Sathya Sai Baba's Public Use of English and its Perception by Devotees.
Insights into his Charismatic Influence
Brian Steel December 2008
Copyright © Brian Steel 2008
(This expanded version supersedes my 2001 essay on Sathya Sai Baba’s English)
Unlike most prominent twentieth century Indian gurus who have become famous overseas, Sathya Sai Baba's native language is Telugu, the main language spoken in the State of Andhra Pradesh, India. Telugu is the language in which he has given the majority of his public Discourses over the past 50 years. Edited translations have been officially published in many languages by the SSO. (See the Packaging of SSB's Telugu Discourses for more details.)
“I speak in simple language to make the translator’s job easy. Otherwise I can speak in a lofty style.” (Discourse, 11 September 1998) That, like most of Sathya Sai Baba’s public statements, is an edited translation of what he said in Telugu. According to a small treasure trove of literal translations available, SSB’s Telugu is indeed simple in style, and according to local devotees, poetic. On the face of it, therefore, the above would appear to have been a revealingly insecure statement from the normally self-confident guru from Puttaparthi.
As we shall see, throughout his Mission, reported examples of Sathya Sai Baba’s more limited public and private use of English (usually to overseas devotees), are characteristically short and basic, often of the ‘pidgin-English’ variety. This observation, based on the available evidence, contrasts sharply with the often repeated boast of some of his spokespersons and many of his devotees that SSB’s alleged omniscience allows him to speak all languages (which is totally unproven). This same simple fact may also be very relevant when evaluating devotees' subjective interpretations of what they see as SSB's enigmatic or specially significant personal comments especially when one bears in mind the fact that they are so susceptible to his personal charisma.
In the hagiographic devotee literature, there are numerous references to SSB's alleged knowledge of foreign languages. He has been described by some devotee commentators as “a polyglot” (for example, Ra. Ganapati, II:384) and even as a “a multi-lingual genius, a polyglottal prodigy” by the late M. N. Rao, one of the most assiduous of Sathya Sai Baba’s hagiographers and hyper-zealous publicists, whose accounts need to be read with great caution. (Rao, 1998:36) Indeed, because of the strength of the group dynamic under the influence of awe of SSB’s alleged powers, there are many anecdotes describing how devotees have ‘heard’ SSB speaking to them, or to someone near them in darshan or in interview, in that person’s own foreign language. The languages named in these anecdotes include French, German, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Spanish, Swahili, and a dialect of Chinese, Teo Chiew. (See V. I. K. Sarin, 1995:122-3; M. N. Rao, 1990:271 and 1998:36-38; Ra. Ganapati, II:177-178 and B. Steel, 1998:30-33.) When one begins to examine the known and observable facts, however, a very different picture of SSB's linguistic competence emerges.
Firstly, in spite of half a century of constant practice and of being surrounded by cultured and fluent English-speaking Indian associates and mentors, SSB’s reported public use of English has remained essentially quite basic. (This could, of course, be a deliberate ‘performance’, part of his public ‘persona’ (like the French singer Maurice Chevalier’s outrageously French accent, which was so popular with his English-speaking fans in the mid twentieth century. However, in view of the available evidence about SSB, this possibility seems unlikely.)
Secondly, SSB's personal messages in English, so treasured by devotees not only as omniscient but also for their enigmatic and 'secret' significance for the individual, may be no more than small talk (in this basic English style of his), or, as we shall see, may more likely be due to his misunderstanding of the devotee's English.
Thirdly, as already indicated, most of SSB's public pronouncements (via his Discourses) are given in his native Telugu language. Although over 60 years of close contact with English speakers, SSB must have learned a lot of English vocabulary, he still does not seem to be comfortable enough in English to deliver a full Discourse in this language, although he does sometimes take delight and amuse the audience by correcting a word or two of the English version of his interpreters, who work under great pressure. The style of these Telugu Discourses (as we were briefly privileged to see for ourselves thanks to the wonderful literal translations into several languages offered by the volunteer devotees at www.internety.com/premsai between 2000 and mid-2002 [See present location]) is rambling, basic, and repetitive, with lots of simple Puranic scriptural stories, little Telugu ‘poems’ and Sanskrit slokas – a style which delights so many of SSB’s local Indian devotees (who possibly compose his major live audience) and which bores many other devotees, although they might not admit this in public. To quote a neutral observer in partial support of this opinion: “He was not a good orator; jumping from point to point, rambling, repetitive, yet for more than an hour his audience sat on the hard marble floor, listening raptly.” (Mick Brown, 1999:86) This is surely ample proof or is his undoubted charisma! The Telugu Discourses are subsequently published in heavily edited and packaged translations in many languages, and those are the words which devotees quote and discuss (especially in Study Group sessions).
