BBC’s ‘The Secret Swami’ – A Reflection
By Barry Pittard
The BBC’s cameras at Sathya Sai
Baba’s ashram at Puttaparthi in South India catch the pomp, circumstance,
opulence and the highly stage-managed atmosphere of the crowded Mahasivaratri
festival, February 2004. India’s most famous (and controversial) ‘Godman’ has
promised a great miracle, the materialization from within his stomach via his
mouth of a pure gold lingam (a Hindu cosmic symbol of creation) the size of an
generous egg, in full public view. Viewers hoping to see this spectacle will not
be disappointed – but they will see the sham in full close-up. “The Secret
Swami” reveals much, but viewers will need also to investigate some of what it
See the showcased excerpts from the documentary, with brief transcripts and brief video clips
|1) SATHYA SAI BABA'S
'PRODUCTION' OF THE GOLDEN LINGAM
2) HIS COLLAPSE AFTER THE STRAIN & HIS EXPLANATION AFTERWARDS
3) DR. MICHAEL GOLDSTEIN DISCUSSES THE SEX ABUSE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST SAI BABA
4) DR. MICHAEL GOLDSTEIN STATES THE SAI ORGANISATION'S FAITH ABOUT SAI BABA
5) ISAAC TIGRETT DISCUSSES THE SEX ALLEGATIONS AGAINST SAI BABA
6) INDIAN EX-MINISTER OF EDUCATION, M.M. JOSHI, ON THE SEX ALLEGATIONS AGAINST SAI BABA
7) INTERVIEW WITH THE EX-HOME SECRETARY OF ANDRHA PRADESH
8) VERY CLOSE DEVOTEES TESTIFY - SAI BABA'S SEX ABUSE AND DIRE THREATS ETC.
The ‘Secret Swami’ confines itself to four areas: 1. Accusations down many years of Sai Baba’s sexual molestation of young males. 2. His implication in police executions in his private quarters on June 6, 1993. 3. Cover-up by him and the leadership of his worldwide organization, and as well as by successive Indian governments, of major criminal allegations. 4. His faking of miracles.
BBC producer Eamon Hardy and his team’s view is that serious questions are raised about India’s political maturity.
Ashram scenes cut to northern Arkansas in America’s Midwest. Former devotees, Al and Marisa Rahm and their 20 year old son Alaya show the BBC interviewer Tanya Datta around sturdy commune buildings that the Rahms established in the 1980’s as a model Sai Baba commune, with school, resident teachers, study groups, congregational singing… Much of the documentary’s credibility will stand or fall on how viewers evaluate this family. Certainly, the device of interweaving a family’s story with wider events touches the emotions. Although I think viewers will have a strong sense of the Rahm family’s integrity, the technique has a downside. It obscures the fact that allegations against Sathya Sai Baba come from many individuals and grieving families around the world. In fact, the BBC, as has been the case with national governments and police forces, was granted access to many testimonies.
Focusing on one family meant no examination of anything like the full extent of the allegations. It also meant no examination of the multiple billions (that’s a ‘b’ not an ‘m’) that pour into the Sathya Sai Central Trust coffers from all over the world, or of financial scams by his administration (e.g., the selling of apartments which are sometimes later taken away from the paid up owners), which devotees blindly accept, as “tests of faith”. It meant no examination of Tony Blair’s suppression of attempts by over fifty British parliamentarians to raise Sai Baba-related issues in the House of Commons.
Further, it meant no examination of the failure of governments - particularly of Britain, Canada, Australia and Germany - to match the US State Department’s naming of Sai Baba as the subject of a Travel Advisory - weakly citing that there are no court convictions of Sai Baba in India. If the State Department can name Sai Baba why cannot they? (As of May 25, 2004, the SD has dedicated an American Citizen's Services Unit special line in Washington - 202 647-6179 - via which they will confirm that Sathya Sai Baba is the individual referred to in their Consular Information Sheet, November 23, 2001. There was no examination of former Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s leaning on Tony Blair about Sai Baba when Blair vied for a highly lucrative sale to India of Hawke class fighter planes. The programme mentions the Vajpayee letter which states that allegations against Sai Baba are “wild, reckless and concocted” but not that it was published at the time of Vajpayee's visit to Tony Blair. Is the BBC, post Hutton Report, afraid to criticize the UK Government and perhaps other ones too?
