Bhagwan to millions

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 25.04.11
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In 1969, when he was 43, Sai Baba had declared he would live another 50 years and even predicted the moment of his passing.

It was not to be. When the end came at a hospital in Puttaparthi on Sunday morning, after a nearly four-week battle with multiple ailments, 2019 was still eight years away and he was 84.

But the spiritual guru, who plucked holy ash (vibhuti) and even jewellery out of thin air, never faltered in his ability to draw people and take care of those in need.

Sathya Sai Baba, “bhagwan” to millions, had disciples around the world, across 166 countries.

Born on November 23, 1926, to Easwaramma Raju and Peddavenkappa at Puttaparthi in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, Sathyanarayana Raju, as Sai Baba was called, was a gifted child. He showed talent in poetry, dance, music and drama, was well-versed in the Vedas and had knowledge of languages and the history of different cultures. He also composed bhajans. Then, at the age of 14, he took sanyas.

His early learning would help him later when as Sai Baba, his discourses would mesmerise his devotees, among them rulers, bureaucrats and industrialists. Among those who touched his feet were two former Prime Ministers and a President.

In the early forties, his disciples built a temple to their guru and established an ashram, Prashanthi Nilayam. Puttaparthi’s school dropout son had put the arid hamlet on the country’s map.

Today, Puttaparthi has a railway station, an airport, a university, a super-speciality hospital and a few luxury villas. As Sai Baba’s fame spread, so did the town’s.

But along with fame, came the jab of sceptics.

Atheists and rationalists dismissed his “miracle” acts of conjuring up holy ash, gold chains and Shiva lingas as sleights of hand.

Sai Baba had shrugged off such criticism. “I am not a magician; people come to me not for miracles but only to use me as a grievance pad. I hear their woes, take on their problems and give them happiness,” he had said in an interview.

In the nineties, some of his foreign devotees levelled allegations of abuse. In 2001, Conny Larsson, a Swedish therapist, claimed minor boys were sexually abused in Sai Baba’s ashram.

An American disciple, Alaya Rahm, alleged sexual impropriety during his stay in Puttaparthi. He later withdrew his allegation.

In 2004, the BBC aired a documentary titled The Secret Swami in its series The World Uncovered. One theme of the documentary was allegations of abuse in the spiritual leader’s ashram.

On June 6, 1993, intruders — said to be jealous disciples — barged into Sai Baba’s apartment. The spiritual leader escaped the bid on his life but six persons, including two attendants and a police officer, were killed. Sai Baba later pardoned the assailants.

Attack or accusation, Sai Baba’s legion of devotees continued to swell. According to one count, in 2009 there were 30 million around the world.

In India, where some 25,000 Sai Baba temples have come up across the country, his disciples saw him as a reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, whose teachings combined philosophies from both Hinduism and Islam. According to a report by the Sathya Sai Organisation, there are some 2,009 Sathya Sai Baba Centres worldwide.

Some rationalist groups had estimated that Sai Baba’s properties — spread across Puttaparthi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi — were worth around Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

If the hint was the Sai Baba was an affluent godman, his contribution to society was also considerable. One of his most prominent contributions was the 200km pipeline for Anantpur from a local river. The project has helped bring water to nearly 800 villages.

The two hospitals run by the Sathya Sai institutes of medical sciences at Bangalore and Puttaparthi offer free treatment to nearly 15,000 poor patients every day. According to information given by Sai Baba trusts, nearly 25,000 students, including 5,000 graduates, get free education in Sathya Sai educational institutions across the country.

Sai Baba also had a political side. He had openly championed the cause of the Congress and the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, who went on to become Prime Minister. In the recent past, he had thrown his weight behind an integrated Andhra Pradesh and opposed a Telangana state.

In 2006, Sai Baba suffered a hip fracture when a student standing next to him on a stool during a prayer slipped. Both the boy and the stool fell on him.

In the last few years of his life, the spiritual leader gave darshan from a car or his wheelchair.

The mortal “bhagwan” may have got the year of his death wrong, but 84 or 93, it hardly matters to the millions who mourn his passing.