Arnold Schulman's Baba - an Embarrassment for the SSO?
Brian Steel September 2002
Copyright © Brian Steel 2002
Arnold Schulman, and Howard Murphet were the first "Western" writers (independent writers, each successful in his different field) to publish books in English about SB: in 1971. All devotees are aware of Murphet's seminal book, Sai Baba. Man of Miracles; comparatively few contemporary devotees will have even heard of Schulman's Baba, even though it was well written and published by a leading New York publisher (Viking Press). While not a best seller, it may have been quite influential in bringing SB to the attention of a number of Americans who had just become, or were about to become, devotees.
This is a very curious, but instructive, case, because, unlike the other neglected early (controversial) book on SB, Tal Brooke's Avatar of Night, Schulman's diligently researched and well-composed book gives a very appealing portrait of SB and is mainly positive. However, Baba is quite unlike other books about SB. For instance, Schulman has great difficulty in even mentioning the Divine aspects. When Dr. Gokak tells him on his arrival for his carefully planned second visit in 1970 that Baba is an avatar and says so, Schulman is surprised and alarmed. He accepts the miracle stories he hears but only as special yogic powers. "That was the biggest assumption the writer was prepared to accept." Then Gokak continues, 'For a man to say such a thing he must either be mad or else ... He is God.'
"A third alternative immediately occurred to the writer: Suppose Baba were neither mad nor God but simply a very talented charlatan cleverly utilizing the Indian readiness to accept the idea of living avatars?" (p. 14)
After six weeks of efficient research at the ashrams and in Bangalore, Schulman ends up being confused, relieved that his literary agent has cabled him to return urgently to USA and in his last meeting with SB he tells SB "I don't understand anything I've seen." (p. 167) and feels himself obliged to ask: "Are you God?" (p. 170) SB refuses to answer directly but continues to treat him in a kindly way while indicating that Schulman is not sufficiently aware spiritually. The writer is embarrassed at his own question but also seems convinced "that there was nothing the writer could think of that would allow him to accept the idea that this person with the Afro hairdo and the orange dress could actually, literally, be God." (171)
His book was positive and highly informative, passing on the same sorts of unverified stories as other books on SB tend to do. However, it is unusual among SB books because it did not excitedly proclaim a new-found faith in SB or contain the amount of enthusiastic endorsement of the "SB is God" claim which the Puttaparthi people may have been expecting, and which all other SB writers convey. Arnold Schulman did not become a devotee. Worse still, from the official point of view, Schulman, although sympathetic, was also honest in revealing the facts as he saw them, including his ambivalent feelings and bewilderment about SB. This independent "warts and all" attitude led him (albeit only on a limited number of occasions) to reveal unknown or potentially inconvenient facts, to express doubts, 'negative opinions', or conclusions which are not usually seen in partisan SB literature. As he says candidly on page 123, "It was not possible to document with certifiable evidence much of Baba's biography." What a relief to read that obvious but unacknowledged truth! Most SB writers are content to repeat what they are told or what they read somewhere and present it as the truth. Such rare pieces of evidence as those offered in good faith by Schulman (who refers to himself throughout the book as 'the writer') in this rather neglected work are invaluable for anyone who wishes to check the veracity of the monolithic official SB story.
Following a brief but impressive meeting with SB in 1969, Schulman had been inspired to drop his lucrative screenplay writing temporarily to write a book about him. He had convinced Viking Press of New York to give him a contract and had made careful plans, in consultation with Dr Gokak, one of SB's closest associates. During his six weeks research visit in early1970 (equipped with camera, tape-recorder and typewriter), Schulman, the experienced researcher and writer, had plenty of time and opportunity to interview local people because the planned tour of villages with SB did not take place: SB had already left for the two week tour when the American arrived. Nevertheless, the writer was greatly assisted by Dr. Gokak, and therefore had easy access to all sorts of interesting people, including some of SB's contemporaries and even one of his sisters (Venkamma, probably). Kasturi also eased Schulman's path and reassured people that it was all right to talk to the American. During this detailed local research, with access to SB associates like Dr. Gokak, Dr. Fanibunda, possibly Dr. Bhagavantham, and other professional persons, Schulman confides that he trusts the information from such "Establishment gentlemen" but he is suspicious of some others: "many seemed to be repeating monologues they had perfected years ago. Others gave the impression they were improvising the stories as they went along." (p. 21)
In the case of his interviews with one of SB's sisters he had to be content with TWO interpreters, one from her Telugu into Hindi and the other from Hindi into English. Schulman suspects that during this time-consuming process, "what the writer was told the sister said might very well have been something quite different from what she actually said." (p. 124)
Schulman also makes the following valuable assessment - also unusual in the pro-SB literature: "In trying to discover what Sathya's childhood was like, the writer ran across every possible variation from "he was an ordinary child, like the rest of us" to stories of precocious saintliness which told of how, when he was only five years old, he frequently went without food so that he could sneak it out of the house [possibly Subbamma's house, not his parents'] and give it to the beggars and blind men of the village." (p. 125, italicised comment added)
At one point, Schulman suddenly came to this conclusion: "For every story about Baba's childhood there are any number of conflicting stories and, at this point, the writer discovered, it is no longer possible to sift out the facts from the legend. For one thing Baba has forbidden his family and devotees to talk about his childhood and " 'they all live in terror of Baba,' as one of his most devoted followers told the writer." Their fear is of SB's usual punishment for those who make mistakes: ignoring them totally. On the following page, Schulman confesses that his initial suspicion about this imposed silence was replaced with the later belief that "it wasn't Baba's intention to suppress information he was afraid might be revealed. Instead, the writer decided, it was the simplest way to keep Baba's well-meaning devotees from distorting the truth. A slight exaggeration here, an embellishment there, could ultimately contaminate his entire reservoir of credibility." (p. 123) With hindsight, we can now see this belief as extremely naive considering the long track record of SB's devotees in exaggeration and rumour and, given the quantity of evidence of SB's own exaggerations, etc. we may even raise an inquisitive eyebrow and hazard guesses at what SB might not have wished his relatives and associates to reveal.
