Vroon, Piet “Santa Claus in India” in Indian Skeptic 6(4), August 1993: 8-16.


This article appeared on Saturday December 5, 1992 in De Volkskrant (a Dutch national newspaper), under the title ‘Sinterklaas in India’.  Translated by J.W. Nienhuys [JWN] on the feast of St. Nicholas, as a present for the author of ‘Sai Baba’s miracles: an overview’, the sceptic philosopher Dale F. Beyerstein.

Expanded version, based on a text provided by the author.




Santa Claus in India

By Piet Vroon


My partner and I have visited Sai Baba’s quarters for six days. This travel was made on the request of IKON V [Interchurch Broadcasting Netherlands, JWN], which hopes to air a documentary about Baba (and sell it), in the  spring of 1993. In India we ran into a serious conflict with the film crew, because our experiences and interpretations were quite different from theirs. [Note. The author informed me that within IKON there is a big quarrel about this now. JWN] For instance, IKON did not do any journalistic investigation in India, and were guided only by a few high Indian officials whose status and income depends on Baba, and also by American psychiatrist Sam Sandweiss from San Diego, an influential ‘devotee’ who visited Baba dozens of times. The members of the film crew were almost without exception ‘in Baba’. We report our findings now, and we conform to one of the recommendations that are said to be Baba’s: ‘Be what you profess to be, speak what you intend to do, utter what you have experienced, no more no less’.  We want to remark that we spent a lot of effort to prepare ourselves on our trip. We even considered the possibility that we would meet a paranormally gifted person. So if we had a prejudice, it was positive [the author is well known though for his allergy to established religion and authority. JWN]

The village Puttaparti lies in the south of India. For the most part it consists of hovels, mud-holes, beggars and open sewers. Adjoining the village there is a big ‘ashram’, the holy place of Sathya Sai Baba, a man who is venerated by a fast growing number of people, also in the Netherlands.

Baba was born in this village; many people in east and west consider Baba to be an avatar. According to Hindu tradition an avatar is an incarnation of the divine consciousness, in other words not an ordinary person but an explicitly divine manifestation. All avatars are incarnations of the god Vishnu; examples are Krishna and Buddha.

An avatar or ‘godman’ knows everything and can do anything. His task is to bring humanity back into the right course and out of confusion. In this tradition Jesus is considered an important person, but a real avatar can only be born in India and has also more powers than the founder of the Christian religion. Long ago Baba has proclaimed himself avatar.

The qualitative difference between him and Jesus is shown in the ‘museum’ which can be found on the grounds of the ashram. There is a whole floor that explains to visitors about the five world religions. Above that is another whole floor for Baba himself, with lots of photographs and statues of our guru, and also the message that he encompasses all religions. Clever move that: it provides one with maximum respect.

There are three sides to Sai Baba. He says that old Vedas or philosophical writings should be reinstated. Nobody will be any the worse for that, at least in principle. In the second place Baba has organised that a school and a hospital have been built. Also fine. Finally Baba spends his days doing tricks like materialising holy ash (vibuthi) and rings, watches, necklaces and so on.

The encampment is surrounded by a white wall, interrupted by iron gates. On the terrain hundreds of guards of both sexes are in charge. There are a number of simple apartment buildings where Baba’s devotees can stay for a small fee.

Many of them have to shack though in large barns. It’s no picnic there: tropical ailments make many a visitor spend the night there rattling, shitting and puking. 

In the middle of the place there is a number of buildings and symbolic edifices, painted white, pink and light blue, and liberally endowed with ornaments and statues. It is all rather flashy and ostentatious, but that’s a matter of taste. The approaches are rimmed by plates of black marble with penny wisdoms of Sai Baba like ‘God is Love, live in Love’ flanked by announcements like ‘I am omnipotent’.

Socially all is top notch regulated. Not only the guards are uniformed, visitors are so to, to a certain degree. Almost all body parts must be covered. Man wear usually white suits that are produced by local tailors.

There are more rules. Men and women have to sleep separately and a number of paths and alleys may be used only by men or only by women. Whoever makes mistakes is shown the right path by the guards. At 10 P.M. the camp is hermetically sealed, and whoever gets in into his head to take a constitutional after that (like one of us), runs the risk that a bunch of guards of Later Saihausen, will forcefully conduct him or her back to the resting place [ a pun on Sachsenhausen, a WW II Nazi concentration cam, JWN].

