Love, peace and divinity

Embodiment of selfless service

Love, peace and divinity

Sai Baba- File photoWas he a godman as millions of his admirers and devotees believed? Or, was he just a ‘magician’ as his numerous critics and rationalists insisted?

The fierce debate about Sathya Sai Baba which has raged for nearly seven decades has been too contentious to be quietly interred with his body, and will perhaps continue to resonate for years to come without any resolution.

Godman or ‘magician’, nobody in his right mind can deny that Sathya Sai Baba was a phenomenon. A colourful, controversial and yet a supremely service-oriented phenomenon like never before.

In this land of legendary godmen and charlatans, whose popularity and following rises and dips like the unpredictable seasons and who are as quickly replaced by the others, Sai Baba will be remembered for a long, long time for his simple message of love, peace, harmony and above all, unmatched and totally unselfish service to society.

Sai Baba may not have had the intellectual aura of a Mahesh Yogi or mystical attraction of a Rajneesh, but his personal charisma and appeal among the elite as well as the masses far exceeded that of all the godmen put together. In an iconic discourse on June 29, 1968 at Nairobi, Uganda, he unfolded his principles quite simply and beautifully: “I have come to light the lamp of love in your hearts, to see that it shines day by day with added lustre. I have not come on behalf of any exclusive religion. I have not come on a mission of publicity for a sect, creed or cause, nor have I come to collect followers for a doctrine. I have no plan to attract disciples or devotees into my fold or any fold. I have come to tell you of this unitary faith, this spiritual principle, this path of love, this virtue of love, this duty of love and this obligation of love.”  

Looking back, it is extraordinary that despite his missionary work of over six decades during which he attracted devotees from across the world, this visit to Uganda, along with Kenya and Tanzania, was the only foreign trip that Sai Baba ever undertook during his life time.

It may not have been due to his lack of formal education (he was a ninth standard drop-out); it may also not have been because he spoke and gave discourses only in Telugu, his mother tongue. Throughout his career as a spiritual guru, he had a legion of expert translators and interpreters, who made his discourses available in many international languages including German, French, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish, apart from English and several Indian languages.

Sai Baba’s self education and the knowledge he gained over the years by interacting with some of the best brains, were deeply rooted in Indian traditions and culture. In his discourses, he has drawn stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavadgita, the Vedas and Upanishads to drive home his philosophy of sharing and caring for the poor and downtrodden, women’s emancipation, the importance of love, peace, unity of religions, of education and health. It was perhaps this down-to-earth teachings and concern for fellow human beings that made millions of people see ‘God’ in him.

Snapshots: Sai Baba in his younger daysThe young Baba

Born as Sathyanarayana Raju on November 23, 1926 in the dusty village of Puttaparthi as the fourth of five children to Eshwaramma and Peddavenkama Raju Ratnakaram in a poor agricultural family, he had a difficult childhood. Although his family ate meat, the young Raju was a vegetarian, a loner in school, which made some of his classmates consider him ‘abnormal’. While studying in Bookapatnam, a nearby village, he often missed classes to meditate under a tree. He had a knack for composing and singing bhajans and narrating stories.

On March 8, 1940, Raju, who was barely 14 then, was stung by a scorpion at his elder brother Seshama Raju’s house in Uravakonda. He lost consciousness for several hours. In the next few days his parents noticed changes in Raju’s behaviour. He indulged in bouts of laughing, weeping, eloquence and silence. He began to sing Sanskrit verses, a language of which he had no prior knowledge. Doctors believed it to be hysteria.

Raju went through a period of torture as his parents took him to exorcists throughout the countryside. One famous and feared exorcist, to whom the boy’s ‘demon’ had become a personal challenge, shaved Raju’s head, cut three crosses on his skull, then poured caustic material into the wound, some of which got into the eyes, making them swollen and almost shut. Finally, his parents could not stand this ordeal any more and called a stop to it, though their son had apparently not been cured.

The transformation

Just two months later, on May 23, 1940, Raju’s father became furious when he saw Raju materialising sugar candy and other items in front of his family members. Suspecting that his son was in the spell of an evil power, he took out a stick and demanded of Raju who he was. Raju announced, “I am Sai Baba,” a reference to Sai Baba of Shirdi, a well-known saint of Shirdi town in Maharashtra, who had passed away eight years before Raju was born.

A few months later, one day Raju threw away his books and declared that he had no relations with anyone. Saying that “my devotees are calling me. I have my work,” he spent the next three days under a tree in the garden of an excise inspector and many people gathered around him. He taught them bhajans. From then on, Sai Baba claimed to be an ‘avatar’ and devotees began to follow him. He visited Madras and other important cities in southern India.

