What Does “Really a Saint” Mean, Anyway?

Via Scott Robinson
on Apr 26, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

In a recent article, Kimberly Johnson called into question the sainthood of Satya Sai Baba, who, having lately passed away (or as we say at my church, “died,”) was the subject of numerous tributes in her Facebook newsfeed.

These tributes, she said, were really bugging her.

Personally, I have no opinion about Sai Baba. Yes, I too have seen the YouTube videos accusing him of pedophilia and legerdemain, and if true, those accusations are certainly disturbing. But as they remain unproven, I will leave them out of the reckoning. I am, at any rate, put off by any man or woman of God who rides around in luxury sports cars. But it isn’t really Ms. Johnson’s opinion of Sai Baba per se that interests me, but rather the underlying assumption of her article—that sainthood is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Ms. Johnson explains that she was not “drawn” to Sai Baba, that she didn’t “like the look” of him. And I agree with her that that sounds a little woo-woo—more than a little, in fact.  Not a few spiritual masters have been noted for an unprepossessing exterior.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.[i]

Ms. Johnson taxes Sai Baba with refusing to “perform” his siddhis, or “manifesting powers,” in a “scientific environment,” but frankly, if I’d been him, I wouldn’t have either. “I’m not your monkey,” I might have said. And even Jesus “could do no miracle” in His hometown of Nazareth “because of their lack of faith.”[ii] Miracles are not for convincing the faithless, but for edifying the faithful.

Obviously, pedophilia is not to be tolerated, but supposing Sai Baba had some other, less heinous “weakness in the area of power-sex or money,” how are we to know whether his is a case of self-serving hypocrisy, or merely of the spirit being willing, and the flesh weak? We cannot know another person’s heart.

Of course, there are indeed false prophets in the world, and there have been for a very long time.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them…A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.[iii]

The case of Sai Baba—who “has started schools, opened hospitals and provided thousands with jobs”–is tricky in this respect. When a person’s work has borne as much good fruit in the world as Sai Baba’s is said to have done, deciding which kind of tree he is seems to have less to do with private shortcomings and more with public beneficence. Plenty of religious charlatans have come and gone without leaving hospitals on multiple continents. And whether his good works were truly done in a spirit of nishkama karma, or with an eye on the next Jaguar, only God knows–and will judge.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only they who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’[iv]

Sometimes, it even seems that God prefers flawed servants.  The Apostle Paul, after relating his visionary experiences to the Christians at Corinth, went on to describe what he called a “thorn in the flesh”–presumably some persistent temptation, possibly of a sexual nature–that kept him from getting above himself.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.[v]

You see, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself, because I am enrolled in a training program in group spiritual direction and retreat leading, which means that I am finally taking positive steps toward the spiritual teaching and leadership role into which people have been casting me for years. I am always the one called upon to ask the blessing at large family gatherings, agnostics have broken down and asked me to pray for them, and people often assume, for reasons I do not understand, that I am a clergyman. (I’m not.) And every time someone treats me like some kind of highly “spiritual” being, I want to say, No, no, you don’t understand: I swear at tentative old lady drivers, I am inwardly contemptuous toward all sorts of people, I cannot drive past a college campus without checking out the hot college girls who are, by the way, young enough to be my daughters. I am not the person you think I am!

Mercifully, I am neither a pedophile nor a reputed saint. But it took me a long period of soul-searching before I finally decided that the call I felt to pursue this ministry was a true vocation rather than a mere hankering. Sometimes I’m still not sure.

It was the Principles of my Order– the Third Order of St. Francis–that finally persuaded me to stop hiding among the baggage[vi] and do this thing.

The faults that we see in others are the subject of prayer rather than of criticism. We take care to cast out the beam from our own eye before offering to remove the speck from another’s. We are ready to accept the lowest place when asked, and to volunteer to take it. Nevertheless, when asked to undertake work of which we feel unworthy or incapable, we do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness. (emphasis added)

In the language of Protestant Christianity, anyone who dies to self–or who at least understands the necessity of doing so and firmly intends it–is a saint, warts and all. Isn’t that what Sri Krishna meant when He said, “Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me, rightly resolved, in utter devotion: I see no sinner, that man is holy”?[vii] I sure hope so, anyway.

So in the absence of incontrovertible proof that a person’s intentions are bad and his hidden conduct blamable, I’d just as soon judge the tree by its fruits, if I judge at all.