Other documentaries will need to look at the supposedly miraculously materialized jewelry which independent international assayers like the Queen of Denmark’s crown jeweler attest are faked. There are allegations of Sai Baba’s failed promises to cure people of cancers and other terrible diseases; the tragedy of sick people of many countries desperately visiting him in hope of a cure; the targeting of the weak and vulnerable for their money by an organisation that, while saying that it does not ask for money, uses indirect approaches to raise it.
Head of Sai Baba’s world organization, Dr Michael Goldstein, from California, tells the BBC interviewer, “We believe that Sri Sathya Sai Baba is Jesus Christ. Sri Sathya Sai Baba is Buddha. Sri Sathya Sai Baba is the founder of all of the world’s religions. Sri Sathya Sai Baba has always been God.” Dr Goldstein here reveals the true beliefs and agenda which his worldwide organization has long studiously kept hidden from the wider public, especially when it tries to enlist religious, political, educational and business leaders in its social projects. (The organization succeeded in getting the British Queen to visit a Sai School at Harrow but the programme omits this telling detail!) However, the work of former devotee and other exposé activists will now be much easier, for they will be able to send DVDs and CDs to those governments, leaders and institutions which the Sathya Sai Organization reportededly tries to woo, including the Palace and the White House…
This organization’s reputation has been badly damaged by five years of intense campaigns of exposure by globally organized former devotees, and even longer by Rationalists and Humanists. BBC producers say that Sai Baba’s top leaders at first thought the documentary would present a ‘positive image’ of their guru and the works of his organization to the world. The Puttaparthi authorities extended guided tours to the BBC by Central Trust Secretary K. Chakravarthy and other leading officials, including Dr Goldstein, never before granted to a television corporation. However, a few days later, when the BBC asked for a comment on the worldwide allegations, the ashram authorities ordered them to leave, and Dr Goldstein sent a prompt global instruction to all Sai centres that no-one must cooperate with the BBC. No doubt the exposure by Denmark’s national broadcaster in its 2003 documentary ‘Seduced by Sai Baba,’ seen by millions in Denmark, Norway and Australia - when the top Sai leaders in Denmark and Australia made unavailing threats of legal action - must still have haunted their minds.
Footage from the 1960s shows the hunger in the West for Hindu Indian gurus by hippies and such cultural icons as the Beatles at that time. This superficial view is one of a few blemishes in ‘The Secret Swami.’ There were many other kinds of spiritual seekers, and Sai Baba’s middle class devotees infinitely outnumber those of alternative lifestyle. The view may be correct for Marisa Rahm, once caught up in the 60’s alternative scene, but wrong for Al Rahm. He considered himself a yogi, who engaged in serious spiritual practices such as meditation.
Showing three zealous western devotees eccentrically rhapsodizing about Sai Baba fails to indicate his appeal to people of many cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. It obscures the interest he has evoked in figures of great power (e.g., the Clintons, Al Gore, the Gorbachevs (according to a friend of mine who met his late wife Raisa), the power brokers of Sri Lanka and Nepal…) – a bit of a worry! For Isaac Tigrett, multi-millionaire American backer of Sathya Sai Baba, the hippy origin is correct. All glassy-eyed, perhaps still a hippy at heart, Tigrett tells Tanya Datta, “India’s so unique, it’s so incredible. If there’s a spiritual train then India is the engine. All this mysticism, all the strangeness that surrounds Sai Baba and all that stuff, this is the perfect home for it.”
