(Note: Previous Dossiers have dealt with SSB's extensive but erratic storytelling, his unique but basically unconvincing claims to personal Divinity and the significant differences between the literal translations and the heavily edited official versions of his Telugu Discourses. This Dossier offers recent evidence of discrepancies in the official biography of SSB and posits the basic unreliability of the standard official hagiographies of SSB.)
To those many people familiar with the well known official SSB story, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are difficulties in establishing the full facts of Sathya Narayana Raju's birth and childhood and the formative period of the Sathya Sai Baba Mission in a remote village of Telugu speakers in Southern India during the first half of the 20th century.
In the light of recent disclosures and follow-up research, the widely propagated official biographies, from Professor N. Kasturi on, are proving to be even more hagiographical and unreliable than they previously appeared. This applies especially to the remote years of SSB's childhood and youth on which is based the framework of the myth of SSB's Divinity. In spite of this, long after Kasturi's death and with several aspects of the official SSB story now in dispute or disproved, the beleaguered SSO has recently announced its intention of completing Kasturi's 'sacred' Sathyam, Sivam, Sundaram for the years 1980 to the present day.
It must be remembered that during the first 22 years of his Mission (1943 to 1965), SSB's activities were basically restricted to southern India (with a few tentative forays to non-Telugu-speaking Delhi and the Himalayas). Following his firm Declaration that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and the rapid local spread of the news of his healing, materialisation and exorcism miracles, aided in no small measure by his strong personal charisma, energy and appealing self-confidence, SSB very rapidly acquired local followers and supporters after 1943 (that unofficial date will be explained shortly), including some of the royalty of the region. In the subsequent 20 years, several sophisticated associates and mentors were also to join his Mission, eagerly taking on the task of promoting the charismatic man who claimed to be an Avatar. By 1954, Professor Kasturi (who had met SSB in 1948) had taken early retirement and was 'on board' and beginning to organise the recording and publication of SSB's recently adopted practice of giving regular public Discourses. A decade later (in 1965, when SSB was in his late thirties), the Bombay accountant Indulal Shah joined the team and formed the SSO (and later the Sathya Sai Trust), which would grow under Shah's energetic leadership (only just relinquished) to be the fully-fledged international organisation it is today. With this backing, SSB's official image has spread far and wide. It is precisely this official image which has recently come under closer and more critical scrutiny as clear inconsistencies in the Kasturi-type partisan hagiographies have emerged and attracted critical attention.
The hundreds of devotee books and articles about SSB, beginning with the first volume of Professor Kasturi's approved biography of SSB in 1960, have been in complete agreement about the early biography of SSB. This accumulated official hagiography is now widely accepted as the true story by devotees - and even, faute de mieux, by some non-devotees, over-cautious or indolent academics and, inevitably, compilers of reference books. For the past few years this official biography has been robustly propagated to the multitudes on the SSO and SSS Trust and the SSS Publishing Trust websites, as well as on numerous individual and corporate devotee websites. Nevertheless, although these intense and decades-long efforts have helped to establish SSB as a world celebrity, the increasing critical attention on the controversies surrounding him and the SSO has thrown up some significant counter-evidence about his claims, particularly with reference to the early phase of his Mission, which is the subject of this dossier.
For the very early period of SSB's life, his biographers have relied on what he has stated publicly and privately (which, as can now be seen, is not always reliable). Kasturi's input, pieced together from his daily close contact with SSB and his contemporaries and presented from his doting rose-tinted viewpoint, was also highly influential in establishing the official image, as were the gathered or published reminiscences of a handful of close early devotees like Nagamani Purnaiya and Lakshmi Devamma. The second wave of biographical writings by V. and S. Balu, Murphet, Hislop, Sandweiss, Rao, Krystal, and many others, were therefore based on second- or third-hand accounts about Puttaparthi in the 1930s and 1940s. But then, in 1999 and 2000, important fresh biographical material suddenly became available in print and on the Internet, just as other alarming allegations were surfacing and beginning to spread their first ripples.
Two Recent Books and a Neglected Older One
1. Love is My Form
One of the signs that SSB devotee numbers worldwide had reached critical mass in the early 1990s was the opening of a very new type of business venture, the highly efficient city-style Sai Towers building. Set on a prime position of the main street of the growing but still rudimentary township of Puttaparthi, Sai Towers occupied a large modern-style building which offered a superior style café-hotel-bookshop and publishing house. It quickly became the best known and most visited Puttaparthi business, thanks mainly to an enthusiastic clientele of visiting or mail-shopping foreign devotees. The ambitious enterprise was run by a very popular devotee and ex-photographer of SSB, Mr Padmanaban (presumably backed by other local businessmen). A second branch was later opened in Whitefield. Sai Towers became famous for the quality binding and paper of its devotee books about SSB - far superior to the printed products of the SSO; local and international trade became very brisk for all the Sai Towers commercial offerings.
In early 2000, Sai Towers announced the imminent publication of the first of an ambitious series of (at least) 6 specially researched books dealing definitively with the life of SSB. Research for the first volume and the whole definitive series, involving a team of about forty people, had already been going on for seven years. Advanced subscriptions in rupees and dollars were available for not only the first volume but for the remaining five as well, which were scheduled to be published at two-yearly intervals. Special discounts were available to those who paid for the whole series or other advance orders. If anyone doubted the seriousness of this project, their uncertainty would have disappeared overnight in October 2000 when the first weighty volume was finally published: Love is My Form. Vol. 1. The Advent (1926-1950). (Bangalore, Sai Towers Publishing, 2000, edited by R. Padmanaban, ISBN 81-86-8227-71)
This was part of the original Sai Towers publishing offer for the Love is My Form series.
Currently, research is progressing on the following volumes. To share the Divine Graciousness we offer you, our esteemed customers, a unique scheme.
Work on each volume is proceeding rapidly !!!
Tentative Dates of Release
Vol 2 (1951 - 1960) - 23/11/2002
Pre-Publication offer at attractive discount of 40%
Vol 3 (1961 - 1970) - 23/11/2003
Vol 4 (1971 - 1980) - 23/11/2004
Insured against increase in Production Cost & Postage charges
Vol 5 (1981 - 1990) - 23/11/2005
Vol 6 (1991 - 2000) - 23/11/2006
Copies of each volume posted to you immediately upon release
Within India - Rs. 15,000
Overseas - Rs. 20,000 / US $ 435
"We propose to produce "Love is My Form" in seven/nine volumes. Subsequent issues will chronicle the decades after the establishment of the pilgrimage centre and the gradual unfolding of Sri Sathya Sai Baba's glorious and unique life and teachings."
Six volumes were projected to be completed by 2006 and, as the Sai Towers website also made clear at the time, research for the next two (covering the 1950s and 1960s) were well under way. In the first volume, the unsigned Introduction to the series makes its allegiances quite clear, but with the sort of hyperbole which has become identified with descriptions of SSB and his life:
"This biographical series comes to document and record facts and events for posterity on the Life, Works and Teachings of the most extraordinary being to walk the earth in modern times - Sri Sathya Sai Baba." This hyperbole was accompanied by the sort of unrealistic boast that has become associated with the Sathya Sai Baba Movement: "The series will serve future generations for millennia to come."
A mere four years later we note that the series will not even be able to serve this generation, let alone those of the coming thousand years - because it has been abandoned. Instead we are now suddenly confronted with the disappointing prospect of a return to the official Kasturi style of hagiography and rumour, which favours the Divine myth and steers clear of anything which might show its weaknesses. However, nearly a quarter of a century after Kasturi's last volume was published, and in a different 'climate', it is to be hoped that some devotees may no longer be willing to accept that sort of bland and imperfect publication, to which the Sathya Sai Publications Trust has cordially invited all devotees to contribute?
