On how perceptions and
interpretations of Sai Baba get
By: Robert Priddy
With a preface from Brian Steel:
"Two more new pieces from the keyboard of Robert Priddy - with many more
As we have come to expect from Robert: more excellent and original material,
well structured essays, rigorous analysis, objective scholarly treatment, and revelations!
Sathya Sai Baba has said many fine words, more sensible than many a philosopher or other religious personality. I spent my adult life studying most of the world's known thinkers past and present and not least mystics. That is why I studied Sai Babas teachings very deeply and tried for about 20 years to follow some of the many alternative practices he advises, throwing myself into this at the expense of most other things in my life so as to test my learning through further personal experience. I have read all Sai Baba discourses twice, and have cross-indexed them in much detail, besides writing at least 23 articles about him and his teachings in his journal Sanathana Sarathi. That I am now stepping back to reconsider Sai Baba, his teachings and actions - and am examining the movement he has generated and him too much more critically than before, is as much due to Sai Baba's own fairly recent actions and words as to the behaviour of many persons around him.
In the approach to any charismatic figure, such as Sai Baba, a great deal of what one experiences and perceives can be put down to the 'self-fulfilling' or 'positive thinking' thesis. By becoming fascinated due to some circumstance, we concentrate more and more on the person, hearing others' accounts, reading about him and what he teaches, seeing films, thinking, praying, singing, going to meetings and talks and so on. This forms a basis for how we perceive and how we interpret whatever we see and hear... or experience altogether. Though even more than 90% of all this is not out own experience or ideas, we make them our own through belief, general faith and especially hope. Much is promised by Sai Baba, he claims to be able to give more than anyone else ever can possibly give. He even claims already to be giving us everything we are and have, that he is the Creator of the Universe and all in it! Once we have had some inexplicable paranormal experiences connected to him, his claim can be a very powerful motivating factor and his teaching a tremendously difficult doctrine to question or disprove, especially before one has plunged in, for SB holds that the only valid test of anything is personal experience.
In my own experience, many small events that I once was convinced were due to Baba's personal will, I now realise could well have been self-created through the more elusive and intricate workings of the mind, especially at the various subconscious levels. Yet the question remains; can all my personal experiences of extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events, inspiring dreams, healings and observed manifestations of remarkable and large objects be put down to a kind of self-deluding mindset, a mistaken openness lacking critical sense and observation? My answer still cannot be other than 'No!'
This is my conviction, even were I to discount all the many hundreds of accounts I have heard, from first-hand eyewitnesses to writers of books about miraculous experiences with and through Sai Baba. And I do discount a quite considerable amount of both what I have been told by honest, open persons and a lot of what I have read, usually for specific reasons in each case. Being scientifically and philosophically trained, I was critically-minded before I came to Sai Baba and was thus given to examination and analysis rather than unquestioning acceptance of testimony. Much of the testimony did influence me, and there was a great deal of it - virtually all positive - from perons both literate and illiterate, from the extraordinary to the fantastic (and the laughably absurd). The story of Sai Baba's childhood and youth had been written up by N. Kasturi, a charming persons who also seemed to me to be a creditable and reasonably well-informed, and by other early witnesses... and there was also quite impressive film material showing physical manifestations etc. which tended to bear out the fabulous storied of SB's early days. Above all, as I have detailed accurately in my book Source of the Dream, My Way to Sathya Sai Baba, I experienced otherwise totally inexplicable events connected to the Sai Baba form, of the sort one cannot but classify as miracles, including an amazing distant removal of my mothers intense chronic pains.
