Archive for 13 November 2008

A Visit to Sathya Sai Baba’s Commemorative Museum in Puttaparthi

13 November 2008

(Puttaparthi October 2008 visit, Part 2)

The striking edifice of the Chaitanya Jyoti (“Flame of Consciousness”) Museum, the building inaugurated by Sathya Sai Baba in November 2000 to commemorate and promote his life and Mission, is on the Vidyagiri Hillside in Puttaparthi, almost hidden at the end of a narrow unpaved lane and behind a rather worn football and cricket pitch. I queued, hatless, for 15 minutes in the hot sun to tour the museum with a group of about 30 Indians and an elderly European in immaculate white shirt and trousers. At the official opening time, we were finally allowed in, slowly, in single file, ladies first. I tried to smuggle my camera in but was sent back to the cloakroom by the diligent Sathya Sai Organisation volunteer attendants. We climbed up the long staircase of this very imposing Asian façade, past the large water feature and its sleek fish.

The first exhibit room is now completely bare. (I cannot remember what it once contained.) In fact, the interior of the museum is much less imposing than the façade and most of the simple but gaudily painted statues, exhibits, working models and explanatory posters and labels seem to have been prepared for a mainly juvenile audience. The full range of Sathya Sai Baba’s divine claims, with the familiar associations with Shirdi Sai Baba (whose reincarnation he claims to be) and with gods, Avatars and other famous names, are boldly reasserted. Other familiar mythical assertions and alleged miracle stories are prominently displayed. “The Creation explained by the Creator” is one of the typically immodest signs in one of the first rooms.

On what was formerly a triumphal staircase showing the “Prophecies Fulfilled”, I noted that the misleading images of the Persian book and the spurious translation from Persian (as shown in the original Museum Guide and reported by me in 2005) have been removed but the characteristics of a divine Sathya Sai Baba allegedly foretold in a “Discourse of Mohammed” (quoting from the guide) remain defiantly displayed, in spite of the patent impossibility (and potential offensiveness to a large section of humanity) of this prediction. (“His hair will be profuse … His clothing will be like a flame… He will live 95 years …”, etc.) The alleged palm leaf predictions of Sathya Sai Baba’s Coming, the quotations from the Book of Revelations and the alleged predictions by Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce are also unconvincingly on display.

(It should be noted that most of these implausible predictions, much-repeated items in the Sathya Sai Baba literature and on the devotee grapevine, have originated from Sathya Sai Baba’s over-zealous devotees and associates, rather than from his own bold assertions and boasts. The uncontrolled nature of such zealotry has distinguished SSB’s associates and devotees for decades but the storytelling guru named Sathya (“Truth”) must also carry his share of the responsibility, particularly when such stories are broadcast beyond India’s frontiers on the Internet and the radio as well as in books.)

In the nearby area on avatars, not only is Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged remote kinsman, Bharadwaj, given a prominent position but his involvement in the process of the three alleged incarnations is reported exactly as SSB described it in his astonishing 6 July1963 Guru Purnima discourse, one of four discourses to which the Sathya Sai Organisation has always given special prominence.

Moving on to the many exhibits depicting and describing the detailed popular mythology of Sathya Sai Baba’s birth, the widely circulated devotee anecdote about Sri Aurobindo’s acknowledgement of the “descent of the Overmind” as “proof” of his acknowledgement of Sathya Sai’s divine birth is not only included but made more emphatic with the additional assertion that the Sage of Pondicherry “realised that his Mission had finished.” Current and former devotees of Aurobindo and the Mother are unlikely to endorse such implausible claims.

There are many more simple exhibits, animations and sound effects to enthral devotees and others but by this stage most non-devotees will probably be feeling in need of fresh air and refreshment. As for Sathya Sai Baba’s alleged judgement that the Chaitanya Jyoti Museum “will be a marvel of the 21st Century”, it seems to be another clear example of his  predilection for self-promoting overstatement.

(For more information – pending the appearance of an amended guidebook – and especially to view the illustrations and all the exhibits which I have not described, see also the original guidebook, Chaitanya Jyoti. Experiencing the Divine, Prasanthi Nilayam, Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations, 2001.)

(A longer article about Sathya Sai Baba and Puttaparthi, from which this blog is taken, is available: ‘Puttaparthi on a hot day in October 2008.)