THE MINI -WORLD THREE RING CIRCUS
SAI BABA ASHRAMS
By: Robert Priddy
Website: http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/Apart from whatever attraction that SB himself exerts, one result of visiting is the discovery of ashram life, which for many Westerners is a new, exotic experience. It also gives a sense of fellowship in sharing somefaith in something beyond the everyday sensory world, which is all of course what Sai Baba claims to know all about. Besides the belief or hope that being near to the self-proclaimed avatar will confer boons and blessing, there are some other attractions of ashram life. One is the great change of culture, climate, food habits etc. involved (until it becomes too familiar). There is a general lack of hurry and stress (except when rushing for a place in the darshan lines, canteen queues etc.). Life there differs refreshingly in some ways from that in most modern industrialised states. It can be a relief to be cut off from the wider world, its TV and bad news. Part of the experience of visiting is the closer encounter with the country and its inhabitants than mere tourism can offer, which meeting can be educative to those who have not crossed cultural boundaries before. Among the milling hordes whose main ambition is their own betterment or often simply physical survival, there are a number of sweet, selfless people... this is where the real spirituality of India is found. When one finally overcomes the common illusions of Western seekers about 'spirituality', one finds the simple Indian far more humanly acceptable and accepting than the ca. two million parasitic sannyasins, fakirs, soothsayers, yogis, astrologers, nagas, priests, religious mountebanks and swamis. Despite the vast material and social problems that India faces, one sees more smiling, happy faces among ordinary Indians, who have very little in the way of goods and welfare than in any first world country I know. On the other hand, people should be warned of the unknown dangers of visiting Prashanthi Nilayam. The number of foreign devotees who have died there in accidents, taken their own lives there or have literally been murdered (within the ashram itself) is difficult to know, due to the tightest secrecy and cover-ups (both by the ashram staff and all SB's foreign officials in the Sai Org.), but it unquestionably is a considerable number.
Nor are any records kept or made public about those who die of natural causes or illnesses contracted there but, again, this does amount to a considerable number. There are various serious hazards that are never explained to visitors.
One such is exemplified in the following.When complaining of the massive disturbance that a previous state visit had caused to celebrations at Prashanthi Nilayam because of the rigid governmental security arrangements, Narasimhan was told by SB that unfortunately nothing could be done to avert the visit of the then Indian President, Dayal Sharma, to the 70th birthday. (Apropos, is it not strange that SB, who claims to be omnipotent and to be the only being having any free will, should suddenly be so powerless!) That presidential visit in 1996 cost the State 6 million rupees for the deployment of 3000 armed Black Berets as security guards, whose foolishly antiquated crowd control methods nearly caused people to be trampled to death at the gates of the Stadium. Some were trampled, but recovered, including some American ladies for whom the experience and injuries sustained were very traumatic. My wife and her friends were also affected most severely, almost unable to breath and incapable of moving an inch in the enormous pushing crowd before the stadium gates, which the Black Berets kept closed long after the time announced for their opening, all because the President's car had not yet appeared. This is not untypical of the high-handed and counter-productive kinds of 'crowd control' in India, where deaths by crushing at large religious and other gatherings are fairly regular occurrences.
So far I do not know of anyone who died as a result of the enormous and regular crowds through 5 decades at SB's ashrams and other mass meetings he has attended. If it has occurred, I am at least certain that the ashram administration would immediately have done as they always do when anyone dies in their precincts. They make every effort, including payments to those involved, so as to hush it up... even send all foreigners away from the ashram within the day (so as to stop the news spreading too far).The former long-term President of the SSO in UK, Mr. Lucas Ralli, author of at least five books purporting to be 'received' from SB ('Sai Messages for You and Me' in 5 vols), was nearly suffocated in a crowd at a birthday celebration a year or two previous to the 70th birthday, when the Black Berets were also present and, through the imperious stupidity so widespread in many ofIndia's authorities, nearly caused a major catastrophe. He determined that he would never again visit the ashram (where he had his own apartment) and he has since then been absent, besides being no longer active in the SSO at all.
