The guru Sai Baba has left India only once, yet his devotees across the world are estimated at up to 50 million. They worship him as a living god who, at the very least, can change people's lives and possibly even work miracles. But now his followers are bitterly divided by allegations that their guru has for years been systematically sexually abusing boy disciples summoned to his presence. By Mick Brown
DRIVING into town from the small Midwest airport where Carrie Young and her husband had met me off the plane, she pulled a large picture from the back seat of the station wagon. Framed in gilded-gold, the picture showed the couple and their three children posing with an elderly, chubby-faced Indian man with an ostentatious Afro haircut, dressed in a red robe. Staring out of the picture, it seemed the Youngs were shining with happiness. 'And to think,' said Carrie, 'this is the man we used to think was God.'
|Sathya Sai Baba: for years the subject of rumbling allegations of fakery, fraud and worse|
I had been with the Youngs for less than 30 minutes, but I had already decided - in the way you sometimes do - that I liked them, that they were what Americans call 'straight arrows': honest, decent and truthful. A handsome, clean-cut couple in their mid-40s; both worked in the computer industry. The past year, said Jeff, had been difficult, what with all that had happened, but they were pulling things together. Any experience offers potential for growth, he said; even one as traumatic, as unbelievable, as this one. The Youngs put a lot of value in growth.
A year ago, their son Sam had come to them with a shocking assertion: Sathya Sai Baba, he told them - the man the Youngs had revered as God for more than 20 years - was, in fact, a sexual abuser. Over the course of four years, in his ashram, while Sam's parents sat a few yards away - thrilled that their son should be in such close proximity to the divine, secure in their belief that the god-man was ministering to their son's spiritual welfare - Sai Baba was actually subjecting him to sustained and systematic sexual abuse. 'You'll meet Sam at the restaurant,' said Carrie. 'He's prepared to talk about this. He thinks it's important too.'
Sam was a tall, blue-eyed, dreadlocked boy with a look that could only be described as angelic. The Youngs ordered hamburgers and beer - a gesture, it seemed, almost of defiance; for the 23 years they followed Sai Baba the family were all strict vegetarians. For the next four hours, they told me the story of how they had come to Sai Baba; of their spiritual aspirations, the dreams, the visions, the miracles - and the nightmare their lives had turned into. And always, throughout the conversation, the same question repeated itself: how could it possibly have come to this?
For more than 50 years, Sai Baba has been India's most famous and most powerful holy man - a worker of miracles, it is said, an instrument of the divine. His following extends not only to every corner of the Indian sub-continent, but also to Europe, America, Australia, South America and throughout Asia. Estimates of the total number of Baba devotees around the world vary between 10 and 50 million.
To even begin to appreciate the scale and intensity of his following, it is necessary to have some understanding of what his devotees believe him to be, and of the powers that are attributed to him. Much of what follows exists in a realm beyond rational explanation. Among his devotees, Sai Baba is believed to be an avatar: literally, an incarnation of the divine, one of a rare body of divine beings - such as Krishna or Christ - who, it is said, take human form to further man's spiritual evolution.
According to the four-volume hagiography written by his late secretary and disciple, Professor N Kasturi, Sai Baba was born 'of immaculate conception' in the southern Indian village of Puttaparthi in 1926. As a young boy, he displayed signs of miraculous abilities, including 'materialising' flowers and sweets from 'nowhere'. At 13 he declared himself to be the reincarnation of a revered southern Indian saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918. Challenged to prove his identity, Kasturi writes, he threw a clump of jasmine flowers on the floor, which arranged themselves to spell out 'Sai Baba' in Telugu.
In 1950 he established a small ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Serenity) in his home village. This has now grown to the size of a small town, accommodating up to 10,000 people, with tens of thousands more housed in the numerous hotels and apartment blocks that have sprung up around. So great are the numbers of pilgrims that in recent years an airstrip has been constructed near the town. There is a primary school, university, college, and hospital in the ashram, and innumerable other institutions around India bearing Sai Baba's name.
In India, his devotees include the former prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, the present Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and an assortment of senior judiciary, academics, scientists and prominent politicians. Unlike other Indian gurus who have travelled in the West, cultivating a following among faith seekers and celebrities, Sai Baba has left India only once, in the Seventies, to visit Uganda. His reputation in the West spread largely by word-of-mouth. His devotees tend to be drawn from the educated middle-classes.
