Sai Baba, holy guru whose wisdom is profound. Or a sexual predator?
BBC Radio 4 - Sunday 19th November 2000 - 7:30am This is Sunday on BBC Radio 4; the time is now just after 7.33 am "He then abused my stepson, so I then knew that these stories I'd been told by the students were true. The students turned to me, and said 'Please sir, will you go back to England and help us?' (Five minutes of other stories...) Well return now to a story we reported on two weeks ago about serious allegations of sexual abuse made against Sai Baba, the popular leader of a religious organisation in India, who claims to have up to 50 million followers around the world. A campaign waged on the Internet by disillusioned former devotees is seeking to warn families of the dangers they face when visiting the Sai Baba Organisation. The allegations are hotly disputed. Stephen Perry investigates, in this week's special report: Sai Baba is one of the most revered gurus in India and has a following that is estimated to be between 10 and 50 million. Most of the devotees are from India, but many travel from the United Kingdom, United States and the rest of the world, in the hope of being granted an interview with the man who claims he is the reincarnation of a revered saint, Shirdi Sai Baba who died in 1918. He is himself now worshipped as a god, an Avatar. "I know that Baba is my saviour. I know that Baba is within me. I know that Baba will direct me. I know that Baba will protect me. I love you father. I need you Father Sai Baba." "I believed that he was the Avatar, and I believed also specifically that he'd called me to be close to him and to be a follower of his, so I felt that there were divine forces at work in bringing me to him, and in giving me a new direction in my life." Jed Geyerhan from Massachusetts in the United States was close to his 16th birthday when he first met Sai Baba a few years ago. Jed had travelled with his aunt to the ashram in Puttaparthi in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In 1997 Mick Brown, the Daily Telegraph journalist, joined the 10,000 or so who regularly gathered at the small town that been formed to accommodate devotees at the Sai Baba Centre. He was there to conduct research for his book 'The Spiritual Tourist.' He became aware of the wide embrace of the leaders' influence. "Sai Baba is without question, the most important and the most significant religious figure in India. He's also a very significant political figure in India, and his followers have included previous Prime Ministers and the present Prime Minister. Among the board of trustees of his ashram are senior politicians, former politicians, members of the judiciary, senior members of the armed forces... so on and so forth. So he is a very estimable figure in Indian public life, and a very powerful figure actually in the Hindu nationalist movement in India." David Bailey, a concert pianist from North Wales (Davids music plays behind David as he speaks for a few seconds). "When I got to India to see him, there was a fantastic moment in my life, because I believed that I was in the presence of a very great being. He was claiming to be God on earth... At that moment when I saw him... There was a huge welling up of an energy... I can only say, of love. It was a moment that made me think - am I here on earth at the same time as another figure like Jesus? " David Bailey found favour with Sai Baba and was asked to play at music festivals in India and around the world on his behalf. He says he was granted over a hundred private interviews with the guru. Most devotees are lucky to have one such opportunity. But he claims when young students started coming up to him with tales of how they had been sexually abused, he became troubled. "He then abused my stepson, so I then knew that the stories I'd been told were true. The students turned to me, and said "Please sir, will you go back to England and help us?" This he did, and set up a website on the Internet, and he began to publish testimonies by those who alleged they'd been molested by Sai Baba. What has emerged is a pattern of behaviour by the guru, leading on to sexual abuse of devotees. On his first visit to the ashram, Jed Geyerhan had several interviews with Sai Baba in the company of his aunt. At the third, he was invited into a private room, alone. "He actually grabbed my groin direct through my clothes and in that interview he asked me to take my pants down and he materialised this grey ash called vibhuti and rubbed the vibhuti on the side of my groin." Two years later he went back and was granted a further interview. "But looking for some sort of explanation as to what these sexual experiences were. He asked me what I wanted and I said "I want your love" and he took it completely wrong and sort of just peculiarly advanced his body towards me and said "you know I'm all yours, take me." ah .. you know "take me" but not .. ah .. sort of in any sort of spiritual way but looking at me in a flirtatious way." With Jed it went no further than that, but another American family who wish to remain anonymous, claimed Sai Baba had oral sex with their son and attempted to rape him. The boy's father was at the time an important official within the organisation in the United States. He himself, at the age of 18 had had similar experiences to those of Jed Geyerhan. "What happened many years later to my son, proved to me that really what had happened to me was just the initial part of what Sai Baba does, and that it seems that that's the way he starts out with boys. When we began questioning our son we found out that in fact Baba had been forcing him to engage in more intimate sexual behaviour than we had ever known about and when our son would refuse, Baba would get angry, and he would say "oh, you don't like me and so I'm never talking to you and your family again." and her son would say "oh please Baba don't - I .. I do love you, but not like that." We contacted the Sai Baba Organisation in India but a senior official there made it clear they were not willing to talk to the BBC. Ashok Baganni, a trustee of the UK organisation vigorously denies there is any substance to the allegations, and so has the anointing of the genitals of young men by Sai Baba was out of the question. "It is not acceptable in any form of language and this sort of behaviour does not agree with spirituality. You know, Sai Baba is a spiritual leader and I can tell you categorically this sort of thing doesn't happen there. These are disgruntled people. They may have been previously Sai Baba devotees, but they are disgruntled, with an axe to grind and I welcome anyone to contact me if they've got a serious allegation, and errr ... We will talk to them." Steen Piculeli, the Sai Baba organisation co-ordinator in the Russian speaking countries, speaking from Copenhagen in a personal capacity, says the allegations are sheer madness. But he does believe the stroking of the male genitals can be acceptable in India. "Gurus have always, as part of their job, put some oil on the er .. upper.. er ... Part of their ... Right hand and g .. ... and gone down in the chakra be .. be .. behind the testicles to er .. er .. . adjust the .. chakra there. This is a normal thing. And this I suppose Baba has also done because this is part of his job. That's all." and Steen Piculeli dismisses those who are organising the campaign against Baba as representing no more than a divine test, sent by God. "Of course, they're playing the role of Judas or the 'doubtful Thomas.' I mean that they are picked to play this role, from a .. a .. d divine play. The time of Jesus, with the doubt for Thomas, with the Judas, is repeating itself now, in this time. And they're doing a perfect... job, and Baba knows only the best ones to pick out for that .. To date, no one making the allegations against Sai Baba has attempted to prosecute him. Mick Brown thinks the guru is in some measure invulnerable in his own country. "I think there is a degree to which Sai Baba is a law unto himself, if you like. I think it's probably very hard for anyone to make these allegations in India, because he is a figure of... held in such high esteem." With legal action unlikely, Jed Geyerhan and the many others who made the allegations of indecent assault and abuse of trust, are limiting themselves to warning others against following a path. "My motive at this point is just sort of continue down that road trying to get as many people to know about it as possible, and realise that there's something terribly wrong here." Jed Geyerhan ending that report by Stephen Perry.