The Sathya Sai Organization senior office-bearer status

The senior office-bearer's ‘role model’ under cross-pressures 

The requirements of being a Central or National Coordinator (hereafter ‘NC’) are partly decipherable from various sources, discourses of Sai Baba, the Charter, from statements and remarks made in official papers circulated within the Sathya Sai Organisation and in diverse conversations. A role is defined as ‘a collection of expectations’… coming from various quarters as to how they should act and behave (sociological ‘norms’).

CCs and NCs meet expectations from below and above in the chain of command. Since any number of these expectations can and do differ, the CC role-bearer comes under pressure or ‘role conflicts’. From ‘below’, the ‘rank and file’ volunteer members and subordinate office-bearers legitimately expect that CCs will behave in accordance with Sai Baba’s teachings, especially the five human values, the ‘ceiling on desires’ programme and many other declarations that Sai Baba has repeated from time to time. These teachings are expressed in voluminous discourses available to all. From ‘above’ come the circular letters of the International (now ‘Overseas’) Chairman, which predominately direct CCs to carry out SSO rules, regulations and requirements (all assumed by him as being in agreement with Sai teachings). In addition, more or less clear ad hoc advice or directions come from Sai Baba, given mainly at interviews, whether in groups or more privately.

 SB’s teachings, however, cover a lot of ground, and are often imprecise and thus are open to conflicting interpretations on many points (even recommending one action, then also its opposite) that expectations from members can be at odds, both with one another and with those from the leadership. Few members are well acquainted with the full scope of the teachings and many have one-sided interpretations on all kinds of issues. Those that are more clear and definitive are often difficult to know how to apply. The expectations of Sai Baba to his office-bearers are regarded as from ‘on high’ and are taken as overriding other considerations, (i.e. if they are witnessed by several and are agreed on as clear).

Defining qualities required of high office-bearers (NCs and CCs):

On the basis of documents, personal observation, testimony from other devotees and conversations with both several present and previous NCs and CCs, the following are actual requirements to hold those offices: 

1. Unquestioning obedience to all specific directions given by Sai Baba and the Overseas Chairman.

2. Never saying anything other than what accords 100% with ‘received wisdom’ from Sai Baba and the various official pronouncements of the Overseas Chairman, the Sathya Sai Central Trust, or the ashram authorities at Prashanthi Nilayam.

3. Willingness and ability to keep secret all sensitive facts about the ashrams and Sai Baba and never to voice any questions or doubts about the words, acts or works of Sai Baba.

4. The ability to sit for very long periods in wait on the veranda, at all functions, discourses and festivals and to travel frequently to India and elsewhere to hold talks, attend conferences etc.

5. The readiness to ignore, suppress and eventually exclude from office (or even from SSO membership) anyone who thinks or acts independently in raising serious questions about decisions made by its various nominated high office-bearers or about the reliability of information from the central organisation.

The above qualities are common to the great majority of officials in the SSO, just as is observable in other institutions and ashrams run by Sai Baba in India. Those who have experienced matters which their conscience will not allow them to suppress or ignore have either resigned or been removed from office.

In actual practice, the chain of command ensures that CCs and NCs remain answerable only to the Overseas Chairman and/or Sai Baba himself. Therefore, they may choose to hear or to ignore what they will from ‘subordinate members’. Fortunately, there are a few honourable exceptions to this.

"It is true that in a big bag of rice a few grains of sand may get in. Any human Organisation is bound to have a few black sheep. But, that will not affect the Organisation, as long as it is true to its principles."  (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 14, p. 359) It is also true that Sai Baba – in his omniscient wisdom - himself selected a number of CCS who later resigned due to the nature of the SSO, or have been dismissed – in practice by the Overseas Chairman – because their conscience virtually forced them to question certain aspects of the SSO, its running or other vital questions concerning the truth.

Qualities like unity of word and deed, compassion towards all others, and civility frequently appear to be of secondary importance in the actual behaviour of CCs and NCs whenever directives are questioned or critical views are pressed. There is documented evidence of this,as well as sufficient testimony received from various members and dissenters. See criticisms of the leadership.

 Conflicts between teaching and behaviour

The International Sathya Sai Organization is based on the teachings of Sai Baba, and I use the plural ‘teachings’ advisedly. There are inconsistencies and self-contradictions in the teachings, and – more disturbingly – conflicts between some part of the teaching and the observable and/or known actions of the teacher. It would lead too far away from the present purpose to demonstrate this here, but that it is so will be demonstrated independently of this paper later on.

