THE CHARISMA OF SATHYA SAI BABA
Charisma is a well-known and most widespread phenomenon. It has been widely portrayed in literature, debated intensively as a social phenomenon which in earlier sociology, but has been relatively little researched by modern scientific methods. Comparative studies of different kinds of charismatic persons are very few. There are some key similarities and differences in the uses to which charisma and the authority or power which it almost invariably makes possible are used. Sathya Sai Baba, whose charisma was very considerable, shared many of it typical features with other charismatic figures as will be seen here.
Charisma is an interactive phenomenon: Charisma, from the Greek, was believed to be a divine quality, blessedness endowing people with superhuman powers. This is a false assumptions about how any person achieved charisma. Charm, attractiveness, apparent compassion and love of everyone have a charisma-inducing effect, one that also happens to be a defining mark of a sociopath. It is exclusively an interaction between a person and an audience whereby they are told what they want to hear. A devoted following is the essential condition of the charismatic figure. The intense desire for a leader towards a promised land can arise from serious sufferings such as come of social disruption, poverty and unemployment or loss of sovereignty, confidence in one's own country, its culture, religion, leaders and people. Personal attraction is an interaction between people who perceive likeability in another. Seeming greatness and infallibility as a leader bewitched people into admiring Sathya Sai Baba, who encouraged it himself constantly among the peasantry of backward southern India from his very early years. Thus we see that charisma cannot come into being in anyone on their own, it is not any inborn or inner nature of the personality. Sathya Sai Baba was worshipped as a divine incarnation by some close to him in babyhood and thereafter and his following grew in the villages and at school until he announced he was an incarnation come to save his devotees and eventually the entire world.
When social conditions bad or chaotic, they can favour the rise of a charismatic leader whether political or religious. Not only are Lenin and Hitler classic examples of this, but it was also true of the Dalai Lama's charismatic position as the spiritual head of the Tibetan people after occupation by the Chinese. In India after Independence, the country went through massive crises, especially religious (the Hindu-Muslim mass murdering) and economic, with no solution to huge poverty, ill-health and suffering, which all came to be blamed by those in power on the former British rule. The degeneration of values in public life with corruption and bribery as the norm in post-Independence India went against the religious sentiments and teachings of Hinduism which imbue the population, on which background the desire for a very strong spiritual leader was fulfilled by the eventual emergence of Sathya Sai Baba as having both moral and a very unnatural mystical appeal.
The charismatic is always endowed with great apparent self-confidence (outwardly and in public if not also necessarily inwardly and in private - see Sai Baba's major claims here). People are not born with such 'charismatic' self-confidence in public because it comes only from getting positive responses from the social environment. Despite this, Sai Baba's apparent unmoved self-certainty and emotional invulnerability degenerated in his later years as he became an invalid and declined mentally and physically to the utmost degree before his death.
So as to reinforce their relationship to their following, charismatic leaders often project their own image as the successor of some powerful tradition, whether divine or heroic, and the constant reinforcement of a mythology laden with promises of a utopian future and even divine salvation from the cycle of rebirth (as Sai Baba did, provided one followed his directives). Sai Baba hammered away at promoting the all importance of 'selfless love' and panacea promises of transformation of India, then of the whole world. He insisted that his overall mission in life was to regenerate the ancient Indian religious value system of the Vedas and reclaim India from its degeneracy to lead the entire world into a new age of truth and goodness with universal peace, and that within a very short period of time which has already expired. The packaging of his retrogressive and anti-scientific, anti-intellectual agenda and ambitions were always positive and before long no word of criticism of any kind could be said in his presence or to his zealous followers without consequences from exclusion from his movement to severe discipline on his powerless students and dependent servitors of all kinds. As his influence grew, he imposed authoritarian rule in his ashrams and all the institutions built up around him and within his fiefdom. Sai Baba always spoke of his fathomless compassion and love for all, and succeeded in becoming seen as such by many who were dazzled by meeting him, though a dispassionate evaluation of his life shows that he often lacked patience and empathy with others, despite all his countless promises and claims of omnipotent protection of their welfare.
