Surfing the internet, I came upon a site called The Sai Critic,
established by some devotees to answer The
Findings and to 'counsel' those whose faith might be wavering
in the face of the allegations. The anonymous
authors of the site urge devotees to believe only their own experiences
and quote an aphorism of Sai Baba's:
"When doubt walks in the front door, faith walks out out the back door.
Keep your doors closed."
Addressing the allegations of sexual abuse, the authors state that because
'Sai Baba is a divine incarnation,
one cannot attribute human sexual motives to him, nor interpret him
in the light of human sexual experience.'
In other words, because Sai Baba is divine, whatever he does is beyond
understanding and beyond accountability.
Among those people named in The Findings is Dr D Bhatia, the
former head of the blood bank at the Sathya Sai
Super Speciality Hospital, who, it is claimed, had a longstanding sexual
relationship with Sai Baba. Bhatia resigned
from his post at the hospital in December 1999 and is now an administrator
at a hospital in New Delhi.
Contacted by phone, Bhatia said that he had become a devotee of Sai
Baba in 1971, at the age of 20, and that he had
had sexual relations with Sai Baba for a total of '15 or 16 years'.
In that time, he said, he was also aware that Sai Baba
had relations with 'many, many' students from the college and school,
and with devotees from overseas.
Bhatia said he had never questioned Sai Baba over his conduct, or Baba's
explanation that it was 'God's activity'. 'Devotion,
' said Bhatia, 'doesn't need any justification. In my philosophy of
life, everything good and everything bad belongs to God.
That is my belief, and that is why whatever he does, does not affect
me in that way.' Was he saying that he still believed
Sai Baba is God? 'Yes.'
Like many people I spoke to, Isaac Tigrett described himself
as a spiritual seeker. Among devotees, Tigrett is famous
as the man who built Sai Baba's hospital. Co-founder of the Hard Rock
restaurant chain, Tigrett sold out his share in the
business in the early Nineties and donated $20 million to build the
Sathya Sai Super Speciality Hospital. He went on to
found another chain of club-restaurants in America, the House of Blues,
and now lives in London, where he is setting up
the Spirit Channel, an internet site dedicated to exploring spiritual
A large, barrel-chested man in his early 50s, dressed in an immaculate
double-breasted suit, Tigrett has the ostentatious
appearance and expansive charm of a theatrical impresario. We met at
his London club. Tigrett drank beer and smoked
cigarettes; a man, it seemed, firmly grounded in the real world.
By normal standards, Tigrett's story of how he came to Sai Baba is extraordinary;
by the standards of stories one hears
of Sai Baba, it seems almost commonplace. Born in the American South
and raised as a Baptist, Tigrett had always had a
curiosity about spiritual matters. In 1974, he told me, he was travelling
in India, checking out the guru scene. Eating
breakfast one morning in the dining-room of a hotel in northern India
he heard a voice clearly saying, 'You've come at last;
I've been waiting for you.' Turning round, he saw a picture on the
wall of Sai Baba, whom he had never heard of and knew
He travelled immediately to Sai Baba's ashram. It was a festival day,
he remembered; 5,000 people were gathered for darshan.
'He just came right over to me and said, "You've come at last; I've
been waiting for you." ' Sai Baba then 'materialised' vibhuti
in Tigrett's hand. 'He said, wait here; we have many things that we
are going to do together.' It would be another 15 years,
he said, before Baba spoke to him again.
Tigrett said he was 'very cynical and very suspicious. I believe in
the inner guru -- following your own heart -- not the
outer guru. It had never occurred to me that it would be some sort
of outer master that would draw me down the path.'
Over the next 15 years, however, he found himself subject to a range
of 'amazing teachings' that he attributed to Sai Baba.
The most extreme occurred in 1976. It was a time, he said, when his
doubts about Sai Baba were at their greatest. Driving
a Porsche Turbo through the Hollywood Hills after a late-night party,
he came off the road at 80mph and crashed through
a barricade into a 200ft gully. 'I had no seatbelt on. At the moment
I knew I was going to die I could feel pressure on my
shoulders, and I look and, seemingly to me, there is Sai Baba sitting
beside me with his arms around me. The car hits the
ground and turns more than a dozen times before it lands upright, totally
demolished. And there's not a scratch on me.
I'm thinking, this can't be true. Was it him? Was it my imagination?
Did I call him and somehow create this belief in my
mind that he was there?'
The next day Tigrett flew to India, 'to thank him'. Tigrett spent three
months sitting in darshan, 'and he didn't so much
as look at me once'. It would be another 13 years, he said, before
Sai Baba finally summoned him for an interview.
