Sathya Sai Baba’s credibility gap: Contributions by John Hislop
Brian Steel January 2009
Copyright © Brian Steel 2009
“I do not want the impression to gain ground that I desire this Name and this Form to be publicised. I have not come to set afoot a new cult; I do not want people to be misled on this point.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 19:95)
It is unlikely that anyone would consider Sathya Sai Baba a shy person. Although he issues these token humble statements from time to time and in spite of his devotees’ constant mechanical repetition of the mantra that SSB does not want or need publicity, a totally different impression is clearly documented in SSB’s Discourses, in his reported conversations and in many other writings, videocassettes and DVDs about him. Ever since (as the young Sathya Narayana Raju) he publicly announced that he was “Sai Baba” (in 1943), and later as self-professed Avatar of the Age, Sathya Sai Baba has constantly and flamboyantly attracted public attention and expectations, thus ensuring that increasing numbers of people will talk and write about him. A large share of the credit for the successful expansion of his Mission in India and later overseas is due to such forms of publicity, whether deployed by him or by others associated with him, including his devotees.
Even N. Kasturi, his first hagiographer, admits this obvious fact about the propagation of the fame of SSB:
“Most of us hear of Sai Baba from someone else! One starts to learn who Baba is, hearing someone tell about Him. ‘The first wave of information here in California,’ says John Hislop of Los Angeles, “came from Bob Raymer and his friends. The second wave came from Indra Devi and her associates, Indra Devi heard from Mr. Murphet in Madras. Mr Murphet first heard from Bob Raymer; Bob heard from a friend of his who became his wife! She, in turn, had heard about Baba from a friend. But the first original link in this chain is Baba Himself!’” (Sathyam Sivam Sundaram, Part III, 2nd American Edition, 1988, p. 100).
Apart from SSB’s own spectacular stories on the subject of his claimed divinity and avatarhood (many of which have been analysed and presented on this website and on several others in recent years), his major associates and spokespersons have a long record of repeating and propagating his boastful, publicity-seeking stories and claims. For example, on the Indian side, associates and mentors like Kasturi, Bhagavantam, Gokak, Shah and Kumar and on the foreign side, influential devotee proselytisers like Hislop, Sandweiss, Murphet, Mason, Tigrett, Goldstein and Jagadeesan have brought the teachings and colourful assertions of SSB to worldwide attention, attracting, as an automatic reward for their voluntary promotional efforts, a very special responsibility and unofficial status for themselves within the international Sathya Sai Organisation. During their long association with SSB these privileged spokespersons have become celebrities within the Sai “family”. To a lesser extent, devotee writers and devotees themselves have also earned kudos by eagerly sharing their experiences of the teachings and, in particular, the spectacular claims and stories about this extraordinary guru. Thanks largely to this constant barrage of publicity over the past three or four decades (now magnified on the Internet by several major official websites and countless unofficial devotee websites), every appearance, act and word of Sathya Sai Baba has been subjected to intense public attention. He has not made any complaint about this treatment; on the contrary, he has constantly appeared to encourage it.
For many Sathya Sai Baba devotees, Dr John Hislop (between 1965 and 1995), the Australian devotee, Howard Murphet (between 1965 and 2004), and the American psychiatrist Dr Samuel Sandweiss (1971-), are the three foreign (non-Hindu) devotees who have contributed the most to the propagation of SSB’s teachings and stories, both through their passionate books on SSB and their enthusiastic talks and lectures to devotee groups all over the English-speaking world and beyond. However, it was the mild, humble but spiritually questing Hislop who achieved the closest personal rapport with his “Swami”. Sathya Sai Baba, in return, responded fully to his devotee’s constant respectful and appreciative questioning and performed some of his most sensational (and, it must be added, least credible) ‘miracles’ for Hislop’s benefit. Therefore, Hislop’s individual influence in disseminating these extraordinary aspects of the SSB story and his teachings is incalculable.
