HOW PERCEPTIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS OF SATHYA SAI BABA DEVELOP
Features of the Sai movement which attract visitors and make for new devotees
There are many attractive features in the Sathya Sai movement which introduce people to what has now become a major personality cult.
One can obtain hundreds of books detailing personal experiences of wonderful events in connection with Sai Baba and even meet some of the authors, as I have done.
One can visit exotic and exciting India, where there are mysterious people with unusual powers. One can partake in idealistic, ‘spiritual’ communities (ashrams) and experience people and life in ways far removed from the influences one knows. All this can also be done cheaply, though it has become far more costly than during the time my wife and I first visited it in 1984.
- The meeting always have singing to music in which anyone (often however bad a signer or player) can participate. The so-called ’bhajans’ have a formula where each is sung by one or more person and is then repeated by the assembly. This is like learning to sing. Also, the text are mostly in Sanskit – even in Western countries – which means one does not have the negative associations of Christian and other religions that most devotees have left. This singing without understanding the words is liberating to many who may not have had other acceptable access to rituals of a supposed spiritual or religious nature for many years.
- Sai Baba can appear extremely charming, kind and loving – but usually only temporarily and very infrequently (This is a typical deceptive trait of psychopaths and sociopaths - for he can also neglect a person for years and sometimes look displeased and even extremely angrily at devotees (not least those whose faces he learns after seeing them many times and can rely on being ‘hooked’).
- Sai Baba has strong intuitive powers, even though he has agents who pick up information and feed it to him. This is very interesting and exciting to people who have had no such experiences of these abilities before.
- Everything in Sai centres and groups is supposed to be free without payment. Members of the Organisation and volunteers provide the necessary money for this. However, most people soon feel the nag of moral conscience if they do not donate, especially if they enjoy the singing, the meetings, the stories they hear etc.
- The ’teaching’ in its simplicity is attractive and positive (even though it is also most unrealistically so), and is backed up by a mass of deeply speculative Indian scripture, philosophy and mythology. This is exotic and novel to most people.
- Sai Baba says things which are extremely flattering, but in general to followers, and quite often in person to those who get interviews. He declares to followers: “You are Divine even if you have not yet realised it fully, You are God, everything is God.” He likes to be worshipped and given signs of obedience and great respect, and he plays up to it. Many are told and themselves feel that to do this and get a ‘divine blessing’ in response is a great achievement.
NOTE Sathya Sai’s claims about himself are drawn from and enveloped in his ‘teaching’ taken from Indian mythology about avatars and incredible mythological events. The equivalent to this in the ordinary world of con men is the relatively cheap offer made to buy the Eiffel Tower or other schemes put across with the aid of major deception and great chutzpah. It is SO incredible, but also so attractive an idea to think of the benefits it could bring, that one thinks it is not impossible, or could just be true, then even perhaps likely considering all the documentation… and then the fatal leap of faith is made.
What I have called the “labyrinth fallacy”, a vast collection of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and practices where one can become lost to oneself, is strongly at work on Sai followers. This is a maze of teachings with very many tenets and thousands of absorbing details so constructed that, once inside it, it is near impossible to find a way back out. Every dead end one meets causes one to retrace a bit and the new route will again lead you back to other routes and your mind gravitates more and more within the circle of belief. It gradually takes over one’s thinking, substitutes itself for normal perception and an escape from the cultist trap becomes more and more unlikely.
The Power of Positive 'suggestion'
In the approach to any charismatic figure, such as Sathya Sai Baba, a great deal of what one experiences and perceives can be put down to the 'self-fulfilling' or 'positive thinking' thesis. Positive thinking is a process of self-suggestion and is even sometimes called auto-hypnosis. By becoming fascinated due to some circumstance or other, we concentrate more and more on the charismatic person, hearing others' positive accounts, reading stories about him and glowing reports on what he teaches, seeing films, thinking about him, praying to him, singing of him, going to meetings and talks about him and so on. This forms a basis for how we perceive and how we interpret whatever we see and hear... or experience altogether. Though even more than 90% of all this is not out own experience or ideas, we make them our own through belief, general faith and especially hope. Much is promised by Sathya Sai Baba, he claims to be able to give more than anyone else ever can possibly give. He even claims already to be giving us everything we are and have, that he is the Creator of the Universe and all in it! Once one has had some relatively inexplicable paranormal experiences connected to him, his claim can be a very powerful motivating factor and his teaching a tremendously difficult doctrine to question, especially before one has plunged in and become properly acquainted with it. To reinforce this, Sathya Sai Baba holds that the only valid test of anything is personal experience and one must practice his teaching in order to understand it (which is not unreasonable, but is very demanding and which has lead some few mature persons into an understanding of what is wrong with it too!).
