Fuzzy Dates in the Official Biography of Sathya Sai Baba. A Re-examination. (Extended)
Brian Steel April 2008
Copyright © 2008 Brian Steel
Some of the strong assertions made by Sathya Sai Baba’s hagiographers, as well as by the Sathya Sai Organisation and by spokespersons and devotees, are highly controversial, in particular claims of SSB’s Divinity and Avatarhood. Internet and other coverage of these controversies is already substantial and easy to find. This short essay, which is addressed to researchers and other open-minded readers, sheds light on two details of the controversy surrounding his official biography (hagiography).
As stated in my ‘Dossier 4’ and in earlier articles of mine, new evidence offered by the (devotee) researchers who published Love is My Form, Volume 1 in 2000 draws attention to the circumstantial uncertainties surrounding Sathya Sai Baba’s official date of birth (1926) and the date of his alleged Declaration of Mission – as “Sai Baba” (1940).
1. Date of Birth
On the first point, since the official biography, which gives SSB’s year of birth as 1926, has always linked the two numbers ‘1940’ and ‘nearly 14’ to SSB’s first declarations that he was “Sai Baba”, the strong recent LIMF evidence that leads to the inevitable conclusion that these Declarations took place in 1943 shows that one of these official figures (14 or 1926) must be incorrect. If SSB was 14 in 1943, as is possible, then he was born in 1929; if he was born in 1926, then he was nearly 17 at the time of the Declarations in Uravakonda in 1943, which is also possible.
To my knowledge, the Sathya Sai Organisation has never refuted (or even mentioned) the LIMF evidence which points to 1943, or my Internet articles about it. There has been no official adjustment to to SSB’s stated age when he undertook his Mission nor to the date of that alleged event. When the SSO does decide to address this question, there are other pieces of information relating to his date of birth which they will need to consider.
In LIMF (pp.132-133) the 1943 Register pages (apparently from Uravakonda High School) give Sathya Narayana’s date of birth as 4-10-39. This is an obvious clerical error. However, the later correction to “4-10-29”, with a signed clarification, “fourth October Nineteen Twentynine” (dated, as far as the writing is legible, 11-8-76). (Note that the same date of birth, in 1929, is also given – with an intricate disclaimer caption (plausible but also defensive), which needs to be taken into consideration – on the transfer certificate from distant Kamalapuram School to neighbouring Bukkapatnam School, in 1941, LIMF, p. 68.) However, before too much is made of the 1929 date 'discrepancy', we have been informed, in LIMF (p. 68), and by other experts on Indian culture, that such errors were quite common in rural India in those days. Equally relevant, therefore, is the hypothesis that, in such a remote Indian village in the 1920s, no one would have remembered the exact birth date and the date in the register is an approximation. It is also possible, of course, that the date of birth will never be proved one way or the other, but in the light of demonstrable discrepancies, all the evidence should be considered.
1. On this document, the other boys in Sathya Narayana’s class have birthdates ranging from 1933 to 1938, and leaving dates from 1946 and 1949. Sathya Narayana’s early leaving date (suggesting a younger than usual termination of studies), although not recorded, is assumed (according to the LIMF evidence) to have been October 1943, when he made his second Mission Declaration.
2. Still to be investigated is the note by prominent SSB proselytiser, M.N. Rao (A Story of God as Man, 1985, p. 28). It states that after Sathya left, there was an entry in the Uravakonda High School records to that effect. “In the fourth form (ninth class) attendance register of 1940, the entry against the name Rathnakaram Sathyanarayanaraju read as follows: “Discontinued – no T.C. claimed.”
A further relevant consideration is that the 1926 date of birth is inextricably linked with the claim by SSB and the SSO that Shirdi Sai Baba predicted before his death (in 1918) that he would return in 8 years – a claim not supported, as far as I am aware, by the official Shirdi Sai Association literature. (The two Associations are totally separate.) Equally dependent on the official 23rd of November 1926 date of birth is the confident assertion by SSB writers and devotees that Sri Aurobindo’s declaration on 24 November 1926 about the descent of Krishna into the physical on the preceding day was really an acknowledgement of SSB’s divine Advent. In other words, it is one of a series of unsupported (and often demonstrably unconvincing) official (and devotee) claims that SSB’s birth was foretold by many important sages and leaders. This particular claim was never recognised by Aurobindo (who died in 1950) or by his followers. The latter have always interpreted this special announcement as the arrival of the Divine spirit into Aurobindo’s consciousness, for which he had prayed for years.
