Research on Sathya Sai Baba and the Sathya Sai Organisation
New Factors for Researchers to Consider
Brian Steel December 2007
Copyright © 2007 Brian Steel
Note: This extensive survey is also an integral section of the third Part of my annotated Bibliography on Sathya Sai Baba.
1. Recent Publications and New Promotional Media about Sathya Sai Baba
The 1990s were years of phenomenal success for Sathya Sai Baba and of enormous growth and prosperity for the Sathya Sai Organisation. Numbers of Indian and overseas devotees and Centres continued to increase rapidly, with the addition of sizeable visiting contingents from (post-USSR) Russia, Japan and Indonesia, especially during the major festivals. SSB’s name became even more widely known overseas, while at home he was feted by celebrities and top politicians, in the Indian tradition. By the end of the decade he was rumoured to be India’s top tourist attraction. The coffers of the Sathya Sai Organisation were so full that major projects were undertaken, like the architecturally striking (and free) Super Specialty Hospital in the former village of Puttaparthi and an ambitious regional drinking water system. Major new buildings sprang up in the ashram, including the future SSB Memorial Museum (Chaitanya Jyoti). The boom also produced large volumes of land sales and building in the township of Puttaparthi, bringing in more money and work for local people and more comfortable lodgings and amenities for visiting devotees.
Many new books were written by devotees and published by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust or by the new commercial enterprise set up by a devotee (and ex-photographer of SSB): Sai Towers. Among the large volumes of esoterica and SSB memorabilia sold by the street stall owners, large quantities of photos and videos were purchased by devotees at bargain prices.
At the beginning of 1999, the ever-busy ashram grapevine began to spread alarming rumours of the defection of one of SSB’s favoured foreign devotees, a popular musician who had spread the SSB gospel in books, talks and videos. His name was David Bailey. At roughly the same time came the news of the dismissal of another favoured devotee, a doctor at the Super Specialty Hospital, Dr Naresh Bhatia, a popular and passionate SSB apologist who had written a hagiographical book about his experiences as a close favourite of Sathya Sai Baba. The ashram rumours and speculations on forthcoming sensational revelations continued for the rest of that year. When, inexorably, the Bailey ‘Findings’ were released in March 2000, their sexual allegations and other accusations of fake materialisations caused pandemonium. The reverberations of and reactions to this major shock have continued since then, beginning with the exodus of an unknown number of foreign devotees (mainly from USA, Canada, Europe and Australasia), an outbreak of critical writing about SSB and his Organisation together with a reappraisal (or discovery) of a body of dispersed and largely ignored past critical writing about SSB (see Part 2) as well as responses and reactions from the SSO and a few devotees.
From the beginning of this 21 st century, three further factors were to effect the SSB Mission:
– The emergence of a booming and forward-looking Indian economy (which had been building up steam sìnce 1990) and a burgeoning, confident and outward-looking middle class.
– The achievement of critical mass state by the Internet as a major source of communication and information for millions of people in most countries.
– The increasing age of Sathya Sai Baba (75 in 2000) and, since 2003, his increasing frailty, with the prospect of another 14 years still to run before his predicted samadhi.
For devotees, from the mid-1990s on, the Internet became a new channel for spreading the latest information about Sathya Sai Baba and his Mission. Printed books, media articles and videos remained important vehicles for promoting SSB and the SSO and their activities, but a small number of SSB devotees who had adopted the new medium began exchanging news and information (including new Discourses and ashram gossip) on bulletin boards and on manyYahoo and other chat groups like SaiNet. During the second half of the nineties, as more and more people flocked to the Internet, numbers of SSB devotee Internauts grew correspondingly. A typical devotee website carried, in addition to colour photographs of SSB and the OM symbol, introductory information about him for newcomers and for others curious to know more about him. Some websites also offer quotations from Sathya Sai Baba’s teachings, online magazines, the text of the latest Discourses, other news about SSB's ashram appearances or about SSO activities, links to Sathya Sai Bookshops in the devotee’s country and lists of available books, cassettes, CDs and Videotapes. The bulletin board SaiNet (run by American volunteer devotees, sevaks, performing a twenty first century form of seva) offered various services, including a discussion group available for devotees to have online satsang.
Finally in April 1999 the SSO also tentatively adopted this new form of mass communications, adding to its books, magazines, audiotapes and videotapes the vast scope of the Internet. From the year 2000, the Sathya Sai Organisation began a much more determined drive to increase its worldwide presence on the Internet (in English), devoting considerable energy and resources (including technical staff) to this powerful medium. The first official website, www.sathyasai.org (representing the International Sai Organisation), which had already been launched on 24 April 1999 (see Note 1 below), was followed on 23 December 2000 by www.srisathyasai.org.in (representing the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust). This site offers “information about the Life, Works and Teachings of Bhagawan Baba and the Service Activities undertaken by the various Trusts and Organisations under the Sai Movement. Besides, for the convenience of the devotees, the site provides basic information about the Ashram and its facilities.”
Next came the Radio Sai Global Harmony Radio station, a 24-hour satellite station for Africa and Asia (www.radiosai.org), launched on 23 November 2001 with the task of offering yet more news, photographs, old Discourses and a monthly magazine (Heart to Heart).
(Radio Sai’s website claims that the Worldspace digital channel was a free gift from WorldSpace because their Managing Director was so impressed with Sathya Sai Baba. However, this implies a misunderstanding of how WorldSpace functions as a business. Since it relies on subscriptions to its digital radio offerings, the company would be interested in any local channel as a source of extra subscribers to the whole service. Also, special receivers, sold by WorldSpace, may be needed by subscribers. Presumably, all local channels have to fund and run their separate premises (buildings, equipment and staff), possibly in return for a tiny commission per subscriber, but since in India the WorldSpace subscriptions are about $5 per month to receive the BBC World Service and over 30 regional stations (including Global Harmony) – mainly for news and music – it would not be unreasonable to assume that the operation of Radio Sai has always represented a substantial running cost on the Sathya Sai Organisation’s budget.)
On 18 February 2004, the greatly modernised Books and Publications Trust, from its new ashram HQ, added its own website, www.sssbpt.org, to cater for the English versions of the Discourses, old and new.
Since 2000 (and particularly since the foundation of the Prasanthi Council in 2003, with its special defence brief), the number and size of official websites (including those of other Sathya Sai Organisation Centres overseas), unofficial group sites and personal devotee sites has continued to snowball, with the result that there is now a huge variety of choice available to the devotee or other surfers. The daily flow of new and old information, discussion or gossip about Sathya Sai Baba is strong and includes articles about SSB as well as the whole of his printed Discourses since 1954. New Discourses are usually available for downloading – translated and edited – within a few days of their delivery by SSB, often with accompanying photographs or videos. (In 2007 the number and frequency of Discourses has dwindled significantly.) For an idea of the vast amount of information available, see the official sites listed above and especially the unofficial megasite, www.saibabalinks.org (set up in 2003). This devotee-run site is already bursting at the seams with links to articles, free extracts from books, press reports and with individual endorsements of Sathya Sai Baba’s Divinity and powers, many sent in following a specific request for devotees to send in public testimonies of experiences with SSB. Presumably anything that is sent in is automatically posted. This unquestioning and unverified publication of ANY allegations about SSB’s powers has always been a disturbing characteristic of much of the devotee literature about Sathya Sai Baba. (See Section 6.)
On many of these sites there are multiple links to other regional, unofficial, or personal Sathya Sai Baba websites, so the resulting network is vast. In fact, this veritable ocean of SSB promotional material even includes a few books at no cost. See, for example, http://bababooks.org, which offers a free downloadable version of Kasturi's four volume hagiography, Satyam Sivam Sundaram, or, for a free copy of the seminal Man of Miracles by the late Howard Murphet, go to http://sai_baba_2001.tripod.com/manofmiracles.
Although the Internet has been a 'godsend' for the SSO, the Prasanthi Council and devotees, it is also open to everyone, including those individuals and organisations who have set up websites offering alternative information and opinions about SSB and the SSO following the allegations of 2000 (and, in some cases, since the 1990s). One result of the online controversy caused by the publishing of the Bailey ‘Findings’ in early 2000 was a noticeable orchestrated retreat to privacy by SSB-oriented chat groups. Some of these simply closed down, others, by making vetted membership a condition of entry, virtually closed the door to non-devotees, who had previously been able to participate in and be privy to devotee exchanges of opinions.
