THE SATHYA SAI ORGANISATION'S SELF-PUBLICITY AND ADVERTISING
“Sathya Sai Organization
abhors campaigns and advertisements. It does not function for the sake
of advertisement. It is only Love that should bind us as one. It is our
service activity that will broadcast our ideals, not advertisements.”
(from Sathya Sai Baba’s 1999 Yugadi Discourse).
He has time and again insisted
that any kind of self-advertising is entirely foreign to the true spirit
of selfless service, Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO) leaders
exert increasing pressure on members to contribute to spreading news of
the SSO via the media. That true service of mankind is a private concern
between oneself and God is evidently no longer to be much observed.For example, photos of service work are frequently called
for to mount exhibitions at the ashram for various festivals and conferences,
or travelling showpieces of the SSO’s work! In 2000, each country was
instructed by the leaders of the International Sathya Sai Organization to “take action to
project awareness” of Sathya Sai Baba by organising publication of articles, special
supplements in the local press, talks, shows on local TV etc., in which
Sathya Sai Baba’s service activity and his contributions to society were to be prominent.
Perhaps one should not be surprised at the Sathya Sai Organisation, for they are but following Sathya Sai Baba’s actual example! In discourse after discourse, however, Sathya Sai Baba himself praises to the skies the various projects for which bear his name (schools, colleges, hospitals, water scheme etc.), saying that no one does one thousandth of what he does and there is nothing like his free schools & hospitals anywhere else in the world! In his demonstrated ignorance of Western society, welfare state education and health, or of the world’s many charitable NGO’s and voluntary organisations, he claims that his projects are unique in human experience because they offer free education and free health services! Clearly, he follows a different ideal of publicity to what he preaches.
It is claimed that Sathya Sai Baba does much for the poor...
In the run up to his 70th birthday, one could actually see Sai Baba give away a number of hand-driven tricycles to cripples, and he presented so-so many sewing machines to needy job-seekers, and some 3-wheeler tempos to unemployed young men. He also married 70 poor couples, for whom all the necessary was provided. The film was distributed throughout the world. However, Sathya Sai Baba teaches that ostentatious service is completely worthless! It is just showing off and has no spiritual value whatever! If I were to give away a number of things, I would not want it done to celebrate me, or the number of my years, nor would I want it known at all. Decent people do not trumpet their charity. He tells us: 'My Life is My Message?', and then walks about figuratively naked among the crowds, while blind believers all say 'See what a wonderful suit the Lord has!' But, as a clear eye can see, it is only his 'birthday suit'.
Rationalising advertising/publicity in the media
Some excerpts from a document circulated to groups and centres in 1985 by the Europe Group 1 Coordinating Committee show the peculiar self-contradiction that operated w.r.t. publicity in the Sathya Sai Organization generally:
“The question of public meetings with audiovisual aids (information-meetings) has been brought up time and time again by various centres and groups. We are all well aware that we are not to mission in any way, but rather to spread the Divine teachings through our example as an inspiration to others. However, rules are that we should conduct regular public meetings in our centres/groups… Such meetings should contain information on Sathya Sai Baba (who is He?), His teachings, the meaning of His miracles (inner significance), the Organisation (why an Organisation?) the activities and the work of the Organisation emphasizing Seva (esp. Group Community Sadhana), Bal Vikas and EHV.”
Then the text soon also declares:“When others arrange public meetings or in connection with radio/TV, we should not participate, if other religious organisations participate, as we want to avoid discussions and polarization. However, in connection with radio/TV and other public media, we may participate, if we have separate features, where the sterling worth of the teachings/message can be safeguarded beforehand.”
And later “…but we should be prepared to go to schools, companies/firms, public institutions & the like when requested and if this locally is considered right.”
In short, after lip service to the way Sai Baba would “spread the Divine teachings through our example as an inspiration to others”, something close to a carte blanche is given for spreading publicity. The above example is but one of many such subsequent attempts to rationalize the increasingly organized publicity for Sathya Sai Baba, the Sathya Sai Organisation etc.
Nonexistent villages project publicised:
One example of long-uncorrected publicity is about Sai Baba’s organisation having adopted 6000 villages (some quote it as 60,000 villages mentioned - perhaps only yet another unhappy Indian misprint?). In response to previous calls for village regeneration from Sai Baba, the project was instigated by Indulal Shah for the 60th birthday.
Following Sathya Sai Baba’s example again, the Sathya Sai Organization failed to correct wrong information circulated about it by itself - or by others - that would seem to put it in a good light. Nor does it ever present any negative news about projects that failed or were flawed, for all is presented as being divine perfection itself! Facts about itself are constantly misrepresented by the Organisation, reports being clinically censored to cover-up all ills. I have received testimony for all this from V.K. Narasimhan, a one-time investigative journalist of great experience, who was highly percipient and frank in correcting some of my mistaken impressions and opinions of how the organisation is run and what it has (not) done. V.K. Narasimhan was one of the very few frequently outspoken persons very close to Sai Baba, and he corrected my enthusiasm for the project saying that the project petered out quickly after a large number of 'delegates' had been to the ashram for a few days of free lunches - he referred to it all as “a washout", having ceased entirely within the first year of its inception in 1985. This village project is still trumpeted as a divine success in Sai Organisation literature, information brochures and on web pages.
No one I contacted in the Sathya Sai Organization in the 1980s and 90s had any information on the project beyond what is in the 1985 publication from the Sathya Sai Baba Publications Trust bookshop, The Beacon - a book about Sai Baba and his doings consisting in brief texts with photos. About 1 1/2 pages of text make up the section entitled "All India Exhibition - Depicting Seva Activities in 4,200 Adopted Villages In Different States of India". It shows the model village built for this exhibition at Prashanthi Nilayam. One picture is of Shah taking Baba around it. It was inaugurated in Nov. 1984 by S.B. Chavan, the Home Minister who was later crucial in the quashing of murder investigations at Prashanthi Nilayam in 1993 to cover-up for5 his guru, Sathya Sai Baba.
"The programme planners had decided to adopt 6,000 villages, leaving the choice to the state units. They had all been cautioned earlier by Sri Baba what 'adoption' meant. The villages are to be regarded as near and dear as the child you adopt."
The text also claims:"Nearly 5000 of the targeted 6000 villages have been brought under the welfare plan already. The rest are to be covered within the time set for them....”
This project would require a large staff to be at all effective or develop - even as a shoestring affair, but no such staff has ever been seen or heard of. Therefore I asked V.K. Narasimhan about this. He told me that the project was “a washout and was dropped within the first year of its inception in 1985. The main event had been an invitation via the SSO to send persons to visit Prashanti Nilayam and hear Baba give instructions on village improvement. At least several hundred persons came as village representatives from all around India, to whom the ashram offered free transport, free meals, Sai ‘darshans’ and other benefits. Laudable as this attempt to help India’s poverty-stricken and declining villages was, the activities dwindled rapidly down - after the small bonanza - to a handful of individuals here and there, as V.K. Narasimhan informed me and as the least investigative digging will bear out!
The project is even now sometimes referred to as if it were continuing in various Sathya Sai Book Trust publications and brochures, since its demise has evidently been kept secret. Village uplift has continued on a much smaller scale locally since then, mainly by occasional Seva Dal or student village help projects, mainly within Sathya Sai Taluk close to Prashanthi Nilayam.
Exaggerations about 'EHV'
In 1987, having heard at a Sai conference in Belgium a great deal from Victor Kanu about the success of EHV education in the UK, which he headed, I went to the UK for a long period intending to engage somehow in these activities, possibly even to try to start an EHV school there. There was plenty of publicity, a printed monthly tabloid newspaper edited by Kanu, with pictures of Sathya Sai Organisation leaders conferencing here and there, and mostly of Kanu and his wife. Much was written about the successes of Kanu in getting EHV up and running in UK. Victor Kanu was not very approachable, it turned out, but I got to know the deputy EHV leader, a young man called Chris Caine, well enough for him to tell me that, in fact, there were but two EHV classes in the whole of UK, one run by Kanu and his wife, the other for Indian immigrants by the then President of the UK SSO, an Indian lady. I found that this was typical of the panache with which matters are presented by SSO dignitaries.
The European Croatia Project
The impressive figures presented for the workings of the Sathya Sai Organization relief convoys to Croatia from 1992 onwards were doubtless correct. For example 2,600 tons of goods were donated and trucked to Croatia within a period of less than 2 years. However, the leaders of this project (Richard Friedrich and wife) informed me at Prashanthi Nilayam in 1995 that, apart from themselves, a few very active Sai followers in Austria, and a larger number from Holland,the great majority of those who did the actual work involved were not involved with Sai Baba at all. Subsequently, UK’s Tony Budell joined and expanded the Croatia project further. The leader confided in me that it was exceptionally difficult to motivate SSO members to work with the convoys. This is an unfortunate example of SSO taking credit in the form of placards, published materials and other publicity for the freely given service of other people.
Indulal Shah, International Chairman of the Sathya Sai Organization for decades
The leader, Indulal Shah, repeatedly demonstrated his lack of spiritual understanding in his insistence on ouward things - massive festivals, not least the 600-village project (that soon turned out to be non-existent), soliciting for super-expensive and near-useless building projects etc. He disregarded Sathy Sai Baba's former advice (which he too disregards!) that India should not beg from other countries. Besides, Shah treated numerous people who beg to differ with him in most uncourteous ways, especially non-Indians. He was a power broker - as he was when a minister in the government many years before. He strove to keep control of the organisation, even though Baba himself disbanded it and transferred powers to the Central Office. Shah wrote to all his Marathi 'relatives' around the world - plus all his well-meaning, humble sychophants among Western co-ordinators - and told them only to send reports to him, in contravention of Central Office and so of Swami's will.
In his behaviour, Shah disdains grassroot workers who alone do the actual seva, as shown when he first invited delegates at the 70th birthday conference to speak from the rostrum, demonstratively walking out alone before the first speaker began. That illustration of his attitude also comes to expression through his circulars and instructions, with his false 'dear brother and sister' form of address, while he ignores all their ideas and good advice. His treatment of some the best people who have worked for the organisation, throwing them out of office when they forward the most intelligent and well-backed views, has led to the loss of any number of devotees - always most accomplished, competant and genuine selfless workers - appointing in their place people who will kow-tow to him in their eagarness for an imagined 'place in the sun'. His treatment of Ron Laing, Leo Boogaard, Lucas Ralli, Aimé Levy and others was typical of his authoritarian and uncompassionate ignorance.