On The International Sathya Sai Organisation
by Robert Priddy

Introduction to the study

The Sathya Sai Organisation has existed under that name - or close variants of it – since it was started in India in the mid-1960s. The Sathya Sai Organisation (hereafter SSO) does not present any documentation of its origins or its history as such. It does not make any of its internal or financial transactions public and reserves information about its real decision-making procedure to office-bearers on a rather strict need-to-know basis.  The SSO was initially started as a service (Seva) organisation, which it has more or less remained since – certainly in its main ideology. Since its membership was restricted to males, a parallel but in many ways secondary service organisation was started for women members only (known as the Mahila Vibhag), which had and has no instituted channel for asserting its views in matters concerning the SSO itself. The International SSO, however, has members of both sexes, though no woman has ever held the higher offices within it and but a handful have been represented among the many national branches.

For those unacquainted with the name Sathya Sai Baba, he is a South Indian swami who has been carrying out a self-declared mission to transform the world since ca. 1940 (documented sources differ on the actual dates involved). To this end he has gathered about him a very considerable number of Indian followers, and a fairly large number of foreigners coming from many of the world’s countries. He is chiefly based in his ashram at Puttaparti in a semi-arid and very poor region of Andhra Pradesh, where he is believed by countless thousands at least to have performed many amazing and unprecedented miracles since his childhood. His teaching is typically Hindu in origin and thus has an universality and recognition of spirituality in all religions, which is one very good reason why so many people have sought him from other countries and have given so much of their time, energy and money to forward his self-declared mission, to re-establish the ancient Indian ‘eternal teaching’ (Sanathana Dharma). Well over 90% of the references and examples Sai Baba uses, however, are from Indian scriptures and former avatars or spiritual masters. There is virtually nothing original in his teachings, as he has also indicated himself – though he often omits mention of the source of his stories and examples.

Apart from this, his paranormal abilities are alleged - and not without very considerable (though not scientific) testimony and even widely observable evidence. The present author’s experiences through nearly two decades in relation to Sai Baba are also described up until ca. 1993 in the book ‘Source of the Dream – My Way to Sathya Sai Baba.’ This remains an accurate description of my experiences up until then, though rather too censored in a positive direction. (Three editions have been published: Sun-Sky Publications, Bangalore sold via the Sai Books and Publications Trust, Prashanthi Nilayam; Samuel Weiser Inc. USA, 1998 USA & Sai Towers, Puttaparti, 2000). 

My approach to Sai Baba and my interpretation of his works has since been transformed in a number of significant ways. The following study partly complements and updates the experiences recounted in my book with additional material and viewpoints, more specifically on the Sathya Sai Organisation, which I joined in 1983 and for which I represented Norway both de facto and pro forma until 1998. Experiences gained have been very positive as regards the work of many modest, warm and self-sacrificing persons who practice the teachings without any fanfare, at least in some of the countries where it operates that I have visited. However, this has frequently been spoiled by frustrating experiences relating to the structure and leadership of the Organisation and a number of its projects. These circumstances, beyond the control or influence of ordinary members, are a main reason for this study. I hope that the main spirit and purpose that Sai Baba originally inspired may continue to do so in service activities, wherever they may be carried out.

The underlying values and aim of this study

The ideals set up in Sai Baba’s teaching, upon which the SSO is supposedly based, are very largely excellent - and exceptional in various ways – for a spiritual organisation of a high and selfless order, as quotes from his discourses here will show. How far these ideals are genuinely embodied in the aims, rules and activities of his organisation is a central theme in this paper.

Since the SSO is registered in many countries, and represents itself mainly as an organisation providing service to the general public, it is in the public interest that it be subjected to some impartial scrutiny of its nature and practical activities, without this scrutiny being censored by the SSO. This is a natural right of citizens in any open society. The SSO are naturally free to respond to critical points raised in the following.

The basis of this study is chiefly participant observation through at least 17 years, participation of a personal engaged nature that also qualifies the study largely also as ‘action research’. It aims to reach, in as accurate a way as information permits, a consistent and fact-based perspective on the functioning of the SSO. This does not mean that this or any social study is neutral in the sense of being value-free… rather it is itself based firmly on values.

