Perhaps the most controversial religious leader of the past century died on Sunday, April 24, 2011, and, if you’re like most Westerners, you may have never heard of him.
Sathyanarayana Raju was born in India in 1926. When just a teenager, he was supposedly stung by a scorpion and began reciting ancient Sanskrit prayers that he could not have known. More supposed miracles took place, and in 1940 he identified himself as the reincarnation of the revered saint, Sai Baba of Shirdi, who had died eight years before Raju was born. He later declared that he had no worldly relationship with anyone and became known as Sathya Sai Baba.
Over the decades that followed, his fame increased. This was partly due to his “miraculous” production of sacred ash (known as vibhuti) and small trinkets that he would give to his followers. These gifts were said to produce miraculous healings and other phenomena. The number of his followers grew, and with them came donations. Lots of donations.
He set up an organization that has establishments in 168 countries. They have built and supported highly rated free schools, universities, and excellent hospitals. They have built water works to supply free drinking water to millions of people in India. They have built houses and supported charities.
You don’t have to leave your faith to be a follower of Sai Baba, in fact, they have published no set of formal doctrine or rules. He stressed the importance of “five human values”: love, peace, truth, righteousness, and non-violence.
So what could possibly be wrong with this man?
Well, his “miracles,” in some cases, were exposed as magic tricks. Videos of him seem to show that he used the art of legerdemain to produce phenomena. Is the extent of his phenomena nothing but tricks? The philosophical rule known as Occam’s Razor would seem to indicate it.
Further, he has been accused of sexually molesting adolescent boys. None of the accusations have ever been proven.
For some, perhaps the most “damning” attacks have been that he has called himself God, and many of his followers believe the claim.
For outside observers, we are left with one of the most difficult questions of all: which is more important, the message or the messenger? Â Should we ignore the enormous good that he and his organization have done for millions around world and only remember him as a trickster? Should we ignore the fact that he did deceive people with illusions and focus only on his amazing array of charity, good works, and spirituality?
I think the solution is easy and obvious. It’s time for us to stop being children looking for idols to worship and become adults. As part of being an adult, we can accept reality. His legacy is both that of helping millions and deceiving a few with magic tricks. If I could help a million people to improved health, higher education, and better lives by doing a few tricks, would I do it? You bet I would!
Sathya Sai Baba predicted that he would reincarnate eight years after his death. We shall see.