Sathya Sai Baba's Latest Story Discrepancy: the Hijack

Brian Steel   December 2004 (Expanded version)

 Copyright © 2004 Brian Steel

Although early devotees of SSB have emphasised the wide local appeal of SSB's early healing miracles and exorcisms in the 1940s, over the past 50 years SSB has rarely felt the need to offer DETAILED public accounts of his major alleged life-saving miracles on behalf of specific devotees. Instead he has tended to be content to make short assertions to individuals or small interview groups (or students) and to rely on his spokespersons and devotees to reveal their dramatic faith-inspired versions of their experiences in lectures, books and conversations. These then become part of the huge accumulation of mythology surrounding SSB's name and reputation as a healer or personal saviour.

There are notable exceptions to this relative reticence on SSB's part, occasions when SSB has decided to divulge extraordinary assertions. For example, his strong and frequent early claims of reincarnation and Divinity, his many advance announcements of the alleged materialisations of lingams on Mahasivaratri Day, the pivotal Shiva-Shakti revelations of 1963, the 'Jesus predicted my Advent' story of 1971 and the TWO 'I alone know the real details of Shirdi Sai Baba's early years' stories (both DIFFERENT) of 1990 and 1992.

Last month he suddenly felt the need to reveal in his Birthday Discourse yet another of his alleged Divine interventions and his official websites and Radio Station transmitted to the world an edited translation of his version of the miraculous rescue from death or serious injury of his indispensable major spokesperson, Dr Goldstein, and his wife in 1986. (Was this spotlight on Dr G. a reward for his recent ordeal on the BBC documentary 'Secret Swami'?)

Particularly significant about this story is that, unlike so many miracle stories involving SSB, the events described are a matter of PUBLIC record, which enables the curious researcher to prove that although SSB claims to have used his Divine intervention on behalf of the Goldsteins, his recent version of the events in which he alleges he was intimately, and miraculously, involved diverges significantly from the public record, and also, alas, from Dr Goldstein's own public recollection of the terrible events.

The hijacking of Pan Am Flight 73 by a 4-man commando of the Abu Nidal terrorist group at Karachi airport in September 1986 is one of the bloodiest on record, with 17 killed and many dozens of the 400 passengers injured. Not only are there many Internet references to this dreadful event, but there is a magazine account by one of the passengers and another more intimate account by one of the badly injured survivors in an inspiring recent book which describes her trauma, despair, brave determination and slow recuperation. (Catherine Hill, Dancing in the Sea, Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing, and Sydney, Random House, 2004).

Dr Michael Goldstein (who was already a veteran prominent official in the U.S. branch of the SSO way back in 1986) was returning with his wife to America after a visit to SSB. The couple endured the unimaginable trauma of this lengthy hijack and were among the fortunate majority of the 400 passengers to survive the murderous mayhem which took place when the nervous terrorists finally panicked. Understandably, the Goldsteins credit their survival as a rescue by SSB and are suitably grateful; SSB agrees with them. Equally understandably, Dr Goldstein has recounted the dramatic and inspiring story to groups of SSB devotees as proof of SSB's Divine powers, stressing SSB's miraculous intervention in the ordeal. (Rather like Mrs Phyllis Krystal's account of her harrowing experience in a similar earlier hijacking.)

Those basic details, especially the trauma suffered by the Goldsteins and their gratitude for being spared, are clear, and not in dispute.

Fast forward 18 years to 2004: In his 23 November Birthday Discourse (as translated and edited by the SSO), SSB gave his version of this story, telling how he had intervened to save the lives of the Goldsteins. Without dwelling here on the self-promotional angle of this 18-year old story, the basic truth that must be admitted is that, once again, SSB has made very basic factual errors in an event in which he claims he was divinely, omnipotently and omnisciently involved. These errors are easily verifiable not only in media and other accounts of the happenings but also in Dr Goldstein's lecture to a Vancouver group of devotees in May 2001).

As anyone can easily find out in the public annals, 18 years after the headline-grabbing event, the US-bound Pan Am 747 Jumbo took off from Bombay (India) early on 5 September 1986. It touched down at 9 a.m. for a brief stopover at Karachi airport in Pakistan to take on more passengers. There four Arab terrorists, dressed in Pakistani Security Forces uniforms, swiftly took over the plane - but not before the pilots had been tipped off and escaped, thus frustrating the terrorists' expectation of a quick take-off and putting their plan in jeopardy. After the callous shooting of one American passenger, the others had to endure a tense SEVENTEEN hours of captivity and uncertainty inside the plane on the runway at Karachi.

The ending came swiftly when the plane's power supply finally ran out and the lights were extinguished. This provoked the hijackers into a flurry of shooting and lobbing of hand grenades inside the plane, causing 17 deaths and scores of injuries. The remaining passengers escaped down the emergency chutes deployed by the brave cabin crew.

According to extracts from SSB's latest (birthday) version, some of the main details are quite different. For instance, although he alleges he was present, he says that the whole hijack took place in mid-air (presumably over India), instead of on the tarmac in Karachi, with dramatic major carnage taking place both at the beginning and the end.

"Soon after the plane took off [from Bombay], it was realised that there were some hijackers in the plane." ....

"When the aircraft gained some altitude, the hijackers started shooting the passengers. The passengers were struck with terror not knowing what to do. As the hijackers opened fire, the aircraft was strewn with dead bodies." ...

