Sathya Sai Baba: opulence, show, extravagance and waste
Posted by robertpriddy on October 17, 2009
One cultural difference between many devotees from the East and the West is the attitude towards show and extravagance. It originally appealed greatly to spiritual Westerners that Sai Baba’s life was an example in living without material luxuries and in an eco-friendly, non-consumerist way. His doctrine was very markedly against waste of money, time, energy and food (his ‘Ceiling on Desires’ recommendation). His giving away of necessities to the poor and distribution of food etc. are practical aspects of this philosophy.
It is understandable that ashram facilities for visitors have been much improved since the 1980s, considering the enormous amounts of money donors have also given for this purpose. (The price for the right to use a one-room flat with minimal furnishing for up to one month per annum (and no longer!) had reached $US 7,000.- by 2000, plus daily rental costs while in occupancy!
Through the years I have learned that an appreciable number of Sai followers from Europe and the US feel that increasingly large-scale time-, energy- and money-consuming aspects of the showpiece festivities put on by the powers-that-be in these matters, such as for some of the birthday celebrations and major festivals, could well be considerably reduced. Why promulgate a program of ‘Ceiling on Desires’ while wasting time, energy, money and food on constant festival binges? Much material and effort goes into lengthy preparations and extensive light and flower decorations for the constant round of festivals major and minor which are popular mainly with the wider Indian public. (That these are especially welcome as holiday breaks of monotony for the very poor peasantry of the whole region, who swell the numbers greatly and also may receive free food and some even gifts of clothes etc. is certainly at least no argument against them).
Many Indians and other Easterners – who make up the overwhelming majority of visitors to Sai Baba ashrams – evidently want their god-guru constantly to be surrounded by outward signs of his greatness and make great financial efforts to affect this. He condones many such efforts, according to his own explanations, solely because of the devotion and goodness of those who make them. Yet this going along with such extravagance has only encouraged more and bigger showpieces, which he also invariably accepts and certainly also seems to revel in himself. For example, silver motorised chariots, golden thrones, huge light displays, pomp-filled birthday and many other celebrations. In discourses, Sai Baba has also criticised expensive aspects of ceremonies as the ostentatious Golden Chariot at the Paduka celebrations and asked for it to be sold and the money used for service instead, but he continued to mount it yearly even after this disavowal – see: Sai Baba golden chariot ride Sathya Sai Baba birthday magnificence.
That teacher preaching ‘Serve All, Love All’ should use such huge funds for such publicity in Andhra Pradesh, where many live on the poverty line and clean drinking water still is extremely scarce in huge areas, is beyond serious explanation. The tasks of correction and maintenance of the incomplete and often malfunctioning super-costly ‘Water Project’ that SB caused to be installed with improper planning and undue haste (to be complete for inauguration on his own 70th birthday!), were soon shed onto the AP State authorities. Facts about the malfunctioning are known to Indian experts in water management and not least to the Central Trust, but t admitted and all such problems are suppressed on their publicity website.
All in all, some of the paperwork directives from the Overseas Chairman and others calling for financial support for such projects have confronted many of us with the fact that the Sathya Sai Organization has slid gradually further and further away from SB’s teachings, especially from his insistence on the importance of quality of spiritual work and an organisation based on inner motivation, rather than one supposedly ‘run by leaders’ to achieve worldly projects.
More details of wasteful building & other projects blessed by Sathya Sai Baba: (See photo gallery by clicking here)
Far from all members are able to reconcile this with Baba’s teachings about correct use of money and the primacy of care to the poor, , the very costly “Eternal Spiritual Heritage Museum” and a huge architectural hodge-podge celebrating the Sai universal mission, “Chaitanya Jyothi” reportedly costing over US$5 million, was added in 2000. Numerous recent buildings have been pulled down, such as the Sai Ramesh hall at the Whitefield ashram – a costly pandal hall which was superceded by a much more ‘pukka’ structure after only a few years use. Then there was the Sri Kasturi Reading Room – pulled down after a few years to make room for including the huge and ostentatious luxury apartment building for statesmen VIPs that is seldom in use. All this bad (non-prescient?) planning is also seen in the demolition of the one-time Shanthi Vedika at P.N. which became a hindrance, the permanently unoccupied luxury apartment villa built beside the Western Canteen and Roundhouses for a Princess (of Thailand?) A former ashram shopping centre at Prashanthi was later replaced recently by a much larger one. A very luxurious ‘lingam-shaped’ temple at Muddenahalli, between Puttaparthi and Bangalore, managed by the Sathya Sai Central Trust, cost over Rs. 200 million when built around 1993 on the lines of the Prashanthi Nilayam mandir, with a luxury apartment complex for SB and his entourage. He visits the adjoining school complex, but has not (yet) even stayed one night in the empty apartment. At the Hillview Stadium a costly cricket field project was completed, but only one match took place, where a 20 kilo gold cup was presented to the winning team (see below)!