The proselytising work of all three of the above-named foreign devotees (along with other spokespersons and writers) is also of considerable interest for the study of the development of the Sathya Sai Baba Mission, as I have attempted to explain elsewhere on this web page. Between 1943 and approximately 1965, SSB had concentrated on his Indian “constituency” (which remains, and will continue to be, the largest). With the formation of the first Sathya Sai Seva Samithis in about 1963, and the Sathya Sai Organisation in 1965, when Indulal Shah became a prime associate and organiser, a major expansion began (coinciding also with the sudden Western interest in India marked by the Beatles and “the Maharishi”). In 1969, after 26 years of Sathya Sai Baba’s close association with the name of Shirdi Sai Baba, this familiar name disappears from his Discourses (though not from worship within the SSB ashrams and Centres) for about twenty years and quite suddenly (as I have also documented), Sathya Sai Baba develops a strong interest in discoursing on Jesus Christ and the perceived similarities between the two teachers. As I show more fully in my companion article, the American interest in SSB had become quite strong during the period 1965-1970. By 1971, the following Americans had been attracted to SSB and were already publicising his name back in USA:
Indra Devi, Arnold Schulman, Charles Penn, Hilda Charlton, Bob Rayman, Elsie and Walter Cowan, Dr John Hislop, Tal Brooke and Howard Levin. (All, except Schulman, became devotees and proselytisers, although Tal Brooke was also soon to become the first ‘defector’ and critic.) 1971 saw the publication of the first books about SSB by foreigners: (American) Schulman (Baba) and (Australian) Howard Murphet (Sai Baba [sic]. Man of Miracles). The 1970s would see a strong growth in foreign devotee numbers and SSO Centres.
Following the creation of SSB Centres in New York and California and the opening of Elsie Cowan’s Sathya Sai bookshop in Tustin, California, the American Sathya Sai Organisation was formed in 1974, with Hislop as President. (It may be of interest to point out that the creation of the US SSO was largely carried out by Christians, Jews and New 'Agers' rather than by Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) as was the case in some other countries, notably UK, which had a growing NRI population including recent refugees from East Africa). The U.S. Sathya Sai Organization was quickly to become by far the largest and most influential – and independent – of all the overseas national SSOs. Although a promised visit from Sathya Sai Baba to USA did not materialise, his close associate Dr Gokak toured U.S. (and UK) SSO Centres in 1974.
John Hislop’s 27 Years as a Spokesperson for Sathya Sai Baba
The case of Dr John (Jack) Hislop (1904-1995), like those of other prominent devotees such as those mentioned above who met Sathya Sai Baba in the expansionist and surging 1960s or 1970s, is very instructive. Following a successful career in teaching and business, his quarter of a century of total devotion to the SSB cause and of intimate contact with SSB himself coincided with the major international expansion of the Organisation. By the end of his life, John Hislop was internationally famous in devotee circles and the two books he filled with his accounts of SSB’s words and deeds had become international bestsellers (in devotee circles) in several languages.These had helped to make SSB known to countless thousands of people, mostly outside of India. The books were Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba and My Baba and I, both published by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust of Prasanthi Nilayam. There would later be a third, posthumous compilation by his American associates in 1997: Seeking Divinity [Talks by Dr John S. Hislop], published by the Sathya Sai Society of America, Tustin, California.
Hislop had been a spiritual seeker for many years, together with his wife, Victoria. In 1958 he gave up his job as Vice-President of a large company and went to India to find land and build a training college in the Himalayas for the up and coming celebrity guru of the 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (later of TM fame). Hislop accompanied Maharishi on his tour of Germany and became the first US President of the Mahesh Yogi American Organization. He also taught TM and was said to be capable of day-long meditations. He finally left the Maharishi’s Organisation, it is said, because of an imagined fault in himself.
Hislop’s first visit to Sathya Sai Baba was in January 1968, when he taped two deeply spiritual conversations with the guru who, he immediately felt, was the true source of wisdom. At that time there were only a few foreigners in Puttaparthi and Hislop was especially privileged to have daily meetings with SSB, and visits from him, lasting up to two hours per day (My Baba and I, p.15). The results of these long conversations (mainly question and answer sessions) were later published in California (in 1978) as Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba , a book which offered many invaluable insights into SSB's teachings and revealed to foreign devotees and others his opinions on many topics. As a result of many further visits and periods of residence in the ashram, Dr. Hislop later wrote My Baba and I, which, like the first book, has been instrumental in U.S.A. and around the world in increasing knowledge about Sathya Sai Baba and drawing devotees to him (especially foreigners). The inclusion of several translated and typewritten letters to Hislop from SSB underlines the fact that at the time and for many years, SSB regarded him as his main representative in USA, as well as the foreigner with whom he felt most comfortable.
