The veranda at Sathya Sai Baba's ashram, where many of the longer-term followers were permitted to sit, was peopled by a diversity of persons. Some few did appear to be genuine examples of some of the good qualities Sathya Sai Baba wanted to inculcate. Only a very few behaved with equal respect and a generous spirit towards devotees and others, often not towards people with problems or genuine grievances. I could count a very few of them as good friends (before I became disaffected, since when I have become pretty much a non-person to avoid like the plague for those who remain, and classifiable as 'a demon' it seems!). I came to know some VIPs who I would never have wasted any time on had I not been required to as a fellow believer or member of the Sathya Sai Baba Org. to do so. There were too many very prominent VIPs of whom I have heard and seen enough to know I would never want to know them better. I had realised early on that I would never want to be among their number myself, though I was encouraged by them to seek to do so.

One speaks of certain devotees as VIPs at the ashrams and they are treated as such by the staff. Some of them are 'temporary', such as ministers, governors, heads of state and foreign royalty. Others had a permanent status as 'veranda installed persons', usually granted by Sathya Sai Baba himself, which meant that they could sit on the veranda floor which surrounds the front entrance of the temple and thus be close to Sai Baba often. This usually gaveboth a better view at darshan and other privileges of which not a few of them availed themselves quite freely, like always going straight to the front of long meal queues. Such persons were often to the fore on public occasions, such as to speak in public as long as they stayed within the limits of Sai Baba's own doctrine and other requirements. Being thus in the public eye, their behaviour for better or worse announced them wherever they went, for prominence also brought scrutiny.

Many at the ashrams did look up to those who had outward signs of grace more than to those who do not. There is cult status in being a VIP. Sathya Sai Baba appointed them all himself - even though it certainly appears that most organization members would have voted nearly all of them out of office if they could have. However, Sai Baba has also equivocally remarked that VIP equally could mean 'vipers' and 'very ignorant persons'. This flat 'joke' illustrates how many a true word is said in jest! This also shows how kindly Sathya Sai Baba is in his jokes at the expense of others, ensuring the stay on bended knee. They seemed to enjoy being the butt of this omniscient humour, too, though not taking it seriously (of course).

After 2000, when the sex abuse scandals broke, the remaining VIPs persisted in acting dishonestly and self-righteously in not investigating properly the cause of sexual and other victims of Sathya Sai Baba who have sought their help - their cover-up and cowardly silence (muerta!) contributed to prolonging the suffering and even the crimes involved. Among the 'special guests' or so-called VIPs nearly all professed 'brotherhood' and 'love', often demonstratively calling one another 'brother' and 'sister', making the movement a laughing stock to sensible people, like other sects and discredited cults. They affected this monkish or evangelistic form of address in letters and talks (even while behaving mostly like far-removed cousins to one another when influence and petty power were at stake). They reported to each other on all the grace they received in the form of frequent attention or interviews from Sathya Sai Baba, and usually arranged special accommodation for themselves at conferences and workshops so they can be together and share their inside information free of any grass root members. They let the 'grace' they harvested be known to the 'ordinary followers' too in various ways. Sometimes this can be a natural desire to share one's happiness and experiences with others, but it clearly also often expresses a need to be accepted or looked up to as pious by others. If a boy at school behaved like this, or commented how much the teacher favoured him, one would more easily be able make allowances for it than with grown men and women. Sathya Sai Baba condoned this but, as usual, he also abhorred it, saying that if you say brother to a beggar, would you treat him as one and share everything with him! A good point! (Note: Sathya Sai Baba certainly NEVER called beggars 'Brother'!).

Sathya Sai VIPs 1980s
Mugshots of some of the less pleasant or more gullible VIP's (a rogue's gallery from the late 1980s)

Sai VIPs are usually not nice persons!

For example, I happened to meet a well-known Indian author devotee by the name of Mr. V. Balu who was receiving much attention (supposed 'grace') for decades and to whom Sathya Sai Baba spoke very regularly at darshan. Balu took advantage of the fact, such as by surreptitiously edging himself into the front of a very long single-line queue at Brindavan so as to obtain a handful of prasad without having to wait like anybody else. Though V.K. Narasimhan had asked me to meet this man in connection with distribution of my book in India, this incident caused me to decide not to have any dealings with him.

