REQUIEM FOR A
The Goenka Prizewinner and celebrated Indian journalist, V.K. Narasimhan
V.K. Narasimhan during his wedding days and as a mature editor in his later years VKN, Sai Baba and VKN's wife
V.K. Narasimhan (VKN) was a
remarkable man in a number of ways. As I view him, he combined the best
qualities of an Indian Brahmin with those of a world-travelled journalist of
intelligence and not least enlightened social awareness. Many people have
remarked on his erudition and wide knowledge both of British and Indian
culture. At the age of 87, VKN passed away on March 9th,
a lengthy period of suffering in hospital with water on the lungs. (An excellently
penned cameo of VKN as many encountered him at Sathya Sai Baba's ashrams and
will recognise is given - under the protective pseudonym 'Mr. S' - by the
English author Mick Brown in his all-round journalistic book A Spiritual
Tourist, Bloomsbury Publishing plc., London 1998).
An economy graduate, VKN
became a Marxist in the years after the disillusioning 1929 Depression. He was
also an active Gandhian, taking up the spinning wheel
in 1931 for a while, and soon became a non-violent 'agitator'. He had become a
journalist on The Hindu in 1932, going on to be chief editor of the Indian
Express group and then the Hindustan Times until ca. 1977. He later became the translator of Sathya Sai Baba's discourses and editor of his
journal Sanathana Sarathi, inheriting the task that Professor Kasturi had fulfilled for so
many years before him. VKN had travelled widely, he
had toured countries behind the Iron Curtain by special invitation during the
Cold War, had been present at the capitulation of
VKN vs. Indira Gandhi: VKN was very well-informed about Mrs. Indira Gandhi, not least because of his own dramatic role in the so-called '1975 Emergency' drama when he was Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express newspaper group. After his retirement in 1977, the highest Indian journalistic award - the FIE Foundation's 'Goenka prize' - was awarded him for his outstanding journalism in standing up at considerable personal risk against Indira Gandhi's rigid censorship of news media during the Emergency. He played an important role in informing the world press about the draconian night arrest and confinement of thousands of leading persons of the opposition, defying the Gandhis (and their criminal henchmen Bansi Lal, Om Mehta, and V.C. Shuklas) autocracy and gangsterism for weeks. One letter sent to VKN at the Indian Express by R.V. Ramanamy, who had been imprisoned during the Emergency: "Congratulations! We have won. Let the choicest of blessings of God be showered upon you, he lion, and your brave staff." While retaining a house in Madras, he had donated his other property to Sathya Sai Baba, and Sathya Sai Baba then allotted him a small flat in each of the Brindavan and Prashanthi ashrams so that he could do his editing work in both places. He went to live at Sathya Sai Baba's ashrams in 1980, and he resided there until his last days, receiving a great deal of attention from Sathya Sai Baba, especially so in the last few years of his life. He was extremely well informed about all manner of events at the ashrams. Like Sathya Sai Baba, Telugu was his mother tongue and he knew Sanskrit, but unlike Sathya Sai Baba his English was perfect and his knowledge of it extensive.
Sathya Sai Baba personally told him that he had privately invited Mrs. Gandhi to an interview just after the Emergency, in which she asked him 'What shall I do?'. Sathya Sai Baba said that he had told her that the only possibility was to hold elections. That became the election no one believed she would hold, for all indicated that she was sure to lose it, which she did most thoroughly. No one could understand why she had chosen that course. She was, however, elected PM again later. VKN also recounted to me what Sathya Sai Baba had commented to him on the visit of the PM's crooked son and 'crown prince', Sanjay Gandhi. Sathya Sai Baba had warned about his wrongdoing and Sanjay had promised to change, but after the interview Sathya Sai Baba had answered to someone on the veranda who commented that it was a positive thing, that Sanjay's promises would soon be forgotten when he got back among his cronies. This he did too, and was later presumably assassinated in the plane crash that killed him, probably by some of the many enemies he had created through his own use of corruption and violence.
During a visit to Northern India in the 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went to see Sathya Sai Baba, according to one account I was given... of which VKN knew nothing and which I have been unable to get confirmed independently. It was said that she came with her own marching guard of honour bearing weapons, but Sathya Sai Baba ignored her then and she had withdrawn. Members of her family had been received by Sathya Sai Baba during one of his infrequent visits to Delhi. Allegedly, Mrs. Gandhi had to withdraw on that occasion.
