Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram in October 2008
In mid-October 2008, during a three week visit to India, I made a 5-hour visit to Puttaparthi and Prasanthi Nilayam. My visit was timed to avoid the festivals of Navaratri, Dassera / Vijayadashami, so moving around the township and the ashram would be comfortable. There were many Indians walking up and down the ashram streets, especially small groups arriving and registering for accommodation but in Prasanthi and Puttaparthi I only saw a handful of foreign visitors, mainly middle-aged and post-middle-aged women. I saw no foreigner of either sex under about 40 in the ashram, in the cafés or in the shops. Because of the ban on photography, I saw no point in attending darshan since copious photographic evidence is frequently made available on Sathya Sai Organisation websites, including Radio Sai. These give a far clearer picture of the current altered style of darshan at Prasanthi Nilayam, especially at festivals, than a cramped seat at the back of the mandir.
The mandir was empty and closed. Photographs were forbidden and loitering (even to peer inside the mandir, where ramps for the ailing Sathya Sai Baba’s chair were clearly visible) was discouraged by Seva Dal volunteers posted around the perimeter. The number of items prohibited in the mandir has now reached about 20, including books and pens. (Perhaps such draconian measures will at least encourage more meditation in the long waits for a glimpse of the distant chairbound guru.) From the tall surrounding township buildings, for example the Sai Heritage Hotel just past the ornate main entrance to the ashram, photographs were strictly prohibited, so I consoled myself with a pot of ready mixed chai on the 6 th floor restaurant and looked down on the ashram and toward the surrounding hills.
Sai Towers bookshop offered up a few purchases of typical recent publications but most of the Sai Towers shelves are now stocked with books by other publishers on other gurus and on general spiritual topics. I noted wryly that, although the more or less officially proscribed Love is My Form, Vol 1 (with its frank but unwelcome biographical revelations) is given pride of place in the Sai Towers shop window, which faces the ashram, there were no copies of the ‘heretical’ work on sale inside the bookshop.
Miscellaneous observations on the Puttaparthi scene
The airports at Bangalore and Puttaparthi
As a sign of changed times, and as Robert Priddy has pointed out on his blogsite (link follows below), the airport at Puttaparthi is becoming a white elephant. Apart from its convenience for visiting VIPs with their own jets (especially before elections) and apart from special charters on big festivals like the 23 November birthday and Christmas, it is rarely used, as taxi drivers confirmed. Nevertheless, for the present at least, Sathya Sai Baba’s expensive airport is still featured on the Indian Airlines map of routes in India (see the in-flight magazine Swagat – Welcome).
The massive new airport at Bengaluru (an unpopular politically imposed new name), inaugurated only a few months ago along with its 3,000 acres of land and gardens, will be a blessing (godsend?) for Sathya Sai’s dwindling foreign devotees, especially those from countries in financial turmoil. Since the airport is 40 or 50 kilometres North of Bangalore (just south of Chikballapur), they (or their tour arrangers) can arrange to go straight from the new airport to Puttaparthi in a mere two and a half hours, thus saving at least one hour on the single trip and masses of money which would otherwise go to Bengaluru’s renovated or rebuilt 3-star hotels which now cost $100 or more, a sum which devotees, used to cheap spiritual holidays for decades, may not be able to afford. (They will also save Rs 800 on the taxi trip into – and from – Bangalore.) Just to the north of Chikballapur a new Sathya Sai Baba lookalike has set up his residence. A driver told me he does miracles for Indian visitors and that foreign visitors are beginning to discover him. (History repeating itself?)
The shops of Puttaparthi (How would foreign devotees manage without them?)
The fiasco of the promised “Moon miracle” of late 2007 was instantly and ably reported by Barry Pittard and Robert Priddy on their well-known blogsites (http://robertpriddy.wordpress.com. and http://barrypittard.wordpress.com). For the information of those who have not yet read these reports, one evening in October last year, during bhajans, Sathya Sai Baba apparently instructed his interpreter and close associate Anil Kumar to tell devotees to race off to Puttaparthi airport to see him appear on the moon at 7 p.m.. (Another of his pre-announced miracles.) The news spread over the Internet within hours and devotees flocked by car from Prasanthi to the airport but to their chagrin and embarrassment, no sighting was reported on that cloudy night. However, after much Internet discussion of the phenomenon, some days later reports of sightings of SSB on the moon duly began to appear on chat groups and bulletin boards from devotees in several countries. To reinforce the ‘truth’ of these allegations, unreferenced postcards of “Saibaba on Moon” are now on sale in the roadside shops of Puttaparthi. And in a special glossy 15 Rupee booklet of postcards of Puttaparthi Sightseeing (another local website offers ‘Puttaparthi shopping’), the same card, which shows Sathya Sai Baba’s head superimposed on the Moon is dated as 22 October 2007 and is sourced to Richard Margolin of the Manhattan Sai Baba Center.
The same booklet of coloured postcards shows an impressive range of the main buildings in Puttaparthi and Prasanthi Nilayam, including the new Indoor Sports Stadium, the Music building and the Asian-style Chaitanya Jyoti Museum as well as the towering hillside statues of Hanuman, Jesus et al that are now in place for present and future mass tourism by Indians (who will doubtless flock to this attraction, especially by train, when 83 year-old Sathya Sai Baba dies). So the rural town of Puttaparthi (with its 10,000 residents) seems set to become a huge Sathya Sai Baba Memorial venue, perhaps even on the Tirupati circuit, a rival – or perhaps a sister site – for the famous Temple Complex at distant Shirdi (which, as I shall repeat in a later article, is situated, not in rural Andhra Pradesh but on a major road in north Maharashtra and caters for thousands of Indian visitors every day).
Current darshan style
One of my purchases elsewhere in India was an official DVD issued by the Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust of SSB’s 2006 visit to his summer centre, Sai Sruti, in Kodaikanal, with his students and some devotees (including some foreigners): With the LORD in the Mountains. Kodaikanal (www.sssbpt.org, April 2006).
The footage is of research interest because it offers official evidence of the steady physical (and perhaps mental) decline of Sathya Sai Baba in the past four or five years. This has brought about major changes in his former flamboyant darshan style, which now consists mainly of wheelchair-bound appearances with many students constantly hovering in attendance, particularly to support him if he attempts to stands up or move about. His conversation and personal contact with devotees is more limited than in his heyday but the DVD shows that in 2006 he was still able to accept many letters from his chair and exchange some words from his wheelchair. Recent 2008 official website footage (especially from http://www.saicast.org) shows how his physical condition has continued to decline in the past two years and how painful it seems for him to make discourses. His face now remains expressionless for most of the time or seems to display something akin to disorientation.