Posted tagged ‘Shirdi Sai Baba’

Erlendur Haraldsson’s Latest Book

6 October 2013

A message for the minority of my readers who are still interested in reading about Sathya Sai Baba.

I have just published a 4,000 word commentary on Haraldsson’s latest update to his 25 year old Miracles book:
‘Erlendur Haraldsson Breaks his Silence on Sathya Sai Baba’s Final Decade’

Now, back to Hindi, which is infinitely more interesting and worthwhile.

Cheers,
Brian

More research results on Sathya Sai Baba’s divine claims

6 February 2009

For the tiny minority of readers and visitors who are interested in my esoteric research into the divine claims of Sathya Sai Baba, two further analyses are available for consideration.

1. ‘Sathya Sai Baba’s Credibility Gap: Contributions by John Hislop’

2. ‘Sathya Sai Baba’s Public Use of English and its Perception by Devotees. Insights into his Charismatic Influence’
*

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.)

Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram in October 2008

10 November 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.

Sathya Sai Baba: Questionable Stories and Claims. Part 2

22 May 2008

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.

“Sai Baba”

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’.

Other claims

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)

Jesus Christ

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.

Conclusion

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”.

Etymology, and False Etymology as a Rhetorical Device

13 April 2008

Etymology: “An account of, or the facts relating to, the formation or development of a word and its meaning; the process of tracing the history of a word. The original meaning of a word as shown by its etymology” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). For the English language, a majority of etymologies refer to origins in Old English, Germanic Languages, French, Latin and Greek. The origins of the word ‘etymology’ itself are to be found in two Greek roots: ‘etymon’ (true) and logos (word).

It is not essential to know anything at all about etymologies. Most people survive and prosper without even knowing what the word means. Nevertheless, such knowledge (or where to find it: in reliable dictionaries) often proves to be very useful or indispensable to those who deal closely with (or are interested in) the words of a language. An etymological consultation can also help to avoid serious errors and misunderstandings (and sometimes misleading pronunciations). For example, the differences in meaning between the visually and orally similar ‘manually’, ‘manly’ and ‘manic’ are easily explained by their etymologies: respectively from a) the Latin word for hand, b) ‘man’, and c) Greek ‘mania’. Similarly, any suspicion of a common relationship between eschatology / eschatological and scatology / scatological can quickly and safely be dispelled by noting the different Greek roots from which the eschat- (last) and scat- (dung) parts are derived.

The Spreading of False Etymologies

In about 630 CE, a Catholic Archbishop named Isidore of Seville published an important encyclopedic series of books in Latin. This reference work continued to be consulted by European Latin scholars for several centuries. In The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, a recent English translation of this major ecclesiastical work by Stephen A. Barney and three other scholars (Cambridge University Press, 2006), the legendary poor quality of many of the etymologies offered is stressed and suitable samples are offered:

“Horses (equus) are so called because when they were yoked in a team of 4 they were balanced (aequare).” and “Humus (humus) was the material from which the human (homo) was made.” (I quote from a review by Emily Wilson.)

Another excellent example of how badly Isidore dealt with this minor aspect of his magnum opus (because of unreliable sources and, perhaps, lapses in research rigour) is offered by Adrian Murdoch on his typepad blog:

“The walking stick [baculus in Latin] is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discovered of the grapevine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.”

Isidore’s, er, habit has nevertheless prospered in recent eras and in specific areas. There is some interesting evidence that etymological explanations seem attractive as a rhetorical device to prove a point, particularly in preaching, but also in other areas. If the promoters of beliefs are trusted by their readers or audience, impressive-sounding etymological proof will usually be accepted without demur, even if demonstrably false (‘false etymology’). In his book on cults, the Reverend Stephen Wookey refers to research which demonstrates the use of inaccurate quotations and false etymologies used to make a point by such preachers and orators. He quotes a blatant example by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

“The word Adam is from the Hebrew adamah, signifying the red color of the ground dust, nothing new. Divide the name Adam into two syllables [in English!] and it reads, a dam, or obstruction … it stands for obstruction, error, even the supposed separation of man from God and …” (Wookey, p. 338, from line 12 on). Baker Eddy goes on in similar vein, telling us all the negatives that poor Adam “stands for” for half a page. As Rev. Wookey comments: the Hebrew meaning is simply: man.

One of the clumsiest attempts at etymology for religious indoctrination purposes must surely be the one reported by William J. Petersen (Those Curious New Cults, New Canaan, Connecticut, 1973, p. 115). According to Petersen, one of the beliefs subscrtibed to by members of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that the British and the Americans are descended from the so-called Lost Tribes of the ancient Jewish people.’ As one of his ‘proofs’ of this peculiar assertion, Armstrong suggested that the word ‘Saxon’ was derived from ‘Isaac’s sons’.