My Baba and I (pp. 28-31) includes Hislop’s account of the alleged Walter Cowan ‘resurrection’ in 1971. This claim is not only controversial but was refuted by Professor Haraldsson in his widely read 1987 book (and a year later by Indian rationalist B. Premanand), on the grounds that two attending doctors denied certifying Cowan’s death. The issue was also critically analysed by Professor Dale Beyerstein in his 1994 book. In spite of this, for over 20 years these proofs have been denied or ignored by Hislop, the SSO and devotees, all of whom still reiterate the ‘resurrection’ claim as if it were a fact. (Another major earlier claim, alleging the resurrection of devotee Ramakrishna, was also refuted by Haraldsson.) In view of Hislop’s key role in the narration and dissemination of the Cowan story, I have published a companion article ‘Sathya Sai Baba, Elsie and Walter Cowan, and John Hislop. A Discredited 1971 Resurrection Claim’) setting out the history and the detailed background to this extraordinary story which offers further evidence of the importance and impact of the role of spokespersons in the SSB Mission.
(For those interested, scans of the relevant critical pages of Erlendur’s Haraldsson’s book are available on the Internet: ‘Professor Erlendur Haraldsson contests Sai Baba’s claim of resurrection as bogus’.)
Dr Hislop was not only the first President of the Sathya Sai Baba Council of America but also an indefatigable contributor to the development of Sathya Sai Centres in U.S.A. and to the worldwide Sathya Sai Movement. Because of this prominent position, his total devotion, and his specially privileged access to SSB, clearly evidenced in his books, Hislop became one of SSB’s most influential overseas spokespersons and a popular lecturer in SSO Centres in many countries during the years of rapid overseas expansion of the SSO from 1970 until his death in 1995.
Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba
Hislop was one of the first Westerners to write about Sathya Sai Baba’s life and work. These Question and Answer conversations between SSB and Dr. Hislop were recorded (the first two on a tape recorder, the rest apparently in note form following the conversation) between 1968 and 1978. The conversations range over a wide variety and depth of spiritual topics. The book is still closely studied by many devotees. In My Baba and I, more conversations were added. There is a revised and enlarged edition published c1986 by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust of Prasanthi Nilayam: Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. This later edition contains, in addition to the 150 pages of the American edition, the 22 conversations included in Hislop’s second (1985) book, listed below, as well as three additional conversations and a posthumous eight-page insert containing six final letters from Hislop.
The question of how Hislop and SSB communicated with one another in their talks is not clear, but there are at least a dozen short references to a ‘translator’ in the pages of Hislop’s main 2 books. This is not the place to go into detail but the following clues are offered. (See also Sathya Sai Baba's Use of English.)
“… Swami said that He would satisfy my doubts. And it is for this that I gather the courage to ask for one or two interviews (with able translator present).” (My Baba …, p. 255, in a typewritten letter dated 7 October 1978 from Hislop to SSB)
In a couple of other places, Hislop requests Kasturi’s presence at their next meeting and in two typewritten letters from SSB to Hislop, he apologises for not writing earlier because Kasturi was not present to translate his thoughts. This leads to the conclusion that handwritten English letters from SSB (to Hislop or to anyone else) may well be in his own handwriting but are laboriously copied by him from translations of his Telugu responses and thoughts by his bilingual close associates.
My Baba and I
For tens (or perhaps hundreds) of thousands of readers, this has been one of the principal introductory books on Sathya Sai Baba. It has been translated into many languages. The title was chosen by Sathya Sai Baba himself (p. vi). The book deals with Hislop’s prolonged and intimate experiences of SSB’s teachings, some miracles (most notably that of the famous Crucifix allegedly materialised for Hislop by SSB from wood reconstituted from the True Cross on Mahasivaratri Day, 1973). The experiences are followed by 22 supplementary conversations (January 1978-October 1984), and a treasure trove of letters from SSB to Hislop (as well as a few from Hislop to SSB) written between 1969 and 1983, during the important formative years of the American Sathya Sai Organization, of which Hislop was such a prominent figure.
Seeking Divinity, Tustin, California, Sathya Sai Society of America
This is a posthumous collection of some of Dr. Hislop’s later talks and lectures, delivered mainly in San Diego in 1986 and 1994 and in New Zealand and Japan in 1993 and 1994.
Although Hislop’s main intention in his books is to convey SSB’s teachings and views on spiritual matters, he takes pains to make the reading attractive to devotees, especially to foreign devotees. What sets Hislop apart as a proselytiser of SSB’s teachings is his dogged determination to question SSB on all sorts of subjects and his willingness to accept anything SSB says in reply or in conversation, however extraordinary some of SSB’s replies and assertions are. As we have already seen, Hislop is equally grateful and unquestioning about some of the special alleged miracles performed by SSB for him, especially in the years 1968-1973 (the birth years of the American SSO, which has held such power and sway within the international SSB Movement ever since). Of these special ‘miracles’, the one worth most critical attention, and the one most often quoted by other writers and by the Sathya Sai Organisation itself, is the tiny replica of the crucified Jesus Christ on the Cross which was allegedly materialised by Sathya Sai Baba out of the ether from reconstituted fragments of the True Cross. (The gift was produced for Hislop at a time when Jesus was still a relatively new topic in SSB’s discourse repertoire.)
