Sathya Sai Baba: Guru and philanthropist who was revered by millions but whose career was dogged by controversy

With 1,200 ashrams in more than 100 countries, the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba was seen as a reincarnation of god by his devotees, who included prime ministers and presidents of India, business magnates, film stars, artists and world-class sportsmen and sportswomen, who all gave generously to his social welfare projects. Sachin Tendulkar, for one, always keeps a picture of Sai Baba in with his cricket kit. So upset was he by Sai Baba's death that he refused to celebrate his 38th birthday, which fell on the same day, shutting himself inside his hotel room in Hyderabad, where he was playing an Indian Premier League match in the evening.

Baba's personal charm and charisma were irresistible to millions; the diminutive figure in saffron floor-length robes was believed to possess supernatural powers, apparently performing miracles, conjuring Rolex watches and "vibhuti" — a sacred ash his followers applied to their foreheads — from his halo of frizzy black hair. His disciples claimed that he had healing powers, that he would cure their diseases by touching them. The cricketer Sunil Gavaskar, for example, was severely ill for several days on a tour of Australia; his mother sent him some of the sacred ash, which he rubbed on himself. Within hours, he said, he was up and running.

Non-believers naturally called Sai Baba a charlatan, and there were other controversies, including several unsubstantiated reports that he was a paedophile who sexually abused his close disciples. He also survived an incident in 1993, when six people – four intruders and two of his attendants – were killed, either shot by the police or stabbed, in his quarters. The incident was never satisfactorily explained.

Born Sathyanarayana Raju into a poor farming family in the village of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh, he was different from other boys. He would chant Sanskrit verses and Vedic hymns and his fits of delirium and hallucinations following a scorpion bite convinced his parents that he was possessed. On 20 October 1940, throwing away his schoolbooks, he declared he was an avatar of the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a revered Hindu saint who died in 1918. Soon hordes of followers, mostly poor farmers at first, began to visit him, asking him to cure them of assorted ailments.

Though steeped in Hinduism, he preached love and the unity of all religions. He claimed to be "pure divine love" and that he was omnipotent and omniscient. There would be long queues for his "darshan" (a Sanskrit word meaning "sight"), when he would walk among his followers, listen to some of them and distribute vibhuti.

Using money donated by his followers, in around 1950 Sai Baba built a sprawling ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, or Abode of Peace, in Puttaparthi, with branches in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; it developed into an international spiritual centre promoting art, culture and heritage. Then in 1972 he set up the Sathya Sai Central Trust in Puttaparthi, which over the years has grown into one of the world's biggest social work organisations, delivering free education, health and water supplies to the poor.

Estimated to be worth $10bn, Sathya Sai Central Trust runs the Sai Baba empire, with a large hospital, schools, colleges, a university, museum, planetarium, sports complex, an indoor stadium and a hill-view stadium, a railway station and an airport. In 2001, he launched a digital radio network, Radio Sai Global Harmony.

Sai Baba had suffered a stroke and a cardiac arrest in 1963, and further health problems drastically reduced his public appearances in recent years. He said more than once that he would reborn as "Prema Sai Baba", and his followers have hopes of his reincarnation, in around 2030 in the village of Gunaparthi in Karnataka.

HARESH PANDYA

Sathyanarayana Raju (Sathya Sai Baba), spiritual leader: born Puttaparthi, Anantapur district, Andhra Pradesh, India 23 November 1926; died Puttaparthi 24 April 2011.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice