Summary outline of the declared aims of the Sathya Sai Organization


"The Organization must help people to realise the Unity behind all this apparent multiplicity which is only a super-imposition by the human mind on the One that is all.” (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 13, p. 121f)


In practice, the key method by which the SSO is to forward this awareness of divinity is by serving mankind selflessly, primarily through caring for the suffering and the needy on their own terms. Seva is essentially service to others without any thought of fruits for oneself or acceptance of rewards, as a private, personal offering to divinity, in whatever form this may be conceived by those involved.


Through service and spiritual practice, the SSO aims to lead people to awareness of their own divinity, both its members and society at large. This is primarily to be achieved through the good examples of members and not least by pointing to the example and teachings of Sai Baba. Faith in the perfect divinity and infallibility of Sai Baba is a sine qua non of membership, both formally and in practice. The nature of ‘genuine’ service is not defined in terms of any given actions, but it must be wholly non-confrontational. Violence of any kind as well as any other conflict-oriented behaviour is definitively excluded. The activities allowed by Sai Baba for his followers thus exclude the active support of anyone’s struggles – whether legal or otherwise - against oppressors of any kind, including slavery, sexual crimes etc., however terrible. Justice is not one of the human values Sai Baba lists, nor hardly ever mentions, his oft-stated view being that all necessary justice is eventually meted out divinely according to the laws of karma.


The body of the SSO - without which it would not exist as a provider of any services whatever - is the day-to-day spiritual activities of Sai followers at ‘ground level’, all voluntary workers who stick to the teachings and do active service within the conditions of their particular society and culture to the needy, the sick, the lonely and their like. There are many good examples of such work to be seen in India and around the world. Sai Baba is known to be mostly attentive towards his devotees and their plans to do such service, and not least to towards those relatively few people who are able and willing to work full-time in the SSO.

Sai Baba’s instructions to Dr. John Hislop, recorded in “Seeking Divinity” help to sum up the aims of the SSO. Baba told him, “that in regards to our Sai Organisation there are two things to keep in mind. One is, do not get involved with money, with government, or with power…. The second is to do only that which is within your capacity to do.”  And “He said that the purpose of the Sai Organisation is to have its members live an ideal, joyful, happy life.” (p. 214)

All organisations require some definitions of intent, plus rules and regulations to form and maintain interactions to realize that intention. The central document of the SSO is supposed to be an International Charter, which proclaims universal human and spiritual values. Formally speaking, the various countries and centres etc. are supposed to conform to the organisational Charter, which prescribes in nine points a code of conduct to which all members are understood to owe their allegiance at the outset. The most important of these, and not least in the actual internal operation of the SSO, is faith in the divinity of Sai Baba.

However, developments eventually produced two Charters which, whether realistically or legally viewed, actually imply that there are two quite different organisations in practice. See Serguei Badaev’s very succinct and sound resumé of the two different charters, the differences between them and the confusion about them.  Further, see 'the problematical Charters'

Taken as a whole, the SSO has no single, consistent Charter with clear and unambiguous directives. It has been argued by the Central Coordinator for Australia, C. Ramanathan (21/10/1998 at PN), that the SSO has the unique advantage of having – in addition to a written constitution in the form of the Charter - an unwritten constitution, as does the UK. This view exhibits an unexpected level of ignorance or wishful misunderstanding, for the UK has no written constitution, but instead has a very extensive system of laws, internal controls, checks and balances, a free press and public opinion, as well as democratic traditions that have been refined over centuries. But the SSO is clearly very far away from this tradition. Ramanathan adds “There are other rules in addition”, but without stating what they are. So the ‘formal culture’, being inadequate and inefficient, is supplemented by an informal one which is vague, changeable and largely secret.

Added to the above, the SSO has signally failed to achieve the protection that international recognition and general acceptance could help provide. Its plans for involving a branch of UNESCO and Flinders University in an educational conference in 2000 were turned down. The ashram authorities had changed the neutral venue to Prashanthi Nilayam (with the inevitable Sai Baba worship) and had added speakers to the sessions, all without conferring with UNESCO. (Note: a lady devotee who gave the keynote address at that conference was not there on behalf of UNESCO, but on her own behalf, she informed me after I had made inquiries with UNESCO so as to contact her. It was, however, misleadingly reported in Sanathana Sarathi that she spoke as the Secretary-general of UNESCO, (Lithuania). It has been documented to the full, the International Chairman, Indulal Shah, also used the UNESCO name for the conference, consciously deceiving the public when he well knew that UNESCO had nothing to do with it. Obviously, this kind of deceit does not forward the ideals the SSO or its value education in the wider world, but only makes it suspect. See UNESCO Conference by Serguei Badaev.


Therefore, as an organisation it offers virtually nothing in the way of legal securities or social guarantees to SSO members in carrying out social services and other activities. Neither of the charters give any room whatever  for the functioning of expertise at a professional level, and so the quality of advice available to it in the many fields of social aid, legal guarantees or any other field requiring special knowledge and skill is absolutely minimal, especially when compared to much larger international NGOs of types like UNICEF, the Red Cross, Save the Children, or of any universally-known private voluntary undertakings like War on Want, Médicin Sans Frontiers etc.

