Awareness of divinity
Sathya Sai exudes a rare grace that
captivates seekers of truth
By Bill Aitken
Any attempt at summing up the contribution of God-men to
society—in modern India’s English media—is fraught with the prospect
of either audience fatigue or cynicism, especially when the subject
is Sri Sathya Sai Baba, an essentially vernacular figure (his
biodata is available only through translation from Telugu). As a
result, the views about Sai Baba’s place in the history of religion
veer from one extreme to another. While one faction has a mass
regard for him as the Godhead, the other crusading minority clamours
through the sensational press to have his standing reduced to that
of a common fraud.
Obviously it is only from the middle ground, examined by
objective, inquiring students of religion that Sai Baba’s status can
be expected to emerge. But such neutral observers are thin on the
ground. Having been a critic myself (of Sai Baba’s apparently
inflated spiritual claims), I have found on closer examination over
the years that my initial reaction was fairly normal and actually
welcomed by Baba.
I have been forced to revise my opinion and accept that this
person does not say he is divine to the exclusion of others. What he
says is that everyone of us has divinity within ourselves. He,
however, unlike the rest of us, is fully aware of this truth. It is
this sense of abiding awareness that many seekers (as opposed to
casual visitors) experience in his presence that sets this teacher
apart and makes him like no other spiritual phenomenon that I have
ever read about or personally checked out in the 50 years that I
have studied comparative religion.
The theological contribution of
the Sai saints has been to emphasise the equality of souls before
The critical factor for determining his unusual spiritual aura,
oddly enough, is crystallised by the darshan of his slight but
remarkable physical presence. Sathya Sai exudes a rare grace that
captivates any seeker who is after the real things the human soul
hankers for. Between the hype of unhinged devotees and a howling
pack of detractors, his diminutive figure appears the same today as
it was when he was a boy—serenely established in a mood of
unaffected humaneness. When asked how his students should dress,
Baba replied with a subtle rebuke to today’s fashion of unconcern
for other’s problems: "Dress in such a manner that no poor person in
need of assistance will hesitate to ask you for help."
The category of divine is impossible to qualify but people rich
and poor, from all walks of life and different continents, confess
that in the presence of this unlikely fuzzy-haired Andhra peasant
they experience a grace that is like no other. Magically, it gives
rise to an awareness within the beholder that he or she too
possesses this priceless pearl of selfhood.
Sathya Sai is the occasion and trigger of this other-worldly
experience. His being is a reflection of the truth. This reality,
which he embodies momentarily, is awakened in the seeker. Unless you
savour this moment of grace, no amount of reasoning is going to take
you nearer to the meaning of life and understanding of the
pre-eminence of love. We are born to find this liberating truth in
ourselves. (Finding fault in others is not so urgent!)
This altogether mystifying personage, now celebrating his 80th
birthday, is strangely untouched by his outer state of rags to
spiritual riches story, and his inner state remains imponderable to
all, except, crucially, to himself. Inevitably, most intellectuals
who seek wisdom will shy away from the surrender of their shining
minds, especially before a backward villager. Custom dictates that
knowledge is power and the aim of life for most is to seek the polar
opposite of love. The few (of all nations and conditions) who do
foregather in Puttaparthi to celebrate the paramountcy of love are
at one with their teacher and themselves. The observer gets the
distinct feeling that the Bodhisattva or avatar (or any exemplar of
human compassion like Sathya Sai) is the goal of human evolution.
The greatest miracle on show at Puttaparthi is to witness this
humble villager’s natural graces daily, which far exceed those of
the so-called "most powerful man in the world" in Washington.
The theological contribution of the Sai saints has been to
emphasise the equality of souls before God. This theistic approach
contradicts the paramountcy claimed by Sankaracharya for advaidic
monism. Historically, south India has led the north in shedding the
fatalistic notion that birth of the body decides the destiny of the
soul. Both Sai Baba of Shirdi and Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi
have been revolutionary in preaching and practising spiritual
egalitarianism, which is particularly relevant to India’s democratic
policy still mired in a feudal mindset. It is significant that both
Sai Babas have emerged from the Deccan where Dravidian influences
mingle with the Brahminical, Islamic, Christian, Sikh and Humanist.
