Sai Baba's Claims of Divinity: Avatar and Triple Avatar
Brian Steel 2002
Copyright © 2002 Brian Steel
A Brief Summary of Sathya Sai Baba's Mission
Early Period: 1943 - 1960 Local Progress
The major difference between Sathya Sai Baba and other contemporary spiritual gurus, and the main aspect which initially attracts a large proportion of Sathya Sai Baba devotees to his teachings or to his ashram is his claim to be God on Earth, an Avatar endowed with Divine attributes and Powers.
Other gurus claim varying degrees of Divine status or guidance but to make such exclusive and unequivocal claims as SB has constantly done entails a risk for his credibility if these claims are found NOT to be true.
From the very first of his known Discourses (25 or 26 October, 1947 - Vijayakumari, pp. 107-109) and from officially recorded Discourses in 1953, Baba makes strong claims to be a living incarnation of God (in Hindu terms, an Avatar, or descent of God on earth). He also makes frequent allusions to the Divine powers of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnipresence. (These will be examined in later Chapters, particularly Chapters 5 and 6.) A further strong claim of his is to be the second of a series of three consecutive incarnations of God, beginning in the 1830s with Shirdi Sai Baba. More anecdotal (but very frequently discussed among devotees) is the claim that a third incarnation, Prema Sai, will appear soon after Sathya's predicted passing in 2022.
In the first years of recorded Discourses, SB's claims to be an Avatar and the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba are particularly frequent - usually very clear, self-confident, and direct, but sometimes more oblique, guarded, or ambiguous.
In the first Telugu Discourse in 1947, Baba is reported as making the following (translated) claim:
"My Children! God has come in human form only for the sake of His devotees. He is born to destroy the evil people, and save the good and the gentle." (Vijayakumari, 108)
"The "miracles and wonders" which cannot be explained by the categories of science are so natural to Me that I am amused when you label them as miracles. The Lord has announced that He would come down for the restoration of Dharma (righteousness) and that he would assume human Form so that all might gather round Him and feel the thrill of His companionship and conversation. And the Lord has come, as announced." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 25:154 - Aukiripalli Markandeya Sanskrit College, 22-1-60)
"I will be in this mortal human form for 59 years more and I shall certainly achieve the purpose of this avathaar, do not doubt it. I will take My own time and carry out My Plan as far as you are concerned." I, 31:198; Prashanthi Nilayam 29-9-1960)
[Note that here the figures given by SB would indicate a forecast death in the year 2019, when he would be 92, rather than the figures 2022 and 96, which are the ones usually quoted by devotees and the SSO.]
"You may fall into the quagmire of doubt: 'Rama came, Krishna came, Sai Baba came, this Puttaparthi Sai Baba comes and challengingly declares that He is all These! How can this be?' You can never understand this phenomenon. That is the understanding that you need. I am incomprehensible. You will see the world coming here in about a year or two." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 22:113) [Bold type added]
On 6 July 1963, SB made an even more specific (and spectacular) claim: that Shiva and Shakti had promised SB's alleged ancestor, the sage Bharadwaja, "that they would take human form and be born in the Bharadhwaaja Gothra (lineage) thrice: Shiva alone as Shirdi Sai Baba, Shiva and Shakthi together at Puttaparthy as Sathya Sai Baba and Shakthi alone as Prema Sai later." (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 15:89)
Later, in 1968 and 1970 particularly (See Volumes VIII and X of Sathya Sai Speaks), SB was to make other series of such claims:
"I am present everywhere, at all times; My Will must prevail over every obstacle; I am aware of the past, present and future of your innermost thought and carefully guarded secrets. I am sarvantharyami, sarvashaktha and sarvajna (Omnipresent, Omnipotent and Omniscient). Nevertheless I do not manifest these powers in any capricious manner or merely for display. For I am an example and an inspiration for whatever I do or omit to do. My life is a commentary on My message." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 30:185) (And on the same page: "I am active and busy all the twenty-four hours of the day.")
The Immaculate Conception
There is scattered evidence to indicate that, in addition to his other Divine claims, SB publicly and privately claimed (probably in the early 1960s) that his allegedly Divine birth was by Immaculate Conception. Such a claim seems totally logical and congruent in the light of SB's other claims of Divinity. If only the Roman Catholic Church had such a documented claim from the lips of Jesus Christ! But the following investigation also indicates that SB (or the SSO) probably decided not to keep this potentially polemical claim by SB himself on public record in its original quite specific form. However, like so many frequently alleged facts about SB, it is still propagated by writers and unofficial spokespersons.
