December 1, 2002
A Friend in India to All the World
PUTTAPARTHY, India The president of India, who is best known for overseeing India's nuclear tests in 1998, recently paid a state visit to the country's largest ashram, to meet and receive the blessings of a holy man who preaches nonviolence.
The visit underlined the appeal of the unusual holy man, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who draws presidents, prime ministers and other leaders not only from India but also from outside it; altogether he claims followers in 178 countries.
The separation between state and religion in India, clear and bright in the years immediately after Indian independence in 1947, has grown less distinct. That is especially true with the political ascendancy of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, which emphasizes Hindu nationalism.
Part of the appeal of the Baba, as he is called by followers and others here, is that ever since the 1940's he has been preaching an unusual mixture of faiths and encouraging religious tolerance.
Official visits here have become one of the odder features of Indian public life, and among the most colorful. The Baba's mixture of religions extends far beyond traditional Hindu beliefs, and that lets him attract politicians of various faiths, including Muslims like President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam of India.
President Kalam, a former nuclear scientist, flew to the ashram's private airport here in southern India on a blue-and-white air force jet. Saluted by olive-clad police officers, he climbed into the lead car of a motorcade, and Sikh military aides in scarlet turbans followed suit.
Lining the road to the ashram were stone tablets inscribed with the swami's utterances. "Money comes and money goes/Morality comes and grows," read one sign in English, signed simply Baba, meaning divine father.
On a hillside at the ashram's entrance stood enormous, brightly painted statues of Jesus, Buddha and Hanuman, an Indian monkey god. Farther on was a large Chinese temple and a big billboard of a benevolently smiling Baba, his hand raised in blessing.
Two-story modern buildings in fuchsia lined the paved avenue, incongruously interspersed with 30-foot-tall statues of acoustic guitars and wooden drums. The clunky Indian-made Ambassador cars chugged past them and pulled to a halt in front of the great hall of the ashram.
More than 10,000 closely packed acolytes sat cross-legged on the floor, the women in saris of brilliant emerald, ruby and indigo silk, the men in white short-sleeve shirts and white trousers, symbolizing purity.
President Kalam deferentially slipped off his brown loafers and walked in stocking feet to the front of the hall, followed by a small entourage, whose members had also tucked their shoes under flowering bushes outside. The Baba, 76, a short man with a thick mane of black hair, shuffled forward in his robe.
Acolytes discreetly angled for the Baba's notice; one of the few Westerners nearby, a middle-aged man also sitting cross-legged, clapped his hand to his heart and wobbled visibly with emotion when the Baba appeared to wave in his direction.
Famous for seldom saying much in public even to his followers, the Baba silently greeted President Kalam. The two men disappeared through polished wood doors decorated with reliefs of Hindu gods and into the Baba's inner sanctum, where they remained a quarter of an hour while the crowd waited quietly.
A senior aide to the Baba whispered that the spiritual leader's full name, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, signified holy, truth, divine mother and divine father.
Preaching the five principles of truth, peace, love, nonviolence and right conduct, the Baba "represents unity of religion, all religions," not just Hinduism, the aide said.
The president emerged and led his entourage out of the great hall, putting on his shoes and hopping back in a car for a short drive to the ashram's guesthouse. In a brief interview there, he said he had discussed with the swami how to achieve an educational system that combined values with science.
"When they are fused, you get an enlightened citizen," said President Kalam, whose role is mostly ceremonial in this parliamentary democracy; the Parliament elected him in July.
Coming from a Muslim background, the president is a rarity among national politicians in a country that is four-fifths Hindu. He has long contended that India's nuclear weapons program is necessary to keep the peace in the region, and he does not represent warlike intentions.
N. Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister, or governor, of the Indian state of Andhra
Pradesh here, said the Baba was not just a holy man but a public policy expert. Mr. Naidu
described repeatedly seeking the swami's advice while turning Hyderabad, the state capital
of Andhra Pradesh, into a high-tech center where American companies like
Using donations from around the world, the Baba has built two hospitals near here that provide free care to the poor. He is now spending $50 million to build systems for drinking water and irrigation, Mr. Naidu said.
But for all the swami's interest in technology, he refuses to use e-mail, or even pick up a telephone. "He won't correspond with anybody, he won't use phones either," the chief minister said with a faint hint of irritation. "Everyone has to come here."