Just to mention another thing in the violent vein: in the name of Baba’s preachings a beggar that happened to possess a meal ticket was pummelled out of the queue for the cafeteria and kicked out the camp.

On the other hand visitors are permitted to walk around in groups in the night after 3.45 A.M. and sing hymns (in unison) to venerate the guru. It goes of non-vegetarian alimentation are forbidden. Baba never visits the village settlements, or he uses one of the three American cars with bullet proof windows that have been donated to him.

Twice a day there is a so-called darshan, that means something like ‘see God’. An Indian spokesman called this ‘the show’. Many hundreds of faithful put their shoes on the street and seat themselves together in rows on a small field, on the instructions of the guards. Then they are admitted to the most important square, a kind of inner sanctum. This is done barefoot. The advice is to use slippers, because shoes are often stolen. Then they sit closely packed and very quiet, men and women far removed from each other. Then Baba strides out. He shuffles around a bit, makes a few remarks and accepts letters.

The latter activity is sometimes followed by the production of holy ash. Even though we were several times very close, we deemed that optical implements might be useful. Our telescope (regarded with disgust by the devotees) suggested strongly that Baba takes this substance (in the form of balls or slivers) in his mostly closed left hand with him. Next he accepts the letters with a kind of pincer motion of his left hand. On a certain moment he orders the letters, using both hands, he transfers a ball to is right hand, pulverises the thing and sprinkles the ash.

Also he keeps the ash in his mouth (probably); the master takes it out when he wipes his face, which happens strikingly often during darshan. When Baba saw one of us, holding the telescope, right in front of him on the moment that he was transferring the ash from one hand to the other, he turned right around and went inside. If a saint’s looks could kill, this article would not have been written. If Baba comes out with two opened hands, he takes letters, but only produces vibuthi from his mouth. If he doesn’t wipe his mouth (which happened once) no vibuthi is forthcoming. Naturally, one may sympathise with the idea that this type of pleasantry necessitates a strict prohibition on the use of video cameras close by during a darshan.

One might unmask Baba by opening his mouth or his left hand when he comes out, or by inspecting the chair in his interview room. One of us has considered doing such things, but thought it might involve mortal danger.

One ‘miracle’ that Baba doesn’t do anymore is the following. Once a year he sticks his hand and lower arm in an inverted pot. A stirring motion causes a lot of vibuthi streaming out of the pot. We looked at two video recordings of this. In one you can see how Baba takes his hand out of the pot, and then still some more pieces and strings of ash are coming out. There are indications (see also the book of Haraldsson mentioned further on), that the pot is filled with a layer of vibuthi mixed with water. After it dries, a new layer is added and this is repeated a few times. Scraping around in the pot loosens the vibuthi.

Baba’s behaviour doesn’t quite excel in delicacy. If someone hands him a kerchief, so he can wipe his face (and take vibuthi from his mouth), he throws it on the ground afterwards. He rarely keeps appointments and acts generally insultingly towards women. By far the most people granted an interview (according to us) male. A Dutch film crew was allowed to show Baba a preview of an earlier picture. But the woman who had made sound track was not admitted (actually Baba rejected the film, because it showed his double chin). After endless trouble, the cameraman was allowed to walk together with Baba, but the sound had to be prepared separately, because the lady was not allowed to walk there.

Finally, there are lots of contradictions between Baba’s words and deeds. According to us, the vedas never recommend to treat people like dirt and organise holy places in concentration camp style. Baba says that an educational system should combine science with spirituality. He means that intellectual and religious instruction must be interwoven. That’s all very fine, but during interviews Baba clearly keeps the two apart. That’s why he refuses to be investigated in a laboratory. We think the explanation for that is clear: ‘swami’ doesn’t appreciate being debunked.

After this show Baba often invites a number of people for an ‘interview’ in a small room. For the most part these are westerners, because, according to the assistants of the guru, one can’t earn very much from Indians (on many places the visitors are exhorted to deposit ‘donations’ to Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust).

Some of those present are treated to a ring, a necklace or a watch, objects that we think Baba removes (even after my partner loudly predicted so in situ) from behind a vase with plastic flowers of from between the pillows of his chair, when he distracts people’s attention. The so-called ‘materialised’ objects are exactly on body temperature. Also these tricks are probably the reason the Baba never wants to show his art in a laboratory, and it is also clear why magicians are refused entry, when they make themselves known. The value of the objects, that are not seldomly received by people who promptly burst into tears, depends on status or caste of the recipients and varies between 2 and 50 dollars at the current exchange rate for rupees.

