Devotees' Expectations and SSB's Lingam Production
(Background Notes on the 2004 Mahasivaratri Spectacle)
Brian Steel February 2004
Copyright © Brian Steel 2004
Robert Priddy's expert and incisive reporting of the recent lingam spectacle at Puttaparthi (on www.exbaba.com) prompts me to excavate these related notes on the phenomenon of devotees' expectations of programmed miracles.
Early Claims of Omnipotence by SSB
(from .../More/omnipotence.htm )
In written accounts of SSB's childhood, there are many anecdotal references to miracles performed by him, mainly to benefit his playmates with gifts (especially of food), or to impress them. In the first years of his (published) Discourses, the claims (to his Indian audiences) to be an Omnipotent miracle worker are strong and very frequent. (See also Chapter 1 on SSB's Claims).
"R.Reddy said that I work many miracles and that you are all lucky to have had this opportunity of hearing me. Well, I am like a shopkeeper whose shop is stocked with all things man needs. But like the man behind the counter, I give you only what you ask for ... But these material things are not important at all." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 8:50 Madras, 24-3-58)
"Science transforms things, re-arranges them ... But I create the things themselves! And they are as lasting as any that is found in Nature!" (II, 16:73)
"That is why I am now and then announcing My Nature by means of miracles; that is, acts which are beyond human capacity and human understanding. Not that I am anxious to show off My Powers. The object is to draw you closer to Me, to cement your hearts to Me." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 26:141).
"Today Swami will show miracles," He declared to our delight." (Joyce D.Baker, 35)
The last statements set up an expectation in the minds of devotees. As we shall see later, this was to become a part of SSB's technique in the early years of his Mission, particularly in announcing his public manifestations of lingams on Mahasivaratri night for many years.
Indeed, as the following quotation shows, the materialising of objects from the sands of the Chitravati River in those early days became something of a public spectacle and crowd puller, but even then gave rise to some murmurings of possible trickery, immediately denied by SSB:.
"Kasturi suggested this morning that since the thousands who have come to see the Amrithodbhava (materialisation of nectar) cannot get a close view on this flat riverbed, a mound of sand be raised, whereon I can sit. I did not agree because I knew these doubters would immediately infer that the Amritha was hidden previously under the mound that was heaped up on purpose." (I, 35:226-227 Chitravati River Bed, 28-12-60)
The reference to doubters also reflects the reality already mentioned above: Doubts, disbelief, and even accusations of sleight-of-hand and other magicians' tricks have been voiced, at least in India, for decades, especially, as we have seen, by traditionalist Hindus and by the Indian Skeptics.
Although SSB used not to be in the habit of answering his critics, in an interview with the prominent Indian journalist, R.K.Karanjia, in 1976, after a spate of adverse publicity, he specifically rejected the labels 'magic' and Siddhis for his actions:
"What I do is neither magic, nor is it a Siddhi power either. ... For me it is a kind of visiting card to convince people of my love for them and secure their devotion in return. Since love is formless I use materialisation as evidence of my love. It is merely a symbol." (R.K.Karanjia, 1994:28 - See also Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 35:235-236 and X, 39:262).
Once his reputation as a miracle-maker was firmly established and devotees were busy talking and writing about SSB's powers, the claims were less frequently made; Baba even began to downplay his use of miracles as merely the beginning of a process, the means to a spiritual end:
"The Divine has to reveal Itself through these manifestations, largely shaped and modified by the nature of the times, the region, and the cultural environment. The signs and wonders that I manifest are given names that do not connote the purpose or effect. They can be called miracles that lead on to purification, which in turn urge on towards a life of service to society, and finally result in God-realization. ... ...
"Why does the Divine attract? Is it to deceive or mislead? No. It is to transform, reconstruct, reform through a process called samskara, (purification through the dual process of removing the dust and dirt of vice and planting the four virtues of truth, right living, peace, and love)." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X: 96 - American edition). And Sai Baba adds, "Once the person is drawn near, the purification process starts." (X: 97).
