Erlendur Haraldsson and Sathya Sai Baba: Background Information to a 40-year Relationship

Brian Steel

Copyright ©  2013  Brian Steel

After many years of ashram observations and interviews, Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson published an important book on Sathya Sai Baba in 1987. This was very slightly expanded ten years later. The author has just published an updated version sixteen years later, in mid-2013. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, he also published a number of professional parapsychological papers on related aspects, in collaboration with various colleagues.
In assessing the nature and quality of the contribution of his much-discussed book to the presentation of the life and work of the now defunct Sathya Sai Baba, the following  material may be helpful. It is mainly taken or adapted from my 3-Part 150-page Bibliography for researchers on SSB (2005; revised and enlarged in 2007: See here or here.

Part 1 deals with academic and similar work on Sathya Sai Baba. 
Part 2 deals with work critical of Sathya Sai Baba (heavily concentrated on the period 1980 to 2007 but in need of an update for the past six years). (That is an invitation for others to take up.)
Part 3 deals with hagiography and related work.

Although SSB devotees and the Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO) have constantly promoted Haraldsson’s work as a scientific vindication of the Divine claims of SSB (and of their beliefs), Haraldsson himself would not dream of making such a serious claim for this non-scientific book, which is quite different from his professional parapsychological publications, including two well-known books on death experiences and visions.) Nevertheless, over many years of close contact with SSB, he developed a special relationship with him and is very supportive of what SSB has achieved for other human beings. In an official 1990 tribute to SSB’s 65th Birthday (Sathya Sai, The Eternal Charioteer, ‘Sri Sathya Sai Baba and the Skeptics’, pp. 62-63), Haraldsson, the only non-devotee among 176 contributors, makes these revealing observations:

“We soon realised that we were not dealing with any ordinary individual […] My colleague Dr Osis remarked in our discussion, after our first two meetings with Sai Baba, “So far, we have in our research only observed sparks of paranormal gifts. In Swami, we may have a full flame.” And: “We questioned what we had observed but now we were forced to become more skeptical of some of the basic assumptions of physical science.”  Nevertheless, as some of us are aware, Haraldsson’s private opinion of those (millions?) who regard SSB as God is that they are “fools”.  Also, he has remained on good terms with the SSO, who have extracted priceless propaganda value from his writings, especially in the face of widespread criticism of SSB since 2000, on which Haraldsson has been silent until now. Conversely, to the dismay of the SSO and many devotees,  one or two of the discoveries gleaned from his lengthy (and repeated) interviews with old SSB devotees have also served as evidence for critics of SSB’s (and the SSO’s) divine claims.
For those reasons, Haraldsson’s book of research findings is referred to in all three Parts of my Bibliography.

From Part 1:

Erlendur Haraldsson, parapsychologist

Having come across Sathya Sai Baba in the early 1970s while pursuing other more pressing funded parapsychological research in India with his senior American colleague, Professor Karlis Osis, this Icelandic Professor of Psychology with a special interest in the paranormal made many research trips over several years trying to find out the truth about SSB but, from the very first visit with Osis, was denied permission to conduct scientific tests of the alleged materialisations. The work could not therefore be counted as academic parapsychological research. With Osis’s funding withdrawn for this reason, Haraldsson continued his visits and with a few colleagues managed to extract a handful of academic papers from visits to this guru and others in India.

Finally his persistence paid off In 1987 when he published a more general book on SSB based on his detailed observations and interviews. Because of the book’s  wide-ranging content and detail, and because Haraldsson never became a devotee, it deserves a mention in all three Parts of the present  Bibliography (academic, critical and hagiography). For his basically independent viewpoint and his diligent attempts to gather facts through observation of SSB and many careful interviews with devotees (some of whom had known SSB in the 1940s and 1950s), Haraldsson’s has become one of the most widely read and cited books on Sathya Sai Baba, especially among devotees.

Largely because Haraldsson did not detect any evidence of fraud in the materialisations he observed, he is frequently described by devotees and hagiographers as a ‘pro-Sathya Sai Baba’ academic and, quite unjustifiably, as the scientific investigator who pronounced SSB’s
materialisations as genuine beyond any doubt. On the other hand, Haraldsson’s work has been criticised by a number of Sathya Sai Baba’s critics (notably Beyerstein, Premanand and B. Gogineni) as being too favourable to the guru. Interestingly, Haraldsson’s probing analyses also dredged up occasional evidence of serious discrepancies in the official SSB story (most significantly concerning the two most talked about alleged ‘resurrections’, which he clearly disproved), and the very close early friendship between SSB and devotee Krishna. Devotees and the Sathya Sai Organisation turn a blind eye to these inconvenient aspects of the book.
(See, Arweck and Clarke, p. 103, Item 568: “...Although Sai Baba did not agree to take part in controlled experiments, a number of reported miracles have been debunked, such as the famous “resurrection of Walter Cowan”. ...”)

Haraldsson (whose main research with Sathya Sai Baba and his devotees was carried out in the 1970s and early 1980s, continued his long and successful academic career in other fields of paranormal study and co-authored a significant book in 1977 with Karlis Osis (At the Hour of Death). SSB research trips have always been a peripheral part of his academic life but he has remained in contact and a proof of this ongoing attraction to the SSB story was his hasty 1993 return to India to conduct a scientific study of a controversy involving materialisation.
(See the Haraldsson and Wiseman item below.) Otherwise, and in spite of a 1997 updated reissue of his famous ‘Miracles’ book, he has not revised his original research conclusions or commented publicly on very significant research and controversy about Sathya Sai Baba which has been leaking out since 1993 and which has been a major controversy for the past 12 years.

