WHY THE SATHYA SAI SECT IS A CULT
A case study of a sect which subtly presents itself so as to appear in a positive light,
and cover over the cultist aspects of its teaching and practices.
From well before 1940, news of Sai Baba's supposed miracles spread. His movement reached a pivotal point at some time when the size and spread of his following was sufficient to attract persons who only knew him from others and remained at a distance. Soon the numbers were too large for most followers to have personal contact with him (i.e. such as in a group interview), so acceptance of his claims has to be based mostly on belief, based on hearsay and reports in the media etc. He has long taught that he appears in the dreams of people who are worthy (but not in those of any others than he decides!). So those who concentrate on him and pray to him intensely for help, healing or other boons sooner or later begin to dream of him. The large number of persons who have become affiliated in one way or another to Sathya Sai Baba are attached through bonds that are emotional, mental, social, financial and material. The number claimed by Sathya Sai Baba , however, and parroted by all who reckon themselves believers, are certainly inflated by anything up to the power of ten! (See 'exaggeration of numbers by Sathya Sai Baba ')
A sect with an alleged following of anything from 60 to 600 million who supposedly worship Sathya Sai Baba as a deity - with active branches in up to 184 countries of the world - is sufficient to classify it as a major personality cult. Though the numbers are certainly exaggerated by those with vested interests in promoting it, the lower estimated are widely reproduced in the media as being possible and - because of the vagueness as to who qualifies as 'a follower' - no one can definitively establish the facts of the matter.
The prevalence and predominance of any belief system - including
the many-headed Sathya Sai Baba doctrine - is more dependent on its having attained critical
mass than on the likelihood of their being in accordance with historical facts
or other truths. As to what distinguishes the success of one belief system
from the failure of another, there are obviously numerous factors at work.
One factor that seems obvious is the achievement by a belief of a 'critical
mass' of supporters. Once critical mass is reached, chain reaction starts,
sometimes fast, sometimes slower. As soon as a belief is ramified by enough
other beliefs and putative evidence to spread to a sufficient mass of people,
it tends to spread further. Some beliefs are unable to make much ground, such
as the flat-earth theory, say. Others, apparently equally misguided, become
hugely widespread, such as the belief that extra-terrestrial beings have visited
earth. One major poll in
The "cult" label and Sathya Sai Baba: The word "cult" often calls up associations to indoctrination and manipulation of followers, involving various forms or degrees of potential 'mind control' (sometimes called somewhat exaggeratedly called 'brain-washing') using strong group pressures along with social and financial entrapments. Self-programming, backed by 'teachings' which function as indoctrination and are used widely in propagandist conferences and media products, is a core feature of the Sathya Sai Baba movement. Often, cults are connected with public scandals over cult leaders' sex lives and murder involvements rather than religious worship. All these features are also inalienably involved in Sathya Sai Baba's case. Suicide is not uncommon at the Sai Baba ashrams (even one whole large family suicide), though definitely nothing like the extreme enforced mass suicides such as occurred in the infamous religious cults of David Koresh of Waco, Texas, or Jim Jones of Jamestown. Another feature of cults is that those who leave them or criticise them are treated not only as outcasts, but are often slandered in public, harassed and stalked on the Internet and even in our private lives. This is being done intensively against most of us who have rejected and dared to criticise Sathya Sai Baba.
The Sathya Sai Organization developed its cultist practices only gradually and, as it grew internationally, it was increasingly regulated from a central top-down administration which was insensitive to other cultures or independent voices. When a flood of allegations of criminality broke over Sathya Sai Baba with force from 1999 onwards, the centre instituted mucb stricter control over members (many having left), not least what was allowed in contact with non-followers and whice issues could and could not be discussed. As the movement suffers the on-going threat, it withdraws more into itself. Many allegations have been made of sexual improprieties by Sathya Sai Baba plus his and his collaborators' undeniable role in a major murder cover-up and his proven fraudulence in numerous of his 'materialization miracles'. Having as his devotees the lions' share of Indian establishment - including numerous Indian prime Ministers, Presidents, State Ministers and Governors, Supreme and High Court judges - he is protected from legal accountability. In short, some of the classic hallmarks of a clandestine cult are clearly seen.
