Sai legend

Print edition : May 20, 2011

Policemen place the Tricolour on the casket containing Sathya Sai Baba's body at Prashanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi on April 27. The funeral, performed with full state honours, took place at the same place from where Sai Baba addressed his devotees. - SHAILENDRA BHOJAK /PTI

It is a measure of Sai Baba's (1926-2011) appeal that no one complained about the secular state overstepping its limits in honouring him.

RARELY in recent memory has the passing away of a seer attracted such wide attention or evoked so much outpouring of grief as the death of Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. It was eloquent testimony to the large following he commanded among the high and mighty and among commoners, although profundity was not the strength of his preaching.

For nearly one month, the eyes of millions of the 85-year-old's devotees were riveted on Puttaparthi, a small though modern town tucked away in a corner of the backward Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh where he lay critically ill. He was battling heart complications which a pacemaker failed to stabilise, and kidney and liver infections made his condition irretrievable.

THE SRI SATHYA Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences at Puttaparthi. Sai Baba set up hospitals where treatment is free of cost.-NOAH SEELAM/AFP

The best medical attention given by renowned specialists from India and abroad could not postpone the inevitable, disappointing the legion of Sai Baba's devotees who firmly believed he was destined to live up to the age of 96 and incarnate as Prema Sai in Karnataka's Mandya district.

When the doctors declared that Bhagwan Sathya Sai Baba is no more with us physically. He left his earthly body on April 24 at 7.40 a.m. due to cardio-respiratory failure at Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences (SSSIHMS), it signalled the end of the 71-year-long spiritual journey of a man of humble origins.

An estimated five lakh devotees filed past Sai Baba's body placed in the ornately decorated Sai Kulwanth Hall in Prashanthi Nilayam, where the godman celebrated his birthdays on a grand scale with either the President or the Prime Minister in attendance. He was interred three days later at the same place from where he addressed the devout sitting on a throne-like chair, later substituted with an electric wheelchair. Quite unusually, state honours were accorded for the funeral, and the Andhra Pradesh government declared a state mourning.

It was a measure of Sai Baba's appeal, transcending religious, linguistic and national boundaries, that no one complained about the secular state overstepping its limits. His philanthropic work and his motivation of the rich to give and share, which drew admiration even from those who did not subscribe to his philosophy, may have muted the sceptics' criticism.

THOUSANDS OF DEVOTEES watched as Sai Baba was interred in the central hall of Prashanthi Nilayam on April 27.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Sathya Sai Baba derives the first part of his name from the original one Sathyanarayana Raju. He was born to Eswaramma and Ratnakaram Pedda Venkama Raju on November 23, 1926, in Puttaparthi, then a tiny village where shepherds were the predominant community. After he became famous, legends were woven around his childhood days, about his spiritual proclivities that led to his being addressed as guru and brahmagyani by his peers in the village.

What, however, is common to various versions is that he was an intelligent child, quite talented in drama and music, and an avid composer of poems. Some of this was evident from his melodious singing of bhajans that he led at the congregations. The fourth among the five children born to his parents, Sathyanarayana Raju spent most of his early life with his eldest brother, Sesham Raju, a teacher.

It was not until he was 14 that he declared, on October 20, 1940, his avatarhood and claimed that he was an incarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who had passed away some eight years before the birth of the Puttaparthi godman. He revealed in July 1963 that Sai Avatar was a triple incarnation of the Siva-Shakti principle Siva as Shirdi Sai Baba, Siva and Parvathi embodied as Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and the Shakti principle that would incarnate as Prema Sai.

The story goes that Sathya, then an eighth class student, returned home from his Srikara Basavaswamy Board High School at Uravakonda and proclaimed that he was not Sathyanarayana anymore. I am being summoned by my devotees. I have to leave now, he said, forsaking his relationships. Within no time, Sathyanarayana had transformed into Sathya Sai Baba.

He returned to Puttaparthi and set up a modest ashram that has now transformed into a global village teeming with devotees, many of whom purchased flats and houses locally to be close to their spiritual mentor. Work on the Prashanthi Nilayam started in 1948 and was completed by 1950. Before long, it became a worldwide hub that attracted from far and wide those in search of inner peace.

Notwithstanding the Hindu philosophy that underpinned his teachings, Sai Baba's devotees say he integrated in himself two very significant roles. His simple and sweet exposition of the greatest and most intricate of spiritual truths forms the fundamental teachings of the world, the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust (SSSCT) says. I have come not to disturb or destroy any faith but to confirm each in his own faith, so that a Christian becomes a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Hindu a better Hindu, Sai Baba said.

CRICKET ICON SACHIN Tendulkar and his wife, Anjali, at Prashanthi Nilayam on April 25.-DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

Sai Baba steered clear of political controversy at the peak of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute by desisting from issuing any statements, unlike heads of several famous mutts who took sides. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) president Ashok Singhal met him at least twice in Puttaparthi to solicit a statement from him in support of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, but returned empty handed.

Whatever be the beliefs of his legion of devotees about the brand of secularism espoused by Sai Baba, the diversity of his followers drawn from different religious backgrounds Sathya Sai Seva centres exist in 167 countries made it imperative for the godman's appeal to be universal and not narrow. Take, for instance, his followers in the cricketing world, who range from Zaheer Abbas of Pakistan to Arjuna Ranatunga of Sri Lanka and India's own batting legend and icon Sachin Tendulkar.