Firstly, here is a succinct description of this Crucifix for Dr Hislop. Most devotees accept this as a true story and as further proof of SSB’s divine identity and unlimited powers.
On the evening of Mahasivaratri 1973, just before the annual production of the Siva lingam in Bandipur Forest, Sathya Sai Baba broke off two twigs from a bush and made a cross. “Baba then closed his fingers over the twigs and directed three somewhat slow breaths into his fist, between thumb and forefinger. Then he opened his hand to reveal a Christ figure crucified on a crosss, and he gave it to me. He said: ‘This shows Christ as he really was at the time he left his body, not as artists have imagined him or as historians have told about him. His stomach is pulled in and his ribs are all showing. He had no food for eight days.’” […] “Then Baba continued, ‘The cross is wood from the actual cross on which Christ was crucified. To find some of the wood after 2,000 years took a little time. The image is of Christ after he died. It is a dead face’” (My Baba and I, 19).
Further comment by SSB on page 22:
“And when I went to look for the wood, every particle of the cross had disintegrated and had returned to the elements. I reached out to the elements and reconstituted sufficient material for a small cross. Very seldom does Swami interfere with Nature, but occasionally, for a devotee, it will be done.”
“Later, he [Hislop] got the wood examined, and was informed that it was at least twenty centuries old. He had the little silver icon photographed and the photographs enlarged. He was surprised to note that there were marks of sweat on the brow and signs of froth at the corners of the mouth. It had all the signs of pain heroically borne.” (N. Kasturi, Vol. IV, American Printing, 1988, p. 32)
Here, on the other hand, is Professor Dale Beyerstein throwing a refreshing bucket of sceptical cold water over the alleged miraculous materialisation which has enthralled so many thousands of SSB’s devotees:
“The materialization of a crucifix that impressed Sai Baba’s most tireless North American devotee, John Hislop, a California businessman with a Ph.D. in psychology.
Sai Baba materialized this object about 3 inches long by about 1½ inches wide under circumstances that left Hislop (My Baba and I, 1985) convinced that it came from thin air. Baba also informed Hislop that the wood of the cross came from the actual cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified! Sai Baba prides himself on the effort he took to recover the material from the four corners of the universe to which it had dispersed over the more than 1900 years since it was the original cross, but Baba will spare no effort to please his friend Hislop! Hislop has no difficulty believing this, because the teachings are that Baba is a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Hislop is also very impressed by the detail on the cross. The Christ figure has his ribs showing, evidence for Sai Baba's claim that Jesus of Nazareth fasted for eight days prior to the crucifixion, despite the New Testament account of the Last Supper the night before the Crucifixion. And there’s a detail that would be known only to those that were there: the crucifix has a tiny hole at the top of the cross. The uninitiated would think that this hole was meant for passing through the chain that would allow the crucifix to be worn around one’s neck. However, […] Sai Baba informs Hislop that this is a faithful copy of something that was on the original crosses at that time. Modern scholars do not realize that a real Roman cross would not bear its weight if it were simply planted in the ground. No, it needed a support from the back if it was not to topple over. A pole was used for this purpose; and it rested in the hole at the top of the cross! Beyerstein (1994) sent copies of the color photograph in Hislop (1985) to an art dealer and professor emeritus of fine arts specializing in the period. They date the style to a standard one used since the twelfth or thirteenth century and find nothing particularly interesting in the figurine. Needless to say, no scholar has endorsed Sai Baba’s claim.”
(Dale Beyerstein, ‘Sai Baba’, in Gordon Stein (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, New York, Prometheus, Books, 1996, p. 656. See also his very enlightening 1994 e-book, Sai Baba’s Miracles. An Overview )
See also Robert Priddy’s illustrated critical account: 'Alleged miracle crucifix materialised for Dr. John Hislop'
This famous icon, however implausible, has been the object of endless fascination for devotees. Photographs of the crucifix are available in the front pages of My Baba and I and in many other books, including those by Fanibunda, Sandweiss, Peter Phipps (Sathya Sai Baba and Jesus Christ. A Gospel for the Golden Age – and also in his second book on a similar theme). That the surreal icon still has the full backing of the SSO is evident in its inclusion in a recent compilation published by the SSSBPT, Be Like Jesus). Indeed, almost 40 years after the alleged event (in October 2008), when I was visiting the Bombay SSO Centre (Dharmakshetra), a young devotee who took it upon himself to show me round and tell me about SSB, insisted at the end of our meeting that the best book for me to start with would be John Hislop’s My Baba and I, and he specifically mentioned a crucifix materialised for the revered American devotee. This special crucifix – whatever its provenance – has been, and remains, an outstandingly powerful advertisement for Sathya Sai Baba's alleged omnipotence.