Charisma with either humility or pride Those who qualify as charismatic figures most often consider themselves to be great in some sense, though there are those who humbly claim that 'greatness was thrust upon them'. The Beatles, who largely had their feet on the ground and did not imagine they were great geniuses, exemplify this charisma-with-humility. What may be designated as good and well-meaning charismatics are those who kept within the bounds of the law and did not glorify themselves. For example, such persons as Winston Churchill, who famously said, "I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the nation. It was a nation and race dwelling all round that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar." Likewise John F. Kennedy, who was virtually worshipped as a sound American and whose murder traumatised many in the USA and worldwide. Further, Nelson Mandela became a most charismatic figure due to his personal qualities and resulting political and social achievements, but without self promotion or laying weight on his fame or becoming authoritarian and self-justifying. The Dalai Lama is an example of humility to the world.
Yet those with charisma who were rather the opposite include many famous dictators and supposed or would-be spiritual personages, holy gurus and self-appointed 'god-avatars'. Such leaders thus often develop strong egocentric traits and not seldom also delusions of grandeur which can be so strong as to amount to a Messiah- or Jehovah-Complex. Countless names could be listed, but a few known self-glorifying religious charismatics who had fanatical followings and developed excessive such self-delusions and even megalomania in recent times include (to pick out but a few) include Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the reverend Dr. Moon, Sathya Sai Baba, and Mata Amritanandamayi. In the secular sphere one must list Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Kim Il Sung, Colonel Gadaffi (to name but a few of the very worst). It is a defining hallmark of all these above-named and many another certain charismatic leader to be promoted as above and beyond normal frailties and acting and speaking accordingly.
Another feature charismatic is to pretend to unusual strength, whether physical or, more usually, mental-emotional and psychological strength. Imperturbability, uncommon tenacity of purpose and self-faith combined with decisiveness in action are the image aspired to. Whenever facts tend to contradict such claims, rationalisation and appeal to extenuating circumstances or laying blame at the doors of others gives the game away, but not the the already well-inducted follower who is always keen to accept such excuses. A contemporary example of the show of physical strength is Vladimir Putin, whose wide range of male macho activities have been filmed and propagated to boost his image (also because he is a rather short man).
One of the defining differences between greatness and self-invented delusions of grandeur has hardly been better expressed than as follows:- "Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man." Frank Herbert, from 'Dune' p. 100.
Charisma obviously often leads to fame and to worldly power, but it is different from either, though often closely related. One can of course be famous (or infamous) just for becoming widely known without having any following. Sai Baba repeatedly attacked those who had any desire for 'name and fame' in most scathing ways, but in all he said and did there is a very clear message that it was his name and fame that were of the greatest importance. To protect his name he produced constant self-propaganda in his discourses, as well as disinformation, false witness, major bribery, and murders. His attempts to convince his followers that he would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize showed how desperate he was for the world fame that eluded him. He was never offered or received a single international award for his supposed services to mankind, which he claimed to exceed those of anyone else by 'a thousand fold'.
Charisma does not necessarily imply a personality cult, as one can see from many fortunate and admirable examples, but it did so to the highest degree thinkable in Sai Baba's case; every item he touched was revered as holy and to be allowed to lie flat and kiss his bare feet was a blessing striven after, often quite hysterically. Sai Baba represented himself as identical to - a living re-embodiment of - the greatest God king heroes of Indian mythology Vishnu, Rama, and Krishna. He claimed also to embody Shiva-Parvati and other divines, including the Maharastran revered as a saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi, whose name he also usurped. Though others in India have long laid claim to being Rama's or Krishna's reincarnation, none have asserted themselves as the Deity of all Deities to such a degree, so often and for so long, nor have any had the same success. His earliest supporters in his home village, Puttaparthi, spread his name and miracle stories they had heard about him through the decades until a few excited foreign visitors wrote all these stories in English books and the gradual flow of visitors worldwide (and their wealth) grew and grew as the apparatus for inducting them into the seemingly-innocuous cult expanded and took on major propaganda proportions. Much of the perceived charisma of Sai Baba arose from only a relative few being able to meet him briefly in 'interviews' run strictly on his own conditions.
