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God, Christ, Satan, or Con?

San Diegans Worship a Miracle Man

Sai Baba in Del Maestro's living room
Sai Baba in Del Maestro's living room

It is like baking a cake. I stir, I knead, I pound, I twist, I bake you. I drawn you in tears I scorch you in sobs. I make you a sweet and crisp, an offering worthy of God. —Sathya Sai Baba

I’ve always wanted to know why the stars are in the sky. I look at the sky and wonder, where did this come from? And how did this arrive? How is this possible?”

Richard knew at a very young age that someone, something, somehow, would answer his questions, satisfy his longings. He found this force in a dark-skinned, Afro-haired individual from South India named Sathya Sai Baba. To his devotees, Sai Baba is the avatar descended. In a word, God.

Del Maestro's Sai Baba ring

For the moment, Richard is high on God. The weekly North County Sai Baba meeting had just concluded in his tract home. The atmosphere is charged with the singing of bhajans, which Richard accompanies on harmonium, and the ritual use of vibhuti, or holy ash. Upon the wafting fumes of jasmine incense he rhapsodizes about his discovery of the Prime Mover. “I stumbled upon Sai Baba through my sister. She had his picture up. I felt very threatened; I felt like, oh, my God, what is happening to my little sister? Is she involved in a cult? She said that she didn’t know very much about him but handed me an article out of a new-age magazine. I read the article.

“It talked about when he raised his hand, thousands of people before him would have their consciousness raised, merely by the motion of the lifting of his hands. It talked about him knowing the present, past, and future of everybody he sees. About him materializing ash and rings and things. As I read this article I thought, my God, if this is true, then this is what I’ve been looking for.

“I ran into a woman who had his picture on her wall. I asked, ‘Do you know who this is?’ And she asked, ‘Do you know who this is?’ She took me to the Sai Baba Center, where I bought some books. I got home, would look into a book, burst into tears, close the book, and say this is nuts. There’s no logical explanation for my bursting into tears. Then I’d do it again. Open the book, burst into tears, close the book. I cried through one book, I cried through another book, deep, sobbing, crying, absolutely inexplicable to myself. I thought, my God, man, are you mad? What’s with you? Pull yourself together, it’s just a book. But it wasn’t just a book; it was the story of Sai Baba, and I was so moved and touched by it I was overwhelmed.

“I heard that you could have a dream of him. That you can’t dream of him by your own will. He must choose to come to you. I yearned to have a dream of him. These are visions, not dreams. They’re real spiritual experiences.

“Before long I had some very profound dreams. Very profound dreams, where he would be talking with me as if he knew me better than my own mother. Until you experience talking to someone who knows you better than your parents know you, you can’t fathom what it feels like. There’s no way of describing that.

“I would listen to his 43rd birthday discourse [recorded November 23, 1968] over and over again until I memorized it. ‘For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evildoers, and for establishing righteousness on a firm footing, I incarnate from age to age.’

“Anyone who makes a claim like that has got my attention. I’d question the discourse. I’d question these dreams, and I’d put two and two together. ‘If you take one step toward me, I shall take a hundred steps toward you. Shed just one tear, I shall wipe a hundred from your eyes.... If you waste this chance of saving yourself, it is just your fate.’ Anywhere you go in this speech, it’s just so powerful. After I took that one step toward him — ‘Baba, I want to have a dream’ — Boom! I’m having this dream, and it is blowing my mind wide open. I mean, completely right out the top of my head! Waking up from this experience and glowing for three days. And I’m in love. And I’m fulfilled, and I’m happy. And I don’t know why. And I can’t describe it to a human being. I can only say, I hope I have another dream, and I want to go see him.”

THEY BELIEVE IN MIRACLES

Little known in the United States, Sai Baba is acknowledged as India’s most revered sadhu, overseeing an international following estimated by India Today magazine as 50 million. The estimate includes “millions in Europe and the U.S.” Exact numbers are difficult to determine since devotees are not compelled to sign up with any organization or even participate in communal worship at any of the thousands of Sai Baba centers worldwide. Nevertheless, there are 150 Sai Baba centers in the U.S., each serving from a handful to hundreds of devotees.

Born in 1926 to pious, middle-class parents, Sai Baba’s given name was Satyanarayana Raju. At the age of 14, after a dire illness precipitated by a scorpion sting, he announced to his family and the world that he was the reincarnation of the Muslim saint Sai Baba of Shirdi. From then on, he went by the name Sathya Sai Baba. He claimed not to be your workaday sunnyasi, yogi, or guru, but an avatar, an incarnation of Godhood descended. Jews await the Messiah; Moslems, Mahdi; and Christians, Christ. Sai Baba claims to be all these incarnations.

Sai Baba commonly pronounces that he pities the person who does not believe he has the power to transmute earth into sky and sky into earth. Since he is God, no one can comprehend him. His ways must always remain inscrutable. “Talking about Sai Baba,” writes devotee Howard Murphet in Sai Baba: Avatar, “is like putting the ocean in a bell jar.” Recalls N. Kasturi, Swami’s official biographer, “When [a devotee] heard himself ask Baba, ‘Are you God?’ Baba replied, ‘How can an ant measure the depth of the ocean or a fish discover the truth of the sky?’ ”

San Diego County is a power node of Sai Baba worship, accommodating devotional centers in the tony Sunset Cliffs area and North County. The Sunset Cliffs center is run from the expansive home of Dr. Samuel Sandweiss, a practicing psychiatrist who wrote Spirit and the Mind and Sai Baba: The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist. The latter is a well-distributed title that has introduced many souls to the godman. San Diego native John Hislop, a doctor of education, still an active devotee at the age of 88, wrote two books for Dr. Sandweiss’s Birth Day Publishing Company, Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba and My Baba and I. Hislop is considered by those in the organization to be one of the most evolved devotees, whom the avatar has showered with sustained, intimate contact.

Despite his large international following and the astounding claims surrounding Sai Baba, no major article on the swami has ever been published in the American secular press. The Sai Baba organization was caught thoroughly unprepared for inquiries, repelling and inviting them in turn. Although there are dozens of English-language books about Sai Baba and a proliferation of videotapes rented and sold in new-age shops, devotees shun publicity, an aversion articulated on many occasions by Sai Baba himself.

Exposes have dogged the trail of self-styled gods who made inroads into the pocketbooks of American followers. Guru Maharah Ji of the Divine Life Temple was the pudgy, teenaged, Mammon-enriched avatar worshipped for a time by disgruntled hippies. His teachings centered around activation of the pineal gland. Another Rolls-Royce enthusiast, the late Baghawan Shree Rajneesh, for whom the star-crossed Rajneeshpuram in Central Oregon was erected, attracted to himself red-robed dropouts eager to indulge in primal screams and orgiastic sex. Fellow tantric Da Free John (a.k.a. Da Love-Ananda and Franklin Jones) in 1990 proclaimed himself Kalki, the apocalyptic manifestation of Vishnu. The balding, love-handled avatar is building his temple in the Fiji Islands primarily with the aid of American worshipers.

Unlike Rajneesh or Maharah Ji, Sai Baba doesn’t seem interested in setting up camp in the U.S., preferring instead to appear to devotees in the ether. By his decree, no monetary demands are made on his followers. Tithing is prohibited. To discourage ostentatious displays of philanthropy, any contribution to the communal kitty is supposed to be done out of sight of others. Devotees are encouraged to contribute to local needs rather than service the central authority. All books and audio tapes are distributed at cost. Sai Baba has directed that his devotees use their homes for worship in order to avoid public or private collections of money for temples and a bloated bureaucracy.

And unlike Rajneeshees and Hare Krishnas, Baba bhaktas do not don ocher robes and drop out of society. They are urged instead to observe strict moral practices within their respective communities, with an emphasis on public service projects. Richard Del Maestro’s North County center organizes weekly distribution of burritos to field workers; Sandweiss’s South County group has its own burrito project twice a month and helps out at the St. Vincent De Paul homeless shelter. Baba devotees seem so benign and well integrated, you wouldn’t know that they hold such unusual beliefs.

Sai Baba’s ashram, located in the small town of Puttaparthi, north of Bangalore in south-central India, is an evolving empire of hospitals, temples, universities, schools, hotels, and even a landing strip. These expensive services, provided to the public at low or no cost, are said to be funded through blind contributions from his followers to a central trust.

However, it is not for his good deeds that Sai Baba is famous, but for his miracles. With a twirl of his hand he materializes vibhuti, which he dispenses to crowds receiving his darshan, his daily public appearances. Vibhuti, which is actually cow dung reduced to ash and perfumed with jasmine, produced by the ton at the Sai Baba ashram, is eaten and swabbed on the forehead by all devotees in every devotional meeting. At once a sacrament and a cure-all, vibhuti is said to symbolize the fragility of material existence and the transcendence of the spirit: from ash you have come, and ash you shall become.

In private interview Baba’s miraculous performances take on, as devotees tell it, a rather desultory air. He apports gold watches and jewelry, medallions, statues, prayer beads, necklaces, rings, and other knickknacks. Some of these materializations have been captured on film and videotape. Dale Beyerstein, affiliated with the Canadian chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, responding to requests for information from concerned relatives of Baba devotees, published an investigation titled Sai Baba’s Miracles: An Overview, in which professional magicians analyze Sai Baba’s materializations frame by frame, noting classic sleight-of-hand techniques and misdirection. At present, according to Mary Keene of the Sathya Sai Book Center of America in Tustin, official sale of videotapes has been discontinued until Baba once again approves their release. Videotapes that were previously sold through the center can only be sold through private parties.

Anecdotal reports from believers overwhelmingly make the case for Sai Baba as the genuine article. San Diego resident Mike Congleton, a magician by hobby and computer engineer by trade, is an uncritical believer after seeing Sai Baba in person. “I’ve always had a good understanding of sleight of hand and misdirection, like Houdini or Dunninger. I know about mentalism and all that stuff. Outside of Bangalore I visited an orphanage that had medallions exuding amritha [a nectar-of-the-gods-like substance]. Here’s something with no strings attached, no tubes. A medallion spontaneously oozing amritha right into my palm. It was at the orphanage where ash was appearing on religious objects. From a statue of Jesus, red ash was coming out of his hand and heart. The fellow who ran the orphanage held up a lingam [for Sai Baba, not a phallus but an egg-shaped ritual object] and asked me what I saw. I looked and saw an orange robe and Sai Baba. He said not everyone saw Baba inside the lingam.

“When I arrived at Puttaparthi, the ashram was practically deserted because of [a rail] strike. Baba had his hand in front of me, then says, ‘Okay, 500 rupees service charge.’ He reached into the air right in front of me and grabbed ten $1000 bills, American money. He said, ‘Money doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s your love and devotion to God. Then he turned his hand over like he was dropping the money, and then it disappeared.”

