To this very day, and probably until kingdom come, devotees of the prematurely deceased godman Sathya Sai Baba keep presenting highly dodgy stories and ‘evidence’ in order to underscore their guru’s self-professed claim that he was the grandmaster of the universe, the great ‘cosmic visitor’.
An early, outlandish example that reappears from time to time is the tale of a person called Homer Young, who if we are to believe current internet postings by die-hard devotees supposedly worked as an engineer for or close to NASA in the 1970’s and who is said to have ordered a set of four satellite pictures taken of the Puttaparthi area as it looked back then from 200 miles up in the air. As is often the case with the material presented as proof of Sai Baba’s miraculous and superhuman powers, it is almost entirely based on hearsay. There is no first-hand account available by mr. Young himself, as far as I have been able to establish.
The first time I myself learned of Homer Young (or, to be accurate: Homer S. Youngs, in actual fact a rather unsuccessful inventor) was more than thirty years ago, back in 1981, when I read his story in a newly published book called Living Divinity, by mrs. Shakuntala Balu of Bangalore. As far as I know, this book is the sole and primary source of the ‘miracle’. Mrs. Balu and her family were ardent devotees of the rising star of the south from the early seventies onwards. As they lived in Bangalore, they had the opportunity to visit the avatar frequently, and she, her husband Venkataraman Balu and her two sons got well befriended with Sai Baba, who visited their home on several occasions.
Mrs. Balu’s book Living divinity was actually finished as early as 1978, but took a couple of years before it hit the market. It made quite the impression within the devotee community, as it was written in an accessible, personal style, and told not only first-hand accounts of the Balu family with Sai Baba but a host of stories of very early devotees and their miraculous encounters with the slender, young Sathyam.
Chapter 10 of Part I, Sri Sathya Sai Baba and the Satellite, deals with the Homer Young(s) miracle. It is 4 pages long, and offers a quite detailed description of a six-year period (1972-1978) in which the scale of the supposed miracle gradually became clear to the main characters, Homer and Lila Young(s), and a circle of devotees in the same California region. Unfortunately, mrs. Balu does not say anything on how she got this information. Did she meet the Youngs herself over these years and/or talk to them? She certainly wants us to believe so, but it remains a mystery. Noteworthy also is the fact that Sai Baba never debunked the story as a myth in the 30 years he lived after its first appearance.
This is the tale in short, as I found it on the internet, posted by a devotee called Mannar Krishna on a Yahoo-group (It can be found in numerous other places also, including in Sathya Sai Baba’s commemorative museum, Puttaparthi!):
Laila and Homer Young were a couple living in California. Homer used to work in the establishment concerned with launching of satellites.
In 1972, Laila joined a group led by Indra Devi of Mexico, an ardent devotee of Swami, and came to Puttaparthi to meet Bhagawan. Homer desired that Puttaparthi should be photographed from space right at the time his wife was in Bhagawan’s Presence. Several photographs were taken by a satellite from 200 miles above the earth. Because of the great distance, no clear details of habitations, hills or buildings could be seen in the photographs, which showed only a number of patches and dots in black and white that made no sense. When Laila saw them on return from Puttaparthi, she felt very much disappointed. Being middle class people, she felt they should not have wasted US$60 on these poor pictures.
Several years went by. Some Sai devotees on their way to Tecate to attend the wedding of Indra Devi’s daughter visited the Homers’ home. He was then running a Sai Book Centre. There were several photos of Bhagawan in different poses in the Centre. As the visitors showed interest and liked some of them, Homer showed them the satellite pictures of Puttaparthi too. The visitors were closely looking at those photographs. Suddenly, a lady cried out, “Here is Sai Baba!” Curiosity aroused, they could all discern the face, in profile, of Sri Sathya Sai composed by the numerous patches and dots, which had earlier made no sense to Homer and Laila. The image was now crystal clear. The crown-like thick black hair on the head, the eyes, the shape of the nose and, wonder of wonders, even the birthmark on the cheek of the enchanting face of Bhagawan could be clearly seen.
