Sai Baba : How Does He Do it?


By Erlendur Haraldsson


Reply to Mr. Premanand

I have read with interest your open letter to me dated April 24th this year in which you express some thoughts about my book "Modern Miracles - an investigative report on psychic phenomena associated with Sathya Sai Baba" which was published by Ballantine Books in New York this year and last year in England by Century Hutchinson as "Miracles Are My Visiting Cards" - an investigative report on psychic phenomena associated with Sathya Sai Baba".

We evidently share a deep interest in the question of wether Sai Baba's phenomena - or some of them - may possibly be of paranormal origin. Regrettably Sai Baba's unwillingness to undergo experimental tests under controlled conditions has made it an extremely difficult task to reach a reliable conclusion. In stead of leaving the matter when no experiments could be conducted I decided to approach the question indirectly by indepth interviewing of numerous witnesses who had ample opportunities to observe Sai Baba over longer periods of time. Many of these persons had served as his attendants and associates from the time Sai Baba was in his twenties and up to his fifties. They were both devotees and ex-devotees, friends and foes.

It was of particular interest for my assessment of Sai Baba to trace and gather testimony from persons who had earlier been close to him but then left him and had become critical of some aspects of his life or message. Thus I attempted to approach SSB from all angles and get the insiders view. He came through stronger than I had expected. None of his former attendants and observers, those highly critical of him included, seemed to have a clue as to how he has been able, day after day, for over forty years, to produce and give away an endless stream of objects, ranging from steaming hot chapatis to exquisite jewelry, most days reportedly up to one or two dozens of pieces per day.

No one seems to have discovered SSB's exact modus operandi. If we assume that objects are produced by sleight of hand, then they must be kept hidden until they are used. None of those around him seem to have discovered where. Who are the suppliers for the one or two dozens of objects he reportedly may produce most days? He would require a steady supply. How has he been able to keep them a secret for so long? As there is considerable turnover in his "inner circle" he must have had several, if not many, accomplices during his 45 years of activity. There is for example no one with him now who was with him in the 1950s. Many of the attendants/associates interviewed - ex-devotees included - lived with him practically day and night,had free access to his room, took care of his things etc. However, all of them were equally puzzled and did not have a clue to SSB's secret. Has SSB perhaps some exceptional means to keep even his ex-devotees and critics from revealing how he operates? There are many questions.

I have to admit that after eight trips to India during the years 1973 to 1983 and a total of over a year and a half of questioning witnesses and searching for evidence against him, I came out practically empty-handed. There is an enigma here and we may be fooling ourselves by not admitting it and coming to hasty conclusions based on mere conjectures. We do indeed need strong evidence to accept the paranormal hypothesis but we also need solid evidence for accusations of fraud.

Of course there are lots of false rumours of allegedly genuinely paranormal phenomena and numerous distortions and exaggerations. For example, in the widely published case of the resurrection of Mr.Cowan we have clear evidence to show that the claims are not true. Still, much of the phenomena remain puzzling.

You, dear Mr.Premanand, seem to have no criticism of the way I gathered and presented testimony from witnesses for in your latest letter to me dated June 4th you state: "At any rate I find that you have done the best what you could do from the information you have gathered from the witnesses and for this you have to be congradulated..." What is of special concern to you are descriptions of my own observations. Hence I will restrict my comments to them.

Let us take the case of the disappearance of the enamel picture from Dr. Karlis Osis ring. You correctly point out that it was not mentioned in our first report of this case that KO had examined with his nail clippers whether the prongs tightly held the enamel picture, which they did (Erlendur Haraldsson and Karlis Osis: The Appearance and Disappearance of Objects in the Presence of Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 71(1), 1977, pp. 33-43)

Journal articles are by necessity brief and we could not include all details. When I wrote the book I added this detail since it was not in the original report but seemed relevant. I wrote this part of the book, probably in 1979 or 1980, but not nine years later as you state.

