Devotees and Their Contributions to the Purna Avatar Myth Surrounding SB
Brian Steel November 2002
Copyright © Brian Steel 2002
(Note: This is Part 1 of a revised and expanded version of Chapter 4 of The Guru from Puttaparthi. An Alternative View)
Introduction to Chapter 4 (Other Contributors to the Purna Avatar Myth)
In Chapters 1, 2, and 3 we have seen the basic ways in which the myth of SB's Divinity was built up by his own confident self-promotion and the backing of the SSO (on which there remains much more to examine in a later chapter). Chapter 1 has illustrated his frequent early extraordinary claims, his promotion of a climate of expectation of healing and materialisation miracles. Chapter 2 showed a part of the contribution of the SSO (from 1965) in translating, editing and packaging SB's limited Telugu message for a wider audience. Chapter 3 showed how the total faith of devotees that he IS the Purna Avatar has persuaded them to inflate the messages he gives in his basic English far beyond what an objective examination would consider reasonable.
It is now time to examine how three other groups have contributed to the building and dissemination of this Divine myth. The first group of contributors is that of rank and file devotees themselves (Part 1); the second more selective and probably most influential group of contributors to the myth is that of official and unofficial spokespersons, including the SSO, trusted associates of SB, psychics, and professional "New Age" practitioners (Part 2); a third very mixed and 'ragged' group of contributors to the Divine myth consists of the hundreds of devotees who have written about SB's alleged Divinity (Part 3).
Part 1 The Contribution of Devotees
Many devotees follow one of the basic and very positive teachings of the guru SB: Serve others. These individuals and groups contribute an inestimable amount of labour and finance to a number of worthwhile charitable causes.
Many devotees also experience varying forms of personal transformation as a result of their devotion to this guru and as a result of belonging to an enormous association of people of many nationalities, coordinated by the SSO, which in recent decades has become a large international charitable organisation.
Such efforts are highly commendable and beneficial in a world full of inequalities and need which depends on such loving and good people to improve the lot of the underprivileged. I have no wish to criticise or belittle these humanitarian works by such individuals. My only concern in writing about the organisation to which they belong (and to which I once contributed) is that they may have been led to believe that the unique inspiration for their charitable thoughts and actions is the Living God that SB has claimed to be.
Since there is now sufficient evidence to show that SB is NOT what he has claimed to be, working to do good in his name, although highly commendable and most worthy, is no MORE worthy than working for any other national or international charitable organisation, whether religious, spiritual, or secular. And unlike other charitable organisations, because of the self-promotion that SB initiated sixty years ago, the uneasy question remains: WHY did he choose to present himself as the unique "Purna Avatar" when he clearly is not?
Even in India, where Gurus with special powers are accepted as a fact of spiritual life, Sathya Sai Baba is unusual. The well-known intellectual and sceptic, Khushwant Singh, in his regular column in The Hindustan Times on March 20, 1999 (during a rare visit by SB to New Delhi) made the following enlightening remarks:
"... If anyone is to be put on a shrink's couch, it is not the godman but his followers who look upon him as God to find out what is missing in their lives which they hope to fulfil by associating with their chosen godman. It is not producing vibhuti (sacred ash), materializing watches and medallions from the air or regurgitating sivalingas - all such tricks can be performed by magicians and cannot stand the test of scientific scrutiny. The devotees' faith has more solid foundations. They have unquestionable belief that their guru can do no wrong."
The devotee, by definition, is devoted to his/her guru. For many, every word and gesture is to be noted, cherished, relived and often shared with other devotees for their enlightenment and joy. In this relationship, and especially in the rarefied (hothouse) atmosphere of the ashram (24 hours a day), devotees have no reason to entertain anything other than positive thoughts and words about their guru. All is blissfully positive, a blessing from their guru, to be enjoyed and benefited from. Everything he does is good - even when it is an empty promise, e.g. "Tomorrow", when tomorrow never comes, or a forecast which does not come true. As Anthony Storr, in his penetrating analysis of the guru phenomenon (Feet of Clay), comments succinctly: "Disciples often attribute almost magical powers to their gurus. It is a form of idealization which is even more dangerous than falling in love." (p. 216)
In the case of SB devotees, there is an incalculably influential extra factor which heightens this special relationship and increases these feelings: the 'fact' of his claimed and perceived Divinity (with all its trappings). For a faithful devotee, this unique fact enhances and simplifies everything. It is very inspiring, exhilarating even, to feel that your spiritual leader is also GOD, and uniquely so. The SSO and many SB writers attribute to SB the venerable capitalised forms He, Him and His which are the standard printed references to God (Jesus, etc.). This unquestioned Divine authority means that for devotees, everything that happens is seen as being SB's Divine Will, and for devotees' karmic benefit.