In my own experience, many small events that I once was convinced were due to Baba's personal will, I now realise could well have been self-created through the more elusive and intricate workings of the mind, especially through the suggestion with which the teachings are imbued and their effect at various subconscious levels. Yet the question remains; can all my own experiences of extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events, inspiring dreams, possible healing (though temporary) and observed manifestations of objects be put down to a kind of self-deluding mind set, a mistaken openness lacking critical sense and observation? My answer has changed since I began to reject Sathya Sai baba and I can answer that the mind set had been decisive and fraudulent sleight-of-hand by Sathya Sai Baba deceived and deluded me, as it still does many people!'
This is my conviction, even were I to discount all the many hundreds of accounts I have heard, from first-hand eyewitnesses to writers of books about miraculous experiences with and through Sathya Sai Baba. And I do discount a quite considerable amount of both what I have been told by honest, open persons and a lot of what I have read, usually for specific reasons in each case. Being scientifically and philosophically trained, I was critically-minded before I came to Sathya Sai Baba and was thus given to examination and analysis rather than unquestioning acceptance of testimony. Much of the testimony did influence me, and there was a great deal of it - virtually all positive - from persons both literate and illiterate, from the extraordinary to the fantastic (and the laughably absurd). The story of Sathya Sai Baba's childhood and youth had been written up by N. Kasturi, a charming person who also seemed to me to be a creditable and reasonably well-informed, and by other early witnesses... and there was also quite impressive film material showing physical manifestations etc. which tended to bear out the 'fabulous' stories of Sai Baba's early days. Above all, as I have detailed accurately in my book ‘Source of the Dream, My Way to Sathya Sai Baba', experienced otherwise wholly inexplicable events connected to the Sathya Sai Baba form, of the sort one cannot but classify as ‘miracles’, including an amazing distant removal of my mothers’ intense chronic pains.
Despite my questioning attitude, especially as to spiritual matters of which I had accumulated considerable knowledge both from personal experience and through scholarly studies etc., it was only when I became disaffected about the extent of Sathya Sai Baba's knowledge and powers due to the build-up of unavoidable doubts about some of his contrary actions and words, that I was able properly to question certain matters that I had accepted previously. The rather soul-shaking shift in mind set made a difference - I went from the tendency to accept in the main what certain people whom I considered reasonable and sane said, towards a more questioning, investigative and psychologically evaluative attitude. Though Sathya Sai Baba claims to be the God of all Gods, he may rather be a person wielding exceptional powers (of yogic, tantric or other superhuman agency), an exceptional medium, a catalyst for deep psychological projection (at both conscious and unconscious levels) and other things besides… all surrounded by a mass movement of dependent persons who extend his influence, all too often by exaggerating the stories about him and his nature so that eventually almost anything that happens seems to be done by him rather than anyone else.
People who visit Sathya Sai Baba invariably do so because of things they have heard, read or seen on film and video. However little they may know of the massive complex of incredible accounts of miracles and more surrounding him, there will usually have been some incident or experience that led them to expect the inexplicable and wonderful of him. Such anticipations make it possible to read many extraordinary things into what otherwise would be commonplace events and ordinary behaviour. I have seen many, many examples of this - sometimes sheer wish-fulfilling interpretation, sometimes even against one's inclinations... but always motivated by looking up to Baba as divine and miraculous, his every word and gesture packed with holy significance.
It is most valid to ask whether such an approach to the phenomena as a follower invariably adopts removes further possibility of keeping any 'objective' angle, or even thereafter to make common-sense and cool judgements about ordinary events. This is an extremely complex and subtle issue in theory of knowledge and the psychology of perception... where some of the greatest human dilemmas arise. The dilemma here is how much we create our own reality through our mental set, hopes and desires, and how much it is forced upon us by events that arise independent of our psyches.