In the first volume of his biography (1961), when describing the birth, Kasturi makes no mention of an Immaculate Conception, but in his much later (1984) book about SB's mother, Easwaramma, he quotes an undated conversation at which he was present. A Pundit had asked SB whether his was an Immaculate Conception (Pravesa) or a normal one (Prasava). SB had then allegedly turned to his mother, who was also present, and asked her to comment. Easwaramma then explained that she had been told by her mother-in-law not to be frightened if something happened to her through the will of God. SB's Mother is then quoted as saying, "That morning I was at the well drawing water, a big ball of blue light came rolling towards me and I fainted and fell. I felt, it glided into me." Swami turned to Rama Sarma with a smile. "There you have the answer! I was not begotten. It was Pravesa [spiritual birth; entrance], not Prasava [biological conception]." (N. Kasturi, Easwaramma, p. 20)
M. N. Rao is a devotee author and also a very prominent and well-connected ashram resident. Through his books, he is a fervent and influential spokesperson for SB. In one of his three books, published in 1990 (p. 315), he gives part of the Kasturi quotation (without acknowledging his source) and adds, cautiously, "Swami's birth has to be considered perhaps as by Immaculate conception." In a later book (God and His Gospel, 1995, p. 183) Rao repeats the Immaculate Conception claim, and then, still without giving any sources, presents part of the Kasturi information and a quotation traceable to a Discourse, as we shall see below:
Rao begins with the "Easwaramma / ball of light" information already quoted, and then adds the following additional quotation: "Swaami concluded the topic by confirming that:
"I was [[not]] begotten. It was Pravesa and not Prasava. [Bold type added] No Avathaar is born from flesh and blood including this Avathaar ... The embryo of the ordinary mortals is Jalodakasayi, enveloped in watery stuff; the embryo of the Avathaar is Ksheerodakasayi, enveloped in the pure white milk of Holiness. That is why in the make-up of the Avathaar, there is no blemish."
In the (translated and edited) Discourses we find the following confirmation of most of this statement on 4 February 1963 (too late for Kasturi's first volume) but, curiously, without the more specific first two sentences given above. Have the intermittently vigilant editors excised them from the revised editions of Sathya Sai Speaks? And, if so, WHY?
"No Avathaar is born flesh and blood including this Avathaar ... The embryo of ordinary mortals is jalodhakashaayi (enveloped in watery stuff); the embryo of the Avathaar is encased in Ksheerodakashaayi (the pure white milk of holiness). That is why in the make-up of the Avathaar, there is no blemish, there is no trace of Guna." (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 3:22)
There is further indirect (and apparently cautious) evidence on this matter in John Hislop's Conversations with Sai Baba (p. 75).
Hislop: "The Avathar is never born, but he appears to take birth in a body which then gradually grows to full size in the ordinary way. ..."
SB: "The Avathar takes only the body such as you have described. The difference is that men come into bodies with tendencies and the results of actions. Baba takes this body without any tendencies, completely free, no desires, no attachments, always happy."
From the evidence presented (and unless there is some other verbatim mention of Pravesa / Presava in Sathya Sai Speaks), it seems certain that SB not only made this quite specific claim in a witnessed conversation but also incorporated it into a 1963 Discourse, from which it has been partly censored. The only mystery in all this, given the total openness of SB's other frequent early claims to Divinity, is why he (or the SSO) should have such apparent reluctance to allow this direct claim to remain on record in the Discourses? An obvious hypothetical answer immediately suggests itself: so as not to provoke or antagonise other major religions, notably the Roman Catholic Church for which the person of the Virgin Mary and the dogma connected with the Immaculate Conception is of central importance.
Given the absolute self-assurance of many of these documented claims, it is worth noting that on a few occasions when Sai Baba was speaking at important gatherings far away from his ashrams, or in the presence of the media, he seemed to studiously avoid making any such claims to Divinity or Avatarhood, or to make them in very veiled terms. Such unaccustomed reticence inevitably arouses doubts.
Some important occasions when Baba temporarily silenced his claims to be Divine are as follows:
1. During the crucial 1957 All-India Conference of the Divine Life Society in which SB was the "novice".
2. The First All-India Conference in Madras in 1967.
3. The brief 1968 African tour to Kenya and Uganda.
4. His Delhi Discourse on 22-3-1973.
5. Delhi Discourses on 31-3-1975 and 1-4-1975.
6. Also after his unexplained absence from Delhi for nearly 2 decades, he was reticent in this regard during his March 1999 Delhi tour to inaugurate a new base, the Sathya Sai International Centre and School in Lodhi Road, 200 yards down from the principle Shirdi Sai Mandir or Temple.
