Failings in Sai Baba's Human Values
Where the Teachings and the Teacher Go Wrong >
Simplicity and vagueness in the service of moralism
The taint of intellectual and moral rigidity
Sathya Sai Baba began to talk about human values in his thirties, then reckoning on four such (truth, love, peace and right action). The phrase ‘human values’ was quite widely used in spiritual movements in Sathya Sai’s youth (eg. by Rudolf Steiner and diverse humanistic writers on ethics), though it fell rather much into disuse after WW2.Sathya Sai most likely learned it from the erudite Prof. N. Kasturi, with whom he associated and discussed daily in the 1950s and thereafter. The term is again much more widespread in the West today, no doubt due to its being a central concept in the human ethics movement. To what extent its use might also have been influenced by Sathya Sai's use of it is most uncertain. Later he decided somewhat arbitrarily one fine day that there were then ‘five eternal human values’, having somehow forgotten formerly to include the Gandhian expression ‘non-violence’ (ahimsa). (A very popular, high-minded flag to fly both in India and elsewhere, so it eventually had to be made use of by Sathya Sai too.)
Simplicity and vagueness in the service of moralism: Though Sathya Sai Baba has repeated and repeated much the same things for so long that they have become quite widely known, at least among his followers. The five values, being one of his simpler menus, caught on so well that he evidently chose them as his banner. That they were originally grabbed as if out of thin air without any deeper thought becomes quite evident only when one examines them carefully. They are five very ambiguous slogans, each loaded with positive associations and attractive because of their simplicity, something the masses can relate to. Even unlettered Indian villagers are often acquainted with several of the values from their Hindu culture and so easily find them appealing. The ideas they encompass are part of the modern Hindu heritage, a mixture of traditional religious values and some borrowed elements from Christianity (notably the concept of Divine love of God for his Creation and for humankind).
The simplicity of the 'five values' is deceptive, because each term is so general, imprecise and so conflates many different meanings… So, while there is something to suit everyone, not all see at all the same set of meanings. The vagueness of the terms hide various weaknesses and shortcomings of the underlying viewpoint and makes it function much as an a la carte moralism, a general menu to 'pick and mix' from where individual interpretations are highly variable and often arbitrary.
The five values - explained by aphorisms, proverbs or sayings, parables and simple stories - gain popular appeal in India and similar countries. They meet a widespread and growing need among some segments of society - also in the West - to see moral values (especially of a more traditional variety) reestablished or regenerated in the modern world. The approach has a freshness and much of what Sathya Sai says about values is right, just as is many another person's teaching on the decline in values and how to reverse it. This, combined with the efforts of a grass roots educational movement that seems to promise the realization of fundamental reforms in education, is doubtless why many otherwise intelligent persons hitch their wagons to the human values train. It also promises to higher castes that the morally uneducated and otherwise ignorant masses might be trained into better ways. The human values teaching programme was built out with some modern teaching techniques like use of stories, role play and so forth (imported from progressive teaching methods for children esp. in USA and the UK). It seemed worthwhile as a kind of patent medicine to help avert at least some of the world’s growing troubles.
The taint of intellectual and moral rigidity: These five ‘human values’ have been set in concrete by Sathya Sai, as if there were only five human values beside which all other values (now ‘officially’ designated as ‘sub-values) depend in some relative fashion. His determination to fixate ideas or abstractions into rock-solid categories which he claims are ‘eternal absolutes’ that exist independently of human life altogether (i.e. he claims they are actually ‘Divine qualities’) just shows Sathya Sai’s kind of philosophical and linguistic self-contradictory naivety. Human life and culture changes, and so do our ideas and language, so what can be distinguished as five values in one culture, can well be most adequately covered in three or seven values in another. But Sathya Sai has demonstrated in many ways that he wishes to lay down the law on all manner of question, not least many modern moral issues on which he is patently ill-informed and often wildly out of his depth. Issues concerning sexual health, child slavery/labour and women's rights are very prominent among his most blank areas.