The SSO as a charismatic religious institution

SB has declared that he has not come to start a new cult or religion, but to renew the moral fundament of the world (through the ancient Indian Sanathana dharma or ‘eternal way of righteousness’). His stated aim is to revitalize the eternal values that are at the heart of all religions, not to start a new Sai religion. These values are worship and love of God (in whatever form), respect and care for all beings, and the ‘human values’ like truth, non-violence, and good or righteous behaviour. Sai Baba has spoken of the Sai Religion only in so far as it is one “that feeds fosters all religions and emphasizes their common greatness.” To try to avoid being seen as a religion, the SSO is defined as a spiritual, not a religious, organisation. The need of the SSO to distance itself from being seen as a religion arises from the aim it has with its ‘Education in Human Values’ programme. This is presented as spiritual value-education and as a basic common ‘human’ doctrine, expressing the essential values of all religions. It is regarded as an influential way of advancing Sai Baba’s teaching with the very young (and use of the name Sathya Sai Baba in this connection is obligatory). When the SSOs actual overall practice is examined, however, the distinction between religion and spirituality is seen as a mere play on words. In reality, a central activity in all SSO centres is worship of Sai Baba as the charismatic ‘divine being’, an avatar of Vishnu etc. who has incarnated to save the world from immanent catastrophe by reviving moral values and to save his devotees from evil.

The most attended meetings of the SSO around the world are evidently the devotional singing sessions (bhajans, mantras and songs of praise), in which all can take part. Many of the bhajans sung in India praise Sai Baba as the divinity, the avataric incarnation and the one God, the chief other emphasis being on the pantheon of Hindu deities, which includes Jesus as ‘Saint Isa’. These are copied around the world, though a minority of members try to develop songs that worship other and non-Hin

du forms of God. Christian psalms and hymns are also sung in some centres. These meetings are for worship and are thus essentially religious, comparable to worship in other religions.

Though some attempts have been made within the SSO to minimize the great emphasis on Sai Baba himself as the one living God of today at certain public meetings – such as by not having pictures of him on show etc. – the overwhelming tendency is the worship of Sai Baba’s person and form. Various ‘sacraments’ coming from (or connected to) Sai Baba are distributed, such as holy ash (vibuthi), holy water (from lingams supposedly materialized by Sai Baba), ambrosial honey (amrith), various Indian sweets and other substances blessed by Sai Baba in one way or another (prasad). Some of these sacraments are often made available at study circles and other kinds of meeting. This firmly qualifies the SSO as a charismatic movement, and most would admit it to be a personality cult too. See charismatic vs. formal-legal authority.

It is believed by virtually all SSO office-bearers and members that Sai Baba’s guidance and grace/blessings can be given despite any physical hindrances to anyone he chooses. This can occur through distant manifestations (of holy substances), distant healings, dreams, synchronicities and many another phenomenon connected to Sai Baba.  His claimed omniscience is believed to allow him immediately to know all that occurs in the SSO. Through this belief-system, the SSO’s social and physical activities are supposedly under an umbrella of special care, protection and mystical grace. This extends the sense of ‘contact with the Godhead’ to those large numbers of followers who cannot get into the personal presence of Sai Baba or obtain his personal guidance in an actual conversation or interview. Sai Baba repeatedly confirms these beliefs about the SSO, often in excessive statements about its past significance in  discourse such as that his devotees have already saved the whole world from disaster and that the SSO will soon spread to include all people in the world.

The whole world knows what sacred ideals inspire the Sathya Sai Organisations. The kind of service and sacrifice which the Sathya Sai Organisations are rendering is colossal.(Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 14, p. 359)

The whole world itself will be transformed into Sathya Sai Organisation and Sathya Sai will be installed in the hearts of one and all." (20.11.1998, Sanathana Sarathi, Jan. 1999, p.21)

3) Remember also that the development of this Organisation will bring Peace and Tranquility to the world torn by chaos. (21.11.1970. Sathya Sai Speaks new ed. Vol. 10, p.209)
4) As days pass, even those who are now not able to recognise the truth of Swami will have to approach with tears of repentance and experience Me. Very soon, this will be worldwide. Swami is now restraining this development. When once it is allowed to manifest, the whole world will be transformed into Prashanthi Nilayam. (23.11.1982. Sathya Sai Speaks new ed. Vol. 15, p.313)

According to Sai Baba, then – the SSO will attain virtual world hegemony quite soon! In this respect, the SSO would therefore appear to have similar aims to several of the world’s largest and intensely competing religions (eg. Christianity, Islam). How such an end result could be compatible with universality and non-discrimination of other religions is something of an enigma. Islam certainly cannot recognize a human being as an incarnation of God, and Christianity asserts the primacy of Jesus Christ, which Sai Baba certainly does not.

