New Delhi: One of India's most famous spiritual leaders, who counted a worldwide following of millions including top diplomats, sports icons and film stars, led a life dedicated to philanthropy marred by the occasional controversies.
Sathya Sai, or Sathya Sai Baba, as he was fondly known among followers, passed away at the intensive care unit of a hospital funded by his organisation in the town of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh where thousands of devotees gathered to pay their last respects. He was 85.
Sathya Sai, whose devotees believe him to be an incarnation of God in human form, has a following believed to be over six millions in India and abroad.
Regarded as the god man of the god men, Sathya Sai, led a life full of claimed miracles for over 70 years. He was also a spiritual leader, educator, and philanthropist.
Sathya Sai was born in 1926 into an ordinary family at Puttapathi village in Andhra Pradesh. He was named Sathyanarayana. As a child he was unusually intelligent and showed no interest in worldly things. He was a writer of poetry. When he was just 14 years old, Sathyanarayana announced that he was a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi.
Hagiography has it that at a very early age he was bit by a poisonous scorpion, following which he started to show unusual powers such as reciting Sanskrit verses of which he had no knowledge of.
Prime Ministers, Presidents, Kings, Ambassadors and celebrities from every walk of life thronged his Aashram in Puttaparthi seeking his blessings for over 50 years. He founded over 1500 Sathya Sai Centres in 114 countries across the globe. He was visited by record number of heads of states during his life time.
Sathya Sai proclaimed himself as divinity and claimed miracles such as producing sacred ash or 'vibhuti', vermillion, fruits, precious gems and gold items from thin air at the time of his visitations with his followers.
He also claims to have brought back to life two persons from the dead apart from curing fatal diseases and disability in followers. His Aashram at Puttaparthi became a famous religious centre within just 20 years.
Sceptics and rationalists considered his miracles nothing more than parlour tricks. Retired Icelandic psychology professor Erlendur Haraldsson wrote that he did not get Sathya Sai's permission to study him under controlled circumstances. In 1976, Dr H Narasimhaiah, a physicist and then vice chancellor of Bangalore University, founded and chaired a committee "to rationally and scientifically investigate miracles and other verifiable superstitions".
He wrote to Sathya Sai to allow him to study the guru's purported miracles under scientific conditions but was refused audience.
Another rationalist Abraham Thomas Kovoor who campaigned to expose as frauds various Indian and Sri Lankan "god-men", believed that the Sathya Sai performed his 'vibhuti' through sleight of hand. Noteworthy is also the effort of Indian magician P C Sorkar Junior who was critical of the gurus "miracles."
Sathya Sai gained immense popularity among the people of southern India for many philanthropic endeavours such as world class speciality heart hospitals, free water schemes to cities, towns and villages and educational institutions.