Satya Sai Baba: Spiritual Rockstar

Baba died this morning of April 24, 2011. According to his own spiritual calculations, he was scheduled to depart earth in 2022. While I understand the grief of the followers, I do not understand the disposition towards worship. I usually do not fathom any kind of mass belief, so this is not to single out an individual. Not individual, say the faithful, it is Bhagwan. We need gods. Sachin Tendulkar is god, and Sachin was not going to celebrate his birthday because he wanted to pray for Satya Sai Baba’s recovery.

At 85, he did lead a full life. He was known for his miracles, more magical than any magician’s. Unfortunately, his own bodily organs failed and no doctors could revive them. Strangely enough, even the prayers of the devotees could not nor his own divine powers. 

This is a profound disclosure of the spirituality business. Many people need guidance; many people suffer from some sort of misery. Wealth, education and even therapy do not work. They prefer being part of a gathering where a guru offers solace by the mere fact of her/his existence. It is a rockstar phenomenon, a classic case of collective catharsis. 

I was witness to it at Baba’s Whitefield ashram almost 15 years ago. I admit it was as a voyeuristic tourist that I went. A blue plastic shade covered a huge tent-like area. People were ambling about and most were foreigners. As I recollect, it was only Whites, a phenomenon that is noticeable in most such ashrams. You rarely see Blacks or other races, although there is considerable Japanese presence at the Osho ashram, because he had this thing about Zen. These foreigners wore carelessly draped cream-coloured sarees and bindis on the forehead; the men were in kurta-pyjama. At a water-tap a woman, her hair coiled at the nape of her neck, bent to drink water by cupping the palm of her hand. It was a memorable image, reminiscent of villages as seen in Bollywood films.

There was a canteen across the road run by the ashram. It was packed with people. Long wooden benches and tables. I am not sure if one had a choice, but the stuff on my plate was terribly spicy and as tears ran down my eyes, I watched the rest whose palates were even less trained for such food. They were eating with their fingers, seemingly enjoying every morsel. I thought to myself that perhaps this is what the spiritual journey is all about – getting used to whatever is on your plate. 

Back to the main ashram, they said Baba was going to give a darshan. The ground was dusty, but a platform was ready; soon there would be a throne for him to sit in and deliver his sermon and bless the congregation. Some had already begun reserving their places on the floor.

What were they looking for? They could read hundreds of tomes on spiritualism from several masters; they could be believers without moving from their homelands. They chose to travel all those miles just to become a part of the enterprise and get a glance of the man. Is this faith or is it about auto-suggestion where you begin to believe in your own delusions? How much of a role does any guru play in this, except for being a conduit to their greater search for going beyond the material? Can people not give up luxuries in their own environment and contribute to their societies? Where does the guru fit in when they cook, clean and eat humble meals?

Is it not a contradiction to see the person they have faith in sitting on a gilded throne and being hailed by the most powerful people, people who are willing to publicly be obsequious, unmindful of their reputations? Does that make them spiritual when after the ‘special’ moment they are back to their corporate offices and ministerial bungalows dictating policies that are hardly austere?

Baba had declared himself the incarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi; the latter’s devotees are not necessarily his worshippers and that itself should say something. 

It is also pertinent to note that when it comes to proving faith-healing and miraculous powers, it is the poor who are brought forward. It can be deduced that for them just a touch of any god-like creature is enough of a status leap. You won’t see them rubbing shoulders at community canteens with the rich devotees. Therefore, the Satya Sai Baba empire had little to do with his ability to produce Rolex watches out of thin air and vibhuti (holy ash) from his palms. Both have been challenged and proven by the Rationalist Society, but it has not affected the attitude of the faithful, even the ones with reasoning powers.

This is more likely about channelising wealth into a nirvana factory. Baba’s educational and health institutions are often quoted as examples of the good work beyond the ashram. These are commendable activities, but they also encourage people to owe their knowledge and their lives to Baba. Besides, there is a lot of money involved in maintaining ‘international standards’. Attempts to probe into the functioning of not only this but any religious organisation always meet with a dead-end because among the believers are those who run the investigating agencies. Any other improprieties are also shut up. Will any people’s movement have the courage to look into the financial dealings at the several ashrams and even madrassas and missionary-run outfits?

Complicit in this is the media. Rarely has any media group raised questions and when they do there is an arching over backwards to give a balanced picture. I was once told to “go slow” on religious figures for one of my columns, although I had written about Imam Bukhari of Delhi's Jama Masjid and the Pope earlier. In a casual conversation with someone much later, I discovered that the editor was a devout worshipper. It makes one wonder, then, what balance we are speaking about when there are already treacly tributes pouring in.