In his first pilgrimage to Sai Baba, after spending months being ignored in darshan among thousands of other worshipers, Sai Baba finally invited Richard Del Maestro to a personal interview. “He asked, ‘What do you want?’ I said, T want to be as close to your heart as possible. I want to be as close to your physical presence as possible.’ He said, ‘Where am I?’ I said, ‘You’re everywhere.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ At that point, I didn’t know how I knew, except from the books, or just believing what I heard, and not because of any real experience. He said, ‘You know from your imagination.’ He’s teaching me to be discriminating. He said, ‘I am God; you are also God.’ I said, ‘Yes, Swami, I feel more like God every day.’ He said, ‘That feeling is good. Follow that feeling.’ Then he waved his hand and materialized this ring for me. He slid it on my finger and said, ‘Ah, perfect fit. Such stories are common among devotees.’ ”

What makes the case of Sai Baba so curious is that many believers report strange materializations in their own homes, frequently in the form of vibhuti or amritha on pictures of Sai Baba. I was able to view two separate examples of these ostensibly miraculous apparitions. In an elderly devotee’s home in Grants Pass, Oregon, scented vibhuti appeared on several dozen images of Sai Baba. Aluminum foil dams are rigged below the pictures to catch the runoff. And at the Sathya Sai Book Center in Tustin, two images of Sai Baba are streaked with amritha. “When we take the pictures out of the workroom,” says store manager Mary Keene, “and put them in the meditation room, the amritha stops flowing. As soon as we put them back in the workroom, they start flowing again.” Stranger still is that Baba believers are content to keep the so-called miracles under wraps. Wilma Bronky, the devotee from Grants Pass, tells no one in town about the mysterious events taking place in her home. “They wouldn’t understand.” Wilma has been so circumspect about the swami’s “blessing” she has not even told some other Babaites about her “vibhuti storms.” “Whenever the vibhuti stops flowing for a time,” says Wilma, “it means that Swami is displeased. And I’ve got to figure out why.” Despite health problems, Wilma Bronky is planning her 30th trip to see Sai Baba.

As far as miracles in San Diego are concerned, Dr. Sandweiss, the psychiatrist, says, “I’ve seen the most extraordinary things right here in this community. I’ve seen pictures with the amritha. I’ve seen a house where all the pictures fill with vibhuti. I’ve seen experiences that were just mind-boggling. I mean, a person, a 28-year-old rather naive person who doesn’t know any foreign language would feel that [Sai Baba] would come to her in her mind’s eye, and she would start chanting Sanskrit, and vibhuti would materialize on her body and her pictures. I mean, it was just so extraordinary.

“A friend told me one day she wanted to go to India. I discouraged her because she had a lot of responsibility here. She said, ’Come let me show you something.’ She showed me a picture that was materializing vibhuti.” Sandweiss looks me in the eye, perhaps trying to gauge whether I believe these stories, and continues, “Those kinds of dramatic expressions give a charge to believers but wreak havoc with people who don’t believe.”

“I had the experience of wanting to go to a lecture that someone was giving on Baba,” relates Richard Del Maestro, “but I had a very bad headache, and so I sat in front of my little altar, closed my eyes, and said, ‘Baba, I have such a headache. If you want me to go, please give me a sign.’ When I opened my eyes, dots of vibhuti had materialized on the picture in front of me. This was just unreal. I scraped some of it off, and I ate the ash. And I went to the meeting with my headache, yet my headache was never cured. I thought the ash was to cure my headache. In America we want an instant cure. We want to eat a little vibhuti, chase the headache away, and go. There must have been a deeper meaning.” An article in the August 15,1993 issue of India Today reveals that vibhuti apparitions are a common trick of fakirs that can be duplicated by spraying lactic acid over picture frames. Ash is produced when the dried acid comes into contact with moisture. It’s comforting to know that a parlor trick can perhaps replicate the mystical experiences of Sai Baba devotees, but a question remains. Can a true believer remain a true believer when he’s loading the dice?

Although devotees never seem to tire of miracle stories, Sam Sandweiss emphasizes that “Swami uses these miracles as calling cards, as manifestations of his overwhelming love. This comes to him naturally. He doesn’t think twice about creating matter from thin air. But we shouldn’t get hung up on the tinsel and trash, as Baba calls it, but focus instead on his larger mission, which is to restore the dharmic or righteous way of life.”

It is as difficult for the world to overlook the “tinsel and trash,” the Seiko- and Citizens-brand watches and cheap religious articles manifested by Sai Baba as it is to look beyond the miraculous phenomena associated with Christianity. Beyond the long-distance investigations of Dale Beyerstein and a smattering of India-based rationalists with a decided anti-guru axe to grind, no independent investigators have studied Sai Baba, who has long resisted attempts to quantify his self-proclaimed divinity. This does not necessarily mean, contra the Indian skeptic Narasimhalah’s declaration to India Today, that Sai Baba has been thoroughly exposed because he does not reply to the hectoring of rationalist societies. For the time being we have a few indistinct videotapes and devotees’ endless anecdotes to make the case for Sai Baba, Avatar.

In his official biography, presently collected in four volumes, Sai Baba is described as raising the dead, manipulating time and space, transmuting energy into matter and matter into energy. In a country where cows are treated with more consideration than most individuals, modernist Indians are practically driven mad by what they perceive to be the regressive reverence of godmen like Sai Baba. One frustrated rationalist went so far as attempt to take God to court.

In 1985, B. Premanand, chairman of the Indian chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, initiated a lawsuit against Sai Baba for contravening the India Gold Control Act, which prohibits the manufacture of gold articles without registering proper permissions from the central government. A judge dismissed the Premanand’s writ, finding, “An article or an ornament which was admittedly materialized from air in a split second by the use of spiritual powers or otherwise cannot be said to have been ‘made, manufactured, prepared, or processed,’within the meaning of Section 11 of the [Gold Control] Act.”

Premanand and rationalists accused the Indian government of coddling and protecting the godman, an accusation that may hold some merit considering leading politicos and jurists profess to be Sai Baba devotees. According to the July 15, 1993 issue of India Today, “the godman’s staunch believers include the President [and] the Prime Minister [of India].” Their professed belief may simply be good politics. Sai Baba’s teachings are a sedative for the excitable millions. He blessed the military on several occasions, preaching unquestioning allegiance to parents and the state.

Deepening the controversy was the mysterious June 6,1993 attack on Sai Baba’s living quarters, in which the holy man’s cook and driver were murdered, and four assailants — all longtime Sai Baba devotees — were cornered in a room and killed by police. India Today magazine clucked that Sai Baba, alerted by a burglar alarm, cowered in his bathroom while the killers were taking down his close associates. Finding sport in the mysterious bloodbath, the magazine’s account was titled “Intimations of Mortality.”

Several days after the attack, Sai Baba finally explained to his anxious followers that the incident was simply a case of jealousy, that the plotters were envious of the cook and driver’s access to the avatar. Police investigators blamed the plot on six devotees, the four who were murdered, plus a canteen worker and the head of ashram security. Police uncovered a large quantity of cyanide capable of spiking the ashram’s water supply and three explosive devices large enough to destroy a large building.

In San Diego, devotees heard news of the June attack but did not get an official explanation until the fall 1993 publication of the American Sathya Sai Newsletter, which reprinted a speech titled “Bhagawan Speaks of Ancient Truth and Recent Events.” Under the subhead “What Really Happened,” Sai Baba unfolds a kind of shaggy-dog story in which he shares a glass of buttermilk with his ill-fated driver, Radakrishna, and tells how Radakrishna in his impulsiveness ignored Swami’s entreaties to follow him upstairs out of harm’s way. Sai Baba neglects to mention the four dead devotee-assassins, the cyanide, the explosive devices, or his own conduct when the bloodbath was taking place, since, it is said, he knows all about the past, present, and future. He concludes the story about the buttermilk and Radakrishna’s willfulness with an admonition: “Swami gives instructions for one’s own good. Whatever Swami says is sacred.” Case closed.

At the weekly meetings in Grants Pass, there was a lack of concern about the particulars of the case that seemed eerie. Despite the bloodbath, the devotees seemed quite satisfied with their god’s explanation of the matter. Their articles of faith could remain undisturbed.

THE HOLY MAN AND THE PSYCHIATRIST

Tonight, as every Thursday night, Sam Sandweiss’s home becomes the principal San Diego Sathya Sai Baba devotional center. It’s easy to pick out Sandweiss’s home in the Sunset Cliffs area. Huge three-sheet-sized posters of Swami shine through the vaulting living room windows. Custom calls for shoes to be left by the front door. Devotees greet one another and drift into the devotional room, segregate themselves by gender, grab a cushion, and assume a lotus position on the floor. “Hugging and kissing is discouraged at our meetings,” reads the welcoming instructions. “This is a very different custom than what we are used to in America. Sai Baba teaches us that we are not aware of the impact physical contact with other people may have on us.”

Facing the altar of Baba photos, the several dozen devotees are led in a group “OM,” which is followed by 40 minutes of bhajans, the traditional call-response songs of devotional praise in Sanskrit, Hindi, and English. But when the congregation sings about Rama, Krishna, and Siva, they’re directing the songs to Sai Baba, who is said to embody all god-forms. Decorum precludes shows of exhibitionist religiosity. The Zeitgeist of this primarily boomer crowd, some in suits and ties, is more Unitarian than fundamentalist. These people are unlikely to spasm, possessed by the Holy Ghost, or chant and wheedle money at the airport.

After bhajans, monitors distribute the holy cow dung ash, which some devotees streak on their foreheads and others throw into their mouths. “Perfectly safe,” whispers a man to my left. He motions for me to eat the ash.

All eyes turn toward John Hislop, who is to conclude the meeting with a discourse on Sai Baba and love. Vibhuti smudging his third eye, Hislop’s regal bearing is reminiscent of the Grand Lama in Lost Horizon. Devotees politely listen to Hislop’s account of the time at Puttaparthi when he had seen saris exude water — “they are weeping,” explained Swami — because they were rejected by Baba. On Hislop’s finger is an ungainly ring materialized for him by Sai Baba in which the profile of Swami’s next incarnation, Prema Sai Baba, is set in a jagged, black stone. “I practically worship Jack,” says Richard Del Maestro, president of the North County Sai Baba Center. “I’m convinced he’s enlightened, but he denies it.”

After the meeting, Sam Sandweiss finally makes himself available to talk. For weeks, phone calls and faxes had been flying back and forth regarding his wavering commitment to an interview. Sam was worried about how badly sensationalized his beloved Baba would be, worried about how his cooperation would affect the Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba organization and his professional standing as a psychiatrist.

“Did you dream of Him? Did Swami come to you in a dream?” Sandweiss asks.

I don’t remember many of my dreams, I tell Sandweiss. I couldn’t be sure.

Sandweiss smiles nervously. “You’d remember if you dreamt of him. He calls many people to him in this manner. People often want to dream of Baba but can’t. It really doesn’t matter how you come to him. Just the fact that you’re inquiring probably means that he’s calling you.”

Was I hearing right? As far as I knew, psychiatrists were not the sort of folk to put their faith in avatars and miracles that defy the laws of science as we knew them. Were dreams no longer the property of the dreamer’s own consciousness? Was the consciousness now owned or guided by an ocher-robed holy man from South India?

“There were four psychiatrists here this evening,” observes Dr. Sandweiss. “Computer engineers, physicists, and educators. All high-caliber individuals.” I notice Baba believers are quick to point out that their co-religionists are “high caliber.”

