Erlendur Haraldsson Breaks his Silence on Sathya Sai Baba's Final Decade
Copyright © 2013 Brian Steel
Dr Haraldsson has had a long and productive career as an academic parapsychologist, with many papers and a significant (much-translated) parapsychological academic book to his credit, first published in 1977 with his senior colleague, Dr Karlis Osis. Haraldsson published a new academic study last year. In addition he has published two investigative studies, one as a young journalist and the other, on the parapsychological powers of the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba.
For further background to this commentary, here are some basic bio-details for Haraldsson and Osis, which are relevant to the genesis and evolution of Modern Miracles. (Originally UK title, Miracles are My Visiting Cards in 1987.)
Karlis Osis: 1917 (Latvia) – 1997 (USA)
Early teenage experience of light at aunt’s deathbed.
1950. PhD, Munich. Parapsychology. ‘A Hypothesis of Extrasensory Perception’
1957-1962. USA. Parapsychology Laboratory (J.B.Rhine), 1957-1962. (especially on mediumship)
1969-1997. American Society for Psychical Research
Main interests: ESP. psychokinesis, OBEs, Life after Death, mediumship, meditation
Deathbed Visions: Pilot Survey, 1959-1960. (Report published 1961.)
Deathbed Visions: US Survey, 1961-1964.
Deathbed Visions: Indian Survey, 1972-1973, assisted by Erlendur Haraldsson (The duo also made a separate visit to Sathya Sai Baba and an attempt to conduct a scientific study of his alleged powers. Sathya Sai Baba steadfastly declined to co-operate.) There was a further joint visit in 1975. A joint academic work was published in 1977: What They Say … at The Hour of Death, A New Look at Evidence for Life after Death.)
A revealing 1973 quote from Dr Osis:
“I have been an active researcher for twenty five years, have travelled widely, and nowhere have I found a phenomenon which points so clearly and forcibly to spiritual reality as do the daily miracles around Baba.”
Erlendur Haraldsson: 1931 (Iceland) –
1959-1963. Journalist and writer, specialising in West Asia and India.
1967. Publication of a Book on the Kurdish Problem: Land im Aufstand, Hamburg, Matari Verlag
Psychology studies in Germany
1969-1970. Studied Clinical Psychology at the University of Virginia
1972. PhD, University of Freiburg: ‘Vasomotoric Indicators of ESP’
1972-1974. Research Associate at the American Society for Psychical Research
1972-1973 and 1975 Research Visits to India with Karlis Osis to research Deathbed Visions. In 1973 this led to a side trip to S. India to try to investigate the powers of Sathya Sai Baba
Subsequently: University of Iceland, etc.
1976-1988. Further research trips to SSB’s ashram, alone or with colleagues.
1977. Osis and Haraldsson’s book (At the Hour of Death) published.
1984. Completed manuscript of book on Sathya Sai Baba and sent copies to India to be checked by respondents
1987. Publication of Miracles are My Visiting Cards and, later, in USA as Modern Miracles
1988. Presentation of the book to Sathya Sai Baba, who expressed displeasure at some of the content (as did officials of the the Sathya Sai Baba Organisation and some devotees)
1997. Slightly revised edition published
2012-2013. Publication of a further edition of the joint 1977 book and a new Haraldsson work, The Departed among the Living. An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters, Guildford, UK, White Crow. (“Our books are either non-fiction or classic fiction of a spiritual nature encompassing world spirituality.”)
2013. Expanded edition published as Modern Miracles. Sathya Sai Baba. The Story of a Modern Day Prophet
For further bibliographical information, see:
In July this year, Haraldsson completed a hat trick of new publications within 12 months with a slightly extended version of Modern Miracles. He has also been busy promoting them all. Quite a feat for an octogenarian.
