Copyright Brian Steel 2002
(an advance extract from the new Chapter 6: Omnipotence)
The Indian Cultural Background
When considering SB's alleged miracles, it is necessary to bear in mind the Indian cultural background in which SB and his Indian followers were brought up. Indian (and specifically Hindu) religious traditions, which go back thousands of years further than those of the 'West' (although the chronology is still uncertain), include the belief that a devout holy person can apply himself so wholeheartedly to the contemplative life that by a combination of devotion, chanting of mantras, meditation and yogic disciplines he can eventually become endowed with the limited ability to perform certain paranormal feats (or Siddhis) for the benefit of his followers. Such Siddhis allow the creation of small objects, healing, telepathy, and clairvoyance. The condition is that these Siddhis should not be done for selfish motives like self-glorification nor should they become a distraction from the main task, that of self-realization (or fusion with the Divinity), or from the task of teaching others to progress along the same path.
However, Ra. Ganapati makes the astute remark that J.Krishnamurti put miracle makers at the bottom of the pile of holy men but his followers were grateful for his miracles for their bodily and secular problems. (Ganapati, II:27)
Ganapati also helps non-Hindus put the concept of special powers into better perspective by telling us that it is the Indian tradition that "all the great men have either themselves consciously demonstrated higher powers and performed miracles, or without their consciousness or intention, the Supreme Power has worked miracles through them, in order that people understand their greatness and follow their lead. The fact remains that only because of faith in a person's possession of higher power, people are attracted towards him, and after being drawn to him, drawn to his way, ... Manifestation of power, therefore, is almost a sine qua non for turning people to any one of the paths leading to divinity. None need be apologetic about it." (p. 28)
On the other hand, this situation produces problems. India has "a whole gamut of miracle men and Godmen, ranging from charlatans and sleight-of hand magicians, running through yogis and Siddha-purushas [holy men or saints possessing supernatural powers], rising to Avatars [literally, descent of God to Earth] and incarnations of God; and it needs some effort ... to separate the wheat from the chaff." (S.Bhagavantam, in R.K.Karanjia, 88, from an article that appeared in the Indian magazine Blitz on September 4, 1976).
So, in India there is a very strong and generally accepted tradition of miracle-making holy men (especially yogis). It is not surprising, perhaps, to learn that there are others, less spiritual in intent, willing to jump on the band-waggon to separate gullible people from their money. In the West our experience has been more limited: principally, to the miracles of Christianity, for example, and during the past hundred and fifty years to the more dramatic and often controversial exploits of clairvoyants, mediums, faith healers and practitioners of telepathy. (The well-known case of Madame Blavatsky, one of the Founders of the Theosophical Movement, is one of the most interesting of these.)
Because of this strong cultural conditioning, Hindus are more likely to associate the performance of miracles with a holy person's standard training, as 'tools of the trade', as it were, than with a Divine being. Indeed, following the constant warnings against the use of occult powers by sages from Patanjali (the second century B.C. founder of the Yoga school of Indian philosophy) to the nineteenth century mystic, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, or twentieth century saints and mystics like J.Krishnamurti, in many sophisticated Hindu circles, public miracle-making (the demonstration of Siddhis) is actually frowned on as ostentatious, unnecessary, or even a dangerous distraction to the performer and his followers.
In Gurus Rediscovered (1986), a scholarly work on Shirdi Sai Baba and his successor, Upasni Maharaj of Sakori, Kevin R. D. Shepherd puts it much more bluntly:
"The preoccupation with siddhis (occult powers) is one of the most infantile features of popular religion in India, and also in the West. It was specifically decried and warned against by such Hindu saints of calibre as Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar (d. 1886) and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, and also by the more recent Ramana Maharshi (d. 1950). The reasons for fostering such a preoccupation as a substitute for psychological development are obvious enough. Status accrues more quickly, and commercial interests are served by pandering to a credulous audience, particularly via the modern mass media."
Shepherd also comments: "Many of the so-called "powers" that one hears or reads about today are very elementary psychic extensions, and one does not have to be on the inner path, or even a seeker, to indulge in them. These "powers" are often a ruse by means of which vulgar gurus catch the attention of the uneducated, the objective being to exploit the latter as much as possible.