Despite my questioning attitude, especially as to spiritual matters of which I had accumulated considerable knowledge both scholarily and from personal experience, it was only when I became disaffected about the extent of Baba's knowledge and powers due to the building up of unavoidable doubts about some of his contrary actions and words, that I was able properly to question certain matters that I had accepted previously. The rather soul-shaking shift in mindset made a difference - I went from the tendency to accept in the main what certain people whom I considered reasonable and sane said, towards a more questioning, investigative and psychologically evaluative attitude. Though Sai Baba claims to be the God of all Gods, he may rather be a person wielding exceptional powers (of yogic, tantric or other superhuman agency), an exceptional medium, a catalyst for deep psychological projection (at both conscious and unconscious levels) and other things besides all surrounded by a mass movement of dependent persons who extend his influence, all too often by exaggerating the stories about him and his nature so that eventually almost anything that happens seems to be done by him rather than anyone else.
People who visit Sai Baba invariably do so because of things they have heard, read or seen on film and video. However little they may know of the massive complex of incredible accounts of miracles and more surrounding him, there will usually have been some incident or experience that led them to expect the inexplicable and wonderful of him. Such anticipations make it possible to read many extraordinary things into what otherwise would be commonplace events and ordinary behaviour. I have seen many, many examples of this - sometimes sheer wish-fulfilling interpretation, sometimes even against one's inclinations... but always motivated by looking up to Baba as divine and miraculous, his every word and gesture packed with holy significance.
It is most valid to ask whether such an approach to the phenomena as a follower invariably adopts removes further possibility of keeping any 'objective' angle, or even thereafter to make common-sense and cool judgements about ordinary events. This is an extremely complex and subtle issue in theory of knowledge and the psychology of perception... where some of the greatest human dilemmas arise. The dilemma here is how much we create our own reality through our mental set, hopes and desires, and how much it is forced upon us by events that arise independent of our psyches.
The key to the whole 'Sai Baba mentality' and all that follows from adopting it, is the belief that he is not merely human, but is also wholly Divine and can therefore do no wrong, knows all and is the prime mover in everything. Acceptance of this, even as a possibility, conditions almost every perception, decision, evaluation and social contact thereafter. The teaching has massive built-in restraints on any serious examination or questioning of Sai Baba's divine nature or anything he says or does. It blames everything bad or evil that can possibly occur on those who choose to see anything other than the good... a psychological impossibility, but one which the follower has to strive to maintain and who thus have to perform the most absurd mental acrobatics to do so when events that do not fit the theory arise, as they do constantly. The teaching is not open to any modification by future discoveries, for it is presented as the absolute eternal truth from the mouth of God the Creator... what is known as a 'closed total theory' in the study of ideologies.
As soon as that belief is questioned by anyone who has come to hold it at all firmly (i.e. as soon as the mind tentatively uncreates Sai Baba as the single, exclusive living God incarnate), a very basic shift in mindset necessarily follows. The radically questioning mindset considers the possibility that Sai Baba's human aspect is the predominant one and that the various powers he undoubtedly possesses - from wherever they arise - are not necessarily always used in our true interests. In short, for such people, Sai Baba can actually be guilty of impure acts, even involvement in major crime. But one is told to wear rose-tinted glasses and that then your world will become so in reality. The 'glasses' that Sai Baba's teaching about himself represents would also make murder and pedophilia look rosy.
People get drawn further and further in to Sai Baba in terms of social contacts, prestige, habituation to lifestyle and environment, places of residence, personal economy... not to mention emotionally and mentally, the most powerful of binding forces. The further in one is drawn in these ways, the more impossible it seems to extricate oneself, were that even desirable when in such a position and without too serious doubts. One's entire perception of most matters remotely connected to this focus of one's existence is usurped by the underlying needs so created. Going against one's basic needs for security, faith, well-being and social contacts and activities - or accepting a radical change in them for an uncertain alternative - is something that awakens feelings of confusion and insecurity, often leading to anxiety and fear, even in the most normal and well-balanced of people. In this way, a seat of power is provided for those in the top position, and all such power can by its very nature be abused and most often is. The power structure begins to use illegal or immoral means to sustain itself, especially when seriously attacked from outside but even more so when the attack comes from within, as has occurred with the defection of so many Western followers, including a long list of leaders in the Sai Organisation and other long-term devotees. That invariably undermines the worldly power of the movement more quickly and fully than any external 'enemy'.
