Notes on The Responsibility of Writers of Sathya Sai Baba Books
Copyright © Brian Steel 2002
(An extract from unpublished Chapter 4: 'Devotees' Behaviour. Contributions to a Myth and Reactions to Challenge')
(See also The Latest Example of His Master's Voice)
Another special distinguishing characteristic of SSB, when he is compared to other contemporary spiritual leaders and their organisations, is that so many of his followers want and feel able to write books and articles about him, and actually do (even if many of these are of the "self-published" variety. There has been an enormous output (of very varying quality) of hagiographical literature (over 500 items in English alone when I stopped counting in 2000). This literature is widely available in the ashrams, in Puttaparthi, Bangalore and, in many overseas countries, through the Sai Baba Organisation Centres and their bookshops, plus Esoteric and New Age bookshops (often in local translation).
The number and adoring nature of the books about devotees' experiences of Sai Baba, his Miracles and his Teachings can only really be explained by the fact that God (or a convincing God-like placebo) has inspired these followers with such an iron faith in his Divine claims and capacity for miracles. And to add a revolving door aspect to the matter of why/how a person becomes a devotee of Sai Baba, these personal and ecstatic REPORTS by devotees enable others to be attracted to read about, and go and see the Guru. Which is exactly what happens. Every detail about proximity to Baba is devoured (especially by the MAJORITY who don't get close to the guru) - particularly if there is human interest in the writer's story (for example, the writer and/or husband, and/or family have problems), as is particularly true of the writing of Phylis Krystal, Rita Bruce, Anne-Marie Marwaha and others.
For SB devotees, reading about SB is very important. At the ashram they have so much time to while away and to be introspective, especially in the hours of patiently sitting waiting for darshan. Therefore both Discourses, anthologies of teachings and sayings, as well as many books relating personal experiences, sell very well, and in several languages.
The ways in which some SB writers contribute to the myth are as follows: untrue or exaggerated statements, slipshod reporting and quoting, unsubstantiated myths about Sai Baba, slavish repetition and copying of other writers' work, and above all, a preponderant lack of references to assist verification (names, places, dates).
Devotees who look for the original sources of Sai Baba's words and statements quoted in books written about him are very often unable to find firm textual references. It is a remarkable fact that most people who write about SB quote him frequently but without giving any form of reference to the date of the Discourse, the talk, or the interview conversation from which the quotation is taken. Often it is from the writings of these privileged few that we get the only textual reference, in the form of "Baba has said that ..." (still usually without a date).
And some reference books about Baba can be misleading. In possibly the best known and most consulted of these, a hefty 700-page book titled A Compendium of the Teachings of Sathya Sai Baba (by Charlene Leslie-Chaden), we are offered quotations on 1,100 topics. Unfortunately the author has taken her material NOT ONLY from Sai Baba's Discourses (see Chapter 3 above) and other printed compilations of his words but also from over THIRTY other books where writers have quoted Baba's alleged pronouncements (often without references). One or two of these sources contain the alleged dialogue from inspired Visions of Sai Baba written about by devotees, and there are even extracts from the U.S. Sathya Sai Newsletter.
In Leslie-Chaden's Compendium, all quotations, which are given equal 'value' as SB's 'teachings', are followed by initials denoting the written sources (inadequately explained in the Bibliography - the most inadequate and confusing I have ever seen: for example most authors' names are not even mentioned!).
Given the current lack of evidence of serious research on Sai Baba, it is unlikely that most devotees notice that anything is amiss in all this as they pick out interesting extracts from this apparently authoritative work to discuss at their next Study Circle Meeting. Just one example will give an idea of the problems and confusion which such a book may cause in its readers: In the 6 and a half pages devoted to quotations on 'Prophecies', roughly 2 and a half come from direct (edited) SB sources; the rest from largely unsupported texts, including a page on the "Mehdi Moud prophecies" of Baba's coming by the Prophet Mohammed (taken from an American Sathya Sai Newsletter!). Once more, as often in dealing with Sai Baba topics with one's brain and judgement functioning normally, the mind boggles!