For the student of subcontinental religious affairs it is
fascinating to watch the cultural arm-wrestling as Shirdi Sai,
originally presented as an anonymous Sufi in torn white kafni, is
nowadays sought to be passed off as a sanyasi in saffron with a
Having watched Baba for more than 30 years I have moved from my
original position of intellectual doubter to that of a fascinated
observer. I find he is a worthy understudy of Shirdi Sai and in my
own pantheon of great beings, he finds a place alongside the Buddha
Recently, Marianne Warren published her Ph.D thesis, Unravelling
the Enigma, arguing that since Shirdi Baba was a Sufi, Sathya Sai’s
claims to be an incarnation of him are totally misplaced. This
illustrates the limitations of the intellect and how the
presumptuousness of scholars blinds them to the obvious fact that
the mystery of rebirth is not open to proof one way or the other. As
in all religious affairs, these things are personal matters and
historicity is not as important to the heart as the feeling of
oneness the two Sai masters engender. When truly in love the
analytical mind is in abeyance.
The controversy over Sathya Sai’s status has thrown up elements
of the ridiculous at both extremes. His basic followers, Telugu
farmers in the early days of his mission, sought to see miracles in
everything the boy saint did. Chain letters were sent to stoke the
impression of a cult of unbalanced believers, totally at odds with
the teachings of Sai Baba—that you must weigh the evidence of a
teacher’s spiritual worth before taking the plunge of faith to win
his protective aura. When Professor Kasturi penned the official life
of Sathya Sai (as the perceived avatar of Lord Shiva and Parvati),
it was directed at a devotional, rustic audience. For the rational
reader, the most authentic biography of Sathya Sai in English has
been written by Howard Murphet, an Australian.
The exponential growth of the Sai mission after his sole foreign
trip to Uganda in 1968 saw a huge influx of overseas interest and
funds. The dramatic expansion of the Prasanthi Nilayam ashram—with
an international-class hospital, a deemed university and massive
outlay of drinking water schemes for the drought-prone Rayalaseema
district—helped the world to distinguish the universal compassionate
nature of Baba from his earlier image of a miracle-mongering yogi.
His unique, unchanging persona and the dynamic harnessing of
goodwill that he arouses for social improvement make him much more
than a conventional fund-raising mahatma. He is one of the few
compassionate beings rarely seen on earth, concerned solely for the
advancement of the human spirit.
Sai Baba's concern for quality
education and medicare is a positive input for nation
At the other end of the spectrum is the
violently vociferous lobby of local rationalists (convinced that Sai
Baba is a confidence trickster) and international apostate disciples
(who paint Sai Baba as the Anti-Christ). To add to the chagrin of
these voluble detractors, who have criticised his career in print
and on the Internet with malicious intensity for at least a
generation, is the ongoing booming growth of his mission. The more
they rail against the saint, the greater, it seems, is the number of
people who flock to have his darshan.
The critics are so intemperate in their
dislike that their vituperation now comes across as almost near
comical in its predictability. Nothing Baba can say or do meets
their approval. If he provides drinking water to thirsty villagers
they scent a scam but if he doesn’t provide drinking water he is
anti-poor. The ground reality is that even Naxalites have welcomed
Baba’s charitable intervention, recognising in him a fellow son of
the Andhra soil. Often the impression given is that the vilifiers do
not hate Sai Baba as much as they harbour contempt for the religious
feelings of ordinary cultivators, whose devotion has made Sathya Sai
what he is.
Probably because of the intensity of
their hate, when it comes to a serious, forensic examination of
their allegations, they resort to bluster and evasion instead of
hard facts. Smearing sexual innuendo is a traditional ploy but on
failing to substantiate their charges, the critics switch to another
They will claim that all of Sathya Sai Baba’s materialisations
are phoney. However, this cannot stick either, because millions have
witnessed the outpouring of vibhuti at Shivaratri. So then,
financial irregularities are imputed to the saint, and when these
are likewise found to be unproductive of scandal, mafia happenings
are invoked. (As a longtime observer of ashrams, I always note how
Puttaparthi is exceptional in not making any monetary demands on the
The strategy of the critics seems to be that if sufficient mud is
thrown, some might stick. This hit and run behaviour suggests a
neurotic concern to damn by any possible means. Certain foreign
evangelical missions invest in these hate campaigns as a godly task
while in international forums, pressure on voting patterns is
discreetly applied by lobbyists of rival religions, to further their
The latest in these so called exposes is a BBC documentary whose
agenda was so predetermined to denigrate Baba that it stooped to the
unethical use of a spy camera. In a last farcical gesture, the
producer hired some roadside entertainers to attempt to simulate
Baba’s chamatkar. The result is so ludicrous that it leaves the
viewer wondering as to who is funding this bizarre display of
hostile reporting. The BBC is ultimately governed by the Anglican
establishment, and churches in the west are losing out financially
to the appeal of the Sai Baba movement.
