Letters to the Editor - Long ignored and eventually rejected by the journalist Payal Nair and her editor and publisher at 'Asian Voice' - C.B. Patel. Dhiren Katwa, senior editor, was also involved.The two e-mails (below the main article) pointing out the falsity of several alleged facts in the article and in thestatements of those whose claims were reported were rejected out of hand by 'Asian Voice'. Further, the reporter in question (P. Nair) revealed her agenda and repeatedly demonstrated hypocrisy in her e-mails to me, which I withhold from publication pending any further developments. At least I did not pursue the matter with the UK Press Council, seeing that she was so young and naive as she proved to be. But criticism she must face, since her article has been blazoned around by libellers and smear merchants against all former followers who have become critics of Sathya Sai Baba.
He claims to be the direct incarnation of the saint Shirdi Sai Baba, and is self-proclaimed living god with supernatural powers. The prolific Sri Sathya Sai Baba, India’s most popular and enigmatic spiritual guru with a claimed world following of 30 million devotees in over 165 countries, is no less than a global phenomenon. But, this living avatar has been dogged by controversy for over 40 years. He is the subject of several books, newspaper articles and documentaries, most questioning his god-like powers and, rather worryingly, alleging that he has sexually abused young male devotees for a number of years.
Last Thursday, a BBC 2 documentary entitled The Secret Swami, sought to rake up this controversy once again.Investigative journalist Tanya Datta travelled to Puttaparthi, a large township in Ananthapur District of Andhra Pradesh state, in South East India, the birthplace of Sai Baba and home to his famous Prashanti Nilayam ashram to shed light on recent allegations.
The documentary had a two fold purpose, firstly, to investigate sexual abuse claims against the 78 year-old guru, and secondly to try and ascertain whether he really does have god-like powers. What Ms Datta found were disturbing testimonies by two western devotees, who claim to have been abused as teenagers when they lived in Sai Baba’s ashram during the early 1970s.
Americans Alaya Rahm and Mark Roche say they were subject to degrading abuse at the hands of Sai Baba, and that he had allegedly threatened if they told anyone. “He told me that if I said anything, then my life would be full of pain and suffering. I became afraid that if I told my parents, I would lose them forever. No youngster can handle that,” says Alaya Rahm. It further emerged in the documentary that the youngster’s father, Al Rahm, had also been subjected to similar experiences as a Sai devotee, but had thought it was ‘normal practice, an initiation ceremony.’ When asked what he felt about Sai Baba, Mark Roche said, “I feel totally betrayed. I gave 25 years of my life to Sai Baba, and he has completely let me down.”
On the subject of Sai Baba’s miracle making, the jury is most definitely out. There have been several formal investigations by western scientists, who have concluded that Sai Baba does, indeed, possess some paranormal and psychic powers. However, the sceptics are out in force within India, and some of the country’s top illusionists claim he is no more than a glorified magician, whose hand waving distracts the crowd while he supposedly conjures up objects out of thin air. However, one phenomenon that remains unexplained is the sudden appearance of Vibhuti (holy ash) from Sai Baba pictures.
With as many critics, Sai Baba also has his large, devoted and loyal following, who will hear no wrong against their god. Some of his famous followers include John Lennon, actor Richard Gere and Bill Clinton. The ashram in Puttaparthi is said to be more visited than the Vatican in Rome, as millions flock to see, touch and be near Sai Baba. Pilgrims come from all over the world, and in particular the ashram sees many foreign devotees from as far a field as Croatia and Nigeria. According to one London-based Swiss devotee, Avalane Prashad, “his appeal is universal because his teachings draw people in, you feel calm and peace when you see and hear him,” she says.
