EXAMINING THE CLAIMS OF DIVINITY AND MIRACLES FROM THE EARLIEST YEARS OF SATHYA NARAYANA RAJU (SATHYA SAI BABA)
The various stories about Sathya Sai Baba's early years from his birth, childhood to the time when he announced his mission remind strongly of the myths about the baby Krishna and other supposedly divine incarnations in Indian scripture. A large body of hagiography exists describing Sathya Sai Baba a holy man, a born Divinity and the maker of miracles that even exceed those of virtually any historical or many legendary figures, even matching some major Biblical, Puranic and other ancient scriptural myths. How to account for this system of stories and beliefs about his childhood and youth is a problem for researchers of alleged miraculous phenomena.
There are two main approaches, one to take at face value all this is written and assume that the written biographical accounts are truthful, accurate and free from attempts to create a wonder boy and so a charismatic figure. The second is to question each alleged fact from the viewpoint of seeking alternative explanations for 'extraordinary clams that would require extraordinary proofs', searching the literature for errors, contradictions, lack of first-hand identifiable witnesses, and for merely poetic description or zealously devoted exaggerations and dissident opinions from the time or from well-informed 'insider' sources. Having taken the first approach for about 18 years, my trust in the validity of a great deal of what I heard reported wildly and inaccurately (due to my own observations) was gradually undermined. Yet I continued to seek rationalisations for discrepancies, obviously false statements by Sai Baba and his minions, plus untoward incidents. I had studied in detail and closely indexed every available Sai Baba discourse texts and all Sanathana Sarathi copies over 30 years and had written around 25 articles for that journal rationalising Sai Baba's often superficially-stated teachings and his worrisome self-contradictions. I have copies of all versions of Sai Baba's discourses and writings and every possible source book up until 2006. It was not until an insider source disillusioned me finally by telling secret facts known to him about the murders, and subsequently, learning from friends I knew that they had been sexually abused by Sai Baba (but had never told me as I was still a believer in his purity). After investigating these incidents as deeply as the major official cover-up attempts allowed and coming to a deep conviction that the allegations were true, I began to take the second approach mentioned above. Bit by bit, I came to question more and more of what I had taken on trust, and fact after fact emerged which challenged the entire 'story' of Sai Baba in vital respects. Due to the internet, which by 2000 allowed one to trace and communicate with former devotees. one delusion after another collapsed and my whole faith in Sai baba came tumbling down like a slow-motion house of cards.
The sources about his childhood are all now secondhand, and even then the reliability of peasant villagers' excessive accounts must be considered highly questionable, not least when one considers the charged emotional and eulogistic language, filled with religious references and flowery descriptions of his 'majesty' and 'unsurpassed humility', his tremendous 'Divine Love' or prema (which is of course very largely a subjective judgement in any case). Many miracles supposedly performed by him are described in the 'official' biography written decades later on Sai Baba's own instructions by his intense devotee, N. Kasturi (Sathyam, Sivam, Sundaram - 4 vols. Kasturi avoided making a single remark that could be construed as anything else but worshipful acceptance of anything and everything Sai Baba claimed, and, further than that, he reproduced false miracle stories, ignoring totally both the witness testimony of one of Sai Baba's sisters - and independently - his elder brother... namely that no cobra was ever found under the 'divine baby's' cradle rocking it. (See here). completely ignored certain facts Further, two female contemporaries of Sathya Sai Baba have also written accounts of his early years which recount miracles. The only account which contains what can be called frank and sometimes very revealing materials is that of Smt. Vijaya Kumari ('Vijayamma') who tells of numerous incidents which are hardly in accordance with a pure and good divinity, but rather with an unruly, manipulative and often untruthful young person. These questionable events are, however, mostly rationalized amid gushing and exotic devotional praise by Vijayamma. The other main contemporary who wrote a totally positive account was Nagamani Purnaiya, a young lady at the time of Sai Baba's youthful pranks and reportedly stupendous physical miracles. Many of the reported miracles were also recounted in a two-volume work by a male devotee who came on the scene after Kasturi and interviewed residents of Puttaparthi and the ashram about their experiences. All of these books bear the tell-tale hallmarks of hagiography... that is, unbounded praise of the supposed Divine Avatar devoid of any independent sources or documentation. Another fairly early two-volume account of the miracles and leelas (divine play) of childhood and youth by Ra. Ganapati was published after he had followed in Kasturi's footsteps (so to speak) and recounted the same incidents - plus others - that he heard about from residents of the ashram and the local villages. These volumes are excessively positive and fully hagiographic, and seem yet more unrestrained in eulogy and devotion than Kasturi's, if that is indeed possible.
