Sathya Sai Baba's 'universal teaching'
'Universal religion'- a pprogressive ideal or a revanchist chimera?
Sathya Sai Baba has often asserted that all religions express the same essentially good core values. That is easier said than understood, let alone proved. Some basic values are much the same in mainstream religions, yet many equally core values differ very radically. For example:-
1) The present Pope Benedict XVI - leader of over 600 million Catholics - rejects as heretical all religious doctrines which do not accept Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation. This is regarded as the essential spiritual value by most believing Christians.
2) Judaism awaits its prophesied Messiah, but most evidently does not recognise this is Sathya Sai Baba, who does not fulfil their scriptural conditions. Most Buddhists reject the whole idea of a God Creator of the Universe, as Sai Baba claims he is.
3) Similarly, Islam rejects non-Islamists as heretics, and the Koran even urges Muslims to kill 'non-believers'. Islam further rejects Hinduism at the most basic level in that Allah [God] cannot incarnate in a human body (as Sathya Sai Baba constantly claims for himself) or be represented in any idol or image. Hinduism accepts thousands of deities and idols of all kinds. from bits of wood at Jagannath to statues and pictures of Hindu deities of every description.
Though Sathya Sai Baba has once or twice granted that diversity of faiths is the spice of life and a necessity in a world where everyone is placed differently, there is, of course, nothing at all new about this. In Europe, many spokesmen have promoted religious tolerance firmly at least since the Enlightenment, notably including the philosophers Spinoza and Erasmus and, after them, too many to name. However, much that once was Hindu tradition for many centuries has been spread via many routes and other religions to the world at large. It was doubtless instrumental in stimulating the inter-faith movement (with Swami Vivekananda at the Chicago Unity of Religion Conference in the late 1800s) and some of it is indirectly enshrined in many nations' secular constitutions and in the Geneva Convention on Human Rights on religious freedom.
Old-fashioned oppressive religions vs. modern humanist values
There is some good moral basic in Sathya Sai Baba's teaching, which preaches high ideals and good intentions as do many religious movements. Unfortunately, it does not do this without many dire warnings about sin and retribution. Moral preaching and social pressure to conform becomes increasingly outmoded - except in backward societies - as global culture and progressive modern realities of all kinds impinge on world consciousness. Sai Baba's notion of "universality" is a rather naive attempt at promoting something like an inter-faith movement, though with Hindu values as both the basis and the crowing achievement! In no Sai Baba connection has there ever been any serious inter-faith discussion - such as occurs elsewhere in the world. It was attempted by Lucas Ralli in London when he was th eUK leader of the Sathya Sai Organization in the 1980s, but it was a wash-out as those who partook were almost only persons inclined to regard Sai Baba as a holy person. This is not surprising as, on their gurus' instruction, the Sathya Sai Organization always insists on acceptance of its own premises in all public exposure any denies cooperation with any other religious organizations. Never does Sai Baba or any of his obedient followers enter into any discussion which may turn out in any way to be critical or prove divisive. Therefore he and his followers stick entirely within his own doctrine at all times. This religious exclusivity is practiced just as rigorously in the Sathya Sai Baba movement as it is in Catholicism, Islam or the many warring sects. Sai Baba's claim to "universality" is therefore seriously undermined in both doctrine and practice from the start. This can be seen yet more clearly when one examines Sathya Sai Baba's rejection of 'human rights' in favour of 'human duties' see Sai Baba's religious values vs. human rights
Sai Baba is versed in much Indian scripture and mythology, though reportedly not as securely in Sanskrit as he claims and many believe. Nor is he conversant with (or ignores) reasonable Hindu interpretations of some Indian scriptures. Further, he is most evidently not well-informed about other major religious scriptures (see for example analysis of this made by Brian Steel). The Vedas and Vedanta with advaita, plus the generalised Hindu Indian guru traditions, are where almost the whole of his teaching originates. Sathya Sai Baba has himself said that he his teachings are not new, they are the ancient Sanathana Dharma though he actually claims it was himself who invented them all in those days anyhow! (Note sanathana dharma is sometimes referred to as the 'perennial philosophy', such as by Aldous Huxley).
Differing 'anti-universal' ideas of God
Sathya Sai Baba also asserts again and again that all religions are quite simply ignorant of God's true nature which is unknowable (i.e. being the Divinity, he himself cannot be understood, as he has repeatedly claimed). Nonetheless, he holds that all religions worship the same God. But this is also a misleadingly facile statement… for even the different mainstream religions worship each their own peculiar and theologically-determined ideas of God.
Whether a Divine entity - One God - who fits with one or other of these often distinctly different ideas is itself actually exists is, of course, beyond any valid proof. That all people worship the same god is much like saying that, in the night all cows look black. Some see God as creator of the universe, others do not accept God created the universe (Official Catholic doctrine today!) Besides, most Buddhist sects do not accept a God creator, but only a supposedly fully realised human being as a Buddha. The 2007 plea by Muslim clerics over the whole world towards the Pope and Christians generally to accept that there is but one God showed up the very basic difference between the two faiths on this issue.
