Puttaparthi on a hot day in October
Brian Steel November 2008
Copyright © 2008 Brian Steel
In mid-October 2008, during a three week visit to India, I made a 5-hour visit to Puttaparthi and Prasanthi Nilayam. My visit was timed to avoid the festivals of Navaratri, Dassera / Vijayadashami, so moving around the township and the ashram would be comfortable. There were many Indians walking up and down the ashram streets, especially small groups arriving and registering for accommodation but in Prasanthi and Puttaparthi I only saw a handful of foreign visitors, mainly middle-aged and post-middle-aged women. I saw no foreigner of either sex under about 40 in the ashram, in the cafés or in the shops. Because of the ban on photography, I saw no point in attending darshan since copious photographic evidence is frequently made available on Sathya Sai Organisation websites, including Radio Sai. These give a far clearer picture of the current altered style of darshan at Prasanthi Nilayam, especially at festivals, than a cramped seat at the back of the mandir.
The mandir was empty and closed. Photographs were forbidden and loitering (even to peer inside the mandir, where ramps for the ailing Sathya Sai Baba’s chair were clearly visible) was discouraged by Seva Dal volunteers posted around the perimeter. The number of items prohibited in the mandir has now reached about 20, including books and pens. (Perhaps such draconian measures will at least encourage more meditation in the long waits for a glimpse of the distant chairbound guru.) From the tall surrounding township buildings, for example the Sai Heritage Hotel just past the ornate main entrance to the ashram, photographs were strictly prohibited, so I consoled myself with a pot of ready mixed chai on the 6 th floor restaurant and looked down on the ashram and toward the surrounding hills.
Sai Towers bookshop offered up a few purchases of typical recent publications (to be commented on in other articles along with the SSSBPT materials I bought in other Indian SSO centres) but most of the Sai Towers shelves are now stocked with books by other publishers on other gurus and general spiritual topics. I noted wryly that, although the more or less officially proscribed Love is My Form, Vol 1 (with its frank but unwelcome biographical revelations) is given pride of place in the Sai Towers shopwindow, which faces the ashram, there were no copies of the ‘heretical’ work on sale inside the bookshop.
Miscellaneous observations on the Puttaparthi scene
The airports at Bangalore and Puttaparthi
As a sign of changed times, and as Robert Priddy has pointed out on his blogsite, the airport at Puttaparthi is becoming a white elephant. Apart from its convenience for visiting VIPs with their own jets (especially before elections) and apart from special charters on big festivals like the 23 November birthday and Christmas, it is rarely used, as taxi drivers confirmed. Nevertheless, for the present at least, SSB’s expensive airport is still featured on the Indian Airlines map of routes in India (see the in-flight magazine Swagat – Welcome).
The massive new airport at Bengaluru (an unpopular politically imposed new name), inaugurated only a few months ago along with its 3,000 acres of land and gardens, will be a blessing (godsend?) for Sathya Sai’s dwindling foreign devotees, especially those from countries in financial turmoil. Since the airport is 40 or 50 kilometres North of Bangalore (just south of Chikballapur), they (or their tour arrangers) can arrange to go straight from the new airport to Puttaparthi in a mere two and a half hours, thus saving at least one hour on the single trip and masses of money which would otherwise go to Bengaluru’s renovated or rebuilt 3-star hotels which now cost $100 or more, a sum which devotees, used to cheap spiritual holidays for decades, may not be able to afford. (They will also save Rs 800 on the taxi trip into – and from – Bangalore.) Just to the north of Chikballapur a new Sathya Sai Baba lookalike has set up his residence. A driver told me he does miracles for Indian visitors and that foreign visitors are beginning to discover him. (History repeating itself?)
The shops of Puttaparthi (How would foreign devotees manage without them?)
The fiasco of the promised “Moon miracle” of late 2007 was instantly and ably reported by Barry Pittard and Robert Priddy on their well-known blogsites (http://robertpriddy.wordpress.com. and http://barrypittard.wordpress.com). For the information of those who have not yet read these reports, one evening in October last year, during bhajans, Sathya Sai Baba apparently instructed his interpreter and close associate Anil Kumar to tell devotees to race off to Puttaparthi airport to see him appear on the moon at 7 p.m.. (Another of his pre-announced miracles.) The news spread over the Internet within hours and devotees flocked by car from Prasanthi to the airport but to their chagrin and embarrassment, no sighting was reported on that cloudy night. However, after much Internet discussion of the phenomenon, some days later reports of sightings of SSB on the moon duly began to appear on chat groups and bulletin boards from devotees in several countries. To reinforce the ‘truth’ of these allegations, unreferenced postcards of “Saibaba on Moon” are now on sale in the roadside shops of Puttaparthi. And in a special glossy 15 Rupee booklet of postcards of Puttaparthi Sightseeing (another local website offers ‘Puttaparthi shopping’), the same card, which shows Sathya Sai Baba’s head superimposed on the Moon is dated as 22 October 2007 and is sourced to Richard Margolin of the Manhattan Sai Baba Center.
