Joel Riordan, a Hollywood film producer, writer and director, was seriously considered divorcing his wife Diana, who was already a believer and had been to Prashanthi twice because of her belief in the supposed miracles Sathya Sai Baba (which her mother also shared).
He went with her to India with came with the intention of exposing Baba, who he sarcastically called a ‘character’, Joel later said that he told ‘an important guy’ he knew in Hollywood that he would ask Sai Baba for a rainbow, as he thought only God could create a rainbow (!!). He made a point of stating that there was no chance his Hollywood friend knew any Sai devotees from California who might have carried this information to Sai Baba as he had later checked on that, but also that, on the plane over, he had told his wife about what he would ask. At the time, his wife Diane later wrote, “Joel’s business crumbled. He tried desperately to save it but it failed. His friends slowly dropped away and life began to weight heavily upon him.” Their visit to Sai Baba together took place in the early 1970s, her mother having been there already for 2 months.
One “hot, dry day” after arriving at the ashram, a bright rainbow appeared in the western sky. The rainbow was, however, not a rainbow but a straight vertical column. (Presumably it had the spectrum colours, though this was not specified as such by Joel or his wife). His wife also confirmed, when asked later, that she had seen it. The spectral column faded from the bottom up (but how long it lasted was not said). No other witnesses came forward to support having seen this, neither at the time nor since. Had it happened surely many would have noticed it (and probably drawn the conclusion that it was another of Sai Baba’s leelas).
Allegedly, when Diane, Joel and Christina (their daughter) were invited to an interview, Sai Baba allegedly said “Well, character, how did you like your rainbow?” Joel later told, “It all blew my mind.” But Joel soon recovered to set a new test for Sai Baba directly and without warning, asking him mentally to produce any fresh out-of-season fruit. He reported that Sai Baba waved his hand and produced a fresh ‘out-of-season’ fig and it is reported that Joel said “He handed it to me without a word”.
How can one explain this apparently indubitable miracle?
If you believe the story before trying to explain it, that is a distinct disadvantage, of course! It is not impossible that the extreme heat, thirst, feeling parched, disoriented, angry at the “primitive living conditions” and Joel’s emotional turmoil caused him to ‘see things’. A bunch of feathers can famously (seem to) become a whole chicken under certain emotional circumstances. Most likely he had the perception he described to Murphet. But Diane was actually not impressed by what she perceived, as she made clear in her 1990 book (see scan). This would at least defuse critics who may see the entire story as invented, or a lie to get attention. Diane may have felt, under the pressure of the situation, she could not refute what he claimed to have seen… much stranger claims are made by partners in critical life situations. Meanwhile, note that the account was first published by Howard Murphet in his book,“Sai Baba Avatar”, who was a major hagiographer devotee of Sai Baba, and whose reporting was often glib and vague on back-up details and whose books were all full of alleged miracles, a considerable number of which have since been shown to be false accounts or exaggerated reports uncritically accepted by Murphet. Among other fanciful Murphet stories is one on how Sri Aurobindo had, through paranormal influence, caused Hitler to take the fateful decision to invade Russia in June 1941! (Believe that if you can, despite the overwhelming evidence of Hitler’s long pre-planned date).
Later Diane wrote up the episode as she experienced it (see scan excerpt from her book & disclaimer). Note that this faith-changing ‘divine miracle’ was evidently crucial to the Riordans’ continued marriage, which did not break down until some years later, when Joel left his wife. Joel has reportedly said before he agreed to visit Sai Baba, “But there was my daughter Chrissie to think of. Anyway, I finally decided that, before doing anything drastic,” Diane Riordan (later Diane Baskin) had been married by Sai Baba himself to Joel Riordan, who turned out very badly, according to Diane in her book ‘Divine Memories of Sathya Sai Baba‘ first published in 1990. Sai Baba had already made Robert Baskin a very close favourite (!!) and he introduced them to each other and told them to wed.
As a Hollywood writer, producer and director, Joel Riordan – clearly a ‘big ego’ person – would have no doubt wished his visit to Sai Baba to be a success, firstly in exposing him but subsequently (after his turnaround) as a figure in the Sai movement, in which he certainly succeeded for some time. He was clearly in both a business, social and life crisis… in short, typical fertile ground for a sudden religious conversion. He would certainly have understood that, to be blessed by Sai Baba with a unique miracle would make his name at the ashram and so among the world-wide Sai devotees, while being ignored would have been a further major personal defeat (as his wife would no doubt be strongly affected by it too). One may surmise that he invented the story and that his wife was pleased to agree that she saw it so as to save her marriage. Those who have been deeply involved with Sai devotees as was I (not least as leader of the Oslo and Norwegian Sai organisation for 18 years) know of them inventing stories about their miracles and leelas from Sai Baba. I have seen followers go to considerable such lengths to gain respect from members and leaders, or to get recognition, organisation privileges and influence in centres etc. That Riordan was accepted by Sai Baba surely had much to do with his wife and her mother already being known as dutiful devotees, but also it is noteworthy that Sai Baba almost never denounced those who told big stories which could increase his following.
Not all stories are what they may seem – especially in a cult
A number of details in Joel’s story are vague and open to question. For example, how did he ensure that his important guy in Hollywood did not speak to anyone who could have spread the news to others or warned the ashram of his intention? Further, to whom may he have spoken about the rainbow during the rest of the day before he was granted an interview next morning, which included Sai Baba’s closest servitor, Professor N. Kasturi. Diane Baskin wrote that he informed them of the interview to come. Surely Joel or Diane would not have been able to keep quite about it with the total besotted believer Kasturi? It was known in the ashram that Kasturi always spoke to Sai Baba very early each morning before interviews, as did the head of the ashram, and Sai Baba usually asked them ‘What news?’. The ashram had many undercover informants who fed what they overheard or learned from others back to Sai Baba on a daily basis, gaining kudos for their efforts.
Another (minor) discrepancy arose when Diane Baskin wrote that Sai Baba gave the fig he produced to her for their daughter, while the official Sai site states that he handed it directly to Joel. As to the ‘out-of-season’ fig, Joel reportedly asked some villagers who sold fruits if they had fresh figs. They did not and apparently told him that no one could find a single fig in South India. (Knowing these fruit sellers of old, I think that – since they had no fresh figs – they would say something like that in the hope he would buy other fruits from them!). However, there are two seasons for figs in Andhra Pradesh: May/June and December through January. The month of the visit is not recorded either by Diane Baskin or Murphet, but it was “very hot and dry” with a clear cloudless sky and “even the water was warm in that season.” Also “the country… looked grim and parched-made me feel dehydrated just to see it“, all of which fits best with May-June before the monsoon).