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Sai Baba and the Perrenialist Philosophy

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Abstract: An examination of the Sai Baba movement in North America and the core thesis of Sai Baba. In this paper I elucidate how the Sai Baba movement is a modern development and updating of traditional Hindu ideas. This paper outlines the Sai Baba movement as a perrenialist philosophy which aims to achieve gnosis beyond individual religious traditions; devotees believe in a fundamental truth that God is eternal and One.


The Sai Baba movement is relatively unknown and obscure to most North Americans. In India Sai Baba is a household name, but if most people in North America has heard of Sai Baba they usually hear exclusively of his extraordinary miracles, and assume that his followers must reside in a distant, exotic location. Few people likely expect the Sai Baba movement to have reached North America, but it has. I did not expect to find a local group in Kingston but recent immigration patterns that see large amounts of South Asian peoples arriving in Canada and the United States allow for this movement to have its membership growing in Canada. Yet, when I visited the devotees that meet in Kingston they certainly do not seem to be living in any sort of a diaspora. Their traditions are very vibrant and adaptive, having many of the hymns sung in English.

This paper aims to explore the phenomenon of the Sai Baba movement and determine what it is clearly. This is necessary as it is a movement which is shrouded in mystery and misinformation. My aim is to find out what the movements aims are, to explore its ideas and ideologies, to discover the draw and drive behind the movement, and to examine its inclusivity and exclusivity as a tradition. Moreover, I am interested in its roots and determining the intellectual and historical context from which it arose. I look at various aspects of the tradition including the concepts of gurus, avatars, miracles, and religious diversity within the movement. One specific area of interest in particular that I had when engaging in the interview was in determining how Hindu the movement is as it overtly claims to be universal and non-denominational.[1] I also briefly consider controversies surrounding the movement, and look at the impact that it has had within the world.

A quick overview of the tradition is necessary. Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba was born in 1926-9 (date uncertain) with the surname Ratnakaram. He is a popular Indian guru with millions of followers. He claims to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim Fakir, who passed away a few years before his birth. Sathya Sai Baba performs miracles and is said to be able to cure all disease, manifest holy objects from the aethyr, and communicate with people psychically through dreams. His devotees see him as God incarnate, and the sole director of their spiritual lives. The movement is not organized, in the sense that there are many followers that do not belong to any organization, but the main organization of Sathya devotees is the International Sathya Sai Baba Organization which has members in over 133 countries across the globe, not just in India. The number and ethnicity of the followers to the movement is unknown but the International Sai Organization webpage has had 4.3 million hits since April 24th, 1999, indicating its popularity. The interview which I had was with two members of the ISSBO, Anju Acharya and Rekha Vyas. The Sai Organizations chairman is actually a Westerner: Michael Goldstein of the United States. The ISSBO members meet in local groups both in homes and in centers, depending on the size of the city. The primary exercise at the meetings is singing and chanting bhajans, a type of prayer done in several languages, both in traditional Hindi and Sanskrit as well as the vernacular. The main teachings of the organization, and that Sathya Sai Baba teaches are love and service to all creatures; a limiting of worldly desire; that the world is maya (illusion) and only God is real; that all religions and prophets are manifestations of One God and paths to the One God. They also stress traditional Hindu virtues such as ahimsa (non-violence), shanti (peace), dharma (right conduct), prema (love) and sathya (truth) (Wikipedia: 2).

Anju Acharya spoke very vividly on the purpose of the chanting, and why it was the main exercise of the groups. She says,

In the beginning there is the word. So the word is really important. So when you chant you are making a connection. But the akash space [the world of spirit] is like sound basically. You cant hear with no space. Thats why we chant. When they chant loudly with the gospel singing with Sufi singing it could be any singing which kind of, I cant describe, but if you relate God to that way you know. That is how we know God. You are spirit you are not matter. So you come up and you start identifying with your spirit; through the sound. In the Hindu religion God is not a light, he is a sound. A lot of religions describe God as a light, but with Hinduism it is sound (transcript).

As mentioned above, explored the idea of why people would join this movement, and why people are drawn to it. I reviewed many conversion stories and found that they were loosely related in content. There is usually a predominant sense that the life before encountering Sai Baba was empty, broken, or somehow unfulfilling. There was also an assurance that after believing in Sai Baba that ones life became better. The stories also often are accompanied by situations of severe illness, at which point the converters were questioning their mortality, and the point of life. Another similarity is that the stories about conversion[2] are often accompanied by accounts of the supernatural or paranormal; such as accounts of faith healing, or dream conversations with Sai Baba. The stories of coming to Sai Baba of Anju Acharya and Rekha Vyas are different in some ways, but they share some of these major similarities. Anju Acharya said,


It was in 89 and I was diagnosed with carcinoma and I was only 35 years old. The very night that I was diagnosed my family was very upset. And my husband got a dream of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the reincarnation, [note: the current Sai Baba is considered by most people to be the reincarnation of the earlier Sai Baba, Sai Baba of Shirdi.] who put 3 marigold flowers on my head and said, I am looking after your wife dont you worry. And that was pretty startling because we didnt pray to him. And we didnt think that much of him anyways. And after 6 months we visited Shirdi and out of thousands of people the priest picked 3 marigold flowers from Shirdi Babas tomb and gave it to my husband. So at that point we both decided that both incarnations are one and that we should not discriminate (transcript).


Rekha Vyas relays her story. She says,


I started going around 1992. It was while going through a rough time. My husband is in business and we were having problems with the partner. Family problems and an outlet, you know someone to give it over to. And just cry and everything. And I heard about this bhajan schedule and I thought I would go. And I felt good. It was for an hour. But I felt like mentally it was helping and it was calming me down and things on a whole started getting better. Slowly, but surely, your faith grows. And things happen to you and you sometimes wonder why did it happen, or how did it solve itself. [These things] help you along the way. Either through someone or something that you are personally going through that you want an outlet [for] (transcript).

Rekha later in the interview also mentions that her husband had tongue cancer and that they were looking for something to spiritually hold onto.

Other things which may assist in developing an interest in the movement, especially in India, are the charities. There are many people in India that can not afford medical treatment or education, and Sai Baba, through the donations of his devotees, has built several hospitals and schools which provide for people in need free of charge. People may be drawn to the movement originally because of interest and use these facilities or they may be in need of assistance and then develop respect for the movement later joining it. In the interview Rekha Vyas said that most of these people [getting treatment] are from remote villages which dont even have a doctor in the village. So they have traveled so far just to get some kind of diagnosis or treatment (transcript).

Another aspect of draw to the Sai Baba movement is that the idea of a living guru, saint or avatar is appealing for many. Faced with the uncertainties that the modern world gives us someone who knows what is going on beyond our knowledge can be extremely assuring. One interesting aspect of the name Sai Baba is that it means (Sai) Holy Mother and (Baba) Father. The paternal and maternal guardian-like aspects of his movement are very evident. Rekha Vyas discusses this. She says, And [the way] the world is going, with the way things are going right now, with so many calamities and natural whatever, it is people need something or someone thats already here to believe in. And those people will go that way (transcript). The removed God of other faiths doesnt appeal to many people who want someone who they can touch or feel who is in touch with the Divine world. One last account of this appeal was with John Hislop. He was one of the earliest Western devotees of Sai. In a record that documents his experience he speaks about his childhood where he recalls being deeply religious, and thinking that somewhere in the world there must be someone alive that knows the Truth about reality, and God. He, and many other Westerners flew to India, a place which has the reputation of being mystical, exotic, and miraculous, a place where miracles still exist and experienced Sai Baba for themselves (Das: 155).

On the topic of conversion there is no solicitation allowed or donations requested. Sai Baba devotees are often said to have come to him because he has called them to him either through dreams, or through the meeting of other persons who know of him. This may be an appeal especially in India, as the sometimes ugly realities of conversion were pressed upon Indian Hindus from both Muslims and Christians throughout their history. The aversion toward conversion also holds true for many in the West as coercive pressure often results in people moving in the opposite direction.

The history of gurus and avatars in Hinduism originates in the Bhagavad Gita. Chapter 4, verses 6 and 7 say: Although I am unborn, everlasting, and I am the Lord of all, I come to my realm of nature and through my wonderous power I am born. When righteousness is weak and faint and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth. This is the earliest and most influential passage which ventures the idea of what Daniel E. Bassuk calls the god-man idea (Bassuk: 73-4). The goal of Hinduism, Bassuk asserts, is to become god-realized and attain the state of liberation which he says is essentially the attainment of the man-god (74). So in essence the idea is that the potential of mankind is infinite; a human being could, and can, understand God and also be an incarnation of God, commonly called within Hinduism an avatar. Avatars have the powers of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnifelicity (Bassuk: 88). These qualities are often attributed to the monotheistic God in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. In fact, Sathya furthers his association to monotheism by claiming to be Christ reincarnated (Bassuk: 74).

Sathya claims that all forms of God are the same. On Christmas day, 1972, he pointed to a lamb and said: The lamb is merely a symbol, a sign. It stands for the voice: Ba-Ba; the lamb is the sign and symbol of love. Christ did not declare that he would come again; he said, He who sent me will come again. That Ba-Ba is this Baba (Das: 146).

One could imagine that everyone might claim to be God, but this just does not happen. The common view is that average people do not become an incarnation of God, and instead must realize this reality of atman = Brahman through a darshan. Darshan literally translates to seeing, but not just receiving light stimulus from the eyes; it is more like using the eyes to focus on the invisible spiritual energy of the holy person, place, or object. The eyes are used to connect an individual to the sacred, and it is typically a spiritually transformative experience (Eck: 1-6). A mere darshan of Sai Baba is said to transform the spiritual awareness of each devotee (Warner: 149). One devotee, Judy Warner, wrote about her experience and darshan of Sai Baba. At first glace you are; But a small man in an orange robe; Sometimes stern, sometimes smiling; You smiled at me and; Gave me a glimmer of your radiance; When I next saw You; Love enveloped me and; A tear caressed my cheek; I beg You; Come into my heart and; Show me I am One with You. (Warner: 56-7). Devotees often about Babas aura, which is said to be a bright white light which fills them with feelings of bliss (Warner: 117).

The topic of miracles is never far behind when speaking about Sathya Sai Baba. There are countless stories of his physical miracles, psychic communications through dreams and removal of karmic debt. Sathya materializes small objects, jewelry, vibhuti (sacred ash), and often fruit. He has also said to appear in peoples dreams, and if people get the chance to meet him and speak with him he is said to be able to recall the entire content of the dreams. The reason for these miracles, Sai says, is to impress people and attract them; he then transforms them spiritually after he has attracted them. Anju Acharya speaks about the miracles of Sai Baba of Shirdi (his first incarnation),

He could take so many things on his own body. Like theres another one where the mother comes to him and says I think my son is going to get plague, bubonic plague. And he says to her, dont worry the clouds come and go and he showed her a [indistinct] long garment like a Sufi and then he [Sai Baba] had the bubonic, like 2 sores. He had taken it; the pain from the boy, unto himself (transcript).

One of the most interesting and unique aspects of this movement is its aim toward diversity. It is maintained by Sai Baba that his teachings are entirely compatible with other religious traditions. As mentioned previously, the main emblem of the ISSBO features several religious symbols on it. Sai Baba acknowledges all the other mythic avatars in Hinduism and says that Jesus Christ is also an avatar (Bassuk: 88). On a special bhajan with diversity participation from other groups, Rekha Vyes says, It included 22 different groups. There was a polish group, there was an Ismaeli group, and groups from different places as well there were Christians (transcript). Anju Acharya says, Yeah. You could be any religion. But I mean Muslims tend to be very fundamentalist, so they dont like to. But you dont have to give up on your own religion at all. Rekha Vyes adds,

And this is what Baba is saying. That he doesnt want you to stop what you are doing and believe in him. He says all religions are one, all gods are one. So believe in whatever you believe in to be a better person. And he says if you are a Christian, be a good Christian. If you are a Muslim, be a good Muslim. Its just more a movement of humanity, you know. Thats all there is to it (transcript).