Conflicts arise for leaders who defend, or are expected to ‘explain’, the above-mentioned discrepancies of teaching and practice. The eleven headings in the above specifying areas of problematical discrepancies indicate both manifest and some unintended or ‘latent’ functions of various teachings and policies in the SSO. The manifest aims, being the same in both versions of the Charter, are fairly constant, while latent functions can vary over time and from culture to culture. It is often in the field of uncertainty between these two sets of functions that the more difficult role conflicts arise for the various office-bearers. Now, it is established that a converted and determined long-term top leadership allows of no criticism whatever of Sai Baba, and very seldom listens to criticism – however constructive - of SSO decisions made over the heads of the rank and file. Therefore, other means than investigating the root of the criticisms are sought, for the alternative could lead to a loss of faith in the SSO and/or Sai Baba, with the many very difficult consequences and life changes this would involve.

In general, the tensions and mental conflicts outlined seem to be the main reason that many office-bearers quietly resign or leave their office as soon as the term expires. There are already hundreds who have held office for some time but who have sooner or later faded away from the Sai movement – ignored, unregistered, and forgotten. Sai Baba has even mentioned how it is that many fall away and leave him after about 12 years! They are clearly often good persons, dislike argument or disturbing the feelings of others, seldom having sufficient requisite information or other means of making constructive or other criticisms for the public good.

Sathya Sai now and again makes public his dissatisfaction with various groups within his sphere, the Seva Dal are fairly regularly harangued in very explicit and strong terms for hours in private lectures by Sai Baba. The SSO has often been criticised very heavily in his addresses to them at World Conferences, and in the occasional public discourse in between. He says that he does this only after he has already taken up the matter again and again with those involved in no uncertain terms, but without effecting visible improvements. See 'puppets of Indulal Shah'. It cannot be denied that, in public discourses, Sai Baba repeatedly takes the praise for good works, relishing his own benevolence in discourses, while others have to bear the blame for anything that is not to his liking. One part of his teaching has always been that everything God (as himself) does is good, all that is ‘bad’ is wholly of human design. (Another part even denies that there is any good or bad whatever). Since a full believer and follower recognised Sai Baba as the one and only God Almighty himself, one would think that his occasional apparent angry outbursts should cow his followers, if not serve very nicely to keep them in line.

The facts about the Sathya Sai Organization described in the foregoing should optimally be dealt with and solved internally. This does not happen due to constant refusals to hear criticism, however constructive and well-meant, stop this from happening, even when a CC sometimes forwards such views, as a few like Lucas Ralli (UK), Pietro Marena (Italy) and Bernhard Gruber (Germany) have done. Experience has shown a very marked imperviousness to self-correction of the SSO centrally, whether the impetus came from members, higher office-bearers, or even sometimes from Sai Baba. For many members have told that this raises the pressing question, ‘why does Sai Baba himself allow the same leaders to perpetrate the same kind of errors over and over, why does he not replace them?’

One hypothesis that seems likely - on the basis of as much as can be observed or known through reliable testimony - is that by keeping office-bearers in a constant condition of role conflict, they feel insecure in their own decisions and minds and are more easily controlled whenever reason and common sense might pressure them into beginning to deviate from instructions. Sai Baba once said to Arnold Schulman “Love my uncertainty.” This is supposed to be some great spiritual maxim and has become an oft-repeated saying among followers whenever Baba’s words contradict themselves or his actions clash with expectations set by his own teachings or other instructions.

Secondly, when extremely difficult situations arise in the ashram or the media – as has occurred with increasing seriousness since the early 1990s, the main quality required of his office-bearers above all other qualities is total unquestioning obedience to him and his self-proclaimed nature… thus allowing the blanketing of otherwise very damaging facts. The Overseas Chairman or other trusted top officials remain silent where possible or else issue curt denials and instruct devotees to question nothing and virtually to ‘mind their own business’ (i.e. which means their own self inquiry etc.). This occurs also when the SSO or the ashram rid themselves of well-known leaders or long-standing devotees for stating facts and opinions that could injure their image… or that of Sai Baba. It is commonly known that one or another respected persons have now and again been removed on such grounds (or have prempted their dismissal by leaving) In fairly recent years these included Dr. Bhagavantam, Ron Laing, Antonio Craxxi, Lucas Ralli, Alvin Drucker, Dr. Bhatia, David Bailey, Aimé Levy, Terry Gallagher, Stephen Carthew, and Serguei Badaev. This has caused considerable unease and fall-off among devotees.

