The Cult of the Personality
By: Brian Steel
Copyright B. Steel June 2002
At the 1st World Conference of Sathya Sai Seva Organisations in Bombay in May 1968, SB made this slightly reassuring claim to non-Hindus:
"I have not come to set afoot a new cult, I do not want people to be misled on this point. I affirm that the Sai form is the form of all the various names that man uses for the adoration of the Divine. So, I am teaching that no distinction should be made between the names Rama, Krishna, Ishwara, Sai - for they are all My names." (Sathya Sai Speaks, VIII, 19:95-96) Note that at the end of that statement, SB also reiterates quite clearly his claim to be the Avatar: "they are all My names".
Over the years, he has repeated this disarming statement in different forms and it is frequently quoted by devotees and writers as one of his basic and very specially attractive and laudable teachings. It will doubtless be quoted once more by the embattled SSO when it issues its long-awaited Defence statement to the World on Guru Purnima Day, 2002.
However, as a few objective observers have commented, this has always been a paradox: SB's devotees, and in particular those active in the SSO, view themselves as HIS devotees (even if they still maintain their connections with other religions). He is the centre of their unconditional worship. (To claim otherwise is to be in denial, although that very uncomfortable state is the one which most devotees seem to prefer.)
For example, a non-committed intelligent observer like Mick Brown (whose fair and objective observations in his book are like a breath of fresh air and deserve the widest possible public) notices on a visit to SB's ashram what he terms as a cult of personality, which, if one views things objectively, is what is really at the heart of the SB cult and worship - as the hagiographical literature and the vehemently one-sided Internet defences of SB prove, rather boringly, day after day.
Brown confesses his unease with the: "cult of personality around Sai Baba; the sense that what was being worshipped was not the Divine but the man who was said to be the embodiment of the Divine." (Brown, Mick, The Spiritual Tourist (A Personal Odyssey through the Outer Reaches of Belief), London, Bloomsbury, 1998 - paperback edition, 1999, p. 83) [Yes: "said to be"!]
That was certainly also the opinion of the scholar C.S.J. White, who observed in 1981:
"It would appear that for his followers, Satya Sai Baba assumes the combined role of deity, guru, and saint not bound by the Hindu tradition alone. Worship focused upon his portrait or idol is the practice of Satya Sai Baba groups scattered around the world."
Occasionally even SB himself (via his omnipresent editors and 'minders') is honest enough to admit this otherwise unadmitted fact: that he has become (or has made himself) the centre and focus of worship and adoration for so many people:
"That is the Sai religion, the religion that feeds and fosters all religions and emphasises their common Greatness. Take up this religion, boldly and joyfully." (Sathya Sai Speaks, XIII, 23:148) [The Sai Religion! This may be the core of the 'problem'.]
"It is also laid down strictly that those who are in our Organisation should not have any connection with other Organisations of spiritual or religious character." (Sathya Sai Speaks, X, 33:208)
P.S. To return to the (refreshingly non-hagiographical) writer Mick Brown:
While researching for his book at Puttaparthi, he requested an interview with SB. Brown found that for him this was not possible, but instead he was sent to "Mr S-" for an interview (see Brown, pp.80-84). It is patently obvious to Prasanthi-watchers that "Mr S." was in fact none other than the eminent editor of Sanathana Sarathi, SB's right-hand man for so many years, the distinguished retired Indian journalist, Mr V. Narasimhan (about whom Robert Priddy has recently written so movingly and revealingly).
In response to Mick Brown's probing questions, "S" is less than enthusiastic about SB's Divinity: "I am keeping my judgement suspended about a Creator." "But there is no question in my mind that Swami is a manifestation of the Divine." (p. 82) [But that is so different, isn't it! This is NOT just a matter of semantics, but of claims!]
"S" goes on to say, "... my feeling is that the Supreme Power is greater than Baba. Or he has not yet revealed all his powers." (p. 82) And the interesting addition by Mr "S", with which people of good will must surely agree, is: "But he is able to inspire in people a spirit of service and that is a remarkable achievement. Love and sacrifice are the constant things in his discourses." (p. 83)
Thanks very much, Mick!