Gunnar Myrdal ‘Value in Social Theory’. London, 1958. “…specification of valuations (on the scientist’s part) aids in reaching objectivity since it makes explicit what otherwise would be implicit. Facts may be scientifically recorded and analysed with explicit value premises as well as without them, and this can actually be accomplished the better in the former case since the explicit value premises focuses the investigator’s attention on the values which, if hidden, are the roots of biases, since they generally set a standard of relevance and significance.” (p. 71)

Most serious social research now adopts the view that the values of the researcher should be stated, rather than pretense of a completely ‘scientific value-free objectivity’ be upheld. But bringing sociological theory to bear in various ways helps to reach a less subjectively-biassed overview. I can confidently state that the values I hold are fully in accordance with those promulgated by Sathya Sai Baba as the ‘five human values’, though I may interpret them somewhat less restrictively than is common in the Sai movement, and put in this study’s context considerable more emphasis on truthful freedom of expression and accountability than is standard practice in the Sathya Sai Organisation.

I have an important motivation in writing this, to give voice to unexpressed opinion held by many good people who do much devoted work for others in need so as to fulfill their own spiritual ends and who wish to be allowed to continue… unhindered by irrelevant and, to them, external concerns.

Due to the private nature of genuinely spiritual service, thousands of people who have joined the SSO doubtless work away at their local and often quite small projects, mostly in anonymity. The value of this should not be under-estimated, nor should estimates of its quantity really be of any relevance. That reports on one’s good actions of service (‘seva reports’) are required on a regular basis by the SSO from all registered groups and centres is in discord with the true spirit of service, which Sai Baba has taught should be a private matter between oneself and God and not the object of any publicity. This has been brought up occasionally by ‘ground level workers’ during my contact with SSO, and has been deplored by the more service-minded people in various countries, but it has never been allowed to influence the central SSO’s ‘bureaucrats’.

There is evidence and testimony that much good service work is done both by Sai Baba followers who are voluntary workers - and many who are non-enrolled participants in SSO activities. For the Scandinavian branches of the SSO from about 1985 until 1990, the collected service reports from the whole region were circulated to all the region’s groups and centres, mainly for the purpose of stimulating projects and ideas. These indicated a wide spread of attempted forms of service, yet none involved more than a relative handful of people.

Clearly, very much small-scale service work goes unreported for one and another reason. Many devotees conclude from Baba’s words that this is how it should be, too.  There is a fine line between, on the one hand, announcements about service enterprises as a means to inspire and spread knowledge about what can be done and is required and, on the other hand, making publicity about the Sai Organisation in order to spread the name and teachings of Sai Baba through media. Publicity of the SSO’s supposed excellence in service projects through mobile exhibitions, press inserts etc. is encouraged by the leadership, with an emphasis on numbers and quantity rather than quality, all of which causes unwanted competition between countries and regions for preeminence..

I have found that there are many people in the SSO who want to get on with the real work of serving others, want an organisation which is wholly supportive of them (when requested) and is minimally intrusive. An organisation that interrupts by continual demands for superfluous report writing, for giving time, energy and money to large centralized projects without corresponding benefits for the needy and suffering, too frequent and repetitive conferences to which one must travel far is one that has little to do with real  service or self-inquiry. Further, on the premise that there is good, intelligence and self-sacrifice in all who would try to practice the main teaching of any spiritual tradition, the views of all people should be respected – which means a minimum of patronizing talk and a maximum of self-autonomy. It is on such a basis that this analysis was begun and developed. This concludes my statement of the evaluations or values underpinning this paper.

On the method and theory of this study

Trained as a social scientist and philosophical analyst, I do not believe always in ‘viewing everything through rose-coloured glasses’ as Sai Baba insists one should. It is useful as a means of seeing the positive sides of things and of generating constructive experiences – both socially and psychologically. However, it has its definite limits, which are set partly by brute facts and partly by other people’s acts. To see nothing whatever that we evaluate as negative is not possible while alive in and to this world of ours. That many of Sai Baba’s own discourses dwell on the ills of the world, society and people in general also demonstrates this to the full! Positive thinking is not recommended as a means of self-investigation by Sai Baba either, quite to the contrary… for he puts the burden of all these - allegedly ‘non-existent’ - ills firmly on each our private thoughts and whatever acts spring from them! Nor is having a positive faith bias a proper way of examining collective behaviour (in the Sai Organisation, for example) or viewing its various fruitful or unwanted consequences… that way lies untruth, plus social delusions and all their consequences. It gets emotionally stressful and mentally deranging to try to ‘live’ for very long in an ever-good never-never land. Not surprisingly, those who also cross the line into psychotic behaviour are well-represented among visitors to Sai ashrams.

