Soon after Independence, India chose to build a society that would promote scientific temper. That goal soon became a religious mantra. The idea was to keep nation-building above fractious faiths, and away from subjective spiritual ideals and superstitious rituals.
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But politicians and bureaucrats diluted the idea, encouraging more space to faith in public life—not just for organized religions, but also for swamis, mahants, fakirs, priests, mothers and babas, who guided many of India’s political, business, judicial and business elite. Religion, a private matter, became a public spectacle. Sai Baba, who died on Sunday, ostensibly stayed away from politics but towered above all: not only did he claim miraculous powers, he even said he was an avatar.
Rationalists, scientists and sceptics questioned him. But Sai Baba’s followers mocked them. Scientists didn’t pick on him: from Galileo’s time, scientists have tested unverified claims. Scientists begin every query with a doubt; his followers exuded certainty: suspend scepticism, and truth would reveal itself. Unclutter your mind, and your doubts will melt away. Submit.
To be fair, Sai Baba calmed many of his followers—but what drew many to his fold were two central claims: that he was divine, and that he performed miracles. Nearly 60 years ago, Sai Baba began producing vibhuti, or holy ash, and assorted trinkets, watches, sweets and fruits, presumably from thin air. Magicians showed these were conjurers’ tricks, but to no avail. His followers dismissed the magicians as publicity-seeking tricksters. To experience his miracles, you had to submit to him first. That meant that in a nation of massive illiteracy, he was encouraging people to shelve logic. Sai Baba deftly avoided challengers: Rationalist Abraham Kovoor could never meet him, nor did other sceptics. In The Times of India, C.P. Surendran recalls the amusing story when his mother challenged Sai Baba to give her a jackfruit, after he said she could ask for anything, and he’d produce it magically. Sai Baba hadn’t expected her to ask for a jackfruit; he couldn’t; his followers panicked and shouted at her, driving her away.
But none of that stuck on his flowing robes. The Prime Minister, leading industrialists, film stars, politicians, bureaucrats and even sports heroes turned up to pay homage. Raising a voice against such overwhelming consensus is not easy. Think of the otherwise feisty anchor Sagarika Ghose. In her programme this week, she reassured viewers she meant no disrespect for Sai Baba, when she raised uncomfortable questions about Sai Baba’s wealth and other controversial topics to her panelists. She coyly referred to “all sorts of allegations” against him in foreign publications and the BBC, without saying what they were.
Indian media has asked tough questions about Sai Baba for some time: the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India did it years ago; India Today in 2000; Caravan last year. (Disclosure: I worked at India Today 1988-1991; I write for Caravan. I wasn’t involved with either of those stories). To cut through the chase, those “all sorts of allegations” were about crime, sexual abuse and pedophilia.
To be sure, these were only allegations, and some of the complainants subsequently retracted their claims, but they aren’t the first victims to turn hostile and change their testimony. But when such allegations were made, the response followed a pattern. One, that those making allegations needed help, and were misguided; two, that they were liars and were motivated; three, what about the Catholic pedophilia problem (as if that explained anything); four, unlike Mother Teresa, Sai Baba didn’t convert you (but submitting yourself helped); and five, think of all his good works.
Indeed, Sai Baba’s trust runs a vigorous philanthropic programme, with hospitals providing free healthcare, girls’ schools, and water supply in Anantpur. But his critics claim philanthropy is only a small part of the trust’s revenues. As a succession battle appears to have begun, it is legitimate to scrutinize the trust’s management and governance.
I never saw Sai Baba, but it was hard not to run into his followers who felt hurt by my lack of interest. In the 1990s, when I was a reporter in Singapore, I saw Sai Baba’s large image in the office of a wealthy Malaysian tycoon. He was disappointed when he found that I wasn’t interested in discussing spirituality. I had other business: to ask him about allegations that his company had got a large concession in a rainforest abroad, possibly out of turn. He avoided my questions and talked about inner peace. He was puzzled by my apathy (“But you are from India,” he said) and annoyed by my persistence. I got my story through other sources; I’m sure Sai Baba restored his equilibrium after he read my story.
Another time, a taxi driver in Manila was thrilled when I recognized Sai Baba, whose picture he had on his dashboard. He felt pained when he found I wasn’t interested in his guru. So he asked me: “What’s wrong with you?”
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com