Writings by and about Sathya Sai Baba are full of constantly repeated talk of ‘self-transformation. (I have read the entire extant literature, not only all available texts recording what Sai Baba has said in public twice thoroughly, but over 300 other books, pamphlets and many more articles in English). The disparity between the ‘great changes’ most books describe and what one encounters in practice in all Sai circles eventually led me to conclude that most of the talk of personal transformation on a mass scale and ‘bringing people to God’ is mostly either self-hypnotic conviction, self-enhancing belief or pure and simple personal propaganda.
Unfortunately I was also drawn into supporting these claims in my book about my experiences with Sathya Sai Baba, ‘Source of the Dream’. Though I did not experience much change in myself was possibly due to the fact that I already was a practitioner of many of the values he supports, though not all – and I am glad that I did not support his views on sins, demons, black magic and other superstitions. Nevertheless, by looking as much as possible on the positive aspects of everything and trying my level best to ignore and overcome doubts about people, their apparent motives, their questionable behaviour and much more that Sai Baba recommends as ‘love in action’, I came to overlook almost everything followers did that did not fit the map, so to speak. It seemed likely that he was drawing ill disciplined, selfish and greedy people to himself with the declared aim of changing them through his teachings, preachings and – not least – corrective behaviour. I also attributed things to his influence and apparent ‘spiritual guidance’ that I now see either simply occurred or which I in fact brought about myself. Not that I have made such large claims of ‘self-transformation’ in my own case, for – before I even heard of him ,or met him, I had already believed and acted very largely upon the values and precepts that the good and sensible parts of Sathya Sai Baba teachings convey. Not that I am claiming to be very exceptional… for in my life I have known plenty of upright, well-intentioned, helpful and unselfish people. Not so many in the Sai movement. Yet Sathya Sai Baba underrates and berates his own followers in his condemnations and harangues, which he also directs against almost everyone. He speaks as if everyone in the world as if they were the same as the worst of the people around him in India.
I was once too keen to give any credit I could to Sai Baba, because I then had faith in his authenticity and that his actions were completely good and selfless. I saw him as a focus in truth and goodness, as an exceptional ally in all efforts to educate, raise and help humanity forward. By the age of 66, after learning more than I wished at the time, I knew without doubt that – despite much pretty talk – this does not to apply to many of his observable actions. One learns that one has been deeply deceived! So I now work to help people avoid his snares, which deprive them of their autonomy as well as their energies, time, friends and money.
So what of personal transformation in Sai followers: People do change when they ‘convert’ to a new and religious belief. This partial shedding of identifications and attitudes that apparent ‘seeing the spiritual light’ usually involves consists mostly in arbitrary changes of ideas about oneself and the world and seldom implies deep or real personality changes (which are known in all psychological research to be very difficult to achieve anyway). It feels liberating to convince oneself of new beliefs about things and a change of lifestyle too perhaps. The process of (often quite sudden) rejection of one’s past identifications and acceptance of a new package is a very interesting psychological phenomena about which little has been researched in any systematic way with long-term follow-up. In my experience, Sai devotees have not convinced me that much of their transformation is very substantial. I am aware that these matters cannot be estimated other than simple observation, life experience and intelligent investigations. As a former long-term leader of the Sathya Sai Organization in Norway with fairly wide experience of the Sai movement in a dozen countries, I can say that most devotees do not seem to differ much from the norm, though I have indeed met some of the most selfish, egoistical, ignorant and arrogant person as I have at his ashrams.
In all seriousness, the good allegedly done by Sathya Sai Baba to devotees is overwhelmingly based on anecdotal evidence (mostly by those who claim to have become far better persons than they were). This is notoriously subjective, personally slanted towards idealistic ideas and desires, and involves all kinds of wishful hopes, wanting to make the best out of things, ‘see only the good’ and rosy self-evaluations. I have seen a cross-section of those who make such claims and have found most of them to be a mixed bag… many are in one way or another disturbed socially, emotionally or mentally from the outset. Many who have real sufferings hardly ever report getting much real attention or any direct, important help from Sathya Sai Baba , for often it is imagined help without any credible influence from Sathya Sai Baba . The stories of miraculous aid supposedly from Sathya Sai Baba are many, but literally none are properly researched or documented in any public, serious fashion, many get exaggerated over time beyond recognition, some are almost certainly ‘planted’ by interests around Sathya Sai Baba and also in interviews by Sathya Sai Baba himself (he never sets the record straight, confirms or denies the fabulous or false in public… nor denies the most absurd fables. And why do you think?) Of course, there are many invalids who return year after year without being cured, and there are many more who come and leave disappointed.