'I said, why did I have to wait so long? He said, "Big ego." '
These things were difficult to explain, Tigrett said, impossible to
explain. He does not believe that Sai Baba is God, he said.
He would not even describe himself a devotee. 'But to me, it's as simple
as this: whatever it was I experienced changed my life;
whatever it was he did kept me on a spiritual path, for which I am
ever grateful. And I will never be able to deny that experience;
nothing he could do could change that.'
How then could Tigrett square his experiences of Sai Baba with the allegations
of sexual abuse? 'I can't. There's two camps here.
Are you against Sai Baba or are you for him? I think if you say you're
for him, you're just in denial, saying these things didn't
happen, that it's made-up stories. I don't believe that. I believe
the allegations are true. And if you're against, you're supposed
to take up your sword and kill him. I'm not in either of those camps.
For me, the only meaningful relationship with him is the
personal one, and everyone has to make a personal decision based on
As to trying to understand Sai Baba, Tigrett said he had given up on
that many years ago. 'I know that he materialises things,
because I've seen him do it. And I know he fakes materialisations,
because I've him seen him do that too. I don't know why.
Maybe it's just a game.'
Tigrett said he believed that everything Sai Baba does is 'a teaching'.
Perhaps, he said, the growing scandal was also a teaching,
a way of forcing devotees to stop worshipping the form of Sai Baba,
and instead consider the divinity within themselves.
'I remember him telling me three or four years ago that people would
be leaving him in droves. He said, "I'm not a new religion;
I'm not a personality cult. People come here to see miracles, to have
a vacation, and they don't even get the teachings." He said
this several times, it's about following the inner guru, not following
Tigrett has been back to the ashram several times since then, he said,
but he has never again been called for interview. He sipped
at his beer. For those who worship Sai Baba as a god, he said, the
allegations 'must be totally devastating. Because they've lost
their god, their master. But I never saw him as God.' How then would
he describe Sai Baba? Tigrett shook his head: 'A total
and complete enigma.'
Among the most remarkable facets of this controversy has been the role
of the internet. Even 10 years ago, it is doubtful
whether the allegations against Sai Baba would have spread so far and
so fast. In a discourse in October 1999, Sai Baba
instructed devotees that 'Swami has nothing to do with internet [sic].
Not only now, even in future [sic] also. You should
not indulge in such wrong activities.' But in the realms of cyberspace
the accusations, the justifications and the denials
continue to multiply. Alongside the lurid accounts of abuse, there
are accounts of miracles, healings and calls to faith.
Conny Larsson has set up a support group for those claiming abuse by
Sai Baba, and says he receives some
20-30 emails a day from victims 'crying out for help. You cannot leave
these people in the desert.'
In America, the campaign organised by Glen Meloy has concentrated on
'e-bombing' copies of the allegations to senators,
the White House, the FBI and Indian newspapers. The most conspicuous
success of the campaign came in September
when Unesco withdrew its co-sponsorship and participation from an education
conference at Puttaparthi, citing 'deep
concern' over the allegations of sexual abuse.
Meloy is also attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against the
leaders of the Sai groups in America that, he said,
have 'conspired to cover this up'.
In this country, similar representations have been made to the Charity
Commissioners (there is a British branch of
the organisation registered in this country) and to the Home Office,
urging them to issue a public warning to visitors
to India about the allegations, and pointing out that failure to warn
could constitute a breach of the Government's
international obligations under UN Human Rights covenants.
For all the allegations laid against him over the years, Sai Baba has
never been charged with any crime, sexual or otherwise.
And his exalted position in India has until now kept him safely insulated
from any kind of public inquiry.
In June 1993 he was the subject of an apparent assassination attempt
when five young men broke into his private residence.
Two of his personal attendants were stabbed to death and four of the
assailants were shot dead by police 'in self-defence'.
Sai Baba allegedly escaped by rushing out of his room and activating
an alarm system. In a subsequent discourse, he said
the attack was caused by 'jealousy'. Dr Bhatia told me he believed
the attack was linked to Baba's sexual activities. The
guru was never interrogated by police over the attack. The Indian press
raised the obvious question: if Sai Baba is
omniscient, why couldn't he see it coming?
Among former devotees, there is a sense of shock, betrayal, anger --
a hunger, if not for revenge, then for accountability.
We know that many victims have been physically molested,' Glen Meloy
told me, 'but in reality all the former devotees
have been spiritually raped because we chose to believe that this man
was the highest. I certainly considered him to be
the God of gods, the creator of all creation, my friend, my everything.
