Towards a More Realistic Assessment of SSB on the International Scene

Brian Steel   January 2004

 Copyright © Brian Steel 2004

(A short note from my files.)

For those of you who were shocked and indignant at the pitifully partisan and ridiculously under-researched article on SSB issued a year ago by the New York Times, a recent issue of the equally prestigious Economist (20 December 2003, pp. 39-41) may offer some soothing balm.

(For the record: To its shame, the NYT, later embarrassed by the far more scandalous Jason Blair plagiarism affair, never acknowledged the many protests against its unbalanced report on SSB by one of its journalists.)

To date, many other reference books, travel publications, and even some lazy academics writing about New Religious Movements (NRMs) have uncritically repeated the SSB myths built up and repeated ad nauseam over decades. However, the 'Economist' has just broken out of this boring mould to show that it is either more up to date with the post-2000 revelations about the guru from Puttaparthi or that it is at least aware of the embarrassments surrounding the public international mention of his name. It is to be hoped that other non-devotee publications about India and spirituality, especially re-editions of previous works published before the current revelations had become widespread, will emulate the Economist's example. (In the specific case of the excellent Lonely Planet Guide Books on India, some brief revisions should be considered to reflect the debate about this guru, most particularly in the case of its otherwise magnificent pictorial portrait of Sacred India (1999) which, in a 2-page section, features SSB virtually to the exclusion of all other Indian gurus.)

The novelty about The Economist's interesting pre-Christmas survey of 'The Swamis' of India is that it does not even MENTION SSB (a sort of record in itself), but reflects the current realities in the Indian guru popularity stakes by emphasizing the pre-eminent position of Ammachi, the 'Hugging Guru' (a geographically close neighbour of SSB in the State of Kerala, and probably the new focus of attention for many disgruntled or puzzled SSB devotees). The report also mentions the presence at her recent 50th Birthday of top Indian politicians, including the President of India, Abdul Kalam, and, perhaps even more significantly, the deputy Prime Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who, to my knowledge, has never publicly bent his knee to SSB (unlike the current - but for how long? - Prime Minister, Mr. Vajpayee, a frequent visitor to SSB's ashram in Puttaparthi).

True, the Economist does mention Bangalore in its report, but only to introduce and describe the appeal of the popular guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ...

Maybe Indian politics in 2004 will produce surprises in the national spiritual world as well as the political.


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