The latest version of Modern Miracles comes to us after Haraldsson’s total silence during the extraordinary flurry of publications, serious new revelations and controversies about SSB since 2000 (and two years after the guru’s ‘premature’ death). The prolonged silence has been particularly regrettable because this much- published and translated book on important aspects of Sathya Sai Baba (SSB) has been widely promoted by fervent devotees and officials of the SSB Organisation as the scientific proof of their guru’s Divine powers (Omnipotence, etc.) This is not Dr Haraldsson’s fault, of course, because SSB did not allow him and Osis to conduct appropriate tests, and so he has, correctly, never claimed this as a scientific work. Nevertheless, this incorrect claim or defence has been used by devotees now for 25 years, not only to convince possible converts but also to answer most critics and criticisms of SSB, of which there have been many. It is therefore possible that sales of the 2 English editions and 14 translations have reached hundreds of thousands and that the majority of purchasers will have been SSB devotees, who have always been eager readers (and, in hundreds of cases, writers also) of stories about SSB’s powers. This new edition will probably be much translated and sold, and the unfounded claims may continue to be made by devotees. However, as we shall see later, since EH is not a devotee of SSB and since his carefully recorded interviews and analyses have thrown up occasional inconvenient anomalies and evidence which devotees are either not aware of or prefer to keep to themselves or dismiss, there is a possibility that devotees will find the new revelations too much to tolerate.
(See here for more detailed comment on and criticism of Haraldsson’s silence by a friend (now ex-) who constantly urged him to speak out.)
See also this earlier reaction to the news by Chris Dokter.
An example of devotee zealotry from 2005:
“Dear Sai Brothers and Sisters,
When BBC team visited Whitefield I was present there. I have realised that they had negative attitude and malice intention with preconceived negative notion about Baba. They have no genuine will to understand Baba. BBC team people were not seriously interested to find the truth. Karl Osis and Henderson are world renouned scientists and were seriously investigating about Swamy with reverance and open-mindedness. This was not in case of BBC team. I humbly request devotees that they need not get purturbed by such people negative actions.
Bhagawan Baba is Purna Avatar and keep your faith firm and steady and live life full of devotion and peace.”
My basic position:
There is no doubt that Sathya Sai Baba was an extraordinary person with extraordinary abilities and achievements. His teachings and interaction with people have produced beneficial results for many. However, because his claimed divine status and some specific powers have been seriously questioned, Haraldsson’s dogmatic and selective new presentation is anachronistic and unhelpful.
The new edition of Modern Miracles
What Haraldsson has done in this third edition, which he obviously wishes to be considered as his (if not THE) definitive work on SSB, is to leave the 1997 2nd Edition text (and Bibliography!) more or less untouched, and simply add a few short explanatory chapters and a lot of useful photographs. Haraldsson has, however, chosen not to observe a fundamental rule of research and investigation by ignoring or dismissing a great deal of new material, both on the Internet and in book form, which has thrown new light on Sathya Sai Baba, his claims and his behaviour. In a short new chapter (32: pp. 321-7) on “The Western critics”, the author attempts to justify this major information gap by saying, more or less, that you have to be close to SSB to write about him (citing his own tally of two and a half years of visits) and by dismissing the written output of the past 12 years as non peer-reviewed. He dismisses the large output of over ten years by many investigative writers thus:
“The thrust of their criticism was twofold. First, towards Baba’s morality, claims of his divine nature, omniscience and omnipresence, his wrong predictions, his mistakes regarding historical facts, and so on (p. 322).
For more background on the silence, I recommend this recent review by Robert Priddy, who is the very well-known SSB critic described but not named on pp 321-2.
Haraldsson on Miracles Visitingcards
Incidentally, Haraldsson even eschews a mention of my own eclectic 150-page Bibliography of SSB (in three parts, academic, critical and hagiographical), of which he was perfectly aware. How does he explain that withholding of information? He also omits to mention any recent academic contributions,. like those of Norris Palmer (more later) and Tulasi Srinivas (who at least tried, rather feebly, to deal with some of the recent critical material).
Anyone interested in checking the extent of Haraldsson’s negligence need only visit www.exbaba.com/ and do Google searches on names like Dale Beyerstein, Robert Priddy, Barry Pittard, Kevin R.D. Shepherd, Alexandra Nagel (and even Brian Steel).
All this blatant denial seems to suggest, as do some of Haraldsson’s new and somewhat messy chapters on loose ends, hypotheses about SSB, and repetitions of his main claim that he has found no evidence of fraud, that he regards himself as the sole repository and fount of facts about SSB’s powers, and that these are unassailable. Which is a pity, because, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, the lacunae in his understanding of the full SSB phenomenon and of the guru’s relationship with his devotees, and their relationship with him, has become even more obvious in this new “definitive” work.
The rest of this essay will examine particular features of the book, some of which reveal how much Haraldsson has failed to notice in his 40 years of dealing with SSB. Other features to be highlighted will not be welcome to devotees or the SSO, who have used Haraldsson as a character reference for SSB’s Divinity for 25 years, and especially during the controversies from 2000 on. They may be more wary of mentioning his name from now on. This is because, to Haraldsson’s credit, he points out several previously revealed discrepancies and one or two new ones which will not go down well in Puttaparthi.