In order to gain quick popularity, Sai Baba began to resort to ‘magic’ or ‘miracle’ as he called it — a decision which turned out to be both a boon and a bane. He could produce holy ash and small objects such as rings, Shiva lingas, necklaces and watches as if from nowhere, which he handed over to his devotees to their utter delight and amazement. Rationalists, however, berated him for his ‘tricks’ and accused him of trying to fool the people. But, in the eyes of his disciples, it was evidence of Baba’s divine powers.

As debates and controversies raged, in the 1970s, then vice chancellor of Bangalore University, Dr H Narasimhaiah constituted a committee to probe into miracles and superstitions. Narasimhaiah wrote three letters to Sai Baba asking him to perform his miracles under controlled conditions and instead of producing small objects through “the sleight of hand,” he wanted the Baba to produce a pumpkin from thin air. Sai Baba chose to ignore those highly-publicised letters, but he had to go through a period of acute embarrassment as several magicians, including P C Sorcar Jr, performed more complicated ‘miracles’ than him in public, which received wide publicity in the media.

An unfazed Sai Baba often declared that miracles were his “visiting cards” which attracted the people towards him. His doting devotees claimed that often sacred ash poured out of Sai Baba’s photos kept in their homes, but these claims remained largely unverified. There were also stories of the terminally ill being ‘cured’ with the blessings of the Baba, his divine presence being felt everywhere, etc, which made Sai Baba the butt of more criticism, but he seemed to thrive on such controversies and publicity.

The megalomaniac in him surfaced as early as May, 1968. Speaking at the world conference of ‘Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations’ in Mumbai (then Bombay), he proclaimed himself as an incarnation of God who had come to restore ‘right conduct’. On another occasion, he declared that he was an ‘avatar’ whose mission on earth was the establishment of righteousness.

Devotion to public service

But these controversies pale into insignificance when one considers the single-minded devotion with which he plunged into public service. He built a number of temples in many parts of the country, and more importantly, temples of learning, mostly in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which offered free education to the poor; established clinics and high-tech multi-speciality hospitals with the best of doctors and equipment, where the treatment was absolutely free; took up drinking water projects worth crores of rupees in the parched villages of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and made sure that they were completed in a time-bound manner. In all his philanthropic activities, Sathya Sai Baba was like a one-man government who could move mountains and bring smiles on the faces of thousands of people.

For instance, in November 1995, Baba announced his concern for the suffering of the people of Rayalseema due to lack of drinking water. He said, “Rayalseema should be ensured water supply all through the year. Today it is a Raallaseema (a rocky region). It must be transformed into a Ratnalaseema (land that glitters like diamond).”

The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust commenced work on a project to supply pure drinking water to villages in the drought-ravaged district of Anantapur. Baba’s mandate was simple and direct: provide safe drinking water throughout the year to as many people as possible, in as many villages in the shortest possible time. Accordingly, a project plan was drawn up to bring water to the villages tapping the river water where available and from dams, canals and river beds and then deliver the water through an elaborate network of storage reservoirs, booster pumps and pipes.

About 2,000 km pipeline of varying diameters was laid. About 43 sumps with capacities ranging from 1 lakh (0.1 million) litres to 25 lakh litres were constructed, 18 balancing reservoirs with capacities ranging from 3 lakh litres to 10 lakh litres were built on the top of hillocks, besides 270 overhead reservoirs with a capacity of 40,000 to 3 lakh litres. More than 1,500 precast concrete cisterns of 2,500 litres' capacity were installed in the villages. Each cistern had four taps for people to collect water. This gigantic project, completed in about two years, was formally handed over to the government of Andhra Pradesh in October 1997.

The Government of India was so impressed with Baba’s work that the Ninth Five Year plan document added a citation to the Trust in appreciation of the project, which read — “…Sri Sathya Sai Trust has set an unparalleled example of private initiative in implementing a project on its own, without any state’s budgetary support, a massive water supply project, with an expenditure of Rs 3,000 million to benefit 731 scarcity and fluoride/ salinity-affected villages and a few towns in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh in a time frame of about 18 months.”

Next, the Baba turned his attention to the drinking water problems of drought prone and fluoride affected regions of Telangana. In all, 345 habitations in Medak and Mahabubnagar districts were chosen for supplying water from the backwaters of the Jurala project built on the Krishna river in Mahabubnagar district and from the Manjeera river in Medak district. The project that cost Rs 53 crore covered a total area of 640 sq km and benefitted an aggregate population of about 1 million in the two districts.

