Sathya Sai Baba: Questionable Stories and Claims. Part 2
In Part 1 a number of Sathya Sai Baba’s spontaneous Discourse stories were examined. The common thread in them was seen to be inaccurate, misleading or confusing information and blatantly incorrect facts on a variety of subjects including his biography, religion and science, and named individuals. Devotees’ lack of curiosity about the discrepancies as well as the Sathya Sai Organisation’s indulgence of many of his capricious assertions were also mentioned.
Given the existence of so many samples of SSB’s penchant for capricious storytelling (especially about himself) and his carefree capacity for factual inconsistency, confusion and error, there are strong grounds for a critical review of his Avataric and Divine claims, which are taken so literally by devotees). My hypothesis is that these extraordinary claims, although dealing mainly with non-factual matters and beliefs, and therefore not verifiable, may nevertheless have a significant relationship with SSB’s previously described stories, which appear to be the products of his erroneous beliefs or his unfettered imagination. The following claim-story from 1963 is offered as a prime example:
“There was an occasion when Krishna laid His flute aside and declared that
He would not play on it again. It is a long story, not found in books; I alone must tell you about it, for it is only the Person who has experienced it that can describe it.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, III, 19:113)
When the Divine claim-stories contained in the 35 volumes of Sathya Sai Speaks (Revised Indian Edition) are examined in detail, a similar strong thread of self-promotion and self-indulgence, as well as a predilection for boasting become apparent. For example, many of SSB’s statements about Shirdi Sai Baba, Jesus and Siva indicate the self-promotion process at work: the result is invariably an enhancement or reinforcement of his own forthright Divine claims by such intimate (and subjective) association with these three revered spiritual icons.
There are several unique features which set SSB apart from all other gurus (living and dead). One of these is his first very special Claim (Declaration) made as a schoolboy in Uravakonda in May 1943: “I am Sai Baba” (i.e. the reincarnation of the revered Muslim-Hindu saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi, also known as Shirdi Sai Baba (or simply Sai Baba), who died in 1918). This extraordinary claim (often repeated in his early Discourses) was to characterise SSB’s early Mission. In the 1940s and 1950s, the characteristics which appear to have attracted most new devotees to SSB (especially a handful of wealthy local devotees, aristocrats and Royalty) were his identification with Shirdi Sai, stories of healings and exorcisms, as well as the much-publicised materialisations.
Not only is this Sai Baba claim crucial to the credibility of his claims of Divinity and Avatarhood on a level with Rama and Krishna but it is also probably the weakest. For instance, he has taught his devotees that the ‘Sai’ part of the adopted name means ‘Divine Mother’, which is not true. Shirdi scholars agree that the ‘Sai’ element derives from the Persian (Muslim) word for ‘saint’.
In later stories, SSB not only claimed that his birth was an Immaculate Conception but that the alleged triple Avatarhood of Shirdi, Sathya and Prema (following Sathya’s predicted passing in 2022 – according to devotees) were the result of a promised boon to an alleged Brahmin ancestor of (non-Brahmin) Sathya, with the purpose of saving the world.