The Sai movements critical mass: All in all, there are very large numbers of people who have become so attached to Sai Baba emotionally, mentally, socially and even in material terms, that the movement has developed a strong inertial impetus. The belief system has reached 'critical mass', certainly among Indians world-wide, and so the chain reaction works to increase numbers among millions who have no means whatever of testing anything, but only of believing whatever they have heard or are told 'officially'. The number claimed by Sai Baba, however, and parroted by all who reckon themselves believers, are certainly inflated by anything up to the power of ten! (See 'exaggeration of numbers by SB')
The prevalence and predominance of any belief system - including the many-headed Sai Baba doctrine - is more dependent on its having attained critical mass than on the likelihood of their being in accordance with historical facts or other truths. As to what distinguishes the success of one belief system from the failure of another, there are obviously numerous factors at work. One factor that seems obvious is the achievement by a belief of a 'critical mass' of supporters. Once critical mass is reached, chain reaction starts, sometimes fast, sometimes slower. As soon as a belief is ramified by enough other beliefs and putative evidence to spread to a sufficient mass of people, it tends to spread further. Some beliefs are unable to make much ground, such as the flat-earth theory, say. Others, apparently equally misguided, become hugely widespread, such as the belief that extra-terrestrial beings have visited earth. One major poll in
found up to 80% of the population believing that UFOs are inter-planetary vehicles! USA
When a belief or system of such achieves critical mass, however, it may often be unstoppable except by major disturbances or even drastic world events, as history repeatedly demonstrate both in the spread of religions and political ideologies. That beliefs can be shown to have real substance, however, is not itself any guarantee that it will continue until reaching critical mass. One factor that helps in this is what might be called 'the mushrooming miracle effect.' This refers to that social phenomenon we observe whenever miraculous events, such as healings, manifestations or other inexplicable and beneficial events are believed to take place... as word spreads, more and more instances are invariably reported. It's a case of 'nothing succeeds like success'. However, close observation and analysis usually shows that many of the increasing claims are bogus or - in the case of 'miracle cures', they are mainly of the nature of a placebo effect or sheer imagination interpreting a natural healing process. The problem of investigation always becomes whether any of the original or early reports sound and based on indisputable evidence?
Even when some reports are based on substantial testimony that can be followed up by interviews, by analysis and cross-checking, there is a tendency for all kinds of bogus claimants and unsubstantiated 'stories' to sneak in and become part of the main body of beliefs. There are any number of such instances in connection with Sai Baba, some of which he himself and/or his various servitors have seen necessary to quash by public pronouncements. The investigator is faced with a tantalising and beguiling mixture of fact and fiction, truth, half-truth and lies. To penetrate into these and come through with a relatively balanced overview takes deep engagement and certain qualities or abilities of the personality that have to be developed through rigorous work and often painful experience.
The bait and the hooks: One of Sai Baba's most-quoted sayings is "Take one step towards me and I will take twenty towards you". Sometimes Baba has promised a hundred steps in return instead. This is obviously a figurative invitation and its meaning is so diffuse as to be able to embrace almost any human action or thought. There are two general ways of interpreting this:
The first interpretation is that mundane activities done for the benefit of Sai Baba, his organisation and various worldly works and projects will be rewarded by Sai Baba in tangible ways - by attentions, interviews, success in one's undertakings, one's health and well-being and fate in life etc. I can think of very few followers who do not subscribe to this kind of attitude - at least in part. This approach is the least subtle of the two, but is obviously very powerful because such a promise would - if fulfilled - answer many a need, problem and desire.
