December 04, 2000 Issue COVER STORY: SATHYA SAI BABA

Test of Faith

The 75th birthday celebrations of the godman focus attention on his work ineducation, healthcare and social welfare. But allegations about sexual misconduct persist.



Test of Faith

As India's most enduring god-man enters his 75th year, his spirituality rests uneasily with controversy

By Amarnath K. Menon and Ashok Malik in Puttaparthi



P.C.SORCAR" Baba's A Bad Trickster"



Of all the qualities his disciples attribute to Sathya Sai Baba, there is one that almost every Indian will recognise as truly divine: punctuality. On Thursday, November 23, to mark his 74th birthday-or, to use official grandiloquence, "the 75th year of the advent of the Sri Sai Avatar" Sai Baba was to drive in to Puttaparthi's Sri Sathya Sai (SSS) Hill View Stadium at the dot of 7.00 a.m. As usual, he was bang on time.

The Baba with his VIP guests at the convocation ceremony


The galleries of the stadium-which accommodate 30,000 spectators when Sai Baba devotees such as Sunil Gavaskar, Alvin Kalicharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Sachin Tendulkar help organise cricket matches-were almost packed. The turf, a remarkably verdant patch in Andhra Pradesh's otherwise arid Rayalaseema region, seated an estimated 1,00,000 devotees. On the stage a pink, blue and yellow film set-like construction, with winged angels playing bugles and flanking the symbols of the world's major religions - sat a twitching chief guest, Union Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. Next to him was the silver throne, waiting, like the throng, for the Master.


Joshi had arrived only at 6.30 a.m., the others had begun gathering as early as 4.00 a.m. At 5.15 a.m., a policeman said, the customary white that Sai Baba's disciples wear had more or less effaced the green of the grass. If there were 1,00,000 and more inside, there were an equal number outside. Puttaparthi, a town that usually houses 20,000 people, was today playing host to 2,50,000, its precarious infrastructure fraying at the edges.


All of Puttaparthi as it were seemed to wait in this private colosseum for the Afro-haired Caesar to ride in triumphant. At about a minute before 7.00 a.m. came the caparisoned elephant, then the brass band, troupes of dancing children and, finally, Sai Baba himself, waving gently from his motorised gold and silver chariot.


As balloons with Sai Baba's likeness were released and crackers were burst in a rough and ready rendition of a 21-gun salute, the march past began. China, Saudi Arabia, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, Nauru, Australia, Western Samoa: flagbearers from 165 countries (see box) presented themselves before Sai Baba. Later came the birthday hymn. A multi-ethnic choir sang a trilingual Redeemer of mankind ... yug avatar Sai to the tune of Happy birthday to you.

The valedictory sermon was, of course, Sai Baba's 90-minute Telugu discourse on love and truth and the oneness of God, on "Bad name is debt, reputation is wealth", on "constant integrated awareness"-translated instantly and with evangelical zeal by the long-serving Anil Kumar Kamaraju. The Platinum Preacher finally left in his white Mercedes-a maroon BMW is his other car. The scene shifted to the kitchens of neighbouring Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Peace), Sai Baba's sprawling 100-acre ashram. It was time for the feeding of the multitude.




The Decision That Changed It All

The numbers may have been larger than usual but the adulation and the atmosphere could hardly have been unknown to Sai Baba. He is after all among India's most enduring godmen; 60 years have passed since teenaged Sathyanarayana Raju returned home from school, flung away his books and told his sister-in-law, "I am no longer your Sathya, I am Sai", the reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi.


That "Grand Declaration" changed an individual's destiny-and a village's too. From a nondescript hamlet, Puttaparthi is now a fairly bustling town. It has a floating population of 10,000 on normal days-adding 50 per cent to its fulltime strength-and survives thanks to the Sai Baba industry.


In the fortnight leading up to the birthday, as Prasanthi Nilayam and its surroundings buzzed with the activity of the World Sai Conference, the convocation of the SSS Institute of Higher Learning-a deemed university, the vice-chancellor of which is S.V. Giri, former Union education secretary-and numerous other functions, Puttaparthi commerce was in its elements.


It was "festival time" and so the Sai Santosh Hotel trebled its room rent from Rs 350 a night on November 21 to Rs 1,000 a night 24 hours later. Italian devotees arriving hours before the birthday bash paid Rs 1,000 for a bed and a pillow in the foyer of Hotel Sai Plaza. Close by, the "World Peace Cafe & German Bakery" did brisk business offering, among other items, yak cheese sandwiches, Danish rolls, French bread, bagels, vegetarian tacos, cinammon sticks from China and two brands of decaffienated coffee, one Swiss the other American. Puttaparthi was catering to the world.


No doubt Sai tourists also dropped in on the 50 Kashmiri carpet sellers who have set up shop in Puttaparthi, the Tibetan curio shop that has opened and the textile and handicrafts mela that invited itself to the birthday celebrations. As always in India, the economics of religion could be matched only by its politics. At the birthday celebrations, Joshi was kept company by Congress MPs S.B. Chavan and Shivraj Patil and a whole host of minor politicos.


>From P.V. Narasimha Rao to N. Chandrababu Naidu, every Andhra Pradesh chief minister has paid obeisance to Sai Baba. The two exceptions have been the late Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, who was, like the Puttaparthi savant, a native of Anantapur district, and N.T. Rama Rao, who with his inclinations towards ochre robes and divinity, thought of Sai Baba's charisma as a rival to his own.


Where netas go, babus follow. The bureaucrat club was present in great numbers at Puttaparthi this past week. H.J. Dora, the director-general of police in Andhra Pradesh and Sai Baba's chauffeur when the religious leader visits Hyderabad, was at hand. So was P.L. Sanjeeva Reddy, secretary, Department of Company Affairs at the Centre.


Over the years Sai Baba's establishment has been served by a galaxy of civil servants. Former Andhra Pradesh chief secretaries I.J. Naidu and K.V. Natarajan worked for him after retirement. Another former IAS man, P. Sitapathi, is now Sai Baba's pro. K. Chakravarthy, an IAS officer of 20 years standing, resigned from the government in 1981 to become registrar of the Institute of Higher Learning and is now secretary of the SSS Central Trust, the fulcrum of Puttaparthi. P.N. Bhagwati, former chief justice, and Y.V. Anjaneyulu, formerly of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, are members of the Central Trust management committee. So too was Justice V.B. Eradi till he was removed recently and Justice Padma Khastagir till she died. Former air chiefs O.P. Mehra and N.C. Suri are Sai Baba devotees. Just before he took over as chief of army staff, General S. Padmanabhan visited Puttaparthi.


This intense concentration of power is both a handicap and an asset for Prasanthi Nilayam. The civil servants bring with them their penchant for shadowplay. Crowds are meant to be controlled to the point of regimentation. The press is an unnecessary obtrusion. Subordinates practically click their heels and address senior ashram functionaries as "Sir". In some ways, it is the spiritual answer to Delhi's Shastri Bhavan.


The other side of the story is that Sai Baba is the sole veto holder. He balances the equations between competing coteries and keeps everybody on their toes. So when it comes to the smallest decision, only "Swami" can take it-but nobody has the courage to ask him to. Like so many institution builders, Sai Baba believes in centralised command. This has its pitfalls. When the charges of paedophilia (see accompanying story) began being levelled, nobody at Prasanthi Nilayam was ready with a counterattack.


Today, even the murder attempt on Sai Baba in 1993, in which his driver and cook died and the four disciples turned alleged assailants summarily shot by the police, is linked to inter-coterie warfare.


Despite the intrigues, for literally tens of millions of people around the globe Sai Baba is an object of reverence. While he himself says, "I am God and you are also God. There is latent divinity in us all", for the believers he is the embodiment of the Almighty. "Can an ordinary mortal retain a youthful look? Without wearing glasses or wrinkles?" asks a wonder-struck Mitsuru Iwakai, a Japanese creative arts student spending six months in Puttaparthi.


