Bill Aitken and Sathya Sai Baba. A Writer's Dilemma

Brian Steel    December 2007

Copyright ©  2007  Brian Steel

Bill Aitken is listed as an Indian travel writer on Wikipedia (as William McKay Aitken, for reasons of disambiguation). He is also 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 that 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 or boasted of omniscience (especially knowledge of the future, 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 Sathya Sai Baba 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 qualities 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 Kasturi’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 specific claims since the 1950s 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 been perceptible on and off 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 (especially researchers) 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 for Aitken's book 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 extraordinary generalisations like “the critics are so intemperate in their dislike that their vituperation now comes across as almost near comical in its predictability”, as well as the permanent blind spot for serious Internet criticisms of Sathya Sai Baba that have not been refuted.

Background references:
New Factors for Researchers to Consider

Part 3 of an annotated Bibliography on Sathya Sai Baba
Other research articles are available on Brian Steel's Sathya Sai Baba Page.