Editor of Sanathana Sarathi: In VKN's editorial work on Sanathana Sarathi, and his talks beside Sathya Sai Baba in the temple and at student gatherings, he was doubtless under the usual great (if implicit) expectation always to be positive and never to mention any negative things, as is everyone else must do in Sathya Sai Baba's presence or in public. This is evident from many of the rather exaggeratedly positive descriptions he through the years wrote of various festivals at the ashrams. His extreme caution in saying things that he knew or assumed might displease Sathya Sai Baba (at least in public!) is illustrated by the following incident. Once, he asked me to talk after him at one of his lectures, just after the three Americans had been killed in the Museum accident in November, 1990, because I had known one of the victims well, Michael Oliver. VKN had already held forth about death and loss - but people were evidently very confused as to what he was referring, as he never mentioned the accident. When he asked me to speak, I naturally asked if people knew that the accident had occurred the day before. Many people said "No, no." So I explained the matter. After this, VKN said "Well, I suppose it didn't matter that you told them, but Swami does not like anything of that sort to be talked about", to explain his own reticence. At the same time, he would speak freely to me in private of what he was unable to publish.
On one occasion, while
commenting on the wrong translations that frequently arose during direct
interpretation of discourses, VKN demonstrated for me how he worked at
translating and editing Sathya Sai Baba's discourses. He played back from his cassette
recorder a lengthy chunk of Sathya Sai Baba singing in Sanskrit, whereupon he gave its
translation in one long paragraph without hesitation. This he did repeatedly,
memorising up to a whole paragraph at a time, repeating it in Sanskrit or
Telugu and then translating it verbatim into English. Most
This sharp-mindedness lent extra weight to VKN's accounts of some of the extraordinary events and manifestation miracles he witnessed in the presence of Sathya Sai Baba and as to certain information he recounted to me as having been told personally by Sathya Sai Baba. VKN's way of thinking and speaking contrasted strongly with that of the majority of Sathya Sai Baba's chosen spokespersons and office-bearers and their 'politically correct' contortions when reality threatened to disturb certain exaggerated beliefs to which they cling. VKN was very well read in Indian scripture and lectured long and with great authority on Indian mythology and spirituality, which appealed to him very greatly.
On one of my visits, I asked VKN what had occurred when Sathya Sai Baba announced - sometime around mid-1996 - that he would hold one discourse every day for an entire year... and why the discourses had stopped. He replied that he had been sure that Sathya Sai Baba would not be able to keep it up and would run dry, which proved correct. The daily discourses lasted for only about 3 months and Sathya Sai Baba scarcely said anything that he had not often said before time and again. One may well ask why VKN sometimes spoke in such glowing terms about Sathya Sai Baba in his public talks before Sathya Sai Baba, while being more reserved in his lectures for devotees and very much more so in private, to me at least. He had been known for considerable verbal care and preference for reserving judgement, and ashramites and many visitors also noted this.1 Even then, I do not recall VKN telling the public that Sathya Sai Baba was wont regularly to make simple mistakes of fact and to confuse incidents in his discourses, which VKN had to eliminate or correct. However, anyone who knows the prevailing atmosphere of reverence and sometimes sanctimonious Besserwissen among many residents and visitors will excuse VKN from provoking them. He always favoured the idea that one should be free to believe what one wishes (and take the consequences), that faith anyhow is a fragile and positive quality.
VKN on Sai Baba healing miracles: Besides, the number of comparable cases not healed are never known or traced, but they surely exceed those apparently healed by a large factor. Narasimhan was aware of such questions, and we would discuss them. He did not deny that some person might have been healed by Sathya Sai Baba, but knew that there were cases of claims that were not substantiated by the facts. These often included people in wheel-chairs, whom Baba made walk with him in public before or after an interview. (Joy Thomas in her writings even described this being done to her). Their wheel-chairs were taken away, and - when they quickly relapsed and no longer could manage, it was not always an easy matter to get them back from the ashram staff!
On another occasion, however, I observed in May 1994 how Sathya Sai Baba more or less revived VKN's flagging spirits and energy. VKN was getting rather poorly and was leaning on his stick and on me after returning from Madras where he had attended the funeral of his daughter-in-law and tried to console his son. Sathya Sai Baba tapped him four or five times on the head during darshan at Brindavan. Later that day he seemed to be energised, needed little or no support, and stopped taking his stick along without realising it, until I mentioned it to him. This may have been largely psychological, of course, for there was no doubt that VKN liked and hoped for Sathya Sai Baba's frequent attention, which he had not then received for a month or more during his absence.