Another sensational gift from SSB to Dr Hislop was a ring purportedly portraying the predicted future avatar and successor of SSB (Prema Sai Baba) aged about 45. Peggy Mason (another prominent British recycler of SSB stories) retells Hislop’s story in The Golden Age, 1980: “Swami asked Hislop to give him the heavy gold ring which he had materialised for him only the day before. Enclosing it in his palm. […]” (Mason, p. 33). Hislop himself writes that “he blew the creative breath three times through the thumb and forefinger, opened his hand, and there was Prema Sai! […] The stone was a cameo of Prema Sai, the loving Lord of Creation, destined to appear on Earth a few years after the death of the Sathya Sai body.” (My Baba and I, p. 56) – thus reasserting SSB’s prediction of a third incarnation. SSB then told Hislop, “He is only now in the process of birth, so I cannot show more of him. This is the first time he is shown in the world”. Hislop has reported that wherever he goes, devotees eagerly ask to see the portrait, adding that it has been changing gradually. With such dramatic and popular revelations, spokespersons like John Hislop become respected proxies and minor celebrities among fellow devotees.
Since they were given to Hislop, these two very special mementos (illustrated by photographs) have been written about by many devotee authors and discussed with wonderment by many thousands of devotees, who, like Hislop, enthusiastically accept them as they have been presented (or ‘advertised’) by Sathya Sai Baba. These sensational icons representing Jesus and Prema Sai Baba have attracted widespread comment (but no questioning by devotees), thus helping to further the ecumenical aspect of SSB’s Mission, and affording SSB enormous kudos among Christian devotees and other spiritual seekers (although not, presumably, within the official Christian Churches themselves). However, without the necessary underpinning faith of an unquestioning devotee, how are 'outsiders' to judge such icons except as surreal or preposterous?
The rare topic of Prema Sai recurs later in the same book, and SSB makes another long-term prediction, on world peace:
Guest: “Then Prema Sai will not have much work to do! Swami will have made the world peaceful!”
Sai: “That is some forty years away. At that time the world will be peaceful. That is the name: Prema Sai. All will be love – love, love, love everywhere” (My Baba and I, p.189, December 1978; also in Conversations …, p. 172).
This ‘indirect’ (though clearly attributed) reference to Prema Sai Baba by SSB is a very clear example of the way information about SSB is disseminated. In his Discourses there are very few direct references to Prema Sai. Following Hislop’s revelation here, many other writers have quoted him and devotees spread the information among themselves. These endless repetitions have been a standard pattern now for sixty years: SSB reveals a great deal of information about himself to associates, close devotees (like Kasturi, Hislop, the Balus, M.N.Rao, etc.) and even to interview groups and individual interviewees. All of these then spread the news far and wide, by word of mouth and in hundreds of devotee books. Therefore, in this case, it is hardly surprising that devotees already think they know what Prema will look like, because not only has Hislop informed the world that SSB had assured him that the ring materialised for him bore the portrait of Prema Sai but the photograph of that attractive and bearded young face figures prominently in many devotee books. To another associate, Kasturi, SSB mentions that Prema Sai Baba’s mother has already been born, and although Robert Priddy has plausibly suggested that this was regarded by some close associates as SSB’s little in-joke against Kasturi, once the word is circulated in devotee circles, it becomes instant and unchangeable “Gospel”.
What will alarm the independent reader most in Hislop’s written accounts of SSB’s claims and statements is that, like Kasturi and others, he faithfully absorbed and swallowed and then repeated whatever SSB told him, thereby propagating and virtually endorsing the statements. For instance, in addition to the two far-fetched stories mentioned above, Hislop believed the story of the weeping saris which SSB told him. (The saris were allegedly weeping because SSB had not selected them as gifts for his devotees.)
Other causes for concern, now that we are becoming familiar with SSB’s proven habit of improvising exaggerated or erroneous stories (or details of stories), are the following Claims, Boasts and other Samples of the SSB-Hislop interaction:
“Sai Baba also means Divine Father and Mother. The syllable ‘Sa’ means divine. The syllable ‘ai’ means mother. Baba is the word for father. ‘Sai Baba’ therefore, means Divine Mother and Father” (Conversations … , 104).
