Recent devotee books about Sathya Sai Baba
Part 1. Accounts by early devotees
Brian Steel December 2008
Copyright © Brian Steel 2008
The flow of published reminiscences and commentaries by early devotees of Sathya Sai Baba continues unabated.
The devotee research team headed by R. Padmanaban (SSB’s ex-photographer and CEO of Sai Towers until 2002 at least) recorded many interviews with early devotees of Sathya Sai Baba during their years of research for the proposed 6 or 7 volumes of Love is My Form (LIMF, 2000). (The ambitious project was abruptly abandoned after this first volume. For background information, see Part 2, under Narasimha Murthy.) Some of these same elderly devotees who had published their memoirs in South Indian languages were also encouraged to have them translated into English for a wider readership. Since 1999 a number of these translated accounts have appeared.
Some, like the 400-page English translation of Vijayakumari’s first book mentioned below, are quite evocative and useful as supplements to flesh out the Kasturi account of the early years with eye-witness impressions and anecdotes.
Vijayakumari, Smt., Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. Other than You Refuge is There None, Chennai, [n.p.], 1999. [Available from Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust]
On the other hand, the recent translation of this octogenarian lady’s memoir, With Divine to Divinity. A Pilgrimage to Badri with Bhagwan Sai Baba (self-published, possibly by her family), offers her diary for the historic 1961 Sathya Sai Baba excursion to the Himalayas, already highlighted by Kasturi for its (bold) claims of miraculous materialisations and reconsecrations of ancient Lingams (like the Netralingam), but the new contribution adds nothing to Kasturi’s account and is full of gushing hagiography and eulogy.
Also worth scouring for details is the memoir by Karunamba Ramamurthy (“Kannamma”), Sri Sathya Sai Anandadayi. Journey with Sai, Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust, 2002 [The publication of the 3rd edition in 2004 shows how avidly devotees receive such distant reminiscences of what must seem a Golden Age with daily close contact with young Sathya Sai.]
Kannamma first met Sathya Sai Baba with her husband in 1946. Her mother was also a devotee. As with Vijayakumari and one or two other early devotees, SSB’s contacts with the whole family were very close and caring (although one of the interesting aspects is the occasional portrayal of the sterner side of the young guru). This belated translation of the author’s earlier work in Kannada is based on “Kannamma’s” diaries (up to 1970) and includes details of conversations with SSB.
Leela, M.L., Lokanatha Sai, Chennai, Sri Sathya Sai Mandali Trust, .
Another important but belated account of the early years of Sathya Sai Baba’s Mission (the 1940s and 1950s) by an academic botanist who met Sathya Sai Baba as a young girl and whose family enjoyed very close contact with him on their ashram stays and his visits to Madras. The author offers new descriptions of daily life with the young and adored guru and of miracles witnessed during these visits. (One or two dates offered are erroneous.)
Two other earlier books, translated and published in recent years by Sai Towers, are:
R. Balapattabi, Nectarine Leelas of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, translated from Tamil by O.P.Vidyakar, Puttaparthi, Sai Towers Publishing. [The Tamil original is Sri Sai Leelamrutam, Madurai, S.B. Rajaram, ?1993.]
This book is a standard devotee account of contact and interaction with SSB. A businessman who has been married for eighteen years and is childless is encouraged by his wife to meet Sathya Sai Baba in April 1944. (It is noteworthy that, like many other would-be or soon-to-be devotees – like Kasturi, Bhagavantham and Gokak – Balapattabi was seeking help.) He became a firm devotee. The narration alternates between a routine description of darshans and ashram life, alleged miracles witnessed or heard of as well as the charting of the strong ups and downs of the author’s business life (1944-1969). A daughter was eventually born six years later, in 1950.
V. C. Kondappa, Sai’s Story, as revealed by Sathya Sai to His Teacher, translated from Telugu by Pathakunta Obula Reddy, Kadugudi, Bangalore, Sai Towers Publishing, 2004. (There is a 2-page Foreword by SSB’s former English teacher, B. Subbannachar.)
According to LIMF, Vol 1(Sai Towers, 2000, pp. 199-203), this slim booklet of 30 pages is the translation of a 1944 original in Telugu, Sri Sayeeshuni Charitra (‘The Life Story of Lord Sai’), Dharmavaram, [n.p.],1944. For a review by R. Padmanaban, the former CEO of Sai Towers, see http://puttaparthi.info/parthi/saibaba/faces/faces1.asp. Or: www.saibaba.ws/articles/kondappa.htm
Having finally acquired this elusive booklet, written mainly by Sathya Narayana’s ex-teacher at Uravakonda (1943), it is difficult to assess its value or to answer the questions it raises without access to the Telugu original and a translator. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this preliminary commentary, I am assuming that it is a faithful translation and that it was published in 1944. (There is a photocopy of the original Telugu cover on p. 199 of LIMF.)