It is said that as an instrument of the divine, Sai Baba is omniscient, capable of seeing the past, present and future of everyone; his 'miracles' include materialising various keepsakes for devotees, including watches, rings and pendants, as well as vibhuti or holy ash. Like Christ, he is said to have created food to feed multitudes; to have 'appeared' to disciples in times of crisis or need. There are countless accounts of healings, and at least two of his having raised people from the dead.
Unlike the infamous Rolls-Royce-driving guru Rajneesh, who preached a philosophy of heady libertarianism, or the Maharishi of Beatles fame, who marketed traditional meditation techniques as an aid to better health and efficiency, Sai Baba's teachings resemble a synthesis of all the great faiths, with a particular emphasis on Christian charity, enshrined in his most ubiquitous aphorism, 'Love All, Serve All'. Perhaps his most improbable disciple is Don Mario Mazzoleni, a former Vatican priest and the author of A Catholic Priest Meets Sai Baba, in which he expresses his conviction that Christ and Sai Baba are the same manifestation of God on earth. Mazzoleni was excommunicated in 1992 because of his belief.
The principal event in Prasanthi Nilayam is darshan, in which Sai Baba emerges twice daily from his quarters adjacent to the main temple and walks among the thousands of devotees seated on the hard marble floor. Hands reach forward to touch his feet or to pass him letters of supplication. Occasionally he pauses, to offer a blessing or to 'materialise' vibhuti in an outstretched hand. It is during darshan that Sai Baba, by some unseen criteria, chooses people from the crowd for private interviews. When I visited the ashram three years ago, researching a book on India, my application to the secretary to interview Sai Baba was politely refused; a formal letter of request to Baba himself went unacknowledged. For the next week I sat on the marble floor of the temple waiting to be chosen for interview. I never was. Some devotees might wait for years.
It is difficult to describe the atmosphere of fervent devotion that permeates the ashram. Devotees talk of having been 'called' by dreams, visions or curious flips of synchronicity, impossible to explain and too powerful to ignore. People jockey for favour and position, endlessly recycling stories of his miracles and powers. It is a catalyst for every imaginable emotion - piety, hope, desperation, jealousy and pride. One person described it as 'like metals being smelted - all the crap comes up to the top'.
Inevitably for such a potent figure, Sai Baba has, for years, been the subject of rumbling allegations of fakery, fraud and worse. But he has proved remarkably immune to controversy, the accusations doing little to dent his growing following or the esteem in which he is held. But all that, it appears, is about to change.
In recent months, an extraordinary storm of allegations have appeared - spurred by a document called The Findings, compiled by an English former devotee named David Bailey - which threaten to shake the very foundations of Sai Baba's holy empire. Sai Baba may represent an ancient tradition of belief, but the instrument of accusation against him is an altogether modern one. Originally published in document form, The Findings quickly found its way on to the internet, where it has become the catalyst for a raging cyberspace debate about whether Sai Baba is truly divine or, as one disenchanted former devotee describes him, 'a dangerous paedophile'.
It is one of the many imponderables of this story that the charges against Sai Baba should have begun with a rotund and jocular concert pianist from Llandudno.
David Bailey became a devotee of Sai Baba in 1994, at the age of 40, drawn by an interest in the guru's reputation as a spiritual healer. 'I couldn't see him as a God,' says Bailey, 'but I did think, this could be a great holy man who has certain gifts.'
An extrovert man, Bailey quickly became a ubiquitous and popular figure among devotees. He travelled all over the world, speaking and performing at meetings and would visit the ashram in India three or four times a year, often performing during darshan and teaching music to students at the Sathya Sai Baba College. Over the course of four years Bailey claims to have had more than 100 interviews with Baba. At Baba's instigation, Bailey married a fellow devotee, and together they edited a magazine to propagate Sai Baba's teachings. But the closer he came to Sai Baba, Bailey told me, the more his doubts multiplied. The 'miracles', he concluded, were 'B-grade conjuring tricks', the healings a myth, and Baba's powers of being able to 'see into people's minds and lives' merely a clever use of information gleaned from others.
Bailey's dwindling faith was finally crushed when students from the college came to him alleging that they had been sexually abused by the guru. 'They said, "Please sir, can you go back to England and help us." They were unable to tell their parents because they were afraid of being disbelieved, and feared for their personal safety.'