This tendency, however, pales in comparison with an almost neurotic compulsion to see Sai Baba in everything. Any coincidence, any peculiar event, even any perfectly normal and conventionally explainable occurrence is seen as an example of the avatar’s object lesson to his disciple. Sandweiss, in his self-published book The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist, recalls the dislocating feeling when he met Indra Devi, an elderly Russian yogi from Tecate, Mexico, who spoke incessantly of Sai Baba, and little else. “It seemed that no matter what I asked, her mind was channeled to Sai Baba. Sai Baba this, and Sai Baba that, until I began to consider how unusual it was for a woman in her 70’s to have such a reaction.”

Essentially a diary of his conversion experience, The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist is reminiscent of those E.M. Forster novels of Westerners seduced by the exotic incomprehensibility of India. “My belief in [miracle] stories is growing,” writes Sandweiss,

I hear them from everyone, miracle after miracle, and now I have seen up close with my own two eyes a very dramatic example myself. People tell me of Baba’s ability to know everything in their past and present, what they are thinking and what will happen in detail in the future.... Amazing! Unbelievable! Unthinkable! The most mind-blowing, extraordinary experience—as if the most far-fetched science fiction were actually seen to be true…

There is no doubt in my mind that Sai Baba is divine. I astound myself to say such a thing. What must have 1 experienced, a rational scientific man, to say such a thing? I believe I can’t even communicate the experience. I know all this isn’t hypnosis, mass delusion, hallucination, hysteria, an effect of cultural shock or drug intoxication. It’s too simple to say I saw a materialization and then all of a sudden changed.

Psychiatrists serve as a kind of priestcraft for the secular world; religious conversion might profoundly affect their professional orientation. “Sai Baba,” Sandweiss enthuses, “has shown me where and why other psychological theories I have followed are shortsighted and limited when they fail to recognize the reality of God and the spiritual dimension.” In his 1985 volume Spirit and the Mind, the psychiatrist makes the theological jump and declares that neurosis is sin. “[Ernest] Becker draws attention to the agreement between psychology and theology, that man’s suffering — his neurosis and sin, which are one and the same— result from his sense of separation and littleness — in other words, from duality.”

After his encounter in India with Sai Baba, Sandweiss returned to the States with the eagerness and reformist vigor of the proselyte.

Soon after I got home I threw a party. 1 wanted to tell everyone about my amazing adventure in India — and that was my undoing...something fell flat. I lost my credibility and most of my friends. Psychiatric residents I taught in medical school were contacted to see if I had gone crazy.... I could see the humor in it. 1 left for India as a modern, successful psychiatrist going on an adventure — and returned home almost as if in rags and covered with ash. I had served on the abortion boards of two large, respected hospitals and upon my return resigned on the grounds of the incompatibility of abortion with my new spiritual beliefs.

Undeterred by the cold shoulders of friends and colleagues, Sandweiss persists in integrating Sai Baba into his work. “Psychiatry is based upon people being honest with themselves,” Sandweiss tells me. “That’s a very central spiritual approach, being truthful. Looking at what’s going on beneath the defenses. Being aware that we fake ourselves out.

“Spirituality may say that psychiatry is a little too permissive and nonjudgmental. There’s a grey zone where psychiatry may not understand the central place of values. Values are a direct expression of fundamental spiritual reality, love. It is man’s life purpose to bring the wanton display of sensual impulse under control so that his life reflects higher values.

“The most common spiritual approach is at the beginning to experience a God outside yourself. The next step is where they see the form of God outside of yourself as something inside yourself. This leads to an understanding that the Kingdom of God lies within. People will see they actually are God. As Sai Baba says, ‘First you see I am in the light, then the light is in me, then I and the light are one.’ This is a statement of man’s identity as being divine. There is no limitation whatsoever for the person.to evolve into the infinite. But the path is through the values.”

GOD, CHRIST, SATAN, OR CON?

The main tenet of Hinduism is that Earth is a purgatory from which the soul may finally be able to obtain release through cumulative acts of righteousness. Service, helping the less fortunate, is an opportunity to get incrementally closer to that cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card. In the Kali-Yuga age, this current 20,000-year era of chaos and degradation, says Sai Baba, release from the vicious cycle of karma may be achieved in chanting his name.

In the Kali-Yuga, as Sai Baba explains in his 43rd birthday address, we are all sinners. In other eras, “Avatars like Rama and Krishna had to kill one or more individuals who could be identified as enemies of the dharmic way of life and thus restore the practice of virtue. But now is there no one fully good, and so who deserves the protection of God? All are tainted by wickedness, and so who will survive if the avatar decides to uproot? Therefore, I have come to correct the buddhi, the intelligence, by various means. I have to counsel, help, command, condemn, and stand by as a friend and well-wisher to all so that they may give up evil propensities and, recognizing the straight mark, tread it and reach the goal.”

“To attain enlightenment [release from the physical world],” John Hislop explains, “you have to see that you are under illusion. Fortunately, you can disperse that illusion more easily in the Kali-Yuga than in the other yugas. To disperse that illusion you must learn about detachment. You think that you’re the body — and if you examine it carefully you can be detached from the body, and you see that you’re not the body or the mind at all.”

The Sai Baba symbol is a lotus composed of petals with logos from the five major religions in India: a cross, a star and crescent, a Buddhist wheel, a Zoroastrian bowl of fire, and the Hindu Sanskrit OM. In the West, the Magen David was added to the symbol at the request of Baba’s Jewish adherents. The symbol reflects the godman’s ecumenical aspirations. He instructs devotees to worship “in the way it is comfortable for you.” In so doing, he says, they will come to him, since, of course, Sai Baba is God of all.

It is difficult to find Sai Baba devotees, at least in the San Diego area, who also continue to practice Judaism or Christianity. “I think I’m a fairly devout Catholic,” says Mike Congleton, albeit a little insecurely. “St. Francis is a favorite saint, and so is St. Teresa. At one time in my life I went on a lot of pilgrimages to Catholic shrines.” The hardest thing to swallow about Sai Baba, Congleton says, was the concept of reincarnation, but he was reassured when he discovered “the Bible mentions reincarnation a couple times.” When Congleton visited Puttaparthi and was witness to Sai Baba’s miracles, he worried about not having enough faith. “I was basically confronted with the divine. Sai Baba says trust in the divine. Have faith, and everything will be taken care of for me. That’s also the message of St. Francis.”

Sai Baba announced that the Bible predicted his return. Does Congleton believe that the swami is the second coming of Christ? “Can you have faith?” he muses. “I wondered that if I had lived in the time of Christ, I would have known Christ. I would have abandoned everything, right?”

The Lost Years of Jesus, a documentary filmed by a Sai devotee named Richard Bock, proclaims that Jesus was initiated into the Vedic teachings by a Himalayan guru traversing India under the name Isa. Jesus is not the son of God, but another manifestation of the God current, a human being who evolved into enlightenment.

Fundamentalists, predictably, who consider Hinduism a form of Satanism, are convinced this kind of esoteric Christianity is the ultimate blasphemy.

A former devotee and born-again Christian, Tal Brooke, wrote Avatar of Night: The Hidden Side of Sai Baba to accuse Sai Baba of repeated homosexual molestations. A particularly strange chapter charges that Baba is a hermaphrodite who catches the semen of his sexual partners on handkerchiefs in order to perform occult rituals. Such bizarre details might cast doubt on the veracity of the stories, but the charge of homosexual molestation has been publicly repeated by several former devotees, including Malaysian student Hariram Jayaram. In a letter to the Indian skeptic B. Premanand, Jayaram wrote,

I was until recently [1981] an ardent follower ofSathya Sai Baba. To my surprise and that of the surprise of his many devotees in Malaysia, Sathya Sai Baba carried out homosexual activities on the Malaysian students studying in his Colleges. When I came to know of the same, I dropped out from the Sai movement.

John Worldie, whose photographs were printed in several devotee publications, rants in an epilogue to Brooke’s Avatar of Night, “I never could figure out why he played with my penis so I rationalized it as he was ‘purifying’ me. I sent him a telegram and said I’d purify him American style if he came here.... He has the mark of the beast on his forehead.... I’m sure he must be a form of Satan or whatever.”

San Diego devotees feel blessed to live near a holy relic produced by Sai Baba for John Hislop. The small crucifix is said to illustrate an exact likeness of Christ. Baba says it is made of the wood from the original crucifix and “shows Christ as he really was at the time when he left his body. No writer or artist has imagined him this way before.” Swept away by the emotion of the materialization, Hislop pronounces that the crucifix is one of the most exquisite works of art he has ever seen; others seem to find it a more prosaic item.

William S. Dale of the University of Western Ontario remarks in Dale Beyerstein’s Sai Baba’s Miracles: An Overview,

From the photograph it is quite dear that the metal figure closely resembles those on crucifixes of the 19th and 20th centuries. As is normal with these, the suppedaneum is cast in one piece with the figure. Its small scale suggests that it may once have been attached to a rosary. Contrary to Sai Baba’s claim, there is nothing unusual about the iconography of the piece.

Dr. Dale goes on to describe the evolving iconography for crucifixes through the centuries, in which this particular piece represents a fairly modern form. Judging from the quantity of air bubbles on the surface, antique expert Uno Langmann surmises that the figure is a cheap reproduction, cast in lead.

The crucifix’s owner, John Hislop, is a living legend in Baba circles, not only for his access to Sai Baba, which is recounted in his two books, but for his many years as an associate of Krishnamurti, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Paramahansa Yogananda. Hislop was working for the Theosophical Society in India when Krishnamurti was being groomed by Annie Besant to become the avatar, the human form of the mysterious “Hidden Masters” of the Himalayas that Madame Blavatsky had supposedly contacted through clairvoyant means.

Although Hislop was favorably impressed by Krishnamurti, Yogananda, and Mahesh Yogi, he eventually discovered that Sai Baba was “more than a philosopher.”

How does one determine divinity, I ask the spry and amiable Hislop. Through his magical powers?

“Many yogis have siddhi powers,” he says. “Any yogi who goes into that line of endeavor can gain siddhi powers. But it takes long work and extreme discipline of the mind. With Swami it was no work and no discipline, just natural to him. He never studied those disciplines whatsoever to get all these powers. With the avatar, most things are just natural. I’ve been places where amritha would flow off pictures. The vibhuti would fall off in a steady stream.”

Miracles unrelated to Sai Baba?

“Not related to Swami at all, no. There was a chap who would move his hand and create what people would want, just like Swami. It was no problem at all for him. But the governor of Goa told me this chap could only do it after he prayed to the goddess Durga. Why, 1 couldn’t tell you.”

The watch that Sai Baba had materialized for Sam Sandweiss is a Citizens brand.

“I have one too.”

Citizens?

“Uh-huh. Over the years Swami has materialized many watches. In the past years he used to give out extremely expensive Swiss watches. Of course, the question in your mind is, how are those watches secured? There are two methods whereby the watch can appear. One is transporting them. The other is their creation. It could be that Swami does both.