Ever since Baba took ill, news reports gave a daily update. It is fine since he does have enormous appeal and people were concerned. However, it was distressing to read about security arrangements at Puttarpathi, where his main operations are run from and in the ashram where he will be kept in state now. The forces are there because there will be a rush of VIPs. I can already imagine people killing themselves in grief. Who will do so? The poor. Not the rich and influential.

What does it tell us about the prospect of individuals as institutions? As Satya Sai Baba had once said, “Devotion has to be unintermittent, uninterrupted, like the flow of oil from one vessel to another.” Pity, he did not keep another vessel ready. Who will be in charge of the various organisations run by the private trust? It will be interesting to see how things unfold and whether Baba’s legacy can continue under the tutelage of his trusted aide, an IAS officer, or his nephew. It is unlikely. There will be a fight for the spoils. Spiritualism goes on the ventilator.

(C) Farzana Versey

Also published in Counterpunch, April 25


  1. FV, you make me angry. I am no devotee of Satya Sai. I have cheered when his rolex-producing skills were exposed as fake. What irks me are the double standards. Let us see you
    1. write a similar questioning article about Prophet Mohammed.
    2. Allow this comment to be displayed here.
    3. Stay alive after writing an article like that.

    So much for journalistic courage!

  2. farzana , why don't you write once in your lifetime about mohammed's sex slaves and his cocumbines . I would love see you point of views regrading mohammed's weeding with 9 year old!! or pointing out bad things about hinduism is the only interest you have!

  3. This is not about the Hinduism or Islam or about any ism if that matters.She pointed towards the facts that how educated/non educated, poor/rich, reader/publisher all kind of masses get themselves influenced blindly to the propagandized gurus and so called Bhagwans.Many a times I read her blogs criticizing Islamic figures too.

  4. It is distressing to see this guy treated like God. My guess is most people who rose to the top in politics and business committed several atrocities as part of their normal course of existence. Now they need some one of equal or greater stature to tell them that they are good people and assuage their guilt feelings. Also they probably need to be told that they are not spending a lot of time in hell for what ever they did. As for the poor and weak their life is so horrible that they will worship anyone as long as that person is considered holy by some people and offers them some solace from the daily cruelty of life.
    It is said that making the first million is the hardest. After that more people are willing to help you out with the hope for some future returns. In the spiritual business its most likely the same case. Somehow gain a few followers and then they will pull in the rest. Its basically a pyramid scheme. Most cults seem to grow in this manner.
    As for Shirdi Sai Baba, I dug up to find out that he was actually a Sufi which not many people seem to state openly. Now of course every one worships him and asks him to fulfill some desire of theirs. Any way the line of his that I like the best is "Don't get too attached to anything, you are going to lose it all eventually", now thats an enlightened man.

  5. I have myself have posed similar queries in past as FF and Anonymous. But, one thing to realize is that Mohammed's story is from 700 A.D while these Sai Babas are with us today...

    Also, to answer it with another of my favorite Zen koan:

    Two monks are about to cross the river and a pretty woman comes by pleading them to help her across the river. One of the monk picks her up and start wading through the river. Other one is shocked but follows. At the other bank, monk puts down the woman and resumes his journey with his fellow monk.

    After a long uncomfortable silence between them, other monk finally asks:
    "that is very improper according to our code of conduct"

    First monk replies "I dropped her off at the river bank and now you should too".

  6. FV,
    One conclusion is important for mankind to survive a few hindred more years, as usual teh west is head in this and they will be the first ones to put this to use.
    God , Religion and Spirituality are the world's best business enterprise . If Oil is inviting wars, imagine what religion is doing. The turnover , profits are returns from this business are far beigger than people selling than sugary carbonated water for billions of dollars. Illusions are teh best marketing products.
    Religion has carefully kep mankind away from nature's living proofs of one mankind , one earth and one source. Sex is one of them , all of them have similar views on it because they knew , if people were allowed to travel , discuss and love . Religion and God as illusions will disappear.
    This incident only proves to me that we are still a country of snakecharmers and elephant riders , we are getting worse and not better.
    My 3P theory is bit twisted, between the priest, politician and the prostitute , the prostitute is the holiest of them all

  7. To Manish- We,snake-charmers are not alone in this business.Most advanced country like USA,Britain and many more too have their hidden gurus in different patterns.General people's mind is tend to find shortcuts for their problems, what they find is Gurus and organization which sucks their wealth,forcing them to live vulnerable life.

  8. F&F:

    Why are you are getting antsy when you had cheered about the fake Rolexes? This is double standards. You’ve got to be kidding to suggest that to prove some “journalistic courage”, I have to play the game the way people want it to be played. Talk about irony. And stop these hollow challenges. Which of your offensive comments have been filtered?

    I don’t have to prove anything to anyone; there is enough I have written and it is visible even in this piece for those who read instead of depositing their baggage at my doorstep. Sad that you missed it.

    And Salman Rushdie is still alive, just in case you missed that too.