The reason why KO took off his ring - and this is neither mentioned in the report or the book - was that the ring slightly irritated his skin. (I confirmed this with him earlier this month), On this occasion he examined the ring with his nail clippers. His finger was not used to the ring as he had only put it on as he started his journey from New York and hence had only worn it for a few days when this event took place.

Mr. Kasturi was not present in the interview when the picture disappeared from the ring and hence not a witness to this incident. You state that he lied about the incident when he described it in his biography of Sai Baba. Thus you assume that he was a first hand witness. How could he have got all these details right that you find missing when he was not present? I am certainly not excusing his description of the incident but should accusations of immoral acts, such as lying, not be supported by solid evidence rather than mere conjectures?

In your letter to me dated June 4th you state that my former colleague KO might have been an accomplice of SSB. If I understand you correctly, you hypothesize that KO must have exchanged rings to make it appear that a stone in a beautiful golden ring (that SSB has presented to him a year earlier) had mysteriously disappeared from the ring. I quote you:

"When the vanished stone appeared on the ring, again it fitted well on the finger of Dr.Osis. This brings the whole incident to a question: i.e. "that the ring without the stone was a different ring and Dr.Osis as an accomplice of SSB might have stealthily exchanged the ring with the stone, with the ring without the stone which was slightly smaller and thus fitted tightly and on the second day SSB produced the first ring with stone using the sleight of hand! In 1972 Dr. Gokak and Dr. Bhagawantam were in United States and have met Dr. Osis there."

There was never any doubt that the original ring with the stone and the new ring KO got from SSB with apparently the same or similar stone, were two different rings and hence need not fit the same way. Our eyes as well as photographs showed them to be distinctly different. I state in my book: "As far as we could judge, it (the new ring with the stone) was smimilar to the one he had just taken from Dr.Osis (the original ring without the stone), but not quite the same" (USA edition p.45).

If my colleague was SSB's accomplice, which I admittedly find far-fetched indeed, KO must have acted as accomplice in the interview when the ring disappeared. He must have, without me and others present noticing it, taken off the original ring with the stone and put on his finger a replica of the original ring without the stone. If this was the case SSB must have given him the empty ring during an earlier meeting with him at which I had naturally not been present. Or perhaps, as you seem to imply, this second ring might have been given to KO by Drs. Bhagavantam and Gokok when KO met them in New York in the time between our first and second visit. (I, by the way, went with KO to meet Dr.Bhagwantam in a New York hotel in 1973).

As a crucial act of complicity must have taken place at the session when the stone disappeared your whole argumentation about the two rings not fitting equally well is not relevant. If KO was an accomplice of SSB there must have been three rings involved as we know definitely and have stated all the time that the new presented ring with the stone (presumably the third ring) was different.

The allegation that my former colleague Dr. Osis might have been an accomplice of Sai Baba is very serious. I have known that gentleman for 20 years and worked with him closely for a few years. It is exceedingly difficult for me to imagine that he would have risked his reputation as a researcher and his position as director of research of the American Society for Psychical Research by taking on a role as an accomplice to an Indian swami or any religious leader for that matter. What could he have gained by it?

Accusations or allegations of immoral acts are a serious matter and are not made in decent scientific discourse unless one can support them with solid evidence, not mere conjectures. Where is your evidence?

In your letter of November in 11th 1987 you ask me some 67 questions. It would take a lengthy treatise to answer them all and I have no time for that though we may get back to some of them at a later date. For the time being allow me to ask one question. You would like to get more details about my observations of single incidents concerning SSB which I however describe in more detail that anyone else has done. Glancing through the material you have published about SSB I fail to find a detailed description of even one single incident that you have personally witnessed, apart perhaps from the mere production of vibuti which is the simplest thing that SSB does and any magician can easily do. Why? Please correct me if I wrong?

Let me repeat that I appreciate your comments and the interest you have taken in my work. I hope that we may continue to probe into the puzzles of claimed paranormal phenomena so frequently associated with Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

July 22nd 1988

Erlendur Haraldsson, Faculty of Social Science,

University of Iceland, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland.