This morning, the world of woo-woo was buzzing with the news that Sri Satya Sai Baba, India's very favorite claimant to miraculous powers, had died in hospital at age 84. I’ll not shed any tears at his death.
This fumbling sleight-of-hand artist dazzled his believers with an amateur and definitely non-mystical trick in which he claimed to produce an ashy substance he called vibhuti [holy ash] and sometimes scraps of food and cheap bits of jewelry – usually finger-rings bearing tin lithographed likenesses of himself. An occasional wrist-watch was “manifested” as well for especially-generous worshipers, each strangely bearing a factory-imprinted serial number… Think about that... This basic “vibhuti” trick had also been ascribed to former “babas.”
At the age of 13, Sathyanarayana Raju – his original name – announced to his family that he was an avatar, an incarnation of God in human form who had appeared on Earth to preach. He said he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a 19th-century Indian holy man. This was a good choice, since the original had been equally venerated by Hindus and Muslims, giving the newly-created Sai Baba a greater range of appeal, of course.
His mother claimed that her son was born via virginal conception, a popular notion promoted by followers of another well-known messiah with whom Sai Baba often identified himself.
His eventual fame and influence made him very powerful, so much so that presidents, prime ministers, assorted politicians, judges and generals sought his company, guaranteeing them substantial votes and public support – and securing insulation for the baba from any legal problems, which were many. The faker was dogged for years by allegations of child sexual abuse yet protected from prosecution by virtue of his powerful political sway. The politicians needed him, he needed them, and the two camps happily fed off one another.
Sai Baba far outranked other wealthy gurus such as the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Shri Rajneesh who first lured Westerners east in the 60s and 70s. The Mahareshi had even charmed the Beatles, for a time… Sai Baba transformed his birth town Puttaparthi into a prosperous wonderland spread over some ten square kilometers, a complex of hotels, resorts, university buildings, a hospital, an airport and a huge ashram thronged with wide-eyed and freely-spending devotees.
Aside from numerous charges of sexual abuse of young male worshipers, Sai Baba was never investigated on the issue, and he was so politically – and financially – well-connected, that all attempts to prosecute him failed. Even in 1993, when his bodyguards shot four male devotees who they alleged entered Sai Baba's bedroom armed with knives, there was never any resolution of the matter. This lack of legal proceedings against the baba is not surprising, considering the level of influence that he commanded. Atal Vajpayee, a former Indian prime minister, once issued a formal official letter calling such attacks on Sai Baba "wild, reckless and concocted.”
Although Satya Sai Baba once predicted he would die in his mid-90s, he also claimed that he could choose the moment of his death.
I can't wait to see the crowd of opportunists who will vigorously compete to be at his funeral declaring their devotion and jostling to be in camera range.