The question naturally arises; can these accounts be reliable or are they somehow the combined result of excessive religious blind belief and interpretation, the product of runaway enthusiasm, combined with secondhand self-delusions and exaggerations - or even the result of intended deception by Sathya Narayana Raju (later declaring himself to be the reincarnation of 'Sai Baba') in collusion with others. Most of the people of Puttaparthi lived in - or close to - extreme poverty and there would as usual have been those who - whether believing in him as extraordinary - would help make his miraculous reputation and thus also provide themselves with a 'pagoda tree' from which profits could be shaken by those around him. Countless gurus have always easily exploited the Indian populace and many have been exposed for most impossible claims and also subtle methods of deception, usually with the aid of a clique or close following. Since there is almost no information of any interdependent kind from that time, and since none of his contemporaries have come forward to expose such a conspiracy, it is impossible to know definitively one way or the other. His elder brother was known not to believe in his claims, but he lived in Puttaparthi after Sathya became rich and influential and would have not been able to remain there had he spoken out in public. However, he did so in private to some persons (see Baby Sai Baba not rocked by cobra in cradle). Even though there is no possibility of disproving the experiences of the many and often unique alleged miraculous events, various clues and some circumstantial evidence which gives the basis for an explanation of the development of a myth around Sai Baba is found. One example where documentary evidence of likely deception does exists concerns his date of birth, which school records show to be three years later than he claimed. The discrepancy can be explained by the fact of Sri Aurobindo having prophesied that krishna would take human form at that very time. (See here). Since the educated and scientific world very largely rejects the possibility of miracles, especially the kind described, it is only natural that the fact of their being so heftily asserted would require some reasonable hypotheses to explain how such false perceptions could have come about.
Though it is too late to expect a full-bodied reconstruction of the true events of those days in the obscurity of a most backward rural village, there are many facts which point to alternative explanations of how his reputation came about. There are not least parallels in past and current Indian life upon which one may draw in trying to understand it all from a reasonable but also skeptical standpoint. If Sathya was born as a physical hermaphrodite with both genitalia, this could explain much of the mythology that grew up around him from his earliest years and onwards. (NOTE: The definition of a hermaphrodite is a person biologically between female and male, sometimes with genital and /or reproductive body parts of both sexes. A person who is born with both male and female genitals although one set is almost always incompletely developed. When a person is born with the genital or reproductive organs of both sexes. It is a rare condition.) That it was quite possibly the case is backed up by reports that he has both genitalia (admittedly not checkable) including by Tal Brooke and two other young men who described being sexually abused by him (see here). (see a documented case of hemaphroditism here or, if unavailable, here)
When a child is born with significant abnormalities in India - there are several recent cases of children with extras limbs and even two heads - they are invariably worshipped as divinities, as incarnations of one or another deity (Kali etc.). What of a child born who appears both male and female in a backward village of very ignorant extremely superstitious religious Hindus of a lower caste? In the 1920s in remote Andhra Pradesh the villagers would surely not have had the slightest idea that this is a phenomenon is a medical fact found around the world (relatively few people know this even today). They would of course think the child a Divine Phenomenon - Shiva and Parvathi in one, Purusha and Prakriti in one body. When, in his early teens, Sathya Narayana Raju took over the name Sai Baba from the former Sai Baba, the 'saint of Shirdi', he declared its meaning to be 'Mother Father' (that is, female and male together) - even though there is no etymological basis for Sai meaning 'mother'. So Sathya Narayana's announcement of his being a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba was most likely simply another way to extend his authority and appeal, usurpation of a holy reputation among Indians. The 'Father-Mother' imagery of a two-in-one deity was taken further by Sathya in his Hindu-based doctrines about divinity possessing a dual-gender, and not least also in his cross-dressing and both manly and womanly behaviour. Initially, according to Kasturi and other his own parents rejected that he could possibly be what he claimed and went to great lengths to 'cure' him of what they felt sure was some form of possession, subjecting him to terrible physical sufferings at the hands of a Hindu exorcist. However, after Sathya had become worshipped as a deity in Puttaparthi, his parents accepted his status, but his elder brother - who was then the most educated family member, rejected the whole idea. Through the years great efforts were made by the Sai Baba clique to suppress this, along with all other controversial reports which go against the claims.
