Sathya Sai Baba and Materialisation

by Serguei Badaev
 (former President of the Moscow Sathya Sai Baba Centre & EHV Coordinator in Russia)

Materialisation, that is, production of objects deliberately on this physical plane, as if from nowhere, is the most powerful attraction drawing thousands of people to Sathya Sai Baba. Sai Baba himself explains the materialisation of a gift for a person as an expression of his love. "For me this is the kind of visiting card to convince people of my love to them and secure their devotion in return. Since love is formless, I use materialisation as evidence of my love." (R.K.Karanjia. God Lives in India. 1994. Saindra Publication. p.28) However, allegations that Sai Baba fakes materialisation is an essential part of the whole controversy which has been associated with him, especially again during the last 3 years. 

Authentic materialisation

We may initially assume that Sai Baba possesses a real ability to materialise things, because we have witnesses' accounts claiming this. In some cases a process of materialisation took place in front of observers’ eyes and was obvious. The ability to materialise objects is not an unique ability of Sai Baba. This phenomenon is well known in India even nowadays and is widely described in literature. (e.g. "The autobiography of a Yogi" by Yogananda and "Powers of the Mind" by Swami Vivekananda [1])  

We discuss here the nature of these phenomena with regard to Sai Baba and such powers. In some of his discourses and interviews Sai Baba explains the significance and nature of such materialisation. Having proclaimed himself as an Avatar (i.e. full incarnation of the Divine Principle) he ascribes materialisation to creative abilities of the Divine Will, which only Avatars possess.
"Q: So these are not siddhic powers or magical tricks, as your critics
Baba: They are neither magical tricks nor SIDDHIC powers. These can come to everybody with the appropriate discipline and yoga exercises, but my powers to protect, heal and save people and materialise objects originate in God and can be used only by an Avatar. They are in no way designed, disciplined or developed, but flow from Cosmic Power itself."
(R.K.Karanjia. God Lives in India. 1994. Saindra Publication. p.32)

Other quotations of Sai Baba explain materialisation as a result of mental power (mental concentration) which in principle is reachable for ordinary people.
"Q: How do you materialise objects?
Baba: I materialise objects by my Sankalpa; it is a mental power that creates. If you develop your mental powers and purity of heart you can also do it, provided you love the entire creation as I do."
(R.K.Karanjia. God Lives in India. 1994. Saindra Publication. p.95)

One way to reconcile those two explanations is to assume that they refer to two different processes, which are very similar in appearance to an external observer. It is worth mentioning here that a pandit, Subba Rao, who regularly delivers lectures about Sai Baba in his ashram Prashanthi Nilayam, often tells how Sai Baba corrected him when he referred to lingodbhava (i.e. appearance of lingams during Mahashivarathri day) as materialisation. Sai Baba said it was not materialisation, but creation. 

Anyway, if we assume that there are people who can materialise objects and do not call themselves avatars, we should come to the conclusion that this is an ability which a person can possesses from one's birth, or develop it by some special techniques and practices, or get it from a spiritual master. For the convenience of the further discussion we will call this 'astral materialisation'. The characteristic of astral materialisation is that it is produced by the mental power of a person who has a specific access to the astral plane (sometimes help from astral entities is used as well) and can project ethereal elements into the physical realm. The specific feature of those objects seems to be their temporary nature. It is quite possible that their existence on the physical plane depends on constant mental control (or concentration?) by their 'creator', and as soon as this control stops, the object disappears. This kind of materialisation is described in details in a well-known spiritual classic by Yogananda ("The autobiography of a Yogi", Ch.18 about Muslim fakir).

Fake materialisation 

Sai Baba has been accused of fake materialisation for a long time. Some of his 'materialisation' is rather teleportation (i.e. transferring existing objects from one place to another through the ethereal or astral plane) not materialisation (i.e. creation ad novo). In some cases like with the so-called miniature ‘Bible’, demonstrated by Sai Baba during his Christmas discourse in 1996, it is obvious, even though we can still have quite serious doubts if this was a teleportation. 

Sai Baba himself has more than once mentioned teleportation as a possible mechanism of his 'materialisation' that is somewhat in conflict with his other categorical statements about his materialisation as an act of creation by the Divine Will.

"A visitor: These miracles that Swami does by moving His hand and out come very costly things from nowhere. Is there some explanation?
Sai: Some objects, Swami creates in just the same way that he created the
material universe. Other objects, such as watches, are brought from existing supplies. There are no invisible beings helping Swami to bring things. His sankalpa, his divine will brings the object in a moment."
(J.Hislop. "Conversations with Bhagavan Sathya Sai Baba" Indian ed. ch.XXXV, p.115) Sai Baba only occasionally refers to a particular materialisation as a creation or teleportation, so all of them are usually considered by his devotees as acts of creation. 

For the sake of truth we should assume that Sai Baba quite often fakes his materialisation using a sleight of hand. There are a lot of witnesses' accounts, which are no less convincing than accounts about true materialisation. Those cases of fake materialisation were so obvious for observers that they had to come to this conclusion following their perception, supported by logical considerations. We can't ignore those accounts just on the basis of our likes or dislikes. One of the published accounts can be found in D. Bailey's "The Findings" and in an introduction to it written by Faye Bailey. D. Bailey occupies a wholly sceptical position denying Sai Baba's ability to materialise any objects at all. He is not the only witness of fake materialisation. Many people, devotees and non-devotees, have seen trinkets taken by Sai Baba from under the cushions of his chair or vibhuthi (holy ashes) pellets hidden between Sai Baba's fingers which are crushed to illude a true materialisation. (see video of SB taking object from behind his cushion wmv or see in mov format)

The fact that many devotees are unaware of those tricks can be explained to some extent by devotees' custom to stare at the Sai Baba's face while in his presence, and yet more so to their faith in his honesty and claims. 

