By: Rupert Smith
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The Guardian (UK)/June 18,
It's difficult to write about
religion without offending someone, but mercifully we're
reviewing a television programme here, and not the
mixture of wishful thinking and wilful credulity that
leads people to worship soi-disant gurus such as Swami
Sai Baba. BBC2's This World strand last night gave us
The Secret Swami, an entertaining hour that made a
compelling case against Sai Baba, portraying him as a
charlatan and an abuser.
Young men who claimed to have
been sexually abused by Sai Baba related hair-raising
stories of "private interviews" in which the not-so-holy
man pulled his skirt over his head and invited them to
get down and dirty. Hilariously, one Hindu scholar
reminded us that this is a practice sanctioned by
neither scripture nor tradition. "Worship of the linga
does not include doing the blow-job."
What started out as a routine
denunciation developed into something more sinister.
Sadly, the moment I see a man in a dress surrounded by
grinning worshippers, I'm looking for a catch - and it
didn't take much to prove that Sai Baba's "miracles"
were nothing more than a bit of old-fashioned sleight of
hand. On that basis, we might all end up worshipping
David Blaine, which is a worry. But reporter Tanya Datta
did her job properly, and went far beneath the surface
of magic tricks and gaudy tat. She found that Sai Baba
bought the eternal gratitude of rural Indian villagers
by paying for clean water supplies, and that he caused a
massive hospital to be built, funded by one of his
followers, Isaac Tigrett, who co-founded the Hard Rock
Cafe chain. She discovered also that the Indian
government, rightly mindful of the rural vote, has
turned a blind eye to claims of wrongdoing in the Baba
camp. A government official got very shirty indeed with
Ms Datta, shouting denials before he'd even heard the
allegations. In these cases, "no" usually does mean "yes".
There was little room amid all
the skulduggery for any real examination of Sai Baba's
theology; all we learned was that he is an avatar,
although of whom was not made clear, and that he
conveniently embraces all religions. Without any real
exegesis of his ideas, it was hard to know exactly what
his followers believed in - it surely can't just have
been Baba's ability to produce fake Rolexes out of thin
air, or cough up eggs.
But even former disciples
couldn't shed much light on what turned them into such
true believers. A nice family from Arkansas were so
crazy about Sai Baba that they encouraged their teenage
son to spend as much time with the guru as possible.
Despite allegations of abuse at the hands of Sai Baba,
the son came out with the astonishing comment, "we are
all tools, and we all have to be around for Swami to use
- if he needs a screwdriver".
An hour wasn't enough to do the
subject justice, and for once I was left wanting more.
This isn't something I'd say lightly about television
documentaries, which usually need to be edited by 50%.
The mystery of Sai Baba, of his apparent protection by
the authorities, of his canny manipulation of the rural
poor and his inexplicable appeal to rich westerners,
only deepened. Astonishingly, Sai Baba has not yet had
the collar of his robe fingered by the long arm of the