Again, a VIP from the European Sathya Sai Organization (Thorbjørn Meyer), who had received some sweets as holy prasad from Sathya Sai Baba, was to meet up one morning with a large group of Scandinavian devotees from his country whom he was to take on a visit to the so-called Space Theatre. He told some of us beforehand that he might be a bit late because he had promised to share some prasad Sathya Sai Baba had given him personally with some friends first. Yet he arrived where the group were waiting for him and shared his prasad with another VIP couple (Jack Hawley and wife Sylvia), all eating it slowly quite demonstratively right in front of the waiting group. What were they trying to prove, I wonder? Such complete inability to see the figures they cut seems to be shared by many Sathya Sai Baba Organization leaders. The US leader Michael Goldstein is reported by some who know him well to be so authoritarian that he is only liked by those who feel they have to be nice to him because of his position etc. (Note: Since this was written in 2003 Dr. Michael Goldstein has had his true colours shown by the BBC documentary team, who caught him out with a hidden camera. He pretends to be all smiles outwardly for publicity purposes, but he is a very self-important and aggressive Rottweiler 'behind the scenes', which the BBC film demonstrated quite adequately. In 2013 he was unceremoniously relieved of his position of Chairman of the International Organization for reasons of high-handedness and the internal struggle for influence within the ranks of the VIPs that remain. This, despite Sai Baba having selected him to the post, for the powers-that-be take no account of Sai Baba's words whenever it suits them).

Tests for VIPs and falls from grace

Such special guests of Sathya Sai Baba did sometimes have to undergo special tests too, supposedly designed to improve them. These wre regarded as spiritual boons... by those who passed them. The main test was not to have doubts, whatever was done by Sathya Sai Baba. Not all managed this, shown by the exclusion by Sathya Sai Baba himself of a number of one-time VIPs from his ashrams and the resignation of some top leaders in his Org. in few years prior to the scandals. The banning of Alvin Drucker, the US devotee with the longest time-serve at the ashrams, was a prominent example, whereby he was not allowed even to attend Sathya Sai Organization meetings and was told never to return to the ashrams again. (However, he did so semi-incognito 6 years later for a sandals (paduka) ceremony in 1998). Drucker continued to dissemble about the main reasons for his banishment, but it is known that he refused Sathya Sai Baba's expressed demand to remain single and got married instead. On what grounds he came to this decision, he is unwilling to talk, except in strict confidence to some persons. Why he is also so unwilling to tell the truth and defend the weak I do not know. Some fine day, the chief reason will surely be made known, though it should be easy enough to guess.

One small example of a boy VIP: Kasturi wrote in one of his books of a former super-favourite young Indian boy in the '60s or early '70s, a very lively little fellow who could come and go in Sathya Sai Baba's rooms whenever he liked and was allowed to speak at any time, even interrupting SB. (He is also described in Howard Levin's book 'Good Chances' where he asked Sathya Sai Baba to call a man to interview who had waited for years, and SB did too). One day the boy was cut off dead by a very angry SB... because, according to Kasturi, he had been meeting a girl! No amount of tears and waiting could move the implacable Lord! One cannot, of course, help but interpret this favouritism - and fall from grace - in the light of what is now so widely alleged about Sai Baba.

There have been enough examples through the years of VIP pride and heavy fall from grace, though these are very seldom written about. Successful frauds in various countries (imitating his manifesting vibuthi, Sathya Sai Baba rings etc., or doing healings and alleged Sathya Sai Baba kundalini yoga) have often been cultivated like demigods by numbers of Sathya Sai Baba devotees, and these frauds have occasionally been dealt with summarily by a warning notice in Sai Baba's journal Sanathana Sarathi. Prominent VIPs like Colonel Joga Rao and ashram head narayanen - embezzlers in the ashram- were given their marching orders, not least Mr. N. Suri of the Sathya Sai Book and Publications Trust, who was caught with tens of thousands in unaccounted funds and with cooked books and seriously lacking accounts when the 1993 murders were being investigated and was later cut off relentlessly by Sai Baba, though he was still allowed to sit on the veranda daily.

Extreme persistence pays off

Sathya Sai Baba certainly noticed who was ever to the fore, which is why there was such a lot of pushing and shoving, cheating for better places in the lines, obtaining chits or making use of friends and relatives in the Seva Dal, even with bribery etc. in that 'Abode of Supreme Peace'. A peculiar variant of 'earning one's place' to obtain 'the attention of the Lord' was practiced by two Westerners who sat and waited longer than anyone else (countless thousands of hours since the early 1980s) so as to try to obtain the foremost possible places twice daily at darshan - Jack Hawley and Erik Henriksen. This paid off, and they were as noticeable as sore thumbs, often getting good places and often begging or looking desperate for attention. There were several others like them. They were there so often so that Sathya Sai Baba could hardly have ignored their tireless zeal at sitting there without seeming really heartless to all observers.