"Thus, the life of Goldstein was saved by Swami's grace. They remained on the plane as hostages for a long time without food, water and sleep." ...

"At this point the hijackers began to shoot men, women, and children mercilessly. Goldstein and his wife, however, continued to pray to Swami, "Sai Ram, Sai Ram, Sai Ram". They silently prayed to Swami closing their eyes. In the meantime, all the ammunition in the guns of the hijackers was exhausted."

Just then, according to SSB's account, the police appear from nowhere (in mid-air?) and arrested the hijackers.

But there is a further intriguing discrepancy to point out, which casts a further shadow over SSB's claims and credibility. According to a report of Goldstein's Vancouver narrative in 2001, on seeing SSB on his next visit to India, the two of them naturally talked about the incident and SSB accepted full credit for the rescue, adding a final confidential comment in Telugu to his students (NOT to Goldstein) before leaving the room. When Dr Goldstein asked the students what SSB had told them in Telugu, "The students replied: 'while you were sliding down that chute, the hijacker by the door had his fingers on the trigger to kill you. Swami said that He appeared on the scene, stood behind the hijacker and raised His palm, in a blessing gesture. The hijacker loosened his fingers from the trigger.'"

It looks rather odd, but is not uncharacteristic of SSB, that he only told the schoolboys about this specific action, which allegedly saved Dr Goldstein from serious injury or death. Such a comment, once made, is bound to have a special impact on the listeners, and is equally bound to be repeated ...

The general reader may be left wondering why it was that SSB, who teaches that there is only one religion, only made a special effort to save his devotees, the Goldsteins? Why also does SSB make such a point of making this miraculous rescue appear to be a reward for their faith in him? (Is it related to the present controversy about him?) Why didn't he prevent the 17 deaths and the scores of appalling injuries? In particular, why didn't he protect young twenty-something Catherine Hill from her disfiguring injury and MANY years of suffering?

Karma? I don't think that stock devotee response will convince many people.

Note: Catherine Hill's story describes a traumatic beginning and a protracted period of acute suffering and struggle, but after many years the narrator has reached a courageous and successful resolution of the terrible effects of the 1986 hijack. Why not buy her book, especially for someone who may be trying to cope with unbearable physical suffering?

Further investigation reminds us of the following relevant facts:

Since SSB is believed to be God and God is believed to be able to save lives, it is not surprising that many devotee books about SSB (including one of mine) contain stories of miraculous survival, or rescue or healing. This has been so since the early days of SSB's Mission. and the stories have impressed many readers or listeners, to the extent that it may be asserted that saving, healing and rescue have come to be expected bonuses for being a devotee of this guru. In the major SSB book by psychotherapist, devotee and writer Phyllis Krystal (Sai Baba. The Ultimate Experience), there is a tense account of her and her husband's survival of an aeroplane hijack in 1974. During their ordeal, Mrs. Krystal prayed to SSB and clearly felt that SSB was not only answering her prayers but intervening through her, not only to save her and her husband but also the plane and all its occupants. Her account of SSB's personal confirmation of his intervention EIGHT years later (after several other visits to the ashram), and her excitement at the details he 'omnisciently' reveals of the dramatic scene may not be shared by readers who remember that Mrs Krystal had been giving talks and lectures to devotee groups about these and other experiences for years. (P. Krystal, 1985, p. 239)

Unlike Mrs Krystal's inspiring rescue story, and more like an echo of the insensitivity visible in the official version of the 1986 hijacking is an official emotional response to the showing of the Danish documentary 'Seduced' on the Australian TV channel SBS (in early 2004). The author of the apparently hastily written protest was the (now ex) Central SSO Coordinator for Australasia and in it he endeavoured to reassure his flock by quoting from another reassuring but highly controversial article which had appeared in the 'Sathya Sai Newsletter' of USA following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and carnage in 2001:

"Americans have been overwhelmed with the terrible tragedies in New York and Washington DC. Communication was sent to our beloved Swami with the report on the situation and status of the New York Sathya Sai Baba Centers. All of the Sai centers in the New York area have reported to their regional president that all their members are safe and unharmed. A number of reports have been received from devotees indicating that our beloved Swami prevented many of his devotees from being injured or killed in the World Trade Center where they were employed or had meetings scheduled. His miraculous intervention on behalf of his devotees is clearly evident. Included in the communication sent to Swami was a letter written to him by the officers of the New York and Washington D.C. regions expressing their gratitude to him for his divine protection, an their desire to be of service to the less fortunate victims of this cataclysmic disaster."

Again the triumphalist claim of exclusivity for SSB devotees, reinforced after a decent prayer for the real victims of the 9/11 slaughter, by a reminder of this guarantee for SSB's devotees:

"Our knowledge and experience is that all true devotees are beneficiaries of Sai protection at all times. By being in the Sai fold, we have not only a great "treasure", we have a good cause to share our blissful life. Are we taking every measure within our power to defend the Sai cause from misguided persons?" (From Release Number 186 of the Sathya Sai Organisation of Australia - since removed, I believe.)

It is difficult to reconcile such exclusive claims and attitudes, on the part of both SSB and his spokespersons, with the current vigorous campaign by the SSO to project SSB as an ecumenical world spiritual leader.

See also Robert Priddy's recent observations (News, 30 December 2004), on:
Related material is to be found at: Dossier 1. Stories
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