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Biography with a Difference


Amiya P. Sen

SRI SATHYA SAI BABA: A LIFE
Bill Aitken
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2004, pp. 252, Rs. 450.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 7 July 2005

In the mid 1970s, at a time when I had just entered university, Indian godmen, especially Sathya Sai Baba, had come to command great reverence and respectability. Among fellow-students, there was mostly cynicism and incredulity at reports of the Baba magically producing objects from thin air or of sacred ash (vibhuti) mysteriously oozing out of framed photographs of the saint. And yet, the unbelieving, if I recall correctly, were among those who, at the behest of their pious mothers, an elderly aunt or a well-meaning neighbour, ritually carried on their person, neat paper packets containing potent vibhuti. The 1970s, as I subsequently gathered, had also seen a series of biographical works on Sathya Sai appear in quick succession (Howard Murphet,1971,1978; V.K.Gokak, 1975; John Hislop,1978). At least in middle class, urban India, this burgeoning popularity in part reflected the increasing interest and curiosity about the Baba also beginning to be shown in the West—a feature that has indeed been integral to modern Hinduism. The present work itself does not omit to mention that in recent years, the Sathya Sai movement has been the largest recipient of foreign donations (p.197). Paradoxically though, some of the greatest detractors of the movement have also originated in the West—a situation not too dissimilar from what Swami Vivekananda, modern Hindu missionary to the West, was to witness in his own life time.   However, it is quite possible that the increasing quantum of foreign donations indicates more a growing support for the civic- secular projects run by the Sathya Sai Trust than some covert attraction for a quaint, exotic spirituality. Some western admirers, it is important to remember, perceived the spiritual greatness of Sathya Sai, essentially in terms of their own religious upbringing. There has been, for instance, the case of Don Mario Mazzoleni, a Catholic priest, who claimed to have seen the essence of Christ in Sai (p.20f). This leaves some room for an interfaith and intercultural dialogue that may explain why social work in India may also be understood and encouraged through say, Christian notions of charity. But with respect to the Indian work itself, most biographers of Sathya Sai, as Aitken alleges, fail to do justice to their charismatic subject as they naively overlook the palpable changes occurring in the person as well as within the movement he leads. For instance, they overlook the fact that from a conservative opponent ...


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