Laying on of hands - Television - Secret Swami (BBC2) The guru who thinks he's God is exposed as far from divine.
By Andrew Billen - a staff writer on the Times

A rather desperate divinity teacher once asked my class to define faith. A clever clogs replied: "Believing in something you know can't possibly be true." "Wrong," snapped Dog Collar. Having watched BBC2's documentary Secret Swami (9pm, 17 June), I rather think that I was right after all. One of the richest supporters of the Indian guru Sai Baba - no less than Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe - told his interviewer that he was perfectly willing to believe that Baba was simultaneously a) quite likely a paedophile and b) God incarnate.Sai Baba does not look divine. He looks like a version of Diana Ross whose bumpy fall down the ugly tree has delivered her the worst hair day of her life. When he was a child, his parents found a cobra sleeping with him in his cot. They concluded that their son must have miraculous powers - a judgement he happily went along with when, aged 14, he declared himself God. By 1950, he had opened his first ashram. Now aged 77, he has the biggest draw of India's spiritual leaders, claiming 30 million followers in 165 countries. In a land of "god-men", he is the number-one brand, his face appearing on the fullest range of tat, from wristwatches to tea towels.

The reporter Tanya Datta - whose family presumably hails from the subcontinent - was careful not to make Baba's Indian supporters look like complete idiots. Producing necklaces and rings from thin air may seem small beer to us, but then we have watched Derren Brown. And there is no doubting Baba's miraculous ability to raise money to pump fresh water to remote villages in Andhra Pradesh and to build a new, free hospital designed by one of Prince Charles's favourite architects, Keith Critchlow (worryingly, given his proximity to the Crown, another devotee). Given that Baba's credo adds up to no more than "Peace and love, man" and "Could I touch you for a fiver to charity?", Indians could argue that old blubber-lips does more good than harm. But the nation's top guru-buster Basava Premanand, a man who can match most maharishis not only trick for trick but beard-whisker for beard-whisker, would disagree. He told Datta that India needs to rid herself of superstition before she will get anywhere.

But perhaps India is not where he should start. The documentary discovered that, as so often, the road to pseudo-enlightenment ran through North America. There, Datta interviewed Mark Roche who, after 25 years of Baba discipleship, finally got a personal audience with his guru and discovered it was far more personal than he wanted. "Why would God want to put his penis in your mouth?" Datta asked. "You've got me there," conceded Roche.

A particularly well-meaning but be-nighted American family had built a community devoted to Baba in Arkansas and in return was festooned with gifts, including the swami's old shirts. But in their case, their faith - strong though it was - did not exceed their love for their son Alaya, who claimed that Baba's powers of manipulation extended to the laying on of hands on teenage genitals.

Distraught, they turned to the cult's international chairman Michael Goldstein, who promised to investigate but whose methodology was to open the case by asking Baba if the allegations were true and then to close it when he replied: "No, I am pure."

Despite the farcical credulity of Baba's western supporters, and the colourful ceremonies, the allegations of sexual assaults darkened the film. Baba is frail now. He came over so queer during one recent attempt to lay a golden egg via his mouth that his supporters must have feared he was going to do a Tommy Cooper on them. But by the end, the documentary had still managed to build up a fine head steam of outrage in this viewer. What I wanted was a cathartic confrontation with the mystic himself. Instead we had to make do with some secret filming of Goldstein, whose faith in Baba was surpassed only by his faith in his own abilities as a judge of character ("I'm a consummate professional"). An interview with a minister from the Indian government, which out of political expediency has long been in cahoots with Baba, was terminated when he began shouting: "Do you know who you are talking to?"

Datta held her own perfectly well. She is one of a chosen group of reporters trusted with presenting documentaries in the This World strand, which replaced Correspondent earlier this year. The camera lingered lovingly on her often enough to confirm that she was anything but an old man in a linen suit, which was the BBC hierarchy's complaint against the old show (although This World's second edition in January bravely bucked the trend by sending Michael Buerk back to Ethiopia). Recent editions have featured murder in Los Angeles and an exclusive interview with Mordechai Vanunu.

