Indian spiritual guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba, revered by millions of followers as a living god, died Sunday in a hospital in southern India. He was 86.
Born as Sathyanarayana Raju in November 23, 1926 in Puttaparthi, his devotees claimed he started singing Sanskrit verses, of which he had no knowledge, one day in March 1940 after being apparently stung by a scorpion.
Within two months, the teenager claimed to be a reincarnation of the more famous Shirdi Sai Baba, who had reportedly stated before his death in 1918 that he would reappear in the then Madras Presidency eight years later.
In no time, the boy gathered a following as he stepped into the world of spirituality. Word spread that Raju could make objects such as food and sweets materialise out of thin air.
As time went by, and he came to be recognised for his mane and flowing orange robes, the boy transformed into Sathya Sai Baba, frequently producing with a flick of his hand ‘vibhuti’ (sacred ash) and small objects such as Shiv lings, rings and necklaces.
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Puttaparthi became his base, eventually transforming the once small village into a lively pilgrimage centre, with its own railway station and air strip.
The spiritual guru built a temple in 1944. Four years later he founded Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Supreme Peace) at Puttaparthi.
He also opened ashrams at Whitefield on Bangalore’s outskirts and at Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. He made it a point to tell his followers not to give up their original religion.
He preached: “My objective is the establishment of sanatana dharma, which believes in one god as propitiated by the founders of all religions.”
Sathya Sai Baba, however, ran into critics who repeatedly challenged him to make the objects materialise in “controlled conditions” — to prove that he was not indulging in trickery.
The godman brushed away the attacks, which abated over the years, even as his spiritual empire expanded. Today, his devotees are spread over some 130 countries and number in millions.
Sceptics and rationalists considered his miracles nothing more than parlour tricks. Retired Icelandic psychology professor Erlendur Haraldsson wrote that he did not get Sathya Sai’s permission to study him under controlled circumstances. In 1976, Dr H Narasimhaiah, a physicist and then vice chancellor of Bangalore University, founded and chaired a committee “to rationally and scientifically investigate miracles and other verifiable superstitions”.
He wrote to Sathya Sai to allow him to study the guru’s purported miracles under scientific conditions but was refused audience.
Another rationalist Abraham Thomas Kovoor who campaigned to expose as frauds various Indian and Sri Lankan “god-men”, believed that the Sathya Sai performed his ‘vibhuti’ through sleight of hand. Noteworthy is also the effort of Indian magician P C Sorkar Junior who was critical of the gurus “miracles.”
Sathya Sai gained immense popularity among the people of southern India for many philanthropic endeavours such as world class speciality heart hospitals, free water schemes to cities, towns and villages and educational institutions.
AFP via the Jakarta Globe also highlights Sai Baba’s philanthropic works — but also controversies regarding his ‘miracles’ as well as allegations, highlight in a BBC documentary, regarding sexual abuse:
He counted former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, judges, actors, generals and politicians as devotees, as well as Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar and Hollywood star Goldie Hawn.
One of his biggest financial supporters was the former owner of the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants, Isaac Burton Tigrett, who went to live in Puttaparthi and donated much of his fortune to the Sai Baba trust. […]
Backed with cash donations from wealthy believers, the Sai Baba organization has built a state-of-the-art hospital in Puttaparthi and another near the southern city of Bangalore.
It also operates drinking water schemes, a university, a museum, a planetarium and prayer rooms and centres across the globe.
The organization’s assets are estimated in the Indian press to be anywhere from 400 billion to 1.5 trillion rupees ($9 billion to $34 billion), but the source of these figures is unclear. There are no financial accounts publicly available.
While the charitable work and teachings brought him public respectability, his showman antics in which he would materialise gold coins or watches on stage at public meetings brought him fame and notoriety.
The half-kilo (one pound) of sacred ash he was said to materialise each day was thought by believers to have healing properties.
Throughout his life he was pursued by Indian rationalists. One magician, P.C. Sorcar, once went on tour to debunk his tricks and apparent miracles.
“He is no godman. He is not even a good magician,” Sorcar scoffed. “He is so clumsy that he is spoiling the name of all magicians.”
There were more serious allegations, too, of pedophilia and abuse.
In 2004, the BBC aired the “Secret Swami” documentary in which several former American followers recounted abuse at his hands.
The son of a couple that ran a center in Arkansas in midwestern America told how Sai Baba allegedly took him aside as a teenager and then massaged his genitals with oil before kissing him on the mouth.
The allegations were strongly denied by the Sai Baba organization and other legal cases, accounts of suicides and claims of abuse did little to dent his popularity.
And for his followers, there is hope: he forecast his own reincarnation eight years after his death.