In 1858, a spiritual ascetic arrived at the Indian town of Shirdi. He wore simple garments — body covered neck-to-ankle in an ivory-coloured Kafni. His head covered with the same fabric. He owned no possessions aside from a canvas bag, which held a beggar’s bowl. Still, his demeanour was mild, and he appeared content. Fast forward 60 years later, and this ordinary visitor became known to India as the miracle performing saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi.
“Mere Sai — Shraddha Aur Saburi” is part biopic, part mysticism. It traces the years Sai Baba spent in Shirdi. Set in the era of the British Raj, the show is laced with stories (fact and fictional) based around the lives of cult followers Sai Baba gained, including one of the youngest, Jhipri.
Jhipri: Her birth name is Jhipri — the name doesn’t mean anything in particular, — it’s a name given to the low caste children of India because the girl doesn’t have the luxury to share a name given to the girls of an upper-class family. This girl doesn’t have the luxury of respect. Jhipri lives with her mother in her side of the village (the slums) with all the other “untouchables”. They have a separate watering well so they do not “contaminate” the main water, which serves the “high-caste” individuals. Jhipri does not possess the equal right to participate in religious activity. If she were to challenge the system, she would receive punishment.
Every day, Jhipri walks past a school which teaches young boys to read and write. She walks past knowing she could never join them, but in her mind she is eager to learn, eager to understand, and eager to change the life she’s been born into. Sai Baba calls this “untouchable” child Lakshmi (Goddess of Prosperity, in Sanskrit). He gives her his time and his respect, just as he does to everyone else in the village. He helps her study so she can become a student at the school she admires. He tells her she can be whoever she wants to be.
In a country where nearly 21 million girls are born unwanted by their parents, the show counteracts the absence of women empowerment by giving precedent to strong female characters like Jhipri. And, Bayaza. Bayaza, another protagonist, is a woman who cannot bear children. Sai Baba “picks” this human to call “Mother,” and she accepts him as her own. She is later graced with a son she has birthed. Still, her love for both boys remains the same. Bayaza has a voice that is equal to every other male in the village, if not more. Her voice echoes louder the more she witnesses negligence and inhumanity. In her household, she is reminiscent of the woman from Proverbs 31: the woman that can and does it all. A quality not taken for granted by her husband.
On the opposite end, the show depicts man’s downfall through characters such as Kulkarni, a medicinal healer by ancestry. Here is a man evidently controlled by his ego. He makes decisions, principally based, on the best outcome for himself. His pride denotes women to a lower rank than men — discrediting all respect for his doting wife, who is, possibly the humblest of characters, and a woman who must downplay her intellect to allow her husband to shine. He considers his son to be meek. A quality he tries his hardest to shake off, unknowing that that very quality is what makes his son empathetic. Kulkarni is eager to be “in the know” with the British. He is eager to gain “responsibility” of his surrounding villages. He fulfils all wishes on their command. His ego will never let him recognise that he is a servant himself. When the town’s villagers look to Sai Baba for medicinal and general life advice rather than from himself, Kulkarni makes it his mission in life to get rid of Sai, by any means possible, without understanding the true reason the townspeople flock to Sai: he helps them without reward.
This show’s dialogue is interwoven with philosophical verse, which is impossible to argue with. Every event, every matter, every situation is laced with educative outcome. If you’re not from India, this educative message is along the same lines as the Tolstoyan outlook: “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity”. We serve God by serving mankind because we are all interconnected. A message which remains the same within Hindu scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita, and The Bible — “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” — Corinthians 13:13.
For the sake of non-religious teachings, this is the science on what love is: “You can’t survive on your own in the African Savanna, you can’t survive in the jungle on your own. So perhaps love or any other emotional attachment has been serving us to be good to each other, to be selfless sometimes, and to really take into account other people’s needs.”