Where does Sai Baba stand in the pantheon of the mystical men of the east? In terms of political clout, he can be matched only by the late Chandrasekhara Saraswathi, the shankaracharya of Kanchi who died at 99 in 1994. While the shankaracharya's influence was derived from an ancient seat, Sai Baba is a self-made preceptor. In a society governed by a strict caste hierarchy, his family's origins as a cowherd people of the Bhattaraju community-consanguineous to the backward caste Kapus and analogous to the

north Indian Yadavs-have never been an issue. Nor is Sai Baba a jealous god. You can worship Christ or Krishna or Allah, he says, and still believe in him. This has obviously widened his appeal.

As opposed to the libertine permissiveness of a Rajneesh, Sai Baba is quite conventional, men and women not being allowed to live or eat together in Prasanthi Nilayam. Against the philosophical profundity of a Jiddu Krishnamurthi or a Swami Ranganathananda, Sai Baba may appear embarrassingly epigrammatic: "What is youth? You Think Like Hanuman"; "Help Ever, Hurt Never." Even so, he seems to speak the language-if not in words in wavelength-of the individual disciple. Followers explain he dumbs down his message to reach a larger audience.


That last point really is the key to Sai Baba's future plans. He has predicted that he will die in 2022 and, eight years later, be reborn in Gunaparthi village of Karnataka's Mandya district to a woman called Kasturi. His next avatar will be called Prema Sai Baba and will have nothing to do with Puttaparthi.


In his early days, Sai Baba used his "miracles"-in 1990, P. Ramachandra Reddy, Hyderabad anaesthetist, recalls, "The Swami's miraculous healing helped cure a paralytic attack in my left arm"-to gain a following. Now he realises there is need for a more lasting impact, in the form of schools, hospitals and drinking water projects. The first 74 years have been spent converting the individual into the institution. The remaining 22 will be a shot at immortality.


P.C. Sorcar: "Baba's a bad trickster" A step by step magician's view of how Sai Baba performs his miracles

Sacred ash. Or little ball?

P.C. Sorcar considers Sai Baba's vibhuti feat a "common trick" conjured with an ash capsule and a repertoire of make-believe "mudras" to fool the human eye.

SALT FOR ASH: Baba produces vibhuti with ash. Sorcar wets salt to form a small mass or ball pressed firmly between his fingers for later.

THEATRICS: To make salt (or ash) appear out of thin air, a flurry of deft hand gestures, never once giving away the ball, will follow.

LAST ACT: The hand is held out and the salt mass quashed between fingers to pour into a powdery heap.

Gold from air. Or robe?

Sorcar attributes this to a technique called palming - "holding an object in such a way that the palm does not look loaded" - to help appearance/ disappearance.

OFF THE CUFF: Sorcar carefully tucks the object under his sleeve or in the furrow of his palm in quick motions. The flowing robe is a clever cover.

HANDS FREE: In the palm, the object is invisible, seen at certain angles "only by close Baba aides". Swift moves conceal. GOLD GIFTS: Tricking the mind's eye, Sorcar brings forth the object out of his palm or easing it out from his sleeve.

Shivaling. Or mouth match?

On Shivaratri, Baba produces a green crystalline Shivaling from his mouth. Sorcar calls it mouth-ball production. "Anybody can do it, and repeat it too,'' he says.

MATCHING UP: Using a matchbox, Sorcar uses the palming technique, all the time ensuring hand gestures distract the eye from the object.

FAKING IT: Sorcar uses both hands, one concealing the object, the other to cover his mouth, in preparation for the final act.

SPILLING IT: In the "high drama", Sorcar grimaces as his palm discreetly supplies object into and out of his mouth.


Factsheet Sai Baba

The village boy from a middle-class home now meets ministers and runs an empire of the soul


Origins: Born on November 23, 1926, to Pedda Venkama Raju and Easwaramma. He is named Sathyanarayana Raju. The boy Sathya


The early years: "Materialises" candies and pencils for schoolmates. At 14, declares himself reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, the town in Maharashtra whose saintly figure died in 1918.


Evolution: In 1944 travels to Bangalore. His first journey as a savant. Gives up striped shirt and dhoti for a robe, initially greyish-white, then saffron.


Coming home: Between 1948-50 builds Prasanthi Nilayam.


Sai Baba's politics: To date, he has not asked his 25 million-odd followers to vote for anybody. But he has immense political clout and many disciples

from among administrators.


