Sathya Sai Baba imagines that he has importance for the improvement of the status of women, not least because back in the 1990s he instituted a ‘Ladies’ Day’ at his ashram on November 19th. This year the woman President of India, Shrimata Prathiba Devisingh Patil attended this Ladies’ Day at Prashanthi Nilayam, worshipped Sai Baba and gave an address to the crowds about women. It was wholly evident from this address – along with many of Sathya Sai Baba’s statements about women and their role in life and society, that the values they support are very largely opposed to those of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March (see Wikipedia).
“Today, we are gathered at Puttaparthy to begin the 85th Birthday celebrations of Sri Sathya Sai Baba.I pay my regards and I wish him the very best on this occasion. His progressive views on the role of women are inspiring.” (see http://www.ssso.net/091110/191110.html)
Progressive views? Surely, about the last word one can associate with Sai Baba’s views – especially on women – is ‘progressive’? That the first female President of India finds them so speaks volumes about the lack of real female emancipation – even intellectually – in India. He regards the woman first and foremost to be a home maker, a mother and a chaste second-string to her husband. (“Today is 19th November (1999). It is celebrated as Ladies’ Day to remind you of the importance of the mother.” (Sai Baba, Sanathana Sarathi, 12/99. p. 365)
Neither Sai Baba nor President Patil express anything supportive of the most central modern feminist ideals – equality of women with men throughout society, not least in the workplace as regards equal opportunities, rights and – not least – equal payment for equal work. The Sathya Sai Baba ‘teaching’ on women is 90% traditional Indian fare, that is – in a country where women are exploited to extreme degrees in the home and workplace, who have traditionally been excluded from nearly all male occupations, who can be seen to be treated by most men as subservient, second-rate citizens! What may seem progressive in India on this issue is regarded in most modern societies are truly backward-looking. In talking about women and the role and ideals they should adhere to, Sai Baba continually harps back to the mystical past of Rama’s rule and example of Savitri – a women whose intense prayers brought her dead husband back as a blessing from the death deity! Remarkably, Sathya Sai Baba claimed on November 19, 2010, just before his 85th birthday that that Ladies’ Day as instituted by him would be of major importance in forwarding women’s rights through future generations! Considered on the background of the world struggle for genuine female emancipation from their traditional roles and social suppression as represented by the suffragettes in Britain and now expanding throughout the world, Sai Baba’s claim reminds of his many other delusions of grandeur. His Ladies’s Day was first announced in 1995, but International Women’s Day already has its centenary this year, 2011!
If the following is progressive, I would like to know in what sense and to whom it applies (i.e. surely not fully grown Indian men?) … “You should conduct yourself according to the wishes of your mother. Do not disobey her.” (Sai Baba – Sanathana Sarathi 12/99, p. 365).
On one Ladies Day, Sai Baba said:“As today is a sacred day dedicated to women, they should change themselves and help to change the men and the children. They should develop the qualities of sympathy, compassion; love and sacrifice. Study the lives of our great women, who were models of patience, fortitude, compassion and sacrifice. I desire that you should take up the reins of leadership and bring peace and prosperity to the nation by leading ideal lives.” (Sathya Sai Speaks Vol 28, Chapter 32 ‘When Women Are Honoured’)
Comment: The values listed – patience, fortitude, compassion, and sacrifice – are noteworthy because surely they the very qualities which have made women endure without revolt the vast injustices of patriarchal and male chauvinist societies throughout history.
Lacking democracy and ‘rights’ for women
Sai Baba does not allow women in central positions in any of his institutions except those exclusive to women. Not one is represented on his Sathya Sai Central Trust or Prashanthi Council. He avoids women on most occasions, a frequently observed and reported fact even by some keen devotees. Women in the ashrams who work (not the moneyed women visitors with jewels and costly silk saris) are employed mostly only in traditional women’s jobs in India – washerwomen, sweepers, orderlies, nurses. A few are doctors at his hospitals. Women are in general not provided with the same facilities as men at ashram events, such as chairs at conferences, nor are they allotted places on his much-envied veranda. At his walkabout ‘darsans’, Sai Baba very often simply strides past the women’s side and lavishes his attention on men and boys. All in all, Sai Baba must all be very confusing to women devotees! Not least, at Sai events in the ashrams they have to sit at the back and on the ground, while men are always to the fore. But there is one day of the year – Ladies Day – introduced in the 1990s, when women get the prominent place! Numerous students have reported that he is a strong misogynist, and this reputation has dogged him for decades.