The show is not simply created for religious devotees, as the stories are based upon moral reasoning rather than orthodox religious teachings, at points referencing the way atheists go about helping people. I.e.: actions are not undertaken because one will reap ‘God’s Reward’, but because it’s the right thing to do — A statement to help set us free from expectation yet leave us filled with gratitude.
There are undertones in the writing intended to relay the “Code of Life”, which essentially revolves around the will to do the right thing for the sake of our fellow humans. Suggesting that if we focus on being good, the right actions should follow naturally, much like Aristotle’s conclusion for the basis of his Virtue Theory. You’ll also find hints, whether intended or not, of Stoic philosophy. Like the conclusions of Zeno of Citium. In that how you choose to overcome what life throws at you defines your character. Because problems will always come our way, whether we believe in God or not. It’s the feelings of these problems that we possess, and these we pass on to others. Do you take your anger out on others when you are angry? This creates a chain reaction of angry humans. Similarly, if you act out of kindness, others will also reap its benefits.
The show poses ethical conundrums in the form of complex character situations to help us seek the depth of our own consciousness. Some of which include:
If we walk past starving children on the way to donate food to our place of worship, does God accept our donation?
If we build temples made from gold but our community reeks with poverty, is this place of worship considered holy?
Similarly, if our town priest offers Prasad to those who fund the temple and not to the needy, is that truly a holy place?
If you help someone with the thought that you may receive something back, is it done with true love?
If we love God but hate our fellow humans, do we truly understand this love?
If we start a family then leave them to “find” God, will we ever find Him?
If we put others down to raise our own status, do we belittle ourselves?
And then deeper:
Why do we choose to denote some humans over others when The Bhagavad Gita does not assume to segregate?
Why do we refuse to treat others the way we want to be treated and act out when we are recipients of injustice?
Why do we choose to ask, “why me?” when we suffer, but never when we are blessed?
Whilst the Bhagavad Gita teaches spiritual discipline, we should also look to develop our “Cardinal Virtues”: moral qualities that make a person happy. These can be found within philosophical works from Socratic philosophers. My favourites pieces come from Taoism and Sufism. These can be studied further.
The teachings of Sai Baba are intended to remind us of what it means to stand for righteousness. To embrace every faith without losing our own. To see every human as equal, whether rich or poor, right or wrong, young or old. Because when we look at the gender, the colour, the caste, the body, we don’t see the soul. We live in a society where we’re too busy satisfying our own needs we forget to value anyone else’s. We tend to seek glorification from the wrong kinds of people and idolise those without knowing them.
The show also reminds us that there is a goal. The search for Nirvana can be found. We can become content with what we have so we recognise we don’t need to compete, to fight, for more. Roman philosopher Seneca said it best: “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” This does not mean we don’t strive for, well, what each one of us defines as success, but if that success means we put people down, manipulate them, support wrongdoing, then that success is attained by feeding our ego, and not our soul. And like our bodies, we need to check in with our soul to make sure we’re keeping it healthy.
Sometimes we get tested by life: we lose loved ones, we battle illnesses, our money runs out, we overcome a multitude of challenges just to be faced with another. But maybe, just maybe, the one way we can get through this is with faith and patience. This can be faith in ourselves, in people we trust, in The Source; God, in the Universe, in Angels, in Krishna, in Allah, in Buddha, in Jesus. In something. So that we don’t give up so easily, and we don’t take out our misfortunes on others. Like Tolstoy’s saying “the two most powerful warriors are patience and time”, Sai is constantly seen telling his devotees to have faith and patience. And if sometimes people don’t think as morally as we do we shouldn’t judge them, we can only lead by example.
In the end, the only way to be truly moral is to make decisions without consulting the ego.
I’ll finish by saying this: when we engage in TV programmes like Mere Sai, we should be mindful that we don’t just watch and forget but we practice what we learn — otherwise it’s pure entertainment, and that shouldn’t be the only reason for investing time with the screen, especially not in today’s world.
Thank you so very much for reading. Much love.