So, contrary to myths, the hard evidence indicates that for Sathya Sai Baba, English is still basically a foreign language which he often uses to speak to individual devotees and interview groups. Writers like Schulman, Brooke, Hislop, Krystal, Haraldsson and Roberts have recorded comments on the presence of an interpreter in some of their private interviews in the 1970s. Other important Indian gurus (living and dead) who have Western followers are (or were) much more at home with India's acknowledged lingua franca, English, and were able to travel extensively overseas. As reported in books, as heard during darshan (when SSB pauses to address a few words to a lucky devotee), and sometimes on videocassettes, spoken English comments by SSB to his devotees (like his frequent pithy – and effective – aphorisms), often take the form of very short sentences, consisting of a single word, a repetition, a phrase, or a sentence with no main verb. (The words ‘the’ and ‘is’ are usually not present.) This is a form of English which most native speakers would consider very basic.
Hitting the nail right on the head, a writer-devotee describes the thrilling moment when, during his first interview, Sathya Sai Baba had begun to address the group: “His whole manner was suddenly exactly like some pseudo-spiritual Indian I knew, pretending to be a guru and speaking in very broken English.” (R.Priddy, Source …, 1998,120) (For those readers who may not know it, Priddy is now not only an ex-devotee but the most prolific critic of SSB. More of his pertinent observations on language (as a devotee) will be quoted below.)
Three early observers make these comments of SSB’s English in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
In a first interview, which Dr Gokak was translating into English for the writer Arnold Schulman, SSB suddenly added in English: “Far is not important. No far, no near, no near. Dear, only dear is important.” (A. Schulman, p. 110 – note the attraction of the rhyme rather than of the semantic content: near-dear. Nevertheless, devotees tend to wrestle for ages to discover an imagined possible occult meaning in such utterances. Such is the SSB charisma.)
Professor E. Haraldsson, who spent ten years investigating Sathya Sai Baba: “Sai Baba speaks some English ...” At his first interview: “He asked those around whether there was someone who could act as an interpreter” (p. 25). There was.
“Baba's English was practically baby-talk ...” (Tal Brooke, Avatar of Night, 1984, p. 41) And, in a later edition: “The reason was later eloquently translated by Kasturi out of the usual Baba baby English.” (Tal Brooke, 1999 Millennium ed., p 232)
“Time coming soon. No more fear. Very verrry happy, Bliss.” (T.Brooke, 1999:72)
“Too long. Too fast speaking. Words too complicated. American accent not understanding. Not enough surrender, sir.” (p. 215)
“Rowdie, complete spoil. Go, get out of here ..." (p. 356)
Most frequently heard or reported darshan phrases and sentences are given below. Others may easily be found in many of the published accounts (often in minute and even introverted detail) of devotees' personal experiences of SSB:
“Bless. Bless.Very happy. Very happy.” (P.Krystal, p. 62)
“Where are you from?” “How many?” “Go!” [for an interview]
“Mind is mad monkey.” “Mad monkey mind.” “(Very) bad mind.” “(Very) good mind.”
“Monkey mind? Mad monkey! Sometimes all confusion.” (Peggy Mason, p. 23)
“I don't like.”
“... He said, ‘Swami loves you ... Swami always with you ... Swami never leave you.'" (D.Bailey, 1996:52)
“No, no ...I have wife for you, good wife. ...You haven't brought wife?” (Bailey, 1998:3)
“Where is wife?” (1998:22) “Swami find you wife, good wife.” (1998:52)
“Giving prasad, then leaving.” (H. Levin, 1996a:67)
“You and I are one. I shall give. I shall give [money].” (A. Marwaha, 61)
“Not very good, but not very bad either. Lot of money coming and lot of money going, coming, going, coming, going.” (Marwaha, p. 122)
“Americans very bad. One wife this year, and another the next.” (Bruce, I: 265)
“Yes, yes, yes, and I bless." (J.Thomas, 1991, 33)
“I fix." (J. D. Barker, 13)
“He motioned that I must not ask, and stated, “Always hurry.” (J. D. Barker, 34)
“Baba love you, too.” (Paul W. Roberts, 43)
“Moon man, moon man. You [have] come!” (Brian O’Leary)
“Past is past. Nothing is bad. Don’t worry. Everything is good.” (R.Selby, 142)
“Keep studying. Very young age.” (Michael J. Spurr.)
A very good (and commercially available) source of SSB's basic English is a Video by Cosby Powell (distributed by the Video Education Co.). The title is Talk to Westerners and it captures a private relaxed talk to a roomful of Western devotees at the summer hillside resort of Kodaikanal in April 1991.
SSB speaks in Telugu and there is a consecutive interpretation into English, as well as subtitles on the screen, so study is greatly facilitated. At the beginning of the rambling and repetitive talk on simple topics (with no Hindu legends), SSB interpolates a word or phrase of English here and there: animal, energy, mind, conscience, car, bulbs, current; good and bad; mad monkey; bumps and jumps. Then, as he warms up, he begins to mix in more isolated English words, and short basic sentences, into the Telugu: Mind is engine; Bundle of desires is mind; I want peace; I am separate from body; Body is separate from you; I'm not body; Only mind changes, and so on.
