Eastern Religion in the West - Part 7

Sathya Sai Baba (1926 - 2011) became known in the West: 1971

Sathya Sai Baba's first major publicity in the West came from the book "Sai Baba, Man Of Miracles" by Howard Murphet. Murphett used Madame Blavatasky as a respected source of information about miracles but surely even Madame B. would have cringed at the cheap magician's tricks that made Sathya Sai Baba the most successful and powerful guru in India. Sai Baba's success in the West has not matched that in India. One hopes that is because of the vulgarity and tawdriness of his shtick but it's probably because he has never left India and he does not fit in with the mainstream Hindu/Buddhist "boys club" gurus that have achieved international success. Sai Baba was not part of this club because he claimed to be above all other gurus and Masters. He was the Great Avatar.

… there are degrees of "avatarhood", and many of the great spiritual teachers of India are believed to have embodied rays of the divine radiance and to have been partial or minor avatars. The few, the Teachers of teachers, those who have brought about a great forward movement in man's spiritual evolution, are called the major avatars. - Sai Baba, Man Of Miracles - Howard Murphet

[Sai Baba] Satyanarayana Raju was born on 23rd of November 1926 in Puttaparthi, a small village in the Andra Pradesh region, in the Central-South of India. On October 29, 1940, at the age of 14 he declared himself as Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba the reincarnation of a famous Indian guru, Shirdi Sai Baba. He is very short, portly, dark skinned, dresses in orange and has a frizzy mane of black hair. An ashram, called Prasanthi Nilayam (the Abode of Divine Peace) was built on November 23, 1950 and has grown extensively as Sai Baba has become more famous. More than one million people, including the President and Prime Minister of India, assembled in Prasanthi Nilayam for Sathya Sai Baba's 70th birthday celebrations.

While he was well-known in India and amongst the spiritual cognoscenti Sai Baba achieved wide spread fame in the West due to claims he was a homosexual paedophile and a common conjurer. These claims were documented in 2 television documentaries in which his fraudulent magic tricks were easily seen due to the magic of slow motion. The real mystery of Sai Baba's success is how otherwise intelligent and sophisticated people could believe that God would incarnate in the world and prove his divinity with low-grade magic tricks.

The Sathya Sai Organisation claims to have millions of followers with over 1,200 Centers in 137 countries throughout the world. The members have a common bond --love of Sathya Sai Baba -- and a common goal --spiritual growth. They study his teachings and the sacred literature of all religions, have group devotional singing, spiritual meditation, and practise selfless service to the community, society, the world, and the environment. There are no membership fees, members are never required to purchase books or materials and donations are never solicited. There is an extensive number of hospitals (photo below right) and educational institutions in India constructed and financed by his devotees. Center members are expected to do their best to practice a Nine-Point Code of Conduct.

[Sai Baba Hospital] Many gurus and their followers are reluctant to publicly proclaim the group's beliefs about their guru but Sai Baba's followers are not. Sai Baba is the avatar of the age, the incarnation of God, omniscient (including complete telepathic knowledge of all his devotees' thoughts and actions), omnipotent, able to raise the dead and perform miracles. The major focus of the group is the intense love, devotion and worship of the guru. Devotees (including Murphett, Hislop & Sandweiss) have written numerous books about their relationship with Sai Baba and if you've read one you've read them all. They display a disarming openess about their emotions, experiences and thoughts in relation to him with no apparent attempt to hide their intense unhappiness, disappointments, desperate wishes to be acknowledged by him and to be in his close physical presence. Detachment or indifference to emotions are not attitudes displayed by his followers nor does their intense experiences of his divine qualities limit their social fears or still their longing for further close peronsal contact with him. Obvious 'mistakes' about them made by Sai Baba when talking to them are not edited out of the books nor are his historical errors.