Shocked by the allegations, Bailey severed his association with Sai Baba and began to assemble a dossier of evidence from former devotees around the world. The Findings is a chronicle of shattered illusions. It contains allegations of fakery, con-trickery and financial irregularities in the funding of the hospital and over a Sai Baba project to supply water to villages around the ashram, which is habitually trumpeted as evidence of his munificence.
Some of these allegations have been aired before. A former devotee, B Premenand, has made a virtual career out of debunking Sai Baba through his publication, The Indian Skeptic. But the charges contained in The Findings are of an altogether different magnitude. They include verbatim accounts of abuse from devotees in Holland, Australia, Germany and India. Conny Larsson, a well-known Swedish film actor, says that not only did Sai Baba make homosexual advances towards him, but he was also told by young male disciples of advances the guru had made on them.
In April, Glen Meloy - a retired management consultant and a prominent Californian devotee of some 26 years standing - received a letter from an American woman who had read The Findings on the internet. Her 15-year-old son, she said, had also been abused. Included in the letter was a four-page statement from the boy himself alleging multiple sexual abuse.
Meloy launched his own internet campaign to spread the allegations. The effects of this have been enormous.
There has been a rash of defections from Sai Baba groups throughout the West. In Sweden the central group has closed down, and so too has a school based on the Human Education Values programme devised by educationalists at the Puttaparthi college.
From other devotees, however, the response has been one of disbelief and denial. 'Sai Baba', says Bailey, 'is a simple sex maniac who's on an ego trip, after money, after power. He is a sheer conman.' No, say others, 'Sai Baba is God.'
The Young family are not among those listed in The Findings, but the story of how they had come to Sai Baba was not atypical. In the early Seventies, Jeff had become interested in 'the spiritual quest', initially through psychedelics, then through yoga and meditation. He learned of Sai Baba through a friend, and in 1974, at the age of 18, visited India for the first time, driven, he says, by 'an intense and burning desire to feel and experience God'.
The teachings of Sai Baba, he said, struck him to the core. 'The first thing I read by him was, there is only one caste, the caste of humanity; there is only one language, the language of the heart; there is only one religion, the religion of love; there is only one God, and he is omnipresent. That made perfect sense to me. He wasn't claiming to be part of any religion. It was just all about love.'
A month before leaving for India Jeff had a dream in which, he says, he was in a queue, waiting to see Sai Baba. Baba passed him by, then turned, looked over his shoulder, winked and said the word 'talk'. On his first day in India he sat in a queue as Sai Baba walked past. 'Then he stopped and he looked over his shoulder, and he winked at me and he said "Talk" - exactly as he had done in the dream.'
Three weeks later Jeff had a private interview with Sai Baba. 'And I remember feeling peace like I had never felt before; feeling loved like I'd never been loved before.'
He returned to Los Angeles, where he lived in a community with fellow Baba devotees. He met Carrie, whose childhood had been characterised by parental abuse, and her teenage years by drug abuse. She too became a devotee of Sai Baba, putting her troubled past behind her. They married, moved to the Midwest and started to raise a family. Over the years, they visited Sai Baba from time to time. They founded a community, home-schooled their children according to his teachings, and strove to lead a life of purity and self-discipline based on the principles of 'Love All, Serve All'.
Then, in 1995, things began to change. Their son, Sam, who was now 16, visited the ashram with a family friend and was singled out for a private interview with Sai Baba. Eighteen months later, the Youngs returned to Puttaparthi; again Sai Baba singled out Sam and called him and the family for an interview. 'He made [a big fuss of] our group,' said Jeff. 'He materialised a ring for my son. He told everybody that Sam had been a great Shirdi Sai devotee in a previous life - he just poured it on.'
During the course of that visit, the Youngs were called for seven interviews, while Sam had some 20 private meetings. The family felt blissfully privileged. Baba advised Jeff on his business, signed the bylaws for their community and told them that one day he would come to their home. He materialised rings, watches, bracelets, gave them robes and the silk lungi he wore next to his skin. 'People were saying, what's with you guys?' said Jeff. 'One guy actually said to me, when I die I want to come back as you. And Baba was telling us not to talk a lot, to keep it quiet, because it causes jealousy in others - which is true.'
The following year, the family returned to Puttaparthi three times. On each occasion they would be gifted with two or three interviews. Sam had twice as many. 'We had no idea what was going on,' said Jeff. 'We'd ask Sam, and he'd say Baba was talking about his future. Every day there'd be another watch, a ring. We thought maybe our son deserved this attention because he'd done so much for Shirdi Sai. We just rationalised things. You can rationalise everything.'
