THE passing away of Sri Sathya Sai Baba at the age of 84 at Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh on April 24, 2011 was treated as a major event in the history of India by practically every newspaper in the country. Page after page was devoted to the life and times of the sage.
“In a country that has never been short of self-proclaimed godmen peddling spiritual succour with commercial motive” wrote The Hindu, “Sri Sathya Sai Baba stands out as a rare phenomenon, a spiritual leader whose mass following transcended linguistic, national and religious boundaries, who channelled the fervour and quest of millions of devotees into giving and sharing, who steered clear of divisive political and communal activities all his life.” Sai Baba’s ‘phenomenal mass appeal’ said the paper “lay in his unswerving commitment to communal harmony, his encouragement of charitable activity and public-spiritedness and his own example in building educational and healthcare institutions that focused on meeting basic needs on a large scale.”
Sai Baba, added the paper, “may not have been associated with a metaphysical and transcendent philosophy like Sri Aurobindo, or the fervent devotion to the divine that often sent Sri Ramakrishna Pramahansa into a trance, or the self-enquiry and non-dualism that made Sri Ramana Maharashi a silent yet eloquent perceptor” but his “simple message of love and harmony – mostly soaked in the language of Hindu philosophy but often in a universal strain – was enough to draw the masses toward him.”
The New Indian Express (April 25) said that “India has had several godmen but non could match” Sathya Sai Baba’s name and fame. “Millions of his followers consider him a living god” the paper said, “despite sceptic sounds from rationalists and non-believers”, adding: “And though occasional controversies continued to crop up during his long span as India’s most-followed spiritual leader, from ordinary believers to the President of India, his clout spread far and wide.” Claiming that Sathya Sai Baba “practised what he preached” and headed one of the biggest charitable trusts in the world, the paper added that “he was different in that he did not pit one religion against another and assiduously shunned sectarianism of any kind.”
Deccan Herald (April 25) noted that Sathya Sai Baba “was regarded as an avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba” and his devotees came from across the world and spanned all classes, castes and religions.” Sai Baba, said the paper, “used every ounce of his power and influence not for self-aggrandisement but the betterment of people …. virtually working like a one-man government.”
The Mumbai-based DNA (April 25) reminded readers that Sathya Sai Baba had brought drinking water to more than 700 villages in Andhra Pradesh at a cost of $ 63 million! The passing away of Sathya Sai Baba was the lead story on the front page and covered the full top right columns.
The Telegraph (April 25) could not care less. The lead story was on a cricket match and the Baba’s passing away was covered in a single column.
The Asian Age (April 25) even when giving the story a front page lead did not go out of its way to extensively cover the event or what it meant for the millions of devotees though it carried an edit page article by Jayanthi Natarajan, a Congress MP and AICC spokesperson of no particular relevance.
Hindustan Times (April 25) not only gave good front page lead coverage to the story but devoted two inside pages, fully illustrated, also carrying what looked like an exclusive article by Dr APJ Kalam, former President, who praised Baba for supporting healthcare, value-based education and supplying drinking water to over one million people in 750 villages. Asked Kalam: “Can there be a better role model for promoting a nation-wide, selfless, societal transformation mission?” Looking back, one feels that the passing away of Sathya Sai Baba was just of one-day interest to be quickly forgotten. Several stories of some of the miracles Satya Sai Baba wrought were recalled by devotees of whom many come from distinguished backgrounds.
There was reference to Sathya Sai Baba being an avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba but no newspaper took the trouble to introduce the original Sai. One would have appreciated a comparative study of the contribution to Indian – call it ‘Hindu’ – society made by Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo. None of them performed miracles, as did Sathya Sai Baba. Ramana Maharshi did not start schools or provided water to millions of villagers, nor, for that matter did Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Vivekananda or Sri Aurobindo. Of course, following Vivekananda’s death at a young age, the Ramakrishna Mission has done wonders in spreading its activities.
But think of Kanhaiyalal Munshi, founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Munshi was no spiritual leader and yet the organisation that he set up has made a substantial contribution in the field of education. Sri Aurobindo’s work was more or less strictly confined to Puducherry. Comparisons are odious and it would be patently silly to compare one guru with another. Each had his own contribution to make. What is important to remember is that we remember each of them with love and gratitude. Can it be that each generation produces its own outstanding leader who shows us the way to peace and happiness? Sri Aurobindo was a scholar of repute like, say, Dr Radhakrishnan, but the latter certainly was no spiritual guru, even though, one understands, Jawaharlal Nehru had frequent private talks with the philosopher – statesman to enrich his mind.
India desperately needs, even if only variations, of a Ramakrishna Paramahansa, or a Ramana Maharashi for providing it spiritual uplife. Sathya Sai Baba was only fourteen years old when he supposedly, claimed that he was an avatar of Shirdi Sai Baba. Do we have to wait for another generation or longer to get an avatar of any age or clime, whether of a Tukaram, a Saint Meera, a Kanakadas or anyone to waken us from our spiritual slumber and re-light our lives? These are thoughts that occur to one who mourns the passing away of Sathya Sai Baba who spoke of harmony and peace in an otherwise turbulent world. Where shall we look for another avatar?”