The Waning of SSB's Divine Status. The Example of the Nara Narayan Gufa Ashram
Brian Steel July 2003
Copyright © Brian Steel 2003
For the past two weeks I have followed with interest and admiration the latest personal revelations by Robert Priddy, in his new series of "Rumours". (http://home.no.net/anir/Sai/enigma or www.exbaba.com )
The series is important for reasons which any unbiased reader will immediately appreciate, but for me, and many other ex-devotees (and, perhaps, devotees too), the unmasking of the widespread uncritical rumour-dependence of SSB devotees strikes a vibrant chord of both memory and embarrassment. For future researchers into the SSB phenomenon, the references will be invaluable.
Priddy's commendably readable and frank Rumour series has aroused me from my semi-retirement from the protracted SSB controversy and demystification process because I believe it enables many devotees and ex-devotees (including myself) to see more clearly (and - importantly - acknowledge) the truth and consequences of what happens when one's total faith in an individual (or an idea) persuades one to switch off all critical faculties.
In Priddy's latest instalment (Number 5, see www. exbaba.com), he deals with two stories of mythical Himalayan adventures which were propagated by devotees of SSB in the 1990s. (Note: NOT by SSB himself, although, typically, he never disowned the stories either!) The stories are so extraordinary that in the current more critical attitude to the 60 year old SSB Divine Mission they would not be accepted - outside of Hindu mythology. But only ten years ago, SSB devotees accepted them without a question (mea culpa too!) and, following the second episode described by Priddy, flocked to remote Northern India to experience the contact with Lord Shiva. (It sounded far too arduous to me. The ascent of Huayna Picchu in Peru was euphoric and rewarding enough - and relatively painless.)
As an example of how highly receptive and trusting devotees used to be (before the publication of the sexual allegations against SSB and the subsequent more objective research which began to uncover basic but overlooked discrepancies in the myth and growing doubts about the truth of SSB's - and his spokespersons' - claims of his Divinity), allow me to quote what I wrote (as a devotee) several years ago, in a very serious attempt to present careful research about the Divine SSB in whom I believed implicitly because of what I had read and been told, and witnessed. At that time, remember, SSB's life and Mission were the subject of a virtual monopoly of positive accounts. Priddy's recent version of these same two "marvels" shows the extent to which times, and the climate of opinion about SSB, have changed in just a few years!
From Chapter 5 of The Powers of Sathya Sai Baba (B. Steel, Delhi, BRPC, 1999)
Within the Indian Hindu tradition, like the two examples above, Baba has also sponsored two special ventures, one private, the other public and both only made known to the world within the last ten years. (The emerging of such information is, presumably, in accordance with Sai Baba's 'timetable', not to indiscreet 'leaking' on the part of devotees.)
The following story was revealed in 1986 by the principal protagonist (who was on a short visit to Prasanthi Nilayam), after repeated requests from an ashram resident, Swami Maheshwaranand. B.P.Misra, another ashram resident, translated the story into English. (See Swami Maheshwaranand, Sai Baba and Nara Narayan Gufa Ashram.)
The son of a wealthy North Indian family was chosen by Baba to be His disciple. After his university studies had been completed, the young man was trained by Baba in 1979-1980 and in 1982. The next year, the young man arrived at the ashram with ten companions and they were given further instruction for their task, which was to set up an ashram in the Himalayas and to live the ascetic live of Sannyasis (spiritual renunciates) which would lead to their special reward: spiritual realization in this lifetime, making this their last bodily incarnation. Baba also gave them a large metal container, the Akshaya Patra (unending, or inexhaustible, vessel) which would supply them with all their food and drink.
Nine of the group were in their thirties, while the other two were centenarian sages. They left on their journey and took about a year to find a suitable spot for their endeavour. When they were close to their final destination (in March 1984), they paused to bathe in the sacred lake known as Urvashi Kund, at 18,000 feet. There they all went into a Baba-induced trance and they remained thus for eighteen days in the freezing temperatures. A twelfth man who had joined the group against Baba's wishes, finally caught up with them there and, believing the frozen bodies to be dead, he hurled the vital Akshaya Patra into the deep lake and he left the scene. When the group recovered consciousness they saw the vessel in the deep clear waters and the leader had to dive to the bottom of the freezing lake - a superhuman feat in itself - to retrieve the Akshaya Patra. The other men revived him when he emerged, half-frozen.
