Was Sai Baba Really a Saint?

Via on Apr 25, 2011

Not sure who Sai Baba is?  You know, the Indian saint, the one who looks like an elder member of the Jackson 5 wearing long, orange robes.  Don’t confuse him with Shirdi Sai Baba- that’s the bald guy with the do-rag that sits with one of his legs crossed.  Sai Baba claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Baba.

This Sai Baba passed away yesterday.  Or as we say in the yoga world, he “left his physical body.”

Today I have been inundated in my Facebook newsfeed by pictures of Sai Baba and people writing things like “Long Live Sai Baba.”  And it’s REALLY bugging me.

Sai Baba was famous for making dust into gold, going around with real jaguars (yes the wild animal) and then having quite a few Jaguars- the British sports car.  A miracle maker.  He had siddhis- “manifesting powers”.  People from all over the world, including his native India itself,  have made pilgrimages to South India by the millions to see him make miracles and be touched by the “juice.”  That being the “look,” the energy transmission, the irrefutable surge of spritiual awakening that can happen in the presence of a great being.

Millions of people have been touched, inspired and moved by Sai Baba’s presence.

Though I lived in an ashram in South India, I never visited Sai Baba. The thing about saints is that you are usually drawn to them. While it sounds a little woo-woo, usually you see a picture and have some resonance with it.  It could be as simple as when you look up yoga teachers’ pictures online when looking for a class and like the look of someone. You are drawn to them. I was never drawn to Sai Baba. (I was drawn to Shirdi Sai Baba- that’s another story)

What I am about to say is really going to piss some people off who ARE drawn to him.

Usually when we are drawn to a saint or teacher, we are willing to overlook any evidence that might contradict our total devotion and dedication to that person. It is part of transference (like the first part of a romantic relationship).  We see all the great qualities, and we minimize anything that does not corroborate with our initial desired image. Or we decide that the gains are so great, we are willing to endure whatever fallout from the shortcomings.

Most of the great male teachers of our age have had some major weakness in the area of power- sex or money.  Sai Baba was no exception.

Sai Baba surrounded himself with young boys as his “assistants”.  He did have genuine siddhis, but he was also using slight-of-hand run-of-the-mill magic tricks some of the time.  There are whole documentaries about both the sexual abuse of those who “worked” for him and private interviews with sadhakas, spiritual aspirants, that turned into abuse, and the magic trick-as-miracles phenomenon.  None of the allegations have been proven.  He refused the offer to perform the manifestations in a scientific environment.

My question is does his fallibility on the human level detract from the inspiration, love and devotion that he has inspired in so many?  He has started schools, opened hospitals and provided thousands with jobs.

Is spiritual growth that is not integrated on other levels- emotional, sexual, spiritual- useful? Are we right to elevate spirituality to a higher plane and treat it as more important than the above mentioned levels?  Even if it blinds us to the realities of what is going on.

With a politician, we might say we don’t care about their personal life, we DO care about how they are fulfilling their duty to our country.  Or we might be willing to separate out the personal life of an entertainer from their work? For instance, I have no idea if Michael Jackson was guilty of allegations of child molestations, but I still love his music.

Is the same true of a spiritual figure? Is Sai Baba’s personal life none of our business?

As humans, we are fascinated by extra-normal activity.  Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Brazil to meet John of God- a man who channels spirits who are doctors and gives psychic surgery.  I have known more than my fair share of people who have done Tony Robbin’s firewalking. (Then again, I am from California.)  Millions of people traveled across the globe to see Sai Baba in the flesh.

We seem to need allegories, but better yet, real-life humans to show us that there is something possible beyond what we thought possible- to crack the limits of our thinking and our perception. I totally get it.  I guess it is not as basic a need as food, water or shelter but it’s pretty close.

That being said, I still don’t want to see Sai Baba’s picture in my newsfeed every hour.  It offends me.

Sometimes it’s a little too easy to overlook pedophilia and false magic, because it’s exotic.  He’s Indian; it’s different, and it’s “spiritual.”

About Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly Johnson is a yogini nomad who recently put the earth boots on for motherhood. After a lengthy love affair with India, she was relieved to fall in love with Brazil, a Brazilian and now lives in Rio de Janeiro with her 5 year old Brazilian daughter. She leads retreats on the most beautiful place on earth- Ilha Grande, an island with 100 beaches and no cars, leads teacher trainings, and tries not to pronounce Sanskrit with a Portuguese accent. Rearranged by childbirth in every way, she travels, teaches and learns about what yoga has to do with womanhood. She just released a CD of mantra Saudades da India. and recently hosted her first online course, Yoga for Back and Neck care.

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19 Responses to “Was Sai Baba Really a Saint?”