The point of selecting all those very simple quotations is to establish the quite obvious but hitherto totally unacknowledged fact that Sathya Sai Baba frequently speaks in public in very basic English. A probable reason for such forgetfulness (or denial) is that devotees, in their total devotion to him as an Avatar of God and in their faith in his powers, believe that SSB is, as he claims, omnipotent, and can therefore speak ANY language (despite the evidence). More importantly for them, ANYthing SSB says to them, or within their hearing, however obscure, cryptic, banal or amusing, is accepted with enormous joy and gratitude as a personal recognition and quite frequently as a special personal message intended for their spiritual or earthly development, whose meaning may take them some considerable time, ingenuity and effort to work out. (This is their problem.)
Being “singled out” in this way for special attention is always a treasured moment for a devotee, often a deeply emotional one too in the charged atmosphere of the crowded darshan hall or the small group in the interview room. However, it does not occur to the enchanted devotee that such banal and basic English might also be no more than mere small talk, which they have interopreted to suit their private agendas. From time to time, an objective observer of devotees’ descriptions of SSB’s supposedly profound personal observations might even find his (or her) mind conjuring up fleeting images of the brilliantly created movie character, Chance, the gardener (‘Chauncey Gardiner’), the simple-minded innocent hero of the American satirical movie, Being There (1979), based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinsky.
Chance, played by the versatile comic actor Peter Sellers, is a reclusive, illiterate and laconic gardener. When uprooted by death from the shelter of his cocooned existence as the gardener of a wealthy man, he wanders out into the real world of politics and the media, where his simple responses and obscure remarks quickly reach the attention of the President and his advisors and spin doctors. Projecting deep meaning and politically relevant interpretations which suit their own agendas in Chauncey's innocent but banal comments, these people adopt him as a Presidential advisor and thus he unwittingly becomes an enormous political asset, and an instant guru celebrity, much sought after by the media. From then on his every word takes on significance it neither seeks nor deserves. It may be worth stressing that it is not of course Chauncey’s simplicity that is being satirised, but the expectations, agendas, gullibility and capacity for ego-directed wishful thinking of other people that the playwright has chosen to pillory. That is what makes the analogy with Sathya Sai Baba so interesting.
An example of Chauncey’s perceived wisdom, taken from Jerzy Kosinsky and Robert C. Jones's brilliant screenplay for the classic movie, available on DVD, gives an idea of the topic. These excerpts are taken from www.dailyscript.com/scripts/being_there_1_10_79.html)
"PRESIDENT: Do you agree with Ben, Mr. Gardiner? Or do you think we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
CHANCE: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.
PRESIDENT (a pause): ...In the garden?
CHANCE: That is correct. In a garden, growth has its season. There is spring and summer, but there is also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again..."
" RAND (interrupts): I think what my most insightful friend is building up to, Mr.President, is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy.
CHANCE: Yes. That is correct. There will be growth in the spring.
PRESIDENT (pleased): ...Well, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit, that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time.(he rises)."
And, in a political speech, the President later puts his own spin on this accidental banality:
"...To quote Mr. Gardiner, a most intuitive man, 'As long as the roots of industry remain firmly planted in the national soil, the economic prospects are undoubtedly sunny.'" ( For those interested, more examples of people's perception of Chauncey's perceived wisdom to suit their own agendas are offered in the Appendix to this article.)
Remaining to be explored is a further aspect of SSB’s public English usage. In some books written by devotees, we occasionally find (unacknowledged) evidence in reported exchanges between devotee and SSB that the treasured remark simply indicates that the guru has not understood the English of the devotee, as with this example:
“In that interview Baba took us into his private room and we ‘discoursed together’. He had surely played with words in the dream to make me examine my feelings. He had just signed a copy of my book and he now asked about my work, saying, ‘Don’t worry, I will look after everything.’ I asked, ‘Should I write, Swami?’ He replied, ‘What you are doing is right. It is not wrong.’ (Another misunderstanding?) To make sure, I said, ‘No, Swami... write’, and to illustrate the meaning I made a writing sign in the air (without realising this was just what he often does). He gazed up as if at the ceiling and replied, ‘Yes, write, write. Go on. Very good.’ (Robert Priddy, private communication)
In ‘The Findings’, David Bailey who, before defecting and whistle-blowing, had had very close contact with Sathya Sai Baba for a few years, gives this further astounding example of non-comprehension of English by the omniscient guru:
“In December 1997 on our way to Gatwick airport to leave for India, we collected a letter written to Swami by Peggy. I gave the letter to him during the next afternoon darshan. The following morning I received a fax to say that Peggy had died.
A few days later I had an interview in the company of the editor of the Sanathana Sarathi, and he told Swami that Faye was now editor of Peggy Mason's magazine.”
“SSB: ‘Yes, yes. It’s in very good hands, now make it go! How is Peggy Mason?’”
Me: “She has merged with you.”
