India's culture of official secrecy is found almost everywhere in the sub-continent. Sathya Sai Baba ashram staff are particularly under its sway. They have always tended to give only short, often irrelevant, answers to questions to such an extent that they would say only what suited them, no more and no less. Their attitude, especially to Western foreigners, was of the 'mind your own business' kind and they were clearly told to reveal as little as possible that could in any way show that anything was less than perfect. Most such organizational hierarchies need to delegate authority as they grow, a problem for sects and guru cults because the top figure soon loses the close control over followers that is a prerequisite for him or her to hold onto their position unchallenged. Dr. Paul Brunton was an astute and widely experienced observer of Indian ashrams, where he experienced noted totalitarian tendencies in most of those he visited. Central officials and spokesmen easily usurp some power as regards things with which the guru does is not directly concerned, especially where finances are involved. Most of the Indian population is accustomed to not having to think for themselves, to being told what to or think by their superiors, and like sheep to do nothing without the go-ahead of a superior. They are consequently easy prey when wolves get among them. Following orders slavishly to the letter is ingrained in top-down and especially caste societies - for full freedom of speech and criticism is against the entire tradition. Information is normally under the tight surveillance and control of those holding central positions. This makes it easy for the masters to cover up negative facts and incidents and to get away with underhand operations and crimes..
Unscrupulous persons easily take advantage of the top-down order by insinuating the guru's likely wrath, exclusion, excommunication or worse to those who wish to speak out about untoward matters. This has been demonstrated in any number of sensational cases of major gurus with ashrams in India - and also Eastern gurus abroad - in recent decades, where murder has frequently been committed - even over long periods - before the facts were revealed in court cases. Unfortunately, Prashanti Nilayam is certainly no exception!
The Sathya Sai ashrams's silencing of unrest: No one was at any Sathya Sai Baba
ashram for long can have failed to notice the tight-lipped behaviour of
nearly all Sai officials, and this mirrored the behaviour of Sathya Sai Baba too. He was known for answering only what suited him and frequently only seeming to answer or saying vague and irrelevant things, changing the subject etc. He would often simply ignore the questioner and turn to someone else. This he could do as all accepted him to be an inscrutable
and almighty Godhead whose every act had deep meaning. Those who came there already believing fully in him, or had become sufficiently indoctrinated, accepted these reactions as being mysterious, having hidden messages and lessons for all who heard him. He used to smile at people a lot and give many outward signs of being a caring and loving person, which, in the ashram atmosphere was hard to ignore or doubt, especially for Indians and other religiously imbued persons.
Talking was looked down upon by Sai Baba as a waste of energy and distraction from work! All informal chatting while at Sai Baba ashrams is discouraged by nearly all office bearers and zealous believer., This was backed up by 'silence' notices hung or painted on walls (eg. the Sai Baba aphorism: "Silence is the language of the realized" is more of a control signal than to say that by keeping silent one might get realization, or give the impression of it!). Talking was forbidden in many circumstances - silence was supposed to reign when Sai Baba came out to give 'darsan' (his walkabout) and it should preferably have been 'pin-drop silence', as Indians so quaintly put it. (However, it hardly ever really did work that way, someone was always chattering to a neighbour or whispering away somewhere). Few noticed, however, that Sathya Sai Baba himself frequently talked and talked - endless discourses, and his talk always dominated the interviews where devotees sat as if mice before a big self-satisfied cat.
Anything like gossip, rumour-mongering or 'back-biting' were thought to be cardinal faults because Sai Baba harped on about this time and again in such most unreasonable terms - calling such talk 'evil' or 'a great sin'. One has to ask, what was Sai Baba so worried will be said and spread? The answer springs readily to mind, he did not want anyone to know of the many untoward incidents, well-founded sexual accusations, details of murders, disappearances, suicides and much more.
False or true friends? Sai Baba now and again advised his flock to have only God as a real friend. That implied for most of them that it was him alone one could trust fully, no one else at all! Also, less extremely, "In this world God is the only permanent friend" (Sanathana Sarathi November 1998, p. 297) He frequently discouraged his students and interviewees from having 'false friends' and denigrated the role of friendship in life generally. Yet on the other hand many of his stories are about the value of friendships in the scriptures and in life, so he was unable to sustain his own advice really. Further, he promoted satsang, which is keeping good (i.e. 'godly') company, and he considered this kind of friendship may lead one to greater things, including the giving up of attachments to worldly desires (without explaining how or why). In this connection he referred to the old saying 'birds of a feather flock together' and pointed out how one can tell who a person is by his or her associates. The result of following such advice can be seen in the most conscientious of his devotees, that they no longer associated with anyone who was not a believer in him. This was a means to the end of building a movement and an organization where no disturbing influences can intervene and everyone is under censorious control of Sai Baba via his chosen leaders and the group pressures that always bear down on the critic or whistle-blower. Yet he advised that devotees should "be friendly to everyone" but not take it to excess. He would say to his students that they should say always speak sweetly and softly, but then pass on, a kind of 'hello-goodbye' cult. He held that friendship is to be with equals, not all and sundry (see Sanathana Sarathi July 1989, p. 179). He also pointed out, and for once it was quite relevant, that most friendships are based on selfish considerations (Sathya Sai Speaks Volume 14, p. 67).
It is known to social science that most people take their friends as the more reliable source of information rather than independent or impersonal sources. By limiting his followers to friendships within the circle of believers who dare see, hear or speak no evil (at least about himself) Sai Baba had a means to control of their information and keep outside criticism from them. Full, proper information about all that happened would (and increasingly often does) weaken and eventually kill off faith in him and most of what he claimed about himself and events. Incidents that could bring the slightest disrepute to him or anything connected officially with him were never reported (except within the gossip circles of the more cynical servitors, of whom there were any number). Despite went on beyond the public eye, or behind closed doors or the dark, Sai Baba needed to keep control of talk. His sexual preferences were too well known to most Puttaparthi villagers and Indian ashram residents and have even been admitted to Westerners by a number of his close servitors through the years. Such matters of homosexual relations with minors are all almost invariably passed over in silence in India (unless perhaps a foreigner can be blamed) - the double morale tolerates and thus silently accepts such doings officially shown to be extremely widespread. Of course, Sai Baba had long realised that knowledge of this was destroying the hugely inflated reputation he had gained and showed him up as not even being a pure and decent, law-abiding person. For many years, he was evidently nervously awaiting the day when his doings would be revealed and accusations would hail down, for he tried to avert this through rigorous censorship and brain-washing of the faithful (later backed up by cosmic threats of rebirth into shameful circumstances). His private predictions to close devotees of the accusations and fall-off that were bound to come were clearly a precaution, if the worst happened, to back up his claim of omniscient prescience.
The Sathya Sai organization's control and censorship culture learned at the ashrams is found throughout the Sai movement and was copied in nearly all Sai Organization groups and centres around the world, all the more strictly so at national or international meetings and committees. One would literally never voice criticism of anything that could be considered as 'bad' or remotely negative if it was connected with Sai Baba, his works or organizations. This is still fully backed up by all the remaining ageing leaders in the Sathya Sai Organisation, who yet comply with all cover-ups and unquestioningly accept everything handed to them - whether lies or not - as being "the will of the Lord" etc. Yet a considerable number of the best founder members and active leaders resigned or were 'thrown out' - i.e. banned for reasons frequently unmentioned, but where an individual voice has been raised on some sensitive issue. See examples here and here).
So there was a relative dearth of well confirmed facts about anything that may be thought to reflect in any way poorly upon Sai Baba. Virtually every setback and difficulty was and still is denied or explained away. When not entirely unavoidable, diverse efforts were made to hush them up. Serious incidents caused the ashrams to be emptied of all foreign visitors and even residents, often on a few hours notice! Thus, the considerable number of disappearances, suicides, and murders of both foreign and ethnic Indian devotees were buried where possible or played down, as were also all lesser ills like the frequent epidemics of debilitating throat/chest ailments, dysentery and stomach infections most widespread at big festivals. Further, nearly all details of donations and finances were kept secret, as well as how and why accommodation was issued and any number of other internal matters. Cover-ups were, in my fairly broad experience of affairs there, endemic to Sai Baba ashrams and the fear of leaking secret information was like a constant cloud under which all residents and leaders existed, however good they may have been at rationalising each episode.
