Be United, Be Virtuous: Composite Culture and the Growth of Shirdi Sai Baba Devotion

Karline McLain, Bucknell University

Abstract

In one popular devotional poster the Indian god-man Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) gazes out at the viewer, his right hand raised in blessing. Behind him are a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque, a Sikh gurdwara, and a Christian church; above him is the slogan, “Be United, Be Virtuous.” In his lifetime, Shirdi Sai Baba acquired a handful of Hindu and Muslim devotees in western India. Over the past several decades, he has been transformed from a regional figure into a revered persona of pan-Indian significance. While much scholarship on religion in modern India has focused on Hindu nationalist groups, new religious movements seeking to challenge sectarianism have received far less attention. Drawing upon primary devotional materials and ethnographic research, this article argues that one significant reason for the rapid growth of this movement is Shirdi Sai Baba’s composite vision of spiritual unity in diversity, construed by many devotees as a needed corrective to rigid sectarian ideologies.