VKN trying hard to believe: 1998, after returning
from Prashanthi Nilayam, I wrote to various friends, "Narasimhan is still
very active in mind, if less so in body. "The
spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak", he says. He was seen to speak
with Sathya Sai Baba virtually every day, often at length. In October of 1998 he had his
"first interview for 3 whole months!", he
told me. He reaffirmed to me that Sathya Sai Baba said definitively and directly to him
that there had been no actual assassination attempt on himself in the 1993 incident in which his two servitors were murdered. When he had
complained about his eye problems in reading manuscripts etc., Sathya Sai Baba told him
that he should cease to concentrate on the word of God and concentrate instead
on God Himself. But he later edited a new, expanded and improved version of his
book 'Bapu to Sathya Sai Baba' and was writing on a book about
the significance of the avatar which, unfortunately, he never completed. He
even wanted me to contribute half of the book and in 1998 got Mr. Padmanabhan
of Sai Towers to phone to me in
VKN made no self-enhancement whatever out of his close association with Sathya Sai Baba, his sense of self-irony was firmly in place... such as when he told me after his interview that Sai had told him to start singing the songs of Tyagaraja (many of which he knew by heart). He told me he replied, "Sathya Sai Baba, do you want me with my crow's voice to mutilate the works of that great poet?" Then he sang for us what he had sung for Sathya Sai Baba and his voice was surprisingly sweet and in tune. Also, one day on the veranda he had said to Sathya Sai Baba, "Sathya Sai Baba, I am so worried about the state of the world... it is going from bad to worse." VKN said that Sathya Sai Baba replied in effect, "You fool, you. You didn't create it, so why should you be worried about it? There is someone in charge." When last we spoke, in late 1998, it seemed to me that VKN had come closer to believing that Sathya Sai Baba might just be that someone. I was still a believer in this kind of thing, though seriously challenged by doubts and despite all I had heard by then. It is ironic that I helped him to handle quite a few of his doubts whirl I have now been forced by events and indubitable evidence to become far more sceptical about most (though still not as to most of the 'phenomena'!) of Sathya Sai Baba's claims than VKN was. Bearing all this in mind, it is not so surprising that so many people who have not had the benefit of such an open and accurate inside contact, are still being thoroughly duped by Sathya Sai Baba about his real nature and factual activities.
I learned from Narasimhan – often wishing I had not – much about the hidden strife, intense envies and irregular or unlawful incidents in the Sai Baba ashrams. I also came to know very well the head of the Vidyagiri administration, the long-term residents Mr. Kanheia Jee and his wife Mrs. Kaveri (a leader in the PN temple Seva Dal). They confirmed all such accounts and worked on the axiom, 'No one is perfect' (and this included their Swami!). The many untoward incidents that came to my knowledge increased visit by visit. From the nature of our mutual understanding on many things, V.K. Narasimhan soon felt that I was a safe repository for his complaints and worries and he came to tell me his own real views on many events. My not being a resident nor involved in the internal politics and battles of the ashram staff or the organisation (which I always kept at arm's length when its leaders tried to muscle in) gave him confidence. I never broke it, and do not consider I am doing so now, as so many things have changed and the truth must out (which is in VKN’s spirit!).
There is no doubt that VKN felt he had to censor himself strictly. This was primarily due to Sai Baba’s instructions and his teachings, partly due to the tradition of positivity set by the (over-zealous) writings of his predecessor, Prof. N. Kasturi, and partly because of ‘group effect’ or the pressure of predominant opinion throughout the ashrams and the Sai movement generally. He definitely had to suppress many things known to him, but keeping entirely quiet was so against his nature and habit that he used me (and a few other Westerners) as a safety valve outlet. VKN once told me that he was the chief "doubting Thomas" (his very own words) due to his need to be able to air opinions and doubts. He found the atmosphere of the ashram oppressive as regards meaningful discussion, since even most of the college teachers could only discuss on the premises they had imbued in them by Sai Baba. Narasimhan was a world-travelled thinker and was always looking for intellectual conversation and stimulation from outside the confines of both the ashram and India (where many years of relative isolation made the local literature media backward and uninformed compared to outside world.
