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Guru, Miracle Worker, Religious Founder: Sathya Sai Baba - Dr. Reinhart Hummel

Sathya Sai Baba is an interesting Indian guru not only because he increasingly wins Western devotees. His career and activities demonstrate why a strong guru personality, under the conditions of contemporary India and the modern world, can win a mass of disciples and slip by in the role of a world redeemer and substitute Christ. »Sathya Sai Baba so loved the world, that he sent forth a son, Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in him will be saved.«

Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, long since revered in India by several million people as an incarnation of God (avatar) and savior of mankind, is also attracting a growing number of seekers from the West. They travel to Puttaparthi, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where Sathya Sai Baba has constructed his most important ashram, Prashanthi Nilayam (abode of great peace), with a huge, modern temple, hospital, college buildings, and frequently overcrowded guest quarters--a city for himself. People's motives for that journey are often serious or incurable diseases, for Sai Baba has an unrivaled reputation as a miracle worker. He »materializes« watches, talismans, sweets, flowers, crucifixes, books, photographs, and, above all, holy ashes (vibhuti) with a wave of the hand. Miraculous cures with help from the ashes, or from Baba himself as the surgeon, and even the resurrecting of the dead are attributed to him. Even if the hoped for wonder healing fails to occur, many turn back (albeit upset and bewildered) and ask themselves, nonetheless, whether they have not indeed met in Puttaparthi Christ come again. As such, and still more, Sai Baba describes himself.

Whenever he, enveloped in a long-flowing, orange gown, donning an Afro hairstyle, presents himself to the waiting crowd, he emits a strong radiance. Here he drops a word, there he stands still or gazes at an individual; to others he appears to turn a cold shoulder. If the visitor finally managed to meet him, he would be startled not only with materializations but also with disclosures of his own life that Sai Baba, as clairvoyant, reveals. Through all such devices, Sai Baba builds up an intense, personal relationship that renders the seeker a helpless toy in the hand of an experienced, skillful champion. The accounts of visitors to Puttaparthi concur: Sai Baba had brought them into difficult situations, played an unfair game with them, had, as an experienced psychotherapist, maneuvered them around, sometimes only in jest, yet frequently with the goal to dismantle their obtrusive ego and to confront them with hitherto unknown sides of their own personality. Those visitors, who eventually became his devotees, see that bewildering game retrospectively in a rose-colored light: out of pure love and in their best interest, Sai Baba had put them through the wringer of enlightenment to lead them to both submission to and spiritual union with him. He who resists that maelstrom of events nevertheless goes away from the encounter deeply uncertain: Who is this worker of miracles, this clairvoyant and master of the game of cat and mouse?

The Guru as Father God

The answer to that question has been answered by Sai Baba himself: »I am the omnipresent, almighty, and omniscient.« Asked about the time between Krishna and himself, he replied: »Time? I am Krishna! Where is time?« One interview reads:

Swami, you are reported as saying on Christmas Day 1972, that Jesus said: .He who sent me among you will come again. His name will be truth (sathya). He will wear a blood-red robe. He will be short, with a crown (of hair).« Does that mean that it was you who sent Jesus into incarnation? With ineffable simplicity, in his soft, gentle voice, Swami nodded and said, »Yes.«

In a word: Sathya Sai Baba knows himself as God the father or as »the embodied, omnipresent divine principle without limits,« respectively. »The whole universe is in the palm of my hands,« quoth he.

More sophisticated, yet no less pretentious, rings the answer of Sai Baba in Indian religious language. He interprets his own name as »divine Mother« (Sai) and »divine Father« (Baba) of all things. He is the »Embodiment of Shiva and Shakti,« that is, the divine in its masculine and feminine, active and passive aspects. He is, after Krishna, the second »integral avatar« (purna avatar) and unites in himself all the attributes of an avatar in contrast to earlier avatars who exhibited only a limited number of those characteristics. Avatara literally means descent of the divine in animal or human.