In 1995, Sam had come to his father. In a private interview, he said, Sai Baba had 'materialised' some oil in his hand, unbuttoned Sam's trousers and rubbed his genitals. Jeff told his son he had had a similar experience when he first met Sai Baba at 18. 'I said to Sam, what did you think about it? He said he didn't feel there was anything sexual about it; it was like Sai Baba was doing his job. And I'd kind of had that experience. A doctor gives a boy an exam. I'd taken it as some kind of healing.' Thereafter, Sam said nothing about his experiences.
What had actually occurred was this: from anointing with oil, Sam told me, Sai Baba's advances had grown progressively more abusive and forceful. Sai Baba, he said, had kissed him, fondled him and attempted to force him to perform oral sex, explaining that it was for 'purification'. On almost every occasion Sai Baba had given him gifts of watches, rings, trinkets and cash, in total around $10,000. He had told him to say nothing to his parents.
So why had Sam continued to go into interviews, and to say nothing? From the day he was born, he said, he had been raised to believe that Sai Baba was God. 'All my life, that was my goal, to get an interview and have Sai Baba talk about my life. And then I get in there, and my mum's so happy out in the crowd, and then I see what's really in there for me... I'm thinking, maybe this is for love, and he might want to be experiencing that with me, but I don't want that.'
When Sam asked Baba why he was doing this, he would tell him it was because Sam was 'a special devotee - that it was a great blessing'. When Sam attempted to resist, he said, Baba would threaten not to call his parents for any more interviews. 'I felt obligations, to my parents, our friends, all the thousands of people sitting outside who all wanted to be in the position I was in, not knowing what was really there.
'And then the big thing was the concept that he is God, from day one, so when he says, don't tell anybody...'
In fact, Sam did tell somebody. He confided what was happening to two other American teenagers who were students at the Puttaparthi college. They had had similar experiences. 'They justified it as a divine experience. But we didn't talk about it too much because of the idea that he was omniscient, that he'd know what we were talking about and what was in our heads.
'If you listen to what Baba says, he's talking about taking charge of your life, and I was thinking, "I'm with you, so everything must be good." But he was doing things to me that I didn't want to do, and I was just letting it happen.'
In 1998, according to Sam, Sai Baba attempted to rape him. The following year, the day before the family were leaving for Puttaparthi, he told his father he did not want to see Sai Baba alone, without specifying why. Jeff sensed something was amiss: 'I told him, you must always be true to your conscience. The family don't care if we never have another interview again.'
In Puttaparthi Sam was again called for a private interview. When Sai Baba attempted to get him to perform oral sex, Sam walked out for the last time, although it would be some months before he summoned the nerve to tell his parents. Jeff said it took some weeks to 'process' what they were hearing. 'We knew that Sam was telling the truth, but I still asked myself, what could this mean?'
The Youngs contacted a leading figure in the American Sai Baba organisation. 'He said it must be some kind of test,' said Jeff, 'and for a moment we felt better.'
Then Dr Michael Goldstein, the man in charge of the entire Baba organisation in America, flew in from California to meet them. 'He said, we've got to talk to Baba about this; words are not enough; faith must be restored.' Goldstein immediately flew to India. He returned to tell the Youngs that Sai Baba had told him 'he is pure', and that Goldstein accepted that. He asked Jeff if he thought his son might be 'delusional'. The Youngs no longer speak with Goldstein.
I attempted to contact Goldstein in America, but was told he was away, in Puttaparthi. However, another senior devotee, a trustee for the Sathya Sai Baba Society of America, did return my call. Jerry Hague told me that he and his wife had been devotees for 25 years. He said he was deeply shocked at the allegations and could not begin to understand them.
'All I know in my heart is that Swami is the purest of the purest, and that everything he does is for the highest good of everybody. If other people feel something else, that's how they feel. It's a mystery to me, and that's how I'm leaving it. I just know in my heart what I've found.'
This denial - Sai Baba is God, God doesn't do these things - was a theme that was echoed by innumerable other devotees I spoke to in America and Britain. One woman told me the allegations were 'utterly inconsistent' with her experience of Sai Baba over the past 30 years. Others said they were convinced they were a result of 'delusions', or 'the projections' of boys and young men at a difficult time sexually.
