Hyderabad: Sri Sathya Sai Baba, worshipped by millions as god incarnate and derided by detractors as a charlatan, died on Sunday in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh, leaving behind a vast spiritual empire with estimated assets of at least Rs40,000 crore and no chosen successor to occupy his mantle. He was 85.
“Sathya Sai Baba is no more with us physically. He left his body at 7.40am due to cardiac and respiratory failure,” the Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital in Puttaparthi, 450km from Hyderabad, said in a statement.
He had been admitted in the facility’s intensive care unit on 28 March with cardiac and respiratory complaints.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and other influential personalities condoled Sai Baba’s death, Puttaparthi saw a spontaneous shutdown in mourning. About 6,000 policemen had been deployed in Puttaparthi as devotees descended on the town after hearing about the deteriorating health of Sai Baba, who counted presidents, prime ministers, movie stars, cricketers and business leaders among his followers.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, who flew to Puttaparthi, announced four days of state mourning until Wednesday for Sai Baba, whose last rites will be performed with state honours, describing him as a “symbol of love, affection and passion”. His body was moved to his residence, Prasanthi Nilayam, for devotees to pay homage.
Sai Baba’s death sparked concerns of a potential void and a battle of succession in the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust. Formed in 1972, it manages a university, speciality hospital, religious museum, planetarium, railway station, airport and sports stadium in Puttaparthi, administers water supply projects in drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, runs educational institutions and conducts health clinics across the country. The trust, with a presence in 165 countries, accepts only cheque or cash donations through banks, but details of its income and expenses are “shrouded in a cloak of secrecy”, the Press Trust of India reported.
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According to estimates, the value of the trust’s properties, movable and immovable, could be anywhere between Rs40,000 crore and Rs1.5 trillion, the news agency said.
“I have spoken to the trust members,” the chief minister said in Puttaparthi. “The trust members have assured us that all trust activities will continue to go on in the same way as they are going on now. All of us believe Sathya Sai Baba still lives with us. Only his body has departed...They (trust activities) will run in the same way as they are being run now.”
Even if the trustees, who include former chief justice P.N. Bhagwati, ex-Central vigilance commissioner S.V. Giri and TVS Motor Co. Ltd chairman and managing director Venu Srinivasan, name a person to head the trust, it remains to be seen whether devotees will accept the candidate, PTI said.
The trust itself has moved to scotch any speculation about a void following Baba’s death.
“There is or will be no vacuum and we firmly believe that Baba will continue to guide the trustees. The interests of the institutions are paramount,” it said in a recent statement.
Contenders to succeed Sai Baba’s include K. Chakravarthy, who quit the Indian Administrative Service in 1981 and moved to Puttaparthi on the guru’s advice. He has been secretary of the trust since 1994. Sai Baba’s nephew R.J. Ratnakar, son of his late brother Jankiram and an MBA, is another potential successor along with Sathyajit, the personal attendant of Sai Baba since 2002.
Sathyajit, who joined Satya Sai School at the age of five, completed his education from the Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning with an MBA degree as a university topper.
Sai Baba, known to his followers as bhagwan (god), died before the date he had himself prophesied. He had predicted that he would live up to the age of 96, when his successor would be born in Karnataka’s Mandya district.
“The trust will go on as per its constitution,” said J. Eshwar Prasad, a Sai Baba devotee and former judge of the Karnataka high court. “As far as a spiritual successor is concerned, it will happen as he predicted.”
Born Satyanarayana Raju in Puttaparthi on 23 November 1926, as a child Sai Baba was said to be unusually intelligent, known for his talent in drama, music, dance and writing, and as a composer of poems and plays.
On 20 October 1940, at the age of 14, Raju declared himself a reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, whom he referred to as “my previous body”.
In his early years as a spiritual guru, he became famous for producing holy ash and other objects from thin air and was reviled by critics and rationalists, who called him a sleight-of-hand trickster and campaigned against him with magic shows.
He wasn’t spared scandal, including allegations of sexual abuse that were denied by his organization. On 6 June 1993, an attempt was allegedly made on his life by his close aides. Six inmates of Prasanthi Nilayam were killed in the incident, which still remains a mystery. In more recent years, the humanitarian and philanthropic work performed by his organization has been acknowledged even by those who are not his acolytes.
“I am not his devotee, but what I feel is whatever work the Baba has done for the public is exemplary,” said Raghuram Chowdhary, a farmer in Anantapur town. “Making available potable water in drought-prone villages of Anantapur district, setting up of medical facilities and educational institutions definitely deserve appreciation.”