Note: In early June 2009, I received some explanatory emails from someone who claims to be Richard M. Margolin. The emails contain a disclaimer as well as professions of his rock-solid belief in Sathya Sai Baba's powers. He began by reminding me: "As you may recall, I am one of those who are absolutely convinced of Sai Baba's omnipotence, and love and revel in those experiences."
Here is some of his background evidence regarding his (and other devotees') role in the promotion of the controversial photograph and his disclaimer regarding the attribution of the photograph in the Puttaparthi postcard booklet.
"I received the picture in question via email from a highly respected devotee in Conn. He assured me that the person who took the photo was a "visiting professor" in Puttaparthi, and had impeccable credentials. I therefore (all too quickly) sent the photo to Saibabofindia.com with the above proviso." When Saibaba of India informed him the photo was a "composite", Margolin says he requested them to take it off their website. [Comment: It is impossible to know how many devotees and others would have viewed the 'miracle' picture and passed on the information while the photograph was online.] He had also been making his own inquiries after sending in the photo and discovered that “the good professor […] said right up front that the photo was a composite […] and told me just how that it had been accomplished. He had never, ever intended that it be taken to be an actual photo." [That seems extremely disingenuous.] Margolin deeply regrets that merchants in Puttaparthi associated the photo with the Manhattan "Sai Baba" Center. When pressed for an opinion on the claim about SSB's miraculous appearance on the Moon, Margolin's response was guarded: "The Moon Darshan is not a major issue with me. I tend to think it may be true (which is the best I can do), but it remains iffy in my mind (despite knowing people personally very well who claim to a have seen it)."
The same booklet of coloured postcards shows an impressive range of the main buildings in Puttaparthi and Prasanthi Nilayam, including the new Indoor Sports Stadium, the Music building and the Asian-style Chaitanya Jyoti Museum as well as the towering hillside statues of Hanuman, Jesus et al that are now in place for present and future mass tourism by Indians (who will doubtless flock to this attraction, especially by train, when 83 year-old Sathya Sai Baba dies). So the rural town of Puttaparthi (with its 10,000 residents) seems set to become a huge Sathya Sai Baba Memorial venue, perhaps even on the Tirupati circuit, a rival – or perhaps a sister site – for the famous Temple Complex at distant Shirdi (which, as I shall repeat in a later article, is situated, not in rural Andhra Pradesh but on a major road in north Maharashtra and caters for thousands of Indian visitors every day).
Current darshan style
One of my purchases elsewhere in India was an official DVD issued by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust of SSB’s 2006 visit to his summer centre, Sai Sruti, in Kodaikanal, with his students and some devotees (including some foreigners): With the LORD in the Mountains. Kodaikanal (www.sssbpt.org, April 2006).
The footage is of research interest because it offers official evidence of the steady physical (and perhaps mental) decline of Sathya Sai Baba in the past four or five years. This has brought about major changes in his former flamboyant darshan style, which now consists mainly of wheelchair-bound appearances with many students constantly hovering in attendance, particularly to support him if he attempts to stand up or move about. His conversation and personal contact with devotees is more limited than in his heyday but the DVD shows that in 2006 he was still able to accept many letters from his chair and exchange some words from his wheelchair. Recent 2008 official website footage (especially from www.saicast.org) shows how his physical condition has continued to decline in the past two years and how painful it seems for him to make discourses. His face now remains expressionless for most of the time or seems to display something akin to disorientation.