[i] Isaiah 53:2b

[ii] See Mark 6:5, Matthew 13:58

[iii] Matthew 7:15-16a,18

[iv] Matthew 7:20-23

[v] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

[vi] See I Samuel 10:22

[vii] Bhagavad Gita 9:30


About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs. 


45 Responses to “What Does “Really a Saint” Mean, Anyway?”

  1. That's a beautiful article, Scott. I love the unique perspective you bring to Elephant. Thanks.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

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

  3. randi says:

    I don't know much about Sai Baba, but I think it's important to understand that you are attaching Judeo/Christian morals onto someone who could have been working from a very high spiritual stage – where there are no such thing as morals. I do not condone pedophilia, but the fruits of his work demonstrate care and compassion on a big scale.
    Randi L.

  4. YesuDas says:

    Well, Randi, if I've learned anything from C.S. Lewis, it's that no "spiritual stage" is so high as to be beyond morals. Every great monster the world has produced thought the rules didn't apply to him or her.

  5. Kristopher Stillwell says:

    Scott, good work. I agree with your perspective. Always wise to look first within. It has been said that the body, being it's own vehicle has it's own karma, regardless of the "evolution" of the light inhabiting it. Not to say we are not responsible for our acts in the flesh but who says we should be identified with our acts. The act of identification keeps the wheel of karma turning and churning.

  6. yogijulian says:


    i have to respond.

    sai baba lived a life of almost absolute evil.

    sound over the top?

    here's why:

    here is what i am characterizing as absolute evil:

    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.

    i am not measuring in mere utilitarian cost analysis here – but in looking at this man's life – 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… come on.

    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.

    i really challenge the position that we are being too literal or black and white and we need to just adjust our notion of what a saint is to include cynical manipulation, claims of paranormal powers, possible (and i would argue strongly probable) pedophilia and covered up murders – cause after all no-one is perfect… and find it telling that you are using biblical quotes to validate this fallacious reasoning given the other organization run through with similarly tragic ironic abuse – the catholic church.

    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.

  7. yogijulian says:

    also: i think we would be better off debunking the existence of any bona fide saints, god-men or magicians ever, than trying to create wiggle room for charlatans!

    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!

  8. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Bob!

  9. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Y.A. I hope that some day, the fact that some of my kirtans are addressed to Jesus will no longer be a barrier to my offering the ones that aren't in yoga studios!

  10. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Kristopher; I do find it helpful to "look first within," as you say.

  11. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Kimberly. My post started out, as they sometimes do, as a comment, and grew into a full-blown article as I realized that I had more to say and wanted to say it with care. Thanks for putting similar care into your response to me.

    Two things to clear up:

    1) I'm not pursuing clerical ordination–just getting some training in spiritual direction.

    2) I didn't take offense at your tone–I just didn't care for it. It does seem, however, that it unfortunately obscured (for me, anyway) your core message.

    With respect to people jumping on the mourning-the-passing-of-Sai-Baba bandwagon simply as a way of enhancing their own spiritual cachet, I understand that completely, and I agree. It's sad that people would feel so much need for approval that they would do that. Not that I am ever guilty of spiritual grandstanding, of course. 🙂

  12. YesuDas says:

    Julian, would you call this comment "mindful, inspired and spiritually engaged"?

  13. Ramesh says:

    Well balanced post, Yesudas. I think Yogananda summed it up nicely with this saying; "A saint is a sinner that never gave up."

  14. YesuDas says:

    Well, Julian, if those allegations are true, it is indeed hideous. And I evidently didn't make it as clear as I should have that I was commenting, not on Sai Baba's life, but on Kimberly's article.

    Because your intelligence is evident, I will assume that the guilt-by-association mini-screed with which you close your comment is not your usual m.o. And if your generally outraged tone indicates that you have, in some way, been personally affected by the kind of predatory charlatanism you describe, I wish you healing and peace.

  15. YesuDas says:

    Ramesh, I *love* that!

  16. Eric D. Myers says:


  17. Nando says:

    "It's one of the great facts of consciousness that you can never understand a stage which you have not reached", said Annie Besant (BrahmaVidya).

  18. yogijulian says:

    i would call it an honest exercise of critical thinking with the impassioned purpose of differentiating absolute criminal charlatanism from genuine spiritual leadership, in the service of encouraging us to wake up from the delusions of magical thinking and the tragedy they facilitate!

    was there anything in particular i wrote that you disagree with, find inaccurate, or inappropriate.

    the thing that always stuns me about our zeitgeist is how utterly confused the relativist righteousness is, how easily we miss the point completely!

    it has become predictable to me that (as in this example) one can point out the most horrific crimes and get castigated by the pious "right speech police" who instead of being outraged by rape, murder, and a life lived in manipulative charlatanism feel the need to tell me i am being judgmental or un-mindful….. ay yi yi! this would be hilarious were it not such a sad reflection of the level of disconnection in contemporary spirituality.

