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Sathya Sai family feud heats up as death anniv draws close

The Sai Baba cannot be resting easy. As his first death anniversary commemoration gets under way, Puttaparthi seems nervous. The Media Co-ordinator of the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust sends out press releases like clockwork about the trust’s good works – a drinking water project, a book release on the Sai Baba by the governor, a Grama Seva programme.

But none of the cheerful PR can quite dispel the anxiety hanging over Puttaparthi. In the spiritual home of the man who became India’s most famous godman, the worry is all about money.

Worry number 1 – Has the town’s economy built entirely around the Sai Baba’s aura gone into a permanent slump? “We have been able to do only 10 percent of what we did in 2009 and 2010,” Jothi Keshav of the Puttaparthi Builders Association told The Deccan Herald. “The demand is just not there.”

Worry number 2 – The ugly family feud continues over control of the trust and its assets. Although the lurid stories of cars stuffed with cash being seized leaving Puttaparthi are gone from the headlines, the fight over the trust is far from over.

 Sathya Sai family feud heats up as death anniv draws close

In the spiritual home of the man who became India’s most famous godman, the worry is all about money.

The latest salvo in that regard comes from Ganapathy Raju, a relative of the late Sai Baba. He has fired off an open letter to media and the Anantapur press club against RJ Ratnakar, the Sai Baba’s nephew and a member of the trust.

Claiming to speak on behalf of the locals of Puttaparthi, Raju says Ratnakar does not have the “moral” standing to continue as a member of the Trust. He complains that he has never been able to fully explain the Rs 35.5 lakh that was seized from a the car belonging to the Trust. He alleges Ratnakar garnered a hefty Rs 40 lakh commission for himself by using his stature as a Sai Trust member to get a land deal for a private trust.  He calls him a tax evader and says he has bought property worth crores since the death of the Sai Baba. He also says Ratnakar harbours political ambitions and wants to use his Sathya Sai trust credentials to become a minister some day. “How can such a person continue to be a Trust member of a great Sri Sathya Sai Trust?” asks Ganapathy Raju.

The Trust, busy getting ready for the Sri Sathya Sai Aradhana Mahotsavam, rubbished the allegations and termed them a “publicity gimmick” timed to coincide with the Sai Baba’s death anniversary.

But whatever the truth of the allegations, the inescapable point is this – Puttaparthi cannot say “the God is dead, long live the trust.” The Sai Baba survived all kinds of scandals and rumours because he was the Sai Baba. The Trust cannot claim divinity. It remains answerable and vulnerable to the barbs of the Ganapathy Rajus of the world. And it would do well to rebut them forcefully and quickly. In the initial days after the Sai Baba's death, when stories of gold and cash coming out of his inner chambers were all over the media, the Trust was slow in responding to the events. Since then it's tried to be more transparent and on the ball but it still has a long way to go.

Last year while visiting Puttaparthi I found a town that was suspended in paralysis. It was in denial of the fact that the man who was its centre and star attraction was dead. The Baba’s devotees would constantly tell anyone who listened that Sai Baba was still there – it was just his mortal body that was gone. If he could perform miracles in America, while sitting in meditation in Puttaparthi, why do we have to be so invested in his physical presence, they asked. “Baba can take any form. He can come wearing a shirt like you,” Bansi Lal, an 88 year-old Seva Dal worker who had survived jaundice and two prostate operations, assured me.

“He is everywhere but his form is not here. That’s the problem,” a Dutch tourist told me. “There is no excitement.” The tourists still come but while they once stayed for weeks for a glimpse of Sai Baba in the flesh, now they will only stay at best for a few days to pay respect to his samadhi. “When Swami was here no tension,” a Kashmiri storeowner said. “This is not like any other temple town. Here there was only Swami.”

The programme to mark the one year anniversary of Sathya Sai Baba's death opened today with that million rupee question — a discussion on "Experiencing the Divine - From the Form to the Formless." The three-day programme to mark his death, from 23 April to 25 April is expected to draw 30,000–50,000 people according to the Trust.

But what next? Can it just live from anniversary to anniversary? The Trust has enough money to keep ongoing programmes ticking along and paying its bills. Even without any donations for the next few years it has enough in the corpus to keep its schools and hospitals running.  But can it grow without the miracle of its founder’s vibhuti and his magnetic pull?

The Sai Baba once said nobody comes to Puttaparthi unless he pulls them there. The town where even the roadside vegetarian Chinese joint is named Sai Chinese Fast Food is hoping for one final miracle from the pull of the Sai Baba.




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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2012 15:07:06 IST