The conversation consists of a monotonously rambling monologue, couched in a very primitive kind of English, on the subject of the heart that should conquer the mind (“science not good, heart good”). This level of conversation is understandable, in view of the fact that Baba hardly received any training. ‘Hubband, hubband’ Baba asked a Dutch woman. ‘I have no husband’ she answered, whereupon Baba reacted: ‘need hubband’. A young man, dressed in the thin white uniform, had a photograph in his pocket, which showed up through the material as a dark patch. Baba asked him whether he had a picture with him. Indeed, and another miracle had happened.

Also his recorded conversations with others are appalling. For instance, Baba claims that the total number of breaths in one’s life is fixed for every person. He advises therefore not to exert oneself too much, because it makes one die quickly. Another nonsensical proclamation is that only a lesion between the twelfth and ninth vertebra can cause paralysis. The English letters written by Baba, which are reproduced on a grand scale, are forgeries, according to our information: Baba can’t write English, and neither he knows Sanskrit. We think it is suspicious that Baba’s interview room has five locks and that his food every day is provided by his sister who lives in the village. Our informant says that she probably supplies him with balls of ash and trinkets.

One spectacular form of swindle is as follows. We visited a house dedicated to Shirdi Baba, about 250 km from Puttaparthi. Shirdi Baba died in the beginning of the century, and is venerated as a benefactor in large parts of India. The house is now an orphanage. There were about ten children there, in very primitive circumstances. When we arrived, the place was locked up. Thanks to a helpful Indian, we could get in. The manager was in a hospital. But we spoke to a young man of about 18, whose English was very poor.

One room is used as sanctuary for Sai Baba and Shirdi Baba. It contains a dazzling number of photographs of the master, all leaning against a board. In the middle there is a large, framed picture of Baba as a young man. It is almost completely covered with thick lumps of ash. Only the face is kept free. As soon as you touch the ash, it falls off the glass. The visitors can get some of that, in exchange for a gift to the orphanage. On Sundays the ash is replenished by Sai Baba in a miraculous way from a great distance.

The young man was not so very wise, because on our request he opened the copper fence that is supposed to keep the visitors distant from the picture. Se we could look at it in detail. That fraud was involved was quite clear, only: how did they do it? Vertically in the top of the frame around the picture is a nail that sticks out by accident. In the board there is an impression of that nail, something that can only happen when you bring the picture in a horizontal position. This picture is the only one that is attached to the board by a kind of primitive hinge, consisting of two nails and iron wire wound around them. All other pictures just lean against the board. If you look carefully, it is clear that the hinge is used often.

Every Sunday afternoon, according to an informant, the picture is lifted from below and smeared with a kind of slush of water and ash. Of course, nobody may then enter the room. One day later the ash has dried, and the manager lets down the picture again, carefully. Because the ash comes off easily from the glass, the hinge has an important function: motions and vibrations are minimised during the process of letting the picture down. We tried the trick at home with ash from Baba. It works to perfection.

A similar fraud happens to the stone images of Shirdi Baba’s feet. Amrita, a kind of honey, is smeared on these feet every Sunday. Visitors lick off the stuff during the week, so the feet were dry when we were there.

It is our opinion that Baba is an enormous narcist and an arrogant lout, but first and foremost a clever businessman and magician. He has created a marvellous system of lies and deceit, and he keeps it together with social control based on the caste system. The many people in his neighbourhood that earn money through him do their work on the basis of a silent conspiracy. Nobody has an interest in discussing the details of the operation.

A very clever move is the following. The guards change every month, so they can’t get a thorough view of the operation. But it is also probable that Baba has a very small number of people he really dares trust and that the great mass of his assistants don’t know everything by a long shot.

The ‘permanent’ staff is very careful and even terrified: a number of people who told us after long talks independently from each other how things are done (‘Baba is big, Baba is big, Baba is a big liar too; vibuthi goes from one hand to the other’) asked us not to tell anybody who they were, also not in the Netherlands. Right they are of course, many people in many countries can read books and newspapers, and dozens of representatives of the organisation are in each country.