The activity that a leader should carry out, according to Baba’s much-repeated doctrine, is active service of the needy and suffering, always going ahead as an example to others. International CCs are very seldom seen in such activities, though some (but not all) have engaged in them previously and some partake a little in a nominal way. They count as their ‘service’ the hours they spend in management of the SSO. With few exceptions, they seem never to tend any needy or suffering persons, even when these are among their so-called ‘brother and sister’ members.

Conflicting expectations internalized as ‘role conflict’:  

As shown, conflicts between the Sathya Sai Organization's values (teaching) and its practice are usually only mentioned very obliquely, if at all. This applies all the more to conflicts arising between Sai Baba’s teaching and the practices of the SSO leadership. From all this, various sets of people’s expectations (i.e. ‘norms that define the social role for each position in the SSO) come into opposition and pressures arise on the individuals occupying office. When such role conflicts arise, there is always an urge to reducing or deal with them somehow, when the social system itself cannot solve them or itself be modified to that purpose.

Inconsistent or non-spiritual behaviour by office-bearers may perhaps always be partly explained by their personalities, yet the role they occupy may be under such pressure (role conflicts) that the SSO social system itself is the most important conditioner of their behavioural choices. The formal and informal ‘cultures’ within the SSO, represent recurrent tensions and dilemmas. Here, the formal culture is obviously stronger with progressively higher office-bearers and the informal is stronger with the ‘rank and file’ membership. Clashes between the two cultures and the dilemmas so created are often expressed as ‘system-conditioned role conflicts.’ Those who fill a social role are not necessarily aware of the conflicts underlying their own behaviour – or of their origins, for they often develop ways of dealing with them, not least with the aid of pseudo rationalisation.

So as to mitigate role conflicts rooted in the system - the Sathya Sai Organisation culture and rules –patterns of avoidance of non-formal duties or so-called ‘displacement’ activities can develop. In the SSO, observed behaviour of certain higher office bearers suggests the following ways of dealing with role conflict:

1) by developing the teachings’ prescribed ‘dual-accounting’ mentality, whereby all ills are attributed to people, all good things to Sai Baba. This is one instance of what I have described elsewhere as 'spiritual doublethink'. This arises when a conflict between facts we perceive and ideas we hold arises… an alleged reality that is not perceived and which often seem to contradict worldly conditions and possibilities is invoked to ‘explain away’ the brute facts.

2) by neutralising members and others who promote disturbing views and active opinions through group manipulation, changing office-bearers and excluding office-bearers, members or visitors when seen fit.

3) by avoidance of most face-to-face encounters with non-conformist devotees and critical non-members through appearing only in official capacity where one has control of a captive audience, such as public lecturing, teaching, or preaching to converted, captive audiences (i.e. most SSO members without seniority in the movement). Avoidance where possible of investigative media interviews;

4) by passivity in the role: such as low or passive participation at meetings; not dealing with matters, nor answering mail from subordinates; becoming unavailable when challenges arise; travels to visit Sai centres etc. not least in other countries where verbal confrontations are unlikely with guests; long or frequent visits to Sai ashrams for extended veranda-sitting among like-minded.

On the basis of the above, the hypothesis that presents itself is that the present CCs are persons whom Baba has elevated precisely because they are totally under his spell, do not dare go against anything he says or claims and will back up whatever he says fully, without reservation. He keeps them exactly where he wants them – with the repeated push and pull of interviews galore, then ignoring them.

The psychological profile of an office-bearer or other executive nominated by Sai Baba appears to include:-

1) a deeply-experienced need for spiritual and moral support from Sai Baba himself, most often combined with a desire that he take over guidance of one’s own thinking, decision-making, personal life-choices and future fate – especially as regards the promise held out by Sai Baba (like almost all spiritual gurus of India to their devotees) of ‘liberation from further rebirths’ or ‘the wheel of life’.

2) an appreciable fear of the wrath of Sai Baba and the consequences of any kind of perceived ‘break of faith’ with him, and also not least for loss of their own attained status within the movement. This would be viewed by most people as enacting not merely a respectful, but also a servile and even physically-grovelling attitude, towards him, even though the teaching is replete with rationalisations as to why such behaviour is beneficial to the devotee towards The Lord God Incarnate. This frequently-expressed ‘immense awe and respect’ in higher office-bearers is often (but with some noteworthy exceptions) combined with authoritarian behaviour towards subordinates when questioned in any way… the general profile of the old-fashioned kind of ‘organisation man’.