1987: ‘Miracles Are My Visiting Cards’. An Investigative Report on the Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba, London, Century Paperbacks. (Also marketed for sale in India only by Prasanthi Publications of New Delhi.)
1996: Modern Miracles, Norwalk, CT, USA, Hastings House.
This is a slightly enlarged edition. The latter has the same content as the new Indian edition listed as the following item here (personal communication from Haraldsson).
(?1997): ‘Miracles are my Visiting Cards.’An Investigative Report on the Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba, New Delhi, Prashanti. [Wrongly dated 1987]
These later editions have two extra chapters, one of quotations on SSB ’ s Teachings (in answer to complaints from readers and from SSB himself) and the other on the subject of the 1992 controversy (over a Doordashan TV videotape), also dealt with in the paper listed below: Haraldsson and Wiseman: ‘Reactions to and an Assessment of a Videotape on Sathya
Sai Baba’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, April 1995, 60, pp. 203 - 213.
The book has been reprinted and translated many times.

2004: ‘Of Indian God-men and Miracle-Makers: The Case of Sathya Sai Baba’. A lecture given at the British Psychological Society’s Transpersonal Psychology Section Conference in September 2004.
[A version of this was subsequently printed as:
Erlendur Haraldsson (2008). Of Indian God-Men and Miracle-Makers: The Case of Sathya Sai Baba. In (Ed.) H. Wautisch. Ontology of Consciousness: A Modern Synthesis. Boston: MIT Press, 525-548.]
According to the Abstract, this appears to be a repeat, for academic colleagues, of his somewhat dated summary of many years of intermittent research and writing on Sathya Sai Baba, whom he presents as an enigma about whom many paranormal things are claimed but who refuses to present himself for scientific study. Bland assertions like “He is venerated by most devotees as an avatar” and he “has been the subject of a nationwide controversy” seem to indicate an ongoing desire to avoid controversy, which was already visible in Haraldsson’s book on SSB.

Haraldsson, Erlendur, and Osis, Karlis, ‘The Appearance and Disappearance of Objects in the Presence of Sri Sathya Sai Baba’, Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 71(1977), 33-43.
A guarded report on three field trips to study “claims suggestive of psi phenomena” in SSB’s presence. The report is informal and draws no conclusions from their close observations because of the absence of scientific controls. This early 1977 report has been much quoted in academic papers. However, videotape evidence which has become available in the last 30 years suggests that it is time to look beyond the researchers’ pessimistic conclusion that “without adequate experimental conditions the evidence will never be conclusive.”

This ‘classic’ report has recently been reprinted in Richard Wiseman and CarolineWatt’s anthology, Parapsychology (Ashgate, UK and Burlington, USA, 2005, pp. 173-184) as an example of what happens when parapsychologists attempt to test the claims of an alleged psychic “in a real world, and uncontrolled, situation”. The editors also point out (on p. xvi)
that other work has been done by other researchers on SSB’s alleged abilities since 1977. They specifically mention Haraldsson and Wiseman (1995) [see the entry below]) and Beyerstein (1996).

Haraldsson, Erlendur and Houtkooper, JoopM., ‘Report on an Indian Swami claiming to’materialize objects: The Value and Limitations of field observations’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 8, pp. 381-397, 1994.
A successful scientific discrediting of materialisation claims by Swami Premananda.
That paper was the result of a joint 1979 investigation. Another joint scientific investigation in 1995 of Swami Premananda’s materialisations [“macro-PK ability”] by R. Wiseman and Haraldsson was reported as inconclusive but produced the following interesting comments: “The only phenomena that occurred did so under informal conditions. Analysis of the videotaped demonstrations is consistent with SP’s capitalizing on the investigators’ lapse in attention to pick up small objects secretly from his lap and, after a short while, ‘materialize’ them in his hand. However, no direct evidence of fraud was obtained during the
investigation.” In spite of this, the researchers express their satisfaction with their methodology in preventing possible trickery and in gaining access to Swami Premananda. (See RichardWiseman and Erlendur Haraldsson, ‘InvestigatingMacro-PK in India: Swami Premananda’, Journal for the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 60, No. 839, April 1995, pp.1 93-202.)

Haraldsson, Erlendur and Wiseman, Richard, ‘Reactions to and an Assessment of a Videotape on Sathya Sai Baba’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 60, April 1995, pp. 203-213.
After trying to enhance the quality of the taped material and after a meticulous frame by frame examination of a brief controversial 1992 Doordarshan TV videotape of a presentation ceremony involving SSB, the two investigators concluded that vociferous Indian media accusations of fraud were not substantiated by the evidence, but concede that the videotape was of poor quality. Another case of ‘Not proven’. Since then other enhanced copies of the material have become available on the Internet (for example, on and most recently on YouTube). See also V. K. Kodimela’s article, listed in Part 2 of this Bibliography.

Wiseman, Richard and Haraldsson, Erlendur, (1995) ‘Investigating macro PK in India:
Swami Premananda’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 60, No. 839, 193-202.

Unlike SSB, Swami Premananda agreed to submit to the parapsychologists’ videotaped tests of his claimed materialisations of vibuthi and small objects. Under these controlled conditions, the guru was unable on several occasions to perform what he had promised.When the control was removed, the ‘materialisations’ resumed. However, no specific evidence of fraud was found.

Osis, Karlis and Haraldsson, Erlendur
1973: ‘Survey of Deathbed Visions in India’, Roll, W. G. et al (eds.), Research in Parapsychology, 1973, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1974, pp. 20-22. [abstract] 1976: ‘OBE’s in Indian Swamis: Sathya Sai Baba and Dadaji’, in J.D.Morris et al (eds.), Research in Parapsychology 1975, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1976. {Not seen]
1977: At the Hour of Death, New York, Avon Books. [Reprinted and revised several times.]
This is the major professional publication resulting from the Osis-Haraldsson 1970s partnership on parapsychological research. [Dr Osis died in 1997.]

