Monday, 7 March 2011

Tulasi Srinivas and Winged Faith

In 1998, Professor Tulasi Srinivas commenced a lengthy nine year ethnographic study of the Sathya Sai Baba sect. She emphasises the theme of globalisation, viewed by some analysts in terms of Western capitalist dominance. In 1989 the Indian economy was opened to global market forces, and a new middle class emerged with affluent purchasing power (Srinivas, Winged Faith, 2010, pp. 1-2).

In 1950, Sathya Sai Baba established an ashram at the village of Puttaparthi, in a rural zone of Andhra Pradesh, about a hundred miles from the city of Bangalore. His biography is a problem. “Devotee accounts construct a complete and complex mythic biography that replaces lost incidents in his life” (ibid., p. 52). The hagiology involved is notorious amongst scholars, one of whom observed over twenty years ago that “no objective account of Sathya Sai Baba’s life has been written by anyone close to him” (ibid., p. 53, citing L. Babb, 1987). There are hundreds of devotional biographies, a very few of which are officially favoured by the sect.

It is definite that, at an early stage in his career, Sathyanarayana Raju claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi (d. 1918). The youthful claimant “demanded that people refer to him as Sathya Sai” (ibid., p. 57). Confusions about the supposed predecessor (Shirdi Sai) are rife in many accounts, including those written by academics. Sathya Sai claimed to materialise healing ash (vibhuti), and the “miraculous” association has mistakenly been applied to Shirdi Sai, “who had also materialised vibhuti for his followers” (ibid., p. 9). That statement is incorrect. Cf. Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 2-58.

Sai Baba of Shirdi was a Muslim Sufi faqir who lived in a simple rural mosque in Maharashtra. He became subject to Hinduising hagiological tendencies, which could not, however, completely eclipse the original profile that is evident to close analysis (see Marianne Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism, 1999; rev. edn, 2004). Shirdi Sai always needs to be distinguished from Sathya Sai.

The Puttaparthi ashram became wealthy, a process aided by the many visitors from Western countries. “The [Sathya] Sai religious movement can be construed as a global religious empire” (Srinivas, op. cit., p. 235ff.). One development was the Sathya Sai (Seva) Organisation, commencing in the 1960s and swelling by the 1980s (ibid., pp. 240ff.). In 1974 the closely related devotional magazine Sanathana Sarathi bore “the new ecumenical logo of the [Sathya] Sai movement – a lotus with the symbols of the crescent and the star (Islam), the cross (Christianity), the Om (Hinduism), the fire (Zoroastrianism), and the wheel (Buddhism)” (ibid., p. 70, and p. 15).

There is a substantial omission of origin in Srinivas and numerous other accounts. The same ecumenical symbols were used as publishing insignia since the 1940s by the transnational Meher Baba movement; the reappearance as a logo of the Sathya Sai Organisation (SSO) is a clear example of borrowing without acknowledgment. The Meher Baba sect was regarded as a rival, the founder also claiming avatarhood. See Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, pp. 141, 231 note 403). Srinivas makes no reference to Meher Baba. There are significant gaps in the devotional and academic records (especially in relation to the contested “Sai Baba movement,” not to be confused with the Sathya Sai movement).

The teaching of Sathya Sai is strongly aligned to Hinduism. There is no element of Zoroastrianism, Islam, or Buddhism. In contrast, Meher Baba was born a Zoroastrian, and his teaching strongly reflects the terminologies of both Sufism and Hinduism. His followers cultivate a strong devotional orientation, reminiscent of the Sathya Sai contingent, and with similar tendencies to suppression of alternative and history-oriented materials. Certain books of mine have been suppressed on Wikipedia by supporters of both these religious sects; see Hazrat Babajan and Wikipedia Issues. Those sects are markedly unreliable as an index to sources. Even the university transmission in social science is to date incomplete, though presumably with more ability to remedy the lacunae.

Srinivas refers to the impression created “that the upper orders of the [Sathya] Sai movement do not appreciate democracy, equality, or openness” (ibid., p. 252). She relates that “I found I was waging an uphill battle when I tried to discuss the scandal and the embedded issue of secrecy” (ibid., p. 236). Secrecy emerges as a major complication. Srinivas gives a far less secretive (though still rather restricted) attention to the counter-trend comprised of disillusioned ex-devotees. This was in process by 2000, reporting allegations of sexual abuse and other drawbacks (pp. 233ff., 252-9). The Srinivas version is an improvement upon former academic commentaries.

Srinivas describes the allegations in terms of “sexual healing,” a sanitised verbal gesture that is clearly influenced by the SSO (ibid., pp. 252ff.). Indeed, Srinivas states that the conflict with ex-devotees caused Sathya Sai and the SSO “to develop a sophisticated critique of Western thought that has been aired repeatedly in every confrontation with the press, the West, anti-Sai activists, and secular Indians” (ibid., p. 260). Any criticism of the guru is blamed on the evils of Western thinking by the putatively model format of sectarian morality.

Concession to this acute problem attitude is the current state of globalisation theory in anthropology and sociology. In contrast, analytical citizens are not obliged to render subscription or deference to devotionalism and “secrecy” traits. In sectarian programmes, globalisation and secrecy evidently amount to something evasive of accountability.

