Misleading Evangelism (Updated)
Brian Steel November 2002
Copyright © Brian Steel 2002
Last week (6 November 2002), www.exbaba.com published an article by Robert Priddy drawing attention to the website of a devotee, Stephanie Relfe: <www.relfe.com >. Following this Web reference out of curiosity, I found that in one section of her professional wholistic health site she also advertises various spiritual books, including two on SB, and she offers a recommended link to a 5-page introduction to SB by "Bon Giovanni". The direct Relfe link to Giovanni's Introduction to SB, is to a message on a devotee Yahoo group posted in mid-December 2001: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/saidevotees_worldnet/message/114 >
If this enthusiastic confession of devotion to a guru can be recommended by a fellow SB devotee on a public and professional Internet site, I assume that any number of SB devotees and other inquisitive surfers will find their way to it - as I did. The very first impression inspired by this essay is that it should be treated with caution since it turns out that the recommended Giovanni piece was made in the form of a personal essay of both endorsement and defence of SB, describing specific alleged characteristics and biographical details. Behind the "Aw, shucks!" folksy facade, and carefully planted among the intimate statements of personal belief, are a number of contentious and misleading assertions and innuendos.
The 5-page piece is, in fact, among the latest in a long line of evangelistic Internet tracts and e-mail messages by this busy devotee. A novel feature is that, whereas in years past Mr Giovanni earned himself an Internet reputation among devotees by engaging critics of SB in debates conducted from behind a shield of relativist arguments, this time he clearly addresses his propagandistic presentation only to those who promise not to argue with any of the contents.
Characteristically, Giovanni's endorsement of SB offers us trademark doses of myth, propaganda, and error that we have become accustomed to associate with the "official" SB story, garnished with some snide remarks and innuendos which we associate with this veteran SB apologist. Faithful to his original unshakeable beliefs, Giovanni's evangelical Introduction, unlike some recent official statements, also offers a strong traditional claim for SB's Full Divinity (Purna Avatar).
For experienced surfers, this may just seem to be more of the "tired old stuff" about SB by yet another blinkered unofficial spokesman. Nevertheless, like a lot of "tired old stuff" by other SB partisans and apologists, the content, language, and structure of some parts of this Introduction have a considerable potential to mislead. Therefore, in the hope and belief that close attention to this particular (but egregious) case may also serve to highlight and discredit some of the crude tactics and procedures hitherto used with relative impunity by other SB apologists, I have extracted relevant passages which provide us with insights into Giovanni's modus operandi as well as examples of exaggerations, misleading statements, and errors. Where it seemed useful, I have added [[between double angled brackets like these]] very brief comments, assuming that any readers who need more evidence will seek it at websites such as <www.exbaba.com> ,<www.saiguru.net>, and others, which now contain abundant evidence of the many discrepancies, inconsistencies, errors, and unanswered questions which riddle the official SB story.
According to his initial manifesto, and his concluding protestations, Giovanni will read about but not 'take on board' (let alone acknowledge) his own 'spin' or his errors (or those of his guru). That is his chosen problem; other people will note the enormous discrepancies and draw their own conclusions.
Readers wishing to see the full context of these excerpts should visit the Stephanie Relfe website (www.relfe.com/spirituality2.html) or the original URL given by her:
Excerpts and Comments:
[I am grateful to Robert Priddy for relevant additional information from his invaluable database.]
"If you do read further you will learn something of how I view this man who calls himself The Poorna Avatar - but that's all. I offer no contest about my views; I will not argue nor debate nor challenge any reply. If I have already rubbed you the wrong way, now is a good time to bid adieu."
[[A notice that dissenters from the Giovanni gospel are not welcome, even with evidence!]]
"Those who do talk about him in public are usually those who have themselves only read a book or seen a video or heard from someone who says they knew someone who heard something or other. Even then he is often described only in terms of adulation or criticism - rarely is he introduced without extreme. I kind of shy away from extremists, pro or con. I prefer balance."
[[Noted, but if the reader perseveres, she or he will come to wonder what Giovanni's definitions of 'extreme' and 'balance' are.]]
"Very few people who know him speak about him casually. As a result, there are not only no evangelicals in his camp, there are very few outspoken devotees, fewer still who speak fondly of him on the Net. There are however many Net critics. Why? Perhaps because they doubt such a person can be. Doubt, sincere doubt, is healthy. Sincere doubt comes first hand; it arises from one's own experience and thought- it does not enter via the ear, from hearsay. Doubt based on hearsay is the sign of the enslaved mind. It is easy to dissolve sincere doubt- arduous to dissolve doubt that is based only on hearsay, and impossible to remove the doubt of those who do not see any difference."
