Promoting Sathya Sai Baba in Today's Spiritual Marketplace

Brian Steel  3 November 2004

 Copyright © 2004  Brian Steel

Invitation to a Public Meeting

A few days ago, on 30 October, three high-ranking officials of a well-known spiritual organisation were preparing to share their enthusiasm for their charismatic guru with the general public during a 2-hour open meeting. At the venue, on the San Diego Campus of the University of California, they also promised to show a short video about the guru and his ashram in distant southern India.

These speakers, with decades of experience in addressing the guru's overseas devotees as his spokespersons, also brought to the podium their prestige as important members of the American medical fraternity.

At first glance, this public meeting seems to be yet another practical response to the contemporary need to advertise the individual offerings of the smorgasbord of alternative spirituality which are available today - just like the overseas tours by famous gurus like Ammachi, the Hugging Mother, workshops led by Andrew Cohen or the recently headlined proselytising activities of Madonna in favour of the Kabbala Center in California.

Background Information

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This meeting organised by the Sathya Sai Baba Organisation in San Diego (and the half dozen other gatherings this year in major cities in USA, Europe and Brazil) also has other interesting features about it. First of all, the guru himself, Sathya Sai Baba, perhaps India's most famous living guru, will not be in attendance, preferring as always to remain in his ashram in southern India. Secondly, since 1943 his Mission has been prospering (since 1943) without needing general public meetings in overseas countries. These, as opposed to frequent large gatherings of his devotees, are a relatively new departure for the SSO and SSB's spokespersons. The usual activities of the well established Sathya Sai Organisation and its national counterparts outside India, including the very influential U.S. SSO (which arranged the recent meetings), have been weekly study and worship meetings at the many local centres. Newcomers and anyone else interested have been attracted to these spiritual meetings for a glimpse of what SSB and his devotees are all about. Until recently, word-of-mouth recommendation and news of SSB's alleged Powers and miracles (including those described in the hundreds of eulogistic books written by devotees) has been sufficient to ensure constant steady growth in numbers of followers. Also until relatively recent times, direct public advertising of this sort was officially discouraged.

Another interesting circumstance is that, after decades of non-stop growth, devotee recruitment in some overseas countries has slowed down. Major factors for the slowing down, and for a number of 'defections' by overseas devotees, is the increasing attention shown by the media and on the Internet to sensational sexual and other allegations and, to a lesser extent, a series of challenges to SSB's characteristically unique Divine claims. Major public embarrassments to the SSO have been two recent TV documentaries: 'Seduced' screened by Danish and Australian TV in 2002, and 'Secret Swami' screened by the BBC in UK in June this year, and on its World Service in September.

So, although the public meetings in USA and elsewhere may be viewed as advertising for further expansion by a large spiritual corporation, it seems reasonable to imagine an additional damage control-public relations component. The advertising angle needs no comment except (ironically) that for decades one of SSB's many claims was that his Mission was divinely pre-ordained to succeed and therefore required NO advertising. Since another of his claims was to be Omniscient, his wishes were dutifully respected by SSO Centre officials all over the world. Incidentally, SSB also totally ruled out any future connection with the Internet in 1999, but in spite of that pronouncement, the SSO and the Sathya Sai Trust are now vigorously spreading the word on at least three official websites as well as a dedicated Radio Station in India.

The Speakers

The possible connection between the recent perceived need for official publicity about SSB's life and message and damage control to combat recent criticisms merit further examination. Two of the speakers at the 30 October meeting have a record of over two decades apiece of public appearances in several countries addressing groups of enthusiastic devotees on the subject of their experiences with and interpretations of SSB's teachings, his charismatic personality and legendary paranormal gifts. That task, for them and other spokespersons, was made easy because of the devotees' strong belief in SSB's unequivocal claims to be God on Earth and his reputation as a performer of miracles and healings.

Speaker Dr Samuel Sandweiss (a psychiatrist), as the announcement of the San Diego meeting points out, is the author of the best selling Sai Baba. The Holy Man ... and the Psychiatrist, published almost thirty years ago. This book has probably been one of the ten most influential books about SSB, not least because it is written in a vivid and engaging personal style from the point of view of a sophisticated professional and thinker. Unlike most other writers about SSB, Sandweiss's endorsement of the Divine claims is very discreet, guarded even. This is understandable, given his professional standing and the problems which he inevitably encountered from conservative medical colleagues as a result of his enthusiasm for and association with an eastern guru. At the beginning of his first book, he cautiously writes:

"The scope of his reputed powers boggles the mind ... To them [his followers], this charismatic mysterious man is an avatar: a superhuman embodiment of the divine in human form." ... "It is hard, to put it mildly, for most Westerners to take such claims seriously. Yet the caliber of people convinced of Sai Baba's paranormal power, and the increasing documentation available on him, are impressive. ... " (p. 11) Sandweiss goes on to quote the weighty support of Dr Bhagavantam, a contemporary associate and interpreter of SSB, but also an ex-scientific adviser to the Indian Ministry of Defence. A strong reason to be impressed. What Sandweiss failed to notice (possibly because of the important charisma factor) in common with so many other writers - myself included - was that so much of the so-called 'documentation' of claims by and on behalf of SSB was unsubstantiated, or mere hearsay. Nowadays, following the intense recent critical re-examination of much 'documentation', there is far less excuse for not noticing the discrepancies which abound.

