Sathya Sai Baba's Illnesses, Afflictions, and Injuries - a Significant Pattern?
Brian Steel (August 2003)
Copyright © Brian Steel 2003
From the beginning of his Mission, SSB has often stated that he has a human body, which is subject to human suffering. He has also made contradictory statements of superhuman capabilities and, as alleged Omnipotent Avatar, he has tended to attribute his illnesses and most of his accidents and injuries to a divine need to take on the suffering of his followers, In such circumstances, it is understandable that many devotees quickly become quite agitated if their "Avatar" displays any actual evidence of mortal suffering or weakness - particularly in recent years as SSB navigates his eighth decade, with nearly twenty years still to go before his predicted passing over.
SSB's disconcerting absence from darshan in early June 2003 caused the usual flurry of devotee notes and emails on the Internet, scepticism from critics, and the usual rapid and sweeping reassurances to U.S. devotees from Dr Goldstein. From these sources we learned that SSB had a bad fall and injured his hip badly enough to need a minor operation and lots of rest but was now recovering well. After a week, SSB made a brief appearance to college students on his balcony during which, as well as reassuring them about his hip, he allegedly made this surprising statement about his eyesight (which was immediately reproduced on several devotee websites):
"Very soon I will come down and confer limitless joy on you. This very life is for you. This eye (Swamy indicated HIS left eye) has not seen the world for last nine years. I got back the vision for you. Even this is to experience the bliss of seeing you. (Swamy closed HIS right eye and saw with the left). I can see perfectly!"
The main point here is, however, that the "illness-reassurance" pattern has been a constant feature of SSB's Mission, as a review of his history of illness and injury will confirm. (Keen SSB-watchers will note once again the extraordinary emphasis on the Cult of the Personality which SSB himself has always encouraged, as a result of which many of his devotees expend more time and energy on the trivia of the daily life of his human body than on his spiritual teachings or on their own spiritual practices and disciplines.)
Illnesses and Injuries
All of SSB's early biographers have mentioned the intriguing, lengthy, and traumatic incident which the young Satya Narayana suffered in Uravakonda at the beginning of 1943 (not 1940, as the official biography still misleadingly records). Many other writers have repeated versions of this incident (said to have been caused by a scorpion bite, but seen by other observers as a possible epileptic-style seizure and its aftermath). Some time after his recovery, according to the official story, Satya Narayana made his historic announcements, firstly that he was really Sai Baba (of Shirdi), and a few months later, in October, that he was embarking on his spiritual Mission. (See Kasturi, Murphet, Hislop, etc.)
Still relying on the flimsy allegations of early biographers and major commentators, one type of healing miracle performed on many occasions by SSB, particularly during the early part of his Mission, was that of taking upon himself the serious affliction of a devotee (usually unnamed), thus sparing the person the suffering (often potentially fatal). This phenomenon became an important facet of SSB's projected Divine image and most of his physical afflictions have been attributed to this (voluntary) cause, thus confirming his perceived avataric powers.
"He has been doing this, both in this body and in His previous one at Shirdi. He permits His body to suffer the disease for a certain period of time, like any other human body and then cures Himself in a trice." (E.Fanibunda, 23)
J. Hislop (1978:19) goes even further: "Swami becomes sick only when taking on the sickness of a devotee."
"Kasturi ...states that "Satya Sai Baba has taken upon himself and suffered mumps, typhoid fever, delivery pains and the scalding burns of his devotees"." (H.Murphet, 1971, 128)
"He does not announce such grants of Grace. It drops secretly and smoothly like morning dew ... When He took upon Himself the effects of others' sins, paralytic strokes, heart attacks, appendicitis, etc. those who would have been marred, maimed or mortally hurt by them were thinly conscious of the tragedy that had chosen them as targets." (Kasturi, 1982: 382)
"Swami explained that he had taken on the high blood pressure of a devotee who could not have survived the attack. Swami's blood pressure was so high, that no ordinary human being could sustain such pressure and live." (D. Baskin, 148-149)
A Madura doctor who had been suffering from pain and bleeding in one ear sent Baba a thank-you letter. He was now cured, just after Baba Himself had recovered from a bleeding ear and earache which "he had announced as having been 'taken over' for a devotee who was suffering the agony." (H.Murphet,1971, 128) (See also Kasturi 1961, Part I: 179)
And so on.
