Brian Steel 2001
(Original) Chapter 3
The Packaging of Sathya Sai Baba's Discourses
NOTE: For the Revised Version of Chapter 3, please click here
For the first years (1940-1950+), as early devotees have recorded in their memoirs, Baba gave few set talks but merely chatted with his devotees in his native Telugu language. "Baba used to take the devotees out almost daily to the sands of the Chitravathi River, and prayers were held there under the stars with the hills as venerable listeners and the river murmuring response. ... Sitting on the sands, Sai Baba teaches the devotees new songs He has composed for their elevation and edification, and He encourages people to ask Him any questions regarding spiritual matters, for which He gives satisfying answers." (K1A, 100)
Love is My Form (Vol. 1), the important recent biographical volume by R. Padmanaban and a team of researchers, claims that Baba's first public Discourse was given at Karur, on 26 October, 1947. (LIMF. p.391) Vijayakumari, who was present, states that it was the 25th but, in a summary (Vijayakunmari, pp. 107-109) corroborates that Baba spoke of his childhood experiences and about his miracles. Both volumes (LIMF, p. 487 and Vijayakumari 150-152) also offer summaries of a 1949 Dassera Discourse on Vijayadasami Day by Baba. It is a simple, effective homily, dealing with compassion, satsang, Nishkama prema (unselfish live), with none of the spiritual stories so characteristic of the later Discourses.
It was not until the late 1950s that a slow but dramatic increase in the use of Discourses as a teaching and publicity vehicle began to be visible, after the crucial recruitment of Professor Kasturi (the urbane academic and experienced writer and speaker) to Baba's team of helpers. The first meetings were in 1948, then, at Baba's invitation, Kasturi became a full-time ashram resident from 1954 until his death in 1987.
Probably with Kasturi's encouragement and tuition (and also possibly because it fitted in with Baba's own plans), the formal Telugu Discourses began to be offered from 1954 on. Kasturi also acted as Baba's interpreter into English, Hindi, or sometimes a local Indian language and he would then produce a written version from his rough interpreting notes. (Incidentally, in the years before tape recorders were available, these notes were taken under the very stressful conditions entailed by simultaneous interpreting, a fact not appreciated by most of us.)
The English/Norwegian devotee, Robert Priddy reports (1998, p. 222) that in January 1987, shortly before Professor Kasturi's death, he asked Kasturi many questions, including one which elicited the following response:
"Sri Kasturi told us that Sathya Sai Baba had himself, almost invariably in Kasturi's presence, personally read and authenticated every one of his discourses published in the monthly journal Sanathana Sarathi since its inauguration by Sai Baba on Shivaratri day in 1968 ...If Baba was dissatisfied with any result of Kasturi's editing (or in later years, Sri Narasimhan's), he would indicate corrections and alterations."
"Until about the mid-1970s, Prof. Kasturi's own notes, taken on the dais while simultaneously translating Baba's words during public discourses, were the only source from which he had to work in preparing the English versions for printed publication." "Only later were sound recordings made of the discourses, with all transcripts and translations being based on these."
"Naturally, a question was included about the accuracy of results from such a rapid process for, as Kasturi pointed out, he never had time to transcribe more than a note or a reminder while these two-hour marathon discourses were under way." (Presumably the notes were taken in English.) "
"...Kasturi said that Sai Baba ... sometimes altered the original itself for the purpose of publication, and that Sai Baba had even altered verbatim transcripts of his song poems as recorded on tape, saying that his meaning had not been properly conveyed." (R.Priddy, 222-223) Some of Baba's alterations were allegedly "to protect those who had come under Baba's criticism in public, during the spoken discourse, from unnecessary further publicity." (R.Priddy, p. 223)
For many years beginning with Kasturi's final two years of life, there was an unexplained and prolonged hiatus in publishing the volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks (I think between 1985 and 1995), so that only the Discourses for 1953-1982 (Vols I-XI) were available in book form until the 1990s (although others continued to appear in Sanathana Sarathi).
In Volume 16, published c1996, the Convenor gives thanks to V.S.Krishnamurthy for compiling the discourses and to G.V.Subba Rao for editing them. (It is appropriate to record here, among so many other anomalies surrounding Sai Baba and his Organisation, and in a whole mass of Sai Baba literature that is characterised by a singular lack of verifiable references, that until the late 1990s, the Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust maintained a publishing custom (perhaps unique!) of NOT recording the year of their publications! The editing practices in annotating volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks are sometimes equally idiosyncratic, and at times misleading. In later volumes, the reader is occasionally informed when the Discourse has been abbreviated or summarised with the editorial indications: "from ..." or "Extracts from ...". In previous years, such editorial courtesies seem to have been lacking.