SSB: “Yes. She lives near you in England?”
Me: “She lived eighty miles from me, but she died a few days ago Swami. She is with you!”
SSB: “Yes, yes, her husband was a good man. When you go home, give my regards to her.”
Me: “She is dead, Swami. Dead! She has merged with you!”
SSB: “Give her my love when you get back to England.”
Me: “I cannot Swami, because she is DEAD!”
SSB: “Oh ?? Oh.....”
In another interview a few days later, (this time with Bailey’s wife, Faye):
“Swami seemed very confused and spoke randomly without making coherent sense for a minute or so, and ended by telling all in the room that Peggy Mason had played the trumpet very well during the Christmas celebrations just completed in the ashram. He was not making a joke and we were both nonplussed and very disturbed, and everyone else there also looked puzzled and somewhat concerned about these ramblings, as they had all heard Maynard Ferguson play trumpet on Christmas day.”
This basic small talk by SSB – or his lack of comprehension – could also explain why his words, gestures and actions, although often banal in the extreme, are seen to be so cryptic by many devotees, who may puzzle over them for long periods: “One never knows exactly what Swami means or how to interpret His words. They could be symbolic or factual. An event could happen right away or in the future. His words could require deep meditation, inquiry or introspection, or they could simply be taken verbatim. Many of the things He has told me I have not understood until years later.” (Baskin, 133)
In such emotionally charged moments, writers who deal in detail with their personal experiences with SSB frequently inflate insignificant scraps or gestures and by so doing further promote SSB’s claim to omniscience. Rita Bruce offers this snatch of dialogue as if it had some special meaning, which, if viewed objectively, it clearly does NOT have:
“Swami: ‘What is her name?’ ... ‘Rita.’ ‘Second name?’ ‘Bruce.’ ‘Rita Bruce, yes, I know.’” (Rita Bruce, II:254) ( Why report this?)
Not only is there no omniscience to be gleaned from evidence such as the above cases and the numerous similar examples which could be taken from devotees’ books, but they would not normally seem worthy of recording in print. The only reason they ARE written down (by so many devotees) and considered important by both devotee-author and devotee-readers is that devotees LOVE to pass on anything resembling "contact" with their Divine Baba and to share other devotees' contacts; they feed on such material. And so the legend of omniscience grows and grows, as do the writers’ illusions of a close relationship with Sathya Sai Baba.
Another example of Sathya Sai Baba’s basic English from Robert Priddy refers to the guru slipping a very snugly fitting ring on to his finger and saying: “Perfect. Not more fit.” The recipient puzzles over this, thinking Sathya Sai Baba incapable of an ungrammatical phrase (i.e. suppressing his knowledge that SSB only speaks basic English) and concludes that he could also have meant “Not Murphet” (p. 132). Some time later he reads in Phyllis Krystal's book, Sai Baba. The Ultimate Experience, that SSB had made a comment to her with a similar basic structure to her on handing her some indigestion tablets: “Indigestion. Not Indra Devi” (p. 72). [Bold type added] Krystal comments that she had seen this as meaning she should be less shy and retiring and more like Devi, the well-know extrovert devotee and teacher of yoga. (Since then Krystal has followed this assumed advice by writing many books and touring the world, giving many therapeutic workshops and also speaking about her experiences with Sai Baba.) With a memory of this precedent, Priddy was then able to conclude that SSB was telling him to be more like the prolific Australian writer, Howard Murphet. Following this came his inspiration to write down his own SSB experiences for publication. (Priddy, 1998) Priddy also tells the story that SSB had once stopped to speak to Murphet during darshan, patting his own stomach andsaying “I’m perfect. Not Murphet” (p.134). [Bold type added]
Another example: “Should we live in St. Louis or by the ocean?” asked Robert. Baba answered, “Live by the ocean. Ocean is Devotion, Ocean is Devotion to God.” (Rita Bruce, II:155)
Once again SSB seems more interested in the rhyme, so let us stop a moment and reconsider these three utterances in the light of what we initially established about the idiosyncratic (basic) style of SSB's conversational English:
"Perfect. Not more fit/ Not Murphet."
"Indigestion. Not Indra Devi."
"Ocean is Devotion."
When looked at as a parallel series, these surely seem more in line with SSB producing a little friendly small talk (rather than deep and meaningful advice) by indulging in one of the favourite linguistic habits he shares with his educated Indian associates: playing with words, meanings and rhymes (or perceived rhymes) in Sanskrit and English: 1. per- // Mur- ; fect // phet. 2. More // Mur- ; fit // phet. 3. Indi // Indra . 4. Ocean // De- votion.
This sort of strong (and sometimes quite forced) punning is also a very strong Indian custom, particularly beloved of Sathya Sai Baba’s English mentor, Professor Kasturi, and other academic and intellectual Indian devotees who are (or have been) close to SSB, and whose speech habits and puns he may have imitated. A personal favourite of SSB’s, which crops up frequently in reports of his Discourses and personal advice to devotees, is: “The Jubilee which has to be celebrated by every individual is not the Diamond but the ‘Die-mind’, the occasion when through Sadhana, the mind is mastered.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, V, 53: 287) (The pun “Supra-bottoms”, referring to foreign devotees, is almost certainly a sophisticated Indian pun on Suprabatham.)
