Sathya Sai Baba was likely the most successful archdeceiver in recent history. And also one of the most prolific sexual molesters of boys and young men. Both allegations have haunted him and his worldwide movement. They have become endemic to his controversial nature and legacy. And yet, his good deeds were allegedly plentiful too. Thus the paradox arises: was he a (flawed) godman with genuine mystical powers? Or was he a twisted individual suffering from a mental disorder? Did he believe himself to be of grandiose proportions? Or both?
The ever changing Wikipedia page on Sathya Sai Baba is testament to the ongoing controversy. Staunch believers have long hindered even the semblance of a balanced review on that platform. Online critics and whistleblowers like Robert Priddy, Barry Pittard, Brian Steel, Serguei Badaev or Conny Larson still go totally unmentioned. Many have dealt with this Wikipedia issue. Robert Priddy certainly did. But none so exhaustive as another learned online critic, British writer Kevin Shepherd. His rich account proves we cannot take Wikipedia contributions at face value. It’s simply not an unbiased encyclopedia.
Wide variety of critics
Sathya Sai Baba critics have been many and varied. Opposers never gave them credit for this. It has been all too easy for them to paint Sai Baba’s questioners with one brush as disgruntled. This is an entirely undeserved misnomer. In fact, they not only consist of former longtime adherents, some even highranking office bearers, like Robert Priddy (head of the Norway organization), Barry Pittard (taught English for over 2 years at Sathya Sai Baba’s college in Whitefield), Glen Meloy, Hari Sampath, Serguei Badaev and the like, each highly educated, but also include outsider individuals like Kevin Shepherd or the late professor Abraham Kovoor, who challenged all the god-men of India and Sri Lanka. He spearheaded the rationalist challenge to these miracle workers, putting up a reward if they performed one or more of 23 feats. Within the ‘group’ of former adherents positions range from still spiritually interested or invested to (re)turned agnostic.
Even professor Tulasi Srinivas, who supposedly took years familiarizing herself with them, egregiously failed to notice this important fact in her 2010 book Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalisation and Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement. She lumped them summarily together as predominantly white and male, another undeserved epithet, as, by doing so, she skipped important Indian critics like Basava Premanand, a former devotee who later became a leader within the Indian Rationalist Society, or female ones like American psychologist Shirley Pike, Dutch academic Alexandra Nagel, Swedish Åsa Samsioe or American outlier Eileen Weed, who lived nearly her whole adult life in Puttaparthi, not as a typical Western devotee but uniquely integrated in the local Indian community, speaking Telugu fluently and looking after two of Sathya Sai Baba’s sisters, Venkamma and Parvatamma over years. Her diaries and online interviews, publicly accessible, are an invaluable asset in uncovering the truth.
Dr. Timothy Conway
In the long list of voices critical of Sathya Sai Baba, American born Timothy Conway deserves a special mention. His scholarly concerns have unjustly been overlooked, whereas I find his exposé, written mainly in 2007, added only by 2 short paragraphs right after Baba’s death in 2011, still of signal clarity and compassion. Conway, a lifelong advaitist (and follower of Sathya Sai Baba until 2001), upholds an extensive website called Enlightened Spirituality.
A special entry provides a large overview plus speculations regarding the true character of the downfallen saint: My concerns about Sathya Sai Baba. In a prefatory note Conway says:
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has declared: “If there is any difference between who you are sitting on your throne, and who you are behind the scenes, then you should not be sitting on that throne.” And on two-faced teachers who deny or rationalize their unwholesome hidden behavior, the Dalai Lama says to students of such teachers: “You get out. You let everybody know, you don’t keep it secret.” (Quoted in Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Into the Heart of Life, 2011, pp. 161-2)
It is a curious paradox in authentic spirituality that we do best always to see everyone in the most sublime light as embodiments of the One Divine Light, yet we must also be savvy and sharp about injustices, abuses of sentient beings, abuses of Truth, Virtue and Propriety. Jesus taught, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” And yet Jesus himself could be quite “judgmental” and “critical,” even in the most genuine earliest collection of his teachings, as carefully sifted by scholars (such as when he harshly rebuked the greedy money-lenders and threw them out of the temple). Hence, our mature spiritual intelligence needs to be a judge or a critic, that is, an evaluator, of proper and improper behavior occurring in ourselves (first and foremost, ourselves) and also in others, for the sake of the common good. Otherwise, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (a line famously attributed to Irish philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, d.1797). We can criticize or judge our own behavior and the behavior of apparent “others” (the One Self in disguise) while fully loving them as the Beloved.
Bottom line: while critiquing unseemly and/or illegal, criminal behavior, we need not throw anyone out of our hearts!
