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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Test of Faith

India’s godmen — and godwomen — wield astonishing power. Some people want to take it away from

By Arjuna Ranawana

THE LIVING GOD’S ARRIVAL is nigh, and several thousand devotees are sitting expectantly in the ashram hall, men on one side, women on the other. No one talks. The only movement is a boy dressed all in white, a mere dot in the cavernous room. With a feather duster he is sweeping the black, marble floor. Then the music begins, soft Carnatic rhythms issuing from the loudspeakers. A waifish man with an Afro appears. Satya Sri Sai Baba has arrived to demonstrate his daily morning miracle.

The Baba moves slowly and the seated devotees hold up envelopes containing petitions, requesting favors for themselves or loved ones. For the chosen, the Baba has a kind word, for some a nod, for the rest a smile. Only the very lucky merit a miracle. A middle-aged man is summoned from the throng. The Baba speaks a phrase or two, turns his palm down and traces circles in the air. Thumb and middle- fingers join and gray ash appears to flow from their tips. The ecstatic devotee receives the gift with cupped hands, and the Baba continues down the line, proffering the Vibhuti holy ash to several others and flicking the residue over the heads of the crowd. Four times that day he will conjure up ash: once for the women, once for the men; once in the morning, once in the evening.

For five millennia godmen like Sai Baba have endured as pillars of Hindu society. There are thousands of godmen and godwomen in India today. For the most part they content themselves with providing spiritual advice in homes and temples. But some have grander designs. These gurus claim divine powers and the ability to alter the natural course of events. Regular folk seek them out for spiritual advice, healing and favors. The high and mighty visit them, too. Politicians ask for support on the campaign trail. Bureaucrats drop by for career advice. Businessmen ask for help with the bottom line.

“People whose professions depend on a high degree of uncertainty, such as politicians and businessmen, are the most ardent devotees,” says psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar. Some gurus wield considerable influence over public figures. Too much so, perhaps; an especially potent godman apparently helped select cabinet ministers. Then there are the so-called rationalists who say that all gurus are perpetuating a massive fraud on their followers. These guru-busters travel India, trying to embarrass and unmask the godmen in front of their adoring flocks.


For a purveyor of miracles, it is perhaps no surprise that Sai Baba’s birth was one, too. His mother was fetching water, so the legend goes, when a blue ball of fire emerged from the village well and entered her stomach. She fainted and awoke to find herself pregnant. The child arrived on Nov. 23, 1926; he was named Satyanarayana Raju. By his 10th birthday, the boy had become Sai Baba and was telling everyone he was the reincarnation of a 19th-century godman named Shirddhi Sai Baba. The original godman was a Hindu, raised a Muslim. A respected humanist, he sought to bring together people of the two faiths and is to this day worshipped as saint in Maharashtra state. Sai Baba continues his tradition.

Some 40 years ago, Sai Baba founded the Sai Ashram in Puttuparthi, a village in the Anantupur region of eastern Andhra Pradesh state. The Prashanti Nilayam, or Abode of Peace, as the ashram is called, feeds and houses thousands. The Baba’s own residence is a mix of palace and temple, adorned with mythological Hindu figures and south Indian motifs. A big semi-circular balcony juts from Sai Baba’s bedroom, like a prop from a kitschy Hindi film.

The Anantpur region is arid, and farmers traditionally have eked out a living growing peanuts. But the godman has ushered in prosperity. In the last 25 years Puttuparthi has become a sizable market town that caters to visiting devotees. New apartment blocks and plush condominiums seem to open daily. An airstrip cuts through the barren soil. There is no other industry, and if not for Sai Baba, this would have been just another obscure corner of rural India.

The Ashram is run by the “volunteers” or Seva Dal. Every fortnight the 25 Sai Trusts around India send 2,000 such men and women to work at the premises. All devotees, they are efficient and work for free. They wear spotless white, with colored scarves around their necks to indicate their place of origin. They are firm, and if necessary, violent custodians who enforce an iron discipline within the ashram walls. Devotees aiming to catch a glimpse of the Baba are body-searched, their bags and other belongings taken away and stowed in a safe room. No one dares to stand in the godman’s presence.

The ashramites live simply, dressing in white and eating vegetarian food. The godman wears heavy saffron silk. A BMW sedan and Mercedes-Benz limousine sit in his garage. Both vehicles, say the ashram workers, were donated. The Baba does not own anything, and it is his custom to use the cars for a few months and then give them away. Usually the devotees get their autos back — and turn them into temples.

No other godman can claim a larger following of powerful people. Among Sai Baba’s most ardent devotees: Indian President Shankar Dayal Sharma, PM H.D. Deve Gowda, former PM P.V. Narasimha Rao and high-flying ex-election commissioner T.N. Seshan. All attend major functions at Prashanti Nilayam and rarely miss the Baba’s birthday. “When the president comes, he bends down and touches the feet of the Baba,” says devotee Ventkatesh Naidu. “What signal do you think it sends when the highest in the land pays obeisance to Sai Baba? Surely the entire government machinery would think twice before going against him.”