Public Demonstrations and the Build-up of Devotees' Expectations
Leaving aside the materialisations of gifts for devotees during private group interviews, most of SSB's alleged miracles are performed in private, for individuals. This often makes written or word-of-mouth reports of them impossible or very difficult to verify. So the main opportunity to test the authenticity of SSB's alleged Omnipotence as demonstrated through miracles lies in the Public demonstrations of his powers, which have been mainly restricted to one or two major annual events. The major publicly performed miracle, for many years was the materialisation, allegedly from within his own body, of Shiva lingams on the Hindu sacred night of Mahasivaratri (in February or March). The Sanskrit name for this is Lingodhbhava. For some years this was accompanied by another miraculous demonstration, Abhishekam, the bathing of a statue of Shirdi Sai Baba with showers of materialised vibhuti.
In the early years of SSB's Discourses (1953-1960, covered in Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. 1) there are two brief mentions of Mahashivaratri (in 1955 and 1959). There is no specific mention of Baba materialising a lingam, although in his 1959 Mahasivaratri speech, SSB refers to it as the traditional Night of the Emergence of the Linga Form of Shiva. The next reference to Mahashivaratri comes in 1962, when Baba (aged 36) briefly indicates in his first speech that he will produce a lingam, thus producing a fervent expectation in his listeners:
"This evening, the Lingodbhava (emergence of egg-shaped stone of Shiva) is My Duty, My responsibility, rather My Nature which must reveal itself on this holy day."(Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 30:160) and in his second speech during the festival he celebrates its arrival:
"This is a day of special dedication to Shiva, and since so many of you here and elsewhere pray to Shiva, the Lingha is emanating from me for you all to receive the Grace and the bliss of the Great Moment of Lingodbhava (Emergence of the Linga)." (II, 31:173)
Although no mention is recorded for 1963, from 1964 until 1977, the miraculous production of the lingam, with its special personal blessing for the beholder, became a much-awaited and announced annual religious and festive event, building up enormous expectancy and drawing large crowds of Hindus. An example of the technique:
"In a short time, you will be witnessing the emergence of the Linga that is formed within; the auspicious time for the emergence for the Linga is approaching; you see it and you receive the blessings; but yet there will be some among you who will doubt it and deny it. That is the karma of such. What else can they do?" "(Here, Baba stopped the discourse; the movements started, first in the region of the abdomen, then the chest and the throat; Baba swayed from the side, leaned on the table, drank water, and finally, after about twenty minutes, an egg-shaped pink Linga emerged from His mouth. Holding it between the thumb and forefinger of His right hand, Baba discoursed further about it.)"
"Ah! This is the Brahmaanda Linga! Symbol of the Universe. Inside it, the nine planets (Navagrahas) revolve; the entire Universe is represented herein ... You are indeed blessed, the merit of many births as brought you here to see the Great Phenomenon, this rare Creation." (Sathya Sai Speaks, IV, 4:26)
In addition to this very special annual spiritual spectacle, those present were overjoyed at the extraordinary accompanying blessing. No wonder that year by year the crowds grew.
"Having had the unique good fortune of witnessing the emergence of the time-space-embodiment in the Linga-Form, I assure you that you are released from the bondage of birth and death. ... This is the chance that is seldom gained through there are performance of yajnas or yagas or other elaborate rituals; or as a result of years of arduous sadhana. When you are asked what happened at Prasanthi Nilayam, tell them that your life's mission has been fulfilled, that you were able to witness the Lingodhbhava, see the Linga which emerged during the auspicious hour." (XII, 28:167)
In 1977 the public materialisations ceased - until 1999, when SSB and the SSO may have perceived the imminence of the serious charges which would shortly be levelled at them, and magnified during the following two years.
(from Chapter 6, of 'SSB:GOG', 2001. No longer on website.):
Discontinuation of some types of miracles
It is reasonably clear that, like other alleged miracles, leaving aside the question of authenticity, the phenomenon of Lingodbhava, was specifically used in the 1960s and 1970s (1962-1977) to attract attention to SSB's Mission. The Mission was growing so rapidly by 1980 that perhaps Lingodbhava was no longer deemed necessary (either by SSB, or by the leaders of his Organisation). It could be that Lingodbhava, like other early miraculous activities which had been discontinued had simply served its publicity purpose and was now redundant. (Some other discontinued miracles were: "trance visits" to other places while in public view - bilocation, taking on the medical symptoms of devotees, resurrections, exorcisms, and fleetingly materialising sacred Hindu relics from far away temples and shrines.)
