Sathya Sai Baba – an enigma or a myth?
Posted by robertpriddy on February 14, 2011
If indeed, as has been reported, Sathya was born as a physical hermaphrodite (with both genitalia, which occurs and is a medical fact) this would explain much of the mythology around him from his earliest years. That it is the case is backed up by reports that he has both genitalia (admittedly uncheckable) including by Tal Brooke and two other young men who described being sexually abused by him (see here). When a child is born with significant abnormalities in India – there are several recent cases of children with extras limbs and even two heads – they are invariably worshipped as divinities, as incarnations of one or another deity (Kali etc.). What of a child born who appears both male and female in a backward village of very ignorant extremely superstitious religious Hindus of a lower caste?
In the 1920s in remote Andhra Pradesh the villagers would surely not have had the slightest idea that this is a phenomenon is a medical fact found around the world (relatively few people know this even today). They would of course think the child a Divine Phenomenon – Shiva and Parvathi in one, Purusha and Prakriti in one body. When, in his early teens, Sathya Narayana Raju took the name Sai Baba, he declared its meaning to be ‘Mother Father’ (that is, female and male together) – even though there is no etymological basis for Sai meaning ‘mother’. So Sathya Narayana’s announcement of his being a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba was most likely another way to extend his authority and appeal. The ‘Father-Mother’ imagery of a two-in-one deity was taken further in his Hindu-based doctrines about divinity by Sathya Sai Baba, and not least also in his dress and behaviour. However, after Sathya had become worshipped as a deity in Puttaparthi, his elder brother – who was then the most educated family member, rejected the whole idea… though since then great efforts have been made by the Sai Baba clique to suppress this information along with many other controversial reports which go against his claims.
A large body of hagiography exists describing Sathya Sai Baba a a holy man, a born Divinity and the maker of miracles that even exceed those of virtually any historical figures – and even matching some major Biblical, Puranic and other ancient scriptural myths. How to account for this system of stories and beliefs about his childhood and youth – worshipped as a veritable young Krishna – is a problem faced by all researchers of alleged miraculous phenomena. The sources are all now secondhand, and even then the reliability of peasant villagers’ excessive accounts is highly questionable, not least when one considers the charged emotional and eulogistic language, filled with religious references and flowery descriptions of his ‘majesty’ and ‘unsurpassed humility’, his tremendous ‘Love’ (which is very largely a subjective judgement in any case, of course). Though a full-bodied reconstruction of the true events of those days is obviously largely impossible, there are many facts which point to alternative explanations of how his reputation came about and there are many parallels in past and current Indian life upon which one may draw in trying to understand it all from a reasonable but also skeptical standpoint.
A child who is worshipped as God Incarnate by most of his relatives will be able to do anything he wishes – there would be no normal ‘boundaries’ set for him by his parents that he could not easily ignore or defy. Smt. Vijayamma’s account of Sai Baba as a young boy makes clear that Sathya was able to flout any convention, break any rule, without fear of any retribution (even though he was occasionally beaten up by his schoolmates, according to Kasturi and others). It seems he was treated much as are the hyras (transvestites moving in their own communities) in India, who are almost universally feared there because of the ingrown superstition that they can curse newborn children if they are not allowed to do their dancing and singing ceremony or are not ‘paid off’. They are well-known for many of the psychopathological symptoms that Sathya shows (charm then rejection, smiles then fearful looks, giving up people when they do no serve his interests any more, manipulating people and saying whatever he wishes, contradicting himself all the times – as I have proven from his discourses that he does time and again).
His self-claimed date of birth on 29/11/10926 is contested as his school documents indicate it was 4/10/1929. This supposedly began even in his early childhood in the late 1920s when he was already reputed to have had miraculous powers or helpers. He wrote a booklet in his early teenage called ‘Hisstory’, which a teacher helped him with in very poor English where he made huge claims for himself (this booklet has been destroyed wherever possible by Sai propagandists as it is so revealing and cannot now be easily obtained, while they have covered its original up by publishing a long modern version called ‘Hisstory’ culled from various sources). I have read it but lost my copy. It was in execrable english, despite his teacher’s help in writing it. He claimed to be divine and inscrutable and many related boasts which he maintained – though in a more intelligible form – after Kasturi became his writer. It is known that the young Sathya was, despite all the eulogy about him at school and how his classmates worshipped him, was bullied (he has briefly told of some incidents himself). In an investigative film about him (‘Strange Avatar’) an exiled Former Lecturer of Engineering at Sathya Sai University, Gnanasakarin, told of meeting shephers who had known him as a youth and who said he had been widely teased because of his touching boys in ‘very strange places’ and that he had sometimes been beaten up by them. Despite all the eulogy about him at school and how his classmates worshipped him, he has briefly told of some incidents of being bullied himself. (See the evidence here) This could well have been part of his motive in making such excessive claims for himself, to scare of the over-superstitious and gain him adulation from villagers and others, which is always possible in incredibly credulous India. In any case, his progress in being seen as a divine incarnation went on from there.