The first volume of the laudable LIMF enterprise was a large format (9 x 12 inch), 600-page hardback, lavishly illustrated and full of old and NEW information about the first twenty four years of SSB's life (1926-1950). Although relying heavily on the Kasturi volumes and other information from the SSB literature, the research had also included the gathering of material from 140 taperecorded interviews with elderly local people who had known SSB in the earlier years (see the list on pp. 578-579). The volume also included 759 priceless photographs (many seen for the first time and many carefully DATED). These had been painstakingly gathered and presented by Mr Padmanaban, with a special "warm grey and a layer of spot varnish" to revive the dusty and damaged old black and white photos dating back to 1940 (but mainly from 1943 on). LIMF also offers 61 illustrations, 43 documents and 4 maps. The first instalment of a potentially vital record - the sort of work from which a long overdue critical biography might spring.
A quality book of this kind, with its fascinating treasure trove of material, obviously has a fairly high price tag. For that reason, it has probably only been read or seen by a very small percentage of devotees. LIMF represented something of a rarity among the vast and rather monolithic body of SSB literature. It offered a carefully constructed serious study, with footnotes and detailed references (an almost unknown luxury in the partisan Sai Literature). The General Editor, listed as Dr. Paul Izuka, claimed a "scholarly format" for this book (in his Editor's Note on p. xix), adding, "Here, for the first time, scholars, critics and researchers will find abundant factual material previously unavailable to the public." In its advertising, and later on its website, Sai Towers had a separate page to advertise the series of six volumes and said that research was well under way for the next two volumes.
Those who could afford this first volume of LIMF must have read it eagerly and studied the attractive photographs with great pleasure. It was highly recommended for purchase by SSO Centre Libraries. Those who browsed through some of the text accompanying the photos will have recognised many familiar quotations from Kasturi and other familiar names. This was a volume written by enthusiastic devotees for other devotees, and also for the rest of the world, with a genuine (though obviously devotee-centred) concern to record the real story of SSB for posterity. But, as more observant readers soon discovered (sometimes to their chagrin), lurking among the editors' painstakingly assembled broader information and documents, were elements which had been conspicuous by their absence during four decades of pro-SSB literature:
- verifiable facts and references- like DATES;
- photostats of register pages from three schools attended by SSB;
- information about the demonstrable local interest in Shirdi Sai Baba in the early 1940s which contradicted the categorical official denial of this.
Some of these facts make nonsense of some of Kasturi's statements and also contradict other officially propagated stories about SSB's early years. These nuggets of information have now been widely circulated on the Internet.
The rest of the LIMF story is short and, for those who value the truth, quite sad. Among some diehard devotee circles in India and elsewhere, the volume went down like a lead balloon - there are bulletin board postings to prove this; they could see the potential for public embarrassment. Newly disaffected ex-devotees (like me) published comments in 2001 and 2002 on the glaring discrepancies unearthed by the LIMF researchers. (These will be listed soon.) Like devotees, but for different reasons, we looked forward to the later volumes of the promised series for further necessary enlightenment of some quite murky areas of 'Saiology', especially about SSB's progress in the 1950s and his apparent change of direction in the 1960s and 1970s.
To the disappointment of devotees and non-devotees alike, the eagerly awaited Volume 2 of LIMF was not published on schedule in November 2002; it was not even published a year later when Volume 3 was due. Vol. 4 was promised for November 2004. But by the end of 2003 it was becoming obvious that, for reasons which were not entirely clear, the whole project had been derailed. Finally in early 2004, the Sai Towers pre-publication advertisements for the next five volumes were withdrawn from the website and remaining copies of Vol. 1 were sold off at sale prices, along with other Sai Towers books. (The previously detailed book page is still "Under (re-)construction" at the moment. That sign is still there in April 2005.) As far as can be seen, Mr Padmanaban's ambitious, laudable and much-trumpeted biographical project has simply been scrapped. Given the vagaries of business affairs and the financial difficulties that Sai Towers was rumoured to have experienced with its meteoric growth and multi-faceted expansion in the 1990s, severe financial difficulties or commercial miscalculations may have brought about this cancellation of the LIMF project. Nevertheless, critics and cynics may be forgiven for entertaining the suspicion that the ashram diehards, who will not be shedding any tears over the cancellation of the LIMF project, may have had some input in the curtailing of future revelations on sensitive aspects about SSB's Mission from 1950 onward. The recent crude attempt by a malicious propagandist to discredit LIMF on the grounds that it was a commercial publication and not officially "approved" is an echo of this early displeasure and embarrassment in the SSB camp. In fact, there can be no doubt about the proud commitment of the research team and the publisher of LIMF to dignify and honour their guru by presenting a favourable but balanced picture of him to the world - a welcome replacement for the overly partisan studies that had been churned out for decades (starting with the doyen of SSB hagiographers, SSB's longtime trusty associate - and early mentor, Professor N. Kasturi).
Instead of making necessary amendments to the chronology, etc., the SSO has therefore flagged its intention to tough it out and persevere with the official hagiography in spite of all other evidence, and for this they have warmly invited devotees' contributions of their reminiscences. So the totally devoted and unquestioning Kasturi, already rumoured by ashram gossip to have reincarnated to be the mother of Prema Sai, seems to be about to be honoured with a unique second reincarnation on the writing side. The chances are that the valuable Sai Towers research for those other volumes will be acquired by the SSSBP Trust and carefully edited for their new annual volumes. But it is hard to see how the credibility of the SSO will be enhanced by such activities. (The first volume, to be titled, Sathyam, Sivam, Sundaram, Vol. 5 (1980-1985) was due to be published on SSB's birthday in 2004. To date I have seen no further news of it.)
In the interests of truth (sathya), it should be remembered that official displeasure at unofficial devotee initiatives to tell the SSB story are almost certainly visible in the earlier loss of valuable information about SSB two years ago. At that time, the unofficial literal translations of SSB's Discourses ceased to be published on a devotee group website only months after surprising quotations from them and highly revealing comparisons with the officially heavily edited versions had been publicly commented on. In mid-2002 the whole website, with its two years of valuable evidence (the literal translations in several languages) simply disappeared. (Some of these original translations were still retrievable for a while on www.archive.net but even these copies have now been withdrawn from public view.) Once again, one is left with the impression that devotees are not trusted to read material which does not adhere to the official SSB story. But, we are no longer in the 1980s; with the revelations of both LIMF and those literal Discourse translations (as well as other evidence - like "The Findings"), the cat is already out of the bag.
As for the question which some may ask, "Why did the LIMF researchers not realise the profound embarrassment their investigations would cause the SSO and SSB himself?" the answer is open, but the most likely possibility (based on devotee behaviour) is that because belief about anything to do with SSB has been so rock-solidly positive (and idealistic) for several decades, the researchers (like most other devotees) simply did not imagine that any aspect of the SSB Divine image could be seen as dubious or erroneous - still less that public opinion about SSB was about to undergo a sea change - as it has.
In comparison with LIMF, the second recent book with new insights on this early period, written by Smt.Vijayakumari, an elderly devotee of SSB, offers less nuggets for researchers, but they add a few helpful pieces to the jigsaw puzzle. They are referred to below and in other articles.
