O Earthly God: A master of love, deception or both?
By: George Balgobin
My grandma is a true stickler. In the days I remember growing up, innocent
statements would quickly turn into syntactical lessons.
I would say, "I'm going down to Josh's house."
"Where is that?" she'd ask.
And I would tell her an address a little north of my house. She would say, "You mean
you're going up to Josh's house."
I quickly learned to master the essential truths of life that North was up, South was
down and East and West were over and across. Though she operates with her
prickly pear exterior flush against the inaccuracies of the world, she is a woman of
great composure, and those who know her realize any abrasion she offers is born of
good intention. And yet, despite all the corrections and criticisms she issues and
levels, one must give pause in considering the belief in life she holds most dear: God
is 4'11", has an impressive afro, lives in India and dresses almost exclusively in full
length orange robes. He has even made things out of thin air for her.
Singing songs in Sanskrit and Hindi to smiling pictures of Sri Sathya Sai Baba has
been a part of my life since I can remember, and from what I understand, has a good
deal to do with why I am alive today--my mom and dad met on a trip orchestrated by
my grandmother to see this guru in India.
My grandmother is a short, starchy woman of slender proportion but fearful tenacity.
She was born in Pikeville, Kentucky in the 1920s. Depression era, rural living sowed
a strong sense of determination and resourcefulness into her. But it was her
penchant for a good debate that earned her a scholarship to college. From there she
was propelled out into the world, and off to New York City, no less. Her husband was
a freshly minted veteran of World War II, and they established a life for themselves in
the lower part of the upper crust, complete with the latest hairstyles and a fairly high
incidence of heart disease.
After her marriage soured and she had long since relocated to Miami with my mother,
she felt led to answer the spiritual void in her life. An interest in hatha yoga triggered
a series of connections to several people instrumental in introducing her to the
personage she would later exalt as Lord.
So it seems, many years before my birth, Baba was fixed to cross my path. My
earliest impressions of him are passive statements of circumstance, the way
someone feels growing up going to church, but never quite walking the road to
Damascus himself. Still, the stories of raising people from the dead, the objects I was
told he manifested, and the sheer repetition of his name in my life were enough to
cement a good deal of flexibility towards Baba when it came to my cynicism of all
When I was in Puttaparthi a few years ago it looked just as dusty and haphazard as
most Indian villages I had seen, brimming with more life than it could hold. Arriving at
the birthplace of the "Lord of Lords" certainly lent credence to the idea that the path
to God is filled with many obstacles. The bus stop used to reach the holy village
resembles a large gas station canopy with grass worn strips, plied by buses in a
constant state of loading and unloading passengers to and from undisclosed
locations. The stop is home to ticket booths, the rankled voices of chai sellers, and
waves of wandering children. Most people speak English, everyone has a different
answer for which bus goes to Puttaparthi.
The road to Baba's residence is rolling and mostly unpaved. The retired schoolbus I
finally took began full and slowly shook empty as people were deposited at various
outcroppings of houses along the way. Somewhat closer to Puttaparthi, the great
silhouette of Baba's hospital took control of the landscape. I had heard many times
from my grandmother about this and other charitable acts of Baba's, his free schools
and colleges, but hadn't expected the visage of Mt. Sinai to rise up amidst the cattle.
The image of the hospital telescoped out of view among the myriad agricultural
stretches and mud stuccoed huts clopped down upon the flatter, greener points on
the horizon. By the time I reached Puttaparthi, I was thoroughly reminded of the
primeval existences that circle Baba's residence like a moat.