1979: ‘Parapsychological Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba’, The Christian Parapsychologist, 3 (1979), 159-163.
Although I have not been able to locate this article the following appears to be a reference to it (or to a similar item by Professor Osis) by an Indian writer. Because it reveals Dr Osis’s driving passion for contemporary 1970s parapsychology, I tentatively include the reference here for consideration. In his book on the two Sai Babas, G. R. Sholapurkar includes a chapter on ‘Main Biographers and Devotees’. Along with much more familiar names, he includes a short section on Osis’s two visits to Sathya Sai Baba (with “D.E. Heraldson”):
“This is what he [Osis] has to say in the article, ‘Satya Sai Baba and Parapsychology’: “Baba commented to us, The same stuff that is present in you (potentially) as a small spark, in me is a full flame!” Continuing, he further says, “Why do I, a New York based scientist, envisage so decisive a role for an Indian? I have been an active researcher for twenty five years, have travelled widely, and nowhere have I found a phenomenon which points so clearly and forcibly to spiritual reality as do the daily miracles around Baba. The psychic phenomena we find in New York or London are not strong enough to do this job.” In the concluding paragraph, Dr Osis expresses his fond hopes in the following words: “Of course in the scientific community as in every establishment, there is inertia, conservatism and hostility to anything radically new. I personally am convinced that such thought habits will be overcome because Baba’s powers are so strong that he could provide the definitive experimental facts which no one with integrity would be able to explain away. Good scientists have integrity and science is built on it. They will try to tear apart anything as ‘outrageous’ as Baba’s miracles. But if the facts prevail in spite of the closest scrutiny, science will incorporate them in its modern world view, which would be more liable [= viable?] than the present one.” (Foot-prints at Shirdi and Puttaparthi, Delhi, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan, 1989, 117)

If this is a genuine quotation, it throws further light on that fact that the Sathya Sai Organisation and many devotees have always referred to Osis and Haraldsson as endorsers of Sathya Sai Baba’s paranormal powers, in spite of the guarded conclusions of Haraldsson’s original book. A further relevant biographically recorded fact is that Osis, the senior member of the original research team on after death experiences, had been receptive to paranormal experiences since his childhood.

(The) Indian Skeptic, Vols 1-2, 1988-1989,
(See also under Premanand, B. in Part 2.)

These volumes contain a detailed correspondence about Haraldsson’s book on SSB between B. Premanand, the then President of the Indian Rationalists (and for several decades an indefatigable critic and opponent of SSB) and Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, whose persistent but unsuccessful attempts to carry out professional parapsychological studies of
SSB resulted in his well-known popular book and other academic papers, listed above. These early volumes of The Indian Skeptic also contain some relevant correspondence from Professor Dale Beyerstein to Haraldsson about the book on SSB.

Palmer, Norris W., ‘Baba’s World: A Global Guru and His Movement’, in Gurus in America, ed. Thomas A. Forsthoefel and Cynthia Ann Humes, Albany, SUNY Press, 2005, 97-122.
This comprehensive and up-to-date 25-page presentation of the impact of SSB and his Movement on American devotees is welcome. It appears in a collection of post-9/11 essays specifically aimed at presenting not only the impact of a foreign spiritual ideology (in this case, nine transnational neo-Hindu ‘mahagurus’) on American society but also the reciprocal influence of the latter on the ideology and its transnational presentation and growth.
A good general up-to-date survey of the Sathya Sai Baba Movement.

A very clear picture of the enchanted devotee world (with acknowledgements to Babb), their trusting and satisfying surrender to SSB’s teachings as well as an excellent portrayal of devotees’ unquestioning acceptance of SSB’s alleged divinity, their rationalisations and(detailed) total rejection of the possibility of any valid criticisms of the divine guru.

An excellent description of worship in Sathya Sai Baba Centres in America and (following devotee sources) in ashram life.

An introduction to the two branches of the Sathya Sai Organisation and a mention of their sudden massive presence on the Internet.
Palmer interprets the increased worldwide Internet publicity for SSB as indicating unimpeded global growth of the Movement in spite of ongoing controversies. It could equally be argued that the feverish cyber activity stems from a costly organisational promotion and damage control campaigns to counter adverse media publicity and the loss of overseas devotees since 2000. Mention should also be made of the increasing infirmity and reduced mobility of Sathya Sai Baba in the last few years which has coincided with a much more public role for the Sathya Sai Organisations and its Internet offshoots and has radically reduced the unique close darshan experience so treasured by visiting devotees.

Spurr, Michael J.
‘Visiting-Cards Revisited: An Account of Some Recent First-Hand Observations of the ‘Miracles’ of SSB; The Role of the Miraculous’, Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 26,2003, 198-2 16. [No sender’s address is given by the journal or on record in
its archives.]
The author, who identifies himself as a PhD candidate at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, takes as his starting point the conclusion of Erlendur Haraldsson after his lengthy study of Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged paranormal powers: that he had seen no evidence of fraud in SSB ’s materialisations and other psychic demonstrations (for example, prophecy and clairvoyance). Spurr then gives an account of his preliminary onsite research into the guru’s alleged paranormal powers during three months in 2000 and three weeks in 2002.
Spurr describes several closely observed examples of materialisation of vibhuti and rings as obvious cases of sleight of hand. He refers to similar evidence offered recently on the Internet. He also demonstrates that some of Sathya Sai Baba’s astonishing predictions, etc. are based on leading questions. However, Spurr also gives a few other examples of alleged omniscience (the holes in the sun) and intuition or clairvoyance and materialisations of statuettes, for which he could find no normal explanation.
His provisional important conclusion is that, contrary to Sathya Sai Baba’s claim, the alleged use of his paranormal miracles is not a minor but a major part of his teaching which serves to invest him with the Divine Authority of Avatar. The researcher looks forward to further intense study of the phenomenon but states preemptively that he will need to see much clearer proof that SSB ’s alleged special powers are real.
[PS, 2013:
4 years later Spurr reappeared as an avowed devotee of SSB, with a PhD thesis on SSB, in which a much more favourable view is expounded. The thesis is available for download on the Internet. Two theses actually. The first was far too long (and probably too devotee-ish) for approval. Readers can judge for themselves. Although his final version deals with some recent criticism of SSB, his treatment of topics is over-selective and, in my opinion, shows bias.]

