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With Sathya Sai Baba’s Passing, a Change in India’s Religious Landscape


[HPI note: Although Sai Baba was born to Hindu parents, raised in a Hindu community, took a Hindu name, wore the saffron-colored vestments of a Hindu sannyasin, will be honored by Hindu funeral rites; though he quoted from Hindu scriptures and directed an overwhelmingly Hindu following to sing traditional Hindu devotional songs, even so, he did not profess to be a Hindu. Still, in the minds of countless westerners, his was the image conjured when someone spoke of Hinduism and his passing is relevant to the Hindu community.]

UK, April 25, 2011 (The Telegraph): Sathya Sai Baba, who died yesterday, probably aged 84, was India’s most famous, and most controversial holy man. To his followers, Sai Baba was a living God; he would frequently liken himself to such figures as Christ, Krishna, and the Buddha, claiming that he was the avatar of the age.

Sai Baba’s reputation was founded largely on claims of his miraculous powers. It was later tarnished by accusations of quackery and even pedophilia, though he was never convicted.

He is thought to have been born, as Sathya Narayana Raju, on November 23 1926, into a poor farming family in the village of Puttaparthi, in the arid state of Andhra Pradesh.

According to legend, as a child he would avoid places where animals were slaughtered and bring beggars home to be fed. At the age of 14, after apparently being bitten by a scorpion, he began to display signs of delirium and hallucinations. Convinced that he was possessed, his parents summonsed a local exorcist who shaved the boy’s head, scored four X’s into his scalp, and poured the juice of garlic and lime into the wounds. Shortly afterwards, he declared himself to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, one of southern India’s most revered saints, who died in 1918. Challenged to prove his claim, he is said to have thrown some jasmine flowers on the floor; in falling the flowers arranged themselves to spell out the name “Sai Baba” in Telugu.

From humble beginnings, his following grew until by the end of the 20th century it was estimated to number more than three million people around the world. This made him a powerful and influential figure in Indian social and political life; he numbered many high-ranking politicians and public figures.

Sai Baba established an extensive network of schools and colleges throughout India, helping millions of people. The humanitarian projects under his name, with which he was only marginally involved, became a force paralel to the government in parts of India. The organization is estimated to have assets around US$ 8 billion, and could fall into a succession war.

Sathya Sai Baba was certainly wrong about one thing having, in 1963, announced that he would live until 2020. It remains to be seen whether another prediction is closer to the mark – that in 2028 his “third incarnation”, Prema Sai, will be born in the village of Gunaparthy in Karnataka state. “With his [Prema Sai's] efforts, love, goodwill, brotherhood and peace will abound throughout the world,” Sai Baba declared. “He will receive universal recognition from mankind.”

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