It is ordinarily very difficult to prove or disprove claims of individual miracles, resurrections, telepathy, etc performed at various times and places but Sai Baba regularly performs three types of miracles. He frequently materializes numerous small objects - jewellery, rings, pendants, etc. for his followers ie creates them out of nothing in public and presents them to the people with him. He continually "materializes vibhuti", ash from his palms, and ash in amazingly large quantities from an "empty" urn - Vibhuti Abheshekham - and annually at the Mahashivarathri festival until 1976 where he "gave birth" through his oesophagus to 'lingams' 

Ram Dass formerly Richard Alpert (1931 - 1990) became known in West: 1971

Richard Alpert was born around 1930 in Boston, Massachusetts. He became a university lecturer in psychology but despite 5 years of psychoanalysis by 1961 he was very depressed, very anxious, drinking heavily and smoking pot while the fear before every lecture produced diarrhoea and tensions. He was nominally Jewish but felt no spirituality in his religion, no love in his family, was disillusioned with his understanding of psychology and experiencing a deep malaise when he met Timothy Leary. Leary had returned from a European holiday he financed by passing bad cheques ie stealing but this didn't stop Alpert from becoming his drinking buddy and adoring disciple. He believed Leary had "an absolutely extraordinary intellect" and who knows, at this time, maybe he still had. Leary also helped turn Richard Alpert, a straight, uptight, depressed, anxious, non-religious Jew into Dick Alpert, a stoned, freaked-out, uptight, depressed, anxious, non-religious Jew who was ready for a religious conversion of a life-changing standard.

After taking psilocybin in 1961, his life became dominated by the taking of "psychedelic" drugs in as great a combination as was possible. His excitement and belief in the transcendant and revolutionary social effects of these drugs seems silly now after thirty years of their (ab)use. By 1967, despite his survival of an extraordinary amount of drugs with faculties reasonably intact he was once again deeply depressed and in despair touring in India suffering from physical discomfort & paranoia caused by hashish withdrawal when he met a young Californian calling himself Bhagavan Das who became his guide and introduced him to his guru. The two of them became among the most successful religious hucksters of the 20th century. At the time it seemed unlikely that these two had the spiritual credentials to influence a large scale religious transformation and hindsight has only confirmed this. Alpert described their first meeting with wide-eyed wonder and zero skepticism:

I met this guy and there was no doubt in my mind [that he "knew"]. It was just like meeting a rock. It was just solid, all the way through. Everywhere I pressed, there he was! (Dass, 1971).

The guru was Jagat Gurudev Baba Neem Karoli Maharaj. "Maharaji" (or "Greatest King" - in India gurus are usually given honorifics by their followers that would be considered excessive in European societies) appears to be ugly and grossly fat, nearly always dressed in a tartan blanket and who does very little but lie around on a couch eating and occasionally getting into strange postures. This is not a picture I find compelling. Alpert soon convinces himself that Karoli is actually omniscient, omnipotent and etc, etc as many have convinced themselves before though the evidence as recorded in Be Here Now is not convincing to a skeptical person. Neem Karoli certainly appears less harmful than most of the gurus who've developed a Western following and some of his followers seem pretty ethical. It's not as if there aren't plenty of other weird looking Indian gurus who've convinced their followers they're God.

Ram Dass seems to be good-hearted and sincere. His ability to admit when he has been wrong has also come in handy, as has his ability to create the most spiritual, convoluted and exculpatory excuses for his stupidity. In an article amusingly titled "Egg on My Beard" he explained that by the end of 1973 he "felt more and more depressed and hypocritical" though he'd written in "Be Here Now" that he was "floating about on an ocean of love." In 1974 Ram Dass demonstrated that he had zero credibility in discerning a spiritual fraud by falling under the spell (metaphorically) of Joya Santana and then writing a 5,000 word article explaining why this both hideously embarrassing, incredibly stupid and spiritually beneficial:

Originally Joyce Green, she had what Ram Dass called "powerful charisma and chutzpah," and she claimed to be in touch, psychically, with Neem Karoli Baba, who had died the previous year. She told Ram Dass her job on earth was to prepare him for his future as a world spiritual leader. "I easily let myself be convinced," he confessed in a mea culpa in Yoga Journal titled "Egg on My Beard," saying he'd conned himself into believing an "incredible tapestry of half truths and lies." - American Veda by Philip Goldberg

That should read "another incredible tapestry of half truths and lies." Ma Jaya continued a successful if despicable role as Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a guru greater than God, for decades despite Ram Dass' disowning her.