In 1993, Smt. Vijayakumari completed a manuscript from notes she claims to have taken since 1945 about her own and her family's close experiences of SSB between that date (when she was a young girl), and 1972. Her two teenage brothers, Krishna Kumar and Amarendra Kumar, were close friends of SSB's for a few years (and are also mentioned in books by other devotees, for those who wish to cross-check). Smt. Vijayakumari does not explain why she waited so long before publishing these reminiscences nor does she comment on why the notes end in 1972. She merely states, on p. 6, that SSB named the original book, Anyadha Saranam Nasti on 16 November1996 and gave the order (permission?) for its publication, presumably in Telugu, a year later, on 22-10-97. The English translation, Other Than You Refuge is There None, was finally published - apparently by private arrangement rather than by the SSSBPT - in Chennai in 1999.
Smt. Vijayakumari's book is another example of a close devotee's detailed account of many happy events and conversations but it also contains some interesting snippets of biographical information for the patient researcher (including first hand evidence about one of SSB's alleged 'resurrections' - of the girl's father, Radha Krishna - and different versions of some of SSB's schoolboy stories). (Incidentally, Professor E. Haraldsson refers crucially to this girl's diary in his rigorous investigation of the controversial Radha Krishna incident. As with his investigation of the Walter Cowan 'resurrection', Haraldsson showed that the application of the description 'resurrection' to what really happened to Vijayakumari's father is not an appropriate description of what occurred. Despite this, devotees and writers blithely continue to make these discredited claims.)
All this new information by devotees as well as other new work published on the Internet in the past 3 years, reinforces the clues already given by SSB in his many confusing stories: that there are important discrepancies in SSB's recollections and in the official version of SSB's early life and Mission as recorded and propagated by spokespersons and unconditional devotees. The new contributions add a little more to the growing pile of evidence which shows that some of what devotees unquestioningly accept as truth about SSB has important mythical components. In view of the 50-year duration of the Mission and the fact that much evidence is only available to those who understand Telugu, it is likely that much more still remains to be excavated by serious researchers.
3. A Link with the Past
Before proceeding to the important evidence from these two recent sources of biographical detail, some earlier observations by Arnold Schulman may be instructive, both as partial corroboration for an eventual independent biography of SSB and also because Schulman's observations show what MIGHT have happened if others had been as professional and detached in their research as he tried to be in his unpretentiously titled (and neglected) 1971 book, Baba.
Arnold Schulman, an American scriptwriter irresistibly attracted by SSB's reputation in 1969, chose to spend six weeks in the ashram (professionally equipped with a camera, tape-recorder and typewriter) instead of earning a further small fortune writing yet another filmscript. The resulting book, Baba, was published in the same year as Howard Murphet's spectacular ongoing bestseller (in many languages) Man of Miracles (1971). These were the first books by "Westerners" (both writers, experienced in different fields and used to research methods). It is probably fair (as well as relevant) to add that the majority of pro-SSB books since then have been written by happy and eager aficionados, with far less attention to careful research.
Schulman never became a devotee and his detailed report on his dealings with SSB (mainly through the interpreter, Gokak, but with eager assistance from Kasturi also) show that the guru himself was far from convinced that Arnold's spiritual sensitivities were conducive to a rave review of his true significance. Nevertheless, the book produced by the scriptwriter was a basically favourable portrait of SSB (with accounts of the many miracles the writer had been told about). It was published by one of the principal New York publishers (Viking Press). However, despite its novelty and the slowly burgeoning interest in SSB in USA in the early 1970s, the book's success was unexpectedly short-lived.
In the monotonously eulogistic SSB literature, what is refreshingly different about Schulman's approach is that he expresses a few independent and less politically correct impressions than most SSB writers, although without the strong criticisms and sexual allegations of Tal Brooke's Avatar of Night which was written and published only a few years later, and which also more or less sank without many ripples, until recently, when it has begun to make waves. In its minor way, Schulman's Baba is as refreshing as LIMF.
Take, for example, Schulman's 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 his six weeks of efficient research at the ashrams and in Bangalore, Schulman ends up in a state of some confusion, relieved that his literary agent has cabled him to return urgently to USA and in his last meeting with SSB he tells the guru, "I don't understand anything I've seen." (p. 167) and feels himself obliged to ask: "Are you God?" (p. 170). SSB 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)
While gathering his research material, Schulman seems to have trusted the word of Professor Kasturi and Dr Gokak, to whom he had daily access. He was suspicious of some others in the ashram: "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) Unlike virtually all other SSB devotee writers, Schulman observed that: "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). LIMF has a few more hints along these lines, from which spring a few seeds of doubt.
Also, instead of swallowing and regurgitating Kasturi's famous cobra incident (which was already one of the accepted myths), Schulman reports that one of SSB's sisters had told him (presumably through an interpreter) that there was no cobra under the blanket after Sathya Narayana's birth but that some hours later a cobra was seen outside the house - a sight not uncommon in the remote village. On such differences are myths based. (There seems to be absolutely no reason for Schulman to invent this, nor for the translation to be wrong.) The difference between the Kasturi and Schulman versions of the event neatly encapsulates the enormous problems associated with the accepted official biography of SSB, so much of which is based on hearsay. Other writers (including the late doyen chronicler of SSB, Howard Murphet), have basically accepted Kasturi's major details and grafted on to them their own discoveries, and what they have heard or read. Therefore discrepancies when they leak out always come as a great surprise to devotees.
Further food for thought and research on the vexed question of SSB's major reliance on the Telugu language: In the case of his interviews with one of SSB's sisters, Schulman had to be content with TWO interpreters, one from her Telugu into Hindi and the other from Hindi into English. Schulman suspects (correctly, I believe) 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) What he doesn't comment on here is SSB's NEED for interpreters. (Those spokespersons and writers who trumpet SSB's omniscient knowledge of all languages should note such details.)
Other frank observations by Schulman further underline why his (plausible) version never became the publicly accepted truth about young Sathya Narayana. For example, "It was not possible to document with certifiable evidence much of Baba's biography." (p. 123) And: "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" (p. 122). Their fear is of SSB's usual punishment for those who make mistakes: ignoring them totally. Elsewhere, Schulman repeats this impression that locals are afraid to talk about SSB's life story (pp. 139 and 140). What refreshing comments! So unlike most other SSB writers as to appear sacrilegious to blinkered SSB partisans. And, again, leaving the unbiased reader with food for thought.
To be taken into consideration when examining SSB's idiosyncratic use of English are Schulman's keen observations on SSB's propensity for enigmatic or sententious pronouncements which often sound meaningless. In an interview reported on pages 108-110, during most of which Gokak (or Gokok, as Schulman carelessly misnames him throughout the book) is interpreting for SSB, the latter makes one of his characteristically baffling comments in English, "Far is not important. No far, no near, no near. Dear, only dear is important" (p.110). This is an aspect of SSB which is often innocently revealed in the memoirs of devotees. It is the "Chauncey Gardner" side of SSB. (Chauncey was the unforgettably monosyllabic gardener whose simple Delphic 'wisdom' impressed everyone in the White House and finally won Chauncey the Presidency of the USA in the movie 'Being There', from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski.)
I have referred elsewhere to this familiar simple "Chauncey Gardner" side of SSB in the context of SSB's use of English in public and its perception by his doting devotees but here is another similar example from Schulman's careful notes. In the final interview Schulman tells SSB, "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 SSB'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)
(See also Sathya Sai Baba's Language and Its Perception by Devotees)
Independent observations like those of Arnold Schulman are what readers deserve to be offered by a writer - but in the vast pro-SSB literature, this New Yorker who returned to USA to continue with his successful screen-writing career (and for whom I can find no current or recent Internet reference after 1993) is an almost unique example. Nevertheless, his pioneering work links up with other evidence and leads us a little further along the long path towards truth.