What Haraldsson and his faithful tape recorder have not registered
Returning to the chapter on The Western Critics, the author further justifies his refusal to take notice of their criticism of SSB with a page which I will sum up as:
“Is it reasonable for an educated man to assume that any man is omniscient in the sense of knowing everything, until he has a substantial verification for it? Many of these ex-devotees evidently did and that led later to their disappointment. (p. 323).
And: “The distance between god and man is much less in India than in the west” (p. 324). Elsewhere he has also stated, unoriginally, that “Indians often speak of their alleged saints and miracle makers as God-men.”
And here, in spite of the uniqueness theme which Haraldsson trumpets in his book, we can glimpse the root of his lack of real knowledge about of SSB’s career and his very special relationship with his devotees. It is a knowledge which I also lacked for many years as a devotee, content to read a couple of hundred marvellous accounts which others had written (including Haraldsson’s). It was only, after writing 2 hagiographies that I began a project to write a book from a different angle (on what SSB himself had said in his frequent Discourses) that I slowly began to notice anomalies and to question, more and more, some of the more extraordinary stories propagated by the SSO and devotees (resurrections, SSB as Mehdi Moud, the Reincarnation Claims: Shirdi Sai and Prema Sai, etc.) and some of the more extravagant materialisations (e.g. a piece of the original Cross for Hislop, SSB’s energetic American proselytiser and in 1996, the palming of the miniature ‘Bible’ – of which I have a $2.50 copy; also evidence of the Shivalingam palming on Mahasivaratri celebrations, especially in the 2004 BBC documentary), as well as the frequent and strong Divine claims, including from 1972 on, that of being Jesus Christ. (This at a time when Westerners, mainly Jews and Christians, were beginning to flock to Puttaparthi.)
The dots joined up and it became obvious to me that SSB had promoted himself from the very beginning in a far more energetic way than other Indian gurus. His main early strengths and drawcards were his charisma (alternating charm and aloofness), his claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, his promises of healings, his materialisations and miracles. Like a few others, mainly ex-devotees, I then spent several years investigating, discovering and writing up my findings, which have been seen by many visitors.
For 25 years, EH has displayed a lack of knowledge of SSB’s claimed healings, which were in fact very frequent in the early years, a gap which his friend Padmanaban complains about (p 361): [He] “felt that healing and curing cases were under-represented in my book and that there were in fact more healing cases than the book indicates.” How did he miss this? Why did he not follow up the criticism? Fortunately, in the few healing cases EH describes, he does seem unimpressed by SSB’s success rate, which is a step in the right direction.
Haraldsson has shown no interest in most of the above topics. As for the contents of most of the 30 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks (Discourses), they go virtually unnoticed by him (except for a token short chapter of miscellaneous quotations – prompted by SSB’s expressed displeasure with the first edition in 1988). Equally unnoticed is the special role in SSB’s rapid rise to world fame of the SSB’s senior (and sophisticated) associates and the SSO, from about 1960 on.
EH also appears to be ignorant of the strong effect the printed edited translations have had on devotees for decades. Millions of them have been sold, in many languages. Literate devotees from all countries have always been eager to read about their Divine guru. And they believe what they read.
By not even considering the possibility that people (including a few millions Indians, perhaps) would believe in SSB’s clearly claimed Divinity, as God Incarnate (omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent), the author is unwittingly insulting all Indians who have had or have this belief. Nine months ago, Haraldsson sidestepped my advice to study the Internet offerings for his book. His grounds were that they were written by people who had not been close to SSB. He added that he considered those who believe SSB is God to be “fools” (private correspondence). I think that Indian devotees who do hold that belief, i.e. a majority, would be very upset by this ‘firangi’ view.
I reiterate: The crucial point which Haraldsson simply does not “get” (nor take into account) after his decades of observations, is that the relationship between SSB and his devotees was and remains, very special, unique even. This is what explains their fanatical loyalty and their firm rejection of any views which deny SSB’s Divinity.
Norris Palmer writes:
“Among devotees of Bhagavan Shri Satya Sai Baba, a central – perhaps the central –belief is that he is God or, more accurately, God-man.1 He is not simply guru or mahaguru, but the Divine Being in toto and an avatar of that being as well.” (p. 97).