Examples of Writers' Contributions to the Myth-Building
This is a very important subject and needs good examples. Who should one choose? There are so many writers and many, perhaps most, share in varying degrees in this ultimately misguided and unhelpful habit. Perhaps I should choose some of my own contributions in the two hagiographical books which I happily and proudly produced after much research, but that might be seen as a little self-indulgent and there are far more instructive examples in my files, so I will simply express my present regret for contributing to what I now see as an inaccurate picture of SB and his Powers.
Instead, I have chosen as principal examples two writers who have used excessive zeal in chronicling the life and works of SB. One is an Indian, one a non-Indian (and non-Hindu), because in the literature there are sometimes observable differences of attitude and style which may correspond very crudely to the two major markets for literature about SB: local Hindu readers and overseas readers. It must be added that many Indian writers about SB, including highly educated ones, sometimes appear unconcerned about retelling quite extraordinary unverified stories. Perhaps part of the reason is a culturally conditioned one: the legendary nature of so much of the subject matter of the age-old Hindu tradition: gods, Avatars, and mythical heroes, heroines and villains.
The division between 'writers' and 'spokespersons' (official and unofficial) is not clearcut. Many writers are also spokespersons, by reason of residence in the ashram, status in the SSO, or close contact with SB. Of these, some are members of the SSO, or associates of SB (from Kasturi and Gokak and Balu to Sarin , Rao, Mishra, Anil Kumar, etc.
One of the most prominent of this group, Dr M.N.Rao, a retired high level Civil Servant and (since 1982) prolific and informative ashram-based chronicler of SB's Mission, is widely read particularly in India. He frequently overstates the facts in his chronicles: For example, he gives the size and capacity of the new Kulwant Rai Mandap in Prasanthi Nilayam as 6,000 square metres, which can "hold 50,000 people tightly packed." (M.N.Rao, 1998:121) Rao, who, as was noted in Chapter 3 eulogised SB as being a "polyglottal prodigy", is also on record as reasserting (as do most Indian commentators and others, in spite of strong medical counter-evidence) the Cowan resurrection story in two of his books, reinforcing the 'propaganda' by saying that the claim has been "thoroughly checked". What Rao fails to add is that the real checks have ruled out the evidence of a death. (Rao, 1990: 233 - and see Chapter 6 for a discussion of the the real facts as given in Beyerstein's and Haraldsson's accounts.)
Of Shirdi Baba devotees, Rao makes the following understatement: "Even after 60 years, some Shirdi devotees have some misgivings." (Rao, 1990:117) For 'some', read 'most'. Such understatements are, in their effect if not in their intention, really a form of propaganda . Take, for instance, this other one by Rao (1990:308), referring to the writings of Sri Aurobindo: "There was no significant mention in his writings between 1926 and 1950 about Sathya Sai and his identity..." By expressing surprise, Rao implies that Aurobindo's celebrated remark hailing the Descent of the Avatar at the alleged time of SB's birth was addressed specifically to baby Satya Narayana is an established fact (as it is taken to be in the SB mythology). So, like other writers and spokespersons, he once again reinforces as dogma an unproven fact.
In addition, Rao repeats SB's alleged rash boast that the Specialty Hospital will "last for a thousand years" (1990:176) and he makes the following claim, which I have not seen anywhere else about SB's (much hyped, and important for the spread of SB's prestige amongst Hindus) visit to the venerable Swami Sivananda's ashram in 1957: "Swami Sivanada of Rishikesh had also identified Sathya Sai as an avathar and openly declared His divine identity, when Swami called on Sivavanda ... (Rao, 1990:308) On the same page, Rao had also claimed that on a visit to Ramana maharshi, the latter had "recognised Swami's identity as an Avatar".
Overseas non-Hindu writer devotees (whose works are more accessible and therefore probably more read overseas than Indian authors) may also have an undue influence on others by passing on hearsay and accepting everything without question.
