Little is known of the early years of Sai Baba of Shirdi. Even his name is unknown as Sai Baba is not an appellation in the usual sense. Sai is a term of Persian origin, usually attributed to Muslim ascetics, meaning holy one or saint. Baba, on the other hand, is a Hindi term attributed to respected seniors and holy men, and literally means "father". So the etymology of Sai Baba means "holy father", "saintly father".
To the question, "Baba, who are you? From where did you come?" he replied: "I am the Attributeless, Absolute, Nirguna. I have no name, no residence. He would also say the following: "I am Parvardigar (God). I live at Shirdi and everywhere. My age is lakhs of years. My business is to give blessings. All things are mine. I give everything to everyone. I am in Gangapur, Pandharpur, and in all places. I am in every bit of the globe. All the universe is in Me".
From a dualistic point of view, he would say: "I got embroiled by karma, and came in a body. So I got a name and an abode. The Dehi, that is, the embodied, is my name; and the world is my abode. Brahman is my father and Maya is my mother. As they are interlocked, I got this body. The world is evanescent, mutable."
Sai Baba, from his very first appearance and throughout his life was commonly identified as a Muslim. The name Sai contributes largely to this.The main resons for Sai's indentification as a Muslim ascetic, at least in the beginning, were two: his dress style and the words he uttered not in Marathi or Hindi, but were Persian or Arabic. The few photographs and haiography tell us that Sai used to wear a long white robe, called kafni (or kaphan), and a white cloth around his head in the style of Muslim ascetics. Moreover, the term Sai Baba used for referring to himself was invariably faqir. This word, which literally means "a poor man" is commonly applied to Muslim mendicants who wander about subsisting on alms.
Mhalsapathi, perhaps Sai Baba's closest devotee in the early days, stated that Sai Baba had told him that he was a Brahmin from the village of Pathri, who had been entrusted to a fakir in his infancy. At the time of his demise (called samadhi in India), Baba supposedly said, "My fakir's wife left me with Venkusa. I stayed with him 12 years, and left. Venkasa had spent much of his time in pilgrimmages and performance of sacred rituals. He was rich and liberal and encouraged righteousness, piety and study. Unlike the majority of desh-mukhs and zamindars of the period who were known for cruelty and lack of moral values, Venkusa is pictured as saintly and very much in pursuit of his ishtadevata, his indwelling divinity. Young Sai is also reported to have said:
"For 12 years I waited on my Guru, who is peerless and loving. How can I describe his love for me? When he was dhyanastha (in meditation trance) I sat and gazed at him. We were both filled with bliss. I cared not to turn my eye upon anything else. Night and day, I poured on his face with an ardor of love that banished hunger and thirst.
The Guru's absence, even for a second, made me restless. I meditated on nothing but the Guru, and had no goal, no object, other than the Guru. Unceasingly fixed upon him was my mind. Wonderful indeed, the art of my Guru. I wanted nothing but the Guru and he wanted nothing but this intense love from me.
Apparently inactive, he never neglected me, but always protected me by his glance. That Guru never blew any mantra into my ear. By his grace, I attained my present state".
Individual worhship of Sai Baba slowly transformed to communal worship. Harathi (arati) songs (ceremonial song sung during waving of camphor flame) were written and submitted to Sai Baba for approval. A pujari (Hindu priest) came to Shirdi to conduct the rituals. He did not like the idea of worship of a fakir (he was a staunch worshipper of Lord Shiva), and went to another sacred place, Tryambakeshwar. After some time he fell ill, and decided his illness was due leaving Shirdi. He returned to Shirdi and became well immediately. He got convinced Sai Baba was Shiva. He conducted the rituals until he passed away.
The communal worship gradually increased. Hindu bhaktas at that time decided he had to be honoured as a true Maharajah. So the use of fans, clubs, silver umbrellas, and other paraphernalia were introduced into his worship. Decorations were also placed around the mosque and the chavadi. A palanquin with regal ornaments and a horse were used in processions to and from the masjid. Sai Baba accepted these new developments, imposed with enthusiasm by his Hindu bhaktas. He maintained a detached spirit, asking his Muslim followers to cultivate an attitude of tolerance and to avoid violence. Acceptance and tolerance were rendered, and violence was rare.
Arrival in Shirdi
Various sources agree that Sai Baba first arrived at Shirdi between 1835-1838, and stayed for some time, (some say for two months, some say for 5 years), perpetually seated in a asana (yogic) position under the neem tree. All sources agree that Sai Baba remained seated at the Neem tree. Thereafter, Sai Baba left and wandered for many years. He met with Chand Patil in a village named Dhukpeda, and Patil's son was being married; Sai Baba agreed to accompany the wedding party to Shirdi, where he arrived circa 1858, and was to remain there for another 60 years; Sai Baba never left Shirdi village.
There are reports that Sai Baba told his devotees that he had lived in Shirdi some 8000-10,000 years earlier. Also, there was one report that the pujari at the Khandoba temple was once possessed by the God who answered questions and told listeners to dig at a certain location. Upon digging, a large plate was found, and when it was lifted, a cave was discovered with lamps burning, and a holy shrine. Those who witnessed this covered the entrance up and worshipped there. It was the Vatan, the holy tomb (sometimes called samadhi) of Sai Baba's Guru, one Venkusha. When Sai Baba returned to stay permanently at Shirdi, all historical sources agree his only possessions were his clothes, his chillum (pipe) and a small staff. He had no pack of clothes or possessions.