  1. Eric says:

    Hi Kim, Thanks for writing the article. I'm sure you know you would get some "negative" feedback. I don't know anything about Sai Baba except what I recently have read in the media. A point that you make in general I think is quite excellent, that we overlook flaws in some people. We all do that from time to time. However, I do not think that a person with sexual perversion in their life can be a way to the divine. I think one can have mastered the powers of the physical realm and do magic, miracles, etc… but if one if abusing others sexually, taking advantage of their allegiance, I think they have abused their gifts and wasted what could have been truly beautiful.

  2. Tracy says:

    Hi Kim. Thanks for being so BRAVE to air your thoughts.I personally can't get past the fact that there were sexual allegations against Sai Baba. The fact he got away with it hiding behind his spiritual achievements is shocking, but what is new? I am glad he has passed over and now there can be no way of him further harming any other souls.

  3. Jamie says:

    Another charlatan in the guise of religion. http://www.rickross.com/groups/saibaba.html

  4. From Facebook:

    Elizabeth Pickett Thank you.
    9 hours ago · Like

    Madhu Reddy No fan of the baba myself but I must say the article seems to have been written in a hurry with the words like "bald guy in a rag". Seriously! No excuses for the allegations but to give a perspective the writer should give people more information on him and the work that his charitable organization does. Would help people put all the information together. Once again not offended at all for I could care less myself but from a writing style and information the piece lacks.
    9 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Jim Lemons maybe he was a human who wanted others to reach for god! No matter what one believes he did inspire people to look to god and that should be the important thing not his human frailties or mistakes. why do Americans love to shame those who achieve some form of greatness?
    9 hours ago · Like · 2 people

    Mila Jakob Stetser ‎(reposted from EJ's comments) How we react to the behavior of Sai Baba (or Chogyam Trungpa, or Marc Gafni) or any other spiritual teacher depends on whether our definition of teacher necessitates that person to be greater than ourselves, more than human. But a teacher doesn't have to be 'better than us' – we can watch a friend losing his life and sanity to addiction and learn from them valuable lessons about how we want to live our lives. So I think we need to see a teacher as someone who shares what they've learned, but not as greater than us or superhuman – We should indeed treat their transgressions as very human, and if we need to re-evaluate the efficacy of their teachings for ourselves as a result of their actions, we should do that. Perhaps they teach us exactly where not to go, and we can be thankful for the teaching without being thankful for the teacher.

    I wrote about this a few years back when I was CTO at Zaadz (we had loose connections to Integral Institute, which had connections to Marc Gafni back then), if anyone's interested: http://joyfultohear.com/play/entries/doc/about-sp
    9 hours ago · Like · 3 people

    Valerie Soraci I can't read the article right now, but thanks for the title chuckle.
    9 hours ago · Like

    Yiwen Chang Jim, you made a generalization of what Americans love to do. The author has her perspective and the right for discernment. We have been taught "Be careful of wolves in sheep clothing!"
    9 hours ago · Like · 2 people

    Betta Ledbetter Once you've been bamboozled really good! You can SEE better what IS and what IS NOT! I had to learn the hard way!
    9 hours ago · Like

    Nadarajah S Ponniah The Buddha knew of the power that could be developed by training the human mind. He also knew that His disciples could acquire such powers through mental development. Thus the Buddha advised them not to exercise such psychic power in order to convert less intelligent people. He was referring to the 'miraculous' power to walk on water, to exorcise spirits, raise the dead and perform the so-called supernormal practices. He was also referring to the 'miracles of prophesy' such as thought-reading, soothe-saying, fortune-telling, and so on. When the uneducated believers see the performance of such powers, their faith deepens. But the nominal converts who are attracted to a religion because of these powers embrace a faith, not because they realize the truth, but because they harbor hallucinations. Besides, some people may pass remarks that these miracles are due to certain charms. In drawing people to listen to the Dhamma, the Buddha appealed to their reasoning power.

    So destiny to realise the truth depends on individual spiritual growth along with interdependance on the person's karma ……
    8 hours ago · Like · 2 people

  5. From Facebook:

    Alicia Lubowski-Jahn It's not about expecting him to be more than human, but I think we should have higher expectations for being human.
    8 hours ago · Like · 3 people

    Danielle Marsden They should be a fine example of humanity because they are supposed to be teaching us to be better people too. There's no point otherwise.At least if they are going to be transgressive let it not be sordid,but wild and impressive.not playing about with oil and little boys' willies for goodness sakes!
    8 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Nadarajah S Ponniah In certain religions, a man's miraculous performance can help him to become a saint. But in Buddhism, miracles can be a hindrance for a person to attain sainthood, which is a gradual personal attainment and individual concern. Each person himself must work for his sainthood through self-purification and no one else can make another person a saint.

    So people must decide which appeals to them …. this things are not dependant on the absolute truth. Wisdom is needed in this case.