Note: Unconfirmed alternative information suggests that the first official SSO website was started in 1996 by American (IT expert) devotees.
In spite of the repercussions of the extraordinary revelations and allegations of 2000 (mainly in The Findings and later that year in the biographical Love is My Form, Vol. 1), devotees have continued to churn out their memoirs. And some longtime devotees seem to have volunteered to add to the body of eulogistic writings, like the octogenarian devotee Vijayakumari (Badri Yatra) and the very prominent international spokesperson for Sathya Sai Baba, the late Dr. D. J. Gadhia ( Sai Smaran. Recollections of Sai .) Also, nearly thirty years after the publication of two very influential and proselytising books, the veteran SSB bestselling author, prominent devotee and popular public speaker, Dr. Samuel Sandweiss, has produced a recent work re-emphasising his complete devotion and positive personal experiences of Sathya Sai Baba’s Divinity ( With Love Man is God ), as if the serious counter-evidence and allegations against the guru he has revered and promoted since the 1970s had never been been made public.
The Puttaparthi-based publishing house Sai Towers, which had been so active and successful in the 1990s (and had produced good quality printed books for a reasonable price – that of the SSSBPT being kept at an average of $1 per book, even when sold overseas), scaled down its activities in about 2003, after abandoning its ambitious research project of six or seven volumes of Love is My Form to follow the first volume, published in late 2000.
The former CEO, R. Padmanaban, shows signs of continuing activity with five volumes of Sri Sathya Sai Baba Life Story for Children, Sai Towers Publishing (now available from distributors (http://puttaparthi.info/shopping/books). The same site offers many other new and old books, including (on page 35 of the general online catalogue) Love is My Form, Vol 1, for $61 plus airmail postage. (However, the link to www.loveismyform.com is probably now broken).
The undisputed main publisher of books on Sathya Sai Baba is the modernised SSSBPT. It now constitutes a major business undertaking (possibly subsidised by SSO funds), as the back pages of any recent volume will confirm: a four-page (small print) list of available books is offered at bargain prices (average: 40 Rupees) and very economical postage rates for India, Asia, and overseas. This Books and Publications Trust also now republishes older popular works (like those of Sandweiss, Hislop and Jagadeesan). From its website (www.sssbpt.org) old and new Discourses may now be downloaded. As “part of its mandate to spread Swami’s message” the Trust also controls Radio Sai Global Harmony satellite radio station set up in 2001. A major part of the radio programming is the broadcasting of old Discourses in Telugu.
A far cry from the primitive office conditions and lethargic aura that pervaded this department in the 1990s, this thoroughly modernised publishing arm, working with computers from a very attractive new building, continues to publish the translated and edited Discourses of Sathya Sai Baba in several languages, as well as compilations of extracts from Discourses as well as many other books. With modernisation, and probably more qualified staff, modernisation has not only improved the standard of printing and binding but has finally introduced the normal publishing practice of dating its publications (in about 2002). The SSSBPT claims to stock 1000 volumes on Sathya Sai Baba and although this figure would include many volumes translated into a variety of languages, it does give an idea of the enormous expansion of this publishing arm of SSB’s Mission. (One of their slimmer volumes, for visitors, is The Prasanthi Nilayam Information Booklet, which reached its 13 th edition in 2005. It includes bus and train timetables, and a list of official websites.)
In the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in official retrospective books and compilations depicting the most successful decades of the Mission, some of them addressed to a wider (and, possibly, future) public. Some examples:
The late spokesperson, interpreter and editor of Sanathana Sarathi, N. Kasturi, acting on SSB’s wishes, wrote four famous volumes of hagiography (published in 1961-1980). In 2005, twenty five years after his death, an officially compiled surrogate fifth volume has been added under the same title, Sathyam Shivam Sundaram. Prepared by B.N. Narasimha Murthy under the guidance of three prominent members of the SSO, it deals with the years 1980 to1986. More such official volumes are promised, to chronicle the rest of the Mission – a project which the energetic Love is My Form research team, now disbanded, had also aimed to carry out. Accompanied by many colour photographs, volume 5 has a useful Chronology section for 1980-1985 (pp. 345-362) but it is basically just another hagiography.
Also suddenly resuscitated in 2003 was another virtually unknown booklet by Kasturi from September 1963. In Siva Sakti Swarupa – Miracle Divine, Kasturi attempts to recreate in Question and Answer style the dramatic week on the cusp of June-July 1963 which culminated in the extraordinary Shiva-Shakti story by Sathya Sai Baba (6 July 1963). This event and the ensuing Discourse are officially promoted as one of the four major pillars of his divine claims and a turning point in his Mission. This re-issue of Kasturi’s neglected essay raises more questions about this highly controversial claim than it answers.
To the innumerable existing compilations of excerpts from SSB’s Discourses, the following have recently been added by the SSSBPT:
Aura of the Divine(1999), grouped under topics (with source references).
Birthday Blessings of Bhagavan (2000), consisting of excerpts of most of the Birthday Discourses from 1960 to 1999. (Possibly due to faulty records, especially during the 1970s, nothing is recorded for 1963, 1969, 1971, 1973 or 1977.)
His Story as told by Himself (2005), a collection of stories taken from his Discourses of passages dealing with his youth, schooldays and family. The SSSBPT reverts to its unhelpful past habit of not offering any source references for readers to follow up. A cursory reading reveals further discrepancies in SSB’s kaleidoscopic stories of his early life.
A far better organised primer of Sathya Sai Baba’s life between 1947 and 1982, compiled by the “Sainet Editorial Committee”, is The Essential Sai (2006). No reason is given for the cut-off date. The volume gives excerpts from many landmark or otherwise revealing Discourses, fortunately with references to the volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks. The Publisher’s Note points out, comfortingly, that the Discourses of “the Avatar of the Age, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba” “answer almost all conceivable doubts that might come up in the minds of His millions in the world who had missed the bus in their earlier appearances on the earth.”
Two major glossy illustrated promotional books are also of recent vintage:
Chaitanya Jyoti. The Millennium Museum depicting the Message and Mission of Sri Sathya Sai Avatar (Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations, 2001). This photographic record of a Museum commemorating the Sathya Sai Baba Mission in its various phases has been listed above.
The Mission of Sai at a Glance (SSSBPT, 2005) is a pictorial record of Sathya Sai Baba as a major contemporary philanthropic force in regional education, medicine (hospitals), rural services (especially drinking water facilities) and other forms of service.
From the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation of Australia and Papua New Guinea came three volumes of the ‘Sai Vision Programme’ devoted to the group or individual study of the (translated and edited) Discourses of SSB. The editor’s study notes are by Dr Pal Dhall:
Sivarathri Discourses 1983-1993
Guru Poornima Discourses 1983-1993
Christmas Discourses 1972-1994.
(The introduction to the latter volume makes the bold claim that “every Discourse contained herein has new revelations about the life, works and teachings of Jesus”. The Christmas1972 Discourse is, arguably, the most controversial of them all.)
2. Public Responses by Sathya Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Organisation Officials, Devotees and Others to Criticism of SSB and the SSO
Since 2000, previously ignored or unclear aspects of the history of the Sathya Sai Baba Mission, have been projected, dynamically, into the foreground, thereby giving rise to closer examination of the Sathya Sai Baba story. In seven years the snowballing controversies and polemics have become an essential area for study and careful appraisal by independent observers. Part 2 of this Bibliography has outlined one side of the controversy: the growing body of recent and pre-existing counter-evidence against SSB’s divine and other claims and the sensational allegations of sexual impropriety and abuse. This section lists and comments on the main official and unofficial reactions to criticisms and allegations against Sathya Sai Baba and the Sathya Sai Organisation.
Direct responses by Sathya Sai Baba himself (who is in all probability unaware of the details of the criticisms) are infrequent but on record. Occasional public responses by Sathya Sai Organisation office-holders, spokespersons, prominent devotees, writers and rank and file devotees are now a part of the total SSB database, to be sifted and taken into account by biographers and researchers.