1) Eternal Heritage Spiritual Museum: This extremely expensive and rather superfluous and misleading ‘museum’ is no museum in any known sense of the word, and most of its artefacts are brand new ones! Many were solicited by the Sathya Sai Organisation, which required a contribution from each country. Sathya Sai Baba’s advent and teachings are the centrepiece of the Museum (somewhat peculiar in that he is not even dead yet), and it is all presented with pomp, tinsel and expense. In short, all SSB has often deplored verbally, but which evidently impresses most Indians. Though the general intention of the heritage museum to illustrate what is universal in religion is good, the results are flawed. For example, when the museum was being installed, V.K. Narasimhan was visited by a foreign lady called Parvati (a middle-aged long-term ashram resident), who had been delegated the job of setting up the section on the Jewish faith. Not being a Jew herself and knowing very little about Judaism, she wanted N’s information and advice.The Eternal Heritage Museum exhibit subsequently represented the Bible’s Ten Commandments as eleven such, starting as follows: “No 1: I am the Lord, Thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” After that comes No. 2: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me…. etc.” No. 3: “Show mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep my commandments.” The huge costs of the building included three human lives: three US devotes were killed in an avoidable accident when the concrete dome collapsed and crashed through three floors, crushing two ladies to death and 26-year old Michael Oliver, who lived 11 hours in great pain with nine fractures and internal injuries. The matter was hushed up immediately. That the parents of a daughter killed have received no proper explanation, not even an offer of compensation, is thought by some to augur ill for the inauguration of such a ‘Spiritual’ Museum.
2) The Kulwant Mantap: The multi-million dollar development of the lavish marbled temple area with a pukka roofing supported by dozens of elaborate tall pillars with a huge movable glass roofing section (very seldom opened) and a completely unnecessary 150-plus huge chandeliers. Successive extensions have been made to increase its size to about 10,000 capacity when packed tight.
3) The Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital at Puttaparthi was originally thought by V.K. Narasimhan, a close servitor of Sai Baba and a veteran and prestigious Goenka prize-winning economic journalist, to be a huge waste of money, viewed as a serious contribution to the massive health problems of the peasant populace. The number of patients it can handle was and still is nowhere in the proximity of the number of deserving cases. The money could have been better employed as prophylactic medicine for huge numbers of the poor, such as in ensuring that all received necessary vitamins and simple medicines, rather than in performing a limited number of very high-tech. Operations. On the other hand, the signal effect of such a hospital environment in such a poor place, and the fact that it was possible to build it and run it, eventually won over Narasimhan from most of his original scepticism about it. There has, however, been some public controversy about its clinical cleanliness and claimed results. It is not open to independent health inspections by regulatory bodies.
Hospital Staff Buildings: An American friend of the author, a retired engineer, was at an interview where someone asked why the hospital accommodation had stood empty for nearly 2 years. SSB had replied, ‘It was to give time for the snakes and scorpions to leave’. This may make sense when we read what he said in a discourse, “Many sit here near to me. But are they dear? There are scorpions and snakes near to me in Puttaparthi. Are they dear? No!” (Sathya Sai Speaks new ed. Vol. 25. Ch 9, p. 94). One can imagine that there were many who wished to get some kind of work in the hospital so as to claim need for accommodation, but they probably would not have waited indefinitely for this.
A strange fact remarked on by many visitors is how few people are usually seen in the two (strictly private) super-speciality hospitals (Puttaparthi and Bangalore). One would imagine that hospitals allegedly offering free medical services would be flooded with millions of applicants in this state of Andhra Pradesh, one of the poorest of the poor. The selection procedure is not made public, nor are any registry or other details of activities available.
4) The Sathya Sai International Airport, Puttaparthi: Nonetheless, in such a desperately poor State as Andhra Pradesh, it seems very wasteful, as did the airport beside it which stood unused for years and is still used less than ca. 5% of each week. V.K. Narasimhan was present at the interview in 1990 where airport authorities were present. He told how SSB convinced Indian Airport authorities to finance and build the large (allegedly Jumbo jet capacity) airport near Prashanthi Nilayam, telling them that they would earn 10 lakhs of rupees in the first year. No paying passengers even flew in or out during the first year, The frequency of traffic, at best about 2-3 flights of medium jets per week for several years at periods – and when SSB was in residence – ensured that earnings were minimal and well below costs. It was virtually closed often in the 1990s and it hardly justifies its existence at all nowadays. It is trutly hard to rationalise such a huge waste of funds in such an impoverished land! The reason can only be Sai Baba’s patently obvious desire for ‘name and fame’. See Sathya Sai Airport “white elephant” for sale!
