Date: 09-14-02

By: Robert Priddy



The veranda at Sai Baba's ashram, where many of the longer-term followers are permitted to sit, is peopled by a diversity of persons. Some do appear to be genuine examples of some of the best qualities Baba would inculcate in them, behaving with equal respect and a generous spirit towards most people, whether person with problems or genuine grievances. I could count a few of them as good friends (before I became disaffected, since when I have become pretty much a non-person to avoid like the plague for them, it seems!). I came to know some VIPs who I would never have wasted any time on had I not been required to as a fellow believer or member of the Sai Org. There are too many very prominent VIPs of whom I have heard and seen enough to know I would never want to know them better. I also soon realised that I would never want to be among their number myself.

One speaks of certain devotees as VIPs at the ashrams and they are treated as such by the staff. Some of them are 'temporary', such as ministers, governors, heads of state and foreign royalty. Others have a permanent status as 'veranda installed persons', usually granted by Baba himself, which means that they may sit on the veranda floor which surrounds the front entrance of the temple. This usually gives a better view at darshan, and other privileges go with it of which not a few of them avail themselves quite freely, like always going straight to the front of long meal queues. Such persons are often to the fore on public occasions, such as to speak on Baba's values and desirable human qualities. Being thus in the public eye, their behaviour for better or worse announces them wherever they go, for prominence brings scrutiny.

For example, I happened to see a well-known Indian author devotee by the name of Mr. Balu who has been receiving much grace for decades and to whom Baba speaks very regularly at darshan take advantage of the fact by surreptitiously edging himself into the front of a very long single-line queue at Brindavan so as to obtain a handful of prasad without having to wait like anybody else. Though V.K. Narasimhan had asked me to meet this man in connection with distribution of my book in India, this incident caused me to decide not to have any dealings with him. Again, a VIP from the European Org. (TM), who had received some sweets as holy prasad from Baba, was to meet up one morning with a large group of Scandinavian devotees from his country whom he was to take on a visit to the so-called Space Theatre. He told some of us beforehand that he might be a bit late because he had promised to share some prasad Baba had given him personally with some friends first. Yet he arrived where the group were waiting for him and shared his prasad with another VIP couple (JH and wife), all eating it slowly quite demonstratively right in front of the waiting group. What were they trying to prove, I wonder? Such complete inability to see the figures they cut seems to be shared by many Sai Org. leaders, not least the US leader, Michael Goldstein, who is apparently so self-centered that he is only liked by those who feel they have to be nice to him because of his position etc. Having put up with some of these people, misguided and thus to be pitied as they are, I have no compunction in at last stating what I and so many have seen and told me. Sometimes it is for the common good to call a spade a spade!

Among the 'special guests' or so-called VIPs nearly all profess brotherhood and love, calling one another 'brother' and 'sister', making the movement a laughing stock to sensible people, like other sects and discredited cults. They affect this monkish or evangelistic form of address in letters and talks (even while behaving mostly like far-removed cousins). They report to each other on all the grace they receive in the form of frequent attention or interviews from Sai Baba, and seem usually to arrange special accommodation for themselves at conferences and workshops so they can be together and share their inside information free of any grass root members. They let it be known to the 'ordinary followers' too in various ways. Sometimes this can be a natural desire to share one's happiness and experiences with others, but it clearly also often expresses a need to be accepted or looked up to as pious by others. If a boy at school behaved like this, or commented how much the teacher favoured him, one would more easily be able make allowances for it than with grown men and women. SB condones this but, as usual, he also abhors it, saying that if you say brother to a beggar, would you treat him as one and share everything with him! A good point! (Note: SB does NOT call beggars his brothers!).

Many at the ashrams do look up to those who have outward signs of grace more than to those who do not. There is cult status in being a VIP, but Baba (who appoints them himself) has also equivocally remarked that VIP equally could mean 'vipers' and 'very ignorant persons'. This shows how kindly SB is in his jokes at the expense of others. They seem to enjoy being the butt of this omniscient humour, too, though not taking it seriously (of course). Such special guests of Baba do sometimes have to undergo special tests too, supposedly designed to improve them. These are regarded as spiritual boons... by those who pass them. The main test is not to have doubts, whatever is said or done by SB. Not all manage this, shown by the exclusion by Baba himself of a number of one-time VIPs from his ashrams and the resignation of about a dozen top leaders in his Org. in the past few years. The banning of Alvin Drucker, the US devotee with the longest time-serve at the ashrams, was a prominent example, whereby he was not allowed even to attend Sai meetings and was told never to return to the ashrams again (However, he did so 6 years later for a sandals (paduka) ceremony in 1998). Drucker continues to dissemble about the main reasons for his banishment, but it is known that he refused SB’s expressed demand to remain single and married instead. On what grounds he came to this decision, he is unwilling to talk, except in strict confidence to some persons. Why he is so unwilling to tell the truth and defend the weak I do not know. Some fine day, the chief reason will surely be made known, though it should be easy enough to guess.

