The Philanthropist "Godman"
April 25, 2011 9:19 AM   Subscribe

"For the progress of humanity, work alone is not adequate, but the work should be associated with love, compassion, right conduct, truthfulness and sympathy. Without the above qualities, selfless service cannot be performed."
On Sunday morning, Indian guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba passed away. He leaves behind a massive empire, several million mourning devotees worldwide, an extensive religious philosophy, a great deal of controversy and a legacy of large-scale philanthropic projects in India, including free hospitals and mobile medical facilities, a free university and schools, and other efforts which included supplying clean water to hundreds of rural villages.

Some of the articles in this post mention the Indian measurements crore and lakh. Lakh is one hundred thousand. Crore is ten million.

Background / Teachings
* Wikipedia
* Documentary on Vimeo: Who is Sai Baba?
* Thinkexist has over 1100 quotes
* Discourses (speeches and writings):1953-2004 and 2002-2010.
* Official site
* has a high volume of articles and information from his followers

Additional Obits
(Various outlets are reporting his age at 84, 85 or 86.)
* The Times of India has an obit, a timeline of his life and brief biography. There's also a short editorial which gives some insight into his teachings and refusal to "dabble in politics."
* Bloomberg
* The Telegraph (Delves into the various controversies surrounding him, including accusations of pedophilia an abuse, religious indoctrination and the murder of four people in an alleged assassination attempt at his ashram in 1993. This is the same article that was linked above the fold.)
* BBC: In Pictures
* The Guardian
* The Hindu
* FoxNews

* 2004 BBC documentary Secret Swami, which alleged widespread child molestation and a murder cover-up: Article / Transcript / YouTube Video: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 (Playlist here.)
* Skeptic's Dictionary: Sai Baba. (Has a number of links to articles (and a short obit blog post by James Randi) detailing various accusations and controversies. Includes a link to a article from 2003: "Is Sai Baba a pedophile?"
* SaiCritic
* A site by one of his followers which responds to "smear campaigns."
posted by zarq (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

A note for anyone skimming this post: It was hard to compile. I tried to restrict the links to the most unbiased and objective that I could find, but a great deal of information about the man available online is by his followers, many of whom worship him as an incarnation of god. His writings (in the discourses links) are broken into multiple pdfs and written in stilted English, which makes reading them challenging. But there's a great deal of detail to his life's story that I didn't include here. I hope that folks will at least read the Wikipedia entry on him if nothing else.
posted by zarq at 9:29 AM on April 25, 2011

I did a water harvesting project not far from Puttaparthi where his compound is. I am thankful that my hosts did not insist I go and visit him, particularly considering the multitude of allegations of sexual assault against him. I am happy, however, that they took me to Thimmamma Marrimanu, the world's largest Banyan tree.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 9:35 AM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Remember, it's perfectly okay to think that he did great works and was a charlatan.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:35 AM on April 25, 2011 [15 favorites]

Fantastic post, zarq.
posted by cashman at 9:35 AM on April 25, 2011

But pest in peace, Sai Baba.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 9:36 AM on April 25, 2011

"I have come armed with the fullness of the power of formless God to correct mankind, raise human consciousness and put people back on the right path of truth, righteousness, peace and love to divinity."

well then. mission accomplished, eh?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:37 AM on April 25, 2011

I didn't see it in the links, but if you have any interest in Sai Baba, the seeker culture of the Flower Power age, Indian religions generally, or simply enjoy good writing and brilliant reporting, I can't recommend more highly Paul William Roberts' Empire of the Soul. Hard to find, but worth the hunt.

Roberts was a Sai Baba devotee in the early '70s, lived at his ashram, daily darshan and all that. Left, spent 20 years living a journalist's life in Canada. Returned to India more or less to disprove scientifically the sense his youthful self had that Sai Baba was in fact divine. Has a maddeningly difficult time doing so. Examines his crisis of faith in many illuminating ways. The book shifts back and forth from his first experience in India as a young seeker to his early '90s subcontinental debunking tour. Just a fantastic read.
posted by gompa at 9:46 AM on April 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Remember, it's perfectly okay to think that he did great works and was a charlatan.

