Sathya Sai Baba Archive

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The Indian living god, the paedophilia claims and the Duke of Edinburgh awards

A spiritual group whose “living god” founder has been accused of sexually abusing young boys has become an accredited partner of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, the Guardian can reveal.

Last night pressure was mounting on the charity to break its links with the group whose followers are devoted to the preachings of 79-year-old holy man, Sai Baba.

About 200 young people will fly to India in two weeks’ time on a humanitarian pilgrimage run by Sai Youth UK, a division of the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation. The teenagers and young men earn their Duke of Edinburgh awards for humanitarian work, chiefly distributing medical aid.

The trip coincides with Sai Baba’s 80th birthday and has been arranged, organisers say, after he gave a divine commandment for the UK’s Sai youth movement to visit him for the occasion.

For decades male former devotees have alleged that the guru molested them during so-called “interviews”. During the last youth pilgrimage, in 2004, young people were granted group interviews with the guru after administering medical aid to villages surrounding Sai Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, although there was no evidence of abuse.


Sathya Sai Baba, who has an estimated 30 million followers worldwide, is possibly India’s most controversial holy man. He gained a following in his teens when he claimed to have divine powers and, later, said he was an incarnation of God. His teachings are benign – his most famous mantra is “Love All, Serve All” – and he encourages followers, which include many of India’s political elite, to undertake humanitarian work. He purports to be able to miraculously conjure sacred ash and expensive jewellery into the palm of his hand, as if out of thin air. Opponents dismiss his miracles as party tricks. The Sai Organisation claims to have more than 1,200 Saytha Sai Baba Centres in more than 100 countries .

Large numbers of young men have travelled from across the world to study alongside and meet the guru. His supporters say their encounter was spiritually enriching. Others, including participants in a BBC programme, The Secret Swami, two years ago, accuse him of abuse, claiming he massaged their testicles with oil and coerced them into oral sex.

Sai Baba has never been charged over the sex abuse allegations. However, the US State Department issued a travel warning after reports of “inappropriate sexual behaviour by a prominent local religious leader” which, officials later confirmed was a reference to Sai Baba.

Tom Sackville, a former Home Office minister and chairman of Fair, a cult-watching and victim support group, said: “It is appallingly naive for the award scheme to involve young people and the royal family with an organisation whose leader is accused of paedophilia.

“Parents who plan to send their children on this month’s pilgrimage … should be aware of the danger their children are being exposed to.”

But Peter Westgarth, chief executive of the charity, last night faced down calls to terminate his organisation’s relationship with the Sai organisation. He said: “This is not the only religion accused of paedophilia. Young people who are participating on these trips are doing so because they choose to,” he said. “The awards accredit the good work they do for poor people in India. We make no judgment about their religion. We would no sooner intervene here than we would the Church Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade.”

The Conservative MP Michael Gove said he would write to the charity asking it to consider a stricter monitoring of the organisations they they work with. “As a society we need a more determined effort to identify and expose those religious cults and extremists that pose a direct threat to people, so that they do not enjoy patronage that should be directed elsewhere,” he said.

Shitu Chudasama, Sai’s UK national youth coordinator, defended the trip, saying it was primarily a humanitarian mission to help impoverished people, saying that the sex abuse claims were “totally unfounded”. He added: “We hope to have an interview with Sai Baba but it’s not guaranteed. If he wants to see us, he’ll call us.”

Sai Organisation’s UK branch has also came into contact with royals through the awards, something Buckingham Palace was made aware of in September. In correspondence seen by the Guardian, Brigadier Sir Miles Hunt-Davis, Prince Philip’s private secretary, wrote: “[We] are very keen to get this sorted out properly and finally.” He said trustees of the award would undertake legal advice before deciding how to proceed.

In July the Sai Organisation received a certificate for their “invaluable contribution” to the awards at a Buckingham Palace garden party. A news story which appeared on a Sai Baba website after the ceremony was removed after an intervention by Peter Westgarth, who said the event had been misrepresented.