As a commercial broadcaster, the BBC’s
opting for sleaze would have the dual advantage of discrediting a
rival as well as getting good audience rating. The Church of England
can have no objection to programmes that weaken perceived
threats—like the papacy or Hindu holy men—to its (declining)
influence in the world. Posing as a lion in Asia, the BBC is a mouse
in Britain. It dare not criticise public icons like the Queen, who
happens to be the supremo of the Anglican church.
Even negative assessments of the Sai
movement have to concede that its growth has been phenomenal and
that, remarkably, there has been no missionary effort involved. It
has increased by spontaneous identification, where individuals have
been drawn to the persona and teachings of the Sai saints, a
voluntary outpouring of faith that has occurred in an amazingly
In appealing to the core of spirit that
lies beneath the surface of all religions, the Deccan saints have
not only made a dent in the fragmentary nature of the subcontinental
religious loyalties but also restored the classical Upanishadic
insight of the oneness of all faiths.
This augurs well with the Indian
democracy’s need to get beyond religious labels that have stultified
its development since Independence. Baba’s concern for quality
education and medical care is another positive input for nation
building. The success of his peninsula drinking water network has
proved that for efficient development, the crucial ingredient is
sincerity of purpose.
Bill Aitken is an expert on comparative
religion and a travel writer. He is author of Sri Sathya Sai Baba: A
By N. Bhanutej
Traversing rocky mountains and never-ending plains to reach
Puttaparthi, one does not expect gigantic film set-like buildings in
this back of beyond. Bordering on the gaudy, the buildings—the
hospital, the music academy, the university, etc.—painted mostly in
pink, have a stamp of Sathya Sai institutions on them. Even the
police station and the bus stand have temple
Puttaparthi's economy is booming. Crises like drought or stock
melt-downs don't seem to affect this over-grown village. Puttaparthi
comes to a halt only when Baba moves to his ashram in Bangalore.
Every business establishment here displays a picture of Baba
prominently. Every establishment has 'Sai' in its name. Even to get
a waiter's attention in a restaurant, one has to shout 'Sai Ram'.
Beggars on the street call out 'Sai Ram' to passers-by.
On the main streets, there is a significant number of foreigners.
The economy revolves around these dollar-rich visitors. There are
also several Kashmiris, who sell carpets and other handicrafts to
Some shops exclusively sell pictures of Sai Baba. Said one
shopkeeper: "Ash could start falling from one of these pictures if
you are lucky."
Puttaparthi is completely vegetarian. Though not official, there
is a ban on liquor. Young boys in white are a common sight here.
They are students of one of the many colleges run by the Sathya Sai
Central Trust. When asked what he wanted to become, a boy, who is
doing B.Com., said: "I want to do MBA from our institution. Swami
will guide me on what to become."
Would he join a new-age company as an executive? "I am blessed if
Swami asks me to manage one of his institutions," he replied.
Students of institutions managed by the trust are forbidden from
speaking to the media, he said.
By U.R. Ananthamurthy
Although I grew up in an orthodox family, I questioned many of
our traditional notions, particularly the caste system. Hence, I had
difficulty in following a religious leader. I remember my parents
paying respects to Sai Baba when they were unhappy. Since I loved
them, I never criticised such things vehemently.
But it was funny to see people getting rings and vibhuti from Sai
Baba. It is cheap to make people believe in God through tricks. To
believe in a phenomenon like Sai Baba is like losing my spiritual
awareness. My friend's wife refused to undergo surgery for
breast cancer on Baba's assurance that she would be cured. She died
without an operation. It is wrong to advocate such belief systems
because all of us will die. We must realise this truth.
Once at the Hyderabad airport, Kannada writer Prof. V.K. Gokak,
who worked with Sai Baba, was waiting for him on the flight I was
on. Another well-known Kannada writer, V. Seetharamaiah, a
traditional man with petha [turban], was sitting next to me. "What
is happening?" I asked him. "The flight is delayed as they are
waiting for Sai Baba," he said.