    It is nothing to confirm who is right here ? Life is a challenge for those seeking the truth and you decide all the way ….
    8 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Betta Ledbetter Personally I never have met this person.Thanks for sharing though. I just read an article on "Rajneesh" and "Osho". The lesson here for me is to listen to the true teacher that is found "Within."
    8 hours ago · Like · 1 person

    Laura Fuller We probably can't know what's true. But I do know that the higher one tries to rise, the more allegations and those who try to pull them down. I actually don't know much about him, but am so interested in the outpouring of criticism after his death. Were these people who are writing such things now actively working during his life to stop him from hurting people if they truly believed he was?
    6 hours ago · Like

    Dharmacharya Gurudas Sunyatananda I have to agree with the Kimberly. I too am deeply drawn to Shirdi Sai Baba, but Sattya Sai Baba? Meh. Not so much.
    6 hours ago · Like

    Devyani Sadalkar That's you call a "dhongi" baba… Fake baba!
    3 hours ago · Like

    Lachicavegana Comefrutas Um, yes, it's fine to call out an adult on sexual abuse. Let's not condone what the Catholic Church has done. Ane let's not condone this either, simply because it's "Indian" or "Spiritual" or because it didn't eve up on 60 minutes.
    2 hours ago · Like

  6. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. Nancy Leigh-Smith says:

    I appreciate your addressing this issue, and you will undoubtedly receive lots of "heat" mail from his followers. The problem with being a follower of a purported saint is that questioning ANY action is not allowed. There are no checks and balances, and the status of saint, guru, priest or even baseball coach sets up a power relationship in which the disciple, acolyte or student unquestioningly follows the instructions of the leader. The abuse of that power ripples across every religion in the world. I lived in an ashram community for ten years, and all of the wonderful experiences I had there were not worth the price of lying, cover up and denial of actions I knew to be true. Read the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursual Le Guin for an eloquent, heartbreaking take on how Utopia morphs into Dystopia.

    When human beings are elevated to a state beyond being human, the trouble begins. They may initiate the elevation, but those of us who follow have our own reasons for wanting to maintain the illusion. My advice, from a book of Persian wisdom: "Trust in God, but tether your camels."

  8. [...] a recent article, Kimberly Johnson called into question the sainthood of Satya Sai Baba, who, having lately passed [...]

  9. Be sure to read Scott Robinson's very different perspective on Sai Baba. Not a rebuttal exactly, but, well, see for yourself:

    What Does “Really a Saint” Mean, Anyway?

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  10. yogijulian says:

    sai baba lived a life of almost absolute evil.

    here's why:

    1) his entire existence was a cynical lie.

    2) to whit: he pretended to have paranormal powers daily and was pleased to have millions of people take this as true.

    3) he used his cheesy magic tricks as a manipulation to convince people that he was literally LITERALLY god on earth.

    4) he then manipulated these first two lies to feed his perverse appetite for sexually molesting young boys under the pretense of providing them with an opportunity for spiritual enlightenment through an audience with god. thus betraying their families, ruining their lives and enacting an extremely damaging, soul destroying, psychologically devastating crime.

    5) he had people killed in his inner sanctum and used his influence to have it swept under the rug by the government and police.

    6) he amassed a fortune of over $9 B from the same people he was cynically betraying with his magic tricks and pedophilia and lived a life of absolute wealth and opulence while all around him people starved.

    his life was a complete parody and insult to any kind of spiritual path – exploitive darkness and ironic abuse of power taken to its extreme, all WHILE being revered by millions as the god-man come as a savior to all of humanity…

    now sure – he never stood trial for the pedophilia, and the murders were never investigated…..

    but even if you remove those (though i find the pedophilia reports of scores of adult men all of whom were devotees as young boys who have gone through substantial pain to tell their stories, some who have written books and been interviewed for documentaries) just take the first two points: he faked magic tricks knowingly to fool gullible, needy, desperate people into believing he was literally god on earth. in and of itself this is already complete charlatanism – and he lived decades in this charade.

    until we call this kind of stuff by its true name and make sense of it in psychological and spiritual terms we perpetuate it with obfuscation and denial.

    thanks for speaking up kimberly!

  11. yogijulian says:

    some additional points:

    no-one has ever had magical powers, ever, anywhere.

    no-one has ever heard the voice of god and not been experiencing some form of brain pathology. ever, anywhere.

    no-one has ever literally been god on earth because there is no such fucking thing! :)

    and living a meaningful, mindful, inspired, spiritually engaged human life has never required any of that malarky – so let's call it what it is and move on!

  12. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  13. yogijulian says:

    for anyone interested, i have posted my own article about the death of sai baba here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/04/10-things-

  14. HI Mila,

    I like your yoga teacher's perspective- simply that she has been practicing longer. I remember the first time I saw one of my teachers drink a beer. I was shocked.