In another Discourse (28 April 1999), SSB seeks to make a rather laboured point (in Telugu) by contrasting English ‘Divine’ and ‘deep wine’: “What you have to take is ‘Divine’ and not ‘deep wine’." (As reported on the Internet, on SaiNEWS on 7 May 1999, and from notes by the Associate Editor of Sanathana Sarathi.)
Another similar example, apparently a favorite of SSB’s (from the 1991 Kodaikanal Video and repeated on 25 October 2001) also demonstrates this “foreign” nature of much of SSB's frequent punning with English words and expressions, especially to his predominantly Indian audience. On mentioning “beggars”, SSB immediately spots a new potential linguistic joke, and adds, cryptically and apropos of nothing in particular, “not biggers” – which his interpreter (who, interestingly, also ‘interprets’ SSB’s English words, phrases and sentences, when they form part of his Telugu Discourse) feels obliged to explain as meaning “big men”. This clarification of the English is particularly helpful, even necessary, to native speakers of English since ‘bigger’ is not used as a noun and so we do not normally make the same associations. So SSB’s spontaneous play here is not that beggars are not big men (which would be rather disparaging!) but that the words sound similar to him. That’s all. No special meaning behind it at all. It is his play, another leela – and good fun for the local audience.
If the above associations appear a little odd to some readers, consider them from the perspective not of a native speaker but of a foreigner speaking basic English. This may increase and explain their exotic appeal to persons like SSB. Most foreigners make similar attempts to amuse native speakers of a language they know imperfectly (or even quite well). And, since this is a fact, the convoluted meanings and lessons attributed to many such utterances (often seen by devotees as ‘cryptic’), however ultimately beneficial to the individual, are probably more often than not merely the products of the devoted hearers' minds and fantasies rather than any wish or intention on the part of the guru to help or enlighten them. Sooner or later, the possibility has to be faced that there is much less to many of Sathya Sai Baba’s remarks than devotees believe.
What the above evidence strongly suggests is that with SSB’s words (as with his actions and reported actions), adoring devotees are too hasty in accepting them as oozing with significant meaning, wisdom and omniscience when, in fact, none is intended. So the ‘miraculous omniscience’ may sometimes be a figment of their own perception. Seen in this light, even some of SSB’s frequent coinages of aphorisms may make less sense than many think. For example, “I and you are we. We and we are one.” (Kodaikanal Video, 1991)
In some of the examples of Sathya Sai Baba’s dialogue with devotees presented above, there are interesting similarities to some of the techniques of ‘cold reading’, which are attributed by researchers and sceptics to clairvoyants and psychics. These techniques have also been specifically mentioned as SSB’s ‘tricks’ by some early critics of his (in particular, by B.Premanand and Dale Beyerstein).
According to well known sceptical experts, magicians and illusionists like James Randi and Ray Hyman, ‘cold reading’ techniques are employed to elicit a maximum of information from the ‘subject’ and to leave a strong impression that the ‘reader' (or self-styled clairvoyant) has revealed amazingly unknown details of the person’s life and character.
The writer Mick Brown has also referred to critics of devotees’ claims of SSB’s infallibility and to their explanation of SSB’s perceived ability to read minds as being “achieved through a combination of information being gained by his helpers and the technique of ‘cold reading’, whereby facts are drawn out of the subjects and fed back to them later, without their realising it, questions are disguised as statements and nods or meaningful silences are used to give the impression that he knew all long what the subject was talking about.” (M. Brown, Spiritual Tourism, 73)
The main cold reading techniques which coincide with SSB’s interview and conversation habits are:
1. Giving the impression that one knows more than one is saying.
2. Asking questions which, when answered, can then be converted into apparently clairvoyant statements or ‘knowing’ remarks by SSB (especially when his comment is – almost predictably – “I know”), or may be given similar status by the subject. But sometimes there are surprises which reveal SSB’s lack of knowledge, as in the following devotee examples:
“Where is your husband?” “He’s gone, Baba,” I sadly replied. Like a compassionate Father, he replied, ‘I know. I know. He was a good man.’” (Joyce D. Barker, The Touch of Baba, p.13) And five years later, in 1995, the following equally ‘unomniscient’ exchange took place on the same subject: “Where is your S bend?” [sic, = hus-band] ... “He died in 1989,” I told him. “Yes, he was a good man” [the same comment as in 1990].” (p. 38). Although Ms Barker states her recognition of SSB’s continuing lack of knowledge, she makes no comment or criticism. This silence is typical of the extent of devotees’ indulgent and uncritical attitude to SSB’s behaviour which the guru has come to take for granted.