We glimpse one of Sai Baba’s water projects. The BBC got led to the showpiece village near Puttaparthi, instead of investigating harder. This same water system supplies the ashram, which depends on big overseas donors. But there are claims that the overall project failed to deliver due to an unexpected fall in the water table, and that this was covered up by the Sai Baba’s Central Trust. Showing his worthy causes might allow the BBC to appear balanced, but it ignores considerable allegations of fraud, and complaints by village elders that the Sathya Sai water project authorities have left a trail of broken promises. Sai Baba’s state of Andhra Pradesh has long been one of India’s poorest. ‘The Secret Swami’ says that Sai Baba “cuts through the red tape” to provide water to poor villages via a costly pipeline. But the documentary misses a perfect opportunity to suggest a major reason why successive Indian governments and opposition parties have covered for him. Yes, he (or rather his organization) accomplishes what they fail to provide, but with billions of overseas dollars! Would many Indian politicians dare expose the foreign goose that lays the (cosmic!) golden egg? Driving this question would have reinforced the documentary’s fundamental query about whether India is a mature democracy.
We see the hospital by English architect Keith Critchlow for Sai Baba (long-time conduit to Prince Charles). Largely funded by Isaac Tigrett and inaugurated in 1991, this hi-tech heart and kidney hospital outdazzles the many-splendoured architecture of the ashram. BBC cameras miss the names of other big donors, overseas and Indian, which are on a Roll of Honour in the hospital portico. Indeed, ‘The Secret Swami’ fails to mention the billions that pour into the Sai coffers from various countries such as Australia, Canada, the Chinese diaspora, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, UK, USA (the American James Sinclair, the precious metals speculator, alone has donated several hundreds of millions of dollars), ….
Lovely architecture. But within? Alaya Rahm speaks of Sai Baba genitally oiling him, kissing him heavily on the mouth, giving and receiving oral sex, trying to anally penetrate him, mixing lavish gifts of money and jewelry with dire threats - e.g., to cut his penis off, and forbid interviews to his family - to ensure his silence. That these patterns recur in so many other victim reports is crucial, but the BBC fails to highlight this fact.
Alaya says he was afraid to tell his parents of his sexual molestation in almost all of his many private interviews. At one point his father asked him whether he had received the oiling experience. Yes, the son replied, but how did his father know? He answers that he himself received this treatment when he first visited Sai Baba at 18 years old, who told him it was “a ritual healing process.” Why did not the BBC challenge leaders about the oiling experiences? Some Sai Baba leaders at least do admit these – but only under strictest professional guidelines are doctors (and Sai Baba is not one!) permitted to touch the genitals of minors or adults. Tanya Datta’s question to Dr Goldstein in another regard obtains here, too: Is Sai Baba above the law?
Could oral sex by a guru be a secret Tantric ritual? Khushwant Singh (strangely the BBC describes this most famous of Indian social commentators merely as a ‘Writer’) says, “There’s no Indian tradition to support the fact that, you know, worship of the Lingam includes also doing the blow job, if that is what you are referring to. I don’t think there’s any basis for that whatsoever.” A noted Hindu scholar’s response would have carried more weight here. Or even a BBC text or voiceover citing response by Hindu authorities. Any religious leaders would be most remiss if they shirk issues like this. Clarity about allegations of Sai Baba’s ejaculation into victims’ mouths would have questioned the absurdity voiced by some Sai devotees (such as Ram Das Awle in his Internet writings) that Sai Baba touches young males sexually only to assist their mental health or raise the Kundalini energy.
