Sathya Sai Baba. Among his critics are his former devotees, some of them foreigners.
AMONG the many miracles of Sathya Sai Baba that are claimed by his devotees are “cures” for a plethora of life-threatening illnesses.
One popular story is that of an elderly woman from Chennai who was diagnosed with three blocks in her heart. Cardiologists insisted that she had no option but to undergo surgery. She refused to do anything about it without the consent of the “Lord of my heart”, Sai Baba. Then she had a dream in which Sai Baba drew a heart on a slip of paper and crossed it to convey that she had got rid of the problem. The next day, when she visited her cardiologist, he crossed her prescription in exactly the same manner as Baba had in her dream and declared that she need not worry about her heart condition any more. She was made to undergo some tests and then pronounced healthy.
There is another equally dramatic tale recorded by a professor-devotee of a young Bharatanatyam dancer being cured of an unnamed disease that left her crippled waist down, this time applying ‘vibhuti' on the affected part of the body.
Sceptics wonder why Sai Baba himself had to undergo so much suffering for so many days when he had saved the lives of many of his sick devotees. Sai Baba's health was not good ever since he suffered a fracture in a hip bone in 2006, which confined him to a wheelchair. He had developed multi-organ complications recently, which led to his death. “If vibhuti could be a cure for all diseases, then we do not require any hospital, corporate or otherwise, and the poor people need not pay through their nose,” reasoned Gogineni Babu, former executive director of International Humanist and Ethical Union.
Sai Baba himself had this to say through an ardent devotee: “The vibhuti ash I materialise is a manifestation of divinity. It is a potently significant symbolisation. It is symbolic of the cosmic immortal and infinite nature of all forms of God, atma, or the spirit that is what is left when everything worldly, transient and changeable has burnt away. In the first place it is symbolic of the life-death cycle in which everything reduces itself to ash. For dust thou art unto dust shall thou return. Ash or dust is the final condition of things. It cannot further change to anything else.”
Sai Baba is reported to have had the power, from the time he was a child, to produce from thin air things as varied as rings, bracelets, gold chains and fruits. While millions of devotees see this as a miracle, rationalists contend that these are only tricks, performed through sleight of hand, and that any amateur magician worth his salt can demonstrate them.
Abraham Thomas Kovoor first and Basava Premanand later performed many of Sai Baba's so-called miracles. Kovoor challenged the Baba, and when the latter did not respond to his letters, went to his ashram at Whitefield near Bangalore. But the Baba had left for Puttaparthi. Premanand unsuccessfully tried to sue the Baba under provisions of the Gold Control Order.
Another humanist, physicist and former Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University, H. Narasimhaiah, chaired a committee in 1976 “to rationally and scientifically investigate miracles and other verifiable superstitions”. He dared Sai Baba to perform his miracles under controlled conditions. Gogineni Babu added: “As a godman performing miracles, Sai Baba made many preposterous statements, including the claim that he was born of immaculate conception, that his coming was anticipated in the Bible… the most mind-blowing of all was that he was God himself and the sun rose because he willed it….”
Babu attributed Sai Baba's huge following to the “growing retreat from reason in Indian public life. It is also because of clever marketing and aligning of miracle claims to already existing beliefs among Hindus of rebirth, the New Testament miracles of transforming material….”
Among Sai Baba's critics are his former devotees, some of them from other countries, who say his reincarnation claims and bilocation appearances were suspect and his miracles were just “trickery”. A former devotee from the United States, Glen Meloy, accused him of being a cult leader. Robert Priddy, a devotee from the University of Oslo, Norway, says Sai Baba's claims exposed his ignorance of physics, geology and religious history. Brian Steel, an Australian scholar, also a former devotee, contends that Sai Baba's original Telugu discourses are “heavily edited, improved upon and presented” to devotees in the Sathya Sai Baba Speaks series. In “The Spiritual Tourist”, British journalist Mick Brown says Sai Baba's claim of “resurrecting” the American devotee Walter Cowan is false. Sai Baba ignored these criticisms, saying “science must confine its inquiry only to things belonging to the human senses, while spiritualism transcends the senses,”
Responses from governments across the country to allegations against Sai Baba were typically ostrich-like. The Narasimhaiah Committee was disbanded a year after it was constituted. Repeated and concerted efforts by Indian rationalists and public-spirited persons to educate people and caution them against falling into the trap of godmen and their miracles lacked government support. The reason is not far to seek: not just people heading governments, but even judges and bureaucrats in key posts happen to be devotees of Sai Baba.
Most of them zealously guarded Sai Baba, and whenever allegations came in the media against him, a firefighting team was ready. The best example was the way an official letter was issued to counter one such round of serious allegations against Sai Baba in December 2001. The signatories included Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Chief Justices of India P.N. Bhagwati and Ranganath Mishra, and former Union Minister Shivraj Patil.
The letter read: “We are deeply pained and anguished by the wild, reckless and concocted allegations made by certain vested interests and people against Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. We would normally expect that responsible media would ascertain the true facts before printing such a calumny – especially when the person is revered globally as an embodiment of love and selfless service to humanity….”
However, controversies continued to dog Sai Baba. The BBC telecast a documentary in 2004, “The Secret Swami”, in its series “The World Uncovered”, focussing on the trauma undergone by Sai Baba's former devotees Alaya Rahm and Mark Roche, alleged victims of child sex abuse. Roche was a devotee for over 25 years from 1969. A BBC spokesman described it as “a story of crisis and ultimately a betrayal of faith”. Denmark's Danamarks Radio produced another documentary, “Seduced by Sai Baba”, on the basis of interviews alleging similar abuse.
Soon after the child sex abuse charges surfaced, UNESCO-ACEID decided to withdraw as co-sponsors from the conference on “Strengthening value education: Innovative approaches to teacher education for peace and international understanding” in Puttaparthi in September 2000. Sai Baba had proclaimed in 1961 that he would leave the physical world at the age of 96. He was, however, 85 when he passed away on April 24, 2011.
Many mysteries surrounding Prashanthi Nilayam, Sai Baba's abode in Puttaparthi, remain unresolved. In June 1993, four armed intruders entered Sai Baba's bedroom. It was said to have been a murder attempt; some reports said a power struggle among his followers had led to the break-in. Whatever it was, Sai Baba escaped unharmed after raising an alarm. But there was a scuffle and the police shot down the four “intruding assailants”. Two of his attendants were killed (the story was reported in Frontline, July 3, 1993, with graphic photographs). The police investigation left huge gaps, and a former Home Secretary, V.P.B. Nair, suspected foul play.
Sai Baba's own defence of his “miracles”(producing objects out of nothing), through one his devotees, was:
“For me it is one kind of listening card for my devotees to convince them of my love for them. Since love is formless I use materialisation as evidence of my love. It is a mere symbol. Most people desire a talisman as symbol of protection. So I provide protection to them. When they are in trouble they feel the grip of the ring, bracelet and watch to remember me and call me to rescue, so that I can help them.
“On the other hand if I give them something they cannot wear, they are likely to store and forget about it. These trinkets and talismans give them a sense of security, a protection they need in times of trouble and crisis, and create a symbolic link covering the long distance between them and myself. When the devotees need me, these objects flash the messages as if by wireless and I instantly come to their rescue.”
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