Take the case of Peter Phipps, who has written two highly enthusiastic books about SB as God. He urges the Christian Church, and Christians, to wake up to the presence of God on Earth. Phipps concentrates at great length on describing the similarities between SB and Jesus Christ and tells his readers, "We have the unprecedented advantage in our own time to obtain authoritative teaching on the issues around Jesus directly from the Father who sent Him ..." (1994, p. 69) This sort of study is understandably exciting for SB devotees and further strengthens the SB myth.
In the two books, Phipps repeats many of the unsubstantiated myths about SB (for example the Mehdi Moud "prophecies" and the well-travelled photograph of Jesus aged 29 allegedly materialised by SB (p.71). Phipps also rejoices especially in the annual Christmas Discourses about Jesus because "many facts about Jesus which had been lost are revived in these discourses." (1994, p. 60) In spite of his intense study, he makes no mention of the frequent discrepancies and confusion revealed in some of these 'facts'. (See Chapter 5 of this study.)
Phipps' total conviction leads him to make very powerful statements like:
"In His presence one becomes aware that here is a Being who knows literally whenever the wind blows through a blade of grass, who knows our every thought. word and action. He is also involved constantly in keeping the whole Universe functioning, at every level from the smallest atomic particle to the most vast constellation of stars." (1994, p. 54)
The author, like M. N. Rao, even jubilantly repeats this unrealistic boast by SB: "There is a modern hospital ... designed to set the standard for medicine in India for the next thousand years." (p. 22)
With all this patiently gathered evidence, this author concludes that, "It is only a matter of time before the churches will have to accept that the Lord has come again." (p.10) "By the end of this decade I expect the churches, beginning perhaps with the Church of Rome in concert with the Orthodox tradition, to announce that they acknowledge that the Christ is with us now ..." (p. 11)
In fairness to Peter Phipps, one could criticise many other devotee-writers - including myself in the past - for similar faith-induced excesses. For example, I once spent about two weeks on and off doing research on Particle Physics, the Hubble Telescope and related issues in a serious attempt to produce a hypothesis of how the Divine Sai Baba operates on multiple dimensions. I also recall wondering more than once WHY an intelligent man like the Pope hadn't realised the true identity of SB and made some sort of friendly overtures to him. (Steel, 1998, 118-122)
To further indulge both the reader and myself, I would like to illustrate my erstwhile unconditional faith as well as submitting to a little public penance and self-flagellation for my extreme gullibility by quoting my statement on the Dedication page of that 1998 book:
"In offering this personal seva at Swami's Divine Lotus Feet, I ask for His guidance and help at all times to allow me to see clearly and truthfully and not to detract in any way in my writing from His Mission and Teachings. AUM SAI RAM " Like other writers and devotees, I imagine, I was attempting to do my utmost to attract SB's special attention to me, me, me!
A rather different and puzzling case is that of the well-known travel and investigative writer, Paul William Roberts, apparently a deeply spiritual person and an ex-academic, with years of study in India and an expert knowledge of Sanskrit. In his highly original 1998 book about India (Empire of the Soul), this seasoned intellectual writer finally confessed to a long-standing but private devotion to SB kept secret since 1974, which was reconfirmed on a return visit in 1992, leading to his effusive but belated public endorsement of SB's Divinity.
Among the pages Roberts writes about his first stay of several months in SB's ashram in 1974-1975, there are many of his characteristically perceptive comments and well-observed descriptions. But also there are the following statements: "I once heard someone ask Baba if he was Christ. "No," he replied. "I'm the One who sent him." (p. 32) Of SB's intriguing habit of wiggling his fingers in the air, with palm upward, while walking round during darshan, Roberts comments, "Someone told me later that this was how he rewrote destiny." (p. 33) By merely offering these powerful statements without comment, Roberts, usually a keen denouncer of bullshit, appears to be accepting them (and offering them) as true, thereby endorsing them. Since he is also a writer who displays a penchant for mockery and caricature, my conclusion may just possibly be wrong, but my strong impression will surely be shared by other readers. Paradoxically, later in this same book of travels in India, Roberts strongly criticises the guru Osho (Rajneesh) for statements which his own allegedly Divine guru, SB, has also repeatedly made: "You are God, I am God, we are all God."
