I write this with considerable apprehension over how it will be received by a largely NRI audience. The subject of my debut post is the late lamented Sathya Sai Baba who I believe has a considerable following within the expatriate Indian community. Since my comments are not going to be exactly decorous and laudatory, I offer my sincere apologies in advance.
The Sathya Sai Baba has been laid to rest with full honours of the Indian State and amidst great outpourings of grief from celebrities, political figures and ordinary men alike. (I would have liked to say ‘laid to rest for good,’ but for the Baba’s well-known propensity for rebirth). In my opinion, the entire pageantry surrounding his death and the association of the State with it is a matter of profound shame for the nation, for we have not only glorified the Baba by so doing, but also legitimized all that he stood for throughout his life – public deception, imposture, trickery, pseudoscience and mediocre spirituality. I might sound malevolent, but I must assure you that I have nothing personal against the ‘godman’ per se. In fact, I am of the opinion that his unconventional hairdo was quite ahead of his time. What I have an issue with, however, is the kind of things he (and all other men of his trade) expects his customers to believe, and which take us back in time to the mediaeval ages – things like reincarnation, miracle healing, magical apparitions and the like. In an age and time when India is sending rockets to explore space and developing cutting-edge computing chips, a public mourning for someone who embodied the supernatural seems completely absurd and incongruous.
It is being pointed out to sceptics like me that great men from all walks of life have been his life-long devotees and that the scale of his philanthropic activities is enough to merit him a high pedestal in public memory in spite of the all the mumbo-jumbo that he claimed to do throughout his career. I take serious exception to both these contentions. Just because Sachin Tendulkar sheds tears at his funeral, there is no reason for the entire world to follow suit. Moreover, there is something fundamentally wrong in calling the Baba a philanthropist. The essence of philanthropy is giving without the expectation of receiving anything in return. Whatever good work the Baba might have done was not for free; it was in exchange for a belief by his followers and beneficiaries in the divine concept called ‘Sai Baba’. He purchased blind faith in his supernatural powers by giving poor and illiterate people in some villages essential commodities like food, water and electricity - things for which they can believe any incredulous and absurd thing they are asked to. Had he done all this as an ordinary, mortal being sans any divine pretensions, I would have held him in utmost respect. But alas, all of his philanthropy seems only to have been an exercise to grow his popularity and feed his vain ego through the ignorance of the uneducated or else irrational masses.
How are we to measure the true worth of his life? If we are to measure it in terms of the number of followers he gathered, then he was a very successful man. If it be the quality of his performances, I would pronounce him pedestrian at best, for in that line of business, he competes with other, more subtle and infinitely more elegant performers like P.C. Sorcar - the very same magician who at one point in time was determined to expose the Baba but later gave up, possibly due to opposition from influential quarters. But if the measure of his life be his contribution to society in terms of spiritual, philosophical or religious output, I fear a closer inspection would only reveal that whatever he preached was mostly banal, common-sense or a restatement of the teachings of other men who have come before him. He has, I believe, not revealed any insights on life and living that a third-standard moral science book does not contain. His life, in that sense, has been really insignificant and definitely not worthy of the kind of fanfare that we have seen in the last few days. Were I to even believe in reincarnation, I would never wish another version of such an overrated person on a thinking and rational populace.
India swears by the motto of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ or ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’. It is interestingly one of the more scientific national mottos in the world, if we compare it with those of the great nations like the US (‘In God We Trust’) or the UK (‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ – God and My Rights). However, we have historically been labelled as the land of Babas, Fakirs, Sadhus and fortune tellers, and by publicly endorsing the life of another such entity, we have lived up to our mediaeval identity and certainly not the one we advertise to the world today. Talking of national identity, there are those who would say that our foremost identity is that of a ‘spiritual’ nation, and paying homage to someone like the Sathya Sai Baba is a part of living that spiritual identity – which brings me to the fundamental question that I wish to pose through this article.
What is ‘spirituality’? Is it the idea that one must surrender one’s intelligence and common sense at the altar of ‘revealed’ wisdom flowing from enchanted demigods? If that be so, then I feel spirituality is a blot on the human intellect and a human being’s essential capacity to think and reason. On the other hand, if ‘spirituality’ talks about the search for meaning in life beyond mere workaday existence and understanding oneself in relation to the universe, then it is one of the noblest pursuits that man can indulge in and I should be proud to associate myself with a spiritual nation. Which of the two identities we wish for ourselves is a choice we have to make and show to the world through our words and actions.
Personally, my understanding of spirituality and the so-called ‘miraculous’ is best articulated in the words of the English novelist Joseph Conrad in The Shadow Line:
“All my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in its essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible world of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state. No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvellous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.”