“In this chapter, I will interpret Bhagavan Shri Satya Sai Baba and his global movement in the manner that followers do, through the lives of other devotees. […] by far most devotees have become so without ever having met him. They are introduced to his life and teachings through other devotees. In many ways, the movement is propagated only to the extent that devotees mediate his presence for others” (p. 98).
“The claim that Baba is God over-determines all other aspects of a devotee’s life. From worldview to daily practices, Baba is front and center” (p. 108).
(Palmer, Norris W., ‘Baba’s World: A Global Guru and His Movement’, in Gurus in America, ed. Thomas A. Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes, Albany, SUNY Press, 2005, 97-122.)
In the recent article by Robert Priddy, already listed above (but also available at www.exbaba.com), he gives this damning evidence:
Haraldsson has admitted his 'non-investigation' when he wrote in an article:-
Of Indian God-Men and Miracle-Makers: The Case of Sathya Sai Baba:
In recent years the number of reported observations has increased which indicate sleight-of-hand. Some students in Baba’s schools and colleges, some of whom he often has as company, have made such allegations. Unfortunately most of these claims have only appeared on the Internet where a war has raged about the genuineness of his phenomena and about his sexual morality. These reports are generally not easy to assess and the author has not interviewed any of these persons personally. There seem, however, increasingly to be reasons to believe that Sai Baba is increasingly using sleight-of-hand.
(I believe EH may have repeated a milder version of this report in a New Age Interview in August 2012.)
This statement undermines the dogmatic new Chapter 38, ‘The Pellet Theory’ and other similar firm conclusions. It is backed up by other Internet evidence including this (from my SSB Bibliography, Part 1.):
The author takes as his starting point the conclusion of Erlendur Haraldsson after his lengthy study of Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged paranormal powers: that he had seen no evidence of fraud in SSB ’s materialisations and other psychic demonstrations (for example, prophecy and clairvoyance). Spurr then gives an account of his preliminary onsite research into the guru’s alleged paranormal powers during three months in 2000 and three weeks in 2002. Spurr describes several closely observed examples of materialisation of vibhuti and rings as obvious cases of sleight of hand. He refers to similar evidence offered recently on the Internet.
(Spurr, Michael J., ‘Visiting-Cards Revisited: An Account of Some Recent First-Hand Observations of the ‘Miracles’ of SSB; The Role of the Miraculous’, Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 26,2003, 198-2 16.)
Haraldsson reminds me (now more than in the previous editions) of Edward de Bono’s caricature of the expert who has dug such a deep and narrow pit of specialist knowledge that he is reluctant to climb out and explore a new pit. (Lateral Thinking, 1970) His updated Miracles book is partisan and incomplete. It is incorrectly titled. For its potential readers, especially those interested in popular levels of parapsychology, a more appropriate title might be:
Interviews and Observations about Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged paranormal powers.
Inconvenient truths which Erlendur Haraldsson has reported or revealed
In this important section, which adds grist to the critical mill and which will not be welcomed by devotees or by the SSO, I list Haraldsson’s contributions in the latest edition of Modern Miracles to the discrepancies dossier on SSB’s Divine Claims. We should be grateful to Haraldsson for his work on this! Especially for the sensational new revelation described below, which comes from the mouth of his friend and benefactor, R. Padmanaban, who published Love is My Form in 2000 as the first of a planned series of 5 or 6 volumes. This is the only important new work that Haraldsson deigns to refer to.). [Bibliographical error deleted.]
Chapter 5, p. 39 contains these amendments:
“Sathya Sai Baba was born on 23 November 1929.”
“It is common in India when parents bring their children to school, that they declare them up to three years older than they actually are. This is the case with Baba (personal communication by Padmanaban). He was in fact 14 years old when he declared himself Sai Baba of Shirdi reborn and 81 year [sic] old when he died.”
On the next page (40), According to Padmanaban (2000), in the middle of 1943 Sathya suffered a scorpion bite […] and in October 1943, then aged 14, he called together all the members of his family […]”
On page 43, we find: “Love Is My Form [published] by Padmanaban (2000) gives a lengthy, detailed account of Baba’s childhood and youth up to 1950. It is based on years of extensive interviewing […] by a team of Indian researchers. It is over 600 pages long [… ] it contains a wealth of new information.”
Some of us have known about the solid 1943 evidence since the Padmanaban book [LIMF] was published in 2000 with the priceless school records, and we have written about it. The SSO has steadfastly ignored this fact and so their date for Sathya Sai Baba’s Declarations are WRONG: 1943, not 1940. The date of birth evidence was there, but downplayed by the editor. Some commentators, including Robert Priddy and Hari Sampath, have supported it.