Baba did, however, make a very strong claim to be God in the 1968 First World Conference of Sri Sathya Sai Organisations in Bombay, in which city his Organisation, led by the newly recruited Indulal Shah, had become strong in a very short space of time. However, even there, he also seems to have carefully avoided attracting hostility by reminding the audience of one of the prime concepts of his spiritual teachings: that all names of God (and therefore all religions) are valid, and adding what was to become his well-known (but still paradoxical) disclaimer that he had not come to set up a new religion:
"I do not want the impression to gain ground that I desire this Name and this Form to be publicised. I have not come to set afoot a new cult; I do not want people to be misled on this point. I affirm that this Sai form is the form of all the various names that man uses for the adoration of the Divine. So, I am teaching that no distinction should be made between the names Raama, Krishna, Ishwara, Sai - for they are all My names." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 19:95-96)
"This is a human form in which every divine entity, every divine principle, that is to say, all the names and forms ascribed by man to God, are manifest. ... ... You are very fortunate that you have a chance to experience the bliss of the vision of the Sarvadaivathwa swaroopam (the form that is all forms of the Gods) now, in this life itself." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 19:99-100)
Shirdi Sai Baba
Specific claims to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba are also common not only in Sai Baba's early recorded Discourses but also, according to Volume 1 of Love is my Form (LIMF - e.g. on pp.78-9 and 199), from his teenage years in the early 1940s.
"I remember telling a questioner in Maharashtra, while in the previous body, that there are three types of devotion ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 2:10 - Prasanthi Nilayam,1955)
"When this Mahaashakthi decided to leave the previous body in 1918, Kaaka Saheb Dikshit was told that in 8 years' time this will take birth again." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 20:102)
"There was a Judge who used to come to Shirdi ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 37:216)
"Let me tell you an incident which happened while in the previous body at Shirdi. There was a lady ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 48: 270)
SB's claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba deserves very special attention, both because it was pivotal to SB's early Mission and because it reveals several less than convincing aspects.
Following SB's mysterious and traumatic illness in 1943 (officially claimed as 1940), he made the famous announcement, "I am Sai Baba" (in May) a few months before the Declaration of his Mission on 20 October 1943. For the first years of his Mission, the Shirdi Sai Baba connection was to become a prominent feature. In addition to making frequent public claims to be the reincarnation of this revered saint (d. 1918), SB made special efforts to describe his affinities with Shirdi: teachings, types of miracles, and sayings, as well as exhibiting pictures of Shirdi in his ashram. He also made references (including allegedly omniscient ones) to Shirdi's life, especially to older devotees. All of this played an important part in spreading SB's fame and in attracting devotees, including a number of elderly aristocratic patrons. The Shirdi aspects and links have been described in many of the books about SB and present-day devotees are familiar with them. (Examples of similar sayings selected by some of SB's biographers and commentators:
"If you look to me, I look to you."
"If you seek my advice and help, it shall be given to you."
"I am God. You are God. All are God.")
The reincarnation claim and other alleged evidence has not, however, been universally accepted or welcomed, as the following critical statements by the scholar Kevin R. D. Shepherd in his work,Gurus Rediscovered: Biographies of Sai Baba of Shirdi and Upasani Maharaj of Sakori (Cambridge, Anthropographia Publications, 1986) indicate:
"However, some of [Shirdi] Sai Baba's latter day following have a grievance with which it is easy to sympathize. This relates to the claims made for a certain namesake of the original [Shirdi] Sai Baba, who encourages an obsession with wonder-working and is believed to be the avataric reincarnation of the Shirdi saint." (Shepherd, Chapter 1)
"Hazrat Sai Baba of Shirdi is certainly not to be confused with those gurus who announce themselves as speedily returning reincarnations of him, and who even appropriate his name.(77)" (Shepherd, Chapter 3)
[Note 77] "Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparti was born in 1926 and claimed in 1940 to be a reincarnation of the Shirdi master. Fame accrued very quickly. It is reported that he would produce ash (udhi) from thin air, and likewise photos of Sai Baba, and gerua cloth which he said was from the kafni which Sai Baba used to wear." (Shepherd)
Then, as the Mission prospered and more benefactors and worldly-wise collaborators and advisers joined Baba (now aged 40), the Sai Baba Organisation really "took off", nationally and internationally, with the April 1967 First All-India Conference in Madras and the First World Conference in Bombay in May 1968. And, suddenly, not only does the public claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba CEASE to be made but for almost 20 years (in Volumes X-XXII of Sathya Sai Speaks covering the years 1970-1989) there are NO printed PUBLIC references by Sathya Sai Baba to Shirdi Sai Baba. Again one wonders why.
Did the Shirdi Sai Organisation take umbrage and make any protests about Baba's reincarnation claims early in his Mission? As with much information about Baba, particularly about miracles, public knowledge of Baba as Shirdi reincarnation is promoted largely in the conversation and books of devotees.
Such reticence (self-censorship?), following the previous confident claims draws attention to itself. Why would an alleged Divine being need to be quiet about one of his prime characteristics? One can only hazard a guess that the silence was to avoid (or to stop) offending the very powerful Shirdi Sai Organisation, few of whose members appear to accept Baba's claims of being a reincarnation of Shirdi. The writer and publisher, Parveen Chopra, in the issue of his high-circulation spiritual magazine, Life Positive, dedicated entirely to articles on Shirdi Sai Baba, states clearly, in connection with Sathya Sai's claim to be an incarnation of Shirdi Sai and a precursor of Prema Sai, that "Most Shirdi Sai devotees as well as the Shirdi Trust don't give credence to any of this." (Life Positive, October 1997, p. 35).