On my visit to Puttaparthi, I adventurously chose chai and a toasted cheese sandwich in the small café in Sai Towers. The perusal of my book purchases was interrupted by the conversation of three middle-aged Londoners at a nearby table (two female, one male). Their conversation is quite typical of many heard in the past (particularly from foreign devotees) but in view of the much reduced exposure of devotees to real contact with SSB in darshan and the even rarer chance of an interview, I imagine it may be an even more common occurrence nowadays. Basically, the three were exchanging their methods of getting answers to their questions or prayers from (chairbound) SSB. Two of them strongly recommended the following sort of strategy: as SSB was wheeled into the mandir for darshan, they would formulate their unspoken prayer or request and then decide that, for example, if he touched his face in the following 3 or 5 minutes, it was an acceptance or a Yes. A most satisfying wager, since eventually, in some darshan or other, he could not fail to oblige them by touching his face (which he often does) within the allotted period. Further comment seems superfluous.
A Visit to the Chaitanya Jyoti Museum
The striking edifice of the Chaitanya Jyoti (“Flame of Consciousness”) Museum, the building inaugurated by Sathya Sai Baba in November 2000 to commemorate and promote his life and Mission, is on the Vidyagiri Hillside in Puttaparthi, almost hidden at the end of a narrow unpaved lane and behind a rather worn football and cricket pitch. I managed a quick visit in the afternoon before the long drive back to Bangalore. I queued, hatless, for 15 minutes in the hot sun to tour the museum with a group of about 30 Indians and an elderly Professor Haraldsson lookalike in immaculate white shirt and trousers. At the official opening time, we were finally allowed in, slowly, in single file, ladies first. I tried to smuggle my camera in but was sent back to the cloakroom by the efficient Seva Dal frisker of visitors. We climbed up the long staircase of this very imposing Asian façade, past the large water feature and its sleek fish.
The first exhibit room is now completely bare. (I cannot remember what it once contained.) In fact, the interior of the museum is much less imposing than the façade and most of the simple but gaudily painted statues, exhibits, working models and explanatory posters and labels seem to have been prepared for a mainly juvenile audience. The full range of SSB’s divine claims, with the familiar associations with gods, avatars and other famous names, are boldly reasserted. Other familiar mythical assertions and alleged miracle stories are prominently displayed. “The Creation explained by the Creator” is one of the typically immodest signs in one of the first rooms.
On what was formerly a triumphal staircase showing the “Prophecies Fulfilled”, I noted that the misleading images of the Persian book and the spurious translation from Persian (as shown in the original Museum Guide and reported by me in 2005) have been removed but the characteristics of a divine Sathya Sai Baba allegedly foretold in a “Discourse of Mohammed” (quoting from the guide) remain defiantly in place, in spite of the patent impossibility (and potential offensiveness to a large section of humanity) of this prediction. (“His hair will be profuse … His clothing will be like a flame… He will live 95 years …”, etc.) The alleged palm leaf predictions of Sathya Sai Baba’s Coming, the quotations from the Book of Revelations and the alleged predictions by Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce are also unconvincingly on display.
(It should be noted that most of these implausible predictions, much-repeated items in the Sathya Sai Baba literature and on the devotee grapevine, have originated from SSB’s over-zealous devotees and associates, rather than from his own bold assertions and boasts. The uncontrolled nature of such zealotry has distinguished SSB’s associates and devotees for decades but the storytelling guru named Sathya ("Truth") must also carry his share of the responsibility, particularly when such stories are broadcast beyond India’s frontiers on the Internet and the radio as well as in books.)
In the nearby area on avatars, not only is SSB’s alleged kinsman, Bharadwaj, given a prominent position but his involvement in the process of the three alleged incarnations is reported exactly as SSB described it in his astonishing 6 July1963 Guru Purnima discourse, one of four discourses to which the Sathya Sai Organisation has given special prominence.
Moving on to the many exhibits depicting and describing the detailed popular mythology of SSB’s birth, the widely circulated devotee anecdote about Sri Aurobindo’s acknowledgement of the “descent of the Overmind” as “proof” of his acknowledgement of Sathya Sai’s divine birth is not only included but made more emphatic with the additional assertion that the Sage of Pondicherry “realised that his Mission had finished.” Current and former devotees of Aurobindo and the Mother are unlikely to endorse such implausible claims.
There are many more simple exhibits, animations and sound effects to enthral devotees and others but by this stage most non-devotees will probably be feeling in need of fresh air and refreshment. As for Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged judgement that the Chaitanya Jyoti Museum “will be the marvel of the 21 st Century”, it is another clear example of his strong predilection for exaggeration.