The Sai Trinity

Sathya Sai Baba sees his own work in connection with an »avataric design,« a »trinity« or »continuity of three Sai incarnations,« in which he himself stands in the middle: Shirdi Sai, Sathya Sai, and Prema Sai. Shirdi Sai is a historical person, a Fakir who was revered by many Hindus and Muslims as a saint and who called himself Sai Baba. He worked in Shirdi, in the west Indjan state of Maharastra, and died there in 1918. Holy ashes played an important role with him, too. Sathya Sai from Puttaparthi regards the Sai Baba of Shirdi as »his previous body,« himself as Shirdi Sais reincarnation. Sathya Sai himself, according to his own testimony, will live to be 96 years old and thereafter reincarnate anew as Prema Sai, who wiIl be born in the Mandya district of Karnataka (previously the state of Mysore). In his »previous body« as Shirdi Sai, Sathya Sai laid the foundation for his spiritual mission, namely, to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity. His present task as Sathya Sai is to raise the edifice on that foundation, that is, in directing his new universal religion which he calls Sai religion. It represents the essence or the extract of all religions. As the coming Prema Sai, he will at last »set the spire soaring to heaven« on that structure. The avataric design aims toward a unification of all religions.

That is symbolized in the buildings of the various Sai centers, above all in the Sarva Dharma Prem Aikya stupa of the Bombay center. That slender column, with a spire in the shape of a lotus and words from the holy scriptures of different religions chiseled at its base, is meant to express »The unity of all religions in love«--that love which Sathya Sai Baba himself personifies. »All religions are mine.« That claim further expresses itself in the emblem of Sathya Sai's religion: around the center picture of a lotus lie, as petals, the symbols of Hinduism (the mantra OM), of Buddhism (a wheel), of the Parsi religion (fire), of Islam (star and half moon), and of Christianity (cross). The Sai motif, by the way, is also found in the formula »Sai Rama,« which is used as Sai Baba's surname, as a mantra for the purpose of meditation, and as salutation (as in ISKCON you are greeted with Hare Krishna).

The Evolution of an Avatar

Now just who is this tricky guide of souls, miracle worker, and founder of a religion? He was bom on 23 November 1926 in Puttaparthi as Sathyanarayan Raju, fourth child of a theatrically talented father who, in his own youth, also distinguished himself in that region. In 1940 Sathyanarayan was bitten by a scorpion--according to a later version, he voluntarily left his body in order to help a devotee in need--and behaved so oddly thereafter that his parents consulted an exorcist. Two-and-a-half months later, at 13 years of age, he materialized sweets and flowers, declared »I am Sai Baba,« namely, the Sai of Shirdi, and asked the gathered crowd to worship him every Thursday. Shortly afterwards, he threw his schoolbooks out of the house and left his family.

Already by the end of a further 10 years, on 23 November 1950, Prashanthi Nilayam was established. In 1961, when the number of his supporters had grown substantially, Sai Baba inaugurated the »Sathya Sai Era«. In 1965 he had Vedic sacrificial rites performed by Brahmins and founded an academy for Vedic and Sanskrit studies. In 1967 he held the first »All India Conference of Sri Sathya Sai Baba Seva Samitis« (service committees); in 1968, accordingly, the world conference. In that same year he visited his followers in East Africa (he has never been to the West) and established a College for Women in Anantapur, India. In 1972 the first »Summer Course in Indian Culture and Spirituality« took place.

The development culminated finally in the proclamation of the Sai religion on the first of October 1976. The English draft of the announcement concludes with the invitation:

All you who have entered the Sathya Sai Organisation, if anyone asks you what is the religion of Sathya Sai and of Sathya Sai Organisation, you must have the courage and the determination to say with one voice that the essence of all religions is the religion of the Sathya Sai Organisation.

The German version tones that down: »This is the Sai Religion which nourishes and fosters all religions and which emphasizes their common greatness.«

The first foreign centers arose in the USA through the initiative of individual women and men who had visited Puttaparthi during the mid-'70s and had become Sai Baba's devotees. By 1979 there were, according to official statements, 3,800 committees in all of India, over 10,000 Bhajan Centers for the cultivation of religious singing, nearly 20,000 trained members of service groups (Seva Dal), and over 35,000 students in Sai religion's own school program (Bal Vikas). The total number of followers at that time was said to be over two million.