Forthcoming is the child sex trade in Costa Rica. The same unit is responsible for BBC2's World Weddings, which most recently hymned a love affair between two HIV-positive Iranians. These programmes compare with Correspondent's slate in its last year: investigations into Yasser Arafat, the Indian dowry system, the West Bank and the spinning of the Private Jessica Lynch story.

Highly watchable though This World is proving, sceptics would say it shows the BBC dumbing down its foreign affairs agenda. Me, I have faith.

The Times (T2 supplement)
Pick Of The Day (Thurs June 17th)
Sai Baba, an Indian mystic with 30 million followers worldwide, claims to be a living god. It is now alleged that he has been involved in the systematic sexual abuse of his disciples for years. According to a former follower: "The being which I called Sai Baba - the living god that I had taken into my heart - had been truly abusing my son for so long. I felt completely betrayed." Responding to the claims is Isaac Tigrett, owner of Hard Rock Café, who made Sai Baba's mantra Love All, Serve All as his corporate slogan. For him and other devotees, the allegations are simply a test of faith.

The Observer Sunday June 20, 2004 [Front page Story index]
Kathryn Flett.

Deity dancing [This World: The Secret Swami BBC2]
'Do as I say or your life will be full of pain and suffering'. No, not Big Brother to the housemates, Sven in the dressing room at 4.45pm on Thursday or even the delightful pig farmer, Jimmy Doherty (of BBC2's equally delightful Jimmy's Farm) to his 'gay' boar, Blaze, but, allegedly, the not-so-sage advice of the Indian avatar, Sai Baba, to one of his (good-looking, teenage, American) male followers after an inappropriately intimate one-on-one.

Whether sleazy paedophile or over-enthusiastic practitioner of what he claims are 'ritual healing processes', the 'Living God' has about 30 million devotees worldwide and endorsements from a succession of Indian prime ministers - odd really, given his unsavoury demeanour and platitudinous religious philosophy (in a neat bit of cross-branding his 'Love all, serve all' mission statement was co-opted by Baba devotee and Hard Rock Cafe founder Isaac Tigrett who, apart from contributing to the obesity epidemic, has also done a great deal of good with his own many millions).

I've not spent quality time with as many man-gods as I would have liked, obviously, but I would have thought that even a profoundly unenlightened soul can spot the difference between a living deity and a living goat. Though not interviewed for the film, there was plenty of footage of his shifty-eyed Swami-ship performing shoddy close-up 'miracles', materialising fake Rolexes and 'giving birth to golden egg-shaped objects through his mouth'. He really needs to catch up with the latest trends in close-up 'miracles' from David Blaine or Derren Brown because with an act this poor he'd be lucky to make it into the Magic Circle, never mind jump the queue for Nirvana.

The Observer - Pick Of The Day (Thurs. June 17th) (Four Stars out of Five)
Robert Colvile
'No Barmy Swami'

With hilarious regularity, American televangelists are revealed to have feet of clay - an illegitimate child here, a few million embezzled there.
It would certainly be possible to laugh at the Indian guru Sai Baba - although his message is worthy (if bland), his Western followers are the types who claim to have `met Sai Baba psychically 21 years before I met him physically', his miraculous powers are sub-Paul Daniels and he bears an unnerving resemblance to Leo Sayer. Yet this is no barmy swami. His 30 million devotees view him as `God in human form, the avatar'. And while this godman's claims are more serious than those of his American rivals, so are his alleged crimes.

According to past followers from the US interviewed in this BBC documentary, the guru sexually abuses his young male followers. Os, as the interviewer indelicately puts it: `Why would God want to put his penis in your mouth?'

Predictably, his followers and, more alarmingly, the Indian government, brush off such allegations angrily - so untouchable is Sai Baba that the gunning-down of four intruders in his rooms was swept under the carpet. More polemic than debate, but worrying viewing nevertheless. -
The Observer
Richard Ingrams
'Rum Baba'

