The Sathya Sai Organisation
Copyright Brian Steel 2002
(an extract from Part 2 of the revised Chapter 7 of The Guru from Puttaparthi ... )
The best and fullest independent analysis of the Sathya Sai Organisation is to be found in the recent and ongoing (2002) revelations by Robert Priddy, an ex-academic, a research writer, and a very well-known ex-devotee, as well as a prominent (and fearless) ex-SSO office-holder in Europe. Robert's popular website is at http://home.no.net/anir/Sai and he also frequently publishes revealing - sometimes astonishing - Notes and Articles on www.exbaba.com. Those who consult Robert's copious evidence and forthright opinions will find a wealth of quite new 'alternative' information on a subject which, because of its hermetically closed institutional nature, is not easy to investigate. As a former privileged insider, with access to close associates of SB, Priddy is able to speak with authority on fascinating subjects like the structure, hierarchy, and functioning of the SSO, in India and abroad, and ashram 'politics'. Priddy also investigates previously taboo topics like corruption in the SSO and the possible involvement of the SSO in the 1993 killings. Before reading any further here, it would be a good idea to bookmark Robert Priddy's website - if you do not already know about it!
My own objectives in this section are, of necessity, much more amateur and modest, and restricted to the focus of this study: SB's special claims of Divinity and the history of his Mission. All I have to offer are some tentative alternative ideas about the relationship between SB and his own Organisation as it appears from a study of the history of the SB Mission and his own Discourses. There are some cross-references to evidence and suggestions presented in previous parts of this study. Inevitably, a few more unanswered questions and hypotheses also arise for others to deal with, but the material may be of use to future researchers.
The basic themes to be briefly considered here are:
To what extent has the SSO influenced SB and the Development of his Mission (other than by its basic administration function)?
What sort of relationship exists between SB and the SSO leaders?
In a Discourse in October 1964, among other rather negative statements (to which he is rather prone on occasion), SB made the following statements which seem to indicate a characteristically shrewd suspicion of organised groups. The statements are of particular interest in view of the formation of the SSO only one year later.
"When you gather in groups, the evil qualities of envy, competition, pride and factionalism raise their heads. So, offer bhajana to the Lord in your own homes, and do not invite these obstacles by organising groups and mandalis and sanghams." ( Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 35:209
"... institutions, societies and sanghams have another fault. ... these create a paraphernalia of officers, various grades of members, a secretary, a treasurer, a president and a batch of committee members, who strut about with their badges and revel in their own assumed greatness. ... Real bhakthas will never crave for such positions; they will avoid them as traps which could lay them low." ( Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 35:210)
Possible influences on SB:
As suggested previously in this chapter, the major growth period for the SB Mission was between 1965 and 1999, from the moment that the SSO was formed and in particular since the assumption of control by the capable Indulal Shah, who is still (2002) the International Chairman, and SB's principal associate. Starting with the 1967 All India Conference, we have evidence of the introduction of Rules and Regulations. The SSO quickly became an important organisation with satellite National Organisations overseas and its conferences became part of the activities of the ashram. After many of the Conferences, usually taking place around Guru Purnima (July) and the Birthday celebrations (November), SB himself sometimes mentions or comments on new rules and regulations for devotees to abide by in their national Organisations. (This includes a few proposals which were not practical, like the idea (from the SSO?) that all SB books should be centrally vetted by the SSO (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, 35:236-7).
After the auspicious beginning of the SSO came a period of very rapid expansion (for example of the ashrams), increased prosperity, and success, and with all this came the major changes in types of welfare work. Service to others became highly organised, especially in India, and larger projects were undertaken, at first educational (SB's free schools and the deemed University) and later, medical (Hospitals), and social welfare projects. If it has done its job properly, some of the latter as well as other developments and initiatives must be due to the influence of the officials of the SSO rather than to SB's master plan, or independent decisions.
