Sathya Sai Baba (born circa 1926-1929 under the name Sathya Narayana Raju) is a popular but controversial Indian guru who has followers and Sathya Sai Baba groups in many countries. When he was in his teens he claimed to be the reincarnation of the fakir Shirdi Sai Baba and subsequently took the fakir's name. He says that he is an avatar (incarnation) of Shiva and Shakti and an embodiment of love with divine powers such as omniscience and omnipotence.
In his ashram he is said to manifest vibuthi (holy ash) and small objects like rings and watches daily. He claims to materialize these objects out of nothing. These claims are believed testified to by his followers. In addition, the followers, and even a few non-followers, have testified about many other miracles performed by him. He preaches a rather traditional, yet syncretic, form of Hinduism that has a strict morality. He teaches the unity of all major world religions and says that they all lead to God, which is in concordance with Vedic principles of the validity of multiple paths. His followers and the organizations that he has founded are involved in many charity projects and in collecting funds for various costly projects glorifying Sai Baba, including museums in his honour.
Sai Baba is claimed to have been born in 1926 as Sathyanarayana Raju, in or across the river from the village Puttaparthi in the state Andhra Pradesh of India. Devotees honor his birth day as 23 November 1926. His birthdate, which is astrologically excellent, is however contested by the official birth register as having taken place three years previously. His mission started in the early 1940s. He publicly stated the date as October 20th 1940 and that it was a Monday when he threw away his schoolbooks on the way to school. However, that date was actually a Sunday.
Many visitors to Puttaparthi were stimulated by stories of miracles allegedly performed by Baba. He then became even more popular due to the character and integrity of those who told their own tales in print on their return to their native place. Many visitors also report Baba came to them in a dream before they even knew who he was. It was only later through a series of events they learned who he was. Stories like this attracted early spiritual seekers from the West, such as Americans, Dr. John Hislop, famous Hollywood screenwriter Arnold Schulman, psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Sandweiss, as well as the Australian Howard Murphet, all of whom visited the guru, examined him and his teachings and activities, and then wrote books about their experiences. In turn, these books inspired other spiritual seekers to visit and examine Sathya Sai Baba in person. As a result, many foreign dignitaries and even famous people began to visit Sai Baba, and still do to this day.
The guru became increasingly popular and by the late 1960s westerners started to visit him. As of 2004 there are estimated to be well over 1 million devotees, predominantly among Indians and people of Indian ethnic origin. In Nordic countries and the Netherlands, numbers fell after 2000 due to negative publicity about Baba, and subsequently also in Australia after the showing there by SBS of the Danish film "Seduced by Sai Baba."
At present several hundred positive books have been published about Sathya Sai Baba. Some quarters of the Indian government consider Sai Baba to be a 'national treasure'.
Main article Beliefs and practices in the Sathya Sai Organisation
Primary teachings are:
Love - for all.
Service - to others.
Put a ceiling on one's desires.
The world is maya (illusion), only God is real.
Every person is God in form, though most do not experience this as their reality.
Meditation - Baba teaches two techniques, so ham (Upanishadic mantra for repetition and focus) and jyoti (Light meditation).
Inclusive acceptance of all religions as paths to realizing the One (God).
Ahimsa (non-violence), shanthi (peace), dharma (right conduct, living in accord with natural law), and sathya (truth).
His popularity (despite opponents, see section below) and the donations by followers have enabled Sathya Sai Baba and his organizations to build an increasingly large ashram near the once poor and isolated village of Puttaparthi.
Sathya Sai Baba resides much of the time in his main ashram called Prashanthi Nilayam (abode of peace) at Puttaparthi. In the hot summer the guru leaves for his other ashram called Brindavan in Whitefield (sometimes called Kadugodi), a town on the outskirts of Bangalore.
He is regarded by some as an excellent orator in his native language Telugu, and also speaks passable Tamil. He claims to be the Kali Yuga purna avatar (full divine incarnation of this era) of Lord Shiva and Shakti. He says that he is omniscient, omnipotent, able to create matter from mere thought. He also stresses he is free from desires. He preaches love and the unity of all religions. Sai Baba claims to be pure divine love.
Baba asserts that he is an avatar of God, and a reincarnation of Lord Rama, of Sri Krishna, and of Shirdi Sai Baba. Many of his followers say that he is the primary avatar of our times. He has repeatedly claimed to be the actual reincarnation of Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, Kabir and other famous figures of Indian mythology.