The ashram itself is magnificent, especially in contrast to the ramshackle
guesthouses and carpet shops that flank the main residence. The streets are
cluttered and you can't really walk for more than half a block without being accosted
by a runner from one of the local vendors entreating you to come look at his
"uncle's" shop and have a cup of chai. Inside these stores, you realize the peddlers
of Puttaparthi are much more advanced in their selling techniques than the "No
buying, just looking" pitch you might hear elsewhere. Baba's presence here means a
steady stream of foreign, usually wealthy, and 'Eastern' minded patrons for the
Once inside the ashram gates, however, the atmosphere becomes serene and firmly
ascetic, even if the funeral parlor pastels of the main hall seem out of place. Baba
claims he's the avatar of the age--or God on Earth, and though he is often compared
to Jesus, Baba regards himself as more essential than Jesus, all seeing and all
knowing. His message is traditionally humble, if a little sophomoric, and he leaves
little to argue over with sayings such as "Help ever, hurt never." However, what
separates Baba in the eyes of his followers from anyone else offering warmed over
pan-spiritualism is that Baba doesn't just speak about miracles, he delivers them. At
thirteen years old, it came to him that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a
previous Indian guru, and that he had both telepathic and telekinetic powers. It is
these talents--the ability to materialize luxury items and know people's thoughts--that
have enabled him to build an empire of devotees over 60 million strong. At 76 years
old, as far as gurus go, Baba is a stellar success and his pronouncement that one
can still be a Christian, Muslim, Jew or member of any other religion while
worshipping him as well, is at its very best a grand unifying gesture, or at its worst
good marketing to the West.
In the main hall, mostly Indian faces shuffle back and forth carrying out the
administration of the Baba complex. I imagine what this place must be like for my
grandmother. One week she is playing tennis at the Surf Club and jockeying with
members of Miami Beach's social register, the next she is robed in a sari and sitting
on the pavement at 4.30am waiting to form the line that files in to see Baba. This
Indian being of slight stature is her explanation for the world; he's how she has dealt
with any trouble that has come into her life. It is not only that Baba gives her divine
revelation, but that he lives on Earth. She knows him, she's touched him, and she is
certain that within his gates is where heaven touches earth.
Baba emerges from his quarters several times a day and strolls around a covered
pavilion where seated devotees await, thrusting letters toward him and stretching
their necks to catch his eye in hopes of getting an interview. Really, though Baba
speaks of selflessness and patience a good deal, most folks' actions seem to say it's
all about the interview.
I did not get an interview while I was there, though I tell myself it is difficult to
compete against groups of foreigners who spread banners across themselves
saying, "Sai Devotees all the way from Finland." In practice, this type of advertising
does work, as does knowing the right people in Baba's inner circle who oversee
everything from security to sweeping. It strikes me as strange that coming from
Finland or having a friend who does the books for the Almighty might brighten your
chances of meeting God. The devotees will tell you that these people traveled a long
way, or echo the now infamous 'who are we to question Baba.'
To anyone willing to use a discerning eye, Baba's preferences for devotees he calls
in for interviews are known, even if they're not talked about. Though Western
devotees make up only a smattering of the faces in the throngs clamoring to see him,
he usually veers right towards them. And out of that group, he seems to focus on the
men, and not only that, but young men in particular. Some say he has an affinity for
My grandma has been in numerous interviews with Baba, some in group form, some
one-on-one. Both my parents have also been called in to see him. Judging from what
I have heard, Baba tends to speak with the vagueness of a fortune teller, or if you're
talking to my grandma, the prescience of a prophet.
But words seem to captivate people less than the miracles and manifestations that
keep Baba at the summit of the landscape of Indian holy men. Grandma has a
japamala (Hindu rosary) and a medallion he made for her. Other knick-knacks, like
her trusty packet of vhibuti--perfumed ashes made from cow dung--she deems
important enough to carry with her at all times. Baba manifests rings and pendants,
as well as other not to be sniffed at items such as Swiss watches, though he hasn't
made any of these in recent times after India imposed a tariff on them. Like magic,
Baba will wave his downturned hand around in a circle and when he flips him palm
over a trinket will be there.