Apart from all this, there are thousands of ideas of deities, gods, goddesses and powers worshipped by every variety of tribe, sub-culture, sect and cult. Who can know that this is the same God? Nobody! And certainly not anyone who is ignorant of human history and other cultures than Sai Baba’s own childhood faith, namely, an eclectic hodgepodge, superstitious, multi-deity, idolatrous version of Hinduism. He believes this to be ageless and the true origin and essential truth of all religion. Thus, he has stated: “The Hindu religion knows no growth or decline. It belongs to all countries. It is acceptable to all people.” (Sathya Sai Speaks p. 172, Volume XX11)
Under the tutelage of the devotee and history professor, Prof. N. Kasturi, Sathya Sai came to understand that the main religious approach of the West was towards an external God, while the Eastern view seeks the God within oneself. Kasturi knew these matters well as he had long been a Ramakrishna devotee and had studied English and sp knew Western culture. Quite mistakenly, Sai Baba also propounds that all Westerners regard death as that of both the body and the soul! This is totally wrong, of course, as regards Christian belief in resurrection of the body and eternal nature of the soul. How ill-informed he is about other religions than those on his doorstep is shown clearly. He is completely untutored as regards Islam, to which he therefore only devotes a few vague generalising sentences throughout all his thousands of discourses. He has said he has not come to start a new religion or sect, by sect he has created and he also subsequently announced the 'Sai religion' a supposed "universal" religion, yet one based entirely on the Hindu ‘Sanathana Dharma’ or traditional Indian way of righteousness. This latter is not at all the basis of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, though some similarities are obviously found.
The contention that Sathya Sai Baba is the avatar of God in this eon, that is - the greatest possible Divine Power that can incarnate in a human frame - is not acceptable to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or many other religious traditions. It is therefore a divisive and not unifying claim.
Universal human values - secular or religious?
Sathya Sai Baba projects his belief that, if everyone were to follow the particular general human values he prescribes, there would be universal peace and understanding, yet he nonetheless sees these values as entirely dependent on there being an universally shared spiritual or religious faith at the core of all approaches to God. Thus he defines human values as divinely-ordained values, God-given and set in stone, therefore not of human or secular origin. This is contradicted by the fact that human values are so variable and that all religious organizations have historically always eventually splintered into sects across differing cultures and national ideals. Many major religious doctrines have been deeply challenged and have been falling away in recent centuries. So diverse are the moral codes and value priorities insisted on by the main religions and their countless divisions, that any genuine agreement on the same value religious system is obviously a chimera. This does not mean that civilisation cannot move on towards a shared value system through human rights and international law and agreements, which the rise of democracy has been bringing with it almost everywhere it gains a grip.
Sathya Sai Baba ignores religious differences, however, by concentrating very much on the positive and unitive aspects of religious teachings and completely ignoring any examination of the differences. For people of differing religious, political and personal persuasions to agree on such a basis seems so remote, far too removed from practical life today and in the foreseeable future. It would also require that the clock be set back on the huge and accelerating advances of scientific understanding of man and the cosmos and the consequent narrowing down of the areas of human uncertainty upon which religions rely for their existence.
Sathya Sai Baba's answer to this is that the essence of all true religions express the same basic human values and the same faith in the existence and benevolence of divinity, in whatever form it may be represented or worshipped... or as it is thought to be as formless. It is an idealistic notion which many have hoped would be possible, not least since Swami Vivekananda proposed this at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in1893. Yet is it impossible to see how existing mainstream religions can surmount their most fundamental differences, which include critical matters of faith and values. The conflicts between the scriptures and key beliefs of Islam and Hinduism, between Christianity and Islam, Buddhism and Judaism and so on and on are insuperable, unless they are modified beyond all recognition. They may profess some of the same values, but even human values are not fixed entities and they differ in theory and practice throughout the cultures and societies of the globe.
Sathya Sai Baba's teaching claimed to express 'universal' values. He applauds that there are different approaches to God and regards the essential 'human values as being shared by all good teachings and people, whatever their faith. This is not such a novel or 'progressive' idea, of course, for tolerance of different faiths was widespread in for ages and it has become more and more central in Western values and embodied in law. Diversity of faiths is unavoidable, anyhow, in this world where everyone is placed differently. The so-called 'Sai religion' thus seems to have a universal outlook, until one looks more closely into the teaching, where it is seen as overwhelmingly Hindu-oriented in its cultural content, values and examples, which clash at basic levels with those of other mainstream religions. The clash is particularly strong with moderate religious movements and, obviously, with secular humanism. See Sathya Sai Baba's religious fundamentalism
Sathya Sai Baba's teaching should be clearly distinguished from Sathya Sai Baba's rationale for it. The moral teaching is one thing, the grounds he gives for it's alleged truth are quite another! The difference lies in that between morality and knowledge (i.e. between 'ought' and 'is'). Sathya Sai Baba teaches what we ought to do or not to do, how we best should live and behave for our own good and that of all others. The teaching itself may still be accepted as morally on the right side by many for whom Sathya Sai Baba's supporting accounts of man, nature and God are not even half-believable, consistent or properly understandable. The "universality" claimed by the Sai religion is underpinned by faith in Sai Baba's view of the laws of human life, which builds on the cornerstone of the theory of karma and reincarnation (transmigration) of souls in new bodies on earth.