3) a fairly high ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ and rationalising ability or a ‘double-accounting mentality (whereby one presents different accounts according to the person and situation). Ambiguity tolerance and a Janus face – not unnoticeable in top leaders in the Sai movement - can be traced back to Sai Baba’s directions, on the one hand to, “always speak obligingly, even if you cannot oblige” (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 14, p.110) and on the other to “speak sincerely, as you think and act”. (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 10, p.76). This unavoidably also reminds of the silk glove that may conceal an iron hand.

4) a tendency to lack normal self-critical sense, while having a corresponding flaw in authentic personal understanding of others, as would be shown in genuinely listening to them, acting supportively with concern etc. Most Sathya Sai Organization and other Sai Baba officials strongly tend to preach back at any comments they find unacceptable, (especially those handling visitors at the ashrams, as a very considerable number of devotees’ written and other accounts bear witness). With a few notable exceptions, the social skills CCs exhibit seem largely of an official nature, some public speaking abilities, indirect manipulation of people and self-ingratiation, capacity to divide and rule, and a sense for self-profiling. This kind of behaviour seems to go largely with the territory, and I suggest that it is one persona type of officialdom, usually developed through working in business or large public organisations to deal with tensions generated by from the conflicts within and between their various roles.

Conclusions

The monolithic-hierarchical structure with its top-down chain of command makes all discussions at meetings and conferences very largely futile and time-wasting from the volunteer workers’ point of view. The model will have to change very basically if it is to become acceptable to free citizens in the modern world, not just to India or other patriarchal and class-ridden cultures. It is little wonder that well-qualified persons with experience of democratic values in management (most usually being Westerners) often leave after some time. Due to the control of communications and the lack of historical documentation etc., it may take many years, however, before members (such as the present writer) are able to find out how the organisation actually functions, if then.

The organisation, with its formal and informal cultures, legitimises many activities which do not fit at all easily with much of the content of the constant flow of discourses from its namesake, Sai Baba. The anomalies are rationalized by a well-developed culture of ‘spiritual doublethink’, itself underpinned by ambiguities, vagueness and conflicting directions throughout Sai Baba’s teachings. Due to opposing statements, sweeping generality and frequent ambiguity in the teachings, and the obscure nature of Sai Baba’s role in directing his organisation, the real purposes it serves have largely to be deduced from what is observable.

There are four unproclaimed functions that naturally spring to mind as working hypotheses, partly in view of the foregoing study and partly due to matters considered only peripherally in this study:

1) Providing a social community for believers in Sai Baba to communicate and share in through meetings and activities. This is not a stated purpose of the organisation, and regular efforts are consequently made in some regions to reduce its function as a social contact or support network for those who rely on it for this. Leaving meetings without talking afterwards, regulations against the serving of food or refreshments are examples. This informal function is, however, widely accepted in practice in many countries.

2) Channeling of funds to Sai Baba Trusts. The collection of monetary donations is against the regulations of the SSO and is seldom openly allowed except among members. Neither entrance money nor membership fees of any kind are allowed. However, the Sathya Sai Organization provides a very broad network which functions as a channel for money and property from those who wish to donate, so providing a very wide catchment area among followers worldwide. Without the SSO the channel would certainly not have been opened so wide. Many members leave very considerable legacies behind them. However, the directives and activities of the Overseas Chairman and CCs increasingly belie the ideal of not soliciting funds (as documented in earmarking persons as potential large donors to be approached privately by CCs). The call for donations to Sai Babas hospitals, the water project and ashram buildings has become common in internal directives, and even in some public journals, all mostly to increase the exclusively one-way flow of enormous sums of money to India, via the Sathya Sai Central Trust and its subsidiaries. This accumulated wealth (several billions of dollars minimum) are increasingly used to build imposing structures and institutions in honour of Sai Baba personally, while large amounts are still also used as claimed by Sai Baba… to benefit (mainly Hindu) worshippers through facilities at the Prashanthi Nilayam ashram, schools, colleges and hospitals.

3) Manipulation of information sources - and so the opinions of devotees’ and the public - when untoward events have occurred at the Sai Baba ashrams… such as suicides, rapes, murders, bomb scares,

embezzlement, ‘invasions’ by fanatic sects, plus other negative events. Maximum censorship is exercised as to all things that seriously tarnish the image of this proclaimed ‘Abode of Supreme Peace’, or could reduce the influx of visitors or of support of all kinds that maintain and bolster the very considerable financial and political power base of the Sathya Sai movement in India and elsewhere. The SSO’s aims help to offset the major involvements of the Sai Baba movement in top governmental concerns and many other political and power-broking affairs in India and in the diaspora. See also playing for powerful supporters. Critical persons who obtain sensitive information and voice it are removed. This functions as a cover-up that the SSO performs.

