By Billen, Andrew
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4693
Secret Swami (BBC2)
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 Roach 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 Roach.
A particularly well-meaning but benighted American family had built a community devoted to Baba in Arkansas and in return was festooned with gifts, including the swami's old shirts. …