Because also rich visitors and influential representatives of other countries are seeing blind, they deposit enormous amounts of cash in guru’s piggy bank, which is used among others to build a pompous hospital. This hospital was opened officially by Baba in the end of 1992 (on the occasion of his birthday on November 23, Baba is cheered by half a million people and 5000 police in a kind of natural stadium, a valley). In this hospital heart operations are performed for free (!), at least according to an Indian newspaper, but for the rest the most basic medical provisions are lacking far and wide in the countryside.

For instance there are countless numbers of people in the area with deformations of teeth, spine and limbs, because the water contains far too much fluorine. This substance can be removed with a simple filter. Almost 9.000 villages in India need such a filter. The money for this comes mainly from Unicef. The assistants of Baba say that ‘swami’ has financed this project, but this is a lie: his organisation has provided only two or three installations at $1000.- a piece, as a kind of subcontractor.

Something similar holds for Baba’s school and university: these institutions are too under government supervision, and Baba is no more than financer and contractor for official plans. A short time ago the Baba organisation even built a splendid airport. The contrast with the open sewers in the village is highly embarrassing.

That Baba is conning people is – to a degree – his right. He succeeds thanks to the misconduct of his (western) followers. Countless stories are just rubbish. An Indian said that the walls of his house were covered with holy ash. But the explanation is that the climate is hot and humid, on some molds looks like ash. If a cure succeeds, it is the grace of Baba, if recuperation doesn’t come, the person suffers from his ‘karma’ in addition to lack of faith. An American lady told us that an acquaintance of hers wasn’t cured of cancer, but had died peacefully in the ashram. A miracle too!

One Dutchman called our attention to one more miracle: a photograph of his son and his son’s fiancee was suddenly covered with a thin layer of ash. A few hours later the son told us that he had caused this miracle himself by wielding a few satchels of ash himself.

Each simple observation seems to elude these people. All objects ‘materialised’ by Baba have defects. Baba wants to give imperfect things to imperfect people, it is said, and this way the devotee straightens out any bends. One ‘materialised’ so-called 2000 year old [predating Christ’s crucifixion? JWN] crucifix has at least one serious defect: the nails in actual crucifixions passed through the wrist, because nails through the hand could not support a weight and would just tear out. Moreover the crucifix has a hole for hanging it from, just like the ones that can be bought for a dollar or so in market places in India.

The most simple everyday coincidences are all interpreted as a sign of Baba. Showers last for instance quite short in these regions. It is said that the guru can hold them up while the show is going on. But by going out a bit earlier or later than scheduled, this can be manipulated easily. And then, if it rains, Baba pops inside in a jiffy, or worse, the devotees denied stubbornly and thoroughly drenched that any rain had occurred. The American psychiatrist Sam Sandweiss (author of a couple of books about Baba, which are sold in the Netherlands too) said, on account of our observations and alternative explanations, that we suffered from a severe form of  ‘lack of faith’.

Swami’s predictions fail rather often. Those who adore him say that he doesn’t want to change the karma of people. The lady of the film crew who was in charge of sound had obtained on an earlier occasion a ring from Baba, price about five dollars. Gradually the gold colour had started blistering and coming off, no wonder for a ring that cheap. When she communicated her dissatisfaction, Sandweiss pontificated that Baba had given her, as a bad person, a bad ring, but that the blistering process constituted evidence that the ring was taking over her evil karma, for which she had to be extremely grateful to ‘swami’.

We found that it wasn’t easy to spend our time usefully. In the camp there is just the one distraction: seeing the ‘show’ twice a day. One of us indicated his concerns about this to Sandweiss, and was treated to the following pronouncements: Í know that almost all promises that have been made to you are broken. This is part of a great plan swami has for you. You know too much. Swami wants to break your ego and your mind by isolating you from everything. Stop writing books, meditate as much as you can on the mantra sho-hum, and when you are back in Holland, realise that you are nothing and that swami is everything. Sit in your room, do not leave the ashram and just think of him. Possibly he will once give you a spark of hope.’ This type of reasoning sounds even faintly threatening. When we left the ashram prematurely, among others because nobody kept promises and appointments made from the Netherlands, Sandweiss informed us that the ‘drama’ hadn’t ended yet; Baba would make himself known to us somehow.

The behaviour of Baba’s followers can be explained as a kind of brainwashing. You are in a strange land, your individuality is diminished by the uniform, smoking is disallowed as well as alcohol, food is only vegetarian, walking around is forbidden on all kinds of times, most visitors have hardly any place for themselves and all and everything is focussed on darshan. This generates a kind of collective psychosis.