Thalbourne, M.A. (an associate of Haraldsson)
‘The Supposed Paranormal Abilities of Sri Sathya Sai Baba’, Journal of Religious and Psychical Studies, 5 (1982), 62-4.

A well-earned, firm but polite rebuke to Ellison (q.v.) for his uncritical acceptance of many of the superlatives applied to SSB by associates and devotees (based on a one week stay in the ashram) and, particularly, Ellison’s breathtakingly unjustified claim (often trumpeted by SSB's associates and devotees) that “Sai Baba has been under direct, continuous, highly qualified scientific observation for more than a quarter of a century. His acts have by now been seen and verified by so large and distinguished a coterie of awed and now reverent world scientific dignitaries that the authenticity of his miracles is no longer open to doubt.”

Dr. Thalbourne agrees that a number of highly qualified scientists have indeed met SSB and have come away convinced of his paranormal powers and that it would be a good idea to investigate these phenomena if possible but he also points out that before a reliable expert verdict can be pronounced on such phenomena, careful testing of such claims under controlled conditions is essential.

Wiseman, Richard and Watt, Caroline (eds.), Parapsychology, Ashgate, UK and Burlington, USA, 2005.
On pages 173-184, this substantial anthology includes a reprint of Haraldsson and Osis (1977). On p. xvi the editors comment that the essay “illustrates some of the issues that arise when trying to assess an alleged psychic in a real world, and uncontrolled, situation.” They also point out, opportunely, that in the intervening 30 years several other researchers have written about SSB’s alleged abilities.
[Other Research notes on reactions to Haraldsson’s Sathya Sai Baba book]

Several writers, academics and others, have recorded critical comments on the findings of Haraldsson (and Osis). They are listed in Part 2 of this Bibliography (Criticism). One of the recurring criticisms is that Haraldsson and Osis did not take a professional magician to assist them on the early trips. (However, Wiseman, who went on later visits, is also a magician.)

George P. Hansen, ‘Overview and critique of deception in parapsychology’, The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 84, No. 1, January 1990, pp. 25-80.
‘Deception by Subjects in Psi Research’ 

“In other types of field investigations, knowledge of magic tricks is important as well. In certain cases, investigators can impose little or no control and must be content with merely watching. The only way a reader can evaluate a report from such a study is to consider the knowledge, background, and expertise of the researcher. One must consider the likelihood that the researcher would catch a trick if it indeed occurred. For instance, Pratt and Keil (1973) observed Nina Kulagina and reported: “We never observed any behavior suggesting that Kulagina was preparing a trick” (p. 387). Haraldsson and Osis (1977) watched Sai Baba and reported: “We were not able to detect any evidence of fraud” (p. 40). In these cases, given other statements made in the reports, it seems quite clear (to a magician) that the observers had no such relevant expertise whatsoever. When scientists report their observations in professional journals (as were these), they imply that they have the technical competence to make the observations and the expertise to evaluate them. Failure to report the lack of such background is deceptive to the reader. In the case of Sai Baba, it can be noted that Christopher (1979, pp. 114-116) described a number of events suggesting trickery.”

In an 1985 article reproduced in Wiseman’s Parapsychology (2005, 149-151),  ‘A Brief Overview of Magic for Parapsychologists’, Hansen is more specific on this need:
“My own experience indicates that very few parapsychologists are familiar with (let alone read) even the most basic works on the topic. […] Close-up magic […] allows spectators to observe at very short range. In fact, many of these tricks can be performed within one foot of the spectators. These feats typically involve the appearance or disappearance and vanishing of small objects such as coins or cards, increasing the size in coins and other effects virtually identical to those reported around Sai Baba by Haraldsson and Osis (1977). Some of these require skillful sleight of hand, but many take only a few minutes to learn.”

Walter A. Carrithers, Jr.

A month after the appearance of Haraldsson and Osis’s 1977 paper (See above) in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, this professional wrote a detailed  letter of complaint to the editor.
“What is most frustrating to the informed student of the history of Psychical Research, in cases such as this, is to see reports of ambiguous experiences prepared and published (and, as this one, quickly taken up and exploited in the sensational press) without any appreciation or discussion of the pitfalls that are as prevalent today in reportorial methodology as they were a hundred years ago in this field; and to see scarce resources wasted on such ineffectual undertakings (expenditure which, in this instance, might have been avoided by determining in advance whether Sai Baba would or would not submit to “some controlled experiments”). Parapsychologists would do far better at much less expense by spending more time studying and re-examining the voluminous available records of past cases – thereby trying to first establish productive investigative guidelines (of which little is ever said), so as to avoid repeating the errors and shortcomings of past generations of researchers and reporters, profiting from their earlier sad experiences. Unfortunately, each succeeding generation of psychical researchers, in the exuberance of naïve enthusiasm, thinks itself wiser than its forbears and at last on the threshold of a “great breakthrough”, having little patience with the lessons of the past.” (
Although the Publications Committee decided the letter was not suitable for publication because it was not objective enough, Dr Osis’s sponsors had already terminated his grant for work on SSB long before, leaving the field open for a more tenacious Haraldsson]  

From Part 2 of my SSB Bibliography:

Beyerstein, Dale   (Repeated from Part 1)
1992: Sai Baba’s Miracles. An Overview.
A hundred page study, originally published under this Canadian academic’s name in Podanur, India (1994) Beyerstein (like B. Premanand) also engaged in a lengthy polemic with Haraldsson in the 1990s. [See Part 1.]
The Beyerstein analysis was subsequently made available for many years on the Internet, on the website of the British Columbia Skeptics (Canada). 2013 Note: It is now available anonymously, here:

This is a detailed and important early critical study by a Canadian philosopher of major paranormal characteristics attributed to Sathya Sai Baba. It offers the firstsubstantial body of evidence to refute the strident claims made for some of SSB’s psychic and paranormal powers. Unlike many academic studies of Sathya Sai Baba, it is based on a close examination of a sizeable body of written evidence: the translated and edited Discourses of Sathya Sai Baba.