Who's close to him: From P.V. Narasimha Rao and S.B. Chavan to P.N. Bhagwati to T.N. Seshan. In Andhra Pradesh only NTR stayed away.

The upshot: Job requests, going back 20 years for foreign secretaries.


How is Puttaparthi run? The SSS Central Trust manages Prasanthi Nilayam, Music Academy. The Medical Trust runs the Rs 300-crore hospital. The Education Trust runs the deemed university and two schools. The Sai Baba establishment's total investment in the town is Rs 2,000 crore, it owns 600 acres of land.


Other homes: Sai Baba has ashrams in Whitefield, near Bangalore, and Kodaikanal. Spends March-June there.


MNC: Has 2,560 overseas Sai Centres. Sai bodies run 75 schools. Surprisingly, Sai Baba has gone abroad only once: to Uganda in 1968.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------Devoteespeak Among The Believers, There's A Fund Of Faith

"Baba says matter is energy. If you will anything, you can create it." Shivraj Patil, Former Lok Sabha Speaker

"I was introduced to Sai Baba by S.B. Chavan. Baba helped me preside over the Lok Sabha for a full five years (1991-96). Whenever the House would get unruly, I would shut my eyes and think of Baba so that I did not lose my cool. Such thoughts of Baba would inevitably lead the House to order."


"Baba appeared in a dream and taught me to wait patiently for my time." Jette Madsen, Postwoman, Denmark


"When I first came to India in 1977 I was 19. After my relationship with an Indian broke off, I told the Baba that I had left it all to him. I have been here since November 9 for his birthday and even had a 'carshan' as he moved in his car. He waved to me and our eyes met. I am sure Baba will find a spiritual Indian companion for me soon."



A God Accused


Allegations of sexual molestation continue to dog Sai Baba during the 75th anniversary celebrations. But will they stick?


By Vijay Jung Thapa with Lavina Melwani in New York and Syed Zubair Ahmed in London




What happens when faith shatters? For the former devotees of Sathya Sai Baba, it's as if in an instant they have lost their god forever. It is a devastating experience that transports them from promised moksha to a private hell. A disillusionment that has three stages-denial, grief and outrage. In the end the anger, they say, pervades everything. Today, a small but growing number of devotees-both foreign and Indian-all settled abroad, are rallying in anger, alleging that their divine avatar is nothing more than a sexual abuser of boys and young men.


One of them is Jeff Young, an American who was till recently president of the Sai Baba Organisation in the south-central region of the US. He alleges that his son Sam was sexually molested by the godman from 1977 (when Sam was 16) to the summer of 1999-an allegation that was first carried in The Daily Telegraph of London. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, Young confirmed the charges. "The sexual abuse included Baba grabbing Sam's head and forcing him to give oral sex ... Baba would fondle and suck on Sam's penis and get angry because he could not get an erection. Sam said he did not like boys that way. Baba then promised to change himself into a beautiful woman and take

Sam inside of him but it never happened."

For the Youngs, this was a shocking assertion initially because they had revered Baba as a god for over 20 years. They now cringe at the thought that they felt "blessed" in the belief that the godman was ministering to their son's spiritual welfare and allege that all along he was only subjecting Sam to systematic sexual abuse. In one single visit, they recall, they were given seven private interviews while Sam was called in 21 times alone.


In recent months, a litany of allegations similar to those of the Youngs has surfaced, mostly spurred by a document called The Findings that is available on the Internet. This document, written by a former British devotee, David Bailey, lists graphic allegations of sexual abuse by a number of former Baba devotees. It has acted like a catalyst for others to come out with their stories and spawned more critical websites on Baba. Hari Sampat, a software engineer in Chicago who served as a voluntary inner-security member in Baba's ashram from 1992-1995, claims: "I had heard of these paedophilic activities. I investigated them and found all of them to be true. It was then that I knew I had to expose it all."


Sampat and others like him from the UK, US, Europe and Australia have identified victims of sexual molestation by Baba and prompted them to give their accounts to the media in several countries. These increasing allegations are today being taken seriously in many western countries, leading to a rash of defections from Sai Baba groups. In Britain, following The Daily Telegraph story, Labour MP Tony Colman raised the issue in Parliament. A former home office minister Tom Sackville also took up the

matter saying, "The authorities have done little so far and that is regrettable." There is a movement now to urge the British Government to issue warnings to people wanting to visit Baba's ashram.