Because Sai Baba often insists that we are but deluded by our egos into thinking that we do things when, really, only He is the Doer, people attribute to him all manner of event. Many strange ideas about what is caused by Sai Baba are held. I know an amateur yachtsman who believed that Baba caused him to win a yacht race against top professionals, due to a stroke of luck he had in finding a shorter passage through some reefs. Another close devotee told me that Baba was himself causing the national strike of Federal Government workers in the
. The credulous leader of the Sai movement in the US , Michael Goldstein, stated that SB had saved the lives of all those World Trade centre workers who were NOT killed, including all believers in himself! He alleged that SB told him so. (A pity about all those killed, though, SB couldnt do anything about them, it seems? Or those Afghan civilians bombed as a consequence?) So it goes on, to be consistent, everything that is ever done should be attributed to Sai Baba... should we then forget all science, technology, medicine, even work and leave it all to divine providence? The absurdity of all this is startling, but that there is confusion is hardly so surprising in view of the many inclarities of the doctrine that Baba repeatedly expresses in mostly ambiguous, general or veiled terms. USA
The second kind of interpretation of taking one step etc. is about intangibles... if you worship Sai Baba and accept him to be God - or, failing this, if you are not sure whether he is God Himself, but try to follow what he teaches - he will help you in ways that you are most likely unable clearly to observe or prove, due to the veil of human ignorance about things eternal. If one is unable to find any indications that this is taking place, one projects the reward into a very uncertain and unknown future - he will look after you after death, give you a good rebirth or - if you are ripe enough - save you from the tiresome round of pleasure and pain, life and death altogether. In this way, the followers imagination can puzzle out the most unlikely and unfounded significances in anything whatever that happens to them. Suppose one wins a lottery it is SBs grace. Suppose one breaks ones back and is confined to a wheelchair existence it is all SBs grace, teaching you a lesson, causing you to avoid some worse fate, and so on ad infinitum. This is the dark labyrinth that those who take his teaching seriously have all entered, despite themselves.
As to the first view of Sai Baba's guarantee; to evaluate it in real terms is extremely difficult because of its vagueness. What constitutes taking 'one step' on our part and what does not? For some it would be a small Armstrong-like step, for others a giant step. Sai Baba gives an example of this imponderable relativity in telling of a lady who sacrificed the very little she had (money?) to give to him, which he considered greater than (the millions?) offered by another. For some it would have to be something tangible like donating time, energy, and (not least) money to Sai Baba's organisation or other good works, for others only a mental change like improving how one thinks of other people, feeling gratefulness, having a worshipful attitude primarily to Sai Baba - whose form he himself recommends strongly and very often (even though, he also points out, other forms of God will do just as well).
Quite another matter is what can possibly constitute the twenty (or hundred) steps that Baba takes in return? Most committed followers are clearly motivated to a large extent by the desire for 'grace,' or at least 'signs of grace'. There is no catalogue available recording what these are or may be, it is a very individual matter depending on how one interprets what Baba does or does not do towards oneself, or what one wishes to think and believe. However, there are a number of outward signs of grace that many reckon on. One of these is being invited to as many interviews as possible. Another is being chosen by Baba for some office in his various organisations or institutions. Other less prominent signs are Baba's recommendation to write a book about him, make a film or video of him, hold a lecture for visitors to the ashram or for students at some of his colleges. Apart from these, are the many signs that people experience in the form of healing of difficult or sometimes apparently incurable ailments, materialisations of holy ash, nectar and the like on pictures of Baba (or other divine images).
The psychic unavoidability of having some belief-structure: Experience shows, again and again, that a majority of people will believe just about anything that suits them... if it fits in somehow with their whole world of preconceptions and desires. Experience and knowledge can be side-lined and diminished in significance by new strong beliefs, and especially those connected to Sai Baba. This cuts both ways, of course, both as to believers and unbelievers. When the facts cannot be established and an issue is still in the balance, most people far prefer a certainty to a continued state of uncertainty... even if it is a false certainty. The desire to escape ambiguity or incongruity in one's experience, somehow or even in any way, is a strong psychological tendency, as shown by many controlled and laboratory experiments. The psychic need for belief is also seen operating in how many people immediately believed in the accusations against Sai Baba on rather insubstantial evidence at the time. Most of us are very poor at questioning our own beliefs, especially those held dear to us. But any genuine search for truth is most demanding and calls for a patient condition of inconclusiveness and tolerance of the uncertainty caused by reservation of final judgement until certain knowledge is attained. This is not a natural psychic condition and it requires repeated effort to avoid falling into unfounded attitudes or leaping to conclusions.