Prashanti Nilayam is no sanctuary from worldly problems nor a place full of saintly people, it is no utopian retreat... not by any means. It may be better than "a snake pit of jealousy", as one elderly Indian devotee in the IAS with long experience of it assured me it is. The former Head of Administration for over 20 years, Mr. Kanhaia Jee, told me that the PN staff "fight like dogs" when Swami's back is turned! Still, it is a fact that much selfless labour is done there with good intentions, whatever the actual results achieved. It does also seem fairly reasonable that SB's self-declared task of improving society and the world through transformation of individuals would call for him to permit all kinds of person to come there, certainly not only persons who act well and for the good. Especially if he is to have any positive influence on those in India who are its biggest problem... This might just explain why he gives interviews both to known criminals in India and accepts their money, but also to foreign leaders known as major criminals (eg. Idi Amin of Uganda, Benito Craxi of Italy). He also emphasizes that physical proximity is no guarantee of a person's character and nor is long residence in the ashram either. Many people's observations tend strongly to agree with this.SB has said that good and bad are found in varying admixtures in all persons in the world today. But conflicting with this he has recently held that some people do not even have the spark of divinity and are but demons. (Eg. "... a hard-hearted person cannot be called a spark of Divinity; he is verily a demon." p. 323, 'Sanathana Sarathi', November 2002). At the same time, yet more confusedly, he has sometimes also denied that anyone is either good or bad... or that good and bad even exists at all!
It is moreover possible that, without SB's initiatives, little of the works he stands for (though as if all to his own credit only) would have come about. People from India and abroad have found the inspiration to improve and sublimate themselves, such as by helping truly needy persons in their home countries. But again, since they were aspiring anyhow, had SB not been there, they would surely have found another outlet for their good intentions and efforts! I should mention that SB played some role in my joining the movement to work for what I thought to be beneficial, though I now realise that much of the work contributes to a sham and much effort, time and money is thereby wasted. This kind of social service is a very widespread social phenomenon in the world, but SB talks constantly as if he had invented it all yesterday. Things did not at all turn out to be as they were claimed to be, so both SB and his works have been brought under a dark cloud, whatever else one knows, experiences, or wishes to believe about it all.Do ashram hardships really increase spirituality? The etymological meaning of 'ashram' is a place of 'no hardship' ('a-shrama'). So it is a refuge from the cruel world. Many Westerners who stay there as long as allowed laze about and indulge themselves in doing little or nothing other than follow the daily routines. SB proclaims that it is futile to stay there if one is not doing service ('Sathya Sai Speaks' new ed. Vol. 26, Ch. 7, p.79f), disciplining oneself and changing one's attitude ('Sathya Sai Speaks' new ed. Vol. 16 Ch.28, p. 157f) while rigorously searching for truth. How one might find truth there rather than elsewhere and in the world is an unanswered question. Of the many people I have met there, none impressed me as being anywhere near 'the truth'. On the contrary, I have met more peculiarly confused, unrealistic and suffering people there than anywhere else. It is a place of both physical and mental-emotional hardship for many visitors. Someone who once complained of the hardness of the cement floor he had to sleep on was told by SB that he instructs by life in the ashram, to bed early and up early keeps the mind bright and alert and shows how little the body needs. ('Conversations with Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba' by Dr. J. Hislop, new ed., p. 170) Since the 'bright and. alert' people seem to be exceptions at his ashrams, in what else might the 'spiritual benefits' consist? The body's basic needs for healthy food and hygiene, some undisturbed sleep, relief from oppressive heat and so on remain, and it takes about treble the amount of time and energy to fulfil these needs as in any properly equipped modern flat. So most of the time left over from following the daily routines has to be spent struggling with simple tasks of day-to-day living. There were continual difficulties due to a lack of material comforts, but this improved a lot since the ashram became modernised in the 1990s. Getting used to the different rhythm of daily doings can be demanding, especially for elderly devotees and those suffering from illnesses and chronic conditions. Many things done easily at home, such as obtaining necessary items or getting correct information can become long labours in the ashram. This is all supposed by SB to be for the benefit of the devotee! Those who 'own' rooms (i.e. who can lock things away in their kitchen for the 10 months each year when they are not allowed to be there), invariably return to a worn-down apartment with broken fittings and very often filthy conditions left behind by the many and various guests. My wife and I have had to clean one disgusting room after another almost every time we have stayed there. Such 'selfless spiritual service to the Lord' is supposed to be morally elevating etc., but it seems more like drudgery from which the majority of those visiting 'spiritual seekers' who cannot be bothered to clear up their own dirt will never learn anything! Why quash social contacts and reduce friendships? Understanding and accepting the many and