Yet another Indian 'holy man' has been revealed as a sex-maniac and a fraud. A BBC2 documentary has exposed the doings of Sai Baba, who claims to have 30 million disciples and is a second-rate conjuror and a paedophile to boot. None of this will have 'Holy man' Sai Baba was exposed as a fraud last week. Here he parades a golden egg he has 'magically' produced from his mouth BBC (Photo text) None of this will have much effect on the disciples who, judging by past form, will continue to revere Baba the Paedophile and give him large sums of their money. In any case, sexual misbehaviour has never been a bar to a guru's high standing in the world. The late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (known affectionately as the Bagwash) made a point of combining sex with religion and encouraging his followers to take part in orgies.
Though forced to leave America for financial irregularities, the Bagwash was never short of disciples, who at one time included the famous satirical columnist Bernard Levin and his statuesque Greek companion, Arianna Stassinopoulos. The movement still flourishes as does Scientology, whose founder, L Ron Hubbard, was another quite notorious conman who sailed the seas in his private navy, waited on by nymphet attendants in hotpants who dressed and undressed him. His followers even include a number of famous film stars such as Mr John Travolta.
[Check website for picture of Mirror article]

The Guardian
(UK) June 18, 2004
Spiritual Depths
By Rupert Smith

It's difficult to write about religion without offending someone, but mercifully we're reviewing a television programme here, and not the mixture of wishful thinking and wilful credulity that leads people to worship soi-disant gurus such as Swami Sai Baba. BBC2's This World strand last night gave us The Secret Swami, an entertaining hour that made a compelling case against Sai Baba, portraying him as a charlatan and an abuser.
Young men who claimed to have been sexually abused by Sai Baba related hair-raising stories of "private interviews" in which the not-so-holy man pulled his skirt over his head and invited them to get down and dirty. Hilariously, one Hindu scholar reminded us that this is a practice sanctioned by neither scripture nor tradition. "Worship of the linga does not include doing the blow-job."
What started out as a routine denunciation developed into something more sinister. Sadly, the moment I see a man in a dress surrounded by grinning worshippers, I'm looking for a catch - and it didn't take much to prove that Sai Baba's "miracles" were nothing more than a bit of old-fashioned sleight of hand. On that basis, we might all end up worshipping David Blaine, which is a worry. But reporter Tanya Datta did her job properly, and went far beneath the surface of magic tricks and gaudy tat. She found that Sai Baba bought the eternal gratitude of rural Indian villagers by paying for clean water supplies, and that he caused a massive hospital to be built, funded by one of his followers, Isaac Tigrett, who co-founded the Hard Rock Cafe chain. She discovered also that the Indian government, rightly mindful of the rural vote, has turned a blind eye to claims of wrongdoing in the Baba camp. A government official got very shirty indeed with Ms Datta, shouting denials before he'd even heard the allegations. In these cases, "no" usually does mean "yes".
There was little room amid all the skulduggery for any real examination of Sai Baba's theology; all we learned was that he is an avatar, although of whom was not made clear, and that he conveniently embraces all religions. Without any real exegesis of his ideas, it was hard to know exactly what his followers believed in - it surely can't just have been Baba's ability to produce fake Rolexes out of thin air, or cough up eggs.
But even former disciples couldn't shed much light on what turned them into such true believers. A nice family from Arkansas were so crazy about Sai Baba that they encouraged their teenage son to spend as much time with the guru as possible. Despite allegations of abuse at the hands of Sai Baba, the son came out with the astonishing comment, "we are all tools, and we all have to be around for Swami to use - if he needs a screwdriver".
An hour wasn't enough to do the subject justice, and for once I was left wanting more. This isn't something I'd say lightly about television documentaries, which usually need to be edited by 50%. The mystery of Sai Baba, of his apparent protection by the authorities, of his canny manipulation of the rural poor and his inexplicable appeal to rich westerners, only deepened. Astonishingly, Sai Baba has not yet had the collar of his robe fingered by the long arm of the law.
The Guardian
(weekly TV guide) 'Watch This' (Sat Jun12 - Fri June 18)
Richard Vine

What was it Van Morrison once said about no gurus? To the followers of Sai Baba, he's a living god bringing clean water and salvation; to those who've fallen from his path, he's a "Teflon God" an untouchable who's abused both his power - and his young followers. This World sets out to uncover the real "face of God."
The Guardian (2G supplement) Pick Of The Day (Thurs. June 17th)
Mary Novakovich

Indian guru Sai Baba calls himself a living god - he really believes he is a divine incarnation - and this belief is shared by 30 million devotees around the world. A family from Arkansas was among them, until the son told his parents that this living god forced him to have oral sex. The young man isn't the only victim, yet his family came up against closed ranks when they tried to make their allegations. Whatever powers Sai Baba claims to have, he certainly has had the Indian government in his thrall for the past few decades.

