with Sathya Sai Baba and his devotional movement as an example

This paper outlines part of a many-sided system of control over persons exercised by gurus, swamis, godmen, masters, saints, avatars or whatever otherworldly title certain individuals assume, with special reference to Sathya Sai Baba. The main core of the system is the same for nearly all gurus, both those who are well-intentioned and honest as well as all of the deceitful and more or less fraudulent ones. The same goes for their many techniques and refinements, though the actual roles adopted and the social scenarios and personal stories developed to back them up vary considerably. The likeness between all these many competing masters and gurus, their teachings and methods of instruction, are often so striking that there can be little doubt that they draw upon a common culture which holds beliefs and skills which serve to control and exploit people to the guru's advantage. This culture has been developed and extended in certain religions over millennia, most often originating in India, where the guru-chela relationship is so ancient and widespread.

The "guru trap" is one of the most successful means of exploiting people, often having a very positive face, behind which facade there is almost always a concealed desire for power over others, fame, money and the unhindered satisfaction of the guru's human desires. The same themes are used to control and gain power over others, whether with kind or selfish intent, but their presentation and use varies from the simplistic to the very most sophisticated and subtle kinds of brainwashing. There is no guarantee that an intellectual skeptic or a scientist will see through the many-layered ideology and phenomena which can be involved.
An august line-up of scientists and other intellectual workers have been drawn to many gurus. Fortunately, after many years of adherence, some have disaffiliated themselves, having gone through the charade and seen it for what it is.

The guru-trap is always baited with the attraction of personal spiritual development, transformational and transcendental experiences and teachings beyond conventional education of any kind. It is invariably presented as eternal (but hidden) wisdom direct from the source of all knowledge, especially the kind of illumination that cannot be conveyed by mere words and study. Insights handed down by word-of-mouth via a guru figure have accumulated many methods of control and manipulation of persons. These reach back to an ancient Indian priesthood and the ideology entwined with esoteric texts regarded as scriptures. This tradition does enable acolytes to experience things they would otherwise very seldom do, and to attain certain yogic or tantric powers of the mind and body. The master is a person who knows how to treat each individual to advantage, to mould each kind of psyche towards specified ends (often his own). The student or disciple must thus - through protracted experience - become free of all doubts about and full of respect for him or her. As one's insight into the spiritual life apparently develops through the guru's grace (i.e. His Grace, God's grace direct from - or via - the master) - one should learn to worship him unreservedly. The techniques of suggestion, psyche-manipulation, emotional-mental brainwashing, hypnosis, and the use of rewards and punishments are part of the master's armory. Knowledge of unusual states of mind and body are employed, including what are called 'para-psychological' phenomena. Such phenomena are reported so extremely widely throughout history and human cultures - and especially within Hinduism - that they cannot be denied as such, but the explanation of how the various states come about may be quite non-mystical. Here I take no definitive standpoint on this broad issue, but withhold judgement, while observing that the latest genuinely scientific researches are beginning to explain the most unusual states of mind, from waking visions (UFOs, abductions etc.) to thought transference (also in dreams) and various unusual healing phenomena.

However much they propound their inclusion of all peoples, religions, races etc., these groups are always actually exclusive of those who do not agree with them sufficiently, so dividing their world into 'us and them'. Cult members often call one another 'brother' or 'sister', which they do not extend to others! For example, in the Sai Baba movement, non-adherents are excluded from the 'Sai family' of 'Sai brothers' and 'Sai sisters'. The unavoidable inner tensions and negative feelings within such authoritarian personality cults are redirected outwards, projecting negative qualities onto 'nonbelievers'. The disaffected who may speak out critically are mostly shunned, depersonalized and even demonized by the cult members. The result of this is eventual withdrawal into a sectarian sense of belonging and social cohesion in the face of the perceived outside threat. The perception may be correct, as sects and cults are under threat from the legal systems of the world, ordinary sensibilities and not least, the disaffected who reject the authority and any misuse of power by the guru and his supporters. Such misuses have been uncovered in practically all known sects and cults historically, and continue to be exposed in them in an ever more effective manner today.

Authoritarian power over the participants of groups of any size and spread requires a hierarchy through which the guru can operate. There always arises an inner circle and an outer one, whether formal with the organised rankings of followers or by informal or 'unofficial' rating as to who is most convinced, more active or important to the status of the group. This frequently takes the shape of some kind of 'spiritual class system' with a top-down system decision-making and communication. This is traditionally justified by the guru's wisdom in choosing his lieutenants and leading disciples or representatives, a wisdom which must never be questioned. To echo George Orwell, the dominant attitude in the ashrams and the organisations in theory and practice is, "All devotees are equal, but some are more equal than others." This pseudo-equality is a strong feature of the Sathya Sai Organisation, which has an un elected leadership (selected directly by Sai Baba) and a semi-military discipline embodied in its published rules and guarded and unpublicized inner directives. In his authoritarian role of self-proclaimed mother and father of all beings, Sai Baba insists that 'All are God', but says that only he is fully aware of this. Hence, he accepts being worshipped (as God) and insists on being obeyed implicitly in everything like the strictest of parents!

What can be observed of a great many self-proclaimed gurus and masters of all kinds, unfortunately, is that they preach about how one should act, but do not follow up in their own actions, or even do the exact opposite. One consequence of this steel-hard perfectionism is well known from world literature on many fundamentalist sects is that followers never can maintain the standard set and so become enmeshed in diverse levels of hypocrisy. Those gurus or 'masters' who collect a following to teach and who require obedience to themselves are suspect. The greater effort to enroll followers, the more suspect a guru's motives will be. To convince followers while not doing what one teaches oneself requires a great deal of charisma, a lot of convinced helpers and a large measure of deceptive talk. They will claim to be able to act as God, and so be unanswerable to anyone, but - still more - that their acts are inscrutable and no one alive is in a position to understand or challenge them.

For example, Sathya Sai Baba claims that he does many works of social service which he does not actually do at all, but for which he alone takes the credit. Like many other gurus before him, he claims that he is free of all human limitations. Such gurus must be observed most closely to see if they diverge in any way from their own teachings in actual personal behaviour. Scrutiny can be most difficult as it will mean penetrating through to their inner circle so as to get behind the facade of cleverly organised appearances and the barrage of teaching/propaganda. One would need to get to know their right-hand men to get to the true facts in any matter. It is hard enough for the vast majority of followers even to see beyond the many barriers set up by the already-established inner circle of believers. The lower echelon leaders and the rank-and-file followers are ill-informed, deceived and deluded through subtle ideological and social brainwashing into a protective gang for the guru. The larger the community and movement grows, the easier it is to manipulate through hearsay and stories of all kinds, as the majority are then easily kept at such a distance that the are unable to check anything out personally.

What then can the nature of such a guru or master be? One will not wish to deny that there are some who are selflessly engaged, who have good intention and who have understood much through experience both outward and inward. That they can be 'Perfect Masters of Wisdom' is not accepted, as wisdom would have to include knowing the truth of the universe and this is not known fully. I would require being able to tell future events accurately and fully, yet no one has ever convincingly been able to predict more than trivial happenings or general trends with any accuracy or dependability, and especially not over large spans of time.

However, science is revealing ever more about the cosmos, both its physical and human aspects. The sciences have already reached far beyond the knowledge of ancient 'seers' or 'sages' as to the observable world and what causes what. As to truth, the theory of relativity, which covers the entire universe and even human reality, was never so much as dreamt of by any writer of any scripture, yet it represents the closest to certain, universal knowledge so far achieved. That a person can know the essential truth of all human life and the cosmos cannot be proven scientifically or in any other definitive way. What is not understood is termed 'God', or 'due to divine power' etc., and is therefore subject to the machinations of priest-craft or guru-craft. This cognitive difficulty arises also because everything is also relative to the subject's position and perspective, so claims as to matters beyond proper explanation will always remain in the sphere of speculation and belief.

