inspired love and admiration
By Tanya Datta
Sri Satya Sai Baba, India’s revered spiritual guru
who counted presidents, prime ministers, judges and
generals amongst his millions of followers around
the world, has died at the age of 84.
Until the last, he was a man who inspired
passionately conflicting emotions (as I discovered
when I made a BBC investigative documentary about
him in 2004 called Secret Swami).
To his devotees, Sai Baba was an avatar, an
incarnation of God in human form, who appeared on
Earth to preach his inspirational message in one of
India’s poorest corners.
To his critics, he was a fraudster dogged for years
by controversial allegations of sexual abuse yet
protected from prosecution by virtue of his powerful
Whatever he was, there was no doubt that over time
he rose in prominence to become India’s premier
“god-man”, eclipsing the likes of Maharishi and Shri
Rajneesh who had first drawn Westerners east in the
Sixties and Seventies.
A diminutive, softly spoken man dressed in full
length saffron robes and perpetually sporting a
trademark afro hairstyle, Sai Baba’s appeal was not
limited to Western hippies but cut across Indian
society from its lowest to highest echelons as well
as spreading to many other countries beyond.
Satya Sai Baba was born Sathyanarayana Raju on 23
November 1926 in the remote village of Puttaparthi
in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh,
although like many born at this time, there is no
proof of his date of birth.
Stories abound of the early signs of his divinity.
It is said that his mother claimed her son came into
the world by virgin birth, just like Jesus Christ,
another messiah who Sai Baba often identified
On another occasion, he was alleged to have survived
a scorpion bite and on his recovery, was
miraculously able to speak Sanskrit, a language he
did not know before. Indeed, throughout his
childhood, he was said to have been abnormally
gifted in artistic pursuits such as music, dance,
drama and writing.
When he was 13 years old, the young boy announced to
his family that he was the incarnation of Shirdi Sai
Baba, a 19th century Indian holyman who had been
equally venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike.
Changing his name was a key spiritual metamorphosis.
The teenage Sai Baba soon began to attract followers
and by 1950, had constructed an ashram called
Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Peace) near his village
to accommodate them.
It heralded the start of the transformation of
Puttaparthi into a Sai Baba wonderland spread over
some 10 square kilometres; the vast complex of
hotels, resorts, university buildings, speciality
hospital, airport and enormous ashram thronged with
devotees that I witnessed while making the
Part of Sai Baba’s huge global popularity may be
explained by his non-dogmatic, non-doctrinal
approach to spirituality.
In contrast to many sects, followers were not
required to give up their previous religious beliefs
as the guru stated that he believed in the one God
that lay behind all religious paths.
Certainly, Sai Baba inspired love and admiration.
During our time spent filming at the ashram,
devotees from around the world would volunteer
stories about how Sai Baba had visited them in a
dream or had called to them though moments of
In addition, his mystical ability to manifest
vibhuti (holy ash), food as well as jewellery and
watches out of thin air was often cited as further
proof of his divinity and akin to the “miracles”
ascribed to other past prophets.
His opponents, however, denied this when I asked
them about it.
In the Secret Swami, I was shown how these
manifestations could easily be explained by
illusionists’ techniques and sleight of hand tricks.
For decades, various scientists, rationalists and
magicians have in turn, attempted to challenge the
guru to perform his ‘miracles’ under controlled
Sai Baba always refused to submit to these tests,
once saying: “Science must confine its inquiry only
to things belonging to the human senses, while
spiritualism transcends the senses. If you want to
understand the nature of spiritual power you can do
so only through the path of spirituality and not
The most damning allegations against the “god-man”,
however, concern the sexual abuse of young boys and
male adults during private interviews with him.
Damaging rumours have circulated since the seventies
of the guru’s sexual exploits but have always been
dismissed out of hand by the tightly controlled Sai
We interviewed the Rahm family in America who had
been Sai Baba devotees for years. Both father and
son stated that they had been subjected to Sai Baba
rubbing oil on their genitals.
“He took me aside,” said Alaya Rahm, “put the oil on
his hands, told me to drop my pants and rubbed my
genitals with oil. I was really taken aback.”
Dr Michael Goldstein, chairman of the international
Sai Baba organisation, admitted he had heard
rumours, but told us that he did not believe them.
He said: “My heart and my conscience tell me that it
is not possible.”
Sai Baba was never investigated on this issue. All
attempts to prosecute him failed.
Nor was there any satisfactory resolution to the
gruesome killing of four male devotees in 1993 who
allegedly entered Sai Baba’s bedroom, armed with
The police claimed they had been shot in
The lack of any legal proceedings against the guru
was perhaps not surprising in light of the level of
influence that he commanded.
A previous Indian prime minister, Atal Vajpayee,
once issued a letter on his official notepaper
calling the attacks on Sai Baba “wild, reckless and
concocted”. Since 2005, Sai Baba’s health had been
deteriorating. Although he once predicted he would
die in his mid-90s, he also claimed he could choose
the moment of his death. In death as in life, he
remained an enigma to the last.
Tanya Datta is a London-based radio and television
broadcaster and writer. She made Secret Swami, an
investigative documentary on Sai Baba for BBC Two