David Bailey reports the following exchange (in “The Findings”):
“On two occasions he called us into the private interview room and questioned me intently about someone in the outer room. Then after we had both returned to the outer room he repeated everything I had just told him, no more, no less, while implying he was getting the information by ‘tuning in’.
“This possibly explains why he thought I was American in the first instance, even referring to me in his discourse as American. Perhaps someone had given him incorrect data...?
“My greatest difficulty at this time, was finding someone other than Faye, to talk to about all these disturbing findings. Everyone I knew from the west had had much less interactive experience with Swami than I had. During my six years of being devoted to him I had had over one hundred close encounters in the way of interviews and work sessions, and been very involved with him during my times of teaching the students in the male college.”
Other examples from the Sathya Sai Baba Literature:
“Where is your husband?” “I'm not married ...” (Rita Bruce, I: 264)
A well documented favourite Sathya Sai Baba wordplay, which fits in with the “basic English” patterns established above, is the following exchange reported by Phylis Krystal: SSB: “Where is the band?” Silent surprise. SSB: “Hus-band”, as a non-native speaker of English’s play on words. SSB uses this often as one of his little (ice-breaking) interview jokes. The well-known SSB writer, R. Lowenberg, tells this related story of a devotee’s experience:
“Where is your band?” I knew he meant husband, so I said, “But Swami, You know I am not married.” “Yes, yes,” He said, “Your husband is over there” and he pointed vaguely in the direction of the West.” (R.Lowenberg, 1997, p. 15) (Since this woman eventually married someone from South Africa – which is geographically to the West of where she lived, this is taken as an omniscient prophesy by SSB!)
“Swami, my mantra, is it still valid?” “I shall give you a new mantra – new life. ... We shall talk this evening.” ... (Marwaha, p. 61). In the afternoon darshan: “Swami, you said you would give me a mantra.” “You got mantra from ... Tell me your mantra.” ... Then He said: But it’s a beautiful mantra! Why do you want to change?” (p. 64) [They repeat it and he adds his name to it.] On a later occasion: “Do you do any japa?” “Yes, Swami.” “What name?” “Swami, you have given me a mantra.” (p. 79)
“Where is your husband? In Delhi?” “Yes.” “What does he do?” “Swami, his own business.” (Marwaha, p. 80)
“Are you from Madras?” “No, Swami, from Delhi.” (A.M. Marwaha, 121)
“I have been studying.”
“But you failed.”
“No. I have finished a BA.” (Michael J. Spurr)
Not at all impressive, but as the magician and sceptic James Randi has written: “Rule Number 6: No matter how often you're wrong, plow ahead! The Believers won't notice your mistakes, and will continue to follow your every word.” (J.Randi, 1993:35)
Other factors which improve a psychic practitioner’s chances of being seen as having special psychic gifts are the subject’s active but unconscious participation: his desire to be told about himself and his willingness to search his mind and memory to make sense of the psychic's comments, however vague. In the case of SSB’s devotees, as we have seen, this willingness to make SSB’s remarks personally ‘meaningful’ – however banal or cryptic they may be – can be stretched to absurdity. This would include statements of the obvious, the logical, or the expected, wrapped up as omniscient ‘insights’. For example, while talking to pilgrims who had walked 400 miles to the Mahasivaratri celebrations in 1971, SSB said, “I was with you throughout, from the very first step to the last. Some of you argued at H... ... I know that you spent 75 per cent of the time in Divine thoughts, 25 per cent on your personal worries ...” (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, 9:54-55)
And in the following interview dialogue, it is obvious who is eagerly giving all the information and making the assumptions: the interviewee (and author), Dr Brian O'Leary. (He has since publicly denied being a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. Nevertheless, the following reference and more besides is proudly quoted on the huge devotee website: http://www.saibabalinks.org/saibabamiracles.htm, under ‘Miracle in the void’):
“He [Tewari] has also developed a free energy machine. Do you know about free energy?”
“Yes, yes," he smiled knowingly.
“Well, my insight is this,” I continued. “I saw Tewari create energy out of nothing. Then I have just seen you create matter out of nothing. That must mean that nothing is something. It's our consciousness, right?”
“Yes, yes! You got it. That's it!”
“In a flash of illumination reserved for special moments like this, I suddenly understood the reason for my quest which has taken me to the far corners of the Earth.” (http://www.penwing.com/saibabaandtheastronaut.html )
With all this firmly in mind, this brief analysis can be concluded by examining more critically some English comments whose significance may have been inflated by devotees in a heightened state of spiritual fervour. In some cases, what some take as evidence of omniscience (and what Sathya Sai Baba may wish to be so taken) may simply be a bland generality, precisely like SSB’s Yugadi predictions (discussed in another article elsewhere on my SSB web page), which have tended to be over-rated for the same reason: an excess of fervour and enthusiasm for the guru, which anaesthetises critical judgement.