After the editing process, the Discourses were then published by the Sathya Sai Organisation in Sanathana Sarathi (in Telugu, Hindi, English, other Indian languages and eventually, as the devotees' numbers grew, in other European and non-Indian languages. Later still, the Discourses would be published in the individual volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, also in various languages. Although it may be taken for granted that in the primitive conditions of the early years certain some Discourses went unrecorded, to judge by the first volume of Sathya Sai Speaks, it still seems to have been a very slow start, with only 4 Discourses recorded between 1953 and 1957. (This same volume of Sathya Sai Speaks, which covers the years 1953-1960, shows 14 Discourses for 1958 but a total of only 35 Discourses for that initial 8 year period.)
At this juncture, it is worth repeating and emphasising the very important point that from 1953 to the present, Baba's Discourses have been given in Telugu, with interpretation into English and (sometimes) into other languages. (There is also a series of separate volumes of Discourses given at the Summer Courses and a number of slim treatises written under Baba's name on aspects of Hindu spirituality. These are called Vahinis - see the Bibliography for details.)
Initially, Baba seems to have set out to give simple discourses ideally suited to his mainly unsophisticated local rural Indian listeners and reflecting his own simple Hindu upbringing. He makes several early references to this deliberate simplicity and lack of sophistication:
"I have been all these days generally giving individual advice ... and giving answers to individual questions. This 'speech' today, is a new experience for you. I am addressing a gathering today; but even though it may be new to you, for Me it is not new. I have given advice to large gatherings before, though not in this Appearance. (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 1:2, Prashanthi Nilayam, Vijayadasami, 1953) [Note that the "Appearance" reference is the first oblique mention of the Shirdi Baba. incarnation.]
"I do not give 'speeches'. My talks are more of the conversation type. I want that you should follow every word of what I say with reverent attention ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 2:8 Prashanthi Nilayam, Mahasivaratri, 1955)
Baba makes another important point about language which fits in with his spiritual teaching method: "... language is an impediment in dealing with Me. All languages have a place in the concourse of men ...but I speak and listen to the language of the soul." (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 31:166)
At the beginning of his career as a public orator or preacher, Baba voiced his criticism (perhaps in a sort of self-defensive attitude as the "novice" speaker) of some speakers who preceded him on the platform for not using simple accessible language: "... I do not make 'speeches'. I only 'converse' with you. I do not make public speeches or address meetings, as so many of the persons who spoke now do. They made 'speeches' which were regular feasts to the ear. My conversation will be, on the other hand, 'medicine' for the mind. Theirs were lectures, Mine are mixtures. So you must take my talk into your mind very attentively and without wasting or spilling even a word." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 25:153 Aukiripalli, Markandeya Sanskrit College, 22-1-60)
"V... spoke for long on two types of inquirers ... He quotes profusely from the scriptural texts and made his discourse abstruse and scholarly. I feel that most of what he said went above your heads ..." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 20:118, Venkatagiri Adhayatmik Conference) Ironically, Baba was later to quote profusely from Hindu scriptures and texts too.
After 30 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, covering 1954-1997 (a total of approximately 2 million words in my rough estimate), Baba's basic approach to his spontaneous simple talks does not seem to have varied, except perhaps in length, breadth of topics and wealth of detail. He usually begins with a short poem or song in Telugu and then speaks, in Telugu, for an hour or more on a variety of topics, including liberal doses of simple didactic stories from familiar Hindu scriptures exhorting his listeners to examine themselves and endeavour to lead more spiritual lives. There is no script and he carries no notes. "I had no idea of speaking to you this evening; but of course I need no 'preparation'. My Sankalpa (resolve) and its fulfilment are instantaneous." (Sathya Sai Speaks, I, 12:69, Venkatagiri, 2-8-58. [Note the claims.] The result, although (again) never commented on in devotees' books, is a rather rambling performance, whose thread is invisible.
When devotees quote any of these 2 million words by Baba (as I am now), they and most of their readers or listeners naturally imagine that they are seeing or hearing Baba's words. They are probably aware that most of his Discourses are originally in Telugu with a simultaneous English translation. They quite naturally assume that what gets into print (firstly in the official Sai Magazine, Sanathana Sarathi and often much later in Sathya Sai Speaks) are the closest English (or other language) equivalent of what their Swami actually said in Telugu. Therefore, by quoting what is printed in English (or other language) in Sanathana Sarathi or Sathya Sai Speaks, devotees naturally believe they are quoting Baba's words, as exactly as it is possible to do in the circumstances.
