Sai Baba is winning hearts more with his down-to-earth
developmental work than with his supernatural feats
By N. Bhanutej/Puttaparthi
In the 1940s, a young boy in the arid Anantapur district in Andhra
Pradesh talked of aeroplanes landing in his little village. Heads of
State would seek his feet, he said. The drought-weary villagers
laughed: "There is no bus to this village. What planes is he
Devotees who received vibhuti from Sai Baba or made eye-contact
with him say the experience changed them for ever.
The boy was unlike anybody his age. He rambled into verse, prompting
his family to believe he had demonic powers. He sat villagers around
him and launched into monologues. He produced ash out of thin air.
But planes? That was a far cry.
More than half a century later, his village, Puttaparthi, can land a
Boeing-747. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Governors, chief ministers,
judges, scientists, academicians and cricket and movie stars touch
his feet. Foreigners thirsting for Indian spirituality make a
beeline for a glance of the man who, they believe, is an avatar of
God. Sathyanarayana Raju, the village preacher, became Sathya Sai
Sathyanarayana was born on November 23, 1926, to Pedda Venkama Raju
and Eshwaramma, who belonged to the Bhatta Raju caste. In recent
times, his devotees claim that he was born of immaculate conception.
The boy had an inclination for the spiritual. He dropped out of
school in the eighth standard. At 13, he declared that he was the
reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a revered sage in Maharashtra,
who died in 1918. He announced that he had a mission in life; he did
not belong to family.
Known as Sai Baba, Baba or Swami, he charmed people with his talk.
He performed 'miracles' to support his claims of divinity. With a
wave of his hand, he could produce vibhuti (sacred ash) and other
presents for his admirers: acts that earned him as many critics as
All roads lead to Puttaparthi: Devotees from Indonesia
A story told by his followers in Puttaparthi goes like this: as a
child, Baba would pluck any fruit that his friends wanted from a
tamarind tree on a hill near the Chitravathi river. Today, the hill
is a pilgrim spot. Visitors write their wish on a piece of paper and
string it to a branch of the tree, now called the Kalpavruksha. They
believe Baba would make those wishes come true.
Besides the miracles—he is said to have brought two dead people
back to life—Baba preached love, peace, selflessness, service and
other universal truisms like "Help Ever, Hurt Never" and
"Love All, Serve All".
News of an orange-robed god with a Jimi Hendrix hair-do spread to
the west. Westerners—disillusioned by an overdose of dollars,
relationships and drugs—sought Prashanthi Nilayam (Baba's ashram
in Puttaparthi) to rediscover the basics. One of Sai Baba's early
followers, Dr John S. Hislop, wrote in his book My Baba and I (Sri
Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust): "I prayed that
through his grace and kindness, he might touch my dry heart and make
it alive and vibrant again." Hislop, a teacher in Mexico,
became one of the closest inner-circle devotees of Sai Baba.
Devotees claim that Baba's mere presence changes one's personality.
Those who received vibhuti or made eye-contact with him say that
they changed for ever.
Hislop narrates in his book that, in 1973, Baba 'materialised' a
figure of Christ on a wooden cross. Giving it to Hislop, Baba
claimed that the wood was from the cross on which Jesus was
crucified. When another devotee asked Baba about the crucifix, he
said: "Yes, I made it for him [Hislop]. And when I went to look
for the wood, every particle of the cross had disintegrated and had
returned to the elements. I reached out to the elements and
reconstituted sufficient material for a small cross. Very seldom
does Swami interfere with nature, but occasionally, for a devotee,
it will be done." It is said that Baba produced such a crucifix
for Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, as well.
With Baba's meteoric rise in the 1970s, rationalists called him a
trickster and challenged him to produce larger presents. Late Dr H.
Narasimhaiah, former vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, opened
a debate by asking Baba to produce a melon instead of a ring. He
constituted a fact-finding committee to investigate Baba, and sought
an interview with him. The late Dr Abraham Kovoor, who was president
of the International Rationalists Association, was invited to
Bangalore, where he produced ash with the wave of his hand.
"We went to schools and colleges and demonstrated all the
miracles that Sai Baba performed," recalled Dr A. Ramalingam,
retired head of botany department, Dharwad University, who was
member of the association. "Devotees claimed that ash was
dropping from Sai Baba's photographs. We showed that when mercuric
chloride is applied on the aluminium frame of any portrait, ash-like
residue starts falling from it."