In Shepherd's Note 2 he adds:
"Tricks of sleight of hand and related devices are well known in India as a resource for some sadhu types. Like snake-charming, these effects are very extro-verted, and vastly inflated by gossip."
It should not be surprising, therefore, to learn that, in India, SSB has frequently been criticised by traditionalists and especially by sophisticated Hindus, who have regarded him as too much of a 'showman'. In fact, many traditionalist Hindus still consider him no more than a simple Siddha (one who has attained self-realisation).
Sai Baba himself has revealed that he is aware of such criticisms and, on more than one occasion, he has spoken out, both in self-defence and to reiterate his grandiose Divine claims:
"These 'miracles' as you call them, are just a few means towards that end. Some people remark that Ramakrishna Paramahansa said that siddhis are obstructions in the path of the saadhaka (spiritual aspirant). Of course they are; he may be led astray by siddhis ... The mistake lies in equating Me with the saadhaka whom Ramakrishna wanted to help, guide and warn. This is merely the nature of the Avathaara: the creation of things, ab initio, with intent to protect, guard, and give joy, a creation that is spontaneous and lasting. Creation, preservation and dissolution - these three only the Almighty can accomplish; no one else can. Cynics carp without knowledge. If they learn the Shaasthras, they can understand Me, or they should cultivate direct experience." (Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 45:267-268)
"There are many who cannot bear or tolerate the splendour that I am manifesting, the Divinity that is expressed in every act, the wonders and amazing happenings that are the result of Grace; these people label these as acts of mesmerism or miracles or feats of magic! They hope to bring these down in the estimation of people. Let me tell you this: Mine is no mesmerism, miracle or magic. Mine is genuine Divine Power." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 39:262)
To judge by the many reports over many years, it would seem futile and irrelevant to deny that SB does possess special psychic and occult powers. However, it seems logical to add that, if a person claims to be an Avatar of God and to have all the powers of God, and if followers are drawn to him or her because of these extraordinary claims, then he or she must uphold very high standards and be prepared to undergo much closer scrutiny than other spiritual leaders and gurus - in India or anywhere else.
In India (as was pointed out in Chapter 5), Sai Baba has constantly been criticised and denounced by the Indian Rationalists (under the leadership of the indefatigable B. Premanand), especially in their magazine, The Indian Skeptic, but their decades-long sniping at Baba has had relatively little impact on overseas devotees, until recently. In SB devotee circles, and particularly in devotee literature, very little real doubt about the authenticity of Baba's miracles has surfaced until very recently. All or most claimed miracles have been taken to be genuine (and supported) by devotees because of SB's Divine status.
(For some details of the critical work of the Indian Rationalists, see Alexandra Nagel, 'A Guru Accused', and 'For and Against Sathya Sai Baba on the Internet', on the www.exbaba.com website. See also the references to Premanand in the Bibliography of this book.)
The first reasoned and detailed questioning of SB's alleged powers came, as we saw in Chapter 5, from the Canadian academic, Dale Beyerstein: Sai Baba's Miracles. An Overview. Since the events and publications of 1999, many of Beyerstein's findings are becoming more and more quoted and re-examined in the ongoing Internet postings which seek to refute SB's claims to divinity. Until recently, Beyerstein's painstaking investigations, or a link to them, were easily to be found on several Internet "critical", or "exposé" sites. They must now be sought at http://seercom.com/bcs/ (forthcoming), or on the www.exbaba.de website.
In his Introduction, Beyerstein explains that his purpose in gathering information was to present SB's paranormal claims and various investigations that have been done for those who have "heard of SSB through second-hand stories told by devotees" and those who are "familiar with some of the writings of devotees but not with the literature of those who have made investigations of his claims."
In Chapter 3, Beyerstein offers gives a critique of some alleged resurrections for which there is counter-evidence. (See later discussion of this topic below.) In Chapter 4, he deals at length with a number of factual errors by SB which call into question his omniscience (see Chapter 5 of this book). In Chapter 5, Beyerstein deals with Materialisations in detail, quoting accusations of trickery and sleight-of-hand, notably the materialisation of lingams. In Chapter 7 he investigates a few Healings and Rescues and reports discrepancies there also.
