Recent books about Sathya Sai Baba
Part 2. Different Types of Hagiography
Brian Steel December 2008
Copyright © Brian Steel 2008
(These two short articles are supplements to Part 3 of my Bibliography about Sathya Sai Baba.)
During his 65-year Mission, Sathya Sai Baba has occasionally seen fit to make public assertions that he does not need publicity:
“I do not need any publicity, nor does any other manifestation of the Lord. […]” “When you start publicity you descend to the level of those who compete in collecting clientele, decrying others and extolling themselves” (Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 35:210, 15-10-1964).
“I do not want the impression to gain ground that I desire this Name and this Form to be publicised. I have not come to set afoot a new cult …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 19: 95-96, 17-5-1968)
Until recent years his devotees used to repeat this claim and to respect it by avoiding outside (commercial) publicity. However, the most cursory study of the extraordinary popularity harvested by Sathya Sai Baba over 60 years reveals quite clearly that from the moment of his Declaration that he was Shirdi Sai Baba (in 1943), he has been a highly effective self-publicist. His promotion of himself and his allegedly divine Mission have been constant (albeit muted in some periods). During this long period of time, as a reward for his personal qualities, charm and energy, he has also been very extensively publicised by his devotees, both by word of mouth and in print, in many languages, especially in the global lingua franca, English. These endless literary and other promotional activities of SSB’s associates, officials, devotees and aficionados, eager to spread the Word of their God, must be responsible for at least fifty percent of SSB’s extraordinary success since 1943. The harnessing of this collective devotional energy is one of the major defining characteristics and achievements of the spiritual movement led and inspired by Sathya Sai Baba. The continual automatic acceptance and repetition of all SSB’s pronouncements as indisputable truths has had a very strong conditioning effect on devotees, like self-induced cultic brainwashing.
Although, during the last decade, other more powerful forms of publicity have arisen as the Internet pervades our lives and although the SSO has enthusiastically grasped these new opportunities for the worldwide promotion of Sathya Sai Baba, many of his devotees do not have access to computers or the Internet. Therefore, the humble written and printed word continues to be a – if not the – major factor in the dissemination of information about SSB and his teaching, as it has been for decades (and especially for attracting new devotees from outside India between 1965 and 2000). For forty years, the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust (SSSBPT: www.sssbpt.org), as the publishing arm of the Sathya Sai Organisation, has been the major publisher of books about SSB, as well as the monthly devotee magazine, Sanathana Sarathi. Run largely by volunteers and benefitting from a huge India- and world-wide network of SSO book centres, the SSSBPT has become a large and profitable commercial organisation (in spite of the rock-bottom prices of its books and other publications). (Additional special characteristics of the SSB vast literature are that most books about SSB are published outside the auspices of the SSO; many are self-published; very few SSB books are to be seen in general bookshops.)
Part 1 of this book commentary dealt with a unique group of printed reminiscences by early devotees of Sathya Sai Baba which have been become available in the past ten years, largely through the enthusiasm of R. Padmanaban, the coordinator of the abandoned Love is My Form biographical research project. Moving closer to the present, several recent books about Sathya Sai Baba have been selected for comment because, in my view, they reflect the varied types (and extraordinary volume) of publicity for Sathya Sai Baba’s successful career provided by the Sathya Sai Organisation, Sathya Sai Baba’s associates, spokespersons, devotees and sympathisers. Between them, these groups have produced many hundreds of books and booklets (in many languages) in the service of their guru.
(Note: I have classified the devotee and apologist literature in some detail in my annotated Bibliography, Part 3.)
This hagiographical or apologetic dissemination of the Sai Story has worked on several levels. Since the 1950s, most prominent promoters and spokespersons are those devotees who also function as SSB’s very close local associates (and in some ways mentors), like Kasturi, Gokak (who was instrumental in setting up the Summer Schools and putting SSB’s educational ideas “on the map” as well as acting as ambassador to USA at a crucial moment of growth), Bhagavantam, Shah, Narasimhan and more recently, Anil Kumar. Then come many other devotee writers and spokespersons with close access to SSB, whether Indians (both resident in India and expatriate) or non-Indian foreigners, like Hislop, Murphet, Sandweiss, Krystal, Jagadesan, etc. Next comes the category of devotee-writers (some of them office-bearers in overseas Sathya Sai Organisations and Centres) who have had interviews and other contacts with SSB. Then, also in different groups, come all those other devotees who choose to write or talk about Sathya Sai Baba and his Mission. Finally, a few other books by non-devotees may, consciously or unconsciously, follow the official SSB story closely enough to be considered apologetic in nature or may contain comments or interpretations of an apologetic nature. (See the Appendix.)
1. An official Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trustpublication
Narasimha Murthy, B. N., Sathyam Sivam Sundaram, Volume 6. Life Story of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 1986-1993, Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT, 2007. (Illustrated, 500 pages. $2)
A year after the surprising collapse of the ambitious Sai Towers 6-volume biographical project in 2002 (see references to Love is My Form in other articles), the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust was entrusted with the task of completing Kasturi’s famous 4-volume hagiography, Sathyam Sivam Sundaram. B.N. Narasimha Murthy was selected to undertake the task under the guidance of three prominent members of the SSO. In 2005, twenty five years after Kasturi’s death, the officially compiled surrogate fifth volume was added. It dealt, in the approved hagiographical style, with the years 1980 to1986.