The latest allegations against Sai Baba have caused a furore amongst the global Hindu community, some of whom have threatened to take legal action against the BBC. Asian Voice spoke to Mr Ashok Bhagwani, a trustee of the Sai Organisation UK, who said, “The BBC has acted totally irresponsibly. The allegations in the documentary are completely factless and baseless.” He adds, “What actual evidence does the BBC have to substantiate these claims? These allegations have been circulating for years and have never been proved. As far as I’m concerned, there are 30 million happy devotees in the world, but every so often you will get two or three who will make these wild allegations.” Mr Bhagwani also states that when devotees are selected by Sai Baba for a private interview, there is always someone else present in the room, and this is especially the case when women and children meet him. “We will not take these claims lying down”, says Mr Bhagwani, “we will protest and make our feelings clear to the BBC.”
A spokesman for the BBC told Asian Voice, “The profile of Sai Baba went to great lengths to be balanced and fair, and did not simply concentrate on the negative allegations.”
“As the research developed it became clear that the film was about a crisis and ultimately a betrayal of faith. Genuine Sai Baba followers like the Rahm family have had their faith shattered in the most disturbing manner. The man they believed to be God was repeatedly sexually abusing their son. All over the world similar stories are emerging from former devotees. Governments around the world are deeply concerned and are beginning to take action warning their citizens about Sai Baba.”
“We were very keen to cooperate with the Sai Baba organisation in the making of this film, offering them many opportunities to take part but they refused. This was in no sense an attack on the faith. I believe the film showed respect for the genuine believers, and it would have been remiss of the BBC not to examine such allegations. A stance we’ve taken when similar charges have arisen within other denominations.”
Speaking about his positive experiences as a biochemistry student at the Sathya Sai Arts College in Bangalore during the 1970s, Navin Patel says, “I’ve studied there long enough, and visited the ashram many times, to know that these allegations are untrue.” He adds, “The documentary is very misleading. They have based it on just these two western devotees, who may have their own monetary agendas. Why didn’t they speak to Indian or British devotees, and why weren’t people in the ashram interviewed? In my opinion, it is just western journalists jumping on the Sai Baba bashing bandwagon.”
Another devotee, Gitaben Shah, tells me, “Sai Baba is God because he advocates pure love, peace, truth and humanitarian service. He doesn’t ask that people change their religion just that they become better people.”
Sai Baba’s motto of “love all, serve all” is particularly evident in the charitable works he has orchestrated of building several schools and the Super Speciality hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, and the large water project he initiated in Bangalore in the 1990s. Adorned by the rural poor as a messiah who has bestowed them with clean water, this is where his popularity is said to lie. Although there have been calls for Sai Baba and his ashram to be properly investigated, he seems to have full impunity from the Indian government, with many ministers, senior politicians , industrialists, judiciary members and Bollywood stars also being devotees.
Whether Sai Baba is a living god, or just a
charlatan, one thing is for certain, he is rarely out of the headlines,
and will continue to be for many more years to come.
Click here for scan of the original article
THE FOLLOWING TWO E-MAILS TO THE EDITOR - C.B. PATEL - WERE COMPLETELY IGNORED BY 'ASIAN VOICE'!
In an e-mail I sent the following text for eventual publication:-
Unfortunately, there are a number of serious errors
in your article of Saturday 26th June, 2004, entitled 'New Allegations
of Abuse by Sai Baba'. It is wholly incorrect, as asserted there,
that there have been any "formal" scientific investigations
of Sai Baba's 'miracles'. A couple of parapsychologists tried in the
1970s to carry out a somewhat scientific investigation, but they were
denied this and no experiments of any kind were allowed. One of them
was Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson, who then went around interviewing people
about miracles with the use of a questionnaire. He discovered, among
other things, that there had never been a 'resurrection' of Mr. Walter
Cowan, as Sai Baba and other claimed. There is no other serious parapsychological
material published about Sai Baba than Haraldsson's and Osis' work.