There are others too — senior civil servants, top-ranking journalists, even renowned scientists. P. Venkataraman, who for many years ran India’s atomic research program, is a devotee. (Not that he allowed me to quote a single part of an hour-long interview.) Another is cricketer Sunil Gavaskar; he recently vowed to hold a cricket match every year to mark the godman’s birthday. In Sri Lanka, where millions worship Sai Baba, family members of ex-president J.R. Jayewardene are followers. Jayewardene’s younger brother Harry died in the ashram. Current Sri Lankan PM Sirimavo Bandaranaike, 80, is also a believer and despite her age and ailments, flew in to Puttuparthi last year to pay homage.

Sai Baba’s clout has brought services to Puttuparthi that rival larger Indian cities. A multi-million-dollar “super specialty” hospital near the ashram provides free care to thousands. Rich donors provided the funds. The doctors work for free. Sai Baba has mobilized millions to bring safe drinking water to local people. His Sai Trust runs a local university; the godman delivers the annual convocation address. The Trust supplements primary and secondary schools throughout India; Sai Baba’s teachings are part of the curriculum.

Sai Baba’s power flows from his devotees’ faith in his miracles. Retired railway official T. Murthi recalls the moment 21 years ago that he became convinced that Sai Baba was God. “On the night of Maha Shivratri, the festival for Shiva, my son dreamt he saw Sai Baba summoning him to Puttuparthi. He was about 12 and hadn’t seen the Baba before. We came to Puttuparthi the next Maha Shivratri. In the hall where we were waiting to see him, the Baba came directly to us. My son held out his school book and the Baba drew the holy letter Aum on it. It was a miracle.”

Marina Klemme, a 32-year-old Argentinean flight attendant recalls dreaming that the Baba told her not to take a certain flight. There was a crash. “I may have died,” she said. That was seven years ago, and Klemme has visited the ashram three times since. “He saved me,” she says. “He is God.” Another devotee, American biochemist Max Lopez-Leban, 34, is not so sure. He watched Sai Baba conjure ash. He saw a partially paralyzed woman walk after the guru held her hand. “It’s true he is an enormously powerful man,” says Lopez-Leban. “But how could anyone be God?”

For select audiences, Sai Baba holds special performances. One time election commissioner Seshan watched his one-of-a-kind ring materialize from thin air. “I’m an educated man,” he says. “I believe what I see, and I have seen the power of Sai Baba.” Some say the Baba can move objects from one place to another.

Given his apparent powers, is it any wonder that Sai Baba’s authority is unquestioned in many parts of India? His grip on Puttuparthi became clear in October when a Japanese godman, who calls himself Shakti Pat Guru (aka Takahashi Koji), visited Sai Ashram with 28 of his followers; they boasted that their guru could do anything Sai Baba could. Then they distributed leaflets asking Sai Baba’s devotees to attend a sermon by their guru — right inside the Baba’s ashram. The Seva Dal volunteers, some armed with sticks, escorted them outside. A month later, 142 followers of the Japanese godman checked into local hotels — this time without their guru. Barely were their bags unpacked before the police came knocking; they were on the next flight.

Compare Sai Baba to other godmen at your peril. “The Baba will not like you if you say he is like the other gurus and Sadhus,” said devotee Ventkatesh ominously. The others may not have the power of Sai Baba, but some come close. Like Amritanandamayi, a female Baba-in-the-making. Already gathering a national flock, the 43-year-old godwoman has an ashram in southern Kerala state. Thousands come to seek her blessing, most of them men. They lay their heads on her lap and she strokes their hair. The devotees believe she can revitalize them. “She has great sexual power,” says K.S. Nair. “She’s the complete Goddess, who has infinite love combining that of wife and mother.”

Amritanandamayi’s real name is Sudhamani; she was born in a fishing community. Like Sai Baba, she performs “miracles.” Many Indians believe those born under a combination of stars called Manglik make unlucky spouses. One Manglik must wed another. To do otherwise means instant death for the non-Manglik partner. Amritanandamayi has built her reputation on the claim that she can ward off the curse. Women without children also appeal to her; many say they became pregnant after spending the required two weeks in the ashram.

In Kerala, Amritanandamayi has become a potent social and political figure, though she shrewdly avoids overt dabbling in politics. Ex-Chief Minister A.K. Antony, a Roman Catholic, is a devotee. One time, Amritanandamayi headed off a confrontation between Antony’s party and the opposition. She is also behind the local ban on Arrak liquor, as well as high taxes on other spirits. In that endeavor, at least, the Catholic Church has demonstrated enthusiastic support.

There is no evidence that Amritanandamayi or Sai Baba have directly interfered in government, at the local or national level. Nor are there allegations that they enriched themselves by using their powers. They have been careful to stick to their traditional roles, a crucial ingredient of their success. According to custom, gurus must renounce all worldly goods and pleasures, and certainly not seek political power. It is an early social system of checks and balances. Scholar T.V.R. Shenoy holds up Mahatma Gandhi as an example of how it works. “Westerners were perplexed as to how this man who lived in poverty and held no office had so much power over the people,” he says. “We were not.”

