On the Terms “Sai Baba” and “the Sai Baba Movement”

Brian Steel    December 2008

Copyright ©   Brian Steel 2008

If you Google the name “Sai Baba”, of the (alleged) 2,360,000 references instantly computed, the majority of the first hundred refer to (Sathya) Sai Baba. (A Yahoo search offers the even more mind-boggling total of 6,610,000 items.) If, however, you type the URLs www.saibaba.org or www.saibaba.com into your Internet browser, you will be referred to two sites belonging to the Organisation and the devotees of Sai Baba of Shirdi (or Shirdi Sai Baba, or Shirdi Sai). This original bearer of the name “Sai Baba” was a Muslim / Hindu holy man or saint who died in 1918 and has a widespread Indian and international (but mainly ethnic Indian) Organisation. In India his followers are most numerous in the northern half, down to the latitude of Mumbai but he is also well known in the south. His dual Muslim-Hindu characteristics are reflected in his name: ‘Sai’, from a Persian word for ‘saint’ and ‘Baba’, a common respectful Indian term for ‘father’.

The Internet results also reveal interesting differences between the two major Search engines, Yahoo and Google. (Food for thought.)

On Yahoo (1 December 2008) the first item on the search list for ‘Sai Baba’ is www.saibaba.org – i.e. the Shirdi Sai Baba Organisation (in Chicago).
Number two is www.saibaba.ws, an unofficial and apparently out of date Sathya Sai Baba website.
Number three on the list is www.saibaba.com (Shirdi Sai Baba).
Fourth is www.sathyasai.org (one of several official Sathya Sai websites).

The Google search offers a different mix:
1. www.sathyasai.org (Sathya Sai, official)
2. the Wikipedia article on Sathya Sai Baba (a controversial and incomplete offering)
3. www.saibaba.org(Shirdi Sai, in Chicago)
4. www.skepdic.com/saibaba.html (critical of Sathya Sai Baba)

‘Sathya Sai’ (like ‘Sai’) is an alternative devotee name for Sathya Sai Baba, reportedly born in 1926 as Sathya Narayana Raju, in or near the remote southern Indian village of Puttaparthi in the state of Andhra Pradesh. According to his official biography, in 1940 [read: 1943], following a traumatic seizure or illness, Sathya Narayana declared himself to be the reincarnation of [Shirdi] Sai Baba and rapidly became famous locally for his healing, exorcisms, and other miracles. Charismatic Sathya went on to claim full avatarhood and divine powers and, eventually, to become the most famous living Indian guru in the world. In the past quarter of a century the fame of Sathya, vigorously promoted by his transnational charitable Organisation and his millions of devotees, especially those from outside India, has become far better known internationally (though not throughout the whole of India) than the original bearer of the Sai Baba title. This explains why he is identified by most “Westerners” and the Google machines (whose logarithms operate on the rather crude but practical basis of quantity of references or links to a given word or term) as “Sai Baba”. His Organisation and devotees also refer to him simply as ‘Sai’ (which he has always boldly told them means ‘Divine Mother’, despite the obvious etymological inaccuracy).

While the theologically dual nature of Shirdi Sai (Baba) as Muslim fakir and Hindu miracle-making saint has attracted both hagiographical and academic interest, the indisputably charismatic Sathya Sai (Baba) has attracted a massive amount of hagiographical writing and some critical attention but, until very recently, only minor scholarly interest (a lacuna possibly explained by Sathya’s strident and reiterated claims of Divinity, his alleged miracles – and academic Haraldsson’s failure to disprove them – as well as his enigmatic and flamboyant reputation).

A further factor in the story of the two Sai Babas is that, after sixty years of self promotion and unparalleled adoration and worship as God on Earth (or Avatar) by (possibly) millions of followers, the background murmurs of doubt and denial of Sathya Sai’s Divine claims have been growing in volume and geographical extension, particularly since the appearance and wide diffusion of major new Internet postings beginning in 2000 and followed in 2006 by many blogs. Therefore, when media and Internet allegations, analyses, revelations, headlines and emotional controversy are directed at “Sai Baba” rather than “Sathya Sai Baba”, followers of Shirdi Sai Baba have a right to feel aggrieved and although the name Sai Baba is now firmly established in current use by devotees of both of these spiritual icons and by the public, it would surely be a courtesy to Shirdi Sai Baba and his devotees if, as often as possible, people (especially academic writers and journalists) were to refer to the ‘junior Sai Baba’, as Sathya Sai Baba, or Sathya Sai.

Sai Baba Movement

As for the term ‘Sai Baba Movement’, used by academics and a few other writers, it is either ambiguous or misleading, depending on the context in which it is used. The two Sai Baba Organisations, regardless of the prominent worship of Shirdi Sai in Sathya Sai ashrams because of Sathya Sai’s specific reincarnation claims and supposed identity, have always been completely separate, one based in the state of Marathi-speaking Maharashtra, the other further south in Sathya Sai’s Telugu homeland, Andhra Pradesh.

Especially misleading, and easily avoidable, is the use of ‘Sai Baba Movement’ when used as a variant for ‘Sathya Sai Baba Movement’ (sometimes on the same page). As explained above, there are two independent Sai Baba Movements and, for disambiguation purposes, they should therefore be referred to as the Shirdi Sai Baba Movement and the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. (It seems unlikely, after so many years of silence, that the ‘senior’ organisation would ever wish to press its prior claim to the Sai Baba title.)

One of the first to use the term ‘Sai Baba Movement’ seems to have been an academic, Professor Charles S. J. White, in his pioneering 1972 plea for scholars of religion to “consider seriously the nature of Indian sainthood and more particularly the so-called ‘living saints’”.
(See ‘The Sai Baba Movement: Approaches to the Study of Indian Saints’, Journal of Asian Studies, XXXI, No. 4 (August 1972), 863-878. Reprinted in Ruhela and Robinson (eds.), Sai Baba and His Message, 1976, pp. 40-66.)

Professor White wrote his (since much quoted) research study about a group of living saints who had resided in the Poona and Bangalore areas and whom he considered homogeneous enough to be called “The Sāi Bābā Movement” (p. 863). He is referring to (Shirdi) Sai Baba, Upasani Baba, Mata Godavari, and Sathya Sai Baba. Since this spontaneous christening by White, other scholars seem to have simply adopted the abbreviated label without question. (A notable scholarly dissident here is Kevin R. D. Shepherd.)

Much more surprising is that the following misleading assertion accompanied by the flimsiest evidence imaginable has not received critical attention from White’s peers and successors:
“The competence of Sathya Sai Baba to serve as the successor of Shirdi Sai Baba is increasingly recognized in the Sai Baba cult. For instance in one of Shirdi Sai Baba’s shrines in Madras, Sathya Sai Baba’s photograph was prominently displayed and I was told that Sathya Sai Baba had attended the dedication of the temple a few years back”(p. 874).

It is no secret outside Andhra Pradesh that most followers of Shirdi Sai have never accepted Sathya’s incarnation claims and, as a curious bibliographical consequence of this divide, there is a dichotomous Shirdi Sai Baba literature: on the one side, the bulk of the books, written by the majority of his followers and, on the other side, those few written by devotees of Sathya Sai Baba who have also become devotees of Shirdi. In the former, readers will find no trace of the alleged new information about Shirdi Sai occasionally ‘omnisciently’ revealed in Sathya Sai’s discourses (notably in 1990 and, with his trademark discrepancies, in 1992); in the latter category of Shirdi books this questionable ‘new’ information is presented as fact – as is anything that Sathya Sai chooses to say in public.

Interestingly, White (belatedly) acknowledges Shirdi’s posthumous popularity as evidenced by his appeal to the masses and to the middle classes and the existence of temples in Madras, Coimbatore and Bombay : “One’s impression from the literature about him by devotees is that he is coming to be regarded as a major incarnation” (p. 868). In the last 30 years that popularity has increased exponentially in India and in countries where there is a substantial Indian diaspora (partly, it must be admitted, because of the extra publicity for Shirdi Sai provided by Sathya Sai, the Sathya Sai Organisation and devotee literature).

The latest case of academic misuse of the term ‘Sai Baba Movement’ occurs in the recent ambitious work by Dr Smriti Srinivas, In the Presence of Sai Baba (Brill, Leiden / Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2008). The Indian edition costs approximately $180 less than the Dutch one if you purchase it in India).

The major focus of this study, as the author often demonstrates by using the alternative (and preferable) title, is the Sathya Sai Baba Movement. Further commentary on Dr Srinivas's book is available here.

Other Background references:
Sathya Sai Baba's Questionable Stories and Claims

Shirdi Essay

Part 1 of the Sathya Sai Baba Bibliography, Part 1 (Academic works)

Other research articles are available on Brian Steel's Sathya Sai Baba Page.