Asian Voice incorrectly mentions that John Lennon and Bill Clinton were followers, another of the many baseless myths circulated uncritically by Sai followers. Bill Clinton was most certainly never a follower of Sai Baba, there is no shred of evidence anywhere to support this. However, Hillary Clinton was said to be intending to visit Sai Baba (a persistent rumour in Sai circles) during a visit she made to South India in the late '90s when she travelled from Chennai to Bangalore. However, in the event she never went near the place. There is no evidence of her being anything remotely like a Sai Baba follower either. Dr. Goldstein made the claim some time after Bush won the US election, that Al Gore was a follower who would make an announcement supporting Sai Baba. Such an announcement never came, of course. Goldstein claimed this while being filmed in Argentina, where he tried to defend Sai Baba against similar serious sex abuse allegations from several other persons than the BBC interviewed.
However, it is a fact that John Lennon and Yoko Ono went to the ashram so as to take a look, after George Harrison had been there. The American lady of Indian origin who was given the job of chaperoning them there, Indra Devi, had never heard of them! She kept mistakenly calling John, 'Mr. Lemon'. They never even saw Sai Baba from a distance and left in a bad mood, according to Indra Devi in her hagiographic book, Sai Yoga, published in the early 1980s by the Sai Publications and Books Trust, Puttaparthi, India.
Of famous people who have been to sit at the feet of
Sai Baba, who Asian Voice did not mention, were Goldie Hawn, Stephen
Segal and the Duchess of York. The persistent rumours among Sai followers
that Prince Charles visited Sai Baba in secret have been refuted to
journalists, such as Mick Brown, by his Press Officer and are totally
unsupportable, since Charles was reported in the British press as
having had an application to visit rejected by the ashram authorities.
One of Sai Baba's closest attendants, the well-know Indian journalist
V.K. Narasimhan, told me that he had been handed a letter by Sai Baba
from Charles to which he was told to reply. Narasimhan scoffed at
the idea that Charles had ever met Sai Baba, though he wanted to.
It is technically correct to say that Sai Baba's ashram is "said to be" visited by more than is the Vatican in Rome. However, this is only what devotees say, repeating Sai Baba's own ridiculous boast that 3 million attended his 70th birthday celebrations. However, the ashram engineer, Mr. Ashok, told people that the maximum capacity of the entire arrangement was 300,000. On the main day, everyone who could walk or crawl was in the Hillview stadium, which was only 3/4 full. It has a capacity of maximum 250,000. Now the crowds at St. Peters on annual occasions far, far exceed those numbers. To see the crowd filmed at the Vatican or Mecca on international news media, allegedly around 3 million, was to see a vastly greater number than at Sai Baba's biggest event (70th birthday). I was there and estimated the numbers myself as definitely under 300,000. The photographs and films of the Sai crowd can be examined and compared by anyone who doubts this simple fact. It is all a case of the massive totally-positive propaganda and systematic misinformation sent out by ashrams for many years and by the Sathya Sai Organisation (within which I was a national leader for the best part of two decades, in Norway).As to the refutations of the allegations by diverse followers, none have been able to monitor Sai Baba in his bedroom, which he is well known to share with several college boys every night). Nor is it correct that there is always someone monitoring young men in interviews, since I have seen a number go into the 'private room' for longish periods quite alone with Sai Baba behind a firmly closed door. Mr Bagani is simply badly misinformed. The extent and number of the allegations is legion and the circumstantial and corroborative evidence is massive. Extensive documentation can be examined here to one's heart's content. The truth about Sai Baba is not popular with Sai followers, we see from the comments published!
----- Original Message -----
From: Sanjay Dadlani
Sent: Thursday, July 08, 2004 1:48 PM
Subject: Your latest Asian Voice column on Sai Baba
Dear Mr. Katwa,
I noted with great interest your column in the Asian Voice dated 3rd July 2004. I do regularly read your column and I am impressed with your insights and views, but I was most surprised to find your Sai Baba editorial to be a totally one-sided affair. I observed with great gloom your statement that you had approached no less than twenty followers of Sai Baba for their views, though most unsurprisingly only six responded. May I ask if it was not totally impossible to search out a sceptic or two to provide a more balanced article?