Sai Baba on the topic of other religions says,

Do not entertain religious differences of any kind. Do not give up religion. Adhere to your faith and your traditions. When differences between religions are given up, love will develop. There are some [people] who talk of unifying religions, but religion is a mode of the mind and there are as many religions as there are minds: If you can unify minds, you can unify religions, but it is an impossible task.

He continues by saying, People consider religion as a bundle of doctrines and rigorous dos and donts prescribed for being followed. This is totally wrong. The sacred aim of religion is to remind man of his divine origin and to help lead him back to God (Sahni: 328).

The origin of this uncompromising philosophy of unity, although at first very starting, could theologically function to make sense of several religious traditions. The idea that a universal God exists has been central in many religious traditions and resonates with the Judeo-Christian idea, aside from the fact the Jews view God more as informing humanity, which ended with Moses; and Christians believe that God incarnating as a human ended with Jesus. Intrigued by this concept in the interview I enquired if someone was theoretically practicing to achieve a God consciousness, and they had never heard of Sai Baba, could they be doing the same thing as a Sai devotee. Anju Acharya said, Yeah, thats what he thinks. That there are so many people that if you pray to Jesus Christ or whatever. He says, Anything good is God. He [referring to both God and Sai Baba together] doesnt have the same names and form. Anju explains the idea and solidifies her view with a story. She says,

One day a lady came and he said, Oh you fed me so much today. And she said well I dont remember giving you food. But there was a hungry dog and you gave one fourth of your bread to the dog. And then a pig came and you parted with your bread and gave again. So hunger is the same, its Gods hunger, its the same (transcript).

Rekha Vyas adds, I find that this universal God sometimes reincarnates as Sai Baba or whatever but the element is timeless, infinite, and eternal.

An analogy is often used in traditional Hinduism to discuss this non-dualist reality of God, which I will term the mountain analogy. It is that there is a mountain, and at the top exists truth and oneness, and that there are many paths (religions) which lead to the top of this mountain (ultimate truth). Anju Acharya mentioned the mountain analogy in the interview to clarify her view on other religions. She says,

Because you know its a lot easier to hold onto one image, the minute you go up top, the minute you realize that everything is same. When you are at the bottom then you think the road is straight. So it depends upon the maturity of the consciousness of the people around. Its not [like this within] the Judeo-Christian religionso its kind of less than. You know it depends upon the consciousness and humanity at that time. Individual too. The society and the individual were kind of primitive, you know (transcript).

Sai Baba also utilizes this metaphor he says, Religions are many but the road is the same. Professions are many, but living is the same (Sahni: 329).

Naturally, I asked if they thought this idea was a Hindu idea. Or is it just a mystical idea, that all religions are one. Rekha Vyas said,

Essentially its a Hindu idea. Hinduism emphasizes non-duality. There is no me and you. There is only oneness. Forms and names are just perception is a deception. You know that saying in Hinduism, perception is a deception, right? We are all pure energy, everything is pure energy. We are two people, and there are two species but this is an illusion. We are all part of the same thing. You can love God in any form. The important thing is to love God (transcript).

This particular view of religious unity then belies its overt statement, and there is a potential for irresolvable contradiction within it. The Sai Baba movement aims to be inclusive of all traditions, and non-denominationalist, but they adopt one perspective on those traditions which does not include the self-perspectives of those traditions. This apparent paradox is not resolved, other than to say, as Anju did, that at the inception of these other religions that they absorb the consciousness of the times. Sai devotees continually claim that every prophet though, knew the truth. So perhaps Sai Baba is not saying that every religion is true; but rather that all the prophets were true.

Sai Baba is considered God by followers, which of course contradicts the monotheistic messages that there are no more prophets. Practitioners of monotheistic traditions can not generally accept Sai Baba as God and also accept their own traditions, even if Sai Baba suggests that they should be able to. Sai Baba devotees would say that this is the fault of the practitioner and that suggest that monotheism is flawed, yet Sai Baba devotees claim to accept all religious traditions in their entirety. In truth they are accepting all religious traditions on their own terms.

The Sai movement is also supposed to be non-denominational but the participants are overwhelmingly Indian and of Hindu origin so it is questionable how non-denominational the movement really is. I touched on these areas in the interview. Anju Acharya says,

I think it is more that with Judeo-Christian that they said, No. I am it. We are it. You know. Sure because of the historical context and all that. And I understand that. Because if you really think when the movement was around or even with Jesus Christ. There were so many atrocities, and the consciousness was so low that there are loopholes. That they would say this is the only truth. Because you know the people that were following, the communications were not mature enough to accept [the reality of God being that he is in all things and people].

Another area of contradiction is that the concept of god-men (and women) is non-hierarchal; anyone could become a human God, or an incarnation of God, but this aspect of the tradition is not very stressed. Instead Sai Baba is elevated above people in a Jesus like fashion, and the concept that women can not be gurus, nor god-men/women is often forwarded by his devotees.

The above practice, altering other traditions to fit your own, is controversial, and so is viewing God as living in a human being and thus the Sai Baba movement is not without criticism. In times past prophets who even hinted at a divine incarnation were put to death, attacked on moral grounds, and went through many other punishments. Perhaps this is because a living prophet or avatar threatens the validity of other existing religions that speak from a position of knowing the ultimate reality of existence. Since life continues and changes, and religion generally operates from a fixed reality, this conflict is inevitable. These facts, and maybe others, have resulted in several controversies.

One aspect of the Sathya Sai Baba movement is many criticisms have been forwarded toward Sai Baba and the movement itself both by members of other faiths, and ex-devotees. The main criticism from other religions comes from monotheistic traditions, usually Christians and Muslims. In any form of strict monotheism, inherently in its structure, as mentioned above, the living prophet is seen as either a threat or an insult to their faiths. The ex-devotees consist of people who claim to have followed Sai Baba for years with complete devotion until they saw him in a different light. The majority of these complaints have been sexual allegations, or complaints of fraudulent behavior and the faking of miracles. Sathya Sai Baba has also been blamed for the suicide of several of his devotees as well. Other criticisms have been leveled at the childrens schools, where some people have claimed that indoctrination into a religious worldview is wrong (Wikipedia: 1-7).

I do not feel I can answer to these claims, nor it is the scope of this paper to do so, but on the topic of the charity hospitals and schools and indoctrination I think it is likely that they do more harm then good. There is a large emphasis on the virtue of charity among Sai followers. The people I interviewed often quoted Sai Baba on charity. The Superspeciality Hospital does thousands of free operations a year to people who would have no hope otherwise. They do not perform just faith healing; they also do actual operations such as bypass surgeries and chemotherapy. Free education for the poor in India is beneficial, and nothing that should be criticized.

It is important to note that the Sai Baba movement is not without context. These ideas, especially the idea that all religions are one and are essentially saying the same thing, may seem new and startling, but they are firmly grounded in Indian history. In fact they are entirely within the natural course of modern Hinduism in many ways. Many Hindu thinkers, faced with the challenges of British occupation and modernity, needed solutions to deal with these new challenges. The civilizational encounter between Britain and India had several results in many areas. There were religious, philosophical, cultural, and technological changes that India had to confront the modernity imposed upon them. One major area of concern that Indian thinkers had to face was the possibility of losing their religious and cultural identity by the British culture, as well as facing outright conversion to Christianity. Arvind Sharma, a scholar in this particular area says that a civilization when encountering a dominating one must react in several ways, a.) acceptance, b.) rejection, c.) resistance, and d.) selective adaption (Sharma: 1).

Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), a prominent modern Indian thinker, spoke often of Christianity and has been said to set the tone of Indians toward Christianity in the modern period. His views in summary are: an admiration of Christ, a rejection of dogmatic Christianity, a refusal of the Trinity, an insistence on the Unity and Oneness of Divinity, as well as a defense of traditional Hindu ideas against Christian attacks (Sharma: 11). So, the concept that all religions were one functioned in allowing Hinduism to survive in a new form. This is not to question the validity of the sentiment on its own. That is to say that although these views are not perhaps an intentional Hinduization of Jesus and Christianity it functionally prevents conversions to Christianity and keeps traditional Hindu interpretations of The Sacred intact. Roys views affected other thinkers such as Tagore, Vivekananda, Tilak, Ghandi, Ghose, Radhakrishnan, Krishnamurti, and Sathya Sai Baba. Thus this Hinduization of Christianity and other religions is a trend which has developed into the contemporary period and affects modern movements including the Sai Baba movement. For instance, Ramakrishna had a vision that Jesus was a genuine spiritual master in 1874. He said that a person could meditate upon Jesus to obtain union with Brahman. Daniel Bassuk, a scholar mentioned earlier, claims that the significance of this experience was to place Jesus on a level with Krishna, Rama, and the other Hindu avatars (Bassuk: 90).

In summary it seems that the Sai Baba movement is a modern development from traditional Hinduism which also attracts people from different religious traditions who believe in a fundamental truth that God is eternal and One, which aims to go beyond individual religious traditions. It could be argued that this approach toward religion works best with our new post-modern multicultural world. There are several reasons for this argument. Firstly, we exposed to so many religious traditions on a regular basis there is a natural urge to make sense of it all; to simplify it and fit all the pieces together into one puzzle. After all, we experience one reality and one consciousness, so how is it that we have so many religious traditions? Many people do not believe in God at all simply because there are so many different religions, how could they all be true? This question reoccurs in the modern times very often and is one of the most commonly given answers justifying atheism or agnosticism. And further, if one religion is true, and it must be exclusively true then it renders the others false, but yet they all appear to be true to the millions of followers with each tradition. This question seems strikingly relevant today because the traditions of the world reside in close proximity to each other.

If there is one all-encompassing tradition then belief in God, for many people, becomes more believable. The Sai Baba movement seems to make this possible, in a timely way after the pressures of modernity, when people know about other competing religious traditions. In this sense the validity of God is maintained through the diversity and the selective inclusivity of religious traditions reinforces a belief in God and deism[3]. The Hinduization and agreement of the essentialist divinity within other religions keeps the belief in a God possible, with minimal contradictions when looking at religion as a whole phenomenon. What contradictions there are, are ignored, and the similarities within are taken as proof.

Sai Baba also does something which other religious traditions have seemed to forget, that is embrace the supernatural. The re-emergence of the popularity of the supernatural and the magical has been happening since the beginning of the 20th century with spiritualism in the West, and this fascination seems to be spreading with new age movements. I suspect it is backlash against the rationalization of the modern era and the sanitization and purging of the mystical from world religions. The well-known religious studies scholar Lawrence A. Babb says this of the Sai Baba movement: Perhaps inadvertently he has found a rather surprising point of contact between religious traditionalism and a certain kind of modernity. His emphasis on miraculous transformations has created an anything-is-possible atmosphere. A world that can be enchanted is a world that one need not, and should not, hate or leave (Babb: 201). Modernity and science has often functioned in threatening the existence of God and religion and sanitized it. And Sai Baba rejuvenates this sanitized world for many people. Sathya Sai Baba is a thorough deist with an appetite for miracles, and many people are among those who are the re-enchanted.




Works Cited and Resources


--Babb, Lawrence. Redemptive Encounters: Three Modern Styles in the Hindu Tradition.

University of California Press. Berkeley, CA: 1986.

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Publishers PVT Ltd. Delhi, India: 1992.

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House. Mumbai, India: 1991.

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Sathya SaiBaba. Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust. Balangar, India. (No

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--Smith, David. Hinduism and Modernity. Blackwell Publishing. Cornwall, UK: 2003.

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Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust. Andhra Pradesh, India. (No publication

date given).

-- Sathya Sai Baba. Visited November 17th, 2005.




[1] An example of the overt inclusive non-denominationality of the movement is on one of the International Sai Baba Organizations symbol which is on the cover to the right. It bears several religious symbols suggesting the unity and thrust of the Sai Baba movement.

[2] I place the word conversion in quotes because people do not use that terminology and rather talk about coming to know the Truth, or being drawn to him.

[3] I use the term deism here in a different sense than the historical to indicate a belief in God as opposed to a lack of belief in God.


2005 - Ama Marie