“When Swami was giving these expensive Swiss watches to his students, people were saying Swami was taking these watches from stores and not paying for them. And so a couple of devotees decided to check it out. They took the number off the Swiss watches and contacted the maker in Switzerland and found out the store that number had been shipped to. And they went to this jewelry store, 800 miles from Prasanthi Nilayam [Sai Baba’s ashram], and gave them the numbers and asked if they remembered about the watch. They said they remembered because they don’t sell many watches that expensive.

“The manager of the jewelry store said that a man came in the store, looked at several watches, chose them, paid for them, and walked out of the store. Now that was some 800 miles away from where Swami was, and it happened at exactly the same date and time as when Swami materialized the watch, we know that for sure because those fellows in the store had the invoice book. So there you have a transaction that takes several minutes and 800 miles away, and Swami walks by some student and the thought occurs to him that he’ll give the student a watch, and he produces it in a matter of seconds. I don’t know how you explain that.”

Any ideas on how the materializations occur?

“Swami has said recently that he does not now apport watches. That his workmen manufacture them. Now, how can that be? I really can’t tell you that either. We know that so-called solid objects are just masses of vibrations, different frequencies and different wavelengths. A solid object is just energy. So apparently it’s possible for the mind, then, to, I suppose, change the wavelength and the frequency, and here appears an object.”

Skeptics say that Sai Baba is an accomplished magician. For that reason he can’t materialize objects larger than he can palm.

“I’ve seen him materialize over a hundred objects in every possible kind of circumstance. Some years ago, whenever Swami went someplace, he’d take me with him. 1 saw many manifestations of things, in the car, walking, sitting, every possible way you could think of. So if someone tells me it’s all my imagination, I don’t say anything.”

And so, Sai Baba is God?

“I accept on faith that’s the case. If you want to find out if he’s God, you’re going to have to pay attention to the second half of his formula. If people ask him, he says, ‘Yes, I am God,’ but then he continues and says, ‘But so are you. The only difference is, I know it, and you don’t know it.’ ”

Are there other Gods running around?

“I asked Swami about those people who have realized themselves, recognized themselves as absolute. I asked, ‘Are there such people today?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes, of course there are. You don’t see them, they’re in the foothills of the Himalayas, and they keep to themselves.’ I asked Swami if there were people like that in America. He said, ‘Oh, yes, but they keep a very low profile. You would never know who they were.’”

I ask Hislop about an incident in which Sai Baba is said to have saved his life after a bungled prostate operation in the city of Bangalore.

“People [in the operating room] saw Swami’s hands. They said I talked during the operation, saying, ‘Don’t bother me. Swami’s here, I’m talking to him.’ After the operation I had to stay at the hospital for ten days because I was very sick. Swami would come every day to see me. I was puzzled why all this happened to me. Finally it dawned on me that must have been my normal time for death. I figured out, this was my time of death. I should have died. So I told Swami, I think I’ve figured it out. That was my normal time of death, and you gave me extended life.’ And he laughed and said, ‘You’ve figured it out. That’s correct.’ That was one episode. There were car incidents in which he saved our lives, those are recorded in my book.”

Did Hislop believe in other deities incarnated in human form before he put his faith in Sai Baba?

“I liked Krishnamurti and Annie Besant an awful lot. Krishnamurti as a younger man was an extremely handsome person, a beautiful person. They were always after him to go to Hollywood and make a movie, but he wasn’t interested. I wouldn’t say I had that kind of faith in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, because I didn’t see him in that way. He had what I thought was a good idea. His idea was if there was enough people meditating in the world, then it might bring world peace. That sounded like a reasonable idea, so I worked with him, became his first president. I was [at the Maharishi’s ashram] the same time the Beatles were there.”

What about those stories about the Maharishi chasing skirts?

“All cooked up by the Beatles’ manager. I like Maharishi very much. I parted with Maharishi when we had a convention and took over a hotel for a week. The idea occurred to me, here I was teaching these people, reciting this long mantra over them in order to stimulate their receptivity to what Maharishi says. I’d meditate for a half-hour, then feel happy for the rest of the day. I never put enough time into it to really find out about it. I stayed in my hotel room doing this meditation for about 21 hours a day. Just 2 or 3 hours’ sleep, then continuing hour and hour for six solid days. Around that time waves of bliss started to sweep through me, so strong I could hardly bear them. But I realized those waves of bliss had to do with the nervous system. Not the bliss the Vedanta speaks of, the natural state of the Self. And I said to myself, here’s a blind man leading the blind. I immediately went to Maharishi and said good-bye.”

If he’s God, why doesn’t Sai Baba end all the misery?

“Swami said, ‘I could do that. There would be no trouble. No poverty. No problems in the world at all. But tomorrow morning people would be at each other’s throats again. The way that humanity can be changed is not through miracles, but from the raising of consciousness.’ ”

What about contradictory statements that he’ll make?

“He’ll make contradictory statements because you have to understand that any statement you make is based on duality. The ancient sages used to tell their devotees, ‘Forget everything. Forget every thing, don't remember anything.’ Anything you know has a tremendous quotient of error because it’s based on duality and the perception of duality is false.”

You wrote that you saw Sai Baba become Krishna.

“Oh, yes, I sure did.”

Was he like the Krishna pictured in Indian wall hangings?

“I just suspected he was Krishna. Because when I looked back in the car and saw him, Swami was no longer there, but this person who was so beautiful, he would just twist your heart. There’s no way to describe it. A dark, dark blue. And it lasted about 20 minutes. The others in the car were saying, ‘Hislop, what’s wrong with you?’ You see, they didn’t see anything. I asked Swami about the dark color. He said, ‘Whenever you look at something with immeasurable depth, it has that dark blue color, as the sky or the ocean.’ ”

Do people visit Sai Baba and walk away unimpressed?

“Oh, yes, very often. In the past, the distant past, perhaps, they established a karmic savings account. When they come to see him, they draw on this account. So these people may have exhausted their savings.”

SWAMI IS EVERYWHERE

As with most yogic teachers, Sai Baba calls for destruction of the ego, utter servitude. While in darshan, devotees prostrate themselves before him, vying for the opportunity to touch the avatar’s feet. The biggest jolt of bliss, apparently, is delivered through the big toe.

“You heard the store at the meeting tonight,” says Richard Del Maestro, “about sitting in front and touching Baba’s lotus feet. It is a feeling of indescribable joy, being indescribably fulfilled. You could describe it as drinking divine nectar. In one interview I got to massage his feet. I was sitting there. There were three of us. His feet were there and I just took ahold of his foot and massaged it. Everyone would love the opportunity to do that. It wasn’t like I was really working on his foot, I just gently started to rub on the bottom of his foot. I was so worried about doing it, the moment he withdrew his foot just slightly I immediately stopped. It’s hard to describe the experience, but it was very powerful, overwhelming.”

Devotees enthuse about Baba’s childlike sense of humor ("the Krishna in him,” says Sam Sandweiss), but most of them feel bowled over, as they put it, by “waves of love.” “Baba is just so sweet!” enthuse Sandweiss’s teenage daughters. “So cute!”

Rita Whaley found Baba a loving alternative to the fierce, paternalistic God she was exposed to in Catholic churches while growing up in Germany. “When I was a child,” Rita explains, “religion was a very frightening thing for me. I stole some liverwurst when I was six and didn’t go to confession, and I was sure from then on that I was going to go to hell. When I became a teenager, I rejected the whole thing. I had some vague belief in a higher being and didn’t know how quite to reach it because I had an aversion to anything organized.

“I didn’t like Indian music. I hated it. My husband Bob, he loved Ravi Shankar. But I felt after all this work I had done in therapy there was this underlying depression. We started to look into the new-age churches. I never could get warmed up to Terry Cole-Whittaker; that was a little bit too yuppie for me, too smiley, too positive. We looked into smaller churches, but there was so much emphasis on metaphysics that it didn’t feel comfortable to me either.

“My husband, this was in ’89, told me this Indian woman saint, Mataji Nirmala Devi, was coming to the organ pavilion in Balboa Park. We went. At the end of that session, people could come to say hello to her. I went up to her and said, there’s all this stuff moving around in my chest, but I have no idea what to do with it. And she opened up her arms, right there on the stage in Balboa Park, and she said, ‘You just love me.’ And she opened her arms and held me. It was like a sea of love, I felt like a little baby. That was the first thing that was profoundly different in that year.

“The second thing that happened was when I went to see my husband play flute in a little metaphysical church. There was a psychic there, a black, with curly hair, and he told me the German name of my mother, that she had died when we were fighting over my religion, and I was feeling guilty. He said, ‘Your mother Elizabeth is here and she wants to tell you it’s not your fault.’ I just started to flood with tears. It just sort of blasted through my rigidness of what the universe was about. I cried for two weeks. And then I became very ill. I have chronic fatigue immune deficiency. I could only lie down and read. I went to the bookstore, and I happened to run across Sam Sandweiss’s book, The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist. I read more books and started to go to Sandweiss’s meetings, and I knew that my search was over.

“I started to remember that Swami had been in my room 20 years before. I was dreaming about my husband and my father looking in the Yellow Pages for a church that I should attend; my husband always wanted to get me involved with Eastern religions. My father in my dream got real angry, so I started walking. I came to a fork in the road, and I was walking down to get some directions, a person in a white gown, an all-white gown, came towards me. All I remembered were the eyes. When I went to Sandweisses’ house, they had this picture there of Swami with the white gown; I knew that it had been the person in my dream.

“Whenever I doubt, he gives me experiences that are so clear that I know he’s in my life. The first one happened when Bob and I were talking about whether we should go to India. As we were about to leave the house, Bob turned the television on to make it look like somebody was in the house. Suddenly, on television, a voice boomed out, ‘Visit India!’ My belief grew with these little signs.

“There are many examples like that in my life. Like when I visited my father in the hospital last year. I dreamt of Swami; he was injured on his left side. My father was very strong, domineering, but when I walked into the hospital, there he was, paralyzed on his left side like Swami had been injured. The time I spent with him, my father surrendered and I could just love him. I was having a bad day there, was feeling very disturbed. I went to church, it wasn’t right, I went shopping, and felt as bad as I had before, I went to a bookstore and there was no hope of finding Swami books. I couldn’t find anything. It was time to go back to the hospital, and I saw this bin with little booklets. I reached in and grabbed a card with a saying on it. I opened it up and it said in German, ‘Begin the day with love, fill the day with love, end the day with love. That is the way to God — Sathya Sai Baba.’ I cried and said, ‘Swami, you wrote me a card!’

“I remember thinking, I feel so different, I don’t know how to explain everything to my family, to my friends, and my father. I may just be making all this up. What am I doing? So I wrote Swami a letter telling him that I need some sign because sometimes I think I’m crazy and I’m making all this up, that it’s all just a wonderful illusion. I stuck the letter in the mailbox across the street. Bob comes running out saying there’s a car parked right in front of our house, and the license plate says ‘SAI BABA’ on it. We took a picture; we have a photo of that license plate.

“I’m a person who needs to be kept on the edge. If Swami would shower me with stuff, I would just bliss out and forget about it. He gives me things to sustain me, but he also makes me work internally, all the time. Often I have to struggle with myself, my doubts, my fears, which is good. That to me is what the spiritual journey is all about.”