On the curious subject of these alleged reincarnations of Siva, SSB’s learned Hindu associates and devotees have singularly failed to comment on the anomaly referred to in a general way by Pratima Bowes: “Unlike Krishna, Siva has no connected life-story and he is generally not reckoned to have incarnations despite the attempt by some Saiva Puranas to give him some.” (The Hindu Religious Tradition. A Philosophical Approach, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977, p. 242) Vishal Mangalwadi, in his criticism of SSB, also points out that in the Hindu tradition, it is Vishnu who has had reincarations, not Siva. (See my Annotated Bibliography, Part 1: V. Mangalwadi, The World of Gurus)
As the SSB Mission prospered in the 1969s and more benefactors and worldly-wise collaborators and advisers endorsed SSB, the Sathya Sai Organisation “took off”, nationally and internationally, with the April 1967 First All-India Conference in Madras and the First World Conference in Bombay in May 1968. Within a few years, not only does his public claim to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba cease to be made but for almost 20 years there are scarcely any printed public references to Shirdi Sai Baba by Sathya Sai Baba. On the other hand, from about 1970 (after 27 years of his Mission), SSB began to offer Christmas Day Discourses containing many new undocumented and sometimes contradictory revelations about Jesus Christ (in connection with whom SSB claimed both intimate omniscient knowledge and superior avataric rank – see below). For the next 30 years, “Western” devotees, who had begun to flock to the ashram in the 1970s, were impressed by SSB’s apparent ability to reveal ‘unknown’ or ‘different’ knowledge about Jesus (including some popular New Age themes). The slightly self-referential picture presented by SSB over the next two decades shows Jesus as following an exemplary Hindu path of realisation of his essential inner Divinity and as exhibiting the same qualities (particularly Love) and even tribulations as SSB himself (for example, in the Christmas 2000 Discourse in which SSB uttered a long lament about opposition to him and Judas-like betrayal).
On Christmas Eve 1972, SSB offered an astonishingly implausible assertion, which has never been publicly questioned by devotees. On the contrary it was (until relatively recently) prominently cited by the Sathya Sai Organisation in its promotions of SSB’s Divinity as one of the four major statements made by SSB. In Sathya Sai Speaks (Volume XI, Chapter 54), there is a detailed 10-page treatment of the Jesus story (especially useful for the majority of SSB’s listeners who are Hindus). Jesus Christ is acknowledged and claimed as universal by SSB. But SSB uses this Discourse (on 24-12-72, in Bangalore), titled ‘He whom Christ Announced’, not only to comment ambivalently on the miracle of the star of Bethlehem but much more daringly, to make the breathtaking claim that Jesus actually foreshadowed the eventual coming of SSB himself, not as Jesus’s successor, but as God the Father.
The Mahasivaratri lingams
In her memoirs, Karunamba Ramamurthy, an early devotee from the mid 1940s, mentions the thrill of the production by Sathya Sai Baba of a Siva lingam on Mahasivaratri night in 1951. By 1963 it already appears to be an annual spectacle at Prasanthi Nilayam, with each forthcoming miraculous materialisation (pre-announced by a rather showmanlike SSB) creating an air of intense fervour and expectation among Hindu devotees. As SSB explained, this event was unique in the world, since it can only be carried out by Siva.
The Mahasivaratri festival attracted large crowds of Hindus and the fervour and excitement increased on those few occasions when SSB announced that those fortunate persons who had witnessed the sacred event would be granted moksha (liberation from further human birth). Several of these crowded events in the early 1970s have been described by prominent Western SSB chroniclers (e.g. Sandweiss). From 1978 until 1999 no lingams were publicly produced. The unexpected 1999 resumption of the famed annual event coincided with an atmosphere of growing anxiety over pending allegations about SSB. These were finally made public on the Internet in early 2000, in the form of the “Findings”, by David and Faye Bailey.
In subsequent years (until 2006), videos of the highly dramatic event (including some on YouTube) have tended to support the long standing accusation by B. Premanand and other magicians and critics that the lingam production is the result of regurgitation (in the old days) and legerdemain (recently) rather than the claimed Siva powers. On the unfortunate Mahasivatri performances of 2002 and 2004 (in front of the BBC cameras), see Robert Priddy’s illustrated article, Lingam ‘emerges’ at Shivarathri – ‘The Lingodbhava’ (from the Discourse on Mahasivaratri Day, 13 March 2002 – http://home.no.net/anir/Sai/enigma/lingam.htm). See also the specific BBC footage in their 2004 documentary, ‘Secret Swami’.