The many activities of Sathya Sai Baba's organization rarely offer something new and innovative; rather, they proffer a cluster of commonly familiar religious and social functions. They are categorized by Sai Baba under four rubrics: cultivation of the Vedas (the classical religious literature) and of science; protection of bhakti (devotion) and dharma (the eternal order which is looked upon as the duty of the avatar to reestablish). The performance of Vedic sacrificial rites, as previously mentioned, indicates an agreement (a coming to terms with) with Brahmin orthodoxy. The common singing of bhajans (religious songs) is, in India, extremely popular: public mantra singing (nagar sankirtan), as promoted by the Sai Baba groups, is widespread among the devotees of Krishna, as one can see, for example, in the Hare Krishna movement.

Along the line of reformed Hinduism lie the endeavors toward training and education (above all for women) and religious peace between Hindus and Muslims. Furthermore, the Sai religion seeks to activate the laity to voluntary service and to create organizations in which members from different castes can come together. For all of those activities to be bundled together, a dynamic point of crystallization is needed, and a guru like Sathya Sai Baba is exactly that.

Forms of Meditation

Sai Baba's recommended meditation practices also remain within the customary scope: in the mornings and evenings half an hour of sitting meditation is the rule for the average, working devotee. A sound (mantra), a picture of the divine (Krishna, Rama, Jesus, or Sai Baba himself), or a light can serve as the object of concentration. In the meditation upon candlelight (jyoti upasana), the light should move, first of all, in to the heart, then to other parts of the body, and finally to the crown of the head. From there the light itself can expand to people and animals, friends and foes, and finally the whole universe. »To expand beyond self and see that your light is the light of the universe is liberation.« In the concluding phase of meditation, the light should be brought back again to the heart and be held there the whole day. That meditation can be enriched with religious songs and the »recitation of the name of the Lord« (for example, the name of Rama, Sai Rama, Krishna, or Jesus).

With respect to more demanding meditation methods such as Tantric kundalina yoga, Sai Baba externally advises against them. In the immediate circle of devotees around him, however, they are practiced and probably serve also in gaining paranormal powers (siddhis). Sai Baba himself is said to have possessed those powers since his birth and hasn't needed to meditate or to practice ascetic exercises. Tal Brooke, an American who once belonged to the inner leadership circle of Sai Baba's movement, has reported on the internal meditation practices which serve to awaken the serpent power (kundalini) and lead it ever upward to the crown of the head. The lower chakra, the seat of the serpent power, rests near the genitals, and Brooke was appalled that Sai Baba busied himself with these exercises to stimulate not only his genitals but those of other meditators. For the broader membership, however, Sai Baba recommends the »easier way« of devotion to God (bhakti). His followers consistently refer to themselves with the English word devotee, which means one who practices bhakti. Devotion to God is put into effect concretely in submission to Sai Baba himself. The guru worship is valued as the shortest and surest way to liberation from the circle of reincarnations.

Functions of the Guru-Avatar

Let's pause a moment and try to understand the process that began with the birth of Sathyanarayan Raju and culminated in the emergence of the Sai religion. From the psychological perspective, the question is posed how such a superiorally inflated self-assertion and presumption can emerge that goes even beyond the limits of the traditional Indian guru image. To be sure, the Indian image of the gurus is not static, rather it has changed and broadened. The private religious teacher of ancient times has, through many intermediate stations, turned into the guru as sect leader, as founder and leader of a religious mass movement in which the average member rarely finds personal contact with the master. That does not exclude, of course, that that member experiences (even from a distance) a relationship with the guru and a bond with him that surpasses in intensity all other human relations. Members believe themselves to be loved by the guru, understood, led step by step, and directed to the final goal.