In response to the 40 pages of materials listed and annotated in Part 2 of this Bibliography, there is very little to list here since the main official public attitude to allegations, revelations and criticisms concerning SSB and the SSO has been one of automatic denial and blanket dismissal (often accompanied by gratuitous collective denigration and innuendo directed at the unnamed critics).
Typical ingredients of a (public or private) devotee response to any criticism of Sathya Sai Baba can be seen in the following item:
Fernando, Thilak S., ‘BHAGAWAN SRI SATHYA SAI BABA’, www.infolanka.com/org/diary/110.html
This unpublished letter of complaint to the Daily Telegraph by Clarence H. Fernando on the subject of Mick Brown’s ‘Divine Downfall’ article in 2000, contains the following claims:
“Sathya Sai Baba, as you contend does not consider himself as God; it is a belief held by his devotees.”
“It is relevant here to cite the incident, which took place in Rome. On his deathbed, Pope John XXIII – the most liberal of the Popes of the Roman Papal Curia – is said to have had a vision of a man that would usher in a new golden age of peace and harmony humankind has never known. The late Pope had described the man with brown skin who will wear a distinctive red robe. Similarly the great 16th century seer Nostradamus and American Prophet Edgar Cayce had predicted that a holy man from the East would challenge the major religions of the world as a prelude to a Golden Age. Such developments have shaken the foundations of Christianity ...”
Official Sathya Sai Organisation comments and ‘spin’ on the sensational reverberating allegations of 2000 and the many other criticisms of Sathya Sai Baba and the SSO made public in recent years have been mainly directed at the more spectacular (but historically and theologically less significant) sexual allegations and the 1993 killings. These are the topics which get instant media and public attention and cause heated discussion. The avalanche of subsequent revelations and allegations on many other critical and polemical topics (2001-2007) has been largely ignored or summarily dismissed by SSB officialdom and close associates of SSB – in public at least. Soothing advice has been tendered to bewildered devotees, many of whom seem relieved to do as they are advised.
The main authoritarian thread running through the following official reactions is the tendency to discourage independent thought about or examination of allegations and criticism of Sathya Sai Baba. Time after time devotees have been encouraged to reject, sight unseen, any criticism of SSB on the grounds of his alleged Divinity and infallibility, which, it is argued, automatically invalidate any disparaging mundane criticism. (This process is often referred to as Sandeha Nivarini, or ‘Dissolving Doubt’, the a priori assumption that no doubt or criticism concerning SSB can possibly be well founded. Devotees are thus constantly exhorted to regard any action or word of Sathya Sai Baba as being beyond question or reproach simply because the Divine is unfathomable to mere mortals even though cogent evidence and analyses challenging the claims of Divinity made by SSB (and his assumed omniscience) continue to be published on the Internet. Concurrently, the beleaguered but very wealthy Sathya Sai Organisation has been conducting an expensive campaign of public promotional gatherings in several large cities in USA and Europe. These presentations to the general public emphasise SSB’s twin roles as a world spiritual leader and a supporter of charitable works, usually without direct reference to his alleged Divinity and Avatarhood.
On a devotee chat group in November 1999, when the storm clouds were already gathering as the denunciation from ex-devotee David Bailey was expected among ashram gossipers, the following ‘Thought of the Day’ was posted in the ashram:
“19 October 1999. Subject: Gems from the Lord:”
“Prasanthi Nilayam is holding forth and exemplifying the higher ideals, in the material, ethical, economic, moral, spiritual, worldly and even political fields. There is no place here for anything contrary. This can be asserted without any possibility of contradiction. In spite of this, some ignorant individuals rely more on their guesses than on facts, and indulge in spreading wrong conclusions. Let me tell them that, if a single person in the whole world points out a wrong step in Prasanthi Nilayam, he shall be met and convinced ...”
Such is the background to the following official answers and reactions to the allegations and revelations of 2000-2007.
The first defence, within a month of the spread of the (awaited) Bailey Findings on the Internet in early 2000, was a long, very dignified letter by the nonagenarian Sathya Sai Baba chronicler, Howard Murphet, in which he detailed some of his experiences over 40 years with SSB and also claimed occult confirmation of Sathya Sai Baba’s status as Avatar (and the greatest Avatar in history). Murphet also referred to ‘personal egos’ which serve “dark forces that are battling hard today against the great light that the Avatar is shedding on Earth”.
On 4 December 2000, following a disastrous year of negative publicity for SSB, a senior ashram spokesman was quoted by India Today as saying, “... with every criticism, Sai Baba becomes more and more triumphant.”
During his career, Sathya Sai Baba has occasionally issued emotional reactions to criticism. Some of the recent instances have been commented on by authors listed in Part 2 of these bibliographies. (For example, in July 1993, following the Indian media coverage of the still unexplained ashram killings and again in October 1999, about Internet rumours preceding the Bailey Findings.) In response to the latter, Sathya Sai Baba revealed some of his feelings in his Birthday Discourse in November 2000 but after the critical article in India Today, he was moved to comment on 8 December 2000:
“Swami is not bound to reply to any of these irrelevant things as this Avathar has to do so many hard things.” Later that month, in his Christmas Day Discourse, he expressed such anger that B. S. Manu Rao, writing for the Times of India titled his report on the outburst ‘Sai Baba lashes out at detractors’. Rao describes the parallel drawn by Sathya Sai Baba between the hardships and crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his own travails, caused not by one Judas but by ‘thousands’, all ‘bought’ to tell lies. He also threatened sinners with ‘consequences’ and, xenophobically, blamed the West for corrupting the minds of Indians. He went on to remind his listeners of his own basic qualities of truth and love and listed the extent of his charitable works. Finally, he commanded his devotees to be steadfast in their faith. (That Discourse, along with most of his others, is available for perusal (translated from Telugu and edited) on Sathya Sai Organisation websites.)
By late 2001, with increasing Internet and other media revelations, in full damage control, prominent SSB associates had been busy addressing meetings and conferences urging devotees to be calm and to disregard the rumours and ‘calumnies’. CEO Dr Michael Goldstein himself had flown to several countries to reassure devotees disturbed by the Findings and subsequent discussion about them. Similar forms of ‘spin’ became the standard official response to critics: olympian condemnation and innuendos about their possible loyalties to other unnamed (but transparently obvious) religious causes – quite unsupported by any evidence.
At the end of 2001, there were two further examples of this standard official treatment. On 18 September, Indulal Shah, the veteran International Chairman of the Sathya Sai Organisation, issued a statement which included the following arguments. (Italics have been added.)
“Devotees of Bhagawan may have been perturbed and disturbed by recent newspaper and Internet news reports of a very scurrilous and mischievous nature against Bhagawan Baba. While such calumny has occurred in the past, their [sic] now seems to be a well-planned attempt and conspiracy to denigrate the Sai Mission. Certain vested interests are alarmed by the continued and rapid spread of the glory and grandeur of Sai Avathar throughout the world and have therefore embarked on these spiteful efforts which are of course bound to fail.” Those vested interests again! But who are they? Shah does not say, but Indian history and recent Sathya Sai Organisation custom suggest that Christian organisations or apologists were in his mind.
The elderly Shah, having also denounced vague “blasphemous reports” and “malicious baseless stories”, continued his litany of clichés in this sweeping and simplistic manner:
“Every Avathar has had false and malicious allegations hurled at Him. These canards have never and will never cause any blemish in the lives of Avathars. History does not forgive such perfidious individuals who can stoop so low as to find fault with the divine itself. ...”
Around the same time, at Mr Shah’s request, the then Indian Prime Minister, Vajpayee of the VJP Party, and a few other high officials (all devotees of SSB), issued a public reaction and plea, titled
“SRI SATHYA SAI BABA A LIVING LEGEND. AN EMBODIMENT OF LOVE FOR ALL MANKIND”
In the following extracts, strong epithets, clichés, and unsupported assumptions are asserted by these politicians as fact, and familiar phrases like “vested interests” (a convenient scapegoat) were bandied about once more. (Italics added)
“We are deeply pained and anguished by the wild reckless and concocted allegations made by certain vested interests and people against Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. We would normally expect that responsible media would ascertain the true facts before printing such calumny, especially when the person is revered globally as an embodiment of love and selfless service to humanity.”
