About three-and-a-half hours from Bangalore, past farmers’ fields and some hills, a small village came into view. The rural area gradually gave way to an airstrip, where a private jet was parked, and then to uptown buildings—resorts, hotels and a huge, pink building, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Prasanthigram, a ‘super specialty hospital’ designed by English architect Dr Keith Critchlow, close to the Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium, inaugurated in November 2006 by then President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, who also happens to be a well-regarded nuclear scientist.
This is Puttaparthi, a small town in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh spread over approximately ten square kilometers. The names of almost all hotels and shops start with ‘Sai.’ Pictures of Sathya Sai Baba are everywhere—on all shop hoardings, on the backs of auto-rickshaws, in lifts and telephone booths and even inside the Puttaparthi police station and the post office. The pictures also carry prominent Sai Baba-isms: ‘Help Ever, Hurt Never,’ ‘Love is God, Live in Love,’ ‘Unity, Purity and Divinity,’ ‘Love All, Serve All,’ and so on. With his benevolent teachings, his emphasis on communal harmony, and his numerous social work projects, Sai Baba, everything in the village appears in line with Sai Baba’s worldview. There are many massage parlours—Sai Baba himself claims to be a “masseur healer.” Given his aversion to alcohol and tobacco, cigarettes and liquor are sold only secretly. But you can find several paan shops—Sai Baba is a paan (betel leaf and nut) eater, as his stained teeth also suggest. Almost all restaurants are vegetarian, mirroring Sai Baba’s philosophy that “meat eating fosters animal qualities in man making him descend to seems like Puttaparthi’s own deity Coming here to meet and follow one of the world’s most influential living gurus—although it didn’t involve an undercover investigation—turned out to be one of my most taxing assignments. I was advised by many former devotees, and explicitly warned by his current disciples, not to write critically about the spiritual leader whose followers include the President of India, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the founder of the Hard Rock Café and legions of the Indian social elite.
At Hotel Sai Renaissance, where I stayed, the staff dutifully advised me what wasn’t permitted at the ashram. “Please deposit your camera and phone, and also the pen I can see in your pocket,” said the middle-aged man in a stern voice, as if he was part of Sai Baba’s security team.
Just to make sure I got the message, the notice board at the entrance of Sai Baba’s ashram, the Sai Kulwant Hall, warned that phones, tape recorders and cameras were not allowed. Not even a pen. Thankfully, I was carrying none.
Sathya Sai Baba, which roughly translates as the ‘real Sai Baba,’ claims to have been born Sathyanarayan Raju on 23 November 1926, though proof of his actual birth date is hard to come by. In October 1940, he claimed that he was an incarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a guru from Maharashtra who lived until 1918 and was revered by Hindus and Muslims. These days, he claims to be the creator of the universe, Krishna, Christ, Jehovah and Allah, all in one.
I wanted to find out why and how Sai Baba’s millions of followers, mainly Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, believe in his divinity even decades after numerous former devotees went public with accusations of sexual abuse of boys and male adults, massive cover-ups and even murder. These allegations have made Sathya Sai Baba a regular on numerous cult watch websites like rickross.com and factnet.org, where former members tell surprisingly similar stories. In the face of such overwhelming evidence of malfeasance, how does faith among the denizens of Sai Baba’s Puttaparthi fiefdom remain so strong?
At the Sai Kulwant Hall, over 10,000 people—men, women and children, locals and foreigners—were singing bhajans in Telugu, praising Hindu gods, mainly Shiva, Rama and Ganesha, and occasionally Sathya Sai Baba. Clad in a saffron robe, Sai Baba was sitting on a red padded wheelchair, referred to as his throne by his devotees. His signature afro framed his head. Two young men stood on either side of his ‘throne,’ which was placed between two four-foot tall golden lions on the slightly elevated stage. The roof above, painted in deep green with gold motifs and illuminated with crystal chandeliers, enhanced the grandeur of the daily darshan ceremony. Women were seated to his left, men to his right, on the black and white marble floor. Many in both wings prostrated themselves towards Sai Baba.
The frail-looking Sai Baba was quiet, with no expression on his wrinkled face. Occasionally, he patted his thigh to the beat of the bhajans. Carrying a white handkerchief in his left hand, he often wiped his mouth and nose, his right hand moving rarely, as if partially paralysed. His two volunteers would often kneel down to whisper in his ears or listen to him, as if receiving divine instructions. After a few bhajans, his volunteers rang a five-foot golden bell. It was time to offer the concluding hymn to Sai Baba, called the Mangal arati, a Telugu version of Om Jai Jagadish Hare, a Hindu devotional song from the 1870s.
