In Memoriam Brian Steel
By: Chris Dokter
I am sad to report the passing of my friend and colleague Brian Steel earlier this year. After a short period of illness Brian died peacefully at the age of 87 on January 29 2023 in his hometown of Mornington, Victoria, Australia, his daughter Maribel let me know.
Brian, a Brit to his core, was born in Southampton, 3 July 1935, the younger of 2 sons. He attended grammar school at Taunton and subsequently acquired a scholarship to attend Cambridge, where he read Roman languages, French in particular.
After a chance meeting with a Spanish exchange student, who was to become his wife, Picula, he steered his lifelong academic endeavours toward Spanish.
In 1966 he applied for a teaching position at Monash University in Melbourne. Brian, his wife and 2 children migrated down under. It was the start of a long and fruitful career as a teacher and academic lexicographer at the department of Spanish, which lasted until his retirement in 1990.
Like so many of us, erstwhile devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, Brian stumbled upon this enigmatic figure in the early eighties, as a result of the flurry of books that appeared within a decade as personal testimony by Western devotees like Howard Murphet, Samuel Sandweiss and John Hislop. Brian, convinced of the veracity of Sathya Sai Baba’s claims of being an avatar and miracle worker, started singing bhajans at a local center, and traveled to India on several occasions, without ever receiving an interview or having other, psychic ‘visits’ by the guru (dreams et cetera).
Being the lifelong linguist and lexicographer that he was, Brian set himself the task of writing a threefold compendium of Sai Baba’s lectures. The first two were indeed published in the ninetees. While working on the last tome, Brian got his first misgivings, as he started noticing serious discrepancies between what Sai Baba actually said and the official translations given. Compounded by the shocking personal accounts of deception and sexual misconduct that were surfacing on the burgeoning internet around the change of the millennium, it caused Brian to reconsider and subsequently change his position into a critical observer of the whole phenomenon. He started connecting with other disappointed, worried devotees and former adherents through mail and chatboxes. Within a year, this resulted in his own website, and a decade or two of close contact with other academics worldwide, nearly all former devotees turned critics, like Robert Priddy of Norway, Barry Pittard of Australia, Alexandra Nagel of the Netherlands and Timothy Conway of the United States.
Brian was no activist. His tone remained always reasoned, his opinions well underpinned and concisely written down, his academic output regarding Sathya Sai Baba prolific and singular. Within scarse more than a decade, Brian produced an exhaustive bibliography of hagiographical, apologetic, critical and academia based literature, which served subsequent writers like Tulasi Srinivas well. His sectioned and annotated bibliography is indeed a sine qua non for every academic or journalist who wants to shed light on the controversial nature and intricasies of Sathya Sai Baba.
I myself got to know Brian quite well from 2012 onwards. I was ‘late to the party’, Brian teased me once. (He knew he was wrong: I was early. And only then, late…) We wrote eachother frequently, and oftentimes he would call me, or I him. The private man slowly dissipated as we shared our mutual enthusiasm for languages. Brian was an erudite polyglot, with a vociferous appetite for new language input and cultural differences. He learned himself Hindi, and tried to improve on his Dutch and German with me. The latter two to no great avail, but to my neverending amusement. Brian was a playful friend and a stern taskmaster alike where I was concerned. He was an example to me how to publish without bias yet to great effect. It was exemplified in his official peer-reviewed book review of Icelandic parapsychologist Erlendur Haraldsson’s revised book Modern Miracles: Sathya Sai Baba: The Story Of A Modern Day Prophet (2013) in the Journal of the Society of Psychical Research (JSPR, April 2015, Vol 79,2, Number 919, pp 112-114 and a few lines of pg 115).
It was a privilege to have known the man. He will be sorely missed.