[[1. No "evangelicals in his camp"? Very few "outspoken devotees"? What about Mr Giovanni himself, and this particular piece of outspokenness? What about the massive pro-SB literature and the incessant hum of gossip among devotees, particularly in Internet chat groups like those frequented (and in some cases directed) by Giovanni over several years?
2. Hearsay is one thing; facts are another. They deserve attention from people with open minds.]]
"The mystic scholar Sri Aurobindo some distance away and knowing nothing of the Raju family, noted in his journal on November 24, 1926 an inner awareness that Krishna had again taken form on earth."
[[1. An old indirect claim, but this official appropriation of credit and legitimisation for SB, slyly insinuated by Giovanni, has never been proved. Biographical accounts indicate that Sri Aurobindo's (and disciples') references were to a perceived culmination of Aurobindo's own spiritual concentration. Worse still for Giovanni and other perennial purveyors of doubtful old rumours, a faithful and well known SB devotee, Birgitte Rodriguez, who had previously been a resident of the Aurobindo ashram, states categorically in her 1993 book, Glimpses of the Divine (p. xxiii), that:
(i) the Mother stated that "Krishna on that day descended into the physical to join and help Sri Aurobindo in this work."
(ii) (referring to a diary entry by Aurobindo): "It should be quite clear from this quotation that what happened on November 24, 1926 related to Sri Aurobindo. Quite often Sai devotees take this statement by Sri Aurobindo to be a reference to Sathya Sai Baba who was born on the preceding day ... It is an incorrect interpretation."
2. A further potential source of embarrassment for the officially propagated myth is that, according to recent evidence in LIMF (2000), SB's official date of birth (1926) remains to be verified.]]
"Sathya's family (the parents died of old age long ago- however, a brother or two and one sister are yet alive) eked out their living as low-level Kshatriya caste Hindus, ... (His relatives today have no special place of honour, they live and work and die just like everyone else)."
[[1. An inaccuracy, perhaps to further ennoble the subject's early "struggle"? (The Kshatriya caste is the Warrior class, second to Brahmins.)
2. SB's younger brother is an extremely wealthy and influential man and is a Board member of the Sathya Sai Trust.]]
"From his birth he has enjoyed miraculous abilities, most notable of which to me is the degree of love and clarity and compassion one awakens to in his presence. He also materializes objects effortlessly, (all kinds, from fruits to gems to hot candy to animals to image-of-the-moment photographs) and he frequently appears in multiple places at once, heals the sick, raises the dead and knows whatever he wishes to know at once - be that a language, a location, or a history. (I have seen this at close quarters over extended periods in all kinds of places with all kinds of people). He has been doing such things in public for over fifty years. Although almost no one in everyday America has heard of him, there are more than 8 million of his devotees in the world, ..."
[[1. A typical abbreviated (but still sweeping) list of alleged miracles like those repeated in hundreds of books by SB devotees since the 1950s. Some of these spectacular types of alleged miracles were quite ephemeral, or were discontinued long ago, before the ashram crowds became very large, yet they still go on being claimed, as here, as if they happened every month or two. As Giovanni and his informants must have read (but not registered) in their vigilant monitoring of Internet postings and media articles and documentaries, there is growing controversy over SB's most frequent types of contemporary public "materialisations" (vibhuti, rings, lingams, etc.).
2. The claim to be in "multiple" places at once, assuming multiple to mean "more than two", is an interesting claim of Giovanni's on his master's behalf but the more usual official claim is that SB appears in two places at once (bilocation).
3. In spite of Giovanni's personal guarantee, the claim that SB "knows whatever he wishes" is also breathtakingly sweeping and vague and is not supported by any close scrutiny of or familiarity with SB's "knowledge" base, which shrinks in size with each set of published counter-evidence against his claimed omniscience.]]
"Sensing some great change in the lad, an elder asked Who Are You? The boy then threw a handful of jasmine into the air, and the petals fell into the fully formed letters on the ground spelling the name SAI BABA. No one in the village had ever heard that name before. The boy said he was the 'avatar of Sai'."
[[The diehard official line again, complete with the cute but unverifiable miraculous Telugu-spelling flowers story. SB and the SSO International Chairman are also reported as having stated that no locals knew about Shirdi Sai Baba at the time of his Declaration, but there is now ample evidence that this is not true and that they and Giovanni are wrong: see LIMF.]]
"Young Sathyanarayana thereupon took the name SATHYA Sai Baba, announcing he was the second of three Sai Avatars. (An avatar is the descent of the divine into human form). In October of 1940 as the boy calling himself Sathya Sai Baba spoke these things, people in that region had never heard of any "Sai" before, as it is an idiomatic Arabic word and in that isolated region only Telugu was spoken."
