April 28, 2011

10 Things we can Learn from the Bizarre Case of Sai Baba (A Manifesto On Reality-Based Spiritual Empowerment!)

Sai Baba, the man heralded as “god on earth” by millions of followers died at 84 years old this week. Unlike many conventional  spiritual teachers, the guru taught no spiritual practices and preached a very simple message of universal love and the unity of all religions in God. He was most famous for his supposed ability to manifest holy ash or “vibuti” as well as watches, rings and necklaces out of thin air as gifts for devotees. He was most infamous for the many claims of sexual molestation of young boys who later wrote books, were interviewed for documentaries and even committed suicide over their trauma. More on all this here.

Sai Baba lived in the extreme opulence one would unfortunately expect given the history of famous charismatic gurus like Maharaji, Osho, Adi Da, Muktananda and others (all of whom he eclipsed) while those around him starved in squalor. To be fair, his organization did a lot of humanitarian work; opening hospitals and schools and providing drinking water to poor regions of India – but his death leaves  an estate worth over $9 Billion.

There are also allegations that a group of young men (presumably abuse survivors) who attempted to assassinate Sai Baba were killed in his inner sanctum and that because of his power and influence, counting even the Indian Prime Minister as a devotee, this case (as with the accusations of pedophilia) was never fully investigated.

For me this all strikes a chord in terms of my passion for integrating psychological and rational awareness with spirituality. Having read and responded to the various pieces posted on Elephant Journal about his death – I thought to offer my list of 10 Things We Can Learn From The Bizarre Case of Sai Baba.

Here they are:

1)    We are suckers for a good magic trick.

Come on, you remember! We are about 5 years old at a birthday party. A hired magician pulls rabbits out of hats, makes pieces of fruit magically appear under coconut shells and removes a beautiful shiny necklace from within the ear of the birthday girl, before presenting it to her as a gift!

Cognitive  psychology tells us that before we develop rational cause-and-effect thinking we are very prone to filling in the gaps with magical causality. It’s why you can get a child younger than about 7 to believe anything from Santa Claus to the Easter Bunny to being a parent who can see through walls, to magicians performing impossible tricks.

At this age we are often inculcated with literal religious beliefs as well. Even as we get older and start to (hopefully) relinquish Santa and the Tooth Fairy (I mean we all look kinda funny at a teenager who is excited that the Easter Bunny is coming, right?) many of us are still very well trained to maintain a reason-free compartment for belief in Jesus or other magical religious figures.

There is a child in all of us that WANTS to believe,  a child that is enchanted by the possibilities of magic – and when spirituality taps into this vulnerable,  gullible,  innocent  self we have faith again in the impossible, and we believe we have found a special loophole in an otherwise difficult and challenging world.

Sai Baba exploited this innocent, regressive need to the hilt. He was not alone in this – but you have to take your (rabbit-manifesting) hat off to him; he was the best.

2)    Everyone  is looking for the perfect daddy (or mommy.)

More psychology here – when we are very young we believe our parents are perfect. Daddy is the strongest and most kind man in the world, Mommy the most beautiful and intelligent woman in the world, right? This is part of our normal development. Self-Psychology theorist Heinz Kohut says we have natural “idealization needs” – it is part of how we form our sense of self.

When these needs are derailed by trauma, disappointment, harsh reality, they often lie dormant in us, waiting to be satisfied by charismatic lovers, rock stars, actors, teachers, and, yes – enlightenment-claiming gurus. This too can be within reasonable limits, or powerfully imbalanced and obsessive.

We all know what it is like to deeply admire someone and feel a strong emotional attachment to our idealization of them – and perhaps you have seen or experienced how this can also be dramatically out of proportion in some people. Kohut would say these folks have a vulnerability driven by very intense unmet idealization needs.

The other side of this equation is that often people who seek out positions of power and fame in which they will be intensely idealized are acting out of what Kohut calls unmet Narcissistic needs. Here our natural, child-like need to be the center of attention and to be told how wonderful we are has morphed into a grandiose and inflated expectation to be treated like – well, a god.

Combine someone with powerful unmet Narcissistic needs with someone with powerful unmet idealization needs and you not only have a seemingly perfect fit, but a recipe for disaster!

3)    We will fight anyone who criticizes our perfect magic daddy (or mommy.)

Now, remember those childhood  moments when someone challenged your parents perfection? They better not say THAT about yo’ mama, right?! And your Daddy can kick their Daddy’s ass any day of the week…

If as adults we are taken in by the magical claims and projected/idealized  perfection of a guru figure, we become very attached to this fantasy because it is meeting deep needs and soothing painful wounds we suffered at a very early stage of our development. Anyone who does not have this kind of psychological profile will find it hard to understand why someone else could get involved in something that seems so weird.