Some examples: a villager's death caused by Sai Baba's driver; that man's self-immolation as a result; a male US visitor killed at Brindavan found with his testicles cut off, the murder within the ashram of Sai Baba's long-term violent bully and gatekeeper Kumar, a van accident on the way to Bangalore in which two students died, the death of a woman devotee under the 'wish-fulfilling' tree (!), the rape and murder of another foreign lady in Puttaparthi, the knifing to death by two thieves of a Swiss lady in her new ashram apartment, the Spiritual Museum dome's collapse causing the death of three Americans... plus a number of other deaths in veiled circumstances through the years. The first mentioned incident is worth recounting. In the late 1980s, Sai Baba's personal driver for over 20 years took his own life by immolating himself, dowsing himself in petrol and setting himself on fire under the Shiva statue in the Hillview Stadium. He had failed to follow a warning, repeated three times by Sai Baba, to drive more slowly. While testing one of Sai Baba's fleet of cars, he happened to knock down and kill a villager in a place near Puttaparthi. This was hushed up by secret monetary compensation by the ashram officials or, in a more accurate term, 'bribes'. The poor man was driven to this by words uttered by Sai Baba himself. According to what Narasimhan told me when I asked about this incident, the words of Sai Baba had been that, if one did not follow his directions to the letter after repeated warnings, one might as well set fire to oneself! However, the ashram officials must bear some of the real blame too, for they reacted to his 'crime' while Sai Baba was away in Brindavan by rigorously banning him from the ashram, knowing that he had no property or money, for he had been a selfless server of Sai Baba for decades, and so he chose to end it all. This is how the aphorisms so dear to Sai Baba, "Help ever, hurt never" and "Why fear when I am here" actually play out when his interests are seen to be threatened in any way, even by a road accident!
Time and again, it appears that, where Sai Baba is involved, the 'bottom line' in any major incident could not be accessed except by determined investigation, careful digging and correlating information critically from many sources. The very effective cult of tight wraps on information around Sai Baba, about what he did when not visible at darshan, about his many failed minor and major plans, misled all devotees into believing that things were just fine! It was sometimes apparent that Sai Baba could somehow influence the perceptions and even consciousness of people by paranormal means - and it seemed on occasion that he actually manipulated their own sensory perceptions. This was not any well-known form of suggestion or hypnosis, however, but an ability that is so remarkable and fleeting as to be almost indescribable by those who experience it, as I myself did on a number of occasions. Such phenomena have been described in connection with Tantric mystics and other gurus (including fallen or brashta yogis), not least by the world famous Romanian writer and religionist of wide personal paranormal experience, a follower of Swami Shivananda of Rishikesh, Mircea Eliade, and - of course - by very many other convincing witnesses from all around the world in almost all cultures and eras. It is not the abilities that are in question so much as the ends to which they are sometimes put! (Nor do such abilities prove anyone Sai Baba to be a divinity, of course. Sai Baba has said that anyone can realize them through attaining to God consciousness.
Professor N. Kasturi, both a historian and a journalist, who was in his 50's when first appointed by Sai Baba to write his biography, once struck me as a careful, but fair and frank, commentator on most events. I did not feel that he went out of his way in his private talks or replies to questions to present an unduly rosy picture of everything that occurred around Sai Baba. Yet his writings were quite different. Even though he did not cover over all unpleasant facts, such as some attempts made to kill Sai Baba in his younger years, which he reports on in the four volumes of the main biography of Sai Baba, Sathyam, Sivam, Sundaram, he turned them into apparent proofs of Sai Baba having divine powers. He avoided negative reports about most persons visiting or living in the ashram - except where claims by persistently fraudulent persons had to be refuted and he was also his own strictest critic, in conversation as well as in print. Yet he still also wore rose-coloured glasses at all times and never reported untoward happenings in the ashram like suicides, killings in Puttaparthi of foreign visitors and other unmentionable sexual abuse facts about which he could not possibly have been unaware, as so many residents were. Still, his sympathetic accounts strike one as realistic only in part. He is despite all largely responsible for the culture of heavily glossed over descriptions and blatant eulogy of almost everything connected to Sai Baba which became the rule in all official writings in Sai Baba's journal and other organs.