Another factor which increases the cult of the alleged Divine personality of SB is that there are no time-consuming physical or spiritual exercises expected of devotees. Each day revolves around hours of patient waiting for darshan and 15-20 minutes of witnessing darshan, watching and interpreting SB's every movement and word during the confident ritual stroll around the mandap. Following the brief darshans, and bhajan sessions, devotees have most of the day to read his Discourses and books about him, meditate about him, talk with others about his miracles, his words and movements and to speculate endlessly on the meaning of all this for themselves. The effect of such totally absorbed concentration on SB, promoted by him from the very earliest days of his Mission, and later by the SSO and devotees themselves, is absolutely vital in the strong bonding of devotees to SB's allegedly Divine person.
Other commentators have noted the importance of the God factor:
"Those who can convince others of extraordinary experiences of God are able very quickly to exercise an enormous hold upon them." (Rev. Stephen Wookey, p. 37) "Even the most obvious of nonsenses may be readily believed if it is stated with conviction by someone who has already managed to persuade their audience that they are especially close to God ..." (Wookey, p. 36)
"It would appear that for his followers, Satya Sai Baba assumes the combined role of deity, guru, and saint not bound by the Hindu tradition alone. Worship focused upon his portrait or idol is the practice of Satya Sai Baba groups scattered around the world." (C.S.J. White, 1981)
In these special circumstances, it is hardly surprising, then, that devotees of SB believe that he is able to do anything he wishes. They also believe that he is constantly aware of each and every one of them and that a Divine part of their being is also him. In their prayers, meditation, bhajan singing, and, indeed, in their daily life in general, they strive to be more conscious of his Divine presence and they constantly seek his help and advice. Thanks to the strength of this spiritual bond with SB, devotees therefore find it natural to see or feel his presence in many events of their day-to-day existence, from the very ordinary to the extraordinary. Because they have this strong feeling of his spiritual presence within and around themselves - and perhaps to strengthen the link - they often address SB directly as 'Baba' or 'Swami', as if he were physically present before them at that moment, and their multi-purpose habitual response, 'Sai Ram', may represent among other things, a greeting, an incantation and an acknowledgement of SB's Divinity ('Sai is Rama reincarnated').
The above picture may be extremely difficult for non-devotees to accept as true. Nevertheless, it is accurate and its strange features need to be emphasised if people are to realise that this very special relationship is produced by the interaction between SB and his followers. SB's strong human appeal is based not simply on 'charisma' but on the special 'Super Charisma' that surrounds the concept of a Living God, which he began to project at the beginning of his Mission. For so many, faith in and loyalty to their beloved Guru is enhanced and enormously strengthened by their belief in him as GOD Incarnate. It is a very heady feeling to experience the kudos of seeing, knowing and being with GOD, the GURU of Gurus. As we saw in Chapter 3, the possibilities of such inspired thinking are endless. If SB says something brief and incomprehensible to the devotee, it is the devotee's duty to search for the 'real' meaning. One or two devotees are on record as having taken literally years to figure out the meaning of a simple gesture, a word or two, or a look from SB, all deemed to be filled with unknown significance only because they are perceived as emanating from God. In these circumstances, the possibility that such trivia may ONLY be trivia is not entertained by the devotee.
Similarly, the idea of negative possibilities is automatically ruled out; there must be a positive aspect. If SB seems to break a promise, that must have positive meaning for you as well. If Swami's forecasts of a marriage, or a new baby in the family do not come true, look instead for the special significant message from him in that apparently negative fact. Any discordant or critical news MUST be incorrect, since God can do no wrong. But it is because of this total lack of critical questioning of ANY behaviour of SB, however strange, that unconditional devotees of SB as GOD begin to act, under pressure, like members of a cult (in the pejorative sense of that term). Part 3 of this Chapter will examine this massive denial phenomenon, which is still extraordinarily strong in spite of a considerable series of revelations of counter-evidence in the past two years.