It is seen in many cases that discrepancies between word and deed, belief and reality, grow as charismatics' social, financial or political power increases. The figurative 'iron hand concealed in a velvet glove' is then seldom far away. He went through transformations towards increasing dictatorial behaviour and his excessive claims increased and failed more noticeably to match up to reality (though his deeply indoctrinated devotee following could not allow themselves to notice such). His control of followers became more distant and stringent until a major killing spree in his temple complex occurred to which he was present while executions of four of his devotees were planned by his staff in conference with him and the local police (which were controlled by them). whereupon major security was later introduced with armed guards, and much expensive professional undercover surveillance to protect him (under the excuse that it was to protect his devotees). The history of diverse attempts to bring him to court and CBI investigation prove that he enjoyed blanket state protection from prosecution by the legal and political elites. He certainly managed to raise himself above the law and beyond any kind of public accountability for anything he did or said. Control of who could enter his presence was extremely careful and vetting was always carried out through his officials and office-bearers. This is a trait common to many charismatics who rise to an unassailable position, not to allow interviews except to persons under their spell. To avoid open debate is a self-protective and mind-control measure, and Sai Baba's own education was so poor that he refused the Indian traditional form of scriptural debate challenge, such as when called upon in a letter from Sri Prabhupada.
Sai Baba's wholly excessive claims increased and so failed more noticeably to match up to reality (though his devotees' deep indoctrination could not allow themselves to notice such). Claims about transforming India to lead the entire world and bringing about world peace within a brief period were soon shown to be entirely baseless, and remain unfulfilled decades later. The institutions built up around him over which he ruled dictatorially, and likewise his international Sathya Sai Organisation, became what sociologists describe as 'total institutions', that is, self-contained islands isolated from society at large and run according to their own arbitrary rules. Having become surrounded by a court of true believers, sycophants and person who saw their fortune in him, Sai Baba became more and more divorced from society at large and sources of information about it and the world. That 'divine insularity' set stronger and stronger limitations on his outlook and many incidents demonstrated how he gradually lost control of his fiefdom, which was infiltrated by cliques and clandestine groups with quite other goals than those he propounded, especially regarding the control of funds and the minimal use of money in service work. As he became senile he became like a marionette in the hands of those who wielded the real power in the ashram.
Self-promoting charismatics invent or borrow a lineage from past heroes. They capitalise on chaotic and anarchic situation such as economic depression and extremes of insecurity so as to forward their agendas, promises of a bright future, re-establishing the greatness of their nation - in short, just what the populace wants to hear. As one prime example, Hitler presented himself as the regenerator of the Germanic heroes Herman (who defeated the Romans), Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa, diverse Arian warlords and even deities of Norse mythology. He promised a Germanic utopia, the thousand year Reich - and found in the Jews a scapegoat for the ills of his compatriots. Such movements require strong symbols of a pseudo-mystical or religious nature. The Nazis used the Arian mystical symbol, the swastika.
Though Sathya Sai Baba was not intentionally a political leader but claimed to embody the gods of ancient India, he certainly promised the brightest of futures for India though his 'dispensation' - the regeneration of holiness, the Vedas, the 'universal value teaching' (sanathana dharma) and repeatedly stated that India would rise again to its former greatness as a moral preceptor which would eventually redeem the world from the evils of the age (the dark and fearful Kali Yuga) and shortly introduce a 'Golden Age'. Among the many mystical symbols he used to that purpose were to seem to materialise healing 'holy ash' (vibuti) and 'nectar of the gods' (amrita) among many other religious substances and a wide variety of small 'holy' items, the constant use of hand signs or mudras, being mystical symbols like the 'abhaya hasta' (divine blessing to remove all fear).