I pay little tribute to the school of depersonalized, pseudo-official, quantitative social science. Rather, I view the instruments of analysis provided by sociology primarily as a means of conceptually investigating, sifting and organising living information, especially when obtained through lived personal experience, with a view to greater all-round understanding from various perspectives. Though I shall not forward the view of the unquestioning, largely accepting and proactive devotee here, this is not because I have not experienced everything from that angle… I have indeed. My present perspective is a wider and more holistic approach than previously.

This study is to be taken as a contribution towards fuller potential studies, and there is no pretension on my part that it forwards the only viable hypotheses or is the final word on the matter. Also, the SSO could change and conceivably improve in future. All conclusions in social studies should be tentative, of the nature of a working hypothesis to modify if or when further convincing data becomes available. The unavailability of information about much of what goes on in the SSO (centrally and also world-wide) is itself a feature here, one which obviously limits the scientific import of this paper. Where strict information control and considerable internal secrecy are prominent features of a social institution, as in the case of the SSO, full and controllable scientific data-gathering are excluded. There is no doubt that many will disagree with the views I have reached here, even fundamentally so. So be it… a world where no open-minded or whole-hearted debate is permitted - or no one has a right to differ (except in private) - would be as a prison indeed, and we have seen enough of such ‘worlds’ in the preceding century.

This investigation is nonetheless based on close observation, on viewing interactions from several viewpoints, and so it aims to understand the social organisation by comparing its declared aims with what can on the whole be observed. See theory & method. I look into the ‘norms’ that make up the office-bearer ‘roles’ that apply in the SSO and consider tensions and conflicts that may be attributable to their interrelations within the SSO environment, or which may exert pressure on those who enter these roles.

As in almost all organisations, there are both formal cultures (social structures) and informal ones. Formalities are the focus of most transactions of international organisational meetings or conferences, and in public lectures … and are reflected in paperwork like minutes, circular letters, reports etc. Meanwhile, informal communication and decision-making occur regularly in practice, frequently avoiding accordance with the formal rules and regulations. The tensions this social disparity holds for office-bearers will be examined. Various instances of these formal vs. subordinated informal ‘cultures’ are viewed in the following. Where there are discrepancies of directives and teachings, or dissatisfaction with leadership failures and such like, a ‘double-accounting mentality’ tends to develop. This means one version of events is for trusted persons, another for all others. This mentality is closely connected to the ‘loss of face’ syndrome which is so deep-seated and common in the East. People from other cultures do not usually understand that what elsewhere is considered deceit and even outright lying, is not seldom seen as justifiable behaviour to save face in India.

Participant observation

The basis of the following is my own involvement with the SSO since 1983 – from starting and sustaining the Oslo group for many years together with the only three others in Norway who were interested enough to be members.  This brought us into contact with the wider Organisation, which is the main subject of study here. I did not join the SSO intending to research it, nor think of this during my active years. The present analysis is an empirico-rational reconstruction post factum.

The central teaching of Sai Baba, especially universal tolerance through human values and ‘ceiling on desires’, the nature of genuine spiritual service, plus the strict avoidance of publicity, preaching, proselytizing, money-soliciting or making collections for wasteful projects etc. were part of the reason for our engagement in the SSO, as it also was for many others who came and were willing to give of their various resources. To legitimise our public service projects, we naturally preferred to be under the umbrella of an established organisation with a Charter stating the unselfish, value-based nature of its work.

The Oslo group eventually developed into a larger entity and became a centre. The active persons had always a harmonious cooperation and held popular and fulfilling study groups, devotional singing (Sanscrit bhajans) and various public service activities that we despite all managed to get accepted in the extremely guru-suspicious society of Norway. Spiritual study circles became a forum for the active exchange of experiences, making for vibrant group understanding. We aimed for excellence in service, EHV training, translation, publications etc. The degree of personal conviction and involvement is described in my 1994 book, Source of the Dream.