Surfing the internet, I came upon a site called The Sai Critic, established by some devotees to answer The Findings and to 'counsel' those whose faith might be wavering in the face of the allegations. The anonymous authors of the site urge devotees to believe only their own experiences and quote an aphorism of Sai Baba's: "When doubt walks in the front door, faith walks out out the back door. Keep your doors closed."
Addressing the allegations of sexual abuse, the authors state that because 'Sai Baba is a divine incarnation, one cannot attribute human sexual motives to him, nor interpret him in the light of human sexual experience.' In other words, because Sai Baba is divine, whatever he does is beyond understanding and beyond accountability.
Among those people named in The Findings is Dr D Bhatia, the former head of the blood bank at the Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital, who, it is claimed, had a longstanding sexual relationship with Sai Baba. Bhatia resigned from his post at the hospital in December 1999 and is now an administrator at a hospital in New Delhi.
Contacted by phone, Bhatia said that he had become a devotee of Sai Baba in 1971, at the age of 20, and that he had had sexual relations with Sai Baba for a total of '15 or 16 years'. In that time, he said, he was also aware that Sai Baba had relations with 'many, many' students from the college and school, and with devotees from overseas.
Bhatia said he had never questioned Sai Baba over his conduct, or Baba's explanation that it was 'God's activity'. 'Devotion,' said Bhatia, 'doesn't need any justification. In my philosophy of life, everything good and everything bad belongs to God. That is my belief, and that is why whatever he does, does not affect me in that way.' Was he saying that he still believed Sai Baba is God? 'Yes.'
Like many people I spoke to, Isaac Tigrett described himself as a spiritual seeker. Among devotees, Tigrett is famous as the man who built Sai Baba's hospital. Co-founder of the Hard Rock restaurant chain, Tigrett sold out his share in the business in the early Nineties and donated $20 million to build the Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital. He went on to found another chain of club-restaurants in America, the House of Blues, and now lives in London, where he is setting up the Spirit Channel, an internet site dedicated to exploring spiritual teachings.
A large, barrel-chested man in his early 50s, dressed in an immaculate double-breasted suit, Tigrett has the ostentatious appearance and expansive charm of a theatrical impresario. We met at his London club. Tigrett drank beer and smoked cigarettes; a man, it seemed, firmly grounded in the real world.
By normal standards, Tigrett's story of how he came to Sai Baba is extraordinary; by the standards of stories one hears of Sai Baba, it seems almost commonplace. Born in the American South and raised as a Baptist, Tigrett had always had a curiosity about spiritual matters. In 1974, he told me, he was travelling in India, checking out the guru scene. Eating breakfast one morning in the dining-room of a hotel in northern India he heard a voice clearly saying, 'You've come at last; I've been waiting for you.' Turning round, he saw a picture on the wall of Sai Baba, whom he had never heard of and knew nothing about.
He travelled immediately to Sai Baba's ashram. It was a festival day, he remembered; 5,000 people were gathered for darshan. 'He just came right over to me and said, "You've come at last; I've been waiting for you." ' Sai Baba then 'materialised' vibhuti in Tigrett's hand. 'He said, wait here; we have many things that we are going to do together.' It would be another 15 years, he said, before Baba spoke to him again.
Tigrett said he was 'very cynical and very suspicious. I believe in the inner guru - following your own heart - not the outer guru. It had never occurred to me that it would be some sort of outer master that would draw me down the path.'
Over the next 15 years, however, he found himself subject to a range of 'amazing teachings' that he attributed to Sai Baba. The most extreme occurred in 1976. It was a time, he said, when his doubts about Sai Baba were at their greatest. Driving a Porsche Turbo through the Hollywood Hills after a late-night party, he came off the road at 80mph and crashed through a barricade into a 200ft gully. 'I had no seatbelt on. At the moment I knew I was going to die I could feel pressure on my shoulders, and I look and, seemingly to me, there is Sai Baba sitting beside me with his arms around me. The car hits the ground and turns more than a dozen times before it lands upright, totally demolished. And there's not a scratch on me. I'm thinking, this can't be true. Was it him? Was it my imagination? Did I call him and somehow create this belief in my mind that he was there?'
The next day Tigrett flew to India, 'to thank him'. Tigrett spent three months sitting in darshan, 'and he didn't so much as look at me once'. It would be another 13 years, he said, before Sai Baba finally summoned him for an interview.