One small example: Kasturi wrote in one of his books of a former super-favourite young Indian boy in the '60s or early 70s, a very lively little fellow who could come and go in SB's rooms whenever he liked and was allowed to speak at any time, even interrupting SB. (He is also described in Howard Levin's book 'Good Chances' where he asked SB to call a man to interview who had waited for years, and SB did too). One day the boy was cut off dead by a very angry SB... because, according to Kasturi, he had been meeting a girl! No amount of tears and waiting could move the implacable Lord! One cannot, of course, help but interpret this favouritism - and fall from grace - in the light of what is now so widely alleged about SB.

There have been enough examples through the years of VIP pride before - and after - its very heavy fall among staff and other 'Sai luminaries' to wonder over, though these are very seldom written about. Successful frauds in various countries (manifesting vibuthi, Sai rings etc., or doing healings and alleged Sai kundalini yoga) have been cultivated like demigods by Sai devotees, and they have occasionally been dealt with summarily by a warning notice in SB's journal Sanathana Sarathi. Embezzlers in the ashram have been given their marching orders by SB, such as Mr. Suri of the Book and Publications Trust, who was caught with unaccounted funds and cooked books when the 1993 murders were being investigated and was later cut off relentlessly by SB, even though still allowed to sit on the veranda daily.

SB certainly notices who is ever to the fore, which is why there is such a lot of pushing and shoving, cheating for better places in the lines, obtaining chits or making use of friends and relatives in the Seva Dal, even with bribery etc. in this Abode of Supreme Peace. A peculiar variant of 'earning one's place' to obtain 'the attention of the Lord' was practiced by two Westerners who sat and waited longer than anyone else (countless thousands of hours since the early 1980s) so as to try to obtain the foremost possible places twice daily at darshan. This paid off, and they were as noticeable as sore thumbs, often getting good places and often begging or looking desperate for attention. They were there so often so that SB could hardly have ignored their tireless zeal at sitting there without seeming really heartless. The two prime examples who hardly need be named even were both eventually 'blessed' with VIP status too. One of them was invited to hold 'lectures for foreigners’, in which he mainly parroted an over-simplified version of SB’s moralism together with his wife. The other was allocated a flat for his use alone, a person who brazenly defrauded a fellow devotee by failing to honour a signed contract, (I have seen all the proof) but constantly received favours from SB nonetheless. This was another way in which I learned that sheer dishonesty and an offensive ego are no hindrance to much attention and close physical proximity to SB. This is one of SB's many ways of binding certain people to himself, men who are unquestioning but useful parts of the propaganda machine, such as by translating his discourses.

The ‘veranda-person’ can wait in the shorter, more privileged queue of VIPs, (in which the two I mention also continue to outwait all others!) so as to get the choice of best places on the veranda before the hundreds of students are also loosed onto the veranda like a pack of hounds. Firmly woven into the ever-more enveloping social and ideological web, such persons eventually lose the means to see anything except through SB glasses... automatically putting all such comment as I make here down to ego, jealousy or what not, without knowing anything of the real state of affairs. There are more than enough other devotees who do all they can to beat other people to better places day by day, always ahead of all those who are too unassuming (or chivalrous) to push for prominence. Those who believe in good action with a low profile much more than outward appearances, who would seem to be a majority, are very seldom treated well. Many such unfortunates - imagining themselves supremely lucky or blessed and chosen - accept all this and the problems that go with it as a preferable substitute for facing otherwise empty lives, broken homes, untenable marriages, social failures and many other life problems.

One also observes devotees - including many overseas visitors - who look at Baba beseechingly or with a humble kind of desperation, like a beggar grovelling, which looks so self-demeaning as not to be fitting for upright men and women. Is it not possible to accept others as being more powerful or grater than oneself without kow-towing, which appears distastefully too much like slavish cringing and crawling for favours with the ever-outstretched hand. SB has pointed out that men before God are mostly no better than beggars, for all they have or can have comes ultimately from God... but also that God is in us and we are God. One does not get this impression at all from years of watching the relationship between SB and devotees. Only in recent times has he said that he does not want devotees to touch his feet, because this makes it look as though all are not divine… but only after 60 years of constant obeisances by everyone around him. That he always thrives on it is perfectly evident!

That so many who are drawn to SB into this kind of master-slave relationship is considered by apologists to be a most natural result of his stated all-inclusive policy, to help to redeem everyone, from the needy, suffering and poor in spirit to the well-to-do and those of position or power. Baba seems mostly to choose as his officials and other VIPs persons who lack civility, demonstrate self-importance, bossiness and a general unwillingness to listen or lift a finger to help (other than by patronising words). These traits are not only seen in the many Indians among them. Some European VIPs come to emulate the Indian style towards their ‘inferiors’. It is said in defence of SB by some, that these people are ‘his instruments’ for testing the tolerance and forgiveness of everyone around them. What a bizarre and unfriendly way of teaching? So I soon found that it was usually preferable to associate more with those unassuming persons who many regard as unimportant – even as 'losers' -because they are not striving to demonstrate ‘leadership’ or are at frequent interviews or hold other positions of privilege. There is much more friendliness among them, fewer opinionated viewpoints and they are not so parsimonious with kind words and helpful hands. One might surmise that, being the less deeply sold to SB personally than to humanity generally, this kind of person is among the first to be open to the pleas for understanding of SB’s various victims.