“Sai Ram means Divine Mother and Father” (Conversations … , 108).
“This body will live to age 96, and will remain young.” (Conversations, U.S. Birth Day edition only, p.83. It was not repeated in the Revised Indian Edition on p. 91 where it would belong.)
“But I am omnipresent; I have no such limitations. I never sleep. At the middle of the night, I turn off the light and rest in bed, because if the light is on, devotees will gather. I have no need of sleep” (Conversations … , 48).
“Swami becomes sick only when taking on the sickness of a devotee.”
( Conversations… , 21)
Somewhat self-defensively, SSB had this to say against some devotees’ disapproval of his habit of chewing betel leaves – a habit which he eventually gave up.
“This is not a bad habit. If it were a bad habit, Swami would not chew it.”
“Swami! In the thousands of years of time since Lord Krishna ….”
“Baba interrupted me […]: ‘Time since Krishna …? I am Krishna! Where is Time?’”
(My Baba …, 59)
“According to the astrology of ancient times, the change in world conditions to be brought about by Swami's influence will come in about fifteen years [from December 1968]. This was predicted 5,600 years ago in the Upanishads. The coming of Baba, the Sai Avatar, which includes the three incarnations, is all forecast quite clearly. People born in the present generation may consider themselves quite fortunate.” (Conversations, 111)
[SSB:]“With a move of his hand, Swami could have the entire world acknowledge him but to what end? It would be spectacular only and would accomplish nothing of value.” (December 1980: My Baba …, 193)
“Up to a certain level, science helps. It is of service to mankind. But Baba knows that which science does not know. Baba is at a level that is beyond the reach of the senses. Not all that he knows can be brought to a lower level. Too much current burns out the bulb.” (Conversations, 139)
“Baba, with his limitless bodies, is everywhere doing the tasks, ‘a thousand heads, hands, feet […] It is just this body that sits here talking with you. That is Baba’s omnipresence. The Avatar is beyond the five elements. He is the Creator. […] God is not subject to any limitations. He is the Creator of the elements, their Modifier, their Preserver, their Destroyer”
(Conversations … , 74).
Hislop asks if SSB is responsible for the entire universe, not just this world.
SSB: “It is like this. Baba is the switch. The switch is turned on and all goes forward automatically. As the key is turned in a car, then all parts of the car work automatically. In a similar way, the universe is automatically regulated. So-called `miracles' are not miracles, nor do they prove divinity. Baba's endless work in all the worlds is easy, no weight, always happy – that is the ‘miracle’ (Conversations … , 73).
Hislop again takes up the matter of the ‘immense task of the universe’.
[SSB] “The universe is held in Baba's hand and He could, in an instant, make the entire universe vanish” (Conversations … , 124).
“Were it not for the mind change of Sai devotees the world would already have fallen into complete chaos. The deterioration of mind and man has been very rapid and abrupt, even precipitous during the last fifteen years. That the world is not in total destruction is due to the change of mind of Sai devotees and to Sai's grace. You are not aware of it, just as you are not aware of your eyes until they are lost. In the same way, the world is not aware of Sai's grace.” (Conversations … , 173-174)
“Some objects Swami creates in just the same way that he created the material universe. Other objects, such as watches, are brought from existing supplies. There are no invisible beings helping Swami to bring things. His sankalpa, his divine will brings the object in a moment. Swami is everywhere. His creations belong to the natural unlimited power of God and are in no sense the product of yogic powers as with yogis or of magic powers as with magicians. The creative power is in no way contrived or developed, but is natural only” (Conversations, 115).
This assertion about the lack of helpers contrasts with a story Hislop told his audience in Auckland, New Zealand. Sathya Sai Baba arrived one day unnanounced to visit a devotee family. The totally unprepared hostess was naturally mortified not to have flowers, fruit, etc. to welcome him appropriately. SSB waved at the car and two winged angels stepped out of it, carrying a large silver tray of fruit and flowers to the house. SSB then “turned to the angels and waved them back to the car. They floated back to the car, folded their wings, got in the car, and disappeared” (Seeking Divinity, 125).
“The saris are weeping because Swami has rejected them. Now, I will take them.”
“How could that be? Does Swami say that inanimate objects have injured feelings and can weep?”
“Inanimate objects are also capable of feeling joy and grief.”
SSB goes on to tell Hislop a Puranic story about a mountain top which wept when it was not finally needed by Rama in building a bridge for his army.