If we accept that Sai Baba possesses some psychic powers we can easily assume that phenomena that observers see as materialisation may also include subtle mental suggestions. Such have been described, for example, with regard to a famous Polish/Russian psychic, Wolf Messing. We should not exclude that what we see as materialisation can be a result of a hypnotic suggestion (if we assume a possibility of cheating). It seems that some such psychic phenomena do take place during interviews. Quite often witnesses give incredibly different accounts about details of the same interview with Sai Baba. This discrepancy often goes far beyond reasonable limits.  

Now to my mind the most balanced and reliable hypothesis, which embraces all available facts, is to assume that Sai Baba is able to perform true materialisation (at least astral ones) and at the same time widely uses fake materialisation. This leads us to the key point: why does he do both? 

Why both true and fake materialisation? 

Those devotees who have witnessed fake materialisation and have kept their faith in Sai Baba usually apply the following rationalisation: this is done by Sai Baba deliberately to test devotees' faith. Tests are said to be an indispensable part of a spiritual path. But what is the strangest thing here is that such sort of a test leads to a conflict with what Sai Baba teaches his devotees (i.e. tell truth, do not cheat, etc.). Such sort of a test does not lead to reinforcement of human values but rather to their contempt in the face of blind faith in a guru. 

Another possible explanation comes from an idea that Sai Baba does not possess infinite Divine powers as he has claimed. Rather we have an example of limited abilities but unlimited ambitions. If his psychic abilities need special concentration, inspiration and mental power, if they are energy consuming, then it is quite understandable that he has to resort to fakes and sleights of hand to support the belief in his Divine infinite powers. We can even speculate that his psychic abilities were stronger when he was young, and faking is a result of weakening of his abilities. There is still insufficient evidence available to support this view. 

The most radical testing of true and fake materialisation would be a proper video recording of the processes together with precise subjective accounts from reliable, trained observers. Until now there are few records which would clearly confirm any of the alternative views. But it will not be a great surprise for me if in the future video records of both true and fake materialisation appear. 

The last but not least point is connected with morality. Taking into account wide scope of allegations against Sai Baba (sexual abuse, murders in Prashanthi Nilayam in 1993, etc. - see the international petition on, it seems unbelievable that superhuman powers Sai Baba claims to have can coexist with so low a moral profile. Unfortunately, these two aspects of personality can be quasi-independent. In many religious traditions we find examples of personalities with great powers who are nonetheless far from love and dharma (righteousness). One of the most notorious examples might be Ravana from the Ramayana. He was a devotee of Siva but was considered a demon. Another example is the Anti-Christ and false prophets as they are described in the Bible (e.g. Matthew 24:24, Revelation 13:13). I am personally far from seeing Sai Baba as the Anti-Christ, but I have to agree that those places from the Bible referring to anti-Christs and false prophets may show even better correspondence with the life and image of Sai Baba than a place from Revelation (19:11-14), which Sai Baba himself indicates as being a sign of his coming as a world saviour [2]. 
(March 2003)

[1]  "Another time I was in the city of Hyderabad in India, and I was told of a Brahmana there, who could produce numbers of things from where nobody knew. … He had only a strip of cloth about his loins, we took off everything else from him. I had a blanket which I gave him to wrap round himself, because it was cold, and made him sit in a corner. Twenty-five pairs of eyes were looking at him. And he said, "Now, look, write down anything you want." We all wrote down names of fruits that never grew in that country, bunches of grapes, oranges and so on. And we gave him those bits of paper. And there came from under his blanket, bushels of grapes, oranges, etc. - so much, that if all that fruit was weighed it would have been twice as heavy as the man. He asked us to eat the fruit. Some of us objected, thinking it was hypnotism - but the man began eating himself - so we all ate. It was all right. He ended by producing a mass of roses. Each flower was perfect, with dew-drops on the petals, not one crushed, not one injured. And masses of them! When I asked the man for an explanation, he said, "It is all sleight-of-hand." Whatever it was, it seemed to be imposible that it could be sleight-of-han merely. From whence would he have got such large quantities of things? India you find hundreds of similar things in different places. ("Powers of the Mind" by Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1986, p.2-4)

[2]"His name will be Truth," Christ declared. Sathya means Truth. "He will wear a robe of red, a blood red robe." (Here Baba pointed to the robe He was wearing!). "He will be short, with a crown (of hair)…." (Sathya Sai Speaks, v.XI, p.346.
"Then I saw heaven open, and there was a white horse. Its rider is called Faithful and True; it is with justice that he judges and fights his battles. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and he wore many crowns on his head. He had a name written on him, but no one except himself knows what it is. The robe he wore was covered with blood. His name is 'The Word of God' " (Revelation 19:11-13. Holy Bible. Good News Colour Reference Editon. American Bible Society. 1976)

See also photographic evidence of 'materializations' in progress and further comments and information

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