Sai Baba, 1926-2011

Sathya Sai Baba, Hindu Holy Man, Dies at 86:

Indian television ran nonstop news coverage on Sunday of the guru’s death, while officials and celebrities expressed sadness over an “irreparable loss.”

“Sri Satya Sai Baba was a spiritual leader who inspired millions to lead a moral and meaningful life, even as they followed the religion of their choice,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement. “The nation deeply mourns his passing away.”

Andhra Pradesh state, where Puttaparti is located, declared four days of mourning, with its top official calling Sai Baba “a symbol of love, affection and passion.”

“Sri Satya Sai Baba has given his great self to the service of humanity,” Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy said. “He will be remembered for ages to come by all sections of people all over the world.”

Prediction: as the Indian middle class waxes Sai Baba will be viewed as a trailblazing religious entrepreneur. There will be many more in his mold.

26 thoughts on “Sai Baba, 1926-2011

  1. Razib, Interesting prediction. Can you say more about why you hold it? My instincts are the opposite–the “god-men” seem to be followed (aside from a few cultists) by the poorer elements. The rising middle-class seems more into Vedic texts, the philosophical side of Hinduism, and Indian history (thus the rise of the Hindu right).

  2. Can you say more about why you hold it?

    the widening of middle classes often uplifts people with different cultural sensibilities. this often results in a ferment of religious entrepreneurialism which is different from the earlier division between “elite” and “populist” religious expression. the american “megachurch” for example is a new phenomenon driven by the rise of the evangelical middle class, different from staid mainline protestantism and populist “tent preachers.” there are analogous trends in the islamic world, wehre the old elite religious elites and localized traditions are being challenged up a populist religious conservatism derived from upwardly mobile professionals.

  3. I realize that this thread will soon be populated with comments disdainful of him for resorting to cheap parlor tricks to sway the emotions of his devotees, but I just wanted to identify something positive about him in memory of his death – he often served as a singular, but powerful voice among religious Hindus for Hindu-Muslim brotherhood in the face of a rising tide of division and communal strife.

    http://www.hindu.com/2011/04/25/stories/2011042559932100.htm

    He deserves much scorn for his sometimes conniving ways, but he also left a considerable legacy of charitable works – schools, colleges, orphanages, and hospitals for the poor, and water projects to provide vital drinking water to rural and drought-stricken areas.

    • $ai Baba didn’t care any more for Hindu Muslim brotherhood than he did for his Rolex and ‘fro. Sunil Dutt did far more. $ai Baba did nothing to liberalize indias economy or eradicate poverty and preventable illness. But…he did an amazing job at creating an intergenerational dependency on charlatans.

      This isn’t much different from people like him who inspired reformist belief systems that renounced charlatanism, superstition, and psychological enslavement.

      Now that being said, the Agha Khan, Amma, Mother T, Mr.T, that Tunisian fruit vendor, B Graham, Dalai Lama, etc have done more to advance hu amity.

  4. more generally, rapid economic development tends to destabilize the older institutional order. there has been a rise of “cults” in china too, and there was a ferment of dissenting and low church revivalist protestantism in 19th century england.

  5. I realize that this thread will soon be populated with comments disdainful of him for resorting to cheap parlor tricks to sway the emotions of his devotees

    hm. good point. i’m pretty disdainful personally. but, that’s old and not novel. so i’m curious about different angles. if it gets too predictable and boring (i.e., the comments here have no comparative advantage to elsewhere) i will shut down the thread.

  6. Interesting points, Razib, but I think Hinduism is “different.” Once people are educated, they tend to see this god-man stuff as stupid, and get really into the texts, philosophy and history.

    I know it’s just an anecdote, but in my family my grandparents were into Sai Baba, my father got a university education and made fun of Sai Baba and was active in the RSS. This seemed like a common pattern in non-mega-city Northern India. (I, as a BBCD, am merely a Tory!).

  7. Interesting points, Razib, but I think Hinduism is “different.” Once people are educated, they tend to see this god-man stuff as stupid, and get really into the texts, philosophy and history.

    well, then hindus are the singular exceptions. japan and korea are totally overrun by “new religious movements” and “religious innovators” (i’m trying to be neutral :-) , despite both being relatively secular societies (only 50% of koreans have a religious affiliation, despite what misimpression korean americans might give with their overwhelming evangelical christianity).