Specific Discrepancies in the Official SSB Biography
The biographical anomalies most highlighted by the two books by Padmanaban's team of researchers and by Smt Vijayakumari's candid account (and other sources) relate to the following events of the now remote early years of SSB's life (1926-1950). In particular, the official record of the years 1940-1945 is shown to be in error.
SSB's school life
The date of the alleged Declarations
The years 1940-1943 in SSB's life
The years 1944-1945 and the first major photos of SSB with his new devotees
The Shirdi Sai Baba connection
Personal doubts expressed by SSB during the early years of the Mission
There is also some interesting circumstantial evidence that the 1926 date of birth may be incorrect but, in spite of some claims by other researchers (particularly in the current but chameleonic Wikipedia article on SSB), so far there is no conclusive proof of this. Nevertheless, in view of the wide ramifications of such a basic error in the official record IF it were true, the slim evidence that I have compiled will be presented as an endnote to this article for those who may be able to investigate it further and eventually decide the matter once and for all. See also the later discussion on dates based on evidence from LIMF.)
Shirdi Sai Baba
Before proceeding to a necessarily lengthy account of the important new evidence about SSB's life in the 1940s, a short example about the Shirdi connection may whet the reader's appetite and also show why traditionalist 'verandah' devotees saw the new book as a challenge.
On page 117 and elsewhere, LIMF has provided previously unknown details about the crucial link with Shirdi Sai Baba, enabling the independent researcher to re-examine the available information and make new conclusions and hypotheses.
As I have documented elsewhere, SSB (endorsed by Indulal Shah) once claimed that Shirdi Sai was unknown in the Puttaparthi region at the time of his Declaration of Mission. (Shah may, of course, have merely been repeating what he was told by SSB.) In fact, LIMF (and other sources too) shows this to be untrue, since two of Sathya's UNCLES were Shirdi devotees (p. 117). LIMF also indicates quite clearly that Sathya Narayana had a picture of Shirdi in his pocket, and later in Uravakonda performed puja to a statuette of the Maharashtran saint in the presence of local devotees and wore a small picture of Shirdi on his tunic. This picture of Shirdi's face is clearly visible on an early photograph printed in at least two other books, but, curiously, the picture had disappeared from the photograph when it was published in LIMF). (The other earlier books where the picture of Shirdi's face can be seen on SSB's tunic, over his heart, are the third American edition of volume 1 of Kasturi's biography (Sathyam Sivam Sundaram, The Life of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, facing page 52) and among the sepia photographs printed at the end of N.Lakshmi Devamma's Bhaktodharaka Sri Sathya Sai.)
SSB's Schooling and the Dates of his Double Declarations
The major revelation in LIMF in 2000 was that SSB did not declare himself to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba in 1940 (aged nearly 14) to commence his part of the Mission (which 23 yrs later, in 1963, he would suddenly allege was tripartite), but in 1943, presumably aged 16-plus if the 1926 birth date is correct.
The chronology established by the team of researchers unfolds thus:
We learn from LIMF that SSB probably spent the school years ?1935-1940 in the Elementary School in Puttaparthi, and the school year 1940-1941, not engaged on his Mission, as everyone has always been led to believe, but in Form One of the Middle School at Kamalapuram, some 200 kilometres north-east of Puttaparthi, where his elder brother, Seshama, had begun his teaching career.
On 5 July 1941, Sathya Narayana joined Grade VIII at nearby Bukkapatnam Elementary School, where, according to the Register, he only stayed for ONE year. Despite his later boastful exam stories, he was (possibly) not allowed to take the Elementary School Leaving Certificate exam in 1942 because of insufficient time spent at the school (p. 129). He left that school on 6 April 1942. There follows a gap of several months until he resurfaces in Uravakonda (140 km northwest of P/p) at his teacher-brother's house in early 1943.
It should be noted that there is other circumstantial evidence in the SSB literature that SSB may have continued his schooling as Bukkapatnam into the second half of 1942 (Grade 7) and that during that time he may have taken the ESLC examination in Penukonda in 1942. Other evidence suggests that this happened in 1943. Also during the gap before re-enrolling in Uravakonda school in July 1943 SSB may have been coached by his teacher-brother Seshama to reach the required entry standard for Uravakonda. Further murkiness about this period is suggested when the compilers of LIMF also speculate that young Sathya was a bit of an embarrassment to the elders of Bukkapatnam because of his boisterous nature and his idiosyncratic activities. This is the impression that he himself has rather boastfully given in Discourse stories.
Finally, Arnold Schulman's caveat that not all stories about SSB by his contemporaries are flattering can be illustrated with an example which also contrasts with SSB's curious versions of his ESLC examination performance. A brief quotation in LIMF (p. 78) contrasts with other comments that Sathya was a hard-working and brilliant student. Fellow student Vempalli Jayamma, interviewed in her old age, remembers her famous classmate thus: "He used to often borrow my notes which I gave grudgingly, saying, 'Raju, you never come prepared to class and so get punished. Come prepared at least tomorrow.'"
What LIMF also establishes beyond doubt is that the mysterious long traumatic experience known as the 'Scorpion incident' also happened in early 1943 rather than in 1940. (More later.) Following this protracted suffering, Sathya Narayana made his 'I am Sai Baba' declaration in May, and began to perform puja to Shirdi Sai Baba before finally joining Uravakonda school on 1 July 1943 in Form III (p. 132, Register). No leaving date is given on the Register photostat, but young Sathya could only have spent just over three months at the school, because LIMF reveals that he made the celebrated Declaration of Mission on 20 October of that same year (1943) and then embarked on his arduous self-appointed Mission, just before what must have been his 17th (not his 14th birthday, as we have been lead to believe - unless, of course, the school register entry date of 1929 IS in fact the correct one).
The corroborating documentary evidence in LIMF is as follows:
A photostat of the Register pages (in Telugu) of the Puttaparthi Elementary School for 1936 are given on pp. 40-41. Sathya Narayana is registered as being in, or entering, Class 2 of the village school. LIMF states (plausibly, in view of the following paragraph) that he attended the village school from 1935 to the beginning of 1940.)
On pp. 68-69 we are shown:
1. Transfer Certificate from Kamalapuram School to Bukkapatnam, which indicates attendance in the First Form in Kamalapuram, from 11 June 1940 to 22 April 1941. (Note that no Register pages are offered from the Kamalapuram school, possibly because the researchers did not go to the 200-kilometre distant school. The possible oversight could easily be rectified by a local researcher.
2. The Register pages from the Samithi Elementary School, Bukkapatnam, showing Sathya's admission on 5 July 1941 and his departure on 6 April 1942 - with the remark "Exemption not gran[ted] for VIII Std Public Exam. Removed." LIMF adds the explanation that the reason was lack of attendance. This refers to the ESLC examination which SSB has boasted in his Discourses not only of passing with top marks but also of illegally (but miraculously) helping two schoolmates to cheat their way to passes. Clearly further research is indicated here also, especially as some SSB writers (and SSB himself) mention a trip to Penukonda to take this examination.
3. A date of birth is given as 4-10-1929 - which may only be an error. (See Endnote on Date of Birth.)
A third Register photostat (on pages 132-133) records Sathya joining the Uravakonda High School over a year later (on 1 July 1943).
Other relevant pages in LIMF are 128-129 which offer a written summary of SSB's schooling.
