Further National Variants of "Who is SB?"
Brian Steel November 2002
Copyright © Brian Steel 2002
[For the time being, this Note should be read as an appendix to my Notes on "Downgrading the Divine" (on <www.exbaba.com>, yesterday). Eventually, both Notes will be joined with any other evidence that comes to hand, hopefully from readers, in an article to be called "The Corporate Downsizing of Divinity?"]
So far I have only had time to check out four national SSO websites, those of France, Slovenia, Italy, Australia, and an unofficial one from Spain because the official one wasn't functioning. The reason for that non-alphabetical order will immediately become apparent. The only versions not offered in English were those of France and Slovenia (which I merely point out for the record, not as any criticism).
Note: To avoid misunderstandings, I should have pointed out earlier that personally I can only approve of the SSO's apparent (belated) decision to acknowledge that SB is not the Divine Avatar that he (and they) claimed. What should concern us and what also needs to be acknowledged is that if for them SB is now no longer Divine (etc.), what is their attitude to the previous 60 years of Divine claims? They can't (credibly) have their cake and eat it. For those reasons, in my comments on these Introductory articles designed to offer basic information about SB to inquirers on official national SSO websites, I am focussing only on the sections relevant to the Divine and related issues because they offer visible proof of an important recent process.
The first two website "Who is Sai Baba?" Introductions for newcomers (those of France and Slovenia) go even further than the U.S. SSO in avoiding a direct association between SB and God/Avatar and concentrating on the educational and social works carried out by the SSO according to SB's wishes and teachings. Italy offers an uneasy compromise between the Divine bits and the social works. The remaining two (Australia and and Spain) happen to share the same version (verbatim, even one 'typo') - again for the record and not a critical comment. (It may turn out that this much more traditional version is still used by other national SSOs; if so, it might be instructive to see which ones.)
The French official Introduction to SB begins: "Sathya Sai Baba est un chef spirituel hautement respecté ainsi qu'un enseignant de stature mondiale, dont la vie et le message inspirent des millions de gens à travers le monde en les invitant à se tourner vers Dieu et à donner un sens à leur vie, en se basant sur des principes moraux."
The whole of the rest of the French Introduction is concerned with the teaching, educational, and social work of SB. The failure to mention the SSO, which organises and carries out all this work at SB's behest cannot be a careless omission but may reveal the over-zealous touch of the French SSO bureaucrats. In fact, this sudden predominance of the social and charitable works is reminiscent of the "Party Line" which submerges the Divine aspects and only deals with the educational and social aspects of SB's Mission. It was publicly reflected in the open letter of protest signed and distributed to the world (possibly via the SSO) in the New Year of 2002 by Indian Prime Minister and devotee A. B. Vajpayee and one or two other high-ranking Indian dignataries. In this Open Letter they stridently expressed their mega-pain at all sorts of "wild, reckless, and concocted allegations" by people with "vested interests", and their fervent plea that such "baseless and malicious" activities would now cease, in order to leave this distinguished world spiritual leader and public benefactor in peace, allowing him (that is, the unnamed SSO as well) to get on with helping humanity with his charitable works; not a mention of Avatars or Divinity.
Slovenia's Introduction also deals at some length with the educational social work, but in the top lefthand corner of the page there is a small space in which facial portraits of SB, Shirdi Sai and Prema Sai flash up rapidly, not quite subliminally, one after the other, in an unending loop - thus hinting at the Divine triple avatar concept. In a separate informational document on Christ and SB two facial portraits, of a slim-faced bearded Christ with flowing locks and a more round-faced SB with his unmistakeable afro, provide the same sort of visual stimulation and reinforcement.
Italy's contribution, in English, is an interesting mixture, showing the de-divinisation of SB in progress, the middle stage, an uncomfortable half-way house. It begins with a resounding and perhaps now politically incorrect endorsement of the Divinity themes: "From birth his life was a clear manifestation of his supernatural origins. Thousands of people have been, and continue to be, testimony to the supernatural powers of Sathya Sai Baba. Without ever studying he knows all of the Sacred Scriptures, of every religion. He converses with the learned, philosophers, doctors and scientists from all over the world, showing the depth of his knowledge in all the sciences: physical, metaphysical and spiritual. He answers questions from his devotees, before they have had the time to verbally ask them. He knows the past, present and future of each person and often proves it. He often appears, at the same time, in different places. He hears the calls for help from devotees all over the world and immediately saves them from danger or difficulty. He has the power to manipulate energy, and therefore can materialise objects out of nothing, change them or make them disappear. He can cure the most incurable illness and has power over the forces of Nature and of the Elements."
No doubts there. However, this is followed by the frequently quoted but unconvincing disclaimer: "Baba does not give importance to his miracles. He refers to them as a mean of calling the attention of those distracted by the events and problems of every-day life."
Then a little confusion, but still revealing: "His power and His Love should not lead people to believe that who ever asks for a cure will have it granted. Some face a difficult journey in critical health hoping that the contact with Baba will grant them the cure. But it is not like that. Sai Baba knows when it is necessary to remove a physical illness and when instead it is more important to infuse the patient with energy and courage to render him stoic in front of death and suffering. He knows everything about each one of us and therefore knows what is best for us and our spiritual growth, even when his decisions are beyond our comprehension."
A point worth bearing in mind is that this Italian version is the only one of the five Introductions which actually acknowledges and names the SSO: "Sai Baba is the founder of the Sathya Sai Organisation with branches all over the world.
The Organisation has over 30,000 centres spread over 137 countries and expresses itself through three wings: Spiritual, Educational and Service." (Statistically, if correct, this figure of 30,000 Centres would demand an average of 33 members per Centre for EACH MILLION of claimed worldwide members; so if ten million devotees are claimed, each centre would need an average of 330 members, which sounds unlikely.)