'I said, why did I have to wait so long? He said, "Big ego." '
These things were difficult to explain, Tigrett said, impossible to explain. He does not believe that Sai Baba is God, he said. He would not even describe himself a devotee. 'But to me, it's as simple as this: whatever it was I experienced changed my life; whatever it was he did kept me on a spiritual path, for which I am ever grateful. And I will never be able to deny that experience; nothing he could do could change that.'
How then could Tigrett square his experiences of Sai Baba with the allegations of sexual abuse? 'I can't. There's two camps here. Are you against Sai Baba or are you for him? I think if you say you're for him, you're just in denial, saying these things didn't happen, that it's made-up stories. I don't believe that. I believe the allegations are true. And if you're against, you're supposed to take up your sword and kill him. I'm not in either of those camps. For me, the only meaningful relationship with him is the personal one, and everyone has to make a personal decision based on that.'
As to trying to understand Sai Baba, Tigrett said he had given up on that many years ago. 'I know that he materialises things, because I've seen him do it. And I know he fakes materialisations, because I've him seen him do that too. I don't know why. Maybe it's just a game.'
Tigrett said he believed that everything Sai Baba does is 'a teaching'. Perhaps, he said, the growing scandal was also a teaching, a way of forcing devotees to stop worshipping the form of Sai Baba, and instead consider the divinity within themselves. 'I remember him telling me three or four years ago that people would be leaving him in droves. He said, "I'm not a new religion; I'm not a personality cult. People come here to see miracles, to have a vacation, and they don't even get the teachings." He said this several times, it's about following the inner guru, not following Sai Baba.'
Tigrett has been back to the ashram several times since then, he said, but he has never again been called for interview. He sipped at his beer. For those who worship Sai Baba as a god, he said, the allegations 'must be totally devastating. Because they've lost their god, their master. But I never saw him as God.' How then would he describe Sai Baba? Tigrett shook his head: 'A total and complete enigma.'
Among the most remarkable facets of this controversy has been the role of the internet. Even 10 years ago, it is doubtful whether the allegations against Sai Baba would have spread so far and so fast. In a discourse in October 1999, Sai Baba instructed devotees that 'Swami has nothing to do with internet [sic]. Not only now, even in future [sic] also. You should not indulge in such wrong activities.' But in the realms of cyberspace the accusations, the justifications and the denials continue to multiply. Alongside the lurid accounts of abuse, there are accounts of miracles, healings and calls to faith.
Conny Larsson has set up a support group for those claiming abuse by Sai Baba, and says he receives some 20-30 emails a day from victims 'crying out for help. You cannot leave these people in the desert.'
In America, the campaign organised by Glen Meloy has concentrated on 'e-bombing' copies of the allegations to senators, the White House, the FBI and Indian newspapers. The most conspicuous success of the campaign came in September when Unesco withdrew its co-sponsorship and participation from an education conference at Puttaparthi, citing 'deep concern' over the allegations of sexual abuse.
Meloy is also attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against the leaders of the Sai groups in America that, he said, have 'conspired to cover this up'.
In this country, similar representations have been made to the Charity Commissioners (there is a British branch of the organisation registered in this country) and to the Home Office, urging them to issue a public warning to visitors to India about the allegations, and pointing out that failure to warn could constitute a breach of the Government's international obligations under UN Human Rights covenants.
For all the allegations laid against him over the years, Sai Baba has never been charged with any crime, sexual or otherwise. And his exalted position in India has until now kept him safely insulated from any kind of public inquiry.
In June 1993 he was the subject of an apparent assassination attempt when five young men broke into his private residence. Two of his personal attendants were stabbed to death and four of the assailants were shot dead by police 'in self-defence'. Sai Baba allegedly escaped by rushing out of his room and activating an alarm system. In a subsequent discourse, he said the attack was caused by 'jealousy'. Dr Bhatia told me he believed the attack was linked to Baba's sexual activities. The guru was never interrogated by police over the attack. The Indian press raised the obvious question: if Sai Baba is omniscient, why couldn't he see it coming?
Among former devotees, there is a sense of shock, betrayal, anger - a hunger, if not for revenge, then for accountability. We know that many victims have been physically molested,' Glen Meloy told me, 'but in reality all the former devotees have been spiritually raped because we chose to believe that this man was the highest. I certainly considered him to be the God of gods, the creator of all creation, my friend, my everything. The intense desire I have to expose him now is directly proportionate to the amount of devotion I gave him.'