Srinivas only briefly refers to Basava Premanand (1930-2009) in a footnote (ibid., p. 372 note 56). Yet he was the major Indian critic of Sathya Sai for many years, with sufficient profile for documentation. Srinivas awards lavish space to the beliefs of devotees, who view all critics with contempt, or as evil.

A form of devotee thinking has been: “Admitting perhaps some of his [Sathya Sai’s] materialisations to be fraudulent, and the charges of sexual misconduct accurate, but the idea of mere mortals sitting in judgment on God [Sathya Sai] is to ‘distort the truth’.” (Ibid., p. 261, citing N. Palmer, 2005). Professor Srinivas seems anxious to placate both the contending parties involved:

“Anti-Sai activists argue that the sexual behaviour (if it did happen) is criminal behaviour, while devotees argue that it is a pathway to spiritual betterment. I suggest that these two versions of truth are both valid to the participants” (ibid., p. 269).

Anthropologist Tulasi Srinivas invokes the philosopher Paul Ricoeur via the phrase “conflict of interpretations,” and in the context of “an indeterminacy of meaning within a discourse” (ibid., p. 270). Ricoeur was not involved in the strongly alleged sexual abuse episodes, which were not discourses, and it is not necessary to adopt a relativist viewpoint in assessing so many complaints and allegations. The devotee argument for a Tantric “kundalini” significance in the guru’s homosexual actions has been strongly repudiated by ex-devotees, despite some lingering tendencies amongst the latter of psychological conditioning to the “miracle” hype favoured by the SSO.

“Devotees rise through the ranks of ordinary devotees into the upper ranks of the ‘Sairarchy’ – hierarchy of Sai officials – by advancing their store of seemingly secret knowledge” (ibid., p. 275). Unquestioning and blind obedience to the sectarian mandate is here involved. Yet we are told by Srinivas how the evidence suggests that the SSO “constructs a viable alternate organisational structure to the accepted worldwide corporate model” (ibid., p. 281). Regardless of corporatism, it is ethically important to determine which version of “truth” is the most valid in relation to “sexual healing.”

The final chapter of Winged Faith relates to economic factors. “The genealogy of materialised objects is obscure, and devotees work hard to ensure the occlusion” (ibid., p. 297). Srinivas compares the esteem for “miracle” objects (supposedly materialised by Sathya Sai) to the “medieval European trade in the relics of Christian saints” (ibid.). One ex-devotee took a “miraculous” diamond ring to a top Copenhagen jeweller who concluded that the stone was a synthetic green sapphire (ibid., p. 296). The miraculous jewels palmed by the guru are alleged to come from the substantial marketplace created for objects associated with him.

Globalisation of the sect has involved “a global distributive network of Sai goods” (ibid., p. 300). Affluent Western devotees have been an easy target for consumption. Both the SSO and independent merchants were busy selling books, cassettes, images, and other objects. “By the late 1970s, the sale of the religious objects reached a new high” (ibid., p. 302), with the commercial zone at Puttaparthi enjoying prosperity. Everything from statues and packs of cards to talismans and jewellery were on offer.

The commercial growth of Bangalore from the late 1980s increased the insatiable market inspired by miracle lore. By 2000, the SSO “was the largest religious foreign exchange earner in India, totalling approximately Indian Rs 75 million” (ibid., p. 304). The total investment of the SSO in Puttaparthi is stated by the same source to be approximately 400 million dollars, which “includes rental on shops selling images, licensing agreements, real estate holdings” (ibid.). However, the SSO does not reveal internal accounting, and in 1990 the Economist assessed the guru’s assets at over two billion US dollars. The current total figure is much higher (ibid. p. 377 note 31), and known only within the ranks of secrecy.

Srinivas ends with the contention, inherently favourable to the SSO, about the generation of a language “toward an engaged cosmopolitanism that is a necessary condition for multicultural societies to live in civility; this is the basis of a new pluralism” (ibid., p. 342). Further, the “grammar of diversity is about inclusion” (ibid.).

The language of new pluralism includes an acute form of internet attack and stigma. At the time of publication, the book under discussion was treated to a very hostile and uncivil dismissal by an aggressive American web supporter of Sathya Sai (alleged to be an internet hit man for the SSO). The extremist commentator even implied that Professor Srinivas would be laughed out of Emerson College as a consequence of his remarks.

Various ex-devotees and critics were lacerated in the same “cosmopolitan” document featuring the stridently censoring and non-inclusive language of Pro-Sai activism. See Tulasi Srinivas and the Politics of Religion. Beware all potential victims of the new pluralism.

Viable globalisation will acknowledge valid sources, and in due context, without resort to stigma or libel, and nor the forms of repression found in religious sects and the expanding American web organ Wikipedia, which is prone to influence by pseudonymous editorship of sectarian affiliation.

See further Tulasi Srinivas, Winged Faith: Rethinking Globalization and Religious Pluralism through the Sathya Sai Movement (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 7th 2011

ENTRY no. 38

Copyright © 2011 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.