Since I came now and again to learn from other contacts of various unpleasant or inexplicable matters in the ashrams, I would ask VKN. He was a fount of information, but when anything untoward came too close to Sai Baba, he became cautious and even avoided direct answers. I understood there were limits even to how much he could risk telling me. Still, in some instances he told me that he had never spoken to a soul about some of the matters discussed. There were obvious reasons for that, since he lived in the ashrams continuously from 1980 to 2000, where mention of certain matters would have caused him to be obstructed even more than was the case, and could have been directly dangerous to him. His somewhat exalted status as a kind of national hero and a favourite of the supposed "living Avatar" was not entirely secure, for there have been enough examples of how Sai Baba has totally rejected persons once very close to him
The '"taming of the lion": Narasimhan’s name derives from the lion-man avatar of Indian mythology. After his stand against the threats of the Gandhis during the 1975 Emergency, some regarded as having the heart of a lion. Unfortunately, as time went on, VKN found that in his ashram position he was gradually more and more compromised as an objective journalist. His former attitude of moderate sceptical inquiry and strict adherence to the whole truth was simply no longer possible in the forced Prashanthi climate. He had been told by Sai Baba originally that he could have a completely free hand as editor of Sanathana Sarathi, but this was not so already when I first knew him. The free hand was only within set and largely unspoken limitations. His less and less frequent writings in Sanathana Sarathi – a number of them not even attributed to him or even signed 'The Editor' – indicate his reluctance. Yet he necessarily reproduced the glowing accounts of festivals and Sai Baba’s effect on people which had become de rigueur well before his time. He would also usually speak much more rosily about Sai Baba and his works when holding a talk in front of him than when telling me about the same things! was a strong sense of caution about him when he was asked questions that he could not give a positive spin to or answer at all for fear of saying what he should not, and this inescapable dilemma faced him constantly.
Sai Baba has taken a very partisan standpoint against certain professions, such as scholars and journalists. Why an "avatar" should have such a bias is itself a point worth considering. With only a couple of exceptions, Sai Baba eschewing journalists and sometimes he railed against them, especially when in 1993 they began their normal practise of digging up dark secrets. (He accused Andhra Pradesh journalists of sins galore in his confused 1993 discourse about the murders and later again in connection with their reporting an incident at Brindavan where a youth with a hand gun was arrested). It seems that Sai Baba did not at first fully realise that, by accepting VKN into his fold as a follower, he was also opening himself up to a trained journalist's unmuddled observational powers. VKN was wholly unaccustomed to covering up or practising deceit, and no doubt that was why he was also unable to stop leaking facts on subjects that are taboo within the ashram and Sai movement.
The Indian Dr. Sara Pavan, an anesthetist who Sai Baba called to give up his practise in Australia in favour of working at the Sai Baba Hospital in Puttaparthi, told me in1996 in a scornful way that Narasimhan could no longer tell the truth at all, as once he had become renowned for doing. (Incidentally, Dr. Pavan, who selflessly went to join the Sai Baba hospital in Puttaparthi, himself also apparently wears a tighter muzzle, having become dependent on the Sai nexus in India. Like many others who became party to unspoken facts and suffered discrimination partly because of such things as his much higher hygienic standards than at the Super-speciality’ hospital. He was asked unceremoniously by the head doctor and, though Sai Baba said he would get him reinstated, he had not done so when last I met Pavan. He was clearly much confused about Sai Baba’s directions and inconsistencies.
Narasimhan told me in 1996 (in a carefully lowered voice and with a dejected look) that he had been strongly pressurised by Sai Baba on several occasions in 1993 to write and publish an article exonerating the Sathya Sai Central Trust from accusations of embezzlement. However, Narasimhan was unwilling and told me he knew that there had been major financial irregularities and kickbacks for contracts by members of the trust. He told Sai Baba that no journalists would publish him on that as he was now identified in the journalistic world as a Sai Baba apologist. Sai Baba made him try his former newspapers, and he did so with negative results. Neither The Hindu nor The Indian Express (of which latter he had been editor-in-chief) would accept him as a neutral observer or publish his views on this subject.
As a last resort and under continued pressure from Baba, he got his son, who was then editor of The Tribune of Chandigarth, to publish it. He had no option other than to pen something denying misuse of funds. This he did, he said, only as a "filial duty to Sai Baba". Privately, I was really shocked by this admission and it began to make me the more certain that Sai Baba, by stooping to such low lying methods to break an upright man's spirit, was also far less than compassionate and a tyrant into the bargain. It also indicated how dependent VKN had become on Sai Baba and his whole living situation in the ashram. It also speaks volumes of the supposed ‘truthfulness’ of this self-named ‘Sathya’ Sai Baba! Using poor old Narasimhan to try to clear his own Central Trust from the justified suspicions that were then circulating in the Indian press, Sai Baba acted knowingly against the very principles he so forcefully harangues others to follow. This was a fresh disillusionment, yet - disturbing though it was - I somehow managed to make an allowance even for that at the time (in the interests of the ‘good works’ and his ‘impressive spiritual world mission’)! That followers of Sai Baba today cannot and will not give up their belief in him and cherish hopes that his name will be cleared is therefore not so surprising to me, despite the huge among of accumulating evidence of widespread deceptions and criminality.
