OF A DISAFFECTED DEVOTEE
by Reidun Priddy, former founder member of the Sathya Sai Org. in Oslo, Norway in 1983 and active worker until 1999.
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These personal reflections arising from the many allegations against Sathya Sai Baba were written ca. one year ago (November 2001). At that time I did not wish to publish them because a vestige of hope yet remained. Since then, the last shreds of doubt about the truth of the accusations against Sathya Sai Baba's sexual abuse of male devotees have long since evaporated completely. Seeing and hearing the young American man, 'Sam', and his father in the Danish documentary 'Seduced', made a deep impression on me, for that was the first time I heard directly someone telling about being abused by Sathya Sai Baba. Never once did 'Sam' give the impression of exaggerating anything, quite the contrary - he told everything in a neutral and matter-of-fact way. His father sounded more emotional about it all, in fact, and this I can understand very well. Fortunately, I still have enough self-confidence to trust my ability to sense when someone is lying or telling the truth, and if I had had more opportunities than at five interviews to be close to Sathya Sai Baba and talk to him directly, maybe I would have seen through his lies sooner, who knows?
On the sexual abuse of children: During all the time since we started hearing about and getting really disturbed by accounts of Sathya Sai Baba's sexual behaviour with boys and young men (summer 2000), I have only been able to think about it for short periods of time. Bewilderment and a form of spiritual apathy have characterised the way I have felt, except for moments of despair or rising anger which have passed over before coming to much. It feels as if I'm trapped in the catch 22 syndrome of always having only myself to blame: either it is all my own karma, or, in the case of the 'advaitic' point of view, nothing matters anyway for it is all passing clouds, nothing in this world is real or lasting and the Self remains unaffected.
But it feels as if some things matter very much and from my limited viewpoint it doesn't help to pretend otherwise. Even if there is no 'other' to blame, does that also mean the responsibility is all mine? Am I responsible for Sathya Sai Baba's actions, good or bad? Is he not responsible? Just as I cannot take the credit for his good deeds, neither can I be responsible for the bad ones, so if he has lied about who he is, one might say that I was a fool to believe he is the avatar, and so I can be said to be a fool, but certainly not a liar.
Am I angry? I don't know. There is no point in being angry, of course, but then that's not why one gets angry. The trouble is that I can't be absolutely certain about whether Sathya Sai Baba really is a liar or not. How can I have been so wrong all these years, how is it possible that he can be sexually using and abusing male devotees and even minors to satisfy himself?
In what I regard as my first seva project (about 1983), I was working with a new project (Red Cross telephone service for children who felt the need to talk to adults, just for contact or about problems) where for the first time the extent of sexual abuse of children in this country (Norway) started coming to light. It makes it all the more shocking to me and almost unthinkable that Sathya Sai Baba should now be under suspicion for this very thing. He is under such a heavy cloud of accusations from many different people, in different countries, stretching over a long period of time, that it simply cannot be disregarded. How can he, his name and form be a source of truth, goodness and beauty when there are such terrible stains staring me in the face every time I think of him now? How could I regard myself as a seeker of truth if I turn a blind eye to those things that don't fit in with what he says or with my own beliefs? I have sought answers or explanations but nothing satisfactory has come forth so far. I thought other devotees who seem undisturbed by the stories of Sathya Sai Babas sexual abuse maybe had understood something which I hadn't, but so far none of the explanations stand up to scrutiny.
Several devotees have said that they stick to their own experiences of Sathya Sai Baba, letting that be their guiding light. But how do we define what is our own experience? If we read a book or hear about somebody else's experience, then we have our own experience through the reading of the book, or the hearing of what others tell us which may make a strong impression on us. In fact, most of what we know about Sathya Sai Baba has been learned via others through books or by word of mouth. This has in most cases formed the very foundation for our own experiences with Sathya Sai Baba. So when somebody comes along with a nasty story, how can we just dismiss it saying it is not our experience, without doing the same with all the positive stories?
When I hear that argument these days I cannot help remembering a verse from a long poem by the Norwegian poet Arnulf Oeverland published in 1936. It is called "You Must Not Sleep!" (Du maa ikke sove!) and is a call to people not to turn a blind eye to atrocities and injustice: "You should not bear so heartily well// acts of injustice not striking yourself!// I am calling out to the end of my breath// You must not just live on and forget!" (My amateur translation of the original: "Du maa ikke taale saa inderlig vel// den urett som ikke rammer deg selv! // Jeg roper med siste pust av min stemme:// Du har ikke lov til aa gaa der aa glemme!")
On how to relate to an enigma: What can we do? There is always one thing we can do: we can be truthful, to ourselves to start with. One of Sai Baba's main sayings which has been emphasised is: "My life is my message." (Apparently, this was actually Mahatma Gandhi's saying about his life.) The meaning is simple: his life is an example to all of us of how we should live our lives. So what do we do when his behaviour is not only unacceptable but criminal and harmful to others, especially minors? Desperately looking for explanations it is easy to be confused about what is divine and what is human. He says he is the avatar, the divine in human form fully aware of his divinity as opposed to us who are not aware of our divine inner nature. Being unaware humans we make mistakes, or do the wrong things, or act selfishly, etc. But he who says he knows he is God and is completely pure without a shred of selfishness, should not make the mistakes of the unaware human. So either he is not the divine, fully aware avatar, or his sexual abuse of devotees and children of devotees are neither sexual nor abusive even though that's how they are experienced.