On close acquaintance, the Sathya Sai values package is seen by clear-thinking observers to promote too rigid and unrealistically traditional moral attitudes and all to often take the form of very vague and sweeping platitudes. The value ‘love’, for example, causes much confusion, so loosely and gushingly the word is used in all manner of connection, by Sathya Sai himself about himself and especially by all true followers when speaking about Sathya Sai. ‘Love in action’ is one of his attractive slogans. Yet no one is more scathing about his devotees’ inadequacy in acting thus than Sathya Sai in his frequent harangues. Meanwhile, he presents himself as the perfect, infallible example of all 'human' values... while virtually everyone else is judged by him (in one discourse or another) as being more or less immoral, inhuman, evil and occasionally even 'demonic'. Now that many of us have been enabled to penetrate the social fog of secrecy in which he surrounds himself and his private behaviour, we see some of his actions for what they really are, worse than any the great majority of us could carry out! The world can now discover that much of his talk of his ‘setting a perfect example’ is empty and very hollow ... when it is not directly mendacious.
The Sathya Sai devotee has to accept the five values as God-given entities towards which they must (somehow or other) strive in every act. The values are so sloppily defined, overlapping mightily, that it is hard for them to decide what is a case of non/violence, of peace or of right action… for all boil down to pretty much the same when analysed with any degree of concentration and compared to the examples given in stories and anecdotes in the actual complete texts of Sathya Sai’s discourses. Some devotees I have spoken to think they have learned their meaning in visions or dreams, or may rightly wonder whether the arbitrary and evidently superhuman ‘human values’ are some kind of unknowable transcendental quintessence that may only be experienced after ‘leaving the body’.
Naturally, the original four Sathya Sai values were already ingrained in Hindu tradition, and – as such – do not at all comfortably translate to the English words used. Dharma is a complex idea of ancient Indian origin that has come virtually to form the crux of Buddhism, and it translates very poorly as ‘right action’, which is itself a very fuzzy and controversial notion in English, besides being a foreign kind of expression. The same applies to the Indian conception of ‘sathya’ which is more like a higher Platonic or mystical religious notion and very little like the mainstream connotations of the word ‘truth’ in English and European tradition generally. Sathya Sai has struggled to accommodate this English conception to the transcendental abstraction that is ‘sathya’, with very diffuse and conflicting results. As a way of diverting attention from the conceptual weakness (into which he evidently runs time and again) he usually interprets truth as ‘truthfulness’.
Human justice as distinct from divine command: The most glaring omission in Sathya Sai's package of ‘eternal five values’ is one of the keystone values of Western civilization… and, interestingly enough, a value which is not much in evidence in the traditional societies of India or the East. Where it has been introduced in the Indian subcontinent, it has very clearly not yet taken very deep root in actual practice. This is the much-prized European value ‘justice’, to add an equally ambiguous but distinctly different complex of ideas to the bag. Justice is, in practice, closely related to 'human rights', both in national laws and European and international conventions. However one look at it, the idea of human justice is glaringly absent from Sathya Sai’s thinking and, moreover, from many of his attitudes and activities. The importance of fairness, social and human rights suffer and are displaced in his view by 'human duties', which are determined by 'divine law' and take no account of individual freedoms or any kind of democratic values. Sathya Sai constantly talks about the utopian nature of regimes of ancient India, where divinely-inspired rulers (or even God Kings, like Rama) dealt out justice. Divine law thus supplants human justice based on civilised consensus and individual and social rights. He speaks of ‘Divine justice’, which is what he claims to deal out to every one of us sooner or later etc. But not human justice, for he is outspokenly down on human rights, which he does not see as being our right and which he would apparently nihilate in favour of ‘human duties’… duties, note well, as they are or may be prescribed predominantly by him.
Accordingly, Sai Baba favours a system of organization with strict top-down rule… a system that is notoriously insensitive to feedback, unfair to members and furthermore obviously leans towards pedagogical inefficiency and counter-productiveness. Such systems are authoritarian and become totalitarian and cultist when their power is threatened, as is being seen with the Sathya Sai movement today. This is anti-democratic… because legal and social justice – along with human rights – go hand in hand with democratic ideals of organization and government at all levels of society. The so-called 'human values' programmes go under such titles as EHV (Education in Human Values), ESSE and Educare. These exhibit various strongly authoritarian and anti-democratic aspects in organisation, doctrinal and sanctions against critics and non-believers in the largely Hindu teachings of Sai Baba, which form the dogmatic back-up of those who teach under them.
