When he was alive, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, whose mortal remains were buried at Puttaparthi on Wednesday morning, was clear that for him death was not the end. Thirty years ago, in a rare interview to me on his 55th birthday on November 23, 1980, I had asked him about what would happen to him after he died. He replied: "Life and death are only for a body. I am not a body.” Pointing to his handkerchief, he added: “ It (my body) is like my handkerchief. It is mine. Yet I am separate from it. I will be reincarnated when I die."
I had been sent by the fortnightly news magazine New Delhi (now defunct) to cover his birthday celebrations. I took a bus from Bangalore to Puttaparthi and right through the four-hour journey, devotees sang bhajans composed in his praise. I was a bit put off by such extreme faith.
Prasanthi Nilayam, or the Abode of Peace where people had assembled to greet him, had then only a modest auditorium that could house a thousand. By then, Sathya Sai Baba's fame had spread far and wide and over a lakh of people from all parts of India and abroad had flocked to the Nilayam.
Everyone was helpful. I was provided with a sleeping mat in one of the huts adjoining the auditorium. There were many people, rich and famous including S. Bhagvantam, a former scientific adviser to the defence minister, serving food to visitors. Others willingly swept the floors or washed dishes.
When I spoke to some of the devotees they said they were there because Sathya Sai Baba had helped them in one way or the other. He was known as India's man of miracles not just for this ability but also for his penchant for producing rings from thin air or showering devotees with vibhuti (holy ash) that seemed to ooze from his palms. Many rationalists criticised him for such acts and said they could prove that a magician could equal such feats.
Sathya Sai Baba ignored them as did his devotees. I wrote then that it was the universality of his teachings that attracted the devotees from all religious denominations to him. He didn't focus on any particular religion but espoused that the ultimate goal of all religions was the same, the self-realisation and oneness with the divine. The Sathya Sai Seva Organisation, which then had representatives in 60 countries, had started schools and colleges apart from engaging in social work, putting to good use the handsome donations that kept pouring in.
I was put off though by the sycophancy and the ostentatious rituals. I had written then that, Sathya Sai Baba “is treated like a king. He sits on a silver-brocaded chair (throne?) with plush velvet cushions. Every time he enters he is heralded with a burst of trumpets and drums accompanied by devotional songs praising him. Devotees vie with one another to carry his gold-coated umbrella or his silver staff or to place his silver glass of water on his table or even iron his saffron robe. His devotees always addressed him as Bhagwan." I recalled my surprise when Bhagvantam, a man of pure science, told me: "I believe he is God. I follow him. I serve him. I worship him, whatever I do is in the feeling that he is God."
When I asked one of his disciples if I could interview Sathya Sai Baba he said it was best to write a letter to him. I debated on how to formulate such a letter that would have to begin with 'Dear Bhagwan' and couldn't get myself to do it. Most of his disciples had in any case said it would be impossible to even get a personal audience with him on such a hallowed occasion.
I don't know what I did right, but on the morning of his birthday at 5 am I was informed that Sathya Sai Baba wished to see me at the Green Room adjoining the auditorium. At the crack of dawn, bugles rent the air heralding his arrival. Devotees had lovingly sprinkled rose petals on the path he would take. When he arrived, disciples kneeled reverentially to greet him.
His face broke into a charming smile when he saw me. He asked me which language should we converse in and when I replied English he said, "I don't know English too well but don't worry we will speak the language of the heart."
He then bade me to sit on the ground next to his feet. He was affectionate and ruffled my hair several times as he spoke. He had a magnetic personality. For the next 15 minutes he answered my questions, mostly in parables. Some examples:
On India: "We have politicians without principles. They are useless and dangerous. Politicians are interested in power and not in helping people. They are narrow-minded. Expanse is life. Contraction is death. They must expand.” He then added with a smile: “On platforms all politicians are heroes but practically they are zeroes."
On his miracles: "My biggest miracle is love. The rest is chotta. Just like in jalebis, burfis, rasgullas and other sweets the common ingredient is sugar so also love is the common ingredient in our lives. Be the embodiment of love. That is the way to peace."
On mental peace: "Mental peace is not outward. You cannot buy it from shops or make it an industry like a commodity. It is within you. See my handkerchief. You will say it is handkerchief but it is really cloth. The cloth is made from cotton and the cotton from threads. Thoughts are threads, desires cotton and the mind is the product. If the former are interwoven properly the mind will not tear easily. It will be a whole and at peace."
On himself: "My heart is free from trouble and worries. My hands are for society. My head is forest (he laughed gleefully pointing to his mop of curly hair) I meant for rest."
He then got up and went out to greet and sing to the waiting multitude. His disciples later told me that Baba had only once before given a press interview and that too because the editor of the newspaper was a devotee. So I should consider myself fortunate.
In my article, while I praised Sathya Sai Baba for spreading the message of love and faith and the universality of all religions, I was highly critical of the process of deification that was on. I wrote then that, "A Sai religion is emerging. Devotees are asked to follow the 'Sai Path'. Whenever they greet each other they say 'Om Sai Ram'. Hundreds of bhajans are being made which sing his praise. A whole range of new industries has sprung up in Puttaparthi which markets Baba rings, vibhuti, photos, tapes and books. In the conference devotees spent two hours discussing 'Bhagwan Baba as a World Leader'. "
I had ended my article by stating: "The Sai movement like Baba is a bundle of contradictions. And as it grows the world will be faced with the question: Will Sai Baba lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of Sai?" My article was greeted by a storm of protest from his followers. One reader wrote back that he "would never dip his hands again in the gutters" of the magazine. After that I did go back twice, once with my wife as she was curious to see him and the next time as part of the press entourage accompanying the late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1996 when he went to pay his respects to the Baba. On both these occasions I did not seek a personal audience with him.
Periodically, articles appeared in magazines and newspapers charging his movement with exploiting his devotees and even allegations of sexual abuse. I anchored one such report when I was with India Today magazine. There was even a scandal over an attempt on Sai Baba’s life. Yet the mystique of the Baba remained untouched.
Much later, I realised why such controversies did not dent Sathya Sai Baba's message. For every guru has his way of teaching self-realisation to his followers. While getting his devotees to chant 'Om Sai Ram', Sathya Sai Baba in his own way was getting them to focus on a single thought that is the first lesson in meditation.
Then by telling the high and mighty to do menial tasks in the ashram he was working on cutting out their ego. By helping his devotees solve their problems, which many attributed to his miraculous powers, he was giving them the faith to believe in a force higher than themselves on the path towards self-realisation.
Many of his followers are now waiting for him to be reincarnated — something Sathya Sai Baba had told me in the interview would happen. They may not need to do so, if they practice what he preached.
— For comments write to firstname.lastname@example.org