They then found a suitable cave to inhabit. It was 54 feet by 24, twenty five miles North West of Badrinath. The cave had a stream running through it but was otherwise quite dry. Their ashram was named Nara Narayana Gufa Ashram, after a local Avatar (Bhagawan Nara Narayana). They divided the cave into twelve compartments, one for the Temple, and they began their spartan spiritual life: to bed at 9 p.m., up at 2 a.m. and prayers and meditation for most of the day, with a hot evening meal, supplied from the Patra, and satsang.
They occasionally had visions of Sai Baba visiting them to discuss their efforts. They were also visited by (or perhaps had visions of) local Himalayan sages, aged between five hundred and one thousand years, according to the author. One of the latter was Maharshi Bhrigu, the author of Bhrigu Samhita (Bhrigu Collection of astrological predictions written on palm leaves) (Maheshwaranand, pp. 57-58). The death in 1990 of one of these sages, aged four hundred and fifty years, is recorded on page 56.
Another fantastic detail of this amazing story given by Swami Maheshwaranand is that an intact copy of the 5,000 year-old Jaimini Mahabharat was found in a local cave and handed over to the group (p.55). The manuscript allegedly contains a detailed account of Sai Baba (p.55). (Page references are to Part 1 of Swami Maheshwanranand's 3-Part account.)
There is an interesting postcript by Swami Maheshwaranand in a brief contribution to a volume of articles for Sai Baba's 65th Birthday (Sathya Sai. The Eternal Charioteer, pp. 6-8). In answer to many requests for further information, Swami Maheshwaranand gives details of how to get to the cave. He describes an arduous and dangerous mountain trek and recommends proper preparation, asking for Sai Baba's blessing, the right equipment, including oxygen masks, if one takes the 'short' direct route up the mountain.
The author also reveals more details of the account that the leader of the group of renunciates had given to him during his short visit to Prasanthi Nilayam in 1986. Baba had appeared in the cave one evening to discuss their spiritual efforts and He had told the leader that, although He had extended his life by a further 120 years after the potentially fatal swim in the freezing lake, it was necessary for the man to learn to balance the cold and heat elements in his body. He should therefore make arrangements to go to Puttaparthi for three months for special training on how to develop the "heat elements" in his body. At that, Swami vanished, leaving the yogi to worry about how he could attempt the lone journey down the mountain.
Four days later, during a sudden burst of bad weather, an Indian army helicopter had to land beside the cave, as it was the only area that had sunshine and visibility. When the pilot discovered the eleven yogis, he was astonished to find them there and to learn that they had been living there for three years. Normally, no one comes or goes in that northern Himalayan border area without the knowledge of the Indian army, which patrols it very thoroughly.
On the following day, another Indian army officer arrived by helicopter, to officially investigate the Sannyasis and their story. He had to wait several hours for them to finish meditation but finally they offered him prasad from their Askshaya Patra and gave him more for the superior officer who had first visited them. The officer returned every day for a week to check and re-check their strange story for his report to his superiors. The day after his final visit, the original officer returned to tell them that not only was the army satisified at the bonafide nature of their endeavours but that they were also full of admiration for them and for their Guru, Sai Baba (and for the Akshaya Patra). He then offered to be of assistance if they needed it. This gave the young leader the opportunity to ask for a helicopter lift to Rishikesh on the first leg of his long journey to Puttaparthi, and a lift back at the end of it. The wish was granted and the young man duly arrived in Prasanthi Nilayam, which was when Swami Maheshwaranand finally met him and heard the whole story.
As readers will appreciate, this amazing story is within the tradition of Hindu spiritual beliefs and writing. When the slim volume of Part I was published in India in 1990, the 2,000 copies were sold out in 10 days. For others, though, including some Sai Baba devotees, some parts of the account may be more difficult to accept. As an Epilogue to the story, a note at the end of Part III of Swami Maheshwaranand's narrative (pages 50-51) states that Sai Baba revealed to His devotee Ratan Lal that "All the devotees have left their bodies. The Akshaya Patra has gone back to the Holy Ganga" (the River Ganges).