Another aspect of Beyerstein's study which particularly deserves attention are the charges in Chapter 5 that SB uses a magician's techniques not only to materialise vibhuti, etc., but in the public productions of lingams and (until 1977) of the massive shower of vibhuti for the Abhishekam ceremony on Mahasivatratri Day. In connection with the former of these displays, Beyerstein quotes Houdini on the techniques needed to be able to regurgitate at will. He also questions a panel of well-known American magicians on the feasibility of using sleight-of-hand, etc, for some of SB's claimed miracles. This panel examines a video in which they declare that SB is using such techniques. (The video is a 1970s production by the late Richard Bock called 'Christ in Kashmir. The Hidden Years', which, as Beyerstein states, is well known in SB devotee circles.)
With the increasing Internet and international media coverage of recent controversies and accusations, this situation is more fluid. To be specific, with slowed down video footage of darshan vibhuti 'production', like that shown on the recent Danish TV documentary 'Seduced', the description 'sleight-of hand' no longer seems a malicious accusation against SB. (See also the recent postings of video clips on www.sathyasaivictims.com .
Early claims of Omnipotence by SB
In written accounts of Baba's childhood, there are many anecdotal references to miracles performed by him, mainly to benefit his playmates with gifts (especially of food), or to impress them. In the first years of his (published) Discourses, the claims (to his Indian audiences) to be an Omnipotent miracle worker are strong and very frequent. (See also Chapter 1 on SB's Claims).
"R.Reddy said that I work many miracles and that you are all lucky to have had this opportunity of hearing me. Well, I am like a shopkeeper whose shop is stocked with all things man needs. But like the man behind the counter, I give you only what you ask for ... But these material things are not important at all." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 8:50 Madras, 24-3-58)
"Science transforms things, re-arranges them ... But I create the things themselves! And they are as lasting as any that is found in Nature!" (II, 16:73)
"That is why I am now and then announcing My Nature by means of miracles; that is, acts which are beyond human capacity and human understanding. Not that I am anxious to show off My Powers. The object is to draw you closer to Me, to cement your hearts to Me." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 26:141).
"Today Swami will show miracles," He declared to our delight." (Joyce D.Baker, 35)
The last statements set up an expectation in the minds of devotees. As we shall see later, this was to become a part of SB's technique in the early years of his Mission, particularly in announcing his public manifestations of lingams on Mahasivaratri night for many years.
Indeed, as the following quotation shows, the materialising of objects from the sands of the Chitravati River in those early days became something of a public spectacle and crowd puller, but even then gave rise to some murmurings of possible trickery, immediately denied by SB:.
"Kasturi suggested this morning that since the thousands who have come to see the Amrithodbhava (materialisation of nectar) cannot get a close view on this flat riverbed, a mound of sand be raised, whereon I can sit. I did not agree because I knew these doubters would immediately infer that the Amritha was hidden previously under the mound that was heaped up on purpose." (I, 35:226-227 Chitravati River Bed, 28-12-60)
The reference to doubters also reflects the reality already mentioned above: Doubts, disbelief, and even accusations of sleight-of-hand and other magicians' tricks have been voiced, at least in India, for decades, especially, as we have seen, by traditionalist Hindus and by the Indian Skeptics.
Although Sai Baba used not to be in the habit of answering his critics, in an interview with the prominent Indian journalist, R.K.Karanjia, in 1976, after a spate of adverse publicity, he specifically rejected the labels 'magic' and Siddhis for his actions:
"What I do is neither magic, nor is it a Siddhi power either. ... For me it is a kind of visiting card to convince people of my love for them and secure their devotion in return. Since love is formless I use materialisation as evidence of my love. It is merely a symbol." (R.K.Karanjia, 1994:28 - See also Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 35:235-236 and X, 39:262).
Once his reputation as a miracle-maker was firmly established and devotees were busy talking and writing about SB's powers, the claims were less frequently made; Baba even began to downplay his use of miracles as merely the beginning of a process, the means to a spiritual end:
"The Divine has to reveal Itself through these manifestations, largely shaped and modified by the nature of the times, the region, and the cultural environment. The signs and wonders that I manifest are given names that do not connote the purpose or effect. They can be called miracles that lead on to purification, which in turn urge on towards a life of service to society, and finally result in God-realization. ... ...
"Why does the Divine attract? Is it to deceive or mislead? No. It is to transform, reconstruct, reform through a process called samskara, (purification through the dual process of removing the dust and dirt of vice and planting the four virtues of truth, right living, peace, and love)." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X: 96 - American edition). And Sai Baba adds, "Once the person is drawn near, the purification process starts." (X: 97).
Public Demonstrations and the Build-up of Devotees' Expectations
Leaving aside the materialisations of gifts for devotees during private group interviews, most of SB's alleged miracles are performed in private, for individuals. This often makes written or word-of-mouth reports of them impossible or very difficult to verify. So the main opportunity to test the authenticity of SB's alleged Omnipotence as demonstrated through miracles lies in the Public demonstrations of his powers, which have been mainly restricted to one or two major annual events. The major publicly performed miracle, for many years was the materialisation, allegedly from within his own body, of Shiva lingams on the Hindu sacred night of Mahasivaratri (in February or March). The Sanskrit name for this is Lingodhbhava. For some years this was accompanied by another miraculous demonstration, Abhishekam, the bathing of a statue of Shirdi Sai Baba with showers of materialised vibhuti.
In the early years of SB's Discourses (1953-1960, covered in Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. 1) there are two brief mentions of Mahashivaratri (in 1955 and 1959). There is no specific mention of Baba materialising a lingam, although in his 1959 Mahasivaratri speech, Baba refers to it as the traditional Night of the Emergence of the Linga Form of Shiva. The next reference to Mahashivaratri comes in 1962, when Baba (aged 36) briefly indicates in his first speech that he will produce a lingam, thus producing a fervent expectation in his listeners:
"This evening, the Lingodbhava (emergence of egg-shaped stone of Shiva) is My Duty, My responsibility, rather My Nature which must reveal itself on this holy day."(Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 30:160) and in his second speech during the festival he celebrates its arrival:
"This is a day of special dedication to Shiva, and since so many of you here and elsewhere pray to Shiva, the Lingha is emanating from me for you all to receive the Grace and the bliss of the Great Moment of Lingodbhava (Emergence of the Linga)." (II, 31:173)
Although no mention is recorded for 1963, from 1964 until 1977, the miraculous production of the lingam, with its special personal blessing for the beholder, became a much-awaited and announced annual religious and festive event, building up enormous expectancy and drawing large crowds of Hindus. An example of the technique:
"In a short time, you will be witnessing the emergence of the Linga that is formed within; the auspicious time for the emergence for the Linga is approaching; you see it and you receive the blessings; but yet there will be some among you who will doubt it and deny it. That is the karma of such. What else can they do?" "(Here, Baba stopped the discourse; the movements started, first in the region of the abdomen, then the chest and the throat; Baba swayed from the side, leaned on the table, drank water, and finally, after about twenty minutes, an egg-shaped pink Linga emerged from His mouth. Holding it between the thumb and forefinger of His right hand, Baba discoursed further about it.)"
"Ah! This is the Brahmaanda Linga! Symbol of the Universe. Inside it, the nine planets (Navagrahas) revolve; the entire Universe is represented herein ... You are indeed blessed, the merit of many births as brought you here to see the Great Phenomenon, this rare Creation." (Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 4:26)
In addition to this very special annual spiritual spectacle, those present were overjoyed at the extraordinary accompanying blessing. No wonder that year by year the crowds grew.
"Having had the unique good fortune of witnessing the emergence of the time-space-embodiment in the Linga-Form, I assure you that you are released from the bondage of birth and death. ... This is the chance that is seldom gained through there are performance of yajnas or yagas or other elaborate rituals; or as a result of years of arduous sadhana. When you are asked what happened at Prasanthi Nilayam, tell them that your life's mission has been fulfilled, that you were able to witness the Lingodhbhava, see the Linga which emerged during the auspicious hour." (XII, 28:167)
In 1977 the public materialisations ceased - until 1999, when SB and the SSO may have perceived the imminence of the serious charges which would shortly be levelled at them, and magnified during the following two years.
Back to Brian Steel's Home Page
Back to Beginning of this article