various unspoken customs and restrictions on public behaviour that may offend local sensibilities is a trial and error affair. One attraction to the uninitiated lies in hearing testimonies to SB's mysterious powers from people from other parts of the world. However, SB has spoken out frequently against developing social contacts or friendships at the ashrams, and especially intimate relationships (not surprisingly, considering his extremely traditional views on the relations between the sexes). But some normal contact is almost inevitable with both Indians and people from all other parts of the world. There are, it seems more and more likely, unspoken reasons for SB's trying to reduce social contacts to a minimum and enforce silence whenever possible and repeatedly warn people against talking unless strictly necessary! For a deeper investigation of this, see my article 'Surveillance, security, secrecy - in SB's ashram, institutions and organisation.' Since 1984 I have met a number of sensible and good persons in the Sai movement, some fairly prominent in their walks of life, and some of them well educated... some were helpful, solicitous and generous minded, but none of all this was not the case with the majority! Those named as 'professors' by SB, whether engaged at his educational institutions, whether Indian or from abroad, have not in general impressed me in any way (I was already well acquainted with too many academic professors for my liking anyhow). To give just one example, SB himself introduced me in 1986 to a history professor at his university, a Mr. Krishnamurthi, who turned out to be an impressionable man who believed some of the Indian myths in the Mahabharata to be literal factual accounts and who had very simplistic and mistaken ideas about European philosophy. I could not help but become aware through personal contacts that SB certainly draws a disproportionate number of people of little spiritual understanding, both as regards knowledge and insight and also in so as far as their behaviour spoke. One may argue that it is necessary for SB to attract a great many who need to be changed, or to change themselves, if the world is to become a better place. It is evident from his discourses, in which he repeatedly propounds moral values at a level and in a way suited to the understanding of those lacking in proper fellow-feeling, personal honesty and common decency. Some of these people are also given privileges and high positions by him, which many of us have also experienced happens in the selections of higher office-bearers in the Sai organisation by SB. In any crowd sitting at the feet of SB, there will usually be a broad range of persons of all shades of conflicting attitude, opinion and behaviour. It would be misleading to deny that too many people met at the ashrams behave as if richly endowed with strong egoism and equally lacking in sensitivity to others. People are at all stages of development, a huge continuum of conditions, from common ignorance and arrogance to the less frequent self-honesty, understanding and kindness in action. As one is, so one perceives and changing perception goes hand in hand with personality development.
Most devotees, however, tend to see the world in black and white terms.... and show frequent ignorance of the colours. This is a very clear trait in SB too, as anyone who reads his discourses will quickly learn.
Most devotees tend to become much more religiously fundamentalistic under SB's long-term influence.SB's spiritual doctrine presents us all as trapped in a perishable body, 'serving a life sentence', in the prison of the material world... to which none of us really belong. Many would say that this is a morbid view, predisposing for psychic unbalance or depression. It is also perhaps a mark of how pervasive is the narrowness of outlook and ignorance of things sublime in a modern, materialistic and non-spiritual culture. The longing to know the truth of life, to awaken from the general sleep that surrounds us and to feel and directly experience that which lies beyond normal perception is strong in some people, and - where it does not lead off the track entirely - it eventually leads people to seeksome kind of 'otherworldly' doctrine. SB provides this, simple (but incomplete) 'human values' which are acceptable enough as far as they go, but all built around a core of excessive claims of his superiority and divinity which one is required to accept sooner or later. To make it seem more 'universal' than it really is, it includes many differing and conflicting elements and precepts, allowing a devotee to pick and mix to taste on a full a la carte menu.
Seekers of boons and powers: Quite a lot of visitors to SB hope to derive one or another boon of personal power from him, some kind of psychic gift like 'clairvoyancy' or healing power. Many may be well-meaning, though misguided in not realising that SB does not confirm anyone as a spiritual healer, nor does he give any place to 'healing' activities in his discourses or in any of his hospitals or other organisations. He does not convey any kind of spiritual illumination, 'shaktipat' or kundalini awakening teaching. (I am aware that it is claimed he does this oiling the genitals of boys and young men (and often more besides!), but none of these report having benefited from this by way of any illumination! On the contrary. many of those who are free to inform the public because they live outside India have provided evidence on oath of being sexually abused.Quite a few claim that SB has confirmed their having received powers to heal others from SB in interviews. There is some rather convincing evidence that he says this too, but then again a lot also seems to be wishful thinking. To cap it all, SB (at least outwardly) denies that he gives any powers to anyone or confirms them as healers etc!
