reportage

The Land of Illusion

Inside Sathya Sai Baba’s fiefdom

By VISHAL ARORA | 1 June 2010

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 kilometres. 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 seems like Puttaparthi’s own deity.

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 the demoniac level.” Puttaparthi often seems like Sai Baba’s personal kingdom.

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 SAI BABA’S ASHRAM, I witnessed the susceptibility of faith from close quarters. Faith, they say, is seeing what is unseen, but here it apparently meant unseeing what is clearly seen.

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 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.”

TANYA DATTA, who produced a BBC documentary on Sathya Sai Baba, encountered a similar climate:

On my first visit to Puttaparthi in 2003, I came across signs in the hostel warning guests that they could be arrested for ‘anti-Sai Baba activities.’ Although I had never heard of this law, the message seemed clear. During the making of the film, it became apparent that the Sai Baba lobby harnesses significant clout within powerful circles. These vested interests conspire to silence criticism and isolate those victims brave enough to tell their stories of abuse.

Allegations against Sai Baba aren’t new. “When I first started investigating him, I found allegations of a sexual nature dating back to the 70s,” Datta said. “The only constant was that these claims had not been investigated by the authorities.”

The testimony of one of Sai Baba’s ex-devotees seems pretty damning. In a signed statement dated 21 March 2001, furnished to me by a Delhi-based lawyer, Kamini Jaiswal, American Al Rahm alleged that Sai Baba had sexually molested him and his son. Rahm, then 45, and his wife Marisa, then 44, believed for 26 years that Sai Baba was a living God. During those years they frequented his ashram.

In the spring of 1974, when Al Rahm was 18, he said he was called for a private interview with Sai Baba:

He seemed able to read my thoughts and appeared to manifest some oil with the wave of his hand. He said he was going to heal a digestive problem. As he rubbed the oil on my solar plexus, he lowered my pants and applied it to my genitals. Then he hugged me and began to kiss me on the mouth while pulling his legs up firmly against my genitals. He told me that he was my pleasure. Finally… he said that I should never tell anyone because they would not understand. I thought he was telling me that all pleasure and all experiences came through our relationship with God.  At the time I couldn’t believe that he would have any sexual desire towards me and that it must be a cosmic message. After all, he is Sai Baba, the one presidents, prime ministers, doctors and lawyers come to from around the world.

After leaving the interview, Rahm said he met a follower named Johnima, whose band Lightstorm often sang for Baba and who had received many interviews. He told him about the incident. “Welcome to the club,” he said Johnima told him. “He’s done it to all of us. Swami does that to reduce our sex drive and help us with our spiritual path.”

Johnima denies this conversation ever took place. “All His actions are prompted by complete love and Motherly care,” he wrote about Sai Baba in his first email. A day later he wrote a second email regarding Rahm, “We were acquaintances in the 70s and he most likely confused me with someone else. We find that misery or egos enjoy company.”

In June 1995, Sai Baba called Rahm’s 16-year-old son Alaya for two private interviews. “[Alaya] said that Baba had applied oil to his genitals and had kissed him on the mouth,” Rahm said. The alleged incident seemed strikingly similar to his own encounter with Sai Baba in 1974.

In July 1997, during a conference when more than 18,000 young adults flocked to Puttaparthi, Baba called Alaya and his family for a combined 21 interviews. Rahm recalled:

Each of the family interviews ended with Baba seeing Alaya alone. In early interviews, Baba had placed Alaya’s hand on Baba’s genitals. There was a hump indicating that Baba had a penis. Then Baba blew on his finger as if to show magic and the hump disappeared. Baba said, ‘See, I am male and female. God is both man and woman.’

 Alaya would be invited for many more interviews until 1999, when he finally revealed the abuse to his parents. “In every one of his private interviews he was pressured by Sai Baba to engage in sexual activities with him,” Rahm alleged. “On one occasion Sai Baba threatened to cause an accident and have Alaya’s penis cut off if he ever shared it with anyone other than Sai Baba.”

Rahm also said that Sai Baba told his son, “That is my property only,” allegedly pointing to Alaya’s penis.

After hearing the accusations, Rahm immediately phoned Dr William Harvey, a fellow officer in the organisation. Harvey called it a test of their faith. Rahm then met Michael Goldstein, Sai Baba’s international coordinator, who seemed torn by the news. He promised to investigate.

But then he returned from India. “Swami responded by saying ‘Swami is pure,’” Goldstein allegedly said.

“Goldstein lied and has lied for many years all the while keeping sexual allegations about Sai Baba from innocent families like ours who were later abused by Sai Baba,” Rahm continued. “It could have been avoided if he took his position responsibly and admitted to the people that there had been devotees come forward with complaints since as early as the 1970s.”