To me this is the crux of the matter: can there be a deep mystery to these acts which is beyond our understanding, which Sathya Sai Baba does not want to explain? Is it really likely that he would need to act in such a physical manner and cause offence and hurt all round in order to achieve whatever it might be, if he were almighty? Why would he choose such a manner of acting if truth, goodness and beauty is what he wants to show us in this Kali Yuga? Sexual abuse is found all over the place in this day and age, so why remind us of it in the very place we thought was the one certain sanctuary of purity in the whole world.
There are aspects of Sathya Sai Baba's behaviour which I tolerated and accepted because I saw them in the soft light of devotion. Seen in a harsher and clearer light those things appear differently: for example, lack of accordance between his words (teachings) and actions, and words said at one time contradicting those said at another time. Also, ever since the first time I went to the ashram, I have had to work hard at separating Sathya Sai Baba, the avatar, from the way his ashrams function and the way his organisation is run, even though I never felt quite comfortable doing it. I could never see the connection between the pomp and circumstance, the artificial tinsel and glitter, and the true, spiritual life. Nor have I ever been in personal contact with so many arrogant, self-important and pompous people and such organised vip-ism as in Sathya Sai Baba's ashrams. It has simply been shocking to me at times. Why would the avatar uphold empty norms and false values that are contrary to true spirituality? Shouldn't he rather be showing up the emptiness of those things compared to the true values, rather than go on with an increasing amount of pomp and show through all the years on the grounds that he is not doing it for himself, but just fulfilling the wishes and expectations of devotees? There are plenty of devotees who do not wish for those things at all, quite the contrary, in fact. Why does he not fulfill their wishes instead?
On the confused message of Sathya Sai Baba's life: The saying 'As above, so below' may make sense after all. I didn't think it did with regard to the ashrams and the organisation. I thought that people have the freedom to choose how to behave, God doesn't turn us into automatons or slaves, so don't expect ordinary people to be saints. That way I managed to find a positive aspect in the fact that there were so many badly behaved people where I had expected quite the opposite. Now I tend to think my reasoning was at fault, for why would Sathya Sai Baba pick just those people for various positions that he did instead of people who sincerely would try to live up to the name of the ashram? To give us endless tests (again) which the whole of the rest of the world provides us with constantly anyway? Why not show us instead that it is actually possible for life to be different, that the spiritual teachings are not just myths, but can be quite real? Instead the spiritual teachings remain as theoretical and mythical as ever, for staying at his ashrams is so difficult that even 'toughened' devotees of long experience feel the need to come away and gather strength, such as after major birthday celebrations for example. So what have we here, then? Instead of charging our 'spiritual batteries' in Prasanthi Nilayam as Sathya Sai Baba says we do, it is often a great strain and quite exhausting, physically and otherwise, and you need to be in good shape to be able to stand it for long. Those who are ill have the hardest time and the worst seats in the sense of being placed as far away from Sathya Sai Baba as possible, at least on the ladies' side.
He has come like Krishna to restore dharma, he has said. But now it seems that rather than giving us a clear message through his life of hope for and faith in pure love for people in a world sadly in need of it, it has turned into a test of blind faith instead. We are told the old story of the wheat being separated from the chaff, and if we are found too light we might end up caught in a demonic round of never ending rebirths. Earlier in my life I have refused to be bullied by fear of a punishing God into sticking to unacceptable doctrines, and I can't let that happen now either.
When I turned my back on organised Christianity in my early teens there was still hope of other things to take its place. Now, if Sathya Sai Baba really has lied about himself, and there is very little hope left in me that he hasn't, how can I ever have full confidence in a spiritual teacher again? So many of them have turned out to fall prey to lust for sex, power or money. I felt sorry for their devotees and counted myself lucky that I had Sathya Sai Baba! Now Sathya Sai Baba seems to be no better after all, and I feel a terrible cynicism growing in me. I feel my mind and heart closing up against the whole mass of spiritual tradition represented by Sathya Sai Baba. Why should I believe any of it, any of them? If he is false, maybe all the ancient rishis were false too? How do I know if their teachings of thousands of years ago are true, when I can't even know for certain about Sathya Sai Baba who is here now? Did they even exist at all or have they just been thought up by somebody?
From 1983-84 I have regarded Sathya Sai Baba as my chosen form of God and the embodiment of spiritual truths. Therefore, in my mind and heart, he has been involved in whatever way I have thought of God. Now - because he has become more and more clearly a victim of ordinary human failings - I don't know what to think of him, I felt out of touch with my own feeling for God, and God or divine intelligence is certainly no longer personified in any figure for me.
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