Is the Sai Baba's empire beginning to



There is no doubt that the low turnout at his birthday celebrations were an indication of the Sai Baba's falling clout as a result of charges of child sexual abuse and the inexorable flaking away of his worldwide empire, says M Seetha Shailaja

Hyderabad, November 29


Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, cricketers Sunil Gavaskar, Clive Loyd and Steve Waugh, actress Meenakshi Seshadri, rock singer Jimi Hendrix and the underworld don of Chennai, Wodeyar - they all have one thing in common: unstinting devotion to the Sathya Sai Baba, whose gargantuan empire is spread across 165 countries, where 13,000 institutions run on the financial steam of a collective membership of about 37 million, give or take a few.

A section of this membership is reportedly becoming truculent, for not everything is said to be aboveboard in the house of the holy. A spate of incidents, such as the attack on his life, attempts by his Japanese devotees to take over the Prashanti Nilayam in Puttaparthi, the drying up of his grandiose Rs 350 crore scheme to provide drinking water to the people of Anantpur district, and the worldwide campaign to tamp down rumours of his alleged child abuse, muddied the festivities surrounding his 75th birthday celebrations last week.

Against a projected two million, hardly half a million turned up; most of the new apartments in Puttaparthi valley, with quoted rents of Rs 5,000-10,000 a week, went vacant. Of the 2,500 special trains deployed to transport the devotees, less than 750 were eventually required.

After the convocation of Sathya Sai University on November 23, attending dignitaries slipped out of Puttaparthi without participating in the other events
of the day. Both Union Human Resources Minister
Murli Manohar Joshi and Chief Minister Naidu dashed
to New Delhi in the afternoon. Many industry bigwigs
also hotfooted it out soon after.

The Sai Baba is credited with having attained spiritual enlightenment when he was eight years old. He started performing mahimas (miracles) at the age of 14.

Things seem to have gone wrong for the godman, whom his devotees style as "Bhagwan" Sathya Sai Baba; to his critics, he is either Vibhuti Guru or the Godman of Frauds. Atheists such as Premananda and former vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, Professor Narasimhaiah, have labelled him a cheat. Premananda has even filed a case in the Supreme Court under the Gold Act against Baba's showy morphosing of gold ornaments from thin air.

According to an unofficial estimate of the Income Tax (I-T) department, which has granted blanket tax exemptions to all donations to the Sai Baba's trust, the total value his assets, both in India and abroad, is about Rs 5,000 crore. He receives donations worth Rs 65 crore every year.

Sai Baba's popularity nosedived after the attack on his life in 1994 by a few of his own trusted corps of volunteers (see Ashram Mandiram: fortress of solitude). He managed to dampen the outcry against the conspiracy within the Prashanti Nilayam Ashram. His influence with the state police helped him hush up the episode, which could have snowballed into a major embarrassment because the police killed four of the offending "volunteers" (four others were "pardoned").

"They are out of Prashanti Nilayam but not out of Baba's coterie, which runs his vast empire," says a critic in Hyderabad.

The case was personally handled and an inquiry conducted by a senior deputy inspector general, who has now risen to the rank of director general of police
and is all set for a posting to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), thanks to the Sai Baba's blessings.

It is common knowledge that judges and mafia dons alike are given immediate audience with the Sai Baba and move around freely within the ashram even when the police are around. Although he has been given a crack protection unit, he has his own guards trained in Israel. The security is so tight that local devotees - from Puttaparthi and nearby villages - are unhappy about restricted perambulation within Prashanti Nilayam.

The Sai Baba is credited with having attained spiritual enlightenment when he was eight years old. He started performing mahimas (miracles) at the age of 14. Through the 1990s, he witnessed a rash of competitors and religious simulacra: there are, at present, at least four other self-styled Sai Babas in Andhra Pradesh.