THE BROADER PICTURE; BABA'S VERY BIG BIRTHDAY BASH

OF ALL the gurus in India's menagerie of holy men, fakirs and wandering saints, Sai Baba, he of the spongy Afro hair, probably has the widest following - 30 million devotees spread around 100 different countries. So the celebrations for his 70th birthday this Thursday are inevitably going to involve more than just a slice of cake and a few party hats.

Jet-setting heiresses, pop-stars, New Age accountants and computer programmers from the West will be mingling with an expected 2 million doting rural Indians who are making the pilgrimage to Sai Baba's Puttaparthi ashram, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Although Sai Baba lives simply (his bedroom in the Prashanti Mandir temple has only a cot, a dressing table and a portrait of himself in what followers believe was a previous incarnation: the famous guru from earlier this century, Shirdi Sai Baba), his Puttaparthi ashram is not just a place of spartan contemplation; instead, it's a lavish spiritual theme park, a Disneyland for the soul, with VIP quarters, a "spiritual museum", a helipad, a $20m hospital, and a university. (The colossal cardboard cut-out in the photograph on the right was specially commissioned in honour of Sai Baba's birthday.)

Sai Baba has a reputation for being a conjuror of miracles. It is said that when he was a boy, he one day threw away his schoolbooks. When his enraged father went to beat him, the young boy reportedly scooped up jasmine flowers and flung them in the air. The petals floated down to form the words "Sai Baba". Then the child, whose name was Satyanarayana Raju, is said to have left his village and begun to preach.

Sai Baba has now built up a multi-million pound empire, with more than 15,000 centres around the world. He probably has more followers than do the Anglican and Catholic churches of England; many of them insist that Sai Baba has cured thousands with incurable diseases. Among sceptics he is better-known for his habit of giving his rich devotees Japanese-made gold watches plucked "miraculously" from nowhere, while poorer visitors have to make do with a few pinches of sacred ash.

Sai Baba may be in need of some birthday cheering-up. Several years back, an Indian television crew filmed the guru producing a "miracle" watch - gold, of course - for a prominent Indian politician. When the crew went back to edit the film, the camera reportedly caught what the eye couldn't: Sai Baba moving, deft as a magician, to grab the watch from beneath a plate where it had been hidden and present it to his impressed guest. When the existence of the film became known to higher-ups in the television company, it "miraculously" disappeared - but not before video copies had been circulated.

Two years ago, several of Sai Baba's devotees knifed to death the guru's personal assistant, Radhakrishna, for reasons which are still not clear (police gunned down the killers). Sai Baba has refused to comment on the murder; he was not required to give evidence.

Birthday celebrations for the cherubic-looking guru have already been going on for months, as thousands come for blessings, leaving behind flowers and cash donations. In a land where there are many holy men, and an even greater number of conmen preying on the spiritually gullible, the gurus who succeed are those who can spread their teachings to the West. Few have succeeded as well at this as Sai Baba, with his halo of fuzzy hair and his airy miracles. !

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week