From a handful in the 1960s, Sai Baba's following today is
anywhere between one crore and five crore.
Sai Baba did not answer his critics. Narasimhaiah did not get an
interview. But in a discourse, Baba said: "It is beyond you to
know how or why I create things. The objects that I create, I create
them by my will, the same way I created the universe."
Even now, devotees elbow each other during the darshans, hoping to
touch his feet or get invited to a private session where Sai Baba
usually 'materialises' gifts.
In 1978, the revolutionary balladeer Gaddar penned and popularised a
song ridiculing Sai Baba. He told THE WEEK: "In India, you can
exploit people in two ways. One, if you have the capital to invest.
Two, you invest in the ignorance of the people and exploit them
through superstition." Though Gaddar's song became popular, the
queues outside Prashanthi Nilayam and Brindavan, his ashram in
Whitefield, Bangalore, kept growing longer.
On November 23, 1992, the Deccan Chronicle carried a photograph from
a TV footage of Baba taking a gold chain from his private staff
before 'materialising' it. On June 6, 1993, six inmates—of the
inner circle—of Prashanthi Nilayam died in Sai Baba's bedroom. Two
of them had allegedly made an attempt on Baba's life. The other four
were gunned down by the police, apparently in self-defence. The
facts of the case were never brought to light.
The most serious of charges—of sexual abuse—came from several of
his western young male devotees. A book by Tal Brooks titled Avatar
of Night describes the author's quest for God, his seeking Sai Baba
and his disillusionment when he was sexually exploited. With the
advent of the Internet, disillusioned young men narrated more
stories of abuse. Interestingly, there are devotees who justify the
alleged sexual acts as Baba's way of 'correcting' the kundalini of
The Unesco, not willing to accept this explanation, withdrew from a
conference on education in September 2000, which it was
co-sponsoring with the Sathya Sai Organisation in Puttaparthi. The
grounds: "Deeply concerned about widely reported allegations of
sexual abuse involving youth and children."
'Baba was, is and shall be': Ratnakar
However, from a handful of admirers in the 1960s, Sai Baba's
following is today anywhere between one crore and five crore.
Puttaparthi, where Baba spends nine months in a year (the other
three months he is at Whitefield), can house 10,000 devotees at a
time. The organisation has centres in over 160 countries. Said R.J.
Ratnakar, Sai Baba's nephew and member of the Sathya Sai Central
Trust: "This is the biggest NGO in the world after the United
Nations. There may be bigger organisations in terms of money, but we
are the biggest in terms of reach."
Nobody can put a finger on how much Sai Baba's organisation is worth
today. However, the scale of its drinking water projects, hospitals
and educational institutions gives an idea. The Sathya Sai Central
Trust, which puts Baba's thoughts into action, has spent nearly Rs
1,000 crore on drinking water projects and hospitals.
Started in 1995, the Sathya Sai Water Supply project provides
drinking water to 1.4 lakh people in 900 villages in Anantapur. The
organisation even modernised the 70km canal that connected the
Krishna waters from Kandaleru reservoir in Andhra Pradesh to
The Rs 250 crore super speciality hospital in Puttaparthi was
established in 1991. Ten years later, another hospital for
cardiology and neurology was set up in Bangalore at Rs 200 crore.
Ratnakar claims that the hospitals have conducted 75,000 surgeries
Sceptics were silenced when Sai Baba built water pipelines,
hospitals and educational institutions. "I don't care even if
he is a fraud. He is better than any politician in this
country," said Leelavathi of Bangalore, whose husband underwent
an open heart surgery at the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical
Sciences, Bangalore. "Who can provide such treatment in a
hospital? They perform free surgery and don't charge for the
patient's food. Just for this, I am willing to accept that he [Sai
Baba] is God."
Sai Baba's transition—from a miracle man to building welfare
projects such as water supply, health care and education—has
earned him a new set of non-believing supporters. Seen in the
context of a diminishing welfare state, his projects are a godsend
to the masses. Gaddar, however, attributes the transformation to the
mounting criticism. "Sai Baba had to change his line,"
said Gaddar. "He produced water through pipelines, not through
magic. He had to build hospitals to cure ailments instead of relying
on his divine touch."