Needless to say, this letter was very widely circulated by the SSO, and continues to be re-issued as an automatic response by overseas SSO Zone Coordinators whenever there is a fresh unfavourable media report.
During late 2001 and 2002, amid a rapid and diversified increase in SSB ‘exposé’ activities on the Internet and other media revelations, there was evidence of SSO planning to mitigate the disadvantages of such embarrassing publicity by launching a worldwide PR campaign to extol SSB in his role as a spiritual teacher and public benefactor. (The Divinity label was conspicuous by its absence.) This aspect had already been noticeable in the (by now ex-) Prime Minister’s plea: “We are among several million people in the world who regard Sri Sathya Sai Baba as a great spiritual master and teacher.”It recurs in the following address by Indulal Shah to a select meeting of leaders of overseas national and area Sathya Sai Organisations (in July 2002). They were exhorted in terms like the following (with the Divine epithets restored).
“It is now imperative with Baba’s call for Educare/Medicare/Socicare, that we move to become a force of benefit to the countries in which Sai Organisations exist.” “Bhagwan Himself is showing an example of this in India and how the Sai Organisation is a force in Nation Building recognised by one and all.”
“You are aware that these are testing and difficult times. Even the Avatar faces denigration and attempts to undermine His Glory by resorting to distorted statements and falsehoods made by the ignorant. It is not as if the Avatar needs human effort to glorify Him or that He needs any protection from any such despicable efforts to denigrade [sic] Him, but the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation has a great role to perform to enhance the Divine glory of the Avatar of the Age. This has to be achieved by us with a great sense of sincerity and dedication not with an aim of defending the name of the Avatar in the face of negativity but by positive pro-action of making the world aware by our programmes and the Vision Message and Mission of the Avatar.”
“Our Organisation must reflect what we are and what we do as also our impact on others by living Sai’s message in all spheres of life – local, regional, national, political or economic – of each country.”
“In this context, I have to request you to compile information of all such impacts and expressions of work of nation building carried out by our Organisation in your country by way of news items, press coverage, photographs, message or letter received from a Local Community, Political, Government or Religious Leader acknowledging our work etc. and send the same to me by the end of February 2002.”
In early 2002, with news in the air of a forthcoming Danish TV film on the sexual allegations against Sathya Sai Baba, a senior SSO officer in Europe, interviewed on Danish TV (31 January 2002) tried to talk down the situation (in translation):
“Each year there are millions of people visiting Sai Baba – and now there are some 6-7 persons who for the last 2-3 years have amused themselves by writing and writing and writing about the same stuff on the internet, why is a trial in court not made – why is it not brought forward ... eh... it... you cannot say that these are anything else than some undocumented accusations ...” (Italics added)
In fact, this Danish film (‘Seduced’) caused a furore in devotee and other circles in Northern Europe and two years later (February 2004) it was screened, with considerable impact in devotee circles, on the other side of the globe, in Australia. In the wake of the adverse publicity caused by these visual images and interviews with some of the male accusers, the Central Coordinator for Australasia and Papua New Guinea, posted on the Australian SSO website a copy of his lengthy emotional letter of protest to the TV station. The part of the letter dealing with those who produced and promoted the film contained the following intemperate and unsupported judgements, which far exceed those already quoted from other more prominent and more sophisticated SSO luminaries. Here is a quotation from this counterproductive performance by a spiritual bureaucrat:
“As for the anti Sai group, some of them subsist on the generous welfare handouts of government and exist on Disability Pensions (disability being physical or mental) have the time to conjure up situations. Some of the anti Sai group are eccentric, neurotic and their behaviour and attitude are equally bizarre.” (Italics added)
Later, possibly after the reckless regional Sathya Sai Organisation boss had been rebuked for his less than loving views of non-devotees, he issued a further statement. It ended with this exhortation to do what the writer says, not what he does, as well as a Pollyanna-like hope for the SSB critics’ future and an unconvincing prediction.
“E-mails issued by the anti-Sai group must be accepted (not dumped or reacted angrily) as self-satisfaction (to the issuers of the e-mail) is the first step for their self-discovery. Once people understand their self then they can begin to appreciate and follow the path to reality. We feel confident that with the passage of time, the anti Sai group will join the Sai fold as many who deserted after an earlier show ‘Guru Buster’ [a critical documentary on gurus in general] are in the ever-expanding Sai Mission.”
The emotional SSO bureaucrat’s final quote on Truth from Sathya Sai Baba was perhaps not the best choice in the circumstances: “Untruth might appear to over-power Truth, but its victory would fade away and Truth would establish itself.” (Sri Sathya Sai Baba)
As a result of all this publicity over the Danish film’s screening in Australia, Dr G. Venkataraman broke the official ashram silence on “ irresponsible utterances by foolish people”by broadcasting a comforting pep talk, ‘Truth will Always Triumph’ on Radio Sai (Radio Sai Listeners’ Journal, Volume 2, 1 March 2004). His next major public contribution was to come two years later.
Apart from such standard public attempts by SSO officialdom to brush off serious criticisms, unofficial devotee Internet outlets were devoting more time and energy to apply these same vague dismissive, denigratory and ad hominem techniques. One common ploy was for devotees and the SSO to announce brazenly that Sathya Sai Baba had never claimed to be God (in spite of the copious spoken and written evidence).
For example, in the long letter of protest to Mick Brown by Clarence H. Fernando (already quoted), the writer uses the same invalid denial tactic as a ‘criticism’ of Brown’s writing: “Sathya Sai Baba, as you contend does not consider himself as God; it is a belief held by his devotees.” As is obvious from a study of the materials listed in these bibliographies, this is the sort of officially supported untruth that has been uncritically repeated in many general reference books and even in much scholarly writing on NRMs and Sathya Sai Baba.
On the Internet, the only concerted public devotee responses to the Findings and other more substantial criticisms of SSB have been the following contributions by true believers:
An unofficial devotee website which ‘opened its doors’ in 2000 as a response to The Findings and the other swirling allegations and revelations which followed in their wake. (This was the time when most open devotee Internet discussion groups were closing down, to be replaced by vetted members-only clubs.) The Sai Critic (or Critics) initially endeavoured to calm down the panicky flock, discoursing at length in a general way on uplifting spiritual themes. It followed up with some commentaries and made a few disparaging remarks directed vaguely at individuals (for example, my own SSB research web page was gratuitously referred to as “Spanish taught here”) but, in spite of its debate about the sexual allegations, its writers presented no convincing evidence to refute the new facts and revelations which had been reported. The site also reproduced an excerpt from SSB’s 75th Birthday Discourse in 2000 and the novel but inadequate response to the sexual allegations by devotee Ram Das Awle, which aroused an ephemeral excited debate in some chatty quarters of the Internet. (See commentary below.)
By mid-2002, unable to cope with the increased volume and scope of Internet criticisms of SSB and the SSO, the anonymous Sai Critic website managers unblushingly solved their dilemma by unilaterally declaring the ‘exposé’ ended. Since then they have publicly adopted the head in sand attitude which they promote to others and have ceased to contribute openly to the debate – while the loosely-knit ‘exposé’, which they had declared defunct, continues to maintain its criticisms on several Internet websites and pages and to add new revelations, questions, analyses and discoveries, notably on highly frequented blogspots (another new source of information which must now be evaluated by researchers).
Details of the brief and undistinguished life of ‘The Sai Critic’ website present the following picture. Although usually couched in calmer and more persuasive language than the robust official pronouncements above, the following extracts from the Sai Critic site show the same authoritarian desire to shepherd the devotee in the ‘right’ direction, and to dismiss and denigrate anything (or anyone) critical of SSB without actually bothering to analyse the criticisms or to provide detailed refutation of the voluminous Internet materials. The anonymous Sai Critic writers arrogantly assume that devotees cannot be trusted to judge for themselves what they read or hear in this blatant attempt at brain-washing. (Italics added)
“Your personal experience of Swami is an unbroken experience. It has been continuous throughout your life, even in the days you did not know of Swami. He has nurtured you through hundreds of lifetimes so that you might be here with him now. Your experience is intermingled with and enmeshed in your belief in Swami. Belief is based on your divine experience, not anyone else or anything Swami does.”
