The Sai Baba movement revolves around the figure of Sathya Sai Baba. Sathya Sai Baba was born in the village of Puttaparthi in the Anantapur district of what now is Andhra Pradesh in South India in a Ksatriya family (Swallow, 1982: 125). His rise to the present status may be seen as involving several stages.
The first of these occurred around 1940 when he was about 14 years of age. He suffered a fit. Subsequently this was explained as his having left his body to rescue a devotee. Upon recovering, the boy, then called Sathya Narayana Raju, claimed that he was an incarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (Sai Baba of Shirdi is a 'hot favorite' as an incarnate and 'is being torn apart by at least three ascetics'! Balse, 1976: 58).
Thus, in order to find out more about Sathya Sai Baba, one is compelled to find out more about Sai Baba. Sai Baba was a religious figure associated with the place called Shirdi in Maharashtra, which he made famous. He appeared there in 1872 and died in 1918 (Swallow, 1982: 128, 131). The following aspects of his life and legend are of particular interest. (1) The ancestry of Sai Baba is shrouded in mystery, like that of the medieval poet-saint Kabir, so that it is not known for certain whether he was Hindu or Muslim by birth. (2) He combined elements of Hindu and Muslim worship in his ritual, of which an important part consisted of maintaining a fire in a hearth after the manner of Saiva Yogis. (3) He was known for working miracles as well as for therapeutic thaumaturgy. 'He used the ash of his hearth as a sacramental substance' for these purposes. (4) One of his followers was a Upasani Baba, who became a religious figure in his own right. The cult of Upasani Baba, who was a Brahmin, is prevailing Hindu in its orientation. (5) Upasani Baba was succeeded by a lady ascetic called Godavari Mata. 'The female ascetics, trained in Sanskriet, perform Vedic rites and wear the brightly colored ornaments and saris of married women.' The significance of these points will become clear in due course.
The second major stage in the life of Sathya Sai Baba came in 1963 when he made the claim that he was an incarnation of Siva. This claim also followed upon seizures.
"He collapsed, became totally paralyzed and went into a coma. For several days he remained in this state, once regaining consciousness to warn the devotees that he would have two more attacks. After this he once again regained consciousness. He insisted on giving his devotees darshan [darsana: Skt. 'a sight of him'] at the festival of Gurupurnima, and was carried in a state of semi-paralysis to the main hall of the ashram. There he performed a total cure on himself. Once again he explained that he had taken on a devotee's illness, but he also used the occasion to declare that he was the God Siva in mortal form." (Swallow, 1982: 129-130)
In order to understand the full significance of this claim, it should be realized that Siva is one of the two main gods of devotional Hinduism (Hiriyanna, 1978: 11) and that in Saivism the doctrine of incarnation (avatara) does not play as important a role as it does in Vaisnavism, of which it is a special feature. The fact that Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be an incarnation of Siva is therefore important. He is really employing a device here which accounts in part for the popularity of Vaisnavism (Gonda, 1970: 23) and also enhances his own. That he claimed to be an incarnation of Siva and not Visnu is also significant in view of the differences between the profiles of the two gods as their figures evolved. As Gonda concludes-des after comparing the two (1970: 13), 'In short, Visnu is, generally speaking, a friend nearer to man; Siva a lord and master, ambivalent and many-sided.'
Sathya Sai Baba thus made two primary associations, the first reincarnatory link and the second incarnatory; the first with Sai Baba, the second with Siva. The question, therefore, arises: what prompted him to make these claims? From the point of view of this study, the suggestions made by D.A. Swallow possess considerable explanatory power: 'I have argued that Sathya Sai Baba's demonstration of magical power is sufficient to attract devotees, and also places him in a well-established tradition. What, then, is the significance of his claim to be reincarnation of Baba?' (Swallow, 1982: 13). He suggests the following answer:
"Through his claim to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Baba in the first instance has access to a heritage which derives from a number of saintly and ascetic religious traditions. Although the links are vague they are sufficient to connect him to a past, and give him respectability and authority. He does not, however, simply adopt Sai Baba's eclecticism wholesale. He has dropped the Islamic associations and instead places greater stress on elements adopted from the Saivite tradition in a particular form used by Nantpanthis. In this way Sathya Sai Baba has made his connections with the god Siva in preparation for the later claim he made to be a god himself." (Swallow, 1982: 135-6)
Swallow's answer may be supplemented with the observation that while, as against the obscure ancestry of Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Baba has developed a Brahmanical lineage connecting him with the Bharadvaja Gotra, he has also emphasized the Hindu element of the heritage (like Upanisani Baba) without giving up the eclectic claims of Sai Baba entirely. Moreover, the upward ritual revalation of women has been retained. The pattern fits in well with the demands of contemporary India in terms of both modernity and tradition. The rising status of women in modern times is given the stamp of approval, while the Hindu character of India (notwithstanding the secular status of the state) is recognized, as also is the fact that Hindu tolerance, while tolerant, is no doubt essentially Hindu.