The voluminous (partisan) literature on SSB offers a few further pieces of circumstantial evidence for solving this biographical puzzle. First of all, innocent quotations offered in veteran devotee Smt. Vijayakumari’s memoirs seem to provide a degree of independent support for the possibility that SSB’s date of birth may not have been in 1926 but in 1929. In 1945 the little girl’s cousins were strolling in the affluent Bangalore suburb of Malleswaram when they heard bhajans being sung. They entered the house to listen. Sai Baba, who was present there, invited them to go to Puttaparthi (whose name they had never heard). When they returned to their town of Kuppam (south-east of Bangalore, but in today’s Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh), the cousins told the girl’s mother about their meeting. The latter was keen for them all to go, but the idea was vetoed by the father, who said: “You tell me He is sixteen years old and claims to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. This is all humbug” (Vijayakumari, p. 12). That night the mother had a dream of SSB and they were immediately given permission by the father to visit the ashram for three days. This first visit allegedly took place during Dasara, in October 1945 (p.13). The family soon became very close to SSB and visited for long periods.
However, since the fortuitous assistance of the research behind LIMF has enabled us to establish that SSB was (allegedly) nearly 17 when he made his October 1943 Declaration, Vijayakumari’s words quoted above indicate that, two years later, in 1945, SSB was not nearly 19, as would be expected, but 16. If true, this would make his year of birth 1929 (as indicated by the register entries in LIMF). What is also interesting about this possibility is that at the time of the (alleged) Mission Declarations of 1943, he would have been almost 14 years old – as he and his biographers have always claimed!
There is another possible sliver of evidence of a post-1926 birth. Vijayakumari later quotes from a story session by SSB to devotees assembled on the Chitravati sand dunes in 1949 (pp. 216-218):
“Later, for High School studies, I had to go to Uravakonda. ... ...” (p. 217) "In my thirteenth year, coming to know that I had become a ‘Baba’ and had left home, one of my friends went mad ... Another friend jumped into a well and died” (p. 218).
We now know, from the documentary evidence offered by LIMF, that SSB went to Uravakonda High School in early 1943, and left in October 1943 (when he was still, according to the official chronology, a month away from his 17th birthday) to begin his Mission after the second of his Declarations. So, according to the above quoted statement, once more a 1929 date of birth seems at least possible, although it must also be admitted that neither Vijayakumari's nor SSB’s memory have proved to be totally reliable for dates.
As further typical examples of the generally vague and unreliable coverage of these early years by SSB’s chroniclers, and their uncertainties or silences over dates, we may take the following secondhand references to SSB’s age as a child and youth by Kasturi, Ganapati and Purnaiya. It seems possible (here as elsewhere) that their confusion or inaccuracy may simply be due to their total reliance on what SSB himself told them. (In these specific examples the errors may also be caused by following the unverified official dogma that SSB made his Declaration when he was nearly 14, and that this occurred in 1940, rather than in 1943). After all, Kasturi and other biographers were not eye witnesses and did not have the benefit of the commendable basic detective work carried out in recent years by the LIMF researchers. And yet, as we have seen, in spite of the vastly superior biographical quality of LIMF, Vol 1, it is the ‘sacred’ Kasturi style that the Sathya Sai Book Trust has chosen to perpetuate. (Still to be investigated and explained is why the admirable LIMF biographical project (staffed by devotees) collapsed soon after the publication of the revelations of Volume 1.)
For example, N. Kasturi (Sathyam …, Vol 1, p. 16) makes this wildly inaccurate statement: “When he was eight, Sathya was declared ready to proceed to the Higher Elementary School at Bukkapatnam, two and a half miles from Puttaparthi.” [SSB was eight in either 1934 or 1937. According to LIMF, he went to Bukkapatnam when he was either fourteen, or eleven.]
Ra. Ganapati (I:71) copies Kasturi: “Satya entered the Higher Elementary School [at Bukkapatnam] at the age of eight.” Then, on p. 92, Ganapati informs us: “In His twelfth year, Satyanarayana Raju had to join the High School [in Uravakonda].” As if SSB went to Uravakonda in 1937 instead of 1943. So many inconsistencies!