Surely the greatest failure behind Sathya Sai's much bandied "human values" is the teacher's known behaviour. He has allowed and condoned terrible violence under his very nose (the execution of 4 devotees), carried out sexual molestations by oiling genitals openly admitted to take place by certain Sai Organisation leaders - which are illegal even in India - and many much more serious alleged homosexual offenses by numerous victims (i.e. against dharma and prema). He has demonstrably been untruthful in many connections and has openly lied in discourses etc. (i.e. against sathya or truthfulness). So much for the credibility of his many harangues about the importance of unity of thought, word and deed!
Sai Educare’s fundamentalist, doctrinaire teachings? The main lines on education in the Sathya Sai Baba movement's ideas and plans concerning education have - as far as available documentation goes - concentrated overwhelmingly on the inculcation of values according to what Sai Baba (SSB) himself teaches, which has left the few courses that have been developed in a cultural vacuum by systematically excluding most of the Western educational heritage.
I participated in the forerunner of Sai Educare, the so-called 'Education in Human Values' (EHV) programme, in which from 1985 in its early days and to which I at the outset contributed some of my professional expertise from University work by supplying some vital system planning in European EHV. I soon realised that the basis for an effective value educational programme was very weak and there were a number of insurmountable internal hindrances in the Sai organisation and wider movement to its development into any kind of widely-acceptable programmes.
It turned out that the rather grandiose plans its official leaders (such as Victor Kanu in the UK and Thorbjørn Meyer in Continental Europe) put forward failed very signally to materialise in Europe. The free courses offered were not taken up by more than a handful of parents, despite considerable efforts and much voluntary preparation work and only one or two teachers managed to introduce some measure of this 'value education' into their work at schools. The same voluntary-based and elementary free schooling was, however, much more popular in countries where education of any kind is at a premium, such as Africa, Thailand and so on. These countries could not, of course, provide models for any kind of education in countries with long-established universal educational traditions.
Old wine in new bottles? Those whose efforts had failed to attract clients to EHV except on a shoestring basis decided on a new name 'Sai Educare', and they have introduced a more ambitious plan to establish schools and colleges in a more traditional way, rather than relying on free courses at the local community level (which is the mainstay of EHV in underdeveloped countries). The Sai Educare Foundation is trying to establish itself, and with very considerable financial backing from rich Sai devotees particularly in the USA, in as many countries as possible, acquiring properties as locales for schools and colleges. The instigators are not publicising their plans or current work except within Sai devotee circles, for they have met with some powerful opposition hitherto and have chosen to try to find a kind of 'back-door' way into society. This is via the establishment through formal routines for private schools and colleges in countries where, for example, educational rules are liberal about religious or 'spiritual' educational institutions.
So far there is nothing to indicate that Sai Educare has anything radically different to offer than was already available in the 'Education in Human Values' programme. In the first place, the only people who have been involved in the preparations of the European variant are all Sai devotees. There was talk of inviting international lecturers to the 'high school college' that was planned (but which was forced to withdraw from Copenhagen by angry residents). These 'international' teachers would doubtless nearly all have been either convinced Sai devotees or those initially positive to Sathya Sai and his teaching. It can safely be predicted that very few persons of any pedagogical or educational standing would be induced to lecture in Sai Educare connections if they were properly informed of the nature of the unrefuted and virtually irrefutable charges against Sathya Sai Baba as a pederast and highly suspected accomplice to murder.
The Sai teaching's shortage of universal educational concepts and contents: Most of the hindrances in the Sai Org. to developing a healthy teaching environment were and still are doctrinally based. The main problem is that the largely traditional religious teaching of Sathya Sai is a mixture of fundamentalist Hinduism drawing upon various Indian traditions and only most superficially on more modern ideas. Many of the restrictions that affected EHV stem from the highly conservative and traditional culture expressed by Sathya Sai, which is without doubt carried over in no small measure into Sai Educare.