Interestingly, defiantly perhaps, Roberts' professional North American website still features several Sathya Sai Baba photographs in spite of the current raging public controversy about SB.
Printed Repetition of Far-fetched and Exaggerated Stories:
The word-of-mouth story of the Australian husband (unnamed, of course) allegedly transported by Baba from the Interview room in South India in 1993 to his wife's deathbed in Australia was eventually further promoted in print.
"In 1993 between the Dasera and Diwali festivals, a unique miracle occurred. A group of Sai devotees from Australia were taken into the interview room on Baba's instructions. Of the eleven devotees, one was crying uncontrollably. On being questioned by Baba, he said that his wife was extremely ill and due to anxiety for her, he was weeping. The loving and Divine playing Lord asked, 'So you would like to be transported to your wife?' The answer was Yes! The method Sai Baba used to transport the devotee was unique. He hit the adjacent wall three times with his fist and the weeping devotee started seeing the country of Australia on the wall. When he hit his fist the fourth time, the Australian saw his town on the wall. On hitting his fist for the fifth time the Australian started seeing his house. Then Baba asked the weeping devotee, 'Is this your house?' 'Yes', was the reply. Baba replied, 'Go meet your wife in the house.' That person entered his house and went near his wife. At the end of the interview only ten persons came out of the interview room and not the eleventh. It was subsequently verified [by whom?] that at the time the Australian walked through the wall of the interview room in Prasanthi Nilayam, it was the exact moment he had entered his house in Australia." (R.Lowenberg, 1997, 129-130)
More Dissemination of SB Myths by Writers
"The Light of which I speak is Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Avatar of God. By the year 2000, two-thirds of the world's population will be conscious of this Light." (D.M. Gibson, viii)
"Swami stated his language is not Telugu only. He has knowledge of all languages including the languages of birds and bees. He communicates also with the celestials." (G.V.Subba Rao, unpublished Internet document: 'Interviews, Inner Vistas, and Inmost Visions', January 1996, seen at http://www.eaisai.com/baba/docs/vision.html, p.2) Note that the quotation is also unclear. How much of it is Baba alleged to have said?
"The sun is packed with beings, live beings." (J.Hislop, 1997:163 and 193)
"Over the last six decades, millions have come to Puttaparthi and gone back home fully cured of these fell diseases." (V.I.K. Sarin, 161) [Millions cured?]
Prema Sai (again)
Given the fervour of SB devotees, the concept and prospect of a future reincarnation of SB are understandably exciting. They therefore eagerly accept any further 'news' of this event which is expected by about 2030.
"In a more private talk to students ..., Baba told them that the father of his next incarnation, as Prema Sai, had been born in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. He also said that the body of Prema Sai was in the process of being formed. Is that creation of Prema Sai also the work of these wondrous hands?" (Rodriguez, 133)
"He has revealed that Prof N. Kasturi, his biographer and very esteemed devotee, would be the mother of Prema Sai Baba. He has already disclosed to a number of devotees, like Laxmi Deshpande, Dr. D.J.Ghadia and some others that they would be reborn to serve him in his next incarnation as Prema Sai Baba." (S.P.Ruhela, 1996a:52)
The Golden Age
"Baba has assured us that there is no reason for mankind to be extremely worried about the future, for the Golden Age of humanity is soon dawning in the next two decades. He has assured us that Sat Yuga shall start from 1999 and during the days of His next Avatar as Prem Sai which will be from 2030 and onwards. ... However, Baba says that ... from now to 1999 there will be many natural calamities, but He will exercise His powers and influence as Avatar to prevent nuclear war. He has said to His devotees in earnestness not to leave His Sai Organizational fold, not to try to get out of the umbrella of His Divine Protective Grace lest they should be subjected to any harm at the hands of nature's fury which will indeed be raging till 1999, i.e. till Satyuga starts." (Ruhela, 1991, 218-219 - no references)
Meanwhile, 1999 and 2000 have come, and gone - and nature's fury still lashes us from time to time.
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