Also, on the Internet, it is noticeable that whereas the Sathya Sai websites feature Shirdi Sai Baba prominently (as is also the practice in SB's ashrams, with photos and statues), Shirdi Sai sites do not mention SSB. (Finally, as far as I can ascertain, Baba has never visited Shirdi. Why not? The answer is, presumably, that he would NOT be accepted there as Shirdi's reincarnation!)
The following piece of very recent evidence (for which I thank my friend, Serguei Badaev) suggests that the diplomatic silence kept by the Shirdi Sai Baba authorities for so long may be ending.
On 1 June 2002, according to one of the official websites of the very influential Shirdi Sai Association, www.saibaba.org/whatsnew.html, in a report by Mansha Bulchandani, a Shirdi official, Shri C. B. Satpathy, in an address to an All India Convention of Shirdi devotees in Chennai, was quoted in the following terms: "He said that ... Shri Sainath [Shirdi Sai] is an avatar, an incarnation, and emphasised that an incarnation is never reincarnated again." [italics added] To Shirdi supporters (and any SB supporters who might come across the reference on the Shirdi Sai website), this would seem to be a relatively direct semi-official repudiation of SB's well-known claim to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi.
In fact, the Shirdi Movement is particularly strong in the North, notably in the capital, Delhi, which Baba has only visited on a handful of occasions in 60 years. The lack of a Sai Baba base in that important city until 1999 may also be due to his relative lack of popularity in the North of India, both for the Shirdi reason just offered and the fact that in multilingual India, Sathya Sai Baba's native Telugu language is a limiting communications factor, since it is only spoken in Baba's South Indian home state of Andhra Pradesh.
In September 1990, however, in a characteristically sensational and ad hoc way, Baba finally broke this public silence about Shirdi Sai Baba of more than two decades to reveal to the world his version of the hitherto unknown date of birth of Shirdi as well as many other unknown details about his upbringing and youth (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXIII, Discourse 28). Equally sensationally, but more confusingly, two years later (September, 1992), Baba, without the least reference to the former revelations, amended the date of birth by three years and offered different details about Shirdi's early life (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXV, 31:326-334, September 1992). Most devotees seem to have accepted without question both the original statement and the later contradiction - both unverifiable.
This unblinking, unquestioning acceptance of any pronouncement, and any conflicting statements or stories by Sai Baba is characteristic behaviour for the most unconditional of his devotees. If any comment at all is forthcoming from them, it would probably be to describe the initial revelations and the later contradictory comments as "just another of Baba's leelas for us to absorb and, if possible, benefit from".
Even by the Sathya Sai Organisation's own reckoning, Sai Baba's March 1999 visit to Delhi was the first in 17 years, a very long time to be absent from the nation's capital for one whose goal is to redeem Dharma in the whole of India (and the world). On that 2-day visit to Delhi, as on the previous sporadic ones, Baba was again careful not to claim Divinity, or any direct relationship with Shirdi Sai Baba. It was almost as if he was being forced to swallow his previous claims. Was it because the buildings he inaugurated were only a couple of hundred yards down the road from the principal Shirdi Mandir in Delhi?
In answer to a journalist's question about Shirdi Sai, SB replied as follows (The Times of India, 12 March 1999):
"How do you relate yourself to Sai Baba of Shirdi?"
"This body has not seen him."
Other guarded answers given to this group of (hostile-sounding) journalists come much closer to Baba's usual claims but still just stop short, in Indian or Hindu terms, of claiming Divinity:
"Why do you perform miracles like materialising a ring, a medallion, a necklace, vibhuti and other objects? What are you trying to prove by performing these miracles?"
"Chamatkaar or miracle is a cheap word for what I do. A magician performs his tricks to earn a livelihood and worldly fame. But, I materialise these talismans as my visiting cards, as evidence that divinity can transform earth into the sky and vice versa. To doubt this is to betray an inability to grasp the grandeur of the universe. I get a lot of satisfaction while gifting these talismans to my devotees." ...
"I am only performing a divine mission. ... ... When the world sleeps, I go to my devotees, give them my vision, comfort them, console them and solve their problems. I willingly take on the sufferings of my devotees on myself. ..."
"Do you read newspapers?"
"I never read them. Even though I do not read any newspaper, I am aware about everything that is happening round the globe."
(The Times of India, 12 March 1999)
So what are we to make of such coyness, typical of a politician, on potentially hostile territory? Was Baba guided by his Organisation "minders", or was the uncharacteristic caution self-imposed? In either case, why should GOD be intimidated, or change his style, because of a few journalists?
(There is more to add on the Shirdi Sai question but it is more appropriate to leave it until Chapter 7, and for Chapter 5 ('Omniscience and Truth'), where recent evidence will be quoted to refute SB's 1976 claim that Shirdi Sai Baba was unknown in Puttaparthi in the early 1940s at the time of his two dramatic Declarations.)
