Sathya Sai Baba: Questionable Stories and Claims. Part 1
John Hislop: “Is it wrong to criticise a person?”
Sai: “It is not wrong to criticise a person if the evaluation has been arrived at slowly and carefully.” (John Hislop. Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Section XLIV, p.145)
What do you really know, if anything, about Sathya Sai Baba? Where did you discover this information? Was it via the thousands of repetitive written and word of mouth descriptions by his devotees and others? If so, you may have missed something basic. If that arouses your curiosity, as it should in view of the snowballing controversies associated with SSB, try the following simple experiment: put to one side for today the teachings, the intense charisma exerted and widely reported for the past 60 years. Put aside the spectacular allegations of sexual misconduct which attract so much media attention and fevered debates. And also put aside the hundreds of devotee books and articles extolling and endorsing SSB’s divinity and special psychic and paranormal powers. Ignoring all this familiar belief-centred information, concentrate, for a change, on valuable insights into SSB’s self presentation to his devotees and the world, mainly in the 35 volumes of his translated and edited Telugu Discourses (Sathya Sai Speaks), published and widely marketed amongst devotees by the Sathya Sai Organisation over the past 50 years. You may be surprised – as I was when I belatedly switched my attention to this new focus nine years ago.
SSB’s frequent Discourses have been one essential means of promoting himself and his Mission. The teaching content of the Discourses is widely read (in many languages) and discussed, and widely reproduced and propagated in devotee writing. Until recently, due to a widespread firm belief in SSB’s Divine nature and infallibility, and a major interest in his spiritual teachings, little serious critical attention had been paid to other anecdotal evidence in the Discourses. A closer look at the first 35 volumes of SSB’s Discourses, unblinkered by religious faith, reveals an important series of basic factual discrepancies and errors which cast serious doubt on SSB’s general credibility, particularly with reference to his claims of Divinity and its trappings.
Flaws in SSB’s general storytelling
The major types of Sathya Sai Baba stories are about:
* Hindu deities, beliefs and scriptures
* SSB’s own biography and spiritual development
* his allegedly Divine Mission and avataric powers
* Jesus Christ
* his views and comments on the contemporary world (especially on scientific matters)
* his idiosyncratic word etymologies
* inappropriate references and ‘name-dropping’
It is a lamentable indication of the lack of independent research on SSB carried out in India that, apart from six errors mentioned by SSB apologist Ra. Ganapati, no attention has yet been paid to SSB’s Hindu stories. Eventually, when Indian scholars and journalists realise the need for such research, interesting results may appear.
As a tiny contribution to this missing research, I can only offer the following quotation by SSB: “Shankaracharaya, in the fifth century A.D., went on foot from Kaanchi to Kaashi, Badhri, Kashmir, Kedhaarnath, Kailash or Puri, Shringeri and Kaaladi! And he only lived until the age of thirty-two!” (Sathya Sai Speaks, XI, 8:55) According to three reference books consulted, there is an error of three centuries here, since Shankara, or Shankaracharya, lived in the eighth century A.D. and established monasteries at the four cardinal points of India.
There is a long series of varied stories about SSB’s schooldays, involving two of his classmates, an examination in which he claims to have cheated on their behalf, and other elements and permutations. Although SSB proudly proclaims his dishonest support of his friends by using his alleged powers to write their answer papers in their own handwriting, he takes pains to disguise the cheating by claiming that “none could accuse us of copying”, on the basis that their three examination seat numbers (which amusingly vary from version to version of the story) were far apart. The full series of anecdotes, with its bewildering permutations of details, is too long for this article but can be perused here:
However, of all the SSB self-promotional childhood stories, the following is probably the most detrimental to SSB’s credibility:
Since mid-1999, some of the popular public Sunday satsangs for College boys by SSB’s current interpreter and popular spokesperson, Professor Anil Kumar, have been made available to a world audience of devotees (in English and several other languages) on his web pages.
In his posting for 10 March 2002, Kumar narrates an extraordinary SSB story, allegedly told recently to some students and teachers, in Kumar’s presence.
“And then Swami went on to say a few things about His own experience. “You know, I got a license. I could drive My car. You know at what age I got the license? At the age of nine!”
