Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the spiritual guru who passed away at Puttaparthi on Sunday morning, enjoyed a large following in India and abroad that cut across religious and national boundaries.

The Sathya Sai Central Trust that manages the vast properties and religious affairs of Prashanthi Nilayam states that it has seva centres in 114 countries and followers in 178. It is to enable devotees from far and near to have a last glimpse of the Sai Baba's mortal remains that the funeral has been fixed for April 27, three days after the death.

Sathyanarayana Raju, as Sai Baba was known, was born to Eswaramma and Peddavenkama Raju Ratnakaram in Puttaparthi on November 23, 1926. He was considered an intelligent child and quite talented in drama, music, dance and writing.

His spiritual journey began when he was barely 14, when he proclaimed himself to be a reincarnation of the Sai Baba of Shirdi. His devotees built a temple near Puttaparthi village, now referred to as the old mandir.

Prashanthi Nilayam (abode of divine peace) was built during 1948-50, matching his expanding influence. Sai Baba inspired awe among his devotees by performing seeming miracles, such as producing ‘vibhuthi' (holy ash) and items such as watches, gold chains and rings out of thin air. However, it also attracted adverse attention from rationalists and scientists, who saw it all as some sleight of hand.

The Baba stopped performing the ‘miracles' and turned his attention to philanthropic and public service activities in a big way. The Sathya Sai Central Trust, set up in 1972 to run the ashram, executed a major Water Supply Project for Anantapur district. It also generously funded the ‘Sathya Sai Ganga Canal,' meant to supply Krishna water to Chennai through what was then called the Telugu Ganga canal.

The Sathya Sai institutions including the Institute of Higher Medical Services (SSSIHMS) and the Institute of Learning have turned models for quality healthcare and provision of education free of cost to meritorious students. The Rs. 300-crore SSSIHMS at Prashantigram and a similar 330-bed super speciality hospital at Whitefield near Bangalore run by the Central Trust stand as testimony to the efforts of Sai Baba to make advanced medicare affordable to the common man.

The Central Trust has been equally focussed on providing free education, and the Sathya Sai University treats merit as the sole criterion for admission. It is a one-of-its-kind institution where higher education is offered free of cost. The Vidya Vahini scheme, announced by the Sai Baba on his 85th birthday in November 2010, is also unique as it seeks to adopt institutions and equip them with infrastructure needed for modern education at the grassroots level.

The sceptics

Among the sceptics who periodically challenged Sai Baba's miracles was H. Narasimhaiah, a physicist and then Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University, who wrote to him challenging him to perform his “miracles” under controlled conditions. Sai Baba ignored the letters. Rationalist Abraham T. Kovoor also campaigned against the ‘miracles', especially his claim of producing ‘vibhuthi.' Yet, criticism of his miracles did not erode Sai Baba's vast following.

However, in one controversial turn of events, six of his ashramites were murdered inside Prashanthi Nilayam in June 1993. Four youth entered his quarters and killed two other youth guarding him. In turn, the four were shot dead by the police.Sai Baba himself attributed it to jealousy among his devotees.

Keywords: Sathya Sai Baba