In the literature about Sai Baba, there are many references to the third predicted incarnation, Prema Sai. On examination, however, most references to Prema Sai (and to Shirdi Sai and to many other topics) come either from Baba's spokespersons, from other devotees who claim to be repeating Baba's private conversation or from others who are repeating what he has allegedly told other devotees or what other writers have asserted (for example, the predicted reincarnation of Prof Kasturi as Prema's Mother or the alleged reincarnation of Vivekananda in Sri Lanka). In the thirty published volumes of Baba's edited words in Sathya Sai Speaks, however, I have only been able to find two brief references to Prema Sai: in 1963 (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 15:91) and 1990 (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXIII, 28:244). This is surprising.
In Sathya Sai Speaks, Volume III (Discourse 15, p. 91 - 6 July 1963), Baba makes the spectacular revelation of Shiva and Shakti's ancient promise to the sage Bharadwaja (claimed by Baba to be his kinsman) to take human form three times in the Bharadwaja lineage: "Shiva alone as Shirdi Sai Baba, Shiva and Shakti together at Puttaparthi as Sathya Sai Baba, and Shakti alone as Prema Sai, later."
In Vol. XXIII (Discourse 28, p.244 - 28 September1990): "The next advent is for propagating Divinity. The three Sais are: Shirdi Sai, Sathya Sai and Prema Sai." As already indicated, two years later (27 September 1992, Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol XXV, 31:326-334), Baba replaced this story with a different one, involving a different date of birth for Shirdi Sai but this time with no mention of Prema Sai.
In relation to the claimed three Incarnations, there is an interesting short reference in Baba's 1976 interview with R.K.Karanjia, when the veteran journalist asks him specific questions. When first questioned by Karanjia about the three incarnations, Baba appears to be evasive, but he is pointedly establishing the oneness of all Avatars. (pp.15-16) Then, when re-questioned by the tenacious Karanjia (p.17) on the need for three incarnations, Baba states that they are all different parts of the same entity.
"The previous Avatar, Shirdi Baba, laid the base for the secular integration and gave mankind the message of Duty that is WORK. The mission of the present Avatar is to make everybody realise that since the same God or Divinity resides in everyone, people should respect, love and help each other irrespective of caste, colour or creed. Thus every WORK can become an act of WORSHIP. Finally Prem Sai, the third Avatar, shall promote the evangel [gospel] that not only does God reside in everybody, but everyone himself is God. That will be the final WISDOM which will enable every man and woman to rise to be God." (R.K.Karanjia, 1994:18-19)
More recently, however, in the March 1999 Press Conference in Delhi, Baba made an extremely guarded but ambiguous reply which avoided mentioning Prema Sai as his pre-ordained reincarnation.
"Who will lead the Sathya Sai movement after you?"
"My devotees. God will continue to guide them." (The Times of India,12 March 1999)
That is not at all what Sai Baba's devotees have come to expect after Baba's predicted passing in 2022, or thereabouts!
The Claims - A Further Commentary
A study of the first 30 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks reveals an interesting pattern in connection with SB's personal claims to be God or Avatar: In the Early period the claims are frequent and direct; during the Middle period, the claims are still relatively frequent and strong; in the Later period such direct claims seem to become less frequent; in the Recent period, particularly since 2000, the direct claims are even more muted. Or so it seems.
The Early Period (1940/1943-1960)
The early very unequivocal claims are there for all to see. (Vol 1 of Sathya Sai Speaks, which covers Discourses in 1953-1960) is full of them. Most devotees are familiar with many of them since they are so frequently quoted in the SB literature. (See Chapter 1 of SSBGOG)
The Middle Period (1961-1977)
A clear and direct set of claims from the middle period is contained in a Discourse ostensibly in celebration of Krishna:
"The power of Sai is limitless; It manifests for ever. All forms of 'power' are resident in this Sai palm."
"But those who profess to have understood me, the scholars ..., all of them are aware only of the least important, the casual, external manifestation of an infinitesimal part of that power, namely, the 'miracles'! They have not desired to contact the Source of all Power and all Wisdom, that is available here at Brindavan. ...
"This has been the case, in all ages. People may be very near (physically) to the Avathaar (divine incarnation), but they exaggerate the role of miracles." (Here one notes SB's new technique of denying the importance of the same miracles which he often mentioned in the Early period, and beyond.)