How VKN came to Sai Baba: Narasimhan was known to tell people he really didn't understand why Sai Baba was so nice to him... claiming he was rather non-religious and even cynical. Despite this, Narasimhan repeated a long mantra to Surya, the sun god, every morning and had a number of Sanskrit passages from the Gita off by heart. To any observer, however, it is notable what a valuable social asset VKN was to Sai Baba, a man known to all the elite in Indian who would vouch for Sai Baba's credibility (at least in general). His old friend of several decades, R. Venkataraman - then President of India - came to visit and endorse Sathya Sai. Many others were influenced in this way. VKN's well-known social ideals, prestige as a fearless journalist and his integrity acted as a guarantee to the more enlightened middle and upper classes of India that Sai Baba was genuine.
Unfortunately, and for reasons I discuss elsewhere, VKN went along with an entirely non-negative presentation of absolutely everything to do with Sai Baba and all his works, both in the monthly Sai Baba journal and in his own public talks, when he was observant of Sai Baba's numerous failings and did not even believe he was an avatar. Once within the Sai Baba mini-world, however, most people are strongly affected by the extremely zealous atmosphere and Sai Baba's invigorating (but also intimidating) presence. That VKN always felt great respect for Sai Baba is a fact. He told me that, as a journalist who had seen so much failure, incompetence and corruption in his journalistic travels, he admired the educations and other public works done in his name and under his direction. He put his hopes on Sai Baba's stated determination - indeed clear predictive promises - to raise India and protect or regenerate all that was good about its culture and people. Narasimhan was very impatient to see results and occasionally asked Baba why things were just getting worse rather than better. To this Sai Baba once replied that his plan was for the long future of India, not for immediate results. [Note: this conflicts completely with well-known pronouncement made - such as in the 1960 to Dr. J. Hislop - that India would be regenerated very soon, that his students would be taking over the running of the country well before 2000 etc.]
In his last years at the ashrams, VKN was called by Sai Baba for something or other practically every day - often twice - and he also spent many long hours close by Sai Baba at festivals, in occasional interviews, and rode about with him in cars on various visits etc. This naturally had an effect on VKN, who was a man very concerned with his own prestige and status and who was consequently looked on by all ashramites as something like a grey eminence. I found VKN to be very prone to some of his flatterers - embarassingly so at times - though he could also be endearingly self-deprecating into the bargain. (He even declares he was "highly flattered" in a letter to me, so he was 'easy meat' for Sathya Sai's flattery). Especially after his wife died ca. 1997, he became virtually dependent on living in the ashram for he had grown into the way of life there after 20 years in frequent association with Sai Baba. Since he gave up his house and resided in the ashram, VKN had virtually - if gradually - fallen more and more under the charm, but also the power, of Sai Baba. While all devotees do this to a considerable extent, those coming from abroad can more easily break out if the need should arise, as is seen in the falling away of prominent foreign devotees after the 1999 revelations, whereas, very few prominent Indian followers revoke Sai Baba, and certainly not in public. He was a confirmed extravert with a command of many facts and a zest for life and human reality, but I found he was neither philosophically inclined nor at all self-reflectively deep. Thus, always thinking and writing as a reporter on events, he was unable to write anything from the subjective, personal angle, which he also said made it hard for him to write other than stilted letters.
The exchanges I record here were made in confidence. That I air them is not a break of faith, since V.K.N. is no longer among us and other important considerations of conscience and moral duty apply. I am sure some hopelessly involved devotees will put this down to Sai Baba's will and knowledge,
believing he knows all and so would have known what was being passed on to me and how I
would feel and act. I do not consider this a sane judgement. Nor am I being 'tested' or used as an instrument in any way by Sai Baba (as devotees must think). I am simply telling the truth as far as I know
it - not covering up facts to deceive the public, as it is done out of social necessity by devotees. This is in the spirit of truth that VKN
had upheld even at the risk of his own life during the Emergency, even though he did not continue this publicly in his last years.
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