In a country that has never been short of self-proclaimed godmen peddling spiritual succour with commercial motive, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who passed away at the age of 84 at Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh on April 24, 2011, stands out as a rare phenomenon — a spiritual leader whose mass following transcended linguistic, national, and religious boundaries, who channelised the fervour and quest of millions of devotees into giving and sharing, who steered clear of divisive political and communal activities all his life. In the complex spiritual spectrum of modern-day India, Sai Baba may not have been associated with a metaphysical and transcendent philosophy like Sri Aurobindo, or the fervent devotion to the divine that often sent Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa into a trance, or the self-enquiry and non-dualism that made Sri Ramana Maharishi a silent, yet eloquent preceptor. Yet Sai Baba's simple message of love and harmony — mostly soaked in the language of Hindu philosophy, but often in a universal strain — was enough to draw the masses towards him. Among those who sought his guidance were the harried and the content businessperson, the troubled and the sated householder, politicians in search of peace, and the more humble seekers of solace from the rigours of life. His early reputation was built on a series of miracles such as producing vibhuthi (holy ash) or rings or miniature shivalings out of thin air, which invited disdain from rationalists who saw these as nothing more than sleight of hand; there were other controversies as well. His ardent devotees, on the other hand, saw the miracles as mere expressions of his divine powers, and his teachings and the manner in which he touched their lives as far more important.
Sai Baba's phenomenal mass appeal lay in his unswerving commitment to communal harmony, his encouragement of charitable activity and public-spiritedness, and his own example in building educational and health care institutions that focussed on meeting basic needs on a large scale. Among the projects executed by his Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, the drinking water supply projects for Ananthapur district and Chennai city stand out. The latter effort, a Rs.200 crore project to strengthen the Kandaleru-Poondi canal through which waters of the Krishna reached the metropolis, earned the admiration of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, a non-believer who went so far as to describe Sai Baba as “one equivalent to God.” His devotees may or may not be on the lookout for a reincarnation in some remote place but for society at large, his legacy will be the message of love and harmony and the altruistic activities of his cash-rich trust that, without his guiding hand, needs to resist temptation and carry on with integrity, transparency, and imagination.