The 500 pages of this sixth volume (1986-1993) are a record of the most materially successful years of SSB’s Mission, particularly in the form of numbers of international devotees, receipt of donations from very wealthy Indians and foreigners and the consequent increase in educational and health benefactions and in large (often exotic) edifices in Puttaparthi, Prasanthi Nilayam and near Whitefield. The heavy tome contains numerous colour photos, reproductions of handwritten letters to devotees and, reminiscent of the Kasturi style, a sprinkling of alleged miracles, materialisations and rescues, including two claimed resurrections (Brigadier Bose, during a Discourse – “ Bose died in the Vijayadashami day last year and I brought him back to life.” (16 March 1989) – and the grandson of the much-travelled SSB spokesman, Dr Sara Pavan) and a miraculous rescue from drowning.
The emphasis of this volume is on the immense material progress and on a number of prominent and usually wealthy devotees, in India and other countries who had a special part in helping Sathya Sai Baba to achieve this spectacular economic success. Much of it is, in effect, a devotees’ Who’s Who of that period. Little is said about ordinary devotees, especially about the rapid international expansion during those years, but some of the persons selected for description are overseas celebrity devotees: Isaac Tigrett and Hal Honig from USA, John Behner (an industialist from El Salvador), James Sinclair (the Canadian millionaire benefactor), Dr Art-Ong Jumsai from Thailand. Also two prominent US devotees (and spokespersons) and their alleged rescues from hijacks by Sathya Sai Baba: Dr Michael Goldstein (1986) and twelve years earlier, Phyllis Krystal.
The expansion of the Kodaikanal summer ashram and school, Sai Sruti, takes up 50 pages.
Tribute is paid to Professor N. Kasturi for his final years and to his deputy and successor, the distinguished journalist and editor, V.K. Narasimhan, who took over as chief associate, mentor, and as editor of the magazine Sanathana Sarathi.
An exaggerated claim: “A few hundred million … are called to recognise and follow Him ...” (p.210).
A sensible (and untypically self-deprecatory) warning: “Beware of worshipping My physical form or any other form as the only form of God. God is the Self in everyone.” (p. 254 – from 1973)
The impressive Super Specialty Hospital planning and building saga (pp. 350-), starring Tigrett and Keith Critchlow, with Indian President Narasimha Rao present at the inauguration in November 1991.
The final pages (447-457) are taken up with a useful Chronology of events (excluding the June 1993 killings in the ashram).
Presumably a further 8 or 10 years will be covered in Volume 7 of this ongoing hagiography.
2. An Official Compilation
Sathya Sai Baba, His Story as Told by Himself (Pertaining to His Younger Days). A Compilation from the Divine Discourses of BhagawanSri Sathya Sai Baba., Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT, 2005. (November)
Issued in commemoration of SSB’s 80 th birthday, this is a collection of extracts from some of the self-promotional stories SSB has told (and, in some cases, re-told in differing versions) about his childhood and youth, mainly about his schooldays. On sale at the usual SSSBPT bargain price of $1, it is presumably intended to be an inspirational reference work for devotees, the 600 pages of Love is My Form (Volume 1) would be a much more useful (albeit far more expensive) source of data and impressions about this early mythical period.
Dazzled by blind faith and hagiographical priorities, the official compilers have once again shown themselves to be impervious to the many glaring absurdities and discrepancies contained in SSB’s highly capricious stories. Some of the stories chosen to show SSB’s powers and “cuteness”, in fact reveal him and his credibility in a less than favourable light, for example the boast about cheating in an examination (pp. 48-50), the fragment of SSB’s muddled claims regarding meetings with the Polish psychic performer Wolf Messing (pp. 60-65) and the Jack and Jill story. In the latter, SSB claims that two of his dogs (Lilly and Billy) had puppies (Jack and Jill). “They were none other than Ramesh and Suresh, who were My classmates earlier. Unable to bear My separatation, they died and were reborn as these puppies to live in My presence” (p.125). Those classmates were the same for whom he claims to have cheated in a school examination. Noticeable for its absence from this collection is SSB’s quite preposterous boast that he obtained his driving licence at the age of nine and proceeded to drive from Puttaparthi to Madras in HALF the usual time. (Incidentally, on page 152, the compilers inadvertently reveal SSB as saying in another story that “In those days there were no motorable roads to Puttaparthi.”) (See Stories and Claims.)
Hagiographical themes familiar to devotees since Kasturi’s biography are represented in this volume by references to Easwaramma and the Flash of Light entering her womb, the claimed Immaculate Conception (p. 174), SSB’s precociousness and leadership as a child and teenager, especially in leading bhajan singing and theatrical performances, details about his spiritual grandfather, Kondama Raju – who promoted his Divine nature in the villager and whose lunches Sathya prepared – and his stern, disapproving elder brother, Seshama (see p. 24 for the latter’s denial of his brother’s Divinity).
Other claims noticed:
Boasts: Chapter 17: ‘I Myself selected my parents”.
He has never ‘touched sweet’or fruit or milk or curd (p. 19).
He was a better cook than Easwaramma or his sister Venkamma (p. 21).