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Sai Baba in Del Maestro's living room
Sai Baba in Del Maestro's living room

It is like baking a cake. I stir, I knead, I pound, I twist, I bake you. I drawn you in tears I scorch you in sobs. I make you a sweet and crisp, an offering worthy of God. —Sathya Sai Baba

I’ve always wanted to know why the stars are in the sky. I look at the sky and wonder, where did this come from? And how did this arrive? How is this possible?”

Richard knew at a very young age that someone, something, somehow, would answer his questions, satisfy his longings. He found this force in a dark-skinned, Afro-haired individual from South India named Sathya Sai Baba. To his devotees, Sai Baba is the avatar descended. In a word, God.

Del Maestro's Sai Baba ring

For the moment, Richard is high on God. The weekly North County Sai Baba meeting had just concluded in his tract home. The atmosphere is charged with the singing of bhajans, which Richard accompanies on harmonium, and the ritual use of vibhuti, or holy ash. Upon the wafting fumes of jasmine incense he rhapsodizes about his discovery of the Prime Mover. “I stumbled upon Sai Baba through my sister. She had his picture up. I felt very threatened; I felt like, oh, my God, what is happening to my little sister? Is she involved in a cult? She said that she didn’t know very much about him but handed me an article out of a new-age magazine. I read the article.

“It talked about when he raised his hand, thousands of people before him would have their consciousness raised, merely by the motion of the lifting of his hands. It talked about him knowing the present, past, and future of everybody he sees. About him materializing ash and rings and things. As I read this article I thought, my God, if this is true, then this is what I’ve been looking for.

“I ran into a woman who had his picture on her wall. I asked, ‘Do you know who this is?’ And she asked, ‘Do you know who this is?’ She took me to the Sai Baba Center, where I bought some books. I got home, would look into a book, burst into tears, close the book, and say this is nuts. There’s no logical explanation for my bursting into tears. Then I’d do it again. Open the book, burst into tears, close the book. I cried through one book, I cried through another book, deep, sobbing, crying, absolutely inexplicable to myself. I thought, my God, man, are you mad? What’s with you? Pull yourself together, it’s just a book. But it wasn’t just a book; it was the story of Sai Baba, and I was so moved and touched by it I was overwhelmed.

“I heard that you could have a dream of him. That you can’t dream of him by your own will. He must choose to come to you. I yearned to have a dream of him. These are visions, not dreams. They’re real spiritual experiences.

“Before long I had some very profound dreams. Very profound dreams, where he would be talking with me as if he knew me better than my own mother. Until you experience talking to someone who knows you better than your parents know you, you can’t fathom what it feels like. There’s no way of describing that.

“I would listen to his 43rd birthday discourse [recorded November 23, 1968] over and over again until I memorized it. ‘For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evildoers, and for establishing righteousness on a firm footing, I incarnate from age to age.’

“Anyone who makes a claim like that has got my attention. I’d question the discourse. I’d question these dreams, and I’d put two and two together. ‘If you take one step toward me, I shall take a hundred steps toward you. Shed just one tear, I shall wipe a hundred from your eyes.... If you waste this chance of saving yourself, it is just your fate.’ Anywhere you go in this speech, it’s just so powerful. After I took that one step toward him — ‘Baba, I want to have a dream’ — Boom! I’m having this dream, and it is blowing my mind wide open. I mean, completely right out the top of my head! Waking up from this experience and glowing for three days. And I’m in love. And I’m fulfilled, and I’m happy. And I don’t know why. And I can’t describe it to a human being. I can only say, I hope I have another dream, and I want to go see him.”

THEY BELIEVE IN MIRACLES

Little known in the United States, Sai Baba is acknowledged as India’s most revered sadhu, overseeing an international following estimated by India Today magazine as 50 million. The estimate includes “millions in Europe and the U.S.” Exact numbers are difficult to determine since devotees are not compelled to sign up with any organization or even participate in communal worship at any of the thousands of Sai Baba centers worldwide. Nevertheless, there are 150 Sai Baba centers in the U.S., each serving from a handful to hundreds of devotees.

Born in 1926 to pious, middle-class parents, Sai Baba’s given name was Satyanarayana Raju. At the age of 14, after a dire illness precipitated by a scorpion sting, he announced to his family and the world that he was the reincarnation of the Muslim saint Sai Baba of Shirdi. From then on, he went by the name Sathya Sai Baba. He claimed not to be your workaday sunnyasi, yogi, or guru, but an avatar, an incarnation of Godhood descended. Jews await the Messiah; Moslems, Mahdi; and Christians, Christ. Sai Baba claims to be all these incarnations.

Sai Baba commonly pronounces that he pities the person who does not believe he has the power to transmute earth into sky and sky into earth. Since he is God, no one can comprehend him. His ways must always remain inscrutable. “Talking about Sai Baba,” writes devotee Howard Murphet in Sai Baba: Avatar, “is like putting the ocean in a bell jar.” Recalls N. Kasturi, Swami’s official biographer, “When [a devotee] heard himself ask Baba, ‘Are you God?’ Baba replied, ‘How can an ant measure the depth of the ocean or a fish discover the truth of the sky?’ ”

San Diego County is a power node of Sai Baba worship, accommodating devotional centers in the tony Sunset Cliffs area and North County. The Sunset Cliffs center is run from the expansive home of Dr. Samuel Sandweiss, a practicing psychiatrist who wrote Spirit and the Mind and Sai Baba: The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist. The latter is a well-distributed title that has introduced many souls to the godman. San Diego native John Hislop, a doctor of education, still an active devotee at the age of 88, wrote two books for Dr. Sandweiss’s Birth Day Publishing Company, Conversations with Sathya Sai Baba and My Baba and I. Hislop is considered by those in the organization to be one of the most evolved devotees, whom the avatar has showered with sustained, intimate contact.

Despite his large international following and the astounding claims surrounding Sai Baba, no major article on the swami has ever been published in the American secular press. The Sai Baba organization was caught thoroughly unprepared for inquiries, repelling and inviting them in turn. Although there are dozens of English-language books about Sai Baba and a proliferation of videotapes rented and sold in new-age shops, devotees shun publicity, an aversion articulated on many occasions by Sai Baba himself.

Exposes have dogged the trail of self-styled gods who made inroads into the pocketbooks of American followers. Guru Maharah Ji of the Divine Life Temple was the pudgy, teenaged, Mammon-enriched avatar worshipped for a time by disgruntled hippies. His teachings centered around activation of the pineal gland. Another Rolls-Royce enthusiast, the late Baghawan Shree Rajneesh, for whom the star-crossed Rajneeshpuram in Central Oregon was erected, attracted to himself red-robed dropouts eager to indulge in primal screams and orgiastic sex. Fellow tantric Da Free John (a.k.a. Da Love-Ananda and Franklin Jones) in 1990 proclaimed himself Kalki, the apocalyptic manifestation of Vishnu. The balding, love-handled avatar is building his temple in the Fiji Islands primarily with the aid of American worshipers.

Unlike Rajneesh or Maharah Ji, Sai Baba doesn’t seem interested in setting up camp in the U.S., preferring instead to appear to devotees in the ether. By his decree, no monetary demands are made on his followers. Tithing is prohibited. To discourage ostentatious displays of philanthropy, any contribution to the communal kitty is supposed to be done out of sight of others. Devotees are encouraged to contribute to local needs rather than service the central authority. All books and audio tapes are distributed at cost. Sai Baba has directed that his devotees use their homes for worship in order to avoid public or private collections of money for temples and a bloated bureaucracy.

And unlike Rajneeshees and Hare Krishnas, Baba bhaktas do not don ocher robes and drop out of society. They are urged instead to observe strict moral practices within their respective communities, with an emphasis on public service projects. Richard Del Maestro’s North County center organizes weekly distribution of burritos to field workers; Sandweiss’s South County group has its own burrito project twice a month and helps out at the St. Vincent De Paul homeless shelter. Baba devotees seem so benign and well integrated, you wouldn’t know that they hold such unusual beliefs.

Sai Baba’s ashram, located in the small town of Puttaparthi, north of Bangalore in south-central India, is an evolving empire of hospitals, temples, universities, schools, hotels, and even a landing strip. These expensive services, provided to the public at low or no cost, are said to be funded through blind contributions from his followers to a central trust.

However, it is not for his good deeds that Sai Baba is famous, but for his miracles. With a twirl of his hand he materializes vibhuti, which he dispenses to crowds receiving his darshan, his daily public appearances. Vibhuti, which is actually cow dung reduced to ash and perfumed with jasmine, produced by the ton at the Sai Baba ashram, is eaten and swabbed on the forehead by all devotees in every devotional meeting. At once a sacrament and a cure-all, vibhuti is said to symbolize the fragility of material existence and the transcendence of the spirit: from ash you have come, and ash you shall become.

In private interview Baba’s miraculous performances take on, as devotees tell it, a rather desultory air. He apports gold watches and jewelry, medallions, statues, prayer beads, necklaces, rings, and other knickknacks. Some of these materializations have been captured on film and videotape. Dale Beyerstein, affiliated with the Canadian chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, responding to requests for information from concerned relatives of Baba devotees, published an investigation titled Sai Baba’s Miracles: An Overview, in which professional magicians analyze Sai Baba’s materializations frame by frame, noting classic sleight-of-hand techniques and misdirection. At present, according to Mary Keene of the Sathya Sai Book Center of America in Tustin, official sale of videotapes has been discontinued until Baba once again approves their release. Videotapes that were previously sold through the center can only be sold through private parties.

Anecdotal reports from believers overwhelmingly make the case for Sai Baba as the genuine article. San Diego resident Mike Congleton, a magician by hobby and computer engineer by trade, is an uncritical believer after seeing Sai Baba in person. “I’ve always had a good understanding of sleight of hand and misdirection, like Houdini or Dunninger. I know about mentalism and all that stuff. Outside of Bangalore I visited an orphanage that had medallions exuding amritha [a nectar-of-the-gods-like substance]. Here’s something with no strings attached, no tubes. A medallion spontaneously oozing amritha right into my palm. It was at the orphanage where ash was appearing on religious objects. From a statue of Jesus, red ash was coming out of his hand and heart. The fellow who ran the orphanage held up a lingam [for Sai Baba, not a phallus but an egg-shaped ritual object] and asked me what I saw. I looked and saw an orange robe and Sai Baba. He said not everyone saw Baba inside the lingam.

“When I arrived at Puttaparthi, the ashram was practically deserted because of [a rail] strike. Baba had his hand in front of me, then says, ‘Okay, 500 rupees service charge.’ He reached into the air right in front of me and grabbed ten $1000 bills, American money. He said, ‘Money doesn’t mean anything to me; it’s your love and devotion to God. Then he turned his hand over like he was dropping the money, and then it disappeared.”