The Department of Posts released a postage stamp and postal cover on November 23, 1999, recognising the pioneering service rendered by the Baba in addressing the problem of providing safe drinking water to the rural masses.

Oftentimes, Sai Baba was given to making dramatic announcements during his discourses and one such announcement came in January, 2002, during the first anniversary of the super speciality hospital in Bangalore. He spoke extensively about health and health care, and suddenly and most unexpectedly, he started making a reference to the drinking water problem of Madras. He said that he was greatly moved by the plight of the people there, especially the slum dwellers. He had received much love from the people of that city and he wanted to do something for them. The rich there could buy water from the tanker service but what about the poor?, he wondered and said he wanted to give them drinking water.

Within days, discussions started with the southern states to somehow reach Krishna river water to Madras. Since Baba’s trust had already executed various water projects in Andhra Pradesh and Sai Baba had several chief ministers as his devotees, a plan was quickly drawn up where Karnataka, Andra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu agreed to offer 5 tmcft each of their share of Krishna waters for the drinking water needs of the Madras city. The three states which had quarrelled for decades over the question of sharing Krishna water had shown magnanimity at the instance of Baba. The project which began in 2002, fully funded by Baba’s trust, is now nearing completion.

Education and medical health

In 1981, Sai Baba set up the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning by fusing together the colleges that had been established earlier at Anantapur, Whitefield and Puttaparthi. The Sri Sathya Sai higher secondary school at Prashanti Nilayam was started in 1983. These institutions provide education from the primary school level right up to the post-doctoral level, where education is absolutely free.

Besides, he has established a college of music where both Carnatic and Hindustani styles of vocal music are taught, apart from training students in playing the veena, mridangam, sitar and tabla.

Baba’s initiatives in the field of medical care began with the Sri Sathya Sai General Hospital, started in 1956. From a 12-bed hospital, it has now grown into a 90-bed facility with an out-patient department that now handles around 600 patients a day. He has set up super speciality hospitals at Anantapur and Whitefield, near Bangalore, which provide the needy, poor patients, irrespective of caste or creed, state-of-the-art treatment in heart and neurology-related diseases free of cost.

Sai Baba’s spiritual motto has been, “Help the needy and distressed people. There is no higher spiritual practice than this... When we make use of God’s gifts properly, we can experience peace and happiness.”

Faith rules

Controversies apart, Sathya Sai Baba is, in this land of mysticism, revered by lakhs. Some with the belief that he was the ultimate godman, and some others, wowed by his social work and spiritual knowledge.

People from all walks of life were, and will, continue to be his devotees as he was the “god” who touched their lives with his “power”. In 1980, filmmaker Bani Prakash Das, a national award recipient, recalls, “I met Baba for the first time and Puttaparthi was just a place of rock. And today, it is there for all of us to see what it has transformed into.”

Das explained that both his sisters who are doctors, and him, have benefitted from the educational institutions run by the Sathya Sai Central Trust. He has also gone through two heart surgeries at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, for free, and is still getting regular check-ups for free.

Source of inspiration

Rangareddy, a former student and devotee of Baba, recollecting his school days in early ’70s, says, “He was a man of love and peace.” Baba, he said, used to visit his school to give lectures, and his lectures, Reddy says, have got him where he is and the emphasis on service has  made him humble.

Sai Baba’s life, which he calls is his message, has inspired many individuals, saved many others, and epitomised an extraordinary spiritual journey. His several educational and medical institutions have also provided him an image that can barely be brushed away by small controversies, or even death.

Pedda Reddy, a former naxal (member of the People’s War Group), who had performed street plays with Baba, recollecting his experience, says, “I used to play Krishna and he used to play Sathyabama. Then he chose the path of love while I took up arms.”
Although Pedda Reddy had a long career in naxalism and had even written and propagated poetry criticising Sai Baba, his calling came nevertheless. He quit naxalism and became a devotee of Baba.

“One fine day, I realised that this man, through another path, had achieved everything I had fought for. He had provided education, healthcare, water and everything else without shedding a drop of blood. On the other hand, I was responsible for a lot of bloodshed but had not achieved anything,” he says, adding that was the day he became a devotee of Sai Baba.

Sri Harsha, a journalist working with a reputed English daily in Delhi, has quit the profession and has completely devoted himself to the service the Sathya Sai health wing provides.

“That meeting with Baba a few years ago changed my perception of life. I realised the kind of work Sai Baba was doing through various channels and I wanted to be a part of it instantly. So I did.”

In all, revered as the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, this spiritual guru from Puttaparthi promoted the principles of love, peace and divinity.

(With inputs from Chethan Kumar)

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