Sometimes, an objective re-reading of a quoted “omniscient” pronouncement by SSB reveals that he has simply not understood the English question or comment, or doesn’t know the answer. The answer is no more than a plausible guess. “And how is our Center [in America], Baba?” He replied, “Very good Center. Many good people. Some jealousy, though.” (Joy Thomas, 1991: 160) Could this not be said of any SSB Centre, with its personality clashes, and so on? Is it really omniscient, or even wise?
The following is a similarly vague reply to someone who asks SSB about her son who has been in a coma for two years. “Your son is in mind.” (R.Selby, My Trip to Sai Baba, pp.135-6) This is interpreted by the writer as meaning “Don’t worry. I am taking good care of him.”
The American writer Arnold Schulman was more direct than most in his reaction to SSB’s enigmatic remarks. In his final interview, the writer 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.’” Schulman candidly informs his readers that “The writer ... did not understand and he resisted the temptation to pretend that he did.” (p. 168)
The SSB devotee literature and devotees’ ashram conversations are liberally sprinkled with similar cases of wishful inflation of banalities and bits of basic small talk like those just offered. Such subjective fantasies merely inflate the impression, rather than the reality, of Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged omniscience about life and about his devotees’ lives and thoughts. As has been extensively documented elsewhere, there are many other instances in his Discourses where SSB’s alleged omniscience is patently lacking. Nevertheless, those who unquestioningly believe in Sathya Sai Baba’s Divine powers are unable to see this.
Circumstantial Evidence of Sathya Sai Baba's Need of Translators and Interpreters
It is no secret that for his public ashram Discourses Sathya Sai Baba is always assisted by an interpreter (usually from Telugu into English). Other references to interpreters (or “translators”) are quite rare.
For their book, Divine Grace (1985), Victor and Shakuntala Balu visited the northern Indian ashram of the late Swami Sivananda and asked questions about the important early visit (in 1957) by the young SSB and a small entourage. The devotee-authors note (on page 174) that one of SSB’s party, Subbaramayya, “was called on to translate SSB’s Telugu talks to the ashram residents.” Although Kasturi devoted many pages to a stirring account of the allegedly triumphant visit by SSB, the associate and biographer makes only a fleeting mention of his fellow devotee’s name and, more importantly, no mention at all of SSB’s need for an interpreter in front of Sivananda’s (presumably Hindi and English-speaking) students and disciples.
According to a rare source, when speaking of a visit to a distant town, Sathya Sai Baba himself made a brief and rare reference to his linguistic limitations to early devotee Srimati Karunamba in May 1946. “They didn't understand me because they don't know Telugu and I do not know Kannada. In the end, one of my assistants who spoke Kannada, explained things to them.”
(A book by Karunamba has recently been published but the source for the above quotation is a Russian booklet sent to me by ex-devotee and writer Serguei Badaev. The booklet’s author is Vladimir Afanasyev and the title is Zapiski russkogo puligrima - Notes by a Russian Pilgrim. It was published in Saint Petersburg in 2000 and bears the SSO Copyright for 2000 and the ISBN 5933460214.)
There is a further evidence about Sathya Sai Baba’s language use in J. Hislop’s much-quoted Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba, an important alternative source of information on Sathya Sai Baba’s assertions and opinions. The reader assumes, because nothing is stated to the contrary in the book, that all SSB’s answers to Hislop’s many questions are in English, as printed in the book. However, here, as in other books by non-Indians – like those by Schulman and Murphet, for example – describing the period of rapid progress by the Sathya Sai Organisation between 1957 and1975, there are occasional references to a trusted interpreter (Gokak, Kasturi, or Bhagavantam) acting as intermediary in conversations between SSB and visiting overseas guests. Phyliss Krystal also refers to Dr Bhagavantam interpreting to her SSB’s detailed diagnosis of her headaches and instructions on how to use vibhuti medicinally (1985: pp. 49 and 62).
All that is stated in Hislop’s Foreword to Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba is: “The questions and answers included here date from January, 1968, through February, 1978. The first two interviews were taped and are reproduced in full. Thereafter, notes were made from memory immediately after each conversation.” But why in that case is a translator mentioned twice in both Dialogue 1 and Dialogue 2 (the tape-recorded ones), and what is one to make of this reported dialogue on p. 17 (Dialogue 1)?
“A Visitor ...: Can I take your picture now?
Sai (in English): How many are here? Two, three, four, five , six, seven. eight, nine, ten ...twelve.”
[Why would an editor bother to write” in “in English” for this simple sentence, if all the rest of his speech is supposed to be in English?]
In Interview 1, the two mentions and participations of a Translator are:
p. 4 “Translator: I don't follow that.”
p. 8 “Translator: But Swami did not mean that. What Swami said is that when you do not have the physical mental and spiritual strength, how can you really help another person?”
In Interview 2, page18: “Sai: Love is the beauty.”
”Translator: Swami says that because we love Him we see the beauty, so whoever wants to will come to Him. You need not get upset because of pictures.” [Why is such am expanded explanation thought necessary? It is rather reminiscent of the now familiar editorial packaging efforts by the SSO to make SSB’s Discourses more sophisticated and coherent.]
