The Afterlife of Sai Baba

Competing Visions of a Global Saint

Karline McLain

  • Published: 2016. Paperback October 2018
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / South Asia; Anthropology
  • Bibliographic information: 278 pp., 11 illus., 2 maps, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: North American rights only
  • Series: Global South Asia
  • Contents

Nearly a century after his death, the image of Sai Baba, the serene old man with the white beard from Shirdi village in Maharashtra, India, is instantly recognizable to most South Asians (and many Westerners) as a guru for all faiths-Hindus, Muslims, and others. During his lifetime Sai Baba accepted all followers who came to him, regardless of religious or caste background, and preached a path of spiritual enlightenment and mutual tolerance. These days, tens of thousands of Indians and foreigners make the pilgrimage to Shirdi each year, and Sai Baba temples have sprung up in unlikely places around the world, such as Munich, Seattle, and Austin.

Tracing his rise from small village guru to global phenomenon, religious studies scholar Karline McLain uses a wide range of sources to investigate the different ways that Sai Baba has been understood in South Asia and beyond and the reasons behind his skyrocketing popularity among Hindus in particular. Shining a spotlight on an incredibly forceful devotional movement that avoids fundamental politics and emphasizes unity, service, and peace, The Afterlife of Sai Baba is an entertaining-and enlightening-look at one of South Asia's most popular spiritual gurus.
Karline McLain is chair and associate professor of religious studies at Bucknell University. She is the author of India's Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes.

"From ethnography to archive, from text to film, McLain skillfully weaves together the most comprehensive study we have to date of Sai Baba of Shirdi, convincingly situating the 'original' Sai Baba within the modern religious history of India, right where he belongs."
-Christian Novetzke, author of Religion and Public Memory: A Cultural History of Saint Namdev in India

"The first comprehensive academic book on the hugely influential Indian holy man, Shirdi Sai Baba, fills an important void in the scholarship."
-Hugh Urban, author of Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion


"Engaging and accessible. . . . A valuable contribution not only for its ability to fill a content gap in the study of modern South Asian religion, but for its successful use of this data to explore the inherent paradoxes that reformist spiritual movements face in such a context. Beyond scholars of South Asian and transnational Hinduism, the clarity and accessibility of this work will make it pertinent to anyone interested in the dynamics of modern religious syncretism."
-Anya P. Foxen, Reading Religion

"A welcome, long-overdue scholarly account of the development of multiple modes of veneration of Shirdi Sai Baba. . . . McLain's inviting and lively prose will appeal to a wide range of readers, including general readers interested in saint cults and religion, as well as to those with specialized interests in South Asian popular religion and history. . . . This book would be a wonderful text to use with university students in history, anthropology, and religious studies."
-Anne Elizabeth Hardgrove, Nova Religio