In fact, on the few occasions when SSB has been seriously ill or injured, the incident (provoking the habitual initial consternation among devotees) has, until recently, almost always been followed by a dramatically reassuring announcement that the illness or injury was taken on by SSB to benefit a devotee (unnamed). On two famous public and documented occasions, the illnesses were apparently life-threatening and his own statements about them have been recorded in the pages of SSB's (translated and edited) Discourses. I refer to the well known events of Guru Purnima 1963 and December 1970.
On June 28 June, 1963, SSB asked Kasturi to announce that there would be no interviews for a week. The next day SSB fell unconscious apparently with a stroke. During the next few days, to everyone's consternation, SSB had several severe heart attacks as well. When he was able to speak, he indicated to those close to him that he had taken on the serious conditions to save the life of a devotee, who would not have been able to survive them. Finally, on June 6, Guru Purnima Day, with his left side and limbs still paralysed, SBB was helped downstairs to give darshan from his chair and in front of the assembled devotees. He declared , "This is not Swami's illness, this is an illness which Swami has taken on, in order to save someone" (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 15:87, Rev. Indian ed.). "The suffering that you saw was too much for this particular devotee [unnamed] and so I had to save him." (p. 88)
Then he asked for water and slowly sprinkled it on his paralysed left limbs. He recovered normal movement, gave an hour-long Discourse and sang a few bhajans (H.Murphet, 1971: 128-129. See also N.Kasturi, 1961-1980, Part II: 78-91 and 1982: 138-144; also Ra. Ganapati, 1990: 324-332.)
This is where the behavioural pattern becomes more apparent. Following the ostensible self-cure in public after several bed-ridden days, SSB went on to tell one of his very specially inspiring stories, spectacularly revealing a secret (alleged) reason for the 8-day period of illness: to commemorate a divine boon granted by Shakthi and Shiva to the sage Bharadwaj, SSB's claimed ancestor, by announcing their future Divine descent into his lineage: "Shiva alone as Shirdi Sai Baba, Shiva and Shakthi together as Sathya Sai Baba and Shakthi alone as Prema Sai." (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 15:89-91) As so often with SSB, this totally unsupported claim was instantly accepted by devotees as true (and propagated by his gossip-addicted devotees) because of SSB's unquestioned Divine reputation.
In December 1970, while Sai Baba was on tour, staying at the Palace of the Governor of Goa, he had another serious medical emergency, this time involving his appendix. The incident has been reported by several writers who were present (for example, N.Kasturi, 1961-1980, Part III: 253-275 and J.Hislop, 1978: 112). Here is a summary of the description by the American devotee, Howard Levin, who was present as a young man (with a few other young foreigners) during those dramatic days.
On the first morning of the tour, there was no darshan because SSB did not appear. That evening, Professor Kasturi, SSB's constant companion and chief assistant in those days, announced to the impatient crowd that SSB was not able to appear because he had taken on the appendicitis that was threatening the life of an unnamed devotee. Naturally, there was great consternation among the devotees. Fears grew the next day as SSB's state worsened but he still refused to submit to medical treatment or go to hospital. The following day, the news spread that, in spite of his weak state and although his appendix had actually burst, SSB had finally cured himself. That evening he reappeared in public and was his normal self. (H.Levin, 1996a: 111-116).
When he was fit enough, he gave devotees the same impressive (and reassuring) reason for his illness: "Take the illness which came into this body, for example. ... That was an illness assumed, willed, in order to relieve a person who could not have survived it or even borne it without perturbation. This is one of the functions of the Divine, for which it has incarnated - the pouring of Grace on the devotee. The appendix was inflamed and it became an abscess, which the doctors said could be cured only by an operation immediately done. The devotee could not have borne that agonising pain; I have come with this body in order to save these other bodies from pain and suffering. This body will ever be free from illness and pain; disease can never affect it. That is the real truth." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 37:248) [Note the contradictory boastful claim at the end.]
Following the Goa episode, there were two cases of illness recorded in the 1970s. H. Murphet obtained the next account, which dates back to March, 1974, from Dr. Sunder Rao and Dr V.K.Gokak, who witnessed the incident. One day SSB was seen to be hobbling about the ashram with difficulty. Gradually, his legs became paralysed and he was unable to come out for darshan. He refused medical help, stating that he would cure himself at the appropriate time. Then he admitted to his associates that a skeptical person had poisoned him and that he was bearing the effects of the poison to effect a conversion of the doubter (conveniently unnamed). Finally, after a few anxious days for his devotees, SSB sprinkled his right leg with water and it recovered movement. Dr Sunder Rao sprinkled water on the other leg and that too became normal (H.Murphet, 1977: 59-64; see also N.Kasturi, 1961-1980, Part I: 73).
