Mahalsaptis’ full name was Mahalsapati Chimnaji Nagare. He was a poor goldsmith known as the sonar community of Shirdi. His family were residents of Shirdi for several generations. The sonar community styled themselves as Brahmins and sometimes wore the sacred thread. Mahalsapati worshipped his heredity deity Khandoba (also known as Mahalsapati) and the Khandoba Purana was his Ramayana or Bible; he conducted a daily study of these scriptures.
Mahalsapati (left) with Sai Baba with a child and Shyama (right)
Every year he went on a pilgrimage of about 150 miles to the distant Jejoori carrying a Kavadi or palki along with a band (orchestra) to worship at the great temple of that deity. The full fruition of Malasa Bhakti resulted in his getting into a trance and in that state he made oracular utterances. He was Khandoba; perfectly pure, straightforward, righteous and truthful, for only such a guileless person can be favoured by God coming on in his body (Avesa). He was fairly detached from worldly desires.
The family had a scanty income from the voluntary offerings at their temple which went towards the temple maintenance; and all that he owned was a mud house in the village for residence, yielding no income, and 7-1/2 acres of land (evidently barren) without water supply, which also yielded practically nothing. The very old building outside the village, the Mahalsapati (Khandoba) temple, a poor mud structure, was dedicated to the public or to God. To eke out his living therefore he had the hereditary profession of a goldsmith. But in a poor village with very few houses and very few visitors, even this brought very little income. Mahalsapati was not much perturbed about it, being absorbed in his religious ideas and practices.
Though conservative he was not fanatical; he had no hatred of Muslims or men of other faiths. On the other hand, he and other friends of his own temperament - Kasiram Simpi and Appa Bhil, used to receive and help not only Hindu Saints such as Devidas, Janakidas, etc., but also fakirs when they visited the village or stayed there. Kasiram and Appa had some means, but poor Mahalsapati offered his services and zeal, and these three worked together.
It was Mahalsapati’s good fortune, due to Rinanubandha, that he had very close contact with Sai Baba for a very long period of time (nearly 50 years). It was in about 1872 that Sai Baba entered Shirdi village along with a ‘baraat’ (a bridegroom’s party of Muslims headed by Chand Bhai, Patel of the Dhupkeda (in the Nizam State). Then, Sai Baba separated from the marriage party close to the Khandoba Temple at the outskirts of Shirdi and reached the threshold of the Temple. Mahalsapati, who was inside worshipping Khandoba, noticed Baba's presence and, with usual civility and regard, invited him to sit. Mahalsapati saw Him and he spontaneously uttered ‘Aao Sai’ as if addressing Him by a name to the nameless.
When asked about it he fumbled and just said, ‘I do not know. It is as if Khandoba made me utter these words through cosmic inspiration.’ After a few minutes, the fakir Baba remarked, "how secluded and quiet a place is the Khandoba temple, best fitted for a Fakir to be in". It was then that Mahalsapati hesitated and protested against the proposal of a Muslim fakir residing inside the Khandoba Temple, which to him was unthinkable. Finding Mahalsapati's objection to be natural, Baba said, 'God is one for Hindus, Muslime and everyone else, but, as you object to my entry, I shall go'. So saying Baba went away and in due course started living in a dilapidated old Mosque.
The early days:
Baba, in His early days was far from understood by the villages and even Mahalsapati considered that, at times, he behaved like a mad mad. But, while others lost respect for Baba due to that, Mahalsapati always had a high regard for Baba. Anyhow, the occasionally crazy conduct was not very frequent and not great enough to prevent the esteem which the general conduct of Baba evoked in serious and thoughtful minds. Baba was an astute, ‘Vairagya Purusha’ (dispassionate incarnate) and never cared for wealth or women.
Mahalsapati, was himself highly detached and he could easily appreciate Baba’s virtues of purity and nonattachment and was drawn to Baba from His early days itself. Other people began to worship Baba only when they saw His psychic powers, for example, when he turned water into oil to light His lamps. But, Mahalsapati esteemed Baba for His virtues and compared Him to Devidas and Janakidas and other Saints of Shirdi whose company Baba kept. Among them, Baba shone brilliantly and even those Saints regarded Baba highly.
So, Mahalsapati and his friends considered Baba to be a Guru for themselves and Mahalsapati was the first in the group to worship Baba. He went to Baba’s mosque and placed flowers and Sandal on Baba’s feet or neck and then worshipped Baba and offered Him milk. Baba would not allow others to do even this; only Mahalsapati was allowed to do it. This developed later into a regular puja by the use of sandal paste and flowers on Baba's feet, neck, and finally on his forehead also.
Even after that, local magnates like Nana Saheb Dengle, who wanted to do Baba's puja, were not allowed to do so. Baba would tell them, ‘'there is the pillar in this Dwarakamayi (Mosque). Do puja to the pillar”. That of course, they did not care to do. Nana Saheb Dengle later requested the intercession of Dagdubhai, a constant companion of Baba and, encouraged by his words, did puja and became Baba's second worshipper, Baba gradually allowed others to do his puja, and then Baba's puja became a regular practice. Few realised the part played by Mahalsapati as the pioneer of Sai puja and the Sai movement.
Mahalsapati’s family life and his spiritual path:
Mahalsapati’s contact with Baba was on very close terms. He lost his only son in the 1880’s and had four daughters - Janakibai, Seetabai, Rakhumabai and Vithabai. Their grooms were from Asangaon, Dochale, Dorhale and Sei and he was disgusted with life. His land and his profession (that of a goldsmith), yielded nothing. So, he was ready for the orders of his own Ishta Devata, Khandoba and at times would get possessed and Khandoba would give him visions.