The 'new line' was evident in the responses of Sai Baba's
new-generation devotees as well. Said an inner-circle devotee, when
asked if he had ever seen Sai Baba perform a miracle: "Millions
of people coming here find love and peace. Don't you see the miracle
A day in the life of Baba
By Lalita Iyer
Some say Baba never sleeps, or only for short periods. He has 'raagi
kanji' (porridge) and gets ready for the 7 a.m. darshan. This is
when he picks the people for a personal darshan. He also has
briefings between 7 a.m. and 8.30 a.m.
Lunch is between 10 and 10.30 a.m. The meal is prepared by the wife
of the late Janakiramaiah, Baba’s youngest brother. Baba is the
fourth of three brothers and two sisters and the only surviving one.
"When food arrives, it is handed over to the attendants and
they serve it to Baba," says Ratnakar, Janakiramaiah’s son,
who has the privilege of being the closest nephew of Baba.
Issues are discussed with Baba over
lunch. He then retires to his room to read and rest.
At 1 p.m. he has fruit and confers with a different set of
functionaries. Before long, it is time for his 3.30 p.m. darshan.
Even as the car drives down the ramps, Baba listens to the chants of
Baba gives personal interviews during the evening session too and
then stays back for the bhajans at 5.30 p.m. An hour later he has a
light dinner of one puri or some rice and curry, and fruit.
At 7 p.m. he retires to his room to read letters. Baba does not
reply to any of them, but he says: "When you send a letter to
me, it is only a photocopy. The original is already with me in my
heart, when you thought of me and asked me something."
All's well with this world
By N. Bhanutej
Traversing rocky mountains and never-ending plains to reach
Puttaparthi, one does not expect gigantic film set-like buildings in
this back of beyond. Bordering on the gaudy, the buildings—the
hospital, the music academy, the university, etc.—painted mostly
in pink, have a stamp of Sathya Sai institutions on them. Even the
police station and the bus stand have temple architecture.
Puttaparthi's economy is booming. Crises like drought or stock
melt-downs don't seem to affect this over-grown village. Puttaparthi
comes to a halt only when Baba moves to his ashram in Bangalore.
Every business establishment here displays a picture of Baba
prominently. Every establishment has 'Sai' in its name. Even to get
a waiter's attention in a restaurant, one has to shout 'Sai Ram'.
Beggars on the street call out 'Sai Ram' to passers-by.
On the main streets, there is a significant number of foreigners.
The economy revolves around these dollar-rich visitors. There are
also several Kashmiris, who sell carpets and other handicrafts to
Some shops exclusively sell pictures of Sai Baba. Said one
shopkeeper: "Ash could start falling from one of these pictures
if you are lucky."
Puttaparthi is completely vegetarian. Though not official, there is
a ban on liquor. Young boys in white are a common sight here. They
are students of one of the many colleges run by the Sathya Sai
Central Trust. When asked what he wanted to become, a boy, who is
doing B.Com., said: "I want to do MBA from our institution.
Swami will guide me on what to become."
Would he join a new-age company as an executive? "I am blessed
if Swami asks me to manage one of his institutions," he
replied. Students of institutions managed by the trust are forbidden
from speaking to the media, he said.
The guiding spirit
By N. Chandrababu Naidu
Adi Sankara, Vidyaranya, Ramanuja, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa,
Vivekananda, Aurobindo, the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Prophet
Mohammed are some of the holy manifestations who shaped the cultural
and spiritual destiny of India and the rest of the world. Our
generation is blessed to live in the presence of Sathya Sai Baba. He
did not propound a new faith, but propounded a faith which
underlines all faiths. He is a man of infinite faith and infinite
'Spiritually rewarding': Naidu (right) and A.B. Vajpayee with
One cannot understand the significance of the life of a mahatma from
outside. His thoughts, feelings and deeds do not belong to him—they
embrace the universe. So, the life of Baba transforms the world from
within, so that it may move to perfection. It is a life of service,
purity and wisdom, which sanctifies mankind and confers on it
blessings that last.
Today, devotees all over the world sing bhajans that Baba used to
sing even as a young boy. He performed miracles and the world took
many years to understand this phenomenon of Bhagvan. As years passed
he constructed Prasanthi Nilayam (abode of tranquillity) in
Puttaparthi. It became a centre of pilgrimage for his devotees the
Bhagvan often says that there is only one religion, the religion of
love, and that there is only one language, the language of the
heart. To him service to human beings is worship of God.