Are his works still great if he was simultaneously a child molester as well as a charlatan.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:49 AM on April 25, 2011

gompa: " I can't recommend more highly Paul William Roberts' Empire of the Soul. Hard to find, but worth the hunt."

I found that book on scribd while I was looking up links for the post! Since it's no longer in print, I don't mind sharing the link here: Empire of the Soul at scribd.
posted by zarq at 9:51 AM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are his works still great if he was simultaneously a child molester as well as a charlatan.

Yes. People can be complex and achieve good things even if they have dark sides.

Not defending people who have sex with children as being good people. But you don't have to be a good person in order to do good things.
posted by hippybear at 9:52 AM on April 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

In the same sense, Pablo Escobar was loved in his local town and did lots of public works projects etc.
posted by k5.user at 9:54 AM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

> Remember, it's perfectly okay to think that he did great works and was a charlatan.

Yeah, in all seriousness, that's no contradiction.

Great Works can be the public excuse or the enabler of private corruption; private corruption can be the incentive for Great Works.

As for charlatanry, manipulation, and deceit, on the one hand, and selective attention, cognitive bias, and convenient ignorance, on the other-- I suspect that these, no less than wrenches and ramps, are the tools that in practice build dams and schools and highways.

This fact is not in itself a good thing; it's just like the weather. It's just how people are, and how the world works.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:16 AM on April 25, 2011

Thanks, cashman.
posted by zarq at 10:27 AM on April 25, 2011

The part about the sexual abuse starts here. Throwing money at some people (money swindled through magic tricks) doesn't give you the right to ruin the lives of others.

Good riddance.
posted by lemuring at 10:52 AM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Throwing money at some people (money swindled through magic tricks) doesn't give you the right to ruin the lives of others.

That's a false equivalency.

Nobody here is saying that the good things he did excuses the bad things he did. Nobody here said that at all.
posted by hippybear at 11:11 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: " Are his works still great if he was simultaneously a child molester as well as a charlatan."

Yes, I think so. I do think it's possible to separate the artist from their art, so to speak. To appreciate positive acts for what they are while agreeing that they don't absolve or justify any sins committed by the person who did them.

Free healthcare, including free surgeries and treatment for thousands of people who could not otherwise afford it, is a good thing. Providing potable water for hundreds of villages is too. There's nothing wrong with saying so.
posted by zarq at 11:15 AM on April 25, 2011

"Nobody here is saying that the good things he did excuses the bad things he did. Nobody here said that at all."

I'm saying that the he shouldn't be remembered as having done good things if his intention was to force people to suck his penis and glorify himself.

I think one can more appropriately call him one of most successful and business-savvy rapists in recent history.
posted by lemuring at 11:21 AM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sure thing, I'd agree with that. But was that his intention?
posted by hippybear at 11:34 AM on April 25, 2011

I used to work with some older Babanians - she was a clerk in our area, and he was a clerk downstairs. They were nice Indian folks, and generous to a fault. Inevitably though, any conversation would turn to Sai Baba and his miracles, and that would be the end of that. I hold them up as examples of Devotees who were as much lessened as Sai Baba was embiggened. But the samosas were delicious!
posted by sneebler at 11:47 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sure thing, I'd agree with that. But was that his intention?

If the US government warns against your molesting activities, then you must be quite prolific in the world of sexual molestation.

It is said that a person is often known by the activity which they partake in most; a baker bakes, a gardener gardens, and a Sai Baba is a molester. matter how many $200 water pumps he builds with other people's money.
posted by lemuring at 11:54 AM on April 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

My problem is the math.

How many young boys have to suck God's cock per how many water pumps.

If that 14 yr old's blowjob is worth 20 water pumps, how about 19? 18?

How about 40? How about each disinclined minor sucking off God gets 100 founts of clean, life bringing water to poor, thirsty people.

How about only one kid, but he has to take it all, and it's clean water all 'round for as far as the trucks can carry the new pumps.

My problem is the math. I can't seem to make it work out.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:06 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess my question about knowing the intention in someone else's mind is a bit too subtle here, so I shall bow out of this thread and let everyone else have the moral outrage hate-on they're wanting to have about this dead man.
posted by hippybear at 12:09 PM on April 25, 2011

huh, i was just reading about him last nite...

out of curiosity i spent the weekend reading/watching(¡) stuff mostly by krishnamurti and osho (1,2,3; via negativa) -- does that qualify me as a 'seeker'? -- and the whole guru/cult thing; what's fascinating (to me! thx vw ;) is the interaction between 'alternative' vs. 'mainstream' lifestyles: the age of the connected self our guru can be none other than a collective, a community - as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, "The next Buddha will be a sangha." By a community, I don't mean an amorphous "we are all one" mass devoid of structure, but rather a matrix of human beings united in a common story of the people and story of the self. Aligned with these defining stories, this community can hold us in the vision of what we are becoming...
in other words, the clash/competition between narrative consciousness(es) and worldbuilding-view(s), that is, "To what extent should you live for yourself and how much should you live for others?"
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do understand what you're saying hippybear, and it's my fault because I used the word "intention". I'm sorry. You can't know a person's intention, unless they disclose it in very specific ways. In this case:

If his intention was to engage in philanthropy in order to engage his cock forcefully in the mouths of young men, then his philanthropy would be negatively affected if young men sucked his dick and let him play with their balls regardless of whether he created a charitable foundation or not.

That is a true test of intention. It is, of course, impossible to test now.
posted by lemuring at 12:20 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: " My problem is the math. I can't seem to make it work out."

Should I bother to repeat myself that one doesn't justify, absolve or forgive the other?
posted by zarq at 12:21 PM on April 25, 2011

Anytime a soul/human being goes looking for truth anywhere but within ~ there's gonna be issues.

And hippybear, that's a valid question about intent. I'd answer based on what I've seen and read, that Sai Baba ultimately is a lesson in ones intent coming from ego or false self. For others, there were undoubtedly different perceptions of it. That's mine.

He was a teacher, just depends on what lessons you are ready and open to take from him and his life.
posted by cdalight at 12:32 PM on April 25, 2011

zarq, I think it has to do with the perennial question:
If a corrupt demagogue heading east builds a hundred water pumps in Chicago, but sexually molests 50 boys in Philadelphia, is it still right to call him a philanthropist?
posted by lemuring at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Should I bother to repeat myself that one doesn't justify, absolve or forgive the other?


But maybe if one uses one's spiritual authority and office to coerce sex out of one's minor followers, maybe that's far enough over the line that he doesn't actually deserve a eulogy. Maybe one does not get the courtesy of don't speak ill of the dead after they treated the living so shabbily.

Maybe the good works should be allowed to continue without his name attached. Maybe he doesn't get to bask posthumously in the glow of the good works because of how bad his transgressions were.

Because his personality and office as spiritual leader was the direct reason so many people sent money to him to purchase all those good works. And it was that same authority and office he so wretchedly abused. As long as the message is "Sai Baba made these good works happen", it feels like an explicit attempt to sweep all that ugliness under the rug.

So no. Sai Baba is forever tarred, his name is forever tainted, and any time his name gets brought up so will the sexual abuse of his minor followers.

For some sins you don't get rehabilitated just because you die. Same reason I was pissed off Nixon went from "icon of political criminality" to "elder statesman" with the speed of a single heartbeat.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:41 PM on April 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

"sai baba, serial rapist, made these good works happen"

yeah I guess that doesn't really fit on the plaque
posted by LogicalDash at 1:02 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Did Nixon ever really go from "icon of political criminality" to "elder statesman"? I hear people using his name both ways with some regularity. We still have the suffix -gate used to describe a scandal.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:05 PM on April 25, 2011

Nixon was afraid to ask for a State Funeral as an ex President of the US, because he assumed he'd be refused. As it was, his funeral was littered with dignitaries and solemnity and speculation that had they requested it a State Funeral probably could have been had.

It was all hushed tones and dark suits and We're burying a former President here. A flawed man.... PRESIDENT, did we mention that part.

I heard one speaker from a Native American delegation come to pay their respects, and to them Nixon was a stand-up guy who did right by their people. Not gonna argue the man's opinion.

But I remember how much of a Don't speak ill of the dead vibe there was, even after what the deceased had done to harm the office he was elected to and the fundamental trust Americans had in their leaders.

Nasty, hateful, and criminal the man was, but couldn't talk about the gaping scar his Presidency left on the American political landscape. Because he was now dead.

Fuck that. As you sow, so shall you reap.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:21 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pirate, I'm absolutely not saying that we should not speak ill of the dead.

Awhile back I posted an FPP about Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain. At the time, I thought that Petain's name should have been removed and the honor of having a street named after him revoked. But over time I've come to a different conclusion -- that we shouldn't wipe out history in an effort to sanitize it.

There were two questions that were raised in that thread which were never fully discussed:
1) Was Petain really a collaborator, or did he quietly fund the resistance? Does that matter?
2) Should schools be named after slaveowners?

In Petain's case, unless additional information is revealed, we know he was a Vichy collaborator and any speculation that he was helping the resistance will have to remain so.

We know for a fact that Thomas Jefferson and some other folks who have schools named after them all owned slaves. What should we do there? Are we not capable of dividing the fact that throughout his life, he maintained a completely heinous practice (and that his culture said it was acceptable) from everything else he accomplished?

On the other hand, this situation is different and I'm not really sure that the whole "erasing history is wrong" argument applies. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence regarding allegations of abuse by Sai Baba, but as far as I have seen, no police reports, and no confirmed evidence. The US State Department travel advisory said that the reports were unconfirmed. You said, 'I can't make the math work out.' Neither can I. Not without a shadow of a doubt. And I'm reluctant to say the guy was a "prolific" pedophile without evidence. But what makes this more awful in my mind is the knowledge that these are allegations of sexual abuse, whose victims tend to be reluctant to come forward. Especially when the victims are young men. Plus the guru was a man of what appears to be nigh limitless power, with a huge, aggressive following. Someone who would probably be difficult to oppose through legal means in this country, and in a country like India where corruption is rampant it seems unlikely to me that a police report would ever even get filed.

That's one of the reasons I gave so much time in this FPP to coverage of the allegations. It's why I placed a link to the telegraph article above the more inside, and linked to multiple sites that cover and discuss the allegations. Because even without direct evidence the situation is really really problematic and terrible.

I don't know for certain if the guy is guilty of what he's been accused of. And even if I did, I still wouldn't believe any hospital that supplies free healthcare to everyone who walks through its doors were a bad thing just because it was established by a child molester. And yes, I think I should be able to say that hospital does fantastic work without having to also equivocate.
posted by zarq at 1:45 PM on April 25, 2011

Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey: " But I remember how much of a Don't speak ill of the dead vibe there was, even after what the deceased had done to harm the office he was elected to and the fundamental trust Americans had in their leaders."

I could be wrong, but at the time I thought that was mostly coming from people like Ben Stein, Tom Wolfe and Bill Safire, who seemed oh-so-desperate to re-write history in favor of their fallen icon, no? A history where Stein declared that opposing Nixon (a proven antisemite!) was Just! Like! supporting the Nazis, and where Safire and Wolfe kept insisting Nixon was a transformative figure in American politics (for the better, naturally) and a shrewd statesman.

Watching their contortions would have been amusing if it wasn't so damned rage-inducing.
posted by zarq at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2011

Jefferson is an interesting one. At best what can be said is that the standards and conventions of his time and place were in flux and the subject of owning humans as property was a contentious one, so contentious that disagreeing over it would lead to civil war 100 years later. While he freed his slaves upon his death, he did in fact wait until he died to do it. That, and the Declaration et al.