Basava Premanand, the celebrated Rationalist and ‘guru buster,’ reports investigating Sathya Sai Baba since 1968, first “as a hobby” then going public in 1976. He is seen showing the trick behind Sai Baba’s so-called ‘miraculous’ production of the golden lingam (of which more below). Narendra Nayak, his fellow Rationalist, demonstrates how, by sleight-of-hand, magicians perform the same ‘miracles’ as Sai Baba – e.g. materializing ash, rings, pendants, etc. To convince the most critical, the BBC needed demonstrations as sophisticated as those in the Danish documentary ‘Seduced by Sai Baba’ (a copy of which the BBC possessed) where the Danish magician Nils Krøjgaard exposes the deceptions involved. Narendra Nayak shows Tanya Datta, who realizes that it takes practice, how to secrete a vibhuti (sacred ash) pellet between the thumb and base of the forefinger. Nayak says that Sai Baba’s rotations of the hand when producing the ash is the method used by all ‘godmen’ who ‘materialize’ this ash, and obscures the act of crumbling the pellet. (Various people, such as the former leader of the Australian Sai Organization, Terry Gallagher, a scientist, have reported seeing Sai Baba inadvertently drop these pellets.)
On stage before February 2004’s Mahasivaratri crowd, the BBC cameras show Sai Baba looking increasingly sick. He produces the lingam, and the materialization trick demonstrated by Nayak is easy for the viewer to spot, the lingam being concealed in Sai Baba’s handkerchief. Tanya Datta comments: “To the alarm of the crowd suddenly Sai Baba collapsed. His huge coterie of staff swung into action. There was panic. An organisation used to tight control seemed to have lost its grip. Sai Baba was hastily wheeled off stage.” Later, he is carried hobbling back, with officials claiming that he manifested two more lingams offstage. To the audience a shaken Sai Baba makes an inane claim “Out of the stomach emanated Shiva Lingas of the weight of three tonnes. That’s the reason why some strain on the face and the body.”
Confronted by Tanya Datta, Murali Manohar Joshi, one of the most powerful ministers in the recently-defeated Vajpayee government, soon loses his temper, jabbing away with pointed finger at Ms Datta, accusing the BBC and people in England of plotting against Sai Baba, A.B. Vajpayee and P.N. Bhagawati (a key Central Trust member and former Chief Justice of India). He arrogantly shouts at her, “No, no, no… You don’t know the meaning of interviewing a minister in my capacity, as a minister of my stature.” Her vulnerability in the face of an arch bully is touching, and she shows some courage but more seasoned interviewers would not have put up with his evasiveness. Surely, it would have been better had Ms Datta not tried to defend the BBC and herself but rather firmly stated the worldwide nature of the serious evidence that keeps on coming. At least, Joshi’s arrogant evasion of the BBC’s totally fair question about Indian Government accountability was unmasked for the world to see.
There is historic footage of the Rahms’ popular song and story telling appearances on the major US Sai circuit and of Sai Baba’s special attention to them. Marisa Rahm says, “it was just like the trip to Disneyland with God. I mean we were just really ecstatic with joy at getting this attention and this limelight.” However, concerned about their son’s troubled behaviour, Alaya’s parents confront him, and he reveals countless occasions of sexual abuse, saying that he was afraid that if he had told them he would be left “alone in the world.” Marisa weeps, saying “he (Sai Baba) didn’t care about me; he wanted my son.”
When the Rahms took their story to Dr Goldstein, in September 1999, they say that he was shocked and shaken, saying, “Faith has got to be restored and words will not be enough.” Goldstein promised to speak to Sai Baba and pledged the Rahms to secrecy until he did. He reported back that Sai Baba replied, “Swami is pure” and “If you want to fight with people in the gutter, you also have to go into the gutter. Don’t.” But are the Rahms gutter people?! Were they fighting? For years, they were dear favourites of Sai Baba and he showered presents on them. We see a box full of them, including fake jewelry, and Al Rahm calls it a “box of bribes.”