The SSO obviously functions chiefly as a means to extend Sai Baba’s sphere of influence and contact with followers beyond his physical (and psychic/paranormal) reach by making a formal framework for spiritual guidance and activities. Membership is often mostly believed to open a form of subtle contact with the Godhead, though no such belief is substantiated by formal documents. Nor are any office-bearers supposed to provide spiritual guidance or speak on behalf of Sai Baba. Due to the limitations of time and space, however, SSO leaders tend more and more to adopt the functions of a sort of spiritual guidance by interpreting Sai Baba’s words and wishes and acting on them to exclude ‘wrong decisions’ etc. This is an almost unavoidable responsibility, not least considering the proportion of attention they are given by Sai Baba when most devotees cannot expect to get an interview even after years of active membership.

The SSO’s projected self-image: The predominant culture of the SSO is Indian. It is directed centrally by Indians on largely Indian lines, having fairly large numbers and various visible effects in India, plus some Eastern countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nepal,) and island nations (Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad & Tobago) where there is a large Indian diaspora. Within the self-contained ‘mini-world’ of the ashrams, however, the SSO is spoken of as if it had world-shaking effects, when in actual numbers and observable work it is in fact quite tiny compared with a hundred other voluntary world-wide organisations. This is all apparently unknown to those who live entirely within what they often term the 'Sai family'. This kind of attitude, however, is strongly supported by many of Sai Baba’s most rosy pronouncements. See exaggerations and the 'numbers game' here


The tendency within the SSO in various parts of the world - not excluding India - to inform the general public that its social works are unprecedented, the size and origin of financial contributions, and the claimed number of centres, members and followers generally, is all too prominent. Sai Baba has himself increasingly taken up this kind of talk in public discourses. Membership numbers, attendance figures etc. are also made much of by Sai representatives, not least in various books and other media (which figures are almost invariably exaggerated or are based partly on guesswork or wishful thinking). One striking example is the uncorrected widespread publicity still circulating about Sai Baba having adopted 6,000 villages for improvement. Yet, this project dwindled away to a few isolated small projects soon after its inauguration during the 60th birthday period, as any serious investigation will show. 

While inflated guesses of the numbers of visitors, members of the SSO, groups and centres are published in various books and articles issuing from the Sathya Sai Books & Pub.Trust at Prashanthi Nilayam, no notice whatever is made by the SSO or any writers of the many who leave after some time and officially no office-bearer is expected to hear their reasons, which are prejudged as invalid in any case. Invariably, those who lose office or leave are shunned by office-bearers and by most devotees. See Inflated statistics. This indicates the level of understanding and tolerance of differences of opinion frequently shown in actual practice by the supposed executives of Baba's wishes and teaching. It is not so unreasonable to lay such reactions partly at Sai Baba's door, for it is more often than not his own way of treating people. The number of his favourites, not least college boys, who have suddenly been rejected must be very considerable by now. There have been an unstated but appreciable number of devotee deaths, suicides and murders within the ashram and close by it. Foreign visitors are sent away within the day without explanation when killings of devotees occur (eight indisputable murders within the ashram – none of which have been properly investigated by law - have become known to me, but there have also been insistent reports of several others on which I do not have sufficient facts).  All such events have been actively hushed up as far as possible by the ashram, if not always with the desired result.

The SSO as a social institution A total institution is a self-contained social institution (not to be confused with ‘self-supporting’) which rules over itself in relative social (and often also geographic) isolation from other institutions (but within fairly objective limits set for it by society of which it is nevertheless a part and circumscribe it by national law etc.). Examples of typical ‘total institutions’ include traditional-type prisons and psychiatric hospitals, full-time boarding schools and colleges, some kinds of industrial-business operations, and various kinds of military units. They can differ as greatly in internal regulation as they do in declared purpose. However, there are features found to be common to many total institutions, if not all. One such is a high degree of independence from surrounding society, plus relative autonomy of the system and its internal rules, such as the hierarchical ranking of people and definite instructions as to the role behaviour expected of them. The Prashanthi Nilayam ashram can be defined as what is known as a fairly distinct ‘total institution’ with well-defined geographical limits. The ashrams at Whitefield and Kodaikanal can be viewed as extensions of the main complex. The SSO is closely related to it in many ways to this complex, but is geographically very widespread and, due to its necessary interface with society at large, retains some of the characteristics of the ashrams’ social structure. It takes many of its mores, attitudes and beliefs about how to behave and evaluate from the ashram.

Links in the ‘Chain of Command’:

Basically, the Charter defines ranks, in descending order in the ‘chain of command’ from International Chairman, Central Coordinators (i.e. one for each of the five world zones, of which two are the overall authorities in each hemisphere East & West), the National Chairmen in each country, Centre Presidents, group leaders, voluntary worker members (sometimes called ‘active workers’), and ‘aspirant members’.  The Chairmen of the Central Councils of countries that have sufficient Sai centres (or in some cases of the Central Committees) are subordinate to the Central Coordinator for that particular international region.

Members are ranked differently in order: aspirant, volunteer, active worker, according to standards that differ from region to region. Visitors to meetings, however regular, are not usually regarded as members, though they are supposed to be counted exactly for statistics over their numbers and some other details that are recorded and registered centrally (but are not made public). There are regional and local variations in practices, but these details are peripheral to this study. Moreover, in some countries, distinctions of rank – even between member and non-member - are and even disdained or laughed at. Such occurred widely in the UK in the 1980s, when leaders tried to apply the rule requiring members to ‘sign up’ on the dotted line under a membership pledge with an explicit spiritual declaration.