As the arati ended, Sai Baba’s throne was wheeled towards his car, an imported silver Toyota Porte MPV parked adjacent to the stage. It bore the registration number AP 02 N 9000. The front door of the car slid open, making room for the wheelchair. As the volunteers escorted him to his car—to ferry him to his residence, barely 50 metres from the hall—an elderly man came to the stage to make an “important announcement.” “There will be a public meeting tomorrow evening to celebrate the anniversary of Bhagwan’s [God’s] mother [commemorated as Easwaramma Day].” He then proudly revealed that the President of India would also come to “seek Bhagwan’s blessings.” The devotees applauded but dispersed minutes after Sai Baba’s departure—no one else matters in Puttaparthi but the 84- year-old Swami.
After darshan, I went to the Sai Towers Restaurant for supper. I was offered the only table with a vacant chair. A couple from Hong Kong, Allan and Linda Yeoh, Catholics by birth but Sai Baba’s devotees for 15 years, were in the middle of their meal. After pleasantries, the couple began to minister to me. “Swami came into our lives in 1995,” said the fair, well-dressed Allan. His wife Linda, a fashionable woman, showed me her necklace and said it was materialised by Sai Baba—with a wave of his hand, Sai Baba miraculously creates items such as watches, rings, necklaces and vibhuti (holy ash) and gifts them to his devotees.
Allan, a barrister, tells me he currently sits on the boards of several businesses in Hong Kong. Both he and Linda became devotees after reading a book on Sai Baba, The Embodiment of Love. Linda said she was “overwhelmed with love,” something that she had “always craved for.” “It was not something psychic, which is too limited a word to describe my feelings,” she said. “Baba is not just any other human being; he is Bhagwan.” Allan is among very few people who appear on stage with Sai Baba and have been asked to share their views during a darshan gathering.
Allan then told of his friend in Hong Kong, whom he identified as Phillip, also a Catholic. Telling stories of Sai Baba’s miracles to newer devotees is routine in Puttaparthi, and is encouraged by senior devotees for the expansion of Sai Baba’s ‘kingdom.’ So Phillip wanted to see God, continued Allan. When he was a child, his Catholic schoolteacher hit him on his knuckles until they bled as punishment for refusing to believe in God until he saw him. Years later, when he was in Puttaparthi for darshan, Sai Baba came to him, touched his knuckles and asked, “Does it still hurt?” When Phillip looked at Sai Baba, he asked him if he was happy to see God (Sai Baba). “Phillip cried, recalling the day at school when he was hit on his knuckles.”
Broaching Puttaparthi’s most taboo topic, I reminded Allan, “Sai Baba has been accused of sexually molesting children and faking miracles.” Though a little uncomfortable, Allan seemed sensible enough to at least attempt to answer my questions. He said he saw vibhuti coming from Sai Baba’s palm and “it was not an illusion. These allegations [of sexual abuse] are not a big deal.”
The devotees in Puttaparthi are brainwashed, agrees Narendra Nayak, the national president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. “The reports of so-called healing may be in cases with a psychosomatic element. As for investigations into the so-called phenomena of materialisation, he has been asked many, many times to let us investigate that under foolproof conditions. But we have not been allowed to do so.”
Even without a controlled environment, Sai Baba’s miracles don’t stand up to real scrutiny. On 29 August 1992, Sai Baba inaugurated a community hall in Hyderabad in the presence of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao and other dignitaries. Sai Baba materialised a chain for the building’s architect. One of the cameras placed by the government-owned Doordarshan news channel caught Sai Baba’s personal assistant passing over the chain to him. But the director of Hyderabad Doordarshan, Appa Rao, “personally directed that all copies of the tapes be destroyed.” (Deccan Chronicle, 23 November 1992) However, independent television producers who had also captured the day’s events widely circulated the recording in Hyderabad. Today, there are over a dozen videos on YouTube exposing Sai Baba’s fake miracles.
More serious allegations surfaced in June 1993 when four of Sai Baba’s young devotees reportedly tried to kill him. At 10:30 pm, as Sai Baba prepared for bed, the four, carrying daggers hidden in cloth, sought to enter his bedroom (The Times of India, 7 June 1993). Four other devotees serving as bodyguards tried to obstruct them, and the intruders stabbed two bodyguards to death. Sai Baba pressed an alarm button, alerting Puttaparthi police. Over 1,000 devotees living in the ashram crowded the main building. Heavily armed police arrived and, ‘in self defence’ killed the four intruders who only had daggers.