Daily Telegraph
[Weekly TV guide - Pick Of The Day]
Gerard O'Donovan
To millions of believers in India and the West, swami Sathya Sai Baba is a living god, whose word is truth and whose actions are beyond question. Hugely influential and vastly wealthy thanks to a ceaseless flood of donations from devotees, his organisation has many outposts in Europe and North America. Sai Baba's main centre of influence is still in India, at his ashram at Puttaparthi near Bangalore. A veritable city in miniature, the ashram has a permanent population of 10,000, boasts its own hospitals, schools, planetarium, and university and even its own international airport to cater for the three million pilgrims who visit every year. Tonight's edition of BBC2's new Correspondent-style foreign news strand is one of the first films to report from inside the famously media-shy ashram in years, on how a new round of sex abuse allegations against the great guru is being greeted by his followers.

The Scotsman
[Top Stories The secret swami, BBC2Friday, 18th June 2004]
Tom Adair
' Guru who gives us no answers'

The Secret Swami might have veered towards the amusing - in an "Oh my God, how gullible can you be?" kind of way - had it not been for the repeated allegations of sex abuse. Sai Baba, the swami in question, had started off looking like some old bloke with an ego as big as his bank account. There he sat, in his opulent ashram at Puttaparthi, near Bangalore, dressed in blinding canary-yellow and sporting a head of what looked like jet-black pubic hair - a mane of Leo Sayer proportions; as if he had poked his tongue into a light socket. Count your blessings - he didn’t sing.

Instead, he did tricks, producing trinkets from his fingers - gold watches, bracelets, stuff with Ratners written all over it. Maybe he’d read the Paul Daniels Trickster’s Guide to Palming, and practised like mad without the distraction of the lovely Debbie McGee (it later transpired that Debbie would not have been a distraction). The swami’s followers adored his "miracles" and gasped.

Ten thousand worshippers formed a permanent camp inside the ashram, believing Sai Baba to be an avatar - a god on Earth. He attracted attention from burned out hippies, the ones with smoke still doping their nostrils. Sometimes they smiled their faraway smiles; sometimes they spoke. One guy believed he’d been in communion with Sai Baba for 21 years before he’d visited "god" in his pad. Sai Baba was quick to spot white faces wearing dollar signs. As these dupes gawped up from the crowd, he would single them out for special attention.

The documentary took a much less wide-eyed approach than Sai Baba’s flock, denouncing him from the start as a sham whose ashram resembled a market place, not a shrine. Oh yes, he appeared to have done some good - constructing a hospital in the district, providing free medicare for the poor, and supplying clean water - however, the £40 million it cost was funded by wealthy acolytes, faithfully following Sai Baba’s earnest exhortation: "Wherever you see a sick person - there is your field of service". And yet, Sai Baba’s secret motto turned out to be different, more like: "Wherever you see a gullible young believer, (boys only apply) bingo! - sexual opportunity".The programme gathered American former devotees who claimed that Sai Baba had abused them, had exposed himself to them, indulged in oral sex and then sworn them to secrecy. This sexual degradation had shaken their faith. These victims included a father and a son who were alleged to have been abused over many years. It was implied that many Indian boys had also been taken advantage of but were too scared to make public statements.

All this would matter if it affected just one child. What makes it worse is that Sai Baba has a worldwide following of 160 million people and is visited by heads of state. He is thus respectable, a notable Indian figure.
The allegations went unanswered. When duly challenged, a twitchy Indian government minister blew his top and accused the reporter of impertinence. Meanwhile the US embassy’s website has posted warnings to potential visitors.

Whether or not it will shake the blind faith of the devotees remains to be seen. However, the programme was an example of investigative reporting all too rare these days - getting inside and under the issue. It may have even stopped further innocents from falling prey to the avatar’s whim.
[To see this story with its related links on the The Observer site, go to Sunday June 20 2004]

Time Out
Claire Fogg
'Saint or sinner? Investigating rumours about a living prophet.