In the posting, Mr Chudasama recounted the moment he delivered a speech to “various dignitaries, diplomats, ministers [and] famous celebrities” at the palace. “I was the last speaker called up, and suddenly a confidence, a joy, engulfed my being,” he said. “I attributed everything to our founder Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. As I spoke I watched the sea of faces, they were hanging from my every word and there was a look of excitement on their faces as if to say ‘why have we not heard of this organisation before?’.”

Mr Chudasama also attended a private audience with Prince Philip at St James’s Palace last year. “Prince Philip showed a very keen interest in our youth and asked many questions,” Mr Chudasama wrote in a Sai newsletter. “I also had the opportunity to mention … that we drew our inspiration and motivation from our founder Sri Sathya Sai Baba; he paused for a few seconds and then said: “Very good”.

Professor nets fellowship to finish book on religious guru

Srinivas draws on experience with devotees, investigates global influence of Sai Baba’s influence

Although he lives a modest lifestyle, Satya Sai Baba has managed to become a religious guru for over 10 million devotees worldwide, according to Smriti Srinivas, associate professor in anthropology.

Sai Baba has attracted followers from various social and religious backgrounds, a movement Srinivas said to be a “transnational phenomenon.”

After 10 years of research and field work in India, Kenya and the United States, Srinivas said she is ready to finish her book on this religious guru and his global influence.

The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Srinivas in February a one-year fellowship that allows her to conduct full-time research as she completes her book. She will begin her one-year research fellowship January 2006.

Besides finishing her book on the international Sai Baba movement, Srinivas is currently doing field study for her next book on the Sai Baba movement, specifically in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Srinivas visited devotees in Colombo in December when the tsunami struck the coast of southern Asia.

While Jesus Christ is venerated in the Christian religion, Sai Baba is often viewed as a Christ-like figure in his own movement.

Beginning at the age of 14, Sai Baba began his mission as a religious guru and claimed to be able to produce miracles, such as materializing sacred ash and curing the sick, according to Srinivas.

Srinivas said what is most striking about this religious movement is the different people of various races and social classes who are interested in this figure. Sai Baba has both Hindu and Muslim followers from India — two groups in the midst of a religious conflict.

“The movement transcends a lot of boundaries and divisions,” she said. “He is regarded by many as a divine being.”

Along with studying the worldwide impact of the religious guru, Srinivas will also address the movement’s relations with modernity.

With much of the world today based on rationality — such as scientific research — Srinivas said this “movement penetrates the modern, rational framework of society.”

Many devotees have claimed that they have communicated with the guru with acts that may be perceived as irrational — dreams and other “magical happenings.”

Srinivas spoke with a devotee who said she connected with the guru while searching the Internet. The devotee came across a poem which became a medium for communication with the guru, according to Srinivas.

“Sai Baba told her that she is not alone in her journey,” Srinivas said.

Vivian Choi, a graduate student in anthropology, said she saw firsthand the importance Sai Baba held in the family she stayed with while studying in Nepal.

“He is very inspirational and charismatic,” she said. “He is somebody that [followers] can look up to and turn to.”

Srinivas said it was impossible not to take Sai Baba and his movement seriously during her childhood in India, and is amazed by the spiritual message the movement possesses.

The California Aggie

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“We often think of power in terms of politics,” she said. “The power in this movement is derived from the fact that people feel loved by him.”

Sai Baba’s organization has provided services for the world by constructing two medical institutions in India that offer free health care to the poor. A few hours after last December’s tsunami struck South Asia, devotees of Sai Baba sent truckloads of clothes and blankets to aid the victims, according to Srinivas.

“All this work is done through voluntary service and devotion to the guru,” Srinivas said.

Religious studies instructor Nicole Ranganath, who used one of Srinivas’ articles in her class, said Srinivas is a creative, novel and deep thinker.

“She is a phenomenal scholar,” she said. “She is researching one of the most popular leaders today. Sai Baba is a fascinating, progressive figure.”