Guard your Truth.
“No material outside of you can add to nor detract or alter your own personal divine experience. It is your most valuable possession so guard it jealously.”
The Information on the Internet
“There is a massive illness in humanity in this day and age. It afflicts those who do not use their discrimination and apply their values to the information that is presented to them. Think of the impact of Television. Many do not even know what their values are, and surrender responsibility for decisions and what happens to them by allowing televised material to pour into them, irregardless of truth or falsehood, right or wrong, good or bad. The material is elevated to a value in itself, and presented in terms of ‘culture’ or the ‘public interest’.”
“Please be aware that the same lack of discrimination is happening to material that is published on the Internet. There is little or no values discrimination in material that is encountered, and the values of the Internet are primarily the surf experience, the download, and the chat room. It is a form of mass media, like the newspaper, the radio, the television and the telephone.”
Clarify the Communication
“When persons begin to make assertions, it is helpful to firstly examine the basis of the assertions about Swami or money or hospitals or anything else: To see if one is assuming or discerning, I advise a simple method of determining what is but a rumour and what is genuine history. For example, if you hear some tale, be it good or bad, plausible or bizarre, first ask: ‘If it happened to the person who is telling it. If not, politely ask if that person has confirmed it with the person it did happen to. If not, ask if there are two witnesses available who can confirm it happened as now described.’
“You do not have to answer allegations, defend your humanity or your belief to anyone. Above all, you do not have to defend Swami to anyone, He can and does take care of himself. Speak softly and sweetly and pay attention to the Desiderata; all must be heard, eventhe dull and ignorant. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, for they are vexatious to the spirit. You are not required to defend untruths, and you are not required to correct people with outrageous statements or statements that offend sensibility. Whatever people say is their experience, and you are not required to interpret it. Clarify for them, as suggested above, ask for evidence, and allow what is presented to be. You are not required to make a decision or to answer anyone. You have the right to remain silent.” (The standard protective advice that a solicitor gives a client who is under suspicion.)
Also from this unofficial website comes an admission, which of course is the main inspiration for the whole website: “The Findings were stomach churning, gut wrenching material for most who perused its pages. Minds were blown to smithereens. The foundations of faith were ripped away. The structure we had carefully built around the one we knew and loved was vanquished as the MIND ran out of control, hither, thither, and drove most mad with grief, outrage, betrayal, sadness, and lack of trust.” “A one whom we focussed on the most was the object of hatred. Pictures were taken down, momentos [sic] were put away, books were thrown out and the bridges were well and truly burnt.”
Two more choice selections from the Sai Critic’s hectoring pages:
“(12) Four students went to kill Sai Baba but instead policemen wilfully killed them.”
“They were not students, but ex students; they filled the ashram with explosives and sufficient potassium cyanide to put into the water supply and planned to burn down the ashram. This plan to burn down the Central Trust was referred to in a Divine Discourse.”
“For weeks, Swami instructed the Police afterwards where to search for explosives and the Police located and removed sufficient explosives to do massive damage to the ashram. Better facts can be obtained from a rigorous search of the Newspapers along with all the other false trails laid down. The perpetrators used knives and stabbed four men in scuffles. Where are these facts and the deaths that can be laid at the feet of the perpetrators? The police did their duty. Had the perpetrators have [sic] lived, the villagers would have pulled the police station apart brick by brick, and then the perpetrators apart limb by limb.”
Journalist Mick Brown came across the Sai Critic in researching his 2000 article on SSB: “Surfing the internet, I came upon a site called The Sai Critic, established by some devotees to answer The Findings and to ‘counsel’ those whose faith might be wavering in the face of the allegations. The anonymous authors of the site urge devotees to believe only their own experiences and quote an aphorism of Sai Baba's: “When doubt walks in the front door, faith walks out out the back door. Keep your doors closed.” “Addressing the allegations of sexual abuse, the authors state that because ‘Sai Baba is a divine incarnation, one cannot attribute human sexual motives to him, nor interpret him in the light of human sexual experience.’ In other words, because Sai Baba is divine, whatever he does is beyond understanding and beyond accountability.”
Since mid-2002, the Sai Critic website has shown little signs of life. It is quite plausible that this is in keeping with an official SSO policy to avoid the public spotlight and media attention and to restrict public access to ‘inside’ debates and information, which was certainly reflected by the sudden privatisation of many previously open SSB devotee Discussion Groups (on Yahoo.com) in late 2002, as the moderators took the open and sometimes revealing chat sessions into the safety and seclusion of Members-only territory.
The second ephemerally active unofficial SSB defence web site was that of devotee Ram Das Awle (www.saibaba-aclearview.com ). (It was also quoted in detail on the Sai Critic website.) In 2001, Das Awle created a flurry of excitement among computer-literate devotees, reviving the devotee contribution to the debate raging around The Findings. He confidently proclaimed his purpose: “This is a pro-Sai website, written and translated by devotees, for the purpose of clearing away doubts regarding the current controversy surrounding Sai Baba, and helping to make His divine identity more clear to the world.” His approach in Part 1 of his offering was to tackle the sexual allegations head on by saying that the allegations were probably true because it is all a traditional part of the guru helping to raise the devotees’ kundalini. (This point has also been made by several other devotee commentators.) But his lengthy arguments and rationalisations do not really dent the original criticisms of Sathya Sai Baba in 2000-2001, nor has Das Awle since added any counter-evidence to the multiple criticisms of SSB after 2000. Those interested in the detail of the debate on Part 1 of Das Awle’s argument will find enlightenment in the articles of Dr. Timothy Conway, Robert Priddy and Elena Hartgering, amongst others. (See Part 2 of this bibliography.)
In Part 2 of his offering, ‘Who is Sai Baba?’, Das Awle offered alleged evidence of SSB’s Divinity, repeating many of the unsupported or implausible claims usually made by SSB writers and devotees, including an impressive number of celebrity prophecies about his Advent (among them the totally implausible claim – possibly blasphemous for orthodox Muslims – which many devotees believe to be true, that the prophet Muhammad himself clearly prophesied SSB’s coming as the Mahdi). As sole proof of many of these highly contentious or preposterous claims, Das Awle offered endnotes of the type: “This was told to me by ... [an unnamed person].” Such ‘proofs’ have been left unquestioned by SSB devotees for decades.
Rather than continuing to confront allegations and criticisms in public with this standard rhetoric, the Sathya Sai Organisation set about reorganising itself, forming the new five-man Prasanthi Council in 2003 as the supreme SSO authority, especially charged with the following:
“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 [Deputy Chairman], C.Sreenivas, William Harvey, Leonardo Gutter and Michael Goldstein [Chairman].
“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.” (Bold type added) (from a letter published for all overseas Sathya Sai Baba Centres by Michael Goldstein in Sathya Sai Newsletter, USA, May/June 2003)
Simultaneously, the ambitious publicity campaign and public meetings in several overseas countries, notably in USA, were undertaken.
If we are to believe Message 5106 for 23 June 2003 on the Internet Yahoo devotee Group called ‘Saiunity’ (then open to visitors, but now closed down, like other open SSB devotee forums), Chairman Goldstein attempted the following “intervention” in the embarrassing question of regular discrepancies in SSB’s translated Discourses by stating at a Regional meeting in USA on 22 June, 2003: “Regarding discrepancies in discourses, sometimes there are people who take notes during discourses and are eager to be the first to send them out by computer. Be aware that the only official copies of discourses are the ones available after major festivals in the bookstore or in official publications, or those put on the official Sai Website by David Gries, who has excellent computer knowledge. Also, sometimes Swami omits some of what He has said when He approves an official translation, so it may in fact be different from what was heard.” The clumsiness of this manoeuvre was obvious to all those devotees and ex-devotees who had been reading the useful literal translations that a team of volunteer devotees had been posting on the Internet for a couple of years because they preferred SSB’s simple and poetic Telugu style to the highly edited official versions. Although that site had suddenly closed down, copies of the literal translations were still available on the Internet.