Despite his parents' skepticism about him in his boyhood, he was encouraged to believe himself a divinity by his adoring grandfather and by Subbamma, who was a vegetarian (which he preferred to his parents' meat-eating) and of whom Kasturi wrote "Subamma was wife of the Karnam (landlord) of Puttaparthi. She had great affection for young Sathya, and after the declaration of Avatarhood, her house served as the first Mandir where devotees gathered for Darshan of Bhagawan." Sathya was naturally the favourite and imbibed the myths and legends of miracles and yogis on his grandfather's knee. Kondamma was reported to have been a fountain of religious lore and taught him scriptures, as did others in his family and environment. In those days religious stories where the main home entertainment of villagers throughout most of India, at least in the south. A child who came to be worshipped as God Incarnate by most of his relatives and later many others would have been able to do what he wished - there would be no normal 'boundaries' set for him by his parents that he could not easily ignore or defy. People I met who knew Sai Baba as a boy, including his younger brother Janakiramiah, told all how unruly and completely uncontrollable the parents found him to be. Smt. Vijayamma's account of Sai Baba as a young boy also makes clear that Sathya was able to flout any convention, break any rule, without fear of any retribution (even though he was occasionally beaten up by his schoolmates, according to Kasturi and others). It seems he was treated much as are the hyras (transvestites moving in their own communities) in India, who are almost universally feared there because of the ingrown superstition that they can curse newborn children if they are not allowed to do their dancing and singing ceremony or are not 'paid off'. They are well known for many of the psychopathological symptoms that Sathya shows (charm then rejection, smiles then fearful looks, giving up people when they do no serve his interests any more, manipulating people and saying whatever he wishes, contradicting himself all the times - as I have proven from his discourses that he does time and again).
Much of the mythology around this 'avatar' was developed by the far from prosaic Professor N. Kasturi, a historian but also a poet and religious singer. He began to investigate Sathya’s childhood and youth only some years after he first met him in 1948. By then, Sathya was 22 years old (though the official school records indicate he was 3 years older. Kasturi gathered stories and based his ‘biography’ of those years almost entirely on hearsay. One partial exception to this rule is the book by Smt Vijayakumari (‘Vijayamma’) where she recounts her personal experiences of the young Sathya, herself a blind devotee from childhood. Those who know the extremely rumour imbued atmosphere around Sathya Sai Baba, the strongly exaggerated talk and superstitious ideas held about him by uneducated villagers (that is, the great majority of Kasturi’s informants) are aware how blind devotion to Sathya Sai Baba causes suppression of all untoward and unsavoury facts about him. The claim that he did not read any scriptures but suddenly knew them by some miraculous intuition is an unlikely one, for he was supposedly very clever at school and so certainly could read well. Hearing scriptures read daily - and reading them in class - was certainly unavoidable at a rural school in those days. As Prof. Kasturi stated in his official biography (Volume 1 (Satyam,Sivam, Sundaram), the elderly grandfather of Sathya was a performer. Under his guidance, the family troupe performed in villages around Puttaparthi. Prof. N. Kasturi refers to their activities in village dramas and musical groups, which appears to have been their main employment, since no other employment is ever mentioned. The sceptic Basava Premanand told of his family's street performing troupe and his roles in childhood (See video clip here a modern and more professional staged representation of the kind of show). The young Sathya danced, sang and performed in the streets - just as do hyras today including acrobatics, 'magic' and trickery. The young Sathya did such things, as in the famous 'needle picked up with his eyelid' incident) which Professor Kasturi reported:
“…a girl dancer whose stage name was Rishyendramani, who performed a series of gymnastic dances with music. Her highlight was a dance in which she kept time to the music while balancing a bottle on her head” “ Sathya’s sisters dressed him as Rishyendraman, complete with hair-do and personal decoration…”
Sathya's uncle - who partook in the extremely deprived family troupe in which Sathya performed - was apparently involved in Tantrism, which tradition is not least associated with a wide range of 'magical' practices, sexual abnormalities and supposed siddhi powers, as the famous Mircea Eliade reported and documented in his major monographs on Indian sub-cultures, such as in his 'Yoga, Immortality and Freedom'). It is likely that the young wonder boy Sathya developed strong intuitive abilities early on and learned the power of suggestion and mass hypnosis, and maybe even so-called 'siddhis'. (This is the opinion of many persons conversant with Indian religious culture assert of attributed 'miracles' - not least Mircea Eliade). It is not unreasonable to suppose that - along with the genuine believers in him - there was calculation and conspiracy involved in accepting him as God Incarnate, supported and furthered by those around him who sought a way out of the dire poverty described in much detail by Professor Kasturi and other biographers. This kind of conspiracy to promote persons as gurus, incarnations, deities and so on is far from uncommon in India. The fabulous wealth accumulated by many such figures is itself a huge incentive to fraudulent claims. That the project was successful beyond the wildest dreams of any of the family or others involved is a fact, even though the reality falls very far short indeed of the vast claims and predictions made by Sathya Sai Baba both then and now. This ploy has been illustrated very well in an Indian novel "He Who Rides a Tiger" (Bhabani Battacharya, London, 1960). A crushingly poor peasant walks to a city and sits and prays to Shiva on some barren ground, meanwhile sprinkling water (the traditional ritual of 'abishek'). Slowly a stone lingam emerges (forced up by a large bag of grain which swells). He is worshipped as a holy man and becomes the centre of a large and most wealthy temple built on the spot. The problems arise when it all gets out of hand and he cannot "dismount the tiger". Metaphorically, it eats him - for he is exposed and reviled, sinking yet lower than his original state.
An Alternative explanation on the origins of the religious 'Sai cult'
Conditions for forming a new religion are not equal everywhere. What more fallow ground for the development of a legend of ancient proportions than the poorest and most backward state of Andhra Pradesh at the time of the dissolution of British power? Perhaps in peasant China, but that country lacks the rich and living mythology known to every child that is brought up... the huge mass of fabulous myths about hundreds of deities, saints, ogres, yogis, legends of God kings like Rama, or the Krishna story... along with a rich tradition of supporting folk tales, dramas, and the diverse scriptures of several religions founded in India. This is the tradition that Sathya Narayana imbibed at the knees of his parents, grandfather and many other.
This is the extensive and convoluted belief system that formed him and is evident in all his discourses even 75 years on. The background upon which Sathya SB began to operate was one of a pre-scientific traditional society with ancient roots and a superstition for almost every circumstance. He fairly soon claimed the Maharashtra saint Sai Baba's entire heritage through asserting he was his reincarnation. Though he says that this figure was unknown in his village, proof has since surfaced that Shirdi Sai Baba was known both here and there in his environment... if not by his simple childhood friends. That the claim is bogus is supported by the teachings of Shirdi Sai Baba, who was a Sufi and, as such, would never reincarnate but would only continue his ministration from beyond the grave. Yet Sathya Sai Baba made Shirdi Sai into an avatar of all the previous avatars in the Hindu pantheon, and so soon proclaimed himself as being the fullest possible avatar of God on Earth, come to save humanity and introduce a Golden Age again.
