Early Stories about SB. Variations on Themes.

Brian Steel

Copyright © Brian Steel 2002

Eye-witness stories carry no inbuilt guarantee of truth, but they are usually preferable to second-hand or more remote accounts. The many anecdotes by both SB himself and others about his feats, exploits, and pronouncements before he achieved massive popularity are accepted by devotees as fact, a solid part of SB=s biography. However, it is salutory to remember that the FIRST eye-witness stories to be published in English come from Prof. N. Kasturi, who took up residence in the ashram as SB's right-hand man in 1954 (when SB was already 28, or perhaps 25), that is already 10 years into his Mission. This first volume of Kasturi's biography was published in 1961. Another ten years were to elapse before Howard Murphet's Man of Miracles was to cause such a long-lasting sensation.

Apart from Kasturi's personal observations from 1954 on, and the Discourses of SB himself which began to be recorded on a regular basis in 1957 or 1958 in both Sathya Sai Speaks, and the new Sanathana Sarathi magazine, there was also a slim volume in Telugu in 1944 published by one of SB=s teachers. This has only just been translated and I have not yet seen it. (I would welcome information about it.) There has also been a recent belated publication of the memoirs of Srimati Vijayakumari, who first went to the ashram in 1945. More importantly, but also only recent, is the publication by Sai Towers of the first volume of Love is My Form (LIMF), which basically follows previous writings, like those of Kasturi, but also contains excerpts from recent tape-recorded interviews with some of SB's contemporaries and other independently researched information which is proving invaluable to researchers.

So the basic position is that with reference to SB's childhood, his youth, and the early phase of his Mission, the authenticity of many of the details of written accounts cannot be taken for granted and cannot easily be proved. Most of the material which we read describing that early period (by Kasturi and all those who followed) has been gathered somehow, directly perhaps from participants or from SB himself (or his Discourses), or indirectly. It is also possible that some details or whole stories are invented. (Evidence has been emerging recently that the authenticity or truth of other aspects of the SB story may also be open to doubt.)

The question of authenticity is often further blurred by different versions put forward by different writers, especially the many who simply copy down what they read or hear. It can be instructive (but also puzzling) to compare differing versions of early stories. Take, for instance, the following case and notice especially the variation of details, particularly in the case of alleged miraculous circumstances.


One: Subbamma

The background facts seem clear enough:

Karnam Subbamma (a wealthy, childless Brahmin lady and neighbour of SB's family) was Sathya Narayana's first local benefactress throughout his childhood and for the first years of the Mission, and the building of the first mandir at Prasanthi Nilayam. SB had always promised to be present at her death. She died in 1945. The well-known story concerns her death and alleged resurrection.

1. The first version, by Prof. Kasturi (K1A, 75) was probably drafted from what SB told him.

Subbamma falls ill and is taken to Bukkapatnam. SB is away first in Bangalore, then in distant Tirupati. Subbamma's state worsens and she is finally pronounced dead by those around her, but, according to Kasturi, 'a glow' remains in her face. It takes SB three days to return to Bukkapatnam by car. "Her eyes had lost the glint." SB sat and called her name. She opened her eyes and grasped his palm. He put his fingers to her lips and "poured into her mouth a small quantity of water which He said was from River Ganges. Subbamma then joined the ranks of the released!" [Note that Kasturi does not himself say that she had died.]

2. Nagamani Purnaiya, another early local devotee, who wrote a well-known book of simple tales about SB's life and miracles (without giving a single date!), embroiders a little on the basic elements to produce another of her dramatic and effective 'Sunday School Stories' for SB's humble local followers.

According to Purnaiya, Subbamma fell ill but was in Puttaparthi. SB then went off on a tour of some unnamed villages, promising Subbamma that he would be back to give her holy Tulsi leaf water at the moment of her death.

Finally her breathing stopped. Her friends were vocally critical of SB's broken promise. SB then senses something is wrong and leaves his tour and hurries back. He arrives 3 HOURS after Subbamma's death. Ants are already "prowling around her body". He denies the claim of those with her that she is dead, and calls out to her. She opens her eyes and he gives her Tulsi water "from nowhere". She then grasped his hand and closed her eyes with a blissful look. (N.Purnaiya, The Divine Leelas of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, pp. 16-17)

3. LIMF (p. 253 - no references given)

"Baba was away from Puttaparthi when Subbamma's final moments came at her Bukkapatnam house. The genial old lady closed her eyes and people thought that she had passed away. The body began to decompose. When all seemed lost, Baba's car arrived. He walked up to her and called her name very softly. As if rising from the dead, Subbamma opened her eyes. The two silently communicated with each other, Baba holding her hand. Baba asked for a tumbler of water. He poured some water from the tumbler into her mouth with a tulsi leaf and the pious and fortunate lady breathed her last." (25 November 1945)

4. In a much later brief version of this anecdote, the prominent ashram identity and hagiographer, M.N.Rao (1998, p. 107), is much more dogmatic than Kasturi, even though he is merely repeating the well-worn story. He also adds his own contribution: "two days": "When she died, Swami revived her deceased body two days after her death."