Kumar goes on to quote SSB as saying that he got the (premature) licence from two transport Officers, Seshagiri Rao and Hanumantha Rao, who granted it to him at the tender age of nine – in Kumar’s lively rendering, SSB sounds quite pleased with himself about details like this – after a perfunctory examination consisting of merely satisfying themselves that Sathya Narayana was able to steer the car between two lines marked on the ground. This astonishing revelation is followed by more boastful details about young Sathya’s exploits with the car. The new ‘driver’ decided to drive the two Transport Officers to Madras. Although terrified of his driving, they bowed to his will and 9 year-old Primary School speed ace Sathya Narayana allegedly made the 8 hour trip in a record four and a half hours! Kumar adds that SSB finished the story with the following miraculous flourish: he had driven that car for 15 years but since it was wartime and petrol was rationed, he economised by using water from the well instead.
During the following 1978 discussion between prominent US SSO official John Hislop and SSB, a surprising fact was brought up: SSB was unaware that Jews and Christians do not belong to the same religion. In view of the number of prominent Jewish devotees drawn to SSB from the late 1960s on, and their closeness to SSB, it is both amazing and revealing that none of them had brought up this fundamental question about their faith before.
In the reported group dialogue, SSB asked, “Does the Cross fail to symbolize the Jewish faith to a substantial degree?”
MG: “Yes, Swami. There is a substantial difference.” [MG = Michael Goldstein?]
In spite of this clarification, eighteen years later, the Christmas 1996 Discourse contained several breathtakingly incorrect “stories” about Judaism and Christianity. The official version in Sathya Sai Speaks (Volume XXIX, page 393) coyly glosses them over: “[Bhagavan gave a brief account of the Jewish concept of the creation of the cosmos and referred to the birth of Jesus as the son of Mary and Joseph.]” Readers of the SSO version (which, remember, is the ONLY official printed version of SSB’s Discourses – in several languages) will never know that SSB made many major errors like those which follow, but James Redmond’s commercial video captured them in Telugu and in the simultaneous English translation. (See my Bibliography) Here are two revealing paragraphs:
a) “Three hundred and fifty years B.C., before Christ, Jews lived. However, among Jews, there were religions such as Islam and Christianity. People of that land, they are all Jews. That land is the birthplace of both the religions, Islam and Christianity. The Hebrew language was very prominent. This Hebrew language is more or less equal to our Sanskrit. …”
b) “The name and the fame of Jesus Christ have spread far and wide. Here, at this moment, there are two schools of thought. The first group of thought – Roman Catholics. There is another group that fought with this group. This group is called Protestants. As they protested, they are Protestants. So among Jews there are these two groups: Catholics and Protestants.”
One of my subsequent discoveries was an equally astonishing assertion involving Alexander the Great and the Qur’an. In 1992, a colossal historical error of SSB’s had been pointed out by Dale Beyerstein in his e-book. In spite of its enormity, and because of the unconditional faith of devotees, most (including myself at the time) took NO notice!
In his Discourse for 21 August 1986 (Sathya Sai Speaks, XIX , pp. 137-8), SSB tells this story:
“A king from Greece [later identified as Alexander the Great] came to India to study the conditions here …” (p. 137) “He made a study of the Bible, the Quran and Buddhist texts and found that all of this laid emphasis on Truth, … In the Quran he found that only by adherence to the Truth can one be a real man.” (p. 138-9)
But at least one part of this story is utter nonsense. Alexander the Great could not have made a study of the Qur’an because he predated Muhammad by nearly a THOUSAND years! (Alexander the Great – 4th Century B.C.E. Muhammad and the Qur’an – 6th to 7th Century C.E.)
For any public speaker’s credibility, the above collection of confusion, discrepancies and errors would be damaging; for an allegedly omniscient God on Earth, such a variety of stattements should have been a public relations disaster. However, most devotees are so absorbed by SSB’s charisma and their faith in his healing powers and his teachings that they do not even notice anything is amiss – and simply refuse requests to look at the overwhelming evidence, which must be wrong because SSB is Omniscient and therefore cannot make errors (except as deliberate leelas to test devotees’ faith). Other more open-minded people, after reading the above body of basic evidence of SSB’s talent and compulsion for storytelling may feel more inclined to examine the claims of Avatarhood and Divine Omniscience made by SSB and his devotees. Prima facie, there are no limits to SSB’s imagination and his impulsiveness, nor to his capacity for getting things muddled or wrong. That this strong propensity has not been curbed in 60 years indicates that he is either blissfully unaware of it or is supremely confident in his own charismatic powers over devotees.
In Part 2 SSB’s Divine claims will be reviewed in the light of a hypothesis drawn from this basic evidence, which, like the explicit claims themselves, is feeely available in the official Sathya Sai Speaks volumes.
(To be concluded in Part 2)