Now that the possible reasons for association with Sai Baba have been discussed, a further question arises:
"The claim to be an avatar is by no means uncommon among Hindu Holy men. But why should Sathya Sai Baba seek a particular association with the God Siva? His family were not strict Saivites; Siva is not their istadevata. What is there in that God's character that he seeks to adopt as part of his own personality, and what relation does the story explaining the claim have to the whole body of myth and beliefs about Siva?" (Swallow, 1982: 137)
In order to understand the nature of the associations with Siva, some prior understanding of the nature of god Siva is necessary. This has been investigated and elaborated by students of Hinduism (for example, Gonda, 1970; O'Flaherty, 1973) and his chief characteristic has been mentioned earlier.
In this background, Swallow offers the explanation that Saiva mythology, to which Sathya Sai Baba attached himself, 'explores the paradox of conflicting aims' - ascetic and erotic - which are 'of universal concern'. This explanation needs to be supplemented, as there are other aspects of the Siva story which take on a new relevance in the context of modern India. It has often been maintained that Siva was an 'alien' god who was assimilated into the Hindu pantheon (Hiriyanna, 1978: 34 ff.). If such indeed was the case, then which god would be better qualified than Siva to preside over the integration of the influences of an 'alien' West with Hinduism? Moreover, the fact that Siva is a god more concerned with cosmic change, unlike Visnu, who is more concerned with cosmic stability, makes him ideally suited for mediating transition in a society undergoing widespread and rapid social change.
How do we now translate the theology discussed hitherto into sociology? A crucial social fact comes to our aid here, the fact that 'Sathya Sai Baba's following comes almost exclusively from the urban middle classes' (Swallow, 1982: 152). If we place this along-side the other statistical fact that 'Sathya Sai Baba has a larger following that any of the contemporary Godmen of India' (Singh, 1975: x), then an interesting configuration emerges. India is undergoing rapid socio-economic change as the processes of industrialization, urbanization, modernization and Westernization gather pace. This has resulted in the expansion of the middle class, which finds itself caught in the tensions generated by the competing claims of tradition and modernity. The Sai Baba movement enables people to maintain contact with tradition as the country modernizes.
Excerpt taken from: Arvind Sharma "New Hindu religious movements in India", 1986, pp. 228-231
Literature mentioned in excerpt:
Balse, Maya (1976) "Mystics and Men of Miracles in India." New Delhi: Heritage Publishers.
Gonda, J. (1970) "Visnuism: A comparison." London: Athlone Press.
Hiriyanna, M. (1978, 1948) "Essentials of Indian Philosophy." London: Unwin Paperbacks.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1973) "Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva." London: Oxford University Press.
Singh, Khuswant (ed.) (1975) "Guru's, Godmen and Good People." New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Swallow, Deborah A. (1982) "Ashes and Powers: Myth, Rite and Miracle in an Indian God-Man's Cult." Modern Asian Studies, 16(1), 123-58.
White, C.S.J. (1972) "The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints." Journal of Asian Studies, 31(4), 863-78.
Other academic literature on Sai Baba, collected separately:
Babb, Lawrence A. (1983) Sathya Sai Baba's magic. In Anthropological Quarterly 56 (3) pp. 116-124.
Id. (1987), "Sathya Sai Baba's Saintly Play" pp. 168-186 by John Stratton Hawley (ed.) Saints and Virtues. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Lee, Raymond M. (1982) “Sai Baba: Salvation and syncretism”, in Contributions to Indian Sociology vol. 16 (1), pp. 125-140.
Klass, Morton (1991) Singing with Sai Baba. The politics and revitalization in Trinidad. Boulder: Westview Press (Conflict and social change series).
Rodriguez, Birgitte (1993) "Glimpses of the Divine Working with the teachings of Sai Baba." York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser.
Taylor, Donald (1985) "Charismatic authority in the Sathya Sai Baba movement" pp. 119-133 by Richard Burghart (ed.) Hinduism in Great Britain. London, New York: Tavistock Publications.
Thomas, Caroline M. (1987) “God men, myths, materializations and the kalas of immortality”, in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 55 nr. 816 pp. 377-403.