At Higher Elementary School in Bukkapatnam, Sathya Narayana ran back to Puttaparthi to serve lunch to his grandfather (Kondama) and then ran back for afternoon school (p. 17).
Seshama beat him and made his hand swell. Next day one of Seshama’s sons died (p. 62).
1. Since about 2000, the SSSBPT has begun to include publication dates in its books. This is a welcome but very belated recognition of normal publishing procedures. However, with this compilation, the publishing arm of the Sathya Sai Organisation continues its wayward habit of being miserly with exact Discourse references. In the case of this book, not a single date or discourse reference is given, making it almost impossible to check which versions of some of the stories are being quoted. (For what it is worth, this reader’s overall impression is that the compilers have either produced new composite versions of familiar stories or have re-edited original translation notes or the cassettes containing the Telugu original versions.)
2. On the cover is a copy of a photograph (c1943) of young Sathya Narayana dressed in a white tunic and surrounded by a half halo, with a small picture of Shirdi Sai Baba over the heart area – the image that did not appear on the Love is My Form (Volume1) copy of the photo.
3. Close Associate and Spokesperson: Anil Kumar Kamaraju
Kumar Kamaraju, Anil, Rays of Radiance, Adoration, Illumination. SAI, Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT, 2005.
Currently Kumar is Sathya Sai Baba’s main public spokesman and also his interpreter. Like Kasturi long before him, Kumar is totally subservient to SSB and in a self-deprecatory way, happily allows himself to seem stupid by comparison with his ‘divine’ Master. His public-speaking gifts and frequent use of humour make him extremely popular with ashram audiences, students and devotees. In the recent ‘troubled’ years, he has gained fame as a roving ambassador, touring overseas and giving morale-boosting addresses at Sathya Sai Organisation Centres and Conferences, especially in Canada. Several DVDS of his Talks are advertised by the SSO and he has his own website. In short (like a substantial rollcall of names like Kasturi, Gokak, Bhagavantam, Hislop, Sandweiss, Krystal, Jegadeesan, etc.), and with SSB’s total acquiescence, Anil Kumar has become yet another prominent and influential ‘Sai’ personality in the eyes of devotees because of his total devotion and energetic promotion of SSB. His website is probably the most popular of all SSB commentators, given his appreciative audiences of both local students and overseas devotees.
It was right-hand man Kumar who was apparently chosen in October 2007 by a frail SSB to convey to darshan attendees the rash promise or prediction that Sathya Sai Baba would be appearing on the Moon that evening, visible from the Puttaparthi Airport. The ensuing fiasco has been well reported by Barry Pittard and Robert Priddy on their well known blogspots. (For some other surprising insights into Kumar’s uninhibited promotion of Sathya Sai Baba, see The Latest Example of His Master’s Voice.)
The US-based translators’ Introduction indicates that this is a translation of Kumar’s Telugu Kantirekhalu, which offers excerpts from Kumar’s conversations with SSB in Prasanthi, Kodaikanal and Alike between 2000 and 2004. It is a typical compilation of Kumar’s populist style of sycophantic eulogies and rampant proselytism, with much humour and some exaggeration thrown in, gives the impression that he is even more spontaneous to local Telugu audiences, as no doubt SSB is also. Some samples:
Preface, p. vii:
“… Sai literature is growing exponentially through the print and electronic media. Swami’s Divine Discourses, once accessible to devotees only in Prasanth Nilayam or Whitefield are available to spiritual aspirants everywhere through translation in all the languages of the world.” [They have been available, via the SSSBPT and SSO Centres, for many years, but not in ALL languages.]
He confides the not unimportant biographical point that SSB’s chats very often with students and college staff after darshans (which has always provided his listeners, especially close aides like Kumar with indirect information for sharing with the wider public; this, as can be seen in his books and on his website, he does with great gusto). His Internet talks are just as revealing (and sometimes even appear indiscreet).
Of interest for Prasanthi-watchers are the interviews with devotees from Venezuela, Brazil, Slovenia and Croatia (which now seem to supply more visitors than the original group of ‘anglo’ countries and Western Europe).
(p. 171) In one of his typically ‘leading’ conversations with SSB, at Christmas, Kumar says: “Swami! We too wish to sing Christmas carols. Kindly permit us.” Later: “Swami! It seems that in those days, Jesus visited India also, didn’t He?” “Yes, yes. In those days, except for some trade regulations, there were no restrictions like passports and visas. Jesus went around Kashmir. He declared that Man is Divine. He affirmed in His own style that the individual soul is the Supreme Soul, and that the Supreme Soul is the individual soul. He asserted that all men are embodiments of the Divine.”
SSB then switches abruptly to the [distant] shores of Galilee to enlarge on his point.
4. A contribution from a prominent member of the highly influential US SSO
Gries, Elaine W.,Essence of Divinity, Ithaca, NY, Santhi Publishers, 2003. [self-published]
Elaine Gries, a computer scientist by training, is a longstanding active American devotee and SSO office-holder. Together with her husband, Professor David Gries, who has been an IT consultant to the SSO for many years and a high office-holder in the US SSO, she has been a prominent devotee of Sathya Sai Baba for thirty years. Finally she decided to share her decades of experiences with SSB in order to help others find their spiritual path. The result is a standard hagiographical volume of personal experiences as a devotee, a description of SSB’s charitable and educational enterprises and a didactic compilation of SSB’s (‘omniscient’) Discourse teachings on a variety of topics, like Health Issues, Women and Spirituality, Exemplary Women, Science and Spirituality, Historical Figures, etc.