"My power is immeasurable; Many truth is inexplicable, unfathomable. ... Let Me tell you that emphatic declarations of the Truth by Avatars were made so clearly and so unmistakably only by Krishna." [SB goes on to mention Krishna's acceptance of defeat as a means to victory.] ... "Now, I must tell you that during this Sai Avathaar, there is no place for even such 'drama' with scenes of failures and defeats! What I will, must take place; what I plan must succeed." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XII, 38:227-228; 19-6-1974)
But by 1975-1976, halfway into that Middle period of enormous growth in the numbers of SB devotees and of the Sathya Sai Organisation, the claims have been heard and repeated and printed, not only in the Organisation's own publications but also in several influential books by Kasturi, Gokak and Fanibunda and the first of the foreign writers (Murphet, Schulman, and Sandweiss), with many other important books to follow in the next ten years. It is as if, to use an advertising analogy, once the name and special quality of the product has been vigorously and frequently projected and is firmly fixed in public consciousness as a familiar reference, MOST subsequent references by the manufacturer or promoter can afford to be less strident, less frequent or more subtle, leaving it to the public to make the necessary (already firmly established) association between general mentions of God, Avatar, the Divine, etc. and SB himself. Apparently, SB can afford to relax in the knowledge that his claimed Divinity is widely acknowledged - just as he can now sometimes allow himself to make disparaging remarks about the importance of his 'miracles': "People ... exaggerate the role of miracles, which are as trivial, when compared to my glory and majesty, as a mosquito is in size and strength to the elephant upon which it squats. Therefore, when you speak about these 'miracles', I laugh within myself out of pity that you allow yourself so easily to lose the precious awareness of my reality." (Discourse of 9 June 1974, one of four specially selected for their importance by the Sathya Sai Organisation for display on its website: www.sathyasai.org/discour .)
The Later Period (1978-1998)
By SB's sixtieth Birthday in 1985, and since, with the claims even more highly documented in masses of publications in many languages and so well known by devotees, there is a further reduction in the number of direct reinforcement claims of Divinity. Whether this is due to a personal decision by SB or advice from the SSO is not known. Interestingly, as will be pointed out later, however, whenever any "gossip or rumours" arise relating to doubts about SB's status, health, or behaviour, there is usually a clear (and more recently, even angry) direct re-assertion of SB's Divinity claims - in addition to intense Public Relations 'damage control' efforts by his official and unofficial spokespersons.
During this Later period, it is possible to detect an increasingly lower "Divine" profile in SB's Discourses. God is mentioned in much more indirect contexts, as in the sermons of any other guru or preacher (with no pretensions to Divinity). For example: "God is everywhere." "God's love is unbounded." "You must develop firm faith in God," "God comes in human form", etc. But, for the reasons already hinted at, in view of SB's long-standing Divine reputation and relationship with his flock, ANY mention of God or Avatar or the Divine coming from his mouth is now automatically understood by devotees as ALSO referring to SB.
Another variation of this downplaying technique is to give generalised or oblique references to other Avatars (or for Christians, to Jesus Christ) and still to benefit by listeners' or readers' associations of all these names with SB's person. For example in a Discourse on the Avatar Rama:
"... the Avatar does not forgo any of His supreme powers merely because He lives and moves among human beings as a man." (SSS, XXIV, 6:58) (Which could be, and probably is, seen as applying to SB by his faithful listeners or readers, but, because of his 'reputation' or standing with his devotees, SB doesn't actually have to say so.)
Similarly, in the same Discourse, but ostensibly referring to Krishna, "God's deeds are free from blemish. There is not an iota of selfishness in the Lord." (p. 65) (See, for example, SSS, XVII, p. 187) It so happens that SB is well known to have said the same about himself, so listeners or readers will naturally take this as a reference to himself.
Consider also this other illustration of how speaking about God in an abstract and impersonal way and then eventually putting in an oblique reference will be taken by listeners to be a reference to SB himself:
"The Lord of the Universe remains unseen ..." "God is the embodiment of ..." "When people pray to God ..." and so on, and then, after 7 pages: "God is omnipresent, but you are unable to see Him. You see a person. God is the indweller in him. You see his external form and not the Divine in him ..." At the end of the Discourse several general comments on Avatars applying to Krishna and Rama, and, in the mind of the listener, probably to SB: "The Divine does not make the descent as an Avatar without a purpose." (From an August 1997 Discourse celebrating Krishna.)
Or even this general remark: "It is not easy to understand the nature of the Divine. Because the Divine is omnipresent, He can undertake any kind of activity." (XX; 29:240)
SB's frequent, detailed, and often confusing Christmas references to Jesus Christ (from 1970 to the present) are given separate study and comment in Chapter 5 of SSBGOG. But, for the purposes of this chapter, it needs to be pointed out that, as with the early mentions of Shirdi Sai Baba, as well as allusions to God, Rama, and Krishna, SB's mentions of Jesus (which make almost NO mention of Jesus's miracles!) seem be very useful as indirect associative reminders of SB's own qualities, mission, achievements, and, lately, his unfair treatment by others. And in one spectacular self-advertisement (at Christmas 1972, Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, Chapter 54), SB actually claimed in detail that Jesus had forecast SB's own coming, right down to the name "Ba-Ba". (Of that, more in Chapter 5.)