The encounter raised serious questions. Most notably, why did the four slain devotees plan to kill Sai Baba? And what exactly were their grievances? No one is sure and answers will likely prove hard to find. “The matter is purely internal and we do not wish to have any law enforcement agency investigating into it,” said Indulal Shah, chief functionary of the Sri Sathya Sai World Trust, to The Hindu.
In December 1993, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) registered a case against the Puttaparthi police for shooting the four men to death. In a statement to the local court on 30 December, the CID pointed out that the police had tampered with the crime scene, shifting the dead bodies to support the official police version of events. As detailed in the BBC documentary, the case was eventually dropped through the intervention of the Central government.
On Easwaramma Day, my second morning in town, I left my phone, pen and camera in the room and started for the ashram where hundreds of devotees had lined up before the gate at 5:00 am so they could sit closer to Sai Baba. I removed my sandals and kept them on one of the racks placed outside the Sai Kulwant Hall. The ashram was crowded by 7:00. By 8:00, there were around 10,000 people, all seated with their hands folded in reverence. At 8:30, there was sudden commotion in the women’s wing. Sai Baba was to distribute saris to women and lemon rice and sweet pongal to all devotees, I was told. Women from Puttaparthi were desperate to enter the hall, pushing and pulling each other to be able to sit closer to the stage. Their shouts and shrieks sounded like rain falling on a tin rooftop and spoke volumes about the poverty of the local people.
By 9:00, the crowd had swelled to around 15,000. Finally, Sai Baba’s Toyota appeared. Swami wore a turmeric yellow robe, and was seated next to a clean-shaven, fair-skinned young man wearing spectacles with gold-coloured frames. Two police officials on duty were standing near the car, folding their hands—they looked more like devotees than police on duty. The car slowly came to the hall and the crowd began to fold their hands over their heads—Sai Baba was looking out of the rolled-down window, but he wore the expressionless gaze of a man ravaged by old age. Moving through the hall, his car went out to the grave of his mother (Hindus also bury their dead in Puttaparthi). Outside the ashram, people gathered to get a glimpse of Sai Baba.
At 9:45 am, Sai Baba’s car returned to the Sai Kulwant Hall. Local musicians began playing shehnai and mridang, their backs towards the crowd and facing the stage. A dark, stout young man came and sat next to me. “Do you like Swami?” he asked. Not wanting to give a clear-cut answer, I replied, “I am a newcomer.” He introduced himself as Shiva. “My actual name is Adi, but people call me Shiva. I drive an auto-rickshaw.”
He was from the same village as Sai Baba. “I had no job, but Swami’s brother wrote a letter to the ashram, requesting them to give me a job,” he said. “All I have is because of Swami. He gives rice and dal to all the poor people of the village once a week.”
Shiva later became my guide. Pointing to a man wearing white trousers and shirt and holding a cellphone, Shiva said the man had been a deputy inspector of police in Hyderabad, but he quit his job to serve Sai Baba. Then he pointed towards a longhaired foreigner, wearing white pyjama and kurta, with a trimmed black beard and moustache, talking to Allan Yeoh on the stage. “He is Isaac Tigrett, a big businessman who donated money for the Sathya Sai hospital that offers free treatment, including surgery, to all villagers.”
Tigrett founded the Hard Rock Café and House of Blues. These days, however, the 62-year-old Tigrett lives in Sai Baba’s ashram. He travels and gives discourses on the teachings, and is building a spiritual retreat centre, The Mystic Inn of the 7th Ray, “at the behest of his Master,” as his personal website says. I had questions for Tigrett, who’d told the BBC that his faith wouldn’t be shattered even if the accusations against Sai Baba proved true. Tigrett, like Yeoh, occupied the inner wing of the Sai Kulwant Hall, close to the stage with Sai Baba, where only devotees with special identity cards and wearing white clothes were allowed. I waited for him after the darshan gatherings, but he disappeared each time, perhaps using a special exit. Allan Yeoh suggested that I could talk to him if I came across him in the street. But that never happened.
Having eaten lemon rice and sweet pongal for breakfast, I left the hall and looked for my sandals on the rack. They weren’t there, most likely stolen. I walked to my hotel, around 500 metres from there, barefoot, hoping that people wouldn’t take it as a mark of devotion for Sai Baba.