In Australia too, The Sunday Age carried an article on Baba's sexual abuse. In Munich, Germany, Jens Sethi, a former devotee who claims he was molested, has filed a complaint in the public prosecutor's office. In Sweden, the central Sai group has closed down and so too has a school based on programmes devised by educationists at the Baba ashram in Puttaparthi. In the US, disillusioned devotees are "e-bombing" Foreign Secretary Madeleine Albright's office every day. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, a State Department official in Washington said, "Our embassy in Delhi and our consulate in Chennai have been made aware of these allegations. But this appears to be an issue for the Indian courts."


The impact of these allegations is difficult to discern within the Sai community. The majority of the devotees dismiss them. Says Sheela Kumar, an Indian devotee from the Caribbean who also teaches in a Sai Bal Vikas: "Every avatar has enemies. Even Christ had enemies. What Baba has done, no one else has. This creates jealousy." Others higher up in the Sai Baba ashram reason that these allegations have been going on since decades. Adds a senior member of the Sai Organisation: "With every criticism, Sai Baba

becomes more and more triumphant."


The coterie that surrounds Baba attacks the molestation charges in two ways. One, by simply denouncing the whole thing as an "anti-Hindu" attack-especially since most of those making the charges are foreigners. And two, by preaching that everything Baba does is a "teaching." Even if he is doing something that looks immoral or wrong, they claim, he is doing it because of a purpose and so cannot be questioned.


The devotees are also countering the Internet war on two fronts. First, everybody is encouraged to shun the Internet. Explains Hal Honig, a senior Sai official in New York: "Swami tells us not to look at the Internet but at the inner net." And secondly, by posting sites that support Baba's teachings. One such site-The Sai Critic-urges devotees to believe only their experiences with Baba, stating, "When doubt walks in through the front door, faith walks out of the back door."


But Baba's rebels continue to raise issues even if the mud hasn't stuck, at least among the devout yet. Most of them claim there is a pattern to Baba's molestations. Usually, they add, he "chooses his victims" during his daily darshan by granting them private interviews. Alleges Keith Ord, another former devotee who now lives in Spain: "In the first interview he rubbed me against his hips ... in the second, he fondled my genitals and in the last he was more forceful and kept saying 'do you like to be close to Baba?'"


Baba, the critics allege, also frequently molests young students who study in the schools and colleges of his ashram. Says one such former student Krishna Kumar, who now works in Singapore: "Four of my classmates told me how Baba would occasionally oil their genitals." At first, most devotees believe this experience has something to do with "awakening the kundalini". Claims Sampat: "But they usually realise soon that this behaviour has nothing to do with kundalini and is pure lust." Students like Kumar allege that most people in the ashram know about these activities and the boys that Baba chooses are dubbed "in-form boys". These in-form boys, the critics add, get academic leeway and are not really expected to follow the rules of the ashram. However, the form only lasts for a month or so and then these boys are dropped by Baba and subjected to much torment by their peers. For many of these young boys, the critics point out, the "molestations" are traumatising because they can't tell their parents who are usually devotees themselves. They suffer from depression and guilt pangs of having failed their god who was only "testing" them.


As of now, there are no complaints that have been filed in India. Does that mean that most of the molestations were taking place with only westerners? Jed Geyerhahn, an American who alleges he was molested by Baba when he was 16, disagrees: "I just think the western boys are talking about it, the Indian ones aren't. The western boys have less at stake." Critics point to the sheer power of Baba in India and how his devotees are in the highest rungs of the government. It would take a lot of guts to take on Sai Baba Inc, they add.


Even among the western cases, except for one person, no one has moved court against Baba yet. Critics says this is because they know they won't have the power to summon Baba to court-the allegations pertain to Indian jurisdiction. Besides, even if a case is filed in India, to prove homosexual abuse is difficult. Criminal law experts say the offence would come under Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that lists sodomy as an offence. However, if actual sodomy hasn't taken place, as in all these cases, then proving "an unnatural act" is very difficult.