At this key moment (1972) in the expansion of the SB Mission into foreign (predominantly Christian) countries, this astonishing announcement was greeted with great excitement and jubilation by the few foreign devotees present and, as can be imagined, it was quickly passed on along the developing foreign grapevine, reaching the ears and eyes of many future devotees. (See also SSBGOG, Chapter 5)
Nevertheless, every now and again, during this later period since 1985, as if out of habit, or just to remind everyone, a clear direct and personal claim to Divinity pops out:
In a poem at the beginning of the 60th Birthday Discourse:
"Now, with all the attributes, all the qualities has come
He whom gods adore, the Refuge of the Rejected.
The Lord of all the world, the Lord of Infinite Glory.
As all Existence, as all Knowledge and
All Bliss in one Form embodied,
As Puttaparthi Sathya Sai, the Overlord of all that is." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XVIII, 25:155)
Other direct claims:
"One should understand the ideals set for humanity by God in His human incarnation and live up to them." (XX, 18:149 - a little ambiguous again)
"Remember that Swami knows all that is happening ..." (XXII, 12:97)
"In the case of earlier avatars, their fame grew only long after their passing. In the case of the present avatar, in His own lifetime, a university, a big hospital, an aerodrome and many other things have been established for the benefit of the villagers and many more will follow in the years ahead." (SSS, XXIII, 34:296)
"It is to teach this message that the Sai advent has taken place. Sai has come to indicate the omnipresence of God. The Avatar has come down to declare that God is present everywhere." (SSS, XXIX, 24:190) July 1996
Perhaps the most important and sustained re-assertion of SB's claims during this later period comes several times in the Discourse for 26 August 1988 (Onam Day). According to Sathya Sai Speaks (XXI, Chapter 23, p. 185), SB had slipped in his bathroom and fractured his hip on August 20. Instead of weeks of bed rest he missed darshan for a "few days". On August 26 he gave this discourse for the Festival of Onam. His editors go on to point out that SB devoted a good part of the discourse to explaining what had happened [obviously to dispel devotees' concern, doubts and rumours about such human frailty]. The editors also state that his revelations "provided ... new insights into His Avataric mission" (p. 186):
"The body is subject to the laws of Nature. When anything happens in the course of nature, the Divine can face it by self-control. The ordinary devotee cannot do so." (p.186)
"Various rumours and conjectures were going around among devotees ..." (p.186)
"There was no need for the doctors to see Me. I have to control whatever happens to Me. This is My example to the world."
"This kind of equanimity cannot be felt by anyone except the Divine. There is nothing beyond the power of the Divine." (p. 187)
Then, as if nostalgically reverting to an old habit, and with no obvious relevance to the subject, SB refers to one of his alleged powers which had not been reported for some time: "Sometimes I take on the ailments of the others. I do this for My own delight and not out of any external pressure." (p. 188)
"Do not give room in any circumstance, at any time, for apprehensions about what may befall Swami. Nothing can do Me any harm. Occasionally there may be troubles which are incidental to the nature of the body." (p.188)
"Such things happen to the Divine - they come and go. I take no account of them. Here is another example of how the Divine works. The fact that I have been standing here for such a long time is itself a miracle." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXI, 23:190)
The following rhetorical question, uttered in 1994 to re-assert SB's claims and re-assure his devotees (with a veiled rebuke for doubting him) may, in the light of the recent exodus of foreign devotees, prove to be unintentionally prophetic.
"... you have to understand that if Sai did not have unique power, would He be able to attract persons from America, England and other countries?" (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXVII, 21:180)
(Many other prominent Gurus, who lack this "unique power", manage very well in this respect.)
The Recent Period (1999- )
The reduced frequency of direct 'Divine' and related claims has continued into the Recent period. Especially since the 'troubles' which began in 2000, and the accompanying extended (and largely unfavourable) media coverage of ashram business in India and in foreign countries, the Sathya Sai Organisation and SB have been feeling a greater need for public support all over the world, and this has led to even further 'soft-pedalling' on the claims of Divinity, etc. Not only has there been a further cutback in direct claims of Divinity, but at the moment public statements and appeals for fairer treatment issued by or instigated by the Organisation (both in India and in its foreign branches) for worldwide distribution refer in a much more circumspect way to "Sathya Sai Baba" (or often "Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba", using two general Indian terms of respect and reverence) as a great spiritual leader and generous public benefactor, but NOT as an Avatar and even less as God on Earth.(So far this reticence has not induced the Organisation's editors of Sanathana Sarathi to discontinue the telltale capital initial for 'My' and 'Me' - the respectful conventional printed obeisance to Divinity.)
Some examples of the 'softly-softly' approach:
In the Guru Purnima Discourse for 2000, the only direct references are minimal and subdued:
"I have no fear at all. What is the reason? Everything is My form."
"Love is My form. That is the true Shakti. That is the true power. That is the true Divine form." (From www.internety.com/premsai - which publishes selected literal translations from SB's Telugu and is therefore more reliable as a source for SB's real words and style than the official heavily edited versions in Sanathana Sarathi and Sathya Sai Speaks.)