In November of that same year, according to SSB's longtime devotee and associate, Dr Fanibunda, who claims to have witnessed the event in SSB's company, SSB had very high blood pressure over a period of time. This took place during the busy festivity of Navaratri and afterwards, with blood pressure measurements up to 280:110, and with a short-lived stroke on 28 November. (E.Fanibunda, 23-25) Fanibunda adds, without identifying anyone, that SSB took on this condition for a devotee. Yet another unsubstantiated claim. (In view of the high pressure indicated, the incident may possibly add further credibility to rumours of heart attacks suffered by SSB in recent years.)
Since his 60th birthday, SBS has become more accident prone.
August 1988: "(Bhagavan had slipped in His bathroom early in the morning on Saturday (August 20) and an X-Ray taken by doctors revealed a fracture in the hip-bone. Although the doctors had advised four weeks of complete bed rest, Swami declared that he needed no rest and would carry on His work, Swami, however, had to refrain from giving the usual darshans for the next few days. ...)" (Sathya Sai Speaks, XXI, 23:185 - six days later)
In this Discourse, SSB was once more at pains to reassure everyone that although his human body had to cope with the results of his human fall, he was unaffected. In the words of his editors, "Bhagavan cleared all the doubts and apprehensions felt by devotees regarding His ailment." Although he did not claim this time to have suffered this mundane mishap on behalf of any devotee, he made (as often when under stress) a very special point of repeatedly reasserting his Divinity by declaring his Divine superiority in coping with such troubles.
"The body is subject to the laws of Nature. When anything happens in the course of Nature, the Divine can face it by self-control. The ordinary devotee cannot do so."
"Various rumours and conjectures were going round among devotees after I could not give darshan for four days from Saturday. ... On Saturday morning, I slipped on a piece of soap in the bathroom and I fell on My back. ... When I slipped and fell, the hip-bone had been affected. By My willpower I got up and opened the room. Then Radhakrishna (My attendant) and the doctors came. ..."
"I have to control whatever happens to me. This is My example to the world. This kind of equanimity cannot be felt by anyone except the Divine. There is nothing beyond the power of the Divine. Although there was excruciating pain on account of the injury, through self-control My mind did not think about it." (XXI, 23:186-187)
And he still felt the need to add a further admonition to any Doubting Thomases:
"Do not give room in any circumstance, at any time, for apprehensions about what may befall Swami. Nothing can do Me any harm. Occasionally there may be troubles which are incidental to the nature of the body." (XXI, 23:188)
1999: 11 January
While being driven in his ornate chariot at a lavish outdoor ceremony on 11 January 1999, SSB was apparently badly injured when the chariot suddenly halted. Having stoically concealed his injuries and the telltale bloodstains during the busy day of celebrations, SSB spoke about them three days later, claiming (once more) that he had allowed this to happen in order to avert injury to students performing stunts at the College Sports Competition. (Discourse of 14 January 1999)
"I knew that one of the rods was not fitted properly and was about to give in. If that were to happen the boy would suffer a major head injury and spinal breakdown. I willed that the boy should be saved and decided to take it upon Myself." (Another bold claim.)
He also seized the opportunity to reassure his admiring audience of college students that he was only able to endure the unbearable pain so stoically because of his Divinity. "Is it possible for a human being to conceal such a major injury from the public gaze for a long time being amidst such a huge gathering? No. I was seated on the chair for five long hours. I am relating all this so that students and devotees may comprehend the nature of divinity. Anyone in My predicament would not have been in a position to sit in the chair even for a second."
"Likewise, I take upon Myself the untold suffering of students and devotees at various points of time in order to protect them."
"I have taken upon Myself this suffering only for your sake and in response to your prayers I have decided to cure Myself now for your sake. Don't give room for any anxiety. Now Swami is 100% perfect, perfect, perfect." (cheers).
As in true showbiz tradition, the show must go on, regardless.
The first half of 2003 has also been bad for SSB's physical welfare and public image of omnipotence, with two incidents to be noted, neither of which has been claimed so far as being for the benefit of any devotee. In his Discourse of 16 March this year, SSB made some extraordinary statements about magnetism (and pain), on which others have already published appropriate comments (notably Robert Priddy, Jorge Reyesvera, and Sanjay Dadlani). (See www.exbaba.com, www.saiguru.net , and Robert Priddy's website.)