Sai Baba has left India only once for a visit to Uganda in 1968. It was reported by two devotees, Dr. Patel and Dr. Gadhia, who lived there at the time that Sai Baba warned them to sell their belongings and leave the country. A few years later, Idi Amin pulled his coup and began his murderous rampage telling Asians they must leave the country. Dr. Gadhia, who had heeded Sai Baba's warning, sold all his belongings and escaped to London where he was able to start a new practise. Dr. Patel lost his property but was able to escape.
Sathya Sai Baba can be seen in person performing what he claims are miracles daily in the form of materializations of small objects, for example jewelry such as bracelets, rings, watches and especially vibhuti (holy ash) and kum kum. He says that he can heal diseases of his devotees sometimes by his spiritual power and sometimes by taking on the disease himself. There is anecdotal evidence that supports this claim. Followers attribute many miracles to him which they have witnessed in his presence and in their own countries, such as spontaneous vibhuti manifestations on the pictures of the guru in their homes, and bilocation the appearance of Sai Baba in their own presence while he is also in another place. Followers also report that he has materialized out-of-season fruit several times. He says he performs these miracles to attract people and then to transform them spiritually.
He teaches a rather traditional but syncretic form of Hinduism that has come from many sects and movements including advaita, occasionally drawing from other religions like Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity. In spite of his claim to be a reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, a spiritual leader who blended Islam and Hinduism in his teachings, he teaches no Muslim rituals. The only real Christian influence can be felt in the institution of regular Sunday School sessions for devotees. He says that he has come to restore faith in, and encourage the practice of the teachings in the Vedas.
One important practice in his ashrams is darshan (spiritual sight). During darshan Sathya Sai Baba walks among his followers. He may listen to a few chosen persons, accept letters, or materialize and distribute vibhuti (sacred ash of Lord Shiva). Sathya Sai Baba claims that his darshan has spiritual benefits for those who attend it. Usually people wait hours to get a good place for darshan. Sathya Sai Baba sometimes invites people for a group interview with him in a room in the 'ashram's 'mandir' (Hindu temple). Followers consider it a great privilege to get such an interview. Sometimes a person from this group is invited for a private interview.
Across the globe local Sathya Sai Baba groups assemble to sing bhajans (Hindu devotional songs), study Sathya Sai Baba's teachings, do collective community service (called seva), and teach Education in Human Values (Sai Sunday School). His followers generally do not proselytize. Bhajans are sung at nearly every meeting.
He has founded a number of educational institutions and charitable hospitals, most notably the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning and the Sri Sathya Institute of Higher Medicine, located within or near the main ashrams and Anantapur town.  These organizations seek to provide free education and health care to the public. They are private institutions and their admission criteria are not published, admissions being decided on individual merits as decided by Sai Baba or his executives. Many of the patients are devotees from India and abroad.
The trust organization has made large contributions to drinking water projects for the whole of the Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh and Chennai.
His Educare (formerly called Education in Human Values) programme seeks to found schools in all countries with the explicit goal to educate children in the five human values and spirituality. Schools have already been founded in Canada Toronto, Zambia, Australia, the United States, and several in India. As all these operations are public. Critics of these institutions and their figurehead online often use that information to email nearby citizens of what they see as a danger. A projected college in Denmark was stopped by local residents who objected to the Sai Organisations as a cult, having seen the film "Seduced by Sai Baba" as sent repeatedly on Danish national TV.
All the local Sai Samithis (Sathya Sai Baba groups) are part of a hierarchical structure called the Sathya Sai Organisation. The chairman of the organisation is Michael Goldstein of the USA. The logo of the Sathya Sai organization is a stylized lotus flower with the text of the so-called five human values, highly influenced by not only Hinduism but also Jainism and Buddhism, in its petals. These values are sathya (truth), dharma (right conduct), ahimsa (non-violence), prema (love) and shanti (peace). This text version has replaced the old logo with the symbols of the 5 or 6 world religions in the petals.
The Sri Sathya Sai central trust was founded in 1972 and is mainly involved in charities such as the Rayalaseema water project. The trust has tax exempt status and is a major recipient of donations from abroad though Baba and his organizations occasionally explicitly solicit donations. All donations and expenditures are allegedly a matter of record which are legally documented by the bank holding the sums.
The Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust is the official publisher of the Sathya Sai Organisation. It publishes the international monthly magazine called Sanathana Sarathi. In various nations similar publication trusts maintain in their own native language.
Sceptics and Opponents
Main article Allegations against Sathya Sai Baba
Sceptics say claims about Sai Baba are unproven or false. They say that his “miracles” are performed by sleight of hand; his devotees have imagined his bilocation “appearances”; his reincarnation claims are dubious and unverified; his teachings are unoriginal, often mere platitudes and unremarkable; and that his charity projects are exaggerated, and in part, a front for money-laundering and other personal gain of the coterie of the top of the organizations who know the Baba to be a cheater.