Other ways in which the SSO, and the highly experienced middle-aged or retired professionals who run it, must have influenced SB are in providing him with sophisticated conversation, ideas, professional expertise, and news for him to relay, sometimes idiosyncratically, in his Discourses. At first (1950-1960) he had Hindus of the calibre of Kasturi, Gokak and Bhagavantam and other distinguished associates and then, from the mid-1960s on, foreigners like John Hislop, Howard Murphet and the ubiquitous Dr. Michael Goldstein, who, like Indulal Shah, is still in constant attendance.
Evidence of one aspect of the very close involvement of the SSO with the presentation of SB's Mission has already been offered in Chapter 2. This control over the edited translations of SB's public speeches (about which most devotees have been totally ignorant until very recently) reveals the SSO's direct contribution to SB's message not only as its publishers and disseminators but also as senior partners in the composition of the definitive text. Recent evidence of the extent of this editing shows that, whatever its role in the past, the SSO has become not only SB's Public Relations managers, which is an appropriate routine bureaucratic function of theirs, but also, more intrusively, the filter for SB's public teachings, with a correspondingly important influence on his public image as a person and as a communicator. Although based on SB's message and ideas, the version of SB's Discourses which devotees finally get to read, study, discuss and quote nowadays is largely in the words and style chosen by the SSO editors. (See Chapter 2 for examples.)
There are two types of indicators which may shed a little more light on how far the SSO MAY control the development (as well as the administration) of the contemporary SB Mission:
- important new initiatives or changes of Mission policy like those already outlined in this chapter, and
- remarks by SB which seem to be triggered by his relationship with the SSO or to executive decisions or attitudes of the SSO leadership or collective body.
The first set of examples concerns changes in teachings.
Shirdi Sai (again)
The twenty year 'moratorium' in mentioning Shirdi Sai's name (and the reincarnation claim) in SB's Discourses, as I pointed out in Chapter 1, runs from roughly the end of 1967, the beginning of this new SSO-led expansion, until 1990 (with SB's first and later corrected 'new' data on Shirdi's early life). It was also around that time that Westerners were being attracted to India in larger numbers and that the decision was taken to make Education a bigger priority for SB's work. A sort of modernisation of the Mission - in which perhaps it was felt by the administrators that the Shirdi connection (which was not popular with devotees of Shirdi Baba) should be given a discreet rest. This is only a conjecture, but it is founded on the evidence already presented in Ch 1, Chapter 5, and in Part 1 of this chapter - and it would make perfect sense if it were true. Furthermore, it would also show that from the late 1960s on, in addition to its vital general administration role, the SSO was to have an important input in the development of the Mission, as well as a decisive influence on the final edited form of the translated Telugu Discourses.
The 5 Values
One of the best known SB emblems is the attractive mantra-like logo with the "Five Values" on it in Sanskrit, or in the national language of the devotee (e.g., Truth, Right Living, Peace, Love, and Non-violence). But in the early years of his Mission, although he made a few other separate mentions of the traditional Hindu concept of Ahimsa (Non-violence), SB used to refer to FOUR values only:
"The true culture of India is a structure that is built on four pillars - Sathya, Dharma, Shaanthi and Prema (Truth, Virtue, Peace and Love)." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 35:202)
What has come to be known as the fifth value (the one so favoured by SB's illustrious compatriot, Mahatma Gandhi), is Ahimsa (Non-Violence). This made a sudden appearance as the fifth value after the First All-India Conference, in November 1967, when SB had acquired his powerful team of SSO advisers and other associates. "People must become proficient in Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema and Ahimsa ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VII, 41:209) A coincidence? (And, in view of SB's persistent claims of omniscience, one is also left wondering why he didn't use all five values in his slogan from the very beginning.)
Strategic changes of direction
A major SSO-inspired change appears to be the post-1965 change of emphasis from traditional Hindu revival projects to massive education and welfare programmes which has already been outlined in Part 1 of this chapter.