It is not therefore surprising that many (perhaps most) devotees seem to regard the volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks as reverently as Christians and Muslims view the contents of the Bible or the Quran. However, it may come as a surprise to them (they may even be offended) to be told that, if my research comparisons reveal the normal editing procedures with the 'raw' Discourses, we are not given a close translation of Baba's words in these official magazines and printed volumes, but a very highly edited version (with significant additions and omissions, as we shall see), produced by Organisation editors - initially Kasturi himself, later other equally sophisticated and erudite close associates of Baba.
As the evidence which is to follow seems to indicate clearly, by the time a Discourse is printed in English (and other languages), although the key concepts dealt with in the Discourses are presumably well recorded (an assumption which needs further checking by some future commentator), Baba's actual words, sentences, and speaking style, have usually been submerged in a heavily edited, polished and sophisticated written version. The difficulty for most of us lies in the fact that only Baba's local millions of Telugu speakers know exactly what he said and how he said it. But IF this working hypothesis is true, then the English contents of the volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks are not a totally authentic record of what Sai Baba has really said in Telugu because the words have been packaged and presented by the Organisation.
At some stage, certainly before 1980, audio recordings of both the Telugu and the English interpretation began to be taken and subsequent written versions were edited translations of these. On some important occasions, video recordings were also made, some of which are available for purchase (and study). Even without a knowledge of Telugu, and without understanding the full text of the English of the simultaneous translation (which has tended to be virtually incomprehensible anyway because of poor sound equipment or bad acoustics), devotees who hear Baba give his long Discourses are able to form a distinct impression of the speaker (even if they speak no Telugu!) from his short and simple sentence patterns and rhythms. That is the way Sai Baba speaks, his idiosyncratic speaking style - and the English simultaneous translation, done rapidly, in the heat of the moment, although with some necessary compression of words, still seems (as a good interpretation should) to echo this simple spontaneous style.
For example, consider the following notes taken by a devotee of the English translation of the Discourse on May 3, 1999. Although, like all good 'lecture' notes they tend to simplify and condense the original words heard, the original simple style (short sentences, frequent repetitions of patterns, statements and questions) can be glimpsed, or rather heard, through them:
"No one knows where he comes from and where he is going. We have to go back to the place where we have come from. Knowing this we must have faith in god. Is the purpose of live only to be born, eat, sleep, grow, live, work and die? What is the difference between the man and the animal? Wisdom. Without this man is no better than the animal. He has science, but he has not wisdom. When we develop spiritual knowledge, our life will be redeemed. We build castles in the air. We are here due to past fruits. Every man should understand the seed of life. Krishna declares, "I am the Seed of Life. In all the fruits, I am the latent seed of life."
"We are born without any chains of gold or pearls around us, but there is one chain we do have - the chain of the consequences our past lives. The only atonement for this is to think of the divine principle. This is the reason for our birth."
Those are fairly close to the Telugu rhythms that devotees in the audience can hear, whatever their native language.
Where is all this leading us? What possible interest or importance can these revelations and assumptions have, except for language specialists interested in the science of language interpretation? A very great importance or relevance, in fact. Supporting evidence below and in the Appendix will demonstrate the gulf between what is originally said by Baba and what becomes published in his name as his Discourses. Therefore, the curious and impartial observer who considers this evidence may be perturbed that the printed versions of Baba's Discourses appear not to be simple transcriptions and translations of his verbatim words and teachings, but specially packaged and enhanced spiritual essays from a series of anonymous editors from the Sai Baba Organisation. This, in turn, would suggest that the Organisation is projecting, in the official monthly magazine (Sanathana Sarathi) and the more or less annual volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, at least in their English versions (but probably also in other languages), an inaccurate picture of Baba's public speaking personality and style.
If this conclusion is correct, one is entitled to wonder (without much hope of a reliable answer) if Baba is aware of it or not and whether it matters to him. If the evidence presented below is accepted, it should be a matter of some concern for current commentators as well as posterity because, sooner or later, objective researchers will almost certainly uncover the facts and call into question the accuracy of quotations of Baba's words (apart from the simple-structured aphorisms like "Love All - Serve All" and all short comments made in public in English, which typify his spoken english in public, as we saw in Chapter 2).
