Sai Baba's religious land of illusion
[This sample is page 1 of Vishal's excellent, detailed investigative story in the current issue of Caravan magazine.] ABOUT THREE-AND-A-HALF HOURS from Bangalore, past farmers’ fields and some hills, a small village came into view. The rural area gradually gave way to an airstrip, where a private jet was parked, and then to uptown buildings—resorts, hotels and a huge, pink building, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Prasanthigram, a ‘super specialty hospital’ designed by English architect Dr Keith Critchlow, close to the Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium, inaugurated in November 2006 by then President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, who also happens to be a well-regarded nuclear scientist.
This is Puttaparthi, a small town in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh spread over approximately ten square kilometres. The names of almost all hotels and shops start with ‘Sai.’ Pictures of Sathya Sai Baba are everywhere—on all shop hoardings, on the backs of auto-rickshaws, in lifts and telephone booths and even inside the Puttaparthi police station and the post office. The pictures also carry prominent Sai Baba-isms: ‘Help Ever, Hurt Never,’ ‘Love is God, Live in Love,’ ‘Unity, Purity and Divinity,’ ‘Love All, Serve All,’ and so on. With his benevolent teachings, his emphasis on communal harmony, and his numerous social work projects, Sai Baba seems like Puttaparthi’s own deity.
Everything in the village appears in line with Sai Baba’s worldview. There are many massage parlours—Sai Baba himself claims to be a “masseur healer.” Given his aversion to alcohol and tobacco, cigarettes and liquor are sold only secretly. But you can find several paan shops—Sai Baba is a paan (betel leaf and nut) eater, as his stained teeth also suggest. Almost all restaurants are vegetarian, mirroring Sai Baba’s philosophy that “meat eating fosters animal qualities in man making him descend to the demoniac level.” Puttaparthi often seems like Sai Baba’s personal kingdom.
Coming here to meet and follow one of the world’s most influential living gurus—although it didn’t involve an undercover investigation—turned out to be one of my most taxing assignments. I was advised by many former devotees, and explicitly warned by his current disciples, not to write critically about the spiritual leader whose followers include the President of India, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the founder of the Hard Rock Café and legions of the Indian social elite.
At Hotel Sai Renaissance, where I stayed, the staff dutifully advised me what wasn’t permitted at the ashram. “Please deposit your camera and phone, and also the pen I can see in your pocket,” said the middle-aged man in a stern voice, as if he was part of Sai Baba’s security team.
Just to make sure I got the message, the notice board at the entrance of Sai Baba’s ashram, the Sai Kulwant Hall, warned that phones, tape recorders and cameras were not allowed. Not even a pen. Thankfully, I was carrying none.
Sathya Sai Baba, which roughly translates as the ‘real Sai Baba,’ claims to have been born Sathyanarayan Raju on 23 November 1926, though proof of his actual birth date is hard to come by. In October 1940, he claimed that he was an incarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a guru from Maharashtra who lived until 1918 and was revered by Hindus and Muslims. These days, he claims to be the creator of the universe, Krishna, Christ, Jehovah and Allah, all in one.
I wanted to find out why and how Sai Baba’s millions of followers, mainly Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, believe in his divinity even decades after numerous former devotees went public with accusations of sexual abuse of boys and male adults, massive cover-ups and even murder. These allegations have made Sathya Sai Baba a regular on numerous cult watch websites like rickross.com and factnet.org, where former members tell surprisingly similar stories. In the face of such overwhelming evidence of malfeasance, how does faith among the denizens of Sai Baba’s Puttaparthi fiefdom remain so strong?