These two were both eventually 'blessed' with VIP status too. One of them was invited to hold 'lectures for foreigners', in which he mainly parroted an over-simplified version of Sathya Sai Baba's moralism together with his wife... Dr. Jack Hawley and Mrs. Sylvia Hawley. The other was allocated a flat for his use alone, a Danish devotee (Erik Henricksen) who brazenly defrauded a fellow devotee by failing to honour a signed contract, (I have seen all the documentary proof) but who nonetheless constantly received favours from Sathya Sai Baba. This was another way in which I learned that sheer dishonesty and an offensive ego are no hindrance to much attention and close physical proximity to Sathya Sai Baba. This is one of Sathya Sai Baba's many ways of binding certain people to himself, men who are unquestioning but useful parts of the propaganda machine, such as by translating his discourses (as Erik Henriksen did for years).

The 'veranda-person' could wait in the shorter, more privileged queue of VIPs, (in which the two I mention also continued to outwait all others) so as to get the choice of best places on the veranda before the hundreds of students are also loosed there like a pack of hounds. Firmly woven into the ever-more enveloping social and ideological web, many such persons (not so much his students, though!) eventually lose the means to see anything except through Sathya Sai Baba glasses... automatically putting all such comment as I make here down to ego, jealousy or what not, without knowing anything of the real state of affairs. There were more than enough other devotees who do all they can to beat other people to better places day by day, always ahead of all those who are too unassuming (or chivalrous) to push for prominence. Those who believed in good action with a low profile more than in outward appearances were very seldom treated well. Many such unfortunates, imagining themselves supremely lucky or blessed and chosen nonetheless, accepted all this and the problems that go with it as a preferable substitute for facing otherwise empty lives, broken homes, untenable marriages, social failures and many other life problems.

Grovelling beggars for imagined grace and blessings

One also observed devotees - including many overseas visitors - who looked at Sathya Sai Baba beseechingly or with a humble kind of desperation, like a beggar grovelling, which looked so self-demeaning as not to be fitting for upright men and women. Is it not possible to accept others as being more powerful or greater than oneself without kow-towing, which appears distastefully too much like slavish cringing and crawling for favours with the ever-outstretched hand. Sathya Sai Baba has pointed out that men before God are mostly no better than beggars, for all they have or can have comes ultimately from God... but also that God is in us and we are God. One does not get this impression at all from years of watching the relationship between Sathya Sai Baba and devotees. Only in recent times has he said that he does not want devotees to touch his feet, because this makes it look as though all are not divine… but only after 60 years of constant obeisances by everyone around him. That he always throve on it was perfectly evident , and within a few months his feet were as available as ever!

That so many who were drawn to Sathya Sai Baba into his kind master-slave relationship was considered by his apologists to be a most natural result of his stated all-inclusive policy, to help to redeem everyone, from the needy, suffering and poor in spirit to the well-to-do and those of position or power. Sathya Sai Baba seemed mostly to choose as his officials and VIPs persons who lack civility, demonstrate self-importance, are bossy with a general unwillingness to listen or lift a finger to help people (other than by patronising words). These traits are not only seen in the many Indians among them. Some European VIPs came to emulate the Indian style towards their 'subordinates' (read 'inferiors'). It was said in defence of Sathya Sai Baba by some, that these people are 'his instruments' for testing the tolerance and forgiveness of everyone around them. What a bizarre and unfriendly way of teaching? So I soon found that it was usually preferable to associate more with those unassuming persons who many regard as unimportant - even as 'losers' -because they are not striving to demonstrate 'leadership' or be at frequent interviews and seek to hold other positions of privilege. There is much more friendliness among them, fewer opinionated viewpoints and they are not so parsimonious with kind words and helpful hands. One might surmise that, being the less deeply sold to Sathya Sai Baba personally than to humanity generally, this kind of person is among the first to have the decency to be open to the pleas for understanding from Sathya Sai Baba's various victims, sexual and otherwise. This has been the case in my experience so far, as more intelligent persons gradually face the music, investigate the facts, and so become disaffected.

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