The International New York Times published an article about the future of Puttaparthi after demise of Sathya Sai Baba, which contains some crucial inaccuracies, as well as omitting much that is known - especially to former prominent followers with inside experience - about the huge lifelong deceptions of this self-proclaimed 'Creator of the Universe' practiced on his followers. Therefore I reproduce their with corrective annotations (in this colour). (Robert Priddy)
Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who declared himself a “living god” as a teenager and spent decades assembling a spiritual empire, permeates every corner of this small Indian city. He transformed it from a village of mud huts into a faith center with a private airport, a university, two major hospitals, rising condominium towers and a stadium — a legacy now forcing a question upon his followers: What happens when a god dies?
India can sometimes seem overrun with gurus, spiritualists and competing godmen (as they are sometimes called). But when Sai Baba died last month at the age of 84, the nation paused in respect and reverence, if blended with skepticism, too. An estimated 900,000 people, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, paid respects at his ornate wake and funeral, which was televised live across the country. Critics labeled him a fraud and bemoaned the Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs.
(As usual poorly investigated reports on Sai Baba estimates are far above the actual numbers possible, since Puttaparthi cannot by any reckoning hold one million people. The maximum ever to visit at one time is less than 500,000, as the ashram engineer Mr. Ashok, confirmed upon inquiry.
Now, though, as the shock is starting to wear off here in Puttaparthi, people are grappling with what comes next. Sai Baba was a spiritual leader but also an economic engine. Business owners are wondering whether adherents will keep coming; construction abruptly stopped on several half-built residential towers. Sai Baba’s medical, educational and philanthropic institutions are suddenly without a leader. And for believers, there is the question of when, and in what form, he will be reincarnated.
(As of January 2014, Sai Baba remains dead and absent, of course, foreign adherents have diminished vastly in numbers and but a handful visit the ashram nowadays, with a few score or so during the biggest festival periods. Business in Puttaparthi has dropped far, far down the scale)
“We don’t feel he has left us,” said Poonam Khialani, 52, a devotee visiting last week from Singapore. “We just feel his physical form is not here.”
Many of Sai Baba’s advisers and adherents apparently were shocked by his death, even though his health had been steadily weakening. For several days after his death, the trustees overseeing his organization remained silent as the Indian news media speculated on possible infighting over an empire valued in the billions of dollars, or about the possible existence of a secret will.
(Devotees did not believe he would die, despite the direct reports about his multiple organ failures. Even when his death was announced, they believed he would rise from his grave within a day, a week, a month, a year... The infighting was indeed very intense and ugly, with many revelations of skulduggery throughout the Indian press).
“The running of these institutions has been well provided for by Baba,” said V. Srinivasan, one of the trustees, in an interview, dismissing the speculation about a secret will or a government takeover. “The trustees’ responsibility is to ensure that these institutions continue to function as they were functioning before. The material resources for that have been provided.”
(Though the funds are very considerable, the Trust remains largely unaccountable to the public or its donors. Increasing financial problems - due to alleged embezzlement, fall-off of followers and donors, restrictions on free power and other services from the authorities - have caused the Trust to introduce more and more money-saving measures and rigorous conditions for 'apartment owners' who must personally visit India to pay their apartment rent, or else forfeit its use entirely).
Last week, people in Puttaparthi still seemed in a daze, if also cautiously optimistic that their city will continue to thrive as a pilgrimage site. In 1940, Sai Baba, then 14, declared himself the reincarnation of an earlier Hindu holy man, the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918. He reportedly realized his godliness after surviving the bite of a scorpion. As word began to spread about this diminutive guru with kinky hair, believers began trickling into Puttaparthi, which gradually evolved into a small but bustling city.
Across India, various gurus operate extensive networks of ashrams, but Sai Baba’s organization was unsurpassed in scale, with service groups in every Indian state and major city, along with ashrams in more than 126 countries. His main ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, or Temple of Peace, operates like a self-contained small city, with offices for “overseas devotees,” blocks of dormitories, bookstalls, cafeterias offering regional and international fare and a central, open-air temple where Sai Baba held audiences with as many as 30,000 people every day.