Bhagvan has provided drinking water to a number of villages in just
12 months. Members of the Sri Sathya Sai Sevadals provide medical
aid to the suffering and engage in other service-oriented
Whenever I have had the privilege of a holy audience, Baba showered
his blessings on me, infused confidence in me, inquired about the
progress and development of the state, offered his advice on many
issues and listened with deep interest and concern. Meeting him was
always a mentally elevating and spiritually rewarding experience.
Let us remember Bhagvan's philosophy of oneness of all faiths,
purity, patience, perseverance and selfless service, sacrifice,
self-realisation and, above all, love. Let us be guided by his
The writer is Telugu Desam
Party leader and former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
Always there for the devotee
By Scharada Bail
To those who face life with rationality and scepticism, Sai Baba is
only one in a pantheon of godmen. And then a crisis sets this
sceptic on a Sathya Sai journey. "I was facing difficult times
with the grandchildren," says Dr Premalatha (name changed).
"I would arrive tired from work, then beat them at the
slightest pretext, usually incited by some complaint from my
sister-in-law earlier in the day." Beating them made her feel
miserable. One such night, Baba appeared in her dream. "Who is
she to you?" Baba is said to have asked her. "Baba showed
me how wrong it was to make the children the target of my
frustration, and who was actually contributing to this feeling of
helplessness," she says.
Baba has been under attack, too. The BBC did it in The Secret Swami,
a film telecast last year that showed a video clipping of Baba
regurgitating a lingam. What was more difficult for any viewer was
the story of a boy who had been sexually abused at the ashram. To
the devotees, however, this murky side of Baba is to be taken in
one's spiritual stride. "Seeing Baba is an experience difficult
to describe," says Nirupama, 19, whose grandparents, both
doctors, have lived and worked in Puttaparthi for many years. Says
Nithya Raman, 20: "He is there for me at all times. What you
receive depends on how strong your faith is." Members of a rock
band, Nithya and Nirupama don't hide their belief in Baba.
Rationalists have called him trickster and closet gay, but none of
the labels has stuck. What stays in memory are his words that
express the indefinable in a language all can understand.
Scharada Bail is writer,
Internet consultant and Tarot practitioner based in Chennai.
Baba's magnetism is not spiritual
By U.R. Ananthamurthy
Although I grew up in an orthodox family, I questioned many of our
traditional notions, particularly the caste system. Hence, I had
difficulty in following a religious leader. I remember my parents
paying respects to Sai Baba when they were unhappy. Since I loved
them, I never criticised such things vehemently.
But it was funny to see people getting rings and vibhuti from Sai
Baba. It is cheap to make people believe in God through tricks. To
believe in a phenomenon like Sai Baba is like losing my spiritual
My friend's wife refused to undergo surgery for breast cancer on
Baba's assurance that she would be cured. She died without an
operation. It is wrong to advocate such belief systems because all
of us will die. We must realise this truth.
Once at the Hyderabad airport, Kannada writer Prof. V.K. Gokak, who
worked with Sai Baba, was waiting for him on the flight I was on.
Another well-known Kannada writer, V. Seetharamaiah, a traditional
man with petha [turban], was sitting next to me. "What is
happening?" I asked him. "The flight is delayed as they
are waiting for Sai Baba," he said.
Once Baba arrived, the crew and passengers, mostly vice-chancellors
of prominent universities, bowed to Sai Baba and got vibhuti from
him. "Why don't you go, sir?" I asked Seetharamaiah.
"I'm an old-timer," he replied. Real old-timers didn't
need a Sai Baba.
I cannot understand how people are not sceptical about Sai Baba. One
of the great Indian traditions is scepticism. Without this,
Buddhism, Jainism and Veerashaivism would not have been born.
India's true spirituality can be found in people like Kabir, Basava,
Tukaram, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi. I don't know
how to fit Sai Baba in that list. Between Sri Sri Ravishankar [Art
of Living Foundation] and Sai Baba, Sai Baba is better because he is
more easily available to the ordinary people.
I recently watched Sai Baba on television and he looked old and
sick. But there is kindness in his eyes. Many people are overcome
with emotion when they meet Sai Baba. But that magnetism is not
spiritual. People go to him for solace. Spiritualism is not solace
but to seek truth, which is harder. Spiritualism requires a kind of
mind like Jiddu Krishnamurti. I could argue with him. With Sai Baba,
either you believe him or you don't.