Further corroborating evidence of the LIMF revelations
A quick scan of the major SSB commentators shows that although they all naturally accept the official date of October 1940 as the beginning of SSB's career as a guru, there is a dearth of mentions of the years 1941, 1942, or 1943 (except perhaps the final months) in connection with SSB's early years in his position as independent guru. But no one has noticed anything odd in this apparent three year gap of inactivity right at the outset of SSB's Mission. No travels or middle-class devotees with cameras in nearly three years?
The 3-year lacuna is understandable: it simply corroborates the LIMF evidence that, rather than preaching his Mission, he was still at school for most of the time between 1940 and 1943. This underlines an inherent weakness in much of the SSB literature: the unquestioning copying of what others have written.
In those cases where SSB writers do mention the years 1941-1943 in a 'Mission' context, the next step is to check whether the references are plausible, given the new state of the documentary evidence at our disposal. I have found only three such specific references so far. Ra. Ganapati (Vol I, page 184) says: "For four years from 1941, the house of the Karnam was the habitation of our Lord." The Brahmin Subbamma's house had been Sathya Narayana's second home for years - she was probably his first devotee - so perhaps Ganapati is referring to the school holidays in 1941 and 1942, and the post-Uravakonda period of November 1943 to the end of 1944, some of which we know SSB spent at Subbamma's house during the beginning of his Mission.
Howard Murphet, in his celebrated first book, Man of Miracles, which attracted so many people to SSB largely because of the detailed accounts of the Divine claims and miracles, states on page 61, (quoting an alleged Kasturi story which I have not yet traced), "about a year after the announcement, when Satya Sai was 15, he was visited by the Rani of Chincholi." [One of his first aristocratic benefactors.] For Murphet, "a year after the announcement" must mean 1941, but there is evidence both in LIMF and elsewhere that this meeting with the Rani took place in 1944 or even 1945, so Murphet's reference is simply NOT valid. (But, one wonders, did he get it from a conversation with Kasturi, or in an interview with SSB?)
I can find no references to 1941, 1942, or 1943 in the first volume of Prof. Kasturi's 4-volume hagiography. Kasturi mentions the Declaration date of 1940 on page 46. The next date given by Kasturi is 1945 (on page 68) for the planning of the FIRST mandir, which fits in with the LIMF chronology. Then he mentions 1950 (the second mandir) on page 90. But, in spite of Kasturi's accounts of lots of happenings on those intervening 22 pages, there is no specific mention of those three missing years (1941-1943). The abundant photographic evidence also supports the LIMF version of the story. Kasturi's basic unreliability as a biographer is thus highlighted by the LIMF revelations.
On p. 46, LIMF offers a photo of SSB, allegedly the first ever taken of him, in 1940, at the Pushpagiri Festival (near Kamalapuram). It is a head shot, showing a strong and handsome face and short straight hair. Apart from looking far more grown up than the stylised skinny and 'cute' child-like Sathya Narayana portrayed in the many specially commissioned pastel drawings by a foreign devotee which accompany these early photo-less chapters of LIMF, the photo bears some similarity to other early ones from 1943: in Uravakonda (pages 124 and 154) and Hospet (p. 142). Whether the 1940 photograph is correctly captioned or not, according to LIMF, as we have seen, there are no other photographs of SSB before the end of 1943 (just after his Declaration) but, subsequently, there is an avalanche of photos taken by his new (camera-owning) benefactors and devotees in 1944 and 1945, his first two years of Mission in and around newly explored Bangalore.
This sudden appearance of photographic evidence of the young guru and his followers and benefactors in the years 1943-1945 must surely be taken as further proof (if it is needed) that SSB's Mission began in 1943, not in 1940.
In Bhaktodharaka Sri Sathya Sai (published by the SSB Books and Publications Trust, undated, like most of the official SSB books), a short volume about SSB's Mission, N. Lakshmi Devamma (another early close devotee and schoolteacher) cites other people's experiences and her own. She says that her own experiences date from a darshan when SSB was 15, but she gives no date. (Her introduction to SSB was through her worship of Shirdi Sai in Penukonda, possibly at the house of SSB's sister, Parvathamma.)
"Swami was then 15 years old. He was wearing a white dhoti and a white shirt. Bala Baba had a thick, black, beautiful crop, a golden complexion, luminous eyes that were large and full of compassion, and red smiling lips." (p. 36)
One of a series of end photos of SSB in sepia colour in Devamma's book is captioned: "When I first saw Swami - 1941". (We do not know whether the caption was supplied by the author, an editor, or the publisher.) However, the same photo (in a far superior reproduction) is included in Love is My Form, Vol. 1, on page 232, and it is clearly labelled, "Baba at Bangalore, 1945". With the evidence we now have, this later date seems correct, and Devamma's description of SSB's face also corresponds to photographs in LIMF from 1943 on (which were the first sequential photos taken of him). Another photo reproduced in Devamma=s book has the caption "Swami declared his avatar at Uravakonda on 20-10-1940" (either written by the author, an editor, or by the publisher). The same photo is in LIMF (p. 150), where it is claimed to be the first photo taken after his Declaration at Uravakonda (which LIMF's clear chronological account has shown to have taken place in October 1943). The caption to this photo adds more identifying detail: "Young Sai Baba seated on Sai Baba Gundu in Anjaneyulu's house (photographer V.V. Ramulu)".
In the light of the above evidence, it appears that Devamma really met SSB in 1945 and that, if, as she says, he was fifteen when they met, this would point to a birth date of 1929 or 1930, but the evidence still seems too circumstantial. (See Endnote.)
Confirmation from SSB?
Interestingly, a recent contribution from SSB himself also confirms the evidence in Love is My Form that the year of the alleged Declarations and of his leaving the High School in Uravakonda cannot have been 1940. In his Discourse on 16 May 2002, SSB offered his audience some more boastful and flattering reminiscences of his youth and told his audience that during the Second World War (1939-1945), as a schoolboy, he was asked by the communist leaders to compose a song in honour of Stalin. The song he claims to have written includes references to Hitler invading Russia, the Soviet heroic defence and a prediction of Stalin's eventual victory. He adds: "Many of them [the villagers] wondered how this tiny tot Sathyanarayana Raju had come to know of Hitler and Stalin. These names were unknown to most of the people in that region. Know that there is nothing that Sai does not know." [Note the characteristic self-confidence, ironic in this context.]
On page 79 of LIMF there is a long quotation from an undated Discourse where SSB is boasting about his satirical poems in Bukkapatnam (that is, probably in 1941-1942, according to the school register photostats produced in LIMF) including one about Hitler and the British. (According to Note 20 on page 43, this unpublished - but videotaped - Discourse may have been that of 3 June 1991 or 17 October 1999. This remains to be verified.) So, since Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, and SSB was, as he says in this Discourse, still at the Bukkapatnam school, the so-called "tiny tot" must have been between 14 and 16 (according to the 1926 birthdate) or between 11 and 13 (according to the other possible 1929 date), pursuing his education rather than getting on with his Mission, as the official 1940 Declaration date has always indicated.
1. Because of this clear and welcome LIMF evidence, therefore, the official SSO history of SSB's Mission needs to be corrected: 1940 = 1943. So any references in books or websites to SSB's Mission and devotees in 1941, 1942, and 1943 must be assumed to refer to the end of 1943 (following the October Declaration), 1944, and 1945, and should likewise be adjusted, as we shall see.