My final discovery came at the exit where I asked to purchase the Museum Guidebook. I was told it is being reprinted because of “many changes”. Next year? Yes. Then, when one attendant offered to show me the DVD about the Museum, his companion intervened to say pointedly that the DVD is not available – even though it is listed there in the glass case. How odd! After a brief discussion between the good Seva Dal cop and the bad one, the following explanation was offered: The DVD is also being remade. (Hint: Obtain a copy of the old one. It could be quite revealing.)
(For more information – pending the new guidebook’s appearance – and especially to view the illustrations and all the exhibits which I have not described, see also the original guidebook, Chaitanya Jyoti. Experiencing the Divine, Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations, 2001.)
Footnote: Once again, the SSO has belatedly reacted to a valid criticism of a discrepancy in the Sathya Sai Baba myth and quietly removed a part of the unconvincing evidence, while blatantly retaining many other dubious or erroneous myth-enhancing assertions in its (sometimes ambivalent) promotion of Sathya Sai Baba as the Avatar of the Age. Why can it not correct other discrepancies, especially for posterity? (For example, amend 1940 to 1943.)
A Recent Discourse
On 9 October 2008 (the 90 th anniversary of Shirdi Sai Baba’s death, as the Sathya Sai Organisation helpfully informs readers), Sathya Sai Baba gave a discourse (http://www.sssbpt.org/Pages/Prasanthi_Nilayam/Vijayadasami_Discourse09Oct2008.html).
In this discourse (possibly because he was not clearly briefed beforehand by his senior associates) Sathya Sai Baba has not a word to say about Shirdi Sai but instead makes clear divine claims for himself, including the strongly controversial one of being the reincarnation of Vishnu. He also delivers a series of rambling personal complaints about being misunderstood and criticised, while insisting that he does not get angry and loves everyone equally. In addition, he strongly advises his students to dump their cell phones in a well if possible.
(The extracts quoted below come from the official translated and edited version of the discourse. They sound as though they may have had less editing than usual.)
“Sathyanarayana is a unique Avatar, though He appears to be an ordinary human being. People often commit the mistake of thinking Him to be an ordinary human, since He very closely interacts with them at the human level. Whatever He speaks, it is Truth, Truth and nothing but the Truth!
People do not observe My words properly. They take My words lightly, thinking it to be just a joke or fun. Whatever I speak, even if it is a joke or for fun, it is Truth, Truth, and Truth only! Unfortunately, people do not recognise this truth; even those who move very closely with Swami. They, therefore take it lightly. They just listen and forget about it.
But, surely the result of their apathy would be apparent sooner than later. Only those who are unable to visualise the future will be taking my words lightly. Though Swami is moving in front of them, giving them darshan, talking to them now and then and performing several gigantic tasks right in front of their eyes, people are unable to recognise His true nature and get convinced in His words. How strange it is!
It is 83 years since this body was born. I have not forgotten a single incident in this earthly sojourn. But people say Swami forgets things. No; there is no truth at all in this statement. Forgetfulness is not in My dictionary.
I do not at all get angry against anybody, even though some talk ill of Me. I will always be smiling. Even the apparent anger that I display sometimes is just to correct an individual.
The students vouchsafe for this attitude of Mine. They wonder how Swami is able to put up such a smiling countenance in the midst of great criticism and how Swami could put up such great patience! For Me, all are one!
Lord Sathyanarayana is also called Vishnu. He is Lord Vishnu, verily! Lord Vishnu has incarnated as Sathyanarayana in this world. Hence, Sathyanarayana is verily Lord Vishnu. This was explained in the Vishnu Purana. You must understand His Thathwa (true nature) well.
I have not given any discourse during the last ten days. Why? People attributed different reasons for this, according to their imagination. But one thing is true. I am sitting before the microphone today to reveal the truth. My love is supreme and pure. I love those who love Me. I love even those who develop hatred toward Me. I also extend My love to those who are demonic and who try to put Me to great inconvenience. There is no one in this world whom I do not love.
Thousands of people have heard My discourses over a period of time. Thousands and lakhs of people witnessed My divine powers on various occasions. In spite of all that, people are unable to understand the true nature of My Divinity.
Sathya Sai Baba has given fewer discourses in the past three years or so. On the above evidence, would it not be wiser and better for his health and reputation if he limited his public pronouncements to a handful per year? There are so many older discourses freely available (as well as countless printed compilations and extracts) for devotees to read his basic teachings.
Other research articles are available on Brian Steel's Sathya Sai Baba Page.