What is more important here, though, is that EH quotes Padmanaban as personally verifying the hypothesis (based on School records in LIMF) that SSB was NOT born on 26 November 1926 but 3 years later. This has very significant repercussions since it would make SSB a mere 81 years old at his death (complicating the prediction controversy) and would invalidate the dubious claim (by devotees) that Sri Aurobindo announced SSB’s Avataric advent on 24 November 1926. Let’s see what Puttaparthi has to say on this one. Perhaps Padmanaban will be overruled or will retract. There are predecents. Although written by a team of devotees, this FIRST volume of the biography was an embarrassment to the SSO in 2000 and within a year or so of discussion of dates, etc. on the Internet, the remaining 5 advertised volumes were CANCELLED. Tragic demise of a very promising biography (hagiographical but more complete than Kasturi’s flimsy sketch.
2. Chapter 24 Raising the Dead?
As in previous editions, Haraldsson’s very detailed investigations reveal that the claimed resurrections of the American millionaire devotee Walter Cowan and of Mr Radhakrishna, were not genuine. Haraldsson adds convincing evidence that the rumours were devotee-inspired and not the result of trickery by SSB. This has not prevented the claims from remaining as part of the official and devotee claims on SSB’s behalf. (There are many other instances of this phenomenon, notably the Mehdi Moud claim on SSB’s behalf by an over-zealous Muslim devotee and a British New Age writer-devotee.)
3. Chapters containing material not popular with the SSO
As in previous editions, these are mainly Chapters 17. The Abandoned Brother, and 27. Bilocation.
Ch 17 Tells the story of Baba’s very close male friend Krishna: 1950-1957
Krishna, who left to become a Christian, offers unwelcome criticisms and specific denials or doubts about some of SSB’s powers.
In a 1988 interview, SSB told EH he was not happy about some parts of his book. He specifically mentioned this chapter and Krishna. In the 2nd (Indian) edition (p. 185), EH records: “Sai Baba resented some of Krishna’s statements. […] My impression was that Sai Baba felt that Krishna had been grossly unfair to him. He also went into one of his religious monologues, that love is god …”
In the third edition, this matter is dealt with in Chapter 29: Baba’s Reaction, but in a toned down manner: “He was evidently unhappy with my chapters on these two ex-devotees which came as no surprise to me” (p. 299).
I include the Bilocation chapter here because it deals one of the miraculous aspects about which Haraldsson has doubts. It was in fact mainly the work of Dr Osis, as Haraldsson adds in a footnote.
One of the most disturbing features of much exaggeration and hype by SSB devotees is the extreme naivety of their pronouncements. Take as an example the latest efforts of a self-appointed Internet promoter of Haraldsson’s latest work (with permission, apparently). “I shared the above review content with Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson, author of the book, after which he wrote me, "This is a fine and fair review."
While lauding the scientific worth of the book at length, the Amazon reviewer (who also writes about Haraldsson on his blogsite) confesses serious misgivings about some of the ‘dubious’ bits (of the relatively bland Chapter 32 on the Western critics). How will he react to the more serious revelations I have illustrated? Here is the end of his review:
“P.S. Advise to Sathya Sai devotees about Chapter 32, The Western Critics:
I need to mention that Prof. Haraldsson's book has a very disturbing aspect for Sathya Sai devotees. While doing the above review I focused on the parapsychology scientist investigation and chose to ignore the western critics of Sathya Sai Baba part of the book. My review above clearly mentions that it completely excludes chapter 32, The Western Critics. After I got the review done a few days ago I have been thinking about some very unpleasant parts of chapter 32 and discussing it with a few Sathya Sai devotees. All of us have got very disturbed by it. I now clearly realize that most Sathya Sai devotees will find some unproven and unpleasant allegations of a personal nature mentioned in chapter 32, to be very objectionable.
Therefore I have to say that, even though the rest of the book can be considered suitable by/for Sathya Sai devotees, some contents of chapter 32, The Western Critics, make it a book that most Sathya Sai devotees will want to avoid reading and avoid recommending to others to read.”
Further references to my investigations
Erlendur Haraldsson and Sathya Sai Baba: Background information to a 40-year relationship
Sathya Sai Baba Update by E. Haraldsson
My usually dormant SSB web page