Many of Sai Baba's devotees were apparently awed by the miracles that he performed producing gold chains, rings, Swiss-made wristwatches and vibhuti' (holy ash) from thin air. Others also believed that vibhuti' flowed out of the portraits of Sai Baba hung in their homes. As much as it impressed his devotees, it drew unfavourable attention. Some criticised him for distributing the largesse on the basis of the social status of the recipients the rich and the powerful would get gold chains while lesser mortals would have to settle for vibhuti'. The more trenchant criticism came from rationalists who held that the so-called miracles were nothing but sleight of hand to which those with a scientific temperament should give no credence.

The controversy never died down because Sai Baba refused to accept the challenges thrown by sceptics such as H. Narasimhaiah, Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University, or the well-known rationalist Abraham T. Kovoor to perform the miracles under controlled conditions. But the focus did shift from the raging debates when Sai Baba turned to philanthropy on a large scale.

In fact, this was the other and more universal role he played launching numerous service projects such as free hospitals, free schools and colleges, and free drinking water supply and housing projects. The state-of-the-art health care and education infrastructure he helped establish for the poor also helped deflect the flak.

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi paying homage to Sathya Sai Baba at Prashanthi Nilayam on April 26.-AFP

Generous donations from his overseas and Indian followers mattered. A foreign devotee, for instance, donated a whopping Rs.650 crore, which helped the Central Trust in establishing super speciality hospitals at Puttaparthi and at Whitefield near Bangalore, together costing Rs.195 crore, and in setting up educational institutions.

As a native of Rayalaseema, the driest region of Andhra Pradesh, Sai Baba desired that it must be transformed. Anantapur, in particular, receives the second lowest rainfall in the country after Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Three rivers Pennar, Hagari and Chitravati flow through the district but remain dry during the summer months.

Sai Baba announced in 1994 that the Trust would fund a project for the supply of drinking water to approximately 800 villages in Anantapur district, many of which had groundwater with high fluoride content, causing physical deformities among people living there. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, himself a staunch devotee of Sai Baba, inaugurated the Rs.300 crore project on November 18, 1995. About 300 villages in the drought-prone and fluoride-affected Medak and Mahabubnagar districts and the tribal areas of East and West Godavari were assisted similarly.

Seven years later, in January 2002, Sai Baba announced that the Trust would execute at its expense another ambitious project the renovation of the dilapidated Kandaleru-Poondi canal and increasing the capacity of the Kandaleru reservoir from 16 to 68 tmcft. This would ensure adequate water supply to Chennai and help irrigate three lakh acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land in Nellore and Chittoor districts of Andhra Pradesh.

Sixty-five kilometres of the 150-km Kandaleru-Poondi canal were lined and three escape structures built for diversion of water in case of flooding. Four days after the gates of the Kandaleru reservoir were opened on November 23, 2004, Sai Baba's 79th birthday, the Poondi reservoir began filling up, heralding another significant milestone for the Trust.

IN JANUARY 2002, Sai Baba announced that the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust would undertake the renovation of the Kandaleru-Poondi canal and increase the capacity of the Kandaleru reservoir from 16 to 68 tmcft. This would ensure adequate water supply to Chennai and help irrigate 1.2 lakh hectares of land in Nellore and Chittoor districts of Andhra Pradesh. Here, Andhra Pradesh Irrigation Minister Ponala Lakshmaiah (sitting in foreground) inspects the water flow into the Kandaleru-Poondi canal at Uthukottai on the Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu border in August 2007.-S. THANTHONI

Sai Baba built hospitals offering quality health care that could easily become a benchmark for corporate hospitals, besides providing mobile medical services at the doorstep of villagers and slum-dwellers. The Rs.300-crore super speciality teaching hospital at Puttaparthi and the 330-bed hospital at Whitefield offer specialised services, including complex heart surgery, free of cost. The demand for these services is such that patients have to wait for their turn for months before they are admitted for surgery. His focus on education was no less significant, and was reported to reflect the wishes of his mother, Eswaramma. He developed a chain of institutions, comparable with the best in their class. The Sathya Sai Deemed University is probably the only institution that offers courses in cutting-edge disciplines without tuition and other fees. Lately, a new scheme called Vidya Vahini was launched. It involved the adoption of schools in rural areas to turn them around and make them on a par with those operated directly by the Trust.

The vast empire of Sathya Sai Baba includes properties in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Kodaikanal, which also served as a summer retreat for the godman. Then there is the Sri Sathya Sai international airport at Puttaparthi, less than 70 km away from the international airport at Devanahalli outside Bangalore, besides the 70-acre Prashanthi Nilayam at Puttaparthi. The total extent of land under the Trust's control is about 638 acres.

As the founder-chairman of the Central Trust, which was registered in 1972, Sai Baba wielded sole authority. All the works and projects of the Trust were approved by Sai Baba, and he alone had the power to sign cheques for disbursing payments.

The other trustees of the body, reconstituted in March 2010, are Justice P.N. Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India; Indulal Shah, a chartered accountant from Mumbai; S.V. Giri, former Central Vigilance Commissioner; V. Srinivasan, former president, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII); and R.J. Rathnakar, the son of his younger brother, R. Janakiram. In addition, there is a Council of Management of the Trust, which has as its members S.S. Naganand, a lawyer from Bangalore; J.V. Shetty, former Chairman of Canara Bank; T.K.K. Bhagavat, former Chairman of Indian Overseas Bank; and K. Chakravarthi, a retired IAS officer who has been Trust Secretary since 1984.

As Sai Baba has not left behind any will, the question that looms large after his demise is whether the Trust can remain united and work cohesively to manage the vast empire, which owns assets worth thousands of crores of rupees. Another question is whom the Trust will give the power to sign the cheques, and consequently the clout to call the shots.

An amicable resolution to this issue will be the touchstone for how successfully the Trust will be able to fulfil the aspirations of Sai devotees.

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