    "even people with heightened ability to perceive have blind spots, because they have emotions, they have physical limitations, they have a human form." I think treating a teacher as a human is a wise idea, but seems that very soon we get caught up in idealizing and it is easy to forget. Thanks for the reminder. I also like your conclusion that it is up to us to decide when the trust is broken and when to evaluate the relationship.

    I wholeheartedly agree that we eventually need to parse out the teachings from the teacher. In every relationship with a teacher that I have had, and there have been quite a few, the teaching has been equally about my unraveling the dynamics of the actual relationship and sifting out the gems of the teachings. There are occasions when we demand more than we would of a human and there are times when we overlook a lot not holding the teacher to the same standards we would hold someone else to.

  15. yogijulian says:

    this is a classic missing of the point!

    sai baba was not a 'teacher" he taught nothing, no real philosophy, no actual practices…

    sai baba claimed to literally be god on earth and proved it with fake magic tricks, and (in all likelihood) in addition to amassing a fortune of $9 B and living like royalty while those around him starved, he molested innocent young boys who's families willingly turned them over for an "audience with god." when a group of these young men tried to assassinate their molester, they were killed in his inner sanctum and their murders covered up by god-fearing police and government officials.

    this is a tale that tells of the extreme dangers of superstition, psychological need, power manipulation, delusional beliefs and the cynical sociopathic abilities of some human beings to wreak absolute havoc in the name of spirituality.

    wake up!

    don't put an emotionally disconnected, relativist, dreamy sheen on something appalling. it matters that we get this right so as to protect and cultivate an integrated spiritual possibility moving forward that has learned from this powerful example of spiritual pathology!

  16. Hi meandyou,

    It's sad that one life experience that I have had disqualifies me in your eyes to have an opinion on anything related to the subject. Have you ever considered that the experience may have actually sharpened my discernment?

    I am not trying to be an ultimate authority on deciding if Sai Baba was a saint or not. (The answer is probably relative- to some he was and to others, he wasn't.)

    I am interested in the phenomenon of why we are willing to overlook the human flaws of the people we revere.

  17. Dear Prajna,

    I love Shirdi Baba (I lived in Sakuri- 5 ks from there at Upasani Baba's ashram)
    and I am sorry that my description was disrespectful.

    My intent was to be irreverent more than disrespectful, if there is a difference.
    I wanted to decontextualize their images. Remember, not everyone knows who either
    of them are. Those descriptions are usually how I describe them when I am talking to
    someone.

    I am aware of the "Rationalist" party and there attempt to defame gurus. But I am glad you
    brought it up here, so that people can piece together the whole situation for themselves.

    Thanks for writing, Kimberly

  18. meandyou says:

    He started his mission at 14 years of age with no formal education and i know heart surgeons and other doctors that will tell you in the operating room when losing a patient with no recourse they have closed their eyes and prayed to Sai Baba and the bleeding that they could not stop magical stopped on its own and many such stories. He has also been known to advise doctors using full medical terminology with no medical training. The architect that designed the hospital is from UK he is an expert on building temples and was not a devotee, by the end of the building of it he was. NOBODY said it could be done in one year. It was done in one year. There is a documentary on it. A woman in USA wanted him to prove he was who he says he is, before her group trip to India she made up a word (rumpansinkle or something like that) and said if you are who you say you are say this word if I get to see you. Their group did get called for private interview (among 5,000 in the crowd) and at one point he turned to her smiled and said that word. I know her I asked her, really??? A few times. She swore it was true. Woman in Bosnia poor war torn country made a trip and lost two sons in the war with the serbs, she was mad with grief no will to live, she too was called with her group for interview. She was my roomate in the dorms, she told me stories when we were in bed with the lights out and I would just cry and cry (my cushy life in USA) and she said he knew every detail of her life, and he put his hand on her head and there are no words to describe the love she felt and it was the only thing that prevented her from losing her mind. She is from Europe. It cheapens it for me to go on. These kind of stores fill thousands of books and cover the globe. AND my own life. This individual healing and transformation is why people go to see Sai Baba , but then think about the layers of work, that is personal aspect, then the institutions that give free medical care and free eduction to the poor and bring drinking water to millions. That too is vast. Floods in the north devistated a town and the rich industrialists in that state could have stepped forward to help but never do. Sai Baba's Trust built about 400 houses and gave keys to the families for free.
    This is ongoing ongoing ongoing. Scope is so vast. on the material level, healing on the spiritual level. Nobody has done what he has done.There are people from every country, every religion rich and poor that sit at any given time there. Countries and religions that hate each other in the world, sit here together and do kirtan. Many, devotees or not should be offended by the irreverence of this post for people like Shirdi and Sai whom have the right to be given respect until proven otherwise.

    If you have a moment, this is a bit long but if you truly want a glimpse as to why
    people overlook the allegations, this is an excellent example. He is a PHD student in Spain:
    http://vimeo.com/6254933?ab

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