But then follows a slightly hyperbolic mention of one of the massive social works undertaken by the SSO as associated with SB alone, as in the other Introductions. It always appears to be SB who does everything, without delegating the work or any of the credit to the (phantom) SSO or the donors:
"In November 1991 the most sophisticated and modern policlinic in India was inaugurated, with the presence of the Prime Minister and other important figures, free for every person on this earth because by the very fact of their being born, they deserve the best in the world.
Baba has never asked for money for any of these initiatives. He sensitises and invites those that can to help and benefit everyone."
Rather surprisingly, in view of the reputation of the Australasian Coordinator as a zealot in SSO policy matters and procedures, the official Australian version of 'Who is Sai Baba?' for beginners and the curious (as well as the version offered in English by the frequently visited unofficial Spanish site named Sai Madrid) is thoroughly traditional and nostalgically reminiscent of the legendary Howard Murphet. Take a look:
The beginning is quite in tune with the new requirements, and echoes P.M.Vajpayee's basic description: "Sathya Sai Baba, an exceptional spiritual leader with millions of followers throughout the world, was born on November 23, 1926 in Puttaparthi ..."
But then we go back to the stories of the remote but familiar childhood miracles:
"At the age of seven he began to compose spiritual songs which were performed at religious festivals. A year or two later he demonstrated his powers by materialising objects out of thin air for his playmates, usually candy. On other occasions he would pick a variety of fruits from the same non-fruit producing tree."
And to the reincarnation - finally, a brave public mention of the waning and perhaps burdensome Shirdi Baba connection. "During his fourteenth year the full power and glory of Sathya Sai Baba started to emerge. He announced to his parents and the villagers that he was the reincarnation of the Indian Saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi."
Then comes a brief hint of the sort of casuistry which seems to be in official favour: "To his followers, Sathya Sai Baba is accepted as the Avatar of this age; a Divine Being who has come to Earth as a manifestation of Divine Will to fulfil a cosmic mission. He has stated: "For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evildoers, and for establishing righteousness on a firm footing, I incarnate from age to age. ..."
But after that we go straight back to the full-blown traditional "Man of Miracles" treatment which has attracted so many initially to SB, and, with the SSO's backing, has been one of the foundation 'planks' of the prosperity of the Mission. Now the SSO seems to prefer devotees to forget that, or at least keep it to themselves.
As for the following stirring assertions of SB's abilities, they could scarcely be more traditional, exactly as in exciting Introductions to SB of many years ago:
"Sai Baba addresses his attention to a wide range of profound issues in his discourses and astounds scientists, philosophers, scholars and religious leaders with a superhuman grasp of knowledge and practical skills in many areas. The fame of Sathya Sai Baba was spread, in the beginning, by the stories of his 'miracles', acts which cannot be explained by science and transcend physical laws. His manifestation of material objects; the creation of sacred ash (Vibhutti) by the mere wave of his hand, to be used for spiritual and physical aid; changing an object from one metal to another simply by blowing on it; all of these phenomena and many more are done 'by an act of will'. Before hundreds/thousands of people he is known to heal the sick, the maimed and the blind. He has protected from harm those who call for help, even though some have been thousands of miles away. He has frequently appeared in his physical form in two different places at the same time. And he has raised from the dead several persons, including Walter Cowan a man from California, who died from heat [sic] attack in a Madras hotel."
So, in summary, in all this we glimpse some rather untidy and badly coordinated stages of what must be an officially backed 'morphing' process to transform SB the Divine miracle maker, Avatar, and teacher into SB the dynamic spiritual teacher and charitable entrepreneur, supported by his diligent, even if apparently mainly invisible, SSO.
There may even be an irony in the fact that in such a large organisation as the International SSO, with its powerful regional hierarchies and Coordinators, who hasten to Prasanthi Nilayam every few months for meetings and powwows, three of the above-mentioned national associations belong to the same European Region under the same Coordinator. In spite of the usual bucketloads of SSO bureaucracy, in spite of the requests and orders sent from regional headquarters, did Italy really manage to "resist" the Party Line and maintain part of the (old) faith? Or is the hybrid Italian Introduction, on a site which has not been updated since December 2001, simply an anachronism which survives because of the disarray in the ranks of Italian devotees caused by current controversies for which some may see the SSO as partly responsible?
This radical morphing process of the Divine image into something easier to sustain on a global stage began to take effect LONG ago, perhaps even as far back as the muting of the public muting of the Shirdi Sai connection, which was accompanied by the solid (but dichotomous, and possibly uncomfortable for some) continued ashram 'presence' of Shirdi Sai. The process, and its origin, is now clumsily becoming more transparent as it nears completion; it therefore needs to be recognised, publicised, and closely monitored. And for the modification process to be complete and convincing, the SSO and devotees will have to admit to themselves that an uneasy and incongruous coexistence of TWO contradictory official images is neither credible nor possible. This would necessitate an end to the inappropriate practices of (virtually) denying the Divinity in some statements and reaffirming it in others (as in publications like Sathya Sai Speaks and Sanathana Sarathi; in official correspondence; and on official and unofficial websites) - practices which have been clearly identified in the four officially showcased Discourses with which this study began, and the subsequent range of "Who is Sai Baba?" comparisons.
As usual with SB, we are left with unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, questions. For example, what does SB himself think of these events and changes of official emphasis which strongly affect him and his image? Or: Could the increasingly frequent emotional outbursts and the defiantly idiosyncratic personal reminiscences (notably, the repeated nostalgic and boastful stories about his youth) be SB's way of re-asserting his strong, fascinating, and, as we must all recognise, UNIQUE personality?
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