Al Rahm also said he telephoned Berniece Mead, who headed Sai Baba’s young adult educational programme in the US. Rahm said Mead wasn’t surprised the allegations were sexual in nature: “It always is.” Then she quietly ended the call, saying, “I wish you the best.”

“Sai Baba has said that the king makes the laws but the king is above the law,” Rahm continued. “Devotees are brainwashed. Many of them believe [Alaya’s] entire story and then say, ‘Well, Baba is god so he can do whatever he wants.’”

The Caravan attempted to contact Goldstein, Mead and Harvey. They did not respond.

Alaya Rahm went public with his allegations in a 2004 BBC documentary. “Every step of the way has caused Internet disaster for my family,” Al Rahm explained. “At some point we just want to be finished with it.” Begged by other ex-devotees and their attorneys to sue the organisation, Alaya finally agreed even though his father had cautioned against it. His attorney attempted to sue the Sathya Sai Central Council of America. But when he discovered that they were only a book store with no tangible assets, his lawyer withdrew the case.

Rahm said that Alaya didn’t go public seeking a financial windfall:

 Alaya had met many other boys who were abused but were afraid and unwilling to talk about it. If he could have had some financial compensation for what he went through I am sure he would have taken it. He has suffered a lot and his family has supported him in every way to heal the scars not only of Sai Baba but also the Internet information that is available for everyone to see. It makes it difficult when applying for employment or trying to build a new professional reputation.

INDIAN-AMERICAN HARI SAMPATH, a former member of the ashram’s inner security wing, didn’t respond to repeated emails seeking comment. In an affidavit to the Central Bureau of Investigation dated 12 March 2001, however, he said the hostel officials of Sai Baba’s institutions “have known [about the alleged abuse] all along, and many of them even ‘feed’ young boys to Sai Baba.”

While the Rahms, Sampath, and a few others finally came forward, the majority of Sai Baba’s devotees remain faithful. While high-profile devotees may find it politically expedient to support Sai Baba, many rank and file members may fear that terrible things will happen if they question the leader, his doctrine or actions, said Steven Alan Hassan, who counsels people leaving cults. “They have also been told not to have negative thoughts, which short-circuit critical thinking and reality testing.”

Hassan, who has authored two books on cults, came up with the BITE Model to explain how cults control the minds of their followers:

If Behaviour, Information, Thoughts and Emotions (BITE) can be controlled, then an individual’s identity can be systematically manipulated and changed. Destructive mind control takes the locus of control away from an individual. The person is systematically deceived about the beliefs and practices of the person (or group) and manipulated throughout the recruitment process—unable to make informed choices and exert independent judgment. The person’s identity is profoundly influenced through a set of social influence techniques and a new identity is created—programmed to be dependent on the leader or group ideology. The person can’t think for him or herself, but believes otherwise.

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.

WITH THESE INCIDENTS IN MIND, I felt overwhelmed on my first night in Puttaparthi. It didn’t help that copies of the graphic affidavits were lying next to my pillow in my hotel room, which also happened to feature several pictures of Sai Baba. I fell asleep early.

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 Bhavrao 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 ex-follower 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.”

IN THE LAST DECADE OR SO, the battle between Sai Baba’s supporters and detractors has moved online, where it only seems to have intensified. Robert Priddy, a sociologist and former national leader of the Sathya Sai Centre in Oslo, Norway, says Sai Baba’s admirers threaten him. After Priddy’s blog carried allegations of Sai Baba’s misdeeds, a man identifying himself as Mohan left this comment on 26 November 2008: “Sai Baba is god and his devotees love to see him on the golden chariot…If you come in front of me I will kill you man.”

Much of the hate, Priddy alleges, is orchestrated by Sai Baba admirer Gerald Joe Moreno of New Mexico. “Many ex-followers from outside India [are not] in a position to take action against Sathya Sai Baba. They have not been silenced, though some may wish not to be stalked by Gerald Moreno, who is fanatically and obsessively aggressive on the Internet.”

When The Caravan contacted Gerald Moreno, he said, “Ex-devotees are dishonest and aggressive individuals who resort to public humiliation, character assassination, defamations and libels against anyone who has the courage to speak out against their hate-based agendas.” Moreno, who on his website says he is “an open-minded agnostic” but believes that Sai Baba “possesses genuine paranormal powers,” also said he was “not a Sai devotee.” He added that he had written a few articles about the “bogus” claims of ex-devotees and was “drawn increasingly” into the “debate” on Sai Baba after ex-devotees began their “smear campaigns against me.”