But I'm thinking using one's spiritual authority to get laid was and is generally frowned upon activity for gurus of Sai Baba's stature and message. There was, I think, broad agreement on that during Sai Baba's lifetime.

Jefferson partook in a cultural and economic practice that is considered the original, still present stain on America's nation soul. But it's not like he was hiding slaves in the basement while proclaiming his support of abolition.

Sai Baba denied allegations of sexual misconduct all his life. I must say, given the history of sexual misconduct by spiritual leaders from across the religious spectrum, I don't believe him or his supporters and I absolutely believe his accusers. I think his case would be the unusual one if it turned out he wasn't playing the "God" card to get head.

Jefferson's slavery is over with, the people who practiced it are generations away, long buried.

The high-level people in the organization who enabled God to get blown by his followers, I'm guessing a bunch of them are still there. Probably got promoted.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:32 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Huh, I didn't expect this to show up on here. When I was in high school, my family took me to Puttaparthi to visit his ashram. We stayed at the portion of the campus reserved for NRIs ("non-resident Indian" citizens) and participated in a few darshans, which consists of waiting around for a couple hours until Baba makes a public appearance and then everyone sings bajans (devotional songs). It was almost like visiting a large Hindu temple except when someone mentioned Baba, they'd start talking about his ability to conjure talismans/produce vibhuti or pieces of wisdom they received during his lectures, and that was the cue to start nodding politely. I went there twice— once with family and once by myself— and I still have a Baba pamphlet that my mom gave me.

We never discussed the allegations against him. I'm inclined to believe he's guilty of them, but I don't have the heart to bring up the scandal with my grandmother or that part of my family.
posted by yaymukund at 2:57 PM on April 25, 2011

Er actually.. that should say "I went both times with family," if anyone's keeping score.
posted by yaymukund at 3:08 PM on April 25, 2011

There is an extended section of a Louis Theroux's Wild Weekends episode that involves him and his followers. Look for the "Enlightenment" episode.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:01 PM on April 25, 2011

I was enjoying speculation read elsewhere that he was deliberately kept going on life support so it could be turned off on Easter Sunday. Theory goes that, coupled with him being buried rather than created as you might expect, here'll be an empty grave miracle and the dirty old nonce will be back in the form of a young lookalike, confirming his supposed divinity.
posted by Abiezer at 5:40 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I do think it's possible to separate the artist from their art, so to speak. To appreciate positive acts for what they are while agreeing that they don't absolve or justify any sins committed by the person who did them.

There are artists in history who were pedophiles or ephebophiles. Some artists were swindlers, criminals or con artists. There have been artists who were murderers. In any of these instances the art produced by such an artist might still be admired and valued as a tangible entity separate from the person who created it.

But the "art" of Sai Baba was supposed to be his spirituality, to be a guide to teach Good as well as good, as an example how NOT to sin, a teacher of values, of truth, harmony, transcendence. As such he was a liar, a betrayer, a remorseless, conniving and continuous sinner and hypocrite, a con artist, a sexual abuser, a pedophile, allegedly a murderer.

He set himself up to be worshiped as a living god while committing his sins in secrecy, then berating those who told or were interested in the truthful reality.

^ "Education in Human Values" (SSEHV)[67] known as "Bal Vikas" (Blossoming of the Child), that can also be described as Sai Sunday School.

Oh yeah, he wanted the children to "blossom" alright. ugh.

He was a despicable rip off artist, decade after decade, swindling people out of their money, pretending to be superhuman. No, in this case the "art" was a total con.

You want to build a hospital or water wells, great. Do that legitimately, candidly, honestly.

There have been philanthropists in history with rotten characters but they usually made their own money before they gave it away. They didn't pretend to be a god and con money out of desperately poor people, people dying, devotees or inflict their perversion on children of their devotees and then have monuments made in their own name. That is grotesquely fraudulent and plain disgusting.

Should there be a hell realm, and for such a charlatan who scammed the uneducated or vulnerable into thinking he was a divinity, may he be well greeted there.
posted by nickyskye at 8:01 PM on April 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

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