PERSONAL DISEMPOWERMENT IN WORSHIPPING GURUS
EXEMPLIFIED BY THE SATHYA SAI BABA CULT
Part Four - Misunderstood Self-denial
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To belong to the Sai movement socially involves, for most followers, the gradual integration into a self-reinforcing belief system and way of life which tend strongly to alienate many former friends and social connections. One's activities as a social being and a citizen tend to narrow down, then fade away. One talks a different language to other people, so to speak (i.e. Prashanthi-speak) and withdraws into a cocoon of beliefs and behaviours which are foreign to the world, but which lead nowhere but into further dependency on Sai Baba and all things connected to him... and this is sustained mentally and emotionally over long periods in one's home country too. That is the primary reason why there are Sai centers and groups.
Surrender to the guru and his version of everything: 'Good devotees', surrender their independence in following the many rules (explicit and unspoken) which are either taught directly by Sai Baba - or which some officials have brought into effect in his organisation or various institutions. This has inevitable effects on long-term self-confidence, for one becomes part of a social minority, inevitably seen as a religious sect. One denies that it is sectarian with much talk of 'universality, but this is not put into practice, for the Sai organisation is very exclusive of other denominations and is not allowed by Sai Baba to cooperate with any other organisations. Moreover, since the many and weighty public allegations of sexual abuse and other crimes emerged, the entire movement increasingly exhibits the characteristics of a closed cult. So devotees are yet more marginalised socially now, especially those living outside India.
Those who have been hooked through the unusual powers and charming flatteries of Sai Baba, through the 'stories galore' - or his very clever (but at bottom mostly platitudinous) teachings - experience self-satisfaction, it is true. This tends to wane through time and by wear and tear with society at large. The inflation of selfhood (often sheer ego-trip) felt at the outset by those who feel they receive the attention or blessings of an almighty being, later becomes rather threadbare. Outwardly, there is pressure to keep a positive and happy outlook, at least to 'save face'. Yet the majority of followers turn out to accept and labour under a much reduced autonomy in many matters. Acceptable opinions are prescribed implicitly throughout the movement and those who move too far beyond the limits find themselves suddenly ejected without a second thought for them from anyone. Severe depression has often been the consequence, and numerous suicides are known about too... though no systematic information has been gathered by anyone due to difficulties in tracing them (instead, the ashrams and organisation ignore or cover up all such instances.
Double Accounting: In order for committed members of the Sai movement to keep up a minimum of necessary social contact, they often take recourse to a kind of 'double life', not letting people know what they believe about Sai Baba or the depth of their involvement. The Sai movement has developed what may be called its own 'culture of double-accounting'. The one account contains (often quite precise) directions about what to say outwardly in answer to questions etc., and the other contains what people really think about them. Such double-accounting is not an uncommon feature of social institutions which are under cross-pressures from within and without. Sects and cults almost invariably develop some form or another, and even political parties, ministries and governments with something vital to hide can be affected by it.
The Sai movement - including the closely regulated and much more limited Sai Organisation and institutions founded in SSB's name in India and elsewhere - are infused by a special variant of such a double-accounting sub-culture. It is understood that the world at large would ridicule the excessive and ridiculous SSB's claims to Godhood which all must accept. This and many other fantastic claims by Sai Baba have increasingly to be kept largely 'on the closed account', not least also because the entire undertaking has come under critical scrutiny due to many and weighty allegations of criminal behaviour by Sai Baba himself.
The Sai movement is held together by numerous illusions that persist within the fold and which are carefully protected against reality by its leaders and officials. (Apart from those financially dependent on it or otherwise have something to lose if it collapses). In all matters of any real significance (as well as in absurd time-wasting or otherwise futile activities which are part of all Sai routines at ashrams etc.), one simply has to do what one is told. How far followers actually do this when not under observations is doubtful, for many pay lip-service to the accepted precepts and taboos, but covertly do what suits them (probably on account of psychological necessity). This helps explain the atmosphere of inauthenticity (gushing talk, the Polyanna attitude, religious hyperbole etc.) and double morals that so clearly mark out members of most religious sects. This is largely because, for a big majority of followers, the one thing that matters above all else is as close contact as possible with 'Swami'. The battle for his attention, for the best places and more important roles is very often relentless.
Self confidence versus denial of selfhood: The gradual creeping inward self-depreciation (misnamed as 'limiting the ego', or 'surrender of the self') is well known from many religious movements, but it's nature as dependence and loss of self-determination is very difficult for supporters (i.e. its victims) to recognise. It usually comes of living mostly within a limited circle of people, trying to follow strictly moralistic ideals and overly self-denying precepts. The monastic-type of detachment from worldly things may be less troublesome to more elderly persons who have already lived themselves out in an engaged and active life in the world with broad experience, for they are often less affected by the desires and life-seeking tendencies that are only natural and necessary to real health in younger persons. But for anyone whose life’s meridian is not well passed and who is not psychologically very robust, the Sai Baba doctrine will in most cases hinder personal growth (IF it is possible for one to adhere to it to any large extent). A main reason for this lies in the feeling of impotence instilled by SSB’s constant talking-down of and to people today... and his corresponding admonitions to focus on him alone. He teaches that everything stems from him, the creator of the universe from whom only good things come! (Yet he also says, conflictingly as usual, "everything that happens comes from God"). His insistence on the super-importance of concentration on his name, his form and his person (in actual practice at endless darshans etc.) works effectively as an opiate that dulls personal reflection and living self-awareness, which is instead the basis of genuine spiritual growth.
Modern psychology has developed and tested against experience many conceptual devices for tracing the multiplicity of personality traits, the growth of the ego and the influences operative on emotional and mental conditions of all kinds. Sai Baba hardly ever refers to any of these discoveries and is very evidently not conversant with their theories or terminologies. Though claiming to be in complete touch with the psyche of anyone, knowing it in and out, his discourses repeatedly demonstrate that he suffers from many of the most common fallacies about nature of the human mind and psyche, and this shines through even his words have been heavily edited and sanitised as far as reasonable by editors who are rather more knowledgeable.
In brief, one may say that his teachings on psychic development and spiritual behaviour rely wholly on Indian religious tradition and are primitively fundamentalist, set in black-and-white terms with an iconography and ideology of 'gods versus demons', a world view applied ad lib to the present almost without nuance or proper factual basis. He almost always (and I do mean almost invariably!) speaks in the most sweeping terms and is prone to almost hair-raising over-generalisations about the nature of people, governments, world conditions and on any number of issues. The degree of exaggeration and factual inaccuracy is quite extraordinary for a supposedly intelligent teacher!
SSB's recipe for anti-living: I have shown something of how Sathya Sai Baba's directions for living are so demandingly puritanical and excessively idealistic that most of his followers seem to end up living a virtual non-life. There is much more in his recipe to break down not only the objectionable egoism of morally primitive persons, but the entire personality structure of a democratic and effective civil citizen. One can meet many such cases (especially foreigners) who reside at the ashrams but are doing no work, no 'active service'. Often they are virtually just existing in limbo, coping only with the constant daily problems of subsistence there, and waiting for grace and blessings to fall into their laps. Some have said this to me quite openly!
If you manage to get rid of most or all of your personal desires, as Sai Baba insists everyone should immediately or - failing that - as soon as possible, then existence loses much of its meaning (let alone charm) and the desire to live is itself seriously weakened in the process. It is hardly surprising that constant Sai devotees, esp. single foreign ladies at the ashram, tend to be suicidal. One such a suicide took place while we were visiting in 1990 (covered up by the PN officials immediately).This resulted in the ashram accommodation office not allowing any woman to have an apartment on her own. Various other suicides of disappointed devotees are documented elsewhere, including one involving most members of a large Indian family. There are numerous reports of suicides, of which not more than a handful have reached the press in any country. The ashram authorities enforce immediate damage limitation precautions as soon as anything untoward happens there and very short shrift is given to anyone who persists in inquiries. In this respect, the Sai Baba ashrams are indistinguishable from totalitarian mini-states.
One Sai Baba follower, Mr. Kanheia Jee , a retired Indian army major who had become more or less socially and mentally trapped for 30 years and more as Head of the Administration at Vidyagiri in Prashanti Nilayam together with his leading Seva Dal worker and wife (Mrs. Caveri), put it very succinctly: “If you try to do even half of what Baba says you should, you’ll go stark raving mad!”
The Sai Baba doctrine is backed up by social works and much positive teaching, which appeals to people with the best of intentions, people who have no chance of finding out what really goes on because they are held at arm's length by the guru about 99% of the time. Add to the above the teaching that no one can ever be anything better than a servant of the Lord (i.e. Sai Baba himself!) and to work for him selflessly in total obedience to his all-powerful will. One hopes that all this is for the best, for one's own good and that of the world. But this is a teaching that, once adopted, allows for complete manipulation into doing what he says - or what at least he is said by his minions to have said. The self-contradictions come thick and fast. In short, a wholly unconvincing and non-specific teaching to any discerning mind who has had the time and opportunity to look at it closely.
Looked at in sane social terms, these attitudes develop the basis for despotism and repression, ignorance and weakening of the individual human spirit to stand up for what is right and true. There is no more ingenious way of taking away people's freedom than teaching them that they cannot control their fates except by prayer to him, that only God is free and decides all in his inscrutable way. It is despicable! Thus making people obey and censor themselves entirely so as to give up more and more autonomy and all normal rights, while it works as the subtlest known means of gaining power, fame and wealth by Sai Baba and his men.
Manipulating vulnerable consciousness: Though his extremely puritan moralism and demands for massive self-denial, Sai Baba develops a ‘vulnerable consciousness’ in many people, particularly those who are vulnerable from before for reasons of self-confidence, social discrimination, personality problems etc. His doctrines lay much weight on ideas which are nothing short of self-destructive, though they go under the emotively acceptable label 'removal or destruction of the ego' . Even while he outwardly says some positive, supportive things about how to relate to oneself, they are mostly tied up with expectations of a (better) life in the hereafter. Meanwhile, he asserts all kinds of things which mainly bring a person down, cause them to feel low self esteem or reduced worth… the typical self-denigrations of fundamentalist religion and extreme sects. It is not surprising that suicides are not uncommon among Sai followers, especially young men, adult single women, and even some whole families! The unrealistic expectations that Sathya Sai's teaching and promises induce in people are constantly being disappointed, which can be crushing to those who have developed a 'vulnerable consciousness'. They have been unable to develop the rationalizations or bear the inevitable blows of fate that can follow upon sacrificing themselves, their time, money and relationships in the attempt to follow the teachings and gain the ever-elusive 'spiritual rewards'. This pathetic situation awakens sympathy in anyone who is sensitive enough to recognize it for what it is, and not least it entrenches determination in us to expose the fraudulence practiced on devotees and anyone else who may be lured into the cult by signs, wonders and trickery.
I have observed how Sai Baba has caused a number of unfortunate persons to come to mistrust their own senses and feelings, so that some come to hate themselves and even their own lives. Having been led into an almost completely passive existence of waiting, waiting with folded hands for the guru who never really has more than a few minutes for each person, if that, some devotees are only hoping for an end to it all. This can be seen most clearly among certain residents of his ashram, both native and foreign. Often having donated much of their wealth to Sai Baba, they take up ashram residence and many come to be completely dependent on it. Woe betide those who get on the wrong side of the imperious ashram leadership or of Sai Baba himself!! This becomes a trap, so that some HAVE to keep believing whatever they discover, or else their entire means of living and social network will be lost. Much the same applies to very many who do not go to live in India, but who slowly become cut off from other than Sai followers and who have no alternatives within their own environment.
Sai's puritanical rejections of women and marriage: - Sathya Sai Baba's puritanism is further complicated by many signs of his dislike and even hatred of women (misogyny) and of marriage, which has been mentioned through the years in various ways by many devotees (not only by ex-devotees!). It is visible in his avoidance of women at many darshans, the minimal time he spends on their side and the infrequency of his talking to them. This he cleverly explains away merely by saying that he gives women equal attention in reality. He suggests that they receive extra attention on an astral or subtle level. The literature does NOT bear this out, as accounts of such contacts (dreams, visions, leelas etc.) by males is overwhelmingly much greater than by women.
Sai Baba's misogyny comes clearly to expression in interviews where he not only makes fun about marriage and of married couples, but makes fun of marriage and family in a number of deprecating ways. Some of his well-known derogatory comments to married people are:
"Marriage is 23 hours of problems, 1 hour happiness" (or sometimes he says only 5 minutes happiness);
"Marriage is a sickness"; "One man is alone walks on two feet, when married he walks on four, then children come and after a while he needs to crawl";
"The real marriage is with God"; "First man has 2 legs, he gets marries and becomes an animal with 4 legs. They get one child, a six-legged scorpion, then another, an 8-legged cockroach." (Note: Sai Baba has even reportedly told those on whom he practices sexual molestation that they are married to him etc. I have heard this said by several male devotees!)
Further than this, however, there are many reports in books by devotees - and on the internet and ex-devotees - on how Sai Baba tries to break up male-female relationships, especially between young men and women. He also very regularly tries to sow strife between man and wife - in almost every interview he brings up negative things he supposes occur between a man and his wife. There are literally dozens of instances of which one can read in books about him. I have heard him do this and he even tried it on me by saying, "Your wife is angry with you", which we now agree was a wholly unfounded claim. (I replied "Not so bad, swami", to which he countered 'Not so good'. This again shows how he hates to lose in any encounter and can't tolerate any discussion or give and proper explanation). But such is his reputation in the Sai movement that every word must be taken as God's truth. He has even called a young German man 'a Hitler' for not rejecting the poor woman who was entirely devoted to the fellow. This couple escaped with their lives after being warned by some undisclosed insider at the ashram, as related on the Internet and in an affidavit by one of the many victims of Sai Baba's sexual approaches, Mr. Jens Sethi. They fled and were nearly caught before they got out of India, all of which they reported to the German Embassy in Delhi and they later laid a formal charge against Sai Baba with the German police. (Apropos the credibility of this, I am in contact with a Danish man who told me how his life was also in jeopardy at the ashram and who was saved by an Indian, a former security officer there. The number of missing persons from India and abroad who disappeared while visiting the ashrams is not recorded, for such incidents are hushed up immediately by all means at the disposal of the Central Trust, but about a dozen such cases have been reported either in the press or by the skeptic, Mr. B. Premanand of Podanur, Tamil Nadu.)
Continue to Part Five - Sai 'Groupthink' & Dominance through Psychic Manipulation
Please go to the Public Petition for Official Investigations of Sathya Sai Baba and His Worldwide Organization
(Spanish PETICIÓN PÚBLICA PARA INVESTIGACIONES OFICIALES DE SATHYA SAI BABA Y SU ORGANIZACIÓN A NIVEL MUNDIAL)