Even in its officially translated and edited form (available, like most of SSB's published Discourses, at www.sathyasai.org), this is a peculiarly muddled Discourse, which, as has been pointed out by the commentators named in the preceding paragraph, indicates that SSB is probably now suffering from osteo-arthritis in his legs but is unable to admit this common human affliction openly.
"Today I want to tell you something very significant. This body of Mine is filled with attraction power from top to toe. It is the divine magnetic power. From Sivarathri onward it has been increasing day by day, though it was present in Me always. Worldly magnets attract only iron filings whereas this divine magnet attracts the entire world. You are under the mistaken notion that Swami is having pain in His legs and therefore He is unable to walk comfortably. I have absolutely no pain whatsoever. If I put one foot forward it is being pulled by the other, since there is immense attraction power in My feet. As you are aware, even the earth is endowed with attraction power. It only attracts and does not cause any pain. Swami has no pain at all. This attraction power in Me is increasing day by day. Whatever I touch with My hand gets stuck to it. Such magnetic power is present in every man."
(Note the slightly - but significantly - different wording in the official magazine, Sanathana Sarathi for April 2003 (p. 122) as reported by Robert Priddy, in his article, 'The Sai Baba Feet and Hands Farce Plays On':
"So when I put My foot down, the whole foot stuck to the ground. It is a little hard to lift a foot that is stuck. Wherever I walk , it sticks there. Whatever is held, it sticks to My hand. This magnet is not in everyone like this. This magnet is so powerful only in Divinity.")
"I never had any pain at all. I am walking around as usual. But sometimes it becomes difficult to lift the foot due to the earth's attraction power. Therefore, I am walking slowly. Unable to understand this truth, you are imagining that Swami has pain in His legs. Let Me reiterate that I have no pain whatsoever. I have no suffering, no worries, and no anxieties. I am always blissful. There is nobody in this world who can come in the way of My bliss. But because of your worldly feelings, you think otherwise. If there is pain, one should think of a remedy. But when there is no pain, where is the question of remedy? No pain and no remedy."
The following quite personal statement is also relevant and needs no commentary.
"In this world, every thing has to be under a certain limit. In the present situation, this body cannot travel much. The power is growing day by day. I try to lift My foot, but it is very difficult. Even if I use great force, it does not get separated from the earth. It can be separated only through My Sankalpa (Will). It is very difficult to understand the principle of Divinity. No one can understand the Divine Sankalpa. None can estimate the divine power. People try to understand divinity on the basis of their own feelings and in the process end up with wrong estimation. People throw stones at trees, which are full of fruits. Similarly, the noble and the pious are subjected to a lot of hardship in this world. Divinity cannot be understood."
Later in this Discourse (16 March 2003) come the following suddenly optimistic predictions and promises, reminiscent of bold forecasts by SSB during recent decades , but now inappropriate, totally unrealistic, and rather desperate:
"You are going to witness the divine glory of Swami unfolding in the days to come. He will attract the whole world. There won't be place for people to stand even. You can see for yourself what a great change has occurred during the last one month! All are getting attracted to Swami. Love is very powerful."
"Embodiments of Love!
In a matter of a few days you will come to know. The divine glory will increase day by day, conferring on you joy and bliss. All the unrest will soon be eradicated from the face of earth. Today we find acts of violence everywhere. But whatever is happening, in a way, is for your own good. Everyone will develop sacred feelings. All will enjoy the divine bliss. The entire nation will enjoy peace and happiness soon. There will not be any difficulties or suffering."
And now, three months later (June) came the latest hip injury. Since SSB no longer mentions suffering these physical pains so that a favoured devotee may be spared the agony, one could assume that his faithful listeners (or readers) would finally take them to be simply the normal accidents and ailments of the human body and of old age. But, because of the mystique surrounding the SSB story, for the SSO, and for his devotees, SSB is not just an old man; he has deliberately projected himself as a unique divine being, and in this role, after the shock and concern to devotees recently caused by the physical frailty of his hip (and his eyes), he may have felt obliged in those early days to deliver once more to his faithful but demanding audience not only reassurances of his indestructibility but something characteristically miraculous (albeit ambiguous in the light of the later surgical truth): "I got back the vision for you", to renew their very special faith in him.
Regardless of the outcome of that last hypothesis, in view of the increasing evidence of the unreliability of many other unique claims by SSB (as well as by his spokespersons and devotees themselves), serious spiritual seekers and researchers will find it surprising that, in relation to previous moments of illness or accidents, SSB's unsupported or vague claims about willingly taking on the symptoms of unnamed devotees continue to be accepted without question by his present day followers.
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