In the Birthday Discourse of 2000 the only words resembling a Divine claim are:
"When I see so many of you expressing your love for Me, there is no limit to My joy. ... My love has drawn you here. Your love for God and God's love for you is the true message. ... This exchange is the true relationship between man and God." (Sanathana Sarathi, December 2000, p.386) and perhaps this echoing use of the word 'Advent' of earlier days: "Today marks the 75th year of the Advent of this body." (p. 391)
In the Discourse at Guru Purnima 2001, there are no direct references linking SB with God on Earth, BUT SB announced that he was henceforward forbidding the practice of Padnamaskar (the ritual touching of his feet, or prostration before him - and a more general traditional Hindu mark of respect for parents, etc.). This news was received with consternation by devotees, particularly Indian devotees, for whom it has constituted a special ambition and a potential blessing. Such a radical gesture seems to be yet another current measure to improve the image of SB and the SSO in the glare of international media attention by lessening his "exoticism".
So at this stage of SB's Mission, the direct Divine claims have dwindled and devotees are left with the general references to God and the already mentioned sorts of oblique references by association which devotees will continue to interpret as referring to SB. However, given SB's independent and somewhat impulsive nature, it will be interesting to see whether he can continue to adhere indefinitely to the new low-key approach - or could it even turn out to be a bit of a relief for him to be able at last to rest on the achievements of his lifelong self-projection and concentrate on 'just' being a good guru?
The irony and a further reflection of the current ambivalence about SB's claims of Divinity within the SB movement is that, while SB is becoming more and more parsimonious with such direct claims, many of his devotees are either still proclaiming his alleged Divinity at the top of their voices while a few others who have undertaken his defence on Internet Bulletin Boards (and more or less private Chat Groups) are busy denying he ever claimed to be GOD, or re-emphasising SB's teaching that "we are all God". Here, to show the unchanged official attitude are some familiar explicit 'Divine' references used by two of SB's major spokespersons in the last few embattled months:
Dr M. Goldstein has been the highly influential Coordinator for the Sathya Sai Organisation in USA for 26 years and has arguably become SB's most influential overseas spokesperson. On SB's Birthday in 2001, at the height of the unfavorable media and Internet publicity, Dr. Goldstein came out with a long, eloquent and totally devoted endorsement of his Lord and his many recent humanitarian achievements. Most of Goldstein's references to God are not clearly linked to SB, but the following are unmistakable:
[In Prasanthi Nilayam] "There are spaces and places for devotion, sleeping quarters for spiritual peregrines, and other necessary infrastructures to receive the multitude of spiritual seekers who meet to be in His Divine Presence."
"The greatest storyteller of all times, could never conceive a heaven such as this, nor a being like Him."
"Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba is the prominent master of the world ..."
"The Lord has allowed himself to take a form so that this great love manifests itself. We are one with the Lord."
"In the context of our life, who is Sathya Sai Baba? Sathya Sai Baba, as other Divine forms manifested before him, is not like us ..."
In December 2001 or January 2002, the International Chairman of the SSO, Indulal Shah, sent a letter to high officials of the SSO in all countries where there are SB Centres. He was calling for their support and written contributions for an important public relations document about SB and his welfare work to be issued in July 2002. Here are some of the terms in which he refers to SB:
"You are aware that these are testing and difficult times. Even the Avatar faces denigration and attempts to undermine His Glory by resorting to distorted statements and falsehoods made by the ignorant. It is not as if the Avatar needs human effort to glorify Him or that He needs any protection from any such despicable efforts to denigrate Him, but the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation has a great role to perform to enhance the Divine glory of the Avatar of the Age. This has to be achieved by us with a great sense of sincerity and dedication not with an aim of defending the name of the Avatar in the face of negativity but by positive pro-action of making the world aware by our programmes and the Vision Message and Mission of the Avatar."
It is too early to know whether, in the face of criticism and growing media and Internet attention, there is a deliberate strategy by SB and/or the SSO for SB to limit his own direct claims of Divinity and for the SSO to continue to maintain them - at least within the Organisation - on his behalf (as in the two recent examples above). The hoped for result of such a strategy, if it exists, would be to deflect some of the current unwelcome criticism from SB himself, allowing him to proclaim himself and be proclaimed by others as just a spiritual leader and a public benefactor - as was done in late 2001 on his behalf by the Prime Minister of India, Mr Vajpayee, in a public letter appealing for fairer treatment for this revered "spiritual master"? (This letter was read to a large audience of Argentinian devotees in Buenos Aires in October by Dr Goldstein.)
Is it possible that, after 60 years, self-awarded labels like 'Divine' and 'Avatar', in the light of the mounting counter-evidence and other serious allegations, have become an embarrassment for Sai Baba?
MORE in this related article: 'Downgrading the Divine'
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