The Sai doctrine quite purposely and explicitly ignores the rich scientific and humanistic culture of the world as virtually irrelevant to the spiritual life or value education (i.e. except for anything that can be used in support of the same Sai doctrine)! By is very name and practitioners, Sai Educare cannot be other than mainly based on Sai Baba's idealistic - but often highly unrealistic and anti-worldly - teachings. Unfortunately,Sathya Sai's teachings fails to recognise properly what Jack Kornfield has said: "Ideals are reflections of our deeply religious nature. But, as we know, ideals can be poison if we take them in large quantities or if we take them incorrectly; in other words, if we take them not as ideals, but a concrete realities. …ideals are tools for inspiration, not realities in themselves." (p. 121, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry).
Further, should it be conducted without genuine discussion but with patronising censorship and fobbing off honest questions - as in all Sai Organisation connections - it cannot become more than a sectarian and traditional curiosity. It is virtually unthinkable that the total banning of critical thinking and questioning of the more doubtful tenets of Sathya Sai's 'teachings' in the Sai movement will not seriously affect the conduct of teaching at Sai Educare schools or colleges. This authoritarian agenda is well-know from the Sathya Sai Organisation, in which Sai Educare remains based, though formally independent of it. It is upheld by those same people who mismanaged EHV, causing it to make almost no progress outside the Sathya Sai movement despite 20 years of great efforts. Only those who broke out of the Organisation on grounds of censorship and unrealistic restrictions that were imposed had any measure of success in conducting free value classes. This they did without using the name of Sai Baba or making his teachings too prominent. These persons were consequently ostracised by the Sai Organisation and instead set up their own programmes under the wholly independent title of AVES (Associazione di Voluntariato per l'Educazione Alla Solidarieta' and is at Via Gambologna, 20136 Milano. Fax. 02/58115008. The School Director is Eva-Lotte Mannerfelt). They include a former top leader in the Sai Organisation in Sweden, Ulf Sviberg, and former Sai Org. EHV leader in Italy, Francisco Polenghi. Another defector is the very active educator, June Auton of UK. Unfortunately, even these initiatives suffer from many of the flaws of the EHV system's inherent conceptual limitations.
Signs of this are already evident in the nascent Sai Educare activities in Australia. Like the 'EHV' work, this educational system can safely be predicted to thrive only in isolation, all conducted in sovereign disregard of recognised pedagogical and psychological research. The mental climate generated by this and shared by Sai followers who wish to imprint values, that is, by who will define the core of any system using the name of 'Sai', is seriously lacking any genuine empirical or comparative study, for the entire doctrine is axiomatically inimical to such concerns. It is evident that any such educational system would fall far short of excellence
The inherent ideological failings of Sai educational notions: The parameters for the value education are initially set by Sai Baba's teaching, especially on what he calls 'human values' - which specifically exclude at the outset as worldly such values as justice, social equality, human rights and open-ended fact-based researches. This is a serious flaw in any teaching claiming to have anything to do with 'human' values. Moreover, the values are held by Sathya Sai to be transcendental absolutes that therefore cannot be modified and do not have their origin or justification in human praxis, but only in divine will. It is easy to see from this why Sathya Sai avoids all discussion of sexuality, of sex problems in society (including AIDS, contraception questions etc.) and is against what any educated modern person would call women's personal, social and political emancipation.
This makes for doctrinal teaching as opposed to realistic research, to the deduction from supposedly indisputable axioms as to how people are and should be, as opposed to the discovery of what they can and so should reasonably aspire to from their given social, mental and emotional existence. The first makes for patronising teaching and (often concealed) authoritarian attitudes, the second for independent investigation, learning by trial and error, and open communication and research between truth seekers. Without independent thinkers and the wear and tear of opposing hypotheses, debates and critique, all but elementary education becomes a mere ritual without lasting, constructive effects.
My Russian colleague in education, Serguei Badaev, has remarked very appositely: "Critical thinking, as one of a basic skills of character building, is absolutely opposed to the EHV and Sai Educare approaches. I think it is a threat to the Sathya Sai mini-empire. The situation is in a sense very similar to what occurred during the Soviet regime. Communist leaders needed people with good character to work hard and with enthusiasm. But the regime tried to restrict firmly (or to control) the area of application of their intellect and research skills to keep themselves safe from their analysis. The same with Sathya Sai. There is a sort of invisible circle around him where you should abandon your critical skills and submit completely to his uncertainty and mystery. Another interesting aspect of Sai education is an idea of separate education of boys and girls which is taken for granted without any serious justification.