Guardian Unlimited
TV review
Spiritual depths

Rupert Smith
Friday June 18, 2004
The Guardian

It's difficult to write about religion without offending someone, but mercifully we're reviewing a television programme here, and not the mixture of wishful thinking and wilful credulity that leads people to worship soi-disant gurus such as Swami Sai Baba.

BBC2's This World strand last night gave us The Secret Swami, an entertaining hour that made a compelling case against Sai Baba, portraying him as a charlatan and an abuser.

  Young men who claimed to have been sexually abused by Sai Baba related hair-raising stories of "private interviews" in which the not-so-holy man pulled his skirt over his head and invited them to get down and dirty. Hilariously, one Hindu scholar reminded us that this is a practice sanctioned by neither scripture nor tradition. "Worship of the linga does not include doing the blow-job."

What started out as a routine denunciation developed into something more sinister. Sadly, the moment I see a man in a dress surrounded by grinning worshippers, I'm looking for a catch - and it didn't take much to prove that Sai Baba's "miracles" were nothing more than a bit of old-fashioned sleight of hand. On that basis, we might all end up worshipping David Blaine, which is a worry. But reporter Tanya Datta did her job properly, and went far beneath the surface of magic tricks and gaudy tat. She found that Sai Baba bought the eternal gratitude of rural Indian villagers by paying for clean water supplies, and that he caused a massive hospital to be built, funded by one of his followers, Isaac Tigrett, who co-founded the Hard Rock Cafe chain. She discovered also that the Indian government, rightly mindful of the rural vote, has turned a blind eye to claims of wrongdoing in the Baba camp. A government official got very shirty indeed with Ms Datta, shouting denials before he'd even heard the allegations. In these cases, "no" usually does mean "yes".

There was little room amid all the skulduggery for any real examination of Sai Baba's theology; all we learned was that he is an avatar, although of whom was not made clear, and that he conveniently embraces all religions. Without any real exegesis of his ideas, it was hard to know exactly what his followers believed in - it surely can't just have been Baba's ability to produce fake Rolexes out of thin air, or cough up eggs.

But even former disciples couldn't shed much light on what turned them into such true believers. A nice family from Arkansas were so crazy about Sai Baba that they encouraged their teenage son to spend as much time with the guru as possible. Despite allegations of abuse at the hands of Sai Baba, the son came out with the astonishing comment, "we are all tools, and we all have to be around for Swami to use - if he needs a screwdriver".

An hour wasn't enough to do the subject justice, and for once I was left wanting more. This isn't something I'd say lightly about television documentaries, which usually need to be edited by 50%. The mystery of Sai Baba, of his apparent protection by the authorities, of his canny manipulation of the rural poor and his inexplicable appeal to rich westerners, only deepened. Astonishingly, Sai Baba has not yet had the collar of his robe fingered by the long arm of the law.


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