Pray tell: can a dead guru answer prayers?

The question raised by Robert Priddy in his recent post of January 20, 2012, whether praying to Sathya Sai Baba (or God for that matter) can be effective, is a highly interesting one, in my view.

Mr. Priddy deals with this subject in an astute manner, and has some notable remarks concerning the practices followed and testimonies given by Sai Baba devotees, to convince themselves and others of the miraculous nature of their personal God(man).

In short, he who prays earnestly to the master gets his prayers answered. If not, it is through his own lack of faith or some karmic trouble.

Because of the ever-increasing unavailability of direct contact with Sathya Sai Baba over the previous decades, which was the inevitable result of the sheer increase in numbers of visitors to the ashram and the very limited amount of time the master provided for interaction with them (twice a day for maybe twenty minutes darshan, plus the rare interview, accosted to the ‘happy’ few), large groups of devotees resorted more and more

The much coveted daily dose of darshan on its way…

to indirect ‘proof’, whether through prayer, dreams, premonitions, contact with VIP-devotee-clearvoyants like Phyllis Krystal, and other, sometimes all-too-primitive supposed channelers and channelings of the master. The use of the three pieces of paper mr. Priddy refers to, which I too remember well, is a typical example of the latter: a crude form of divination.

Being unavailable is one of the devices cult leaders use in order to gain an ever-increasing aura among their believers, by the way. Especially when their followers are cooped up in primitive dwellings, and are deprived of contact with the outside world their whole day revolves around the master. Not seeing him, not being able to come into close, personal contact with him, makes people anxious, which in turn serves as an incentive to listen to tall tales and boosting the master’s omnipotence through any number of stories heard through the grapevine. It also hides the master quite effectively from any altogether too inquisitive a view from people who are a bit more sceptical.

If a master at all, Sathya Sai Baba certainly was one in this respect! He pulled off the most unlikely feat: not letting himself get caught for the massive fraud, deception and abuse he was involved in during sixty odd years. Instead, he managed to achieve an enormous following and influence the world over, culminating in a state funeral, with full honours, and very few awkward questions asked even after his demise.

The whole issue of whether praying to a personal God is even feasible, let alone effective, has been hotly debated inside and outside the scientific community for well over 140 years. Wikipedia provides a rather extensive and well-informed expose concerning this topic: the efficacy of prayer.

In a debate/interview in Newsweek with Christian evangelical Rick Warren, atheist Sam Harris commented that most lay perceptions of the efficacy of prayer (personal impressions as opposed to empirical studies) were related to sampling error because “we know that humans have a terrible sense of probability.” That is, humans are more inclined to recognize confirmations of their faith than they are to recognize disconfirmations.

Harris also criticized existing empirical studies for limiting themselves to prayers for relatively unmiraculous events, like recovery from heart surgery. He suggested a simple experiment to settle the issue:

Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.’

Another eloquent critic of the inefficacy of prayer is internationally renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As it happens (and no, not by divine intervention!), Dawkins

visited my alma mater, the University of Groningen, just a fortnight ago (January 12 and 13, 2012). He stayed here for two consecutive days, entering into public debate, giving lectures and appearing as the guest of honour for the opening of the new Biology Building of the University, named after famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

The Linnaeusborg at the south side, September 2010

In his writings (of which the most controversial is his 2006 bestselling book, see picture below), Dawkins claims the ‘God Hypothesis’ is fallacious. In fact, he depicts people who believe in a personal, compassionate God as being delusional.

Whichever way your outlook on this complex question, suffice it to say that I agree with Robert Priddy that Sathya Sai Baba took advantage of many well-intentioned (but perhaps too gullible) people, people from the West and the East, the North and the South, people from all walks of life, from highly educated to illiterate.

Did he answer prayers while alive? I don’t think so. It certainly has not been my experience. He very often broke promises he made in direct contact, that I do know, for sure, first hand. If he is to answer prayers right now, he has had to have been some kind of supernatural being, an otherworldly entity, transgressing the laws of nature.

Is that even possible?

He certainly claimed to be just that, a deity, a supernatural being, nay more: he assured everyone willing to listen he was the highest of the high, the guru of all gurus, master of all masters, god of all gods, king of kings, the centre of the universe, with the whole of creation resting in his almighty palm.

So: do I think Sathya Sai Baba can answer prayers now that he has ‘shed his mortal coil’? No. Dead men tell no tales.  Prayers fall unto deaf ears, as they all too often did whilst the

master was still walking this earth, or did they not? His staunch believers will, I am sure, always see some proof beyond doubt of the divinity of their late master though, and of him answering prayers even from beyond the grave.

It has ever been so: voluntary questioning your innermost belief system is rare. If you have allowed yourself to become brainwashed, it is even harder to really familiarize yourself with opposing information. You’d rather vilify the messenger. Many who harbour doubts rationalize these thoughts away. I am afraid the bottom line is that many of them secretly think themselves unable to confront the harsh truth, and live another day.

We so much like to be sure. We so much seem to need to be…