The death of an Indian guru who built up a worldwide following of up to 50 million people has triggered an unholy scramble for control of his £5.5 billion empire.
by Gethin Chamberlain
Sathya Sai Baba’s claims to divinity, and his apparent ability to magic holy items out of thin air were enough to win him an army of devotees, including celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Sarah Ferguson and Hard Rock cafe founder Isaac Tigrett.
India’s president and prime minister both attended his latest birthday celebrations.
Their devotion was tested to the limits in recent years by persistent allegations that the guru indulged in widespread sexual abuse of young acolytes at his ashram in Puttaparthi in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Yet even when video footage proved beyond doubt that his “miracles” were simple sleight of hand and he was implicated in the murders of four followers, millions still refused to believe the worst.
His death on Sunday, however, is another matter. Sai Baba had built his empire on the myth that he was the reincarnation of an earlier – and much loved – Indian saint of the same name. In doing so, he had prophesied his own death at the age of 96 – and his reincarnation eight years later.
As news of his deteriorating health spread, police were ordered into Puttaparthi to maintain control, with devotees venting their anger and frustration at officials and members of the trust which runs the Sai Baba empire.
With allegations circulating that the trust had neglected Sai Baba’s health in recent months, worried politicians held top-level meetings to discuss whether the state should seize control of his vast fortune.
His nephew, RJ Ratnakar and devotee Satyajit, who had taken over responsibility for his care in recent years, are among those reported to be jostling for control over the Sai organisation.
His death also raises questions about the future of his controversial education programme, which had been expanding worldwide in recent years.
In the UK his organisation has exploited the requirement for schools to provide spiritual, moral and cultural development, which was introduced in the 1988 Education Reform Act.
It promotes the lessons as a way to reverse the trend towards anti-social behaviour and the international Sathya Sai organisation says almost 200 schools across the UK have acquired its manuals.
The UK courses were written by Sai Baba follower Carole Alderman, a regular visitor to his ashram and a devout believer. She has no teaching qualification but did run the Christmas play at his ashram for six years.
Asked in an interview with the Sai radio station about the relevance of his teachings to the challenges faced by contemporary society, she replied: “I’m happy! Almost all of the time. And if I have any problems, I can just turn to Him and He’ll sort them out for me.”
Critics claimed the programme did little more than encourage vulnerable young people to join Sai Baba’s personality cult.
With his saffron robes and trademark Afro hairstyle, Sai Baba certainly cut a distinctive, if diminutive – he stood just 5ft 2 ins tall – figure.
He was never slow to proclaim his own divinity, insisting that his arrival on earth was prophesied by Jesus, that he was the one who originally sent Jesus to Earth and that he was clearly the Lamb of God because his name – Ba Ba – is the noise a sheep makes.
He inspired devotion among his followers, who flocked to the ashram just to catch a glimpse of him and maybe to be given a sprinkling of the holy ash he claimed to be able to materialise from thin air. The lucky ones received watches or gold statues, which he would apparently produce from his mouth.
But for his growing army of critics, he was nothing short of a child-molesting fraud who had for years taken advantage of the gullibility of his young male followers to sexually abuse them during private audiences in his rooms.
Victims have told in harrowing detail how they were groped during private audiences and required to take part in sexual acts with the man they had trusted.
So seriously were the claims taken that for many years the US government warned its citizens to stay away from the ashram because of the risk and UNESCO, the UN’s Educational, Social, and Cultural Organisation, pulled out of a conference at the ashram citing deep concerns about “widely-reported allegations of sexual abuse”.
Sai Baba had dismissed the sex abuse allegations as false and described them as the “cawing of crows”.
“All that is written on walls [or] said in political meetings, or the vulgar tales carried by the print media, should not carry one away.”
But former devotee Barry Pittard said Sai Baba was a dangerous confidence trickster who should have been allowed to have anything to do with children.
“For the worst victims of his depredations, the victims of murder and maiming and people being beaten by his officers and families being broken up and the boys, some of them very young, their sufferings have been very great.”
And former Sai organisation teacher Robert Priddy, who helped set up the teacher training model, said most people teaching the programme were unqualified to do so.
“The aim of embedding ‘spiritual’ values in children was heavily imprinted with indoctrinating them to believe in Sai Baba’s divinity and doctrine,” he warned.
Sai Baba had also been denounced by the Indian Rationalists Association, who debunked his “miracles” and pointed to numerous videos available on the internet which show the one-time conjurer producing items from various places where he has concealed them, including his mop of hair.
The negative publicity had little effect on the growth of his fortune, though. Court documents allege he owned two Mercedes limousines, two BMWs, one Daimler, one Jaguar, and plenty of other Indian vehicles.
The documents also allege he had the roof of his temple lined with solid gold. The grounds of his ashram contain a museum, mostly dedicated to his own works and there are numerous statues, including a slightly larger than life gold statue of Sai Baba himself, a gold chariot, a silver chariot and a cricket pitch laid for an international tournament for which he offered as a trophy a solid gold cup weighing 20kg and valued at £150,000.
The battle for control over that fortune promises to be bitter. Family members have already fired the first shots at the trust, and there are suspicions the state government would like to get its hands on the coffers.
Despite Sai Baba having previously assured his followers that he would not die anytime soon, his physical health deteriorated rapidly in recent months.
He was admitted to his own hospital at the end of last month suffering from pneumonia and breathing problems. On Thursday, his condition worsened and doctors said his organs were no longer functioning. He died on Sunday, reportedly of heart failure. His exact age is a matter of debate: his own organisation put his age at 85, while his purported date of birth in 1926 would suggest he was 84. Others suggest he was born in 1929.
Narendra Nayak, President of Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, said that his failure to reach the age at which he had claimed he would die should be enough to convince people Sai Baba was no God.
Speaking before the guru’s death he said: “Sai Baba is a third rate prestidigitator and manipulator who is now paralysed and he cannot cure himself. How can he cure others? There is a saying in English – physician heal thyself. So I would say Baba heal yourself.”