April 24, 2011 4:47 pm

Indian spiritual leader and benefactor dies

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the spiritual leader whose devotees included some of India’s top business, political and public figures, and who created India’s richest religious trust, has died of multiple organ failure, nine years before he prophesied he would.

Revered by his devotees as a “living god,” Sathya Sai Baba, 85, was known for performing “miracles” such as materialising gold rings out of thin air, though his detractors sought to debunk this as little more than sleight of hand.

Claiming to be the reincarnation of a late 19th century Indian saint, Sathya Sai Baba preached the unity of all religions and said he wanted people to be stronger in their own faiths.

Yet he also emphasised his own divinity and omniscience and implied to some of his western devotees that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. “I am beyond the reach of the most intensive inquiry and the most meticulous measurement,” he declared in 1974. “Only those who have recognised my love and experienced that love can assert that they have glimpsed my reality.”

His charitable work included two hospitals that provide free treatment to the poor, a university, schools and drinking water projects that brought clean water to almost 2m people in various drought-prone areas of southern India.

Along with his international devotees Sai Baba was popular among Indian elites, including Sachin Tendulkar, the cricketing legend; Ratan Tata, the corporate leader, and top political figures, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, former prime minister, and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam former president.

Sai Baba’s death – without any obvious successor in line – has raised the spectre of a battle for control of his charitable trust, conservatively estimated to have assets of $8.8bn, although the trust’s accounts have never been made public.

The trustees – who include a former chief justice of the supreme court, several top retired bureaucrats, a leading south Indian businessman, and the spiritual leader’s nephew – have promised continuity, and rebuffed suggestions of a government take over.

Born on November 23 1926, Sathyanaranayana Raju, came from a modest family in the village of Puttaparthi, in what is now the southern Andhra Pradesh state. His devotees’ accounts of his childhood are filled with portents and omens, including reports of his especially charitable nature.

At the age of 14, the young man is said to have undergone a mystical transformation, after which he announced that he was the reincarnation of the Indian ascetic, the Sai Baba of Shirdi, whose teachings contained elements of Hinduism and Islam, who was seen as a saint by members of both communities and who died in 1918.

After his revelation to his family, Sathya Sai Baba began travelling around southern India, preaching, reportedly performing miracles, and accumulating followers. Unlike other globe-trotting Indian gurus who captured the western imagination in the 1960s, Sathya Sai Baba did not travel abroad, aside from a trip to Uganda and Kenya in 1968.

However, his native town of Puttaparthi, where his ashram was built in 1950, was gradually transformed into a booming global pilgrimage centre, drawing devotees from across India and around the world.

Along with upmarket hotels and restaurants serving an array of international cuisines, Puttaparthi now even has its own airstrip for the convenience of VIPs and affluent devotees, who flocked for guidance to India’s most famous living religious figure.

Allegations of sexual abuse from some disillusioned western followers were never formally probed and failed to dent the holy man’s popularity. In 1993, several people were killed in a scuffle in his living quarters, apparently a conflict between devotees over who deserved closer proximity to his holy presence.

In the past few years, Sai Baba’s failing health had left him confined to a wheelchair, and restricted his public appearances.

Sathya Sai Baba’s body is to lie in state for two days at his ashram, before his funeral on Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of devotees are expected to flood the town of Puttaparthi for a final audience with the man they believed was a living god, and who one emotional devotee said on Sunday remained with them still.

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