For those to whom their own religious tradition appears stale and empty (that is present not only in India but even more so in the West), the encounter with a powerful, »charismatic« guru provides new experiences, and they are told that those experiences are exactly that which their own religion should have supplied them with but failed to do. One function of the guru consists in recharging and revitalizing the religious traditions which have become powerless, or are perceived as powerless, with his energy. When Western pilgrims return from an Indian ashram laying claim that now, for the first time, they have experienced and understood who Christ really is and what he had intended, exactly that recharging of Christian terms and ideas has occurred. (Naturally, that is also a reversal of poles from the standpoint of the Hindu meanings as well.) It should give us pause to think that frequently the healthy and diseased from the West, only upon meeting an Indian guru, pass through such heart- and soul-seizing religious experience.

In addition, many contemporary Indian gurus, especially Sathya Sai Baba, lay claim to a harmonizing, quasi-ecumenical function. By representing their own, often greatly simplified teachings as the essence of all religions, they reach all those who feel unable to comprehend the traditional differences between religions and confessions and are on the lookout for synthesis. In India the need for structures that transcend the caste boundaries is an additional factor. Many modern guru movements represent such a structure by enabling people from various castes, at least ideally, to come together without fear of discrimination. A man like Sathya Sai Baba, with his totally non-Brahmanic appearance, seems particularly suited for that function. The old Indian yearning for unity finds visible fulfillment in the form of a guru who stands beyond caste and confessional boundaries.

The Guru-Avatar as Religious Founder

The ardent desire for living religious experience and religious unity gives every guru who has the requisite personality--however it may be assessed--a chance and the power to bring about that synthesis. (The fatherless society of the West is in no way an adequate explanation for the emergence of guru movements.) In the last century it was Sri Ramakrishna who was, not by chance, worshiped as avatar, although some members of the Ramakrishna Mission considered that going too far. Later gurus have had less and less restraints to give full expression to their epochal self-assessment. The last decade has brought an inflation of avatars, Perfect Masters of a new era. Not only the Western, but the worldwide (above all the Indian) need for revitalization and unification of religious traditions brings forth such guru-avatars, and in each of them lies hidden a potential founder of a religion. Older examples are the masters of the Radhasoami Satsang and the Ruhani Satsang. Two newer examples are the religions of Rajneeshism, which grew from the Bhagwan movement, and precisely the Sai religion with the »integral avatar« and father God on top. It is less a question of individual self-assessment than the willingness to take up the avatar's robe from the dust of the Indian road and the ability to wear it with the dignity and roguishness required. In the case of the masters of the Radhasoami tradition such as Kirpal Singh one notes the dignity; with Rajneesh and Sai Baba, in comparison, rather the roguishness.

The restriction must be appended, of course, that the majority of these new guru religions bring forth little newness with regard to content. It is essentially the old assertions bearing the imprint of Hinduism in a simplified, comprehensible form and with a new centering on the guru as savior. They are »essence religions« of a synthetic, artificial appearance. The essence of the Sai religion reads: »There is only one God. He is omnipresent. There is only one religion, the religion of love. There is only one caste, the caste of humanity. There is only one language, the language of the heart.«

Outwardly, these guru religions do not define themselves exclusively. They want to superimpose (in the sense of fulfilling) the other religions, not supercede them. More or less outspoken, they advocate a double membership: outwardly in the inherited religion, on the esoteric level in the proper guru religion. Hinduism can tolerate the guru religions in its midst; yea, it lives, to a considerable extent, from the powers which they continually supply. But the relation between Christianity and the guru religions is quite a different matter.

Seen Through a Christian's Eyes

What Sai Baba's »miracles« are all about is, from a distance, difficult to pass judgment on; from immediate contact, of course, still more difficult, for this master is surrounded by an atmosphere of solid belief in miracles in which it is almost impossible to keep a critical distance. Miracle is faith's dearest child and so faith in Sai Baba produces an abundance of rarely verifiable reports of miracles. The art of »materializing« things with a wave of the hand is something trick artists also hold in their power. A chemical analysis of Sai Baba's holy ashes has shown that they are composed of aromatic sediments of scorched husks of rice. Numerous diseased men and women return from Puttaparthi unhealed or, at least, without permanent recovery.

