Testimony from Bettina Woolard


By: Bettina Woolard

Date: August 7, 2001

My Devotee Story

My husband and I were devotees of the man who goes by the name of Sathya Sai Baba for nine years. We were into his movement with all of our hearts and all of our souls, believing him to be genuinely divine. My husband was president of our center for several years and I was service coordinator as well as an ssb teacher.

Almost every Sunday would be spent immersed in some Sai related activity and every Thursday evening would find us faithfully sitting on the floor of our local center, singing and chanting away while our guru's face beamed down at us from many photos. We had two trips to India to see him and felt blessed that we had been brought to him, both physically and spiritually.

About midway through that period of time we started hearing some disturbing rumors. At first we convinced ourselves that they were fabricated by fundamentalist Christians who were threatened by SB's growing popularity. Later, as the stories persisted, we reasoned that perhaps one or two mentally unstable young men with delusions of grandeur had invented them in an effort to draw attention to themselves.

After all, I myself had experienced being the butt of untrue or minimally true gossip in my life, and I knew how a story could grow like a forest fire and be just as difficult to extinguish. Finally, we came to the uncomfortable conclusion that there was probably "some truth" to the rumors, but who were we to understand the true meaning of his actions? It certainly had nothing to do with any horniness on his part.

Speaking for myself, I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, but we didn't know enough yet to make a dramatic move. It was all very hazy. We knew if we left him and the group, many of the things that had made us happy and spiritually secure and fulfilled for so many years would be gone. I prayed to The Real God to know the truth, of course hoping that the truth would be that all these rumors were just that, and that SB really was who he claimed to be after all and I could go back to living in my happy little reality again.

Sometime around August or September of 2000 my prayers were answered, but not in the way I had hoped they would be. We received a letter in the US mail from the distraught mother of a 15 year old boy who had been molested ... Big Time ... by Sai Baba. Enclosed in the letter was an explicit account of the incident that had been entered in his diary. It didn't leave much to the imagination. After reading the letter and entry, I removed from my neck a chain which held a treasured object: the buckle from a watch which SB had materialized (maybe and maybe not) for our son. The band of the watch had broken and we had kept the two sides of the strap, the buckle, and the watch itself, as adored mementos. I slid the buckle off the chain and threw it into a drawer, planning to decide its ultimate fate after the shock wore off. I never wore it again.

For the next several weeks I was miserable. Since I had been "lucky" enough to have some hints of what the outcome would be, leaving SB himself wasn't the main cause of my suffering, though it was painful enough. The problem was not knowing what to tell other people. Almost all my friends at that point were devotees. Was it better to hurt those sweet souls now or let them go on believing a lie for many years, even for the rest of their lives?

First we had to announce to our center that we no longer followed SB's path and that we wouldn't be attending center functions any more. Perhaps we should have stood up in front of the assembled group and told the raw truth, but because of the mix of people (some very old or physically and psychologically frail), that didn't seem feasible. So, as people called us to ask why we had quit, we told them the truth one on one.

Very few took it seriously. With the exception of one other person, no one even went to the website (saibabaguru.com) that we recommended. By now I was reading that website and the message boards every day. I felt a lot of support from the people who had gone through the same experience that we had.

Filling the Void

How did I fill the void? I didn't really. It just got filled by life, like a hole in the sand that disappears when a wave washes over it. I have a family and luckily we all came to SB and left him at the same time, so we had a lot to talk about amongst ourselves. It was also wonderful talking to the few people I knew who did leave. Fortunately I also had a few acquaintances from pre-SB days and I had never said much about him to them, so I rekindled those relationships.

I rediscovered a certain pleasure in everyday experiences, be it folding laundry, shopping, doing a crossword puzzle, dusting, loading the dishwasher, showering, or joking with my kids. I got a part time job after being a stay- at-home mom for years. I eased up on strictness with myself regarding TV/video watching, novel reading, and other self-indulgent activities. We got a puppy. I started seeing a health practitioner who helped me with chronic problems I had had for many years. I don't feel as guilty about getting enjoyment out of life as I did in my devotee days when I had been convinced that everything in life is "maya" and we're better off not placing any importance on it.

I now realize that the crux of the problem was this: I had no faith in the God within. I had given my power away to another individual because I thought I was nothing by myself.

I still do miss some of the things about being a believer, like waking up in the middle of the night worried about something, and then thinking, "He's here on earth; there's nothing to be afraid of,” or those wonderful bursts of feeling completely loved and looked after. I still know there's a being who envelopes us with love, but I feel a little shakier not knowing what that being looks like. It was so nice to think that the God I loved had a face. It's more of a challenge to make the connection now, but I do feel a motherly, feminine presence looking out for me.

I still meditate and pray, though not as much and not as confidently that I'm being heard. I still do service on an individual basis. And I still try to remember to practice the good things I learned while I was a devotee, whether the leader practiced them or not.

I know that for people who are alone, people who spent many more years with him that we did, or who spent much more time with his physical person than we did, the void will be much more difficult to fill. All I can think to say to them is that the God you thought he was is Real, so don't ever let go of that.

Bettina Woolard