Shortly after his first email, Moreno sent a follow-up. He’d found that my domain, www.vishalarora.co.in, was registered to an address at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where my brother studied. 

Apparently, my Christianity “raised red flags.” He expressed concern that The Caravan would be biased.

“Therefore, I kindly ask that you maintain transparency in your writings pertaining to Sathya Sai Baba so that you will not be accused of bias or having ulterior motives like Vir Sanghvi, Paul Lewis and Tanya Datta,” he continued.

He also—not so subtly—threatened me: “If your article does not give due justice to both sides of the Sai Controversy, I will be forced to write about this issue and make it public.”

A few days later, he made good on his threat: “Apparently, you have made your decision and therefore I am making mine. I am releasing the following webpages about you:

“-Vishal Arora – New Delhi Journalist – Arora, Vishal / -Email Correspondence with Vishal Arora.” Even before this issue went to press, these pages on Moreno’s site appear in the top five Google hits for ‘Vishal Arora.’

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.”

(Getting an interview where one could raise sensitive topics, however, seemed a tad more challenging. Sathya Sai Baba was last interviewed by journalists from the Mumbai edition of The Times of India 12 March 1999, the only interview after one in Blitz News Magazine in September 1976. Both interviews seemed meant for devotees and didn’t broach allegations or controversies.)

The PRO started packing up, saying, “My time is up. I am here from 10:30 to 11:30 am every morning, and I’ll need to go now.”

“I am sorry, I didn’t ask your name,” I said. “You don’t need to know my name,” he replied. “I am the public relations officer here, and an engineer by profession. “Can I meet you again?” I asked gently. “If I am in my office,” he said, and left the room.

I REACHED THE ANONYMOUS PRO’S OFFICE at 11:00 am the following day.

“Why didn’t your department respond to the allegations?” I asked. “When dogs bark at an elephant, do you think the elephant runs after them?” he said. He began narrating yet another story on Sai Baba’s divinity:

There was a guru, known as Elephant Baba, in Mumbai, who had spent 12 years learning to walk on water. He challenged Babaji to walk on the sea. Babaji went to Mumbai and asked him to walk first. As he put his first foot on water, he went into it. He could not walk and developed many diseases. Later he came to the ashram asking for forgiveness, and then he was healed.

Babaji walked on water when he was seven. He was going to school and the river in Puttaparthi was flooded. But he walked. Many people saw him. He was born with siddhi (perfection); unlike others, he doesn’t need to acquire it.

“How does Babaji spend his day? Does he meditate?” I asked. The PRO replied, “Who will he meditate to? He is God. He normally travels around the world to help his devotees while his body remains in his room.” I didn’t know how to respond. I chose to keep quiet. Then the PRO said something significant. “He has warned his attendants not to even try to see what he does in his room.” Maybe he practises magic tricks, I wondered.

Sai Baba has made numerous such claims, comparing himself to Jesus Christ—most notably, being born through an immaculate conception. In His Story, he says, “I am the Director of the Cosmic Play. The entire universe dances to My tune… I can do anything. Everything is in My hands.” He also calls himself “king of kings.” He even claims to have resurrected dead people.

His followers also ascribe similar divine powers to their guru. Take, for example, when I asked Sai Baba’s PRO, “How many languages can Babaji speak?”

“He is omniscient. He speaks all the languages you have in the world. He went to Africa a few years ago, and he spoke to a very old lady in Swahili,” he responded, while looking at his watch. I got the message.

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.

AND I WAS TO FIND A SIMILAR, dangerous, resilience of faith and disregard for doubt when I met devotee Dr Naresh K Bhatia, who in October 2000 had told the Daily Telegraph journalist Mick Brown over the phone that he had sexual relations with Sai Baba for a total of “15 or 16 years.” He was also aware that Sai Baba had relations with “many, many students from the college and school, and with devotees from overseas.” Also, The Findings, a dossier of testimonies of ex-devotees of Sai Baba on the Web, claims that Dr Bhatia exposed “massive sexual exploitation by Sathya Sai Baba of students, including a report on the physically injurious anal rape of a minor, a boy student, with which he personally confronted Sathya Sai Baba.” This led to “his immediate sacking from his position as head of the Blood Bank at Sathya Sai Baba’s hospital in Puttaparthi and total banishment from the ashrams and all Sai Baba institutions.”

I read his account in the Daily Telegraph and several Internet forums; I wanted to meet the now 59-year-old Dr Bhatia. I went to see him in his house in Noida. The tall, fair man received me very gently and offered me a seat on a veranda next to his living room. There was a six-foot tall poster of Sai Baba on one of the walls. I wondered why he still had a picture of him.

