Face to afro with Sri Sathya Sai Baba

Lauren Shantall

Making a mini-pilgrimage to see the saffron-robed Sai Baba could easily be classified under the header “The Weird and the Wonderful”.

For Baba is the controversial holy man who has been seen belching rings of blue flame from his belly, the venerable Sri who manifests gawdy gold jewellery from the aether, and the swami who is famous for drizzling vibutti (holy ash) from his fingertips.

No wonder born-again Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and fundamentalist Christian groups consider him to be Satan incarnate, despite the fact that he provides free hospitals, housing, universities and schools for the poor.
Even Hare Krishna devotees reject him, while most skeptics just dismiss him as nothing but a clever magician who does charity work.

Of course, I was intrigued. But the fact that I was an hour away from his holiness’s summer ashram at Whitefield (and that someone once gave me a kitsch keyring depicting Baba’s hallmark Seventies hairdo) sealed it. It was fate, er, karma. I was virtually forced to come face to afro with Sri Sathya Sai Baba, aka the “barefoot saint”. Joining thousands of ardent followers who come daily, from all over the globe, to receive his blessing, I felt much like an extra on the set of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

I wasn’t sure what was more impressive - the endless crowds, the contained mass hysteria, or the knowledge that Baba has never been exposed as a fake. Don Mario Mazzoleni, a Roman Catholic priest, writes that he “is human only in body”. My roommate, a doctor of mathematics at a United States university, had calculated that Baba was “nothing but love”.

It’s not such a bad theorem considering Baba has been preaching and practising truth, right conduct, peace, non-violence and love since an early age. Born in 1926 at Puttaparthi in Andra Pradesh (the location of his winter ashram), he declared himself Sai Baba reborn after Sai Baba of Shirdi in the North. At age 14, he rejected worldly illusion, and his family, to devote himself to his followers.

Whoever Baba is, at age 74, he now makes a frail figure at his morning darshans (audiences). I see that his hair is dyed black as he smiles benevolently at the hordes, waves, disperses vibutti, and accepts letters like an Indian version of Santa Claus. In the afternoons he alights upon a gilded chair to lend an ear to the many, many chanting voices. Regardless of whether he’s a saint, charlatan, demon or earthly angel, the phenomenon itself is undoubtedly amazing.

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