On the final page of this book (p. 22), a Publisher’s Note (possibly by Padmanaban), claims this to be the first book ever written about Sathya Sai Baba (which seems highly plausible), and (somewhat more boldly) that it is “authentic proof ” that Sathya Sai Baba is the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba because on the “night he called his teacher” he “revealed to him that he was Shirdi Sai Baba” [in a vision]. In a (not entirely lucid) Foreword, T. Subbannachar, the second teacher present at the 1944 interview in Puttaparthi, confides that when Sathya Narayana was his student (for English, in Bukkapatnam, therefore in 1940-1941), he had found him simple and unostentatious. Later he was surprised to hear of “His devotion to Shri Shirdi Sai Baba and His complete transformation” and of him “working miracles!” Subbannachar goes on to say that SSB was then in Uravakonda and that he (Subbannachar) was very eager to meet him. Presumably, he did not because he later states that one day [in 1944] Kondappa and he “went to Puttaparthi to have a darshan of this great Bhakta”. In other words, these two ex-teachers of Sathya Narayana Raju only went to see him after he had begun his Mission in mid-1943 and was back in Puttaparthi. And one of them (Subbannachar) was genuinely astonished at the change in Sathya Narayana in the two year period since he had taught him: “Quite to our wonderment, this Mad Boy of Puttaparthi [sic] revealed to us that He was none other than Sri Baba of Shirdi. He also asked us to stay there alone for the night, when He would narrate His life history.” In addition, “We saw Sri Shirdi Sai Himself with our physical eyes: in human form.”
The main interest of this early booklet is Kondappa’s ‘Sai’s Story’ (pp. 1-9), which offers six detailed pages of (alleged) early Shirdi biography and two pages of basic early biography of Sathya as Shirdi’s reincarnation. (Padmanaban states that Kasturi acknowledged a heavy debt to this slim account, which, if true, merely underlines the paucity of information on which Kasturi based his first biographical volume.)
Further comparative studies of the booklet are obviously necessary because pages 1 to 5 give basically the same type of details about Shirdi’s early life which SSB only announced (possibly to his associates) much later (as recounted – without references – by Gokak in 1975, pp. 61-65 and Fanibunda in 1976, pp. 1-2) and then re-told the story, as if it was a new revelation, in his famous 1990 Discourse about Shirdi. A comparative study of these versions will reveal interesting discrepancies.
For example, Karunamba Ramamurthy specifically reports some of those same details as being told to a group of devotees, including herself, in the late 1940s:
"One evening Swami had taken us to the riverbed. He gave us some glimpses of the life of Sri Shirdi Sai Baba ..." (Ramamurthy, pp. 20-22).
A summary: Shiva and Parvathi appear to Shirdi’s mother-to-be, Devagiriamma, subject her to a moral test and finally grant her the boon of the two children she had prayed for, adding the bonus of a third, who would be Lord Ishwara himself. After this has all come to pass, Devagiriamma, having abandoned her children and her house to follow her husband, gives birth (to Shirdi Sai) and then abandons the baby to follow the husband (‘Gangadhara’ in this version) into a permanent spiritual retreat. A childless Fakir finds the baby and he and his wife adopt him for twelve years. He eventually turns up in Shirdi at the age of sixteen.
Because of important discrepancies in the versions of the stories (a perennial problem in SSB research), it is difficult to know what to make of all this and we are left with the further question of why, after the written revelations by Gokak and Fanibunda in the mid-1970s, another 15 years were to elapse before the elements of this story were publicly revealed, as news, by SSB in 1990 (and then contradicted in a 1992 discourse). To my knowledge no devotee or academic has ever seen fit to question any of this. An interesting and not unimportant historical side isssue is that many of these alleged biographical details, asserted only by Sathya Sai Baba, are not endorsed by the Shirdi Sai Association or the bulk of Shirdi Sai Baba followers. Another issue is the failure to publish a translation of the historical 1944 booklet for sixty years, and then only by the private Sai Towers company rather than the official Sri Sathya Sai Booka and Publications Trust. As a speculation, could it have been because the translation had been commissioned as part of the efficient LIMF research project (already unexpectedly abandoned long before the translation was published) and seemed too good to waste? It is worth reminding the reader that, on the tangible evidence of the first (and, alas!, only) volume of LIMF, R. Padmanaban’s ambitious 6-volume LIMF project was far better researched than officially sponsored biographies like Kasturi’s four volumes of rank hagiography and the two succeeding (and ‘safe’) hagiographical volumes which have now been produced (faute de mieux) by the SSSBPT, with at least another two in preparation. (See the forthcoming Part 2 of this series for further comment on the bland Volumes 5 and 6 of Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram.) One unavoidable final question: if this book was an important landmark in the Sathya Sai Baba story, as it surely was at the time, why is it (and Love is My Form) not stocked by the large official Sathya Sai Organisation Bookshops in UK, USA or Canada? More food for thought.