To the uninitiated, Sai Baba looks like a cheap trickster with a Jimi Hendrix haircut. He is, in fact, the most influential of India's spiritual gurus. Politicians, peasants and Westerners, all mesmerised by his otherworldly charisma and propensity to manifest sacred rings out of nothingness, revere him as a God in human form. He might also, according to the allegations in tonight's `The Secret Swami: This World', be a serial abuser who preys on his young male devotees.

Tonight's unsettling documentary is underpinned by the heartfelt testimony of an American family who once ran a spiritual community based on Sai Baba's teachings. Alaya Rahm, the son of the family and now an adult, alleges years of systematic abuse by the man he was brought up to believe was God. All the time, his mother, flattered by Baba's praise and gifts, was saying to him, `God is paying attention to us. Whatever you're doing, you're doing it right.' Those comments clearly break her heart now that she is convinced of Baba's `betrayal'.

Theirs is an emotive story, and one that poses a difficult moral question.Baba has undoubtedly helped millions: In the `90s he piped clean water into Indian villages. The shared street taps are still in use. The rural poor, still grateful. Supporters such as Michael Goldstein, the international chairman of Baba's organisation, deny the rumours: `I don`t believe it's possible that he could do anything like that. Baba's also, with funding from Isaac Tigrett, the hippy-entrepreneur who founded the Hard Rock Café, built a 500-room hospital that provides free heart and kidney surgery. Assistant producer David Saville sums up the ethical conundrum thus: "The question is, do you let him get away with it for the greater good?'

As for Tigrett, some of his candid responses disarm, while others chill to the core. When asked whether he'd still admire Baba even if the charges of paedophilia were proven beyond doubt, he laughs before calmly explaining, `He could go out and murder someone tomorrow - it's not going to stop my evolution…Absolutely, I believe there is truth to the rumours.'`Tigrett believes that every great person has a dark side,' says Saville. `He says that if Jesus was alive he'd probably be an adulterer.' It's not quite the same thing, but on a certain level the comparison makes sense: `This has parallels with the oddity of following a man who was crucified on the cross,' says Saville. `The difference is that Baba is alive and we can hold him morally responsible.'

The Independent Pick Of The Day (Thurs June 17th)
Gerard Gilbert

India's biggest spiritual guru, Sai Baba, looks like a cross between Liz Taylor on her way to rehab and a superannuated member of an acid rock band. And if you think that's being rude, you should hear what Sai Baba allegedly gets up to with some of his younger male disciples.
Sai Baba claims to be a living god, has brought clean water and healthcare to thousands and counts prime ministers and presidents among his 30 million followers. According to some disillusioned former devotees (and this film), he's also an abusive old goat, who uses cheap stage illusionist tricks as "miracles" to spice up his bland, catch-all religious philosophy.

Daily Mirror
`Switched On' (Thurs. June 17th)
Jill Foster

On first impressions, you can understand why 30 million devotees in 165 countries think Indian guru Sai Baba has come up with the perfect religion. All he asks of his followers is that they are truthful, charitable, peace-loving and embrace other faiths.

If his acolytes happen to be impressionable young boys, all he asks is that they drop their pants, allow him to rub oil in their genitals while kissing them hard on the mouth. Understandably, this has caused consternation among some of his followers, not least from the Rahm family of Arkansas whose teenage son was ritually abused for several years by their so-called "living god".

Sai Baba declared himself a deity at 14. While most people would be told to shut up and get on with their homework, strangely people believed him. His magic tricks are hailed as miracles by the crowds who flock to see him and now the 78-year-old pervert one of the most revered figures in Indian religion.
In this fascinating film, Tanya Datta travels to India and America to talk to survivors of the cult - including Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Café whose Love All, Serve All motto the company shares with Sai Baba.

Pick Of The Day (Thurs. June 17th)
Daily Mail
Robin Jarossi

This strand of documentaries has a record of impressive investigations from around the world. Tonight, it promises tough reporting and unique access from the Indian headquarters of the Indian leader Sathya Sai Baba. This charismatic `Teflon god' is worshipped by Indian prime inisters and peasants, with western followers having included the likes of Hard Rock Café co-founder Isaac Tigrett. Yet tonight's programme speaks to former devotees who suggest the `Godman' is all too human. One recalls: `I remember him saying, if you don't do what I say, your life will be filled with pain and suffering.' Strange words from a guru of peace and love.