SB has said that healing always comes from God and occurs in the relationship between the sufferer and the Divine source. While many of those who want to be healers have good motives and even the wish to help others selflessly, not a few are charlatans of varying degrees, using any (alleged) sign of blessing from SB or association with him for their own ends to gain popularity, status, and not least income or donations. SB is mostly positive and supportive in his attitude to devotees, but he has never confirmed that he has blessed anyone with healing powers. Despite this, not a few report him having done so in private interviews (as well as in visions and dreams). When examined carefully - some of these reports seemed vague and not definitively bearing out such claims. On the other hand, he has frequently 'produced' so-called lingams of various shapes, colours and sizes which he has given to devotees and told that they contain healing powers and can be used to help heal other people.That God is great and His laws are not to be broken without risk is doubtless true, and can inspire to humility. Fearful humility can be the recognition that we have not acted as well as we might and that we are consequently bound to suffer the consequences of this. There always seems to me to be something wrong with being like a rabbit frozen in the glare of some glaring headlight. SB is a master allright... at turning this humility to his own ends and playing upon every kind of human weakness to put devotees down and keep them in submission and surrender to his unceasing demands of worship and support under all and every circumstance, whatever it may involve. There is an other kind of humility than fear and servility. It is inspired by recognising one's own reality and nature as a person with conscience, love of truth and goodness, plus one having the freedom and responsibility to act. This does not mean rejecting awe about all that is beyond or greater than us, but it requires that we do not project this birthright and potentiality of ours outwards onto some charismatic figure who constantly demonstrates that he is certainly not at all everything he claims to be.
Despite this, SB always lectures on self transformation through self-examination and correction of oneself, which presumes selfless and unpaid service of others above all else. I have had occasion to meet quite a few would-be 'healers', several of whom have since given up all voluntary service for which people express they have a real need, rather cultivating some desire to be special - and not least often to build up business.Through the years, numerous persons in India and around the world have claimed that SB speaks through them or acts through them. To 'channel' SB is a favourite among clairvoyants, New Age healers and even ordinary followers who have some feeling of his presence.
SB has long since and repeatedly warned against this. "Take it from Me, I am not given to such absurdities! I do not use others as My media" ('Sathya Sai Speaks' new ed. Vol. 2, p. 167). In 1997, after putting the matter of the misuse of SB's name to him in person, Dr. Michael Goldstein, the current head of the Sathya Sai Organisation in the Western hemisphere, appealed and warned
everyone that SB "has not conferred upon anyone special powers to lead us, to heal us or to solve our problems. Swami has not given anyone special authority to intervene in our lives. Swami has not appointed anyone to be an intermediary in our heart-to-heart relationship with Him. Let us not be
gullible in accepting such false claims." Interestingly, these warnings are repeated at intervals against ever new claimants in the monthly journal 'Sanathana Sarathi' (latest in May 2002). This is another instance of how his servitors try to ensure that no one can in any way challenge the authority of their 'One God', SB. In direct conflict with all of this, however, is the acceptance of SB of the "channelled" writings of a number of writings as being authentically from him. These include Charles Penn (several of whose messages 'received' in meditation or 'visions are often posted around in the ashrams canteens as the direct statements of SB himself (without attribution to their published 'sources') and Lucas Ralli, already mentioned. The number of books supposedly giving teachings of SB as 'received' in one or another way in ever-increasing. Some claim to have been accepted by SB (in visions etc.) as his real mother! Others have been his lover in a former lifetime (like the Australian woman writer 'Little Heart' who claims to have been Radha with Krishna [that is SB in a former life!] and whose books literally drip with self-enhancing sentimentality for the truly gullible candidates). It all adds to the immense colourful confusion which many devotees exhibit in relation to SB, his teachings and activities... and the fact that SB does nothing about most of these products strongly indicates that he finds them useful for attracting more people and keeping them in a constant state of uncertainty. During darshan in the Poornachandra I attended once, SB had moved down the central aisle to give darshan when a tall foreign (white) man stood up and began to follow along SB's route in front of the devotees, exactly emulating the tempo of SB's walk and making the same characteristic hand movements. A male Seva Dal worker approached him, politely but firmly, and asked him to desist and sit down, but he continued with serene confidence as if the man did not exist. The Seva Dal gently took his arm and tried to stop him, but he was totally uninfluenced. Then a small man, also a Seva