The idea that God reincarnates to save the world is a very appealing one, as shown by the huge acceptance of this in respect of Jesus by so many Christians throughout the world. While those swamis and gurus of India who relied mostly on Westerners (including disillusioned Christian clientele) for their relative success and fame, Sathya Sai Baba started from a very simple and typical Indian village environment and only gradually expanded into the wider world. By the time Westerners began to flock to Puttaparthi, the legend was already formed and supported by many of Sai Baba's contemporaries, who were often remarkably unwilling to talk openly about their experiences. So the stories could not be properly investigated. Sathya Sai Baba insisted early on that the relationship between him and his devotees was a sacrosanct matter, not to be talked about 'bandied about in the market place' but held close to the heart - a divine contract between oneself and One's True Self or God. He continued to project this requirement to his servitors and through them to all followers... enshrining a climate of secrecy at the ashram and in the Sai Organisation in rules and the correct kind of behaviour. However, he must have known that this would also increase the curiosity about him and that few people can resist telling others of the ways in which they might have been blessed by him. Secrecy creates far more rumour and interest than a frank and straightforward atmosphere.
The mostly analphabetic populace of backward and isolated Andhra Pradesh villages as was Puttaparthi in the 1920s were mostly unavoidable believers in the wildest of both primitive and strange religious superstitions Hindu mythology. Traditional beliefs in fabulous events in the Puranas and other ancient writings are shot through with many kinds of black magic, the evil eye, tantric sadhus, demonic spirit possession, obsessive rituals for bodily and spiritual cleanliness, widow burning (sati), incomprehensible penances and so on... well beyond what most outsiders can even conceive. Even today many hold to the old beliefs and practices.
The accounts collected - overwhelmingly at second hand from early devotees - were often in very exaggerated language. Sometimes one suspects they serve too neatly to enhance their self-importance with this Godman... the source of flattering favours and fortunes. They are almost always very vague as to traceable names, places and dates. Discrepancies arise between various accounts of what must be the same incidents. and the importance of their own contact with this now-recognised Godman and source of favours and fortunes. It is a common human foible that, once one has said something without proper foundation, one tends to stick to this and assert it the more definitively. This can be seen to operate through much of the current Sai movement, not least among educated Westerners who enter this tricky and flukey environment and compete with one another for 'Divine Grace' and signs of their own acceptability in God's eyes (often to attain the same in those of their fellows too).
It was at least known and admitted widely among those observed Sathya Narayena before he announced himself as a saviour to his devotees at the age of fourteen, that he was the most incorrigible and difficult child from his parents' viewpoint. His younger brother, Janaki Ramiah, has told how impossible his parents felt it when Sathya gave away all the clothes and blankets in the house and so forth. He told V.K. Narasimhan, with whom I met him once, that one could hardly imagine how difficult Sathya had been to his family. This is confirmed by most commentators who were able to interview his family and childhood contemporaries, including Professor Kasturi, the official biographer. Moreover, one of the village 'urchins' who followed him wherever they could to see the fun, Smt. Vijayamma, has described how unruly his behaviour was, such as, for example, confronting elderly persons in public with questions and assertions about their sexual relations, to the excitement of the crowd of childhood hangers-on that was always his entourage. This entourage continued to grow as his flouting of conventions took on a more religious form, at least outwardly. The development of his personality can be traced in outline quite credibly in Smt. Vijayamma's book. Sathya was not above lying quite scandalously, not least so as to cause dissent and bad relations between elders. This was put down to his wisdom, a deeper knowledge of what was best for others across whom he might chance. It was evidently a means of manipulating people to his own ends, which were stated in supercilious religious terms but which always tended to enhance his own profile and make him both feared and respected. It is quite possible, in other words, that his character was becoming that of a budding psychopath.
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