So, one of the most fortunate blessings of having SB as your spiritual guide is the simple bliss of TOTAL BELIEF in not just a Guru but a DIVINE Guru to whose personal intervention you can attribute every action, especially fortuitous. Whether positive or negative, it is 'good' for you. All personal thoughts, dreams, experiences are now inextricably linked with and due to SB. So if you experience success, inspiration, a bettering of health, a change in your ambitions, etc., then SB is 'obviously' behind it and it is evidence of your good fortune in being his devotee. If you feel like writing and the writing flows, and maybe strange things happen on your computer during the writing, or you come across a previously unknown book about him, then it is natural and satisfying to attribute this to him (and to your very privileged personal link with him, which does nor depend on the physical contact of a personal interview) rather than to some other valid form of synchronicity or serendipity. He may seem always to be with you, seeing you, encouraging or rebuking you for your actions. That is VERY powerful stuff, immensely flattering to the ego! For some it leads to dreams of SB, for others, to visions of him, and even whole dialogues (which usually get published).
(Some devotees apparently believe in or aspire to other sorts of special relationship with SB, if the following notice is to be believed. It was seen on the Internet in June 2002. It is alleged to have been issued under the name of the Convenor of Satya Sai Publications Trust:
"Notice: Person's [sic] desiring to donate manuscripts to the Book and Publications Trust, should take in consideration some cultural views: Books containing too 'personal' information about the devotees relation to Swami, is not always approved of. Terms as 'husband', or 'wife', etc. in relation to Baba, even if meant in spiritual metaphors, are not understood and are taken as very offensive and should be avoided. Convenor. Sathya Sai Publications Books and Trust Prasanthi Nilayam " (Copied from the apparently now closed or discontinued website <www.saionline.com> in June 2002. It appears that this "saionline" may have been the forerunner of the second official SSO website, which concentrates on practical information for visitors to SB's ashrams.)
Devotees are also blessed with an enormous fellowship of like-minded and similarly 'chosen' people from all over the world. In the face of the powerful, creative, and collective thoughts and energy generated by such a positive fellowship, they do not think of attributing them to other possible divine or spiritually benign influences which may be being evoked by such a collective well of love and goodwill; such a welcome phenomenon is merely felt to be further proof of SB's Divine influence. Many devotees, encouraged perhaps by the example of the editors of SB's Discourses and the SSO Publishing Trust, always refer to SB in writing with the respectful initial capital letters reserved for Deity: He, Him, His. As a devotee, these were also my feelings and my respectful writing habit, although I now find it interesting to note that some of the most prominent (and most intelligent) SB writers like Murphet, Krystal and Sandweiss did not adopt this extreme form of adulation.
A natural consequence of such total faith is that SB devotees, in their conversations and writings, joyfully pass on information about their 'Divine' guru and repeat what they learn from others. Much of this information consists of data which, for the devotee, further verifies and reinforces the claims of Divinity made by SB himself. Unfortunately, as some devotees and ex-devotees have discovered to their personal mortification, when considered without the rose-tinted glasses of the true believer, a portion of this information (especially accounts of secondhand, third-hand or otherwise unverifiable accounts of miracles and the interpretations and suppositions of what SB 'means' by his often 'enigmatic' pronouncements) is at best no more than unfounded hearsay and at worst, sheer nonsense. Such would be the reaction of an unbiased outsider to some of the information and rumours which are passed around at devotee meeting places in Puttaparthi and Whitefield or anywhere in the world where SB devotees foregather, including, increasingly, on the Internet Bulletin Boards and Clubs.
If we add to this attitude of total uncritical acceptance of any news about SB or of personal contact with him, the natural narcissistic tendencies which we all share to different degrees, we have a powerful reinforcement of the myth-inflating (and sustaining) environment of the ashrams and any gathering of SB devotees.
Many of us have the automatic habit of inflating or idealising any piece of news or details about ourselves. For evidence we only have to go as far as published autobiographies, our personal diaries or letters, or conversations about ourselves. In these contexts, events very often tend to be presented in such a way as to show us in the most interesting, flattering, amusing, dramatic, or otherwise appealing way. We endeavour to enhance our own self-worth, both to ourselves and to other people.
