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By Stallings, Stephanie | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview
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Stallings, Stephanie, Harvard International Review


Sai Baba's Teachings

For spiritual seekers in the West, the key to understanding the religions of the East has often been through its gurus.

Sathya Sai Baba, a dimunitive orange-robed religious leader from India, is one such widely renowned holy man who in recent years has attracted an international following. Celebrities such as Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson and Isaac Trigett, founder of the Hard Rock Cafe, have sought his guidance and benedictions, and various Indian statesmen have bowed before him in hopes of a public endorsement. Sal Baba claims preeminence as the most widely followed spiritual leader in India and perhaps in the world: as many as 60 million people outside of India are devotees. In a country where holy men are an accepted part of everyday life, the ability to materialize holy objects from thin air (as Sai Baba has often done) is hardly cause for a stir. Yet Sai Baba's following--drawn from people of all religions, ethnicities, and social classes--has grownc exponentially, spreading to diverse pockets of the globe: Sathya Sai Baba Centers have sprung up from San Francisco to Malaysia.

Many of Sai Baba's followers make the pilgrimage to his palatial residence in Puttaparthi in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The complex, also known as an ashram, boasts an airport, hospital, school, university planetarium, and museum and has held as many as one million people during festivals; 10,000 people visit daily.

Sai Baba has lived in this complex for 61 years since, at the age of 14, he announced to the world his divine status as the second incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva Sai Baba supports this claim by regularly performing miracles, called siddhis, which are celebrated daily occurrences among his followers. Devotees crowd to see him materialize holy ash, Swiss watches, gold necklaces, and miscellaneous trinkets. The faithful testify with enthusiasm to his ability to raise the dead, his penchant for cameo appearances in improbable places, and his divine omniscience.

But critics like B. Premanand, editor and publisher of The Indian Skeptic, and Dale Beyerstein, author of Sai Baba's Miracles: An Overview, question Sai Baba's legitimacy. On his web page, Premanand posts video clips of Sai Baba receiving a visitor in order to expose the "novice magician's" sleights-of-hand that Sai Baba allegedly uses to materialize his gifts. Beyerstein observes that, if these miracles are true, then Sai Baba violates international copyright laws when he materializes name brand Swiss watches with serial numbers. Sai Baba has also been accused in recent years of more serious allegations, such as fundraising abuse.

Despite these criticisms, an extensive body of literature exists recounting Sai Baba's positive influence on devotees. Sai Baba's followers claim that he gives meaning and purpose to their lives by encouraging daily prayer, meditation, benevolent action, individual duty and positive relations with family and community.

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