Yes – the 86 year old, self-pronounced Hindu living god, Sathya Sai Baba, who has an estimated six million followers, is dead. Marvelous phenomenon that he was, he didn’t quite make it to Easter Sunday, which is too bad because it would have been neat and meet for him, the living god and avatar of divinity, to die on that revered day.
Actually, he had predicted that he would live till 2020. He’d also predicted that his “third incarnation”, Prema Sai, would be born in 2028. That remains to be seen.
My interest in Sai Baba – as so many of my interests – derives from my late husband, Morton Klass’s anthropological studies. Sai Baba was the reason why, in the 1980’s, we’d journeyed back to Felicity, Trinidad – an East Indian village – where we’d lived in the 1950’s and where our daughter Perri was born. That second trip was undertaken specifically so Mort could observe the revitalization of Hinduism among our old friends – many of whom had become Baba’s devotees.
Faithful Hindus, living so far from India, the Indo -Trinidadians were attracted by accounts of Baba’s reported marvels: He produced vibhuti (gray, perfumed sandalwood ash) from his fingertips and distributed the holy substance at public audiences. Reportedly, he first pulled up his sleeves to show nothing was concealed and then moved a hand in a circular motion and quantities of the ash flowed from his fingers into the cupped hands of his devotees. Baba also materialized objects: amulets, rings, pendants, jewels out of the air and gave them as gifts; Baba frequently visited followers in their dreams and in visions; he performed miraculous healings as well as incalculable good works. Great wealth had been accumulated by him over the years and he had established trusts for hospitals and school and contributed to many good causes in India and internationally. He had, as well, been accused of various crimes, pederasty with his acolytes and financial corruption. Saithya Sai Baba scandal thrived on the Internet.
I was fascinated by what Mort had learned, and I wanted to see for myself; that was how in 2004 I ended up at the ashram very early one morning in southern India. First, I was being thoroughly frisked for a concealed weapon by a brusque, female Indian inspector. Then having passed muster, I joined a hushed crowd of thousands of other women who were docilely seated on a marble floor! Waiting. It was truly the longest, most uncomfortable wait of my life – barefooted, decked out in a mandatory prayer shawl I had just bought – a curious American among thousands of believers in the vast mandir, the open air pavilion in Puttiparti, I think it’s Puttiparti, India. There were several thousand men, as well, seated separately, at a safe distance.
I was there with Perri; Mort had wanted to go and had not made it. Fascinated by Baba, he’d integrated the Trinidad information and his own years of research to write Singing With Sai Baba (Westview Press 1991). Now Perri and I had, at last, traveled all the way to South India to see for ourselves.
And so we sat and waited and sat and sat. The orderly crowd was policed by the determined devotees: severe looking, young women who shushed any whispering. When our monitor looked away, Perri softly elicited from the friendly young woman next to us that she was from Hamburg, Germany and she and her companion traveled here to Baba every year to celebrate the friend’s birthday.
“Will he come soon?” I dared to ask. She smiled, fondly. “Baba is very playful and unpredictable. No one knows what he will do.” After about two hours there was movement on the stage, a red golf cart appeared and in it was a small stocky frizzy haired man in saffron robes. There was an audible gasp and our neighbors seemed transfixed. No question; he had them in his pocket. He glanced about and many in the audience held up their hands cupped to receive darshan – his blessings. Hymn singing was a form of worship he endorsed. As the cart moved slowly, his own voice was beautifully amplified singing hymns he’d written. (To himself?) The odd red chariot traveled down into the seated crowd and after much more traversing about amidst the throng, it returned onstage and then disappeared.
People didn’t stir or talk. “Is that it?” I whispered to our neighbor. She smiled. “You never know. Sometimes he gives private audiences – and then he comes back. Sit,” she advised wisely. “If you go you lose a second chance for darshan.” I looked around. Almost no one was moving. So Perri and I indecisively sat. I had the next two hours to wonder what I, a non-believer, was doing there. I didn’t take Baba and the red golf cart seriously. Yet he had profoundly affected my life. He’d provided Mort with a fascinating study, an untried return to questions of ethnicity in Trinidad – a new twist. He’d brought me a vast distance from home to southern India, an exotic destination I would never have visited otherwise where I met people who’d come from all over the world.
Our youngest child, Judy, came into my mind. She was then in Nashville, Tennessee, trying hard to sell her original country music. What harm could it do to wish while I waited? I closed my eyes and asked Baba, silently, to help her. I figured it couldn’t hurt.
After two hours the singular red vehicle appeared again for its last round. With good wishes we bid our kind German floor-neighbors farewell and went to have the ashram’s incredible and glorious fifty-cent, vegetarian lunch . Then we found an Internet café and I emailed Judy my news about Baba’s possible intercession for her.
The next day Judy sent a jubilant message. She’d gotten contracts for five songs! Which, in time, alas, came to nothing…. So when Baba died and there were all kinds of pronouncements, some acclaiming his generosity and charity while others measured that against the criminal accusations – I decided to make this personal assessment.
And if Baba couldn’t pull strings in Nashville … well ….
I knew a little of this story from Perri – but I hadn’t heard the backstory about Sai Baba. It must be hard work to be a living god. And, for the record, I am not sure anyone can pull strings in Nashville…