There are always pros and cons in any matter, increasingly so the larger and more important the subject. To keep in the mind all of them from both sides, yet not to conclude in favour of one side or the other is a feat of conscious tolerance of uncertainty that few people can sustain for long... at least when the issue is at all crucial. Belief is endemic, but it takes many different forms which also often shift as experience proceeds. Whether secular or religious, personal or political, idiosyncratic or collective, some basic beliefs are held by everyone. There are believers in atheism and scepticism, which always have to be backed up by a large assortment of sub-beliefs. Many of these belief structures are adopted without reflecting over them or even quite realising that one has inherited them or picked them up in some way. Others are conscious of the basis of their belief system, but are then often quite unaware of how it is to be on the opposite side of the fence and see everything from a completely other and equally rational perspective.
Philosophy requires a measure of dispute and any sane and healthy religion needs a measure of irreverence, for these are ways provided to us for testing our society, our universe, as well as ourselves. Human civilisations are always prone to mystiques... heroic, messianic, scientific, supernatural and so on. The prevailing mystique at any time or place first tends to colour the mind and, if conditions allow, often eventually becomes all things to the observer. This is seen most clearly of all, perhaps, in the ways religions or spiritual cults take over the personality. Whether such a mystique operates more for better or for worse, it remains a limiting distortion of the mind and often possesses the psyche to the exclusion of all contrary reason and experience. This kind of alienation from oneself can clearly be seen in the movement around Sathya Sai Baba, and not least in the organisation bearing his name, whether or not it sometimes leads to real personal transformations and improvements, at best and most usually only in an initial phase, it appears.
It is crucial to realise that the kinds of para-normal contacts experienced in relation to Sai Baba's form and name are not exclusive to him very far from it! The slightest acquaintance with world spirituality shows that all the kinds of 'miracle' witnessed from or in connection with Sai Baba have been described countless times. Even specific events, such as the production of lingams from the mouth, the materialisation of ash (vibhuti) and other substances, the appearance of a person at great distances or in two places at once and the manifestation of objects and events at a distance are not at all exclusive to Sai Baba. World literature shows that all phenomena we might class as miraculous, especially healings, appear to occur in connection with any number of quite other persons and images, wholly independently of Sai Baba. The history of religions are packed with such incidents, while nowadays one can observe statues that shed tears of blood, marble and even metal Ganesh statues that drank milk in gallons and so on. That many do not believe these are facts does not affect those who have had such direct genuine experiences, whether they sought them or not. That mainstream 'modern science' is wholly unable to cope with even the thought of such things - due to its underpinning physicalistic bias and method - does nothing whatever to explain away the incidence of these observable facts.
The sightless faith brigade: Those persons relatively close to Baba who have most to lose by questioning anything Baba does are obviously very largely those who find it most difficult to entertain the doubts that still surely and unavoidably intrude. Some of those who are able to be closer to Baba are doubtless also unable to rid their minds of serious doubts, for they evidently witness more doubtful events than relative outsiders. This is my experience of a number of long-term and close followers I have known during the past 20 years. Most of those who live in the ashram and have given up or donated their homes and/or wealth would fear losing faith in Baba, even partly so. It is remarkable that one never (except informally from V.K. Narasimhan) heard a breath of critical comment about Baba himself within the ashram, unless it was a raw newcomer or some such 'misguided seeker'. To even speak of one's doubts, it seems, one must 'go underground' to the privacy of a room or restaurant outside the ashram, or to any neutral place. Never have doubts been voiced in talks or discourses, let alone in front of Sai Baba, as far as I have observed or ever heard. To doubt is a cardinal sin, and one which Baba descries often. This proves extremely effective in covering up almost anything as is known from many ashrams and all kinds of other self-contained 'total institutions' and totalitarian states.