2. Relevance to SSB's age and date of birth
It should be noted that the above adjustment focuses attention on SSB's stated year of birth. Since the official biography, which gives SSB's year of birth as 1926, has always inextricably linked the two numbers 1940 and 'nearly 14' to SSB's declarations, the LIMF evidence of Declarations in 1943 shows that either 14 or 1926 must be incorrect. If SSB was 14 in 1943, as is possible, then he was born in 1929; if he was born in 1926, then he was nearly 17 at the time of the Declarations in Uravakonda, which is also possible.
The unsolved mystery of the lengthy 'Scorpion' episode and the Shirdi connection
Also in need of further investigation, although dealt with in some detail by LIMF, is the famous (and highly significant though mysterious) incident in early 1943 (1940, officially) of SSB's long and traumatic physical, emotional and mental affliction. (See the detailed account in LIMF, pp. 95-121)
What emerges from LIMF is that Sathya was taken to Uravakonda in January or February 1943 by Seshama and that in March 1943 he was suddenly incapacitated by a very strange illness. (Initially, it was thought to be the result of a scorpion bite, although no scorpion was found.) Symptoms included temporary unconsciousness, a high fever, delirium, hallucinations and the reciting of Telugu poetry which Sathya is alleged never to have read. After medical examinations produced a general diagnosis that this was a 'mental' problem, Sathya was given medication. Sathya returned to Puttaparthi and more delirium and strange behaviour followed. Finally, when the family was convinced that the boy was possessed by a spirit, there was a violent two-day period of exorcism, which involved four knife marks (scorings) on the boy's skull and the application of a herbal treatment. The idea that such traumatic experiences could have contained a strong mystical element which affected his subsequent actions surely cannot be dismissed out of hand and still needs deeper investigation.
See also V. and S. Balu, Divine Glory, Part 2, pp, 138-148 (by S. Balu) for an interview with Seshama a few months before his death, and especially pp. 141-2 for a description of the 'scorpion ' incident: Evening of March 8 [no years are given!]. 24 hours later, Sathya was unconscious and without a pulse. He was given injections. 12 hours later he awoke and began to recite famous poems from books he had never read. He was taken to doctors and traditional healers. He had violent fits and needed restraint. They tried a sorcerer to exorcise a ghost but the man told Seshama that it wasn't a ghost but 'daiva maya' (divine illusion). Still he remained delirious. They finally tried the extreme treatment of an exorcist but it was so painful that they stopped it. He alternated between trances and poetry recitations. Then on May 23, in answer to his father's angry challenge for the invading spirit to speak up, he made the "I am Sai Baba, I belong to Apasthamba Suthra, I am of the Bharadwaja Gothra" declaration. After that Seshama said he began to notice signs like vibhuti forming on his brother's forehead and this otherwise sceptical brother was convinced the powers were genuine and that Sathya might have been possessed by the spirit of Shirdi Sai Baba. (p. 142)
What adds further intrigue to the Shirdi connection or fixation is that in a taperecorded Foreword to LIMF, Kamalamma (the Karnam's widow) states that SSB had told her after his Declaration in Uravakonda: "I am not a ghost. I am Shirdi Baba. I want to join this boy. I trouble this body in numerous ways, to settle down." (But these very suggestive last two sentences are absent in a later quotation in LIMF.)
Also to be considered: On a visit to Kamalapuram in 1944, when asked by a former schoolfriend where his spiritual powers came from, SSB gave this "quizzical" reply: One day Shirdi Baba appeared to me and put five items of food on a golden plate. After eating that food, I obtained this power." (p. 156)
SSB's former teachers VC Kondappa and Subbannachar visited him in 1944 to find out more about the life of Shirdi. SSB gave them unknown early details (p. 203). Kondappa then wrote a short book in Telugu about him. The English translation is now available but not easy to obtain. Does it include these details and do they correspond with those of ONE of SSB's conflicting revelations about Shirdi's early years in Discourses given in 1990 and 1992?
In view of SSB's frequent use of striking and enigmatic statements, it would be easy to read too much into those last two strange references to Shirdi Sai Baba. However, it is relevant to point out that during the early part of his Mission, he did act (and was widely regarded) as if he were Shirdi Sai Baba. It was only in the 1950s that he began to emphasise his stronger Claims of unique Divinity and Full Divine Powers and only in the late 1960s that the Shirdi references became more muted. So, it seems essential to acknowledge here that for reasons or causes still to be established, Sathya Narayana became totally convinced in May 1943 that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba. He maintained that conviction and confidently lived according to it for years.
(Specially recommended for further study is Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay. A Study of Gurus, (1997) in which he examines similar traumatic incidents in the lives of some other well-known gurus. As for the hypothesis, raised by some writers, that the 'scorpion' incident and the subsequent events of late 1943 may be evidence that Sathya Narayana was 'possessed', it is intriguing and certainly deserves further investigation (not least because it could throw new light on the beginning of the SSB Mission. This topic may well be of interest to academic parapsychologists, within whose territory it lies, though it is difficult to see how their rigorous standards of proof could be met in such an 'ancient' case.)
The Mission Begins
1943 (late October): Back to Puttaparthi to begin his mission, firstly in his father's house, then at the house of his Brahmin surrogate mother figure from early childhood, Subbamma (the widow - or more accurately, co-widow - of the late Karnam of the village).
1944: LIMF offers many early photographs of SSB and his first devotees and benefactors (many attracted by the news of his miracles and Shirdi Sai claims) from Bangalore and further afield.
Other mysterious discrepancies and gaps in the SSB story: 1943-1945
There were already varying accounts of the years 1944 and 1945 which thanks to LIMF we now know were the first years of the SSB Mission. To these LIMF adds some details but the resulting picture is still blurred and incomplete. Above all, LIMF suggests that, in spite of the rose-coloured legend of SSB's instant and unstoppable success after his Declarations, this initial period as a guru was quite hard for SSB, that he was unpopular in his native village, that he may have had serious doubts about his calling, and even that he spent some months in a local cave.
The LIMF account (p. 237) suggests that, following his Declaration and return from Uravakonda, SSB had been living in the house of his wealthy Brahmin sponsor, Karnam Subbamma (one of two wives of the deceased Karnam). However, there was village opposition to his activities and especially to his non-Brahmin caste status, and to the number of people visiting SSB at that house. Subbamma was therefore being subjected to strong criticism by villagers. To the extent that SSB had to adhere to strict caste rules and stop entering her kitchen and to speak to Subbamma only outside the house. The resentment against SSB's presence in Subbamma's house grew. The elders wanted an eye kept on him. He was hyper-charged with energy, according to his 'associates' and had to be restrained (p.165). There was an attempt to "exile" him to Bukkapatnam but the villagers there were also opposed to his presence and activities.
LIMF (p.237) continues: "Turned out by the rustic people, Baba moved away to some caves in a hill, located on the other side of the Chitravathi river, near Janakampalli." [interview] "He stayed there for some time - probably six months with short breaks for outstation visits in between. Years later, Baba would confide that Subbamma's relatives made His stay at the Karnam house intolerable ... He even wrote to his Bangalore devotees, Madhava Rao and Sankaramma, "I am staying on the hill. Not yet gone to the village." [private archival letter]
"When the villagers found out where SSB was, they thought that he was performing some austerities to obtain powers [Note this shortest possible reference to this almost taboo subject!].Whenever they approached these caves Baba appeared as snakes to drive them away." [interview]
In Vijayakumari (p. 219), she tells us that in 1949 SSB had told her and others: "For the next six months, keeping out of sight of everyone, I remained hidden in an underground tunnel, under a tree that has come to be known as Kalpa Vriksha (Wish-fulfilling tree)." Even Kasturi makes a brief but not very helpful mention of this obscure period
In this tense situation, a local (Kothacheruvu) Swami asked SSB's family if he could take the lad as a ward and future successor, but Easwaramma refused permission. This was when Subbamma intervened once more to allow SSB to reside in a hut on an isolated piece of land of hers. This, incidentally, must be the hut about which SSB himself has told the story of almost being burnt alive by a cowardly arson attack by villagers. (From recollection, I think SSB more or less plays down this very serious incident as a prank by naughty local boys!)
