STORY: SAI BABA
of sexual molestation continue to dog Sai Baba during the 75th anniversary
celebrations. But will they stick?
Jung Thapa with Lavina Melwani in
New York and Syed Zubair Ahmed in London
happens when faith shatters? For the former devotees of Sathya Sai Baba,
it's as if in an instant they have lost their god forever. It is a devastating
experience that transports them from promised moksha to a private hell.
A disillusionment that has three stages-denial, grief and outrage. In
the end the anger, they say, pervades everything. Today, a small but growing
number of devotees-both foreign and Indian-all settled abroad, are rallying
in anger, alleging that their divine avatar is nothing more than a sexual
abuser of boys and young men.
of them is Jeff Young, an American who was till recently president of
the Sai Baba Organisation in the south-central region of the US. He alleges
that his son Sam was sexually molested by the godman from 1977 (when Sam
was 16) to the summer of 1999-an allegation that was first carried in
The Daily Telegraph of London. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, Young confirmed
the charges. "The sexual abuse included Baba grabbing Sam's head
and forcing him to give oral sex ... Baba would fondle and suck on Sam's
penis and get angry because he could not get an erection. Sam said he
did not like boys that way. Baba then promised to change himself into
a beautiful woman and take Sam inside of him but it never happened."
Youngs, this was a shocking assertion initially because they had revered
Baba as a god for over 20 years. They now cringe at the thought that they
felt "blessed" in the belief that the godman was ministering
to their son's spiritual welfare and allege that all along he was only
subjecting Sam to systematic sexual abuse. In one single visit, they recall,
they were given seven private interviews while Sam was called in 21 times
months, a litany of allegations similar to those of the Youngs has surfaced,
mostly spurred by a document called The Findings that is available on
the Internet. This document, written by a former British devotee, David
Bailey, lists graphic allegations of sexual abuse by a number of former
Baba devotees. It has acted like a catalyst for others to come out with
their stories and spawned more critical websites on Baba. Hari Sampat,
a software engineer in Chicago who served as a voluntary inner-security
member in Baba's ashram from 1992-1995, claims: "I had heard of these
paedophilic activities. I investigated them and found all of them to be
true. It was then that I knew I had to expose it all."
others like him from the UK, US, Europe and Australia have identified
victims of sexual molestation by Baba and prompted them to give their
accounts to the media in several countries. These increasing allegations
are today being taken seriously in many western countries, leading to
a rash of defections from Sai Baba groups. In Britain, following The Daily
Telegraph story, Labour MP Tony Colman raised the issue in Parliament.
A former home office minister Tom Sackville also took up the matter saying,
"The authorities have done little so far and that is regrettable."
There is a movement now to urge the British Government to issue warnings
to people wanting to visit Baba's ashram.
too, The Sunday Age carried an article on Baba's sexual abuse. In Munich,
Germany, Jens Sethi, a former devotee who claims he was molested, has
filed a complaint in the public prosecutor's office. In Sweden, the central
Sai group has closed down and so too has a school based on programmes
devised by educationists at the Baba ashram in Puttaparthi. In the US,
disillusioned devotees are "e-bombing" Foreign Secretary Madeleine
Albright's office every day. When contacted by INDIA TODAY, a State Department
official in Washington said, "Our embassy in Delhi and our consulate
in Chennai have been made aware of these allegations. But this appears
to be an issue for the Indian courts."
of these allegations is difficult to discern within the Sai community.
The majority of the devotees dismiss them. Says Sheela Kumar, an Indian
devotee from the Caribbean who also teaches in a Sai Bal Vikas: "Every
avatar has enemies. Even Christ had enemies. What Baba has done, no one
else has. This creates jealousy." Others higher up in the Sai Baba
ashram reason that these allegations have been going on since decades.
Adds a senior member of the Sai Organisation: "With every criticism,
Sai Baba becomes more and more triumphant."
that surrounds Baba attacks the molestation charges in two ways. One,
by simply denouncing the whole thing as an "anti-Hindu" attack-especially
since most of those making the charges are foreigners. And two, by preaching
that everything Baba does is a "teaching." Even if he is doing
something that looks immoral or wrong, they claim, he is doing it because
of a purpose and so cannot be questioned.
are also countering the Internet war on two fronts. First, everybody is
encouraged to shun the Internet. Explains Hal Honig, a senior Sai official
in New York: "Swami tells us not to look at the Internet but at the
inner net." And secondly, by posting sites that support Baba's teachings.
One such site-The Sai Critic-urges devotees to believe only their experiences
with Baba, stating, "When doubt walks in through the front door,
faith walks out of the back door."
rebels continue to raise issues even if the mud hasn't stuck, at least
among the devout yet. Most of them claim there is a pattern to Baba's
molestations. Usually, they add, he "chooses his victims" during
his daily darshan by granting them private interviews. Alleges Keith Ord,
another former devotee who now lives in Spain: "In the first interview
he rubbed me against his hips ... in the second, he fondled my genitals
and in the last he was more forceful and kept saying 'do you like to be
close to Baba?'"
critics allege, also frequently molests young students who study in the
schools and colleges of his ashram. Says one such former student Krishna
Kumar, who now works in Singapore: "Four of my classmates told me
how Baba would occasionally oil their genitals." At first, most devotees
believe this experience has something to do with "awakening the kundalini".
Claims Sampat: "But they usually realise soon that this behaviour
has nothing to do with kundalini and is pure lust." Students like
Kumar allege that most people in the ashram know about these activities
and the boys that Baba chooses are dubbed "in-form boys". These
in-form boys, the critics add, get academic leeway and are not really
expected to follow the rules of the ashram. However, the form only lasts
for a month or so and then these boys are dropped by Baba and subjected
to much torment by their peers. For many of these young boys, the critics
point out, the "molestations" are traumatising because they
can't tell their parents who are usually devotees themselves. They suffer
from depression and guilt pangs of having failed their god who was only
As of now,
there are no complaints that have been filed in India. Does that mean
that most of the molestations were taking place with only westerners?
Jed Geyerhahn, an American who alleges he was molested by Baba when he
was 16, disagrees: "I just think the western boys are talking about
it, the Indian ones aren't. The western boys have less at stake."
Critics point to the sheer power of Baba in India and how his devotees
are in the highest rungs of the government. It would take a lot of guts
to take on Sai Baba Inc, they add.
the western cases, except for one person, no one has moved court against
Baba yet. Critics says this is because they know they won't have the power
to summon Baba to court-the allegations pertain to Indian jurisdiction.
Besides, even if a case is filed in India, to prove homosexual abuse is
difficult. Criminal law experts say the offence would come under Article
377 of the Indian Penal Code that lists sodomy as an offence. However,
if actual sodomy hasn't taken place, as in all these cases, then proving
"an unnatural act" is very difficult.
But, in the end, most of these disillusioned devotees say they are determined
to fight-to initiate some kind of legal action and keep building pressure
until something snaps. Glen Meloy, who was a Baba devotee for 26 years
and now mobilises victims, is more succinct. "I put Baba in the highest
pinnacle. For me, he was the God of gods," he says. "Now you're
talking to someone who is putting in the same devotion to expose him."
But the truth may still prove elusive.
Arthur J. Pais in San Francisco