No more holy ash


By: K.G. Gopal


Date: March 27, 1999



"To uplift His devotees and to provide them merit the Lord in His mercy has Himself come down to Delhi" rejoiced a full page newspaper advertisement on 11 March 1999, announcing the arrival of Sathya Sai  Baba, the godman of India's rich and powerful, in the capital. Sai Baba visited Delhi after a gap of seventeen years to inaugurate the multi million "Sai International Center", which houses Delhi's largest auditorium. Amongst other dignitaries the Indian Prime Minister was scheduled to attend the function.

Sai Baba is seen as the most powerful Indian godman. His public appearances are marked by the presence of half the Indian cabinet, his devotees include top politicians across all partylines, diplomats, high bureaucrats and the top industrialists of the country. His seventieth birthday in 1995 was a state event and kept high profile national media attention over several days. Who expected his visit to Delhi to be a similar public sensation, was disappointed.

Something had changed. Sai Baba's power connections may still be intact and he may still be India's godman number one (at least since his competitor Chandra Swamy is facing criminal prosecution), but the fame of his miraculous capacities has taken serious damage since the days of his glory. Sai Baba's visit to Delhi showed that the public awareness about the simple tricks behind his allegedly divine "miracles" has increased considerably, thanks to the work of rationalists.

"Sai Baba has a trick up his sleeve, Rationalists tell PM", titled The Asian Age, one of the leading national English newspapers, slovenly. It was reported that Sanal Edamaruku had called upon Prime Minister Vajpayee to abstain from Sai Baba's function, as the  PM prostrating himself in front of the religious leader was a contravention of the secular principles envisaged in the Indian constitution. More over, Sanal was quoted denouncing Sai Baba as charlatan and fraud and  challenging him to perform his "miracles" under fraud-proof conditions.

This challenge had been already put up back in 1965 by the famous rationalist Prof. Abraham Kovoor who was the first to expose Sai Baba's "miracles". Since then Indian Rationalist Association had from time to time called upon Sai Baba in public forums and in letters to face up to their demand, but for more than thirty years now the Baba kept mum. Meantime, the Asian Age quoted Mr. Edamaruku, Sai Baba was caught red- handed: During the celebrations of his 69th birthday, he "materialized" a golden chain by plucking it away from the bottom of a plaque, where  it had been pasted up. The scene was filmed by a cameraman of the national TV Doordarshan. Though Doordarshan had blacked out this clipping, copies of a smuggled out cassette from Doordarshan studios were circulated all over India and abroad. The famous British documentary "Guru Busters" on Indian Rationalists, which was originally telecasted by Channel IV in the UK in 1995, reproduced this clipping in slow motion. The documentation has by now been shown in twelve countries. Sai Baba  or his institutions have not denied its authenticity so far.

Sanal Edamaruku's statements in The Asian Age, followed by reports in several other newspapers and the evening TV news during the next days, sent out shock waves. Alarmed by the Prime Minister's Office, police appeared in the head quarters of Indian Rationalist Association to politely inquire about further action plans. Did we prepare a  demonstration at the Sai International Center? Did we plan to embarrass the the Prime Minister or the Baba during the inauguration? Or did we already sent our 'troops' to the air port to ridicule Sai Baba upon arrival? We told them that we did not intend to do either, but to be on the safer side, security arrangements were stepped up massively. Police was there in all its strength during the few public appearances of the godman. For all greeting ceremonies and "darshans", the public was moreover strictly limited to hand picked VIP devotees with invitations, amongst them besides the Prime Minister (who did not abstain), India's Vice-President, the former President, several cabinet ministers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the speaker of the parliament. If there was a crowd, it consisted of volunteers of Sai Baba's organization: eight thousand volunteers were brought to Delhi and camped for several days in the premises of a big school complex. They were entrusted to look after the security and other arrangements for the functions.

But not only the general public was barred from his meetings. Especially    the media were kept at safe distance from the Baba. Most of the few press photos which appeared had to be taken with tele-objectives. The godman made it a point that during the "darshans" all press personnel had to leave the premises. Sai Baba has become very careful. So, this time there was not a single picture, neither in the print media nor in television, that showed Sai Baba in action performing "miracles". Not even his trade mark miracle -producing holy ash- was seen. There was  not a crumb of holy ash altogether. Sai Baba's media appearance was limited to comparatively short reports, most of them in the inner pages and marred by mentionings of the rationalists' criticism. Some TV  channels did not cover the event at all.

But holy ash was produced abundantly the next day. The Star Plus TV science show "Eureka!" had invited Sanal Edamaruku as special guest to show and speak about so-called miracles and he explained all of Sai Baba's trade secrets including the producing of holy materials from the mouth of a volunteer. Since he was not a godman, but a sportsman, he explained to the amused audience in the studio, no holy statues would come from his mouth, but table tennis balls.