The secretive and authoritarian Sathya Sai Organisation
Date: 05-05-02Document date: 11-21-02
By: Robert Priddy
Here I summarise what it took me about 18 years to find out through experience, often disillusioning, about the Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO). Among its members are many volunteers who lead by example in the real work of genuinely selfless service to the suffering and needy. These very well-intentioned and self-sacrificing people who are drawn by the pure ideals for spiritual service and education as proclaimed by SB are the ground level workers. It is equally clear, unfortunately, that the SSO as an organisational structure hinders genuine service to society due to its monolithic nature, its autocratic top-down structure, and its secret and semi-secret management practices. It is involved in an increasing number of unnecessary, costly projects only to spread the fame of Sai Baba and, more crucially, in the hitherto largely very effective cover-up of the many and very substantial allegations of criminality against its namesake, Sathya Sai Baba. Because of this, and because the SSO, with SB's backing, has made more than sufficient one-sidedly positive propaganda about itself, I here concentrate instead on its considerable 'shadowy' sides.
When I was still a devotee, I wrote very positively about the SSO (such as in my pro-SB book Source of the Dream). However, I had not then learned the extent of deceit and wrongdoing in the top leadership in the Central Trust, the ashrams and by SB personally. I was strongly self-censoring about all events and experiences that jarred with the very idealistic image I had of the SSO, but I now know that I was had been led very largely to confuse the ideals with realities. My criticisms are not directed as the many that make genuine efforts in the name of the SSO. At the ground level, where I mostly applied myself, I saw much excellent work done, almost despite repeated pressures and irrelevant distractions that came from the higher level leadership.
The policies and directives encountered regularly from above within the organisation absorb much energy that could be employed better elsewhere. The organisation, with its formal and informal cultures, carries out activities which do not fit at all with much of the content of the constant flow of discourses from its namesake, SB. Due to opposing statements, sweeping generality and frequent ambiguity in SB's teachings - and because of the obscure role of SB in his organisation - the real purposes it serves have largely to be deduced from long observation and experience. SB himself does not run things in the normal sense of the word, though he gives advice in discourses and presumably in private interviews (though this is seldom clear and important for the organisation affairs as far as members we know could discover). Confusingly, SB often keeps his distance from the organisation bearing his name. In this way he seems to be responsible for its good works, while rejecting its failures and the shortcomings of its members (upon which weakness SB often expands sweepingly at length in discourses), as a result of not doing his will.
The steady and large flow of donations has become part and parcel of SB's social and political importance. One unspoken but obvious function of the organisation is to attract a large enough membership mass to generate funds to the Sathya Sai Central Trust in one way or another. This occurs through donating relatively very large fixed sums for the brief use of a low-quality apartment at one or other of the ashrams, donating outright for various projects undertaken by the Trust or by the SSO and so forth. Meanwhile, the collection of monetary donations is against the regulations of the SSO and is seldom openly allowed except among members. Organisation meetings are free and centres are supposed only to accept unsolicited voluntary donations from those who wish to support them. However, it provides a very wide catchment area among followers worldwide for donations and not least legacies to the Central Trust. (See my paper 'The Multi-billion dollar question')
The vertical-hierarchical structure: The various branches of the world SSO are basically run on the strictly top-down Indian principle, all overseas devotees are in practice subordinate to the Indian leadership of the International Chairman, currently Mr. Indulal Shah, supposedly acting on the instructions (or understanding) of Sai Baba. Under him come the (non-elected) Chairmen of the Central Councils (or, where these are not yet formed, Coordinating Committees) of each country. The top-down chain of command makes all discussions at meetings and conferences very largely futile and time-wasting from the volunteer workers point of view, at whatever level they may be. All Central Coordinators (hereafter CCs) and zone chairmen have special meetings twice a year (on Gurupurnima day in July and just before SB's official birthday, 23/11) in Prashanthi Nilayam. Yet they have at best only an 'advisory function' to the decision-making International Chairman, who simply overrules or ignores whatever suits him. For example, no documents are available to tell where the proposal came from for a large 7-storey building costing ca. $5 million later called Chaitanya Jyothi to celebrate none other than SB on his 75th birthday. It may have been suggested by SB, or by Indulal Shah, but what correspondence that mentions it indicates that the CCs were simply required as informal rubber-stampers for this project (i.e. it became their main job simply to solicit the funds for the building, which they did).