This is a forgiving and enlightened, very aimiable point of view if ever I read one. Which is fine, commendable even. I do have a caveat. While lofty as an ideal, for the sake of those who were violated, I find it potentially detrimental to allude to such advaitic notions in a context such as this. Without proper treatment and healing it could open the door to dissociation, rationalization, repression and self-blame even further. An extreme example being that of Yaani Drucker, who was raped in the selfsame pooja room in San Francisco that Conway used to frequent decades ago. She has in her mind transformed the horrific rape into an eerie spiritual transformation point: ‘It never happened, it wasn’t real’. I concur with my colleague Elena Hartgering that ‘Mrs. Drucker’s apparent denial, dissociation, cult-speak and detachment are not healthy measures to be undertaken by rape victims.’ This is not to say Dr. Conway would think differently, when asked. In fact, I am quite sure, given his training and compassionate stance, he would not want to suggest victims of sexual abuse to adopt such a relativistic approach.
Nature and likelihood of the sexual abuse cases
Dr. Conway, in weighing the pros and cons of the veracity of the sexual abuse, first asks why the accused party never used their enormous wealth and power to sue the ‘attackers’ in Indian court for spreading lies and defamation of character. Nor held an open hearing or tried mediation.
Instead, a wall of cowardly silence was erected. A few highly influential people like V. Ramnath, former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, high court judges Bhagavati and Mishra flatly denied the whole sordid affair. They defamed and slandered the few brave whistleblowers. As did dr. Michael Goldstein, who let Sathya Sai Baba himself get off the hook with one remark: ‘Swami is pure’.
Dr. Conway subdivides 5 categories of reported sexual transgression by Sathya Sai Baba.
Five categories of sexual transgression
1. Having the young boy/man without informed consent drop his pants and oil his lower abdomen and/or genitals.
2. Young male Sai devotees, while fully dressed, having had their penis or groin area touched, played with, fondled, slapped, etc., by Sathya Sai Baba, both inside and outside the interview room.
3. Far less frequently, within the private interview room SSB has asked a youth to drop his trousers, or undone them himself, and then proceeded to manually rub or orally suck on the penis of the male youth.
4. Also far less frequently, SSB has in the private interview room exposed his own genitals and asked the male youth to fondle or suck on his erect, partially erect, or non-erect penis.
5. In a number of cases it has been alleged that, within the private interview room, SSB kissed a young male on the mouth, sometimes for a long period of over 5 seconds, up to 30 seconds or more, and/or hugged a male youth close to him for a similar time-period.
Let’s be clear: it involved sex acts which in some cases led to masturbation, involuntary ejaculation and even anal penetration.
Further down in his exposé, Dr. Conway then explains why these intrusions could remain unheard and unseen (curtain, electric ceiling fan, ambient ashram noise, turning a blind eye or deaf ear), after which he lists 6 groups of sex experiencers.
Six groups of sex experiencers
1. 16 named individuals who went on record up til around the turn of the millennium: from Tal Brooke, Alaya Rahm, Jens Sethi, Mark Roche, Neptune Chapotin, Hans de Kraker, Ulrich Zimmerman and Dr. Naresh Bhatia to Conny Larsson, Krishna Kumar, Jed Geyerhahn, Keith Ord, Marc-Andre St. Jean, Matthijs van der Meer, John Worldie and “Said” Afshin Khorramshahgol. Many with stories covering categories 3 and 4, far beyond the perhaps harder to explain ‘oiling rituals’.
2. A group of around 14 others, known to a trusted few but not formally named yet. Ulli Steckenreuter (long dead) was amongst them.
Together, they constitute a group of around 30, a third of whom were under age (below 18) at the time of their sex experience.
3. There is a third set of experiencers, at least a dozen or a few dozen further cases where we do not have any specific names, but we have verbal and/or written reports from named individuals—their relatives, friends or acquaintances—who knew the experiencers and who were told by these usually unhappy or disgruntled persons to some extent about their sexual contacts from SSB. These experiencers fall into the category of “son of…,” “stepson of…,” “father of…,” “friend of…,” “acquaintance of…,” etc. The time-period and individual nationality reported strongly suggest in most cases that these are additional, unique cases, not merely cases that can be considered as a subset of cases already identified.
4. There is a fourth set of alleged experiencers, some of the signers of the JuST petition posted on the Internet. Robert Priddy and others, me included, know them. I myself signed the petition. And I was an experiencer myself.
5. A fifth set of experiencers, the indiscriminately-labeled “many students in the Sathya Sai Baba schools,” primarily Indian students, referred to in writing or orally by people like David Bailey, Jed Geyerhahn, Krishna Kumar, Meenakshi Srikanth, Mary Garden, Mrs. Bitten Nelson, Andy Reimer, Dr. Naresh Bhatia, Basava Premanand, and Mr. Kamadhani, who were in a position to directly hear these stories from many students.
6. Finally Dr. Conway mentions a sixth set or group of “suspected molestees,” male youth who received notable attention from SSB in the form of one or more private interviews, but who at some point afterward (even very soon afterward) left the ashram and/or the SSB movement, never to be seen or heard again.