The 20th century is remarkable for three phenomena—hunger for
social justice, hunger for spirituality and hunger for modernity.
All the three went together. Mahatma Gandhi fought for social
justice and tried to get out of the caste system. The spiritual
streak in Gandhi emerged when he said 'Hey Ram' after he was shot
at. Today, hunger for spiritualism has given rise to commercial
gurus. Hunger of equality has degenerated into Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Modernity has become globalisation.
This is going to increase because of increasing rootlesness and a
loss of a sense of community. I have no problem with a religious
festival or even people taking the Ayyappa pilgrimage. Among Ayyappa
devotees, there is a sense of community and equality. The problem is
the hunger for persons like Baba.
What puzzles me is that he claims to be God and I laugh at him.
People also laughed at Lord Krishna when he claimed he was God. I
used to wonder if Sai Baba is also God, and if we are refusing to
I like certain things about Sai Baba. When BJP leader L.K. Advani
went on a ratha yatra, Sai Baba is believed to have said, why build
Ram temple at Ayodhya when he is present everywhere. I appreciate
his drinking water and health care initiatives. One more thing I
like about him is that he is not an English-speaking person.
The land that gave birth to great people like Gandhi and Ramana
As told to Rajesh Parishwad
The writer is a well-known Kannada
writer and Jnanpith award winner.
Waiting for Prema Sai
By N. Bhanutej
Asking about Baba's health can ruffle feathers at Prashanthi
Nilayam. Especially if the question comes from a journalist. The
secretary of the Sai Baba Central Trust refused an interview. A
request for an interview with Baba was dismissed without a second
Information on his health comes 'off the record'. An inner-circle
devotee, who did not want to be named, said that Baba was using a
wheelchair ever since his thigh bone fractured in a fall in 2003.
Surgery had not succeeded because of "rejection", he said.
The devotee quickly added that as Sai Baba rarely travelled, the
injury had not affected his routine. "In fact, all those who
have been saying that the swami's health is failing are taking sick
leave. He is as active as ever. He has not missed a single
appointment," he said.
Decades ago, Sai Baba said that he would "leave his present
body" in 2022; that he would be reborn as Prema Sai Baba, in
Mandya district in Karnataka. In July 1975, a boy, Sai Krishna, of
Pandavapura in Mandya claimed to be Baba's next avatar. A
fact-finding committee set up by the late H. Narasimhaiah, who was
vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, proved that the 'holy ash'
produced by Sai Krishna was hidden in the boy's vest, and that the
pulling of a string delivered it to his palm.
The organisation dismisses questions on who would succeed Sai Baba
thus: "How can anyone succeed God? Baba is for ever." Said
a member of the trust: "What is happening in Shirdi? Everything
is continuing even after Shirdi Sai Baba. Here, too, it will go on
"Who can replace God? Baba was, is and shall be," said
Baba's nephew R.J. Ratnakar. Would a certain Prema Sai Baba of
Mandya inherit the empire? "That is not known to us," said
Ratnakar. "It is known only to him [Baba]. It will happen if he
has said so. How that will be revealed, only time will
Miracle School, Sandwich Men
Their silent service is tempered
with love and respect
By Dr Hiramalini Seshadri
When Dr Eric Fanibunda, a Parsi devotee, asked Sai Baba what the
objective of the Sathya Sai service organisation was, he said,
"Nothing", and then added: "Do not talk of the
service you have done but reflect on what service has done to you;
selfless, egoless service helps you grow spiritually." Yet a
lot of good gets done through the medicare, education and social
welfare projects and the credit should probably go to Baba's mother
Eshwaramma, who asked him to do something for Puttaparthi which had
no hospital, school or even proper drinking water.
Lifeline: The drinking water project has won Sai Baba a lot of
What began as a four-bed hospital in Puttaparthi in 1956, Sai
Medicare, spans six continents today. Free clinics are held
regularly and sometimes private hospitals offer wards and theatre
services where Sai surgeons operate for free and volunteers chip in
with medicines and food.
Networking with governments is also on. In Kenya, Sai mosquito nets
help keep malaria at bay. This year, Sai medical camps came up all
over the world when natural disasters struck. India has taken the
lead in establishing Sai hospitals. Besides two general hospitals,
two world-class tertiary care hospitals in Puttaparthi and
Whitefield that offer free treatment have drawn global acclaim.