  8. guys, i just deleted a comment attacking sai baba in predictable terms. predictable as in you can find it elsewhere, including my own post at brown pundits where i’m not very respectful. but in this space i’m curious as to a more diverse and less predictable set of observations. i actually agree with the uncharitable comment which i deleted in terms of substance, but i’m going to try and separate my own personal views from the discussion at this point.

    thanks for understanding that there’s a method to the madness of the wrath of khan ;-)

  9. The fascination for godmen (in India and elsewhere) is based on a rather deep-rooted epistemological intuition — that there is a special channel of knowledge, (available to all, but accessed only by some), where you ‘enjoin’ or ‘become’ the universe and thus gain knowledge about future/hidden events/phenomena.

    This (mystical) way of knowledge is considered superior to language and perception-based knowledge, which are partial at best, and people who are able to traverse this path of knowledge are considered close to God. Most Godmen claim that they have had this ‘special’ experience, and people believe them because they are able to exhibit (by trick or otherwise) some possible after-effects of this experience, such as premonition.

    Most people who claim to have had this experience in India declare themselves God, which I find very interesting and appealing and entertaining, for a bunch of reasons. First, it makes Godliness an experience, and thus very available and populist, kinda like Rajnikanth. Two, it undercuts the clergy and its power plays. Three, it is so in the face of silly ideologies that claim that men/women cannot be God because they are somehow ‘fallen’ and not part of Nature. Four,it is an endless creator of myths. Five, many schizophrenics make similar claims (Google The three Christs of Ypsilanti). I could go on.

    Predictably, many of these Godmen get caught in controversie that involve deciet, sex, money, politics or a potent concoction of all these. While these indicate ‘mere’ human-ness (which somehow precludes/undercuts their claimed Godliness) for most people, these controversies don’t seem to have any impact on most of the followers.

    I find this also very interesting and appealing and entertaining, for another bunch of reasons. One, assuming the Godman had this transcendental experience, it does not elevate him to a permanent state of bliss. He is ornary human most of the time, and tries to make up for this impermenance of divinity using cheap tricks or influence peddling, making him even more ornary in the process. Two, they could be alternating between God and Human phases, which is a rather radical theological position. Three, they could be high-functioning schizophrenics. Four, the devotees don’t care about these transgressions of the divine. For them, once a God, always a God. Five, maybe for them, an available and imperfect God is better than an unavailable and perfect (and cold and judgmental) God. Kinda like in the case of parents.

    I could go on here as well, but I am hungry.

  10. I hope this is not predictable “attacking”, but frankly, he was a con man http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8PpfsQRpgk and there were allegations of sexual abuse by a boy (cant find the video right now)?

    I’ve been to Shirdi, where the original sai baba’s shrine is. Not sure if he did cheap tricks or abuse boys, but he was a uniting force between Hindus and Muslims.

    While, we’re on the subject of conmen/godmen/supermen, here’s a nice BBC video with a twist at the end http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2Kz8FzruvQ

  11. I am not a follower or fan of SSB, and frankly have mixed feelings about his legacy, but have the following thoughts:

    1. He did seemingly use magic tricks to attract followers, specially the less educated variety, but what was his message to them, and what is it that they gained out of their association form him? From what I see, most of those who follow him are not exclusivist, do not seek to convert aggressively, and despite having some very curious notions, are a relatively well adjusted bunch. He himself was quite secular. So I feel inadequate to judge their faith.

    2.He did attract a lot of money through his organisation, but he undertook some serious philanthropic work, involving education, healthcare and infrastructure, link, link In this respect alone, he is a much bigger person than most of our politicians and captains of industry.

    1. Allegation of sexual abuse- Well it is plausible but unproven. It does disquiet the mind, and hence the mixed feelings about him, but then with a man of his profile, there are several vested interests working in many different directions…

    About your prediction, Razib, Indian society has a very long tradition of spiritual eclecticism, and one could always find gurus and holy men catering to any spiritual inclination, from high Vedic scholarship to Bhakti to Tantricism. What is interesting now is the reach of the mass media, to see how that will shape things. I did feel uncomfortable, however, about my aunt spending a serious amount of money to attend a meditation seminar, though she reasoned that the facilities were excellent, it would have cost her as much if not more to attend a similar workshop in any western country, and she felt good at the end of it. So I couldn’t really say much more…

  12. “He deserves much scorn for his sometimes conniving ways, but he also left a considerable legacy of charitable works – schools, colleges, orphanages, and hospitals for the poor, and water projects to provide vital drinking water to rural and drought-stricken areas.”

    What are his conniving ways that deserve scorn?

    There hasn’t been a Historical personality in India or the world as outstanding, as inexplicable, as completely devoted to the service of mankind as Sathya Sai Baba. I predict that he will be forever remembered as the very greatest spiritual guide India, which leads the world in this field, has produced.

  13. “He did seemingly use magic tricks to attract followers, specially the less educated variety”

    Actually among his millions of devotees are many of the most educated and intelligent of Indians including top scientists of India such as President Abul Kalam, a Muslim. Do you really think he could fool so many intelligent, rational, successful people with “magic tricks” for such a long time?

