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When I was in engineering school in Chennai, an older cousin dropped in from Kolkata, her ultimate destination – Sathya Sai Baba’s Ashram at Puttaparthi, a small town that was a 9-hour bus ride to the west.

My cousin, Runadidi, was to Sathya Sai Baba, what rednecks are to Donald Trump – sold, lock stock and barrel on him. Runadi insisted that I accompany her and because my college was on a one-week spring break and also since I wanted to experience the sight and sounds of the weirdo first hand, I tagged along.

Back in the early 1970s, Puttaparthi was about as remote as Novaya Zemlya is, to a Muscovite. Folks visited Puttaparthi only when they had issues that they could no longer deal with – mainly health related issues that they had given up trying to fix medically and were at their wits’ end. Tales of the Sathya Sai Baba miraculously curing folks of life threatening ailments just by the wave of a hand, some holy ash, a cheap trinket that he magically materialized out of thin air and crappy mumbo-jumbo were legion in those days.

Little is known about Sathya Sai Baba’s past, except for the hagiography -mostly fable, making him into a superhero – that has sprung up around him over the decades. Wikipedia says —-‘as a child, he was unusually intelligent and charitable, though not necessarily academically inclined, as his interests were of a more spiritual nature. He was uncommonly talented in devotional music, dance and drama. From a young age, he was alleged to have been capable of materializing objects such as food and sweets, rings and watches, out of thin air.’

When we visited Puttaparthi, it was little more than a village, albeit a neat, well-organized village. The internet tells me that today Puttaparthi boasts a shiny planetarium and a sprawling ‘superspeciality’ hospital. I saw the pics of the hospital on google images – it looks like a multi-tiered wedding cake. The hospital treats patients for free, so who are we to complain. Besides that, there is a college, a music school and immaculate colorful schools and playgrounds, everything free and all financed by the Sai Baba Organization. Luxury apartment buildings are springing up on land that was covered with ramshackle mud huts just a few decades prior. A state of the art airport caters to wealthier devotees who fly in on their business jets.

Today, 10 to 50 million people worship Sathya Sai Baba as God incarnate. They stream into Puttaparthi from six continents, finding lodgings in one of the ashram’s myriads of guesthouses and hostels – some really snazzy, with jacuzzis and air-conditioning. Those are smart infrastructural investments made by the Sathya Sai Organization, that ensure a steady inflow of hard currency donations, some running into millions. The largest single donation is reported to be $20 million, from the founder of Hard Rock Café. I guess even billionaires can be schmucks. In 1975, the Sathya Sai Organization’s cash reserves were $5 billion.

Sathya Sai Baba is raising the daisies but his brainchild, the Sathya Sai Organisation, is a multi-billion dollar financial juggernaut that has 1500 branches all over the world and millions of followers, many of them whole families who have migrated from the west, with kids in tow, after cashing in every last nickel and dime they owned and bringing it with them.

While His Holiness was alive, some of his followers (usually young boys) suddenly found themselves bestowed with extra attention from the guru. Yeah, Sathya Sai Baba had a sinister secret, known only to his close associates – a wholly human craving for the bodies of pre-teen boys. The evidence is strong that Sai Baba frequently used his power to get inside their pants, fondling young penises and rendering to them what came to be his signature obsession – divine blow jobs.

I hasten to add that these are claims made by ex-devotees that have never been proven. Neither has His Holiness ever been charged with any sexual wrongdoing. But the body of testimony is so vast and instances in contemporary history of powerful godmen having their way with innocent followers are so many, I am convinced there was not just some smoke but fire too.

The reason why Sai Baba was never investigated (let along charged) is quite clearly his political connections.  Sathya Sai Baba was hobnobbing with senior politicians – including some prime ministers – all his life. At the local level, the Sai Baba Organization has always had most of the top officials of the local state and district bureaucracy in it’s deep pockets. The SSO is their ticket to rich lifestyles that their meagre government salaries could never afford.

And then of course there is all that charity – hospitals, schools, colleges, playgrounds, libraries, bore-wells for drinking water, cisterns for water storage, public toilets – Sathya Sai Baba was untouchable, the populace loved him and anyone who attempted to even think of arresting such a guy would be signing his death warrant.

But I digress.

Runadi and I rested ourselves in a guesthouse upon arrival that evening and at sunrise the next morning, we presented ourselves at the vast Prasanthi Nilayam (abode of peace) mandir and lecture hall that the brochure said could easily seat 15000. This is where the Holy Swami would deliver another one of his divine homilies.

We spent an hour waiting in a line and another hour sitting cross-legged amid thousands of other worshipers on the marble floor of the terrace outside. The hall was already packed and we would have to watch him from the terrace. Through the large doors, we could see as many foreigners in the hall, as there were Indians. Half of all the staff were white men and women, walking around barefoot, in simple white sarees and kurta-pyjamas. Dozens of chandeliers hung from the ceiling, which was garishly decorated with gold, pink and yellow.

An aisle bisected the hall, cutting right through to the stage and that’s when I noticed that it was gender segregated, with women to the right and men to the left. Runadi and I were at the door, just outside the hall, where the rule apparently didn’t apply. Behind the stage, at the far end, I noticed a door but it was only in the late 1990s that I began reading about what went on behind that door. It was His Holiness’s private ‘sexual healing’ room, probably the place where he molested those young boys.

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Runadi and I were beginning to get bored when an electric charge ran through the crowd. Immediately necks craned to catch a glimpse of the guru.

Sathya Sai Baba appeared through the door of the back room – a stocky guy with a broad smile and that ridiculous Jimi Hendrix afro cut and his customary floor-length ochre robe. He waved as he walked down the aisle, pausing first on the women’s side and then on the men’s side and back again, taking turns, readily accepting what looked like slips of paper (probably pleas and petitions) that were being feverishly stuffed into his hands which he passed on to an aide following him.

I turned to glance at Runadi and she was gone, her eyes glazed over, chest heaving as if she was short of breath, pretty face glistening with sweat….

(to be continued….)