Professor Beyerstein was not professionally interested in the dogma of Sathya Sai Baba’s religious teaching but his research into the paranormal claims and his subsequent findings constitute the basis of his rebuttal of Sathya Sai Baba’s major claims of Divine powers. In the chapters of his book, the sceptical author presents multiple factual examples to disprove Sathya Sai Baba’s Omniscience and Omnipotence, as claimed by him and his Organisation and as accepted unquestioningly by his devotees. A major part of the proof offered is taken from what Sathya Sai Baba is recorded as having said in public (according to the edited translations published by the SSO).

Although not very widely read or heeded at the time of publication in the early 1990s (preceding by just a few years the mass popularisation of the Internet), Beyerstein’s seminal Internet study has since attracted a wider general readership, especially since strong and vociferous controversies about Sathya Sai Baba erupted in 2000. Regrettably, most academics have hitherto ignored this study, possibly because it was never offered as an “academic” paper and is written from a vigorously sceptical viewpoint. Nevertheless, Beyerstein’s evidence is strong and researchers currently interested in the psychic / paranormal aspects of Sathya Sai Baba and in his claims of Divinity and full avataric powers would be well advised to begin their research with a study of these detailed pioneering findings, which include his consultation of other experts, including magicians.

The areas of study covered are as follows:
1. Editor’s Introduction
2: Omniscience and Omnipotence
3: Did Sai Baba Rescue Someone from the Dead?
(B. deals with the Radhakrishna and Cowan cases, quoting documentary evidence from Haraldsson, Premanand and John Hislop.)
4: Does Sai Baba Have Complete Psychic Knowledge?
5: Materializations

Note: This Chapter contains a six-page Section (86) on ‘Magicians’ Analysis of Supposed Paranormal Phenomena of Indian ‘God-Man’ Sathya Sai Baba’ by Beyerstein and a team of magicians (Leon Mandrake, Lou Crockett, Lon Mandrake and Velvet Mandrake). Their provisional conclusion on the evidence reviewed is that “Sai Baba’s extensive reliance on sleight of hand in the materialization phenomena is established beyond reasonable doubt.”
6: Sundry Miracles
7: Healing and Rescues
8: Does Sai Baba’s Life Fulfil Ancient Promises?

1996: ‘Sai Baba’, in Gordon Stein (ed.), The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, New York, Prometheus Books, pp. 653-657.
Both the Foreword (by Carl Sagan) and the Introduction to this work set it apart as a product of sceptical academic analysis.
“ Almost every entry represents an assessment by an expert with skeptical credentials.” (Sagan, p. xii)
“This is the first scientifically based encyclopedia to deal with the paranormal. … The word here means anything that is put forth as an explanation of the natural world using as a part of that explanation elements that appear to violate what has already been offered and accepted as a scientific explanation of the given phenomenon.” (Stein, xxi)
“To keep the tone of this book both scientific and balanced I have tried to use scientists as authors of most of the articles, including those who have publicly supported and discredited research on the paranormal. Other contributors have included science writers, historians, philosophers and theologians.” (xxii)
Beyerstein’s 3,000 word essay pulls no punches. After a very succinct biographical introduction of 150 words, in which he notes the claim of Sathya Narayana Raju to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and Jesus Christ “as well as other avatars (reincarnations of God)”, Beyerstein sums up Sathya Sai Baba’s ecumenical theology as a “unification of Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths under his own religion.” Apart from the inadvertent exclusion of Judaism, this seems to be a reasonable description of SSB’s self-appointed Mission.
The author attributes a modest six million followers to Sathya Sai Baba, including many wealthy Indians and prominent politicians and many devotees in North America and Europe “who make annual pilgrimages to his headquarters in Puttaparthi, where Sai Baba runs a school, hospital and other facilities.” (p. 653)
The remaining 95% of the article offers a judicious and compelling selection of evidence taken from the virtually unimpeachable (but not widely disseminated) research presented in Beyerstein’s original 1992 study, Sai Baba’s Miracles. An Overview. The important subjects covered are:

The concluding paragraph of this summary includes an oblique comment on the research difficulties experienced by Professor Erlendur Haraldsson: “Sai Baba has nothing to gain by being tested under scientifically controlled conditions, and he has nothing to lose by refusing such conditions, so long as the public’s view remains that it is sacrilegious not only to perform such tests, but even to request them.”

BBC TV, Secret Swami, 17 June 2004. Channel 2 series, This World. Director / Producer: Eamon Hardy [Repeated later in many countries on the BBC TV World Service] See or Google for excerpts and a full transcript.

Towards the end of 2003 the BBC decided to pursue the trail of critical work which had been appearing on the Internet and in the print media since 2000 – most notably the investigative article by Mick Brown – and in the 2002 Danish documentary Seduced. A team under the leadership of Producer / Director Eamon Hardy worked with some of the leaders of the “Exposé” and the male protagonists to capture a lot of varied material on SSB. They finally chose to cut the film down to the sensational aspects (mainly the sexual allegations) and the result was a disturbing but unbalanced picture, both of SSB and of the various sorts of controversies surrounding his name and that of the SSO. Secret Swami was basically dumbed down into a capsule of infotainment – leaving untouched the major (less graphic) aspects concerning, for example, Sathya Sai Baba’s Divine claims and the storytelling threads in his frequent Discourses. Predictably, the film received both a succès de scandale with the general public and SSB critics and angry complaints from the SSO and devotees, not least because some of the sequences shot at the ashram revealed far more than the SSO would have wished, including SSB’s patently fake regurgitation of a lingam at Mahasivaratri (2004), followed by his temporary collapse [and ridiculous cover-up claims by the SSO]. Statements made in interviews by major mercurial spokespersons Dr Goldstein and Isaac Tigrett may also have given many viewers a less than favourable impression of the celebrated guru.

Christopher, Milbourne, Search for the Soul, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979, pp. 114-116 [and pp. 104-113].

