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Sai Baba: In modern India, traditional guru still has powerful influence

The passing of Indian guru Sai Baba spurred an outpouring from millions of devotees. While gurus often draw from Hindu traditions, the 'godman' phenomenon also reflects the spiritual needs of modern, middle-class India.

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“As you get deeper into the teachings, it becomes very close to quantum mechanics – that there is a oneness. That God is one, that he is omnipresent, and we are all part of that. And it’s our duty to recognize that we are all brother and sisters,” says Samuel Sandweiss, an American psychiatrist and Sai Baba devotee.

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Large followings, large ambitions

Such religious syncretism is familiar to the Hindu tradition, as are the ideas of avatars and gurus. What’s newer are the sheer size of the followings of the modern godmen and the ambition of the good works done in their name, says Visvanathan.

Dr. Sandweiss shies from classifying Sai Baba a godman. “For the devotee, he’s not a flashy person trying to get a lot of devotees and showing off supernatural powers,” he says.

That said, Sandweiss has written about numerous Sai Baba miracles in his book “Sai Baba: The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist.” Sai Baba’s devotees say he routinely could make everything from gold, ash, oil, and candies appear in his hands. These “manifestations” are often given to devotees, leading to a sense of personal relationship with the divine.

“He gave me several pieces of candy with a knowingness in his eye,” says Sandweiss, recounting a chance encounter he had with Sai Baba after feeling frustrated with his teachings. “That personal contact is at the core of the devotee’s personal relationship with him. It starts to mirror how a person feels when they have a real relationship with Jesus, Allah, or Buddha.”

For Visvanath, this type of spirituality has shown enormous appeal among the burgeoning ranks of the middle class – in India and abroad – and its insecurities.

“The middle class crisis is a search for meaning [among] ideas of mobility and success and stability,” says Visvanathan. Belief in Sai Baba as a divine figure “makes God very personal. It gives you a feeling of location in the cosmos.”

Sandweiss counters that everyone – rich, poor, or otherwise – is seeking such a connection, and that Sai Baba has many followers among all walks of life. As for the charitable work, it’s an outgrowth of spiritual – not material – progress.

The claims of Sai Baba’s miracles have also inspired fierce opposition from Indian rationalists who argue that he and other godmen are only performing magic tricks to fool people. Some critics have taken to the road, performing similar sleights of hand before villages in order to debunk them. And some also criticize Sai Baba’s organization for a lack of financial transparency.

Sai Baba passed away at age 85, some years short of his own prediction that he would live until age 96.

“As Baba has departed earlier than he had predicted, he will return to the planet earlier,” said Sri Ravi Shankar, another Indian guru with a mega-following. “Sri Sathya Sai Baba will continue to live in the hearts of millions of devotees. His message of 'Love All and Serve All' will resonate in the world forever.”

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