The most familiar items are Chapter 3, ‘Who is Sathya Sai Baba?’, which reads like a personalised and expanded version of a Sathya Sai Organisation brochure and Chapter 9, which is devoted to an uncritical repetition of some of Sathya Sai Baba’s idiosyncratic ideas and assertions about ‘Our Jesus’ (pp.119-138). Here is Gries’s confident recommendation of the value of SSB’s contributions to Christian theology: “Sai Baba’s statements, pieced together, form an illiuminating narrative of some of the major events uin Jesus’s life, from birth to crucifixion, incluging the three broad stages of Jesus’s spiritual development” (p. 123). (An idea of the broader and more ‘original’ range of information and interpretations Sathya Sai Baba used to introduce into his annual Christmas lectures on Jesus (since about 1970, when Discourse mentions of Shirdi Sai Baba disappeared for many years) can be seen in this critical article.)
The danger of repeating Sathya Sai Baba’s stories uncritically is well illustrated on page 178, where the author ingenuously repeats one of SSB’s many factual errors. In a list of SSB’s pronouncements on prominent scientists in history, she quotes his mention of “Kirl” (in his Discourse of 22 November 1980) in the (equally fact-challenged) anecdote about Wolf Messing. The reference should have been to S. D. and / or V. K. Kirlian, the inventors of the special camera mentioned by Sathya Sai Baba.
The first four chapters give her commendably frank personal story of finding Sathya Sai Baba as her spiritual teacher, her slow but singleminded struggle (and its effect on the marriage) to persuade her reluctant computer-professor husband to see him as his spiritual teacher too. She (and he, on pp. 46-53) describes his initial embarrassment at her devotion for Sathya Sai Baba, in spite of him being involved from the early stages in computer consultancy work for Sathya Sai Baba and his schools and constant close contact with SSB. After many of these consultancy visits, and after preparing an Index of the first 15 volumes of SSB’s Discourses (Sathya Sai Speaks), David was finally able to acknowledge SSB as his teacher and in 1995 became his principal IT expert, a post which I believe he still holds today. If so, he must be a very busy man, because in the last few years, the Internet promotional platform for Sathya Sai Baba and his Mission has expanded massively to include the two principal Organisation websites plus separate websites (and satellite pages) for the Book Trust and Radio Sai Global Harmony.
(Note for Prasanthi Nilayam chroniclers: “In June 1995, during an interview, David asked permission to start an International Sai Organization website, and Sai Baba told him to do it. David asked Him to write “approved” in the proposal and sign it. Sai Baba responded, “This is heart to heart. I will instruct you, just do. I bless you for this work” (p. 26). (The concept of SSB instructing a top computer expert on website construction brings to mind the word “chutzpah”.)
Gries’s frankness in describing the strength of her devotion to Sathya Sai Baba (and its consequences) is quite brave. Since her situation (and that of her husband) possibly mirrors the experience of a number of other non-Indian and non-Hindu devotee couples, the account is of particular human interest. She is distressed that her husband was initially unable to share her faith and was embarrassed by it. “After eight years of nagging him, I gave up on David ever believing in Sai Baba …” (p. 15) For several years they both made annual visits to Puttaparthi (David to act as computer consultant and teacher at SSB’s Institute of Higher Learning. Elaine proudly announces that her husband was eventually won over to Sathya Sai Baba by 1988 and thereafter became President of the Northeast US SSO region and National Service Coordinator for USA.
In David Gries’s own words:
“We returned from that first trip to India to some difficult years. Elaine went to India in 1973, searching for a spiritual Master. I went to teach computer science and for the adventure. Elaine found what she was looking for; I found what she was looking for too, but it was not easy, and it took a long time” (p. 46).
“I didn’t mind her devotion, and I was passively interested, but I didn’t really believe. In fact, I was embarrassed that my wife thought that some Indian was an incarnation of God – what would my colleagues at work think?” (p. 47).
Like so many other foreigners, his conviction was greatly strengthened and enhanced by reading influential books by other devotees including Hislop. “These books had a deep effect on me, for so many different people were telling a consistent story that I couldn’t shrug off” (p. 49).
5. Devotees’ accounts
The majority of books about Sathya Sai Baba are by ‘ordinary’ devotees, anxious to share their story, their interpretation of SSB’s teachings, or their favourite quotations, with others. A subsection of these personal contributions are those which offer the devotee’s own selection of SSB’s statements, stories and teachings. The following recent compilation is a very specialised selection (and as in a chapter of Elaine Gries’s book), the preferred topic is Jesus Christ and the claimed “relationship” between him and Sathya Sai Baba, a theme which is frequently discussed by foreign devotees and which has increased Sathya Sai Baba’s popularity and status among many of them.
Miller, Debra and William (eds), Be Like Jesus. The Good News of Jesus in the Words of Sathya Sai Baba, Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT, 2005 [3 rd reprint 2007]
These extracts are mainly taken from Sathya Sai Speaks, and Summer Showers. To the editors’ credit they give detailed source references at the end of the book, thereby creating a precedent that the SSSBPT should adhere to from now on.
