The Land of Illusion

Inside Sathya Sai Baba’s fiefdom

01 June 2010

ABOUT THREE-AND-A-HALF HOURS from Bangalore, past farmers’ fields and some hills, a small village came into view. The rural area gradually gave way to an airstrip, where a private jet was parked, and then to uptown buildings—resorts, hotels and a huge, pink building, the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Prasanthigram, a ‘super specialty hospital’ designed by English architect Dr Keith Critchlow, close to the Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium, inaugurated in November 2006 by then President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, who also happens to be a well-regarded nuclear scientist.

This is Puttaparthi, a small town in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh spread over approximately ten square kilometres. The names of almost all hotels and shops start with ‘Sai.’ Pictures of Sathya Sai Baba are everywhere—on all shop hoardings, on the backs of auto-rickshaws, in lifts and telephone booths and even inside the Puttaparthi police station and the post office. The pictures also carry prominent Sai Baba-isms: ‘Help Ever, Hurt Never,’ ‘Love is God, Live in Love,’ ‘Unity, Purity and Divinity,’ ‘Love All, Serve All,’ and so on. With his benevolent teachings, his emphasis on communal harmony, and his numerous social work projects, Sai Baba seems like Puttaparthi’s own deity.

Everything in the village appears in line with Sai Baba’s worldview. There are many massage parlours—Sai Baba himself claims to be a “masseur healer.” Given his aversion to alcohol and tobacco, cigarettes and liquor are sold only secretly. But you can find several paan shops—Sai Baba is a paan (betel leaf and nut) eater, as his stained teeth also suggest. Almost all restaurants are vegetarian, mirroring Sai Baba’s philosophy that “meat eating fosters animal qualities in man making him descend to the demoniac level.” Puttaparthi often seems like Sai Baba’s personal kingdom.

Vishal Arora is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on religion, culture, politics and foreign affairs for media in India, the UK and the US.

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