Sai Baba's huge exaggerations or 'the Numbers' game'
The ex-editor-in-chief, V.K. Narasimhan (VKN), was a truth-seeker both of worldly facts and spiritual insight, with a critical sense and high standards, certainly not given to naive judgements, hasty conclusions, or exaggerated reports. As I got to know him in various situations, I came to regard his perceptions as very largely credible, not least because - despite all the good sense in many of SB's activities, he always harboured doubts about SB's more extravagant assertions. Though he seldom mentioned it in public, it was he who pointed out to me that SB repeatedly exaggerates figures wildly.
On the 70th birthday SB had predicted that there would be 3 to 4 million visitors, said VKN beforehand. The ashram engineer, Mr. Ashoka, told a Norwegian engineer (whom I knew well and who was planning an ashram water project) that he calculated that, at any one time, the entire accommodation facilities of the ashram and Puttaparthi in (1995) were less than 50,000 persons. About 250,000 maximum can occupy the Hillview Stadium, where the entire crowd was present at the main ceremony. The ashram was as empty. Even when largish areas with tents and outside camps are accounted for, the figure of 500,000 persons is reckoned to be much greater than had been present in the area on the Birthday. An American friend, Robert Bruce, who I have known for years, was told by SB in a brief interview after the celebrations that there had been 3 million persons present! Others reported similar statements by SB. (Some, unable to make SB's figures add up, argued that - "since Swami is never wrong" - this perhaps was intended to include disembodied souls visiting God!). To this, VKN replied, "Swami always multiplies these numbers by ten." He was well placed to know, if anyone was! In the preceeding year to the 1995 birthday bonanza, SB had told one interview group that there would be 7,000 Japanese there, but in fact the registered number was 75! A group from New Zealand led by Mr. Arthur Hillcoat were informed by SB that he wanted 5,000 service workers from their country present in 1996 at the Birthday. (I then heard Mr. Hillcoat also tell that Baba told them that radiation pollution from French nuclear tests would cause great havoc, ecological destruction and deaths in N.Z. and other places thousands of miles distant. This has evidently not occurred as far can be judged). But at the 70th birthday, the biggest foreign contingent, however, came from the USA – 750 persons in all.
The ashram accommodation office, which handles the passposts of every foreign visitor, stated after the birthday event that there were at total of 8,000 delegates from 137 countries. This was the total number of foreign visitors registered at the ashram, whether believer or not: all were freely given the status of 'delegates', even mere tourists and inquisitive sceptics.. my wife and I had to share a room with a couple, one of whom had never even had been to darshan once! This exaggeration is but one instance among many others. The figure of 3 million visitors was frequently repeated, because it came from Sai Baba himself both before and after the event (from reliable friends whom he told this in interviews). Yet estimated on a technical basis by the ashram engineer, Mr. Ashoka, no more than a maximum of 300,000 were present in the area at any one time, a fact also verified by calculating the size of the Hillview Stadium, which was not even entirely full even at the main opening ceremony, as photos show. This was no isolated case of such multiplication by SB, for VKN told me all important birthday attendance figures had been hugely overblown. He reckoned as an absolute maximum 400,000 at the 60th birthday, when millions were also said to have been present, but the engineer's estimates made even this far too many.
Another incident among several others was when, in 1990, Dr. Samuel Sandweiss had tried to interest 120 Russians to come to Prashanthi, only 12 had actually planned to come, though even they did not all arrive. The 12 Russians (on an official State visit) who had wanted to come were stopped in Delhi because they would not accept the ordinary tourist visas they were offered, for - being invited delegates to an Indian psychiatric conference - they were expecting official treatment instead. However, after hearing of the 12 psychiatrists from Sandweiss in the interview room, Swami himself announced on the porch outside to students and others that 120 Russians were coming to see him. VKN heard Dr. Sandweiss tell SB of his mistake, and SB became very angry with him and told him to leave the ashram immediately and return to the USA. This was hushed up by all who heard it, as is usually done by those who are 'in the know'.
There are a number of round figures constantly repeated. The supposed 6,000 villages, then the 60,000 villages. The 6 million devotees of SB in the 1970s, now said to be 'around 60 million'. Perhaps dividing by ten would be a wise rule of thumb?
Repeated visits to the ashrams during 16 years never gave me the sense that this was a movement with several millions, I saw many, many of the same faces over and again, and seldom counted more than 4 thousand persons on normal darshan days, even in the 1990s. Remark: See the official (Sanathana Sarathi Nov-Dec. 1995) photo of the 70th birthday crowd in the Hillview Stadium. The stadium contained virtually everyone in the entire area at the time it was taken (I left early and so saw how few people were left in Puttaparthi, while the ashram was nearly deserted). If one compares this to a photo of this year with two million pilgrims at Mecca, (eg. such as was distributed by Reuters around 20/2/02), one appreciates that the Prashanthi crowd is around 1/10 of that number. No panoramic photos of the 70th birthday crowds show no more than ca. 200 thousand people.
Further, anyone who cares to follow the news on TV could recall that the Pope's send-off from Poland in August, 2002 was attended by an official count of three million people. All could very easily see that the absolutely gigantic crowd this makes - which could then only be seen in part on the screen - far, far exceeded the number of people in the Hillview Stadium for SB's biggest birthday yet, the 70th, which was much photographed to give a sense of a multitude. So why does SB tell so many whoppers? Could it be because he is all Love for Himself? Or he wants to make himself seem bigger and better? There is evidently all the more reason for this since the fall-off in followers from overseas and doubtless also, by all sings, in donations to the Central Trust!