However, by that time we had already experienced considerable difficulties explaining or rationalising (both to ourselves and to others) various directives and policies that we were expected to follow, for we – and many others – perceived that they diverged gradually more and more from the repeatedly stated teachings of Sai Baba. Further, we met with difficulties communicating with our regional coordinator, who did not reply to letters, but who never stopped urging us to expand activities, recruit more members, partake in repetitive meetings abroad, and contribute to projects at the ashram that were either beyond our resources or were irrelevant to our spiritual work and outlook based on Sai Baba’s own words. Yet, despite the one-way traffic and unwillingness to hear or learn from us about the conditions we faced, we seldom tried to press our groups’ opinion, largely in the interests of harmony and positive outlook etc.

Unfortunately, our experience of various Sai regional and central conferences was that excellence took a very secondary place in most connections. This was reinforced by meeting others from a number of other countries world-wide who were struggling with similar difficulties vis-à-vis their super-ordinate leaders. In course of time, these difficulties grew until we felt largely alienated from many practices of the SSO and its leaders. There is a variety of evidence giving reason to assume that these problems were and still are widely felt throughout the international organisation and that many active, enterprising and very spiritually-oriented persons become alienated until the simply leave, most usually quietly too. I summarise our involvement in the hope that others may benefit from these experiences and a general study of how the SSO actually functions and often fails to function well.

Concerning access to data on the SSO:

The SSO’s main document is its Charter which states its aims, structure and rules. There are two distinct versions for East and West. These documents give a general framework outlining the world structure, offices that can be held, declarations and rules, but convey very little insight into the SSO in practice, how it actually works.

Documents from the SSO concerning itself have always been cleansed for any trace of critical review or dissent. Members are instructed that all internal problems that arise are to be solved by use of ‘heart rather than head’, not least through self-examination rather than considering what others do or say. When this fails to produce the desired results, one is to resort to concentrated prayer (directed to Sai Baba). As far as can be established, all critical viewpoints – constructive or otherwise – of any aspect of the Organisation are disallowed and have almost always been ignored or censored by the SSO. This has on several known occasions led to dismissal from office of the ‘offender’ (the information here is from a relatively small region within the whole organisation). Sometimes criticism is recognized implicitly as is seen by the nature of defensive or other propaganda sent out and directed chiefly at members so as to counteract criticisms or deny that they have any substance. Due to the nature of the SSO as exemplified above, therefore, it is virtually impossible for outsiders (non-members) to study it and even a well-informed insider is usually restricted to the information allowed to ‘him’ on a regionally compartmentalized basis (note: ‘him’ because, even in the International SSO, females very seldom even become National Coordinators and none have ever been selected – i.e. by Sai Baba - for the office of Central Coordinator).

I have had occasional contact with members from a number of countries, mostly European, but also some from each of the five zones into which the SSO is divided. Further, I have had another close internal source to events taking place close to Sai Baba, not least some of the organisations’ lesser known sides… that was my elderly and very close friend through ten years, the distinguished journalist, Mr. V. K. Narasimhan, who was until his death the longtime editor of Sai Baba’s official monthly journal, Sanathana Sarathi. The hundreds of hours of private discussion we had together sometimes touched on sensitive issues concerning the SSO. Though he was not a member, he was well-informed about various persons and events at its core.

On feedback from/to/about the Organisation: Parallel to the developing overall picture of the SSO in this study, I present a number of the experiences and events within the SSO upon which this study is partly based. These are listed as ‘documented and/or anecdotal evidence’. Some of the evidence is from both public and internal documents, received in my capacity as both contact person and leader of the SSO in Norway between 1983 and 1990. As the representative of Norway, my experiences at various international meetings and conferences, and not least in Prashanthi Nilayam, have also been formative. See the illusion of democratic decisions. Other reports by persons or sub-groups within the SSO have helped form the present overall view of the SSO as a social system. So far they refer largely to countries of the European SSO, with some reference to international conferences etc. in India. One independent source is the once very active President of the Moscow Centre, deputy National Coordinator and National SSEHV Coordinator in Russia, Serguei Badaev. See feedback from the Australian ex-deputy Zonal Co-ordinator Barry Newton (posted 25/2/02) There is one means of increasing genuine knowledge of the SSO: information concerning it that is relevant to this study – whether corrective or otherwise - can be sent in and be included here, after conferring with the undersigned. Input to this study from any others who wish to contribute experiences relevant to the questions raised – whether from members, ex-members or observers - is welcomed via e-mail to the author. Obviously, neither mere outpourings of hurt feelings, loose negative opinions, or the kind of merely positive propaganda that is not firmly fact-based - would be suitable as documentation for the current purpose.
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