At best, therefore, a handful of central persons in the SSO rule over the various agenda, statements of objectives, activities and recommendations that issue forth. Sai Baba himself does not run it in any normal sense of the word, though he gives advice in discourses and presumably in private interviews (though this is by no means certain or important as far as members we know could discover).

By far the largest and most active country in the SSO is naturally India. It has an All-India Chairman, who acts (mostly?) independently of the International Chairman. The various branches of the world SSO are basically run on a general Indian model and they are all wholly subordinate to the Indian leadership of the International Chairman. Under him come the (non-elected) Chairmen of the Central Councils (or, where these are not yet formed, Coordinating Committees) of each country. The so-called Central Office, which has a Head, has an undefined status in the Charter and how it relates to the International Chairman or others in the ‘chain of command’ is undefined and therefore its function is uncertain.

All Central Coordinators (hereafter CCs) and zone chairmen have special meetings twice a year (on Gurupurnima day in July and Sai Baba's birthday, 22/11) in Prashanthi Nilayam. They do not constitute any legal body but they have some kind of advisory function to the International Chairman. For example, no documents are available to tell where the proposal for a large building costing ca. $5 million called ‘Sai Darshan’ to celebrate Baba on his 75th birthday. It may have been suggested by Sai Baba, or by Indulal Shah, but what correspondence that mentions it indicates that the CCs were simply required as ‘informal rubber-stampers’ for this project (i.e. it became their job to solicit the funds for the building, which they did). 

Unfortunately, the complete disregard of modern ‘stakeholder’ ideas in the SSO (indeed, the direct opposition to them)  involving the abject worship of gurus as infallible is also a pattern set on the basis of prevailing social conditions throughout India. 

A culture of top-down high-handedness, mismanagement and rich opportunities for control, corruption, and cover-up, as seen with Western eyes. Much of the loose ideological backing for this ‘model’ is actually found in Sai Baba’s predilection for the culture of ancient, feudal India and its forms of social organisation, which relied heavily on spiritual purity in teachers and pupils.

However, one can hardly expect Sai Baba’s Indian staff to know how to change this culture, which is not only largely accepted in Baba’s ashrams but permeates almost all Indian life and is deeply rooted in the ineradicable caste system and the all-pervading undemocratic social practices there today. Followers of Sai Baba vary greatly in the capacity to understand how properly to manage and inspire through their own example, which Sai Baba stresses as the only workable method. The Indian culture is still overwhelmingly based on other methods, such as to issue orders to ‘inferiors’, who must and do usually obey them unquestioningly. Even those having much insight or skill are required to do what they are told, though they may have greater experience than their boss.

The editor of Sai Baba’s monthly journal Sanathana Sarathi, V.K. Narasimhan,  remarked to me one day that Baba complained to him that he could not find enough mature Indian men with the right qualities to administer even his two main ashrams decently, let alone guide all the many projects he has in India or in his service SSO. This is a very evident fact to foreigners who visit the ashrams, for the level of competence and understanding of many (but not every one) of the officials with whom one comes into contact is sadly lacking by normal Western social standards.

There can nonetheless be little doubt, if any, that in the West and other parts of the world, more competent and understanding persons could easily be found as leaders of the SSO than a clear majority of those presently holding the highest offices, who all copy the authoritarian Indian model in most matters. Most of the CCs are well-to-do businessmen with a mentality that reflects top-down behaviour in traditional firms.  Since these office-bearers are not elected, but selected by Sai Baba, one can but conclude that he has a preference for the Indian system. This is accepted without argument by CCs, despite the fact that it is a major hindrance to the effective development of any serious, effective and socially-acceptable organisation in most Western countries having democratic and well-founded egalitarian mentality and practices.
See Chain of Command.     See also  the chart showing the supposed "chain of command"

Communication within the SSO:   
In trying to follow such aphorisms of Baba as “See no evil, hear not evil, speak no evil….” And “If you cannot tell the truth, at least speak obligingly”, and many more which are expressly designed among other things to control and so restrict thought and expression, an internal culture has evolved where no frank opinions may be aired if there is a hint of critical thinking – however objective or constructive it may be. The SSO leaders are under such restrictions as to what they are allowed to say about it, or even to think about it, that they are wholly incapable of giving a realistic picture of it and how it functions. A ‘double accounting mentality’ is common here, requiring subtle but essentially misleading and careful phrasing of what to say about anything so that it appears in a positive light. Ability to speak in the local ‘politically correct Prashanthi-speak’ is an apparent prerequisite for those who aspire to top positions in the SSO.

