How do you identify a real saint? What are his essential qualities? We often commit the unpardonable blunder of mistaking a man behaving like God for a saint; whereas, in reality, it is the other way round. A saint is God himself trying to behave like a man. In other words, saints are the closest we come to God on earth, exemplifying the highest human virtues of kindness, compassion, piety and humility. Simplicity is another inseparable attribute of a saint. Shri Shankar Manik Prabhu Maharaj was an embodiment of all this and more.

He donned the exalted mantle of the peethadhipati of Shri Manik Prabhu Samsthan after the maha-samadhi of his Guru and maternal Uncle Shri Martand Manik Prabhu. The change of role from acting as the Secretary of the Samsthan to heading the spiritual mission of Shri Prabhu was not an easy one. It was indeed a challenging assignment that he accepted with all humility, and as the will of Shri Prabhu.

Shreeji was an example of how simple and unassuming a person on a high spiritual platform could be, unlike the gurus and god-men of today, who try to impress people with an ostentatious display of outward simplicity. Shreeji’s simplicity was grounded in his belief in humanity. Even though the exigencies of his office demanded a respectable distance between him and the common masses, he connected remarkably well with everyone around him – his family, his devotees and his associates in the administration of the Samsthan, in his own affable way.

As the guru and head of the Samsthan he interacted with hundreds of people on an everyday basis, making everyone feel equally at home. Stories of his social connect, of how he caringly nurtured a personalized relationship with all those around him are numerous.

The Deshmukhs of Krishnapur (a small village in today’s Telangana, tucked into the agriculturally prosperous lateritic plains surrounding Bidar) are among those families that came into the fold of Shri Prabhu Sampradaya during the time of Shri Martand Manik Prabhu Maharaj and remained inseparably attached to the Samsthan for generations. Anna Saheb and Nana Saheb were two brothers from the Deshmukh family of Krishnapur, who, through their sheer dedication for the cause of Shri Prabhu and his mission, had earned the love and affection of Shri Martand Manik Prabhu Maharaj. Both the brothers were enthusiastic volunteers for the Samsthan. Being roughly of the same age, and sharing his progressive vision, they became close companions to Shri Shankar Prabhu, assisting him in all possible ways and being with him in good and bad times while he worked as the Secretary of the Samsthan. In this way, they remained his closest confidants, both during his stint as the Secretary of the Samsthan and even after he took over as the head of Shri Prabhu Samsthan after Shri Martand Prabhu’s maha-samadhi.

It was a cold December night of 1941. In Maniknagar, the annual Datta Jayanti Mahotsava was drawing to a close with the Prabhu Jayanti Darbar in progress. Shri Shankar Manik Prabhu Maharaj was seated on the divine simhasan (spiritual seat) of Shri Prabhu. He was patiently meeting hundreds of devotees who were standing in queues for the whole night amidst the biting cold to have his darshan. In the middle of the darbar, a shocking news came that Nana Saheb Deshmukh of Krishnapur, who was not keeping well for some time, had passed away. This was an absolutely disturbing news for Shreeji, both personally and otherwise. Nana Saheb had been a pillar of support to the Samsthan and a very dear friend of his. The loss was unfathomable.

Shreeji somehow rushed through the celebrations and asked his personal attendants to prepare for his journey to Krishnapur the next evening after all the devotees and guests who had gathered for the Datta Jayanti celebrations had left Maniknagar for their homes. This, for the officials of the Samsthan, was not in keeping with the conventions, as they had not seen the presiding head of the Samsthan attend anybody’s funeral or visit anyone personally to pay his condolences. This would be a clear breach of protocol. A fierce discussion broke out between Shreeji and the muntazims of the Samsthan as to the propriety of his intended ‘personal visit’ to Krishnapur to pay his condolences to the bereaved family. But Shreeji’s resolve was as solid as rock. Nothing would deter him from changing his mind. Justifying his position, he said, “For me, people are more important than any rule or precedent. I am as ‘human’ as all of you. I too have feelings and emotions. Nana dedicated his life for Shri Prabhu’s cause. It would be grossly ungrateful of me not to be with the family in their hour of grief. Even Adi Shankaracharya broke his vows of sanyasa dharma to perform the last rites of his mother. So, please do not come in the way of my duty.” Nobody dared to counsel him further.

With a few assistants, such as Hanumant Rao muntazim, Nathraja of Sagroli, his personal attendant Ambaji and Driver Nabi, Shreeji drove straight to Zaheerabad in his steel-grey Hudson. As he crossed Zaheerabad and reached Ranjol, he was informed that the road ahead was not motorable as a small stream in the way, which did not have a culvert, was overflowing. This impediment too could not dampen Shreeji’s resolve. Dumping the car at Ranjol, he decided to walk the remaining distance. The Deshpande of Ranjol, who was also a devotee of Shri Prabhu, came up with necessary help like providing sticks and gas lanterns for this rather difficult mid-night trek. The Deshmukh family was speechlessly overwhelmed to have Shreeji in their midst to express his feeling of grief and solidarity. By day-break Shreeji was back in Maniknagar, again, to carry on with his duties as the head of the Samsthan. Words can never express Shreeji’s thoughtfulness.