Another important change of direction observable in SB's Discourses since about 1970 is the new and increasingly vigorous emphasis in SB's Discourses on the teachings and career of Jesus Christ at Christmas time. (See also Chapter 5 for full details, especially of contradictions, and Part 1 of this chapter.) This might have been inspired by SSO strategic advice or initiatives following the mid-1960s boom in foreign interest in Indian gurus. Whether this was the reason or not, the new interest in Christ probably enhanced and accelerated 'Western' interest in SB.
One possible reference is in the Discourse given on 23 December 1971 (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, 35:239) where SB gives results of the Madras Conference and explains in extended detail the importance and nature of some of the Conference decisions. Towards the end of the Discourse, SB mentions the example of Jesus realising the three stages of his true identity and Mission: as Messenger, then as the Son and finally, I and my Father are One.
SB then gives us a glimpse of the discussion leading up to this proposed new ecumenical direction. "The Sathya Sai Organisation has to seek out chances of studying and substantiating these basic similarities and promote love and mutual cooperation." Phraseology like that points strongly at a bureaucratic origin to this initiative. On the following Christmas day (1972), SB was to deliver a long and detailed reference to Jesus Christ, the first of many.
Bear in mind also that within a few months, the first Summer Course would be inaugurated (almost certainly initiated and planned by SB's indispensable aid and mentor, Dr. Gokak, the ex-Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University, and possibly also by Professor Kasturi and others in the SSO).
In areas where SB is known to be naive, for example, finance and PR, the SSO almost sidesteps him, or carries on regardless, leaving him to carry on with his essential day to day public contact and teaching.
SB is renowned for his expressed lack of interest in money. Some of his senior collaborators (notably Colonel Joga Rao and General Bose) are on record as despairing at SB's dismissive attitudes to the importance of money-gathering. In the past, open collection or soliciting of money at bhajan and other Organisation meetings all over the world was forbidden. It was also a very positive indication to new (and old) devotees of the purity of the Mission and of one of the features which distinguished it from cults. And yet one of the most vital functions of the SSO is to gather, manage and disburse the millions of dollars which the Organisation attracts or earns. This is one area where the SSO logically HAS to impose its will, for the whole enterprise and its charities to survive! What is instructive in trying to construct a picture of the relationship and relative influence of the SSO and SB are their contrasting comments on this vital subject. For example:
SB's comments are sometimes naive:
"Where money is calculated and garnered, and exhibited to demonstrate one's achievements, I will not be present. I come only where sincerity, faith and surrender are valued." (Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 35:210)
After perusing some SSO reports, SB expressed his displeasure about the funding recommendations:
"I must say that your suggestions regarding the raising of funds were uniformly bad. On this point all of you are of one mind and that is not satisfactory. ... I do not like your going about collecting funds, or raising donations. I assure you that funds will come, provided you sincerely pray for every worthy cause. Have that faith; and watch the funds flow in." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 44:236)
"Fund collecting is as much opposed to this movement as fire is to water." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VII, 5:34)
Here, SB disapproves of the the idea of a Treasurer: "Money and the ways in which men run after it have caused chaos in the world. ... For special purposes and on special occasions, funds are collected only from Members of the Samithi. This has been the rule from the very beginning; it is the very basis of this Org." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 33:206)
The following comment also shows SB to be unrealistic about funding and finances (especially for the expensive displays on major festivities and events):
He maintains that even the 3rd World Conference didn't need funds. "The truth is that not a single naiya paise was collected as donation." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XIV, 56:362)
On the other hand, as a further puzzling example of SB's volatility on many topics and occasions, he praises and bestows lavish gifts and trophies on millionaire devotee-donors and benefactors like the Kamanis, the Chettiars, and the Americans, Tigrett, Sinclair, etc.
Meanwhile, the relevant departments of the SSO quietly go about their daily business of fund-raising and financial management of the huge SB empire, effectively - and realistically - over-ruling SB (who once, in a defensive speech in 1993, defended them and the Trust by saying that he countersigned ALL cheques).
Executive decisions and reactions by SB
In recent years, as the SB Mission grew so complex and prosperous, both the SSO and the Trust have grown enormously in importance and influence. Between them they preside over the huge ashram complex including a busy publishing venture for the dissemination of SB's teachings and the multiple education and welfare projects supported by the SSO. With these heavy responsibilities, and with huge donations and other income and assets, the SSO is now a major international corporation. This important fact must certainly have some repercussions on the relationship between the Organisation and its hierarchy and SB himself as he enters his declining years.
Occasional sharp (sometimes enigmatic) remarks by SB (like the following early one) can give an idea that he is displeased (and irritated) with the SSO over some action, issue or decision of theirs but impotent to do anything about it.
"This Organisation has spread far and wide, but I must say that it has drifted away from the purpose for which it was started. It has not resulted in the least benefit." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 32:195)
Then there is also some circumstantial evidence that the SSO, more and more as their organisational problems become more complex and SB himself grows older, sidelines SB's instructions or preferences when these seem to be out of touch with contemporary realities. The best of these cases are:
"The world council will cease from today." (21-11-87, Sathya Sai Speaks, XX, 30:254) This was another of SB=s sudden public bombshells. The vital Council did disband, as ordered, but not for long. Presumably, the SSO took over, or quietly persuaded SB that this was not a wise move.
A much more recent, blatant, and much publicised case of SB's public pronouncements being over-ruled by his associates is the following one (October 1999) where SB is reacting angrily to reports of media and Internet postings critical of him and the SSO. In the edited translated version of this Discourse (www.eaisai.com/baba), the references to the Internet are:
"Some of the elders sitting in the Verandah are indulging in gossip. It is finding its way into the internet. Anyone found talking in the Verandah should be sent out immediately, whosoever it may be. All those who give misleading information about what Swami tells them in the interview room should also be thrown out." and:
"Swami has nothing to do with internet. Not only now, even in future also. You should not indulge in such wrong activities." [Bold type added.]
Within days of these angry remarks, the flourishing 5-year old Internet Discussion Group for devotees, SaiNET (incorporating SaiDISC and SaiNEWS) obediently suspended its operations and then voluntarily closed down in rapid devotee deference to SB. It was reconstituted soon afterwards by the ever-vigilant 'Bon Giovanni' with stricter membership rules, and a consequently smaller number of members, as a Yahoo Club or Group, which continues in its cosy secret conclave to this day.
The SSO, however, maintained a more pragmatic course. It had set up its official Internet website (www.sathyasai.org) on 24 April 1999 and SB's outburst seems not to have had any effect on it. Moreover, far from boycotting the Internet, the SSO set up a large second website in 2001 (www.srisathyasai.org.in), aimed especially at the younger generation, with the following introduction:
"With the Divine Blessings and Inspiration of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, we are glad to announce the inauguration and launch of www.srisathyasai.org.in for access by the devotees."
So much for SB's command: "not ever"!
Post-2000 - The SSO under fire and in damage control
The current position (in 2002) is that SB and the SSO have been rocked and buffeted by so many allegations and revelations that the Public Relations people in the SSO have been extremely busy denouncing "gossip and malicious rumours" about SB (and the SSO). This crude terminology, like other ridiculous defensive statements that the criticism is organised, or inspired, by rival religions, suggests that the SSO (and a handful of clumsy over-zealous amateur propagandist devotees) are dangerously underestimating the extent and nature of criticism and accusations against their master and themselves!
In their attempts to rally general worldwide support for SB, NOT as God (N.B.), but simply as an important "spiritual master" with an ecumenical concept of religion, simple but effective spiritual teachings, and an impressive track record for large-scale charitable works in the areas of education, health and social welfare. A paragon of virtue and excellence, in other words - the sort of hype expected of a any political PR department worth its salt (and high expenditure). Because of this hope for worldwide media exposure, where SB's direct 'Divine' claims could sound very provocative, and might even turn out to be counter-productive, these once familiar and very exclusive claims seem to be increasingly more muted in public now, quite possibly on the advice of the SSO "spin doctors".
(More to come)
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