[ [A repetition, reinforcement, of the myth, plus the 1940 date, proved impossible by the publication in LIMF of three school register photostats and many other pieces of evidence indicating 1943 as the correct year of the Declarations.]]
"In 1943 the villagers were told by traveling holy men that far away in the north in an off the map no road to it village called Shirdi, there had indeed lived an old man, venerated by both Muslim and Hindu, who had called himself the Sai Baba. He had died in 1918, saying he would come again in 8 years."
[[ 1. As already indicated, the villagers did not really need these unreferenced "travelling holy men" to tell them about Shirdi Sai Baba. The young Sathya Narayana was known to have pictures of the Shirdi saint, and one of his own uncles was a devotee of Shirdi Baba.
2. Also, it is curious that Giovanni jumps from 1940 (the alleged Official date of the Declarations) to 1943. What happened to SB's alleged Mission in 1941 and 1942? For the reason given above, which Giovanni refuses to accept, even though it was published in 2000 in an important and much-discussed book by devotee researchers (LIMF): Sathya Narayana was still at school during those years.
3. This alleged prediction by Shirdi Sai of his re-birth as Sathya Sai Baba, and the 8-year hiatus reported by SB himself, is only documented by those SB devotees who are also devotees of the Northern saint. There appears to be no evidence at all that this alleged prediction forms part of the core beliefs (or that it is mentioned in the official biographies) of the flourishing Shirdi Sai Baba Association, which is unconnected to the SSO.]]
[[Contrary to some contemporary official attempts to downplay the Divine claims, Giovanni gives a traditional confident version of the whole Purna Avatar claim as SB initially used to make it.]]
"As the young boy grew into manhood he traversed India, meeting its holy men and spiritual leaders, and was soon called by them not just Avatar, but Purna Avatar. That was unusual since a Purna Avatar has ALL the powers and abilities of GOD: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnifelicity. One may say Full Incarnations of GOD are uh, well, "rare". Poorna avatar is not a messiah, a mahdi, a prophet, a sage or a saint - but is God Incarnate. In India, their most ancient scripture affirms that *all* is God Incarnate - so with respect any holy man can be called an avatar- but a Poorna Avatar? A very rare occurrence. What is different about this Sathya Sai Baba, what led those leaders to acknowledge him as Poorna Avatar, is that he knows that is the truth, and lives accordingly. He tells all who will hear that they too are GOD, and can live accordingly."
[[Note the use of language here and its strong potential to mislead the unwary: juxtaposed sweeping statements, "traversed India", "meeting its holy men and spiritual leaders" (i.e. collectively, not just "SOME spiritual leaders" or "a few"), and "was soon called by them not just Avatar ..."
This loose language is typical of unsubstantiated devotee and SSO propaganda. SB's early travels (in the 1940s and 1950s) beyond his Telugu language homeland and especially beyond South India were relatively limited, and brief, and not particularly successful in impressing the "leaders" (for example, his brief officially over-hyped 1957 visit - when he was already 30 years old - to Swami Shivananda's ashram in Rishikesh). More importantly, there is no hard evidence that in his youth SB was instantly recognised as a Purna Avatar with "ALL the powers and abilities of GOD ..." by India's (collective) "spiritual leaders". Yet this extraordinary claim is triumphantly asserted in this daring Introduction. (Interestingly, the SSO, unlike Giovanni, now seems to prefer to avoid the use of such exotic and exclusive terminology in its public relations with the world outside the ashrams, India, and devotee circles. But Giovanni is absolutely right about one thing: SB did make such bold claims.]]
"By 1975, American hippies had begun coming in large numbers, then Germans, then Italians. After Swami resurrected a California oil man who died in an Indian hospital, I went for my first visit. ..."
[[Another standard myth, one of the oldest and most often repeated: the alleged "resurrection" of the millionaire Walter Cowan, in 1971. Evidence to disprove this was presented long ago in investigations by B. Premanand, Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson, and Dale Beyerstein. Giovanni, along with the SSO and most devotees, has doggedly ignored such available evidence, which can hardly be dismissed as hearsay or (in the case of Prof. Haraldsson, at least) as written by an "unfriendly" critic, or by someone working on behalf of the Christian churches, to quote the most recent charge made by Indian devotees and spokespersons.]]
"He has materialized images of the third avatar to come, the Prema Sai form, and has revealed the village of his future birth, so that none may be deceived when he reappears in that third form."
[[Again note Giovanni's strong traditional claim, which is nowadays more muted by officials, and even by SB, who, in his 50 years of Discourses has made very few references to Prema Sai.]]
"That little brown baby born to those parents in 1926 is now a beaming dark skinned afro-haired 5'1' fella who yet lives in the small town of his birth and certainly looks closer to forty than 70 years old. Fundamentalists have declared him to be Ssssatan; Skeptics regularly write of him as a quack; religious leaders deny any public knowledge of him, but many do come to meet him; heads of state or their representatives visit him often. ........