Similar or worse uncertainty surrounds quotations of the words of Jesus Christ (and other long dead spiritual teachers and leaders). But in the case of Sai Baba, he is not dead and his words and speaking style could easily be reported more accurately, if he or the Organisation that bears his name wished to do so. Whether Baba still has (or had) any active control over what is finally published in his name is not crucial to the suggestion being made here, although in view of his increasingly busy working days on multiple projects, in particular his close supervision of his schools and charities and of the Sai Baba Trust, one may be permitted to doubt that he has time for such close control of the printed content as Kasturi suggested some years ago.
The strong suggestion that emerges from my investigations available below (and, for those who need more data, in an Appendix), is that the Sai Baba Organisation (through its editors and officials) has consistently projected a more sophisticated view of how Baba addresses the world. This would amount to an artificial enhancement of this very basic aspect of Baba's public (and especially international) image, and would provide added fuel for the argument put forward by some critics that some facts about Sai Baba's life have been mythologised, by those around him.
On the asset side, however, it should be added that some of this skilled editing makes the material more accessible to the educated general reader - for example the condensations and clarifications, the reduction of some of the meandering as well as the excision of the more abstruse Sanskrit terms referred to.
So why is this "packaging" process worth our attention? In my view, because of Sai Baba's claims to be Divine. Surely God's words and speaking style should not need very much, if any, editing and, even if they did, who "on earth" would be capable of doing this accurately and authoritatively? (One might ask, slightly more irreverently, why God would choose to carry out his world mission in such an inaccessible language as Telugu, which is only spoken by approximately 60 million people.)
It is time for examples. It is not easy to come across written versions of the original Discourses (in English translation), but when one begins to search for them, there are enough scattered about in the literature to form very strong impressions, particularly since different versions of Discourses began to be posted on the Internet in the last few years for avid overseas devotees to access as soon after their delivery as possible.
To further complicate the task of the future chronicler and student of Baba's Mission, there are even some instances of two totally different printed edited versions of the same Discourse, as we shall see below. This occurs mainly in the versions of Discourses given during some of the Summer Courses at Brindavan, as later published in both in Sathya Sai Speaks and in later separate publications. The Summer Course volumes for 1990 and 1993 are of most interest for our present purposes.
In the examples given on the following pages, the reader will notice the following important categories of editing changes, which take us further and further away from Baba's simple and natural 'preaching' style:
1. Change of sentence style from simple to more complex and sophisticated.
The purpose and function of all of these editing changes (with the exception of some additions and omissions of information, which deserve a more thorough investigation one day) can only be to produce from a long, simple and spontaneous spoken discourse a less meandering, more polished and sophisticated spiritual essay for reading and inspiration. The changes are such that the two products, while conveying (more or less) the same spiritual concepts, are vastly different communications. As has already been hypothesised, it calls into question the exact nature of Sai Baba's words, for those who wish to quote from written sources alone. If we realise that the examples below only represent a tiny fraction of the approximately 2 million words which have been published in the 30 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks alone, the possible extent of this remarkable and unacknowledged 40 year editing transformation phenomenon can begin to be glimpsed.
But it is now "proof and pudding" time. Let the reader judge for himself from the following compared texts. On the left-hand side is the English version closest to the original Discourse, that is, the unofficial text (usually based on the original or the English translation) and on the right-hand side is the official version (based on the text which was or would eventually be printed in Sanathana Sarathi and Sathya Sai Speaks).
An excellent source for anyone to get an exact idea of the shape and style of a Baba 'talk' is an April1991 video made by Cosby Powell (Copyright Coscom and distributed by The Video Education Company). This video, titled Talk to Westerners at Kodaikanal, lasts approximately an hour. It is more informal than most of Baba's Discourses but seems to consist of the same sorts of simple sentence structures, the same spontaneous ideas, playing with words, meanderings and repetitions. It also includes frequent snatches of Baba's English (words, phrases, pithy sayings or aphorisms) because it is to a small homogeneous audience of overseas devotees. But the aspects about the talk which are particularly interesting from our present perspective are that:
a) it is freely available on video and can therefore be examined very closely by all;
b) the interpreter (from Telugu into English) is more clearly audible than in ashram Discourses with the atrocious public sound system;
c) the video makers have added sub-titles in English (for those who may be in any doubt about what the interpreter says, and to supplement one or two small omissions of his).
Another interesting and relatively recent example of doubt about Baba's exact
words over an important polemical subject (the Internet) is the following.