The intense desire I have to expose him now is
directly proportionate to the amount of devotion I gave him.'
Meloy said he shredded all the pictures he had of Sai Baba in his house
the moment he heard the allegations. He knew
of former devotees who were now selling their homes, determined to
purge any taint of association with Sai Baba from
their lives. 'We completely gave away our power.
And now we can look back and see what we did. You cry and out and wonder,
how in the world could this happen?'
How does this happen? In an imperfect world, we crave some evidence
of perfection, some symbol of ineluctable goodness.
The guru becomes the expression of the dream.
Sitting in the restaurant in a small, homely Midwest town, Jeff Young
struggled to understand what had led him to believe
that an Indian guru could be God. Thinking back to his first interview
-- 'I remember feeling peace like I had never felt before'
-- he now thinks he was simply deluded. 'There were so many people
who desired to have that interview, I convinced myself
it was so extraordinary and special and I must be in bliss, because
I'd been chosen.'
Now, he said, he could see how he had ignored all the contradictions,
manufactured explanations for anything that didn't fit.
'I knew the materialisations were fake. I'd sit there and watch him
pulling things from under a pillow. It was totally obvious.
And he'd see that we saw and he'd kind of laugh. But I just thought,
he's testing me to see if I'm focused on the love or on
the external. Because Baba says, love my uncertainty. You'll never
be able to understand the avatar.'
Looking back, he said, when Sam finally told him about the sexual abuse,
he didn't find it difficult to believe at all. 'I realised,
I'd really known this for a long time but didn't really know it.' Jeff
shook his head. 'It goes so far into your mind. You ask
yourself, how could millions of people be wrong? How could millions
of people be tricked? I think a lot of people deny
these things are happening because they're afraid of being embarrassed.
I felt that myself. We'd spent 23 years raising our
family to believe in him, going upstream against a river. You think,
how could I have been so wrong?'
When Sam told Jeff and Carrie the truth about his meetings with Sai
Baba, Jeff said, both of them threw their arms
around him. 'We said, that's it; we don't care if we never see Sai
Baba again. He told us it was the happiest day of his life.'
Since leaving Sai Baba, he said, the family had been trying to find
a basis for faith in their own hearts. He believed following
Sai Baba's teachings for 23 years had made him a more humble, honest
and kind human being. 'My wife hates him for what
he did to our son. I feel betrayed. I think it's despicable. But as
I look back over my life I would have to say that I honestly
don't regret anything that's happened and that I've grown through all
of it.' Finding Sai Baba, and then discarding him, 'I'm
happier now than at any point in my life.'
Sam said the experience had brought him to see his life in 'a whole
other perspective. It made me realise, all my life I've
spent following some other human being around, trying to do what he
says.' Freed from the prison of false belief, he said,
'I'm just trying to live up to myself.'
Whether he is divine, 'a demented demonic force', as Glen Meloy now
describes him, or simply the most accomplished
fakir and confidence trickster, Sai Baba has said nothing publicly
about the allegations laid against him. When the
Telegraph Magazine contacted K Chakravarthi, secretary of the Puttaparthi
ashram, he said, 'We have no time for these
I have nothing to say' and terminated the call.
Sai Baba's principal English translator, Anil Kumar, was more
forthcoming. Every great religious teacher, he said,
had faced criticism in their lifetime. Such allegations had been levelled
at Sai Baba since childhood, 'but with every
criticism he becomes more and more triumphant'. Kumar said he considered
the controversy 'all part of [Sai Baba's]
divine plan. It's a paddy field with husks around the rice. Eventually
all the unwanted parts will go to leave the true
Jerry Hague, the American trustee, seemed to share that view. Sai Baba,
he told me, would never say anything
about all this. 'Why would he? That's the human way. That's not his
'You can try and write about this,' he cautioned me, 'but you won't
be able to make any intellectual sense of it. Nobody can.'
'Some people,' said Jeff Young, 'when we tell them our story, they drop
Sai Baba like a rock. Some just don't want to hear
it. And others hear it all and say, well, he's God! It's all a test.
I laughed when I heard that. Because to me, passing the test
is having the courage to stand up on your own two feet and say this
is not acceptable.'
It's a curious thing, said Young, but when he first told his friends
and fellow devotees he was leaving Sai Baba, he had
the sense -- 'and I still feel that way' -- that Baba was 'standing
over my shoulder, saying, 'Good boy, you're doing a good job.'