Asian Voice Article
by Payal Nair
He claims to be the direct incarnation of the saint Shirdi Sai Baba, and is self-proclaimed living god with supernatural powers. The prolific Sri Sathya Sai Baba, India’s most popular and enigmatic spiritual guru with a claimed world following of 30 million devotees in over 165 countries, is no less than a global phenomenon. But, this living avatar has been dogged by controversy for over 40 years. He is the subject of several books, newspaper articles and documentaries, most questioning his god-like powers and, rather worryingly, alleging that he has sexually abused young male devotees for a number of years.
Last Thursday, a BBC 2 documentary entitled The Secret Swami, sought to rake up this controversy once again. Investigative journalist Tanya Datta travelled to Puttaparthi, a large township in Ananthapur District of Andhra Pradesh state, in South East India, the birthplace of Sai Baba and home to his famous Prashanti Nilayam ashram to shed light on recent allegations.
The documentary had a two fold purpose, firstly, to investigate sexual abuse claims against the 78 year-old guru, and secondly to try and ascertain whether he really does have god-like powers. What Ms Datta found were disturbing testimonies by two western devotees, who claim to have been abused as teenagers when they lived in Sai Baba’s ashram during the early 1970s.
Americans Alaya Rahm and Mark Roche say they were subject to degrading abuse at the hands of Sai Baba, and that he had allegedly threatened if they told anyone. "He told me that if I said anything, then my life would be full of pain and suffering. I became afraid that if I told my parents, I would lose them forever. No youngster can handle that," says Alaya Rahm. It further emerged in the documentary that the youngster’s father, Al Rahm, had also been subjected to similar experiences as a Sai devotee, but had thought it was ‘normal practice, an initiation ceremony.’ When asked what he felt about Sai Baba, Mark Roche said, "I feel totally betrayed. I gave 25 years of my life to Sai Baba, and he has completely let me down."
On the subject of Sai Baba’s miracle making, the jury is most definitely out. There have been several formal investigations by western scientists, who have concluded that Sai Baba does, indeed, possess some paranormal and psychic powers. However, the sceptics are out in force within India, and some of the country’s top illusionists claim he is no more than a glorified magician, whose hand waving distracts the crowd while he supposedly conjures up objects out of thin air. However, one phenomenon that remains unexplained is the sudden appearance of Vibhuti (holy ash) from Sai Baba pictures.
With as many critics, Sai Baba also has his large, devoted and loyal following, who will hear no wrong against their god. Some of his famous followers include John Lennon, actor Richard Gere and Bill Clinton. The ashram in Puttaparthi is said to be more visited than the Vatican in Rome, as millions flock to see, touch and be near Sai Baba. Pilgrims come from all over the world, and in particular the ashram sees many foreign devotees from as far a field as Croatia and Nigeria. According to one London-based Swiss devotee, Avalane Prashad, "his appeal is universal because his teachings draw people in, you feel calm and peace when you see and hear him," she says.
The latest allegations against Sai Baba have caused a furore amongst the global Hindu community, some of whom have threatened to take legal action against the BBC. Asian Voice spoke to Mr Ashok Bhagani, a trustee of the Sai Organisation UK, who said, "The BBC has acted totally irresponsibly. The allegations in the documentary are completely factless and baseless." He adds, "What actual evidence does the BBC have to substantiate these claims? These allegations have been circulating for years and have never been proved. As far as I’m concerned, there are 30 million happy devotees in the world, but every so often you will get two or three who will make these wild allegations." Mr Bhagani also states that when devotees are selected by Sai Baba for a private interview, there is always someone else present in the room, and this is especially the case when women and children meet him. "We will not take these claims lying down", says Mr Bhagani, "we will protest and make our feelings clear to the BBC."
A spokesman for the BBC told Asian Voice, "The profile of Sai Baba went to great lengths to be balanced and fair, and did not simply concentrate on the negative allegations."
"As the research developed it became clear that the film was about a crisis and ultimately a betrayal of faith. Genuine Sai Baba followers like the Rahm family have had their faith shattered in the most disturbing manner. The man they believed to be God was repeatedly sexually abusing their son. All over the world similar stories are emerging from former devotees. Governments around the world are deeply concerned and are beginning to take action warning their citizens about Sai Baba."
"We were very keen to cooperate with the Sai Baba organisation in the making of this film, offering them many opportunities to take part but they refused. This was in no sense an attack on the faith. I believe the film showed respect for the genuine believers, and it would have been remiss of the BBC not to examine such allegations. A stance we’ve taken when similar charges have arisen within other denominations."
Speaking about his positive experiences as a biochemistry student at the Sathya Sai Arts College in Bangalore during the 1970s, Navin Patel says, "I’ve studied there long enough, and visited the ashram many times, to know that these allegations are untrue." He adds, "The documentary is very misleading. They have based it on just these two western devotees, who may have their own monetary agendas. Why didn’t they speak to Indian or British devotees, and why weren’t people in the ashram interviewed? In my opinion, it is just western journalists jumping on the Sai Baba bashing bandwagon."
Another devotee, Gitaben Shah, tells me, "Sai Baba is God because he advocates pure love, peace, truth and humanitarian service. He doesn’t ask that people change their religion just that they become better people."
Sai Baba’s motto of "love all, serve all" is particularly evident in the charitable works he has orchestrated of building several schools and the Super Speciality hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, and the large water project he initiated in Bangalore in the 1990s. Adorned by the rural poor as a messiah who has bestowed them with clean water, this is where his popularity is said to lie. Although there have been calls for Sai Baba and his ashram to be properly investigated, he seems to have full impunity from the Indian government, with many ministers, senior politicians , industrialists, judiciary members and Bollywood stars also being devotees.
Whether Sai Baba is a living god, or just a charlatan, one thing is for certain, he is rarely out of the headlines, and will continue to be for many more years to come.
©Asian Voice 26th June 2004
Labels: sai controversy