The Sai Succession, Act II

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Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be Shirdi Sai Baba’s reincarnation. The question of his own succession, though, will be hotly contested

Among the things that Sathya Sai Baba did not conjure out of thin air is this question: who will succeed this godman? Such godmen arguably do not have successors of the worldly sort. Saffron robes are supposed to signify tyaag (renunciation) and frizzy hair is meant to represent an unassuming aura (like on The Muppet Show). But as the 86-year-old Sai Baba wrestles for his life on a ventilator at a speciality hospital he started in Puttaparthi, the question of his succession is gaining urgency.

In part, this is because Sathya Sai Baba’s trust is extremely wealthy. Apart from running free educational institutions and specialised hospitals, it owns properties across the globe and sits astride a cash corpus that few know the exact value of. By a conservative estimate, the empire is worth Rs 40,000 crore. Some put it at Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Even for a career as a godman spanning 72 long years since he first declared himself a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, and for someone with a who’s-who list of devotees, that figure is a sign of success that should command awe. 

Most of it came through donations by rich devotees, even though his expanding efforts as a conjuror—he started with vibhuti, or sacred ash, and went on to wristwatches, necklaces and rings—could make some people believe he simply wished it all into being. Rationalists did challenge him on occasion. They asked him to produce pumpkins and cucumbers from thin air, but these items failed to interest him. The wristwatches he gave up, however, once it was pointed out that their HMT manufacturing dates could be cross-checked by sceptics looking for a good laugh. Instead, he kept dispensing books, beads and other talismanic trinkets to his delighted followers. 

The wealth that his trust amassed could be considered a return-on-investment. “For me, this is a kind of calling card to convince people of my love for them and secure their devotion in return,” he once told Blitz in a rare interview, “How can science, which is bound to a physical and materialist outlook, investigate transcendental phenomena beyond its scope, reach or comprehension? Pumpkins and cucumbers can be materialised as easily as rings or objects. But these are perishable objects and the whole point of materialisation lies in their permanence.” Indeed. It explains why the question of succession arises. 

Copycat conjuror acts have been unable to achieve what Sai Baba did. Some of these were aimed at exposing him, of course. Abraham Kovoor, for example, even toured the countryside with a band of magicians replicating Baba’s feats. They even filed a petition in court asking for the godman to be ‘fined and taxed’ for mining gold resources (which would materialise in his hand). They also wondered aloud why the central bank did not adopt his methods to enhance its gold reserves. But all this only enlarged his fame. 

In 1992, a story did the rounds that a Doordarshan cameraman had filmed Sathya Sai Baba’s assistant passing on objects to the godman that were later ‘conjured’ by him. The clip was never telecast, and nobody has come forward to either confirm or deny it. Rationalists, suspicious of a cover-up, point to his connections in high places.

By the 1990s, Sai Baba’s frizzy aura had acquired an eternal air of sorts. “I am God,” he had taken to saying, “You too are God. The only difference between you and Me is that while I am aware of it, you are completely unaware.” Thus came the inevitable: a foreign following, loaded with cash. His trust accepts no gifts in kind. Only cash—taken under various social heads. “This is because in many cases, they were needlessly dragged to court, as family members of those who gifted property to the Sathya Sai trust challenged such decisions,” explains an observer.

One of his biggest donors was the man who started Hard Rock Café, Isaac Tigrett, in whose dreams Sai Baba appeared and saved him from a fatal disease, as the tale goes. In return, Tigrett sold his café chain for $108 million and gave the entire proceeds in 1991 to Sai Baba to start his hospital in Puttaparthi (the town where he was born as Sathyanarayana Raju in 1926). Treatment here is free and the doctors are all Baba devotees. Bangalore and Rajkot have similar hospitals now.

Among other do-gooder initiatives, the trust took up a Rs 250 crore project in 1996 to supply piped potable water to 750 villages in Anantpur district (in which his hometown is located). It also had a canal realigned to have Krishna water sent to Chennai city, for which Tamil Nadu is so grateful that the state’s CM Karunanidhi and Deputy CM Stalin made it a point to attend the godman’s 85th birthday. “There are two kinds of VIP devotees who flock to him,” says the Sai Baba watcher, “The corrupt who want to hide their sins, and the sincere who work with the first lot.” 

With a flock of devotees estimated at 30 million, Sai Baba has 25,000 prayer halls dedicated to him across the country. It’s a cult following that has survived more than one scandal. On 6 June 1993, six people died—two knifings and four shot by police guards—in the godman’s living quarters in what turned out to be an intra-devotee scuffle over who deserved closer proximity to his spiritual presence. In 2001, he was accused of paedophilia, prompting the then PM Vajpayee to issue a public letter hailing ‘Bhagwan’ Sri Sathya Sai Baba as a globally revered embodiment of love, selfless service to humanity, and much else.

Now, however, there is an empire at stake. Senior Andhra ministers are camping in Puttaparthi, and the state has temporarily banned property registrations in Anantpur district to pre-empt a grab fest in case the godman dies. Who gets to control what could be tricky questions. “Sathya Sai Baba has not named a successor,” says an Andhra politician, “His is a strange case of a living god. The trust is not like a religious order or math, where the current swamiji names a junior as successor. Sai Baba’s powers cannot be passed on, only his legacy can.”

On their part, the trust’s managers say that the state government has no business interfering in its affairs. “It is not a charitable religious institution like the Tirupati Temple,” remarked a trustee testily. The state Revenue Minister N Raghuveera Reddy responded with an assurance that no takeover was planned.

The godman’s Sathya Sai Central Trust currently has just one family member as a trustee, his 39-year-old nephew RJ Ratnakar Raju, an MBA who once worked with the UB Group in Bangalore. He could stake his claim, say some. But most devotees and trustees—former Chief Justice PN Bhagwati, industrialists Indu Lal Shah and V Srinivasan, and former Vice-chancellor of Sri Sathya Sai University SV Giri—are said to be leaning towards Chakravarthi, a former IAS man who turned devotee and became the university’s registrar 25 years ago. “Chakravarthi enjoys the confidence of Sai Baba,” says a trustee, “and is thus the true heir to Sai Baba’s legacy.” 

It’s quite a legacy, for sure, as a casual walk through Puttaparthi confirms. The entire town’s economy is Sai centric, with his name and image adorning every little shop and guest house. A Latvian in her 50s, an ardent devotee who now calls herself Sai Prema, says she comes here once every two years with friends and family in tow. Others do too. ‘Sai Ram’ is the only acceptable form of greeting around here, and everyone appears to have a suitably spiritual air. 

It’s inauspicious even to hint at the godman’s mortality. Yet, if he recovers, credit will largely be assigned to an idol of Satyamma that was re-installed a week ago. This local deity had lost a hand some months earlier, and it was immersed in a lake. This incensed the townsfolk, who saw this as the prime cause of Sai Baba’s failing health, especially since he’d been named Sathyanarayana in honour of this very deity. 

Needless to add, the godman himself has never let matters of mortality bother him. He had once proclaimed that he would live to the age of 96 and then take rebirth in Mandya, Karnataka, as Prema Sai, a woman. It’s not time yet for his divinely determined date with death. This gives many of his devotees relief. It also gives some enterprising lady enough time to plan her reincarnation. The succession issue is far from settled yet.