It is not unreasonable to hypothesise that in 1999 and 2000, this popular event may even have been deliberately revived for precisely the same promotional reasons, at a time when the Organisation was acutely aware that very strong criticism and denunciation of SSB was about to be made public overseas by two very high-profile close ex-devotees (David Bailey and Naresh Bhatia) who had recently "defected" and whose spectacular revelations were nervously awaited. If this hypothesis is not correct, and if the Lingodbhava performance was discontinued because of fears of unruly crowds in 1977, why revive it when the crowds are much larger today?
By Mahasivaratri, 2001, there were high expectations and big crowds. As in previous years, SSB advertised the appearance in advance in the first of his two Mahasivaratri Discourses:
"Embodiments of Love! "Today is a very holy day. The time at 6 o'clock is highly sacred. At that time, the Atma Lingam will be manifested. God is sometimes called the Hiranyagarbha. The golden Lingas emerge from Hiranyagarbha itself."
SSB's reputation for omniscience or truth is not enhanced by the fact that in this 2001 Discourse he announced 6 p.m. as sacred for lingam production ("The time at 6 o'clock is highly sacred. At that time, the Atma Lingam will be manifested."), whereas only two years before, he had said that "I used to bring Atma Lingams from this body on the occasion of Sivarathri in the earlier years ... There is a specific time for this. It may take place at any moment between 8 and 10 in the night. It takes place at the right time irrespective of the place I am in. It is bound to take place. It is natural in this Sivarathri night." (These Mahasivaratri Discourses for 1999 and 2001 are available on www.eaisai.com/baba and on the new official Sai Baba website, www.srisathyasai.org.in.)
The Resumption of Lingam Materialisation (1999)
In the 21 years between 1978 and 1999, Mahasivaratri continued to be a crowded festival, with increasing numbers of foreign devotees. And then, suddenly, on Mahasivaratri Day, 1999 (February 14) SSB astonished and thrilled a very large crowd, and took the official photographer by surprise, by once again producing a lingam in front of them, this time, uncharacteristically, without prior warning. This was the Hiranyagarbha [Golden womb] Lingam. Holding it up for devotees to see, Baba said:
"The principle of Hiranyagarbha is spread all over the body. It assumes a form when I will it. Whoever has seen this Lingam at the time of its emergence will not have rebirth. One should see its form as It emerges. In order to sanctify your lives, such sacred manifestations have to be shown to you every now and then. Only then can you understand the divinity in humanity."
Having bestowed that boon on his listeners, SSB went on to give himself this "commercial plug" and a promise of more miracles to come:
"... You cannot see such a manifestation anywhere else in the world. It is possible only with Divinity. In future you will be a witness to many more manifestations of Divinity. Understand that this Bliss can be experienced only in the proximity of the Divine and nowhere else."
He further announced that since it was in his Divine nature to produce Shiva Lingams on Mahashivaratri, whether they were witnessed or not.
Predictably, on the following Mahashivaratri in 2000, there was an enormous crowd of devotees present and, this time, a photographer had been installed to make a video of the whole proceedings. (The video was subsequently seen at Sathya Sai Baba Centres around the world.) When, after some twenty minutes of retching and heaving, sipping water and mopping his mouth and face, SSB finally spat out a lingam, the crowd were ecstatic. Since the whole event had been captured on the waiting official photographer's video, it is possible to study the lead-up to the moment of production. Unfortunately, the climactic moment is less than clear because SSB pushes his large cloth to his mouth in the instants immediately before showing the lingam between his teeth, leaving the door wide open to doubters and detractors.
In 2001, 2002, 2003, and now 2004, the expected Mahasivaratri spectacle has continued to thrill devotees, reinforcing their belief in SSB's Divine powers, regardless of the evidence of the films and videos.
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