5. Eventually SB publicly gave his own dramatic version of the story in his Discourse on 18 October 1999. The reader will note one odd admission of 'non-omniscience' and some apparent confusion and invention about wartime (LIMF tells us Subbamma died on 25 November 1945) but still the main emphasis is on the miraculous momentary resurrection, in this case just before Subbamma's cremation.

"One day, we were travelling in a bullock cart. "Subbamma, what do you want?" I asked her. She looked around and noticed that no one else was there. Then she said, "Swami, I don't want anything. But when I breathe my last, please sanctify my life by pouring water into my mouth with Your hands." I promised that I would fulfil her desire.

"Later, one day I had to go to Chennai in a hurry as desired by some devotees. I had to stay there for ten days. It was the war period. Once in every hour there used to be air-raid siren. The streets would become empty with that warning. Swami could not return to Puttaparthi. Meanwhile, Subbamma fell seriously ill. She was taken to Bukkapatnam. There she died. Her relatives started making sarcastic remarks: "Sai Baba gave word to her that He would pour water into her mouth at her last moments. Did He come? Where has He gone?"

"During My return journey, I stopped at the cremation ground as it was on the way. I saw some people there. The logs of wood were kept ready for cremation. "Who is going to be cremated?" I asked them. Washerman Subbanna was there. He said, "Swami, Subbamma died." "Is it! When did she die?" I enquired. "Three days ago, Swami," he replied. I went to the house where her body was kept. Her relatives were about to carry her for cremation. Her sister saw Me and started wailing. "Baba, she longed for Your arrival. She yearned that You would pour water into her mouth before she breathed her last. At last she died with that disappointment." I told her that there was no possibility for such an eventuality and asked her to fetch water in a tumbler. I put a basil leaf in the water and I removed the cloth from her face. Ants were crawling over her body as three days had already elapsed. "Subbamma," I called her. Immediately she opened her eyes. She held My hands and wept. "Subbamma, look here", I said. I wiped tears from her face with a towel. "Now close your eyes peacefully," I told her. I poured the sacred water into her mouth and kept My promise." (www.eaisai.com/baba)


Two: Schooldays

More trouble over Chronology. Even details of SB's remote schooldays are muddled, and confusing.

For example, N. Kasturi (K1A, p. 16) maintains: "When he was eight, Sathya was declared ready to proceed to the Higher Elementary School at Bukkapatnam, 2 and a half miles from Puttaparthi." (SB was 8 in either 1934 or 1937.)

Ra. Ganapati (I:71) repeats part of this: "Satya entered the Higher Elementary School [at Bukkapatnam] at the age of 8." Then, on p. 92, he informs us: "In His twelfth year, Satyanarayana Raju had to join the High School [in Uravakonda]." As if SB stayed at Bukkapatnam school for FOUR years.

Nagamani Purnaiya puts it a little differently: "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) (SB was 10 in either 1936 or 1939.)

Until the year 2000, we had no choice but to accept or puzzle over those figures. But since the timely publication of LIMF we now know the following different details (and the dates given here - supported by photostats - also have a bearing on the controversy about SB's date of birth).

According to LIMF, SB seems to have been at the Puttaparthi Elementary School from 1935 to 1940 (5 grades). (If born in 1926, that would have made him 9-14 for his elementary education; if born in 1929, that would make him a more realistic 6-11 years old.)

He then spent a year at the Kamalapuram Board Middle School and joined the VIII Grade at Bukkapatnam 5 July 1941 (usually a 3-year course for the ESLC - Elementary School Leaving Certificate), where he only stayed for ONE YEAR. He was (possibly) not allowed to take the exam in 1942 because of insufficient time at school (p. 129). He left that school on 6 April 1942. Then there is an apparently missed year of schooling (possibly replaced by special coaching from his brother), during which he had his long traumatic experience and made his 'I am Sai Baba' declaration, before finally joining Uravakonda school on 1 July 1943 in Form III (p. 132, Register). No leaving date is given on the Register photostat, but he could only have spent just over three months at the school, because LIMF reveals that he made the celebrated Declaration of Mission on 20 October of that same year (1943) and then embarked on his arduous self-appointed task.

On this basis, the dates given by Kasturi, Ganapati, and Purnaiya do not appear to be correct, nor even to add up properly.

All of this merely underlines once again how difficult it is for readers of books about SB (especially those which deal with the first half of his life) to distinguish between what may be authentic and what is not.

(to be continued)


Back to Brian Steel's Home Page

Back to Beginning of this article