This is the belief that he is not merely human, but is also wholly Divine and can therefore do no wrong, knows all and is the prime mover in everything. Acceptance of this, even as a possibility, conditions almost every perception, decision, evaluation and social contact thereafter. The teaching has massive built-in restraints on any serious examination or questioning of Sathya Sai Baba's divine nature or anything he says or does. It blames everything bad or evil that can possibly occur on those who choose to see anything other than the good... a psychological impossibility, but one which the follower has to strive to maintain and who thus have to perform the most absurd mental acrobatics to do so when events that do not fit the theory arise, as they do constantly. The teaching is not open to any modification by future discoveries, for it is presented as the absolute eternal truth from the mouth of God the Creator... what is known as a 'closed total theory' in the study of ideologies.
As soon as that belief is questioned by anyone who has come to hold it at all firmly (i.e. as soon as the mind tentatively ‘uncreates’ Sathya Sai Baba as the single, exclusive living God incarnate), a very basic shift in mind set necessarily follows. The radically questioning mind set considers the possibility that Sathya Sai Baba's human aspect is the predominant one and that the various powers he undoubtedly possesses - from wherever they arise - are not necessarily always used in our true interests. In short, for such people, Sathya Sai Baba can actually be guilty of impure acts, even involvement in major crime. But one is told to wear rose-tinted glasses and that then your world will become so in reality. The 'glasses' that Sathya Sai Baba's teaching about himself represents would also make murder and pedophilia look rosy.
People get drawn further and further in to Sathya Sai Baba in terms of social contacts, prestige, habituation to lifestyle and environment, places of residence, personal economy... not to mention emotionally and mentally, the most powerful of binding forces. The further in one is drawn in these ways, the more impossible it seems to extricate oneself, were that even desirable when in such a position and without too serious doubts. One's entire perception of most matters remotely connected to this focus of one's existence is usurped by the underlying needs so created. Going against one's basic needs for security, faith, well-being and social contacts and activities - or accepting a radical change in them for an uncertain alternative - is something that awakens feelings of confusion and insecurity, often leading to anxiety and fear, even in the most normal and well-balanced of people. In this way, a seat of power is provided for those in the top position, and all such power can by its very nature be abused… and most often is. The power structure begins to use illegal or immoral means to sustain itself, especially when seriously attacked from outside… but even more so when the attack comes from within, as has occurred with the defection of so many Western followers, including a long list of leaders in the Sathya Sai Organisation and other long-term devotees. That invariably undermines the worldly power of the movement more quickly and fully than any external 'enemy'.
The bait and the hooks
One of Sathya Sai Baba's most-quoted sayings is "Take one step towards me and I will take twenty towards you". Sometimes Sathya Sai Baba has promised a hundred steps in return instead. This is obviously a figurative invitation and its meaning is so diffuse as to be able to embrace almost any human action or thought. There are two general ways of interpreting this:
The first interpretation is that mundane activities done for the benefit of Sathya Sai Baba, his organisation and various worldly works and projects will be rewarded by Sathya Sai Baba in tangible ways - by attentions, interviews, success in one's undertakings, one's health and well-being and fate in life etc. I can think of very few followers who do not subscribe to this kind of attitude - at least in part. This approach is the least subtle of the two, but is obviously very powerful because such a promise would - if fulfilled - answer many a need, problem and desire.
Because Sathya Sai Baba often insists that we are but deluded by our egos into thinking that we do things when, really, “only He is the Doer”, people attribute to him all manner of event. Many strange ideas about what is caused by Sathya Sai Baba are held. I know an amateur yachtsman who believed that Sathya Sai Baba caused him to win a yacht race against top professionals, due to a stroke of luck he had in finding a shorter passage through some reefs. Another close devotee told me that Sathya Sai Baba was himself causing the national strike of Federal Government workers in the US. The credulous leader of the Sai movement in the USA, Dr. Michael Goldstein, stated that Sai Baba had saved the lives of all those World Trade centre workers who were NOT killed, including all believers in himself! He alleged that SB told him so. (A pity about all those killed, though, Sathya Sai Baba couldn’t do anything about them, it seems? Or those Afghan civilians bombed as a consequence?) So it goes on, to be consistent, everything that is ever done should be attributed to Sathya Sai Baba... should we then forget all science, technology, medicine, even work and leave it all to divine providence? The absurdity of all this is startling, but that there is confusion is hardly so surprising in view of the many unclear or ambiguous sides of the doctrine that Baba repeatedly expresses in mostly ambiguous, general or veiled terms.
