Sri Satya Sai Baba was born Satyanarayan Raju in 1926 in the village of Puttaparthi, Andra Pradesh, India. At the age of 14 he had a series of strange experiences, which his family and others believed at the time to be demonic possession. Soon after one of these, Satyanarayan asserted that the spirit of a guru known as Sai Baba of Shirdi, Maharashtra, who had died more than twenty years earlier, had come into him. Shirdi Sai Baba (1856 –1918) was admired in his lifetime for his austere lifestyle and particularly for the miracles that were attributed to him. During the later period of his life, he claimed to be God and was venerated as such by his followers. Satyanarayan, who appropriated the name Satya Sai Baba, likewise claims to be God. In support of his claim, Satyanarayan began early on to work the ‘miracles’ for which he has since become renowned and which have led to a growing number of followers. The ‘miracles’ include materializing sugar candy, flowers, vibhuti (sacred ash) and other presents for his devotees. They also include healing the sick and knowing the thoughts of his disciples whatever be the distance between them. His followers even claim that Sai Baba has restored two dead men to life. These ‘miracles’ are adduced as proof of Sai Baba’s divinity and specifically of his ability to create out of nothing. He says: "It is beyond you to know how or why I create things.…the objects that I create, I create them by My Will, the same way I created the universe." Sai Baba claims to be a full avatar or ‘incarnation’ of God, greater than Jesus and founders of the world religions. In his own words: "Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and others were not avatars. They had some divine power... My power is infinite."
Despite his claim to divinity and to infinite power, Sai Baba maintains that he did not come on earth to establish a religion. Rather he sees his mission as being to restore the dharma – the proper and original inner transformation which is the heart and purpose of all genuine religion. As an expression of his recognition of on-going role of existing religious traditions, his logo contains the symbols of Cross, Crescent and Star, Star of David as well as the Hindu Aum and the Buddhist Wheel.
Satya Sai Baba has prophesied that he will leave his present body in the year 2022, when he would be 96 years of age. But he will immediately be reborn for a third time as an avatar named Prema Sai Baba. He has specified that this final appearance will take place in the Mandya district of Karnataka State.
Over the years the number of Sai Baba’s followers has increased to several million, all but a small minority of whom are Indian. Shrines to and images of him and of his guru, Sai Baba of Shirdi, are widespread in India. One meets his followers in the streets, in shops and on the buses, as well as in the many temples and ashrams of the movement. Besides, the organisation has spread to over 137 countries including the US and most European countries. It claims to have over 30.000 centres world-wide. These work to extend Sai Baba’s message and ministry. Members come together regularly to sing bhajans (hymns) and particularly in India, to initiate projects to serve the disadvantaged. The main centre for such development has been Sai Baba’s home village of Puttaparthi – since grown into a substantial town due to the growth of the Sai Baba movement. The centre piece is Sai Baba’s magnificent ashram called Prashanti Nilayam (abode of great peace). There is an airport to facilitate the tens of thousands of devotees who come annually to pay their respects to the guru whom they venerate as God
Educational institutions have also been established in his name. The movement produces a wide range of printed and visual publications and also runs a highly sophisticated Internet site to propagate Baba’s teaching. In November 1991 the organization established a modern polyclinic at Puttaparthi. Sai Baba has become a highly influential public figure in India, and is often visited by government officials and leaders - in part because of his supposed powers, and in part because of his reported good works.
The authenticity of Sai Baba’s miracles have long been questioned. A Committee was set up by Bangalore University to carry out an investigation. Through its work Sai Krishna, a 7 year-old ‘miracle’ boy and protégé of Sai Baba, was exposed as a fraud. Three members of the committee observed the boy produce sacred ash on July 15, 1976. However, it was no miracle. They found that the ash was hidden in the boy’s vest and came out when he pulled a string hidden in his clothes.
The DECCAN CHRONICLE is a Hyderabad-based English daily with a large circulation. On 23 November, 1992 it published on its front page pictures from a video recording of Satya Sai Baba's ‘creation’ of a gold necklace, in the presence of the Prime Minister of India, Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao. The video tape of the event appeared to show unambiguously Satya Sai Baba being passed a necklace clandestinely by his personal assistant Radhakrishna Menon, which later Satya Sai Baba ‘materializes’ after a wave of his hand. Working on behalf of the Dutch newspaper DE VOLKSKRAANT, Piet Vroon was at Puttaparthi to film Baba at "work". He and his partner reported that they saw Baba remove rings, necklaces and watches from behind flower vases and from pillows on his chair. They also detected Sai Baba holding vibhuti balls in one hand, transferring them to the other hand, pulverising them and distributing them. Vibhuti was also alleged to be hidden in his mouth and removed while wiping his face, which Baba does very often. In his report of December 5, 1992 Vroon's conclusion is unambiguous: "we just think that he's a trickster and a cheat."
Sai Baba devotees not surprizingly reject all of the above, pointing out that modern video technology can be used to produce ‘evidence’ of almost any kind of faking or for that matter of ‘miracle working’. In any case the point is made that Sai Baba himself attaches little importance to his ‘miracles’ – the important aspect of his mission being the call to a spiritual way of living.
On June 6, 1993, six inmates of Prashanti Nilayam died violently in Satya Sai Baba's bedroom. All were part of the inner circle of Sai Baba, among whom was Radha Krishna Menon, the personal assistant who was caught on video passing the necklace clandestinely to Baba. It was alleged that two were killed by assailants in an attempted murder of Baba and the police claimed to have shot dead - in self defence - four of the assailants, who were armed only with knives. However, the police have been accused of wilfully destroying evidence in the case.
The Marathi language weekly LOK PRABHA, of January 19, 1996, published an account concerning the SATYA SAI INSTITUTE OF HIGHER MEDICAL SCIENCES, in which a peasant from the Latur district of Maharastra was to have received his son Balaji's kidney in a transplant operation. Whereas the son’s kidney was removed, a scan carried out later revealed that his father had not received the kidney. This raised the question of whether this institute was involved in the international organ theft business.
There have been numerous other allegations against Sai Baba and his movement. These include accusations of sexual misconduct by Sai Baba with teenage boys and also the discovery by the police of cyanide, land mines and plastic-explosives in Prashanti Nilayam.Disillusioned by the scandals, many disciples have been turning away from Satya Sai Baba and to the 35 year-old Palghat (Kerala) born Bala Sai Baba. Bala Sai claims to be the real Sai avatar. He has set up an ashram in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. He dresses like Satya Sai Baba, performs the same kind of ‘miracles’ and has been successful in attracting a large number of devotees. He too has western disciples.