Financial Times - Television Preview
(Thurs. June 17th)
Karl French
If it is true that each age gets the god it deserves, and, furthermore, if Sai Baba, a self-declared living god, is really the one this age deserves, then we are clearly in worse shape than we thought. For all the manifest sincerity of their quest for spiritual enlightenment, in fact partly because of this sincerity and the openness that renders them utterly gullible, there is something faintly comical about westerners arriving in India and accepting spiritual guidance from the first dark-skinned person who declares him or herself to be divinely inspired. Were it not for the horrendous crimes of which he stands accused, Sai Baba would be a perfect example of this laughable phenomenon.

Sai Baba opened his first ashram in 1950 and since then his message - whatever it is, because in the film we learn mainly of his peculiar stunts and the serial assaults of which he stands accused - has attracted millions of adherents. It is said that the complex and very wealthy organisation built around him boasts upwards of 30m devotees around the world. Among these is Isaac Tigrett, one of the leading lights in the Hard Rock Café business who has ploughed tens of millions of dollars into initiatives that further the influence of Sai Baba.

Sai Baba's chief talent appears to be his ability to materialise objects - and he is a notably materialistic guru - from magic dust to "gold" watches, which he presents as gifts to astonished audience members. But aside from the fact that he has reached a prominent position as a spiritual leader thanks to his conjuring skills, Sai Baba is allegedly given to subjecting some of his young male acolytes to a "ritual healing process" in which he rubs oil into their
genitals. Those seeking a definition of denial should tune in to hear Tigrett insist that his devotion to his guru would be undiminished even it were proved beyond question that these accusations are well founded.

Evening Standard
- Pick Of The Night (Thurs. June 17th)
Terry Ramsey

Frankly, in my view, anyone who seriously claims they are God is either a charlatan or a cheating South American footballer. And anyone who magics up gold rings and necklaces out of thin air is much more likely to be Paul Daniels than the Almighty.
So it is hard to imagine why people are so keen to fall at the feet of Sai Baba, an unlikely-looking guru who is scarcely five feet tall and sports a hairstyle which might have been created by sticking his toe in an electric socket.
But, amazingly, millions of people are devoted to him. Most are in his homeland of India, but he has followers all over the globe, from the humblest village dwellers to Isaac Tigrett, co-founder of the Hard Rock Café chain, who made Sai Baba's mantra, "Love All Serve All" into a company slogan and sent it around the world.

Sai Baba's claims to be a living God may be too far-fetched, but his organisation and followers have built hospitals and brought fresh-water supplies to impoverished parts of the globe, so where's the harm?

Let Alaya, a young American man who is one of Sai Baba's former followers, explain about a private meeting he had with the guru while a boy: "He took me aside and put oil on his hands and told me to drop my pants and rubbed my genitalia with the oil. Then he pulled me close and started kissing me hard on the mouth."

And this is just one of the milder allegations of abuse. Sai Baba, it seems, has been doing this sort of thing for years, but no one ever dared question him (Alaya's father, also a devotee, had the same thing happen to him - but thought it was part of the spiritual experience).This revealing documentary talks to Sai Baba's followers and his critics, including those who claim to have been abused by him - resulting in reporter Tanya Datta asking perhaps the most surreal question you'll hear in a TV interview: "Why would God want to put his penis in your mouth?" It paints a picture of a man who has been fooling people for a long time. He may not be all-seeing and all-knowing, like his fans believe, but he certainly knows the truth of the phrase "there's one born every

The Herald
- June 18 2004 (Web issue 2037)
This World, meanwhile, investigated a disturbing example of what happens to humans when they prefer blind faith to reason. No-one in their right mind would buy a used car from Sai Baba, far less a faith, but as the world tends to prove, people in their right minds are often in short supply.

Millions have fallen for the twaddle peddled by the Indian guru who is more than content to be recognised as a living god. For some, the consequences have been serious, as they related to reporter Tanya Datta. This was an excellent study of religious mania – the phrase is possibly tautologous – and where it can lead. This "maharishi" with a fondness for conjuring tricks stands accused of sexual abuse and the hint of murder. For the victims of his predations the effects were, in the worst sense, soul-destroying.