The second kind of interpretation of ‘taking one step etc.’ is about intangibles... if you worship Sathya Sai Baba and accept him to be God - or, failing this, if you are not sure whether he is God Himself, but try to follow what he teaches - he will help you in ways that you are most likely unable clearly to observe or prove, due to the veil of human ignorance about things eternal. If one is unable to find any indications that this is taking place, one projects the reward into a very uncertain and unknown future - he will look after you after death, give you a good rebirth or - if you are ripe enough - save you from the tiresome round of pleasure and pain, life and death altogether. In this way, the followers’ imagination can puzzle out the most unlikely and unfounded significance in anything whatever that happens to them. Suppose one wins a lottery… it is Sathya Sai Baba’s grace. Suppose one breaks one’s back and is confined to a wheelchair existence… it is all Sathya Sai Baba’s grace, teaching you a lesson, causing you to avoid some worse fate, and so on ad infinitum. This is the dark labyrinth that those who take his teaching seriously have all entered, despite themselves.
As to the first view of Sathya Sai Baba's guarantee; to evaluate it in real terms is extremely difficult because of its vagueness. What constitutes taking 'one step' on our part and what does not? For some it would be a small Armstrong-like step, for others a giant step. Sathya Sai Baba gives an example of this imponderable relativity in telling of a lady who sacrificed the very little she had (money?) to give to him, which he considered greater than (the millions?) offered by another. For some it would have to be something tangible like donating time, energy, and (not least) money to Sathya Sai Baba's organisation or other good works, for others only a mental change like improving how one thinks of other people, feeling gratefulness, having a worshipful attitude primarily to Sathya Sai Baba - whose form he himself recommends strongly and very often (even though, he also points out, other forms of God will do just as well).
Quite another matter is what can possibly constitute the twenty (or hundred) steps that Sathya Sai Baba takes in return? Most committed followers are clearly motivated to a large extent by the desire for 'grace,' or at least 'signs of grace'. There is no catalogue available recording what these are or may be, it is a very individual matter depending on how one interprets what Sathya Sai Baba does or does not do towards oneself, or what one wishes to think and believe. However, there are a number of outward signs of grace that many reckon on. One of these is being invited to as many interviews as possible. Another is being chosen by Sathya Sai Baba for some office in his various organisations or institutions. Other less prominent signs are Sathya Sai Baba's recommendation to write a book about him, make a film or video of him, hold a lecture for visitors to the ashram or for students at some of his colleges. Apart from these, are the many signs that people experience in the form of healing of difficult or sometimes apparently incurable ailments, materialisations of holy ash, nectar and the like on pictures of Sathya Sai Baba (or other divine images).
The “sightless faith brigade”
Those persons relatively close to Sathya Sai Baba who have most to lose by questioning anything he does are obviously very largely those who find it most difficult to entertain the doubts that still surely and unavoidably intrude. Some of those who are able to be closer to Sathya Sai Baba are doubtless also unable to rid their minds of serious doubts, for they evidently witness more doubtful events than relative outsiders. This is my experience of a number of long-term and close followers I have known during the past 20 years. Most of those who live in the ashram and have given up or donated their homes and/or wealth would fear losing faith in Sathya Sai Baba, even partly so. It is remarkable that one never (except informally from V.K. Narasimhan) heard a breath of critical comment about Sathya Sai Baba himself within the ashram, unless it was a raw newcomer or some such 'misguided seeker'. To even speak of one's doubts, it seems, one must 'go underground' to the privacy of a room or restaurant outside the ashram, or to any neutral place. Never have doubts been voiced in talks or discourses, let alone in front of Sathya Sai Baba, as far as I have observed or ever heard. To doubt is a cardinal sin, and one which Sathya Sai Baba descries often. This proves extremely effective in covering up almost anything… as is known from many ashrams and all kinds of other self-contained 'total institutions' and totalitarian states.