In 1993 four people who were armed with knives were killed after they had intruded in Sai Baba's bedroom. The main body of Indian journalists investigating the ashram murders in 1993 were unable to obtain more than very sparse information on the Central Trust's accounts and dealings. The drinking water projects were claimed to be the result of Sai Baba's "Divine Will". However, they have largely failed to function in most of the villages due to a sinking water table, contractor corruption, and failure to arrange for maintenance. Due to this, the Rayalaseema project had to be taken over by the Andhra Pradesh State government.
Some ex-devotees including the American Glen Meloy accuse him of being a cult leader who uses mind control, and propaganda and who has created a personality cult. Other critics say that school records revealed several different birth dates for the boy (under his original name Sathyanarayana Raju) and suggest that he invented the 23 November 1926 day of birth because on 24 November 1926 the famed Hindu philosopher-mystic Sri Aurobindo said that the Divine had descended on Earth.
Another critic, ex-devotee and retired researcher/lecturer in philosophy, University of Oslo, the former national coordinator of the organization in Norway, Robert Priddy, has pointed out that Sathya Sai Baba's assertions on many subjects exhibit basic ignorance of physics, geology, religious history and much more. For example, Sai Baba's 'teaching' on magnetism differ greatly from generally accepted science, being wholly incommensurable with many simple and basic known facts.
Additionally, the Australian ex-follower and scholar Brian Steel has documented strong indications that the original Telegu discourses by Baba have been heavily edited to improve them. Followers were given the impression, if not explicitly told, that the discourses published in the Sathya Sai Speaks series were the literal translatation of what the guru said. Steel also wrote that many authors who wrote or still write positive books about Baba did not fulfill their responsibility of adherence to basic intellectual, journalist and scholarly standards and hence may unintentionally misguide both followers and the general public. Besides he found that the claims of Baba about himself fluctuate and are inconsistent. He has recently discovered a trend to tone down the extraordinary claims that the guru makes about himself which Steel thinks is done to avoid embarrassment and loss of credibility.
There are also critics who allege that he has sexual relations with young men and boys among his followers, and has done so for more than forty years. No Indian court of law has accepted any case on sexual abuse by Baba. Nor have any of the alleged victims filed charges in the appropriate district. This may be due to the perceived status of the Baba as being too powerful, with supporters throughout the High Courts and the judiciary in India. Besides there is a testimony by Jens Senthi who claimed to have been sexually abused by the Baba but who was treated as a criminal by the Puttaparthi police. Supporters of Baba say the allegations are baseless rumors created with the malicious intention of sabotaging the guru's work. Top official of the Sathya Sai Organisation's Central Coordinator of Europe, Thorbjørn Meyer, have confirmed in public that Sai Baba regularly takes down boys and young men's trousers and oils their genitals, scrotum etc. This is an illegal act, also done without consent. Much worse abuses are described by dozens of young men in affidavits, also published widely on the internet and backed up by filmed testimonies in films, including the BBC's 1-hour documentary film Secret Swami, aired on 17 June, 2004.
Critics include the Indian atheist and skeptic Basava Premanand ("Lure of miracles" and "Divine Octopus") , and the Welsh ex-devotee musician David Bailey who compiled “The Findings” in the year 2000. This document shocked followers worldwide.
The media and governments
Several media articles have appeared on the guru. 'The Sunday Telegraph' of Britain published "Divine Downfall" in October 2000, a well-researched article reporting interviews with one of SSB's closest associates and alleged sexual partners, Dr. N. Bhatia, formerly employed in the SSB Super-Speciality hospital. Dr. Bhatia stated that an underage student he examined had been raped by Sai Baba and that he had confronted him about it. Directly thereafter Dr. Bhatia was accused of fraud and sexual offences and forced to leave his work and the ashram. Dr. Bhatia, like several former devotees, had written a very positive book about Sai Baba without mentioning any sexual allegations. Many devotees feel that persons who change their story regarding their initial account cannot possibly be credible. While making allegations Dr. Bhatia, who is married, at the same time still admitted he believed Sai Baba is God and has divine powers. One of the more important critical articles was a front page article in the nationwide India Today magazine called "A God accused" on 4 December, 2000. In December 2002 the New York Times published a rather positive article on the guru without mentioning the allegations at all.  There have also been numerous positive articles about Sai Baba as well as articles he has written in Indian papers.
There was also an extremely critical TV documentary "Seduced By Sai Baba", produced by Denmark's national television and radio broadcaster Danish Radio aired in Denmark, Australia and Norway.