Then those who have the status of a veranda place, some VIP office in the Sai organisation, a private room at one of the ashrams or the kudos of being able to tell of repeated interviews and grace will feel they have a lot to lose, and mostly are made to know to a nicety under what circumstances they risk losing these benefits. Add to them all those who, having found faith after much suffering or meaninglessness, want to sustain it rather than go through a very painful and often traumatic experience.
It is observable that those to whom Baba grants most privileges and frequent interviews are invariably ostentatiously humble. In his close presence they always creep about in a lowly fashion and grovel at his feet, and some if possible lay flat on the ground to do so, kissing them whenever given the chance. After about 60 years, these practices were at last been largely discontinued by Sai Babas order on the grounds that they put his devotees lower than himself, and this is wrong. Perhaps it took so long for him to realise this because he had not realised that such practice will never be widely accepted in the Western world. Another possible reason is to avoid any danger to himself by allowing people to approach so close to him: for he related in a bizarre discourse (of May 6, 1998) about a night visitation by the ghost of his long-dead mother to him and the boys sharing his locked rooms. He claimed she had warned him that people might apply poison to him through touching his feet.
Public submissive behaviour was the rule and are were virtually unavoidable requirements for most people to make actual contact with him, such as by being invited to an interview. Similar kinds of subservient attitude - however agreeable or not to those who behave so are still practised, only the grosser outer demonstrations of kow-towing have been reduced. There were and are exceptions, some of the most regular staff, persons upon whom Baba certainly depends for the running of his considerable empire of institutions, dispense with any marked formalities, though they will usually hold their hands in prayer greeting (naamaskaar) while talking to him. These people are usually the 'almost indispensable' figures that surround Baba.
It is evident that some people who are very rich and donate enormous sums get many interviews. One case is that of the
donors of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Sinclairs, who had a private interview each day for about a week before darshan (most unusual) at Kodaikanal in 1994. While waiting and waiting at darshan, I watched them come out of Baba's villa each day. There are exceptions, as in most things to do with Sai Baba. Isaac Tigrett, for example, was not given interviews for 14 years, whereupon he donated a massive sum for Baba to build the first US . He then received copious interviews for some while. Later he was again only given one interview over a period of quite a few years. Baba personally visited Mr. Reddy, the liquor baron who donated a considerable sum of money and who was murdered in Super-Speciality Hospital some weeks later. Narasimhan told me that he was taken to that interview in Baba's car. The question arises, why would Sai Baba take so much time visiting a criminal, when he has so many thousands of good people who do much good in the world and are his devoted followers, but who hardly ever get any personal contact with him? The standard devotee answer to this amounts to 'God knows what is needed better than we do'. This is no answer, but a non sequitur to avoid the awkward observable facts, any reasonable explanations of them and to stop further questioning. Madras
Those who do not conform to the many behavioural rules and the worshipful attitude towards Sai Baba are unable to get anywhere near to him, even to observe him. Sai Baba has occasionally spoken of 'separating the grain from the chaff', by which those who do not accept him as being pure and divine, or who do not conform to certain of his teachings and follow the regimes of his various institutions, are kept away at a distance and/or fall away of themselves. Other words for this is purging or excommunicating. Office-bearers who disagree with the Indian leaders and Indian chain of command or who want more openness, greater accountability and frankness, and some are sacked without any recourse to further discussion. I know some of those who were so treated and consider them to be truly honest, actively self-sacrificing and upright people. Once they fell into disfavour, the were treated as completely non-existent! This is the rule with all people who leave the Organisation, the leaders never thank them for anything they have done or contact them. This has caused suffering and even prolonged mental illness where persons have sacrificed their whole lives to the cause. The ashram staff also pronounce lifetime bans on people, sometimes for the most absurd 'reasons'. Some of those who dare to go against Baba's explicit wishes as regards to marriage are literally excommunicated. One well-known case among a number of similar ones is that of the long-standing American follower Al Drucker, whom Baba threw out of the ashram on short notice because he would not remain unmarried, telling him never to return.