Whether this is reasonable or not (though definitively rejected by Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Sai Baba also justifies his "universal spirituality" with accounts of how everything is constituted and the causes of everything... the make-up of the human being, the nature of the cosmos and of the Divine reality or God. All this, without notable exceptions, is very traditional Indian thought and much of it is highly questionable, while much of what Sai Baba holds has been shown by science to fall very far short of the truth, often proven absurd
Sectarian tendencies in teaching and practice
Sathya Sai Baba always asserts the Vedantic view as the most inclusive and ultimate. This is itself an implicit denial of universal religion, for it ignores the fact of basic differences in both the conceptions and practices of major religions. His insistence that he alone is God in human form come down to redeem the world, makes him one contender among the many claimants and faiths. Such a claim - of divine embodiment - is flatly and fundamentally rejected by Islam and mainstream (mahayana) Buddhism. Islam regards the idea of God having any form whatever as sheer blasphemy. Even the human form, because it is of divine origin, cannot be portrayed in Islam. Little wonder, then. that only a mere handful of Muslims are ever seen near Sathya Sai Baba, and these are from peripheral sects with unconventional ideas, like the Sufis.
In the face of incongruous beliefs and warring sects, the detail of his teachings makes evident the difference between his ideas and what is believed in other mainstream religions on many controversial points. All in all, Sathya Sai Baba says enough to contradict Christian scriptures and creeds to amounts to a major disavowal of the history of Jesus' life and a rebuttal of the doctrine of forgiveness in favour of explaining everything as deserved karma. Though he clearly said Jesus died when crucified (see scan below) he also claimed the exact opposite in various connections: that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but survived to travel eastwards after the crucifixion to live long and die in his eighties or later. However, this could well be true, despite Christian doctrine. But whether true or false, it goes to show how non-universal any religious-historical teaching such as Sathya Sai Baba's unavoidably becomes. His accounts of Jesus' boyhood and subsequent travels and spiritual education in India confront the official and ingrained belief of most denominations of the world's ca. 2 billion Christians. Much of Sathya Sai Baba's ramblings about Jesus' life are too confused, seriously ill-informed or historically absurd to have any credence. (See here)
Many Indians, unfortunately, embrace the idea that God is of their nationality ('God Lives in India' etc.) and this seems important for their self-confidence and sense of national identity . Sathya Sai Baba's followers are overwhelmingly Indian, and he speaks mainly for Indians or Hindus and about Hindu history, culture, society and values. The majority of Indians do not, of course, accept Sathya Sai Baba's claims and an intelligent minority have so far spoken out against the deceits and fraud that he perpetrates, though this can be dangerous as many harassments and even murders have occurred. That so many Westerners have taken Sathya Sai Baba's incredible claims and often impossible advice so much to heart, is but an advantage for his name, fame and power and finances, though this has changed quite a lot since the expos took off on the Internet in 2000. His belief-system does have positive aspects, undeniably,or else it could not survive at all. Yet much of it is so simplistic, vague and unworldly that it causes them to undertake bizarre and grotesque twists and turns of their minds which would be nothing but highly laughable were it not causing much confusion, self-negation and actual suffering. In order to break free of the indoctrination one has to stop turning away from or rationalising the obvious facts, let alone other covered-up facts that are far harder to discover for oneself!
Experience teaches that, once a movement of this kind - however faulty at the core - has reached a certain size and financial power, it tends to survive whatever is revealed about it. Too many people have become dependent on it financially and for some kind of occasional 'mental-emotional fix'. Those drugged on cultist 'opium of the people' are found in every era and area of human life. Contemporary examples are scientology, the Moonies, the Hare Krishna ISKCON movement, the Rajneesh/Osho's travesty of spirituality, a range of so-called 'Kriya Yoga' guru movements, Maharishi Mahesh yogi's Transcendental Meditation, and impure and criminal Swamis in plenty plus many, many other self-proclaimed untrustworthy 'spiritual leaders' and 'enlightened masters' or whatever.
Though he claims to be 'the' universal teacher of this eon, Sathya Sai Baba's teaching as a whole is so Hindu-focused in content and style that it will surely remain a minority movement compared to the major religions. It is also too general and vague on important matters, very weak indeed on many known facts. In short, a grand eclectic mix of ancient Indian values and superstitions, scriptures and otherworldly philosophies, combined with some more modern values and some ideas lacking in classical Hinduism imbibed from Jewish and Christian and Jewish culture (especially the constant emphasis on love of others, not originally an Indian conception at all, but a European one). As regards Sai Baba's and Hinduism's acceptance that there must be different approaches to God, and that one can be fairly tolerant at times towards agnostics and atheists, does credit to it (compared to most Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Sathya Sai Baba has insisted upon magnanimity to those of all faiths, and towards all people (though he actually has made some gross exceptions to this in recent years by damning his critics and lying outright about them and their motives).
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