Not all godmen can resist the allure of power. One could be Chandraswamy, a 47-year-old guru who has many friend in lofty places. Virtually the entire Rao Cabinet attended Chandraswamy’s 44th birthday bash at his opulent Delhi temple. It was a bipartisan affair; the leaders of several opposition parties were there, too. As the spiritual guide to ex-PMs Rao and Shekhar, Chandraswamy had the ears of those who mattered. He wielded extrordinary influence in New Delhi. In 1994, he apparently ended a major dispute between the Election Commission and the Rao government. He is also said to have determined who got cabinet posts. Not surprisingly, he was courted by businessmen wanting favors from the Indian government, hobnobbing with the likes of Saudi arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi.

Chandraswamy’s power did not extend to the legal realm, however. Last year London businessman Lakhubhai Pathak alleged the godman cheated him of $100,000, and police are investigating. According to the complaint Chandraswamy promised to help Pathak secure a contract to supply paper pulp to the Indian government. Pathak says he gave $100,000 to the godman after he arranged a meeting with Rao, then foreign minister, in a New York hotel. The pulp contract never materialized.

Rao is a co-defendant in the case. He and the godman also allegedly conspired to defame Vishwanat Pratap Singh, another ex-PM, by opening a foreign exchange account in a Caribbean tax haven in the name of Singh’s son Ajeya. Singh says it was a ruse to show he’d stashed illegal cash offshore. The godman was jailed for a few weeks and was freed on bail this year. The case continues.


The guru-buster’s office is a stark contrast to Sai Baba’s opulent palace and Chandraswamy’s ornate temple. From a dusty pigeon hole in Delhi’s downmarket Mayur Vihar district, Sanal Edamaruku leads the Indian Rationalists Association. His crusade is to discredit the gurus and everything they stand for. “These men and women are charlatans,” he says, “preying on the gullibility of ordinary people.” The chief rationalist has publicly challenged Sai Baba to prove his divinity and has offered a million rupees ($30,000) to anyone who can prove to have miraculous powers. For the most part, Sai Baba has ignored the rationalists. His only comment came in 1976. “The dogs bark,” said the godman. “But do the stars respond? Let them criticize, it is another way of thinking about me.”

While waiting for Sai Baba to answer, Edamaruku and his small band attack other godmen who claim supernatural powers. Recently the rationalists attended a ceremony featuring the Balti Baba on the terrace of a private house in Delhi’s tony Maharani Bagh area. The godman placed flaming earthen pots before the crowd and chanted mantras over them. Then he took two in his hands to demonstrate his immunity to heat. But Edamaruku touched the pots and found they were cool. He challenged the Baba to pick up a hot one. The godman was outraged, and he hurled two sizzling pots at the interloper, missing him by inches. Then he destroyed the rest and stormed off, screaming for water to soothe his blistered palms. “The pots had wet wheat flour on the base,” says Edamaruku. “So what he touched was quite cool.”

Edamaruku’s volunteers travel India performing the godmen’s miracles. Edamaruku conceals hardened balls of fragrant ash between his fingers and crushes them in his palm; the godman does it better. Other rationalists stick needles through their tongues and walk on burning coals. “We’re trying to encourage people to have inquiring minds,” says Edamaruku. With little effect. After the Balti Baba incident, one woman said: “It is all a question of faith. I believe in the Baba’s power; he brings me peace.” Swami Agnivesh, a human-rights activist and Hindu priest, derides the so-called miracle-mongers. “If someone has the power to walk on water, or on fire,” says Agnivesh, “he would not make a public exhibition of it to show his power. The highest is to be humble, not to increase one’s power.”

Tradition is everything in India. How people bathe, eat, worship, marry, die are all dictated by ancient customs that have evolved over the centuries and withstood numerous invasions. These customs once ensured the smooth functioning of society. Today, democracy and a liberalizing economy are straining the old order, and yet the hallowed ways endure. In fact, the Hindu path to spiritual elevation through meditation and seeking inner peace is popular outside India, and the godmen draw devotees from around the world.


It has been a hot day inside the Sai Ashram. Most devotees retreat to their rooms and dorms during the hottest hours. Only the sparse but well-staffed offices hum with activity. The Seva Dal stand guard at their posts. Tradition, after all, dictates this siesta. As the sun sets, the devotees sing the melodious Bhajans in the big hall. The godman is not among them today, although he often joins in. There is peace here, and a sense of camaraderie that seems warm and genuine in the soft light. Ventkatesh turns to me and asks “Arjunji, you are not a believer are you?” I do not answer, but I feel the weariness of my body ebb away in the hypnotically beautiful music.

— Arjuna Ranawana is Asiaweek’s India correspondent in New Delhi

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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