Sri Sathya Sai Baba 81st birthday marks decades of an incredibly popular cult and charitable works and International appeal. His devotees now number, some say, 6-10 million. Despite many controversies and detractions is Sai Baba perhaps India’s most enduring saint? That was the big question of debate on the CNN-IBN show India 360 with Sagarika Ghose.
On the expert panel were Union Power Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde and President of Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku.
Sagarika Ghose: Mr Shinde, you have been Sai Baba’s devotee for many years. What does he mean to you?
Sushil Kumar Shinde: He is a great social reformist. When I was the governor of Andhra Pradesh, I had the pleasure of attending his 80th birthday function. But today I am in Delhi so I sent him a fax saying that we cannot pray for you but we ask you for blessings to serve the poor community of India. I have known him for 30 years. I met him first in 1974. I see him as a great personality.
Sagarika Ghose: What about the controversies that surround him and the personal allegations made against him?
Sushil Kumar Shinde: I think the controversies are just one side of the story. He has been devoting himself to the young community in the colleges and schools he has opened. He has opened hospitals as well as starting water schemes in districts. He is part and parcel of God. Even God was criticized many times. But they have proved to be great saints.
Sagarika Ghose: Mr Edamaruku, how do you react to him being an institution builder of many charitable institutions?
Sanal Edamaruku: Mr Shinde can be a devotee and Sai Baba setting up many institutions is not of dispute to me but when he starts claiming that he can produce things from thin air, he is a miracle worker, is when the questions spring up. When he says he can produce holy ash from thin air, I would say he is a fraud.
Sushil Kumar Shinde: But such strength comes from that kind of power. That power, whether it comes from Sai Baba or God, one has to find out. There are a number of people I have seen doing such things. I have seen Sai Baba’s miracles and experienced them. He has given me rings and lockets. One has to have faith. One can keep criticizing God and even a truthful person. But it depends on how you see it. I don’t believe in blind faith. Even though I don’t see him often, I believe in him.
Sathya Sai Baba: Reincarnation of God or social reformer?
His 'creations' are most often rings, medallions, bracelets, necklaces, watches, fruit, sweets, food, money. Yet he says he can turn earth into sky and vice-versa, that he contains all powers in his hand and knows everything about everyone.
It was said that instruments played on their own accord in his household when he was born.
According to professor Narayana Kasturi (Sathya Sai Baba's official biographer), Sathya was conceived through a Virgin birth.
His mother, Easwaramma, claimed that she found out she was pregnant after a huge sphere of blue light rolled towards her, merged into her and made her faint.
On May 23, 1940 the young Sathya claimed to be the reincarnation of the fakir Shirdi Sai Baba and subsequently took the fakir's name.
Sagarika Ghose: But what is it about his message that makes it so universal? Is it because he gives things, he’s like a Santa Claus, giving free food and treatment, that makes people like him?
Sushil Kumar Shinde: Yes. Also, he’s a man sent in the name of saint. He is creating a new community that is educated. He is teaching technology and science and not religion.
Sagarika Ghose: Mr Edamaruku, the Union Minister for Power himself says that for him, Sai Baba is a reincarnation of God. That is faith. Should one unnecessarily be suspicious of faith?
Sanal Edamaruku: Faith without critical thinking has no meaning. Blind faith without sustainable and tangible evidence is questionable.
Sagarika Ghose: Mr Shinde, why do so many VIP’s get attracted to Sri Sathya Sai Baba?
Sushil Kumar Shinde: It is not because he gives jewellery. He gives advice. He replies to letters. It is a miracle because he has been giving advice to hundreds of thousands of people. How can he be a cheat?
Sanal Edamaruku: These are magic tricks that can be done by any small-time magician. All the things that he does, from producing ash to reading letters are simple tricks that have been shown so many times including by me and other magicians. It has been caught on camera and shown on many channels all over the world and he has been challenged to do it in fraud-proof conditions. I have challenged him too but there was no response from him.
Sagarika Ghose: Mr Shinde, Mr Edamaruku is asking why we have to accept someone as an incarnation of God if we want to accept him as a social reformer?
Sushil Kumar Shinde: I accept him in both ways, but more as a social reformer. God has sent somebody to do the job. I am not a blind-faith man. On one occasion I asked Justice Baghwathi and Nani Palkiwala, supposed to be the best brains in the country, about it. They told me with their experience that he has some power. I believe that he has some power. He is utilizing it not to destroy society but to do good for the society.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba's claims
Observed to allegedly manifest vibuthi (holy ash), food and small objects such as rings, necklaces and watches.
Healing diseases and sometimes taking on the illnesses of devotees on himself.
Levitation (both indoors and outdoors), bilocation physical disappearances, changing granite into sugar candy, changing water into another drink, changing water into gasoline, producing objects on demand.
Changing the color of his gown into a different color while wearing it, multiplying food, controlling the weather, physically transforming into various deities and physically emitting brilliant light.
Sathya Sai Baba refused to have his materializations investigated under experimental conditions because he felt that the approach used by critics was improper.