And on page 22: “(Sai starts to make some comment, but the visitor interrupts.)
“Translator: Swami can do anything. Swami says that he gives earrings to the lady to bring her joy. The more joy, the more the disease will go.” [It sounds very much as if the Translator is then relaying his translation of the previously interrupted comment, i.e. in Telugu].
Also, in the introduction to Interview XLVIII (p.129), it is stated: "(Hislop and an interpreter were having breakfast with Swami ...)." Or was the interpreter/translator present only sometimes and merely for possible clarifications?
IF, in this very important best-selling book, some (or most) of SSB's replies to Hislop were in Telugu, rather than in English as readers will assume, could it be that the impression desired by the Organisation, or by SSB himself, was to conceal that his English was still relatively weak? (With constant exposure, it would naturally have improved since those days but to what extent is difficult to gauge.)
In this last connection, Hislop reproduces a revealing question to him from SSB, on one of several car trips (during which the very short, simple dialogues soundauthentic and closer to what we have seen as SSB’s basic English conversational style, indicating perhaps that no interpreter intervened here):
”Sai’s English has improved?” “Yes, Swami. It is greatly improved.” (30 December, 1981, p. 86 of the revised Indian edition of Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.)
Even as recently as 2006, the question of interpreter / translator was raised in one of Professor Anil Kumar’s Radio Sai talks. (Kumar is the latest in a line of close associates who have interpreted for Sathya Sai Baba over the past half century.) Here SSB’s major current spokesperson offered a typically glib and evasive answer to the question: ‘Why does Baba need a translator?’
“He needs a translator because He wants to give some chance to a poor individual. Do you want to be a translator? The one who put this question; I pray on your behalf to make you a translator! A chance for somebody – to build a college, to raise a bridge, to treat a patient – these are all chances given to devotees. Different chances to do sadhana for one’s own upliftment and elevation. There is nothing special about it; He can manage it all on His own.” (Another unsubtle hint that SSB can speak any language he chooses.)
(‘Questions and answers with Prof. Anil Kumar’, http://media.radiosai.org/Journals/Vol_04/01OCT06/anil.htm)
For further consideration, other relevant extracts from the filmscript of Being There by Jerzy Kosinsky and Robert C. Clark (with due acknowledgements to the authors) are offered. The full script is available at:
After being publicly quoted by the President, ‘Chance’ becomes an instant celebrity and is interviewed on TV and by the rest of the media. Although he is an innocent victim of other people's projections and agendas, the consequences of Chauncey's sudden fame are both comical and convincing.
"REPORTER: Sorry to persist, sir, but it would be of great interest to me to know what newspapers you do read.
CHANCE: I do not read any newspapers. I watch TV.
TV REPORTER: ...Do you mean, Mr. Gardiner, that you find television's coverage of the news superior to that of the newspapers?
CHANCE (flatly): I like to watch TV.
TV REPORTER: Well, that is probably the most honest admission to come from a public figure in years. Few men in public life have the courage not to read newspapers. None, that this reporter has met, have the guts to admit it."
As an alleged political expert, he is invited to dine with the Russian Ambassador:
"Ambassador: On the other hand, what does an American know about diplomacy? So why not a coming together? An interchange of opinion? We may find, my friend, that we are not so far from each other, not so far! CHANCE (an engaging smile): We are not so far... (motions at nearness of their chairs) ...our chairs almost touch.
AMBASSADOR: Yes. Tell me, Mr. Gardiner - do you by any chance enjoy Krylov's fables? I ask this because there is something... there is something Krylovian about you.
CHANCE: Do you think so? Do you think so?
SKRAPINOV: So you know Krylov!"
The Soviet Ambassador draws his own conclusions and prepares a Press statement:
"And I want this quote included in the TASS coverage...""Chauncey Gardiner, in an intimate discussion with Ambassador Skrapinov, noted that 'unless the leaders of the opposing political systems move the chairs on which they sit closer to each other, all of their seats will be pulled from under them by rapid social and political changes."
With his instant media reputation and fame, stories and rumours fly around and anything about this simple man is believed, even by educated people:
"SENATOR: I heard that he speaks eight languages, and on top of everything else, holds a degree in medicine as well as law. Isn't that true, Eve?
EVE: Well, I really don't know, Senator, but it wouldn't surprise me."
Just in case anyone is in the least doubt about his satirical intentions, Jerzy Kosinsky inserts an ironic touch of realism: A former fellow employee happens to see the now famous Chauncey on TV and she comments:"Gobbledegook! All the time he talked gobbledegook! An' it's for sure a White man's world in America, hell, I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant an' I'll say right now he never learned to read an' write - no sir! Had no brains at all, was stuffed with rice puddin' between the ears! Short - changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass an' look at him now!"
Other Recent Articles on Sathya Sai Baba
Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Introduction
Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 3