    He has been showing what his detractors demean as cheap magic tricks and what his devotees see as his miraculous powers on practically a daily basis since he was a kid. What magician materializes gold and jewelry by the thousands and then gives it away? What magician can tell you things about yourself that no one but you knew? What magician can attract to himself people from all walks of life, from all religions, from all nations and races?

  14. “Allegation of sexual abuse- Well it is plausible but unproven. It does disquiet the mind, and hence the mixed feelings about him, but then with a man of his profile, there are several vested interests working in many different directions…”

    These unproven allegations of sexual abuse are mostly coming from a small number of disgruntled western devotees, and is repeated parrot like by people who do not bother thinking for themselves.

    These supposed sexual abuses are claimed to have taken place behind a curtain in a very small interview room with a number of people sitting right next to it. Yeah right. And these ex-devotees making these accusations also make claims of Sai Baba’s miraculous powers. For example one of these western accusers claimed that SB changed his sex organs from male to female in the process of abusing him! So it is amusing to see how skeptics, inordinately proud of their rationalism, who reject Sai Baba’s supernatural powers on that basis, are so eager to believe such accusers. :)

  15. “I think Hinduism is “different.” Once people are educated, they tend to see this god-man stuff as stupid, and get really into the texts, philosophy and history.”

    I don’t think you know much at all about Hinduism or Indian spirituality if you think that the concept of god-man contradicts it’s texts or philosophies.

    God is our true innate identity, not the body nor the mind which are mere instruments. We think we are nothing more than our body and mind; this is called delusion or ignorance by the spiritual seers who have dived deeper within themselves and experienced the divine identity. As Sai Baba has been saying all along, the difference between us and him is that he knows he is God while we still have to achieve the realization that so are we. All his teachings are about helping the ignorant realize the truth that they too are the universal super-conscious true and eternal reality, not the body-mind complex which is nothing but a temporary material instrument or machine.

  16. I didn’t say that godmen contradict the texts or philosophy.

    I made an observation about what aspects of Hinduism the better-educated tend to get into.

    A follower of Sai Baba is a long way from someone who studyies the Vedic texts and ridicules modern-day godmen. But both approaches are comfortably within the borders of Sanatana Dharma.

  17. “A follower of Sai Baba is a long way from someone who studyies the Vedic texts and ridicules modern-day godmen.”

    Which Vedic texts are you talking about? The ones about performing animal and even human sacrifices to the Vedic gods?

    Or are you talking about the Upanishads, which were appended to the Vedas and which constitute the foundation of Vedanta philosophy? What do the Upanishads teach that contradict or ridicule the concept of Self-Realized godmen???

  18. What do the Upanishads teach that contradict or ridicule the concept of Self-Realized godmen???

    Please don’t put words in my mouth. I didn’t say that they do. But Hinduism does not rule out rationality, and a lot of more educated, rational Hindus like the Vedic texts but use their rationality to see most modern godmen as charlatans exploiting the lower IQ-range of the spectrum. Yes, I know the godmen have out front and center a few educated people–I’m talking about the bulk of their followers.

  19. Sai Baba will be viewed as a trailblazing religious entrepreneur I don’t know what you mean by that. What trails did he blaze ?

  20. I don’t know what you mean by that. What trails did he blaze ?

    he was a media celebrity who accrued an enormous amount of money.

  21. “Yes, I know the godmen have out front and center a few educated people–I’m talking about the bulk of their followers.”

    You claimed that the followers of Sai Baba are a “long way” from the rational educated hindus who ridicule godmen. On what basis do you make that claim? Sai Baba is by far the most significant spiritual guru in India whose following includes large numbers of the best educated hindus including scientists and scholars. Just look at the outpouring of love and respect for him that is coming from all quarters, including from other gurus and even some atheists. It is pretty obvious that he is recognized as genuine rather than fake.

    Tell us what “you” consider to be “rational” in the Vedic texts that educated people find immune to ridicule.

  22. I live in Bangalore, every morning I pass a hospital built by Sai Baba where I see huge queue of poor people OTOH near to my place there are a row of villas built by Sai baba so I guess his legacy is mixed :-) .

  23. “he was a media celebrity who accrued an enormous amount of money.”

    You make it sound as if the money donated to his charitable foundation was his personal wealth or something.

    Sai Baba’s entire life was dedicated to the service of humanity. Unlike so many other Indian gurus he never travelled to the rich and glamorous West. He ate simple vegan food in moderation, slept in Spartan rooms above his temple. Never married. If he serves as a role model that can only be a good thing.