Saturday, May 28, 2011

After a god dies

Questions remain about Sai Baba's multi-billion-dollar empire and the future of Puttaparthi, the city built on his spiritual prowess. -- PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Puttaparthi, India - His face adorns the yellow motorised rickshaws zipping down the streets. Billboards bear his simple motto, Love All, Serve All. His portrait hangs in almost every shop: a tiny man with a gravity-defying crown of curly hair regarded by millions of worldwide devotees as a god.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who declared himself a 'living god' as a teenager and spent decades assembling a spiritual empire, permeates every corner of this small Indian city. He transformed it from a village of mud huts into a faith centre with a private airport, a university, two major hospitals, rising condominium towers and a stadium - a legacy now forcing a question upon his followers: What happens when a god dies?

India can sometimes seem overrun with gurus, spiritualists and competing godmen (as they are sometimes called). But when Sai Baba died last month at the age of 84, the nation paused in respect and reverence, if blended with scepticism, too. An estimated 900,000 people, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, paid respects at his ornate wake and funeral, which was televised live across the country. Critics labelled him a fraud and bemoaned the Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs.

Now, though, as the shock is starting to wear off here in Puttaparthi, people are grappling with what comes next. Sai Baba was a spiritual leader but also an economic engine. Business owners are wondering whether adherents will keep coming; construction abruptly stopped on several half-built residential towers. Sai Baba's medical, educational and philanthropic institutions are suddenly without a leader. And for believers, there is the question of when, and in what form, he will be reincarnated.

'We don't feel he has left us,' said Mr Poonam Khialani, 52, a devotee visiting last week from Singapore. 'We just feel his physical form is not here.' Many of Sai Baba's advisers and adherents apparently were shocked by his death, even though his health had been steadily weakening. For several days after his death, the trustees overseeing his organisation remained silent as the Indian news media speculated on possible infighting over an empire valued in the billions of dollars, or about the possible existence of a secret will.

'The running of these institutions has been well provided for by Baba,' said Mr V. Srinivasan, one of the trustees, in an interview, dismissing the speculation about a secret will or a government takeover.

'The trustees' responsibility is to ensure that these institutions continue to function as they were functioning before. The material resources for that have been provided.'

Last week, people in Puttaparthi still seemed in a daze, if also cautiously optimistic that their city will continue to thrive as a pilgrimage site. In 1940, Sai Baba, then 14, declared himself the reincarnation of an earlier Hindu holy man, the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918. He reportedly realised his godliness after surviving the bite of a scorpion. As word began to spread about this diminutive guru with kinky hair, believers began trickling into Puttaparthi, which gradually evolved into a small but bustling city.

Across India, various gurus operate extensive networks of ashrams, but Sai Baba's organisation was unsurpassed in scale, with service groups in every Indian state and major city, along with ashrams in more than 126 countries. His main ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, or Temple of Peace, operates like a self-contained small city, with offices for 'overseas devotees', blocks of dormitories, bookstalls, cafeterias offering regional and international fare and a central, open-air temple where Sai Baba held audiences with as many as 30,000 people every day.

As with other self-proclaimed godmen, he was denounced as a fraud by many sceptics, who disparaged as sleight of hand the 'miracles' he performed - producing sacred ash from his fingers or Rolex watches from his hair. Controversy also arose about claims of paedophilia towards teenage boys, accusations denied by his organisation. No charges were ever filed.

What separated him from some other gurus was the scale of his philanthropic work. He built major hospitals for the poor, including the ornate pink structure in Puttaparthi that provides free healthcare, including heart surgery. He oversaw major water projects in response to shortages and drought. To many devotees, his appeal was that he accepted all religions and never asked people to discard their faith, only to practise it better.

In his absence, though, the challenge will be maintaining the dedication and support of his followers. His schools, hospitals and ashrams depend on huge numbers of volunteers who come to Puttaparthi to perform free services, and also on a steady stream of donations. His trustees say the annual organisational budget is about US$25 million (S$31.1 million), equally divided between interest from investments and donations.

In Puttaparthi, business owners are already seeing changes. If devotees once came for weeks or months to spend time near Sai Baba, now they are coming for short trips to pay homage at his burial site. Nearly the entire local economy depended on him: About 10,000 labourers from surrounding villages worked on construction sites and hundreds of other villagers sell fruits and vegetables to visitors.

Yet most devotees are certain Sai Baba's appeal will only broaden. Among believers, stories are circulating about 'miracles' witnessed around the world since his death: sacred ashes appearing on a photo of Sai Baba in Uganda; ashes coming out of the nose of a Sai Baba statue in Russia; and devotees who have seen him materialise before them.

Sai Baba described himself as the second incarnation in a trinity and predicted that the third would be born in the neighbouring Indian state of Karnataka. Yet many believe that Sai Baba will be coming back as himself.

'Even in this form, we think he will come back,' said Mr Sai Prakash, a devotee raised in the ashram. 'There are signs.'

New York Times