The hub of the world? Many ashramites have grown up never doubting that Sai Baba is everything that he says he is, and they form the backbone of the community of believers. For them to entertain doubts would be like submitting to a personal earthquake, a soul-shaking catastrophe that leaves the survivor in a state of depression, sometimes suicidal. This is well known from those who have disowned or been disowned by strong sects the world over, like Jehovas Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Moonies and any number of others. But in Prashanthi Nilayam it becomes feasible even for outsiders to come to believe that it is the real hub of the world - no, the Universe, where God Himself resides and from where he steers everything, without the tiniest exception. However, to my knowledge there have been several independent suicides in Prashanti Nilayam, including one by a whole family (a few survived). Allt such events are hushed up immediately if possible, such as by sending all visitors away immediately and without explanation.
It is not surprising that intellectual thought is virtually non-existent in such a place, (Baba has no respect or patience whatever with genuine intellectuals, which concurs with his advice to rid oneself totally of the mind as quickly as possible). So even the many persons who sport rows of more or less obscure letters after their names and work as professors or scientists are actually second-rate thinkers, which usually becomes obvious soon after they have opened their mouths. Paradoxically, very much fuss is made of anyone who claims to be a scientist, a doctor, and educator or the like there... but those who remain there almost always turn out to be rather naive persons who have a tendency to publish books that fail to meet even the lowest standards of accuracy, fact and intellectual insight of comparable kinds of Western publication. Westerners who become Sai devotees very seldom demonstrate anything like excellence in their talks or wr itings, rather the contrary. Baba has invited certain Westerners to hold lectures for foreign visitors - but these are not lectures in any known sense of the word, more like declarations of faith backed up by anecdotes and often by simple-minded theological chestnuts or parroting of Baba's own words.
One astute observer of this fact was V. K. Narasimhan - not himself a scientist or philosopher, as he freely admitted - but an economy graduate and world-travelled journalist. He told me that the students that come out of Sai Baba colleges and 'university' are not capable of a single independent thought. Pose them a problem that they have not learned the answer to and they are simply at sea. This is also rather the norm in Indian education, with its origins in Macaulay's "clerk-factory" educational methods, influences which are still potent and a dead weight on Indian life, along with the total subservience towards those above one's station that lived on unaltered after the British left and which kind of hierarchical nepotism marks the whole Sai Baba movement through and through, as the liberal-minded Narasimhan was painfully aware.
Sai Baba's teaching & 'Mission': Whatever else one may think about Sathya Sai Baba, and however one may judge his actions to be for good or ill, there is a moral basic in his teaching, which is as full of high ideals and good intentions as one will find in the established religions or mass spiritual movements. This is actually where practically the entirety of his teaching comes from in the first place. His chief aim, stated through seven decades, and often quite poignantly, is to see the reestablishment of ancient Indian values, which include moral conscience, unselfish service to others and the community, non-violence in all walks of life, due respect and care for all living beings and nature, and non-discrimination as to race, colour, and faith. No one should argue with that. But these values have very largely been lost very long ago in most of India, as current events keep demonstrating to the full. One can only hope that a world renaissance of values will take place, and as soon as possible, whether or not one believes that Sathya Sai Baba is the motivating force, or just a more or less fallible part of it.
Sai Baba's teaching can be distinguished from Sai Baba's rationale for that teaching. The difference is the fundamental one between morality and knowledge about what is factual and true (i.e. between 'ought' and 'is'). SB teaches what we ought to do or not to do, how we best should live and behave for our own good and that of all others. The teaching itself may still be accepted as morally right by many for whom SB's account of man and nature are not even half-believable, consistent or even understandable. Faith in the teaching is strengthened if one can accept the explanation of its background - the order of all things including the laws of human life (karma).There is much of value in it, vague though it often is. But he explains and justifies his teaching as valid by giving an account of how everything is constituted... the make-up of the human being, the nature of the cosmos and of the Divine reality or God - as universal being of infinite love and super-consciousness. All this, without notable exceptions, is very traditional Indian thought and much of it is highly questionable, while much of it has been shown by science to fall far short of the truth.