Many volunteers (i.e. the lowest ranking members) are not informed of what takes place at CC conferences or how most decisions are reached, and this information is only published when deemed useful by or to the chain of command itself.  The ‘chain of command’ always determines the amount and nature of information that is released. Information is often passed on in an informal way, such as by word of mouth at national and regional meetings or in contacts made when visiting the ashrams. Some of this is documented and sent up and down the chain of command. However, many of those higher up in the chain are frequently asked why they largely only answer communications from higher up, and very frequently ignore letters, faxes and e-mails from ‘lower down’. They send various paper directives downwards, most often passed on from above. They are very concerned to fulfil the centrally-instigated requirement for statistics on members and activities, and their communications with their subordinates are often attempts to obtain these or to urge more activities and efforts, not least so as to improve the statistics for the region they represent. See Communication problem egs.

Control of communication between members in different groups, centres and countries is exercised by regional leaders through strict compartmentalisation of the various areas so as to hinder communications of any kind that do not go hierarchically through themselves. Invitees to hold talks at meetings – especially those from other countries and regions - have to be confirmed by the leadership in the respective country. Avoidance of this rule has caused major splits in national SSO (again, notably in the UK in the 1990s, when a flood of vituperative letters were circulated by the various factions). Another instance of the chain of command as a censorious instrument is that addresses of persons outside each national sphere are carefully guarded and removed from e-mails so as to limit interactions, exchanges of information and views of various kinds. These are invariably regarded as (potential) disturbing influences. See Control of Communication egs.

However, there is one valid reason for withholding addresses in that this protects from begging letters, requests for hospitality from so-called ‘spiritual tourists’, holidaymakers wanting free accommodation etc., or would-be immigrants seeking guarantors, unwanted religious evangelists from sectarian faiths. Such were the results when the SSO allowed a publication in 1994 on the activities of the SSO in 16 countries (Europe Group 1, Region 3) including national leaders’ addresses. At the same time, withholding addresses effectively hinders contacts and the free flow of information and ideas across national and international barriers. The situation was changed with the spread of the internet, where information can flow freely. This is doubtless also partly why Sai Baba has banned his followers from using the internet. It has not affected the many pro-Baba SSO sites, however, and SSO leaders and others also use e-mail extensively.

Directives are frequently issued which, when followed, in effect minimise informal discussion between people at meetings. Least possible talking – even silence - is recommended at most SSO meetings where and when the activity doesn’t itself require otherwise. Where unavoidable, such as at study circles, planning groups, spiritual educational projects etc., informal contacts and particularly frank discussion are restricted by many leaders. Quiet meditation, prayer and leaving the premises quickly after worship are repeatedly advised by some leaders and circular letters from India. However, such restrictions – modelled on the strict behaviour codes and pietistic tone at Baba’s ashrams during darshan etc. - are by no means always observed in many of groups and centres. The need for informal social contact with like-minded believers is obviously often a strong motivation for many to visit centres and also to become members.

A number of standpoints are enforced by group pressure as being the only correct ones, with social exclusion – whether intentional or less consciously applied - as a common sanction. Though some members express criticisms, only positive feedback is normally taken seriously. This stops any SSO self-investigation or self-correction and has only reinforced a gradually more and more unrealistic evaluation of its own functioning, quality of standards, and its members’ supposed satisfaction with it. I have found this view of how the SSO operates supported by honourable people of mature years from all continents who know the SSO from their participation. Dialogue is hardly possible on issues that cause any substantial doubts. See Leaders & Criticism.

This, then, is the background against which the present report has necessarily been developed. One indicator that will help to demonstrate whether this judgement as to the closed and secretive nature of the SSO is still valid, is whether any of its CCs mention, let alone discuss and welcome, the opportunity possibly to learn anything from the present paper. The most likely hypothesis is that its present leaders will ignore this criticism as completely as possible and try to limit knowledge of it and taboo it in SSO centres and groups. As an example, I append a memorandum sent to representatives and leaders within the Scandinavian Organisation in 1990, when dissatisfaction with the workings of the SSO and its European zone had to be expressed by us. It was never acknowledged by anyone. See 'Viewpoint' paper.

The imperviousness to corrective influences, internally from members or externally from observers, and ignoring all their memoranda, whether constructive or confrontational, is well-documented in social literature as a major and decisive hindrance to the growth beyond fairly narrow limits of most voluntary organisations in modern societies, especially among educated and socially liberated people. These methods flourish in religious sects, however, and constitute one of the defining characteristics of a cult.

Vetting and censoring of communication by regional leaders is an instrument to maintain control of the status quo and ward off all unpleasant issues. ‘Unpleasant to whom?’ is the operative question. Thus the ordinary member has no means of any kind of review of his or her case, whatever it is – nor of any redress whatever within the SSO - when they consider themselves to have been wrongly treated. Leaders behave rather like hierophants – and are sometimes so treated too.

The importance laid on control of information and interactions within the SSO inevitably raise questions. Any well-regulated organisation will require certain ‘correct procedures’ for information transfer, so that anarchy does not reign. Yet why does a voluntary organisation need to go to such lengths to control all kinds of information – not least about by whom, how and why decisions are actually made - as to exclude office-bearers or members who do not follow the ‘chain of command’ requirements? Clearly, non-regulated freedom of expression – even internally - is regarded as some kind of threat to the functioning of the organisation and/or its image.