In his first pilgrimage to Sai Baba, after spending months being ignored in darshan among thousands of other worshipers, Sai Baba finally invited Richard Del Maestro to a personal interview. “He asked, ‘What do you want?’ I said, T want to be as close to your heart as possible. I want to be as close to your physical presence as possible.’ He said, ‘Where am I?’ I said, ‘You’re everywhere.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ At that point, I didn’t know how I knew, except from the books, or just believing what I heard, and not because of any real experience. He said, ‘You know from your imagination.’ He’s teaching me to be discriminating. He said, ‘I am God; you are also God.’ I said, ‘Yes, Swami, I feel more like God every day.’ He said, ‘That feeling is good. Follow that feeling.’ Then he waved his hand and materialized this ring for me. He slid it on my finger and said, ‘Ah, perfect fit. Such stories are common among devotees.’ ”

What makes the case of Sai Baba so curious is that many believers report strange materializations in their own homes, frequently in the form of vibhuti or amritha on pictures of Sai Baba. I was able to view two separate examples of these ostensibly miraculous apparitions. In an elderly devotee’s home in Grants Pass, Oregon, scented vibhuti appeared on several dozen images of Sai Baba. Aluminum foil dams are rigged below the pictures to catch the runoff. And at the Sathya Sai Book Center in Tustin, two images of Sai Baba are streaked with amritha. “When we take the pictures out of the workroom,” says store manager Mary Keene, “and put them in the meditation room, the amritha stops flowing. As soon as we put them back in the workroom, they start flowing again.” Stranger still is that Baba believers are content to keep the so-called miracles under wraps. Wilma Bronky, the devotee from Grants Pass, tells no one in town about the mysterious events taking place in her home. “They wouldn’t understand.” Wilma has been so circumspect about the swami’s “blessing” she has not even told some other Babaites about her “vibhuti storms.” “Whenever the vibhuti stops flowing for a time,” says Wilma, “it means that Swami is displeased. And I’ve got to figure out why.” Despite health problems, Wilma Bronky is planning her 30th trip to see Sai Baba.

As far as miracles in San Diego are concerned, Dr. Sandweiss, the psychiatrist, says, “I’ve seen the most extraordinary things right here in this community. I’ve seen pictures with the amritha. I’ve seen a house where all the pictures fill with vibhuti. I’ve seen experiences that were just mind-boggling. I mean, a person, a 28-year-old rather naive person who doesn’t know any foreign language would feel that [Sai Baba] would come to her in her mind’s eye, and she would start chanting Sanskrit, and vibhuti would materialize on her body and her pictures. I mean, it was just so extraordinary.

“A friend told me one day she wanted to go to India. I discouraged her because she had a lot of responsibility here. She said, ’Come let me show you something.’ She showed me a picture that was materializing vibhuti.” Sandweiss looks me in the eye, perhaps trying to gauge whether I believe these stories, and continues, “Those kinds of dramatic expressions give a charge to believers but wreak havoc with people who don’t believe.”

“I had the experience of wanting to go to a lecture that someone was giving on Baba,” relates Richard Del Maestro, “but I had a very bad headache, and so I sat in front of my little altar, closed my eyes, and said, ‘Baba, I have such a headache. If you want me to go, please give me a sign.’ When I opened my eyes, dots of vibhuti had materialized on the picture in front of me. This was just unreal. I scraped some of it off, and I ate the ash. And I went to the meeting with my headache, yet my headache was never cured. I thought the ash was to cure my headache. In America we want an instant cure. We want to eat a little vibhuti, chase the headache away, and go. There must have been a deeper meaning.” An article in the August 15,1993 issue of India Today reveals that vibhuti apparitions are a common trick of fakirs that can be duplicated by spraying lactic acid over picture frames. Ash is produced when the dried acid comes into contact with moisture. It’s comforting to know that a parlor trick can perhaps replicate the mystical experiences of Sai Baba devotees, but a question remains. Can a true believer remain a true believer when he’s loading the dice?

Although devotees never seem to tire of miracle stories, Sam Sandweiss emphasizes that “Swami uses these miracles as calling cards, as manifestations of his overwhelming love. This comes to him naturally. He doesn’t think twice about creating matter from thin air. But we shouldn’t get hung up on the tinsel and trash, as Baba calls it, but focus instead on his larger mission, which is to restore the dharmic or righteous way of life.”

It is as difficult for the world to overlook the “tinsel and trash,” the Seiko- and Citizens-brand watches and cheap religious articles manifested by Sai Baba as it is to look beyond the miraculous phenomena associated with Christianity. Beyond the long-distance investigations of Dale Beyerstein and a smattering of India-based rationalists with a decided anti-guru axe to grind, no independent investigators have studied Sai Baba, who has long resisted attempts to quantify his self-proclaimed divinity. This does not necessarily mean, contra the Indian skeptic Narasimhalah’s declaration to India Today, that Sai Baba has been thoroughly exposed because he does not reply to the hectoring of rationalist societies. For the time being we have a few indistinct videotapes and devotees’ endless anecdotes to make the case for Sai Baba, Avatar.

In his official biography, presently collected in four volumes, Sai Baba is described as raising the dead, manipulating time and space, transmuting energy into matter and matter into energy. In a country where cows are treated with more consideration than most individuals, modernist Indians are practically driven mad by what they perceive to be the regressive reverence of godmen like Sai Baba. One frustrated rationalist went so far as attempt to take God to court.

In 1985, B. Premanand, chairman of the Indian chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, initiated a lawsuit against Sai Baba for contravening the India Gold Control Act, which prohibits the manufacture of gold articles without registering proper permissions from the central government. A judge dismissed the Premanand’s writ, finding, “An article or an ornament which was admittedly materialized from air in a split second by the use of spiritual powers or otherwise cannot be said to have been ‘made, manufactured, prepared, or processed,’within the meaning of Section 11 of the [Gold Control] Act.”

Premanand and rationalists accused the Indian government of coddling and protecting the godman, an accusation that may hold some merit considering leading politicos and jurists profess to be Sai Baba devotees. According to the July 15, 1993 issue of India Today, “the godman’s staunch believers include the President [and] the Prime Minister [of India].” Their professed belief may simply be good politics. Sai Baba’s teachings are a sedative for the excitable millions. He blessed the military on several occasions, preaching unquestioning allegiance to parents and the state.

Deepening the controversy was the mysterious June 6,1993 attack on Sai Baba’s living quarters, in which the holy man’s cook and driver were murdered, and four assailants — all longtime Sai Baba devotees — were cornered in a room and killed by police. India Today magazine clucked that Sai Baba, alerted by a burglar alarm, cowered in his bathroom while the killers were taking down his close associates. Finding sport in the mysterious bloodbath, the magazine’s account was titled “Intimations of Mortality.”

Several days after the attack, Sai Baba finally explained to his anxious followers that the incident was simply a case of jealousy, that the plotters were envious of the cook and driver’s access to the avatar. Police investigators blamed the plot on six devotees, the four who were murdered, plus a canteen worker and the head of ashram security. Police uncovered a large quantity of cyanide capable of spiking the ashram’s water supply and three explosive devices large enough to destroy a large building.

In San Diego, devotees heard news of the June attack but did not get an official explanation until the fall 1993 publication of the American Sathya Sai Newsletter, which reprinted a speech titled “Bhagawan Speaks of Ancient Truth and Recent Events.” Under the subhead “What Really Happened,” Sai Baba unfolds a kind of shaggy-dog story in which he shares a glass of buttermilk with his ill-fated driver, Radakrishna, and tells how Radakrishna in his impulsiveness ignored Swami’s entreaties to follow him upstairs out of harm’s way. Sai Baba neglects to mention the four dead devotee-assassins, the cyanide, the explosive devices, or his own conduct when the bloodbath was taking place, since, it is said, he knows all about the past, present, and future. He concludes the story about the buttermilk and Radakrishna’s willfulness with an admonition: “Swami gives instructions for one’s own good. Whatever Swami says is sacred.” Case closed.

At the weekly meetings in Grants Pass, there was a lack of concern about the particulars of the case that seemed eerie. Despite the bloodbath, the devotees seemed quite satisfied with their god’s explanation of the matter. Their articles of faith could remain undisturbed.

THE HOLY MAN AND THE PSYCHIATRIST

Tonight, as every Thursday night, Sam Sandweiss’s home becomes the principal San Diego Sathya Sai Baba devotional center. It’s easy to pick out Sandweiss’s home in the Sunset Cliffs area. Huge three-sheet-sized posters of Swami shine through the vaulting living room windows. Custom calls for shoes to be left by the front door. Devotees greet one another and drift into the devotional room, segregate themselves by gender, grab a cushion, and assume a lotus position on the floor. “Hugging and kissing is discouraged at our meetings,” reads the welcoming instructions. “This is a very different custom than what we are used to in America. Sai Baba teaches us that we are not aware of the impact physical contact with other people may have on us.”

Facing the altar of Baba photos, the several dozen devotees are led in a group “OM,” which is followed by 40 minutes of bhajans, the traditional call-response songs of devotional praise in Sanskrit, Hindi, and English. But when the congregation sings about Rama, Krishna, and Siva, they’re directing the songs to Sai Baba, who is said to embody all god-forms. Decorum precludes shows of exhibitionist religiosity. The Zeitgeist of this primarily boomer crowd, some in suits and ties, is more Unitarian than fundamentalist. These people are unlikely to spasm, possessed by the Holy Ghost, or chant and wheedle money at the airport.

After bhajans, monitors distribute the holy cow dung ash, which some devotees streak on their foreheads and others throw into their mouths. “Perfectly safe,” whispers a man to my left. He motions for me to eat the ash.

All eyes turn toward John Hislop, who is to conclude the meeting with a discourse on Sai Baba and love. Vibhuti smudging his third eye, Hislop’s regal bearing is reminiscent of the Grand Lama in Lost Horizon. Devotees politely listen to Hislop’s account of the time at Puttaparthi when he had seen saris exude water — “they are weeping,” explained Swami — because they were rejected by Baba. On Hislop’s finger is an ungainly ring materialized for him by Sai Baba in which the profile of Swami’s next incarnation, Prema Sai Baba, is set in a jagged, black stone. “I practically worship Jack,” says Richard Del Maestro, president of the North County Sai Baba Center. “I’m convinced he’s enlightened, but he denies it.”

After the meeting, Sam Sandweiss finally makes himself available to talk. For weeks, phone calls and faxes had been flying back and forth regarding his wavering commitment to an interview. Sam was worried about how badly sensationalized his beloved Baba would be, worried about how his cooperation would affect the Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba organization and his professional standing as a psychiatrist.

“Did you dream of Him? Did Swami come to you in a dream?” Sandweiss asks.

I don’t remember many of my dreams, I tell Sandweiss. I couldn’t be sure.

Sandweiss smiles nervously. “You’d remember if you dreamt of him. He calls many people to him in this manner. People often want to dream of Baba but can’t. It really doesn’t matter how you come to him. Just the fact that you’re inquiring probably means that he’s calling you.”

Was I hearing right? As far as I knew, psychiatrists were not the sort of folk to put their faith in avatars and miracles that defy the laws of science as we knew them. Were dreams no longer the property of the dreamer’s own consciousness? Was the consciousness now owned or guided by an ocher-robed holy man from South India?

“There were four psychiatrists here this evening,” observes Dr. Sandweiss. “Computer engineers, physicists, and educators. All high-caliber individuals.” I notice Baba believers are quick to point out that their co-religionists are “high caliber.”