Hislop rejoices for eight lines and concludes that this has been a rerun of that ancient (mythical) incident.
SSB takes the opportunity to point out that “it is the self-same Rama and the self-same Krishna who is here this day.” (Conversations, 31-32)
In My Baba (pp.22-24), Hislop copies the Discourse (from Volume VII) that SSB had given on the same subject.
When reminiscing about his childhood, SSB offers what seems to be a highly implausible political boast:
“At one stage after the age of 11, Baba was kept more or less out of circulation for a couple of years. At that time the liberation of India was in process, the police were moving in the villages and arresting Congress members, and so on.” (Conversations …, 125)
“Jesus realized that he was Christ in his 25th year. For eight years following his 16th birthday he travelled in India, Tibet, Iran, and Russia” (Conversations , 97). SSB goes on to mention that “His parents were very poor and practically abandoned him at an early age.”
SSB informs Hislop that the average height in the (mythical) times of Rama was 7 cubits tall (that is, 7 times the distance between the tip of the finger and elbow, approximately 7 x 0.40 metres, i.e. almost three metres or 10 feet 6 inches tall). In this Kali Yuga age, the average height is only half that (i.e. 3 2 cubits, or 3 2 x 0.40 metres or 3 2 x 18 inches, which may not be far from the reality). Before the time of Rama the average height was double, i.e. 14 cubits – which is an exaggeration. (Conversations, 129).
A selection of Hislop’s characteristic contributions to the dialogue:
“I was never really interested in Christianity but I have paid more attention since Swami made the crucifixion [sic].” (Conversations …, 92)
After surviving a prostate emergency, Hislop rationalises (to SSB) that he had come to the end of his natural life but “at the last moment, he had reversed my natural death by giving me rebirth. Baba smiled and confirmed that what I had said was true: he had given me new life.” (My Baba …, 51)
Sometimes, by serving up a question or comment, Hislop becomes a sort of midwife to the production of dubious assertions:
I mean, Swami is responsible for the entire universe, not just this world?”
“It is like this. Baba is the switch. The switch is turned on and all goes forward automatically.” (Conversations …, 73)
Another example of this ‘fishing’:
“Baba has the inconceivably immense task of the universe. How can He afford to spend time talking to people like us?”
“Baba, with his [sic] limitless bodies, is everywhere doing the tasks, a thousand heads, hands, feet […]. It is just this body that sits here talking to you.” (Conversations …, 74)
“Swami holds the entire universe in His Hand. He bears the responsibility for the inconceivable, immense universe. And how can He at the same time give this detailed attention to the lives of his individual devotees?”
“It is as you say. Swami holds the universe in His Hand […] That Swami holds the universe yet at the same time fully cares for the lives of His devotees even to the smallest details is a measure of His glory that the devotee can understand.”
(Conversations …, 144)
“Is it true that Swami suffered some extreme abuse from doctors when He was a boy?”
“Baba underwent torture at the hands of the village doctors when he first allowed his divine powers to manifest on a fairly large scale. This was around the age of 10. The doctors drilled holes in his head and stuck in hot irons, cut open the skin and poured in burning fluids, buried him in a trench with sand up to his neck and iron bars to keep him fixed in position.” [This is a memory lapse. According to the evidence offered in Love is My Form, Sathya Narayana appears to have been not ten but sixteen years old at the time of his ‘Declarations’ [in early 1943]. (Conversations …, 124)
Flattery sometimes rises to the surface:
[Hislop] “I suppose degrees are O.K. but the only scholarship of interest to this individual is scholarship in Swami’s teachings. It is like locating the greatest deposit of gold in the world. Why work at anything else?” (Conversations …, 82-83)
John Hislop believed totally in SSB’s divine claims. He was an ideal listener. He devoted a quarter of a century to spreading SSB’s claims and statements (as well as his spiritual teachings) far and wide to serve his Master. As evidence against those divine claims and careless or unsupported assertions continues to mount, unchallenged, many of Hislop’s (and other spokespersons’) revelations have not only lost their former power to draw in fresh foreign (and especially Christian) devotees for Sathya Sai Baba but have also become part of the counter-evidence against his divine claims presented by researchers (like myself).