This is a 200-page officially published compilation by two foreign devotees, who have combed through SSB’s annual Christmas Discourse stories about Jesus Christ to compile chapters, like ‘The Coming of Jesus’ and ‘The Teachings of Jesus’, etc. For example, Chapter 5, on ‘Jesus’ Message Was Universal, for All of Humanity’, consists of ten pages. However, as the vital endnotes reveal (to those who consult such informative items), the chapter’s 66 consecutive, unannotated paragraphs are taken from 66 different Sathya Sai Baba sources, with separate paragraphs from different discourses remoulded by the compilers into an uninterrupted (but artificial) narrative, with subheadings. In spite of the brief introductory reference to “certain excerpts” and the source reference list at the end of the book, this gives readers the misleading impression that Sathya Sai Baba uttered each chapter as a Discourse, whereas the reality is that the paragraphs of the chapter have been selected from his Discourses and intelligently arranged by the compilers. So, yet again, Sathya Sai Baba acquires extra kudos thanks to the loving efforts of editors (or proxies). As a result, other devotee readers and writers will take the chapters as being SSB’s own work and they will become part of the extended SSB oeuvre.
The compilation is aimed primarily at SSB’s Christian devotees, who will probably be delighted with the homilies and their guru’s apparently encyclopedic knowledge and all these new ‘unknown facts’ about Jesus Christ. (In addition to the above problem presented by the hagiographical compilation, there is the perennial tantalising question of what SSB’s original Telugu words might have been and how these would translate into English – or any other language.)
At some stage, the hand of the censor (either that of the Millers or the SSSBPT) appears to have intervened because the embarrassing 1996 Christmas statements by SSB (excised from the official record) and the preposterous 1968 assertion (which appears in one of the four principal Discourses highlighted on the Sathya Sai Organisation website) that Jesus predicted the ‘Advent’ of “Ba-ba” by pointing at a sheep from the Cross. Nevertheless, the compilers naively include a full page devoted to John Hislop’s description and photographs of one of the most promoted yet totally controversial of SSB’s claimed miracles: the Crucifix allegedly materialised for Hislop by SSB from reconstituted pieces of the True Cross. (The text and pictures following page 113 are from from Hislop’s highly effective proselytising book, My Baba and I).
The last two devotee books linking SSB to Jesus Christ are (like other previous books and constant devotee discussion) the direct result of SSB’s annual Discourses on the subject as well as his specific claim to be God the Father (24-12-1972). For over thirty years, this major teaching and discourse topic has had an incalculable influence on the recruitment and retention of foreign devotees.
Non-devotee Christians are unlikely to come across these two devotee books linking SSB so persuasively with Jesus, but one wonders what they would make of the enterprise, especially if they were to see the idiosyncratic pieces of SSB’s spontaneous teachings about Jesus which have been left out of this volume. (See reference link under 4, above.)
6. New Age believers and practitioners. Subsection: Visions and channellings
During the greatest growth period in the SSB Misison, a number of foreign New Age persons or practitioners formed a very strong attachment to Sathya Sai Baba. Many gave him strong promotion on their websites or their New Age enterprises; some have written articles or books about the guru. Most are very well known, particularly in overseas devotee circles. I offer no names here but I have written previously on the subject on my website (‘Sathya Sai Baba and the Psychics’). For the most part, these New Age devotees have surely received (or harvested) sufficient personal publicity in return for their strong promotion of SSB. The most egregious example is a British self-styled psychic. Recently, the New Age appeal of SSB outside India appears to have dwindled, partly because of the controversies but also because of the appearance of other more appealing and younger gurus in the fields of yoga, spiritual self-development, self-improvement or self-realisation.
Visions and channelling have also been a productive and very popular sub-genre of Sathya Sai Baba devotee literature. Some devotees believe themselves to be blessed with the privilege of receiving communications directly from Sathya Sai Baba, especially in the form of revelations during meditation and dreams. A few claim to have received whole discourses in this way or to have had visionary Dialogues with SSB, which they then write down and publish for other devotees.
( See Section 3 of my annotated Bibliography Part 3, Privately Revealed Messages and Teachings.)
Lunshof, Geesje , Sai Baba, my Self, 2007 [self-published in Holland]
Geesje Lunshof’s third volume of alleged conversations with Sathya Sai Baba, which I recently bought in Puttaparthi, is the latest example of the highly popular channelling sub-genre. Lunshof is one of at least a dozen well-known (and probably bestselling) devotees who have shared in print what they claim to be channelled messages from, or conversations, with SSB. Other exponents are Lucas Ralli, Charles Penn, S. Aditya, Graciela Busto, Elvie Bailey, ‘Little Heart’, S. Usha and at least five others. (For more details, see my Bibliography, Part 3.)
Lunshof’s Diary records her visits to the ashram and regular imagined conversations with SSB on spiritual matters and on her illness. Like the rest of the book, the final “Summary of the Exercises given to me by Sai Baba” (pp. 300-308) reads like a work of imagination aimed at helping people. But, to the outsider, the claimed intimacy with Sathya Sai Baba appears illusory.