(Again, the estimate of 30,000 per day is far beyond the realms of possibility. The average attendance throughout the 1990s when Sai Baba was present and available was around 3,000 plus/minus, since I regularly counted the crowd myself. The precincts from which Sai Baba could be seen until his death could not hold over 6 or 7 thousand when jam-packed. This uncritical repetition of what Sai officials claim supports the Sai Baba 'numbers game', the multiplication of attendance figures, service groups etc. to enhance his reputation)
As with other self-proclaimed godmen, Sai Baba was denounced as a fraud by many skeptics, who disparaged as sleight of hand the “miracles” he performed — producing sacred ash from his fingers or Rolex watches from his hair. Controversy also arose about claims of pedophilia toward teenage boys, accusations denied by his organization. No charges were ever filed.
(This is entirely incorrect. A Supreme Court petition was filed by a former security official of the Sai Baba ashram, Hari Sampath, and was heard in court, with a famous lawyer for the plaintiff (Kamini Jaiswal) but the documents proving this were destroyed by the Court - excepting one which was kept by the plaintiff. See complete proof of this here. Sai Baba was protected from any kind of court procedure by his devotee, former High Chief Justice Bhagwati, with the backing of many Supreme and High court judges, Indian Prime Ministers and Presidents who had already long since declared their faith in him)
What separated him from some other gurus was the scale of his philanthropic work. He built major hospitals for the poor, including the ornate pink structure in Puttaparthi that provides free health care, including heart surgery. He oversaw major water projects in response to shortages and drought. To many devotees, his appeal was that he accepted all religions and never asked people to discard their faith, only to practice it better.
(The Sai Baba Super-specialty hospital in Puttaparthi was financed by US millionaire Isaac Tigrett, not Sai Baba. It is a private, secretive and unaccountable institution which has been involved in controversies over kidney theft and primitive unhygienic condition etc. The Rayalaseema Water project was a Sai Baba-managed fiasco due to embezzlement by contractors and a drastic unforeseen fall in the water table, despite Sai Baba's claim of total omniscience)
“That was why his acceptability was so wide,” said Jatinder Cheema, who leads Sai Baba’s service organization in New Delhi. “He accepted one and all.”
(But after about 1990, only those who had been carefully vetted as believing in him, being members of his organisation, were allowed into interviews, unless they were rich, famous or otherwise desirable for promoting him - eg Sashi Tharoor when he was still in the running as UN General Secretary among many others)
Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, a scholar who has studied Sai Baba and other Indian godmen, praised the free services provided by Sai Baba’s schools and hospitals but said these institutions also were intended to perpetuate his empire by nurturing future generations of believers. If she discounted his miracles as clever magic tricks, Ms. Poggendorf-Kakar did not discount his potent appeal or his followers’ good intentions.
“He had a lot of charisma,” she said. “There’s no doubt he had something. Otherwise, he would not have been able to attract so many people.”
In his absence, though, the challenge will be maintaining the dedication and support of his followers. His schools, hospitals and ashrams depend on huge numbers of volunteers who come to Puttaparthi to perform free services, and also on a steady stream of donations. His trustees say the annual organizational budget is about $25 million, equally divided between interest from investments and donations.
In Puttaparthi, business owners are already seeing changes. If devotees once came for weeks or months to spend time near Sai Baba, now they are coming for short trips to pay homage at his burial site. Nearly the entire local economy depended on him: about 10,000 laborers from surrounding villages worked on construction sites, and hundreds of other villagers sell fruits and vegetables to visitors.
“The real impact will be known next year,” said Murli Mohan, 37, a rickshaw driver who says his business is down about a third.
(The impact has been very considerable, according to numerous articles in the Indian and international press. Shop owners report only 10% or former sales and many have relocated or intend to)
Yet most devotees are certain Sai Baba’s appeal will only broaden. Among believers, stories are circulating about “miracles” witnessed around the world since his death: sacred ashes appearing on a photo of Sai Baba in Uganda; ashes coming out of the nose of a Sai Baba statue in Russia; devotees who have seen him materialize before them.
Sai Baba described himself as the second incarnation in a trinity and predicted that the third would be born in the neighboring Indian state of Karnataka. Yet many believe that Sai Baba will be coming back as himself.
“Even in this form, we think he will come back,” said Sai Prakash, a devotee raised in the ashram. “There are signs.” (Even to those who may believe in reincarnations, it must be said that the fantasies are countless and persistent, some exceeding all possible bounds of likelihood. See here for example).