Claus in India” in Indian Skeptic 6(4), August 1993: 8-16.
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.
version, based on a text provided by the author.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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].
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.
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.
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
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
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.
‘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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.