As an important aside, it must be said that Dr. Conway’s account of the first group of individuals who came forward (‘the 16’) is not exhaustive. There have been quite a few more: Satch Purcell, Josh Kintz, Michael Pender, Kestrel Boyle, an Australian boy named Edward, and fellow Dutchman Bas Engelbarts come to mind. For more information on them, see Priddy’s overview: Major exposure of alleged sexual abuses by Sathya Sai Baba. In 2014, another damning testimony emerged in the shape of a documentary A man called God, that of Hollywood star Kristoff St. John, who says he was abused by Sathya Sai Baba in 1980, while 14 years old.
Dr. Conway’s debunking of every counterargument
Page after page, through rational argumentation and in part expressed in questions to the then chairman dr. Michael Goldstein, in part through careful point-by-point rebuttal in letters to friends and office-bearers who still try and deny or explain away these allegations, Conway makes his case.
1. My questions of Dr. Michael Goldstein;
2. A letter in 2001 to “Emily” (name changed for privacy), a longtime devotee of SSB and also a close friend;
3. An open letter I wrote in March 2001, commenting on a “damage control” propaganda piece written by Jack Hawley, a prominent author and devotee of Sathya Sai;
4. An open letter in March 2001, commenting on another propaganda piece written by Jagadeesan, a prominent SSB devotee, author, and overseer of the SSB movement in SE Asia (and ongoing advocate for virginity among the youth!);
5. A letter in 2001 to “Anne” (named changed for privacy), a longtime devotee of SSB;
6. A short letter from 2005 to “Sandy” (name changed), a doubting devotee, in which letter I comment on the pathological behavior of the “true believers” who criticized “Sandy” for her doubts about SSB.
7-8. Two more short letters, from Jan. 2007, to “Sandy” in response to her sharing with me a few questions and a long open letter [not reproduced here] written in late 2006 by G. Venkataraman, a scientist and “true believer” in Sathya Sai Baba, a high-ranking deputy in his organization. As part of these two letters I have added some scientific insights on how the incidence of the paranormal around SSB cannot be seen as sufficient evidence of his being “a Divine Incarnation.” Very importantly, I have also added the statement by the Rahm family and their lawyer concerning their court case against the SSB org leadership in the USA, which was self-dismissed on a legal technicality (the SSB org is so fearful that it has structured itself to be unaccountable to the law), and yet that dismissal has been falsely interpreted by SSB org leaders like Venkataraman as an imagined “victory,” when in fact the allegations still stand uncontested as true in the view of many national, international and media organizations.
These pages are required reading for anyone who wants to acquaint himself with nearly every nook and cranny of this debate. It has been unresolved in the public eye, whilst the matter at hand clearly points in just one direction: Sathya Sai Baba was culpable of illegal sex acts. He himself, his devotees and organization responded in a dysfunctional, vindictive, hypocritical and childlike manner to earnest and serious misgivings.
Dr. Conway’s personal explanation of the Sathya Sai Baba phenomenon
How does Dr. Conway explain the apparent two-facedness of the late Sathya Sai Baba? He sums it up in this brief statement:
For what it’s worth, my preferred explanation for all that is good and not-good about Sathya Sai is this: the evidence indicates that the old Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918) of Maharashtra state, an unbelievably powerful spiritual adept, possibly an avatâra (one who freely incarnates without karmic necessity), has worked through several channels, likely one of whom is the Sathya Narayana Raju / Sathya Sai personality (there are several other notable saints and healers who claim that Shirdi Sai Baba’s holy and powerful influence is behind their ministry, most recently including figures such as Sree Chakravarti of Delhi and Sainathuni Sarath Babujiof Shirdi). But it seems that Sathya Narayana Raju has his own dark shadow side of lust for sex and power, etc., and this has “contaminated” Shirdi Sai’s working through him. This could easily explain how so much good has happened around Sathya Sai—including deep experiences of God-realization for many devotees, while others have had such weird or even terrible and traumatic experiences with Sathya Sai. Again, I daresay this is a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” phenomenon of amazing proportions.
My own point of view
As a firm believer in the true nature of man being spiritual, Dr. Conway’s ‘way out’ of this conundrum makes perfect sense. Is it a way out? I find myself more on the fence than I care to admit, mainly through some amazing first hand experience with the prematurely deceased guru (85 instead of 96).
Let’s just say I have encountered both the Dr. Jekyll and the mister Hyde aspect of Sathya Sai Baba. I personally witnessed some miraculous events I still cannot rationally explain AND I personally suffered the sexual transgression. Which I cannot deny either. So yes, me too.
To say Sathya Sai Baba was deeply flawed and should have paid the price of a trial and conviction, plus prison time, like Keith Raniere of NXIVM recently (120 years in jail!) and other person centered cult figures these days is a no-brainer to me. That much is for sure.