    What questions have you posed because they have not posed any real questions – it is about me.

    Forget religion for a bit, don’t we have child marriages, and if we need to get ‘secular; then it is both the Hyderabad bride racket of a while ago and the continuing practice in parts of Rajasthan and MP. What about incest? What about child abuse?

    Cut to the present. The above crimes also take place within the sanctified ‘places of worship’.

  9. Jitu:

    Indeed. I am perturbed about the spirituality business and have often stated so. As far as I can see, these questions need to be asked. Had I wanted to do an expose, then many more aspects would have been mentioned. What perturbs me is that I often post some songs etc and maintained some propriety, but those who ought to be mourning are more interested in some other faith’s prophet.

    Sai Reddy:

    Your pyramid scheme holds true and I think for the poor it is also some sort of upward mobility. Regarding the powerful, I’d agree with you only to an extent. Not many feel any guilt because they do not believe they have commi9tted any crime at all. This is an extension of their power trip – a mutually-beneficial relationship. For, I cannot imagine how any guru would be able to explain the karma theory to them, unless they do want to be reborn as jersey cows.

    The Shirdi Sai Baba’s roots are not quite clear, and if no one questions that it is because Sufism is a safe bet. You can flip the coin and get the Bhakti cult that has saints like Meerabai and Tulsidas. There is also a problem about Kabir. Was he Muslim? Was he Hindu? I am glad about this confusion – while he is often quoted, we are spared one more shrine.

    Here’s one of his sayings:

    “There is nothing but water in the holy pools. I know, I have been swimming there. All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word. I know, I have been crying out to them. The Sacred Books of the East are nothing but words. I looked through their covers one day sideways. What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through. If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”


    Taking your theory of illusion further, now we have people with halo even among civil society. They are worshipped in a similar manner and all for an illusion that they will right the wrongs.

    Spiritualism is our biggest export and what keeps us in the news even in this global economy world it is yoga, meditation and nirvana that are the buzzwords among those who are not in the financial filed. Even they might offer that visit to a holy site to the trade delegations.

    Your 3P theory is not twisted at all, except that instead of holy I’d use the word ethical. Somehow, with my Bollywood fixation, I start thinking of ‘Ganga ki tarah pavitra’ and all that.

  10. Pardon the typos and repetitions. Eye infection, not hic-hic ;)

  11. The human phenomenon of sanctity and spirituality exists. St. Francis existed, and so did a galaxy of other Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other saints. Real saints and real spirituality, that is, a veritable relationship with transcendent reality.

    Pseudo-spirituality also exists, and particularly so in our age of mass communications, in fact, mass everything.

    The existence of the false in no way invalidates the existence of the true. Objective reality--that bane of modern man--will have the last word.

  12. James:

    Spirituality is primarily a personal journey unlike religion. The saints and prophets existed and pretty much laid the groundwork for how the faiths should be interpreted. They were very much a part of the religious dictum rather than the spiritual one.

    The charlatans, as you rightly point out, are a mass-produced phenomenon. However, I do not agree with you that the fake does not invalidate the true. The fake sponges on and misleads people into believing it is carrying on the legacy of the true.

    Let me also comment on the phrase "objective reality" in this context. What is the reality - the existence of the saints or how they impact on each believer? How objective can it be, then, when people 'visit' these with their own subjectivity?

    I'd go along with objective reality in more tangible spheres being the bane of the modern human, but not in areas where reality itself is inconclusive.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I assume this is your first time here...I tend to be argumentative!

  13. Hi Farzana,
    Thanks to read up a fanfare of your own, so early before sun rise.
    As a human being it does not matter much whether you are labelled 'Sai Baba devotee' or not.
    Being able to live up, at all times in your life, to his message of love, good human values and code of conduct... is a complete different matter.
    To any sustainable prospect of individuals as institutions... first of all, project yourself to the same depth of omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience as Sri Sathya Baba has demonstrated during His lifetime... then and only then... come back to us with a living message describing your own process of individuation towards reaching His identy.
    About His succession, you are barely making asumptions you would not even attempt to validate because it is not in your power to know or even to investigate.
    Any 'power of surrender' is much more than a prayer... in the meantime, keep with your own belief that you may have invented human knowledge.

  14. Hi Anon:

    I am glad you had an eventful start to your day.

    IMO, knowledge is not invented; it is imbibed.

    - - -

    A general add-on:

    * Satya Sai Baba has been buried - taken samadhi - with silver, gold and navratnas.

    * The police placed the national flag on his casket. Here's the picture:


    According to rules (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_India)

    On occasions of state, military, central para-military forces funerals, the flag shall be draped over the bier or coffin with the saffron towards the head of the bier or coffin. The flag shall not be lowered into the grave or burnt in the pyre.

    The latter may not happen, but in what category does the Baba belong?


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