Educare—education in human values—is the foundation of Sathya
Sai schools and colleges. The Sri Sathya Sai Deemed University, of
which Baba is Chancellor, began as a college for women in Anantapur
in 1968. Recently, the UGC's National Assessment and Accreditation
Council awarded the A++ rating to the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of
The Sai organisation achieved in five years what governments could
not in decades—supplying drinking water to Anantapur, arid areas
of Medak and Mehboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh, and Chennai.
Till Baba's birthday last year when the shutters of the
Kandaleru-Pondi canal were opened, Chennai received only about half
the expected flow of 12 TMC from the Krishna river drinking water
Work on the Chennai project, which cost $60 million (Rs 2,745
million), began soon after Baba's announcement on January 19, 2002.
The capacity of the Kandaleru reservoir was upped to 59 TMC and the
extensive renovation of the canal—now the Sathya Sai Ganga Canal—was
completed in one year.
A lot of the work was done by Larsen & Toubro.
"Constructing a super speciality hospital in six months;
creating civil aviation history by constructing an airport in three
and a half months; laying 2,500 km of pipeline, building reservoirs
and pumping stations in rural terrains, and yet finishing in time—I
simply can't believe that we did it," said A. Ramakrishna,
Ramakrishna asked Baba the secret of the success. "All projects
are the same," said Baba. "But where there is unity and
purity, divinity manifests and automatically everything falls into
Many smaller projects are on the world over; like caring for leprosy
and AIDS patients in Africa, running homes and schools for dropouts
(one in Zambia is dubbed the 'Miracle School' as its students won
all the national prizes for academic excellence and character),
collecting food from hotels for distribution in inner city ghettos
(in New York, Sai volunteers are called the Sandwich Men), building
a motorable road in the Himalayan terrain so that villagers can take
their produce to the Kalimpong markets... the list is endless. All
service is tempered with love and respect.
Philip M. Prasad, a former Naxalite, best explains the success of
Sai initiatives in his book An Obstacle Race to Swami: "A
government or international agency dumps free sewing machines, cows,
buffaloes and agricultural implements in a tribal colony. Next week
you can pick these up from the money lender or the local alcohol
shops. Without a sturdy moral character no amount of economic help
works. In contrast, understand the village service propounded by
Baba.... Building national character is our primary need; and it
needs to be built from the core point of spirituality to the outer
layers of socio-economic existence and not vice-versa."
Prasad cited the example of Russia to show that poverty cannot be
eliminated without character building. "For a resurgent India
with sustainable growth, we need to first strengthen her spiritual
core," he said. "Baba is doing just that."
Awareness of divinity
Sathya Sai exudes a rare grace that
captivates seekers of truth
By Bill Aitken
Any attempt at summing up the contribution of God-men to society—in
modern India’s English media—is fraught with the prospect of
either audience fatigue or cynicism, especially when the subject is
Sri Sathya Sai Baba, an essentially vernacular figure (his biodata
is available only through translation from Telugu). As a result, the
views about Sai Baba’s place in the history of religion veer from
one extreme to another. While one faction has a mass regard for him
as the Godhead, the other crusading minority clamours through the
sensational press to have his standing reduced to that of a common
Obviously it is only from the middle ground, examined by objective,
inquiring students of religion that Sai Baba’s status can be
expected to emerge. But such neutral observers are thin on the
ground. Having been a critic myself (of Sai Baba’s apparently
inflated spiritual claims), I have found on closer examination over
the years that my initial reaction was fairly normal and actually
welcomed by Baba.
I have been forced to revise my opinion and accept that this person
does not say he is divine to the exclusion of others. What he says
is that everyone of us has divinity within ourselves. He, however,
unlike the rest of us, is fully aware of this truth. It is this
sense of abiding awareness that many seekers (as opposed to casual
visitors) experience in his presence that sets this teacher apart
and makes him like no other spiritual phenomenon that I have ever
read about or personally checked out in the 50 years that I have
studied comparative religion.
The theological contribution of the Sai saints has been to
emphasise the equality of souls before God.
