Sathya Sai Baba was not a Godman. The word reeks of the market place. Also, it fails to capture the phenomenon in full. In the universe of the faithful where spiritualism often merges seamlessly into commercialism, the Baba from Puttaparthi stood apart. In his death, India loses its miracle man.
Miracle man, yes. He changed lives through his educational initiatives, universal teachings and efforts at providing healthcare to the common man. In more than six decades after he made his mission public – he was 14 then — he touched the lives of his followers and non-believers alike in significant ways. Interestingly, he preached no new religion and did not direct his followers to choose any. He made his life his message. The number of his devotees — conservative estimates put it at around 10 million across the world – is a testimony to his clout.
Sathya Sai, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shiridi in October 1940 and later went on to build a massive spiritual empire spanning 180 countries, was in many ways a bundle of contradictions. The man who commanded the loyalty of the country’s who’s who, including presidents, prime ministers, singers and top sportspersons, attracted adulation and controversies in equal measure.
His magical acts such as producing rings, necklaces and watches out of thin air raised the heckles of the rationalists. His fleet of BMWs, Rolls Royces, all bearing the no 9999, threw doubts on his adherence to simplicity. There have been allegations of sexual misconduct at his ashrams too. But all this failed to diminish the aura of the man, who converted the nondescript Gollapalli village in Andhra Pradesh’s Ananthpur district into a bustling township called Puttapathi. Prashanthi Nilayam, his ashram, continued to be the destination of devotees through all controversies. Princely donations kept pouring in to help him spread his philanthropic activities.
The real magic of Sathya Sai Baba lies in the way he spread education and funded public facilities across geographies thorough the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust. Besides setting up educational institutions – Sri Sathya Sai University, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences to name a few — he made efforts to mitigate the water crisis in Andhra Pradesh and Chennai. The drinking water projects at Medak, Mahbubnagar and East and West Godavari are testimony to the philanthropic strain in the Baba’s philosophy.
Was it commerce in the guise of spiritualism? Sceptics would point at the Rs45,000-crore property he leaves behind and the simmering internal feud to control the purse strings of his trust. But let the cynics rest for the moment. His good works put Sathya Sai in a distinct category. He was not the Godmen we are so familiar with. He moved in an orbit of his own.