Though there is election of office-bearers at the local groups and centres, this can be overturned and even without explanation - by any National Coordinator or higher office-bearer. This has occurred on a number of occasions, not least in the European SSO, even though there is no mention of this option in the Charter (where it should be stated) or in any other written directive known to me. Though a sheen of democracy is given thereby, the SSO is an anti-democratic pyramidal hierarchy in which one must obey one's superiors or eventually be dismissed from office without so much as an explanation! See Serguei Badaev declaration which appears on saiguru.net "The Story of My Disqualification"
Office-bearers passive links in the chain of command: Basically, the Charter defines ranks, in descending order in the chain of command from International Chairman, Central Coordinators (i.e. one for each of the five world zones, of which two are the overall authorities in each hemisphere East & West), the National Chairmen in each country, Centre Presidents, group leaders, voluntary worker members (sometimes called active workers), and aspirant members. The Chairmen of the Central Councils of countries that have sufficient Sai centres (or in some cases of the Central Committees) are subordinate to the Central Coordinator for that particular international region.
Members are ranked differently in order: aspirant, volunteer, active worker, according to standards that differ from region to region. Visitors to meetings, however regular, are not usually regarded as members, though they are supposed to be counted exactly for statistics over their numbers and some other details that are recorded and registered centrally (but are not made public). There are some regional or local variations in practices, but these are peripheral details. In some more socially liberated countries, distinctions of rank even between member and non-member - are and even disdained or laughed at. Such occurred widely in the UK in the 1980s, when leaders tried to apply the rule requiring members to sign up on the dotted line under a membership pledge with an explicit spiritual declaration. At best, therefore, a handful of central persons in the SSO rule over the various agenda, statements of objectives, activities and recommendations that issue forth. It is little wonder that well-qualified persons with experience of democratic values in management (most usually being Westerners) often leave after some time. That central leaders are very seldom demoted and (those who survive the tests) usually remain in office even for decades, though some have resigned and some were dismissed), sets them more and more apart both in mentality and activity from other members. An active worker vs. management rift arises and is sustained, not least since it is not at all good form for ordinary members even to mention the problem.
The SSO, being a charismatic sect with a church-like culture, has leaders who speak and act in various ways as middlemen between devotees and the Godhead - by conveying and interpreting SBs utterances and wishes. Though SB claims to have no middlemen or mediums and that all his contact is direct to each devotee on an inner level, in practice a majority of people do not experience any but the vaguest kinds of contact and rely on office-bearers within the SSO for most of their information about SB, his will and his plans etc. The qualifications to higher office include not only total unquestioning subservience to SB and following the directives coming via the chain of command (the exact origin of which can be vague to most foreign office-bearers). They also have to fit in to a typical code of behaviour (at least outwardly) and also learn the culture of knowing how to inform and explain in ashram-accepted ways. For this, many use a subsidiary kind of language culture common to the Sai movement (Prashanthi speak) to convey Sai doctrines, with well-tried circumlocutions on taboo subjects and euphemisms to veil certain facts, criticisms and so forth.
Through 17 years, most of it as the national leader in Norway, I was time and again able to observe and was repeatedly told that leaders can and do decide matters which in any normally functioning community would be decided only after conferring with all others concerned. I did not follow this regime. Occasionally, leaders higher up in the pecking order have tried to give me the impression that what they decided was ordained from on high, without actually being able to say whether SB actually said so, or repeat what he said.
Pro-Indian discrimination: By far the largest and most active country in the SSO is naturally India. It has an All-India Chairman, who supposedly acts independently of the International Chairman, Shah. Followers of SB vary greatly in the capacity to understand how properly to manage and inspire through their own example, which SB stresses as the only workable method. The Indian social model on which the SSO is based is still overwhelmingly authoritarian, such as to issue orders to inferiors, who must and do usually obey them unquestioningly. Unfortunately, the complete disregard of modern stakeholder ideas in the SSO (indeed, the direct opposition to them) involving the abject worship of gurus as infallible is also a pattern set on the basis of prevailing social conditions throughout India. A culture of top-down high-handedness, mismanagement and rich opportunities for control, corruption, and cover-up, as seen with Western eyes. The recognisable high-handedness that often typifies the Indian higher castes or ruling class and its bureaucracy is seen in directives sent to centres, which often show little or no appreciation of the diversity of cultures or openness to the initiatives of individuals unless they conform in all things to the wishes of leaders (often cloaked under the doubtful pretext of it is Swamis wish, which can always be justified somehow by the common - but highly confusing axiom of SBs teaching that everything is Swamis will anyhow!). Those nominated as Central and National Coordinators are almost always persons who follow this pattern quite slavishly, including the foreign leaders, who mostly take to the VIP status like ducks to water.
Much of the loose ideological backing for this model is actually found in SBs predilection for the culture of ancient, feudal India and its forms of social organisation, which relied heavily on spiritual purity in teachers and pupils. However, one can hardly expect Sai Babas Indian staff to know how to change this culture, which is not only largely accepted in Babas ashrams but permeates much of Indian life and is deeply rooted in the ineradicable caste system and the all-pervading undemocratic social practices there today. Those having much insight or skill are required to do what they are told, though they may have greater experience than their 'boss'. The editor of SBs monthly journal Sanathana Sarathi, V.K. Narasimhan, remarked to me one day that Baba complained to him that he could not find enough mature Indian men with the right qualities to administer even his two main ashrams decently, let alone guide all the many projects he has in India or in his service SSO. This is a very evident fact to foreigners who visit the ashrams, for the level of competence and understanding of many (but not every one) of the officials with whom one comes into contact is sadly lacking by normal Western social standards.
