Though we are richly rewarded when we investigate the leelas of Baba, in turning to his biography we are faced with a distinct dearth of material - very few facts can be confirmed. When questioned about his origins, Baba gave varying and enigmatic replies, which were sometimes even contradictory. One such exchange was with the local magistrate:
Magistrate: What is your name?
Baba: They call me Sai Baba.
Magistrate: Your father's name?
Baba: Also Sai Baba.
Magistrate: Your guru's name?
Magistrate: Creed or religion?
Magistrate: Caste or race?
Baba: Parvardigar (i.e. God).
Magistrate: Age, please?
Baba: Lakhs of years.
From this we may gather that Baba was in some way connected to the lineage of Kabir, the 14th century poet-mystic who was also a catalyst for bringing the Hindu and Muslim communities together. Once Baba said, "I was Kabir and used to spin yarn" (Kabir's trade was weaving).
We cannot be sure which year Baba arrived in Shirdi, nor how old he was, though it is usually estimated as being between 1864 and 1872, at an age of about thirty. Some biographers aver that Baba was born to poor Brahmin parents and entrusted to the care of a Sufi fakir as a small child. It is generally accepted that Baba came to Shirdi as the guest of a wedding party led by Chand Bhai Patil, who had encountered Baba when looking for his lost horse in the Aurangabad district (Nizam State). On arrival in Shirdi, Baba was hailed by Mhalsapati, a local priest, "Ya, Sai!" (Welcome, Saint). Mhalsapati had immediately recognized something saintly in the young fakir and he became, along with a couple of friends, one of Baba's first devotees.
Initially, Sai Baba stayed on the outskirts of the village of Shirdi, then under a neem tree for four to five years at the spot now called Gurusthan, before shifting to an abandoned mosque which later became known as Dwarkamai. Slowly his greatness was revealed and his fame spread far and wide, until by the end of his life he was attracting thousands of people to Shirdi. In the last decade of his life Baba was worshipped with all pomp and ceremony. This he appeared to tolerate, rather than welcome. The mosque was likened to a maharajah's darbar, yet Baba never changed his simple and austere lifestyle. To the end, he continued to beg for his food, wear a patched and threadbare kafni (robe), sleep on the floor and share whatever he had or was given.
Sai Baba did not found any religious order, institution, ashram or lineage, nor did he leave a successor or initiate anyone into formal sannyas. Baba blessed and served all, saying, "My treasury is open and I can give anyone what they want," though he added, "but I have to see whether they are qualified to receive my gift."
Baba took mahasamadhi in Shirdi in 1918. Today, the once insignificant village of Shirdi, now sanctified by Baba's presence, is a major centre of pilgrimage. People flock here in ever-increasing numbers to pay homage to the Divine and to experience the truth of Baba's promise that he would be active in answering our prayers even from his tomb. Investigating the place where Sai Baba lived and carried out his mission may be a powerful means of becoming more intimate with him. An examination of the stories and events that occurred at the places with which he is associated may kindle our love and understanding and draw Baba deeper into our hearts. Baba said that he was a slave of those who loved him, that he was ever living to help those who turn to him, and that he has to take care of his children night and day. In coming to Baba's Shirdi, we have come to the concrete source of such promises.