Armstrong’s false etymologies are also dealt with in an easily accessible article, ‘The “Lost Tribes” of Herbert W. Armstrong’, in Catholic Answers Magazine: www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/LOSTRB.htm.

Apparently, to further his thesis that the Lost Tribes settled in Britain and America, the preacher wrote a further piece of blatant ‘etymological’ indoctrination:

“The House of Israel is the ‘covenant people’. The Hebrew word for ‘covenant’ is brit. And the word for ‘covenant man’ or ‘covenant people’, would therefore sound, in English word order, ‘Brit-ish’ (the word ish means ‘man’ in Hebrew, and it is also an English suffix on nouns and adjectives). And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the ‘British’? And they reside in the ‘British Isles’!”

And Armstrong’s disciples swallowed the false etymologies.

The Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, has also made frequent use of etymologies as a teaching tool. Many of these are unconvincing except to his unquestioning devotees, who consider him to be Omniscient (and he himself has made that claim). For example, SSB has offered his devotees an idiosyncratic etymology of the ‘Sai’ part of the name that he assumed in 1943: ‘Sai Baba’, from Sai Baba of Shirdi – the Muslim/Hindu saint who died 1918 – whose reincarnation he claimed to be:

Sa means ‘Divine’, ai or ayi means ‘mother’ and Baba means ‘father’. The Name indicates Divine Mother and Father …” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XII, 38:229. These Discourses are translated from Telugu and edited by the Sathya Sai Organisation)

On the real etymology of the original Sai Baba, scholars seem to be agreed. As Kevin R. D. Shepherd writes: “Sai is not a Hindu name, but a Persian word indicative of a holy man. It seems to bear an affinity with the Arabic sa’ih, which in the early medieval era of Islam was used to designate itinerant ascetics of sufi background. It appropriately reflects the Muslim background of the subject. ….” (KRDS, 1986, Chapter 2). See also Sathya Sai Baba’s Claim to be the Reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba

In addition to other inventive Sanskrit etymologies for words like Bhagavan, Guru, Hindu, Krishna, etc., Sathya Sai Baba, the alleged polyglot, has occasionally exercised his imagination on foreign terms. For example, here is one of his etymological explanations of Salaam (which most people know as the Arabic greeting: ‘Peace’).

“The Muslims use the term Salaam as a form of greeting. What does the word mean? ‘Sa’ refers to Sai, the Lord who is the embodiment of Truth, Awareness and Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda); ‘la’ means ‘layam’ (mergence). Salaam means merging in the Supreme, who is also the embodiment of Truth and Bliss.” (Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. XVIII, 30:187)

Notice that in this example, SSB arbitrarily reduces ‘Salaam’ to ‘Sa’ plus ‘la’ (= ‘Sala’) to fit in with his extraordinary self-promotional interpretation.

(I have reported his different etymologies for Allah elsewhere on the Internet.)

More recently, a few writers of highly controversial works on history and archaeology (especially on the Internet) have also shown a preference for creative etymologies and other plays on words and names in order to support their contentious theses. (For the use of False Etymology in politics and propaganda, see the corresponding article in Wikipedia, to which this blog piece may be considered a supplement, at least by non-Wikipedians who do not reject the fruits of personal research.)

Gene D. Matlock, in yet another book on the lost Atlantis, puts forward the theory that there was an Atlantis in or close to Mexico. Part of his proof seems to be that there were Mexican “Sanskrit” place names like Atlán, Tlan or Tollán and that their inhabitants were called Atlantecas. (Those ‘Sanskrit’ names look like ordinary Mexican indigenous names.)

The author of a sensational best-selling book about a putative Chinese fleet which circumnavigated the globe in 1421-1423 (Gavin Menzies) offers as one of his exhibits news of an alleged inscription found in the Cape Verde islands. Menzies apparently attributes this to the Chinese Admiral Zheng He, but a critic (www.1421exposed.com) reveals (among many other inconvenient details) that Menzies himself admits that the inscription turned out to be written in the southern Indian language, Malayalam.

And finally, for now, a much-argued Internet thesis that there is a connection between Abraham and his wife Sarah and Hindu God Brahma and his consort Saraswati (“Sarai-svati” in this case) seems to have foundered on Wikipedia for lack of solid evidence and partly because “a major hole in this hypothesis is that Hebrew is not an Indo-European language, and that the etymologies for each word [offered as proof] are fairly different.”

(See Wikipedia Discussion page for ‘Brahma’; User: ‘Gizza’.)