The circle of admirers keep out all others, eventually depriving them of contact with the world of normal people, when only those who qualify as believers can be controlled and allowed near the guru. If there is no 'court jester' immune from punitive exclusion or death, how can the king know what is really being said? His precarious grip on reality will blight his most ardent subjects. Normal conventions and common sense are flouted in the court of the mighty, because the God-king or dictator simply loses touch with with the populace, what most people really think and feel.

The last person in the inner court of Sathya Sai Baba who could so much as mildly contradict him died on March 9, 2000. He was the famous and retired elderly journalist, V.K. Narasimhan. Even then, Sai Baba lived in a world of vast imaginings, which Narasimhan, as editor of the monthly journal "Sanathana Sarathi" (whose title implies that Sai Baba is Lord Krishna), tried to tone down and make more sensible. But the task was too great, for he could not censor everything, since Sai Baba was set on crowing how the whole world loves him and will soon come to his holy feet, nothing can harm his body or affect him and many another preposterous boast. In absurd discourses, he explained his former staggering (symptoms of his hip-joint degeneration) as being due to the magnetic pull of the earth which was attracted to him - the source of all magnetism in the whole universe. These discourses seem to have slipped under the guard of his editors and were actually published, which shows how far the rot had gone and how little aware Sai Baba is of physics and the educated world's understanding. When Sai Baba simply collapsed and had to have major hip surgery (from which he is visibly not properly recovered), the reason for his staggering could no longer be concealed. It must be highly embarrassing for anyone with even half an education who is associated with him.

Sai Baba's servitors turn themselves inside-out to conceal or explain away his confused doing and sayings. When he collapsed after failing to 'regurgitate' the annual 'golden Shiva lingam' in 2004 (as shown most clearly on the BBC documentary The Secret Swami), his servitors had to cart him off-stage. To save face it was announced that two more gold lingams had materialised from Sai Baba's mouth. When he recovered he announced ": "Out of the stomach emanated Shiva Lingas of the weight of three tonnes. That's the reason why some strain on the face and the body." This statement was captured on the BBC film and so could not be covered up as usual.

Most so-called masters or gurus demand that their followers practise self-sacrifice, do selfless service (which the guru also accepts and expects to receive). Followers must free themselves from ego and all worldly attachments. Yet the very person who preaches this can invariably be seen by any observant (i.e. non-confused) person to have the greatest attachment of anyone... narcissistic self-attachment. Many gurus soon surround themselves with pomp and splendour. Sai Baba takes this self-adulatory practice to new heights.

The guru has to insist on being the sole source of all decisions and assumes total authority. It becomes a case of 'the emperor's new clothes' and 'power corrupts'. The blind believer is a person who cannot (and will not) see the guru's attachments for what they are, rationalising them away by accepting the guru's and his warmest supporters' far-fetched explanations for his aberrant behaviour. The guru will usually take credit himself for all the service and sacrifice of his followers in the worldly sphere, as their teacher, their inspirer, without whom it will be claimed that they would never have achieved anything. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, the devotees become so dependent on the figurehead that they lose more and more autonomy of mind and action. Unknowingly they become the very 'puppets on a string' that Sai Baba says everyone is! This con - drawing everything to oneself - has been perfected by Sathya Sai Baba par excellence, and on a scale that those who have not seen the sheer extent of his influence will find hard to imagine. All the traits described in the above are easily observable in his behaviour and published discourses.

In his discourse, December 26, 2000, Sai Baba - defying the peace-and-goodwill meaning of Christmas - angrily berated his critics, saying that they were bought and how no one has done one thousandth of his good works. How odd that one who proclaims himself God fully incarnate, come to save the entire world within his own lifetime, should feel the need to compare himself to politicians!

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