By her seventeenth journey to the ashram, in February 2005, Lunshof finds the physically frail Sathya Sai Baba more ‘distant’ but still claims to receive frequent documented ‘visits’ from him and during darshan is able to imagine him looking at her or giving her special signs. But by then she has already been given a special lingam by Satyam, a member of her Sathya Sai Centre in Holland. She claims (pp. 200-201) that Satyam has materialised it specially for her (and that it is his 214th materialised lingam). She excitedly describes how its appearance is constantly changing even during her ashram visit ...
Official Promotion of Sathya Sai Baba
For many years, videocassettes were a common and powerful way of spreading news about Sathya Sai Baba and his devotees. In Sathya Sai Centres, particularly in USA, Canada, UK and a few other countries, videocassettes of lectures by prominent devotees and SSO office holders were made, sold and eagerly viewed by devotees. Now that videocassettes have become virtually obsolete, DVDs have taken over, but with the massive adoption of the Internet by the Sathya Sai Organisation as a means of worldwide communication and promotion, Internet users may avail themselves not only of the free downloads of photographs and clips of the major festivals at Prasanthi Nilayam but also the services of an offshoot of the sophisticated radio site (radiosai.org): www.saicast.org. From this web address, devotees (and others) may download video clips of recent festivals free of charge. In addition to all that (and the radiosai website, plus the three main official SSO websites), for a very modest fee (less than $2), an offshoot of the Books and Publication Trust (http://srisathyasaipublications.org) offers a commercial service for selected books, audiocassettes and DVDs and a few videocassettes (including a few of the classic old videos).
I have viewed four of these 60-minute $2 DVDs (purchased at a SSO Centre in India). Three of them, in a series called Spiritual Blossoms (possibly produced for the guru’s 80 th Birthday in 2005), offer DVD versions of short archival clips from many old videos from the 1960s to the 1990s (with an added background bhajan accompaniment – in Part 2 of Volume 3, SSB sings bhajans himself).
The fourth DVD which I purchased in India was With the LORD in the Mountains (www.sssbpt.org, April 2006) This is the official record of SSB’s 2006 visit to his summer centre, Sai Sruti, in Kodaikanal, with his entourage, his students and some devotees (including some foreigners). The footage gives graphic evidence of the steady physical decline of Sathya Sai Baba in the past four or five years. This has brought about major changes in his former flamboyant darshan style, which now consists mainly of wheelchair-bound appearances, with several students constantly hovering in attendance, particularly to support him if he attempts to stand up or move about. His conversation and personal contact with devotees is much more limited and less spontaneous than in his heyday but the DVD shows that in 2006 he was still able to accept many letters and to exchange some words from his custom-built wheelchair. Recent 2008 official website footage (especially from www.saicast.org) shows how his physical condition has continued to decline in the past two years and how painful it seems for him to make discourses. His face now remains expressionless for most of the time or seems to display something akin to disorientation.
Official Information Books
1. Prasanthi Nilayam Information Booklet (Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT)
This is the 13th edition of this bestselling and useful official Information booklet for visitors to the ashram. It gives the usual practical information, which now includes photographs, maps and a train timetable (mainly between P.N. and Bangalore, but also with one daily through train to New Delhi and Mumbai).
On pp. 26-27 a list of three official websites is given, www.srisathyasai.org.in (since 23 December 2000), www.sssbpt.org (since18 February 2004) and www.radiosai.org. Curiously, the very first official website, set up in 1998 (www.sathyasai.org), the one that has carried the most traditional view of ‘Divine’ Sathya Sai Baba, and whose image and ‘exposure’ has been changing over the past few years as the Sathya Sai Organisation has invested substantial money and energy to gain a solid international footing, is absent from this list.
In addition to the factual information, there are one or two items for the researcher’s notebook.
The compilers of this contemporary booklet still repeat the misleading SSO statement that when Sathya Narayana made his first declaration, “The Puttaparthi village in South India had not heard of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a village to the north west, 1000 Kms away”.
Also singled out for special mention is yet another claimed cosmic miracle: the capture by devotee Homer Young at NASA of satellite photos “which clearly show the picture of Baba looking at Puttaparthi village” (i.e. from the sky). Two of the controversial photos taken on 29 November 1972 are offered on page 44.
Another even more valuable photo for researchers is offered on p. 43. It is a distant aerial photo of the crowd assembled in the outdoor Hill View Stadium to celebrate SSB’s 70 th Birthday (1995). This photograph could prove useful in making an accurate estimate of that crowd to compare with the official claim of 1 million devotees.
2. QUIZ on the Divine Life and Message of Sri Sathya Sai Baba , Prasanthi Nilayam, SSSBPT, [n.d.].
This is an officially published Q. and A. ‘catechism’ booklet about Sathya Sai Baba, labelled as “intended only for fact-finding reading”, but presenting a form of indoctrination. It offers many bits of the official story of SSB for rote learning and presents as facts many of the unsupported assertions made by or (especially) about Sathya Sai Baba, including some of the wholly unconvincing alleged prophecies of Sathya Sai Baba’s Advent by historical figures like Jesus, Muhammad and Nostradamus (assertions repeated endlessly in the Sathya Sai Baba literature and even in the official Chaitanya Jyoti Museum in Prasanthi Nilayam).
What is the meaning of Sai Baba? (Part II, Q 1)
[The expected meaning is “Divine Mother and Father”, which is not what Shirdi scholars or devotees believe.]