There are many documented errors in Sai Baba's descriptions and explanations of how the world works. His language is often vague and unspecific, and is always packed with sweeping generalisations that are primitive from the viewpoint of balanced thinking or linguistic-philosophical analysis. (See Brian Steel's website: http://bdsteel.tripod.com)
Sectarian tendencies in the teaching and its practice: What is "universal religion"? Is it possible? Sai Baba's answer to this is that the essence of all true religions express the same basic human values and the same faith in the existence and benevolence of divinity, in whatever form it may be represented or worshipped... or as it is thought to be as formless.
Many would deny that there can be any universal faith, or even core of common faith, so diverse are the religions and the countless sects into which they always seem to splinter through time or across differing cultures and nations. Sai Baba ignores these differences, however, by concentrating very much on the positive and unitive aspects of religious teachings and almost completely ignoring any examination of the differences. At the same time, in the face of incongruous beliefs and warring sects, Sai Baba always asserts the Vedantic view as the most inclusive and ultimate. This is an implicit denial of universal religion, as is his insistence on being the God Avatar, which claim is flatly rejected by Islam and mainstream Buddhism, the former regarding the idea of God having any form whatever as sheer blasphemy. Little wonder that only a mere handful of Muslims are ever seen near Sai Baba. In the detail of his teachings, the difference of what he teaches from what is believed in other mainstream religions becomes evident on many controversial points. Just compare his accounts of Jesus' boyhood and many subsequent travels and spiritual education in
with the official belief of about 1 billion Christians. Sai Baba also has asserted that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but survived to travel eastwards and live long. Whether true or false, this just shows how non-universal any religious-historical teaching unavoidably soon becomes. India
Sai Baba is set up by devotees in public as the supreme teacher representing the truth of all religions and the actual full embodiment of their God, however they conceive Divinity. He refers to himself as the God of all Gods, the only One behind all divine forms, hence implying strongly that he is actually the one whom all should follow, even while denying that he wishes everyone to worship him. This cannot be other than a divisive social and political idea. To hold that Sai Baba is 'in actual fact' nothing but the only existing divinity - as so many Sai followers do even after decades of listening to his denials of this in discourses - is about as exclusive of other faiths and as misguided as all those Christians who wrongly insist that the only way to God is through Jesus Christ and that all others are misguided, even calling them 'unredeemed', 'lost souls' and so on.
The way the Sai Baba doctrine turns out in actual practice in the various Sai organisations around the world indicates some of the fundamental contradictions inherent in the claim of avatarhood combined with an ideal of universal spirituality. The organisation has to be steered centrally, and in this case it is led by Indian Hindus. It therefore invariably takes on the character of Hindu religion, however many efforts are made to ameliorate this and incorporate other beliefs and persons of different spiritual inclination. In all countries where I have observed attempts to 'universalise' the Sai Baba teaching, the groups soon gravitate towards an exclusive membership, of which the first requirement is belief in Sai Baba and at least the basics of his teaching. Non-members are tolerated, but room is never made for them within the heavily Hindu-oriented doctrine that prevails in both the Charter, in the nature of all central conferences and festivities and in devotional gatherings however much one tries to involve other faiths. There is also an inbuilt inertia towards Indian rituals rather than those of any other faith. This is not an inclusive practice, though it is highly natural and probably unavoidable in any culture one sticks mainly to one's own time-worn symbols and behaviour. The only persons of other faiths who interact with the Sai organisation are those who also accept or tolerate silently the claim that Sai Baba is nothing short of the Divinity Itself. One does not have to be much of a deep thinker to see what limitations this sets upon the spread of the doctrine preached by Sai Baba, though faith also can have great power in clouding sensible judgements and such beliefs can and do often stultify human moral conscience.
(to be continued)