A Controversial Academic View of Sathya Sai Baba by Smriti Srinivas

Brian Steel    July 2009

Copyright ©   2009 Brian Steel

Srinivas, Smriti, In the Presence of SAI BABA. Body, City and Memory in a Global Religious Movement, Hyderabad, Orient Longman, 2008. [Rupees 585 = $14]
(The original version was commissioned and published by the academic publishing house of Brill ( Leiden / Boston) at the price of $188.)

The author, who does not (as far as I can see), specifically state that she is a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba, has had significant exposure to his teachings and some of his Centres. Srinivas tells us that she conducted and published research on the two Sai Babas (of whom she has been aware for most of her life) between 1995 and 2005. Dr Srinivas’s scholarship-sponsored field work took place at the SSO Center in Atlanta for several months in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002 and in the Nairobi SSO Centre in December 2001, with additional months of fieldwork in India in four years. The 12-year study seems, therefore, to be the combined result of several of her previous scholarly papers (revised) and her extensive fieldwork, reinforced by new research and structured into a complex scholarly thesis (which is, at first reading, still beyond my modest comprehension).

I had already examined and commented on a few of Srinivas’s papers and articles on Shirdi Sai and Sathya Sai and have made relevant critical comments in Part 1 of my Bibliography of Sathya Sai Baba (in 2005 and 2007). (See link at the end of this article.) My preliminary reading of her latest work was carried out not from the point of view of the specialist academic and student audience to which the major part of the complex study is addressed, but in relation to my own ongoing study of the idiosyncratic way academics have tended to approach and report on the official biography of Sathya Sai Baba and his career as a guru. Dr Srinivas’s specialised study is obviously the fruit of deep scholarship, ranging across the ‘borders’of several academic disciplines. Its overall merits will be decided by her academic colleagues and specialist graduate students.

Below, I have selected five basic aspects which, in my opinion, need further consideration and attention for a more objective assessment and representation of Sathya Sai Baba – and of the original Sai Baba of Shirdi and his separate Organisation.

1. The Question of Primary Source Use in the Study of Sathya Sai Baba

Like a number of other academics, Dr Srinivas concentrates on describing how others describe and interpret Sathya Sai Baba and his Mission. Equally deserving of attention are the major oral and psychological contributions made to the relationship by Sathya Sai Baba himself, from the very beginning of his Mission, and especially as documented since 1955 in his published (translated) Discourses. This ‘blind spot’ often leads academics to employ inadvertently misleading or apologetic formulations like “Sathya Sai Baba is believed to be …” or to omit the prudential qualifications alleged and allegedly when referring to claims made by SSB. Even in the following introductory humorous remark by Dr Srinivas, this ‘omission’ may betray a lack of objectivity: “Unlike the avatar, whose attributes include omniscience and omnipresence, it was not possible for me to be in all times and all places …” (p. 11).

Dr Srinivas offers twenty very interesting pages on the widely sold devotee monthly magazine Sanathana Sarathi (1958-), which can be provisionally classified as a primary source because it includes translations of some of SSB’s Discourses as well as other ashram and Organisation news. In pursuit of her specialist thesis, the author pays special attention to changes in the magazine cover design, pictures and symbols, especially as reflections of the rapid national, then international, development of the Sathya Sai Organisation. However, she fails to give equal attention to the vital role, and the crucial content (especially in relation to the strident divine claims in the early Discourses), of a primary official source: Sathya Sai Baba’s translated Telugu Discourses. The major lacunae are usually the first two volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks, which deal with discourses (and divine claims) given and recorded between 1953 and the early 1960s, a period which most academics have also ignored, preferring to be guided by the Sathya Sai Organisation’s simplistic selection of four “landmark” Discourses to indicate the progression of Sathya Sai Baba’s claims. By failing to look more deeply into this basic and freely available source, Srinivas loses a vital opportunity to find out (and reveal to her peers) new facts about Sathya Sai Baba (which have already been revealed on the Internet by non-academic researchers).

2. Secondary Research Sources

As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, part of SSB’s huge achievement has been his ability to persuade or motivate other people (through his personal charisma and charm) to propagate his story and endorse his Mission – and even to contribute their own enthusiastic proof of his claims, like the multiple alleged prophecies of his ‘Advent’ (analysed by Professor Beyerstein).

Dr Srinivas’s coverage of secondary bibliographical sources relating to the life of SSB at times lacks balance and depth, revealing a tendency to read and use material favourable to Sathya Sai Baba and the official story of his Mission, while ignoring other points which have recently come to light (for example in the seminal biographical work Love is My Form (2000) which she mentions several times but fails to quarry deeply enough, leaving a number of tantalising loose ends). A further example of this imbalance is, on the one hand, her references to Dr George Chryssides and Bill Aitken (who both display an overtly pro-SSB bias as I have indiacted in other articles), and, on the other hand, her failure to mention the critical publications on Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged paranormal powers by Dr Dale Beyerstein (1992 and 1996). Also missing from the long Bibliography of this 2008 publication are two recent (2005) works by Kevin R.D. Shepherd, whose earlier work on Shirdi Sai Baba Srinivas quotes and refers to in her presentation of Shirdi Sai Baba and his putative disciples.