The impenetrable ruling 'inner circle'. There can nonetheless be little doubt, if any, that in the West and other parts of the world, more competent and understanding persons could easily be found as leaders of the SSO than the majority of those presently holding the highest offices, who all copy the authoritarian Indian model in most matters. Most of the CCs are well-to-do businessmen (men in suits) with a more traditional management mentality. These office-bearers are not elected, but selected by SB. Almost without exception they are affluent, which enables them to travel freely etc. However, the overseas leaders are NEVER made privy to the inside circle's doings, the reins of power being firmly held by the (Indian) members of the Central Trust, which since the 1993 murders came largely under the practical control of SB's younger brother, the multimillionaire property speculator Janaki Ramiah. (SB has said that he leaves all decisions to his Trust!) Therefore foreigners have no access to information other than what they are told, most likely only on a need-to-know basis. They have no prior insight into central decisions, who makes them or exactly why. Their job is simply to acquiesce to whatever is decided, and to find supporting reasons for it and ways of presenting it in acceptable forms to other members. Thus, the development of any serious, effective and socially-acceptable voluntary organisation having a democratic base and egalitarian practices is evidently wholly excluded.
Centralised censorship of information: The organisation mostly attracts people initially by providing a social community for believers in Sai Baba to communicate and share in, most often through communal singing (bhajans mostly praising Sai Baba) and secondarily through study/discussion meetings and less often through enrolling them in service activities. This is the chief channel of dissemination of SB's teaching or opinions. Through this, the SSO makes continual and large efforts to standardise interpretations of the vital parts of SB's teachings and the Charter of the SSO etc. This presumes that the directives 'from on high' can be made to make sense, for they are mostly couched in a pseudo-legalistic or bureaucratic gobbledygook at which many Indian officials excel. Through such writings, critical views and negative information about SB's behaviour, untoward events at the ashrams are censored, manipulated or 'face-lifted' if they are not banned outright from discussion at meetings. Through the years this has included such events as suicides, rapes, murders, bomb scares, embezzlement, invasions by fanatic sects, failure of SB projects, misuse of funds etc. The maximum of control possible through the chain of command is exercised as to all things that seriously tarnish the image of this proclaimed Abode of Supreme Peace, or could reduce the influx of visitors or of support of all kinds that maintain and bolster the very considerable financial and political power base of the Sathya Sai movement in India and elsewhere. SBs considerable contacts with national leaders, ministers, opposition politicians, the judiciary, the military establishment, any well-known and rich people and so forth in India which represents a de facto major power base. This influence is being extended to an increasing number of nations, not least via the SSO.
Communication control within the SSO: In trying to follow such aphorisms of SB as See no evil, hear not evil, speak no evil . And If you cannot tell the truth, at least speak obligingly, and many more which are expressly designed among other things to control and so restrict thought and expression, an internal culture has evolved where no frank opinions may be aired, nor the slightest hint of critical thinking however objective or constructive it may be. The SSO leaders are under such restrictions as to what they are allowed to say about it, or even to think about it, that they are wholly incapable of giving a realistic picture of it and how it functions. A double accounting mentality is common here, requiring subtle but essentially misleading and careful phrasing of what to say about anything so that it appears in a positive light. Ability to speak in the local politically correct Prashanthi-speak is an apparent prerequisite for those who aspire to top positions in the SSO. Volunteers (i.e. the lowest ranking members) are not informed of what takes place at central leaders' conferences. Central leaders allow no serious feedback, no right to require explanations or accountability. Attitudes among central office-bearers in all zones of the SSO that can fairly be called semi-dictatorial at least, which is tolerated by the most faithful followers who believe in the infallibility and benignity of anything undertaken in the divine name of SB and under his apparent leadership. However, many have left the organisation for such reasons, though no statistics on this are considered worthwhile! Such information could help an organisation realise its shortcomings etc., but the SSO is not interested and it would probably find the numbers far too revealing.
Information is often passed on in an informal way, such as by word of mouth at national and regional meetings or in contacts made when visiting the ashrams. Some of this is documented and sent along the chain of command, even upwards (though conclusions from most working committees are invariably ignored, mangled beyond recognition or rejected centrally). However, many of those higher up in the chain are frequently asked why they largely only answer communications from higher up, and so often ignore letters, faxes and e-mails from lower down. They send various paper directives downwards, most often passed on from above. They are very concerned to fulfil the centrally-instigated requirement for statistics on members and activities, and their communications with their subordinates are often attempts to obtain these or to urge more activities and efforts, not least so as to improve the statistics for the region they represent.