Along with the fascinating detail of his own opening up to real spiritual experience under SSB's influence, Dr Sandweiss reports, or quotes, the detail of many a claimed miracle and occasionally throws his professional caution to the winds, showing his conviction with categorical comments like the following from his second book on his experiences with SSB:

"I was overwhelmed, overjoyed ..., thrilled knowing that no one like him had lived for thousands of years - knowing without doubt that the entire world would soon know of him, that he would be worshipped and revered forever." (Spirit and the Mind, 1985, p. 167)

On page 176 of his first book, the author reports and is visibly impressed by one of SSB's more extreme claims, which non-devotees have no hesitation in qualifying as preposterous:

"To me the most mind-blowing event of all regarding Baba's relationship to Christ happened Christmas Day, 1972. He told a group of people: 'Christ said, 'He who has sent Me will come again.' To my amazement he said that he himself is the one to whom Christ was referring." Sandweiss follows those observations with a fuller extract from this key Discourse, which includes one of SSB's most extraordinary claims: that Jesus pointed to a lamb and uttered the syllables "Ba-ba" to refer specifically to the future Advent of SSB himself.

Since then, in his enthusiastic promotion of SSB (particularly within the American SSO), Sandweiss, like so many others, has continued to portray SSB in this superhuman, avataric light.

Another of the announced speakers at San Diego, Dr Michael Goldstein, is equally well known to devotees in many countries for his thirty years of staunch personal and bureaucratic support for SSB and the SSO. He has been a close associate of and spokesperson for SSB, especially in USA, whose SSO he has also headed. For the last two years, after a decisive administrative re-shuffle in India, Dr Goldstein has been the Chairman of the five-member Prashanti Council, which is now the supreme governing body of all national SSOs outside India: a vast diocese. They have travelled widely.

Goldstein's total belief in SSB's Divine claims is clearly seen in his speeches to devotees. It is particularly clear in this strong assertion recorded in the recent BBC documentary, Secret Swami:

"We believe that Sri Sathya Sai Baba is Jesus Christ. Sri Sathya Sai Baba is Buddha. Sri Sathya Sai Baba is the founder of all of the world's religions. Sri Sathya Sai Baba has always been God."

Back to the Meeting

Rather coyly, the brochure for the San Diego meeting says nothing of such claims by these two spokespersons. As in the advance publicity for the other unprecedented public meetings this year, there is not a single mention of two of the main qualities usually associated by devotees with SSB: his claimed Divinity (and Divine powers) and his miracle-making. Instead of mentioning these, SSB is presented more modestly - some would say more realistically - in the publicity brochures for San Diego and other cities as "a highly revered spiritual leader and world teacher." Neither is there any mention of his cute little miracles while still at school. Simply: "As a child, he was brilliant in his studies, but what made him unique was his extraordinary wisdom and compassion." Wisdom and compassion, only. No omniscience. No miracles.

The publicity brochure also fails to mention SSB's alleged Declaration at age 14 that he was the reincarnation of the revered Indian saint Shirdi Sai Baba, who died in 1918, and who still has a separate large following in India and abroad. The following carefully worded statement about this famous decision is very different from the official (and SSB's) claims of Divinity and Divine Powers, including those still plainly visible to visitors to the SSO official websites. San Diego citizens were simply told that "At the age of fourteen, he declared that he would henceforth be known as Sai Baba and that his mission was to bring about the spiritual regeneration of humanity by inspiring love for God and service to all beings." The rest of the brochure deals with SSB's ecumenical spiritual teachings and, in more detail, the extensive charitable activities carried out by the Organisation and Trust in the name of SSB.

So, judging by the printed brochure descriptions of these public presentations to a new public, the pragmatic SSO devotee-bureaucrats appear (to devotees and others who know the background) to be acknowledging the demonstrable weakness of the Divinity claims and concentrating on the promotion of the rest of what SSB stands for. In doing so, they would merely be carrying out the second half of the following task, which was entrusted to two of them as members of the all-powerful Prashanti Council: to be a "resource for intervention in difficult circumstances where the sanctity of the Divine Name or the welfare of the Sai Organization can be affected." But by conducting public meetings in this rather discreet way, such high-powered speakers may be protecting the welfare of the SSO, but they are surely choosing to ignore the other part of that task: "the sanctity of the Divine Name" (assuming that ambiguous description to be a reference to their guru, as most devotees would understand it).

Conclusions and Questions

Viewing the important differences in emphasis between traditional descriptions of SSB and the brochure presentation chosen for the public meetings held in 2004 (and offered on some national SSO websites), the observer is inclined to conclude that SSB's overseas spokespersons have abandoned (or suppressed) their previously expressed beliefs about a Divine Omnipowerful SSB. By so doing, are they not in fact implying officially that although he is still a powerful charismatic guru with useful spiritual teachings (which is not in dispute), his alleged Divinity is indeed a Myth, as has been claimed, and therefore can no longer be confidently asserted outside closed devotee circles?

It remains to be seen how other devotees of SSB will view this public promotion of their guru, especially the majority, who live in India. How does SSB himself feel about it? An interesting minor question is how will the implications of this change in SSB's public image affect those (overseas) writers and New Age practitioners who have so enthusiastically asserted and promoted SSB's Divinity in public, on websites and in books?

For related articles, see:
Downgrading Divinity
Sathya Sai Baba's Fluctuating Claims of Divinity
Of possible interest:
Basic Notes on Sathya Sai Baba's Credibility Problem

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