The other special project of Sai Baba's is much more easy to follow up, at least geographically, and many devotees already have. Sai Baba decided to re-open some very sacred Hindu caves in the Himalayas, which have been untouched for many centuries, perhaps since the time of Sankaracharya. The caves, called Patal Bhuvaneshwar (the Caves of the Lord of the World, i.e. Shiva), are situated in very rugged terrain in the Himalayas and were rediscovered by Major-General K.A.Taylor in 1989 after a dream-vision in which Baba pointed to the spot where they are located. Since then General Taylor has thrown himself wholeheartedly into clearing, developing and publicising the caves, with the result that there is already a flourishing and fast-growing attendance by pilgrims not only from other parts of India but from all over the world, including many Sai Baba devotees. A local ashram, set up by Taylor, is also growing in both size and the sophistication of its amenities. (The sources of this information, apart from talks by devotees who have visited the caves, are: G.K.Karnavar, Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba and Patal Bhuvaneshwar, Jennifer Warren, A Story of India and Patal Bhuvaneshwar, and the videotape Secret Cave of India - Patal Bhuvaneshwar.)
The highly inaccessible holy site at Ekamravanka (modern Bhuvaneshwar), is mentioned in Part V of the ancient Hindu text, The Skanda Purana (pages 72-81). Apparently, the rediscovery of the caves (by a "soldier") was also predicted in another part of the Skanda Purana. These caves are traditionally believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, and the visiting place where other deities (including Brahma and Vishnu) and sages come to worship Shiva. The blessing conferred on ordinary mortals who come to worship Shiva (with prayers and an oil lamp) are very special, including spiritual liberation in this lifetime.
The personal accounts (in books and on videotapes) of those who have visited these special caves speak of a tricky descent through a narrow opening to the caves and then a labyrinth of paths and caves, only some of which (apparently by express order of Sai Baba) are open to be visited. The caves contain symbolic rock formations and sacred lingams and the atmosphere for worship and meditation is extremely conducive to very powerful visions of god-forms for spiritually receptive pilgrims. The videotape mentioned above gives a good idea of these special spiritually charged caves, but not of the arduous journey which has to be undertaken in order to reach them from Delhi, for which J.Warren's book is recommended.
At that time (1998), in spite of the occasional metaphorical eyebrow-raising at stories like these, there seemed to be little reason to doubt SSB's claimed Divinity (trumpeted by so many hundreds of writers) and the claims and stories of his close associates. Although weird (especially in today's hindsight), the events were unquestioningly accepted by most Western devotees of SSB! In fact, the above revelations were the sensation of the mid-1990s for SSB devotees. There was a stampede of devotees to the remote location to experience the ineffable contact with Shiva (and SSB). It became a minor Indian tourist attraction.
However, since the publication of the 'Findings' in 2000 and the soul-searching of many devotees, and multiple further revelations - like those of ex-devotee and SSO Office-holder Priddy and his wife, total implicit trust in SSB is no longer an instinctive reaction, to the chagrin of the SSO, and possibly, of SSB himself.
Following my own disillusionment with SSB and the reasons for it, which I have documented fairly extensively over the past year and a half, the aftermath to these Himalayan stories/legends (now retold by Robert Priddy in his excellent rumour series), as I NOW understand it (from SSB sources) becomes much more mundane: The local sponsor and entrepreneur, General Taylor, became TOO entrepreneurial and thereby somehow attracted the disapproval of SSB's SSO. For the SSO, yet another 'non-person', like Professor S.P. Ruhela, for his over-enthusiastic researches, or the sponsor of the famous Mysore orphanage and the perfume-oozing feet, and others, for example, the late devotee-philosopher and purveyor of Kundalini experiences for Western tourists in Himalayan India, B. S. Goel!
Sic transit gloria mundi (et coeli).
Sathya Sai Baba
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