Puttaparthy: On the outside, little has changed in the town of Puttaparthy. At the sprawling Sri Sathya Sai Baba ashram, the Vedas are recited and the bhajans are sung. Just as they used to be.
But within, there is turmoil. On 24 April, their living god, as devotees often described Sathya Sai Baba, breathed his last and confusion gripped the town that was his home. The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust—billed to be one of India’s largest with assets worth approximately Rs 40,000 crore—has not yet named its next chairman, the person who will act as the keeper of Baba’s traditions and legacy. Each day brings new rumours, whispers of fresh intrigue and manoeuvring among contenders for the position.
The passing of the mantle in institutions built around the charisma of one man or woman is never an easy process, as evidenced by the trials that beset the organization that used to be presided over by Osho (also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh).
Looming presence: Posters of Sathya Sai Baba at the Sathya Sai hospital and (below) an automated teller machine in Puttaparthy. Photos by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
At Puttaparthy, the initial two contenders were said to be the popular Satyajit, Baba’s caregiver and personal assistant, and R.J. Rathnakar, Baba’s nephew. Since only a trust member can be appointed chairman, Satyajit first needed to be inducted into the council in order to qualify.
But any move in that direction was squelched by Venu Srinivasan, a key trustee of the All India Sai Organizations, when he said: “We have no intentions to include him in the trust” as Satyajit was only a student of the Sathya Sai University chosen to become Baba’s caregiver, and “that is all his position is”.
Other names have since been mentioned: Chetana Raju, granddaughter of Baba’s older sister who runs the women’s welfare trust; P.N. Bhagawati, the 90-year-old former chief justice of India. Rathnakar, a trust member and nephew of Baba confined to a wheelchair, stays in the running.
The latest word is that one, or maybe even two of them, will be chosen at a trust meeting likely next week. Srinivasan refused to give anything away, asking: “Why do you people believe in speculation?”
Few gurus name successors or put in place the procedure to be followed when they die. “Transitions always bring turmoil. Some amount of turmoil is good,” said Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation that has a presence in 152 countries, explaining why he did not care much about the succession question.
Sudhir Kakar, psychoanalyst and author, who has written about the hold godmen have over Indians, explains what the passing of the guru means.
“Once the godman (or woman) is gone, the magic is gone. Except for old timers, new visitors come to these ashrams just like another pilgrimage place,”he said. “It is a place where you were once in contact with divinity, but the spirit is gone.”
Most organizations diminish after the guru goes, except for those with a strong institutional structure in place. Even so, “the best that they can hope for is that they can keep the memory and legacy of their guru secure”, Kakar said.
Long-standing devotees say the organization is unimportant when the guru is alive, then becomes crucial once the guru dies.
“Such organizations served only a perfunctory purpose while the guru lives,”said Rajat Narain, former IAS officer and additional general secretary of Shree Shree Anandamayee Sangha, headquartered in Haridwar. “They performed formal duties of clearing payments and things like that.”
Narain has been a devotee of Shree Anandamayee ma for four decades now. “In our case, Shree Anandamayee ma took decisions on all other matters of administration when she was alive,”he said. “How ashrams will be run, and who will do what duties. The organization is not important until the guru is gone.”
Born in the tiny village of Kheora in Bangladesh in 1896, Sree Anandamayee ma’s high-profile devotees included Indira Gandhi and Jamnalal Bajaj among others. She passed away in August 1982, having established a sangha (society), and setting up a chain of 26 ashrams in the country.
The transition was not too difficult. The householder-devotees and the monks of the order took decisions that were in the common interest. Since the monks were unwilling to take charge, the householders took responsibility for running the society. “It went well for several years. The householders ran administration, and the monks and ascetics—who had lived with ma for decades—provided the spiritual guidance to devotees in her absence,” said Narain. But when these monks, revered by the devotees, also began dying out, a crisis loomed.
Some of those in power within the governing body began to regard it as “an organization of the householders, by the householders, for the householders, where ascetics had no place”, Narain said. “But how can that be? Without them, their place may look like an ashram; but it is only a temple.”
Because of this marginalization of the sadhus, many old devotees of ma fear the sangha is declining and the number of visitors to the ashrams dwindling, Narain said.
Struggles for control are not uncommon and may be the reason why the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission—twin organizations that were formed by the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa after his death—are run exclusively by monks. The thinking is that monks do not have any vested interest, and their life is committed to spreading the principles of self-realization and service.
“It has helped to keep (the) organization agile. They are all committed to one purpose,” said Swami Sarvalokanandji, secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission in Mumbai.
The strategy seems to have worked. More than a century after the demise of its founder, the twin organizations are in robust health, with 176 centres in India and abroad, all of them run on the same set of rules.
Other groups have successfully managed to balance the power equation between monks and householders. For instance, almost 60 years after Sri Ramana Maharshi passed away, the Sri Ramanashram continues to relay his life and messages to devotees across the world.
But it took a while for this equilibrium to be achieved.
“Bhagawan Ramana assured his devotees, shortly before leaving his body on April 14, 1950—where can I go? I am always here—yet his devotees did feel lost and desolate. Some left the ashram and even the town, Thiruvannamalai, unable to reconcile themselves to the physical absence of the master,” wrote V.S. Ramanan, president of Sri Ramanashram, in an email response.
Sri Ramana’s brother Swami Niranjanananda, who had been running the ashram as manager, passed away in 1953, and his son, T.N. Venkataraman, took over as president.
The ashram’s affairs are being managed by a hereditary trust.
“There were many problems initially,”said V.S. Ramanan, grandson of T.N. Venkataraman. “Some old devotees were so upset that they set fire to parts of the ashram after bhagawan’s death and I still don’t understand what made them do it.”
His father faced challenges from within the ashram and without. There were court cases “by certain ambitious people who wanted to gain control of the ashram”, said Ramanan. But then, the old devotees rallied round, helping Venkataraman fight and win the cases.
“To us, it is bhagawan’s will that the ashram is doing well. It’s all a miracle,” said Ramanan.
To the believer, whatever will be, will be.
“We are not worried,”said a Sri Sathya Sai Baba devotee who works in the ashram at Puttaparthy. “Whatever happens is the will of Sathya Sai Baba. If he wishes the ashram should prosper, it will. If he doesn’t, it won’t. And that’s the end of that.”