Control of communication 'horizontally' between members in different groups, centres and countries is exercised by regional leaders through strict compartmentalisation of the various areas so as to hinder communications of any kind that do not go hierarchically through themselves. For example, invitees to hold talks at meetings especially those from other countries and regions - have to be confirmed by the leadership in the respective country. Avoidance of this rule has caused major splits in national SSO (again, notably in the UK in the 1990s, when a flood of vituperative letters were circulated by the various factions). Another instance of information control is that addresses of persons outside each national sphere are carefully guarded and removed from letters and e-mails so as to limit interactions, exchanges of information and views of various kinds. Though this guards against begging letters, 'spiritual tourists', pleas from would-be illegal immigrants etc., contacts at a 'lower level' in the Org. are invariably regarded as (potential) disturbing influences.
Directives are frequently issued which, when followed, in effect minimise informal discussion between people at meetings. Least possible talking even silence - is recommended at most SSO meetings where and when the activity doesnt itself require otherwise. Where unavoidable, such as at study circles, planning groups, spiritual educational projects etc., informal contacts and particularly frank discussion are restricted by many leaders. Quiet meditation, prayer and leaving the premises quickly after worship are repeatedly advised by some leaders and circular letters from India. However, such restrictions modelled on the strict behaviour codes and pietistic tone at Babas ashrams during darshan etc. - are by no means always observed in many of groups and centres. The need for informal social contact with like-minded believers is obviously often a strong motivation for many to visit centres and also to become members. A number of standpoints are enforced by group pressure as being the only correct ones, with social exclusion whether intentional or less consciously applied - as a common sanction. Though some members express criticisms, only positive feedback is normally taken seriously. Leaders repeatedly evade replying to many genuine questions. So dialogue between open-minded spiritual seekers is mostly hindered on issues that might cause any substantial doubts.
That the closed and secretive nature of the SSO is still valid is shown by the inability of anyone in the whole SSO to comment at all on any of the criticism put forward by me on the website from which this brief overview is abstracted, or from any other of the several serious accounts published by other long-term members of the SSO! There is too much to hide, and evidently too many who cannot honestly face the light of day.
Organisational redundancy and time-wasting: Nearly all organisations like to keep up momentum and have regular get-togethers, even when there is nothing new with which to deal. The experience of many I have met has been that nearly all such meetings in the SSO achieve precious little that is visibly useful for realising its stated aims, nor do they feed back information or advice that has any effect with leaders who prefer to enforce their own decisions regardless of input from others. The suggestions can be very well-meant, but this is not enough. Most of what is said is about obvious issues that are always in the mind of any intelligent, responsible office-bearer. But by harping largely on what has been said before, the organiser nevertheless usually feels satisfied, and fills a nice report of progress. For most participants it is the spiritual sharing and social gathering that matter, especially the chance to exchange news, views and arrange secondary matters for themselves. They actually provide an opportunity to communicate with others across organisational boundaries that are otherwise denied by the CCs! SB has defined the real meaning of most 'committees' as 'come-to-tea' meetings, which alludes to the usual inefficiency and time-wasting of talking committees. Yet one is supposed to spend valuable time travelling on expensive flights to meetings abroad, sometimes much too frequently, and to review much the same matters each time to make 'recommendations that will help achieve the Conference objectives', but which will doubtless as usual not lead to any results other than those already predetermined by its leaders. This helps to keep people in line and define aims and goals for them to fulfil. People I have spoken to feel, like I, that such meetings are mostly interruptions to spiritual work and service, or burdens which also bring new responsibilities. The purpose of most of these meetings seems mainly to be to instil the rules and directives from central authority. SB occasionally corrects some of the more pointless paper initiatives, such as the bright idea from the SSO central authority that each year should have a value denomination like year of non-violence, "the year peace" and so forth, thus organising all activities around this notion... as if such a fatuous invention could make the slightest useful contribution to anyones practice.
At most regional and international meetings, various members including lower office-bearers - have remarked to me how little was conveyed to them, whether in the way of answers to pressing questions, practical instructions, or other information and spiritual insight that is not already easily available in the literature or has not been said before numerous times. The Indian style of lecturing at length from rostrums is much in favour, even at SSO meetings abroad, whereby the same themes are repeated each time, moral harangues are the main fare, all teachings are parroted, and the level of their generality and vagueness leaves much to be desired. With their captive audiences, passive following and implicit acceptance of everything are very often evidently both assumed and required. Service-mindedness thus often seems to be misinterpreted as subservience.
Note: An extensive documentation of observations, experiences and sources upon which the above is based is found at my extensive website sociological analysis of the SSO at http://www.saibaba-x.org.uk/saiorg.htm.