Sai Baba - is he really the 'Man of
By: Susan Blackmore
We welcome this critical examination of the teaching behaviour of a well-known Indian guru. It is important to note that there are many ways of understanding such a teacher. One is to visit the ashram and become familiar with the setting, the clientele and the methods of the teacher. This might be called a social anthropological approach and requires an empathetic understanding of the kind Carol Evans showed during her travels in India. Another method involves asking how the effects produced during teaching might have been presented and, where these appear supernatural, what basis for them may actually exist. Here parapsychologist Sue Blackmore brings her expertise to bear on claims made by the Guru.
There is however, yet another consideration. The behaviour of gurus is often a function of a culture where belief systems very different from those of the scientific West may be in operation. This makes judgements of the ethics of their actions relative. In the case of Sai Baba, we know he contributes to a lot of charitable work in India. Even if, in our eyes, some of his methods may be questionable, the way in which ordinary Indians may view this remains an open question (see also page 8).
The sleight of hand artist David Abram, who successfully demonstrates 'magic' under the very noses of critical psychologists, has pointed out that what appear to be magical feats teach us something about the limits of our perception. Indeed, a demonstration of the limits of seeing must make us wonder how far our normal vision is not also limited. We live in a virtual reality and 'magic' makes us wonder at the strangeness of the world. Eds.
In the Spring 1998 issue of New Ch'an Forum Carol Evans wrote a most interesting account of her meeting with the Indian holy man, Sai Baba. She described the devotion of his many followers and her own reservations about their dependency on him. She also described some apparent miracles he performed in her presence, including the materialisation of vibhuti - or sacred ash, of sweets from his bare palms, and of a small locket on a silver chain. Carol Evans said that no concealment was possible and concluded that Sai Baba "transcends the known laws of matter". She expressed doubts about the genuineness of his compassion but added, jokingly, that he does not own a single Rolls Royce. I got the impression that, like many other people, Carol was prepared, in spite of her misgivings, to believe that Sai Baba is a genuine guru with spiritual gifts.
Readers may therefore like to know a little more about Sai Baba. He was born in 1926 of theatrical parents in a small village in South India. At age 14 he claimed to be the reincarnation of an Indian saint, and later of Jesus Christ. Over the following decades he built up a large organisation which now boasts six million followers and two thousand centres around the world. Many questions have been raised about this organisation, for example over the death under questionable circumstances of six of its former top officials, and over the management of the well-endowed trust funds that are exempt from Indian taxes. The Indian magician and investigator, Premanand, has suggested that the valuable pieces of jewellery presented to some of Sai Baba's rich followers serve as a convenient way for wealthy Indians to own gold that would otherwise be prohibited under India's Gold Control Act. A good deal of controversy surrounds the financial dealings of Sai Baba in India today.
As for the apparent miracles, these have been investigated several times. Many magicians, including Premanand, have claimed that the miracles have many features of well-known magic tricks and that they could duplicate the feats using trickery, although other magicians claim to remain baffled by some of Sai Baba's feats. A few experiments have been done. For example, the production of large quantities of vibhuti from an apparently empty urn was duplicated by the American researcher, Dale Beyerstein, by baking liquefied vibhuti onto the inner surface. It could then be scraped off by moving the hand inside the urn as Sai Baba appeared to do.
In 1977 parapsychologists Erlendur Haraldsson and Karlis Osis tried to investigate the materialisations but were never allowed to get close enough to make detailed observations, nor to use a video camera they had taken with them. In spite of numerous requests over many years Sai Baba has never agreed to participate in controlled experimental tests of his apparent abilities. However, a few videotapes have been made. An American team detected several instances suggestive of known conjuring tricks in one such tape but found no definite evidence of fraud. Then in 1992 an Indian newspaper the 'Deccan Chronicle' carried a front page story reporting that Sai Baba had been caught cheating on video, by secretly taking a gold chain from the hand of his assistant and then producing it in an apparently miraculous way. The story spread around the world and even appeared in British newspapers. The English psychologist and magician, Richard Wiseman, studied the tape and concluded that the hand movements seen would certainly have given Sai Baba the opportunity to use sleight of hand, but do not provide unequivocal proof that he did so.
Is it important whether these miracles are genuine or not? I say yes, because when people are convinced of a guru's paranormal powers they are more likely to believe his other claims, accept his religious teachings, or take his advice on matters concerning their lives or health. In doing so they may be seriously misled.
The greatest danger comes over healing, and Sai Baba is widely promoted as a healer. Premanand has listed several cases of promised cures that never came about and in which the patients did not seek medical treatment because of Sai Baba. Sai Baba told Carol Evans that if she were offered an operation for her ear complaint she should not have it and that he would heal her. She does not say whether an operation was ever recommended or whether she took his advice, but the danger is clear.
My own opinion is that Sai Baba is one of many people who successfully claim miraculous abilities and use those claims to gain power over their devotees, to build up vast organisations, and to accumulate wealth for themselves and their followers. They get away with it because people are reluctant to challenge 'spiritual' teachers, and sometimes because their devotees include rich and powerful men who can prevent their being challenged. In the process many ordinary people are deprived of both their money and their health, and some are sucked into overly dependent relationships with the guru which do not help them with their own spiritual endeavours, as Carol Evans clearly saw.
Fortunately these miraculous claims form no part of the teachings of Ch'an and are irrelevant to quiet sitting, to calming the mind, or to practising mindfulness in daily life. So whether we believe in Sai Baba's powers or not we can just get on with our own personal practice.
Beyerstein, D. 1996 'Sai Baba'. In The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Ed. G. Stein, New York, Prometheus, 653-657.
Beyerstein, D. (Ed) 1994 Sat Baba's Miracles: An Overview. Podanur, India; Premanand, Publisher.
Haraldsson, E. and Osis, K. 1977 'The appearance and disappearance of objects in the presence of Sri Sathya Sai Baba'. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 71, 33-43.
Haraldsson, E. and Wiseman, R. 1995 'Reactions to and an assessment of a videotape on Sathya Sai Baba'. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 60, 203-213.
Premanand, B. 1982 Lure of Miracles Podanur, India; Premanand, Publisher.