As more undeniable conflicting and revealing facts emerge about Sai Baba's early years to contradict the official version on point after point, it becomes more and more evident that Kasturi was a very pro-biased interpreter, lacking in critical acumen and comparative skills. In fact, he has functioned much more as a 'spin doctor' for Sai Baba than a reporter. The same goes for all those who followed in his footsteps, from Howard Murphet to Samuel Sandweiss to John Hislop and onwards into the mass of hagiologic eulogies. This development helps make its progenitor Kasturi seem more credible than most writers on Sai Baba, and more believable than he most likely is! Persons mature and fearless enough openly to discuss any such awkward facts in a helpful and constructive spirit are in great dearth everywhere, and no less so at ashrams, which are virtually self-contained.
These 'total institutions', as they are known in sociology, have their own rules and norms, existing mostly in isolation and with a high degree of independence from wider society. Group pressure to follow the rules - written and unwritten - is constantly present. This pressure can unify too, having some useful functions and positive aspects. For example, the variety of unwritten rules about how to behave, where to walk and sit, when not to move etc., in the huge crowd that gathers frequently for darshan at Sai Baba ashrams are soon picked up within the group and - when not observed - are helpfully applied or eventually enforced by those who have the duty of disciplining the crowd when necessary. Without such rules, the management of the vast crowds from every kind of background and all nations or cultures that gather there would doubtless lead to crushes and deaths by trampling, as occurs all too often in India at religious festivals.
Group pressures also invariably work to unify against suspicions or criticism coming from outside. When this comes from within, however, the organization often turns to censorship and then censure of those who speak frankly. This is the great problem of total institutions, not least of most religious organizations and especially ashrams, to which Sai Baba's are certainly not exceptions. Many brush all hints of misrule and corruption under the carpet, believing that they become better devotees and increase their chances of receiving grace in one or another form. Sheepishly following is a trait encouraged and sometimes outwardly rewarded - at least in small ways - at Sai Baba's ashrams and other institutions, especially by those leaders who revel in power over others and internal prestige.
Sai Baba's teaching blackens those who criticize, spread negative news or raise doubts, even when there are valid grounds and openness is justified. Thus, Sai Baba has even lately called dissenters 'Judases' implying that their actions can never be redeemed, even throughout any number of future births ( see his infamous Christmas Discourse, 2000). (He was doubtless also quite unaware of the modern Biblical research about Judas, Jesus' closest disciple, who it emerges did not 'betray' him at all.) The doctrine that worldly facts are not truth is easily misused to cover up facts in ashrams - which are all also inevitably involved in worldly dealings. The claim is that facts have no significance beside the higher, divine truth and so can safely be ignored. Therefore one distorts actual matters and presents doctrinal half-truths in their place. But the old saying that 'a half-truth is often worse than a lie' holds true! Idealising propaganda by Sai Baba and his various officials it soon becomes largely self-induced and self-sustained. Fed by a flow of indoctrination and misinformation, this leads to a kind of brainwashing of a physically non-violent but thereby yet more effective kind.
The converse of all this is growing disaffection among those who feel most suppressed by it, while the 'outside world' that happens to observe it, finding its questions unanswered, feels all the more that many suspicions may well be justified. All in all, there is a dearth of facts or any unbiased accounts of any events from anyone connected with Sai Baba - especially about anything like finances, setbacks to Sai projects, how and why accommodation is issued to those who have donated for rooms, plus on any number of other matters. The law of complete unaccountability is absolute throughout all of Sai Baba's doings and institutions!
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