Following ‘Sai’s Story’ (which is the main part of the book) is a Prayer (p. 10), and ‘Sri Sai Sathakamu’ (pp. 11-21). The latter is a series of 2- and 3-line impassioned entreaties for grace and praises of both Sai Babas, with allusions to their similarities and episodes from their different physical lives (Dwarakamai: ash, healing miracles; Puttaparthi: ash, healing miracles, ‘scorpion’, etc.)
Another ‘old timer’ devotee is octogenarian Indulal Shah, until a few years ago the President of the Sathya Sai Organisation and the economic éminence grise behind Sathya Sai Baba and his Organisation since the mid-1960s. Shah’s fifth book about Sathya Sai is Reprogramming our Spiritual Sadhana (Mumbai, Sarla Charity Trust, 2002), a hardback published by his charitable trust. Although it is only an updated repeat of the previous four books, it offers a convenient reference source for following his career with Sathya Sai Baba and for getting an impression of the relationship between the two men as well as an idea of Shah’s contribution to the success of the Mission and of the Sathya Sai Organisation, in which he has been so closely involved for over 40 years. (One of Shah’s more intriguing reminiscences reveals that he had been going on pilgrimage visits to Shirdi since 1954, almost a decade before he met Sathya Sai Baba. He does not say whether he still visits the Shirdi Temple.)
The late Pedda Bottu (the nickname of Sharada Devi, who had been a devotee of Shirdi Sai and claims to have met Sathya Sai Baba in 1940 in Uravakonda), offers her basic story in From Shirdi Sai to Sathya Sai, Prasanthi Nilayam, ?1985. [Translated from the Telugu original, Sriya Charitra, 1985] For details, see Love is My Form, pp. 155-156.
Seventeen years after her death, her translated Autobiography was published in 2003 and republished in 2005. It is on sale by an ex-Sathya Sai Baba College student in Puttaparthi. Since this work deals in part with matters which used to be common devotee gossip in the ashram, and which have been written about by others, it is difficult to attribute any more value to her testimony than to that of other devotees who have repeated the same unreliable stories, like the linking of the Sathya Sai Baba birth with Aurobindo’s alleged acknowledgement on the following day, 24 November (p. 262) or the regurgitation of the alleged Bible Prediction of SSB”s ‘Advent’ (p. 269) or the preposterous Irani Ma story of the Mehdi Moud prophecy about SSB (270-275). So much of the SSB literature is of this repetitive sort. It appears that devotees never tire of reading the same old regurgitated unsupported assertions and miracle stories.
Other early reminiscences also merely repeat old miracle stories, like the Sai Towers 1995 reissue of Nagamani Purnaiya’s 1976 simple, reference-free memoir, The Divine Leelas of Sri Satya Sai Baba.
Although not yet a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba, L. K. Advani, the prominent octogenarian BJP politician and ex-Minister who, as the successor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee as leader of the party, could become Prime Minister of India after next year’s elections, has already been reported as visiting Sathya Sai Baba in his ashram in November to pay his respects (following a similar flying courtesy visit to Tirupati). Interestingly, in his recently published 900+ page autobiography, My Country, My Life , there is a single mention of Sathya Sai Baba in the Index. On page 260, Advani tells an anecdote about being imprisoned for a long time during the ‘Emergency’. At a late stage, his wife went to have darshan at SSB’s ashram. There the guru confidently told her that her husband would soon be released. This (safe?) prediction earns SSB kudos and publicity as a very famous guru in a four-line footnote in Advani’s bestseller.
(Part 2 of this bibliographical commentary is also available.)
Part 3 of the Annotated Bibliography on Sathya Sai Baba
Other research articles are available on Brian Steel's Sathya Sai Baba Page.