But, in the end, most of these disillusioned devotees say they are determined to fight-to initiate some kind of legal action and keep building pressure until something snaps. Glen Meloy, who was a Baba devotee for 26 years and now mobilises victims, is more succinct. "I put Baba in the highest pinnacle. For me, he was the God of gods," he says. "Now you're talking to someone who is putting in the same devotion to expose him." But the truth may still prove elusive.


-with Arthur J. Pais in San Francisco


Sydney-based HANS DE KRAKER was an ardent devotee of Sai Baba for five years. His allegations of sexual abuse against the godman first appeared in The Sunday Age on November 12.


Allegations (as sent in a signed affidavit to INDIA TODAY): "As I was paying homage according to Indian customs, I touched his feet. He then grabbed my head and pushed it into his groin area. He made moaning sounds. The same sound that would later confirm my thoughts. As soon as he took the pressure off my head and I lifted it up, Sai Baba lifted his dress and presented me a semi-erect member telling me that this was my good luck chance and pushed his hips towards my face. After careful consideration, I determined that this was not what I wanted and should be doing and responded to Sai Baba that I only wanted his heart. He then dropped his dress, clearly 'caught with his hands in the candy jar' and told me that I had his heart. He went on to offer me 'another good luck chance', which I refused again."


STATUS: Kraker has so far not filed any legal complaint against Baba in his own country. The Sai Baba Ashram in Puttaparthi neither denies nor confirms the charge.


JENS SETHI is a German settled in Munich. He was a Sai Baba devotee for 10 years. His charges were published for the first time by the Focus magazine on September 18.

Allegations (as sent in a signed affidavit to INDIA TODAY): "In the private chamber, Baba said 'Come,' and kissed me on my lips for a long time. I resisted and he gurgled, 'Have no fear. This is a good opportunity, so many are waiting for months and will not get.' He asked me to remove my trousers, unzipped my fly and went with his right hand into my underpants. Baba massaged the genitals unasked. He expected some erection but this did not happen for I didn't feel any sexual excitement. I also didn't come for such games to Puttaparthi. I was really disgusted. Baba was disappointed and had the impudence to say, 'It is very weak, don't waste energy.' When I looked at him, I realised the truth about him. He had such an evil vibration that moment. Soon, he sent me out of the room without saying a word."

STATUS: Sethi recently filed a complaint with the public prosecutor in Munich. The Sai Baba Ashram has no comment on the allegations.


CONNY LARRSON, a Swede, was a Baba devotee for 21 years. His allegations first appeared (in part) in The Daily Telegraph, London on October 20.

Allegations (as told to INDIA TODAY): "Baba called me for several private interviews. I did not know what was happening between him and me but I believed him when he said he was God and was helping me with my problems. It was odd since he did this by physically approaching my genitals, sometimes smearing oil, later by masturbating me and asking for the same to be done to him. He also performed oral sex on me several times. He always seemed to enjoy it immensely. When he asked me to perform oral sex on him, I backed out due to my background as a molested child."

STATUS: No formal complaint has been filed so far. The ashram is again mum on the case.



Controversy could well be Sai Baba's middle name. He has been dogged by various kinds of allegations in the past-though none of them has ever been proven.



On June 6, 1993, gunshots rang out in Baba's ashram. In the squalid incident, four persons (all of them devotees) were killed by the police but passed off as an assassination attempt on the godman. There were a lot of questions. Why did the police kill all four? Where was the Swami all this time? Why would four long-time devotees suddenly turn against their own god? The police justified their action saying they had no option as they found the four assailants in Baba's chambers with daggers in hand. And, as usual, the Baba preferred to remain silent on the issue.


In the mid 1980s, Tal Brooke wrote Avatar of Night in which he gave details of sexual advances made by Baba 20 years ago. It became instant controversy and was denounced by Baba's followers. They described it as a crude attempt to make some fast money. Today, a second edition of the book is out.


*    A growing list of former devotees are coming out with graphic

allegations of sexual abuse against Baba.

*    They include both Indians and foreigners but all of them live abroad.

No case has been filed in India.

*    The Sai Baba Ashram is silent on the charges.