The critical factor for determining his unusual spiritual aura,
oddly enough, is crystallised by the darshan of his slight but
remarkable physical presence. Sathya Sai exudes a rare grace that
captivates any seeker who is after the real things the human soul
hankers for. Between the hype of unhinged devotees and a howling
pack of detractors, his diminutive figure appears the same today as
it was when he was a boy—serenely established in a mood of
unaffected humaneness. When asked how his students should dress,
Baba replied with a subtle rebuke to today’s fashion of unconcern
for other’s problems: "Dress in such a manner that no poor
person in need of assistance will hesitate to ask you for
The category of divine is impossible to qualify but people rich and
poor, from all walks of life and different continents, confess that
in the presence of this unlikely fuzzy-haired Andhra peasant they
experience a grace that is like no other. Magically, it gives rise
to an awareness within the beholder that he or she too possesses
this priceless pearl of selfhood.
Sathya Sai is the occasion and trigger of this other-worldly
experience. His being is a reflection of the truth. This reality,
which he embodies momentarily, is awakened in the seeker. Unless you
savour this moment of grace, no amount of reasoning is going to take
you nearer to the meaning of life and understanding of the
pre-eminence of love. We are born to find this liberating truth in
ourselves. (Finding fault in others is not so urgent!)
This altogether mystifying personage, now celebrating his 80th
birthday, is strangely untouched by his outer state of rags to
spiritual riches story, and his inner state remains imponderable to
all, except, crucially, to himself. Inevitably, most intellectuals
who seek wisdom will shy away from the surrender of their shining
minds, especially before a backward villager. Custom dictates that
knowledge is power and the aim of life for most is to seek the polar
opposite of love. The few (of all nations and conditions) who do
foregather in Puttaparthi to celebrate the paramountcy of love are
at one with their teacher and themselves. The observer gets the
distinct feeling that the Bodhisattva or avatar (or any exemplar of
human compassion like Sathya Sai) is the goal of human evolution.
The greatest miracle on show at Puttaparthi is to witness this
humble villager’s natural graces daily, which far exceed those of
the so-called "most powerful man in the world" in
The theological contribution of the Sai saints has been to emphasise
the equality of souls before God. This theistic approach contradicts
the paramountcy claimed by Sankaracharya for advaidic monism.
Historically, south India has led the north in shedding the
fatalistic notion that birth of the body decides the destiny of the
soul. Both Sai Baba of Shirdi and Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi
have been revolutionary in preaching and practising spiritual
egalitarianism, which is particularly relevant to India’s
democratic policy still mired in a feudal mindset. It is significant
that both Sai Babas have emerged from the Deccan where Dravidian
influences mingle with the Brahminical, Islamic, Christian, Sikh and
Humanist. For the student of subcontinental religious affairs it is
fascinating to watch the cultural arm-wrestling as Shirdi Sai,
originally presented as an anonymous Sufi in torn white kafni, is
nowadays sought to be passed off as a sanyasi in saffron with a
Having watched Baba for more than 30 years I have moved from my
original position of intellectual doubter to that of a fascinated
observer. I find he is a worthy understudy of Shirdi Sai and in my
own pantheon of great beings, he finds a place alongside the Buddha
Recently, Marianne Warren published her Ph.D thesis, Unravelling the
Enigma, arguing that since Shirdi Baba was a Sufi, Sathya Sai’s
claims to be an incarnation of him are totally misplaced. This
illustrates the limitations of the intellect and how the
presumptuousness of scholars blinds them to the obvious fact that
the mystery of rebirth is not open to proof one way or the other. As
in all religious affairs, these things are personal matters and
historicity is not as important to the heart as the feeling of
oneness the two Sai masters engender. When truly in love the
analytical mind is in abeyance.
The controversy over Sathya Sai’s status has thrown up elements of
the ridiculous at both extremes. His basic followers, Telugu farmers
in the early days of his mission, sought to see miracles in
everything the boy saint did. Chain letters were sent to stoke the
impression of a cult of unbalanced believers, totally at odds with
the teachings of Sai Baba—that you must weigh the evidence of a
teacher’s spiritual worth before taking the plunge of faith to win
his protective aura. When Professor Kasturi penned the official life
of Sathya Sai (as the perceived avatar of Lord Shiva and Parvati),
it was directed at a devotional, rustic audience. For the rational
reader, the most authentic biography of Sathya Sai in English has
been written by Howard Murphet, an Australian.