A significant final illustration of Dr Hislop’s unshakeable and literal belief in Sathya Sai Baba’s claims is contained in one of his final letters, not to SSB but to the Convenor of the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust. Hislop is explaining why he has sent new material to be included in the next reprinting of Conversations: “In this, I am thinking of students 500 or a 1000 years from now who will search for every last small item relative to Sai in fascination with his life and works.” (3 September 1994)
For those who have never been unquestioning devotees or followers, it is often impossible to understand how people could be “taken in” by gurus like Sathya Sai Baba, or other religious leaders. As they struggled with their own initial doubts, two very prominent veteran ‘Western’ devotees and SSO officials have demonstrated the ‘advertising’ power of devotional books containing stories of SSB’s alleged powers, like those of Hislop:
“These books had a deep effect on me, for so many different people were telling a consistent story that I couldn’t shrug off” (Professor David Gries, in E. Gries, p. 49).
“My belief in these stories is growing. I hear them from everyone, miracle after miracle, and now I have seen up close with my own eyes a very dramatic example myself. […] I say to myself that I can’t fully accept this by word of mouth […] But I am beginning to believe that Baba is this powerful, and that I am most fortunate to be in the presence of such a being” (S.Sandweiss, Sai Baba, the Holy Man … and the Psychiatrist, p. 47).
This was a common process in the heyday of the Sathya Sai Baba Mission. As an ex-devotee, I too can vouch for the initial powerful effect of so many writers repeating the same marvels. Nowadays, such persuasion-by-repetition on the part of Sathya Sai Baba’s spokespersons and chroniclers is rapidly dissipating, at least outside of India.
Also for consideration in the John Hislop Dossier.
Just as Hislop refused to heed any criticism of his assertions (for example in the case of Haraldsson’s, Premanand’s and Beyerstein’s rebuttals of the ‘resurrection’ of Walter Cowan), a recent controversy about Hislop dredges up his alleged role in silencing complaints of sexual molestation against Sathya Sai Baba in 1980-1981 (twenty years before they were revealed to rank-and-file devotees and to the wider public).
Robert Priddy, ‘Letters by Dr. John Hislop to Cover up Sexual Abuse Claims against Sai Baba’
Priddy's summary: “A glaring example of how the Sathya Sai Organisation suppresses freedom of speech and accountability through secret top-down decisions and destruction of evidence is clearly demonstrated by a number of letters from its US leader in 1981, Dr. John Hislop.”
See also: ‘Timothy Conway PhD – On ‘The Hislop Letters’
List of References, with additional comments
1994: Sai Baba’s Miracles. An Overview, Podanur, India, 1994. (Also published in The Indian Skeptic and online. Now available on this web page.
See especially Sections 16-26 of ‘Did Sai Baba Resurrect Someone from the Dead?
1996: ‘Sai Baba’, in Gordon Stein (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, New York, Prometheus, Books, pp. 653-656.
Eruch B. Fanibunda, Vision of the Divine, Bombay, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications, 1976, p. 10.
Elaine W. Gries, Essence of Divinity, Ithaca, New York, Santhi Publishers, 2003.
1987: ‘Miracles Are My Visiting Cards’. An Investigative Report on the Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba, London, Century Paperbacks. [Also marketed for sale in India only by Prasanthi Publications of New Delhi.]
1996: Modern Miracles, Norwalk, CT, Hastings House. [The latter has the same content as the new Indian edition: personal communication from the author.]
Hislop, John S.:
1985: Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, enlarged Indian edition, Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust.
Original short version: Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba, San Diego, Birth Day, 1978.
1979: ‘Things are not as They Seem to Be’, Golden Age, 1979, pp. 32-40.
1986: My Baba and I, Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust.
1997: Seeking Divinity [Talks by Dr John S. Hislop], Tustin, Sathya Sai Society of America.
The Indian Skeptic, See www.indiansceptic.in
1961-1980: Sathyam Sivam Sundaram. The Life of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 4 vols., Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications. [There is also an American edition.]
Peggy Mason and Ron Laing [Mason], Sathya Sai Baba. Embodiment of Love, London, Sawbridge, 1982. [3rd ed., Bath, Gateway Books]
R. Padmanaban (ed.), Love is My Form. Vol. 1, Puttaparthi, Sai Towers, 2000. [The planned production of several further volumes was suspended in 2002.]
1994: Sathya Sai Baba and Jesus Christ. A Gospel for the Golden Age, Sathya Sai Publications of New Zealand, Auckland.
1997: Greater than You Know, Sathya Sai Publications of New Zealand, Auckland.
Samuel H. Sandweiss:
SAI BABA. The Holy Man ... and the Psychiatrist, San Diego, Birth Day, 1975.
For further reference:
Sathya Sai Baba, Elsie and Walter Cowan, and John Hislop.
A Discredited 1971 Resurrection Claim
Presenting Sathya Sai Baba to the World