In his interpretation of Baba's now famous 1999 Dasara Discourse in which the Internet was mentioned, a recent contributor to the Sai Devotees' message board SaiDISC (Message 2075) quotes the English translation as the basis of his later interpretation. Part of what the contributor quotes contains the following three short sentences:
"Swami has nothing to do with internet. Not only now, even in future also. You should not indulge in such wrong activities."
I have no idea whether the later public interpretation of what Baba MEANT is correct or incorrect but in this case we do happen to have available the detailed notes of a devotee on the audio recording of the English on-the-spot interpretation of what was actually said in Telugu. And these notes provide an excellent opportunity for us to realise the real extent of the difficulties facing anyone who wishes to make a precise interpretation of Baba's Discourses based on these edited English (etc.) versions.
At this point in the Dasara Discourse, the devotee's on-the-spot notes are rather different, and much longer than the version given above.
"We are not having any relation with this internet or intergate. Don't have any type of relationship with that. If anybody calls you, asking for news, tell them, "Shut up!" And if they wag their tongues further, you can also [[missing]] -------. Why should they take to such wrong paths?" These rather intemperate remarks appear to have been edited out of the later printed version above. Some minutes later the devotee's eyewitness account continues with:
"(Swami prompts the translator to say internet and the translator says "Internet".) "Swami has no connection with any internet. There is no connection between internet and Swami. Not only today, but forever. At no time there will be any connection."
So it appears that, for a controversial topic, the editors have reduced six lines to three, and "softened" Baba's irate tone for his international audience.
Another important and historical discrepancy is worth considering in this context:
In Smt. Vijayakumari's valuable eye-witness reminiscences (as a young girl) of the early years of Baba's Mission (Other Than You, Refuge There is None, only published in 1999) we are offered a very different and shorter version of the sensational allegations in the 6-7-1963 Discourse at the end of Baba's week-long paralysis. In this account, Smt. Vijayakumari (pp., 298-299) an eye-witness, like Kasturi, appears to make the same error as Kasturi (K1B, p. 89) in describing Shirdi Sai Baba as the incarnation of Shakti, and Prema Sai as the future incarnation of Shiva:
"Moved to pity at this, Sakti told him that, in the excitement of the dance, She had not noticed him, and promised that both of them would attend the Yajna. She granted him the boon that, in the Kali Yuga, they would take birth as three avatars in his lineage. Shirdi Sai Baba, born in the Bharadwaha gothra, was an incarnation of Sakti. That is why, in that avatar, there was so much short temper. Because it was Sakti Herself, nobody knew much about that avatar, Again, another incarnation of the same gothra is this figure - Satya Sai, the true form of Siva-Sakti, of Gowri-Shankara. The one to come will be in the form of Siva, the avatar of Prema Sai." (Vijayakumari, 299)
The official Sathya Sai Speaks version (Vol. III, p. 91) of this Discourse records the reverse, i.e. Shirdi was an incarnation of Shiva and Prema Sai will be Shakti. It is a reasonable hypothesis to assume that, since the two eye-witnesses innocently described what they had heard, it must have been Sai Baba who made the elementary errors, and that these were corrected in the editing process, either by him or by the editor.
And now to the much more detailed evidence of the gulf between the Discourse as delivered and the versions eventually printed in the official magazine and books. I have prepared three direct comparisons of the spontaneous English interpretations and the subsequent printed versions. Below is the first of these. The second half of the first and a further two comparisons are contained in Appendix 1 for those interested in pursuing the matter further.
The first comparison, chronologically, is only possible because one of Baba's own interpreters and close assistants in the 1970s (Dr. V.K.Gokak) published an example of the transcript of his own simultaneous interpretation of Baba's 1974 Yugadi speech. Although the corresponding Sathya Sai Speaks version (Volume 12, Chapter 9, pp. 36-42) lists this as being Yugadi 1973, it is irrelevant to the comparison whether the date was Dr. Gokak's error, or that of the Prasanthi Nilayam editors. The Gokak version is from his book, Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. The Man and the Avatar, 2nd ed, New Delhi, Abhinav , 1983, pp. 224-234.
The significant differences in style and content between the two passages will be obvious. The left-hand versions below seem closer to what Sai Baba probably said in Telugu and to his speaking style, while the official printed versions in the right-hand column are significantly 'packaged'. No amount of interpreter error, or even hasty condensation of the material in the heat of the moment, seems likely to explain the gulf between the versions.
To Revised Version of Chapter 3