Devotees as disseminators of information
It may not be generally realised that much of the basic information (especially the more dramatic, spectacular, dubious, or unverifiable parts of it) about SB's miracles and pronouncements comes, not from his own Discourses but from indirect first-hand or second-hand, reports. These are then spread by people to whom he has allegedly confided information, like unofficial spokespersons (to be dealt with separately later), other devotees, or from the many devotees who write about him. Even a cursory study of the Discourses and a knowledge of the principal 'facts' and events of the Mission will prove this to be the case. To give one obvious example, most of the information devotees have about the third Avatar, Prema Sai, and about his announced birth, comes almost exclusively from these 'indirect' sources, not from SB's Discourses (as we have seen in Chapter 1). By reverse irony, the same is true nowadays about SB's claims of Divinity which, in Discourses at least, tend to be much more muted or indirect. Notwithstanding that significant fact, his associates, spokespersons, and the SSO continue to proclaim his Divinity to the faithful.
Since, as we have seen, the miracle factor is acknowledged by many to be a powerful magnet attracting people to SB, unsubstantiated (mythical) miracles and stories, as well as more convincing or plausible ones, can be a factor in the 'recruitment' of new devotees, as part of the common 'Rolling Snowball Effect'. This is how it works: Person 'A' describes a miracle. Persons 'B', 'C', 'D' and others read about the miracle and are very impressed. They find out more about SB, in other books, or by going to the ashram. Most of them eventually become devotees. A smaller number of devotees are SO enthralled by it all that they write their account of experiences with SB, and retell the miracles described originally in Person A's book. As a result of the publication of these new books, other newcomers are attracted to the SB fold, some of these write books (as I did while in a state of unquestioning belief), and so on.
Many such contributions are offered in the hundreds of (uncritical) books and articles, videos and magazines, or can be overheard as devotees' 'satsang' at SB Centre meetings all over the world, and in many conversations between devotees. In their understandably zealous efforts to support the Mission and teachings of their divine guru, devotees frequently suspend all judgement and pass on information which in other contexts and groups would not merit a serious consideration. Occasionally, in the SB literature we read a wise plea for restraint from a writer:
"Baba may be perfection itself but the bhakta is an evolving human being with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. All paranormal claims by bhaktas should be scrupulously verified. If they cannot be verified, it is best to ignore them. Competitive holiness is a disease like any other and makes people quite ill. There is no place for hysteria in spiritualism." (V. Ramnath, 82)
It is disappointing (but perhaps significant) that the influential hierarchy of the SSO has not seen fit to implement a simple but strict policy of repudiating devotees' excesses in this respect and urging that greater care be taken to verify and give accurate references for stories about SB or alleged quotations from him. This should apply especially to those who write about SB (books, articles, even notes and letters on devotee Websites) or who talk about him in public. The truth, evidenced in so many books, booklets, and Internet devotee groups about SB, is that the flimsiest of stories purporting to support the authentic nature of SB's alleged Divine powers are repeated time after time by over-zealous and under-critical SB devotees.
The reality is, then, that a surprising amount of mythical information - like any information about SB - tends to be passed on, uncritically, from one devotee to another, and even printed or posted on the Internet. Such repetition, especially in print, often leads to the unquestioning acceptance of myths as reality.
Dubious Contributions by Some Devotees
Favourite devotee gossip, rumours and exaggerations:
SB's latest alleged miracle, including the more far-fetched ones like:
The South American aeroplane saved from crashing by an apparition of SB outside the pilot's cabin.
The unnamed Australian instantly transported home from the interview room to his sick wife's bedside.
What SB has just told someone else.
That Muslims will only be attracted to SB's fold in the last twenty years of his life, but that then they will come in vast crowds. (Those alleged twenty years have just begun: 2002)
Various former devotees and other important persons have reincarnated, for example: the late Prof. Kasturi, as Prema Sai's future mother, Swami Vivekananda as a (named) Sri Lankan who will become the caretaker of SB's Mission while the infant Prema Sai grows up.
Impending global disasters - a great favorite (many versions).
In spite of the previous item SB has constantly been reported as promising that the Golden Age will begin in the 1990s, or around the year 2000, or ....