In this fascinating attempt to distinguish between a century of credible and spurious evidence for the existence of a life after death, Christopher, a professional magician, devotes Chapter 11, ‘Into the Brightness’ (pp. 104-116), to the work of Dr Karlis Osis (1917-1997). After receiving his PhD from Munich University in 1950 (‘The Hypothesis of Extrasensory
Perception’), Osis devoted his parapsychological career, at first as a research associate at Duke University under the legendary Dr Rhine, and later as research director of the American Society for Psychical Research (funded by many research grants), to investigating evidence for the life after death hypothesis. (Christopher points out that since the age of fifteen, when
Osis felt a euphoric experience on the death of his aunt, he had felt drawn to such phenomena.)

By 1973 Osis had undertaken two research trips to India with a junior colleague, Dr Erlendur Haraldsson. As is well documented in parapsychological annals, this association was to last several years and to culminate in a co-authored academic study At the Hour of Death, which became a best-selling textbook for nurses and doctors, as well as parapsychologists. The two joint trips to SSB’s ashram actually came about as a by-product of the Indian part of their afterlife research as they tried, largely unsuccessfully, to subject the paranormal claims made about and by Sathya Sai Baba to scientific examination. After two funded trips, with requests for scientific examination refused by SSB and without further research funds, Osis withdrew from the SSB part of the joint research. Haraldsson sporadically continued his observations in Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram and in other parts of India for a few more years and eventually produced his bestselling study in 1987, which though of great interest and importance because of his thoroughness, is not counted by Haraldsson or his colleagues as a scientific parapsychological work.

Apart from that illuminating anecdotal background to the Haraldsson book, only two pages of Christopher’s chapter (pp. 114-116) are devoted to the two Osis-Haraldsson trips to Puttaparthi, but they are also important to SSB research.

As a professional magician (and like several other magicians), Christopher is highly sceptical of the Haraldsson-Osis academic paper of 1977: “These and other feats described in the text have been exhibited by other “holy men” in India – and by conjurors!” The author goes on to dismiss as fake SSB’s celebrated annual homage in the 1960s and 1970s to Shirdi
Sai by producing quantities of vibhuti from an upended empty metal urn or canister, one of his most famous alleged miracles of the period. For Christopher, this is “a standard piece of magical apparatus. I could teach a six-year-old boy how to do this in a few minutes.” As for SSB’s sleight-of-hand with vibhuti, Christopher is more professionally impressed, because of
the polished way in which it is carried out. “Of course intelligent laypeople are fooled; that is the purpose of magic. Anyone thoroughly familiar with the principles of legerdemain can follow move for move how the ash is produced. The parapsychologists should have been alerted when Sai Baba refused to allow them to test him, that is, to do the feats under
controlled conditions. It is strange that experienced investigators of alleged phenomena would travel halfway around the world and suggest that such hanky-panky hocus-pocus was “paranormal”, without having had an expert magician on the site as an observer” (p. 116).

This short chapter (as well as other evidence about Karlis Osis’s life) is vital for a clear assessment of the role eventually played by Professor Haraldsson’s bestselling and much translated book and his relevant academic papers in SSB’s success in India and in “the West”.

Gogineni, Babu R. R., ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’, 1996.

This hard-hitting document by the former Executive Director of the International Humanist Ethical Union (and formerly General Secretary of the Indian Rationalists Association) belongs to the sudden 1990s wave of criticism of Sathya Sai Baba to which Professors Dale Beyerstein and David Lane made significant contributions. It is a key piece in the history of the criticism directed at Sathya Sai Baba and his Organisation, his supporters (including Indian and foreign celebrities) and apologists (notably the foreigners, Hislop and Sandweiss; Kasturi’s major contribution was overlooked). Also condemned by Gogineni are Sathya Sai Baba’s philosophy of education and the alleged failure of the much-vaunted free irrigation system for local villages.

The essay is strongly worded, covers a great deal of territory, denounces a host of perceived discrepancies, myths and errors in the Sathya Sai Baba story – pouring heavy scorn on Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged miracles (“Why did Sai Baba have to wave his hand in circles before producing anything?”), and pointing to several possible skeletons in the closet, for example, that of the tantric conjuror uncle. [See also Padmanaban, R. (ed.), Love is My Form, Vol. 1.]  Gogineni refers to the critical work by Indian Rationalists like Premanand and although writing long before the allegations of early 2000, Gogineni introduces the sexual allegations made in the 1970s by the American ex-devotee Tal Brooke. He, like others, also makes lengthy allegations about the sensational 1993 ashram killings (which may even have served to stimulate this concentrated critical analysis).

The two pages of detail with which the author acerbically and insistently accuses Professor Haraldsson of doing less than his duty in reporting on Sathya Sai Baba in his well known book (as well as in the later investigative article with Wiseman exonerating Sathya Sai Baba from media accusations of having palmed a necklace in 1992) deserve consideration, like many other topics dealt with in this article by Gogineni.

The difficulty in assessing this vehement piece of criticism begins with the title itself, ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’. The essay contains cleverly worded and mordant satire but this sometimes goes too far and it injudiciously includes one or two exaggerations and inaccuracies (of the sort Gogineni himself is condemning). The author also occasionally relies too much on old criticisms like “Bhagavantam and the Seiko watch”, or on isolated stories like that of the missing kidney. In spite of these negative aspects, the carefully assembled and dramatic diatribe cannot simply be dismissed in toto just because it is unpleasant in places and uses intemperate language or because it falls into occasional exaggeration and, perhaps, error, on such a multi-faceted subject; the combined weight of prima facie evidence submitted is too heavy. If the charges were restricted to these convincing pieces and carefully rewritten in the more forensic academic style with which Gogineni is familiar (and with slightly better proof-reading), the indictment would probably attract a wider audience.

Kodimela, Venu K., ‘Doordarshan Tape Unveils Baba Magic despite Cover-up’, Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad, 23 November 1992.
Contradicts the account by Haraldsson and Wiseman listed in Part 1. ( offers videos of this famous incident among other videos of alleged materialisations.) [See also this You Tube posting.]

