ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL
SATHYA SAI ORGANISATION
based on a participant observational analysis
of its structure, management & functions
By Robert C. Priddy
formerly researched at The Institute of Social Studies,
Oslo, lectured in philosophy 1968-85 and sociology 1970-76, University of Oslo, Norway.
The monolithic-hierarchical structure with its top-down chain of command makes all discussions at meetings and conferences very largely futile and time-wasting from the volunteer workers point of view. The model will have to change very basically if it is to become acceptable to free citizens in the modern world, not just to India or other patriarchal and class-ridden cultures. It is little wonder that well-qualified persons with experience of democratic values in management (most usually being Westerners) often leave after some time. Due to the control of communications and the lack of historical documentation etc., it may take many years, however, before members (such as the present writer) are able to find out how the organisation actually functions, if then.
The organisation, with its formal and informal cultures, legitimizes many activities which do not fit at all easily with much of the content of the constant flow of discourses from its namesake, SB. The anomalies are rationalized by a well-developed culture of spiritual doublethink, itself underpinned by ambiguities, vagueness and conflicting directions throughout SBs teachings. Due to opposing statements, sweeping generality and frequent ambiguity in the teachings, and the obscure nature of SBs role in directing his organisation, the real purposes it serves have largely to be deduced from what is observable.
There are four unproclaimed functions that naturally spring to mind as working hypotheses, partly in view of the foregoing study and partly due to matters considered only peripherally in this study:
1) Providing a social community for believers in Sai Baba to communicate and share in through meetings and activities. This is not a stated purpose of the organisation, and regular efforts are consequently made in some regions to reduce its function as a social contact or support network for those who rely on it for this. Leaving meetings without talking afterwards, regulations against the serving of food or refreshments are examples. This informal function is, however, widely accepted in practice in many countries.
2) Channeling of funds to Sai Baba Trusts. The collection of monetary donations is against the regulations of the SSO and is seldom openly allowed except among members. Neither entrance money nor membership fees of any kind are allowed. However, the SSO provides a very broad network which functions as a channel for money and property from those who wish to donate, so providing a very wide catchment area among followers worldwide. Without the SSO the channel would certainly not have been opened so wide. Many members leave very considerable legacies behind them. However, the directives and activities of the Overseas Chairman and CCs increasingly belie the ideal of not soliciting funds (as documented in earmarking persons as potential large donors to be approached privately by CCs). The call for donations to SBs hospitals, the water project and ashram buildings has become common in internal directives, and even in some public journals, all mostly to increase the exclusively one-way flow of enormous sums of money to India, via the Sathya Sai Central Trust and its subsidiaries. This accumulated wealth (several billions of dollars minimum) are increasingly used to build imposing structures and institutions in honour of SB personally, while large amounts are still also used as claimed by SB to benefit (mainly Hindu) worshippers through facilities at the Prashanti Nilayam ashram, schools, colleges and hospitals.
3) Manipulation of information sources - and so the opinions of devotees and the public - when untoward events have occurred at the SB ashrams such as suicides, rapes, murders, bomb scares, embezzlement, invasions by fanatic sects, plus other negative events. Maximum censorship is exercised as to all things that seriously tarnish the image of this proclaimed Abode of Supreme Peace, or could reduce the influx of visitors or of support of all kinds that maintain and bolster the very considerable financial and political power base of the Sathya Sai movement in India and elsewhere. The SSOs aims help to offset the major involvements of the SB movement in top governmental concerns and many other political and power-braking affairs in India and in the diaspora. Critical persons who obtain sensitive information and voice it are removed. This functions as a cover-up that the SSO performs.
4) development of an international network of centers, temples, schools, colleges and trusts advances the aims of SB to transform the world. This occurs independently of - but parallel to - SBs considerable contacts with national leaders, ministers, opposition politicians, the judiciary, the military establishment, any well-known and rich people and so forth in India which represents a de facto major power base. This influence is being extended to an increasing number of nations, not least via the SSO. Through the institutionalization of the SSO as a spiritual organisation with charitable trusts in as many countries as possible, it functions on a line with other religious organisations, having a charismatic structure and a church-like culture with leaders who can speak and act in various (but limited) ways as middlemen between devotees and the Godhead in ways not unlike those of priests/bishops etc., such as by conveying and interpreting SBs utterances and wishes. The function of spiritual guidance as part of leaders duties is not stated in the Charter, though their work is privately viewed as intermediary spiritual leadership and teaching by most of them and by many SB followers. Further, it is officially denied that the SSO in any way constitutes a specific sect, cult or religion.
To sum up: The pure ideals for spiritual service and education as proclaimed by SB have drawn large numbers of very well-intentioned and self-sacrificing persons to the SSO. That these persons continue their good work is highly to be desired by anyone who has observed it to any extent. That there have been positive achievements as a result of the coordinating activities of some leaders is not in question. It is equally clear, unfortunately, that serious questions as to whether the SSO as an organisational structure mainly helps or hinders genuine service to society - due to its monolithic nature, its semi-secret management practices, and involvements in unnecessary projects.
The most basic dilemma at the root of the SSO arises from its aim in practice to promulgate the teaching of SB about the universality of human values and the essential unity in the diversity of all religions and people. An organisation, the first requirement of which is full faith in the divinity of SB, necessarily institutes a distinction between members/sympathizers and all others and inevitably develops an us and them mentality. This has been seen to operate divisively in various respects within the organisation and between it and peripheral persons or society at large. By building an organisation around such a teaching, SB enters the field as a de facto competitor to all other gurus, sects and religions.
When I was still optimistic about the SSO as an instrument of social change, it did not appear as a cult. It was simpler and smaller and it has changed through the years. Since then, I have come to see much of my positive thinking and constructive efforts have been based on an unrealistic, limited knowledge of many matters involved so that, despite its having various socially positive features, the SSO has a significant number of features typical of exclusive, authoritarian cults.
Note. For those who wish to know more, the full, extensive paper and documentation is available at http://home.no.net/anir/Sai