Further international commotion and official protests were sparked off by the BBC documentary Secret Swami in June 2004 and Dr Goldstein (whose interview aroused considerable comment) has since fallen silent. Since 2004, against a background of an increasingly frail and wheelchair-bound Sathya Sai Baba and with the self-imposed silence of the Prasanthi Council Chairman, there was relative silence from Puttaparthi until July 2006, when the Deputy Chairman, retired scientist Dr G. Venkataraman, issued a new triumphalist statement as Director of Radio Sai Global Harmony. In this broadcast, he claimed at some length that the sexual allegations and other critical claims about Sathya Sai Baba have foundered. His assertions and a detailed response from Barry Pittard and Robert Priddy may be studied on the following websites:
Venkataraman, G., ‘The Inevitable Collapse of Calumny’, from http://media.radiosai.org/Journals/Vol_04/01JUL06/collapse-of-calumny.htm (Radio Sai Listeners’ Journal: Volume 4, 7 July 2006)
Pittard, Barry and Priddy, Robert, ‘The Sathya Sai Organisation’s Deception and Propaganda Exposed’, 4 parts, http://home.hetnet.nl/~ex_baba/engels/articles/venk1.htm, September-October 2006. (This strong reply, in four parts, centres on the sexual allegations against Sathya Sai Baba.)
It would appear possible that, in Sathya Sai Baba’s twilight years (with fourteen years still to elapse before his self-predicted death), the Sathya Sai Organisation is faced with a basic dilemma of its own (and Sathya Sai Baba’s) making: whether to continue to emphasise the Divine claims (which attracted most devotees to him), especially for Indian audiences both within India and overseas (within whose religious traditions these claims loosely fit), risking a halt in overseas expansion as present devotees dwindle and are not replaced, or to continue on its present preferred path of proselytising Sathya Sai Baba’s appeal as an world ecumenical spiritual leader with a message of Love and Peace.
In the light of the above developments, it is instructive to consider in some detail a book written by the prominent Indian travel writer, Bill Aitken, the most notable non-devotee to empathise with Sathya Sai Baba and his apologists. Listed as a travel writer on Wikipedia (as William McKay Aitken, for reasons of disambiguation), Bill Aitken is the author of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. A Life ( New Delhi, Penguin Books India, 2004). [A paperback edition was issued in 2006.]
This book has two initial distinctions over most of the vast Sathya Sai Baba literature: it was written by a commercially successful writer of non-fiction and it was published not as a paperback or self-published booklet but in hardback form by the Indian subsidiary of a major international publishing house, Penguin Books.
Scottish-born Bill Aitken was drawn from Britain to India over 40 years ago, at first to research for his MA degree on Gandhi, and subsequently to settle for life and become naturalised. He experienced twelve years of the rigours of real ashram life before abandoning that path and settling down as the partner of a prominent aristocratic devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. He is the highly considered author of a dozen books on travel and spirituality in India.
At some time between 2001 and 2003, when the Sathya Sai Organisation was embarking on an ambitious programme of international promotion of Sathya Sai Baba as an important spiritual leader, Aitken was approached by a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba with a firm request that he write an independent account of SSB’s life avoiding the “hagiographic excesses that believers find hard not to indulge in, and which put off the ordinary seeker who wants information not hype”. An interesting topic, presumably with an anticipated general readership of middle-class Indians plus a few sophisticated foreign devotees.
For three decades a distant admirer of Sathya Sai Baba – whom he first met (and was hugely impressed by) in his partner’s Delhi house in 1972 – Aitken has studied the guru more closely during his research travels in the south of India over the past fifteen years. However, he emphasises that the writing of this book was the direct result of his reluctant acceptance of the devotee’s request (and her promise of a copious supply of background research material), bolstered by his respect for the long-standing love and devotion felt by his partner for Sathya Sai Baba. (In SSB’s ashram, and in some of the literature, she is known as Rani-Ma.)
The nature of the difficulties and problems presented by accepting this assignment become apparent in the first few pages: Aitken is too close to his subject. Immediately after his initial statement about “hagiographic excesses” quoted above, Aitken writes: “What Sathya Sai Baba arouses in me is a feeling so maddeningly beautiful that I am convinced everyone in the world would wish to experience it” (p. 2). In that juxtaposition and at various other points in the book, the perceptive reader can witness the fascinated but uncomfortable author squirming as he tries to do justice to the imposed task and to himself as a spiritually sensitive writer. His first authorial decision was to expand the biographical framework and to personalise the project by focussing it on an investigation of an “inscrutable source of grace” and its impact on himself as a beneficiary. Also palpable is his desire to address an Indian audience on this subject and to express his love and appreciation of his adopted country. The net result is a passionate endorsement of a controversial Indian spiritual icon.
In his explanatory introduction, Aitken confesses that he found the (hagiographical) writings on Sathya Sai Baba (supplied by the devotee) tiresome “until some anecdotes shared by …[the devotee] brought them to life.” Concentrating, as most Sathya Sai Baba writers do, on this personal angle, he makes the very valid point that SSB’s direct impact on people and the resulting feelings of love and well-being are central to his Mission, but he fails to examine other aspects of the topic and ends up producing just another hagiography, albeit a more interesting one, much better written than most. Parts of this biographical study echo the standard hagiographers and other parts closely echo the thoughts and statements of SSO spokespersons (especially in response to the controversies of recent years), including the common but unsupported official claim that Sathya Sai Baba has 30 million devotees worldwide. Like the hagiographers, whose selective and protective excesses and unquestioning repetitions Aitken rightly deplored at the beginning of his account (and on other pages of the book), he himself offers material which reflects the official view of Sathya Sai Baba while ignoring other important references which might add other nuances. A prime example is another of the author’s initial strategic decisions: to centre his story of Sathya Sai Baba’s life around the Sai Parampara concept. By this, Aitken says he means, “Sai unity” or “ line of saints”, roughly the combined beneficial effect on southern India of the three Sais – an extension of what others, equally inaccurately, call the Sai Baba Movement, referring to Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai.
The apparent originality and appeal of the Sai Parampara framework quickly dissipates as one realises that Aitken is doing no more than promoting the vigorous assertion launched sixty years ago by Sathya Sai Baba himself that the two – or three – Sais (and by extrapolation, the two sets of devotees) form a single unity, with Sathya claiming to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai. As far as non-devotees can see, there is no such unity. We only have SSB’s word for that, but Aitken accepts it without hesitation or question, like any devotee writer. The truth is that, notwithstanding SSB’s frequent early claims of being the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and in spite of the worship of Shirdi Sai in SSB’s ashram, the Shirdi Sai Association and the Sathya Sai Organisation are two quite separate entities, not a single Organisation. There is no reciprocal recognition and worship of Sathya Sai Baba in Shirdi Sai Centres. Ever since the beginning of SSB’s Mission, there have been two separate Sai Baba Movements – which do not even agree on the meaning of the name ‘Sai’ (‘Saint’ –from Persian – in Shirdi circles, versus Sathya Sai Baba’s etymologically unsound ‘Divine Mother’). Since Aitken produces no evidence for the claimed ‘unity’, his strong promotion of the ‘Sai Parampara’ hypothesis is therefore in conflict with his apparent intention of writing a “non-hagiographical” book on Sathya Sai Baba.
Incidentally, his unquestioning acceptance of the ‘reality’ of the third Avatar-figment predicted by SSB, Prema Sai Baba, also belongs in the ‘hype’ category. On p 17 (and again on p. 121), Aitken tells readers t hat Prema Sai (as predicted by SSB) is believed to have been born already. (This is sometimes heard via the busy ashram grapevine along with other speculation about Prema’s parents.) There are two important considerations here: Not only does the author unquestioningly accept this extension of the official SSB reincarnation mythology but he does not comment on the incongruity of a Hindu reincarnation being born while the previous body is still alive. Be that as it may, an equally interesting question in this book is, why does the non-devotee author occupy valuable space and time speculating on one man’s extraordinary prediction that he will return to earth in a different divine body in approximately twenty years time – the sort of topic which seems to attract the attention of the type of believe-it-all devotees for whom Aitken expresses such strong disapproval?
