Hindu holy man Sathya Sai Baba, considered a living god by millions of followers worldwide, died on Sunday morning in a hospital near his southern Indian ashram, a doctor said. He was 86.
Sai Baba had spent nearly a month on breathing support and dialysis while struggling with multiple-organ failure after being admitted March 28 to the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, near his ashram in Puttaparti village in Andhra Pradesh state.
Women selling marigold garlands broke down in tears outside the ashram when the news was announced, and followers began trickling into the temple complex where the guru's body would lie in state from Sunday night through Tuesday before a planned funeral Wednesday morning.
"We appeal to all not to rush to the hospital, but to remain calm," a hospital statement said.
The saffron-robed Sathya Sai Baba had a huge following, with ashrams in over 126 countries and Indian devotees including high-placed politicians, movie stars, world-class athletes and industrialists.
He was said to perform miracles, conjuring rings and watches and "vibhuti," a sacred ash that his followers applied on their foreheads, from his overgrown and unkempt Afro-style hair.
But rationalist critics led campaigns against him, calling him a charlatan and his miracles fake. Several news reports also alleged he committed sexual abuse against devotees — allegations he denied as vilification campaigns.
Officials and celebrities expressed regret at the guru's passing, remembering him as a "great pious personality" who worked selflessly to help others.
"Every visit to his abode was an inspiration," said Lal Krishan Advani, leader of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and a former deputy prime minister.
Hundreds of thousands of devotees are expected to pay last respects in Puttaparti.
A heavy police deployment, in place for weeks as Sai Baba's condition worsened, was manning barricades on the roads to restrict traffic, while shopkeepers were told to close Sunday to control the number of people in the town.
Born Nov. 23, 1926, as Sathyanarayana Raju, he was said as a child to display a tendency toward spirituality and unusual intelligence, which he expressed through music, dance and writing poetry and plays.
In 1940, at the age of 14, he declared himself an "avatar," or reincarnation, of another Hindu holy man called the Sai Baba of Shirdi, a town in western Maharashtra state, who died in 1918.
As the young guru attracted followers, his home of Puttaparti grew from a sleepy village into a vibrant town with the sprawling "Prasanthi Nilayam" ashram built in 1950, as well as a hospital, university and schools run by his Satya Sai Central Trust, set up in 1972 with donations from devotees.
The trust — estimated to be worth at least $8.9 billion and possibly much more — also established spiritual centers in the cities of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. It built a hospital in Bangalore, where Sai Baba had a summer home, and funded water supply projects in several southern states.
Though no successor has been named to run the trust, it has assured "there is or will be no vacuum," according to a recent statement released after the guru was hospitalized.
Health woes over recent years had forced Sai Baba to cut down on public appearances. He survived a stroke and a series of heart attacks in 1963. In 2005, he began using a wheelchair, and a year later he fractured his hip when a student fell from a stool onto the guru.
Sai Baba was also mired in controversies, with several news reports about allegations of sexual abuse and fake miracles.
A 2004 television program by the British Broadcasting Corporation called the "Secret Swami" featured interviews with at least two American male devotees claiming the guru had fondled their genitals and exposed himself to them while claiming it was part of a healing ritual.
Though he denied the allegations and was never charged with any crime, the reports led some to break with the guru.
The ashram also said Sai Baba had survived an attempt against his life, with six devotees including the guru's personal assistant killed in his bedroom in June 1993 after allegedly trying to attack him. Facts of the case still remain a mystery.
Sai Baba was never married and has no children.