The U.K. author Mick Brown visited Sathya Sai Baba's ashram at Prashanthi Nilayam and also met V.K. Narasimhan, then the editor of his monthly journal 'Sanathana Sarathi'. In his account of his visit he wrote of the "cult of personality around Sai Baba; the sense that what was being worshipped was not the Divine but the man who was said to be the embodiment of the Divine." (Brown, Mick, The Spiritual Tourist (A Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief), London, Bloomsbury, 1998 - paperback edition, 1999, p. 83. Subsequently, when the many allegations of sexual abuse by Sathya Sai Baba broke forth on the Internet after most prominent devotees at the time, David and Faye Bailey, were repeatedly made aware of these goings-on by students and parents of young men, Mick Brown researched for a long article in the Daily Telegraph (i.e. 'Divine Downfall') where he exposed much strong cultist behaviour by defenders of the swami.
The Sathya Sai Organization soon changed its outward behaviour quite radically, becoming more secretive and strictly exclusive of doubters. It carries out clandestine influence in its many and persistent attempts at manipulating the authorities of the world, not least through the direct intervention of Indian Prime Ministers and President (egs. pof recent Sai-devotee PMs are Dewe Gowda, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh). A central defender of Sai Baba is the former Supreme Court Justice Bhagwati, who is also a director of the very rich and powerful Sathya Sai Central Trust.
The strongly pro-Sai writer Rita Bruce, who Sai Baba encouraged to write gushing panegyrics of himself and his teachings, has tried to defend the Sathya Sai Organisation and movement against the charge that it is a cult. In fairness one must firstly point out that Bruce's defense was made before 2000, from when the Sathya Sai Organisation became the recipient of massive allegations concerning its figurehead's sexual abuses and involvement in murder cover-ups. However, nothing has changed, apparently, as she continues to defend her Lord and Master at private Sai meetings around the world. Since she is still propagandizing for Sai Baba in books and articles also in the public sphere - see excerpts from her autobiographical books and my comments: 'Rita Bruce on the Sathya Sai cult', it is only fair that I take issue with her statements. Though my wife and I were friends with the Bruces, they have rejected us and cannot expect to be spared critical scrutiny. Not least, she was a recipient of letters from Dr. John Hislop in 1982 as she spoek about to nme many years later, but she does not wish to make this fact known or admit that she knew the contents of them. This is a definitive cover-up and concealment of the truth on her part.
However, there is no sign that Rita Bruce is willing or psychologically capable of perceiving that she is herself a cultist propagator. In one of her panegyric hagiographies about Sathya Sai Baba, Vision of Sai II, Rita Bruce has a chapter entitled 'Why the Sai Organization is not a cult'. The text is reproduced in the left-hand column, while my comments are on the right.
From VISION OF SAI II, by Rita Bruce, p. 128ff (all left-hand column
Mindbending: Brainwashing, Cults, and Deprogramming in the 80s by Lowell Streiker, Doubleday, New York 1984 and "Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America" by J. Melton, Garland Publishing, New York, 1986. These are some of the important points they make. Streiker indicates that a real cult will lack the following characteristics:-
Rita Bruce sets out to refute the frequent charge that the Sai Organization and movement are cultist. However, she bases this entirely on what Sai Baba has said and what she chooses to believe about events. However, only a fact-based assessment based - not only on his words, but also on actual practises and what the Sathya Sai Organization stipulates and rules - can determine the degree of cultist secrecy and exclusiveness. The Sathya Sai Organizations's rules and regulations preclude members from involving themselves with any other spiritual or voluntary organizations except strictly on the Sai Organisations's own premises. In most countries of the world, The Sathya Sai Organization is not registered as a legally-accountable institution, though it is registered as a charitable trust where possible to avoid taxation and facilitate the flow of funds to the mother Organization in India. Since it allows no criticism whatever to be aired or published, makes no financial accounts or donations received public, does not publish its official Charter, provides no minutes of any meetings and treats all directives and organization correspondence to groups and centres as internal secrets, it shows itself clearly to be a clandestine and exclusive cult.
• Genuine concern for member's welfare
let me say that Rita Bruce and her husband Robert were persons who did
care for the welfare of other devotees. However, they were exceptions
to the rule in my experience. Many members I met complained of high-handed
neglect by high office-bearers and the failure to assist devotees of the
kind who were evidently labouring under intense psychic problems (of whom
many find their way to Sai Baba groups).During the 18 years my wife and
I were leaders in the Norwegian Sathya Sai Organization, we were constantly
pressurised by the Scandinavian Coordinator, Mr. Thorbjørn Meyer,
precisely NOT to spend time on helping members or visitors to our group/Centre,
but instead to run public service projects which would reach out to the
local community and make Sathya Sai Baba's work known in this way. Had
member's welfare been a concern, then the Charter of the organization
would have granted members SOME rights of redress when they were overridden
in the usual authoritarian manner, especially when they had serious questions
or complaints about the treatment of members by the higher office-bearers.