Those eye-catching instances of SSB’s storytelling claims represent a small fraction of the assertions of divinity and Avatarhood made by the guru during his career. From the beginning of his Mission, SSB assiduously attracted attention to himself and encouraged his devotees to talk about the special features he was promoting: his MIRACLES and his healing ability, his Avatarhood and Divine powers, his relationship with the legendary Hindu Avatars Rama and Krishna and the initial Shirdi Baba reincarnation connection. With such amazing credentials, SSB’s initial Divine reputation was quickly and firmly established decades ago in his native region of southern India. Adoring devotees and, later, faithful spokespersons were only too happy and eager to play their part by passing on this unique message, very often in the form of books (many hundreds of them) about their subjective experiences of SSB’s Mission. From the mid-1960s, SSB’s Organisation, the SSO, took over the main task of propagation of this Divine image of SSB, especially in print. That image has spread widely around the world and has come to be accepted unquestioningly not only by devotees but by many non-devotees who have heard or read about him.
It is true that there are other important aspects of SSB’s Mission (his teachings, his personal charisma, his siddhis, the charitable work carried out by his SSO with voluntary devotee donations). It is equally true that the alleged Divine characteristics (Avatar, Omnipotence, Omniscience, etc.) are what many (probably most) devotees tend to hold uppermost in their minds when talking or writing about their guru.
The impression that Sathya Sai Baba is believed to be an Avathaar (etc.) is widely diffused in works of reference and by many academic researchers. It may also be the general impression held by the majority of India’s 800 million Hindus (who are not devotees of SSB). SSB’s general celebrity as a miracle godman is widespread in India but it is unlikely that non-devotee Hindus have any detailed knowledge of his Discourses or of assertions like the stories in Part 1 and the claims in this part. Even in a country where godmen’s general claims of divine powers and connections are commonplace, SSB’s very extensive and insistent claims over several decades are unique. In spite of their tolerant spiritual traditions, therefore, non-devotee Hindus would probably be astonished, shocked (or even amused) by the extent and frequency of claims such as those listed below, particularly where these involve references to the revered Hindu gods Rama and Krishna, claimed by SSB as his partners and predecessors. (For example, his confident self-referential assertion in 1960 that: “… this Avathaar is different and unique […] I am not inclined to punish; I am the goldsmith who repairs and re-shapes broken ornaments. Raama came as the embodiment of Sathya, Dharma and Shaanthi (truth, virtue and peace); Krishna came as the personification of Prema (Love); now, the Embodiment of all the Four is needed …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, II, 22:113)
Apart from the substantial amount of stories and proselytising information offered publicly by SSB in his Discourses there is a great deal of other relevant information passed on more privately to his associates, the “verandah men”, spokespersons and college boys as well as to apologist writers and individual devotees (often in interviews). This “evidence” is eagerly passed on by the recipients, verbally or in their writing. Indeed, for most of his Mission, SSB has been content to rely on such willing proxies, especially in propagating his Telugu message in English and other languages.
In addition to the types of claims outlined above, SSB has made many other contentious claims, for example about:
his ‘human body’ (its fortitude – including a lack of need of sleep –, his self-guaranteed lifelong health (contradicted by the facts, especially in recent years), his predicted passing at the age of 92 (or 96), and his eventual reincarnation as Prema Sai;
his mental capacity and powers (divine omniscience, including his alleged knowledge of languages) and his other avataric powers (omnipotence, miracles – including resurrections).
There is ample material for further investigation of these unique claims but the Internet is already well stocked with abundant reports and analyses. The cumulative evidence indicates that Sathya Sai Baba is not the Omniscient Divine Being and Avatar whom he, his Organisation, and his followers have believed and claimed him to be for the past 60 years. Although the matter of motivation must necessarily be left open, the simple truth, for those who are willing to read and digest the stories presented in his Discourses (even in their translated and edited state), is that the story of Sathya Sai Baba is that of a charismatic and energetic guru who offers eclectic (Hindu-based) spiritual teachings and promotes universal harmony and charitable works achieved by devotees’ efforts or donations.
Note: The fully documented version of both parts of this research (23 pages) is available elsewhere, as “Sathya Sai Baba’s Questionable Stories and Claims”.