This tendency, however, pales in comparison with an almost neurotic compulsion to see Sai Baba in everything. Any coincidence, any peculiar event, even any perfectly normal and conventionally explainable occurrence is seen as an example of the avatar’s object lesson to his disciple. Sandweiss, in his self-published book The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist, recalls the dislocating feeling when he met Indra Devi, an elderly Russian yogi from Tecate, Mexico, who spoke incessantly of Sai Baba, and little else. “It seemed that no matter what I asked, her mind was channeled to Sai Baba. Sai Baba this, and Sai Baba that, until I began to consider how unusual it was for a woman in her 70’s to have such a reaction.”

Essentially a diary of his conversion experience, The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist is reminiscent of those E.M. Forster novels of Westerners seduced by the exotic incomprehensibility of India. “My belief in [miracle] stories is growing,” writes Sandweiss,

I hear them from everyone, miracle after miracle, and now I have seen up close with my own two eyes a very dramatic example myself. People tell me of Baba’s ability to know everything in their past and present, what they are thinking and what will happen in detail in the future.... Amazing! Unbelievable! Unthinkable! The most mind-blowing, extraordinary experience—as if the most far-fetched science fiction were actually seen to be true…

There is no doubt in my mind that Sai Baba is divine. I astound myself to say such a thing. What must have 1 experienced, a rational scientific man, to say such a thing? I believe I can’t even communicate the experience. I know all this isn’t hypnosis, mass delusion, hallucination, hysteria, an effect of cultural shock or drug intoxication. It’s too simple to say I saw a materialization and then all of a sudden changed.

Psychiatrists serve as a kind of priestcraft for the secular world; religious conversion might profoundly affect their professional orientation. “Sai Baba,” Sandweiss enthuses, “has shown me where and why other psychological theories I have followed are shortsighted and limited when they fail to recognize the reality of God and the spiritual dimension.” In his 1985 volume Spirit and the Mind, the psychiatrist makes the theological jump and declares that neurosis is sin. “[Ernest] Becker draws attention to the agreement between psychology and theology, that man’s suffering — his neurosis and sin, which are one and the same— result from his sense of separation and littleness — in other words, from duality.”

After his encounter in India with Sai Baba, Sandweiss returned to the States with the eagerness and reformist vigor of the proselyte.

Soon after I got home I threw a party. 1 wanted to tell everyone about my amazing adventure in India — and that was my undoing...something fell flat. I lost my credibility and most of my friends. Psychiatric residents I taught in medical school were contacted to see if I had gone crazy.... I could see the humor in it. 1 left for India as a modern, successful psychiatrist going on an adventure — and returned home almost as if in rags and covered with ash. I had served on the abortion boards of two large, respected hospitals and upon my return resigned on the grounds of the incompatibility of abortion with my new spiritual beliefs.

Undeterred by the cold shoulders of friends and colleagues, Sandweiss persists in integrating Sai Baba into his work. “Psychiatry is based upon people being honest with themselves,” Sandweiss tells me. “That’s a very central spiritual approach, being truthful. Looking at what’s going on beneath the defenses. Being aware that we fake ourselves out.

“Spirituality may say that psychiatry is a little too permissive and nonjudgmental. There’s a grey zone where psychiatry may not understand the central place of values. Values are a direct expression of fundamental spiritual reality, love. It is man’s life purpose to bring the wanton display of sensual impulse under control so that his life reflects higher values.

“The most common spiritual approach is at the beginning to experience a God outside yourself. The next step is where they see the form of God outside of yourself as something inside yourself. This leads to an understanding that the Kingdom of God lies within. People will see they actually are God. As Sai Baba says, ‘First you see I am in the light, then the light is in me, then I and the light are one.’ This is a statement of man’s identity as being divine. There is no limitation whatsoever for the person.to evolve into the infinite. But the path is through the values.”

GOD, CHRIST, SATAN, OR CON?

The main tenet of Hinduism is that Earth is a purgatory from which the soul may finally be able to obtain release through cumulative acts of righteousness. Service, helping the less fortunate, is an opportunity to get incrementally closer to that cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card. In the Kali-Yuga age, this current 20,000-year era of chaos and degradation, says Sai Baba, release from the vicious cycle of karma may be achieved in chanting his name.

In the Kali-Yuga, as Sai Baba explains in his 43rd birthday address, we are all sinners. In other eras, “Avatars like Rama and Krishna had to kill one or more individuals who could be identified as enemies of the dharmic way of life and thus restore the practice of virtue. But now is there no one fully good, and so who deserves the protection of God? All are tainted by wickedness, and so who will survive if the avatar decides to uproot? Therefore, I have come to correct the buddhi, the intelligence, by various means. I have to counsel, help, command, condemn, and stand by as a friend and well-wisher to all so that they may give up evil propensities and, recognizing the straight mark, tread it and reach the goal.”

“To attain enlightenment [release from the physical world],” John Hislop explains, “you have to see that you are under illusion. Fortunately, you can disperse that illusion more easily in the Kali-Yuga than in the other yugas. To disperse that illusion you must learn about detachment. You think that you’re the body — and if you examine it carefully you can be detached from the body, and you see that you’re not the body or the mind at all.”

The Sai Baba symbol is a lotus composed of petals with logos from the five major religions in India: a cross, a star and crescent, a Buddhist wheel, a Zoroastrian bowl of fire, and the Hindu Sanskrit OM. In the West, the Magen David was added to the symbol at the request of Baba’s Jewish adherents. The symbol reflects the godman’s ecumenical aspirations. He instructs devotees to worship “in the way it is comfortable for you.” In so doing, he says, they will come to him, since, of course, Sai Baba is God of all.

It is difficult to find Sai Baba devotees, at least in the San Diego area, who also continue to practice Judaism or Christianity. “I think I’m a fairly devout Catholic,” says Mike Congleton, albeit a little insecurely. “St. Francis is a favorite saint, and so is St. Teresa. At one time in my life I went on a lot of pilgrimages to Catholic shrines.” The hardest thing to swallow about Sai Baba, Congleton says, was the concept of reincarnation, but he was reassured when he discovered “the Bible mentions reincarnation a couple times.” When Congleton visited Puttaparthi and was witness to Sai Baba’s miracles, he worried about not having enough faith. “I was basically confronted with the divine. Sai Baba says trust in the divine. Have faith, and everything will be taken care of for me. That’s also the message of St. Francis.”

Sai Baba announced that the Bible predicted his return. Does Congleton believe that the swami is the second coming of Christ? “Can you have faith?” he muses. “I wondered that if I had lived in the time of Christ, I would have known Christ. I would have abandoned everything, right?”

The Lost Years of Jesus, a documentary filmed by a Sai devotee named Richard Bock, proclaims that Jesus was initiated into the Vedic teachings by a Himalayan guru traversing India under the name Isa. Jesus is not the son of God, but another manifestation of the God current, a human being who evolved into enlightenment.

Fundamentalists, predictably, who consider Hinduism a form of Satanism, are convinced this kind of esoteric Christianity is the ultimate blasphemy.

A former devotee and born-again Christian, Tal Brooke, wrote Avatar of Night: The Hidden Side of Sai Baba to accuse Sai Baba of repeated homosexual molestations. A particularly strange chapter charges that Baba is a hermaphrodite who catches the semen of his sexual partners on handkerchiefs in order to perform occult rituals. Such bizarre details might cast doubt on the veracity of the stories, but the charge of homosexual molestation has been publicly repeated by several former devotees, including Malaysian student Hariram Jayaram. In a letter to the Indian skeptic B. Premanand, Jayaram wrote,

I was until recently [1981] an ardent follower ofSathya Sai Baba. To my surprise and that of the surprise of his many devotees in Malaysia, Sathya Sai Baba carried out homosexual activities on the Malaysian students studying in his Colleges. When I came to know of the same, I dropped out from the Sai movement.

John Worldie, whose photographs were printed in several devotee publications, rants in an epilogue to Brooke’s Avatar of Night, “I never could figure out why he played with my penis so I rationalized it as he was ‘purifying’ me. I sent him a telegram and said I’d purify him American style if he came here.... He has the mark of the beast on his forehead.... I’m sure he must be a form of Satan or whatever.”

San Diego devotees feel blessed to live near a holy relic produced by Sai Baba for John Hislop. The small crucifix is said to illustrate an exact likeness of Christ. Baba says it is made of the wood from the original crucifix and “shows Christ as he really was at the time when he left his body. No writer or artist has imagined him this way before.” Swept away by the emotion of the materialization, Hislop pronounces that the crucifix is one of the most exquisite works of art he has ever seen; others seem to find it a more prosaic item.

William S. Dale of the University of Western Ontario remarks in Dale Beyerstein’s Sai Baba’s Miracles: An Overview,

From the photograph it is quite dear that the metal figure closely resembles those on crucifixes of the 19th and 20th centuries. As is normal with these, the suppedaneum is cast in one piece with the figure. Its small scale suggests that it may once have been attached to a rosary. Contrary to Sai Baba’s claim, there is nothing unusual about the iconography of the piece.

Dr. Dale goes on to describe the evolving iconography for crucifixes through the centuries, in which this particular piece represents a fairly modern form. Judging from the quantity of air bubbles on the surface, antique expert Uno Langmann surmises that the figure is a cheap reproduction, cast in lead.

The crucifix’s owner, John Hislop, is a living legend in Baba circles, not only for his access to Sai Baba, which is recounted in his two books, but for his many years as an associate of Krishnamurti, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Paramahansa Yogananda. Hislop was working for the Theosophical Society in India when Krishnamurti was being groomed by Annie Besant to become the avatar, the human form of the mysterious “Hidden Masters” of the Himalayas that Madame Blavatsky had supposedly contacted through clairvoyant means.

Although Hislop was favorably impressed by Krishnamurti, Yogananda, and Mahesh Yogi, he eventually discovered that Sai Baba was “more than a philosopher.”

How does one determine divinity, I ask the spry and amiable Hislop. Through his magical powers?

“Many yogis have siddhi powers,” he says. “Any yogi who goes into that line of endeavor can gain siddhi powers. But it takes long work and extreme discipline of the mind. With Swami it was no work and no discipline, just natural to him. He never studied those disciplines whatsoever to get all these powers. With the avatar, most things are just natural. I’ve been places where amritha would flow off pictures. The vibhuti would fall off in a steady stream.”

Miracles unrelated to Sai Baba?

“Not related to Swami at all, no. There was a chap who would move his hand and create what people would want, just like Swami. It was no problem at all for him. But the governor of Goa told me this chap could only do it after he prayed to the goddess Durga. Why, 1 couldn’t tell you.”

The watch that Sai Baba had materialized for Sam Sandweiss is a Citizens brand.

“I have one too.”

Citizens?

“Uh-huh. Over the years Swami has materialized many watches. In the past years he used to give out extremely expensive Swiss watches. Of course, the question in your mind is, how are those watches secured? There are two methods whereby the watch can appear. One is transporting them. The other is their creation. It could be that Swami does both.

