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Hinduism Can Puttaparthi Become Super Shirdi? The Jury Is Out


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

Now that the Sai Baba is gone, Puttaparthi, his seat of power, needs role models as it maps out its future.

Pondicherry? Shirdi? Tirumala?

Devotees point hopefully to all of these as proof that there is an afterlife.

But the saffron robes don’t fit quite so neatly.

Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanams, first off, is the seat of God, not a godman. And the trust that runs Tirupati is a religious trust while the Satya Sai Central trust is a public one.

Pondicherry was centred around Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. But Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar, a scholar who has studied the Sai Baba and other religious gurus, says Pondicherry was a “social and spiritual experiment of living together and organising life differently.”

Puttaparthi, she says, is “the residence or so to speak the kingdom of a Godman who was the centre of attention.” Its development from small village to prosperous town happened to meet the needs of the throngs of devotees who were coming there to see the Sai Baba. She suspects that the “cult around the Sai Baba will go down because its centre was a living godman.”

The Shirdi Sai Baba was venerated in life but became even more famous after his death. When Satya Sai Baba proclaimed himself the reincarnation of the Shirdi Sai Baba, it had a snowballing effect on the Shirdi Baba’s fame.

“I think what the Trust is trying, by having Sri Satya Sai Baba buried in its premises is to create a place of worship in the hope that it will turn out to be a huge pilgrimage centre like Shirdi,” says Poggendorf-Kakar.

Prof. Anantharaman, the newly-appointed press officer for the trust, admits that Puttaparthi is a bit of a special case. “It’s worldwide, it has more structured service activity, a wider spread of devotees and more holistic objectives,” he says.

Who trusts the Trust?

Whether Puttaparthi becomes super Shirdi will depend in part on how the Trust handles the transition. So far it has not inspired much confidence. Two members, including the Sai Baba’s nephew, have been interrogated by the police about unaccounted cash that was seized in a car heading out of Puttaparthi. Two of its most respected members, Justice P N Bhagwati and Indulal Shah, are elderly and would have probably stepped down from the board if the Sai Baba had not passed away. The Sai Baba’s niece, Chetana Raju, has alleged threats being made on her life by trust members. Family members and associates hint about his unfulfilled “last wishes.”

It all sounds like the classic palace intrigue that erupts when a charismatic leader dies — the blood relatives facing off against the officials to control the legacy.

The big worry for Prashanti Nilayam is that Big Brother, aka the state government, is watching. There is nervousness that political parties will seize on the unrest to get their hands on the Sai Trust’s vast fortunes. Sandip Roy/Firstpost
“The Baba took care of his relatives but also kept his distance from them,” says a highly-placed official at Prashanti Nilayam who requested anonymity. But he admits the trustees also have been lagging in their response to allegations and rumours.

Now they are appointing a Press information officer, promising annual reports and paying income tax on the valuables found in the Swami’s private chambers. In short, they are realising belatedly that the Sai Baba didn’t need to give anyone any answers. They do.

“They should have done all this a long time ago,” says the official. He says the organisation is feeling the vacuum already.

“Unlike other similar organisations ours is a large service organisation with hospitals, educational institutions where work is done by a lot of devotees on a voluntary basis,” says Prof Anantharaman. “The challenge will be to keep them motivated.”

The number of Seva Dal volunteers, the backbone of the complex, is already down.

The big worry for Prashanti Nilayam is that Big Brother, aka the state government, is watching. There is nervousness that political parties will seize on the unrest to get their hands on the Sai Trust’s vast fortunes.

“Swami used to steer clear of government,” says the official. “If government comes in dynamism will go down. Bureaucratic systems will come in.”

The real miracle of Puttaparthi

Puttaparthi was put on the map by the Sai Baba. At the Chaitanya Jyoti museum, a brightly coloured Shaolin-temple like structure devoted to his life and miracles, there’s even a 1972 map of Puttaparthi taken from a NASA satellite. True believers insist they can see the Sai Baba in that map, down to the mole on his cheek.

This was a little town in the middle of nowhere. People waded across the Chitravati river carrying their belongings on their head. Now it has free super specialty hospitals where you can even get heart surgery done. The only thing it lacks, says an official proudly, is a billing department. It has universities where you can get a Ph.D, also for free. Once you had to walk 5-8 miles to get drinking water and that was still polluted. Now drinking water flows straight from the tap.

“The watches, the vibhuti, those are just small things,” says Kaushik Dasgupta as he shows me around the museum. “The real miracles of the Sai Baba are his water projects, his medical projects, his educational projects.”

The Sri Satya Sai Central Trust repeatedly reassures anyone who will listen that none of those miracles are threatened whether or not the sacred ash continues to flow from the godman’s photographs.

“There are adequate funds in the corpus to continue all these projects,” insists trustee V Srinivasan. “They are invested in fixed deposits of nationalised banks. The income for the investment will pay the cost for all salaries, consumables, electricity bills.”

So the electricity is not going to be turned off on the Sai empire anytime soon. But what about Prashanti Nilayam’s future?

“We need many many Vivekanandas”

“The corpus will take care of day to day expenses,” says the senior official. “But you have to be dynamic to grow. You have to go forward. For that donations will be required.”

The official fears that all the negative publicity around the trust, the allegations of financial mishandling, of lakhs of rupees being spirited away under the cover of night, are going to put a severe damper on future donations.

“The image of the trust has to be refurbished,” he says.

But he is cautiously optimistic that the Sai Central Trust will weather this storm. He points out that the Sikhs faced a similar situation after the tenth and last guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

“After the last guru, the Guru Granth Sahib became the guru,” he says. “Now his teachings will have to become our beacon. That should be enough.”

But someone will have to take those teachings out to the world. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa had his Swami Vivekananda.

“In today’s world we will need many many Vivekanandas,” says the official. “The leadership has to come up.”

Otherwise Puttaparthi will have to learn how to be an ordinary town or market itself as a sort of spiritual Disneyland. There is already talk about a museum with the Sai Baba’s personal effects. His private chambers apparently yielded not just gold and jewellery but 500 pairs of shoes, all size 7, hair sprays and 750 white and saffron silk robes.

Puttaparthi might change in more mundane ways. Perhaps it will get itself a movie theatre. The Sai Baba’s younger brother had wanted one for a long time but the Sai Baba was adamantly opposed. Now if someone wants to open one in town, the Trust will not be able to do anything about it.

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