Ram Dass soon became a travelling psychic/spiritual circus. By 1975 he was traveling with a road manager and a group of backup musicians for the chanting and singing the praises of his now dead Master. Neem Karoli became famous outside India even though Ram Dass and Bhagavan Das were the witnesses most unlikely to be believed by a skeptical, judicious and prudent audience. However they were just perfect for the audience they had, willing to believe, anxious to believe and desperate to stay on the cool, trendy bandwagon.

Because he is a public figure who compulsively discusses his private life in public it is possible to determine the results of his spiritual practice and his devotion to his guru over a thirty year period. In public seminars conducted in 1997 marketed as 'Truth and Transformation' he reveals that 30 years since writing 'Be Here Now' he has gained no spiritual insight or experience from meditation and that his cherished beliefs about his guru are just that - beliefs.

Neem Karoli aka Maharaji (1900 c. - 1973) attained fame in the West: 1971

Neem Karoli Baba aka Maharaj-ji, was a Hindu guru who became famous in the West due to the publicity generated by 2 of his followers, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) and Kermit Michael Riggs(aka Bhagavan Das). Ram Dass soon became a travelling psychic/spiritual circus. By 1975 he was traveling with a road manager and a group of backup musicians for the chanting and singing the praises of this now dead Master. Neem Karoli became famous outside India even though Ram Dass and Bhagavan Das were the witnesses most unlikely to be believed by a skeptical, judicious and prudent audience. However they were just perfect for the audience they had, willing to believe, anxious to believe and desperate to stay on the cool, in-crowd bandwagon.

In 1967, despite Alpert's survival of an extraordinary amount of drugs with faculties reasonably intact he was once again deeply depressed and in despair touring in India suffering from physical discomfort & paranoia caused by hashish withdrawal when he met a guru, Jagat Gurudev Baba Neeb Karoli Maharaj. "Maharaji" or "Greatest King." In India gurus are usually given honorifics by their followers that would be considered excessive in European societies. Neeb Karoli is a famous guru in India and Alpert soon convinces himself that Karoli is actually omniscient, omnipotent and etc, etc as many have convinced themselves before. Like Bhagawan Nityananda, he appears to be ugly and grossly fat, nearly always dressed in a tartan blanket and he does very little but lie around on a couch eating and occasionally getting into strange postures. This is not a picture I find compelling but he certainly appears less harmful than most of the gurus who've developed a Western following and some of his followers seem pretty ethical. It's not as if there aren't plenty of other weird looking Indian gurus who've convinced their followers they're God.

Once a person is recognised as a famous guru, his disciples will explain away any bizarre behaviour as being for spiritual benefit:

We'd be sitting outside and Maharajji would pull my hands under the blanket and make me massage his legs, almost pulling me under the blanket. I loved touching him, but I was not sure how far you can go in touching Maharajji. I'd be working on his feet and calves, and he'd grab my arm and pull my hand up to his thigh. So I'd do his thighs for a little bit and then my hands would start wandering down to his calves again, because all of a sudden I'd look around and see all these people staring at me.
I was kneeling before Maharajji when he grabbed at my sari and started pulling at it. Then he was holding my breasts and saying, "Ma, Ma." I felt for the first time as if I were experiencing an intimate act free of lust.
There are stories about gurus doing things with women. But somehow around Maharajji there was a feeling of such purity that people could tell me anything he had done, and it never shook my total trust in him at all. It was clear that he needed nothing; he had no desires of his own.

Neeb Karoli has the usual Indian guru story though his is one of the weirder ones. He left home when young and moved often and was known under different names depending upon his domicile. One of his homes was under a Neem Tree near Mohaudbad. It was near there that the story goes he was evicted from a 1st Class section of a train as he was a sadhu and the train was unable to move until many apologies and prayers were made to him. The train station was named after him (his name can be transliterated in more than one way). An identical story is told of Bhagawan Nityananda. After many years as a wandering sadhu he was found by his father and ordered to return home and became a householder. He settled down with the woman he had married when he was 11 years old and fathered 3 children. He returned to the life of an Indian Holy Man in 1958.