Bhagwan to his believers, humanitarian to others and controversial in the eyes of some others, Sri Sathya Sai Baba has occupied a prominent space in India’s collective mindscape for over half a century.
Routinely featuring among the most influential persons in the country, Baba passed away at the age of 85.
Here’s a look on his life and all that he represents.
Born as Ratnakara Venkata Sathyanarayana Raju on November 23, 1926, in Puttaparthi in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, Baba was recognised since early childhood as an extra-ordinarily intelligent boy.
Full of love and compassion, the young Sathyanarayana endeared himself to all. The defining characteristic of the boy was his spiritual nature and his efforts to make his young friends turn towards God.
He went through a lot of hardships during those years, the physical scars of which remain to this day.
March 1940 marked a turning point. 14-year-old Sathya, as the fable goes, was stung one day by a scorpion.
Since that day his behaviour changed. An enigma to all, Sathya’s persona had changed. All sort of medications and therapies were tried on him on the belief that he has come under the effect of some evil spirit, but all efforts came to a naught.
Withdrawn and indifferent to worldly matters, he spoke rarely and that too only on spiritual matters.
He would burst into non-stop recitation of Vedic hymns he had never learnt, challenge the scholarly philosophical subjects.
Days and weeks passed, and Sathya remained "abnormal".
The revelation day
Then it happened. May 23, 1940, Sathya was in a good mood, materialising flowers and sugar candy in plenty, and distributing them to all those who called on him.
His father Venkama Raju lost his cool as he suspected that his son was tricking people.
Armed with a big stick, he approached Sathya, and asked, "Who are You? Are You God, ghost, or devil?"
The big moment had finally arrived. Sathya calmly replied, "I am Sai." Puzzled, Venkama Raju asked: "What are we to do with You?" Sathya replied, "Worship Me." Next question:"When?" Came the answer, "Every Thursday."
After that day he used to perform miracles, besides turning more and more towards his spiritually awakened self.
Then finally on October 20, 1940, he finally decided to snap all worldly ties and launch the mission he had incarnated for.
He declared to his parents, "I am no longer your Sathya. I am Sai. I don't belong to you. I have my work. My devotees are calling me. I am going. I can no longer stay here."
The Avatar was now for all to see and experience. Such was his magnetism, and such was the faith of the devotees who flocked to him and they had no reservation in accepting him as a divine incarnation.
He sang: Manasa bhajare Gurucharanam,
Dustara bhavasagara tharanam O mind! Meditate on the Lotus Feet of the Lord!
That alone will help you to sail across the turbulent sea called life.
He built for himself a thatched hut in Puttaparthi and used to live there with his devotees. But such was his attraction that the place soon seemed too small to accommodate the growing numbers of those seeking the blessings of Bhagwan.
Following which, around 1950, his devotees built the mandir, popularly known today as the Prasanthi Nilayam (abode of the highest peace).
Sathya Sai revealed the purpose behind his incarnation in 1958. He said his mission would unfold itself in stages. The first sixteen years would be dominated by contact with individuals, following which attention would be given to groups.
After that spiritual exhortation would be the dominant feature; lastly service to humanity at large would become the principal focus.
By 1960s Sathya Sai Baba had emerged prominently on the spiritual scene, not just in Andhra Pradesh but across the country as well.
Starting with a trip to Uganda, over the years Baba has travelled across the globe.
With “love as the fuel for the spiritual movement”, Sathya Sai’s message has spread far and wide. Today, there are over 100 Sathya Sai Baba centres in 126 countries all over the world.
Sathya Sai is well known for displaying his special powers like materialising sacred ash, gems, flowers etc from thin air. His miracles have been under scrutiny for long but for the believers they have always been the means by which the Bhagwan displays his presence and answers special prayers.
The pearl necklace Once during a tour to Kanyakumari, Baba was at the seashore and with his disciples. He stood facing the waters and said to those beside Him, “See! The ocean is welcoming me, with a garland.”
At the very moment a wave advanced majestically towards the shore and Baba's feet and receded. To the wonder and amazement of everyone present the wave left behind a beautiful pearl necklace circled around the holy feet.
Jesus An Australian woman on her first visit met Baba during darshan. She held up a computer-generated black-and-white photo of Jesus to him. He took it and from it manifested a blank sheet of paper over which he passed his hands to reveal a colour photo of Jesus.
Sathya Sai Baba advocates the unity of all religions. He says that all religions lead to God and that followers should continue to follow their original religions.
His path to spiritual enlightment not only draws from different approaches as prescribed in Hinduism but also from other religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity.
The guiding philosophy being: The very important way a person can emancipate oneself is through self-less service to others in need.
According to Sathya Sai Baba, the objective of the Sathya Sai Organisation "is to help you recognize the divinity inherent in you. So, your duty is to emphasize the One, to experience the One in all you do or speak. Do not give importance to differences of religion, sect, status, or colour. Have the feeling of one-ness permeate all your acts. Only those who do so have a place in this organization; the rest can withdraw.”
Famous admirers: Among the millions attracted towards Sathya Sai have been a number of VVIPs like former prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sachin Tendulkar and others.
Miracles: Sathya Sai Baba has been time and again questioned and criticised about his magical powers, which, as per his disciples, are acts of divine creation.
Moreover, Baba has steadfastly refused to play ball with rationalists, who asked him to perform the same miracles under experimental conditions. His view: "The optical sense cannot visualize the truth. It gives only false and fogged information. For example, there are many who observe my actions and start declaring that my nature is such and such."
Sexual abuse: Baba courted controversy when some of his devotees accused him of sexually abusing them.
In 2004, the BBC aired a documentary titled ‘The Secret Swami’ in which his disciples Alaya Rahm levelled sexual abuse allegations against Baba. Another old bhakt Mark Roche, also alleged abuse by him.
However, neither Sathya Sai Baba nor any organisations associated with him were charged or convicted for sexual abuse or any other crime in a court of law.
Despite the controversies that have surrounded Sathya Sai Baba for much of his life, there’s one aspect of his persona that is difficult to dispute even by his staunchest critics.
Under his guidance, Puttaparthi, the once sleepy village has transformed into an oasis of prosperity in the region. It now boasts of all important amenities like an airport, railway station, super-speciality hospital, university to name a few.
Today, the Sathya Sai Trust runs hundreds of philanthropic institutions, starting form primary schools to institutes of higher learning in medicine and other hi-tech fields.
The Trust has also funded several major drinking water projects. One project completed in 1996 supplies water to 1.2 million people in about 750 villages in the drought-prone Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh. The second drinking water project, completed in 2004, supplies water to Chennai through a rebuilt waterway named "Sathya Sai Ganga Canal".
“Man is born to share and serve, not to grab and grieve.”
“Be in the world but let not the world be in you.”
“You need offer only two things: Pure love and self-less service.”
“God is truth, truth is goodness, goodness is beauty, truth, goodness, beauty, sathyam, shivam, sundaram is yourself. Be yourself.”
“Truth has no fear; untruth shivers at every shadow.”
“The term Bhagwan means the one who is capable of lighting the divine effulgence, the illumination of wisdom, the eternal inner light of the soul. Can there be anything greater than earning the Love of such an omniscient, omnipotent Lord? There is nothing on earth or beyond it which is equal to divine love. To make all endeavours to earn that love. Is the whole purpose and meaning of human existence.”
“A pure thought from a pure heart is better than a mantra.”
“You ask from me a thousand things of the world, but rarely do you ask for me.”