Nagamani Purnaiya, another early devotee, is even further from the truth: “Sathya’s schooling at Bukkapatnam lasted till he was 10 years old and passed the Vth Standard.” Then she tells us that his elder brother took him to Uravakonda (p. 6). But SSB was 10 in either 1936 or 1939; he went to Uravakonda in 1943.
Another unreliable devotee witness:
In her Lokanatha Sai (Madras, Sri Sathya Sai Mandali Trust, Guindy, Madras, [n.d.] c. 1990) M. L. Mudaliar (1927-1999), an SSB devotee since her youth, a science graduate and later University teacher, asserts on page 5 that in September 1943, SSB rescued her father from evil. (As we shall see below, the date is inaccurate.) On p. 19 she relates that her father, while under what seems to be a form of possession, was visited in a vision by a young guru who cured him. She then goes on to state quite clearly that on the next day she and her family saw SSB visiting her father to check on his recovery from a case of an evil eye or black magic curse. On p. 149-151 Mudaliar gives more details of the alleged miracle healing and repeats the date, Dasara 1943.
LIMF (p. 217) states quite clearly, in reference to the winter of 1944, that Sathya Sai Baba stayed with a Madras family for twenty days and that:
“M.L. Leela (1927-1999), a devotee from Madras would later say that this was Baba’s first visit to Madras.” (No direct reference was given in LIMF but the data possibly came from the interview with Mudaliar recorded on 12 June 1998 by the LIMF team (a year before her death).
The final example of uncertainty and inconsistency regarding SSB’s biographical dates comes from the work of SSB’s very close American associate (and mentor), John Hislop, whose books and lectures had an incalculable influence on non-Indian devotees of SSB and on the development of the overseas branches of the SSO in the 1970s and 1980s. (Hislop had such prestige and close contact with SSB that he was chosen by Jewish American devotees to break the news to SSB that Jews and Christians belonged to different religions.)
According to Hislop’s Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba (p.124), it was SSB himself who told him the following: “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.” [According to the LIMF evidence, Sathya was sixteen years old at the time [in early 1943] (and even if he was born in 1929, he would have been thirteen.]
The fact that SSB told this last story to an unquestioning and totally devoted Hislop, always eager to pass on the Avatar’s every word to the world, may be the most important clue of all for researchers to follow. As I have shown elsewhere, at great length, in my investigations on SSB, his basic storytelling method of preaching offers a wealth of inconsistencies and errors, especially over the most elementary facts, like dates, ages and names. Therefore, a simple, but unproven, explanation for the uncertainty about his birth date could be that neither he nor his family remembered for certain and that his unquestioning devotees have merely repeated what he has said at different times, leaving the SSO, after its formation in 1965, to decide on the most plausible or convenient date of birth for their leader.
2. Further corroborating evidence of the LIMF revelations about 1940-1943
A quick scan of the major SSB commentators shows that although they all accept the official date of October 1940 as the beginning of SSB's career as a guru, there is a total dearth of mentions of the years 1941, 1942, or 1943 (except perhaps the final months) in connection with SSB’s early years in his position as independent guru. But for over 50 years no one noticed anything odd in this apparent three year gap of inactivity right at the alleged outset of SSB’s Mission. No guru tours around the area, or middle-class devotees with cameras, in nearly three years? However, as LIMF's large collection shows, from 1944 there would be a flood of photographs and accounts by adoring middle-class devotees.
In those very few cases where SSB writers do mention the years 1941-1943 in a ‘Mission’ context, the references must be scrutinised for plausibility, given the nature of the documentary evidence at our disposal since the year 2000.
No references to 1941, 1942, or 1943 were found in the first volume of Professor N. Kasturi’s 4-volume hagiography. Kasturi mentions the Declaration date of 1940 on page 46. The next date given by Kasturi is 1945 (on page 68) for the planning of the first Mandir, which fits in with accounts by LIMF and others. Then Kasturi mentions 1950 (the second mandir) on page 90. But, in spite of Kasturi’s accounts of lots of happenings on those intervening 44 pages, there is no specific mention of the three missing years (1941-1943. The reliability of Kasturi’s biography is thus challenged by the LIMF revelations.