Much of the mythology around this ‘avatar’ was developed by the far from prosaic Professor N. Kasturi, a historian but also a poet and religious singer. He began to investigate Sathya’s childhood and youth only some years after he first met him in 1948. By then, Sathya was 22 years old (though the official school records indicate he was 3 years older). Kasturi gathered stories and based his ‘biography’ of those years almost entirely on hearsay. Those who know the extremely rumour-fulled atmosphere around Sathya Sai Baba, the strongly exaggerated talk and superstitious ideas held about him by uneducated villagers (that is, the great majority of Kasturi’s informants) are aware how blind devotion to Sathya Sai Baba causes suppression of all untoward and unsavoury facts about him. One partial exception to this rule is the book by Smt Vijayakumari (‘Vijayamma’) where she recounts her personal experiences of the young Sathya, herself a blind devotee from childhood.
As Prof. Kasturi stated in his official biography (Volume 1 (Satyam,Sivam, Sundaram), the elderly grandfather of Sathya was a performer, . Under his guidance, the family troupe performed in villages around Puttaparthi. Prof. N. Kasturi refers to their activities in village dramas and musical groups, which appears to have been their main employment, since no other employment is ever mentioned. The young Sathya danced, sang and performed in the streets – just as hyras still do today including acrobatics, ‘magic’ and trickery. The young Sathya did such things, as in the famous ‘needle picked up with his eyelid’ incident). Professor Kasturi reported:
“…a girl dancer whose stage name was Rishyendramani, who performed a series of gymnastic dances with music. Her highlight was a dance in which she kept time to the music while balancing a bottle on her head” “ Sathya’s sisters dressed him as Rishyendraman, complete with hair-do and personal decoration…”
Sathya’s uncle – who partook in the extremely deprived family troupe in which Sathya performed – was apparently involved in Tantrism, which tradition is not least associated with a wide range of ‘magical’ practices, sexual abnormalities and supposed siddhi powers, as the famous Mircea Eliade reported and documented in his major monographs on Indian sub-cultures, such as in his ‘Yoga, Immortality and Freedom’). It is likely that the young wonder boy Sathya developed strong intuitive abilities early on and learned the power of suggestion and mass hypnosis, and maybe even so-called ‘siddhis’. (This is the opinion of many persons conversant with Indian religious culture assert of attributed ‘miracles’ – not least Mircea Eliade). See Basava Premanand’s account of this family troupe and a staged modern and more professional representation (brief video)
It is not unreasonable to suppose that – along with the genuine believers in him – there was calculation and conspiracy involved in accepting him as God Incarnate, supported and furthered by those around him who sought a way out of the dire poverty described in much detail by Professor Kasturi and other biographers. This kind of conspiracy to promote persons as gurus, incarnations, deities and so on is far from uncommon in India. The fabulous wealth accumulated by many such figures is itself a huge incentive to fraudulent claims. That the project was successful beyond the wildest dreams of any of the family or others involved is a fact, even though the reality falls very far short indeed of the vast claims and predictions made by Sathya Sai Baba both then and now.
This ploy has been illustrated very well in an Indian novel “He Who Rides a Tiger” (Bhabani Battacharya London, 1960). A crushingly poor peasant walks to a city and sits and prays to Shiva on some barren ground, meanwhile sprinkling water (the traditional ritual of ‘abishek’). Slowly a stone lingam emerges (forced up by a large bag of grain which swells). He is worshipped as a holy man and becomes the centre of a large and most wealthy temple built on the spot. The problems arise when it all gets out of hand and he cannot “dismount the tiger”. Metaphorically, it eats him – for he is exposed and reviled, sinking yet lower than his original state.