Then those who have the status of a veranda place, some VIP office in the Sai organisation, a private room at one of the ashrams or the kudos of being able to tell of repeated interviews and grace will feel they have a lot to lose, and mostly are made to know to a nicety under what circumstances they risk losing these benefits. Add to them all those who, having found faith after much suffering or meaninglessness, want to sustain it rather than go through a very painful and often traumatic experience.
It is observable that those to whom Sathya Sai Baba grants most privileges and frequent interviews are invariably ostentatiously humble. In his close presence they always creep about in a lowly fashion and grovel at his feet, and some if possible lay flat on the ground to do so, kissing them whenever given the chance. After about 60 years, these practices were at last been largely discontinued by Sathya Sai Baba’s order on the grounds that they put his devotees lower than himself, and this is wrong. Perhaps it took so long for him to realise this because he had not realised that such practice will never be widely accepted in the Western world. Another possible reason is to avoid any danger to himself by allowing people to approach so close to him: for he related in a bizarre discourse (of May 6, 1998) about a night visitation by the ghost of his long-dead mother to him and the boys sharing his locked rooms. He claimed she had warned him that people might apply poison to him through touching his feet.
Public submissive behaviour was the rule and are were virtually unavoidable requirements for most people to make actual contact with him, such as by being invited to an interview. Similar kinds of subservient attitude - however agreeable or not to those who behave so – are still practiced, only the grosser outer demonstrations of kow-towing have been reduced. There were and are exceptions, some of the most regular staff, persons upon whom Sathya Sai Baba certainly depends for the running of his considerable empire of institutions, dispense with any marked formalities, though they will usually hold their hands in prayer greeting (naamaskaar) while talking to him. These people are usually the 'almost indispensable' figures that surround Sathya Sai Baba.
It is evident that some people who are very rich and donate enormous sums get many interviews. One case is that of the US donors of hundreds of millions of dollars, the Sinclairs, who had a private interview each day for about a week before darshan (most unusual) at Kodaikanal in 1994. While waiting and waiting at darshan, I watched them come out of Sathya Sai Baba's villa each day. There are exceptions, as in most things to do with Sathya Sai Baba. Isaac Tigrett, for example, was not given interviews for 14 years, whereupon he donated a massive sum for Sathya Sai Baba to build the first Super-Speciality Hospital. He then received copious interviews for some while. Later he was again only given one interview over a period of quite a few years. Sathya Sai Baba personally visited Mr. Reddy, the liquor baron who donated a considerable sum of money and who was murdered in Madras some weeks later. Narasimhan told me that he was taken to that interview in Sathya Sai Baba's car. The question arises, why would Sathya Sai Baba take so much time visiting a criminal, when he has so many thousands of good people who do much good in the world and are his devoted followers, but who hardly ever get any personal contact with him? The standard devotee answer to this amounts to 'God knows what is needed better than we do'. This is no answer, but a non sequitur fallacy to avoid the awkward observable facts, any reasonable explanations of them and to stop further questioning.
Those who do not conform to the many behavioural rules and the worshipful attitude towards Sathya Sai Baba are unable to get anywhere near to him, even to observe him. Sathya Sai Baba has occasionally spoken of 'separating the grain from the chaff', by which those who do not accept him as being pure and divine, or who do not conform to certain of his teachings and follow the regimes of his various institutions, are kept away at a distance and/or fall away of themselves. Other words for this is purging or excommunicating. Office-bearers who disagree with the Indian leaders and Indian chain of command or who want more openness, greater accountability and frankness, and some are sacked without any recourse to further discussion. I know some of those who were so treated and consider them to be truly honest, actively self-sacrificing and upright people. Once they fell into disfavour, the were treated as completely non-existent! This is the rule with all people who leave the Organisation, the leaders never thank them for anything they have done or contact them. This has caused suffering and even prolonged mental illness where persons have sacrificed their whole lives to the cause. The ashram staff also pronounce lifetime bans on people, sometimes for the most absurd 'reasons'. Some of those who dare to go against Sathya Sai Baba's explicit wishes as regards to marriage are literally excommunicated. One well-known case among a number of similar ones is that of the long-standing American follower Al Drucker, whom Sathya Sai Baba threw out of the ashram on short notice in 1992 because he would not remain unmarried, telling him never to return.