The author’s decision to follow the trail of both Sai Babas and to include some of his fascinating historical and travel research on southern India in a slim 224 page volume substantially reduces the number of pages devoted to Sathya’s life and may account in part for restricted attention to, or omissions of, vital topics (such as Sathya Sai Baba’s divine claims, his storytelling, the real questions raised by some of his Discourse revelations – inadequately dealt with on pages 123-128 –, the existence and role of the Sathya Sai Organisation and the extensive international expansion of SSB’s flock in the past 40 years, not to mention his sudden interest in Jesus Christ in the late 1960s and the extraordinary annual Christmas revelations on the new topic (especially the Christmas 1972 claim).
This glaring omission of references to the SSO and Sathya Sai Baba’s international dimension – the massive expansion of his Mission over the past 35 years, made possible by the SSO and its overseas branches, and the substantial numbers of overseas devotees attracted to SSB (equally ignored by Aitken) – appears to highlight a significant Indo-centric subtext to this book (previously visible in the dismissive – and sometimes xenophobic – official denunciations of criticisms and critics): "Hands off our Indian / Hindu spiritual icon!" Apart from the fact that Sathya Sai Baba is essentially a Neo-Hindu phenomenon, such parochial sentiments (however deeply felt) are anachronistic since Sathya Sai Baba has had an international profile since the 1970s and is therefore a transnational Neo-Hindu phenomenon. His international following of Non-Resident Indians and foreigners (and their voluminous writings about him) has contributed very significantly to his success and that of the Sathya Sai Organisation and, inevitably, his increasing overseas fame has also attracted more attention to him in India – although it is worth recording that the majority of orthodox Hindus (like the majority of Indians) have never been followers of Sathya Sai Baba.
Aitken’s style of reporting often shows a judgemental bias in favour of Sathya Sai Baba, somewhat akin to the devotee’s habit of rationalising any doubt or inconvenient information about the guru. Nowhere is this clearer than in the few pages where he makes an attempt to explain away SSB’s clearly documented errors and exaggerations (pp.131-136). The author mentions two statements by Sathya Sai Baba which he finds surprising or “somewhat staggering” but in each case, he follows up with a possible explanation (or excuse) which is less than convincing. In the first case, for the incorrect statement “Sanskrit is the parent and core of all languages,” Aitken offers the following exonerating ‘solution’: “Possibly, the translator has been too literal because any student of linguistics knows that Sanskrit is only the parent of the indo-Eurupean group of languages” (pp.131-2). The second of his protective rationalisations is the following: “Baba’s zeal to promote the cause of ancient India’s genius leads him to advance the somewhat staggering claim that in 3043 BCE an Indian yogi had predicted the departure of the British from India.” Nevertheless, Aitken goes on: “Assuming this to be true, the claim suggests …” (p.132). But why should one assume it is true just because SSB said it?
For Aitken, another reason for Sathya Sai Baba’s many factual errors or discrepant statements is that his state of development “can only be commensurate with his schooling” (p. 136). From a logical point of view, this possibility would certainly be worth considering, but it completely ignores the fact that it is SSB himself who has frequently claimed omniscience (especially knowledge of science, languages, etc.) and omnipotence; moreover, many devotee writers have expressed their conviction that he does possess these alleged qualities.
As already noted, the author is obviously uneasy about divine claims and, in particular, with the fact that SSB has made them. This may explain half-truths like the following: “The Sai phenomenon is viewed as an avatar, an incarnation of God by many disciples, but to some, Sai is the Godhead itself” (p. 24). To many, in fact – or to most – because that is what Sathya Sai Baba himself has suggested time after time.
This biography contains other errors and omissions which suggest that Aitken was over-selective in his sampling of the vast hagiographical literature on SSB.
1. “No one in Puttaparthi had heard of the Shirdi fakir” (p. 89) (This statement by SSB, Indulal Shah et al has been refuted – for example in the indispensable research displayed in Love is My Form.)
2. “The fact is that we still do not know Shirdi’s physical origins, whatever mythology may seek to embroider into his past” (p. 57). (This point was also made on page 41.) It is either disingenuous or ignorant of Aitken not to mention that SSB himself famously made not one but two conflicting sets of new ‘mythological’ claims about the early Shirdi years in Discourses in 1990 and 1992 (and on another two occasions). These belong to the large collection of dubious “stories” that SSB has told and which call into question some of the storylike quakities of his claims and anecdotes about his Divinity.
3. A potentially more misleading statement is found on page 182, in a quotation from Howard Murphet’s Sai Baba Avatar. Murphet is said to be quoting from “two academic researchers, Dr Otis [sic] and Dr Haraldsson”. “Both researchers were excited by their findings and the prospect of their changing the face of science.” Such an early scientific endorsement of supernatural powers is one which devotee readers will welcome, remember and repeat to others, or write about, especially as it is associated with the name of Haraldsson. On page 167 of Murphet’s book, however, his exact quotation, following a summary, is that “Dr Karlis Osis wrote an article for the Garland of the Golden Rose” (a commemorative compilation for SSB’s 50th Birthday). In it he said: “Suppose Baba would truly reveal his nature in the best laboratories in the world … what an impact would be made on the scientific world view – new facts forcing science to accept the spiritual reality.” (Italics added) In other words, in the original, a version of the quoted statement appears in a hypothesis which never became fact and it was written not by the two parapsychologists, but by Dr Osis alone, the much more open to psychic phenomena of the two men, and the one who did only a fraction of the investigative work on SSB and his devotees that Haraldsson subsequently carried out over several years before recording a much more open ‘Not scientifically proven’ verdict in his well known 1987 book.
4. The author’s preference for Murphet’s quote about the minor participant (Osis) and his inexplicable lack of curiosity about one of the most influential books in the SSB literature is an important flaw in the research for this book, especially since Aitken fleetingly mentions Haraldsson’s book (on p. 220), but merely to recommend its coverage of miracle stories.
5. A further bibliographical lacuna is the failure to mention Love is My Form, probably the most talked about book published in Puttaparthi in 2000, with its important new biographical and photographic evidence of the early years of Sathya Sai Baba’s Mission.
6. The author quotes only four of the SSB principles. Ahimsa (Non-violence) was added to Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema many years ago. A further sign of over-reliance on early sources (although it is to Aitken’s credit that he does not quote Kastruri’s hagiographical excesses).
Equally disappointing for the general reader is the author’s superficial treatment of recent controversies. On more than one occasion he issues blanket condemnations of all criticisms of Sathya Sai Baba, dismissing them out of hand and even implying interference by “certain rival missions” (p. 189) or speculating that someone “could be a paid informer of the missionary lobby”. Also, Aitken’s preoccupation with the sensational, headline-grabbing sexual allegations (by Tal Brooke, or David Bailey, for example) does not leave him time to deal with more serious aspects of past and present critical research on Sathya Sai Baba, like recurring demonstrations by magicians (and video evidence too, especially of recent Mahasivaratri lingam productions) that some of SSB’s commonest materialisations are easily replicated by others. As for the counter-evidence available concerning the claims of Divinity by SSB, it is just possible that Aitken may not have bothered to read them. More difficult to miss, however, is Sathya Sai Baba’s own primary role in uttering and promoting such strident claims but Aitken is silent about this also.
Aitken reveals his strong emotional affinity with his subject throughout this biography. Towards the end, like a fervent devotee, the author admits that he is in thrall to Sathya Sai Baba’s enormous (and undeniable) charisma: “Sathya Sai possesses easily the most charismatic of presences I have experienced, electrifying in the crackle of the supercharged energy he gives off. My heart spontaneously responds to his divine aura” (p. 242). Basically, this passion has not changed since page 2.
In spite of its intended semi-neutral stance (“This study views the Sai Parampara from the standpoint of a sympathetic outsider”), the book will therefore disappoint many non-devotee readers simply because any account of Sathya Sai Baba’s life that ignores, misrepresents or makes mistakes over relevant available evidence about that life (especially the copious amounts freely available in SSB’s Discourses, the available literature and on the Internet) can hardly be seen as a complete or impartial work. A more accurate title might have been: Sathya Sai Baba. The Fount of Divine Love.