But the Charter makes crystal clear that membership is voluntary and that members have no claims or rights whatever vis-a-vis the Organization! Thus, many members have been excluded without being able to have a say or a reasonable review of their behaviour, and a fair number of them have written about this since leaving the set-up. Such happened also to top office-bearers, including Lucas Ralli and Aime Levy (both former Central Coordinators for UK). An Australian leader, Stephen Carthew (Spiritual Coordinator for South Australia), sinned by questioning the organizations clamp-down on all mention of the sex abuse scandal and was excluded.
The same happened to Serguei Badaev, former President of the Moscow Centre, who was excluded without any explanation [by Thorbjørn Meyer] as one can read here Conny Larsson of Sweden who tells that he was sexually abused at length by Sai Baba until he understood that it was not any kind of 'psychic healing' as Sai Baba has pretended. Numerous devotees, some murdered, some took their own lives, have received scant sympathy, and the facts were quickly covered up as far as possible. This shows callous lack of concern!
of constructive criticism from nonbelievers
Within the Sathya Sai Organization, criticism is absolutely taboo. Even constructive criticism is very often neglected - of which there are numerous instances. The constructive criticisms of the UK Central Coordinators Ron Laing and Lucas Ralli (of the proposed revised Charter) were treated with contempt, and Ralli was dismissed shortly afterwards. Anyone who visits Sai centres will soon see how any criticism or even questions which might suggest wrongdoing by Sai Baba are rejected. Even office-bearers may not raise any sensitive questions, as the example of Serguei Badaev illustrates definitively. Look into any Sai Baba web site and see that criticism is totally absent, moderators remove all non-positive comments. Only in one instance has criticism been mentioned (but not presented in its own right) in trying to refute it through major misinformation by Dr. G. Venkataraman, Sai Baba's main spokesperson. Examples could be multiplied time and again, and all members of the Sathya Sai Organization are aware that criticism is not allowed by Sathya Sai Baba, and he has stated this himself in several discourses.
• Active encouragement of dialogue between members and the outside world
again, this assertion is totally against all experience and evidence.
It can only be charactierised as an outright untruth! This can be seen
on the Internet - no official (or semi-official) Sai Baba web sites
are outgoing in this way. All discussion is censored strictly so that
only positive presentations of any and every matter concering Sai Baba,
his teachings, his behaviour, his organization are posted. This is far
from "dialogue" which is an equal two-way exchange of views
with no taboos or doctrinal restrictions. Internal instructions are
circulated denying members the right to hold talks or engage in discussions
without the expressed permission of the leaders of the various national
organizations or their major Sai centres. (See
The term 'outside world' is a fitting expression of perceptions held by many Sai Baba followers, that they are a family of 'brothers' and 'sisters' (who consider themselves very blessed to know of and see the Avatar, which they must have earned by good works in this or former lives). Sai Baba has informed occasionally that everyone who visits him has been selected by him and drawn in by some mysterious means! Then there is 'the outside world' of non believers.
Rita Bruce herself is an example of not encouraging dialogue, since she and her husband Robert ceased to answer my e-mails when I began to point out awkward facts I had discovered. This should be sufficient to show how she conforms to the cultist and exclusive standards of the current Organization.
statements by Sathya Sai Baba were one of the most attractive aspects
of his teaching. However, in time the Organization and Sathya Sai institutions
(like the SSS Hospital and Medical Trust) began to advertise for financial
support (in the official Sai journal Sanathana Sarathi). Unfortunately,
the collection of funds became a more and more pressing agenda within
the organization - to finance the various projects for water supply
to the ashram and surrounding villages, to pay for various buildings,
like the Chaitanya Jyoti Museum (another showpiece for honouring the
Sai name) and other projects. Internally there were often requirement
that Centres contribute with materials and symbolic gifts, all of which
required donations and collection of funds. Some projects like the much
publicised and mercenary 'Currency
of Love' project - backed by the then International Chairman, Indulal
Shah - collected funds for investment from which half the profits were
to go to the Sathya Sai Central Trust, and half to the devotee investor.
This 'Sai Service' fund collapsed and all who had responded were asked
to donate their capital outright.
PUBLICITY: Sathya Sai Baba himself completely belies his own words by his constant massive self-publicity and his support for many official Sai promotional web pages, international radio broadcasts, films, videos, books and diverse other media. See here, and here and here.