Informal communications consist largely in unsanctioned exchanges of uncontrolled information, which appear to be seen either as necessary or desirable by the rank and file members at times. This indicates that the restriction may be less effective than self-defeating (i.e.‘dysfunctional’). Free exchanges of information and views ‘behind the scenes’ – which obviously take place in almost any formalised organisation or institution parallel to official channels – seem to be particularly necessary in the SSO because of the dearth of communications from those higher up in the chain of command on many matters about which people express concern. There are a very few exceptions to this. Many queries sent to super-ordinate office-bearers are answered with what often amounts only to repetition of already well-digested ‘received wisdom’, selected according to prediction from the very varied ‘a la carte’ teachings of Sai Baba. This stultifies the development of an open and fluid social environment, failing to supply basic needs for open-hearted discussion and explanations of matters about which devotees and visitors to Sai groups or centres concern themselves.  

I shall be examining certain discrepancies between formal and informal activities and/or between word and deed within the SSO, which can partly be related to internal conflicts and often also to the teachings and activities of Sai Baba.

Central direction:

The general aims and values that Sai Baba has set in his many discourses for the SSO are excellent in theory. Leaders appointed by Sai Baba himself doubtless agree with the good ideals he has set up to make the SSO service-minded towards the needy. Many spend a lot of time and energy working as best they can to fulfill this. Apparently, Sai Baba does not dictate much himself except in the most general of terms, but leaves the main decisions to the (International) Overseas Chairman of the SSO, Indulal Shah of Bombay.

As already noted, the two independent hemispheres of East and West in the world-wide with each their overall leader, are guided centrally by an Indian ‘Overseas Chairman’, based in India. His task is formulated as: The duties of Overseas Chairman will be two-fold confined to: a) Guidance to Zonal Chairman on Awareness of Divinity within for leaders and office bearers b) Spiritualisation of the Activities of 3 wings…” The three wings represent the organised activities of worship, education and service.

This Chairman has the ruling decision as to which tasks are set for all countries and centres to perform. He can only be overruled by Sai Baba, who apparently very seldom intervenes. The top office-bearers always try to set the agenda for the utilisation of available volunteers and their resources. To inspire everyone to greater efforts, the need to start new projects of all kinds is emphasized, but in most countries, if groups lend their effort to these recommendations it leads to a reduction in the continuity, quality and quantity of service work, devotional, and educational activities already underway. Regular demands are issued by the Overseas Chairman to contribute to various projects. For example, it can be to provide materials for showpiece exhibitions on SSO service work, for the SpiritualMuseum, as well as requests for financial support to building projects, medical budgets, water projects, disaster relief and even share investment schemes to benefit the Sathya Sai Central Trust.

The Sathya Sai Central Trust sponsors, runs and manages certain hospitals, schools and colleges, but has no formal connection with the SSO. However, various funds are gathered through the SSO – as noted. Whatever financial assets and properties the SSO has under the Overseas Chairman (also often called the ‘International Chairman’), in India or in other countries, is never made public knowledge, but they must also be assumed to be considerable. (Eg. In Denmark alone, in 2002, a well-known castle was bought with the aid of $6 million donated from the USA). The Central Trust is also known to have simply (mis)appropriated funds gathered by devotees for quite other projects than they were taken for.

One leading office-bearer, a CC once defined the SSO as a “benevolent dictatorship”. The question as to who is the dictator remains without an unambiguous answer, since Sai Baba has at times proclaimed that he has nothing to do with the Organisation, at other time he speaks of ‘our Organisation’ and so forth. Just how far Sai Baba himself directs the Overseas Chairman or the CCs is not made known, and only very occasionally is some direction or correction of them expressed in public by Baba.

Whether any dictatorship always functions benevolently in actual practice - or could really do so - is an open question, but this is not open to questioning in the SSO. Dictatorships are usually defined as having the priority aim of keeping the dictator and his clique in power at all costs. The nature of dictatorships, good or bad, is also to sanction unquestionable decision-making (or despotic use of powers) along down the chain of command.

Top-down ‘management culture’: 

The structure of the formal ‘chain of command’ - backed up by regulations that allow no serious feedback, no right to require explanations nor accountability, has not unexpectedly developed attitudes among office-bearers in all zones of the SSO that can fairly be called ‘semi-dictatorial’ at least. This is tolerated by the most faithful followers who believe in the infallibility and benignity of anything undertaken in the divine name of Sai Baba and under his apparent leadership. These attitudes can be exaggerated through the personality of various leaders who inherently lack understanding and genuine respect for others, old-fashioned ideas of ‘ruling-without-questions’ management, misplaced zeal, or ambition to gain diverse perceived spiritual benefits or social privileges at the ashrams and elsewhere. Such well-recognised aspects of the leadership occur widely in the SSO and go to make up its ‘informal culture’.