So repeatedly evasive was Michael Goldstein that the BBC decided to film him with hidden cameras. The BBC cleverly gets him to admit the correctness of the Rahms’ report of his words. Unlike his archangelic namesake and just like Joshi, his finger repeatedly jabs at Tanya Datta as he snarls, blusters and fulminates. Seemingly in need of a child’s first dictionary, Dr Goldstein hurls the questions, “Transparency in what sense?” and “What do you mean by thorough investigation”? He says that his “heart and his conscience” know that the allegations of sexual molestation could not be true. But what about the heart and conscience of families and individuals around the world who give accounts of Sai Baba’s tragic harming of their boy children? Goldstein says that he would be able to tell at sight whether young men had been sexually molested or not. Doctor Goldstein is a medical doctor, and does not rate alongside sexual abuse experts who work full-time in the area. Sexual abuse experts are in touch with Sai Baba’s young accusers and are satisfied they are telling the truth. He shouts “I would know it in my heart because I am what I am – a consummate professional. Can you understand that?” This is the world head of Sai Baba’s supposedly divine organization that claims Sai Baba, as full embodiment of God, will save the world within his lifetime!
The ‘Secret Swami’ shows footage, taken by Sai Baba’s official videographer, James Redmond, which shows that, directly after he had asked Sai Baba about the Rahm allegations, Goldstein is made Chief Guest and before a vast audience is praised by Sai Baba as a “great man,” “Goldstein has all good qualities in him,” etc. We see Goldstein being strongly moved by Sai Baba’s flattery. Al Rahm says, “Michael came up to James and said; ‘I want a copy of that video, it’s the peak of my life.’ And I remember thinking; he’s being played.”
The documentary could have raised the question: Why is it that the Rahms and many others, for so long highly regarded in the Sai Baba community, as soon as they try to tell their experiences, are reviled by both guru and many devotees as ‘demons,’ ‘Judases’, ‘slanderers’, ….? Typically, cults do this to those who question or dissent.
Having failed with Goldstein, Al Rahm turns to Tigrett. Unlike other Sai leaders, the latter comes across as compassionate but his unusual and repeated laughter suggests his ultimate denial of feeling that needs to translate to humane action. Ms Datta says, “But even if it was proven to you that Sai Baba was a paedophile and a serial sex abuser, you’re saying it wouldn’t change the fact that he is your guru.” Isaac Tigrett says, “He could go out and murder someone tomorrow.” Tanya Datta probes, “Does that mean that some part of you believes there could be some truth to the rumours?” Tigrett replies, “Oh, absolutely I believe there is truth to the rumours.” But the practical effect - which is doing nothing to advocate a hearing for Sai Baba’s accusers - is the same as if he did not believe in their truth! This immensely rich man blocks the chance of marginalized victims to effectively tell their stories. Clearly, his self-perceived spiritual development is all that matters. He may provide lovely buildings but what about rebuilding broken people, and perhaps saving still others from coming to grief in the secret chamber of the ‘secret swami?
Former Home Minister of Sai Baba’s state Andhra Pradesh, VPB Nair, tells the cameras that the police killings in Sai Baba’s private quarters in June 1993 were “absolutely cold-blooded murder,” and that CID investigations, which were suppressed, showed many lies and cover-ups. He is seeking to re-open the case.
We see the President of India Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh (now India’s Prime Minister) visiting Sai Baba on his birthday. The ‘secret swami’ does not have to go to Indian Presidents, Prime Ministers and other power brokers on all sides of politics. They go to him!
In exposing a dangerous and influential cult, ‘The Secret Swami’ is plucky and perceptive but needed an intellectually more penetrating analysis, and to raise sharper, more focused questions. The documentary brilliantly suggests that the leaders are into heavy cover-up and denial, but strangely didn’t say how widespread and long-standing the paedophile allegations are. The sham ‘miracles were’ somewhat exposed but there do exist more difficult-to-explain Sai Baba-related phenomena than this (e.g., the apparent appearance of many miracles in devotee homes and centres in many countries), which would require rigorous investigation. Let us trust that the BBC will use its more than 80 hours of footage to expose some of many other issues.
Rating: three and a half out of five.