“When Swami was giving these expensive Swiss watches to his students, people were saying Swami was taking these watches from stores and not paying for them. And so a couple of devotees decided to check it out. They took the number off the Swiss watches and contacted the maker in Switzerland and found out the store that number had been shipped to. And they went to this jewelry store, 800 miles from Prasanthi Nilayam [Sai Baba’s ashram], and gave them the numbers and asked if they remembered about the watch. They said they remembered because they don’t sell many watches that expensive.

“The manager of the jewelry store said that a man came in the store, looked at several watches, chose them, paid for them, and walked out of the store. Now that was some 800 miles away from where Swami was, and it happened at exactly the same date and time as when Swami materialized the watch, we know that for sure because those fellows in the store had the invoice book. So there you have a transaction that takes several minutes and 800 miles away, and Swami walks by some student and the thought occurs to him that he’ll give the student a watch, and he produces it in a matter of seconds. I don’t know how you explain that.”

Any ideas on how the materializations occur?

“Swami has said recently that he does not now apport watches. That his workmen manufacture them. Now, how can that be? I really can’t tell you that either. We know that so-called solid objects are just masses of vibrations, different frequencies and different wavelengths. A solid object is just energy. So apparently it’s possible for the mind, then, to, I suppose, change the wavelength and the frequency, and here appears an object.”

Skeptics say that Sai Baba is an accomplished magician. For that reason he can’t materialize objects larger than he can palm.

“I’ve seen him materialize over a hundred objects in every possible kind of circumstance. Some years ago, whenever Swami went someplace, he’d take me with him. 1 saw many manifestations of things, in the car, walking, sitting, every possible way you could think of. So if someone tells me it’s all my imagination, I don’t say anything.”

And so, Sai Baba is God?

“I accept on faith that’s the case. If you want to find out if he’s God, you’re going to have to pay attention to the second half of his formula. If people ask him, he says, ‘Yes, I am God,’ but then he continues and says, ‘But so are you. The only difference is, I know it, and you don’t know it.’ ”

Are there other Gods running around?

“I asked Swami about those people who have realized themselves, recognized themselves as absolute. I asked, ‘Are there such people today?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes, of course there are. You don’t see them, they’re in the foothills of the Himalayas, and they keep to themselves.’ I asked Swami if there were people like that in America. He said, ‘Oh, yes, but they keep a very low profile. You would never know who they were.’”

I ask Hislop about an incident in which Sai Baba is said to have saved his life after a bungled prostate operation in the city of Bangalore.

“People [in the operating room] saw Swami’s hands. They said I talked during the operation, saying, ‘Don’t bother me. Swami’s here, I’m talking to him.’ After the operation I had to stay at the hospital for ten days because I was very sick. Swami would come every day to see me. I was puzzled why all this happened to me. Finally it dawned on me that must have been my normal time for death. I figured out, this was my time of death. I should have died. So I told Swami, I think I’ve figured it out. That was my normal time of death, and you gave me extended life.’ And he laughed and said, ‘You’ve figured it out. That’s correct.’ That was one episode. There were car incidents in which he saved our lives, those are recorded in my book.”

Did Hislop believe in other deities incarnated in human form before he put his faith in Sai Baba?

“I liked Krishnamurti and Annie Besant an awful lot. Krishnamurti as a younger man was an extremely handsome person, a beautiful person. They were always after him to go to Hollywood and make a movie, but he wasn’t interested. I wouldn’t say I had that kind of faith in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, because I didn’t see him in that way. He had what I thought was a good idea. His idea was if there was enough people meditating in the world, then it might bring world peace. That sounded like a reasonable idea, so I worked with him, became his first president. I was [at the Maharishi’s ashram] the same time the Beatles were there.”

What about those stories about the Maharishi chasing skirts?

“All cooked up by the Beatles’ manager. I like Maharishi very much. I parted with Maharishi when we had a convention and took over a hotel for a week. The idea occurred to me, here I was teaching these people, reciting this long mantra over them in order to stimulate their receptivity to what Maharishi says. I’d meditate for a half-hour, then feel happy for the rest of the day. I never put enough time into it to really find out about it. I stayed in my hotel room doing this meditation for about 21 hours a day. Just 2 or 3 hours’ sleep, then continuing hour and hour for six solid days. Around that time waves of bliss started to sweep through me, so strong I could hardly bear them. But I realized those waves of bliss had to do with the nervous system. Not the bliss the Vedanta speaks of, the natural state of the Self. And I said to myself, here’s a blind man leading the blind. I immediately went to Maharishi and said good-bye.”

If he’s God, why doesn’t Sai Baba end all the misery?

“Swami said, ‘I could do that. There would be no trouble. No poverty. No problems in the world at all. But tomorrow morning people would be at each other’s throats again. The way that humanity can be changed is not through miracles, but from the raising of consciousness.’ ”

What about contradictory statements that he’ll make?

“He’ll make contradictory statements because you have to understand that any statement you make is based on duality. The ancient sages used to tell their devotees, ‘Forget everything. Forget every thing, don't remember anything.’ Anything you know has a tremendous quotient of error because it’s based on duality and the perception of duality is false.”

You wrote that you saw Sai Baba become Krishna.

“Oh, yes, I sure did.”

Was he like the Krishna pictured in Indian wall hangings?

“I just suspected he was Krishna. Because when I looked back in the car and saw him, Swami was no longer there, but this person who was so beautiful, he would just twist your heart. There’s no way to describe it. A dark, dark blue. And it lasted about 20 minutes. The others in the car were saying, ‘Hislop, what’s wrong with you?’ You see, they didn’t see anything. I asked Swami about the dark color. He said, ‘Whenever you look at something with immeasurable depth, it has that dark blue color, as the sky or the ocean.’ ”

Do people visit Sai Baba and walk away unimpressed?

“Oh, yes, very often. In the past, the distant past, perhaps, they established a karmic savings account. When they come to see him, they draw on this account. So these people may have exhausted their savings.”

SWAMI IS EVERYWHERE

As with most yogic teachers, Sai Baba calls for destruction of the ego, utter servitude. While in darshan, devotees prostrate themselves before him, vying for the opportunity to touch the avatar’s feet. The biggest jolt of bliss, apparently, is delivered through the big toe.

“You heard the store at the meeting tonight,” says Richard Del Maestro, “about sitting in front and touching Baba’s lotus feet. It is a feeling of indescribable joy, being indescribably fulfilled. You could describe it as drinking divine nectar. In one interview I got to massage his feet. I was sitting there. There were three of us. His feet were there and I just took ahold of his foot and massaged it. Everyone would love the opportunity to do that. It wasn’t like I was really working on his foot, I just gently started to rub on the bottom of his foot. I was so worried about doing it, the moment he withdrew his foot just slightly I immediately stopped. It’s hard to describe the experience, but it was very powerful, overwhelming.”

Devotees enthuse about Baba’s childlike sense of humor ("the Krishna in him,” says Sam Sandweiss), but most of them feel bowled over, as they put it, by “waves of love.” “Baba is just so sweet!” enthuse Sandweiss’s teenage daughters. “So cute!”

Rita Whaley found Baba a loving alternative to the fierce, paternalistic God she was exposed to in Catholic churches while growing up in Germany. “When I was a child,” Rita explains, “religion was a very frightening thing for me. I stole some liverwurst when I was six and didn’t go to confession, and I was sure from then on that I was going to go to hell. When I became a teenager, I rejected the whole thing. I had some vague belief in a higher being and didn’t know how quite to reach it because I had an aversion to anything organized.

“I didn’t like Indian music. I hated it. My husband Bob, he loved Ravi Shankar. But I felt after all this work I had done in therapy there was this underlying depression. We started to look into the new-age churches. I never could get warmed up to Terry Cole-Whittaker; that was a little bit too yuppie for me, too smiley, too positive. We looked into smaller churches, but there was so much emphasis on metaphysics that it didn’t feel comfortable to me either.

“My husband, this was in ’89, told me this Indian woman saint, Mataji Nirmala Devi, was coming to the organ pavilion in Balboa Park. We went. At the end of that session, people could come to say hello to her. I went up to her and said, there’s all this stuff moving around in my chest, but I have no idea what to do with it. And she opened up her arms, right there on the stage in Balboa Park, and she said, ‘You just love me.’ And she opened her arms and held me. It was like a sea of love, I felt like a little baby. That was the first thing that was profoundly different in that year.

“The second thing that happened was when I went to see my husband play flute in a little metaphysical church. There was a psychic there, a black, with curly hair, and he told me the German name of my mother, that she had died when we were fighting over my religion, and I was feeling guilty. He said, ‘Your mother Elizabeth is here and she wants to tell you it’s not your fault.’ I just started to flood with tears. It just sort of blasted through my rigidness of what the universe was about. I cried for two weeks. And then I became very ill. I have chronic fatigue immune deficiency. I could only lie down and read. I went to the bookstore, and I happened to run across Sam Sandweiss’s book, The Holy Man and the Psychiatrist. I read more books and started to go to Sandweiss’s meetings, and I knew that my search was over.

“I started to remember that Swami had been in my room 20 years before. I was dreaming about my husband and my father looking in the Yellow Pages for a church that I should attend; my husband always wanted to get me involved with Eastern religions. My father in my dream got real angry, so I started walking. I came to a fork in the road, and I was walking down to get some directions, a person in a white gown, an all-white gown, came towards me. All I remembered were the eyes. When I went to Sandweisses’ house, they had this picture there of Swami with the white gown; I knew that it had been the person in my dream.

“Whenever I doubt, he gives me experiences that are so clear that I know he’s in my life. The first one happened when Bob and I were talking about whether we should go to India. As we were about to leave the house, Bob turned the television on to make it look like somebody was in the house. Suddenly, on television, a voice boomed out, ‘Visit India!’ My belief grew with these little signs.

“There are many examples like that in my life. Like when I visited my father in the hospital last year. I dreamt of Swami; he was injured on his left side. My father was very strong, domineering, but when I walked into the hospital, there he was, paralyzed on his left side like Swami had been injured. The time I spent with him, my father surrendered and I could just love him. I was having a bad day there, was feeling very disturbed. I went to church, it wasn’t right, I went shopping, and felt as bad as I had before, I went to a bookstore and there was no hope of finding Swami books. I couldn’t find anything. It was time to go back to the hospital, and I saw this bin with little booklets. I reached in and grabbed a card with a saying on it. I opened it up and it said in German, ‘Begin the day with love, fill the day with love, end the day with love. That is the way to God — Sathya Sai Baba.’ I cried and said, ‘Swami, you wrote me a card!’

“I remember thinking, I feel so different, I don’t know how to explain everything to my family, to my friends, and my father. I may just be making all this up. What am I doing? So I wrote Swami a letter telling him that I need some sign because sometimes I think I’m crazy and I’m making all this up, that it’s all just a wonderful illusion. I stuck the letter in the mailbox across the street. Bob comes running out saying there’s a car parked right in front of our house, and the license plate says ‘SAI BABA’ on it. We took a picture; we have a photo of that license plate.

“I’m a person who needs to be kept on the edge. If Swami would shower me with stuff, I would just bliss out and forget about it. He gives me things to sustain me, but he also makes me work internally, all the time. Often I have to struggle with myself, my doubts, my fears, which is good. That to me is what the spiritual journey is all about.”

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