seeing Sai Baba on “the second day” of his visit, when the faqir again asked him for dakshina. Balakrishna had only enough money for his fare home. Sai Baba instead asked for his silver watch. The visitor complied, with “a momentary regret and hesitation.” Sai Baba then remarked to him: “You are not going to be worse off.” When the traveller returned to Poona, someone gave him a gold watch as a present (ibid:230).  Balakrishna says that he stayed in Shirdi “for one or two days.” The same same 1936 interview has other features of interest, including Balakrishna’s reference to “our (family) Mutt [math] founder, Shri Uddhava of Mulhare.” The overall testimony is relevant. For many years a professor in Sanskrit, Balakrishna Shastri was still regarded (in the 1930s) by some eminent persons as the final judge on matters of dharma (ethics). Some Indian rulers would refer questions to him which had arisen within their territories. Balakrishna was known as Madhu (honey) Shastri because of his “unfailing good temper, general smile, bland manner and suavity of speech” (NSS:5).

(88)  LM:100. According to another source, the news of his wife’s death “made him [Upasani] completely detached from the world” (Deshmukh 1965:32). The Shirdi Diary of Khaparde relates that news of decease arrived by letter on 6 February, 1912. Khaparde very briefly reports that Dixit, Shama, and himself “went to Upasani, condoled with him and brought him to the Wada [Dixitwada].” This version does not indicate whether Upasani was grieving. The temple dweller was regularly attending the Vedanta study group of Khaparde at that time.

(89)  LSB:423. The viewpoint of the author (Narasimhaswami) is here limiting to the point of absurdity. In his earlier work, the Madras sannyasin relates that, in the summer of 1911, Upasani wished to have his wife come to Shirdi. Sai Baba seemed to sanction the proposal, but nothing happened (NSS:61). Upasani was naturally concerned to include his wife in his latest activity. However, the Khandoba temple was no place for a lady; he probably reconsidered his plan on that basis.

(90)  LSB:422. Cf. NSS:62, informing that a week before the death of Durgabai, a letter arrived describing her illness; Upasani then sought permission to go to Dhulia to see her. Sai Baba declined the request.

(91) NSS:62. Cf. Rigopoulos 1993:186, citing from Narasimhaswami, Charters and Sayings, reporting the words of Sai Baba as: “Keep the money. She has already come to me. What [money] had to be taken from you has already been taken.” Rigopoulos states that Durgabai “died around the end of 1912,” which is incorrect; he refers to Upasani’s “hard sadhana of surrender, facing difficulties with force of character” (ibid).

(92) NSS:67-69; LSB:411. Cf. DSS:207-208. The episode is one of the most well known concerning Upasani at Shirdi, largely due to Sage of Sakuri, a widely read work achieving several editions. The author says that the date of the episode was probably October 1911.

(93)  NSS:69; LSB:411, referring to the beggar as a “sickly shudra.” These two reports are closely converging, but with some differences in wording. The related account of Desai is lacking the episode of the shudra beggar, but has several more details about the cooking situation.

(94)  LSB:411. To Mrs. Tarabai Tarkhad, the faqir said: “Sometimes I am a dog and sometimes a pig; sometimes I am a cow, sometimes a cat, and sometimes an ant, a fly, an aquatic creature – in such various forms do I move about in this world. Know, that I like only him who sees me in all the living beings. So give up the sense of differentiation” (DAB:143). This counsel occurred after the recipient had encountered a hungry dog and a pig, whom she fed with bread while staying in Shirdi.

(95)  DSS:212. The chronology here disrupts the statement found elsewhere that Hari Dixit was in retreat for nine months in 1912. That retreat must have started in 1911. This prominent Bombay devotee was getting short of funds, a factor which may have influenced the decision about terminating meals. However, Dixit was still a wealthy man by comparison with most people living at Shirdi. For instance, he owned three houses which he was able to retain for many years afterwards.

(96)  LSB:394. This late version of Narasimhaswami resorts to an argument that Upasani lacked faith in Sai Baba. “He could not understand how he was to get on at Shirdi without any funds and without any persons undertaking his feeding” (ibid). The Sai missionary (pracharak) fails to integrate data, while evidencing an obvious concern to justify “the big men” of Shirdi, meaning devotees like Kakasaheb Dixit. The reason for cessation of meals is here implied to have been a lack of respect on the part of Upasani for “the big men.” This may be considered a retrospective preference on the part of the 1950s Sai missionary. Nothing of the kind is mentioned in Sage of Sakuri.

(97)  DSS:212-214. Bhai was apparently one of the oral contributors to the information acquired (via Behli Irani) by Desai and Madhav Nath. Desai describes this man as “simple and honest,” also mentioning that Bhai was still alive at the time of writing.

(98)  Natu 1994:23. Concerning Durgabai (whom Meher Baba called Durgamai), Bal Natu relays: “Sai Baba gave her the duty of looking after Upasani when he was living in the Khandoba temple, between 1911 and 1914.” The precise date of her new assignment escaped record.