  19. yogijulian says:

    well well said kimberly.

  20. yogijulian says:

    hmmm are we suggesting that sai baba was at a stage we cannot understand or judge in which his great god-man status meant that his crimes were actually acts of grace or part of some universal lila?!

    this is a massive rationalization and one believers have used time and again to deny the pathology of gurus like osho, trungpa, yogananda, adi da, muktananda, gurumayi and now sai baba – don't fall for it!

  21. yogijulian says:

    my outraged tone is one typical of any person who cares about human beings and and is sincere about the possibilities of a spiritual path.

    the classic emotionally disconnected one up move of implying that i must myself be an abuse survivor of some kind and am therefore triggered, because otherwise how could i express strong feelings is misguided and offensive. as if the only reason to ever point out that the emperor has no clothes is if nakedness has been traumatic to you at some point!

    i actually do not fit the profile you condescend to wish healing upon – i merely feel that the truth matters, and that it is outrageous for a man with millions of followers believing he is god to be a magician charlatan claiming paranormal abilities, molesting kids and covering up murders – but hey that's just my whacky and obviously unbalanced and unenlightened point of view – right?

    give me a break!

    i actually care that as an evolving contemporary global spiritual community we seek to expose the dark shadow of guru cults, magical thinking and delusional spirituality so as to learn from the mistakes of the past and create more healthy models.

    if that means speaking with a fiery heart and strident tone i am sure you can appreciate me invoking the image of jesus in the temple. sometimes it is exactly what is required.

  22. YesuDas says:

    Well, Julian, once again, I wasn't commenting on Sai Baba's life, of which I know precious little, but rather on Kimberly's article. Had she laid out a methodical, evidence-based case against Sai Baba, I would probably have said, "Really? Dude, that's horrendous!" In response to what she did write, I said what I said.

    I'm sorry if my well-wishing made you feel patronized; I didn't mean it that way. I could simply think of no other reason for you to be attacking me personally in the way you seemed to be.

  23. YesuDas says:

    Julian, when did I say I was 1) not "outraged by rape, murder, and a life lived in manipulative charlatanism," or 2) tell you you were "being judgmental or un-mindful"?

  24. YesuDas says:

    I agree with you there, Julian; as I said above, every great monster the world has produced thought that moral judgment did not apply to him/her.

  25. yogijulian says:

    this is a rationalization of appalling crimes that make a mockery of any kind of spiritual claims or path.

    on what do you base the assertion that at high spiritual stages there are no such thing as morals? been listening to charles manson, or maybe some the apologists for jim jones, adi da, osho and now perhaps sai baba.

    monsters like this are enabled by this confused relativism.

    when people claiming divine realization behave like sociopathic criminals it is an act of massive denial to suggest that they are just at a higher stage than us and so beyond our judgment. nonsense – they are just inflated criminals who have gotten high on their own power and ability to indulge all their darkest fantasies without ever being held accountable.

    what if your son was molested by sai. i know one of his victims – perhaps that gives this a different flavor.

  26. yogijulian says:

    well said yesu!

  27. Oi Nando,
    So is anyone capable of understanding Sai Baba then?
    Would that be just Ramana Maharshi and Mother Teresa?
    And then all of his actions are beyond evaluation by all of us mortals?
    That is very problematic.

  28. samgeppi says:


    What you fail to grasp with all of your mockery and accusation (no, I am not going to call making fun of someone's appearance "humor" or regurgitating allegations/asking age old rhetorical questions 1 day after someone dies as "shedding light") is there are millions of people the world over to whom Sai Baba was a figure that brought them closer to a spiritual truth in themselves. They are not delusional or in need of your pedantic finger wagging. They know everything from India is not "Spiritual",.. etc. And to them Baba was a lot more than what you sensationalized.

    A spiritual teacher like this is very much like a surrogate parent, an inspired guide.. who we love as much as anyone – like our child.

    Imagine someone writing the article you did immediately after your parent or child died and that is how it reads to those of us who have a beloved Gurudev.

    I have no connection to Sai Baba. But because I have several spiritual teachers whom I revere and love, I feel for those who have lost their teacher.

    In my opinion, you need more compassion. Your distasteful article is insulting to them and your anger comes through loud and clear.