Meloy said he shredded all the pictures he had of Sai Baba in his house the moment he heard the allegations. He knew of former devotees who were now selling their homes, determined to purge any taint of association with Sai Baba from their lives. 'We completely gave away our power.
And now we can look back and see what we did. You cry and out and wonder, how in the world could this happen?'
How does this happen? In an imperfect world, we crave some evidence of perfection, some symbol of ineluctable goodness. The guru becomes the expression of the dream.
Sitting in the restaurant in a small, homely Midwest town, Jeff Young struggled to understand what had led him to believe that an Indian guru could be God. Thinking back to his first interview - 'I remember feeling peace like I had never felt before' - he now thinks he was simply deluded. 'There were so many people who desired to have that interview, I convinced myself it was so extraordinary and special and I must be in bliss, because I'd been chosen.'
Now, he said, he could see how he had ignored all the contradictions, manufactured explanations for anything that didn't fit. 'I knew the materialisations were fake. I'd sit there and watch him pulling things from under a pillow. It was totally obvious. And he'd see that we saw and he'd kind of laugh. But I just thought, he's testing me to see if I'm focused on the love or on the external. Because Baba says, love my uncertainty. You'll never be able to understand the avatar.'
Looking back, he said, when Sam finally told him about the sexual abuse, he didn't find it difficult to believe at all. 'I realised, I'd really known this for a long time but didn't really know it.' Jeff shook his head. 'It goes so far into your mind. You ask yourself, how could millions of people be wrong? How could millions of people be tricked? I think a lot of people deny these things are happening because they're afraid of being embarrassed. I felt that myself. We'd spent 23 years raising our family to believe in him, going upstream against a river. You think, how could I have been so wrong?'
When Sam told Jeff and Carrie the truth about his meetings with Sai Baba, Jeff said, both of them threw their arms around him. 'We said, that's it; we don't care if we never see Sai Baba again. He told us it was the happiest day of his life.'
Since leaving Sai Baba, he said, the family had been trying to find a basis for faith in their own hearts. He believed following Sai Baba's teachings for 23 years had made him a more humble, honest and kind human being. 'My wife hates him for what he did to our son. I feel betrayed. I think it's despicable. But as I look back over my life I would have to say that I honestly don't regret anything that's happened and that I've grown through all of it.' Finding Sai Baba, and then discarding him, 'I'm happier now than at any point in my life.'
Sam said the experience had brought him to see his life in 'a whole other perspective. It made me realise, all my life I've spent following some other human being around, trying to do what he says.' Freed from the prison of false belief, he said, 'I'm just trying to live up to myself.'
Whether he is divine, 'a demented demonic force', as Glen Meloy now describes him, or simply the most accomplished fakir and confidence trickster, Sai Baba has said nothing publicly about the allegations laid against him. When the Telegraph Magazine contacted K Chakravarthi, secretary of the Puttaparthi ashram, he said, 'We have no time for these matters. I have nothing to say' and terminated the call.
Sai Baba's principal English translator, Anil Kumar, was more forthcoming. Every great religious teacher, he said, had faced criticism in their lifetime. Such allegations had been levelled at Sai Baba since childhood, 'but with every criticism he becomes more and more triumphant'. Kumar said he considered the controversy 'all part of [Sai Baba's] divine plan. It's a paddy field with husks around the rice. Eventually all the unwanted parts will go to leave the true substance inside.'
Jerry Hague, the American trustee, seemed to share that view. Sai Baba, he told me, would never say anything about all this. 'Why would he? That's the human way. That's not his way.
'You can try and write about this,' he cautioned me, 'but you won't be able to make any intellectual sense of it. Nobody can.'
'Some people,' said Jeff Young, 'when we tell them our story, they drop Sai Baba like a rock. Some just don't want to hear it. And others hear it all and say, well, he's God! It's all a test. I laughed when I heard that. Because to me, passing the test is having the courage to stand up on your own two feet and say this is not acceptable.'
It's a curious thing, said Young, but when he first told his friends and fellow devotees he was leaving Sai Baba, he had the sense - 'and I still feel that way' - that Baba was 'standing over my shoulder, saying, 'Good boy, you're doing a good job.'Some names have been changed. Additional research by Chloe Veltman
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