Believing in Baba


An essay on the nature of belief by Bruce Miller.


Date: July 25, 2001

Last week,, a leading Web magazine, explored some serious allegations that have surfaced recently about Sathya Sai Baba, the Indian avatar who is worshipped by millions. The reporter, Michelle Goldberg, visited Sai Baba’s ashram in Puttaparthi, India and came away with a compelling story for those of us who have followed the spiritual wave of the last thirty years.

It was back in the early 70’s in Los Angeles, during my earliest spiritual explorations, that I came into contact with Richard Bock, one of Sai Baba’s first Western devotees. He had just come back from India with a shaky, 8mm film of the avatar. The film, which he screened regularly throughout the city for several years, showed a bushy-haired Sai Baba extending his arm into an enormous urn that his assistant held upside down above their heads. As Baba went into a trance, his hand gesticulated inside the urn and a shower of ash flowed freely. The unrelenting flow of ash elicited gasps and sighs and moans among the aspirants at the screening. Finally, the lights came on. The message was clear and irrefutable – an avatar (God incarnate) is in our midst.

Somehow, I thought it was a bit odd that God incarnate would choose to perform magic tricks while Vietnam, Watergate and the other crises of the time laid the world at risk. Still, I never deeply doubted the Sai Baba phenomenon. If God can manifest complex life forms like a duck or a chicken, why not a bit of ash?

Thus, I lost track of Sai Baba while I was drawn into my own Sufi journey for the next three decades. It was a bit of a shock, this week, to catch up with Baba again via this article. As it turns out, the avatar has reportedly been molesting the young children of his followers for the last 30 years with the tacit consent of the Indian government.

Anyone who has followed the spiritual wave since the 60s is probably familiar with guru after guru who has been brought down by the lethal combination of sex, money and spirituality. What is amazing is that while these other scandals brought the gurus down, Sai Baba seems stronger than ever despite chronicled evidence of major pedophilia. What’s more, Baba’s distinguishing mark as an avatar -- the baubles and ash that he miraculously manifests – has also been challenged as fraud.

Why am I hashing this scandal here? The Baba story can help us deeply explore the nature of Belief.

Let’s suppose that Sai Baba is indeed a second rate, sexually frustrated magician with a penchant for young boys. What distinguishes this story is the massive scale of the belief system at stake. According to the article, Baba has somewhere between 10 and 50 million followers. And apparently, they are unshaken by these un-refuted allegations. What’s more, the Indian government is content to look the other way rather than lose a huge source of revenue.

What is it about Baba that makes him such an object of devotion? Sai Baba gives no teachings, no writings or words of wisdom. His appearances draw tens of thousands, yet offer just a fleeting glimpse of the man – he appears for perhaps ten minutes and then he’s gone. Even more horrific, some devotees willingly offer their children to Baba’s sexual appetite with the bliss-numb belief that there is a God-like blessing in such contact.

As sordid as the story may be, it does reveal the relationship of belief, investment and identity.

We all have belief systems. As children, we are told to believe that the earth is round despite its apparent flatness. Later, we develop the means to order our universe. We see the earth photo from space, we observe a tanker ship drop below the horizon and we put the two together. The earth is round. The belief forms our world view and sense of identity.

Other belief systems are not as objective. Suppose we believe in reincarnation, supply-side economics, or multi-level marketing? We may have an emotional, political or financial investment in such beliefs. This investment circumscribes our ability to discriminate. We see the ship drop below the horizon, but if the particular puzzle piece doesn’t fit into our world view, we sublimate the perception or feeling. We build an investment in our belief that God manifests rings and vibhuti ash via an Indian avatar. In the same way, the Indian government withholds its urge to arrest the golden goose that has brought schools, hospitals and millions of dollars to an impoverished region.

Consider stock investors. I will often visit the Yahoo message board for a particular stock. Investors post messages throughout the day sharing their insight about a company and why it is destined to rise or fall. As one might expect, investors who are "long" – who stand to make money if the stock rises – see nothing but silver linings in every tidbit of company news. Conversely, short sellers – who profit if the stock goes down – react sneeringly to each bit of information as proof that the company is doomed. Recently I bought some stock that went boom and bust. I found myself getting sucked into these same feelings of fear and hope that were directly staked to my investment.

All beliefs are marked by a corresponding investment. Consequently, they cloud our ability to discriminate with impartiality. In the same way, public servants are required to divest themselves of their investments before they can act on a case with impartiality.

From a spiritual point of view, the opposite of belief is not disbelief, it is gnosis.

A belief is a mental or emotional investment made outside of ourselves – an investment in an idea, person, system, reward, punishment or a god. Gnosis is the direct apprehension of what is – without any intermediary. Beliefs stand in the way of gnosis. Gnosis is not filtered through a belief system, it is self awareness in the truest sense – with all expectation and pretense stripped away

One might think that it is easy to shed a belief. But in actuality, there is no greater sacrifice than to put a single belief into the crucible of truth. This is because the cloak of our identity is woven from beliefs. When a belief is challenged, the first impulse is to cling ever more tightly to the belief. The Salon article quotes an American devotee who clings in this way as he responds to the charges:

"Any sexual contact Baba has had with devotees -- of whatever kind -- has actually been only a potent blessing, given to awaken the spiritual power within those souls. Who can call that 'wrong'? Surely to call such contact 'molestation' is perversity itself."

Sai Baba, who apparently rarely gives interviews, responded to the charges by questioning the faith of his devotees:

"Some devotees seem to be disturbed over these false statements. They are not true devotees at all. Having known the mighty power of Sai, why should you be afraid of the 'cawing of crows'? All that is written on walls [or] said in political meetings, or the vulgar tales carried by the print media, should not carry one away."

Eventually, the belief system is threatened altogether, precipitating a crisis. Until that time, real feelings are sublimated behind the emotional blind spots formed by the belief. A spouse’s adultery, a child getting in trouble with the law, a betrayal of any kind – these are usually too painful to acknowledge because they threaten the belief system at its core.

The soul has an early warning system that a belief system is being challenged. It is usually a sinking feeling as one’s reference points dissolve. This is the moment where we are challenged to abandon the safe harbor of status quo and allow the future to come in. This radically disruptive energy shatters the patterns of the past. It comes as a form of grace that is prompted by the yearning of the soul.

Are beliefs inherently bad? Certainly not. Indeed, one of the latifas in our exercise is "I believe." But, beliefs must evolve beyond fear and hope until they lead us to the threshold of gnosis.

I offer this essay on beliefs, not to stir anthills, but as an invitation to renew our work. God gives us the opportunity to create space inside for the truly creative energy that continuously yearns to dissolve the patterns of our past and renew our world.

For further reading, here is the link to July 25, 2001 - Untouchable, by Michelle Goldberg