Guru Sai Baba’s legacy: Death threats and scandal

The passing of the Indian guru Sai Baba has left a spiritual hole and an even bigger controversy. Andrew Buncombe reports in the Independent on the struggle to regulate his earthly affairs:

It has been two months since the controversial Indian holy man Sai Baba passed away, leaving a swirling legacy and a network said to be worth at least £5bn. Since then there have been allegations of financial malpractice, claims of death threats and uncertainty as to who may try and lead the movement he established in the south of India and which has since spread to 126 countries.

Yesterday, members of the trust which currently controls his network sought to draw a line under at least some of the turmoil when they broke their silence and said they had already paid tax on piles of gold, silver and cash found in the holy man’s private chambers following his death. [...]

The move by the trust followed weeks of claims and allegations about the handling of the estate of the holy man, which included 98kg of gold, 307kg of silver and 115m rupees (£1.5m) in cash discovered in his chambers. The rooms inside the ashram at Puttaparthi in the state of Andhra Pradesh had been shut when the 86-year-old was hospitalised at the end of March and only reopened two weeks ago, when the currency and treasure was found.

The organisation was also shaken by allegations from a relative of Sai Baba, who claimed someone with the trust had been threatening her. Chetana Raju, a niece, said a trust member had levelled death threats at her. It has also had to try and explain why police stopped a private vehicle carrying more than 3.5m rupees in cash belonging to the trust. [...]

When Sai Baba died at the end of April, having suffered multiple organ failure, many predicted his death would trigger a bitter fight. A big problem was that the man who counted film stars and politicians among his supporters and who had mesmerised audiences with his performances, in which he apparently pulled ash from his hair, had not named a successor to carry on his work.

There have been calls for the authorities to do more to monitor the trust and earlier this week the state government wrote and asked for an account of all its financial transactions and donations since 2009.

The Independent provides the following background information on Sai Baba:

When Sri Satya Sai Baba died of heart failure in April at the age of around 86 (his official birth date is unknown), India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, described him as a “spiritual leader who inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful life” and called his death an “irreparable loss”.

The guru, who rose to prominence in the 1950s, left behind an empire worth an estimated £5.5bn, a 50 million-strong worldwide following (including celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar and Goldie Hawn) and the International Sai Organisation, which finances health and education projects across the globe.

But Sai Baba’s legacy is far from rosy. It will forever be dogged by allegations that he sexually abused young male devotees (though he was never charged); accusations that he built his following on the myth that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba (a 19th-century Indian holy man) and claims that his miracles were no more than simple magic tricks.

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