Here are some of Sai Baba’s views about what is essential to women:-
“How To Celebrate Ladies’ Day? The Ladies’ Day should not be observed only by making speeches or holding Bhajans. They should endeavour to help the poor and the destitute. Helpless women who have no means of livelihood should be taught some occupations like tailoring to enable them to earn an income. Slum dwellers should be helped to keep their huts clean. The environment also should be cleaned to help the children grow in a pure atmosphere. Proper housekeeping should also be taught to those people. Disease is caused mainly by unhygienic surroundings. Moreover, air, water, mind, everything is polluted. Pollution is causing several new types of diseases” ( Baba, SS. 6/96, p. 160)
Bhagavan then delivered His discourse, in the course of which. He extolled the role of mother as the moulder of the family and the first teacher for children. In the evening, there was a cultural programme entitled ‘Naari Shakti’ (The power of women), which highlighted the glory of Indian womanhood as revealed in the story of Savitri, who brought back her husband from the Lord of death. ” (Editor Sanathana Sarathi 12/96. pp. 328 & 329)
“Women should realise that, irrespective of their education or position, their foremost obligation is to protect the home. For lakhs of students and children who go to school, the mother is the first teacher. From the moment of birth, for every one the mother is the preceptor. If such a teacher leaves her home to teach other children, who will teach her children? For Indian (Bharatiya) women, the first duty is to reform the home and run it along ideal lines! The home and the family is the basic social institution everywhere in the world. When the home improves, the whole world will be better.” Sai Baba at Prashanthi Nilayam on Ladies day – 19/10/1996. (Sanathana Sarathi, Dec. 1996, p. 334)
This is interesting thinking indeed, for each woman must teach only her own children, so “who will teach”. The answer to that is that there is no lack of male teachers, nor of women who are unmarried or whose children have grown up. These women could teach. The faulty assumption Sathya Sai Baba implies he has made in the above, however, is that it is due to the negligence of the home by women that the whole world has become as it is… and we know how Sai Baba sees the world through extremely jaundiced eyes as a place where unrighteousness rules and almost everything is wrong. He puts the burden of the home and the family on women, and the burden of the world on them, just as men have done throughout most of history! His belief is wholly untenable, of course, a prejudice of bygone ages.
Sathya Sai Baba has however bemoaned the fact that women are empowered to work outside the home and earn. Again, he harps back to the past he wants to revive:-
“Rama told Bharata that he should not permit women to take part in affairs of state. Women have their estimable role in household affairs, but they should be kept out of state politics. “Don`t employ women as ministers. The reason is: a nation’s honour is based upon its women. It is only when women maintain their respect and honour that the nation will be respected. It is not proper for women to cheapen themselves by roaming in public places.” and…
“How does the situation in the country today compare with Rama’s conception of an ideal government? The state of things today is 100% contrary to the ideas and ideals of Rama. How, then, can Rama Rajya be established here? If we desire to establish Rama Rajya there should be harmony in thought, word and deed… “ etc. . (Sanathana Sarathi, May 1995, p. 118).
Sai Baba seems to dither back and forth between the tradition he knows from Indian village life and the more modern approach many of his middle-class Indian ladies now hold. Women must in effect do two jobs if need be:- “A lady must look after the home first and then work outside, if necessary… she can study to get degrees, enter politics or do any other work but she should not neglect the home, which is the very foundation of her life.” (Sanathana Sarathi, Dec. 1997, p. 327-8).
No need to stick to the same opinion at all, so Sai Baba changes tack to:- “…in the modern world, it is necessary for the women to share the burden of maintaining the family with their husbands and so the women should also pursue studies as much as possible and take up suitable jobs to share the burden of the family. It will smack of selfishness if the males prevent them from going to work for which they have acquired the requisite qualifications. Women can control the whole world for themselves by virtue of their inherent qualities of love and spirit of sacrifice.” (Sai Baba in a discourse, 19/4/1999 at Kodaikanal. Sanathana Sarathi, July 1998, p. 172)
So now we see that Rama – whose view on women is praised inordinately by Sai Baba – must have been seriously wrong, after all:- “It will not be out of place to mention here that women who have wielded power in Bharat or other countries have proved themselves to be exceptionally able and successful. There have been many kings of Britain but no one ruled the country so well as Queen Victoria. Her rule was marked by righteousness, prosperity and efficiency. There was no discontent during her reign. In more recent times, Indira Gandhi ran the Government with courage and consummate skill. She was prepared for any sacrifice in the interests of her country.” (see Sanathana Sarathi, Nov.-Dec.1995, p. 293). Yes, but nor can more than a very few women ever be seen in leadership positions in India.
In a turnaround from his “women’s place is in the home” talk, he suddenly pronounced: “Women too are doing all jobs equal to men. In fact, women do work more sincerely with dedication. Svami questioned the Director of the Indian Telephone Industries when he came to see Svami, about the percentage of women employed in the industry. He said 99% of the employees were women and added that women do better work than men. They do not stop or step out till the allotted work is completed. They have the work culture better than men. It is nowhere stated in any sacred text that women should only cook and not do work like men.” (Sai Echoes from Kodai Hills, 1998, p. 48-9). Here, Sai Baba sees it as exemplary that cheap women’s labour is exploited in the most boring and repetitive work of telephone exchanges (as they were earlier). These women must work long hours, then be home makers supreme etc. etc. This is much closer to the exploitation of women than respecting and honouring them.