Brief Notes on a Recent Visit to India

Brian Steel   February 2005

 Copyright ©  2005 Brian Steel

India is really booming. Bangalore and the outskirts of Whitefield are crammed with multi-storey factories, office blocks, apartment buildings and shopping malls, with many more under construction. There are more hotels too. The roads are still totally inadequate and the traffic is abominable and toxic. SSB's Whitefield is also unchanged (including the grumpy old men at the ashram gate) but deserted, since June last year. The Sai Towers shop is there, but I saw no sign on it. On the afternoon when I was the sole visitor, six stall owners were hopefully displaying their SSB memorabilia, including DVDs these days. The only thing I purchased was a refreshing drink of coconut milk.

In tune with the Indian boom, and Bangalore-based, is the VERY fashionable (and interesting) 'Western' style Indian guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. On the covers of his many self-improvement books, he is styled 'His Holiness'. In neighbouring Kerala, the more traditional Ammachi (the 'Hugging Mother') continues to draw large crowds.


1. Recent books about SSB

On a recent trip to three Indian cities, I came across many new books about SSB. Several of them were recent hagiographical works by influential veteran spokespersons like Dr. S. Sandweiss, Dr Ghadia and the late Howard Murphett (who repeats his claim that 13 Sai miracle children are being born to help in the Mission but who also continues to quote unconvincing hearsay like: "He is reported to have told a Sai devotee that ..."). There is even an enthusiastic Diary of a visit with SSB to the northern shrines in 1961 by the (surely nonagenarian) Smt. Vijayakumari, whose other more revealing reminiscences were published six years ago as Other than You Refuge There is None.

Also unearthed, at the SSB HQ in Mumbai (Dharmakshetra), was a 4-year old official publication which I had missed but which many devotees all over the world must have bought and read. It is called Chaitanya Jyoti, The Millennium Museum. Sri Sathya Sai Avatar. The book was published in 2001 to commemorate the inauguration a year previously of the large SSB Museum of that name, a costly pagoda-like structure. Lavishly illustrated in colour (and more expensive than most official publications which are practically given away, at Rs. 40 or 50), this catalogue and commentary on the life and mission of SSB presents an extraordinary collection of fact and unsubstantiated or discredited claims, including many propagated by devotees which have entered the mythology surrounding SSB (like the various alleged prophecies of his Advent by everyone from Jesus to Edgar Cayce, including Muhammad and Nostradamus). Some of the illustrations are of exhibits obviously aimed at a relatively uneducated audience and can perhaps best be described as 'kitsch'. But they also point to a strongly promotional and proselytising aim of the exotic publication.

Written in a much more attractive style and demanding close attention is a recent book by an established Indian travel writer, published by a leading worldwide publisher, and therefore practically guaranteed potential best-seller status, at least in India. The book will be given a longer review later but I mention it here since it seems to fit in with the unabated urge by some observers to glorify SSB and to reject all criticism by turning a blind eye to it. The book purports to be a Life of SSB but in fact crucially presents the TWO Sai Babas as a closely related geographical and spiritual phenomenon. (See my remarks in section 2 of these brief Notes.)

For now, suffice it to say that not only does the title fail to indicate the full subject matter but the writer, who describes himself as an admirer of SSB for many years, alternates disconcertingly between sound analysis and observation of the personal impact of SSB, his charitable works, and the Indian spiritual scene (on which he has written other well known books) and the sort of totally unquestioning descriptions and unsupported assertions usually found in devotee eulogies, and the dogmatic blanket rejections of recent criticisms of SSB more in the style (and phraseology) of official SSO spokespersons. Some readers may also be intrigued by the author's initial candid admission that he was, in fact, requested to write the book (by a devotee) and had serious doubts about the enterprise but was promised that SSB would intervene to help him. He admits that his friends regard SSB as "a kind of curiosity" and he himself appears to believe SSB is 69 years old. Altogether a very mixed piece of writing.

In the Hyderabad Book Fair, I also purchased Robert Priddy's recent End of the Dream. The Sathya Sai Baba Enigma, published by B. Premanand. But that is quite a different story, 600 pages long.


2. The Shirdi (dis)connection

Among the impressions about SSB that have been absorbed by many non-Indian devotees (and others) is that he is widely revered and worshipped throughout India, especially because they believe his claim to be the reincarnation of the earlier saint, Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918 and who has a very broad national following and overseas devotees as well. In a previous article, I mentioned my strong 1999 impression that in the national capital, New Delhi (so far away from Puttaparthi), which SSB has only visited on a few occasions, Shirdi Sai Baba is the revered figure and saint. In New Delhi I also found that when mentioning the names of Sathya Sai Baba and Shirdi Sai Baba to middle class Indians, there was a far more positive response to the name of Shirdi (whose established place of worship is 300 kilometres east of Mumbai - about 1,000 kilometres north of Puttaparthi). Furthermore, Delhi Shirdi Sai devotees and officials to whom I spoke did NOT acknowledge any connection between the two Sai Babas (but they were not critical of Sathya either; they said nothing but they implied that I should take a look at Shirdi Sai). Some educated Indians showed much more reserved or even embarrassed reactions to the name of the other Sai Baba from distant Andhra Pradesh. (He has, after all, often been the subject of controversial articles in the Indian Press over the past few decades, especially by the tenacious Indian Rationalists.)

On this recent visit to (central) Mumbai in Maharashtra and the northern end of Andhra Pradesh, it quickly became quite obvious from the innumerable shop and business names (Sai Ram Ice Cream, Sai Baba Batteries, and so on) and from conversations with a small number of taxi drivers and educated Indians that the local favourite of the two Sai Babas was also definitely Shirdi Sai. Again, the taxi drivers and educated Indians I spoke to were rather dismissive or embarrassed by the mention of the southern Sathya, especially in bookshops. (See Note below.)

There is surely enough circumstantial evidence to show that the suggestion, or the belief of overseas devotees, that SSB's fame in India is widespread is simply a mirage (caused by information from the SSO and over-zealous devotees). Although SSB claimed in 1943 to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and in spite of the alleged proofs that he gave in the early years, this claim is simply not accepted by most Shirdi devotees; neither is there any mention of SSB in most books about Shirdi (including a recent guide to Shirdi by Alison Williams). Sixty years later, it is still Shirdi who is the nationally famous Sai Baba, the one considered to be an important national saint - especially in North and Central India. Despite the existence of SSO Centres in many other Indian cities, SSB's MAJOR sphere of fame and influence in India remains limited (linguistically?) to his native state of (Telugu-speaking) Andra Pradesh, and to the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Elsewhere, if he is known at all, it is normally as the 'southern Sai Baba', as just another guru, in fact.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that any foreign criticism of SSB tends to raise the hackles of patriotic Indians, even those who do not seem to like or respect SSB at all. As if criticism of him were a criticism of ALL Indian gurus, which of course it is NOT.



Hearsay evidence, for interest:
A Bangalore taxi driver of 30 years standing: "SSB is not the man he was five years ago."

Mumbai taxi driver 1 who claimed to take his family on annual pilgrimages to Shirdi:
On being asked why there are two Sai Babas: "In South India he is very much."
Mumbai taxi driver 2 on Sathya Sai Baba: "He is not the original one." (No further comment.)
The following is also hearsay, of course, but I heard it.
As I was leaving India, an Immigration officer noticed a picture of Shirdi Baba on a book I was carrying.
"Do you know who that is?"
"Yes. Shirdi Sai Baba."
"He is GOD."
"What about Sathya Sai Baba?"
"He's in South India. He's a fake - a kind of fake."]


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