Aside from that, do you not think it rather awkward that almost every Sai devotee whom you must have met, as well as those who have been printing editorials in the Letters page of Asian Voice, is in a state of extreme denial regarding the allegations against Sai Baba and thus promoting a climate of whitewash? Contrary to the usual image of a typical devotee being a sweet person, I was most startled to read the statement of one Bhupendra Desai who compares the allegations to "dogs barking behind a strong powerful elephant." You may like to know that this is a common attitude expressed amongst Sai followers who, in most cases, have done absolutely nothing at all to verify the allegations and have simply become armchair critics of an investigative documentary like that of the BBC's. Why, even Jega Jegathesan, the National Co-ordinator of the Sai Organisation in Malaysia, once compared the allegations to "faeces on the ground" in an official circular sent to Organisation zonal officers around the world.
I do call the BBC documentary investigative because, if nothing else, it exposed the sneering attitude towards the allegations against Sathya Sai Baba as coming from the very top. If you watched the documentary, you might have noticed that Murali Manohar Joshi, (formerly India's Minister for Science & Technology, then Union Minister for Human Resource Development, but now out of power) stammered and stuttered and was unable to confirm if the Indian Government had carried out an official or unofficial investigation into the allegations that led ex-PM Vajpayee to pen a letter condemning the same. Also, Dr. Michael Goldstein - the World Chairman of the Sathya Sai Organisation - was also exposed in a rather silly manner as stating that a legalistic investigation into the suspicions of sexual abuse and murder is "not possible" simply because he thinks that Sai Baba is not guilty. I ask you, is that a proper way of conducting an investigation?
I also noticed that you had interviewed Mrs. Ranu Mehta-Radia, who is a head-teacher at the Sathya Sai School of Harrow. On the subject of education, you might be interested to know that UNESCO pulled out of an education conference scheduled to be held at the Baba's gurus headquarters in September 2000, explicitly stating in an official media advisory on their website that the reason was because they were deeply concerned about widely-reported allegations of sexual abuse involving youths and children? How about the fact that the US Department of State warn travellers to India on their official website of inappropriate sexual behaviour by a prominent local religious leader at an ashram or religious retreat located in Andhra Pradesh, enquiries about which should be submitted to the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai for further information? Since May 2004, they will gladly confirm that the controversial leader they refer to is none other than Sai Baba. I wonder if both UNESCO and the US State Dept. are guilty of putting forth rubbish and sleaze, and are the unwitting victims of "baseless allegations"? Surely they have conducted their own private investigations into the matters to take such serious and official steps.
I can assure you that we are simply scratching the surface of this entire Sai Baba affair, and there is much much more I can inform you about but for the sake of brevity I feel that the above is perhaps enough for the time being. I humbly request you to be a bit more balanced in articles of this nature. A large number of former devotees of Sai Baba, including myself, have formed a global coalition in order to work together for the purpose of bringing Sai Baba to justice. Naturally, we co-operated greatly with the BBC team.
In the last sentence of your column, I must say that I sensed a slight tinge of regret from you as you wondered if the large number of devotees who refused to speak with you is because they hope to sweep the issue under the carpet. The sad fact is that many devotees live in a climate of denial and are only exposed to the positive propaganda about Sai Baba that is spoon-fed to them by the senior leaders. Most devotees probably had no clue about any of the allegations until they saw the BBC documentary which would probably account for the shock and disbelief that has already been expressed, and which, understandably, conflicts greatly with the knowledge of Sai Baba and the Organisation that they have been given.
It is interesting how most people speak of the "good side" of Sai Baba as is evinced by the recent editorials and reports published in the Asian Voice. However, a relatively small number have an awareness of the "dark side" of Sai Baba, and that is what we are working to bring to the fore in the interests of public knowledge. After all, the Upanishads do contain that famous saying: Satyam eva jayate - "Truth will triumph!"