Padmanaban, R. et al , Love is My Form. Vol. 1 The Advent (1926-1950). Prasanthi Nilayam, Sai Towers, 2000. [Often referred to as LIMF]

Written by a team of devotees headed by a phenomenally successful Puttaparthi publisher of Sathya Sai Baba books, this is certainly not a book critical of Sathya Sai Baba . It was intended to be the first of a series of definitive biographies of SSB and although basically hagiographical (and derivative of Kasturi’s work), it is also well researched and contains some essential new information about Sathya Sai Baba, including photocopies and a wealth of old photographs. Some of this new material (including the photographs) contradicts or challenges official data, especially when taken in conjunction with other scraps of evidence available in the memoirs of early devotees of SSB and one or two other writers. Examples of these   important new insights are: 1990s recorded interviews with (aged) early devotees; the years of Sathya Sai Baba ’s schooling; the date of the two Declarations of Sathya Sai Baba’s Mission before leaving school in Uravakonda (which turns out to be 1943, not 1940), the dating of some early photographs of SSB, local knowledge about Shirdi Sai Baba in the 1940s and a few other details from the remote early years of Sathya Sai Baba ’s Mission for which Kasturi’s first volume had hitherto been the main flimsy source (and much-quoted ‘Gospel’).

In spite of its archival importance, the book has so far received scant attention from academics, critics and devotees. (Some of the latter, aware of the new information, voiced disapproval of the volume in the ashram as soon as it was published. A recent SSB apologist and propagandist has even attempted to discredit LIMF (and its embarrassing evidence) on the feeble grounds that it is a ‘commercial’ publication with a scandalously high price). The ambitious project to publish five more volumes of this biographical series (one per decade of the guru’s life), which was well advanced, was abruptly abandoned a year or two after the publication of this sole volume, to the incalculable detriment of independent research on SSB.

Pittard, Barry
Barry Pittard, a follower of Sathya Sai Baba for 25 years, was an English lecturer at Sathya Sai Baba ’s Whitefield College for two years (1978-79) and, since 1999, has been a prominent global coordinator of the active ‘Exposé’ campaign to publicise and to pursue the accusations and allegations against SSB and his associates. The published part of Pittard’s work, including some hard-hitting comments, reflects his strong commitment to this cause. Until January 2007, Pittard’s articles were usually published on or Since then, he also publishes frequently on his easily accessible blog.
See end Note on Pittard’s recent work on Haraldsson.

Priddy, Robert
A retired academic and ex-devotee, Priddy is the most outspoken and by far the most prolific of the post-2000 group of critics of Sathya Sai Baba and the SSO, collectively known as ‘The Exposé’. He was founder member and office-bearer of the Oslo Sathya Sai Centre in 1983, Chairman from 1987 and acted as national contact-person of the Sathya Sai Organisation of Norway 1987-2000, when he left the Organisation. In early 2002 Priddy set up his first critical website:
2004: End of the Dream. The Sathya Sai Baba Enigma, Podanur, India .
In this volume of 600 pages, many of Priddy’s Internet articles from 2002 to early 2004 are collected. Major sections: the SSO, pp. 494-533; the 1993 killings, 107-118; Sathya Sai Baba pp. 40-83. And a listing of several website references to allegations against Sathya Sai Baba by young men.

Since 2007 (October): Priddy’s new website is
In and the Culture of Rumour, pp. 185-240; Criticisms of Sathya Sai Baba ’s Teachings, pp. 430-485; the sexual allegations, pp. 271-323; ‘Shocking Revelations by V. K. Narasimhan’, this major new compilation, the reader will find a cornucopia of detailed information, with many links to “Exposé” websites, other critical websites, and to specific important documents.
2007 (February-), Sai Baba Deceptions Exposed,
This blogsite offers Priddy's latest prolific and very widely read writings about Sathya Sai Baba, the SSO and related issues.
See end Note on Priddy’s work on Haraldsson.

Randi, James
A famous American magician, rationalist and dedicated debunker of occult and supernatural claims.
1995a: The Supernatural A-Z. The Truth and the Lies, London, Headline.
On p. 270: two paragraphs on Sathya Sai Baba’s claimed miracles and materialisations including Randi’s conclusion as a qualified magician that “… examination of films and videotapes of Sathya Sai Baba =s actual performances show them to be simple sleight-of-hand ...”
On p. 231, Randi cites the rule of parsimony as one of his guiding principles: “... this rule states that if there exist two answers to a problem or a question, and if for one answer to be true, well-established laws of logic and science must be re-written, ignored or suspended in order to allow it to be true and for the other answer to be true no such accommodation need be made, then the simpler – the second – of the two answers is much more likely to be correct. Parsimony applies here.”
1995b: An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural , New York, St Martin’s Press, 1995 and on

This short 3-paragraph entry includes the claim that “ Examination of films and videotapes of Sai Baba's actual performances show them to be simple sleight of hand, exactly the same as the sort used by the other Indian jaduwallahs, or “street conjurors.” Sai Baba has never submitted to an examination of his abilities under controls, so his claims are totally unproven. ”
His website:

Of his regular commentaries, see especially the one for 8 December 2000 and the Newsletters for 3 May 2002, and 13 July 2003. Although Randi has written about Sathya Sai Baba on several occasions and, more recently, posted a number of videos on YouTube he feels that “exposures have not made a whit of difference in the Baba’s income or his comfort. He’s just too well protected by money and the ignorance of his dupes.”