In practise, the SSO itself actually classes members as ordinary or VIP, usually providing separate accommodation, extra facilities and privileges to the latter at international meetings and at the ashrams. This is a reflection of the ‘red carpet’ treatment always accorded to the preceptor and example, Sai Baba, which is also very much overdone in India generally. ‘Overseas’ VIPs often take to it like ducks to water, not least those who have backgrounds in business management (of whom there are a high proportion). There are, however, also some sensitive persons among the VIPs who feel uncomfortable about this VIP culture, but usually are obliged to accept it de facto and as ‘Swami’s inscrutable will’ nevertheless. Yet Sai Baba has often repeated the first requirement on leaders:-

“We should transform ourselves into servants of servants… Consider everyone as your brothers.” (Discourse 21/11/1987 at P.N. See ‘Advaita Through Seva’ p. 17).

For example: "Office-bearers cannot claim any privilege or exemption. They must evince leadership; by their devotion and faith, they must inspire the waverers" (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 9, p. 171f).

One simple way to realise this Unity is through selfless service (seva) that is not tarnished by a superiority complex, or by pride or even by a sense of duty to the organisation with which you are 'bound'. Revere the dweller within, not the house where he resides." (Sathya Sai Speaks 1990s ed. Vol. 13, p. 121f). See disunity in SSOegs.


That the higher office-bearers do not carry out the same work as volunteers, but most often that associated with the VIP clique, seems to cut them off from the experiences of volunteer workers and cause a difference of perspective that works against unity. Various office-bearers, including some of the ‘highest rank’, are known never to do any actual social service (other than plan and go to meetings, paperwork, lecturing on the service that others should do, travelling world-wide, sitting and waiting on the veranda etc.), which hardly inspires or raises the quality of their example. One odd ‘privilege’ Western VIPs sometimes have, which sets them visually apart, is to wear their normal business suits at the ashram when holding talks etc., while all others are strongly expected to wear the traditional ‘white pyjama’ (i.e. for men).

That CCs are very seldom demoted and remain in office even for decades (though some have resigned and some were dismissed), sets them more and more apart both in mentality and activity from other members. An ‘active worker vs. management’ rift arises and is sustained, not least since it is not at all good form for ordinary members even to mention the problem. See Resignation due to chauvinist, vertical structure of SSO

Around 1990, when the revised Charter was underway, pressure from European countries (possibly also some American countries too) caused a  practice to be ordained allowing the election of leaders up to and including National Coordinator level. Though there is election of office-bearers at the local groups and centres, this can be overturned – and even without explanation - by any National Coordinator or higher office-bearer.  This has occurred on a number of occasions, not least in the European SSO, even though there is no mention of this option in the Charter (where it should be stated) or in any other written directive known to me. Though a sheen of democracy is given thereby, the SSO is  at no level a genuinely democratic institution, but a pyramidal hierarchy in which one must obey the directives from one’s ‘superiors’ or eventually be dismissed from office without so much as an explanation! This emphasises the monolithic hierarchy and the despotic tendencies of those practising the more ‘aggressive leadership’ style.

The recognisable high-handedness that often typifies the Indian higher castes or ruling class and its bureaucracy is seen in directives sent to centres, which often show little or no appreciation of the diversity of cultures or openness to the initiatives of individuals unless they conform in all things to the wishes of leaders (often cloaked under the doubtful pretext of “it is Swami’s wish”, which can always be justified somehow by the common - but highly confusing – axiom of Sai Baba’s teaching that “everything is Swami’s will” anyhow!). Those nominated as Central and National Coordinators are almost always persons who follow this pattern quite slavishly.

In 1989, Sai Baba disbanded the original ruling ‘World Council’, of which Indulal Shah was the International Chairman. The UK member of this Council, nominated by Baba in person, Mr. Ron Laing, had already resigned previously. At the same time Baba suspended Indulal Shah plus all office-bearers in the entire SSO – of which branches all over the world were informed by Baba acting through Mr. Hejmadi of the Central Office at Prashanthi Nilayam. But everything went on much as if nothing had happened! What did all this mean, one wonders? See World Council disbanded, 1989.

The top-down decision making at each stage can be counter-productive and have yet worse consequences, especially for the inspiration of volunteers and workers. Conclusions of conferences are even drawn in advance of events, as was clearly seen in the case of deciding the form and content of the 1990s version of Charter of the SSO. Despite world-wide study of it and many wise and practical recommendations, practically none appeared in the end result, which left much to be desired and even contains a laughably ignorant view on karma which is contrary to Baba's explicit teachings. Some stated regulations - modelled by the International Chairman - have to be heavily reinterpreted and in some respects systematically ignored in most regions of the world. One instance is the requirement in the Charter approved for the 1990s that all centres should perform the Brahmanic ceremony of waving a flame before Baba's picture (arati in honour of God) at the conclusion of devotional singing meetings. Though this need not conflict with the doctrine of universal values and unity for those of any other faith than Hindus, it is almost a guarantee that persons of other faiths will feel excluded. Therefore, the aim in Europe has been to have fewer alienating Indian religious rituals, which has not been so successful, not least due to the overwhelming ritual examples set daily by Sai Baba in his ashrams.