5) The Unused Cricket Stadium and Golden Cup. On 30/12/1997 world cricket stars and TV stations were invited to a ‘Cricket Unity Cup’ on an expensively-prepared field in the Hillview Stadium, Prashanthi Nilayam. (see here) SSB is reported as having said: “It will be brought by four boys in a trolley. It is very heavy. It cannot be lifted. It weighs 20 kgs. Pure gold.” A college teacher exclaimed; “1 Crore, Swami!” (i.e Rs.10 millions) SSB: “Yes, yes.” Teacher: “Individual cup, Swami?” SSB: Yes, yes. Each player one Cup. 1 Kg. of silver. Round cup, one side ball, one side bat. We can keep fruits on it. It can be used in daily life. Outside they give plate on which they write. After some days it becomes copper. This is pure silver, pure gold.” Teacher: “Swami, it is written in Suka Naadi that Avatar will hoist the Sarvadharma flag; and that will be the turning point for the unity of the world.” SSB answered: “Time has come; time has come. Yes, in Suka Naadi it is there, in Sukha Naadi it is there.”
Only a few famous players came, including Sunil Gaveskar (a long-term devotee), G R Vishwanath, Viv Richards of West Indies and lesser-known Doug Brown (only UK player). Flags of 100 countries were carried past by students. The event was a media flop. The huge solid gold cup was given to the winning team and all players were presented with each their solid silver cup.
6) Statues at the Hillview Stadium, Puttaparthi, there are a large number of extremely tall and massive statues representing, among others, Shiva, Buddha, Moses, Christ and a monster statue of Hanuman holding a mountain aloft. These are gaudily painted and look like overblown kitch.The SSO may not have contributed financially, none can tell, but at what cost they were all erected one can but wonder. For many Western visitors these statues typify the usual Indian extravagance and waste among such enormous poverty and suffering.
7) Illuminations, chariots of silver and gold: The 70’th birthday was marked by wasteful extravagance (as are many other festival days each year designed to attract maximum local villagers crowds). Hundreds of moving tableaux/light shows made a kind of mini Las Vegas or Blackpool, stretching the length of the main road in Puttaparthi, over one kilometer in all. These were erected, ran for some days and were then removed. There was an opulent silver chariot in which Sai Baba rode through the crowd of about 250,000 (toted by Sai Baba and his officials as being 3 million, and believed by the credulous too!). The silver motorised chariot comes in addition to the famous and most lavish ‘Golden Chariot’ which was used for several years for the so-called ‘paduka’ celebrations. There is also a full-size statue of Sai Baba in gold, presented by an Italian devotee.
8) The 2001 ‘Chaitanya Jyothi’ major showpiece: Sai Baba’s then right hand man, Indulal Shah, proposed yet another large building project (tentatively named ‘Sai Darshan’) for the 75th birthday of SSB, to be presented by overseas devotees. The decision to forward this proposal was evidently taken by him, but assigned to Overseas Organisation (see here). It was circulated in a (typically undated) letter from him to all overseas Central Coordinators. It was a “commemorative building project assigned to Overseas Organisation and the International UNESCO Conference at Prashanthi Nilayam” as planned for Nov. 23rd 2000 (75th birthday). It was to be an “unique monument of its kind which will convey to the world the life, teachings and divine words of wisdom delivered by Bhagawan Sri Sai Baba over the last 60 years…”
9) The presentation of five brand new, expensive Japanese cars to five of his already very well-heeled cronies (Central Trust members and ashram officials etc.) is a disgrace in that the money for them was donated, no doubt, to the Sathya Sai Central Trust for the uplift of the poor, suffering and uneducated! See Donations to Sathya Sai Central Trust misused by/for directors etc. and here Dr. G. Venkataraman in the limelight
Very considerable expense has been incurred by a number of rich foreign devotees in designing and building rooms for SSB in their home countries on his ‘promise’ to visit them with an entourage. This has been done in Divignano, Italy at ‘Mother Sai House’ (complete with special apartment with Indian bathroom/toilet for SSB) and not least in California at Ojai. Sai Baba has never visited as he has said he would. So as to explain away this it is usually said by devotees to mean that Sai Baba has visited in other ways (‘astrally’ etc.). All these misplaced funds defeat the claim to any ‘ceiling on desires’ doctrine.
See also more extravaganza:-