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The Spiritual 'Sigh' Baba

The Spiritual 'Sigh' Baba

April 30, 2011

India's obsession at the death of a mediocre godman and conjurer shows that the country still refuses to shed its medieval identity.

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.”


  • Srikanth Uppuluri
    Srikanth Uppuluri
    24.07.12 01:22 AM

    You may wish to check out for details on the modus operandi
    Quite despicable indeed

  • Sourav Sengupta
    Sourav Sengupta
    21.09.11 03:05 PM
    Dear Mr Chaubey,

    I appreciate your comments. My response is this: Philanthropy is in itself a noble pursuit. What is the need to do it in the name of fake spirituality and mass-deception, unless there is an ulterior motive in mind - that of gaining a mass a following and becoming an object of worship? There are enough human philanthropists in the country for us to have to rever 'super-human' ones.
  • Mani Bhushan Chaubey
    Mani Bhushan Chaubey
    14.09.11 05:37 PM
    Dear Saurav,

    I stumbled upon this page and read your article. I saw Satya Sai Baba for first time in 1968. It was still a humble beginning. There was no fan and fare. Despite of my close relatives being worshipper of Sai Baba, I never developed a sense of devotion for the person. I never made an effort to visit the place unless forced by the circumstances. Furthermore I had been critical of the high level people being connected to him and getting special treatment in the function, getting special pass and special darshan, getting frot row seats when thousands of the devotees would line up hours together to get into the hall. The miracles never appealed to me. However, in the modern days, there are very few, a counted few who would go about establishing a super speciality hospital where the poorest of the poor could can get a heart sergery done that too free of cost, the students who study in the school and colleges of the organisation are not charged any fees, and the college and schools are accreditted as Cat 'A'. This is appreciable job in atime when most of our Govt schools and college are in pathetic condition.

    Of late I had started liking that person as I felt that he had been able to generate job for many people in and around his village, and many people who could not afford treatment at the civil hospitals or Govt hospitals are being treated free of cost.

    I think these efforts of Satya Narayan Raju should not be egnored.
  • raajiv
    26.05.11 02:17 AM
    HI All,

    Ive observed all the comments.Even i do not have anything against Satya Sai Baba. But after my first and only visit so far to Puttaparthi,i was amazed to see the number of followers he is having. Foreign Nationals chant sanskrit bhajans flawlessly which many indians do not bother to do. Also, there are a good lot of facilities like subsidised food, accomodation provided to the devotees.

    But i want to stress on something..all the money that has gone into setting up the Ashram and the Water project to surrounding areas etc.,is public money. It is not a big thing..even if you or me get say about 100 crores donation..i would keep some for myself and invest the rest on some social work. Also, i had an opportunity to speak to a couple of localites near puttaparthi. What they say is majority of the times it is mostly the children of the upper middle class or higher get admitted to the schools and colleges run by the Satys Sai trust and benefit from the free education. A very less percemtage of poor people or below poverty line people get free education. This is what i have heard from them..leaves a lot to ponder
  • Mary
    03.05.11 07:29 AM
    Ur perspective is surely not unusual among learned NRIs and I am happy to note your reflections on the baba with whom my hair has many a time been likened. Reminiscing my experience in Tehran when I met some Iranians who asked me about the baba and whether I believed in him, I wondered about the ind of propaganda. How can these people beguile so many? However I wud like to differ on ur references to Spirituality, which is deep and not an easy thing to share with those who haven't been looking. Faith is something that opens your eyes to things unseen and miracles are something that you will not see if u don't choose to..... Life itself is a miracle and we neither choose the time of our birth and death the most defining moments... what makes us think we know so much?
  • Sourav Sengupta
    Sourav Sengupta
    02.05.11 01:07 AM
    @Sourav, Mangoman and Tys: All three of you seem to share my views but at some level, you are willing to overlook his faults because of his social work or whatever. I do not wish to be over-critical, but I wanted to speak out against the kind of culture we are propagating, and the kind of things/people we are valuing as a society. I respect the fact that in matters of faith, it is difficult to explain why people believe certain things.

    @Jaai: Precisely my feelings..:)
  • Jaai
    01.05.11 07:50 PM
    Just because he's better than reality TV 'stars' is no reason to condone all that blind faith.
  • tys
    01.05.11 03:35 PM
    kuhos to u for talking about this. This is a point of view that needs to be spoken about. Though Iam not very much into godmen and their silly spiritual games, I do have to admit the chap has done quite a bit for the people ..

    However Iam of the opinion that its kind of easy to do social work with someone elses money..ask any of those smugglers and drug dons who contribute a lot to their neighbourhood..but my take is this...of course the guy is a fake, hes probably abt as spiritual as the ash tablet that he keeps between his fingers...of course hes feeding the multitude a rehash of popular morals..and of course there are still a lot among us who needs such guys arnd...dont ask me why..but i guess they he exist.

    because theres a demand for it...and of course the drama will continue....

    now if he kept all that money under the pillow , he would have had a bad headache and also lost some of the public faith ( thats a very fickle thing, this public faith) so the whole hospital buildings and schools and water for the thirsty might have been a PR stunt...but who cares? the hospitals and schools did get build, the water was given to the what if there was a hidden agenda? that there was a reason behind the me one unselfish act..actually dont..keep a cat comes to mind.

    and the best part is he did bring back the afro..
  • the-mango-man
    01.05.11 10:40 AM
    Both the 'Souravs' - the one who got embroiled in the Satya Sai Baba debate to generate the above post and the other who responded in the comments section - have got it right. I agree with both. Since life is imperfect, rather than expecting any saint to rise above the environment, I endeavour to be a realist and not idealist and give benefit of doubt to this 'Godman'. But, my dear Senguptaji has wandered a little into the 'over-critical' domain. Dear friend, weigh someone's life as a whole not in parts. Even if he contributed zilch to the growth of spiritual knowledge, can we completely overlook his humanitarian work? Has he used his 'self proclaimed' spiritual position to bring some relief to humanity especially the marginalized and the not-so-capable? Yes. I consider him a part of the civil society of a nation which is a transitional democracy where demands for resources outscore the supplies in every field and every day. I consider him a kind of 'fusion' energy source who took in less but gave more. Nevertheless, he demanded (and received) offerings, some political other economic. Can we ever equate his contribution to the Apollo chain of Hospitals or the Ambani chain of schools? Or should we compare his work to the Missionary schools and NGOs who also suffer from accountability deficit? It is upto you to decide. I guess I've given the necessary spark for you to keep pondering...And about what is spirituality? I propose - 'To each his own'. If only it could be defined or experienced in one particular precise way - it would stop being spirituality and become science. An artist has his best experiences when with his art. Is the connection spiritual? Was your experience when in your mother's lap spiritual? Only you can tell. ok then.... Aloha Sengupta..c u soon..
  • Sourav Roy
    Sourav Roy
    30.04.11 10:00 PM
    Brillaint article. Great start. I agree with you. Welcome to the community of writers of the NRI.

    I agree with you. However, I have a few questions. It is a fact that in his pursuit of fame (or money or ego, whatever), these godmen atleast teach something good. They are atleast better than those dudes and divas who shed their negative emotions on useless reality shows. Just like these reality shows (and social networking sites) capitalize on the insecurities of the youth, these godmen capitalize on the insecurities of the middle age group. The only difference that makes these godmen better and a much lesser concern for me is the fact that these godmen teach to be good. They teach love, truth, benevolence. They make billion dollar business out our traditional knowledge, but atleast in some (however distorted) form atleast they expose a major chunk of Indians to its culture.

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