Nevertheless, after allowing for all of that--what may be interpreted as either swindle or the product of fantasy--there remains in the eyes of a conscientious observer an unexplained residue. Many astounding reports of cures are, in their authenticity, hard to shake. After all, demonstrations of amazing yoga powers have been seen in India for a long time. Also, the oft-reported ability of Sai Baba to see through people clairvoyantly could belong to that yogic capability, although Sai Baba's devotees deny that and speak, rather, of the innate power of the master. That is a question which parapsychologists would like to clarify. More important is the obvious fact of the matter: many of Sai Baba's miracles are carefully calculated in terms of their timing and psychology and, therefore, aim to stun the potential disciple to put him or her off balance and, in that way, win over his or her doubt and resistance. They are part of the aforementioned puzzling games and the building of a personal relationship in which Sai Baba holds all the strings in his hand. Therein they distinguish themselves clearly from the miracles of Jesus which served, for the most part, to put an end to human need. (By the way, the miracles of Jesus are not in any way that which made him Christ and Savior.) It is important to see through Sai Baba's purpose in making people defenseless through his demonstrations of power. They are proselytizing miracles that should cause the potential devotee to accept Sai Baba as father God and »integral avatar.«

In a Christian's ears that claim must doubtlessly ring blasphemous and unacceptable. Of course, Sai Baba, like other Indian gurus, limits or qualifies his claim by conceding to his devotees: you also are God. According to Hindu understanding, every person carries within him- or herself potential divinity and has only to realize that potential. This also stands, of course, in irreconcilable opposition to the Christian view of man in which the person--body, soul, and spirit--is a creature of God, not a potential or realized god. The claim of Sai Baba is the absolute top, the unsurpassable zenith of self-assessment of modern Indian gurus, which finds its expression in the formula »I am God.«

Traditional Hinduism started from the assumption that divinity in its highest form, namely, without attributes and without limitation, forfeits some of its quality when it appears in human form on earth. Sai Baba, however, describes himself as »divine principle without limitations«; that means as divinity in its highest form. In general, Sai Baba's self-assessment is inconsistent vis-a-vis Hindu measurements as well. A perfect liberated being is supposed to have concluded, once and for all, the cycle of reincarnation. How then can a liberated person like Sai Baba of Shirdi incarnate himself in Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi and he then in Prema Sai? And how can Sai Baba simultaneously be an avatar and the one who has sent Jesus as avatar?

A guru of Sathya Sai Baba's type represents a post-Christian form of Hinduism which has erected an insurmountable wall to the Christian faith. This type of guru presents himself consciously as substitute Christ. He replaces Christ and is, in that sense, an anti-Christ. The Greek prefix anti means, principally, in place of, instead. It signals that one will substitute for the other . Hinduism as such can and should not become characterized as anti-Christian. In guru avatars like Sai Baba this religion displays, nevertheless, an anti-Christian potential that can also have the effect of attracting Westerners.

In the meantime, however, there are indications that the notion of Sai incarnations has a tendency to proliferate further. In a small village in the vicinity of the northern Indian state of Nasik, Vital Baburao Bodke (a 20-year-old man) declared himself in 1981 to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi. Perhaps still others will feel a call to take up from the dust of the Indian highway and wear the ample Sai Baba robe and present themselves to humanity in it.


Dr. Reinhart Hummel has been director of the Evangelische Zentralstelle fur Weltanschauungsfragen in Stuttgart since 1981. Previously, he had served as a pastor in Schleswig-Holstein, as principal for seven years of a theological college in Kotapad, India, and researcher on guru movements and Eastern religions at Heidelberg University. Dr. Hummel visited the Sai Baba center in Bombay in 1981.

The original German version of this article first appeared in Materialdienst der EZW, 47 Jahrgang, 1 February 1984. Translation by Linda W. Duddy is reprinted by their permission.