            Some mystifications continue in the Netherlands. We talked to a lady who had lost one eye in a car accident. The other eye was severely damaged (cornea, lens and iris were destroyed) and she was wearing strongly positive (15 dioptry) glasses. When she visited Baba he asked her about her eye. The woman was surprised. But why should she? After all one glass eye plus one very strong lens is kind of unusual. After some months her vision, which varied between 30% and 50% was increased to 60%. This was also a miracle. But an inquiry with an ophthalmologist learned that vision after accidents and operations can increase within one month from 10 to 80 percent, and even more.

            Why has Baba supporters? If we disregard the brainwashing there are leaders galore with a large following: Hare Krishna, Mussolini, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Hitler, Ron Hubbard of scientology fame, Baghwan, Mr. Moon, and Billy Graham. Indians venerate Baba because they regard him as an incarnation of Shirdi Baba. They try, according to one explanation we heard, to contact Shirdi Baba by going to Sai Baba. Something like Roman Catholics who try to reach God by praying to a saint.

            Western people in search of spirituality, meditate for years in the hope to get closer to ‘the truth’, and find a guru that has the answer. Apparently there is a need for a person that represents something that’s more than just ordinary life. Sai Baba is one of many that satisfy this need. His English is very poor and what he says is very vague. Statements like: you feed yourself badly, which seem pretty meaningless are interpreted after many discussions to mean: you don’t provide yourself with the right spiritual nourishment. Consequently a thorough self-examination for one’s own shortcomings yields of course an answer, and then this answer is considered as Baba’s intention. Same thing happens with all the miracles ascribed to him Most stories are hearsay and difficult to check but people’s own experience is also a rich source. Not only the weather is under Baba’s influence, but every piece of good or bad luck is likewise interpreted as part of a deep plan that Baba has for you. Each frustration can be explained by interpreting things according to his teachings.

The guy has a very capricious character. All kinds of promises are broken, and you depend completely on his agreement. The whole TV crew was at his mercy and couldn’t film what they wanted. One man was to tell how Baba once grabbed the moon from the sky, but he didn’t turn up: Baba’s fiat wasn’t forthcoming.

After a lot of trouble and shooting plan that went completely wrong, the Dutch TV crew gets a permit to walk behind the guy. But he doesn’t give the explicitly promised interview for the camera. Also the president of the country, who was flown in to open the hospital, refuses a promised interview. One of the many people we spoke had an explanation: the government is severely compromised, but tolerates the situation because he brings in a lot of foreign money, so a lot of people can have some work. Let him build his fancy hospital, that one hospital more in any case. But an interview before the camera in which the godman must be praised because of his work and nature? That would be too much for the president.

A second reason why the government is so easy on Baba is according to what we heard the following. Baba says among others that all world religions have elements in common. This tolerant view is applauded by the Indian government, in view of the frequent violence between hindus, muslims and other groups.

The Islandic psychologist E. Haraldsson has written a book on Baba, titled: Miracles are my visiting cards (London, Century, 1987), which we read and liked very much at first. Haraldsson concludes that this man is the most extremely paranormally gifted person in recent history. But Haraldsson’s stories are almost all hearsay, and the descriptions he gives of the phenomena he experienced himself, are just oozing all over with possibilities for fraud.

One example. Haraldsson asks for an interview on the subject of the relation between science and ‘spirituality’. Baba says something about it by comparing it with a so called double rudaksha, a kind of fruit stone or nut. Haraldsson doesn’t know what that is. What happens? Baba can’t explain it in English (even though an avatar should be master of 3000 languages) and presto, as a ‘proof’ he materialises a rudaksha. Made of gold, because Haraldsson had said that he wanted to write a book about him.

There are two explanations of Baba’s behavior. In India there are lots of street magicians who know very many astounding tricks. Maybe Baba started that way. An alternative is the following. Many tricks that are ascribed to Baba have been done before by well known parapsychological subjects or mediums like D. D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, Rudy Schneider and others. According to parapsychological literature, it can happen that such a person loses his abilities by unknown causes, and then he tries to keep up his image with lies and deceit. This happened almost certainly with Palladino. The same could have happened to Baba. But for the time being, we just think he’s a trickster and a cheat.