I explained to the man at the front desk why I was barefoot. “It’s good, Mr Arora,” he said. “Losing sandals is considered auspicious, signifying that Satan has fled your life.”
“Never mind,” I said, and went to my room.
The devotees flocked the Sai Kulwant Hall again at 4:00 pm for the evening function. Sai Baba came at around 5:00 pm, this time without the car, with two devotees pushing his wheelchair. With Sai Baba close enough to touch, there was remarkable excitement in the crowd. A middle-aged man, standing next to me, a teacher of history in a local university, threw his bag down to promptly fold his hands in worship of Sai Baba. “We are very lucky today; this is an unusual darshan,” said the man, a devotee for 20 years. Sai Baba went close to the women devotees, who tried to touch his ‘lotus feet,’ a Buddhist symbol of devotion. He came to the men’s wing, cutting across the crowd, getting closer to the devotees. They too touched his feet and folded their hands.
Sai Baba took his place on the stage and the chanting of Om began, followed by bhajans. Sai Baba was quiet, as usual. Undergraduate students from the Sri Sathya Sai University enacted a play depicting the lives of Sai Baba’s parents. After the play ended, at around 6:30 pm, a microphone was taken to Sai Baba, and people applauded, hoping to hear the voice of their Swami. I was not surprised that Sai Baba did not speak a word. A video of Sai Baba’s 83rd birthday celebration clearly showed his struggle with the symptoms of old age: he was barely able to speak and forgot the name of one of his closest associates. Most of the people in the video laughed, but seemingly very few saw the god losing his memory as a reason to question his divinity.
Instead, the microphone was removed and given to a professor from the university, who, standing behind a podium, announced again that the President of India would be coming to seek ‘Bhagwan’s’ blessings the following day.
There is no lack of powerful, high-profile people cutting across political parties and spheres, professing their faith in Sai Baba. Justice PN Bhagwati, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India in 1985 and 1986, calls him “divinity incarnate” in Baba is God in Human Form: Experiences of Divinity of Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. In the same book, Shivraj Vishwanath Patil, currently Governor of Punjab and former Union Home Minister, says, “He is the knowledge; He is the wisdom personified.” Shankarrao Bhavurao Chavan, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra for two terms and former Union Home and Finance Minister, says he has “no hesitation in saying, whatever position and status I have is purely because of Bhagwan’s blessings.”
In the evening, I was again at the Sai Towers Restaurant. The Yeohs were having their dinner—rice and curry. Sitting at the same table, I ordered uttapam, and our conversation began. “So we were talking about the allegations against Sai Baba?” I said. Allan and Linda seemed more frank that evening. At first, Allan admitted that it took Linda a few days to restore her faith after the BBC telecast the documentary on the allegations in June 2004. “But,” he carried on, “it [sex] is all about union; maybe Sai Baba established union with some of his devotees. I am not saying that the allegations were necessarily true, but what is the big deal even if they were true?” he asked. “So that won’t affect your faith in him?” I asked. “No, it will not,” he replied. “But is it fair that he tries to establish ‘union’ with some of their devotees without their consent?” I asked. “If he is God, how can it be wrong? It’s Ok,” he replied, rendering me speechless.
What about his fake miracles? “I think sometimes Sai Baba does fake miracles,”
Allan admitted. “That’s because God has a great sense of humour.” “Humour?” I asked. “Yes, he does it to further offend those who do not believe in him because their karmas are bad. He is God, and he doesn’t need to prove anything. It’s a fact that will remain whether someone believes in him or not.”
Acceptance of Sai Baba’s alleged criminal activities by his devotees is their personal choice. But, surely, a government cannot overlook such serious accusations. Several foreign agencies, including the US Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the German Office of Prosecutions, the French Sûreté (Security) and the British Home Office, officially acknowledged receiving complaints against Sai Baba, but they could do little as the alleged crimes were committed in India.
Legally, in India at least, charges against Sai Baba seem to have no traction. The petition of Indian-American exfollower Hari Sampath was dismissed by Indian Supreme Court Justices GB Pattnaik and RC Lahoti on 8 May 2001.