On at least two occasions, Schulman's keen observations throw further light on SB's idiosyncratic use of English and his propensity for enigmatic or sententious pronouncements which appear to be meaningless. In an interview reported on pages 108-110, during most of which Gokak (or Gokok, as Schulman misnames him throughout the book) is interpreting for SB, the latter comments in English, "Far is not important. No far, no near, no near. Dear, only dear is important." (p.110) In the final interview Schulman tells SB, "I don't understand anything I've seen." "Baba laughed. 'Appearance is not different from emptiness,' Baba said struggling for the words in English, "Yet within emptiness there is no appearance." Not surprisingly, Schulman informs his readers that "The writer ... did not understand and he resisted the temptation to pretend that he did." (p. 168) On another occasion, Schulman has this politically incorrect thought about SB's alleged omniscience: "... if he's God, didn't he know how undeveloped I was spiritually when he agreed to let me write the book in the first place?" (p. 106)
During his few encounters with SB, and his conversations with Gokak, it became clear to Schulman had evidence that SB did not really want him to write the book. In his very interesting report of the final interview (pp. 167-172), he asks SB if he can go ahead and write about everything he has seen and felt. At first SB says, 'Do you believe in me the way I said you have to believe in me?' 'Not yet.' 'Then how can you write about me?' (p. 171) SB goes on to say he does not need a publicity book, like "your Mahesh Yogi" (a longer disparaging remark about the Maharishi's behaviour is recorded for posterity on page 81). At this, Schulman (probably exasperated in view of his investment of effort, time, and money on this writing project) asks point-blank: 'What are you telling me? I can't write the book?" To which (probably equally exhausted at the writer's spiritual obtuseness) SB replies, with a laugh: 'Write it. Write your book. That's your duty, your dharma. But write the truth. Only what you saw here. Only the truth.' (p. 172) After which SB finishes the interview in a characteristically loving way by massaging Schulman's chest and assuring him that 'I am always with you' and 'I am in you. You are in me. Don't forget that. We cannot be separated.' (p. 172) With that, the writer eagerly flew back home to his family and his career and wrote his book, not only about what he saw, but about what he heard, and even what he thought. SB and the SSO, who have idiosyncratic views of what constitutes truth, may not have been pleased with his efforts.
Schulman's book was published by Viking Press in New York in 1971. As previously stated, this and Murphet's Sai Baba. Man of Miracles were the FIRST books about SB to be published in the "West". In India, the first two volumes of Prof. Kasturi's hagiographical biography had already been published (Volume 1 had been given to Schulman on his arrival at the ashram) and a few other minor books about SB. On 23 December of that same year, in Madras, after the Fifth All-India Conference, in the same Discourse in which he announced the SSO's new interest in Christianity, SB also revealed to his listeners another Conference resolution: "Another course of action that was decided on today is this: You all know that books are being written by all kinds of people in all manners of style and content, urged by all types of fancy, mostly with an eye on personal profit. But, hereafter, this shall stop: no book shall be published on Sai Literature as suits the fancy of the writer or the publisher. There is a Registered Body named the Shri Sathya Sai Education Foundation. The manuscript has to be submitted to the Foundation, and published through the Foundation in the manner approved by them. For, books transform or deform the faculties of man. Many write books with no relevance or experience, relying solely on their imagination and so, people are left in the wilderness, unable to separate fact from fiction, truth from falsehood." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, 35:236-7)
Apart from the sentiments of that final sentence, which thirty years later seem applicable to much of the subsequently published "Sai Literature" (both official and independent), this SSO proposal of totalitarian censorship (which fortunately did not prosper) is most enlightening for researchers, and anyone else interested in the real SB story. Taking into account what we know about the brief relationship between Arnold Schulman and SB, the writer's independent attitude, and the 'inconvenient' features commented on above, we are left wondering if there could have been a connection between Schulman's book and the SSO decision. IF there was a connection, the SSO need not have worried overmuch about the dissemination of Schulman's minor revelations. Apart from the first hardback edition in 1971 and a paperback edition in 1973 (New York, Pocket Books), there were no further editions of Baba. On the Internet, Google searches for Arnold Schulman reveal no recent writing activity on any subject. By contrast, the first enthusiastic and well-written SB book by devotee Murphet (now well into his nineties) made an immediate and ongoing impact both outside and inside India (especially with the pithy and assertive title, which epitomises the book's - and SB's - main appeal). In the intervening thirty years, the now classic Sai Baba. Man of Miracles has gone through countless editions and translations - but without any revision.
End of the tale of two important books.
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