Shepherd, Kevin R.D.
“The investigations of the parapsychologist Erlendur Haraldsson proved misleading. He contributed a well known book ‘Miracles are My Visiting Cards.’ An Investigative Report on the Psychic Phenomena Associated with Sathya Sai Baba (1987; new edn, 1997). This work also gained the title of Modern Miracles in the American edition. Haraldsson was enthusiastic about investigating diverse miracle stories, and questioned various persons in relation to these. The assessment of Brian Steel is duly critical, and includes the observation that the Haraldsson version “is often erroneously regarded and quoted by devotees as a scientific endorsement of Sathya Sai Baba’s materialisations.” (See Part 3, and also Part 1, of the Steel bibliography). In reality, we are here discussing a description of beliefs about miracles. Dr. Haraldsson made eight visits to India during the years 1973-1983, and could not prove anything. He could only relate what he was told by informants. Robert Priddy is also duly critical of the Haraldsson approach.

“The Indian critic Basava Premanand (23.7 below) was in controversy with Dr. Haraldsson about certain aspects of the latter’s report. The relevant correspondence of the late 1980s was reproduced in early issues of Premanand’s journal Indian Skeptic. A Canadian academic, Dr. Dale Beyerstein, became interested in this argument and tended to side with Premanand, finding the Haraldsson argument too condoning in relation to the guru. A few years later, Premanand published in India an investigation of the same subject by Beyerstein (Sai Baba’s Miracles: An Overview, 1994).
“Dr. Beyerstein adopted a much more critical standpoint than Dr. Haraldsson and his associate Karlis Osis. The Beyerstein book was reproduced on the internet, and became the nucleus for further critical comments, including those made on the basis of personal observations. The ex-devotees David and Faye Bailey gave one of the most well known firsthand insights about sleight of hand in their internet document The Findings (2000), which gained widespread coverage (e.g., Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, pp. 274ff.).”
from‘Sathya Sai Baba: Problems


From Part 3 of my Bibliography

Vijayakumari, Smt. , Anyatha Saranam Nasthi. Other than You Refuge is There None, Chennai, [n.p.], 1999. [Available from Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust] This recently self-published 400 page work is a novel addition to early eye-witness accounts of Sathya Sai Baba’s Mission. In the mid 1940s, as a little girl, the authoress, Smt. Vijayakumari (whose later married name was Mrs Hemchand), and her family, from Kuppam, became very close devotees, spending long periods of time in the ashram in close daily contact with SSB. In this account (translated from Telugu), she offers original details and descriptions of SSB’s character and Mission during the 1940s and 1950s which helpfully supplement those given by Purnaiya, Kasturi and other devotees, occasionally to the point of differing from the official record.

For instance, she and her diary are also featured in E. Haraldsson’s careful investigation of the alleged ‘resurrection’ of her father (Radhakrishna) in 1953. Her account here basically corroborates Haraldsson’s conclusion that there was no evidence of the father's death, although there was possibly some privately administered form of healing intervention by Sathya Sai Baba on a very sick or dying man. Unfortunately (a common obstacle in research on the SSB literature), dates and accurate references are few and far between. Some interesting older photographs are also offered.

As with his investigation of the Walter Cowan 'resurrection', Haraldsson (like Beyerstein) showed that the application of the description 'resurrection' to what really happened to Vijayakumari's father is not an appropriate description of what occurred. Despite this, the devotees and writers blithely continue to make these discredited claims.� [See also:  Sathya Sai Baba, Elsie and Walter Cowan, and John Hislop. A Discredited 1971 Resurrection Claim ]


[Additional jottings from the devotee world.]

Howard Murphet
On p. 167 of Sai Baba Avatar, this well-known devotee-writer comments:
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)

Re: Haraldsson’s inadvertent role as defender and supporter of Sathya Sai Baba’s Avataric claims in the face of contemporary strong challenges.
The following anonymous ‘review’ reflects one of the unfortunate consequences of ‘Modern Miracles’: that Haraldsson’s study in Indian and overseas devotee circles for more than 20 years the book has been seen and promoted as a “scientific” proof of SSB’s claimed divinity and as a defence against the growing questioning of his authenticity – in spite of the facts that Haraldsson himself does not claim to be a devotee, has no interest in the divine claims, and even classes as “fools” those who see SSB as God Incarnate.

“Modern Miracles has merits of unique proportions. Although miraculous phenomena occurring in connection with religious leaders have been reported throughout history, Haraldsson’s presentation is a first of its kind. The study is based upon firsthand observation of a scientist and is supported by his careful interrogation of witnesses. It describes paranormal phenomena of extraordinary variety and strength attributed to one of the most remarkable men of the century. India, the land of guru worship, abounds with holy men who are often called ‘babas.’ Sathya Sai Baba is a unique individual – a kind of genius towering over the whole landscape. He sees his mission as primarily devoted to the spiritual and moral renewal of India — extricating his country from its present confusions. Baba’s powerful influence, however, touches the whole fabric of Indian life, be it social justice, political problems, or the educational system. The meek and the downtrodden, as well as the powerful and the mighty, flock around him in never-ending crowds streaming through his ashram. I was present when a person holding one of the highest elected offices in India, escorted by a three-star general, approached him. They both got down on the floor and touched Baba’s feet with their bare foreheads. Thankfully, there is a new book on Sathya Sai Baba which goes a long way to determine the relative authenticity of his miracles... Undoubtedly, Haraldsson’s study is the most balanced book ever written on the miraculous work of Sathya Sai Baba... I highly recommend Miracles Are My Visiting Cards.” (page 7 of Catalogue of Sai Towers Publishing)

For more up to date research on SSB, and specifically on Erlendur Haraldsson, see the following three websites:

Robert Priddy:

A Series of articles on Professor Erlendur Haraldsson 
Parapsychologist author of 'Modern Miracles' on Sathya Sai Baba.
Discussions on the Sai Baba issue and EH, Professor of Psychology, University of Rekjavik.
This page also includes links to Dale Beyerstein and to two recent articles on Barry Pittard’s blog.

Chris Dokter

Professor Haraldsson's Final Verdict on Sathya Sai Baba and His Western Critics

(Footnote. 7 October 2013: My initial detailed commentary on Haraldsson’s recent update of Modern Miracles and Miracles are My Visiting Cards, 'Erlendur Haraldsson Breaks his Silence on Sathya Sai Baba's Final Decade', can be viewed here.)