4) development of an international network of centres, temples, schools, colleges and trusts advances the aims of Sai Baba to ‘transform the world’. This occurs independently of – but parallel to - Sai Babas considerable contacts with national leaders, ministers, opposition politicians, the judiciary, the military establishment, any well-known and rich people and so forth in India which represents a de facto major power base. This influence is being extended to an increasing number of nations, not least via the SSO. Through the institutionalisation of the SSO as a spiritual organisation with charitable trusts in as many countries as possible, it functions on a line with other religious organisations, having a charismatic structure and a church-like culture with leaders who can speak and act in various (but limited) ways as middlemen between devotees and the Godhead in ways not unlike those of priests/bishops etc., such as by conveying and interpreting Sai Babas utterances and wishes. The function of ‘spiritual guidance’ as part of leaders’ duties is not stated in the Charter, though their work is privately viewed as intermediary spiritual leadership and teaching by most of them and by many Sai Baba followers. Further, it is officially denied that the SSO in any way constitutes a specific sect, cult or religion.

To sum up: The pure ideals for spiritual service and education as proclaimed by Sai Baba have drawn large numbers of very well-intentioned and self-sacrificing persons to the SSO. That these persons continue their good work is highly to be desired by anyone who has observed it to any extent. That there have been positive achievements as a result of the coordinating activitiees of some leaders is not in question. It is equally clear, unfortunately, that serious questions as to whether the SSO as an organisational structure mainly helps or hinders genuine service to society – due to its monolithic nature, its semi-secret management practices, and involvements in unnecessary projects.

The most basic dilemma at the root of the International Sathya Sai Organisation arises from its aim in practice to promulgate the teaching of Sai Baba about the universality of human values and the essential unity in the diversity of all religions and people. An organisation, the first requirement of which is full faith in the divinity of Sai Baba, necessarily institutes a distinction between members/sympathisers and all others… and inevitably develops an ‘us and them’ mentality. This has been seen to operate divisively in various respects within the organisation and between it and peripheral persons or society at large. By building an organisation around such a teaching, Sai Baba enters the field as a de facto competitor to all other gurus, sects and religions.

When I was still optimistic about the Sathya Sai Organization as an instrument of social change, it did not appear as a cult. It was simpler and smaller and it has changed through the years. Since then, I have come to see much of my positive thinking and constructive efforts have been based on an unrealistic, limited knowledge of many matters involved so that, despite its having various socially positive features, the SSO has a significant number of features typical of exclusive, authoritarian cults. This has become much moremarkedly evident since the Organisation made major efforts to close ranks as from 2000, when the exposé evidence of Sathya Sai Baba's alleged criminal involvements began to build up and he condemned his critics in a Christmas Discourse in extreme and untrue terms.

The author was an active founding member of the SSO in Norway in 1983, functioning formally as leader/coordinator of the Oslo group (and later Centre) from 1986 to 1996 and as the acting overall  leader/contact person of the Sathya Sao Organization in Norway from 1983 until 2000. (See Biography of R. C. Priddy and Wikipedia Robert Priddy)

Disclaimer: The above work is done as service to truth and the good (improvement of understanding of others) and is in no way done for money (on the contrary) or any ‘vested interest’, nor on behalf of any ‘conspiracy’, as the International (or Overseas) Chairman has claimed a priori of those who have been critical of certain of Sai Baba’s activities, but without any evidence. Nothing imputed to him here is personally meant, for it is his public role-behaviour that is here brought under scrutiny (I have never even met, spoken with or corresponded with I. Shah). That he is prominent in this paper is unavoidable and comes as a consequence of his prominent role as responsible head of the SSO. There is nothing I should like better than that many of the aims for the development of personal virtue and the good of society that Sai Baba preaches should be realized.  However, that this might be achieved by a non-democratic movement with sectarian and  totalitarian tendencies, closed to public auditing, and unaccountable to anyone but the person of Sai Baba is, in the light of all historical precedents and other known and tried social wisdom, inconceivable. This also explains why I, soon after becoming involved as an office-bearer, lost all interest in seeking higher office or taking up possibilities of international lecturing trips etc. in the Sathya Sai Organisation.