All these negative details indicate rather clearly that the beginning of SSB's Mission was NOT an effortless success, but had its moments of doubt and despair, and underlines the fact that in Puttaparthi resentment against SSB was strong. (LIMF , p. 241) [interview with Karnam Kamalamma, 21 April 1998. Kamalamma was the other widow of the late Karnam.]
In that same interview, we are told that in another incident "Baba was bound to a boulder and thrown down a hill." Also, Kamalamma reveals all these years later, that it was she who then persuaded the ailing Subbamma - the other widow of the Karnam, who doted on SSB - to donate a piece of land for SSB's use. This land was immediately registered in SSB's name on 21 July 1945 - this gives us a valuable date to work with - and with enthusiastic work by SSB's devotees, including some from Bangalore, and the generosity of a Bangalore builder benefactor, the first mandir was built and inaugurated only 5 months later (15 December 1945), but by then Subbamma had died (25 November 1945).
And from this point on, the official chronology (as well as that of Kasturi and those few SSB writers who bother to mention dates) at last begins to coincide with the dates mentioned in LIMF. (See the whole chapter in LIMF, pp. 237-265.)
With reference to the cave episode, there is more to be said. In an otherwise meticulously produced 600-page book, which gives minute details on many things, it is significant to note that there is NOTHING specific about what SSB was DOING in the cave (just a vague rumour, in fact). However, in a very well-documented piece of independent research, Sanjay Dadlani has traced incomplete and conflicting reports in books by Schulman, and early devotees Purnaiya and Vijayakumari. (See www.exbaba.com for 5 July 2002: 'Sai Baba: Shiva or Sadhaka?') Dadlani's interesting analysis leads him to suggest, very plausibly, that SSB spent the six months engaged in the concentrated activity of a solitary sadhaka, honing his skills. This would flatly contradict SSB's (and his spokespersons') claim to be a ready-made fully-fledged Avatar who had no need to undertake any special training or austerities as a sadhaka, or to study the Hindu scriptures. It might also explain why LIMF is so vague about these lost months: despite all its invaluable contributions of priceless new facts, LIMF is, after all, written by devotees anxious not to displease, offend or embarrass SSB. Therefore, the writer of a full history of SSB has to rely on and follow up perceptive investigations like Dadlani's to fill in these apparently deliberate gaps in the official literature.
Addendum: The Planned Avatar?
Some Early Doubts
In spite of all the hagiographic overstatements about SSB, from time to time pieces of disconnected circumstantial evidence crop up (tantalisingly), suggesting that SSB may NOT always have been so 100% convinced of his Mission as spokespersons and writers have claimed. As we have seen above, some or many Puttaparthi residents had strong initial doubts about his status. Once more, LIMF adds relevant data and opinions to other available nuggets of information in the SSB literature.
In LIMF, Vijayakumari and elsewhere in the SSB literature, there are occasional clues that what is taken (and claimed) as a preordained Mission from birth and even before may in fact have developed later, during SSB's adult life and that early on even his family were not convinced.
LIMF suggests that SSB's own father, Pedda Venkama Raju, was still not convinced of his Divinity in 1944 (p. 170: "Lock this crazy fellow inside the house."). Neither have I found any subsequent evidence in LIMF of any close devotion to SSB by his father. According to a footnote on page 178 (Note 1, from an interview with Meesaraganda Ganapathi Raju), his maternal uncle Chandramouli cared for him as a child but "never thought of Baba as special or divine ..." Of his sisters, the elder one, Venkamma is often mentioned as a devotee, like her mother, Easwaramma, but Parvathamma, who became a school teacher, is hardly mentioned at all in LIMF and we find no mention of devotion to SSB by her or their younger brother, Jana Kiramaiah. (With the death of the latter a year or two ago, all of SSB's siblings have pre-deceased him. Incidentally, the youngest, Jana, has by far the most opulent tomb.)
In 1946 or 1947, SSB's brother, Seshama, whose faith in his brother's early claims also seems unclear, was so concerned at SSB's lack of acceptance locally and that his main devotees were from distant towns and villages that he wrote a warning letter to his brother telling him to give up his activities - for fear of SSB's failure (LIMF, p. 349). SSB's energetic and lengthy response in May 1947 has been given great prominence in the SSB literature - see LIMF pp. 350-351. (The compilers do not include Seshama's original letter. There must be a copy of this somewhere but I have not come across it.)
The whole question of whether Seshama was a reluctant late believer in the Divinity of SSB is raised by one or two other writers too. For example, long-time devotees Victor and (the late) Shakuntala Balu have reported Seshama as saying that he and the family were not aware of SSB's miraculous powers as a child but thought he was just playing with the children. After initial suspicion about SSB's powers, Seshama seems to have accepted them and Mrs Balu goes on to record that "Seshama Raju felt that, most certainly, Sathyam was different and wondered whether the great soul of Shirdi Sai Baba had taken possession of his brother's body after the near fatal scorpion bite. He was no longer the same Sathyam." (Divine Glory,Part 2, written by Shakuntala, pp.138-143.) Not exactly a resounding endorsement of an Avatar.
SSB's Own Fleeting Doubt: Samadhi in 1948?
The first years of the Mission (1944 to 1947) were very busy for SSB. According to Kasturi, after the extensive travels and activities in these years, SSB became exhausted and lost his appetite. Kasturi suggests, logically, that his body was exhausted by the spiritual powers which were growing within him. But in LIMF , which shows several very gaunt-faced photos of SSB in 1948, it is clearly stated that he expressed the desire to attain Samadhi (self-absorption with Brahman) but was dissuaded from this by Sakamma and others.
"Around this time, Baba wanted to attain Samadhi. Sakamma and Savrithramma held His feet and said "You should not leave; You should live with us, Swami, for many years." Finally, Baba changed His mind." (LIMF, p. 447, quoting a personal interview with Shantha Krishnamurthy, on 24 April, 1998.)
An exclusive LIMF interview with another contemporary corroborates that four years previously, in 1944, SSB "was telling us that He would attain Samadhi in three years and take birth again in Mandya near Mysore. We told Him we would not be able to live without Him." (LIMF, 197, citing an interview with D.M. Narayanappa on 27 February 2000.) (Mandya, incidentally, is the district allegedly named by SSB as the future birthplace of Prema Sai.)
On the other hand, LIMF quotes from Kasturi's Easwaramma (p. 78) that SSB did claim to have willed this illness or weak condition on himself - so could it have been just a STORY?
Once again, all of this discrepant, incomplete and vague material raises a recurring doubt: are the many discrepancies over basic facts about SSB's life and Mission simply due to inconsistencies in his own self-promotion and to devotees' unconditional and over-simplistic acceptance of his utterances as either Divinely omniscient or Divine leelas? Such a doubt inevitably links up with another nagging question: How can one tell which of SSB's statements and stories are true?
The only published volume of the planned series Love is My Form, in spite of its original research and valuable new contributions to SSB biography is still, basically, a work of hagiography but it has performed two estimable and related functions for which researchers will be grateful:
It has offered clear evidence that the official biographies of SSB are flawed (thus facilitating cross-reference with other less clear sources).