The exponential growth of the Sai mission after his sole foreign
trip to Uganda in 1968 saw a huge influx of overseas interest and
funds. The dramatic expansion of the Prasanthi Nilayam ashram—with
an international-class hospital, a deemed university and massive
outlay of drinking water schemes for the drought-prone Rayalaseema
district—helped the world to distinguish the universal
compassionate nature of Baba from his earlier image of a
miracle-mongering yogi. His unique, unchanging persona and the
dynamic harnessing of goodwill that he arouses for social
improvement make him much more than a conventional fund-raising
mahatma. He is one of the few compassionate beings rarely seen on
earth, concerned solely for the advancement of the human spirit.
Sai Baba's concern for quality education and medicare is a
positive input for nation building.
At the other end of the spectrum is the violently vociferous lobby
of local rationalists (convinced that Sai Baba is a confidence
trickster) and international apostate disciples (who paint Sai Baba
as the Anti-Christ). To add to the chagrin of these voluble
detractors, who have criticised his career in print and on the
Internet with malicious intensity for at least a generation, is the
ongoing booming growth of his mission. The more they rail against
the saint, the greater, it seems, is the number of people who flock
to have his darshan.
The critics are so intemperate in
their dislike that their vituperation now comes across as almost
near comical in its predictability. Nothing Baba can say or do meets
their approval. If he provides drinking water to thirsty villagers
they scent a scam but if he doesn’t provide drinking water he is
anti-poor. The ground reality is that even Naxalites have welcomed
Baba’s charitable intervention, recognising in him a fellow son of
the Andhra soil. Often the impression given is that the vilifiers do
not hate Sai Baba as much as they harbour contempt for the religious
feelings of ordinary cultivators, whose devotion has made Sathya Sai
what he is.
Probably because of the intensity
of their hate, when it comes to a serious, forensic examination of
their allegations, they resort to bluster and evasion instead of
hard facts. Smearing sexual innuendo is a traditional ploy but on
failing to substantiate their charges, the critics switch to another
They will claim that all of Sathya Sai Baba’s materialisations are
phoney. However, this cannot stick either, because millions have
witnessed the outpouring of vibhuti at Shivaratri. So then,
financial irregularities are imputed to the saint, and when these
are likewise found to be unproductive of scandal, mafia happenings
are invoked. (As a longtime observer of ashrams, I always note how
Puttaparthi is exceptional in not making any monetary demands on the
The strategy of the critics seems to be that if sufficient mud is
thrown, some might stick. This hit and run behaviour suggests a
neurotic concern to damn by any possible means. Certain foreign
evangelical missions invest in these hate campaigns as a godly task
while in international forums, pressure on voting patterns is
discreetly applied by lobbyists of rival religions, to further their
The latest in these so called exposes is a BBC documentary whose
agenda was so predetermined to denigrate Baba that it stooped to the
unethical use of a spy camera. In a last farcical gesture, the
producer hired some roadside entertainers to attempt to simulate
Baba’s chamatkar. The result is so ludicrous that it leaves the
viewer wondering as to who is funding this bizarre display of
hostile reporting. The BBC is ultimately governed by the Anglican
establishment, and churches in the west are losing out financially
to the appeal of the Sai Baba movement.
As a commercial broadcaster, the
BBC’s opting for sleaze would have the dual advantage of
discrediting a rival as well as getting good audience rating. The
Church of England can have no objection to programmes that weaken
perceived threats—like the papacy or Hindu holy men—to its
(declining) influence in the world. Posing as a lion in Asia, the
BBC is a mouse in Britain. It dare not criticise public icons like
the Queen, who happens to be the supremo of the Anglican church.
Even negative assessments of the
Sai movement have to concede that its growth has been phenomenal and
that, remarkably, there has been no missionary effort involved. It
has increased by spontaneous identification, where individuals have
been drawn to the persona and teachings of the Sai saints, a
voluntary outpouring of faith that has occurred in an amazingly
In appealing to the core of spirit
that lies beneath the surface of all religions, the Deccan saints
have not only made a dent in the fragmentary nature of the
subcontinental religious loyalties but also restored the classical
Upanishadic insight of the oneness of all faiths.
This augurs well with the Indian
democracy’s need to get beyond religious labels that have
stultified its development since Independence. Baba’s concern for
quality education and medical care is another positive input for
nation building. The success of his peninsula drinking water network
has proved that for efficient development, the crucial ingredient is
sincerity of purpose.
Bill Aitken is an expert on
comparative religion and a travel writer. He is author of Sri Sathya
Sai Baba: A Life.