What are the prophecies made on the advent of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba? (Part V, Q 1)
This is followed by an answer page of nine alleged prophecies, including four Palm Leaf predictions and others allegedly by Muhammad, Nostradamus and “Pope John XXII” [=XXIII?]. (“A small barefoot man of dark skin, in the red robe, will eventually take over the Vatican.”)
The constant reminder – and reality alert – that emerges from this latest batch of Sathya Sai Baba promotional material and hagiography (in the pejorative sense of the word) is that devotees regard SSB as an omniscient God and Avatar and automatically accept ANYthing he says on ANY topic as infallible truths, and publish it as unquestionable truth. Other devotees relay such information in later books. In view of ample documentation of SSB’s proven fallibility in his storytelling, the guru’s assertions (especially about his own status, abilities and knowledge, and his claimed special knowledge about Jesus Christ) as well as devotees’ constant unquestioning but authoritarian repetitions of such assertions, should be provisionally labelled unreliable, until close examination proves them correct, or at least feasible.
The final book for comment here was not written by a devotee but by an academic non-devotee. Although it deserves a separate study, it is included here as the latest example of academic interest in Sathya Sai Baba.
Srinivas, Smriti, In the Presence of SAI BABA. Body, City and Memory in a Global Religious Movement, Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 2008. [Rupees 585 = $14]
(The original version was commissioned and published by the academic publishing house of Brill ( Leiden / Boston) at the astonishing price of $188.)
The author tells us that she conducted and published research on the two Sai Babas (of whom she has been aware for most of her life) between 1995 and 2005. Dr Srinivas’s scholarship-sponsored field work took place at the SSO Center in Atlanta for several months in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 and in the Nairobi SSO Centre in December 2001, with additional months of fieldwork in India in four years. The 12-year study seems, therefore, to be the combined result of several of her previous scholarly papers (revised) and her extensive fieldwork, reinforced by new research and structured into a complex scholarly thesis (which is, at first reading, still beyond my modest comprehension).
I had already examined and commented on a few of Srinivas’s papers and articles on Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai and have made relevant critical comments in Part 1 of my Bibliography (in 2005 and 2007). My preliminary reading of her latest work was carried out not from the point of view of the specialist academic and student audience to which the major part of the complex study is addressed, but in relation to my own ongoing study of the way academics have tended to approach and report on the official biography of Sathya Sai Baba and his career as a guru. Dr Srinivas’s specialised study is obviously the fruit of deep scholarship, ranging across the ‘borders’of several academic disciplines. Its overall merits will be decided by her academic colleagues and specialist graduate students.
Below, I have selected five basic aspects which, in my opinion, need further consideration and attention.
1. The Question of Primary Source Use in the Study of Sathya Sai Baba
Like a number of other academics, Dr Srinivas concentrates on describing how others describe and interpret Sathya Sai Baba and his Mission. Equally deserving of attention are the major oral and psychological contributions made to the relationship by SSB himself, from the very beginning of his Mission, and especially as documented since 1955 in his published Discourses. This ‘blind spot’ often leads academics to employ inadvertently misleading or apologetic formulations like “Sathya Sai Baba is believed to be …” or to omit the prudential qualifications alleged and allegedly when referring to claims made by SSB. Even in the following introductory humorous remark by Dr Srinivas, this ‘omission’ may suggest a lack of objectivity: “Unlike the avatar, whose attributes include omniscience and omnipresence, it was not possible for me to be in all times and all places …” (p. 11).
Dr Srinivas offers twenty very interesting pages on the devotee monthly magazine Sanathana Sarathi (1958-), which can be provisionally classified as a primary source because it includes translations of some of SSB’s Discourses as well as other ashram and Organisation news. In pursuit of her specialist thesis, the author pays special attention to changes in the magazine cover design, pictures and symbols, especially as reflections of the rapid national, then international, development of the Sathya Sai Organisation. However, she fails to give equal attention to the vital role, and the crucial content (especially in relation to the strident divine claims in the early Discourses), of an equal (or superior) primary official source: Sathya Sai Baba’s translated Telugu Discourses. The major lacunae are usually the first two volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, which deal with discourses (and divine claims) given and recorded between 1953 and the early 1960s, a period which most academics have also ignored, preferring to be guided by the SSO’s simplistic selection of four “landmark” Discourses to indicate the progression of Sathya Sai Baba’s claims. By failing to look more deeply into this basic and freely available source, Srinivas loses a vital opportunity to find out (and reveal to her peers) new facts about SSB himself (which have already been revealed on the Internet by non-academic researchers).
2. Secondary Research Sources
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, part of SSB’s huge achievement has been his ability to persuade or motivate other people (through his personal charisma and charm) to propagate his story and endorse his Mission – and even to contribute their own enthusiastic proof of his claims, like the multiple alleged prophecies of his ‘Advent’ (analysed by Professor Beyerstein).
