Sai’s empire of the soul

Just under 11 years ago, as Satya Sai Baba entered his 75th year, I travelled to Puttaparthi to report on the celebrations. I was not a believer and went as an agnostic explorer of the Baba phenomenon. I was fortunate enough to get a darshan, being pushed into the front rows of the massive throng that he greeted in person.

Others, with greater faith no doubt, were less lucky and only got a “car-shan”, a wave from Baba as he drove past.
Looking back at that visit, I realise I negotiated the thin line between irreverence and insensitivity. Today, soon after Satya Sai Baba has passed away, it is only fair to admit Puttaparthi turned out to be an enormous learning experience. One doesn’t have to be a devotee to recognise Sai Baba was an extraordinary being. If nothing else, his temporal achievements have long established that.
There were aspects to Sai Baba that made him, if not unique, a trend-setter among spiritual preceptors of contemporary India. Puttaparthi was a nondescript village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district when he was born there. He has left it with a world-class university, a super-speciality hospital, an airport, a railway station, not to speak of several other such facilities. In 1995, on the request of local people, the Sai Baba Trust took up the task of supplying drinking water to the entire district, laying pipelines and executing a mandate that should have been fulfilled by the state. The mission was so successful that it is cited as a model by water and sanitation specialists.
Many religious gurus either acquire land and set up massive ashram complexes or do good works or both. Very few institutionalise their legacy and ensure it will live on after they are gone. One has no idea what will become of the Sai Baba universe, whether at its seat in Puttaparthi, in Bengaluru’s Whitefield and elsewhere, or at its 100 odd schools and 3,000 odd Sai Centres across the world. Yet Baba built the best structure he could.
Years ago he understood one man could not run this network and do justice to the millions of rupees his followers were donating to his ashram. He put together a trust that included India’s most respected civil servants, jurists and businessmen, all of them disciples of Puttaparthi of course. The chief executive officer of Sai Baba Inc. was K. Chakravarty, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who Sai Baba hand-picked for the job of secretary of the trust. Mr Chakravarty resigned from the IAS in 1981, though he still had 20 years to retirement to go. Since then he has run the network with an iron grip and the hawk-eye of a civil servant.
Admittedly, aberrations and accusations have crept in. Even so, it would be churlish not to acknowledge Sai Baba’s vision. As far back as 30 years ago, he sensed that the wealth that had been placed in his care by his devotees and the social welfare programme he had initiated was too big to be run by amateurs and minor family members. He sought out and brought in the best administrative talent and ceded day-to-day management to it.
Sai Baba was also the first modern Hindu evangelist in that he broke free of traditional caste and related allegiances. One of the drawbacks of conventional Hinduism has been the hold of caste identities on particular locations and monasteries. These are largely Brahmin and occasionally, such as in the case of the Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, Rajput/Thakur. From master to follower, the leadership of the order has moved only within restricted lines.
Sai Baba shattered this glass ceiling. In a society governed by a strict caste hierarchy, his family’s origins as a cowherd people of the Bhattaraju community — not far apart from the backward caste Kapus of Andhra Pradesh and positioned similarly to the Yadavs in north India — were never an issue.
It was often believed Sai Baba’s matrix of powerful followers — straddling boardrooms and Cabinet rooms, civil servants and judges, members of Parliament and generals — could have been matched only by the late Chandrasekhara Saraswathi, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi who died at 99 in 1994. It must be said that the much-revered Shankaracharya’s influence was derived from an ancient seat. Sai Baba was a self-made guru.
Neither was he a jealous god. You could worship Christ or Krishna or Allah, he said, and still believe in him. He was not wedded to recondite scriptures. While addressing a mass audience, he had the ability to dumb down his message and be embarrassingly epigrammatic: “Help ever, hurt never” and so on. This obviously widened his appeal.
Today, many Hindu religious leaders use the same template, and reach out to a broader, pan-Indian audience. They make adroit use of television and the jet plane. In contrast, Baba built his “empire of the soul” in an age before the communication revolution, before satellite television, the Internet and social media. For a person who had followers from Belgium to Barbados and Central Asia to Central America, it was astonishing that he went abroad only once — to Uganda in 1968.
Finally, how does one assess Baba’s manifestation of vibhuti (holy ash) and even wristwatches from seemingly thin air? Was it evidence of his contention that “matter is energy; and if you will anything, you can create it?” Was it a conjuror’s trick? Worded another way, as a column on the Times of India website put it recently: why did an “avatar need a ventilator… (and die) an ordinary man’s death?”
In the larger perspective, these questions are so meaningless they end up mocking those who raise them. Mother Teresa was compassion personified. Pope John Paul II was among the most charismatic and inspiring men of our times. They both died mortal deaths; yet their Church sees them as saints and identifies specific miracles that they performed and that saved others from a mortal death.
If one respects that sentiment, one has to respect Satya Sai Baba’s manifestation of vibhuti. After all, the clarity of reason is never entirely separated from the humility of faith. As the mournful silence in Puttaparthi reminds us, they are both essential to the human condition.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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