LIMF offers abundant photographic evidence of SSB and devotees from 1944 onward. Apart from a few photographs from late 1943, LIMF also offers one (on p. 46) captioned ‘1940’. This is a photo of SSB, allegedly the first ever taken of him, in 1940, at the Pushpagiri Festival (near Kamalapuram). It is a head shot of a schoolboy, showing a strong and handsome face and short straight hair. The boy looks far more grown up than the stylised skinny and ‘cute’ child-like Sathya Narayana portrayed in the many specially commissioned pastel drawings by a foreign devotee which accompany these early (photo-less) chapters of LIMF. It also bears some similarity to other early ones from (late) 1943: in Uravakonda (pages 124 and 154) and Hospet (p. 142). Whether the 1940 photograph is correctly captioned or not, according to LIMF, as we have seen, there are no other photographs of SSB before the end of 1943 (just after his Declaration) but, subsequently, there is an avalanche of photos taken by his new (camera-owning) benefactors and devotees in 1944 and 1945, his first two years of Mission in and around newly explored Bangalore.
This sudden appearance of photographic evidence of the young guru and his followers and benefactors in the years 1943-1945 can be taken as further proof (if it is needed) that SSB’s Mission began in 1943, not in 1940.
In Bhaktodharaka Sri Sathya Sai (published by the SSB Books and Publications Trust, undated, like most of the official SSB books), a short volume about SSB’s Mission, N. Lakshmi Devamma (another early close devotee and schoolteacher) cites other people’s experiences and her own. She says that her own experiences date from a darshan when SSB was 15, but she gives no date. (Her introduction to SSB was through her worship of Shirdi Sai in Penukonda, possibly at the house of SSB's sister, Parvathamma.)
"Swami was then 15 years old. He was wearing a white dhoti and a white shirt. Bala Baba had a thick, black, beautiful crop, a golden complexion, luminous eyes that were large and full of compassion, and red smiling lips" (p. 36).
One of a series of end photos of SSB in sepia colour in Devamma’s book is captioned: "When I first saw Swami – 1941". (We do not know whether the caption was supplied by the author, an editor, or the publisher.) However, the same photo (in a far superior reproduction) is included in Love is My Form, Vol. 1 (on page 232) and it is clearly labelled, "Baba at Bangalore, 1945". With the evidence we now have, this later date seems correct, and Devamma's description of SSB's face also corresponds to photographs in LIMF from late 1943 on (which were the first sequential photos taken of him). Another photo reproduced in Devamma's book has the caption "Swami declared his avatar at Uravakonda on 20-10-1940" (either written by the author, an editor, or by the publisher). The same photo is in LIMF (p. 150), where it is claimed to be the first photo taken after his Declaration at Uravakonda (which LIMF's clear chronological account has shown to have taken place in October 1943). The caption for this photo adds more identifying detail: "Young Sai Baba seated on Sai Baba Gundu in Anjaneyulu's house (photographer V.V. Ramulu)".
The 3 year gap in the accounts of SSB’s many chroniclers is understandable: it simply corroborates the LIMF evidence that, rather than preaching his Mission, Sathya Narayana was still at school for most of the time between 1940 and October 1943. (This further underlines an inherent weakness in much of the SSB literature: the unquestioning copying of what others have written or said.)
As an example of Sathya Sai Baba’s compulsive biographical storytelling and boasting, he (echoed by his current major spokesperson, Professor Anil Kumar, on 10 March 2002) has recounted how, at the tender age of nine, he received his driving licence and proceeded to smash the record by driving from Puttaparthi to Madras (in the 1930s and on rural roads) in 4 and a half hours instead of the usual eight hours. The fact that no one has ever questioned this boast exemplifies the nature and power of the Sathya Sai Baba myth.
Devamma, N. Lakshmi, Bhakthodhaaraka Sri Sathya Sai, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust, [n.d.]
Kasturi, N., Sathyam Sivam Sundaram. The Life of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, 4 vols, Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust, 1961-1980.
Mudeliar, M. L., Lokanatha Sai (Madras, Sri Sathya Sai Mandali Trust, Guindy, Madras, [n.d.] c. 1990)
Padmanaban, R. et al , Love is My Form. Vol. 1 The Advent (1926-1950). Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Towers, 2000. [Often referred to as LIMF]
Vijayakumari, Smt., Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. Other than You Refuge is There None, Chennai, [n.p.], 1999. [Available from the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust]
For an introduction to the alleged forecasts of Sathya Sai Baba’s birth and their prominence in the official promotion of SSB, see: Counter-Evidence to the Sathya Sai Baba Divinity Myth and Related Topics. A Basic Source Guide.
Other research articles on Sathya Sai Baba's divine claims are available on Brian Steel's Sathya Sai Baba Page.