[[Fundamentalists? The pot calling the kettle black?]]
[[The complete vagueness of Giovanni's reference to "religious leaders" makes it worthless, as well as unworthy.]]
"There are more than 30 books by him, available to the public at prices near cost. (Books about him tend to cost more, sometimes serving as income to the publisher.) Very few long term devotees use their experience with him to make money."
[[In the first sentence, Giovanni conveniently omits any credit for the SB books to the translators and editors, whose input into the books, as we now know, is considerable. The remaining two sentences are irrelevant to SB but serve as standard examples of Giovanni's personal agenda and crude tactics, seen at their most irresponsible level in his publishing of a totally unfounded character smear against the prominent SB critic and ex-devotee, Robert Priddy.]]
"There are a few critics who publish yet have never met him, (Randi certainly never talked with him privately (Beyerstein). Many continue to boast they have 'proved' him a fake. I read their words, attend their study, but do not seek their company. How could I? They have no experience, no first hand knowledge, no facts, and do but rant. I give attention only to those who seek balance, wisdom, and experience, because what we give attention to, grows.
[[1. The reference to Beyerstein is unclear but he published a 1992 web-book of mainly factual criticisms, for whose validity a "meeting" was not at all necessary. Apart from that and the usual loaded language and empty accusations ("no experience", "no facts", "rant") from this vigilant Big Brother in his self-appointed task of protecting devotee 'waverers' from "hearsay", all that we see in the above lines is a grim and stubborn determination not to face any of the many facts which are now freely available in the usual places which the author says he "attends"! If it were not for this wilful closing of his mind, Giovanni could easily have avoided most of the flaws and weaknesses in his own misleading Introduction. But that might not suit his agenda.]]
2. As for interviews (which Giovanni absurdly stipulates as a prerequisite for the formation of any valid opinion about any aspect of SB, his Mission or the SSO), there are also a few well known ex-devotee critics of SB who have had MANY interviews with SB, like Conny Larsson (approximately 40) and David Bailey (approximately 100). What they have had to say about their close observation of SB does not support SB's Divine claims at all. There are probably many others who had interviews with SB among the signatories of the JuST Group's 32 initial signatories of the Petition for the Official Investigation of Sathya Sai Baba and His Worldwide Organization, and perhaps more among the 200-plus other signatories to date. Once again, Giovanni's erratic shots injure only himself and his credibility.]]
In view of the long history of tendentious or misleading information disseminated about SB, coupled with a determined denial of inconvenient evidence, of which the above extraordinary excerpts from Giovanni's Introduction to SB are both typical and blatant, the following sentiments could be seen by many as applying, in some degree or other, to all such activities by all such would-be manipulators:
"Fundamentalism means uncritical, literal acceptance of what are supposed to be the founding doctrines or documents of a doctrine. It demands a closed mind and the suspension of rational faculties; it is attractive only to the desperate and the dim. ... Its power to reassure is irresistible to its adherents and repulsive to everybody else." (Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Truth, p. 207)
Update, 24 November:
One of the most pathetic examples of the blind faith of many of SB's devotees against all the odds has been visible over the past two weeks on the tiny but vociferous Yahoo devotee group called Saiunity. Following the failure of another member to produce any comfort for fellow devotees over recent revelations about the Mehdi Moud fiasco and the different Wolf Messing stories, a couple of members have been making desperate attempts to rally the troops by warming up old allegations of stirring "cosmic" miracles allegedly involving, firstly, a satellite picture of SB's head superimposed on the map of India and, more recently, the unsupported claim that the cosmonaut Neil Armstrong had endorsed SB's Divinity. (Even if Armstrong had made such a statement, what weight would that carry in the face of the counter-evidence which has been steadily mounting up to disprove SB's claims?)
This latter story about the famous astronaut, rehashed by a zealous devotee with a high gullibility quotient, was so embarrassingly unsupported that 'Big Brother' Giovanni felt obliged to intervene and produce some counter-evidence to prevent the faithful from being led further astray, as he has done in some other preposterous cases of unsupported rumour-mongering among devotees in the Groups he manages or patrols. Commendable? Certainly, but also characteristically selective on Giovanni's part. Based on his behaviour over several years, and the example commented on in this investigative article, we may have to wait a while longer before Giovanni faces up to those other exaggerated, unsupported or erroneous "facts" which he himself propagates in his steadfast public statements of support for SB's alleged Divinity.
(See also Robert Priddy's recent revelations and comments on the Dutch exbaba website (21 November 2002): 'On the Web Activities of Sai Apologist Bon Giovanni'.)
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