An Interesting New Development in the Sathya Sai Organisation:
The Prasanthi Council
Brian Steel June 2003
Copyright © Brian Steel 2003
The ongoing controversy over Sathya Sai Baba's claims of Divinity (virtually unchallenged for so many years) continues to produce interesting differences in reactions from the public relations departments of the various national Sathya Sai Organisations. As I commented in 'Downgrading Divinity' in November 2002, in relation to the current official promotional literature of the American Sathya Sai Organization:
"What is almost totally and deliberately downplayed by the cautious American SSO leaders is the characteristic most closely associated with SB: his "Divinity". The only nods in that direction are: the consistent use of the capitalised forms He, His, Him and One, the initial reference to "Divine directives and teachings", and the very subdued references to miracles. As if to underline (subtly) that it is not SB himself who claims to be the (current) Avatar, we are told the half-truth that "Sathya Sai Baba's followers regard Him as an incarnation of God in human form (Avatar)." As they do - but mainly because SB and the SSO told them so first!
"This latest and clearest example of an emerging recent trend in some official SB circles to put a new protectionist 'spin' on SB's biography and on the history and nature of the SB Mission should be seen for what it is: rewriting history. It appears certain that we can expect more of the same."
And much more of the same came, it appears, in April 2003. On the Saiunity website run by SSB devotees, but with open access to any visitor, Message 5024 of 29 May 2003 offers what is said by the writer to be the text of a letter by Dr Michael Goldstein (a very prominent SSO leader) in the May-June issue of the Sathya Sai Newsletter, USA. (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/saiunity/)
Assuming the report to be accurate - and it would be difficult to invent it - the following extracts from this announcement show that what has just been created is a powerful super-committee of five members which, with SSB's alleged approval, will have direct control over Chairmen and Central Coordinators outside India.
"To all Overseas Sathya Sai Baba Centers April 27, 2003
"With the blessings and approval of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the Prasanthi Council is hereby convened. The Council will have the responsibility of serving and managing the Sri Sathya Sai Organization outside of India. The members of the Council are: G.Venkataraman, C.Sreenivas, William Harvey, Leonardo Gutter and Michael Goldstein.
"The Council will be responsible for the formulation of plans and agendas, policies, guidelines, and decisions that constitute the governance of the Sai Organization outside of India. In addition to the above, the Council will be resource for intervention in difficult circumstances where the sanctity of the Divine Name or the welfare of the Sai Organization can be affected. The Zone Chairmen and Central Coordinators will continue to be responsible for the implementation of those plans, policies, guidelines and decisions that are agreed upon.
1) To create an environment conducive to deepening the faith and spiritual Commitment of all.
2) To encourage spiritual authenticity and discipline in our practices and Procedures
3) To contribute to the spiritual illumination of mankind by the propagation of The Divine Messages of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba through our own Exemplary actions."
Although the announcement showers high praise on the hitherto International Chairman, Indulal Shah, for his legacy (he is still alive), it also surely implies that he and the Indian SSO are either being marginalised, or separated from SSO activities in other countries of the world.
The appointment of M. Goldstein as Chairman of this new Council merely adds to his high profile as virtual Numero Uno spokesperson for the SSO. He is already Deputy Chairman of the International Sathya Sai Council as well as Central Coordinator for the U.S. Sathya Sai Organization. During the past three years of intense criticism of SSB and the SSO, Goldstein has been especially active in making soothing statements to devotees all over the world.
The name 'Prasanthi Council' (with its association with India) gives an inadequate image of what is really a Supra-Council for Non-Indian Sathya Sai Organisations, a central base for its growing international operations. What many will see as a colonialisation of the Puttaparthi SSO's power, at least in public relations, merely reflects and exacerbates those divisions and puzzling dichotomies observable in today's SSB Movement in relation to the Divinity or other status of SSB. On the whole, the two Indian-based official SSB websites continue to promote the Divinity aspect, although these also sometimes show signs of a dual attitude (traditional and revised). Foreign SSOs divide into two camps (as a visit to their websites will confirm):
- those which, like the SSO in U.S.A., pragmatically downplay the highly controversial (and internationally embarrassing) Divinity angle and stress the "spiritual leader" aspect,
- and those more traditional overseas SSOs which cling to the original "SSB is God Incarnate and Man of Miracles" descriptions familiar to and probably preferred by most devotees.
The position of the new Council on this crucial and delicate issue is slightly ambivalent, and very diplomatic. In its careful and in places ambiguous language, the document treats the tricky question of SSB's alleged Divinity with extreme caution. Indeed, the description "the sanctity of the Divine Name" is a gem of imprecision by the Council's draftsperson, who deserves a bonus for his/her efforts. (Is this meant as a reference to SSB, or to God in general? As with so many things connected with SSB, it's up to the reader to interpret, you see. The Prasanthi Council wishes to be seen as not asserting anything controversial, or compromising.)
The creation of this Council could have far-reaching effects on the worldwide SSB Movement. As for its supremacy over foreign SSO's and its foreshadowing of vague "intervention ... in difficult circumstances", the Council seems to be stepping out in very unspiritual and worldly directions, in arrogant disregard for SSB's stated teachings and his supremely confident forecasts of the unstoppable progress of his uniquely Divine Mission. This Council proposes to take over at least one of SSB's own functions. Why does he meekly condone this, he who has proudly boasted time after time that he needs no one's help? (In this connection, another recent anomaly, or 'corporate initiative', will be remembered: although SSB also disapproved of advertising for many years, and specifically of the Internet in 1999, the SSO went ahead and established a second massive promotional website to complement the one they had already established.)
Will non-Indian devotees really accept what appears to be a further attempt to transform a spiritual movement based on the teachings and personality of one person into a corporate multinational bureaucracy? And how will Indian devotees feel about all these issues and prospects?
1. The first intervention by the new Chairman was probably the statement issued last week in Dr Goldstein's name (after yet another hip injury and a minor operation) that SSB was well.
2. One helpful minor resolution by the new Council to bring things up to date and to reflect reality should be a decree that, in English, the word Prasanthi in its title should be spelled Prashanti, which is how it is pronounced.
3. The Saiunity document gives Dr Michael Goldstein's address, email, telephone number, and Fax number. Does this signify that the new Prasanthi Council has an identifiable forwarding address in U.S.A.?
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