A year after the publication of this book, further evidence was to come that the writing experience and empathy with SSB had brought the stance of non-devotee Aitken closer to that of vigorous pro-Sathya Sai Baba campaigners in India and elsewhere, anxious to stand up for their beleaguered guru. In spite of his professed neutrality between “the hype of unhinged devotees and a howling pack of detractors”, some parts of Aitken’s eulogy, ‘Awareness of Divinity’, written for The Week (27 November 2005) on the occasion of SSB’s 80th Birthday, are no different, in essence, from what a Sathya Sai Baba apologist would assert, especially the blanket dismissal of all criticism as inherently baseless and generalisations like “the critics are so intemperate in their dislike that their vituperation now comes across as almost near comical in its predictability”, and a permanent blind spot for serious criticisms of SSB that have not been refuted.
(In three Bibliographical studies, I have listed and briefly described three large and diverse corpora of information currently available in December 2007 about the guru Sathya Sai Baba, his 60-year spiritual Mission and his organisation (the Sathya Sai Organisation). By winnowing this enormous mass of varied documentation, researchers should be in a better position to separate fact from fantasy and research from propaganda in order to arrive at a fair evaluation of the complex Sathya Sai Baba story. To those 140 pages describing reference sources ranging over the past 50 years, I added a further two pages in order to outline a recent development, peculiar to the Internet, which also needs to be noted and evaluated.)
In late 2004, the direct public defence of Sathya Sai Baba was revived when a New Age admirer of SSB and former frequenter of his ashram (possibly inspired by reading the previous efforts by The Sai Critic) suddenly took upon himself a gargantuan task: to reveal the real Truth about Sathya Sai Baba on his website. As he conducted a series of vigorous email interrogations of several prominent SSB critics (subsequently published on the first of his websites), it rapidly became apparent that his modus operandi was simplicity itself: to set himself up as prosecutor, judge and jury and issue unappealable guilty verdicts (usually based on the flimsiest of evidence) on the writers of ALL criticisms of SSB – indiscriminately –, beginning with most of the extremely varied output of 5 years of publishing by www.exbaba.com. (Two flaws in the campaigner’s method were visible from the outset: his refusal to consider any evidence which conflicted with his dictatorial verdicts and an evasion of the central divine claims issue – claims which he had admitted he did not endorse.)
Over the past three years, this propagandist has devoted considerable time and energy to his self-imposed mission, adapting techniques drawn from basic propaganda procedures, ‘spin’ tactics, demagogic talkback radio (talk radio), and low-level Internet discussion forums, in order to bombard Interner surfers with hundreds of articles containing his idiosyncratic versions of the truth about Sathya Sai Baba. From his elaborate network of websites and blogspots, this unofficial protector of SSB is now able, like an electronic Jack-in-the-box, to pop up all over Search Engine results for ‘Sathya Sai Baba’ (or even ‘Sai Baba’) or for individual critics’ names, in an increasingly more strident and dictatorial attempt to impose these opinions on Internet searchers.
As he concentrates more and more on the messenger rather than the inconvenient message, his intemperate language has increased and he resorts to stronger personal denigration and defamatory statements.
This person’s name is Joe Moreno (or, sometimes, Gerald Moreno).
During the three years of Joe / Gerald’s voluminous output of propaganda aimed at exposing the “errors, lies, deceit and smears” of all of SSB’s critics (rationalists, ex-devotees, journalists and other commentators), some of his victims have protested against his bullying tactics, which merely provokes fresh diatribes. His most concentrated bile and “Google massaging activities” seem to be reserved for those of his victims who dare to question or reject the detail of his often dubious “evidence” or who issue strong protests against his personal denigration and defamatory remarks (see, for example, the websites or blogspots of Robert Priddy, Barry Pittard, Sanjay Dadlani, Connie Larsson, Timothy Conway and B. Premanand).
Moreno denies affiliation with the Sathya Sai Organisation and, as far as I know, there is no proof of a direct link, but it must be pointed out that the devotees who manage the largest unofficial promotional SSB website, www.saibabalinks.org, promote his latest provocative website twice (perhaps inadvertently), once directly, under ‘Personal Sites’, with the description: “A Pro-Sai Site exposing the lies, deceit and dishonesty of critics, skeptics and ex-devotees of Sri Sathya Sai Baba” and, secondly, under ‘Websites’, as a directly linked part of another site, www.sai-fi.net (“All about Sathya Sai Baba”). On the Index page of the “sai-fi” site, following a major presentation of all sorts of standard devotee material and corresponding links (SSB’s story and claims, his alleged miracles, etc.), as well as links to the major official SSO sites, Moreno’s link to his major site is triumphantly advertised to his audience of devotee readers as follows: "Sri Sathya Sai Online Debate & Controversy: Smear Campaigns Against Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba EXPOSED". With such powerful links to devotees and others through the unofficial promotional SSB network and further boosted by his tireless Search Engine Optimization activities, Moreno has engineered, for the moment, a high Internet profile to project his own “smear campaign” with its egregious deceit and dishonesty – and smokescreens.
Nevertheless, whether Moreno and others are aware of this or not, the high risks inherent in his extremist Internet activities are self-evident. The open promotion of his polemical work on the unofficial but high profile "saibabalinks" and "sai-fi" websites underlines the anomaly that Joe Moreno's (unofficial, non-devotee) propaganda is the only direct (official or unofficial) response to the considerable body of allegations and criticisms about Sathya Sai Baba and the Sathya Sai Organisation. Devotees and the SSO may relish (or be comforted by) this non-devotee’s daring in taking their totalitarian Sandeha Nivarini dogma (‘all doubts about SSB can be resolved’) to such wild extremes but they should be aware that the weakness of such facile 'solutions' is that they not only undermine Moreno’s credibility but they focus the spotlight on the credibility of Sathya Sai Baba and the Sathya Sai Organisation. When readers and researchers take note of Moreno’s preference for intemperate language and ad hominem tactics and realise that many of his triumphant boasts and dogmatic ‘refutations’ of criticisms are misleading, unfounded or malicious, many will feel curious to look more closely at the object of Moreno’s ranting: the detailed criticisms and allegations directed at Sathya Sai Baba and the Sathya Sai Organisation.
Already Moreno’s reckless behaviour has earned him public condemnation on the Internet for one high-profile but minor part of his extensive campaign. Thanks to his aggressive attempt to dictate toWikipedia contributors what should and should not be included in their (controversial) article on Sathya Sai Baba he has received an official rebuff from that prominent Internet institution. After months of Moreno’s abrasive demands and provocative filibustering, the already heated Wikipedia debate became incandescent and vituperative, leading, inevitably, to the intervention of an Arbitration Committee. After three months of discussions, in March 2007, Joe Moreno (as ‘User SSS108’) and others involved in the debate were banned indefinitely from contributing to the Wikipedia Sathya Sai Baba article, its Discussion page and related articles. (Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_arbitration/Sathya_Sai_Baba_2)
Even more damaging for Joe / Gerald Moreno’s fragile credibility are four substantial analyses of his crude pattern of bullying and ad hominem attacks. These are by no means the only Internet protests about his conduct but they are especially worth a quick (or long) look since they were written by reputed researchers who, although not devotees (or ex-devotees) of Sathya Sai Baba, have been moved to express strong criticisms of Gerald Moreno’s behaviour in the Sathya Sai Baba debate, only to find themselves subsequently on the receiving end of this volatile propagandist’s fury.Alan Kazlev:
Kevin R. D. Shepherd:
"Sathya Sai and Wikipedia"
A recent calmer but firm voice of reason is also worth listening to on this topic: Dr Timothy Conway ('The Crucial John Hislop Letters, Sathya Sai Baba, & Sathya's Defender Joe Moreno').
Addendum, 23 August 2008:
A more detailed indictment of Gerald (Joe) Moreno's extensive smear campaigns against all criticism of Sathya Sai Baba has recently been issued by Robert Priddy.
See also Evidence of an Internet Activist in Action.
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