Homer made his own calculations. He took into account longitude and latitude and found that the photograph covered a vast area, 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. He realized with considerable astonishment, that Swami’s form filled so much area. From the data available, Homer concluded that Bhagawan was looking at an extensive area surrounding Prashanti Nilayam.
In 1978, Homer came to Puttaparthi to meet Bhagawan. He saw a great circular aura around Swami’s head. He took several photographs and showed them to Swami. Bhagavan smiled sweetly and said, as Lord Sri Krishna told Arjuna, “These are trifles in my boundless divine magnificence (Anantha Mahimas).” These photographs taken on 29th November 1972 have been placed for exhibition in the planetarium in Prashanti Nilayam.
Several of the details are unaccounted for or plain wrong but the gist of the story is clear enough: a cosmic miracle, photographed by a NASA (well no, actually EROS) satellite, showing the visitor from space watching over his own earthly birthplace annex ashram: wow! If that does not constitute proof of… yeah, of what, actually??
Below: The supposedly untouched EROS satellite image of Puttaparthi (November 1972):
Below: The supposedly relevant section enlarged. Image on the left is said to be untouched. Image on right is a composite image to show the striking resemblance to Sathya Sai Baba (including a mole on his left cheek):
Mind you, the EROS-satellite used to take these pictures is unsuited to reveal any detail on the ground, other than river beds and large patches of vegetation. The blotches and apparent rocks are in fact chiefly clouds, not features like towns or habitation on the earth surface itself. Some might say that only adds to the mysterious way of the former Lord of Lords but does it?
To me, this whole show of so-called evidence of Sai Baba’s universal omnipresence captured in ‘natural phenomena’ (See later examples, e.g. of Sai Baba’s appearance on the moon) speaks of a desperate predilection of his cult members to see their master’s hand (or face, or feet, or ash) in every single thing. If science is seemingly involved, the miracle gains even more stature and credibility. (For an example of another apparent NASA involvement in a Sai ‘miracle’, read Robert Priddy’s post Malaysian Lawyer Hariram Jayaram on faked miracle photo etc.)
In reality, this photo’s interpretation seems nothing more than an example of a well-known scientific phenomenon called pareidolia. Pareidolia is an inherent psychological urge to see meaningful patterns, especially faces, in random and coincidental stimuli. Simply put, we have an almost uncontrollable predisposition to see faces in meaningless pictures. It is akin to a statistical Type-I error or a false positive. Common examples of pareidolia include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.
Some examples of pareidolia to clarify matters and drive home the immediacy and near-inescapability of this phenomenon:
Pareidolia is part of a larger conglomerate of phenomena called apophenia. This term was coined by German psychiatrist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 study of the onset of schizophrenia. Unlike an epiphany, apophany does not provide insight into the true nature of reality or its interconnectedness, according to Conrad. It is a hallmark of delusional thinking. Brugger later defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”, but nowadays, it has come to represent the human tendency to seek patterns in random information in general, such as with gambling and paranormal phenomena.
As a one time devotee, I can still recognize this selfsame need to interpret each and every random event or pattern in my life as intrinsically meaningful and connected to the guru. Everything had some kind of deeper meaning; you just needed to ‘see’ it. And boy, did I and all those brainwashed other devotees did some hineininterpretierung! Is that a problem? Yes, because there is no end to reading personalized purpose and meaning into perfectly natural phenomena that are simply unconnected, or at least not meaningfully connected to us. It is hard to snap out of it, but it is not impossible. Like fellow former devotee Barry Pittard said regarding this Homer Young picture in his 2007 post Sai Baba To Be Seen In Moon? But Where Was Moon?:
Certainly, Sai Baba’s so-called ‘spiritual’ museum exhibitors cater for such spurious ‘confirmatory’ evidence of their ‘Lord’s’ greatness. On show for example is what purports to be a NASA satellite photo of Sai Baba. It appears to some as though the very terrain for miles around his abode shows him watching over it… …Here you are, dear Reader – but gaze on this divine miracle of Sai Baba, and, should you become fully enlightened, please remember me in your Will.
I say Amen to that!