Once taken in, we cannot be talked out of it rationally and we will fight with passion to protect what has now become a part of our psychological identity. We believe that we have found the true god, real holy man/woman, the answer to all  our longings or fears. We may say “you don’t understand because you haven’t had the mind-blowing, heart-opening experience of the guru’s grace and perfection.”

Maharaji arrives in a Rolls Royce as ecstatic devotees look on.

Of course we may experience strong emotions, powerful altered states, deep reverence, awe, ecstasy – and we take these as “proof” of our interpretation that we are in the presence of something divine. It might just be proof that we are in a shared state of mania and emotional uproar, in the presence of someone who knows how to push those buttons.

We also  become trapped in a cul de sac of spiritual growth because we are not conscious of the needs we are fulfilling, nor are we consciously engaging the wounds/fears they represent because the magical parent fantasy is a kind of drug that keeps us high on our belief. We also now have a community, which serves as a substitute family, in which we really feel a sense of belonging and shared belief/purpose.

Very often this group identity includes a strong injunction against thinking for yourself or speaking out against the power structure – usually based in the notion that the guru knows best, and who are we to argue?

Welcome to the cult.

4)    Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Power is a difficult thing. We are instinctive creatures with a rich social evolutionary history. It is good to be King, because the king gets what he wants. With power, you can satisfy your needs and desires without anyone obstructing you. In cults organized around a charismatic leader who claims supernatural abilities or divine identity, democracy is out the window, accountability (for the guru) is over-looked, and there is a kind of implicit dictatorship, in which the fallible (and usually unstable and a little crazy) human being who has stepped into the role of guru is now held in the position of divine perfection.

This is bad for the community, AND bad for the guru. It creates an environment in which what Carl Jung called “the shadow” is completely ignored and so can flourish like a cancer. It is no accident that in most organizations founded with the best intentions to be spiritual and pure, the power abuse and shadow manifestation of very dark secret behavior is usually rampant. If you are curious, do some research into the organizations around Maharaji, Osho, Adi Da, Muktananda, Chogyam Trungpa, Hare Krishna, Yogi Bhajan… The list is long and the tales sordid and tragic. (I know you may be offended to find out that your favorite guru had a pretty dark shadow and that actually a lot of people were hurt by it – but wouldn’t you rather know the truth?)

Carl Jung

Absolute power centered in one idealized individual  is a recipe for disaster. For examples of how to avoid this – look at Jack Kornfield and others like John Welwood who have researched cult dynamics and created spiritual organizations that have built-in methods for maintaining accountability and ethics.

5)    Denial is not a river in Egypt.

Though the stories of Sai baba molesting young boys are rampant, and many long-term high-up members of the organization confirm it – there is a typically widespread denial. Even when confronted with testimony of grown men and their families who have suffered the trauma and devastation of these violations, many followers and even uninvolved,  but spiritually-minded people will use some combination of denial and rationalization  in response.

This usually follows some predictable variations:

Even if he did it, it was probably a way of helping them to become more enlightened, we cannot judge him from our unenlightened consciousness.


How could that be possible, he is a holy man – they must be making it up.


Perhaps he did it, perhaps he was a pedophile, but we must separate the man from the divine spirit he embodied, or we must separate the teacher from the teachings.

All of this, I offer, stems from an unwillingness to face the truth, out of a desire to protect magical fantasies, and ironically perpetuates the dark and seedy underbelly of criminal corruption and soul-destroying trauma.

Something has gone wrong when we do not hold holy men accountable to the same basic standards of behavior we expect from ordinary citizens.

As an aside, in the yoga world, I even have encountered this kind of denial and rationalization in response to the photograph of revered Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois engaged in an outrageously lecherous crotch “adjustment” of two young women in happy baby pose.

6)    Extreme relativism  kills critical thinking and authentic spirituality.

Have you noticed that extreme relativism is the lingua franca, the unacknowledged dogma, the popular religion of our community?

There are (I am told again and again) no facts, no objective truths,  science is out of style, everything is a relative perspective, your thoughts create your reality, who is to say what is healthy or unhealthy, true or false, and what constitutes psychological trauma or abuse, hasn’t quantum physics proven that this is an illusion?

While there are some important and valid truths speckled though this nonsensical worldview – it is mostly overblown,  rationalized nonsense. It makes us unable to look at something like the bizarre and tragic legacy of Sai Baba with reasonable, grounded spiritual honesty.