These items are usually given out during the interview, but when I was there I saw
him materialize a ring for a man 5 feet away from me. He had me fooled, but I don't
really know how people get out from chained metal boxes underwater either. As it
were, several of these public displays caught on videotape by unwitting Sai devotees
have been analyzed by people who analyze these things and shown to be
And more and more, the Baba empire is beginning to show its cracks. Growing
numbers of former devotees have stepped forward with claims of having seen Baba
pull things out from under a pillow or having their jewelry examined later and being
told not only that it is fake, but that it's the signature model of Sai Baba's put-ons.
All this trickery would be one thing, if it weren't for charges that Baba is also a serial
child molester and an accomplice to murder.
My father told me a story about his experience with Baba just a few months before I
made my way over to Asia. He was in his 20s and had heard about Baba through my
grandmother. He had been staying at the ashram for a few weeks, when Baba finally
called him in for an interview. In the curtained room, Baba asked him to unzip his
pants. With his famous wave of the hand, Baba produced some oil, and administered
it to my father's pubic area. Equally perplexing, Baba addressed him in Hindi even
though my father, an ethnic Indian, spoke only English from birth. My father has
always been a purveyor of the 'all things will pass' attitude, and to tell the truth, I
didn't even really consider it all that odd when I heard about the incident because the
mystique around Baba is so great, and so thoroughly ingrained.
What I learned from the reports of other ex-devotees from around the world was that
this 'oiling of the genitals' ritual is more of a testing method Baba uses to judge how
receptive boys are to further sexual relations. After the first boy came forward with
these claims, new reports from disaffected devotees have not stopped accumulating.
While all the stories shine a less-than-divine light on Baba, a few make the stomach
churn, like charges of anal sex with a 7 year old or the recounting of Baba's holy
groans as he leads a teenage boy to his netherworld.
I didn't hear those accounts when I was in India--I trust I would have never entered
the ashram had I known what goes on beyond the veil. However, what I did hear one
evening from a keen Muslim carpet peddler was enough to write my ticket for the
next day's 5am bus.
Baba maintains a college in Puttaparthi which offers excellent education to students
from all around India--Baba takes only the best and hand picks the final choices
himself. This college, many students now charge, is fertile ground Baba uses to
slake his lust. In 1993, five ex-students penetrated the royal residence at the ashram
in an attempt to assassinate him. They were caught in the Baba bedroom, and some
reports place Baba cowering for help in the bathroom. Nonetheless, they killed two
of his bodyguards, but were subsequently trapped and apprehended by the police.
This is as far as any good devotee will go in telling the story. The carpet merchant
explained to me that after the police interrogated the boys, four of the five were
executed on the spot without trial. A new 800 page book even claims that Baba's
men and not the police did the killing.
I wonder what could make students who were receiving high quality education for
free want to kill the man that made it so.
When I ask my grandma about this and other Baba accusations, she gives me as
tough a line as she's ever going to let me hear. "You mean that crap?" Or when she's
being more diplomatic, she tells me that the people who say these things must have
had a bad experience with Baba. Indeed, this is the standard line being given out by
the higher ups today in the worldwide Baba organization--You should only trust your
own experience with Baba. It's hard for me to feel what grandma's experience has
been; Baba's been her god for over 30 years and the closest friendships she has are
Sai inspired. It is a path that has given her direction, and sharpened her certitude. I
doubt her confidence would be so strong otherwise.
Baba says, "There is only one religion, the religion of Love; There is only one
language; the language of the Heart; There is only one God, He is Omnipresent." My
grandmother thinks of these words as the underpinnings of her life, and the man
who speaks them, her creator. She is a woman normally possessed with a keen
sense of scrutiny, but Baba is not up for debate. "Where is the evil in the free
schooling, and hospitals and food for the hungry?" she asks. I am jocular in
response, but in truth, I don't have a good answer for her question. There is nothing I
can say that undoes the charity he has done, or the essentials of his message. I
study her voice reacting with disappointment and her conviction being reinforced by
strife. "Can't you find something productive to do with yourself?" My response is
long and inarticulate. There is nothing eloquent about the language of destruction.