The charismatic stare or look: Many who met Sathya Sai Baba were vastly impressed by his look or stare. One example among many similar found throughout the hagiography: "I vividly recall looking at his form with utter peace and no thoughts. He stopped and turned and gave me this amazing smile, piercing me with his eyes and I felt this incredible warmth enter me. "What did he do that for," I thought, on that day three years ago. Today, the penny dropped. Thought has to stop." by Chris Parnell - Australian Sathya Sai Organization.
A much publicised saying of Sai Baba was 'If you look to Me, I look to you', and very keen aspirants took this quite literally. Many have written in gushing terms about his look: "radiant, full, and bewitchingly beautiful, the eyes aglow with a merry twinkle, speaks of the Vishnutatva of the Avatar " On one occasion Sai Baba stared long at me, but I wanted to see if anything could be experienced so I held his stare until it seemed he was trying to stare me down. I looked away, not wishing to offend him. Yet I felt or saw nothing unusual. Since I became a mature person I was naturally self-confident and not easily impressed by such things, so I laid no weight on the matter but only much later realized that he had probably been trying to defeat or cow me. He had stared into the eyes of many visitors I met there, most of whom claimed some strong positive feelings. Not surprising, since most visitors have planned long, and longed to see this person and experience his wonders. Many are kept waiting for anything from weeks to years to meet his glance. , so being 'recognised' as it were was often a great relief and so brought forth very strong emotions.
This stare is one among a number of techniques for manipulating and confounding one's following are unusual behaviour and actions. A well-known variant was the charismatic or mystical stare - almost comical, but no less effective when backed by power. It is a relevant comparison that archive footage shows Hitler consciously trying to use his stare to appear charismatic. He would keep eye contact longer than was usual. One Nazi reported being looked at by Hitler: "That was one of the most curious moments of my life. The gaze, which at first rested completely on one suddenly went straight through me into an unknown distance. It was so strange." Hitler also stated that he was guided by a mystical force (in his case 'providence') and that he believed in himself on a messianic pattern became a major part of his appeal.
Charisma and sexual excesses The possession of power, money and unquestioning followers, devotees and worshippers represents a sexual temptation that it is proven that many charismatic figures fall victim to. Of those so far mentioned here, it is known that Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, John Kennedy, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Colonel Gadaffi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Colonel Gadaffi, and Sathya Sai Baba were major fornicators, while the apparently lesser philanderer Bill Clinton was caught out in this while in the office of President.
Sai Baba's charisma and resultant social-political power were such that he was protected by a long series of Indian Prime Ministers, Presidents, and Supreme Court judges who had recognised him to be the most important spiritual figure in India and mostly endorsed and also often worshipped him in public well before his sins became widely known. They continued to uphold the chimera that Sai Baba was a holy man, not a sex abuser or a murder accomplice, since they had invested their prestige in him and had the collective power to cover-up for him on a large scale… and for India's reputation too. His reputation as a major sexual abuser of boys and young men did not reach the media (apart from one book by Tal Brooke) until the Internet made it possible for those who left his following and were then excluded from all meetings and channels communications they had previously enjoyed to contact others by posting testimonies. This began in 1999 with a shocking paper by a couple who were among his very closest Western devotees, David and Faye Bailey, who had been asked by Sai Baba students David taught music to if he could help stop Sai Baba abusing them. He was then travelling the globe to promote Sai Baba and his teachings, but came across more and more parents who approached him about their sons' reports. His resultant publication 'The Findings' elicited testimonies from young men around the world who each credibly described the manner of his seduction of them and all surrounding circumstances. A number of resulting ex-followers became activists investigating further and variously exposing Sathya Sai Baba through the Internet and various media, including major newspapers, videos and films (one landmark BBC film 'The Secret Swami').
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