Crowd estimates for major festivals, especially SB's Birthday, Guru Purnima, and Mahasivararatri.
Updates on other topics of interest to devotees. (Nowadays this includes lots of e-mailing activity by devotees, even on rather unspiritual, but burning, topics like the latest unfavourable rumours against 'Judas', i.e. David Bailey (as devotees view their formerly adored brother and principal author and editor of the controversial April 2000 document,'The Findings').
For example, last year I received an e-mail from a devotee eager to inform me of Bailey's alleged arrest for paedophilia, with the additional 'fact' that this was "all over the British newspapers". When I asked for confirmation, my correspondent assured me that the story came from a highly reliable source, namely, a devotee who habitually sits on SB's verandah at the ashram! (Similar unidentified sources are often given for unverified miracles and other scuttlebutt!) Not surprisingly, no details of the alleged publications accompanied that information and I heard nothing further about the "news". But inevitably some of the 'mud' thus slung will stick, at least in the minds of those devotees who need to believe such unfounded rumours.)
Devotees also swap information with each other about some of the more surprising SB memorabilia available for purchase at the ashrams or in village shops. For example, photos and rings with enamel portraits which are claimed to represent likenesses of Jesus or Krishna, etc. (See P. Phipps, 1997, for a PHOTO of Jesus, aged 29 (p. 30) and a silver ring with an enamel image of Jesus, p. 141.)
The Poornachandra Auditorium in Prasanthi Nilayam is usually alleged to have a capacity for 30,000 people (sitting cross-legged). Although ashram security is now too strict to allow loitering in the Auditorium, I have paced the OUTSIDE of the building approximately and obtained rough figures of 175 feet by 150 feet, which gives a total area (including the stage, etc.) of about 26,000 square feet. Now if 5 people can be squashed in together in a space of 2 feet 6 inches by 2 feet 6 inches, that would allow an audience of somewhere around 4,000. But if one allows for gross error on my part and that figure is doubled, the total would still only be 8,000. In spite of this obvious discrepancy, writers and official spokespersons tend to repeat the unreasonably high figure of 30,000, which reflects greater 'credit' on SB and his ashram. (There is of course extra room outside the hall for an overflow on special festivals.)
At the most ingenuous level, devotees swap SB 'facts' as dubious as the following handful selected from a 4-page e-mail passed around among a group of Indian devotees in 2001. The title of the e-mail is, 'Who is Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba?'
"He is not a man, He is GOD in human form! He floats around.
He was not conceived. A ball of light went into her.
He has not eaten for the past few years.
He has not changed one iota for more than 60 years.
There is an aum sign on his forehead between the brow.
He raised the dead and fed the multitude from just a pot.
He can teleport anybody thousand of miles away in nanoseconds.
He plucked one of his hair, threw it on the floor, and it turned into a live snake.
He said Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster and Muhammad were prophets sent by him, God.
All the knowledge in the world is in his fingertips."
And so on - for four pages.
Unsubstantiated gossip and rumour? Certainly, and of an extreme type undoubtedly deplored by many SB devotees, but nevertheless accepted in some form by many others and therefore yet another irresponsible contribution to the continued propagation of mythical aspects about SB.
Note: The current posted form of Part 2 of this chapter (on 'The Responsibility of Spokespersons and Writers') is due to be replaced by a thoroughly expanded and updated version.
Excerpt from the forthcoming Part 3 of Chapter 4:
Once they face their Divine loss, perhaps at least one of their major regrets, that of "wasting time and spiritual energy" under SB's spell, can be dissolved by this thought: If a person's spiritual faith is strong, sincere and pure, it must surely reach God, the Divine Creator, and it must equally surely be a positive force.
Such faith, wherever directed, is not only NOT 'wasted' but could explain SOME of the otherwise inexplicable things which happen to that person (visions, healings, transformation). However, if faith is dented by strong doubt, or if it is lost, it becomes necessary to re-establish contact with the Creator in some other way.
That is also part of the essence of the following sentiment, quoted by Mick Brown from one of Andrew Harvey's well-known books. Harvey is referring to his traumatic break with his adored guru, Mother Meera: "I no longer believe at all in Meera. I believe in the experiences I had with her, but I no longer believe they came from her. The Divine Mother gave me them through Meera ... " (Mick Brown, 1999, 182)
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