As the dust after the death of Satya Sai Baba has largely settled, it is time to evaluate him, his work and its implications, objectively and unemotionally, for there is a good deal to be learnt from his life and death.
His rise to fame from an ordinary, even humble background, was based on (i ) his claim that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba ; (ii) his claim that he represented divinity, that is, God himself ; (iii) that, consequently, he had powers that no mortal man had ; (iv) that he could provide succour and mental peace to people who came to him with problems of various kinds ; and (v) that he engaged himself in charitable works like opening hospitals and providing potable water to villagers.
Let us examine his above claims and actions one by one. There is not a shred of evidence of rebirth; the very idea of rebirth goes against all of science. Every claimed case of rebirth that has been investigated has been shown to be fake.
As regards his being a reincarnation of God, the only proof he provided was that of performing miracles or miraculous acts. The fact is that he never performed a miracle. In fact, no miracle has ever been performed by any one. All miracles attributed to religious leaders are inventions of the clergy. An example would be that of Mother Teresa whom I met and who never claimed to have performed a miracle in her lifetime. But for her to be canonized after her death two miracles had to be — and were — invented and attributed to her. Every single act of Sai Baba that was a miracle in the public eye could be performed by ordinary magicians.
My colleague at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology at Hyderabad, Dr. M. W. Pandit, performed them publicly. So did the well-known rationalist, the late Premanand. Invite Dr. Narendra Nayak by sending an e.mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org> and he will come and perform for you every miracle that Sai Baba ever claimed to have performed — be it producing a ring or a Japanese watch or sacred ash from nowhere, or his photograph shedding sacred ash.
As regards the miraculous cures he claimed to have performed, we never heard of his failures. A distant cousin of mine had her young son suffering from an incurable disease. Sai Baba who blessed him said he would be cured. When she went back to him after the child's death, Sai Baba told her that he felt it was best for the child to come to him and that is what he caused to happen; so there was no reason for worry.
The cures that may have been effected were never established to be directly on account of Sai Baba's 'divine' intervention. They were probably natural or psychosomatic, of which numerous examples are known. After all, what do neuropsychologists or psychiatrists do? That is why he never allowed rationalists like Professor Narasimhaiah, former Vice-Chancellor of Bangalore University, or Premanand, to come anywhere near him. It is believed that it were his men who actually once beat up Narasimhaiah.
The late Dr. Y. Nayudamma, the former Director-General of CSIR, who died in an Air India crash near Canada years ago, told me of his visit to Sai Baba with a once ardent follower, Dr. S. Bhagavantam, a former Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. Nayudamma stood in front of Sai Baba with folded hands and most respectfully, requested him to produce a blade of grass between his palms. That would have been a miracle. But, instead, Nayudamma had to leave.
As regards his acts of charity, there are innumerable people in the country who engage in such acts to avoid undue attention focussed on their ill-gotten wealth. Accounting of his enormous wealth has never been transparent.
Sai Baba's unusual accomplishment was to recruit such a large number of the rich and the powerful, politicians and bureaucrats, law-makers, law-keepers, and law dispensers, amongst his followers. Perhaps this is more of a reflection on his followers than him!
Sai Baba's death was not a national tragedy. The national tragedy was his being given a state funeral, a state of official mourning being declared, and the country's political leaders — cutting across parties, including the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the NAC — spending precious time and resources to have his last darshan, relegating to the background the nation's constitutional commitment to a scientific temper.
(The writer is a former Vice-Chairman, National Knowledge Commission, former member, National Security Advisory Board and former founder and Director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. His email is: bhargava.pm @gmail.com)