Experience and the testimony of members and ex-members show that SSO leaders’ understanding of Baba's teaching and directives are often treated in an incomplete or superficial way and can be directly faulty (even the Charter contains a classic blunder about the nature of karma as if it were something transferable from person to person according to whether they forward the SSO’s objective or fail to do so, which is contrary to Sai Baba’s teaching). Through 17 years, I was time and again able to observe and was repeatedly told that leaders can and do decide matters which  – in any normally functioning community – would be decided only after conferring with all others concerned.  This naturally can cause volunteers to fret, to become passive or leave the SSO. Occasionally, leaders have tried to give me the impression that what they decided was ordained from ‘on high’, without actually being able to say whether Sai Baba said so, or repeat what he said.

At most regional and international meetings, various members –including lower office-bearers - have remarked to me how little was conveyed to them, whether in the way of answers to pressing questions, practical instructions, or other information and spiritual insight that is not already easily available in the literature or has not been said before numerous times. The Indian style of lecturing at length from rostrums is much in favour, even at SSO meetings abroad, whereby the same themes are repeated each time, moral harangues are the main fare, all teachings are parroted, and the level of their generality and vagueness leaves much to be desired. With their captive audiences, passive following and implicit acceptance of everything are very often evidently both assumed and required. Service-mindedness thus often seems to be misinterpreted as subservience.

All organisations like to keep up momentum and have regular get-togethers, even when there is nothing new with which to deal. The experience of many I have met has been that such meetings achieve precious little that is visibly useful for the world-wide activities, nor do they feed back information or advice that has any effect with leaders who prefer to enforce their own decisions regardless of input from others. The suggestions can be very ‘well-meant’, but this is not enough. Most of what is said is about obvious issues that are always in the mind of any intelligent, responsible office-bearer. But by harping largely on what has been said before, the organiser nevertheless usually feels satisfied, and fills a nice report of progress.

For most participants it is the spiritual sharing and social gathering that matter, especially the chance to exchange news, views and arrange secondary matters for themselves. They actually provide an opportunity to communicate with others across ‘organisational boundaries’ that are otherwise denied by the CCs! Sai Baba has defined the real meaning of most 'committees' as 'come-to-tea' meetings, which alludes to the usual inefficiency and time-wasting of talking committees. Yet one is supposed to spend valuable time travelling on expensive flights to meetings abroad, sometimes much too frequently, and to review much the same matters each time to make 'recommendations that will help achieve the Conference objectives', but which will doubtless as usual not lead to any results other than those already predetermined by its leaders. This helps to keep people in line and define aims and goals for them to fulfil. People I have spoken to feel, like I, that such meetings are mostly interruptions to spiritual work and service, or burdens which also bring new responsibilities. The purpose of most of these meetings seems mainly to be to instil the rules and directives from central authority.

Sai Baba occasionally corrects some of the more pointless paper initiatives, such as the bright idea from the SSO central authority that each year should have a value denomination like “year of non-violence”, "the year peace" and so forth, thus organising all activities around this notion... as if such a fatuous invention could make the slightest useful contribution to anyone’s practice.

Recruitment drives:

A central concern in the reports that have to be delivered to the SSO centrally via regional CCs is to register the number of members, participants at various meetings and visitors. This is backed up by repeated circular reminders from some CCs on the need to be outgoing in recruiting potential members. The number and spread of activities is also carefully monitored, with repeated directives sent down the chain of command to review one’s activities to evaluate results and to see how they could be expanded. This constant pressure on group and centre leaders is often experienced as irrelevant and troublesome by others to whom I have spoken, though this fact never seems to register with those responsible, who criticise those whose feedback they consider criticises them.

Since Baba is held to be The Divinity and therefore the greatest healer ever, as well as the most mysterious, miracle-working being since Krishna etc., it is hardly surprising that Sai Baba meetings of all kinds attract proportionately many persons with problems of health, mental and emotional suffering and social and intellectual problems of the widest and strangest variety. Such persons are seldom able to carry out the work of a volunteer or Sai worker in the SSO, or to represent its policy and teachings reliably to the public. Therefore, those office-bearers who keenly support a policy of recruitment and active expansion are in a dilemma. Should such persons be invited to be members, or should they be discouraged from this due to the problems they bring with them? This subject and its related issue have been discussed at numerous SSO meetings. In Europe, leaders have arrived at the view that non-active persons – those unable or unwilling to partake in service activities – should not be encouraged to become members. The duty of Sai volunteers has been stated as being towards the needy and suffering, but curiously, this is denied to those who come as Sai devotees in favour of out-going service projects in the local environment. This fact underlines the primacy of the SSO’s policy of spreading outwardly the name and works of Sai Baba, thus making society aware of Sai Baba and hoping by example to recruit more active members, rather than caring for those who are in need and seek the Sai groups and centres. Moreover, it is required that all members should be persons ‘of good name’.

The same kind of dilemma arises repeatedly when would-be members are also follower of other spiritual movements, gurus, swamis or even of religions other than Hinduism, or even Christian denominations. The question is reportedly dealt with independently and somewhat differently in different regions. In Europe, the policy has been (based on certain statements by Baba) to deny office to anyone who is a member of any other spiritual movement, church, synagogue, mosque etc. and who works for or regularly visits any other gurus or spiritual figures.


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