    I agree with Eric D. Meyers in that snarky articles like the one you wrote in the name "shedding light" miss the mark.

    Great piece. I really like how you show the beauty of Christian text – and good luck to you in your studies.

  29. Sam,

    You are right. I do need more compassion.


  30. YesuDas says:

    Thanks, Charlotte.

  31. YesuDas says:

    Thanks very much, Sam.

  32. 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-

  33. yogijulian says:

    forgive me scott – your question above seemed to have that tone – what did i miss?

  34. yogijulian says:

    ummm i have been baning my head for the last ten years online – and actually am finally having some big breakthoughs! for me integrating science, psychological awareness and grounded rationality with embodied spirituality is a passion – i can't help it!

    check out my manifesto in response to all this sai baba stuff here:

  35. yogijulian says:

    this is nonsense nando – back to the drawing board, try more critical thinking and less relativist, muddled wishy washy incoherence! no offense but you have lost the plot and are in danger of enabling monstrous crimes in the name of non-judgment..

  36. Melinda says:

    Great response.

    I don't think your post was distasteful. It was a trifle flip and self-referencing and I was confused as to why you were so annoyed (I can think of a thousand things I am more annoyed/outraged by), but it was a good way to stir up a discussion.

    The question I would ask you is this: beyond all the hubbub around Sai Baba and what he may or may not have done, what do you think about the spiritual teacher-devoted student dynamic? Being a yoga teacher, you must see this phenomenon all the time. Are there times when you are cool with it, like when you are "drawn" or feel sympathetic to a particular teacher? Just curious.

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

  38. […] for that validation forever. Have the courage to tell yourself what you need to hear. Believe in yourself and go after what you want right now. What’s the worst that can happen by you trying? […]

  39. TrinaLovesYou says:

    do you know any other pedophiles or sociopaths that have been able to indulge in their darkest fantasies while at the same time bearing as much fruit as Sai has done? That takes your whole argument apart…. because in the end if he was the monster you claim he was, he couldn't demonstrate evils opposite which is love and compassion AT THE SAME TIME and for so long. 70 yrs in public life nobody has built as many institutions as he has that provide free services to those in need. Charles Manson and other evil always produced evil they didn't vacillate in the extremes of evil and pure love. Many have only had experience of Sai as pure Love in their life having never met him and in the millions. How can a monster do that on global scale sir?

  40. Love says:

    Nandop, you are great. Thank you for this. Best and most sane argument out there.

  41. TamaraUK says:

    I once in prayer heard a voice maybe it was God, because it said "you will be moving to Italy soon" and all I wanted in life was to move to Italy and nothing was happening to move it along and….few months later I moved to Italy.
    Once at a lecture a man asked a question and I heard clear as day a three word answer that I had not really known before….and I raised my hand and it was the right answer. No pathology here, but great life. I love living life in the flow of Grace. It takes time Julian to hear the voice of God, gotta clear out the clutter! Peace to you.

  42. Love says:

    Hi Scott, I love your post especially since you are a neutral party not defending or accusing anyone. There is a great quote that says the highest form of teaching is by example. The words don't matter, who you are being is what speaks volumes and your gentle nature in your post and comments says it all. Only those that are at peace can create peace in the world. Glad to see a peacemaker among us. Kindest regards.

  43. YesuDas says:

    Thanks very much, Love.

  44. Melinda says:

    I am happy that you have found teachers who have helped you. We all need help on this human path. In my opinion, there are many different teachers. A friend, lover, child, parent, neighbor, shrink, mechanic– many people can be teachers of the heart.

    What I question is when people hand over their powers of reasoning–and yes, judgement– in the devotion of a particular person, even when that person's actions are questionable. If someone else helps you develop your best qualities, great, but if it is at the cost of having to overlook that person's misdeeds, is it really authentic help? I think the messenger IS the message. Not to say that teachers should be upheld to saintly standards (they are human, obviously) but if they consciously assume the role of spiritual teachers, their lives should be worthy of being held up as examples of how to live.

    I think Eknath Easwaren is a good example of this. A humble man who lived a simple life devoted to helping others. He did not want to be worshipped, did not wear flowing robes or drive around in fancy cars or claim any special powers. He just used his own experience and the teachings from many spiritual traditions to help others learn how to lessen their own suffering and to be of service to others.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  45. […] effort to be civil online. I’ve even been accused in these very pages of setting myself up as the Right Speech Police for refusing to indulge in snark and rancor in comments. Of course I fall short occasionally, but I […]