I told him I wanted to know about his relationship with Sai Baba and whether or not the reports on the Internet were true. “What did you find in Puttaparthi?” he asked. I told him many of his former devotees wouldn’t make accusations against Sai Baba. I also complained that there seemed to be no real consequences for Sai Baba. “No action will be taken against him. Nothing will happen to him,” remarked Dr Bhatia. “I will suggest that you do not write the article.” I thought it was his pessimism.

“But why do you think nothing will happen to him?” I asked. “He is God,” he replied. “Is what I have read on the Internet about you untrue?” I asked. “Everything is true,” he said, “but so what?” The bell rang and he went to the door and came back with his colleague. I thought it would be difficult to have a frank conversation now. But Dr Bhatia carried on.

“What is evil, and what is good? Can you separate evil from good? They are two sides of the same coin,” he continued, looking at his friend for his approval, and he nodded. “It is the giving of one’s heart that is more important than giving one’s body. Jesus said if you look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery. This means your thoughts are more important than the acts done in body. So if you can give your heart to Sai Baba, what can you withhold? He is the creator.” For about an hour, he carried on with his confusing, contradictory, pantheistic argument.

Before I left he hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, said I was like a son to him and offered help in life. He also gave me a book he’d written, The Dreams and Realities: Face to face with God. The book details Bhatia’s own realisation of Sai Baba’s divinity. It was signed by Sai Baba, “With Love and Blessings, Sri Sathya Sai,” and dated 5 June 1993.

As he went to see me off at the gate, I asked him once again, this time categorically, if he had sexual relations with Sai Baba and if he had seen a child molested by him. “No, a hundred times no,” he said—a complete U-turn from his earlier admission. “I said the same to BBC journalists when they came to interview me in 2004, but they didn’t show any clip from that interview,” he added. I left, confused, wondering when and how he’d succumbed once again to the idea that a man accused of being a serial sex abuser could be God.

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 kilometres. 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 seems like Puttaparthi’s own deity.

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 the demoniac level.” Puttaparthi often seems like Sai Baba’s personal kingdom.

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 SAI BABA’S ASHRAM, I witnessed the susceptibility of faith from close quarters. Faith, they say, is seeing what is unseen, but here it apparently meant unseeing what is clearly seen.

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 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.”

TANYA DATTA, who produced a BBC documentary on Sathya Sai Baba, encountered a similar climate:

On my first visit to Puttaparthi in 2003, I came across signs in the hostel warning guests that they could be arrested for ‘anti-Sai Baba activities.’ Although I had never heard of this law, the message seemed clear. During the making of the film, it became apparent that the Sai Baba lobby harnesses significant clout within powerful circles. These vested interests conspire to silence criticism and isolate those victims brave enough to tell their stories of abuse.

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Vishal Arora is based in New Delhi, and he travels and writes stories on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights, primarily but not exclusively in South and Southeast Asia. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the USA Today, the Asia Times, and many other outlets in the U.S., the U.K. and India. He is formerly the features editor of The Caravan. He also worked as an editor with Indo-Asian News Service. He can be contacted at vishalarora_in@hotmail.com, and some of his articles can be read at http://journalisted.com/vishal-arora.

READER'S COMMENTS

87 thoughts on “The Land of Illusion”

hi Vishal,

good article! it looks as if u never lost sandals in ur life! a true journalist really tries to do a good job. its not about his opinion about anything. its his oath to his profession to be true to it. A good article not only needs good preparation and language but also good research and First hand evidence. Just because Saibaba is dead and it is a hot topic, u dont have to write an article on him to get website hits and may be money through it.

If u can see the hollow inside urself which made u write articles like this, thinking THIS is journalism, that is where Saibaba fits in. He tried to teach us to be true to ourselves.

Write better so that people benefit from your articles not wasting your time and ours.

Loved this sentence – Faith, they say, is seeing what is unseen, but here it apparently meant unseeing what is clearly seen. – You had to go to Puttapurthi to catch a glimpse of this. But thanks to you, all we have to do now is to read some of the comments in this article. RIP Narendra Dabholkar.

yep, folks. lets wait up for the real messiah ; yesus. while at it pay up at the congregation box, make the pulpit pounder rich and don’t forget bad mouth others that they are idiots in believing false gods.

so let’s set the bar here. how much of Jesus’s personal life do you really know. it is actually convenient that no one kept a track of it. All edited chapters from the roman king which is now the bible.
You are all hypocrites.

so let’s see! tell me one country which has realized. have you realized there are no shortcuts in life? All humans are here to plunder the nature bounty. please note humans are predators. so simple. keep consuming less and be happy. dont bad mouth others. they are equally equipped to take care of themselves.

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