Visitors to Sai Baba are not encouraged to cut off family members, though frequently Sathya Sai Baba has tried to seperate young couples from one another - often reportedly in connection with homosexual advances to the male part. He also tried to stop a prominent devotee, Al Drucker, from marrying (without success). He has supported the divorce of married couples, a notable example being that of the well known Sai hagiographer, Diane Baskin, from her former husband (Hollywood film producer Joel Reardon, known in Sai literature as 'the Rainbow man'), for whom Sai Baba selected a new husband, Robert M. Baskin (now the lawyer of the Sathya Sai Society of America). However, kidnapping and forcible restraint from meeting one's families are not a feature of the Sai movement as such.
The question of how devotees are manipulated into wanting to donate is an complicated one. Though some Sai followers have handed over most or all of their possessions to him, this has not been any requirement from him or his organization. However, the credibility of Sai Baba was very largely built up over the years through his constant speaking against money collection in favour of voluntary service. This has changed, as so many people have become dependent as employees or otherwise beneficiaries (for business and commerce).
Peer pressure is not intense as
far as I have experienced, but group effect is very strong. Humility
and tolerance characterises the behaviour of many Sai devotees, but
not of many of those who Sai baba has selected as leaders - on the contrary. The top leader, Dr. Michael Goldstein - see here, is anything but
humble and tolerant, as the BBC documentary uncovered, despite his attempts
to avoid key issues and subsequent threats of action to stop the showing
of the film worldwide.
Examples of violence include the 1993 murder episode, among other murders as reported by Basava Premanand.
The quotations from Sathya Sai Baba suggest that his doctrine is universally acceptable and is not in conflict with any religion. However, this is far from being the case. His claim is that he is God Incarnate, and the Deity of Deities to at whose feet all prayers - to whichever God addressed - arrive eventually! This avataric incarnation conflicts radically with basic tenets of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhistic faiths, among many others.
Sai Baba claims that - being the one omniscient incarnation - he alone knows the full and highest truths. He repeatedly states that no one can understand his true, inscrutable nature, and consequently his followers believe that his teachings are 100% absolute truth, surpassing all other beliefs which diverge from his doctrines. His doctrine of 'liberation' and his promises to his devotees that he will liberate many of them also makes Sai followers feel exclusive compared with those who are not so blessed.
The accumulation of a vast fund (by Indian standards) has brought all that one might expect in such a poor country to seek to get 'a hand in the jar'. Numerous donors claim they were defrauded, including myself, not least since waste and extravagance is rife. Money has become very important in the Sai sphere nowadays. See my article 'The Multi-billion Dollar Question' for evidence how people become dependent - also financially - on the Sai authorities (for continued use of the apartments for which they have donated large unreclaimable sums, for example. See here).
Sathya Sai Baba was forced by pressures to deny he had predicted any world catastrophe by events in 1991, when devotees around the world were very disturbed by many reports that he had predicted disasters in numerous interviews and to his students. However, that he HAS predicted disasters is beyond all reasonable doubt, as shown by the report in 'Spiritual Impressions' from an interview (which Sai authorities forced the editor to reprint) and by the widely circulated catastrophe predictions reportedly made to students at Ootacamund, which were allowed to proliferate within the ashram for years and which doubtless affected many fearful people to join the movement, as safety to those in Sai ashrams was supposedly guaranteed.
Sathya Sai Baba is most certainly and undeniably
an authoritarian leader and is the sole source of what the group believes.
Anyone who contradicts Sai Baba's pronouncement is liable to be 'excommunicated'
from the Sathya Sai Organization, as has occured on various occasions.
The rules for daily behaviour are laid down most strictly by Sai Baba,
and the organization tries to enforce them on its members. However,
attempts at this have varying success since the requirements are so
stringent, and also because Sai Baba has said many conflicting things
about what one should or should not do.
As to whether Sathya Sai is corrupt... just consider the massive worldwide accusations by young men of sexual molestation, against which he is protected to the top levels of the judiciary and Government, and also his highly suspect role in the cover-up of blackmail of the police and their execution of four of his devotee young men.
of statements originally attracted many to join Sai Baba's organization.
The best aspect of the Sai Baba movement is its many voluntary workers,
usually those without any say in Organization matters, especially women,
who are excluded from the male dominated Central Trust and the main
Sathya Sai Organization! nfortunately, the selfless service done is
too often misrepresented through exaggeration and propaganda.
However, 18 years involved with the Sathya Sai Organization eventually convinced me that it does not exists 'exclusively for spiritual development' but primarily for the spreading of Sai Baba's name and teaching and serving as a cachement population for donations and possible testaments etc. As national leaders of the Sathya Sai Org. in Norway, my wife and I experienced that many persons joined so as to get favours from Sai Baba, priviliges when visiting the ashrams and not least for personal status. This perception was confirmed by numerous other leaders we knew, such as the Central Coordinators for UK, and Organizational contacts in Southern Europe, South America and the USA.