In her May 2008 petition to the Supreme Court, Kamini Jaiswal, Sampath’s lawyer, wrote that they were “sure not to get justice at the hands of the [Andhra Pradesh] state machinery” as Sai Baba had “practically mesmerised the system.” They sought the court’s direction to the CBI to conduct a free, fair and impartial inquiry. The CBI did not respond to the complaint filed by Hari Sampath and others, which is why Sampath approached the Supreme Court. “Hari Sampath disappeared after that,” Jaiswal said. “He didn’t respond to emails, and he did not even pay the lawyers’ fees.” Sampath wouldn’t speak on the record. He did, however, send The Caravan the CBI report.
When I met Jaiswal in South Delhi in the summer of 2009, she still seemed close to the case. “I have no respect for a human being who claims to be God,” she said. “Sai Baba has mesmerised people; it’s all bogus.”
My third day in Puttaparthi started early. People began lining up at the ashram at 5:00 am. The Sai Kulwant Hall, however, filled up only at around 7:30. By 8:45, the chanting began, chandeliers were lit and bhajans were sung. Sai Baba’s car could be seen on the left side of the stage, where everyone’s eyes were fixed, waiting for yet another darshan. However, at 9:30, the arati began, indicating that darshan would be granted only in the evening when the President arrived.
At 11:30, I went to the Public Relations Office beside the Sai Kulwant Hall. A middle-aged man wearing white trousers and shirt and a red vermilion streak on his forehead was sitting behind an office table. I introduced myself as a journalist.
“Can I meet an official of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust?” I asked politely. “Everything is mentioned in a booklet available for sale for 15 rupees. Buy that and you will know everything about the ashram,” the public relations officer (PRO) suggested. “Can I meet Swami?” I asked. I expected his reply: “No, it’s not possible.”
But I didn’t expect what followed: “But why don’t you pray? He will appear in your vision and you can talk to him. And no matter where you are sitting when Sai Baba is giving darshan, if you pray enough, you may even be called for a private interview. This has happened hundreds of times here.”
One doesn’t need to spend much time in Puttaparthi to see the streets thronged. Seeing the mystical powers that the PRO described, however, presented more of a challenge. I’d hoped to witness something supernatural when Sai Baba received President Pratibha Devisingh Patil at the ashram. Patil arrived in her Ambassador with her daughter Jyoti Rathod, son-in-law Jayesh Rathod, and her granddaughter Vedika Rathod. Accompanying Patil’s family was Andhra Pradesh Tourism Minister J Geetha Reddy, a regular visitor to the ashram.
After a special tea party for the honoured guests, a media scrum ensued. Security at the ashram’s main entrance began frisking visitors more strictly. I took a few pictures, fearing that I would soon be barred from using my camera. Sure enough, a volunteer security man came over and asked for my identity card. I showed my press card. “I don’t know how you have been allowed to enter with your camera,” he said, and left. Then another volunteer came running towards me and asked for my camera. I moved away slightly to pacify him and said, “I am sorry, but some other press people are also taking pictures.” He insisted that I give my camera to him. I moved further away from him. He asked a policeman standing next to me to snatch the camera from me. He did, and gave it to the volunteer.
Holding my camera in his hand, he asked me to come to the hall’s entrance. He gave the camera to another volunteer asking him to “delete all the pictures.” I rushed to the entrance and asked for my camera. “No, I’ve been asked to delete the pictures,” he insisted. He switched on the camera and tried to locate the delete function but could not. As a crowd started gathering around me, another security man came and asked his colleague to return the camera so the crowd would disperse. He did, and I merged with the throng.
By then, the President was about to leave. Wearing a golden sari with broad maroon borders draped over her head, President Patil briefly appeared on the stage with her two official escorts, who slowly walked with her towards the car. She waved at the devotees as she slid into the Ambassador. Then Sai Baba entered the stage amid the chanting. The devotees seemed less enthusiastic, perhaps because they wanted to see Sai Baba and Pratibha Devisingh Patil together. After the arati, Sai Baba left the stage, again without speaking a word or performing a miracle.
The whole encounter recalled an earlier conversation with the media guy. He’d advised me to read Sai Baba’s Sandeha Nivarini: Clearance of Spiritual Doubts.
Sai Baba’s teachings on doubt are unequivocal. “Do not admit doubt in you…The venom of doubt…Doubt is death…A component of the Raakshasa (demonic) nature.” And as Allan Yeoh told me, “Baba says, ‘It’s heart to heart, one to one.’ You don’t have to listen to others.” His wife Linda also explained how she overcame her doubts after watching the BBC documentary: “I just said I would look at my personal experience, and not what others are alleging.” For Sai Baba, this means losing only the ones who have personal grievances with him. The rest of his flock remains intact.