3. The "Sai Baba Movement"

Although the major material for this book is furnished by Sathya Sai Baba and his Movement (as the author admits), Dr Srinivas follows others (and her own previous work) in using the concept “Sai Baba Movement” as though Sathya Sai Baba’s claim to be Shirdi reincarnated were a generally recognised fact, and, more unfortunately, as if a totally separate (and earlier) Sai Baba Movement did not exist with its own base in Shirdi, Maharashtra (as well as all over India and in several other countries). To a majority of people in India, the title “Sai Baba” refers to the senior, widely-respected guru, or saint (Sai). Overseas, on the other hand, because of his wide international following and the enormous publicity it has generated, the name Sathya Sai Baba is by far the better known of the two.

In fact, there are, as I have pointed out elsewhere, two Sai Baba Movements, not one. Therefore, to be fair to both gurus and their devotees, the two individual Organisations should be referred to as the Shirdi Sai (Baba) Movement and the Sathya Sai (Baba) Movement. Srinivas herself recognises the separateness of the Shirdi Sai Sansthan: “While there is a devotional movement centred exclusively on Shirdi Sai Baba that does not associate him with Sathya Sai Baba […], this book focuses on the Sathya Sai Baba movement (sometimes abbreviated in the text as the Sai Baba movement or the Sai movement) within which the two figures are identified” (p. 7).

However, the author’s claim that the two Sai Babas are “identified” is clearly Sathya-centric and Shirdi-exclusive (i.e. it is dependent on the unilateral claim by Sathya Sai Baba, with the total support of his Organisation, to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai, and on the consequent worship of Shirdi Sai within the Puttaparthi ashram by SSB – and throughout the SSO empire by his officials and devotees). Srinivas’s later abrupt admission that “The Shirdi Sai Sansthan does not recognize any successor to Sai Baba” (p. 45) also adds a further jarring note to a sensitive issue.

This awkwardness is compounded throughout the book when Srinivas makes frequent specific references to the “Sathya Sai Baba Movement” as a synonym for her (questionable) concept of the “Sai Baba Movement”. It follows that a decision to use the “Sathya Sai Baba Movement” label throughout the book would have been a commendable editorial decision. (I have discussed this name dilemma briefly in a recent article on my website, and a much longer earlier essay considers questions, difficulties and discrepancies arising from Sathya Sai Baba’s claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, and the abrupt shift of emphasis from Shirdi Sai Baba to Jesus Christ in the early 1970s.) (See also Shirdi Essay.)

4. Sathya Sai Baba Controversies

Like other academics, Srinivas makes the elementary mistake of regarding the spectacular, media attention-grabbing sexual allegations as by far the most important of the recent controversies about the guru from Puttaparthi as. Such imponderables may therefore be legitimately judged as lying outside the parameters of academic research and duly ignored. Coincidentally, but more deliberately, the Sathya Sai Organisation often adopts a similar attitude in order to be able to issue lofty dismissals of all critical comment and discussion about Sathya Sai Baba or his Organisation as being beneath contempt. In this way, reports on much more fundamental questions (like SSB’s story-telling habit and many discrepancies surrounding the divine claims, his alleged powers and the exact content of his original Telugu Discourses) fail to be properly investigated by academics who accept this biased viewpoint. Srinivas has nothing to say about these.

5. Internet evidence

Dr Srinivas’s book gives me the impression that she may be a recent convert to researching the Internet, but, even if this is so, in investigating this huge new area she has been too hasty and selective. Although she shows signs of being aware of critical Internet activity about SSB in the past six years, she has chosen, deliberately (see pp. 333-334), not to examine it, thereby laying herself open to the criticism of staying too close to the “official line” on Sathya Sai Baba, however unconsciously this may have occurred. With solipsistic reference to my own critical work about SSB (300-400 pages of website offerings since November 2001), the only mention I found in Srinivas’s crowded volume was to the second Part of my Annotated Bibliography (on critical writing), which she describes, accurately, as “exhaustive”. Whether she didn’t find my many other exhaustive pieces – like, for example, Part 1 and Part 3 of the Bibliography or four lengthy Dossiers – or chose to ignore them, her Internet research methods seem in need of recinsideration. (Nevertheless, I was pleased to see that a few of the critical biographical points I have broached were fleetingly (albeit inconclusively and, above all, non-critically) mentioned in her work. Notable among the useful points newly discovered by Srinivas since her disappointing 2005 encyclopedia article are a few of those to be found in the important 2000 publication Love is My Form, which she should re-read and reconsider more attentively before revising her book.)

As things are, the beleaguered Sathya Sai Organisation officials will not be at all displeased with Dr Srinivas’s version of the basic Sathya Sai Baba story and her signal lack of interest in the substantial critical literature since 2000. However, in my opinion, the above points detract significantly from the accuracy and balance of the Professor’s depiction of the central figures, Sathya Sai Baba and Shirdi Sai Baba. It is to be hoped that she and some of her colleagues and interested graduate students will devote closer attention to this basic aspect of her scholarly study.

Further Reading:

Annotated Bibliography on Sathya Sai Baba. Part 1 (Please wait a minute or more for this to load.)

Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 2

Annotated Bibliography on SSB. Part 3

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