Dal, who was standing about 15 yards away came rapidly across and bumped straight into him so he lost his balance. The Seva Dal went on bumping him with just enough force to disturb his composure and began to remonstrate verbally. He was then easily pushed away from the scene altogether. Such undisciplined behaviour - regular trials for the staff who have to keep order - usually leads to a ban from the ashram and blacklisting until further notice. In the interview situation, SB will refer to some absent person (whose identity remains concealed except to those he warns) as a 'bad man', as if to imply that the man is bad through and through. The huge diversity of backgrounds and cultures represented among Sai followers shows up not only in their good customs and behaviour but also the relative deficiencies of their ways of life. The shortcomings of various cultures are easily noticeable in the mini world-wide variety show that takes place around SB. One must, of course, make allowances for behaviour that is due to ignorance of better ways, such as those whose upbringing has been deficient in the gentler graces, or in good social values that are common elsewhere. The many uncouth villagers who visit during festivals may not have had the benefit of school or learnt public discipline like taking one's turn in a queue, pushing is their way of life. National characteristics are often such that the average citizen exhibits failings or the less favourable traits that are inherent in his culture Such fair practices as taking one's place in a queue are also ignored by people from various Western countries who try to get ahead any way they can when at the ashrams, and too many Seva Dal workers also practice such selfish pushiness. 'Shades at the foot of the candle': In time, I was continually forced to notice that SB has attracted not only good, sensible and pure persons, but also many of poor spiritual understanding and, not least, a wide assortment of spiritual charlatans, moral impostors and many very pushy and self-centered people. These seem to be of virtually all degrees, and their number is also quite liberally sprinkled with weak-minded, naive and outright waco persons. This I saw as a fairly natural result of SB's stated all-inclusive policy, to help to redeem the needy, suffering, poor in spirit etc. and not only the normal majority or the well-to-do and persons of power. In this era when many religions have atrophied and the resulting vacuum has been filled by various kinds of spiritual revival of doubtful authenticity, it is perhaps only to be expected that people with such interests often gravitate towards SB because of his much-publicised alleged powers of healing, clairvoyance, materialisation and so forth. Prasanthi is rather like a spiritual Hollywood, many go there trying to 'make it big' with God, and thus they mostly make it a difficult place to be. It has become a Mecca for self-styled healers, mediums and clairvoyants... even though SB has never said a positive word about any of these activities and instead actually encourages medical hospitals.
Self-styled gurus of all persuasions seeking followings of their own also try to recruit people among SB's visitors. Some go too far and are eventually told to leave. One money-hungry Japanese guru some time in the late 90s even sent a large band of his followers on ahead with bombs and guns, seemingly as if intending to take over Prasanthi Nilayam, but when they tried to force their way into darshan after being denied entry, they were fought down physically by the Seva Dal and sent away. This was covered up an sent to the limbo of 'no comment' as fast as possible by the officials at the ashram. Information relating to the dangers to visitors is hushed up because it might weaken faith in the protection SB pretends to extend to all who visit him... or warn off too many of the clientele who keep the ashram prosperous.While many ashram staff and others who serve in one capacity or another may have many good qualities, there is a surfeit of those whose deficiencies of behaviour or understanding of others are put up with patiently for years on end by most of those whom they treat as subordinates or inferiors. New visitors to the ashrams - especially all non-Indians - find themselves part of the 'rank and file', whereby anyone who desires to be present at darshan must sit in strictly overseen ranks and file according to the behest of the many orderlies or security men. One soon realises that people are 'ranked' by those of the officials who cherish warped ideas about the relative importance of people and show it through their authoritarian or patronising behaviour. To many Westerners it comes as an unexpected disappointment that this occurs at all in the proximity of SB , for it seems wholly alien to his teaching and the spirit of love. Such attitudes, however, are really little different to those prevalent in most societies, and not least in class-conscious India. In a discourse published in 'Sanathana Sarathi' for July 1996, SB read the riot act for the ashram people and residents... accusing some staff of being Alsatians. Some time prior to this, a lady who had been at an interview told us how an English lady had asked SB, 'How are your dogs?'
He had replied that he had no dogs. 'Yes you do, a Rottweiler and an Alsatian in your offices!' I would add that the work done by those who receive visitors to the ashrams is often very demanding and a few years of it would probably reduce almost anyone to a fox among chickens. Some do surmount the challenge and remain courteous and friendly at all times, which is admirable!