The Indian President Abdul Kalam and especially the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee visit the ashram and pay respect to the guru. Vajpayee has written a letter which is published on the internet, also signed by two former Supreme Court Justices, expressing that Sathya Sai Baba is innocent of sexual molestations and that the accusations are concocted and malicious.  Sceptics are confused as to whether Vajpayee's signed statement is based on government information not made available to the public. But it was made clear during the recent documentary, "Secret Swami" that the Indian government has taken the position that the allegations against Sai Baba are false.
The European parliament accepted a motion to have no cooperation with any of the Sathya Sai Baba affiliated organizations until the sexual abuse charges had been investigated.
Questions have been asked in the Parliament of the United Kingdom about the suicide of a British young man who a friend claims told him he was sexually abused by the guru. The young man had HIV, and overdosed on the painkiller commonly known as Tylenol. Since the alleged victim is deceased the accusation is hearsay and cannot be taken as evidence in a court of law. One Member of Parliament has expressed concern about the alleged indoctrination of children by devotees who volunteer at public schools and propagate the Educare/Education in Human Values teachings.
The United States Department of State has issued a travel warning about a "prominent local religious leader" under the section Andhra Pradesh without mentioning Sathya Sai Baba explicitly though. Since about June 2004 when contacting the US embassy or consulate in India, they confirmed that they referred to Sathya Sai Baba. This warning was placed as a result of the notarized petitions by several alleged victims even though they have never filed formal charges in India.
The BBC TWO documentary Secret Swami showed two American men under their real names who testified about Sathya Sai Baba's sexual abuse when they were still young and his manipulation of them. The former secretary of the Home minister of Andhra Pradesh, V.P.B. Nair who came from of a police background expressed his firm belief that the four assailants in 1993 had unnecessarily and illegally been shot by the police. Both Premanand and Nair wanted the case to be re-opened and believed that it had been silenced to prevent revelations about illegal practices by Sathya Sai Baba and his organizations. In the documentary, Premanand showed that he could perform, seemingly the same acts, or at least some of them, as Sathya Sai Baba that the latter claims to be miracles.
Dr. Michael Goldstein, International Chairman of the Sri Sathya Sai Organisations, stated in the documentary that it was against his "heart and conscience" to initiate or approve of a proper legalistic process to investigate the allegations against Sathya Sai Baba. Isaac Tigrett, a prominent follower and co-founder of the Hard Rock Café, states clearly that his admiration for the guru will not change even if the charges of paedophilia were proved beyond all doubt. It should be noted that Tigrett has testified that Baba saved his life several time through bilocation.
Views on the guru
Some ex-followers believe in the truth of the allegations but at the same time refuse to retract the stories of miracles that they claim to have experienced directly, for example answers to prayers which they attribute to him or clairvoyance during an interview. Hence quite a lot of ex-followers believe that while he has siddhis (psychic abilities) it is only because he is a powerful rakshasa or demon.
Other ex-followers such as David Bailey and Hari Sampath, an Indian national, consider Baba a cheat and believe that some of the miracles are real but are mistakenly attributed to Sathya Sai Baba. They believe that when a follower prays to Baba while having faith that he is God, God will listen to his prayer, in spite of his mistaken belief.
Skeptics such as Premanand believe him to be an out and out cheater and charlatan while his followers are but gullible at worst, naive at best, and are all suffering from the true-believer syndrome (belief in supernatural explanations for events caused by wishful thinking in spite of proof of natural explanations). He compares Baba’s charity with that of the notorious cult leader Jim Jones who also engaged in charity and gained acceptance from society thereby.
Tal Brooke, an American evangelical Christian who says his book about Sai Baba was banned in India sees him as a false prophet and an Antichrist, as predicted in the Bible.
Anti-cult activists consider Baba just one of many cult leaders, though an exceptionally successful one, with the usual sexual abuse, false claims about himself, false miracles, propaganda, mind control, and misappropriation of funds to enrich the coterie at the top of the organization.
Finally, the view of the followers on the guru is identical to the claims made by Baba about himself. They believe that the allegations are just passing clouds that have accompanied the lives of all avatars that are part of the leelas of his life. Some followers say that the allegations have been made by people who are criminals themselves and try to distract people from that fact by instead accusing Baba of being a criminal. Some followers, believe that the allegations that Baba performs acts that can be interpreted as sexually intended are true but that he must have good reasons for them, like helping the young men with sexual problems or to awaken their kundalini. Tigrett believes the allegations are true but is at a loss to explain them saying that Sai Baba is an enigma.