Dr Srinivas’s coverage of secondary bibliographical sources relating to the life of SSB at times lacks balance and depth, revealing a tendency to read and use material favourable to SSB and the official story of his Mission, while ignoring other points which have recently come to light (for example in Love is My Form, which she mentions several times but fails to quarry deeply enough, leaving a number of tantalising loose ends). A further example of this imbalance is, on the one hand, her references to Dr George Chryssides and Bill Aitken (who both display an overtly pro-SSB bias), and, on the other hand, her failure to mention the critical publications on Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged paranormal powers by Dr Dale Beyerstein (1992 and 1996). Also missing from the long Bibliography of this 2008 publication are two recent (2005) works by Kevin R.D. Shepherd, whose earlier work on Shirdi Sai Baba Srinivas quotes and refers to in her presentation of Shirdi Sai Baba and his putative disciples.
3. The Sai Baba Movement
Although the major material for this book is furnished by Sathya Sai Baba and his Movement (as the author admits), Dr Srinivas follows others (and her own previous work) in using the concept “Sai Baba Movement” as though Sathya Sai Baba’s claim to be Shirdi reincarnated were a generally recognised fact, and, more unfortunately, as if a totally separate (and earlier) Sai Baba Movement did not exist with its own base in Shirdi, Maharashtra (as well as all over India and in several other countries). To a majority of people in India, the title “Sai Baba” refers to the senior, widely-respected guru, or saint (Sai). Overseas, on the other hand, because of his wide international following and the enormous publicity it has generated, the name Sathya Sai Baba is by far the better known of the two.
There are, in fact, two Sai Baba Movements, not one. Therefore, to be fair to both gurus and their devotees, the two individual Organisations should be referred to as the Shirdi Sai (Baba) Movement and the Sathya Sai (Baba) Movement. Srinivas herself recognises the separateness of the Shirdi Sai Sansthan:
“While there is a devotional movement centred exclusively on Shirdi Sai Baba that does not associate him with Sathya Sai Baba […], this book focuses on the Sathya Sai Baba movement (sometimes abbreviated in the text as the Sai Baba movement or the Sai movement) within which the two figures are identified” (p. 7). But the author’s claim that the two are “identified” is clearly Sathya-centric and Shirdi-exclusive (i.e. it is dependent on the unilateral claim by SSB, with the total support of his Organisation, to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and on the consequent worship of Shirdi Sai within the Puttaparthi ashram by SSB – and throughout the SSO empire by his officials and devotees). Srinivas’s later abrupt admission that “The Shirdi Sai Sansthan does not recognize any successor to Sai Baba” (p. 45) also adds a further jarring note to a potentially sensitive issue.
The awkwardness is compounded throughout the book when Srinivas makes frequent specific references to the “Sathya Sai Baba Movement” as a synonym for her (debatable) concept of the “Sai Baba Movement”. It follows that a decision to use the “Sathya Sai Baba Movement” label throughout the book would have been a commendable editorial decision. (I have discussed this name dilemma briefly in a recent article on my website, and a much longer earlier essay considers questions, difficulties and discrepancies arising from Sathya Sai Baba’s claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, and the abrupt shift of emphasis from Shirdi Sai Baba to Jesus Christ in the early 1970s.) (See also Shirdi Essay.)
4. Sathya Sai Baba Controversies
Like other academics, Srinivas makes the elementary mistake of regarding the spectacular, media attention-grabbing sexual allegations as by far the most important of the recent controversies about the guru from Puttaparthi as. Such imponderables may therefore be legitimately judged as lying outside the parameters of academic research and duly ignored. Coincidentally, but more deliberately, the Sathya Sai Organisation often adopts a similar attitude in order to be able to issue lofty dismissals of all critical comment and discussion about SSB or their organisation as being beneath contempt. In this way, reports on much more fundamental questions (like SSB’s story-telling habit and many discrepancies surrounding the divine claims and the exact content of his original Telugu Discourses) fail to be properly investigated by academics who accept this biased viewpoint.
5. Internet evidence
Dr Srinivas’s book gives me the impression that she may be a recent convert to researching the Internet, but, even if this is so, in investigating this huge new area she has been too hasty and selective. Although she shows signs of being aware of critical Internet activity about SSB in the past six years, she has chosen, deliberately (see pp. 333-334), not to examine it, thereby laying herself open to the criticism of staying too close to the “official line” on Sathya Sai Baba, however unconsciously this may have occurred. With solipsistic reference to my own critical work about SSB (300-400 pages of website offerings since November 2001), the only mention I found in Srinivas’s crowded volume was to the second Part of my Annotated Bibliography (on critical writing), which she describes, accurately, as “exhaustive”. Whether she didn’t find my many other exhaustive pieces – like, for example, Part 1 and Part 3 of the Bibliography or four lengthy Dossiers – or chose to ignore them, her research methods seem in need of revision. (Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that a few of the critical biographical points I have broached were fleetingly (albeit inconclusively and, above all, non-critically) mentioned in her work. Notable among the useful points newly discovered by Srinivas since her 2005 encyclopedia article are some of those to be found in the important 2000 publication Love is My Form, which she should re-read more attentively before revising her book.)
As things are, the beleaguered SSO officials will not be at all displeased with Dr Srinivas’s version of the basic Sathya Sai Baba story and her lack of interest in the substantial critical literature. However, in my opinion, the above points detract from the accuracy and balance of the Associate Professor’s depiction of the central figure, Sathya Sai Baba. It is my hope that she and some of her colleagues and interested graduate students will improve on this basic aspect of her scholarly study.
Recent Books by Devotees. Part 1
Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 1
Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 2
Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 3