27 Nov, 2005 

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Miracles of welfare

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 talking about?"

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 Baba.

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 devotees.

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 devotee.

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 Chennai.

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 so far.

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 in that?" 

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 the Vedas.

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 foreigners.

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.

Guest Column

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 compassion.

'Spiritually rewarding': Naidu (right) and A.B. Vajpayee with Baba

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 world over.

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 activities.

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 sublime ideas.

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 awareness. 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 acknowledge it.

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 deserves better.

As told to Rajesh Parishwad

The writer is a well-known Kannada writer and Jnanpith award winner.

Who next?

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 thought.

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 like that."

"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 tell." 

Social initiatives

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 admirers

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 Higher Learning.

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 scheme.

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, director, L&T.

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 place."

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 fraud.

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 help."

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 Washington.

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 Brahmin pedigree.

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 and Christ.

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 unrelated subject.

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 visitor.)

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 own cause.

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 short period.

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.



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