Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the charismatic spiritual leader and development activist in the core areas of water, health and education, who passed away on Sunday, was many things to many people.
To his devotees, estimated at 37 million worldwide, he was the focus of unshakeable faith, transcending the mundane to the miraculous — producing sacred ash, holy water and even wristwatches out of thin air.
To rationalists and professional magicians, he was a trickster whom they unsuccessfully tried to expose. To many others, he was an abuser of young boys entrusted to him by believing parents.
None of these allegations could be proved. Sai Baba himself remained contemptuous of such charges and his devotees remained unwavering in their attachment to him and to the green haven he created at his birthplace, Puttaparthi village in Andhra Pradesh.
Sai Baba was born as Sathyanarayana Raju on November 23, 1926.
After being stung by a scorpion in March 1940, he apparently had extreme mood swings and spoke in Sanskrit, a language he had never learnt. Two months later, he is believed to have produced sugar crystals for his family out of empty air.
When his father demanded to know who he thought he was, the 14-year-old answered that he was Shirdi Sai Baba. Forsaking worldly ties, he left home soon after and gradually evolved into Sathya Sai Baba.
Puttaparthi, which was transformed into a major gram panchayat with over 25,000 inhabitants, has centred since 1950 on Sai Baba’s headquarters, Prasanthi Nilayam, and developed its own sub-culture.
Devotees use the greeting “Sairam” instead of “Ram Ram” and substitute “Sai” in place of deities’ names in devotional songs. Failing health and an accident restricted Sai Baba’s movements in the last few years and he had to use a wheelchair.
Sai Baba was admitted to the Sathya Sai Super Specialty Hospital at Puttaparthi on March 28 following an attack of pneumonia and respiratory problems. His devotees conducted elaborate devotional ceremonies for his recovery. The villagers even retrieved a submerged idol of the local goddess Sathyamma to propitiate her and thereby restore Sai Baba’s health.
Consequent to his devotees’ emotional investment in him, Sai Baba also leaves an enormous material legacy in the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust (SSSCT), which the income tax authorities reportedly estimate has assets worth between Rs40,000 crore and Rs1,00,000 crore. All donations to the trust are exempt from tax.
As to the future, Sai Baba had famously declared during a discourse on Guru Poornima, July 6, 1963, that his advent was part of a triple Sai avatar, which was a triple incarnation of the Shiva-Shakti principle: that Shiva was Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918), that Shiva-Shakti were embodied in his own person as Sathya Sai Baba and that the Shakti principle would incarnate as ‘Prema Sai’ in Mandya district in Karnataka.
The SSSCT has not appointed a spiritual successor to Sai Baba, whose life and works remain an inspiration to many.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.