Test of Faith


From From India Today Magazine:


By Amarnath K. Menon and Ashok Malik in Puttaparthi

As India's most enduring god-man enters his 75th year, his spirituality rests uneasily with controversy

Of all the qualities his disciples attribute to Sathya Sai Baba, there is one that almost every Indian will recognise as truly divine: punctuality. On Thursday, November 23, to mark his 74th birthday-or, to use official grandiloquence, "the 75th year of the advent of the Sri Sai Avatar" - Sai Baba was to drive in to Puttaparthi's Sri Sathya Sai (SSS) Hill View Stadium at the dot of 7.00 a.m. As usual, he was bang on time.

The galleries of the stadium-which accommodate 30,000 spectators when Sai Baba devotees such as Sunil Gavaskar, Alvin Kalicharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Sachin Tendulkar help organise cricket matches-were almost packed. The turf, a remarkably verdant patch in Andhra Pradesh's otherwise arid Rayalaseema region, seated an estimated 1,00,000 devotees. On the stage - a pink, blue and yellow film set-like construction, with winged angels playing bugles and flanking the symbols of the world's major religions - sat a twitching chief guest, Union Human Resources Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi. Next to him was the silver throne, waiting, like the throng, for the Master.

Joshi had arrived only at 6.30 a.m., the others had begun gathering as early as 4.00 a.m. At 5.15 a.m., a policeman said, the customary white that Sai Baba's disciples wear had more or less effaced the green of the grass. If there were 1,00,000 and more inside, there were an equal number outside. Puttaparthi, a town that usually houses 20,000 people, was today playing host to 2,50,000, its precarious infrastructure fraying at the edges.

All of Puttaparthi as it were seemed to wait in this private colosseum for the Afro-haired Caesar to ride in triumphant. At about a minute before 7.00 a.m. came the caparisoned elephant, then the brass band, troupes of dancing children and, finally, Sai Baba himself, waving gently from his motorised gold and silver chariot.

As balloons with Sai Baba's likeness were released and crackers were burst in a rough and ready rendition of a 21-gun salute, the march past began. China, Saudi Arabia, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, Nauru, Australia, Western Samoa: flagbearers from 165 countries (see box) presented themselves before Sai Baba. Later came the birthday hymn. A multi-ethnic choir sang a trilingual Redeemer of mankind ... yug avatar Sai to the tune of Happy birthday to you.

The valedictory sermon was, of course, Sai Baba's 90-minute Telugu discourse on love and truth and the oneness of God, on "Bad name is debt, reputation is wealth", on "constant integrated awareness"-translated instantly and with evangelical zeal by the long-serving Anil Kumar Kamaraju. The Platinum Preacher finally left in his white Mercedes-a maroon BMW is his other car. The scene shifted to the kitchens of neighbouring Prasanthi Nilayam (Abode of Peace), Sai Baba's sprawling 100-acre ashram. It was time for the feeding of the multitude.