It has brought us a few steps closer to the real truth (sathya) about Sathya Sai Baba's Mission and stimulated closer study of other texts about this enigmatic guru.
(There is an updated version of this: Sathya Sai Baba: Fuzzy Dates.)
Reference was made earlier to an important consequence of the new evidence offered by the LIMF researchers. The first paragraph below has already been offered as a questioning of SSB's official age at the time of the Declarations. Here it is repeated to introduce the circumstantial uncertainties surrounding SSB's official date of birth.
Since the official biography, which gives SSB's year of birth as 1926, has always inextricably linked the two numbers '1940' and 'nearly 14' to SSB's declarations, the LIMF evidence of Declarations in 1943 shows that either 14 or 1926 must be incorrect. If SSB was 14 in 1943, as is possible, then he was born in 1929; if he was born in 1926, then he was nearly 17 at the time of the Declarations in Uravakonda, which is also possible.
In addition to what was stated above in connection with the LIMF evidence concerning the Declarations in 1943, and the resulting need to adjust SSB's stated age when he undertook his Mission, there are other relevant pieces of information which need to be considered.
Although there is no conclusive proof that SSB was NOT born on 23 November 1926 as is officially claimed, there is some circumstantial evidence that may be relevant in the future if any other evidence comes to light. These research notes are appended here for future researchers, in case they are useful. (For the record, as an example of the unscrupulous tactics recently employed by a notorious pro-SSB propagandist, the above description of the new evidence and the possibilities has been falsely described as an assertion by me that SSB was NOT born in 1926. On the real significance of the school registers and the dates 1940 and 1943, the propagandist is characteristically silent.)
(It is to be noted that the 1926 date of birth is inextricably linked with the claim by SSB and the SSO that Shirdi Sai Baba predicted before his death (in 1918) that he would return in 8 years - a fact not supported, as far as I am aware, by the official Shirdi Sai literature. The 23rd of November 1926 date of birth is also inextricably linked with the very bold and confident assertion by SSB writers and devotees that Sri Aurobindo's declaration on 24 November 1926 about the descent of Krishna into the physical on the preceding day was really an acknowledgement of SSB's birth. This is at odds with the more personal way that Aurobindo's followers have interpreted this special announcement.)
In LIMF (pp. 132-133) the Register pages from Uravakonda High School give Sathya's date of birth as 4-10-39. This is an obvious mistake, later corrected to 4-10-29 (as on the Bukkapatnam Register also), but with a signed clarification, "fourth October Nineteen Twentynine" dated, as far as the writing is legible, 11-8-76. However, before too much is made of the 1929 date 'discrepancy', we have been informed, in LIMF, and by other experts on India that such errors were quite common in rural India in those days.
IF Sathya Narayana was born in 1929 (or in any year other than 1926), the significance would not merely be another misleading biographical detail about SSB but it would totally discredit the already over-enthusiastic claims by associates and devotees that on 24 November 1926, Sri Aurobindo made his well-known statement welcoming the descent to Earth of the Divine Spirit, when in fact he was welcoming the coincidental arrival of the Divine spirit into his OWN consciousness, for which he had prayed for years.
The other relevant but circumstantial scraps are as follows:
Two innocent quotations offered by Smt. Vijayakumari seem to provide a degree of independent support for the possibility that SSB's date of birth was NOT in 1926 but in 1929.
In 1945 the little girl's cousins were strolling in the affluent Bangalore suburb of Malleswaram when they heard bhajans being sung and entered the house to listen. Sai Baba, who was present there, invited them to go to Puttaparthi (whose name they had never heard).
When they returned to their town of Kuppam (south-east of Bangalore, but in today's Andhra Pradesh), the cousins told the girl's mother about their meeting. The latter was keen for them all to go, but the idea was vetoed by the father, who said: "You tell me He is sixteen years old and claims to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. This is all humbug." (p. 12)
That night the mother had a dream of SSB and they were immediately given permission by the father to visit the ashram for three days. This first visit allegedly took place during Dasara, in October 1945. (p.13) The family soon became very close to SSB and visited for long periods.
Since we have established that SSB was nearly 17 when he made his October 1943 Declaration, the father's words quoted above indicate that in 1945 SSB was not nearly 19, as would be expected, but 16, this would make his year of birth 1929 (as indicated by the register entries in LIMF). What is also interesting about this possibility is that at the time of the Mission Declarations of 1943, he would have been almost 14 years old - as he and his biographers have always claimed!
And there is yet another possible sliver of corroboration. Vijayakumari later quotes from a story session by SSB to devotees assembled on the Chitravati sand dunes in 1949 (pp. 216-218):
"Later, for High School studies, I had to go to Uravakonda. ... ..." (p. 217) "In my thirteenth year, coming to know that I had become a 'Baba' and had left home, one of my friends went mad ... Another friend jumped into a well and died." (p. 218)
We now know, from LIMF, that SSB went to Uravakonda in early 1943, and left in October 1943 (when he was still a month away from his 17th birthday) to begin his Mission after the second of his Declarations. So, according to the above quoted statement, once more a 1929 date of birth seems at least possible, although neither Vijayakumari's nor SSB's memory have proved to be totally reliable for dates.
As further typical examples of the generally vague and unreliable coverage of these early years by SSB's chroniclers, and their uncertainties or silences over dates, we may take the following references to SSB's age as a child and youth by Kasturi, Ganapati and Purnaiya. However, it seems possible (here as elsewhere) that their confusion or inaccuracy may simply be due to their total reliance on what SSB himself told them. (In these specific examples the errors may also be caused by following the unverified official dogma that SSB made his Declaration when he was nearly 14, and that this occurred in 1940, rather than in 1943). After all, Kasturi and other biographers did not have the benefit of the commendable basic detective work carried out in recent years by the LIMF researchers. And yet, as we have seen, in spite of the vastly superior biographical quality of LIMF, Vol 1, it is the 'sacred' Kasturi style that the Sathya Sai Trust has now chosen to perpetuate.
For example, N. Kasturi (K1A, p. 16) makes this wild statement: "When he was eight, Sathya was declared ready to proceed to the Higher Elementary School at Bukkapatnam, two and a half miles from Puttaparthi." [SSB was eight in either 1934 or 1937. He went to Bukkapatnam when he was either fourteen or eleven.]
Ra. Ganapati (I:71) copies Kasturi: "Satya entered the Higher Elementary School [at Bukkapatnam] at the age of eight." Then, on p. 92, he informs us: "In His twelfth year, Satyanarayana Raju had to join the High School [in Uravakonda]." As if SSB went to Uravakonda in 1937.
Nagamani Purnaiya is even further from the truth: "Sathya's schooling at Bukkapatnam lasted till he was 10 years old and passed the Vth Standard." Then she tells us that his elder brother took him to Uravakonda. (p. 6) [But SSB was 10 in either 1936 or 1939.]
The final example comes from the work of SSB's very close American associate, John Hislop, whose books and lectures had an incalculable influence on non-Indian devotees of SSB. According to Hislop's Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba (p. 124), it was SSB himself who told him the following: "Baba underwent torture at the hands of the village doctors when he first allowed his divine powers to manifest on a fairly large scale. This was around the age of 10. The doctors drilled holes in his head and stuck in hot irons, cut open the skin and poured in burning fluids, buried him in a trench with sand up to his neck and iron bars to keep him fixed in position."
According to the LIMF evidence, Sathya was sixteen years old at the time (and even if he was born in 1929, he would have been thirteen).