Here’s the deal people: There is a such a thing as truth. There actually are facts. Whatever your “perspective,” being suddenly (and then repeatedly) made to perform fellatio or lingam worship via oil massage on the man you (however erroneously) believe  is god constitutes a trauma that will fuck with your head (if you’ll excuse the metaphor) for the rest of your life.

Furthermore – there is no such thing as “god on earth,” no-one has ever had real magical powers and there are no “perfect” human beings.

These are not statements of relative truth dependent on perspective, context and cultural conditioning – they are facts, and we deny them at our peril!

7)    Letting go of the fake magic opens us to the magic of reality.

So, here’s the good news: the more we relinquish the magical fantasies of childhood, the more we can be enraptured by, appreciative of, and grounded in the real grown-up magic of the universe, the world around us, our humanity, love, creativity, reason, genuine spiritual practice, science, art and the vulnerability of being mortal creatures who’s life dance across the world stage is fleeting.

The more we heal from our early wounds, and relinquish our unreasonable childhood needs – the more our spirituality can be an expression of growth, health, grounding and integration.

Take the leap, let go of the plastic baubles, real jewels are all around you!

8)    Part of true empowerment is facing our powerlessness.

We are vulnerable to manipulation. We have complex and deep psychological patterns. We do not and will never have power over everything,  nor should this be our goal, nor should we seek out magical figures who we believe have attained this goal through some magical or divine means. Its just not part of being human.

Accepting that we are powerless before tsunamis, earthquakes, certain illnesses, accidents, genetics, economic and political forces, random violence from crazy people and the inevitability of our own demise allows us to humbly and honestly look for ways in which we can reasonably and effectively be more empowered in our lives – AND frees us from giving away our power to manipulative charlatans who promise the impossible.

9)    Behind all of this is our deep-seated fear of death.

If there was one practice that I think could take humanity’s spiritual development to the next level it would simply be this: sit daily with the reality of your certain death.

Try this as a meditation: Consider the fact that you will without doubt one day die. Soften around it, accept it, give love to the part of you that fears it. Even if only for a moment, let go of all consoling metaphysical attempts at believing you might find the immunizing loophole – and simply be present with death.


Flowers die, insects die, you probably have had pets that died. Human beings die too. Why should we be any different, because our brains are more complex? Because we have told ourselves stories about other worlds and disembodied beings?


It’s ok. It’s part of life. It will happen to us all. Believe what you want – but spend a little time sitting with the possibility that all we have is right here, right now, in this one precious body, with this one heart and mind, experiencing this one life with its specific gifts and challenges.


What if there is no escape – and life is still filled with meaning and beauty and possibility anyway?


Spend some time wondering where we would locate the sacred if this was true, how would we treat one another if we carried this awareness with us in the world, what would the implications be for our choices, our emotions, our relationship to life itself?

My sense is that human beings who have spent some time making peace with death are much more grounded, more open to life, and less vulnerable to fantasy-based, destructive or at the very least unskillful and fragmenting spirituality.

10) Contemporary integrated grown-up spirituality can learn from this and move forward.

We really can create a new paradigm. We really can learn from the past and move this spiritual developmental line to a new level /stage. We really can learn from the mistakes and madness of old world religion that still has so much of the planet in its grips, from the failed experiment of the “enlightened guru” trip, from the pseudoscience extreme relativism of the new age zeitgeist that creates a multicultural smorgasbord of the most superficial and superstitious aspects of every tradition and turns it into a narcissistic, materialistic I-am-the-center-of-the-universe mind game.

We can learn from Sai Baba and all the other corrupt gurus, we can learn from the Catholic Church and it’s legacy of pedophile priests and broken, victimized  altar boys. We can learn from the crusades and the inquisition, from sexually repressive, body-hating, dualistic beliefs in every tradition.

We can learn from the understandable pre-scientific confusion of mental illness for prophecy or having a direct line to some supernatural realm. We can learn from the unreasonable projection of the sacred into impossible feats, invisible beings and non-existent realms, and reclaim it instead as being here and now in the world, in ourselves, evidenced by reality, not fantasy.

We can learn about ourselves and our complex layered psyches and the ways in which we even use spirituality to lie to ourselves about what, who and where we are…

And maybe, just maybe, we can stop the madness, sit still, use our powerful capacities for critical thinking and genuine compassion, curiosity and courage, to forge a healthy, grounded, embodied, psychologically aware, practice-based spirituality that is truly healing, nurtures growth and integrates well with what we know about inner and outer reality at this juncture in our marvelous dance across the stage of time and space.

As for Sai Baba – with all the spiritual honesty and compassion in the world I have only one thing to say: good riddance!

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