Once Baba arrived, the crew and passengers, mostly
vice-chancellors of prominent universities, bowed to Sai Baba and
got vibhuti from him. "Why don't you go, sir?" I asked
Seetharamaiah. "I'm an old-timer," he replied. Real old-timers
didn't need a Sai Baba.
I cannot understand how people are not sceptical about Sai Baba.
One of the great Indian traditions is scepticism. Without this,
Buddhism, Jainism and Veerashaivism would not have been born.
India's true spirituality can be found in people like Kabir, Basava,
Tukaram, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi. I don't know
how to fit Sai Baba in that list. Between Sri Sri Ravishankar [Art
of Living Foundation] and Sai Baba, Sai Baba is better because he is
more easily available to the ordinary people.
I recently watched Sai Baba on television and he looked old and
sick. But there is kindness in his eyes. Many people are overcome
with emotion when they meet Sai Baba. But that magnetism is not
spiritual. People go to him for solace. Spiritualism is not solace
but to seek truth, which is harder. Spiritualism requires a kind of
mind like Jiddu Krishnamurti. I could argue with him. With Sai Baba,
either you believe him or you don't.
The 20th century is remarkable for three phenomena—hunger for
social justice, hunger for spirituality and hunger for modernity.
All the three went together. Mahatma Gandhi fought for social
justice and tried to get out of the caste system. The spiritual
streak in Gandhi emerged when he said 'Hey Ram' after he was shot
at. Today, hunger for spiritualism has given rise to commercial
gurus. Hunger of equality has degenerated into Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Modernity has become globalisation.
This is going to increase because of increasing rootlesness and a
loss of a sense of community. I have no problem with a religious
festival or even people taking the Ayyappa pilgrimage. Among Ayyappa
devotees, there is a sense of community and equality. The problem is
the hunger for persons like Baba.
What puzzles me is that he claims to be God and I laugh at him.
People also laughed at Lord Krishna when he claimed he was God. I
used to wonder if Sai Baba is also God, and if we are refusing to
I like certain things about Sai Baba. When BJP leader L.K. Advani
went on a ratha yatra, Sai Baba is believed to have said, why build
Ram temple at Ayodhya when he is present everywhere. I appreciate
his drinking water and health care initiatives. One more thing I
like about him is that he is not an English-speaking person.
The land that gave birth to great people like Gandhi and Ramana
As told to Rajesh Parishwad
The writer is a well-known Kannada
writer and Jnanpith award winner.
Waiting for Prema Sai
By N. Bhanutej
Asking about Baba's health can ruffle feathers at
Prashanthi Nilayam. Especially if the question comes from a
journalist. The secretary of the Sai Baba Central Trust
refused an interview. A request for an interview with Baba was
dismissed without a second thought.
Information on his health comes 'off the record'. An
inner-circle devotee, who did not want to be named, said that
Baba was using a wheelchair ever since his thigh bone
fractured in a fall in 2003. Surgery had not succeeded because
of "rejection", he said. The devotee quickly added that as Sai
Baba rarely travelled, the injury had not affected his
routine. "In fact, all those who have been saying that the
swami's health is failing are taking sick leave. He is as
active as ever. He has not missed a single appointment," he
Decades ago, Sai Baba said that he would "leave his present
body" in 2022; that he would be reborn as Prema Sai Baba, in
Mandya district in Karnataka. In July 1975, a boy, Sai
Krishna, of Pandavapura in Mandya claimed to be Baba's next
avatar. A fact-finding committee set up by the late H.
Narasimhaiah, who was vice-chancellor of Bangalore University,
proved that the 'holy ash' produced by Sai Krishna was hidden
in the boy's vest, and that the pulling of a string delivered
it to his palm.
The organisation dismisses questions on who would succeed
Sai Baba thus: "How can anyone succeed God? Baba is for ever."
Said a member of the trust: "What is happening in Shirdi?
Everything is continuing even after Shirdi Sai Baba. Here,
too, it will go on like that."
"Who can replace God? Baba was, is and shall be," said
Baba's nephew R.J. Ratnakar. Would a certain Prema Sai Baba of
Mandya inherit the empire? "That is not known to us," said
Ratnakar. "It is known only to him [Baba]. It will happen if
he has said so. How that will be revealed, only time will